Review: Marsan – Music For Agoramaniacs

The definition of ‘Agoramania’ is, if you didn’t already know, a mania for open spaces. It’s a big clue to the music on Jeremy Marsan’s aptly-titled debut too, which evokes wide open spaces and takes an expansive, free-thinking approach to embrace multiple genres. On a more prosaic level, though, its inspiration partly came from the labyrinthine layout of a shopping mall.

Marsan Album Cover

As an indication of what is to follow, ‘Strain Theory’ is a perfect start. It’s a fabulously constructed song which begins as a ringing guitar/ambient pop number and then shoots off on a brilliant unexpected tangent towards lush, dream pop territory, accompanied by shuddering echoes. The style changes are impressive throughout, especially so when the slowcore atmospherics of ‘Fluorescent’ escalate into angsty indie. The instrumentals are fascinating too: ‘Trans’ is an eerie trip into ambient rock and jazz rhythms, reminiscent of the early work of Engineers or indeed latter day Breathless, whilst ‘Institute Of Open Space’ and the reverb-heavy ‘Snow Day’ explore the realms of post-rock. Marsan’s vocals are a lovely instrument in their own right, sounding like a young Sam Prekop for the brief but delightful ‘Sirin’ and that relaxed but intelligent air (of fellow Illinois act) The Sea And Cake is prevalent on ‘Dominoes’ and ‘Reawaken’.

If there is a small criticism that could be aimed at Marsan, it would be that this record could do with a few more actual songs since there is an emphasis on long instrumental sections which, although mightily impressive and inventive, would benefit by being broken up slightly more by Marsan’s appealing vocals. Nevertheless, ‘Music For Agoramaniacs’ is a wonderfully textured debut from a promising young talent.

Web Sites:
Marsan Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Sea And Cake, Engineers, Lake Trout, Breathless

Review: Static In Verona – Everything You Knew Before You Knew Everything

Static In Verona entertained with the vibrant ‘Some Things You Knew’ EP last year, consisting of five songs which witnessed this one man band from Chicago making as big a pop noise as possible within the confines of some ambient-tinged indie pop. The effect was akin to listening to ELO on a budget and its creator, Rob Merz, has delved into his Big Music Songbook to write a second full album.

Static In Verona Album Cover

A grand, lush opening to the album suggests we’re about to witness royalty enter the building but then comes a reassuring burst of guitars for ringing, atmospheric ‘Bitter Branches’. ‘White Knuckles’ and ‘Look Like Gold’ were among the highlights from the earlier EP and hear they sound stronger still surrounded by anthemic, weightier material. Merz may have a voice which you would expect to be singing lighter material but the pounding drums and grinding guitars on ‘Rosemary (Bury Me)’ prove that he should pursue the heavier┬áside of his arrangements more regularly.

Unfortunately, all this good work makes the inclusion of ‘Roman Candle’ rather mystifying; variety should not be discouraged but this an annoyingly cheery song which you can imagine providing the theme tune to a daytime television programme and it seems totally out of place here. Quibbling aside, ‘Black Windows’ is much more like it, an ambient pop track populated by thick beats and a pretty yet substantial chorus and even though both this track and ‘Friendly Fires’ may be classed as lighter material, the arrangements are satisfyingly fleshed out. Furthermore, the multi-layered ‘Something… Anything’ ascends into dreampop whereas ‘Blindfold’ and ‘Loud Night/Quite Morning’ are big and brash numbers in the familiar ELO mould.

After suggesting Merz should apply a bit more subtlety based on ‘Some Things You Knew’, the lack of subtlety actually pays off in the end with most of the bigger songs justifying the ambition of the production. On an album lasting just short of an hour, the overall effect can be a bit overpowering but Merz’s winning way with his own version of “The Big Music” is admirable.

Web Sites:
Static In Verona Official Site
Static In Verona Bandcamp

Further Listening:
ELO, The Helio Sequence

Review: Whizz Kid – There’s Conjuring To Be Done

In typically bizarre Bearsuit Records fashion, Whizz Kid’s two protagonists are described as a Banjo playing Scot called Yo-yo Nielsen and a windsurfing Belgian named J-Kane. In even more typical Bearsuit fashion, their first album ‘There’s Conjuring To Be Done’ is as unorthodox as the band members’ backgrounds and can loosely be described as exotic instrumental music.

Whizz Kid Album Cover

So if we’re prepared to expect the unexpected, ‘Clones’ opens predictably with wind chimes, triangle, brass sections and thick beats. Somewhere within this melee is a tune. Certainly an oddball tune but a tune nonetheless. Unsurprisingly it’s the melodic strength which is the key to the good stuff. The wonderfully strange ‘Summer Bubbles’ is kept in check by a rolling piano melody and even though it is accompanied by xylophone, babies’ cries and abrasive techno, it’s as hooky as hell. ‘Falling Out Of Trees, Falling Out Down Hills’ is one of four tracks which made up 2012′s ‘Covered In Santa Wheels’ EP and both this piece and ‘Charly Stories’ resemble a band running amok in a shop of toy instruments. On this always vibrant album only ‘Burlington’ overdoes the experimentation; a discordant sound clash too far perhaps. However, when that thirst for something new bears fruit, such as the mixtures of cosmopolitan influences on the stop-start ‘Ballade A Chaud Fontaine’, Nielsen and Kane are a delight to listen to.

If you’re after an instrumental record full of quirks but balanced by warmth and hooks, let Whizz Kid take you on their gloriously oddball journey; stopping off at Cornelius crossing, Anja Garbarek station, Zoon van snooK junction and BBC Radiophonic Workshop Central en route. Magic will surely ensue along the way.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Whizz Kid – There’s Conjuring To Be Done
Bearsuit Records Label Site

Further Listening:
Anja Garbarek, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Cornelius, Zoon van snooK

Review: Billy Moon – Young Adult.

With songs about porn, some childish cover art and an unfortunate choice of name, the odds of Billy Moon would appear, on the face it, to be limited to a teenage audience. Which just shows how wrong you can be because the recently-graduated Mr. Moon has an understanding of great hooks and respects the forefathers of punk and garage.

Billy Moon EP Cover

So ‘Young Adult.’ ostensibly stands up for old school rock values yet there’s an exciting edge to this band which makes them stand out from the opposition. It’s in the chugging rhythms and riffs which propel blustering opener ‘Kalashnikov’ and it’s also in Moon’s own sneering vocals. Wherever you look, the intensity and power is there for all to see. A punkier ‘Bad Kids’ may doff its cap to The Beastie Boys’ ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)’ but pushes all the right distortion buttons and never seems to come up for air, whilst a similarly breathless ‘King Of The Sun’ resembles a more youthful version of The Walkmen. Meanwhile, ‘Video Girls’ may have a dubious theme but the underlying message (fuelled by a mixture of addiction and self-loathing) is an interesting one and the song itself is as infectious and hooky as you can hope for. Rather worryingly, the last track ‘The Days Are Just Packed’ may threaten to turn into J. Geils Band’s ‘Centrefold’ at certain points but thankfully veers away (and brutally so) just in time.

With a similar-named and equally retro-themed New Zealander courting publicity right now, Billy Moon may consider themselves victims of unfortunate timing in one respect. Yet on the flipside of the coin, their own aggressive, back to basics approach pays thrilling dividends and will serve a need for those with a taste for something more raw and visceral.

Web Sites:
Billy Moon Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Walkmen, The Clash, Blag’ard

Review: daysdeaf – When Colour Lost Light

Concept albums are hardly few and far between but the songs on ‘When Colour Lost Light’ are intriguingly ordered in the form of the electromagnetic spectrum. The work of Toronto resident Manvir Rai, each song title makes some reference to colour and however obvious it would be to call this a kaleidoscopic record, the statement is unmistakably true.

daysdeaf Album Cover

The album unfolds delightfully from the dreamy soul of ‘White Flags’ to the string sampling vs breakbeats ending of ‘Hue Am I’, dropping in on ambient, hip-hop and psychedelia territory in between. The more experimental likes of ‘Purple Thrills’, ‘Nazi Pink Triangles’ and ‘Tangerine’ demonstrate the production skills and ambition of Rai and his warm vocals adorn each track like spun gold. There are an abundance of mood changes from relaxed to aggressive (dramatically for ‘Deep, Blue Deep’ and the unexpectedly acoustic ‘Bright Yellow Sun’) and back to calm again with the genre transition switches between hip-hop and dreamy, soulful numbers ensuring the creativity remains constant.

Part of the appeal is the surprisingly seamless flow of the record; ensuring the album works as a whole but special mentions still need to be made for a few outstanding tracks. Thanks to its rhythmic pulse, sonic shifts and punchy rapping ‘redREd’ captures the invention and excitement of mid-90s act Earthling. ‘Prism’ is a slice of gorgeous, cosmic pop whereas the single ‘Giving Light To Greys’ is just lovely; made up of seductive soul vocals, a watery harp-like melody and an air of light melancholy. The song also recalls the mysterious beauty of that other soul/dream pop project, The Beauty Room.

Little biographical detail is available on Rai, the man behind daysdeaf. Without prior knowledge, one would imagine a production team with a very accomplished soul singer but it appears to be a solo maverick which makes the achievements of ‘When Colour Lost Light’ all the more impressive. For this adds to the wonder of an excellent concept album which thrives on the fact that, just as there should be acceptance for all colours, there should also be no boundaries in music.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for daysdeaf – When Colour Lost Light

Further Listening:
The Beauty Room, Earthling

Review: Two Twins – Anonymous Unanimous

Thanks to his extraordinary ‘Freedom Tower’ album, a New Yorker calling himself Masterface created a meisterwork of dub, ambient music and dreampop which turned out to be one of the best albums of 2011. Now, the man behind the Masterface mask, Cedar Apffel, presents his new project as Two Twins.

Two Twins Album Cover

This being Apffel, the real skill is in the production. That’s not to say there aren’t vocals, there are plenty of them but they’re viewed as another instrument here, providing another means for him to experiment. The first track ‘Thomas’ pushes human voices through the wringer more than most, the singer thrown forwards and plunged backwards like a drunken sailor girl on an ill-fated sea voyage of seesawing machine melody. ‘Bell Tower’ is heavier with beats and a more danceable aesthetic and is arguably one of the mainstream tracks on offer. On the other hand, ‘Undermine’ brings in sax and new wave guitars a la The Police’s ‘Message In A Bottle’ before being engulfed in layers and layers of multi-tracked vocals. Sensibly it’s one of the longest pieces too with plenty of attention given to space and dynamics along the way.

The second half to the record continues the quest for envelope pushing. ‘Marcy’ is considerably more nightmarish and fares less well, largely because there’s too much going on to allow it to present a coherent moment; it chooses to be jarring when it should be soothing. Thankfully, it’s a rare flaw. Apffel impressed with dub on his Masterface album and he excels again with a lively ‘Free Fall’. The lyrics promise “It’s over” but these words are certainly not prophetic since there’s still so much wizardry to follow. ‘Unlimited Rewards’ presents what begins as a somewhat random journey of alien noises until the track hits on an insistent groove which eventually turns into a blissful coda. This just leaves the final fifteen minute ebbs and flows of ‘Eucalyptus’, which shifts between modern classical and ambient; delightful and calming in equal measure, it’s just what is needed after all the ideas and curveballs which preceded it.

So these pieces are less individual songs, rather a song cycle; experiments in sonic manipulation revealing Apffel as a cross-genre specialist with an ambition to produce a modern day version of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’ or Paddy McAloon’s ‘I Trawl The MEGAHERTZ’. ‘Anonymous Unanimous’ isn’t quite as consistently riveting as ‘Freedom Tower’ but Apffel is clearly in his element here and just as with Masterface, he presents music which reveals more and more about itself upon each listen.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Two Twins – Anonymous Unaninmous
Bleek Records Label and Shop Site

Further Listening:
Masterface, Robert Wyatt

Review: Tyler Sullivan – This Man

Tyler Sullivan makes the kind of lo-fi bedroom pop which Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Deerhunter should take a certain amount of credit for. Like those acts, Illinois resident Sullivan has successfully summoned up that aura of ghosts performing in dank basements with low-budget equipment, although the same amount of commercial success may not be so forthcoming.

Tyler Sullivan Album Cover

That’s not to say the music here isn’t any good. ‘This Man’ has a lot of qualities but it will challenge and possibly creep out the majority of listeners too much. The songs here generally consist of reverb-heavy guitars with added feedback, abstract electronica and Sullivan’s own voice which is a cracked-up, evil instrument in itself; if you can imagine a more sinister, insectoid version of Howard Devoto then you wouldn’t be far off. No surprise then, that images of horror are brought to the mind on regular occasions.

‘Rt. 148′ strikes a chill with its bluesy, echo-laden guitar crescendos and suggestions of murder (“I broke your neck” he utters at one point). On the flipside, though, strip away the effects on ‘Freedom & Freewill’ and you could visualise Sullivan as a liberal 70′s singer/songwriter living alone in a mountain. Even if there are question marks about his singing, Sullivan’s arrangement and production skills are pretty decent. ‘Backpack’ is a cover of a song by Andrew Jackson Jihad with Sullivan conjuring up a church-style atmosphere here with his inventive interpretation. Meanwhile, ‘Don’t Get Down Man’ resembles the more sombre comedowns of Spiritualized’s songbook and ‘We Grew A Lot’ possibly sums up the whole experience in a nutshell; striking an uneasy balance between Sullivan’s jarring vocals and the mix’s “out there” eeriness but the end result is undeniably compelling.

In conclusion, then, ‘This Man’ walks on a deadly, spindly tightrope between dream pop and nightmare pop. However, if you can get past the voice there are twisted, lonely, captivating songs here which are capable of haunting you long after the music stops.

Web Sites:
Bandcamp Stream for Tyler Sullivan – This Man
Tyler Sullivan Tumblr

Further Listening:
Deerhunter, Howard Devoto, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti


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