Saturday, October 17, 2009

#78. Chore - The Coastaline Fire (Sonic Unyon, 2002) / dredg - El Cielo (Interscope, 2002)

You want to know the most depressing thing you can do right now? Compare the list on number one modern rock hits from its first 5 years to those of the last five years. To think that the radio format whose first number one hit was something as compellingly odd as Siouxsie and The Banshees' "Peek-A-Boo" has gotten to the point where in a 52 week period over 2007-2008 there were only 24 weeks where the Foo Fighters weren't at number one just depresses me. At its inception the chart seemed to glorify the outsiders of the rock scene, the songs that were actually too far outside of rock's comfort zone to get anywhere on the mainstream side of things. Now the overlap between the two charts is generally at least 80% week in week out, with most of the songs even occupying the same positions on the two charts. With the divide between modern and mainstream rock stations getting narrower and narrower it's tempting to call the modern rock - sorry, Alternative Rock now - charts redundant in the grand scheme of things so long as they continue to ignore stuff that might actually be considered alternative to anything at all. There's no place for the compellingly odd, or even the compelling 9 times out of 10, on rock radio nowadays, and as such plenty of great artists are left behind in a sense, never catching the ear of the public despite having some degree of potential to do so.

I'm not saying that a band as far under the radar as Chore were would stand a chance even on an old style modern rock station, that would be ludicrous, but they do represent the kind of band that could have benefited from a less homogenized rock radio climate. As it is, outside of Canadian indie press and a few airings of the video for nominal single "The Hitchhiker" (marred by a really, really shitty edit of the song I might add) on some of MuchMusic's specialty shows (and an episode of 24 back in its first season) the damn thing was pretty much ignored. Given that the band occupy the highly appealing middle ground between Sunny Day Real Estate's indie-emo hybrid and Fugazi's crunchy post-hardcore it's a crime that the album is so ignored by the public at large, but taking into account the realities of its distribution - Sonic Unyon's a Canadian institution but didn't exactly have much in the way of international exposure - it's not surprising.

Still, if you can get your hands on it and have any sort of affinity for the less chaotic end of the emo spectrum it's quite the find. Not only do the band have a great sense of melody and dynamics - just check out the slow build of the "Electrojet" for example of both - but they're also damn skilled players, content to play out songs in weirdly syncopated 11/4 time ("Electrojet" again.) The two sides of their sound are better integrated here than on their also quite good second album Take My Mask and Breathe, and the best moments see them playing SDRE-style songs with the intensity of Fugazi as on "The Hitchhiker," "Electrojet" and the truly unsettling closer "Virginia Creeper," but the moments that lean to one side over the other aren't anything to discount either. The best stuff may come in the middle but when either end is occupied by the likes of "Americna Machinist" on the Fugazi side and "Dog in the Manger" on the SDRE one it's not exactly a huge climb to the middle. The only real downside here is that as lyricists the band leave a lot to be desired. They're not horrible lyricists by any stretch, and I'm not much of a lyrics guy to begin with, but a lot of thesongs just lack that extra pop that great lyrics can provide. Aside from that though, you've got one of the best relics of the Canadian modern rock scene in the 00s, and a great obscurity to wave in your friends faces.

Back to the topic of bands that deserved the type of exposure that the older version of modern rock radio provided, I can't help but think that if they'd come about a decade earlier dredg would have a much greater public profile. I came to know them through their third album, 2005's Catch Without Arms, and was almost immediately on their side. It was proggy without being entirely reliant on instrumental prowess, emotional without being melodramatic and catchy above all else. Looking into it's redecessor, the pretty much universally revered El Cielo, it struck me as a bit pretentious-sounding in theory. I mean, it was apparently a concept album based on a surrealist painting (Salvador Dali's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening) as well as phenomena like sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming. That just struck me as the sort of thing that could only fail thanks to its reach exceeding its grasp, although I was more intrigued than anything since it's rare that a band use such things as inspiration for their album. Plus it was widely regarded as the band's best work, and given how much I liked Catch Without Arms there wasn't any was I wasn't gonna listen to it eventually.

My fears about its pretensions overriding any good it had to offer were unfounded it turns out. There's a concept here, sure, but not in the Thick as a Brick/Lamb Lies Down on Broadway/The Wall sense, where there's a story being told over the course of things. It was more in line with the way that some consider OK Computer to be a concept album; the songs have common roots and similar themes, but aren't linked to each other by anything less tenuous than that. It uses the stuff I mentioned above as a jumping off point but outside of a few songs none are fully married to them. Instead of a hard-lined concept album it comes across as nothing more than a consistently great series of songs that all tie in to vague concepts as opposed to any sort of story. That suits me just fine given that the songs are all so damn good. Even a few of the "Brushstroke" interludes come off as near-highlights, especially the lush "Walk in the Park" and the eastern-tinged "An Elephant in the Delta Waves."

As I said, though, the biggest thing about El Cielo is its consistency. There's no real high point because of this, though "The Canyon Behind Her" is about as good as the band gets, but I'll take a lack of readily available entry tracks in favor of having 11 amazing songs to continually throw out there. It also strikes me that dredg are another band that uses the a fairly static palette to create a wide variety of sounds. The basic elements are there on every song, Dino Campanella's african-tinged drumming, Mark Engles' guitar which fluctuates between rich, crunchy power chords and precise, treated riffs and Gavin Haynes' vulnerable vocals, but they apply them so as to make a vast array of songs. You've got some absolutely crushing rock songs ("Of the Room") next to calm, dreamlike ones ("Scissor Lock") and discordant, jagged numbers ("Eighteen People Living in Harmony"). When all the sides come together, like on "Sanzen" or "The Canyon Behind Her" it's absolutely breathtaking, but even when it's not quite as integrated the results are nearly as good.

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