Wednesday, October 7, 2009

#85. Gospel - The Moon Is a Dead World (Level Plane, 2005) and Funeral Diner - The Underark (Alone, 2005)

It's kind of funny how the two genres whose names are most often misapplied seem to have intertwined more and more as each of them progressed. We all know my issues with the misapplication of 'emo' as it panned out this decade, but parsing out where exactly people started getting post-rock wrong isn't quite as cut-and-dry for me. The genre that started out being defined as 'the use of rock instruments for non-rock purposes' has basically become synonymous with '(instrumental) bands who have these nifty little things called crescendos as the basis of composition.' I have less of a problem with that shift, if only because it's at least applied consistently and to bands that at least have some kind of link, however tenuous, to the originators of the style, but it's horribly vague at best and downright useless at worst. Yet when those qualities get applied to modern day emo ad its derivatives the results hit me in a way that few other genre combinations do. The foundatin of emo is the stirring emotions, and when those are married to song structures that are built around dynamic tension it brings out the best in both styles.

A least one member Funeral Diner wasn't a stranger to that sort of hybridization. Drummer Matthew Bajda also drummed for seminal Bay Area screamo veterans Portraits of Past, one of the original band to start applying the same degree of dynamics to their songs as any burgeoning post-rock band would. Their lone album 01010101 was one of the first albums from the genre that really caught my ear to any appreciable degree, and their recently issued discography collection is an essential document for anyone interested in exploring the origins of emo/screamo. Funeral Diner continue in a similar vein, though without quite as much heaviness or vocal interplay and with a stronger focus on the use of dynamics as a means of building tension. Their first three full-lengths are worth seeking out, but it's 2005's The Underark that demonstrated just how much of a force they could if they put their minds to it. While its predecessors Three Sides Dead, Difference of Potential and Funeral Diner...Is Dead were little more than glorified compilations of previously released (or soon-to-be-released in the case of ...Is Dead) material, The Underark is the one time they set out to make an album, and given the results that accomplished it's a shame they didn't take that approach more often.

The focus on making The Underark feel like an album pays of not only in its sense of flow and continuity, but in how those qualities amplify the best parts of Funeral Diner's sound. More than any other post-rock leaning emo band, FD's balance of the pretty and the heavy was always a step above most of their peers, mainly because they don't feel the need to isolate the two elements from each other. Take the 9 minute album centerpiece "It's Good That We Never Met"; the last section of the song especially layers some startlingly beautiful keyboards and clean guitar lines over a ferocious groove and vocalist Seth Baab at his most throat shreddingly intense, and the synthesis of the two elements is just perfect in execution. Even when they separate the two sides form each other, as on the absolutely stunning "Two Houses," it's for the good of the song as opposed to the need for dynamic pay off. The best thing about the album though is the sense of grandeur it has. There's builds and falls throughout, but the whole album feels like one big crescendo in its own right, form the gorgeous instrumental opener "Decline" through to the end of "We All Have Blood on Our Hands" it has the sense of oneness that the previous FD releases sorely lacked. Too bad this turned out to be their last album, although Bajda and guitarist David Mello are carrying on the sound to some extent with ...Who Calls So Loud.

On the other side of the emo-meets-post-rock coin are Gospel, who seem to have come out of nowhere andgone back there just as quickly. None of the four members have any past or present projects to their name, and outside of a widely bootlegged live tape and a split with The Kodan Armada 2005's The Moon Is a Dead World is the only thing the players have to their name. As such it comes across as a kind of perfect storm of the right people getting together for a short period of time wherein nothing they do is anything less than brilliant. The eight tracks on The moon Is a Dead World would represent the peak of the post-rock/emo subgenre if not for a certain other perfect storm band from their label - we'll get to them much, much later - but even with that band rising over them it's hard to deny the sheer brilliance on display here. As produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou the album has a very unique sound in light of the rest of the genre, where the vocals are a sublayer, and the band's phenomenal interplay is front and center at all moments, with highly melodic bass work, ferocious drumming, and moody synths (you read that right) taking center stage until the guitar leads surface. The sound isn't so much reminiscent of emo as it is prog rock, all shifting song structures and excellent band dynamics held together by a high level of instrumental skill.

And let's not forget the songs here, because each of them is a miniature epic of a kind. Even the briefer tracks like "Paper Tigon" and "Yr Electric Surge Is Sweet" move through a few different movements with the kind of ease most proper prog rock bands would envy, but when the band really give in to this side of things, as on the tension bomb that is the nine minute "Golden Dawn" it's easy to forget you're listening to something that might get called emo. When that side of the band comes to the fore - the slow building "What Means of Witchery" and the ferocious "And Redemption Fills the Emptiest of Hearts" - the band still plays on a whole different level from their peers, with more emphasis on atmosphere and interplay than on the outbursts common to their genre. The only element of The Moon Is a Dead World that is unmistakably of the emo genre through the whole release is the vocals, and those are the perfect raw counterpoint to the smoothly flowing music. The fact that Ballou's production works to de-emphasize the vocals suggests to me that it's an instance where treating them as little more than a new layer to the music is the best course of action, but their presence all but guarantees the album's classification will fall more to the emo side of things than the prog side. Really, if it weren't for the vocals Moon Is a Dead World might not even be part of this post, such a different sonic headspace it resides in, but as far as showing the breadth of the emo subgenre it's about as good a pair as you'll find.

Coming up tomorrow: The closest thing the decade has to The Shape of Punk to Come.

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