Friday, April 1, 2011

98 The Hard Way: EPs, Final Days

Art of Fighting: The Very Strange Year (Half a Cow)
It always mystifies me that in the realm of slowcore we never had many bands that followed in the footsteps of Bedhead more rigidly. That could just be my personal bias though, I always thought that the Kadane brthers' take on the genre, where the 'slow' part of the genre moniker didn't get in the way of the heaviness they could bring, almost like a miserablist take on sludge metal. So to hear a band like Art of Fighting pretty much amplify both of the best qualities of Whatfunlifewas - the epic streak and the dynamic tension - to their breaking point, it always makes me smile a bit. The fact that they manage to pull it off even better through that amplification is just the icing on the cake.

Think of it this way: this EP is over 40 minutes long. No song is less than 5 minutes long. The songs utilize that length to their advantage - "Wild Beast" in particular uses all of its 7 and a half minutes perfectly, building to a crushing, exciting conclusion after 5 minutes of tension build up. This is a band that knows what they're doing from the first moment, expertly deploying light touches of piano, subtle strings, epic crescendos, dueling vocals and melodic bass at just the right moments. Even the lesser pieces on this EP have a certain spark to them that indicates that given time the band might even make these types of songs work - I'm thinking mostly about "The Unappreciate" which comes closest to being textbook slowcore but still makes great use of the band's more unique features in the background. Even the theoretically overlong "Twenty-One and Eighty" manages to hold my attention during the stretches of sameness because there's so many subtle, interesting things that are going on in the background. And the scariest thing is that this is what they pulled off on their debut recording, bar a couple of demos. They got it almost completely right their first time out, which has me more than excited to see where they headed to next. [8.7/10]

Idlewild: Captain (Deceptive)
There's a definite pattern here. Idlewild operate in three modes: short, jagged punk bursts akin to their early singles, anthemic, mid paced rockers and dark, brooding post-punk. Each set of three songs on Captain lays out one example of each type, almost as though the band were going for a Side A/Side B feel despite this only ever being released on CD from what I can discern. This of course leads me to two observations:

1. "Side A" is far better than "Side B"

Just matching up the representative slice of each of the bands modes it's easy to see that the EP is heavily frontloaded. "Self Healer" edges out "Last Night I Missed All the Fireworks" thanks to a much more developed set of riffs and lyrics in the sub-two minute range. "Annihilate Now!" is a big step up on "Satan Polaroid," arguably coming off as a dry run for Hope Is Important's crowning glory "When I Argue I See Shapes" in all the best ways. And "Captain" handily destroys the overlong, messy "You Just Have to Be Who You Are" without much question at all. It's not an issue of the second half being bad - you'll notice that "You Just..." aside I didn't indicate that the matchups were incredibly lopsided - so much as the first half containing some of Idlewild's best material, full stop, even a full decade plus later.

2. The mild identity crisis is actually a selling point rather than a detriment.

Usually when I hear a band with more than one clearly defined style at this point in their career, I wind up saying to myself 'I really hope they keep going with style A over style B/C/D etc.' Strangely, even though the hierarchy is pretty clearly in the mid-paced anthemic rockers' favor in the end I don't find myself wishing that they eschew any of the tones offered here for more of another. Each of the band's modes is equally well defined and well played, such that I find myself wishing for more of everything from every subsequent Idlewild release. This is odd, especially for someone like me who values flow in his albums, but somehow the band makes me glad that they aren't stuck in one particular mode all the time, even though it makes the EP sound haphazardly arranged. I'd usually consider that a cardinal sin on any release, so making it into a slight advantage gets the band a lot of points in my book. [8.5/10]

The Promise Ring: Boys and Girls (Jade Tree)
 It's tough to go into much detail here, really. Both songs are great - all three if you're looking at the CD version - in the same way that other good Promise Ring songs are great. The big deciding factor is that they're isolated. The band's albums have always been very hit or miss with me. For every song that stands out and says 'Yes, we're a worthy addition to the indie emo canon' there's another that just sits there listlessly and another that's actively trying to sit though. Here though, you've got no fat to wish to trim off. "Best Looking Boys" is sprightly, poppy and addictive in ways that these guys didn't get that right previously (and only got consistently right when they morphed into Maritime). "Tell Everyone We're Dead" might be even better, it's definitely their best mid-paced number outside of "A Picture Postcard" if only because there's actual build to it. I guess that's the thing with both of these songs: they go somewhere when a lot of previous PR songs were content to stay in place, and while some bands can find the glory in water treading promise Ring could not. It could also have something to do with new bassist Scott Schoenbeck, who carries over more than a little bit the fluid, jazzy style that marks his other band from this period, Pele. Whatever the case, it's my go to Promise Ring release and barring a radical revision of my thoughts on their full lengths I don't see that changing anytime soon. [8.5/10]

Dødheimsgard: Satanic Art (Moonfog)
I'm willing to bet that the reaction most people will have to this EP will go something like this:

"Oneiroscope: OK, mood setting, can't fault that.

"Traces of Reality": Holy shit, intense progressive/My Dying Bride/black metal! More please!

The rest: You know, I liked In the Nightside Eclipse too...

So why doesn't this get cast aside like any number of albums I've heard with one stellar track surrounded by filler? Well, the fact of it is that that one track makes up almost half of the EP's running time, so even if the other material was incredibly dire - which it isn't - this would still hit the top half of my rating scale. There's also the fact that while the other two songs on here - discounting the intro/outro portions - could easily be written off as emblematic of the band's songwriting process, just stopping halfway to the point that "Traces of Reality" reaches instead of continuing onward.It also helps that in the real of one song wonders, "Traces of Reality" is exceptional in terms of quality. Sure it makes the rest of the EP look half-assed  by comparison, but the end results are worth it. [7.6/10]

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