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This article first appeared at No Ripcord on June 13, 2016.

Garbage

When a band hits the 20th anniversary of their debut, it’s hard not to look back at how it all began. For Garbage, that resulted in the 20 Years Queer concert tour last year. How do you follow this trip down memory lane? With a new album, of course! On Strange Little Birds, Garbage aimed to be more spontaneous and capture the darkness of their first record. While they do succeed on a few tracks, the results are sporadic.

It kicks off strongly though, that’s for damn sure. Sometimes rides a film noir piano line into crushing, distorted guitar scratches. It’s an opener that immediately sets the album apart from their other works. It also sets the stage for Empty, a hurricane of a song, with a slippery guitar riff that pops up throughout and anchors the song’s ascendant chorus. Shirley Manson knocks it out of the park with a performance that turns on a dime from confident belting to halted stutters.

The power on this album is definitely with the rockers. Manson’s vocal aerobatics on the electronica of Magnetized burst through different octaves in the chorus with synths storming behind her. It’s insanely catchy and should be an adrenaline rush live. We Never Tell is another kinetic uptempo number with a driving beat by Butch Vig. While these tracks are great, the problems lie between them in the sequencing. Blackout and If I Lost You bring the momentum of Empty to a screeching halt. The former wastes a decent riff and drum pattern by driving them into the ground, with minor-to-no variation over its six-and-a-half minutes. The latter takes on trip-hop, with a beautiful, fragile performance by Manson. But the song falls flat on repeated listens. Night Drive Loneliness also does little to nothing with its sinister opening guitar either, fading into electronic soundscapes.

That being said, a couple of ballads do manage to land. On Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, a heartbeat percussion, sharp guitar lines and Manson’s aching vocals create a growing sense of danger and desperation. It’s like watching an incoming comet get bigger and bigger in the night sky. Teaching Little Fingers To Play is a flashback ballad that isn’t exactly nostalgic for the past, but instead comes to terms with the present.

Strange Little Birds is not as triumphant or solid of a record as Not Your Kind Of People. While Garbage still sound hungry and willing to try something new, too many songs don’t hold up to their reputation. There’s plenty of material worth diving into on this album, but the results could have been much, much stronger.

6/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on May 30, 2016.

MotherFeather-MotherFeather

It wasn’t too long ago that being a New York band meant you had an attitude and fury that would guarantee your survival. Rather than staring at their instruments or try to catch your attention with small talk, these artists would get in your face and force you to listen. And you’d be thankful that they did. That’s Mother Feather in a nutshell.

Led by slithering, screaming singer Ann Courtney and vocalist/keyboardist Elizabeth Carena, Mother Feather’s self-titled debut has the theatricality of a time traveling Karen O, if she brought the underground rock of the 90s and 2000s to the 1970s. This is gritty, dive bar, party-until-the-sun-comes-up music that is anchored by guitarist Chris Foley, bassist Matt Basile and drummer Gunnar Olsen.

Just listen to the ferocious fuzz of Living, Breathing, the perfect, off-the-rails vehicle for Courtney to throw out irresistible lines like “In this light I can’t see past it/Where would you be if you were my glasses?” On Mother Feather, the band stakes out their territory with a hard rock riff, rafters-shaking bass line and a howling chorus. The Power starts with low-key, muted notes, luring listeners in before blasting them back with…well….a lot of power!

Throughout the album, Mother Feather proves that it is more than a one-trick pony. The slow-burn of Mirror starts like a heavier version of Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks, before slamming into a ripping chorus with Courtney’s intense, belting vocals. Trampoline is rock-funk fusion, blowing out with a call-and-response melody. Beach House has light, sun-soaked Californian chords that fit its title. They Tore Down the SK8 Park effortlessly glides between an echoing electric guitar and acoustic rhythms.

With an aggressive, provocative style and the songs to back that image up, Mother Feather is determined to bring the fight directly to you. Once you hear their music, you’ll realize they are primed not only to survive, but to thrive. With an old-school New York swagger and earworm melodies, this band has all the momentum of a 747 at takeoff. It’s time to jump aboard.

8/10

pj-harvey

Whenever an artist goes on tour, every fan is coming up with her or his own personal wishlist of what songs they want to hear. There are the expected hits and the new album tracks, but what else will be performed? Will there be a live debut of an old album track? Will a b-side be brushed off for the first time in a decade? These are the songs that deserve a comeback. This is “Play It Live!”

With her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey is set to embark on her first tour in four years. Now on her ninth album, there are tons of songs that are due for a resurgence. Given the heavier and rougher vibe found on her latest LP, some of her older, blues and punk-inspired tracks may fit better with the new material than Let England Shake. With her tour set to kick off in France on June 1, here are 10 songs that I hope will make an appearance.

A Perfect Day Elise
Last Played In: 2004
Is This Desire? is one of Harvey’s most underrated works and A Perfect Day Elise is one of the record’s masterpieces. With an almost beatbox rhythm and shimmering guitar, it signaled an evolution from the in-your-face blues of To Bring You My Love. When Harvey rises above the claustrophobic musical atmosphere for the chorus, it’s an instantly memorable moment. Many casual fans may not be familiar with this song or this record. A comeback here would give Harvey a chance to fix that.

Good Fortune
Last Played In: 2010
It’s no surprise to anyone going to a PJ Harvey show that it can get a bit intense, particularly given the lyrical source of the last two albums. So, what better way to add a sense of relief than with this pop-rock song that is one of the catchiest Harvey has ever written. With lines about Chinatown, Little Italy and the like, it should at least make an appearance when she plays New York City.

Legs
Last Played In: 2003
A weird, distorted mess that’s insanely captivating. That’s the best way to describe this Rid of Me track. There’s a reason it kept popping up in Harvey’s live show for 10 years. The vocal, which has her screaming, crying, yodeling and ripping her voice apart, may be tough for Harvey to pull off nowadays, but in the right spot, it could be a devastating throwback to her early days.

Long Snake Moan
Last Played In: 1995
How has this song been missing from Harvey’s set for so long? To put it simply, it fucking rocks. With an incredibly-fuzzed out groove and a leathery vocal, it’s easily one of the most overlooked pieces in her catalog. Given that Harvey brought the distorted guitars back for her latest album, there’s no reason why this song shouldn’t return with them. Did I mention that it fucking rocks?

Shame
Last Played In: 2010
This Uh Huh Her track is all about Harvey’s delivery, jumping from a deep growl to a high-pitched, panicked yelp. In the meantime, guitar chords form a taut rhythm and a harmonica jitters along. This would be a great, quick pick to slow things down while keeping a crowd’s rapt attention.

Who the Fuck?
Last Played In: 2010
The Hope Six Demolition Project contains some of the heaviest and most aggressive songs she’s written since Uh Huh Her. So what better time to revive the kiss-off of Who the Fuck? With a squawking guitar riff that almost sounds out-of-tune and Harvey’s curse-laden rant, it’s a fan favorite that will get anyone’s blood pressure rising. Her last two albums deal some weighty themes. Give the crowd and band a chance to shake the spectre off.

The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore
Last Played In: 2010
While much of The Hope Six Demolition Project focuses on war-torn locations like Kosovo and Afghanistan, a good portion of the record looks at the social strife found in Washington D.C. Given that most of Harvey’s discography focuses more on the personal and has only recently swung political, let’s split the difference with this abrasive track from Stories From The City, Stories From The City. Among violence, drug abuse and greed, Harvey reaches out for a human connection. The message fits her new album, and would fit a current setlist, perfectly.

The Wind
Last Played In: 1998
This single from Is This Desire? hasn’t appeared since it’s initial run. That’s a shame, as it has a palpable tension, driven by Harvey’s whispering throughout the song. The vocal matches the chapel imagery, as if she’s almost alone in a church and knows anything above a whisper will reveal her confession to strangers. This track would fit right alongside the spiritual hymn of River Anacostia from her last LP.

Working for the Man
Last Played In: 2004
With a slinking, shaking bass line and a creepy guitar melody, this is definitely one of Harvey’s creepiest numbers. Her half-whispered, half-moaned vocals only add to sense of foreboding, like she’s trying to get you to lean in and listen, but you’re scared of what will happen if you do. Maybe such a quiet, offputting piece won’t work for a festival. But for a club? All Harvey needs to do is turn out the lights, play the song and let the crowd’s imagination do the rest.

You Come Through
Last Played In: 2004
With a clattering, naturalistic rhythm and an accordion humming in the background, this is one of Uh Huh Her’s most unexpected treasures. It truly sounds unique in Harvey’s catalog. With so many songs to choose from for a live set, it makes sense to bring back one that truly stands alone in instrumentation and vibe.

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on May 23, 2016.

MoonShapedPool

A Moon Shaped Pool is a masterpiece. Let’s just get that out of the way. After The King of Limbs left something to be desired and band members were off on various projects, it was questionable whether Radiohead would retain the level of focus that it had in the past. Thankfully, those worries are unfounded, as the group’s ninth album is in the top-tier of their discography. A Moon Shaped Pool is also a dense listen that gives back what you put into it. Like Kid A and Amnesiac, the first listen may seem impenetrable in places. But over time, some of the band’s best melodies reveal themselves, like diamonds discovered in a mix of organic and electronic instruments.

A Moon Shaped Pool is a definitive mood album as well, but the emotions expressed vary immensely from song to song. Decks Dark and Desert Island Disk are gentle and warm psych-folk. “It was just a laugh,” Thom Yorke sings on the former, over a light piano segment that transitions into a heavier pattern, with rattling guitar chords echoing into space. The latter has a Neil Young vibe, with an acoustic melody made for an arid desert at sunset. “The wind rushing round my open heart/An open ravine,” Yorke says, before admitting in relief that “different types of love are possible.”  The Numbers, likely to go down as one of the only good songs about environmentalism, combines many of the band’s best elements. An acoustic rhythm guitar glides next to a submerged piano melody, Yorke moves from a laid-back vocal to his ghostly falsetto and hopeful strings burst out to support a declaration that we will “take back what is ours.” Even if a song appears to be soothing at first glance, the band never lets you get too comfortable. The Present Tense‘s guitar work borrows from bossanova music, a feathery touch that pulls you into Yorke’s words, but the tune unexpectedly builds to a backing choir that whirls by like wind in a valley.

Then, of course, there are the tracks that ratchet up the tension to a harrowing degree. After mastering the guitar and the Ondes Martenot, Jonny Greenwood charges forward with his orchestral work on the most anxious tracks of A Moon Shaped Pool. On the “low-flying panic attack” of Burn the Witch, the collegno strings create an agitated rhythm for Yorke’s lyrics against groupthink. When he sings, “we know where you live,” the strings swoop down into the abyss, drowning out all else. The paranoia is equally palpable on the watery piano ballad of Glass Eyes, where Yorke is frightened by faces of “concrete grey.” Shrill strings momentarily rise up before fading back, like a hand nearly grabbing an unsuspecting person from behind.  Ful Stop charges forward with a low-humming bass groove and alien synths, always staying on the edge of exploding, but never losing its taut restraint. Yorke’s stutters out lines like “You really messed up everything,” “Take me back again” and “Truth will mess you up”  over and over, trying to give his words power through sheer repetition. On Identikit, which pulls off Paranoid Android‘s trick of being three songs in one, Yorke explores betrayal, frustration and “broken hearts” that “make it rain.” As his vocal changes in intensity, the music moves with him, going from an off-kilter rhythm to the best earworm chorus on the album to a squiggly guitar solo.

Many of these songs can be interpreted around Yorke’s recent separation with his long-time partner Rachel Owen. While a few tracks pre-date the end of that relationship, they still fit into that framework, creating a lyrical theme that pops up throughout the record. But two songs fit into Yorke’s lost relationship more than any others and without surprise, they are the two most direct and devastating tracks on the album. Daydreaming, with its effortless, gorgeous piano line, wrings every drop of pathos out of each note played and each word sung. “The damage is done,” Yorke remarks in defeat. As the track closes, the keys are buried under a haunted mix of cello and reverse vocals that echo out, “Half of my life,” the length of Yorke’s relationship with Owen. It’s fitting then that A Moon Shaped Pool ends with a song that’s been around nearly as long. True Love Waits, with keys replacing the acoustic guitar of early live versions, is one of Yorke’s best moments as a songwriter, a fan favorite that lives up to its reputation. The longing behind every iteration of “Just don’t leave” is relatable to nearly everyone, a universal theme that Yorketaps into like few others can. It’s the perfect ending for an equally perfect album.

With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead didn’t reinvent the wheel, but instead crafted an emotionally resonant, musically unexpected and richly rewarding album. It’s mind-boggling how a band can keep up such a level of artistry after almost 30 years together. But by taking various elements from not only their collective past, but also the work they’ve done separately, Radiohead has created something wholly new and utterly entrancing. They’ve done it again.

10/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on April 23, 2016.

IMG_5631

Though it’s often viewed as a regular music venue, Le Poisson Rouge, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, was conceived as a place for contemporary classical music. No wonder Sarah Neufeld seemed so at home. With NYC as the last stop on her North American tour, the violinist put on a performance that had the entire crowd enraptured by her playing, her voice and a special guest.

To start the evening though was a set by ambient drone artist Alexandra Drewchin, known as Eartheater. Armed with just a guitar, an assortment of pedals and her voice, Drewchin weaved together a captivating set that pulsed with microbeats and flew with her choral singing. For you movie buffs though, it sounded like a sedated version of the beat-heavy opera performance from The Fifth Element.

Neufeld started her set without much fanfare, walking onstage alone with her violin. But far from limiting her sound, she quickly proved that her instrument and her voice that’s needed to put on a mesmerizing concert. In addition to the endless fascination of watching an artist of her caliber perform, with her hands gliding over the violin with seemingly no effort, the music itself lost none of its scope or ambition in its transition to the stage.

While a solo set would have still been a great show, Neufeld did get some instrumental backup throughout her set. As she played through most of the material on her excellent new record, The Ridge, she was joined first by Stefan Schneider on drums and later on by that special guest, multireedist Colin Stetson. Whether he was on the saxophone or the clarinet, Stetson’s earthy tones helped to keep Neufeld’s airy, wind-swept melodies grounded. It was wonderful to see two artists connect so strongly onstage, sometimes playing equally to each other as they were to the audience.

Still, whether by herself or with others, Neufeld brought the power and strength of an entire orchestra. After an hour of music, the composer fully earned her standing ovation and could be seen surrounded by fans after the show. In her hands, contemporary classical music is alive and well.

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on April 14, 2016.

PJ-Harvey-The-Hope-Six-Demolition-Project

PJ Harvey is a chameleon. Whether it was the raw punk of Rid of Me, the seductive blues of To Bring You My Love, the ecstatic pop-rock of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or the tense folk of Let England Shake, each work brought something new. Now, on her ninth studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, with its horn-infused, kitchen-sink approach, she’s done it again.

While the music remains as invigorating as ever, the subject matter has the most direct through line of her discography. If Let England Shake looks at conflicts both past and present from an afar, journalistic view, then this album is up-close and personal. The result mostly succeeds, though it’s not without problems.

The record’s biggest stumble can be found in its opener, The Community of Hope. While the background brass boosts up an earworm of a melody, Harvey’s lyrics on the urban decay of Ward 7 in Washington D.C. mistakenly ignores the lives of its residents in favor of comments on the infrastructure and a sarcastic line about building a Walmart. The addition of a local Gospel choir, unaware of the song’s context, just adds to the problem and poisons an otherwise great opener. Not much better is Medicinals, which takes a preachy, judgmental tone on how humanity has ruined nature.

Thankfully, the missteps are mainly limited to those two songs. A stronger effort is Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln, with a folksy guitar, a slow-burning accordion and what sounds like a bagpipe fed through a theremin. Lyrically, Harvey points out the juxtaposition of how D.C.’s greatest monuments, for the U.S. President who abolished slavery and the soldiers lost in one of America’s deadliest wars, have turned into tourist traps with “refreshment stands” and “plastic chairs.”

Some of the most fascinating songs on The Hope Six Demolition Project are those where Harvey goes all-in on a different style of music and finds the mood to match. Chain of Keys, with its military drumbeat, mournful horns and parishioner backing vocals, sounds like a New Orleans dirge, a funeral song for an abandoned neighborhood. River Anacostia is an enraptured spiritual number, asking for relief from the pollution and storm runoff that infects a nearby body of water.

Just as Harvey brought the autoharp to the forefront on Let England Shake and did the same with the piano on White Chalk, it’s the saxophone that gets its chance to shine on this record. On The Ministry ofDefence, the instrument breaks up one of her grungiest guitar tones and leads into lines from dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. On the bluesy stomp of The Ministry of Social Affairs, the sax bashes its way in with a deranged, thrilling solo.

The strongest songs come at the very end, where Harvey most effectively puts us in the setting she’s describing and has the melodies to keep us there. “Now you see them, now you don’t/Children vanish ‘hind vehicle/Now you see them, now you don’t/Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull,” she sings over a sinister garage riff on The Wheel. Even more effective is the chorus where she pleads “Hey, little children don’t disappear,”attaching their losses to the number 28,000, while never explaining the origin of that statistic.

Harvey closes in devastating fashion with Dollar, Dollar, the only two words a begging child needs to say to passing tourists. “I turn to you to ask/For something we could offer/Three lines of traffic past/We pull away so fast,” she tragically sings, a moment of doubt where she questions whether being a musician and traveling the world does any good. Even if she sheds light on these issues, will that help change anything for the better? Harvey leaves the question hanging, but proves why she needed to write this album. She isn’t sure if a musician can help the world. But it’s better to try than to do nothing.

8/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on April 11, 2016.

48936-hitch

In every band’s career, there comes a decision that has to be made about the best path forward. Do you continue to lean on the strengths that brought you success or do you take a risk and try something new? The Joy Formidable reached this fork in the road with Hitch. On their third record, the three-piece is not content to repeat themselves with just 11 blistering rock tracks. Instead, Ritzy Bryan, Rhydian Dafydd and Matthew Thomas introduce several new colors to their palette, while keeping the core elements intact. The result is a wonderful mishmash of styles and ideas.

Unfortunately though, Hitch starts this journey with a bump in the road. The first two songs, A Second in White and Radio of Lips, are the weakest on the album. Though they aren’t bad by any means, with the former’s rolling beat and the latter’s string-laden breakdown, they don’t stand out in any significant way. Not quite filler, but not the best way to capture an audience’s attention.

Luckily, there’s a quick course correction with The Last Thing On My Mind. One of the best qualities of The Joy Formidable is the camaraderie they show onstage and in their video logs. The Last Thing On My Mind shows that friendship through some studio chatter, before kicking into a breezy song with fuzzed-out guitars and a wall-shaking bass. It’s a bit more laid back than what is expected from the band, but the groove is undeniably catchy.

Actually, on Hitch, The Joy Formidable give themselves and the listener far more space to breathe than on past records. Rather than a near-continuous rock fest, this album comes in waves, moving effortlessly between tempos and tones. For example, the aggressive roar of Running Hands With The Night is followed by prickling, light touches of guitar on Fog (Black Windows).

But the songs that really shine are those that find trio trying something new. Liana takes an elegant piano and builds on it with a dry, desert guitar that’s right out of Muse’s catalog. If Liana is a close-up look at the desert, then The Brook is a bird’s-eye view, with a sharp guitar melody and plucked strings that envision endless sweeping over the Wild West. Next up, It’s Started opens with a long segment of fanciful drum fills from Thomas. Once the guitar kicks in after 45 seconds, it’s a killer riff that’s among Bryan’s best.

The Gift is another first, with subtle background horn work joined by fragile piano keys and an unexpected vocal from Dafydd. It’s a great way to switch things up and his voice fits well for the serene track. Rather than respond with her own vocals though, Bryan lets her guitar do the talking, with an expressive, brilliant solo.

While Hitch may kick off poorly, it more than makes up for it by back-ending the tracklist with some of the band’s best work. Underneath the Petal is a beautiful, mysterious number with an earthy acoustic vibe, piano keys that fall like raindrops and renaissance-inspired flute work. The closer, Don’t Let Me Know, starts as a straightforward acoustic song, relying on the strength of the melody and the emotion behind Ritzy’s voice. But two minutes in, the guitar drops out, pulsing synths bubble to the surface, and then a clamor of roaring instruments hit like an atom bomb. But rather than letting the eruption of sound continue unabated, the band pulls back and lets the synth line pull them into space. It’s an incredible end that not only holds onto the trio’s roots, but also pushes them forward.

By the end of Hitch, The Joy Formidable has opened itself to several new musical paths that will help them to keep growing and changing well into the future. Now, the excitement will come from more than just the adrenaline of heavy rockers. It will come from the anticipation of what’s next.

7/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on March 7, 2016.

TheRidge

While violinist Sarah Neufeld is known to many as part of Arcade Fire, she started building a name for herself with the gorgeous solo debut Hero Brother in 2013. Her follow-up record, The Ridge, is Neufeld in IMAX, a wide-ranging, epic soundscape that’s created just with her violin, occasional rhythms and a few impressionistic vocal melodies.

The scope of this album is clear from the get-go, with a title track that feels like infinity. Neufeld’s violin strings are taunt and sweeping, the sound of flying over the desert with no end in sight. With the addition of her voice comes a new layer of texture, which works to great effect, as does the boisterous percussion from her Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara. While the song doesn’t change much, it continuously builds over its eight minutes in a way that you never want to end.

The Glow is similarly ambitious. Its finger-picked introduction gives the feeling of waking up at dawn, slowly returning to consciousness as the sun peeks through your blinds. On a track like this, you don’t need vocals. The picked strings are more than enough to create a mesmerizing melody. The song also does a great shift towards the end, with a foreboding bass line and gusts of wind bringing dark clouds over this glow.

Even tracks that may not seem as far-reaching still easily pull you into another world. We’ve Got a Lotsounds like it should be on a Final Fantasy soundtrack, built for an adventure with its tense but bright strings, jazzy drums and rumbling bass. They All Came Down seems like a quick interlude, but instead focuses on a beautiful, airy vocal from Neufeld.

As the album progresses, Neufeld stretches her muscles and puts on a tour-de-force with her violin. A Long Awaited Scar has a darker, on-edge string melody that fits the title. While the first half in centered on Neufeld playing like a woman possessed, she transitions suddenly into a thrilling action scene, like climbing a steep hill only to find a battle erupting on the other side. From Our Animal is equally kinetic, with Neufeld branching out in several directions, but always returning to a core refrain.

Where the Light Comes In is a sublime, slightly melancholy affair that slows things down, a closing scene for the magnificent journey we’ve just been through. Neufeld’s violin cuts through the silence, its sharp cries echoing outwards, only to be joined by a bass that rumbles like ocean waves. It is the sound of standing on the titular ridge, watching the sun set and the light fade out.

If Hero Brother was Neufeld getting her feet wet, then on The Ridge, she’s diving into the deep end of the pool. The talent, confident and imagination on display throughout this album makes it a must-listen, a chance to let your mind wander and to lose yourself in an incredible plangency of strings.

8/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on February 29, 2016.

45267-sviib

The death of a partner isn’t just devastating in its immediacy, but in the impact it has on those left behind for the rest of their lives. In Alejandra Deheza’s case, she lost her self-described soulmate and School of Seven Bells co-founder Benjamin Curtis to lymphoma in 2013 at the far too young age of 35. Before his diagnosis, the band was at the height of their powers, releasing the excellent Ghostory in 2012 and working on what would turn into SVIIB immediately afterwards. After Curtis’ death, Deheza worked to finish the record, dedicating the band’s final statement to him. And what a statement it is, reflecting all aspects of the type of relationship only a few people have.

Ablaze and Open Your Eyes are songs about two people supporting each other through an incredible challenge, with a refusal to be dragged down by the weight they must carry. The former starts where Ghostory left off, with a pulsing synth rhythm and Deheza’s ethereal voice swirling together in an uplifting, danceable trance. On Open Your Eyes, gentle keys float alongside a handclap rhythm and Deheza’s rapid-fire lyrics. “I know your heart is broken/And you’ve been weeping/But I’ve been waiting here/Patiently for too long,” Deheza says, expressing both her and Curtis’ frustration at the hand they’ve been dealt, with his treatment often keeping him out of the studio.

On A Thousand Times More, Deheza expresses the limits of their relationship though, knowing that it may not be enough to save Curtis. “I wish there was a way/To reassure your heart/Now I can promise anything/Except to say this hurt will pass,” she sings, with a simple, low-key riff by Curtis pushing up against snappy percussion and skyward synths.

While every song here makes note of the relationship at the center of School of Seven Bells, this is not a downbeat album. Instead, it’s a record that showcases everything the band is about. On My Heart is weirder and funkier than nearly any other track, with an unbalanced synth riff line that instantly captures your attention. Signals sounds like a futuristic take on 90s R&B, until the chorus kicks in with huge guitars and a sparkling synth line.

The album concludes with two songs that perfectly reflect the different sides of a friendship that ends too soon. Confusion is the only song that was fully written after Curtis’ diagnosis. With slow, mournful synths, Deheza sings about clouds coming in, her voice fragile and tired. The song’s title and tone fits beautifully, expressing the constant questioning that goes on when someone has such a destructive illness.

SVIIB ends though on a note of hope and happy memories. Written before Curtis’ diagnosis, This Is Our Time contains one of the strongest melodies the band has come up with, an empowering cascade of spacey keys. It’s a song of togetherness, against any and all obstacles or enemies. “Our time is indestructible,” Deheza defiantly sings, her joy and confidence in her relationship with Curtis overwhelming all else. It’s an incredible end to a memorable record that showcases a relationship through the good times and bad. No matter what happens, Curtis and Deheza always have each other, and nothing, not even death, can stand in the way of that.

8/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on February 1, 2016.

steven-wilson-4-12

The prolific Steven Wilson returns with a new EP, less than a year after the excellent Hand. Cannot. Erase. Called 4 1/2, it serves as an interim between that last album and whatever Wilson does next. A more appropriate name for the release would have been 3 1/2, given that most of the songs are from the sessions for The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. Still, while these tracks may not have made the cut, some strong melodies and ideas make this release worth the listen.

The opener, My Book of Regrets, sounds like a missing piece of Hand. Cannot. Erase. It goes from a Neil Young guitar riff to an uplifting chorus, before switching to a strummed-out melody ripped straight out ofTime Flies from Porcupine Tree. Of course, the band for his solo work can shred with the best of them, as seen in the explosive solo and spacey prog jam that dominate the middle of the song. Similarly, Happiness III also fits with that record, as a straightforward, kinetic track with a propulsive riff.

Going further back, Year of the Plague comes from the sessions for The Raven That Refused To Sing. Anyone familiar with that album will recognize its melancholy, ghostly atmosphere, as haunting strings sweep alongside acoustic guitar pickings and piano chords. It deserved a spot on the full-length record. Less successful is Sunday Rain Sets In, as its film noir flute is not enough to save its typical instrumentation that goes nowhere.

Then you have Vermillioncore, the best track name I’ve heard in some time. I give it six months before someone turns this into an actual genre. If they do, maybe it’ll sound like the song, combining a tight bass groove with jazzy keys and a warped organ, before exploding into an electric, near-metal segment.

The EP comes to a close with Wilson looking way back with a re-recording of Don’t Hate Me, a song from Porcupine Tree’s 1999 album Stupid Dream. The addition of Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb helps the conversational nature of the track’s longing lyrics, but you are just as well served by the original. Still, 4 1/2feels like Wilson clearing house and giving himself a fresh start for Album No. 5. Where that road takes him, who knows. But in the meantime, if you liked his other solo albums, you’ll find something to enjoy here.

6/10