Electropop and synth with some goth and classical vocals thrown in might not necessarily come across to most as the best idea, but one listen to the new album from Toronto-based band Austra will alter any opinion to the contrary. The latest single off of Feel It Break, "Lose It," is the best indication of what lead singer Katie Stelmanis is capable of achieving with her newly hatched band.

The first thing you need to know about Stelmanis (and the thing that she wants you to know above all else, apart from the fact that she is a classically trained musician) is that she is a lesbian. This particular facet of who she is accounts for a considerable portion of Austra's lyrical content, especially on the somewhat euphemistic opening track on Feel It Break, "Darken Her Horse":

"Hold her by the reins/the moon isn't far/Hold her by the reins/it's worth it to stay/Nothing stable, nothing patient here/Ride her darken horse/The pathway to the end/She's all alone, she's all alone/Her trust was never there."

The dramatic stories that unfold in each of Austra's songs correlate well with the histrionic stylings of Stelmanis' voice. Paired with fellow lesbian Maya Postepski's musical programming and the stoic bass playing of Dorian Wolf, Austra produces beats and sounds that are actually innovative to the electropop genre.

But simply making amazing music is not enough for Austra (which, by the way Stelmanis chose to call the band as an homage to her heritage, as that is the name for the goddess of light in Latvian mythology), they must also create sufficiently provocative imagery to go with it--this being the case for the video in support of their other single, "Beat and the Pulse."

The video, with its uncontrolled choreography, visceral tone, webbed body parts, and random smattering of nipple action, suffered the consequence of being whitewashed with a few blurs here or there on YouTube. Still, you get the basic gist of the video's message, which I think is, lesbianism is cool. Austra's proclivities for the theatrical began at the age of 10 when she joined the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus. Her talents were further fostered as she continued to study opera, learning how to play the piano and the viola along the way.

Although Stelmanis was slated to attend college in Montreal in order to continue on her path toward musical education, she opted not to go. But, to quote Paul Lester of The Guardian, "Academia's loss was goth-tinged baroque synthpop's gain." For proof, listen to Behind the Hype's favorite track off Feel It Break below.

Beat and the Pulse

 

A look at the names involved in Orbs might give you the wrong impression of what exactly the band does - the quintet falls under that unfortunate  "supergroup" classification, and the members are originally from the likes of Cradle of Filth and Between the Buried and Me. Sounds like it should be a generic metal project of some kind, right? Well surprisingly, no. Orbs' debut, Asleep Next to Science, has far more in common with the Mars Volta than say, Opeth, but really can be traced back to each style on account of the heavily progressive approach they take to the songwriting process.

Falling Asleep's musical aspect is made up of a combination of styles in progressive rock both old and new. Megaloblastic Madness takes the Mars Volta at their most maundering and gives it a bit of structure, making the near eight minute ride engrossing without sinking into a sense of self-indulgent jamming.  The bright power pop guitar flourishes of A Man of Science or the rolling piano intro of People Will Read Again put Muse's best efforts of the last four years to shame, managing to sound catchy while always building toward something, and more importantly, never feeling derivative of their influences. These two pieces also underline Orbs' highly narrative nature - the former  track tells a story of a scientist so dedicated to his craft that he fails to notice his life falling apart around him, starting with his drifting from his wife and children, while Read is more metaphorical, describing children playing innocent little war games, complete with references to night raids, bombs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Then there's the staggering fourteen minute closer, Eclipsical, which sounds like Rush's synth-loving period updated for the new millennium.

The centerpiece is the two song suite The Northwestern Bearitories. We the Animal and Kid Cancer do a great job of pairing blistering guitar work and crushing metallic sections with bright, almost bubbly ones that bring to mind Fang Island's self-description of "everyone high-fiving everyone." While Dan Briggs' guitar work is a stellar cornerstone, Orbs' secret weapon is unquestionably keyboardist Ashley Ellyllon. This project grew from cross country file swapping sessions between these two (not unlike the Postal Service's humble beginnings), and it shows - Briggs' parts are very much the foundation of each song, with Ellyllon's keys beefing them up with spacey textures and heavy piano-led melodies. There's just one thing which is guaranteed for some listeners to take issue with, and that's vocalist Adam Fisher. He has an incredibly nasal and high pitched singing voice, and it definitely takes some getting used to. However, this doesn't mean that the guy can't sing - far from it, in fact. He's startlingly capable with guttural growls (as Lost at Sea demonstrates early on), shouts, and even spoken word sections, and generally holds his own very well; impressive, considering the talent that he's fronting. While it may be grating to those not willing to lend a bit of patience, those who are will be quite rewarded, as he's very in sync with Briggs and Ellyllon, and his vocals lead the musical assault very well.

Asleep Next to Science is a fresh approach to the current incarnation of progressive rock. Orbs always feel in control of where their songs are going, and are constantly employing bright, catchy melodies to keep listeners interested in the complex song structures, and as such are able to avoid the typical prog pitfalls that many great bands have not (in some cases, have even openly embraced). If you've been looking for a great prog release, this just may be up  your alley.

Since A Silver Mt. Zion's inception as a more or less spinoff of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the group's style has evolved in as many successions as their name has been tweaked. On Kollaps Tradixionales, the sixth full-length of the group (who are going by Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra this time around), they expand upon the infusion of heavy rock from their last, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons. It's surprising how aggressive Silver Mt. Zion is able to sound here; fans who haven't been listening since 2001's Born into Trouble as Sparks Fly Upward (their album titles should serve as a testament to their flair for the dramatic) would scarcely recognize them. The merge of post-rock stylings and riff heavy hard rock are indeed intriguing, and they're even better at it here than they were the last time around.

One of the first things that really catches the ear is how straight forward Efrim Menuck's vocals have become. He doesn't suddenly sound like Johnny Cash or anything like that, but there's a certain confidence in his delivery. His voice no longer quivers with frailty, and he actually shouts at times, which results in their most bluntly politically charged record yet. On the fifteen minute opener There Is a Light, Menuck soars with the song's high points and even in the more mournful low moments, his voice still has a certain power to it, particularly in the rousing final climax around the twelve - thirteen minute mark (he says "C'mon!!" you know vocalists mean business when they say that). The real startling track here is I Built Myself a Metal Bird, which is a flat-out rocker that does not let up once in its six minutes. The song is already intense by the time we get to the middle, where Menuck is repeatedly shouting "Virtueless in the white smoke," and while the guitar drops for a bit, leaving for a lone violin over the pounding drums, the momentum only builds. It culminates in metallic riffing, an arpeggio of violins, and Menuck shouting "Dance, motherfucker" repeatedly, and then abruptly ends.

Then there is the trio of tracks titled after name variations on the album's title, which serve as a sort of three song suite. Kollapz Tradixional (Thee Dirty Old Flag) has a more familiar Silver Mt. Zion sound, recalling the first few LPs, with a somewhat desolate atmosphere produced by the ebb and flow of dingy violins and clean electric guitar, and a slow moving piano. Collapse Traditional (For Darling) is in the same vein, but serves more as an interlude, with Menuck singing sadly but lovingly over mournful violins for a minute and a half. Kollaps Tradicional (Bury 3 Dynamos) returns to the loud, clanging aggression on Metal Bird, starting out with a booming intro beneath violins growing in urgency, and building up all the way through the song's middle point. In fact, the track seems to end right in the middle of its own build-up, with the tension not really being resolved until the closing 'Piphany Rambler takes over, which, like the opener, is a sprawling, fifteen minute long epic that passes by more quickly than you might think.

While the band (whichever of the somewhat pretentious name variations you'd prefer to call them) has grown with producing intense build-ups and explosive peaks with this expanded touch of aggression, the haunting depth they so expertly gave off in the past is long gone. It's hard to say that they're gravitating toward a traditional indie rock sound, as there really aren't any heavy symphonic based indie rock bands, but armed with the bristling confidence in Menuck's outspoken vocals on Kollaps Tradixionales, that is strangely what they're starting to sound like. Even so, the music is still powerful in its own right (as it always has been), and like I said, it's not as though there's anybody else making music like this, and despite any reservations over the continuing change in their music, it still sounds great.

Even on their debut, These New Puritans had an impressive sound that seemed too complex to be performed by four people. The indie sound armed with vast, eclectic instrumentation made 2008's Beat Pyramid a particularly promising debut, but it was hardly expected that they would make such a leap forward. Their sophomore effort, Hidden, recalls the progression Silverchair made from a more guitar based rock band to a more low key, experimental one, except instead of over the course of three albums, it happened with one. The guitar fueled moments of Pyramid are gone here, with brass, woodwinds, and piano taking the forefront. Despite this radical change, These New Puritans still sound like themselves, their trademark dark melodies still in tact. Hidden shows These New Puritans as somehow both far more epic and far less pretentious than even the last few Muse records.

Lead songwriter and vocalist Jack Barnett and co. juxtapose organic and electronic sounds so well all across Hidden that you hardly even notice the first time you hear it. The atmosphere is looming and seductive, but is never overwhelming, much like The XX's self titled debut last year. Unlike it, however, Hidden seems to have the undercurrent of a noir film score, which is divided into songs that are re-cut and formatted into a more rock-friendly structure. Songs like We Want War, which makes seven minutes fly by way too quickly, displays this all too well, with cleverly placed breaks and random sound effects, and makes the song itself feel as if it's barely keeping afloat in the massive score.

One of the great things about Hidden is that with the wide array of instruments used, there are so many moments where you can't quite put your finger on what instrument you're hearing. "Is that.. a bassoon? A harpischord? ....a triangle?" George Barnett's percussion in particular is remarkable, on Attack Music he's keeping a beat while clattering on whatever the hell he wants, as warped synths, a choir, and a sharpening blade (one of the random sound effects mentioned earlier, a lot of them repeat themselves throughout the album) lead the bizarrely followable carnival-like melody. His clever drumming also backs  the choir as they take the lead in Orion's multiple sinister hooks.

Sometimes the business in the music almost resembles a sound collage; Both Fire-Power and Drum Courts - Where Corals Lie's peaks boast somehow melodic cacophonies with everything hitting its stride at once, before each element falls away one by one, and all that's left is a fading single sound before the next kicks in. The brief instrumentals, Canticle, and opener Time Xone, are pure score and serve as a breather (or in Time Xone's case, the proverbial calm before the storm) in the midst of These New Puritan's unique brand of intensity.

Hidden is a deep, atmospheric album that has quite a lot to reveal over repeated listens. It's also quick and with a good enough flow to encourage repeated listening, making the already fascinatingly sharp instrumentation even more inviting for analysis. These New Puritans have taken chamber pop to the next level, much like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Arcade Fire did before them. All in all, it's an incredibly impressive and original effort that deserves all the praise it gets.

Yes, even the "first masterpiece of the 2010s" that have been spreading like wildfire this month.

While not an unworthy album by any means, 2006's At War with the Mystics marked the first time that a Flaming Lips album did not surpass its predecessor in some way (okay, so maybe Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots didn't top the Soft Bulletin, but it's arguably in the same league). So it comes as no surprise that Embryonic, their twelfth full length studio release, is a sharp turn away from the pop inflections they implemented on the last three efforts. What is surprising, however, is just how impenetrable it is. In its first few spins, Embryonic is flat out intimidating; free formed structures, hidden melodies, and echo slathered vocals buried in noisy, relentless waves of psychedelia. A very demanding experience, but an incredibly rewarding one as well. .....yeah, I got nothin' for this one.

In fact, the only sense in which the title is fitting is that it describes how the record is constantly fleshing itself out upon repeated listens, revealing more and more of itself to the listener each time, and it takes quite a few. Embryonic is, after all, a different creature every time you hear it; you are constantly discovering new sounds. A great example is the ingenious static about two and a half minutes into The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine, which surely had more people than just me checking their cell phones.

A dark tone is set immediately with the Lips' unmistakable yelping guitars quickly being overtaken by cold, mechanical bleeps, clanging drums, and Michael Ivins' firm, buzzing bass in the opening Convinced of the Hex. The noted influences of Joy Division and Miles Davis are immediately recognizable; moodiness recalling the former's final studio album Closer is abundant, as is the spacey experimentation that Bitches Brew so famously indulged. These influences are harnessed expertly, spliced with sounds all throughout the Flaming Lips' twenty-three year catalogue, to construct an intricate and heavy atmosphere. Even on the most playful song,  I Can Be a Frog, featuring Karen O's adorable animal noise responses (which will probably only exacerbate the severe crushes so many indie boys harbor), the underlying sinister mood never quite goes away.

The drums are way up in the mix, which pays off quite well on the more uptempo tracks. Kliph Scurlock's drumming here has been compared with John Bonham numerous times, and it's easy to see why; the blasting snares and cymbals are so powerful (particularly on Aquarius Sabotage, See the Leaves, and Your Bats) that they propel these songs nearly on their own.

Another noticeable difference is in the lyrics. Starting with Clouds Taste Metallic, the band has gradually shed their deliberately bizarre shell of strange metaphors and amusing song titles (Psychiatric Exploration of the Fetus with Needles being a personal favorite) to reveal rather deep and soul searching thoughts tinged with sadness, and here they're not only more direct than ever in places, but particularly grim. Wayne Coyne's trademark quirkiness is gone from his vocal delivery, particularly in the aforementioned opener where he proclaims in an almost dead voice, "I believe in nothing, and you're convinced of the hex,"  or "Free to be evil, free to believe, free to be slaves now, to this silver machine" from the simultaneously warming and chilling Sagittarius Silver Announcement. Though they don't deviate terribly from the character of the rest of the album, Evil and If are the only tracks bearing any semblance to the group's more recent work, showing Coyne listlessly musing over the impossibility of time travel as a scant mask for regret and a dichotomy of a person's ability to treat others, respectively.

Embryonic will be a daunting challenge, particularly for more recent fans expecting more of the pop sensibility from the last three albums. Those who are willing to brave it, however, are in for a rich, rewarding record that, at least in this reviewer's mind, unseats Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion as the best psychedelic album of the year.

"We're getting older," declares Dredg vocalist Gavin Hayes on Mourning This Morning; and given the impressive progression with their new album The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion,  the line perhaps best sums it up. On their latest opus, Dredg has managed to meld the sweeping and adventurous traits of El Cielo with Catch Without Arms' accessibility. Creative growth this rewarding is always expected (or at least hoped for) from bands known to put out albums with no less than three, four, even five years in between, but is not fulfilled nearly as often. Where's the bird's top hat? Jesus Dredg... I thought you were cool.

The first thing you notice about this album is how tight the musicianship has become, particularly how well Mark Engles' guitar and Hayes' harmonizing compliment each other - not to mention that this album easily features Hayes' best vocals yet. On Ireland he switches effortlessly from gently crooning the verse and pre-chorus to passionately belting out the chorus, and his vocal hook on the single Saviour is sure to get butchered countless times in cars, showers, and wherever else a fan might be compelled to burst into song (I was never good at guessing places like this while watching Family Feud).

Immediately, from the first notes of the opener Pariah, you can tell that they've lost none of the melody displayed on their previous effort, 2005's Catch Without Arms. It took the band in an interesting direction, despite the backlash from fans over the pop influence; perhaps even more than previous releases, it answered the question "If Muse and The Mars Volta could have a baby, what would it sound like?"

After the luring piano-driven melancholy of the opener (and that fantastic chorus!), we're treated to one of the many instrumental interludes spread throughout the album, which account for a great deal of the seemingly staggering but easily digestible 18-track-listing. Drunk Slide is a highly intriguing, slightly menacing piece which, while sounding nothing like either of the songs that sandwich it (the other being Ireland), manages to ensure a seamless transition. Transition is the proverbial name of the game with this album - the songs, as different as many of them are, flow so smoothly that the hour long running time slips by with suprising quickness. The sudden despondency of the second interlude, Stamp of Origin: Pessimistic leading so unpretentiously into the dirty-blues beat driven first half of Light Switch, is truly a testament to the band's strong writing, as is the clever justaposition of an alternating, unique time signature with a poppy chorus in Gathering Pebbles. On paper, The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion should be an absolute mess; a funk laced, syncopated song like Mourning This Morning (showcasing Dino Campanella's impressive, criminally underrated drumming) sharing an album with the aggressive post-grunge of Saviour should not work. But it does, and so smoothly in fact that it sounds as though it shouldn't be any other way. That is the beauty of Dredg's new effort, and frankly it's what every progressive rock album should accomplish.

octahedron

I don’t even need to get into my love for The Mars Volta with you all again. Sure their review for the Ventura Theatre show wasn’t all gold, but it was on the fault of the mighty Volta. And while I’ve been listening to it for a few weeks now, today marks the release of their 5th studio album, Octahedron.

It’s been called their acoustic album, but “there’s electricity throughout it!” as they band has quoted. By acoustic, they mean that it is mainly a chill guitar playing the whole time, with the majority of the album taking a more structure approach than usual.

The lineup this time around remains at Omar Rodriguez- Lopez on lead axe, Cedric Bixler-Zavala with the nutty mic antics, Ikey going insane on the keyboards, Juan Alderate playing bass with that badass Mexican flag on his amp, my homeboy Thomas Pridgen kicking ass but showing restraint on the drums, Omars brother Marcel on the synth and percussion, rounded out with John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the guitar (mainly in the studio though).

ced and omar 2

Personally, I didn’t like the album at first, but after a day or two it started to grow on me. After about two weeks I figured my favorite tracks to be highlighted (or is it highlit?).

The intro track, Since We’ve Been Wrong, sets the initial tone for the claim to this album being an acoustic album. The guitar play is gorgeous, both acoustic and electric. What’s more, once Thomas kicks in towards the end with the drums, the synth joins in to lead to an epic conclusion of the first track. Mixed with sultry and strong lyrics, this song made it to the top of my favorites for this album.

Halo of Nembutals, the third track was a great song all around , but really got me hype with the drum outro at about 4:52, mixed with Ikey getting a beautiful and disorganized piano exit of his own.

Cotopaxi, one of the singles and the sixth track on the album was a big surprise to me, because this song starts and finishes hard, and obviously is well outside the bounds of acoustic traits. It’s also the perfect partner to get your heart racing, after the calm ending of With Twilight As My Guide. It also has a kick ass video taking place (I believe) south of the border. Take a look.

Finally, my favorite track that sticks to me every day for the last two weeks whilst driving in my car has been the second track, Teflon. I don’t know if it’s the smooth echoing guitars in the beginning, or the strange drum timing of the song, but its addictive. The chorus has been ringing in my head, and paints a simple but powerful picture.

Let the wheels burn,

Let the wheels burn,

Stack the tires to the neck,

With a body inside.

The simple chorus and title of the song I believe are allusions to certain political officials, as the word Teflon is usually clamped to political officials who are not taken seriously, with a tendency for their criticism to be glue less.

Overall, The Mars Volta still has that edge that I’ve loved over the years, and with this acoustic album, they re-solidify their place in the Progressive Rock game. Go out and get the album, and let it grow on you. I promise after about a week, you’ll be singing choruses too.

Until next time my friends,

~Flak

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AuthorFlak