Cloudkicker – Let Yourself Be Huge [2011]

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Let Yourself Be Huge was a big step for Cloudkicker when it was first released in 2011. Up to that point, Ben Sharp had built his audience with his own brand of djent-tinged progressive metal, relying on heavy guitars, technical leads, and shifting time signatures to create his sound. However, after Beacons, he was ready to step outside of his comfort zone, and this EP is the result of that.

Entirely devoid of anything that might be deemed “heavy”, Let Yourself Be Huge is largely built around acoustic and clean guitars, light drum work, and moodiness. While the playing still sounds distinctly like Cloudkicker, the timbre is different, and the overall tone of the project feels like it’s the soundtrack to the aftermath of some huge disaster (which is fitting – his previous release, Beacons, took its song titles from the last sentence of various aircrash black box recordings). It’s peaceful yet droning, melancholy but not downtrodden, and it doesn’t feel the need to suddenly and dramatically shift gears like his prior work. In fact, much of the material here is pared down relentlessly, which few tracks bothering to even crack the two minute mark. Instead of creating full songs, the music here instead sounds like little vignettes, painting small little evocative pictures instead of grandiose statements. And despite the EP’s short length, the mood created by it is so powerful and so consistent that it almost feels like a complete album anyway. Let Yourself Be Huge may be short, but it’s a beautiful piece of music, and one of the best collections of music Ben Sharp has put together to date.

As always, you can download Cloudkicker’s music for free over at cloudkickermusic.com.

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress [2015]

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor are perhaps one of the most recognizable bands in their genre, and for good reason. Since the 1997 release of their first album, F# A# Infinity, they’ve solidified themselves as one of the most unique and evocative post rock bands in the world. And even after a lengthy eight year break up, they came roaring back with 2012’s excellent Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend!, packing in all the dense sonic fury and exciting dynamics that made their name. The only caveat to that album was that it consisted entirely of material from before their breakup, so it was up in the air whether or not Godspeed still had the power to move us with their music in the present day.

Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress is Godspeed’s first album of all-new material since their reunion, featuring 4 tracks that comprise the “Behemoth” track they’ve been playing and honing on tour the past couple of years. And all that touring has left Godspeed with the shortest, most pared down release of their career (excluding the Zero Kanada EP) – Asunder clocks in at about 40 minutes and 4 tracks. Right out of the gate, opener “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” crashes in with a wall of unison guitar riffing courtesy of guitarists Mike Moya and Manuel Menuck, and a bleating violin motif that begins building the tension early. There’s a hint of doom metal to the guitars here, sludging along with all the drama and portent that the genre can bring at its best. Eventually, those guitars give way into a wall of noise and feedback, giving breathing room to the trilling violins that carry the track off much, much more gently than it came in. “Peasantry” is a sort of reversal of the usual Godspeed trope: instead of gradually building up into a cathartic climax, it instead works its way in the other direction, slowly falling apart into gentle violin work and slide guitars. And from there, it lets go further, inconspicuously sliding into the drone-based middle section of the album.

“Lambs’ Breath” is a drone track that’s based around squalling guitar feedback, at times resembling something like a whale’s song, or even a giant, groaning metal machine. It’s much darker than it’s successor, “Asunder, Sweet”, which acts as a sort of long intro to the album’s second main piece. Unlike Allelujah, which spread out its two drone tracks evenly after each main piece, Asunder makes the bold choice of putting them back to back. At first, these tracks feel like they go on for a bit longer than they should, killing the momentum and mood that “Peasantry” had established. But right as they start to wear out their welcome, “Asunder, Sweet” unassumingly ends and segues into the final track.

There’s a reason for the long layover between the first and second main pieces on Asunder. “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” is a track that is intense even by Godspeed’s standards, rarely dipping into any sort of lull once it takes off (the only break being the fire alarm-esque squalls around the 7 minute mark). The first few minutes of the track revert to the familiar Godspeed formula, building up from the drone that came before it into lumbering distorted bass and harmonized violins, eventually exploding into an evocative climax replete with dramatic guitar chords and orchestration. It’s the prettiest, most uplifting Godspeed has sounded since their reunion, yet retains all of the urgency that makes their music so dramatic (an effect that is heightened by the drone tracks that precede it).

So, in the end, is Godspeed You! Black Emperor capable of writing moving, emotional music that’s up to par with their pre-break up discography? The answer is ‘absolutely’. Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress proves it by delivering all of Godspeed’s classic elements with vigor and purpose, without verging on self-parody or feeling flat and uninspired like so many other reunited bands trying to recapture the old magic. Asunder moves exactly like the one piece movement it originally was live, transitioning seamlessly from one track to the next, while using each portion of itself to heighten the drama and emotion of the others. It’s another masterful work from a band that’s made a career out of being masters, further cementing their legacy as one of the best instrumental bands of all time.

Key Tracks: Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’, Piss Crowns Are Trebled

CHON – Grow [2015]

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CHON have been instrumental music’s best kept secret for a few years now. They’ve been seen on high profile tours with bands like Animals as Leaders and Circa Survive, but up until now, their actual discography has consisted solely of two short EPs and a handful of bedroom-quality demos. Grow is the band’s first full-length release, made possible by their recent signing with Sumerian Records.

In CHON’s early days, it was fairly easy to write them off as an instrumental rip off of The Fall of Troy, heavily borrowing from their style and only making it their own with the major-key spin they placed on it. But they’ve come a long way since then, and Grow shows the band truly coming into their own. Here CHON demonstrates their ear for melody and progression, no longer keeping to the frenetic riffing that characterized their earlier work. It’s a markedly different sound, one which resides mostly on the lower side of the tempo spectrum, and is replete with clean guitars and tasteful drumming. The result is music that is ridiculously sunny and upbeat, gentle yet energetic, and with enough technicality to even keep the theory nerds entertained. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s packed to the gills with rote extended range riffing and guitar work that’s complex only for the sake of being complex. CHON knows when to flash their skills and when to take a step back and let simpler tricks do the work, and that extends to another section of this album: vocals. While by no means ditching their status as an instrumental band, they’ve expanded their repertoire to include some sung sections, too (provided by bassist Drew Pelisek on “Can’t Wait” and “Echo“). And despite these songs being surrounded by instrumental tracks, they don’t stand out like a sore thumb – Pelisek’s voice is smooth and mellow, blending with and complimenting the music in a way that feels like it has belonged there all along. However, there are a few snags on CHON’s debut record. Though they’re excellent musicians and have a knack for melody, their songwriting doesn’t feel quite there yet. Songs like “Story” and “Perfect Pillow” are immediate and memorable, yet others like “Suda” and “Moon” don’t seem to go anywhere, feeling more like an improvisation over a backing track than a unique song. Luckily, the album’s short length (just a hair over 34 minutes) means that despite this flaw, there isn’t really enough time for it to stagnate. The best tracks still have room to breathe without having to fight for attention against a glut of other tracks, and CHON’s music is so pleasant that even in its duller moments, it’s hard to dislike. But more than anything, it must be remembered that Grow is the debut work of an incredibly young, incredibly talented group of musicians. CHON has a unique, sunny sound that’s uncommon in the world of instrumental guitar music right now, and the technical chops to earn their place in it. Grow might not be an absolutely perfect album, but it’s the proof of concept for a band with tons of potential.

Key Tracks: Story, Splash, Perfect Pillow, Echo

Death Grips – Fashion Week (2015)

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Death Grips broke up last July. Before they did, they promised that the second half of their double album, The Powers That B, would be out before the end of the year. They released a single and video from it in December, but since then it’s been pure radio silence, even after the New Year quietly rolled around. So it was a shock last week when the group suddenly uploaded these tracks to their Youtube channel, named with nothing but “Runway” and a letter, and a photo of past collaborator Sua Yoo. This obviously wasn’t Jenny Death, but something else entirely.

As it turns out, Fashion Week is a ‘soundtrack’ to a movie that doesn’t quite seem to exist yet, or at least that’s how it’s billed on the band’s site. Back in 2013 Zach Hill had mentioned that he was working on a movie, and that Death Grips would be providing the soundtrack, but it had not been mentioned again since. And that ‘soundtrack’ distinction turns out to be an important one, because this release is markedly different than the rest of their work.

Fashion Week is an all instrumental album, featuring hide nor hair of lead bellower Stefan Burnett (unless he involved himself with the production work, which we’ll probably never know). Otherwise, this affair is strictly on the shoulders of Zach Hill and Andy Morin, giving them a chance to shine outside of the confines of the normal Grips set up. And, removed from Stefan’s cryptic, intimidating lyrics and vocals, Fashion Week ends up as the brightest, most accessible sounding slab of music in the band’s catalog. Of course, there’s still songs that feature heavily distorted bass (the brutal drop of Runway H, the grind of Runway E1), creepy synth lines (Runway W), and the myriad strange sounds they’ve experimented with since Government Plates. But they’ve also replaced some of the raw experimentalism and progressive elements with straight forward verse-chorus-verse arrangements, bright leads, and a varied instrumental palate (including reintroducing guitars for the first time since Exmilitary on Runway H2, and the healthy helping of live drums on several tracks, which is a very welcome addition).

And then there’s the strains of influence all over this thing: from the Com Truise-esque synths on Runway Y, the Aphex Twin inspired vocal samples on Runway D, and the vague Fuck Buttons vibe that underpins the majority of the album, Death Grips dip their hands in many pots. This is Death Grips at their most listenable, and simultaneously experimental, allowing them to take their sounds in directions the dark, paranoid, introspective material prior to doesn’t usually permit. And god, is it a breath of fresh air – Death Grips’ music can be emotionally taxing and sonically challenging at the best of times, and as rewarding as that is, Fashion Week has finally given us the Death Grips album that you can simply listen to.

If Fashion Week has any glaring flaws, besides however you may feel about the lack of Stefan’s vocals, it might be in its repetition. Because of that verse-chorus-verse structure, many of the songs don’t evolve or change much for their duration, but that may very well be intentional given its nature as a soundtrack. Because of this, though, some of the songs simply exist, like the well-intentioned but flat Runway W, or Runway E3 and Runway N3, which are too short to even get a chance to repeat their motifs and leave an impression (the former of which is barely more than a bass line and a skeletal drum loop, the latter of which ends the album incredibly abruptly).

Fashion Week feels like a work completely removed from the rest of the band’s discography, and should be listened to and judged with a sharp mental underline under the word ‘soundtrack’. This is something entirely different, outside of the band’s usual sound and progression, and it’s a great diversion until the release of Jenny Death. Its willingness to push into more accessible, upbeat, and beat-oriented territory makes it stand out among the rest of their work, and provides a Death Grips listening experience that is much more immediate and fun than any of their work since The Money Store. And while that’s not what the band is usually about, it makes for a refreshing listen and gives even more variety to an already varied catalog, and its ‘soundtrack’ label makes it easy to file as an aside rather than a full statement.

And yes, those track titles really do spell out “J E N N Y D E A T H W H E N”.

You can download the album for free here, on their site.

KEY TRACKS: Runway J, Runway H1, Runway E1, Runway H2