The Noise Made By People Playlist #1

Welcome to the blog’s inaugural playlist. Using the magic of 8tracks, this seemed like a convenient way for me to write about and share the music I’ve been listening to lately. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new music (partly to be trendy and partly because I’m bored of a lot of the old music I have), but I also am always digging around in the past to find stuff that I haven’t heard before. The playlist reflects that, with an eclectic mix of songs old and new.

Listen to the playlist on 8tracks: http://8tracks.com/joshe2424/the-noise-made-by-people-playlist-1

1. Frankie Rose – “Interstellar” (2012)

Frankie Rose made a name for herself playing the type of lo-fi noisy pop that has been extremely popular the last few years as a member of Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and finally as a frontwoman with a backing band in Frankie Rose and the Outs. This year she released her first album under her solo name, Interstellar, where she ditches that aesthetic in favor of glossy, chillwave style synth pop. The new Frankie Rose is slicker, but on the title and lead track she shows she hasn’t completely changed, as the song’s first minute of plaintive synths explodes into a loud, sugary chorus.

2. Flown – “Almost Human” (2012)

Meanwhile, Frankie’s former backing band, The Outs, has changed their style in a much more extreme way, playing tunes inspired by classic heavy metal like Black Sabbath with some riot grrrl undertones. “Almost Human” (which you can download at their bandcamp page) is only the second song they’ve released, but already shows them settling into a comfortable groove with an immediate thunderous guitar riff and some excellent vocal harmonies. This band is playing a style I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time and I’m hoping to hear a lot more from them in the future.

3. The Fall – “The Classical” (1982)

The lead track from The Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour, “The Classical” is pretty much a perfect rock song. The first thing that jumps out is the incredible rhythm the song has thanks to a great bass line played by Steve Hanley and the band’s two-drum set-up on the song. Then comes frontman Mark E. Smith and his free-form, misanthropic lyrics that tear down pop culture and society in hilariously quotable fashion, giving the song that crucial rock element of anger that I always think fuels a band to greater heights. With 29 studio albums and a ton of singles, The Fall have one of the most immense discographies of any band, so given how much I love this song I have a feeling they’ll be keeping me busy for awhile.

4. Julia Holter – “Für Felix” (2012)

Julia Holter’s latest album Ekstasis is full of well-crafted songs that aren’t quite ambient but aren’t quite folk or pop either. “Für Felix”, written for her dog on his last days, starts with some strings but she gradually adds on the instrumentation as the song grows before settling into a lovely 90 second instrumental outro.

5. Nite Jewel – “In the Dark” (2012)

Ramona Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel, generally lives up to her artist name, playing r&b influenced synth-pop that’s suitable for late night listening. Ballad “In the Dark” is one of the subtlest moments on the album, mostly showcasing Gonzalez’s vocals above simple synths and a memorable chorus. This isn’t the kind of flashy song that typically will show up on year-end best of lists, but it’s pretty much perfectly executed and has been stuck in my head for a few days now.

6. Ponytail – “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)” (2008)

I’ve recently gotten into Baltimore art-rockers Ponytail, who just broke up last year. Their 2008 album Ice Cream Spiritual is a great blast of exhilarating rock with an artsy twist that comes from lead singer Molly Siegel, whose abstract vocalizing will either fascinate you or drive you insane. “Celebrate the Body Electric” starts with a pulsating, simple guitar riff which eventually gives way to seven minutes of noisy, chaotic fun thanks to the unique combination of Dustin Wong’s inventive guitar playing and Siegel’s ADHD vocals. I’m guessing a lot of people will skip this one, but I find this band really exciting and fun.

7. Chairlift – “Met Before” (2012)

I mentioned in a previous post how catchy some of the song’s on Chairlift’s latest album Something are. While some of the songs on the album were bizarre and quirky, “Met Before” is more straight forward, but as a result is also the album’s most anthemic moment thanks to its sparking synths and a nice vocal turn from singer Carolyn Polachek.

8. Throwing Muses – “Red Shoes” (1991)

Throwing Muses are one of the most underrated bands of all time — an influential, ambitious group that is one of the few bands that can stake a claim to being truly original. I’ve been very into them lately, especially their 1991 album The Real Ramona that is the best combination of singer Kristin Hersch’s oddball songwriting and band member Tanya Donnelly’s pop craft that she would later showcase as the frontwoman for Belly. “Red Shoes” has Herch’s lyrics which are always hard to pin down, but is also accessible thanks to a bright guitar part and bass line along with some of Donnelly’s patented harmonies.

9. Mind Spiders – “Wait For Us” (2012)

Texas punks Mind Spiders play loud, no-frills garage rock with extra percussion thanks to a pair of drummers. “Wait for Us” is simple and straightforward, but that’s refreshing these days, and the the band piles on the noise and feedback in the second half of the song as it builds into a roaring climax.

10. Cate Le Bon – “The Man I Wanted” (2012)

“The Man I Wanted” is the closest Cate Le Bon comes to directly channeling Nico, one of her primary influences. The song has a slow tempo and its instrumentation isn’t as flashy as most moments on Le Bon’s most recent album Cyrk, but it has poignant lyrics and what I think is her best vocal performance on the album (I really enjoy the way she pronounces certain words with her accent).

11. John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey – “Civil War Correspondent” (1996)

I’m pretty much always listening to some PJ Harvey, due to the depth, variety, and consistent greatness of her catalogue. Lately I’ve finally gotten into Dance Hall With Louse Point, her underrated 1996 collaboration with John Parish. At the time the album was mostly dismissed, largely because PJ was coming off an incredible run of albums and people had little interest in what was perceived as an artsy side project for the singer. However, now I think it stands up with some of her best work. “Civil War Correspondent” starts with a noisy guitar riff but then fades into a more atmospheric song that is carried by PJ’s always incredible vocals.

12. Christian Mistress – “Black to Gold” (2012)

For those wanting a burst of rock, Christian Mistress bring it in full force with a sound indebted largely to classic metal bands like Iron Maiden. Frontwoman Christine Davis brings the right amount of pizzazz to the band and really carries them on “Black to Gold,” which has crushing metal riffs and drumming but is also accessible and borderline pop in its structure.

13. Team Dresch – “She’s Amazing” (1995)

“She’s Amazing” is the kind of song I’m talking about whenever I discuss how female bands can make songs with a certain amount of power that other bands can’t. Sung about a positive female media role model who “many people will try to destroy”, this song is extremely uplifting and feels important to the band and listener on a whole different level from most music.  It’s one of several great songs on Team Dresch’s lost punk classic Personal Best, which I’ve been listening to a lot the last month or so.

14. Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents” (2012)

Sharon Van Etten has sort of an ordinary charm to her that I think makes her music more authentic and real as a result. “Serpents” is the most straight-forward rock song on her latest album Tramp, and it comes from the always welcome tradition of trashing a former abusive boyfriend.

15. Grimes – “Be a Body” (2012)

Claire Boucher’s Visions is so far the best pop album of the year, and in a just universe where actual craft was rewarded instead of image and appealing to the masses it would certainly be tearing up the pop charts. “Be a Body” is one of her many inventive pop songs on the album, and it’s mostly due to Boucher and her malleable voice, which can go from sounding dark and mysterious to high and girly, usually in the span of the same song.

16. The Breeders – “Safari” (1992)

I had usually ignored EPs by bands for some reason, so I’m just now getting into The Breeders’ Safari EP. For fans of the band, it’s notable for being the only release by them that included both Tanya Donnelly (making her second appearance on this playlist) and Kelley Deal. That combination pays dividends, especially on the title track which is one of their most psychedelic, angular tracks, with noisy dissonant guitar, minimal lyrics, but still some pop in there thanks to Kim Deal’s sweet voice.

Thanks for listening/reading and I hope to make this a recurring thing in the future!

The Men: “Open Your Heart” (or: how derivative is too derivative?)

For fans of rock music, Brooklyn foursome The Men’s new album Open Your Heart has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year. The band plays the kind of no-frills straight up rock that I’ve been complaining about not hearing in seemingly every post on this blog, with lots of noise and little in the way of pretension or cutesiness. With the album riding a wave of strong reviews and hype, I listened to it hoping to finally be blown away and to hear the type of rock music that I’ve been craving for so long.

In a way, Open Your Heart does deliver that, as nobody can complain that the band’s sound isn’t noisy or energetic enough. Yet, I hate this album, in the way that I only can when something infringes on what I believe are the basic tenets of great rock music and gets rewarded for it anyways.

The problem with The Men is that everything they do is completely derivative. Open Your Heart is being praised for being a diverse album with songs of many different genres, but in reality it’s more like songs of many different bands — namely more innovative, talented bands that The Men shamelessly pilfer in creating this album. On the title track they rip off The Replacements and especially the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love.” On “Ex-Dreams” they rip off Sonic Youth. On “Turn it Around” they rip off The Buzzcocks again. On “Presence” they rip off Spacemen 3. Literally every song on this album is just a copy of a better song by a better band.

In this way, The Men remind me a lot of Yuck, another band that succeeded last year by borrowing a lot of sounds from the past. However, I like Yuck because they put their own original spin on the bands they’re influenced by. They may have been guilty of sounding like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, but they still had an identifiable aesthetic that was their own thanks to their youthful lyrics and enthusiasm. More importantly, Yuck were also able to write good, melodic songs, which allowed them to carve out their own identity as well.

The Men don’t do any of that, and that is what I find lacking most in Open Your Heart. It isn’t just that “Ex-Dreams” borrows from Sonic Youth, it’s that it sounds exactly like Sonic Youth, right down to replicating Thurston Moore’s semi-spoken vocal style, and brings nothing else to the table besides that. It goes beyond merely being influenced by Sonic Youth — it completely misappropriates their aesthetic.

In this sense, The Men’s unremarkable band name is oddly fitting. On Open Your Heart, they sound completely anonymous. They’re so focused on emulating other bands that they never form their own identity. The music is loud and often fast-paced in the way that we associate with rock music, but it’s completely devoid of another crucial rock ingredient, which is personality. It doesn’t sound like the work of four musicians who have a purpose in what they’re doing; it sounds like the work of ciphers who have filtered through a list of influences and are now transmitting them in a less interesting way.

I imagine this stuff doesn’t matter for most people. They’ll enjoy Open Your Heart because they like Sonic Youth or the Buzzcocks and want to hear more music that sounds like them. Personally, few things bother me more than the kind of music on Open Your Heart, the kind that presents itself as exciting and daring when in reality it’s just a shallow retread of better music that has already been made. It makes me feel even more angry when bands like this get critical acclaim and make money while truly original, interesting bands go unnoticed. Whether they intended it or not, The Men are basically profiting on the love people have for bands like Sonic Youth, The Buzzcocks, and The Replacements, and something about that makes me feel a bit dirty.

In 2012, it’s hard for any band to be completely original, but there is a way to have clear influences in your sound without completely copying someone else. On Open Your Heart, The Men are content to merely replicate bands they like instead of trying to sound like themselves, and the result is an unoriginal album that sounds more like the set of a cover band than one that writes their own music. I’d rather just listen to some songs by previous great rock bands on shuffle than hear this band’s mediocre take on them.

Deep Thoughts: Should Today’s Music Be Angrier?

We live in tumultuous times. The economy is in the crapper. Jobs are really hard to find. There’s also all the usual stuff, like politicians being politicians, anti-intellectualism running rampant, and other general persistent awfulness like the always reliable stupidity of people. If you’re in a band, you probably have even more to complain about: people are stealing your music via file sharing sites, there’s a massive amount of competition, and even if you break out of the local scene, chances are you’re much less successful than Nickelback and BrokenCYDE.

That’s why I find it odd that if you were to send someone from the future a bunch of indie music from the last year or two, and have them judge our time period based solely on that music, chances are they would think everything was super. They would hear a lot of nice synth sounds, some fluffy indie pop, and whatever Bon Iver is gargling about. They would detect very little of the unrest and uncertainty that I think is defining life among my age group in 2012.

In the past it seems like a good chunk of music could function as a historical record. When I think of the 60’s, I think of a lot of protest music along with all the hippie peace/love messages that appeared in more mainstream pop. I associate the late 70’s very strongly with the punk movement. When I think 90’s, I usually think of Nirvana, who were heralded as speaking for their generation in a unique way.

The thing I think all of these bands or movements have in common is that there was a purpose to the music. It needed to exist and wasn’t disposable. In each case, it was used to articulate something that wasn’t quite being articulated anywhere else, and I think that’s what caused each example to strike a nerve with the general population. The music is still remembered and listened to today because something about it resonated deeply with people beyond a surface level — it wasn’t just “music”, it was almost more like a way of life for the listeners.

When I look at indie music today, it’s hard to find any artist with a similar effect on its audience. Perhaps the band that has the most unified support is Arcade Fire, who have released three highly acclaimed albums now and are beginning to achieve some mainstream success to go with it.  But the problem with Arcade Fire for me is one that plagues most of the other highly acclaimed bands of the last decade or so: there’s no edge to their music, no real purpose behind anything they do other than just making stuff that sounds good. If I had never heard an Arcade Fire song, my life would basically be the exact same as it is now.

The emotion that I think Arcade Fire and so many of the other acclaimed recent bands (Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, you name it) are missing is anger. For me at least, anger is one of the most unifying human emotions there is. When I love the same thing as someone, that’s cool, but I feel a true connection to someone when we both really hate something, especially if it’s something that most other people like. And I think most music that has stood the test of time has had that pissed-off element to it: a lot of 60’s music, early punk and Nirvana were rooted in anger at the musical (and political) status quo. The reason that they’ve all stood the test of time is that they stood for something; they voiced a certain displeasure at the way things were and frustrated people agreed with them.

One of my all-time favorite songs is “Entertain” by Sleater-Kinney, off their 2005 album The Woods. The reason I love it so much (beyond the awesome drumming) is that it’s just so angry. Carrie Brownstein’s manic vocal delivery and lyrics sell the song, which completely rips apart the backwards-looking indie scenesters of the day:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new with 1972
Where is the fuck you?
Where’s the black and blue

“Entertain” admittedly goes after rather low-hanging fruit, but I don’t care because it’s so dead-on in its criticism of many bands of that time and this time. It made me think “THANK YOU” that someone finally said what I had been wanting to see said for so long. And since then, “Entertain” has sort of become my musical M.O.

A lot of my favorite rock music has that element of anger in it somewhere: Sleater-Kinney, early PJ Harvey, Helium, Bikini Kill (or any other riot grrrl band), Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Big Black, The Fall, etc. It’s something that I think the greatest rock music has, and conspicuously none of these bands have been active in the last five years (except for PJ Harvey, who did make a fairly angry, indignant album with Let England Shake last year).

At some point, I’m confident that this kind of great rock music will come back, because these things tend to go in cycles. So far this year, there’s been a slight resurgence thanks to Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory, which I didn’t think was an amazing album but it at least attempted to shake up the scene a little bit. It gave me some hope that this phenomenon is being seen by people who can actually play music and want things to be different. Right now, I think indie rock needs a savior, a truly great rock band that can save me from artsy pop, toothless faux-rock, and beardy folk.

Tiger Trap

There’s few words in the English vernacular that I hate more than “twee.” If you’re not familiar, according to the top result on Urban Dictionary, twee means “something that is sweet, almost to the point of being sickeningly so.” In music, it’s been used to describe fey, cutesy pop bands that play non-threatening, inoffensive music for lame sweater-wearing indie kids to sip tea to. I have a hard time explaining my hatred for the word, but something about the way it sounds and the people it’s used to describe drives me nuts.

Of course, this is all leading into me liking one of the bands that is synonymous with twee pop — the short-lived all-female foursome Tiger Trap, who were on the K Records label that housed most of the top twee bands. Named for a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, the group played energetic, sugary sweet noise-pop songs that are unabashedly girly, almost always about liking boys and sung in an almost child-like way by frontwoman Rose Melberg.  They only were in existence for about a year, with most of their songs compiled on the 1993 release Tiger Trap.

Tiger Trap has made me think a lot over the past few months, because they’re quite different from music I typically like and am trumpeting on the blog. I rarely enjoy pure pop and I like music to have an element of danger or risk to it — yet I found myself loving Tiger Trap, who make music that is about as threatening as a kitten. They were somehow able to transcend all of my twee hate and pop music preconceptions.

Eventually, I came to a realization: A band can take a lot of risks and actually be quite bold without necessarily appearing that way on the surface. Tiger Trap was released in 1993, which I consider an incredibly strong year for rock music, particularly if it involved women trying to balance the male-dominated field: PJ Harvey released one of my favorite rock albums ever with Rid of Me, the Breeders released Last Splash, Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville. All the while, Riot Grrrl was beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness. Yet, in that same year, Tiger Trap released this collection of disarmingly innocent pop songs.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, despite how innocuous they seem on the surface, Tiger Trap were a pretty adventurous, gutsy band. They were, dare I say it, punk. There’s something very rebellious to me about them releasing such a non-rebellious collection of songs at perhaps the peak of feminist politics in rock music. In its own way, it’s a statement that they could make whatever music they want, regardless of what the current trend was.

All that helps give Tiger Trap a timeless, nostalgic feel that might be why it evokes more meaning to me than typical pop music. It doesn’t seem attached to specific eras of music and has aged superbly as a result. It makes me think of being a kid on the playground, of summer days playing outside, and a bunch of other things that I don’t really experience anymore and are rarely communicated in music. While listening to them, I can practically hear the ice cream truck come jingling by and remember my excitement as I ran out to buy a bomb pop without putting my shoes on.

The songs are also obviously a big part of Tiger Trap’s charm. It’s brief, with 12 songs clocking in at a scant 30 minutes, but I consider Tiger Trap to be a classic guitar pop album, one that can be seen as a direct influence on indie bands of today like Best Coast that traffic in similarly sunny, carefree territory. Almost every song has a memorable guitar riff and hook, which combined with the child-like lyrics and vocals make the band impossible to resist, even for a malcontent, soulless bastard like myself. Tiger Trap has the power to turn even the most jaded pop-music skeptic into a believer.

January Music Round-Up

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is Really Cool

Sometimes I can’t really describe what exactly makes a band awesome, except that it’s instinctively “cool.” That’s the case for the YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a Canadian group fronted by drummer Alaska B and signer Ruby Kato Attwood that combines many disparate elements to create music that seems to be an attempt to redefine exactly what “music” is.

On their bandcamp page, where you can stream or buy their debut album YT//ST, they describe themselves as a “psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.” It’s a more apt description than anything I could come up with. One thing is basically guaranteed: This band is unlike anything you’ve heard before. And in 2012, that’s quite an accomplishment.

The fact that I had never heard anything quite like the band is what really blew me away, and their 7-song, 30-minute album has become probably my favorite of the last couple of months. After seeing the description I expected them to fall into a trap of sounding like a different band on every song, but they’re able to take all of those influences and turn it into something that is extremely cohesive.  I never get the sense that the band is experimenting with a genre or that their influences are fighting to be heard; they just naturally sound like a band that is dabbling in several different genres, often in the space of a single song. Most of the tracks also bleed into each other, which makes YT//ST seem more like one 30 minute piece of music rather than an album in a traditional sense.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN seems almost like a band from a future where no music genres or labels exist. As someone who has always been a bit annoyed with how we as listeners feel the need to pigeonhole bands into certain segments of music, the way they completely ignore such meaningless labels is refreshing.

Of course, none of this would matter if the songs weren’t good. Their debut starts with the minute-long “Raccoon Song,” a ritualistic chant that serves as prelude to the album and bleeds into the second track “Queens,” which is probably the closest the album comes to a pop single, with a soaring melody followed by a proggy instrumental section in the center.

The delicate folk song “Oak of Guernica” follows, after which the band kicks it into high gear with the two part “Reverse Crystal // Murder of a Spider” which resembles a 7-minute progressive rock jam with almost operatic vocals. The album’s other poppiest moment, “Hoshi Neko” comes next, and its propulsive beat reminds me a bit of Stereolab if they were suddenly imbued with pan-asian sensibilities.

The album closes with a pair of primarily instrumental tracks, “A Star Over Pureland” and “Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees.” They’re probably the two heaviest songs on the album, drifting more into metal and noise while still retaining the band’s “Noh-Wave” ideas.

While their debut album is relatively brief, it’s full of twists and turns and journeys into the unexpected. Sort of like a tiny musical rollercoaster. I haven’t really analyzed the lyrics at all (a lot of them are in Japanese), but just the pure sound and the cryptic nature of the album has grabbed me and made me want to listen to it over and over. In addition to the music, the band also puts on theatrical, operatic live shows, complete with costumes and special effects.

It’s bands like this that really make me excited about music. With so many bands looking back to find their sound, YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN only looks forward, refusing to fall into genre trappings and confounding expectations at every turn. Hopefully “YT//ST” is just the tip of the iceberg, because I think this band has tons of potential (I’m hoping for an epic 75 minute album and corresponding live performance eventually).

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.