Roundtable Review: Collapse Under the Empire – Sacrifice & Isolation

Postrockstar is no stranger to Collapse Under the Empire and you probably shouldn’t be either. The post-rock powerhouse duo from Germany have released either an album or EP in each year dating back to 2009 show no signs of letting up. ‘Sacrifice & Isolation’ is their fifth studio album an is the follow up to  2011’s ‘Shoulders & Giants’ as  a two-part conceptual series. We’ve gone ahead and taken the album to task in this month’s roundtable to see if it could stand up to C.U.T.E’s track record of quality.

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With each new installment from Collapse Under The Empire we see these small little changes that have led us to ‘Sacrifice & Isolation’. The raw potential C.U.T.E always possessed has slowly and precisely been smelted into a finely crafted musical object. The production values and mixing process have steadily increased, the way they write songs ever so slightly refined to perfection. The soundscapes they create have gone from these small glimpses of environments into fully fleshed out musical realms of bleakness meets glimmer of hope. Make no mistake about it, this is the new high watermark for C.U.T.E. Like every album that has come before it, their latest work is so blatantly obvious their best work.

‘Sacrifice & Isolation’ is their fourth album and follow up to 2011’s ‘Shoulder & Giants’ as a conceptual effort. Sure there was a couple releases in between those albums, but pay no attention to them. Well, pay lots of attention to them, but right now we’re focusing on the culmination of a three-year musical journey for C.U.T.E. This album is massive in-depth and sound staging, but you probably already knew that if you were at all familiar with their work (and at this point you better be). ‘Massif’ shines as a Massif high point to the album (see what I did there?) while tracks like the title tracks as well as ‘A Broken Silence’ are just more C.U.T.E classics that fall in line with what I’ve come to love and expect from the band.

The deep synths playing ever so lovingly with distant swirling crescendos, the beats that utilize both live and electronic drives, the bleak overtones, the shimmering moments of desperation, the overbearing distress, They’re all here. It might all be a bit formulamatic at times, but like your favorite 1 AM comfort food from Dennys, you keep coming back for more because it just feels so damn right. And while I certainly don’t need carbs or deserts in my life anymore, the idea of being a post-rock enthusiast and not having Collapse Under the Empire in regular rotation is simply unfathomable. Another C.U.T.E classic, a must listen of 2014 and without question an album that earns a well deserved spot on my year end lists. – James

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https://i0.wp.com/i.imgur.com/ONcH7LM.jpgJames may like this album but, unlike him, I didn’t follow this band since their beginnings. I have a hard time getting into this primarily because of the thing James likes the most – The synth. It felt like some sort of 90’s movie trailer on the opening track  and it just never goes away. Every time I expect the band to go all-out-heavy-crescendo-whatever, it suddenly loses its thrill when the synth can’t keep up with the grunge. The keyboard can’t sound very gloomy when it’s practically identical to Van Halen’s ‘Jump’. I may be exaggerating, but that accursed keyboard is the only thing holding me back from loving this album as a brilliant, dark, and brooding piece of post-rock.

As for the rest of it, everything sounds like it’s recorded professionally, and I certainly love their sense of structure and composition. I was falling in love with the intro for ‘Lost’ with its almost industrial-sounding drums. The bassist is no slouch, no matter what’s going on. And the way they build up is well done, even if I don’t care for it. If they went in a more 65daysofstatic sort of direction, or even a sleepmakeswaves direction, I’d be much more content with this, but it has too little electronica for me to feel like it’s supposed to be there. I picture in my head the discomfort the rest of the band members go through when they try to tell the keyboardist that he doesn’t quite fit. So they just let him do his own thing, and essentially play on top of him. – Foofer

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This review comes from somebody who is a new listener to Collapse Under The Empire. By new I actually mean I’ve never really given them the time of day. Every track I have heard has been good, but none have pushed me to go out and listen to this band. So I somewhat reluctantly sat down to give their newest offering, Sacrifice & Isolation a spin.

Sacrifice opens the album and basically delivers what should be a favourite track. The melodies are wonderful; the EDM style build-ups are really well executed, and managing to maintain interest around the same motif for 8 minutes is pretty impressive. However it has not really done anything for me. I find it lifeless, somehow dull. Isolation, if anything, is worse. A meandering bore-athon that has basically caused me to switch off to the rest of the album on more than one occasion. The album proceeds in much the same way. Massif has a promising intro, but fits back into the mold of the previous track. Lost does the same, find a motif, play around with it for a bit with the same tired dynamics and techniques, finish the track.

I love this sort of music because it makes me feel something, unfortunately this doesn’t stir my emotions really. I think the production feels too clinical and robotic. It does not feel like there are two human beings behind it and that is a big turn off for me. Then we have track 5, Awakening. Holy shit! It has taken nearly half the album but here is something that makes me sit up and take interest. Parts rise and fall, tension mounts and then disappears without resolution, you are kept on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next. Shame it just had to end, I really wanted it to go on and on.

From here on the album definitely picks up. The main reason is that there is an improvement in the dynamics that takes away from the clinical feeling of the production. Check out the album highlight, Stairs to the Redemption. The drumming and heavy guitar chords are a welcome relief to what has come before. The subdued track that follows, What The Heart Craves For, has some delay heavy noise elements that I really like. The Path is another great track that rises and falls with uplifting movements, as you would expect and possible tire of from myriad post-rock bands. In this context it is incredibly welcome.

I am going to make a grand assumption that this is probably not their greatest work and if a massive fan of their work disagrees then I think that generally C.U.T.E. are not for me. There are some really great tracks on the album though; it is a shame I had to trawl through the first half to find them.  Must listen: Stairs to the Redemption, The Path   – TenaciousListening

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Within the genre (and sub-genres) of post-rock, there aren’t really a lot of standout bands. Now, I don’t mean that as a way to say there aren’t many good bands, because obviously there are tons. What I mean is that in a musical style that’s defined in great part by usage of instruments only, it’s very hard to set yourself apart. There are countless numbers of bands doing the whole “cinematic” sound, and I like a great deal of them. Problem is, a lot of them sound very, very similar (well, maybe it’s not a problem, but you know what I mean). There’s a small handful of bands that, in my opinion, are doing something different, something that makes them stand out a little. That, to me, is the mark of a really great band. Explosions in the Sky does it, Godspeed You! Black Emperor & Sigur Ros do it, and if you ask me, Collapse Under the Empire does it.

Jumping back to the turntable.fm days, there were times where there wasn’t a lot of chatting going on, if there were just a couple of us in the room listening to tunes while we worked. Without fail, any time a C.U.T.E. song came on, you knew it was them. There was no question. In a sea of bands that are either trying blatantly to sound like other bands, or bands that not only wear their influences on their sleeves, but make a whole shirt of them, it’s a welcome change. As James said in far more eloquent terms than I can at the moment, this is a band that has been constantly evolving since day one, and well, the proof is in the pudding here. While I wouldn’t be so brazen as to say that this is leaps and bounds beyond previous material, it’s definitely a positive, and natural feeling, progression.

Where other bands do the “pretty but sad” thing, and do it well, C.U.T.E. is one of the few that can (appropriately enough, given the title of this album) really make the feeling of isolation sonically possible. Where other bands do “sad scene with snowfall”, they do “everything and everyone I love is gone”. Rather than the sense of loss from a doomed romance or something of that ilk, this is the soundtrack to the terror of abandonment, of being completely and utterly alone. There are moments of hope present, of starting anew (or “freedom”, as the band themselves have stated), but overall, it’s a dark and lonely record. The beauty crafted out of these feelings is palpable, and, like James, I suspect strongly that this will have a solid place on my year-end list. If i have one bone to pick with this album, it’s the intro to “A Broken Silence”. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the music, and just sound like the music from an 8-bit boss fight scene to me. Other than that rather small gripe, I think these two German lads have created something truly fantastic. – ShaneXedge

   

Foofer Friday: Astralia – ‘Atlas’

Reviewed by: Foofer

Since I’ve started writing these reviews, I’ve looked at music from very different parts of the world. Italy to Denmark, San Francisco to New York, Canada to Montreal…

…wait a minute.

Anyways, today we’ve got Spain’s representative, Astralia. A wonderful trio from La Floresta, which is about an hour and a half west of Barcelona (Where this album was recorded). With Astralia being a trio, I was half expecting them to attempt a sound similar to Russian Circles, which seems to be a sort of trend within the post-rock scene. Thankfully, I was quickly proved wrong.

“You Are Here” introduces itself rather calmly, fluffy synth in the background, accompanied by distant, lyricless vocals. It’s almost beautiful enough to make a grown man cry. The way they slowly build up to a louder sound really shows off their compositional skills. They know what they want, and they know exactly how to get it. If there’s going to be a song where they strut their stuff, it has to be the first song. When the music quiets down again, it feels like a whole different song than before. I cannot fully describe how much this song impresses me with its variety. Sometimes, when a song bounces around from sound to sound, it just sounds confused and directionless, but this is far from it. It sounds very intentional and purposeful. If you don’t like this song, just go ahead and skip the rest of the album.

As for the rest of the album, I actually have a hard time keeping myself concentrated on it. Five out of the eight tracks are over 7 minutes long. Whenever I start listening to it, I find myself looking up random articles on Wikipedia or sorting through my massive collection of cat gifs. It’s just not gripping enough to really stick with it. I mean, I like what I hear and sometimes I’ll stop reading Wikipedia to really listen, but after a while I’m back to ignoring it some more. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s recorded professionally, mastered brilliantly, played masterfully, and presented in a very appealing manner; the artwork is gorgeous, and I’d buy the CD if I had the money/interest.

So even though I don’t personally click with it, I would recommend this to just about anyone. Also, I would recommend you play it really loud, with the bass turned way up. You miss so much if you don’t.

Let me know if you clicked with ‘Atlas’ on twitter @Foofsies or via e-mail at fooferfridays@gmail.com

Next week: Inaeris’ Self-Titled EP

Week after: The Echelon Effect – Pacific

 

 

Powder! Go Away – Closer to Cold

Reviewed by: James

Hailing from about 150km south of Moscow from a town called Lukhovitsy, Powder! Go Away have returned to the scene with their latest release ‘Closer to Cold’ which saw release back in February. ‘Closer to Cold’ is the follow up to 2012’s ’We Don’t Know When It Has Begun, But We Know That It Will Never End’ and is an 8-track, 48 minute effort that takes a stark departure to a much more serious tone than their previous body of work. Gone are the hints of cheery third-wave, replaced by focused ambiance intertwined with a more mature sound that has been glossed over with a firm layer of seriousness.

“Cold Hands” and “Running” do a solid job to open the album, setting the mood and  preparing the listener for tracks 3-5, which is where the album truly picks up a head of steam. “In Your Childhood Dream” is a beautiful ten minute long epic that is beautifully composed and is highlighted with a brilliant light guitar medley around the six minute mark. “Requiem” features breakneck tremelo picking with a relentless beat that cranks up the decibel levels a few notches while “Chapaevka Loneliness” begins in ambientness before pushing the boundaries into post-metal territory with an ultra-heavy finish. Synths and what I believe to be an electronic organ lead off the album’s closer “The Snow in the Subway” slowly evolves into a downtrodden bass-centric number that sees a crescendo guitar rise from the ashes of the mix and leads the track back into the synthy abyss in which it came.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh here, but certain elements of this album feel incredibly forced. Take the repetitive cymbal crashing for instance. I normally have no issues with this method of adding to a wall of sound, but in this album the crashing is far too noticeable. Another glaring problem I find is that crescendos are extremely predictable in numerous songs and the whole effort just comes across as far less organic than their previous two releases. I’m not saying the album isn’t good, because it is. I’m just saying that I feel strongly as if all the effort Powder! Go Away put forth towards a more focused sound came at the expense of the personality shown in their previous albums. Case in point I don’t think it’s a very good trade off when creating music in a genre that is oversaturated with these sort of middle of the road, above average but not really stand out or memorable bands and albums.

I don’t like ending my reviews with my criticisms, so let me tell you what the album does right. The use of keyboard on this album is a lot like a little dash of pepper on a properly cooked steak. Used sparingly it is easily distinguishable and enhances all of the other elements around it. While the build ups and breakdowns were really hit or miss, the band really hit it out of the park with the softer material on this record. The band has always had a strong penchant for their ambient work and build ups and that remains a bright point of this album. Instrument separation is superb and the spectrum of tones found throughout is phenomenal, making this a very technically pleasing album from a production standpoint. I recommend you give this album and listen and decide for yourself, but I just can’t give it my full recommendation, as I much prefer their previous two albums over ‘Closer to Cold’.

   

Thinking Aloud: The Watermark High – Bright Black EP

By James

(Welcome to ‘Thinking Aloud’ , the latest weekly column on Postrockstar written by James (IamHop). Stay tuned for the future, I plan on using this column to not only review albums but to also share my thoughts on the music industry and the state of the post-rock genre.)

I was first introduced to The Watermark High via fellow Postrockstar writer Shooter, who nominated their “Slow Motion Clarity” album to be our 2012 Electronic Ambient album of the year. I was floored when I first heard the one-man Johannesburg outfit, the music was everything I was ever looking for in electronic music. The Watermark High presented complex and uptempo beats packed nice and neat inside these beautifully put together songs that never made your head spin. He produces his music thinking about both the ambient listener and the synth loving bass junky. Far too often I find electronic artists are unable to find the perfect balance when composing this sort of music. The Watermark High does it to perfection.

The ‘Bright Black EP’ is a 6-track 24 minute odyssey released earlier this year and available at a name your price right on bandcamp and free to stream via Spotify. The EP falls right in line with the rest of their discography, expanding on the more forward and experimental sound that we heard most recently from The Watermark High in the 2013 effort ‘Murmurs’. The EP kicks off with ‘Saudade’ which seduces the listener with an infectious beat that is easy on the ears despite being a very busy track. ‘Saudade’ is the water in the pool that doesn’t shock your nerves but still requires some acclimation before it truly becomes enjoyable. By the time “Muddle” rolls around you really start to get a feel for what ‘Bright Black’ is all about. Too uptempo and aggressive for the local coffee shop but clearly not the “sick beats” you’d expect to hear in a night club either.  I’m far more than ok with the happy medium here.

“Weak End” is the most catchy track on the EP and feels like a retro throwback to the songs from their 2012 ‘In Flux’ EP. You’ll have to forgive me for absolutely butchering electronic descriptions and terminology here, but the beeps and buzzes in this track are absolutely nuts, especially with a proper high-end audio set up. This song is night and day when I play it in my car and on my home set up. It can be enjoyed regardless of whatever you’re pumping it out of, but songs like this reassure me that dumping money into high-end headphones is well worth it. “(W)hole” features piano work around a beat that is more easily broken down by layer if you pay enough attention. The bass in the lower spectrum of the mix is eerily reminiscent of early Massive Attack and is something I’d love to see Watermark High utilize more of in the future. I don’t necessarily feel like this sort of music is in need of deep bassy textures, but it could certainly further complement their efforts.

“Welcome to the Resistance” is a little off-putting to me in that I feel it’s an extremely bold effort. While the song succeeds in feeling heavily culturally influenced (likely from the India/middle east region), I can’t help but feel it’s a little bit forced. It certainly stands out from the rest of The Watermark High’s body of work. The problem is that by standing out it also breaks up the good vibe and synergy found elsewhere throughout the album. Luckily the album finishes outlandishly strong with “The Outsider” which sort of encompasses the entire theme of ‘Bright Black’, representing a little bit of each of the other five songs within itself.

I’m very satisfied with what Paul van der Walt has given us with this EP. The Watermark High is still very under the radar when it’s clear the music they churn out continually proves to be worthy of being a focal contender within electronic circles. I’d really like to see The Watermark High get their day in the sun and get the recognition they deserve. As a post-rock lover more recently crossing over into electronic, I couldn’t be more thankful to have come across The Watermark High. They’ve really opened a lot of doors for me into other sub-genres.

   

Foofer Friday: Sundry Commentary

As much as I love dedicating my whole week to one album (which is a lot), I still listen to an assortment of other bands from an assortment of different genres. So I figure that every once in a while I could talk about a bunch of albums, just to shake things up. These aren’t all post-rock, they’re just bands I’ve been enjoying lately, or whatever has been on my radar.

First up are a trio of bands who just so happen to be labelmates. Keep It Together Records is a tiny label out of Wisconsin that specializes in tapes, with all sorts of bands in his catalog. Folk, Metal, Emo, Screamo, Indie, Mathrock, Post-Rock, There’s a little bit of everything for everyone.

Low-Pass, LITE, and Saisa all hail from Japan, Keep It Together just handles the US side of things. Low-Pass and LITE are both Mathrock, and Saisa is a more ethereal post-rock with a similar vibe to Sigur Ros. I cannot recommend these guys enough, even if I haven’t actually ordered any of the tapes… yet.


I don’t know if any of you remember my review of Wander’s “Mourning” , but it’s my go-to album as of late. Since the review, it’s been released on cassette, and it sounds… awful. My copy sounded like it’d been dragged through the dirt before they shipped it. I’m all for supporting bands I enjoy, but this cassette sounds dreadful. I know that cassettes aren’t the highest quality format, but I have plenty of cassettes that don’t sound like they were recorded with a guitar hero microphone. Especially with smaller labels, buying cassettes is a very hit-and-miss ordeal. If you feel lucky, go ahead and buy a copy. If you feel really lucky, buy me a copy, too. But that’s what it all comes down to with DIY cassettes- luck.

On a lighter note, Saor caught my eye as I was browsing on bandcamp. At first I thought it was just another black metal band that just so happened to add ‘post-rock’ to their tags. They aren’t post-rock, but they aren’t just any black metal band. Standing alone, it’s amazing black metal, but they added Celtic instruments and Gaelic vocals and became something I’ll enjoy for a very long time. If you like the heavier side of things, I would highly recommend you check these guys out.

Speaking of the heavier things, my fellow writer Erich is starting his own weekly article entitled “Heavier Things”. As you probably guessed, it’ll be focusing on post-metal and… the… heavier things. But his header isn’t as cool as mine.

Not two minutes after I fell in love with Saor, I happened another metal band tagged as post-rock. Save us From The Archon sounds like a music-making computer was secretly overclocked. They just released their latest album ‘Thereafter‘ and you could not find a better example of technical progressive metal. But if you think you have, lemme know. I cannot get enough of that sorta stuff.

Wang Wen recently came out with a new album! Word cannot describe my happiness. I love every single one of their albums, and this one is no different. “Eight Horses” is brand spanking new, and it’s awesome. I wouldn’t dare review it, I’m too biased for something like that. But I hope to see someone else review it, it’s too good to go unnoticed.

There are some upcoming albums that I’m super excited about, stuff I think will make big splashes:

Sleepmakeswaves has released a single download and a pre-order for “Love of Cartography” which will be released July Fourth. We’re actually making this our July roundtable review, it’s that promising.

set and setting has announced a second album, and a shift from one label to another, from Science of Silence to Prosthetic Records. Prosthetic Records seems to focus primarily on metal, so Set and Setting are in good hands, I’m sure. I’m just hoping Force Field Records handles the cassette release, they nailed it last time for “Equanimity”.

MONO has been posting pictures on their facebook of recording sessions, claiming that they’re finished recording a new album and will be moving onto mastering some time soon. I know it’s a bit far off, but it’s exciting, nevertheless.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. If you think there’s something I’m missing, hit me up on twitter @foofsies or via e-mail at fooferfridays@gmail.com

Next week: Astralia – ‘Atlas’