Nathaniel Noton-Freeman – Seabirds

Seabirds cover art

Artist Nathaniel Noton-Freeman
Album ‘Seabirds’
Genre Post-rock / Instrumental
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Label Independent
Release Mar 3 2013
Rating Solid

This had to happen at some point. Nathaniel Noton-Freeman‘s music has until now been entirely composed using nothing but acoustic guitar tracks built atop other acoustic guitar tracks. ‘Whorl’ demonstrated that intelligent songwriting and delicate-yet-complex musicianship is in itself enough to captivate and inspire. ‘Whorl’ was unique and therefore intriguing, but beneath all of this it was evident that, by restricting his vessel to acoustic guitars alone, Nathaniel was imposing seemingly unnecessary boundaries upon his music. ‘Cairn’ took this restricted philosophy even further by limiting the songs to a single layer of acoustic guitar. It seems now that the shackles have been dispelled.

And the results are mixed. There’s no way of avoiding the fact that upon shedding its “gimmick”, Nathaniel’s music would be destined to lose some of its unique appeal. This is somewhat true, but that doesn’t mean that what we’re left with isn’t still worthwhile and entertaining post-rock. I love the arpeggiated synth sounds in “Op. 1 – Fishes” — the track carries a joyous energy that is often absent from soft ambient/post-rock music such as this. Nathaniel’s music carries the positive aura that often comes only with more upbeat post-rock bands such as Moonlit Sailor, whilst maintaining the delicate wistfulness and romance of more ambient bands such as Helios. It’s in the approach and composition that allows Nathaniel’s music to stay within its niche.

On the other hand I still feel that Nathaniel has more to learn and room to grow with this style of music. ‘Seabirds’ marks the first time that this artist’s music has had such a strong focus on pedal effects, and it appears that Nathaniel perhaps got a little too excited when exploring these new territories. The delay effects that permeate many of the instrumental layers simultaneously are overbearing. There’s often just too much going on at any one time. This doesn’t become a problem when ‘Seabirds’ is enjoyed quietly and in the background, but when close attention is paid, perhaps with headphones, then the production flaws become apparent.

But don’t read too much into that, because Nathaniel’s music is just as delicate and enjoyable as it ever was, except that he now brings to the table a greater palette for crafting music, and the result only serves to make me even more excited for what’s to come. The songwriting and musicianship is all there with ‘Seabirds’; there’s a sense that the production was slightly off the mark, however that’s something that can easily be worked on for future releases.

Welcome to the World, Blake

Andy Othling of Lowercase Noises was recently blessed with his third child. As with Marshall in 2010 and, later, Vivian in 2011, Andy has composed a piece of music to coincide with the birth of his newborn child, Blake.

Blake cover art

I was going to review this. I reviewed Lowercase Noises‘Passage’ EP in November of last year. ‘Blake’ is different, though, and I don’t think that this an album that I have any right to critique — nor one that I particularly wish to. While listening to ‘Blake’ for the first time, I had in my head bullet-point impressions that I would intend to include in a proper review of the album. It wasn’t until the song “Taken” — in which a home recording can be heard of Andy’s wife discussing with (I believe) Marshall their excitement for the arrival of their newest gift — that it dawned on me: ‘Blake’ wasn’t written to be broken down, judged and objectified. It wasn’t written for us. It’s something much more personal than that.

But any new Lowercase Noises release is still worth talking about.

Like ‘Marshall’ and ‘Vivian’ before it, ‘Blake’ is an album with more ambient inclinations than might be found in some of Lowercase Noises‘ other works (including last year’s ‘Passage’). This is music written for a baby, and so soft and calming sounds are perfectly suited. Here, Andy isn’t necessarily aspiring to push his artistic explorations into new territories like he did with ‘Passage’ (which is why I don’t think this should be critiqued in a traditional sense); he simply wishes to make music from the heart that can truly mean something to his children as they grow. We’re just lucky enough to be welcomed into his personal life such that we can witness the birth of a family heirloom.

Listening to ‘Blake’ got me thinking about the sentimentality of music. How music can be something so personal to one individual; be such a catalyst for memories and nostalgia. The sounds we hear as we enter the world and grow up in it are instilled within us; as influences to mould our future selves, and as checkpoints to take us back to times once cherished but perhaps oft-forgotten. In a recent video posted to YouTube, Andy told us that what inspires him as an artist is the desire to release his creative energy, and hopefully to bestow it upon others. It’s his way of expressing himself. And that’s what makes the art of music so special for this particular musician. The albums that Andy writes for his children are not just a chapter in his musical career, but a way for him to express his love and excitement for his children. To instil their earliest memories with imprints of their father’s passion.

And that’s why Andy’s music is wholly something special.

To download ‘Blake’ on a name-your-price basis, click here.

To Sail Beyond the Sun – Illusions EP

Illusions EP cover art

Artist To Sail Beyond the Sun
Album ‘Illusions’
Genre Post-rock
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Label Independent
Release Feb 6 2013
Rating Solid

With one look at their bandcamp descriptor (“To Sail Beyond the Sun is a post-rock band from New York. That’s all that you really need to know. Sit back and enjoy.”), it’s safe to say that To Sail Beyond the Sun are a post-rock band free from pretentious or avant-garde pressures and values. It’s quite a relief to come across a band that, rather than proclaiming some transcendent or high-concept agenda, just makes music to be enjoyed for what it is. And what it is is just darn lovely music. Though an EP, ‘Illusions’ is a fairly generous offering, with five tracks (each with a duration of around four minutes) that move through beautiful crescendoes and soundscapes. Some songs feature understated yet delicate vocals, coming from a lead singer whose voice sounds somewhat similar to the Gates vocalist’s at times (albeit slightly more controlled, pitch-wise), or even Benjamin Gibbard; while others meander through bright-sounding instrumental terrains. This is all music that’s rather pretty and pleasing to the ear; like New Century Classics‘Natural Process’ but with a more full and triumphant sound owed to the welcomed use of brass instrumentation. Another strong comparison can be made with Years of Rice and Salt‘s 2011 breakthrough album ‘Nothing of Cities’. You’ll want to blast this out come summer-time.

One gripe with this album — and it is a minor one — is that the drums are noticeably overpowering compared with the rest of the instruments. The drum-work itself is delightfully confident and well-suited to the style of music, but their extreme prominence in the foreground renders the drums as an annoyance rather than a well-integrated component of the music. This EP also doesn’t break much new ground — comparisons are all too easy, as I showed above. Regardless, ‘Illusions’ is definitely worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of the more joyous post-rock sound.

Locomotora – This Very Holding Back

This very holding back cover art

Artist Locomotora
Album ‘This Very Holding Back’
Genre Post-rock / Instrumental
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Label Independent
Release Jan 25 2013
Rating Very Good

Though their debut album, ‘Canopy’, was released (somewhat unassumingly) during the tail end of 2011, it wasn’t until mid-way through last year that French post-rock newcomer Silent Whale Becomes A Dream became the most talked-about band in post-rock communities and forums across the web. They were the new Mono. To some, they were a better Mono. ‘Canopy’ was more Mono than Mono‘s own ‘For My Parents’ turned out to be. Mono.

But then people went quiet about ‘Canopy’ for a while; presumably because they were all busy listening to it. But this isn’t a review for some new Silent Whale Becomes A Dream release (who knows how long we will have to wait for that). This time, the honourary Mono album of 2013 award goes to… Locomotora, with their album ‘This Very Holding Back’.

It isn’t as straight-forward as that, however. Mono are a band of gaps. In the mid-00’s they shifted from their heavily guitar-centric “wall-of-noise” sound to a more serene and beautiful sonic fingerprint, whereby dramatic strings were growingly prominent and guitars were used to channel elegance and emotion rather than power and aggression. It just so happens that bands such as Silent Whale Becomes A Dream and Locomotora are here to fill those gaps, by playing music that embraces drama and beauty whilst still maintaining a dark and at times sorrowful quality that’s contrary to Mono‘s recent displays of romance and optimism. Locomotora are different to Silent Whale Becomes A Dream in that their focus is less on showcasing the power of textural guitar-playing, and more on composing a rich tapestry of sound, with mournful strings and songs that are both immediate and exploratory.

On the surface the tag “Mono clone” might seem appropriate when describing this band, however tonal differences are often what make an album stand on its own, a notion to which ‘This Very Holding Back’ is a striking testament.

Oak – Not Afraid Anymore

Not Afraid Anymore cover art

Artist Oak
Album ‘Not Afraid Anymore’
Genre Post-rock / Instrumental
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Label Independent
Release Jan 19 2013
Rating Solid

‘Not Afraid Anymore’ is the first full length album from the French instrumental rock band Oak, and although it lies on the heavier end of the spectrum, it’s still undeniably post-rock. Treble guitar melodies akin to modern post-rock bands such as pg.lost take precedence over chugging guitar riffs and deep bass-lines; there is a mildly dark atmosphere to the album but it is not a resounding one. Despite the heaviness and focus on bright melody, what makes Oak different to the likes of pg.lost, for better or worse, is a lack of exploration into the dynamics of sound — a reluctance to explore both the very loud and the very quiet. Much of the music on ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ prefers to meander through different sounds — all guitar-based — with little deviation in volume. There are the climaxes you might expect from a post-rock record, but here it is less about the build-up and reward than it is the melodic wanderings and consistency of pace. The tempo is fairly constant, rendering an album that floats in and around you enjoyably, but doesn’t hit you with excitement or intrigue at many specific moments. So for this reason, ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ can be enjoyed in every moment of music that’s on offer, rather than simple anticipation for what’s to come. The result is an album that sounds reminiscent of the music that Meniscus have released in the past few years. In fact, ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ owes a lot to the Australian outfit, and this is one problem that I have with Oak‘s latest release — oftentimes I’d rather just listen to Meniscus. Oak unfortunately lack the more creative, noodly elements by which Meniscus excell so consistently. Though Oak arguably bridge the gap between the heavy, wandering sound of Meniscus and the pretty, melodic sound of pg.lost, I’m not sure that this was a gap that needed to be traversed in the first place.

There are moments during ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ in which the pace is picked up and excitement builds, for example towards the end of “Things Are Getting Bad”; but for those who are looking for excitement and drama in their post-rock, this might be too little, too late. The final two tracks, however, are where ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ really hits its stride, and this is in large part thanks to the brilliant use of a dialogue sample taken from the 2006 film ‘The Fountain’ by director Darren Aronofsky, that skirts the seams between the final two songs. This spoken-word segment — that beautifies so elegently the passage of life into death — is reminiscent of the sample used in ISIS‘s “The Red Sea” (until now my favourite sample in a rock song). The dialogue found here might be my new favourite sample, and it leaves me with a desire to watch ‘The Fountain’. The sample ends with the words “I’m Not Afraid Anymore Tommy” — a moment that builds excitement for the closing track, and signals the timely introduction of these excellent momentum-building drum rolls. This moment is undeniably the album’s highlight, and is the major reason for me wanting to return to ‘Not Afraid Anymore’ for repeated listens. It is a moment that rounds off an album that is rarely ever exhilerating, but consistently pleasing to the ears.

Our Ceasing Voice – That Day Last November

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Artist Our Ceasing Voice
Album That Day Last November
Genre Post-rock
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Label Frontal Noize (CD) / Revolvermann Records (Vinyl)
Released Jan 18 2013
Rating Very Good

Our Ceasing Voice have always been a group whose command of atmosphere and visual soundscapes is one that rivals even the most gargantuan of post-rock acts. So much so, in fact, that their music can quite comfortably sit alongside some of the darker, more sorrowful metal bands, such as Neurosis or Amenra, despite Our Ceasing Voice not being a particularly heavy band themselves. This is in large part due to the emphasis on bass, and the very low, deep end of the musical spectrum. Many songs may contain huge crescendos that carry with them high, soaring guitar lines – and they’re always sensational – however these unquestionably flutter atop a relentlessly dark and atmospheric backdrop (painted by the bass guitar and synths) that never abates. Another element that lends credence to earlier comparisons with post-metal bands is the occasional use of very deep and mournful southern/folk vocals. However this aspect of Our Ceasing Voice‘s sound has never previously been at the forefront of their compositions; on 2011’s ‘When the Headline Hit Home’, vocals intermittently appear to lend a sense of traversal to the music – a kind of piecemeal reward for journeying across the vast landscapes crafted by long instrumental passages. For all of the above reasons, ‘When the Headline Hit Home’ was an exceptionally masterful experience that went criminally under-discovered for the longest time. It’s now 2013, and we have a new record to mull over. So how has the band’s sound changed in the two years since ‘When the Headline Hit Home’, urm, hit home? Well quite a lot, in fact.

Our Ceasing Voice‘s latest release, ‘That Day Last November’, is “a dark and gloomy record, situated between hypnotizing ambient and something that once was post-rock”; or at least that’s the assertion made in the press release for ‘That Day Last November’. “Dark and gloomy” is exactly what one would expect from an Our Ceasing Voice release, and such a description fits the bill as snugly as it did two years ago. “Something that once was post-rock”? This part sounds a tad pretentious. It’s not wrong though. As a supposed post-rock band, they are one of the more difficult to pin down, genre-wise – now more than ever before.

Right out of the gate, the opening one-two punch of “Afterglow” and “Until Your Chest Explodes” demonstrates that Our Ceasing Voice are no longer a post-rock band working their next attempt at perfecting a widely-understood formula. If anything, they had already achieved this in years prior and are ready to move on; as such, genre constraints no longer bind them. A newfound vocal diversity is showcased in “Afterglow”, featuring gruff vocals in addition to some strained yells bringing a rich and multi-layered quality to the opening track. Pushing the envelope even further, “Until Your Chest Explodes” features surprisingly clean and melodic vocals (though a mournful rasp still lingers), courtesy of Matthew Ryan, with such a conventional song structure that could in a sense be compared with stadium indie rockers, such as – and bear with me here – Snow Patrol. I’m talking structurally, not sonically. The song plods through a long, lyrics-centric verse devoid of any significant dynamic changes, before exploding in a final chorus featuring big, melodic hooks and, again, layered vocals. “Until Your Chest Explodes” could be considered Our Ceasing Voice‘s “pop song”, and it’s great too; although make no mistake, it will not be crossing the radiowaves any time soon. If there’s a recurring theme here – it’s vocals. In 2013, Our Ceasing Voice are making music that reflects where they are as artists and what it is that they want to achieve. Right now they have chosen to favour explicit storytelling over the implicit narrative formed by sweeping instrumentals. As such, this is not ‘When the Headline Hit Home: Part 2’.

And that’s where this album gives me a slight bitter taste. Slight. The increased use of vocals should not necessarily be a condemning characteristic of an album. But when a band is so adept at crafting exquisitely dense and dark atmospheres, it somewhat detracts from this strength when lead vocals are brought so far forward in the mix. Such descriptive and narrative lyrics (for example in “One of These Nights”: “The days passed slowly yet darkness came fast and, while the thin coffee in his dirty cup went from cool to cold, he sat quietly and rolled another cigarette”) were written to be heard – that much is clear. And so they should be; Our Ceasing Voice write lyrics so detailed and intriguing that you can’t help but want to process them. But as you’re doing so, the music in the background – far away in the background – is almost entirely dismissed. There is a balance to maintain and I feel that Our Ceasing Voice have at times embraced their new-found narrative focus so tightly as to neglect the importance of instrumental prowes.

But there’s a flip-side, and I feel as though there are audiences that will absorb this new style of songwriting with absolute elation. A somewhat similar album, FareWell Poetry‘s 2011 release ‘Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite’ was a critical darling, and if you’re one of the many who really enjoyed the poetic aspects of FareWell Poetry‘s music, then I might have just found you your new favourite record in ‘That Day Last November’. Furthermore, such an emphasis on vocals and more “typical” song structures enables individual tracks to establish their own identities. Where ‘When the Headline Hit Home’ was a singular journey, ‘That Day Last November’ is a smorgasbord of memorable moments, propelled only more gratifyingly by the rich diversity of vocal deliverance; for example the powerfully-booming spoken-word segments in “One of These Nights” and, most impressively, the desperate and electric screams used to build songs such as “What Used to Be a Battle Song” and “The City that Once Had a Name” to blood-boiling climaxes.

Our Ceasing Voice have crafted an intricate and interesting record in ‘That Day Last November’; one that it is difficult to not enjoy. The extent to which you enjoy this album, however, is dependent upon you – your tastes as a music fan. To those with a penchant for variety, hooks and more refined “songwriting”: you might just prefer this new album. To those who yearn for sweeping, journeying and epic post-rock music: you might, on the other hand, be faced with minor disappointment at the helm of this new record – especially if you’re a fan of ‘When the Headline Hit Home’. But in the end, ‘That Day Last November’ is an album that you should check out, because regardless of on which side of the fence you reside, Our Ceasing Voice are a talented and creative bunch of musicians dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what they and their peers are capable of creating, and they’ve crafted an album that should be celebrated by fans and critics alike.