New Album Review

Album Review: “Multiverse” by Reptaliens

A strong concept can go a long way towards the enjoyment of an album. Going beyond drawing meaning from the lines or verses, having a central theme adds more weight to not just the lyrics but the instrumentals too, contextualizing every choice made by an artist. Reptaliens have built a discography on strong concepts with albums that have been focused on complex sci-fi themes, and while everything is brought down in terms of scale here, the storytelling chops remain. There’s more of an urban fantasy vibe on “Multiverse”, with the lyrics signaling an adventure that’s found in the simple act of living.

The lyrics are able to resonate that much more because the songs themselves are stripped down to the bone, allowing the words to feel larger than life. The fuzzy and jangly instrumentals add, if not a bounce, then certainly a spring in the step to the proceedings, with fun solos that convey a sense of motion. Album highlight “Take It” has a really fun opening falsetto that descends as the subject matter gets more serious, the speaker hoping they don’t “go to hell for this.” A lot of the most engaging moments on this album are the inflections lead singer Bambi Browning makes on certain lines, which range from uplifting while soft like the chorus of “Don’t Wait For Me” to the emotive pitch drops on “Go Away”. That layer of fuzz on top of everything works with this vocal style: the highs become these theremin-like cascades of sound while the lows are contrasted even more.

On “Multiverse”, Reptaliens achieve something that a lot of jangly indie rock bands strive for but don’t always nail: resonating with emotional purity with vague, universal statements while also constructing an entire world with just a few short verses. A lot of very core themes are tapped into, like a lot of references to peer pressure and reluctantly going along with what’s happening and in the process losing agency, like the central character who is “sniffing glue” on I Feel Fine. And when combined with fun instrumentals that keep the serious parts weightless this becomes an album that’s instantly enjoyable but leaves a lot to think about later. For me it usually takes a few months for a given year of music to produce a classic album but we aren’t even out of January before Reptaliens came through with one that I’m sure will stick with me for a long time.


Blog Concert Review

Concert Review: Machine Girl (1/8)

In concerts, especially indoor ones, it’s pretty hard to make out what a singer is actually saying. The combination of overblown acoustics with the instruments that hit the exact registers as the vocals makes it so that, even in songs that rely heavily on songwriting, the live experience is mostly about the vibe. Studio versions of Mountain Goats songs that are restrained and contemplative roar to life when John Darnielle is ten feet away from you.

For Machine Girl, it’s all about the vibes, and the vibes are immaculate. The combination of live drummer Sean Kelly who sounded straight out of a metal show and frontman Matt Stephenson who continued that spontaneity with the controlled precision of someone whose set revolves around pounding electronic beats. Every strut, leap, and individual howl was scripted spontaneity, a balancing act that’s very hard to achieve and intoxicating when done right. A guitar came out and immediately fit right into the soundscapes being sculpted, and the ending where Stephenson leapt onto a speaker set high above the crowd felt so right, the perfect way to cap off a wild night.

As the show went off the chain, the energy of the crowd rose to the occasion. The pit was wild; during the most hype moments everyone just started sprinting in circles like a running of the bulls. The absolute climax of the show involved someone climbing into the rafters and later being told over the PA system that they could have broken $20,000 worth of equipment, which sums up the vibe at the time better than I ever could.

The opening acts fit this manic metaltronic energy to a tee. I arrived part way through No Parking’s set, a bouncy house set with a healthy amount of screaming. While it was early on and people weren’t as hyped, the fun beats and especially the engaging stage presence kept everyone swaying and anticipating what was to come. And my favorite part of the show might have actually been the second act, Austin’s Johnnascus. Their first song involved walking onstage with bandages on their head and slowly peeling them off, and this hard-hitting dial-to-11 brand of trap was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had at a concert. Towards the end of the set I found myself thinking “how is Machine Girl going to top this?”, and I don’t think they did, instead taking a different approach that ended up being just as satisfying.


Blog Music News and Interviews

Track Review: “Menace” by Rezz

The context that a song is first heard in, where the melody imprints itself on your brain, is critical to what the listener takes away from it. YouTuber Nathan Zed has an excellent video on this, and I’ve definitely noticed this effect when revisiting songs I would listen to a lot at a specific point in time. “White Roses” by Charli XCX will teleport me back to my freshman year dorm with its blend of introspection adventure, and songs I don’t even really listen to can be fun just by how they work in the context you heard them. “My Wife & 2 Dogs” by Quinn XCII isn’t a song I particularly enjoy but what I did enjoy was the trip to the lake with my friends when I first heard it and it’s a fun, bouncy pop song, perfect for that experience.

“Menace”, a bonus track off Rezz’s excellent album “Spiral” that was dropped several months after its release date, needs the right context to really be appreciated. I follow Rezz on Instagram and her feed is filled with pictures of her strobe-filled arena performances, and I don’t see this hitting as hard as some of her other songs in that context. There’s no specific part I can point to as “the one”, a perfect hook that meets the crowd’s energy at its summit with a catchy riff or a resounding stomp. The drop doesn’t really distinguish itself from the rest of the song, it adds a kick on every beat but it doesn’t do a lot to really heighten the intensity.

But if you’re not at an arena or a club, but rather trying to grind out a paper at some outrageously late hour, definitely give this a shot for your study playlist. The metronomic synths and squelchy soundscapes are both fun and invigorating, a steady march that makes you want to be productive. It’s not just good for study playlists either, there’s a subtle 80s influence in the bridge that toes the line of cheesy power ballads but stays true to its dubstep roots. 

This is all to say that I can’t recommend “Menace” for every situation. It’s not the perfect club banger or if you’re looking for something with a strong hook. But if you like a danceable slow burn or something to vibe to alone, well have I got a song for you.


Concert Review

Concert Review: The Mountain Goats (12/18/2021)

If you live in the Triangle and are into music, you’ve probably found that the Mountain Goats are more than just a band. They’re a force of nature, whose mere name being mentioned causing any fan in the room to talk about how good they are. I’ve enjoyed their music for awhile but never to the point of considering myself a diehard fan. So when I saw they were coming to Cat’s Cradle, I figured I should check it out and see if the hype was worth believing. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while.

It turns out the presence of the Mountain Goats overshadows even other artists in the lineup of their own shows, as it felt like even opener Bowerbirds just wanted to see the band play. This was maybe the only slight downside as I think it took the air out of what was a great opening set; singer Phil Moore brought the kind of brooding yet energetic vocal performance that was perfect for their indie folk sound and songs like “Moon Phase” were quite beautiful while also displaying a steely guitar line. I’m not at all saying that Mountain Goats intentionally took attention away from Bowerbirds; lead singer John Darnielle made it very clear that he was a big fan of their work and went into detail about how Moore in particular greatly influenced certain songs, it just felt kind of awkward when the loudest cheer by far came when Moore said they only had a few songs left.

When the Mountain Goats finally came in, anticipation had reached a fever pitch, especially as their stage entrance came on the back of a dramatic dimming of lights and instrumental intro. This fever pitch was answered with a fiery rendition of “Michael Myers Resplendent” that turned that anticipation into joyous celebration. Throughout the show they got as loud as the best of them but what really stood out were individual moments, a steely guitar attack or an individual drum line, dislocating themselves from the cacophony to make a statement.

Much like the history of the Mountain Goats, the center of this sonic universe is John Darnielle and the wondrous narratives he spins. These are not straightforward arena-ready bangers, but winding tales filled with despair and hope, with concepts ranging from intricate descriptions of wrestling moves to fantasy quests. Before the show I was concerned that the subtleties of the songs would be lost in the roar of a live show but it was the exact opposite: seeing the Mountain Goats live is the absolute best way to experience their work. I have never seen an audience so transfixed that they had to be told when to clap. At one point, I was so locked in to Darnielle’s words I didn’t notice that keyboard player Matt Douglas got up, walked away and came back with a saxophone until it came in with a thunderous line. The versatility of instruments on display here was impressive; after putting down the saxophone Douglas picked up a guitar and Darniella used at least three different guitars throughout the show and sat down at the keyboard himself. Everything about the performance was extremely fluid, with songs blending seamlessly into one another and everyone onstage clearly having a blast being around the crowd and each other.

As the Mountain Goats have over 20 albums to draw from the songs played were extremely varied. Darnielle specifically described artists who rigidly adhere to the same setlist every night as “the forces of evil” ahead of the “middle section” of the show, which for the uninitiated is where the rest of the band leaves and he plays whatever comes to mind. With every spotlight trained on him Darnielle went dark with his time alone onstage, with “Maybe Sprout Wings”, “From TG&Y” and “Isaiah 45:23” serving as an introspective and brutally honest trilogy. The spontaneity could be felt in every word and note played and what could have been just a gimmick was elevated into an unforgettable experience.

The Mountain Goats have been located in Durham for about 15 years now, and the roots they’ve put down in the Triangle were tangible in the performance. This was the last performance of a three-day stint at the Cradle and there wasn’t just an air of finality but of pride at having the opportunity to play there. Darnielle took every opportunity to thank the audience for their support and it was apparent what the roar of the crowd meant to him and the band as a whole. I saw some amazing live performances this semester but I think this one in particular is going to stick with me for a very long time.


Concert Review

Concert Review: Wednesday (12/16/21)

Concerts come in all shapes and sizes, and what I’ve found from my (limited) experience is that I prefer small shows to bigger arena events. A crowd that can fit into Cat’s Cradle is my preferred upper bound, as this allows for intimate and personal experiences you just can’t get in a stadium.

This was my first time in the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, a second stage you can find to the right of the main entrance to the Carrboro venue. I expected a much smaller version of the main stage, but I was surprised at how big it was, especially with how unassuming the outside made it look. This combined with an upstairs level for seating that overlooked the rest of the room made the Back Room feel like its own thing rather than a scaled down, lesser version of the Cradle. Here, the stage was lower down and closer, I was standing maybe 5 feet from the microphone and could feel the air displaced by the speaker with every kick of the bass.

The show was a masterclass in how to manage energy levels. The first act out the gate was BANGZZ, a very high energy act that brought everyone in from the back corners of the room to get the show going. BANGZZ are characterized not just by their hard hitting drums and attack guitars, but also the stream of consciousness interludes by lead singer Erika Kobayashi Libero, talking about everything from discrimination faced by people of Asian descent in America to how marriage shouldn’t be viewed as a achievement, the latter segueing perfectly into the song “Never Speak of Marriage as an Acheivement.” These interludes add a feeling of spontaneity that keeps the audience clued in and on their toes, perfect for a first act that wants to not just play good music but to prime the audience for what’s to come. The themes of standing up to unjust systems and taking care of oneself are on full display here, and they’re delivered with an eloquence and careful simplicity that really allows it to resonate even through the instrumental maelstrom.

Now BANGZZ could have been followed by an even more high energy band, but Truth Club was the perfect compliment to an aggressive punk opening as they slowed things down and created a palpable contrast that felt like its own instrument. Oh they could get loud, but Truth Club’s loud is more of an icy hot than a raging inferno, with Travis Harrington’s understated vocal delivery being the perfect conduit for the band’s songs. Truth Club’s stage presence was also a highlight, with members going back to back for instrumental sections and a general manic quality that felt like a continuation of the down to earth vibe of the show.

Which brings me at long last to Wednesday, the headline act of the show. If BANGZZ and Truth Club set the audience up for something special, Wednesday had to deliver on this potential. Spoiler alert: it did, and it did so in a way that synthesized the best elements of the opening acts while adding its own spin. The songs played out in a more restrained way like Truth Club’s, with the emotions bubbling under the surface, but also came through in massive freakouts that went toe to toe with BANGZZ’s opening performance. One several-minute long instrumental moment really stood out for me and was one of the best moments I’ve had at a concert, this perfect union of moshable energy and a crowd that was matching it beat for beat.

Wednesday’s heliocentric stage presence was a captivating element of their performance. Lead singer Karly Hartzman acted as this central presence, a constantly smouldering sun whose every word was captivating, and even through full instrumental barrages she shone through as the focal point. This isn’t to say the other performers were lacking at all, they were amazing, but it felt like they all orbited around the main mic in a way that maximized everyone’s contribution to the overall performance.

And what really allowed me to experience all of this in its raw potency was the intimacy of the venue. The merch table was several feet to my left and when Travis mentioned it he specifically called out my “coachable” clap in response. These are the kind of magic moments you get at these kinds of venues, a connection with local artists that you can’t find anywhere else, and one that was especially hard to find over the last couple of years.


Blog New Album Review

Album Review: “Spiral” by Rezz

I’ve found that I’ve often discovered artists at slightly the wrong time to really get the most out of their work. I got into Car Seat Headrest a month after they came to Cat’s Cradle and it seemed like everyone in The National started releasing solo projects the moment I became a fan. But just this once, the stars aligned. I started DJing during the afterhours block this semester, which means I had to go from an electronic music novice to someone qualified to run a weekly show about it. Rezz was my gateway into a world of thumping bass and hard-hitting kick drums, and I was waiting for this album with a feverish anticipation. Spoiler alert: it was worth the wait.

Sounding effortless to me is one of the best things an artist can do, having instantly iconic moments feel like they are just dispensed without a care in the world adds another level to any music. I normally don’t feel this from EDM, with its meticulously crafted structures, but here it feels like this album is good without even trying to be. Rezz is swimming in so much quality production that “Levitate”, a song that spends half of its runtime over a repeated guitar loop that barely rises above the backbeat, still comes together as a quality track with a sneaky bassline that isn’t really a drop but propels the song in a great direction regardless. It’s all uphill from here, “Sacrificial” makes great use of individual bass notes underneath perfectly arranged vocal harmonies, this is probably my favorite track on the album. “Let Me In” starts slow but continues ramping up the pace with the drop becoming more and more urgent.

The release of this album wasn’t just perfect because of when I got into Rezz’s music either. “Spiral” marks somewhat of a transformation of what a Rezz song means. She built her career off a very specific type of fusion of dark techno and dubstep now called “midtempo”, where songs have house and techno elements but are slowed down to 100-110 BPM, really letting the listener hear the technical aspects of the basslines. Her work in this genre is amazing, and we get all of that here, but she opens up the soundscape with more of a focus on the highs, with offbeat notes and clicks making even the bass drops more fleshed out. Some tracks adhere more to her older style, such as “Spun” and the extremely hard-hitting “Chemical Bond”, but this more balanced approach can be felt across the whole album. Her previous albums were also almost entirely lacking in vocals, but “Spiral” has features from singers on more than half its tracks, and they deliver. “Taste of You” features a restrained buildup that lets Dove Cameron inject a compelling edge to the song before exploding into the drop, and Metric’s Emily Haines arguably carries “Paper Walls” with a vulnerability that matches the moody instrumental until a switch is flipped and the kicks start going stratospheric.

Perhaps the best part of the listening experience is that it’s only going to get better the more I listen to the project. As varied and amazing as the deep cuts were, the singles were still the best songs for a variety of reasons, which means that the high points on an album that at time of writing came out under twelve hours ago were songs I’ve been bumping for months. As we draw further from the release day, this line will blur more and I’ll be able to appreciate “Spiral” as a body of work more. 

And Rezz, if you’re somehow reading this, please announce a show closer than DC.


New Album Review

“Hyd” EP Review

Pop is a genre that’s very hard to pin down because of just how broad that classification is. The term “pop” changes drastically across time periods and even geographic locations, and music classified as pop can often fall into other genres as well. Over the past few years record label PC Music has become known for pushing the boundaries of what pop can be, and they’ve found another winner here.

“Hyd” is the self-titled debut EP by Hayden Dunham under the Hyd moniker, but it’s not their first rodeo with PC Music. In 2015 they came through with the instantly iconic “Hey QT” under the name QT, a song that is very much in PC Music’s wheelhouse of hyperpop, the experimental and maximalist take on electropop that have defined so many of my DJ sets this semester. The song is bright and polished to a sheen, with extremely autotuned vocals dancing over bassy kicks, it’s a really fun song. I bring it up here because while it shares some similarities with the tracks on “Hyd”, their fundamental approach to constructing a song has changed a lot over the past six years.

Let me explain. The actual instruments and effects that appear on the EP are classic hyperpop, lots of off-kilter synths and rapid-fire hi-hats, but they are used in a much different way. For a project with these tricks up its sleeve, the most prominent element here is actually the quiet. From the sudden stops at the height of the chorus on “Skin 2 Skin” to adding a thoughtful, pensive tone to “No Shadow”, restraint plays a massive role in this pop record, two concepts that don’t often go together. Songs are structured around this too, taking their time in building themselves up and slowly widening the soundscape before kicking into overdrive in the final minute. There are verses and choruses, but the instrumental is doing its own thing, treating the entire song as one long exhale.

The long sections where the instrumentals step back mean that the vocals become the star of the show, and they certainly perform under the spotlight. Dunham is working with a lot of conflicting vocal styles that are often used simultaneously, yet don’t clash at all. “The light defines us” is delivered with a robotic cadence while also sounding emotional and filled with wonder, and they often switch between husky and whispering to soaring and passionate on a dime. Lyrically there’s actually quite a lot of repetition, with a drawn out bridge of the line “Away from the light” repeated seven times on “No Shadow” or the multiple choruses in a row in the back end of “The Look on Your Face”. But unlike songs where repetition feels like it prevents the song from advancing, here it’s used to create mantras that drive

On first listen, this might be a bit of a surprise from a PC Music release labeled as pop by streaming services. It’s a pretty slow paced and restrained project that, when presented with the opportunity to go big and overblown, takes the reflective route instead. But if your opinions of what a pop record has to be aren’t totally set in stone, this EP will fit the bill, packaging its complicated themes and unorthodox structures into an easily enjoyable and rewindable experience. And if that isn’t pop then I don’t know what is.


New Album Review

New Album Review: “HOUSE OF CONFUSION” by Trace Mountains

Trace Mountains’ 2020 debut album was a pleasant surprise in a year whose surprises were generally for the wrong reasons. That album, “Lost in the Country”, was this blend of optimism and realness, tackling tough subject matters like mental illness and uncertainty about the future ahead and packaging it in this very neat, jangly project that used all of these themes as undercurrents while its characters journeyed forward into the unknown. Something about the soft, breezy vocals and the hopeful sounding guitar lines really made the album click and was a source of comfort in a scary time. 

“HOUSE OF CONFUSION” is a different animal. The winding road in the distance is no longer the focus, the journey has already begun and the speaker is reflecting on the present and past. Album highlight “7 ANGELS” looks at a relationship as a series of plans, both to continue loving and knowing when it’s time to depart. Structurally this doesn’t unfold like a beginning to middle to end narrative, rather it touches on everything at once, the relationship is both coming apart and being forged through shared experience. “AMERICA” uses recognizable iconography of an “open sky” and “moonlit road”, subjects that have defined countless songs, but it uses those as a snapshot of emotions felt around them, asking “makes you feel like you lost it a distance back there, don’t it?” and ruminating on what America is now and what it’s like living in it.

The instrumentals contribute to this light melancholy with a slower, weightier feel. Both “Lost in the Country” and this album have more than just a little helping of country to go along with their indie-rock sensibilities, but here I never feel like the instrumental is trying to pull ahead of the vocals; they’re both sort of staggering side by side. The drumbeat of “ON MY KNEES” is hesitant, it feels like it wants to take off sprinting in a direction but not knowing where to go it instead takes things slow.

On Apple Music, the lyrics aren’t presented in a standard line-by-line structure and rather as a paragraph. I’m not sure if this is an intentional choice, other lyrics sites like Genius have them in the more conventional form, but I really like the visual of seeing every line back to back. It really shows how much of a stream of consciousness this album really is, using roads and nature as a suit of armor to protect from what’s really going on under the surface: a general feeling that life could be better and it’s getting harder to live with increasingly negative thoughts. Trace Mountains don’t offer any solutions to this, rather it sits back and lets the listener connect with the universal concepts, acting as a bath to soak in one’s own uncertainties.


Classic Album Review

Classic Album Review: “Fantasies” by Metric

I’ve written on this blog before about the way I often favor a heavily curated over listening to individual albums after one listen. This is because in judging a body of music one of the biggest factors I weigh is consistency. A playlist full of songs I know will hit beats an album with a minute and a half interlude which brings everything to a screeching halt. There are exceptions to this rule, though, with perhaps the album I listen to the most on its own being Metric’s 2009 album “Fantasies”. And in honor of Metric featuring on the upcoming Rezz album, I want to talk about what just might be the most consistent LP I’ve ever heard.

Consistently good, that is. There are a lot of rough albums where one track was no less awful than the last, but beyond just having an unvarying quality, the quality on “Fantasies” is also really high. Vocalist Emily Haines is the gateway into Metric’s universe, able to go from slow and sensual to opening up the floodgates and surfing on a guitar line to hurtle the listener forward like the first plunge of a roller coaster. And this is all just on “Gold Guns Girls”, she’s able to bring this versatility and creativity to all ten tracks on here.

The name Metric is a really appropriate one for this band, because their instrumentals feel perfectly measured and precise, almost machinelike. Riffs methodically drive the song forward over a drumbeat that can go from a whisper in the background on “Collect Call” to pounding and abrasive, setting the tone early on “Stadium Love”, a very memorable song about the animal kingdom engaging in an armageddon-like fight, “angel vs eel, owl vs dove”. But there’s a ghost in that machine, every note adds to the often tense and desperate feelings of the songs. The world of “Fantasies” has danger lurking around every corner. Iconic opening track “Help I’m Alive” comes to terms with the crushing weight of expectations and how they threaten to devour the song’s narrator. “I tremble, they’re gonna eat me alive” are the first lines Emily Haines sings on the album, ironically delivered to the very crowd causing her heart to beat “like a hammer”.

Earlier I made the claim that this was the most consistent album I’ve ever heard, and that’s a claim I stand by. It’s not just that every track on the album has found its way onto a playlist, and I can count on one hand the number of albums that have done that. It’s that from beginning to end this album fills a very particular niche, walking a very thin line between overblown arena rock (though they would tour with Imagine Dragons six years later) and thoughtful indie to create an album that is both punchy and forlorn, while never wavering from the same tone from the declarative swells of “Sick Muse” to the drawn out sighs of “Collect Call”. The characters that inhabit songs on “Fantasies” are all flawed but hopeful, ready to get out into the world yet already jaded. 

“You’re gonna make mistakes, you know” sends off the subject of Gimme Sympathy, whose chorus evokes two of the most iconic bands of all time with “who’d you rather be, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” Ordinarily this would sound like a lazy name drop, but when the material is this good, the album as strong in it’s closing line as its first few drumbeats, the comparison really does feel earned.


New Album Review

Album Review: “Valentine” by Snail Mail

When I heard that Snail Mail was releasing a new album, I was taken right back to when I first heard their previous album, “Lush”. That album was one of the defining musical moments of my time in high school, and I’ve been anticipating the project that would eventually become “Valentine” ever since. Now this came out among several disappointing releases for me, but I’m happy to say that “Valentine” did not disappoint.

It starts off with a bang, both the title track and “Ben Franklin” are singles for a reason, and both play heavily to the band’s strengths. Lindsey Jordan’s compelling lyrics have been the face of the Snail Mail brand since its inception, and the way “Valentine” takes what on the surface seems to be a straightforward love song and weaves in themes of jealousy and transience while maintaining an overall fun and driving tone. Pacing is something this album does very well; an album like this where there isn’t that much instrumental variety can often drag but Snail Mail comes at this type of slow, synthy indie rock/pop at all different angles to make it work. The strength of the instrumentals acted almost wavelike across the tracklist, with songs like “Madonna” and “Glory” coming in to balance out slower songs like “c. Et Al.” and keep the album chugging along.

It’s been over three years since the last Snail Mail album dropped, and Jordan had been 19 when debut album “Lush” was released. This means that between albums cycles a lot has gone on in her life and the perspective the songwriting takes has now changed from someone who is just getting started with adult life to someone who would have graduated college if they weren’t busy being a super famous singer. And with the change in perspective comes a change in tone, and in doing so it loses one of my favorite elements of “Lush” when I first heard it. This was such an earnest album, with a bright tone making the songs really come to life and a lot of shouted choruses that made even ruminations on lost love sound fun and upbeat at times, and the album balanced these clashing styles perfectly. For me in high school this was a winning combination that really made “Lush” stand apart from its peers and it’s something “Valentine” has largely eschewed, this is a more weary album. “Automate” features Jordan talking about a rocky relationship, but it feels like a longer meditation delivered with a sigh, the very concept reducing love to machine-like motions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Wanting an artist to never evolve and always to sound like their debut is creatively stifling for them, this is just to say that as a listener you might need to alter what you think a Snail Mail album should sound like in 2021. And if you’re able to do that, you’ll find an album that’s perhaps less immediate, but with just as much substance and heart.