Our hyper-polarized world doesn’t lend itself to a bevy of Kumbaya moments. So when an album comes along espousing the tenets of spiritual naturalism, it can be a calming alternative to stealing your uncle’s blood pressure pills. That’s not to say one need prance around the Redwood forest, naked, to appreciate the interconnectedness of being, all while enjoying keyboard and mandolin. On the contrary, Aaron Laughlin – based in crunchy Humboldt, California – has recorded 20 minutes worth of earth loving harmony, to be digested with (or without) pants. Recorded on the grounds of Northern California’s Wiyot people, Lost Cause promises ambient-cum-experimental folk. And it is every bit as expressive as it is nourishing.
Laughlin has a fair bit of experience in writing and recording music, having released his first album around the same time most teens score their driver’s licenses. Not only do his talents extend into the engineering and production realms, but his multi-instrumentalism – particularly on this latest EP – outclasses many. Namely, the man plays electric and acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, keyboard and drums.
Deemed “adventurous tapestries of sound,” Lost Cause is presented as a reflective tool. Which is to say, it works less as a vessel of communal euphoria than it does as a solitary guide to the self. If that resonates as unsociable, one might also note that a half hour of introspection is hardly enough to spoil dinner plans.
The opener, “Lost Cause, Pt I,” begins with dramatic keyboard stabs before evolving into the prog-heavy formula that dominates. Yet, these curious idiomatics are hardly ham-fisted. To the contrary, Laughlin maintains a playful vibe, opting for vibrancy in lieu of a showy arrogance that, for better or worse, has come to define the genre. The music, as he states, is “perfect for walking amidst the majestic Redwoods,” although given the ever-shifting signature changes, it might be best suited for people with erratic limps or troublesome muscular tics. Alas, we could be tripping over boulders, but we’re still at peace.
Is this the kind of stuff that Rush would’ve honed in the 1970’s had they not made base in a Canadian metropolis? Or is it the music one creates while licking toadstools? It shouldn’t really matter, particularly if one accepts the complexity without harping on it. Sure, “Lost Cause Pt. II” is a more challenging piece, but the richer instrumentation never gets in its own way. Unobtrusive guitars avoid the self-serving lures of masturbatory noodling.
By the time “Unbroken” is cued, the sound assumes a less druggy, pre-Dark Side of The Moon feel. It is, in a word, ethereal; a psychedelic-lite nugget in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless.” Even the electric guitar, run through what sounds like a fuzz box, plays nicely without over-elbowing for attention.
“Lost Sacred Things” is the sweet but dreamy opus of the collection. Hooking the listener with repeated drum rolls, its playful resolve occasionally slows for lush bouts of pseudo-falsetto. This is all punctuated by guitar solos that bleed urgency, and a tender yet accessible melody that organically builds until, by the final quarter of the piece, it exists as a cohesive whole. With this final realization, everything falls into place: a deconstructed turn-of-awakening, a meld of beauty and interconnectedness, as Laughlin’s fingers tame the guitar and we, as listeners, presumably find our place. Wherever that may be.
Just wear some sensible hiking boots if you’re listening in the woods.
Aliso Viejo is the brainchild behind Composition Booklet. The artist recently released Weed For The Innocence which is a ten-song album. This is an instrumental album that combines prog and math rock with an off kilter approach that at times gets very experimental.
The album begins with “Alcohol” which, within the first minute-and-a-half, goes through about four major transitions. One of the things I really enjoyed about this track was just the absolute chaos and mayhem it isn’t afraid to jump into. Take for instance the abrasive and dissonant walls of sound the song confronts around the two-minute mark.
“Mind” is a short one at under two minutes but has this start and stop quality that jolts you with energy. I thought the band Battles came to mind that I think is a severely underrated act. “Trilobite” is a somewhat mechanical and grinding psychedelic tornado of sounds. The groove refuses to go unnoticed and doubles down around the two-minute mark and gets more intense with high end energy.
“Gloom Metal” is a good description of the song. The band Sunn O))) came to mind on this song. It’s epic, ominous and waves of feedback and white noise drip over you. “Offspring” perhaps gets even more experimental. There’s a combination of sine waves and really fast beats. At first it’s mostly a ride cymbal but towards the end the drummer more or less launches into a drum solo. It’s chaotic and near impossible to dance to but very cool to listen to especially with headphones,
Viejo continues to experiment with unique and experimental patterns and sound collages on “Trypophobia.” There should be a warning before “To Wish Wish Wish My Heart Way To Deep Dark Points In The World.” This song is insane and sort of makes you feel like that. I’m not sure what else to say but tread with caution and take a listen. “Track 6” and “Wackamole” are shorter songs which sandwich the centerpiece “Anthrax.”
In terms of pure intensity and chaos “Anthrax” might take the cake. It’s an onslaught of sound and will spit you out if you’re not prepared. This is another song where you just need to experience it to understand the meaning behind my words.
Viejo created an album that refuses to be ignored. My only criticism is that some of the songs sounded a bit too lo-fi like “Gloom Metal” but overall I thought the production style worked for his style of music.
Overall, I think people looking for something experimental that still manages to sound like a garage/prog rock band in some respects will appreciate this most. Recommended.
Pestoric is the solo project for Justin Bell. The artist from Melbourne, Australia released Deniable Plausibility which is a six-song EP. The artist mentions some of his influences such as Matchbook Romance, Blink 182, Cream, NOFX, No Use For A Name, One Dollar Short, Bad Brains and Something With Numbers. Bell explains, “This EP is just me having a bit of fun and giving a nod to the punk music that I grew up with in the ’00s.”
I remember this period of time in music clearly. It was before people streamed music and when buying music at a record store was an activity that people did. Truth be told I miss those days for a lot of reasons I won’t go into. Deniable Plausibility certainly gave me some nostalgia for not only some of the aforementioned bands but also the feeling people had towards music back then.
The EP starts with “Broken Shadows” and it feels like a solid opener because of how it initially layers with instrumentation and energy. As the song progresses it finds its way to the verse. The guitar has a good amount of phaser on it and the vocals are catchy. I also thought the hook was memorable which reminded me of the Offspring.
“Breathe” is the arguable highlight. The song veers towards a pop punk ballad at first and then the BPM increases. It’s a fast beat and similar to the amazing drumming you might have heard from NOFX. The song contains a great hook and some staple moves like string scratching with a pick which was such a ’90s punk move.
“Misplaced Devotion” has the most energy yet. The song revolves around distorted power chords, a fast 4/4 beat and an enthusiastic vocal performance. It’s one of the more anthemic songs in the batch. Punk bands like Minutemen wrote a lot of songs that were under two minutes and “What is Swim? (An Apology Song)” follows that structure. Short, powerful and not an ounce of fat. “Secrets” is a great closer. I loved the vocals on this song which are backed by major and minor chords.
If you’re familiar with some of the aforementioned bands this release should feel like home. I can’t say Bell goes past what was established decades ago but he is able to keep the flame alive for a new generation.
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Last Grasp is a long-distance post-punk duo made up of Boris Stojanović and Matthew DeFeis. They recently released a three-song self-titled EP Last Grasp. I thought the three songs had roots in post-punk but the songs felt a little brighter than what you would hear from the genre.
The EP gets going with “Cold Cold Glares'' and after a brief build you are greeted with warm guitars, a Bossa nova style beat and vocals. There’s a stoic, somber and dramatic quality to the vocals. As I mentioned earlier the song does brighten up with elements. Around the two-and-a- half-minute mark the song starts to latch onto a killer groove and it felt a bit like the song was coming out of the darkness.
The second song “Paltry Sum” seemed like a nice melding of new wave and post-punk. I loved the guitars here but what’s perhaps more interesting is the way they are produced. The guitars get noticeably brighter at points which definitely changes the mood and emotional energy of the song. I thought the vocals were catchy and the most memorable of the three songs.
Last up is “Vampire Summer Jam” and it begins with an electronic drum beat and more impressive guitar picking. There’s a very cool and effective swell which builds and drops into a great groove. The song is pretty warm and inviting despite the post-punk aesthetic and lyrics. The focus seems to be on nostalgia and perhaps nostalgia for simply being a human. The vocalist sings “I can't help but think of how things used to be. I was a humble little mortal blissful as a bee between the arms of those I used to love. I find it hard to think of all of the above.” Towards the end, the song is replaced by a different song which slows down and creates a haunting effect which you feel after it’s over.
I thought the recording quality was solid for a home recording. There were some minor issues with frequency distrubtion but for the most it sounded professional and worked for the type of music they are playing.
The three songs did a good job creating a cohesive and seamless sound. Although the whole EP is around twelve minutes I felt there was enough here to start a spark for the band and build from this foundation.
Overall, I think fans of some of the aforementioned genres will appreciate this most and encourage you to take a listen.
Ella Fox is currently based in Germany, after jumping across the pond from Nashville in 2019. While she was there she wrote and recorded a five-song EP entitled Favorite. The EP combines pop sensibilities with out of the box production.
The EP begins with the title track “Favorite” which at its heart is a piano ballad. I immediately was attracted to the warm and inviting vocal performance. The song is tender and heartfelt. Fox sings “I fell in love with you in a matter of days. / I want to play with you like a favorite game / Running after you in Paris / Kissing under the trees / You can keep me here forever / Take a photo of me.” The other thing I liked about this song was the sound design. There are other elements here which add to the emotional resonance. I’m not even sure what they were (possibly synths or a manipulated vocal) but it gave the song a unique flavor.
“Satisfied” felt a little like a pop song in disguise. The hook is memorable and her vocals certainly soar. Similar to the previous song there are interesting and inventive sound design decisions that happen which made me take notice. There’s also the sense of empowerment as well as gratitude I was getting while listening.
“Hanging off the face of the earth” was the arguable highlight. I absolutely loved the beginning piano melody that’s accompanied by what sounds like orchestral elements. There seems to be a manipulated violin as well as other elements that have a good amount of hall reverb on them. The vocals are more somber on this song as well as a little more intimate. This song also mentions Paris so I’m inclined to think this is about the same person. Fox sings “Let's go to Paris, say you'll marry me / Come take my hand, darling I'm your man.”
The last song “Darling, it's you” is also a highlight. It’s the most intimate sounding song and also even more intimate than ““Hanging off the face of the earth.”.There’s a lot of space for the vocals to breathe which I think was a good decision as these melodies were memorable and drive the song.
I loved the off-kilter approach to pop music. It made it feel novel and fresh. I think people who appreciate a good hook but want something approached in a new and creative way then this is the ticket.
Loki Patera is a solo musical project fronted by Bastian Doney, a multi-instrumentalist and producer based in Denver, Colorado. Butterfly Guts is a four-song EP that combines electronic music and folk. Patera mentions “This EP embodies a human's relationship to the world around itself. It's a collection of songs about growing up and trying to figure out what you are in this life - not necessarily being able to - and learning to come to terms with that.”
“I Don't Want To” is the first song and begins with just vocals and guitar. The song could have been just this and been good. There’s a distinct mechanical sounding beat, arpeggiated synths, The song felt more or like an intro as it builds and stays around the same groove.
“Poltergeist” is a more realized song with a lot of meat on it. There’s a lot going on in this song. I was reminded of earlier Animal Collective because of the background vocal harmonies, the Eastern percussion as well as some of the synths he implements. The song is lush and emerges you in a comforting wave of sound. It’s ethereal and otherworldly sounding and I felt like I wanted to meditate after listening to it. The lyrics also capture that feeling when he sings “Every time I float around you I feel my youth fading like the phantom that walks down the hallway / Got caught in a labyrinth but that's just the way it goes.”
“Make Sense” doesn't have much of that Eastern quality but still feels otherworldly. The song starts with just guitar and vocals and builds with a lot of layers. I liked the groove on the verse which seamlessly transitions into a cascading and epic sounding chorus. There are multiple things happening vocally which creates a circular pattern of continuous energy that feels positive and life-affirming.
“Shylvye” starts off the same way as the previous song with a lone guitar. Similar to the previous song, the song builds with many layers. The vocals are great and perhaps the most memorable. It isn’t too long before we are introduced to a beat. The feeling is serene and hypnotic. There’s an ambient breakdown in the middle of the song. I loved the way it built with more cascading vocals which seem to be one of the artist's strengths.
This is the type of release that benefits from active listening and headphones. There's a lot going on in the mixes which you might not notice. I thought these four songs were dynamic and really well produced and written.
Nicholas Coleman is the artist behind Softie. Strong Hold is the recent release from the artist which contains five songs. There’s a brief explanation about the sound on his Bandcamp page but I found this to sound like lo-fi bedroom beats mixed with subtle elements of shoegaze.
The EP starts with “Doser” and you are greeted with a 4/4 beat and bass line at first. There’s some guitar that starts to trickle in and rise in volume. The vocals which come in are barely above a whisper. I couldn’t make out any lyrics and perhaps that was the intent. The song feels sparse and moody. There aren’t any major changes to the song and it felt primarily about the nuance.
“Schmo” is very similar in mood. It’s darker and subdued energy where most of the dynamics come from the guitar. There are ephemeral moments of beauty if you listen closely. The song is very lo-fi and again the words were very hard to make out or even notice at times.
“Gifts'' rumbles along with a dissonant energy. Occasional ghostly vocals emerge and combine with guitar patterns. The whole song more or less stays in the same groove. There are some changes but all of it is subtle and revolves around some of the guitar work. This felt more ambient than anything to me besides the end where high end frequencies are introduced.
“Flat:Still” is a slow burn. It feels like molasses as it pours over you. The vocals are barely noticeable on this song and there’s almost no change in energy. “Can I Be You” is the closer and the most realized song in the batch as well as the most dynamic. The guitars are more prominent and liked the more classic shoegaze aesthetic.
As an engineer and songwriter myself for the past twenty-five years I thought the artist put a little too much on his plate. I think handing this off to a mastering engineer might have helped frequency distribution. The mixes are a bit narrow and personally think they might have benefited from more separation. Some of this is due to the accumulation on the lower end frequencies. Again this may have just been an artistic decision.
This EP felt to me like it was more about mood than anything else which works. There are no real hooks to be found and vocals didn’t ever seem like a focal point. On that note I would love to hear the artist explore some of his ideas more on future releases.
There are some interesting approaches to sound design and I think this is a solid start with some inventive ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing how the artist evolves.
Good Morning is the latest release from Uh Oh. Here at Divide & Conquer, we reviewed their previous release Stay Close back in 2019. The band has a familiar story at this point where they were all confronted with the pandemic and thought the best use of their time was to make music.
They start things off with “No Sweat” which feels like an opener for a number of reasons. The song starts with an almost ominous sort of ambience. Elements rattle and also start to trickle in. The band’s presence gets established around the one-minute mark and breaks into rocking and large sounding and as the song progresses it picks up energy as well as memorable vocal melodies. Kudos to the drummer for some of those fills when the vocalist sings “It’s over” in the crescendo towards the end.
“Still Life” felt like a highlight. The combinations of rolling drums, distorted guitars, bass and vocals create a highly kinetic and fun song that felt like a mix between alt rock and country. The two vocalists were also a big plus to the song.
“Dumb Luck Easy Fear” starts with what sounds like a purposely lo-fi recording of guitar and vocals. It works mainly because of the spirit behind it. There’s an interesting transition where the fidelity improves and the band starts to rock out hard.
“Swan Dive” was another highlight. I loved how frantic, fast and chaotic this song felt. The drumming was again a major part of this but the bassist and guitarist also slay on this song. I thought the hook was anthemic.
The band can also pull off an emotionally resonant ballad as you can hear on “Am I In Your Head?” There’s enough here to make the song sound distinct to their signature sound. “NO Grace” is another emotionally resonant song that starts off intimate and stays that way but adds additional instrumentation and layers to the mood.
As the album progresses I thought they hit it out of the park. Some of the other highlights include “Copperhead” which has a memorable hook, “People Are Serious In Omaha” and the melancholy and nostalgic “Good Morning.”
The band impressed us with their previous release but this album is a couple of degrees better. For fans of emotive rock that hits your heart and may have you singing along in not time I highly recommend this release.
Zack Hyneman of Portland, Oregon is a co-founder of the Supernatural Beavers, that released their first album in 2020. He’s back with his debut solo album titled HYNEMAN, in which he wrote, played and sang everything himself. Hyneman calls this “a collection of songs written over a decade of serious songwriting. The content is primarily autobiographical: a musical portrait of my twenties. Most of these songs have been played at various open mics, but this is the first time they've been recorded professionally. Themes include love, coming of age, drinking, drugs, wandering, working an unfulfilling job, anger and a ballad about a great, great grandma of mine who was left in a basket on a doorstep when the circus came through town.”
Hyneman’s only genre listing is “folk” but I also found his songs to have a strong country bent as well. He further notes that he intended these songs to have minimal arrangements, “but they had a way of expanding in the studio.” Recording and production was by Gregg Williams at The Trench during late 2021, with mastering by Timothy Stollenwerk. Hyneman’s acoustic guitar of choice is a Breedlove Studio Dreadnaught, with his clean, full vocals recorded through a Heiserman H47 tube microphone.
Just to cut to the chase, I think Hyneman is a compelling singer/songwriter with a bright future. His songs have the intelligence, flair and humor of some of the genre’s leading lights. I won’t claim to have gotten everything I could from this album with just a few spins, but I know there’s tons of great material waiting to be discovered with future listenings.
“Dresden” is an excellent start. Hyneman’s audio feels open and airy, especially with his acoustic piano and roomy acoustic guitar. The instruments sound organic alongside each other, not just like tracks stacked up; they seem to be playing in the same space and interacting with each other. Not surprisingly (given the H47 microphone) Hyneman’s vocals sound the best of all the instruments, with a vocal chorus worthy of Brian Wilson. The overall feel is laid back, laconic, maybe a bit cynical and world-weary.
“San Francisco” is the first example of what I see as more of a country tune. “I never met a beer I couldn’t finish / before I met you.” I love Hyneman’s lyrical device of listing all the things the narrator could never do “before he met” the newest woman in his life. “The timing ain’t right / but honey, I like you a lot… if you kiss me, I’ll take you with me / every time I sing this song.”
“Vanessa” is more folky, with its picked acoustics and big harmony chorus vocals. Again, Hyneman’s lyrics have a way of putting you in a time and place like a fine novel, but with just a few words. “Sunrise, cigarettes and bloodshot eyes / the sinners with regrets but no disguise… we’re scared, drunk and tired but at least not alone.” The effect is similar to the songs of Freedy Johnston, though frankly Hyneman has a better voice!
“Mr. Future Workingstiff” reminded me of an old Ry Cooder work song, plodding along the prairie with great slide acoustic guitar. The drum beat is a little unsteady but feels authentic. Honestly, if I’d heard this song on a Warners LP from the late ‘70s in a bargain bin, it would have made perfect sense. The best thing I can say about “The Beast” is that I can easily imagine Johnny Cash doing a cover version.
“Rollin’” is a jaunty country amble, with the lyrical simplicity of a children’s sing-along. Hyneman notes that “the electric guitar is a 1997 Fender Stratocaster Lone Star; the piano is a 100+ year old Windsor Player originally delivered by wagon (the self-playing mechanism has since been disabled). ”The Ballad Of Minnie Sloan” is another Cash-worthy tune: a narrative story with a Sergio Leone soundtrack vibe, featuring harmonica and mariachi horns straight outta “Ring of Fire.”
“Fuck This Song” is the closest Hyneman comes to a novelty tune with continuous, humorous use of the F word, but he’s too good to throw away even a funny song. Past the laughs, this final track is just as compelling and moving as everything that’s come before. “I know I got some demons and I think they’re here to stay / ‘cos when I toke and smoke ‘em out they just come back some fucking day… until I’m high lying on my back with a guitar on my bed / I close my eyes and try to write something but it only comes out wrong / man, fuck this song.”
I have not mentioned every one of the ten songs on this album, but I think they’re all equally good and I highly recommend this album and artist to one and all!
Springs of Decay is the recording project of central Massachusetts’ Andrew Caruso. Maria on the Shore is the debut release, a three-track EP that features Caruso’s writing, vocals, guitars and other instruments. Bass and drums were tracked by Tyler Ochs, who engineered the project.
Caruso calls his music “indie gloom.”.The lyrics certainly are gloomy–starting with “And I held your head as you died.” This is the opening phrase from the opening track “Collar,” which explores the death of a beloved pet. On the second (“The Spring of Decay, Verse One”) and third (“Maria on the Shore”) tracks, Caruso works through what he experienced watching his grandmother’s battle with dementia. It’s not an easy subject, but Caruso handles it with an empathetic combination of narrative and imagery.
The music supporting these lyrics isn’t particularly gloomy, however. “Collar” and “Maria on the Shore” take on straight-ahead, indie-pop grooves, a bit reminiscent of the Goo Goo Dolls in their pleasant mixing of joy and melancholia. “Collar” straddles that line where we’re sad for the loss of our pet–but we’re reminded of the great friendship we had. He concludes, “I found your soul,” and I went to hug my dogs. On “Maria on the Shore,” Caruso stretches his legs and takes things a step further; the middle section finds him reinterpreting the melody over a reggae feel. In a lovely turn, the ensuing guitar solo plays over a feel that combines the original indie groove with reggae elements. It is very well executed, and reminiscent of how the Police fused reggae and rock.
“The Spring of Decay, Verse One,” the glue between the two rock tracks, takes a very different approach. The music is more ambient in approach–heavy on the keyboards, with a synth-drum groove. Caruso, with voice electronically distorted, reads a short piece of prose (which inspired the lyrics for the title track) over the top. Be sure to read the lyric sheet to get the full effect of his writing.
Maria on the Shore channels some tough topics and raw emotions into three fine tracks. Thank you, Mr. Caruso, for sharing with us.
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