Except for Deadheads who seem to somehow never die out or they are replenished, somewhere like video game characters after they die, the next group that seems to have endless members keeping the flame alive are the metal fans. They’re still everywhere, in every single town and city, big and small. Two such guys who are fanning the eternal flames of heavy metal are the Boston based boys, Victor and Stephen who along with a changing cast of characters head up the hard rock outfit Renegade Cartel.
The problem with hard rock and metal is that it seems to scare a lot of people away, or rather it seems to have a stigma about it that conjures up images of flaming crosses and snakes and skulls. It’s also very loud and fast and the guitars often sound like they’re soprano chainsaws. But from a musical standpoint hard rock and metal songs are some of the most complicated to play, especially when compared to other rock genres like punk or grunge et al. So, there’s at least a base line that must be established before you can even think about starting a decent metal band. You need to do your research and get your chops up.
The six songs that comprise Renegade Cartel’s eponymous debut EP Renegade Cartel show that a lot of hard work and practice went into the writing and recording of these songs. Victor and Stephen did their homework and it pays off for them on this record.
The opening track “Fire” comes out hitting hard. It has all the classic elements of heavy metal, wah wah guitars and high pitched and catchy vocal melodies and an ass-kicking sense of purpose. The music itself touches on blues and metal, much in the way that Zeppelin did. Then we shift into a more hair-metal friendly tune with “Misery in Company.” The blend of blues and hair-metal rocking kicks back into gear on “Silent Spring” which sounded to me as good as anything anyone was paying top dollar for in the ‘80s. The cherry on top of this cake is the eight-plus-minute closer “Crawl” which starts out sounding like Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains and as it builds turns and finishes in a fugue of raging metal.
For anyone looking to dip their toes in the waters of metal, Renegade Cartel is a good place to start. But I’d also recommend it to those who have never wavered from this style of music. It’s a good EP to add to the collection because it’s done professionally and passionately, and that to me is always how the best music is made.
As the story goes, the Toronto singer-songwriter Sarah van den Berg traded a a sequined, blue bra and two tall cans for a toy guitar that was usually always out of tune on a some sort of trading website called Bunz Trading Zone. Then she learned a few chords and started writing songs, ending up with over 30 different conceptualized versions of songs.
The ones that made the cut are the three that ended up on her solo debut The Moon EP. Though all the songs were written by van den Berg, she had a cast and crew behind her to help her out, playing guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion etc. and also a producer friend Julia Wittmann who mixed and mastered the album.
The three songs on The Moon EP are simple enough affairs that follow a vein of fun and poppy and also folksy sort of pop ballads. The first thing that caught my attention about this record was how prodigious van den Berg’s vocals are and how well they pair with the melodies she and her backing band write. She and her band never stretch to try something out of the ordinary. They stay close to the shore as far as experimentation goes, which I really liked, as so many younger artists think they need to make rather challenging affairs right off the bat in order for people to take them seriously.
The opening song “Security” is an alt country pop ditty that works in that storytelling way of self-narration. Next she gives us the shimmering and elegant yet simple and sweet “Permission.” On the final track “The Moon” she and her band create a memorable melody of pop and fantasy. It is again simple but heartfelt, the way the best kind of songwriting always is.
Both the precision of instrumentation and the beautiful brevity of van den Berg’s songwriting really made me want to hear more songs from her, and I think this short but sweet record will be just as enticing to a wider audience. I hope there is a longer album in the near future.
Quantum Eraser is Anders Covert, formerly of Seattle psych noise duo Wehrwolve. He recently released Time Doesn't Exist a somewhat genre bending release that contains three songs.
“T3MP0R41 F33db4CK” is the opening track and begins with an arpeggiated synth that sounds just about perfect for a sci-fi movie like Blade Runner. Once the percussion comes in, it gives the music an Industrial vibe but it rather quickly starts to mutate into a loose jazz beat. As the song progresses it definitely has a futuristic, neo-cyberpunk type quality that feels psychedelic and hyperreal. The vocals don’t quite feel like a lead. It seemed to be more like another elements adding to the psychedelic swirl. The band Fuck Buttons came to mind.
“Psilosibhansthal” is a different flavor with a distinct heavy hip-hop beat. White noise tears from the seams and crooning Thom Yorke-esque style falsetto comes into the equation. The lyrics are ambiguous and seem to paint the picture of absurdity in a David Lynch kind of way.
Covert sings, “The streets aren't paved with gold / It ain't milk or honey / The American Dream never existed / Mathematics and printed circuit boards / Geometry of unconscious eyes.”
“Holographic Time Travelers” is an experimental and dissonant song. It’s a bit of music overload even with a sober mind. The vocals melodies are catchy in their way even though they are juxtaposed against the music itself.
My only concern with this type of music is in general it sometimes feels difficult to connect with concrete human emotions like sadness, nostalgia, hope, etc. It digs a little deeper into the DNA of time and space where reality can seem disconnected and alien instead of warm and holistic.
Suffice it to say if you can appreciate more experimental acts like Oneohtrix Point Never to Acid Mothers Temple you will want to give this a whirl.
Calder the Band released Till I Get It Right in May of 2018. The three-piece calls Fort Wayne, IN home, although they were originally formed in New York. Members also hail from Chicago and North Carolina.
The album was written in Indiana, the debut effort from the band uses the slacker rock template to paint a brand new picture on a wall that has recently gained much attention thanks to explosive efforts from new artists that fly the genre’s flag over their music. Till I Get It Right is another prime contributor alongside the other albums that have catapulted slacker rock into the mainstream.
“I Know It “ is a reverb drenched jazzy chord jump around type song. The lyrics are delivered in a nonchalant spoken tone, and the drums and bass support the guitar. The guitar is so much further out in the mix because of the reverb that leaves the haunting remnants of the chord behind.
It’s a fun song to listen to at a medium tempo. “June” begins with a chorused guitar and a moving bass line that draws the lines of the map of the sonic landscape with precise clarity. The space that the band uses to move around in is endless, and the movements are weightless performed with grace.
Upbeat slacker rock chords wail out over minimalist drums, grooving bass tones and expertly picked solos. The overall vibe of the music reminds me of a Sunday spent with close friends doing absolutely nothing in particular. It can also be an intense and in-depth listen if the listener wants to approach the album that way.
There are more than enough instances of artistic excellence on this album to keep listeners enticed. Melodic brilliance is the underline of the album. Catchy lines to sing along in the choruses, and even some verses, as well as fun guitar lines to enjoy and bass lines to bounce with. This album is not a waste of listener time by any means.
Natural born kissers (or NBK) is singer and lyricist Mika Itkin Weinstein, guitarist Jacob Levine, bassist Matt Tellstone and drummer Jake Murray. They released Grenadine which is a five-song EP that displays some of their talent. The band describes their music as ”picnic punk” which to my ears sounds like a pretty straightforward alternative with a dash of punk and some additional flair.
They are a young, fun band and fans of bands with similar aesthetics such as Frankie Cosmos and Porches. The songs follow a distinct “indie” flavor that is sometimes cute and innocent in the same way a lot of Frankie Cosmos material (although a little more aggressive) sounds to my ears.
The band get rolling with “oregon trail” and I liked what I heard right off the bat. Although it sort of seems like the guitarist and bassist are noodling they aren’t. They give Weinstein enough room to let the vocal breathe. On that note I thought this may have been her best vocal performance. She is really dynamic and goes from subtle to powerful vocals. The hooks are also memorable. Killer song.
The band goes into Mac Demarco territory with “current events” on the verse with that dreamy yet slightly funky reverb haze he is known for. I love the chorus which is catchy and powerful in a ’90s Pavement type of way. That being said the sort of drum solo that happens is great partially because it’s just cool sounding but also because I wasn't expecting it.
“holiday inn” is a pretty straightforward indie rock that is well delivered. Props to Tellstone for the killer bass line. “4 the kidz” is another solid effort. The closer “i die 2” is a little more emotionally resonant and pensive than the previous songs. Weinstein sounds great against the ’90s guitar style that closely mirrored The Smashing Pumpkins’ earlier work and Hum.
Natural born kissers are on par with a lot of the coming of age indie darlings that are part of the new breed that were influenced by bands like Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices and other like minded bands I personally grew up on as a 20 something. I think natural born kissers have what it takes so my advice is to go out and get it.
Grasping at a Lead Balloon is the debut EP from Illinois alt-rock duo By Design. Band members Kristin Vrona and Brandon Krantz describe their first release as a combination of “heavy hitters and somber pieces.” Such influential bands like A Perfect Circle, Chevelle and the Deftones can be heard on the harder edged songs, while Audioslave and R.E.M. are heard on the more solemn tunes. The duo have been writing music together for about a year and recording on and off for more than that. The two hope to recruit a drummer and bass player soon, so they can play full band shows out on the road. But for now on Grasping at a Lead Balloon, they had additional help on a few songs by Paul Lambert and Josh Wheeler.
“Welcome Home” opens the five-song EP beginning with a tasty, thick bass line and meaty guitar riffs. The music is loud and heavy and the singing style is quite haunting, but at times it was hard to decipher what was being sung because I thought the instruments overpowered the singing. The lines “thrown in the fire / thus we choke / fear the hand / around your throat” was especially chilling. “Wake Again” was not as heavy; it had more of that alt-rock somber feel. Lyrically, the message is equally solemn as the song ends — “you look in the mirror / horrified by what you see / then you turn to the bottle / stumble back to your bed / and you’re prepared / to never wake again.”
“Boiling Point” is a venture into darkness. Krantz sings first and then Vrona joining him on “madness clings to me / like a stale disease.” Both the lyrics and the heavy, distorted guitar riffs have an intense and anguished nature to them, no doubt – this heavier rock metal style By Design taps into reminds me a little of Evanescence. The next song “Tic Tac” has a bouncier, lighter flare to it with a catchy bass line to start things off. But when the “sample” part to the song states the words “when you’re dealing with the terrorists, you have to take out their families” I thought…yeah, maybe not so light on the lyrics. This part and afterwards, where Vrona starts singing “come child, your voice is strong…” as the guitar riffs get darker and the tempo changes, reminded me for a brief moment of something from Tony Iommi’s Sabbath playbook. Oh yes, and for those who like rage filled scream-singing, the ending should please you.
The ending song aptly titled “End Game” is perhaps the mellowest song on the EP. Vrona’s voice is better audibly here, so you can really hear the beautiful tone to her natural instrument. The guitar solo is well done and sounds great using whatever effect pedal the band used. The choice to have extra back up singing alongside Vrona was an interesting and effective choice as well. Lyrically, the tune seems to be about a painful relationship that got worse.
By Design plays a great mix of the dark, rock metal with lighter alt-rock numbers giving their ‘lead balloon’ debut a lot of lift into whatever is next on their agenda.
Every week we mention a couple of artists that are worth your time to check out that were not featured in our weekly reviews.
Artist Album Rating
goodnight/goodluck missing 3.8
godsownmonstr ep1 3.4
Moon By Moon Moon By Moon 3.6
Naff EP 3.7
Room 100 Tourist Tales 3.5
Electron Mass Earthlight EP 3.6
Path is the project of NJ songwriter Sam Keeler. His recent release Still is a gorgeous album that combines acoustic instrumentation, loads of reverb and very well written songs. This album is borderline perfect for fans of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Real Estate and The Clientele.
Keeler simply has an undeniably attractive and appealing voice. His vocals are smooth and warm with a nice balance of hope and melancholy that brings you a sense of calm. The album begins with “Live In My Arms” which revolves around an upbeat folk groove. Keeler’s vocals are smothered in reverb and work really well with the music. The song is also undeniably infectious. Keeler sings, “So won't you come and live in my arms / Just take a step, it's not so far / Come and live in my arms.” What an opener.
“Gracie” reminded me a little more of Sufjan Stevens. It’s another extremely well written and delivered song. Real Estate and The Clientele however came to mind on “Don't Ever Love Me.” Up next is “Still” which is sparse but introduces some unique, experimental sounds.
As the album progresses Keeler doesn't disappoint. “Key,” the shoegaze inspired “I Wait” and the infectious “Cynthia” are all notable songs.The technical abilities on “Stone” should not go unnoticed against the aesthetics. Keeler closes with “Stone” which is uplifting, hopeful, nostalgic and melancholy. The lyrics are sweet, heartfelt and lack any sense of pretense. Keeler sings, “It’s a love you can fall in love with / All the world sleeps in your head / Don’t find a way out, find a way in / All that I've done was for you, my friend.”
Keeler is a true talent on par with some of the previously mentioned artists. He deserves a lot more attention because this album was that good. You won't want to miss this gem of an album.
The City Limit is a New Jersey based band whose members singer/guitarist Scott Lewis, drummer Sean Meyers, keyboardist Matt Meyer, and bassist Anthony Ambrosio blend up multiple genres including blues, pop, rock, R&B, funk and folk to make original compositions that are radio-friendly mid-tempo rock balanced with emotive lyrics.
Their debut record Dreaming in the Backroom uses all their influences to go about crafting a record that doesn’t ever sound like the same song being written over and over again. It was refreshing to hear a band that says they have many influences and actually represents them on a record in a diverse array of songs that still sound like the same band is playing them all.
The opening track on Dreaming in the Backroom is called “Bring You Home with Me.” It definitely had a little bit of a white guy singing some sad but mellow lyrics to a little bit of vibrato and funk. Kinda like John Mayer meets Maroon Five. They take it up a notch on the bluesy rocker “Anything At All” which definitely has some pretty nice hooks both musically and vocally. It has a bit of a sing-song chorus that goes into a pretty sweet keyboard solo which then goes into a little guitar solo and the whole band is just jamming out.
Later, on the track “Collateral Damage” they get that funky, jam vibe back again, and there are some jazzy elements to it which I really thought were great. This vibe continues on “Fading Away” but there is a happier tone to Lewis’s vocals which really changes the dynamic of the song as does the sweet saxophone solo which then morphs into this cool blues guitar breakdown as the tune closes. The final track “Here to Stay” is perhaps their most rocking song in its pacing and has a bit of cool alt-country vibe to it and a lot of energy.
Dreaming in the Backroom has a great flow. These guys are all very talented musicians but also know how to get the most mileage out of a song by not rushing things and the record also does a great job with collaging multi-genres so seamlessly.
Bad Athlete is a power pop quartet from Norman, OK. The are comprised of guitarist/vocalist Matt Howard, vocalist and bassist Kristen Howard, Grant Nordean on guitar/synthesizer and drummer/guitarist Sean Barker. They admit a heavy influence to Weezer’s blue album and Weezer spinoff the Rentals, but also cite the Beach Boys as another influence. Within a few seconds of listening to their eponymous four-song debut record Bad Athlete I can say I definitely heard all three of these bands’ influences to a degree that I almost thought that maybe this was a Weezer or Rentals cover band that only played B-sides and rarities. I’m definitely a Pinkerton man myself but that didn’t stop me from really kinda liking Bad Athlete.
The opening track “Who Do You Love” has that classic Weezer song structure and howling synthesizers that sound as though they could have been dubbed in from just about any Weezer or Rentals song, (pick one) but their harmonies (they all have some backing vocal tracks of a sort) really give the song its lift and its life. I tried to think as I listened that had I never heard Weezer before what would I think of Bad Athlete? The truth is the music is pretty damn fun to listen to and is probably why Weezer had such a big following and probably still retains most of it to this day either out of serious fanatics or just the sheer pleasantness of nostalgia their sound invites.
On the second track, simply titled “Yeah” I realized that Bad Athlete has this style down to such a T that it’s actually quite admirable and the songs are just as fun and dumb as most of Weezer’s catalogue was. It reminded me that when a band takes itself a little too seriously everything can crumble very quickly, but when one is serious about only playing a certain style and focusing so soul crushingly hard on that style that great things can occur. “Yeah” is a simple rock song, but also a damn good time to listen to with its hard punches of rock and its cooing backing vocals. It’s damn hard not to like it. I especially liked the boy/girl vocal harmonies, something that just goes with this music so well, and they hit it on the head on the brilliantly composed “Lonely One.”
So I guess what I’m trying to say about Bad Athlete’s Bad Athlete is that sometimes you can say fuck all to having an original sound and just remake something over again, but do it so good that you could even fool people into believing it’s authentic. I look forward to future maneuvers from Bad Athlete. Recommended!
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