The Engineer is sound coming out of Ireland that makes it a mission to soften the pre-conceived harsh edges of the electronic music genre. Put Light Around You is producer Phil Dunne's second release and is far from the expected in many ways. Most of the album takes form as a lo-fi almost shoegaze experience with an industrial edge.
I appreciated the metallic, metalsmith nature of the opening track "Midnight Sword Fight." The lo-fi push it had felt more like swords getting forged than clashing, but I appreciated the organic metallic sounds. Next up came "Interstellar" and this one caught my attention right away with its playfully rhythmic intro. It's aloof and very curious. I could never really tell if there was danger afoot or not. It kept me on my toes; it was interesting.
"The Owls Are Not What They Seem" is such a perfectly paranoid song name, I dig it. I don't know if this is a reference to abduction theories that include owls, but it had a very severed and interesting turn to it that reminded me of those stories.
On "Put Light Around You" soft synth and ambiance immediately embrace you. This is the first time on the album I could really sense color whereas the first three tracks were not as vibrant. This one also makes a slow build to a very cool, lo-fi climax. What's cool is that we get revisit this track with the remix of it by Eomac - excellent percussion elements here.
Here's a song name for you, "Resultant Force Remix" which is categorized as a bonus track. This is the first time I am introduced to the artist as a percussionist. He likes to layer and again there is a presence of that organic metal feel from the "Midnight Sword Fight." This is definitely more lively and beckons body movement. I like his ability to break from his formula.
I do have a few things on my wish list for this album. His percussion work really is amazing and I would have liked to hear more of it. I think a few organic samples could have gone a long way to better showcase his layering skills. It's rare that I recommend more ingredients to a chef, but this is only because I believe and am so curious as to what he would do with them. He did a lot with what is a bare bones approach when it comes to electronic music. He painted big, landscape style paintings conveying all sorts of different emotions. I would have like to have heard a little more production trickery overall, but again, I respect the bare bones and very human approach.
This is an interesting find that is unexpected. I think it has a distinct flavor in the ambient genres. I think that Dunne has a talent for exploring an idea in a very dedicated manner. Each one of these songs sounds like a complete thought or thesis on a matter. It all works. Take a listen
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Vanden Dool with a debut self-titled album Vanden Dool brings an eclectic synth pop sound and has joined the ranks of what appears to be the latest synth wave movement. The undeniable homage to the ’80s with those hyper canned sounds combined with some solid production work at its back. I will say that this is an album that comes fully equipped with range and character throughout all ten tracks. I will say it does come off as a bit of a time hop.
The sampling on here is incredibly diverse and hand picked for ultimate ripeness. This is an electronic based sound doused with fresh air. It's allowed to breathe and be genuinely airy. All elements were taken in account in terms of diverse sound, even percussion. A shining moment is Dool’s use of acoustic guitar and applied in fascinating little loops. I feel being able to pick and nurture samples not found in a box is such a vital skill for electronic music artists today. It is a sure fire way to secure your own voice in such a flooded market. On this skill alone, this album is very much elevated. Definitely one of the high points of this album.
Dool also has one of those multi-tool voices. It can be applied to many situations and operates perfectly. There is something in his delivery and diction that makes him distinct. There were some choices he would make with his inflections that felt they were meant to mimic other vocalists, again, lots of ’80s influence here. I can't tell how ironic it is supposed to be, but there were times it just felt a bit too contrived. I prefer his vocal work when he is more relaxed and forthcoming.
Songs like "Hopeless Romances" and "The Most Beautiful Songs In The World" are blatant love letters to the ’80s synth movement. In fact, most of them are. It's just drenched in neon lighting - everything from the vocals to the lyrics to the synth sounds and samples. This aesthetic just hits too close on the nose. From someone who has cultivated so many unique and fresh samples, it was tough that he did nothing to shake the dated nature of these songs even just a bit. I will say, that even if I am not drawn to this aesthetic I can all the same appreciate his ability to recreate it so utterly perfectly. That is a feat in this day and age. One track I feel compelled to mention is “Regrets." It's here that he got more experimental into almost an alt rock sound with the guitar sample and I would have loved to have seen this sound pursued in other tracks.
Production on this album is very strong. It has a clear cut purpose and never loses sight. If you need a heavy dose of synth ambiance and emotion, this album has your number. All the drama and desire is here with thick synth. You will find yourself at home.
Charlie Christmas is a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter who has played in bands like Urge Overkill, Moris Tepper, Dogbowl, and The Huge Bastards to name a few. He released Weird Old Man which is a wonderful album that is somehow tongue-in-cheek, fun, infectious and even heartfelt.
The album starts with “Place To Stand.” Christmas’ vocals sound similar to Mark Linkous on the verse and the song is even a little melancholy. That being said, it sounds more playful than Sparklehorse. The chorus is delightfully anthemic but doesn't go overboard. I was happy to sing-along but didn’t feel like I had to if that makes any sense. Suffice it to say this was a fantastic opener.
Up next is “Friend Of Mine” which is a lot of fun. It’s the kind of song I want to hear at a piano bar and has a dash of American classic rock. It sounds like it works in a romp like Rocky Horror Picture Show. The song is really catchy but just drives. I loved the groove. Christmas goes psychedelic on “Happy Day.” He doesn't push the psychedelic qualities. It’s modest in the way you think of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as being psychedelic. The song is dreamy and atmospheric but there are plenty of memorable melodies that come from the vocals.
“(The Band Can’t Play Your) Wedding Song” has a good amount of attitude. The guitars are distorted and you might classify it as hard rock. There is also this great line in there. Christmas sings “Well, a life of moments is all we got / most of them don’t mean a lot / but now and then you take a shot at getting one just right.”
I was all about the Stevie Wonder ’70s funk on “Secret Service Pig” while “Gone So Long” mixes some heartfelt nostalgia with just enough levity. Christmas again just kills when it comes to lyrics. Some of his lines you might say are profound but some lack any pretense or preachy qualities. Christmas goes a little Pink Floyd on “Wrong Way Home” and embraces ’70s fuzz on “Call Me Jumbo,” “Porno Valley” and “Show Your Grit.” Oh my what a name for a closer - “Chess Sauce Crisis Lowered.” The song is more or less a jam or groove. Not a bad way to go out.
I became a big fan after hearing this album. That attitude, songwriting, production and more just came together and worked very well. Highly recommended.
Just in time for outdoor festivals season, I get the The Womps with their new album Zlatan! across my desk this week. They have a big stage folk jam band sound that certainly has a summery twist to it. As soon as I heard it I could hear the crowd and feel the sunshine on my face. Interesting sound out of Boston and an album title with a very interesting backstory. Did you know that the Swedish Language Council created the word "Zlatanera" for famed soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic? I sure as hell didn’t. Apparently it means to dominate and this is where the album's title comes from. That right there is a fun fact, and points to The Womps for indulging one of my favorite hobbies of learning fun factoids.
The music is great, the composition is definitely along those symphonic movement lines. The string work both guitar and otherwise is incredible - same goes for the vocal work. The overall craftsmanship is filled with love and good ole fashioned elbow grease, and it is to be commended. Finding a signature sound in this genre is tricky. There were lots of moments where this album just fell a little flat in terms of standing out from the crowd. An example of this was "Anthem Of My Age" which incorporated all the beautifully rustic folk and Americana elements, however it failed to pull away from an all too familiar thread. "Atlantis" was one of those tracks that threw me. I was not expecting that soulful intro with the vocalist to work. I loved its darkness and it quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I think one of their biggest triumphs was "Head North." It was here that they managed to find a potent blend of the genre interests and distinguish themselves.
The production is fantastic. It conveys that big stage presence and highlights all the delicious improvisation. Lots of ingredients in this album, all hand picked with care. It would be a shame if they weren't properly given their due. Luckily the hands behind the mixing and mastering found the mythical sweet spot. Zlatan! has all the tender loving care put into it that any star quality artist would have.
Fun fact, the instruments were recorded on tape before being fed to Pro Tools. Meanwhile, the vocals were done digitally. They made great strides to ensure this seam was not poking out or puckering in any way; this was smooth sailing. It is the mark of a good production team that I was given such a good taste of that live experience that I am determined to see them live for myself. I have no doubt in my mind I would get bang for my buck seeing this crew live.
I think The Womps is well on their way to cultivating a doting and loving fan base. They translate all their good energy and passion into hard work and solid results. I think they have a nice broad net they can cast on rock music fans and I cannot wait to be one of those snobs saying "I reviewed them before they were cool."
There is something so enchanting about a band that can command my attention so diligently without screaming for or demanding it. Anything that can tame the unbridled amount of nonsense constantly streaming through my brain is something I consider to be a must have. A band with such a must have quality is Lake Haven, and the must have is their new EP Transitions. The big strength for a project like Lake Haven is quiet power. It's been a while since I've heard an album so distinctive with such a lo-fi tempo.
"Transitions" was very dreamy and aloof. Great vocals, romantic. I was swooning a bit. Not a whole lot of bells and whistles on this one, I feel like the engineering choices were what really make this one stand out. There was a distance created, a sparkly, other worldly fog build from the ground up. It worked well to pull me out of myself.
"Silent Disco" is a curious, surfy indie rock tune that became a quick favorite for me on this EP. Kicks it up a notch in terms of tempo and takes that guitar riff out for a walk. Now I have heard versions of this sort of riff with this very motif. However, once again, on the engineering and production side, this song stands upright all on its own. This one stands out from the rest in this EP in terms of tempo. You're not gonna get anything quite like it again, and not least not for now. It feels like a cruel tease, but I'm not gonna take it personally.
"Whiskey Ginger" is a slow dancer with that vintage sock hop feel. Grab the cutest thing you can find in your proximity and sway away to this one. I'm sure the right amount of whiskey gingers will get you in the mood. For this one I could picture the bar closing and the booze wearing off, all those thoughts and worried rushing back in. A very accessible and real tune.
"Emile Reprise" is charming, especially with such a specific rhythmic treatment. Definitely another head swayer on my hands here. I think this song solidifies Lake Haven as a level five tugger of my heart strings. The lyrics here are also just so powerful. This was heaviest use of that quiet power and it was so poignant on this one.
I look at the people behind projects like Lake Haven like I do gear heads who love tweaking things to find optimal or interesting results. There is scientific like exploration and tweaking at work here. The end result just so happens to be both optimal and interesting. The production served as its own voice in these songs and I think that kind of artistry is on the rise in the music industry. Not only can you be an accomplished guitarist, but you can be an accomplished mixer and more and more that sort of ingenuity will garner more credit. I am really impressed with Transitions, and think it is safe to say that Lake Haven has so much more to say. it’s also a safe to say that I will be waiting.
Heathcote Hill is a band comprised of Megan Porcaro Herspring (vocals), Tom Nelson (guitar), Sammy Merendino (drums), Steve Count (bass) and Rob Arthur (keyboards). They released a five song EP entitled Save The Ones You Love.
It’s definitely one of the most polished sounding releases I have heard. I wouldn’t say it’s overproduced but every single element is perfectly in place. The lyrics are completely understandable and you can hear the nuance of all the instrumentation.
These songs aren’t trying to break any boundaries nor did I ever get the feeling that the band was trying to do that. The music sticks to a lot of convention that was straightforward as far as the structure of the songs and aesthetics. It’s the consistently well delivered instrumental work and often exceptional vocals performances that make this an enjoyable release.
The EP starts with “Save the Ones You Love” which has a classic Americana feel to it. It very much felt like an American band playing in a bar. The song is full of ripe instrumentation like piano, organ, drums, bass and guitar. The song is easy to appreciate with a catchy chorus.
They slow things down on “Till These Troubles Pass Through.” The song hits upon the vibe of both hopeful and melancholy. I have to admit this isn’t my favorite emotion that I hear bands play into all the time. It often sounds too saccharine and melodramatic for my own personal liking. That being said I like how they approached the song and there is no denying the vocals were heartfelt.
“Reckless Love” is a certified single to my ears. It’s a mix of country, pop and rock and felt instantly accessible. The band goes back into melancholy with a bit more reflection on “Remember You Are Mine.” They close with the most straight up motivational and hopeful sounding tune entitled “Neve Change Your Mind.”
Overall, the band does follow a lot of rules from the songwriter’s playbook that are both timeless and familiar but do so in a way that might make you remember why those moves became so popular in the first place. Recommended.
Lionel Nemeth has a new project called Dean Alamo. He has spent the last year or so making his debut self-titled EP Dean Alamo. It’s a very polished sounding EP that mixes a number of different genres. The production and attention to detail is an important factor on these recordings in which you can get immersed in all the elements.
The EP starts with “So Close To Me.” There are lots of serene pads swirling around with a filtered drum building the momentum of the song. The vocals are hopeful and the energy is magnified once the filter comes off the drums and the lead synth is introduced. It might be the most pop oriented song on the album at least in vibe. It’s catchy and becomes more and more positive sounding with each passing second trying to outdo the crescendo that came before it. It’s an intense opener.
“The Calling” is a little more subdued but still very ethereal sounding. The drums and synth bass really drive the song. This song is more pensive and melancholy than the opener. The chorus is infectious and catchy.
There is a lot happening on “Faceless Form.” The beat hits hard and is dance worthy. On top of that the arpeggiated synth makes the song hypnotic. The feel is seductive and alluring. I was loving the lounge like vibes on “Alios A” which sounds somewhere between George Michael and Radiohead. It’s romantic and borderline sensual but there also are a lot of alien like sounds you might hear from Radiohead.
“The Way You Do” is very slick. The initial first half has a great hip-hop inspired groove. That leads to an explosive, you might argue post-rock inspired second half. The last song “Sparkles” might have been the most original sounding. It starts with an intimate performance of guitar and vocals. If the song would have only been this I wouldn't have minded but it might have felt a little standard. The song instead brilliantly builds organically with unique percussion elements and heavenly pads. It ends chaotically with instrumentation flying all about and the lyrics “can you see the light.” I really loved how this EP ended.
This is a great EP from beginning to end. The production, delivery and songwriting all works very well together. Recommended.
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Just released a few days ago, Guidance is the full-length debut by New Englander, singer/songwriter, Ian Steinberg. Generally categorized in the indie-folk genre, Guidance also incorporates elements of traditional folk and folk-rock. After being classically trained for six years on the piano, Steinberg discovered a love for the guitar and folk music which opened a gate for him to begin writing sing-alongs and storytelling numbers. According to a statement about the album, its main theme centers on mental health taking an “honest and revealing reflection” about how struggling issues of the mind can take their toll. Steinberg tells his story of “a descent into and rise out of depression following the themes of manhood, love, self-worth and family.” Musically speaking, his songs are “filled with dynamic guitar, sweet melodies and powerful arrangements.” Steinberg covers all the bases with his debut: writing, producing, recording and mixing as well as playing all the instruments, with the exceptions of drums (by Isaac Silber), cello and violin.
“Bad Luck” begins with a rousing folksy beat, with claps, a warm bass, added electric guitar fills and the acoustic laying down the main rhythm. Reading the lyrics before listening, Steinberg’s words read something like Jack Kerouac beat rhyming his words to cool San Francisco jazz. “Here nor There” has a sort of old school ‘70s folk style, akin to Harry Chapin or Joni Mitchell. Steinberg’s lyrics asks the big “why” question about his own mental health on this tune – “Why, why can’t I ever be here / Nor there, nor anywhere / But in my skull, in my thoughts / In my curdled sense of self perception / Why oh why can’t I ever be here.” “Honey Won’t You Come Back Home” offers a sweet and tender message with just the singer, his guitar and backing vocals. “Pieces…Pieces…” is the first of a few instrumental tracks and this one didn’t fail to make me wonder how Steinberg created the sounds I heard. It was also one of his most chillingly imaginative songs, in my opinion.
“Buried with My Love” reminded me of something from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, perhaps it was the tempo and/or melody. If you follow the melody closely and notice how Steinberg repeats many of the same words, it would be interesting to see if this song would format well into one of those “songs-in-the-round” – where one side of a group of singers starts singing first and then the second group starts in after, until both groups end the song in unison. It’s kind of hard to explain, unless you’ve experience it. Moving on to “And Now…” which offers a faster rhythm and some rather brutally honest words – “The truth will set you free / But only once it’s done with you / That spider it will breathe / In wait to snatch it up from you.” Steinberg seems to realize just how deep and vengeful his mental health struggles really could get or did get.
The instrument arrangements and rhythms on “How Can Our Fathers” reminded me of something from The Band – one of the most underrated folk-rock bands in American music. The words here suggest a father who was around for the birth of their son or daughter, but then just left town afterwards, never to return. “Stuck Inside the Water Basin” is another instrumental and it begins with the sound of footsteps walking on the ground and continues throughout the tune into the next. A few moments later, a tender and soulful acoustic with just the right effect comes in and then transitions to “Poppy’s Last Message” – a phone recorded last word to Steinberg, wishing him a happy birthday. By the way, Guidance is dedicated to Steinberg’s grandfather Elliott Steinberg known to him as “Poppy.” The album is also dedicated to Eli Todd.
The title track to the album is written with humble vulnerability – serious pleas to a stranger, a mother and a lover – Steinberg asks how to avoid from falling apart and to “point me towards the northern star.” The melody is comparatively happier to the words, with a lighter, skipping beat following along. “One Foot One Knee” is perhaps Steinberg’s most simple song, in terms of the words he used. Basically, it’s a song about perseverance and doing what it takes to get back to the place where one can feel whole again and be at home. It’s very gospel like, filled with soulful backing vocals sung by the Nohomie Choir. “Fatima” takes an excerpt from the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Steinberg narrates Coelho’s beloved words about the universal “language of love” as he strums gentle guitar chords.
“At the Risk of Coming Off as Trite” features some great textured sounds – guitars, mandolin and backing vocals – inside a fun, gentle melody that has a children’s story rhyme/Raffi quality to it. The last number is “Sunshine” and indeed, it shines with words of hope and determination. Two extra instruments can he heard here – Dani Hill playing the cello and Jens Hybertson on violin, add their own beautiful marks. The pace of the tempo at the end was a nice surprise, too. Overall, a nice, succinct way to end the album, reminding us listeners to give thanks for another day of living.
By and large, Ian Steinberg’s songwriting and talent as a multi-instrumentalist on Guidance comes off as genuine. I thought the album was thoughtfully produced and recorded and it addressed the struggles of mental health issues that many people have in a deeply intimate way.
Thom Moot is an artist from Portland, Oregon, who recently released Moot Points. He blends a lot of different styles on this album from folk to rock. The artist Donovan often came to mind in regard to the themes he was singing about.
The album starts with “The Cruise.” This song, unlike the other songs, is covered in field recordings of waves, wind, thunder, explosions and more. Moot is singing and playing guitar but the field recordings are so prominent and ever changing and often sudden that it was a little hard to focus on the actual song. It felt like a play. It’s very visual and often on the verge of humorous when you hear unexpected noises like parrots and gunshots.
“Song of the Spheres” is a lot more of a traditional song. It’s very mythical, fantasy based and maybe magical sounding and that’s why I thought of Donovan quite often. There are airy synths, chimes and more. Moot sings about philosophical thoughts everyone has at some point but usually they first come about when you are in college. Moot sings, “A time will come where we realize we're all really one - were all a piece of universe. And life's a stage but there's no time to rehearse.”
On “Delirium” Moot threw me off my game. I wasn’t expecting a grunge inspired chorus and another verse that is filled with field recordings and acoustic guitar. “Why” goes back to asking fundamental philosophical questions. Moot sings, “Conscience a myth does it exist? I look out and I see my reality How different could yours be?” This song was one of my favorites mainly for the fact that I liked the vocal melodies. I really liked what was happening around the two-minute- and-thirty second mark.
He goes further into pondering life's biggest questions and further into melancholy on “Moot Points.” There was some much needed levity on “Nostalgia” which comes in the form of his inspired guitar melodies. I heard a bit of Local Natives on this song. “Autumn” is what I would call the centerpiece. There is a lot of jamming in a very classic rock type of way on this song. There are some very Zeppelin-esque moments which are great. “Moon Beans” is a bit of interlude while “I Know” is catchy and continues to ponder existence itself. The dream continues yet closes with “Don't Forget.”
The album simultaneously brought me back to me my college days about twenty years ago and made me think about the ’60s counter culture. I remember writing music with my friend and we would sing about similar subjects while trying to bathe in this feeling of awe and wonder. Pondering who and what we are as well as why we are here is not going to end anytime for humans. I think Moot is poetically trying to convey his own thoughts on this timeless mystery we call life. You are more than welcome to hear what he has to say.
Tony Ford recently released his second solo release entitled Mpls. The music is striped back relying on guitar and vocal as the anchor to the music. Ford does throw in other elements like harmonica, organ and some percussion but it’s the guitar and vocal melodies that lead the charge.
The album starts with “For Today” which very much has a late ’60s folk feel to it. It’s loose sounding in regards to the timing and has a classic sort of nostalgia to it. The organ and harmonica really drive that feeling of reflection.
“Southeast Window” veers a little more towards melancholy than nostalgia but still has a very similar vibe to the opening track. The slow reflection and melancholy come to a head on “The River” while “Dylan Posters, Broken Scars” has an around the campfire type feel to it.
“Yesterday's Cocaine” was the first real deviation only in that the piano is the main instrument. There isn't that much variation to the song and it kind of stays in the same place dynamically that it starts in. “Rollin' Over (Be The Man)” is definitely one of the more bright songs. I also liked the vocal harmonies that make it a highlight. “Dust” is another highlight because of the vocal harmonies and guitar and actually has a similar theme to the song “Dust in the Wind.” “Mpls Man of Constant Sorrow” has its moments and falls in line with the theme of this album. Last up is “Sunrise Over St. Paul” which really plays into nostalgia with what sounds like additional reverb.
As an engineer myself I noticed the varying degrees of recording quality. The whole album is lo-fi but the sonic imprint for the songs ranges. Sometimes the guitar sounded a lot thicker, sometimes the vocals were harder to make out, etc. To a degree this helps differentiate the songs. If there are too many sonic differences than the album loses its fluidity. Overall, I thought the album was fairly consistent in that area.
Ford’s music on Mpls definitely leans towards the tortured bohemian archetype that was born with Dylan and other folk artists. I can’t say Ford is reinventing the wheel but he pulls off the mood he is going for. Recommended.
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