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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Yam Haus’ debut full length Stargazer possesses a remarkable completeness quite unlike anything you’ll hear in any style this year. Their embrace of electronic instruments, particularly synthesizer, naturally risks accusations of artificiality, but the Minneapolis based four piece successfully integrates keyboards and synthesizer with a guitar sound that takes a number of surprising twists and turns along the way. You can’t easily pigeonhole Yam Haus. They begin the album, however, with a string of five star pop rock tracks as polished as one can hope for. The opener and title song “Stargazer” introduces us to the band’s grandiose pop structures but, despite the obvious sweep inherent to the material, you never get a sense of the band lapsing into overwrought histrionics.

As stylish as the first song is, “West Coast” is even more so. They cop to an obvious Eighties influence during songs like this, but they mix it up with a thoroughly modern guitar presentation nicely ornamenting the electronic aspects of their style. The personal qualities of the songs, reflected through the lyrics, aren’t diluted in any way by the presentation. “Kingdom”, the final song of the album’s initial run of pop rock gems, has the same chorus strength we hear with the aforementioned two songs and yet another variation on their ability for pairing guitar with keyboards makes this is a winning number. They strike up an improbable gospel influence with the song “Too Many People” and lead singer Lars Pruitt’s voice plays off quite well against the song’s piano. The chorus immediately connects with listeners and the backing vocals bring an added sweetness to the song, but it’s the discreet guitar fills along the way bringing crucial colors into the song’s sound.

“Bad News” has a moody tenor despite its strong percussive pulse and electronic instrumentation. There’s some lightly played funk flavored guitar running throughout the song that never announces itself in the mix and Pruitt delivers one of the album’s most soulful performances. The bridge is especially notable thanks to how well it incorporates vocals with the song’s pop texture. Piano once again makes its presence felt with notable effect. “We Are the Storm” has a palpable rock edginess missing from the aforementioned songs and the tense guitar work during the verses memorably explodes with the chorus. Post-production effects lend a near claustrophobic quality to Pruitt’s singing that’s particularly entertaining.

Vocal presentation is important for the song “This Won’t Be the Last Time”, but the song lives and dies on the back of Lars Pruitt’s lead vocal. He has an effortless command of pop music formulas without ever sounding too clich├ęd and much of that comes from his obvious emotional connection to the material. “Groovin’ (That Feel Good Song)” certainly lives up to its billing as one of the more relentlessly positive, upbeat recordings included on Stargazer and other bands might have ended the release on this note, but Yam Haus clearly has higher intentions. Those are manifested with the album’s acoustic curtain “Something Better”, but Yam Haus artfully adorns the closing with a number of tasteful instrumental flourishes never subtracting from the essentially intimate nature of the performance. It’s a wholly satisfying conclusion for this great album.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Led by lead singer and synthesizer player Logan Andra Fongemie and guitarist Sean Hogan, Minneapolis’ Astronomique are sure to impress many with the release of their ten song collection Sharp Divide. There’s an overarching coherence defining the release shared by few albums in any vein and the four piece lineup plays with enormous chemistry reflected in the relatively sterile nature of a studio recording. There are certain consistent points sustaining the release, but Astronomique is quite at home with surprising their listeners as well while never going so far overboard as to make such efforts unrecognizable. Sharp Divide is cut to just the right length as well and the band’s confidence never seems to slip during the entirety of the release. Rather than coming off as talented young musicians, Astronomique comes off as a talented assemblage of veteran musicians near or reaching the peak of their artistic powers.

We are treated to a shot of that confidence, up close, with the album’s first song. “Forefathers” has an internal drive that’s impossible to ignore, focused largely on the work of bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings, but the contributions from both Fongemie and Hogan offer much as well to this stellar track. “We Disappear” is another powerful potential single and Saari’s sternum shaking pulse is the heart of the song. Fongemie’s synthesizer flourishes are also particularly effective for adding color to this piece. Song construction is one of Sharp Divide’s strongest merits and few of the songs on this collection are more solid than “We Disappear”.

The songs “Losing Our Control” and “Sharp Divide”, however, raise the standards by which we evaluate this album. Astronomique burrow their best songs in the album’s midway point and both, specifically the title song, sound fully fleshed our and ready for the stage. The small hop Billings gives the song with his percussion is a stylistic note he strikes again on Sharp Divide, but never with the same sort of positive effect Billings achieves bringing it into “Losing Our Control”. “Smoke” is more cluttered, in some respects, than the earlier and later songs, but attentive listeners will appreciate the band’s willingness to mix things up for their listeners rather than remaining content to churn out variations on a theme for the entirety of Sharp Divide’s ten songs.

“Bleed Me” is another of the album’s more ominous numbers, evidenced by its title, but catches your ear in large part thanks to the unique contrast between its lyrics and engaging, likable musical content. Fongemie’s vocal is especially emotive here. The drum patterns for “Heading Nowhere” establish a patient, slightly busy groove for this mid-tempo album finale and the throb of Preston Saari’s voice gives the song a resonant center than never goes away. It seems like Fongemie’s vocals are laden with more echo than ever before, but it shouldn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the track or this stunning studio release.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Hailing from the small town Midwestern town of Manhattan, Kansas Sky Orchid takes a page from Deadboy and the Elephant Men, The White Stripes and early Big Business in terms of keeping their membership succinct.  They’re a two-piece fronted by mainly vocals/guitar and drums (keyboards/piano/percussion for the auxiliary sounds heard on this record).  Sky Orchid one-ups the competition, going a step farther and being a pair of blood-born brothers.  There’s a definite degree of musical telepathy involved whenever you get musicians from the same family bond in a singular project together and it’s all over the group’s debut album, Oculus. 

Oculus packs a lot of variety into its musically ambitious core.  Fragments of rock, indie, industrial, electronica, post-rock and gothic music all emanate from its sonically glowing mass.  Not only does the tight playing shine, the overall production is pristine and powerful giving even the softest songs a bottomless depth and immeasurable weight that crashes over the listener with force and subtle flicker erupting oftentimes within the course of one song.  “The River” proves this thesis true immediately; relying on brooding piano lines and a witch’s brew of bubbling drums that explode into spires of heavier guitar riffage later on.  Gabriel (vocals/guitar) has a solar croon aimed for the sky, giving this material both malice and menace throughout even when his lyrics reflect on the positive side of life and love. 

“Sneakers” meditates on trance-y, Euro-style electronica in its early half (though bare bones and atmospheric as opposed to house music’s bounciness) and turns into a full-fledged, mid-tempo electro-riff rocker during its latter moments.  Though “In the Fire (Part 1)” is an indie glimmer charmer for the largest part of its duration, the song is unafraid of some climactic, power-chord scaling when it crescendos and fiery-titled counterpart “Wildfire” trots along on a bluesy acoustic guitar melody before again unleashing some riff-centric finish work.  Elsewhere, “I’ll Stop The World (Part 2)” hurries the pace and goes for a 90s sort of riff-scorch ballast that meets in middle-ground with the keyboard enhanced goodness of recent acts like The Killers or Canada’s Econoline Crush circa The Devil You Know.  “Lex” is a crunching, drum-beaten psychedelic work that launches into the 1-2 bass-y grooves of “Breathe Easy (the duo’s oldest composition at 7 years’ aged)” and the downright positive “Take It All’s” cleanly woven guitar melodies.  “Yesterday” and album round-up number “Fortify” plunge more space-y and thoughtful textures in their droning, trippy electronica washed rock guises. 

Oculus is a powerful work from a young band that’s grown far beyond their humble garage beginnings.  With touring runs taking them all through Kansas, to Houston and Nashville (mainly for recording purposes), they’ve grown this project into something that the world needs to hear.  The brothers’ inventive take on songwriting and locked-on musical dynamics have rendered them a debut that’s all killer and no-filler.  Even the atmosphere-oriented compositions are of a highly quality and never devolve into boredom or tedium.  Oculus should please a wide berth of music fans of all styles and genre interests.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Rhett Repko - Thnx For The Ride (2018)

Written by Wendy Owens, posted by blog admin

Rhett Repko’s new seven song EP Thnx For The Ride capped an active 2017 for this impressive musician, writer, and performer. His previous EP release About Last Night occupies a much clearer singer/songwriter niche than the new release, but he sustains the same level of excellence that’s defined his work from the outset with this new release while taking his music in a distinctly different than before. Thnx For The Ride is an outright rock and roll album – there’s some acoustic guitar present with the release, but there’s no question that electric guitar dominates these songs and Repko proves to be credible in that mold. He has an outstanding band accompanying him on this seven track journey. Lead guitarist Stefan Heuer, bassist Dan Gallagher, and drummer Tom Bryant is a crack musical unit who are never flashy without cause and give Repko’s songwriting the added spark it deserves.

The EP opener and title song “Thnx for the Ride” announces the collection’s intentions. Repko clearly wanted a gripping, immediate sound and this tune doesn’t disappoint as “Thx for the Ride” features shake you by the lapels rock thunder along with some deft shifts in time signature and tempo the band flawlessly pull off. “Please Don’t Laugh” is a little closer to straight forward rock than the opener, but there’s the same high degree of musicianship pushing things forward that distinguishes the title number. Repko’s vocal here stands out as one of the best on the EP and he mixes emotive phrasing with high energy in a way ideally suited for these songs.

A songwriting high point arrives with the track “It Ain’t Coming From You”, and Repko fans the caustic flame of heartache burning inside this song with an impassioned singing performance. Guitarist Stefan Heuer contributes some important harmony vocals throughout Thnx For The Ride, never vying with Repko for supremacy in the mix, but rather strengthening his already fine delivery. The song is musically compelling, as well, particularly during its surprising second half. “And I Told Her So” is probably Stefan Heuer’s finest moment as a guitar player on this EP and his lead work late in the song immeasurably adds to its final impact. The lyrics are exceptional, once again, without ever overreaching and Repko’s vocal ranks with the earlier “Please Don’t Laugh” as one of his best moments on Thnx For The Ride.

The brisk pacing of “Learn Your Name” allows for a number of stuttering tempo changes, yet the song never goes astray and has genuine commercial appeal to go along with its unimpeachable rock spirit. The finale “Make Me Right” is a fiery curtain for the EP and serves as a musical exclamation point for everything that’s preceded it. Rhett Repko’s written and recorded quite an explosive little rock release with Thnx For The Ride and it’s intriguing to wonder where his Muse might lead him from here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

Written by Drew East, posted by blog admin

Being a reviewer is really a dream job.  You get to discover new music that you’ve missed and sometimes music from established artists that you couldn’t catch either.  There’s so much stuff out there with the ease of home-recording taking over the market that you’re bound to forget to check out something.  Reviewers on the other hand have it easy and being one has led me to the music of Joshua Ketchmark and his 12th release Under Plastic Stars.  

The gravel path opener “We Were Everything” sets the bar at a high quality level from the very beginning.  Acoustic guitars mingle with Ketchmark’s sturdy voice as the song slowly picks up speed; allowing room for a few deep bass grooves and tapping, perhaps brush-played drums that keep the music always moving forward.  “Every Mystery” reduces the atmospheric quality to a warm simmer nearly solely fronted by Ketchmark’s gleaming acoustic guitar work, trippy organ playing, countrified rhythms and full-throat vocals that really hit the melody mark.  Taking things down a dirtier, danker alleyway “Let It Rain” goes for a downtempo, rhythm n’ blues feel with more focus provided on the bass guitar and piano than just simple guitar-centered shucking and jiving.  The album’s first run ends with a mesmerizing ballad, “Lucky at Leavin’” that sees Joshua and a female vocalist giving a touching update on the Jones/Wynette classic harmony vocals.  

Picking up the pace, “Hereafter” brings back the rhythm section alongside some twangy acoustic guitars and some summer-baked slide licks for a Mason Dixon sweetened ballad that acts as the perfect foil to the buzzing, rock n’ roll-y “Get Out Alive.”  “Get out Alive” features some of the album’s only plugged in guitars and it’s a jam that would sure to bring a smoky club audience to their feet and cheering for the act so gracious enough to deliver it.  “Saturday Night” stays uptempo but retains a thoughtful smolder in its hickory steamed guitar melodies, plaintive rhythms and heartfelt vocals that really dig under the skin and stick with you long after the album stops playing.  “Harm’s Way” is another slice of delicious Carolina pie cut from folk/country cloth and mainly featuring Josh and his guitar howling away into the night.  The glory bound “Sweet Surrender” utilizes piano to get its main point across while the rhythm section jostles Ketchmark’s vibrant guitar into some steady groove, although things never really take off on a rock n’ roll path again over the course of the record.  “17” implants another stunning male/female duet into a livelier more rocking piece than the prior contemplation of “Lucky at Leavin’” while the closing duo of “Losing Control” and “The Great Unknown” end the album on a folk-country dirt road.  

Everything about Under Plastic Stars is a musical home run; a true taste of musical Americana that’s as friendly and familiar is a Fourth of July cookout.  This release is a modern classic of singer/songwriter chops with plenty of intricacies and variety woven into the aural fabric of Ketchmark’s chosen sound.  If you like your music mostly acoustic based but unafraid of experimentation and great vocalizing, then this release is most certainly worth your time!