Album review: The Common Men – Let It Burn (2011)

 
It can be difficult for a band to shake the shadow of their influences. In the case of Sacramento’s The Common Men, whose fascination with early 80s Great Britain has hardly been subtle, this has become a life or death scenario. The post-punk revival of the 00’s has fizzled out, leaving Interpol uninspired, The Killers (fortunately) without much radio play, and fewer reviews unfairly comparing new indie rock artists to Joy Division. Some inner-city bar bands may choose to drop their white collars and reverb units on the spot to tackle whatever the next fad is, but for The Common Men, a more mature and artistic path lay before them.
 
To understand what’s happening here, you should get into the head of band leader/guitarist/singer Kevin Ian, who only jumped on this trend because he sincerely loved it. Here you have a man that spends thousands of dollars trying to perfect his guitar tone, but deliberately applies a lo-fi production to his records. He compulsively deletes his back catalog, then revives it. His fascination with horror movies weighs in on his creative output as much as music. He has more chops than most local flashy metalheads, and deliberately buries them. Rock and roll is a mental struggle here, and with the band’s latest and best album Let It Burn, he thrusts the full force of his personality into the music, and if there were a time for the band to break through, it’s now.
 
Rather than jumping ship or hopelessly remaining stationary, Let It Burn finds The Common Men maturing into its own entity from the platform they started on. Noise tangents, progressive buildups, and dance floor mayhem form a dark, winding rock-and-roll monster that manages to be cohesive as an album, but clearly defined from track to track. The album’s opener, “Vital Signs”, drops the record’s strongest hook right off the bat, and knows exactly how hard to milk it. Being sparse with the vocals, it allows the delay soaked guitars to dominate. This is a recurring theme throughout the record, as it demonstrates some of the fiercest delay driven hooks the world has heard since U2 traded rock-and-roll in for activism and self-importance. These guitar heroics are quickly set aside for “Hanged Men”, which starts off with jagged, twin guitar chord banging that in all of its gothic nature, demands the audience keep moving.
 
Bassist Joshua Sims appears with his usual Simon Gallup-isms, keeping the genre-piece intact. The major boost to the rhythm section, however, is that this is the first Common Men record to feature Kimberli Aparicio on drums, who has been a member of the band for 2 years now, and has a defining sound that works well here. Sacramento punk rock veterans may remember her from Butch Vs Femme, where her oddly tuned kit and tom heavy approach created a volatile hypnosis for the 2-piece. Backing her brother Kevin, who is more melodically inclined than BvF’s howling punk rock approach, enables her to show a wider array of diversity from the subtle points to the ferocious goth rock the band occasionally dives into. From her forward blasting on “Rumblemaker” to the tribal overtones of “The Headshrinker’s Ritual”, she helps make the band sound the heaviest they ever have, and that’s a good thing.
 
From L to R: Joshua Sims (bass), Kevin Ian (guitar, vocals), Kimberli Aparicio (drums)
I want to take a minute to address the album’s major ballad, “Wendigo”. To get to the point, this is easily the most beautiful song the band has ever released, and also its greatest departure. Lacking the post-punk stereotype almost entirely, the group freely explores brit-pop with overtones of Bruce Springsteen, starting out the first half as a patient ballad, and then traversing up toward its nearly 9 minute mark. The lead guitar is thoughtful and melodic, supporting a softer vocal approach compared to the rest of the record. As it begins its second half, it slowly scales through variations on a theme, pulling the listener along with the current. After reaching the climax, it gently pulls the listener back down with more guitar melodies, echo, and lighter handed rhythm. Clearly offset from the rest of the album’s darker tone, it doesn’t feel out of place; it just seems like another piece of a grander experience that wouldn’t work in one dimension. Unfortunately, the doomy drop off into “Impulsion” is a bit strange, and makes it seem like this should have been the album’s closer.
 
The record’s not short on rockers either. Aside from “Vital Signs”, “Panic” is get-on-the-freeway-and-speed music, “Search Party” kicks the door down, and “Impulsion” allows Ian to fully immerse in his new found love of noise and guitar mistreatment.
 
Production is clearly better than on the band’s previous record, Hearsay. Still obsessively self-producing, Ian has a stronger grasp on what gives the band its sound. Unfortunately, the vocals get a little pushed out. It would be an obvious stylistic decision to place in some plate reverb and tube-pre overdrive here, but instead we more or less have the telephone-voice dominating the record. It’s a fun effect when used sparingly, but it takes away from songs like “Wendigo” and “Vital Signs”, that could have benefited from a cleaner sound in the mix. Other than that, despite its self-glorifying lo-fidelity, it’s still easy to pick out what the bass, drums and guitar are doing at all times without too much effort.
 
I like this album. I feel the band has really managed to translate the fun effect of their live show to disc. In scaling back their goth-rock/post-punk tendencies without altogether eliminating them, the group has created a more well rounded set of jangly guitar rock that is destined for a larger audience, and also offers more sustenance. The band releases the album online tomorrow (August 30th), and will be appearing at Kimo’s in San Francisco on September 8th with physical copies on hand. You can listen to “Vital Signs” below.

Lycus – Ignis Fatuus

Some of you may know bay area doom metal act Lycus. They’ve been getting more attention since their drummer, Trevor, has been moderately successful with hipster black metal heroes Deafheaven, and recently put out a new demo. There was a weird gap in this band in 2009 where founding guitar player Jackson (no idea what his last name is) quit, and vocalist/bassist Bret Tardiff of Minenwerfer took over as lead songwriter. I filled in on a live show for them in August of that year, we played one of Bret’s songs, and now that Bret is out of the band (and in about 3 work-in-progress disasters with me), this song will never be played by anyone again.

Bret and I ran into Trevor and Jackson at Eyehategod the other night. If I recall, I got drunk and rambled on about how much life sucks. You know, appropriate doom metal conversation.

Anyway, here’s Bret, Trevor, and myself performing Ignis Fatuus, live at Javalounge in Sacramento, August 20th, 2009.


Click here to download if stream wont load.

A cynical re-evaluation of Sacramento’s music scene

Friends! Enemies! Vaguely talented vermin! Are you marching to an event this week to play for five people? Are you ordering your album in a run of 20 copies? Do you look at your Bandcamp stats, see 2 “partial” plays half way down your playlist and wonder who and why? Are you aware that the words fan, friend, and co-worker are not synonyms? Are you finding these questions generally offensive? Fret not, for I am about to delve into a thorough analysis of why you’re broke and nobody cares about your music. Don’t worry, I’m not a hypocrite, I’ll be using a lot of my own failure as a reference point.

I remember in 1998, there was this band called The Council. Some of you who remember them probably just groaned because, well, they weren’t exactly Emperor, but get over it. We’re thinking local. After they released their debut album Waiting for the Pain, these guys ordered a huge run of CD-Rs with 3 of the album’s songs on it, and were outside serious metal shows, terrible nu-metal shows, and any rock radio promotion with fistfuls of these things with flyers to their next gig stuffed in them. They shook your hand, talked to you, and the whole process was very human. If you have done this, this article is not about you. If you’ve left your flyers at The Beat and wondered why that didn’t generate a fan base, well, it is about you. Being a teenager and the appropriate age demographic for bonehead metal at the time, I purchased their debut album from Tower Records and saw them play packed shows at Big Shots in Roseville, full of people that they didn’t know personally.

This brings me to the biggest problem with most local music: your friends. When getting a first gig at a new venue full of promise and rock and roll dreams, it’s a good tactic to encourage all of your friends to come out so it looks like you have a draw already. The idea is that you use this as a crutch while you wait for your music to reach that important demographic: total strangers. I hate to break it to you, but most of your friends don’t even like your music. They come to your show, nod along, pretend to care, then get in their car and either groan about how they’re waiting for you to do something real, or they put on a record that you personally can’t stand and blast it the whole way back to their apartment. The issue here is that, for some reason, these are the people most of us consistently play for. What are we doing wrong? How come every show in some networked scene is 20 attendees, most of which are other musicians from that scene? Is it because we’re all so self-loathing about our creative output that we don’t think people will care? Or is it just that our music is so awful that people simply don’t care? Well, it can be a mix of both.

The first part is especially true: you’re not promoting yourself. Oh, but I hand out flyers and I was on some podcast that noone listens to! Flyers only work if somebody actually knows your name. You, yes- you, when you get a flyer and it’s five bands that don’t ring any bells in your head, you crumple it up in your pocket and then it turns into a blank piece of paper in the wash. Just assume you’re selling yourself to yourself. What would make you care? Would you be as quick to throw away a demo? Well, you might be, depending on if it was any good. This part brings up the second factor. I have a box separate from my cd shelves dedicated to unsolicited crap that isn’t valuable enough to trade. The good demos wind up on the shelf, 98% of what gets pawned off on me winds up in this little cardboard pit of despair. But what sets them apart from paper flyers? Most got played, at least the first song. I shouldn’t have to reiterate the ancient A&R rule of “put your best song first” for demo cds, but you might think that the long ambient intro that was perfectly kosher within the context of your LP can start off something that is likely to become a coaster. No, please, don’t do that. Don’t offer to trade either. That other musician may have paid to have his /her/their CDs manufactured and thought your set sucked, and will think your homemade album did too.

So, how do we promote ourselves? The beginning of this article gave a clear example, but let’s break it down a bit.

Unlicensed venues do not get bands signed. The Hub got the axe recently and I personally say: good riddance. For those who weren’t hip enough to know, it was a waiting room at an auto detailer infiltrated by a legit local art collective and a bunch of holier-than-thou hipster DJs from UC Davis, who somehow think the mediocrity they praise will be accepted by the world just because 30 people listen to their radio show. It smelled like arm pit, had standing room for maybe 20 people, and you couldn’t put the address on your flyers because the place was illegal. Who came to your show? The other bands, a couple smart asses in sunglasses from KDVS, and maybe 5 of your friends. When you played here, you accomplished nothing. You essentially had band practice at a different, perhaps smaller studio, and 7 of the 15 people there slithered outside to smoke because they didn’t care about your set. Maybe the band that opened for you really dug what you did, but they were getting wasted in their van ahead of time. You’ll actually stand a better chance of success playing basement house parties, provided the people in charge of that house include at least one smoking hot hoe-bag with a bunch of desperate hipsters waiting to sniff her panties who faithfully come to every event she spams off on Facebook.

When Graham and I played the Hub last, we decided material was gay, but skirts were totally hetero.

Give the suburbs more of a chance. There’s a forcefield around Midtown Sacramento. It is bound by the freeways at 30th and X Streets respectively, and the other lines are drawn around 9th and K. In reality, these people blew their insurance payment on weed and tofu, think public transit is somehow complicated, own bicycles that don’t really get past 9mph, and think that sitting at a coffeeshop flipping their scarf back and forth while pretending their socialist agenda actually matters is more important than traveling the whole 5 miles to your gig at On the Y. Despite Midtown’s unwarranted superiority complex (ironically offset by its inferiority complex against San Francisco), your friends in Carmichael, Arden, Citrus Heights, and Rancho Cordova just worked a hard week, aren’t really walking distance of anything, and wouldn’t mind spending this weekend doing something other than watching Arrested Development reruns on Netflix. You know why all your shows in the suburbs are dead? You do all your promoting in Midtown. Go figure, bands that are actually from the suburbs have a bigger fanbase than you. I knew one talented musician who wrote music on the poppier end, and everytime he played Roseville he brought at least 30 heads, most of which he didn’t know, and they bought merch like crazy because they didn’t waste their allowance and/or paycheck on books they don’t actually read and thrift store bullshit. However, when playing the suburbs, adjust your setlist accordingly:



Try to look like you care. This is my biggest problem. I have what I guess you could call Woody Allen’s disease; I’m a pessimist from the start and I’m in such doubt that my project will work that I often give up before it’s completed. As much as I despise the pseudo-critical blog-posing-as-a-magazine publication Pitchfork, they wrote about our hometown heroes Hella’s album Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard with “Sometimes the best way to succeed in music is by pretending you’re already the biggest band in the world.” There’s an awful truth to that. This truth is exemplified in many local bands that you make fun of who have more fans than you. You know, the bands with the overdone logo graphics on their website, pictures of themselves on their flyers, more merchandise than you have 9 minute songs, and who can book a show at The Fire Escape and actually be invited to come back.

Thinking you’re the next Bob Dylan doesn’t give you a license to suck. You know when you wind up at Luna’s and the opening act knows 4 chords and sings out of key the whole time? Sacramento’s indie culture is sometimes a parody of indie culture. This lingering need to rebel against 80s buttrock, which was already successfully accomplished by the grunge movement 20 years ago, results in a lot of douchebags thinking it’s okay that their guitar is a mystery to them. Music theory, solos and good old fashioned songs about screwing are out, bad fashion sense, out of tune guitars and pawn shop specials are in. You may attribute the lack of technical prowess of Bob Dylan and Neil Young as the justification for your coffeeshop scribblings that nobody cares about, but really, either one of those guys had forgotten more about music than you’ll ever know by the time they were 25. Tune up and practice or face the consequences of your demo being used as a post-breakup mockery by all your future ex-girlfriends.

Quit playing shows with your friends’ bands. Play with bands you hate instead. First of all, you’ve just eliminated a huge chunk of that made-up “fanbase” you lied to the promoter about. You probably share a group of friends you drag to shows. Also, they’re probably as much, if not more niche than you, which means the sighs of anyone wanting to have a good time are going to go up tenfold. Bands you hate, however, you probably hate because in all of your uber-artiste pretense you just can’t tolerate their unashamed sucking up to the audience and predictable melodies that sound like Maroon 5 raping Nickelback. In reality, among the much larger group of listeners they’ll bring, a few more open minded but perhaps unexposed patrons may find your avantgarde mess wonderful. I played at a Christian youth center with a bunch of emo and pop-rock bands, and one audience member was so delightfully confused by the sprawling mess of a “show” we put on, that he hugged me. By playing events outside your circle, you go beyond the same 20 nobodies and maybe find listeners who will tell their friends about you, because “Dude! I’ve never heard anything like this!”

There’s also a few local “festivals” that wind up booking more than 2 dozen acts to create the illusion of an audience, but really, all the out of towners that were invited are now just down gas and lodging money to attend your giant circle jerk.

You can leave at anytime. I remember there was this old bit on the Drew Carrey Show, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase something I probably haven’t seen in 10 years, “He also invented the cubicle. He originally called them cages, but then decided that locking them wasn’t necessary, because they’re imprisoned in their minds.” This is how I’ve come to feel about the bottom half of Sacramento’s music scene. It’s why I’ve retired from ambient/experimental performances and you wont see me on stage until my new rock band is ready. For the droning rubbish, it’s easier to just release it online for free since it cost nothing to make and observe the few Germans that actually care. I have no intention of playing in dusty closets for 5 of you because I finally figured out that those gigs don’t matter. That “We need any gig!” logic isn’t entirely accurate. What? When you tell Old Ironsides that last show you played at that unlicensed venue drew 30 people, do you think they’re going to stop to validate that? Okay, so by only playing at venues that are legal, have standing room and listings in SN&R, you might dramatically decrease how often you play in Sac, but think of it this way, it gives you more time to do all that promoting you haven’t been doing. It also frees you up to play more gigs in Reno, San Francisco, Chico, that occasional long drive to LA or Portland. Quit wasting your time unless you’ve ultimately decided your music is garbage and you need to punish small audiences with it.

If this article made you laugh, it maybe didn’t apply to you and you should keep doing whatever you’re doing. If you were offended, you’re probably having a hard time accepting that playing for nobody in a closet with no address on M street doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, but that’s your fault.

Album review: Summer of Glaciers – Concentric (2010)

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If you were to only listen to the record without reading too much into it, you would probably assume that Summer of Glaciers is a 5-piece band, milking San Francisco’s post-rock fan boys and being the obvious choice to open for God Is An Astronaut when they spring up on tour. You’d probably think they rehearse like crazy in order to pull off this material live without slipping up. With its massive layers of sound and carefully integrated guitar parts, this would be a safe assumption to make.
But you’d be wrong. Summer of Glaciers is a one-man-band. Ryan Wasterlain, who looks like your company’s IT guy, goes on stage with an understated demeanor, adorned with a Gibson guitar and more complex machinery than most guitar players would ever want to keep track of. Using a drum machine, a mixing console, and a heavy amount of computer software, Ryan performs each guitar part, manipulates it after the fact, and then continues layering, all while maintaining a conventional progressive-rock structure to the music without ever sounding like he’s compensating somehow. The slightest mistake could wreck a reasonable portion of the set, and with a metronome in his ear piece, he maintains patience and perseverance throughout the performance.
This brings us back around to Concentric, his latest record released through SF collective Ascender Descender records. The record features a sharp production and sounds impossible to pull off live through the method I just described. The use of drum machine works out nicely as it doesn’t do much impersonation of real drums, but rather relies on it’s own digital personality. The guitars roll in and out with razor sharp hooks at every turn, sometimes kicking 3 of them up at once, then descending into stuttering noise. It also doesn’t hinder to too many of the “post-rock” stereotypes that linger around these days, by maintaining quick paced tempos, rarely staying in place for too long, and bringing a well directed energy that makes it into get-on-the-freeway-and-do-90 music.
 
It’s hard to pick stand out tracks from the album, since most of it is daisy chained together to flow as one dynamic prog-rock epic. Although never meandering, you’re hard pressed to find an obvious end to anything on the record. There is one obvious track however in Touching Down, featuring Emil Rapstine on guest vocals. His performance almost sounds like a more Americanized take on Dead Can Dance, and lends desert imagery and a slight psychedelic feel to the juxtaposing futuristic musical foundation in place by Wasterlain. The production efforts on his voice also have more of a lo-fi sound amidst the ultra-clarity of the instruments, giving his voice a bit of a surreal presence. As it sweeps to its chorus toward the center, it is quite epic.
 
This track is followed by the album’s eerie closer, Ceremonial Ghosts, which carefully moves out of a simple arpeggio into an eerie keyboard percussion piece, then shifts gears all at once to a quiet chugging guitar. It in a way stands as a dark reflection of the album’s first 9 tracks, setting the sun on the journey.

Concentric has been one of my main walkman albums of late. Summer of Glaciers is presently on tour (dates listed below), check them out if you can. Due to Bandcamp’s very liberal sharing policy, you can listen to the player below, and if you so enjoy it, follow it to put money in Mr Wasterlain’s tank by buying a copy.
 
07.07.2010: pa’s lounge. boston, ma. w/ rob byrd, lazar house.
08.07.2010: rebel sound records. pittsfield, ma. w/ cabinet of natural curiosities.
09.07.2010: green line cafe. philly, pa. #
11.07.2010: loft show. toronto, on. w/ valley of the shadow of death.∍
12.07.2010: pat’s in the flats. cleveland, oh. w/ presque vu, two left ears (france).
13.07.2010: no fun house. kalamazoo, mi.
14.07.2010: turf club. st. paul, mn. w/ gerald prokop, telepathos.
16.07.2010: day show – independent records. denver, co.
16.07.2010: night show – astroland. boulder, co.
17.07.2010: sweatfest. grand junction, co. – thepanthernaut.com/sweatfest/
18.07.2010: necropolis. sacramento, ca. w/ (waning), noisepsalm.
19.07.2010: mama buzz. oakland, ca. w/ james & evander, posted.
20.07.2010: johnny v’s. san jose, ca. w/ lady lazarus.
21.07.2010: tba. san francisco, ca. w/ lady lazarus, sarah june.
22.07.2010: tba. oakland, ca. w/ lady lazarus, sarah june

(waning) – Her Eyes Open

The first track I ever recorded for (waning), Her Eyes Open, is 11 minutes of On Land-era Eno/Laswell-esque drone with hints of modern post-metal rumble. They were still finding their sound and ultimately, it didn’t fit in on Always Ending. They’ve now released it as a single for $1, or free with the purchase of Always Ending. I went back and polished off the mix/master a little bit, and for audiophiles, Bandcamp even offers a 24-bit/96khz version of the track (and I have no idea what, if any, dithering algorithm they used for the 16-bit versions….).

Anyway, have a listen. Best with a subwoofer and a glass of wine.

Not the usual tool set…

Atari Music Composer, meet Logic Pro.

I wasn’t happy with the sound files that the emulator itself was making; they sounded mudded down compared to the actual output. So I went the patch cable route. Separated the voices so I can do some stereo panning and mute the leads during bass and drum tracking. SZR alumni Graham Roggli will be contributing the drum tracks to this (as well as other places on the record).

Click to enlarge.

Also, Cozmic Cafe seems to be closed. Placerville just became a sad, boring place.

Atari Music Composer

My solo album needed a few non-loop tracks to break up the monotony, so I’ve been digging around in my toybox. In storage I have an Atari 800XL with Atari Music Composer that spits out 8-bit squarewave goodness, but it’s too much of a hassle to set up right now. I did however get an emulator of it running on my Macintosh which spits out perfect 8bit/22khz aif files, so I don’t get the noise of it coming down a 20 year old phono cable (for better or worse).

I’m slowly chipping away at a composition in this program that will be later overdubbed with drums and several guitar tracks. I want to get it somewhere around the 5 minute mark. To show off what this 31 year old computer program can do, here’s a lovely little Ogg stream of an early draft:

In other news, (waning)’s cd release party went very well. It’s one of the better performances I’ve seen them play, and Nero Order trash my hearing.