Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)



Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

Yam Haus’ Stargazer begins with its powerful title track and it serves notice that the young Minneapolis based outfit means business. The pulsing synthesizer opening “Stargazer” soon transitions into sharply crafted verses driven by jagged bright guitar and straight ahead percussion. Lead singer Lars Pruitt makes the most from the band’s flair with a good chorus and helps “Stargazer” reach stratospheric heights. “West Coast” doesn’t have quite the same panache with a more diffuse chorus, but the vocal melody keeps things beguiling for listeners and the song has a trademark unity that makes it a deeply enjoyable listening experience, but the third song in Stargazer’s opening trio “Kingdom” brings audiences another indelible chorus and some particularly Eighties touches thanks to the song’s synthesizer adornments.

It’s impossible to get away from how well recorded and produced Yam Haus’ debut is. Stargazer highlights a band with a diverse sound, but the production expertly balances and separates the instruments in each respective song and renders the band’s musical vision in high gloss musical Technicolor. The album’s fourth song is well in keeping with the pop inclinations of the opening trio – “Get Somewhere” has some especially tasty verses, but the real pay off comes with the song’s chorus and it undeniably connects with listeners. Yam Haus introduces some piano into “Too Many People” and the gospel influences rife throughout the tune never strike a false note and Pruitt responds with a lot of soulfulness. The accompanying handclaps are another humanizing element of the song moving it away from the electronic flourishes running through the earlier songs and this more stripped down, traditional approach rings true.

“Right Now, Forever” flips the script for anyone listening to every track up to this point. Yam Haus completely backs away from the template of the previous five songs in favor of a delicately constructed acoustic performance and Pruitt adjusts his voice accordingly. It strikes a sharp contrast with its follow up, “You Need Love (Stargazer Reprise)”, but this reprise veers away from aping the title track and, instead, develops similar themes in a different musical fashion. “Bad News” returns them to the familiar ground of pop songwriting craftsmanship and they deliver again, but the vocal melody is especially memorable and Pruitt capitalizes on its potential.

They orchestrate an entertaining, compelling build for the track “Carry Me Home” and Pruitt delivers a singing performance exploring the full range of his voice’s dynamic possibilities. His seamless shifting through varying levels of his register undoubtedly benefits from the presence of recording technology, but there’s no indication in the recording that Pruitt would struggle reproducing this in a live setting.

The band’s two guitar punch comes to the forefront with the album’s one indisputable rocker “We Are the Storm”, but they quickly prove they don’t succumb to six string self indulgence even when they let that side of their musical character rise to the surface. Instead, it has a sinewy and confident texture that draws you in from the first. Yam Haus improbably ends Stargazer with the near-folky strands of “Something Better” and the minimal accompaniment playing alongside Pruitt’s voice and the band’s acoustic guitar fleshes out the song just enough to help it sink deeper into your consciousness. It’s a gentle, profoundly evocative closer for Stargazer, one of the most satisfying releases in recent memory, not just 2018.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)



Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Astronomique’s journey to musical prominence takes another major leap into the future with the release of their first full length collection Sharp Divide. The ten song outing builds on the band’s previous EP efforts and illustrates the full breadth of their creative vision while still pointing the way towards a boundless future. Led by lead vocalist Logan Andra Fongemie and guitarist Sean Hogan, the four piece also benefits enormously from the contributions of drummer Mitch Billings and bass player Preston Saari. Their heft and swing as a rhythm section is produced for maximum effect and provides a muscular center for each performance without threatening to dominate the mix. This Minneapolis based band fuses a number of styles together on Sharp Divide and the ultimate effect of the release widens the gulf between their work and similarly themed bands working on the indie scene or elsewhere.

“Forefathers” begins Sharp Divide with an excellent example of the steady pulse provided by Saari and Billings. It has a speaker rattling touch without ever being too heavy handed and the production virtues round it into a warm, fat heartbeat for this song and others to come. Fongemie’s synthesizer playing blends well with Hogan’s guitar and they often work in concert akin to the manner we hear between progressive guitarists and their keyboard playing band mates. There’s an appealing Euro pop vibe to the track “Side of Your Mind” with a strong danceable beat and jangling Hogan guitar flashing throughout. Fongemie’s vocal is surrounded with considerable echo and seems slightly submerged in the mix, but the overall quality of her performance remains unaffected. It’s one of the album’s most evocative numbers and never overplays its ambitions.

“Losing Our Control” is built around its electronica sheen and has a steady stride once the full band kicks in. The consistent push of this song makes it one of the album’s more meaningful numbers while still relying on the same atmospheric calling cards we’ve heard with Sharp Divide’s first two songs. The album’s title song will impress many as the finest song on the release thanks to its fully conceived slant, both lyrically and musically, but Mitch Billings’ striding drums strike just the right pacing for the performance. Fongemie’s vocal is among her finest outings on the album and she wisely reserves an effort of this quality for the album’s title cut.

A recurrent swell of Fongemie’s synthesizers opens “Unspoken” and, when the song begins in full, Billings sets a definite tone with the brief gallop in his drumming. It’s impressive how the band maintains such a steady, nuanced pace throughout the track and Hogan’s lattice like guitar work hits an individual peak with his playing here. “Bleed Me” is a much darker tune, both lyrically and sonically, without ever deviating from Astronomique’s core sound and the album’s finale “Heading Nowhere” powerfully encapsulates the album’s primary themes in a parting tune every bit as compelling as its best predecessors. Sharp Divide is one of the year’s more creative musical efforts and opens the door to a boundless future for this Minneapolis band.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)


Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

The Traknyak brothers from Kansas have long been carving a soon to be musical legacy across their local area.  With tour and recording dates taking them throughout Kansas, Texas and Tennessee, they are making their radius known more and more every single day.  They’ve also received airplay on at least 50 different Internet stations at this point as well.  Oculus is their first full-length outing and it deserves a careful, deliberate ear for its many musical intricacies.  There’s no specific genre and the duo of Gabriel and Daniel traverse several within each of the songs on this 10-track offering. 

The soothing waves of the aptly titled “The River” gets things going with a downbeat piano melody giving way to electronica drum programming and sky shot vocals that really ascend to a big pay-off of hard guitar meat and densely layered sound collage. What starts as a leisurely stroll ends with volume and a wall of sound type production befitting a late great psychedelic rock band.  This record is full of these nuances with “Sneakers” following much of the same blueprint though it replaces the piano focal point with guitar and launches into a heavy rocker of the highest order long before the endnote.  “In the Fire (Part 1)” is a subtle dirge that reckons of the album opener with the follow-up of “Wildfire” changing the trajectory dramatically in a wake of acoustic guitars, superb vocal melodies and lurching beats that open up into wider electric expanses towards the finish line. 

The frenetic “I’ll Stop the World (Part 2)” mingles faster, riff-driven bursts with slower downshifts that showcase a split personality between heavier and lighter vibes that still keep mindful of excellent musical melodies and big vocal hooks.  Tempos descend on the crumbling “Lex” and the tune’s scintillating guitar smolders, powerhouse drum thumping and fire-forged vocal mantras.  This strange otherworldly flavor is offset by the bluesy rollick of “Breathe Easy” and the almost ska-guitar boogie of “Take It All.”  These tracks are certainly the odd man out on the record stylistically, but somehow they fit within the overall framework.  Sky Orchid returns to darkly shaded surrealism on “Yesterday” and “Fortify,” making for a very strong send-off for the record at large.  There are no duds to be found here and all of the songs obviously had a long gestation period for all of the individual parts to develop and solidify. 

Oculus couldn’t be a stronger flagship release from the brothers Traknyak.  They’ve got strong musical chops, sharp songwriting skills, fantastic ears for production and all-around full bodied sense of how their sound should be portrayed to the masses.  With the proper label push and backing that understands their music, there is no reason that Sky Orchid couldn’t become a household name.  The duo has gotten a sizable following from their touring and recording out in the Midwest and it’s only a matter of time before they start branching out and taking over other parts of the United States.  Oculus is a fantastic debut that should be heard by everyone.         

Monday, June 25, 2018

Rhett Repko - Thnx For The Ride (2017)



Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

The title song begins Rhett Repko’s Thnx For The Ride on a rip-roaring note. Repko and the three piece band accompanying him tear through this focused song, stopping on a dime, negotiating transitions into tricky time signatures with seamless skill, and Repko sounds energized throughout to be working with skilled musicians. Even on a recording, there’s a palpable chemistry these four musicians share and one can only assume they are even more explosive in a live setting. “Please Don’t Laugh” carries on with some of the skillful twists and turns we hear in the title song and the guitar sound is a bit more “normalized” compared to lead guitarist Stefan Heuer’s effects laden approach on the opener. Repko’s subject matter for the entirety of the EP is, invariably, romantic relationships, but he finds a way to tackle such time tested subjects in a way that feels uniquely individual. It’s no small thing to pull off this late in popular music’s history.

There’s a sarcastic, bitter edge to the track “It Ain’t Coming From You”, but never bitter enough to make this an unpleasant listening experience. It is invigorating, however, to hear Repko sink his teeth into these lyrics and deliver them with a well deserved emotive spike stabbing straight for listener’s hearts. Backing and harmony vocals for the EP are Stefan Heuer’s responsibility and his voice blends well with Repko’s. The emphasis Thnx For The Ride places on vocal presentation is one of the release’s strongest qualities. “Maybe I’m Weak” brings a stronger personal touch than ever before to Thnx For The Ride’s individual take on modern pop rock and Repko’s dramatic vocal is the finishing touch. His singing transforms “Maybe I’m Weak” from a fine track to among the EP’s best.

There’s some sly shifts in tempo thrown in for good measure on the memorable “And I Told Her So”, but drummer Tom Bryant is, arguably, more responsible for the success of this song than any others before or after. The whipcrack pop from his percussion drives “And I Told Her So” along with a mix of modern and classic rock energy. Stefan Heuer deserves a nod, however, for his commanding lead guitar work near the song’s end. The rhythm section churns out another impressive performance with the EP’s second to last number “Learn Your Name” and the groove established from the first is familiar, but rolls over listeners in a distinctive way. Young bands must bring something of themselves to traditional rock songwriting like this if they want to stand out and a lot of that depends on the musician’s penchant for melody. The song’s central riff illustrates that quite nicely.

Rhett Repko’s Thnx For The Ride is an EP but, make no mistake, it’s a notable addition to his growing catalog. These are song crackling in studio form, so we can only assume they will really catch fire on a stage. Repko, undoubtedly, wrote these songs with his live show very much in mind. They are more than entertaining concert fare, however; Repko has, likewise, advanced by leaps and bounds as a singer/songwriter of note and Thnx For The Ride’s songs clearly show his progress.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)



Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

“We Were Everything” begins Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars on a decidedly elegiac note, but this isn’t a dreary collection of songs. Ketchmark’s first full fledged solo effort, self-produced and written by Ketchmark, finds this longtime musical cohort of some of the music world’s biggest acts stepping out on his own with considerable talent and finesse. The primarily acoustic slant to this album is adorned with other touches like keyboards and even some occasional swaths of steel guitar, but you can’t comfortably consign it to a particular genre. “We Were Everything” has strong melodic virtues that continues with the second song “Every Mystery”, but the arrangement is a little more inventive and less straightforward than we hear from the first song. It doesn’t veer too far, however, from the tendencies established with “We Were Everything”.

The steel guitar present in “Let It Rain” is so thoroughly integrated with the rest of the arrangement that it never calls ostentatious attention to itself and, instead, proves to be just another color in Ketchmark’s toolbox. It’s easy to single this tune out as one of the undisputed high points on Under Plastic Stars and the emphatic nature of Ketchmark’s singing signals he views the song in a similar manner. “Lucky at Leavin’” sounds like it might be some classic country cut, based on title alone, but it’s actually a lush and carefully wrought acoustic number, folk for the most part, that benefits from a swell of keyboard color strengthening its sound. Ketchmark’s singing hits another high water mark with this tune that will, undoubtedly, linger in listener’s memories long after the song ends. “Hereafter” is particularly effective thanks to Brad Rice’s sinewy electric guitar lines crackling throughout the performance and another impassioned vocal never risking overwrought theatrics.

“Get Out Alive” has a little more of a rough hewn gait than the earlier tunes and owes its roots to the blues much more than anything else so far. It’s an evocative piece lyrically and Ketchmark brings just enough gravel into his voice to make this character dissection all the more convincing. He hits another high point with the commercial potential of “Saturday Night”, but Ketchmark isn’t a performer pursuing the path of least resistance. Instead, he throws himself into this tune for all he’s worth and it reaches heights the earlier songs never explore. “In Harm’s Way” is a largely solo acoustic tune incorporating more sounds in the second half and has a pleasing melodic core that will draw many listeners into its web.

“Sweet Surrender” takes some of the same template we hear with the song “Saturday Night” but, instead of relying on guitars, brings piano in to great effect and Ketchmark’s voice responds in kind with a showstopper of a vocal. The near orchestral sweep of this song stands out from the rest and makes it one of Under Plastic Stars’ more memorable moments. The last track “The Great Unknown” adopts a busier tempo than we’ve heard with much of the album and, thus, brings the release to an energetic close. Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars is an obviously personal work, but the entry points for listeners are numerous and inviting.  

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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