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Thrice – The Artist in the Ambulance

Thrice are passable in this much maligned era, but in a musical landscape in dire need for a Dave Mustaine in ’86 or a Hetfield of ’83, The Artist in the Ambulance feels a lot like a Jon Bon Jovi in ’87.

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The outlet for anger is a well documented element of the music cosmos. It seems the birth of its most vile incarnation can be traced to the early/middle 80’s, when most less-discerning rock bands were laced in leather and big hair. It was during such bewildered times that the likes of Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield assumed the burdening role of turning glam influenced rock on its backside. Taking the seeded grit of previous flag bearers Motorhead and adding an incredible dose of unrelenting fury that only the most demented could possess; they tore open metal’s underbelly and implanted their own demonic seedling, coined by many as “thrash”. It was the blitz-like guitar flailing coupled with the often sinister lyrical tones that resulted in a chaotic uprising in music that has very rarely been seen after.

It’s been 17 years since Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying? and 20 since Kill ‘em All, both deemed essential recordings of said genre; and it seems in the years proceeding, few have ever come as close as when Mustaine was hell-bent on topping his former band mates (not even Mustaine and Hetfield themselves). The intensity and outright disregard that both bands exhibited were like pages from the darkest chapter of hell; volatile and equivocally self-destructive. Today, there is little of such animosity; and there is nothing self-destructive, volatile or even remotely unrelenting about Thrice. Instead there is an apparent twist between the desire to be chaotic and the apprehension towards being too chaotic.

Chief lyricist Dustin Kensrue is well-schooled in dark poetic adages; in “Under a Killing Moon” he pens, “the blood on your black gloves / it is none of your concern / if you want to call our bluff / get in line and wait your turn / and watch the witches burn”. While certainly reaching levels of pervasive morbid inklings, it appears he is content at simply reciting dark goth-like poetry. And it seems Kensrue’s tendencies have arisen from broken hearts and mistrust; in “The Abolition of Man” he scowls “It’s not too late to save the remnants of our hearts / so stop giving up our last shot at love / our only chance to find the meaning of the beat beneath the blood” and in “Silhouette” he coins, “your eyes followed me here / your eyes seamless and sure / they leave me broken and in need of a cure”. Maybe Kensrue is slightly peeved, but angry and hateful he is not.

However, the biggest gripe lies not in Kensrue’s treatment of words, but rather in Thrice’s apparent indecision between being metal with punk/melodic traces or being punk with metal inclusions – an uncertainty they avoid only twice; in the aforementioned “The Abolition of Man”, they rely heavily on metal crunching, crushing growls and the sort of remorseless attitude that one would hope they could maintain. It is in stark contrast to “The Artist in the Ambulance”, this track is plain and simple, bland melodicore, but at least the aspirations here are clear.

Nevertheless, their desire to mix together metal tones with penchants for melody ends up as a diluting agent of sorts; the opening cut “Cold Cash and Colder Hearts” begins aggressively enough – the trademark gruff of Kensrue, but it quickly resolves into far more generic territory; quiet/loud musical shifts and airy vocals before, near the track’s end, reverting back to far more grating instances. It seems as if Thrice wish not to alienate (or rather, wishes to attract) those more inclined to catchy hooks and accessible refrains. It is also apparent that lead axe-man Teppei Teranishi is the able guitarist who clearly displays the voracity to let loose metal’s finest screeching; as showcased by brief moments throughout this release (notably in the opening bars of “Under a Killing Moon” and “Blood Clots and Black Holes”) but is often restricted by having to play lame riffs of catchy nuances (see “All That’s Left”).

Thrice is quite the anomaly; on one hand, they appear to be on the cutting edge of today’s marketable brand of “harder” music, but on the other, they seem caught up in trying to justify this nonsensical “blender” approach to songwriting. An approach which strangely enough, has taken a far less creative turn since their last release, The Illusion of Safety (2002). Take heed, Thrice are passable in this much maligned era, but in a musical landscape in dire need for a Dave Mustaine in ’86 or a Hetfield of ’83, The Artist in the Ambulance feels a lot like a Jon Bon Jovi in ’87.

(Island Records)

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Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die

Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter

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At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.

Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.

The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.

The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.

Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.

(Wiretap Records)

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Reviews

Fences – Failure Sculptures

Failure Sculptures is a steady outing

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Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.

“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.  

“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.

This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.

(GRNDVW)

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