Review: Ten Seated Figures by Yes We Mystic

FFO: Radiohead, Anathallo, performance art, human psychology

Manitoba quintet Yes We Mystic’s latest album seems more like an art project mixed with guerrilla marketing strategy rather than a mere set of songs. Indeed, to prepare for the album, five additional guests were recruited into the mix – as members of the band who were featured in press, interviews, and even music videos. The band went as far as scheduling two separate shows at the same time where, with each version of the band handling a single show. The band later pulled back the curtain on the stunt, describing how it coincides with the album’s themes of the fallibility of human memory and the tendency to distort the truth as we look back on our lives.

While this isn’t the first time the group has been creative with their marketing efforts (Forgiver was accompanied by anonymous confessions gathered by a prompt they had scattered publicly), it’s certainly their most ambitious project to date. Horror movies have clowns walk around with balloons – but Yes We Mystic hands us a Mandela Effect-driven exhibition that at best causes us to question reality and at worst causes us to lose it entirely.

The album itself is perhaps equally disorienting in some respects; orchestral layers are piled in multitudes, while a combination of sound processing and playing technique manage to largely obfuscate the source of any given tone. Is it a synth or a violin? It’s frankly hard to tell at times. Ten Seated Figures is not a casual listen as a result. It’s too intentional to enjoy in the background.

Yes We Mystic’s sound has always been hard to pin. It’s easy to delegate them to “orchestral” or “folk” designations, but these labels alone undermine the heavy pining toward electronica and chamber pop. Their sound isn’t completely esoteric, but at the same time it’s clearly the members have a high taste in art.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t take any shortcuts. Thankfully the band contributed toward their own Genius page to shed some insight on the stories behind the songs. “Young Evil”, for instance, explores the power of expectation over human behavior and how preconceptions of who we are can shape who we will become. “Win Ben Stein’s Money” name-drops a defunct Comedy Central show while wrestling with the power of capital and its ability to destroy relationships. “Please Bring Me to Safety” more directly addresses the dissociation and question of if life is an elaborate fabrication. Ten Seated Figures seems more like a parable of vices left untamed; we see the characters altered by their circumstances, losing site of themselves to external agents. And while we don’t have the full background on these songs and the characters they depict, there’s a good chance that more clues lie in the album’s artwork.

Ultimately, Yes We Mystic have taken an artistic risk this time around – but it’s definitely one they’ve spent time calculating. Ten Seated Figures is laced with frantic, oft-danceable art pop with orchestral elements. It’s undeniably a little weird (for the standard music fan, anyway), but it’s not any more removed from the mainstream than Radiohead ultimately. Tracks like “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “Vanitas Waltz” are quick hits, while others like “Italics” and “Please Bring Me to Safety” are growers. It’s an album that is far more balanced than an initial casual listen would indicate.

Ten Seated Figures is definitely a successful sophomore LP for the group, and it’s arguably stronger than Forgiver in many respects. The musical arrangements are more calculated, and the overlying concept helps unify the songs even despite their inevitable differences. It’s also their first time owning the responsibilities in the studio, but production feels crisp and professional. All in all, Yes We Mystic’s academic sensibilities and performance art integration are admirable elements that augment an already-strong album and make this one of the most interesting things to happen in the underground music scene all year.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Goodnight Paradise by Graveyard Club

FFO: The Cure, Frank Sinatra, nostalgia, ghost stories

There are some inescapable connotations that accompany a band whose name is Graveyard Club and whose song titles include “Witchcraft” and “Ouija”. But Graveyard Club is certainly a band that thrives off layers. Moving past the titles, you’ll find vintage-flavored album art, zany music videos with copious amounts of lemons, and a music flavor that rides the fine line between classic crooners and new wave classics. There is certainly nothing lifeless about what this band has to offer.

Goodnight Paradise is the group’s latest offering, serving as their third long-player to date. The crew had no trace of sophomore slump on its 2016 predecessor, Cellar Door, and fans have been waiting eagerly to see how Graveyard Club would follow up. “Ouija” dropped as a single in 2017, but it wasn’t until the end of this June that the band served up a proper release.

If you’ve ever had sibling just a few years older than you, you might have run into the uncomfortable moment where your teachers compare you to your siblings – if not overtly, at least in action and expectation (and maybe to your parents behind your back). Reviewing Goodnight Paradise feels a lot like being in the position of a teacher with younger sibling syndrome – it’s challenging to see it as a unique work with its own strengths when the natural inclination is to see it as a simple addition to the monument that was Cellar Door.

Needless to say, Goodnight Paradise is a decidedly a different album. There are, to some degree, fewer huge hooks (though it’d be remiss to say that an album’s impact is entirely dependent on its level of instant gratification). Musically, the tone is still vibrant – though the subject matter of the lyrics is a bit more intense this time around. The group have not labeled it a concept album, but there’s something about the use of names in the song titles that gives a certain sense of unity.

Graveyard Club do well to play into themes of loss and nostalgia with their signature blend of synth pop. Korg Minilogue meets sample pad meets pedalboard heaven for a sound that is more dreamy than spooky. Indeed, even when Graveyard Club tread through dark waters, they do so with wide-mouthed grins.

Even the lyrics obfuscate their dark undertones with proper cadence and poetry. It’s not a huge surprise for a band that was in part united by their love of fiction. It’s hard at times to discern to which degree the lyrics on Goodnight Paradise are biographical compared to which play out like short stories, but in the end, it arguably doesn’t matter. Graveyard Club is content to rest in a bit of mystery for the sake of art.

Even though Goodnight Paradise lacks some of the oomph of Cellar Door, that’s not to say it still isn’t peppered with captivating moments. The opening combo of “Witchcraft” (the album’s first single with accompanying music video), “Red Roses”, and “William” (another single) serves to set the listener up with some lofty expectations. “William” in particular seems reminiscent of Cellar Door‘s title track with its staccato synth lead. The next two singles come in as tracks 5 and 6. “It Hurts” is quite possibly the strongest song the group has released to date. Maybe the repetition of how “it hurts” connects with me on an oddly personal level (okay, it definitely does) “Finally Found” isn’t quite as strong, but it’s a hazy, danceable track that still leaves a good impression.

This is when things start to slow down quite a bit. The next high-energy track is a quarter of the album later (“Deathproof”), and the group have exhausted all of their singles at this point which makes Goodnight Paradise feel front-heavy. It’s not that the rest of the tracks are bad, but in some manner or another, they feel scaled back. Maybe there’s no big chorus or drums are in short supply; ultimately, several tracks feel like they’re missing something. Graveyard Club doesn’t feel like two separate bands, but they’ve got two types of songs. And it’s a bit hard to reconcile the differences in the context of an album, especially with how everything is arranged.

I’d be very curious to see the album broken into two EPs: “Witchcraft”, “Red Roses”, “William”, “Finally Found”, “It Hurts”, and “Deathproof” on one disk with the remaining songs on another EP. As a whole, the album seems to do a bit of goal-posting, setting an expectation for a certain type of sound before burning through all the hits and slowing pace abruptly.

Even so, there’s definitely lyrical cohesion in place. There are heavy themes of loss, coping with grief, death of friends and family, and the process of moving forward. It’s not an album that claims to have the answers but instead romances the authenticity of the questions it asks – the kinds of topics that you won’t find around a dinner table but that still haunt most of us. For this reason, it would be wrong to break apart the album. However, we’re left with an experience that seems to drift between two different worlds. Maybe that’s exactly what Graveyard Club wants – for us to wrestle with tension.

Our Rating: 6.7 (Solid)

Review: With or Without by Overslept

FFO: tasty math rock riffs, pop rock vocals, immaculate rhythm sections

Technically-inclined music has typically distanced itself from its catchy indie-pop cousin. They’ve largely coexisted like high school cliques, shooting glances across the room to acknowledge the other exists, though this exchange is nothing more than minutia in the majority of cases. Most artists would have you believe that songwriting lives in this kind of binary; riff-driven songs engulfed in poetic lyrics face off against catchy, carefree songs you can’t wait to show your friends. There will be blood. Tickets on sale now starting at $10.

Actually, let me back up a bit. It would seem that some bands have a knack for carefully balancing these competing elements. It’s a strange process of musical osmosis whereby one extreme is diluted a bit but neither part is sacrificed. It’s the sort of mood that bands like TTNG and Anathallo carry with them, but even these bands have largely been constrained to specific circles of fans.

Denver-based Overslept seem to have found a rare place in modern music on With or Without, their 2019 sophomore LP. While it’s, at least in some respect, a heavier record than its predecessor, it’s an incredibly balanced set of songs. Beyond the aforementioned technical and pop-friendly elements, Overslept show their aptitude for diversity in other respects: loud and soft, energetic and tired, retrospective and hopeful, lament and laughter. It’s a record that reads like the human experience – it never dwells too much on any given feeling, but at the same time, it’s undeniably cohesive.

Some of the cohesion sits on the lyrical side. The album’s title is referenced several times (“Thirteen Thirty One”, “Anhedonia”, and the powerhouse title track) and it’s phrase met with different instrumentation each time. There’s also a subtle nod to touring partners Father Mountain on “Anhedonia” that only a handful of listeners will catch. Ultimately, the lyrics are very strong and the album certainly has a narrative played out through joy, doubt, pain, loss, and redemption.

However, it’s ultimately the context of the lyrics that makes With or Without such a strong album. Frontman Elias Armao’s delivery is excellent. Armao has one of the more unique voices in the indie rock genre, with a soulful elegance you’d find from Hotel of the Laughing Tree. It’s impassioned and earnest, yet there’s a radio-friendly quality all the same. This time around, he’s joined by fellow guitarist/vocalist Mickey Postilion who works in some harmonies and vocal trade-offs.

It wouldn’t be too unfair to call this a math-rock album. As such, the riffs are in no short supply and there are plenty of moments where a guitar part is just as catchy as a vocal chorus. Drums and bass aren’t given an easy job by any stretch, but the pocket never lets up for even a moment.

Without or Without is an amalgamation of the good things in life. It’s a music cookie-brownie that takes the strengths of competing dynamics and synergizes them. You’ll be belting out the lyrics one moment and having an internal heart-to-heart in the next. It’s a high-energy, pop-friendly album made by serious musicians with something to say, and that alone distinguishes Overslept from their peers. You may have overslept on this album, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Our Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

Early Picks for Top Underrated Albums of 2019

A new kind of alternative.

We are over the halfway mark in 2019 and we’ve already seen a lot of solid albums. So far we got a predictably superb Baroness record, a very impressive new LP from Little Simz, and a rager of a new PUP record just to name a few; and with several notable new releases from artists like TOOL, Wilco, and Hiss Golden Messenger still to come, 2019 will end up another very respectable year for music.

But for every critical darling there are always several great albums that fly under the radar either for lack of name recognition, lack of marketing budget, or for not fitting the sonic mold that every critic, intentionally or not, imposes on their ratings. That’s why we put together this list of ten albums that aren’t getting much critical attention, but we think need to be heard.

Death of the Neon by String Machine

String Machine’s sophomore record is even more breathtaking than their equally underrated debut album Threads From the Youth Fossil. Death of the Neon mixes folk, indie, emo, and post-rock to create a unique atmosphere that defies traditional categories, spearheaded by some of David Beck’s most vulnerable lyrics to date.

The Language of Injury by Ithaca

UK Label Holy Roar continue a recent trend of putting out great metal albums with Ithaca’s bone-crushing debut. This is chaotic hardcore at its finest; a record that is complex and raw both musically and lyrically from a band that should be mentioned in the same breath as greats The Chariot, Every Time I Die, and Norma Jean.

This is Not the End by Spielbergs

After a couple brushes with cult success in prior bands, the members of Norwegian punk outfit Spielbergs have finally done it. This is Not the End is an expansive magnum opus for the scene veterans, filled with anthemic shout-alongs, big fuzz riffs, and successful forays into more cinematic material.

Cause & Affection by Oginalii

The debut from sludgy Nashville rock outfit Oginalii is a genre-bending odyssey taking cues from free-jazz, power pop, progressive rock, and hardcore just to name a few. Cause & Affection is one of the most refreshingly original rock records in recent memory: it’s heavy, it’s catchy, it’s smooth, it’s dark, and it does all of it without calling to mind any comparable band.

Safe and Also No Fear by Slaughter Beach, Dog

After a brief, but intensely popular career as one of the two lead writers and singers of Modern Baseball, Jake Ewald gave up emo for folk. His latest under solo moniker Slaughter Beach, Dog showcases the strength of his trademark storytelling over laid-back folk-rock arrangements more similar to Wilco than his punk roots.

2020 by Shin Guard

Last year Pittsburgh screamo new-comers Shin Guard released one of our underground albums of the year in Cerebral. Not even one year later they returned more experimental, technical, and heavy than ever before with 2020; an artsy post-hardcore masterpiece filled with unpredictable turns, probing lyrics, and uncontrollable frenetic energy.

Pale Cicada by Makeunder

If Oginalii released the most original rock record of the year, Makeunder released the most original record period, regardless of genre. Mixing influences from RnB, to funk, to folk, to art rock the California project put out the densest dance record the world has ever seen, somehow turning songs about wrestling with death and poverty into something you can move your feet to.

The Big Freeze by Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson is not getting nearly enough attention. Since leaving the Jeff Rosenstock-led band Bomb the Music Industry! she has consistently proven her chops as a folk writer over the course of several albums. Her newest, The Big Freeze, is arguably her best yet; a diverse and vulnerable offering that should put her in the conversation as one of the most talented lyricists of the decade.

You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry by Catholic Werewolves

Catholic Werewolves easily have the best album name of 2019 so far, and their concise, 15 minute mini-LP is also one of the best punk records of the year. You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry is a witty and fun record reminiscent of Jeff Rosenstock about the seemingly systemic angst in American 20-something life.

Princess Diana by The Manana People

2019 is the year of bands with “psyche” in their genre-tags and The Manana People are one of the best of the lot. Their brand of “psyche-country” combines Beach Boys level harmonies with old-timey Western guitars, and quirky theremin and synth parts, wrapped together with a dusty lo-fi production that makes this unique album feel straight out of a Sundance film.

We’ve put all ten of these albums into a playlist for your enjoyment below.

Review: Sparrowfeather by Jay Sunaway

FFO The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Darlingside

Reveal and conceal, appearance and disappearance, these words are key to the thinking behind this work and link to my fascination with Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘seam’. Barthes describes the seam as being the site of both loss and of desire. I am interested in playing with the tension of the edge or seam by working with folding to collage” – Rebecca Loweth, collage artist

Outside of collage artists and seamstresses, not many people give much thought to the meaning of seams. But such a seemingly simple thing is pregnant with symbolic meaning. As Loweth points out, as a piece folds it enters a cycle of appearance and disappearance: part of the original disappears behind the crease and what remains visible now appears different. Likewise as two things are sowed together the seam marks both the edges of each original part and also, literally and symbolically, the melding of the two pieces into one new piece. Appearance and disappearance. Loss and desire. The old and the new.

It’s appropriate that Jay Sunaway would take inspiration from Loweth’s approach, in many ways it mirrors their own artistic journey. In 2018 the London space-folk outfit released their debut EP Earth Hum, a mesmerizing album centered on modern life and technology in a present world that seems to thrust itself constantly into the future. Now on their 2019 followup Sparrowfeather, they focus instead on the past, invoking natural images to explore the themes of place, history, and memories. Just like Loweth, Jay Sunaway choose to live their creative lives on the seam, using their music to explore the tensions between a modern, ever-evolving world, and the world of memories and places that gave birth to it.

If this all sounds a bit heady for you, don’t worry, despite it’s wide-reaching and meandering lyrical themes Sparrowfeather is a very accessible EP that any folk fan will love. It’s also simply gorgeous. Behind Joe Woods’ elegant finger picked guitar lines and reflective lyrics is a fully fleshed out world of reverby harmonies, lush string arrangements, and strikingly dynamic bass lines. Jay Sunaway shift effortlessly between hushed “one guitar, one voice” folk and groovy full band alt-folk crescendos, sometimes throwing in key and tempo changes along the way for good measure. In all it sounds vaguely like The Decemberists, but if Sufjan Stevens composed the EP for Colin Meloy and told him to tone down the medieval peasant ramblings. It has the same hyper-literate appeal, but with a more universal message and a much more ethereal soundscape.

Check out this stunning new EP when it releases officially this Fall through Upcycled Sounds, and stream the first two singles Rocks and Kittiwake Cry below.

7.5 (Stand-Out)

Review: Death of the Neon by String Machine

FFO Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, TWIABP

The future is not what it seems. Just down the road from where I am writing this is the Pittsburgh Waterfront, a booming shopping district built over the bones of Andrew Carnegie’s steel dynasty. It’s a scene familiar to those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh, the city that bounced back, one of the few rust-belt towns to find new life once the nation’s mills closed down: what is old is bought out by developers and turned into housing plans and sprawling strip malls, often separate from and inaccessible for those who lived through the changes. In the rural counties just outside the city limits this process is even more exaggerated. Not an hour north from downtown Pittsburgh sits Butler, once a district filled with family farms and the farthest corner of the city’s industrial hub. These days the old manufacturing districts have folded into a post-industrial wasteland and the few farmers remaining are increasingly forced to sell off parcels of their land to the same kinds of developers who gentrified much of the city to their south. For many this is the face of the future; an inescapable wave that leaves the old ways propped up in ruins and the new just out of reach. But some, like Butler’s own progressive folk outfit String Machine, are rejecting the life they’ve inherited; taking the lessons they learned from “the frozen ruins of Western Pennsylvania” and using them to press forward into a future all their own.

String Machine’s music is an ethereal and vulnerable blend of folk, punk, and indie that invites the listener into it’s own sonic world; a nostalgia-laced place that “provides joy while wondering if joy is even possible.” On their sophomore record, The Death of the Neon, the seven piece band have reached a near spiritual point in their creation, blending everyday experiences and esoteric imagery into something that feels potent and transcendent. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on early standout Old Mack, a song that takes the story of being bit by an old dog and spins it into a contemplation on life and death with lines like “not all hounds go to heaven/ but I don’t know where the bad ones go”, “I’ve got it tied tight around my face/ blanket soul keeps the sap in my head”, and “let’s put make-up on my scares today/ and go see Manson at Star Lake/ and hope we wake up the same.” Throughout the record, lead songwriter David Beck uses images like the above to give a sort of surreal feeling to the scene he’s describing. Perhaps the best of these surreal images comes on the second track and lead single Eight Legged Dog where Beck sings an uneasy and slightly disturbing chorus: “the eight legged dog/ is coming along/ to ruin your grain.”

Several of the more vivid images also recur throughout, making Death of the Neon strikingly cohesive. The dog image occurs first in Eight Legged Dog and then again in Old Mack, the first as a personification of some dreadful thing and the second as a literal old hound. Similarly the phrase “soft margins” and the sap image pop up any time vulnerability comes into frame, while the phrase “excite again” first appears in No Holiday/Excite Again to signify doubting the possibility of joy and then appears as an inversion in Comforts From the Cobweb to signify a joy so powerful nothing could excite you beyond it. In the middle of the album the breeze plays a spiritual role in multiple songs, first drawing a comparison to a god and then a sense of calm and belonging with “in the breeze it’s alright to be.”

It’s the attention to such small details that sets The Death of the Neon apart from similar albums, or from most albums in general. This trait carries over into the whole arrangement as well. Every song is painstakingly layered with beautiful harmonies from their second vocalist Laurel Wain, sublime synth and piano lines, acoustic and electric guitars, strings, and even the occasional trumpet. It’s maximalism without the attention-seeking, complexity for the sake of sheer beauty and nothing else, and it’s the prime reason that Death of the Neon remains just as rewarding with each repeat listen as it is on the first play-through.

As with most albums in this vein, the main downside, if you can call it that, is in accessibility. Beck sings his lyrics in a loose, impassioned way that is heavily inspired by midwest “twinkly” emo and other 90s-inspired indie rock. The strength of this approach is that it conveys strong emotions well and has a sort of everyman charm, while the downside is that to the uninitiated it sounds pitchy and unrefined. When juxtaposed with Laurel Wain’s more ethereal voice, however, it reinforces and mirrors the band’s dual imagery: one part earthy, jagged past and one part dreamy, transcendental hope in a possible future.

Overall, Death of the Neon is easily one of the most complete and cohesive records of the year so far, and a shining example of our artistic mission statement at Not a Sound: build a world, not a sound. It’s an album you can dissolve into and explore over and over, unpacking new layers piece by piece with every fresh listen. Whether you’re a fan of psyche folk or if you didn’t know it was a genre until today, there’s a lot to experience, a lot to discover, and a lot to enjoy about String Machine‘s masterfully crafted new full-length, due out this Friday, August 2nd. The future is now, choose today what you will do with it.

8.2 (Best New Music)

Released: August 2nd, 2019
Label: Earthwalk Collective

Review: Electric Lunch by Rick Moon

FFO T. Rex, Grizzly Bear, Electric Light Orchestra

Rick Moon is in a world all his own. The talented Miami power-popper has been quietly putting together his own unique brand of fantastical indie rock since 2012, blending and modernizing sounds inspired by the likes of Harry Nilsson, The Beatles, XTC, and Grizzly Bear to name a few. Over the course of three EPs he’s slowly and steadily made a name for himself in Miami as both a songwriter and a producer, living out a passion for music that led him mainland from his birth home in Ponce, Puerto Rico as a college student. His newest effort, Electric Lunch, is his strongest to date, a surreal seven track EP with a near cinematic scope.

Anyone can make a paltry attempt at atmosphere with a guitar and reverb pedal, but Rick Moon doesn’t take shortcuts. Instead he painstakingly crafts each song to fill space in various inventive ways, using layers of synth, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, understated samples, and most importantly: walls of harmonies. The result is a rich sonic palette that rushes out to immerse the listener like a wave to the shore. It’s almost the musical equivalent to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the entire EP exists in it’s own lush, imaginative world of sound. This dreamlike quality is only reinforced by Rick Moon’s voice, which even without bolstering from multiple layers of harmonies has a sort of otherworldly quality to it.

Once you get beyond the atmosphere, a lot of the songs on Electric Lunch are also catchy and fun. Perhaps the best example is the mid-album standout Public Joke, a somewhat self-deprecating song about the spectacle of social media with garage rock riffs that call to mind Beck’s 90s material. Immediately following it is the whimsical Deadline with it’s flowing chorus and vibrant string arrangements; a song that somehow manages to remain a pop song even with loads of tempo, groove, and key changes. Even the much more low-key Goodbye has a recognizable Beatles pop charm to its almost barbershop hook. 

The make or break part of the album for most listeners, however, will probably be the lyrics. Keeping true to the dream-world feel of the album, there is a certain whimsy to Moon’s vocal style that turns even his most direct lines into something that feels imaginary. He also has plenty of lines, especially in Magic Pity and Goodbye, that actually are just in the fantastical realm. While this definitely fits the vibe of his art, there is a certain hokeyness about it that makes it feel a little divorced from reality. For some this will be no issue at all. It certainly doesn’t take away from Moon’s greater artistic vision, but it does require some level of intentional suspension of belief, which unfortunately will make it less palatable to a large group of listeners.

If you are willing to suspend your belief, however, your reward is entry into Rick Moon’s world of imagination, and that is absolutely a reward worth seeking. Electric Lunch is a beautiful escape into something grander, something expansive, something undeniably other. Let your childhood curiosity free and experience it today, you won’t regret it.

7.0 (Stand-Out)

Released: July 23, 2019
Label: Public Works