Song Premier: Cloud Caverns’ “The Eleventh Hour Effort”

“We were always waiting for the shoe to drop,
Here it is.”

Chattanooga’s Cloud Caverns has been crafting intimate, progressive folk for the better part of a decade now. Manned by Brandon Peterson, with intermittent friends lending assistance, the project has three full-length albums under its belt. More recently, Cloud Caverns has been releasing singles in anticipation of a new new full-length album.

Never shy to the discomforts of political corruption, disillusionment, and the the simple (yet unrelenting) pains of life, Peterson pens visceral songs that are poetic without being esoteric: they’re songs that frame the common threads of life in a way that manage to make something beautiful out of a reality that is often harsh.

We’re excited to debut Cloud Caverns’ latest single, “The Eleventh Hour Effort”. It’s a particularly timely song given the current health crisis. While the song’s lyrics speak of a house literally collapsing, it’s a state that many of us are experiencing emotionally. We are inside the house, it is sinking, and we’re not sure what to do. But the song is not prescriptive, instead slyly remarking, “That’s just life, is that right?”

All of this is juxtaposed against an otherwise upbeat sonic landscape, with prominent use of flute-like synth tones. It’d be easy to lose the serious undertones of the lyrics with a casual listen. It feels warm and playful, a nice change of pace for a project known to oscillate between intense alt-rock and spacious acoustic arrangements.

Check out “The Eleventh Hour Effort” below:

The Eleventh Hour Effort by Cloud Caverns

Review: The Better Way Home by Stalgic

FFO: Pianos Become the Teeth, The Receiving End of Sirens, Tiny Moving Parts, The Republic of Wolves, Sorority Noise

Green Bay-based Stalgic may have been around for only a few years now, but they’ve certainly been a staple in the scene, playing alongside fellow emo/post-hardcore act Bottom of the Lake, regular frequenting Jambalaya, and releasing EPs and splits in various shapes. Needless to say, they’ve keep an indomitable pace and assimilated well into the larger scene for alternative and emo. They’ve managed to outgrow a local audience and even get national, and international, attention via playlists like Dreambound.

While Stalgic has been known for their high-energy shows and somber lyrics, they’ve typically been on the “lighter” side of punk-adjacent genres. Not so on The Better Way Home, a release that feels appropriately encapsulated in the description of melodic hardcore. The classic chunky basslines and spiraling The Receiving End of Sirens-esque guitar lines are back in full force, but there are pockets of screaming and spoken word that add some more depth to Stalgic’s sound.

Tom Zwicker’s voice is eerily familiar to that of The Republic of Wolves’ Mason Maggio, though certainly of a deeper timbre. This isn’t to detriment whatsoever; in a genre that thrives off good cop-bad cop vocals of high tenors and the low growls of chain smokers, this down-to-earth baritone tone is refreshing and sits well in the overall mix. It feels genuine and earnestly carries the lyrical content across.

Kristian Pearson and Brent Harkonen are in full force, interweaving dual guitar parts with the utmost intricacy. Stalgic thrives on melodic integrity, and that’s certainly in no short supply on this release. Of course, there’s a bit of dropped-tuning chugs as well. Imagine 2006-era post-hardcore and you’ll get the idea. It’s a sound that is somewhat retired at this point but isn’t quite ready to hang up the hat.

Cooper Miller’s drumming is non-intrusive, providing a solid glue for the rest of the band. It’d appropriately dynamic, with plenty of tight tom work throughout the album.

The Better Way Home is undeniably a brief release – its nine tracks sit shy of half an hour, with two interlude-type tracks sprinkled in. Even so, there’s a lot packed into each of these tracks. Fans of Pianos Become the Teeth and So Soon, The Truth will immediately feel at home, those this is just a particular subset of would-be comparisons. Case and point, it’s fast, emotive, perhaps even dizzying.

The band is unfortunately challenged by an oversaturated genre that has stagnated somewhat for almost two decades. It’s evident they’re trying to break the mold, especially with some of the heavier portions or mathier types riffs. However, it’s a task that feels so insurmountable – it’s hard not to feel like Sorority Noise, The Hotelier, and similar acts have already marked their initials over this sonic space to some degree. And even if a band manages to expand on this sound in one way or another, it’s bound to feel derivative to some degree.

Even so, they make good use of their resources. Again, Tom Zwicker’s voice is a key defining element. The guitars, at their most melodic points, are beyond impressive. The stripped-down “Where I Stand” is a nice change of pace, even if it’s a bit more forgettable than some of its counterparts. Overlaying vocal parts and harmonies here and there are a nice touch. For the most part, Stalgic makes strong use of dynamic elements.

The Better Way Home shows a pretty neat advancement in Stalgic’s sound and the fact they’ve managed to garner a larger audience is admirable. This is a not release without some of the clichés of emo and adjacent forms of punk, and things do feel a bit too homogenous at times – but the discerning ear will appreciate some of the intricate details that set Stalgic apart from their peers. This band is still young and they’re progressing as they shape their sound. Only time will tell what they’ll do next.

Our Rating: 6.8 (Solid)

Learn more about our rating system here.

The Better Way Home by Stalgic

The Unconventional Genius of Bubba Sparxxx

Hint: It’s not “Ms. New Booty”

I’ll start with this: I’ve spent my entire life in suburban Wisconsin. I grew up listening to punk rock and metalcore. I spent much of my time on creative endeavors rather than physical ones. All this to say, I might be one of the last people you’d expect to talk about Bubba Sparxxx.

Indeed, there probably is not much that Bub and I have in common by any stretch, what with his primary focus on Southern and rural culture. Thematically, it’s completely foreign to me. But the powerful thing about art is it’s able to transcend some of these barriers.

You may know Bubba Sparxxx for his hit, “Ms. New Booty”. The track dropped in 2005, and it took off pretty well. Perhaps the inclusion of the Ying Yang Twins on the song had something to do with this.

However, that’s probably where most people’s knowledge of Bubba Sparxxx ends. To the uninitiated, he dropped a song about hitting the club, looking at butts, and “rockin’ everywhere”. And that alone fails to impress the critic in me. It’s a base effort with a fairly commercial slant to it. The music video attempts to impress some added meaning about body positivity, but let’s be honest: it’s at a best a party track, and at worst, a song for thirsty dudes to bump-n-grind to. To distill Sparxxx’s identity to the content of the track is remiss.

Here are a few quick facts. Sparxxx’s real name is Warren Anderson Mathis. He was born in the late 70s in LaGrange, GA (about an hour southwest of Atlanta). LaGrange’s population is in the mid 20,000s, so it’s not completely rural, those it certainly has a plurality of staple Southern restaurants like Chick-Fil-A (bless up). It is unlikely that Sparxxx has access to “playa’s clubs” in LaGrange.

But one thing he did have access to was hip-hop. His start was mostly with west coast acts. And let’s not overlook the fact that there was already hip-hop in the South; Outkast was from nearby Atlanta. This ended up being foundational for his later life.

Sparxxx moved several times throughout the South and eventually found success in Athens. This may seemed drawn-out or regurgitation of a Wikipedia article (which, let’s be honest, it kind of is) but there is a point to all of this. Sparxxx’s Southern roots are undeniably authentic, his interest in hip-hop had deep roots back before trap-type beats even existed, but it’s hard to discern just how rural his actual experience was. We’ll dive into why this is important shortly.

Sparxxx’s career was largely contingent on Timbaland’s production, and even his earliest releases don’t feel entirely estranged from the larger hip-hop scene. Sure, his lyrics have been referential to his Southern surroundings at times, but these were woven authentically into albums that were, frankly, just rap. It wasn’t until the 2010s where his music started to deviate a bit, incorporating banjo and other country and bluegrass instrumentation fully. This is also around the time where new country-rap artists where on the rise, and Sparxxx was no enemy of collaboration.

Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert released “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2008, but it wasn’t until Jason Aldean’s version surfaced in 2010 that it really found success in the mainstream. And this is perhaps the most pivotal point of this entire conversation – bro-country has been scorned for being generic, disingenuous, inhumane. This is only augmented by a dude in a cowboy hat and tight jeans attempting to rap about the most cliché Southern things. It’s catchy to the point that most listeners won’t even process the absurdity of what’s happening here. But, as mainstream country loves to do, appropriating yet another genre isn’t surprising – there are plenty of great small and independent country acts out in the world, but most of what you’ll hear on the radio is just “pop with twang”.

Now, the original song is perhaps less egregious to some degree since Colt Ford is known for his country-rap elements. But at this point, Bubba Sparxx has almost a decade of rap cred cemented in several albums of material. The country-rap premise had arguably been tried and tested for years now, and it did fine with what it had. It’s akin to the popification of worship music; the substance was inherent but it needed to be repurposed for commercial means.

Most genres seem to come in waves, and the early 2010s was a second wave of country-rap; arguably, this is when it shifted to what many know as hick-hop. And that name alone should tell us something.

While Sparxxx’s music has not always taken itself too seriously, these following waves read more like parody. It’s founded on self-deprecation. It feels like a Mad Libs sheet filled in with country clichés stolen from Luke Bryan songs. Ultimately, it’s no longer rap with country elements. It’s country songs in rap form.

I’m not arguing that Bubba Sparxxx is one of the greatest modern rappers, but he certainly was a forerunner in his own right. His music is certainly not perfect and it’s not without its own clichés, but it’s also the kind of music he loved. It’s not on par with the bastardization that is Zac Brown Band’s The Owl, a terrifying frankenstein of country and the indescribable ingredients of a hotdog. Rather, Sparxxx crafted songs that, while quirky at times, are arguably no stranger than what we’ve seen from some of rap’s most popular icons. They just happened to have Southern influence. And while Sparxxx may have done a bit of pandering in the recent years as well, in his most unobserved stage of his career, things never felt gimmicky.

So, the genius of Bubba Sparxxx really isn’t built on some secret ingredient. He managed to stand out in the scene because of his background, connections, and authenticity. Hip-hop is a genre with a lot of history and ethnic roots and it’s counter-cultural for white, Southern men (the unfortunate stereotype of racism and prejudice) to participate in this verbal ceremony. There’s a tradition to be respected, an art to be honored. And seeing country musicians shameless twist this into music that is often antithetical to the cultures which created propagated hip-hop to begin with is uncomfortable.

Bubba Sparxxx ultimately managed to help bring forth a whole wave of Southern artists who were eager to put their own take on hip-hop, and it probably wasn’t even intentional. Whether or not you actually like Sparxxx’s music, his approach is noteworthy. It’s certainly more organic than what has come to pass in recent years.

Review: Start A Fire That Sings You A Song by Social Caterpillar

FFO: folk punk, chamber pop, post-rock

“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.

Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.

The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.

As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.

Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.

“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.

“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.

“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.

The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.

With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.

The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole

So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.

However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.

Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.

Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.

Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand-Out)

Everything Matthew Milia Won’t Talk About

Frontier Ruckus is known for some deeply personal lyrical motifs, but even they still leave some points unaddressed.

Frontier Ruckus is a band that thrives as much on its lyrics as it does on its instrumental arrangements. Frontman Matthew Milia’s lyrics oscillate with ease better utter specificity (typically involving references to his home state of Michigan) and broad, speculative poetry. Even so, there are some things Milia just won’t talk about – and he has kindly laid these out for us in his lyrics. So, without further ado, here is a list of (mostly) everything Matthew Milia won’t tell us.

  1. Who killed who in a Top 40s country song
  2. All the sins he’s committed with a straight face
  3. How he abandoned his only companion
  4. What he farmed in his nightmares
  5. How he could be loved with all the phantoms in his mind
  6. The things rotting in the back of Kohl’s
  7. What they got from Little Caesars for the birthday party
  8. When Jacqueline is coming home
  9. What the glass in his friend’s eye implies
  10. If “it” is worth
  11. If he can bear the typos on the menu
  12. The secrets about Rebecca’s sister
  13. What it means to “go it alone”
  14. If his friend’s dad falls asleep holding the remote
  15. What he found in the woods behind the Taco Bell
  16. If the microphone is malfunctioning or broken
  17. If sad modernity has had its turn with his companion
  18. The joke that woke him up
  19. What made his special day dim
  20. If the “Queen of the downgrade” got paid for “making beds”
  21. If he got reimbursed for $27
  22. What the $27 is for
  23. If his friend’s dad found work on Craigslist
  24. If his friend made it back to the night of bluish black

And that’s about sums it up. Will we ever get answers or another Frontier Ruckus record? Only time will tell.

Review: Vampire Empire by Glowbug

Glowbug has been consistently crafting experimental electronic music for the past decade, and it has been quite a journey. But rather than shift directions entirely, it seems that each album manages to supplement a strong core sound with new elements that makes Glowbug hard to classify. There are elements of chillwave, hip-hop, alt-rock, post-hardcore, chiptune, and so much more at play. Put simply, Glowbug makes synth-pop that packs a punch and will probably appeal to fans of rock more than those of dance music.

At large, the Glowbug discography is patchy. I certainly consider myself a fan, but I’ve always been drawn to a couple songs here and there. Strangely enough, it was 2018’s Weezing, a tropical take on some Weezer classics, that really stood out to me. It was a style that doesn’t have a lot of direct competition, and the use of timpani and brass really gave it a refined edge.

It’s this sound that also serves as the primary base for Vampire Empire. Glowbug augments these elements with everything from Latin piano grooves, sultry falsetto, AWOLNATION-esque screams, and frenetic choruses and the end result is an album that seem more balanced than its predecessors. It’s not without highlight songs (“Love”, “Phantoms”, “Death Wish”, and “Time Bandits” are all exemplary) but the other tracks certainly aren’t far behind.

“Phantoms” feels like the best entry point for the album – while it wasn’t released as a single, it has all the right elements of one. A bassy synth intro bleeds into upbeat horns, cementing a warm feeling that embraces the whole album. The chorus is crazy in all the best ways, mixing one of the most rhythmically-compelling vocal parts of the album with some of the aforementioned screams. It’s also worth noting these screams are very brief and hidden under vocal processing, so you probably wouldn’t find people moshing here.

Lourdes Hernandez of Russian Red once again makes an appearance (“Lucky Me”, “Anatomy Art”) and is strong as always. She’s been featured on several previous Glowbug releases and has become a staple guest. “Anatomy Art” in particular is a groovy beast of a track and Hernandez definitely helps round it out.

Vampire Empire hardly feels like an appropriate title; there’s nothing bleak or foreboding here. Instead, start-to-finish, you’ll find 40 minutes of beachside bangers, shimmering with synths, brass, and Caribbean percussion. It’s the kind of music that perhaps feels out of place for this time of year, given the widespread cold we’re experiencing. But just maybe this is the cure to seasonal depression we’re been looking for.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Folklore by Suitor

An eerie canopy of distorted guitar and static vocals contorts in a titanic intro on Suitor’s debut release. The group, somehow more amorphous than its music, has no discernible social media or even a Bandcamp page, so it’s a mystery how I first caught wind of this release. Nonetheless, there’s something special about the mystery here – I’m reminded of Triple Crown’s Holy Fawn, with their foreboding shoegaze-meets-metal sound to some degree.

Suitor doesn’t share too much common blood with this sound, largely opting for a more standard indie/post-hardcore sound – but the opening combo of “Folklore” and “Deep Sleep” would have you convinced otherwise. It’s distorted, dissonant, and heavy. And while the vocals are much clearer than Holy Fawn’s reverby howls, there’s still an intensity here in the form of background shouts.

But “Simple Math” moves in another direction completely, opting for 80s-esque guitar lines and more of an arena rock vibe. “Deep Sleep” could easily be classified as punk, but “Simple Math” doesn’t venture much further than “rock”. It’s solo-heavy and anthemic but it’s also a very odd change of pace.

“Hands Off” retains the melodic force of “Simple Math” but drifts in yet another direction. It rests comfortable under the umbrella of emo-rock. It’s more refined than “Simple Math” and more melodic than “Deep Sleep”, putting it right in the middle of Suitor’s dynamic spectrum. However, that’s not a bad thing – “Hands Off” is a very palatable track.

The EP closes on “Creature”, which sits in a very similar spot with “Hands Off”. It’s another instrumental highlight.

Folklore would be a divisive EP on its own if we were to consider its subtle over-promising but the lyrics don’t help all that much to compensate. They seem to read like slightly more thought out relational clichés, and while Suitor plays in a style where lyrics tend to be second nature, this still works against them. Don’t get me wrong, there are much worse lyrics out there. But when an EP already feels somewhat disjointed, I’d love for some point of redemption to excuse some of the other elements.

All in all, Folklore is a decent EP. It feels well-produced and the band is talented – their stylistic inconsistencies actually reinforce this point. The biggest loss to Folklore is certainly the lack of cohesion, but the group certainly show promise as they delve into disparate sounds like punk and melodic indie – I’d just like to see some more continuity with any of these styles. It really did feel like a bait-and-switch scenario after the first two tracks and I would have enjoyed if the whole EP had stuck with that vibe. But for a first release, it’s definitely a good start and a few tweaks would really put Suitor in the running for a very solid next release.

Our Rating: 6.5 (Solid)