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)

Playlist: 60 Highlight Tracks of 2019

Admittedly, I a large fan of albums – especially large, cohesive ones. But the modern music landscape is in a constant flux. The rise of streaming has resulted in a rising popularity in singles; other artists have opted for EPs as a way to release music more regularly and offset some of the recording cost. Ultimately, it’s a semi-hedonistic influence centered around instant gratification to some extent. In other respects, it’s a competitive pressure that pushes artists to be more strategic about their work from multiple angles rather than allow them to feel entitled to a listener base.

In the true spirit of this trend, I’ve created a playlist of 60 songs I feel encapsulate the best of 2019. You can listen to it right here. The songs are in no particular order and span a variety of genres – as such, putting it on shuffle is advised.

Even so, it’s worth taking a look at what makes each of the tracks so special. So, again in no particular order, here’s a breakdown of the best songs of 2019.

  1. Anhedonia – Overslept

Overslept first sold me with their debut, I’ve Been Keeping to Myself. They’re certainly no victims to sophomore slump, releasing one of the highlight albums of the last few years. “Anhedonia” is perfect blend of technical indie rock and pop appeal, full of moments that are bound to get caught in your head.

2. Mother & Father Dearest – Former Wrestlers

Former Wrestlers is, in essence, a solo project – but you’d never tell just by listening. “Mother & Father Dearest” is a full, pop-punkish track with a strong groove, massive chorus, and plenty of other nuances. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it one incredibly fun song to sing along to.

3. Black Moon – Instant Empire

Instant Empire is the kind of band that revels in nostalgia. “Black Moon” is a hazy, new wave-driven electropop track that is comfortably vulnerable and longingly-retrospective.

4. Loser Baby – La Bouquet

It’s a sure mystery how an acoustic guitar line full of harmonics would serve as the backbone to a synthpop track, but such is the case for “Loser Baby”. It’s a catchy track with an unconventional level of technicality that makes it truly stand out.

5. Companion – Tie Goes to the Runner

I’m a sucker for cinematic songs with dense layers, and Tie Goes to the Runner hits all the right notes with “Companion”. It’s sort of what you’d expect if Jimmy Eat World had continued with the sound of their earlier albums – somewhat emo indie rock that packs a punch.

6. Price – password:password

“Price” caught my attention with its lyrics about the cost of living, but it’s also a solid work as a whole. It’s a synth-laden track with ethereal vocals and plenty of dynamics. password:password should definitely be on your radar if you enjoy energetic electronic indie with female vocals.

7. Make Us Famous – Ernest

“Show me that check, let’s get rich.” Mark Daly of Madaila has emerged with the payday anthem of the year. Enough said.

8. Space by Your Side – Stolen Jars

I wasn’t a huge fan of Stolen Jars’ latest album as a whole, but “Space by Your Side” definitely shows the best of what the band has to offer. It’s a percussive track with tight drumming and layered vocals. It has a lot of the energy the band is known for, paired with some powerful lyrics as well.

9. Spark, Set Fire – The Western Den

I discovered The Western Den via Audiotree and this was the first track that caught my attention. It’s a relaxed, folk/singer-songwriter track but it’s still enchanting in its own right. It’s proof that sometimes less truly is more.

10. The Comedown – Bravely

Bravely is a side-project of Matthew Smith of Hodera, and his songwriting follows a similar vein on “The Comedown”. It may be a bit subdued in some respects compared to Hodera, but the emotional core, lyrical focus, and tight instrumentation is remains intact.

11. Demons – MOIRA

MOIRA has returned from several quiet years with a pair of new tracks. “Demons” is cinematic and haunting. Even though the drums are fairly sparse, layered synth and guitar manage to provide a huge wave of aggression on their own. Ultimately, it’s an experimental track that reminds me a bit of something you might find from Polyenso.

12. Just Sign the Papers – Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties

It turns out that songs about divorce can be upbeat and catchy. The brass section on the chorus is impeccable, the tempo is fast, the energy is high. It’s one of the more mainstream releases that managed to leave a lasting impact with me.

13. Rewire – Holden Laurence

Holden Laurence is an enigmatic figure that I’ve admittedly never followed all-too-closely. Nonetheless, his songs always seem to come my way eventually. “Rewire” is a natural evolution from his first album – Laurence’s baritone voice paired with retro-styled instrumentation is a formula that continues to just work.

14. Stann Creek – Street Names

The local Wisconsin emo scene has grown over the past few years, and Street Names is a welcome addition to the expanding roster. With their latest EP, they find themselves alongside bands like Stalgic and Bottom of the Lake with a strong mix of alt-rock catchiness and some of the edge of post-hardcore.

15. Reap What You Sow – Better Off

Better Off is a recent discovery, but “Reap What You Sow” is the kind of track that leaves an immediate impact. It’s undeniably modern, but it seems to borrow from early 00s mainstream rock. It’s packed with energy and strong vocal hooks.

16. Moon – The Y Axes

The Y Axes is certainly an interesting band, tending to dabble with sci-fi-themed songs and Doctor Who references. “Moon” is a synth-immersed rock track with immaculate production that serves as a perfect entry point to the band’s discography.

17. No Age – Rich People

Rich People has always been a band known for explosive songs. They’ve taken things up a notch with “No Age”, a noticeably poppier track than their previous track. That’s definitely not to a fault as it quickly made its way to one of my most-played tracks of the year.

18. Ruby – Origami Angel

There are only so many songs based off Pokémon games. This one just happens to be pretty mathy. “Ruby” is under 90 seconds, but it manages to cover a ton of ground all the same.

19. Resistance – Old Sea Brigade

Old Sea Brigade released one of the earliest albums of the year that stuck with me. While it’s a mixed bag, “Resistance” stood out as an immediate favorite. There’s a bit of Caribbean flavor in some of the synths and even the reverb on the drums is compelling. It’s not an easy track to label, but it’s definitely worth a listen.

20. Safety – Birthday Wish

Birthday Wish has a unique blend of post-punk nostalgia paired with plenty of modern influence. “Safety” is a standout track from their latest EP, but this is certainly a band that deserves a bit of a deeper dive.

21. Quiet Light – The National

While The National is probably an outlier to most bands on this list compared to popularity, I Am Easy to Find is a stand-out album with its immense orchestration and guest appearances. “Quiet Light” thrives off its tight drumming paired with somewhat-minimalist vibe. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that never feels too abrasive.

22. It Hurts – Graveyard Club

Graveyard Club really nailed this track – it’s fast, hazy, and catchy. It’s one of the best songs the group has penned to date.

23. Black Light – My Epic

My Epic have changed course a bit on Violence, but it’s a direction many fans have been longing for. “Black Light” sees the group return to the sound of their earlier releases, and it roars with post-hardcore tenacity.

24. Try Hard – Kevin Schlereth

Kevin Schlereth and Jay Costlow have arguably topped their previous work on this single track. “Try Hard” starts strong and never loses steam, adding more layers as it goes on. Tight drumming, vocal layers, and some other production nuances give this song a lot to love.

25. Mattress on the Floor – Have Mercy

Have Mercy is another signed band that made my list. “Mattress on the Floor” has a strong instrumental hook that carries the song. Pair that with some subtle lyrical motifs and strong drumming and you’ll find a sentimental, groovy track.

26. Thirteen O’Clock – Pleasures of the Flesh

Pleasures of the Flesh is a band that is very hard to place. They borrow elements from hardcore and post-punk and mesh them together for songs that sound somewhat like what you might expect from Fugazi if they decided to use a copious amount of chorus. No matter what you call it, it’s a unique sound that doesn’t seem to have a lot of company.

27. John Hughes Movie Soundtrack -EXNATIONS

Picking a single EXNATIONS song to feature isn’t easy, but “John Hughes Movie Soundtrack” is a stand-out song with excellent drumming, catchy guitar hooks, glossy synths, and powerful narrative lyrics.

28. Whatever Makes You Mine – John Van Duesen

Sometimes, a track is needlessly-catchy and that’s all that matters. “Whatever Makes You Mine” has an incredible chorus and that alone cements it as a great song.

29. Time Well Spent – Silver & Gold

Silver & Gold have kept a decent pace for releasing new music, and each release has plenty to love. “Time Well Spent” showcases the band’s growth as they continue to perfect their songwriting.

30. Congratulations Honey – Matthew Milia

Frontier Ruckus cemented themselves as my most-listened band this past year. Frontman Matthew Milia is a master wordsmith, and his solo work carries this same linguistic reverence.

31. The Pushover – Idiot Pilot

I wasn’t too familiar with Idiot Pilot in their first run, but their unexpected return wasn’t a shabby time to acquaint myself. “The Pushover” is an alt-rock track that is obfuscated by synths and vocal effects. The result is a track that feels largely like a studio collaboration rather than a band – but it’s certainly no stereotypical blend of electronic rock.

32. Queen of the Rodeo – Orville Peck

Orville Peck’s unique costume ended up being a powerful marketing tool. I was curious to find out who this masked figure was, and I was greeted with Elvis-esque vocals paired with a unique remix on the country genre.

33. Shadow Matter – Will Johnson

Will Johnson is no rookie, and his songwriting is proof. There’s a humble maturity to his music, the kind that seems to say, “I know what I’m doing but I don’t need to prove it to anyone.” “Shadow Matter” is a timeless song that feels expansive and rural – the sort of song that would be perfect for a road trip.

34. The Body – Fallow Land

On “The Body”, Fallow Land provides listeners with a TTNG-esque romp through mathy indie rock. If there were a sleeper hit album for 2019, it’d be their debut, Slow Down, Rockstar.

35. Baby Teeth – Glass Age

Abandon Kansas’ rebrand to Glass Age is accompanied by three captivating tracks. “Baby Teeth” is my favorite of the three, pairing a certain ambient luster with introspective lyrics. Ultimately, in my opinion, the rebrand is a huge success.

36. Potassitorium – Ghost Soul Trio

Ghost Soul Trio is, well, a trio act but unlike their name suggests, their music and members are both full of life. “Potassitorium” is a cocktail of funk, indie, jazz, and experimental electronic – or, party music for intellectuals. Add in the band’s quirky music videos and it’s obvious Ghost Soul Trio is one act that isn’t afraid to take risks.

37. Soft Spot – Tiny Moving Parts

While Tiny Moving Parts’ latest album seems like a seamless continuation of 2018’s Swell, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Soft Spot” may not be the band’s most technical track, but there’s something about the opening guitar line rhythm that’s infectious.

38. Better – Caracara

There’s a lot to say about Caracara. I knew “Better” was a hit when I first heard it, but it took me a bit to give the rest of the band’s discography proper attention. Needless to say, it’s all good but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better track in their catalog. The lyrics are poetic, the instrumentation somewhat minimalist in nature. Of course, Caracara understands dynamically intimately and the end is explosive in all the best ways.

39. Windsor Knots and Ruffles – Say Hi

Say Hi has been making music for a very long time, and each album has a distinct flavor. The upcoming album, due February, has a bigger focused on synthesizers. This track does rely on a bed of synths, but they largely sound organic – like a piano or strings. Add in retrospective lyrics and the result is a track that feels kind of like a ballad.

40. Better – Vinnie Caruana

Yes, there are two great songs this year named “Better”. Vinnie Caruana’s take on the title is stripped-down punk. What the track lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure passion. It’s a heartfelt track that gets by with little more than a four-chord guitar part and some drums. However, the vocals and lyrics are the true heroes here and make this track one of the best of the year.

41. Test Everything, Hold Onto What’s Good – Broken Field Runner

This track is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s an album closer so it’s fitting. At over eight minutes long, it’s interesting to see how well Broken Field Runner is able to maintain momentum as a single lyrical segment is repeated for much of the track.

42. The Distance – Fever Dolls

“The Distance” isn’t exactly a new track – it had previously been released under the Iron Eyes Cody moniker – but this rendition is all grown up and there are lots of extra layers this time around that give it plenty of extra energy. This should definitely be considered the canon version of the track.

43. Gemini – Nova Charisma

Nova Charisma sounds and looks like the culmination of At The Drive In and Coheed and Cambria. “Gemini” is your standard progressive post-hardcore juggernaut track with a careful blend of soaring choruses and technical song structures.

44. Geneva – Lakes

There’s not enough glockenspiel-based rock in the world, but Lakes is doing their part to fix this.

45. Collecting Teeth (Acoustic) – Wolves & Machines

It has been far too long since Wolves & Machines put out new music, and this acoustic track is certainly a welcome teaser for their new album. Even in its barest form, it still holds its own and it’ll be interesting to hear the full version down the road.

46. A Social Renaissance – Cloud Caverns

Brandon Peterson is one very busy guy, having released two albums in 2016 and one in 2018. Now, he has begun to release a string of singles and “A Social Renaissance” is certainly Cloud Caverns at its best. This is partially the doing of AJ Estrada of Hotel of the Laughing Tree lending some additional talents on the track. Now we just need a proper Hotel album and we can call it a day.

47. On the Left – Beket

I’m convinced there’s one, and only one, good post-hardcore album a year. That award happens to go to Beket this time around.

48. Fall (Despite What You Do) – The Wilderness

“Fall” is a radio-friendly track that still manages to have a bit of grit to it. The track’s somewhat-standard indiepop veneer starts to collapse toward the end, as lyrics are belted and saxophones blare. Don’t get me wrong – this is still a single and it’s marketed as such, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

49. Luxton – Nonfiction

“Luxton” thrives off the interplay between its straight-forward verses and gang-chant chorus. It’s not a revolutionary track, but it manages to pull off the emo formula pretty well for an enjoyable listening experience.

50. How Did We End Up Here? – StateBirds

StateBirds is a band I’ve been following for several years now, and it’s exciting to see some new music from them. On this song, there’s a bit of a lounge vibe – chill, jazzy type chords and a beautiful clean guitar tone. This bluesy version of StateBirds should be a welcome addition to many playlists.

51. Being Human is Weird – OWEL

OWEL describes bar romance over a mix atmospheric indie rock instrumentals on “Being Human is Weird”. It’s a track that acknowledges the emptiness in modern hedonism and pairs these themes with cinematic guitar and string parts to really solidify the emotion footprint of the song.

52. Star-Faced – Wildermiss

“Star-Faced” is a fun track that blends groovy guitar, “hey, hey” vocal chants, and major-key melodies for a track that’s danceable and fun.

53. Clandestine Magic – Madaila

Madaila called it quits a while back, but they’re temporarily resurfaced with two tracks. As usual, their indomitable retro-styled funky indie sound is at play, complete with plenty of falsetto.

54. Broken Magic – Wildlife

“Broken Magic” is a booming arena-rock style track that thrives off negative space. The verses are somewhat sparse, but the whole band is at their best during the chorus – this ultimately makes it a very dynamic track that serves as proof of Wildlife’s strategic compositions.

55. Maybe – Andrés

It’s a shame this track is so far down this list. Andrés has become somewhat of a household name in the post-hardcore scene over the past few years, even though his exact genre is hard to define. On “Maybe”, there’s a strong Latin piano groove, but there are some technical guitar parts and even a bit of a breakdown at the end. Whatever you call it, it’s very, very good.

56. Job Interview – Trash Boy

Spoiler alert: lyrics explain the real reason people want jobs.

57. Vanitas Waltz – Yes We Mystic

I wrote about Ten Seated Figures earlier in the year, but if I had to pick one track to feature, it would be “Vanitas Waltz”. It’s hard to say exact why. Maybe it’s the triumphant sound that thrives off melodic motifs. Maybe it’s the string arrangements. Maybe it’s the chorus where the lines are echoed back. Whatever the case, it’s a song that has that special something that makes it stand out.

58. Fame – The Early November

Many bands seem to worsen as their careers exceed three or four albums. Thankfully, The Early November is still putting out solid songs and “Fame” is a great example of a catchy, melodic indie track. Add in some trumpet, a little falsetto, and some layered background vocals and you’ve got a well-produced, fun track.

59. Louise – Del Barber

“Louise” may be the closest thing to traditional country on this list, but don’t let that deter you. Del Barber’s style is far more classic than what you’d find on modern country radio, and it’s a nice return to storytelling elements country was once known for.

60. In Finem – Sherwood Forest

“In Finem” is an ethereal, synthy track that feels straight out of a Tron scene. The first half of the track feels a bit gothic with its arpeggios and deep vocals, but the latter half is more guitar-driven, conjuring images of power metal bands. Ultimately, the band’s imagery isn’t anything out of the ordinary but their music definitely feels otherworldly.

Review: Soft Witness by Birthday Wish

For fans of: Mew, The Rise of Science, From Indian Lakes, TTNG

There’s some interesting about packaging. I was at a small Asian grocer once and had a bit of a conversation with the owner. She stressed how a lot of the natural, healthy foods she had were raw and the labeling was pretty simple. There were shelves of the amorphous grains and plants which could only be discerned upon individual inspection. Not far off, there were some of the same ingredients with a level of Western advertising employed. The packaging was modern and bold. Even though the product was the same, it was presented in a way that seemed to affirm its essence. It’s sort of like how plating food a certain way can make it seem more exquisite.

All this said, while album art does not make an album successful on its own, it is supplementary to the story and mood of the work (the same goes for liner notes, videos, and behind-the-scenes elements). But just as important, it’s often the first entry point people have for a band and as such, gives the first impression of a band.

Enter Birthday Wish‘s latest release, Soft Witness. The cover seems like a false memory, an inverted trope. It’s an image not unlike what you’d find at a dentist’s office or hotel hallway – a family at a pool with palm trees in the background. It’s an instant nod to the band’s Miami roots, but to most listeners it exists instead as an aloof paradise where snow doesn’t fall on Halloween and leisure is more available (ignore my Midwest rant).

Of course, there’s the distortion as well, the sort of aesthetic you might find with vaporwave art. The sky’s hue is skewed magenta, the mood eerie. At the same time, it’s not overly contrasted or dark. It’s daytime, but the sun just happens to be a black light. There are two people alongside the pool, one with something in the water. She’s dressed like an animal control agent or maybe a police officer.

Maybe that’s an unnecessary dissection of Soft Witness‘s cover, but it’s worth noting it leaves an impression. It’s mysterious, nostalgic, unsettling, and detailed all the same. It sets the tone for the band’s ethereal surf punk sound that spans the release’s seven tracks. The exact ratio of endearingly-nostalgic and unsettlingly-dissonant does shift frequently, but end result a tight set of tracks shrouded in an unusual mix of emotions.

While other recent releases have played more heavily into the nostalgia factor, this tends to be via extensive synth use in pursuit of a new wave sound. Birthday Wish is nostalgic in another sense, though it’s hard to articulate the exact reason. Gossamer vocals paired with angular guitars is reminiscent of early emo, post-hardcore, and even sadcore. Synths do make an appearance, but they’re far from central. Soft Witness is undeniably a rock album, though an exact genre label is hard to find.

Jubilant moments juxtapose more intense segments. Groove-heavy tracks coexist with more laid-back counterparts. Soft Witness covers a lot of ground in its 16-minute run time. “Safety” is anthemic and upbeat; “Other Minds” is somber and night-timey; “Hubris” is cinematic and reminiscent of The Rise of Science’s older work; “Liturgy” is bass-heavy and falsetto-laden.

Ultimately, Soft Witness‘s music is not unlike its cover, dropping listeners in a world where emo developed from beach rock instead of punk. It’s a sound that seems like a distant cousin of post-punk and new wave all the same, replacing synths and gimmicky guitar lines with intricate, cosmic compositions. Birthday Wish have found the intersection of oft-disparate genres, and the end result is a release that hits home for fans of 90s and early 2000s indie rock.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Humble Universe by November Lounge

For fans of: jam bands, modern jazz, beach rock

Last year was evidently full of great albums that were easy to miss. From the opening drum grooves and crystalline guitar passages of “Out of Touch”, you’ll regret not finding November Lounge sooner. The band’s core sound is a summery blend of indie rock and jazz that manifests in songs that feel huge and cinematic. Arguably, this PA-based trio does prog better than many self-described prog bands.

There are nuances on Humble Universe which point toward a myriad of influence: the jam-band-esque “Tired”, the dreamy balled “Roots”, the ethereal “West Coast”, and the mathy “Wise Man” manage to show the spectrum of the band’s intelligent songwriting.

Humble Universe seems aptly-titled. It feels down-to-earth. It reminds me of local bands in my area or even smaller bands around the country. For whatever reason, it’s not a sound that seems to exist in the mainstream even though there is a heavy degree of mass appeal at play. “Humble” feels entirely appropriate, then. November Lounge is not boasting incessantly or standing on a pedestal and they don’t need to. Their music speaks for itself and it does so genuinely.

The lyrics follow in suit, opting for a more “say what you mean” approach rather than an egregious amount of obscure wordplay. It’s a relational album, though it’s far from myopic. We see love at its best and worst – the full roller coaster of emotions and the questions that come along for the ride. Humble Universe is not going to win a Pulitzer Prize for its lyrics but it manages to avoid pop cliches and still have something tangible to say.

The best part of the album, though, is the overall mood. Aaron Abercrombie’s voice is perfect for this sort of music, with its buttery timbre. The drumming is incredibly technical and energetic. Guitars weave between melodic bliss and funky chord-based segments. Bass is groovy and packs a decent punch. This results in an album that is relaxed but has a sense of urgency all the same. It’s not quite coffee shop material because of some of the powerful rhythm sections, but it wouldn’t be at home in a club because of the more restrained vocals and guitar parts. This is an unfortunate placement in some respects, but it cements the album’s position of being written for humans and not commercialism.

Hopefully Humble Universe has proven an effective gateway to the Philadelphia music scene for November Lounge. It’s an album that leaves an immediate impression. It’s a cozy collection of songs perfect for this time of year that satisfies both pop sensibilities and technical songwriting.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Death Magnanimous by Troll 2

For fans of: AJJ, Pat the Bunny, The Dead South Murder by Death, Dixie Chicks

If you’re been around the block for a while, you’ll recognize Troll 2 as that immediately divisive movie released in 1990 with little connection to its predecessor that sits at a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has garnered colorful reviews like the following:

“Troll 2” is as treacherous and repulsive a film as I’ve ever seen. Judging by the actors’ crude performances and the incredible lack of technical skill, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved in the production knew what they were doing or what was going on. The first explanation that comes to mind is that all of the badness is intentional, but even I don’t think that a purposely awful film would come close to the ineptitude shown on display here. It’s ugly, poorly-strung together, not scary in the least bit and altogether a real horrible thing. The only half-redeeming quality about it is that its own awfulness may cause you to laugh, but don’t count on it.

Thankfully, this is not a review of the film – but instead, of a band who has chosen the film as its namesake. Boston-based Troll 2 is socially-conscious folk-punk group formed in the 2010s from a host of other bands. The band carries a similar wit to The Dead South (if the name weren’t proof), tackling issues like the wage gap and police abuse with energetic, direct songs. There’s even a touch of macabre mixed in as well, in true AJJ fashion.

Death Magnanimous, the band’s 2018 LP, certainly holds nothing back in any of these respects. After the instrumental interlude “Theme From Troll 2”, the band dives into the murder ballad, “Means and Motive”. Stylistically, it has a bit of Carrie Underwood-esque vocals mixed into the aggression of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. Here’s a check look at some of the lyrics:

She came to me, calling after midnight
Sobbing in the bathtub with still her sweater done
As I watched the water run from salmon into scarlet
I knew right then and there we would not stop ’til this war’s won

We packed the car and we headed down to Danvers
I at the wheel, her small frame shotgun side
I’ll erase evidence like you erase accusations
Why is justice for others so often self denied?

The song addresses domestic abuse and manipulation of power with bold lyrics and enchanting instrumentals. Strings aplenty adorn the album, but it never feels needlessly southern. The musical compositions are worthy to accompany their lyrical counterparts, showcasing the same levels of wistfulness and aggression.

“I’ve Got a Stick” is a playful anti-violence song whose highlight line is “Kiss your mom / I’ve got the bomb”. There’s a silver lining on the ending verse (which is an alternate take on the first), which focuses on the power of cooperation.

Other tracks, specifically “Roadkill” and “You Should Think About Death More” focus more on mortality, ephemera, and perhaps even depression. However, these are not cheap sentiments; rather, they’re meant to be viewed in light of the other themes on the album. The underlying commentary is a call to action rather than a simple regurgitation of how depressing modern life is. “There’s no end until you face it”, the album concludes. It’s easy to read that as acceptance of mortality but it’s also an implication that the problems that permeate society will persist if we simply ignore them.

“Theme from Troll 2 – Reprise” perhaps sheds a bit more light on the album and band as a whole. It’s a counterpart to the opener, but it contains lines from the Troll 2 film. Specifically, the lines concern the infection which is a main plot point of the movie. As characters contract the illness, they are in stasis, simply waiting to be devoured. It’s not hard to see a confused, burdened, and largely-passive public in the same way. The infection is already here, and we’re called to be on guard.

Death Magnanimous is an example of how folk-punk should be: culturally-sensitive, masterfully-crafted, clothed in timelessness. If it were an instrumental album, it’d be easy to mistake it as baroque. If it were judged on lyrics alone, you might expect a large influence of swamprock and country. But it instead rests in the confluence of artisan string melodies, upbeat folk, and lyrics that never shy from tough issues. Troll 2 stand out from their compatriots with their ability to balance all of these elements without sacrificing any relative portion of a single aspect. And while it’s unfortunately too late to add Death Magnanimous to your end-of-year favorites, this is certainly a band you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: If I’m Not by Dreamspook

For fans of: Radiohead, Sleep Party People, Dakota Suite

Dreamspook, a Minnesota-turned-Texas based experimental pop project fronted by Gabriel Jorgensen, has resurfaced with a new three-track EP. Jorgensen’s previous releases have managed to span genres and moods with ease, with his 2017 debut, King In The Folly Keep, serving as a Radiohead-esque full band venture and 2018’s Flying Mammal delving deeper into maximalist electronica. Dreamspook’s live show has traditionally been a solo venture executed with an array of synths and drum machines siphoned into precise loops, modulated beyond recognition, and ultimately brandished into a jaw-dropping performance.

It’s to some surprise then that If I’m Not, Dreamspook’s latest EP, shifts from the live sound to a simpler, more vulnerable lo-fi style. If Flying Mammal was the pinnacle of the inorganic experience, If I’m Not feels more “human”. Guitar, bass, and drums fill in a space normally occupied by gossamer layers of synthesizers. And while Jorgensen has been known for personal lyrics, often paired with some pretty interesting stories, and these songs showcase the same biographical style. Take the opening track, “Friend Seeking Friend”:

I am not old yet, but old enough
old enough to question what it is that I’ve got
whatever I expected, whatever I’d planned
didn’t think I’d feel as lonely, as lonely as I am

The lyrics may not be as cryptic of poetic as some of Dreamspook’s previous songs, but the sentiment is strong and the vocal execution and overall compositions behind the lyrics gives these lines a whimsical feeling.

The Bandcamp description says the EP is “three fruits from a barren season”. That’s telling of some of the inspiration of the album. While Dreamspook has other songs that could have been released instead, there is a sense of ennui; it’s a struggle of finding purpose, meaningful friendship, and self-love in an age of confusion and nihilism.

Even though If I’m Not is stylistically different than previous Dreamspook releases, it still has plenty of shared DNA with its predecessors. Thoughtful, intimate lyrics are paired with soaring vocal passages. Songs are dynamic and cinematic. Synthesizers, though more sparse than before, are still at play as well and work as a good backdrop to the rest of the compositions. Jorgensen enlisted Cooper Doten on bass, as well as King in the Folly Keep drummer Con Davison, to lend their talents this time around. The collaborative effort is certainly a net positive that gives If I’m Not a distinct place in the Dreamspook catalog.

The largest inhibiting factor to the EP is sheer brevity – three tracks and a run-time of under 15 minutes. It consequently feels a bit unfinished, though the Bandcamp tagline and Jorgensen’s move to Texas point me to think this serves as a bit of a turning point on the way to newer things. While the EP again does have cohesive themes, its end feels a bit too abrupt. A few more tracks would have helped round things out quite a bit in this respect.

Nonetheless, Dreamspook will continue to create. Only time will tell when or what the next iteration will sound like. But we can rest assured Gabriel Jorgensen and his synthesizers have more stories to tell us.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Slow Down, Rockstar by Fallow Land

For fans of: Six Gallery, Minus the Bear, Copeland, Foxing

Mathrock seems to be a pretty cliquey genre at time, even if it’s to the benefit of the genre. There’s the Midwest emo flavor, the “basically prog rock” version, variations of djent, or even the blossoming trend of mathpop. But as with any proper high school social context, there are outliers to these cliques – ones who might get along with everyone or the complete loners who are confident enough on their own.

Fallow Land carefully treads a space between post-rock and mathrock that is pretty rare. In fact, the closest proper comparison would be Six Gallery. In short, Slow Down, Rockstar is a chill, indie album that largely foregoes the punk and emo elements that seem embedded into mathrock’s genome.

Instead, the end result is somewhat of a poolside soundtrack of coffee shop playlist. It’s relaxing and captivating without feeling recycled or boring. And while a couple heavier moments (comparatively, anyway) are sprinkled in, the album’s sonic domain isn’t too far off from early Copeland or Keane in respect to dynamics. Many albums are mixed loud these days, but Fallow Land find a nice balance for their tracks.

The mathier elements are sprinkled in more subtly than songs crafted by Fallow Land’s compatriots; “The Body” may be the most obvious example based on its complex grooves, but even tracks like “The Eyes” showcase rhythmic prowess and abrupt-yet-precise shifts between segments.

The most refreshing aspect of Fallow Land’s songwriting is frontman/guitarist Whit Fineberg’s vocals. It’s hard to note any immediate comparisons, but it’s a timbre that, much like the rest of the composition, is neither bit too punk or too prog. There isn’t too much edge or any excessive flash here – it’s just a wealth of indie rock vocal treasure.

“The Boredom” is an exemplary track when it comes to showing the entire band at their best. Guitar lines are mathy. Lyrics contemplate existence. Bass is punchy. Drums are tight. It’s a smooth, melodic surface with a groovy undercurrent. Everything comes together in a sort of music symbiosis. Cap it off with a sweeping tremolo end and you’re left with a musical roller coaster that only ever ascends.

Slow Down, Rockstar may be a bit short at only eight tracks long, but not a second has gone to waste. It’s an emotional album complemented by powerful cinematic instrumentation. It’s mathy, but the technicality is more ornamental than front and center. Basically, it’s an intelligent indie rock album that explores themes of growing older, a work reminiscent of mid-2000s classics. It’s hard to imagine a better debut album from a band.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Lay My Head Down by Broken Field Runner

For fans of: Foxing, The World is a Beautiful Place, Pianos Become the Teeth, Touché Amoré

LA-based Broken Field Runner‘s sophomore release instantly evokes a similar mood to Touché Amoré’s Stage Four. While the bands showcase vastly different sounds, there’s some common ground in vulnerable, lamenting Cali emo. Since Wisconsin is a barren waste of snow for much of the year, I’m prone to associate beaches, palm trees, and warmth with good vibes.

There’s something striking about juxtaposing a would-be Utopian context alongside themes of pain, death, fear, and uncertainty. In fact, Tony Bucci’s lyrics seem to purposefully waltz into the uncomfortable: teenagers who die in a car crash on the way to prom, a mall shooter, general strife, and more.

And Bucci seems to play into the aforementioned tension as well: the album’s cover is a photo from a wedding and the singles were accompanied by summery, colorful imagery. At a glance, you might expect a fun pop record. But then you’re greeted by lyrics like:

If we’re all just bred for harvest,
if we’re to ever ward off death
it better be as starving artists,
it better be through drugs and sex,
it better be through my one true love.
You better never let me go,
but if you can’t do me the honor,
you better never tell me so

That’s not to suggest every song is crushing, but it’s certainly an emotionally-unnerving experience that thrives off disorientation. There are moments where Bucci doesn’t sing at all, instead having Laura Murphy take lead. There are bits of lo-fi recordings. There are extended spoken word segments. There’s even a bit of brass in true emo fashion. As soon as you feel you’ve figured out what Lay My Head Down is about, everything shifts and you once again need to navigate the new context.

Where most serious albums feel the need to provide a point of redemption, Lay My Head Down doesn’t settle for a happy ending. “Test Everything, Hold onto What’s Good” would seem to be more optimistic from title alone; instead, it’s a brooding eight-minute closer with the main refrain of ” I️ asked you why you lied. I️ was mistaken. I️ apologized.” The track grows in intensity, with Bucci belting the lyrics over a noisy guitar foundation. Even so, it’s one of the best tracks on the album and pairs well with “Palm Trees Wave” to bookend the album (“Put an Ocean Between My Self Pity & Me” feels more like a prelude than a true opener).

Broken Field Runner manages to not simply regurgitate the emo formula on this record. Its raw and authentic production matches the intensity of the lyrical subject matter. Its serious subject matter is paired with catchy choruses. It’s not a groundbreaking album, but it does just enough to break some old genre patterns. Bucci and friends are not afraid to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But since when has punk-based music solely been about mass appeal? Lay My Head Down is a well-composed biography of struggle in the modern age that deserves a bit more attention.

Our Rating: 7.0 (Stand Out)

Review: Wire Mountain by Will Johnson

My path to appreciating folk and Americana was a gradual one that spanned several years and relied on a lot of transition bands. That process revealed a lot to me about music as a whole – that there’s a common DNA between quiet singer-songwriters and wailing post-hardcore outfits. You can enjoy both, albeit they’re to be appreciated in context of their respective contexts.

On first listen, Will Johnson’s Wire Mountain is a sleepy album that calls to mind other artists like Nathan Phillips (Winston Jazz Routine, The Choir at Your Door), Richard Edwards (Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s), and TW Walsh. Sleepy, of course, is meant in the most flattering of ways – an ethereal, quiet mix that exemplifies subtlety. Tender acoustic arpeggios serve as foundation under Johnson’s gossamer falsetto. Elsewhere, there’s a bit more grit at play – but even then, it’s as if the listener were in the desert amid a sandstorm. It’s still quiet, even if fearfully so.

Wire Mountain‘s cover is fitting: rustic, vintage, awe-inspiring. It’s the pursuit of a destination that is visible afar only due to sheer magnitude. It’s the diminishing feeling of being face to face with something much bigger than yourself, a la The Pale Blue Dot.

It’s a mood that runs think through the veins of the album itself. Even from the gritty undertones of “Necessitarianism (Fred Murkle’s Blues)”, the soft, eery feeling of being alone in the wilderness is at full force. The percussion feels like a hammer at an anvil. The tambourine conjures images of chains hitting the ground. It’s a track that feels intense and laid-back all at once, and this is a trick Johnson knows how to pull off with success.

“Cornelius” opens with a gospel-flavored vocal harmony paired with some of the most aggressive guitar and drums on the album. Even at his loudest, Wire Mountain doesn’t feel overbearing. The rhythms are far more foundational than ornamental here, and the steady pulse keeps things moving along without demanding full attention.

Other tracks embrace their softer side more fully. “A Solitary Slip” and “Shadow Matter” are both moody and airy jams that shimmer with simplicity and earnestness.

There are even traces of ambient compositions and unidentifiable noises on the album which gives it a surprising air of experimental flair (the album’s closer is a great example).

Wire Mountain sits well alongside fellow singer-songwriter Old Sea Brigade’s Ode to a Friend, release earlier this year. However, for every ounce of 80s and pop Ode to a Friend brings to the table, Wire Mountain brings its share of Americana and western-flavored spirit. And while Johnson may not bring the same flavor of artistry as the aforementioned Nathan Phillips and Richard Edwards, Johnson’s work certainly stands out among his local counterparts with its careful mix of nostalgia-evoking southern folk.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)