Heartbreaking Bravery

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Pile – Green and Gray (Album Review, Stream)

Few bands have managed to inspire the kind of dedicated fervor among their contemporaries as Pile, who are treated with a singular awestruck reverence by seemingly every punk-leaning band that’s crossed their path. Part of that effect can be attributed to the band’s sleepless tour schedule, which finds the quartet on the road most months of the year and allows them the opportunity to showcase a bruising live show that’s delivered with surgical precision.

A larger part is because of the composition of the songs themselves, which finds Pile taking hairpin turns, playing with dynamics in ways other bands wouldn’t even consider, and finding a way to make otherwise complex pieces seem brutal in their immediacy. When they balance those aspects out with restraint, Pile can achieve a transcendental tenderness that’s starkly underscored by their penchant for ferocity. When they achieve a perfect equilibrium, the cumulative effect is astonishing. “Special Snowflakes“, which may very well be the best song of this present decade, is a perfect example.

Over the course of their discography, the band’s occasionally been uneven with the pacing of their full-lengths, which are otherwise formidable showcases of the band’s brilliance. Largely, the work present on those records has been so staggering, that any peripheral aspect has been a non-issue. On Green and Gray, released earlier this week, the band finally has a record that’s as punishing and beautiful as their live set.

Easily the most ornate Pile record to date, Green and Gray features some exceptional production work, allowing thoughtful flourishes like the brief but tasteful string arrangements to hit with extraordinary impact. It’s an element that’s present right from the record’s breathtaking opener, “Firewood”. Guitarist/vocalist and principal songwriter Rick Maguire continues to center his narratives in acute observations of the mundane, elevating them so that something as fundamentally basic as shopping feels like its being accompanied with life-or-death stakes.

Cerebral poetry swirls throughout Green and Gray, at times bordering the opaque but achieving a disconcerting purpose that allows the lyrics to accentuate the musical storm being conjured up around those narratives. Green and Gray isn’t all tumult as the band finds the perfect spots throughout to indulge their most delicate sensibilities, allowing a breathing room that still carries the emotional weight that’s been at the crux of their best work.

Occasionally those moments take the form of a whole song (“Other Moons”, “Hair”, “My Employer”, “No Hands”), other times they appear as a bridge or as an abrupt change (“A Labyrinth With No Center” and “Hiding Places” having litanies of these moments), providing Green and Gray with a beautifully balanced pace and a sense of urgency that elevates the material. It’s in those moments of transition where Green and Gray truly stands out, delivering goosebump-inducing moments that reveal the band’s mastery of their craft.

As some early listeners predicted, fiery advance singles “Bruxist Gin” and “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller” are lent more bite within the context of the record, operating as moments of aggression that go from merely impressive as standalone works to genuinely flooring as pieces that tether together a greater whole. Pile can soothe, surge, and seethe with the best of them but Green and Gray finds them performing at an impossibly high level.

Apart from just the trio of singles that preceded Green and Gray‘s release, nearly every song on the record would be a standout if it was isolated from the record. Taken together, Green and Gray plays like a religious moment of epiphany, enough to leave most listeners reeling. Taken in one full sitting on a pair of decent headphones and it becomes an emotional tour de force, verging on annihilation. Even with Maguire’s ever-present hints of nihilism, there’s a sense of place and purpose inherent to this body of work that allows this set of songs to hit harder than normal.

By the time the final section draws the curtains, Green and Gray is standing confidently in the smoke of its own self-made fire; a scorched-earth victory pose for the most complete work of the band’s career. Far and away one of 2019’s best records, Green and Gray sees Pile perfecting nearly every aspect of their songwriting, leaving next to no room for improvement. Put simply, this is an unforgettable masterpiece from today’s best rock band. Get a copy. Now.

Listen to Green and Gray below and pick up a copy from Exploding In Sound here.

Vånna Inget – Främlingar (Stream)

For several years, Vånna Inget have been making explosive basement pop that has a penchant for soothing, even as it detonates. “Främlingar”, the Swedish quartet’s latest, finds the group back in attack mode after the unveiling of a subdued double-single. A charging rhythm section propels the vocal melody skyward on a gorgeous verse section before breaking into a euphoric, hard-hitting chorus that immediately establishes itself as one of the biggest-sounding moment of the band’s impressive career. Vånna Inget are swinging for the fences on their forthcoming Utopi and “Främlingar” finds them connecting with a palpable sense of determined purpose.

Listen to “Främlingar” below and pre-order Utopi from Gaphals here.

Empath – Active Listening: Night On Earth (Album Review, Stream)

Friday saw the release of one of the year’s more quietly anticipated albums, Empath‘s Active Listening: Night On Earth. Early singles had all hinted at Active Listening: Night On Earth being a singular release that straddled the divide between art-punk and basement pop and the record lives up to that promise in full. A swirling storm of controlled chaos, Active Listening: Night On Earth should firmly establish Empath as not just one of today’s weirdest punk bands but  one of the best.

There’s an improbable beauty underneath the gnarled veneer of these tracks, which is typically coaxed out by lovely synth work and some tender vocal melodies. While those two traits interlock with each other, the band’s rhythm section goes to work, committing themselves to a rare level of ferocity that only comes about one in a while. Those competing halves somehow never overwhelm each other, which is where much of the please of Empath’s blown-out aesthetic lies.

In their moments of restraint, Empath achieves a breathtakingly gorgeous effect and when they give in to their most destructive impulses, the uncertainty rockets up to a level that surpasses observation and is felt directly, creating a series of jarring moments that near transcendence. Throughout the record, the band provides windows to both outcomes but slam them before too long, keeping the listener engaged and invested. Take together, it can be an overwhelming experience but it’s the rare overwhelming experience that will keep beckoning for returns. Active Listening indeed.

Listen to Active Listening: Night On Earth below and pick up a copy here.

The Glow – I Am Not Warm + Weight of Sun (Stream)

One of the hardest pills to swallow last year was the dissolution of LVL UP, a band that meant a lot to me and many others on a personal level. What helped ease the sadness that accompanied that announcement was that each of the band’s members would continue pursuing music through different outlets. Dave Benton’s Trace Mountains (which also features drummer Greg Rutkin) released the excellent A Partner To Lean On before 2018 was over, Nick Corbo followed suit with a single for his new project Spirit Was, and Mike Caridi began teasing material for his largely solo venture, The Glow.

Earlier this week, The Glow announced a debut album and released a pair of singles to stoke the anticipation for its release. Mission accomplished. Am I, due out May 24 on Double Double Whammy, will be comprised of two halves of songs. Reportedly, half of this incoming set was written when Caridi was 23 and LVL UP was in full bloom, with the other half being written much more recently, around the band’s end. Appropriately, “I Am Not Warm” — which has previously appeared as a demo — and “Weight of Sun”, offer a glimpse at each half.

Both songs run just past the 1:50 mark, falling very much in line with Caridi’s established tendencies of writing breezy basement pop songs with sticky melodies. Another dominant Caridi trademark’s present in the abundance of warm tones, creating impossibly lovely soundscapes. Where this new era of The Glow differs from the songwriter’s is in its expansiveness, which is evidenced in both the dynamic shifts present in each track. Whether it’s an abrupt break to a mournful piano outro or the continuously shifting nature of “Weight of Sun”, there’s a very real sense that Caridi’s world-building through composition.

“I Am Not Warm” and “Weight of Sun” constitute an incredibly impressive opening barrage from a reliably great songwriter looking to further a burgeoning legacy. Lose yourself in the deceptively elegant charms of each track and circle May 24 on the calendar. Early indicators are pointing towards that Friday being one worth celebrating.

Listen to “I Am Not Warm” and “Weight of Sun” below and pre-order Am I from Double Double Whammy here.

Cassels – A Snowflake In Winter (Stream)

Recent political events have brought about an onslaught of various forms of protest songs. A great many of those, including several by otherwise talented songwriters, have been borderline unlistenable. Garish attempts at salience through the most obvious and broad lyrics imaginable. Fortunately, there has also been a small facet of politically motivated music in that same swath that has been absolutely essential (IDLES’ Joy As An Act of Resistance was this site’s Album of the Year in 2018 for a reason). Cassels‘ “A Snowflake In Winter”, like much of the latter grouping, takes a completely different route to arrive at something that’s actually interesting, rather than hideously empty attempts at conjuring up an outrage that already exists in spades.

“A Snowflake In Winter” flips the script and takes aim at the emptiness of a lot of that exact brand of rhetoric, while acknowledging its appeal and the potential — or at least the desire — for it to be useful or productive. Described by the band as “a song for namby pambly snowflakes like myself”, the duo go to extreme levels of self-deprecation while examining the frustration inherent in facing overwhelming systemic evils. It’s an intelligent move that’s considerably more measured than many other stabs punk-leaning acts have made at documenting today’s political climate. While the narrative’s a heartening change of pace, the music itself is the most inspired of the band’s career, rendering “A Snowflake In Winter” — a standalone single — as a genuinely definitive moment.

If this is only a snowflake, we can only hope Cassels let us in on what it sounds like when there’s a blizzard.

Listen to “A Snowflake In Winter” below.

Stef Chura – They’ll Never (Music Video)

Stef Chura‘s been kicking around the local Detroit scene for some time now, gaining new levels of traction every year. Messes, Chura’s debut, caught the attention of Car Seat Headrest‘s Will Toledo, who signed on to produce the follow-up record. “They’ll Never” is a tantalizing new look at that record, which will see release via the inimitable Saddle Creek.

The song arrived with a music video directed by Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Tyler Walker, showcasing Chura’s scrappy throwback aesthetic to perfection. Taking a series of cues from classic late ’80s to mid ’90s alternative clips, “They’ll Never” presents Chura in a grainy lo-fi 4:3, nicely accentuating the narrative’s emphasis on history. All told, “They’ll Never” is a very welcome jolt of casual energy that doubles as a reminder of Chura’s considerable talent. It’s worth remembering.

Watch “They’ll Never” below and pre-order Midnight from Saddle Creek here.


Dumb – Beef Hits (Stream)

Post-punk that’s scrappy and really pissed off has been a sweet spot for this site in the past and the present is no different. Dumb‘s “Beef Hits” is another entry in our coverage of that particular chapter of music and even among its contemporaries, “Beef Hits” stands out. As is the case with the genre’s best, there’s a snarl that accompanies its gait, gifting another level of venom to its central stuck-in-nowhere-and-fed-up narrative. When the saxophone solo comes in to blow everything to smithereens at the track’s close, the effect comes close to catharsis. Despite their name, Dumb’s a band that’s exceptionally smart when it comes to their craft and in “Beef Hits”, it shows.

Listen to “Beef Hits” below and pre-order Club Nites here.

Mannequin Pussy – Drunk II (Music Video)

Adam Kolodny (of House of Nod) can’t seem to stop shooting extremely memorable visuals. The imagery in Better Oblivion Community Center‘s clip for “Dylan Thomas” borders on the iconic, the palette used in Charly Bliss‘ “Capacity” video has a strong shot at being a definitive landmark for that era of the band, and yet the DP may have bested both of those efforts with an unforgettable showing for Mannequin Pussy’s latest, “Drunk II”.

Mannequin Pussy‘s guitarist/vocalist (and the director of “Drunk II”), Marisa Dabice, was reported to have set one goal for the clip: to make it “look like the saddest dream.” In an open casting call, there was a need for “people comfortable making out on camera” and the arc of the direction, the song’s own narrative, and the stylistic flourishes throughout “Drunk II” tie together into what’s easily one of 2019’s best videos to date. Everything from the soft lighting to the marquee archway to the repeated returns to central framing with blurred edges (ostensibly playing into the narrator’s state of being) combine to create something indelible. In short, it’s a masterpiece delivered in a minor key. Hit repeat when it’s done.

Watch “Drunk II” below and pre-order Patience here.

Empath – Roses That Cry (Stream)

Garrett Koloski‘s drumming never quite got the credit it was due back when it was transforming Perfect Pussy into a snarling powerhouse. There’s a level of precision in the chaotic immediacy of the work Koloski was doing behind the kit that not many drummers can match and that’s a trait that’s carried over to Empath, who continue to be on an absolute tear. Every song the band’s released has bested their previous work and “Hanging Out of Cars” and “Roses That Cry” now stand as an impressive pinnacle.

The latter of which is the band balancing its most playful pop sensibilities with its most vicious punk characteristics. Blown-out, catchy, and extraordinarily engaging, “Roses That Cry” approaches something transcendental as it swirls, seethes, and surges towards a punishing climax that rattles the bones. As everything deteriorates in the final seconds, there’s a stray laugh, offering an unlikely out from the blistering storm, topping off something that feels like it’s good for the soul.

Listen to “Roses That Cry” below and pre-order Active Listening: Night On Earth here.

Deliluh – Rabbit (Stream)

2017’s Linger in the Afterlight suggested Deliluh could be a legitimate force and the band’s only grown sharper since its release. Oath of Intent, judging solely on the considerable merit of its advance singles, may be a dark horse contender for Album of the Year honors. “Freeloader Feast” saw the band operating in rare form but their most recent glimpse at their forthcoming record, “Rabbit”, is an absolute monster.

Wiry post-punk that wrings tension from every exacting note, “Rabbit” is the kind of song that’ll keep most listeners in a vice-like grip. Ought‘s earlier work immediately springs to mind due to the dynamics and delivery but that band was never this dark or unforgiving. Deliluh have tapped into something special here and will undoubtedly be worth paying very close attention to in the coming months. Don’t skip out on this one.

Listen to “Rabbit” below and pre-order Oath of Intent from Telephone Explosion here.