Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

Written by Aaron Ellis, posted by blog admin

Yam Haus first formed during high school and the Wisconsin four piece relocated to the Minneapolis area after graduation. Their first full length recording, Stargazer, is an unlikely tour de force from a cadre of young musicians and songwriters who clearly demonstrate their remarkable chemistry. It is unusual to discover a young band playing with this level of cohesiveness so early on and it results a fully realized first effort the band will have a difficult time surpassing, but there’s no indication they’ve explored the limits of their talent with this debut collection. The title song kicks things off with tremendous uplift and establishes an approach to their pop songs with this track continuing through later tracks. The blending of slashing electric guitar chords, a light drumming stomp, and colorful synthesizer lines make for a first class album opener.

“West Coast” isn’t as clearly built around its chorus as the first song is, but it nevertheless has a sure handed pop touch and remarkably mature lyrics for the form. Despite the obvious commercial nature of Yam Haus’ songwriting, they don’t shy away from tackling the subject matter of their material with a mix of clear-eyed adult perspectives linking up with their youthful energy. The second track is immensely stylish as well. The stylishness continues with the third track “Kingdom”, a song continuing in much the same vein we heard with earlier tracks, and featuring the same sort of impactful chorus that helped push the title track over the top. They rein their pop strengths in some with the track “Too Many People”, exchanging the synthesizers of earlier numbers in favor of piano, but the same strengths remain in evidence while also unleashing Lars Pruitt’s voice in a way we didn’t experience with the opening songs.

“Right Now, Forever” does a 180 degree from the earlier numbers into “unplugged” territory but the band sounds just as comfortable in these comparatively spartan surroundings as they do during the aforementioned pop numbers. Guitar is part of a greater overall whole for Yam Haus, but they do possess ample six string firepower even during these more muted numbers; guitarist Seth Blum distinguishes himself thanks to his playing prowess during this song. “Bad News” has one of the best pure pop melodies on the release, especially its vocal melody, and Lars Pruitt’s singing rates among his best moments on Stargazer. Despite his prominence on the album, however, we never get the sense this is a one man show or glorified solo vehicle. Yam Haus sound like a band from first song to last.

“We Are the Storm” has stronger electric guitar presence than anything else preceding it, excepting the title song perhaps, and Blum dishes out some impressively rugged riffing for the song while still keeping it consistent with the band’s over-arching sound. Pruitt proves himself capable of taking on a rougher edged tune and sounding just as convincing as he does elsewhere. Yam Haus’ Stargazer is rife with softer strains as well showing, conclusively, that their debut offers something for listeners of every stripe. Casual and hardcore music fans alike can and will find much to admire with this album.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

Astronomique’s Sharp Divide begins well with the confident stride fueling “Forefathers” and they come across with an authoritative edge one doesn’t often hear from similarly themed outfits. Bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings lay down an impressive groove, but it’s guitarist Sean Hogan and synthesizer player/vocalist Logan Andra Fongemie who deserves fulsome plaudits for their kinetic, focused contributions to the song. Sharp Divide is consistent in many respects, but the hallmark consistency of the collection rests with how it treats Fongemie’s voice – echo effects give a sort of haunted quality to her otherwise ethereal vocal talents and Hogan’s often chiming guitar lines act as a memorable counterpoint. “Losing Our Control” raises the bar thanks to its seamless mix of a number of elements and, despite its mid-tempo pace; we hear every bit of the same confidence bubbling to the surface of the mix that defined the earlier tune.

The Minneapolis band goes one better with the album’s title song. These songs are, customarily, a key track on any release, presumably encapsulating the strongest musical and lyrical themes of the release, and “Sharp Divide” isn’t any disappointment. Saari and Billings are, once again, key to bringing the song off, but Hogan’s guitar playing has added edge with this performance that sets it apart from the surrounding tunes. “Unspoken” highlights Fongemie’s keyboard playing without ever making her the sole focus and, when the full band launches into the song, Astronomique once again successfully integrate her playing into the larger whole of the arrangement. “Bleed Me: is another of the album’s top shelf tracks and, despite the intensity of its imagery and how emphatically Fongemie conveys the writing, there’s a good balance between the darker mood struck by the lyrics and the entertaining musical arrangement.

“Hardly Deliberate” has a different percussive template than we’re accustomed to hearing from Astronomique while still adhering to business as usual in other respects. Billings’ drumming, however, keys everything and we can hear how it inspires the remaining band members to reach even higher. There’s a slightly chaotic, dissonant edge to the song without ever removing it too far from the band’s style. The last number on Sharp Divide, “Heading Nowhere”, brings the release to a downcast ending, but their talented for sweetening otherwise despairing musical messages remains intact with this final number and mitigates any darkness creeping in around the edges. Astronomique’s Sharp Divide swiftly establishes the four piece as one of the most creative and idiosyncratic acts working in popular music today and this ten song collection will surely propel them to a new level of renown.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Formed during June 2015, the two members of Sky Orchid, actually brothers, already logged 8 years of jamming together under their belts before that.  Trimming the fat from prior incarnations and attempts at this project, we are left with a lean, mean duo that knows their way around a set of songs.  The debut Oculus shows a stunning early grasp on craft and soft/loud dynamics for such a young act and it’s obvious that was honed through years of playing with one another.  Passion and emotion are crammed into every corner of this release and it’s definitely one for music aficionados to soak up for the long-term.

Gabriel Traknyak handles guitars, vocals and keyboards while his brother Daniel takes care of the drums and additional percussion used.  They make use of several different songwriting forms across the record and manage each individual one to great effect.  Opener “The River” beings with dubbed beats, distant piano and trembling vocals that crests with riveting real drumming, electric guitar and searing vocal power.  This set-up yields great results on the slightly more rock n’ roll-y “In the Fire (Part 1),” the brilliant and gorgeous “Lex,” the trippy piano/guitar shakedown heard in “Yesterday” and penultimate closer “Fortify.”  The group truly shines in these auras of blackness where driving, buried beats and trickling melody guitars give Gabriel’s lead vocals plenty of room to work and eventually reach critical points of catharsis. 

They dissemble any sense of formula by having a track like “Sneakers” kick-off like the aforementioned songs but jettison the mellow, melodic drizzle for full-on guitar rock, pounding backbeats and expressive singing that take the music down a more hard rock avenue that’s made for maximum aural impact.  “I’ll Stop the World (Part 2)” furthers this notion thanks to its dive-bombing tempos set by Daniel’s drums and it maintains a careful blend of slower, grittier chugs with fluttering higher speed rock attacks shrouded in an 80s mist.  “Wildfire” could almost past for some roots-y folk, what with its lengthy first section gloriously embellishing the acoustic guitar and Gabriel’s stern vocal pipes.  It shatters into a million pieces of space-y guitar rock as it climbs towards the finale but the first half is the star of the show without question here.  Then they abandon the more surreal, mystical shades of their sound for some fun loving, upbeat groove and swagger on the back-to-back pairing of “Breathe Easy” and “Take It All.”  So many different songwriting styles could come off as cluttered or unfocused without care, but these songs maintain poise, point and purpose throughout. 

Oculus will surely latch onto listeners looking for an experimental take on modern guitar rock that doesn’t stick to one genre or feel the need to be constantly loud.  The beauty is truly within the details of the group’s sound on this recording.  Thanks to airtight production, the whole things sounds polished and professional with just enough dirt underneath its nail to really give you a good kick in the gut; all around great work by this pair of musical siblings. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Rhett Repko - Thnx For The Ride (2017)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

Thnx For The Ride, a seven song EP, marks Rhett Repko’s second impressive release in 2017 and bears all the signs it might propel Repko to a greater renown than he has thus far experienced. It differs from his previous 2017 release, About Last Night, thanks to a much more resolute focus on being a pure, outright rock release incorporating the same singer/songwriter sensibility pervading his earlier releases. Repko makes no bones about being a classicist in some respects, but the most refreshing aspect of his songwriting and performances is how he fuses that approach with a very modern production style and a rambunctious sense of the possible. The title song embodies that. “Thnx for the Ride” mixes things up without the song ever coming off as disjointed or patched together – Repko and his band mates move from straight forward rock passages to other sections that are near reggae or ska in their approach. The lyrics are a bit unusual in the way they approach the time-tested subject matter of relationships and that individual touch on the song separates it from the pack.

“Please Don’t Laugh” keeps the bar set high for Thnx For The Ride with an equally punchy, if a bit more normalized, rock track that plays around with tempo shifts, but never to the same extent as we hear with the opener. The vocals are emphasized here a little more than before and lead guitarist Stefan Heuer excels with an impassioned guitar solo near the song’s end. Perhaps the most compelling section of the song comes near its mid-way point when the musical intensity fades a little and we’re treated to a slow, deliberate middle break that enhances the overall performance. “It Ain’t Coming From You” will be the EP’s peak for many listeners like it is for me and much of this has to do with the overall excellence of the song. There’s a strong acoustic strand underlying the song and wonderfully propulsive drumming from Tom Bryant, but the real highlight of the song comes from Repko’s vocal and another particularly tasty shift in tempo that comes near the track’s second half when the band slows things down and conjures a tasteful, thoughtful instrumental break.

“Maybe I’m Weak” elaborates on the previous song by expanding the dance between electric and acoustic guitars. Certain parts of this song may strike some listeners as choppy, but those passages are redeemed by yet one more intensely emotive Repko vocal and the rock firepower he and the band brings to bear in other portions of the tune. “And I Told Her So” has one of the EP’s best vocals with lead guitarist Stefan Heuer contributing a lot with his backing vocals. He rips loose with a biting solo, as well, during the song’s second half that underlines the potent rock power of this number, Thnx For The Ride concludes with the track “Make Me Right” and it’s a zesty closer for the EP that shows no fall off in energy from the first song. Repko has reached a new pinnacle with this release and Thnx For The Ride is chock full of great songs sure to be featured in his live set.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

Written by Alonzo Evans, posted by blog admin

Illinois-bred singer/songwriter Joshua Ketchmark has built a slow and steady career on excellent musical craftsmanship and stellar guitar playing that’s spanned a dozen releases to date.  He’s brushed shoulders with Melissa Etheridge and has worked with the production teams that have brought to life recordings by Elvis Costello, Don Henley and Ryan Adams.  In a tough modern musical climate where it’s very difficult to get your own original compositions out there for the public to hear, Ketchmark has accomplished way more than most.  It’s his talent that his gotten the singer/guitarist to where he is and it’s his talent that can be heard all across his latest release, Under Plastic Stars

The album opens with a gentle, trotting acoustic number that’s draped in dusty folk influences and tinged of rural, back porch country jamming.  With his heartfelt lyrics detailing a passionate relationship and instrumentation that puts a production focal point on Joshua’s breathy voice and muscular acoustic guitars while the rhythm section dives into a little groove that pushes the material forward with grace and goodness.  Subtle church organ atmosphere is introduced on the twinkling, starlit magic of “Every Mystery.”  Gorgeous acoustic guitars draped in reverb and slight echo provide a launch pad for Ketchmark’s earthy, infectious vocal delivery that paints a forlorn picture of being pushed away by the one that you’re in love with.  This cut leads directly into the harder, bluesy 6-strings, dark keyboard shades and rumbling bass lines of the crunching “Let It Rain.”  An electric guitar buzz sometimes cuts through the thick, dense instrumentals and the vocals slip more into a heartbroken roar that still shows a surprising amount of melody and restraint.  Even slide guitar makes an accompaniment appearance to round out the sound on this excellent number.  

Breezy and autumnal in its aura, “Lucky at Leavin’” pairs an energetic acoustic line to smooth flowing melodies with a recording quality that leaves the impression of Josh playing alone onstage at a large concert hall.  Sweet back-up vocal harmonies from an unknown female guest provide further emotive expression to the song while lap-steel and layered keys add to a great deal of texture to the music’s many charms.  “Hereafter” returns to semi-rugged country/blues backed by a rousing drumbeat, lamenting and powerful vocals overflowing with stunning vibrato and several climactic breaks where the volume swells and the instrumental tones rise to the sky.  Hymnal organ playing and a fireball electric guitar solo renders “Get out Alive” an edge that only further mixes up the varied moods and sounds on the record.  Elsewhere the entirely acoustic “Harm’s Way” sucks the ears in from the very first note, the vocal/piano led soul tune “Sweet Surrender” really provides a showcase for Ketchmark’s gripping singing and awesome multi-instrumentalism and closer “The Great Unknown” mingles rock volume and tempos with country music’s ol’ fashioned vocal harmony standards and simplistic but hook-y guitar/rhythm shakedowns. 

Joshua Ketchmark pulls out all of the stops on Under Plastic Stars.  With excellent musical chops, stellar songwriting skills and great arrangements that blend a multitude of different instruments together, there’s not a misstep to be found on this album.  It’s certainly won over this first time listener to Ketchmark’s wonderful audio world.

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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