Friday, November 27, 2009

Gwynbleidd—Nostalgia (BlackCurrant Music)

Nearly everything about this release is impressive. The Travis Smith-designed packaging is beautiful, featuring images of sooty, ravaged foliage that gird us for the progressive metal contained on the disc within. Gwynbleidd’s music is impeccably performed and recorded, and full of powerful, natural tones. It appears to be almost entirely self-produced too, so respect to the band for dialling in such a great sound.

There’s an elephant in the room, however, and it has a giant, swirly “O” painted on its side. No matter how hard I try, I can’t see past it. The guitar harmonies, the regular cycling of loud and soft/electric and acoustic within the lengthy compositions, the vocalist’s surging death growls when a heavy part erupts—if Opeth can be said to have a template, Gwynbleidd follow it slavishly. Their songs do flow differently than Opeth’s, but this is down to the fact that all their riffs are in 12/8 time (barring the odd innovation, as heard on “Stormcalling”), which smoothes over the many transitions in loudness and tempo. This also makes it difficult to distinguish between songs. Many micro-sections grab me when they pop up, but I’m usually hard pressed to tell where I am when I’m listening to the album straight through.

Gwynbleidd have found an enjoyable starting point with Nostalgia, but they’re clearly a little too comfortable playing this style. Now comes the tough part—they need to take what they have and tear it down and mess it up and be brave about it, so that with the next Gwynbleidd album, we’ll go, “Oh, that’s what Gwynbleidd sounds like.” They certainly have the talent to make something beautiful and unique.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Pugs and Crows Band—Slum Towers (indie)

This band’s name makes me think of my neighbourhood and its healthy populations of both pugs and crows. The pugs are roly-poly and happy to be out for a walk; the crows are often ornery and will dive at your head during nesting season. In terms of temperament, The Pugs and Crows Band fall somewhere between the two creatures—neither eager to please nor randomly hostile. Their music swings gracefully between moods jaunty and despondent.

Slum Towers is the work of composer/guitarists Cole Schmidt (from Cortez the Killer, reviewed here) and Clayton Murray, along with Russell Sholberg (bass), Ben Brown (drums) and violinist Meredith Bates. The 11 instrumentals and one vocal track feature a lot of tasty playing, but the approach is clean and careful. They will not pin you against the wall with screaming solos. Each tune establishes a strong theme right off the bat.

The haunting, placid opener “’Lil Red Spiders” immediately reminds me of The Dirty Three, but that direction doesn’t return until the superb “Ballet for BC” (featuring a beautiful bowed solo from Sholberg) late in the album. The rest of the record stumbles into some exotic grottoes. Tracks like “Two Tastesless [sic] Italians” and “Ramadan” have a gypsy air that reminds me of Estradasphere without that band’s speed metal digressions. “Turducken,” one of the longer tracks, has a desert caravan feel, a waltz chorus, and a more abstract, improvised section to heave the whole thing off balance. Even at its bounciest, Slum Towers carries a sombre dignity.

The only non-instrumental is “Scarecrow Shadow,” a macabre, sepia-toned ballad that sits in the middle of the album. Sung wonderfully by Debra-Jean Creelman, I can picture it playing over the opening credits of a David Lynch movie.

The Pugs and Crows Band finds an unsettled and unsettling territory between rock and jazz—a sound that has a gritty elegance, with none of the funky elevator-music cheese that “fusion” often entails. An interesting, enjoyable new cross-breed unleashed on Vancouver's musical landscape.