Album Review: SeepeopleS – Apocalypse Cow Vol. 2

During “What’s Missing,” the lush, schizophrenic track that opens Apocalypse Cow Vol. 2, SeepeopleS front man Will Bradford creepily announces, “what’s missing is old fashioned justice.” He’s on about something sinister and corrupt, but he could easily be talking about the puzzling path his band has traveled for the last 7 years. For the third time, SeepeopleS has released a stellar album.  If there was any justice, this criminally ignored band would garner at least a fraction of the attention paid to the inconsequential musical abominations that populate the sales charts.

Apocalypse Cow Vol. 2 (ACV2 for short) doesn’t necessarily expand or add to themes established in Volume 1, an overtly desperate record that was released in the midst of George W. Bush’s reign. Rather, ACV2 continues a creative and musical concept that Bradford has been nurturing for nearly a decade. The lyrical content is often gripping, even morbid by some standards, but altogether thoughtful and at times touching. The music is a stylistically manic collection of ethereal electronics, agitated guitar rock, atmospheric pop, and acoustic-based song craft. At times, all of these elements collide in a massive melodic bang, and that’s when SeepeopleS truly shines.

The band tries some new things and also revels in their trademark ideas, scoring their dense sonic foundation with Bradford’s diverse vocal styles. Noted Boston producer Will Holland, who has helped mastermind all of the band’s finest moments in the studio, is back with more digital sorcery, which falls right in with what Bradford’s been up to lately (namely the electronic project Freepeoples Frequency). The album also represents a transition in the makeup of the band, as charismatic keyboardists trade place. Former Perpetual Groove keyboardist Matt McDonald has joined the band, but the album still features contributions from longtime keyboardist Peter Keys.

The addition of McDonald ties right in with the electronic leanings and epic scope of the average SeepeopleS song. Still, it wouldn’t be a SeepeopleS album without a wide range of music to ingest, and ACV2 combines the best of the band’s many worlds. The aforementioned “What’s Missing” is a true headphone track full of dramatic strings, acoustic guitar mixed with teeming soundscapes, synthesized chaos, and foreboding vocals. “What Makes It Go” showcases their sense of trancey, dubby elements in an instrumental format, bringing to mind the intermittent ambient journeys and dubbed-out rock of 2004’s The Corn Syrup Conspiracy. These tracks line up in a row with the drastically different “Modern Times,” in which Bradford brandishes his solid grasp of eerie elements and sophisticated songwriting. A demented ragtime hue brings the pulsating pop tune alive as a wild sonic scene unfolds in the background.

Bradford experiments with higher-pitched vocals a few times, pairing them with reggae-tinged verses and a gently exploding chorus on “Used to Know” and a My Morning Jacket-like Prince impersonation on “Big Heart (Modern Love Song).” “Big Heart” is like nothing the band has attempted before, and it works. A soulful, slightly dysfunctional chunk of warmed-over groove sounds surprisingly good in Bradford and Holland’s hands, and it’s refreshing to hear a ‘peepS song that isn’t disproportionably weighted by political heft or cranial spelunking – just good ‘ol longing and loss. Plus it’s got a monstrous bass groove that’s quite representative of bassist Dan Ingenthron’s voluminous style.

Other emotional manifestos are shouted through a megaphone, as on the cannonball of a song called “The Most Famous One,” or richly executed, as seen in the contemplative “Face the Day.” Bradford looks inward as much as outward on ACV2, which is a departure of sorts. “These Games” is a song of severe resignation and turmoil resolved, with the familiar Bradford stamp of eloquent dread – “When I try to calculate the future of the human race, I wonder if any of us can win these games,” he says, before admitting that he “want(s) to play something else.” “Round 12” also reflects his exasperation with the trials of life, the titular boxing metaphor facilitating a narrative on the endless struggle of humans against their own emotions. “When you Can’t Stand” would have fit right in on The Corn Syrup Conspiracy with it’s urgent rhythm and alarmingly resonant vocals, and “I Got One Thing” has the strummy, intellectual pop vibe so prevalent on ACV1.

The band’s thematic and musical consistency – which is crystallized in the closing “Last Breath Reprise,” fully tying Volumes 1 and 2 together – doesn’t hold them back from breaking new ground. “Big Heart,” “What’s Missing,” “The Most Famous One,” and others map out plenty of new territory that’s sure to be exploited in the coming years. “The Most Famous One” is one of the most representative songs the band has ever recorded, capturing their raucous rock side, exhibiting their creativity in the vocal department with plenty of conceptual harmonies and construction, and jumping wildly between rhythmic and melodic styles, leaving the listener breathless in the process. To the initiated, the stunning sounds and production perfection found on Apocalypse Cow Vol. 2 is not a surprise. SeepeopleS has constructed another timely album that conveys the uneasy hope and lingering hostility of our world circa 2009.

Rating: 9.1 out of 10

This album can be downloaded for free at the band’s website.

Album Review: Phish – Joy

As maligned as it is, Phish’s studio catalog does one thing really well: it provides brief but telling capsules that mark pivotal moments in the evolution of the band’s music, lives and career. Joy is unlike any other album they’ve released in terms of subject matter, since many of the songs were born of the unsavory circumstance of drug addiction, faltering friendship, and even death. It’s not an album of dreary dope-addled tales, though. It’s one of abandonment, redemption, and hope, by a band that had been declared dead.

Most fans will find Joy similar in sonic quality to 1996’s Billy Breathes, and there’s no harm in that. The two albums share a producer (Steve Lillywhite) and feature a mostly concise, shimmering batch of songs. However, Joy also shares aspects of 2002’s Round Room, in that a great deal of it was recorded in real time, and there are rough patches left in for authenticity. The same divergent calculation can be made with each album – there are shades of the tightly wound rock of Hoist, the drowsy funk-rock of Story of the Ghost, the all-encompassing stylistic structure of Farmhouse, and the calculated prog-rock of Junta. Much like Phish’s entire career, Joy is inspired in equal part by new and old.

Comprised largely of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s compositions, Joy also includes one track each from bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. Anastasio, as always, is monstrously evocative and nearly predictable in tackling the subjects we all knew he’d get around to. Gordon and McConnell are less dramatic but equally sophisticated in their contributions. The band casts dark and light atmospheres at will, channeling different eras and aspects of their history throughout the album.

The opening three songs encompass an expansive range of emotions that can be interpreted in highly personal ways. They also exhibit the band’s legendary range. “Backwards Down the Number Line” serves as the shamelessly goofy and emotional pop tune, “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” conjures the hazy, menacing rock delirium of Phish circa 1997-2004, and “Joy” provides heaving balladry a la 1999’s “Bug,” with its striking chorus and swaying arena-rock refrain.

Gordon’s “Sugar Shack” chugs along as only his creations can, with fantastically oblique lyrics and fussy, tempramental melodies and time signatures. After this point, the album’s wheels start to rattle a bit, and the flow of the journey gets shakier. “Ocelot,” perhaps the most natural-sounding of the album’s songs in the live setting, comes across as messy and disjointed here. “Kill Devil Falls” is quite the opposite, and its vigorous tempo is on full display, complete with a big sing-along moment at the end that sounds as huge as it should.

The album is lyrically impressive until the feathery “Light,” which contains a real groaner of a line in the second verse – “It takes a few moments of whirling around ’til your feet finally leave the ground.” That line and some of the lyrics in the compositional opus “Time Turns Elastic” are the only real missteps in the lyric department, as most of the songs have deliciously cryptic or jarringly resonant wordplay to compliment the music. Even the deceptive simplicity of McConnell’s flippantly recorded “I Been Around” will stir feelings in Phish fans who know what the band has endured, both personally and professionally, over the last decade.

Still, the album flounders to a close. The placement of “Time Turns Elastic” doesn’t compliment the record as a whole. The 13-minute multi-section song serves as neither opening fanfare, thematic centerpiece nor closing flourish, and the dreamy creation almost feels intrusive in the midst of so many soul-baring, reflective songs. The band goes for gravitas with “Twenty Years Later” in the last spot, but the song’s majestically defiant chorus falls flat in terms of atmosphere and sound quality.

A strong start, plenty of diversity, and an uneven overall experience make Joy similar to other Phish albums. But the triumphant nature of the album’s existence and the unique lyrical content within help turn it into more than just a catalog item. The songs on Joy will always remind those who hear them of the end of a decade and the rebirth of a band.

Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Bonnaroo Preview: Phish

When the first Bonnaroo took place in 2002, Phish had been “on hiatus” for nearly 2 years, and there was relentless speculation that Trey Anastasio’s festival-closing set would transmogrify into the band’s comeback. The rumors never panned out, but the possibility electrified the weekend. You could feel the excitement in the stiff Tennessee air for three days.

PhishImagine, then, what it is going to be like to actually have Phish on the farm. Bonnaroo began as an event aimed squarely at the band’s gigantic fan base, and now, after 8 years, they’re finally coming to Manchester. It could have never happened. After 2004, Phish could have been done forever. Bonnaroo would have gone on, but not having a Phish performance would have been one giant gap in the still-evolving history of the festival.

Now, with the event firmly established as world-class attraction, Phish has helped create one of the most unique Bonnaroos ever. For the first time, a headliner will perform twice without the two performances happening on consecutive days. The band will perform the festival’s first-ever late-night headlining set on Friday – and no, I’m not counting the debacle that was Kanye West at dawn in 2008 – and the festival-ending set on Sunday.

While Phish have welcomed guests with open arms in the past, sit-ins have gotten less frequent over the years. It’s hard to say if anyone will join Phish during their sets, or if any band members will appear during other performances. In any case, the possibility is there – the band is on record as fans of King Sunny Ade (performing Friday at the Other Tent), they’ve occasionally covered “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys (performing just in front of Phish Friday night), and even hobnobbed with David Byrne (performing Friday on the Which Stage) in the past. It’s no stretch to fantasize that even Snoop Dogg could be invited to rap with the band, since Jay-Z did just that in Brooklyn during Phish’s 2004 “farewell” tour.

All of this speculation and anticipation begs the question – is Phish still worth catching? Is their fans’ excitement justified?

Judging from the band’s recent performances in Boston, MA and Wantagh, NY, they’ve tapped into enough of their old mojo to give solid, if not legendary performances. It seems like the band is right on the verge of performing to their capabilities, and who knows – with another week of warm up time, Bonnaroo may be the place where Phish officially gets their groove back.

-Make sure you follow The Wounded Messenger on Twitter for the best Phish setlist and performance updates during Bonnaroo, along with lots of other stuff from the festival!

Phishy links:

Official site

“Sample in a Jar” from 1996’s Clifford Ball festival:

Bonnaroo Preview: Russian Circles

Russian CirclesChicago’s Russian Circles are sure to draw plenty of attention from adventurous music lovers during their 50-minute slot at Bonnaroo 2009. As the festival-at-large gears up for Bruce Springsteen at 9 PM, the trio will be lighting up the Troo Music Lounge with their explosive instrumentals.

A huge crowd could be headed this band’s way. For one, not everyone is going to race over to Springsteen’s set, and some fans may avoid the main stage altogether. Also, there are going to be plenty of jazzed-up Mars Volta fans looking for something to do when their band leaves the adjacent Which Stage at 8:45. Enter the epic, atmospheric, awe-inspiring Russian Circles, playing just a few steps away.

Their cinematic fusion of hard rock, prog rock, electronica, and improvisation should turn a few heads among the milling throng. I’ll be there until they stop playing, and I’d prefer if they didn’t stop at all! Here are some links and a live video to get you acquainted with this great band if you haven’t done so already.

Band Website
Live download of the band’s New Year’s Eve 2008 set

“Death Rides A Horse” Video:

Album Review: OHMphrey – OHMphrey

OHMphrey is a quintet featuring half of Chicago rockers Umphrey’s McGee – keyboardist Joel Cummins, guitarist Jake Cinninger, and drummer Kris Meyers – along with Chris Poland (Megadeth, OHM) and Robertini Pagliari (OHM). Their eponymous debut album, out on Magna Carta, is a fiery, expansive instrumental opus that will please a wide range of listeners.

OHMphreyGearheads and musicians will love the album for its technical complexity and performance perfection, jam-seekers will dig the many open-ended compositions, and fusion devotees will find plenty of styles and solos to discuss. Full of impressive individual performances and amazing group interplay, OHMphrey brings the band’s many tastes to the table, including hard electric fusion, menacing metal, and soaring improvisation.

Opening track “Someone Said You Were Dead” combines a jittery guitar figure with synthesized waves of guitar, bruising drums, and frantic bass work. It’s all contained within a structure that is alternately uplifting and menacing, as progressive note frenzies surround a hopeful hook. “The Girl From Chi-Town” is nearly the opposite, as the band lounges on a bluesy, stoic groove full of evocative melodies and wistful solos.

It’s impossible to single out the contributions of each band member on a per-song basis, as all five of them add invaluable ideas. Listeners who are familiar with both of the contributing bands will instantly recognize the personalities and signature sounds of the players. While the band does create some wholly original music, the album still tugs knowingly at the ears of those who know the musicians’ prior work.

“Denny’s By the Jail,” in particular, has the chugging feel of a typical Umphrey’s jam. It will be a familiar sound to their fans, who are used to following the band back and forth across the line between pure improvisation and premeditated chaos. The alternately fierce and atmospheric guitars scurry along a schizophrenic beat that is unmistakably Myers, and I’d bet most Umphrey’s fans could name that drummer in less than 30 seconds.

Cinninger revels in the chance to indulge his prog-metal leanings, which have markedly changed the Umphrey’s sound but are finally allowed to run completely wild here. Cummins sounds as if he’s riding the same creative wave that inspired his solo album, Common Sense, and his highly mechanized synth work and poignant piano are right at home among the album’s dynamic shifts.

Pagliari unleashes a jazzy rollercoaster of notes during “Ice Cream,” then propels the band through a brief, seemingly spontaneous bit of fusion that fades out far too quickly. The subsequent “Lake Shore Drive” fails to achieve liftoff and isn’t nearly as appealing, but it stretches out for over 8 minutes. “Ice Cream” melted in three and a half. Anyone who has spent time in Chicago knows that Lake Shore Drive isn’t as good as ice cream.

“Not Afraid of the Dark,” like “Ice Cream,” seems to be just one segment of a much larger creation. The band is in full flight when the track fades in, and Poland joins Cummins and Cinninger in dirtying up a pulsating bass and drum groove. The result sounds like Headhunters, Mahavishnu, Rush, and King Crimson rolled into one foreboding fusion-rock whole.

“Shrooms ‘n Cheese” is a loose piece of intimate improvisation that brings the listener 15 minutes in the mind of the musicians. Pagliari and Cinninger zing ideas off one another while Meyers does a routinely admirable job of keeping time through the constant changes, Cummins lends melodic depth in all the right places, and Poland contributes another piercing, tuneful solo. At the song’s halfway point, they’ve already explored a half dozen loosely-bound interpretations of funk, jazz, and rock, collectively unearthing an entirely new sound that they steer to a cinematic climax.

“What’s the Word, Thunderbird” brings the album to a close with indescribable barroom fusion. Highlighted by Cummins’ guilty-pleasure synths and an unrestrained jamming style, the track is even less structured than “Shrooms ‘n Cheese.” Together, the two tracks stand in stark contrast to the tightly wound tunes that dominate the album’s first half.

OHMphrey gives it their all on this release, alternately putting each other through the musical wringer and letting each other stretch out. The album is a revealing glimpse into the multiple personalities of each of these insanely talented musicians.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

OHMphrey MySpace Page
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Album Review: Ozric Tentacles – The Yum Yum Tree

Through 25 years of changes in the world and the music that shapes it, Ozric Tentacles have been an unflappable, dependable force in psychedelic music. Despite an ever-changing lineup, the band – which formed in 1984 – has retained a singular focus. It’s hard to imagine any artist having a more consistent sound over such a long time period.

The Yum Yum TreeWhile there are subtle shifts in technology and outlook over the course of their 28 albums, their latest offering continues founder Ed Wynne’s vision of trance-inducing instrumental music that started nearly 3 decades ago. The Yum Yum Tree (CD) contains few surprises and is another chapter that fits right in with Ozric’s legacy of mind-altering, relentlessly trippy music.

Like most Ozric albums, this one is mad for synthesizers and features a treasure chest of innumerable electronic swirls, swoops and swishes that form the band’s signature sound. Wynne’s guitar, as always, investigates the nooks and crannies of songs that can hardly be considered derivative. After all, Ozric Tentacles helped create this electronic rock style, and they have remained consistent through all of the stylistic shifts that birthed genres like house, psy-trance, and drum and bass.

Over the last few years, it’s been increasingly easy for Wynne to dictate the band’s movements across the sonic landscape, since half of the band now consists of Wynnes – Ed and his wife Brandi, who provides the all-important synthesizer work. Therefore, the last handful of records have been some of the most predictable in the band’s history. Perhaps it is fitting, though, that most Ozric fans would be upset if the band changed too much. Dependability is a bit underrated when it comes to music, and this band has always delivered what their fans are looking for.

The Yum Yum Tree is pushed by sustained winds of ambient and dub textures, along with steady downpours of the unique fusion-influenced bass lines that have defined their sound from the start. The album rarely takes an aggressive stance, and it sticks close to what the current quartet does best – dramatic, textural collages of sound that glide alongside hypnotic rhythms and understated moments of tension.

The current incarnation rarely strives for full-tilt psychedelic frenzy, opting instead for moments of pristine ambiance (“Nakaru”), oceans of glimmering electronica (“San Pedro”), eastern-facing dance music (“Magick Valley”), and elastic, exploratory guitar journeys (“Oddweird”). There’s spiritualized funk to be found in the wobbly “Oolong Oolong,” and “Mooncalf” even incorporates pure dub elements in the midst of some typical sensory overload.

“Plant Music” is the only track that hints at the band’s hyper speed freakouts of years past, and it’s safe to say that the band can still turn up the heat when needed. But on the whole, this is a patient, group-focused effort that emphasizes group creativity instead of face-melting guitar workouts. The Yum Yum Tree is a satisfying, comforting experience that displays the subtle evolution of this legendary band’s unmistakable sound.