Grant Hart//The Argument
An album that I’ve put off reviewing for a quite a while, Grant Hart’s The Argument is a brilliant album once you can get over the hurdle of approaching a double-album concept album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost and chronicling the Fall of Man. Say what you will about the music, but you can’t fault Hart for his ambition.
If anything it’s Hart’s lack of musical ambition that saves the album from descending into an overwrought pile of crap. Regarded as the ‘melodic’ one of post-punk band Husker Du (a statement that essentially means he occasionally thought some of their noises should contain melodies and maybe a hint of production values), Hart brings his years of craft to lend the album sonic simplicity and accessibility.
Founded on simple, solid melodies, the tracks work as well on their own as they do when part of the larger whole; there’s nothing fancy about what Hart does, though the album is certainly capable of sounding lush and layered, but it all just works. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not mind-blowing, but it is quietly brilliant in its own understated way.
In many ways it’s similar to David Bowie’s recent release, The Next Day. Both are founded on simple rock aesthetics but pull them off with the kind of stylish aplomb that attests to their years of experience. At times Hart, rough of voice and fleetingly in tune, even sounds uncannily like latter-day Bowie. His voice, by no means conventionally good, nonetheless, just like everything else, works in a strange way.
Perhaps most crucially Hart’s voice has lost none of its power to convey. Especially important when attempting nothing less than translating a classic of epic poetry into a three and a half minute song, Hart just about succeeds in pulling off the narrative.
His style may be too simplistic to render some of the scale and beauty of Milton’s work, but Hart clearly knows that the real cut and thrust lies in the characters. Songs like Sin capture the seductive charm of Lucifer, earlier tracks such as Awake, Arise! succeed in portraying his anger and defiance, and Is The Sky The Limit pulls off the greatest achievement of them all by even injecting some pathos into proceedings.
That all this is wrapped up in immaculately constructed songs that rock out in the vintage, rock n roll, sense of the word speaks volumes about Hart’s skill as a songwriter. These are songs that, even without the context of being adaptations of classic literature, would still be almost uniformly great songs on an undeniably great album.
Complaints about length feel moot when considering the scale of Hart’s ambition but they must be voiced anyway. Very, very few are the double albums that manage to sustain momentum throughout their entire duration – a fact that makes me disinclined towards by default – and The Argument inevitably falls victim to late-album lull. Still, that kind of risk comes with this kind of ambition and Hart must be applauded for his album fighting off that slackening so fiercely.
Awake, Arise, Is The Sky The Limit?, Golden Chain
Teeth of the Sea//Master
After a first album that sounded like everything a spaghetti-western post-apocalyptic wasteland should be, and a second that sounded like the soundtrack to the coolest sci-fi film never made, my expectations for Teeth of the Sea’s third effort were high. Early listens to live versions of tracks like Reaper and Black Strategy told me not to worry and, sure enough, Master has validated my expectations. More consistent than Your Mercury and more expansive than Orphaned by the Ocean, Master could well signal their breakthrough as major post-rock players.
It could be criticised for not being massively different from the sound of their previous album, but Master hurdles those claims by refining an already top-notch sound and throwing in just enough experimentation to get by. The closing track in particular deserves mention for a bold switch-up at the halfway point that verges on being some kind of nightmare-ish disco apocalypse. And if that last sentence doesn’t sell you then truly nothing will.
Inspired by their reworking of the soundtracks to films like Reaper, a mediocre post-apocalypse flick which the opening track takes its name from, the sound is at once modern and carefully modelled on classic 80s soundtracks. Whilst that could quite easily turn to cringey cheese, it instead feeds off the cool nostalgia of the likes of Terminator to plaster a silly fan-service grin on your face. Pleiades Underground, an otherwise fairly dull track, even morphs into a strange homage to classic 80s hair metal.
One thing Teeth of the Sea never fail to provide is a sound that’s undeniably awesome in the most epic sense of the word, and, right from the off, Master delivers once more. Those opening bars of Responder and the vintage keyboard of Reaper’s climax are all the proof needed of their talent.
One criticism is that these nods and jumps in sound lead to a strangely disjointed feel. The atmosphere of looming apocalypse is there, but it feels more forced and the divide between songs which are simply atmospheric filler and those that truly go somewhere is clearer than ever before. Your Mercury had similar problems, although in much more dull fashion, but it’s one area where Orphaned by the Ocean stands above. Whilst that first effort remains their best, it would be a disservice to the band and their startling evolution to dismiss an album that contains what are truly some of the coolest tracks of the year.
Responder, Reaper, All Human Is Error
How does an 11 minute intro sound to you? Awful, right? Well, that’s essentially how Darkside’s latest album, Psychic, starts off. Album opener Golden Arrow is pure atmosphere on an album already drowning in it, and, most of all, an off-putting start to an album that perks up significantly once it gets started another two minutes later on Heart. The pounding drums and discordant wails of guitar that signal the start of actual music lead into an album that’s at once dreamy, soulful, bluesy and a whole bunch else. Most of all it’s pretty good.
What’s perhaps most jarring after those 11 minutes of nothingness (other than the fact that something’s actually happening) are the weird, distorted, strangely soulful vocals of Darkside. On Paper Trails they drop a few octaves over a weirdly Dire Straits-esque tune to create the song that perhaps best epitomises how strange, yet strangely gripping, Psychic is. I’ve never listened to something so oddly atmospheric yet funky, but Darkside pull it off.
As well as the slow start there are some moments of slowdown, where the atmosphere and experimentalism overtake the soulful core of their sound. At these points the band slip into duller territory; more than that, they become conventional in the most pedestrian, uninspired ways. During its protracted middle the album loses some of that soul, and it becomes an increasingly hollow affair. Lots of sounds happen, but they’re simply empty reverberations in a fairly substanceless space.
It takes the album closer, Metatron, to restore faith in this occasionally engaging, but often flat album – and even then it takes several minutes of monotonous but basically pretty sounds to get to a burst of action. In many ways it sums up the album – protracted waits that eventually grow more tiresome than they are interesting interrupted by bursts of ingenuity that are invigorating enough to sustain some more lapses in momentum.
Heart, Paper Trails, Metatron