Sunday, April 19, 2015

Older Light (a music review)

            If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that my follows are a fairly eclectic mix of actors, writers, producers, youtubers, and musicians. I love music and musicians. And I'm fairly hard to impress. Not in a "I'm looking for obscure bands to try to impress you" kind of way, but because I love music so much. I want more than cookie-cutters with nice album artwork.
            If you've been following me, you know that I'm a big fan of a band called Over The Effect. They just released their first full-length album, Astronomy.

            I have some thoughts about it:
            Back in the 90s, the term “alternative” came into use to describe music that sneered at the standard verse-chorus-verse monotony of hair metal and the endless parade of boy bands. It meant the snarl of early Soundgarden, it meant the watchful always-just-about-to-explode fury of Tool, and it meant the jangling poetry of Smashing Pumpkins. I was reminded of this the other day while browsing iTunes and noticing how many bands are still identified by the term “alternative” that…well…simply aren’t. The term means nothing, anymore, for the most part. A few bands are still carrying on that mission of trying to rethink music, to provide an alternative to the same old verse-chorus-verse banalities and new parades of boy bands. I’m thinking about Slothrust, I’m thinking about Savages, I’m thinking about Holograms.
            And I’m thinking about Over The Effect.
            Let me explain what I mean. Listen to a track like “Astronaut,” one of the band’s oldest tracks. Notice something about Ashley Barker’s vocals—namely, where they could have gone. Barker is a talented singer, and could easily have followed more standard patterns of singing, but he doesn’t. He goes up when conventional wisdom would say to use the lower register. When his voice seems to be as high as it can go, instead of going back down, he pushes it even higher. Barker will sometimes ride the edge of staying in key, but in other situations we can hear that he could very easily stay in. Bowie does that same thing. That means that the strain, the push against what’s expected, is intentional. Barker doesn’t give a crap about the vocal patterns that would make the band pop-palatable. Instead, he’s listening to something inside. The vocal isn’t about you, the listener; it’s about chasing a sound.
            Listen to what Kamphuis, Nouryeh, and Barker are doing with the instruments, as well. Kamphuis and Nouryeh lock in together whether the band is working in a more late-90s jangle-pop mode, as in “Little John,” or in the much more heavy “Silver Screen.” They are a solid foundation no matter which direction the song goes, able to work in lots of different modes. Barker’s sweet acoustic guitar lines on a song like “Lullabye for llyam” exist alongside electric leads straining to stay in key. There is some Sabbath, here. There is Pumpkins, here. There are genuine rock roots to this music, but it isn’t simply Springsteen warmed over, like the current crop of singer/songwriters. It also isn’t the current crop of thinly disguised bluegrass bands trying to pass themselves off as rock. Lastly, this isn’t a band simply ripping off Duran Duran and calling it new, either. No. Over The Effect could easily play what’s popular, but instead these songs are about (again) chasing a sound. Listening to a track like “Hold,” I’m immediately reminded of the music that Pearl Jam produced by living in a house together for a few months. “On the Hillside” reminds me of the experimentation of “Dark Side…”-era Pink Floyd; the idea that the musicians aren’t here to turn a quick buck, but instead to try to create something unique, something only the three of them could make.
            By now, everyone knows the idea that the stars we see in the sky are actually light that left that star hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of years ago. That knowledge doesn’t make the light any less beautiful. The stars we see are a dazzling reflection of the past that capture our eyes. Over the Effect is like that, too; the roots are old, but because of that, the brilliance shines brighter. Especially in a sky full of lesser stars. “Astronomy” isn’t just a quickly-thrown-together new crop of knock-offs to cash in, but instead something more important: a reminder that the term “alternative” begs the question—an alternative to what? Over the Effect may be the first band in a long time with that classification to be able to answer the question honestly.

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