Echos, Storms and Tough Girls
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 15, 2009 |
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 15, 2009 |
This is one of those albums that isn’t necessarily new, but it’s new to me. A little-known metal outfit out of Fayetteville, AR (I know, right? But then, if some of the best hip hop can come out of Minneapolis, there’s no reason we can’t expect to hear good metal out of Arkansas), Storm The Castle! is a solid, technically skilled band with sweeping, power riffs and bold vocals. Their first release, The History of Doomed Expeditions, Volume i is a strong freshman effort in the oddball, viking metal-esque genre. At first listen, it hearkens to that goofy-assed, raised goblet and fur-and-iron power chord metal that we’ve previously discussed with regard to bands like Destroy Destroy Destroy or even older acts like Thyrfing.
But there’s more to be found here. Instead of simple songs about dungeons and dragons, there’s genuine talent hiding behind the adolescent band name/album titles. Instead, The History of Doomed Expeditions is filled with impressive drumming, complex guitar licks and an honest-to-goodness singer, something that is a rare find in the metal world. Instead of defaulting to the growling of, say, Lamb of God, or metally screaming, Storm The Castle! features a strong, melodic vocalist who is more reminiscent of The Sword and other more melodic vocalists. However, what separates them is they avoid the slower, sludge-metal sound, instead shooting for a straight-up metal sound. It’s not speed metal, it’s not thrash, it’s not the roaring of bands like Mastodon.
Coupled with the deep, soaring vocals are some impressive instrumentalists. A pair of solid guitars provide a solid forefront for the band, complete with an uncomplicated rhythm section and a far more intricate lead that scales the higher pitches and gives songs like “Fire Breathing Sympathy Machine” a sound that elevates it beyond simple metal pounding, even when the drums kick it into a double-bass heavy, fast-tempo machine gun sound. But then, part of what makes songs like “Sympathy Machine” and “Laugh Track” stand out are the numerous time changes and mid-track speed switches that keep the listener on their toes. Instead of resting on the speed metal laurels, Storm The Castle! moves through a dizzying array of styles, never settling on one simple technique. It’s hammer-heavy and fast fast, to be certain, but never repetitive. Considering that this is just a 5-track EP, that gives it extra cred in my book. In fact, the five and a half minute instrumental, “Victory… But At What Cost?” successfully demonstrates the full range of their abilities, moving from pounding, dirge-like grind to meandering, higher-pitched licks seamlessly. The incorporation of different styles isn’t new to metal, but hearing it executed soundly is more rare than you’d think.
That’s not to say that they’re the perfect new face of metal — they’re not. It might benefit them to play down the raised-fist anthem rock a bit, if for no reason other than it doesn’t always play well for an entire record. In order for metal bands to succeed consistently, there needs to be a broad-based appeal, and part of Storm The Castle! sound is one that may never play well to the masses looking for the next Metallica. But then again, there are a hundred different genres of metal, and they’ve managed to incorporate several into a single, 30 minute recording that has kept my attention for several rides to and from work — an impressive feat in and of itself. So if you’re looking for a metal album that will break a couple of the modern conventions, incorporating different styles and techniques, Storm The Castle! might just be for you.
Mica Levi (alias Micachu) is that girl there, with the curly hair and grimy little snout-face - and she is going to rock you pretty hard, so watch out for her. Jewellery, her debut album, was produced by the electro chap du jour, Matthew Herbert, and is released on the hipper-than-thou Rough Trade label. And if you were beginning to despair at all the Adeles and Lilys and Duffys - as I am - here at last is a girl with some roughness to her, something scratchy and unkempt, with a nice soupçon of punk influence. Hallelujah!
“So what does this all sound like?,” you clamor. Well: imagine a garage Coco Rosie with scruffy vocals, playing attention-deficient versions of White Stripe songs. Shake in a bag of production tricks: some bleeps, synth and white noise, and you’re somewhere close. What really makes it all come together is the verve, the sheer cojones of the whole enterprise. Take ‘Lips’, for instance, which lasts for a thrilling minute and twenty seconds: it starts off with a scrappy strum on the acoustic guitar, and then some needling and spiky guitar feeds into it; a jumpy refrain is played out on the drums, and production cuts it all up with minor growling breakbeats as Micachu chants her ragged vocals. That’s it. It ends. But it’s a thrilling little piece, full of meat, with a chorus that remains with you for a while. Why should it last any longer? Let’s not be over-indulgent here.
The whole album skips merrily by, as Michachu yelp-sings her way through one rough ditty after another - brevity and invention being the key considerations on this record. The songs have short titles, too: ‘Floor’ with its Missy Elliot -style rewound beat; ‘Guts’, which uses what sounds to me like a ping pong ball being bounced up and down; and ‘Vulture’ (the wonderful opener to the album, jouncing along on a rockabilly rhythm with lashings of cymbal and synth: it has muffled vocals that suddenly clear for an instant, and about five separate parts to it; it ends in a heartening riot of drums and noise).
The sonic invention and wit are clear everywhere - the much noted ‘Hear Me Well’ uses the sound of a Hoover as part of its tapestry of sounds, while ‘Ship’ nods charmingly to the influence of Grime. Throughout, Micachu’s diffident charm keeps everything from sounding too preening - her distorted falsetto vocal turn on ‘Eat Your Heart’ is really sweet, and makes the refrain of ‘I could eat your heart’ somehow endearing: the modern descendant of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, perhaps. Likewise ‘Curly Teeth’, with its enjoyably queer vibe, is a simple ballad endlessly remixed and cut and pasted, with a backing pattern of squeaks and crows and yelps - yet it’s delivered so winsomely that it never jars. I also like the line ‘She blew smoke in my eyes and kicked me out on the street’, which is sung with something like a shrug.
Of course, the number one classic gold standard winner here is the lead single, ‘Golden Phone’, which starts with vocals spliced together and kicks into a pleasant skipping beat with a nagging bassline and some sweet Glockenspiel. Micachu sort of hums the verses, hitting some really pretty top notes. It’s got everything: handclaps, a rising chorus of woos, and at last a chorus that just goes balls-out rock with some crashing drums. It’s so much fun, and you’ll be humming it for a while.
When I first started in on Danny Echo’s freshman eponymous release, I was initially underwhelmed. Another entry into the earnest power-pop genre? Oh yes, the world was certainly crying out for that. But then, oddly, it was a tiny little thing that made me keep going. Halfway through the opening track, “Out of Style”, I started listening more closely and I thought… “What is that? Whale sounds? What the hell?” It wasn’t whale songs (at least, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t). Instead, is was just some funky, high-pitched electronic effect that somehow added an unusual twist to the song. Curious, I dug deeper.
Danny Echo is indeed another entry into the army of power-pop bands. Based out of Vancouver, they aren’t going to change your life. But they what they do, they do very well, and it’s things like those odd electronic flourishes that give the album a more distinct feel. They’re capable musicians, to be sure, and lead singer/rhythm guitarist Danny (no last names are given) has the kind of easygoing, subtle voice that lazily veers from simple pop tune-singer to more muscular cries. Their song themes are about love and heartbreak all things in between — again, nothing revolutionary. But there’s something to be said for that kind of well-developed, well-executed straightforwardness.
That’s not to say they’re derivative (well, the song titles are pretty derivative). They’re actually a lot of fun — Danny Echo strikes me as the kind of roll-the-windows-down breezy music that you’ll get decent mileage out of. They play around with pop music conventions, from the “ooh ooh ooh!’s” in “Killing Me” to the delicate female backup vocals on “Tomorrow Today” (which also has a sweet little bit of twangy guitar tossed in here and there). Faster paced tracks like “I Can’t Take It Anymore” add a bit more depth to the experience. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to find playing at The Bronze — in fact, Danny Echo has found their way into a couple of TV shows. It doesn’t always work; tracks like “Barely Getting By” veer dangerously close to the edge of grating — the vocals are trying a little to hard, the music is a little dischordant, and frankly, it just sounds a little whiny. But that’s the exception and not the rule for the record. Overall, they manage to successfully balance out being catchy as hell with still finding some refreshing new ground to tread.
I can’t guarantee that Danny Echo is going to have a recurring place in my rotation — their sound isn’t really in my wheelhouse — I tend to dig the harder stuff, if you haven’t figured that out already. And like I said — they’re not going to change the world. But it’s a solid starting effort. Of course, there are a thousand bands out there with promise. The question for Danny Echo is will they evolve any further? They’re going to need to if they want to consistently separate themselves from the pack. Or will they gently disappear into the depths of the power-pop well?