Review: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr have crafted one of the most alluring and captivating albums of the year, one that provokes visceral and thoughtful reactions in equal measure.  Joe Casey’s straight-forward vocal delivery and the gloomy atmosphere produced by the rest of the band are an unusual combination that nevertheless leads to songs that are undeniably catchy, if unorthodox in nature.  The propulsive drive of the songs as well as the air of mystery in the lyrics help make The Agent Intellect one of the most gripping and entertaining albums of the year.

That is not to say that you should expect to see Protomartyr battling for a spot atop the Billboard charts.  Casey’s vocals are closer to the spoken-word screeds of Mark E. Smith of The Fall than traditional singing, and will probably turn off some of their potential audience.  Casey is more concerned with delivering his lyrics with just the right touch of dramatic flair, and he easily succeeds on that count.

The other members of the band provide an intriguing contrast to the vocals, often locking into melodies and patterns that do not necessarily line up with the vocals.  Instead, the focus is on creating a suitable ambiance, and it is here where their take on post-punk matches up with Casey’s work.  Greg Ahee’s guitars often bear the same trebly and reverb-soaked quality of The Walkmen, while Scott Davidson on bass and Alex Leonard on drums help drive the songs while also creating intriguing countermelodies and rhythms.  Together, they create a furious yet wonderful racket.

Protomartyr has solidified the promise that was present on last year’s Under Color of Official Right, and crystallizing many of that record’s ideas.  Each listen of The Agent Intellect reveals new standout tracks, but the album really works best as a cohesive whole, with one song leading into the next, with natural rises and falls.  Its best quality may be the fact that the record works great as both the subject of devoted listening as well as mere background music, which means you can enjoy repeated spins of the album without ever getting in danger of tiring of it.


Review: Ought – Sun Coming Down

We were a little late on the bandwagon, but Ought’s debut album eventually became one of our favorite releases from last year.  More Than Any Other Day ended up securing a spot on our Best Albums of 2014 list on the strength of the band’s fresh and energetic approach to post-punk, with Ought showing a deft touch in their ability to combine several disparate influences into a coherent and unique style.  Their follow-up finds the group settling into their sound, resulting in what initially seems like a more subdued effort.  Though Sun Coming Down does not immediately grab the listener like its predecessor, there are enough intriguing elements to compel repeated spins to discover the album’s charms and nuances.

While More Than Any Other Day was characterized by its barely-restrained chaos and the ability to shift gears at a moment’s notice, Sun Coming Down finds that restless energy pushed to just below the surface.  There are not as many sudden left-turns and fewer freakouts (and the ones that occur are pushed to the margins), as the band locks into grooves for extended stretches of time.  The two tracks that form the centerpiece of the album, “Sun’s Coming Down” and “Beautiful Blue Sky”, are perfect examples of this new approach.  The former is content to ride a slow burn and never fully release the tension created by its deliberate but incessant drive, while the latter floats over a more melodic version of the bassline of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”.

However, for many listeners, these are only subtle points of distinction–the band still features trebly guitars belting out dissonant chords and angular melodies that float over the top of the intricate interplay of the rhythm section.  Oh, and of course there is still Tim Beeler’s unique voice and his dramatic approach to singing, though he is now credited as Tim Darcy.  He still drops several brilliant non sequiturs that drip with irony and wit, such as the efforts to ape the banality of small talk in “Beautiful Blue Sky” with the repeated mentions of “Beautiful weather today”, “fancy seeing you here”, “how’s the family”, etc.  When juxtaposed against the chorus of “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all I have left”, the emptiness of the platitudes are even more evident, and Darcy’s ebullient reaction of drawing out the word “yes” in response enhances the effect even more.

But that may be just because “I’m talking out of my ass, because my heart is not open.”

Review: Deaf Wish – Pain

Listening to Pain is a lot like hearing a sampler of the major underground rock movements from the late-70’s to the early-90’s; over the course of ten tracks, Deaf Wish dabbles in gloomy post-punk, aggressive hardcore, and abrasive no-wave, all in a quest to overwhelm the listener with the power of noise.  For most people, the band’s name is wonderfully apropos–the persistent onslaught of pure cacophony the group manages to generate would cause many to hope that their ears would cease functioning.  However, for that certain audience that desires that sort of grating noise, Pain has what they crave in spades.

Though Pain lacks a consistent thematic trajectory, as Deaf Wish jumps between different styles from track to track, the album certainly improves as it goes along, making it a backloaded affair.  Each member gets a stab at the mic, and the different vocal approaches help create a truly diverse record, even as they work within the narrow confines of this particular subgenre.  One song will feature an aggressive bark, another a soft coo, and yet another will have a longing drone, all with walls of guitars and drums bashing around in the background.

As one might expect, it can be fairly easy to spot the band’s significant influences, especially that of Sonic Youth–Sarah Hardiman’s voice is such a dead ringer for Kim Gordon that when I listen to “Sex Witch” it prompts an instinctual response to chant along “spirit desire”.  Deaf Wish does benefit from the fact that few other bands digging through those same records for inspiration, setting them apart from current trends, but the group also proves that there is enough room even within these narrow styles to create something original.  There is subtlety to be found even amid all that noise.

Pain really hits its stride in its last three songs, beginning with the driving and catchy single “On”.  In an album filled with noisy freakouts, the instrumental “Dead Air” is easily the best, with its Krautrock-like bass that pushes the beat underneath walls of feedback-drenched guitars.  The real surprise is the closer “Calypso”, which manages to show a more delicate side of the band–even with its dissonant chords and melodies, the band nearly manages to make noise sound “pretty”.

Covered: “All My Friends”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

I am approaching one of those awful milestone birthdays, so lately I have been even more self-reflective than usual (hard to believe, I know).  As a result, as I pause to reminisce and take stock of my life, I have had LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” running in my head as a constant soundtrack.  That said, initially this article was outlined weeks ago and was prepared to be published during graduation season, so the case could be made that regardless of circumstance “All My Friends” is probably not far from my mind.  we have previously named it one of the best songs of the last decade, so as problems go, having it stuck on repeat in your head is not a bad one to have.

The foundation of the song is a simple two-chord progression, A and D, which can be most distinctly heard by listening to the bassline.  This I-IV progression creates a natural, unforced tension, as the progression makes sense when it moves from the I to the IV as well as from the IV to the I, but the way the chords are emphasized there is no real resolution.  James Murphy then exploits that tension throughout the song, constantly ratcheting up the tension as the listener expects either a resolving chord or perhaps some sort of modification to the progression; instead, Murphy layers on additional instruments and rhythms, including a memorable looping guitar line and that indelible, repetitive keyboard figure that amplify the lack of resolution.  The listener can sense an innate, organic build as the song plays, and this is the result of Murphy’s simple but ingenious sense of composition.  Murphy’s musical genius is complemented by his incisive and affective lyrics, as he perfectly captures the various anxieties of aging.  The mere fact that LCD Soundsystem created dance/electronic music with thought-provoking lyrics is to be commended, considering the history of the genre; practically every line in “All My Friends” is quotable, with each lyric dripping in both wisdom and humor.

Franz Ferdinand managed to brilliantly reconstruct “All My Friends” as a post-punk dance track, an effort that is all the more impressive considering the quick turnaround that was required to create their own version, since their cover appears on the single LCD Soundsystem released just a mere two months after the release of Sound of Silver.  Franz Ferdinand’s music has long been characterized as a revival of the post-punk genre, but this is probably the first time that their sound recalls New Order instead of Gang of Four (though the coda provides a taste of those spiky guitars we have all come to love).  The band emphasizes groove instead of tension with their cover, and though this causes the song to lose some of its power, it provides for a damn entertaining listen.  There is the same attention paid to layering different instruments and musical ideas as found in the original, with guitars and keyboards floating in and out of the mix; if you listen closely, you can pick out a hint of the memorable piano riff from the original version poking through on the second verse.  To top it all off, Alex Kapranos delivers an impassioned vocal performance with his distinctive style that even if it is unable to capture the angst of the original still manages to thrill the listener.

In the course of researching for this feature, I came across Australian radio station Triple J’s recurring series “Like A Version”, which provides musical guests with the opportunity to play a cover.  Many of these covers straddle the line between passable and underwhelming, but there was one that stood out above the rest as a truly outstanding performance.  I had never heard of the band Gang of Youths before, but their cover of “All My Friends” convinced me that I need to correct that problem immediately.  Unlike Franz Ferdinand, Gang of Youths attempted a more straightforward cover, and do an excellent job of mimicking the feel of the original (though the use of chorus effect-laden guitars provides an interesting bridge between the FF version and the original).  They push the beat with their insistent drumming and tap into the song’s inherent tension, and by emphasizing these components, the band is able to transfer their energy and restlessness into creating a memorable performance.  It is clear that the group has a deep love and respect of the song, and that this is not a mere exercise in burnishing their indie credentials.  Their passion really comes through in their performance, and is a key part of what makes this such a wonderful cover to listen to again and again.

Review: Ought – More Than Any Other Day

Rust Is Just Right is not a very large operation, so we may overlook some albums when they are first released.  However, when we eventually catch up and listen to some of these records, we are not going to let the fact that we are ten months behind stop us from writing a review.  The point of all this introductory nonsense is to explain why we are reviewing the debut album from Ought in February of 2015 even though it was released in April of 2014, but the only necessary reason should be that More Than Any Other Day is a fantastic rock record that electrifies the listener with both its furious energy and its thought-provoking experimentalism.

The quickest description that I could use to describe Ought’s sound is “Alec Ounsworth fronting a Fugazi-inspired punk band”, but as you should expect, relying on the reductionist rock-crit namedrop cliche does not paint a full picture.  Tim Beeler’s vocals do mostly recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of emotions and contortions that his voice undergoes to match the twists and turns of the music.  For instance, Beeler’s use of dynamics in songs like “Clarity!” bring to mind the theatrics of the Violent Femmes, and that dramatic touch helps create a memorable, slow-burning epic.  He may not have the the most extensive vocal range, but his speak-sing style is effectively used in a song like “Around Again”, as when the band stops and Beeler asks “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?”

Musically speaking, Ought blurs the line between punk and post-punk, and in the process does an excellent job of making the lives of critics that much more difficult–in other words, it is not as easy to define the distinction as it is with, say, Viet Cong.  Ought often does engage in the full-fledged fury of a more traditional punk band, but they still allow room for experimental sonic elements that makes it hard to pin down to a single genre.  Consider the catchy and frenetic “The Weather Song”, which veers from a jittery verse into frenzied finish that is reminiscent of Wolf Parade (especially with the unusual presence of keyboards), as well as “Forgiveness”, whose use of a violin as a drone adds in a touch of the Velvet Underground to the band’s sound.  I am unsure what is more impressive: the fact that from song to song, it is almost impossible to pin down where Ought will go next, yet the band switches gears in a way that doesn’t give the listener whiplash, or the fact that despite the fact one can spot all these diverse influences rather easily, the band organically incorporates these elements into their sound so well that one cannot pin the “copycat” label on them.

Though only eight songs long, More Than Any Other Day is a dense but rewarding album that reveals itself on multiple listens.  Initially, the most striking element of “Today, More Than Any Other Day” is probably its dramatic tempo and stylistic shifts.  Then you may notice the odd lines of “I am excited to go grocery shopping.  And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between 2% and whole milk” that is referenced in many reviews, but you go back and see that it’s not merely a non sequitur but in fact a riff on the previous line that “I am excited to feel the Milk of Human Kindness”, either an allusion to Macbeth or the Caribou album, and now you have to reconsider how all these elements fit together.  The good news is that the album is so great that it is worth the extra effort.

Review: Viet Cong – Viet Cong

Viet Cong’s self-title debut is one of those records that I find easier to admire than to truly enjoy.  Though Viet Cong is enjoying a serious amount of critical buzz (its Metacritic rating currently sits at 82 with only a typical half-hearted shrug of a review from Rolling Stone dragging down its grade), I find it highly unlikely that the band’s noisy take on early-80’s post-punk will break through to a mass audience in any big way.  At times Viet Cong is a challenging and confrontational album, with the band seemingly taking a defiant approach by avoiding by thismuch a more approachable melody whenever possible.  It’s an album that defies easy conventions, but one that is rewarding with repeated listens; the problem is gaining the will to get to that point.

The album is heavily influenced by post-punk like early Joy Division or Wire with its insistent drumming, melodic bass counterpoint, and off-kilter guitars, but Viet Cong filters these elements through a sheen of Sonic Youth-like noise and the lo-fi experimentation of their disciples.  Whereas a lot of those classic records would employ a common verse-chorus structure, most of the songs on Viet Cong veer through multiple unrelated ideas, with songs stopping on a dime and making a sudden left turn into previously unforeseen musical territory.  For example, a song like “March of Progress” begins with an ambient sonic experiment like you would find on a No Age record, abruptly shifts into an eastern-tinged drone, then concludes by suddenly morphing into a dance-y 4/4 rave-up; none of this makes sense on paper, and the unfamiliar listener will assume that he/she just listened to three separate songs, but Viet Cong finds a connective tissue between the differing styles.

The band’s relentless desire to experiment doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it does so in a big way.  The first half of Viet Cong can be a struggle to listen to, with slogs like “Bunker Buster” and “Pointless Experience” sounding like homework for a lesson on post-punk: OK, here’s the guitar accenting the off-beats, there’s the drums chugging along, and oh yeah here’s some distant, ethereal haunting vocals overlooking the entire enterprise.  Sure, there are individual moments within each song that are worth noting, but they are enveloped by such dour surroundings that they can be difficult to appreciate.  If you thought Interpol was too brooding for your tastes, then you’re in trouble.

However, the second half of Viet Cong is a monster that should have you overlooking any potential misgivings from the first half.  “Continental Shelf” manages to twist a beach-influenced Surfer Bloodtype riff into something more ominous and foreboding, and it pays off in spades. Bassist Matt Flegel’s vocals alternate between a desperate wail in the mold of a Paul Banks to a more restrained version of Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, etc.) in his best performance on the album that shows the band’s exciting potential.  “Silhouettes” is a more frenetic number that amps up the paranoia and makes excellent use of the band’s heavy dose of reverb, the perfect soundtrack for an apocalyptic disco party.

Viet Cong concludes with the eleven-minute epic “Death” and features a stellar drumming performance by Mike Wallace, who expertly deploys an attacking snare riff to build on the unstable mood established by “Silhouettes” before the entire song collapses in a noise-freakout.  That is, the song seemingly collapses–after a false ending, the band seamlessly transitions back into a more furious version of the original song, constantly increasing the speed and tension.  It’s a performance that will leave you figuratively gasping for air, though I imagine in concert the reaction may be more literal.

If Viet Cong can build on the strengths shown on the second half of their debut, then they have a very bright future ahead of them.  I am unsure whether Viet Cong will appeal to anyone outside of post-punk enthusiasts, but for those who appreciate the genre they should enjoy their original spin on its conventions.  At the very least, we should all be able to enjoy the pure unfiltered fury of a song like “Death”.

Essential Classics: Television – Marquee Moon

It is October, so that means it is time to analyze and celebrate one of the great Halloween albums of all-time: Television’s Marquee Moon.  Many of you are probably confused by that particular claim, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to it and explain ourselves in a bit.  There is no argument however that Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar-rock albums of all-time, but in addition to that distinction, it can also be argued that the album is capable of bending the rules of time and space itself.  How else could a band that was on the vanguard of the Punk movement have created the seminal Post-Punk masterpiece with their debut album?  It is a conundrum that should puzzle both music historians and physicists alike.

My first experience with the band Television was back in high school, during my initial forays into exploring the origins of punk rock.  I read several articles and books that discussed Television’s history and their influence on the New York punk scene as one of the original CBGB’s bands, and I quickly set out to track down copies of their first two records.  (Let us all take some time to acknowledge the fact that I approached punk rock in the nerdiest manner possible: research.)  There was one specific aspect of Television’s music which each piece emphasized that captured my attention, and that was the band’s masterful guitar-playing.  Being a budding guitarist myself, it was clear that it was vitally important for me to listen to these albums to help develop my own skills.  As a child of the 90’s though, I was completely unprepared to process Television’s approach to the guitar: a heavy emphasis on the treble strings (and no power chords), intricate but decidedly unflashy solos, and little-to-no distortion (at least of the kind with which I was familiar).  It all seemed so alien to me, and considering the portrait of the band that made up Marquee Moon‘s cover art, this may not have been a bad guess.

Most puzzling of all to my adolescent mind was how this pleasant if slightly bizarre album could be considered “punk” (it was a hopeless endeavor at that time to begin to comprehend what the hell “post-punk” could be, beyond the most literal definition, so that was not a pressing concern at the time).  But after several repeated listens and a gradual appreciation of the context in which the band flourished, I came to understand that even if there seemed to be little connection to The Ramones on the surface, they were both made up from the same basic DNA and were a reaction to the same movements in music.  The musical parts of “Friction” may have been much more complex than “Blitzkrieg Bop”, but one could easily see that both songs were stripped down to the barest elements in contrast to the bloat of prog or disco.

Television proved that “punk” didn’t have to mean “easy,” as each member of the group was an expert on his instrument.  The twin-guitar attack of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd has been universally lauded, and rightly so, but their other two bandmates should be given their proper due as well.  Fred Smith crafted some amazingly beautiful bass lines, shifting between providing an impeccable rhythmic foundation and creating innovative counter-melodies, and Billy Ficca was a genius behind the kit, anchoring the songs with intricate rhythms and delicate textures, effortlessly shifting between different patterns and providing the perfect accents to each musical phrase.  As for Verlaine and Lloyd, it should be apparent how they inspired generations of guitar players, from the early post-punk of bands like Wire to contemporary indie rock bands like The Strokes.  They were a perfect tandem that fed off each other beautifully, alternating between unique chord choices and lyrical solos, interspersed with bits of brilliant one-off figures and licks.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, an epic monster clocking in at over 10 minutes (Fun Fact: on the original vinyl edition, the song faded out before it hit ten minutes, but the CD version keeps the original recording intact and includes the full version, while still listing the vinyl running time of 9:58).  Its intro of dueling guitar riffs (Lloyd providing the double-stop alarm-type bit, Verlaine the countering quick swirl) is instantly memorable, but also merely a hint of what is in store.  The verses give way to an instrumental pre-chorus that shifts the song into something much more rhapsodic and cinematic with its winding guitar lines, followed by a chorus that gradually increases the tension with its ever-escalating chord changes.  Lloyd’s guitar solo after the second chorus is a master class in terms of both beauty and efficiency, with its mirroring of the melodic structure of the chorus accompanied by some gorgeous personal flourishes.  But it is the second, much longer solo by Verlaine and its accompanying full-band instrumental section that is the real show-stopper–the solo provides a brilliant example of how an improvised, meandering take can help ratchet up the tension, and the constantly-ascending full-band breakdown pushes the song to its limits.  Lloyd eventually joins in, and the two guitars overlap into similar winding lines, until the whole band suddenly becomes a single cohesive unit as they dramatically repeat in unison a series of sixteen eighth notes.  As the band makes its way up the scale, cracks begin to form in the union, as the drums begin to approach a frenzy and the bass peels off with some additional flourishes, gliding up and down the neck.  But together the band pushes the melody to the very top, culminating in a gorgeous explosion as the summit is reached, with little guitar twinkles helping add to the effect.

Even to the untrained ear, it is clear that from the music alone “Marquee Moon” is a special song, but now consider the instrumentals in conjunction with the intriguing and mysterious lyrics.  “I remember how the darkness doubled; I recall, lightning struck itself.  I was listening to the rain; I was hearing something else.”  The imagery of those first two lines captures a wonderful sense of dread, first with the description of an ever-enveloping darkness, followed by the contrast of the light cutting across the dark.  The lines also baffle the listener as well, as he/she contemplates the physical possibilities of how lightning can strike itself.  The next two lines help set up the listener for an uneasy scene, as things may not be what they seem: amid the rainstorm lurks an unknown…something.   It’s the perfect opening for a horror story!  The other verses support this interpretation, first with the meeting with the strange man down at the tracks, whose seemingly perceptive advice of don’t succumb to either the highs or lows of life taking on a darker edge when placed in context with the rest of the song, followed by the scene in the third verse of the Cadillac pulling from out of the graveyard, grabbing the narrator, driving back in, and throwing the narrator into the graveyard.  Spooky stuff.  After this scene is the long instrumental section, which can be interpreted as the narrator’s journey through the graveyard, with the culminating unison riff being the aural equivalent of the Big Reveal in a horror movie of the Monster or the Terror.  The song ends with a repeat of the first verse, which could indicate either that time has looped back on itself (much like how a “post-punk” classic can also be created at the beginning of the punk movement), or that underneath what seems like a restoration of what’s normal lurks a dark undercurrent.

Long story short, I am ready to declare that the narrator has become a zombie.

It is clear then that “Marquee Moon” is a perfect Halloween song, but what about the rest of the album?  The song is not only the centerpiece of the album in terms of track placement, but it also serves as a showcase to a lot of the musical ideas that are the connective tissue of the record.  The double-stop guitar figure is given a slight variation in the very next song, “Elevation”, for example, and “See No Evil” is the title of the opener, which makes the horror themes even more apparent!  It is also simply difficult to disconnect the song from the rest of the album, as each song flows beautifully into the next.  Television also provides wonderful bits of dark humor throughout Marquee Moon, perhaps best exemplified by the song “Venus”.  I was hoping that because of the lines “Then Richie, Richie said: ‘Hey man, let’s dress up like cops.  Think of what we could do!” the song would find a place somewhere in a movie that came out this summer, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Instead we will have to strike out on our own to consider the subtle beauty of the explanation that “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo” (a line that took far too many listens for me to realize the irony inherent in the claim), instead of having it soundtrack a scene of crazy hijinks.

Marquee Moon is simply an exquisite and dazzling album through and through, with each of its eight songs a classic in its own right.  Perhaps the greatest example of the beauty of the record is the underrated closer, “Torn Curtain”.  The ballad is filled lyrically with melodrama and over-the-top emotion, but is balanced by a delicate and nuanced restrained musical accompaniment, before the two components become intertwined with a triumphant final guitar solo that provides the perfect conclusion to the album.

But the album is more than just brilliant guitar compositions; as I mentioned before, there are plenty of fantastic bass lines and stunning drum parts throughout the entirety of Marquee Moon.  So listen to the album a few times to get a feel for the beauty and majesty of the guitar, spin it a few more times to pick up on the intricacies of the rhythm section, and then repeat it again a few more hundred times–because even though the album is nearly forty years old, it will never get old.

Essential Classics: Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights

With the release of Interpol’s fifth album El Pintor yesterday, now is a great time to take a look back and examine the career of the band.  Today we’ll analyze their brilliant debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, and tomorrow we’ll see how Interpol’s career developed in the wake of the success of that album.

Few albums have personally affected me as much as Interpol’s debut.  When I first listened to the record back in high school, it helped introduce me to whole new worlds of music, providing the gateway to both modern indie bands and to classic post-punk bands from the past (though it would be many years before I truly comprehended what the term “post-punk” meant).  It became one of those albums I would spin over and over again, be it as a disc pumping through my car stereo, an iTunes playlist played through dorm room speakers, or an iPod selection performed through my headphones.  Over the years, there was one particular situation that would always inspire me to listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, and that was in my frequent airplane trips from coast-to-coast as I shuttled between college/law school and back home.  It didn’t matter which was the destination; either way, the album allowed me to both confront and relax away the mixture of emotions that were a result of the trip.

So you should consider my claim that Turn on the Bright Lights is the greatest album released since the turn of the new century with this personal backstory in mind.  Simply put, I believe that this album is an example of each individual member playing his part and fulfilling his role perfectly.  Daniel Kessler’s beautiful and unique guitar style is the first thing that you notice; his use of single-note melody runs as well as a dynamic array of unusual two and three-note chords (as well as his crystalline tone) helped set Kessler’s guitarwork apart from his contemporaries, and showed how an alternative approach to the instrument can work (inspiring critics to deem his guitar lines as “angular”, a nonsensical description if-you-think-about-it that has nevertheless prevailed over the past decade in comparing guitarists influenced by Kessler, much like how “jangly” became ubiquitous with the rise of R.E.M.).  The guitar doesn’t have to be omnipresent for it to still have an impact, and it can still have a massive effect even when it’s used to deploy bits of color to a song.  Kessler is helped as well by Paul Banks’s wonderful work on second guitar, which doesn’t rely on playing mere stock chords or basic rhythms but instead provides a melodic counterpoint in weaving melodies around Kessler’s runs (often creating intriguing, rarely-heard chords) or complex rhythmic interplay that help propel the songs in new directions.  Of course, you can’t talk about the genius of early Interpol without discussing Carlos D’s mesmerizing bass, which often provided key melodies to the songs and gave musicians everywhere a lesson in how to provide rhythmic support without relying on basic and repetitive patterns.  But the real hero may be Sam Fogarino’s drums, and it may take several listens to realize the subtle tricky patterns that he employs without coming off like a showoff that are nevertheless integral to keeping the songs fresh, as well as his ability to provide just the right accents to punctuate all the key moments of the album.

In addition to their fantastic individual musicianship, there are two things that the band does very well that are revealed after multiple listens.  The first is that Interpol does a brilliant job of subtly tweaking repeated phrases, both musical and lyrical, a technique that often provides the effect of casting both in a new light.  It helps keep the listener on his or her toes by challenging expectations, and also provides an incentive to engage in repeated listens, so as to uncover new musical  “tricks”.  Interpol are also compositional experts, rarely relying on a basic verse-chorus-bridge formula; not only do they employ the tweaks mentioned before, but they often create dynamic bridges that lead to amazing outros, taking the song in unexpected and rewarding directions.

Before going any further, let’s just address the Joy Division comparisons for a second.  The comparison between the two bands is valid, but to argue that Interpol is merely aping or ripping off Joy Division can only be the result of a superficial listening of the two.  There are similarities, namely the prominence of the bass and the way that it often provides melodies (especially in the upper-register), the way that the guitar is often used to provide color and as a support instead of the point of emphasis, and the disaffected baritone vocals shared by Ian Curtis and Paul Banks.  However, saying that the two are the same fails to take into account that Joy Division’s rhythmic approach was more straight-ahead and based on motorik styles (with Peter Hook’s bass in “Dead Souls” being a notable exception), while Interpol used “funkier” rhythms and switched styles more easily.  As for the vocal comparisons, this fails to take into account how Paul would often explore the outer limits of his range, or attempt to convey various emotions more often than the flat, affectless style that was the trademark of Ian Curtis.  The two bands are also unfairly tagged as “depressing” music, though this is due to some extent to the way that they present themselves.  I think it’s fairer to say that both are serious about their craft, which comes out in their songs, and deliberate in their intentions; even if the themes may edge into darker territory, that is not the same thing as saying they’re both depressing.  Interpol can often tread in the realm of the melancholic and gloomy, but after a few listens it’s easier to see both the hope and the humor in their lyrics and music.  It’s not “mope-rock” to say the least.  However, if you’re a reviewer still stuck on comparing the two bands, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats once provided a helpful list of other things to which you can compare Interpol.

With these general points in mind, I’d like to provide some personal insights on a track-by-track basis.  Hopefully they help inspire you to listen to the album and discover insights of your own.

The album begins with the delicate ballad “Untitled”, starting with a gorgeous, gauzy guitar playing a delicately descending figure.  After repeating this pattern four times with a gradual crescendo, the drums kick in with a memorable cymbal pickup, followed by Carlos D’s powerful bass.  This actually provides the dominant melody of the song, giving a prelude to Paul Banks’s vocal line.  While the song essentially amounts to one line, with each repetition Banks adds a couple of words to the phrase that subtly changes the tenor of the lines, it never feels incomplete (as the title may suggest).  After a gorgeous buildup featuring some guitar flourishes, the song ends with each instrument gradually dropping out.  But the part that I always captivates me is the bass, which switches from the ambling, rolling figure to a deliberate and decisive conclusion.  The effect of the quarter note bum-bum-buuuuuuum line is both ominous and chilling, especially as the third note lingers and you can hear the overtones rattling around your speakers.

“Obstacle 1” is the song that first made me fall in love with TOTBL, and it was unlike anything else I had heard before.  Once again, the bass takes center stage in this song, as Carlos plays one of the most innovative bass parts ever recorded.  He switches between delicate figures played on the upper register to switching between alternate rhythmic figures in the verse, to adding certain flourishes with his glissandos that slide up the neck before stopping without warning.  Kessler’s guitar sounds like a distant alarm, echoing Television’s “Marquee Moon”, before interacting in a subtle interplay with Banks’s rhythm guitar.  And then everything slides into place for that driving chorus, featuring the memorable line “as you go stabbing yourself in the neck.”  The violence of the line is never really explain, but it somehow still makes sense.  It should be noted that Paul makes a subtle switch between the two choruses, singing “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging, I’ll never see this face again” the first time, and replacing “face” with “place” the second time.  In the context of the song, which is seemingly about the dissolution of a relationship, this switch shifts the context from the personal interaction between the partners to the setting.

This all sets up the brilliant bridge, featuring some of Sam’s most furious drumming as he shuffles around the entirety of his drumkit, providing the perfect foundation as Banks struggles with the reasons that the relationship has ended.  Many critics like to make fun of the line “her stories are boring and stuff”, but this is merely an example how in many songs the narrator in many Interpol songs are either unreliable are unsympathetic; this line is an example of the narrator grasping at straws to end things, which is made clear with the very next line that “she’s always calling my bluff.”  The mood then immediately shifts to one of mourning, as he laments the “weights” that she put in his heart, which is contradicted by the consistently ascending guitar part.

“NYC” is a devastatingly gorgeous ballad filled with memorable imagery; the line “the subway is a porno, the pavements they are a mess” is one of the most memorable of the decade, and really captures the grime in the city in more ways than one (it even takes on a whole new meaning when you think of the implication of the idea that the second phrase is a direct result of the first).  For me, though, the opening lines are what stick with me: “I had seven faces, thought I knew which one to wear; I’m sick of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care.”  It is the single most accurate depiction of depression I’ve ever heard, right down to the selection of “seven faces”, since each day of the week means a different role to play according to social norms.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom, echoing a mistake that many detractors make when describing the band.  Because the band takes that pain and decides to use that to propel themselves–first encouraged by the backing vocals “gotta be some more change in my life”, this builds into a personal call for action as Paul sings “it’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights” as Dan’s guitar elevates to the heavens with a majestic termolo-picked solo guitar line.  But perhaps the song’s highest moment is when Sam’s drums emphasizes each quarter note before the last chorus of “New York cares”, as if you can reach through and feel the band sense each of those words.

The track “PDA” is how many people first heard the band, and in many ways this makes it easy to understand why all the music critics insisted on comparing the band to Joy Division in every single review.  It’s one of the most straight-forward songs on the album, with a momentum built on its forward-leaning eighth-note drive, and is marked by Paul’s nearly affect-less singing, which makes those connections that critics drew to Ian Curtis pretty clear.  One thing I enjoy hearing is Sam switching drum patterns from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal during each line in the verse, giving some lines extra clarity while others get a bit of cloudiness added to the mix.  This song has some of Interpol’s most oblique lyrics (I never figured out what “sleep tight, grim ride, we have two hundred couches where you can sleep tonight” meant), though I do enjoy the lines “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated/you’re so cute when you’re sedated”, which can double as both sweet and alarming, depending on the context or your perspective.  But it’s the breakdown into the outro which shows the band’s true musical genius, as one single guitar figure is countered with an alternate guitar figure, before the bass adds a third melodic line to an already complex mix.  It’s absolutely sublime, and it’s a crime that the music video omitted this section.

When people want to mock Interpol and say that they’re a bunch of sad bastards, I like to point them to the song “Say Hello to the Angels” which has some lines with real, actual humor.  Just think for a second what Paul is referring to when he says “I can’t control the part of me that swells up when you move into my airspace” (the line “1-2-3, do me” is a little less subtle).  If you think that’s an inappropriate metaphor for a serious musician to use, then you clearly have never noticed the erection joke in Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free”.  Musically, I love the alternating moods of the song, from the frantic, driving beat that shifts into a bouncy shuffle, to the deliberate, almost-metal stomp at the end that’s augmented by those palm-muted, percussive guitar strokes.

“Hands Away” is in many ways similar to the opener “Untitled”, and is one of the clearer instances that helps support my theory that the second half acts as a mirror to the first half, with tracks 6-10 partnering up with 1-5.  It’s not a perfect theory, but it’s worth thinking about once you’re listening to this half of the album.  The song is practically a music theory exercise, with each section seemingly getting faster merely by adding a note to the rhythmic figure (going from quarter to eighth to triplets, etc.).  The high point of the song is the gorgeous use of string synths at the climax, as it becomes too difficult to keep adding to the rhythmic figure as laid out before.  It’s also worth noting how the vocals switch styles from the first half of the song to the second, from a delicate approach to a more distant and evocative wail at the end.

In my first listens of TOTBL, I had felt that “Obstacle 2” didn’t measure up to “Obstacle 1”, making the comparison in my head even though I had read that the band claimed that the two are unconnected despite the similar names.  But over time I have come to love this song even more than its counterpart, even though I recognize the unique creative brilliance of the first one.  “Obstacle 2” provides the perfect case to examine how Interpol uses those “subtle tweaks” with its various repetitions to subtly change both tone and meaning.  In the pre-chorus, Paul sings “If you can fix me up, girl, we’ll go a long way” twice, but uses a different rhythm each time; the first has a bit of a bounce, reminiscent of someone skipping down the sidewalk, while the second one is deliberately straightforward and on the beat, as if to emphasize the importance of this declaration.  This pre-chorus is also repeated twice, with Sam using a different drum fill each time; the first is simpler and emphasizing the downbeat, while the second stutters and staggers a bit.  In a song filled with various references to drinking, both direct and indirect (“I stand by all this drinking if it helps me through these days”; “friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell”; “toast the snow that fell”), this helps indicate that perhaps the narrator is stumbling a bit as the alcohol begins to take hold.  It also puts the final lines of “It took time, then I found you” in a whole new light, depending on how much you read into that interpretation–is it a declaration, or is it a lament?

“Stella was a diver and she was always down” almost works as a reverse of “NYC”–instead of building up, the song is slowly torn down, as seen by its extensive breakdown that concludes the song (forgive me, I’m trying all that I can to make my theory proposed in the write-up of “Hands Away” work).  This song features my least-favorite Interpol lyric, but one I rarely see mentioned in those “bad lyric” roundups that critics love to employ when they bring up Interpol; I don’t care for the repetition in the line “the building fronts are just fronts”, especially since this pattern isn’t used elsewhere in the song, and it’s not even used to fit into a rhyme.  I feel that “the building fronts are just that” would capture the same idea in a more poetic manner, as the listener could pause to realize the implication of the use of the word “front”.  Speaking of lyrics, I’m pretty sure this song is referring to a woman engaging in the art of oral sex, giving a whole new meaning to the title and what specifically is the goal of the diving.

“Roland” is where you can really see where the “punk” in post-punk comes from, and the driving rocker is a great change of pace once “Stella” slowly disintegrated into the bottom of the sea.  I love the riffs, especially the riffs reminiscent of spy movies, which I believe helps shed light on the otherwise cryptic lyrics.  With this in mind, I believe that the song can be interpreted as a friend being interviewed about the unexpected violent crimes of an acquaintance, with the non sequiturs of the snow and the beard indicative of the narrator’s delicate mental state as he/she confronts the ugly reality of the person they thought they had known.

It took me years before I warmed up to “The New”, but now I believe that it is perhaps the best song on the entire album.  It’s a multi-part epic that doesn’t feel burdened by those expectations; the six minutes fly by and though the fragile first half and the sinister second half differ greatly, one can find the connective tissue between the two parts.  The song is an excellent showcase for all the talents of Carlos, beginning with his upper-octave melody that begins the song to his restrained support in the first bridge to his stuttering and funky maneuvers that help raise the anxiety of the listener during the song’s climax.  It also includes yet another example of the “subtle tweak”, this time with the insertion of a single word that may or may not change the meaning of a line (depending on how you interpret double-negatives in music).  First, Paul sings “I can’t pretend, I need to defend some part of me from you”, but on the next time through, he says “I can’t pretend I don’t need to defend some part of me from you”; once you realize that “don’t” can alter what Paul is trying to say, you then go back and realize that depending on the punctuation and emphasis, you can change the meaning of both lines once again.  It’s a puzzle that potentially always remains unsolved.

I want to make a special note of the climax of “The New”, which shows once again highlights the strength of each member as musicians.  I mentioned Carlos and his bass earlier, who makes excellent use of both the high and low end of his instrument (the latter of which whose sudden entrance near the end of the song helps give a foreboding warning), but I should also point out that the interplay between the two guitars is also mesmerizing.  For the guitar solo, Daniel repeats a single note multiple times, creating a tension in the listener’s mind because he/she cannot predict what will happen next; Kessler then responds by actually detuning the string, relieving the tension by physically releasing tension in the string.  Somehow the unconventional maneuver of detuning a guitar mid-song sounds more comforting to the ear, if only for a moment, than playing a normal note.  After this section, Daniel and Paul play competing lines that both dance around the tonal center, spawning a different kind of tension by devising these unconventional two-note chords.  This effort is all underscored by Sam’s efficient drumming, which both effortlessly shuffles between different patterns and provides excellent fills, most notably the big snare-roll fill for the final climax and the subtle crescendo emphasized hits that end the song.

The album concludes with the sublime “Leif Erikson”, an elegant midtempo number that carefully outlines the delicate relationship between opposing partners and worldviews.  The guitar chords are often unconventional, using slight deviations from normal patterns to create feelings of unease, but the band carefully resolves the progression each time they’re played.  The bridge features perhaps my favorite lyric of the album, which eloquently describes how clumsy the initial communications of love can be: “it’s like learning a new language…helps me catch up on my mime” is an excellent simile, evoking the memory in many people the difficulties of expressing one’s self in a foreign language and the various work-arounds we attempt in order to carry across our message.  Once again, synths help provide some nice color, and in combination with the final little guitar solo helps the song end on a hopeful note.

That may have seen like a rather intensive analysis of the album, but it’s only a fraction of the total number of ideas that Turn on the Bright Lights has spurred in me.  It’s that amazing of an album, and it’s the reason why I will forever be a fan of Interpol.