Rick’s Quick Takes for April

Short, sharp shocks this month: all albums and EPs reviewed below come in under the old school LP limit of 45 minutes! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.

Entransient, Ghosts in the Halls: My hometown’s very own prog-metal band lays out the cards for all to see on their Facebook page: “Melodic neo/post-prog rock from Michigan. Influenced by Anathema, Alcest, and Porcupine Tree.” The good news is that guitarists Matt Schrauben & Doug Murray, bassist Nick Hagen, drummer Jeremy Hyde and vocalist/keyboardist Scott Murray refine those influences into a distinctive blend, marked by rich atmosphere and a towering core sound. The opening epic “Parasite” grabs hold immediately with its games of acoustic/electric musical chairs; “Synergize” and “Last Strawman” drive forward without mercy, as Murray testifies fiercely over bare grooves and fuzzed chords alike. More reflective moments like the title track, “Misplaced” and “Where the Shadows Lie” dial down the tempos and the lyrical angst while keeping the edge intact as the band prowls lush, more aerated soundscapes. (Kudos for Hagen’s mixing and engineering, as well as for the mastering work of The Pineapple Thief’s Steve Kitch; the band’s dynamic and textural range is captured with crystalline clarity throughout.) Entransient has an open, readily appealing touch to their music; as they blaze a fresh trail in a style that easily collapses into cliché, they’re well worth a listen.

Envy of None: No, this sounds nothing like Rush, even with Alex Lifeson’s guitar work in the mix. (If that’s what you want, the new anniversary edition of Moving Pictures is now available — and getting glowing reviews from unlikely sources like Pitchfork, for pete’s sake.) Lifeson does provide satisfying crunch, acoustic contrast, and creative lead work in spades, bedding in seamlessly with fellow core players Andy Curran (bass & guitar) and Alfio Annibalini (guitar and keys). They weave a darkly enticing aural mesh that cradles the understated, seductive singing of Maiah Wynne; her breathily fragile volleys, playing off the sticky minimalist hooks embedded in EoN’s web, are what might really ensnare you. Musically, this is all about basic song forms deployed in ambient/industrial/goth/post-rock styles; the seasoned instrumental interplay and Wynne’s preternaturally mature vocal work are what elevate the album above the obvious genre markers. So it’s old-fashioned chemistry and star quality, from veterans and newcomer alike, that turn out to be key to Envy of None’s appeal. Try it on that basis and see if it grabs you.

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Rolling Back the Clock With Rush’s “Roll the Bones”

Rush roll the bones-coverIf I had to pick one Rush album between 1984-1996 to be my favorite, I would pick Roll the Bones without hesitation. I grew up with the early era of Rush (through Moving Pictures), and I didn’t come to the 80s (meaning post MP, which I consider to be more like their 70s output) music until I was in college. I’m in my late 20s, to give you a little perspective on where I’m coming from. I was drawn to the hard and heavy music and the rough philosophical and fantastical lyrics of that era of the band.

After Moving Pictures, the band’s sounds changed to reflect the times, although they changed very gracefully, which is more than I’ll say for other progressive rock bands in the 80s. The keyboards were far more prominent than they had been, with Lifeson’s stunning guitar work dropping back into the mix or taking on a more synthesized tone.

Neil Peart’s lyrics also changed. They remained philosophical, but his philosophy was maturing. It was less Ayn Randian and more Aristotelian. It was also far more poetic than his 70s lyrics, making it far more difficult to absorb, in my opinion. (I’m borrowing rather heavily from Brad Birzer’s Neil Peart: Cultural RePercussions. He has spent more years than I’ve been alive absorbing this era of Rush’s music, and he understands it far better than I do.)

I believe Roll the Bones marks a big change in direction for Rush. After a decade of the keyboards dominating, and arguably softening, Rush’s sound, the band returned to a heavier sound. “Dreamline,” the opening track, brings the rock back into the forefront. The first thing you hear is a simple drum beat quickly followed by Lifeson’s guitar. The guitar has an arena sound to it with a little bit of reverb – perhaps influenced by the larger and larger shows the band was playing over the previous decade.

Peart’s drums punch throughout, and Lifeson’s guitar leads the musical way with his signature tone. Instead of the swirling keyboard sounds, the band turned back to their core of drums, bass, and guitar. It sounds more like the Rush I originally fell in love with. While I have come to appreciate every Rush album, I much prefer their heavier rock side.

We even get the band’s first instrumental since “YYZ” with “Where’s My Thing?, Pt. 4: Gangster Of Boats Trilogy.” Geddy, Alex, and Neil all slay on this. We get some great guitar shredding, we get some in-your-face basslines, and we get Neil showing us why he’s the best drummer who ever lived.

With “The Big Wheel,” we get two very distinct styles. The chorus has a very pleasant and hummable melody, but the verses, are pure prog with complex musicality and jarring arrangements. The album is full of surprises.

Roll the Bones doesn’t really have the proto-metal elements of some of their early work, but it does have some unexpected influences that at least keep the album sounding fresh. I don’t think anyone was expecting a mild rap and funk influence on the title track, yet it totally works. Sure it may not be my favorite Rush song, but it’s certainly memorable – and not in a bad way. Lifeson’s guitar really brings things together on the title track. The inclusion of acoustic guitar was also a nice touch. The keyboards add flourishes, much like they did in their 70s music, rather than leading the way.

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