Friday, October 21, 2011

Band Review: The Viennagram

Referencing deconstructed, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd as the basis for even more sonic weirdness, The Viennagram burst into your psyche like theater on acid. Geographically bound by Fall River, their overtly broad scope gives them much wider terrain to traverse musically. Add in thespian flair, a fairly extensive list of auxiliary members, and a high degree of showmanship, and you have something closer to musical theater than a traditional ‘band’.
     Aiming to ‘shock, excite and secretly soothe’, The Viennagram has been building up a comprehensive body of work since roughly 2006. Ranging from show tunes to Tom Waits to experimental electronic/industrial and 50’s pop music, the group’s ability to exist in several different genres simultaneously while maintaining a coherent identity is impressive.
     The brainchild of A.V. Vienna and Scott Peloquin, The Viennagram seems intent on straddling the line between kitsch and art. The anchor in this endeavor is the high degree of talent that is concentrated in this entity. This band can play. Bearing testament to this is their recent ‘Batman’ show at Firehouse XIII. This was the first real introduction to them for me.
     Attired as various characters of the Batman universe, and aided by what amounted to a small ensemble, the band set its own music within the context of a two act mini-drama pitting A.V. Vienna as Batman against the usual set of villains, including the Joker and the Penguin. Their penchant for innuendo was apparent when Batman started making out with Robin, played by Keri Lyn King. At that point in time, Danger Dan as the Joker popped out of nowhere and started proclaiming, ‘I knew it! I knew it!’ There would almost seem to be a sense of architectural completeness in the sense that this moment could be seen as prepared way in advance by the performance being opened by a fairly crass standup comedian.
     And of the performance itself, the foregoing has implied much. The actual musical core of the group is tight. On top of that is the ever-present flair that accompanies the whole spectacle. These guys acquit themselves in high style.
     As much as the references to Tom Waits are apparent in some of the music, there is something akin to a tripped out union of David Bowie and Kurt Weill, or even The Residents. Added to this is a fairly sophisticated harmonic sensibility. Various harmonic sequences and ‘formal types’ are employed effectively, including cycle progressions and a seeming grasp of standards and older types of American music.
    This ten-second analysis only covers what could be termed the more ‘conservative’ (traditional) side of the band. The bands experimental side could also come under consideration, as well as its ability to lay down a groove that is seriously ‘in the pocket’. There are times when their sense of groove has some kind of hip-hop flavor to it. In short, this band is a highly flexible and intelligent entity, which possesses a holistic view of what it means to be performers.  Experience this. You will definitely be engaged.

Check ‘em out at:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Band Review: A Troop of Echoes

The very notion of a soprano sax as lead voice instantly gives A Troop of Echoes some distinction. The musical result gives them even more. Existing somewhere in the land between jazz and ‘prog’ rock, this band manages to create rock music with a high amount of melodic development and a very ‘in the pocket’ type groove, which adds propulsive energy to their music.
     Emerging from a basement in North Kingston sometime in 2005, they are on a mission to write the best songs they can, record them, and go play them loudly in public. On all three counts they acquit themselves nicely. While there is a slight drop in energy on the recordings, their ability to translate the music in recorded form is evident.
      This music presents a very interesting hybrid. Listing Battles, Sonic Youth and John Coltrane as influences gives some indication of things. They also possess a lyrical quality, imparted somewhat by the inclusion of a soprano saxophone in the instrumentation, but also seeming to grow from the perceptions of all involved. There is an obvious emphasis on songcraft in the writing. Given that this is a group of musicians who have been honing their skills for a number of years, this isn’t surprising.
     The fifth track off their bandcamp page, ‘Little Bird’, is a great example of what they’re capable of. The tempo is fairly up, and the rhythmic interaction of the drums, bass, guitar and keyboards creates a churning quality, especially due to the influence of Dan Moriarty’s syncopated accents. Peter Gilli unwinds a melodic line on soprano, and then drops out as the band plays some connecting passages, which lead back to a restatement of the melody with varied feel in the rhythm section; the increase in dynamic intensity is noticeable the second time around. At the end of the song, everything dies out in an electronically treated squall. The music abruptly seizes up, and fades off into the distance.
      The bands musicianship is impeccable, and the sense of ensemble is tight. This fact is reinforced by the next track, ‘Analog Astronaut’. The sectional feel of the tune coupled with the melodic development creates a compelling statement. By the time this track unfolds, the bands ability to work as a coherent unit is pronounced. The sense of formal development permeates everyone’s playing. Though performing as instrumentalists, they come to the task with a highly compositional bent. The Bad Plus is called to mind here, as well as the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Though not nearly as abstract as these bands, the same feeling of ‘composition in action’ transpires throughout. From this point of view, their effort could be considered of a similar type as that undertaken by a symphony orchestra.
      A Troop of Echoes manages to stay relevant while remaining completely distinct from the main lines of musical interest in the Providence scene. Anyone looking for rock music with a sense of compositional development should seek them out.

Check them out at:

Band Review: It's A Mountain

‘We really don’t have a genre, so don’t expect the same sound from every song’. This quote from the bio on their MySpace page is a fitting introduction to the entity known as It’s A Mountain. Active since May of 2009, It’s A Mountain channels its instrumental musings to Providence via Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The band takes its name from the rather steep path leading to the practice space they rehearse at.
      While there is a lot of truth in the above statement, they do list ‘various post-rock, ambient, and jam bands’ among their influences. In this sense, they automatically attain a degree of novelty. The Providence scene is generally known for noise and metal; post-rock influenced bands are something of a rarity.
     The band itself is a four-piece, and with the exception of Alex Klameth, who plays guitar, everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. With the exception of one line-up change, the band has consisted of Alex, Alex Perry on drums and synth, Alex Wasilewski on bass, guitar, mandolin, violin, and vocals, and Jacob Telford, on guitar, bass, and vocals.
     The music itself is a fairly lush affair. There is a fair degree of sensitivity regarding timbre, and layering of rhythms to create an orchestrated effect. ‘Journey to
Fog Mountain’, one of the tracks on their MySpace page, is a good example of this type of thinking at work. The track opens with an oscillating synth figure and some broad tones in the bass. As these elements coalesce, tremolo-picked guitar enters, presenting an introductory melody that has a haunting quality to it. As these elements build, the rest of the band kicks in, and everything breaks loose. The mid-tempo feel and the fundamentally riff-driven accompaniment, built out of a couple of chords, generate a feeling of wonder and quiet melancholy.
     ‘4’ is a fundamentally different affair. Built out of a delay-affected riff, this piece  moves with a higher degree of propulsive rhythm. While this tune is full of interesting ideas, as a whole it is less satisfying than ‘Journey to Fog Mountain’. There is something about the recording that sounds more like a rehearsal; it has less of a sense of confidence in the execution than the other. If the inconsistencies were ironed out, this would be another compelling musical journey.
     In general, there is a fairly close relationship between the recordings and the live show. The sense of energy loss usually encountered on a recording isn’t as noticeable. This probably has something to do with the fact that the recordings are essentially live demos. High-end production isn’t always a good thing.
     Jacob has explained that the band is essentially on hold, as the members are all attending different colleges, and the ‘Mountain has been laid to rest’, until such time that the band can get back together. So, that should be sometime next summer. For now, the band can be accessed via MySpace and Facebook. Here are the links. Check them out.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Artist Review: Katie Laub

      Hailing from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, located in the Shenandoah Valley, Katie Laub creates music that combines traditional, acoustic style folk ballads with modern electronic soundscapes. The end result is highly engaging, largely due to the fact that the songwriting serves as a nice relief to the at times abstract intensity of the electronic music.
     Her musical journey started with the piano; guitar, mandolin, and banjo followed. In the fall of 2010, she took a sound class through RISD, learning about sound programming and ‘other ways to approach noise making’. Though musically involved for most of her life, actively pursuing composition of any type is an activity that has only recently come to draw her focus.
     When the understanding is given that she lists traditional bluegrass music as well as Throbbing Gristle among her influences, things begin to clarify. Add John Cage and Godspeed You Black Emperor, and we have some philosophical insight as well as an indication of some kind of contemporary esthetic. For the uninitiated, John Cage left a body of work that raised questions about sound and silence, as well as the relationship between composer and performer. It is therefore fitting that a musician with such an overtly searching bent would list him among her biggest influences. Add in the fact that she was raised up in the Mennonite church, has blown glass, and is influenced by the idea of home and a longing for a simpler way of life, and this blend of old and new becomes much more clear
     There is something naturally authentic about her songwriting. Let us take track 7 of the SoundCloud site, ‘You Gotta Fly’, as an example. Accompanying herself on banjo, she sings effectively simple lyrics set to very diatonic, major key melodies,  harmonized in very traditionally standard ways. The end result is a solidly written and executed tune in a much older style. By the time she abandons spoken language for a series of melodicized ‘La la las’, you may find yourself wonderfully engaged in the music.
     The next couple of tracks highlight her experimental side. ‘No More’ and ‘Sparcile’ are intensely abstract and ‘out there’ compared to ‘You Gotta Fly’, but they are just as convincing in their way as ‘You Gotta Fly’ is in its; you have to be willing to actually listen to what she has to say. ‘Sparcile’ is particularly interesting because of the way it combines Katie’s untreated voice intoning against the isorhythmic and dissonant background. The last two tracks round out the proceedings nicely, as the long, searching experimentation of ‘Destination’ is met with the brief, extremely diatonic elegance of ‘Goodnight’.
     Katie Laub is a very talented musician.  Aiming to blend the old with the new, she is carving out her own path; while others have engaged in similar musings, there is a freshness to her approach that is thoroughly contemporary. Anyone interested in having their sensibilities stretched, and fans of such disparate musical entities as Controlled Bleeding and Pete Seeger would be well-served by investigating the sonic landscapes she creates.

Check her out at: