Review: Sufjan Stevens, et al – Planetarium

 

Capture★★★★☆

Gustav Holst, in his Planets suite, perfectly captured a sense of grand power and majesty which reflected the scale of an entire solar system in his composition. On Planetarium, the result of a collaboration between singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. This is the modern-day equivalent of Holst’s opus, trading the bombast of a full orchestra for a more electro-ambient production. Some might argue that this option is a budget-friendly way of creating the atmosphere of the planets, as most ambient music is ethereal by nature, and skimps on the raw musical talent of orchestral instrumentation.

sufjan-stevens-10
Sufjan Stevens performing at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival.

However, Planetarium isn’t simply standard fare; there are some new ideas under the surface here, from the glitched elements on the song “Jupiter” to represent the chaos of its never-ending storm in its famous ‘red spot’ to the plucking, bouncy electronic beats to give the impression of something on a celestial scale gradually taking shape. however, some ideas don’t work out for the best. “This was such an epic endeavour because the universe is constantly expanding.” says Sufjan Stevens. On Planetarium, he delivers his usual soft and delicate performance, weaving his vocals in and out of the brass instrumentation throughout the album, but on some tracks his voice is electronically distorted for no discernible reason, which almost seems like sacrilege given the fact that his singing is so pure that no alterations need to be made to it in the first place. It doesn’t ruin the album, but there’s enough of this distortion to grate on me.

With this small issue of personal taste aside, there is a lot of enjoyment to be found in Planetarium. It offers a fresh, modern sound for a concept that has been done to death, and reinforces the supernatural tendency for anything that Stevens touches to turn to gold.

Favourite track: Jupiter

Least favourite track: Saturn

Review: Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

The Boston trio have been going from strength to strength recently, and have just dropped this grand stoner rock opus. Metal fans, rejoice.

 

Capture★★★★★

I’ve always been a sucker for grand ten-minute metal opuses – I like the sense of scale that the heavy instrumentation naturally brings, it shows the band’s ability to construct an interesting and engaging composition for an extended period of time, and it allows the performers to really show off their musical prowess.

Elder has been going from strength to strength in recent years, releasing solid albums one after the other since their self-titled debut in 2008. While their style isn’t exactly full-blooded metal per se, it still features blackened elements of stoner rock and that sense of scale I love so well.

With their latest album, Reflections of a Floating World, it’s immediately apparent how the band has refined their sound into a fine art. The vocals are extremely sparse on Reflections, only appearing once or twice per track, and even then they’re only popping their proverbial heads in. The meat of this album is in the way each distinct musical movement flowing effortlessly into the next in some of the most enjoyable and crisp heavy instrumentation I’ve ever heard. Metal doesn’t have the same kind of budget that other genres are free to play around with, which means that sometimes the instruments can be lost in the louder sections, turning into an indiscernible wall of sound. On this record, however, this effect never happens, perhaps due to it being a softer, brighter approach to the genre. To assist, the band welcomed session musician Mike Samos to add additional layers of guitar and keys, fitting in like he was part of the original band’s lineup.

The first track, “Sanctuary”, opens with an extended warm-up that sets the tone for the record well, touring around the themes that will be touched and expanded upon later; quiet, ethereal breaks to roaring, powerful crescendos, all executed with understated confidence and assurance. Elder doesn’t need to resort to bombast or pretence – all they need to do is let their music speak for them. In fact, the only gripe I have with this record is how some tracks, particularly “The Falling Veil” have a bit too much filler while transitioning between ideas. I don’t think there would be much difference to the track if even 30 seconds worth of this filler were cut if only to make the music just that little bit tighter. Despite this, the tracks are still very solid, and definitely warrant repeated listens in the future. Reflections of a Floating World is definitely a record that I will be returning to in the future, and I am now anxiously awaiting any future endeavours that Elder embark on.

Listen here:

Favourite Track: Staving Off Truth

Least Favourite Track: None!

 

Review: alt-J – RELAXER

After over a three-year hiatus, Leeds-based art pop trio alt-J return with a slickly produced yet tonally messy third studio album.

Capture★★☆☆☆

You’ve just graduated from university, forming a small band with your uni mates along the way. You’ve produced a few songs already in the confines of the paper-thin walls of student halls before moving away to Manchester to secure a record deal with Infectious Music, and have quietly released a four track debut EP. Everything seems to be heading in the right direction as you and your band prepare to release your debut album under the name “alt-J”What you don’t anticipate, however, is how this seemingly unassuming record will suddenly and violently catapult you into the public eye as you gain an exponential amount of fame in the short span of a single year.

I will give credit to the band where credit is due – they handled their unexpected fame in the indie world quite well considering their circumstances, becoming a regular feature in summer festivals, and who can blame them for taking such an extended break to adjust to their popularity?

You’d think, for such a hiatus, that the final product would be far more delevoped than the product that was delivered. RELAXER features tight string arrangements, lending a layer of texture to the music that was sorely needed after the bland simplicity of 2014’s This Is All Yours, but the music itself is painfully directionless. The album is a surprisingly short smorgasbord of odd, half-baked and even boring tracks that feel more like an EP of B-Sides than a full record. In fact, the singles that were released ahead of this album are the only songs worth anyone’s time. The instrumentation is especially lacklustre, with audible string squeaking littering the track. Something as basic and ugly sounding as this shouldn’t be cropping up this late in the band’s careers; it just screams of laziness and bad habits.

A glaring lowlight in this album is the song “Hit Me Like That Snare”, which ends up as an arrhythmic mess with no discernible focus. Lead singer Joe Newman’s nasal delivery is lost amidst a sea of boring instrumentation, and the lyrics are base and tasteless, coming off almost as a joke. If alt-J intended this song to be satirical, it’s not very apparent, especially in the limp-wristed way they nod to Rage Against the Machine, which is delivered in the weakest way possible:

“We are dangerous teenagers/Fuck you I’ll do what I want to do”

Having liked and enjoyed the band’s fun yet flawed debut, and being sorely disappointed by the dull sophomore effort, I was pretty much turned off of alt-J altogether. RELAXER is the most disappointing kind of album, because it marks a decline from the relative high the band started on.

Favourite Track: 3WW

Least Favourite Track: Hit Me Like That Snare