Saturday, November 23, 2013

Album Review: A Lot Like Birds - No Place

Album Rating: A-
As trendy as genre blending is these days, there are few bands out there that really know how to do it right.  While many were quick to praise A Lot Like Birds' 2011 release, Conversation Piece, for its supposedly skillful array of diversity, I was still quite a bit skeptical of their talents.  It really doesn't take that much dexterity to mash a bunch of different styles together, especially when the time signatures don't really shift that much (see: "Orange Time Machine Care"), so my cynicism persisted upon hearing the announcements of the Sacramento, Calif. outfit's newest ambitious project: No Place.  While my first listen of the album left me more confused than satisfied, seeing their headlining show with HRVRD was enough to convince me to revisit this ocean of an album, and I found more surprises hidden within than I ever thought was possible.

First impressions don't matter nearly as much as one might think on No Place. This album requires (and deserves) an insane amount of attention, as every detail is clearly very meticulously planned, from the overarching concept to the repeating themes and melodies. Each of No Place’s 10 tracks is meant to represent a room of this other-worldly house, and over the course of the album, the listener travels through its dark, decaying walls with the protagonist, becoming progressively more and more terrified with each passing moment. Opener “In Trances” begins with a somewhat pleasant doorbell sound that goes south exceedingly fast, and it’s all evil from that point forward. Late album star “Kuroi Ledge” is perhaps the cruelest, offering up the album’s most lyrically optimistic moment to the protagonist before quickly and viciously destroying it. As vocalists, both Kurt Travis and Cory Lockwood deserve a round of applause and an equally rough kick in the stomach for their amazing talent, but absolutely heart-crushing use of it.

Planning ahead certainly pays off, as the interplay between emotions stemming from both the lyrics and music results in numerous moments of excellence. About halfway through “No Nurture,” a track that addresses head-on the tragedy of living with an absent father, we hear what seems to be the song’s climax: “I'd do it all over for the little optimism that I harbored before you taught me to never believe.” This intense line is paired with a well-composed crescendo, and its conclusion leads into an eerie drone section, with stringed instruments that almost mimic a swarm of bees.  Somehow, though, A Lot Like Birds manages to top that moment just a few verses later with an even stronger line and crescendo, beginning with, "They say like father, like son." You can imagine that there's no happy ending to that. "Hand Over Mouth Over and Over" has a similar gut-wrenching conclusion, with the post-rock guitars perfectly coloring the feelings of loss screamed by Travis and Lockwood, all while the double bass punches you in the heart over and over, exactly in time.

The musical proficiency and interlocking of rhythms placed upon triplets, unresolved phrasing, odd meters and god knows what else is absolutely insane throughout the entire album, and there are very few moments where the band isn’t trying to disorient the expected rhythmic equation for its listeners. First full track, “No Nature,” was very deliberately composed to open the record in a frenzy, functioning as the “bat shit creepy schizophrenic song,” whose timing and methods to their excessive madness I can only hope to ever lightly comprehend, even after countless listens.  In fact, the only truly straightforward section of 4/4 time comes during the album's final moments in "Shaking of the Frame," making for a very appropriate, fitting conclusion, though drummer Joe Arrington continues to tear it up on the kick and snare with his amazing syncopation.

This prevalent insanity can be a bit problematic at times, given the audience established from 2011’s fairly straightforward Conversation Piece. Clocking in at an unreasonable hour and 10 minutes, this prior release was much more apparently directed at the crowd and the post-hardcore worshiping users scattered within it (think kids into Dance Gavin Dance and an older crowd still following Fear Before, even after the name shortening), and while No Place could certainly still appeal to that particular fanbase, Travis and company’s newer material is almost definitely a bit too sonically overwhelming for a solid portion of that group.  The endless shifts in rhythm, genres and styles throughout "Recluse" seem to be designed specifically to create such a barrier.

At the same time, A Lot Like Birds falls into even further categorization troubles, as their sound isn’t quite something for all progressive fans to enjoy. As compositionally interesting and rhythmically challenging as it is, No Place can’t really be compared to something like Animals as Leaders or Between the Buried and Me (both of whom A Lot Like Birds comes to rival in complexity and heaviness, respectively), simply because of the catchy alternative punk hooks that constantly sneak their way into the formula, especially during concise lead single, “Next to Ungodliness.” While most of the track is in a techie-friendly 5/8 time signature, the rhythmic arrangements are significantly less belligerent than one would expect from a prog band and end up taking a backseat to the addictive, repeating chorus. Even “No Nature” has bits and pieces of soaring choruses buried within, further muddling the equation.

Halfway point track "Connector" provides, perhaps, the best lesson on how to understand A Lot Like Birds' sound.  Billed as the "hallway song" that connects all of the rooms, so too does it connect all of the distantly related genres and styles present on No Place.  There are three repeated, approachable choruses, all composed of lofty vocals, and all with constant trading off between screaming and singing.  Of course, these conventions seem like the perfect ingredients for everyone's favorite "metal band with perfect haircuts" recipe, but A Lot Like Birds manages to separate themselves from that atrocious label by shaping the accompanying music as complexly as possible, adding new verses, bridges and crossing the six-minute mark with little to no trepidation. 

While the accessible chorus does conclude "Connector," what sticks with you is the piece's masterful design.  You enjoy the melodies, but you remember how the song began with a subdued, piano-driven intro that somehow swelled into the elite rhythmic monster that it is.  This is the very nature of No Place—that no single part comes to rise above the rest.  A Lot Like Birds have created something that so many other genre mashing groups have failed to do in the past, which is make the unapproachable approachable.  As batty as this record can be, there still is literally something for everyone to enjoy, if they're willing to give it a chance.  Don't let the ghosts within scare you; it's better to let them win.

Track List:
1. In Trances
2. No Nature
3. No Nurture
4. Next To Ungodliness
5. Connector
6. Myth of Lasting Sympathy
7. Hand Over Mouth Over and Over
8. Kuroi Ledge
9. Recluse
10. Shaking of the Frame

Album Stream

No comments:

Post a Comment