Discovering Paper Aeroplanes

Well here it is: 100 blog posts! Before I start today’s post, I would like to thank everyone who has read this blog and I would like to encourage you all to share this page around if you have enjoyed reading its content. Thank you.

Last week I went to a gig in London at the Union Chapel, which is a spectacular venue that has breathtaking architecture, balconies that overlook the stage and stained glass windows that shimmer from the glow of the lighting rigs. The band I went to see were a semi-acoustic pop duo called Paper Aeroplanes, who performed on stage with a full band consisting of a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist and a cellist.

Paper Aeroplanes’ magical performance.

They were supported by two fully acoustic acts; the first a duo from Mississippi who had only just started making music together earlier this year and the second an Australian solo artist called Stu Larsen. Larsen was a joy to watch; his face was a constant picture of emotion, putting everything he had into his slightly left-field vocals, whilst underpinning his subdued, yet refined, guitar playing with percussive techniques. The same can be said about the first duo, because even though their relative inexperience showed, the pair performed several beautiful arrangements (that were routed in folk and country) that held their own against the acts that followed.

As the tagline to my blog suggests, pop and acoustic music isn’t my normal choice of listening, however, I do have a soft spot for melancholic (or anti-) pop, such as The xx or Soley, which extends to experimental indie acts such as Alt-J and North Atlantic Oscillation. This particular gig was a suggestion from my girlfriend and after the first listen to Paper Aeroplanes’ latest release Little Letters, I was hooked.

Tracks like Multiple Love and Circus irradiate the darkest emotions, marrying the beauty of Sarah Howells’ vocals with the bleak soundscapes painted by a sombre piano melody and a swelling acoustic backing respectively. Little Letters also features up-tempo tracks, like the album opener When The Windows Shock, which features a memorable lick from guitarist Richard Llewellyn. However, the highlight of the album is the title track, which evolves from a gloomy introduction into an epic crescendo, making great use of strings, with close competition from the introverted indie track At The Altar.

Prior to Little Letters, which was released in 2013, Paper Aeroplanes released We Are Ghosts in 2011 and The Day We Ran Into the Sea in 2010, which follow a similar musical blueprint; mixing uplifting and sorrowful tracks, led by the superb vocals and melodies of the duo. Paper Aeroplanes are a great find and if you’re a fan of honest, well-crafted acoustic tracks, then look no further than this Welsh pairing and their heart-felt music.

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– James




The Inevitable Twiddling of Vocalists’ Thumbs

Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing about instrumental music (Instrumental Intros and Animals As Leaders) and more specifically, its common downfalls. However, today I thought I would discuss the other side of instrumental music: the good stuff! So here are five of my favourite instrumental pieces:

1. Steve Vai – Gravity Storm

Gravity Storm is the high-energy centre-piece of Steve Vai’s eighth studio album, The Story Of Light. Vai rampages through this track, utilising pinch harmonics, legato techniques and a sensuous use of pre-bends to achieve whammy-like dives. However, this track isn’t just a showcase for his talents, since all his techniques are used within a constantly evolving (and extremely memorable) melody. With Gravity Storm, Vai has written a guitar classic that will make kids pick up the guitar and understand that songs don’t need to have vocals to be brilliant.

2. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Hanuman

Rodrigo y Gabriela are a Mexican flamenco guitar duo, who combine the flair of traditional Latin music with elements of modern rock and metal music. Hanuman is a powerful track dominated by gorgeous flamenco licks that stick in your head and beg to be hummed. Although the majority of the track is played around the same area of the fretboard, its distinct sections and moods help to keep the listener interested throughout.

3. Apocalyptica – Farewell

This track moves away from the world of guitar music and into the realm of classical. Apocalyptica is a group consisting of three cellists and a drummer, who play a music positioned somewhere in the space between metal and classical music. Farewell leans towards the classical side, and is one of their more subdued efforts. However, for what it lacks in aggression, it makes up for in emotion and melody, as its memorable refrain soars high above the rumbling rhythm section, replacing the need for a vocalist.

4. Dream Theater – Stream of Consciousness

Dream Theater are well known for the virtuosic tendencies and superb musicianship of their members, which leads to long instrumental sections within their progressive tracks and the inevitable twiddling of thumbs for vocalist James LaBrie. It is no surprise then that Dream Theater indulge in the odd fully instrumental track from album to album, with their latest, self-titled effort having two. My personal favourite of their instrumental tracks is Stream Of Consciousness from 2003’s Train of Thought, which progresses like a runaway freight train [pun intended], letting John Myung, John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess and Mike Portnoy all have their turn in the spotlight. However, like the Steve Vai track, Dream Theater manage to keep the song’s overall narrative in mind and don’t let their solo sections distract them from the end goal.

5. Porcupine Tree – Wedding Nails

Porcupine Tree, like Dream Theater, have a pool of instrumental tracks at their disposal, but unlike Dream Theater, they tend to focus more on riffs and structure than on soloing. Wedding Nails is a perfect example of this, following several groove-based guitar riffs through various permutations, aided by the haunting soundscapes produced by keyboardist Richard Barbieri and the distinctive drumming style of Gavin Harrison.

Do you agree with this list – if not what do you think should be on this list?

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Do Animals As Leaders Live Up To Their Name?

Last week I went to see British progressive metal/djent band TesseracT at their Southampton show as part of their current European tour. They were supported by two acts: instrumental djent trio Animals As Leaders and solo artist Navene K. Tesseract were incredible and a special mention has to go to vocalist Daniel Tompkins who gave a perfect performance on all of the songs, regardless of which of their previous singers (including himself) originally recorded the vocals. However, it is not TesseracT that I want to focus on with this blog; it is the support acts instead.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about instrumental introductions to albums and in a way this blog is a continuation of that discussion on instrumental music. Going to the gig last week I had only heard a handful of Animals As Leaders songs and I was fairly on the fence about their music; it was interesting to listen to, but it didn’t make me want to rush out and buy their albums. Naturally, I attended with an open mind, ready for my opinion of their music to become more concrete.

One thing I can say for certain is that as a band they are very tight. The trio of Tosin Abasi (guitar), Javier Reyes (guitar) and Matt Garstka (drums) are technically superb, playing every note with ease and finesse. As they progress through the set, continuing to be flawless, a smile starts to form on Abasi’s face and the band seem to gel even tighter, like a finely tuned piece of precision engineering. As technical ability goes, Animals As Leaders might as well be world champions.

However, when it comes to writing songs that are engaging and exciting they seem to miss the mark. I was fully expecting the guitar sweeps, two handed tapping, eighth string slapping and syncopated rhythms, but I was hoping they would be applied when necessary, as part of the song’s narrative. Take single and final track of the set list CAFO, for example, which begins with a hectic barrage of guitar sweeps, that to the non-guitar player just looks and sounds like a bedroom guitarist making a mess of a tricky lead. The song eventually evolves, but doesn’t really end up going anywhere – instead it just gets stuck in the dirge of eighth string riffing.

Sadly, the majority of the songs they played seemed to follow the same trend. They often began with intrigue, but spent too long focused on one idea, before they would lose track of their initial direction halfway through. There was also very little melody within their songs, rendering most of them as ‘easily forgettable’ once the next had started. In fact there was only one song melody I could remember from the night.

Now let’s switch attention onto the first act of the evening; Navene K. Navene K is an American multi-instrumentalist and is probably best known as the ex-drummer of Animals As Leaders. With his set, Navene K played tracks from his high-octane electronic solo project, where he had to constantly switch between guitar and drums, laying down looped recordings as the pre-recorded electronics spat and hissed in the background. Once the initial intrigue of his well-choreographed instrument switching had worn off, the music we were left with was still as captivating as it had seemed at the beginning.

His instrumental music had an obvious melody that flowed through the whole song, allowing different sections and dynamics to grow and decay, whilst maintaining the central theme of the track. Navene K didn’t over play either; if a complex drum beat wasn’t needed, it wasn’t used –  a simple beat took its place instead. His music wasn’t a platform from which he could show off, but an outpouring of emotion and well executed musicianship, that Animals As Leaders would do well to emulate. On top of this, his actual performance was much better than Animals; he engaged with the crowd, seemed to enjoy every minute and was humble in accepting the crowd’s pleasure. Next time I would like to see him higher up the bill, as he almost upstaged TesseracT too.

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A Guide to Static-X

Wayne Static formed Static-X in 1994 alongside bassist Tony Campos, drummer Ken Jay and guitarist Koichi Fukuda, after his previous band Deep Blue Dream split up. Four years later, they released their debut album Wisconsin Death Trip (which was the original name of the band), which went platinum in 2001. Five more albums followed until the band went on hiatus in 2009, allowing Static to focus on his solo project Pighammer. After a brief reform in 2012 where none of the original lineup except Static were present, the band finally split up, owing in part to a disagreement between Static and Campos, over who could use the Static-X name.

Static-X emerged at the same time as nu metal and as a result had many similarities to bands from that scene. However, their sound also incorporated a lot of industrial metal elements, notably electronics and keyboards, as well as a mix of mechanical and clean vocals, pioneered by genre leaders Fear Factory.

Yesterday it was announced that Wayne Static had died, so to honour his work within the metal scene I want to guide you through Static-X’s six studio albums.

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

The debut album of Static-X is a bone-crushing affair, leaving little time for reflection. The album’s style is traditional industrial metal; the guitars, bass, drums and even Static’s unique bark, all march together as a ferocious, percussive attack, allowing the electronics to stand out and provide melody. Most of the tracks come within four minutes, some within three, with the exception of the heavily electronic The Trance Is The Motion and the album’s dreamy conclusion December. Wisconsin Death Trip is a solid debut, showcasing their ability to write industrial metal songs, but it lacks the diversity and refinement that experience brings, shown best with Love Dump’s cringe-inducing lyrics.

Overall: 5/10

Machine (2001)

Machine is everything that Wisconsin Death Trip tried to be; the electronics have purpose, the riffs are more clinical and Static’s vocals have improved vastly. There is also a little more diversity on the album: Get To The Gone is a bulldozer of a track, Black and White is a catchy nu metal song, Machine is a brilliantly experimental and Cold is a slower track with a hugely melodic chorus. There is still the odd track which needs refinement, but overall Machine is a much more focused and better produced effort than its predecessor.

Overall: 7/10

Shadow Zone (2003)

Shadow Zone marks the first major change in the sound of the band, as they swayed towards a nu metal approach that relies a lot on melody, both in regards to the vocals as well as the guitar riffs. The Only, Invincible and So bear little resemblance to the industrial crunch of the previous albums, instead they rely on massive hooks in the choruses and use clean/melodic vocals heavily. In fact only Monster and Destroy All would fit in with their earlier albums, showing just how much the band’s sound had evolved. Naturally this change caused a divide between fans, but I personally enjoyed the melodic approach to this record, as it brought with it greater musicianship and refinement.

Overall: 8/10

Start a War (2005)

Start a War is my least favourite album of the six and is happens to be the only Static-X album that I don’t own. The record sounds like the missing link between Machine and Start a War, as it has an equal measure of industrial brutality and melody, however it fails to deliver the same standard of songwriting featured on those records. Although there are some good moments, Start a War sounds a little too contrived; The Enemy reminds too much of Get To The Gone, whilst I Want To F****** Break It seems forced and is a step back to the immaturity of Wisconsin Death Trip.

Overall: 3/10

Cannibal (2007)

From least favourite to most favourite, Cannibal returns fully to the style of the first two records, except now the band have matured and are able to finally pull off the industrial, ‘evil disco’ sound they have been trying to create for years. The whole album seems much more balanced, allowing the brutality to exist in harmony with the electronic, dance-oriented elements and despite Cannibal being their heaviest album, there is still room for some melody amongst the aggression as singles Cannibal and Destroyer show. Cannibal is also their first album to heavily feature guitar solos, which adds to the well-rounded nature of the album and it also gives a chance for lead guitarist Koichi Fukuda to shine.

Overall: 9/10

Cult of Static (2009)

Cult of Static is a continuation of Cannibal, helped in part by both albums having the same producer John Travis. However, this album isn’t as heavy as its predecessor and has a slightly greater emphasis on electronics, especially in Tera-Fied and Terminal. As their final album, Cult of Static does a good job of concluding their discography, because it amalgamates elements from all of their records without sounding forced and is probably the best place to start for new listeners.

Overall: 9/10

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