So Happy Together
See the group Tue., Sept. 8 at White Owl.
The very accomplished second album of under-the-radar Norman artist Dorian Small sounds as if Kevin Barnes joined a reggae band, went through 20 years of therapy, then got back to his roots to make a sunny, conflict-free Of Montreal record.
That is to say, Small, member of the now-defunct reggae outfit Tincture, is obviously a huge Barnes fan, and Newlyweds is full of Montreal-ish moments. Sometimes it sounds like inspiration, other times it comes a little too close to imitation. The abundance of vocal harmonizing and melodic zig-zagging calls to mind Barnes in his softer moments, and indeed, Small possesses a similarly sensitive, sleepy voice that begs comparison. Production bells and whistles--low-rent electronic set dressing, whimsical keys, stand-out percussion and wickedly spot-on bass--take the comparison to a new level, especially on songs like "Triggerfinger", "Newlyweds" and "Egyptian Eyes". Abrupt key and tempo changes, sometimes resulting in a new song within a song, is a trademark that Barnes perfected on Skeletal Lamping, and Small successfully pulls the same tricks without necessarily adding anything new.
If it seems like I'm dwelling on the Of Montreal parallel, it's because the album boldly demands acknowledgement of the influence--it's impossible to seriously consider Dorian Small without taking into account the roots of the music. And that's a problem, but a minor one, thanks to the fact that Small is in possession of more than enough talent to overcome the minor and age-old hiccup of emulation from admiration.
Evidence of this is found on the album's last three tracks--with several excepted moments, "Disappointed", "Nowhere to Go" and "Hearts of Stone" noticeably pull away from the Barnes umbrella to cement Small as a formidable pop talent in his own right. "Hearts of Stone" in particular is a tightly-wound gem of descending pianos, horns and guitar. It's the last track on Newlyweds, and easily the best.
Finally, the album is also an impressive example of what one talented musician can do with Pro Tools--the majority of it was recorded exclusively by Small. It's easily among the top-tier of our state's DIY records, and as Small continues to develop his musical identity, it's likely that we'll be seeing future material that's far more impressive than Newlyweds. -Josh Kline
The Mars Volta
As a relative neophyte to The Mars Volta, I was warned that the band's latest disc, Octahedron, may not be the best jumping off point for an introduction to the group. After scrolling back and working my way forward, however, I found that's not necessarily the case.
Steeped in progressive and psychedelic rock, principal members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala no longer leave any hints or shadows of the emo and post-hardcore leanings of their predecessor band, At the Drive-In.
This is a full on sonic assault of the senses, and finding the delicate balance between taking things too seriously or too lightly isn't necessarily and easy task. If listened to merely in passing, Volta's latest comes off as passé Rush-lite with passages of sheer chaotic noise. Taken too seriously, however, the band's high-brow concept literacy can culminate in a class-A mind fuck.
Balanced somewhere in the middle, the album settles a case for The Mars Volta being the premier modern prog-rock masters. Perhaps my perspective is a bit dated, but that doesn't make my reference points less valid. While the psychedelic touches tilt toward Pink Floyd, it's hard not to look to Rush as a primary progenitor here. From the humanistic neo-socialistic lyrics to Zavala's higher register vocals, which nearly demand comparison to Geddy Lee. More importantly, the band has the musical chops to warrant comparisons and blow past expectations.
At the very least, The Mars Volta has an uncanny control of dynamics, building an uneasy tension throughout the album. Instead of wavering wildly between quiet passages and sonic blitzkriegs, as the band has done in the past, Octahedron is an exercise in patience and control, slowly building to a climax mid album before working its way down the backside of the tension.
At its weakest point, the album is sonic wonder, albeit a confusing one. At its strongest, it's a beautiful frustration. From the opening notes of the lilting "Since We've Been Wrong," Volta sits back and slowly builds the dynamic tension, a sonic explosion to melt your face off. When the dynamic shift 5:12 into the track arrives, it isn't the payoff you expect. Merely a shifting of gears, the release is merely incremental.
Followed by "Teflon," perhaps the premier example to draw direct comparisons to mid-late '80s era Rush, Volta establishes that this isn't the easiest path followed from its previous work, and certainly not the dynamically heavier and more aggressive Bedlam In Goliath. The album continues to build until the one-two punch of "Cotopaxi" and "Desperate Graves," which provides the sonic reaction, but again, it's not nearly as heavy as anticipated and the group returns to the restrained dynamics which opened the album to cycle out with "Copernicus" and "Luciforms."
Therein lays the frustration as well as the beauty. While the album plays out as a completed suite, it reaches for something different than what the listener expects.
Beyond any comparisons, Octahedron serves to erase any doubts that The Mars Volta is the current king of modern progressive rock. Somehow the group manages to bridge the gap between classic masters such as King Crimson, Yes and Rush; the explosive angst of grunge icons Nirvana and the experimentalism of post-modern metal acts like System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Beyond the controlled sonic chaos of previous releases, however, this disc proves that Volta can do so with an elegance and grace on previously hinted at. Yes, its subdued tone may offset long-standing fans, but over time, this may prove to be an iconic effort which truly establishes the group's flexibility when paired with Bedlam.
Tip: The Mars Volta plays Cain's Ballroom Mon., Sept. 7, and performs an extended set to traverse the band's extensive catalogue, with no scheduled opening act. Tickets are still available for $39.75 at the box office. -- Gary Hizer
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