Perfume Genius – Too Bright (2014)

Perfume Genius is the recording name for Mike Hadreas. Too Bright is his third studio album. This album was such a breath of fresh air. Occasionally, I will run into an artist or genre that blows me away; one that I couldn’t even imagine what it sounded like before listening to it. Perfume Genius falls under that category. I had seen the album cover around and I listened to the first track to see what all the fuss was about. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I told one of my friends. He listened to the whole thing, then recommended it to me. There were parts of this album that legitimately surprised me, as well as parts that were done well more than once. The instrumentation, production, and songwriting on this album are phenomenal.

Too Bright starts slowly with the slow piano song, “I Decline”. Part of this track’s beaty comes from how minimal it is. The instrumentation is reserved, and the overall sound isn’t over-the-top.

After a polite and mellow intro, the album picks up a bit with “Queen”, one of my favorite tracks. The tone shifts from a soft ballad to a harder, harsher sound. “Queen” opens with steady distorted guitar. The guitar isn’t too overdriven, which is nice. In addition to the guitar line, a choir swells in and out to add harmony for the first few bars. The first time this album caught me by surprise was when the keyboard line comes in. The whole song is unbelievably sassy, especially in its lyrics: “Don’t you know your queen, gleaming, wrapped in gold leaf,” as if to say “how dare you don’t recognize me … No family is safe / when I sashay.” Here, Hadreas is saying that he knows people fear him because of his sexuality. He’s saying that nobody is safe around him because he’s gay.

The following track is my favorite. “Fool” features a low-fi early synth to set up the chords and rhythm. The snaps on the offbeats give a nice, crisp contrast to the otherwise filtered texture it overlays. A clavi-like synth plays a really nice bass line. After a bit, everything fades out while a sweeping analog synth pad takes over in free time. Mike showcases his amazing vocal range in this track. When He’s singing the really high parts, the sweeping synths come back in, followed by the familiar snaps introduced at the start of the track. This time, however, an upright bass is used instead of the sawtooth bass, and a bari sax also plays some bass parts. A pleasant and well-transitioned change of texture. Instead of abruptly changing the scene to something completely different, he throws in a sound the listener is already familiar with and uses that as a basis to introduce something new.

The lyrics and vocals in “Grid” caught my attention. The vocal lines sound like something off of a Radiohead album, namely Ok Computer. The lyrics are pretty humorous as well: “A diamond / swallowed and shit / then swallowed again. / At least we know where it’s been.”

After traveling through the Tron-esque synth arpeggios in “Longpig” and the immensely dark tones in “I’m a Mother”, Too Bright draws to a close with the song it was named for. “Too Bright” puts Hadreas’s vocals and piano playing in the limelight. While the track also features some orchestral instruments, they are not the focus for the majority of the song; they shine through towards the end of the song.

Every song has its fortes and each one fits well in the overall structure. The instrumentation that Perfume Genius uses creates an unbelievably beautiful array of textures. I highly recommend this album.

Favorite Track: Fool

Perfume Genius - Too Bright

Volcano Choir – Repave (2013)

Volcano Choir is an indie rock group comprised of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, and members of Collections of Colonies of Bees. Repave is their second studio album and was recorded over the course of two and a half years. Repave is an interesting album that is experimental in both its production and presentation. The first track, “Tiderays”, opens with an organ sustaining a low note. The single note is held while more notes are stacked on top, creating a very drone-like texture. After a while, the freely moving chord inversions finally settle on one stack of notes while an acoustic guitar begins to pluck out a melody. After the first chorus, a throat singer holds a very low note. The second track, “Acetate”, uses significantly lower vocals than the first. The track is fairly static in its progression, minus the changing vocal line. The vocals do a really nice 5-tuplet in the lyrics “having them around”. Later, the vocals sing in a round. Towards the end, the piano has a really nice 5-note pattern that becomes offset, as the song is in 4. My favorite track is “Almanac”, the final song on the album. What starts off as a single guitar note repeated out of rhythm eventually grows into a very cinematic track. A synthesizer quickly arpeggiates a descending chord while the guitar plays some counter-melodic ideas. During the climax of the track, the instrumental ideas that have slowly developed continue their parts while incoherent vocals are chopped and processed in phase. Eventually, all the parts fade out to a lone, dreamy piano that plays one final chord, drawing everything to a close. As a whole, the track feels very conclusive and serves as a good ending track to the album. I feel that Repave was presented very well. The opening track fit well as an intro, and the final track served as a nice, conclusive end. The experimentation in production effects on this album really take Volcano Choir’s music in a different direction and achieves new and exciting textures that cannot be achieved by simply jamming in a garage.

Favorite Track: Almanac

Volcano Choir - Repave

The 1975 – The 1975 (2013)

The 1975 is an indie rock group from the UK. They released their self-titled album in 2013, produced by Arctic Monkeys collaborator Mike Crossey. The 1975’s self titled album spans a wide range of subgenres under the broad label of “indie”. This album includes driving rock songs mixed with instrumentals, 80’s pop, and hints of psychedelic rock. Any artist knows that you shouldn’t paint the foreground first; you start with the background as the foundation, and build from there. From a musical standpoint, The 1975 establishes a solid foundation in and does a fantastic job in the development of the overall structure and texture of their songs from the bottom up. Droning patterns and arpeggios that were once in the limelight slowly fade into the background to add to the rest of the track. One thing I’ve noticed about bands from the UK — notably from the British invasion — is that their accents don’t often surface while singing. A few artists have subtle nuances of their accents shine through, namely Elbow and Courtney Barnett. The album opens up with a very cinematic intro track, also named “The 1975”. My favorite track is “M.O.N.E.Y.” The intro reminds me of Shinichi Osawa’s “London (Home’s Not Where You Lay Your Head)” The song has a bunch of samples and sounds thrown in, adding a really quirky mood to the song. On top of the syncopated synth bass and claps on beats 2 and 4, explosions, short guitar riffs, static, and drops of water create a gorgeous sound sculpture. The drum beat changes towards the end into a much more heavy rhythm while bubbling water and an indecipherable pitch-shifted robot choir chimes a countermelody. The album’s also features two instrumentals, “An Encounter”, and “12” The latter features sweeping synth textures, a choir, and tiny crackling and fizzing pops that repeat at a fairly steady pace while the other textures move freely. The 1975’s debut album showcases some really solid tracks with outstanding production.

Favorite Track: M.O.N.E.Y.

1975 Self Titled

Arctic Monkeys – AM (2013)

AM is the fifth album by the English indie rock group, Arctic Monkeys. Before, they’ve been categorized under psychedelic rock. The Arctic Monkeys are as psychedelic as you can get while still sounding down-to-earth. While the instrumentation used in AM is similar to many other groups, the sound that they produce stands out. During the choruses of the first two tracks, they use falsetto vocals to add a subtle layer of texture. In the opening track, “Do I Wanna Know”, the vocals never stray from the melody. No strict harmony is used, per se, but the vocals stack octaves and sing the chorus together. The following track, “R U Mine?” is more heavy and upbeat than the first track. What’s nice about this album is how nicely everything flows together. The fourth track, “Arabella” has the same tone as the previous tracks but is stripped down to much more minimal parts in each instrument. The lyrics are really nice in this track as well: ” Arabella’s got some interstellar-gator skin boots / And a helter skelter ’round her little finger and I ride it endlessly / She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit / And when she needs to shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydreams.” This track airs more to the side of earlier hard rock while still carrying the familiar vibe that AM has. “No. 1 Party Anthem” divides the album perfectly in half. Stylistically, this is drastically different from the previous tracks. One neat thing I noticed about one of the tracks was how eerily similar the guitar and bass textures are in “I Wanna Be Yours” and “Plastic Beach” by Gorillaz. While the tone of the tracks may be gritty and distorted for the most part, the end result that Arctic Monkeys delivers is clean. Other groups can tend to be immensely over-the-top in their sound, but the tracks in AM are well put-together in their presentation.

Favorite Track: R U Mine?

Arctic Monkeys - AM