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Album Review: SPEAK – Pedals

 
By on Wednesday, 2nd July 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

SPEAK Pedals CoverAustin, Texas synthpop band SPEAK have just released their second full-length album ‘Pedals’, which they began working on almost the moment their first album, 2011’s ‘I Believe in Everything’, was complete. Lead singer and keyboardist Troupe Gammage describes the band as “extremely goal-oriented”, a trait that led them to consciously refine their style and self-produce their sophomore effort. ‘Pedals’ is, indeed, a very deliberate album. The general feeling is one of intentionally developed sophistication, but it’s all a bit overwrought. The intense intellectualism and musical experimentation often weighs down songs that are presumably intended to be delicately ethereal or buoyantly anthemic.

Recent single ‘Gates’ is a reasonably optimistic, uptempo opener. Gammage’s singing voice shows its colors right away here, with a low range that descends into vocal fry and teeters precariously on the edge of going flat before being redeemed by a silky smooth falsetto. The wailing guitars and keyboard riff establish a cool pop vibe that carries through ‘Mystery Lights’ and ‘Nightlight’.

A brief instrumental clip called ‘Weiss’ serves as a preliminary intro to the unexpected acoustic ballad ‘This Much I Know’. This combination of the album’s two shortest tracks is a fleeting but hypnotic moment of echoing guitars, lush backing harmonies, and a gently rocking 6/8 meter leading into the more expansive ‘Peaks’.

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‘Peaks’ was dropped as a pre-album single in April 2013, then released alongside 3 remixes as part of an eponymous EP. SPEAK have given this song a lot of attention, and while their devotion to it is admirable, I think it may also have been somewhat detrimental. It feels like the band are too far inside their own heads on this one, focusing on minute details and losing sight of the larger effect, which ends up being a bit tedious. (Sample the other arrangements of this track on the ‘Peaks’ EP here.)

The mid-album sequence of ‘Oh Lord’, ‘Modern Art’ and ‘Be Reasonable, Diane’ is the strongest grouping on the album. ‘Oh Lord’ has a distinct rhythmic groove, accented by additional percussion and fluidly emotive vocals. ‘Modern Art’ is the sonic equivalent of graphic visual art, its angular melodic lines and crisp rhythms sharply contrasting the fuzzy texture of the vocals and guitars. The moody and sullen ‘Be Reasonable, Diane’ has, ironically, the only chorus catchy enough to stick with me after my initial listen to the full record.

The remainder of the album is uneven, with the jungle soundscape of ‘Congo’ and the r&b groove of ‘The Meantime’ trying to break up the monotony of ’11 12 13’ and ‘Trials’. A bit of judicious trimming at this point might have streamlined the focus at the end of the tracklisting and on the album as a whole.

On first listen, the tracks on ‘Pedals’ completely ran together in my mind, their subtleties lost in a wash of electro-synth sound. I found it difficult to pick out anything particularly clever or inventive. It wasn’t until my 3rd full listen that I found myself humming along to choruses, nodding my head to beats and anticipating riffs and rhythms. Unfortunately, while the album has its moments of clarity, subsequent listening hasn’t fully anchored it in my mind. However, for listeners who enjoy expansive, genre-blurring post-rock, SPEAK’s experimental new sound might be worth the extra time it takes to delve into the complexity of ‘Pedals’.

6/10

‘Pedals’ is out now on Playing In Traffic Records.

 

Album Review: White Lung – Deep Fantasy

 
By on Thursday, 26th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Need something abrasive and thoroughly obnoxious to kick you out of that post-England-being-knocked-out-of-the-World-Cup stupor? In search of a wake-up track after those 11 o’clock kick-offs?

Well, prepare yourself for a 22-minute long aural assault of epic proportions. White Lung seem to only have one mode and on their new record ‘Deep Fantasy’, and that is full-on frenetic. Should we be surprised? Well, not really, since this is the Vancouver-based trio’s third full length album – and I use the term full-length with gusto – as at 22 minutes, this is their longest outing yet.

Frontwoman Mish Way on vocals is not shy to announce her credentials as a punked up mix between Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Joan Jett. Whilst Anne-Marie Vassiliou on drums will cast away any memories of lethargic female drummers (Meg White, we’re looking at you dear) – as she’s an absolute livewire on the kit – delving into the kind of tempo you’d expect on a thrash metal record. Kenneth William has the unenviable task of keeping up with these two pace-setters on guitar, and throughout the album he achieves a breakneck pace and new addition Hether Fortune rifles along frantically on the bass.

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The record starts in ferocious form with the emotion and drama of ‘Drown with the Monster’ before we’re thrown into arguably the catchiest of this collection of 2 and a bit minute bangers, ‘Down It Goes’. The first two tracks are characteristic of the rest of the album. No time is wasted, there’s no mucking about with effects – it’s a sub-30-minute burst of feminist punk rock assaulting your ear drums in the most visceral of fashions.

Way isn’t afraid to go rampaging into – probably dropkicking them in the soft gooey parts in the process – some deep issues. ‘Snake Jaw’ is almost a lyrical assault on issues with the female body image – the stresses of matters like body dysmorphia and western obsessions with size 0 – all tuned to a thunderous mashing of power chords and heavy percussion.

The only things that trips me up on this album, is that upon each new listen, it occurs to me more and more that this record and the band in general is probably only going to be enjoyed by the journalistas of London and the hardcore punkers. It’s in vogue to be a bit edgy and crack along with the whole ‘90s women’s revolutionary rock scene, e.g., ala Hole and co. The band are obviously extremely merchandisable – this shouldn’t be viewed as a band thing – but it always makes me feel uneasy. Perhaps it’s just me being a cynical hack though? Throughout ‘Deep Fantasy’, from ‘Drown with the Monster’ to ‘In Your Home’, the album does seem incredibly genuine and heartfelt.

‘Deep Fantasy’ is a vital listen for anyone starving from a lack of primeval-punky goodness (just make sure you haven’t got weak eardrums) and with its feminist dusting, it could prove itself to be an even more vital listen.

9/10

‘Deep Fantasy’, White Lung’s third album for Domino Records, is out now.

 

Album Review: Empires – How Good Does It Feel EP

 
By on Monday, 23rd June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Being miserable is the new cool, guys. Melancholy: the new hip. Dejected and depressed: the new rock ‘n’ roll.

The days of gloom-pop are upon us.

OK, so it’s not exactly a brand new concept, seeing as artists have been crooning about how wretched a life they have had. But we’ve hit a new twist – with a new indie-rock sense of pomp, we’ve got a group of doom mongers for the Game of Thrones-obsessed masses. (We’re past the Skins generation, right? That’s not a thing anymore, is it?) Recently, artists like The National, White Lies and Editors have cut a niche for themselves in this territory. Now, stepping up to have a crack at their own take on the movement is Chicago band Empires with their new EP ‘How Good Does It Feel’.

What you’ll find within is 13 minutes and 48 seconds of ’80s inspired indie rock that won’t have you reaching for the tissues, but instead have your head bobbing like a metronomic Churchill. Somehow though, any artist at the moment with a deep resonant tone to their voice, backed up by I suppose what you could call a thudding bass line reminds me of The Vaccines. Upsettingly on this EP, there are no tracks that live up to that kind of billing.

No ‘Wetsuit’s, or ‘Wrecking Ball’s.

Nada.

The concept, as alluded to earlier isn’t exactly novel or ground-breaking either. But as an EP, it still manages to be rather entertaining throughout. It’s honest and doesn’t allude to being anything other than what it is, by removing all frills and not trying to experiment.

Band members Sean Van Vleet, Tom Conrad, Max Steger and Mike Robinson have stuck to their guns and have a sound which they are comfortable with. The next step is to find that hook, that one tune which breaks the mould – their ‘Wetsuit’. When they crack it, it won’t be long at all before everyone is raving about them.

7/10

Empires’ EP ‘How Good Does It Feel’ is out now in America on Chop-Shop/Island.

 

Album Review: The Lake Poets – Honest Hearts EP

 
By on Friday, 20th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Singer/songwriter Martin Longstaff uses the plural stage moniker The Lake Poets, though his artistic efforts seem to be of the singular variety. Presumably taking his name from the group of 19th century English Romantic poets, Longstaff has written lyrics with a distinctly poetic bent on his debut EP ‘Honest Hearts’, where his beautiful singing and multi-instrumental talents serve to accentuate the reflective and delicate imagery.

The EP opens with darkly mysterious track ‘Windowsill’, an intimate entreaty to explore uncertain, even frightening possibilities. Longstaff’s light, lilting singing voice explores its full range of dynamics on the repeated refrain, “You’re watching the world from your windowsill / You’re trying to figure it out / There’s so much world past your windowsill / But you’ve got your fears and your doubts”.

Despite its description on The Lake Poets’ Soundcloud page as “a song about going through hell, and keeping going”, the title track ‘Honest Hearts’ is warmer and brighter, with the twang of pedal steel and dulcimer. The layered vocals on its chorus “You can take my body, but you will never get my soul” grow into an expansive bridge section before pulling back to a more introspective ending. ‘Dead Horses’ has a more bluesy country sound, with aching falsetto vocals and gritty electric guitars. Once again, Longstaff expands on his own haunting refrain, “How do you fix a lost and broken lonely life?”, his voice gentle at first, then building in strength leading into the dramatic instrumental section.

Longstaff’s exquisite vocals take center stage on ‘Husks’, arranged simply for piano and voice. The keyboard melody is elegantly poignant as Longstaff sings his Romantic analogy for a past relationship, “Is there a sadder sight than a dead tree in a field / A shadow of what it used to be / Like a husk it stands lifeless in the breeze surrounded by twisted dead debris”. His graceful and delicate vocals are perfectly executed here; my breath caught in my throat as I listened to him intone the final melancholy line.

The EP closes with a brief reprise of the main musical ideas from ‘Windowsill’, extending the overall lingering effect of this collection of songs. The simple and direct nature of Longstaff’s songwriting allows his lithely flowing vocals and instrumental interludes to echo in the dynamic space he creates. ‘Honest Hearts’ is a skillful and sensitive debut effort from a musician who clearly has a wealth of potential options for artistic growth.

8.5/10

‘Honest Hearts’ is out now via Generator. A stream of the EP can be found in our earlier feature here but only for a limited time. Also check out below this stunning video clip for the Lake Poets track ‘Edinburgh’.

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Album Stream: The Lake Poets – Honest Hearts EP

 
By on Tuesday, 17th June 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

The debut EP from The Lake Poets – confusingly, just multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter from Sunderland Martin Longstaff – was just released yesterday via Generator and is available for streaming for a short time. Have a listen below to Longstaff’s enchanting style and if you like it, buy the EP from iTunes here.

 

Album Review: First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

 
By on Tuesday, 17th June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Swedish duo First Aid Kit open their third album with lyrics that include “I won’t take the easy road”, and I wondered if they really were brave enough to do just that. After a captivating debut album and a typical sophomore effort, this third outing had the band backed by a major label (Columbia) for the first time. Were they going to be brave enough to take the positives a major can offer them without falling prey to the encumbrances such a deal can demand? After a thoughtful listen or two, I think it is safe to say that Johanna and Klara Söderberg have a good grasp of what works for them, they took what they needed from the industry machine and managed to stay true to their original sound.

‘Stay Gold’ is an album full of beautiful sorrow and exhortations to stay true to oneself. The title track itself wistfully wonders at the hard work of life and the inevitable pitfalls that only make one wish for an easier path to love. With repeated allusions to having to move on, undoubtedly referencing their nomadic lifestyle as touring musicians, an overall theme of loss and transiency is woven into the album. This LP is darker than the albums that preceded it but still retains the brightness that comes with the gorgeous harmonies of the sisters. Staying very true to their ‘70s flavoured folk style, the songs ring with light and clarity despite the more meaningful lyrics that lurk within the tunes.

The band also benefitted greatly from the add-ons a label can offer; their sound is a little richer, a little fuller than before. Indeed, full orchestration swells under a few songs such as ‘My Silver Lining’ and a perfectly understated flute captures the exact essence of ‘The Bell’. ‘Waitress Song’ soars through the middle of the album and even invokes a bit of Cyndi Lauper’s sentiment of having fun. The lyrics are a sad tale of trying to get over a bad break-up, but the story is told in a way that everyone can recognize. The Söderberg sisters still have a very clear preference for American country and folk; that style is now their style replete with pedal steel on ‘Master Pretender’ and the nearly two-step sound found on ‘Heaven Knows’. Fortunately, they carry it off well. The mournful piano ballad ‘A Long Time Ago’ closes out the experience with a soft letting go and leaves us quiet and contemplative.

Still exceedingly young (seriously, Klara is only 21 and has three full length releases and a major label deal under her belt!), the sisters have not only a lot of life left in their careers, but also a lot of life yet to live. If they can write songs with such depth and maturity at this point, it will be interesting to see what they develop as they experience life more fully.

First Aid Kit’s third album ‘Stay Gold’ is out now on Columbia Records. The sisters are scheduled to tour the UK in September. For more information on First Aid Kit, visit their official Web site.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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