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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’.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqEBArEkfCY[/youtube]

‘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.

 

SXSW 2014: 103.1 iHeart Austin afternoon showcase at Empire Control Room plus Broken Hands at Rooftop on Sixth – 12th March 2014

 
By on Thursday, 20th March 2014 at 3:00 pm
 

Something that sets SXSW apart from all other festivals is just how much afternoon programming is available if you’re raring to go and wanting to catch music even before the noon hour. Even better, most of it is free, as long as your RSVP ahead of time. For music journos like us, it gave us more opportunities to catch bands that we might not otherwise see because of evening conflicts. The iHeart Austin showcase at Empire Control Room, sponsored by local Austin radio station 103.1, was perfect timing on Wednesday afternoon, as Wednesday is the day when things really ramp up – and all day long too – at SXSW.

After getting the run-around from security who sent us to different entrances and couldn’t agree on where the Control Room was at Empire (I thought only Great Escape bouncers were rude like that! ::snort::) and after I was refused entrance into a VIP area with fake grass (how tacky), we finally made our way into the correct location to catch an afternoon of bands inside. Unfortunately for you, our faithful readers, the lighting inside wasn’t great and a rotating series of strange coloured slides were projected onto to the bands as they played, so a lot of my photos didn’t come out great.

We arrived just in time for Austin band SPEAK, who I’d previously written about years ago when they covered Daft Punk. Synth pop bands are a dime a dozen these days, American or not. Honestly, after a while, they all start to blur together. but if you’re into this genre, SPEAK are a pretty poppy and agreeable proposition. They were given a slot shortly after noon, which meant unfortunately they had a pretty paltry audience.

Carrie seemed to think she could get through the festival without earplugs, but somehow I managed to convince her this wasn’t smart. However, I questioned my own wisdom when I met the booker of the Pabst Theater in Minneapolis and had to confirm the name of the next act. I swore they were called ‘Bats on the Move’. (No-one steal that name. That’s mine for whenever I start my own band.) Turns out they were actually Max and the Moon, a trio from Los Angeles. They released an EP, ‘Crazy’, a couple weeks ago and the title track is a good example of their pop-infused synth brand of rock.

The Black and White Years are another Austin band and another synth pop band, but rhythmically they’re art rocky, with bass lines popping everywhere. After the first two bands who were good but not terribly exciting to me, I felt like I’d finally been defibrillated. Their eccentricities didn’t go unnoticed, least of all by Talking Heads alum Jerry Harrison, who produced their first album. Frontman/guitarist Scott Butler even has a David Byrne-esque voice, sometimes yelp-y, sometimes percussive. I particularly liked his hand gestures to the bright ‘Up’, even if Carrie thought it was too gimmicky.

Then the line-up moved back to SoCal – specifically Echo Park – for a motley group called NO made up of a New Zealander, a South African, a Canadian and three Americans. Their singer, Kiwi Bradley Carter has a baritone voice ala Tom Smith of Editors or Matt Berninger of The National, and with grinding synths and sinister guitar lines, the band has a melancholic yet epic post-punk sound not dissimilar to White Lies. They’re already signed to Arts and Crafts label in Canada, which seems to indicate indie greatness is just around the corner. Expect their debut album ‘El Prado’ to drop later (at least on this side of the pond) this spring.

Carrie ran off to grab Carter of NO for a quick post-gig interview (stay tuned for that) right before a band on the afternoon bill that we actually knew of. The Crookes, who were making their triumphant and what I had always thought an impossible SXSW return by appearing at the festival 2 years in a row, would be offering up new tunes from their forthcoming album out in April ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by me here) mixed in with old favourites from their back catalogue. It seems a little strange to be using the words ‘back catalogue’, seeing that the band have only been putting out music since 2009, but ‘Soapbox’ will mark their third release with London indie Fierce Panda (no small feat) and their second with local Austin indie Modern Outsider, who also serves as The Black and White Years’ label home.

They could have been tentative, starting out with a song everyone already knew; instead, they began with ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, one of the two most growly tracks on the new LP. A surprise later in the set was ‘Howl’, a more introspective number near the end of ‘Soapbox’ that I didn’t think would work all that well live but maybe in the live setting, it’ll act as the song to which you’d catch your breath after dancing so hard, the wind is knocked out of you. Not surprisingly, they ended with the terribly catchy pop opener to 2012’s ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’, and I lost a drink bet with Carrie over whether or not they’d play that song. (I was sure the smart money was on ‘Maybe in the Dark’ but sadly, Lady Luck was not on my side.)

After a cheeky pint of cider and a quick fish and chips for dinner at our fave B.D. Riley’s Irish pub, I was off again to the Rooftop on Sixth to catch another band who was playing the rooftop bar. I got a definite case of deja vu, as my SXSW 2013 ended at that exact spot. I showed up to see Kent band Broken Hands, who I gathered fit the genre of space rock rather well. I am pleased to report that they did not disappoint after my writing of this Bands to Watch last month.

Because it was so windy that day, aluminum foil had been hung over the ‘windows’ behind the band, I guess so that the wind wouldn’t blow the bands over. This seemed rather fitting to me as the child of a NASA scientist, as for me it had the effect that we were on a spaceship with them. A pretty damn good rocking spaceship, with wigged out synths. Just enough wind passed through those ‘windows’ such that under any other circumstances, you might have confused singer Dale Norton and his gorgeous long flowing hair undulating in the breeze like he was in a Pantene commercial. (It’s really not fair as a woman when you see a man who has hair more beautiful than yours. It’s just not on, fellas.) Up to that point, I hadn’t done any serious headbanging in Austin – I was in charge of hard rock while we were in Austin – and I nearly got whiplash as I enjoyed myself far too much getting sucked into Broken Hands’ devastatingly severe live set. Good stuff.

 

MP3 of the Day #166: SPEAK

 
By on Tuesday, 13th April 2010 at 10:00 am
 

For those of you who might not know of the town in Texas and the March film / music / media annual phenomenon that is South by Southwest, Austin is *the* place to hear alternative music, because the scene there is so nurturing to up and coming bands. Here’s an example. SPEAK is an Austin quartet that’s been called a pop powerhouse by American music media, and local paper the Austin Chronicle named them ‘Best Band’ in their yearly Austin Music Awards. Not bad at all. The band recently signed to Playing in Traffic Records in America, and their debut album is scheduled to be released sometime in 2010.

This year at SXSW, the band held a release party for their EP ‘Hear Here’ at Austin club the Independent. One of the songs they unleashed live was their cover of ‘Digital Love’ by heralded French electropop duo Daft Punk. Today, we’ve got the track for you to download and enjoy. For those of you who are left cold with most electronic music, I suggest listening to this: it’ll make you go all warm inside by the fun vibe. Hearing this makes me wish I was there for the event. And I’m definitely interested in hearing more from this band very soon.

MP3: SPEAK – Digital Love (Daft Punk cover)

[audio:https://www.theregoesthefear.com/media/201004/Digital_Love_SPEAK_Cover_.mp3]
 
 
 

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