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Album Review: The Last Bison – SÜDA

 
By on Wednesday, 19th September 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Matthew Simmons

LB_Suda-album-artAmerican folk rock band The Last Bison have undertaken some significant changes since we last heard from them back in 2015. Perhaps most obviously, the band’s lineup has slimmed down from five members to three, with the departures of founding members Dan Hardesty and Annah Housworth following the band’s third album ‘VA’ (pronounced as “Virginia”, the state the band hails from). Now comprised of Ben Hardesty (vocals, guitar, percussion), Amos Housworth (cello, bass), and Andrew Benfante (keys, organ, guitar), The Last Bison have been forced to rethink their musical palette, but rather than streamlining, the resulting transformation feels more like a complete and deliberate redefinition of the band’s signature sound.

From the opening track of new album ‘SÜDA’, it’s clear that The Last Bison is no longer the organic alt-folk collective we once knew. ‘By My Side’ is a slow prelude to the album proper, but its cool synthetic haze, whispered vocals, and distorted guitars are already a major change from the band’s previously warm, folk-flavoured acoustic rock. Synths, bass, and percussion continue to dominate the musical arrangements throughout the album, beginning with ‘Cold Night’, where frontman Hardesty sings, perhaps ironically and perhaps not, of a past warmth (“comfort like a mother’s hold / the words she spoke set all our hearts aglow”) contrasting with a colder, harsher present reality.

Early single ‘Gold’ is immediately rhythmic, with novel percussion and a prominent bass riff among its distinctive characteristics. Its opening lines, “I used to run with the Navajo / now I cut trees with the Inca, though / I traded my horses in for gold / I won’t be forgetting you”, refer to frontman Hardesty’s childhood days in South America, when his parents served as missionaries to Bolivia. The album’s press release describes that time as central to this record: “The songs of ‘SÜDA’ reflect on that period of gained knowledge and experience, with themes of longing, times remembered, times to come, and the desire for spiritual fulfillment.”

However, from this point forward, the thematic references become more obscure and the lyrics more heavily dependent on well-worn metaphors. ‘Blood’ is dark and dramatic, with cello and piano ornamentation adding a touch of light behind the shadowy synth backdrop. In fact, these instrumental moments are more memorable than the song’s awkward refrain: “there you were like a thief in the night / unexpectedly arriving to steal / with my heart on the line / blood was pumping to a wound that had healed / I was yours for a time / for a moment there, you taught me to feel”. The album’s title track, an bright yet introspective ballad, comes midway through the track sequence, but doesn’t do much to clarify the album’s musical intent with its mild ’80s rock sound and its head-scratcher of a refrain: “splitting apart my head / sewing it up with Dixieland”.

In the second half of the tracklisting, a variety of rhythmic devices saves ‘SÜDA’ from capitulating to the increasing banality of its lyrics. ‘Anywhere You Go’ has an almost jazzy, r&b kind of feel to its smooth synth melodies and elastic bassline, while ‘The Glow’ and ‘Echo of Eden’ rely on prominent percussion and tribal rhythms to make their emotional mark. One of the strongest tracks on the album, ‘The Glow’ is slow and seductive, its serpentine motion punctuated by a strongly rhythmic backing chorus. ‘Echo of Eden’ is slightly less effective in its overarching social statement, with lyrics ultimately too vague to be very meaningful.

Though the rhythmic and instrumental variety on ‘SÜDA’ is interesting, the album overall feels a bit indecisive in its lyrics and its stylistic leanings. The Last Bison’s recent lineup changes have had a tangible impact on the band’s musical choices, some of which were undoubtedly made out of necessity. The synth heavy musical arrangements here are experimental and occasionally inspired, but not enough so to cover for the lyrical weaknesses, especially late in the tracklisting. However, ‘SÜDA’ is nonetheless a brave and earnest attempt to forge a new musical style from an admittedly more limited toolbox of sounds. Venturing away from their former folk rock comfort zone, Ben Hardesty and his colleagues may seem a bit aimless at the moment, but ‘SÜDA’ provides them with several promising departure points for a possible next attempt.

6/10

The Last Bison’s fourth studio album ‘SÜDA’ is due for release on this Friday, the 21st of September, on AntiFragile Records. You can read through TGTF’s past coverage of The Last Bison by clicking here.

 

(SXSW 2015 flavoured!) Video of the Moment #1762: The Last Bison

 
By on Thursday, 12th March 2015 at 6:00 pm
 

Chesapeake, Virginia’s The Last Bison will be headed to Austin for a couple of shows next week during SXSW 2015. Ahead of that, they’ve released the promo for single ‘This Changes Everything’, appearing on the ‘Dorado’ EP the band released last week. They’re starting a US tour tonight in Asheville, North Carolina as well. The video offers up the song in a smoky presentation that takes full advantage of their energetic live set, and like ‘Bad Country’ before it, it was filmed at the Triple R Ranch back home in Chesapeake. Watch the video below.

All our past coverage on The Last Bison is here, including Carrie’s Bands to Watch feature from last year. Their appearances at SXSW next week are as follows:

Wednesday 18/3 – Conscious Immaturity @ Shiner’s Saloon, 1:30 PM
Wednesday 18/3 – official showcase @ Esther’s Follies, 4:30 PM
Thursday 19/3 – Rock Show For Kids charity event @ FADER Fort, 10:30 AM

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTxPBD6hXbk[/youtube]

 

Video of the Moment #1631: The Last Bison

 
By on Thursday, 18th September 2014 at 6:00 pm
 

Carrie included a review of single ‘Bad Country’ in her Bands to Watch feature on The Last Bison last week. The single now has a promo video, filmed on location at the atmospherically rich Triple R Ranch in their hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. You really haven’t lived until you’ve watched a band perform on a farm while horses run by, am I right? Ha. Watch the video below.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfytS4f-olg[/youtube]

 

Bands to Watch #306: The Last Bison

 
By on Tuesday, 9th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Leigh Burnette

Chesapeake, Virginia six-piece band The Last Bison are set to release their 3rd studio album, ‘VA’ (as in the American postal abbreviation for the state of Virginia), on the 30th of September via Media House Music. The group released their first album, 2011’s ‘Quill’, independently before signing to Universal Republic Records for their 2013 release ‘Inheritance’. ‘VA’ finds The Last Bison harkening back to their earlier independence, self-producing the songs they recorded in an old A-frame cottage near southern Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.

The sheer number of members in their band allows The Last Bison to create a uniquely lush, richly-textured sonic backdrop for its otherwise very basic folk-pop tunes. Their latest single, ‘Bad Country’ would seem to be a perfect fit for radio, with its uplifting optimism, soaring string arrangement and melodically memorable chorus, “I feel the wind blowing south again to the bad country / so it begins, we’re going down again to the bad country”. Frontman Ben Hardesty’s gritty singing voice has just the right balance of warmth and traction to make the song’s emotion feel authentic.

The true outstanding moment in ‘Bad Country’ is its anthemic and evocative bridge section, “scorched by the blazing sun / burnt to the falls we run / into the dark we dive / coming alive”. Maybe it’s my own recent move to the American Southwest, but to my ear, the backing vocals sound like eerie canyon echoes, bringing to mind imagery of treacherous mountains and rough desert terrain.

Earlier single ‘Every Time’ (which can also be found on the band’s Soundcloud page) is more traditionally folk-flavoured, but with powerful tribal percussion rhythms and strong backing vocals punctuating the verses. The insistent repeated lyrics in the chorus, “every time I look back / you were standing there / casually aware of me”, along with the dramatic and unrelenting percussion drive the song perpetually forward. The dynamic contrast and instrumental variation in the far-too-brief bridge section whets the appetite for more potential sonic brilliance on the full album.

For an even more tempting taste of what The Last Bison have to offer, check out their video trailer for ‘VA’, filmed at their rustic and secluded recording studio, just below.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE-fDE0kG1w&list=UUQI6QOFCGk8QQNCaQiHLAkg[/youtube]

 

Live Review: The Last Bison with Bombadil at Sixth and I Synagogue Downstairs, Washington DC – 14th February 2013

 
By on Tuesday, 26th February 2013 at 2:00 pm
 

I knew exactly two things going into this gig. First, the Last Bison had asked us to cover a gig last autumn but I had to turn it down because I was already booked. And second, they were local-ish, from about three hours south of Washington DC in Chesapeake, VA. I left later that night from a sold out show feeling jubilant and looking forward to their album coming out next month.

Bombadil Washington live

Durham, North Carolina’s Bombadil opened the night for us looking like a cross between English school boys and matadors. They were fun, but the best word to describe them is clever. I have to admit that I would not sit at home listening to them, but I would eagerly spend another evening in the party like atmosphere of their live show. Reminiscent of They Might Be Giants, the lyrics were witty and the delivery was rapid fire.

Mid-set brought them out in the middle of the floor to sing a cappella a tune in the round that you would have mistaken for an old southern spiritual if you had missed the lyrics, “I’m laying this one down / I ain’t putting you on / Girl I’ll give you ‘til dawn / then you got to get to getting on”. A perfect example of their tunage came in the song ‘A Question’ which was dubbed their ‘Valentine’s song’ for the evening, lyrically all angular and awkward, yet endearingly strummed out on a ukulele.

The Last Bison Washington live

The members of the Last Bison, seven strong, are a part of a community that I happened to be involved with in my ‘other’ life. The Last Bison are siblings Ben and Annah Hardesty, their dad Dan, another sibling set of Andrew and Jay Benfante and friends Amos Housworth and Teresa Totheroh. Turns out they met as homeschoolers in southeastern Virginia. Since I also homeschool my kids, I actually knew people who were familiar with these kids as they grew into this fabulous band. Self-described as ‘mountain-top chamber music’, they further that image with old-timey garb and classic folk instruments like an antique organ and a mandolin. They kicked off their two month North American tour with us in Washington, DC on Valentine’s Day night.

This was an intensely synergistic set, with all the bits were well integrated and no musical element seemed to take the forefront. But it’s Ben Hardesty that really draws you in. A charismatic, amiable frontman, he spoke of backpacking across Europe, befriending a homeless man, and thrift store shopping. Being as this was Valentine’s night, the crowd was clamouring for a love song when suddenly a few notes of Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ snuck out. The quite young crowd went wild. Chagrined that they didn’t have a love song of their own to play, Ben and his dad spent 90 seconds picking out chords and before you knew it, the band was full swing into the cover.

In a move that shows them to be true musicians, they all played a wonderful rendition of ‘Love Song’, complete with harmonies, gorgeous strings underneath and wild audience participation at the few moments when the words were flubbed. And the aforementioned homeless man, Milton? Ben had invited him to the gig, given him a sleeping bag and dedicated their most popular song ‘Switzerland’ to him. (You can hear and grab the song for free below.) A good portion of the crowd had been at that gig I missed a few months ago and he gratefully acknowledged their support. Although hipster-friendly, I got the feeling these guys were the real deal. By the way, Milton really did show up.

With the right effort, I can see this band going far. The wave of alt-folk/Americana music sweeping North America and Europe right now still has room for some fresh voices. With Mumford and Sons’ Grammy win this year, this trend is going nowhere. Folk fatigue may set in eventually, but I predict we still have years to come with this particular brand of music, and frankly, I like it. The Last Bison’s newest album will drop next month, on the 5th of March, on Universal Republic.

The Last Bison will be showcasing at this year’s SXSW; so far their official showcase has been announced to be on Tuesday 12 March at 12 AM at Blackheart.

The Last Bison Washington live 2

 
 
 

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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.

TGTF was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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