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John Gaar “Brighter Side of Maybe”

28 Jul, 2011 Michael Morgan

The various musical style and influences of John Gaar are keenly reflected through his latest record, Brighter Side of Maybe. These include country, southern rock, even tinges of heavy metal; but underlying these are Gaar’s fine attention to detailed arrangements and unabashed, soulful delivery.

“It Is What It Is” is a soulful rock song with plenty of hyper-kinetic blues riffs and rowdy guitar licks. John Gaar’s voice has a southern flavor and iron grit to it that makes the song not just soulful and rocking, but also easy listening, reminiscent of Allman Brothers Band lead singer, Gregg Allman. Midway through, the guitars fire off a semi-automatic set of spiraling riffs and then launches off into a modestly paced blues solo.

“Sooner or Later” moves the album in a very interesting, almost heavy metal-inspired direction, kicking off with a series of raunchy-laced guitar licks and Gaar’s semi-spoken bluesy vocal, in a fierce, lulling Layne Staley-like tone (lead singer from 90s band, Alice In Chains). The chorus is laced with some classic rock-like synths à la Emerson Lake and Palmer, adding a progressive streak to the song. The tempo slowly builds and the vocal and music delivery is in-your-face and unavoidably bad-ass. The loud and elongated guitar strokes scream 80s decadence à la ZZ Top, but in a relevant light for today’s music landscape, filled with high-flying guitar-driven pop from bands like Kings of Leon.

“Angel Flew Away” reflects the lighter, alt-country side of Gaar’s rock persona. His voice is golden and sincere, emotionally peaking and cresting throughout all of the right moments of the song. This song could easily fit alongside a roster of other radio-ready pop-country songs. The careening guitar solo licks key off of Gaar’s voice really move the needle on the arrangement and make this more than just any old country ballad. If the song was considered for radio, the six-minute length of the song might have to be compressed into a more commercial length of three to four minutes.

“Still In Love With You” shows the artist still swinging his blues and country punches with a jazzy Steely Dan-like groove swirled into a Clapton-esque soupy blues straddle. Ultimately, this track drags out Gaar’s soul-speak and lays his heart out on the table like a raw piece of meat waiting to be ravaged by vultures. This song will fare well with Eric Clapton fans.

“Ain’t No Hill For A Stepper” is a hand-jive-like jam filled with a gospel sound and organ crunch that is shoved forward by Gaar’s signature raunchy guitars. The fusion gels quickly because of the boogie-woogie delivery of guitar-driven jams throughout the song. These jams plunge into a wicked series of solo plateaus, first starting with a persistently chewy guitar and then climbs into a series of long chords and gospel chorus: Ain’t No Hill For A Stepper….’

“Between The Lines” has hues of Elton John’s musical style, not just in vocal delivery, but also in the changing dynamics of the song’s melody. The song’s chorus has an epic hook and feel that many of Elton John’s song possess. “Between The Lines” could very well be an ideal soundtrack selection for animated cartoon or romance drama.

“The First Step”’s groove and changes are a bit schizophrenic compared to the rest of the songs off of the album. There is an anger in Gaar’s voice that is less comforting than the other tracks and the song’s spastic movements dig deep into the soul-side à la James Brown and leave less of his country and blues side out. If “Still In Love With You” was a weapon, it would be a soup ladle; “The First Step,” no doubt, is a drill, lyrically and rhythmically piercing into the depths of self-preservation and courage.

The album-titled track, “Brighter Side of Maybe” includes Gaar at his rocking best: a soul-strung voice, wailing organs and a series of solid pop hooks and clever lyrics.
Once again, Gaar’s arrangement adds instantly gorgeous touches: a pithy, high-pitched guitar whine towards the end of song à la Thin Lizzy’s “Boys Are Back In Town.”

Another radio-friendly song off of Brighter… is “Shoulda Been a Good Day.” This pop ballad has a walloping hook the size of 1999s hit song “Amazed” by country group, Lonestar. Its bridge contains a flurry of violins and accentuated orchestral sighs that round out the somber lyrics about love and regret. Gaar’s voice on this song shows the softer, poppier side and counterpoint to the mostly edgy vocal grit of the other soulful and heavy blues songs.

Just when listeners thought that Brighter Side of Maybe was strictly soul and blues inspired (with minor nods to heavy metal gods), the artist finds inspiration from arena rock icons of days yore. “Let Me Show You” echoes those easy-listening and progressive guitar-driven songs of the late 70s-early 80s from groups like Styx and REO Speedwagon. Gaar’s chameleonic voice morphs into a hoarse-whispered vibrato during the refrains. Altogether, the piano arrangements, raw harmonies, pop-oriented melodic changes and dreamy pop synth whirrs towards the end of the song make for a song to replay several times over to simply hear what may have been missed on the previous listen.

Fans of Clapton and southern roots rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd will enjoy the soul-stirring rock guitar-infused jams of John Gaar’s latest album.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Robert Lauri “Power in Heaven”

12 May, 2011 Michael Morgan

“Just another ambient bedroom artist” would be completely unfair when describing the lush textures and instrumental variations on new age ambient artist Robert Lauri’s, Power In Heaven.  Ambient music has a tendency to get sleepy and monotone. While sleepy moments exist on this record, they are usually temporary exhalations, a calm before the wrath of well-fated primal percussion and interwoven synth-scapes.

“Step to Eden”‘s reverberating pulsations is probably the most homogeneous (in term of its style) track off of Power In Heaven, especially with the clashing of various ethnic sounds on the other tracks.  “Step to Eden’s” motif is a synth whistle with a folkish melody accompanied by percussive fills and a steady stream of insect-like synth noises. It’s short and catchy. The quick muted guitar riffs add a welcome touch to the ambient hues.  This is definitely a track to re-listen to and sure to be a fan favorite.

“Survivor” starts off as a piano ballad, and then launches into a ream of guitars and synth fills. The ringing synths, intended as aesthetic embellishments throughout the song, are not necessary for such a beautiful melody that can really stand on its own. It’s overproduced and arranged with so many synth whistles sprinkled throughout, and it takes away from the song’s potential as a crowd-pleasing anthem, or, perhaps as a movie scene-stealing soundtrack.  The acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment toward the middle of the song possess a beautifully haunting quality especially as it transcends into a set of epic-like guitars and choir swills. Once again, a catchy foray of melody and pomp, but a bit over-arranged.

“Sunset Dream” carries on where “Survivor” leaves off, in a flurry of pianos but this time fused with what sounds like an erhu (a Chinese violin) and a modern electro-acoustic guitar.  The traditional sounds condense into modern bass-like fills and electric synth stabs. The tempo soothes and rolls steadily onwards as the bass and percussion carry the song forward, lifting it into a bevy of gospel chants and sways. The tension between modern day instruments and rhythms with traditional folk music is done masterfully and tastefully. In the case of “Sunset Dream,” the earthiness becomes magical, like alchemy.

The intensity of “Memory” bores down with an erhu, backed by a piano, but only striking forth when the violins fly first. The added percussives and synth might seem to some listeners over-arranged; once again, the power in singularity is defeated by so much rhythmic interplay between the electric guitars and synths.  In fact, the various layers in this arrangement may seem to some as somewhat self-indulgent.

A major positive on Power In Heaven is its warm embrace of instruments from around the globe.  There is no better example of this than “Caravan.” It travels to a far out land filled with Flamenco-like percussion, European accordion as well as what sound like Indian chants, which then get swept away by Jewish folk music from a clarinet. The salad bowl of sounds is tantalizing, fun, festive and spicy; kind of like a barbecue Bar Mitzvah where they serve tacos, chicken tikka masala and fettuccine alfredo all on the same table.  Some listeners might be equally confused and surprised by the mellifluous and explosive combinations. “Caravan” definitely warrants several listens; sounds will be missed the first and second time around for sure.

“Overnight Trip” is another track that leverages instruments from across the globe. It has a contemporary sound fused with the traditional flutes, violins, and sexy-romantic accordion. The ringing flute synths are slightly piercing in volume and tone, perhaps over-arranged and unnecessary. The song picks up in both volume and tempo halfway through allowing the listener to forget the sleepy beginning. The melody rolls around building on different variations adding color and intrigue to the song; definitely one of the most interesting tracks on Power In Heaven.

Tracks with cinema potential appear a few times on the album.  “Back Home” is cinematically engaging with bells, explosions and racing horn-blaring trains. It’s a blend of science fiction dynamics and classic love-story sighs.  The striations of erhu accents add an exotic flavor to the wispy soundtrack.

The restrained tempo of “Long Night,” dramatic orchestral movements and long-winded flourishes, build into dramatic booming pauses and grow into tiny silences, only to be awakened by a slow death-like drum slam. The end of the song rattles away in snares and bangs, like the closing of a sarcophagus.  It could very well be the closing scene to a movie of good-over-evil, Hollywood-style.

Fans of ambient music with a world sound flair should buy this record.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Michael Valentino “Dreams of Escape”

10 May, 2011 Michael Morgan

Innovative and mathematical are two words that describe the ambient music of Michael Valentino’s latest album, Dreams of Escape. His striking compositions follow an intriguing formula that is both original and percussion-centric.

“October Moon” is a series of recursive percussive-like bells and hollow pipe synths that fan out during the song. The synths whistle and flail smoothly as they surround themselves with sky reaching ambient repetitive rings.  ”Sun Is Rising” peaks and troughs in volume with long synth notes held until the banging percussion breaks up each longer measure. The frenetic rhythms along with the keys illustrate a musical math that keeps the arrangement tight and disciplined, building up in new variations over the course of the song.

Another great example of Michael’s mastery of percussive moods is the Irish folk-tinged “Starboard (Nautical Mix).”  Sure to be a fan favorite, seagulls and ocean waves scour the beginning of the song along with a percussive heartbeat and staccato string section, which rings a beautiful Irish folk-like melody. Its crystalline production quality and benign arrangement make it one of the best tracks on the album. The bridge of the song has the melody moving up an octave and then reaching a plateau on that octave. It’s that musical journey which is so innovative and gorgeous that will woo smartly ambient fans.  The title song, “Dreams of Escape,” also has a percussive stance but in a more subtle manner.  It starts off with an enormous shadow of synth echoes and delicate percussive noises, as if a plane is awakened from its hangar. The short loop of measures has the unassuming and epic quality of background music for a television commercial or, better yet, a documentary.

Michael’s showmanship swiftly arrives on Dreams of Escape with his live rendition of “Valley of the Kings.”  The intensity and depth of Michael’s piano composition is potentially fatalistic in terms of his attention to detail. “Valley…” could easily be used for documentary film or cinema soundtracks.  During some portions, the melody echoes traditional Jewish folk music, while other portions have a pop sensibility.  The ebb and flow of tempo combined with his unabashed energetic musicianship would make this a surefire repeater for a follow-up live album or EP.  More vengeful pianos ensue on “Past Has Gone (Sorrow’s Mix).”  With the same deliberate rage and drama as “Valley…,” the blaring pianos along with a large dose of reverb and black-and-ivory retort, the notes shake and smack the listener in the ears. Michael’s musical moods and styles will woo fans of Yanni; they will need no readjustment and will feel right at home.

Moods shift with “Dusk” and “Mansion III.” The former is a dreary, cold and windy two minutes. The synths are somber and crestfallen. Choral layers add a somewhat infernal hue to the already downtrodden melody.  “Mansion III” starts off with the patter of rain and thunder as the liquid laced synths dot the cinematic sweeps of orchestral flourishes. The song repeats itself several times and would make for a great loop as an intense scene in a drama movie or documentary.  Rays of optimism also peer out from time to time on the record.  “A Lullaby for Memories” is a string composition whose melody is sweet and rolling. The hopeful blend of strings and synthesizer is quaint, fulfilling and reaffirming.  “Passage” is an additional example of bright light hope.  The slow moving pipe organ march that gives the listener the sense of an ongoing and deliberate exodus. The heavenly choir voices (think Enya) like many of the other tracks on Dreams of Escape also contribute to the song’s elevated mood.

Fans will be lulled and inspired, uplifted and earthbound after listening to Dreams of Escape. New age and ambient sound aficionados along the likes of Yanni and Enya should not miss this record.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

YellowLine Music “trans iterate”

29 Apr, 2011 Michael Morgan

Brian Ackley’s musical laboratory of ambient apparatus, aka YellowLine Music, attempts to make sense of sound in space (without the test tubes and Ehrlenmeyer flasks, or, Bunsen burners) on trans iterate.  Whether it’s fields sounds, industrial noise or the smashing of disparate instruments, these experiments produce noteworthy and sometimes, lukewarm results.

“agrestic” makes great use of empty musical space to create musical air pockets within the song. Ambient percussion and a lulling ring permeate the track along with lots of reverb and a tick-tickity patter of percussion lines throughout the track.  Another memorable track is the reverb-heavy “egegik.”  Its epic melody sounds as if it’s ready to crescendo into a larger pop-babble, and its reticence is contagious and fluid; musically challenging, but not any less appealing. Clocking in at 6:35, the meandering and repetitive guitar reverb is kept alive through sinuous crescendos and decrescendos, like a lost dialogue of instruments appealing to one another.

Another successful experiment is “sage notion.”  The twisted resonance at the song’s intro peels back into drowsy atmospherics along with a looping organ and aquatic sounds that whimsically wither and rattle. The trippy beat by itself is captivating and imagery-prone.  The phantom guitar that peppers the soothing jams adds a needful touch to the woozy tempo, and the alien-like echo-coughs also succeed in wrapping the track up into a ball of wet alley sounds.  “Sage notion” is ideal for background indie film scenes or perhaps a VW commercial.  “puppet wrangler” is also indie film food, allowing for a wide range of captivating scenic moods. Its slow hip-hop beat encased in atmospheric low rings resonate coolly and vibrate spastically.  A single-strummed electric guitar, along with a lingering guitar single-chord progression is faint in the background.

At times, the mood-driven experiments flatline into lengthy monotonic stanzas or unusual smash-ups of disparate instruments, like in “archipelago,” where industrial ear-numbing sirens continuously fire off like a broken train pulling in and out of its station.  Musically, it is empty of color or dynamics and is more like a series of field sounds. Listeners might want to skip the painful industrial banter.

The signature theme of “fluid hollows” is carried out in a military revelry by what sounds like a synth set on a woodwind sound laced in a mid-tempo hip-hop beat. The superimposition of the two different tempos is more like an anti-mashup of ambient and hip-hop. Kudos to the artist for trying to create something original and unusual, but listeners might find the hip-hop beat and synth cadences strange bedfellows.  Unlike “fluid hollows,” “remirp” succeeds in juxtaposing disparate instruments. The dramatic Latin-like guitar phrasings along with the thrushes of cymbals and brass ornamentations fit together musically and manage well the coercion of wineglass harmonics.

The synth experiments also reach successful states of grooviness. “Enoch root”‘s  laser-like sieves of sound are carried off quickly by a trancelike snare rhythm and glassy cascading hypnotic synths. Its clever synth-antagonizing groove quietly protrudes throughout the song over sneaky bass lines and loungey ambient fills.  “dusted mirror”‘s alien-like synth swirls are equally descriptive musically as the song’s title. Careful details are not left to whim as the dissonant guitar melody weaves its notes around the fuzzy glass synths. The tempo cleverly stops and starts leaving the listener in limbo. This might confuse some listeners who may expect a buildup of guitars and additional synth layers, especially since the song hits a cliff and prematurely ends.  ”overspun”‘s lo-fi pop melody rings throughout repeatedly, eventually losing some energy when a soft piano solo takes hold, even though the percussion indicates a takeoff rather than a landing.

Fans of ambient experimental music and field sounds will appreciate the musical intent on trans iterate.  Many of the songs are worth several listens while some of the less successful experiments might be one-time-onlys.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Modular Punk “Avery”

27 Apr, 2011 Michael Morgan

An intense and bulging house and techno throb permeates Brooklyn-based Modular Punk’s seven-plus minute dance floor-screaming “Avery (Original Mix).” From its raunchy start, it’s pretty clear that this indie DJ has got serious late-night rave ammo injecting into clubs and other underground venues where pierced and tattooed thrill-seeking indie kids trek. Much like his other DJ brethren, Modular’s music is more about style and tempo, and less about melody and aesthetic.  In summary, if it pumps, kick it; if it jiggles, shake it; and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Such is the case with the fixed hypnotics of “Avery.”

The song starts off with a harmless rattle and tachycardic bass beat.  After a few measures the distant synth wails signal the pumped up-tempo to come.  Peeling synths expose a boiling set of bass and percussive progressions that form the track’s thematic backbone.  Halfway through the song, a distant variation of the synth repetition swirls into aural view catapulting onto the dance floor; the techno synths bop and dangle into a quick tizzy eventually led away by more bass pulsations.  As sparkly clean as the production and arrangement is, the pulsations become repetitive and its intense monotonic allure wears off. Perhaps some additional sampling or a raging storm of synths and percussion could fill the void?

The rhythmic hypnosis will certainly appeal to the house and trance types.  After all, the music is meant for late night cigarettes and beer-capades.  Music supervisors for television might want to think about using the kinky atmospherics for a strip bar scene in a crime scene drama or erotic cinema antics.

If fist-pumping and ass-grabbing techno chills are what fans crave for, then that’s what they’ll undoubtedly get in “Avery (Original Mix).” Fans of pure techno and house jams should definitely buy this album for its tightly arranged mix and for fulfilling their dance floor-filled promises.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)