Yearly Yinz 2019: Albums

Feralcat – Feralcat

On his self-titled June debut, saxophonist Roger Rafael Romero (aka Feralcat) transcended cheese. Not only did he place his sax front and center in a rock band—a move that, unless pulled off flawlessly, runs the risk of conjuring images of wind machine-blown mullets and sculpturesque perms—but he placed his sax front and center in a prog rock band. One need only picture Keith Emerson playing his piano while flying through the air for their eyes to roll so far back that they get stuck there. But, somehow, Romero makes it work.

Perhaps it’s because his instrument feels like a natural extension of his band’s heavy-duty guitar and piano riffage, rather than a gimmick that wears thin over time. Who needs a vocalist when you’ve got a fluid, lyrical saxophone player contributing truly excellent hooks to tracks like the dragon-wrangling “Castle Song” and the crescendo-heavy ballad “Indigo Dye”? Perhaps it’s the fact that Romero subverts the sound of progressive metal and bends it to his own will. Sure, there are some Periphery-esque chugga-chugga riffs and some Polyphian pyrotechnics here and there, but listen to the strutting salsa groove the band breaks out on “The Death Of Robbie Rotten,” and you’ll have zero doubts about Romero’s genre-blending compositional chops. As a result of Romero’s evocative playing and the adaptability of the metallic instruments behind him, Feralcat comes off more like a heavy Weather Report than it does a schmaltzy mashup of 80’s sounds. The cheese is dead, long live the cheese.   



Hearken – Help Me, I’m Alive

Donny Donovan’s face, grayed-out and grainy, stares out at you like an old time bandit in a wanted poster and silently screams, “Help Me, I’m Alive!” This is the first impression you get from Hearken’s June album of the same name. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, a callback to the melodrama of some of the classic emo bands that have inspired Donovan (who is also a member of Dinosoul). In some ways, though, it’s deadly serious. Help Me, I’m Alive is an intense listen, full of bareknuckle angst conveyed in acrobatic, cathartic fashion by way of Donovan’s stunning voice.

Hearken comprises only Donovan on guitar, vocals, and synths, and Greg Brunner on the skins, but the two of them whip up a tornado of energy between them, and Donovan absolutely unleashes on every song. Donovan makes use of repetition to drive emotional points home, honing in on potent phrases like “Fix me,” “I lost everything,” and “So tired” to convey feelings of despair and hopelessness. Hearken’s music is solidly rock ‘n’ roll, but they’ve got versatility within their sound, as demonstrated by the explosive piano balladry of “Butterfly,” the rave synth pop-punk of “Sure Shock,” and the Sabbath sludge of “Forgive.” And the hooks. God, the hooks. When Donovan’s voice kicks up into its higher register, you know you’re in for a treat, the best examples being the soaring “Fix Me” and the swaggering “Drugs.” Help Me, I’m Alive simply kicks ass; I for one am glad that Hearken is alive.



How things are made – Staff Retreat

I’m honestly not sure what How Things Are Made is. It could be a band. Or a podcast. Or the insane fever dream of NPR music host Bob Boilen. The project has three members (Brian Riordan, David Bernabo, and Matt Aelmore) that play multiple instruments, along with a ton of guest artists, and breaks its music down into seasons and episodes. Season 5, Episode 1 is entitled Staff Retreat, and we’re going to consider it an album for our purposes.

The narrative of a surreal corporate work retreat loosely ties together the Staff Retreat‘s four tracks, although this retreat sounds more like the madhouse environment that the legendary Captain Beefheart created for his Magic Band during the Trout Mask Replica sessions. Deceptively banal voiceovers lead us through the album; we’re informed that, “the baroque flute was invented in 1949, and will soon take over the world,” and addressed by a man “reporting from inside a bag of chips.” At the end of “Marshmallow Cookies,” an entirely improvised series of bizarre sounds, we are informed by a Siri doppelganger that guests have been playing instruments including “not a baroque flute,” “dog toys, I think,” and “saying ‘doo-doo-doo-doo’.” Then, of course, we’re treated to “Loudspeakers,” an achingly beautiful, Daniel Lanois-esque guitar ballad featuring local musicians Emily Rodgers and Erik Cirelli. Followed, logically, by a short track that sounds like an old Pokemon game being played on a busted console. Once you’re firmly entrenched within Staff Retreat’s headspace, it all makes perfect sense!



Madame Dolores – Pantry of Salt and Sugar

Everyone had (and continues to have) their own way of coping with the nightmarish reality TV vortex into which we were plunged in November 2016. Some got angry, some got sad, some got reflective, and some got inspired. Multimedia artist Christiane Leach, who makes music under the name Madame Dolores, got all of these things and more. July’s Pantry of Salt and Sugar is a chaotic, largely improvised collection of song sketches created in response to the inauguration of our toad president. Pantry sees Leach delivering stream of consciousness lyrics in a striking, Annie Lennox-ian contralto, her voice distorted and then situated within cavernous trip-hop soundscapes. A current of menace flows beneath the album’s 15 tracks; when Madame D tells us that “The World is Good” overtop grimy, dissonant bass, horror movie synths, and creeping beats, it sounds like she’s trying just as hard to convince herself.

Pantry isn’t a TRUMP album per se, although his presence lurks in the shadow of every drum hit and white noise burst; rather, its an exploration, the personal odyssey of a troubled soul frightened by what our country has become, or rather, the unmasking of what it’s always been. You know the exact orange asshole to which Madame D refers when she spits, “You’re such a…dick […] You enjoy being cruel,” on “DICK,” but she also has time to examine her own “Anxiety” and to dedicate some space to a treasured loved one. In the end, Madame D realizes that “I Don’t Belong to No Country,” a liberating notion that helps to set her, and any likeminded listener, apart from some of this bullshit.  




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