Friday, September 6, 2013

album review: 'colourful cows' by syndrome

As I've mentioned a few times before, I have taken requests to review albums in the past, mostly during times when there's nothing really coming out and I need to review/rant about something. This month, however, I wasn't planning on taking any requests for reviews, mostly because September is an overloaded month (and from the look of my schedule, October looks just as bad if not worse) and I'm going to have a hard time covering everything I want to cover without keeling over from exhaustion.

I'm making an exception here - because for the first time in my 'career' as a reviewer, a band has actually approached me directly and asked for me to review their material. 

And you know, at first I was really flattered. It's one of those moments which is kind of nice, when you read that they approached you because they value your critique and analysis (or at least they said they did). But I got a sick, sinking feeling in my gut, because talking about a pop star who I will likely never meet is a lot different than talking about an unsigned indie act trying to get their first break. And as fun as it can be to rip some shallow, studio-produced crap to shreds, it's a lot harder when you know this work might be a labour of love that they put a lot of effort into, something that they want to share with the world.

Of course, I'm also keenly aware that I might just be getting used to build free buzz for the band or at least get somebody talking about these guys. And so before I accepted the task of this review, I made it very clear to the band that I wasn't about to pull punches here. I'm not going to coddle them or act as free positive press - I'm a critic, and I'm not going to have my integrity compromised, no matter how independent the source. But at the same time, I do want to see people with passion for their art succeed, so this review is going to be structured a little differently, instead framed as a series of questions this band will inevitably face from labels as they try to get their band signed. These are the questions for which they're going to need answers if they want to have any hope of success.

So, with all of that in mind, let's talk about the band Syndrome, and their EP, 'Colourful Cows'.

So here's my first question: what genre is this music? If you can't answer this question immediately, you'll be shown the door, no matter what, and when it comes to an act like Syndrome, there doesn't seem to be much of a clear answer. If I were to hazard a guess based upon their instrumentation, I'd argue it could be considered some blend of electro-rock and progressive metal (in fact, I could swear that whole segments of 'Open The Gate' are very reminiscent of Porcupine Tree's 'Sounds Of Muzak'), with the hazy and distorted guitar work, forceful drumming, and abundance of electronic elements. And for the most part individually, these elements work decently, particularly the solid piano work and the occasional good moments from drums (although those triggers aren't fooling anyone). And I will say that occasionally the 'sonic collage' that Syndrome are trying to create does have a certain unique quality to it (although Trent Reznor would look at the machine fetishism on this album and tell them to tone it down a bit).

Frankly, there is a lot going on in these tracks in terms of instrumentation and production - in my opinion, way too much, which leads to my first big problem with this EP: the production is all over the place. Yes, there are some beautiful moments that when taken on their own, sound very pretty, but there's little-to-no transitions and even less control on the mix. It's overproduced in a bad way - there's so many elements that clash with each other on a sonic level that the track becomes cluttered and confused, mostly because there seems to be very little volume modulation between elements and little restraint in the production. The electronic elements are the ones that feel most glaringly out-of-place, because they don't often feel integrated into the song, instead just slathered on top of the mix with little coherency. It sounds a lot like they were trying to imitate what Arjen Lucassen did on his Ayreon and Star One albums, and man, does it backfire in a big way. And for an act that appears to pride themselves on the construction of their songs, it's a little distressing that the overloaded mix was deemed the right artistic direction.

This takes us to the vocals, and I will applaud Syndrome on recruiting a decent vocalist (who incidentally has a much better singing voice than for spoken word). He's got energy and some charisma - and thus I really wish I got a chance to hear more of him within the mix, as his voice can occasionally be swallowed by the electronics and layers of reverb smothering it. If I was the head of a record label, the first thing I'd do when presented with this EP would be to bring the vocalist more towards the front of the mix, to better hear what he's trying to sell so damn hard.

Of course, had I done so, I probably would have dismissed the EP outright (more on that in a bit), which will lead to my second question: what is this EP about? Syndrome does have an answer to this question: it is, to quote, 'the first part of a story about the 'colourful cows', a metaphor to our life and society'. Now keep in mind that openly political music rarely sells well, and probably hasn't produced chart success since Green Day's American Idiot in 2004, but what I want to focus on here is the 'first part of a story'. To me, this is like approaching a publishing company saying your have the first three chapters of your novel written and that you want to get that published now, even though it's not a complete story. And that takes me to my next big issue - this album, if it is telling a story, does not feel self-contained. It feels much like a fragment of a bigger work and left me saying, 'That's it?' at the end of my listen. There's no arc to this album, and while I realize in a more singles-driven music industry that album coherency isn't as important, but Syndrome is trying to make an electro-prog-rock album and that genre still works in album statements.

And that's putting aside the other big factor in political albums that I mentioned back when I reviewed Shaking The Habitual by The Knife: the message you convey is only as effective as the manner in which it is conveyed, which takes us to the songwriting. And I'm going to have to be very blunt when I say this, because for me it was the immediate death blow for this EP: the lyrics are amateurish at best and for the most part, the technical songwriting is pretty much worthless. Forget lyrical flow, there's barely a coherent rhyme scheme here, and the lyrics feel leaden and stodgy, with no real poetry or grace in their delivery. Of course, there is one main metaphor that gets repeatedly referenced: the conflict between the 'colourful cows' and the 'pigs' (guess which side is which, folks, it isn't hard). And I sat back and nodded and thought, 'Yep, I've listened to Nine Inch Nails and particularly Year Zero too - what else do you have?' The other major problem that rears its head here is that by only bringing together a fragment of a story, Syndrome really don't have much else. 

This takes us to my final question, and the harshest one of all: 'who is the market for this album?' It's a question no artist ever wants to answer, but it's a sad reality that most art does not always have universal appeal, and that means you need to know your demographics. And since Syndrome have limited their market by their sound and message, they'd better have a damn good answer to that particular question. And even if they do, let's take a step deeper and analyze that conflict between the obvious heroes in 'the colourful cows' and 'the pigs'. The breaking point of the metaphor for me is that both are herd animals, cows often being led around by a ring through their nose. Is the story of Colourful Cows then ultimately that both sides are unwitting cattle queuing up for the slaughter, being ground down by the machine? I don't have a problem with the EP ending on a such a downbeat note, but I get the distressing feeling that Syndrome's interpretation might not be exactly in line with mine - which becomes a problem when you're working with broad strokes and a serious dearth of additional nuance. Either way, since I'm only listening to a fragment of the story, where the lyrics are basically all set-up and no pay-off, I have very little in the way of additional context to which I can interpret this, and not a lot of interest to look for more.

So in short, Syndrome's instrumentation wants to be either Porcupine Tree or Ayreon, and their subject matter wants to be in line with Trent Reznor - and yet the songwriting and production can't match either. Coupled with the complete lack of memorable hooks or distinctive instrumentation, and the fact that this album is only the first piece of a non-self contained story and we have an act that doesn't move me in the slightest. On the strength of this EP alone, I would have difficulty justifying the signing of Syndrome, even despite their possibly unique song construction and production techniques. 

As it is, Colourful Cows by Syndrome isn't worth your time, particularly since Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails just came out and is several steps better than this. Skip it. And as for Syndrome... well, try to take the comments I'm putting forward as ideas for your improvement. I like that you're trying to be political and play with some big ideas - you just need to find a way to make those ideas compelling, and you'll have a real hit, trust me on this.

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