Saturday, September 14, 2013

album review: 'echo bench' by echo bench

I'd like to start this review with a necessary clarification that I really didn't was necessary until fairly recently, specifically in some of the comments that were posted on certain videos. This is not a response to these comments and I won't be naming any names, but I do feel I need to get something off my chest before I get into the meat of this review.

And here it is: one of the big reasons that my reviews are so long in comparison with others is that I want to ensure that people going through them are completely informed regarding my state of mind before I dive into what I like and dislike about music. I want all of my cards to be on the table in full view, and since I prize honesty, I want to make sure that you're aware of all of the factors that could influence my opinion, one way or another. 

Now this has led to a criticism I didn't really expect: the comment that since I went into said reviews with expectations, I was thus unfair to the artists in question. And there's a simple response to this: yes, I did go in with ideas and potentially even expectations regarding what said albums might entail - I'm a human being, and it would be intellectually and emotionally dishonest for me to curtail those expectations and not speak without a fully informed opinion that is uniquely my own. 

That being said, there is a marked difference between expectations and keeping an open mind, and this is where I feel the majority of said comments missed the point. Sure, I might have gone in with expectations, but I was open and willing to believe that I might be wrong in some capacity. I never go into reviews 'wanting to hate' something - if anything, I want to be proven wrong, I want the artist to step up and smash all of my preconceived opinions about their work. Is it the artist's job to prove themselves to me exclusively? Well, of course not, but it is the artist's job to make art that is compelling or is informed by some purpose, and it's my job as a critic to interpret that purpose and pass judgement on whether it works or not. And thus, when it comes to every act, be it country or hip-hop or metal or indie rock or even the shallowest of pop and EDM, I try to keep an open mind and try to understand their appeal. And while I might have creeping feelings of dread opening up some albums, I'm always willing to give them a fair shot, and i'm constantly seeking to improve my knowledge of acts so I can make my judgments fairly.

And yet, I'm going to get excited about some albums, and I'm going to dread reviewing others. I'm not going to stop having expectations, because said expectations inform my opinions and thus my reviews. And since I am an optimist, I will reaffirm my commitment to go into albums with hopes for the best. And so when I got a copy of the debut self-titled album from all-female post-punk trio Echo Bench and was informed they were reminiscent of acts like Savages (who I reviewed very highly earlier this year) and Joy Division, I was excited. I made sure to temper my excitement with some measured forethought - indie rock debuts are tricky things, and the high, high standard Savages set should definitely not be the same for every act in their vein - but I was excited and intrigued just the same. So, how does the Echo Bench album turn out?

Ugh. Look, I wish I could recommend this album - it sucks being the reviewer that has to pan a debut album, particularly from an indie act - but I'm sorry, there's very little here that works on Echo Bench's debut, and it's a hard album to like. In fact, it's a hard album to feel much of anything about it at all. It's not terrible, it's not a catastrophe or something even inspires a lot of anger, but it's definitely not something I like all that much either. If I'm being totally, bluntly honest, I have a hard time thinking about anything on this album I really enjoyed.

Let's start with the songwriting, which is arguably the area where Echo Bench have the least problems. Thematically, they're centered around toxic relationships and depression and often a very crippling sense of vulnerability. Where Savages opted for hard-edged, sex-positive third-wave feminist themes, this album seems to be treading in somewhat of the opposite direction, with lead singer Noga Shatz's lyrics not really implying a lot of agency or power in said relationships, which manifests in songs like 'Same Mistake' and 'High Roller' and 'Broken' and 'Liquid Sky'. It's a strikingly depressing album - which I suspect was the point - but I start raising the question what this depression leads to on a thematic level. I get the feeling that agency was starting to be reclaimed if we follow the 'arc' of this album, first reclaimed sexually on '24', then emotionally on 'French' with the final overarching conclusion reached on 'Flesh A Bone'. But it's painfully thin, and it doesn't help matters that there really isn't much in the technical songwriting in terms of poetry that sticks out for me. If they're trying to do what Savages did with quick, curt, blunt statements... well, there's an art to getting that right, and there was still a certain amount of harsh poetry to the execution of that. Echo Bench aren't quite there yet, and too many of the lyrics feel like they're cribbed from bad teenage poetry.

Now part of the problem is that the frontwoman of Savages, Jehnny Beth, is such a powerful presence on the tracks, given center stage and able to match the potent swelling force of her instrumentation. In comparison, Noga Shatz's vocals are softer and lighter and smoother, and while her singing is pretty and occasionally emotional, she doesn't strike me as having experienced or powerful vocals, to say nothing a commanding presence at the microphone, which is a pretty major problem. Sure, in most cases it sounds like she's trying, but I'm left completely unmoved and often a little disconcerted at Miss Shatz's delivery. She sounds nervous at the microphone, and while there are some songs where that sort of tremulous delivery works, it's definitely not strong when it needs to be.

Now granted, the production on this album does her no favours, which takes me to the first huge issue with this album: the production is terrible. For starters, the mix is flat and lifeless, with very few places for the guitars or vocals to really breathe and gain any sort of swell or impact. On top of that, most of the mix is set at the same volume, which means that Miss Shatz's thin vocals are drowned out by the harder guitar. But fine, even if we're going to assume these production choices were intentional and they were trying to recreate some sort of lo-fi punk vibe, I have to deliver the harshest criticism of them all - there's little-to-no texture anywhere in the guitars or bass, mostly just swallowed in reverb and fuzz instead of letting any sort of definitive hook rise to the surface. And you know, that sort of production choice would be fine if the mix was allowed to gain some brooding energy or heft or approach a 'wall of sound' technique, but none of that is here, which means I'm left listening to an album that really doesn't develop much for me. The best track on the album is 'French', which was remixed by Colin Newman from Wire and it shows - but even by that standard, it sounds like a low-rent Wire track at best.

And here's where I have to drop the final blow, and that is the instrumentation. Frankly, there are little-to-no coherent hooks on this album that stuck in the brain that made me want to come back to this album after I relistened to it a couple of times, and that's a real problem when the guitar and drumwork on this album is very, very basic. Part of this is the fault of the production, I get that, but the other big issue is that I was left completely unimpressed by any of the instrumentation. Most songs have one or two progressions that are just repeated ad nauseum throughout the track without any changes, and it makes the album get really boring really fast, and what's worse are that the few places where Echo Bench do try to get a little technical (like on 'Out Of The Blue'), it comes across as disjointed and sloppy.

In the end, I can't recommend Echo Bench's debut. The production is a mess, the vocals are unrefined, the lyrics are amateurish, and the instrumentation is rather bland. But at the same time, I can't muster up any hatred or even real disappointment with this album, and I will admit that the thin narrative throughline of this album was executed reasonably well. Echo Bench suffers when placed in comparison with Savages, but I'd make the argument that that particular comparison isn't really a good one, particularly given the vocals and songwriting direction, which is looking to do something very different, and they do show a bit of promise. So with that, I'm inclined to be generous here and give them a 5/10, which isn't a recommendation but isn't a warning sign either. If you're a fan of post-punk or noise rock, you can definitely do better, but you could also do a whole lot worse.

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