Monday, January 30, 2017

album review: 'dear avalanche' by lights & motion

So here's the truth of it: for as much post-rock as I've heard, I tend to like the genre... but I also don't tend to seek it out that much.

And I'm not really sure why that is. Yeah, I don't deny that some of it is because if I'm going to be listening to this sort of atmospheric, blurred over melodic rock tones I might as well take that next step and listen to black metal, but the truth runs a little more complicated than that. For one, a lot of the post-rock I've tended to hear doesn't have a lot of lyrics, and I've been well-known for citing that as a big factor behind a lot of my favourite music. But it also ties back to that for as much post-rock as I've heard, a lot of it starts to blur together, more than it otherwise should. I like the tones, I like the renewed focus on melody, I really like the commitment to crescendos and musical dynamics... but beyond that, a lot of these pieces don't tend to hook me as deeply as I would like.

So take Lights & Motion, for instance. This is a Swedish post-rock act, the solo project of Christoffer Franzén, and it's known for a certain cinematic swell and scope. And from the brighter guitar-driven tones of his debut in 2013 with Reanimation to the piano-driven Save Your Heart to the more lush and orchestral Chronicle in 2015, it was easily some of the prettiest and most serene post-rock I've ever heard - it's no surprise it's been picked as backing orchestration for a lot of modern TV and movie projects. But on some level that might be part of the issue - Lights & Motion make music that generally sounds appealing but doesn't exactly have a distinctive tone and feel beyond a couple of obvious comparison points to Explosions In The Sky - which yes, makes it ideal for advertising, but that financial blessing can also be a hidden curse. And yet thanks to Patreon the newest project Dear Avalanche wound up on my schedule, with buzz suggesting more strings textures to be shift and changed, along with more vintage synthesizers. And this raised some mixed feelings for me: I don't mind cooler synths, but Save Your Heart was easily the softest work this guy has put out by playing to that piano mold, and that type of melancholy can run out of steam quick in my books. But whatever, I was curious to hear more, so how was Dear Avalanche?

Honestly, I'm kind of at a loss here: not just that somebody put this on my Patreon schedule but how to even cover it. I mean, it's pleasant, it's atmospheric, it's generally likable, but maybe it's a factor of so much of this sort of music now being used for generic soundtrack filler, but I'm nowhere near as enticed or entranced by Dear Avalanche as I'd like to be. And the more I think about it, the more it's linked to the same reasons I find all of the albums from this group generally pleasant, but not transcendent in the same way that great post-rock should be.

And since there are no lyrics on this record, let's try to keep this brief, shall we? Now if you're familiar with Lights & Motion at all, Dear Avalanche will not surprise you much - for as much as this record cited that it'd be using more vintage synthesizers or opting for strings production that might be a little more experimental, that's really not the case. The few synths that do show up are the sort of ethereal, glassy tones that blend in near-perfectly with the rest of the mix, and it's near-identical for the strings, which are pushed into thin shimmering layers to add more depth in the upper register to enhance that heavenly feeling, complete with a thick layer of reverb to even further blunt any element of texture. So if you were going in looking for this record to pick up more tones that might feel a bit abrasive or actually push that pristine sound into having something of an edge... well, what the hell were you expecting from Lights & Motion, I doubt anything close to that was even on the table! And that indeed is my first big issue with this project: across the board, I'd make the argument this record takes absolutely no chances. Sure, there's a little more actual drumwork on this album, but even every hit here has been polished and refined so that even slightly more progressive patterns don't tend to impress me all that much. I do appreciate the slightly expansive kickdrum patterns that drive songs like 'Feathers' or 'Pandora' or 'Everest' or the rumbling crunch that cuts through 'Perfect Symmetry' or the more developed sections on 'DNA' or 'Anamorphic' that incorporate more snares, but it's not like we're getting anything progressive or that will be seem incredibly distinctive. And the sad fact is that this more often than not spills over to the actual composition too - arpeggiated chords across filmy pianos and ghostly strings, and maybe a guitar or bassline showing up every now and then to try and convince you this is a rock album.

And you know, if this record took these fundamentals and used them to build to more dramatic crescendos with satisfying payoffs that build off the grooves and melodies to moments of soaring climax - because by the Nine Hells, this record really wants to soar - we could have had something special... but Lights & Motion doesn't do this. And it's a fundamental issue of composition: the melodic buildup in the guitars and pianos often work to build to that huge point, and while it's all a little blurrier than I'd like it's got some strident power... that's almost immediately undercut by the song just ebbing off once it hits a satisfying point of buildup, or worse yet on songs like the closer 'We Only Have Forever' just being cut off altogether. And while all of this is handicapped by lack of prominent bass grooves that could have potentially made the fade back for a melodic coda mean something, the larger problem is the song length: if the songs had been given a little more room to turn those propulsive buildups into something that really explodes, I wouldn't feel like I get fourteen semi-distinct buildups but no actual payoff! And as such, the most I get out of an album like this are when it does get a little heavier to make that build have some meat to it, like buried deeper in the background on 'Silver Lining' or the frenetic guitar breakdown on 'Pandora' or the grinding low sizzle on 'DNA' or especially 'Perfect Symmetry', which is one of the few songs that earns its dramatic swell. Sure, 'Feathers' does get a little bit of wiry presence in the low end courtesy of the guitars, but it's so perfunctory that it barely satisfies its two moments of anticlimax, and while I might think the fluttering tones on 'Anamorphic' or the more acoustic touches on 'All The Way' are pretty, they need to be grounded in something!

But as a whole, the more I listened through this project the more I'm wondering why anyone would want me to cover this - it's like asking a film critic to review stock footage! Sure, it's pretty, there are the roots of a decent melodic idea at the core of this, and a few of these pieces do have some dramatic swell where you get hints of the artist behind it. But without more distinct instrumental character in the production or composition, I can't really endorse this - I guess the question is whether it succeeds in what it's trying to do, and on that basis I'm thinking a strong 5/10. But considering so much of this feels like baby's first post-rock in terms of composition, production, and dramatic payoff, it's only recommended if you're looking for music to soundtrack your vaguely inspirational scene on your TV show or montage that relies on other things for its dramatic payoff, it would probably work. But outside of that or using it to put me to sleep, I'd skip it.

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