SHADOWPLAY: A Post-Punk, Dark Wave Overview – The Estranged “The Estranged,” Be Forest “Earthbeat,” JoyCut “PiecesOfUsWereLeftOnTheGround”

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the estranged bigger

There’s this radio show I host covering post-punk in all its many varied forms, spanning every era from the Cambrian explosion of the original years (’77-’83, roughly) through its interim exponents (For Against, for instance, 1987-1990) to the full-throated revival flourishing now in diverse corners of the globe though mainly in mainland Europe and the US. Of the latter, the scene’s been especially fervent on the West Coast with something of an outpost headquarters located here in Portland. This last came as happy news for me a couple years ago when I began the show, as the station’s remit was to feature as much local talent as possible (“Music Where You Live” was its motto; it’s gone now and the show landed here) and it was in that spirit I began poking around Stumptown, discovering, via an online article by now-friend Oliver Sheppard – not a Portlander but located in Texas – that a thriving scene was in fact happening here but was sufficiently underground to have escaped my detection. At its center, nominally, is Black Water Records on NE Russell, and at the center’s center, more or less, is The Estranged.

Already two albums in (Static Thought in 2008, Subliminal Man in 2010), I and my listeners had a fine time catching up but as 2012 plowed through into 2013 a bit of a clamor was rising for a new record. Four months ago or so Keith (Testerman, owner/operator of Black Water and The Estranged’s drummer) hinted to me that there may well be not one but two new LPs on the near horizon. The band wasted no time making him a man of his word, as both a brand new (self-titled) studio album and a collection of early 7″ers (Type Foundry Sessions Vol. 1) were dropped before the new year had much of a chance to take its first baby steps. As an introduction to the band, these two story-so-far bookends couldn’t be more instructive.

Though a repackaging of an earlier singles compilation from 2009, TFS Vol.1 is a welcome release as it makes a Japan-only compilation more available and provides essential perspective on both how strong this band already were when they first emerged while also limning the band’s progression from a Christian Joy Division Death squad with a taste for the brash leanings of the Damned to a band that, well, still flash such markers but do so with an expanded, if still driving, palette. From the sounds blowing out the speakers on Type Foundry, The Estranged could well have stayed within that template – explosive dark post-punk punk, exemplified as well as any by “Statue In A Room,” their first appearance on vinyl in 2008 (a split 7″ with Autistic Youth), all brutal melodic slicing guitar riffs (Mark Herman), thunder rhythm drumming, a bassline climbing its own trellises of melody (Derek Willman), passionate vocals carving the difference between a yelp and a plea – and everyone would have gone home happy forever. “Fast Train,” with its ominous rumble and rush, the way “The Masses” falls over itself without falling down, “Vilified”‘s Buzzcockian gleam with a rusted-tin edge, all of them display a furious energy that’s not only well worth your attention (and your euros) but could also have allowed the band a safe harbor for as long they might have wished to stay. Fortunately for us, they’re not interested in that, a fact made plain by the, umm, sublime Subliminal Man (an album that shuffled retrospectively to the top 10 of my 2010 list once I finally heard it) and hammered home with even greater finesse on the new new album.

the estranged band

From the very start with “Forever Been Erased” the evolution of The Estranged is almost startlingly apparent. Though still an unassisted trio, the sound strikes as at once both more open and more widely dimensioned, one of the double-tracked guitars even making me do a double-take of sorts, so much does it cross the mix like a descending piano run. Particulars aside, it is, without question, an overall issue of space. Make no mistake, the relative density of sound that was an integral part of the band’s fabric when they first launched is massaged here into a much broader sonic texture (a process, it should be noted, already in progress on their last LP). The results, perhaps paradoxically to some, is in many ways a more intense record. The hooks that have always been The Estranged’s not-so-secret ingredient, that caught us by the scruff of the ear and wouldn’t let go, are not only extant but are now given enough room in the arrangements to sink in even deeper. Hooks, in fact, abound.

“Mark Of Sin,” peeling off a siren guitar into a devilishly catchy progression, is the hit The Mob never quite wrote, “Over And Over” trips dramatically forward, Keith’s drumming pushing Derek’s bass pulling Keith’s drumming, tumbling as always over and, yes, over each other as Mike’s guitar rides above them throwing off a tone we might well call a ‘dark light,’ the riff arresting, searing and soaring as he’s wont to do. Arguably an album highlight, “Play For Keeps,” to some extent, revives the Gang Of Four spark in a way they themselves so failed to do on the sadly forgettable Content, that same brand of chopping jump to it, rife with imperatives and here just listen for yourself. (The Leeds lads, of course, a germane reference point for this band as well in terms of personal-as-political lyrical content, if minus the Marxist echoes). “Another Stab,” with its oh-oh-oh‘s, one more mere killer of a lead bassline and a mid-song solo that surprises with its sharpness before seducing with classic punk virtuosity (not an oxymoron and never has been), is simply a thrill but then that could genuinely be said about all nine tracks here. These songs land in you up to the fletching. “The Ride” even tosses in a Morricone motif, for chrissake, before galloping off into the glorious distance, while “Languid Sky” rather seeps across the canvas, all elements already mentioned pressed into fervent service for a semi-lengthy trawl across an electrically barren post-romantic landscape.

If you’ve followed this band for a while, The Estranged is everything you hoped and expected, the vistas more expansive, the stride more mature, the vitality undiminished. It’s an album by a band that takes this shit seriously, in short. To not move is to die, and The Estranged are very alive and very well, this record victorious proof. If you’re new to this band, wow, what a great time to find them. Enjoy.

be forest

Readers of this column may well recall an earlier despatch regarding Soviet Soviet and their crucial membership in what’s called the Pesaro Scene, a burgeoning movement rooted in the coastal Italian city due east from Florence. As proof it wasn’t a fluke or a hoax (never know what sketchy constructs we music writers might conjure out of thin air), here we have Be Forest, another moody band from Rossini’s birthplace on the edge of the Adriatic.

Following the more propulsive debut (Cold, 2011), the original two girl-one boy trio of bassist Costanza Delle Rose, standing drummer Erica Terenzi – they both share vox though Erica takes lead – and guitarist Nicola Lampredi have evened the gender balance by adding Lorenzo Badioli to supply greater layers of atmosphere via synths and whatever else he can bend to his will. Mission in every sense accomplished. Where Cold hewed noticeably more closely to the deep grey post-punk spine of dominant bass and spiky chiming Echoey guitars as filtered through a 4AD-shoegazey prism – Erica’s voice has a gazer’s dreaminess to it – new album Earthbeat drifts well beyond the margins of its predecessor, nimbly floating around the boundaries of the Cocteaus-on-extra-adrenaline camp. The guitars are still glassine and forcefully brittle, the bass still plundering the lowest, most richly appointed chambers of the heart, the singing still a kind of glancing angelic, but with the band’s expanded ambitions and Lorenzo’s expertise at brocading supple tapestries of color and escape, Be Forest have concocted a record of rather exquisite shapes, textures, and outright earworms.

be forest band

“Airwaves” captures with a pounce, rapid-pulse bass and drums, a ricochet dazzle of electric like Will Sergeant trapped in a house of mirrors, vocals a loud whisper of lure and mystery. “Ghost Dance” brings what it promises, spectral with an earthen bottom end like a tribal trance, and is in league with both “Totem” and “Totem II,” all charged with the transport of those within earshot to a liminal in-between space where thought and action switch identities then slip off into a hypnotic raving euphony. “Captured Heart,” with Lorenzo slyly stitching almost Peruvian-sounding flute notes inside a poignant drape of sad cascading percussion, bass following resigned suit, Nicola’s guitar reinforcing with its own restrained grandeur and a questing, hopeful vocal, is one of the most eloquently beautiful songs I’ve heard in this young year.

By the time you get down to the teasing, pleasing rumble of “Colours,” the umbrous gleam of “Sparkle,” and “Hideaway”‘s lengthy, transfixing dreamscape of a (hidden) exit you’ll be happy to have been invited to a world of kaleidoscopes and churchyards, of escapist rituals and an inescapable, if sighingly joyous, darkness, You might also find yourself wondering, in all seriousness, what it takes to emigrate to Pesaro.

joycut

Staying in Italy, running straight up the A14 about 80 miles, we come to Bologna, home to long-running dark wave band JoyCut. Formed in 2011 – their name, incongruously, a portmanteau of Nick Drake song “Joey” and Pink Floyd’s Final Cut – they’ve hurled themselves into their first major North American tour in support of third album PiecesOfUsWereLeftOnTheGround, released in Europe only (Irma) December 17th. Recorded in various out-of-the-way, solar-powered locales in New York, Berlin and their home town, the album and its recording reflect the band’s commitment to climate issues and planet health in general, the (beautiful, LP-resembling) CD packaging, as well the CD itself, all deriving from recycled material. As if to up their recycling bona fides, much of the percussion heard on Pieces comes from the pummeling of found objects. The tracks themselves, however, while indeed synthesizing – i.e. ‘re-purposing’ – a rich spectrum of influences, both in terms of sound and structure, emerge from the process as singularly JoyCut in style and mood.

Through Pieces‘ fifteen, er, pieces, you’ll pick up echoes and twinges and near-direct signals of everything from Godspeed to Low-era Bowie to the more lugubrious end of the Cure spectrum to Einsturzende-covering-the-Blue Nile (“Funeral”). You’ll sense the Chemical Brothers cowering in the shadows of punktronica that they wish they’d had the nerve to invent (“Children In Love”). On the monstrous “Neverland” you’ll get an idea maybe of what “Public Image” may have evolved into if powered by the muscular dance possibilities of E rather than bitterness and bile. A floor-filler that does your head in, in short, and I’d claim it as an album pinnacle if only there weren’t so many of them.

joycut band

The title track of sorts, “Pieces Of Us,” starts out all a-glow with a synthy whirr of menace and one may think ‘Ahh, interlude’ but one would be almost fatally mistaken. Once the Thor’s timepiece drums are joined just past the minute mark by an inspired consortium of bass throb and crystal guitar stab we’re up in the air and all heaven breaks loose. “Wireless” builds the way an MBV track might – many do here – but instead of burying itself under massive cloudheads of distortion it swirls mightily into a kind of post-rock mountain-climbing expedition, the revelry of the maelstrom being fully and, in fact, epically explored, “Individual Routine,” conversely, mines the grittier end of things, its pace plodding at first with precise care, effects going off with robot factory regularity, breaking for a shot of espresso then heading back to the machines with an eerie vengeance, you feel hounded, surrounded, you feel thrilled and invigorated, this track that tension in one concise three-and-a-half minute statement. “Darkstar,” meanwhile, posits New Order on the far end of the new world order, out clubbing under the mantle of a dark leisure time, it’s relentless channel of a groove edged with anxiety, that anxiety in turn shadowed by incipient glints of unstoppable hope, again the tension.

As mentioned, JoyCut are on a fairly wide-ranging tour of the States right now, hoping that, even without a US record deal in place quite yet, they’ll be able to sow some seeds of interest. On the strength of this record and the success they’ve had doing just that on the European circuit, building up a solid fan base touring with Art Brut, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and more – word is they’re powerfully good live – my guess is they’ll wildly meet their goal. Just had it confirmed they’re playing Portland in a month and a half and nothing short of death will keep me from going. I wanna hear this record blown up live.