Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is just one of those records that makes you feel better almost immediately after pressing play. The soft, fingerpicked patterns on the acoustic guitar accompanying a dreamy male voice; it’s the classic combination for any typical singer-songwriter. Something sets Benjamin Francis Leftwich apart from the crowd, though. Maybe it’s the chorus effects on his voice, or the string arrangements overlaid on top of the guitar chords, or maybe it’s the artistically autobiographical nature of the lyrics. I think the main point is that this album has a clear sense of authenticity to it. Each song is a complete transference of Leftwich’s ideals and creative vision. It’s remarkably intimate as well, and makes it easy to feel as if you are an audience of one, listening to a private music session.
For years, I could never bring myself to give much attention to the typical singer-songwriter. After all, what do they really do other than pluck a few chords on the guitar and write songs about love? I’ve had a recent change in perspective, though. While it may not be the most complex or musically innovative sound, it’s rich in emotional content. What is music, if not the purest form of expressing oneself? The act of taking the tangled mass of thoughts in your head, deciphering them, and channeling them through your own personal form of artistic expression…it’s an amazing thing. If you’ve ever tried to write a song in the past, then you know how deceptively challenging it is.
The indie scene in today’s music industry is as strong as ever. What originally began in the 1980s with the rejection of mainstream synthpop tendencies in favor of much rawer, grunge-influenced sound has metamorphosed into a unbelievably diverse collection of bearded, flannel-clad modern musicians. Of course, that’s a very simple way of describing it, but you get the idea. The point is that the concept of the highly independent artist who has total control of the creative side of their music. So now let’s dial our focus in quite a bit and shine the spotlight on a particular group from Great Britain named Clock Opera.
Although the band was first formed in 2009, they did not release their debut album, Ways to Forget, until 2012. Some would say that three years is a long time to prepare an album, but I would argue that there is no standard duration for such a feat. The one thing that can be said for certain is that the prolonged wait for the group’s debut was definitely worth it. After listening to the record many times and letting it sink in, its true potential shines through. Just as a fine wine matures with age, so too does Ways to Forget reap the benefits of its delayed release date.
Anyone who follows the progressive rock scene even a little bit will most likely have heard the names Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt. The former is most well known for his brainchild Porcupine Tree, while the latter is the frontman of the notable Swedish prog metal outfit Opeth. Both groups have released ten studio albums over a two-decade period. Both have achieved outstanding success and critical acclaim in their respective fields. Both frequently cross the line between intense heavy riffs and delicate melodic passages. Yet they are two very distinct musical identities. Thus, it came as somewhat of a surprise and much of a thrill when it was announced that Wilson and Åkerfeldt would be collaborating on a brand new musical project known as Storm Corrosion.
The eponymous first album released by the newly formed duo in 2012 was not necessarily what we might have expected, though. In an interview back in 2010, Wilson stated “…we have this kind of passion [for] very experimental, obscure records, almost orchestral in their scope. And we wanted to make a record like that for a long time. It’s a long way from metal and it’s a long way from anything that, I think, Mikael has ever done…it’s actually a long way from anything I’ve done…The one thing we didn’t want to do is get together and do a prog metal supergroup, which would have been so easy to do – and kind of expected, in a way.”
In general, I try to write about fairly unknown artists in an effort to promote new and unique music to the masses. This policy does not exclude more famous bands from the realm of noteworthy music creation, however. On the contrary, the new album from Mumford & Sons, Babel, is a shining example of how reaching number one on the Billboard charts and being nominated for Grammy awards does not necessarily mean you’ve sold out. In the case of this particular British folk rock quartet, the media attention and critical acclaim is unquestionably deserved. They did an outstanding job of staying true to their roots and keeping intact the musical integrity that makes their songs so great. Many of you reading this have probably already heard this album, however I believe that its exceptional quality is deserving of a blog post nonetheless.
There’s something about this group that is definitively British. Maybe it’s their fashion sense, or their lyrics, or just a combination of the many eccentricities that make Mumford & Songs unique. They take advantage of their talent for beautiful songwriting and dress it up in a bluegrass outfit. Not only do are they keeping the folk tradition alive, but they are revamping it with modern production value and pop sensibilities. This is a band that can hold their own in any situation, whether it’s a hoedown in Nashville, a broadcast on pop radio, or a pub back in London.
Album artwork for To End the Illusion of Separation
The concept of the psychedelically-charged jam band has been around since the 1960s. Groups like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd kicked off a revolution that would soon become a major chunk of America’s musical history. Since those times, there has always been a strong-minded, passionate group of musicians and music lovers that have kept the genre alive and allowed it to evolve into something new. Today, a movement of new musicians has been combining the jam band mentality with modern technology to create a style of music dubbed “jamtronica,” or “livetronica.” Papadosio, a band formed in Athens, Ohio in 2006, has been on the forefront of this movement for several years now. They approach the genre with a strong songwriting background, which they use to incorporate melodic vocal harmonies and heartfelt messages about the unity of mankind. Last Tuesday, the band released a double disc album, To End the Illusion of Separation (T.E.T.I.O.S.), featuring 20 tracks of new material. Spanning the course of two full hours, the album is their most diverse effort yet, and it takes the listener on a whirling journey of transcendent emotion, spirituality, and euphoric release.
One of the simplest ways to describe T.E.T.I.O.S. would be to consider it as a complete musical experience. In other words, it’s a full, two-hour experience that travels through an eclectic collection of uniquely-orchestrated soundscapes, arranged in a manner that allows for a natural progression from beginning to end. In many ways, it is comparable to a feature-length film. Many, many words could be used to describe the true emotion that Papadosio’s music evokes, yet its true nature lies in the listener’s personal experience. It is musical therapy at its finest; all of your real-world problems seem to fade away as the band’s creative voice resounds through your entire consciousness.
I’m sure that many of you have heard of the likes of Andy McKee, who became something of a YouTube sensation after posting a video of him performing his original song “Drifting.” He utilized a number of techniques, previously unknown to most of the world, that work to use the guitar to its full potential as a multi-purpose instrument. Popularized by guitarists such as Preston Reed and Michael Hedges, such a technique, often referred to as “percussive fingerstyle,” uses both hands to draw out percussive sounds from the instrument through sharp hits on the strings and the body of the guitar itself. Songs written in this style often use alternate tunings, giving the musician virtually limitless possibilities for note placement, along with the use of harmonic overtones to create higher pitches.
Similar to Andy McKee in style is the lesser-known but equally-talented Jon Gomm. Originally hailing from Lancashire, England, he has released two full studio albums to date and has been touring since 2004. Although it is definitely easy to see the influences from McKee and other virtuoso guitarists, Gomm sets himself apart from his contemporaries with his incredibly diverse and unique blend of musical styles. Described as a “one man melting pot,” he exhibits a mastery of a wide range of styles on Don’t Panic, his latest studio album. Folk, jazz, rock, blues, country, and even metal – they’re all represented on the album. And did I mention that the second verse on the opening track, “Waterfall,” is sung entirely in Urdu?