Monday, February 13, 2017

Finishing the Level: Crying's "Beyond the Fleeting Gales"

Given its humble new-agey album art and inscrutable title, I would have never given Crying’s Beyond the Fleeting Gales a second thought if not for one particularly intriguing review that praised its joyous complexity. When the album showed up in my Christmas booty, it immediately impressed me, especially from a performance standpoint. It had hyperkinetic drums and female vocals that threw shades of 90s loungers The Cardigans. I liked the pop-metal synthesizer and guitar interplay.  They keyboardist in particular seemed to have incredible chops that he channeled through vintage digital synthesizer sounds to paint an exuberant 80s feel throughout the entire album.

All this probably would have been enough for Beyond the Fleeting Gales to be an early 2017 favorite. After doing some research, however, I concluded that my interpretation of what Crying was up to was completely wrong, and that a deeper read of their work was in order.

I knew early on that Crying was considered a “chiptune” project, but I was blissfully unaware of what that meant. This designation specifically derives from their use of a modded Game Boy as an 8-bit sequencer for all of their synthesizer sounds. I admit that I felt a twinge of disappointment as I let go of the image of a fleet-fingered Wakeman protégé knocking out those arpeggios on a Juno, but the more I thought about it, the cooler it became.

Let’s start from the very simple fact that the Game Boy is in no way designed to be used as a sequencer. It's a video game system, and a rudimentary one by today’s standards, so I find it pretty impressive that Crying uses it to such great effect.  Guitarist/songwriter Ryan Galloway has tamed the unique sounding potential of the Game Boy and used it as a distinctive compositional tool that shapes the essence of what Crying does. Stripped of guitars, vocals, and drums, the synthesized aspects of Beyond the Fleeting Gales would not sound out of place on a Super Mario Brothers level. Its essentially rocked-out video game music, which gives rise to the album’s generally triumphant tone.

But the role of the Game Boy in Crying’s unique identity goes beyond the system’s musical affordances. As its primary use is as a gaming system, it is reasonable to surmise that video game music is a fundamental influence on the band’s overall musical concept. This assumption sheds some light on several other curious aspects of Crying’s image. For example, the band’s vibrant prog-pop aesthetic doesn’t seem to jibe with its ethereal, often playful packaging. The album art makes more sense, however, in the context of classic fantasy games. In fact, at first glance, the libretto could pass as a Legend of Zelda instruction manual.

Following along in the libretto reveals another possible layer to this influence. Although the melodies on Beyond the Fleeting Gales are compelling, the vocal performances are somewhat unassuming and are readily overshadowed by the Crying’s compelling instrumentalism. Its easy to overlook the lyrics.  A close read, however, reveals a succession of descriptive and surreal narratives that very well could be the story of an adventurer traveling through an imaginative platforming video game escapade.

Although I loved the idea of a band that purposefully collapsed the guitar histrionics of Neal Schon with the energy of 99 Luftballoons, I sense that these are my personal interpretations more than Crying’s intentions. Beyond the Fleeting Gales might be less about capturing musical nostalgia than reinterpreting the 8-bit gaming experience. This grants the album a genuine sense of exploration, and gives Crying a refreshing freedom that reminds me of the local bands in the 90s Dallas scene. Unlike those bands, however, Crying is not bound by any adherence to what is mainstream.  They instead seem to be taking quite a bit of personal satisfaction in using their unique background as a reservoir of inspiration to push their own musical boundaries.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Anna Meredith's Varmints and a Brief Snow

A month ago, the first day of school came and, despite having a good feeling about what will be happening in my bands during the coming semester, I couldn’t say that I was particularly happy about it. I had a wonderful couple of weeks at home with my family and getting used to leaving them behind every day in the midst of the usual morning stress was not appealing. As is often the way with semester preparations, we had two days of staff development to gear up before the students would arrive. On the second day of this scheduled inservice, we got a reprieve. Snow began to fall and my new district, being small and relatively remote, fortunately understands that many of its teachers drive in from other places. It was decided that we would leave early.

So I got a brief extension on my vacation. Austin almost always had more ice than snow, which can certainly shut down a school. It isn’t, however, really all that fun. Up here in North Texas you have the potential to get real snow - the kind that dances across the road rather than pelts the windshield. I was excited about watching P play in the light layer of white powder that was accumulating on the road when I got home.

Snow was swirling across the road like sands across dunes and Anna Meredith’s Varmints, a selection from my Christmas booty, was pulsing strongly, reflecting the white ripples as they cascaded across the blacktop. I put the album on my wishlist last year during my search for a follow-up to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s astoundingly good EARS. Meredith’s interdisciplinary status as a composer for the BBC and a synth-pop songwriter seemed to put her in the position to fill that void in 2017.

Stylistically, however, the two are apples and oranges. Varmints has an extroverted flourish that is more theatrical when compared to the cerebral atmospheres of EARS.  Like many Ableton-savvy composers, Meredith likes to vary a theme, particularly through rhythmic displacement. Take, for example, the disorienting entry of the backbeat of Nautilus. For four full minutes, the listener is allowed to think that the riff is on the beat, only to find that it is actually on the upbeat, resulting in a perceptual shift of the entire landscape. This kind of rhythmic slight-of-hand shows up several times throughout Varmints and it never seems to get old.  It also allows the album to consistently tread the common zone between between layered songwriting and complex composition.

The distinction between these two extremes is often blurry. Meredith’s experience as a soundtrack composer grants the even the songs that are geared towards accessibility with a heaping tablespoon full of intricacy. She will often use intentional dissonance, using chords that don’t seem to work until after they have passed. Melodically, however, she keeps things light, bringing to mind Neko Case’s contributions to the New Pornographers. As a whole, however, Meredith’s often thunderous rave-inspired beats make Varmints a unique beast, indeed.

It turned out that Denton did not much snow, but it was enough. P got home and went directly outside with her mother to throw snow at each other.  EJ, on the other hand, is not convinced that footwear is so great yet, so I stayed inside with her. When they came in, she told me that P will “always remember this,” and I was really glad that I was there to see it. It was a heart-warming way to spend the last cold day of our vacation.