Review Summary: A post rock album that isn't full of a cliches.
Post-rock is a dead genre. In the early '90's, bands like Slint and Tortoise were crafting guitar-based rock that had nothing to do with any other music that had since been released. While strands of alternative rock and hardcore could be found in the music that was being created by mostly Louisville-based bands, Slint and their brothers in arms had stumbled upon a new and interesting sound. Bands like Talk Talk, Mogwai, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor would all in the years after post-rock's inception add their own influences and ideas into the genre's mindset, until we came up with the current definition of what is post-rock. While in the early '90s, dynamic build-ups, crescendoes, and epic guitar songs were completely original, it is now 2006, and every post-rock band I hear reminds me of the last big deal in the scene. Sure, some bands like Yndi Halda are still making worthwhile music, but the method for what they are doing is completely ripped off from the post-rock forefathers. Basically post-rock, like hardcore in the '80s, is collapsing in on itself due to the extreme similarities between all of the bands in the genre. And so enters Burton Wagner, with his second LP "A Sentinel's Eyes".
"In The Realms of The Unreal", Burton's previous release was a solo guitar endeavor, recorded on a home computer, using minimal effects. Perhaps minimal is the best way to describe Burton's music, because while "In The Realms of the Unreal" certainly represented some grandiose ideas, it was always beautifully orchestrated in the minimalist mindset. While some may label Burton's music as post-rock because it is the easiest label to pass on it, I like to think of it more as a combination of ambient and noise techniques. Burton rarely uses the crescendo, a staple in the post rock genre, and his dynamic shifts are few and far in-between. Instead of building, Burton is constantly layering and shifting his riffs, which is something more reserved for bands involved in the post-metal field that Isis and Neurosis brought forth. Yet even then, Burton isn't in the same league as those metallic giants, because he has only himself to create music with. "A Sentinel's Eyes" is the culmination of the 2000's new desire for epiciness and emotional connection in music. Burton's musical peers (Radiohead, The Mars Volta, Godspeed You Black Emperor) have in recent years shown the public what epic music is, and Burton has certainly took notice of this new shift in the thoughts of emotional music. "A Sentinel's Eyes" may be based solely upon one man's guitar, but it certainly rivals the emotional power of 2006's most epic releases (Kayo Dot's "Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue" and Converge's "No Heroes").
In terms of sonic evolution, "A Sentinel's Eyes" is a noted improvement over "In The Realms of The Unreal". While "Realms" was burdened by repetition and simple guitar playing, "A Sentinel's Eyes" has upped the mastery of execution in Burton's style. While there is still repetition in his music instead of being a negative force, Burton has decided to use it as a way to make his throbbing sound scapes more familiar with the listener. This is perfectly demonstrated in the final "act" of the record, "Blind Eyes Turn Skyward". Relying on a melody that was established in the first stages of the album, Burton carefully experiments with those beginning chords, and makes them even more desperate and lamenting than they originally sounded. This strategy is used on various occasions of the record, but nowhere is it more bombastic and cathartic then in the dying moments of it. Another important aspect that has changed since "Realms" is the improvement of the production. Where "Realms" was muddy due to the lo-fi style recording that Burton had at the time, it seems with "A Sentinel's Eyes" that the production is another element of what makes the album beautiful. Instead of falling victim to his financial shortcomings, Burton instead uses his minimal production by making the record sound better muddy, similar to the post-metal scene I compared his music too earlier in the review.
While in my opinion, "A Sentinel's Eyes" is one of the best releases of 2006, I can see others having problems with it's minimalist nature, as well as it's lo-fi production. The music presented here isn't ridiculously experimental, but it's certainly not Hawthorne Heights. Really, if you are a fan of post-rock, ambient, or solo guitar, I think "A Sentinel's Eyes" would be an enjoyable listen for you. It represents amateur music at its emotional and compositional peak, and for that I think it deserves way more attention than it'll probably ever receive.