Review Summary: The 2009 album you missed.
It never fails. Upon the arrival of the New Year, I discover an album that could have been in at least the top 5 of my best of year list. In 2007, I stumbled upon Kashiwa Daisuke’s Program Music I
, perhaps the best neo-classical electronica album I have ever heard. In 2008, I discovered Black Milk’s Tronic
, a fantastic hip-hop album from the ever-impressive Detroit scene. This year, at the start of 2010, I have fallen in love with Cougar’s Patriot
, a 2009 instrumental rock odyssey that organically blends electronica, post-rock, math rock, and much more.
For me, 2009 lacked great instrumental rock releases. Mono’s Hymn to the Immortal Wind
, Gifts from Enola’s From Fathoms
, and Do Make Say Think’s The Other Truths
came scattered throughout the year, but those who decry post-rock as a dead genre won in 2009. Even these great albums added nothing special to the repertoire; they simply excelled at and perfected already invented styles. Unfortunately for the haters, Patriot
does add something new to the repertoire, and it went almost completely unheralded throughout the year. What Cougar brings to the table better than nearly any other instrumental rock group is variety. The variety is so great that I am hesitant to call the album post-rock, although it often leans in that direction. The eleven-track album features concise, well-written songs that incorporate everything from a marching drumline to the euphonium (and really, any album that uses the euphonium is an automatic win). With this instrumental variety, the album’s texture is constantly metamorphosing, yet always remaining coherent and tight.
Five musicians from Madison, Wisconsin make up the core group of Cougar, and they form the lineup of your average instrumental rock band – two (sometimes three) guitars, bass, drums, and an electronics guy. At least seven additional musicians appear throughout the album, but even this core group has the compositional versatility to make Patriot
stand out without all of the additional flourish. Opener “Stay Famous” is straight, unabashed rock with a powerful opening motif that uses uneven time signatures to alter the melodic phrasing. In under five minutes, Cougar powerfully opens, organically dies down to nothing but a clean guitar riff, and builds it all back up again into a driving, 65daysofstatic-inspired climax. And while electronic flourish dances about the texture, they are mixed so subtly that they could almost go unnoticed, allowing the group to expand on their electronic side later.
Following the spacey yet frenetic “Florida Logic”, Cougar really opens up the soundscape with “Rhinelander.” Immediately, it is clear that something different is in store. The opening is an a capella choir that could easily have been sampled from a Renaissance motet. To maintain continuity, however, the choir continues as high-hat and guitar arpeggios take the forefront. Eventually, the choir fades out as the guitars maintain the harmonic motion. The choral theme replays throughout the piece, but aesthetically, the percussive rhythms recall glitch electronica. The original combination is winning, and the first statement that Cougar is more than your average instrumental rock band.
I could discuss the intricacies of every song on this album, because each one brings something new to the table. The timbales of “Pelourinho”, the classic rock distortion of “Thundersnow”, the synth of “Heavy into Jeff” the perfected crescendo of “Endings” (a song not written by the band but by Jeff Snyder, whom the band references in the previous track), the gorgeous bass clarinet and French horn duet in “This Is An Affidavit”, the blend of electronic and acoustic drums in “Appomattox”, the natural integration of a full drumline in “Daunte v. Armada” – every song has its own unique quality, and each new quality fits perfectly inside the versatile Cougar sound.
But I would regret not discussing the sublime closer “Absaroka.” The song encompasses many of the greatest elements of Cougar’s compositional ability. The wind arrangements give Do Make Say Think a run for their money, with their mix of warm instruments such as bass clarinet, euphonium, and French horn as opposed to the oft-used bright and brassy trumpet and trombone. The Rhodes keyboard lays the foundation perfectly, lending that unmistakable sound for great effect. The percussion is subtle and mixed so that it never overpowers any other instrument. And the mix of guitars is remarkable, a blend of acoustic and electric that allows for variation even in the same voicings.
Perhaps it is time to move onto anticipating and enjoying the music of 2010, but before you leave 2009 behind, take a listen to Cougar’s Patriot
. It excited me to find another young band to watch, as many instrumental rock stalwarts are starting to die out.