Review Summary: Engine Down for indie kids.
The Cape May - Glass Mountain Roads
Earlier this year, I wrote a review for Engine Down's Demure
is amazingly powerful and crushing album, however, this effect is achieved through rather minimal techniques. The soundscapes are sparse, the pulse is droning, and the vocals are flat, yet this detachment only fuels the inevitable attachment of the listener. This curious mix of engagement and disengagement makes the album all the more powerful. Engine Down can do more with two chords and a pulsating bass drum than most would be able to achieve with an orchestra. Now to introduce The Cape May's Glass Mountain Roads
, imagine Engine Down's minimalist power taken out of its post-hardcore context and injected into a neutral genre that is a mix of indie, alternative, folk, and post-rock; the tones are warm and subdued, the soudscapes are sparse and pensive, and the vocals are graceful yet haunting. Even the album title sounds as if it was carefully chosen to evoke the maximal imagistic coldness through minimal means. Glass Mountain Roads
has an aloof detachment as well as a driving quality, all while remaining surprisingly clear and clean.
But enough of this tonal pontificating. How do these ideas come to fruition in the actual music" The most apparent instance is in the vocals. Anybody familiar with the matter-of-fact, dry sound of Murder by Death's singer, Adam Turla, will feel at home with The Cape May's Clinton St. John. His vocal performance is wonderfully ominous and compelling. The vocals only leave monotonous baritone at climaxes within the songs, and as you can imagine this careful spattering of vocal power makes these moments all the more effective. Beyond the vocals, I'm a big fan of the mood-setting work done by the guitarist and bassist. The bass can be very repetitive but it is mostly pulsating. It feels like there's a brooding heartbeat underneath the main harmonies of the album. The guitar too has such a quality. There are repeats of a lot of motifs and chords, but this effect helps to set the tone. The actual playing employs a lot of dull arpeggiation and sustains on certain dissonances, which is a cool playing style when trying to elicit certain brooding or detached emotions. Even the drumming is aptly subdued producing soft duple meters and rumbling triples.
The compositions on a whole also send me to a detached place. Songs like "Mari" and "Catch Your Words" are practically celestial in their slow, stately pace. The acoustic guitar is sweet and the cymbal splashes are spacey. More crushing and brooding songs like "Copper Tied" and "Still Island" engage the listener with their dissonances and darker tones rather than their eager, nice-sounding tones. On a whole, this album is fairly beautiful and moving, if only from a songwriting perspective. Also, the production is spot on. I was thinking about how effective the soundscapes and the mixing of the album was even before I found out it was Steve Albini architecting these great sounds. Also, big ups to whichever music business-type managed to pair this band with this producer. It seems that both were attuned the others' tendencies and needs and managed to create an awesome "mood album," as I'll label it here.
There are some shortcomings on Glass Mountain Roads
though. With such a focus on a particular brand of songwriting and crafting a sound or mood, the album can sound homogeneous. The same issue emerged when reviewing Murder by Death's Who Will Survive...
; a band that forges a particular sound and executes it throughout a whole album runs the risk of sounding monotonous by the 40-minute mark. Combining that with the fact that the tones established on this album are decidedly dull and moody, the album drags in the second half. By the end of the album, the brooding power of minimalism has receded enough for the listener to hear each song as a quiet (but successful) exploration of conventional folk/indie songwriting. Yes, this album has its boring stretches and is much more of a mood piece than anything else, but at the end of the day these are solid songs with solid delivery. I look forward to hearing what these guys put out next and may it have a little more diversity to its sound without sacrificing the Engine Down-esque minimalism.