Review Summary: While the Appleseed Cast may have completed their transformation from emo darlings to instrumental upcomers with dazzling results, their relentless pursuit of post rock may have caused them to neglect the more important aspects of their sound.
At last! The transfer from emo diary darlings to post rock prudes is complete! The Appleseed Cast have come a long way since their debut album 'The End of Ring Wars' way back in '98, but it has been a development which has followed a very much linear and concentrated path. It was first noticed on 2003's 'Low Level Owl' where, if watched closely, the band could be seen stretching to reach an itch they couldn't quite yet scratch, an itch we now know as the post rock prickle. It it this itch which has followed them right up to their latest release Sagarmatha
. Suffice to say, Sagarmatha has that itch well and truly scratched out.
For those not up to scratch with their general knowledge, Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Mount Everest, and it seems an appropriate title for a band who have tried to tackle this 'higher sound', and have seemingly ascended as high as they can. A lack of vocals is a noticeable absence from most of the songs (with many reaching the six minute mark), instead opting for the post rock tendencies of subtle, repeated guitar riffs, intricate, organized drumming and swathes of keyboards, xylophones, ambience et al. For this instrumental addict, it is a welcoming transformation. I liked the Appleseed Cast before, but now I might be beginning to love them. They have been subtly mastering the tricks of the trade and are now delivering them to us with flair and finesse. Some of the tracks show the band at the top of their instrumental game; 'Raise the Sails' with its brilliantly executed explosive ending, 'An Army of Fireflies' gritty, aggressive instrumentation showing a nastier alternative drive, and the intense, sinister build of 'The Road West' allows the band to deliver the audience a meticulously controlled, slow cathartic reaction.
It's not all smiles though. The chief negative which I have to assign this album is it's lack of real punch. Few of the songs are memorable and, with the heart being well and truly wiped off the sleeve, it's much harder to get all too emotionally involved with the songs. 'Like a Locust' tries to utilize breakbeats, computer keyboards and quiet static to go for the head-nodding, mechanically pretty affect but just comes across stale and unstimulating. On the other end, 'A Bright Light' seems a great, sincere track to begin with until you realize it's just built on one unspectacular riff and the rest of the song just ambles around it like a lost child. It's not a bad track by any means, but it doesn't come close to stacking up against post rock's high achievers who are able to successfully evoke feeling without having to rely on vocals. This lack of emotive power naturally spurs questions about the record's staying power. That I had originally rated this as a 4.5 is evidence that the opening punch was not quite as devesatating as the initial impact suggested. And sure, that can happen with repeated listens, but it shouldn't happen this
What it comes down to is that sacrifices of sound have been made, when really they didn't have to be. The songs are immersive now, but not affecting, like they used to be. Whether this is due to the down-toned, sporadic vocals or to the cleaner, less raw instrumentation I'm not entirely sure. But something essential to the band is missing. They've pretty much reached the pinnacle of what they've been trying to achieve all this time that, right now, all that's needed to nail the flag into the peak is the removal of all vocals. But who wants that" Don't get me wrong, this is an excellent album, brimming with confident, compelling post rock swagger and songwriting which is both powerful and uplifting while still remaining gentle, warm and palliative. But here's hoping they can descend from their pedestal just a little for their next effort, drop below the clouds, so we can see the heart and soul of The Appleseed Cast again while still being able to appreciate how far they've come.