There’s very little more endearing to my ears than good honest jams, music made by a bunch of guys who just picked up their instruments and just put together some songs. As piracy has caused much controversy within the greater musical world, big dogs like Metallica getting all up in a fuss over people not shelling out for their records, the underground has just kept on trucking like it always has. They were never making much money so people not buying their records isn’t something to worry about, not a lot of money comes from that anyway, they’re just happy to be listened to. People wonder who tomorrow’s stadium fillers will be when the likes of Iron Maiden, Bruce Springsteen and Radiohead must hang up their Fenders for the last time – little do they know their favourite band is already playing in a bar somewhere for twenty people, biggest grins on their faces just kickin’ out the jams and havin’ a good time. Doin’ it ’cause it’s fun, if we get paid, awesome, but if not, we’ll make it work.
Now more than ever, the underground is thriving. Anyone can record and release an album these days, and just about anyone is doing it. It’s made the big bands worried, but the small guys are just glad to have a fighting chance at gaining an audience. Here’s my favourite of those little guys from this year!
Sometimes, within the first minute of an album, you know it’s going to be worth your time listening. You get the distinct impression that the musicians on the record are not only skilled players, but expert composers, producing something that is not only hummable but versatile, vibrant and altogether quite unlike anything else you’ve likely heard. Sometimes, that album turns out to be this happy reminder of the sweetness of life and a reminder of how far a sweet melody can go to lift both you and your mood. That is Little Tybee’s ‘For Distant Viewing’ in a nutshell.
Hailing from Altanta, Georgia, Little Tybee are a progressive folk rock band that are the musical embodiment of a happy dance on a warm sunny day. Combining 8 string guitar, drums, bass and vocals with violin, saxophone, glockenspiel, trumpet, banjo and whatever else will fit the part, ‘For Distant Viewing’ is this amazing cacophony of just about everything that is bound to put a smile on your face. Funk, jazz, folk, indie, classical, it’s all here, and all played like it’s just a random jam to these guys. There’s an incredibly soft, genuine sound to this album that only adds to the endearment. From Brock Scott’s stirring vocals in ‘Mind Grenade’ to the sensual percussive feel of ‘Castle’, with that swingin’ violin led mid section played by Nirvana Kelly, and everything in between ‘For Distant Viewing’ is a $7 lesson in great song-writing, top class musicianship and just dam good jams.
Essential track: For Distant Viewing
I remember the first time I heard ‘Generation of Ghosts’ off Mouth of the Architect’s 2008 release ‘Quietly’. I was FLOORED. How something could be so heavy, dark and morbid but still so melodic was just beyond me. I’ve always enjoyed things that have dark streak, but are still daringly optimistic in tone, and to me, Mouth of the Architect are the embodiment of that. Their music echoes that of staring out of a bus window late in the evening, watching as the daylight fades in red, seeing everything keep ticking forward, and feeling a sense of both despair and hope, in equal measure – wondering if you’ll ever truly break free, or if you’ll always be stuck there, yearning…. Or maybe that’s just me!
‘Dawning’ is their latest slab of post-metal goodness, and it is my favourite to date. Rugged, daring and melodic, this is easily their most cohesive record so far. Each song flows into the next making the album entirely necessary for one sitting, and absolutely perfect for these cold Winter days. Opening with stomper ‘Lullaby’ and flowing into album highlight ‘It Swarms’, Jason Watkins and co make their intentions known very early that while everything has an atmosphere, the more gentle sounding sections are going to be a much needed reprieve from the emotional barrage that is Mouth of the Architect when it gets the claws out. By the time ‘The Other Son’ lands and you’re hearing the bleeding screams of the bands layered vocals intertwining with a simple but haunting guitar melody, there’s a feeling of reflection and acceptance as the intensity fades away and you attempt to make sense of what just happened.
Again, maybe that’s just me! ‘Dawning’ owns, pick it up for $7.50 on the bands bandcamp page and enjoy some seriously heavy but melodic jams.
Essential track: It Swarms!
If you were like me and you caught Jon on his Irish tour earlier this year, then you know this album needs no introduction. This guy is just on the top of the top when it comes to the current wave of percussive guitarists (Andy McKee and Mike Dawes being other guys to watch) who have been making a name for themselves as of late. Essentially, he plays every member of a regular band, on his acoustic guitar, lovingly named Wilma. It’s not something I can really explain properly without a video, but trust me, it’s impressive to watch, and Jon’s music is impressive to listen to.
‘Secrets Nobody Keeps’ is his third record, and his most DIY effort. Recorded at home in his house in Leeds, Jon used Pledgemusic.com in order to open pre-orders and let his fans directly fund the recording of the album. Everything is funded directly by fans, and thankfully, the recording quality has improved from album to album, with this being his best sounding, and his most interesting listen to date. Opening with first single ‘Telepathy’, it’s very clear that this is a very introspective set of songs from Jon, and as a result the melodies are incredibly heartfelt and the intricacies that come with percussive guitar are even more intimate sounding to the song. Any argument for ‘flash’ or ‘showing off’ is eliminated by the time the chorus melody in ‘Wukan Motorcycle Kid’ hits, and by the time ‘Passionflower’ (Jon’s viral video hit of two years ago) kicks into it’s funky tuning-changing melody there’s no doubt this is head-to-toe an essential listen from an essential musician. ‘Secrets Nobody Keeps’ is available for £9.99 on Jon’s official site.
Essential track: Wukan Motorcycle Kid
It feels odd putting Ben Sharp’s Cloudkicker project on this list because, well, he doesn’t actually care. Not in a apathetic ‘F**k my fans’ sort of way, but in a ‘I’d be doing this regardless’ sort of way. Cloudkicker is just an evening project for Ben, it’s just something he does in his free time when he feels like creating some music. It’s just that music is genuinely brilliant. It’s brilliant on a technical level, it’s brilliant on a production level and it’s brilliant on an aural level. ‘Subsume’ is continuing Ben’s trend of doing whatever the hell he wants when he wants to do it and just taking us along for the ride. If you’re familiar with his work, it’s somewhere between his last three releases, ‘Beacons’, ‘Let Yourself Be Huge’ and ‘Fade’, if you’re not, well, gather round children, and let me tell you a tale.
‘Subsume’ is not his most accessible work, but much like all of his releases, once you’re in, you are hooked and there is no going back. With 4 tracks in 40 minutes, it’s an odd album to listen to because all the tracks bleed into each other in a really formative way. It actually feels like one long track with a LOT of ebb and flows that make the listen never feel tenuous no matter how familiar you become with the material. Ranging from the heaviest, fuzziest, chunkiest riffs Ben’s ever written to the clean chord progressions he has become notable for, and ALL the layering in between, this is as much a musical adventure as it is an album of songs. It’s quite odd, as well, because Ben doesn’t use lead guitar or vocals, basically ever, and as a result, you realize you are listening to someone who has meticulously sculpted the music to be simple and easy on the ear, but also catchy and not feeling lacking and that’s not an easy thing to do, nor is it something you see very often in circles outside of jazz. He isn’t just writing catchy progressions so he can solo over them, he’s writing catchy progressions and then complimenting them with more interesting progressions until the music is this amalgamation of sound that just feels complete and utterly satisfying. ‘Subsume’ isn’t my favourite work of his, but I said that about ‘Fade’ this time last year, and now that is my favourite, so time will tell. In the meantime, Cloudkicker is a project you should be listening to, right now. All of his album are available for free from his bandcamp.
Essential track: All of it. The entire album.
Honestly, when I first heard Cyclamen, I didn’t get it. Like Dillinger Escape Plan meets Haunted Shores meets Converge meets Sigur Ros, it was all the noisy stuff I liked, with all the metalcore and ambient stuff I liked without really hitting the right spot between them all. I was very enthused by a sister project Withyouathome’s post-rock goodness (which is well worth checking out), and because their both spear-headed by one Hayato Imanishi, I ended up following ‘Ashura’ right up until it’s release, and I was very glad of it because this was the right spot I had been looking for, and boy oh boy, it hit that spot GOOD.
This album is just mental altogether, opening with an altogether grim sounding blast-beat before kicking into a super technical verse and then one of the catchiest most melodic choruses of the year, this is one of those releases that just grabs you and doesn’t let go until the final track is done with you, and by then you don’t want it to go. Being a concept album, with a story begun in the bands previous album ‘Senjyu’, the lyrics and music all flow together really nicely, even though each song is it’s own. The lyrics are sang in Japanese, with a translation available in the lyrics book, and it actually doesn’t impair the story-telling aspect of the album at all.
Every time I listen to this record, I felt like I was being told a story by the lyrics that I was kind of making up myself based on the actual music, which itself is a pleasure to focus on, and that’s really remarkable. A concept album that tells a story all it’s own to each listener if they can’t understand Japanese, how many of those can you name? On top of that, as I said, the music itself is very much worth some attention. Technical, melodic, stirring, at times plodding, it’s crafted with obvious vision and love but also has a canned chaos feel to it, like a train almost going off the rails but just keep in line not to. This is DIY music done right, by a guy and a band who love doing it and who deserve success.
Download ‘Ashura’ and ALL of Hayato’s other works at their bandcamp page for free, though I suggest supporting them. You won’t regret it.
Essential track: Haja-Kenshou
Next week…. Comics!