Rock Music from Across the Pond
Review by Ara Demirjian
How do you follow up an album that was the United Kingdom’s best-selling record in 2006 and spawned a single that was the first top five American hit by a U.K. rock band in 13 years? The answer may not be straightforward, but the overnight success that is Snow Patrol has responded with vigor on its new, boundary-breaking album, “A Hundred Million Suns.”
Whereas its predecessor, “Eyes Open,” succeeded due to its accessible, catchy pop-rock rhythms and traditional song structures, “A Hundred Million Suns” reveals a band willing to spread its wings and make a foray into new musical territory without abandoning the core of its identity as an anthemic guitar-rock band buoyed by uplifting pop melodies. The classic Snow Patrol style still remains, but the ambient flourishes (courtesy of producer Garrett “Jacknife” Lee), orchestral arrangements and experimentation with unconventional instruments show that Snow Patrol isn’t solely in the business of writing uncomplicated, cookie-cutter pop gems.
Displaying its versatile musicianship, Snow Patrol creates poignant and biting soundscapes that break down, build up and turn every which way without deviating off course and alienating listeners. “Lifeboats” signifies a welcome departure for the band as a gently strummed guitar acts as the canvas for aqueous programming effects and pitch-shifting violin parts. Like a lifeboat, the song moves at a slow, plodding rate, trying to find daylight in the dense fog until it reaches “The Golden Floor,” which continues the subdued pace with a hand-clapped, shuffled beat, calming arpeggios and the brief appearance of a Chinese-sounding mandolin.
Not only does the music head in different directions, but singer Gary Lightbody takes his lyrics to a more “universal” place, describing love on a metaphysical level.
“I know you love me like the silence of the turning Earth,” he says in “Engines,” and sings “The shells crack under our shoes like punctuation points / The planets bend between us and a hundred million suns and stars,” in the reflective, moving piano ballad, “The Planets Bend Between Us.” All the while, Lightbody’s gentle, voice successfully alternates between intimate and soaring, adding dynamics to prevent the songs from becoming homogenous.
The sky might be the limit for some, but Lightbody is uninhibited by the possibility of reaching outer space, as suggested by the opening song, “If There’s a Rocket, Tie Me To It,” a continually building crescendo that blasts off with the final chorus.
Right when it appears Snow Patrol is drifting into the atmosphere, “Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands” provides reassurance that the signature Snow Patrol stadium-sized sound hasn’t evaporated and disappeared. This epic track is dominated by fast-charging 16th-note downstroke rhythms, pounding drum beats and spacey, tremolo guitar.
Similarly, the lead single “Take Back The City” balances the usual mix of acoustic and electric guitars, led by a steady bass drum and simple acoustic rhythm before the distorted guitar crunch comes in and inundates the listener with a thick wall of sound.
While there are some misses such as “Crack The Shutters,” a watered-down ballad that ends prematurely and doesn’t allow itself to reach the emotional zenith of “Chasing Cars” and “Run,” they become an afterthought when the three-part, 16-minute opus “The Lightning Strikes” arrives in full force, with a grandiose musical arrangement suited for an orchestra hall. In particular, the first section, “What If This Storm Ends?” is like a faint drizzle that transforms into a raging rainstorm before the sunlight breaks through the clouds and tranquil skies return. Beginning with a subtle but brooding piano line that forewarns the storm, the song tensely builds with a haunting brass section as well as macabre strings and chamber choir voices until the climax is reached and everything disappears, except for the recurring piano line and Lightbody’s plaintive voice.
Like the exploratory nature of “The Lightning Strike,” Snow Patrol invites us on a meandering journey that takes interesting musical twists and turns, but always stays on track, remaining true to the band’s strengths, and more importantly, the band’s identity.
Bloc Party — “Intimacy”
Review by Neil Thakor
After the tragic derailment of, “Weekend in the City,” the indie punk band Bloc Party tries again to create a hit album with its third release, “Intimacy.” Though this album may not be an instant classic, it certainly does keep the band on track toward a break through album.
“Intimacy” is much more electronic than Bloc Party’s first two albums. Although its move toward a synthesized sound has clearly upset fans of the guitar-heavy debut album “Silent Alarm,” Bloc Party does create a more defined sound that will help it stand out from the countless others. The vocals, which have been questionable since “Silent Alarm,” sound better either synthesized or backed by an electronic sound.
The album opens with a promising first track entitled “Ares,” which starts off with a passionate combination of guitar and electronic keyboard. To top it off, lead singer Kele Okereke chants along with the rambunctious sound, portraying an energy that is often absent from his vocals. “Ares,” along with the album’s first single, “Mercury,” are some of the few good, upbeat songs that Bloc Party has produced, partly because Okereke does a lot more chanting than singing on these tracks. The chanting hides the weaknesses in his vocals adding a freshness to the band’s style.
However, the fruits of Bloc Party appear in its slow tracks, which have a sort of “Postal Service” sound. One such track, “Signs,” is the best song on the album. With an excellent use of bells and distorted keyboards, this track is the closest it will get to a hit song. Okereke’s vocals actually compliment the song nicely, not because he is hiding his weaknesses well, but because his vocals are actually the strength of the song. Bloc Party should produce slower-paced songs, because when they do, they are made very well.
However, the album isn’t all good; songs such as “Trojan Horse” and “One Month Off” lack originality when compared to other indie bands. Okereke’s vocals simply do not have the energy to supplement the upbeat tempo on the tracks. Often times, it’s aggravating to listen to the tracks because Okereke’s voice is almost completely drowned out by the band.
“Intimacy” is a step in the right direction for Bloc Party. It definitely has its flaws, but in light of the bigger picture, it is a solid album.