In Brief: They were already amazing, then they got even better. TROK has conjured up what I consider to be the best album of 2010 thus far.
Is it just me, or has 2010 been a slow year for music? It might just be me. It seems like a lot of the heavyweights who I expected good records from this year either delivered slightly less than what I expected, or they haven’t delivered at all yet (delayed release dates being this year’s apparent trend), and a lot of the new bands I’m discovering are either similarly almost there, or else they’re really good, but they actually debuted in 2009 and I’m playing catch up. Either way, I went a good seven months without given a 5-star review to anything released in 2010. That’s about to change.
I already knew I loved The Reign of Kindo from their first album, one of the most excellent debuts of 2008 (which I, of course, discovered to late to give it an accolade that year). it exceeded expectation by not only bucking the trend that says all piano-based rocks bands must emulate Coldplay, but also by sounding exceedingly cool and genuinely exciting in a jazz/pop hybrid genre often known for being anything but. TROK describes their music as “jazzyish”, which largely means they take the inventive chord structures, tricky time signatures, and improvisational interludes of jazz and combine them with highly percussive rock music, showcasing the capability to play dizzyingly fast when a frantic song lyric calls for it, but also revealing a tender side. If you’re thinking Dave Matthews Band, you still haven’t quite gotten the picture. Lean a little bit more on the R&B side of things for the vocal inspiration. A comparison that had not been evident to me until recently, but that would have made sense all along, is Maroon 5. That’ll put you in the right department, vocally, but take out the sleaze and smut and the too-easy route to pop chart success that M5 seems to take more and more over the years. This is intelligent music. It almost doesn’t stand the same chance of being heard because it’s more intricate than immediate, but for those who dare to dive in, it’s tasty stuff.
The biggest flaw with TROK’s debut Rhythm, Chord & Melody was that it sometimes came up a bit weak in the lyrics department. It wasn’t for lack of trying – these guys could take on guilt, depression, religious hypocrisy, love lost, love found, motivational speaking, and the big dang meaning of life all within one jam-packed album, and it never felt anything less than genuine. But at times, they were naively unaware of the cliches and platitudes that certain songs threw out at us. Their follow-up record, This Is What Happens, takes similar aim at the big question of how it all fits together, but it seems to tackle the subject more deftly, still leaning on the subject of music as a unifying factor that brings joy to all, but sketching in a lot of the details in more interesting ways in a lot their love songs and story songs. This makes for a record that’s overjoyed when it’s happy and incredibly melancholy when it’s sad, but that never once feels like it’s going through the motions. I like my fair share of wry irony, but sometimes it’s a delight to hear a band that is so unabashedly open with their feelings while possessing the chops to really articulate themselves.
Speaking of chops, the group’s musical abilities an area where I didn’t expect or anticipate any growth from their first album. They could already play their freakin’ hearts out so convincingly, I was almost convinced there was nowhere to go. That’s silly hyperbole, of course – no musician is ever perfect and no band’s ever tried everything they could successfully try together – but let’s just say that more of the same for an hour would have been fine by me. But these guys have complexified their already beautifully intertwined sound, to the point where the hooks might not grab you as immediately as on the first album due to the inventive rhythms and melodies, but it makes nearly every song a thrilling ride. There’s maybe one track here that might overstay its welcome, and with several pushing the bounds of traditional verse/chorus song structure to make sure there’s room for the simple joy of exploring their instruments, that’s no small accomplishment. Some of it might sound like a big holy mess to the untrained ear, but we’re not talking PhD-level Miles Davis here or anything. Just a bit of an exercise that, quite frankly, would be good for the ears of the typical pop radio listener, were they willing to give something halfway challenging a try.
And that’s really the only drawback on This Is What Happens – a perceived lack of instant accessibility. Those who dug the first record and who plow headlong into this one looking for immediate standouts might have to do a little digging. There’s quite a bit of variance between the biggest, most densely woven jams and the quietest, most heartfelt ballads (a few even ditch the piano and stray into acoustic guitar territory with compelling results), so you’re not too likely to completely lose your place or forget which song is which. But with 13 tracks and an hour’s worth of runtime, it can take some effort to digest the whole thing. That’s not a criticism so much as it is an attempt to manage expectations. If you geek out over different aspects of musical virtuosity than I do, than this might not be your thing. If you think rock is the enemy of jazz music or vice versa, this will likely bug you on many occasions. But if you’re up for taking the ride wherever it goes, you’ll discover that this is quite a “happening” album. (Cue the groans.)
1. Thrill of the Fall
Thanks to some helpful handclaps, you get a brief opportunity to get the hang of the odd, frenetic rhythm of the opening tune before it dives headlong into its dizzying rollercoaster of sound. All of the drumming and banging on the piano may sound like total, dissonant chaos to those who prefer more conventional pop music, almost as if the band flung their instruments down a steep hill. But there’s a pattern to it, which makes the ride that much more thrilling as the band occasionally lets up for a more melodic piano break or some frantic snippets of lyrics in between the dense bursts of musical energy. It’s also remarkably consistent in the rhythm department, staying in 7/8 time throughout despite sounding like it’s changing up the beat in a few places. All of this is fully appropriate for a song about the excitement inherent in a risky situation, with the singer playing the role of an adrenaline addict who gets pumped despite being scared as hell. You can decide whether this is self-destructive folly or an admirable act of faith – the song hints at praying to God for relief from the situation, but doesn’t say explicitly whether the risk was brought on by God or by man. Given how suddenly the song comes pummeling to an end, you probably won’t have enough time to figure it out.
2. Now We’ve Made Our Ascent
If the 6/8 rhythm and fluid guitar runs sound familiar here, almost as if the band’s ripping themselves off, it’s because this was intention on their part. It takes a certain amount of pretentiousness to write a sequel to your own song and expect it to compare favorably to the original, but TROK has just the audacity to pull something like that off, twisting the melody and structure of their previous album’s “Till We Make Our Ascent” into a reflection that looks back at the rapturous event described in the title. That song was one of Rhythm, Chord & Melody‘s finest moments, a subtle poke in the eye of an escapist religion in which the faithful just hang around and wait to be whisked away to Heaven. Here, the point of view is that of a person who has arrived in heaven, or at least what they perceive to be “the foothills of heaven” – a peaceful place that is sequestered from the suffering present back in the real world. And suddenly the question becomes “Now what?”, as the person realizes there isn’t much purpose to life in this safe place, which eventually leads to feelings of guilt. “And here at the sight of an angel, it never occurred what a wretch I had been.” Not being part of the solution means being part of the problem, apparently. The band did a brilliant job with their variation on a previously established theme here – listening to the original “Ascent” back-to-back with this one will reveal a lot of the similar musical cues and parallel phrases, but this is also a good enough song to stand out as a highlight on its own. (That’s no easy task on an album where the entire first half along with much of the second half falls into the “highlight” category.)
3. Symptom of a Stumbling
I think Sufjan Stevens must have subconsciously crept into the mind of the composer here – listen to that lilting, syncopated piano melody and tell me it’s not similar to the first moments of Illinois. (Which is not a bad thing, as that’s pretty much my favorite album, like, EVER.) It quickly unfolds into the band’s own creation, of course, as this light-footed song briskly sweeps on by, telling the story of a man who is so deep in love with a woman that he is terrified it might be too good to be true. The pace of the song reflects the nervous giddiness of it, as Joe Secchiaroli puts into words an insecurity that I figured any honest man must feel at some point: “Am I what she wants? Am I what she needs? Or am I just a letdown she can’t see?” There’s a bigger weight to it than your typical song which pines over a girl and wonders if she’ll ever notice the guy – it’s clear that these two are already together and he’s asking himself if he’s got what it takes to be the kind of man she’ll want to stay with. Yet the song’s got such a “lift” to it, musically speaking, that it’s easy to hear the hope underneath this man’s worries, and thus to be encouraged by his honest confession. The striking words of the chorus are what take us to the final, resolved note of the song that ends it very suddenly: “The weight of love is more than all the world/Requiring a strength I can’t provide/But gravity, love strangely may defy/If only I was not so terrified.”
4. Bullets in the Air
Whee, here comes more chaos! The band seems to physically get worked up into a hurricane of sound in the swirling, angry intro to this song, which is played at ludicrous speed and yet, once again, performed with a method to the madness. The lyrics give context to the noise, as they proceed to put an obnoxious person in their place, one who insists on always being right and who uses guilt, intimidation, and flattery to get their way. Their words are described as devastating weapons here, and when the song finally finds a calm spot in the middle, the real zinger is delivered, as Secchiaroli predicts the most likely outcome of this ego-tripper’s reign of terror: “Oh, these people aren’t your friends/They’ll try to dance on your broken glass/Then pull the shards out when you’re gone/Then they’ll curse your name/Renounce every flattering word that they said to you.” (Cue the frenetic piano solo!) What’s most amazing here is how much stuff the band manages to pack into a dense, short song – it’s barely three and a half minutes, and the ending is abrupt as all hell (seriously, it was quite jarring until the third or fourth time I listened to it, and I’m generally used to that sort of thing). It might be the band’s weirdest song thus far, but it’s weird for a very good reason, because it illustrates the effect that a relationship with such an impossible person can have on your emotions.
5. Flowers by the Moon
The band drops to a slightly more sensitive tempo for this lovely, dusky serenade, which aims to do nothing more than describe an enchanted summer night spent with a lover, and which accomplishes that goal with flying colors. The 6/8 rhythm and the sweeping melody are just perfect for romantic swooning, and yet we’re reminded of the fleeting nature of nights like this, too, as the nighttime imagery hints at the dawning of day around the corner and the threat of real life pulling the lovers away from this magical feeling. Sometimes that’s when a song like this is most beautiful – when you know the moment won’t last forever and you just want to do all you can to hang onto it. It adds a touch of realism to the fantasy, I guess. Maybe I’m just melancholy enough to like my love songs with a side of bittersweetness. In any case, this is one of the moments where I think of all those people out there settling for Maroon 5 and their latest variety of not-so-subtle innuendo, when they could upgrade to classy music like this instead, except that they probably don’t know The Reign of Kindo exists. That realization somehow makes it all the more bittersweet.
The soft cry of a faint violin introduces this song, giving us a breather for a few seconds before another tricky rhythm shows up to do a seductive dance with the piano. Is this the first time on the album that they’ve played in standard 4/4? Wow, apparently it is. And it’s still complex and delicious, thanks to the finesse that drummer Steven Padin and (now former) pianist Kelly Sciandra demonstrate here. This one’s rather unabashedly sad, with a tinge of jealousy on the side, since the reality of the days and weeks and years following that beautiful night of “Flowers by the Moon” has led the woman to choose someone else over our protagonist, who now echoes the sad song of the nightingale in his lament over seeing her with this other guy. The melody’s got such a soaring quality to it that you might not notice the lyrical dissonance at first, but that’s just TROK’s way – even when they choose to go the depressing route, they can’t help but find joy in their instruments.
7. Blistered Hands
While there were some beautiful, intimate moments on the band’s first record, I actually don’t recall any that were based around the acoustic guitar. Here, they spotlight that instrument for the first time, pairing its lovely, fingerpicked melody with the piano and cello, which is an appropriate device for telling the story of a lowly songwriter, a man who hopes to get the girl by way of a well-written song and the movement of his calloused fingers across the strings. The songs he sings are probably a metaphor for his behavior towards her, as he admits that previous performances haven’t exactly met her expectations, possibly scaring her or making her cry. He’s asking for that one last chance to make a good impression, and I have to say, if she’s not a puddle in the guy’s arms by the end of this beautiful little song, then she doesn’t appreciate good music. Lyrically, it’s a pretty straightforward apology – you’ve heard this sort of thing from a thousand singers, but it’s the skilled and yet delicate nature of the performance that makes this man’s repentance 100% believable.
8. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Eight songs into the record, and we honestly haven’t hit a rough spot yet – not even a song that is “merely good” as opposed to excellent. This thunderous, galloping tune keep the bar set high, calling on the Latin-tinged percussion of the last album’s show-stopper “Hold Out” while choosing to take the “slow build” approach, keeping the rhythm quick throughout but gradually adding to the intensity as the song progresses. Horns begin to creep in over the course of the first few verses, but the song takes a decided plunge into turbulent waters at the bridge, pounding on the low end of the piano keys while the horns and guitar flirt with one another a bit, and the vocal melody inverts itself one or two songs. Ironically, this whole busy-body performance is about the need for a man to take a break from his toils, just to clear his head and get some perspective. What would happen if you just slept in for one more hour on a given day, or turned the phone off for a bit? Would the world really end? The fact that there’s no calm break anywhere in this song is probably meant to indicate the exhaustion of keeping the pedal to the metal until we’re completely burned out. The band’s made it clear in “Now We’ve Made Our Ascent” that escapism shouldn’t be a permanent way of life, but all the same, every now and then the human body just needs a break.
9. Comfort in the Orchestration
There’s a portion of the song “Great Blue Sea” – possibly my favorite Reign of Kindo song – where I find it impossible to keep track of the exact rhythm no matter how many times I listen to. The drum roll that leads into this song’s verse feels a lot like that, accentuating the off-beats in a triple meter that I want to say is something like 9/8, and which certainly resolves to a simpler 6/8 for the chorus, but that verse – man, I just can’t keep in sync. It’s actually quite fun for that reason, though, and this is the point where the band gets to revisit what seems to be their favorite lyrical concept – the sheer joy of music. Music is life to these guys, and it’s fitting that they would name their album after a track that extols the virtues of letting yourself go and letting the composition of one’s life write itself. Or maybe it’s a play, since there are references to a script and a cast. (Yeah, this one’s got a few of those platitudes about the grand purpose of life in general. It’s slightly corny, but forgivable.) Structurally, this is one of the more complex songs on the record, with one or two sections that seem to be choruses/refrains and a bridge that meanders through several distinct melodies before coming back around to that final refrain: “This is what happens when you realize you’re not in control.” The first album’s “I Hear That Music Play” mined very similar territory, but where that one felt disjointed and a bit like it was trying to pack too much into one song, this one feels like it’s got the recipe almost perfect.
10. City Lights & Traffic Sounds
This shuffling, bustling piece about city life tricked me into thinking it was going to be an instrumental at first. While the band’s certainly got the talent to pull off a gripping performance without any vocals at all, I rather like that they took a left turn here, letting the piano take the lead for half the song as if the band had decided to do an impromptu jam (one which almost feels like the Charlie Brown theme song got all grown up and moved off to the Big Apple) before getting into the meat of it. By the time Secchiaroli finally shows up somewhere past the two minute mark, the song is about half over, so how could there possibly be time to say anything meaningful? Yet, despite the time constraints, the band manages to squeeze in a little story about two long-lost lovers who bump into each other on the street, some seven years after he first broke her heart and said goodbye. There’s a confrontation, and I won’t tell you how it ends, but I think the final line wisely sets us up for the song to follow.
11. Battling the Years
I love the rolling piano in this song – I have no idea how Kelly Sciandra’s fingers keep up with those triplets (or how his replacements’ fingers will), but it’s an impressive thing to listen to. There are lots of dramatic stops and starts in this song, which does have the side effect of making it drag slightly, but for the most part, it’s a song that I enjoy and relate to. As you’d probably expect from the title, it’s a song about aging, and rather than hit us with some sort of “forever young” mumbo jumbo, it takes a realistic stance about the time we can never get back, and how this is one part of life where the playing field is level for the rich and the poor alike. Some cliches abound here as the band discusses the passage of time and uses stock phrasing to depict wealth (“I might earn myself a fortune/The finest diamonds I may choose.” Do rich folks really keep vaults of precious gemstones lying around these days, or does it simply not sound as romantic to write about choosing the finest stocks and bonds? Just curious.) The key to the song lies in its statement that time lost can’t be bought back: “But no sound requites the years behind me/That is something I must lose.” That gets my attention, because it’s one of those things I’ve grown to accept after years of fighting it – there is no going back to visit the past. So if it’s a song about cliches, it’s at least about true ones.
12. Soon It Shall Be
The longest track on this album is actually “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”, but this one often feels like the album’s longest, because it’s the one moment where the band pulls back the otherwise brisk pace to perform a true ballad. The slow plucking of an acoustic guitar joined by the wistful cry of an accordion give this song a coffeehouse sort of feel, except it’s a coffeehouse in Europe somewhere. The drums and piano take over for the second verse – it would have been interesting to see the group abandon the piano for an entire song, but at least this way, it differentiates one verse from the next in a song that could otherwise get repetitive. This admittedly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, as the melody and pace of it seem to just beg the listener to start nodding off, and yet as far as lullabyes go, I could think of worse ways to be serenaded to sleep. Those who prefer for their melodies to resolve at the last note will probably be perturbed by the little “lift” at the end of each verse that keeps it from going where the ear expects it to. Consider it this band’s own odd little twist on a jazzy “torch song”, I guess. I could see Over the Rhine knocking something like this out of the park (ironically, by playing it even more slow and sparse). Since it’s a song about the yearning expressed by two people who are physically separated and long to be together, I could imagine them giving it some special pathos. It’s good enough as it is in the hands of its original composers, of course – it just has the unfortunate circumstance of being the odd song out on an album full of up-tempo performances.
The band’s first album opened in rather melancholy fashion with “The Moments in Between” and closed by sprinting across the finish line with “Hold Out”. This albums seems to do the reverse, with its full-throttle opening track, and now this melancholy number to finish things off. If you’re expecting some sort of a praise song from the title, you’re wrong – and you’ve probably also forgotten to read a good chunk of the source material in your Bible. This song is a lament, like many of the lesser-known songs are, though where songsmiths like King David were often rather specific about enemy armies about to obliterate them and such, Kindo keeps it a bit more general, urging God that “I need a miracle” and admitting to being difficult to love, knowing that they’d be in trouble if God only loved the way fellow human beings could: “I could see a reason for apathy/’Cause you don’t need me that way I need you.” It’s interesting to contrast this direct plea to God with the lament “Oh my God, what have I become?” from “The Moments in Between” – this would loop back around perfectly if you were to play the two albums back to back on repeat. When this one gets going, it really gets going, banging on the door of heaven with its cry to be heard, amidst the maze of rattling drums and banging piano. Yet, its final run to the finish line is somber and pensive, eventually ending on an unresolved note with one last sigh of “I need a miracle.”
Curiously, the Japanese release of this album throws in two bonus tracks, which could be seen as a bit superfluous. One is an “8Bit Remix” of the song “Needle and Thread”, the original version of which was featured on the band’s self-titled EP (which I have yet to hear, actually). If you can imagine a hybrid of fast-paced jazz and rock music programmed into a computer and played back to sound like old-school Nintendo music, then you’ll probably get the idea. There’s something perversely amusing about taking passionately performed “analog” music and digitizing it, but what’s really amazing is how the fluid melody and rhythm stands out. If this sort of novelty is amusing to you, be sure to check out This Is Also What Happens, the companion album to This Is What Happens, which features a remix version (albeit truncated in some cases) of every single track on this album. Man. Even when these guys do a silly side project, they pour their full attention into it!
There’s also a 45-second digitized version of the song “Morning Cloud” meant to be used as a ringtone. Can’t you just use the real thing as a ringtone on most modern cellphones? Especially in Japan, where their technology’s like 10 years in the future anyway. What is the point of this, exactly?
But hey, if the band’s provided an hour-long album with 13 tracks on it and all I can truly gripe about are the bonus tracks beyond that, then we’ve got some realm slim pickin’s in the complaint department. The Reign of Kindo outdid themselves with this album, and if they manage to progress at a similar rate for their next album circa 2012, I guess I’m gonna have to lobby for Epinions to bust out a 6-star rating option.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Thrill of the Fall $2
Now We’ve Made Our Ascent $1.50
Symptom of a Stumbling $2
Bullets in the Air $2
Flowers by the Moon $2
Blistered Hands $1.50
Out of Sight, Out of Mind $1.50
Comfort in the Orchestration $1.50
City Lights & Traffic Sounds $1.50
Battling the Years $1.50
Soon It Shall Be $1
Joseph Secchiaroli: Lead vocals, guitar
Steven Padin: Drums, backing vocals
Kelly Sciandra: Piano, trumpet (left after this recording)
Michael Carroll: Guitar, percussion
Jeffery Jarvis: Bass, backing vocals
Danny Pizarro, Jr.; Piano (joined after this recording)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.