What Am I Listening To? – February 2019

My attention span for new releases is going to be somewhat scaled back this year, as I’m making a concerted effort to also catch up on the back catalogues of artists whose more recent albums I’ve enjoyed, but whose past work I’m largely unfamiliar with. I’m doing this primarily because I intend to write up a “Best of the 2010s” column once the decade is over, and I want to make sure I haven’t slept on any early-career gems from bands I got into later on. I’ve sorted all of these back catalogue releases by year in Spotify, and my plan is to devote each month to a specific year. So in January, I revisited my favorite albums from 2010 as well as any “back catalogue” releases from that year that I was previously unfamiliar with. In February, I’ve been doing the same for 2011. So I’m on target to have this particular listening project finished by September, when I’ll probably have relatively few stragglers from 2018 that I hadn’t caught up with yet. There’s no way I’ll have time to really give everything multiple deep listens the way I typically do with newer stuff, but my hope is that I’ll at least be able to identify possible candidates for a personal “best of the decade” list that stand some chance of making a big enough impression on me in a short period of time they’ll feel like essential contributions to an otherwise heavily nostalgic list. We’ll see how it goes – it could be a really fun history lesson, or a timely reminder that many of my current favorite bands didn’t arrive on the music scene fully formed.

But we’ll get to the highlights from that project in early 2020. In the meantime, here are my first impressions of the latest from Polychrome, My Epic, Copeland, Liam Singer, and Dream Theater.

Polychrome – Polychrome
I was introduced to the first two artists on this month’s list by way of the Blurescent compilation I mentioned in January’s write-up. Polychrome is a synthpop duo that reminds me of what might happen if Kye Kye or Flint Eastwood had a lovechild with M83 or Empire of the Sun. There’s a lot of 80s/90s influence here, and perhaps the group’s calling card is the way that they manipulate vocal samples in order to form a lot of the hooks for their songs (occasionally even basing an entire track around a simple, looped line of lyrics or snippet of vocalization). Occasionally live instrumentation will peek through the programmed layers, such as the piano and electric guitar that are prominently featured on the single “Synesthesia”, which can be an intoxicating mixture. Due to there being multiple interludes that aren’t quite full-fledged songs, this album is slightly short on content, but the sound of it is incredibly addictive, and I find myself going back to it over and over despite acknowledging that limitation.

My Epic – Ultraviolet EP
I’ve had this band recommended to me a few times, but hadn’t checked them out until hearing a track from this EP and deciding it might be worth hearing in context. These five atmospheric indie rock songs seem to comprise a meditation on the role that doubt plays in either the maturing or dismantling of a person’s faith – I’d have to dive a little deeper into the lyrics to tell you which, but I generally appreciate a band with the willingness to acknowledge that they don’t have everything figured out in this area. Most of these songs aim for contemplation more so than direct catchiness, so it’ll take me a few more listens to figure out which ones hit me the hardest. But there’s an awe of reverent mystery to this mini-album that I definitely find appealing.

Copeland – Blushing
Copeland has been taking its sweet time putting out new albums ever since they reunited – 2014’s Ixora and this album are the only records they’ve put out this decade. Their largely introverted atmospheric sound remains mostly untouched on this record, perhaps delving even further down the rabbit hole in terms of not caring if the songs have immediate hooks or are marketable to radio in any way, shape or form. A lot of the melodies are pretty loose here, the vocals sort of blurred out at times, and while a number of instrumental passages from the piano, horns, synths, etc. do stand out as well (as the drums on the rare tracks like “Pope” and “As Above, So Alone” that are more rhythm-oriented), for the most part, this is a long, slow, existential crisis of an album that is going to take a while for me to untangle. Even when Aaron Marsh gets angry enough to drop a few cursewords late in the album (a first for Copeland as far as I can recall), the mood of Blushing seems a lot more “lost in a maze of my own thoughts” than outwardly aggressive.

Liam Singer – Finish Him
I love it when a friend seems to know my tastes so well that they can recommend an artist I’ve never even heard of, and I know on first listen that they’ve nailed it. Liam Singer is an eccentric, piano based singer/songwriter, who seems to use the percussive force of piano to great effect across this sprawling album, with bits of ambient electronica and rock and a few other genres creeping in. His songs can be short little tone poems or long, formidable seven-minute epics. His voice is certainly a strange one – it reminds me a bit of Phil Keaggy’s, but in an entirely different genre. His lyrics run the gamut from dreamy to creepy and right back again, sometimes within the same song. There’s a generous amount of music to dissect on this record, which means it runs for a good song or two past the point where I think it’s wrapping up, but it’s so full of surprises throughout that I really can’t complain.

Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
This is the least bloated and over-the-top a Dream Theater album has been since 2003’s Train of Thought… which is to say, it’s still bloated and over-the-top, but then that’s kind of intrinsic to their prog-metal style; attempts to streamline it and provide more entry points for potential new listeners are actually a welcome change at this point. Nothing here reinvents the wheel in terms of this band’s sound – they know what they’re good at and they also seem to have taken stock of how they took things a bit too far with their previous album The Astonishing, where the hard-to-follow story took precedence over the notion of having identifiable songs that were individually enjoyable on their own. Distance Over Time doesn’t seem to have as obvious of a concept driving it – it’s just an enjoyable selection of 9 songs, some of them tightly constructed and some more loosely developed with longer solo sections per their usual. It’ll do nothing to impress those who aren’t fans of the genre, but for me, it’s their first album since 2005’s Octavarium that hasn’t immediately struck me as so painfully cheesy that I dreaded a second listen. So that’s progress, I guess.

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