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The Major Lift

by David King on March 6, 2013

British indie darlings Alt-J have no soul. Like David, the android from Prometheus, and Superman before him, Alt-J’s problem is that they do everything and they do it well. Don’t think I’m saying the band has no soul as in “soul,” as in deep-down groove, cause the band has that. They also cop some blues-rock tone for the Black Keys fans, a little dance rock for the Foster the People cult; they dash in some folk for all the Arcade Fire loyalists, some jam-band riffs for the Phish heads and mix it all together for the prog heads. Lead singer Joe Newman babbles and bebops his way over the tracks like the ebb and crash of An Awesome Wave the album is named after. It isn’t clear if he is rap-rocking or just Rusted Root-ing it but, one way or another, despite some thrills and the thankful fact that the band manage not to bring any of the overplayed Bruce Springsteen worship with them—I’m looking at you Gaslight Anthem and Mumford and Sons—they pack just about all they can into An Awesome Wave’s 14 tracks, including three, count them, three interludes. It should all be overwhelming but it’s not because it is entirely inoffensive, clean, polished and neutered. This could be a sharp knife but Newman makes sure the entire disc sounds like some goofy exercise in hippie rap-rock. Thanks, England. I had my fill with Cage the Elephant. Rock radio will be happy.

Cult of Luna’s first disc in five years starts like a ball dropping. Then the synth comes in like some sort of angelic herald, the ball continues to bounce as something smolders in the background and then silence. This is “The One,” the two-minute-and-19-second opening of Cult of Luna’s Vertikal, a disc inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The silence acts as a harbinger for the mechanical fit that follows in “I: The Weapon.” It’s this kind of theatricality that makes this not just another record for the Swedish seven-piece. It burns with ambition, creativity and the kind of artistic choices that make their attempt to present a dystopian, mechanical, vision so utterly human. From Umea, Sweden, which is also home to progressive metal legends Meshuggah and punk-terrorists Refused, the group have always had major roots in the doom-laden art metal of Neurosis. But Cult of Luna have always been more precise than their contemporaries in Neurosis, Isis, or any of the other sludge groups that meld art with heavy riffs. Cult of Luna are always telling a story, every lick of their instruments like words on paper, like images on film.

With seven members, it might be surprising that restraint is the catalyst allowing the group to build 20-minute sprawls like “Vicarious Redemption,” but it is the truth. The song opens with the understated drumming of Thomas Hedlund, then the clean guitars of Johannes Person, Erik Olofsson and Fredrik Kihlberg swirl around like a child exploring some sort of wasteland. Until clean chords finally give way to hope. There is no turning back as Person bellows like a tortured narrator. In another world with less distortion and screaming, this is a Joy Division song or half a Mogwai album but, instead, “Vicarious Redemption” is monolithic in its propulsive basslines and sense of impending doom. On “Passing Through,” the sound of a humming generator, a broken connection, whirs as a trance-inducing guitar line hums. And Person coos like he is singing a lullaby. “All is quiet/Empty streets/All is quiet, the city sleeps/Close my eyes, on my knees/And time is passing me by.” With that the world ends with a whimper not a bang, but oh my god is it beautiful.

Trent Reznor’s How to Destroy Angels debuted their first proper full-length Welcome Oblivion this week and he did it on major label, Columbia Records. The move seems like a perfect contradiction to most of what Reznor has been up to for the past 10 years. Reznor fell off the major-label bandwagon following his return to action with With Teeth and Year Zero, and released a couple discs with the Radiohead pay-your-way style. But Reznor’s disc with wife Mariqueen Maandig feels more like a proper major-label Reznor production compared to his last few NIN outings. That doesn’t mean this is a good album. It’s not. The album is full of what sounds like second guessing. Maandig is the lead vocalist, but her coo is still hidden in the mix. She barely hits notes and sounds like she is reading the poetry out of someone else’s high school notebook—I’ve got a hunch it’s Reznor’s because the vocal patterns and delivery are awful similar. Maandig does her thing over the trip-hopish beats and bleeps and blooping distortion until Reznor cuts in to grind his voice into the chorus or refrain. To the group’s credit, the first few tracks do manage to outshine everything on the group’s EP, and it doesn’t all feel like recycled NIN material. In fact, “Keep It Together” and “The Sky Began to Scream” sound like Reznor may be finding his inspiration from groups like Phantogram and Crystal Castles. There’s that kind of glitch groove that the kids love these days, but Reznor can’t help but fall back into the old tropes. That would be OK if this were a NIN disc with a fully functional lead singer. There are some pretty danceable instrumentals here.