In a couple months, I will be 42.
That used to seem impossibly old to me. I made a promise to myself years ago that I would never turn into one of those people who loses track of current music, who moans about the kids these days playing their noise so gosh-darn loud. And I think I’ve done OK with that. Yes, I went to see David Gilmour when he came to town recently, and yes, that was a sleepy old time (but a great one). But I also just bought Legacy, the new album from Hope for the Dying, one of my favorite scream-y metal bands. And I’m jazzed to pick up the remasters of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning this week.
I’m good with loud, is what I’m saying, even in my advancing age. If I have a role model on that score, it’s certainly Bob Mould, who is still absolutely raging at 55. It’s not enough for him to have started Husker Du and Sugar, he has to maintain his integrity and his amazing hot streak into his elder statesman years. Mould has certainly had his dalliances with electronic burbles and acoustic balladry, but what he does best is play loud.
Mould’s new album, Patch the Sky, is loud. The guitars are thick and loaded with momentum, and they’re the strongest thing in the mix, blowing out Mould’s vocals and his awesome rhythm section. If you’ve heard Mould before, you know what to expect – twelve sharp tunes that waste no time whatsoever, rocking with melody and purpose. That his songwriting is still this finely honed almost 40 years into his career is remarkable.
Patch the Sky caps off a trilogy that began with 2012’s Silver Age and continued with 2014’s Beauty and Ruin, and it exists midway between them. He uses the same band – bassist Jon Wurster and drummer Jason Narducy – on all three, and I think with this one he’s explored all the contours of this particular sound. It never gets old, though – the band paints with fire on a rave-up like “You Say You” and breathes menace on more atmospheric numbers like “Losing Sleep.” This isn’t the non-stop jaw-drop that Silver Age was. It’s more nuanced, more complicated, while still moving faster and more confidently than Beauty and Ruin.
But really, the differences between these three records are subtle enough that they could easily be packaged together as a single work. There is one big difference, though: Patch the Sky is the darkest and bleakest of the three. The death of Mould’s mother and the ending of several relationships added to the hopeless tone of many of these lyrics. “Left here by myself, there’s no tears that will be falling, nothing more than dirt and dust, nothing left at all,” he sings on “Pray For Rain,” one of the most deceptively upbeat rockers here. “I need you, release me, make me feel again…”
The album never gets brighter, staying in that ‘90s mold of power-pop through a black window. Mould lashes out at others (“There’s lots of poison in your soul”), but saves the worst of it for himself. The album ends with the slow and siwrling “Monument,” about erecting a metaphorical statue to your biggest regrets, one that is never washed away by tide and time. “I never ever learned, but that’s my way,” he concludes, and it’s crushing. While I love this record, and the two that preceded it, I’m back and forth on ending it this way. I sort of hope there’s a fourth album that’s as strong and powerful as these three, but that it lets in shafts of light.
Whether or not he follows up Patch the Sky with another like it, this one is awesome. That we’re getting music this alive, this sharp, this flat-out loud from Bob Mould these days is wonderful. Long may he reign.
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Mould is representing the old guard well, but there are few new bands playing the kind of big melodic rock that he pioneered. Thankfully, we have the Joy Formidable to pick up at least some of the slack.
The Joy Formidable is an English trio led by a badass guitar-playing woman named Ritzy Bryan. They sound like what peak Smashing Pumpkins might have if Billy Corgan had let D’Arcy sing. Their music is not just loud, it is epic – the production is massive, with thick keyboards and many, many guitars piled up into mountains. Their third album is called Hitch, and it’s the biggest and most expansive of the bunch, a 66-minute tower of ambitious, impressive, dynamic noise. It’s clear they took their time with this one, stretching out their songs and building up their infrastructure.
And that might be the record’s only weakness. If there’s a criticism of the Joy Formidable, it’s that they could (and perhaps should) be rawer. There’s a processed, labored-over quality to what they do, and it’s never been more apparent than here. Five of these songs either hover around six minutes or blow right past it, and while I love hearing them take their sound new places, it’s sometimes detrimental to the flow of the album. “Radio of Lips,” for example, is an awesome gallop of a thing that would have been a stunning three-minute single, but it drags a bit at 6:23. Same for the sorta-bluesy “The Last Thing On My Mind,” which runs out of ideas before its 6:20 is over.
Hitch is a mammoth listen, but thankfully, it’s also a varied and interesting one. “Liana” is a winner, a flying-through-a-tunnel minor-key concoction that oozes foreboding. “The Brook” earns its six minutes, shuffling through a strummy opening (with a banjo and Bryan’s lead guitar sounding like Irish pipes) to a rushing chorus that feels like going under water. Relatively short interlude “The Gift,” which finds Rhydian Davies singing over a keyboard bed and Bryan soloing like she’s been listening to “Comfortably Numb,” segues into “Running Hands with the Night,” which moves on one of the nastiest and darkest riffs of the record.
All of that big and loud serves as a nice contrast when the band pulls back, as they do on “Underneath the Petal,” one of the prettiest things – and absolutely the sparsest thing – they have given us. Bryan sings of lost love over an acoustic guitar, a little piano and flute, and that’s all. It gets only slightly bigger by the end, Bryan strumming like her life depended on it. The song is something special in their catalog, and I’m happy to have it. Closing track “Don’t Let Me Know” starts the same way, but by the end of its 7:37, it’s enormous, gigantic, pulsing, finishing this record with the requisite ambition.
That ambition is the beating heart of Hitch, and while they may take things too far in that direction here and there, I’d rather have that than a band that doesn’t try. I’ve loved the Joy Formidable since I first heard them, and Hitch doesn’t make me change my mind. Still, they are at the point where they will either make a self-indulgent double album next, or scale back. I’m interested to see which they do. They’re still one of the brightest stars in the rock firmament these days, and one of the loudest.
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But who says you need guitars to be loud?
The members of Three Trapped Tigers don’t think so. This trio hails from London, and their second album Silent Earthling is one of my favorite discoveries of the year so far. (Thanks to Mike Messerschmidt of Kiss the Sky for another sterling recommendation.) A drummer and two keyboard players, Three Trapped Tigers play explosive instrumental music that feels like the future. If you can imagine Signals-era Rush without Geddy’s wail and with even more prog-rock overtones, you’ve got it.
The secret weapon of this band is drummer Adam Betts, who plays like he’s in a prog-metal band. While the armies of Keith Emerson-ish keyboards here are anything but tame, it’s the force of Betts’ percussion that gives this music its knock-me-down power. The songs on Silent Earthling are tricky, jumping time signatures and refusing to play things straight. But even when Betts is tasked with providing a beat that leaps from 7/8 to 4/4 to 9/8 he does so with enough power and sprinting energy that all you can think about is moving forward.
But it’s not like this band would be Vangelis without him. Just listen to the steamroller opening of “Kraken,” on which the two keyboards play what can only be described as a metal riff. There is guitar here and there, courtesy of second keyboardist Matt Calvert, but it’s subtle, and very rarely the lead instrument. (“Tekkers” makes the most use of it.) You won’t miss it, though. There’s really no other word for what this band does: they rock. And even as old and gray as I am now, I like to think I can still recognize rock when I hear it, whatever form it takes.
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Next week, darkness and light with Frightened Rabbit and Weezer. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.