The Really Big Small
Ester Drang's Impressive Infinite Keys

It turns out that I’ve made Radiohead quite angry.

Well, not me personally, but the band is rather upset at the versions of songs from Hail to the Thief, their sixth album, that ended up online last weekend (and were reviewed in this space last week). According to band members’ posts at their official site, the tracks leaked to the ‘net are stolen recordings of early roughs, most dating back to early February, which lends a fresh irony to their album title. Producer Nigel Godrich weighed in, explaining that some of the tracks aren’t even finished, and none of them are mixed. Basically, the Hail to the Thief reviewed last week is little more than a collection of high-quality demos and early sketches.

All I can say to that is, wow. If these are demos, then the real thing is bound to be so good it’s scary. These are 14 of the best songs Radiohead has come up with in half a decade, and even in the paste-up form circulating now, they comprise a great album. If the band manages to take this even further, I’ll be a very happy boy on June 10. Stay tuned…

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The name Ester Drang is probably unfamiliar to most of you. I myself only discovered them at last year’s Cornerstone Festival, where I caught their spellbinding, magical live show. At that time, they were touring in support of their first full-length, an amazing work called Goldenwest that I praised up and down. The album sounds like Radiohead at their spaciest, but with coherent and melodic frameworks beneath all the songs. It’s a huge, labyrinthine work that engages the mind while it envelops the senses. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, then you haven’t heard it.

Unfortunately, since my encounter with Goldenwest came more than eight months after its release, I wasn’t able to place it in my Year-End Top 10 List for 2002, but it was far and away one of the best records I heard last year. No big thing, I figured. This band is bound to put out a great second album soon, I reasoned, and I’ll be sure to give it the attention it deserves.

And that time is now, but leave it to the band to throw a wrench into that plan. Ester Drang signed with Jade Tree, Pedro the Lion’s label, earlier this year, and they’ve just released their second disc, called Infinite Keys. Everything about this disc, from the title to the cover photo of a seemingly endless landscape topped by an even more endless skyscape, would lead one to expect an expansion of the Goldenwest sound – a huge, glorious, spaced-out record of swirling atmospheres. Everything, that is, except the disc itself, which happens to contain nine succinct and straightforward songs, clocking in at just under 39 minutes.

It takes a couple of listens through Infinite Keys to grasp what the band has done here. The album basically contains the same beautiful noise as Goldenwest, but they’ve simultaneously increased the density and shortened the sprawl. They’ve added string sections to several tracks, an art-rock staple that most bands of similar ambition usually get around to adding, and they’ve layered track after track of chiming, beautiful guitars. There’s even a saxophone solo at one point. The sound of Infinite Keys is pretty close to infinite, and each of these wondrous songs could go on for three times its length.

The wonder of the album is that they don’t. Whereas Goldenwest contained giant epics like the title track and the 12-minute “Words That Cure,” none of the numbers on Infinite Keys breaks the five-minute mark, and most stay right around four. After a few listens, though, it becomes clear that expanded running times would have been a detriment to this album. All of these songs are exactly the right length, free of the excess that most critics of progressive art-rock abhor.

The result is equal parts King Crimson-style atmosphere and indie-rock emotion, a big album of little moments. The band shifts tones and time signatures often, and embellish their songs with pianos, xylophones, sound effects and synthesizers, but they never lose sight of the simple feelings at the core. Nothing is drowned out, and Bryce Chambers’ often pained voice comes through loud and clear, grounding the proceedings nicely.

Among the gems here are “Oceans of You,” the closest this album comes to a sweeping powerhouse, and “If They Only Knew,” the sweetest melody Ester Drang has yet recorded. Also terrific is the string-laden “All the Feeling,” propelled by soaring piano and mallet percussion. Every song has something to recommend it – “Dead Man’s Point of View,” for example, has a stratospheric vocal melody, and closer “I Don’t Want to Live (In a World of Infinite Keys)” rides out on a tumbling, repeated piano figure that brings the whole song together.

At first, I was a bit disappointed in Ester Drang for not trying to outdo Goldenwest on this album. What they’ve done, though, ranks as a sweeter achievement – they’ve made passionate, droning art rock that will draw in both the emo crowd and the prog crowd. The result is something you can’t quite imagine until you’ve heard it a few times – like Stephen Malkmus covering Pink Floyd, in a way, or the Flaming Lips writing songs with Adrian Belew. It’s a great example of musicians being both ambitious and restrained in the same breath, and it’s refreshingly unlike anything else out there right now.

And it will probably find its way into the Top 10 List in December.

Get your hands on the album at Here’s the thing – since Goldenwest and Infinite Keys are so different in approach, I can’t recommend one over the other. Of course, I support buying both and deciding for yourself, but if you like shorter, more direct songs, go with Keys, and if you like twisting atmospheres, go with Goldenwest. Both are pretty amazing, though.

Next week, why Robbie Williams will never be popular in America.

See you in line Tuesday morning.