Remember, Remember
These Five I Heard in November

There’s no time like early November to talk about the Early November.

TEN is a band I have never quite loved, but I have always had huge affection for. Ace Enders won my heart back in 2006 with his band’s second album, a full-on three-CD concept piece that held together a lot better than it had any right to. It also broke up the band for a bit, while Enders focused on solo projects like his I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business. For a short while I chalked this band up as a cautionary tale about burning too brightly too quickly.

But then, lo and behold, the Early November reunited in 2011 and have been going strong ever since. Their new one, Lilac, is their fourth since their return, and it continues at the same pace as the last three. That means it doesn’t nearly scale the heights of that triple-CD effort, but at this point it might be a good idea to stop comparing the more mature Ace Enders with his more ambitious younger self. What’s here is certainly delightful enough.

So what is here? Another 11 melodic rock songs delivered with sweetness and a looking-back-along-the-road perspective. Early November songs are little meditations on the distances between us, and Lilac is no exception. It’s front-loaded with winners: “Perfect Sphere (Bubble)” starts with pianos and harmonies, Enders and his bandmates singing “I will always be there, to keep you up in the air.” “My Weakness” is classic TEN, surging forward into a memorable chorus, and “Ave Maria” should please anyone who has followed this band from its early days.

Lilacdoes kind of blur together as it goes along, but Enders has grown a lot more interesting as he’s grown older, and even the deepest cuts here, like the tricky “I Dissolve,” have something to recommend them. (In this case, it’s the soaring wordless chorus.) There aren’t any bad songs here, and closer “The Lilac” is as pretty a piece as Enders has given us, even with the out-of-tune trumpet solo. I’m always glad to hear more from Ace Enders, in whatever incarnation, but there’s something special about Early November albums. I can’t really put my finger on it, but Lilac has it, whatever it is. It’s a lovely little record.

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I can’t listen to the Early November without thinking about my friend Heather, who loves them. She’s one of those fantastic people I should keep in better contact with. I met her when she interned at the newspaper I worked for, and now she lives on the west coast and is working every day to save the world. Last time I connected with her, she let me know that her partner, Ethan Buckner, had finished and released a new EP under the name The Minnesota Child.

So I did what any friend would do: I went to Ethan’s website and listened. It took all of 30 seconds to buy the new EP, and I’ve been listening pretty obsessively ever since. The other day I found myself randomly singing the chorus of “Love is Everything” in my head, and that’s when I knew I had to write about this.

Buckner is the Minnesota Child, but Fireflies is his first EP with a band and full production. He enlisted Jeff Saltzman, who worked with the Killers during their heyday, to produce this thing, and together they’ve adorned these tunes with strings, synths, a choir and several guitar solos. It’s to their credit that it never sounds like too much. I can hear the solo acoustic origins of each of these songs, which means the focus here remains on the melodies and Buckner’s beautiful voice.

The title track kicks things off, and if you can get through the first 30 seconds of Buckner’s voice and guitar without wanting to own it, you’re better than I am. The strings kick in before long, and the song takes flight. It’s a terrific introduction to Buckner and what he does, but stick around, because “Home” is even better. Buckner sings the opening lines over a space-y organ, but by the time he’s done, he’s joined by a choir and is wailing away on lead guitar, and he’s delivered a song you want to wrap yourself in.

All five of these songs are this good, and it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. If forced to, at gunpoint, I would point people to the closer, that song I got stuck in my head. It’s hard to make a song called “Love is Everything” without it sounding trite or twee, but this one manages nicely. It’s a simple mission statement of a tune with an ascending-then-descending melody line that I just adore, and some transporting electric guitar flourishes. This whole EP is really superb, and I’m grateful to have heard it. I’ll be following Buckner’s work from now on.

You can too, here:

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Shall we get heavier? OK.

A couple years ago I caught a pretty tremendous triple bill: headliner Between the Buried and Me, my once and future obsession The Dear Hunter, and a Norwegian band called Leprous. I’d never heard them before, but in preparation I picked up their fifth album, Malina. And I enjoyed it quite a bit, enough to track down their previous material and wait in anticipation for new stuff.

That new stuff is here – the sixth Leprous album is called Pitfalls, and it’s my favorite thing I’ve heard from them. I’m not quite sure how to describe this band. They remind me of Muse sometimes, with their heavy dance-prog edge, and with the massive (MASSIVE) vocals of leader Einar Solberg. He’s got that widescreen Jeff Buckley quality to his voice, and he never has any trouble leading the band’s sound, no matter how big it gets. At times he reminds me of Jimmy Gnecco, the highly underrated mastermind of Ours, and the band is often as dramatic as Gnecco’s too. (With a voice like that at the front, they kind of have to be.)

Pitfalls is more Solberg’s album than any other Leprous record before it. He wrote most of the songs on his own, and it’s his falsetto that takes center stage. Opener “Below” is a showcase for him, its chorus a feat of vocal acrobatics that washes over you like a tidal wave. The band steps into Radiohead territory more than once here, most notably on “Observe the Train,” but definitely kicks up the heaviness quotient enough times (like on the shimmering “By My Throne”) to keep the prog-metal tag.

The record stays in the same mode for probably too long – it’s only the passionate vocals that distinguish “At the Bottom” from the songs before it – but pulls off some magic tricks at the end. The noisy electronic shuffle “Foreigner” gives way to the 11-minute “The Sky is Red,” a true powerhouse and the best thing here. It closes Pitfalls on an ominous note, and hopefully sets the stage for more full-band explosions like it on future records. If Pitfalls has a (ahem) pitfall, it’s that it remains coiled for too long before striking. It’s a tense affair, and it will leave you in awe of Solberg’s singular talent, if nothing else.

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Even heavier? Can do.

I will admit to you that I never heard French band Alcest before last month. I can’t get to everything, of course, but the way my friend Jeremy talked up this band and their new record, Spiritual Instinct, well, I knew I had missed something special. I’m sure this is a no-brainer for anyone familiar with them, but I loved Spiritual Instinct and I will definitely be tracking down the rest of this band’s output. (And, apparently, the hundreds of side projects associated with leader Niege.)

Let’s get this out of the way first: Alcest sing in French. You will not care. I know enough rudimentary French to figure out some of what they’re saying – titles translate to “The Garden of Midnight” and “The Island of the Dead,” among others – and it’s generally metal-sounding stuff about isolation and dark souls and truthful mirrors. Again, you won’t care. It’s the sound that will knock you over. Alcest is considered a blackgaze band, and I’m not sure I know any others – they combine heavy-as-hell black metal, screams and all, with the atmospheres of shoegaze. I love both of those things, and intertwined like this, they make Spiritual Instinct sound almost impossibly enormous.

This is the kind of heavy that feels like tons of water pressing down on you, and floating you up at the same time. “Protection” is amazing, its thick walls of sound masking what is a genuinely gorgeous melodicism. There are harmonies all over this record, drowned in gigantic guitars – like the best shoegaze, it takes a couple listens to tease out all the elements, especially the prettier ones. But if you want a master class in what this is, try the nine-minute “L’ile des Morts.” It comes screaming out of the gate, but slowly unfolds into something quite beautiful.

Spiritual Instinct is a lot shorter than I expected – 41 minutes exactly – especially since I wanted to live in its world for hours. The closest analogue I can think of is Deafheaven, but Alcest is even more concerned with beauty. This is a powerful little record, a universe contained in less time than it takes to watch an episode of television, and I’m very much looking forward to spending more time with this band.

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Spiritual Instinct is the kind of massive, all-encompassing musical experience that you can’t really follow up with much. But lately, after its last strains have faded out, I’ve found a weird kind of solace in segueing into the new album from A Winged Victory for the Sullen.

It’s called The Undivided Five and it is only this duo’s third album in eight years. But like the last one, 2014’s Atomos, this was well worth the wait. Only Hammock makes more immersive ambient music, for my money. The Undivided Five takes its cues from Claude Debussy, particularly his piano works, and wraps its simple, big chords in strings and synthesizers, all processed and folded out of shape. This is music to float into orbit to, and it lifts my soul in ways I can’t express.

I know some people will spend the entirety of The Undivided Five (another surprisingly short record at 46 minutes) waiting for something to happen, and I understand that reaction. This is music you have to give yourself over to in order to enjoy it. You have to let the music direct your mood, not the other way around. I’m making it sound new-agey, and it’s in no way that – it’s wider than the sky, and more emotionally direct than anything you might meditate to. I’m in awe of the orchestral elements here. The strings on “Sullen Sonata” alone knock me flat.

In short, this record is beautiful, and worth the five years I waited for it. If I were able, this is the kind of music I would make all day and all night. It touches something deeper within me. It feels like a connection to something grander that I cannot describe. In a lot of ways, most music is aiming for this kind of transcendence. A Winged Victory for the Sullen gets there, every time, and my life is better for knowing and loving their work.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.