‘Mainstream’, a harmless word you would think but, when it is used in the same sentence as another, relatively harmless word, ‘music’, in certain circumstances, it can strike dread right in the centre of my heart!
The actual definition of the word ‘mainstream’ is ‘The ideas, attitudes or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional’, like I said, harmless but, if you take the urban dictionary’s definition (yes I know, down with the yoof) you get this, ‘Mainstream is what’s the new trend, when one “style” gets old, a new one is reborn, a mainstream person is one who jumps from trend to trend so that they fit in with the rest of the crowd. Mainstream is being what society thinks you should be, and look like’. Getting into more dangerous territory now aren’t we?
Mainstream music, if you take the urban dictionary’s view, is, therefore, music that people think they should be listening to, music that people listen to because everybody else does. Is this why artists like my old favourites (s.i.c) One Direction along with JLS, Miley Cyrus et al sell millions of copies of their bland excuse for music? Well, in my opinion, yes, wholeheartedly! Whilst this unadulterated bland, insipid excuse for music sells like there’s no tomorrow, real music that people have put their heart and soul and, quite probably, their last penny into, struggles to shift a few hundred copies and the artists play to a crowd of twenty or thirty people, it makes my blood boil!
Whilst my level of ire threatened to overflow and create a human holocaust, the world was saved by the arrival of With Our Arms to the Sun’s new EP, ‘A Far Away Wonder’ and, with a return to the world of proper, substantial music, a major catastrophe was avoided. My blood ceased to boil and my ire receded, a return to a world of calmness and fluffy bunny rabbits ensued (okay, I’m over doing it now, I know). One thing you could never call this American band is ‘mainstream’, WOATTS (an acronym favoured by the band and their fans) perform a brand of mainly instrumental rock all of their own.
Formed by former Arizona native Josh Breckenridge (he recently relocated to California) as a musical experimentation project, he was soon joined by his brother Joseph and their good friend Joseph Leary. Mainly utilising guitars, bass and synth to create amazing soundscapes, the trio released the full length ‘The Trilogy’ last year, which I was lucky enough to review and, 2014 sees the release of ‘A Far Away Wonder’, a lengthy EP of re-worked songs from ‘The Trilogy’ and new WOATTS tracks. The EP sees collaborations with film producer Jonathan Levi Shanes and drums engineered by Aaron Harris and played by Brandon Brown.
I have reviewed many instrumental albums for Lady Obscure and, in my opinion, an instrumental album has to work harder than a record with vocals, have a unique selling point that can lift it from the steady stream of releases that abound and enable it to lift its head above the parapet and not be knocked back down again. I found WOATTS first release ‘The Trilogy’ to be such an album, would this follow up be in the same vein or signal a return to the drawing board?
Headphones on, world ignored for a while, I press play and am immediately launched into the brilliant Cosmonaut, an extended re-envisaging of a track from the first album and the first single of the new EP, which starts from low beginnings and gradually wells up until it bursts out with joy. There is a definitive feeling of enrapture about this song, something almost spiritual and, something quite different to what the guys have done before, including using the voice as a sort of instrument to add a modicum of humanity to the track. There are eclectic interludes throughout and mellow moments of reflection but, it is when the music and voice soar high, like an uplifting multitude of minds, that really makes this song something special. As an opening track it works perfectly, leaving you wanting more, if you don’t then you are more mainstream than you thought. The next track, Great Black Divide, begins with a ponderous bass line and guitar note that seem to be marking time, like the tick and tock of a clock in an empty room, this effect is increased by the addition of a further, more insistent guitar note to give an impression of differing layers of time. The violin like synthesiser adds a modicum of finesse before the guitars crash the party with power and poise and you are right in the middle of a melting pot of powerful music that echoes huge open spaces and vast expanses of emptiness. The distorted keyboard meanderings add a touch of 70’s space rock and the harsh vocals that intrude work surprisingly well, especially for someone who is not a fan of the style. The song runs out with the slow, repeated bass line and leaves you momentarily stunned.
Tesselation is the second single release and is, once again, subtly different to what has preceded it. A hectic, repeated guitar run gives a real sense of urgency to proceedings, almost as if you are being chased by something menacing and unseen. The band show their influences on the laid back interlude that has early Pink Floyd writ large all over it, superb stuff. The addition of more vocals shows the direction the band are moving in and the meditative mantra is quite hypnotic as the song flows smoothly into a real convoluted and distorted guitar section that is the work of a mad genius! It is intelligent music that makes your brain work and all the better for it, the vocal effects at the end are challenging but a great addition. Die For You is as ambient as WOATTS get and, in it’s own way, is quite poignant. It has a quality to it that is quite ethereal yet holding substance at the same time. The gentle bass and ringing guitar are quite moving and the song leaves you feeling benign and genial and ready to save the world and go hug a tree. The band then take the shackles off and the song takes on a dominant and forceful edge, crashing guitars and thunderous drums, all played with a raw feel, ramp up the emotions and the vocals really pull at you, this re-working of one of my favourite tracks from ‘The Trilogy’ is impressive.
That laid back, mellow quality is much in evidence at the introduction of After The Storm, melodic and serene, the song almost seems to be treading water as the tranquil drums and muted guitars hold your passing attention. The volume knob is turned up a notch as a heavier riff overlays the hushed tones of before but, it never becomes hard, heavy or in your face, just raises the bar enough to make a sleeping cat open one eye. I really like the guitar that runs the track out, as if it’s emphasising something. The pace and power are much more in evidence on Walking Through Walls with its heavy psychedelic influence, coruscating guitars, off beat drums and low pitched synths, even this track trims the sails when the hushed, almost imperceptible vocals begin. Another track from ‘The Trilogy’ that has been taken out, adjusted and replaced to produce something slightly different, as if in a parallel universe, the stoner guitar solo that lies just within earshot is a particularly clever touch. These guys know what they are good at and the continued evolution of their sound is evident throughout.
Carrying on the re-working theme, Syndicate begins with a maelstrom of musical noise that, somehow, clashes and compliments at the same time. Harsh guitars and cleverly programmed synths dominate the sound to give an animated soundscape of disorderly time changes and feverish note playing. This song never stands still, always frenzied and exciting with wailing voices and slick, inventive keyboards right to the end. The final track on this EP, Where Silence Dwells is as foreboding as its title, deep and meaningful, like a slow descent into an abyss. The riff is a thing of majesty, dark and dangerous and the whole track has a hint of menace, as a way to finish a record it is moody and maleficent, time for a sit down and a strong drink!
With Our Arms to the Sun write music that has substance and gravity, even when they re-arrange previously recorded tracks and record them, they treat them as new songs to be nurtured and developed. This is not music for the faint hearted but, if you say you love music and, you don’t like ‘A Far Away Wonder’ then your soul must have withered and died. The band are in the process of writing completely new material for their next, full length release, if this is what they can do when they re-work old material then, the new album should be a wonder to behold, bring it on!