Now Hear This! Man Factory/Street Fighter II (2008)

This piece was originally published in The Cauldron (2008)

Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

When I was young, there were a plethora of adventure movies that all began with a similar premise: a lone inquisitive child interacted with some deus ex machina plot device that transported them to another time/place/dimension, wherein they had magical adventures, and learned valuable lessons about believing in yourself, etc. These films were awesome.

Around the same time, Arcades had not quite been replaced by the Playstations and Xboxes of the world, and many a precocious youth would line up for the privilege of plunking their quarters into the massive upright cabinets of yore. These arcades were also, in their own rights, awesome.

However, the year is 2008 – and the adventures of my youth have been relegated to the realms of nostalgia, the films and arcade both forgotten relics of a bygone era. Enter the Arlington TX Indie Pop band, Man Factory. A quirky little unsigned group whose catalog had consisted mostly of poorly recorded, uninspired and disjointed singles, singer/guitarist Tyler White and keyboardist Austin Sevener had a brainstorm one night. Why not combine the nostalgia of childhood adventure films with the arcade games they grew up on? While we’re here, why not make an ambitious 3-album Rock Opera with no record label or financial support to speak of?

Apparently, they couldn’t think of compelling reasons not to, and we get to reap the rewards. Street Fight: Round One is available for free in its entirety at myspace.com/manfactory, and the improbable proposition of a Rock Opera based on the classic 1v1 fighting video game Street Fighter II is… well…good. Rather good, in fact. The concept album finds the band in significantly tighter focus than their previous efforts, and White’s deadpan falsetto comes through strong and clear, evoking comparisons to John Sampson (Propagahndi, The Weakerthans) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) without wading into derivative waters. Fellow vocalist Toni provides a softened contrast, staying comfortably within a moderate range. On the whole, the band blends guitar-driven bombast somewhere between Weezer and The Who with analog synth leads that might as well have been ripped clean from the video games that inspired the tale.

Starting off with “Night at the arcade”, the Factory tells the tale of a haunted arcade machine, ripping a poor young girl through space and time – and the earnestness with which they deliver such a far-fetched premise against the Rocky-esque main theme does wonders for the material, replete with faux horn section, dueling harmonized guitar solo, and appropriately epic build. In “Chun Li, Outside” Toni takes center stage, bringing a relatable determination to this inherently goofy revenge tale, segueing seamlessly into “Chun Li, I’m Lovin’ it” – which gleefully contrasts synthesized pan pipes with lyrics like “Bison’s Mean, Bison’s Bad, Bison fought and killed your Dad” – although it does come apart a bit towards the end, when the band tries to blend in original soundtrack from the game, and it feels a tad forced. “Where is Ryu?” and “E. Honda’s concern” continue the wink/nudge seriousness, and “Good Grief, Zangief!” branches out into eastern European folk music, before culminating in an 80’s TV theme-style power pop chorus – but the real star of this show would be “Balrog, 24/7,” in which White gleefully does his best Justin Timberlake, slinking through a slick R&B gem long on charm, and with sass to spare. And therein lies the beauty of Round One – it’s an inside joke, sure, but one that invites everyone to be a part of it. The record is disarmingly sincere in its childlike joy, and it’s 100% free.

Awesome.

Now Hear This! Shoegaze (2008)

Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008)

Now hear this!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Contributing Writer

Britain. Over the years we’ve seen countless musical trends from across the pond, and the interplay between popular music in the U.S. and U.K. (Rock n’ Roll influences the British invasion, which spurs psychadelia, which punk rebels against, etc) has certainly moved musicians to create new and different approaches, and many of our current genres are a result of this exchange. Of course, with so much variety over the years, entire movements can be lost in the shuffle.

A prime example of this would be the British “Shoegaze” scene, which peaked in popularity around 1990, but never really caught on in stateside. Blending atmospheric, dreamy pop stylings with wall-of-fuzz guitars, lush atmospheric synths, and vocals that were more about melody and texture than lyrical delivery, the shy, introspective musicians in bands like Ride and Slowdive earned the “Shoegazer” moniker by playing entire concerts without looking up at the audience, and focusing more on the ground than the camera during interviews. Unsurprisingly, this was difficult to market, especially with the theatrics of Grunge beginning to captivate the musical imagination of so many. The scene didn’t just fade into the night without any sort of legacy, however – the real impact of Shoegaze would be its influence on American alt-rock; from bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, The Verve and Mazzy Star to modern groups like Blond Redhead and Silversun Pickups, the genre had no shortage of effect on this side of the Atlantic.

California’s Starflyer 59 is arguably foremost among these acts. Frontman Jason Martin has been making quirky, introspective pop records for about 13 years now, and the band’s latest, Dial M should be hitting stores by the time this article is published. From the Sonic Youth-style fuzzy art rock of Silver and Gold, to the electric jangle pop anthems of Everybody Makes Mistakes and The Fashion Focus, the band continued releasing records at a prolific rate, arguably reaching a creative zenith with 2001’s Leave Here A Stranger, a symphonic surf-rock masterpiece that sounds like nothing so much as a soundtrack to an art film that was never made, by an existential director who doesn’t exist. In tribute to the Beach Boy’s seminal Pet Sounds, the album is recorded entirely in mono. From 2003-2006, Martin & Co. released one record per year, culminating in My Island, which saw a more up-tempo feel, and the release of a single and accompanying video. True to form, the band hired actors to play them in the video, with the musicians proper only appearing briefly towards the end, staring uncomfortably at their avatars, awkwardly out of place in the rock and roll world they created.

With 2007’s The Brothers Martin (a collaboration with Ronnie Martin of Joy Electric) the punch and atmosphere of Starflyer was blended with electric synth-pop to create one of the most surprisingly good records of the year – and with Starflyer’s latest, Dial M coming out roughly the same time as this article, Starflyer’s keeping the Shoegaze ethos of complex, beautiful songwriting alive and well, while infusing it with the verve of modern indie pop.

Even if he still can’t make eye contact with interviewers.

Now Hear This! Nightwatchman (Election Week, 2008)

Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

This being election week and all, it seemed appropriate to venture into some of the more political music out there – and these days, there is hardly a shortage. From Fat Wreck Chords’ Rock Against Bush samplers, to hip-hop activists like Jurassic 5, to Punk bands like Anti-Flag and Rise Against, the tradition of music and activism is alive and well – if much more diversified — than in the 60’s protest song heyday. Oddly enough, one of the most vital and recognizable political musicians of the 90’s is arguably the most vital and least recognizable of the modern scene.

I’m speaking of Tom Morello – the Harvard-Educated guitarist for the combustibly subversive funk rock band Rage Against The Machine. Now, Morello’s political activism has never lost a step, but his post-Rage work with Chris Cornell in Audioslave – while occasionally musically stirring – didn’t exactly set the world on fire, never mind the millions of albums sold. So whatever happened to that quixotical soldier from Rage, the man who proudly proclaimed “Arm The Homeless” on his guitars, and protested The Gap, knowing jail time was almost certainly in the cards?

Turns out he’s alive and well.

The Nightwatchman is Morello’s alter ego, and for anyone familiar with his groundbreaking guitar work might find themselves scratching their heads at the stripped-down, acoustic folk music on display here. In his first album, 2007’s One Man Revolution, Morello is often accompanied by a rickety acoustic guitar and nothing else; Morello’s husky baritone blends the warmth of Jakob Dylan with a wizened delivery more in line with Mr. Dylan, Sr. Songs like “Up in Flames” sport lyrics like “It’s in Colin Powell’s lies, it’s in the shaman’s trance/It’s in the cellar waiting, and it’s in the best laid plans.” Morello pulls about as many punches as boxer Kelly Pavlik. On “Let Freedom Ring” and “until the end”, Morello eschews larger issues in favor of more personal tales, sticking with just the guitar. Bringing in a band for his just-released second Nightwatchman record, The Fabled City, Morello picks up the torch dropped by Bruce Springsteen so long ago, and delivers a record about the working-class that comes off without all the heavy-handed pretention that occasionally infected Revolution. Put simply, this is not a record that will tell you who to vote for – this is a record that will remind you why you care. “Gone Like Rain” tells the bittersweet tale of the often high cost of standing up for your beliefs, where in “Lazarus On Down” Morello and longtime friend Serj Tankian paint a mournful, contemplative picture, continuing the conversation without commentary – an unexpected choice for an activist, and it works brilliantly. Stepping into quasi-electrified funk in ‘Whatever it Takes”, Morello proudly proclaims “I’ll meet you now, wherever you are/I’m here until the front line breaks, whatever it takes”

And in his own progression as The Nightwatchman, Morello tells a continuing story – it’s our story, a mutant immigrant tale of unbridled hope in the face of often terrifying odds. Listen to Revolution before you go to vote, and put on City afterwards – if nothing else, it is hands down some of the best folk music of our generation.

And that’s a cause everyone can get behind.

Now Hear This! Elbow (2008)

Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008)

Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

Emotion. Whatever the genre, tempo, or volume of the song, music seeks to elicit emotions in the listener. From the most agressive speed metal, to the corniest polka and J-Pop, music that fails to move its audience, essentially just fails. So I realize that describing any kind of music as ‘stirring up emotions in the listener’ is pretty redundant. Hell, I could be talking about anything between Yanni and Napalm Death – so I understand the grain of salt you ight be taking, but when I say that the British Indie band Elbow creates the kind of music that makes one genuinely feel things, understand that I mean it as the highest sort of praise.

Elbow has been around for a while now – their first UK EP debuted in 1998, and they debuted stateside in 2002 with their first full-length, Asleep in the back, which (like so many artists profiled in Now Hear This) was critically praised, and sold like whatever the opposite of hotcakes is – but that’s neither here nor there. We’re going to focus on their two most recent albums, as it’s actually possible to locate and obtain them with some ease here in the States.

2005’s Leaders Of The Free World saw Elbow really hitting its stride – the band’s quirky blend of traditional rock with piano, ethnic percussion, and the odd bit of pizzicato strings provided the perfect backdrop to frontman Guy Garvey’s Peter Gabriel-esque voice and awkwardly literate, disarmingly candid lyrics. Tracks like “Station Approach” find the band striding in a hesitant, yet steady groove, whereas the single “Forget Myself” opts for a slightly more bombastic and confident stand. The title track slithers along with an oily, snaky feel that manages to provide social commentary without any annoying grandstanding like so many The album is full of moments like this – where the potential of ‘indie’ rock seems limitless, and utterly free of pretension.

However, it’s in The Seldom Seen Kid (released this past march) that sees this Manchester quintet reach a plateau that is (to pardon the author’s unforgivably awful pun) seldom seen by an Indie band. Forget for a second that the Coen Brothers’ tapped the gallows-humor blues rock of “Grounds for Divorce” for the Burn After Reading trailer, forget that they just walked away with their first Mercury Prize, edging out Radiohead’s In Rainbows – Kid is that rare sort of record that gets exponentially better upon consecutive listens. Elbow focuses on their strengths on this album – and created a charming, quaint sort of masterpiece that sneaks up on you – though many won’t know what to make of Kid at first. Chock full of quiet, introspective moments, Kid’s brilliance isn’t always immediately obvious.

Starting off with “Starlings” Garvey & Co’s delicately composed dynamics ebb and flow their way through a young man’s uncertain footsteps, taking the listener through all the emotional ups and downs of an emotionally stirring film, steadily increasing in both bravado and clarity, until it blows up -climaxing in a breathtaking crescendo when our hero finally gets the bloody words out – and this is all in the first track. The aforementioned “Grounds For Divorce” and “An Audience With The Pope” that doesn’t try to sound epic, or grandiose – yet is undeniably both. “The Fix” sees Garvey team up with Richard Hawley (formerly of Pulp, and a damn fine listen in his own regard) for a delightfully snarky hustler story that packs as much charm as any of the Ocean’s films, and “On A Day Like This” the band pokes fun at its own wordiness with lyrics like “what made me behave that way/using words I never say… ‘cause holy cow, I love your eyes” – and the tongue-in-cheek feel is miles away from what you’d expect from a Coldplay, or a U2 – there’s precious little ego here.

But it’s on “Mirrorball” – a track that owes as much of its sound to Japanese composer Yasunori Mitsuda as any ballad – that Elbow shines the brightest. At its heart a simple story, Elbow employs their unique ability to make the universal intimate, and weaves a tale that is simultaneously intimate and accessible, as big as time, and close as a whisper. It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Seldom Seen Kid is an album to fall in love with, and probably to.

Essentially, Elbow makes stirring, emotional music without a hint of self-indulgence, the kind of music that can make people believe in things they never thought they would. It is powerful, dynamic, and I feel genuinely sorry for anyone missing out on it. So grab a cup of tea, set aside an hour or so, and let yourself believe in love – even if only for a moment.

Now Hear This! Transplants (2008)

Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008)

Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

The Supergroup. One of rock music’s most often attempted disasters, simply cut-and-pasting members of different bands together has more often than not resulted in train wrecks that were not only less than the sum of their collective parts – many were downright embarrassing. It turns out that the love of music that come from friends messing around in their basements is difficult to manufacture.

But what if a Supergroup formed accidentally, by doing exactly that?

Why then, you would have the Transplants – one of rock music’s happiest accidents. In the summer of 1999, Rancid Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist Tim Armstrong had been fiddling around with some recording software on his computer, teaching himself to play the piano, and generally goofing around, making hip-hop. His friend Rob Aston added some vocals, and bit by bit ideas began to look like songs, songs began to sound like an album, and as more and more friends stopped by to add their two cents, it began to sound like a band. When Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker signed on in 2002, it became pretty clear they were on to something special.

In this case, ‘something special’ equated to Transplants, modestly and quietly released on Armstrong’s own Hellcat Records. The thought was that the disc might move a few units, maybe they’d do a tour, and that would have been a fun little diversion. However, Transplants was lightning in a bottle – its spastic, genre-leaping (and in some cases, defying) sound was immediately accessible, vital, and just plain fun. From the inner-city reggae of ‘California Babylon’ to the catchy ‘DJ DJ’, the blend of Armstrong’s mad-scientist instrumentals, Skinhead Rob’s unorthodox rapping, and Barker’s kinetic skinwork, the appeal of Transplants was immediate. With ‘Diamonds and Guns’, the band managed to blend a cautionary tale about the Columbian drug trade with a piano hook so catchy, Neutrogena now uses it to sell shampoo. The band was more successful than anybody had anticipated, and after a few singles and some successful touring, the band shook hands and parted ways from what had undoubtedly been a wonderful experiment – but it was time to get back to their ‘real’ bands.

Following his unfortunate divorce from Distillers vocalist Brody Armstrong (don’t cheat on your boyfriends when you go on tour, ladies – that’s in terribly poor taste) Armstrong recorded Indestructible with Rancid – as tasteful a post-breakup record as exists, and even brought Aston along for guest vocals on “Red Hot Moon”. Barker did some more touring with Blink, and cameos notwithstanding, Aston got back to carrying around guitar amps for AFI.

In 2004, the rumblings of a second album were forming in much the same fashion as the first – only this time, members of Cypress Hill, Dilated Peoples, and Boo Ya Tribe were lending their talents, and Atlantic Records was talking distribution. In the summer of 2005 – a mere four months after Blink 182 declared an indefinite hiatus – The Transplants released Haunted Cities, a masterful blend of punk, hip-hop, soul, reggae, and – well, pretty much everything else under the sun (and possibly a few ideas from deep space.) From the leadoff single “Gangsters & Thugs”, Armstrong & Co. set the stage for record’s inherent duality with the simple refrain “Some of my friends sell records – some of my friends sell drugs.” The album takes an unexpected twist, as the depressing gravitas of “What I can’t Describe” – an ode to despair, a weary resignation to dying alone – is delivered in some of the smoothest, most soulful R&B since Motown’s heyday. “Crash and Burn” blends a jovial calypso beat with more street-hardened tales, and “I want it All” is another toe-tapping piano-pounder, which casually weaves a story about growing up in a culture of crime, and the pratfalls of arrogance.

And that’s where the Transplants really shine the brightest – in a dichotomous blend of gritty street cred, boundless joyful optimism, and an experimental freedom to try just about anything, Transplants make music that exists in multiple worlds at once. It’s Punk, and Hip-Hop, it’s focused and freestyle, it’s aggressive and puts a smile on your face. Circa 2008, the band has no plans for the future – but the possibility remains. In the meantime, we have two absolute gems from some unlikely collaborators. There’s nothing really to compare it to – because there’s nothing really like it. This is music for the joy of music, pure and simple – and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Now Hear This (Vampire Weekend – debut column, 2008. Be nice to me)

Now hear this!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Contributing Writer

“There’s no good music anymore.”

We’ve all heard this. Some of us are saying it. It’s a legitimate question: adrift in a world of factory-fresh teen starlets, soulless vanilla rockers, and cookie-cutter wannabe tough guy rappers, what’s a discerning listener to do? I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to read Now hear this! – and you’re going to be exposed to an entire world of music that may have slipped right under your radar.

Today’s Act: Vampire Weekend.

Now, when first presented with these guys, I expected a very specific sort of mopey, eyeliner-drenched gloom rock, or at the very least, some angry, angst-filled industrial beats. Imagine my surprise, instead being greeted by some of the most unironically chipper music ever recorded.

Vampire Weekend formed at Columbia University (the name is taken from a student film produced by frontman Ezra Koenig his freshman year,) and derives its sound from equal parts British Pop, Congolese soukous music, and as near as I can tell, the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. Unsurprisingly, the Ivy League campus was receptive to their unique Euro-African literate Indie pop, and they’ve been on a landslide of success ever since, with SPIN magazine naming them the best new band of 2008, and even the almighty Rolling Stone ranks their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” #67 on their Top 100 songs of 2007.

Their major label release, titled (yeah, you guessed it) Vampire Weekend is a light-hearted romp through pop convention. Songs like ‘Mansford Roof’ (which was the first single released, in addition to starting the record off) blend vintage organs, strings, and the atypical drumbeats that exemplify the band’s quirky approach. Koenig’s trademark falsetto is never forced, never strained – and that goes for pretty much everything else on the record. ‘A-Punk’ delivers a more straightforward approach, with its bright, clean guitars, and persistent rhythms. The guitars on this record really bear mentioning – in an age where even contemporary pop and country artists have big, distorted electric guitars, Koenig and co-conspirator Rostam Batmanglij keep it clean on the 6-string front – there’s nary an aggressive snarl in sight, and the album’s lone guitar solo is more an exercise in melodic exploration than gratuitous face-melting axework. Batmanglij’s Harpsichord takes center stage for ‘M79’, before giving way to driving violins, bouncing bass, and one of the catchiest melodies in recent memory. The driving, piano-pounding ‘Walcott’ is a tongue-in-cheek tale, loosely tied to the titular hero of the ill-fated Vampire Weekend film. The album’s concludes with arguably its strongest track, the Clash-esque ‘The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance’, a (insert reference here)

So, why should you go out of your way to listen to some absurd amalgamation of Ivy League English nerds, and traditional African music? Quite simply, there is no single better cure for a low test-score, a rough breakup, or any other strain of crappy day. Vampire Weekend is sunshine in a freaking glass.

Now hear that.

Ebony & Irony (My first published music piece, from 2008 – be gentle!)

Ebony & Irony
(A nearly serious look at modern music)
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Contributing Writer

After a few brief moments of silence, the crowd erupts as lights violently snap to life. Our heroes revealed, they acknowledge our tribute, exploding in a cacophonous roar of sound. Complete strangers stand shoulder to shoulder, shouting platitudes in unison, and for a brief moment, there is a palpable sensation of magic.

So yes, suffice it to say that I think live music is kind of neat. It’s sweaty. Loud. Personal in an immediate sense that’s difficult to replicate via recordings. And in a local sense, it’s dying out.

Back in my days as a concert promoter/tour manager/all purpose rock star accessory, people all over this fine nation of ours had a lot of preconceptions about Cleveland. Shockingly, most of them were positive. “Birthplace of rock and roll – you guys must have a great scene!” Patriotic native son that I am, I would dutifully reply that yes, yes we certainly did. Do. Have such a thing. And sonically speaking, it’s true that Northeast Ohio has a wide variety of local and independent acts spanning all genres and tastes, and a lot of that is focused here in Cleveland. And while normal artistic ratios of tone-deaf and horribly misguided folks do apply, there’s a lot of very high-quality music being produced right here in our backyard. (Quite literally ‘on-campus’, if one is to take the brochures seriously) So in a sense, what I told them was true – from a certain point of view.

But the harsh reality is that for many local acts, the support just isn’t there – record contract or no. Acts like Brandston, Driver Side Impact, The Vacancies – they have no trouble drawing a crowd all over the country – provided that place is anywhere but Cleveland. In a conversation with Labor Force guitarist Josh Vardous, I commented on their laudable success in the surrounding markets – Detroit, Columbus, etc – to which he agreed that yes, they were off to a pretty good start, but it was (in his words) “too bad Clevo doesn’t rep us.” Wondering what that meant exactly, I headed to their show at The Grog Shop. The Grog’s an institution, having proudly hosted bands like Fall Out Boy long before most folks had any idea who they were. So I made it a point to attend.

12 other people made it a point, too. Now, if there is any haven for blue-collar punk rock in the area, surely it’s The Grog, right? Bands like The Street Dogs constantly fill it to capacity – so what gives? Where’s the love? Granted, this was one show out of the dozens that go on every week in our city – which might actually be part of the problem. Are we oversaturated? We live in a time where musical equipment is the most affordable it’s ever been, and easy access to software means that making a demo is no longer an investment requiring thousands of dollars. And this is a good thing, right? Who wouldn’t want artists to have access to the tools they need? (Besides professional recording studios trying to make a profit, but that’s another story) Toss in the power of the internet, and BAM! A brave new world of creation and distribution for the everyman, free from dependence on record labels – Karl Marx would headbang in approval, no doubt. This is all well and good, but the greatest strength of the ‘information age’, that being that everyone has a voice – is also its greatest flaw. Because, you know… everyone has a voice. Every. One. A cursory search on myspace will reveal hundreds of acts within a meager 5 miles of campus. And while some of these will doubtlessly be pretty good, the normal ratios still apply – not everyone is a brilliant artist, and that’s ok. But my ears get pretty fatigued trying to find any diamonds hidden in this rough. Finding new music should be fun, and exciting – it shouldn’t feel like work. Also, despite what certain political figures may claim, our economy is All Manner Of Suck right now. If you have to scrimp and save so that you can see a big national tour, why go to all that trouble for some scruffy local kids?

I’ll tell you why.

Because something worth doing is simply worth doing – regardless of who else thinks so. Because there was more honesty in that concert than in a year’s worth of over-commercialized glitz. Because some guy you’ve never met said it was cool in his newspaper column. (The logic of this last one is virtually unassailable) Besides, there’s always the chance one of these bands will explode in popularity – then you can be that insufferable jerk who saw them first, before they were popular. Who doesn’t love that guy?