I can't blame the bands that have skipped town or gone into hibernation for the summer. Hell, I have to carry a bottle of water with me just to drive down the block, and that's with the air-conditioning blasting. In the local lexicon, I suppose that makes me a pussy. But others have decided that these pre-monsoon days are an ideal time to promote new material. These artists bank on the notion they can find an audience for their product now as opposed to August and September, when a flurry of album releases traditionally erupts (Reuben's Accomplice, for instance, is in the studio with Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins now, and the Format and Pokafase are scheduled to release their major-label debuts at that time as well).
Here's a sampling of local albums available now, and one man's verdict on each:
Various Artists, Arizona Abstrakt: The Phoenix-area hip-hop scene has no real identity, in the way that the rappers and producers in low-riding Los Angeles or bawdy, scorched earth Houston or rowdy-rowdy Atlanta have found over the years. That can be seen as a great thing, because it leaves the artists in this transient culture with wide-ranging influences and a will to experiment. Frenetic bounce and respectable lyricism can coexist in the same song, and producers can play as much with R&B and electronica as with percussive beats.
Local beat maker and producer Dirty Red exploits that openness well on this compilation. On it, Red creates 20-plus stylistically divergent beats. Some result from techno knob-turning manipulations ("Walk Softly," "Devious is Back!"). Others stick to the old minimal fat-bass line, hard-hitting snares formula ("The Boss"). Still others appropriate the spooky ambience of Europeans like Aphex Twin ("Voiceless"). Over his creations, Red invites 20 different rappers to attack the beats and take the songs in their own directions. Local veterans Attlas and Bless Tha Child have particular fun with their assignments. The aggressive Attlas turns "Walk Softly" into a growling battle cry -- he's like McDonald's, giving other rappers the shakes. Bless Tha Child, on an equally hard beat, turns "Purple Panties" into an amusing sex-story rap inspired by Slick Rick's old '80s narratives. While a few of the songs fall flat and the album runs uncomfortably long for one sitting, Red's exercise is purposeful proof that there is a heartbeat to Valley hip-hop.
Ember Coast, From The Mood Room: While this five-piece power-pop group released its debut record this past February, a fabulous opportunity to play the parking lots for a July stretch of the summer-long, punk-friendly Warped Tour gives them renewed life. More importantly, it gives the talented 20- and 21-year-olds the chance of finding more ears for their brand of crunch and sigh.
And the record deserves those ears. Songs like the rumbling "Say Anything" and "Two Makes One" are overloaded with hooks -- swift, unpredictable rhythms, staccato drumming, passionate melodies and bombastic choruses. The band also demonstrates unusual range, becoming quiet and artsy in a few interludes. They even craft an 11-minute behemoth called "Green" that alternates between exquisite acoustic balladry, slow-burning riffs and, with an athletic bass-heavy bridge and, later, a hushed flute coda, 1970s prog-rock. The experiments suggest a desire for artistic growth, giving these kids potential fuel for a major breakout in the near future.
Drunken Immortals, Soul Revolution: At least no one can accuse the Drunken Immortals, white Tempe kids kissed by hip-hop positivity, of being dull. Perhaps they're not entirely cohesive, but they're definitely not dull. The winners of the Best Hip-Hop category in this year's New Times Music Showcase, the Immortals travel in dozens of directions all at once over the course of their new album's eclectic as all hell 75 minutes. The 16 songs that make up Soul Revolution are lengthy winding jams, with most of them clocking in at between four-and-a-half and seven minutes. Meanwhile, the music splices live-instrumental funk work -- wah-wah guitars, heavy bass, free-jazz keyboards -- with old-school turntable percussion and scratches from DJ Pickster One, especially so on the dark, twisted "Sandstorm."
The album's off-kilter psychedelia gives MCs Brad B and Mic Cause ample room to launch into their wordy, thoughtful and progressive defenses of hip-hop culture and diatribes against George W. Bush's corporate political culture. "Star-spangled blindfold/I can't see," goes the intro to the Middle-Eastern influenced "Blind Patriot," which later rhymes "energy" with "catastrophe." Occasionally, the rhyming partners grow a little too indulgent in their eagerness to impress -- songs like "Lost Poets" and "Words to the Wind" suffer from a surplus of philosophical drivel. Yet despite that excess, Brad and Mic are surprisingly at their best on the album's longest songs, the seven-minute epics "Madness" and "Slice of Life," the latter offering poignant snapshots of life among the working poor (described at one point as "a conveyor belt of conveyor belts."). Arizona may not be an overflowing hotbed of backpacker, granola hip-hop, but the Immortals, who just wrapped up a national tour, are ambitious enough to fill the void nearly by themselves.
The Furnace, Beyond What's Become: The album's title connotes the problem: The brand of metal this Valley quintet bashes out over the course of 12 songs doesn't travel anywhere close to beyond what the genre has become. Replete with lumbering riffs, unenthralling vocals and cliché lyrics about all the pain they're feeling, all that the Furnace's songs confirm is that Godsmack, an obvious blueprint for the material, is actually a pretty good band. And with the bottles of beer in hand and the beaming smiles in their publicity photos, we're guessing the Furnace's pain is very, very well hidden, indeed.
Beyond What's Become does have one redeeming quality, namely a must-hear cover of A Flock of Seagulls' classically-dramatic 1982 synth hit "I Ran" (Remember the video with all the mirrors and the dude with the weird hair?). The Furnace darkly recreates the icy keyboard work that introduces the original -- then promptly cranks up the volume, converting the electro-noise to brontosaurus guitar work, wrapping the vocals in monotone overdubs. Pump in an assaulting guitar solo and a heightened sense of dramatics, and you have a genuinely great metal song. It's a happy accident on an album otherwise filled with car wrecks. -- By Christopher O'Connor
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