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Three 2009 Releases: Last Days, Trail of Dead, and National Skyline

While I still need to finish writing my 2008 wrap-up and cover the music I've bought this year, I'll take a minute to cover the first few 2009 releases of note.

Last Days' The Safety of the North

Last Days - The Safety of the North: Continuing to mine the areas between ambient, post-rock, and electronic music, Graham Richardson has quietly built an impressive discography as Last Days. Both 2006’s Sea and 2007’s These Places Are Now Ruins are quietly compelling listens and The Safety of the North expands upon the success of those records. Richardson mentioned that this record is more cinematic in approach, which is quite evident from the fifteen tracks spanning sixty-six minutes and the addition of both spoken word excerpts and female vocals on a few tracks. I keep repeating “Life Support,” which reminds me of an ambient take on the interlocked melodies of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. While I certainly wouldn’t mind if “Life Support” mirrored the album-long length of the Reich piece, I can’t wait to spend more time with the rest of the album, since other tracks like “The City Failed” and “Onwards” are also stand-outs.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's The Century of the Self

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - The Century of the Self: The Festival Thyme teaser EP was just good enough to convince me to check out The Century of the Self, which I’d hoped would remind me of Source Tags & Codes but instead recalls the expansive prog-rock of Worlds Apart. Whereas Worlds Apart and So Divided seemed thrilled to deviate from expectations, The Century of the Self is lyrically consumed with returning to what was lost—cough, their direction, cough—but it’s often unsuccessful in mirroring that theme musically, falling prey to the same overblown prog-rock impulses. There are sections of this album that remind me of 1970s Genesis albums—having two piano-based “Insatiable” tracks, for example—which is an awfully strange tactic for any band to take. There has been some progress since So Divided, however. The first half of the album has a strong stretch from the energetic “Far Pavilions” to “Isis Unveiled” (recalling the Worlds Apart highlight “Will You Smile Again”), through the affecting bridge of “Halcyon Days,” but the album dips during the Festival Thyme rehashes “Bells of Creation” and “Inland Sea.” I’m a sucker for the maudlin surges of “Pictures of an Only Child” and the cathartic sing-a-long of “I’m the monster and I exist / And on this summit I am lost” on “Insatiable (Two),” but the canned strings of “An August Theme” are a laugh riot. The best thing about Trail of Dead is how they’re even compelling when they fail, which is more than I can say about a lot of groups.

National Skyline's Bliss & Death

National Skyline - Bliss & Death: I approached this release with trepidation, since Jeff Garber’s recent track record has been less than stellar. It’s been eight years since National Skyline’s This=Everything, during which time Garber moved out to Los Angeles and Jeff Dimpsey retired from the project to take a remarkably similar approach with Adam Fein of Absinthe Blind in Gazelle. Year of the Rabbit was Ken Andrews’ baby, but Garber and Tim Dow’s talents were wasted in that watered-down version of Failure. The Joy Circuit was a mush-mouthed step toward U2-derived rock, which Garber already flirted with on a number of National Skyline songs. Garber released the three-song The Last Day EP to iTunes in 2007 under the National Skyline banner, which was an improvement on The Joy Circuit but more alt-rock than the old National Skyline. Bliss & Death received a similar electronic release in February. (No physical pressing is planned.) Bliss & Death isn’t quite a Garber solo record: Micropsia mentions that “Garber had the bulk of the album finished by May 2008, but felt as if some extra input were needed to give the record more texture. ‘I began to feel like this record was closer to my first band, Castor, and one of the most important things about Castor was Derek Niedringhaus’s bass playing.’” Mixed signals to be sure—who adds bass lines at the end of a record—but the Castor mention piqued my interest. I thought he’d forgotten about that group entirely.

You can safely disregard the Castor reference, since there’s little here that remotely emo; this album is all about guitar textures. Garber seems to be in love with an acoustic-guitar-addled shoegaze approach, which unfortunately lends itself to some languid songwriting when the pace drops. It took me a few tries to make it past the titular instrumental, the tired “Edge of the World,” and the inexplicable single “Revenge,” but the rest of the album picks up the pace. “Bloom” does just that with a thousand guitar overdubs, “Glimmer” recalls the Edge-aping energy of those older National Skyline albums, “Driving Down” features both shimmering guitars and vocal hooks, “Kingdom” pays off its gradual build-up with an ascendant rush, and “I’m a Ghost II” is an excellent closing instrumental with a solid Niedringhaus bass line. While I’m impressed by Garber’s guitar work on many of these tracks, too many of his vocal lines drift aimlessly above the mist, lacking the solid hooks of Castor and National Skyline. After a few listens, Bliss & Death is certainly an improvement upon the last few releases from Garber and I hope it keeps growing on me, but next time he should bring collaborators on board at the beginning of the process. Hopefully that won’t be in 2017.