04 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Frames - Mosaik (2010, SPV Records)

If there’s one sub-genre of music (and oh how I loathe that term, yet feel kind of forced to use it from time to time) I keep returning to recently, it’s post-rock. I’ve found a lot to enjoy in this little niche of rock music, and even if the label doesn’t say prog, it’s prog enough for me. From bands like Long Distance Calling and The Ascent of Everest to classics like Godspeed You!Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion, there’s something about the slowly building arrangements, the classical structures in a rock idiom, and the use of non-standard rock instrumentation (a lot of this feels to me like chamber music at its best) that hits all the right spots.

A new band that I am adding to my list of favourite post-rock groups, even after just their first full-length release, is Germany’s Frames. Their debut album, Mosaik, is out 28 September 2010 in the US on SPV Records.

Frames is a 4 piece, using a standard rock band line up of drums/bass/guitars/keyboards. Their sound, however, is incredibly rich, with layers of keyboards creating huge string and orchestral sections that give the 11 tracks on Mosaik a symphonic feel that certainly would be pleasing to lovers of symphonic rock. Their playing is a bit heavier than you might expect, however, with some tracks veering close to a mix of metal and orchestrals that I really have no comparison for. In general, while sharing many of the hallmarks of their post-rock predecessors, Frames really doesn’t sound like any of them. And that’s a good thing.

Album opener ‘intro’ is a quiet minute and a half keyboard piece that leads directly into ‘the beginning.’ A simple 2 note bass pattern and quiet guitar notes create a mood, while drums slowly begin to build a pattern. Bass drum first, then toms and cymbals, building in intensity while keyboards and guitars continue to evolve their melodies independent of each other. The song begins to swirl, and if I had full liner notes (all I have is an official promo download and a one sheet with basic information), I’d know who it is that is playing violin on this piece, or if it is actually an incredibly good synth patch instead. The second half of ‘the beginning’ is almost metal in intensity, with heavy guitars and drums propelling the composition forward with relentless precision.

‘agenda,’ on the other hand, is prog metal in name and intent. Heavy organ, reminiscent of Jon Lord or Keith Emerson, mixes with distorted guitars and a punchy rhythm section to craft a heavy slab of rock. A minute or so in and a huge shift reveals itself, with bell like keyboards and a much more restrained, almost mellow feel taking the place of full on rock. This is a point for Frames to build things back up again, creating a mix of the two styles that shows the respective strengths and contributions of both.

‘transition’ feels just like that…a brief interlude setting the table for the next stage of the aural meal. Synths create a string quartet type sound, elegiac in feel and tone, leading perfectly and seamlessly into ‘isp.’ Here we have a song that sounds much more like the post-rock bands I first discovered…brooding, melancholic, introducing less traditional sounds into the mix. A longer track at just shy of seven minutes, it gives the musicians plenty of time and space to create shifting patterns of music, sheets of sound that fill the air the way a painter fills his canvas with swaths of blue and green and yellow. ‘isp’ shows great grasp of light and shade, shifting moods and textures subtly to create emotional responses without the use of words to direct that response. The result is pure, emotionally true, and as individual as the person listening.

‘insomnia’ flows onward, and the effect for me is that of a single 15 minute composition, rather than three shorter ones. There are some similar musical phrases used which help with this vibe, and again, orchestral sounds are used to great effect by Schoenfeld. I am incredibly blown away by the section starting about 1:15 in, with heavy guitar and violin sounds combining to create a great facsimile of a rock band as chamber ensemble. ‘insomnia’ is heavier than the preceding ‘isp’ at times, but the shifts in sound are even more drastic, with metallic sections contrasting with barren sections of string synth. It’s an intense piece of music, to be sure, and one that comes as a definite highlight.

For me, one of the ‘traditional’ hallmarks of post-rock is the frequent use of longer song forms. I’ve listened to countless 10 and 15 and 20 minute tracks from a variety of post-rock bands, and it’s a length that they seem to be able to craft coherent pieces of music at that retain a sense of conciseness and rightness. Contrary to the 20-minute neo-prog epic that could have been cut in half and still might be just too long, a band like The Ascent of Everest or Frames can come up with a 15 minute piece that leaves you wanting more when the track counter shifts. ‘m,’ the album closer, is just that kind of song. The ‘epic’ of the release at 15:20, this track takes everything that has come before, been seen in individual tracks in small bits, and builds them together in a piece that really shows what Frames can do with a large, empty canvas. Shifts in mood, extreme changes in dynamics, styles that range from piano ballad to crunchy progressive metal, ‘m’ has it all and then some. It amazes me that a composition like this comes fully formed on a band’s debut release. It shocks me to look at a band photo and see 4 kids that look like they should be finishing high school or entering college and realise that they did this. On an album filled to the brim with great examples of concise songwriting (and yes, these are SONGS, not just instrumental flights of fancy…there are fully defined melodies and structures on here), a piece like ‘m’ stands out because of the combination of precise songwriting and expansive scope. It’s a brilliant piece of music.

I think it’s a shame in a lot of ways that a lot of bands in this genre are so overlooked by progressive music listeners simply because the genre label doesn’t say prog. It may not say it, but it certainly sounds like it, and I’d recommend any of you reading out there to hit the band’s Myspace page, check out the samples, and then pick up a copy of the album. I really think you’ll be very glad you did.

Track Listing:
Intro 1:36
the beginning 4:23
agenda 4:40
transition 0:58
isp 6:56
insomnia 7:17
driving head 5:45
intermission 1:34
horizon 6:43
audacity 4:40
m 15:20

Jonas Meyer – guitars
Manuel Schoenfeld – keyboards
‘Moses’ Hoffmann – bass guitars
Kiryll Kulakowski – drums


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