monoblogue music: “Progtronica” by Gumshen

The 2014 release from Gunshen.

When you think of music from Seattle, it’s likely what comes to mind are grunge acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Soundgarden. The roots of Gumshen eminate from a band called Menthol James, which mined that hard-rock vein when they released their sole self-titled effort in 2007. So how did they evolve from that genre to the synth-heavy sound they exhibit on their most recent release “Progtronica”?

The way they tell it, a lineup change freed keyboardist and vocalist Ron Hippe to switch from bass to keyboards, although he still chips in with guitar work. But you’d never otherwise guess that the 2007-era Menthol James has become the 2014 Gumshen, putting together five- to seven-song EPs on a roughly annual basis in the interim. “Progtronica” is their seventh release and sixth under the Gumshen moniker.

Beginning with the seven-minute opening track Bell Ringer, there’s no doubt that the band has cast its lot with an electronic, beat-heavy sound. It takes a listen or two to warm up to it, but once you begin to peel the onion they begin to make you think of good comparisons. Gumshen considers their inspirations to be Pink Floyd and early Genesis, but I would add the first Rick Wakefield era of Yes to the mix. This is particularly true on the songs Stipulation and Fragile We Are Castles, which closes the CD. On the other hand, the Pink Floyd influence shines on Fine One to Talk.

Other songs defy comparison. Liquid is an odd romp through almost too-cute lyrics that seems to be the most aimless song on the CD, although it has by far the most Soundcloud plays. The playfulness works better on the track Bait & Switch. Despite there being just six songs, the EP runs over 32 minutes.

Besides the question of whether this would be accessible to the average listener, though, my question would be whether the group is willing to step outside its comfort zone in other ways. I don’t come to this with preconceived notions, since I’m not as intimately familiar with the group as I would be several of those who play in and around this East Coast region.

Since this group has shown a willingness to essentially scrap one musical style for another, one has to wonder if they will break away from their Seattle roots and travel to other places. Of course, in this day and age of instant worldwide access to music it’s possible to make a comfortable living making music for sale and feeding the appetite for new material by simply recording it and putting it out on a site like Bandcamp, and maybe that’s the lot they’ve chosen for themselves. These guys look realtively comfortable.

But this is the kind of release which can find a devoted audience – no, it may never sell out arenas like Pink Floyd or Yes did in their heyday, but if they can determine there’s a market for the music in other places it may be worth leaving their Seattle comfort zone to entertain the new converts. Every reasonably large city (and a number of small ones, too) has their share of bands which make people scratch their heads and wonder why they never went national. So why limit yourself?

If you can get through the one subpar track in the middle, “Progtronica” is a rather enjoyable listen from a band which could make up its own mixtape of rock genres based on its overall body of material. It makes you wonder where they will go from here, in more ways than one.

monoblogue music: “Burden To Bear” by Lael Summer

The 2014 debut release from Lael Summer

Coming in more or less at the intersection of jazz and soul, New York-based Lael Summer made her full-length debut in January with the album called “Burden To Bear,” which served as an extension of an four-song EP she previously released – all of these, including a remake of the Hall and Oates composition Do What You Want, Be What You Are are reprised on “Burden.” The other three previously released songs are I Need A Man, which opens the album, Kiss and Tell, and closing song The Good Fight.

For a first effort from a fairly young singer, it comes in as polished beyond her experience and years. She definitely sounds a little older and wiser than a college senior in her early twenties. “Burden to Bear” is an appropriate title for a compilation which lyrically details the life of a modern young woman – as she describes the songwriting process, “I picked through my thoughts, my dreams, my nightmares, conversations, observations and memories and used the fragments of my life to piece together something I could share with others.”

The diverse range of songs on the album make for interesting listening, but can be jarring at times. The ballad Make You Whole, for example, comes immediately after the anger and bitterness expressed in You’re So Small. The latter song is perhaps the effort at “street cred” with the occasional f-bomb dropped in the chorus, a touch I found unnecessary. Leave the profanity for the rappers. This unevenness is more prevalent among the first tracks: the opener I Need A Man is more funky than the harmony-driven Too Much, while the peppy It’s About Soul comes after the ballad, only to be followed by a jazzy number called In Time. It’s About Soul is a rather anthemic song telling people it’s not about appearances, but about what’s inside.

That can also be said about the album’s back half, which to me has a much better flow. Beginning with track 7, Kiss and Tell, extending through the Hall and Oates cover, and pushing through the tracks What Do I Know (About Love), Look Around, and Unconditionally, the CD is a good definition of accessible adult contemporary music, hitting on all the right keys. The Good Fight, which was a song carried over from the EP, ends the album on a positive, hopeful note. What Do I Know may be the most pop-accessible song; to me even more so than the cover of Do What You Want.

With the influence of co-songwriter Tomas Doncker, the “sultry singer-songwriter” Summer has succeeded rather well in crafting the eleven songs she and her guitarist co-writer into a solid debut release. Doncker also co-produced the album with fellow contributing guitarist James Dellatacoma – no small feat given the dozen-plus musicians who contributed on the various tracks and instruments.

Having set herself up in a number of different musical camps, rather than taking one genre and mining it to exhaustion, Lael has the freedom to select a musical direction or continue to explore. If you’re into the musical genres which could be considered under the umbrella of adult contemporary music, I encourage you not to take my word for it, but listen for yourself.

While Lael hasn’t set up any dates to back up her release just yet, she is making the stage as part of a compilation called the True Groove All-Stars, a stable of artists from her True Groove label. Getting out and polishing her live performances would be the logical next step in her musical progression, and it will be interesting to see if she can be wise beyond her years in that regard.

monoblogue music: “Turn the People” by Monks of Mellonwah

The Australian band's newest release came out March 7.

Coming from Australia, the band Monks of Mellonwah may not be a household name in the United States, but a solid debut release may help them gain popularity on this side of the Pacific. They’re promising a U.S. tour to back their new album, “Turn the People.”

But this newest release serves as somewhat of a compilation, as the 13 tracks were all released previously as part of three separate EPs: “Ghost Stories” came out last June, “Afraid to Die” in October, and “Pulse” in January. Adding to this element is the album’s production by two different people: several tracks were produced by the Grammy-winning veteran Keith Olsen, while others were credited to the band’s guitarist, Joe de la Hoyde. That veteran touch shows, as the tracks Olsen produced seem to be a little more listener-friendly, such as the haunting Ghost Stories and its instrumental intro, or the pop-influenced Vanity. Olsen also lent a hand on the keyboard-heavy Pulse and Escaping Alcatraz, along with the track I thought was the highlight, Downfall. Ghost Stories is featured in the video below, which came out with the original EP.

That’s not to say the de la Hoyde-produced songs are bad, though. While the lead single Tear Your Hate Apart and Afraid To Die are a tad on the ponderous side, as is the moody title track Turn The People, the guitar backdrop shines on Alive For A Minute and Sailing Stones seems to me to have the potential of being a great live song. As well, the final two tracks, the ballad I Belong To You and thematic Sky And The Dark Night – Part 2 – Control give the listener a good final impression of the band. (The original of Sky And The Dark Night was released in 2013 as an eight-minute cinematic EP trilogy.) The potential is there for production to improve with experience, particularly in utilizing some of the unusual outros on this album to advantage.

Fortunately, the arrangement of the tracks on the CD doesn’t follow the order of release, although three of the four original “Ghost Stories” tracks open the album. Songs from the other two EPs are scattered among the remaining ten, with the overall 13-song package coming in at a breezy 46 minute running time. The arrangement sets up the two most pop-friendly songs at the beginning (after the brief instrumental intro to Ghost Stories) with the following six tracks moving the compilation into more of a prog-rock feel before coming back with catchier tunes and the ballad to round out the album.

In their band bio, the group notes that:

The Monks of Mellonwah set out musically not to repeat past styles, yet rather to pave the future for alternative rock. In doing so, they take the preeminent sounds of 70s psychedelic rock and 90s alternative – and blend it into something fresh and new.

In a musical era where the sole goal of pop music seems to be one of competing to come up with the most compellingly annoying backbeat, a group which pays attention to the overall composition is rather refreshing. And while the songs don’t always hit the sweet spot, enough of them do to make this a compelling album worth purchasing if you’re into the progressive rock genre. While this band has picked up critical acclaim along the way, don’t take their word for it – or mine, for that matter. I encourage you to listen for yourself.

As I noted, the band is planning a American tour sometime in 2014, although dates have yet to be announced.