Recent Music Reviews: Ultraísta, Wires Under Tension and Soundgarden

There’s been a ton of great music being released recently…enough that I’ve nearly burned through my credit it Zia, one of our local CD stores. I’m going to hit a few highlights I recommend here.

UltraístaUltraísta, by Ultraísta (8/10)

Nigel Godrich, best known to my friends as Radiohead’s producer, but a talented songwriter in his own, has just put out a new project with singer Laura Bettinson. Its very reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, which is not surprising since Nigel was instrumental in engineering this record.

The vibe of the record is stark, synth-laden and a bit droning. And it took a little time to adapt to it. The first time I let it roll, I was unimpressed. The barren soundscapes didn’t click. But there was enough to come back for to make me leave it in the car cd player. With each repeat, I found more to enjoy – clever harmonies, melodies that were elusive on the first pass, surprise twists in the arrangements… All in all, this has been a good slow-burn recording.

Stand-out tracks include “Bad Insect”, “Smalltalk” and “Static Light”. Recommended for fans of Yorke’s The Eraser, James Blake, electronic music with vocals.

Wires Under Tension's ReplicantReplicant, by Wires Under Tension (8/10)

In the vein of Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai and the instrumental experiments of Sufjan Stevens, Wires Under Tension is an electronic meets live / acoustic instruments ensemble featuring two thoughtful, classically-minded collaborators. The music is full of looping, electronic manipulations, and live improvisation all fed into some software tools to create some very complex soundscapes. I liked this right off the bat, but I’ve been exposed to music like this a lot. Much like jazz, there’s a certain language to this style of performance that not everyone will get right off.

Plan to give it a few passes if instrumental exploration isn’t your normal thing. Here’s a bit of performance footage to get you started.

Soundgarden's King AnimalKing Animal, by Soundgarden (9/10)

After 15 years doing other things, the Seattle boys in Soundgarden have released a new album. Given the weakness of Audioslave and Chris Cornell’s solo projects, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in this one being any good. I mean, “Like a Stone”, really?

Thankfully, it turns out that Cornell is at his ballsiest, bluesiest, and most experimental when he’s backed up by Shepard, Cameron and Thayil. The band sounds energized and back to form. The songs are rich, layered and complex. Chris’s vocals have his trademark roar all over them. Kim’s guitar work is just as quirky and exotic as ever. And there’s more key changes, meter changes and odd chords per track than I’ve heard since Radiohead on Kid A.

As the disc started, I was let down by the not-bad-but-very-trite “Been Away Too Long” that probably opened the record only for its goofy symbolism, and “Non-State Actor”, which while good, is a typical Shepard art-punk track that didn’t wow me. Not bad songs, but nothing to pull you in.

But that’s when track three began…

Starting with “On Crooked Steps”, there’s a brilliant 3-song run that hooked me in. This is the triumphant return of Soundgarden! Its all here – quirky, blues-scale choruses layered over odd meter, and strange chord choices that only Soundgarden would ever think of, freshly pouring from your speakers. From that point on, excluding the throwaway track “Halfway There”, which will mostly only appeal to fans of Chris’ recent solo work , its a uniformly strong album.

If you’re new to Soundgarden, you’ll probably still like this record, but its decidedly 90s vibe will appeal more to long-time fans of the band. The music sounds fresh to my ears, but this is a signature sound of an older era. The sludgy 90s art rock kings are back with this album.

Recommended tracks include “On Crooked Steps”, “Blood on the Valley Floor”, “Eyelid’s Mouth” (the “Limo-Wreck” of this collection) and the oddly plodding but groove-driven “Rowing”.

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