Friday, March 11, 2011

Record review: Whales - self-titled LP

Posted by Sasha

Whales dream big. They've debuted with a record that holds little back, leaves little out from their unabashedly huge garage rock spirit. A period of prenatal experimentation has led them through the realms of noise, post-rock and grunge to their own potent little niche. They draw noticeably from Sonic Youth's No Wave noise but without adopting its cynicism, instead funneling a playful air into their mountains of distortion. Swap out Thurston Moore for Black Francis and you might get something like Whales.

Gently layered guitar licks echo Robin Guthrie's work with the Cocteau Twins, but rather than float into the atmosphere, Whales build their way up on sheer steel and concrete. More than anything, they know how to construct towers of songs. Instrumentals "Sunshine" and "Snow Day" distress post-rock structures with garage aesthetics, catapulting through lacerated arpeggios to Explosions in the Sky-style crescendos. Tracks like "Population Theory" begin breezily and then explode at the refrain. At points the record begins to sound like Blonde Redhead infused with HEALTH, the melodic arrangements of the former coupled with the mad energy of the latter, reaching places distinct from either.

Upon repeated listens you begin to get a sense of Whales as a tightly efficient machine. While it now seems trendy to load up on often superfluous band members, all four musicians in Whales pull their weight and effectively complement each other. Maigin Blank edges out her vox sans vibrato, invoking the early '90s ghosts of Kim Deal and Mary Timony, melding perfectly into the grungy architecture created by her bandmates. Her airy vocals graze against "Which Mountain"'s primal beats as crunching guitars and subtle keyboard flourishes slice upward.

The rhythm section is, as it should be, the iron core of this outfit. Mike Janas's basslines dart expertly between chords, sculpting clever patterns out from walls of sound. His wistful phrases on "Vampires" bounce perfectly off of Blank's melodies, while on "Insomniac" his improvisational flickering drives the song's momentum. Drummer Randall Murphy's tight, ferocious rhythms jettison the grit to great heights. It's rare to find this kind of energy exploding from the percussion of a noise rock group; you can hear the muscle packed into every measure, see the sparks flying from the beats. While it may be more daring than precise, the animal mania better fuels the rough-edged power of Whales. His frantic moves on "Tosser" ignite the track and send it flying, while he and Janas lend a certain swagger to "Insomniac".

The LP is a compelling collection of songs that at first meanders from a logical album progression. Whales seem to have a better grasp on conclusion than introduction, as the flow of the last half far outshines that of the first. From the frenzied "Tosser" to the weightless instrumental "Snow Day," Side B is brilliant, pulsing with energy exactly in time. Side A, while strong, throws us some odd turns. Most out of place is "New Driver," which revs up a devastating engine of driving percussion, churning bass and clashing chords. Two parts action film soundtrack and one part moshpit fodder, it's a fun little ditty overshadowed by giants. "Sunshine," meanwhile, feels too enormous for track three, its short form post-rock swelling too far above its surroundings. It feels like an opportunity to build into the bulk of the record was missed, which is a shame given the heights it reaches.

So far, though, Whales' biggest misstep is putting good ideas in the wrong places. This is probably a productive problem to encounter early in one's career as a band. The Whales LP is a raw, bold debut worthy of being blared through many a car stereo. Put it on your summer roadtrip playlist somewhere between Loveless and Doolittle. 

Whales is available as a $7 download off the band's Bandcamp. You'll also be able to catch the band at Quenchers on April 17th.


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