Jun 25, 2013

Music Review: "Palms" by Palms

By Ian Cory

I don’t get particularly emotional when a band I like breaks up. Sometimes it’s because the split was a long time coming and the band had already dipped into mediocrity. Other times it's because the career ended prematurely, ensuring that their legacy will never be tarnished. When Post Metal* innovators Isis decided to call it quits in 2010, it was clearly a case of the later. Over the course of 18 years and 5 albums Isis cleared the road for a host of bold and intellectually challenging metal and hardcore acts. But rationalizing wasn’t changing anything for me; one of my favorite bands of all time had broken up and I was bummed. I spent much of that summer listening to their discography on repeat, watching live footage and rereading old interviews. Three years later, the wound has mostly healed, but when I heard that three of the group’s former members were starting a new band with Chino Moreno, singer of Deftones, another excellent groundbreaking metal act, my heart exploded with joy.

The pairing of ex members of the one of the most renowned bands in forward thinking heavy music and the singer of a former Nu-Metal heavyweight might seem odd, but both share a similar interest in bending the harshness of metal into something more subtle and atmospheric. The only real difference is that Deftones have always aimed for the pop end of the alternative spectrum while Isis’s instrumental focus always pushed them into much more long form territory. Palms doesn't really represent the middle between the two, but does reveal a great deal of underlying similarities between the two groups. Nearly every song starts with shimmering guitars and a bed of psychedelic textures that would fit equally well on a softer Deftones tune or a Wavering Radiant outtake. Where song goes is a mixture of both. The precise and patient drumming of Aaron Harris and Jeff Caxide’s echoing watery bass tone make these songs unmistakably a product of Isis alumni, but the songs follow a much more conventional structure than anything that band ever released, albeit at a typically slow pace. The songs all expand out and burst in the sort of glorious way that Isis songs would, but without ever getting as crushingly heavy, or as rhythmically deft as Deftones. Instead, Palms stay in a blissful dream state, and even when things get loud, the weight of the music feels like its lifting you up rather than burying you.

It would be easy to assume that this softer sound is a result of Chino Moreno’s involvement, but even he favors his eerie falsetto to his gut-wrenching screams on the album. To be sure, Moreno does provide a pop sensibility to his melodies on “Future Warrior” and “Patagonia”, but he also leaves the band to its won devices on “Antarctic Handshake”, where they build layers of soothing pads around a single chord and a slowly evolving groove. And although Moreno is undoubtedly a more melodic singer than Isis’s Aaron Turner, his voice is often put under so much reverb and slapback that it ends up serving the same textural function that Turner’s limited note choice did. Given Moreno’s well-documented love of Cocteau Twins, this is yet another example of the two groups having more influences and aims in common than one might initially suspect.

The real source of differentiation from Isis’s later work is the man behind the guitar work on Palms, Bryant Clifford Meyer. Meyer’s contributions to Isis were always intentionally not in the forefront. As a keyboardist he acted as sonic glue between the rhythm section and the guitars, only coming to the forefront when the group was feeling especially atmospheric. As a guitarist, it was even more difficult to pick him out of the mix, as the band’s arrangements grew increasingly more complex towards the end of their career. Here, without having to contend with Turner and Mike Gallagher, Meyer is free to craft his sound over a wide canvas. Unsurprisingly, the knottiness of Wavering Radiant and In The Absence Of Truth has vanished, and in its place Meyer shows his ear for mood setting has not diminished. Take for example, the e-bow symphony on “Short Wave Radio” or the Robert Smith on steroids distortion on “Mission Sunset”. Meyer also knows when to back off and leave room for Caxide and Moreno to carry the song. Palms are a rare band where each of the members is capable of stealing the spotlight when they want to, but always know how to make each other sound better instead.

Palms slips up when it decides to settle into a pattern. This band is very good at dreamy, blissful, and surreal, but very little happens on the album. Of course it’s good that the group knows their strengths and plays to them, but other than the especially minimal closing track, the album is a very static experience. But not even Deftones or Isis’s first albums were perfect, and in both cases it was their second and third albums where the essential sound of the band came together. No other metal bands have so consistently championed growth and evolution in their work. So here’s to the future, the next one’s going to be a killer.

Grade: B

*I know this term is kind of controversial, but it’s how I referred to Isis even before I met other fans of theirs online or in person, so I’m sticking to my guns on it.

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