Baltic Sea: Period Piece

Minding every Period

The Baltic Sea craft a crisp dystopia

It’s been nearly three years since the Baltic Sea’s phenomenal debut, Through Scenic Heights and Days Regrets, but when you’re making music like this, I can see how it might take a while to build a second edifice [this ran originally in 2011]. An artful construction of post-rock meandering and serious guitar heroics, the brand-new Period Piece can be even more ponderous, but also has more extended periods of high-energy explosiveness, making for an album like a cross-country drive, miles of pastures and sunflower fields rolling by between cities that dominate the skyline.

With seven songs comprising the hour of music here, you know you’re in for some multi-faceted pieces, and Baltic Sea don’t ease you into things. The opening “The Free Design” is over 14 minutes, beginning with a repeating high-register guitar note like an ice pick and hinting at some true prog. But by the time Todd Hutchisen’s vocals enter, backed by Nate Johnson (who made the band a five-piece since the last release), the song is a force of nature, driven by Jason Stewart (Sidecar Radio, 6gig), who has replaced Jason Ingalls on the drums.

The whomping digital percussion is like a combination of Air and Minus the Bear, especially with Hutchisen’s high vocals, before an effect chops them up and spits them back out rippled and unintelligible. The early section is attacking, like the Conifer records but not quite as heavy, though Ray Suhy (Colepitz) does deliver something close to a metal solo on guitar, setting you up for a full pull-back to acoustic at 6:30.

There’s even a slide guitar, hinting at a country vibe, with a poppy bass from Jeremy Smith. But the guitars soon snarl back in, a crunching fuzz in the right channel, an ascending guitar riff in the left.

Finally, they cycle back to the opening vocal take, getting fairly sunshiney with the harmony, Stewart doing a martial thing on the snare, before slowing down to a crawl like a wind-up box running out its last rotations.

Whew. One song in and you feel like you’ve made a major investment in the album.

And, I know: If you like singalongs, this doesn’t sound like the band for you; if you’re into this kind of proggy rock, you’re no stranger to multi-suite songwriting. So what’s the big deal?

Well, first, this isn’t some kind of Rush/Yes homage. Baltic Sea are much more charming and aloof than that, and while they’re nerdy enough to have a song called “MirrorrorriM” and design an album that’s virtually symmetrical in its musical presentation, they also can put together songs like “Foss,” with sections that could rest comfortably on “Bridge over Troubled Water,” string arrangements by Dave Noyes meshing perfectly into guitar riffs like lightning bolts, energy crackling right up to a dénouement of fade-out.

There may also be birds chirping at one point. It’s hard to say.

Sure, there’s weird robot-gal talking about booster rockets and shit in the open of “Swiss Ticking Time,” but the way the elastic “just pretend to seem alarmed” bit launches into ’70s rock at the five-minute mark is genuinely thrilling, Hutchisen calling for you to sing along to a “la, la, la” bit that manages to be both mocking and completely heart-felt at the same time.

The title track gets pretty damn head-nodding, too, with a minute of music you could listen to for an hour straight and be totally happy with, inserted between sections where the drums seem to hit every five seconds and guitar harmonics chime in like gemstones falling onto a pipe organ. That sound’s only bested by the spacey intro to “MirrorrorriM,” which has strong positive association, like a super hero’s theme song, or maybe Supertramp.

Only in the closing “The All Consumers,” a 13-minute amusement-park ride, do the Baltic Sea completely let it all hang out. There are sections here of true chaos, a car-wreck in slow motion with theremin, industrial sounds like banging pipes. But there’s also what might be Hutchisen’s best vocal take, a low-register and breathy delivery with gravitas, sitting on top of intermittent 10-note guitar runs.

The best bit on the album might be where they take a two-minute chunk of guitar noodling and basically just change up the tone and effect, making them instantly aggressive and menacing where they’d seconds before been jammy and esoteric. Like the rest of the album, it makes you start to question what you’re hearing and why you’re feeling the way you do about it, and what you “like” in a song.

No, there’s nothing here that’s easily consumable, nor particularly summery, but, like the Whitcomb record before it this year, if you love to think about your music as much as you feel it and hear it, Period Piece is a must-listen.

6gig: Mind Over Mind

Over and above

Never mind the bollocks, here’s 6gig

Start with the band’s name: it should say something about the group, define them without putting them in an unfortunately small box. The Beatles had a great name when they were four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, but was The White Album really recorded by “The Beatles”? Rage Against the Machine? I’ve always thought that name put them in a very tight space, indeed. Could that band ever write a decent ballad and not have it sound silly?

With 6gig, we have a moniker that says precision, calculation, speed, and intelligence and rings with frontman Walt Craven’s self-depreciating story about how he’s a computer geek and just sort of came up with it. (It also gave us an idea in the office: What if you named a band 6gig, then played only six gigs and quit?)

But 6gig’s meaning provides a more-than-apt description for their music: tight, written out to the smallest beep and whir, with quick riffs and rhythms put together in ways that you haven’t heard before, but reserved and humble enough to keep them from sounding like Dream Theater or math rock. Plus, they’re a band whose professionalism in the studio is the stuff of local legend, a band whose first take is often their last.

But what about Craven’s impassioned vocals, alternately sung and screamed? Okay, so computers and melody may not make for a ready free association, but there is a lyrical quality to 6gig’s two syllables, sibilant and guttural, the “x” and “g” working together like light and heavy elements to form a willing compound.

6gig are what a fully realized band looks like. That sounds a bit like a hypothesis, and it fits them — a scientific method for their scientific musical creation. And, finally, the proof is readily available now that you can say the same about their sophomore full-length release, Mind over Mind (how’s that for emphasizing the cerebral?). There’s heart there, too, of course — beating through the layers of steel and cable that have been erected to protect it.

And this aesthetic pervades everything the band does. The packaging for the new album is brilliant, reds and blues mirroring grays and metallics, meshing Craven’s technical (CAD training?) designs with Bob Smyth’s organic forms, the schematics just abstract enough to suggest living organisms. Every lyric is there, and there are notations above and beyond the standard to let the reader (cover band?) know just which verse repeats when, and which codas are extended or reprised. Plus, look at the thank yous: They’re all-encompassing, equally full of family, friends, and industry types who have helped them along the way — but they’re in alphabetical order!

All of this is to say that they couldn’t have done better than Matt Wallace (Faith No More, most famously) as producer, the last cog in any band’s musical machine. He has taken this grand vision of a technical musical masterpiece and crafted it expertly. The opening track, “Space Suit,” more prelude than introduction, is a whir of pneumatic pumps and gadgets, Craven’s voice a distant jumble of barely comprehensible phrases. This is an album, one where nothing is tossed off, and everything is wedded to the purpose. Again, this “Space Suit” theme surprisingly reappears for 14 seconds between tracks six and seven, the CD player counting solemnly down in the negative like a rocket bracing for liftoff.

But what is all this technical wizardry masking? Real passion — as evidenced on the band’s first single and the first song here, “Whose Side Are You On?” Wallace here, as on much of the album, gives Craven personality by keeping his vocals high in the mix, immediate and captivating. The bass line from Weave is dark and methodical. Climbing guitar lines go up and down stairs while multi-tracked background vocals arc in and out of the mix. The anger is palpable: “I heard what you did, it crept under my skin/ The things that you do disgust me.”

It’s a recurring theme, this anger.

Rock and roll (and its increasingly heavier musical children) has always been the uplifter/reflection of disaffected youth, of course, and those that eschew pop eventually come back around to it by embracing that inner societal revulsion that most intelligent music fans can’t help but harbor toward a world where the Backstreet Boys are rich and famous and classical musicians are forced to pay orchestras to perform their compositions.

Want to rebel against your folks/school/government by finding an empathetic voice? Well, why don’t you take Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Iron Maiden, Green Day, or Marilyn Manson for a spin? That usually works pretty good. It’s so loud! So shocking! And just look at them!

Lately, however, bands like Korn and Slipknot have turned this back upon itself, and made the condition of today’s youth their rallying cry and pennant, taking experiences of broken homes and battered mothers and turning them into platinum records. This isn’t just teen angst, this is a reflection of the truly tattered edges of a society that often seems to treat its most valuable resource as disposable income.

Truth be told, however, I’ve never bought the sentiment of these bands for a second. Maybe these emotions were heartfelt once, but the labels so marketed and embraced the ethic that it soon became nothing more than a way to sell records. How many videos do I have to watch where a kid in a soiled T-shirt and a bad haircut watches as his drunken father knocks around his poor, wailing mother? Isn’t that video’s appearance on MTV the height of cynicism?

6gig, however, show here that teen angst can still be done well, while embracing the contemporary tragedies that no other era of rock and roll has ever really imagined. The grunge kids were troubled, sure, and Nevermind and Ten contained brutal images, but it all felt so suburban and narrative, the overall question being asked something along the lines of “Why me?”

With Mind over Mind, however, the question is more like, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?”

“Proud,” for example, asks the question through irony. Both the rocking, singalong cadence and the content of the chorus are jarring.

Thank you/ For lying to my face/ For wasting all my time/ For being drunk again.

Thank you/ For making my mom cry/ For screaming in my face/ For everything you did to us.

I’m so proud of you.

There is a seriousness here borne out by the irony, a resiliency born of distress and adversity overcome. The bridge is a quiet rehearsal of prose poetry over background drums (superb throughout from the late Dave Rankin, though Jason Stewart is now wholly ensconced with the band) and a strummed guitar. The bass entry is cool and melodic, up, up, down, like hopes and dreams.

“Deadbeat” is another ode to “ocean-size letdown,” but personal enough to avoid the cliché. Is it clear that a generation of fathers have abandoned their duty like never before? Yes, by now, quite. But what makes this ring true are the “after-shave smells,” “a telephone call,” “no more baked-bean fat,” “laying out on the grass.”

“Can you bear the thought of losing the love of your family?” 6gig are clearly incredulous that some people all too easily can.

But there’s that resiliency again, undeniable. “Start Again” makes it clear that “I thought about giving in,” but “you cannot make my mind up . . . I’ll start again.” Ending with a blinding guitar solo from Steve Marquis (a rare spot of individual-instrument emphasis), the departure from 6gig’s signature guitar sound of a low chunk tied with a screaming, high punctuation is a notice that the band isn’t afraid to surprise you.

They are, in the end, “Free,” and “I’ll never go back again/ And it’s the only way that I wanna be.” Along with the chorus to “Words,” which might be the best Craven has ever sounded on record, this is a statement that should not be regarded lightly. 6gig know exactly what they want to do, how to do it, and their vision has been realized.

Hook up, plug in, and take notice.