Conifer: Self-titled

Timber ho!

Conifer stand tall on their debut release

The first song, “Troy Landmammal,” checks in at 23:35. When Conifer’s Zack Howard drops their brand-new self-titled disc off at the office [in the fall of 2004] he reminds me not to skip past it. It’s half the disc.

There is a point, about 10:30 in, where I’m tempted.

The song and album open with a surprisingly inviting series of beeps and boops, like tuning an FM dial where every station broadcasts just one continuous frequency. The band have somehow conveyed a remarkable warmth to these slippery noises with the way they’re being generated, an almost imperceptible backing track of single notes contributing. Conifer [that link is to a still-active Angelfire page with some cool stuff on it] have always seemed to struggle a bit in searching for the correct portion of digitalization and sampling they wanted to mix into their sound. On their recent 18-date national tour, they didn’t even bring the laptop. On the album, this introduction is the only time when you’ll especially notice their computerized roots.

It goes on for about four minutes, before guitar chords come in, every so slightly. Strum, strum, strum, strum — they enter like your standard shoegazer and build perceptibly till the drums arrive at around six minutes. The shoegazing finishes up, and the tune moves toward a more jammy drum sound and approach, meditative, with art-rock and metal elements from the guitars and bass.

It gets heavier and heavier, until you’re surprised by some primal screaming that dominates at the 10:30 mark — each scream in time with crashing cymbals and distorted guitar hits. It’s more than a bit disquieting, like an orc beating a large animal over the head repeatedly with a club, just to see what happens. It’s really difficult to listen to unless you’re in the right mood (not sure what that mood is, exactly). As I wrote before, I always consider fast-forwarding at this point (someday I’ll write a whole column on how CD technology and its skip-to-the-next-song method of listening to music has contributed more to the age of the single than most people claim the mp3 has).

But, of course, I don’t, and after two minutes or so, the song reverts into a repeating series of tripled chunks before quieting down and getting contemplative again, brooding rat-a-tat-tats in the background.

It’s quite melodic around the 15-minute mark, actually, a hand sliding up and down the fretboard picking at notes. Then it moves toward something more hard-charging and frenetic, a guitar soloing in distorted feedback fashion over an undercurrent of marching chords.

The listener is then made privy to what sounds like a totally different song by the 20-minute point, reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” (that’s really the title, I checked) if that song didn’t suck. Well, that might be overstating Conifer’s catchiness here. But it hints at catchy. I could imagine they were thinking about doing something catchy.

Then “Troy” finishes out with a deliberative repetition that would be another band’s transition or bridge but here lasts for about two minutes.

No, there aren’t any lyrics. It strikes me that Becca DeWan might be able to do more with this in a “Classical” column than I can here. Conifer have developed an approach that borrows just as heavily from Rachmaninoff as Slint as Morbid Angel, and though others have made a similar combination, Conifer seem to indulge themselves in it, live in it, as much as I’ve ever heard. They take the methodical, ultra-tight approach of Cerberus Shoal and lay over it a dark and aggressive foreboding. They take the aggressive foreboding of Vertigod and stretch it out like taffy. They take the taffy of Mark Kleinhaut and Brad Terry and make it ice-cold and rigid.

In some ways, this makes them the most narrative of bands, as their music conjures scenarios.

I absolutely love the opening to “Widomaker,” a difficult, slow pacing just rippling with dirty energy, thanks mostly to the bass. I imagine some badass walking slowly across a room filled with utterly reprehensible types, not even noticing their existence. He’s got swagger dripping from the greasy ends of his hair.

But there’s this guitar that doesn’t really seem to want to play ball, an annoyance, or maybe a girl he can’t take his eyes off of. Then everything stops at 2:40 — their eyes lock — silence — then the initial pangs of conversation as a rattle of cymbal echoes fluttering eyelashes. But then he keeps walking, now a bit discordant.

The final song on the album, “Albuquerque Reprise,” calls to mind a disconcerting image of domestic violence. It starts with simple heavy chords standing alone, then is joined by a snarling and slurred guitar, like a drunken dad coming home to an abusive household that had been fearing his return. The song starts to thrash around a bit, with some pretty tortured and screamed vocals, believable in their desperation. It gives me the creeps.

Yes, with their NotCommon debut full-length, Conifer have created a moody and introspective effort that has more soul than Adamo, a similar effort that Conifer’s Nate Nadeau and Sean Hadley spent a year developing in 2001. They’ve taken that math-rock sensibility and infused it with hardcore’s passion.

Don’t skip past them.

Space versus Speed: Self-titled

Out of this world

The digital delight of Space versus Speed

Since 2000, we’ve had the Popsicko, Rocktopus, As Fast As (three albums), Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia, and now Space versus Speed. All with Spencer Albee as principle songwriter and frontman. Seven full-length records [this was first released in late 2010]. 

It seems like a lot until you consider Eric Clapton was with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith (for my money the best classic rock album of all time), Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominoes, and then fronted a solo record all between 1963 and 1970. Makes Albee look downright focused.

I don’t give a shit if he has a different band name every other Friday. I’ve never been disappointed, and I still listen to at least a few songs off every record he’s ever made. Every band has had its signature sound, filtered through a Beatles-pop lens Albee loves to apply. The most recent School Spirit Mafia was almost folksy, with lots of acoustic guitars and backing harmonies. It felt very super ego. Rational. Space versus Speed might be the record that is the most Spencer. The id. He used to like to throw these spacey keyboard lines into Rustic tunes, or tracks that were basically fine with just normal guitar-bass-drums voicing with As Fast As, because, well, he’s a keyboard player. But this album is keyboard centric, as though he finally realized that he didn’t need to front this band with a guitar. It’s all spacey keyboards, and guitars that sound like spacey keyboards, and bass that sounds like spacey keyboard. It’s a digital celebration. 

It’s down, dirty, and probably the most fun thing he’s every done, too. It all started with the “iRok” single back in August. It was though Albee impressed himself with the melody line that runs through it, like he fell in love with it. I’m glad he did. Coming seventh on this 11-song disc, it is the album’s heart. A blast. And you can’t even really tell Albee sings on it. Saiyid Brent’s rap is certainly the song’s identity. But it’s the energy that matters. It’s undeniable. 

Albee’s got other help, too. Horn player from the Mafia Jamie Colpoys (Fogcutters Big Band) gets a writing credit on “iRok,” and she’s now part of the band. As is Nate Nadeau (Conifer) on drums, Neil Collins (Lincolnville, Twisted Roots, Eldemur Krimm) on bass, and Walt Craven (Goud’s Thumb, 6gig, Lost on Liftoff) on guitar. That’s some serious talent and experience. 

All but Collins get songwriting credits on the second single from the album, “Tea and Cocaine,” which opens with a melody line that sounds like a “power-up” in a Mario video game, and Albee vocals so distorted and mirrored by a robot voice that you could again hardly know it was him. But the song structure and melody are all Albee. There are few who write a catchier chorus, and this one delivers in full. Which makes the contrast with the video game stuff all the more jarring, like an ice cube on the back of the neck on a summer day. Bracing, but good. A little bit exhilarating. 

“Indispensable,” the chorus of which is repurposed for Spose’s “Into Spose,” was cowritten by the Lucid’s Dominic Lavoie, and is a bit psychedelic like that. The chorus is “Florida Sunshine” good, as is Tim Emery’s lead guitar bit between the last two choruses. Lights out. 

“Set It Off” has a wicked na-na-na vocal line. Wicked. 

There is a line of heaviness that Albee edges across every once in a while that sounds somewhat forced – “Red Line Cannibal,” “AC15” – but Albee is pushing the envelope and a songwriter isn’t trying hard enough if some things don’t work 100 percent of the time. 

He comes full-circle by the finish, with the song most like his oeuvre, “By Land As By Sea,” a straight pop-rock tune infused with a tinge of melancholy and no co-writers: “I’ve failed them, as captain/ How could I let this happen?/ And now I’m living with this.” 

Failed? Not hardly.