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.

Seekonk: Pinkwood 2

Return 2 Pinkwood

The once and future Seekonk

Seekonk’s web site has been abandoned and is now a home for spam. They haven’t played a show this year [this was originally written in 2008]. Northeast Indie, the label that in 2005 put out the band’s last album, Pinkwood, has also lost its internet presence and is no longer an active label (though I bet Paul Agnew still has a few discs available for sale should you want to track him down).

Heck, the Seekonk album Burst & Bloom released this week, Pinkwood 2, was originally released two years ago and was in the can a year before that.

Why should anyone care?

Maybe we’re not collectively that cynical yet. As artistically satisfying as it was for Seekonk to release Pinkwood 2 originally as a limited run of 100 pieces of vinyl, they really were depriving the larger populace of a fairly grand musical experience. Now, thanks to Burst & Bloom (it’s a limited run of 100 CDs this time around, but they’ll make more if you buy them, I’m fairly certain), there’s a whole new opportunity to experience a gifted band at the height of their powers.

Described often as slo-core, or even orchestral indie, it’s true they share an aesthetic with Low or Mazzy Star at times, but even if this band were doing nothing but covers, I suspect they’d be worth listening to. Each note is so carefully chosen, placed, and positioned. Seekonk offer such a whole and inclusive world in which to reside. Their sound fits effortlessly into that sweet spot of familiar and brand-new.

Is it the pacing that makes a Seekonk song? No. “For a Reason,” with a digital effect like a UFO landing and taking off, is downright manic in its beat, with xylophone like drops of water off the trees onto the roof an hour after the thunderstorm ended. By the finish it’s a straight-up head-nodder.

Seekonk are more than a quiet band to get moody to.

Perhaps what they do best is challenge expectations. They open Pinkwood 2 with “The Rage,” a song that ironically begins lushly and gently, with pinging xylophone and Sarah Ramey’s breathy vocals assuring, “it’s nice to meet you.”

You find the rage, but only if you keep looking. What is rage when you don’t seem to know what aggression is?

Maybe it’s in the digital whirring that purposely mars the pop sensibility with a touch of discord, just as the band throw in sour notes as though to keep things from getting too pretty. “Take the records off the shelf,” Ramey implores, “throw them away.” Only a band this confident would bring in this late-song electric guitar riff, before quickly taking it away.

There are bands that would craft whole songs from that riff. For Seekonk, it’s a passing fancy, the type of thing Pat Corrigan or Todd Hutchisen seem to effortlessly dream up.

“Half Moon,” a good stand in for the essence of Seekonk, is methodical without being plodding, delicate and serene. To the fore is an acoustic guitar strum, a keyboard mirroring the vocal melody, but there’s a sheen of feedback and screeching that’s just out of earshot, as though there were traffic in the background as you listened to the song on the bus with your earphones in.

Around the four-minute mark the drums enter and add a sense of urgency, ramping the song up into a full-blown indie rock tune, crashing about and active like the Walkmen (whose new Lisbon is a kissing cousin to this disc in many ways).

They can strut and bounce, too. The vibraphone and brushes on the snare in “38. Special” amble and shuffle, while the lyrics and delivery suggest something darker. This song, more than any of the eight here, make you wonder what would happen if the band took the governor off.

Not that they’re the type of band to be constrained by genre. They move, in “Breakfast at Noon” and later in “Hills of Pennsylvania,” toward an alt-country vibe, mixing in pedal steel and a twang you can feel in your gut. In “Noon,” Jason Ingalls’ crisp snare is mixed perfectly by Jonathan Wyman, a support structure for Ramey’s best vocals of the disc, rising for once into full body at the 3:30 mark.

But Seekonk won’t be predictable or easy. The shuffling Texas beat of “Hills,” heavy in low-end guitar, with competing melody lines, shifts suddenly to a Latin beat, active, which itself is in contrast to the hovering vocals, which never sound less than half asleep.

That’s part of their sound, of course, but I do find myself wishing Ramey would finish off a few more lyrics, instead of living on initial consonant and vowel sounds. A few glottal stops here and there and I might catch a bit more meaning.

This isn’t a lyrics band, though, and Ramey’s voice is as much a part of the instrumental construction as it is a mode of meaning delivery. In the crisp “Waking,” a gorgeous construction of delicate guitar and xylophone, she repeats “right about now” until it’s poppy and uplifting, before backwards-played mutterings enter to haunt the song’s finish.

That nagging sense of doubt is the album’s heart. It is the conscience we battle to both ignore and satisfy, the ugliness we seek to dispel but can’t live without.