Monday, September 24, 2012

Pre-Polaris: Yamantaka / Sonic Titan

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Yamantaka/Sonic Titan – s/t

First impressions:

This is the only shortlist album that I didn’t write a review of at the time of its release. Why? Because I didn’t really know what to make of it, and I didn’t think the readers of my small-town newspaper were dying to know my opinion of it. 

For an excellent introduction to what this band is about, read Benjamin Boles's cover story in Now Magazine a couple of weeks ago here. Or Stuart Berman's buzz-building Pitchfork review here.


--Opening track “Raccoon Song” is a haunting incantation set to a thunderstorm, leading right into “Queens,” which begins with a sing-song Asian melody over a droning, John Lord-organ for a good two minutes before Bonhamesque drums come crashing in. Ever wondered what Yoko Ono would sound like with Led Zeppelin? Now you know, and it’s awesome, and perhaps the most powerful beginning of any of the shortlisted albums.

--“Oak of Guernica” and “Murder of a Spider” are decent psych-folk tracks and welcome left turns—on an album that’s full of them.

--“Hoshi Neko” owes a debt to Stereolab and Neu!, and Kato Attwood’s vocals are at their most effective and chilling here.

--“Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees” manages to get some seriously jazz-fusion keyboard licks into an instrumental psych-metal track, and Alaska B’s drums are at their most thunderous here.


--“Reverse Crystal” isn’t much more than a relentless B-list Black Sabbath track with better singing and a Rick Wakeman organ interlude

--After the interesting doom-ambient beginning of “A Star Over Pureland,” the track quickly devolves into sludgy, repetitive metal with a not-great guitar solo, concluding with a cacophony of howling, screeching primal screams and ululations over the same beat.

--For a band that shows great promise, they don’t fully deliver here. I expect great things from them, but I have trouble listening all the way through an album so short that it barely squeaked by Polaris qualifications for length.

Things I’m not supposed to consider:

It’s tempting to say that this is entirely original and that no one else in Canada is doing it—except that a lot of people are doing this and have been doing this since the ’70s, the only difference this time being a) it’s better than most psychedelic rock made in the past 35 years; b) an Asian woman is singing, and c) apparently the live shows have more of a theatrical bent to them (the one I saw merely featured makeup). The best and worst thing about this album is that it would be a typical Polaris wild card winner: brand new band, split between Montreal and Toronto, unusual sound, next to zero promotional hype but heaps of critical acclaim, interesting story and concepts outside of the music itself. It’s also the first primarily Asian-Canadian act to be shortlisted.

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