Brennan’s Best of 2012: New Jersey Rising

It is news to approximately zero people that music is not made in a vacuum. What may actually be news to a few people is the important role that community can potentially play in fostering a band’s sound. There’s a reason that we associate Seattle with grunge, St. Louis with the blues, and Detroit with that Motown sound – more than just one singular artist came from each of those locales: there was, at some point, an entire culture in each of those places that served to incubate a unique and original style.  Multiple acts arose, each of them listening to and learning from one another in a constant effort to grow, evolve, and perfect a sound that they rightly felt to be theirs. Such cultures are, of course, fluid. There is no start date, no sign up sheet, no definite meeting place where an assembly is held, a style founded, and its patriarchs chosen. These things are organic in their origination and occur in a variety of scalings, dependent upon your view point. For both musical and geographic reasons, the obvious large-scale example is the entire idea of Brit-pop. But much smaller examples exist too. When I was in high school, for instance, my city and the surrounding communities became obsessed with developing the idea of (gulp) screamo, as posited by Finch’s What It Is to Burn. These types of social constructs are important, as they serve as breeding grounds for the camaraderie, and likely more importantly, the competitiveness that leads to great artistic achievement.

For the insider, the benefits of a burgeoning musical culture are obvious (unless you’re the musical equivalent of J.D. Salinger, writing and living in self-imposed isolation); the advantages of being embedded in a fully bodied culture that both supports and challenges you are nearly peerless. But musicians aren’t the only members of these communities – without listeners and patrons to support them, these types of societies can’t exist. And in our hyper-connected tech-society, where physical distance is almost immaterial, it’s never been easier to be a part of whichever community you like, no matter where you are. Really, the true beauty of the Internet is that if you find something you want to be a part of, no matter where it is, you can be right in the middle of it, even when you’re not. It has never been easier to be a fan of – or a participant in – a dozen different acts from a dozen different places.

As I mentioned, I had the opportunity to work in a few of these communities (on a very small scale) throughout high school and college, but I’ve enjoyed participation in several of these communities as a fan as well, most notably my immersion from afar in an amazing scene in Seattle. Using the aforementioned power of the Internet, I was able to become deeply invested in a community that revolved around acts like Gatsbys American Dream, Forgive Durden, Acceptance and This Providence, even though they were based out of Seattle, and my broke college-aged ass was stuck in Ann Arbor, MI. It was an amazing experience, watching those bands grow and develop over time, pushing one another to new heights and novel ideas, and while my participation in that community was limited to reading liner notes, frequenting message boards, and going to midwestern tour dates, I still felt very much a part of what was happening way off  in the Pacific Northwest. I related to those bands, to that sound – and I still do. It was a part of me and I was a part of it.

So why all this discussion of scenes? Why all of these grand claims about the rewards of being a part of a musical community? Because there’s a new scene that seems to be growing into something special, and it warrants your attention, if not your participation. I’ve already discussed several great albums from 2012 and there are numerous others that I’ve not yet had the time to fully digest or the effort to expound upon. Under that second umbrella, are two EPs that I consider to be the year’s two finest releases. They come from a couple of young bands that belong to the burgeoning sonic community in New Jersey. I’m talking, of course, about Old Nick’s I’ve Seen Colors and Gates’ You Are All You Have Left to Fear (check out Chris’ excellent review of that album here).

I’ve Seen Colors

I’ve Seen Colors is a beautiful collection of songs that explore the concept of post-rock in a delicate fashion and to gorgeous effect. Dreamy vocals sail over twinkling guitars and gently churning rhythmic lines as each song flows through its own excellent structure. Moments of serenity are punctuated by injections of adrenaline, so that songs like ‘The River’, ‘Name & Past’, and ‘Satin Trail’ move along with both a beautiful sense of peace and an earnest energy. That I’ve Seen Colors is able to remain so soothing for its duration while never flagging or falling into sonic laziness is an achievement worthy of commendation; that, with ‘Lucky For’, Old Nick was able to craft a viable, up-tempo, post-rock single is unprecedented.

Despite being released way back in January – usually a death sentence for any album hoping to be mentioned in year-end reviews such as this one – I’ve Seen Colors is a remarkable album that has stayed relevant all year long. I should note, for those of you furiously Googling ‘Old Nick’ right now, that shortly after the release of I’ve Seen Colors, Old Nick changed their name for legal reasons. In January of 2013, they are schedule to release a new full-length under their new moniker: Owel. I am, obviously, greatly anticipating this release.

In light of all the excellence that I’ve just discussed, it is perhaps unsurprising that only one album was able to surpass I’ve Seen Colors during 2012. With their second release, only some 18 months after their formation, Gates has already begun to realize their massive potential, having released the finest album of 2012, You Are All You Have Left to Fear.

You Are All You Have Left to Fear
Hand-Pressed Limited Edition

While Old Nick approaches post-rock through a very mellow lens, Gates approaches the style with passion that is alternately raucous and tranquil. Intricate three-guitar arrangements are presented counter to poundingly cathartic choruses while brilliantly penned lyrics float by in softly placed harmonies or adrenaline-inducing scream-singing. And though some have hazarded to call Gates ’emo’ (albeit with some caveats), I hesitate to use that term which has been so limitlessly bastardized that it is now applied to most anything outside the scope of Top 40 radio. Instead, I’d call Gates’ work “emotive,” in so far as passion – and emotion – are prevalent in every moment and every aspect of their material, both for the band and for their listeners. You can’t help but be moved by what Gates brings to the table.

You Are All You Have Left to Fear is a towering achievement built upon Gates’ ability to seamlessly blend a variety of contrasting sounds. Perhaps no passage in the whole year’s worth of music so masterfully runs the gamut from viscerally intense to heart-rendingly graceful as the final moments of album opener ‘They See Only Shadows’. Truly, the whole album successfully moves between varying shades of these sonic themes – and yet nothing is repetitive and no sound or emotion is overdone. To have developed such a mature style and such consistency in so short a time is no easy feat. In less than two years, Gates has achieved the type of solid identity that some bands take the better part of a decade to develop, and that sadly, many bands never reach at all.

Contrast and emotion aside, another key element of Gates’  identity is evident on both their EPs: they have a remarkable knack for evoking a sense of spaciousness. I recently moved across the country, and during my transcontinental drive, I listened to You Are All You Have Left to Fear several times; it was hard not to notice that, no matter what type of landscape was passing by my windows, things felt epic. The influence of acts like Explosions in the Sky is clear, and yet Gates is much more than just Explosions-with-vocals. They are something unique and bold and powerful, and their ability to offer such a sense of honesty and urgency in every note, line, and lyric is nearly unparalleled. Over the course of only 24 minutes, Gates is able to offer a sense of complexity, and also of totality, so that you are never left wanting – save perhaps the desire to start You Are All You Have Left to Fear over again once it’s finished.

So here we are. The two finest albums of the year are two EPs from the same area in New Jersey. But as I mentioned above, it takes more than just one or two bands to make a scene; Gates and Owel (formerly Old Nick) are the best that this year has to offer, but they are not alone. Bands like the instrumental phenoms Vasudeva, and New Jersey-adoptee post-rock/post-hardcore outfit Gifts from Enola, are among the acts that make this developing sound so fascinating. It’s unclear if we will come to think of New Jersey and post-rock the way we think of Seattle and grunge (or even the way I think of Seattle and that Gatsbys American Dream scene of yester-year) but here, in the moment, for the first time in a long while, I’ve found a musical community worthy of becoming invested in. Care to join me?

This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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