Owel – Owel

Only a few short weeks ago, I offered up Gates’ You Are All You Have Left to Fear and Owel’s I’ve Seen Colors (released under Owel’s former band name, Old Nick) as the best albums that 2012 had to offer. I also promised that we’d be revisiting Owel soon, for their upcoming full length record. Well, that time has come. This Friday, January 18th, Owel is releasing their self-titled album with what promises to be an amazing show – featuring none other than the aforementioned Gates at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. For those of you on the east coast, I highly recommend you make your way to the show and pick up a copy of Owel in person, and for the rest of you, scattered roughshod across the country and globe, at least take a moment to head to Owel’s facebook page where you can pre-order an album that demands to be heard. Because, in the end, that’s the type of record that Owel is. You’ll listen to it repeatedly (I know I have already), you’ll pass it along to friends (ditto), and hopefully we’ll all do something (like purchasing the actual record or going to a show and picking up a t-shirt) that’s more substantial than just talking online about how great Owel is. They’ve earned it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You likely haven’t heard Owel yet. And so the burden is still on me to tell you why (or why not) you should set aside at least an hour this Friday to listen to an album by a band that you may not even know. I’ll at least do away with the façade of suspense: I’m advocating for Owel. I was won over on my first listen, and the countless other play-throughs since then have only re-enforced my feelings that this is a truly phenomenal album.

Built upon a wide range of sounds, patterns and moods, Owel does something that I’ve only ever noticed truly great albums doing: it is at once new and intriguing, while simultaneously feeling known and familiar. It’s as if it were the realization of some Platonic ideal that had been floating around in the aether. It’s a record, like many others that I’ve come to love, that leaves you asking, “Why hasn’t anyone done something like this before?” Now that we have it, the need for this record seems obvious. And in having fulfilled that need, Owel has done something truly special here.

Starting with the MIDI-esque keys of ‘Snowglobe,’ Owel opens with a song that shows one of the myriad influences evident on this record. The swirling background whirrs and the dramatic drum-build in the song’s latter half draw pretty heavily from Sigur Ros’s ( ) (namely its first and final tracks); meanwhile the surprise and power of the brilliantly placed bass-only breakdown during the song’s midsection is startlingly distinct and wonderfully effective, while adding an entirely new dynamic to Owel’s repertoire. For a band that is often classified (fairly) as post-rock, that passage shows that Owel is comfortable reaching outside the safety net of a genre. Which is to say that, while there are many influences present both in this song and on this record, nothing here seems borrowed. Ideas from influences have been lifted and homages have been made, but nothing is derivative, nothing is copied. Owel is constructing a brand new edifice. For all these reasons and more, ‘Snowglobe’ is a masterstroke of an opening song – it is triumphant and complete to the extent that it feels like an entire album in and of itself.

But there is so much more.

As Owel puts you through its paces, songs like ‘Scales,’ ‘Nothing’s Meant,’ and ‘The Unforgiving Tide’ also reach beyond the standard idea of post-rock in a way that I mentioned in my last review: the ever elusive post-rock single. These songs are certainly post-rocky in their sprawling nature but they also have a tightness and an upbeat drive that brings them closer to the traditional idea of a pop-rock song than post-rock is typically comfortable doing. And in truth I think that their ability to mix post-rock fundamentals with elements that are often outside the scope of the genre is one of the most significant factors in Owel‘s excellence. ‘Once the Ocean,’ is a song whose programmed base will inevitably lead to comparisons to The Postal Service (although I think the better reference is to the programming on Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity). On top of that programming, ‘Once the Ocean’ is the type of gently catchy song that you can picture some young kid with plugs in his ears and wispy facial hair on his chin putting on a mixtape and giving to that girl who sits in the back of his Modern American Literature class and always wears flannel. (Wait. People still make mixtapes, right?) What that awkward image is driving at is that ‘Once the Ocean’ is a song so beautiful and light that it inches towards the outright romantical. It moves at a moderate pace with a steady rhythm, a delicate combination of melody and harmony, and a lightly twinkling instrumentation that borders on bouncy. And while ‘Once the Ocean’ will inevitably be used to charm who knows how many girls into going on who knows how many dates, the upbeat ‘Progress’ seems to be ready and waiting for the movie montage that these girls are destined to make of their serendipitous lives. It’s the type of sweetly uplifting song that seems custom made for footage of a quirky girl in a rom-com, complete with a textbook descending minor chord melody in the bridge. These are not your daddy’s (or more likely your older brother’s) post-rock songs.

Not everything on Owel is fun-loving and upbeat, though. Early on we get ‘Death In the Snow’ (featuring guest vocals from Gates’ Kevin Dye), a hard-hitting, almost violent affair that pounds out powerful chords while morose vocals wail overhead. In the album’s latter half, ‘Field Mouse’ is a slow-moving, deeply haunting song that dances around some very dark themes and is driven by a fantastic arrangement that makes use of a powerful bass line, amazing lead and background vocals, and a variety of guitar tones. Owel’s commitment to using a variety of sounds truly sets them apart in their ability to create any type of sound that they desire, and ‘Field Mouse’ is far from the only song on Owel to use a multitude of excellent guitar sounds in diverse ways to create tension or strategically redirect attention.

And when Owel moves beyond the traditional “rock band” instrumentation, they do it with class. They do a phenomenal job of embedding an array of string arrangements into this album that never seems forced and always improves the listening experience. While ‘Field Mouse’ ends with a powerful swell of strings, the album’s finale – ‘Reborn’ – builds with emphatically pounding drums before crescendoing into an absolutely soul-shaking outro built around an increasingly frenetic set of string work. If your pulse isn’t racing by the time you come to the end of ‘Reborn’ you might need to see a doctor. It is a spectacular end to an unparalleled record.

Having described all the ways that Owel moves outside the genre’s traditional box, it must be said that all these songs still contain elements of post-rock. Part of what’s so impressive about Owel, is that for all the descriptors that I’m throwing at you, someone else might listen to the same record and use almost completely contrasting adjectives. And we’d both be correct. Owel is remarkable in its ability to achieve greatness in a variety of ways, none of which are conventional. So don’t take my praise of Owel‘s poppier songs as lambasting post-rock. It’s a genre that still has a lot to say, and Owel explores some of those opportunities with ‘Burning House’ and ‘Float,’ which occupy a space more usually reserved for post-rockers: jazz and blues influences can be felt as soft staccato taps slide into flowing melodies which then evolve into distorted swells and rolling rhythms. Owel is far from having abandoned post-rock, and when they stay closer to the genre’s roots, they are still one of its finest artists, bar none.

And ultimately, Owel has the talent to do whatever they want and have it turn out well. There’s an impressive amount of musicianship on display across this record – in the composition, the arrangement, and the wide variety of tones that Owel uses. Not to mention that a lot of the beauty on Owel stems from vocalist Jay Sakong’s incredibly beautiful performance. He effortlessly glides between his modal register and a falsetto so immaculate that it’s very difficult to tell where his break is, or if he even has one at all. It also doesn’t hurt that his voice is so smooth that he could talk a nun out of her habit with a single Hail Mary.

So just go listen to Owel already. I’ve given a sampling of reasons why it’s a tremendous record that shouldn’t be missed, but all my ramblings don’t even come close to scratching the surface of this album’s brilliance. Come year’s end, when critics like myself are compiling our year-end lists and ranking a wide swath of unrelated albums, I feel confident in saying that we won’t be asking where Owel ranks among the albums of this year – that’s not a large enough scope. No, we’ll be asking where it ranks among the albums of this era, and I think, in both cases, the clear answer will be “among the finest.”

This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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