Tomorrow is going to be the kickoff of Austin’s yearly SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival -an event that always brings swarms of bands to the forefront of public chatter and brings new sounds to the edges of our speakers. This being the case, and the weekend destined to be full of amazing showcases down south…in an effort to pay homage to this event’s support of new, undiscovered musicians, I am kicking off March’s posts with a special EP review for one independent band from my old college town. They happen to also be celebrating the official release of their album on vinyl this weekend as well.
Read on for a track-by-track breakdown of the record ahead of the party!
Hard Soul – “Seize the Year” EP Review
Hard Soulis a four man band based in Albany, New York. After forming in the later half of 2011, the group wasted no time getting notes down on manuscript and getting tracks laid down in the studio. Their first EP, “Love Eats the Young”came out in March of last year and it did not take long for various publications like the area’s popular Times Union, as well as outlets like SpotlightNews.com and local radio station 97.7 WEXT, to take notice and give praise. Currently, the band holds a resident spot at the Putnam Denin Saratoga Springs every Wednesday night for their Open Mic.
The band took to Kickstarter for their second go-round, “Seize the Year,” (out now on iTunes, Bandcamp,Amazon,CD Baby and Spotify) and met their monetary goal with no problem.
This new EP gradually transitions from the band’s lighter influences and more upbeat classic rock, to the more hammered in and hardened, alternative rock style, with gleaming traces of metal on top, most likely due to lead singer Johnny Salka’s earlier days, with acts that stood definitively in the hemisphere of metal.
Seize the Year–There’s something to be said about the idea of “carpe diem,” and “seize the day” when paired with an effect that quite easily builds anticipation, such as the ticking clock featured on this song. 19 ticks though, amounting to more than 21 actual seconds of non-music kicking things off and some are liable to go from the peak of suspension to mild irritation, skipping to the second track. Maybe cut down the number of ticks to a manageable 10?
Once the intro is over, the song does offer a good all-around experience. A respectful balance of all the basic rock band ingredients, coupled with a cheery guitar hook, easy going tempo and the track has no problem falling into any fun situation; probably destined to be blasted on whatever docking station happens to be available. The occasional accidentals thrown in by John, and the non-canned nature of the vocal line’s rhythm, taking the melody not always where one expects it to go, tends to give a somewhat carefree, jam vibe –which might be why I keep thinking of barbecues in summertime with this one. Still, while carefree might be the mood, the musicianship doesn’t slack off for a single second.
Unfortunately, winding down, the track goes back to feeling random near the end, with a near minute of sounds that seemingly have no melodic or rhythmic connection to what just came before. A rainstorm, wind chimes and now the chiming bell of a…clock tower (?) puts two miscellaneous bookends on an otherwise enjoyable piece and makes the song about 1:20 too long. Of course, perhaps this is what the band means with the last sung line, “You’ll never understand the world that’s building in my head…”
Conquered the World–Track two sees the group picking up some steam, still on the major key side of things but, moving smoothly to a bigger sound that shows the upward flow of the album as a whole. While there was a mild amount of delay and reverb on the vocals in Seize the Year, for “Conquered,” a visualization of the band playing this song out in a good sized arena or otherwise acoustically-liberal venue and achieving a similar sound feels quite appropriate. The slower tempo and ever-so-slight shift to a more serious tone –in both words and melody– evoke a self-reflective monologue –all without coming across as overbearing.
The instrumental bridges are not frantic or technically shocking here but ring out as solid and powerful, (especially the second, which introduces some strings subtly underneath the rest) thus leaning toward another aspect of imagining a live performance, where the less hectic solos are often admired for the visible expression and body language of the player. Near the end of the track, the listener is given yet another clock reference, though only for about 15 seconds. Still feels like it’s added in there just for the sake of a “different factor” but at least they are consistent?
Passes You By–The mid-point of the EP is where the definite shift arrives. The band wants to show the other, more intense dimensions of their sound. Gone is the lighter classic rock and coming in is music that sees the scales tipped more toward alternative and hard rock. The start with solo bass is a nice change of pace and tends to snap you to attention. Once the full band drops in, the change is irrefutable: the tone has taken a more minor route and between the selected guitar effect, reverb sustained from the previous track and the primary beat from the bass and drums fronted in the mix…my first thoughts went to early Three Doors Down, circa 2003. Despite this association and hearing the music take a minor turn, the lyrics are very empowering: “Reach out and grab a hold of your life before it passes you by.”
In addition, and I may be stretching here, listening carefully enough to the lyrics lets another “random piece” fall away. The song closing rain storm that felt terribly out of place? Here we are given, “So clear your head, shake the cobwebs from your mind. Tell the rain no more distractions or selfish satisfactions…”Some logic restored maybe? The guitar fueled bridge and various solos once again highly impress; bringing in fierceness and solidifying that regardless of anything else, instrumental skill effortlessly carries over into each song. (as does another 30 seconds of clock ticking and now church bell chiming…)
Falling Faster–Edgiest track on the EP for sure. Though the vocally less aggressive verses momentarily soften things up, the progressive structure of the song is very obvious. The pre-chorus is melodically repetitive but the tension is there, with the necessary power for the refrain delivered by John belting out the last note. The harmonies belted on the titular phrase and general flow of the “long and short” five note guitar hook could even prompt intermittent head banging. The variety of guitar and bass effects and changing speeds played out in this track create an astutely assembled mosaic of metal and moshing components with purely strong rock. The latter does explode with vehemence but its inclusion makes it so you wouldn’t necessarily want to jump around the room for the entire length of the song. The fourth ending installment of chiming goes back to plain tower bells and instead of rain, churning waves.
Not Alone–Get to the end of the EP and it might seem like your iTunes library is on the blink; spontaneously changing artists on you. The final track just has the band switched over to acoustic guitar, a sweet, friendly hook and gentle vocals…wait, we are still talking about Hard Soul, right?
Indeed, Hard Soul is still the band you’re hearing and though you’re not being punk’d, things certainly aren’t anywhere near “hard” anymore. If it weren’t for the slight doubling effect placed on top of the already parallel harmony and melody lines, this would almost be a completely unplugged song. Perhaps this is their way of making a subtle joke because it does feel as though we’ve “fallen” quite “fast” off of the cliff of rough and tumble rock to the land of folk and indie; standing at a three-way intersection somewhere between Remy Zero, the Shins and Iron and Wine, straight off of the Garden State soundtrack.
Now, to be fair, as a stand alone track, this is near perfectly put together. It is a very pleasant listen. The arrangement is simple, with the guitars and the re-inclusion of low strings underneath. The diminishing of instruments allows the vocals to really shine –and they do– no drastic changes needed. There are also moments that come and go, not easily described but better experienced first hand, that manage to tie the group to their position as a rock band, even if this was the only song someone played for you to hear by them. A ticking clock finishes out the record, for the shortest amount of time (14 seconds,) and at the lowest volume, when compared to the other four endings.
Having experienced this method of track wrap up five times over, the total picture of its clever rise and descent is much more apparent and makes a great deal more sense. Yet, even after a completed retrospective look, other than observing this background pattern and the connection to the EP’s title, it doesn’t do anything else for me. Conceptually, the band has incorporated this clock and bell theme, as well as many other layered intricacies, that upon multiple listens, are reasonably fun to pick apart and shows the band has serious artistic substance. The effort behind these choices is to be commended. However, as this is an EP and not a full LP, giving this “concept” such a major role in the listening experience might have been an act of the band biting off more than the EP could chew, what with such a limited amount of time to convey the idea. Use a similar strategy on a full record? Entirely different story.
At the end of the day though, the general verdict for “Seize the Year” is absolutely still a positive one. These songs have the ability to work together during a complete run through but also make for great, individual playlist additions, depending on the activity you might be doing –whether that be driving down the highway or pumping iron at the gym. The fact that this is as strong of a recording as it is doesn’t hurt Hard Soul either. DIY is on the rise but, not everyone who pursues it can pull it off undetected as a DIY’er. These gentlemen know their way around the recording process and the visual elements of record production, leaving them with a very polished end product, which is half the battle in gaining recognition.
The official release party for the EP is on the agenda for Valentine’s Music Hallin Albany, on Saturday, March 9 at 8PM.
You can keep up with Hard Soul via these outlets: