A Real Dilemma
As a critic, I face a couple of dilemmas in reviewing the new album from Lawrence, Kansas-based band the Appleseed Cast. The first is a matter of pigeonholing. The group has been called everything from alternative rock to emo to post rock as the group has challenged the boundaries of genre with each successive release, so it’s hard to really define the sound of the band to one specific genre, and this is especially so on their latest record, Illumination Ritual. The album itself is certainly emo-ish, but it’s too mathy for its own good for the black fingernailed crowd. And if the band’s lyrics are a diary, it’s hard to tell because singer/guitarist Chirstopher Crisci’s voice is buried deep in the instrumentation – it’s like listening to someone howl through a maelstrom without quite making it through. And if the group is post rock (and that’s even if you believe such a genre actually exists beyond Simon Reynolds’ supposed coinage of the term, and I know that some people don’t), it’d be hard to really put a definitive stamp on them here, for the Appleseed Cast isn’t above writing songs with a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure (with some slight deviations) and they certainly play leaning very heavily on the rock end of the spectrum. It may very well be that the ever-shifting line-up of the Appleseed Cast (Crisci is, by now, the sole remaining original member) could be called innovative – except, you listen to this album, and can spot little flourishes that remind me of bands such as U2 and the Church in some of the guitar tones. Perhaps there’s no genre tag that really accounts for the sound of the Appleseed Cast, and maybe it could be argued that such things are meaningless to begin with.
The second issue is more of a reviewing-specific crux of a problem and please indulge me here. (If you can’t, just go ahead and skip to the next paragraph.) Sometimes, we music reviewers get an album well after the release date due to all sorts of issues that aren’t the fault of anyone in particular – it just happens. (And I’m certainly not going to bore anyone with excuses or long-winded details as to why this might happen, or did this time.) The problem is, from my perspective, I now am tasked with reviewing a record that everyone and their dog has weighed in on and assigned a ranking to. So I risk being a follower, and it’s especially difficult this time out because – believe it or not – it seems that everyone has the same opinion about Illumination Ritual: that it is solid, not stratospheric. Metacritic scores for this album read like a litany of 70s, according to their reviewing scale, not that numbers may really matter, I suppose, but I have yet to read an review – and, yes, I do this in advance of writing, not to be informed or shaped by anyone else’s opinion, but to see what the broader implications are for a particular piece of work and if there are any threads others have raised that I might elaborate or expand on after I’ve listened to an album X number of times – that doesn’t deviate from this judgment. It’s as though everyone thinks this album merits a purchase, but it’s a record with specific flaws. Well, that’s hard for me to grapple with, because, quite frankly, I would agree (and I come to this conclusion on my own, having listened to the record at least four times) that this is a pretty good, but not excellent, album, so I risk riding on others’ coattails and could be accused of groupthink. And what more can be said without risking repeating the party line on Illumination Ritual? This is just good stuff, but simply just good stuff. Though, I may add, it’s good stuff that’s worth owning, for sure.
So I’m just going to wax poetic here on my own thoughts and if I’m repeating anything anyone has said, forgiveth me. It turns out that Illumination Ritual definitely has some strong, commanding moments worthy of examination. In fact, the disc is kind of a statement that is more the parts as opposed to the sum. The very best thing to be found on Illumination Ritual is a song called “Cathedral Rings”, and that is due to the frenetic stick work of new skin pounder Nathan Wilder. If the act of drumming could be said to be like doing math equations in your head, as Rush drummer Neil Peart has noted, the drum line for “Cathedral Rings” is Wilder’s Ph.D. thesis in algebra. It hits a snare line, with a few dings on a cymbal, while, in between this action, there’s a clicking sound as though Wilder is hitting his own sticks as he navigates around the beat. You listen to this, and wonder: how on earth can one person with two hands reasonably pull that off? (I assume there was no overdubbing done, though I suppose that’s a possibility.) It’s jaw dropping, and really brings something new to the term “math rock”. Meanwhile, the drummer stutters to staggering effect on “Barrier Islands (Do We Remain)”, which, while it takes a while to really get going as a song, also boasts a sweetly memorable vocal melody. Illumination Ritual is like a watch that you want to take apart and view all the individual springs to see what makes it tick, particularly when it comes to the rhythm.
However, Illumination Ritual does falter a bit on key cuts. The five-and-a-half minute opener, “Adriatic to Black Sea” shows a sloppier side of the band: the song feels like a rehearsal demo to a certain extent as the drumming is, every now and then, seemingly off a half beat or so. And it feels like a few different ideas got stitched together as the piece shifts direction midstream and goes off on an entirely new tangent without adding a great deal to the music. In fact, the album’s main point of contention is, indeed, in these longer pieces. The back half of the record has two of them: “North Star Ordination” (six minutes) and “Clearing Life” (five minutes). In the case of the former, it, too, feels like a number of different songs were sewn into one without a great deal of focus and attention, and the track meanders off into the ether without making an impact. The latter starts off feeling as though a rock song and marching band number got into a fight at a tailgate party, before settling down into a jaunty number. It could have probably used a minute or two lopped off it. Even so, this is not bad. Not bad at all.
All in all, what I’ve just written may or may not be nothing new when it comes to the critical appreciation of Illumination Ritual, but if you’re the type of person who likes their music skewed slightly on the unconventional side – but not too unconventional – you’ll certainly like this. It might be more of a background music piece than one you acutely sit down and listen to on headphones, save for the drumming, but it’s the sort of thing that you might want to listen to every now and again when you want to feel a certain emotion of listlessness. It’s also something of a record for the post-club crowd: Crisci allegedly wrote much, if not all, of this material in odd hours of the night, and there’s a certain medicinal haziness of sentiment to be found within this work. So, overall, Illumination Ritual succeeds as a mood piece, even though it might not be quite as “illuminating” as one would like, especially given some of the Radiohead comparisons this band generated earlier on with their two Low Level Owl discs. Still, whatever label you want to slap on the Appleseed Cast, they’ve created something that only they could probably create, and it’s great to watch the band somewhat straddle the fence between genres. That may confuse some listeners, sure, but Illumination Ritual is a slightly confusing album: how could something that invites closer listens in its instrumental virtuosity also keep you at arm’s length with odd moments of sloppiness and occasional meandering ideas? That’s the crux, and maybe that’s the real dilemma when it comes to this latest release from a band that defies easy categorization.