Now that we’re here at Volume II of the Appleseed Cast’s epic project Low Level Owl, let’s take a few minutes to talk about concept and craft.
Both Volume I and Volume II of Low Level Owl came out of three months of sessions at Red House Recording in Eudora, Kansas. As such, Volume II is supposed to pick up literally where Volume I let off. The “concept”, in other words, is that each album should flow organically; the volumes merge into each other, with only the arbitrariness of disc space to separate them. Similarly, the songs were not conceived or recorded as separate units. The divisions between songs, and their titles, reflect what The Casters (they would hate that, wouldn’t they?) and their producer, Ed Rose, considered natural breaks in the flow and feeling of the music.
If Low Level Owl were an essay or a poem, therefore, we would call it lyric. Lyric means that emotion, not logic, is the driving force that moves the album from start to finish. Anyone who’s read my rants on the subject of the “relationship record” will know that some albums take a much more narrative approach to songwriting—take Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, for example, or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
Though our serious and talented friends in Kansas wouldn’t much appreciate the comparison, Low Level Owl‘s closest stylistic chum is Guns ‘n’ Roses bloated Use Your Illusion I & II, released in 1991. Consider the similarities: a band leaves behind the success of the first two albums—a success, by the way, that was centered around that band’s ability to go to extremes, either of emo-ness or rawkin-ness—to experiment, explore, grow. The result is an explosion of style, an addition of strings, and a feeling of epic scope.
Luckily for The Appleseed Cast, things have turned out much better for them than for Axl et al., maybe because they don’t have that whole hair-metal decadence thing to worry about. Low Level Owl successfully experiments with what I’m calling craft: it brings new sounds into the band’s repertoire, and new recording techniques. These elements were largely glossed over in the last review (in favor of my mea culpa ramblings about mistrusting emo), so my comments here involve both albums.
Some of the new sounds include sleigh bells, wood blocks, and the sound of leaves blowing (this last one I’ve yet to identify). Similarly, though none of the band members have any background playing keyboards, they play Hammond organ for both bass lines and melody on this album, and add in some synth strings for good measure (what’s an experimental, ‘mature’ album without them?). Always a fan of vintage instruments, the band recorded the ‘60s era drum kits into the big room (rather than the traditional practice of giving each instrument its own isolation chamber) because they loved the expansive sound they got that way.
Here’s how Volume II starts: volume comes up on a distortion heavy vamp that is clearly recognizable from Volume I. As the waves of roaring guitar crest and slide landward, they are swallowed by a sudden up swell of feedback that fritters out into static bubbles. Then a single guitar figure emerges. Even when it is joined by another guitar, then breathy vocals, the simplicity of the melody produces a trance-like effect. Same little twinkly thing, over and over. Mesmerizing. You forget about it, you get absorbed in it, and then all of a sudden the drums crack and the full instrumentation sweeps in to overtake the original figure.
Volume II is full of such well-timed moments, while Volume I seemed a little more concentrated on setting the scene. Volume I takes a long time establishing epic scope, a sense of momentousness. Volume II is sure you’re with them on that, and allows itself to drop the intensity a little. Not all such moments of lull are riveting: “Shaking Hands” and “Ring Out the Warning Bell” both get a little diffuse and boring. I’ll admit that Volume II did not grab me immediately the way Volume I did—possibly because of the relative scarcity of toe-tapping, hooky tracks. An exception to this rule is “A Place in Line”, whose intricately interwoven guitar lines form a flowing backdrop for impressionistic but melodic vocals. And “Sunset Drama King” has all the import and steadily building gravity of traditional emo (though I salute these normally deadpan guys for their use of self-deprecating irony in the song’s title). The expansive quality of the drum recording is particularly evident on this track, in which each fill seems to echo in a different place in your head. “The Last in Line” and “Confession” are possibly the most experimental tracks on the album—which means they use a lot of feedback, no or few vocals, and lots of tape loops. “The Last in Line” sounds to me like it should be renamed “Mischief with the Delay Pedal”.
With these two albums The Appleseed Cast have expanded their once monolithically heart wrenching sound to include atmospheric, incidental moments. You might even say they’d become more introspective. It’s not just about ripping your heart out anymore. It’s about taking the time to look at the bloody thing for a few minutes—before it gives up the ghost for good.