[3 September 2008]
Apollo Sunshine, made up of Jeremy Black, Sam Cohen, and Jesse Gallagher, have made a name for themselves in the last decade thanks to a number of factors: their blistering, high-energy live shows; an affinity for creative, yet accessible, pop; and all around strong musicianship (they met as students at the esteemed Berklee College of Music). All have made them both a critical success and an indie fan favorite.
Prior to the release of Shall Noise Upon, their third LP, it was hard to guess what the album would sound like. The group is no stranger to innovation, and their first two full-lengths are remarkably different. Katonah (2003) miraculously melded together the epic qualities of prog-rock with simple pop of melodies that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Elephant 6 collective, while their self-titled disc (2005) channeled everything from the Pixies to the Flaming Lips to the Beatles. It was ultimately an authentic blend of all of the above—a distinct piece of guitar-rock that miraculously stands out in an era in which guitar-rock is almost by definition indistinct.
PopMatters music reviews editor Patrick Schabe predicted in his review of Apollo Sunshine that “[p]erhaps the third album … will veer off in a new direction entirely, creating a career map like one of those pendulum-fueled spirograph drawings.” Shall Noise Upon has proven Schabe’s statement to be impressively prophetic, as it is indeed an album completely unique from its predecessors.
While getting ready to record the album, Black, Cohen, and Gallagher must have scrolled down their contacts list, calling every musician they know; Shall Noise Upon credits over a dozen guest musicians. They cover a range of instruments, from harp to harmonica to Mellotron. It is probably this large pool of choices that resulted in a set of tracks that runs the gamut of musical expression: the album includes far-out psychadelia on the opening “Breeze”, simple folk rock on “Money”, samba rhythms on “Honesty”, and eerie minimalism on the closing “Light of the World”.
Shall Noise Upon is grand, at times grandiose, and full of rich textures and expansive melodies. All of these compositions have been meticulously polished by the attentive ears of the professionally trained musicians that are Apollo Sunshine, resulting in an album that is well-written, well-performed, and well-produced. The best examples of this are “Happiness”, which starts off as a bland showcase of basic Music 101 harmonies, but grows into a bold and enchanting sonic affair, and also “The Funky Chamberlain (Who Begot Who)”, which grooves unbelievably hard, throwing distorted vocals and a plaintive keyboard on top of a fat bass line.
While Apollo Sunshine‘s tracks were generally simpler and more straightforward than those heard in this disc, they were teeming with a pulsing energy that Shall Noise Upon lacks. We hear this more vigorous sound return for a moment on “Brotherhood of Death”, a thumping and distorted declaration of greed and power, but in general the group seems to have let go of some of their intensity in return for creative advancement. The excitement, hooks, and choruses of the first two albums have gone missing, replaced by more developed song forms and a more diverse set of influences.
Is this a fair trade? Perhaps. This album proves that Black, Cohen, and Gallagher are capable of writing, performing, and producing a complicated, diverse album, drawing on all different types of music. The trio is revered for their successful channeling of the sounds of previous eras. This album lives up to that reputation, and it is apparent in every moment, from the Pink Floydian mystery of “We Are Born When We Die” to the Brian Wilson melodies scattered throughout.
But on previous albums their greatest musical moments came when the music stopped nostalgically echoing the past and became very much in the present. The same is true of this album. The most exhilarating tracks—“Brotherhood of Death”, “The Funky Chamberlain”, and “The Mermaid Angeline”—are those that reflect not the 1960s, but instead reflect and build upon the unique sound Apollo Sunshine have been tailoring for themselves since they first started making music. This group acknowledges their influences, but is never bound by them, relying instead on their own development over the years for inspiration. It is in this purely innovative way that Apollo Sunshine’s melodies are intoxicating, their lyrics epic, and their harmonies luscious—the more this album is listened to, the more the listener is impressed with the knowledge that there is something very powerful at play in this music.
Granted, it is hard to listen to this album and not miss the rawness of Katonah or the pure vitality of their self-titled disc; it is safe to say that Apollo Sunshine could have released an album exactly like their previous releases, and no one would have minded a bit. But if nothing else, this album shows us that Apollo Sunshine are fully aware of the transient nature of art, knowing that in this generation of music, innovation is necessary for survival. Even if we didn’t need them to evolve, fortunately, they knew they had no other choice.