Regardless of whether you label them instrumental rock or post-rock, Cougar made one of the best albums of 2009.
Cougar are a five-member instrumental band from Madison, Wisconsin, and their second album Patriot is one of the best albums I've heard this year. Regardless of whether you label this sort of music instrumental rock or "post-rock", Cougar know their way around a good song. The songs on Patriot are sticky, but it's a different kind of sticky than when a pop song's hook stays in your head for weeks. Once you've listened to Patriot once or twice, it's the sticky where you go, "Oh yeah! This is a cool one", each time a new track starts. And it goes that way for every song on the album.
Cougar do a couple of things that make them stand out among their instrumental rock peers. The band has a strong knack for variety. Each of the album's 11 tracks stands on its own as a distinct composition. So the hard-rocking opener "Stay Famous", with its fuzz bass and dual guitar lines, doesn't sound much like the similarly hard-edged "Thundersnow", with its Lightning Bolt-style drum craziness and sloppy distorted guitar noise. And neither of those songs sounds like "Heavy Into Jeff", a slow, dirty-sounding, synth-dominated track with one of the album's heaviest riffs. Cougar also know how to do soft and delicate. "Pelourinho" starts with high-pitched plucked strings on what sounds like a harp, before it's joined by a pleasant major-key acoustic guitar accompaniment, soft, skittering drums, and atmospheric synth background. Some digital manipulation breaks things up in the middle of the song, before it comes back together with a more rhythmic groove in the track's second half. "This is an Affidavit" is full of simple, intertwining clean electric guitar riffs and quiet drums. It owes an obvious debt to Explosions in the Sky, but Cougar avoid the typical slow buildup to a major climax, instead opting to add subtle piano, French horn, trombone, and bass clarinet to give the track a fuller sound.
Cougar's other strength is brevity. The longest song on Patriot lasts five minutes and thirty-five seconds. I'm all for long compositions, especially when a band can pull it off. But just as often, those tracks that get up above the seven-minute mark tend to meander and lose focus. Not every post-rock, instrumental, or progressive band needs an epic every time out. Instead, the band packs its ideas into shorter songs. The upbeat "Endings" starts with a simple guitar riff and is gradually joined by synth sounds and then a simple drumbeat. This is one of the times when the band does go for the build-up to a big climax, but they do it in the space of four minutes and twenty seconds. A second guitar adds notes on top of the first, and a synth on a distorted guitar setting carries a lot of the melody before the whole thing explodes three minutes in, then gradually calms down over the final 30 seconds, returning to the opening arrangement.
"Daunte vs. Armada" is a stealth drum feature that finds the rest of the band working on a couple of simple riffs. Drummer David Henzie-Skogen's snare drum beat isn't even audible for the first 40 seconds of the song, and even then, it's quietly in the background until around the 2:10 mark. The quality of the drum sounds start to change at that point, until you're starting to wonder if you're hearing a marching band percussion section in the background in addition to Henzie-Skogen. At 3:00, it becomes clear that yes, that is a marching band, complete with super-tight snares, quint tom players, different-sized bass drums, and crash cymbals, all playing along with the band. The way the song sneaks up on the listener is quite ingenious.
Most of all, Patriot is flat-out entertaining. Cougar are full of good ideas, and they present them in a fun way throughout the album. There isn't a dull moment among the album's 11 tracks, regardless of whether the band is rocking out or playing a laid-back, quiet shuffle. Some of these songs have strong melodies, while others get by on a couple of guitar riffs that ebb and flow throughout the track. This is a band that knows what it's doing, and succeeds at everything it tries.