The Appleseed Cast is one of those band names that gives you completely the wrong idea. You expect something a bit twee and folksy, but what you get is, well, epic. And that’s the first challenge in itself. Epic music is extremely difficult to pull off (by that I guess I mean that most of it is crap) and is often tarred by the pejorative “prog-rock” brush. Bands like Marillion are simply preposterous, and merely being associated with them could end careers.
However, instrumental bands such as Canadians Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GSPY!BE) and Scots Mogwai have restored credibility and genuine ambition to this kind of music. The idea is that you have to experience the song as a great climactic whole, from its quiet beginnings through layers of added sound until the peak is reached. It’s the kind of music were, if you walked into a room halfway through a song, you would just hear noise.
The result is obviously far from everyday listening (except perhaps for the hyperintense and the mad). Indeed, I always wonder when I’m supposed to listen to this kind of stuff. When I’m about to die? To aid angsty emotional catharsis? How often do I need to do that? A conundrum. Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame, found one alternative as he tapped the layered approach to good effect in his last film 28 Days Later, using GSY!BE’s almost orchestral escalations as the tense musical back drop to his zombie thriller.
Hailing from Kansas, the Appleseed Cast plough a slightly jauntier furrow. Christopher Crisci applies intermittent vocals and there is often a real pace and coherence to much of their music. The rhythm section provides the foundation for Crisci and lead guitar Aaron Pillar to build swirling, feedback-heavy constructs. In many ways they resemble the UK’s Doves, whose mainstream success with The Last Broadcast, last year defied popular music’s “simple song” logic. On Lost Songs (as opposed to Doves’ debut Lost Souls) “peril parts 1,2 and 3” is startlingly similar to the Manchester-based group’s sound.
The Appleseed Cast share Doves weaknesses too. When building music like this, a lot of emphasis is placed on the power of delivery. By that I mean each composite part has to be capable of holding its own amidst the others or face being drowned out in the wall of sound. With instruments, much of this can be done in the studio tinkering process (although to keep the balance live is often more difficult). However, Crisci’s voice does not have the ability to hold its own amid the flood as, say, Thom Yorke’s does. He does convey a Cameron Oberst-like vulnerability at times, but then often seems lost in a more literal sense at others.
Lost Songs is a transitory album for the Appleseed Cast. The songs on the album were recorded as members were leaving and being replaced. After releasing the enormous Low Level Owl in 2001, the band looked back on songs that they had left behind with the old Appleseed line-up. They liked what they heard and reworked four songs from that period — the “lost songs” of the title. Five new songs have also been composed and, at times, the result seems to tap both pre- and post- Low Level Owl strengths.
The brief “Take” is the most beautiful thing on Lost Songs, despite being only a little over two minutes long. A becalming instrumental, its hypnotic bass and cascading guitars are a balm at the midpoint of proceedings. The heavyweight “Novice” is another highlight. A sumptuously strummed guitar feeds into a pulsating chorus and then an unashamed rock-out. It is a little top-heavy, but the quiet bits are beguiling. “a to w” and “Facing North” share this loose sense of convention, but the album becomes more ambient and less riff-driven as it unwinds.
There is something of the self-fulfilling cliché about the Appleseed Cast, though. They flaunt their experimentalist baggage without irony. There is tons of de rigueur feedback across the album; when will this cease to be experimental? Plus many of the song titles are typically obscure, for example the sprawling “Novice Ambient Cannibalization”. Nobody can doubt the Appleseed Cast’s commitment to their music, but Lost Songs is not quite the album it could be — first-time listeners are better guided to Low Level Owl or Mare Vitalis. It has the feel of being a stopgap; hopefully something bigger and better is on its way.