Music

¡Forward, Russia!: Life Processes

¡Forward, Russia! should be commended for asking questions of themselves when they could have sat pretty and cemented their position as dance-punk heroes.


Russia!

Life Processes

Display Artist: ¡Forward, Russia!
Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2008-07-22
UK Release Date: 2008-04-14
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¡Forward, Russia!'s debut album, Give Me a Wall, was one of the clear highlights of the dance-punk craze that rattled its collective hi-hat relentlessly for a while a couple of years back. The histrionically named Leeds four-piece boasted an urgency and intensity that many of their peers simply couldn't match, their danceable rhythm section only one half a picture that also boasted inventive guitar noodling, a wildly theatrical vocalist and the occasional blistering surge of noise.

But while these traits ensured the gimmickry of matching T-shirts, songs that were numbered rather than named and, of course, a penchant for the Hispanic exclamation marks, were only a fleeting focus, ¡Forward, Russia! are admirably discontent to rest on their laurels. Indeed, going by their second long-player, Life Processes, the band's name now appears less like an explosion in a punctuation factory and more like a mission statement. Forward, it seems, is the only way here, for better or for worse.

And it is for better and for worse, variably, as it happens. For Life Processes is a concerted step towards a bigger sound, more concerned with widening eyes than shifting feet. When it comes off, as on "Spring Is a Condition", the band's sound has evolved into something grand and dramatic, while retaining its sense of energy and freedom from bombast. But other tracks, "A Shadow Is a Shadow Is a Shadow" for one, struggle to accommodate this ambition and resort to pushing clamorous guitars and a fidgety vocal in no particular direction.

That said, Life Processes doesn't have any particularly bad songs, just some that struggle to find sure footing in the step up in scale. The album does, however, take longer to sink in than its predecessor -- had this review been written after just a single listen there'd no doubt be a lower number at the end of it -- which more than anything indicates the band's widened vision; the focus here is on the bigger picture, rather than instant gratification. This is most evident on the slow burners: "Some Buildings" is a seven-minute process of incremental growth, the steadily accelerating engine of Whiskas's guitar underpinning a part-resigned, part-sinister refrain of "some buildings are built to be broken" before eventually breaking out into a towering conclusion. Single "Breaking Standing" is a creeper in an entirely different sense, initially underwhelming to those used to the raucous energy of Give Me a Wall but with a chorus that sounds more and more accommodating with every listen.

Even when instilled with a shot of Give Me a Wall's urgency Life Processes remains ambitious, however. Indeed, the album is persistently declaratory, its song titles often ringing out as proclamations ("Welcome to the Moment", "We Are Grey Matter", "A Prospector Can Dream", "Spring Is a Condition"). It's fitting then that those same songs should have a concurrent sense of importance, embodied both in Tom's lyrics and in a sound that is frequently imposing. The former is both a blessing and a curse, with the apocalyptic to-and-fro of "Welcome to the Moment" suiting Tom Woodhead's wildly oscillating vocal to perfection ("This a problem / There is no solution") but "A Prospector Can Dream" struggling to bear the weight of the themes lobbed its way ("Did you ever study the Israelites? / They made a new life for themselves with such a peculiar change").

Crucially, however, both tracks manage the balance of Life Processes capably, maintaining that drive while simultaneously spreading ¡Forward, Russia!'s sound, and in particular Whiskas's guitar, thicker than ever before. "Gravity & Heat" perhaps spreads it a little too thick -- its heavier, power chord-laden sections carry a whiff of generic alt-rock -- but its impossible to criticise the band's choice to push themselves, particularly if it leads them writing songs like "Spanish Triangles". The album's nine-minute closer is a massive, yearning opus, its instrumentation steeped in post-rock but its vocal bordering on the anthemic, as Woodhead's most assured performance yet segues into a collective, conclusive chant.

In the end, though, it's "We Are Grey Matter" that epitomises Life Processes as a whole. As close to prog as dance-punk will ever come, the track blends together Give Me a Wall's synth (generally overlooked here) and angular guitar with Woodhead's hyperactive histrionics, to create a twisting, unpredictable five-minutes that makes the occasional dash for the opulence of "Some Buildings". The end result, though diverting, is a slightly uncomfortable mid-point between the two albums. And Life Processes could quite possibly be a transitional album, a first step in a bigger, bolder direction that doesn't quite let go of Give Me a Wall's quirks; only time will tell. For now, though, ¡Forward, Russia! should be commended for broadening their scope and their sound, asking questions of themselves and their listeners in the process, when they could have sat pretty and cemented their position as dance-punk heroes.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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