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November 3, 2003

Georgia band upstages Appleseed Cast's soundscape tale by the fireside

On Friday night, October 17, the buzzword at the Fireside Bowl was "soundscape." In case you're not familiar with the term, it revolves around the idea of creating a sonic space using a set of constraints —often achieved through repetition—and then moving around and exploring that space. As you might imagine, the creation of such "soundscapes" often lends itself to the overuse of digital delay and multi-layered guitars to mimic a dream-like state (this may be the legacy of Kevin Shields). However, some bands manage to break free of this type of cliché and create something truly original. As of late, some of the most exciting work of this sort has been coming out of the incestuous Montreal collective (Godspeed You Black Emperor!, etc.), as well as from lesser-known Texans, Explosions in the Sky.

Friday's show got off to a strong start with Athens, Georgia natives Maserati.

Considering the fact that these are a bunch of dudes playing instrumental post-rock, you'd think that their primary challenge as an opener would be simply keeping the attention of their audience. Luckily, they already have that base well-covered. The songs slowly built upwards, adding on layers of sound, before blossoming into beautifully dueling guitars and crashing percussion.

Furthermore, the band played with the type of energy and presence that needs no words to communicate its message.

Florida's the Mercury Program could learn a lesson or two from their friends in Maserati. Despite having the notable advantage of a full-time organist, as well as a huge bells set (which, at one point, was played by two members simultaneously), the Mercury Program never seemed to get out of the hanger. Sticking mainly to repetitive, bland guitar lines, the band's songs built up tension with no release. In a genre that requires innovation in order to stand out at all, the Mercury Program simply blend in with their surroundings.

The Appleseed Cast have a rather interesting history behind them. Hailing from Lawrence, Kansas, they carved out a niche for themselves in the late '90s by recording albums that sounded almost exactly like Sunny Day Real Estate's first two records, with the minor addition of occasional saxophone. In 2001, however, the band took an unforeseen turn, releasing the sprawling Low Level Owl Volumes I and II, a post-rock epic that, over the course of it's two hour running time, fades in and out of tightly-written songs and pure atmospherics. Segments of these records featured sonic experiments, including recordings of leaves blowing in the wind layered over instrumentation and multi-tracked drums played backwards at differing speeds.

When the members announced that they were releasing their newest record, Two Conversations, on Tiger Style (their previous label, Deep Elm, is best known for their long-running Emo Diaries compilation series, as well as "Emo is Awesome" T-shirts), most of us assumed that this was merely a step toward furthering their transformation. However, the new record attempts to reconcile their recent forays into experimental post-rock with their older sound, which I won't even struggle to describe without using that word. Furthermore, Two Conversations takes a big step away from the previous records' penchant for lyrical and vocal abstraction, opting instead for clearly-sung lines that concern themselves little with metaphor, and song titles such as "Fight Song." In a nutshell, it's a big step backward for this band.

Live, the Appleseed Cast wisely decided to mix the new with the sort-of new. Playing a short set consisting mainly of songs from the new record and the Low Level Owl series, the band managed to crank out nearly album-perfect renditions. Not to say that this is a good thing. This type of rock is precisely the kind of music that begs to be reinterpreted and improvised live, at least within reason (see the Mars Volta's live show for an example of the other extreme).

Furthermore, vocalist Christopher Crisci's vocals seemed sub-par. While heartfelt and impassioned on record, his live vocal performance sounds rather forced. Ultimately, the Appleseed Cast are a talented group of musicians with incredible potential in the studio. Unfortunately, when it comes to both Two Conversations and their live show, you'd probably be better off listening to Low Level Owl.