11 Jun 2022

The Sampler - Band of Horses, Asta Rangu, Wilma Vritra

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 11 June 2022

Tony Stamp reviews the latest album from indie-twang favourites Band of Horses, the debut of Dunedin band Asta Rangu, and a beautifully orchestrated hip-hop record by duo Wilma Vritra.

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Things Are Great by Band of Horses

Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses

Photo: Suppled

When Ben Bridwell, the one constant member of Seattle outfit Band of Horses, gives interviews and mentions firing band members, firing producers, and just generally being very unfiltered in his opinions, it’s hard to tell if he’s an egomaniac or someone whose creative efforts have been stifled for the last ten years or so by figures in and around his band.

He recently told Spin “I’m not going to listen to someone else’s f***ing opinion. I’m tired of that”. 

Maybe he’s right to be emboldened. Band of Horses' first album was rapturously received, but everything since then... not so much. Their sixth seems to be focused on not overthinking things and having fun. As a result, it’s the best thing they’ve done since their debut.

I couldn’t shake the slightly manic feeling around the edges of these sun-bleached anthems, and as it turns out that might be due to Bridwell going through a divorce during its writing, as well as changing labels, and losing two long-standing band members. It’s worth pointing out that Bridwell has specified they were fired after they publicly said they’d quit, and that the guitar player hired for this album didn’t even make it to the release date before leaving too.

All signs point to Bridwell being a difficult collaborator. He recorded with legendary producer Dave Fridmann and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, before scrapping their work and starting again with upcoming producer “Wolfie” Zimmerman, saying “I needed someone to let me be the boss, finally. I got to kick Wolfie’s ass around a bit.”

You don’t need to know the album’s backstory to get that its name - Things Are Great - is dripping with sarcasm. ‘Crutch’ has allusions to Bridwell’s failing marriage and references to drug use, but like most of these songs, bounces along on chiming guitars and his buoyant voice.

Lyrically he’s plainspoken and fond of wordplay. “I’ve got a crutch on you” goes the hook, which might be a reference to co-dependence.

On ‘Coalinga’ he sings the album’s title, and in an ironic trick he pulls repeatedly, combines the music’s majestic sprawl with a description of the titular place as a “hellhole”.

In interviews Ben Bridwell is unexpectedly insecure about his guitar playing, saying that in the past he’s hired better players to mask his own imperfections. On this album, he tried to lean into them, and while I think his fretwork will sound very good to everyone who isn’t a specialist, the devil-may-care approach certainly finds its way into the overall feel.

It’s an album that faces bad news with a twinkle in its eye, and Ben Bridwell’s great knack at combining chords and melody. He told consequence.net, “Even though, yes, I’m being sarcastic in that title, things have gotten better and I find myself ever more optimistic in thinking things are actually great”.

ENTRTNMNT by Asta Rangu

Asta Rangu

Photo: Suppled

When the Dunedin music scene took off in the 1980s, it was dominated by a certain type of guitar sound - so much so that, all these years later, you probably know the exact sound I mean. And if you don’t, it has its own Wikipedia entry, featuring liberal use of the word ‘jangle’.

That sound went on to influence bands around the world, and Ōtepoti kept incubating musicians that don’t quite sound like anywhere else. The debut from Asta Rangu holds true to that, moving through synth-pop and heavier terrain, but always drawn to the discordant; inserting moments of abrasion into its otherwise slick production.

The band are fronted by Richard Ley-Hamilton, formerly of Mr Biscuit (who specialised in sloppy guitar anthems), and Males (an outfit with a taste for higher tempos and with more focus to their sonic assault).

Ley-Hamilton writes all Asta Rangu’s songs, and they’re easily his most accessible, fond of uplifting choruses balanced with challenging choices: the odd change in a riff’s timing, the occasional atonal note, all very intentional.

He told Under the Radar “There is some sense of an orderly pop song, but I love colouring it with chaotic tones and textures. For me, that represents what it is to live.”

An example - if you listen to the bed of synths on the song ‘VIC’ you’ll hear them drifting in between notes, creating moments of wooziness.

That song also touches on Ley-Hamilton’s point about life being messy. He said the “need for a grand narrative is set against how complicated, challenging and bizarre reality can truly be. Sometimes we need reassurance that we are all flawed”.

I like the synchronicity between sentiment and song-craft. On ‘LLPLZA’ he mentions modern distractions like tinder, TV and pixelated files, in a stadium-sized tune with those precious imperfections supplied by a restless lead guitar.

Taken as a whole those moments of anarchy amount to pinches of spice here and there. ENTRTNMNT is mostly lush and listenable, with Richard Ley-Hamilton’s voice pitched somewhere between Shayne Carter and Phil Collins, to pleasing effect.

There’s definitely a bit of gothic Dunedin romance here, and some discontent at the state of the world, smuggled into songs that mostly feel spacious and inviting - imperfectly formed, but deliberately so.

Grotto by Wilma Vritra

Wilma Vritra

Photo: Suppled

When you hit play on a hip-hop record, you don’t necessarily expect to hear expertly orchestrated string sections. I’m not saying it’s unheard of, but when I put on Grotto I was taken with how much attention the strings were given, along with brass and other live instruments. 

This is a rap album where the rapping isn’t prioritised. Instead, it often feels like the calm between moments of orchestral outburst.

The compositions are largely concerned with beauty, thanks to British producer Wilma Archer. He started making music under the name Slime around ten years ago, and while his output is categorised as ‘beats’, he’s always employed lots of live instrumentation, including his own drumming, guitar and bass playing, and crucially his talent with a saxophone.

Sax is employed sparingly here, as Archer’s attention seems more drawn to strings these days. So while ‘Overcast’ comes with a palette of hip hop staples like an 808 boom and glockenspiel, it’s the violins and violas that bring a periodic hit of emotion. 

Providing the raps is Vritra, a member of the Odd Future collective. His delivery is so hushed it can be easy to miss how heartfelt he’s being, given space to shine on tracks like ‘Clean Me Clean’, where he speaks about working at a farmer’s market, shouts out Jaco Pastorius from Weather Report, and repeatedly second-guesses his own rhymes, telling the listener he’s not going to say what he thought he would. And this is all within around thirty seconds.

There’s a real sense of sadness to many of these songs, and not just due to Vritra’s words. On ‘Tunnel Vision’ Wilma Archer’s guitar wrings melancholy from just a few notes. Even the drum machine sounds bummed out. 

In some ways, Grotto represents a meeting between Wilma Archer’s British sense of soul, and Vritra’s American sense of self. There’s a lot to dig into in his confessional, philosophical wordplay, but my first few listens were fixated on Archer’s rich instrumental concoctions. 

The highlight is ‘One Under’, a swaggering number where the strings really soar, and Archer’s saxophone makes a welcome appearance a few minutes in, ducking in and around the other instruments and adding some funk to proceedings; a rare moment of extroversion on this inward-looking release.