Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Hundred Waters

Hundred Waters were one of a handful of bands scheduled to play the Austin City Limits Festival last year that I had never heard of but suddenly got really excited about. Somehow, despite my interest, I missed my chance to see them then. However, I bought their first, self-titled album at that time, and it cemented my appreciation. Then came South by Southwest. I again missed a chance to see them at the Empire Garage, but finally got to see them the next day at The Owl. However, the sound was poor and the setlist fairly short. I wanted more.

When they announced their first national tour as headliners, I immediately bought a ticket for their local Austin show. It was at Red 7 on June 23rd. However, days before the show, I realized that circumstances at my job would basically prevent me from going. I was disappointed, because this had never happened to me before, but I suppose after all the wonderful shows I've seen so far in Austin, I can't be too upset. To make up for it, though, I'd like to say a few words about their new album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, as well as their debut.

[Hundred Waters.]

Hundred Waters first appealed to me because of the unique blend of folk instrumentation and electronic production heard on their first album. Right next to the swaths of synths, keyboards, and pads are flutes, acoustic guitars, and hand drums. The beats are mostly synthetic, but parts sound like conventional percussion. The vocals of Nicole Miglis are soft, airy, otherworldly, and almost certainly incomprehensible without the printed lyrics sheet. The first track, "Sonnet", appears to be based around a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, but the phrasing is so strange that the traditional poetic format becomes transformed into something entirely new and different. I think the strength of the album is that it sounds like a perfect blend of both artificial and authentic, synthetic and acoustic.

Right after Hundred Waters was released in 2012, the band moved from the obscure Elestial Sound label to Skrillex's OWSLA. The new label reissued the album and gave it a deservedly wider release, but the pairing struck me as odd. This was not a band playing EDM or dance club music; the odd time signatures, shifting beats, and occasional subtle and muted tracks seemed to indicate quite a distance from those scenes. But after all, I suppose there's no reason Skrillex can't have some good taste, so why not be on his label?

When follow-up The Moon Rang Like a Bell finally came out in May, it immediately struck me as a band with a different mission. Long gone were early contributors Sam Moss and Allen Scott, and also left behind were any traces of the acoustic. I think the band may have felt the folk label was inappropriate, and they reacted by ditching almost anything that could be construed in that genre. My initial reaction was disappointment – what to me was their original selling point was now nowhere to be found. But after a few weeks of regular listening, I've found plenty to enjoy.

[The Moon Rang Like a Bell.]

First of all, the opening a capella "Show Me Love" is a great performance with a great lyric. The second track, "Murmurs", might start off with an annoying repeated vocal sample, but once it settles in, the vocal melody and the piano become something beautiful. The piano actually plays a very strong role throughout the album, absorbing nearly all space left by the forgotten acoustic elements. The album might be primarily electronic and beat-oriented, but several tracks disobey that trend, including "Show Me Love" and the abstract closer "No Sound". Standouts are "Cavity", "Down from the Rafters", and "Xtalk", and the only misstep is "[Animal]", which delves a little too far into dance music cliché. While I might prefer the clever blending of styles found on the first album, The Moon is still a beautiful album with a rewarding intricacy.

All these changes make me wonder if in the future they will edge closer to dancey EDM or if they will rebound back to a broader and more acoustic sound. When I saw them live at SXSW in March, they seemed to occupy an entirely separate third space, preferring live drums but electronic instrumentation otherwise. However, there were exceptions: the drummer also had a rhythm pad and one song featured electric guitar and bass. I was curious to see if as headliners they would bring more instruments to encompass a wider scope of sounds... but I missed my chance to find out. I'll just have to wait until next time!

Scores:
Hundred Waters: A-
The Moon Rang Like a Bell: B+

P.S. I also appreciate that their name is derived from the wonderful artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. (I have made several pilgrimages to see his work; for example, see here, here, and here.)

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