The Album Leaf—A Chorus of Storytellers
Review by Hugh Lilly
Post-rock is a fluid genre that’s hard to define, but it’s widely agreed that bands like Japan’s mono and the Toronto octet Do Make Say Think (dmst) are currently the movement’s flag-bearers. Characterised by chord progressions, melodies and harmonies, unusual instrumentation and rhythms not usually found in most rock music, post-rock is the bastard love-child of a cross-generational musical orgy; its parentage is as difficult to work out as it is varied. Influences from Krautrock, shoegaze, (classical) minimalism, prog-rock, electronic and ambient blend together to create some of the best—and certainly some of the most formally interesting—music being made today.
Typical notions of song-writing are thrown out the window as found sounds and classical techniques combine with piano, noodly guitars and bass, jazz-inflected percussion and horns on tracks that can be five-minute sketches, or, more often, a raucous, jam-filled quarter-hour. In the best post-rock (mono & dmst) vocals are used only to embellish instrumentation—throat-clearing footnotes to the main event. At the more pop-oriented—though no less enjoyable—mainstream end of the post-rock spectrum are bands like Epic45, the Danish band Efterklang and The Slip, from Boston, MA. The experimental, rule-defying aspect of the genre is what makes this music so enticing, which is why it’s unfortunate that with their latest record, The Album Leaf—who have admittedly always occupied a place at the poppy fringe of the genre—have fallen off the precipice into radio-friendly pop-rock blandness.
This weak, melodramatic album would leave any music fan—let alone someone who enjoyed their previous, vaguely experimental work—wanting. It lacks the slow-burning, entrancing atmosphere of You Are There by mono, whose epic show earlier this year at the bunker-like Bacco Room left my ears ringing for a solid 12 hours. No track compares to the meteoric aural fireworks and percussion of anything by dmst—or the lyrical prowess and muscular instrumentation on display in The Slip’s Alivelectric. Although The Album Leaf are to be commended for attempting to bring an ambiance to post-rock (literally—certain tracks on this new album sound like stuff by Boards of Canada) for the most part A Chorus of Storytellers is dull—unbelievably and disappointingly dull.
Aiming for some sort of ‘rustic’ folk vibe, the band has incorporated violins and other strings more prominently than in the past; unfortunately, they don’t quite have the musicianship needed to pull off the feat. In contrast, the arrangements on albums by, for example, Efterklang—who often work with contemporary composers like Nico Muhly—are far more polished, and showcase influences that range from minimalism to new wave and beyond.
Revisiting The Album Leaf’s enjoyable 2006 album Into the Blue Once Again shows the band once had some skill in crafting enjoyable melodies; now—especially in tracks like “We Are,” which rips off the emotional ‘one-two’ punch of Death Cab For Cutie but whose songwriters lack Ben Gibbard’s knack for compact lyricism, and in the record’s anaemic, uninteresting and seemingly half-formed instrumental opening and closing—they’ve begun to openly display a lack of any sense of shape of discernible structure in many of their songs. Perhaps this uninspired lack of attention to style explains why shows like The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy and CSI have so frequently defaulted to their songs for background music…