I have been doing EvilSponge for a while now. People mail me records to listen to so that i can comment on them. This benefits me because it saves money while allowing me to hear lots of new music. There is a slight "echo chamber" effect in that i end up getting sent things similar to what i have already reviewed, and so i review more of the same thing.
In the fall of 2013, shortly before i headed on my first ever trip to their home country of France, International Hyper Rythmique sent me their second album. I listened to it. I made some notes. I got distracted by other things, but this record stayed in my "to be reviewed" queue...
I am always trying to clear out that queue, either with giving up on a review or going ahead and finishing the damned thing. In order to decide what to do, i went and poked around on the internet for recent info about IHR. I hate to finish a review and find that the band is broken up, but i have done that for exceptional releases…. I found no new information about IHR, but i did discover that they use a quote from my review of debut Uncity Nation in their Bio on their website. Huh.
Okay, well, given that the band have actually read what i have written and decided to send me their latest release, i should at least try and write something about it.
The first thing i have to say is what i wrote after the first few listens and which has stayed with me ever since. Below Sea Level is a good, moody pop record, but is not as stunning as their debut album was. Call it the traditional sophomore slump, but their second record just seems more unfocused and less catchy than the previous record.
That is not to say that it is a weak album. It still features the breathy and accented voice of Laurence Marital-Guilhem, the great guitarwork of her brother Jean, and the able backing of their sister Claire. If anything, Jean is maturing into quite the talented guitarist. Also, Claire's electronics, bass, and drumming are growing in complexity. So the siblings are maturing as musicians, which is good.
The record starts off with an old school trip-hop number called Cowboy. This could have been a Lamb tune, with distorted guitars, wailing voice, and electronic beats that shatter and burst. It seems kind of generic for trip-hop though. This would fit on half a dozen CDs i own.
Marble Giant is more reminiscent of their previous work. Laurence really takes the lead, singing breathily over light guitar and xylophone. It grows slowly, and i think her brother actually adds backing vocals. Huh. If you liked their first album, you will like this tune.
Caravan is a great indie rock tune. I like the rhythm provided by guest drummer Julien Barbagallo. It pairs nicely with Claire's burbling bass and Jean's jangly guitar.
Vertigo is a little harder for them. The guitars are kind of distorted, grinding a little under those laconic Gallic rhythms. I like this one. Stone and Dust is slow, sparse, the opposite of what came before it. It builds to a slow climax like a recent Robin Guthrie tune.
Seagull comes across as another trip-hop track, with tremoloed guitar, bubbling synths, and a finger-snapped rhythm.
IHR channel Interpol on Spike Heel, another tune featuring guest drummer Barbagallo. Jean's guitar is turned up and trebly like Interpol, and Laurence really lets go, wailing away. This is a good sound for them.
IHR give us an ode to Marilyn Monroe next in Norma Jeane. Apparently the lyrics here are things Marilyn had written... Huh. It's a decent tune -- the music is pretty sparse with Jean picking out slow arpeggios while keyboards cascade. I guess Ms. Monroe's lyrics are supposed to be the standout part here, which is why the accompaniment is a little anemic. I think that IHR could do better, personally...
And they do on New Page. This is a very untypical song for them: Laurence's voice is heavily echoed and distant, like she is far away and screaming, painfully, achingly. A bare drum beat taps, then the guitar tinkles in, plaintive. This is a sad slow song, but it moves along nicely. Very different. I don't hear a lot of songs like this, and they really pull it off.
A Little Song is another sparse tune, similar to Marble Giant, with Clare adding a thunking bass line that reminds me of the latest record by The xx.
And finally things wrap up with a long (over five minutes, which is long for them) ambient tune called The Boat. It starts with a long slow intro of Jean strumming lightly accompanied by a horn in the background, and then Laurence comes in and The tune picks up a little. I like the sparse strummed guitar part Jean plays, while a faint keyboard drones and the drummer starts slowly, then accelerates... This is a cool tune and in a way is like the midpoint between July Skies and Robin Guthrie.
So, this is not a bad album by any stretch. It does not wow me like their first album did, but it continues to entertain. I wonder what the Marital-Guilhems will do next!