The Appleseed Cast

Low Level Owl: Volumes I & II

Written by: DR on 07/08/2012 16:44:03

With their debut "The End of Ring Wars", and its follow up "Mare Vitalis", The Appleseed Cast announced themselves as pretenders to an emo sound at the end of the 90s, a time when it had already been championed/perfected by the likes of Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, and The Promise Ring. Then in 2001, with "Low Level Owl", they released their third/fourth album, a work that would not only see them shake off the shackles of that sound, but help define a new one, and a new generation of indie music.

While this record's predecessors are definitely not bad albums, they had an over-zealousness to be technical and cathartic which made them, at times, feel like hangovers of that 90s scene. Though the potential was clearly there in the musicianship, they just hadn't worked out how to focus it.

Then "Low Level Owl" was released. While it maintained their intricate approach to instrumentation and song-structures, they had largely done away with their vocal and lyrical overzealousness in favour of a more measured approach. Indeed, so much so that the vocals here are actually buried in the mix, certainly making the lyrics difficult to understand at times - but this was the point. It exerts a control that its predecessors didn't seem to have; every note, effect, and vocal has been carefully plucked and placed in regards to how it will contribute to not only the songs themselves, but the album as a cohesive art. With not so much emphasis on vocal catharsis, instead focusing on creating staggeringly beautiful soundscapes that each element and instrumention must contribute to, the overall composition and production flourish. They even extended their musical pallet to include a strong ambient/electronic element in their music. This sound was ultimately the making of them.

The two-track opening is among the finest executions of a one/two introductory departure from a band's new sound into their new one that I've ever heard. The layers of warming synths and guitars gently initiate you with the ambient opening, "The Waking of Pertelotte", guiding you into the cradling epic, "On Reflection". Building on the technical prowess of their former selves, especially the sensational drumming of Josh Baruth, the sublime production focuses on the overall sound as opposed to a particular element, ultimately meaning they paint a stunning soundscape of layered guitars, effects, choral vocals, and electronics, all flowing together patiently towards a crescendo that isn't so much climactic as it is consoling.

Though tilted slightly towards slower, wonderfully crafted ambient/post-rock pieces, such as "Birds of Paradise", "Convict" and "View of a Burning City", that are more affecting compositions, there are 'heavier' numbers, such as "Steps and Numbers", "Blind Man's Arrow" and "Mile Marker", that call effortlessly back to their emo roots without sounding out of place and without sacrificing on newer elements. In particular, "Steps and Numbers" stands a milestone of how to juxtapose dynamic infectious chorus melodies with spacious post-rock melodies. A wave-like flow is perfected throughout between the slow-burners, vaguely emo offerings and intervals connecting them, and as a result the pacing of both discs is impeccable.

The second volume, connected with the distorted "View of a Burning City (Reprisal)", leads more into the more instrumental of the two discs. Though unquestionably the second half of the greater whole, it's more subdued than even the first disc. The first half of "Volume Two" isn't quite so dense in sound as the second half, allowing for intoxicating post-rock melodies to come to the fore in efforts like "A Place In Line" and "Strings". However, it's not until the epic centrepiece, "Rooms and Gardens", that the marriage between the post-rock and ambient styles begins to take hold. When the crescendo arrives after a (what is now) typical guitar-centric, vocal-laden rise and fall build up, it isn't a typical squealing-guitars-type affair, but layers of derformed keyboards combining with soaring guitar melodies to create something unique and awesome.

With no attention on either particular style, but instead the overall compositions, thereafter "Low Level Owl" becomes a lesson in how to fully realise the potential of combining both electronic and guitar music. Staggered six-minute drum-machine heavy 'interlude' "Ring Out The Warning Bell" melts into the effervescent "Sunset Drama King"; the poise between the repeated guitars tones overlying summery keyboards in "The Last In A Line" are infectious; the sudden drop in mood for "Decline" and then "The Argument" is something of a surprise, but the droning reverb smothering the hauntingly beautiful vocals for the latter fortunately doesn't overstay its welcome. Rather, it eases you into the reactionary unashamedly pop-y effort "Reaction", and finally into the only fitting way this affair could end: "Confession". Not a grand statement or over-blown epic, but a masterfully composed electronic gem; the brilliance of which lies in the subtle dynamic shifts from the guitar-based opening to the ambient centrepiece, to the slowly stretching layers that absorb you as they threaten a never-arriving crescendo.

It seems I cannot listen to a release that combines indie, emo, and post-rock without hearing or referencing to The Appleseed Cast; "Low Level Owl", their masterpiece, is the reason why. An ability to tie these styles together seamlessly as though they should never have been separated, along with their unaffected fusing of electronic elements, set The Appleseed Cast part from any comtemporaries they may have had. You may not have heard it tens years ago, but this re-release offers no excuse as to why you can afford to miss out on it now. Though no blanket term is acute enough to describe the genre they created for themselves, the influence and legacy of The Appleseed Cast still resonates today in the greater music community.

Download: On Reflection, Steps and Numbers, View of a Burning City, Rooms and Gardens, Confession
For The Fans of: American Football, Mineral, Explosions in the Sky
Listen: Bandcamp

Release Date 23.10.2001 (re-issued 26.10.2011)
Deep Elm Records

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