I’ll be right upfront about it: this album has totally blown me away.
Now for the caveats: there are some disposable tracks on here, there is one track which sticks out for not belonging, and there are even some sections which I find grating and annoying–BUT!!–This disc has at least 6 tracks on it which are, if I had to pick one word, inspirational. And that’s a big compliment. I use the word inspirational in the sense that as a musician, listening to this album makes me want to run off and try to make music that sounds like this does. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; I’d like to spend a while flattering The Flashbulb.
Okay, so funny thing is, I went through this guy’s back catalog (partway) and didn’t really find ANYTHING similar to this album, or that really moved me much at all. That seems strange to me. I can’t remember the last time I discovered a badass new artist and it was ONLY their most recent disc that interested me. But that would seem to be the case here. Let’s start with the good stuff:
Tracks 5 through 9 are a fucking masterpiece. They vary in genre… wildly. “Meadow Crush” (5) has gentle strings and some pleasantly-chill guitar playing over a bed of very active electronic drums which I’d place in the IDM category. “A Raw Understanding” (6) takes things up a notch with a fuzzy driving rhythm guitar background and in-your-face drums with lots of stutter effects, slicing and chopping. This track definitely qualifies as “breakcore” and it’s a well-done example. Intense, but not over-the-top or grating to listen to, the way breakcore can be. The sparse instrumental work over the top of this madness really lends a triumphant, masterful feel to the sum total. At the end of the track, there’s a mellow piano outro which lets you down easy; it lets you way, *WAY* down into track 7, “Dread, Etched in Snow”. It’s essentially piano only, with a delicate bed of electronic murmuring blurred out behind it.
Track 8, “A Million Dotted Lines” comes in with a gentle, cascading synthesizer which gets filled out with some pads and a sparse but well-crafted melody. The feel of this song (and the previous one) is almost kind of nostalgic or wistful. It delves into some lush, reversed-sounding echos before a fading off into the distance, carrying us into my favorite track:
“Once Weekly” (9) opens up with mellow pads establishing the chords. Before long, a kaleidescope of glitch-esque electronic drums buzzes and crackles to life, in some of the most badass drum sequencing work I’ve heard since Telefon Tel Aviv. It’s a mind-boggling cacophony of sound that fizzles and bubbles away over the smooth calm of the continuing pads and strings. At 2:27 there is a piano breakdown that just hits me so hard. Like a ton of bricks. Emotional bricks. It sounds like a melody you once heard but forgot, narrowly existing in some faint memory. It’s gorgeous. I have not been able to stop listening to this track. The finely-crafted drums, the delicate and emotive piano playing… awesome. Just. Awesome.
As for the rest of Arboreal, there are some other decent tunes on here as well. 1, 2, 10, and 11 are good, 13 starts out neat then gets too heavy handed for me, and 14, 15, and 17 are great tunes I really enjoy as well.
Now for the bad:
Anytime he gets heavy with the guitar distortion, I don’t know, a voice in my mind just goes “NEXT.” Maybe I don’t dig his tone, or maybe I’m just oversaturated and therefore ridiculously picky when it comes to hard-guitar music. In any event, tracks 3, 4, and 16 just are not for me. Dislike. And then there’s track 12, “The Great Pumpkin Tapes” which is, exactly as you might guess, music from the Charlie Brown Halloween special. My reaction to it now, having listened several times, is precisely the same as my initial reaction: “what the hell is this doing on this record??” It’s well done and all but it’s just… baffling. It doesn’t fit in, at all, and it jolts you out of the album. Suddenly you’re straight up listening to a jazz rendition of Charlie Brown. No. I love B-Sides, but this is a B-Side that doesn’t belong, and consequently detracts from the whole.
So! To recap, Arboreal is an album with badass electronic drum programming of the highest degree. It doesn’t upend Telefon Tel Aviv as the champs of wild sequencer masterworks, but it does do something they don’t: bookends, and in some sections overlaps, intense, high-minded IDM/breakcore drums with sweeping, organic piano and synths. This unusual combination of high electronica against the very rich, “real” tones of gentle instrumental work is what makes this disc very much worth a listen. And it it’s most glorious moments, worthy of emulation.
I’m going to give this disc two scores: if you cut it down to just tracks 1,5,6,7,8,9,14 and 15 then I would give it probably a 9.2/10. If you include the whole album, Maybe more like a 7 or 6.5/10. When it falters, I kinda groan, but at it’s peak, I’m utterly enthralled. Give it a spin and judge for yourself!