Drawing from the atmosphere and restraint of Pink Floyd,
the electronic wizardry of Radiohead, the anthemic arena
rock of U2, and the quiet-loud dynamics that have been
a hallmark of mainstream rock since The Pixies and Nirvana,
Portland-based Stars Of Track And Field is an intriguing
hybrid of straight-ahead rock and digital experimentation. With
its often stellar - and often frustrating - debut, Centuries
Before Love And War, the band offers a number of truly captivating
songs, and a handful of tracks that play like less-impressive
rewrites of those standouts. Even the album's most transcendent
moments show a tendency towards formulaic songwriting and overly
professional arrangements, but the record remains an ambitious,
inventive introduction to a band capable of much more.
Centuries is an intricately recorded affair that showcases
a band capable of both electronic experimentation and dynamic
rock and roll. In the band's online biography, guitarist and vocalist
Jason Bell said that he and his bandmates "(think)
in bleeps and blurps these days as much as
in rhythms and
melodies." Interestingly, their original intention wasn't
to make records like these: when their bass player left the band,
they chose to go the digital route rather than find a replacement.
So, amidst all their digital experiments, Stars Of Track And Field
remains a rock band - the old-fashioned guitar solos and live
drums are added to the mix with remarkable fluidity.
Among a handful of standout tracks, there is one truly great
song on Centuries Of Love And War, the moving "Lullabye
for a G.I. / Don't Close Your Eyes." Despite its concise
running time, the song feels like an epic, telling the story its
title implies with spare and affecting poetry. The song also underlines
one of the band's greatest strengths - hypnotic, minimalist refrains
that manage to evoke emotions with the simplest of lyrics. Opening
track "Centuries" is also fascinating, a mini-opus complete
with shifts in dynamics and a collage of impressive melodies.
The minimalist "Movies Of Antarctica" shows the band
at its most reserved and experimental, and serves as a telling
example of the band's lyrical approach. The song offers poetic
sketches with the simplicity of a haiku poem: "Movies of
Antarctica / I'm colder now, I'm standing still / About the day
your parade would stay / Watch, watch them smile."
The band provides much-needed levity with "Fantastic,"
a song that features the kind of upbeat pop-rock that could have
relieved some of the weight of the record's ambitions. It also
brings the album's shortcomings sharply into focus - the dense
musical arrangements are often difficult to take, primarily because
Bell and lead vocalist Kevin Calaba seem to aim for the
restraint of bands like Pink Floyd, but often come off as humorless
and calculated. All of the band's songs follow roughly the same
structure, and at times seem almost interchangeable. Their reliance
on an admittedly impressive formula isn't always a problem, but
songs like the forgettable "U.S. Mile 5" make it all-too-clear
that the band may need to expand its sonic palette the next time
Stars Of Track And Field have all the tools for indie - and perhaps
even mainstream - success, but for now they remain a bit of an
enigma. Centuries Before Love And War is an often fascinating,
always distinctive piece of work, but the band comes dangerously
close to treading water over the course of just ten succinct songs
- despite its ambitions, the record remains curiously one-dimensional.
If the band's outlook is any indication, though, the future is
bright. "We're still a really young band in terms of playing
together, so we'd like to think that our best days are ahead of
us," Bell said in the band's online bio. "We're still
trying to figure out what the hell we're doing." Let's hope
that, next time around, the band fulfills the potential sketched
out on this promising debut.
2. Moving Of Antarctica
3. With You
4. Lullabye for a G.I. / Don't Close Your Eyes
5. Real Time
7. U.S. Mile 5
8. Say Hello
9. Exit The Recital
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