Sunday, July 21, 2013

Semeron: Breathing Scarlet

Released in May 2013, Breathing Scarlet is the 2nd full-length album by the Minneapolis rock group Semeron. The album's tunes are deceptively homogenized--moving from track to track with a cohesive sound, yet at the same time containing a huge diversity of riffs, structures, and textures. From the opening quasi-metal instrumental, to the combination of traditional prog and modern rock on "Our Sky," Breathing Scarlet presents a style that tightly and tastefully balances melody, craftsmanship, technical performance, and a mainstream-conscious mentality.

The Track-By-Track:

1. "Afro Blue"
The opening track, "Afro Blue," is a cover of a jazz standard by Mongo SantamarĂ­a. It is only fitting that Semeron, a group that habitually opens their live shows with an instrumental piece, chose this as the album opener. The translation from jazz to metal/hard rock was accomplished without missing a beat, and it seems as legitimate an arrangement as the widely known John Coltrane version of the tune. And while there is no congo improv like the original SantamarĂ­a version, the composition highlights some excellent lead work by guitarist Nick Ford.

2. "Can't Take Me Alive"
Semeron follows contemporary convention by using their most accessible tune as the second track of Breathing Scarlet. "Can't Take Me Alive" features a balance between anthemic motifs and compact arrangement. It's also an excellent song to introduce the group's versatile vocal abilities; Adam Hanson and Jeff Gyllen capture and hold your interest captive from the line "tell the law I'm staying" at 0:29. While the breakdown at 1:23 might strike some as somewhat predictable in its placement, the vocal arrangement is full of dynamics, and leads seamlessly into Nick Ford's energetic lead work. All in all, a great single, and a fitting second track.

3. "Cherry Blossoms"
The third track on Breathing Scarlet is an awesome offering, but takes until about 0:47, the chorus, to really kick in. By the time it does, you'll find yourself moving to the 3/4 groove. The brief interlude at 1:20 features a nice sense of melodicism, and the second verse introduces compelling leads under the vocals, making for a refreshing variation on the verse. The clean guitar passage beginning at 2:40 is beautiful, recalling, if only for a brief moment, classic Opeth-esque  guitar licks. Beginning with clean arpeggios that melt into a chord progression that carries the remainder of the bridge, and continuing through the guitar solo, the second half of the song is one of the strongest moments on the album. "Tilled in sun, we are"…classic!

4. "Trees"  
It's a tree from the land of Oz! No, it's an Ent! Or are trees sick of our pollution, and here to fuck us up?! Whatever the reason, in the universe of Semeron, trees are badass evildoers that need to be stopped!  The narrative that unfolds throughout the song is expertly told, and utterly uncontrived in terms of putting a story to song and having it turn out complete. The opening bass draws you into the dark atmosphere of the story, the group vocals pump you up, and the ever-evolving instrumentation supports the somewhat whacky story in a way that works without a hitch. Adam Hanson does a superb job of narrating, and reminds one, in a good way, of Iron Maiden's "Dance of Death." Luckily for Semeron, their story lacks the extra cheese that gets layered on in traditional heavy metal simply by virtue of genre-specific conventions in performance. "Trees" is not the best track on Breathing Scarlet, but is certainly above average. Highlights of the song are the narrative style, guitar work, and killer chorus. Oh, and the sexy tone of the tom drums in the intro.

5. "Honalee" 
By far, "Honalee" is the strongest song on Breathing Scarlet. Featuring a dynamic coda, passionate vocals, and probably the best reference to past musical royalty that I've heard ("Puff the Magic Dragon" if you didn't catch it), the song travels seamlessly through its ebb and flow of dynamics. It also presents one of the most non-waltzy 3/4 grooves I've ever heard, which is a refreshing change from the 2 kinds of 3/4 grooves one hears in modern rock--the "waltzy one" and the "A Perfect Circle one."  "Honalee" contains the strongest performances of the entire album--rhythm section feels naturally in the pocket, the vocals are amazing, and there are plenty of tasty embellishments on each instrument's parts--Adam, Nick, JR, Jeff, and Jesse all shine on this track. Overall, this tribute to the power of childhood imagination found in the Peter, Paul, and Mary song and the bittersweet coming of age addressed in "Honalee" was executed with taste. I can imagine lots of artists trying to do this and not only failing, but failing miserably. Semeron nailed it. As a side note, "Honalee" has become one of my favorite songs--and not just from this album. For a special treat, get "Puff the Magic Dragon" into your iTunes library and listen to the two back-to-back.

6. "Ship of Fools"
I would cautiously label "Ship of Fools" the weakest track on the album. It has a lot of great moments--Adam's performances during the verses, Nick Ford's very emotive guitar solo, and an infectious hook in the line: "They just want / They just need / Someone to call them beautiful." The song is definitely not filler, but doesn't grab the listener's attention like the other offerings on the album.

7. "Crusher" 
While I must admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am not really into songs with silly lyrics, the general catchiness and balls-out performance of this song make it memorable and appealing. If it isn't apparent immediately with the stone-age thud of the kick drum intro, this tune is a dancer. It has a great groove that sporadically allows lead guitar work to dance on top and around it, and the vocal hook in the chorus is more than just a little memorable. In addition to the strong groove, one highlight of "Crusher" is the well-crafted guitar riffs; though not boundary-pushing, they fit like a glove and carry the tune in concert with Jesse Farrell's solid drum pounding.

8. "Rain"
The eighth track on Breathing Scarlet is one that I had to listen to a few times before getting into, but is undoubtedly a highlight on the album. For listeners who enjoy mutating dynamics, this song presents an appealing rising and falling dynamic rhythm. Starting at 1:58, the song shifts gear. Ethereal guitar arpeggios give way to a collage of vocal parts and a hypnotically headbang-able syncopated rhythm that serves as a canvas for Nick Ford's lead work. After numerous listens, it seems like the song could have ended strongly without the final chorus, but any way you arrange it, it has an epic close.

9. "Prelude in E Minor"
"Prelude" is tasteful little ditty that serves as the perfect segue into "Our Sky." This track is enjoyable particularly because it has ample breathing room to explore the atmosphere clean guitar passages can provide. If the brief passages of soft guitar work in previous tracks left you wanting more, "Prelude in E minor" is your chance to soak it up!

10. "Our Sky"
After "Honalee," "Our Sky" is the strongest track on Breathing Scarlet. It serves, perhaps predictably, as the album's epic closer, but does not fail to satisfy. Adam and Jeff nail the vocals. What I appreciate most about this track is that, while the originality of other tracks on this album is sometimes partially concealed by song structure, "Our Sky" showcases Semeron opening up compositionally. To be clear, the songwriting here is just as tight as their other songs, and can be appreciated by even those who are typically puzzled when presented with compositions that evolve as they unfold. The net effect of "Our Sky" is uplifting and inspirational, again, thanks largely to the vocal performance of Adam and Jeff. When listening to the album in its entirety, "Our Sky" is the perfect closing track. This is not because it is the "epic closer," but because it completes the picture of what Semeron is capable of as performers and composers.

Standout Performances:
Vocals: "Can't Take Me Alive," "Trees," "Honalee," "Crusher," "Rain," and "Our Sky"
Bass: "Afro Blue," "Trees," "Honalee," "Crusher," and "Our Sky"
Drums: "Afro Blue," "Trees," "Honalee," "Crusher,""Rain," and "Our Sky"
Guitar: "Afro Blue," "Can't Take Me Alive," "Trees," "Honalee," "Crusher," "Rain," and "Our Sky"

The production on Breathing Scarlet offers a solid, clear, contemporary-sounding mix. My only complaint is that there is a bit too much compression and limiting placed on the snare drum and guitars, particularly the leads. The rhythm guitars hit hard and crunch with the best of them, but the relatively thin lead tones do not live up to the rich treatment of other instruments (especially the lucid and tasteful vocal mixing), and tend to hamper the ability of JR and Nick to shine in lead contexts. It's as if, in the many moments they are shining, some aspect of the production has placed a filter on their obviously strong performances. Despite this one drawback, the overall production is appealing and reveals the work that went into the album.

Stand-Out Tracks:
"Afro Blue"
"Can't Take Me Alive"
"Our Sky"

Recommended?  YES! Support this band!

Semeron is:
Adam Hanson - vocals
Jeff Gyllen - bass, vocals
Jesse Farrell - drums
Nick Ford - guitar
J.R. Westberg - guitars

Semeron website: