Phil Kay invites escapes, White Reaper isn’t afraid to rawk
King of the Mountains
Phil Kay, the musician behind the one-man band King of the Mountains, has a sign on his wall that reads “Is there another way?” as a sort of perpetual reminder to not go on creative autopilot.
His primarily synthetic debut solo album Zoetrope reflects this by seemingly rebooting for each track, demonstrating freedom from expectations while cramming ideas into each selection.
Kay is best known as a member of the Manchester band Working for a Nuclear Free City, and while his bandmate Gary McClure began to go down the acoustic path, Kay went into the opposite direction with an even more enthusiastic embrace of electronics. It is not the chilly, robotic approach of groups like Kraftwerk; instead, it conveys a sensitivity, often with an almost organic warm glow of a softly hued LED nightlight.
Don’t be mistaken; Zoetrope is not an entirely sedate album, and often it has the momentum of a video game soundtrack, like on the opener “Undone,” with persistent nudges and kinetic motivation.
“Surrounded” envelopes the ears with gentle pulses, adding splashes and the synthetic aural equivalent of dropping things into a frying pan, with some choice notes that bend and yield slightly, bringing to mind Kevin Shields’ diving whammy bar action in My Bloody Valentine.
A few tracks are outwardly dance-oriented, including the brief “Shinkansen,” the click-and-ring-addled, four-on-the-floor insistent beaconing of the title track and the 6/8-time number “Zebra Girls” which seems to fuse mechanic chatterings with something by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The most distinctive song on Zoetrope is “Stranger Things Have Happened,” with loops of squeaky reeds, bells and acoustic guitar motifs, while “Airstrip” invokes a touch of early ’70s Brian Eno/Robert Fripp goodness with glistening ambiance and gliding hums, plus a hi-hat beat keeping things moving instead of drifting into a fog.
One point of comparison would be Caribou, down to Kay sounding somewhat like Dan Snaith’s unobtrusive voice, with nuanced arrangements and inviting escape routes away from any hackneyed electro paths.
The opening track “Cool,” on the Louisville, KY group White Reaper’s self-titled debut EP, hammers away gleefully and persistently on a single chord for a good half-minute before the bass even changes a note; instead of being punishing, it’s an expression of joy and a sign of impeccable timing.
The band gets it right, on its no-fat 6-track jaunt that doesn’t waste a second of its 16-minute running time, with jittery, dirtied-up garage rock; it doesn’t say anything new, but its delivery and aesthetic carry it with an infectious caffeine rush.
Striking a balance with garage rock recordings is difficult—being overproduced (or sounding like you’re trying too hard) is practically a sin, while some semblance of clarity above the “boombox in the basement” low-fidelity approach is needed to do justice to good performances.
Here, the correct approach is used, with the band channeling its live energy with the right amount of distortion, rawness and articulation with regards to sound separation.
White Reaper generally doesn’t mess with the power-punk-pop formula, although a few surprises are welcome, like the slightly goofy yet endearing keyboard solo in “Half Bad” that appears out of nowhere, much earlier than one might expect in a typical pop song structure.
Vocalist/guitarist Tony Esposito sings with a bratty brashness that isn’t overwrought, and among his rhythm guitar chords are a few wailing moments, as if to express that he isn’t afraid to rawk. Bassist Sam Wilkerson follows the chugfest party line with a few melodic diversions, and Sam’s brother Nick on drums is the requisite powerhouse with characteristic piercing crash cymbal hits and downward tom runs.
The EP plows through concise stompers, like “She Wants To,” and adrenaline-fueled, needles-in-the-red numbers like “Conspirator”; if you need a pithy description, White Reaper might be what it sounds like if the members of The Strokes stuck their fingers into electrical outlets.