Tuesday, September 17, 2019

PREMIERE: Album Review: SWOLL builds Deep lush worlds you want to inhabit on "Unwound"

AP Album Review-

Outer worldly synth sounds march like a light parade while a bass groove moves the air as Matt Dowling's animated vox gyrate from manic intimate hushes to high steps of emotions in trippy and cool ways. It is the opening track L4F from the UNWOUND album by Swoll. It is a dance between a space glam theatrical artifice with wide eyed histrionics and a chill rave of sorts pushed by a killer bass line overlayed with distorted tones either twisted in such a way with an effect or synth mirrored (maybe). However the bass sound is wrought, it is all heady and stunning though. Swoll is the (not so) minamalistic electronic project of the aforementioned Matt Dowling based out of Baltimore.  As the bassist for The Effects, Paperhaus, Deleted Scenes and Joy Buttons he knows how to push out deep lush grooves. Dowling (vocals) along with Erik Sleight (baritone guitar), Zak Forrest (lights) with mellotrons, synths and old drum machines create these trippy sonic landscapes.  For whatever reason, during L4F and some other tracks I flashed on MGMT, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Porches and Chromatics sort of fused together although Swoll feels more underground, much more underground and with a punk / experimental heart. 

It is, as they say, an auspicious, beginning or maybe it should be a Godspicous one because it is a such a heavenly sound and so incredibly addictive. This coming from an atheist but I digress. Each song on UNWOUND begs to be listened to again and again and sort of dissected as these tracks swing in so many delicious ways. Take the timely named track Deep Fake. It sounds so ominous. The beat with machine like tones and percussive little attacks of sound while Dowling reaches higher registers and falsettos. The whole arty affair has the feeling of moving through unknown spaces and peaking around corners but, at the same time, Dowlings melody on the chorus touches on a broken romance kind of tones. The use of these machine like percussive sounds and sort of industrial rock distortions run off and on through this album and are in high effect on Save Face. You can almost see menacing robots in charge with limbs screeching under the strain of movement. Crazy and so sci-fi cinematic. 

The title track Unwound (although earlier in the album) is a swaying satiating drink, a breather from the heaviness to come (?). With synthetic sounds that seems to turn inside out and a kind of slow dance beat, this might have the most dreamy high sound on the album. There are bits of glam in this track. It is easy to imagine smiles on roller skates circling a rink while cascades of square drops of light rain down. The edgy almost 80's synth pop infused Shudder To Think feels like part Giorgio Moroder, part Depeche Mode and part Gary Numan and Waves, again with such a deeply hooky bass line feels playful and full of romance. It is the most pop indulgent track in on the album. The cadence of the vocal melody bounces and then releases in such a wonderful way with synth lines mirroring it. 

Surely Dowling is a world builder when it comes to these song but at their core it is the vocal melodies that are so captivating. Just listening to Setting Sun and imagining it stripped down to some acoustic version and it would still grab you by the shirt collars and pull you in close. Until that happens I will gleefully dance and marvel at the worlds these songs create. Somehow they create that often times lost sense of wonder that is inside all of us, the stuff of dreams that make the harshness of life somehow more bearable. The last track, Where You Go, has both the feel of a final word and a beginning. It is a kind of electronic waltz of sorts with a vocal melody that feels so forlorn, yet hopeful. The bell like keys dance amid the interconnected heavy and metallic sounds and pretty vocal melodies. It is such a beautiful outro but I let it become an interlude back to the beginning. 

Robb Donker

SWOLL is Matt Dowling (vocals), Ben Schurr (bass), Erik Sleight (baritone guitar), Zak Forrest (lights)

Unwound is set to release on Sept 27, 2019 via Blight Records.

(photo courtesy of Kevin Chambers)



Baltimore-based band, SWOLL began releasing music last year (2018) before playing any shows. That collection of recorded material comprised the self-titled debut LP (SWOLL s/t) which largely began as a collaboration between Matt Dowling (the EFFECTS, Deleted Scenes, Paperhaus) and Ben Schurr (Br'er, Luna Honey), who has produced numerous acts under his label/collective Blight. Dowling, who existed almost exclusively as an indie rock bassist in his previous musical life, had began writing songs in full, but was unsure of how to move forward with them. "I felt like what Ben was doing with the Blight Collective was a really good fit with the direction of my songs, and once we started tracking, everything just snapped in place. Even though singing felt super weird to me, the momentum allowed me to get over that and just use my voice as my new weapon."

After touring in 2018 in support of SWOLL s/t with a bass and a baritone guitar churning next to heavy drum tracks coming out of a wall of amps, SWOLL began to be more a band, and less a bedroom recording project. They recruited synth savant Erik Sleight, with whom both Dowling and Schurr had played in previous bands. Also, Dowling brought in lighting artist Zak Forrest to raise the visual stakes from the very first performance. "I've never been in a situation where the music was made first and the live element was second. That sequence was frustrating for me initially, but it also gave me the space to think about presentation way more so than I ever have. And Zak's my not-so-secret weapon for the live presentation. I think of him as a bandmate."

The band is currently on tour to support the eponymous first single from its second album Unwound. "Unwound is my favorite band" says Dowling of the post-hardcore Olympia, WA act which was active largely in the 90s, but never received or desired MTV-level commercial success. "In the last few years, I've thought about them a lot, and I've also thought a lot about how wider musical tastes have shifted in such a large way in recent history. A lot of what SWOLL is about is embracing an electronic/rap framework of producing music, but weaving in the power of rock, primarily as performance art back into it. I feel like a lot of electronic music loses that edge live. To me, Unwound were masters of rock as a performance art form, and that makes me hope people remember them as we forge on into a deeply electronic universe."

In the context of the album, Unwound functions by unfolding into a deep, eclectic soundscape textured  in resonating melodies and honest lyricism, blending together part psychedelic rock with dark electro synth pop. "I also really love the word 'unwound' and it found its way into a lyric." Like the previous record, Dowling deals a lot with philosophical themes which often manifest themselves in the context of modern relationships. Songs like "Setting Sun" and "Deep Fake" evoke themes of longing for a world without the over-communication and smoke-and-mirrors that the internet allows. "Save Face" angrily confronts gentrifiers who complain about the "noisy" conditions of their urban neighborhoods while having minimal understanding or respect for the historical context of those neighborhoods. "I had to learn to scream a bit from playing out live, and that ended affecting my delivery on record, as well as the material that was most effective in this batch of songs."

SWOLL is Matt Dowling (vocals), Ben Schurr (bass), Erik Sleight (baritone guitar), Zak Forrest (lights)

Unwound is set to release on Sept 27, 2019 via Blight Records.

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