Stories EP Reviews
So, I'm curious: have you ever seen harp strings stretched 100 feet through and around buildings? What about a tutu-harp? Yes, you heard me. A ballet tutu that's also a harp, and the dancer wearing it plucks the strings with her hands, gongs them with her feet — she literally plays her costume.
String Theory, a hybrid performance ensemble out of L.A., is comprised of across the board talent, from dancers and musicians to set designers and architects. The quote from their bio that really struck me, though, was this: "Architecture is transformed into giant musical instruments, spaces become resonators, and audiences are enveloped in a giant canopy of golden musical brass wire and sound."
Which, of course, is why I researched the extensive press the group has received, leading me to photos of the tutu harp. When I finally dipped into the listening process, I was not surprised to realize that these artists live up to their hype.
"The Story," track number one on Stories, begins with a mystical backdrop of acoustic instrumentals with an emphasis, not surprisingly, on harp. With the entrance of percussion, the tune gathers momentum, setting us up for vocals and a consistent sprinkle of electronic effects. The unexpected chord changes in the chorus—‘cause I do for you/to be true for you,' are supremely satisfying, as they fit with the mellow, contemplative vibe, while at the same time turning our predictions upside down. However, the percussion—its diversity and steadiness—is by far the strongest element of this tune. It's the gravity. It draws everything together, provides a home base for all the other instruments as they wander into the ethereal.
Speaking of ethereal, though the next track, "Sunnylands," is minimalist in comparison to "The Story," it holds fast to the feeling of being enveloped in sound—sound that brings sensation and images along with it. "Sunnylands" is like slow motion journeys through new and astounding forests, leaving us listeners gazing around in wonder. The vocals are sandpapery and low, again providing a gravitational pull to balance out the dreaminess. When the chorus arrives, the scene suddenly changes, offering up a little surprise, a little action. Guitars, strings, and drums take over, jolting us out of the forest, as if we've just seen a lost love, or the city, or the sea.
The next two tracks, "Stones" and "Witch," veer the album onto a more rock-like landscape in very unconventional ways, for better and for worse. "Stones" begins like a secret, a soft conversation between guitars, strings, and echoey drums with a vocal overlay. The harmonies are Elliot Smith inspired, and the combination of it all makes one want to cry, in a good way. However, mid-track, the music does a complete 180 degree turn into classic rock—intense electric guitar solos, hard drums, and vocals that sound more like The Clash stumbled onto the wrong stage. While I appreciate the attempt to be innovative, "Stones" sounds like two different tunes…two that wouldn't necessarily fit beside each other on the album, let alone in the same track.
Unfortunately, the shift in "Stones" doesn't even lead flawlessly into "Witch," which begins with acoustic guitar, strings, and high register vocal harmonies. However, the tunes do mirror each other in terms of structure, suddenly shifting from mellow to angsty/energetic. The transition from one rock subgenre to another in "Witch" is slightly less abrasive and more gradual than in "Stones," mostly because it keeps the a similar rhythmic skeleton throughout, even when the tempo and layers of instrumentation (electronic effects, a wall of drum sound, electric guitars, etc.) increase. Also, the ending is amazing: all strings, all the time—slow and haunting.
And we're back to the great transitions that opened the album. After the lovely string featured ending of "Witch," String Theory places "Energies," which begins with more string features, backed by acoustic guitar and light drums. Perhaps my favorite song on the album, "Energies" perfectly walks the tightrope between classic and alternative rock, with equal parts electric and acoustic, not to mention the delicious transition from soft-edged melancholy in the verses to a more desperation laced chorus, complete with fantastic vocal harmonies. There's also that very short but enticing outside-the-exact-rhythm drum moment toward the end of the tune, just after the vocals cut out, and just before all the other instruments fall away too, leaving us with piano and strings, sometimes in unison, sometimes harmony, but all the time slow and haunting, right up until the album ends.
Original is absolutely the name of String Theory's game, and even in the overly ambitious moments on Stories, there's something to commend, whether it's an interesting instrumental solo or a unique placement of harp or strings. The album certainly lives up to the group's acrobatic reputation, though I will say it's tough to create album fluidity when you're so genre flexible. String Theory will have to put their brilliant noses to the grindstone for a little extra time in that area. But what an inspiring thing they have going, and honestly, if you can make a harp that a dancer can wear and play, if you have the innovation to wind harp strings through/around buildings and put together an interesting, listenable album, you're in the musical genius world to stay. Keep refining each gem, String Theory, and you'll keep exploding our minds.
Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.