Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlotte's Ancient Cities celebrates debut album tonight

Ancient Cities released its self-titled album earlier this week and celebrate the release tonight at Visulite. 

The first single and the album's opening track "Juice" marries a jamming, bluesy boot stomper with the haunting element that colors much of the album. "Juice" sounds like it was accidentally left off a Black Keys record, but that's not necessarily an indication of who Ancient Cities is or where its self-titled album goes next. 

With a looping carnival feel, handclaps, and subtle banjo, the second track, "Novella," is like the musical equivalent to steampunk (think Victorian cowboys in space or Jules Vern-meets-"Hellboy 2: The Golden Army"). Much like band leader Stephen Warwick's solo album "Talking Machine" and his previous band Secondhand Stories, Ancient Cities conjures dust bowl carnivals and late `60s and `70s psychedelic folk-rock while managing to sound current. 

The song “Station” glides on hippie folk harmonies delivered in a British lilt that place it somewhere between Nick Drake and the Beatles, but then the horns come in and take you out of that mindset and directly into the next track. I'm a visual listener and my mind jumps to new scenes with each track. Am I watching minstrels outside a medieval castle as the court is introduced in "Ostinato in D Major?" Or, as the next horn-led song "Edie Sedgwick" indicates, am I in Central Park sunning in the early `70s? Wherever it takes me, there's something natural, woodsy, and pastoral about Ancient Cities. Maybe its the root in folk music and storytelling, which is never overshadowed by production or more modern electronic instrumentation.

"Werewolf" kicks off side 2 (the record is available on vinyl). With direct, wordy phrasing the standout track lays restrained beats and quirky synth over a folk-based story song that plays up that aforementioned darker, haunting side. It's usually a friendly haunting by the way, created largely in the arrangements and through production that's not afraid to give the songs space and airiness. 

"Velvethead" and the final track "Wild" finds the band back in the pastoral countryside. The former glides on flowery finger picking, trippy synthesizers, and high harmonies singing of a creature in the night. Darker themes of monsters and transformation give way to a more uplifting end in "Wild" which swells from delicate strumming, piano, and distant vocals to a kaleidoscope circus of big, bounding orchestral indie-rock.

Warwick and New Familiars' Justin Fedor have been playing as Ancient Cities for a couple of years now having added Noises 10's Jonathan Erickson (and a cast of guest musicians from cellists and horn players to members of Matrimony for the album). It's nice to see a band taking its time with a project. That care is evident in the arrangements, the layers, and the songwriting. With their collective experience Ancient Cities could've thrown something together quickly, but it's debut benefits from the slow build
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Saturday's show at Visulite with Sam the Lion and Batsheet begins at 9:30, admission is $8. A free art show featuring Warwick's collages opens at 7 p.m.