Albums Review: Atsuko Chiba – Trace

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Band: Atsuko Chiba | Album: Trace | Genre: Progressive rock, Math rock, Post-punk, Post-rock | Year: 2019

From: Montreal, Canada | Label: Mothland

For fans of: The Physics House Band, The Mars Volta, early Portugal. The Man, Cardiacs

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

The 1980s produced a lot of very good music. I’ve got a soft spot for some synthpop, and I love genres like new wave and post-punk. However, that decade, particularly its latter half, was not especially kind to progressive rock. In the current musical landscape, though, both progressive rock and post-punk are on the cultural and creative upswing. Occasionally, there is the rare nexus of both those genres’ revivals. Atsuko Chiba are one such nexus.

On Trace, their second full-length release, this Quebecois quintet lean into the dark, jagged rhythms of bands like Joy Division and Wire while mixing these influences with the complexity and technicality of math rock. Ample synthesizers, inventive melodies, and nonlinear song structures add to their prog bona fides.

“A Heretic of Arrogance”, the album’s opener, is full of dark and moody keys. The guitars alternatingly slash, anxiously slink along, and soar with the best that post-rock has to offer. This song almost feels as if it could be the backdrop for some grim sci-fi film with its tense atmosphere and gradual build.

The two-part “Pawn to King” is a study in musical contrasts. The first half glides along at a slow tempo, with  an echoed ambiance and dispirited lyrics. Part two, though, opens with irregular, high-energy guitars in a jumpy, stuttering rhythm. Around the midway point, it becomes a punky, buzzing hard-rocker. This pair of songs is a fantastic showcase for the band’s skills as both songwriters and instrumentalists.

“Dry Ice” is another highlight, featuring a jazzy, funky feeling which almost reminds me of jam bands like Aqueous or Umphrey’s McGee. The song closes on an extended instrumental section which includes descending guitar and synth lines, backed with a brass section. The clear standout from this album, though, is the closing “New Folds”. It’s the most consistently-aggressive song on the album, with some of its most overt punk influences, and the outro very effectively builds an eerie feeling.

Not everything on this album necessarily works.  The two shortest songs on the album, “Sometimes All You Need Is” and “Hold On”, feel unnecessary. I can understand the ideas behind them – palette cleansers before longer pieces – but they meander unimpressively. “Captain Colair” has a decent second half, but it takes a long time to get going. Much of that first half (and some of the second) feels like an unimaginative retread of a lot of post-rock.

Traces is a strong album which manages to successfully blend the sounds of progressive rock and post-punk. Flashes of math rock, psychedelic rock, and post-rock show up here and there, and Atsuko Chiba’s use of texture is quite skillful.

Score: 82/100

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