Artist of the Month

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August 2015
Simply stated, the music of HMPH! could be described with a term like math rock or experimental jazz fusion. But these terms, while accurate, don’t paint a complete picture of the sounds created by guitarist Ryan Lee Toms and drummer Jonathan Thatch. “Just when you think you got the groove, we switch it up, add a few beats, or throw in a chord from another key,” says Thatch, whose mastery over the drum kit is jaw-dropping. And while rhythmically complex, progressive compositions have become a cornerstone of the math rock genre, HMPH! additionally incorporates elements of jazz, ambient rock, alternative, and metal.
On Friday, the duo will be releasing its debut album Headrush (Haymaker Records), a 36-minute instrumental effort that showcases HMPH!’s dedication to push the envelope while keeping its music interesting. Nine of the 10 songs clock in under 5 minutes, keeping a fresh, brisk momentum for the entirety of the album. The listener has a chance to delve in to each song, but is pulled out before it becomes indulgent or formulaic.
Many of the songs start with a basic guitar riff that is bent and twisted in multiple directions, meandering from its original shape but always returning to it. From a polite jazz lick to a climactic rising arpeggio, Toms designs unpredictable, jagged noises with his guitar. “The harder it is for us to wrap our head around a riff, the more fun it is to write and the more enjoyable it is to dissect as a listener.” His combination of intriguing guitar sounds with Thatch’s intricate drum work shows that they’re very much up to the challenge. “Sometimes it starts with a complicated polyrhythmic drum part from Jonathan and I’ll create a progression to that. Other times, I’ll zone out and write arpeggios while thinking of decrepit medieval castles that kind of remind me of all the video games I played as a kid. Then I bring them to Jonathan.”

At the same time, Thatch is creating his own variegated sounds with just a five-piece drum kit. He often provides a countermelody to Toms’ guitar, building upon dynamic layers with odd meters, polyrhythms, subtle dynamic shifts, and rhythmic intensity. “One quality we strive for is to keep people guessing,” he says. This even includes retooling songs on the spot. “Our songs tend to keep evolving over time. We might be playing a song live and try something new, and we like the new sound so we keep playing it that way. Sometimes we don't even talk about it; we just both know how it goes now.” 

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Album review: The Electric Lungs - Simplified and Civilized

Album review: The Electric Lungs - Simplified and Civilized

Every person that picks up a guitar for the first time does it with at least some amount of notion that it will make them a rock star. After all, any musician who tells you that they never wanted to be Brian May circa 1976 is a goddamn liar. But there comes a time in almost every musician’s life where he or she realizes that dream is just not in the cards. Not for lack of trying or talent, but sometimes that lightning just doesn’t strike. So, what to do? Some go hang up the amplifiers, squirt out four kids, and buy a split level and a Kia. Some go the dreaded, dreaded, dreaded, dreaded cover band route. But the lucky ones are able to realize that there’s so much more to the making and celebration of original music than being uber popular for it. The Electric Lungs are in this wonderful place. They play THEIR music, THEIR expression, stripped of any notion of what it’s “supposed” to sound like. With Simplified and Civilized, they play the role of trendsetters, not trend followers.

The band provides us with ten tracks of energetic, punk-tinged, keyboard rock. Tripp Kirby fronts the bursting arrangements with the overzealous spasticity of a carnival barker. His voice is perfect for these songs, his moments of tenderness and sincerity in songs like “Every Ending” and “Eternal Smile” equally as effective as his red throated scream-singing in “Illium Works” and “(It’s not the) Bones That You Break.” The rhythm section of Marc Bollinger and Eric Jones does more than just lay the foundation. Together they shape and manipulate the dynamics of these songs, building and breaking them down to great effectiveness. The wildcard is the final gloss applied by Jason Ulanet’s keyboard work. Whether synth, horn, or a just simple piano, he further propels these songs into another category. In the end, you end up with something punky, something rockabilly, something proggy, sort of like Yes and Black Flag sharing a Bloody Mary at Brian Setzer’s wine mixer.
“Catching Up” is their take on the good old murder ballad. With equal parts psychopath and bubble gum, The Electric Lungs would like to remind us that under every serial killer there is a sweet little boy. Or something like that.
“Every Ending” is such a beautifully orchestrated song, cleverly organized and woven together perfectly. It is a funky little breath of fresh air in the middle of a wolf pack of punk songs.
“The Shit that I Eat” bursts at the seams, kind of like Sum-41 slave-driving an old-timey jazz band. The sullied horns and old-timey piano provide a wonderful counterpoint to the otherwise straight-forward and shit-kicking punk song beneath.
The album closes with one of the best efforts “Away to Stay (Hey)”. With all cylinders firing at the brink of explosion, this two-and-half-minute song is the perfect amount full of pounding drums, driving bass lines, fierce guitars, howling synths, and group-shouted “heys.”
This is a super strong record from the first strain to the last. The band has managed to take a group of very familiar rock music elements and spin them into something most decidedly new, something most decidedly themselves, something most decidedly The Electric Lungs.
The Electric Lungs will be playing tonight at Coda, after Dolls on Fire and The Hillary Watts Riot. Show starts at 9:30 p.m. All ages, $5. Facebook event page. If you can't make it tonight, they'll be at The Riot Room on Friday, June 7.
--Zach Hodson

Zach Hodson is a monster. He once stole a grilled cheese sandwich from a 4-year-old girl at her birthday party. He will only juggle if you pay him. I hear he punched Slimer right in his fat, green face. He knows the secrets to free energy, but refuses to release them until "Saved by the Bell: Fortysomethings" begins production.

He is also in Dolls on Fire and Drew Black & Dirty Electric, as well as contributing to various other Kansas City-based music, comedy, and art projects.

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