Self-released in November of 2013, Roaming Herds of Buffalo’s Alien Canyons is the band’s second release to date. The Seattle-based group has described this outing as a “collaborative project” in their web-based press kit, although I’m not sure what to conclude from this vague statement. Maybe everyone played everything and everyone got songwriting credits? Maybe the band considers these types of details irrelevant? In any case, all members are active in other projects, and there seems to be a broad spectrum of different/differing influences present.
The record kicks off with the brief “Wild Oats” – strummed chords and tin-can-telephone vocals introduce the album’s prevailing aesthetic, while cryptic lyrics present its consistent thematic content. The follow-up is the album’s title track, which provides a pretty good idea of what to expect during the remaining songs: basic but competent drumming, a chorus of voices on the chorus, and spare but effective vocal harmonies. From here on instrumentation is added gradually (keys/synth/horns, etc.) although the overall lighthearted tone belies the (at times) dark lyrical musings.
Many songs are well-structured, featuring tasteful instrumental breaks and a few nice dynamic contrasts. Still, the lead vocals (read: delivery bordering on emo) and production seem very early-2000s to me, and I wonder whether or not this was intentional, as the whole thing sounds more dated than contemporary. Maybe I was just expecting a more psychedelic sound given the subject matter?
For instance, by the time we reach “Aerial Insight”, some lyrical themes are beginning to emerge. The album features numerous references to metals, dinosaurs, constellations, and flesh/skin. Even more specifically, there is continuous mention of leaving one’s mark or communicating via script, scribbles, etching, carving, etc. What does is all mean, man?
This is also a good time to make mention of the fact that the record’s accompanying comic book illustrations by Seattle artist Darin Shuler are often quite literal, but mostly hilariously gruesome – my favourite is probably the visual for “Extinction Buzz”, which brings to life the instruction (command?) to “zest a tyrannosaurus rex on your salad” – poor T. Rex never saw it coming. As in most tracks on the recording, lyrics are repeated, although I dunno if this is for emphasis or just to fill space.
Now, I suppose this collection of songs is meant to be listened to as An Album, and therefore production ought to be consistent throughout. One disadvantage of this is that there’s so little variety that many of the tracks sound the same – to the point that I even started to feel like every song was in the same key, or at least sounded like it was. Occasionally something crops up to differentiate one track from the rest, as in the foreboding guitar line that leads into a menacing instrumental break in “Glitter Mastodons”, one of the album’s most ambitious tracks (musically speaking). The studio noise intro and doo-wop-esque backing vocals on “Neutrinos” are fun, too, and the fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar is probably my favourite part of the album.
All told, this is a fun record with a few interesting elements, although it might have benefitted from greater variety in terms of vocal melodies, instrumentation, song structure, etc. This makes the whole package more arresting lyrically and thematically than it is musically. There are some great lines here and whoever wrote the lyrics is clearly a lover of language – yes, we can tell that the band members “like to read”. Many lyrics seem to draw inspiration from poetry more than anything else, although what do I know?
If you’re in the mood for something super poppy-sounding, it’s worth a listen, and the lyrical content and illustrations add some extra interest to an album that’s maybe not the world’s most exciting musically. Since it seems that every generation is destined to believe that the apocalypse will occur in their lifetime, may as well indulge in some dark imagery and self-conscious weirdness.
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