Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

While Ester Drang may not have discovered the full extent of their experimental side, like fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips, they have managed to continue on the journey they started with their 2001 debut Goldenwest. And they’ve never sounded better. Like so many other bands at the moment, Ester Drang embrace the swooping soundscapes that were once favoured by Swervedriver and Sianspheric and their ilk. There’s also a healthy dose of The Bends-era Radiohead thrown into the mix too. Infinite Keys manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that other similar records end up in thanks to shorter songs which keep the meandering to a pleasant minimum. That doesn’t mean that the songs don’t have enough time to build up and shift moods because somehow Ester Drang have managed to make a 40-minute album that feels longer. But in a good way. The production does feel a little too lush at times though, with the string section in particular bordering on overwhelming the proceedings on occasion. Still, for the most part, Infinite Keys is a very good album and a welcome addition to Jade Tree’s roster.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Infinite Keys is wonderfully orchestrated melodies conveyed with a beautiful array of instrumentation that’s a custom of Ester Drang: drums, bass, guitar, Fender Rhodes, various percussion, strings, and other samples and keyboards.

Don’t think it to be mundane, however, as their Jade Tree debut is a more focused and arresting set of songs. They’ve created haunting cinematic soundscapes that wash over you as dramatic moods lull and inspire.

With Infinite Keys , Ester Drang have proven once again that they are most deserving of your attention.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Nebraska has seen its fair share of quality indie acts making the pages of many a music magazine as of late, with all of the Saddle Creek bands blowing up (Bright Eyes, the Faint, Cursive, Rilo Kiley). But just a little bit south and to the left of the radar lie Oklahoma and Texas, which have been stating thier cases long before this crew gained a shred of attention. Think the Flaming Lips. Think Spoon. And more recently Trail of Dead, The Gloria Record, Explosions in the Sky, the Starlight Mints, the Polyphonic Spree… Well, get out the chalk and make another mark on the base of the oil tower ‘cause there’s another one from the Southwest that’s comin’ out of the woodwork.

This time they’re called Ester Drang, a four-piece out of Broken Arrow, OK, who are just doing their part to continue this recent tradition. While they might not garner as much critical praise as Omaha-native Conor Oberst has and will continue to do, they are still making quite a name for themselves with this, their second full-length and first release on the Jade Tree label, entitled “Infinite Keys.” It also helps that they’ve been rubbing elbows on the road with the likes of Pedro the Lion and American Analog Set.

The band earns my respect for producing the album on their own, but this time around they’ve enlisted the help of Chris Colbert on the mixing board. You may recognize that name or at least some of his previous credits. Colbert’s been at the helm of more than one notable record, including but not limited to the Lassie Foundation’s Pacifico and the Prayer Chain’s Mercury, a couple of my personal favorites. More recently, he’s worked with Zachary Gresham’s Summer Hymns and Elf Power. Colbert is a former member of the late-80s’ Breakfast with Amy and the 90s’ Duraluxe, as well as having helped to sculpt albums by Morella’s Forest, Joe Christmas and the Billions.

All this talk about Chris C. is not to take away from what Ester Drang themselves have brought to the table with this one. I only mention it to point out that after working with all these bands, Colbert was asked in an interview with what some of his favorites were. The first thing to come out of his mouth was, “I’m really proud of my mix on the new Ester Drang, [Infinite Keys]. A great record”. And he’s absolutely right. It is a great record.

After cultivating their sound for eight years now, have come up with an album that’s quite beautiful, equally haunting and yet gorgeous. It induces daydreams. It causes everything around you to disappear. It’s an expansive canvas for you to paint over with your imagination.

It would be quite difficult to evaluate each track on this album, or at least to highlight the ones that stand out. Because I don’t know if any of them do that very much at all. Don’t get the wrong idea here. In many cases, this could be viewed as a liability, but in this case it could be viewed as a great asset. The songs all gel together to form a wonderful whole, without getting boring. Some lull you to sleep. Some make you want to reach for the heavens. One makes you feel like your stretching backwards on a bed of clouds. The next makes you feel like you’re soaring and weaving through them. At some point, you may feel like you are slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean. At another point, you can picture yourself being tossed against the shore alongside a torrent of foam. The album actually ebbs and flows much like the sea.

In order to create this cascading deluge of sound while holed up in a Denton, TX studio for 10 days, the band utilized a slew of equipment (as noted on their website): several sets of drums, four Fender amps, a loud bass amp, guitars, basses, a sampler, a Rhodes piano, a mini-Korg keyboard, a wurlitzer, and a vibraphone, all pushed through what seems like an arsenal of effects pedals and computer software. Add to this a string quartet and it’s no surprise that this album sounds so dense and encompassing. Oh, let’s not forget one of the bands most valuable instruments either. That would be Bryce Chambers’ voice. I don’t want to come off sounding metrosexual or anything (I know, I know – I’m kidding), but his voice is quite breathtaking and beautiful.

It took some time to notice, but after listening to Infinite Keys quite a bit, I finally began to recognize some referential similarities. On “One Hundred Times”, for instance, I can quickly call to mind Radiohead’s floating-above-the-earth’s-surface “Exit Music (For A Film)”. It actuallys seems pretty obvious throughout this album that the Drang are big fans of OK Computer-era Radiohead. Other times I recalled Mineral’s End Serenading. Ester Drang don’t really sound like Mineral at all (more like TGR); they just stir up the same kind of feelings I get when I listen to that record. There’s probably not many out there that will get this next comparison, but they also remind me of a small Hendersonville, TN band I was fortunate enough to uncover a few years back called Harmonium (sp?), who happened to be big Spiritualized fans.

Anyway, at no point did I think that these guys came off as a ripped off imitation of any of these bands. Like I said, it took some time for me to figure this out. Instead, any respect they may have for these groups has simply been used as one small ingredient that they’ve incorporated into their grandiose recipe. This album is all their own, and I’d be damned proud of it if I were them. It’s divine.

score: 8.0 out of 10

reviewed by: Brett.Andrew.Miotti

‘Bout time this band got some more attention in the indie rock world. "Infinite keys" is this Oklahoma quartet’s debut for Jade Tree Records. This isn’t much of a departure from the band’s last full length on Burnt Toast Vinyl, however the majority of the songs on this newest disc are a bit shorter and more formulaic than it’s predesessor.

This isn’t a bad thing, but some fans may be surprised by the change in song lengths. At any rate, ester drang still create beautifully layered landscapes of sound. Attached to lazy beats that make your head bob you’ll find bass, guitar, rhodes and the occasional spattering of saxophone or instruments not included in the band’s standard arsenal.

The disc starts off with the almost chaotic sounding "temple mount" then from there steadies itself on a path of melancholy/dreamy atmosphere. Lyrically the album seems anchored around the band’s spiritual beliefs without coming off as Jim Bakker-esque.

[B]Ester Drang[/B] [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review


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Blending an ethereal space-like ambience with lush, layered guitars, Tulsa natives Ester Drang draw upon the shoegazer aesthetic. Infinite Keys gracefully moves with a solid direction that was missing from their epic-driven 2001 debut Goldenwest, giving a near flawless presentation. Electronic textures ebb and flow around soft acoustics while Bryce Chambers’ boyish vocal charm echoes the Ocean Blue’s Dave Schelzel, particularly on the bittersweet "If They Only New." "No One Could Ever Take Your Face" and "All the Feeling" evoke a quirky familiarity similar to their Oklahoma neighbors the Flaming Lips. From the shadowy, avant-jazz tinged "One Hundred Times" to "Dead Man’s Point of View"’s crystal synth beats, Ester Drang have created a delightfully tailored dream-pop album.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

I imagine there are big ol’ skies in Oklahoma. Though I’ve never been there, I associate the labor-conquers-all state with ridiculously wide expanses of blue that at times seem oppressive in their beauty. I can only assume these atmospheric conditions, though: I’ve not been to Oklahoma, only its neighbor Kansas, and that state is endless from one side to the other. I was on one road during my entire drive through the state, but as I looked left and right I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or let myself fall apart at the site of so much repetition made real.

So in the spirit of full disclosure, you should know now that I wrote this review with a sleeveless promotional CD and had no idea that the cover art for Infinite Keys is in fact a photograph of a blue sky over a green field. I only saw that afterward. And though it does make me want to trust my instincts– maybe go into graphic design as a second career?– it had no bearing on the review as written. Onward:

Ester Drang are a five-piece from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and seem to be writing music based on cloud formations. I imagine them waiting patiently for a patch of white to explode, for a break in the otherwise steady weather, allowing them a chance to experiment with dynamics in response. Since 1995 they’ve put out a single, a now out-of-print EP, and last-year’s somewhat lauded LP Goldenwest on Burnt Toast. With each release they’ve been charting a pretty straight path toward Infinite Keys, their first full-length for Jade Tree. And here, in the present, the preordained Ester-Drang cosmology doesn’t shake much.

From the first to the final fade, the music is a whisper. Each piece washes in dusty sheets, as though the band is literally assigning particular notes and durations to patterns in the sky. If that were the case, it could end up as a form of environmental music like the work of Chicago sound artist Collin Olan who, for example, inserted two contact microphones into a block of ice, submerged the block in water, and recorded the sounds it made as it melted. I like that– I like theory– but I can’t invent intentions for Ester Drang and, ultimately, they don’t seem to have such lofty or eccentric goals. I think, really, they really just kind of dig Radiohead. Or a section Radiohead as re-interpreated by The Gloria Record. Here and there, I’ve read comparisons to The Flaming Lips, and I don’t get it. Though they share the same home state, and in the past collaborated with Steven Drozd on a single, the folks pushing Ester Drang as participants in some kind of Oklahoma-grown sound are stretching things to fill an easily processed critical canvas.

"One Hundred Times" is where they’re most openly taking from Radiohead; it’s also when the stock elements of their wistfulness gel temporarily. The vocal lines cascade and plummet, little bleeps and buzzes make sense in relation to the overall density of the music, and, more importantly, there are enough pauses, build-ups, sputters, and redirections to make you feel like you’re flying somewhere, leaping over your mundane town in a single bound. "Oceans of You" is the indie-rock version of Coldplay, shouting gracefully about "problems" fading. Incandescent shit– I can imagine them performing this with an orchestra at the Grammys: lights flicker, the orchestra blows a fuse (some dude passes out in row one!), and as I watch from my living room floor I wonder if I’m supposed to feel something. The music is pretty– it’s difficult to deny that– but so are the sounds of cars driving by your house at 4AM, or how the world muffles a bit when you put your ear up to a puddle.

When your music is light and airy, you need to make sure it’s compelling. While Radiohead are often bogged down by over-ambitious themes, they’re at least constructing a poetics of experimentation, as well as a cogent if somewhat scattered message beyond their plush walls of sound. All I can cull from this music are empty exercises in pseudo-orchetral ear candy. Which is fine to a point: Sigur Ros (an easy comparison) move people to tears without the majority of their audience comprehending a single word of their lyrics, and like Ester Drang, they aren’t exactly breaking new ground. Unlike Ester Drang, their stuff is a gale of goddamn triumph; Infinite Keys rumbles by like a draft through a cracked window, a tiny shift in the atmosphere, leaving only the vaguest of impressions.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Unfortunately, it seems that the only way to critique Ester Drang’s newest release is to search for its faults. The hardest part is finding them. Emotions on their collective sleeves, Ester Drang has delivered a record steeply sloped with more ups and downs than a heroin addict’s mid-morning. Each song has it’s own victories and devastations, lilts and crashes, peaks and climaxes. This is a very special record. It defies criticism.

With a pension for dynamics and the talent to pull it off, Ester Drang might have grown up on R.E.M. and The Smiths, but currently live fancifully right in-between the Radiohead, Mogwai, and Coldplay houses most of times – yet, the band pulls off a sensory explosion that none of the aforementioned bands have given for quite a while. Infinite Keys takes the listener through every emotion and movement available to modern melodic artists. The band portrays an innocence that has possibly been lost in the chaos of the newest MTV generation.

The combination of traditional rock instruments (drums, bass, guitar, keys, voice) combined with a dazzlingly executed array of samples and triggers yield a lush environment where each song lives. With each song being so creatively crafted, there really is no use in picking the best song on the record as all blend beautifully into the next. On repeat 10 times over, Infinite Keys sounds like 10 great albums strung together perfectly – and something new is unearthed in each with every full replay.

"The Temple Mount" begins the album like a drug – it slowly seeps into veins. Showing that they are the new masters of ‘the build’, the band gives a kick, square to the gut, then leaves the listener to lie in agony, wishing for the second verse. This is clearly the set up for the rest of the record. The first lesson on how to build a song.

"Dead Man’s Point Of View" continues the theme with a thick, hopeful guitar riff and something that sounds like a sampled or looped glockenspiel. Of course it’s the keyboards playing – every member of the band lists synths in their repertoire. Bringing it all together is some sort of sax effect that sounds as if it was quelled from some long-lost Dark Side of the Moon session. The rest is brilliant Cure-driven dramatics over drums that get dynamically louder as the song completes. Ester Drang is the new king of Mercury Rev-esque dynamics.

An old (and mostly forgotten) band, Strictly Ballroom, might have composed "Oceans Of You" on their best day; and Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar might be forgotten while listening to "The Best Thing". Again, showing their penchant for full-length moodiness and emotionality, Ester Drang classes themselves out of any potential radio play.

The album fortunately continues on this vein, getting better with every song. Each song’s construction drivies the listener nearly to the verge of insanity through it’s curious subtleness combined with simple complexity. The album concludes with the lullabye-esque love anthem "I Don’t Want To Live (In A World Of Infinite Keys)", with it’s cascading piano repeat, and lyrics offering "All my life full of choices/full of keys/all I chose is you/you’re all I need/choices". This is the modern love song.

At times, Infinite Keys might be the heaviest of albums, and at other times maybe the lightest – it’s truly the "contradiction in itself" effect that makes it radiant. There are tens of thousands of records released every year. Once a year, so-called critics make a list of what was the best or the worst. Realistically, if you only look for one or two albums to purchase every year, this is it. Buy two.