Sometimes you encounter music so eclectic, so diverse and brimming with influences that you know it must either be the work of one person or eleven. When the musical diversity is at its highest, I think perhaps the one-person unit is the one with the lower degree of difficulty-humans are animals, and with the natural infighting, egos, whatever, you figure, “This must just be one dude in his basement.”
That was my first thought when I heard the enigmatically diverse yet immediately accessible Emanuel and the Fear. During the first two songs I heard, I wrote down a list of no fewer than 30 bands who I heard shades of, including Zepplin, Mars Volta, Decembrists, Sufjan, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Bjork, Muse…what on earth? The list goes on. The influences list on their myspace would be a joke except you read every one of those artists and nod, “yep,” to yourself.
Well, on the, “who is making this greatness?” front, turns out it’s kinda a bit of both the one and eleven person options. Up front, a clear vocal and song-writing presence is Emanuel Ayvas (lead vocals, guitar, piano)-a born pop-singer and songwriter, it seems, who takes great command of each track. But he’s no dude in a basement-he’s backed by The Fear, ten fearless musicians of impressive prowess: Gil Goldin (bass), Jeff Gretz (drums), Tom Swafford (violin), Dallin Applebaum (synth, vocals), Liz Hanley (violin, vocals), Dan Tirer (guitar), David Nelson (trombone), Nic Cowles (flute), Brian Sanders (cello), Chris Coletti (trumpet). Eleven equally dazzling and classically trained musicians.
There’s a consonance in that list of, “sounds-like,” artists mentioned above, though, in that for those artists, their pop sensibilities are front and center of their experimentation (weaker Mars Volta aside…), prompting my second mental question: “I can’t believe these guys aren’t famous yet…“
One listen to Emanuel and the Fear and I suspect you will think the same thing. Hearing them reminded me of the first time I heard Mika, and thought, “oh yes, this will catch on in about an hour.” And that’s no sleight either. This impression of imminent success isn’t due, as it might usually be, to pop-culture pandering, lazy-but-fun beats, or any use of auto-tune (thank god). Rather, Emanuel gives this impression because it’s just that good, and just that accessible.
Emanuel and the Fear are the first good band to come out of some place called Brooklyn, New York. Okay, that’s not true, but let’s not fault them for locational unoriginality. Despite their advanced sound, they’re relatively new to this game. Listen is their first full length, released just last month through Paper Garden Records, and already earning them rave reviews from most people with ear holes. This band isn’t afraid to gig, either. How on earth they all fit on stage is beyond me, but they’re doing just that around Europe as we write/read.
I challenge you to not like “Dear Friend.” Go on. Just try. Okay, don’t try too hard, because it’s going to be much more enjoyable to like it. “Dear Friend,” is, at its core, a classic American pop song with a bit of flourish in the form of strings and electronics. What sets it apart is how well executed the flourishes are, and how flawless the pop is done. The track starts with two high energy hits leaving the piano underneath, joined by vocals that give way to the choral build-up of strings and brass. Truly great pop artists are able to milk much satisfaction out of even the smallest moments, and this track is full of them, like the held notes of, “and then much to my surprise…“ or the trumpet work or trombone solo, or, dear lord, how much do I love the little Muse-esque breakaway in the middle of this track? A lot, that’s how much.
And somehow this peculiar mid-track-electro-float-to-cloud-9 allows this simple song to return with some snapping, a one note organ riff, and a whole lot more gravity. Already “Dear Friend” has earned its keep and it’s not even half over, with many majorly epic and sweeping grand pop moments to come. The rest is a pretty textbook intro to choral swells and post-verse builds that, with additions of backing vocals and some real live strings (Thank god! I love you, keyboards, but you weren’t built to simulate strings) that retain full tone and therefore keep the power of the harmonies. Do do do do do do doooo…something I never thought I’d say. And then, of course, closing on the same two hits, like a gymnast nailing the landing.
Watching B-side “Guatemala,” played live really cements a subtle Rage Against the Machine element to the repertoire. Partially because of the Morello-esque riffing, partially because of the political fire Ayvas spits here, and probably mostly because of the Zach de la Rocha hairdo. Though this is one of the few times on Listen that the energy and vitriol reaches this level, Emanuel and the Fear pull it off quite effortlessly, and with some very diverse flourishes. Once again the string and woodwind section complement the meaty pop extremely well, and some particularly punchy electronic drum hits are blended in expertly to give a nice electronic cusp to an otherwise fully symphonic powerhouse song.
I like this track as a B-side because I think it really shows off Emanuel and the Fear’s range, both sonically in the many genres of music weaved into the work, and also emotionally, particularly in contrast to the jaunty “Dear Friend.” “Guatemala” has got a hell of a bite to it, and The Fear create a lot of that tension by playing off the standard rock and roll drum-bass-guitar. From the chaotic flute barely perceptible at the beginning of the track, to the swelling strings trading off moments with the vocals.
The album definitely takes quite a lot of emotional and tonal turns. Less well executed, and Emanuel and the Fear might be labeled, “chaotic…disorganized…blah blah blah.” Ultimately, you’re not really going to hear those things because Emanuel and the Fear succeed. They succeed because their music is earnest-uncomplicated in its complexity. People tend to worry more about disorganization when the music isn’t good and they’re grasping for reasons why (read: I’m suspicious of this as a reason for a music’s failure). Fortunately, the great thing about music as an immersive art form is that we can forget about all that for a while, the critical us. So when you’re done reading this increasingly ironic appraisal, my final recommendation is to enjoy the hell out of these songs.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem087/01 Dear Friend.mp3