Album Review :
Amohalko - Spark

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Artist: Amohalko
Album: Spark
Free Download: IVM
Review by the Headless Horseman.

1. Hey Auren
2. Pound It Emerald!
3. Bacchanale
4. Slapstick Tragedy
5. Your Real Best Friend
6. Sancta Somnia (Feat. Rebekah Coley)
7. Pulse
8. Catalyst
9. Ultrasound – A Tone Poem
10. Per Severance
11. Right Where It Belongs (Nine Inch Nails Cover)

It was the first week of January, the perfect time for frantically exchanging late Christmas presents. The two of us were isolated in some part of a labyrinthine church basement. There wasn’t a whole lot to say. He gave me some CDs, and I thanked him. Then, slightly reluctantly, he passed me a final CD — more accurately, a CD-R. There was nothing written on it. A tracklist was paper-clipped to the back. Scrawled above the list was the inscription “Amohalko – Fallowfield.”

“Excuse the ghetto packaging,” Carson Sestili remarked.

Fifteen months later, the two of us sat once again in a room in a church basement. We were waiting for a ride to a house where we could play some slightly alternative worship for an audience of One (at most) inside his dad’s attic. We fell to talking about the music. We went over what exactly the original “happy hardcore” was, what we thought of Alkaline Trio and Tiesto, and whether or not our drummer would ever show for practice, but eventually we fell to Amohalko, which, as I’m sure you’ve realized, dear reader, is the word “Oklahoma” spelled backwards. Whenever I ask why he picked it as a moniker, he says it’s “a long story,” and that’s the end of the matter.

Most of what I remember from that day concerns the following thought: “Even after I finish a song, sometimes it’s not that great…I finished ‘Pound It Emerald!,’ and it was just sort of there…but it’s my musical progression. It’s a step on the journey. Plus, I need to put something out sometimes. That’s one of the interesting things about trance music. On any given ‘CD’ — on the rare occasion there is a CD — there are a handful of good tracks and then a bunch of other ones. I guess I’m sort of like that too. I never expect all of it to be good.”

That’s what surprised me most when a copy of Spark — another blank-looking CD-R — found its way into my stereo. Fallowfield, Sestili’s debut effort, was as uneven as his ideologies suggest. The first two tracks were riveting, the third one was pretty good, and the rest ranged between the absurd, the forgettable, and hip-hop songs about geometric concepts (see “SohCahToa,” a bonus track from the debut). But something about his music if not his mindset changed in the year and a few months it took for him to create his sophomore record, Spark, because by and large, this record is pretty consistently awesome doses of house and trance music the likes of which you probably never bothered to discover before.

I will never understand why Spark begins with “Hey Auren,” a meandering slice of progressive house monotony. Carson says that it’s supposed to be a sort of intro segue. We will forever disagree on this point. This is a track that is truly just sort of there. I have nothing to say about it whatsoever. From there the record twists and turns to the truly bizarre. “Pound It Emerald!” is basically a mixture of 8-bit videogame music and a tambourine loop. *Insert “lol wut” pear here.*

But fortunately we’ve gotten the two least impressive cuts out of the way handily, making way for some of Spark‘s best tracks. Carson hates “Your Real Best Friend” because he says it doesn’t have any real structure, but its ethereal chill and driven beats establish it as a pensive, near-brooding album highlight. “Bacchanale” is the thickest, heaviest, darkest, most-pounding electro-remix of a Camille Saint-Saens epic you’ve heard this week. I turn this up to 11 and begin to want to slay orcs. Or something. The build is remarkable.

The pounding amazingness continues with cuts like “Catalyst” and show-stopper “Slapstrick Tragedy,” but Spark, arguably like all great records, is won and lost with the ballads. And if that’s true, it’s definitely won. Even with all its strong points, forget vocal trance anomaly “Sancta Somnia” — remarks Sestili, “The vocals are equalized somewhat poorly, and she couldn’t really hold a note for any great period of time in any case” — Spark‘s true crowning achievement comes in its final three tracks.

“Per Severance” is a song that Carson thinks sounds like a walk through the snow alone and I think sounds like the soundtrack to making out with a crying girl while watching a tropical sunset owing to vastly differing interpretations of the key of A Major in instrumental music. It doesn’t matter which you hold; the totally improvised violin with its raw production is cutting, haunting…the track never really resolves, one of its strengths. “Ultrasound – A Tone Poem” can be accurately counted among the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, which is astounding, given that all the percussion sounds are highly-distorted recordings of Sestili blowing into his microphone. It’s the best presentation (if heavily figurative) of life in utero I’ve yet encountered. The record would be a smashing success if it ended there. And it doesn’t.

…There are some songs that always stay with us. The songs that have gotten us through, helped us to find ourselves in the darkest times. They helped us to see the world, if an unblemished, hopeless world at times, more completely. I know that Nine Inch Nails’s “Right Where It Belongs” is one of those songs for Carson. And so I say with complete awe that he has surpassed the original version of the song with good measure. The somber delayed guitars that permeate his version take the agnostic nihilism of the song to new depths, the tortured narrator grappling with his own existence and the reality of the world outside. I think I’ve listened to this song more than any other in the past four weeks, and it’s become a song that helps me get through the hard times.

Maybe you skipped the above paragraphs because they’re long and gushing descriptions of some electro/house/trance cuts from an artist you’ve never heard of. If so, let me paint you perhaps a more interesting picture. Carson Sestili is my bass player. We’ve created and mastered much of the realm of youth group worship teams. Carson Sestili is one of my best friends, probably the deepest thinker among them. He’s one of the few who doesn’t take the world at face value. Carson Sestili is a trance/house fanatic. Carson Sestili is fourteen years old. And Carson Sestili just made one of the year’s best chill-out albums in the comfort of his own bedroom, the thought of which, if you miss the chance to hear it, should cause you to kick yourself very hard in the stomach.

Rating: 9/10
Standout Tracks: “Bacchanale,” “Slapstick Tragedy,” “Ultrasound – A Tone Poem,” “Right Where It Belongs”
RIYL: One of the awesome things about this release is that you probably haven’t heard a ton of stuff like this before. But if you want me to hazard a try, I’d guess something in the range of Oceanlab, the Echoing Green, Joy Electric, Thievery Corporation, Lights Out Asia, System 7, and/or Tiesto.