Album Review :
Quiet Science - With/Without

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Artist: Quiet Science
Title: [With/Without]
Record label: Self-released
Release date: 5/4/2010
Review by: Alex Schelldorf

  1. In the Company of Killers
  2. Magnetism
  3. The Last Satellite
  4. Cumulus (+Pistis)
  5. Queen Elisabeth
  6. Forest of No Return
  7. Beaming
  8. Brilliant
  9. (Never Was Higher Courage Shown)
  10. Gypsy Flowers
  11. Ghost and the Grave
  12. Arcadia
  13. Sore Eyes

Glam.

The word conjures up some outlandish and conflicting imagery.

Lady Gaga’s undeniably talented and successful schtick. Hair metal bands with names like Ratt and Stryper, their neon zebra striped spandex pants so skin tight they look painted on. Adam Lambert’s various American Idol outfits and dark make-up. Ke$ha’s trashy Taylor Swift impressions. Jeffree Star’s… whatever thing he’s/she’s/it’s got going on.

Glam — or glamorous, as it were. A flair for the outrageous and dramatic. A penchant for the absurd. A glitzy and wild parade, full of pomp and circumstance.

Call it a biased opinion, but David Bowie did it best, helping to establish a genre, pioneering and blazing a trail for both good and bad (looking at you, glam/hair metal bands) along the way. On top of his signature look, Bowie was actually a talented musician to boot, a novel thought these days. It may be the reason his works are still popular today, his longevity attributed to talent and not a musical or fashion trend.

With his infamous Ziggy Stardust get-ups and iconic lightning bolt make-up, Bowie seamlessly incorporated various elements of space into his music. Song titles, lyrics and themes, outfits, even staging (one tour featured a 40 foot tall spider, a reference in part to Bowie’s backing band, “The Spiders from Mars”). In doing so, glam is now often tied to space as if the two were meant to be together all along.

It’s fitting, this curious fusion of space and glam, because many of the words used to describe the genre (“atmospheric”, “ethereal”, “other worldly”) produce the imagery largely associated with space. When I hear ‘atmosphere’, I think clouds and satellites. When I hear ‘ethereal’, I think of the brilliant Space Ghost. When I hear ‘other worldly’, I think of far out, ne’er-explored systems and planets.

These associations are neat and tidy depictions of Quiet Science, a 4-piece all-too fittingly from the Space Coast of Florida. QS is perhaps best known for their live show, featuring former bassist and current drummer Robert Williamson’s often hilarious and indubitably fanatical stage antics, be it using a drumstick to simulate a rose in mouth à la tango dancers (or sword in mouth à la Zorro, take your pick) whilst dramatically pantomiming with soul, or the impressive amount, variety, and combination of pedals guitarist Nathan Walter and current bassist Jacob Kaufman have and utilize (well, at that) throughout. Both must be seen to fully understand.

But it’s their music that completes the show.

With/Without, the first full length release from these fashionable Floridians, seems both timeless as it does dated.
-Dated such that, an intelligent synth alt-rock album like this one could have come out in 1988. A track like “Magnetism” makes me think QS could have done a tour with Devo in the mid-to-late 1980’s.
-Timeless such that, an intelligent synth alt-rock album like this one could (eventually) come out in 2088 (if music — or humans — still exist). A track like “Arcadia” makes me think QS could do a tour with David Bowie (whose body has been recently cryogenically unfrozen and newly regenerated, rolling back his body’s odometer to his golden mid-20s, a full century ago) in the mid-to-late 2080’s.

In a sense, the easiest or quickest assessment of Quiet Science would be to dub them the faith-based version of The Killers. This is all at once a flattering misnomer. While at times the bands may share similarities (the most notable of which being near the end of “Arcadia”, where one might question whether it’s Hot Fuss they have playing), QS have done well to establish their own auditory experience, with powerful, hard-hitting, soulful tunes without being overly gimmicky.

Oh, and none of them have strange mustaches (looking at you, Brandon Flowers).

Up front, it should be noted that, technically speaking: in spite of being cleaned up via new mixing and mastering, 7 of the songs on With/Without are taken directly from the He Calls Me Diamonds EP. That there is a lack of more new songs is my only real complaint about the record. I personally would like to have seen the exclusion of several of the songs already featured on the EP and the inclusion of more new songs. However, in saying this, I acknowledge the fact that the next EP or LP means all new material. So it’s not really a fair complaint, moreso a general statement that I really like the band’s current body of work and am highly anticipating further albums. You could say I’ve got a hankerin’ for more. That’d be fair.

In the Company of Killers“, the first track on With/Without, leads off the record with a cheeky Casiotoned demo. It plays as both a homage to the talented glam and synth-rock bands (David Bowie, Terra Terra Terra), but equally as a playful and sardonic poking of fun (complete with tongue stuck out) at those auto-tuned faux-“dance” bands that are popular right now. This short intro is immediately followed up by an exorbitantly muffy and brazen bass lead. The bass parts for the album were written and recorded by the aforementioned drummer Robert Williamson; throughout, they are alternately fuzzy and warm, with aberrantly spacey tones (“Killers”) contrasting the occasional pop and slap (“Arcadia”). Nathan Walter’s lyrics, though cryptic at times, can be deduced as being contemplative love songs (“The Ghost and the Grave”, “Forest of No Return”). In “Killers”, he questions:

The worm, he leaks my life away
The worm, he knows one day I will break
What are these lights?
Who is this man? I ask
Who is this man they call the Son?

Magnetism” is the only tune on the record I’m not especially fond of, perhaps because of its relatively dated feeling. If you’ve ever seen the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies, there’s a particular synthy tone you may recognize that is played up in this song, alongside the piano sections that sound more befitting of a wedding ceremony than in a synth-rock song — it just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s the choruses of the song that are particularly grating in this respect; they’re simply not my thing, but they very well may appeal to you, the listener.

Thankfully, “The Last Satellite” plays clean up. As previously mentioned, a total of 7 songs on With/Without were also on the He Calls Me Diamonds EP, this track being the first of those. This version is identical to its EP brethren, and the inspiration for both its title and cover. It’s a neat little synthy alt-rock song, almost theatrical in a sense, one of the largely defining characteristics of the band. It also helps solidify Nathan Walter as a talented lyricist:

We walk along through battlefields into His foothills,
my mouth has run dry and she has gone.
He calls me diamonds, He calls her silver and gold.
He tells us we are not alone.

Cumulus (+Pistis)” is the band’s first true foray into anything stripped down. The track focuses heavily on an acoustic guitar and piano, and Nathan Walter’s vocal harmonies with his wife, keyboard extraordinaire and background vocalist, Daisy Walter. Eventually the song further escalates, culminating with a beautiful string section, complete with church bells; some would call it an orchestral symphony. Close enough.

With/Without’s version of “Queen Elisabeth” has been ever so slightly cleaned up from its demo version on HCMD. If you’re aware of the musical term of “panning”, you’re in luck. I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to panning, so I get a kick out of this track. I’m also a big fan of vocal depth — all band members coming together for “ohs” or what have you, much in the way Dignan has been known to do, among other bands. I’d also call this the most “fun” or happy song on the album; or, at the least, the most decidedly upbeat.

Forest of No Return” is quite easily the best of the new songs, doing well to serve as soundtrack to the setting of a literal forest in the middle of nowhere — albeit, probably on another planet or constellation entirely. It’s haunting musically, but lyrically hopeful:

If you are not breathing out,
I will be the one that keeps you breathing in.
What you forsake, I would gladly save.
All I love, you would throw away.
In the quiet, in the still,
the night passes
but I will not let it take my love away.
Oh, my grace.
Feel it in your bones.

Beaming” is another fairly stripped down track featuring acoustic guitar, again coming from Diamonds. A song of reassurance through hardship, Walter pleads “Everything’s gonna be alright, she said.” Following is “Brilliant“, a soaring, driving track that will keep your head bobbing throughout, and once again features some impeccably good bass playing.

The song speaks of the difficulties of a relationship or friendship or a career (or anything really) that just isn’t working out for whatever reason.

There’s little left of dreams.
“When’s” are “never-will-be’s”
and these half-closed venetian skies
aren’t as brilliant
as I remembered them to be.

Where “Brilliant” deviates from its former self on HCMD is the next track: “(Never Was Higher Courage Shown)“. Previously, the instrumental (featuring old-timey, 1930s-1950s samples of political and religious speeches; also used liberally as an intro in their live show) was the conclusion to “Brilliant”. It’s really neat, but then again I’m a sucker for anything from the early to mid-1900s. You have to hear it to understand. On With/Without, “Never” is now a 70 second interlude to break up “Brilliant” from the next track, a runner-up for my favorite on the album, “Gypsy Flowers“.

There has nary been a time when I wanted a track to continue as bad as I did for this one. Sure, the first 3 and a half minutes are fine and all, serving as the set-up for the “big finish” of sorts: that is, the last minute of this song. It’s the best alt space-rock noisefest I’ve ever heard. But oh, how quickly it’s over. The abrupt ending will assuredly leave you craving more, if only 30 seconds. To be quite honest, at first I thought I had a bad copy. It wasn’t. Either way, it’s a wonderful tune.

Ghost and the Grave” is the second to last new song on the album. Strongly piano-driven, it also features some serious shredding from Walter in addition to some of the most powerful, deeply personal lyrics on the album. They really hit home:

I dug my grave,
turned my cheek,
I gave up the ghost.
Why shouldn’t the Ghost
give up on me?
On a liar.
On a thief.

However, in spite of the 6 new songs and the fact that it was on the old EP, “Arcadia” is still the standout track for me. This song is the one that could very well summarize the band’s signature sound in a single 4 minutes and 21 seconds. Ambling, spacey, heartfelt: it’s all here. Musicianship is top-notch. Quality lyrics with a nice story. Skillfully dramatic. In a sense, perfect. The breakdown at 3:12 is the best musicianship on the album, even if it harkens a tad closely to Hot Fuss-era Killers. If you only hear one song from this band, let it be this one.

With/Without‘s closer, “Sore Eyes” is the last new song on the album, and it’s, in a word, gorgeous. At times, it sounds almost quasi-U2-ish. Bono would be proud of these guys and gal. Furthermore, in listening to this song repeatedly, I was tempted to make an allusion to Coldplay. No matter how much you dislike them (read: me), I guess their success is pretty irrefutable, and the association shouldn’t be dismissed.

To close the record, Daisy Walter helps lead the boys in a worshipful cry out to God, which will surely draw comparisons to The Ember Days and Eisley. Together, they sing out:

We’ll be singing the same song
The words, we knew them all along.
The love was always in our hearts.
And when we are by The Father’s side
We’ll know what love should have been like,
and everything will be alright.

When You come again,
Things will be the way that they should have been.

The beauty of a genre like this one is its versatility. Quiet Science can (and most probably will) exceed expectations because of the general lack of pigeonholing going on in “glam” or “atmospheric post-rock” or “synthy alt-rock” — no one can definitively say what they expect out of the genre the way one can expect something from a harder genre like metal or hardcore. They can do what they want and it will be appreciated because there are few others like them.

It’s the true characteristic of being unique. Well done.

Overall: I’ve often pondered what it is about popularity that makes it so fleeting, or why it’s so difficult to bottle lightning. To me, the combination of rad, well-manicured music and a killer live show give this band an edge over flashy bands with no substance or bands with good records but no presence. Quiet Science exudes an heir of both professionalism and polish, giving this band certain intangibles that lead me to believe they’re a group to be watched. Keep your eyes peeled.

Recommended if you like: Terra Terra Terra, Between The Trees, David Bowie, A Denver Mile, Turn Off the Stars, stars, space, astronomy, NASA, Florida’s Space Coast, being quiet.

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