(Editor’s Note: I’m about to review an album by a band that one of my cousins is a member of. He did not play any of the instruments on this album and joined the band after it’s release, but he’s the bassist now. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I felt that needed to be brought up)
On Saturday, I move to NYC to begin my new job as an editorial intern at start-up media journalism company Baeblemusic. Primarily, I’ll be involved with the indie music scene in and around Manhattan whether this involves writing on topical industry news, reviewing a new album, or detailing my thoughts on a live show I’ve been assigned to cover in the city. Before I officially got the internship offer, I was on a bit of an album reviewing kick trying to catch up on things I had missed from 2011 so that I didn’t sound like a complete dumb-ass in my interview. I bring all of this up because I haven’t actually reviewed an album in a while, and I’ve never reviewed an album quite like this. Everything I’ve reviewed so far (and that are on my master album list) have made some sort of end of year, decade, or all time list from a major music publication like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. Recently, a little garage band known as Stenders was brought to my attention by a relative in the form of their debut LP, the self-titled Stenders. Available to stream for free from their Bandcamp page, Stenders shows potential as a fun prog blues rock experience with such an impressive lead guitarist that I feel no shame in referencing guitar virtuosos like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Johnson because he’s that good. Unfortunately, the album is also a bloated mess with arguably 7 tracks that could have been left on the cutting room alongside the distinct impression that this is a band reaching for an identity and coming up muddled and indecisive instead.
The album was primarily recorded by Sten and Anders Hasselquist (hence Stenders), two brothers attending UVA in Charlottesville. Sten was responsible for all of the string work as well as vocals and song-writing (alongside Becca Lauzon) while Anders plays the drums. The album is self-described as being “all-genre encompassing” (which isn’t especially accurate if you know plenty of modern indie rock genres that are absent, i.e freak folk, chill-wave, drone, etc) and while it is these overly broad ambitions that cause many of the album’s more unforgivable flaws (along side some other significant complaints), but there are still a number of things Stenders gets remarkably right. There are many modes that the band vacillates between whether this is 90’s alternative rock, jazz fusion, blues rock, folk rock, classic rock, post-punk (in the Joy Division sense of the word), and even heavy metal. When the band is exploring its blues and post-punk roots and especially the the free-form bliss of their jazzy instrumental numbers, it’s a surprisingly professional affair with tighter production than I’ve seen from some professional releases and as a classic rocker with an adoration of guitar rock, Sten instantly distinguished himself as a talented enough lead guitarist that he could easily front any modern garage rock revival act.
Some album highlights include the jazz fusion instrumental piece “21 Cm Line” which manages to come off like a long lost track from Live Dead where Ian Curtis had a say in throwing in some synth lines after deciding to give up Joy Division for a psychedelic jam band and ends on a guitar solo that channels Jimmy Page. On the album opener escape, Sten’s voice is a bit on the abrasive side as diction seems to take precedent over actual melody (or listener pleasure) but then his skillful blues guitar instantly makes you think of Carlos Santana. “Jammit” is another prog instrumental track which impossibly manages to be equal parts My Morning Jacket as Deep Purple. “Jazzy Shnazzy” is an almost absurdly delightful amalgamation of traditional night club jazz rock that smoothly transitions into a a more up-tempo but equally fascinating prog rock number. Anyone with a healthy respect for guitar driven rock will find something to enjoy here. I am willing to stake my journalistic integrity that my statement that he is one of the most promising new guitarists I have heard in ages is in no way related to the fact that I have a relative in the band (who didn’t record on this album). He’s just that good.
Unfortunately, Sten spreads himself too thin on this album by trying to do too much. As mentioned before, there is no true Stenders on this album. While I know what Stenders I prefer (the purely instrumental tracks and every note that springs forth from Sten’s guitar), the band itself can’t seem to make up its mind. Whether it’s exploring speed metal (and absurd fantasy pretentions) or shallow 90’s alt rock, the band pushes itself too far out of its comfort zone. To make matters worse, as mentioned earlier, Sten’s vocals are a serious point of conflict. It almost sounds as if rather than singing from his diaphragm, he is singing from his mouth to achieve his tones and it just results in a serious confluence of problems. Whether it is his pitch being all over the place, a nasally affectation on “Fire Eyes,” or an abysmal rendition of metal screaming on “Dragon Steed,” Sten’s vocals are the only aspect of the album as weak as its inconsistency. That’s a shame because on rare moments on the album (such as the end of “The Fight” or “Waves Roll In) where his natural baritone reminds the listener of a young Jim Morrison. If the same attention to detail that had been spent on the instruments had been given to the vocals (and the often awkward lyrics), this would have been a truly exceptional album.
Stenders is a band with more potential than this album seems to give them credit for. Even the best tracks could use some editing and many songs simply need cut, but you hear the foundations of something special and unique. In a world stuck full to the brim of post-rock bands, it’s nice to hear a band that can skillfully channel classic rock inspirations without coming off as cheaply derivative. It pains me to give the score that I’m about to give this band because there is so much to like. I could listen to Sten play guitar all day. Unfortunately, there is an almost equal amount of things to dislike. If Stenders can find its own voice, if they are able to discover just what it is that makes them a band we can cheer for, they’ll be a force to reckon with. They would also need to either spend a lot of time polishing their vocals or find a new vocalist. This was an album that could have been remarkable and was weighed down by too many problems to ignore.
Final Score: C+