Bob Moses - Battle Lines - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Bob Moses - Battle Lines

by Howard Scott Rating:10 Release Date:2018-09-14
Bob Moses - Battle Lines
Bob Moses - Battle Lines

For any young up-and-coming band, the first LP is an all-important initial step that usually portends whether or not there will be a second LP. In the case of Vancouver-bred duo  Bob Moses, that initial first album was just about as successful as could possibly be hoped for. “Days Gone By”, released in the autumn of 2015, garnered nominations from both the Canadian Juno awards and the Grammies. Major festivals such as SXSW, Coachella et al brought Bob Moses to a wider audience and a performance on “The Ellen Show” (at Ms. Degeneres’ personal request) iced the cake that most groups never get to bake.

But let’s face it. The problem with a great first long player is that expectations for the next effort are always high, and excruciatingly hard to meet. One hit wonder doesn’t always just refer to a single. Sometimes, the best a group has to offer is encased in the initial disc and its all downhill from there.

If you are now expecting me to tell you that the second full length release from Bob Moses has succumbed to this fate, prepare to be disappointed!  “Battle Lines”, which will be released by Domino Records, picks up where “Days Gone By” left off and adds a maturation and brilliance that is indeed a rarity. When I listen to a release by anybody, it is just human nature to find one or two tunes that would rank first or second on the listening scale, with everything else tying for third. On “Battle Lines”, it is basically an eleven track tie for first. Each cut on the album offers something outstanding to take in, and the different sound of each gives each song a temperament of its own.

First up is “Heaven Only Knows”, and it is aptly titled. The chorale canticle opening sounds hymnal in nature, and the music appears divinely inspired. Jimmy Vallance handles the electronic wizardry for the pairing, and his mastery of keyboards, drum machines and other mysterious boxes with lots of keys, knobs and lights is first rate. The vocals and guitar playing are the province of Tom Howie and this rather unique combination makes the music differ from the usual labels.  It is electronica with a rock twinged touch. The inspiration of bands like Depeche Mode, vintage New Order, and maybe even a touch of Howard Jones seeps into the sound and enriches and advances it. 

Besides the dynamic duo of Vallance and Howie, Lars Stalfors contributed skills as producer, mixer and synth programmer on several tunes. Drummer Joe Zizzo added more percussion on four cuts, including "Heaven Only Knows".

Calling Howie’s singing “vocals” just doesn’t do it justice. He has an incredible range combined with a calming inclination that pours over the eardrums like chocolate syrup over ice cream. His is one of the most impressive voices out there in any genre or style. This guy could sing the phone book (remember those?) and I would listen.

Title track “Battle Lines” kicks up the electronic backbeat for the main verse before exploding into a chorus of upper register singing and remarkable guitar stylings by Mr. Howie. The high-heat melting of electronica and rock-style guitar string bending is really showcased here and most likely inspired the album title and cover.

The band has mentioned that conflict is a basic theme of the work, and “Back Down” broadcasts that with full effect. “Your reality is our insanity / Our humanity is tearing at the seams” sums up the state of the world and the high degree of division we all deal with daily. Simple but poignant lyrics.

An even more ominous sounding cut, “Eye For An Eye”  takes an unusual verse structure of A-B-A-B-C-A and makes it work around plaintive, unhappy lyrics and a haunting background that hurts so good.  The contributions of Zizzo and Stalfors are readily apparent here.  Tim Pagnotta gets a songwriting credit as well.

If whoever owns the James Bond franchise these days wants to make a flick entitled “An Eye For An Eye”, they have a ready-made theme song available. I could just envision the blow-up-the-world villain staring into the camera as I was absorbing this tune.

The somber mood continues on “The Only Thing We Know” with Vallance’s talents creating a hard, industrial beat that just pounds into your head. Again, the electronics, guitar, Howie-voice triumvirate is just enchanting.

The lyrical content doesn’t get a whole lot happier on “Nothing But You”, but the tune itself has a much more upbeat, hopeful feel. The chorus, particularly, has an uplifting air that snaps the mood of the previous two cuts. Vallance has been quoted that this tune came about during some tough personal times, and that atmosphere soaks in impressively, but still leaves the listener with a touch of faith.

A slower, more deliberate beginning sets up “Listen To Me” before a nearly traditional disco beat takes over and gives the song a dual personality. Both are fun to listen to.

“Selling Me Sympathy” could easily be a tense, edgy dancehall number if not for the calming influence of the vocal track. Is It possible for a tune to be edgy and soothing at the same time? Apparently, because that is the effect it had on me. Again, the lyrics have a bit of an “I’m going to fling myself off a bridge” inclination, but the delivery here overrides that and offers a small degree of solace. The scrambling of the electrons at the hands of Vallance really jumps off the recording tape on this one.

I know I said I didn’t have a favorite song on the album, but I lied just a little. The closer, “Fallen From Your Arms” is as good a piece of songwriting and composition as you will hear anytime in 2018 (or maybe longer). This is basically a keyboard/vocal slow ballad-style song again in a melancholy mood that rips your heart out while simultaneously forcing your brain to marvel at the talent amassed here. Everything comes together to create a museum class work of art. The lyric “Why does it take so long / To sing such a sorry song” conflicted with what I was taking in. It didn’t take nearly long enough for me. I could have happily listened for at least twice the time.  Stunning is an overused adjective, but neither my internal nor external thesaurus could come up with a better word.  All final album cuts now have something new to aspire to.

The serendipitous history of Bob Moses is legendary at this point but worth repeating. The two guys went to the same schools at the same time in Vancouver, knew each other, but never worked on anything music-related together. Fast forward a few years after graduation, and both Vallance and Howie, unbeknownst to each other, are living in New York City and working on very different projects. One afternoon,  in a coincidental happening that only an overly optimistic screenwriter could create, they bumped into each other in a Lowes parking lot in a less-than-desirable part of Brooklyn. Not only were they both in a different country, but also both a very long way from Vancouver. They decided to get together and try to create something as a duo, and the rest is history. Whatever mystical force it was that arranged that meeting did the musical world a great service. “Battle Lines” will be going on my personal list for one of the best of 2018. This is high-quality music that you just can’t help but notice and admire.

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