- San Diego, California - Piano-ballad-based rock is one of my favorite genres, because it has the potential to mix the articulate, intricate feel of piano with the angsty drive of overdrive guitars. The difficulty I often have with this slow-burning style, however, is that it tends to get lost in itself and become too dependent upon the lyrical story of the album, resulting in a musical repetition that becomes tiring after listening to a few tracks. I stumbled upon Via Coma serendipitously on Reddit, and, on a whim, gave their newest album, Figures, a spin to discover an excellently written and executed album that features a host of imaginative effects and mix choices. Via Coma plays as a dark, brooding cross between Falling Up and Explosions in the Sky but features a welcome, restless drive and structural ambition that sets it apart as an easily immersive experience worthy of several listens.
The primary endearing musical quality of this album is the sense of direction in the songs individually and the album as a whole. “Architects” provides a perfect example of Via Coma’s excellent structural progression choices. The track begins with a slow-burning mix of piano, drums, and vocals. The song progresses with added guitar lines, vocal harmonies, and counterpoint melodies, but remains at the same tempo and lax feel. After two verse/chorus sets, however, the band builds tension, first through angular chord progressions, then through a change in drumming pattern, and finally through the vocals, which advance from calm, sustained notes to aggressive intervals that just barely dip into screaming. The lyrical concept introduced at the beginning of the track returns at the end with new undertones of angst and frustration, finishing the track with a sense of musical fulfillment and thematic completion.
Stylistically, Via Coma’s songs all feature piano in some form, but the balance between vocals, guitar, drums, and piano changes on every track. The tempo remains relatively constant within any particular track, but nearly everything else in any given song is variable. Lush power choruses, led by vocals and rhythm guitars, trade off with single vocal lines surrounded by wandering piano and guitar lines. Many times, lyrical hooks will appear in multiple contexts in a song, providing the unifying function of a chorus even when a song cycles between three, four, or five different sections. The musical exploits in this album are refreshingly diverse, making a set of engaging ballads.
The capstone of this album’s excellence is its artful mix. The instruments are panned across the stereo field, but an artful use of reverb and other sonic treatment keeps everything feeling balanced and “full.” The vocals are placed prominently in the mix enough to be intelligible without obscuring the nuances of the other instruments. The compression “crunches” the edgy-rock sections in an appealing way, but remains discreet otherwise. Even when several vocal and instrumental parts are playing at the same time, the overall sound is focused and easy to follow. Supplemental vocal and instrumental parts enter and leave subtly, rewarding the listener with new discoveries with subsequent listens. The mixing decisions feel handcrafted for the album; thanks to the mix, the complexity and depth of the album shines.
To top it all, this release was a “self-recorded, self-funded” album, according to Via Coma’s (successful) Kickstarter campaign to fund the album’s physical production. More than any album that I’ve reviewed for Sour Grapes Winery previously, Via Coma demonstrates that playing field between “major-label music” and “independent music” has been flattened in terms of sonic quality. Figures is not an “excellent independent album”; it’s an excellent album that happens to be independent. Via Coma uniquely marries the sonically expansive feel of label-funded projects with the musically explorative nature of independent music to make an album that, confusingly, can’t be sequestered into either category.
It’s a beautiful kind of confusion.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes