Cloudkicker – Fade – 98%

Fade cover art

Words cannot express my love for the music that Ben Sharp creates. In the four years since he first released “The Discovery” he has single-handedly created a scope of work that most artists can only dream of. When your discography is so vast that your fans cannot decide on what your “best” work is, you’re obviously doing it right. The way Cloudkicker’s sound has developed over the years is what continuously drives my love for the music.

Cloudkicker came onto the scene sounding like Meshuggah’s little cousin in 2008 with the guitar-focused powerhouse “The Discovery,” complete with palm mutes, sick riff after sick riff and an in your face approach. In 2009 we were treated to “The Map is Not the Territory” and “Portmaneau” both of which while still very heavy, begin to show a more mature sound. 2010 saw Sharp put it all together and release the only post-rock album I consider to be perfect in every way, shape and form, “Beacons”. This mastermind of an album combined the raw intensity of his earlier work with vivid storytelling and album synergy that was off the charts. Not only did he release this monster of an album that will be forever in my heart, he also managed to release two 3-track EP’s that year too! In 2011 Sharp surprised us with “Let Yourself Be Huge”, an 8-track 25 minute adventurous album exploring the lighter side, an album that very much reminds me when the legendary progressive metal band Opeth released “Damnation,” one of the best and darkest soft-rock albums ever recorded. With Cloudkicker’s latest album “Fade,” we have now seen 9 releases in the span of 4 years by the guitar maestro hailing from Columbus, OH.

“Fade” is a return to the heavier side of Cloudkicker following last year’s detour and let it be known that it is a monster of an album. The album kicks off with “From The Balcony,” an incredibly tight sounding intro that features prevalent bass lines, something that I feel has always been missing from Sharp’s sound. The track forgoes the normal Cloudkicker explosiveness opting instead for a softer, tighter and much more focused sound. The transition to the next track, “The Focus” is so seamless that I wasn’t sure where the actual transition was until I actually took the time to watch the songs change on my media player. While the drums are once again programmed, I still find them to be more natural sounding, most likely due to the way they were mixed with just the right amount of echo. Guitar tones have that crisp and full of life feeling that we’re use to in all of Sharp’s releases.

We are treated to the longest track in the Cloudkicker portfolio next with “Seattle”, which just eclipses the 10 minute mark. This song has everything you’d expect to find in an epic track of this magnitude. The slow burn build-up with multiple layers of dominant guitar work that weave themselves brilliantly into a web is brooding. Cymbals appear in the background as the track begins to pick up intensity and pace. And then it’s all gone, giving way to a guitar track that is soon complimented by a second layer of thick bass. The layering in this album is just brilliant, it’s just layer upon layer creating unreal walls of sound. The song retakes form as guitars wail amongst crashing waves of cymbals before coming full circle. This track in all it’s glory could easily have been two tracks with an interlude in between. And yes, this song definitely deserved to have an entire paragraph written about it.

The halfway mark on the 8-track 44 minute album is “Garage Show,” a short number that is comparable to the likes of “…It’s Just Wide-Open Field” or “We Were all Scared” in that it does it’s job of maintaining the feel of the album while setting the table for what’s to come. “LA After Rain” is perhaps the most mature sounding Cloudkicker song to date. The song structure is fantastic, the tones are rich, the bass is prevalent throughout the song and the guitar work has just the right amount of epic riffage without the rawness that we’ve come to expect in Cloudkicker’s work. The following track, “Making Will Mad” is my favorite on the album. With its multiple layers of different guitar tones and effects, cymbal crashing and high-hat riding, this song is the perfect blend of “Beacons” inspired guitars with the “Let Yourself Be Huge” approach to song structure and mellowness. The whole track is just fun.

“Our Crazy Night” is again more of the same great guitar layering and cymbal crashing we come to love but with a much more “Portmaneu” -esque feel to it. The guitar work is masterful like always but the tones are a bit darker than the rest of the album with a stronger emphasis on feedback playing into the mix. Speaking of the mix, did I mention this album is by far the best sounding Cloudkicker album to date? Drums and cymbals are never overpowering, the guitar is still the most dominant instrument but not nearly by as much as it was in the past and the soundstaging is quite large as the instruments are fairly separated apart from one another. The album wraps with “Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown”, a soft little number that might seem weird to you, but if you look hard enough and know where to look, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the message.

I think the biggest question is how Cloudkicker fans will approach this album. Anyone with half a brain and truly understands music will realize that this album is a natural step forward in the musical progression of Cloudkicker. When Sharp’s Cloudkicker stepped onto the scene it brought unlimited potential and pure rawness that tried to overpower you with every song. Like a rookie shooting guard who scored a lot of points but didn’t help the team anywhere else, Cloudkicker has matured with age into a well-rounded player on the post-rock field. This is an album that has an extremely refined sound that is the end result of an amazing guitarist who has blossomed into an even more amazing musician. The craftsmanship of the album is impressive and Sharp’s dedication to his music and his workhorse ability to crank out high-caliber releases is unparalleled. I’m sure some fans of his older work will be unsatisfied with the lack of aggressiveness and fans of “Let Yourself Be Huge” will be turned away by the loudness of this album, but if you can’t appreciate “Fade” then perhaps this genre just isn’t for you anyways. This is the perfect album to introduce your friends to Cloudkicker and the post-rock genre. But most importantly this is a must-listen release of 2012. It rarely gets any better than this. 8-5-12.

Pay what you want on bandcamp: http://cloudkicker.bandcamp.com/album/fade