Album of the Week: Palm – Rock Island

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The state of guitar rock has been an obsession of critics for decades, each writer seemingly on a mission to answer the question of rock’s health by predicting when it will die, wondering if it’s already dead or arguing that it’s been long gone since a particular moment in time. They’re constantly looking for the next act with something to prove, needlessly fixating on a band’s insignificant choice in instruments. Old men yell at clouds, retrospectively pinpointing instances that killed rock music (interesting read), while others claim it’s just not like it used to be (uninteresting read). It’s a cop out for clicks; debate fodder for a dead end comment section yielding zero conclusions. In 2018, hip-hop remains supreme and the term “rock star” has become archaic and laughable, holding little meaning for a generation scripting a new footnote in the history of “rock music.”

Rock Island is the title of Palm’s Carpark debut—a sardonic and celebratory commentary on “rock music” as a whole. The album coincidentally shares the same name as a small Illinois city, but holds little meaning beyond its deliberate irony. Palm use guitars, but Palm is not a guitar band in the stereotypical sense. By shifting listening focus from “what” to “how,” the group blurs the rhythmic and melodic duties of each instrument. Twin guitars become percussive substitutes for melodically active drums and bass, inverting traditional rock formats with a slew of unorthodox musical inspiration. Palm’s broad, collective taste is frequently discussed in interviews, as members cite artists like This Heat and Deerhoof as influence, while also noting the impact of footwork artists like Jlin and the late DJ Rashad.

While Palm may be rewriting the script on rock’s instrumentation, song structure and significant pop appeal remain. Highlight “Composite” is a woozy, yet urgent exchange of complex and simple meters between verse and chorus. The album’s most obvious hook circles around Kasra Kurt’s finally discernible warble as he sings, “You only like me in my most peculiar state/On Saturdays.” Later, “Forced Hand” conveniently divides itself into four distinct parts. The track contains a full band riff of orderly dissonance, sandwiching a 40-second moment of brilliant clarity led by Eve Alpert’s sparse vocals, all before concluding on what sounds like a seamless transition between a studio recording and an early iPhone demo.

Palm are capable of threading percussive motifs into a state of semantic saturation, repeatedly approaching patterns from as many perspectives as possible. “Bread” breaks its own mold with each measure, as drummer Hugo Stanley deconstructs time signatures at each melodic turn. On “Color Code” bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos subliminally bears the weight of the arrangement, as the track spaciously floats in his absence around the one-minute mark. These tracks simultaneously adhere to tight, precise arrangements, while allowing variance and calculated spontaneity. The lines between each member’s percussive and melodic wavelengths meet and separate like a sonically crafted Newton’s Cradle, generating a sensation of organized chaos through a song’s perfected separation from itself.

After 2015’s blistering Trading Basics debut and last year’s excellent Shadow Expert EP, Palm have finally transcended their initial musical configuration, avoiding the categorical black hole of “indie rock” the band have seemingly sought to avoid. Palm have managed to blur a wide range of influences into a cohesive whole, materializing in a unique sound, quite difficult to pin down. With Rock Island, Palm may have inadvertently spurned a wave of parrot bands (queue indie rock’s impending embrace of electronic steel drums), but more importantly, the band has further confirmed their status as one of the most interesting and progressive acts of the moment.

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