Nothing empowers an over-talented person like indie rock. Nathan Akin is one of the newest wunderkinds recording solo albums under deceptively plural monikers (he’s recruited a group of friends for the live show). His project Clear Tigers’s first LP has been anticipated since he began posting early tracks on the Internet. The final result, Brutal, combines Akin’s considerable skill with the best of today’s indie sound into a genuinely impressive debut album.
Opener “Vacation” begins with a simple, strummed riff on a guitar’s low strings, calling to mind Elliot Smith. Akin’s voice has none of Smith’s distant wispiness, however; he chooses instead to channel Thom Yorke or Muse’s Matthew Bellamy, delivering his lyrics in a strained, slightly nasal tone with an emotive, wavering quality. Those lyrics are here and throughout the album primarily concerned with individuality and youth – Akin’s persona alternates between a precocious, frenzied high-school student just finding his voice and the keynote speaker at your graduation. “Start a revolution,” he advises as his simple riff is joined by piano and reverb-heavy electric guitar.
Unfortunately, very little about Akin’s music is revolutionary. Clear Tigers is heavily influenced by indie rock’s usual suspects. Bits of Radiohead, the Arcade Fire and Animal Collective are scattered throughout; a “brutal” round of spot-the-influence would make for a very effective drinking game. Somehow, though, Akin manages to avoid contrivance and remain surprising. “Deathray” opens with a sequenced synth line that would easily fit into a “Final Fantasy” game, and the final, lurching solo ends an otherwise mournful song of a menacing note. “Kids,” a waltzing acoustic track with plenty of tinkling piano, suddenly unleashes a bona fide Lynyrd Skynyrd-style solo that changes the feel of the entire song. “Won’t Be Back” grooves along at 3/4-time with a dirty, bluesy vengeance, and by the time “Hotel” starts its thrashing assault you’ll be ready for just about anything.
There are moments of striking power on Brutal, built on a foundation of contrast and climax. Each manifests itself in Akin’s skillful application of the quiet-loud formula. Take “Igloo,” for example, a track that owes much to Animal Collective. Its sedate acoustic guitar and bouncy synth are gradually joined by sparse bass drum, marching snare and wonderfully fluid lead guitar, culminating in the sort of moment that makes you close your eyes and tilt your head back. Even “Summer School,” which, with its “Cherub Rock” central riff and “Tonight, Tonight” breakdown – seriously, it sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins – is one of Brutal‘s most mystifying tracks. It manages to insert a clean, arpeggiated bridge in the middle of a chugging modern rock riff without cheesiness or irony. That’s where the climax comes in: Akin is proving to be a master of musical catharsis, specializing in it-all-comes-together moments.
Though it’s obvious that Akin is still finding his own style, Brutal is an album that’s struggling for anything but, and shines with moments of genuine inspiration.
Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars