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Valley of the Giants - Valley of the Giants

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Artist: Valley of the Giants

Album: Valley of the Giants

Label: Arts & Crafts

Review date: Feb. 25, 2004

Valley of the Giants is your typical “post-rock” collective, if such a thing exists. They’re Canadian, hail from various different other bands (Broken Social Scene, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Shalabi Effect), and mostly write instrumentals somewhere in the nine-to-ten minute range. And then there’s the all-important “concept”: Westworld was inspired, the liner notes tell us, by the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, which stars Yul Brynner as a robot cowboy in a futuristic amusement park gone awry. It’s pretty much like Jurassic Park, except with cowboys rather than dinosaurs. In any case, aside from some specific references on one of the album’s few vocal tracks (“Westworld”), the film’s influence is more atmospheric than thematically explicit. Westworld creates a slightly eerie wild west atmosphere by taking a vaguely Tex-Mex musical palette (as employed by Calexico, Neko Case, et al.) and stretching it to epic proportions. Some of the results are unsurprising – long passages of reverb-soaked guitars, droning violins, and so forth – but at its best moments, the album skirts such clichés in favor of a more eclectic and eccentric approach.

Some of the material (“Claudia & Klaus,” “Waiting to Catch a Bullet”) suffers a bit from formlessness and inertia; the band creates an evocative atmosphere, but doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it. The strongest tracks on Westworld, in contrast, employ the tried and true “start quiet, finish loud” formula. “Cantara Sin Guitara,” the most effective instrumental, begins with a simple acoustic guitar motif, eventually incorporates a minor-key violin line, and then ultimately erupts into horn-fueled frenzy. “Beyond the Valley” is likewise inventive and successful, commencing with a synth whistle that evokes Sergio Leone’s Morricone-scored westerns, and gradually building to a chaotic flurry of distorted guitars, screeching violin, and spastic drumming – as in Westworld (the film), it’s as though the cowboy robot starts off just how we like him, the real-life incarnation of our cinematic imaginings, only to go haywire and start blowing up everything in sight. The only departure from the western motif, the spoken-word narrative “Whaling Tale,” is intriguing enough, relating the tale of an imperiled rock penguin (“it’s a small penguin, not a king penguin”) caught amidst a gang of killer whales. What it’s doing on this album, however, isn’t quite clear.

Westworld may invite some skepticism, given the familiarity of the musical ground it treads; certainly, the whole cinematic western theme has been explored by countless other artists (the aforementioned Calexico, Friends of Dean Martinez, and who knows how many alt-country acts), and as a result has worn somewhat thin. Valley of the Giants runs into the same problem, too often relying on secondhand sounds rather than creating their own. Furthermore, Westworld sometimes feels a bit tossed-off and uninspired; there’s no reason for a directionless collection of drones and noodling like “Waiting to Catch a Bullet” to go on for 10 minutes, and one often gets the impression that the band is recording just for the sake of putting something on tape rather than because they really have something to say (or play, as the case may be). The stretches of tedium notwithstanding, Westworld isn’t a bad effort; at its best, it’s downright haunting, and at even at its worst, it creates an unobjectionable ambience that wouldn’t be unfit for a film soundtrack.

By Michael Cramer

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