Back to Rockville

The music blog of The Kansas City Star

On ‘Lost Bees,’ Life and Times delivers plenty of rewards, surprises

08/06/2014 7:00 AM

08/06/2014 12:00 PM

When Allen Epley and his band the Life and Times started to record their latest album, “Lost Bees,” Epley had one thing in mind:

“The stakes are high for us as we get older and hang around,” Epley told Ink magaine in January. “We kind of need to justify why we’re still together and doing this. We need to keep evolving. And writing good songs. I’m trying to learn songcraft, and I feel like I’m getting better at it.”

“Lost Bees,” released on Tuesday, is the seventh recording by the Life and Times and its fourth full-length album. It’s also the band’s first self-produced album. Over the course of 10 songs, it delivers the sound of a band that indeed keeps evolving and improving its craft.

Epley started the band in Kansas City in 2003 after the breakup of Shiner, a math-rock band that had achieved revered cult status over the course of 11 years but never quite reached the commercial success it deserved. Life and Times represented a new direction for Epley, and with each recording, the band has forged its own distinct sound, one rooted in Shiner’s trademarks (dissonance, melody and off-kilter grooves) but bearing more accessibility and variety. In other words, less math rock, more space rock.

“Lost Bees” opens with “Again,” a celestial hymn that quickly erupts into a percussive tumult and a blitzkrieg of enervated guitars, two forces that sound at war with each other. But over the top of that clamor, Epley lays down a pastoral, melodic vocal that tempers the derangement. It’s a feast of dynamics: skyscraping and supernal, but heavy and urgent.

“Ice Cream Eyes” is the next track and it jumps out of the gate with a guitar riff that sounds copped from the Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” But there’s plenty else going on: a storm of galloping drums, a funky bass line and a battery of guitar riffs and filigrees. (The rhythm section of bassist Eric Abert and drummer Chris Metcalf is outstanding throughout.)

Amid the fracas, a melody emerges and Epley lays down the tuneful vocals, breaking into a falsetto on the chorus. It’s another dynamic ride, one that shimmers as much as it roars.

The ensuing track, “Eyes and Teeth,” delivers the hardest twist on an album filled with surprise and interesting turns. It opens with a wall of ethereal keyboards, peals of guitar, some austere percussion and affected vocals. It’s narcoleptic and acid-washed, like Bon Iver meets Nine Inch Nails.

Halfway through, the track is punctuated with blurts of electronic flatulence that return at the end, sounding like a hovering helicopter, setting a rhythm that is picked up immediately by the next track, the instrumental “Maserati,” one of the album’s best. It’s a jarring detonation of guitars, jousting with and lunging at each other, as if in a knife fight. More derangement arises, especially from Metcalf on the drums, and there is tension and, ultimately, resolution.

“Bored to Death,” the next track, is a groovy, midtempo ballad, buttered with dreamy vocals and embroidered with an array of guitars and effects. From here on, the album doesn’t lose much altitude — it’s still space rock, plenty celestial and extraterrestrial — but the weather changes enough to keep things interesting. And Epley’s guitar work is consistently dazzling and interesting, always rendered in the service of the song, not for the sake of fireworks or self-indulgence.

“Passion Pit,” the album’s official “single,” is certainly worthy of radio: sneaky melodic but heavy and busy, buttressed by more guitar flack and Epley’s raspy falsetto. On “Palatine,” acoustic guitars make their only appearance. And though initially it sounds as if Radiohead might have gotten its hands on a lost Oasis track, it soon turns into something more resounding, more tribal and hypnotic.

“We Are” bears more Shiner traits than any on “Lost Bees,” but it, too, is an arresting collision of guitar mayhem, manic percussion and melody.

“Lost Bees” was recorded with some inherent constraints: Epley and Abert live in Chicago, and Metcalf lives in Kansas City. That meant some long-distance accommodations.

“The mindset is we get in the studio and, hell or high water, we come out with a whole song or the genesis of the idea of a song,” Epley said. It’s all business because we really need to get things done.

“With Chris in Kansas City, the limitations are what they are. But technology has allowed us to do certain things digitally so we can piece things together. It’s not the same as playing a song in the same room 50 times. Intangible details emerge when you do that. But the plus side is the way we do it now allows us to remain a band and move forward.

“A lateral move or retro move back to sounds of older records does us no favors. We need to move forward and try new things, take chances. That’s the inspiration.”

Growth and evolution are evident all over “Lost Bees,” a triumphant fourth record from a veteran band that has figured out that the best rewards are those inspired by risk and surprise.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

Onstage

The Life and Times performs Thursday at the Riot Room, 4048 Broadway. Loose Park and TwinSmith open. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission to the 21-and-older show is $10.

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