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Count the Electric Sheep EP
by Whale|Horse
self-produced (2006)
Count the Electric Sheep EP
Some of you may be familiar with a ska band by the name of Slapstick, a Chicago six-piece whose heyday came and went in the pit-skanking frenzy of the early 90's. Even if the name doesn't ring any bells, odds are that most of you are more than familiar with the principle members of Slapstick—people like Dan Adriano, Dan Hanaway, Rob Kellenberger, and Brendan Kelly.

Still nothing? Hrm... how about offshoot bands like Tuesday, Alkaline Trio, the Broadways, the Lawrence Arms, the Honor System, Colossal, and the Falcon?

Pressing on, the story of Whale|Horse begins with the death of Slapstick, or roughly ten years ago. Former ska trumpeter Dan Hanaway and vocalist Brendan Kelly stuck together after the break-up, eventually forming a punk-rock outfit called the Broadways. Both adopted the guitar as their new instrument of choice; they also drafted Chris McCaughan and Rob DePaola on drums and bass, respectively. But, like Slapstick, the Broadways' energetic, riff-heavy rock was short-lived. After a two-way split in 1998, Kelly and McCaughan formed the Lawrence Arms with Neil Hennessy, while Hanaway and DePaola created the Honor System with the help of Chris Carr and Tyler Wiseman.

Both acts were punk-bred, thriving on power-chords, thundering percussion, and angst-ridden shouts to get their amplified politicking across to hordes of swarming, sweaty kids in local bars and basements. Though the Lawrence Arms stuck with the formula of melodic, three-chord punk-rock á la Fifteen and NOFX, the Honor System took a decidedly different track of harsher riffs, angular licks, and darker themes (think Jawbreaker meets Fugazi). Gone were the cozy, we're-all-in-this-together sing-along choruses. In their place was a punch in the face masquerading as an open handshake—lines of bitter prose on stained paper, wrapped around a rock and thrown through the bay window of suburban comfort. "There are things wrong with this world that we're not fixing," Hanaway seemed to sing, "and simply playing music, going to a show, or buying a CD can't make it right."

It almost made you feel guilty to listen. The sound was abrasive, yes, but it was honest, and even heartfelt. The lyrics were cynical, but they were certainly engaging.

Still, Hanaway &co. had not come anywhere near the peak successes of either Alkaline Trio or the Lawrence Arms, and the Honor System went on hiatus shortly after the 2003 release of their second full-length, The Rise and Run. Not ones to let any grass grow under their feet, Wiseman and Hanaway began work on a new project with assistance from Pines drummer Jason Kyrouac and the Ghost's former bassist, Jordan Schalich. This resulted in a handful of live performances and a few rough mp3 demos in early 2005, followed by long stretches of... well, nothing. Schalich and Kyrouac soon left to pursue other interests; luckily, the return of Chris Carr and the introduction of ex-Sweep the Leg Johnny drummer Scott Anna kept the Whale|Horse project alive and playing.

Back to the studio they went, and after rerecording the old demos and cutting some new tracks, Whale|Horse finally had a debut release in the works. The end result was Count the Electric Sheep, a self-produced six-song EP recorded by Carr at Blackbox Studios, Chicago. By comparison to the early demos, Count the Electric Sheep is a lot cleaner—the vocals are less muddy, the drum tracks sound less like canned synth and far more dynamic, and the hard-rock riffs have been brought to the forefront. Stylistically, it's not that far of a cry from the dense post-punk of the Honor System: driving percussion, sustained riffs, dueling licks, solid bass lines, and the signature Hanaway croon. As such, many of the tracks on Count the Electric Sheep tend to sound like bland, neutered versions of the Honor System. It's too much of the same, and it sounds like Whale|Horse knows it.

The ironic thing is that the rerecorded tracks are arguably lackluster when compared with the originals. The levels are now mastered, true, but the revised songs feel strained. The slightly quickened pacing of "Pain Don't Hurt" and the stripped-down effects of "Count the Electric Sheep" sound rushed and over-rehearsed, effectively sucking the freshness out of their otherwise catchy hooks and melodies. From the raucous riffs of "While You Were Sleeping" and the electric jangle of "Jux" to the upbeat rhythm of "Chinese Lightning," the new tracks do sound better, but only in terms of technique. But in-studio tricks and cleaner run-throughs can't make up for the lost intangibles and the ho-hum feeling of blasé presentation, or for Hanaway sounding like he's trying a bit too hard on the vocal end of things (he ends up pulling a post-punk impersonation of Brandon Flowers, believe it or not).

Forced tremolo notwithstanding, this may simply be my general disappointment that I only really like one track on the entire EP. As far as that goes, Whale|Horse go full force with the apocalyptic "Anatomy of a Defector," a track that fleshes out their irregular rhythms with layered arpeggios and a fantastic instrumental outro. It's good—remarkably so, and surely a hint at what Whale|Horse can do when they feel up to it. (If you want other examples, check the demos that are still available on www.purevolume.com/whalehorse.) But it's not enough to salvage an EP that's running on fumes.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (September 28th, 2006)

Tags: audio, review, whale|horse, count the electric sheep


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