After two intriguing self-released EPs, varied Virginian double-guitar four-piece Corsair return with their first full-length. Self-titled and self-released, like its predecessors, in a folded digi-box with a hand-screened cover, Corsair’s Corsair is the Charlottesville unit’s most progressive outing yet, comprised of eight wide-ranging tracks totaling 37:43. As on 2011’s Ghosts of Proxima Centauri (review here) and 2010’s Alpha Centauri (review here) guitarists Paul Sebring and Marie Landragin and bassist Jordan Brunk share vocal duties between them, leaving only drummer Aaron Lipscombe without a mic, but if the fact that Corsair isn’t named after a star is to signify anything, let it stand for the shift away from space rock that the band has undertaken. These songs, in addition to being their most complex to date, are also their most grounded. They take their richness from the interplay between Sebring and Landragin, who often line up for harmonic flourishes in lead sections and accordingly complement the melodic vocals. Musically, that leaves Brunk and Lipscombe occasionally in a sonic place where they need to keep or catch up, but the rhythm section has no problem doing it and Corsair keep their tightness for the duration, veering only for the more open post-rock ambience of the closer, “The Desert,” on which Landragin’s vocals top echoing guitar squibblies and the mood shifts toward the pastoral side that some of the soloing has hinted at all along, at least earlier on. The album is something of a shift still from Ghosts of Proxima Centauri, though as that EP was a grounding from the first, the progression in Corsair’s sound feels natural. If I hadn’t been introduced to the first EP when it came out, the phrase “space rock” would probably never enter into it, even for “The Desert,” and I’d be more like to compare the harmonic noodling to the likes of Iron Maiden or the post-Mastodon/post-Baroness new school of metallic prog.
Maybe all that’s a fancy way of saying Corsair dig Thin Lizzy, and if so, fair enough. They put the influence to decent use especially on the bouncing “Chaemera,” which follows crunchier instrumental opener “Agathyrsi” and features Brunk’s vocals, and finds the guitars holding out individual chords for the bass to run fills under during the verse, leading to a more winding chorus. Both Landragin and Sebring give more than solid showings as lead players almost immediately on “Agathyrsi,” with distinct but ultimately cohesive tones between them, and as with the tiered build of the opener, for much of Corsair, it’s the guitars responsible for driving the songs. Just as well, as Corsair has already proven their ability to write intricate and individualized material without losing sight of their technical appeal, and cuts like the classic pop-rocking “Falconer” seem to affirm this same penchant. Lipscombe particularly seems to revel in the straightforward groove that ensues during the opening section and again later, spending the verse alternating between his ride and crash cymbals while peppering in choice fills along the way, which sets up the more classic metal-derived “Gryphon Wing,” on which Sebring takes the fore vocally for a tale of riding the sky and victories earned. The disparity of influence between “Gryphon Wing” and “Falconer” preceding is enough to suggest multiple songwriters, and the latter track shows a patience in its later instrumental progression that eventually pays itself off in several measures of intertwined guitar leads, culminating in a well-plotted section on which Sebring and Landragin seem to foreshadow the sunshining to come at the album’s end.
Evident, however, by the halfway mark of Corsair’s Corsair is the fact that the songs are held back by the production. A natural feel allows them to play up the Thin Lizzy tone in the guitars, but songs like “Gryphon Wing” or the side B kickoff “Path of the Chosen Arrow” – also fronted by Sebring – are more intricate than the sound of the record immediately conveys, and the overall dynamic suffers. Likewise to the vocal arrangements, which are no less in-depth than the guitars. I make it a general policy not to hold production value against bands who are self-releasing, and Corsair recorded all but Lipscombe’s drums on their own – Brunk mixed and did a good job of it – but four minutes into “Path of the Chosen Arrow,” when the riff picks up with a delightful late-‘70s/early-‘80s drama in the solo soon to come, there’s an element of vibrancy and excitement missing. The leads prove worthy of a Bible of the Devil or even Slough Feg comparison, but it’s here that the technique outshines the presentation most of all on the album, and where on the initial EPs, if that happened, it was less of a standout because a band’s first releases can get by just giving a basic idea of what the songs are about, especially for a first full-length and one so gorgeously composed, I want more than just that basic idea. In that context, the fleet riffing of “Mach” would also make more sense as an instrumental breather following “Path of the Chosen Arrow” and “Gryphon Wing” if the former landed with its intended impact. Sebring continues to show his flair for the epic in the more compact “Of Kings and Cowards,” which at 2:38 boils down many of the ideas that the band has already presented on the record – the progressive heaviness, the forward rhythmic drive, stellar guitar work and semi-fantasy-based lyrics – into a concise, catchy statement of songwriting purpose. I wouldn’t want “Of Kings and Cowards” to be the whole album, but it works well where it is and in terms of what it both underscores about the other songs and presents clearly on its own. Particularly as the penultimate cut before “The Desert,” it is a quick but enticing summary of much of what has worked about Corsair’s first full-length.
And that being the case, the reverbed loveliness of “The Desert” is all the more of a surprise afterwards, catching listeners off-guard with elements not entirely separate from the rest of the album, but certainly not brought to the fore as much as they are here. Landragin’s vocal further stands the track out, as it is her only spot on the record as the lead singer – a role she nonetheless proves able to play. At about four minutes in, “The Desert” turns its churn on its head with heavier riffing (Brunk’s basslines preceding and following are some of the record’s most fluid), and Corsair finally end heavy, kicking in distortion for more chaotic riffing before derailing to the feedback and amp noise that closes the album. It could’ve stifled some of the clarity of ideas, but Corsair’s Corsair is bolstered by its varied sound, and while in no small part because of the recording it does more to convey potential than a band having arrived at an already working modus of craft, it’s nonetheless an exciting listen in the context of how the band has developed in just the short two years since their first release. The hope, as always, is that they learn from what works about it and what doesn’t work about it and put those lessons to use on the next one, becoming even stronger in the process. If their current rate of development is any indicator, they should have no trouble in that regard.
Tags: Charlottesville, Corsair, Corsair band, Corsair band Charlottesville, Corsair self-titled, Corsair Virginia, Unsigned bands, Virginia