By: Eric Greenwood
Kansas City, Missouri's Allen Epley is underrated. And I don't mean underrated in the sense that he's a talented musician that maybe you should have heard of by now- I mean it in the sense that it's a crime that this man isn't worshipped by anyone who understands how a guitar works. Ok, maybe that's overstating it a bit. But not much. The point is this guy has written some amazing songs that you probably haven't heard, and that's a damn shame.
I don't really even believe in the concept of being "underrated", but if there has to be one, then Epley is it. His band, Shiner outlasted and outgunned so many of its muscular, mathematically adept post-rock peers with colossal recorded statements like 1997's Lula Divinia, and, especially, 2001's masterfully ambitious, The Egg, but the masses failed to catch on. Frustrated by the limited reach of its music after years of touring and enduring the promotional machine, Shiner disbanded to pursue other outlets.
In the two and a half years since Shiner played its last show, Epley has cultivated The Life and Times. As was the case with Shiner, line-up changes have stymied The Life and Times' level of productivity, but, if nothing else, Epley knows how to persevere to his gain. The Life and Times' 2003 debut EP, The Flat End of the Earth, showcased Epley's recessive guitar instincts, as opposed to his former band's calculated crunch, and allowed him to make his raspy voice more prominent in the mix. That trend certainly extends to his band's first full-length, Suburban Hymns.
With a fairly secure line-up in place, The Life and Times finally has some firm footing. Suburban Hymns will surprise Shiner fans more so than did the Flat End of the Earth EP. Epley's taken to playing through a hollow-bodied Gibson guitar, which has changed his sound and his writing style completely. Where Shiner's music balanced complexity with equal parts melody and muscle, The Life and Times eschews convolution in favor of atmosphere and tunefulness. And lots of reverb. Epley's vocals soar above the songs, dangling in a vacuum of drenching echo.
You can sense a powerful undercurrent in every song, even if the expected loudness is held at bay. Epley's long-latent reverence to both R.E.M. and Swervedriver bubble to the surface, particularly on the driving "Coat of Arms" and "Charlotte Street." Epley's voice has always stood out in the alternative landscape. His register is lower than the average emo fruit and his delivery much more polished. It's a perfect balance of sweet and sour. The rough edges meld seamlessly with an effervescent falsetto that is powerful enough to carry several songs on its own, especially the heartbreakingly lovely "A Chorus of Crickets."
The catchy keyboard line that steers "My Last Hostage" sounds uncharacteristically upbeat for a band that rarely cracks so much as a smile underneath its moody veneer. Epley's penchant for shoegazer guitar rock prevails throughout Suburban Hymns, despite Chris Metcalf's and Eric Abert's challenging and commanding rhythm section. Epley's used to surrounding himself with stellar musicians, having worked with two of the finest (yes, underrated) drummers in Tim Dow and Jason Gerken, so he knows how to make a drummer fit his vision.
Suburban Hymns is not a typical band's debut album. It's far wiser, as Epley is a scene veteran with a decade's experience under his belt. Suburban Hymns (a subtle Verve reference?) beautifully evokes a consistent mood of longing and stunted acquiescence. Epley's vocal hooks are drawn out and expanded from the searing choruses of his Shiner days. The songs are immediate in and of themselves yet require repetition to sink in fully as one uninterrupted piece. The Life and Times' music is dynamic and powerful, combining post-punk rhythms with early '90's shoegaze. Few bands can rock with such delicate force, but The Life and Times prove to be masters of this art.