Arc & Stones – Arc & Stones Release Date: February 12, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released
Making a good first impression is an important thing for a band to do at the top of their debut or breakthrough project, especially if they are making music within a genre that has recently become cluttered with a range of sound-alike acts. Some of my favorite albums of all time, from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run to the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse, are arguably defined by their first few seconds, and I am constantly looking for similar moments, moments that send a shiver of anticipation down my spine and a promise of impending greatness through my ears. Arc & Stones, a soulful blues-rock four-piece from New York City, don’t quite reach those heights at the outset of their debut eponymous EP, but they get close enough that I had to stop everything I was doing to pay attention the first time I pressed play. This is a band I had never heard of until a few days ago, a band that dropped their first recorded output in February, and a band that has spent the intervening months playing live shows and earning a fanbase, but from the promise showcased on opening track “Silence,” these guys have what it takes to become something more.
The way the record opens, with the pulsing electric heartbeat of a rhythm guitar and a haunting melodic motive doubled between the lead guitar and a distant, tinkling piano, it sets the scene for the song and the record perfectly. By the time frontman Dan Pellarin delivers his first lines—“Killing time never came without thinking of every word that she said,” he sings in a charismatic blues drawl, somewhere between the dirty garage grunge of the Black Keys and the raucous R&B rock of Gary Clark Jr.—I knew I was in for a ride. On “Silence,” Arc & Stones impressed me because they seemingly arrived fully formed. Pellarin drives everything, of course, overseeing the operation with a soaring classic rock hook and an interesting use of songwriting progression that keeps the song from becoming a dull verse-chorus slog.
Pellarin also propels things along with his booming rhythmic guitar. The guy plays the guitar like he’s playing bass, delivering repetitious notes and chords that provide a solid grounding for the rest of the band to build upon. It’s an interesting template, one that works partially because the production—supplied by relatively unknown producer and studio engineer, Jeremy Griffith—sounds significantly more expensive than it undoubtedly was. Considering Arc & Stones’ start-up status and do-it-yourself aesthetic, it’s unlikely that the band had much money to throw at studio bills. However, Griffith makes this EP sound like a major label flagship, with ringing guitar tones, evocative piano licks, and organic vocal lines that span the spectrum of intensity. On “Silence,” it sounds as if Pellarin’s vocals are about to blow your speakers out; on the lush acoustic number, “Let Me Down,” it sounds like his performance, a ringing and soulful delivery that feels like it belongs on an Amos Lee record, could have been captured live.
Even on more generic hard rock numbers like “She’s Mine” and set closer “Rise,” Arc & Stones are still an utterly formidable set of musicians. Guitarist Ben Cramer’s thrashing slide guitar lead on the former propels the song into barnstorming Led Zeppelin territory, while the latter sounds like the band’s paean to 1990s grunge, Pellarin mugging like Eddie Veddar on his lower register verse melodies and Joey Doino crushing his drum kit throughout the chaotic chorus. “Rise” even climaxes with a pyrotechnic guitar solo, though it’s hard not to wish that Ben Cramer got the chance to carry the song out with a more indulgent showcase of his hard rock shredding skills.
Still, those two songs represent a disappointing conclusion to an EP that starts off in top form. It feels almost as if Arc & Stones regress throughout the record, moving from the innovative use of verses, choruses, and bridges on songs like “Silence” and the riff-heavy “Say Goodbye,” to a more generic modern rock sound on “She’s Mine” and “Rise.” The fact that the band reaches its highest watermark with an acoustic-oriented folk-rock tune (“Let Me Down”) shows that they know how to play up their best elements—the tightness of the band, the great production values, and the sheer vocal prowess of Pellarin—in order to make their mark. I certainly don’t think Arc & Stones need to unplug their instruments to be a great band. Holding Cramer back from his big moments would undoubtedly be a mistake. But in being careful not to let their extremely guitar-oriented brand of rock drift into dicey, Creed-esque post-grunge territory (as it does a bit on “Rise”), Arc & Stones can assure that they continue to be what they are at the start of this record: one of the most promising unsigned acts in America.