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NorthPilot: The Bright Brigade EP

April 5, 2011

Chicago has always been a hotbed for musical talent. For several generations, bands such as Chicago, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Smashing Pumpkins and Wilco have represented the Windy City’s musical reverence with a dignity only found in music that accomplish the ever-pressing task of balancing popular sound and individual stylistics.

Now, with the exit of the first decade of our latest century, Chicago’s champion of sound is somewhat lost. While Fall Out Boy had a good run into the latter end of the decade, the power-pop-punk phase has been diluted by a new generation of electronic infused revolutionaries, enthralling crowds with oscillating basses and flashy lights, while the classic vibrations of rock music hide in the wings.

Now comes Northpilot.

Northpilot is not satisfied with simplicity, but rather an almost scientific approach to layering music that is not only beautiful, but deep.

Devout followers of the Windy City rock scheme, this band has been chiseling its sound since 2006, growing from four members, to a powerful sextet in recent years. Earning a spot in the Top 8 of Lollapalooza’s 2007 “Last Band Standing” competition, the group is building an impressive resume in a town where talent is stacked as high as its residential towers.

Members Travis Shaver (vocals, guitar), Mark Colwell (vocals, guitar, horns, keys) Dan Julian (percussion), Matt Cragnolin (vocals, bass guitar), Justin Vittori (guitar) and Danielle Schnurer (vocals, keys) offer a deep assemblage of instruments that is both powerful and dangerous. It’s the type of armament that, if not unified artfully, can be disastrous.

Last October found the release of The Bright Brigade EP, the band’s premier release; a five-song journey through the many coats of this band. This music isn’t simple and it isn’t straightforward. Like a birthday cake, there’s just too many layers to dissect in one bite.

Right off the bat, the pounding, reverberating guitars of “Radio Lawyers” invites you to the madness. Another regular alternative-rock outfit ready to be filed away with the rest…but wait. The settling drums only offer a precursor to Shaver’s, dare I say, ‘Bono-like’ vocals, which deliver a more gallant vibe than you first anticipated. You’ll find yourself hanging on the lyrics, as the guitars surprisingly crash you back into a wall of sound, at just a level you can withstand.

The cover to the Bright Brigade EP, released in October of 2010.

“Naked Before My Captors” stumbles into an uplifting climax in which Shaver’s accompanying vocals straddle the sounds of classic Muse, with relentless guitar strumming, all to an immaculate, powerful backing piano. The moaning echo of Shaver’s voice at times leaves you lost in a void of noise, where there is no up, nor down; no right, nor wrong. Yet its these moments, when you search all these layers of recording, that you appreciate the smallest roots of the song; notably, the ambient background vocals that echo the composition like a phantom.

The band takes an unplugged approach to the opening of “Beautiful Raincoat.” The electric guitar quickly returns, but with a more supportive, surf lead. Once Colwell’s piano butts in, you’re reminded that the sound of this group is too mature to be a surf anthem, but also too talented for a lower-class sendoff. Some of Shaver’s lyrics shine through best on this anthem…We treat our friends like baseball cards/we hold on to the ones that will bank in the end. The playful support of the drums, guitars and piano offer what is ultimately, a chill indie B-side that, if you’re smart, will find its special unsuspecting place in one of your playlists soon.

“The Conductors Jaw (Eagle Bop)” returns the flow to the more complex, fuzzy arrangement of guitar riffs, all beautifully wrapped with a lean, lead guitar that resounds a Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. (Think “The Sprawl”) Yet this animal is much more accessible than SY; although perhaps more fragile? The bridge is infectious, with impressive lead guitars traveling up and down your sound spectrum, owning your attention. Shaver’s vocal delivery now has me convinced that he is a second coming of Bono. Don’t worry; I’m talking about the Joshua Tree-era Bono.

The piano returns to the forefront for “Ochre Written Flint,” the EP’s closing number. Schnurer lends her lone female vocals to accompany Shaver’s in what starts as a sweet duet. Colwell even adds an echoing trumpet in the background, while the clicking drum beats sound like a lost Radiohead project. This is the darkest tune in the collection, with ambient, wooing vocals eliminating your lyrical dissections.

The Windy City is awaiting its next great wave to blow through, clearing the air of the clutter and leaving an honest sound that is reflective of our impulsive emotions these days. Northpilot offers more than your average rock band, which is imperative in an age where our well of music runs deeper than ever.

This is a sound worth dissecting, whether you find pleasure through the music, or pleasure through the journey. Eventually you’ll remember…it’s all the same in the end.

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