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Pocket Panda: The Arrangement of Molecules
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/3/2015)
When you think about it, one of the things that sets rock music apart from more traditional musical disciplines is that just about anybody can play it, and it’s generally fun to do so. And despite its proliferation, there are a relatively small numbers of bands who can make their living playing music. But because of the accessible nature of rock, a lot of people play it, and though they may have started in their youth in a garage band, many continue to play it as they move into other careers with doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, prominent politicians and the like still playing rock in bands on the side. Most of the time it’s mainly for fun, but there are those who take also the music pretty seriously, and sometimes that can find its way into the music they make.
This time we have an interesting group who have been called “the most educated band in Seattle” by fans. They are Pocket Panda and their new, full-length debut album is called This Arrangement of Molecules, a title whose origin may become apparent after hearing the back story of the group’s founder Eric Herbig.
Herbig’s mother was a strong advocate of the arts, so at age 4, she started Herbig on ballet lessons, dreaming that her son might one day be a prominent ballet dancer. But Eric was not interested in going in that direction, so he and his mother settled on piano lessons, and he absorbed elements of classical music, which can sometimes be hinted at in the elaborate arrangements in Pocket Panda’s music. Herbig eventually took up the guitar.
When Herbig’s mother died of an illness at an early age, one of her dying wishes was that her son go on to graduate school and study microbiology. Eric did just that and got his Ph.D. in molecular biology, but the music was still with him, and he set about recruiting a band, and ended up with a group of similarly educated players, with eleven academic degrees among the members. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Pocket Panda’s music tends to be sophisticated and multi-layered. And there’s a bit of the alternative-rock influenced slightly anarchic quality of groups like Arcade Fire. But Pocket Panda have their own distinctive stylistic mixture with often-shifting time signatures, four-part vocal harmonies, a full-time violinist in the band, and occasional folky instruments like mandolin and banjo, as has been popularized by Mumford & Sons. So the result is a distinctive and engaging record that has elements that cross stylistic and generational lines.
Leading off it one the tracks more likely to appeal to mainstream audiences. There You Go, which is a fairly sophisticated love song. <<>>
The group also ventures into other lyrical topics beyond the usual love-songs. Baghdad Ballad School begins with some tape of George W. Bush going on about the Iraq war, while the song deals with the disruptions that war causes to the pursuit of the the more human activities, especially among children. <<>>
The folky elements mix with a kind of alternative-progressive rock fusion on a track called Garden with its quirky shifting meters. <<>>
Afraid of Love is among the more musically interesting tracks showing the group’s progressive rock tendencies with more of Pocket Panda’s tricky but engaging arrangements. <<>>
There is another song with war as its backdrop. Setting Sun. In this case it’s a love song against the background of the hostilities. <<>>
As if to underscore the band’s science degree pedigree, the album contains a piece called Simultaneity which is basically a spoken explanation of the consequences of Einstein’s Special Relativity. <<>>
Little Angel is another of the band’s tunes likely to have wider appeal. The positive lyrics and the bright acoustic instruments are a contrast to the somewhat intricate arrangement. <<>>
The album ends with In the Snow another piece with one of the band’s complicated but engaging musical orchestrations. <<>>
This Arrangement of Molecules the new CD by Pocket Panda, led by microbiologist Eric Herbig, is a creative and engaging record that brings together elements of folk-influence from the acoustic instrumentation, an alternative rock ethos along with progressive rock style arrangements. The material is well-written and the playing enthusiastic. Sometimes, the musical complexities reach the point that they can be a little distracting or lacking focus, but overall it shows a lot of creativity and sophistication. The Seattle-based band has released two previous recordings, an EP and a single going back to 2013, so this is their first full-blown album, and it’s an impressive debut.
In terms of sound quality, we’ll give the recording a B-plus. The mix has everything in about the right place, there are not too many unnecessary studio effects. The sonic clarity could have been a little better, and as usual, the dynamic range of the music, which should be rather wide-ranging given the material, is compressed in a misguided quest for loudness, until most of the dynamics are lost.
There are a lot of diverse bands to come out of Seattle. In a way, Pocket Panda is a kind of epitome of the diverse scene there, musically, along with the demographic mix including advanced academic degrees. It’s an engaging combination.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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