As was pointed out in our recent feature on the Ohio-bred trio, Emeralds' latest album, Just to Feel Anything, quite distinctly marks a shift in the band's predominently ambient, synth-focused sound, which came about in part as a change of approach to writing and recording the music. Apparently, after the success of 2010's outstanding Does it Look Like I'm Here?, the three musicians no longer have the time to casually meet up, get stoned, and jam indefinitely until something clicks. Plans have to be made now, travel arrangements and studio time booked well in advance. Maybe it's less romantic than a group of friends casually creating breathtaking, open-ended synth music in their free time, but this newfound sense of purpose and direction shines through on Just to Feel Anything and effectively moves Emeralds' music into relatively unfamiliar realms.
Steve Hauschildt's and John Eliot's Korgs and Rolands still populate the foreground of most tracks here, with guitarist Mark McGuire's cutting tones flanking each bubbling sequence and gummy pad. But now, everything ambles about less; there's a stronger internal drive to each of Just to Feel Anything's seven compositions. For better or for worse, Emeralds has become something closer to a globetrotting post-rock band than a group of talented gear heads twiddling knobs in the basement, which owes as much to the trio's new songwriting approach as it does the addition of drum machines. Surprisingly, this LP marks the first time the Clevelanders have used so much as a hi-hat in their music. Opener "Before Your Eyes" puts a TR-909 on full display almost from the get-go, its drum-roll rhythms helping evoke the sound of bands like Explosions in the Sky with assistance from stratospheric chord progressions, glassy electronics, and charging basslines.
In fact, the change between albums is so drastic that enjoying Emeralds' latest might ultimately boil down to being okay with the band sometimes sounding more like Mogwai than Tangerine Dream. Though the title track initially harkens back to the drifting mélanges of synth arpeggiations and subtle noodlings heard throughout Does it Look Like I'm Here?, it eventually launches into a veritable anthem propelled by lofty electric-guitar solos and ticking beats. Much like the title track of Emeralds' previous LP, "Just to Feel Anything" is undoubtedly the centerpiece and pinnacle of this record. Maybe it's also a perfect microcosm of the band's new sound, a full-fledged display of how to perfectly harness each of the artists' talents for melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, and dynamics into one flawlessly arranged and balanced piece of instrumental music. "Adrenochrome" is equally strong and straightforward, but opts for a cyclical, Moroder-esque format instead of a slow-building push of emotive melodies and glistening synths. Emeralds nonetheless sounds wholly confident on the six-minute track, dropping in gurgling analog noise and melodies that jump and skip around the quick-footed tempos until McGuire's licks swoop down and carry the whole pulsing thing off into a pink-and-purple sunset.
Part of what makes Just to Feel Anything such a rewarding listen is its ability to quickly shift between aerial jams and understated lulls without abandoning Emeralds' unspoken ethos. "Through & Through"'s swelling pads and tender guitar plucks sound something like Angelo Badalamenti scoring a love scene for a Sergio Leone film (just to be clear, that's definitely a compliment). The stark desolation of "The Loser Keeps America Clean" is an unexpected waypoint while approaching Anything's closing tracks, but nonetheless serves its purpose as a palette cleanser after the messy, overcrowded wank session of "Everything is Inverted." Once the guitar-led "Search for Me in the Wasteland" arrives to send us away into the incandescent night, its mystically somber moods offer a comedown that's as necessary as it is earned.
Likely because of its seven-song tracklist—as opposed to the 12 offerings of Emeralds' previous LP—Just to Feel Anything breezes by in what feels like a surprisingly brief 42 minutes of colorful ambience and sparkling melody, though the record never feels slight or lacking in ambition. The band has, in a sense, grown up a bit, moved on from its homegrown beginnings to discover what else it can be. New age, Italo, kosmiche, prog rock, ambient, and even '80s hair metal are explored throughout Anything. Of course, it doesn't always come together perfectly, but overall, Emeralds successfully balances its new sound on the diminishing line that separates nostalgic kitsch and heart-on-sleeve earnestness without sounding beholden to either side. To put it another way: Hauschildt, Eliot, and McGuire are simply staying true to themselves—unexpected changes, flawed experimentations, and all. It's hard to think of anything more to ask from a band of such gifted musicians.