Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.

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Credit:  globo.com

The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.

ALBUM RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and property of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/entertainment/david-bowie-death/.   All rights, content, and property of the body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://g1.globo.com/musica/blog/antonio-carlos-miguel/post/blackstar-de-david-bowie-geraldo-vandre.html.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit or personal gain.

 

Review: Baroness – Purple

Does a trip into Floydian atmospheres save Baroness on their fouth LP release, Purple?  Not by much.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t really gotten into Baroness. I know that they have some freaking awesome album covers, all thanks to frontman, John Baizley, and their sound is placed deep in the stoner metal/sludge metal corner of metaldom.  Let’s say, Mastodon with a decent vocalist — well, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Baroness is a gateway band, a collection of everything that makes sludge/stoner music the delightfully muddy noise that it is.  However, Baroness enjoys throwing in a little atmosphere, here and there, and their latest album, Purple, brings this experiment to the forefront.

The latest primary color record is exactly what it sets out to be:  a combination of Blue[‘s] experimentation and Red[‘s] crunch.  It is clear, straight off, that the band decided to take a mainstream approach to songwriting, in that the structures are simple and melodic, but thick with metal textures.  Now, for the love ov God, don’t let that dreaded word, melodic, soil your skirt.  For the most part, this shit is lyrically and musically heavy. By throwing down hard rockers, such as, “Try to Disappear,” and adding beautiful, production-heavy flavors in the likes of, “Chlorine and Wine,” Baroness found their formula, not quite progressing or adding anything new, but merging the pieces found across their four LP discography into a sound summary.

Album singles, “Shock Me,” and “Chlorine and Wine,” have enough melody and technicality to keep the listener interested and show the bands’ musical maturity.  However, outside the more melodic, mass appealing tracks, we are served a helping of generic stoner rock/metal musings.  Take album opener, “Morningstar,” for example.  The track throws down some nice, sludgy riffs, but a lackluster, attempt for melody in the chorus throws the fan, and casual listener, off immediately.  Not a good way to start the album.

The entire album, unfortunately, suffers in this lack of engagement.  It’s nice.  It’s heavy.  It sounds pretty. But, have I wanted to go back for repeated listens? Not so much.  And, in the world of music reviews, this is the final nail in the coffin. Maybe my vision is obscured by Neurosis, Kyuss, Mastodon, and Melvins.  Maybe I’m turning into that typical, pretentious asshole again; who knows? Purple does little to add to the territory paved by their forebears, and that seems to be the overlying issue with the stoner subgenre.  It’s becoming too laid back.  See what I did there?

That said, the album’s production and technical value is top notch.  It’s clear to the listener that Baizley and co. understand the sound board and they create beautiful, atmospheric layers that touch a variety of emotions.  Again, I go to “Chlorine and Wine.”  By production alone, the track transcends beyond mere sludge and brings out the collective talent of the band members.   Just listen to the gorgeous intro and Devin Townsend-esque wall of sound in the track’s conclusion and you’ll see what I mean. The album’s mix also deserves attention.  Each instrument is crystal clear, the guitars and drums placed at the forefront to continue that in-your-face technique.

Baroness’ fourth LP is a trip into bittersweet sludge.  I want to like it, I really do, but the band deserves something more than a squeaky, polished edition of past explorations.  Oh, and please feel free to check out Baizley’s artwork.  It will really tie your room together.

RATING:  3/5

All rights, property, and content of the featured image belong to its owner.  Featured image found at http://www.tunescope.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Baroness-Purple-Announcement.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit or personal gain.

 

 

Review: Ghost – Meliora

Tobias Forge — ahem, Papa Emeritus III — and his band of ghouls continue their metal deception and push humanity further and further into darkness with their third LP, Meliora.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and appreciate that album art…

Done? Okay, let’s go!

Ghost’s evolution is one of the more interesting stories in the music scene.  These guys hit the market hard, pumping out “Satanic” heavy rock with a little gimmick attached.  Whether the band’s anonymity or music has more weight in their popularity is up to the listener.  Either way, the showmanship would ultimately falter at some point, but Ghost keeps coming back with hard hitting, catchy, fun material.  I will even go as far to say they will be the next big thing in rock, even with the whole Satan nonsense.

The key to this success is their listener friendly approach to metal.  I say “listener friendly” because melody, harmony, and 70’s style vocals are not exactly by-the-books metal fashion.  Their debut, Opus Eponymous, boasted the band’s heavier side, while still holding onto Blue Oyster Cult-isms like “Ritual” and “Elizabeth.”  Then, their sophomore performance, Infestissumam, added symphonic, poppy elements for wider appeal.  It worked.  And, their fan base grew.  You and I both know metal bands who broaden their sound are not exactly “praised” in the metal community.  Yet, as I said, it worked. Ghost’s 2015 release, Meliora, combines these styles into their strongest effort yet, a complete, fun, consistent compilation of Satanic pop metal.  If that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is.

We open with Spirit,” an anthem that does well to introduce the style and overarching concept of the band.  I’ve noticed, throughout Ghost’s discography, a Nietzschen concept of Godlessness, not purely Satanic as critics are so quick to point out.  Of course, their message and lyrical landscapes are overwhelmingly Satanic, but within all the showy, creepiness lies a conceptual progression.  Ghost’s overarching message lays a path, progressing past Opus[‘] prophetic doom and Infestissuman[‘s] anti-Christ possession. “Spirit,” describes the world without God, utilizing choirs and symphonic elements to really drive that point home.  You won’t find any hope in this record, but by God — pun intended — will you feel pleasurably overwhelmed.

Although mostly guitar driven — check out “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” for riffage gold — the instrumentals take an early step back in favor of melodious, almost poppy verses and choruses.  Album single, “Cirice,” which is (not surprising) the album highlight, has goose bumps written all over it.  Stylistically complex, the track moves from a Sabbath-esque riff to a gorgeous chorus reflecting on the inner passion of humanity.  As usual, Papa’s vocals are hopeful, yet sinister and contribute to the unpredictable instrumentation:

Now there is nothing between us
From now our merge is eternal
Can’t you see that you’re lost?
Can’t you see that you’re lost without me?

-Ghost, Meliora, “Cirice”

The record then reaches poppy heights in the Abba ode, “He Is.”  Yes, you read that right.  Abba ode. This is probably the only love song to Satan in existence. If not for the lyrics, this track could very well stand in the U.S. charts as an allusion to the ol’ 70’s Swedish pop movement.  It’s hard not to appreciate the risk the band took with this track.  I mean, let’s face it, metalheads aren’t exactly known for accepting pop anthems from their idols.

Don’t confuse ambition with dumbed down songwriting, however, because Meliora does not lack for heaviness.  “Majesty,” “Absolution,” and “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” each feature enough driving riffs and general badassery to make even the most skeptical headbanger nod their head.  What separates Meliora’s songwriting from the band’s preceding performances is consistent variety.  Each track can stand on its own, but meld together to give the album a distinct identity.

Meliora is the product of an experienced outfit.  From the mature experimentation to the surprisingly catchy songwriting, Ghost continues their dominance over the metal industry.  I think it’s safe to say this is an Album of the Year contender.

RATING:  4.75/5

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Review: Symphony X – Underworld

With their latest LP, Underworld, Symphony X taps into their neoclassical roots to create one of the more entertaining listens of 2015.

Yep, I’m doing a 180 here. When a band does what they do best, it’s hard not to appreciate their effort.  Because, let’s face it, Symphony X lays it all down on their latest studio album, combining past and present influence into one of their more consistent records.

Now, before you get all “Make up your damn mind!” on me, know that this is a record burdened by familiarity, pushing more of an Iconoclast sound over, say, their coined The Divine Wings of Tragedy’s Gregorian, neoclassical epic approach. However, where Iconoclast felt pointlessly heavy, Underworld amplifies that heaviness, all the while grounding listeners with the complex, beautiful, and might I say “cleaner” songwriting of their past.  There’s reason to Romeo, Allen, Pinnella, and Rullo’s style again. This is a testament to Romeo’s obsession with Christian mythology.  Look at it this way, when a prog metal album’s concept is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, how can you not make the material heavy as shit?

“Underworld,” with its punchy, galloping chorus, accented by Russel Allen’s binary vocal style, complements this sound realization, reminiscent to Paradise Lost’s symphonic numbers.   Now, with that in mind, you won’t get anything new on this album.  That’s where this album suffers most.  Underworld feels more like a continuation of Symphony X’s newfound appreciation for metaldom, rather than a musical progression.  At this point, you must ask:  What else do these guys have to prove?  They rode Dream Theater’s wake, producing an organic combination of power, prog, and neoclassical metal, then darkened the progressive genre further, incorporating harsher vocals, blast beats, and heavier riffs.   And, hell, the blast beats in “Underworld” will most definitely take the casual prog listener out of the equation. But, to say Underworld is uninspired is an insult to the band’s legacy and meticulous effort to separate itself from dreaded Dream Theater imitation.

symphonyxwithoutsingle

Credit: Blabbermouth

Does the album feel Nuclear Blast-esque?  Metal heads will understand that statement.  The LP, as feared, suffers from the band’s overwhelming metal obsession,  “Without You,” condemned as more of a sellout, derivative “Paradise Lost” clone, contains some of Russell Allen’s most passionate vocals.  So, power prog Symphony X fans listen up.  The clean voice has returned! That’s enough to give Underworld a star in itself.

“Without You,” brings back the band’s classical influence to the forefront, replacing complexity with good ol’ fashioned emotional songwriting.  Same with “To Hell and Back.” The track’s introduction adds atmosphere to the LP, then leads to guitar, vocal, and rhythm excellence, courtesy to each band member’s famous precision.  Again, “To Hell and Back,” is more of a listenable track — oh God, not melody! Melody doesn’t belong in metal! — but the band was known for melody, never brutality. “Swan Song,” continues this trek into melodic territory, alluding to “The Accolade.”  Atmospheric, complex, melodic, beautiful, heavy in an ideological sense, rather than in a “smash your face” sense. That’s something I thought I would never hear after Iconoclast.

*On a side note, has anyone ever wondered how chaotic it is when someone asks for Michael in the band?

Meanwhile, Romeo, with his blistering fretboard control, continues to wow listeners in tracks like “Nevermore” and “Charon.” Now, I’m on the fence with these two tracks.  Remember that little “Nevermore” single review that Reviews From the Other Side composed a month or so ago?  Obviously, Symphony X wanted to continue their “guitar first” philosophy, sacrificing chorus and general appeal in the process.  This leads to disenchantment from the source material.  I appreciate a kick ass guitar performance, but when everything around that guitar performance is, well, for lack of a better word, boring, then it’s easy to forget said tracks. Disenchantment and boredom is the bane to progressive metal. Even as a fan, I can admit that. Michael Romeo and Michael Pinnella tend to noodle, it’s a known fact!  “Nevermore” is a studio single, for crying out loud! For an album that promises a collage of influences, “Nevermore” fails in that the track sounds like nothing more than a Iconoclast bonus track.  That’s what is so frustrating with this album.  It tries to move past the heaviness of Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but for every melodic, neoclassical passage, there’s ten overwhelming, “What the fuck? Should I bang my head or air guitar?” metal wanks.

It’s in these metal passages, however, that the band’s rhythm section pulls through. Michael Romeo and Russell Allen are awesome! Who in metaldom doesn’t know that? Pinnella is a little too Rudess for me, but does his part nonetheless.  Hell, the guy even has a couple credits to his name, so kudos, good key meister. In previous recordings — especially their rendition of The Odyssey — Jason Rullo’s drums came across as flat, even mediocre at times, but Underworld brings the best out of our little mountain mover.  It’s an understatement to say Rullo was made for explosive passages, complemented by Michael Lepond’s, as-always, moving rumble.

Symphony X, with their 11th studio album, Underworld, force listeners to gaze into the looking glass of their discography, exploring their descent from neoclassical, power prog to straight forward, kick ass metal. Fans, indulge. Casual listeners, think of this album as a focused, greatest hits record.

Credit:  Skullsnbones

Credit: Skullsnbones

P.S. That album art…

Ugh.

RATING:  4/5

All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at https://fanart.tv/artist/b669c53e-5a1f-4adc-80be-755e64e8115e/symphony-x/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image one belongs to its owner. Image found at http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/symphony-xs-michael-romeo-says-underworld-album-has-a-little-bit-of-everything/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image two belongs to its owner. Image found http://skullsnbones.com/symphony-x-is-releasing-underworld-in-july/.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

Monday Shuffle: Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

Welcome to the Monday Shuffle.  Every Monday I’m going to, as hockey profit Gordon Bombay once said, “change it up” by reviewing a random album on my iPod.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “How can this asshole be objective about an album he enjoys listening to?”  If you know anything about me, my iPod is littered with everything under the sun: good, bad, brilliant, terrible.  I don’t have a filter.  To put it this in perspective, I didn’t delete a couple, sappy Nickelback songs until recently.  I’m kidding.  Or, am I? (dramatic crescendo). To sum up this nonsense, my opinions alter with multiple listens.  An enjoyable first listen can easily turn into an ear scraping second listen.  Doesn’t matter. So, since I enjoyed my little iPod experiment so much the first time, here we go.  The first entry in Reviews From the Other Sides’ Monday Shuffle, and a fitting return from a slight, month(ish) hiatus:

Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

Pain of Salvation had a sonicly successful career.  Key word, had.  Golden voice Daniel Gildenlow, shirtless Johan Hallgren, brother Kristoffer Gildenlow, dramatic Frederick Hermansson, and holy poly rhythms, Johan Langell, served a delicious cocktail of genre innovating prog metal.  Redundant labeling aside, everything was there, the pretentiousness, the complex rhythms, the noodling guitars.  Then, haircuts and alternative rock happened.  Thanks Metallica! Because, isn’t every mistake in metal Metallica’s fault? YouTube sure as hell thinks so.  And who’s going to argue with YouTube?

Some bands just choose to strip their sound to its roots, sometimes enlightening, while most times leaving listeners like myself saying, “Really? Edgy? How is generic garage rock, especially in this day and age, edgy?”  Pain of Salvation unfortunately became Golden Gildenlow’s side project, leaving their quintessential album, Remedy Lane behind as an unfortunate memoir. And boy is it a hell of a memoir.

So, you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Why the fuck is this guy talking smack about Salvation’s later releases? What does their current direction have anything to do with anything?”  The songwriting, ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t know if it’s the departure of Johan and Frederick or lack of inspiration, but Remedy Lane is everything Road Salt I,Road Salt II, even acoustic record, Falling Home, isn’t.  The album, unfortunately, stands as the beginning of the band’s musical descent, and aside from behemoth concept-heavy LP, Be, and a handful of pop/alternative rock tracks, there seems to be nothing left in Gildenlow’s creative tank. And that’s worth mentioning, as both a fan and reviewer of Pain of Salvation.  That’s it.  I’m off my soap box.  Now, for a look back at the Pain of Salvation we all know and love.  Let’s go!

From the opening drama of “Two Beginnings,” to the heartrending, introspective conclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” Pain of Salvation successfully combined the theatrics of The Perfect Element and the foreshadowing experimentation later found on Be to create a sound all their own in Remedy Lane.  This is an album you can feel, experience, and tilt your head to in appreciation.  Unlike Be and The Perfect Element, however, Remedy Lane’s tracks stand both alone and together, never falling victim to the complexity of their overarching concept.  This can be seen as an insult regarding Remedy Lane’s comprehensive product.  Yet, balance is key here.  The songwriting stands on its own two legs, all the while sounding like nothing the band previously performed.  The music is so diverse, its cohesive.  And that’s why Daniel Gildenlow and company are classified as progressive metal — insert shades and cigarette.

There’s metal; there’s folk; there’s noodling polyrhythms; there’s even a couple pop-centric numbers in “This Heart of Mine (I Pledge),” and “Two Loves.”  Yet, when dealing with this particular genre, one must ask: does every element come together for a complete experience? Besides the album’s oddball, electronic title track, my answer is an overwhelming, heartstopping, world changing…yes!

Oh, and did I mention these guys know how to fucking play?  My God of holy drums and guitars! There’s enough musical complexity, time shifts, key changes, vocal wails in “Fandango” alone to make Yes look like a side show.  But again, the band treads on the realms of  indulgence, tapping the third circle just enough to make Cerberus salivate.  Ha, get that one?  But then, the album spins into melodic tracks like, “A Trace of Blood,” and “Undertow,” with tearjerker lyrics and a more atmospheric approach to structure and overall feeling.  These tracks are where I really “got” Daniel Gildenlow’s psyche, where emotion — think, the bridge in “Undertow” or Gildenlow’s climactic high note in “A Trace of Blood” — has a moment to peak its head without fear of being bludgeoned to death by technicality.  Sure, Johan’s solos and brother Gildenlow’s hypnotic bass grooves peak interest in the album’s more progressive numbers, not to mention one of the more tighter, non-sleep inducing epics in “Beyond the Pale,” but its Daniel’s diverse vocal performance that lifts Remedy Lane to heartrending beauty.  Great work, through and through.

Pain of Salvation’s quintessential 2002 LP, Remedy Lane, is an emotional record full of progressive rock/metal sensibilities.  Fans of Opeth and Dream Theater have probably already eaten this up, but for the more inexperienced prog listener out there in the prog omniverse with all their prog shit, this ranks high on the proggiest prog of all time.  And that’s why Reviews From the Other Side rates Remedy Lane a 4.75.

RATING: 4.75/5

All rights, properties, and content of the featured image belong to its owner, DeekshaKhanna137. Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manfest_2011_-_Pain_of_Salvation_-_H_-_06.jpg.  All rights, properties, and content of body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.metal-archives.com/reviews/Pain_of_Salvation/Remedy_Lane/1653/.

Review: Of Monsters and Men – Beneath The Skin

Beneath the Skin takes an anthemic approach to Of Monsters and Men’s familiar output of modern folk rock. However, the album fizzles out before it has any room to take hold.

For a land known for doom-impending volcanoes, harsh winters, and rotten fish, Iceland sure has a lot to say.  I can always tell when an Icelandic artist hits the airwaves.  No, it’s not the accent — which, I still can’t quite grasp.  It’s not even Icelandic pop’s knack for weirdness, like Bjork’s army of bell wielding children.

Credit:  Jack Cullen

Credit: Jack Cullen

Nothing like some bells and ash to kick off the day.

And then there’s the Island’s folk scene.  Of Monsters And Men, along with England’s surprise hit, Mumford And Sons, helped bring folk rock back to the mainstream, taking advantage of floor drums, “ooh, ahs,” and other cliches hyped by the industry.  Thank God they never reached Fun. extravagance.  What separates the outfit, however, is their unique atmosphere.  Of Monsters and Men just sounds…different.  In a good way, mind you. I don’t know if it’s some subconscious, predisposed knowledge of their culture, but I can feel Iceland in their music.  Natural, alien, Icelandic landscapes.  And that’s coming from an American keyboard warrior with limited knowledge of the music’s cultural background. My Head Is An Animal emitted that feeling; Beneath the Skin, especially in its early tracks, emits that feeling.  I only wish that catharsis continued throughout the LP’s 48 minute running time.

48 minutes.  Such a running time leaves little excuse for blandness.  So, what happened? Similar to other 2015 folk rock releases, Beneath the Skin suffers from sophomoric identity crisis.  The album’s style lies between straightforward, anthemic folk rock and derivative, “haven’t I heard this before?” pop rock. Victims of this identity crisis are, “Hunger,” “Wolves Without Teeth,” “Empire,” pretty much the LP’s entire midsection. After an explosive introduction, the former two tracks never reach beyond their simplicity, while “Empire” grabs pacing by the throat and chokes the life out of it.  I’ve never said it once, but I’ll say it now.  The middle section of an LP is paramount to its success.  By the third song, I didn’t know if I was listening to a folk or pop record.  That’s a problem. The line between genres lacks the seamlessness of a band comfortable with their sound.  “Wolves Without Teeth,” for example, is a straight forward pop tune, relying heavily on a shallow chorus and modern folk tropes to get its point across.

Sure, Of Monsters and Men always took a listener friendly approach to songwriting.  But, whereas “Crystals” and “Human” are atmospheric and easy listening, the album’s midsection feels uninspired, lifeless, almost too safe.  Although accessibility isn’t fair criticism for such a pop oriented sound, I can’t help but feel disappointed in Of Monsters and Men’s approach to experimentation.  As is common in the dreaded sophomore record, the songwriters have found their comfort zone and dwell within it.  This time, more ballads, more acoustic tracks, more general…meh. Again, the natural feeling expressed in My Head Is An Animal is replaced by familiarity, lacking that boundary-stretching, yet listenable folk sensibility I was searching for.  .

However, when the album hits, it hits fucking hard.  “Human,” I think I already talked about this track, but I’m all about repetition, thrusts the listener through a variety of musical colors, with heart jerking acoustic sections and haunting melodies. This kind of track is why I even listen to this damn outfit.  Of Monsters and Men is all about sound height, that climactic explosion of poppy folk sweetness.  And, if you know anything about Reviews From the Other Side, we’re all about those goosebump moments.  “Thousand Eyes” even throws in a post-rock-esque build.  This sudden moment of experimentation, followed by tearjerker, “I Of The Storm,” added some much needed dynamics to the staleness of the album’s midsection.  Ragnar þórhallsson — I cheated and used Google. Like hell if I’m going to find that letter. You know which one — stepped up for this album.  “Human” utilizes his youthful, but emotional timbre, mixing well with the overarching melody and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s delicate croon.  The band’s debut seemed unsure of what to do with their male vocalist.  However, Ragnar seals his position in Beneath The Skin and develops himself as something more than a sidekick.

As is commonplace in modern studio records, Beneath the Skin opens and ends strongly, but is burdened by uninspired and inconsistent songwriting.  No, you won’t find another “Little Talks” track on this LP, if that means anything to you.  Those looking for background pop may look no further.  Those flipping for the next genre defining folk record better flip on. It’s as simple as that.

RATING:  3/5

Disclaimer:  All properties, content, and rights of the featured image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.06live.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/of-monsters-and-men-752×315.jpg.  All properties, content, and rights of body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://jackcullen.blogspot.com/2012/02/for-whom-bell-tolls-bjork-and-alexander.html.

Review: Paradise Lost – The Plague Within

After a series of more commercial airings, Paradise Lost returns to their gothic/doom roots with their 2015 LP release, The Plague.

Doom metal is one of those metal subgenres that should stand higher amongst the metal community.  Black Sabbath basically coined its inception in Master of Reality: slowed, downtuned tempo, and lyrics exploring melancholic subjects, i.e. “Into the Void.” However, the genre remains a backdrop to the waves upon waves of hardcore/metalcore/posthardcore/whatever-core outfits.  But, that’s okay.  Over here at Reviews From the Other Side, that’s just the way we like it.  At least the doom movement produced some of the heaviest sounds in existence, if not in sound, then attitude.  Even HIM — or more specifically, Ville Valo — tries, every now and then, to mention their “doomy” sound.  To which Electric Wizard comes out, and with three earth shattering notes, sends the Hot Topic fiends back to their holes.  I guess it’s an understatement to say the entire doom genre is respected, but popular? Okay, that’s enough ramblings with the word doom.  Well, maybe a couple more times.

Out of the doom movement came a trifecta of sad sacks, who aspired for melody atop the mother genre’s head lowering riffs:  Paradise Lost, Anathema, and My Dying Bride.  Coining “gothic metal,” Paradise Lost stands as one of the most inspirational doom metal outfits of the 90’s.  The band always walked the lines of gothic metal in albums Icon and, you guessed it, Gothic.  They solidified that desire with Draconian Times.  As their songwriting matured, the band then explored more commercial territories, leaving behind the slow, plodding death/doom riffs and growling vocals of their namesake.  Even vocalist, Nicholas Holmes, started to stagnate, his performances uninspired and directionless.  He’s always been too Hetfield for my taste, so it’s not like I listened to Paradise Lost for their powerful, soaring vocals.  2015, however, saw a return to form.  With The Plague Within, Paradise Lost crushed metaldom with lead single, “Beneath Broken Earth,” a straight, doom metal track serving as a memento to the despair of the 90’s death/doom movement.  The single promised slow, heavy, dark.  And, boy did they follow up.

The Plague Within is a record blessed with an ear for its fanbase.  Straight from the get go, “No Hope In Sight” alludes to Draconian Times, with poison-laced guitar melodies and an overarching doom riff.  Short, sweet, hopeless. That’s the Paradise Lost fans were screaming for.  That’s the record they got, well, with a little — and by that, I mean a lot — of exploration and experimentation.  Now, for a band as experienced as Paradise Lost, I originally expected more evolution, something fresh separating The Plague Within from its predecessors.  Sure, there’s the return of Holme’s growls, even some double bass and plodding tracks throughout, but the album doesn’t progress musically.  The band promised a return album years ago.  Perhaps, the band discovered, four albums later, they were alienating their fanbase.  Or, probably the easiest guess, perhaps the record label was tired of their shit.  Either way, all I can say is: welcome home.

By the time “Eternity of Lies” hit its climactic, catchy midsection, I remembered why I listened to Paradise Lost in the first place.  Paradise Lost embodies the romanticism of goth and buries it behind layers death.  This binary of musical emotions, complete with powerful drums and the occasional piano melody, returns in The Plague Within, ultimately sounding more Paradise Lost than, say Believe In Nothing. You get every metal influence in this album, from the brutality of “Flesh From Bone,” to, as previously stated, pure, unadulterated doom in “Beneath Broken Bone.”  “Eternity of Lies” is a future Paradise Lost classic, embodying the band’s trademark descent into beauty.  For the first time, I actually enjoyed Nick Holmes’ studio performance.  Throughout the album, the veteran vocalist tackles multiple styles, showing versatility not seen since pre-Icon. Yes, his growls have aged, but what can you expect from an aged growler.

Axemen Greg Mackintosh and Aaron Aedy are the unsung heroes of Paradise Lost.  “No Hope In Sight,” for instance, exploits the band’s mastering of the acid riff, a “less is more” approach.  They play off each other seamlessly, and when they find that “sweet” progression, they attack until the music bursts with catharsis.  Go back and listen to “Yearn For Change,” from Draconian Times — I apologize for the frequent mentions — and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. It’s only fitting that closer, “Return to the Sun,” pushes the album to its creative heights, highlighted by Holmes’ emotional clean/harsh vocal combo.  Oh, and I guess the choir and symphony helps.  All around, a complete, metal performance.

Overall, Paradise Lost’s The Plague Within succeeds in its nostalgic quality, a worthy return to form after a set of directionless releases.  Although the album lacks musical progression, the band continues to remind listeners of their influence on the metal community.  A solid production, through and through.

RATING:  4/5 

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