Top Ten: Autumn/Winter Albums

As I’m all hopped up on caffeine and waiting for the time change — yes, adulthood makes you excited for an extra hour of sleep — I was hoping I could get in a list of albums to listen to over Halloween.  Or, this could be thought of as a list of Autumn/Winter albums if Halloween stops on, well, Halloween.  So, if you can’t get enough of the chills and general creepiness, look no further.  Sit back, rub on some corpse paint, grab your skull goblet, pour yourself a nice helping of wine, and enjoy.  Oh, and please do not debate the rankings, as this list reflects no order.  Let’s go!

10.  Ulver (Shadows of the Sun)

Kicking off, we have one of the more interesting bands to grace the music industry.  These guys debuted as a blackmetal/folk band, evolved into an industrial/electronic outfit, then peaked as an ambient/experimental group.  Shit, have you ever tried finding so many different forms of the word, “band?”  Back to the subject, Ulver’s 2007 LP Shadows of the Sun serves as a great transition album from summer to autumn, hinting at rainy days and darker nights, but still possessing a sense of hope.  This hope climaxes during the vocal crescendo in “Vigil,” a truly breathtaking moment. I apologize for the early pretentiousness.  Don’t worry, cussing and jokes are not far behind.

9.  Opeth (Blackwater Park)

Let’s pick up the volume a little bit.  I’m thinking a demonic roar in the vein of Mikael Akerfeldt within Opeth’s signature record, Blackwater Park.  Spin this LP during those rainy, miserable days, the moments requiring “Bleak[‘s]” crushing riffs and the subsequent track, “Harvest[‘s]” acoustic beauty.  Then, when the storms come, blare the title track and piss the fuck out of your neighbors.  That’s okay though.  They’ll be headbanging after the acoustic interlude.  You metal heads know what the hell I’m talking about.

8.  Simon And Garfunkel (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme)

Yep, that’s right; Simon and Garfunkel, the pop-folk artists of the 70’s.  These goofy lookin’ fellas are directly below two extreme metal juggernauts.  Reviews From the Other Side don’t care about genres.  Anyways, this is one of the more overlooked S&G LP’s, and evokes a beautiful autumn sensibility, especially in album opener/cover, Scarborough Fair. If Transylvanian Hunger is great for a nighttime stroll, then this is perfect for a morning hike through the woods. Beautiful harmonies, folky acoustics, and Paul Simon songwriting make this the fall record.

7.  Summoning (Dol Guldur)

Possibly the only good result of combining Cassio Keyboards and programmed drums, Summoning’s Dol Guldur brought Tolkien’s epic musings to black metal.  This is a mysterious set of tracks chock full of black metal tremolo picking, but delving more into atmosphere than sheer coldness, as evident in the slow tempos and echoing drums. As the weather cools and the fires start burning, the reverb-heavy atmospherics of this Swedish duo makes for a rewarding listen, preferably in a mountainous setting.

6.  Nas (Illmatic (What else?))

Generally, Nas’ monumental debut LP is praised for its storytelling ability. Yet, few have discussed the MC’s knack for writing and performing dark lyrics. DJ Premiere cannot be overlooked, as his highly layered beats and apocalyptic soundscapes make “N.Y. State of Mind,” and “Memory Lane” truly haunting.  You don’t have to live in New York to feel the hardship Nas experienced, nor the dying feeling evoked by the record.  Illmatic is best listened to during the transition from fall to winter.

5.  Darkthrone (Transylvanian Hunger)

Transylvanian Hunger is an album that’s so cold, it made Burzum’s Hvis lyset Tar Oss look like a carnival tune.  I’m assuming whomever is reading this knows the black metal scene, at least somewhat, to know the impact of this record.  Part of Darkthrone’s Unholy Trinity, Transylvanian Hunger is great for cold walks in the woods, wandering aimlessly while moonlight peeks through the trees.  That is, if you don’t mind a little Lo-Fi production, shrieked vocals, and repetitive riffs.  A great start to the fall season.

4.  Agalloch (Ashes Against The Grain)

Boy, was this a challenge.  I was torn between The Mantle and Ashes Against The Grain because, let’s face it, the soundscapes in both albums make Everest look like a dream vacation.  I know, that’s pushing it slightly.  However, my decision came down to one track:  “Falling Snow.”  For some reason, this song only affects the listener when its snowing, transforming with every crescendo, every chord, every raspy lyric, but only with the falling snow; otherwise, it just sounds like any other Post-Rock piece. That’s being harsh, but you get the point.  To truly feel the effect of winter, Agalloch is your best bet, an experimental, American black metal band unafraid to explore regions of metaldom too taboo for the average kvlt fanatic.  Mayhem fans, steer clear.

3.  Immortal (At the Heart of Winter)

What do you get when you mix thrash and good ol’ fashioned black metal? Immortal, of course.  These guys have a knack for writing freezing, complex riffs and do so with actual, top notch production value!  Blustery winter days demand the playback of At the Heart of Winter, preferably a full front-to-back with plenty of crab walking/headbangingas is common amongst black metal thrashers.  Well, maybe Abbott, anyways.  For maximum scale, crank the amps to eleven during “Solarfall.”  When that second riff hits, you’ll feel like you’ve been struck by a blizzard with gale force winds.

2.  Burzum (Filosofem)

Despise the guy, love his music. That’s all I gotta say about Burzum.  How does Filosofem sound so terrible, yet so brilliant at the same time.  This album is the definition of hopeless, a purely atmospheric effort scattered with catchy melodies and haunting, distorted vocals and guitars.  Think of it as more of a meditative, ambient listen for those long winter nights, you know, the nights that seem to go on forever, with only a wall between you and the bitter cold.  “Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament” — English translation of the title —  personifies snowy, windswept plains, while “Dunkelheit,” brings forth feelings of longing and sadness. Break this out mid-winter, but do your best to listen to something a little more upbeat later.

1.  Emperor (In The Nightside Eclipse)

Two steps and that’s all you’ll need for this one:

1.  Stare at the album art.

2.  If your iPod/music player can handle it, play “I Am the Black Wizards” when the temperature drops below zero.  You’ll thank me later.

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of the header image belong to its owner. Image found at http://fotonin.com/data_images/out/10/833027-immortal-wallpaper.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

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Local Lookout Review: Corner Kings (STL) – Chosen Few

Credit:  Corner Kings

Credit: Corner Kings

Local music acts.  You know, those guys that go out there and bust their ass every night for a shitty gig, all for the hope that one day they’ll get noticed. St. Louis corrals these musicians, from rock groups trying to get to the sticky floors of Pops Nightclub, to hip hop groups/MCs walking the Loop in search of someone to listen.  While I sit behind this keyboard, writing for some blog, a local act fails because nobody listened.  I don’t know if it’s a stigma generated by the hip hop industry, but mix tapes are generally viewed as give or take. A lot of take.  Some are too Nas, others sickeningly Soulja Boy-esque nonsense stinking of overproduction.  Yet, as a reviewer, I need to listen.  When it comes to reviews, I can’t help but feel conflicted.   There’s validity in just the “act” of sending out a mix tape or EP for exposure.  Every track is a piece of livelihood.  That kind of vulnerability can only be respected.  Here’s to you, local artists.  Let’s go!

Corner Kings, a hip hop group from St. Louis, recently handed me their EP, Chosen Few.  And, production and consistency aside, I’m actually quite impressed.  The group consists of four personalities, Chief Capo, Krash, Ty3rdEye, and Easy $tackin to create a complete hip hop experience. A psychedelic, somewhat old school, introspective atmosphere surrounds the tracks, complete with Jekyll/Hyde-style lyrics caught between spiritual subject matter and street lifestyle.  Let’s say Corner Kings possesses the duality of Outkast with flavors of Nas — yes, I know I just dogged groups sounding like Nas, but what’s a Reviews From the Other Side review without a good dose hypocrisy?  Anyways, you’ll get your chill tunes; you’ll get your hardened street tunes; you’ll get your Andre 3000-esque philosophical commentary, and that’s what makes Corner Kings an interesting group.  Not groundbreaking, but enjoyable nontheless.  And that’s what music’s about, son!

Since I’m more of a cerebral guy — surprising, isn’t it? — “Building Visions,” courtesy of Ty3rd Eye’s acid-laden flow, stood out to me.  Lyrically, the track deals with spiritual enlightenment.  Ty3rd Eye succeeds in his use of wordplay, how he calmly eases the listener into a trance.  Hence the hook:

Stay true to the game and don’t fuck with them lanes/finessing my brain and creating my lane.

Ty3rd Eye, Building Visions,” Chosen Few (2015)

How can you not kick back to lyrics like that?  Corner Kings succeeds with their lyrical maturity.  The MCs all have something to say, and as the EP moves, their styles evolve.  Krash, with his natural talent, comes out of the gate with purpose on “Act 1,” while Easy $tackin and Chief Capo play off each other seamlessly in “3 Kings.”  I wish I could say that for every track.  Going back to “Act 1,” Chief Capo introduces himself in poor fashion.  This is not a dig on his talent — because, hell “3 Kings” testifies to his skill — but a question for the musical decision making. After interrupting Krash’s smooth, social commentary, Capo spins the track’s lyrics towards pussy, pistols, and other personal hype.  I can only think of A.Z. when I hear Capo’s vocals, with his distinct, energetic, overpowering tone. He serves better as a track opener, you know, someone to get the listener going before delving into the deeper shit.  Capo is the group’s energy.  Use that energy to move the album, guys!  I mean, he spits the album’s best lines in “Taj Mahal”:

Ain’t no common ground around us/Can’t get comfy/Ain’t no comfort when you come from nothin’/Nothin’ comin’/We the second comin’ comin’.

Chief Capo, “Taj Mahal,” Chosen Few (2015)

I see why they muted the track during those bars.

Unfortunately, the EP’s production brings down its value.  I’m all about vocal layers, but when the vocals become muddled and distracted due to these layers, the songs ultimately feel contrived.  With some stronger production values — i.e. less vocal layers — the EP would feel more coherent, taking some of the load off the performers’ shoulders.  Oh, and a little immersion helps when you’re trying to get on the map. Also, compression.  There are tracks, such as “Taj Mahal,” that suffer outright from production.  An album, whether an EP or LP, needs to sound cohesive.  The volume, the sustain, the EQ, everything needs to sound whole.  Corner Kings fails in that regard.

With their debut EP, Chosen Few, Corner Kings seeps into the hip hop market with their distinct, lyrical flow.  Stay tuned for more local reviews.

P.S. Album art, Chosen Few needs it.  At least something more reflective and less derivative than the current cover.

RATING: 3/5

Disclaimer:  All properties, content, and rights of the featured image belong to the artist. Image found on https://soundcloud.com/cornerkingsradio/sets/corner-kings-chosen-few. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Review: Danny Brown – Old

Danny Brown shocks in his 2013 LP, Old, spinning listener’s heads with complex lyrics while staying firmly grounded in Detroit’s streets.

My discovery of Danny Brown is embarrassing, to say the least.  I owe it to ICP.  I won’t even spell out their name.  Born and bred in Illinois, I sometimes delve deep into the state’s underground music movement because I’m a masochistic son’ buck.  If you’re from Illinois, you’d understand that’s an understatement for the sake of…hell, here we go.  You see, there’s this little music “festival” that occurs every year in Cave Rock called The Gathering of the Juggalos.  Where, you say? Exactly.

Illinois treats the festival like a rich father treats his drug dealer son.  You know he’s there, and you know he makes money, but like hell if the neighbors found out! Anyways, vicarious as I was, I decided to watch a documentary on the festival.  Sure, the people looked friendly and so on and so forth, and the music wasn’t too cringe worthy — minus the annoying “woot woots” and juggalos jerking off to “family” philosophy — but then the camera cut to a performance by Danny Brown. I was just getting into Hip Hop at the time, more old school than modern, but that’s personal taste.  I don’t even know what song he performed, but I do know that, at that moment, I searched for Brown’s latest gem, Old.

I was pleased.  Very pleased.

Danny Brown brands himself with two identities:

1. His psychotic, turn-loose party persona.

2. His introspective, serious commentator persona.

Old follows XXX through its use of duality. Whereas XXX reached for seriousness as the tracks progressed, Old fades deeper and deeper into madness.  At one moment, he may rap about his horrific upbringing, and at another moment, jump around the club accompanied by schizophrenic beats. The music even follows this trend, travelling time in the old school vibe of “Danny Brown (Old),” tapping societal issues in “25 Bucks” and then exploding into “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.” There’s a lot of material on this album.  And I mean, a lot.

“Torture” stood out with its lyrical sincerity, how Danny beats the listener over the head with tales of drug use, street crime, domestic abuse and general disgust with an honest delivery.  In the background, producer OH NO lays down a haunting, atmospheric beat that accents Danny’s lyrics for maximum impact.  Emotional, that’s how I would describe the album’s A side. Yet, Danny Brown’s emotion leaks through every track on this album.  “25 Bucks,” with its social commentary, follows Old[‘s] concept as a “wake up” piece.  Danny’s lyrical awareness and storytelling ability shines in this track:

Now I’m trapped in the trap and the devil ain’t forgetting/Wanna see me dead or locked in a prison.

-Danny Brown, “25 Bucks,” Old (2015)

Of course, Old doesn’t consistently keep up with this introspective, serious subject matter.  Done poorly, inconsistent songwriting is an album’s crutch, especially at RFTOS.  However, for some reason, the club-centered tracks follow the album’s concept of regression.  Hell, this probably isn’t even a concept album and I’m just filling your heads with bullshit.  What is a review without some bullshit, though?  This is the music industry!  As the album delves into its “madness,” the party anthems surge loud and proud, punctuated by scattered production values.  I won’t dock points for the lyrics.  Think, sex and drugs explained creatively, with some serious “what the fuck?!” moments.  That’s not too far from a description of Rock n’ Roll, come to think of it.

Danny’s flow is as unique as it is chaotic.  As previously stated, his overarching flow moves in two directions.  For faster paced beats, he explores his higher pitched, nonsensical timbre.  Meanwhile, “Torture,” and the album’s more serious tunes bring a vocal drop. Yet, there’s constant rhythm and movement in Danny’s voice, a refreshing use of energy without being consumed by said energy, if that makes any sense.  Production wise, the beats are well crafted and succeed in their lack of distraction.  A solid effort from all involved.

With his third LP, Old, Danny Brown attached emotion to his trademark flow, creating an interesting album of multiple perspectives.  Truly, a classic in the making.

RATING:  4.5/5

Disclaimer:  Featured image and all its content, properties, and rights belong to the artist.  Image found on http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/Entertainment/important-things-danny-browns-debut-album/story?id=20433997. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar art

“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence.”

– Kendrick Lamar

Yes, I do rap albums too.

Let’s face it, hip hop was in its death throws.  After gangsta rap’s influence hit mainstream media, we music appreciators found ourselves stuck with “Turn Down For What?” and other pop rap nonsense from megastars Lil’ John, Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain, where artists took what was once parody and made it serious.  Sure, it’s always nice to think — at least, for me — back on classic 90’s hip hop.  Then, Pac, Biggie, Outkast, and Wu Tang were annihilating the airwaves with lyrical genius, creative storytelling, and illusions to Hip Hop’s golden age. That’s what I miss in modern hip hop, the storytelling.  You don’t get tracks like Gza’s “Cold World” anymore.

Place the discography from each of the previously mentioned artists in a blender, throw in a little Snoop Dogg, sprinkle on some 50 Cent powder, filter out the grain, and you have modern, mainstream rap. Luckily, Kendrick Lamar came in with a mission.  And he largely succeeded with one of the most important hip hop releases of the decade, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Funky.  So funky.  If I could summarize Butterfly in one word, I’d say funky.  Kendrick not only delivers his unique flow and wordplay — which, is of itself, brilliant — but shows off his talent as a songwriter, adding layers upon layers of influence.  Just to list some of these influences: funk, jazz, soul, spoken word poetry, g-funk, gangsta rap.  Rather than lazily producing a collage of different styles, Kendrick’s choice of samples and production technique mold into a singular message, giving the album a concept feel of African American heritage and frustration through time.  After “King Kunta,” Kendric cleverly constructs a tragic poem at the beginning and end of each following track, dissecting the stages of his life and the effects of fame.  This cryptic songwriting and poetry engages the listener and successfully molds each song together.  Simply put, this album is cohesive throughout.

And now, to the lyrics.  Give me a damn lexicon because this is going to take a minute.  Bringing the record to a personal level, Lamar discusses alcohol, relationships, and personal finance.  Often, he cloaks his voice with a persona.  In “Hood Politics,” for example, the artist glances at life with the voice of a child, while “For Free?” shows his attitude towards racial exploitation with a more sarcastic, whiny tone.  The lyrics are both simple and dense:

You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me/And this is more than confession/I mean I might press the button so you know my discretion/I’m guarding my feelings, I know that you feel it/You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’/

– Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”

When delivered, it’s hard not to feel the man’s frustration and/or think politically.  However, he creates the most impact with the least amount of words, occasionally throwing in a metaphysical bomb here or there.  Lamar is a wordsmith.  He showed it on Section 8.0 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but here, his vocabulary and themes have matured to the point deep understanding of the human condition  Good stuff, K.Dot, good stuff.

On a grander scale, Butterfly’s lyrics explore political themes and commentary on the state of the hip hop industry.  Lamar attacks rappers with ghostwriters in “King Kunta,” and education in “Wesley’s Theory,” all while holding on to the album’s central theme.  Taking in all of the album’s complexity, it’s a wonder the material never gets out of control.  However, there’s enough southern California slang and references to keep the attention of the average listener.  Not exactly four quadrant-style writing, but you get the idea.  No filler, no nonsense, straight to the point, complex hip hop. That’s what the industry needed, and they that’s exactly what they got.

There’s not much to complain about.  I’m not big on sampling in general, but To Pimp A Butterfly uses samples tastefully.  Lamar’s voice takes some time getting used to.  There’s a dry quality to his delivery — unique, but hard to get into if you’re more of a hard, clear delivery kind of person.

In all its frustration, passion, To Pimp A Butterfly stands as one of the most important releases in hip hop for its message, if not for its musical innovation. Pretty much anyone spamming A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang, Kanye West (you know, pre-Graduation Kanye) or even spoken word poetry will enjoy this album.  Due to its accessibility, social/personal awareness, and consistent songwriting, I give To Pimp A Butterfly a solid 4.5.

Rating: 4.5/5

Disclaimer: All rights, property, and content of the header image belongs to NRK P3 on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrk-p3/9465944753/. I, in no way, have used the said image for profit.  Image cropped for size.