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.

d4e98803-d643-4892-923b-24e898b83e47_blackstar

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.

 

Advertisements

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: Muse – Drones

Drones is the byproduct of a pop/prog band that takes itself too seriously. I love it.

One must tread lightly when dealing with a band like Muse.  On one hand, there’s the fans.  Think, Radiohead fans, but take away a few years, and add belief that Matt Bellamy is Freddy Mercury’s second coming.  Yeah, we’re talking X Files devotion here, man.  On the other hand, the general opinion of the band lies on a “hate em’ or love em'” basis, leaving little room for objective criticism.  If such a thing even exists.  I don’t blame listeners, though.  Muse is too prog for the pop fan, too song-oriented for the general prog head.  There really isn’t a middle ground, but for eye rollers and coffee slammers like myself.

Muse is a band of taste, dabbling in prog excess without garnering too much of the pompousness required for a full blown member of the genre.  Yes, Bellamy’s lyrics are pretentious and ofttimes cheesy.  The concepts are often overblown and preachy.  Yet, when stripped down, Muse explores multiple musical avenues, a unique blend of electronica, jazz, rock, and even metal. Not to mention Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations brought progressive rock back into the mainstream. That alone is respectable.  Drones doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but continues Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Christopher Wolstenholme’s statement on the state of progressive rock.

Straight off, the album goes into Depeche Mode territory with opener, “Dead Inside.”  Cringeworthy song title aside, the track does well as an introduction to the band’s bombastic sound.  Drum machines.  Drum machines everywhere! “Dead Inside” is as genetically close to a classic Muse song than any other track on the record.  The track bleeps and bloops in a weird intro before hitting the listener with emotion.  Muse emotion, that is.  I say that because there’s a level of drama only Muse can create, and it is in this emotional crescendo, that listeners are divided. The lyrics, themselves, are suspect.  Behind Bellamy’s still impressive falsetto, “Dead Inside,” brings out a healthy dose of Muse drama, spouting:

Your lips feel warm to the touch/You can bring me back to life/On the outside you’re ablaze and alive/But you’re dead inside.

Muse, “Dead Inside,” Drones (2015)

Overseeing the album is a convoluted concept of prog’s finest subject: individualism.  As in the past, I try to focus on the music and lyrics alone, so concept falls low on my critical repertoire.  However, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the lack of originality in Bellamy’s lyrics.  They observe topics with the most shallow of executions, exploiting cliche after cliche as if wishing to frustrate the listener.  In this regard, the juvenile lyrics take away from the music.  Coming from a guy that places lyrics behind music, that’s saying a lot.

Luckily, the music is strong enough to mask the overdone concept. As listeners reach the album’s midsection, the music becomes abrasive, adopting elements of hard rock, even metal. “The Handler,” for instance, grabs this musical progression by the balls.  Muse tackled heaviness in previous albums in tracks like, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” but Drones brings their heavier spectrum to the forefront.  And I’ll admit, I like this new direction.  For the first time, Muse’s album feels tied together, bringing in multiple markets, but still holding on to their trademark sound.  Each influence comes through in album epic, “The Globalist,” the main highlight of the album, a track exploding with melody and aggression.  This track is the pinnacle of Muse’s experimentation, while, “Revolt,” and, “Mercy,” tap into accessible, Queen-esque waters.  If anything, Drones is an accessible progressive rock album, which — I must say — shows songwriting maturity.

At the head of this aggressive direction is Matt Bellamy’s guitar.  Neoclassical, earpleasing shreddery.  Although the album’s tracks fail to reach, “Stockholm Syndrome,” intensity, Bellamy still throws down memorable riffs in heavier tracks like, “Psycho,” and “Defector.” Besides lead guitar, each instrument plays for atmosphere over technical brilliance. That’s okay. My only complaint, musicianship-wise, is the absence of natural drum sounds. I get that the band strives for more of an electronic feel, but the drums, at times, make the songs feel…synthetic.  Perhaps intentional, perhaps an aesthetic choice.  Maybe it’s a production issue.  Either way, Dominic Howard’s kit sounds lifeless and that’s a problem.

Overall, Muse’s seventh studio album, Drones, overcomes its shoddy concept and stale rhythm section with an accessible, but heavy approach to the progressive genre.

RATING:  3.75/5

Disclaimer: All properties, rights, and content of the featured image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://preorder.muse.mu/. 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: Zedd – True Colors

Zedd’s second studio album, True Colors, shows anything but the artist’s true colors.

First off, sorry about the delay in album reviews.  I had to take a break from writing because I had to do a little thing called work.  A lot.  That’s no excuse, though. We’re going back to a review a day starting today.  Let’s go!

Electronica is one of my guilty pleasures.  Yes, it’s all predictable, the buildups, the sirens, the boom-hiss beats, the spacey/dreamy synthesizers.  Unless Glitch Mob or Ulver hits the speakers, you’re not going to tell yourself, “damn, I’ve never heard this before.” Go ahead and argue with me on that. Electronica is all about atmosphere, occasionally tapping into progressive ventures, but usually following the aforementioned industry standards.  And that’s why I listen to the genre. The atmosphere.

Keys of the North, Anton Zaslavski AKA Zedd (bad pun, I know.  Maybe my break should’ve been longer), is one of those house/trance/progressive house hybrids, complete with an arsenal of celebrity features.  After his breakout production credit, “Break Free,” the Russian electronicer — can we start that word trend here? — has since produced two albums.  The first, Clarity, was burdened by generic beats, even more generic melodies, and an overabundance of cheese.  Due to House music’s overwhelming popularity, the room for innovation is slim.  I can’t stress that enough.  Yes, Zedd’s music is currently successful, but while other artists like Avicii, DeadMau5, and Skrillex have distinct, pioneering sounds, Zedd stands as just another DJ, a collection of stereotypes for club playlists. That’s where Zedd’s problem starts and ends.  Yep, coming out harsh this time.

Ugh, I can’t believe I just described Skrillex as a musical pioneer.

2015’s True Colors delves even further into electronic purgatory, occasionally serving up a catchy tune, but otherwise branding itself as more of a collection of sounds than an album. With True Colors, Zedd shows that he is more of a producer than a songwriter, as evident in his multiple guest appearances and single productions.  I know Zedd can write some damn good beats, but complete, coherent songs with distinct sound? Not on his first two outputs, at least.  And that should make Zedd fans nervous.  The album appeals to the casual, pop friendly listener, whispering into the ears with shallow melodies and simple arrangements.  The opening track, “Addicted to Memory” throws in some noodlery here and there, but other than that, there’s not much moving True Colors from bubble gum pop territory.

Yet, this isn’t a record that intends to push the industry forward, but rather do what house music was intended: to get the molly-salivating club goers jumping.  With that in mind, the album succeeds. “Paper Cut” is one of those dreamy, trance tracks that, for the first time in my first album listen, I didn’t roll my eyes.  The song’s piano intro offers some ear candy before the thumping beat hits, climaxing with a Coldplay-esque atmosphere and interesting vocals from Troye Sivan. Let’s go into featured vocals for a minute.  If there’s one thing about music that I don’t give a shit about, it’s featured vocals.  Anyways, Zedd has worked with Ellie Goulding and everyone else under the sun.  Cool.  But, the question is:  do these “artists” make the song better?  Often, the label uses celebrity vocals as marketing bait or favor shedding.  Financially, why the hell not?  That’s where Selena Gomez-led track, “I Want You to Know,” treads.  Music aside, the song serves as nothing more than a tool to hit the American market, because — hey — Selena was down with Bieber.  And Bieber = album sales.  Okay, that rants done.  In regards to the track, “Daisy,” I’ll provide a one word review:

Cheese.

The fact that True Colors is so straight forward earns the record a point.  The album is meant to be listened to in a club atmosphere, and it works in that regard, with plodding beats and ascending melodies. However, in regards to direction, Zedd taps into the well of generic songwriting, producing an uninspired, generic output.  But what the hell do I know? The airwaves will still play “I Want You to Know” until your ears bleed.

RATING:  1.5/5

Disclaimer:  Featured image and all its content, properties, and rights belong to the artist.  Image found on http://www.youredm.com/2015/04/14/zedd-revives-his-electro-house-filth-on-addicted-to-memory/. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Review: Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface

Another statement on the struggles of suburbia.

Twenty One Pilots is one of those bands.  You know, the kind born and bred to cater to the frustrated teen, who’s sick of school, sick of people, sick of life, sick of convention.  Down in the suburbs, the struggle is real.  Musically, their style is characterized by a combination of hip hop, alternative rock, and electronica.  Think, Linkin Park toned down, sacrificing primal anger for more existential subject matter.  Their latest album, Blurryface, continues this trend of smart dance music, and I must say, I was actually pretty pleased by the effort.  A lot of ear candy here, spotted here and there with a variety of influences, such as reggae in “Ride” and symphonic moments in “Fairly Local.” So, what we have here is a delicious blend of genres and gimmicks.  Duo Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun catered to the mass market, and although that means cheese and bread-and-butter song structures, there’s enough musical intrigue to keep the casual listener interested.  I must be hungry.  Don’t worry, the food metaphors are gonna keep coming.

My first taste of the band came in the form of “Car Radio” from their third LP, Vessel. The single defined the band, utilizing emotional lyrics and a powerful mixture of alternative and dance layers.  This unique blend both kept Joseph and Dun in with the times, but separated them from the typical, Zedd-esque crescendo, dance numbers.  Blurryface picks up where “Car Radio” started.  The album explores multiple topics, attacks multiple genres.  Album opener “Heavydirtysoul” is a soulful introduction to the album and does well to introduce Blurryface[‘s] subject matter.  Existential, suburban rap subject matter.  Sound silly? Fortunately, the track’s later, catchier lyrics save the song from its verses.

Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.

– Twenty One Pilots, “Heavydirtysoul,” Blurryface (2015)

Okay, not quite Nietsche, but some interesting imagery, nontheless.  All with the delivery of Sting’s faux-Jamaican accent and generic, angry white kid — had to be brutally honest there — timbre.

Whatever, I’m even pretty sure I heard a pacman sample in there, somewhere.  That, in itself, gives the album a point or so.  The following tracks continue this trend of suburban angst. “Stressed Out,” possesses the introspective lyrics that led listeners to the band in the first place.  Relying on a spacey, atmospheric chorus and rapped verses, the track works in that it caters to its audience with a summary — not a compilation. More on that in a minute — of their influences.  “Stressed Out,” although lyrically melodramatic, is the standout track where each used genre does not feel like a musical experiment. Here, the band found their sound and ran with it.  I’ll admit, though; I was disappointed that the hook of “Stressed Out” wasn’t: “Wish we could turn back time to the good dope days.”

Amongst all this chaos, the duo still blip and bloop to get the feet moving.  Yes, you’ll find some dance tunes on this album. “The Judge” and “Ride,” with their playful pop vibe, add some fun to the seriousness of the band’s lyrics.  In “Ride,” for instance, the band shows its musical diversity.  You can dance or think with the track, or dance and think without either getting in the way.  And that’s what I like about Twenty One Pilots, their ability to adapt to the market without actually adapting.  That’s probably because they use elements from so many damn genres.  Unfortunately, this moves to the issue that, in all its grandeur and experimentation and convention defiance, the album lacks direction. An artfully successful album has a characteristic sound, a collection of tracks that deviate from each other for variety, but never move away from the overarching feel of the album.  There’s an invisible string, in these hypothetical albums, that ties every song together. Blurryface. on the other hand, feels more like a compilation of sounds, lacking this said string, instead relying on the band’s overarching gimmick of, “look at us, we don’t just play alternative,” approach to songwriting.

The album’s lyrics brings the album down a bit as well.  Like I said, Blurryface deals with introspection and emotional struggles through, what feels like, the eyes of a suburban teenager.  As I listened to the album, I couldn’t get over that.  At times, Tyler Joseph just sounds silly, his melodrama leaking with the death throws of the emo movement.  “Tear In My Heart,” although musically catchy, tries the breakup angst approach to poetry, complete with screams and moans over an old lover.  Come on, is that interesting? What emo band hasn’t described a breakup that way? The first rap verse of “Heavydirtysoul” has enough double negatives to cure the grand paradox.  And “Stressed Out” is the definition of first world problems.  While, at times I told the computer, “Get over yourself,” other times I told myself, “Now that’s more like it,” like during the opening verse to “The Judge”:

He must’ve forgot to close the door/As he cranked out those dismal chords/And his four walls declared him insane.

Twenty One Pilots, “The Judge,” Blurryface (2015)

Visually interesting, simple, to the point, with creative use of personification thrown in.  There’s no melodrama in this track, and the lyrics work well with the instrumental’s uplifting vibe. Meanwhile, we’re back to square one with “Doubt,” this time with a mediocre rap flow and uninspired keyboard hook. That’s what is so frustrating about Joseph’s writing.  There is no consistency.

With this much content, it’s hard to rate an album like this.  On one hand, Twenty One Pilots continues to reach into new, musical territories, all the while drawing listeners in with thoughtful verses, and characteristic, catchy choruses.  But, on the other hand, there’s no cohesive nature to the album, and the subject matter is, at times, cringe worthy.  But, this is Reviews From the Other Side, damnit! Ain’t no schizophrenic pop album gonna get an undecided rating.  Silliness aside, Blurryface is an enjoyable output from the Midwestern duo that shows promise for future releases.  If you’re looking for some flavor amongst the pop catologue of modern artists, Blurryface is for you.

Rating: 3/5

Disclaimer:  Featured image found on Reddit.  http://www.reddit.com/r/twentyonepilots/comments/3072y8/blurry_face_desktop_wallpaper/.  All rights, properties, and content of the image belongs to the artist.  I have, in no, way used said image for profit.

Review: Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

With such a powerful voice, Sia should have nothing to fear.

Here it comes, my dreaded commentary on today’s music industry.  I don’t like to say today’s mainstream market suffers to its predecessors, because, let’s face it, there are thousands of interesting artists breaking ground.  However, it would be a lie to say the music industry, as a whole, is consistent with quality music.  I’ve already talked about the party hits.  Sure, there will always be party hits.  The 60’s weren’t without their silly, uppity dance tunes like “The Watusi,” and the eighties….I won’t even get into the eighties. That particular style appeals to a certain mood, and it’s not like a club is going to throw down Dream Theater’s “Illumination Theory.”  Unless it’s remixed by Nelly, but that’s besides the point.

Now, however, when Top 40 consists of only party anthems, with the occasional folk rock/soul hit thrown in, then it’s safe to say popular music is on the decline.  But, how can you blame these modern artists?  That’s what the young — you know dad’s listening to classic rock (arena rock) radio while mom’s listening to soft rock — audience wants!  They want to get drunk, high, fuck bitches, and get money!  So when Sia Furler dropped her 2014 album, 1000 Forms of Fear, the popular music industry felt some much needed emotion through the eyes of one of its victims.

Sia is popular music’s Devin Townsend.  She has worked her ass off for years and has only now gained the respect she deserves. With six LP’s and God knows how many singles and feature credits under her belt, Sia finally hit the billboard charts with the powerful “Chandelier,” peaking at number eight.  She’s written for pretty much every pop artist out there, from Rihanna, to Celine Dion, to Britney Spears, to Eminem, to David Guetta.  It’s up to you to decide if Rihanna’s “Diamonds” took a lot of thought, but it proved one thing:  Sia Furler can sell records. When it comes down to it, that’s the only thing that matters to label executives.

1000 Forms of Fear isn’t the most consistent album, but it emotes beautifully, especially in the opener and lead single, “Chandelier.” The song succeeds in its use of suspense.  When I first heard Sia’s introductory croon, I thought her voice belonged to Rihanna, but when the chorus struck, I felt her pain.  Every crack, every wail, every word felt sincere and honest, with enough flavor to keep me invested for the following tracks.  Thematically, the album centers on the struggle with the self, discussing alcoholism, fame, and other struggles of the successful artist.  Covering these themes are elements typical of pop music.  Deep beats, catchy choruses, the occasional use of autotune.

However, no matter the coloring, 1000 Forms of Fear is, at times, agonizing in its delivery, courtesy of Sia’s undeniably rousing vocal performance. The album’s follow up single, “Elastic Heart,” continues to highlight this painful struggle. This introspective style was surprising in the most cathartic fashion.  Emotion, besides the occasional Sam Smith-esque cheese fest, is a rare element in today’s mainstream.  Vocal centered, Sia doesn’t shy away and puts everything into her performances.

Unfortunately, the album does suffer in overall quality.  Overburdened by balladry, the pacing in 1000 Forms of Fear slows after its dramatic introduction.  Almost too much.  After indulging such an explosive single, I want an album to taper down, not immediately drop to a slow, plodding, piano-driven ballad.   “Big Girls Cry” lowers the album’s tone too far, and its lifeless structure, generic chorus falls victim to pop’s more eye-rolling tropes. I don’t care how pretentious that sounded. “Big Girls Cry,” although a successful single, is just generally “meh.” Any music fan will understand that statement.

Thankfully, “Burn the Pages,” adds some indie rock flair into the mix. Think, a mix of Charlie XCX and Sia’s more alternative(y) past.  But then, and I almost pulled my hair out the first listen, she throws in another uninspired ballad, “Eye of the Needle.” Sia’s voice soars in this track, but when that’s the only thing of interest amongst all those layers, the track becomes skippable.  All of the albums influences and experiments do not make up the fact that 70% percent of the album is balladry, some good, some so-so, some cringe worthy.

1000 Forms of Fear succeeds in its impact and emotional output.  With a powerful voice, Sia dropped one of 2014’s best pop albums.  Although inconsistent in the songwriting department,1000 Forms of Fear makes up for its lows with painful — in a good way — singles and hard hitting subject matter.

Rating: 3/5

Disclaimer:  Featured image found on consequenceofsound.net. Link:  http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/07/album-review-sia-1000-forms-of-fear/.  All rights, properties, and content of said image belongs to the artist.  I have, in now way, used the image for profit.