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.

 

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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

Disclaimer:  All rights, properties, and content of the header image belongs 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.

Review: Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

If Eternity Should Fail, at least we were able to hear The Book of Souls.  Is it safe to say Iron Maiden made a second comeback with their 16th LP?

Again, I apologize for the long lapse in reviews.  I had some personal issues, a move, and general writers block to attend to.  However, this is a metal review, damnit! Ain’t nobody got time for excuses.  So, let’s go!

Here we are, the peak of 2015’s metaldom. On one end, you have good Queensryche (and…well, Geoff Tate’s solo project) pumping out a new record, then you have Nile, Slayer, Motorhead, Soilwork, Ghost, even Coheed and Cambria — we can count them as metal, right? — upping the ante.  Shit, even Disturbed decided they weren’t going to sit quietly while the cool kids got to play. The list goes on and on. So, what better way to kick off the fall season other than Iron Maiden’s double album machine, The Book Of Souls?

My expectations were strangely low for this record. Perhaps a result of Maiden’s irrelevant, lack of inspiration in their predecessor, The Final Frontier.  Perhaps I was just pissed that Derek Riggs checked out of another Eddie opportunity.  Whatever, it doesn’t matter.  The first notes of, “If Eternity Should Fail,” grabbed that cynicism and castrated it.

Attribution: mirror.uk

Credit: mirror.uk

Yep, sit on that metaphor for a minute.  Oh, right, this isn’t a death metal review; my fault.

Initially, the band’s creativity returns with trademark energy and galloping riffs, all the while holding onto the darker, fuller sound of their post-Blaze era songwriting.  There are even hints of Seventh Son keyboards, serving the sound tastefully without delving into cheese territory.  You’d expect Steve Harris’ songwriting ability to falter, especially after the Maiden sound collage in The Final Frontier, but here, the structures, melodies, even the instrumentals, feel fresh and purposeful. I mean, each member — sans Niko McBrain — has multiple songwriting credits throughout the LP’s 11 monstrous tracks.

Maiden CD

Credit: Cover Dude

There’s no clever reason for this picture.  Eddie is just fucking awesome.

To put this in perspective, Steve Harris rarely attributed more than a few tracks to other members throughout Maiden’s tenure.  Such a melting pot of ideas breeds countless opportunities for failure.  I’ll admit the variety of credits turned me off at first, especially the Janick Gers note attached to “Book of Souls.”  Boy, was I wrong.  The album flows with the gallop of Harris, punctuated by Dickinson’s typical lyrical expeditions.  I say expeditions because, let’s face it, the guy cannot develop a typical verse/chorus/verse about cliche metal nonsense.  He’s the fucking Air Siren! If he wants to talk about triplanes in “Death or Glory,” then he damn well please!

Some may call The Book of Souls a pointless cash grab, but there is no way, no way epics, “The Red and the Black,” and the double LP’s title track reflect an uninspired effort. Sure, it’s hard to believe, other than contractual reasons, that Iron Maiden needs a third guitarist — no disrespect to shredder, Janick Gers — but solos are half the makeup of Maiden’s general sound.  So, to that, Reviews From the Other Side says, “The more, the merrier!”

Although the band’s songwriting takes a fresh breath in Book of Souls, there are moments of career-repetition scattered throughout the record, from copycat riffs to all-to-familiar song structures.  Luckily, we don’t get another, “Blood Brothers,” clone.  I’m looking at you, “No More Lies.” However, instead listeners suffer through a “Wasted Years” ripoff introduction riff in “Shadow of the Valley.”  This is more of an annoyance than a crutch. What else can you expect from a band whose discography stretches over fifteen LP’s, not including EP’s or live recordings/bootlegs?

Also, as is the bane of most double albums — unless we’re talking The Wall or any given Who rock opera — The Book of Souls suffers from the scope of its vision.  There are times, as in, “The Red and the Black,” where the need for epicness outweighs the will of short sighted listeners like myself.  I’m all for an epic sound, but when every track goes for that giant sound, the overall feel of the album starts to feel overblown. Iron Maiden successfully blended epic structures in the past, but practiced restraint, confining those over-the-top tracks into a section of the album.  Here, the band pushes extended running time over the cliff.

That said, each member contributes their talents with technical, musical prowess.  What else could you expect from these guys?  They’ve experienced the ups and downs of metaldom.  Shit, the band went through a mid-career lapse in musical inspiration, thanks in part to the Air Siren and Adrian Smith’s departure.  Yet, they bounced back, not once, but twice.  The Book of Souls places the spotlight on each member’s contribution, serving as more of a historical insight to Maiden’s discography than as a progression.  To that, I’ll say it again.  Lean in close so you can see the screen.

16 albums!

RATING:  4.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of header image belongs to the artist.  Image found at http://www.ironmaiden.com/thebookofsouls/img/og.jpg.  All rights, property, and content of body image 1 belong to the artist.  Image found at http://i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article5190628.ece/ALTERNATES/s615/Bruce-Dickinson.jpg. All rights, property, and content of body image 2 belong to the artist.  Image found at http://www.coverdude.com/covers/iron-maiden-the-book-of-souls-2015-cd2-cover-215640.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit. 

Live Review: Steely Dan – Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour 2015

Steely Dan brought their trademark groove to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, complete with an impressive setlist and phenomenal backing cast.

I don’t know how many times I had to explain jazz fusion this week. It’s simple:  jazz fused with other genres, usually rock, or metal.  You’d be surprised with the scope of bands utilizing such a musical approach, sometimes subtly, other times throwing the in-itself mega genre right at listener’s faces.  Steely Dan, minus “Reelin’ in the Years” (more on that, in a minute) falls into the latter category, but don’t let that alter your perception just yet.  What separates Steely Dan and their ensemble of horns, guitars, singers, and cute, little, trumpet keyboards from bands like prog juggernaut, King Crimson, is groove.  These guys had it.  These guys still have it. And, boy, let me tell you, St. Louis felt Steely Dan’s groove on Wednesday, July 27.

I’ll admit it, I was a little on edge going into this venue.  Hollywood Casino Amphitheater — locally termed “shitty parking, shitty odors, shitty bugs,” among the locals — has reputedly poor sound production.  This was evident through Elvis Costello’s set.  Just look at his setup.

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As a neutral Costello listener already, the aging hipster-Dylan failed to catch my attention.  Musically, the band explored many interesting topics and instrumentals, but between the sound quality and generally poor vocal performance, there was an air of discomfort surrounding the venue.  And not the, “The people here are going crazy,” kind of discomfort.  Yikes, did I mention the sound was bad? I know it’s an honor to follow a musical inspiration, but Costello and The Imposters fell victim to the dreaded opening sound guy, complete with inaudible guitars, overzealous vocal volume.  And let’s be honest here, that was a mistake in itself.  Such a talented and respected musician deserves more. Reviews From the Other Side, unfortunately, can not justify the hype.

That’s enough complaining.  Steely Dan practically jumped on the stage, and given both their age and the venue’s reputation, it was hard not to be inherently impressed.  The lights were unimpressive, but who attends a jazz fusion show for the effects and fireworks?  No, this is a musically complex outfit.  As pretentious as this sounds, to understand Steely Dan, listeners need to focus on the intricacies, crescendos, and transitions of Fagen and Becker’s expansive back catalog.  Steely Dan is, in no way, a “smoke a joint, drink a twelve pack, and go crazy” kind of band.  As Becker would probably put it, they’re a “glass of wine and have makeup sex” kind of experience. Lights and effects would detract from that experience.  So, how’s that for practical argument?

I’m getting the scowl, better move on.

Steely Dan opened with two seminal numbers, “Black Cow,” and evening highlight, “Aja.”  Immediately, the amphitheater adopted a nightclub atmosphere, the horns and general setup somewhat resembling a big band rig, Fagen sulking to the right, Becker smoothing away to the left.  Smooth.  If the band could be summed in one word, it would be smooth.  “Black Cow,” with its  groovy rhythm and heavy accents, moved the audience, not exactly pulling limbs from seats, but making heads sway involuntarily.  When attention is brought on a performance with such minimal provocation, it’s a magical feeling to witness.

Then, the opening melody of “Aja” struck the audience’s nerve.  Goosebumps all around.  The instrumental following Fagen’s suspenseful verse-chorus was the highlight of the night, assaulting listeners with images of China and uncertainty. When stripped to its core, the driving force behind Fagen’s key-trumpet and Becker’s guitar is their newfound drummer’s graceful attack.  Becker himself labeled him as “The best drummer of his generation.” And besides Young Guy, I couldn’t, for the love of God, remember the guy’s name.  However, the drum solo interludes — you know, the parts where everything goes crazy for a mint — were absolutely jawdropping, not to mention the lighting guy realized he had to wake up.  All around, the instrumental highlighted each member’s repertoire.  I could spend this whole piece discussing “Aja,” but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the band’s set.

Transitions. I’ll always think of Steely Dan as the masters of transition.  See what I did there?  The jazz genre explores multiple avenues and various emotions throughout its millions of creations.  To make these sections, improvisations, and mood shifts work, transitions must flow seamlessly, without risking disillusionment from the listener.  Awkwardness is a jazz piece’s downfall.  Pretty much all of Aja, “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Black Friday,” “Babylon Sisters,” hell, their whole damn setlist employed perfectly executed transitions.  Even the band’s setlist moved between tracks flawlessly. When taking in the scope of Steely Dan’s 19 performances — don’t forget the improvisations — it’s hard not to fall asleep.  Yet, musicianship and transition kept the audience’s interest.  Because they’re smooth, damnit!

My only complaint is Donald Fagen’s voice.  Again, perhaps a mixing or health issue — you have to take a vocalist’s excuse with a grain of salt — but Fagen commonly adopted the vocalist, pull-away-during high-notes-to-feign-passion, trope throughout his performances.  Sure, age is a bitch and touring wears out the vocal chords.  However, amplifying the band’s background singers to mask Fagen’s struggles served as more of a distraction than if the guy actually attempted some of his more difficult lines. Either way, the overall, instrumental performance far outweighed Fagen’s minor, vocal wear and tear.  You get off this time, Fagen!

Believe me, that sounded cooler out loud.

Steely Dan proved once again the impact and importance of the jazz fusion movement during their Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour stop in St. Louis.  The parking, bugs, and strange odors were worth it after all.  Great show, through and through.

RATING: 4.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://thekey.xpn.org/2015/02/12/steely-dan-elvis-costello-playing-susquehanna-bank-center-august-3rd/.  All rights, property, and content of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.daytoncitypaper.com/dukes-of-september/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

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: 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.