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.

 

Review: Baroness – Purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING:  3/5

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

 

 

Review: Ghost – Meliora

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

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

Done? Okay, let’s go!

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

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

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

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

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

-Ghost, Meliora, “Cirice”

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

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

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

RATING:  4.75/5

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.

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.

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: Australian Pink Floyd

Kangaroos, boars, lasers, and good ol’ fashioned Pink Floyd. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Pink Floyd is one of those bands destined for imitation. You name it, Porcupine Tree, Airbag, Circus Maximus, Radiohead, pretty much any band using extensive, spacey keyboards possess some kind of influence from Gilmour, Waters, Wright, and Mason. Out of this mess comes the dime-a-dozen cover band.  Yet, like Black Sabbath, such a classic sound is hard enough to imitate, let alone replicate. You can say my expectations for a Pink Floyd cover band are astronomical.  Sure, St. Louis has El Monstero, who are a extremely respectable band in their own right. I have yet to see them — ironic since they played here over the weekend — so I cannot express judgment just yet.

However, Australian Pink Floyd are the real deal.  They have it all, from Floyd’s iconic circle production screen, to the laser show, to backup singers, to the overall stage presence of their inspiration.  Shit, even Gilmour himself invited them to perform for his 50th birthday event.  2013 brought Aussie Floyd’s extensive reach into Real Floyd’s back catalog.  2015 brought soundscapes, hits, everything you’d want from a cover band, a cathartic experience with overwhelming visuals.

Led Zeppelin 2 kicked off the evening. Now, I’m unfamiliar with St. Charles’ family arena, but lord was the sound horrendous at first.  Imitator Plant’s voice — or ear monitor. Insert vocal excuse here — seemed to dissipate at times, leaving the poor singer to reach through his already limited register.  Think of “Immigrant Song.” You know those opening wails? Now, think “Immigrant Song” performed in its original key, but with actual Robert Plant’s aged vocal chords.  Not good. Not good at all.

Thankfully, imitation Bonzo held the performance together with a rousing rendition — and, might I say pummeling expression — of “Moby Dick,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” It also helped that, as the performance moved forward, the sound guy came out of his smoke stupor and equalized the freakin’ master.  As a result, Plant finally heard himself, Page overcame his hangover, and JPJ, well, JPJ stayed the same.  Calm and collected, just like his source material.  Good set overall, so-so performance.  Unfortunately, that’s to be expected from an opener.

Aussie Pink Floyd gets an entire point for starting their set on time. I’d say it only took the roadies fifteen minutes to sound check and finalize.  Fifteen minutes! In the wide, wide world of Rock n’ Roll, that’s unheard of.  So, kudos just for that, Aussies.

That’s enough blabbering.

“In The Flesh,” gets me every time. I know it’s coming, but that opening chord always comes out of nowhere…Bang!  Instantly, Australian Pink Floyd’s performance felt tighter than their previous stop in St. Louis.  Sound wise, everything clicked, the bass audible — shocking, right? — the guitars ear splitting, the vocals synchronized beautifully, the keys completely Wright-esque.  Unfortunately, Colin Wilson, albeit a fantastic bassist, still could not quite nail Water’s nasal delivery, but that’s just nitpicking on account of a reviewer looking for negativity in the wee hours of the night.

Also, as the band moved from “Learn to Fly,” to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part I-IV,” it was obvious the show was hit-centric.  And you know me, I’m all about those hits! Pink Floyd produced their strongest material between Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, but much of Aussie’s setlist could benefit from the oddball track here and there to please the Floydians and hipsters like myself.  Shit, trade “Learn To Fly,” for “Dogs,” and I wouldn’t have said anything. Or, “Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” that would’ve made the evening. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself now.

Okay, Dark Side, you win. The band’s most rousing moments — aside from the beautiful “Shine On…” — came from Floyd’s transcendental production, that thing classic radio has spammed for what feels like a century.  All I have to say is “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Wow. The girls, Lorelei McBroom, Emily Lynn, and Lara Smiles graced through their make or break moments with confidence, grace, and absolute awe.  I don’t think a single arm in that establishment was without goosebumps. Meanwhile, “Time,” complete with syncopated lasers, brought Pink Floyd’s psychedelic stage presence to the forefront, and demonstrated guitarist Steve Mack’s prowess.

Solo of the night belonged to David Fowler’s rendition of Gilmour’s most famous composition in “Comfortably Numb,” but there’s something about Mack’s atmospheric style that just sounds larger. It’s as if Mack understands Gilmour’s “less is more” attitude, focusing on precision and emotion over absolute chaos and technicality. “Time[‘s]” solo takes time — bad pun, sorry — and build, which wouldn’t work if played in Fowler’s more straightforward technique.  Fowler, you had the whole place after “Comfortably Numb” — including myself — so don’t be offended when I say Steve Mack better understands Gilmour’s playing style.

Australian Pink Floyd brought the sounds and sights of their inspiration to St. Louis on Tuesday, August 4. Although their set could benefit from, let’s say “Echoes,” the band’s performance far outweighed its lack of setlist creativity. Take away Led Zeppelin 2’s rough start and it’s easy to say Aussie Floyd put on one hell of a show.  Oh, and did I mention…

Lasers?

RATING:  4.75/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/music/australian-pink-floyds-roger-waters-on-the-future-of-musician-holograms-6593574. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Live Review: Earth, Wind and Fire/Chicago Heart and Soul Tour 2015

St. Louis got plenty of soul, heart, and shattered ear drums from Earth, Wind & Fire/Chicago’s August 31 performance at the Maryland Heights Hollywood Casino Amphitheater.

There’s a feeling, a goal, all music listeners, or might I say appreciators, reach for when listening to a musical performance.  Some go for a good time of easy listening, others to get drunk and lose themselves to whatever debauchery that might unfold. I go to concerts — and listen to music in general — for the off chance that the performer will either:

1.  Give me goosebumps.

2.  Force me to jump up and actually participate.  *Those that know me know this is more important.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago’s Heart and Soul Tour stop in St. Louis achieved both of these goals. EWF, in particular, brought the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater to its feet.  And, when your audience’s bed time average is 9:00, that’s saying something.  Jokes aside, since this was a co-headliner tour, I’m going to split this review into two sections.  Like hell if I’m going to bring them out together; that was a disaster in itself.

Yikes, spoiler alert!

Earth, Wind & Fire

From the get go, Ralph Johnson, Verdine White, Phillip Bailey and company brought out everything Earth, Wind & Fire were — and are currently — known for.  People came to dance.  And dance they did, grooving to hits and so on and so forth.  I could go on and on with a track by track review, but why do that when I can analyze the technical nonsense? You know, the performance itself!

Stage wise, there was a lot going on: stage screens, psychedelic/Egyptian graphics, horns, multiple drum kits.  When overused, such an abundance of showmanship threatens disenchantment; however, the flash never took away from the tracks, only heightened them.  For instance, “Reasons” commanded full attention to Bailey’s soul crushing falsetto.  With just the right touch of atmospheric stars on the jumbotrons, his high reaches — because, let’s face it, that’s what we were all waiting for — burst through with maximum impact.  Beautiful, simply beautiful.  Remember what I said about goosebumps?

Each member brought energy to the table, contrary to the following act, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  As soon as “In The Stone[‘s]” horns throttled the venue’s speakers, a spotlight shone on the silver tree that is Verdine White.  Nothing, not Chicago, not even Earth and Wind could bring attention away from Earth’s rumble.  Did I just make that up?  Either way, Verdine is one of the more underrated bassists out there.  Sure, he’s not the most versatile or virtuostic soloist, but hits “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and most definitely, “Fantasy” would sound like Eagle’s outtakes without White’s defining groove.  There was enough synchronized spinning, dancing, horn blares, harmonies, and sequins to please even the dullest eye.  Shit, that was probably me.

Fun.  That’s how I will define Earth, Wind & Fire’s set.  By the time “Let’s Groove” thumped along, the whole amphitheater was on its feet.  I haven’t seen that much excitement at that venue since…well, Iron Maiden.  Okay, gotta move on!

Chicago

And then…there was Chicago. I enjoy the occasional “25 or 6 to 4,” whatever the hell that means, and “Saturday In the Park” every once in a while.  However, I can only get enough of the horn gimmick before I start to roll my eyes.  And Lord, did Chicago jam their horns down the audience’s throat. Damn, and they played their “inspiration” love songs? Double damn!  Trombonist, James Pankow was pretty freakin’ awesome, though.  I mean, who doesn’t want to see a trombonist center stage, ripping away like a lead guitarist? If any of EWF’s energy translated into Chicago’s set, Pankow delivered through his sways, fist pumps, and general fun loving stage presence. Chicago sat comfortably in their hit catalog, performing a wide array of balladry and face slapping rock anthems, while firmly holding a more intimate, less showy atmosphere.  In this regard, the band brought full attention to their music, creating room for improvisation and complexity to their already complex repertoire.  They even displayed a heavier sound, courtesy of guitarist Keith Howland.

Yet, it is in this heavier sound that I was left wondering if Chicago’s creative drive reached a crossroads.  I hate to single out anyone, but Keith Howland’s shreddery and abrasiveness made absolutely no musical sense whatsoever.  Why? Why noodle away to “You’re the Inspiration” like it’s — expletive coming! — a Van Halen fuck track? “Inspiration” is for lovemaking, not beer, cigarettes, and hotels.  Is that a song? Not to mention Howland’s sound level ascended with each track.  By the time Chicago monster, “25 or 6 to 4” started, the guitar sound reached painful levels, ultimately detracting from the overall sound because, instead of dancing, the audience members were holding their ears.  Let me put it this way.  Chicago and EWF both appeared on stage to close out the night with their most famous hits.  I could hear two things:

1. Horns

2. Howland’s Goddamn guitar

This is inexcusable when there’s 20+ performers on stage. Overall, Chicago’s strategy originally adopted a “calm before the storm” approach.  Yet, guitar led Chicago — yeah, kind of an oxymoron — brought too much storm on an already flooded audience.

Verdict

It’s pretty crazy that I can say the loudest concert I’ve been to is Chicago.  Either way, solid performances from all involved.  Although Earth, Wind & Fire commanded the evening, Chicago provided enough musical exploration — kudos, drum and percussion soloists! — to keep the audience’s interest peeked for the encore.  Hell, I’ll admit it.  The horns were pretty cool afterall.

Okay, I can’t help asking again.  Who shreds to Chicago songs? I’m making this a written rule.  Unless it’s “25 or 6 to 4” you just don’t shred to Chicago songs.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE RATING: 5/5

CHICAGO RATING: 2.5/5

OVERALL:  3.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://banksartscentre.com/event/chicago-the-band-earth-wind-fire/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 1 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/earth-wind-fire-liverpool-arena-7214417.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://music.newcity.com/2011/08/23/old-days-the-band-chicago-returns-to-ravinia-properly-matured/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.