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: Symphony X – Underworld

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

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

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

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

symphonyxwithoutsingle

Credit: Blabbermouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit:  Skullsnbones

Credit: Skullsnbones

P.S. That album art…

Ugh.

RATING:  4/5

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

Monday Shuffle: Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

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

Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.75/5

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

The Fall of the Album

Analyzing the music industry is a lot like analyzing a cat.  You think you understand its movements, coordination, communication, but you end up realizing it’s all manipulation for its own personal gain.  Music is a breathing entity, and like normal “entities,” it needs some cash to stay afloat.  Bare bones, that’s basic business. So, what garners cash more than riding trends in the music industry? Behold the radio single, the masterpiece and libation of studio production.  With a single marketable track, musicians possess, and possessed, the ability to forsake consistent quality.  Sure, classic artists such as Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles released single promotions.  Those artists, however, also released Master of Reality, Dark Side of the Moon, and Revolver. What timeless album has Ke$ha produced? Think about it.  We can’t blame it all on the radio single, however.  Unfortunately, as modern artists take advantage of the digital marketplace, the album has become an afterthought, more of a token of gratitude than a fleshed out experience.

The digital music marketplace is a wonder.  Radiohead, with their innovative record In Rainbows, was one of the first albums to exploit this venture, adopting a “pay what you can” strategy.  According to Music Ally, the album was number one in the United Kingdom and the United States in its first three months.  And this was when you didn’t even have to pay for the damn thing.  Now, if you download an album for free, record companies shit their pants and sue you for everything you own.  Everything!  To contest torrenting, Spotify, Pandora, and other streaming services started their print in the digital world, providing an additional avenue for artists.  Album streams have transcended expectations, but sales? That’s a different story. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly moved over 300,000 copies in its first week.  Yet, it was streamed over 9 million times. So, yes, To Pimp a Butterfly sold well for a modern, popular album, but its streaming numbers prove that the popular marketplace desires “entertainment” at little to no price. Albums are just too expensive to make and nobody wants to pay for them.

Hence the live production.  It’s well known that rock and metal outfits bring in more from touring and merchandise sales than album sales.  Take it from Jim Root, guitarist of Slipknot, one of the highest selling metal bands of the decade.  Oh wait, it’s past the nineties.  Highest selling metal outfit two decades ago, how does that sound? The band has sold over five million records, but when it’s all said and done, they brought in pocket change compared to the industry’s golden age(s).  Production, label, marketing, distribution, and retail costs all contribute to an album’s lowered value.  Not to mention less popular outfits.  If you’re below a sellout headliner, try for a charting single or get used to bars because, if Metal Sucks has anything to say about it, you’re shit out of luck. So, in this regard, the album has become nothing more than a tour promotion.  Useful in the right context, yes.  Inspired? Depends on how much the artist cares about his or her “art.”  Damn, I tried to stay objective.

Here we are, the beloved commentary on musical quality. Let’s face it, music isn’t what it was during the 60’s through the 90’s.  As I said, radio singles were more of a marketing strategy to boost album sales.  Albums were the norm; albums were the desire of the popular market.  How many of you have that old family member who boasts about his or her extensive record collection? Personally, I envy them. Back then, when attention spans — i.e. boredom — were at an all time high, albums were cool, man.  Besides the recent Indie and hip hop movements, timelessness is nonexistent, replaced by the iPod shuffle.  Before, musical quality was paramount to an artist’s success. The radio single brought in sales, but bands had to wow listeners because their consumers had to buy their entire output. Thanks, internets! Why waste time and money on a consistent record when you can make millions off one track? If I’m a pop musician or executive looking for cash, I know the route I’d take.

As the music business evolves, more nails are driven into the album’s coffin.  This dramatic metaphor can be attributed to the digital market, production cost, and radio single.  However, to those grinding away in the production dungeon to create that groundbreaking album, I salute you!

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of the featured image belongs to Adam Fagen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/2119323310. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Review: Death – Leprosy (Reissue)

Death’s Leprosy changed the game of death metal.  Despite its fiscal intentions, the album’s reissue emits a balanced and polished re-imagining of Schuldiner’s groundbreaking early career.

That last review left a bad taste in my mouth.  There’s only so much mediocre popular music I can take before I want to bash my head into a wall.  Just thinking out loud here, man.  I’m a hipster, metal elitist, remember?  To combat music withdrawals, I decided to shake some things up by putting my iPod on shuffle — I mean, whose iPod ever failed them? — and reviewing the first result.  “Pull the Plug,” it told me. Nah, let’s go!

Reissues, for the most part, are usually low on my scale of “Holy shit, I need to buy this.”  For one, they’re an obvious cash grab, and in the case of Death, it’s not hard to profit off of one of metal’s legendary songwriters, Chuck Schuldiner.  It’s a difficult truth, but come on!  I mean, throw in some bonus tracks, muddy live recordings, turn up the volume, slap on a remastered label and…money! I get it.  Honor, love, nostalgia, they’re all buzzwords to open wallets.  Leprosy and all of Death’s reissues are simple milk jobs designed to tap the metal market. Metalheads will probably burn me at the stake for damaging such a brand, but at Reviews From the Other Side, we analyze the entire aspect of the music industry.  So, here’s to you, Relapse Records.

Fuck, I must just be in a bad mood.  Let’s talk about the goddamn music.  Leprosy is, by and by, as brutal as they come.  From the get go, Chuck belts out one of his most demented screams, and that alone is a highlight and point producing moment.  I hate to open every album review with the first track, but the album’s opener — and title track — is Schuldiner’s traditional death metal peak, where everything, from the solo, to the simple, driving riffs, even the boom-hiss drum pattern, melds together.  If you don’t thrash after hearing that opening scream, then…this music isn’t for you.  Ha, thought I was going to say something witty, didn’t you?  Yeah, “Leprosy.” Fucking death metal, man! The album then rides “Leprosy[‘s]” wake with “Born Dead,” a never-ending onslaught of ascending guitar patterns and Chuck’s evil vocals.

There’s something unique in Chuck’s voice.  It’s not quite a growl, and it certainly isn’t by-the-books singing.  Hell, it isn’t even a Hetfield “shyeah!” Where Michael Akerfeldt overwhelms, Chuck Schuldiner strikes the soul, even thrashes in Death’s debut, Scream Bloody Gore. What’d you expect, with a title like that? But here, Leprosy, brings out the best of his screams, growls, shouts, and groans, throwing down one hell of an atmospheric performance.  “Pull the Plug,” one of Death’s more recognizable tunes, utilizes this excruciating experience in its simple chorus — which, you guessed it, just repeats the title — with chilling precision.  For 1988, Chuck’s voice was a horror show and influenced an entire, extreme metal genre.  Kind of funny that the “godfather of death metal” donned cat shirts while his contemporaries spawned camo and dreadlocks.

The drums, although muddled — something I didn’t expect in a “remaster” — work well for what they are, not too complex, but not simple, either.  As previously stated, the only issue is I can’t hear Bill Andrew’s performance!  Behind thrashing guitars, the drum performance is as follows: rumbles followed by a snare/high hat alternation. What’s with that snare sound, anyways? Gene Hoglan comes in later, so that piece of the puzzle gets fixed.  Meanwhile, the guitars are exactly what you’d expect from a Death record.  Outstanding. “Pull the Plug,” “Born Dead,” “Leprosy,” and “Choke on It,” have their moments of slayer-esque nonsensical noodling, but as the riffs progress, Schuldiner adds some foreshadowing prog into the mix.  The guitars never stop, and every lick, riff, solo, and interlude are thought out with the mind of a thrasher-gone-death-head. Don’t believe me when I say Chuck is one of music’s greatest guitarists? Check out “Leprosy.” If the riffs don’t get you, then the solo most certainly will.

I won’t go into the album’s mix. It’s a louder version of the original recording. That’s it.

Summary:  Brutal, brutal and brutal.  Death’s 1988 LP, Leprosy, is the definition of death metal.

RIP Chuck Schuldiner.

RATING: 4.5/5

Disclaimer:  Featured image, and all of its properties, rights, and content belong to the owner.  Image found on http://imgsoup.com/1/death-leprosy-wallpaper/. Body image, and all of its properties, rights, and content belong to the owner.  Image found on http://zero-tolerance.skyrock.com/132986024-Chuck-with-his-cat.html. I have, in no way, used said images 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.