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.

 

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.

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.

Live Review: The Rolling Stones – Dallas Texas

The Rolling Stones hit Dallas, Saturday, with a worthy setlist and age-defying performance, continuing their multi-decade tenure as the best live band around.

There isn’t much that could pull me into the not-so-humble abode of the Cowboys.  As an Eagles fan, I would spit on the stadium before even thinking of going inside.  However, as I was visiting Dallas and acquired some last minute tickets for The Rolling Stones…who are the Cowboys again?

Credit:  Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

Yes, Jagger, I’m a Fool to Cry for letting petty football rivalries obscure my judgment.  Okay, so, The Rolling Stones.  I’m what you would call a casual listener of the band.  My music library suffers from a lack of Stones records, instead burdened by two “greatest hits” cash grabs.  40 Licks, I think they’re called? I don’t care enough to look.  To me, if there’s anything worse than reissues, it’s the dreaded “greatest hits,” or even lower, the “acoustic” record.  I’m looking at you, Pain of Salvation!

So, in that regard, I’ll admit that I don’t know as much about the Stones as, say, Radio Rich — right, St. Louis peeps? Yeah, just said peeps — but I at least know the hits by heart.  And that’s all I needed for this show.  The band’s Zip Code Tour is a greatest hits show done right, a complete, powerful performance between the band — which still surprises me — and its backup performers, including a rousing opening set from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. As I want to keep this review under novel length, I won’t go into the openers, but I at least wanted to give them a shout out.  Here’s to you, Grace Potter!

The Stones came out swinging with one of their more recognizable tracks, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I didn’t know what to expect going into this show. I mean, these guys are 70 years old, you know, the time when the vocal chords disintegrate and arthritis kicks in the ol’ wrist.  I must say, however, Mick Jagger is the Hugh Hefner of rock n’ roll.  He even held his own vocally, using just enough echo effect to hide decades of wear and tear. But that’s to be expected, especially during demanding tracks like, “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  Age stands as an afterthought to these guys, something to stand in front of than behind, as evident in Keith Richard’s smooth-as-eggs stage presence.  Sure, Captain Jack Sparrow was most likely high as the fucking universe, but his style, the fashion he deconstructed and redefined classic riffs, looked so…easy. He may look like a paper bag, but the man still has his trademark, no nonsense, sex, love, drugs guitar feel.  Adjectives, galore.

Just look at that guy.  How does he even know where the stage is?  Richards and Ronnie Wood — who took on most of the lead phrases — played off each other through the set, occasionally allowing room for improvisation in performances of “Happy,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It), “Gimme Shelter,” and “Brown Sugar.”  The Stones and guitar solos were always hit and miss with me, but when the band delved into jam territory during “Sympathy for the Devil,” I realized just how tight their live performances are.  Utilizing a combination of blues and straight up rock n’ roll feel, the band pushed and pulled with the “woo woos,” throwing down some complex solos courtesy of keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the band’s guitarists.

As predicted, “Gimme Shelter,” stands as the pinnacle of the Stone’s Dallas stop.  As my favorite Rolling Stone’s track, my expectations were sky high to the point that a botched performance would ruin my evening. Lisa Fischer, backup singer extraordinaire, thrust her voice through those expectations and ripped my soul out in the process.  Overall, Dallas’ audience was substandard — what can you expect from a bunch of Cowboy’s fans? — but when Fischer belted out “Shelter[‘s]” iconic midsection, everyone, probably even Jerry Jones, was standing and cheering. What a performance.  Her vocal contribution is a testament to the band’s entire backing staff, from Chuck Leavell’s praised keys, to the horn/sax combo, to Fischer’s backing partner, Bernard Fowler.  Each member added their own unique flavor to the setlist, throwing in some new, musical approaches to help move along the band’s shakier sections, no pun intended.

Anyways, back to “Gimme Shelter.”  We’ll call it the setlist’s energy booster, a precursor to the band’s climactic conclusion in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and then — who’s surprised — “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The University of Texas – Arlington made an appearance during the former performance and, I must say, I could feel goosebumps on every arm in the stadium.  That’s almost a million arms. Take that into the feels perspective.  Then, Jagger’s voice came in and I couldn’t help but kick back and forget that I had to write this review.

Overall, The Rolling Stones continued to stamp their name in Rock and Roll history, laying down a timeless performance at the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX. Although the setlist felt a little on the shorter side, the band never looked tired.  Maybe lost, but not tired.  Jokes aside, the production, band performance, backing performance, and Jagger dance moves operated seamlessly, showing that, after 50 years of drugs, sex, and alcohol, The Rolling Stones still have it.

RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, properties, and content of the featured image belong to the owner.  Image found on http://blog.ticketprocess.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/800x400xrolling-stones-presale-tickets.png.pagespeed.ic._349NKIoJ1.jpg.  All rights, properties, and content of body image 1 belong to the owner. Image found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mick_Jagger#/media/File:Rolling_Stones_09.jpg.  All rights, properties, and content of body image 2 belong to Ricky Brigante on Flickr.  Image found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/insidethemagic/5705168314/in/photostream/.  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.

Review: Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase

A continuation of Steven Wilson’s prog trip, with the accessibility of Stupid Dream.

I’ve been avoiding this album for some reason.  I knew it was coming out, and once it hit the shelves, I let it sit there, almost like a punishment.  You see, I’m a Porcupine Tree fan.  I’ll admit it.  So, again, there’s going to be some bias.  Shoot me. Okay, back to business.  Even though Wilson is the band’s main songwriter — which means his solo albums shouldn’t stray too far away from that overarching sound — the barefooted Brit’s solo work has, so far, left something to be desired.  Grace for Drowning succeeded with its throwback to 70’s progressive rock, but fell victim to its own structure, a derivative collaboration of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Camel.

The Raven That Refused To Sing had its moments, but continued Wilson’s regression to derivative territory, influenced even more by King Crimson.  Yes, Steven Wilson became an oxymoron of the progressive genre.  Overall, there was something Porcupine Tree had that Wilson’s solo work didn’t, but defining that difference was a challenge all in itself. Gavin Harrison, perhaps? I don’t know. His 2015 album, Hand. Cannot. Erase, however, brings back Steven Wilson’s trademark pop/prog sensibilities.  The album introduces more personal sounds without becoming overburdened by influences, and that’s a welcome return to style.

There’s a lot going on here.  Musically, the album explores multiple genres, from Rush-inspired bass licks — ha, what a coincidence — in “First Regret/Three Years Older” to straightford pop in “Hand Cannot Erase.”  If you’re an avid Porcupine Tree listener, spin the instrumental “Home Invasion/Regret #9” and tell me you don’t hear those polyrhythms that made the Porcupine Tree metal phase so successful.  Oh, there’s even a Rick Wright-esque keyboard solo thrown in there, which leads Guthrie’s climactic guitar wail.  So, Wilson’s got that working for him.  Which is nice. And then the track concludes with a banjo! Fucking banjo! You gotta love variety.  “Home Invasion” stands as one of Wilson’s better instrumentals, which contains sound changes so abrupt that I could hear Kristoffer Ryggs’ knees buckle.  A definite highlight.  There are even some electronica influences in “Perfect Life.”  Although this particular track, and second single, lacks the inspiration of the first two tracks, the electronic layers and conceptual lyrics are a breath of fresh air, complete with a climactic conclusion.  Atop beautiful, electronic layers, Wilson croons:

We have/We have a perfect life.

-Steven Wilson, “Perfect Life,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)

Don’t get the wrong idea.  This is not a happy album.  The lyrics follow typical Wilson-isms of over-the-top sorrow.  Steven Wilson is Melancholy, and he throws the listener off guard by coupling this darkness with inspiring, even happy melodies.  He is perfectly capable of igniting hope with a track like “Perfect Life” and then choking that hope out with “Routine.” I never usually complain about Wilson’s lyrics.  Within his vast discography is everything I want from a melodramatic sad sap: hopelessness, melancholy, and brooding with just enough cheese to make the lyrics delicious.  However, Hand. Cannot. Erase suffers a little on the poetry side.  Maybe I’ve grown up.  Or, maybe it’s just fatigue from the constant barrage of sadness from Wilson, a lack of variety in the most depressing way.  I know I just complemented the album’s musical variety, but when it came to the album’s lyrics, I found myself rolling my eyes at times.  Just look at this line from “Hand Cannot Erase” and tell me the cheese isn’t overwhelmingly funky:

Writing lying e-mails to our friends back home/Feeling guilty if we sometimes wanna be alone.

-Steven Wilson, “Hand Cannot Erase,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)

Okay, that’s enough of lyrics.  Back to the music!

“Routine” is the pinnacle of Steven Wilson’s solo vision. A track dominated by melodramatic riffs, beautiful piano, and a rousing performance by Ninet Tayeb, the track rises and falls with purpose, especially during its dramatic midsection.  At the 6:00 mark — or somewhere in there, I’m too lazy to actually check — Tayeb’s voice pushes forward in the mix…and the rest is history.  A truly beautiful, inspirational track, the lyrics interesting, the music everything you can expect from Mr. Wilson.  The final highlight of the album is also the album’s shortest song, “Transience.”  Very Porcupine Tree-like, the track opens with an acoustic riff, spotted here and there with Hans Zimmer-like blaams.  Then, Steven Wilson’s trademark “ahs” and harmonies take over to create his trademark emotional atmosphere.

Steven Wilson’s 2015 LP, Hand. Cannot. Erase is a return to accessibility without abandoning the technical prog of previous albums.  This evolution not only adds unique quality to the album, but grants Steven Wilson a sound all his own.  Bravo, Mr. Wilson.  Bravo.

Rating: 4/5

All rights, content, and properties of the featured image was found in lassehoile’s post on Blogspot:  http://lassehoile.blogspot.com/2015/03/hand-cannot-erase.html.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit.