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.

 

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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. 

Review: Muse – Drones

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

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

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

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

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

Muse, “Dead Inside,” Drones (2015)

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

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

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

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

RATING:  3.75/5

Disclaimer: All properties, rights, and content of the featured image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://preorder.muse.mu/. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Review: Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface

Another statement on the struggles of suburbia.

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

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

Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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.