Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mini-reviews for the bored.

Rather than write a set of long reviews that no-one will read or care about, I decided to write a slew of small reviews (that no-one will read or care about). But anyway.

Cloud Cult: Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) This is Cloud Cult's latest release (and purportedly their last for a while, possibly ever), and is well worth a listen. It's streamlined, focused, and well-written. It's a bit shorter than other albums, and nearly every track is a full-bodied song rather than having short interludes and such. The melodies are tight, the harmonies are memorable, and the music is poppy-indie, full of optimism and metaphysical messages. It's also got one of the best songs of 2008 - 'Hurricane and Survival Guide', which basically has become my new motto. I'm sad to hear that Cloud Cult might be done with this record, but if it's their last, they're going out with a worthwhile bang.
Tracks to catch: Everybody Here is a Cloud, The Tornado Lessons, Journey of the Featherless, Hurricane and Survival Guide.
Rating: 4/5

Sole: Selling Live Water I don't know how else to describe this album other than how I did it a few days ago on another site, where I said: 'Aggressive, biting, ponderous, confrontational, thumptastic, eerie, abrasive... There are a lot of adjectives I can use to describe this album, but none of them do it justice. It's simply one of the greatest hip hop albums I've ever had the good fortune to listen to.' I stand by that statement, and am more excited to see Sole live this week than almost any other concert I've yet attended. I'm almost wont to call it post-hip-hop, as it transcends the hip-hop genre and becomes something else entirely. It's completely worthwhile and gets better with each listen.
Tracks to catch: Salt on Everything, Respect Pt. 3, Selling Live Water, Pawn in the Game Pts 1 and 2
Rating: 5/5

Gojira: The Way of All Flesh Harder to digest on the first few listens than their 2005 release From Mars to Sirius, but ultimately I think it's a better album. The hooks are more pointed, there's more diversity in the sounds, and the heaviness is better balanced with the melodic bits. Once again their harsh lyrics have more melody than almost any other band, and it's full of awesome passages that will make you headbang.
Tracks to catch: Oroborus, A Sight to Behold, The Art of Dying, The Way of All Flesh
Rating: 4/5

Jonas Hellborg: Art Metal This was an ambitious project, aiming for the fusion of western metal with eastern sounds and jazz sensibilities. Regrettably, it loses something in translation, and it's much better in concept than in execution. While some of the hooks are good, and there are flashes of genius from time to time, it's largely lost on me. The bass is awesome, but everything else left me nonplussed. It's worth listening to from time to time, but isn't something I'd recommend to everyone I know.
Rating: 2/5

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Polar Bear: Eponymous.

Polar Bear: Polar Bear Year: 2008 click here for the artist's site

It was March of this year when I heard Polar Bear's 2005 album Held On the Tips of Fingers. I found it completely moving; it was overwhelming. I didn't think that anything would surpass what I thought about their sophomore effort. However, when I heard that they were finally releasing a follow-up this year, my interest was beyond piqued - and my curiosity was rewarded tenfold. Part of what I found so impressive about Held On the Tips was its innovation and fusion within the jazz genre - it's more than just free jazz, more than avant-garde, and much more than anything traditional or simply improvised. It was forty-three minutes of super-high-quality music. When people have asked me, 'What is your favorite music album of all time?' I've never answered with a set disc; it's far too wide-open to give a favorite. However, after a few weeks with Held On the Tips I would answer, 'It's not necessarily my favorite answer, but I'd say this is the one album I'd want if I was trapped on a deseret island forever.' I didn't imagine that it could be eclipsed - and then I imported a copy of Polar Bear's newest effort, the eponymously titled Polar Bear. It has everything that Held On the Tips has, in greater abundance - fourteen songs, seventy-plus minutes of mind-blowingly awesome jazz that has changed the way I think about jazz forever, broadening my musical horizons and deepening my understanding of what jazz can mean. Polar Bear is characterized by inventive drumming, dueling tenor saxophones vying for your attention almost every minute, fun bass lines that leap up and down the neck, and something that no other jazz group I've yet heard incorporates - live, active electronics, strange sound effects, and ambient noises from British ambiance legend Leafcutter John. While it sounds like it would be a gimmick, it actually strengthens and gives the music variety. The whole group has a sense of unity and clarity that lacks in a lot of new-wave jazz. Most of the time it seems like newer jazz groups focus so much on individual improvisation that the main message of the music gets lost in the cacophony of sounds. However, while there are obviously improvised rifts, the whole thing has a very distinct sense of knowledge of where the band is going. It's an album that I can't stop listening to. It's been in my car for weeks, finding its way into the player on an almost daily basis. Usually I'll put another disc in my player, only to find Polar Bear back in there in short order. I can't think of another album that's come out this year that is more honest, beautiful, thoughtful, and introspective - it's easily (and I'm almost sure it'll stay there) the single best album that has come out this year. If you like jazz, do not miss this album - you will be sad you have up until now.
Tracks to catch: Frankly, there isn't a weak part in this entire album, but I suppose I'll enumerate some of my favorites. 'Tay' begins the record with a jaunty beat and fun interplay between both tenor saxes and the double-bass. 'Goodbye' has moments where it sounds like there are laser battles occurring amidst the soaring, avant-garde sax solos. 'tomlovesalicelovestom' is a meandering, sweet song with memorable, vibrant melodies. 'Voices' has moments where you're left wondering where it's going, only to see the resolution and be moved by it. 'It Snows Again' has some of the best harmonies between the two woodwinds - they almost sound like two parts of the same whole, they're so entertwined. 'Joy Jones' has one of the most beautiful, longing melody lines you'll ever hear - one that will resonate with you long after the disc stops spinning.
Rating: 5/5 I'll unequivocally give this album a perfect record. I don't know how people can't love it - I know a lot of people don't and won't, but I can't get over it. It's fundamentally changed the way I look at music, and is the one album I'd want with me if I could only listen to one for the rest of my life. Pick it up - if you're open to new music and ready for a change, you surely won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Metallica: Death Magnetic

Metallica: Death Magnetic
Year: 2008

No doubt about it, Metallica has been through some "rough" times. Twenty years ago they were the preeminent US metal band. Master of Puppets and ... And Justice for All were both fantastic albums, true triumphs of American metal.

Enter the 90's, grunge on the rise, a new brand of heavy music gaining ground, and Metallica made a drastic change. Their self-titled album skyrocketed to the top of the charts, firmly entrenched them as one of the most popular metal bands, and alienated a significant portion of the cadre of fans that had supported their rise from the musical underground. In the ensuing years, the band flirted with music that was less and less metal, more commercial, and increasingly boring. In an attempt to get back to their roots, in 2003 St. Anger was released. A truly terrible album in every way, many wondered if the mighty Metallica would ever return to glory.

In an attempt to answer that question, the band has released Death Magnetic. A new producer, James well out of rehab, and reports of a more positive working environment (any wonders as to why St. Anger was so horrible are quickly put to rest watching even clips from the documentary "Some Kind of Monster"), created some positive buzz before the official release. A deal with Activision to release the entire album for Guitar Hero III added to the hype. So how does Death Magnetic rate?

For starters, Death Magnetic is, by no means, a bad album. However, nor is it a good album. What it is, in one word, is mediocre. It is average. A relatively standard, run-of-the-mill metal album, its most distinguishing characteristic is that it is not the unmitigated disaster that St. Anger was.

Metallica attempts to bring back their lost sense of epic songwriting, with 7/10 tracks weighing in at over the 7 minute mark. Initially this appears promising. However, too often the longer tracks feel just that: long. Lost is the sense of progression, of unity, of common themes being weaved throughout the songs, as was found on MoP and AJfA. Instead, they sound like disparate, random riffs (all of course in the key of E) just hooked together with no real thought of composition. Long jams fill many of the songs, with a welcome return of Kirk Hammett's guitar solos. However, again these feel artificial, with no cohesive nature to them.

Lyically, James has reported a recent fascination with death, hence the album's title. Sadly, his lyrics deal with serious subjects with less tact and grace than that teenager down the street with the black nail polish and calculatedly brooding look. They are just atrocious. In an attempt to convey a sense of gravitas James sings "Love is a four letter word." Seriously. You can't make that stuff up. If you like being brutally beaten over the head with the lyrics, this is the album for you. If you want something thoughtful, eloquent, and subtle, look elsewhere.

Despite all the negative from Metallica's time in the 90's, at least the production of their albums was awesome. Clear, powerful, deep and rich guitars filled out the albums. Gone is all of that. The production hearkens back to MoP, but not in a good way. The guitars sound thin and tinny. The bass is nearly nonexistent. And Lars, good old Lars, sounds, again, like he is pounding on a set of trash cans. Then there is the clipping. A modern production method, the album is mixed far too hot. Clipping abounds, with a terrible distortion to the guitars and drums that comes from forcing the album to sound loud.

Yet, underneath it all, there is a new sense of energy, a sense of a return to their roots that helps the album. It can't save it from itself, but it elevates above anything the band has done in the past 20 years, at least if we still consider Metallica a thrash band. Unfortunately, this too sounds forced and contrived at times, almost like James and co. are hoping we will forget all the crap from the past 20 years and just pretend it never happened. Well, those years did happen, and no matter how much they may want to forget them, they have left an indelible mark on the band the used to be the preeminent American thrash band.

Rating: 3/5

Metallica has its work cut out for it. There is just so much good metal these days, that Death Magnetic cannot stand above the crowd. However, for the first time in decades, it doesn't sink to the bottom. Death Magnetic is a competent album, marred by atrocious lyrics and repulsive production. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dethklok: The Dethalbum

Dethklok: The Dethalbum Year: 2007 Click here for the artist's site
I remember last year when Dethklok's first CD dropped, people couldn't seem to heap on enough praise. But I took one look at it and thought to myself, 'It's the soundtrack to some silly cartoon show about the most popular metal band in the world. How good could it be?' and I never listened to it. I'm sad that happened. For those who aren't familiar with Dethklok, they're the fake metal band from the television show 'Metalocalypse'. This album is a collection of the most metal songs that were created for the show, released as though it was a real record by a real band. But it's so much more than just a soundtrack. This album is ridiculously fun - it's got the most overblown metal lyrics you'll ever hear, from screeds about murdering mermaids because you can't leave fingerprints underwater to hate-filled invectives directed straight at their fans (or as they refer to them in the aptly titled 'Fansong', 'brainless mutants') to blisteringly heavy symphony-backed rants against the government for wanting them to pay income taxes. But it's even more than that - it's one of the most thunderous, mean, uproariously fun metal records I've ever heard. It's louder, meaner, and has as much teeth as any other metal album that came out last year (and is, in fact, a lot more metal than many of the supposedly 'heavy' discs released). The fact that all of the instruments are played by one guy (with the exception of the drums) makes it that much more impressive. Now, don't expect this to be the next great progressive metal epic. It's very straightforward stuff - this isn't going to change the way you think about metal. However, creator Brandon Small does a very good job of capturing the essence of death metal - if only in the name of comedic parody. The amazing thing is that it's through said parody that he makes one of the best examples of what death metal should be. It's supposed to have silly lyrics. It's supposed to have horrible sounding vocals. It's supposed to feel driven and thunderous, cacophonous and agressive, with flying guitar solos and in-your-face downtuned chugging. And all of those are found by the bucketfull in this album. Small has a sufficiently ugly voice as vocalist Nathan Explosion (he also does the voices of most of the rest of the band), and his rhythm guitars are lean and mean. His basswork is quite adroit. And he does impeccable guitar solos. These things soar above thump of the music, meedling and noodling enough to make most other metal guitarists jealous. They are a beautiful icing on a delicious metal cake (with mercury frosting, babeh) that truly tie this album together. In fact, the only thing that Small doesn't do is the drumming - however, SYL veteran Gene Hoglan is in the battery, and the 'Atomic Clock' is as good as he ever was, beating his double basses with his feet almost constantly, making the album that much more abrasive and aggressive. He rounds out the sound perfectly, adding his signature noise just where it needs to be to make things that much more impressive. Tracks to catch: Album opener 'Murmaider' is great, with the silliest lyrics about underwater killings you'll ever hear. 'Fansong's heavy beat and message about how their fans should all kill themselves parodies the aloofness and uppityness that so many artists espouse with deftness. 'Briefcase Full of Guts' should be self-explanatory. But the true gem of the album is the track 'Dethharmonic', with full orchestral backing, lucid, gorgeous violin work, and words about how the band would rather kill people than pay taxes. It's hilarious. Rating: 3/5 As I mentioned earlier, this album isn't going to change one's mind about metal - if you like it, you'll dig this album. If you don't, you can't expect Dethklok to change your mind. But there's enough enjoyment here to really merit a listen or ten, if only to revel in the delicious irony of parodies. This CD really is comedy gold and blisteringly heavy, invasive metal.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Maybeshewill: Not for Want of Trying

Maybeshewill: Not for Want of Trying

Year: 2007

Click here for the artist's site

Maybeshewill is a band that I was introduced to only a few weeks ago, through a recommendation of my last.fm software. The thirty-second clip it gave me was very reminiscent of the impeccable post-industrial band 65daysofstatic (even the name - words run together - seemed to suggest serious ties). So after a bit of searching, I was able to get my hands on a copy of their debut LP, Not for Want of Trying.

Now, before I go any further (and in case my words of praise in the first paragraph weren't enough), I should admit that I quite enjoy 65dos' music - I find it dense, layered, complex, inventive, and original. Consequently, I figured that a group with a similar style would be worth my time.

The problem lies, however, in the fact that Maybeshewill doesn't sound similar to 65daysofstatic. The newer band sounds derivative.

The difference between the two is huge.

It's one thing to be influenced by and incorporate elements from an artist or group that you admire, taking their ideas and adding them to your own, making something new. It's another thing entirely to completely rip off the sound of a well-established and respected post-music outfit.

Regrettably, that's all Not for Want of Trying is - a poorly done rehash of 65dos' style, sound, and vibe. Everything is a copy - from the overly-used piano sounds on the keyboard to the gaudy attempt at inventive drum programming to the bad male/female duet. It's all been done before and done amazingly better by the older band.

It doesn't even sound as though Maybeshewill is trying to bring anything new to the table. For example, their programming drumkit noises are the exact same sounds that 65dos uses. It's as though Maybeshewill carefully read the liner notes for the other group's last release and bought all of the same equipment and software, trying to recreate the successful sound - but without any of the heart, passion, or complexity.

It all feels forced; it all feels like a path that's been tread on my far better musicians. Yet at the same time, it feels simplified, watered-down and soulless. It's like the difference between playing 'The Entertainer' my Scott Joplin and the primer arrangement of the song for a second-year piano student. It's like hearing Beethoven's Fifth turned into a monochromatic ringtone for a 5-year-old mobile phone.

The whole thing disappoints me greatly. I was hoping for something that would set my teeth on edge and take my breath away like 65daysofstatic can; instead, all it earns is a resounding 'harrumph.'

Tracks to catch: 'Seraphim and Cherubim' is the closest this album comes to original, and is probably the best song on the record. 'Heartflusters', with its laughably ugly duet, is worth listening to if only to giggle. 'He Films the Clouds' tries - and turns out marginally okay.

Rating: 2/5

It would be unfairly harsh for me to give Not for Want of Trying 1/5, even though a part of me really wants to. If you like post-rock or post-industrial, and aren't familiar with the work of 65daysofstatic, go ahead and listen to these guys first. That way you won't hate it as much as I did. And then go pick up some of the masters of post-industrial and find out what you're missing.

An open message to Maybeshewill: next time, try writing your own music, instead of putting someone else's superior product through the crap filter and calling it yours. I'm sorry. I really wanted you to be good, but you're not.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Made Out of Babies: The Ruiner

Made Out of Babies, The Ruiner

Year: 2008

Click here for the artist's site

When I first got my hands on Made Out of Babies' sophomore effort, Coward, I couldn't say enough good about it. I loved (and continue to love) that album. I still think it's one of the most frightening records I've ever heard. It's brutal, it's ugly, it's engaging, and it's scary. I can remember thinking to myself, There's no way they'll be able to top this with their next release.

I am pleased to announce that I was full of it.

MOoB's newest disc is an even more focused, driven aural assault than their last two albums were. It's got every bit of the hideous power that characterized their first two releases, while having a more streamlined approach, a better handle on what exactly they want to do with this disc. However, don't think this doesn't sound every bit as much like Made Out of Babies as their other two releases do - all of their signature sounds are there, from the growly detuned guitars to the aggressive drumming to the loud, prominent bass to the inimitable creepiness that is vocalist Julie Christmas' voice. If anything, the interplay between bandmembers seems more fluid, more natural; you can tell this is a group that has been playing together for a few years now, and it reflects in the way they play off one another.

It hits hard from the beginning, with syncopated guitar noises and Christmas' trademark disgusting growl, erupting into a brutal, devastating attack on everything you expect from a rock and roll band. This is an album that refuses to conform, even to the standards they created for their first two discs. It's got a more melodic focus, while still being every bit as unfriendly as before.

As per usual with a MOoB release, it's Christmas who reigns supreme in center stage for the bulk of The Ruiner. Her multiple vocal personalities all return to the mix, with even more interaction between her eerie singing voice and harsh, guttural grunts. She purposely veers off tune in parts, making it that much more disconcerting. She can still sing in that sweet, little girl voice, which disappears in the face of the tempest of her growl. She screams and she cries and she bellows and she absolutely captivates me while simultaneously scaring the crap out of me.

But the rest of the band is better than ever as well. They're pushing to more progressive territories, playing with complex time signatures and song structures, while still being more brutal than most supposed metal bands could ever dream of. And the production is much tighter this time around, making the album a more harrowing experience. It doesn't feel as muffled and sanitized; this is raw, this is unfriendly, this is not the sort of thing you play when your mother is in the car with you.

But I can't stress enough just how good this album is. And I really don't think it's because I set my hopes high and I'm simply justifying my love for this disc. I expected it to be less than its predecessor, not the terrifying progression into desolate, musical hells that we are treated to through this entire record.

Lyrically, it's much more focused and guided than their last two efforts. Most of the lyrics on Coward seemed almost like a tribute to Dadaism, with no sense to be had in any way, shape, or form. On the other hand, The Ruiner has a sense of direction, has a voice to be heard and a story to be told - adding to enhance the record as a whole.

Tracks to catch: Album-opener 'Cooker' is a blisteringly progressive and ugly starting note, setting the tone for the rest of the disc. 'Invisible Ink' sees Christmas singing some of her most melodic music to date, which serves to augment the creepiness that pervades the song. 'Bunny Boots' has some of the most scathing, hideous screams committed to CD, and the lyric 'Each time you say it louder and more boring' is only half right - it's plenty loud, but miles from boring. 'Peew' captures the essence of Coward's crown jewel, 'Gunt', and will haunt you long after the disc stops spinning.

Rating: 4/5

As scathing, as biting, as acerbic and fugly as this album is, I can't in good nature give it a perfect score, because it will scare most listeners away - but that's true of everything Made Out of Babies does. (Their name alone serves to scare away the majority of people, I imagine.) The best way I can describe MOoB's music is how singer Julie Christmas' mother described it - 'I really like it, but it makes me want to punch things'. Made Out of Babies is musical violence, flayed and put on display, gory and oozing. And did I mention The Ruiner is absolutely brilliant?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Sigur Rós: Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Sigur Rós: Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Year: 2008

Click here for the artist's site

Sigur Rós is, to me at least, inexplicably popular. I don't really understand how a band that sings in either Icelandic or a made-up language and that composes as down-tempo and chill music as they do gets as large of a following as they do.

I've been a fan of theirs on and off since the first time I heard 2005's Takk, but it's only been in the past few months that I've really listened to them in earnest. They've got an undeniable style, but they can be very hit-and-miss with me. Some of their stuff I love with a passion, and I listen to over and over, whereas some of it only results in an echoing 'meh'.

That's certainly true of their newest album. (For sake of my typing sanity I'll refer to it through the rest of the review as 'Endalaust', because it's a word I can type with a normal English keyboard, unlike most of the words in the title.) It starts with a bang, offering what may be the most energetic, moving, and engaging song Sigur Rós has ever released; from its acoustic guitar to abnormal rhythm structure to its chorus of happy singers to its fast, unusual (for this band) beat, it's almost a perfect song. It makes the entire album start with a roar.

And that roar continues rather well through the first five tracks of the album, which are impeccably good. Still signature Sigur Rós style stuff, but with an energy and a vibrancy that they've never displayed. It seems the diametric opposite of my favorite disc of theirs, the oddly titled (). While the 2002's parenthetical release was dark, heavy, and slow, the first half of Endalaust is almost poppy and brings an immediate smile to my face.

Regrettably, they can't seem to sustain that new, vibrant sound through an entire album.

The second half of the record, from about the sixth track on, feels like an empty rehashing of earlier releases of theirs; it's devoid of anything new or groundbreaking, and is completely disappointing after the first half. It's as though they had enough music for an amazing EP that would take the band in an entirely new direction, but got scared of losing fans or something and crapped out some boring follow-up to make it an LP.

And that bothers me. By the time I reach the last track, almost all of the goodwill this album built up through the first few tracks is lost on maudlin repeats of their old sound. Thankfully, I can either just push play again and enjoy the first few songs, or I can just open up my music player and give the dark, moody () a listen again.

So that's what it comes to. I only really ever want to listen to the first half of this album. It starts so very, very strong, but loses steam far too quickly.

Tracks to catch: Pretty much the first five tracks. The opener, 'Gobbledigook', is by far the best song Sigur Rós has ever put out up to this point, and I can't help but grin when I hear it. 'Inní mér syngur vitleysingur' uses a lot of lound, brassy horns to make its presence known, and is a warm, fast song, full of life and energy. 'Festival' starts out slow in usual Sigur Rós style, but builds to an amazing close.

Rating: 3/5

I'd love to give this album more, and the first half would easily earn a 4 out of 5, but the second half almost bores me to tears by the time it's over, bringing the overall rating much lower than it would have been. If you're a fan of Sigur Rós, check this album out, and pay special attention to where I think the band might be going in those first couple of songs - it's exciting new territory. If you're not familiar with the band, go listen to () and cry for awhile, because it's that emotive. All in all, it's a pretty okay record from a pretty okay band. While I wish there were more meat to it, it's still a decent outing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath

The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath
Year: 2008 Click here for the artist's site

The Mars Volta seems like a band that you either get or you don't. There's not a lot of middle ground with a band as marginalized (and marginalizing), eclectic, and strange as they are.

That's not to say there's not a lot to like about them - there most certainly is. Their debut LP,
De-Loused in the Comatorium, is one of my "Ten Best Albums of All Time" without a doubt. It's a frenetically paced record, full of jazzy riffs, soaring, high vocals, and aimlessly wonderful guitar solos. It was such a strikingly original album that it's hard not to fall in love with it. But with each subsequent release, they've become even more eclectic and hard to define, from the heavy Latin-music influences of Frances the Mute to the directionless mess of Amputechture.

Never ones to be content to tread worn ground, the newest record by The Mars Volta is their hardest to get into - but consequently, very rewarding. It combines the styles that have defined TMV up to this point - heavy progressive/drug rock, jazz stylings, Latin beats, and adds new influences, from the decidedly Eastern qualities of the new melodies to the inconsistent half-rhythms of Arabic music. Almost every moment of the disc is filled past capacity with notes, a pulsating romp through new musical territories that most artists only dream of achieving.

But at times it feels a little too overwhelming. It's definitely a step up from
Amputechture (which, while still good, just disappointed me), but it's not quite up to Frances stature, much less touching the heights of their first album. Part of it may be the truncated songs - while I wouldn't call the long-winded musical wankery of TMV epic, it's thick and engaging when their tracks go for ten to fifteen minutes (never mind the forty minutes of "Cassandra Gemini"). The Bedlam in Goliath lacks any of those stand-out tracks, ones that demand your attention and respect. It's a solid, dense disc, but it's not got those shining moments.

Don't take that to mean that there isn't moments of absolute brilliance on this album - there are, and there are a lot of them. For once, TMV has decided to leap from the starting gates - whereas all other releases had a bit of buildup before erupting into musical chaos,
Bedlam begins heavy, fast, and thick, keeping you off your toes with strange, almost impossible to follow rhythms, and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's ever present weird melodies. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala seems to soar to new heights with his already disconcertingly high voice, and there's often 8 or 9 vocal tracks going in different directions all at once.

Lyrically, this album is an incomprehensible as any other Mars Volta release. It's based around the stories told by a strange ouija-type diviner board that the band owned at one time, dubbed "The Soothsayer", which supposedly haunted the band until its burial in an undisclosed location by Bixler-Zavala. It's full of strange, meaningless lyrics, permeated by a sense of chaos and misunderstanding, and supposedly haunted. You can't get much weirder than that.
Tracks to catch: "Aberinkula", the opener, has an infectious blend of melodies and rhythms that gets inside your head. It's in "Soothsayer" where the Eastern influences are the thickest and most rewarding. "Goliath" is really the strongest point on the album, a loud, bangy song, full of a classic, early TMV sound.
Rating: 3/5
The Bedlam in Goliath is a pretty great release from The Mars Volta, and well worth my time and listening. However, it's the exact last place to start listening to this band, being far too dense and esoteric to serve as a decent introduction. It's a wonderful addition and a natural (if unexpected) evolution of TMV's sound, but it's too much in a lot of places and in a lot of ways. If you want to check out The Mars Volta, start with De-Loused and, when you're feeling especially brave, give Bedlam a try.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chevelle: Vena Sera

Chevelle: Vena Sera

Year: 2007

Click here for the artist's site

Chevelle blew me away with their debut album, Point #1 back in 1999. It was urgent, raw, full of energy and passion. Over the course of the past few years, internal problems, mostly focused around youngest brother and bassist Joe Loeffler, took something of a toll on the band.

On their third release, This Type of Thinking (Could Do Us In), this internal turmoil resulted in a record that was too formulaic, lacked much real energy, and was quickly forgettable. With the addition of Dean Bernardini (brother-in-law to Sam and Pete, talk about keeping it in the family) as the official and full-time bassist, could Chevelle reinvigorate themselves?

Vena Sera, their latest release, answers that question with a positive, if not fully convincing, yeah, probably.

Vena Sera definitely rises above its predecessor, mostly on the strength of it variation. Whereas This Type of Thinking felt like the same song over and over and over again (with the exception of the final acoustic track "Bend the Bracket"), Vena Sera does seem to have a bit more going on. There are still plenty of mid-tempo, chugging rockers that Chevelle has become expert at. However, the are more acoustic guitars, a few more mellow tracks, and some up-tempo tracks.

This variation helps Vena Sera from feeling too stagnant. However, the band still hasn't captured the frantic energy that made Point #1 such a strong album. Likewise, missing is the utter confidence and polish that powered Wonder What's Next.

Musically, the mix is perfect. The bass is present, but not overpowering. The guitars have just enough edge to them to keep this from sounding anemic, without spilling over into the realm of true heavy metal. Pete Loeffler's vocals continue to walk the fine line between clear, melodic singing and guttural screams, with a bit more emphasis on the singing this record. As This Type of Thinking suffered from too much angst, the more present clean vocals strengthen the record. Lyrically, Chevelle continues to attempt to wax poetic, while generally just coming across as somewhat incomprehensible. But that is just what they do. At least it hasn't changed.

Tracks to catch: "Antisaint" has a great, angry chorus that just begs you to sing along. "Humanoid" is one of the darker songs, with some powerful guitars that help it build to a monstrous crescendo. "I Get It" is a pleasant change of pace, with its acoustic guitar based verses. "Midnight to Midnight" is a solid track as well, with an excellent bridge section.

Rating: 3/5

Vena Sera will be immediately familiar to fans of the band's previous work. The album immediately feels comfortable. This also hinders the record, as there is little new here to look forward to. The subtle variability certainly makes Vena Sera more interesting than the bands previous release. However, if you aren't already a fan, Vena Sera isn't going to do much to win you over.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ayreon: 01011001

Ayreon: 01011001
Year: 2008
Click here for the artist's site

Arjen Lucassen set the bar high back in 2004. No, not just high. He set the bar incredibly, astronomically high. The Human Equation is, in my opinion, the single finest rock opera and progressive rock/metal epic ever written. That powerful. Yes, I think it is better than The Wall, Tommy, Dark Side of the Moon or just about anything else you could bring up.

How in the world do you follow that up? Simple, you leave the world behind.

01011001 is the continuation of the massive sci-fi epic that Arjen has been crafting since the release of The Final Experiment back in 1995. The scope of the story is well beyond this article. It is sufficient to say that every Ayreon album has been a cog in the greater wheel of this masterful rock opera.

And as far as epic goes, there are none more epic than 01011001.

Again spanning two discs, weighing in at very nearly 2 hours, 01011001 tells the story of Forever and their attempts to rediscover emotions. One of Arjen's greatest strengths is his ability to synthesize disparate styles of music in his story telling. There are plenty of heavy, crashing, thunderous moments of metal guitar. These are carefully juxtaposed to quite moments of acoustic reflection and introspection. Progressive rock, electronic music, and pop sensibilities are all brilliantly melded together to create the most musically diverse album in the past years.

Arjen heads up the instrumentalists, providing the majority of the guitars, bass and keyboards. However help abounds, with keyboard solos from the likes of Joost van den Broek (After Forever), Tomas Bodin (The Flower Kings), and Derek Sherinian (Planet X, Platypus, Dream Theater). Lori Linstruth (Stream of Passion) and Michael Romeo (Symphony X) lend their talents on some fabulous guitar solos. Ed Warby continues to impress as one of the most powerful and versatile drummers in music today. Cello, violin, flutes and recorders round out the instrumentalists.

The other highlight of any Ayreon album is the guest vocalists. Arjen pulls out all the stops on 01011001. There are 17 vocalists, many of them huge names in the world of rock and metal. The list is extensive, but includes such luminaries as Tom Englund (Evergrey), Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian, Demons and Wizards), Floor Jansen (After Forever), Ty Tabor (King's X), and Jorne Lande to name just a few. Each vocal performance is powerful, and for the first time in years we hear Jonas Renske's growl.

Tracks to catch: "Comatose" is a haunting, chilling minimalist tune that highlights the emotional loss of Forever. "Connect the Dots" is a biting satire of our reliance on technology. "The Fifth Extinction" is an explosive start to the second disc. "Liquid Eternity" explores the blessing and damnation Forever have discovered in their mechanical form. "The Sixth Extinction" finishes the second disc off and is one of the most powerful, progressive epics I have ever heard.

Rating: 4/5

I would love to give 01011001 5/5. However, as I strive to reserve that rating for albums that truly are essentials, I can't give 01011001 the full score. The only reason, though, is because the previous album, The Human Equation, is so brilliant and demands a perfect score. Don't let that detract from the power and brilliance of 01011001, though. This is a magnificent album, and sure to be one of the best albums of the year. Arjen again proves that he has the Midas touch. Fans of metal, folk, acoustic, pop, prog and even electronica can all find something to enjoy on this album. Lyrically, the story is coherent, cohesive, and powerful. Again, Arjen demonstrates that he is perhaps one of the most brilliant minds in progressive music. I recommend 01011001 without reservation to music fans everywhere.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Year: 2007

Click here for the artist's site

Five years have passed since the last real studio album from Rush. 2004's Feedback was an entertaining foray into the realm of cover songs, but it never got a lot of play for me. After all, these weren't Rush songs. They were fun, but didn't feel right. The boys from the Great White North appeased fans in the meantime with first Rush in Rio on both CD and DVD (yes, I have both). This release really set a high water mark that all concert DVDs should aspire to. Next came R30, a DVD worth it alone if for nothing other than seeing Jerry Stiller headbanging whenever you want. Finally, they released Replay x3, a reissue of three older Rush concert shows on DVD.

But none of these really sated our hunger for some new Rush songs.

When they announced last year that they were entering the studio, well, the excitement began to build. Finally, after many months and loads of teases from the band, on May 1st, Snakes and Arrows was released.

And what we have is, quite honestly, a joy to experience.

Eschewing the trends set by some of their peers, Rush has once again set the bar incredibly high for rock music. Snakes and Arrows is a complex album, full of shifting musical direction, changing time signatures, and musical dichotomies. But more importantly, it is a thoughtful, introspective, emotional and stirring album.

The album kicks off with "Far Cry", a rousing track that starts things off in fantastic fashion. Electric and acoustic guitars in a stuttering start/stop fashion that sounds distinctly Rush ramp the energy up. It is a great opening track, and one of Rush's best singles in years. From there, the album never looks back.

Musically, Snakes and Arrows is one of Rush's most diverse albums ever. Written almost entirely on acoustic guitars, their presence permeates the songs, adding a sense of depth to the tracks. This also provides for some truly beautiful melodies and acoustic passages. However, don't let that fool you to thinking this is Rush growing old. Snakes counters this with some of the heaviest passages in years as well. This is a more polished heaviness than 2002's Vapor Trails, though. Whereas VT was much more pure energy and aggression, S&A is a more balanced, metered style.

On the surface, the lyrics on Snakes and Arrows appear to be some of the more dark, depressing lyrics Neil has penned in years, easily since Grace Under Pressure. What elevates each song is a hint of hope. A careful review demonstrates a constant theme of endurance despite all challenges. In "Far Cry" Neil pens "One day I feel I’m on top of the world/And the next it’s falling in on me/I can get back on/I can get back on". "We Hold On" finishes the album with the anthemic chorus "Keep going on until dawn/How many times must another line be drawn/We could be down and gone/But we hold on". Distinctly political and social on context, but still remaining deeply personal, Neil has penned perhaps his most poignant lyrics of his career.

Finally, I must mention the three, yes three, instrumentals on the album. Rush has long been known for their instrumentals, from such classics as "La Villa Strangiato" and "YYZ" to more recent offerings such as "Limbo". Never before, though, have they packed three on one album. The first, "The Main Monkey Business" is a romping, energetic tune that is classic Rush. Sudden interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, varying styles and time signatures, this is an instant classic, and their strongest instrumental since "YYZ". Next is "Hope", a 2 minute breath of fresh air on Alex Lifeson's 12 string acoustic guitar. It is a beautiful piece, with just a hint of come Celtic and even Middle Eastern melodies thrown in. Finally, the most spontaneous of the three, "Malignant Narcissism" is a rollicking romp, full of jazz inspired beats and rhythms, rapid fire solos from drums and bass and just an overwhelming sound of three long time friends who happen to be extremely talented musicians just having a good time.

Rating: 5/5

Snakes and Arrows is a marvelous album. It has a wonderful depth to it, that begs repeat listens. It tackles real, difficult political and social issues with grace, never coming across as preaching or pedantic, rather reflective and introspective. It has every element that makes a Rush album such a pleasure, great lyrics, stunning music, and a subtle sense of humor that is so refreshing. The production, handled by Nick Raskulinecz, is flawless. Every instrument has its place and is crystal clear. The artwork, once again handled by Hugh Syme, is beautiful. This is, without doubt, Rush's strongest album since Moving Pictures, and album I often refer to as a perfect album. In some ways, Snakes and Arrows even gives Moving Pictures a run for its money. Without reservation I give Snakes and Arrows a perfect score.

Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos

Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos
Year 2007

2007 marked a transition for Dream Theater. They escaped the confines of their Warner music label over to one of metal's biggest labels, Roadrunner Records (of course, the beautiful irony is that Roadrunner was bought out by Warner in the beginning of 2007, though this all happened after the plan to switch labels). Would a change in record labels lead to a change in direction for one of progressive metal's best known bands? Systematic Chaos would be the album to answer that question.

And the answer is yes, unfortunately.

Admittedly, the changes are subtle, and could easily be overlooked. First and most immediately noticeable was the decision to break the track "In the Presence of Enemies" into two tracks. This effectively halts the momentum of the song and takes what could have been a 25 minute epic into two lesser, somewhat confusing and disjointed tracks. Another major change on the album is thematic in nature.

It is this second that is most disappointing.

Dream Theater's lyrics have often run the gamut, ranging from thoughtful and somewhat introspective, to political, to religious. There have even been moments of fantasy (such as the concept of Metropolis part II). But when it comes to their music, Dream Theater has always presented themselves as very serious artists. And this serious attitude is, ultimately, what damns Systematic Chaos.

Metal music has never been above dark, fantasy lyrics. Yet the bands that pull it off best are those who are obviously putting on a show. Symphony X has always had lyrics that border on the ridiculous. Swords, sorcery, knights and dragons are all part and parcel of any Symphony X album. It works, though, because you can tell it is a conscious effort to make their music larger than life, to separate it from reality and use it to create a moment or two of fantasy for the listener. On Systematic Chaos, however, everything comes across so earnest, so serious, that it becomes impossible to just ignore the lyrical abortion that the album is. Tackling fantasy themes with the restraint, tact, and style of a libidinous teenager, each track is cringe inducing trial to suffer through.

Musically, the album has some very strong moments, with some of Dream Theater's heaviest, most crushing guitar riffs recorded. As is expected, the music has many technical elements and is very skillfully played. Yet it is time someone remind the band that more notes does not excellent music make. Finally, Jordan Rudess again proves that he is, quite possibly, the worst thing to happen to Dream Theater. A technically talented keyboardist, he feeds into the "flurry of notes as mental onanism" mindset that has become a weakness of Dream Theater albums since Awake. That, coupled with his atrocious choices in sound effects (really, who thinks that a rag-time piano solo fits in the middle of near death metal guitar riffs?) creates an enormous barrier to the music of Systematic Chaos being enjoyable.

Tracks to catch: "Constant Motion" is a decent single, that works to showcase much of what Dream Theater has become. "The Dark Eternal Night" tries to be interesting (though the horrifyingly bad lyrics and aforementioned rag-time piano completely ruin this track for me). "In The Presence of Enemies" wants to be a big, epic song, though it is neutered by being split into two smaller tracks.

Rating: 2/5

Systematic Chaos is for completists, those who just have to have everything by a band they love. And there is actually quite a bit to potentially love in this album. However, the good is so outweighed by the bad that I just can't forgive it. Lyrically it is painful. Musically, it has some very strong moments which are overwhelmed by self-indulgent instrumental wankery that lacks all style and tact. Chalk this up as one of my biggest disappointments of 2007.

Ratings: Revealed!

As a guide to ratings on Progged, please keep in mind the following:
  • 5/5: This is reserved for essential recordings. If an album gets a 5 it means we think this is really an album that any true music fan should experience.
  • 4/5: This denotes the album is an excellent addition to any music collection, but not an essential. Most really great albums probably should get this at the very highest.
  • 3/5: A good albums for fans of the style/band, but not something that will be winning over new fans or changing the way someone thinks about music.
  • 2/5: An album best reserved for those who are completists, those who really want to have every album by said band.
  • 1/5: Gluttons for punishment. Little to no redeeming values.

Hopefully that guide keeps the ratings used clear. This is all in an effort to avoid the dreaded 6-9 review scale that seems to plague review sites.