Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier: B+

When I first heard that Iron Maiden would continue to write and perform music after their newest album, the first feeling I experienced was of relief. Although it may sound trite, I confess my relief didn't really stem from the prospect of Iron Maiden continuing the make music, but from the implicit conclusion that their newest album, The Final Frontier, would not be their final album.

The reason why that was such an overwhelming feeling was because of the fact that Iron Maiden hold such an interesting position when it comes to professional musicianship. 2010 has already seen its fair share of final statements (Jack Rose, LCD Soundsystem, Daughters) and most of them were forcibly caused, as most are, by either a break-up or the death of a member. I am confident that Iron Maiden can continue to play music until they feel like stopping. They're just as dynamic as they were when they were half as young and still have the personally distinct honor of never releasing a bad song. If they're going to end that legacy on an album, I don't think it's unfair to expect a truly fantastic or at least excellent farewell in return.

If The Final Frontier was that last goodbye, it would not have met my criteria. Don't get me wrong; the album is pretty good. My qualm is that it sounds more like a transitional release than anything else. And no, I don't mean that just because the first song of The Final Frontier is some industrial reverb-swarthed crack at new wave. In fact, that little ditty is probably the album's weakest track (not bad enough to constitute as a "bad" song mind you). No, The Final Frontier sounds transitional, because we finally see Iron Maiden pull away from the homogenized sound that characterized the band's 2000's material, and move towards a different sound. That different sound is, essentially, that of Powerslave. The Final Frontier can be boiled down to this: The riffs of Powerslave with the song structures of the band's aughts material (Brave New World, Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death. Take your pick). "Coming Home" copies this blueprint, verbatim, the beginning flowing from a descending melodic twin guitar lead with a distinct bass presence into the slow and reliable metal trudging on the verses and chorus that wouldn't sound unfamiliar on A Matter of Life and Death. It sounds corny to say, but it may very well be possible that the time the band spent playing their old deep cuts on The Somewhere Back In Time Tour has dusted off a style that Maiden has sanded down for quite some time now.

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I view the aughts material of Maiden to be bad. A Matter of Life and Death was one of my favorite albums of 2006 and I see "Dance of Death" as right up there in quality with "The Number of the Beast" and "2 Minutes to Midnight". When I say "trudging" and "homogenized", I mean that they're less caustic and sporadic and more plodding and epic. It's literally dinosaur rock; moving slowly and irrevocably from release to release and concert to concert, and I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when I hear that slow intro into that bombastically fast verse formula one too many times. "The Talisman" and "The Man Who Would Be King" are, overall, very good songs, but I would be lying to you if I said that I've not once skipped each respective song's first few minutes out of impatience.

Do I even have to tell you how the musicianship is? Steve Harris is unsurprisingly superb, even if, at times, he's too much Robert Trujillo and not enough... Steve Harris. Bruce Dickinson continues to shame singers less than half his age (Some have criticized the guy's performance on this album, accusing his vocal chords of waning, but the most technically fascinating part of the man's voice-- that he can make a squeaky high note sound organic-- continues to inspire awe. If I have one problem with his performance, it's not when he hits those high notes, it's when he double-tracks them on songs like "El Dorado", which just sounds like the brazen smoothing over of vocal kinks that I'm not sure exist). Ultimately, the guitar earns my highest praise, though. Kudos to the band for continuing to have the creative clout to house each guitar solo with a distinctly different groove from the melody and arrangement that preceded it. The breakdown in "The Talisman" isn't even a solo, but it's epic and insatiably clever. If you're interested in The Final Frontier to hear the band shred, A. You already own the album, and B. You're on the right track.

Otherwise, it would still have been a good decision. The Final Frontier won't earn the band many new fans (unless you count the kids and grandkids of current Iron Maiden fans), but it's a good stopgap in a career I hope will continue to expand and reward upon itself. A Matter of Life and Death might have been a better final piece, but, as their current live shows have shown, Iron Maiden don't see themselves as a peddler of more of the same.


Matthew Dear - Black City: B+

Matthew Dear, not for nothing, is a pretty handsome guy. His newest album... isn't. Sexy, bizarre, intense, yes, but if you're looking for an artist to just hand you an album of easy listening dance music with a complacent countenance, you should look elsewhere. Black City is an album that plays so far against type, it may reshape your perspective on how modern dance music should sound.

What makes Black City so irresistible is how Matthew Dear manages to continuously string the listener along. I don't mean this as if Dear is constantly leading you on by teasing at the cusp of a climax or catharsis; in fact Black City is comprised of dozens of them. No, what keeps setting the listener off balance while listening to this album is the fact that, for the album's ten tracks, Dear seems to be constantly perverting the line between the weird and the familiar. It's the kind of music that I would imagine playing in the background at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe; to someone this stuff is normal, but, for you, there is this constant nagging feeling that there's something not quite right. I feel like Arthur Dent when presented with the nine-minute monster of a single, "Little People (Black City)" (What is this guy saying? 'Love me like a clown'? Am I supposed to dance to this?... Okay."). "Ride with me / In my big black car," Dear demands so matter-of-factly in "You Put a Smell on Me" and I can't help but think of Zaphod Beeblebrox exercising his space-age swag in that untouchable black car. It's all tantalizingly delectable, but if there's one thing that Black City won't make you feel, it's comfortable.

Even when Matthew steps off the dance floor and into the heavens on album closer, "Gem", the man can't help but infuse some weirdness into the proceedings. Ultimately, this may be incumbent upon his very style as a performer. Throughout Black City, Dear sings with either one or two other voices accompanying him, singing the same notes just at different octaves. As a result, it never feels like just Dear is serenading you, but two or three are simultaneously, and you can understand how uncomfortable one can feel when all those voices close in for intimacy. For however disturbing it may sound in text, damnit if it doesn't sound creepily compelling on record.

At its worst, Black City sounds like filler from Gorillaz first two albums, and, at its best, it sounds like the kind of gilded trash techno that would score a Samurai Jack episode. You'll hear Matthew Dear sing in an unwavering monotone reminiscent of Stephin Merritt that will sound convincing whether speaking of relationship obligations, surgery or monkeys. Black City may only be truly appropriate music for an intergalactic dance party millions of lightyears away, but, if it never had that inherent eccentricity to it, it might never have been nearly as alluring.


Dark Tranquility - We Are the Void: B

When it came to all the crap metal albums I had been listening to in the beginning of this year, We Are the Void came as somewhat of a relief. Sure, you’ve got that relentlessly atonal screaming and not much songwriting chops in play to make up the difference, but there is just enough song craft and interesting guitar work intact to keep you not totally disinterested. This is recommended for any music reviewer who needs something to get him or her out of the doldrums of the metal scene of the beginning of 2010. If you’re not one, then you’re better of looking elsewhere.


Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain't No Grave: B+

Before starting this blog, I had already developed a relatively extensive rapport of music from past and present. Of course, I was just one music devotee, so there were plenty of artists that I knew existed and I knew others enjoyed, but never got around to listening to. As a result, with Check Your Mode, I have been able to dip my toe into artists and genres both old and new that I would not normally look into.

And so this brings me to American VI: Ain't No Grave, in which I open myself to the life and music of Johnny Cash at the end of both. American VI is the sixth and supposedly last collection of songs from the sessions that Cash had recorded with Rick Rubin at the end of his life that will ever see the light of day. All but one of its ten songs are covers and all of them have that folks-y sound to them that fans of the American series and Johnny Cash have come to expect.

Since Ain't No Grave was released, critics have been accusing Rick Rubin of being over-eager to draw nostalgia from the listener with the after-the-fact accouterments he has added to Cash's mostly acoustic recordings. For the most part, I don't agree with this sentiment. The proverbial sap spile to the maple of nostalgia: unnecessary string arragements, are never an uncomfortable presence on this album. Still, there is no doubt that the best of Ain't No Grave is when the least window dressing is applied. All Rubin has to do is introduce the sound of clinking chains or plunk a low note on a piano to make the title track and album highlight, "Redemption Day", respectively, extremely effective. "Water", which features nothing more than an acoustic and Cash's rosy tenor, is something of pure hushed wonderment as the man describes a tale of temptation amidst a desert landscape.

Like much of the American series, Ain't No Grave is successful in at least converting every song Cash plays into something purely his own. I could not imagine hearing the songs of Ain't No Grave being covered by anyone else, even album closer, "Aloha Oye", whose straightforward and surprisingly spry performance is absolutely lovely, even if it's not the outright tear-jerker Rick Rubin may have intended it to be. At times, Cash sounds vulnerable on Ain't No Grave, at others stoic. But what's ultimately fulfilling about the album is that, even at the end of his life, Cash exuded a confidence and passion in his music that could take others multiple lifetimes to muster.


High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine: B+

The first fourth of Snakes for the Divine is absolutely fantastic. The title track is harrowing from its incredible beginning crescendo to the bass tapping in its chorus. First single and second track, "Frost Hammer", is similarly pummeling, and "Bastard Samurai" proves to be a pretty good holdover. Musically, the band never falters. Drummer Des Kensel's primal thrap is effective with the album's gritty production and Matt Pike's scowl always sounds like Tom Araya after decades of chain smoking. However, as Snakes for the Divine progresses, it goes from an excellent release to a pretty good one, as the band's knack for prime metal songwriting wanes and begins to tread water, creatively.

Overall, Snakes for the Divine is a very good album. I'm just a little disappointed at how much it could have been a great one. Still, for all its flaws, High on Fire has released one of this year's best American metal albums (which isn't too much of a compliment considering how much Scandinavia has been sweeping in this category this year). It delivers in head-pummeling craft, but, as a cohesive product, Snakes for the Divine leaves a little to be desired.


Xiu Xiu - Dear God, I Hate Myself: C+

Yep, it's that kind of album. That title. That cover. I'd like to say that Dear God, I Hate Myself isn't the melodramatic melancholy pity party one might think it would be, but it is. The only reason I'm not giving it a lower rating than just crappy and not lambasting it in an emo-hating tirade is that the album does show some signs of quality amidst the dreck. These moments are quite few and far between, and far too much of Dear God, I Hate Myself is Jamie Stewart moaning over amorphous arrangements. Even the one moment of optimism, "This Too Shall Pass Away (For Freddy)", sounds half-assed and tossed-off, so it's hardly any solace for the rest of the album's depressive nature. Don't bother with Dear God, I Hate Myself. As much as I'd like to say it transcends the emo archetype, it plays right into most of the genre's drawbacks.


Toro Y Moi - Causers of This: B+

Frothy. That's what Toro Y Moi's debut album sounds like. With the onset of every track of Causers of This, I imagine someone cracking open an ice cold can of something or making a cappuccino or pouring whipped cream on something. It's about as glo-fi as you can get in February (snow-fi?), as percussion crackles and hums past your ears in blissed-out glee.

A notable aspect of Causers of This is the technique of having the music drop out at the downbeat of each measure. The effect it creates is similar to what would happen if you were drinking that cappuccino and, suddenly, all the liquid in the container disappeared, then reappeared. I mean, sure you have that liquid back in your mouth, but that doesn't change the jarring surprise of having what you expected to be there disappear, even if just for a moment. The second half of Causers of This relies on this surprise, and the literal effect it has on your ears is indescribable. All I know is that it sucks you into the music, immediately, and the album should be listened to for that feature, alone. As an album, though, Causers of This is great and might be the only album I've ever heard that would be ideal listening for saunas or while steaming vegetables.