Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some: B+

If you like your pop rock poppy, and I mean REALLY poppy, you need not look much further than Peter Bjorn and John’s newest album, Gimme Some to get your 2011 fix. I swear, some of these songs are so saccharine, they could soundtrack a Dora the Explorer episode and no one would bat an eyelash. But it sounds fantastic. The one-two-three punch of “Tomorrow Has to Wait,” “Dig a Little Deeper” and “Second Chance” are great fun, perfectly fusing simplicity with a clear sense of melody, even though each song’s lyrical content isn’t necessary the most optimistic. “I don’t think you are sorry for what you did,” goes the first line of the album and the chorus of “Dig a Little Deeper” is “All art has been contemporary,” ostensibly a criticism of less creative artists that think they’re just as original as everyone else. Nevertheless, I guarantee the majority of Gimme Some will satiate your need for a well-executed hook. “Eyes” shines with Vampire Weekend guitars, handclaps and call-and-response harmonies, “May Seem Macabre” sounds like prime U2 and “Lies” is cutesy romance dipped in distortion. Throughout the album, PB&J admirably balance art and commerce.

It’s just when the group attempts to transcend that poppiness does Gimme Some falter. Not that a moment of Gimme Some is particularly bad, but several of its songs diverge into styles of which it is clear the group is not quite comfortable playing. “Breaker Breaker” is the album’s first track that doesn’t immediately dazzle (Thank God it’s only a minute and forty seconds long!) and “Black Box” sounds like meandering Spoon (Thank God it’s only forty seconds long!). Full Moon Fever-era Tom Petty does not suit the group particularly well on “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off” and “Down Like Me”’s emulation of The Magnetic Fields’ baroque-pop with splashes of depression (“Rest when you are dead / Like me”) is good, but a rare disruption in the album’s flow. These “bad” tracks make up less than forty percent of Gimme Some, but they drag it down enough to not have me rave about it as a whole. Regardless, though, if you like pop, you will like most if not all of Gimme Some. It’s definitely the most listenable of its kind released this year, and that’s a compliment, considering Never Say Never came out this year. You see that movie? Shit was tight.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges: B+

“What war is that? What town could this be?"

Laurie Anderson asks this question two tracks into New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, and with it, exemplifies what I imagine most people were thinking at that point into the din of Colin Stetson’s second album. On paper, Stetson sounds like your standard classically trained musician, a bass saxophonist that has played with orchestra-friendly artists like Tom Waits and Arcade Fire. However, I guarantee that Judges is an album you have never heard anything like, and, furthermore, I guarantee you will never hear anything like it ever again. Stetson does not play anything like modern classical with the three or four instruments featured on Judges. Instead, he forges dark, bizarre landscapes that both confound and fascinate. You know those one man bands you see on street corners that make children laugh when they step, triggering a hit to the bass drum on their back? Put Stetson on a street corner and watch in glee as children run in fear of the monstrosities he concocts with just himself and a tangible frustration with the complacency of modern music.

It should be noted that, aside from some vocal performances and one trumpet ensemble, all of New History Warfare was taped live and in one take, with no overdubs whatsoever. That’s right. Except for the performances by Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, every sound that comes out of your speakers is coming from one guy, all at the same time. Let’s take “Judges” for example. That tribal backbeat of percussion and harmonized bass? That’s the sound of Stetson fingering the keys at the bottom of his saxophone, not only creating those notes, but that tactile clinking. That voice? It’s Stetson literally singing into his instrument, picked up by a mic placed deep into the saxophone’s opening. You see, the sound of New History Warfare is the intricate mixing of many tracks, all taking in the same sound of the same man sitting in the same room, but placed in radically different places; inside Stetson’s instrument, on the man’s neck, on opposite sides of the room. As a result, New History Warfare is not just the sound of Stetson’s saxophone, but of Stetson himself. We can hear him whet his mouth at the end of “A Dream of Water,” rhythmically breathe through his nose on “In Love and Justice” and violently smack his reed to create the ping pong-like percussion of “Red Horse (Judges II).” Stetson’s body is its own instrument, and Judges utilizes this principle in the first “meta-instrumental” album I have ever heard.

So it’s clear that New History Warfare is a crowning achievement of instrumentation, one of the most impassioned performances of all time, and I truly mean that. But, as I listen to the album more and more, it becomes more of a concern to me as to whether or not Stetson’s arrangements are actually translating into coherent songs. Unfortunately, for the most part, they do not. When taken out of the context that Judges is the most unique album in quite a few years, its cracks begin to show as an album that may take the “experiment” in “experimental” a little too seriously. Many songs hardly evolve from the ornate melodies that Stetson initially lays down. Too often, he defaults to a wallowing drone and the beauty of “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man” is diminished when considered that it is the third song on Judges that features very similar flittering alto saxophone arpeggios.

Unsurprisingly, the best moments of New History Warfare are when Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden pull Stetson’s arrangements toward a meaningful end. Worden’s filtered voice fits perfectly over Stetson’s sepulchral drones in “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes.” The original song is a blues number from the 1920’s, but Stetson and Worden bring it to a new level of sinister, striking spine-tingling gold when Worden quietly bellows, “When she first left me, I thought I’d grieve for a little while.” Anderson’s spoken-word poetry works well with Stetson’s beatnik arrangements and she gets in some truly fantastic lines on Judges. “And here they come, the people from the Bible,” she neutrally observes as a choir ebbs and flows for an enlightening thirty-seconds. Anderson's performance in “A Dream of Water,” where she repeats that line that so well embodies Judges, is excellent, her couplets getting more frantic as Stetson’s swirling notes become more belligerent.

Worden and Anderson team up for the album’s highlight “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun.” “Of all the wires, it was the wires / That were the wires of empathy,” Anderson proclaims, with a wonderfully subtle hint of vulnerability in that last word, and so begins Stetson’s funeral dirge of clanking keys and shapeless voices. Anderson gives devious advice to the listener as Worden’s disembodied coo floats in and out to complete the narrative of true deliverance through negativity. Like many of New History’s best tracks, it ends a little too early, but it’s the most perfect song Stetson could have written that utilizes his most notable techniques without tediously repeating them.

Ultimately, New History Warfare may be remembered for Stetson’s performance, not so much the songs he creates. People will probably say, “Oh my god, the guy’s so good with the saxophone,” rather than, “Oh, remember that one song?” Honestly, to be one of the greatest instrumentalists this or any decade has to offer is enough of an accomplishment, and those who read my problems with Judges should not disregard the entire album because of them. With the immense amount of effort that Stetson clearly puts into each and every moment of Judges (just watch him perform one of his songs live), it’s almost criminally unfair to criticize him for what he has neglected. The bottom line is to listen to Judges, because it is an album that will deservedly be remembered for years to come, and you can completely disregard my opinion on anything if I don’t take note of it come December. If anyone tells you that nobody’s making original music anymore, promptly shove Judges so far up their asses they won’t need a saxophone to squeal like a motherfucking banshee.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Gucci Mane - The Return of Mr. Zone 6: C+

Close to the end of The Return of Mr. Zone 6, Gucci Mane brags that 2011’s going to be his year. The song’s hook, which goes “It’s my year,” is actually sung by Mane. Copious amounts of Auto-tune are added to his voice and his performance is accompanied by swirling moans that I can only imagine someone at some point thought were harmonies. The song’s shamelessly trite execution coupled with such boasting made me laugh out loud and is, by far, the most entertaining part of The Return. Really Gucci? This is your year? Seems like this guy has been on the verge of some semblance of fame for a while. “Lemonade” was pretty popular, “Shine Blockas” is a fantastic song and I heard “Gucci Time” playing in a department store once, but the works that were supposed to consolidate his prominence, The State vs. Radric Davis and Georgia’s Most Wanted, have received modest reviews and Gucci’s 2010 prison sentence kept him from properly advertising them aside from the release of a couple mixtapes. Now that he’s back, the guy’s received more press for his new ice cream cone face tattoo (featured prominently on the cover of The Return) than anything he’s done in the past. And if the ambling quality of The Return at this point in his career is any indication, it’s that Mane’s talent is slipping with his popularity, and his attempts to get back to late 2009 are becoming noticeably desperate.

Let me be clear: I don’t listen to Gucci Mane for his rhymes. For the most part, I don’t even listen to his songs for their production, although DJ Drama’s work on Ferrari Music was a pleasant surprise. No, I listen to Gucci Mane because, for forty minutes or so, I can act like a total moron. Mane’s lazy cadence over hilariously cheap beats sounds like knowingly mindless rap-by-numbers, going out of its way to sound as ignorant as possible. Gucci Mane is music for fat men in Hawaiian shirts to jiggle/dance to, like if Drumma Boy made a career out of making hundreds of “Crank That” remixes.

The Return of Mr. Zone 6 takes the “fun” out of “dumb fun.” Gucci stubbornly remains the same in almost every aspect, and, as a result, it is clear that a fellow Brick Squad member is overshadowing his penchant for the boorish and rude. Wacka Flocka Flame sounds positively retarded singing the chorus to “This Is What I Do” and his guest verses are delectably awful. With just a debut album under his belt, Wacka has already eclipsed Mane’s popularity, and his performances on The Return show that he is beating his mentor at his own game.

The album’s songs, in general, circumvent stupid-clever hybrids and go straight for the lazy. The chorus for “Mouth Full of Golds” is the repetition of “Rich-ass nigga with a mouth full of gold” an innumerable amount of times and “Shout Out To My Set” is just the same. “Pretty Bitches” and “My Year” attempt to “branch out” by incorporating Auto-tune, but they cross the line from innocuously brainless to unlistenable. And Mane’s attempt at hollow schmoozing in “Better Baby” is particularly disingenuous immediately following “I Don’t Love Her,” a boring ode to loveless sex.

I don’t think that The Return of Mr. Zone 6 is just an outlier in a rapper’s catalogue that has been admittedly consistent up to this point. I honestly believe that the release of The Return is a sign of the decline of Gucci. The guy had his chance and, through his legal troubles and ridiculous antics supported with few quality products to justify them, he appears to have gone too far off the edge to ever get back to the Lil’ Wayne-sized popularity bubble the man was on more than a year ago. I only see the release of more albums like The Return in Gucci’s future, and, if fans of his know what’s good for them, they should just give up the idea of the man ever releasing any sort of magnum opus and go out and buy a Hawaiian t-shirt.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Strokes - Angles: B

I don’t know about you, but March seemed like an especially depressing month for established acts releasing new music. Lupe Fiasco released an abhorred third album (that I didn’t actually find that bad) and the members of Rise Against might as well have expressed the same ennui that Julian Casablancas did before releasing Endgame, which was clearly a middling time-placer. And now we have Angles, the new Strokes album that I had great skepticism for since its release was announced. From the frequent indifference to the album’s making that frontman Casablancas expressed in his promotional interviews to the justifications for its release by the band’s other members that basically amounted to, “People said we should make a new album, so we did,” Angles came off as obligatory before it even hit my hard drive. It sounded as commercially motivated as the most egregious boy bands and worse than the recent Pixies reunion tour in that The Strokes weren’t just going to play old songs but release albums for the sake of releasing albums. And it’s not like The Strokes have released ten albums up to this point. With just three fantastic albums behind them, the band isn’t even close to justifying defaulting to Cruise Control; I don’t care how many years have passed since First Impressions of Earth.

The actual music of Angles does come off this way in that The Strokes seem incredibly concerned with covering all the sounds that they have explored in their career in an attempt to please fans of them all. The jagged riffing of “Metabolism” recalls the raucous tracks on First Impressions of Earth, “Gratisfaction”’s jazzy swing sounds like a polished remix of an Is This It track, and, although I was never as keen on “Under Cover of Darkness” as others were, it is no doubt a throwback to the group circa Room On Fire to near comical proportions, Casablanca’s voice pushed laughably far back in the mix in an attempt to give it the “singing-through-a-phone” quality of the group’s first two albums.

Casablancas sounds particularly noncommittal. What made the man so interesting on Is This It was his blasé approach to singing, but within the context of the fact that the man recorded the vocal parts of Angles separately and sent them to the group as electronic files, Casablancas’s lyrics sound revealingly indicative of his attitude toward the album. The chorus of “Games” goes, “Living in an empty world,” and Casablancas concludes, “Everyone goes every damn place they like” on “Taken For A Fool.” “Everybody’s been singing the same song for ten years,” he sings on “Under Cover of Darkness,” as if to acknowledge and indirectly justify the middling quality of Angles. It’s pretty clear that Casablancas knows the album is the half-assed fleshing out of a romanticized era that has long since passed. His obvious apathy seems to beg the question, “The fuck did you expect?”

And, of course, the result of Angles’s blatant pandering isn’t something that every Strokes fan will like. People have their qualms with First Impressions of Earth, but few can deny that the album was the consistent sound of a group that was moving in a direction. Angles has no such reliability. The album is disjointed, cluttered with both attempts to resurrect the magic of Is This It and electronic jaunts like “You’re So Right” and “Games” that sound like slight improvements on Casablancas’s positively awful solo album, Phrazes of the Young. The best tracks of Angles are the ones that sound like what The Strokes would logically release after First Impressions. “Taken For A Fool” utilizes both computerized percussion and improved production to create a good song that doesn’t look back once. “Call Me Back” is the album’s “Ask Me Anything,” as it’s the most obvious respite, but, although I hated its analogous song on First Impressions, here it is my favorite track. The quiet refrain of ominous guitar and vocal harmonies sounds weird, but it’s interesting and unlike anything the group has done in the past. If Angles were the legitimate sound of an evolving band, I would not complain if it were a hint at a technique that the group would expand upon in future releases.

Angles is, by no means, a bad album, but let me put my opinion of it this way: If the delay of Albert Hammond Jr. working on new material is facilitated by this reunion and the release of more albums like Angles, then I don’t think the group’s reentry into the collective consciousness is particularly worth the time. Does Angles have redeemable qualities? Sure. But its lows are much more noticeable than its highs and one leaves the album with minimal lasting memory and that much less excitement to hear the news that the band’s already working on a follow-up. I figured that, after Oasis broke up, a band would fill that vacuum of established artists releasing career albums, but I never thought it would be The Strokes. The only difference, now, is that I like the sound that Oasis made slight tweaks to with each album they released. After ten years, it’s hard to tell whether The Strokes have figured out their own identity and relevance in a musical landscape that may just not need them anymore.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

New York Dolls - Dancing Backward in High Heels: B

New York Dolls and R.E.M. should tour together. Both groups have released albums this year that would be bearable, if the people leading them did not take it upon themselves to try to be as clever as possible, telling inane parables that nobody could or would ever want to understand. While David Johansen does not reach the comical lows that Michael Stipe entrenched himself in on R.E.M.’s Collapse Into Now, far too often on Dancing Backward in High Heels, the third reunion album New York Dolls have released, the man overreaches his tongue-and-cheek digs at nobility and sexuality into the realm of parody that other critics have described as similar to Johansen’s work as Buster Poindexter (“Feeling Hot Hot Hot.” Yeah, he was that guy). Except I wouldn’t say Johansen sounds like his late-80’s outlier. To me, he comes off as more of a Bender from Futurama-type character, one devoid of any sense of irony or scruples as to what you can or cannot safely put on a record. With little to anchor his wild ramblings, Johansen is on the wrong side of ridiculous when calling Mari Antoinette an “old baguette” on “Streetcake,” stealing the drums from “Lust For Life” on “Round and Round She Goes” and naming a song “Funky But Chic” (Think about it).

The good news is that Dancing is a lot more easy listening than Johansen would allow. The group sounds best when they tone their shtick down, recalling the playful sinfulness of their prime in “Talk To Me Baby” and forgivably ripping off the melody of “Temptation to Exist” from 2009’s ‘Cause I Sez So to make the album highlight “You Don’t Have To Cry.” While Dancing does not sully the image that the Dolls so well established with their first releases, they’re on the verge of turning their unique style into a caricature of itself, and it would be a shame to chalk up the aesthetic of one of the best punk bands of the 70’s as a fluke.


Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding: B+

Somewhere along the line, I significantly lowered my standards for Oasis. I’ve never disliked an album they’ve released, and I still listen to all the work they’ve released in the past fourteen years with equal measure. I thought that Dig Out Your Soul was pretty good with one astounding track in “Falling Down,” Don’t Believe the Truth was excellent and Heathen Chemistry was a legitimate classic, one of my favorite albums of the 2000’s. I’m the kind of person that will like anything that Oasis puts out, because their sound makes me happy, and it takes a lot to phase that complacency out of me. I say this about Oasis albums, because Different Gear, Still Speeding, the debut album from former Oasis member Liam Gallagher’s new band, Beady Eye, might as well be an Oasis album. The only aspect of it that is unlike something the group would have released after Dig Out Your Soul is the absence of Noel Gallagher’s voice, which was unique enough to temper the group from full-on Beatles worship.

Other than that, though, there’s not much else to say about the album. Half its title is true, because, although Liam maintains the consistency of Oasis’s more pedestrian material, it’s hardly any different than what would have resulted if Noel had just left Oasis instead of disbanding the group. Fans of Liam’s mainstay will be satisfied. Those who particularly enjoyed Noel’s vocal contributions may find his absence and Liam’s at times questionable lyrics (“I get the call / You get hung up / I’m standing tall / We’re fucking tough”) grating, but will ultimately be thankful that the album isn’t nearly as bad as Oasis baiters have made it out to be.


Britney Spears - Femme Fatale: D

I know, I know, too easy right? True, Mrs. Spears has accrued quite a bit of derision from music fans over the years, but, when you consider that she’s been in a public spotlight that Kanye could only dream of for more than a decade now, it’s a surprise that Britney hasn’t been in more controversies in the past couple years since her “return,” which has been going on for almost five years. Perhaps it’s a good sign that Britney’s declined from the public eye, preferring instead to release chart-topping jams and touring after them every couple years before continuing her life as a mother, but any trace of humility that may be derived from that description is unequivocally demolished on her newest album, Femme Fatale. It is clear that people loosening up their obsession with Britney has not given way to artistic freedom, but a laziness of epic proportions.

It’s a bit of a specious point to solely characterize Femme Fatale, but there is something to be said about the fact that the album has twenty-six writing credits, and not one of them is Britney Spears. Pop extraordinaire Dr. Luke and Canadian producer Billboard helm the project, the latter famous for writing “Since U Been Gone” and most of the pop songs you enjoyed last decade and the former a co-producer on the third installment of Robyn’s Body Talk series. The rest of the credits go to people who have worked with pop luminaries like Kylie Minogue and Robyn and four out of the five people who wrote “Dynamite” (the fifth one is Taio Cruz). While these people have worked on some pretty excellent recent pop releases, Femme Fatale just ends up sounding like a shameless rehash of Kylie, Robyn and “Dynamite.” “Hold It Against Me” and “I Wanna Go” are blatant in their copping of Taio Cruz’s flagship track and “Big Fat Bass” and “Trouble For Me” sound like tracks that Kylie would (deservedly) reject for Aphrodite. The only reason “How I Roll” is the solitary saving grace of Femme Fatale is because it sounds like a decent Body Talk B-side (How convenient that it’s the only song on the album written by Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish duo who wrote “Toxic”). To Ke$ha’s credit, (Never thought I’d ever write those three words), her co-written “Till the World Ends” doesn’t sound like one of her own songs, but it sounds a Hell of a lot like “Dynamite” and is just as boring and generic as anything else on Femme Fatale.

You may have noticed that I have not referred to Britney Spears as an actual musician by this point. Well, this is because, while in the past, Spears has at least emoted in her songs (“Toxic”, “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”), Femme Fatale features a voice so monotonous and synthetic, it’s debatable whether Britney showed up to the studio at all. Her voice is manipulated into such an artificial coo that it could be the vocal work of Colin Firth’s King George VI in The King’s Speech for all we know (heyoo!). Femme Fatale’s only two interesting vocal performances are that of the male vocalist in “How I Roll” (Which is admittedly intriguing) and Sabi, who has a guest verse on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” (“I don’t need your money / I just want your D.” Fucking poetry). Will.i.am is also on this thing, but he doesn’t view himself as a human at this point, so why should I?

Ultimately, I leave Femme Fatale with the same feeling I have when I learn about the in-depth workings of the movie industry: appalled and depressed about how many hands can mess with a project to make it far more disjointed and formless than anything the original makers could have intended. Do I think that Britney Spears is incapable of releasing (Not writing, don’t get ahead of yourself) a good song? Hey, anything’s possible. But I came into Femme Fatale expecting something processed and oversexed, and even I was surprised to find how uninspired the music industry can be. Remember when Britney was a trendsetter? Times change, I guess.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong: B

My opinion of Belong can best be exemplified by my thought process when faced with the pause before the third chorus of “Heart in Your Heartbreak:”

“Ugh, I know exactly how this is gonna go. They’re just going to pause for a second to give a little bit of silent tension before they go back into the chorus of the song. I’m pretty sure I can guess exactly what they’ll do, too. The singer will go “She was the” and the drummer will hit the toms and snare three times before the rest of the band comes into the mix on “Heartbreak” and go through the exact same chorus that they’d been playing up to this point. Wait, the chorus hasn’t come in yet? Well I guess I—oh, no, there it is. That was a slightly longer than normal pause, though.”

While none of Belong is unpleasant, the album comes off as derivative and unoriginal far too often. The band is decent at writing pop songs, but rarely do they stick and the barely-there vocals of Kip Berman in addition to his tendency for lyrics of cheese-tastic John Hughes worship (“Everyone is gentle and gone / But everyone’s just everyone”) make it even harder to pay attention. I know a lot of people got a kick out of this group’s debut, but I don’t think anyone’s going to remember Belong any more than the majority of boring indie pop we are forced to sift through. There are some sporadic moments of greatness (the title track’s chord progression mostly), but I don’t think even the pseudo-prestige The Pains of Pure of Heart have gained will protect Belong from sinking out of the collective consciousness in a matter of months.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Rise Against - Endgame: B-

For better or worse, Rise Against have always evolved as a band with every album they’ve released. Revolutions Per Minute focused the feral hardcore punk of the group’s debut, The Unraveling, into one of the 2000’s first punk classics. Siren Song of the Counterculture was an uneven venture into the realm of mainstream punk. The Sufferer & The Witness was the group’s magnum opus, perfectly balancing the hardcore tendencies of their first albums with their knack for throat-shredding choruses that they had developed somewhat on Siren Song. Appeal to Reason was an expansion of that sound, borrowing more of the visceral fear from Revolutions into a rousing clarion call that got surprisingly close to matching the quality of Sufferer. Endgame, Rise Against’s first album in three years, does not feature any evolution of the group’s sound. Instead, it is a retread of the elements of Appeal to Reason put into songs that aren’t nearly as affecting or catchy. Instead of rousing, the group comes off as burnt out and tired, the first time where I can bring up the term, “lazy” for anything the group has ever released.

The band’s lethargy is made apparent from Endgame’s choruses to frontman Tim McIlrath’s vocal performance. Throughout the album, McIlrath attempts to replicate the haphazard wail that made Appeal to Reason so special, but, for the first time, he sounds strained and exhausted, as if he hadn’t bothered to change his vocal style as he had done with his group’s last five albums, which turns out to be a very unfortunate decision. His fatigue comes off in his lyrics as well. “Storm the gates / Raise the flags / It’s just the same old story,” he sings in “A Gentleman’s Coup,” as if he’s lost faith in the rebelliousness that defined the group on songs like “Re-Education (Through Labor)” and “Prayer of the Refuge.” In “This Is Letting Go,” he all but admits defeat, spelling out the formula for the band’s sound by singing, “This is the part where the needle skips and the chorus plays like a sink that drips,” which only brings up images of meaningless repetition that can be extrapolated to just about every song on Endgame. “Once upon a time I could take anything,” he sighs on the same track, succumbing to the disappointments that have become a requisite of the state of things in recent years.

Elsewhere, Endgame’s sonic arrangements sound like their treading the water that Appeal to Reason left for them. The bass-driven verses of “Make It Stop (September’s Children)” sound like ripoffs of “Long Forgotten Sons” and the framework of “Disparity By Design,” right down to the guitar solo that opens the verses is a blatant bite of “Kotov Syndrome.” The band’s boredom in their craft is also apparent in the random experiments they attempt sporadically in Endgame. McIlrath’s voice sounds out of place over the palm-muted hard rock attempt, “Midnight Hands,” a song much more suited for Dark Horse-era Nickelback than anything hard-edged Rise Against has written in the past. You can tell a band is aimless when they write a hollow bluesy waltz (AFI, Muse), and “Broken Mirrors” is just that track. And whoever thought that putting a children’s choir over “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” guitars was a good idea liked Siren Song of the Counter Culture WAY too much.

Overall, Endgame comes off more obligatory than anything else, a collection of Appeal to Reason never-were’s that the band thought they should record after touring under their last album for so long. With a few exceptions, the album isn’t terribly bad, but the lack of originality in all its songs does not bode well for what the group’s going to come out with in the new decade. If Rise Against they can just tack on some “HEY!”’s to some duds and make an anthem, they are sorely mistaken, and Endgame proves pretty well that you just can’t half-ass post-recessional teenage angst.


Travis Barker - Give the Drummer Some: B

Give the Drummer Some, the debut album by Blink-182 drummer, Travis Barker, has a lot of surprises, one of which is not the fact that Blink-182 drummer, Travis Barker, has made a hip-hop album. The guy’s been knocking elbows with rap types since 2007, when he made a “rock” remix of Flo Rida’s “Low” and has been expanding his contact network ever since with more remixes of increasingly higher profile artists, his tour with the late DJ AM and his performance on Lil Wayne’s 2010 shit sandwich, The Rebirth. With the Blink-182 tour completed and there being a lull until their reunion album comes out, Give the Drummer Some was the logical extent to which Barker was going to take all the connections he’d made in order to pass the time.

What’s most surprising about the album is that most of it is not a Rebirth re-hash. Songs like “Beat Goes On” and the opener, “Can a Drummer Get Some” (which actually features Lil’ Wayne), are laughable genre-hybrids, but a lot of the album leans toward traditional hip hop, Barker often ceding airtime from his live drums to artificial beats that are not just accompanied with synthesized guitars playing four-note riffs. “If You Want To” pops with pocket brass and live drums, “Cool Head” broods on an ominous bassline and “Devil’s Got a Hold” is such pitch-perfect late-90’s/early-00’s grit, it starves for an Eminem verse.

What’s also surprising about Give the Drummer Some is how very extensive Barker’s network of friends is and how good he is at building a beat around them that suits their personalities. The album’s most surprising cameos are Lupe Fiasco on “If You Want To” and RZA and Raekwon on “Carry It,” but Barker doesn’t attempt to force either to rap over the faux-rock that made the guy famous in this field. In fact, the beat of “If You Want To” sounds more like traditional Lupe Fiasco than the guy’s latest album, Lasers. The beat of “Cool Head” fits Kid Cudi’s drawl excellently, even if the guy’s actual verses are just as face-palm worthy as anything off The Legend of Mr. Rager (“So menstrual psychology / Tamponic” Are you fucking kidding me?). “Let’s Go” has the why-hasn’t-this-happened-before appeal of having fast-talkers Busta Rhymes and Twista in the same song. Yelawolf’s the newest in this lineage, and his verse is really good, adhering to the straightforward flow he implemented on his debut with no cringeworthy lines to be heard.

Give the Drummer Some is not without its fair share of messes, Ludacris’s irrelevance-confirming verse in “Knockin’” and Tim Armstrong’s painfully awkward hook in “Saturday Night” coming immediately to mind. Overall, the performances of all the artists ranges from adequate to pretty good, and it’s a pleasant surprise to say that this is the best thing to come out of the Barker cannon in nearly a decade (And yes I’m counting Meet the Barkers. Remember that shit?) While not as good as most of the Blink-182 discography, Give the Drummer Some is a solid release with some legitimately good highlights. If anything, it’s a testament to the versatility of a member of one of the most wrongly castigated artists of the ‘90’s and a justification for all the shameful diversions Barker’s gone on in the past.


Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes: B+

Bible Eyes is an album that’s slow to start. Not that the proper debut from this Toronto dubstep artist doesn’t immediately establish the guy’s lurching style within the album’s first track, but the first couple songs of Bible Eyes do not leave particularly strong first impressions. Bible Eyes is one of the few albums that I can say radically improves as it progresses.

“Start From the Beginning” and the title track establish Egyptrixx’s style, but exhibit them in a way that exposes their flaws. “Start From the Beginning,” while bolstered from interesting-sounding cymbals and a booming bass, becomes old very quickly, as Egyptrixx (real name: David Patsutka) finds solace in repetition and provides it with very little variation, making the track feel a lot longer than three minutes. “Bible Eyes” is more promising, beginning with a traditional dancefloor-ready thump, but what makes it unique is what also brings it down in quality. Within a minute, a dissonant synth line fades in and increases in volume to a blare as it progresses. Unfortunately, from that point on, the song is almost all repetition, Egyptrixx sticking to that line that starts out intriguing, but ends up downright annoying. At six minutes, it’s a hulking mass of discord, and it could very well justify taking oneself out of the album, entirely.

But it’s surprising how well Egyptrixx recovers from this point on. “Chrysalis Records” deservedly flaunts its presence of verses and choruses that have proven difficult with other electronic artists. While not necessarily a must in those terms, a competent dabbling into song writing can be an indication of the versatility of the musician. “Chrysalis” mixes the traditional modes of pop with the less flexible dubstep well while incorporating a singing voice, creating a product reminiscent of the songs with vocals on Guido’s dubstep debut, Anidea. It is clear at this point that Egyptrixx possesses a unique bag of tricks, but needs a little more practice arranging them into a palatable product.

And from there, the record only gets better. Egyptrixx incorporates his distinct cacophonous synths on “Naples,” but softens them with reverb so that they are less grating and are more appropriate for the rest of the song’s more danceable context. “Rook’s Theme” and “Recital (A Version)” are bona fide ragers, the former led by a warped pan flute melody and the latter a waifish vocalist away from being the best song School of Seven Bells never wrote. While both utilize repetition (“Recital (A Version)” is over seven minutes long), they’re both based around damn good foundations, reaching a pleasant equilibrium in which the beat could go on forever and party people would never mind it.

The second half of Bible Eyes leans towards the ruminative. “Fugi Club” and “Recital (B Version)” both feature off-kilter vocals (I keep imagining the voice in the former being Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon) and “Liberation Front” and “Barely” explore more of Egytrixx’s disjointed melodies, but never so far off as to become deleterious, as in the case of the title track. Yes, it would appear that, as “Liberation Front” fades out after seven minutes of never getting boring to conclude Bible Eyes, Egyptrixx has more than made up for the buffoonery he observed in those first couple tracks.

The closest contemporary Egyptrixx has is probably the London dubstep duo, Mount Kimbie. However, while both do have a penchant for oblique samples (To go back to “Liberation Front,” much of its track time is spent revolving around what sounds like someone chopping and screwing an IED explosion), Bible Eyes is not merely dorm room funk, but an album that could actually make some people lose their shit on a dancefloor. While, again, that’s not exclusively criterion for good electronic music, do you think I’m not going to count that aspect of Bible Eyes in Egyptrixx’s favor? I’d be lying if I said I didn't.


Couldawouldashoulda: March 2011

Hey guys. Here’s the first of a series of segments I want to do for Check Your Mode. When we see the lists of the top 20 or 50 albums of a given year, we may also see something called the “Honorable Mentions” section, a place to note albums that were great, but not quite great enough to make it to the final cut. Seeing that I had quite a few “couldawouldashoulda”’s in my greatest fifty albums list last year, (about fifty more to be exact), I decided to have a monthly showcase of five albums that just barely fell out of the running for being in my top fifty albums of the year. Of course, initially, the Couldawouldashoulda’s will not be particularly good, but, as we near the end of the year, my guess is you’ll see some pretty contended releases pop up in this section, of which, of course, there may be plenty of debate.

In No Particular Order…

Amplifier – The Octopus

Original Review Here

The sophomore release from this British prog rock group is nothing if not ambitious. At nearly two hours, The Octopus has a vague concept involving the eponymous cephalopod and houses songs that frequently exceed the 8-minute mark. However, its songs are not loaded with the superfluous genre experiments and masturbatory guitar solos that one has come to expect from albums like these. In fact, the songs of The Octopus are surprisingly straightforward and tempered. But, alas, a ten-minute piano ballad is still a ten-minute piano ballad, and it isn’t long before the album begins to seriously sag. On a track-by-track basis, The Octopus is bearable, but as a dense whole, it’s far too much waiting for very little payoff. While not quite on the same dreadful level of Judas Priest’s concept album, Nostradamus, The Octopus does very little favors in digesting an album that is both too long and too boring; one of the most potently disparaging combinations in music.

Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over

Anyone expecting another Van Lear Rose was sorely disappointed. Hell, anyone expecting another Consolers of the Lonely was disappointed. Jack White’s 2011 musical clock-in was an unfortunate musical accommodation for a singer who, admittedly, did not have much of a strong voice to begin with. Amidst White’s trademark fuzz and a rather intrusive horn section, Wanda Jackson sounds uncomfortable throughout The Party Ain’t Over, awkwardly shuffling through the blues (“Thunder on the Mountain”), bosa nova (“Rum and Coca-Cola”) and Amy Whinehouse covers (“You Know I’m No Good”). This isn’t the worst thing that White’s put his name to (The Stripes’ tactless genre stretch, Get Behind Me Satan, is a tad worse), but it’s a genuine surprise to see someone as talented as he finding so many ways to tamper with an album that could have been pretty good despite its innate weaknesses.

Minks – By the Hedge

As background music, it’s pretty innocuous, but when closely inspected… it’s still pretty innocuous. Which I guess is fine, but I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t have the time to listen to the kind of nebulous shoegaze that I could find in the records of far more talented bands. Sure nothing on By the Hedge is outright offensive and “Indian Ocean” is a very pretty instrumental, but I’m seeing the forest for the trees here and all I’m seeing are the sprouts of what could be passable shrubberies.

Rise Against – Endgame

This is an unfortunate way to break this to all you Rise Against fans out there, because my review for this album has yet to be posted, but Endgame, the sixth album from Illinois punks Rise Against, is the band’s worst. The good news, though, is there is a reason for this, and it is for lack of trying. When Rise Against experiments, at least something good comes out of it (the good tracks from The Unraveling and Siren Song of the Counterculture), but Endgame finds the group treading some serious water, trying to scrap up the remnants of the near-perfect Appeal to Reason and coming up with something crass and uninspired. Rise Against sound rudderless on the album, something that I can imagine would be incumbent upon a band coming off two fantastic releases. I just hope the group can shape up for the new decade, because their type of firebrand punk rock is still a necessity in these increasingly trying times.

Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Original Review Here

And speaking of underwhelming punk stalwarts, what was Social Distortion doing in the seven years since they released an album? By the sound of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, it was a steady diet of lollipops, rainbows and Teletubbies reruns, because Social Distortion sound downright peppy on their newest release. A choir? Optimism? Last time I checked, I was a lazy, smelly, unemployable loser with nothing to hope for but a pair of jeans and a beer when I’m twenty-one, not the fucking light of the Earth Mike Ness pretends to purport me to be. Although, overall, pretty decent, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a startling turn for a group that laid such a large claim to making passive rebellion sound genuine.


Lupe Fiasco - Lasers: B+

On October 15th, 2009, fans held a rally in front of Atlantic Records headquarters to spur the label to release Lupe Fiasco’s third album, whose release date had been pushed back for nearly two years. Surprisingly, Atlantic complied, resolving to release Lasers in early 2011. That news was a huge boon to Lupe Fiasco fans that were tired of waiting for his follow-up to 2007’s The Cool, and was a testament to the power of audiences to influence the often enigmatic policies of labels. However, when I heard this news, I was incredibly disheartened. The fact that Atlantic and, to a certain extent, Fiasco, had to have fans organize in their front yard in order to release Lasers signaled to me that, for one reason or another, either or both parties did not feel that the album was ready to be released to the public. So I approached Lasers with quite a bit of trepidation, seeing it as an album that either was not quite up to snuff for an artist who has proven himself to be one of rap’s formative geniuses through his first two albums or was just not the right sound he was comfortable with releasing.

Ostensibly, the delay of release for the album could be due to both. Lasers sounds nothing like a Lupe Fiasco album. It is loaded with modern hip-hop signifiers such as Euro-pop textures and Auto-tuned choruses. Its backdrops sound more like that of the next Taio Cruz album than the follow-up from a guy whose two best singles on his first album were about skateboarding and robots. The trite vocal manipulations and rinkydink synths in “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” sound like the hollow reggaeton Pit Bull would rap over, and the compressed guitars of “State Run Radio” approach Rebirth levels of clumsiness. Gone are the frequent Fiasco collaborator Matthew Santos and any reference to the supposed trilogy that Lasers was supposed to bookend. Lasers reeks of studio intervention (how the Hell else would Trey Songz appear on this thing?) and it sounds like the biggest outlier Fiasco could have released at this point in his career. With all this said, one can understand why the man and the label would be uncomfortable with releasing it.

However, if I were a musical ideologue, I could say the same for almost half the releases I’ve reviewed in the past year and dismiss them all. Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” was a last-minute songwriting request from Vertigo to have another single and the reworking of “Love Reign O’er Me” to fit a single sounds better than the original version that appears on The Who’s Quadrophenia. Sometimes, the amoral habits of labels can result in something good, and Lasers, to a certain extent, is a reflection of this.

Although the scenery of Lasers is completely different from anything the man has released in the past, the Lupe who is conflicted on the state of both hip-hop and his worldview is still very much intact. Where, on past works like “Hurt Me Soul,” these conflicts would rage within a song, Lasers is more emotionally polarized from track to track, to almost a comical degree. “Words I Never Said” is the most vitriolic screed Fiasco has ever gone on, the man reeling off heavily pessimistic one-liners, one after another. Where Big Boi, another rapper whose most recent release was dogged by delay, opened his album with this bit of off-handed criticism, “Then who you voting for Republican or Democrat / Take no second doesn’t matter cuz that’s how they stole the last one,” Fiasco blows him out of the negativity water by opening his album by seething, “Limbaugh is a racist / Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn’t say shit / That’s why I ain’t votin’ for him / Next one either / I’m part of the problem / My problem is I’m peaceful.” Props to Lupe for having the gall to open the second track of his album with, “I really think the War on Terror is a bunch of bullshit.” It’s definitely is an attention grabber, even if the track, itself, comes off a little too preachy.

Elsewhere, Lupe is a lot more hopeful, as on “The Show Goes On,” (Yeah yeah the world is yours / I was once that little boy / Terrified of the world / Now I’m on that world tour”) but it isn’t long before he bogs down again in the next track, “Beautiful Lasers (2Ways),” wallowing in self-depreciation like Kid Cudi hijacked his lyric book. Fiasco has always been a great rapper, but I’ve always been more enamored by the beats on his albums, so I’m more likely to forgive him for not having as many memorable lines on Lasers than on The Cool or Food & Liquor.

Especially considering, (and here’s the part where I really piss off the Lupe Fiasco fans still reading), I think Lasers is a better album than The Cool. Where the highs of the latter far surpass that of Lasers, Fiasco’s newest isn’t bogged down by transitional filler to suit a storyline, every one of its tracks memorable and, at the very least, fun. “The Show Goes On” interpolates Modest Mouse’s “Float On” into a communal toast that Rihanna may have set a trend for with her “I’ll Drink to That.” “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now” sounds like Taio Cruz, granted, but more like the shameless hands-in-air party fare of “Dynamite,” and “All Black Everything” is cute and clever in imagining a world where slavery never existed (“The Rat Pack was a cool group of black men / That inspired five white guys called The Jacksons”).

However, considering the tongue-lashing he has received from both critics and fans, it’s doubtful that Fiasco will attempt an album as blatantly commercial as Lasers ever again. However, keep in mind that the album is not the cacophony that many others have made it out to be. Lasers is an admirable attempt by Fiasco to move away from constantly repping the underground. If anything, it solidifies his talents as a rapper, as it shows that he can be smart and clever while pretending to be a genre-defying pop star, even if it’s just going to be for one album.


Tim Hecker - Ravedeath: 1972: B+

Maybe I just don’t get it. All I’ve read about Ravedeath, 1972 indicates that it’s an album that is supposed to soundtrack a dystopian wasteland, fraught with despair and forgotten sounds. However, when I listen to Ravedeath, 1972, rarely do I hear anything particularly negative. I find the songs cool, I ruminate over the washes of ambience that Hecker crafts for this fifty-minute product, but barely do I perceive the arrangements to resemble cacophony. “No Drums,” true to its name, is docile and unassuming. The three “In the Fog” tracks are swashes of major chords played through undecipherable instruments. “Analog Paralysis 1978” ends with vague guitar finickry and slight pitter-patter and “Studio Suicide 1978” begins with what sounds like the New York Philharmonic warming up from an echo-y broom closet adjacent to the amphitheater. While these sounds are fascinating, rarely are they vicious. At worst, they are ominous, as in the “In the Air” series that concludes the album, but, even then, the last of them ends on a solitary piano that drifts off into the distance, signaling to me not disintegration but a hope for a better future. Like I’ve said before, Ravedeath 1972 and most ambient works are what you perceive them to be. The album’s great fodder for pondering your life, and, based on your own proclivities, Hecker’s songs can either affirm or disavow it. The album forebodes at times, but that does not mean it has to be depressing.


Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys!: B

Please refer for reference

So slow, so boring, so average, so British. Not bad, but I guess if I sang a melody in an echo chamber over and over again, it wouldn’t sound so bad either, would it?


The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh: B+

Smart Flesh, The Low Anthem’s fourth album, is very good, but, as it progresses, one gets the impression that it could be much better. The strengths of the band are apparent from the onset. Singer Ben Knox Miller has a quiet storm of a voice, fixing your gaze to his words whenever they are emitted from his lips. At times, his tone resembles that of James Taylor, at others Cat Stevens and Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early. The frailty in his voice is flexible to the words he speaks. He sounds like Bob Dylan in “Boeing 737” and “Matter of Time” sounds like what would happen if Heath Ledger’s Joker wrote a tender love song. His soft voice brings attention to his lyrics, which can be entertaining through either depreciating quips (“First she shot me with whisky then chased me with gin”) or well-founded rhetorical portraits, as in the album highlight, “Burn.”

However, Miller’s vocal performance is just about all that’s interesting about Smart Flesh. With the exception of the presence of clarinets in songs like “Ghost Warrior Blues” and “Wire,” the album deals into the stereotypical folksy sound: acoustic guitars that just keep strumming, organs that play sweeping chords and banjo that’s only there to give the illusion of authenticity. I cannot name a time when the music is anything less than solid, but Miller’s humor and candor deserve a much better setting than one that just strives for average. The result isn’t necessarily an album that sounds bad, but the lack of musical ambition drags down songs that don’t have such a pronounced lyrical presence like “Hey, All You Hippies!”

So Smart Flesh is a success, but it’s too unnecessarily top-heavy. Mediocre instrumentation does not make for a bad album, but the anonymity of the arrangements can make one nod off in boredom and miss the greater skill that Miller observes. For however good his voice is, it’s very quiet and thus demanding of your full attention. The Low Anthem need to learn that it is possible for folk to be original and, though Smart Flesh is an admirable release, more like it will start to sound like wasted talent.


Hayes Carll - KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories): B+ / Charles Bradley - No Time For Dreaming: B+

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Election season has begun, and President Obama has initiated his campaign for a second term in 2012. That means we can now start the conversation of what the man’s done for our country, whether we should trust him to lead for another four years, and whether he is worth our vote. For me, it’s the beginning of an unfortunate time, because I don’t think I will be comfortable casting a ballot for either of the sides from which I will be ultimately made to choose. We all know Obama sailed into the oval office on a wave of change, and the music immediately following his election reflected that virile surge of hope (Pearl Jam’s gloriously uncharacteristic optimist anthem, “The Fixer” comes readily to mind). But now, as it becomes an increasingly dreary task to parse out what has been made better in America under his first term, it is no surprise that music being released is beginning to echo the economic, social and political futility that exists now more than ever. It was in the start of the decade when this mentality started to take shape in music, and, in 2011, there is no escaping it. Although Hayes Carll is a country singer from Houston, Texas and Charles Bradley is a soul singer from Poughkeepsie, New York, the new albums from both typify this mounting negativity reflective of the state of the country.

Throughout KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), Hayes Carll comes off as the true postmodern country singer. His voice is sloppy and unhinged and his lyrics are flippant, making the pain and hardship described in most of his songs far more endearing than anything Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift or even Jamey Johnson could write. In the title track, “KMAG YOYO,” Carll chronicles a hilariously fabricated series of events that unfold after he signs up for the army (Arms dealing, space travel. You’d have to hear it to believe it) and “Another Like You” pairs him with a lovable lass that’s just as deranged as he (--“Shouldn’t you be purging?” --“Well you’re probably still a virgin.” --“I can’t believe you’re not on The View.”). KMAG YOYO is an endlessly quotable album, apparent whether Carll is chiding love or politics. His finest moment, though, comes toward the album’s end, when he depicts a recessional holiday with devastating specificity on “Grateful For Christmas.” It’s a tear-jerking ode to imperfection, and, even if KMAG YOYO has some significant filler in between such highlights, it’s still nice to hear some country that’s clever and genuinely relatable for a change.

Charles Bradley toiled on the musical circuit for decades before Daptone Records picked him up a few years ago and finally gave him the platform for a debut album. Bradley, now 62, hefts all those years of disappointment onto that record, No Time For Dreaming. The first line on the album is indicative of its tone. “This world is going up in flames / And nobody wanna take the blame,” he rebukes amidst the retro instrumentation of the Daptones, No Time For Dreaming’s backup band. Often, Bradley’s fervent pleas sound on the verge of tears, a sentiment that is supported by the expressive instrumentation of trumpet player Dave Guy and saxophonist Leon Michaels. Together, they create the nostalgic soul not dissimilar to the work The Daptones have done with Sharon Jones, but, like her music, it’s hard to imagine the new-world perspective of No Time for Dreaming fitting in with the soul music of the 1960’s. The devastating sadness that often boils over in songs like “How Long” and “Heartaches and Pain” are wholly unique to Bradley, and the way he inhabits them makes for an overwhelming performance that rivals that of Otis Redding, a clear influence here. In “Why Is It So Hard,” Bradley tells the story of how he got to this point in his life, how he moved to Brooklyn from Florida and then to Poughkeepsie to escape his many stresses, bookending his verses by crying, “Why is it so hard to make it in America?” One would hope that the existence of No Time for Dreaming is an indication that things are looking up for Bradley. His voice and songwriting ability are somewhat of lost treasures, and it’s better late than never that we get to hear the genius this guy has been ceaselessly peddling for most of his life.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Psychic Paramount - II: A-

Restraint: Know it, understand it, love it, because restraint is the most important aspect to enjoying The Psychic Parliament’s first album in six years, II. Where other groups that deal in instrumental noise rock have a tendency to take advantage of the amorphous nature of their genre and flail their instruments tunelessly into expectedly bat-shit directions, The Psychic Parliament maintain a taut push-pull relationship between each of its three members that allows for countless melodies to ebb and flow through each of their tracks that often exceed the five-minute mark.

What will often happen on II is guitarist Drew St. Ivany and bassist Ben Armstrong will set the parameters of a song in terms of tone, tempo and tune, and then allow for drummer Tatsuya Nakatani to dictate the direction of the movements from there. The restraint in St. Ivany and Armstrong is obvious in the many times they resort to ambient distortion in order to accommodate the psychedelic nature of many of II’s songs, but Nakatani is equally disciplined. When he’s given the floor, he does not simply freak out and turn the proceedings into a boring “Let’s-count-the-cymbal-crashes” ordeal. Instead, he finesses his way through St. Ivany and Armstrong’s arrangements. On “N6,” he matches St. Ivany’s anxious strums with equally restless high-hat paradiddles that devolve into the hauntingly distant foundation to the following track, “Isolated.” Nakatani demonstrates his influence best when he rears “Intro / Sp” from chaos to sly propulsion by simply switching from cymbals to high hat.

II relies significantly on repetition, most notably in the two bass (?) notes played continuously on “DDB,” so The Psychic Parliament’s performance can often sound like improvisation. However, the poise the band observes on the album through these bouts of repetition turns them into the potential backbeats for songs with vocals, but ones that could never be constrained to any verse-chorus-verse structure. The overall effect of these songs is controlled chaos; lightning in a bottle. II soundtracks the most uproarious rager that ever took place so dangerously close to the edge of a cliff.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Moonsorrow - Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa: A

Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa isn’t your standard folk metal album. At over an hour and with just seven tracks, Moonsorrow’s ­­­­seventh release is made of incredibly long songs, and none of them are particularly concerned with forming discernable parts or even establishing concrete structures. No, instead, Moonsorrow have a riff per song, and they play the shit out of that riff, making up the majority of the length of Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa’s tracks, many of which exceed the ten-minute mark.

And, yet, somehow, it works beautifully. I don’t know if it’s the riffs or my admiration for the sheer chutzpah it takes to fill a sixteen minute song with little more than one guitar line and some instrumental accompaniment, but Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa is never grating, and that sixteen minute song, “Huuto” is the album’s fantastic centerpiece that breezes by like a song less than half its length. If you think this is a dubious justification for the quality of an album, then you obviously haven’t heard these riffs. Those guitar lines become grander and more encompassing with each iteration. They build and build until you have no other recourse but to hear them at full volume and sing the notes to yourself with a seemingly endless intensity.

There are more notable aspects to Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa. Henri "Trollhorn" Urponpoika Sorvali is a graduate of the Six Feet Under school of vomit/sing, but like the best melodic death metal albums, his psychobabble is far from center stage. The band has some semblance of arrangement at times, perhaps diverging into an instrumental passage before riding faithfully back into that pivotal guitar line. The album has a post-apocalyptic narrative to it akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (“As shadows we walk in the land of the dead” goes the album title’s translation), but the only evidence you will hear of it is in the interludes between songs, in which a man walks through tactile brush, conjuring images of The Road’s main character and his thankless journey to the shore. The songs, themselves, are far too epic to be thought of as soundtracks to vast wastelands; battles between gods or a treacherous march would be more appropriate.

The only negative aspect of Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa is that, in first track, “Tähdetön,” Moonsorrow utilize the mid-song folk dalliance that I’ve noted as hackneyed in other metal releases this year from MyGrain and Omnium Gatherum. Other than that, Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa is pure ear candy that could prove to be an even greater grower due to the mounting nature of the album’s arrangements. It’s no surprise that one of the first great metal albums of the year is a slow builder (This has been a slow building kinda year, ya know?), and the more time spent with it is more time spent having intelligent and affecting metal wash over your pleasure centers.