Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trivium - In Waves: A-

The beginning of August saw the release of some pretty polarizing records. Obviously, you had Kanye West and Jay-Z’s titanic collaborative album, Watch the Throne, with which many a self-proclaimed critic had great fun running through an argumentative strainer. And you also had the comparatively silent release of the fourth Gucci Mane product of the year, the collaboration with the equally contentious Waka Flocka Flame, Ferrari Boyz. Listeners tend to either love or hate the music that comes from both of these artists. I happened to mostly enjoy the former. The latter? Well, you can read my review for it farther down the page.

But another polarizing release that came out within that two-day period was the long-awaited fifth album from Orlando metalcore outfit, Trivium. From their first release, the quintet has always found themselves in the company of Dream Theater in terms of how people view them. Either you’ll refuse to listen to a thing they release or you’ll follow them to the ends of the Earth.  Such ire has mostly originated from the negative stereotypes of the genre from which the group spawned, and Trivium have never been able to shake them. Nearly a decade into their career, there are still people who refuse to give their music a chance.

I know this because I was one of those people back in 2006, when The Crusade came out. However, with 2008’s Shogun, I found myself completely switching sides as the group embraced a melodic prog sound that featured as many hair-raising musical turns as the group’s forebears they have often been accused of copying. It was a transformative record, and one of the best metal releases of that year. I’d argue that it moved the group from a hyper-localized kiddie genre to a more assured national stage, raking in additional fans no doubt.

So, three years later, the longest time span between the group’s albums, Trivium are at a pivotal place. What made Shogun so reassuring was that it struck a perfect balance between the ragged metalcore of the group’s first two records and the poppiness introduced with The Crusade. With that already established, Trivium could have leant heavier in either direction with their newest record. I can’t really remember the last time I was this mystified before hearing a new album.

And? Well, it’s fantastic. With In Waves, Trivium keep a solid footing within the fundamental songwriting chops of Shogun and introduce a new, surprisingly aggressive sound that almost circumvents heavy metal and dives into that of the death variety. And the group makes no bones about it. After an extended introduction of distorted piano and militaristic snares, lead singer Matt Heafy bellows the album’s title as the first vocals on the record. It’s a stark contrast from the even crests of Shogun, and Heafy’s harrowing performance rivals the breakdown in “Down From the Sky” as the heaviest moment in the group’s career. In Waves, as a whole, is similarly a darker release, for sure, but one that also retains an air of assurance, as if the depths provide the warmth through which the group can continue to impress.

Fans of the much more streamlined nature of The (still awful in my opinion) Crusade will invariably be put off by In Waves. It is hostile, belligerent and only lets up its tremolo-picked onslaught for a few moments. Whether it be through the enticing blastbeats of “Inception of the End” or the reverbed screams of “Black”, In Waves takes a definite step away from the opaque poppiness of the two albums that preceded it. Instead, an argument can be made that the album takes more influence from the progressive death metal pioneered by groups from Scandinavia than anything else. “Dusk Dismantled”, for example, doesn’t even feature sung vocals. The screams of the chorus are differentiated by a layered bellow in a lower register, a standard technique used by death metal groups to make their rough vocals that much more Hellish.

These injurious moments are, by far, the most interesting parts of In Waves, but, if you want to get technical, the album’s highlights are when the group borrows equally from the already-established balance of Shogun and this additional crudeness within the same song. For the most part, the title track interchanges between that first line that there’s no way the album’s not going to be famous for (“IIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNN WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAVES!”) and a sung pseudo-chorus. However, the track’s formula observes such a brilliant contrast, it immediately becomes an album highlight. Similarly, “Watch the World Burn” employs one of the biggest choruses the group’s ever written to make a single-ready pop metal hit without resorting to the disingenuous tropes of The Crusade.

Inversely, it is when this shifting of the aggression spectrum is discarded that In Waves loses its momentum. Trivium can and often have gotten away with more grit than melody, but it has always been in the inverse that they have fumbled the most. It is apt, then, that the balladry that comes at the end of In Waves not only feels awkward within the album’s context, but also disrupts its manic flow. Like “Shogun”, “Caustic Are the Ties That Bind” moves into softer territory in its middle, but its inclusion feels tacked on, especially when Heaffy’s chorus simply interrupts it when, in “Shogun”, it built up to a logical conclusion. “Of All These Yesterdays” is a bona fide ballad, the first Trivium have written since The Crusade. And, while not particularly horrible, the track also does not feel like a necessary stab at commercial appeal, let alone an appropriate album closer. As the track literally recedes into nothingness in the addendum, “Leaving This World Behind”, it ends the album anticlimactically when it would have better suit the group to end with the same lightning in a bottle with which they began.

But, to be honest, I find the message of In Waves to be more compelling than the appeal lost to those qualms. As an introduction to metal with screams, you’re still not going to find anything better than Shogun, but In Waves is just if not more important. With it, Trivium have figured out what about their sound is worth keeping. Like Avenged Sevenfold’s surprise triumph, Nightmare, the album sacrifices flashy guitar work for deeper sonic textures. It’s a sign that the group has established a workable dynamic. For the first time, Trivium are reliable, which cannot be said for literally any of their metalcore colleagues. With In Waves, Trivium start a new chapter as an established metal band. In other words, I can’t wait for what they come out with next.             


Gucci Mane & Waka Flocka Flame - Ferrari Boyz: D

"15th & The First"

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Fucking told you. 


Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Throne (Kanye West & Jay-Z) - Watch the Throne

It feels trite to say, but Kanye West really has always been a formative figure in popular music because no one has sounded quite like him. His aggressive, ambitious aesthetic is both immediately identifiable and somewhat ahead of its time. Say what you will about his ability to rap (which has gotten better and better over the years), but the guy could never be accused of complacency in the decade or so he’s been making music. Paradoxically, nothing West has ever made could be considered alien to his body of work; every beat, rhyme, rant and tweet a fitting addition to the legend that has become KANYE WEST.

That’s why I imagine many fans were surprised to hear the Lex Luger-produced “H.A.M.” when it came out as the purported first single for Watch The Throne. It had that take-no-prisoners bass, that apocalyptic choral arrangement and that ominous pinwheel sound that introduced the hook. Put simply, it sounded like a Lex Luger track. Not that Kanye West or Jay-Z sounded particularly out of place boasting interminably within that context, but it still felt a little… unsettling. Kanye’s biggest asset as a beatmaker has always been his delight in combining disparate influences to make something only he could. However, for the first time, it sounded like he was rapping on someone else’s track. But his name was still on it.

The most interesting (but not necessarily best) moments on Watch The Throne, the long-awaited collaborative album between Kanye West and Jay-Z, are the ones when the music sounds nothing like something Kanye West would willingly rap over. The chopped James Brown samples of “Gotta Have It” don’t immediately bring to mind any one artist, but its lumbering swagger has never been ‘Ye’s MO. “Niggas In Paris”, with its chiptune-like synths and “B.M.F”-style bass/bomb’s, sounds like the bloated bombast of a Gucci Mane track. Most likely due to its mixed critical response and chartage, “H.A.M.” has been relegated to a bonus track on Watch the Throne, but, for all intents and purposes, the message the track sends is still very much felt on the final product.

This surprisingly new infiltration into the Kanye West cannon could be due to many factors; an increasingly sensationalistic rap music landscape, commercial pressure, a new collaborator. To some extent, all of these affect Watch the Throne, but I would contend that the biggest reason why a lot of the album dodges that subtle Kanye West flavor for more outlandish statements is because of its whole mission statement. I don’t know if you know this, but Kanye West and Jay-Z are kind of a big deal. If you think that the combination of both their enormous dicks on one record will leave room for a “Homecoming” or a “Hey Mama”, or that Jay and Kanye are willing to pull any aesthetic punches in such a meeting of the minds, then you obviously haven’t been in enough fights.

The most unfortunate moment on Watch The Throne may be when ‘Ye and Jay compare themselves to Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. It’s the kind of blissfully ignorant statement that would send the haters of these two guys and everything this album stands for into a tizzy of dramatic irony-inflamed laughter. Watch The Throne, to its credit, places itself on a lofty pedestal; in many ways it is the most ambitious record either of these guys have put their names on. I don’t know what possessed Kanye to start a chorus with, “This is something like the Holocaust / Millions of our people lost,” and finish it with, “’Till I die I’m the fuckin’ boss,” but it possessed him pretty hard. Otis Redding, having died forty-four years prior to this record’s release, is “featured” on a track, as if its inclusion was the final, baffling tenet in the man’s last will and testament. A look at the album booklet reveals that the record’s cover is actually the gaudy gilding of a picture of budding flowers. If Watch The Throne sucked, the metaphors for music scribes could be effortlessly picked like ripe fruit.

Luckily, Watch The Throne is a very good but nowhere near perfect record. Some of those aforementioned un-Kanye-like tracks prove to be the album’s highlights, and the dynamic between these two hip-hop supernovas remains consistent and enthralling throughout. With both engaging beats and head-turning wordplay, Watch the Throne manages to please both those put off by Kanye West and Jay-Z’s superfluous self-aggrandizement and those who just want to see them dick around. If you take anything away from this review, know that Watch The Throne does not, in fact, cave in on itself, although all logistical statistics would indicate otherwise. Instead, the album’s a worthy, fun one-off that solidifies the power of all players involved.

However, you may have noticed that I haven’t really talked about Watch The Throne with respect to Jay-Z yet. There are a few reasons for this. One is that WTT is the first Jay-Z-helmed record that I have ever listened to in-depth, so with what to compare it and within what context to consider it I do not know. Another reason, though, is that Hova has an especially diminished role on the album. Although Kanye West shows great deference to his Def Jam superior throughout (bro-ing out in the “Otis” video, crediting the group as JAY Z & Kanye West on the iTunes version, etc.), Jay never sounds nearly as animated or memorable as his counterpart. This is best exemplified on first track “Church in the Wild”. Over a looped guitar line that sounds like the riff to Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero”, Jay introduces the record with a dark but competent verse before handing the chorus over to Odd Future’s Frank Ocean. But then, as if the real track was meant to start at its halfway mark, Kanye rips into the beat with unmistakable fervor. “Coke on a black skin make a stripe like a zebra / I call that jungle fever,” he sneers, establishing the decadence of the proceedings in the only way ‘Ye can. When the track’s over, you remember some Kanye lines and maybe Ocean’s understated coo. But, despite sharing a third of the track’s run time, Jay-Z’s work is less memorable than Rick Ross’s eight bars on “Monster”. And, no, it’s not just you.

Jay’s performances on the record aren’t all bland, however. On “Gotta Have It”, he ponies up admirably to the album’s ludicrous aspirations (“Bueller had a Mueller but I switched if for a Mille / ‘Cause I’m richer” is a particularly grin-inducing line), and the man’s depiction of his upbringing in the otherwise dull “Made It In America” is endearing and (cringe) relatable. Unfortunately, though, the worst moments of Watch the Throne belong to him. His grunts in between lines on “Who Gon Stop Me” are very grating, and, much like thinking about blinking, once you realize it’s happening, it’s very difficult to not notice it with future listens. Couple that with tossed-off swag and planking references, and it becomes clear who the weak link of Watch The Throne is. To put it differently, I doubt I’m the only one who saw this album as a follow-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as opposed to The Blueprint 3.

It also can’t help that West is absolutely bonkers all over this thing. Where MBDTF felt like the work of a man with everything to prove, Watch The Throne feels like the most victorious of victory laps. I mean, you just don’t beat moments like in “Lift Off” when West goes, “Lift off / Takin’ my coat off (sound of coat wafting in the breeze) / Show all my tattoos / I’m such a showoff,” or in “New Day” when he observes his absurdist politics with, “And I would never let my son have an ego / You be nice to everybody wherever we got / I mean, I might even make him be Republican / So everybody know he love white people,” or when he features a quote from fucking Blades of Glory on “Niggas in Paris”, as if Will Ferrell’s boorish machismo is some batshit foil from a dimension I’ll never understand. Just as this is a different kind of production for a Kanye West album, this is a different kind of Kanye West. Though his memorable lines are not that numerous, it’s hard to imagine an artist who would so effectively take the theme of Watch The Throne to task.

For all this talk of radical changes, though, most of the album will not feel especially strange to those who have already heard music from either of these artists. Those more inclined to the horn-led bluster of “All of the Lights” will enjoy tracks like “Lift Off”. “New Day”, which strains Nina Simone’s “I’m Feeling Good” through Auto-Tune, is reminiscent of MBDTF’s “Devil in a New Dress” and the better moments of 808’s and Heartbreak. Watch the Throne remains consistently good except for the two bragging-absent tracks, “Murder to Excellence” and the aforementioned “Made It In America” (the latter too schmaltzy, the former laying its social commentary on a little too thick for my taste), and the awkwardly gritty “That’s My Bitch” and “Welcome to the Jungle”. Watch The Throne is varied, propulsive and more than a little offensive. Kanye West and Jay-Z prove that they have the might to at least pull off a record like it. Which is great, guys. But if you could just zip up your pants now, that would be even better.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dolly Parton - Better Day: B+

For my generation, Dolly Parton has always been implants first, country singer second. I have always lumped Dolly in with people of deleterious “life story” fame, in which someone’s renown may be sparked by some respectable act or career, but is ultimately carried on from inertia through a series of trivial misdemeanors. For me, Dolly Parton was known more for being number 87 on E!’s list of Most Starlicious Makeovers. I’m not very proud of that fact, but that’s just how things panned out.

The first thing that Parton’s newest album, Better Day, does to those like me is to make them feel sorry for ever thinking that she hasn’t deserved all this attention over the years. Pretty much everyone knows who Dolly Parton is, but you may be surprised to find that she has released seven albums in the past decade. Certainly, this shows she’s been keeping busy just like any other legitimate musician, but what Better Day also makes clear is that Parton doesn’t just phone in her performances or fill in space with hokey covers. First and best track “In the Meantime” is an original celebration of the here and now. “You know people been talkin’ ‘bout the end of time / Ever since time began,” she sings. “We’ve been living in the last days ever since the first days / Ever since the dawn of man.” The track’s message is a nice sentiment, considering the curmudgeon-like dispositions of Parton’s peers (Just ask Merle Haggard what he thinks of all these kids with their loose pants and their hippity hoppity). However, it is also tuneful, because Parton’s excitement is genuine, and her glee is quite catchy.           

Admittedly, though, much of Better Day succumbs to the many cliché’s that tend to produce bland, corporate country. However, the album is wholly reliable, because Parton’s voice remains a strident marker through the songwriting highs and lows. At the age of 65, Parton has a voice that is remarkably distinct and versatile. Her high yelps and peppy demeanor on tracks like “Just Leaving” and “Country Is as Country Does” are both professional and youthful. They are reason alone to listen to every one of album’s tracks, even if some of their instrumentations are made up of little more than dull, Taylor Swift-like power chords romps. Regardless, Better Day is a solid release, if only in Parton exhibiting her still-unabashed personality.  To longtime Parton fans, the album will feel like business as usual.  


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Deaf Center - Owl Splinters: B

Deaf Center are two dudes from Oslo who play dark ambient music using piano and cello. Owl Splinters, their sophomore release, very much continues to mine the rich, unpleasant nethers of ambient music through slight, discordant perversions of both their instruments. If you thought Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath 1972 was bleak, you ain’t heard nothing until you’ve heard ­­­a cello wretch inconsolably on the aptly titled “Animal Sacrifices”. Owl Splinters is a creepy, plodding piece of music. One of its main appeals is its ability to scare you silly in just the right context.

However, without that context – whether it be under the covers or in front of a computer screen in the wee hours of the night – Owl Splinters can wear on you. Much like Max Richter’s recent Infra, these are arrangements that meander and oscillate, building upon themselves with the very quality of their existence. However, the tension that Max Richter built up on his album was disseminated frustratingly and excellently through the use of static and white noise. Deaf Center simply let their textures run wild on Owl Splinters, until, inevitably, they become stale.

This does not bode well for the group when it is clear that their strength lies in short bursts of melancholy. “Time Spent” glides on an ominous piano line, made all the more affecting by the barely audible bass that creeps below it. It’s a well-executed concept, perfect for soundtracking a David Lynch or Darren Oronofsky film, even though it lasts just over two minutes. “Fiction Dawn” similarly places a piano line in a haunting void, and it too gets its point across at just over two and a half minutes.

In contrast, the majority of Owl Splinters is dedicated to massive ambient drones. I know it sounds silly to criticize a dark ambient album for indulging in such, but there is a point where atmosphere gets in its own way. “The Day I Would Have Lived” introduces an interesting concept with a more animated bass and some lingering studio imperfections, but it is far too long to be appreciated by the end of its nagging ten minutes. The eight minute “Close Forever Watching” and six minute “New Beginning (Tidal Darkness)” are similarly overlong and boring, although each has its own rewarding qualities. This key flaw keeps Owl Splinters from being the truly creepy piece of music its ideas attempt to convey. If only the group took more credence from brevity. That way, when those long moments come, they can envelop your sense of time so you won’t ever feel the need to check your watch. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes: C

You are presented with a book, titled How To Be Happy. In it, you find countless diagrams and painstaking depictions of the history of happiness, its many forms, its advantages, its alchemy, its boundaries and potency. The phrasing is eloquent, the characterization inspiring. It makes you feel like you have the secret weapon to a fulfilling life, the current one feeling all the more dismal as you read fluttery page after page. After studying the book for quite some time, you put to practice all the learned happiness that was so meticulously described… and promptly fail at every turn. While what you had read was perfection on paper, it was a one-size-fits-all template for generic happiness. It fails, because learned, objective happiness is just as unfeasible as its sadness counterpart, which I’m sure one book purports to achieve just a few rows down the library shelf.

Fountains of Wayne’s fifth album sounds like the product of a group making music to every detail of How to Make Power Pop. The album is as successful at making affecting music as someone would be good at science if they could say the word in sixteen different languages. After fifteen years of doing this stuff, FOW know exactly how to make a record technically their own. But listening to Sky Full of Holes makes you feel like all time has done is eroded the group’s character until all that’s left are hollow concepts. There’s nothing on the album that wouldn’t be found on the group’s other records; buoyant hooks and dated pop culture references. The only difference is the references are even less memorable (only the Will Ferrell line in “A Road Song” really sticks) and not a single musical idea the group throws at you doesn’t feel tired the moment it lurches through your speakers. If sterile pop is all you expect from Fountains of Wayne, then Sky Full of Holes will be the spackle for your musical drywall. But if you’re looking for anything, and I mean anything, different from this group, then I cannot innumerate how many shits with which you will be out of luck.