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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Within Temptation - The Unforgiving: B+

Within Temptation, make no mistake, is a symphonic metal band. They are as cheesy and bloated as symphonic metal bands come and the Danish sextet’s sixth album, The Unforgiving wastes no time in making its intentions clear, beginning with a horribly pretentious spoken-word piece in which a melodramatic whisper lets off such grammatically suspect lines as “It’s certainly a lonely life, but a fulfilling one at best,” and “Someone has to take a stand against evil. Why should it not be me?” There are loads of fake strings, thoroughly saturated production and an operatic singer that seems to expound upon her bitterness that she didn’t get into Julliard with each note she oversings. However, the good news is that, however objectionable the ingredients of The Unforgiving are, Within Temptation focuses them into songs that are undeniably catchy and legitimately enjoyable.

The secret to the group’s success on the album is lead singer, Sharon del Adel. Where other symphonic metal singers tend to dilute their vocals through the Auto-correct strainer, rendering them pitch-perfect but emotionless, Adel has a real sense of timbre and uses her voice to come away with some of The Unforgiving’s best hooks. Her pleading soprano in the chorus of “In the Middle of the Night” gives the song an extra kick to an already pretty enjoyable duel guitar/keyboard riff. “Faster”, The Unforgiving’s lead single, is similarly excellent, Adel letting her accent slip in the repetition of the song’s title before ripping into an expertly executed chorus that definitely achieves the epic goals the song sets out for itself.

Of course with great aspirations come great risks for blunders and Adel is handed some pretty big dud lines on The Unforgiving. “Fire and Ice” is the first of the album’s many ballads and it sets a precedent for regretful melodrama with a chorus that goes, “And I still wonder / Why heaven has died / The skies have all fallen / I’m breathing but why?” When Adel names off things she would do to keep her love life from falling apart in “Shot in the Dark”, she suggests breathing underwater and acknowledges this exaggeration with this clunky couplet: “I’m so sad / I’m so damn sad.” The thing is that these lyrics, while cringe-worthy, fit the attitude of The Unforgiving and, while they don’t make the album any better, their transgressions can be largely forgiven given the catchy context in which they are placed. Considering how bad these types of albums tend to get, The Unforgiving may very well establish Within Temptation as the best lyricists of their entire genre.

Unfortunately, though, the album sags significantly after its first four songs. No symphonic metal album would be “complete” without some ballads and The Unforgiving has quite a few, not one of them being particularly memorable. The chorus to “Lost” recycles that of “Shot in the Dark” and the boring anonymity of “Stairway to the Skies” is an unfortunate way to end the album. The Unforgiving’s mid-tempo songs are always good for at least one impressive chorus, but songs like “Where Is the Edge” and “A Demon’s Fate” may not stand the test of time after an initial listen. That being said, aside from those aforementioned lyrical slipups, all of The Unforgiving at the very least sounds nice and will certainly please if ever played in the background.

So my ultimate advice on The Unforgiving depends upon your familiarity with this genre of music. If you’ve been a longtime fan of symphonic metal, then you will most likely enjoy the entire album, as it’s the best of its kind I’ve heard in quite a long time. However, if you’re not a fan, then I would just get the album’s second, third and fourth songs, maybe “Murder” and “Iron” if you’re feeling zesty. And if you’re not even a metal fan, all the better, because The Unforgiven is so poppy, an argument can be made that it is just a touch softer than traditional hard rock. With its flaws, The Unforgiving is still in the top tier of symphonic metal albums, so, if you somehow have the urge to get into the genre, this is probably the best introduction you’re going to find.


Blood Ceremony - Living With the Ancients: B

I read while doing some research on Living With the Ancients that some believe Blood Ceremony’s sophomore album signals a revival in 70’s-aping hard rock/metal sounding bands with female vocalists that also play the flute, a sentiment that made me laugh outright and fear a little bit for the current state of music. I hardly think that we are at the point that baseball is now where we are so desperate to prove our relevancy we are infinitely compartmentalizing our achievements into exponentially smaller and more meaningless subgenres (True story: At a Yankees game I attended, people celebrated that it was the first time that two consecutive foul balls were hit directly down the right foul line into the crowd. It was kinda sad.). And when I hear something like that about Blood Ceremony, I can’t imagine this supposed “revival” consisting of more than one or two other bands that just so happened to put out an album within a year of Living With the Ancients.

Not to mention that Blood Ceremony’s is hardly anything revolutionary. I was surprised to find, a minute and a half into first track “The Great God Pan”, that Blood Ceremony was helmed by female vocalist Alia O’Brien, but that novelty soon wore off as Living With the Ancients congealed into a relatively bland aesthetically pleasing blues rock album that took more than a few cues from Clutch, Jethro Tull and Aleister Crowley. If you’re looking for an album to satisfy your cravings for the Sabbath sound that Sabbath was too diverse to constantly write (After, all The Sword can only release so many albums), you will enjoy Living With the Ancients. As for me, I’d rather move onto other less outdated modes of rocking out. Who knows, perhaps this album will spawn a revival in mediocre ‘70’s-hard rock/metal sounding bands with female vocalists that also play the flute, but you won’t see me giving two shits when that train rolls around.


Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: A-

The narrative surrounding the second album from Seattle folk rockers Fleet Foxes has been that it is a lot more dark and pessimistic. Frontman Robin Pecknold opens the album with this depressing contemplation: “So now that I’m older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” and elsewhere he speaks of life and love with a sense of futility that penetrates each of the songs on Helplessness Blues down to their very hooks. The album is called Helplessness Blues after all, a title that implies accepting and reveling in defeat, perhaps an admission by the group that they could not overcome an inevitable sophomore slump coming off of such a critically acclaimed album as their self-titled debut.

However, look closer and this impression of Helplessness Blues holds little water. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that this is the most optimistic album I’ve heard all year. While it is true that Robin Pecknold sings that first line in “Montezuma,” he does not sing it with the heavy-handedness that one would assume. Pecknold sings the line with the same innocent tenor that has become characteristic of his group, and this is not unintentional. “Oh man what I used to be,” goes the chorus of that same track, in which Pecknold sings of disappointments that may come with his death. “Oh man oh my oh me.” While the song is no positivity bender, the lyrics are treated differently than they would let on in text. That chorus makes Pecknold’s ruminations sound like abstract thoughts as opposed to an organized front of dejection. He sees these events unfolding as curiosities, but laughs them off with a playful refrain that seems to chalk it all up to the flaws of life, because, after all, every person has felt helpless at some point in their lives. In this way, Pecknold seems to answer his own question posed by that first line, saying that his life has not turned out better or worse than that of his parents’ but just different. It’s an interesting message and one that carries on throughout Helplessness Blues.

The title track similarly deceives in its worldview. “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / A snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” Pecknold sings with only an acoustic guitar supporting him. The line seems to exemplify the diminishing returns of age that can come with a person entering their mid-20’s, but Pecknold goes on. “And now after some thinkin’ / I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some kind of machinery / Serving something beyond me.” Again, Pecknold does concede a loss in individuality, an emotionally crippling realization, but he instead focuses that hopelessness into a goal that is different, not necessarily worse but perhaps even better. The song then becomes a beacon of hope in the way that it suggests the presence of countless opportunities of which we may be unaware. It builds, adding harmonies and instrumentation, before Pecknold has a confident enough footing to reveal his mission statement, channeling what could have been lost ambition into a revelation, making for the album’s clear highlight. “What good is it to sing helplessness blues?” he asks. “Why should I wait for anyone else?”

And yet this is the genius of Robin Pecknold as a centerpiece. His voice is nasally and often defaults to an unassuming intonation that blends wonderfully with Fleet Foxes’s trademark group harmonies, but his lyrics are so clearly thought out for their meaning and effectiveness that it’s an extra surprise the guy sings beautifully, because Helplessness Blues could be a spoken word album and still make me cry. In “Blue Spotted Tail,” he plays that pessimism fake-out trick expertly, asking rhetorical questions with his acoustic like “Why is life made only for an end? Why do I do all this waiting then?” around what feels like the most serene campfire you could imagine. Like in “Mykonos,” in my opinion their best song, Fleet Foxes are greatest when they transcend the Appalachian folk archetype they have clearly mastered, and such is the double-take-inducing moment in “The Shrine / An Argument” when Pecknold howls in nearly empty space. Helplessness Blues consolidates Pecknold’s power as one of the most shyly brilliant songwriters of the new decade, a savant with just enough humor to place his talents right up there with the folk rock luminaries of which he pays homage.

Musically, Helplessness Blues does not stray far from the “play every folk subgenre possible in the span of fifty minutes” style that the group established with their debut album. Fans of that sound need not worry that the group has evolved so much that they stretch themselves thin; with the exception of a diminishing in group harmonies in exchange for a more prominent Pecknold (With which I’m sure you notice I take no umbrage), the production and arrangements are as rich and grassy as ever. “The Cascades” is a civil Celtic instrumental and “Sim Sala Bim” descends into an acoustic jamboree decorated with mandolin frills, probably the best musical moment on the album. As their backslashes would suggest, “The Shrine / An Argument” and “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” are two-part songs, and while the latter is mainly a vocal introduction that transitions into the main tune, the former is an 8-minute behemoth, ebbing and flowing from sinister acoustics to grouped thumps to an abrupt comedown that fades out in a cacophony of brass. And to think that I’m referring to a song by a band that nobody would bat an eyelash to say were indie folk. What’s great about Fleet Foxes is that they are still Hell bent on pushing the envelop in a genre that is hardly known for it.

I’ve mentioned a lot here, but Helplessness Blues houses many more examples of fantastic songwriting and impeccable vocals that may prove to be your personal album favorites and will justify my obvious man crush on Robin Pecknold. Aside from maybe a couple boring transitional instrumentals and the forced a capella vocals that try to make “Grown Unknown” a transcendent album closer, the group’s newest is more mature if not quite as good as their debut album. But if the group’s philosophy as conveyed by Pecknold’s lyrics are any indication, Helplessness Blues is just the beginning of Fleet Foxes’s journey as a restlessly expansive group into the new decade. It may not be better, it may not be worse, but here’s hoping it’s always different. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care: B+

What the fuck is this? I fucking came to this thing thinking I was going to hear some good old-fashioned instrumental rock SANS vocals, and what is this? Voices? Singing?!!!!!!! I’m offended in so many ways. This is not how Explosions in the Sky should be making music; they have completely fallen off the wagon. I can’t fucking believe this shit. Fucking unconscionable.

Yeah, I don’t actually care that “Trembling Hands,” the third and shortest song on Explosions in the Sky’s first album in four years, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care features a few “oh”’s in the background. I’m really just bringing attention to it, because that aspect of the album was the only one that legitimately caught my attention while I was listening to it. Take Care features the Texas outfit playing the same soft-LOUD-soft crescendo-by-numbers shtick that has become somewhat of their trademark over the years, but, on this album, it comes dangerously close to becoming the stalest of patterns. Granted, the massive climaxes Explosions in the Sky can create are the stuff of pure bliss (Just ask fans of their 2003 album, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place), and there are some similarly enormous musical builds to be found on this album with which you can reaffirm your love of life and music, but claims from critics that it is formulaic are not, by any means, unfounded.

While I can enjoy Take Care for its ornate structures and rich production, it just doesn’t have enough moments of tension. Those familiar with Explosions in the Sky know that the group tends to play long songs, the lengthiest on their newest running just over ten minutes. And while many of Take Care’s songs are, as background music, quite good, boredom would not be an unwarranted response to the vast lulls that occupy a majority of the album. Although “Last Known Survivor” switches from a solid 4/4 beat to a delicate 3/4 about a third of the way in and does increase in tempo, when it drops out with no distinct release, it can prove to be frustrating. This is true with “Be Comfortable, Creature” as well. While I don’t have a great problem with either’s technique, those expecting a distinct payoff will feel like it was time wasted. And with both songs clocking in at a total of more than seventeen minutes, there goes over a third of your album.

“Postcard From 1952” begins with the band’s standard prettily flecked guitars and skittering percussion before it picks up incrementally into a fanfare that sparkles with a well-placed descending guitar line. It’s Take Care’s best song and an excellent indication that the group can still dazzle with post-rock catharsis. While I find nothing particularly objectionable about Take Care, more moments like that would certainly not hurt.