Posted in Music Reviews, Swans

Swans – The Seer – Review

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For some reason I’ve been on an inaccessible album spree lately. If it’s daunting, dense, maybe even despised, I’m there. I have no idea what’s brought about this sudden interest in the uncompromisingly experimental, but it’s here, so I might as well make verbose use of it.

So, Swans! These guys have been on my radar for a while, if for no other reason than they have a fascinating history. They started as an abrasive no-wave band, dressed up their misanthropy with gothic rock, went uncategorizable with Soundtracks for the Blind, broke up, came back, started making incredibly daunting post-rock, and are now moving into a phase the details of which are yet unknown (if any Swans fans are reading this, feel free to correct me). That’s a path that HAS to have made for some interesting music, though my experience with them is severely limited as of this writing. Thankfully, The Seer and Soundtracks for the Blind have captured my imagination in ways that ensure that won’t be the case for long.

So, some basic facts for those unfamiliar: The Seer is an incredibly dense post-rock album. It’s two hours long, divided into two discs, and builds its length around indescribably dark arrangements that play demented grooves hammered home by unceasing repetition. It’s not for everyone. It’s not for most people. But I dug it, so there you go.

Talking broadly about the album is difficult, but here’s a few big-picture quibbles. The production and mixing are nothing short of incredible, getting the most out of every sound. The only cases when it gets mushy, understandably, are when the volume reaches absurd levels. The grooves themselves are usually well written and lend themselves well to repetition, especially the ones on “Lunacy” and “Avatar.” The lyrics don’t do much for me but at least they go through the trouble of not usually being clichéd. The album in general doesn’t need to be as long as it does. I know the aim of the repetition is to make you feel trapped and terrified, and it does that, but there are several moments where it goes on so long it becomes numbing, and numbness is NOT what you want in an intense experience like this. These issues prevent me from giving this album a top score, but otherwise this is a brilliant version of what it wants to be. Let’s dive in! Hahahahahahahahaohgodi’mgoinginsane.

I can’t think of many better, more representative openers then “Lunacy.” It’s actually one of the most accessible songs on the album, a measly six minutes long and divided into three easily separated sections. The first is an ominous strumming that builds gradually (occasionally being joined by other sounds, like tinkly keyboards and pained rhythmic moans) into a brilliant repeated VROOM that builds into an abrupt climax. After the climax calms, a chorus that could straight-facedly be described as “demonic” says some creepy stuff about things. One of my favorite moments on the entire album is the flute that pops in the background at the beginning of the second “verse”, if it can be called that. But we’ve got to have another build before songs’ end, this case the vroom comes back and is propelled by the semi-iconic LUNACYLUNACYLUNACYLUNACYLUNACY refrain. This build is actually real short, and quickly turns to something a lot creepier: a minimalist atmospheric part with the same chorus telling the listener repeatedly that “your childhood is over.” Yeah, I already knew that, I’m in college now, thanks for playing along Swans. The echoing cymbals in this part are just fabulous.

And like I said, that’s one of the most accessible songs on the album! “Mother of the World” completely destroys any semblance of sanity immediately with its incessant DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN percussion, mimicking a heartbeat as its backed by an incessant exhale. It just pounds your skull in, alleviated a bit by some higher regal notes from an instrument I’m having a hard time discerning and some creepy falsetto vocalizations. After four minutes of this, Swans puts the hammer down and fills your now suitably broken head with some more creepy vocals and a thick organ atmosphere, gothic without being cheesy. We finally get another groove after that fades out, this time built around guitar and piano with a rising wall of sound behind them. Michael Gira takes this time to step in and say…something, I don’t know or care honestly. What I DO care about is how dry and discomforting his vocals are, like he’s the talking body of someone who died in the desert. After he shuts up, we get our final buildup with rattling noises in the back. Though the whole thing is creepy, I like how this song goes from unrepentantly abrasive to twistedly beautiful. A very satisfying ten minutes, all in all.

“The Wolf” isn’t even two minutes long, a minimalist folk song with more creepy vocals and a melody that reminds me of that old Disney Robin Hood movie for some inexplicable reason. Some natural sounds become background about halfway through. It’s not magnificent, but it’s a nice breather before the title track.

The title track…oh boy, the title track. Thirty-two minutes long, it opens by slapping you with one of the loudest drones I’ve ever heard. I can definitely hear bagpipes in there, but otherwise this is just an impenetrable wall of sound. And a good one too! This is definitely the best drone on the entire album, one with an interesting texture that manages to pull off some electronic sounds without feeling out of place. It goes on for about two minutes before being phased out by some more incessant rattles and foreshadowing bells. Another groove takes over, and it’s my favorite on the entire album. A combination of distant strumming and a massive dark percussion beat, it’s super atmospheric and driving. It carries the feeling of being watched and chased, and only gets better with the introduction of frenetic drumming and terrifying pitched-down Gira vocals going ISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALL. This is definitely one of the grooves that never gets old, because even when it’s static it simply sounds awesome. It builds tension marvelously for a good long while before finally climaxing at around the thirteen-minute mark. We hear the climactic crash! Wait, make that two crashes. Three. Five. Fifteen. Oh, this is the next groove, isn’t it? The track’s only halfway over, you silly goose. The crashes go on for a looooong time, occasionally backed by some manner of bell or screeching low guitar part, and the effect is maddening. Occasionally they’ll do a slightly different crash, as if they’re leading into an actual ending, just to toy with you. This is definitely one of the best examples of the album making you feel trapped, alone with the incessant beat. The other instruments that pop in play off the crash extremely well, By the time the crashes end, it’s well over twenty minutes into the track. So, the first ten minutes were awesome, the second were interestingly oppressive, the last are unfortunately a bit dull. It’s just another atmospheric soundscape, with a few cool touches like dripping water and cavernous piano notes but not much in the way of the blistering intensity that informs the best parts of the album. A little rest is nice after that whole ordeal, but not eight minutes of it. Thankfully, the last four or so minutes introduce another groove, with another creepy vocal refrain and an unsettling guitar sling that sounds a bit like “Screen Shot” from To Be Kind. It’s got a tribal flavor to it, fitting the “seer” concept well. So yeah, it’s not a perfect track, but as far as half-hour long songs go you could do much, MUCH worse, and it’s worth it for the first twenty minutes alone.

“The Seer Returns” is the weakest track on the album. It’s got another plodding groove, which is good but underwhelming compared to the one in the middle part of the title track. My main problem with it is that it doesn’t build to much. A few elements get added but there’s not much noticeable tension. Mostly it’s just kind of dull.

Thankfully, this is immediately made up for with the absolutely skin-shedding “93 Ave. Blues.” It opens with a screechy, horrifying soundscape with some hellish moans and unending dark ambience. About halfway through we get some AMAZING percussion, coming from performers that sound like they are literally drumming like their life depends on it. The tension is INCREDIBLE. Fantastic song.

Disc One closes with another creepy folk song, “The Daughter Brings the Water”, which is just sort of alright. It’s got a nice acoustic riff backing it, some great creepy vocals from Gira (who sounds like he really could use some of that water). It’s not very evocative, though it’s cool while it lasts.

Disc Two opens with the last of these folk songs, the unironically gorgeous “Song for a Warrior.” Great lethargic female vocals, a beautiful melody, and Talk Talk-style minimalism with the keyboard and guitar. It’s simply breathtaking, even if it does carry an obvious air of tension and uncertainty.  The last part introduces Gira’s unnerving voice and a brief flicker of building noise, but even that is a relief compared to everything else.

Things get even better with the nine-minute “Avatar”, my favorite song on the album. It kicks off with an absolutely brilliant groove built around dark ambience and an ominous bell. The odd thing is that it doesn’t sound scary, it sounds epic. Instead of building tension, it builds scale. More fabulous percussion propels it along. A little under the five-minute mark, the vocals come in with an absolutely sweeping melody that defines “disturbing ear candy.” The distant guitar is also one of the sonic highlights of the entire album. And of COURSE the final stretch is another insane, ear-destroying buildup that’s nothing short of amazing. Perfect song.

“A Piece of the Sky” is slightly weaker but still an incredible experience. First is a wall of fire ambience, then a wall of ethereal vocals, then a wall of some other mystical sounds I can’t even decipher, then a wall of high rattling chaos, which actually doesn’t sound as abrasive as it could. About nine and a half minutes in, we finally get our thunderous groove, which sounds…nice? Pleasant? Freeing, possibly? At least in comparison to the rest of the album. The dark undertones are still there and get more prominent as it goes on, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a release. There’s not much variety in its unceasing jangle, but I never get sick of it. Fourteen minutes in, we get another lovely change of pace with some nice strumming and unnerving Gira vocals. The backing vocal harmonies are rather pleasant as well. And we close with some more rattles.  It’s a very cohesive, even somewhat lush, nineteen minutes.

All this is to prepare us for the epic conclusion, the twenty-three minutes “Apostate.” This song doesn’t screw around. It opens with another atmospheric drone, reminiscent of “93 Ave. Blues.” The frantic strings that hang subtly in the background add a wonderful dimension of shrill terror, but otherwise this is one of the more ordinary drones on the album. Thankfully, about four minutes in we get the beginnings of our groove for the evening, also not the strongest but acceptable nonetheless. The noise picks up at the six-minute mark, with some shrill something-or-others and punchy drums. The drums speed up into an incredible rush, moving through different percussive textures and crushing crashes. The repeated slams take over about halfway through, eventually transforming into another epic bell groove at the thirteen-minute mark. Gira says his final something something. I have to say, this song doesn’t strike me as one of the stronger on the album, much less a completely satisfying finale, but it does have one major notch in its favor: an incredible ending. It’s a drum solo. Percussion has a major highlight of the entire album, and now we’ve got numerous drums just pummeling each other into a rough cascade of sound. Perfect finale.

I would be lying if I said The Seer completely grabs me beginning to end. I much prefer the “stuff in as many ideas as inhumanly possible” approach of Soundtrack for the Blind, and as much as I like a lot of the atmospheres and grooves on here sometimes I can’t dig on them for very long. This is, nonetheless, a titanic effort of an album with some mind-blowing material. Heavily recommended to all who can stomach experimental music.

…and that’s it. I don’t have an epic conclusion. It’s a good album. Screw all y’all.

Music: 4/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 3/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 2/5 Well, there’s those folk songs…

Resonance: 5/5

SOUNDTRACK TO: the brain of someone whose gone insane from gaining supernatural knowledge. LUNACYLUNACYLUNACYISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALL

8.5/10

Best Songs:

  1. Avatar
  2. Lunacy
  3. The Seer
  4. Song For A Warrior
  5. A Piece of the Sky

 

Worst Song: The Seer Returns

Listen here (for pleasure of course):

Posted in Modern Pop Reviews, Music Reviews

Justin Bieber – Purpose – Review

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In the course of this blog, I have lampshaded exactly once that the vast majority of my opinions are positive, often unusually and even hyperbolically so. This is, of course, my blog. I write what I want to read, and I like positivity. But hey, diversity is always cool. So here we go, a modern pop album that didn’t do much for me! Whoop-ee!

Ugh, I’m bored writing this already. Can I go back to Björk? Iron Maiden? Zappa? No? Okay.

So, Purpose is the result of a Mister Justin Bieber basically trying to make everyone forget everything he’s ever done, musically and personally, over his entire five-year long career. If it has an overall identity, it’s to push back against everything from the teen pop to the legal troubles that have defined him as a cultural figure thus far. He chooses to do so through the ever popular lens of I’M AN ADUUUUULLLLLTTTTT!!! This brings me to the first good point of the album: it’s not an immature celebration of sex and partying as “adult” subject matter, ala Miley Cyrus (granted she also did indie neopsychedelia to express her adulthood, but the less said about that the better). Purpose isn’t a model of maturity or anything, but it at least shows a self-control and restraint befitting of an actual adult. If Justin freaking Bieber is gonna win me over, this probably isn’t a bad way to do it.

Now, on the flip side, good LORD this album gets pretentious. That’s an unpopular word in criticism, and rightly so: it’s misapplied by almost everyone who uses it and is generally crazy subjective. However, I doubt even people who like this album can say that a song like “Children” is completely adequate. Justin Bieber making a generation-wide “motivational” statement is one of the most laughable things in music that’s not those epic hard rock vocal inflections on “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” I mean, check out this plodding drivel:

What about the children
Look at all the children we can change
What about a vision
Be a visionary for a change
We’re the generation, oh woah
Who’s gonna be the one to fight for it
We’re the inspiration
Do you believe enough to die for it

Yuck! Do I even have to critique this? Stick to your dissatisfied love songs, Bieber.

Thankfully, the album never reaches that level of sheer self-important inadequacy elsewhere. In fact, the first half of it is rather enjoyable. Things get off to a weak start with the incredibly underwhelming “Mark My Words” (Note to Justin Bieber: Please never make a backing vocal of your pitched-up whiny croon ever again), but “I’ll Show You” is incredibly solid. Bieber pulls out a surprisingly soft and likable vocal performance during the verses, the melody is unremarkable but nice on the ears, and (though far from interesting or original) the production sounds, for lack of a better word, cool. The control of synth tone and catchy instrumental hook are all very nice. Yeah it sounds like every other pop hit circa 2015, but at least it’s a well-executed version thereof.

I can’t say the same for most of the rest of the production. There’s threats of something different, like “No Pressure”, which incorporates a guitar into its beat, but then you realize that the guitar line is both completely underwhelming and completely overwhelmed by the uninspired main beat. Big Sean also shows up, painfully boring flow and bad lyricism in tow. At least his verse is short.

The rest of the stuff doesn’t even try, generally. “No Sense” sounds like it was made with default loops in Garage Band. Bieber, I can go plenty of places to get my ultra-generic RnB, why should I chose you? The previously mentioned “Children” is barely worth a namedrop. It’s one of the most unmoving, plastic-sounding attempts at “soulful” EDM I’ve ever heard. Actually, “plastic” is a good word for most of the production: it feels mass-produced, robotic, like nothing a creative human would make. It lacks any kind of passion or soul, and since passion and soul were supposed to be the aim of this “maturity” album that’s a big thumbs down. Oh yeah, and almost every song has that ambient backing hum that everyone thinks automatically makes your song “textured” but actually just makes it even more interchangeable.

But hey, give all these songs one thing, at least the lyrics aren’t horrendous. Well okay, the ones on “Children” are, but they pale in comparison to the unlistenable smash-hit monstrosity known as “Sorry.” Not only does Skrillex’s production find an inexplicable spot between mushily unnoticeable and painfully obnoxious, and not only are the insufferably whiny vocals the worst on the entire album, but the lyrics devolve into self-parody IN THE FIRST LINE.

You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty

This is an epic failure of an apology song for the ages. Its badness is all-encompassing. Every time a pop music listener hears this disaster and thinks “Wow, what a nice and sincere apology” the world gets a little bit worse. Ewww! Get it off! If you’ve somehow managed to avoid this one, stay away.

Don’t stay away from “Love Yourself”, though. The stripped-back approach makes it easily the most unique and memorable song on the album sonically, and instead of taking the typical acoustic route it makes an essentially acapella song backed by some intermittent, catchy acoustic riffs. There’s also a classy, distant trumpet solo near the end that’s easily the most interesting musical idea on the album. The very simple melody is pleasant as well. It’s not great, but it’s plenty enjoyable and I don’t mind hearing it on the radio.

The leadoff single “What Do You Mean” is rather nice as well. It could be accused of being a bit hookless, but the real hook of the song for me isn’t the vocal melody, it’s that clock. Hey, I like Pink Floyd’s “Time”, and I think there should be more swinging pendulums in music. The keyboard melody serves as decent backing, and even the lyrics ain’t too bad. I’m big on antithesis, this does it okay for me.

There’s also a couple tracks that, while they’re super generic, aren’t as actively frustrating or grating as the ones I’ve previously mentioned. “Company” has a nice, mellow, wistful feel that’s complimented by some tolerable lyrics and vocals. “The Feeling” is more or less in the same vein, weaker lyrically but still a nice lush pop song with a surprisingly robust hook. There’s also a complete oddball in the form of “Where Are U Now”, which isn’t terribly interesting but at least has a weird exotic sound that breaks up the album’s flow.

The two remaining tracks are the unbelievably awful ballads “Life Is Worth Living” and “Purpose.” The former has one of those almost-nothing-but-chords keyboard backings that bore me to tears. There’s no dynamism or satisfaction to it. The vocal melody fares a bit better but is brought down by Bieber’s completely unresonant delivery and lyrics that stink of clichés and faux-inspiration. The latter is better, with a more interesting piano part, but the crushingly self-serious atmosphere just cannot be justified. It closes the album with an excruciating spoken word speech that sounds like the worst part of every celebrity interview where they try to be inspirational. It’s contemporary Christian music put to the service of a grand finale.

Clearly this is not a consistent album. About half the songs are enjoyable, which isn’t really a great number. But ALL the songs, even the good ones, suffer from one Achilles heel: Bieber himself. Put simply, he is not interesting. He has no personality on here other than attempts at maturity that fluctuate between pretentious and whiny. He simply does not have the presence or charisma necessary for super-personal pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook. This isn’t helped by his awful, awful vocals. I know of several vocalists who can pull off the breathy, crooning, avoid-the-diaphragm-at-all-costs style of vocals, and Bieber is not one of them. He is insufferably mellow and overly serious on here, which hinders my enjoyment a lot. I can’t even tell him to branch out, because when he does, he does things like trying to sound gansta on “No Sense”, and the results are EVEN MORE PAINFUL.

The other consistent problem is the melodies. They’re not good. A few of them are catchy, but even those ones suffer from being weak and emotionally deadweight. The best melodies are ones that understand the cadence of each note and combine them in a robust, punchy, evocative way. Purpose’s melodies do none of those things. Few of them are awful (though the hooks on “No Pressure” and “Sorry” definitely qualify), but none of them leave any impression.

And that’s the key aspect of how I feel about Purpose: I don’t feel about Purpose. It stirs absolutely nothing in me. Not fun, not emotion, not happiness, not rage. It simply does absolute nothing for me because I can’t connect to Bieber as a person or an artist. Yes, I realize the irony of writing 1500 words about an album and then saying it left no impression on me, but there’s a lot more then straightforward gushing or hatred to break down here. Nevertheless, the first half levels out at enjoyable with one dud (“Mark My Words”) and one garbage fire (“Sorry”), and the second half has some nice tracks as well. So alright, it’s not a total loss. But I can I recommended it? Not definitively, no.

Well, that was my non-positive review. I hope the public imagination I’ve totally captured is satisfied.

Music: 3/5 More like a 2.5, but whatever.

Identity/Themes: 1/5 If he wasn’t at least trying, I would sincerely consider giving this a zero.

Lyricism: 2/5

Vocals: 1/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 0/5 Oh YEAH! There we go!

EXPERIENCE: Lengthy conversations with extended family at the dinner table when you’re a kid. At least there’s some good food sometimes.

5/10

Best Songs:

  1. Love Yourself
  2. I’ll Show You
  3. What Do You Mean?
  4. Company
  5. The Feeling

Worst Song: Sorry

Listen here (with bonus tracks):

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Vespertine – Review

Heyheyhey, so I haven’t written anything in a long while. That’s cause I’m a college student now, so that “three reviews a week” schedule isn’t gonna fly between school, work, and (slippery feeling of dread) a social life. I’ll see if I can work something out.

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This has to stop working at some point, right? No way a single person could make four albums in a row that could each easily cement in my all-time favorites list if I didn’t limit it to one per artist. What kind of freak is this woman? How does she keep coming up with all these intensely resonant, bizarre melodies? Why hasn’t she run out of engrossing sonic textures? How is she still writing every lyric as if it’s going to be the last thing she ever writes? How in the name of God has ever voice somehow gotten MORE expressive and idiosyncratic?

Vespertine is one of the greatest pieces of audio I’ve ever heard. It’s EASILY my favorite Björk album, one that combines the striking personality of Debut, the intruqing textures of Post, and the sweeping sensation of Homogenic. It’s a greatest hits tour of Björk’s strengths, condensed into a filler-free pack of musical Paradise.

That’s a big statement for such a modest album. Björk’s vocals are much less showy, the overall sound is very quiet, and the stakes are intimate instead of the massive Scriptural sweep of the last album. It’s very much a winter album, like Homogenic, but instead of commanding frost dragons from the peak of a furiously wind-spewing mountain, Björk is admiring landscapes from inside by a fireplace (with her true love of course). It’s one of the warmest pictures of coldness ever committed to tape.

Don’t be fooled by the much smaller sound: there’s just as much emotion here as there was on Homogenic (maybe even more) but it’s intensified by what it leaves unsaid. The songwriting is an obvious example: It exchanges Homogenic’s big, obvious, easily accessible (for Björk anyway) hooks for melodies that come across as a more melodic version of the Post approach: use well-chosen notes to create a mood. The album isn’t anywhere near as catchy as the quirky house pop of Debut or the epic choruses of Homogenic, and that’s part of the reason it took me more listens than usual for me to really GET it, but once it clicks it becomes a superior experience emotionally, intellectually, and atmospherically.

The opener “Hidden Place” is a quintessential Björk song in that it brings her obsession with paradox front and center. The verses have a very silky vocal melody that flow into a staccato chorus. The beat carries a very interesting rhythm, timid in a way, as if it can’t decide whether to exist or not. The backing vocals carry a tinge of spiritual flavor to them, reminiscent of Homogenic but not nearly as theatrical.

Bizarre mysticism soon gives way to the intoxicatingly intimate. “Cocoon” lives up to its title, an enveloping exercise in warm minimalism. Everything about it, from the unnaturally soft keyboards to the to that weird clock-like sound that pops in now and then to the layer of staccato staticy sound that manages to sound more gorgeous that static has any right to be. Sealing the deal is Björk’s vocals, which warmly coo with inexpressible intensity. The song, like many on the album, is blatantly sexual (unless it’s using poetic metaphors for sex as poetic metaphors for something else), far more than anything on anything on her previous work. But instead of devolving into exercises of tastelessness, Björk explores what musical and lyrical angles she can come up with relating to a subject so universal, and the results are often astoundingly beautiful.

“It’s Not Up To You” is a look at indecisiveness regarding optimism and pessimism, backed with an extremely evocative arrangement. On the gorgeous chorus, strings become a prominent element for the first time on the album. The whimsical nativity of the beat and melody act as a lusher version of Björk’s Debut musings, and the semi-spiritual backing chorus rears its motifing head once again. It’s one of the most straightforward and accessible songs on the album but none the artistically worse for it.

“Undo” boasts one of the album’s most supremely creative vocal melodies, backed with an arrangement best described as “sunsety.” Not only does effectively combine warmth and distance, but it manages to swell into full-blown mystical properties as more stings and vocals and layers of sound are added. It feels like you’ve just had a scrape with something divine, something unquantifiable, with a proximity somewhere in between the intense presence of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the distant reverence of Talk Talk.

“Pagan Poetry” is my choice for the best song on the album, which apparently is not all that popular but that doesn’t bother me. It returns to thickly atmospheric mysticism with the album’s iciest arrangement yet. It has another fantastically resonant, creative melody that manages to also have a memorable chorus, but the real hook of the song for me is Björk’s backing vocals. The song wouldn’t feel anywhere near as evocative without those melodic vocal fills, but the delicately snowy keyboards and windily fuzzy beat would still fare well. Björk pulls out some jaw-droppingly gorgeous vocals in all parts, and the lyrics are some of the album’s most emotional and imaginative. I will say it’s coda is a bit repetitive, but I didn’t mind the codas on Homogenic so I don’t have a problem with this one.

After the beautifully crystal-like instrumental “Frosti”, we get the powerful “Aurora.” It’s definitely the most Homogenic-esque song on the album, with Björk’s most intense and massive vocal performance carrying her most bombastic lyrics. The arrangement isn’t thick by the standards of that album, but it’s absolutely luscious and inviting. The song as a whole has the feel and power of a musical prayer, albeit to a bizarre deity of Björk’s mind. Hey, maybe we can add some songs from this album to Homogenic: The Musical as praise songs! I love worldbuilding.

Then we get three songs that, while there’s nothing really wrong with them, are definitely less memorable then everything else on Vespertine. “An Echo A Stain” has an interestingly lethargic melody that’s very nice and romantic, but it’s warbly arrangement lacks the evocative power so common on the other songs. At least the strings are still nice. “Sun In My Mouth” has a very pretty musicbox-ish arrangement, but I almost always forget about it unless I’m listening to it. The melody is easily the weakest on the entire project, but the production and vocals make it pleasant while it’s on (I especially like how the vocals start to mirror and meld with the strings). “Heriloom” is VERY interesting sonically and sticks out admits the rest of the album, combining semi-tribal percussion with semi-industrial atmospheric hums, but suffers from another weakish melody and a lack of interesting affectations in the vocals.

Any lack of resonance, though, is immediately forgiven with the achingly depressive “Harm of Will”, with more powerful vocals and lyrics. The arrangement is much more straightforward and brings the stings front-and-center, swelling in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative or cheap.

The closer “Unison”, then, is just amazing. The creative melodicism is back, the arrangement is quirky and gorgeous, the vocals are intensely felt, and the lyrics bring the cool imagery and deeply personal feelings of the album to a satisfying close. It’s not easy to describe (what Björk song is?) but it feels immensely complete in a way all closers should.

Is it diverse? Not really. Does it have any instantly memorable melodies? Only a few. Is it accessible? Depends on what you mean. Will it get anything other than the top grade? No. The ways in which this album works are so alien that they’re difficult to pin down, but rest assured it has everything to do with the powerful sounds and emotions at play here. I liked it alright when I first listened to it, now it’s my favorite album by one of my favorite artists. Keep on truckin’ Björk, you’re doing the Lord’s work.

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 2/5 Unfortunate, really.

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: The pixie has basically been driving you insane, so you decide to sit down and tell it off. You discover it’s very timid and doesn’t do well in conversation, making a proper verbal confrontation difficult. Through persistence, you discover all that the pixie is a deep, multilayered individual that you can’t stay mad at.

10+/10 (freaking duh)

Best Songs:

  1. Pagan Poetry
  2. Aurora
  3. Frosti
  4. It’s Not Up To You
  5. Hidden Place

Listen here:

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Essential Albums, Music Reviews

Björk – Homogenic – Review

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I have to be blunt: I do not enjoy this album as much as Debut and Post. I say this while acknowledging that it’s better than both of those albums. My artistic appraisal process is weird.

The reason for my temptation to dismiss this album outright (one that’s thankfully easily resisted for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) is that Björk’s casual steps away from the devilish little pixie she was on Debut have finally cemented. She is no longer an adorable-yet-obviously-capable woman with a wicked sense of humor and a quirky approach to music, she is an operatic goddess. And yeah, she plays that persona very well, but I find it more alienating and less personal, and since her personality was what invested me in her in the first place…yeah, this nitpick becomes an annoying subliminal problem for me.

This isn’t helped by the fact that TWO of the mere ten songs here fail to excite me that much. “All Neon Like” follows in the footsteps of “Like Someone in Love” from Debut and “You’ve Been Flirting Again” from Post (a song with minimalist backing carried almost entirely by Björk’s voice), and it’s the worst of those three by a good distance. Not only is the near six-minute runtime completely excessive, but the bludgeoning beat grows old really fast. It’s a shame, because not only are the vocals and lyrics excellent as usual, but there’s some lovely shining synths in the background that could have served the backing track purpose perfectly fine on their own. Instead, I have to hear a dull groove for an abnormally long time. It’s tolerable, but not much else. The other weak point is the very next song, “5 Years”, which is also driven by an ugly, style-free beat, a complete lack of atmosphere, and most damning of all: the album’s least interesting and evocative lyrics. The unnecessary harshness of these songs showcase Björk’s newfound towering overlady position at its very worst, without bothering to be anywhere near as menacing as “Army of Me” or even the album’s own “Pluto.” They’re easily the weakest songs Björk had committed to tape at this point, which makes me question why so many consider this her masterpiece (or even worse, her only album worth your while).

And yet none of this stops me from giving this album the highest possible grade I can give. No, I’m dead serious. For one simple reason: this is a sonic MASTERPIECE. If this isn’t the best produced album I’ve ever heard, it’s at least up there with Remain in Light and Loveless. If I could live in this album, I would. If I could have a conversation with this album, I would. If I could settle down and have kids with this album…well, I don’t know how I would do that, but I would sure as heck try. Any problems I might have with Björk’s presence being not what I really want out of her or two songs that don’t do anything for me are absolutely squelched by the fact that the rest of this album simply SOUNDS untouchably fantastic. Seriously, this was made in 1997?            How is that even possible? Where did all these shards of cosmic, icy, explosive deity come from? This is definitely the best “winter” album I’ve ever heard; it sounds like a snowstorm converted into music.

The other important element at play is the melodies, which are possibly even better then Debut. The songwriting on this album gets a lot of flak for its heavy reliance on repetitive codas, but the choruses that get repeated are often so jaw-droppingly powerful that I wish they could go on forever.

For the third time in a row, the first four songs are the high point, and they blow pretty much anything from Debut or Post out of the water. The curtain-opening synths and instantly unforgettable percussive bass that open “Hunter” are right up front with the unstoppably powerful emotions and sounds you’ll find all over this album. Björk enters, echoing as if from the peak of a mystical mountain, and immediately establishes dominance over the landscape of this album, treating its universe as her own personal playground. I didn’t make that “goddess” comparison earlier for hyperbole’s sake: her presence really is that shaking, bellowing as she projects her colorful ideas and exaggerated emotions all over her personal world. In a few parts of this opener, we get a taste of one of the album’s main motifs: electronic textures combined with string textures and melodies. This is taken to gorgeous heights on “Joga”, featuring one of those impeccable codas and soul-shattering choruses I was talking about earlier. Both the strings and synths are perfect, melodic and textural at the same time, to say nothing of the vocal melody, which sounds like one of those ideal compositions that don’t actually ever get written. It almost hurts to listen too, it’s so overwhelmingly beautiful. “Unravel” brings the scale down considerably, creating a comparatively modest but equally goosebump-inducing sonic tapestry, managing to somehow be one of the saddest and most romantic things I’ve ever heard. It’s slow, sticky, sweet, and makes a good contrast to the indescribably epic “Bachelorette.” Not only is the melody absolutely amazing, but Björk takes her voice to its absolute expressive height, creating a massive epochal communication of pure being. Oh, and the lyrics just may be the album’s best as well.

Once again, nothing reaches the height of those first four, but not for lack of trying. After the disappointing “All Neon Like”/”5 Years” rut, we get the pretty good “Immature”, an introspective self-hatchet job that finally realizes the potential of the harsh sound of the last two songs: an affecting tool for flogging both yourself and the person who failed you. These feelings climax in “Alarm Call”, Björk’s personal enlightenment anthem. As you might expect, it’s a lot quirkier and less soulful then most other people’s enlightenment anthems (perhaps best exemplified in the album’s most famous line, an extremely memorable precision F-strike about Buddhism), and as usual the melody, lyrics, and vocals are fantastic.

The abrasiveness suddenly comes back after that moment of triumph in the absolutely terrifying “Pluto”, which bludgeons you over the head with the sheer weight of its anger and chaos, to the point where the coda is basically Björk letting out blood-frying scream after blood-frying scream. It could not be more different from the closing “All is Full of Love”, a return to form gorgeous enough to induce reverent tears. It’s cathartic, soothing, luxurious…maybe not the epic climax I would expect from the album thus far, but I can’t think of a better one.

Since I love this album so much and like the idea of it being Björk’s personal universe (just because I don’t find it as resonant doesn’t mean I can’t find it cool), instead of the usual wrap-up, I present to you…Homogenic: The Musical! The story of the little universe that could, shoved into a semi-Judeo/Christian mold because that’s all I can think of. Enjoy!

Bachelorette – Creation of the World

Joga – The Creation of the Sentient Soul

Hunter – The First Contact with Deity

All Neon Like – The Delivery of the Scriptures (probably the lyrics to Homogenic)

Unravel – The First Great Tragedy, Rise of the Evil AntiBjörk

Immature – Frustration at Allowing the Existence of the Evil AntiBjörk

5 Years – The Battle Against the Evil AntiBjörk

Alarm Call – The End Times, Defeat of the Evil AntiBjörk

Pluto – Punishment of the Wicked

All is Full of Love – Oh yay paradise

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: The pixie now has a universe.

10+/10. Yes, this means I now consider Debut and Post 10+s as well. Best Song: Joga

Posted in Music Reviews, Starbomb

Starbomb – Player Select – Review

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24-minute Game Grumps episode set to music. Your reaction to that statement is an exact gauge of how much you’ll enjoy this album. I think it’s really good. The end.

Actually you know what, no. I have some things to say about this criminally underrated slice of musical cake here that I haven’t seen anyone else discuss. It’s so easy to dismiss projects by people best known as YouTubers as “Haha, internet famous people think they can make music and write books and stuff. How cute.” That’s true of Player Select to some degree, but far less than I’ve seen any discussion give it credit for.

So let’s start with throwing my biases out in the open: I love Game Grumps as much as one can love Game Grumps without actually following their content. I unsubscribed from them a while ago because their output is far too rapid for my YouTube schedule, and as such I’ve seen maybe a little over 350 of their over 3,000 video output. But make no mistake: I. LOVE. GAME GRUMPS. I love Jon and Arin, Arin and Danny, Danny and Ross, Ross and Barry, Barry and Suzy, and whatever other combinations they may have. I love Arin’s cutthroat snark, Jon’s stoner hamminess, and Danny’s whimsical raunchiness. I love Jon’s breakdown in You Don’t Know Jack, Arin’s escapades with the D Club in Ninjabread Man, and Danny’s stories about his Jewish heritage anytime. They are by far my favorite content creators in the Let’s Play genre, and I can watch any of their videos for pure comfort and a warm environment. The juxtaposition of incredibly random crude humor and earnest discussion about game design and life events is something I haven’t found so perfectly executed anywhere else.

So yeah, there was pretty much no way I wasn’t going to like an album by Arin and Danny, so you should take my opinion with as many salt grains as you can spare. But I also genuinely believe that this album has enough merit to be enjoyed independently of Game Grumps or Ninja Sex Party (who I haven’t actually ever listened too, I should change that). I think the main reason why I like Player Select so much is that the parody is so entertainingly conceived. I never listened to the first Starbomb album, but the selections I heard from it are much closer to what you would expect from a description like “Let’s Players make songs about video games”, EG they’re normal depictions of a game with sex and scatological jokes thrown in. You might still get a cheap laugh out of it (I’m immature enough to), but it doesn’t tap much into the real potential of video games and other geek properties as compelling comedy material. Player Select, on the other hand, features, among other gags:

-Luigi being the only character in Smash Bros to realize how horrific the situation actually is (SPOILERS: He succumbs to the bloodlust eventually)

-The Transformers not being able to hide as vehicles anymore, since they’re so famous everyone recognizes them

-Glass Joe attempting to beat Mr, Sandman through the power of believing in himself

-What a terrifying place in life the Pac Man ghosts have

-The fact that there are no cool gods left to kill in God of War

-The universal appeal of Minecraft versus the limited appeal of explicit lyrics

-Solid Snake explaining the plot of Metal Gear Solid to a host who usually works with the plots of arcade characters

Maybe I’m just easily impressed, but I find all these really clever and fun, as well as showing a solid understanding of the games themselves. This isn’t just using geeky subject matter to attract geeks, it’s truly BY geeks FOR geeks.

That’s the humor in broad terms. In specific terms…yeah, it still basically comes down to how amusing you find the idea of Nintendo characters dropping F-bombs at the most awkward moments, or rapid-fire wordplay like absurd new names for Pokemon, Fatalities, or Greek Gods. Thankfully, my standards are low enough to find both of those things hilarious, and they’re just a taster plater of the many zany jokes on this album, which average out at pretty dang funny overall.

The music takes an obvious backseat to the humor, but it works well enough. The beats are driving, goofy, playful, and heavily chiptune flavored. Not exactly original, but always fun and nice on the ears (I especially like the stage musical-style “Inky’s Ballad”). The choruses themselves are extremely well written, bouncy, and intensely melodic. I’ve given the album three listens now and I can already hum you every single chorus.

The most important part of the music on this album, for me anyway, is the vocals. Danny is already a professional singer with a good range and a naturally happy, giddy, infectious tone. He sings most of the choruses, and they absolutely soar when he’s in high gear. Arin takes care of most of the rapping, and though he’s not as striking a presence as Danny (and noticeably amateur by comparison), his flow is versatile and his tone really odd and offbeat, making for some hilarious delivery. Guest appearances by Markiplier (on “Smash!”) and Notch (on “Minecraft Is For Everyone”) are highlights of their tracks.

Highlights…wait, I haven’t even talked about highlights yet! Well, on such a short album, pretty much every song is a highlight. Every song has at least one hook that really grabbed my brain, one line that really killed my gut, and one piece of production that tickled my ears. Nevertheless, I’d like to single out the opener and the closer. “Smash!” has a nonstop energy and ear-candy chorus that make me eager to listen to the entire album. “The Simple Plot of Metal Gear Solid” is carried by hilarious performances from the Grumps and a wonderfully catchy, jazzy beat.

Alright, so here’s the catch: Player Select is pretty slight. Not counting the intro, outro, and two sketches, there’s a little over 22 minutes of actual music. The production is a lot of fun but not particularly interesting (have you noticed this review is a lot less sonically descriptive then my usual fare?), the satire is clever but not genius, and the jokes are really funny but could have come from any average episode of Game Grumps as opposed to one of the really brilliant ones. The songs are hilarious, the intro and outro are chuckle-worthy, but the sketches are just kind of embarrassing. I can’t rate an album like this super-high, no matter how enjoyable it may be. But that’s the key word for Player Select: ENJOYABLE. It’s pure junk food, but that doesn’t make it taste any less good. Essential for Game Grumps fans, but perfectly recommendable to anyone who likes video games and doesn’t mind the prospect of a Pollyanna Minecrafter teaching a creeper not to swear.

Music: 3/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 4/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: A typical pop station in an alternate universe where geeks are, and have always been, the establishment.

8/10. Best Song: Either Smash! or The Simple Plot of Metal Gear Solid.

Posted in Frank Zappa, Music Reviews

Frank Zappa – Apostrophe(‘) – Review

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“Best selling Zappa album.”

Every time I want to praise this album as the fun diversion that it is, that credential makes me more critical than I should be. I mean…really? This? Not We’re Only In It For The Money. Not Freak Out!. Not Absolutely Free. Not Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Uncle Meat, or any of the other masterpieces he did with the Mothers. Not Joe’s Garage with its insane yet cohesive story, not One Size Fits all with its twisty guitar passages, not Sheik Yerbouti with its unceasing provocation, not You Are What You Is with its colorful compositions…Apostrophe(‘). Wow.

All this may seem like a setup for a takedown, but Apostrophe(‘) is still a good album, one which is easy to casually enjoy and features some of the best instrumental performances in the Zappa catalogue (which is amazing considering the competition). It’s certainly not one of Frank’s missteps (Thing-Fish, 200 Motels, the Flo and Eddie era in general), or even one of his many mediocrities (most of the Lather albums). It’s a perfectly fine, occasionally funny, entertainingly jazzy, easily accessible album. In that way, I can see why it sold well, but I can’t think about it for very long without being bombarded with thoughts of “THIS SOLD MORE THEN BURNT WEENY SANDWICH AND UNCLE MEAT.”

It doesn’t help that the strength of this album is almost entirely in performance. The songwriting and lyricism on this album don’t excite me much at all, especially the former, which is more on par with Joe’s Garage then the immediate predecessor Overnite Sensation. This REALLY sucks because it’s not like Zappa isn’t a good composer (take a listen to You Are What You Is or Freak Out! if you have any doubts), so when he writes grooves instead of melodies it feels like I’m being denied.

The lyrics are slightly better. Apostrophe(‘) is a parody of rock-operas, and as such features a crazy story about eskimos, yellow snow, strictly commercial fur-trapping seal-beaters, pancake breakfasts, unhelpful wise men, and deadly foot diseases. It’s as whimsically immature and unpredictable as you could expect from the phrase “Zappa rock opera”, but it never rises above that. Joe’s Garage was kind of a bloated mess, but since it had connective tissue it felt like a natural, satisfying journey. Apostrophe(‘) is all over the place, not really parodying rock operas in any specific way. Though I will have to concede that the parts that are funny are REALLY funny.

And it was at that precise moment that he remembered

An ancient Eskimo legend

Wherein it is written

On whatever it is that they write it on up there

That if anything bad ever happens to your eyes

As a result of some sort of conflict

With anyone named Nanook

The only way you can get it fixed up

Is to go trudgin’ across the tundra

Mile after mile
Trudgin’ across the tundra
Right down to the parish of Saint Alfonzo

See? It’s not all bad. Actually screw that, dang this is a good album! The grooves are pleasant to the ear, the riffs are shaken out with energy and zest, the production is crisp and satisfying, the side one medley has failed to get old throughout the many, MANY listens I’ve given it, and the overall mood is just so fun and goofy. It’s a hair over thirty minutes, and makes for a quick, mostly satisfying listen.

But…best selling Zappa album? The one where I can’t even pick out individual songs without straining? The lazy parody elements? The arbitrary nature of its own existence? This thing is just a toss-off, no matter how fun it is. It doesn’t do much wrong, but doesn’t do much to excel. There aren’t really any standout songs, either (though the rockin’ funky title track is what I would go with if I had to pick a favorite), so in the end I don’t see what an album like Apostrophe(‘) contributes to the Zappa conversation. In some ways, it’s the opposite of most Zappa tossoffs: not interesting in any overall or conceptual way, but pleasant while it’s on. I can’t fault it much for that, of course, and if you like Zappa and haven’t heard this I would be shocked, but it does limit how high I can rate it. I enjoy it more then I like it, if that makes any sense.

Music: 3/5

Thematic Content: 2/5

Lyricism: 3/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 2/5

Experience: Transcribing the imaginative whims of a third grader and turning it in as a Hollywood script.

7/10. Best Song: Apostrophe(‘)

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Post – Review

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If there were any misconceptions about Björk’s gravity as a performer due to the lovable adorableness of Debut, she made a point to completely destroy them within the first ten seconds of Post. Zap! BWOM! Super-menacing synth loop! Björk doesn’t screw around. Post starts by confounding expectations and shattering whatever artistic chains most artists would allow themselves to be wrapped in if they started with something like Debut. Hooray for unpredictability!

“Unpredictable” is a good word for Post in general, but the best word is “colorful.” No two songs sound completely alike, and the result is an extremely punchy album that sounds…well, exactly like the cover. Björk herself has retained her mischievous, charismatic edge and wonderful vocals, so the soul and personality of the music remains instantly recognizable through all the hues and shades. As far as diversity goes, it’s a best-case scenario.

Now okay so this is all great BUT. The melodies on this album are really sub-par. Most of the songs barely have a hook, and since Björk’s vocals are at their most enjoyable when they’re playing off a bonkers melody, this is a distracting issue. I understand that some of these songs were constructed more as rants then singalongs, but an entire album’s worth of them really isn’t appealing to me. It’s a good thing the arrangements and lyricism are so sharp and memorable.

Most people single out the opening “Army of Me” as the best song, and though I don’t agree, it’s nothing short of gripping. The dark, confrontational synth arrangement is as striking as Björk’s no-nonsense vocals. This is especially impressive because the vocals did most of the heavy lifting on Debut, which was well-produced but often derivative.

The arrangement is also the highlight of “Hyperballad”, with its soft crashing synth waves and pitter-patters, its otherworldly whirs and stringy shines. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it, and when complimented with surreally emotional lyrics and a beautiful vocal performance it becomes the highlight of Post for me. “Modern Things” isn’t much worse, though; another bizarre tonal shift with a mood that can only be described as soothingly apocalyptic. The arrangement makes each layer of sound easily discernable, growing quickly from its minimalist start to form some kind of demented Apple product presentation music.

Like Debut, the opening four songs are the unstoppable high point, rounded out by “It’s Oh So Quiet”, a hilarious old-timey part-Broadway-part-vaudeville-part-French cafe that subverts its premise in a way similar to “There’s More to Life Then This.” It’s not as brilliant as that song, but it’s great fun while it’s on and if you’re like me then you’ll have no problem with the intentionally saccharine arrangement.

From then on, there’s less memorable ideas but just as much vibrant, contrasting musical color. “Enjoy” has an arrangement that’s a bit too similar to “Army of Me”, but the unpredictably altered vocals, interesting lyrics, and funky horn frills elevate it. “You’ve Been Flirting Again” is a disarmingly gorgeous tearjerker. I think of it as a more refined version of “Like Someone In Love”: nothing but Björk’s voice and a soft arrangement, though the minimalist strumming guitar has been swapped for a constant underpinning of strings. Works for me! Continuing that sound is “Isobel”, which extends into full-on modern classical territory, albeit with crystal synths and spicy percussion. “Possibly Maybe” is a tad icy and distant for my taste, though it is rather elegant and the lyrics are brilliant as usual. “I Miss You” is more up my alley, a quirky and nigh-indescribable slice of pixie magic. “Cover Me” is awe-inspiring in its hollow, vast simplicity. It’s the musical version of watching a storm from inside while gathering the strength to venture out, and the effect is incredible. The album ends on a note just as strong, a “love letter to sound” named “Headphones.” The meticulous layers and fun twists throughout the subdued runtime are both reverent and fun, dripping with pure sonic inspiration.

The biggest difference between Debut and Post, besides the better arrangements and worse melodies on the latter, is that Post takes itself a lot more seriously and allows itself to throw some proper hooks in your soul. It didn’t quite grab me the way Debut did, and I do kind of miss the naivety that fueled so much of the creativity on that album, but musically I’ll take either one. If I want more satisfyingly unconventional melodies, I’ll pop in Debut, if I want amazing production I’ll pop in Post. They make quite a nice deserted island pair, and cover pretty much the entire emotional spectrum. All this is to say I don’t know which one I like better. Good thing I don’t have to choose!

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: DANGNABBIT THE PIXIE HAS FOLLOWED YOU TO THE REAL WORLD. Now it’s distorting your emotional landscape and taking your mind to really weird places. Good thing you don’t have any friends to embarrass yourself in front of, eh?

10/10. Best Song: Hyperballad

8/15/16 EDIT: Yeah, this is a 10+ so hard.

Posted in Led Zeppelin, Music Reviews

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy – Review

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Alright, it’s official: I will never love Led Zeppelin. But I don’t see myself disliking them anytime soon either, they’re too professional for that. They leave little of an impression on me due to their lack of human warmth or supremely creative melodies, but when I actually sit down and listen to them my first thoughts are usually along the lines of “You know, this is actually pretty fun.” If music existed in purely technical/headbop terms for me, I’d definitely give a lot more kudos to Zeppelin then I do, but as is I tend to really undersell them.

Take this great album for example! When I reviewed Physical Graffiti I said it was my favorite Zep album behind the debut, but I don’t know what I was thinking. Not only is Houses of the Holy a lot tighter, it’s a heck of a lot more fun and WAY easier to get through in one sitting. It’s so lovably goofy and crazily diverse that there’s no way for me not to heap praise on it. And hey, is that a hint of humanity and warmth I detect? Is this perhaps the most emotionally honest album Zep ever put out? Who’s keeping score anyway? Just have fun!

So, what works here? Well, the melodies are nice, but they’re never the focus (not to mention…who knows which ones they actually wrote?). The playing is fantastic, but that’s true of practically every album of theirs. The production is the best and most crisp they got outside the debut, I guess. I think it’s the general “anything can happen” atmosphere, the strange mystique it insists on having, and even some okay lyrics for once. Pure sugar, this one.

But what refined sugar! The album opens with that is, by a large margin, the best trio in the Zeppelin catalogue. “The Song Remains The Same” starts with an ear-candy guitar intro and continues in that vein by adding some powerful drumming and unpredictable noodling. The result is a twisty-turvy-timey-wimey roller-coaster of a song. It’s shallow, but who cares? Led Zeppelin IS shallow, just enjoy it while it’s on! Wait, scratch that, they must be capable of more than I think, because “The Rain Song” is a gorgeous acoustic exercise. The beauty comes from the tone and note choices rather than superficially “soft” strumming or familiar chords. The actual strings are a nice touch as well, and the “Stairway”-esque escalation is incredibly satisfying. “Over The Hills And Far Away”, then, sounds just plain cool, and continues Zep’s consistent strength of intoxicating and varied guitar tone. It’s hard to describe why a Zep song works when it works, because it’s all very in-the-moment, so I guess you’ll just have to trust me.

The last two songs are fantastic as well. “No Quarter” is wonderfully atmospheric. No really, an atmospheric Led Zeppelin song! They use their mastery of texture to produce one of the most unuqie sonic creations in their catalogue, a warbbily, cave-like-yet-expansive, rippling exercise with occasional fuzz to keep it interesting. How many bands, let alone hard rock/heavy metal bands, were able to pull something like this off WELL in 1973? “The Ocean” is in a similar vein as “The Song Remains The Same”, with some unpredictable cooking and neat melodic twists. Even if Robert Plant’s vocals are really obnoxious, it’s still a satisfying closer.

So right now we have a lineup of five songs that are easily on par with the debut, and if that was all there was, Houses of the Holy would be tied for my favorite Zeppelin album. Unfortunately, there are three songs between the opening trio and closing pair that easily rank among the very worst the band would ever do.

The only one I don’t hold against the album is “The Crunge.” It’s a funk song that is excruciating, brain-dead, and irredeemably horrible, but not in a bad way! Plant’s squeaky vocals, the clumsy and repetitive funk licks,  the face-desk inducing lyrics, and the painfully derivative guitar tone are all unbearable on their own, but put together they become HILARIOUS. Something magical happens, and you end up with a masterpiece of bad. I wish I could say the same for “Dancing Days”, a super-generic rock n’ roll ditty with a barely-existent melody and sluggish playing.  “D’yer Mak’ker” is reggae. I wish I could make these things up. It’s also terrible reggae, with extremely uncreative work in both the vocal melody and guitar and one of the limpest, weakest “solos” I’ve ever heard.

Three is a pretty large amount of stinkers for an album with only eight songs, but the highs are so high and the overall atmosphere so infectious that I can’t help but elevate the score a few notches from a more-deserved 7 or 8. I like positivity, sue me.

…but what in God’s name is up with the album cover?

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 3/5

Lyricism: 3/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 3/5

Experience: A kid in an early 70s candy store.

9/10. Best Song: No Quarter or The Song Remains the Same

Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews, Slowdive

Slowdive – Souvlaki – Review

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If you’ve followed my content for any length of time (God help you), you’ll have noticed that I give out perfect/transcendent scores with comical frequency. While my instinct is to laugh this off, recently I’ve been considering this much more seriously as a potential issue. What if my own open-minded system DOES mean I exchange actual critique for description? What if this “listening journal” format I’m currently employing doesn’t give me enough time to absorb an album? What if I’m only listening to a bunch of 8s or 9s instead of all-time greats? What if only going to the commonly accepted “peak” of an artists’ career is tokenist and banal?

All this is to say that I’m giving yet ANOTHER classic album the highest grade I can grade in the history of me grading, and will spend this review’s entire length gushing about how much I love it and how it’s one of my new favorite albums. “Yadayada Steven, you love everything you nothing-standard hack”, I know, I know. I really oughta review a bad album sometime, that would be something wouldn’t it?

In my defense, not only is Souvlaki an everlasting gob-smackingly great album, it’s also a great moody piece. One to lie down in and be absorbed by, an escape that only heightens the awareness of your own faults after you’ve left. Why CAN’T I be perfect and just get it over with? Why can’t everything be like the world of Souvlaki, where heartbreak is beautiful and mistakes are theatrical rather than annoying? That’s the base appeal of the emo/goth semi-philosophy, right? That primal pessimistic part of me really NEEDS an album like this, one mellow where Loveless is bright, downbeat where live albums by The Who are upbeat, melancholic where most of my collection is fun. My favorites are my favorites for a reason, but they just don’t cover what I’m feeling the way Souvlaki covers the way I feel right now: apprehensive about my future, self-critical, mellowed out after an earlier peak in motivation. It can only get better from here, right?

Well that’s enough self-important whining. Souvlaki is a shoegaze album. I don’t know much about shoegaze, but the references I do have point to its main pillars being roughly the same of all noise music: to trip out, decentralize, pound, and generally mess with the listeners’ brain. I suppose distorting otherwise normal songs into walls of sound creates a kind of uncanny valley effect on the ear best suited for unapologetic noisy cascades like Loveless or deconstructive trip-outs like Isn’t Anything. Souvlaki’s angle is neither of those things, or even anything on that spectrum: this is DREAM music. The distortion isn’t used to give abstract emotions concrete musical presence, it’s to take the concrete and make it abstract.

The opening track, “Alison”, is the most straightforward example. It’s about drugs. Whee, breaking new ground for shoegaze! But specifically, it’s about drugs as escapism, the devaluing of the real world, and the implication of how much the real world is going to hurt once drug abuse catches up with you. This is the kind of song shoegaze was MADE for, a joyfully free, depressingly foreboding, thickly decadent, darkly menacing fuzz of painfully finite ecstasy. What a wonderful atmosphere.

Now, is the album a bit samey? Yeah. But it never becomes boring because every emotion is so intense and the constant beauty is so warm and inviting, even if the cloud of “this can’t last” is always hanging overhead. “Machine Gun” is so dark that it’s difficult for me to get through. The only reason I can is because it’s so breathtakingly gorgeous that I can forget about the suicidal lyrics. It probably should have come after the trivial-by-comparison heartbreak of “40 Days”, but oh well. “40 Days” features some slow but stinging guitar lines, a smart and memorable way to continue beating your heart into submission. “Sing” is cavernous, bubbly, open-sounding bliss, slow, sticky, enveloping. It’s also got one of the prettiest melodies on the album (but more on them later). “Here She Comes” finally brings us into positivity territory, with lyrics about loneliness at a huge social gathering, communicated in some of the album’s most sparse production (especially by the standards of shoegaze). A nebulous “she” shows up at the very end, and even though my first thought was that “she” was a stand-in for drugs (yes this is that kind of album), I decided that there wasn’t enough grounds for that and switched to the more literal, heartwarming perspective. Too bad the song ends before we can see what they were up to, eh?

Then the album pulls one of the most brilliant double punches I’ve ever heard with “Souvlaki Space Station” and “When The Sun Hits.” “Souvlaki Space Station” sounds like the title. There’s no other way to sum up this majesty. It’s immediately evocative of space, solitude, wonder, unlimited freedom…the stuff dreams are made of. It’s one of the more up-front songs on the album, with an attention-grabbing intensity and wonderful echoing riff. It’s practically the ideal shoegaze song. “When The Sun Hits” also sounds like the title, with an endless glow communicated through shimmeringly haunting guitar that’s both obtrusive and gorgeous. These two songs are as perfect sonic pictures as you could ever hope to paint.

The final trio can’t reach those heights, especially since they mellow out a bit, but they’re good nonetheless. “Melon Yellow” is unnaturally slow, to the extent where it can be taken as either unnerving or contemplative. “Dagger” is a lot softer and lo-fi then the title would suggest, definitely the least shoegaze song on here in sound, though it’s gut-punchy lyrics fit perfectly and the melody is nice. “Altogether” is bit underwhelming as a closer, but by now the formula of otherworldly beauty has been perfected enough for me to get swept up in it anyway.

Now, a lot of people fault shoegaze for its songwriting, which is often hidden beneath the fuzziness and distortion, so before I conclude I want to throw out a quick admission: the melodies on this album are pretty enh. There’s not a lot of catchy, pretty riffs like on Loveless, for example. I don’t mind this because (a) the album never pretends to be about melody and (b) the melodies are all very nice sounding even if they’re not memorable. Thankfully, this is a MOOD album, and should be judged as such. If descriptions like “dreamy”, “ethereal”, “trippy”, and other words right out of The Complete Hack’s Guide to Musical Description will insta-sell and album for you, you pretty much need to listen to this right now. A lot of people see those descriptions as warnings of course, but…enh, they’re all nuts.

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Trying to psychoanalyze a dream…while you’re still dreaming. And going through a breakup.

10+/10 (yawn). Best Song: Souvlaki Space Station

Posted in Iron Maiden, Music Reviews

Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind – Review

Iron_Maiden_-_Piece_Of_Mind

And so Mr. Miniike got back from a week-long vacation. He’s been going to bed at 12:45 and waking up at 6:15 during that entire time. Here he is in a new, completely coherent review:

Mimumkuklumble. Hey everyone, Minthony Miktano here, with some new cuts by West Coast Trap-Influenced Crisphihatcore group Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden is asjdhifjnkfkgfghjfhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

(awesome drum intro)

AH! OKAY, I’M AWAKE!

I’m gonna be up front and just say that I don’t find Piece of Mind to be as vibrant or memorable as The Number of the Beast. That’s in large part due to the fact that Piece of Mind takes itself quite seriously, trying to push legitimate stories of epic mythology/anti-war/anti-religious establishment/anti-whatever, while largely losing that wonderful camp flavor. This doesn’t even have anything to do with my opinions of the sentiments themselves (didn’t stop me from loving Rust In Peace), just Iron Maiden’s almost total lack of writing adequacy approaching them. Have you TRIED reading the lyrics to “Sun and Steel”? Yeech! Too many clichés and limp prose all around.

The other major effect this has is that the songs are a bit more homogenous, as if trying to make a unified statement. The album doesn’t become BORING necessarily, but I do get a bit antsy near the end. There’s only so many tight, chugging rockers about myth and legend I can tolerate on one album. Basically, the songs on this album are, in their broadest possible strokes, mediocre and banal. With such a blueprint, it’s hard to imagine the songwriting and playing making much difference.

Wait, scratch that. The songwriting is great. And the playing isn’t just good, it’s mind-bustingly FANTASTIC. These strengths take an album that threatens to be a wishy-washy mess and elevate it to excellence. Even better, there’s nothing as horrific as the chorus to “Invaders.” That’s not to say this album is super-melodic, but the choruses are solid and the verses flow quite well. Take the awesome opener “Where Eagles Dare” for example: infectious and spontaneous turns of melody and energy, huge-sounding soloing, impeccable drumming, and a wonderfully catchy and legitimately epic chorus. The percussion on this track (and most of the album) is ridiculously fun to listen to, even more noticeable since this is apparently a new drummer. When was the last time you heard a drum riff this good?

Next is the slightly overlong but still enjoyable “Revelations”, mostly made enjoyable by some in-your-face power riffage and a few nice, melodic slower-paced parts. It’s very dynamic, even if that dynamic is very simple and wears out a bit by the end. “Flight of Icarus” is a weaker version of “Run to the Hills”, with a less memorable melody (though it’s maddeningly catchy anyway), but the emphasis on chugging has switched metaphorical focus from running to flying (and falling), which is a smart and musically enjoyable move. Despite being slightly less energizing, it’s still incredibly fun. “Die With Your Boots On” is the first major snag, with a really repetitive chorus and uninteresting melody (though the guitar work is still quite satisfying), but it’s negative impact is almost immediately erased by “The Trooper”, an awesome twin-guitar showcase with wonderful riffs and interplay aplenty. “Still Life” is alright, with effective playing and a simmering melody, but not a lot of pure power. “The Quest for Fire” has some really inane lyrics and underwhelming playing, but it’s too short to get seriously mad at, and features some neat soloing. The lyrics to “Sun and Steel” are even worse but the guitar interplay is incredibly fun. And hey, the chugging is back! “To Tame a Land” doesn’t touch the epic closer feel of “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, but builds satisfyingly enough.

Clearly I don’t have nearly as much to say about this album as I did Number of the Beast, but when all’s said and done I enjoy it about the same amount. It mellows out a bit on side two, but I would say the best stuff on here would easily fit on Number of the Beast. It also gets points for better technicalities; the solos are far better, the production is a bit cleaner, Dickinson’s vocals are even more jaw-dropping, all that stuff, so if you’re up on technically proficient NWOBHM this will probably be your Bible. It’s a bit too self-serious and samey to overtake Number of the Beast, but they can sit on the couch together and…I dunno, play DnD. I think they’d be into that.

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 2/5

Lyricism: 2/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 5/5 Cheat Commandos, rock rock on!

Experience: Your third-grade history teacher gets totally stoned on Greek mythology day and starts yelling about…I dunno, something. I’m in third grade, give me a break!

9/10. Best Song: Where Eagles Dare, I guess.