Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews, Swans

Swans – To Be Kind – Review

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Swans is unrealistically good.

After a couple run-throughs, that’s the best intro I can come up with. I’ve wanted to get back to writing proper album reviews for a long time now, and this album has always been at the top of the list, in no small part thanks to the fact that my last full written review was of the The Seer. But To Be Kind, as much as I love it (and let’s be clear, as of now it has a very secure place in my all-time top ten), is difficult to dissect in any meaningful way. You know the kind of review that’s really scant on detail because the subject is like “such an experience yo”? I’ve written a couple of those in my day. I refuse to let that happen with To Be Kind. It’s an insurmountable effort of an album that deserves a proper review, no matter how long it takes me to stop sobbing in the corner and actually write it.

So, uh, it’s been a while since I wrote a review, but I think background is the first stop. Swans started as a no-wave band, grew into post-punk or gothic rock or something, broke up, came back, and started making super long albums with an emphasis on repetitive groove-based melodies and constantly building grand instrumentation. Throughout their lifespan Michael Gira and co have jumped from genre to genre and style to style with the goal of finding the best possible way of communicating their epically scaled misanthropic dreariness. As such, it’s hard not to view any given Swans album as a kind of culmination of all that came before it, in aim if not in quality, which if nothing else makes Swans an eternally fascinating discography to study.

Thankfully, there is “something else”: Gira and co are the best in the business at making musical expressions of misanthropic dreariness. From the ear-defiling audio smog of Cop to the demonic hymns of Children of God to the gothic sweep of White Noise From The Mouth of Infinity to the indescribably broken mental soundscape of Soundtracks For The Blind, Swans is constantly keeping their fans on their toes and their ambition never falters. I can easily imagine disliking Swans, but I can never imagine not respecting them. Even as a person who tends to gravitate towards happier, idealistic music, Swans moves me in a way no other band really does, or even tries to, simply because they have the nerve to even TRY.

So here we go, 2014. Swans has been reunited for a few years now, with their 2012 album The Seer being lauded across the board. I’ve seen multiple people claim it as their favorite album of all time, which is impressive given how audience-alienating it can be. In my case, sometimes a bit TOO alienating, as not all of the grooves hit home runs or warranted their repetition, but it was nonetheless a stellar album that provided a cohesive and absorbing musical journey into the darkest depths reachable by human ears. There’s always something hiding in The Seer, always something looking at you. In fact, it’s probably chasing you, but you’ll never get a good look at it. It’s an inescapable pit of an album.

To Be Kind is the opposite in almost every way. This is a blindingly bright album, one that burns your eyes from prolonged exposure. The production and mixing are incredibly clean, making sure you can hear every note of guitar or piano or cello or synth or chorus or whatever. This choice often attracts derision from hardcore Swans fans, especially those who prefer their smoggy, brutal no-wave material, but I think it works perfectly. This album definitely gets under my skin, but it’s not some kind of creeping existential chill, it’s an awe-inspired rush of blood. I don’t think there’s a single piece of recorded music that shakes me more.

Well, let’s get to doing some things we do then. “Screen Shot” is a perfect opener. We kick off with a foreboding guitar groove played with shimmering, simmering tone, always feeling like it’s on the verge of exploding. In typical Swans fashion, it’s slowly joined by other elements, especially percussion, which ranges from light and pittering to deep and pounding to moderate and groovy. Gira enters with stream of consciousness style lyrics, with some foreshadowing (though it doesn’t tie into anything beyond surface-level as far as I can tell). Gira’s vocals on this album are just quivering with insanity. He sounds scathing, worn down, and like he could feasibly be coughing up acid in-between takes. It’s hard to even hear him as a person, at least not a living one. If a corpse could sing, it might sound like Michael Gira. I also love his echoing backing moans, which sound like they should be soundtracking Temple of Doom or something.

Another guitar line comes in, stretchy and crunchy at the same time. Possibly my favorite groove on the song is the ritualistic piano that comes in soon after, although that could just be my love for the instrument. Now that we’ve assembled the whole instrumental cast, all that’s left is to slowwwllly ratchet up the intensity over the next few minutes. A lot of this tension escalates in the increasing tempo of Gira’s vocals, which list all the things not present in this frozen moment. As he decides to choose the present over preserving the past (at least, I think that’s what’s happening? I don’t understand Swans lyrics at all) the instruments swirl beautifully into pure white wall of sound, which abruptly falls off at the end. Whew! At a measly eight minutes, and with a plethora of perfectly written grooves and a minimum of abrasiveness, this is one of the most accessible songs on the album, and I would say a good recommendation for those who are looking to get into Swans.

Not so much the next song, “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Bennet)”, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. Another unnerving backing drone, with timid percussion and a lethargic groove that must be heard to be believed. Seriously, I get it stuck in my head all the time when I’m tired. It tries to walk around and function normally, but just keeps thudding to the floor in infectious rhythm. Gira’s vocals have an odd, distant effect on them that feels like you’re hearing something while, once again, really tired. Fitting, as he calls for sleep in various locations of apparent safety. The groove doesn’t get any more energetic, but it does get louder and heavier, until suddenly it starts to evoke less lethargy and more standing in the shadow of a giant. Fitting, as Gira takes on a much-maligned nasal tone to tell us he’s just a little boy. I think the effect is just wrong enough that it works. Same for the incredibly unnerving “laugh track”, that really magnifies the feeling of isolation. Just you, that lumbering sleepy monster of a groove, and a distant crowd mocking your every action, with none of the potential escape or comfort of the first few minutes. Even the groove starts to pick up energy; it stops thudding and starts stamping, trying to weed out the insect currently listening to the album. The last three minutes or so bring in occasional bursts of pure buzzing force, and the effect gives me chills. Man, can you believe I thought this song was BORING the first few times I listened to this album? Now I wouldn’t lose a single one of its twelve minutes.

Well, if you still think that was boring, check out the next song, “A Little God In My Hands.” This thing is absolutely NASTY, and not just in the lyrics. It’s driven by a downright funky (!!!) in-your-face guitar groove that never ceases to make me headbop like mad. Gira groans disgustedly through the lyrics, which are about something I haven’t bothered to dissect. There’s an odd semi-echo effect on him that’s difficult to describe, and extremely offputting. And all of a sudden…BLAM. Dissonant, cacophonous wall of brass that sound like every player is emptying their entire lungs into their instruments. With virtually no buildup, it’s an unexpected, abrasive, amazing climax. Then an instrument I can’t identify but sounds like something stringy comes in with an additional groove, which is also amazing, catchy and complex at the same time. And some of that brass comes back for the backing drone! Gira is joined by a chorus singing ANOTHER incredible groove (I swear, there’s more and better grooves on any given song here then there are in some funk artists’ entire catalogues). It’s an absolute unpleasant, blood-curdling mess, grooves on top of grooves on top of grooves, instruments on top of instruments on top of instruments. It’s amazing.

Then we get to the big one. Ho boy. “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” seems to be everyone’s pick for best song on the album, and once upon a time I would have agreed, and though I don’t anymore it’s still an experience like no other. A shining, fluttering synth. Some distant crashing cymbals. A subdued, distorted drone of guitar feedback. MASSIVE SUDDEN MUSICAL ORGASM OF UNRELENTING DRUMS AND GUITARS. And that’s all in the first minute! It’s useless to try and describe the sound on this song. It’s so…pure. So endlessly cathartic. It feels like you’re being very painfully cleansed. Purified by the sun itself. The force pulls back, leaving you with the insurmountable drone. I’ll say it right now, it’s the best drone Swans have ever done. It IS a star. It feels like it should be powering something. It’s futuristic yet organic. Gira moans in complete awe of the spectacle, and a minor but beautiful guitar groove shyly pushes its way forward. Gira chants, like he’s in a ritual for worshipping the sun. The groove builds with him, throwing in occasional flourishes, especially on that lone guitar. The percussion kicks in, and I get giddy thinking about what’s coming. It arrives…a chorus chanting “SUUUUUUUUNNNNNN” in increasingly loud and intense fashion. And for about four minutes, it’s nothing but this chanting and the instrumentation getting louder and more powerful. I have no idea how they were able to keep it up for that long, but they did, and it’s nothing short of one the greatest musical experiences there is.

It climaxes and falls away, and with a rush of roaring, crunchy guitars we’re plunged into the second half of the song. After the piano-driven messy fallout of that incredible climax, we hear a saw cutting wood. A hammer hitting a nail. The voices of children. A horse. Gira’s pained, prolonged moans. That wonderful shimmering synth from earlier. Unnerving parts from guitars and strings. Another noisy climax! Whistles? A wonderful groovy bassline over the remaining drone. Gira screaming the name of some French dude and whatever other words strike his fancy. It is a bit stagnant, and as such not as amazing as “Bring The Sun”, but it’s still a sonically enveloping experience. Together, the thirty-four-minute pair would make a high contender for best Swans song if it wasn’t for another piece coming up in a second here.

Wrapping up Disc 1 is the much-needed breather of “Some Things We Do”, a five-minute string drone with Gira creepily listing off a bunch of largely primal, quintessentially human activities. It doesn’t build to much, but I’ll forgive that because of its short length, place in the tracklisting, and interesting lyrical premise. And hey, the groove is still catchy and unnerving! One disc in, and no song is short of amazing.

The same is definitely true of “She Loves Us”, the Disc 2 opener, my favorite song on the album, my favorite Swans song, and one of my favorite pieces of music EVER. This doesn’t even sound like a song, it feels like a thought experiment come to life: what is the most massive, visceral, absorbing piece of hypothetical music that could be made in a general rock framework?

After a brief skittering intro and a horn swell, we get the groove. THE groove. A groove that could melt through planets. The guitar and drum interplay is absolutely unassailable. Emphasizing the crushing heaviness is a chanting chorus with ANOTHER powerful groove. This soundscape is possibly my favorite on the album, it’s useless to try and explain the waves…nah, TSNUAMIS of sonic power that insist on pinning me down over and over with each repetition. Eventually it calms into a sea of chimes and feedback, drone mini-climaxes washing over. After that brief respite, we hit the meat of the song: a prolonged psychy, bluesy, crunchy, fuzzy freakout session. It’s long and exhausting, but so flavorful and entrancing. The guitars chug in absolute grandiosity. The drums are absolutely PUMMELING, matching the most powerful percussive moments on The Seer. Gira stoops to his most insane yelps yet. And eventually, we get the second best vocal groove in Swans history (behind only “Avatar”)…“Halleeeeluuuuiaaaaaah, Halleeeeluuuuiaaaaaah, Halleeeeluuuuiaaaaaah”…did I mention the freakout is STILL BUILDING?!? With occasional new sounds to add to the tangy chaos? This song absolutely enthralls me. It’s so primal, so human…so oddly beautiful in its chaos.

After that storm comes the calm of “Kristine Supine.” It’s gorgeous, without reservation. The quiet guitar line, the ethereal main groove of what I THINK is a synth, but it could just be a particularly bright guitar, even the vocal melody and delivery have a transcendent, divine tone to them. The swirling winds are a perfect fit as well. The main vocal repetition isn’t exactly interesting, but does break into a new groove of percussion and (OH YES) bells. The percussion is the main driving of the development this time, with its area of stompage becoming larger and larger. The backing drone starts to moan, and the bells hang in the back of the mix, always tolling in the distance. It’s somber, solemn, occasionally very pretty, and above all deeply moving.

It could not be more different from the wildly confrontational “Oxygen.” It gives “A Little God In My Hands” competition for the nastiest song here. Its catchy main guitar groove crunches like you wouldn’t believe, the drumming works into an untamable frenzy, and Gira goes COMPLETELY off the rails in his most disgusting and unrestrained vocals yet. There’s nothing quite to match that surprise horn explosion of “A Little God In My Hands”, but there’s no downtime either (besides which, some very off-kilter horn flourishes come in about halfway through). I cannot comprehend anyone listening to this song and not getting a huge rush from it. The album in general has an unmistakable free spirit, but this is the wildest and most animalistic it gets. And the constantly ascending momentum never gets old for eight minutes!

“Nathalie Neal” starts as a much more subdued, dark soundscape. More of that glorious chanting (which basically serves as the drone this time), beautiful silvery keyboards (?), chimes, and a lo-fi speech recording snippet that reminds me of Soundtracks For The Blind. It’s also quite lovely, with “Kristine Supine” and this making rather nice bread for the raw bleeding meat that is “Oxygen.” Like its fellow sandwich end, the building tension is largely introduced by escalating percussion, which isn’t terribly interesting but the soundscape is good enough that it’s still great.

At long last, the journey ends with the title track. The vocal melody and delivery have the cadence of a nursery rhyme, and work disturbingly well with the dark string drone and light keyboard/guitar groove. It has a transcendent feel to it, especially those magnificent building swells, receding and coming back, getting bigger and bigger each time, until eventually it’s all over. It’s not as memorable a finale as, say, the drum sequence on The Seer’s “Apostate”, but it’s a fitting and satisfying finale nonetheless.

This album is impossible. It’s unfair that Gira and co were able to make this. Music like this shouldn’t be within ANYONE’S reach, but here we are. It’s not my favorite album of all time, but it may be the most powerful THING ever recorded, at least if my tastes and experiences are the gauge. Like I said, initially I thought this wasn’t as good as The Seer, but as much of a great experience as that album is, it doesn’t leave me with the same feeling of having encountered something unknowable, something unattainable. I mean, just look at all the pretentious buzzwords in this review! They have to be fueled by SOMETHING.

Whelp, it’s good to be back. Momentarily.

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 5/5

SOUNDTRACK TO: a mass blood sacrifice to keep the sun alive. Or maybe the mind of a sensitive person. Depending.

10/10

Best Songs:

  1. She Loves Us
  2. Bring The Sun/ Toussaint L’Ouverture
  3. Screen Shot
  4. Oxygen
  5. Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)

Worst Song: None of them, they’re all 10/10 mindblowing. Okay, I guess “Kristen Supine” if you pushed me.

Listen here:

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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 Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Post – Review

Bjork-Post

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 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 Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews, The Cure

The Cure – Disintegration – Review

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I’ve been sitting here for probably about fifteen minutes trying to write the opening of this review, and the best I can come up with is a paraphrase of Derek Alexander:
This is the toughest review I’ve ever had to write because…I don’t want to write about it, I just wanna listen to Disintegration! I just wanna listen to it!

Yeah, that works.

So, The Cure! Right…uh…okay, I’m gonna level with you guys, I still have no idea how to write about this thing. I can tell you it’s amazing, and I love it, and it’s probably in my all-time favorites list, and if you haven’t heard it I heartily recommend you do…but I’m not sure I’m up to explaining why.

Disintegration is, in the broadest possible terms, a suite. It’s essentially one big song dragged out over twelve tracks, clocking in at an hour in sixteen minutes (though it sure feels a lot shorter), with little if any variation in overall sound. Emotional nuance finds its way between tracks occasionally, but essentially this is just a big tribute to romantic melancholy. Thick sheets of synth and dreamy distortion hang as backdrops for ethereal vocals and drowsy guitar, all hung on a skeleton of gorgeous melodies. There, I just described every song on the album. Review over!

Okay, that’s not exactly true. “Plainsong” is a fantastic opener, building in a way that’s common on the album but almost never as immaculately and powerfully realized. “Pictures of You” works with one of the best emotional ideas on the album, mixing creepy desperation with painful relatability. The hilariously badly named “Lovesong” is…well, one of the most effective self-deprecating love songs I’ve ever heard, with a cool snappy drum-and-organ part to make it feel surprisingly distinct among its company. “Fascination Street” goes so far as to legitimately rock, with a brilliantly handled menacing tone. “The Same Deep Water As You” is a full-blown atmospheric epic, with all the tragedy you could want from a song in that vein.

If I had to make an arbitrary call for the best song on this incredibly even album, I’d go for the incredibly powerful “Prayers for Rain”, whose desperation and anger pulses at an increasing rate throughout its length. It also features an amazing string riff that manages to be motivational, epic, and crushingly sad all at the same time.

I really do feel stupid for not having that much to say about this album, especially since I really do love it a lot. It’s emotionally vibrant, musically engrossing, and never gets boring for all its uniformity. It’s a gorgeous, sad, cathartic ride. Unfortunately that ride is a bit too samey to break down in the pieces necessary for the type of review I usually write. Honestly, Disintegration isn’t the type of album to read reviews about anyway. It’s a mood piece with a very specific part to play, and can be incredibly moving when you’re in the mood for it.

Well, that was underwhelming. I need something crazy and diverse. What’s next?

OOOOOHH A CAPTAIN BEEFHEART ALBUM! PERFECT!

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 2/5 It should probably be a 1/5 honestly, but +1 for not boring me.

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Staring into a well located on the top of a remote mountain, talking to your reflection about whatever the approaching storm clouds lead you to.

10+/10. Best Song: Prayers for Rain

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Debut – Review

Bjork-Debut

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I

CANNOT

>>>>>>BELIEVE<<<<<<

I NEVER LISTENED TO THIS BEFORE

Björk has been on my radar for a while, for a couple mostly speculation-related reasons. I like famously unrestrained auteurs (as anyone who has heard me gush about Frank Zappa will attest), and I’ve always felt uncomfortable about how little women are represented in my musical listening habits. No more!

The feeling I got listening to Debut is the same feeling I got listening to We’re Only In It For The Money, specifically “Okay, so the music itself is pretty good, but this artist’s personality is FANTASTIC! I feel like I’ve been spending the album’s runtime getting personally acquainted with them! I need to listen to everything with their name on it RIGHT NOW!”

Thankfully for my sanity, Björk’s catalogue is far smaller than Frank Zappa’s, so I actually have a chance of hearing everything she’s recorded within the next decade. I’ll let you know how this musical ride goes as I go through it, but for now, we’re left with Debut. That’s cool with me.

It’s hard to describe what exactly clicked with me about this album so quickly, but rest assured it has everything to do with Björk herself. The most noticeable thing about her is, of course, her voice. Her vocal style is less about carrying a vocal melody and more about throwing in unpredictable, bizarre, and often downright gorgeous affectations. It’s a stage-like philosophy, but I’ve never heard anyone take it so far. Her vocal frills and mini-riffs are filled with vibrant personality, believable emotion, and winking humor. Even better, her incredible versatility never gets in the way of the actual hooks. These are solid pop songs that worm their way into your brain, provided you like weirdness in your pop music (which I do).

Not that most of the production is abrasively bizarre or anything, just unusual enough to be memorable. It draws heavily from the European house scene of the time, and while it will probably grate on those who don’t like 90s electronic, I found it to be engaging all the way through. I’ll name more specific examples in a bit, but generally the production has the same air of bizarre whimsy created by Björk herself.

And let’s FINALLY get to that. Björk’s sheer presence on this album, both in unity and diversity, is enough to make me give it a perfect score. George Starostin described her as a “pixie”, and as much as I’ve tried I just can’t come up with a better description. Sure, on a basic level, you could just leave it at the fact that she’s absolutely adorable here, but where’s the fun in that (though for the record, this is one of the most squee-inducing albums I’ve ever heard)? Yeah, she’s cute and shy and naïve and giddy and all that stuff, but she’s also a mighty singer with a sharp, snarky sense of humor and a commanding charisma. Her delivery and writing are absolutely engrossing here, and it makes the album much more colorful than most 90s electronica albums.

Her vibrancy makes for a ton of memorable moments. The initial four-song stretch, for example, is pretty much perfect. “Human Behaviour”, besides adding fuel to the “Björk is actually an alien” theories, has her dynamically soaring through a memorably twisted melody, complete with a surprisingly dark synth part underlying the second half. “Crying” is just one brilliant section after another. It’s somewhat haphazard as a whole, but the individual effectiveness of the glistening intro, sharply pronounced verses, atmospheric pre-chorus, emotive chorus, and abrasive post-chorus can’t be denied. “Venus as a Boy” is far lovelier then the concept of “music version of the cover art for a steamy romance novel” should allow it to be, mostly thanks to Björk’s intoxicating delivery and the decadent arrangement. “There’s More To Life Than This” is just a gob-smackingly brilliant “party” song, for reasons that I don’t even need to try and describe because if you’ve heard it even once you know what I’m talking about.

Nothing else on the album equals that initial stretch, but it’s still great. “Like Someone In Love” relies on nothing but a minimalist arrangement and Björk’s voice, and it’s a testament to how captivating they are that it works. “Big Time Sensuality” is essentially a straight-faced dance song, except with Björk singing and a wonderfully fun melody (I haven’t discussed the songwriting much on this album, since it tends to get overshadowed by the way it’s delivered, but rest assure it’s great). I’ve been trying to come up with a description of “One Day” for the last five minutes, and the best I can come up with is “deeply syrup-ily atmospheric.” “Aeroplane” continues the atmosphere in a mystically exotic direction, albeit with occasional intrusions by Zappa-like wacko jazz stuff and Björk’s vocals at their most “place-taking.” “Come To Me” is so warm, human, and just plain adorable that it almost feels like a thesis for the entire album, even if it doesn’t sound like most of it. “Violently Happy” is a bit of a tossoff, but fun and resonant while it lasts. “The Anchor Song” is an interesting arrhythmic experiment, a strange ending to the album but one with a bizarrely twisted kind of beauty.

My gut feeling is to give this album a transcendent score, add it to my personal top 10, and move on. But since I’m now absolutely fixated on hearing everything Björk has ever put out, I’ll hold off on it until I’m more fully aware of this album’s quality within the larger context of her career and output. Still, no promises I won’t come back to this one bump it up to a 10+. This is the most lovable album I’ve heard in a long, long, LONG time.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 4/5 It’s less about the actual words and more about how they’re sung, but they’re still pretty great for the most part.

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Having your dreams haunted by a mischievous sprite after a long night of partying. Like, the kind of sprite who outright TELLS you that you’re asleep and that it’s like 7:30 AM and you’re supposed to be going to work now.

10/10 (for now). Best Song: I honestly have no idea. Any of the first four, I guess.

8/15/16 EDIT: Yup, this is definitely a 10+, and my favorite album of Björk’s for sheer personality.

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

Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden – Review

Who missed me?* I’ve got another trip at the end of next week, but that leaves us with two very special weeks of me existing on your dashboard. Yay!

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Ah yes, Spirit of Eden. That scrumptious work that laid down the foundations of post-rock through the guise of not only the more traditional art pop the group was known for, but minimalist jazz. An endlessly weaving tapestry that not only completes itself by its own existence but slips through the sands of time unchanged, as timeless as music can be. A deeply spiritual experience, a barrage of intense fervor simmering under the lid of professional restraint and understated beauty. A work melancholy if any deserves the word, a musically transcendent piece of pure distilled…

Actually you know what screw that. I’m not good at this stuff, and this album is too modest to be described in such superlatives as are often associated with it. I can get behind a lot of those superlatives, but ultimately the most striking thing about Spirit of Eden to me is its humility. A lot of post-rock (and artsy music in general) sets out with the goal of dragging you right through an intense experience, leaving you with the impression that you’ve just experienced something divine, or nearly so. My favorite of these (at least of what I’ve listened too) is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, a well-deserved classic that shook me in a way nothing else in the genre thus far has been able to replicate.

Spirit of Eden, on the other hand, is shy. It’s not about experiencing divinity; it’s about admiring it from a distance with timid reverence, never daring to approach it. Any hints of that greater experience are brief and not fully realized. It’s a LANDSCAPE album, one that works in space rather than feeling or time.

If you know anything about my taste in music, it would seem from this description that I wouldn’t appreciate this album because of how distant it is. It’s true that I would probably rather be swept away than quietly sit down to watch the stars, but I try to make my open-mindedness as close to a universal principle as good taste will let me. No term that can be taken as an objective description should be used as a criticism unless my experience was so adverse it cannot be taken otherwise. These include such popular pejoratives as “weird,” “slow,” “immature,” “overexposed,” “saccharine,” and yes, “distant.”

But Mr. Miniiiiiikkkeee! Wasn’t that the main reason Spiderland didn’t click with you?

Why yes, person who has so little of a life that they actually keep track of my opinions. Here’s the difference: Spiderland is clinical (which IS an acceptable pejorative by me, albeit a heavily subjective one), Spirit of Eden is human. Its melancholy is effective because of its warmth, however far away the hearth might be. If you call Spirit of Eden cold, you need to get your ears checked.

Now that I’ve completed my dare to write five paragraphs of an album review without discussing the actual music, let’s discuss the actual music. It’s a minimalist album, but it’s the most layered and lush minimalist album I’ve ever heard. The slow opening notes of “The Rainbow”, shifting between several instruments, give an instant gauge as to a potential listener’s enjoyment. If you’re not taken by the guitar entrance at the two and a half minute mark, you probably won’t be taken by anything else on the album. The album’s overall theme of yearning is complimented very well by the compositional style: every note hits, but leaves mountains unsaid. Blowing everything up to epic proportions wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as the slow, gorgeous melodies dipping up and down before eventually fading. “The Rainbow” is the longest and most desperate example of this, with jarring guitar lines popping up when they’re least expected.

“Eden”, on the other hand, is pure bliss. It glows and flows, like a lethargic stream. It’s comforting and nourishing, even viscerally satisfying with its shimmering intensification at the five minute mark, like the stream has opened into a waterfall. “Desire” snatches away the momentary happiness for stark melancholy, and the result is like a slow-motion drowning, complete with shining organ and incredibly jarring chorus that only serves to push hope down further. The piano leads you out into ambiguous relief, or perhaps deeper despair.

These first three songs (AKA the first side) are a complete unit on their own, and in all honesty the album could have stopped there. The second side is doomed to pale in comparison, especially since it’s more pop then ambient, but thankfully it’s still brilliant. The hooks are a lot more visible and muscled here, in order to make Talk Talk’s ambience experiment at least somewhat commercially viable, and the songwriting is solid if not immaculate. “Inheritance” rises and falls in an artistic prelude to Godspeed-style “crescendocore” post-rock, albeit in a much more restrained way. “I Believe In You” is breathtaking, an ethereal-yet-earthy reflection on overcoming substance abuse strengthed by the true story of Mark Hollis’ own triumph over heroin. The contemplatively complete finally “Wealth” relies perhaps a bit too much on repeated chords, but generally brings effective closure to Hollis’ semi-spiritual journey.

Spirit of Eden is one of those “magical” albums for many people, including me, and smothering it in hyperbolic praise is all too easy once it gets to you (a trap I fell into when I first listened to Skinny Fists). I must recommend this album, to do anything otherwise would be wrong, but don’t read about my or anyone elses’ super-emotional experience with it and go in expecting the same. Let it carve out your own experience. Walk through Eden at your own pace.

Ahhh…it’s good to be back. Now for another metal album or something.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 5/5 I have never wanted to put a 6/5 more than now.

Experience: “And now please rise for our opening hymn, uh…‘In the Garden of Eden’ by I. Ron Butterfly.”

10+/10. Best Song: Eden

*(no one)

Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

Nas – Illmatic – Review

HIP HOP WEEK #3

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I always say I have a hard time getting into hip-hop because I don’t find its common strokes of gangsters, deep urban life, sex, drugs, and general grittiness to be that interesting. I was pleasantly surprised by the incredibly unique takes on the genre found on Enter The Wu Tang (36-Chambers) and The Low End Theory, but they didn’t blow my mind. So, what would be the hip-hop album that WOULD blow my mind? One about gangsters, deep urban life, sex, drugs, and general grittiness.

I really don’t understand hip-hop at all.

So yeah, Illmatic is pretty much amazing, for one major reason: I find it really satisfying emotionally. It’s not even because I can relate to it (I’m one of the whitest people I know and grew up in a very rual area), but because Nas is such an incredibly engaging storyteller. His voice and flow are reminiscent of someone casually chatting your ear off, spicing his rants with vivid imagery, a sharp vocabulary, and starkly human honesty. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” is so colorful that it sweeps me away every time I listen to it. “Life’s a B—-” features an amazing defeatist guest verse from AZ before Nas rounds it out with a hint of hope by maturing his life philosophy. “One Love” is a series of letters to friends in prison, balancing some genuinely good encouragement and advice with horrific details of prison life.

Wow, I just started listing off highlights without even talking about the beats. They’re excellent, featuring some of the most hard-hitting atmosphere I’ve ever heard come out of a studio. The samples, piano, occasional sound effects, and thick echoing envelop the listener in a brutal New York city where the only way to survive is to NOT behave like a stereotypical rapper.

The best part of the album is how tight it is. Clocking in at a little under forty minutes with only ten tracks (one of which is a short intro), the album never loses momentum. I limited myself when talking about highlights earlier, because every song is a highlight. I didn’t even touch some of the more immortal, famous classics like “N.Y. State of Mind” or “Represent”, but rest assured they’re powerful anthemic statements. Ahhh, dangit, every song is great! Why do most hip-hop albums have to pad their length with unnecessary guest verses, skits, or singles that feel more chorus than verse? GAAAH THIS ALBUM IS FANTASTIC.

I’m sorry for the extremely short, scattershot review, but I’d really rather not write right now. I’d rather listen to Illmatic. In the bathtub or something. If you’ve had a wee bit prior experience with hip-hop and don’t mind vulgarity, I see no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Walking around New York with your chatty ex-con friend.

10+/10. Best Song: I have no idea.

Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews, The Zombies

The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle – Review

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Of all the critical “reclassic-ifications” in recent years, Odyssey and Oracle is the one I see come up the most. It usually happens in tiresome “Screw Sergeant Pepper and Pet Sounds, I have this semi-obscure baroque pop masterpiece to keep me company!” discussions that only serve to make contrarians feel good about themselves.

Regardless, I remained intrigued by this album despite bad associations with its more rabid fans. I like baroque pop and psychedelic pop, and the combination seemed a good one. As I finally sat down to listen to it, I agreed with that supposition. I heard a bunch of simple, piano-driven pop songs that average out at pretty dang good overall. Not any kind of towering achievement, but a perfectly enjoyable, harmless listen.

I stand before you ready to sing the praises of Odyssey and Oracle as one of, if not the best pop album I’ve ever heard. Yes, more than Pet Sounds. What I initially regarded with dismissive enjoyment I now see as a heavenly collection of brilliant melodies and heart-fiddling lyrics.

I don’t mean to imply that Odyssey and Oracle is inaccessible, or even a “grower” in the traditional sense. All its major strengths are in plain sight: catchy hooks, pretty backing, nice lyrics. Technically, that’s all there is, but looking deeper into WHY those things work makes them deeply rewarding.

The opener, “Care of Cell 44”, is a good example of how satisfying this album is. The melody sticks in the head, like any good piece of 60s pop by the Hollies or Kinks or someone similar. The backing is a bouncy piano, some occasional strings, and a fun chorus. A casual examination of the lyrics during a music-focused listen reveal some pleasant “yay, my loved one is coming back” elaborations.

But for reasons I haven’t quite nailed down, it’s so much more. The melody swings and swells with a beauty and complexity only rarely matched by the Zombies’ contemporaries. The arrangement is upbeat, but carries hints of melancholy reminiscent of Pet Sounds. And the lyrics…well, they’re about meeting a loved one after they just left prison. It can be either hilarious or heartwarming depending on how you want to look at it.

And that’s not even the best song on the album! That would be the most jaw-droppingly perfect exemplification of bliss ever, “Hung Up on a Dream.” It’s difficult to describe why this song works other than resorting to the lazy “JUST LISTEN TO IT” tactic, but holy snap. The fittingly psychedelic atmosphere drips like musical honey all over the deeply melodic strings and percussion, not to mention a simple but breathtaking piano solo at the end. The lyrics, about being mesmerized by a paradise-like dream you just woke up from, are some of the most evocative and engaging on the album.

Other highlights include the heartbreaking piano tune “A Rose for Emily”, the humbly melancholy but surprisingly contented “Maybe After He’s Gone” (boasting one of the best hooks on an incredibly hooky album), the darkly but beautifully nostalgic “Beechwood Park”, the blissful Mindbenders cover “I Want Her She Wants Me”, and of course the big hit “Time of the Season”, which droops groovy psychedelia over a fantastically wistful melody. Oh screw it, almost every song is a highlight, as they all share similar strengths: strong songwriting, beautiful arrangements, soothing vocals, deeply resonant lyrics, and an unmistakable mood of paradise-like bliss.

How in the name of Geddy Lee did I miss all this the first time? Probably because I have a tendency to underestimate pop music in general, and my modern ears often take softening to 60s stuff. No more! Allow me to proclaim from the highest ocean-adjacent cliff I can find to any and all sleeping cruise passengers and 3 AM fishermen: “ODYSESSY AND ORACLE RULES!”

Oh, and the album cover is one of the best ever. Ya’ know, just in case you don’t have eyes.

Music: 5/5 Can’t I put more than 5?

Thematic Content: 5/5 

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Finally making it to El Dorado! I mean, there’s a lot of relationship problems, but it’s still El Dorado.

10+/10 (duh). Best Song: Hung Up on a Dream