Category Archives: Music

“Wouldn’t stop it if we could it’s a hood thing”

2Pac-Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

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$8.39 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: A handful of classics and some other good songs, improved production from his first album

Cons: Repetitive in spots, not as good as Me Against The World.

(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

Tupac Shakur is easily one of the most widely debated characters ever in the history of popular music. Brilliant MC or overrated average one who simply got elevated to the level he did because there were bullets in Vegas with his name on them? A good argument can be made for both sides. Was he the greatest MC ever? The G O A T? No way. His flow wasn’t always the best and his rhyming could be off at times. Plus there were times where his lyrics could be a tad too generic. Even his rival Notorious BIG was a better MC. But was Tupac talented. He certainly was.

But I came here to praise the fallen brother and my personal favorite album by him: 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Notice I said personal favorite. This does not mean that it is his best (that honor goes to 1995’s Me against the World, which has better production and songs). But it does mean that it is the one Tupac disc I would take to a desert island.

Strictly was Tupac’s second album after 1991’s 2pacalypse Now. That album spun off a couple minor hits with “Trapped” and the poignant teenage pregnancy number “Brenda’s got a Baby”. That album was inconsistent, yet the good moments (including the aforementioned singles) showed that there was talent at work.

Strictly represents a major improvement. There’s more stand-out songs here and the production, while still inconsistent and not that distinguished, has gotten better, pointing in the direction he would take on his next two albums.

At the time it was released, Strictly was one of the angriest rap albums on the market. The fact that it managed to come out on the heels of Ice Cube’s The Predator and Paris’s Sleeping With The Enemy and beat both in terms of pure fury should offer some indication as to how pissed off Tupac was.

And he had good reason to be angry. At the time of the album’s release, he had come off of some run-ins with the police; specifically the Oakland PD. Plus there was also the matter of being attacked by then VP-notorious misspeller Dan “Potatoe” Quayle. Apparently VP Potato Head felt that the lyrical content of 2Pacalypse had inspired a Texas 19-year old to shoot and kill a state trooper. That was later proven false. But Quayle went on TV and pronounced the album as having “no place in our society” and demanded that it be pulled off of record store shelves. This was of course around the same time that Mr. Potato Head went after Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. But I digress.

Strictly opens with the hard-hitting “Holler If Ya Hear Me” Complete with a sample from George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”, this song announces that Tupac’s back and it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. This song has a high level of energy that will get you moving and the lyrics show off his toughness quite well. No, the punk police will not fade him. This is one of his more forgotten ones (why it got left off his “Greatest Hits” I’ll never know) that should be better known.

After the skippable interlude “Pac’s Theme”, we continue on with Tupac taking the finger pointed at him and flipping it right back at his detractors in “Point The Finger”. In fact, that’s the prominent theme of this album, Tupac taking on everyone who tried to keep him down and showing them that he’s never going down.

Highlights in that regard include “Souljah’s Revenge”, the excellent Ice Cube-Ice-T collaboration “Last Wordz” and parts of the all-star jam closing track “5 Deadly Venomz”.

Lest you think this album is all unbridled rage at cops and the government, guess again. There are moments of genuine vulnerability scattered throughout the album. On “The Streetz R Deathrow” (not a reference to the label) he reflects on the hellish aspects of growing up in the inner city over a Barry White Sample. “Papa’z Song” is an angry rant at the absentee father he barely knew that lets you feel the pain of parental abandonment.

Then there’s “Keep Ya Head Up”. One of Tupac’s most emotionally affecting songs, this ode to black women shows off the caring side of Shakur the best. Over a slow funk sample, he warns his fellow men against mistreating women and offers encouragement to the single mothers and women on welfare. If you ever have someone claim that rap is all nihilistic violence and misogyny, have them listen to this song. Along with “Dear Mama” it is probably Tupac at his most vulnerable.

On the other side of the equation, there’s “I Get Around”, which shows off the other side of Tupac: the player side. Easily the most purely fun song on this grim album, this one will always sound great at a party. Yet it also works as a study in contradictions: in the last song discussed he was urging that women be treated with respect, here he’s treating them as sex objects.

Not to say that Strictly is strictly perfect. There are a couple of forgettable tracks (“Peep Game” and “Guess Who’s Back”). Some of the themes (bad cops, censorship, and bad government) do get repetitive at times. Also, the two unnecessary interludes should’ve been ditched.

Those complaints aside, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z works well as Tupac’s toughest, angriest album. It’s better than the under produced 2Pacalypse and the filler cluttered All Eyez On Me (although that one is better produced). It may be harder to find these days. But it’s definitely worth the search.

One of the two perfect and nearly unmatched metal masterpieces. 100%

From all the things I’ve learned in life so far, time is one of the ultimate tests in determining the lasting value of a piece of art or entertainment. Morbid Angel’s debut album “Altars of Madness” came out in 1989, and to this day, many death metal fans across the globe still consider this one of the greatest albums the death metal genre has to offer. The time not only relates to this album’s release, but the time relative to my own experiences have helped me conclude it’s essentially perfect.

As of writing this, it’s been nearly 11 years since I decided to become a proper metalhead, and this month marks 10 years since I bought and first listened to Morbid Angel’s “Altars of Madness.” I remember first getting this album vividly. I was a few months away from graduating high school, and especially relative to now, I was still pretty young as a metalhead. I popped this album in my car’s CD player on my way home from the local FYE and was floored by the sheer quality of songwriting, aggression, flashy musicianship, and sheer evil oozing from the music.

In that decade plus, I’ve digested tons of different metal albums from all the different niches under the heavy metal umbrella, and while there’s been a good amount that came close to matching this Tampa death metal classic, only one has matched this album in terms of quality (that honor belongs to the Nocturnus album “The Key”), and none have beaten it.

MUSICIANSHIP

If the musicianship on this album isn’t perfect, it’s as close as it’ll ever get. At the time this album came out, the death metal genre was gradually evolving into its own genre and not feeling as much like a more extreme offshoot of the thrash metal genre (examples of such “death thrash” albums being the likes of Kreator’s “Pleasure to Kill” and Sepultura’s “Morbid Visions”). “Altars of Madness” still displays some thrash influences, but also seamlessly fuses the blastbeat fury of the grindcore genre that was taking its own shape around the same time (best exemplified by albums like Napalm Death’s “Scum” and Unseen Terror’s “Human Error”). Combine the thrash influences with grindcore aggression and occult themes, out comes an album that obliterates anything in its path all the while displaying top-tier musicianship.

David Vincent handles the bass and vocal work on this album, and according to some sources, David had a cold at the time he was recording vocals for the album, and was forced to cranking out more raspy death metal vocals rather than lower-pitched growls. If that’s true, then I’m glad he was sick at the time because I can’t imagine this album being as awesome as it really is with different death growls. The raspy growls in this album perfectly match the tone of the guitars, as they enhance the nefarious atmosphere engrained in the instrumentation, and he’s largely intelligible in his vocal work. His bass lines aren’t as prominent in the album as they would be in an Atheist album (another band all death metal fans should check out), but they’re noticeable enough and they bolster the guitar riffs very well. However, listeners are treated to a neat bass solo at around the 2:04 mark of “Suffocation,” showing David’s skill on the instrument.

Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle are the two guitarists on this album, and both deliver top-notch riffs and guitar solos. Trey and Richard are talented in all the right ways; they can not only deliver mind-blowing guitar solos (particularly Trey), but they crank out catchy and fast, hard-hitting guitar riffs that’ll be stuck in your head for days. Their riffs are dynamic but at the same time, complement each other perfectly. Most of the songs have a perfect blend of slow and fast riffs (such as opening song “Immortal Rites”) while some others specialize in a narrower range of tempos (such as “Bleeding for the Devil” being an outright high-speed massacre and album closer “Evil Spells” being a mid-paced crusher). Both Trey and Richard dish out some of the coolest guitar solos you’ll hear in a metal album. Granted, they’re not quite as proficient shredders as Tony MacAlpine or Chuck Schuldiner, but they’re titan forces to be reckoned with in this department. Some of the best solos can be found in songs like “Chapel of Ghouls,” “Damnation,” “Visions from the Dark Side,” and “Suffocation,” but all of the songs on this album have excellent delivery on all aspects.

Pete Sandoval handles the drums on this album, and there’s a reason why so many metalheads consider him one of the best drummers in death metal; this man is a beast!! Pete delivers a nearly unparalleled massacre of the kit all the while not missing a single beat. Granted, many death metal bands nowadays have drummers that can outdo Pete in sheer technicality, but Pete is better because he actually has wits on how to make the songs good with his drumming. He’s fast and technical, but will vary the tempo and show some restraint in all the right places so that the listener can actually memorize and appreciate his excellent skills. All of the songs are excellent displays of Pete’s drumming skills, but I think his best work is on the song “Blasphemy.”

SONGS

Normally, I’d pick out the best songs here, but that’s an impossible task. All of the songs here are amazing from head to toe. All of the songs have their own nuances that make them killer in their own way, like the opening backwards riffing and chilling keyboards highlighting the breakdowns in “Immortal Rites,” the choppy, blasting fury and bass solo in “Suffocation,” the epic breakdowns in “Maze of Torment” and “Chapel of Ghouls” (with the latter being tastefully accentuated with keyboards), the occult ritual of the Ancient Ones in “Lord of All Fevers and Plagues” reengineered into a death metal format, the blastbeat-laden onslaughts of “Bleed for the Devil” and “Damnation,” the opening gunshots followed by a salvo of high-speed brutality in “Blasphemy,” and the blast of fury in the otherwise slower album closer “Evil Spells.” Name a song, and you’ll find plenty of awesome sonic elements to love in each and every one of them.

PRODUCTION

Tom Morris produced this album, and this was recorded at Morrisound Recording, which has become synonymous with the death metal rush of the late 80’s/early 90’s. The staff at Morrisound did an excellent job producing the album, as the instruments and vocals all come in clear. However, there’s a strong air of roughness that pervades the recording, all the while not making anything in the recording sound like crap. This greatly enhances the evil nature of the music and lyrics.

MISCELLANEOUS

As the icing on the cake, Dan Seagrave was contracted to make the cover art for the album. I’m glad it panned out that way because Dan’s extremely detailed painting of tormented, creepy, ghoulish faces perfectly matches the extremely aggressive and nefarious music contained in this album. Dan has cranked out many awesome album covers for the top-tier death metal bands back in the day, but this is one of his greatest works.

If you’re a fan of the horror anime Doomed Megalopolis, I would recommend listening to this album after watching that OVA series because the tone of the music perfect matches the tone of the anime.

FINAL WORD

I almost never give out 100% ratings, so this should give you an indication of how excellent this album is. If you’re a death metal fan or if you’re thinking of breaking into extreme music and haven’t gotten this album yet, GET IT NOW!! You won’t regret it at all.

Art Without Pretension

Revolver-The Beatles

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$12.89 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Maybe the greatest album ever.

Cons: Nada.

(Note: Review originally appeared on Epinions)

Around the beginning of the 2000s VH1 did a listing of the greatest albums of all-time. The number one pick was Revolver by The Beatles.

Is it the greatest of all-time? Better than Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue? That can be legitimately debated. Is it the greatest of all the Beatles albums? Close to it (other contenders for that title include Abbey Road, A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul). I’m not going to talk about its immediate follow-up right now. I’ll get to it eventually*.

In 1966, the Beatles were evolving so fast that it was probably hard for people to keep up with them. They’d debuted with Please Please Me, built on that with With The Beatles, matured with A Hard Day’s Night, paid their dues with Beatles For Sal, started to embrace the songwriting of Dylan with Help and embraced full maturity while still rocking out on Rubber Soul. So where to go from there.

The result was an album that would elevate rock and roll to the level of art, one that would start a revolution in music. That album was…

Revolver.

At this point, if you own the album, I’d suggest putting it on whether you have it on vinyl, tape, CD, Ipod or whatever. Let those sounds wash over you.

And if you don’t own it, get yourself a copy as soon as possible.

Listen as the album opens with the George Harrison penned and sung “Taxman”. Listen to the count in we hear at the beginning and the sound of Paul McCartney clearing his throat. Listen as the springing groove starts which works perfectly as a contrast to Harrison’s lyrics which are some of the best anti-government ones ever set to music. Catchy rebellion that rocks.

A modern standards follows in McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”. Aside from Paul’s singing, none of the Beatles played on it. But unlike most corporate rock bands that would use this approach and sound soulless and overproduced, this one still sounds fresh. The scraping cellos and violins sync perfectly with Paul’s resigned singing and the lyrics which depict a dire portrait of suburban loneliness. To illustrate how well the music works here listen to the strings only version on The Beatles Anthology II. If Paul had remained silent throughout the whole song his point would have come across.

The feeling also comes to the forefront on John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. The song has the feel of being asleep. But not a drowsy feeling: One more of resting peacefully.

Feeling is also evoked on the brilliant “She Said She Said” the finest song on the album and my personal all-time greatest Beatles song. Over a ringing guitar groove inspired by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds Lennon sings lyrics about an acid trip he and the other Beatles went on in LA, along with Peter Fonda. The lyrics though are universal “She said you don’t understand what I said I said no no no you’re wrong/When I was a boy everything was right”. I remember writing them on the back of my English notebook in 12th grade.

Almost as effective is McCartney’s “For No One”. The slow minimalist backing on here works perfectly well with McCartney’s lyrics which depict a collapsing relationship. Likewise the love song “Here There And Everywhere” perfectly captures the feelings of being in love and does not fall victim to the mawkishness that would drown many of McCartney’s post Beatles songs.

George Harrison makes his first full on foray (after contributing some sitar to “Norwegian Wood” the previous year) into Eastern music with “Love You To”. The lyrics seem to depict an Eastern view of love and they succeed. One of the lesser ones on Revolver. But the lesser ones here are better than the top songs on many albums.

Another relatively lesser one is “McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine”. It may seem lightweight compared to the rest of the album. But the sing along chorus doesn’t want to make one vomit and it’s an entertaining ditty. Likewise the McCartney penned Ringo Starr sung “Yellow Submarine” perfectly evokes childhood innocence. Easy enough for kids to learn yet still fun enough for adults to enjoy as well.

Harrison’s “I Want To Tell You” is bouncy with lyrics about communication or lack thereof. Lennon gives us an ode to a drug dealer with “Dr. Robert” which innocently draws you in while not hiding the subject matter and the somewhat humorous “And Your Bird Can Sing”. Both are great.

But let’s focus on the two closing songs on the album. First up, McCartney’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”. Lyrically it’s well-done with it’s story of being alone, taking a ride and meeting someone. But the music is beyond that. The horns on here give the song a pure soulful feel. In fact, it sounds funky at times (Ironically Earth Wind And Fire’s pretty great cover would have more of a jazz sound (I say ironic given as EW&F were a funk band themselves and the Beatles version sounded more funky).

To cap off the album we have Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. If “She Said” was inspired by an acid trip, this one sets out to bring the experience home to the listener. Does it do it? It sure does. From the sound effects which open it to the distortion on Lennon’s vocals, everything here meshes perfectly. You feel sucked right into it and come out spent but happy.

With Revolver, The Beatles reached a peak of sorts. It was this album, not Sgt Pepper, that helped elevate rock to the level of art. It was this, not Sgt Pepper, that tore down the constraints of rock and pop. It was this album that showed the Beatles at their artistic peak.

*So why am I ranking it ahead of Sgt Pepper? First off all, it’s musically superior and more diverse. The other reason is harder to articulate. But I’ll try.

There are some people who believe that Pepper nearly killed rock and roll, that it elevated things to a level of pretentiousness we’ve been unable to escape from. I won’t say Pepper did that directly. But consider this quote from an NME article:

“We can look beyond the blues as a blueprint!’ It ushered in a new way of thinking for bands – for the first time, they didn’t have to worry about recreating things live. ”

Sgt Pepper in some ways was the first rock and roll album to have no blues elements at all. No, I’m not saying it needed BB King on slide guitar and harmonica playing from the Beatles. What I mean is that it lacked the spontaneity that drives the best blues, best rock, best soul, best jazz, best hip-hop. It replaced it with an overly processed sound that lacked feeling. If “Eleanor Rigby” perfectly evoked the ache of loneliness, “When I’m 64” comes off like nothing more than an attempt to make a piece of English Music Hall theater.

Sgt Pepper didn’t kill rock. But the overly processed formula it introduced almost did. It opened the door for abominations like ELP, Kansas, Styx and numerous others (Jethro Tull is excused as Aqualung is a fantastic album). It took the arrival of punk and new wave to help pull it out of that rut. Sure there are certain groups that have done experimental rock since then and have succeeded brilliantly ranging from The Flaming Lips to Wilco to Green Day, to Arcade Fire to Company Flow to Outkast. But they still manage to bring way more of an edge and still keep the spontaneity. In fact, the influence of Revolver is felt more in the experimental and indie music worlds today than Pepper is. Hence why it’s the better and more influential album.

An Auspicious Debut for Sure, but Also a Mixed Bag: Alvvays’s 2014 Self-Title

ALVVAYS

by Alvvays

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See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: “Archie, Marry Me” is one of 2014’s best tunes, and the album is, for the most part, peppy and appealing

Cons: Last four tracks are barely more than filler

I’ve often found it remarkable how many excellent music groups hail from Canada. For a period in the mid-2000s, it seemed like every band whose album I picked up, from Arcade Fire to Broken Social Scene, to Death From Above 1979 and numerous others, hailed from the Great White North, with many of them having received grant money from the Canadian government to help in the production of their work. This trend has only continued in the years since, and one of the latest Canadian exports to make an impact in the music scene is the five-piece Alvvays (pronounced “always”). Having made a name for itself at 2014’s South by Southwest Festival, the group had become a genuine sensation by the next year, playing a seemingly endless string of shows during the music portion of 2015’s event. This should hardly have been a surprise to anyone paying attention, since Alvvays’s self-titled debut, which released in July 2014, had risen to #1 on the College charts, producing four singles along the way.

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Built around the super-smooth vocals of lead singer and guitarist Molly Rankin (who’s joined in the band by fellow guitarist Alec O’Hanley, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, bassist Brian Murphy and drummer Phil MacIsaac), Alvvays has a bright, indie pop sound combining the crisp guitar melodies with hard-driving basslines and hazy keyboard. Rankin’s typically clean vocals soar over everything, clearly the focal point of each and every track here, and her lyrics often have a playful naughtiness which gives these songs an edge over other groups’ more entirely saccharine offerings. Opening track “Adult Diversion,” the album’s first single, gives the listener a good idea of what’s to come: with chugging bass and straight-ahead drumming, the song is chipper and danceable, building to a joyous chorus. The lyrics find Rankin imagining various potential relationships during a weekend getaway from college that features cocktails and some “inappropriate” behavior – many critics undoubtedly would reference the “witty” character of the lyrics, and I find them pretty amusing myself.

As good as the opener is, it’s the disc’s second track that literally stopped me in my tracks. The deliriously romantic “Archie, Marry Me” is a near-perfect indie pop love song, playing out to a relaxed rhythm with an appropriate amount of noise blaring behind the catchy main riffs. Follow-up “Ones who Love You” is no slouch either, a less flashy, quieter piece that’s nonetheless gorgeous to listen to. Rankin’s voice ranges from being almost pleading during the verses to positively triumphant during the chorus, her lyrics suggesting a sense of perseverance which is inspiring – even if various stanzas seem almost devious in their message. “Next of Kin” bumps the tempo back up a bit and sounds more instantly cheerful, with particularly powerful vocal melodies, while “Party Police” stands as a more heartfelt piece which finds Rankin urging a lover to stay with her so they “can find comfort in debauchery.” Sounds all right to me.

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In all likelihood, it’s the fact that the first five songs are so strong – man-o-man this would have made been a KILLER EP – that makes the final four so forgettable. The slower “The Agency Group” and bouncy “Dives” aren’t bad tracks in and of themselves, but they lack the energy and, perhaps more crucially, the conviction of what had come previously, thus halting the album’s building momentum. By the time penultimate track “Atop a Cake” sounds off with its intricate, tinkling guitar before a rollicking rhythm picks up, I suspect many listeners sucked in by Alvvays’s irresistible singles would have simply moved along to something else. Final track “Red Planet,” essentially a (rather plodding) duet between Rankin’s voice and MacLellan’s keyboards, doesn’t do much to change my opinion about the album’s second half: it’s sparse and striking in its own way, but doesn’t hook a listener.

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What one is left with is a record that’s alternately amazing and absolutely run-of-the-mill – the question then is whether the undeniably fantastic opening five tracks compensate for the dead weight that the last four tracks burden the album with. Personally, I think they do: Alvvays is so good initially that I can’t help but still recommend the album rather enthusiastically despite its obvious shortcomings. Fans of modern indie rock and/or pop owe it to themselves to give this a listen: it’s not the best all-around album of the past few years, but it has some definite standout moments. Here’s hoping the band can only build on what they accomplished here and make a more completely satisfying record next time around.

Pointless is More Like It: Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER

THE ENDLESS RIVER by Pink Floyd

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5) meh

Pros: Definitely sounds like Pink Floyd; a pleasant enough listen

Cons: A far,far cry from the group’s best recordings

After forming in mid ‘60s, legendary and hugely influential British rock group Pink Floyd really hit their stride just after the true “psychedelic era,” producing some of the most well-known and iconic albums of the ‘70s and indeed all time – 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, 1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1979’s The Wall among them. By the mid ‘80s however, tensions between bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters had escalated to the breaking point, and Waters left to pursue other projects. This effectively ended Pink Floyd’s reign at the top of the rock and roll food chain, but singer/multi-instrumentalist Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason carried on nevertheless. As might be expected, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell presented a group that was a mere shadow of its former self, and 2014’s The Endless River, fifteenth and supposedly final album from the group, continues much in that same trend.

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The band’s original five-member lineup.

Made up of material recorded mostly during the sessions for The Division Bell, The Endless River plays like exactly what it is: a collection of outtakes. It starts out well enough, with a piece in “Things Left Unsaid” that creates a bright, glowing ambiance through its use of fluttering background tones and a trumpeting keyboard melody. This opener leads nicely into (the appropriately-named) second track “It’s What We Do” which replicates the spaciness of older Floyd material and eventually unleashes a driving guitar solo. Accompanied by a super-smooth bass, relaxed drumming and resonant keyboard, the soaring, triumphant guitar work makes this a track that recalls Floyd’s trademark songs from the 1970s. Unfortunately, after initially convincing a listener he might be in for something special, The Endless River loses it way, meandering through a series of inconsistent, purely atmospheric tracks that are nothing if not unremarkable.

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The tumultuous relationship between David Gilmour (left) and Roger Waters ultimately led to Waters leaving the group…and Gilmour embarking on a series of less-than-stellar Pink Floyd recordings.

Even if the more substantial “Sum” reprises the commanding guitar rock heard in “It’s What We Do,” there’s not much to latch onto in tracks like “Skins,” “Unsung,” and “Anisina,” the last of which, with its Kenny G sax solo, would almost be genuinely cheesy if not for its ethereal mood and use of transcendent vocal choir. “The Lost Art of Conversation” and “Night Light” abandon that more grandiose sound palette however and head right back into more ponderous (and frankly, dull) sonic territory, while the generic soft rock of “On Noodle Street” is downright embarrassing coming from a band that’s perhaps rightfully regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

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Later-era Pink Floyd – left to right, Wright, Gilmour, Mason.

The louder “Allons-Y” parts one and two seem like unused interludes from The Wall and may be the only tracks during the album’s middle stretch which break up the monotony. They also just might interrupt the snooze a listener very well may be engaging in by this point in time. Meanwhile, as much as Wright’s droning organ work in “Autumn ‘68” is impressive, the track is as fleeting and forgettable as most of the others here, and Talkin’ Hawkin’” uses the same gimmick as Division Bell’s “Keep Talking,” sampling physicist Stephen Hawking’s computerized voice as used in a British commercial. As things wind down, “Calling,” “Eyes to Pearls” and “Surfacing” act as an extended introduction to album finale “Louder than Words,” the only track to feature conventional vocals and lyrics. After waiting for the entirety of the record to hear a more song-like track, this last number is a definitive let-down. Essentially a facsimile of older material, this closer (and the album in general) suggests that a burnt-out Gilmour is all-too-willing to milk the Floyd name and formula to put a couple more dollars in the coffers.

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In the end, the fact that a listener would have heard most everything heard here on previous Pink Floyd albums is actually not the worst aspect of The Endless River: it’s the fact that Gilmour applies so little creativity and imagination to the established song formulas that’s downright depressing. This mostly pointless, largely inconsequential album may as well have been produced by a random artist a listener stumbled across on the internet – slapping the Pink Floyd name on something so completely ordinary and uninspired is perplexing and most unfortunate given the band’s reputation and legacy.  It’s never a good sign when something like this happens.

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Though I liked the fact that the eighteen tracks here seem like one flowing, continuous composition, there’s simply no overlooking the fact that most every listener would be underwhelmed or maybe outright disappointed by The Endless River – it may be satisfying as ambient music, but no one expects a Pink Floyd album to sound like anything even remotely resembling elevator music. Though it’s easy to pick out parts that capture the flavor and sound of vintage and indeed classic Floyd, in between those highlights, the record farts around through a tiresome batch of instrumental tracks that simply aren’t very compelling. Despite the fact that I toyed with the idea of handing Endless River a one star rating, it’s far from being the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Still, this is a final chapter in a legendary career that probably shouldn’t have been included in the first place.

Sample:

Another Winning Soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: GONE GIRL OST

GONE GIRL: SOUNDTRACK FROM THE MOTION PICTURE by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

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See it at Amazon 

(4/5) cool

Pros: Works extremely well as an atmospheric dark ambient album

Cons: Overlong – the final handful of tracks here are forgettable

Though it’s perhaps one of the most polarizing projects in the repertoire of Trent Reznor, the 2008 release Ghosts I-IV (from Reznor’s main musical project Nine Inch Nails) is likely to be regarded as one of the most important of his career. By the late 2000s, I had all but lost interest in NiN, a band whose earlier albums up to and including 1999’s The Fragile I had enjoyed immensely. Reznor seemed to hit a bit of a creative brick wall on 2005’s With Teeth, and even subsequent album Year Zero didn’t do much to restore my faith in the artist’s ability. It almost seemed to me around this time that Nine Inch Nails, a band I had once regarded as primarily being a studio group due to Reznor’s production brilliance, became more for me a band that put on a good live show. Ghosts went in a completely different direction from what NiN had previously been about however, and revitalized the project as far as I’m concerned.

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This Ghosts artwork seems appropriate considering how the album sounds.

While Reznor frequently dabbled with instrumental work on his previous releases (I might even be inclined to label a few of his vocal-less tracks as some of his best), Ghosts was a true behemoth: a double album of dark ambient music which led directly to working with collaborator Atticus Ross on a series of film scores for director David Fincher. For my money, the soundtracks Reznor and Ross produced for 2010’s The Social Network and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were some of the best material that Reznor had worked on in years – much more exciting than anything his How to Destroy Angels side project was doing, and better than the music heard on 2013’s uneven Hesitation Marks, his “return” album as Nine Inch Nails.

gone girl poster

The latest Reznor/Ross soundtrack collaboration was produced for the 2014 film Gone Girl, an unsettling drama which follows a man’s life after his wife disappears, and the collective musical sensibilities and talents of the composers seem a good match for this type of material. Reznor, after all, had been dealing with themes of loss, frustration, and despair for years in his work as Nine Inch Nails, and Ross had been in the studio for the last several of those albums prior to the soundtrack collaborations. While I was prepared for the underlying sense of tension and mystery that pervades and indeed pulses throughout the Gone Girl soundtrack, I was a little surprised by the fact that the less downright bleak tracks here fall in line nicely with the minimalistic ambient music that Brian Eno had pioneered in the early 1970s and Aphex Twin had made in the early ‘90s as part of his Selected Ambient Works series. In the end, the Reznor/Ross soundtrack is not only impressive as a compliment to the motion picture it came from, but a satisfying album of music in its own right.

Reznor and Ross at work
Reznor (left) and Ross at work in the studio.

Strictly instrumental, the Gone Girl soundtrack features two dozen tracks. The majority of these fall in the two to four minute range: brief musical passages presumably designed to accompany specific scenes in the film. If there’s one thing I could say about the album it’s that the majority of tracks here are rather incidental and seem to revolve around a single theme or motif. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it’s precisely what one would expect from a film soundtrack. Film music is most often designed to inconspicuously create mood or atmosphere, but the downside to this (as might be expected) is that the Gone Girl soundtrack only contains a handful of tracks that I would categorize as being more “complete” pieces of music. One such piece is “Technically Missing,” a driving track around the album’s halfway point which may as well have been an instrumental outtake from a NiN album. Other than this, it seems that the album alternates between shorter tracks that are comparatively more or less obviously dark in terms of their sound.

gloomy

A gloomy mood is established right off the bat in album opener “What Have We Done To Each Other?,” a piece which throbs under an unsettling choir of airy high-pitched tones and fleeting melody. The track escapes it new agey trappings however by sounding very rich, with a lonely trumpet occasionally sounding out under the louder background ambiance. Reznor has claimed that one of the goals of this album was to create a sense of discontent in tracks that were generally pleasant, and he certainly achieves this on second track “Sugar Storm,” in which bright, fluffy keyboard melodies are joined with jarring sound effects and sunny but slightly ominous background chords. A more haunting keyboard part takes center stage in “Empty Places,” in which the solitary melody is accompanied by quietly tinkling bells and a throbbing bass, “With Suspicion” eventually builds to a loud and crackly climax that recalls vintage NiN recordings, and fifth track “Just Like You” is a serene piano-based number that may be one of the most genuinely beautiful and upbeat tracks here.

dark

With heartbeat-like rhythms pushing them forward, “Clue One” and “Two” are perhaps the most sinister offerings, mostly because there’s a sense of inevitability to them that suggests they’re leading a listener towards something truly unfortunate and maybe even horrible . A more calming pair of tracks in piano number “Background Noise” and synth-driven “Procedural” is followed-up by one in “Something Disposable” that jangles the listener’s nerves with its almost Indian-sounding melody and seemingly random noise accents. “The Way He Looks at Me” and “Perpetual” exist as noisy experiments that utilize a rather familiar Reznor sound palette, and the album concludes with the eerily peaceful “At Risk.”

Reznor and Ross
Though the partnership between Reznor and Ross has been successful thus far,  I’m most interested to see what happens if they branch out a bit in the future.

Honestly, the only significant problem I had with this release was that down the stretch, the Gone Girl soundtrack loses steam. Part of this may simply be due to the fact that it’s a fairly long album at nearly an hour and a half in length, and requires some patience and stamina on the part of the listener. Still, the inclusion of several reprise tracks doesn’t help matters at all and actually makes the album’s last quarter mostly insignificant and unremarkable. That said, the music of Reznor and Ross positively succeeds at creating a sense of unease and maybe even dread in its listener. It’s worth bearing in mind that it isn’t a genuine Nine Inch Nails album and shouldn’t really be approached as such: those whose tastes tend to fall in line with more pop-oriented material might just be bored to tears by this. As an dark ambient work however, Gone Girl’s soundtrack is by and large outstanding: one of my favorites of 2014 and something I’d have no problem recommending.

Sample:

Another Hit-or-Miss, Glorified Corgan Solo Release: MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY by Smashing Pumpkins

MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY by Smashing Pumpkins

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See it at Amazon 

(3/5) decent

Pros: Thankfully short and, for the most part, it’s musically satisfying

Cons: Disjointed feel; lyrics are sketchy at best and sometimes awful

A few months ago, I stumbled across an article entitled “A Brief History of Billy Corgan Losing his Goddamn Mind” that listed off (in a semi-serious, humorous manner) various pieces of evidence that suggest that the frontman/lead singer/songwriter of Smashing Pumpkins has indeed lost contact with reality in recent years. To be honest, anyone who’s followed the Pumpkins over any period of time may have questioned Corgan’s sanity long ago.

This ain't the '90s
It ain’t the ’90s anymore.

I was a huge fan of the Pumpkins in the late ‘90s, but quickly lost interest when the classic band lineup (Corgan along with Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, James Iha on guitar and D’arcy Wretzky on bass) dissolved and Corgan initiated a increasingly confusing number of side and solo projects. Then there was the “reformation” of the Pumpkins in the late 2000s – which wasn’t so much a reformation of the band as its restructuring as a(nother) glorified Corgan solo project in which he was joined by a revolving door of “here one day, gone the next” collaborators – and the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project in which Corgan proclaimed he was releasing (for free) an ongoing series of songs to prove that traditional albums were dead. A year or so into the project, Corgan decided to abandon that format…and release a standard album of music.

But hey, it’s hard to argue with genius right?

And it would be hard to argue with Corgan if his newer music was anywhere as good as it had been in the ‘90s, when the Pumpkins were alternative rock darlings, pumping out a string of critically and commercially successful albums. Recently, any music from Corgan has been spotty at best: admittedly I haven’t much paid attention to any of his releases post-2000 until the release of Monuments to an Elegy in late 2014. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the more pop-oriented Monuments as an album isn’t awful. Billy Corgan is nothing if not supremely talented and creative. Here, he’s proven that he can still craft excellent guitar-driven songs but perhaps most importantly, Corgan music today still sounds like the Corgan music of old – considering his very distinctive, whiny vocals, it’d be almost unimaginable if this weren’t the case.

there was a time
There was a time when Smashing Pumpkins (pictured here in their classic lineup) were synonymous with quality…

Unfortunately, his lyrics are almost laughably bad at times. A fleeting relationship with singer Jessica Simpson doesn’t really seem that far-fetched when one hears “Anti-Hero,” Monuments‘s closing track. Sounding like moody, late ‘90s alt rock with lyrics that remind me of something a teenager would have scrawled on the back of a three-ring binder (“never been kissed by a girl like you / all I wanna, wanna do / love me babeh / love me true / oooo” – are you kidding?), the track is jaw-droppingly infantile – and plain shocking coming from a middle-aged man who’s written some downright classic songs over the years.

smashing pumpkins in 2015
Smashing Pumpkins today. You may say this is just a picture of Billy, and there’s a reason for that.

The whole of Monuments to an Elegy is almost suggestive of the singer/songwriter responsible for it being in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The album’s second single “One and All” finds Corgan repeating the stanza “we are / we are so young” so many times that it seems he’s trying to convince himself that the line is true. And then there’s “Run2me,” about as corny and optimistic an electro-infused track as could be imaginable and “Being Beige,” the album’s very awkward first single which finds the singer choking up as he delivers the opening lines. At its best, Monuments unleashes the loud and hazy guitar rock that has always not only the hallmark but also the strongpoint of the Pumpkins sound. Once it gets going, the aforementioned “Beige” is actually pretty good, and the less abrasive “Drum + Fife” and poppy synthpop track “Dorian” are very listenable if not agreeable.

billy

Even with Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee pounding on the skins though, Monuments never achieves any sort of consistency – it plays like a haphazard collection of more or less disconnected songs. Of course, in 2015, this is largely the norm: do any artists make genuine “albums” anymore? Considering the effortless flow and near perfect craftsmanship exhibited on earlier Pumpkins records like 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or 1993’s Siamese Dream (my personal favorite) however, it’s difficult to believe that a halfass release like Monuments comes from the same band. And the fact is that it doesn’t: the Smashing Pumpkins in 2015 aren’t the Pumpkins that made the classic albums from the ‘90s even if Corgan is still behind the wheel.

scratching my head...

The crowd that grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins is still looking for music that speaks to them today though they’re older and presumably wiser. Corgan doesn’t much seem to care – it’s frankly inexplicable to me that the music here not only seems to have been written from the perspective of a teenager in an appeal to a younger crowd, but actually seems to reflect the fact that Corgan is getting worse as a songwriter over the years instead of better. Monuments to an Elegy simply doesn’t provide enough material that would appeal to the more mature crowd that I believe would be interested in it in the first place. Ultimately, though it’s not completely abysmal, it is generally forgettable and I would hardly give it much of a recommendation.

Aphex Twin’s Weird but Not Altogether Wonderful COMPUTER CONTROLLED ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS PT2 EP

COMPUTER CONTROLLED ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS, PT 2 by Aphex Twin

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See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5) DECENT

Pros: Consistently interesting in terms of its composition

Cons: Very unconventional concepts of melody

It’s a strange time to be a fan of British electronic musician, composer, and producer Richard D. James, who most often works under the pseudonym of Aphex Twin. For more than a decade, the once incredibly prolific James released virtually nothing, but since the long-delayed release of the self-titled Caustic Window album in 2014, the floodgates have apparently been opened. A new full length album called Syro (my choice for album of the year) dropped in late 2014, and James has continued to release a veritable ton of previously-unheard music on his (unofficial) soundcloud account. To be honest, I’m not even sure where to begin with regard to this almost intimidating deluge of material (some 150 tracks and counting), though it’s a good problem to have after missing James’ unique voice throughout the 2000s.

Musical Genus

Though there was quite a bit of publicity surrounding Syro’s release, the January 23, 2015 release of a (basically, self-explanatory) extended play called Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2 (there never was a part one) was a bit of a surprise – after all, two new Aphex Twin releases within a few months time would have been unheard of only a year ago. While Syro was an expansive, essentially fully-developed album however, CCAIpt2 is an almost fragmentary work that harkens back to a time in the early-to-mid ‘90s when James was in the midst of releasing a seemingly endless amount of imaginative and playful, occasionally outstanding material. As I’d expect from most everything bearing the Aphex Twin name, CCAIpt2 is nothing if not a consistently interesting and creative, well-produced album even if it doesn’t rank among the artist’s flat-out best.

live
It’s good to know that while the electronic music scene circa 2015 is vastly different from the one in the ’90s, Aphex Twin has returned to make lousy producers look bad.

Like many of James’s other albums, the tracks on CCAIpt2 feature odd and sometimes unpronounceable names – which only adds to the overall strangeness of this album. “diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13” is the discordant opening track, propelled by a tick-tocking beat and a groaning bass. Gurgling and flatulent, this first track already firmly establishes the jerky and almost sinister sound texture that exists throughout the album – particularly on the more substantial pieces. After a brief snare drum outburst, we get an alternate, even more jangly and burpy rendition of the opening number before a shorter, piano-based piece of arpeggios being slammed together. Robotic tinkling and moaning keyboard elements make “DISKREPT 4” a somewhat demented-sounding piece, while the next three tracks exist as slightly disjointed percussion experiments.

tweak
One can only imagine the amount of tweaking that went into this, or any, Aphex Twin recording.

Many of the tracks here seem to imagine what the malfunction of an elaborate grandfather clock might sound like, and several contain bizarre and sometimes creepy background ambiance – the sounds of children babbling or dogs barking for instance. I found myself looking over my shoulder a few times while listening to this album, and had to really study the mix to determine whether or not I was hearing ghosts.

ghost

Who the hell knows what the title of “disk prep calrec2 barn dance [slo]” means (many James tracks have names which refer to software or equipment used to make them), but it’s another track of throbbing bass, clanging rhythmic elements and sparse, unconventional melody. Following a further deconstruction of melody (on “DISKREPT1”) and rhythm (on “diskhat2”), we get the almost obligatory piece that reminds a listener of James’s considerable talents as a composer. “piano un10 it happened” is positively gorgeous, a simple yet intricate piano piece that’s the complete antithesis of every other track here. This composition is well worth checking out even if the others here aren’t to a particular listener’s taste – and let’s face it, not many people would really “like” this album if it comes down to it. Closing track “hat5c0001 rec-4” shuffles along to another grumbly bass line and clanking rhythm, sounding like what Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails might come up with if he tried his hand at making explicitly experimental music.

In the end, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2 is the sort of blatantly experimental album that will be embraced by the mainstream music press in spite of its overt weirdness because the person who made it is reputable – and almost certainly a musical genius (I find it endlessly amusing that several of the same outlets that are championing this EP trashed James’s similarly abstract 2001 album drukQs). As I’ve pointed out many times before, mediocre James is significantly better than most people’s A-game, and I’d certainly rather listen to something unique like CCAIpt2 than a generic and tiresome pop record. Still, I can’t shake the notion that both this EP and Syro feel like minor works when compared to things like 1995’s I Care Because You Do or the following year’s Richard D. James Album… to say nothing of the sublime “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” singles or the two nearly flawless Selected Ambient Works albums. Maybe I’m hoping for the impossible, but I believe that James is capable of better than what he’s shown in these two latest albums. While waiting for that next bona fide masterwork however, it’s nice to have things like this EP to help tide one over. It’s not essential, but it is worthwhile – particularly to fans of the artist.

Sample:

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (soundtrack): A trip that is overall worthwhile.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

Price: $11.99

(4/5)

Pros: Many songs from the documentary make it, nice enough intro for newbies

Cons: Some songs missing, well rounded metal heads would prefer different stuff

A hardcore headbanger by the name of Sam Dunn went on a journey diving deep into the roots of heavy metal searching for its earliest influences, the one band to be held as the first metal band ever, and what attracted and pushed people away from metal. He completed his journey and released a documentary in 2005 titled Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. For more information on that see my review here.

The documentary featured several songs by well known and lesser bands such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Rush, Diamond Head, and even Blue Cheer. This album collects many of the songs that were actually played but a few were indeed left off for whatever reasons. Perhaps he couldn’t obtain the rights for those songs. I’ll provide the track listing later, but what’s here is definitely good for someone wanting that musical feel from the movie, plus it’s a good start for those wetting their feet in the genre, as the soundtrack covers many of the sub-genres: Black, Death, Melodic Death, Speed, Thrash, and a few others.

The live version of Hallowed Be Thy Name starts things off with the guitars at the forefront with Bruce Dickinson’s vocals soaring over everything. This song opens up the soundtrack right. If the testosterone level isn’t high enough, then Balls to the Wall has the right amount of “grrr” for that with its crunchy guitar opening and headbanging chorus. Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell slows things down a notch, but the late Ronnie Dio’s vocals maintains some intensity and that awesome closing still gives me goose bumps.

There are several more noteworthy songs with some of the most memorable riffs grabbing the listener by the neck with Diamond Head – Am I Evil? The riffs in this song are indeed that memorable and the lyrical content matches it really well with a memorable chorus. Rush’s bluesy, progressive, metal number, Working Man is still amazing with its pounding rhythm, solos, and vocals.

I can’t let this review go without mentioning the one song that is the living embodiment of rebellion, Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It.  At least for me the memorable riffs are overshadowed by Dee Snider’s message of not sitting down taking garbage, but instead getting up and doing what you want, this song will always bring out the dirt bag in me; and I have to give a shout out to the evil minded, wicked vocals in Blood Lust. This song is kind of lacking in the technical department, but it’s still very catchy. Needled 24/7 by Children of the Bodom has such an amazing opening with some good riff oriented sections but I feel those mallcore and techno touches hurts that track badly along with some of the childish content and screamo. I was also glad to see Cannibal Corpse –Decency Denied, since I do prefer Corpsegrinder’s vocals over Chris Barnes.

This is a very solid soundtrack overall, but when looking at some of the stuff that holds it back like Lamb of God and Slipknot; I have a feel to rate it lower. However, I’m not going to condemn it for the things I would want here. Instead give it props because it does have a nice portion of songs from the movie, plus it makes a nice introduction to several of Metal’s sub-genres for those very unfamiliar. In closing, I definitely recommend watching the movie, and be sure to pick up this soundtrack together with it, especially if you don’t already own these songs.

Track Listing:

1) Iron Maiden – Hallowed Be Thy Name (live)  2) Accept – Balls to the Wall 3) Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell 4) Lamb of God – Laid to Rest 5) Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues 6) Rush – Working Man 7) Motorhead – Killed by Death 8) Diamond Head – Am I Evil? 9) Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It 10) Venom – Bloodlust 11) Slayer – Disciple 12) Arch Enemy – Silent Wars 13) Slipknot – (Sic) 14) Children of Bodom – Needled 24/7 15) Cannibal Corpse – Decency Defied 16) Emperor – Inno A Satana (live)

 

 

 

 

 

Led Zeppelin II – Better all around song structure on this sophomore release.

Led Zeppelin II

Price: $4.48

(4/5)

Pros: Better overall sound with a few stand out performances

Cons: Lyrical content gets annoying fast for me

In 1969 immediately after the release of their debut album. Led Zeppelin were hard at work recording their sophomore album on the road in which they managed to release the same year. There is obvious progression that can be heard across this release through better complicated strong structure and just overall writing. While this second album is not as ear splitting catchy as their debut; it has another identity altogether and is enjoyable in its own right.  In fact, I enjoyed their debut album a lot more at one point, and this took several repeated listens for me to grow more appreciation towards it. Some people consider this their best album. At this point in my life it’s still not my favorite and perhaps never will be.

Personally I don’t think this album rocks as hard as their debut though, but the bluesy character found through out is pretty tough not to enjoy. The classic and most well known opener Whole Lotta Love opens up with possibly Jimmy Page’s most recognizable riff. There’s some good song structure with that spacy break and nice drumming. Speaking of the drumming, John Bonham has his moments as well, and the song Ramble On displays this, as I find it to be one of their better and more creative songs here. The drums are incredibly light and sound similar to a pencil eraser tapping against a notebook, then later on he gets harder on the kit that blends well with the bass parts. This is one of my favorites for sure.

Lemon is a number that definitely has the most provocative lyrics on the album; but I choose to listen to this a lot more for the technical guitar work, prominent bass work, and catchy soloing. Heartbreaker stands out for its heaviness due to that bass and guitar fusion, with some good soloing as well. They rock pretty hard here; and I love how this blends directly into Living Long Maid. This slightly sped-up, rock-poppy number couldn’t be anymore lyrically simple but it’s really catchy.

There are a few other well crafted songs on here with the closer Bring it On Home ending this thing off on the right note; this one is very bluesy with a nice melodic use of the bass and harmonica, and leads into a hard rocking finish.

The only real flaws for me on this album is the actual content which once again focuses on something to do with a woman; either it’s Robert Plants love for one or how rotten they can just be. I understand this type of content is something found in blues, but if it wasn’t for Plants vocal range in making this stuff cool, with stand out performances for me on songs like Thank You, Bring It On Home, and a few others, along with the band’s overall unit cohesion that allows me to block out the actual lyrics. I wouldn’t care for this album much.

In closing, Led Zeppelin II is a really good follow up that shows the band were progressing as a cohesive unit. Of course there are songs I like more than others, but it was due to repeated listens which leads me to say there’s nothing I actually dislike. Definitely recommended to those whom love classic rock. The album was also re-mastered and re-released last June along with the first four albums. It would be a good idea to grab them if you don’t already own them. I do recommend picking up the debut album Led Zeppelin I as well.