A fair share of critics hailed Meridional, the 2010 release by Georgian metalcore crew Norma Jean, as a “masterpiece” and the highlight of their career.
While I didn’t hate Meridional, it had more than enough flaws that it very quickly exited my metal playlist. I admired the process–striving to shake up their metalcore sound with progressive elements–but the execution was wonky at best and discordant at worst. Their follow-up, Wrongdoers, coming three years later and with three new band members, is no masterpiece either, but it achieves a lot of the results that were missing the last time around.
I wouldn’t call Wrongdoers progressive, but it manages a far higher batting average on its attempts to introduce spontaneity and melodic chaos into its otherwise hellish loudness and aggression. Whether that’s a result of the roster turnover (now with Jeff Hickey on guitar, John Finnegan on bass, and Clayton Holyoak on drums) or simply more trial and error, I can’t say for sure. I can however, say, that Wrongdoers takes a big step in the right direction, and this album will stick around on playlists far longer than its predecessor.
Before I begin, it should be noted that I haven’t seen the movie, Prince Avalanche, which features the soundtrack I’m about to review (it’s a small indie flick–see trailer here–featuring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch that looks pretty good, and I definitely plan on seeing it when it becomes available on a wider basis). What drew me to this album without having seen the accompanying film is that it’s crafted by Explosions in the Sky, those masters of gorgeously expansive post-rock who made a name for themselves providing the soundtrack to Friday Night Lights. I’ll follow them anywhere.
Their music is tailor-made to serve as the emotional backbone for film and television.
And while I suppose they serve that purpose on Prince Avalanche, it just isn’t the same. That’s likely because this isn’t strictly an EITS project. They are joined by musician/composer David Wingo, and his presence and/or influence has all but neutered every aspect that has come to define EITS.
Gone are the lush, slow-boiling dynamics, the shimmering guitar notes that ripple and stretch for miles, and the cathartic crescendos. In their place we have tiny sonic vignettes, rather than true songs, that are guided largely by piano and horns instead of amplified guitars. “Wading” manages to maintain some of EITS’ ambient beauty, and “The Lines On The Road That Lead You Back Home,” which clocks in at a meager two minutes, could have fit in with the rest of the EITS catalog if only it was given more room to stretch out and grow. But that’s my main gripe with this soundtrack–with 15 tracks crammed into 37 minutes, most tracks don’t have time or space to breathe. I can definitely see how these tracks would serve as excellent mood setters for the action on screen, but as a soundtrack that you’ll want to continually revisit once you’ve left the theater? In that respect, I don’t think it holds up so well.
This music isn’t bad, but it leaves so much of EITS’ talent on the table, unused. It makes some sense; on Friday Night Lights, their soundscapes were a perfect fit for the wide open fields of west Texas and the dreams those open spaces engendered in the citizens of Dillon, whereas Prince Avalanche is a movie about two guys alone in the backwoods, repainting lines on a road after a fire storm. It’s the difference in scope between vast, clear horizons and the tiny space between those two yellow dividing lines on a small two-way road. EITS reined in their capabilities to fit the needs of the film, which is admirable as far as the film is concerned, but it costs the soundtrack. It’s lovely, but lacking.
Five Finger Death Punch – The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 1 Album Review
In 2011, I offered a token, tepid defense of Five Finger Death Punch upon the release of their third album, American Capitalist. I describe my defense in those terms because, while sincere, FFDP isn’t the kind of band you want to loudly stick up for, especially as a metalhead who’d like to maintain some semblance of “refinement” regarding my tastes. They’re the guiltiest of pleasures, essentially.
FFDP bring this kind of widespread critical scorn upon themselves not because they like it that way (I’m guessing) but because it’s proven to be a hugely successful formula for cultivating a massive fan base of least-common denominator heavy metal and hard rock fans who are willing to shell out for their albums, t-shirts and concert tickets. Their new album, The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 1, debuted at number 2 on the Billboard charts, selling 113,000 copies in its first week. How many heavy metal bands can consistently grab those kind of numbers every time out in this day and age of ever-declining music sales? Not many at all.
FFDP appeals to so many people precisely because it’s so basic (some might say brainless). A good deal of metal is so dense, high-minded, and obscure that it’s essentially impossible to get into as an outsider to the scene; but FFDP write radio-ready hard rock songs with a bit more metallic heft than most of their peers, thereby adding some weight to their easily discernible hooks. And the vocals, courtesy of Ivan Moody, won’t turn anyone off with their harshness because they’re also so melodic and clean. FFDP wasn’t always so entrenched in this formula (their debut album had grit they’ve long since abandoned), but anyone expecting them to jump off the bullet train of success they’ve been riding on their fourth album should just forget about it. There are a few minor tweaks, but this is the same FFDP you know–which means for many people, it’s the same FFDP you hate.
If you want to go big, there’s no sense in cutting corners. And few bands on the scene today aim as high as the self-contained orchestra/traveling band/hippie collective that is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
This 10-piece unit (joined by another seven assisting musicians on their new self-titled record), led by Alex Ebert in his alter ego role as the transcendental spirit guide Edward Sharpe, truly embodies the collective spirit. They’re like Arcade Fire, only much scragglier and with even more people on board.
Those familiar with ESATMZ’s ultra-positive, texturally rich and melodious affirmations of everything good and pure in this world won’t find any surprises on this album, the group’s third. Instead, what they’ll find is the group searching for even more ways to preach its gospel of positivity, through the amber haze of classic rock, singalong choruses, and interesting instrumental combinations that can only be the result of including the input of 17 musicians.
It’s another freak-folk party conducted by Ebert, and everyone’s invited.
It’s tricky trying to stand out amongst your peers as an acoustic folk-pop singer. It’s largely a vocal-driven genre, and if people like your voice, they’ll generally like you as an artist because the backing music is more or less secondary in nature; it’s there to guide and support rather than lead. But that standard is a double-edged sword because people not only latch onto the voice, they latch onto its delivery as well. That can turn out to be rather restrictive.
Joshua Radin is one of the many troubadours plying his trade who can be lumped into the so-called “whisper rock” genre. He sings songs of love, loss, hurt, and happiness in satiny, hushed, tranquil tones over simple acoustic guitar strumming. It’s what his fans love him for, and it’s also what lends to his difficultly separating himself from the pack. You see, his voice isn’t plainly distinctive like Ray LaMontagne’s, for example; nor does he pen lyrical stories as deep or complex as peers like Josh Ritter. Instead, Radin winds up existing in that nebulous middle space–the space where it’s difficult to gin up enough broad interest to shatter anonymity.
No matter how consistently good Radin’s albums have been–this most recent album, Wax Wings, included–there’s always been that special something missing to push him into the next echelon. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s the reality of the situation, as evidenced by the fact that Wax Wings is Radin’s first album that he’s had to self-release with no record label support. It’s possible that was entirely a decision made of his own volition, but I think simple economics probably played a part as well.
Black Tusk are checking in between albums with a new EP, Tend No Wounds.
This Georgia metal trio has forever played second fiddle to its big brothers in the Savannah sludge scene, and not undeservedly so. There’s no shame in falling behind Mastodon, Baroness, and Kylesa, but it is the truth; Black Tusk has simply never figured out how to reach those same orgasmic heights. Tend No Wounds doesn’t change that, but I don’t think it had such ambitions. After all, it’s just a tight, 23 minute set of five songs and an instrumental intro. Short, sweet, and to the point–a nice way to whet fans’ appetites until the next full-length comes along.
Kylesa’s Phillip Cope handles the production duties for this EP, and I’m always a bit amazed at how strikingly similar Black Tusk can sound to Kylesa in the latter band’s less prog-filled moments. That’s primarily a product of Black Tusk’s vocalists (all three guys lend their voice) and their sharp, punk-inspired deliveries. I’ll never be able to differentiate which band member possesses which voice in the recording (one of them also sounds like Mastodon’s Troy Sanders), but in general, it all comes out sounding like Cope anyway.
My main gripe with Black Tusk was that they never think outside their well-trod box, seeking to approach their music from a different direction every once in a while. As a result, the music, while certainly heavy, was relatively staid, lacking interesting, attention-grabbing dynamics. That’s changed ever so slightly on this EP, but it’s obvious the band is still hesitant to dip its toes into uncharted waters. As such, guitarist Andrew Fidler manages to harness and ride a few delectable riffs here and there, but most are by the book. (And as it is, the guitars are too low in the mix for my taste. Turn that shit up!)
As I said about their last record, 2011′s Set the Dial, Black Tusk seem to write their best songs when they don’t have to worry about vocals. I’m not sure they could pull off an entire album of instrumentals, but the instrumental intro track, “A Cold Embrace,” and the outro, “In Days Of Woe,” are consistently engaging and enjoyable (granted, the latter does contain one line of lyrics). It still feels like they are trying to shoehorn their punchy vocals into the songs, which makes them less likely to experiment or diverge from simple, accommodating riffs and songwriting. They’re getting better; they just aren’t there yet. And I think the same can be said for this EP as a whole.
There can be no mistaking what kind of music a band that calls itself Be’lakor creates. That’s a name only a heavy metal band could love (or get away with). I had no idea who or what a Be’lakor was; turns out, the band named itself after this fearsome character from the Warhammer fantasy tabletop game (again, this is something only a metal band could ever pull off). Then your eyes gaze upon the creepy but utterly fascinating cover art of a Little Red Riding Hood-esque girl with flowers in her hair clutching a loaf of bread while smirking at a ferocious wolf. Only metal could make that little girl so badass.
Sure, these are all superficial characteristics of Be’lakor’s third album, Of Breath and Bone, but they serve the purpose of establishing–at least for any listeners like myself who are new to this Australian quintet–that this album is going to be unapologetically brutal.
Of course, you could always just press play and figure it out that way, because Of Breath and Bone wastes no time in ripping shit up and tearing shit down.
A lot of folks in the metal community were bummed out a few years ago when ISIS–those titans of post-metal–called it a day.
Well, those fans’ prayers and ritual sacrifices for a reunion have now been somewhat answered with the debut of the group Palms and its self-titled debut. Palms is essentially ISIS, but with a singer other than Aaron Turner. I say “essentially” because guitarist Michael Gallagher is also not in Palms, leaving bassist Jeff Caxide, drummer Aaron Harris, and guitarist/keyboardist Bryant Clifford Meyer as the remaining ISIS contingent.
So who is handling the vocal duties in place of Turner, you may be asking? That’s where the true surprise comes in, since the choice makes Palms something of a minor supergroup. Deftones’ screecher and crooner extraordinaire Chino Moreno is the man on the mic, leading to an ISIS-Deftones mashup that doesn’t sound quite like you’d expect.
The ISIS dudes bring the “post” element of their former band, but Palms is not at all metal, post-metal or otherwise. With its lush guitar textures and overall clean and dreamy atmospherics, the music of Palms is more akin to the post-rock of bands like Explosions in the Sky, only with vocals. And like always, Moreno delivers on that front. He’s set aside all of the Deftones-style banshee screaming and spitting anger, in favor of his softer side. His voice is unmistakable, no matter what style he’s singing in, but the manner in which it is utilized on Palms is much more akin to Moreno’s experimental side project, Team Sleep. In fact, I’d say the best way to describe Palms would be a combination of Team Sleep with a toned-down, less burly ISIS.
It’s an intriguing combination that works well enough over these six songs, but the music does suffer from some flat, one-dimensional production and songwriting that can’t quite sustain interest on the lengthier tracks here (two of which inch towards the ten minute mark). Palms works best as a mood-setter rather than an album to be dissected track by track. It’s not dynamic enough to withstand that kind of scrutiny, but taken as a larger, amorphous body of work, it’s a wonderful palette of melancholy awash in shimmering guitars and steered by Moreno’s slippery voice.
Kanye West is the king of hype, rap’s most self-indulgent self-promoter; we all know this to be an unassailable truth, right?
How else can you explain Yeezus, his sixth album, which he recorded in Paris to keep meddling press and tabloids away, which didn’t have an executive producer (Rick Rubin) until two weeks out from its release date, which didn’t drop with an accompanying lead single, and which for fuck’s sake doesn’t even have an album cover or liner notes!
Yeezus is one giant, bold “fuck you” to the supposed industry standards of releasing music and to anyone who thought to place any expectations or presumptions on Kanye West. But just because he went all rogue with the album release, doesn’t mean he’s given up his narcissistic streak. After all, he titled this album Yeezus and included a track called “I Am A God” (which online track lists ostentatiously tell us features God himself) because he has a giant, outsized ego that needs stroking and that he doesn’t shrink away from. People hate him for that, but it’s what drives his genius. And yes, as far as rap is concerned, Kanye West is a genius. Yeezus is just the latest, controversial example of it.