Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review of "To Be Kind" by Swans

What's my passport photo doing there?
Let’s get the moany, groany negative bits out of the way. Clocking in at over two hours, this album is obscenely long. LIKE MY DICK. That was immature of me and not really the style of humour I try to promote on this blog, so let's move on rapidly.

Making long albums and long songs is nothing new for experimental rockers, Swans. Previous lp, The Seer, had a track with a 32:14 running time. To Be Kind, takes things one step further, introducing ‘Bring the sun/Touissant L’Ouverture’ totalling a colossal 34:05 minutes in length. It makes 'Shine on you Crazy Diamond' look radio-friendly. Unfortunately, I don't have the time nor the patience for long albums these days. I have the attention span of a toddler, and have always preferred concise records. Immediate stimuli has more of a lasting effect on me. This review is already boring me and I haven’t even got started yet. To demonstrate how short my attention span is, I'm going to add some instantly gratifying pictures of funny cats and half-naked women.

People glancing over this blog won't have a clue what's going on
Hey??? I SAID HALF-NAKED WOMEN!!!
Now that the album's negatives have been discussed, let’s talk about what makes this album otherwise bloody phenomenal. The magic seems to all stem from Swans' divine ability to take one singular riff, usually only a couple of seconds in length, and repeat it, letting it build and build and build. That riff will keep on building for minutes on minutes whilst slowly other instruments join in the fray – strange guitar squeals and an intuitive drum pattern, a touch of piano and a fleck of bass. Gradually the vocals come in. Consisting of minimalistic chanted lyrics, vocalist Michael Gira starts soft and sane and slowly grows LOUDER and more MANIC, his voice building UP and UP. Meanwhile, that same original riff is also building UP and UP, now immersed in other instrumentation, now on the brink of exploding. AT WHICH POINT THE MUSIC EXPLODES REACHING A CRESCENDO … AND YET IT CONTINUES TO BUILD AND BUILD, THE VOCALS NOW BATSHIT INSANE. IT KEEPS ON BUILDING AND BUILDING AND BUILDING UNTIL ITS PURE DISSONANCE, PURE NOISE FHIFNKUNOH AND IT KEEPS BUILDING! MY CONCEPTIONS OF WHAT MUSIC IS ARE NOW BEING CHALLENGED

That is what listening to this album feels like. It’s all in the build. There’s nothing cheerful or jubilant about these impending crescendos either. The ominous, progressing landscapes that this album transports you over are dark and uncomfortably eerie, whether it be the creepy Primus-style funk of ‘A little God in my Hands’ or the choral cosmos of the concluding title track ‘To Be Kind’.

However, it's Gira’s vocals that really add the unique character to Swans. Equal parts comical and equal parts terrifying, his vocal style is ever-changing and unpredictable - whether he’s entertainingly screaming ‘I’M JUST A LITTLE BOY!’, screeching sinisterly in French/Spanish/Portugese about the founder of Haiti, Touissant L’Ouverture, or reducing all of human nature to a repetitive list of ‘Some Things We Do’, delivered in a soft and deliberately monotonous tone. Most of the tracks rely on a handful of lyrics that are repeated throughout the song. This seems to be another distinctive trait of Swans. They take one riff and a few lyrics and pump all the creativity into the epic build-up. That’s how house music is formed – although to call Swans house music is a bit of a tall order.

If you can find the time, give this album a listen. Its not easy-going and is purposely unfriendly on the ears, but as a sinister atmosphere producer its gripping and extremely impressive - a true piece of art. 
★★

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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Review of XSCAPE by Michael Jackson




XSCAPE is a collection of discarded Michael Jackson tracks that never made the cut. There’s an immediate moral dilemma with an album like this. Would Michael really have wanted these tracks to be sieved out of the wastebin and served to the public? Isn’t there a reason why unreleased tracks go unreleased?

Most likely, this is not a caring final tribute to the King of Pop, but yet another chance for record companies, producers and other musical parasites to make money off his corpse. With this in mind, it’s easy to go into XSCAPE eagerly expecting to hate it. That’s kind of what I did.
 
Unless MJ comes back from the grave, we'll never know whether or not he'd be happy with this release (HANG ON A MOMENT! MICHAEL JACKSON? DEAD??? WHY WASN'T IT IN THE NEWS?????? #jk)


On the surface, it’s easy to see why some of the material on this record wasn’t deemed fit for public consumption. Given MJ’s past, a track entitled ‘Do you know where your children are’ might not have gone down all too well were it released whilst he was alive. The track ‘A Place with no Name’ meanwhile – a bizarre mutated version of America’s ‘A Horse with No Name’ with equally poor lyrics – simply lacks the novelty that we associate with MJ.

Saying that, I did enjoy this album overall and whilst some tracks don’t quite hit the mark, others remind me of just how bloody fantastic a vocal performer Michael was and what a shame it is that he’s no longer with us. Alternating between his soft whimper and snappy shouted delivery, each track showcases the fact that Michael never held back, that he put every bit of his heart and vocal ability into each song, even the ones that were never meant to be released. 

Beefed up with 2014 production and 808 trap drums, the album does feel current although at times, to quote Richard Suchet from Sky news, the tracks do ‘sound like modern day remixes’ rather than actual MJ songs. Original versions of each track can be found on the deluxe version of this record, some of which sound instrumentally better, others of which sound instrumentally worse. In both cases, ‘Loving You’ succeeds at wowing. Take or leave ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ – it sounds like Enrique Iglesias wrote it, the modern version sporting k-pop synths, the original simply bland.

 

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Sunday, 18 May 2014

Review of 'Honest' by Future (deluxe edition)


The 17th track on the deluxe edition of this album sums up the whole record pretty well.

Maybe that’s a little harsh. But hey, I'm just being honest (see what I did there).

Future is an American rapper with a lot of connections. Kanye, Pusha T, Drake and Andre 3000 all make guest appearances on this record. His first album received a lot of praise from critics and this album has been getting the same rave reviews. Why everyone has been getting a hard-on over this garbage is beyond me. Personally, I found this album borderline unlistenable.

The album presents an even mixture of trap rap singles and r&b ballads. With the exception of ‘Move that Dope’ (which is an absolute banger!), Honest is impressively generic. The beats, the flows and the subject matter all feel like they were designed to be as consumer friendly as humanly possible and as a result it creates a pretty boring listen.

However, without a doubt the worst part of this album has to be the excessive use of Auto-tune. Every track is drenched in it. I’m talking every single sung note that requires a change in pitch. Not only that, but its hilariously bad Auto-tune. It would appear that Future’s voice is so shaky that not even pitch correction software can make it sound in key.

I hated Auto-tune when T-Pain used it, when Kanye used it, when Cher used it. At least they could use it correctly. The robot-going-through-puberty effect that Future gives off is simply painful to listen to.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the last track of the deluxe version of this album contains an auto-tuned verse from none other than Lil Wayne. The worst album I've heard all year.

TRACK TASTER:

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Review of 'Nikki Nack' by tUnE-yArDs


THE WEIGHT OF ME BROKE THE ROCKING CHAAAIR! Now I can’t get to sleep!’ This experimental pop album is full of lyrical wtf moments. There’s even a skit half-way through the record entitled ‘Why do we dine on the tots?’ in which an elderly couple debate the pros and cons of eating their grandchildren. The melodies are African in flavour accompanied by strange semi-electronic drum patterns that explore all manner of time signatures. It’s easy to feel a little bit lost whilst listening to this album and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people’s reaction is something similar to this…


I’d have probably dismissed this album as pretentious twaddle if it wasn’t for the bubbly personality, humour and catchiness that Merrill Garbus brings to the table. She’s the lead vocalist and creator of tUnE-yArDs (I cOnSiDeReD wRiTiNg ThE wHoLe ReViEw LiKe ThIs). The music video below demonstrates that she has a taste for the bizarre. Note the guy sticking pencils into a potato.



Her ability to construct instant vocal earworms gives the instrumental confusion some coherence. I say ‘some coherence’ because lyrics like ‘A two pound chicken tastes better with friends’ don’t exactly bring much immediate sense to the album. Like St. Vincent, Merrill seems to present a style of pop that is both as cryptic as it is simplistic. I’ve never been very good at interpreting the intended meanings behind lyrics, so I won’t offer any deep analyses here. Vivid imagery is enough for me and this record offers satisfying amounts of it, exemplified by lines such as: ‘He gave me a dollar. A blood soaked dollar. I cannot get the spot out but its okay, it still works in the store’.  

Aided by an impressive vocal range (the low end of her voice does sound a bit like a man but, then again, so did Nina Simone’s) Merrill shows that she's super-talented. Overall, the album is a fun and entertaining listen, often weird, sometimes in places a little too weird, but if you approach it with a sense of humour then it will be rewarding.
★★

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Review of "The New Classic" by Iggy Azalea


Not many white female rappers make it big, let alone white female rappers from Australia. Opting not to use her natural Australian accent, Azalea raps instead with an exaggerated American drawl. I’ve got no problem with musicians using fake American accents. Half of our British vocalists are guilty of it. No, what annoys me about Azalea’s vocal tone is the Ke$ha-inspired, nasal quality that she chooses to employ. It sounds like she’s holding her nose whilst rapping.

This album has some pretty good beats for the most part. “Fuck Love” is trap on steroids, complete with airhorns, and the reverb soaked aggressive synth hook on “Fancy” is pretty infectious. However, I simply cannot stand the vocals; they make me want to rip my ears off. Lyrical content obsessed with her newfound fame and an obnoxious personality only help to make her more dislikeable.


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Sunday, 11 May 2014

Review of "Sacred White Noise" by Thantifaxath


Sweet Lord, this album is terrifying…

It begins with an organ – the most dissonant, horrifying organ freakout conceivable. For twenty long seconds this organ rings out through the speakers. It is then abruptly replaced by a skittering lone guitar. Its chromatic riff plays out like a spider in a bath tub. The drums and bass haven’t even entered the mix yet but they will, any second now. You, the listener, are shitting yourself in fearful apprehension. Well, maybe not you personally but I, for one, shat myself whilst listening to this album. Multiple times.

Just look at these fuckers. They're pure evil
Sacred White Noise is the debut full-length album by Canadian black metallers, Thantifaxath. The identity of the band members is unknown. They wear hooded robes and stuff when they perform live to conceal their true appearance. Personally I don’t think they’re human beings at all. I think they’ve journeyed here from a distant volcanic world devoid of sunlight. They’re here to show us what real fear is.

Fear and beauty. As frighteningly dissonant as many of the melodies are, they’re also deeply-moving in how sweetly melancholy they are. The band also know when to strip things back, to slow things down, whilst still keeping a captivating level of tension. “Eternally Falling” creates a vast empty landscape mid-way through the album, lacking almost entirely in percussion, making room for a sad, eerie chord progression. This track is followed by “Panic Becomes Despair” in which the music then plummets back into atonal, tremolo-picked chaos.

For a black metal record, the production is fairly clean. You can really hear and appreciate the interplay between the bass and guitar as they spiral madly amongst one another. Brutal, mid-range screams make up the vocals, the snarl on the end of each utterance similar to Obituary’s John Tardy. It’s cool to hear a black metal record in which some of the lyrics can actually be interpreted. The screams of “WHERE ARE YOU???!!!” during the final track make for a particularly unsettling listen. 

With its ever-changing contrasts between loud and soft, fast and slow, beautiful and ugly, Sacred White Noise remains constantly engaging whilst never feeling disorganised or poorly structured. It’s a perfectly engineered, artfully atmospheric thrill ride and one of the most enjoyable black metal records I’ve heard in a long time. 

STREAM THE ALBUM HERE FOR FREE. SWEET DREAMS!

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Saturday, 10 May 2014

Review of 'III' by BADBADNOTGOOD


The pessimistically named BADBADNOTGOOD are an instrumental jazz trio from Toronto. This is the part where I have to pretend to know lots about jazz.

Here is a picture of people doing 'jazz hands'. The stuff only an expert knows.

To be honest, I shouldn't have to pull out too much foreign terminlogy. The band have got less jazzy on this release making multiple alterations to their style. Whereas previous works felt like spontaneous live recordings, this album feels more fine-tuned and planned out. There are still some jazzy, improvisational solos here and there, but the large majority of the music follows an organised structure of minor key riffs and repeated drum patterns more akin to the post-rock style of a band like Mogwai.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes is the addition of extra instrumentation. The piano/bass/drums trio was charming, but limited. Cameos from strings, synths and sax bring in new, exciting flavours to individual songs. Most surprising are the booming electronic bass drums found on ‘Can’t leave the night’ and ‘CS60’. BADBADNOTGOOD’s love of hip hop has been clear since their beginnings when they were doing jazz covers of Odd Future songs. Use of electronic drums ensure that the album is a product of the 21st Century. Amongst the acoustic instrumentation, these electronic trap 808s sound bold and menacing.

If I had one major complaint it would be that the music on this record feels less busy than previous works and therefore at some points less engaging. A focus on brooding build ups and progressions has turned their gripping, unpredictable jazz into something approaching background music at some points during the album. There are a lot of interesting ideas, but the band plays it safe by keeping these ideas tamed down to an accessible level. 

The band have drastically changed their style and I understand why people have been turned off. If there’s one thing that has remained unchanged, it’s the band’s ear for a gloomy atmosphere. BADBADNOTGOOD haven’t gone all bright and cheerful on us and are the same moody and morose musicians at heart.
★★

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review of "None will Mourn" by Skinfather


It’s time to get heavy. I’m talking break-the-scales heavy. Heavier than a mountain. Heavier than a planet. HEAVIER THAN YO MAMA.

Californian death metal act, Skinfather, are signed to Streetcleaner records – a label owned by, Todd Jones, the lead singer of grindcore band, Nails. Employing the same pummelling production style as Nails, this debut album by Skinfather strikes like a punch to the face. Old-skool-death-metal-seasoned chugga-chugga riffs play out to largely mid-tempo beats. An absence of blast beats is refreshing and the band clearly favour headbangability over speed. ‘Dead Still’ lays down the biggest, baddest, most headbangable riffs and is my favourite amongst the bunch.

Some of the riffs do slip into generic territory and as ferocious as the lead vocalist is, a memorable hook from him now and then wouldn’t go a miss. The USP here is clearly the production. Some of my favourite extreme metal acts – Strapping Young Lad and Portal being notable examples – appeal to me because of their creative production methods, engineered to sound as abrasive as possible. Skinfather have me hooked in that respect. They know how to leave their listener cauliflower eared through quality of sound rather than speed. With improvements to melody and songwriting, they could really make a name for themselves. 
★★

STREAM THE ALBUM HERE FOR FREE

Review of "American Interior" by Gruff Rhys


American Interior follows the tale of a Welshman exploring America. Non-invasive, melancholy pianos help to create feelings of loneliness and intrigue as Gruff sings from the perspective of 18th Century Welsh traveller, John Evans, the first man to map out the Missouri river. Below is a picture of a river.
 
A river. Not the Missouri, but a river nonetheless.

Welshness is all over this album, with Gruff singing an entire song in welsh entitled "Allweddellau Allweddol". The title curiously translates to ‘keys keyboard’, leaving me none the wiser as to what the song might be about. Of all the tracks, the title track "American Interior" might just be the highlight with its catchy vocal hook and chord progression. Other songs have their brief standout moments, but they don’t quite achieve the same lasting impact.

Overall, American Interior makes for a soothing listen that does present a nice allegory for anyone exploring the sometimes lonely journey of life that we all tread. However, as a bit of an AD/HD listener, the music is a little too subtle for my liking. The album goes all country at the end and I’ve never dug that slow, lazy style of country instrumentation although hearing Gruff comically and randomly sing over the top that he was conceived in the year of the rooster is quite entertaining. 


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