Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

2011 vs 2012. FIGHT!

Just before the end of last year, I had an idea to write a sort of end of year round up of 2011’s music, and what an absolutely amazing year it had been. As far as I’m concerned it was probably the best of at least the last five years. But then 2012 blindsided me, and 22 days in to the new year I’m already at the point of wanting to declare this as the best year in music, so rather than just looking back, how about we do some looking forward too? Yeah? Great, lets start.

2011

Last year was a year that delivered in spades, many of my favourite artists put out new albums, all of which were of a stunning caliber. Here are some of the highlights:

Opeth – Heritage

This was one I was worried about. In my opinion Opeth’s previous album, Watershed, didn’t live up to the band’s usual seal of quality. I found it to be derivative of their older work without really bringing anything new to the table. Opeth are one of those bands that manages to find a different way of approaching every album they do, so I was disappointed when Watershed failed to surprise me. Had the band hit a creative slump? Had they finally ran out of ideas and creative energy? Needless to say, this left me worried about how their follow up would come out sounding. Not only were those worries completely unnecessary, what they came out with completely blindsided everybody to listen to it.

For those of you not familiar with Opeth, here’s a quick rundown: they’re a melodic death metal band who draw heavily on progressive rock influences, amongst other things. But for Heritage they completely threw away the rulebook. Death growls? Gone. Heavy, distorted guitars? Gone. Insanely loud drumming? Gone.

Heritage is a pure progressive rock album, and it’s a bloody good one. It’s definitely one of my favourite albums of the year, and I’d recommend it to anyone. One of the best things about it is that despite a complete shift from the band’s typical style and sound, anyone who knows the band can instantly listen to it and identify it as their work. Once again the band has excelled itself at finding a new way of approaching their work.

The Antlers – Burst Apart

The Antlers’ first album, Hospice, was widely recognised as one of the best albums of 2009, so I had a lot of expectations for the follow up. Burst Apart didn’t disappoint. When it first came out it was the only thing I listened to for about 2 weeks. As a full album it’s much better than Hospice, although I’ll concede that there’s nothing on Burst Apart that comes remotely near to my two favourites on Hospice. And that’s the album’s one downfall: a lack of standout tracks. It’s not much of a downfall when you consider the overall quality of the album though.

La Dispute – Wildlife

There’s not much to say about this album other than it’s brilliant. If you want to read my ful feelings about the band, you can do so here.

In short, the band has improved on everything. It’s a really interesting concept album that reflects on various aspects of mortality, and the lyrics are wonderfully written. Fucking depressing at times though, but incredibly powerful.

Animals As Leaders – Weightless

Looking back I think this may actually be my album of the year, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be. If you’re not familiar with the band, you need to rectify that immediately. But I’ll give you a quick rundown – it started as the solo project of guitarist Tosin Abasi, who is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure to see play. The man is capable of creating, and then playing, ridiculously complex music, all whilst making it look so easy you’d think anyone could do it.

Following his first album, he recruited a band to perform live with. And so Weightless is the first album by Animals as Leaders as a band, rather than a single man. And it shows. The guitar writing and performance is as solid as ever, but what really separates this album from their first is having a proper drummer involved in the writing process. The result is a piece of mindblowing musicianship that’s nothing short of inspired.

Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with this one. Steven’s first album, Insurgentes, is one of my all time favourite albums. After listening to GFD a lot, I’ve finally formed the opinion that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fantastic though. It is.

Thomas Giles – Pulse

This came as a complete surprise to me. It’s the second solo album from Between the Buried and Me frontman Tommy Rogers. Any of you who’ve heard BTBAM will know that they’re incredibly talented musicians who dabble in playing a diverse range of music. And yet I was still caught off guard by just how much of an incredible range of music Tommy is capable of producing, and performing. Check out the album’s first video, Sleep Shake, to see what I’m talking about.

There are a few songs on the album that aren’t anything to write home about, but by and large it’s a really well constructed album, and covers a lot of different styles. A very good listen.

A quick few honorable mentions go to Thrice for their latest album Major/Minor, which I found a bit too similar to their previous album, also Circle Takes the Square finally finished recording their second album. Given that their first was released way back in 2004, I was pretty surprised that this ever materialised. Although having said that, it didn’t really materialise. They released a 4 track taster EP, but never got around to releasing the full thing – hopefully we’ll see it in 2012 some time. Oh, and Sparta got back together and started recording a new album. Finally, Between the Buried and Me released a pretty sweet EP, as a precursor to a full album that they’re planning.

2012

Since we’re on the subject of Sparta, 2012 should see the aforementioned album getting a release. But a much more important bit of Sparta related news was announced this year. After 12 years of being broken up, At the Drive-In announced that they were reuniting. And as if that wasn’t an excellent enough day in music news, a few hours later Refused, after 14 years of being broken up, did the same.

For me this represents the chance that I actually have the chance to have seen all of my favourite bands before I die. I’ve been very lucky in getting to see bands I love, but there are three of my favourites that I’ve never been able to see because they were broken up before I got into them. Those three bands are ATDI, Refused, and Faith No More. I now live in a world where all three of those bands are back together.

I’m excited about Refused most of all. I’m not exaggerating when I say that listening to The Shape of Punk to Come at the age of 14 changed my life forever. That album set me on the course of loving all the music that I love today, and it also helped form my political worldview. I’m sure I would be a different person without that album. The chance to see Refused perform live is something I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for.

Although I do have some anxiety about both Refused and ATDI being back together. One thing both of those bands share in common is that they broke up immediately after releasing their best works. They went out on a total high, without ever putting a foot wrong. I’m okay with both bands being back together and performing, but I worry about the possibility of them recording new music. What if they release something shit? I really don’t want to see either band fuck up their legacies. Still, neither band has mentioned the possibility of new material yet, and of course there’s always the chance that they could release something new that’s amazing. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll certainly be biting my nails if either of them do intend to make new music though.

Whilst I’m still on the topic of ATDI, the other band formed by it’s members, the Mars Volta, have finally announced a date for their new album, Noctourniquet. We’ll be hearing it in March. Hopefully it should be an ace album too – I’ve noticed that TMV tend to release an amazing album, then an okay one. If they stick with the trend, this one should be brilliant.

And that’s not the only album to look forward to in March, Every Time I Die release their new one, Ex-Lives. This is an album I’ve been anticipating for a while. 2009’s New Junk Aesthetic is an album that I still listen to on at least a weekly basis, if not more. And judging from the single, this one should be an amazing follow-up.

There are also a few other bits to look forward to. The Dillinger Escape Plan announced last year that they were recording material for release this year, Trent Reznor announced last week that he’s going to start recording Nine Inch Nails material again, and there’s the chance of the new Between The Buried and Me album I mentioned earlier.

All in all a lot to look forward to then. 2011 is going to be a very tough act to follow, but the signs are there that 2012 can definitely pull it off.

Leona Lewis must die (or at least be stopped from covering classics)

As I was driving to do an interview during work today, I flicked over to Radio One for a bit, just in time to catch the music news. What I heard next made me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before today I’d heard the name Leona Lewis thrown around before, but I’ve never had a clue as to who she is. According to wikipedia “Lewis first came to prominence in 2006 when she won the third series of the British television series The X Factor,” which goes some way towards explaining why I don’t know who she is, as I pay no attention to shows like The X Factor, or their kin.

So why has Leona Lewis sparked my ire?  That bit can be explained by simply paraphrasing what I heard on Radio One.

“Leona Lewis has been talking about her new cover of Hurt”

“Hurt?” I found myself wondering. Surely they can’t mean Trent Reznor’s magnum opus? Apparently they can, and did, mean that, as I found out when they played a clip of it. A terrible, warbly, clip of it.

Although that five second clip told me all I needed to know, I decided to at least give her the benefit of the doubt, put aside my biases and listen to the song without my preconceptions clouding my judgement.

I wish I hadn’t bothered, because my preconceptions were exactly right. What I sat through was three minutes and forty one seconds of over-produced, emotionless crap. If there’s one thing that song does not need, it’s someone warbling their way through it.

The thing that offends me most about her cover is how completely nondescript it sounds. For the record, I don’t like the Johnny Cash cover either. But at least when he covered the song, he put something of himself into it. It sounds authentic, and whether you like it or not, Cash made that song his own. The same can’t be said of Lewis’ version. Had I happened across this cover playing on the radio without hearing who it was, I wouldn’t be able to pick out the artist – and no, that’s not because I had no idea who Leona Lewis was before today, it’s because it just as easily sounds like it’s Christina Aguilera, or Whitney Houston, or Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey, or basically any of the women who do that whole diva thing. Yes, Lewis has a very good voice, but she does that horrible thing that women in mainstream pop with that kind of voice do, just power their way through the chorus, and get louder and louder. And that is precisely not the kind of treatment a song like Hurt should be given. The song is so powerful – such a classic – because of its subtleties, its nuances. If Reznor had just belted through the original, I doubt it would have gained the iconic status it has today. The power of that song lies within the cracks in his voice; the moments he falters; the brief seconds when he sounds on the edge of tears; the ups and the downs. Lewis has completely missed the point.

In fact, it was patently obvious from the interview she did with Radio One that she had missed the point. She started talking about what a healing song it is, which made me wonder if she even knew the title of the album it was originally from, let alone listened to it. If you don’t happen to know the title, it’s The Downward Spiral, and if the name itself isn’t a dead give away, it’s an album written by a man wrought with severe depression, who was suffering a serious drug addiction. It’s an album which plunges the depths of the worst sides of the human condition. And Hurt, as the final track, is literally at the bottom of the spiral, about a complete loss of self-worth, about getting to the point of being so broken down you’re not even sure you can even feel anymore. And I find Leona Lewis’ apparent obliviousness to that offensive – because it’s completely ignorant of the struggle involved in the act of artistry that lead to the song’s creation – and as far as music goes, I think there’s no bigger crime than that.

I’ll happily admit that I’m not a particularly emotional person. I can count the amount of times I’ve cried over the last 5 years on one hand, and still have some fingers left over. But of the five or so times I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails live, they’ve always performed that song, and it’s always driven me close to tears. I can vividly recall seeing them in 2007, in a hall filled with a few thousand people, all singing that song in unison, all singing our hearts out. It was one of the closest things I’ve come to a religious experience, and sharing that song with all those people was a touching, humanising moment that I’ll no doubt carry with me for the rest of my life. I’m sure many of the people at that gig, or who’ve seen the song performed at other NIN gigs will have similar things to say. It’s an indisputable work of art, and what Leona Lewis has done to that piece of art with her cover is analogous to taking black spray paint to the Mona Lisa.

We Are Impressed

One of my favourite albums of 2007 was One Week In Sand by A Ninja Slob Drew Me. This is no small praise, as 2007 was one of my favourite years for music – with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, and Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree, amongst a slew of other things. I find it deeply impressive that an album which was recorded on a laptop, in a university bedroom with nothing resembling a professional recording set up stands out against a number of releases from big name musicians. Although, to the album’s credit, you can’t tell that it was put together with such a makeshift set up – it sounds professional.

Since the release of One Week I’ve been waiting with heavy anticipation for a follow up. I’ve been lucky enough to be drip fed bits of material during that waiting period, as Daniel Brown – the boorish assassin himself – happens to be one of my best friends. I’ve been privileged with unfinished recordings, demos, and discussion of ideas: a process which has had me very excited for the end product.

And now that final product is drawing incredibly near, with tangible results. Today a six track EP called We Are was launched on the artist’s website, which showcases a large chunk of the forthcoming album. After giving the EP a listen, followed by 5 more, my sense of impatience for the full album has grown immensely. I want it now.

In brief, it’s incredibly good. And it represents a massive artistic step forward from One Week. It’s still very much a Ninja Slob album – you can immediately identify any of the songs as having Dan’s trademark all over it – but at the same time it’s quite different from previous endeavours. One of the primary differences I noticed immediately upon listening is that there’s less experimentation within the music, which I actually think is a very good thing in this case, because the album sounds a great deal more focussed as a result. With this EP Brown has produced his most cohesive work to date. It’s also his most mature – it’s hard to explain exactly why, but the playing style, and the way the music is composed comes across as being a lot more self-assured than before. We Are is the work of an artist who has found hs voice, and is comfortable using it.

Song by song, the EP takes you on a sonic journey. It’s all wonderfully mixed together, and it’s quite easy to become lost in it. Each song is distinctive, with it’s own sound and message, and yet in spite of that I found myself wondering when exactly it was that the last track ended and the current one began on more than one occasion. It’s perhaps best to view it not as a collection of songs, but rather as one piece of music which has distinct movements.

The EP opens with it’s title track, which starts off sounding very relaxing and beautiful, and then segues into a more aggressive, industrial sound before descending into silence, followed by sampled speech atop interesting ambient noise.

Then track two begins, and it’s back to the warm sound of the 8 sting bass, being played in the unique 2-hand tapping style that’s become the Ninja Slob trademark. This track has a real sense of warmth to it – you know that feeling you get when you listen to things on vinyl? This track evokes a similar feeling. Despite that warmth, there’s a feeling of something dark lurking somewhere beneath – militaristic sounding drum blasts struggle beneath the bass, as if trying to break out and make themselves heard – but ultimately the bass wins out.

At least until Inside starts, and the drums begin to pick up volume and prominence. Whereas in the previous track, the bass was leading, the tables now turn, and the drums and other electronic beats really come to the forefront of the piece. Despite the highly driven pace, the track nicely ebbs and flows through peaks and troughs, building up tension with aplomb and then releasing it with a great cathartic effect.

We then reach what’s probably my favourite track on the album: The Infinite. It starts slowly, with a soft start to the music layered under glitchy static sounds. But the music soon fights it’s way through and increases in both volume and tension. It’s a track that just builds and builds itself up – and it gets everything just right. The direction of the music frequently shifts, always at just the right moment; nothing repeats itself for too long, and you’re never left feeling like there needed to be a bit more.

No Worry takes a very different start to the rest of the album. It’s a real stand out track. It’s pace is more subdued and methodical, giving the listener time to rest. It’s one of the simpler tracks in terms of instrumentation, which it makes use of to great effect. Of all the tracks on the album, I find No Worry to be the most uplifting – a very positive vibe permeates throughout the piece.

The EP reaches it’s end point with the aptly titled End Point. It begins with very dark, atmospheric ambience, which breaks into a somber sounding piece. Slowly other bits of instrumentation join in with the melancholic bass – but as with many of the other tracks, it’s the bass that dominates. The tone of the track conveys the sadness often present when many things come to an end, but towards the end it picks up in tone, leaving on a more positive note. At around the 4 minute mark the music proper ends, and gives way to more dark electronic ambience – leaving the listener with the suggestion that all is not finished, despite what the song’s title may imply. It very deftly alludes to the coming album, which will features all the tracks on the EP, plus several more. I expect I speak for many listeners when I say that I was left eagerly anticipating more.

Besides the music, it’s also worth drawing attention to the wonderful artwork provided by Jimmy Dead. It has an effective simplicity which accentuates the music it’s accompanying, it’s also quite pretty.

All in all, I can’t recommend this album highly enough. In my opinion it’s the best release of 2011 thus far, and I’m not saying that out of any form of bias. Since you can listen to it for free, I emphatically recommend that you give it a whirl at least once, it’s a wonderful piece of music that I think a lot of people can enjoy. It’s accessible enough that anyone can sit down and give it a go, but at the same time, there’s a lot of subtle complexity contained within that will give listeners something to come back to time and time again.

Music as a means of connection

Yesterday – following a recommendation from a friend – I came into possession of La Dispute‘s discography. Pitched to me as sounding like early mewithoutYou mixed with The Bled, the post hardcore nerd in me rumbled from its year in hibernation. Has it been a year? Maybe it’s even been longer. All I know is that it’s been a long time since I’ve discovered some decent, new, post-hardcore. A long time spent hungry, in need of something to sustain. Dear reader, I must share that my belly is now full.

After the recommendation I embarked upon my regular ritual of internet searching. First I went to wikipedia, to read about the band, and its influences. I was thoroughly impressed by what I’d read, especially when I saw the band drawing comparisons to Circle Takes The Square – a firm favourite of mine. Next, to last.fm, where I read a little more on the band, checked out what other bands they get compared to, and listened to one of the thirty second samples. It sounded good. And so, I went onto the final part of my ritual: acquiring the music.

I managed to find the whole discography, and so I decided I may as well get it all instead of just dipping my toe in with one piece first. When the download finished I started with the album Somewhere At the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. To date it’s the only album the band has released, all other releases have been EPs, and when I start listening to a band, I always start with an album. Plus, the album’s critical reception was pretty good, whereas I knew nothing about the EPs, so it was the obvious starting point.

What followed was an excellent 40 minutes of my life. I went in expecting something I’d enjoy, but what I got was something I love.

The first track’s a short one, and it wasn’t great. Initially I was put off by the sound of the vocalist’s voice, which – to put bluntly – elicits comparisons to the vocalists of whiney screamo bands. Not wanting to be put off by preconceptions I’d formed due to listening to terrible bands with similar vocals, I stuck with it. When the next track kicked in it became obvious that was a good idea. It became apparent from early in the song that the band has a quite unique musical approach. I say unique, the band do obey some of the genre conventions of post-hardcore, but there’s something there that’s individual to them, and they avoid the trap of sounding ‘by the books’ like many post-hardcore bands do these days.

The first four tracks of the album blur by in a frenzy of gnarly guitar riffs and emotive shouts. It’s evocative, it draws you in, it’s bloody energetic. It’s everything you’d expect from great post-hardcore.

And then track five comes along – and that’s when the hairs on my arms became raised by goosebumps, only to stay that way until the album drew to its close.

Track five is a slower, more considered piece than the ones that come before it. I’d been caught up in the delightful frenzy of it all, but all of a sudden that came to a halt, and the band commanded more of my attention. Atop an emotive bluesy guitar lead singer Jordan Dreyer slows his voice down to a musical cadence that borders on the spoken word. Somewhere within the first few lines of the song I began really paying attention to the lyrics, and by the time I heard the following, I was gripped:

“Understand that if you’re cold I’ll keep you warm
And besides, there’s so much beauty in a storm
So come down with me to the shore
And what’s more, I adore you
So tell me, what is there to fear?”

At that moment that I fired up google and began reading the lyrics along with the songs that I was listening to. I became even more engrossed.

If there’s one thing I can say for certain about what I enjoy in music, it’s good lyrics. It should be no surprise that I’m a sucker for creativity with the written word – and when that kind of creativity finds its way into music, I become captivated. La Dispute certainly captivated me.

Reading the lyrics as I went along with the rest of the album, I noticed a real maturity in La Dispute that I don’t often find present in bands that occupy the same genre. Admittedly, the lyrical themes are a tad trite at times. It’s clear that Jordan draws from a somewhat dark place when he writes, and this is what’s come to be expected from post-hardcore bands. But even though thematically the band walking on well-trodden ground, the lyrics do their subject matter a rare, well-considered justice.

It’s not the shallow ‘woe is me’ kind of screamo you hear from every teenager to pick up a guitar and start a band, there’s a real depth to the words. And despite the subject matter, which seems predominantly bleak, there’s always a small glimmer of hope, or a ray of positive emotion concealed somewhere within. It’s really quite inspiring.

Maybe there’s a hint of vanity in my admiration of the band, because when I listen; and when I read what they have to say, I think to myself that this is the kind of music I would write – if I still wrote music. This is perhaps why I began to elevate my esteem for La Dispute so rapidly. It feels like they’re talking my language. Even though I’m the listener, I find myself reading along and feeling a sense of agreement, almost as if I’m engaged in dialogue.

Having finished going through the album, I came out riding the high that I sometimes get when I make a brilliant musical discovery. I decided I hadn’t gotten my fill of the band yet, and so I turned my attention to the series of three EPs the band released titled Here, Hear. Expecting more of the same, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I was about to embark upon.

The Here, Hear EPs are a massive departure from Somewhere at the Bottom of the River… musically speaking, there’s a much slower tempo to each piece, and there isn’t a trace of hardcore to be found anywhere. I struggle to place these EPs in a specific genre, but to throw a few out there to give you an idea, what you’ll find in Here, Hear has traces of accoustic, at times folksy music, with a dash of electronic ambience, and the odd smattering of jazz.

The emotive shouts are also gone. Here, Hear is predominantly spoken word. Really well thought out, powerful, persuasive spoken word.

I can’t begin to tell you how much of last night I spent poring over the lyrics to every one of the twelve Here, Hear songs. The lyrics to Somewhere at the Bottom of the River… were great, yes. But these are something else, something far beyond that. The words to Here, Hear are nothing short of pure poetry. I love to find a good quote in a song, and that’s something that doesn’t happen too often lately. Last night I managed to find a good quote in all twelve songs on Here, Hear. I wish I could just post them all, but I’m sure that would be offputting. However, I fully recommend you check the lyrics out for yourself here.

I feel compelled to post at least one quote, though. Because this particular one, I feel, demonstrates just how much depth and consideration this band puts into its art. When I read this stanza for the first time, I felt genuinely moved, and it made me really stop and consider what was being said. How often in life do another persons words do that to us?

“There is a loneliness in this world
So great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock
People so tired, mutilated, either by love or no love.
People just are not good to each other.
We are afraid.
Our educational system tells us that we can all be big winners
But it hasn’t told us about the gutters or the suicides.
Or the terror of one person aching in one place
Alone, untouched, and unspoken to.”

Even though it appears particularly bleak in written form, delivered as a part of the piece of music this stanza forms, there’s something strangely upbeat. It’s comforting. Listening, I can’t help but feel that the message here is that “yes, we live in a world with poverty, war, and an infinite number of acts of human unkindness. But it’s okay. We have music. We have expression. Beneath all this turmoil there are good things.” Maybe that’s just my interpretation, though.

On their website, the band wrote:

“La Dispute is five close friends from the Upper Midwest with a firm passion for the concept of music and art as a medium for making new friends. As a result, La Dispute makes (or strives to make) music that is both artistically, technically, and emotionally engaging in hopes of establishing legitimate connections with any and all interested people, while encouraging dialogue between those people and themselves about things in life that truly matter and that truly last.”

I usually don’t buy into the self-promoting bullshit you read in a band’s biography. But listening to their music, I don’t feel like the above is some kind of self-aggrandising ploy, I genuinely feel as if that band have reached out to me, like we could be friends – Hence the title of this post.

And now, I’m going to go and listen to Here, Hear vol 1-3 on repeat for the next week or so.