Thursday, July 2, 2015

Beneath The Skin - Of Monsters and Men

When I first heard "Little Talks" by Of Monsters and Men, I remember not being particularly impressed or captured by the sound. Fast forward to now, and I regularly enjoy playing their first album on my record player (curtesy of my sister). The quirkiness and indie sound of this Icelandic group with intriguing names grew on me, enough that I've done a cover of their song "From Finner" and cannot get enough of their music. So, naturally, the announcement of their sophomore album made me excited. I was anxious to hear where they went next with their sound, which was unique, but could be limiting if they stuck to exactly what they knew. Luckily, they did not fall into the sophomore slump.

From the start, you can tell it's Of Monsters and Men; their sound is signature. However, you can also hear some differences. Mainly, it is the overall tone of the music, leaning far more towards the somber side than their debut album. While My Head Is An Animal had a lighthearted nature to it, leaving you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, Beneath The Skin feels much more bittersweet. This is not to say that they don't have cheery or happy moments; songs like "Empire" and "Crystals" have that more lighthearted feeling. The overall feeling of the album, however, is much heavier and darker in terms of tone. "Humans", for example, doesn't make you want to dance around like "King and Lionheart" or "Little Talks" might have done in the past, but it is still easily identifiable as Of Monsters and Men. The songs all tend to take on a slower pace as well, none of them feeling terribly fast or upbeat. There is a more epic, larger sense to these songs, something that I think was hinted at in their first album but never truly utilized.  The drums play heavily into this, the beats and rhythms used creating a larger sound. "Wolves Without Teeth" is a great example of the use of drums. The beat is something that you can't help but tapping along to, while simultaneously building the song from the subdued verses to the thrilling chorus. "Hunger" also prominently features the drums; they're the driving force of the energy in the song, especially into the bridge with the dual vocals from the bands vocalists, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson (on another note, what cool names!). OMAN also use the horns that were common on their first album to a different effect this time around, more as accents than the main picture. On "Black Water", for example, the horns are used with the gang vocals on the bridge to make a moment that feels like something from a movie soundtrack.

The last song I'll talk about is my favorite of the album so far, "Thousand Eyes". This one definitely starts off with the darker feel, almost haunting in the bareness of the beginning. The slow build in this song is incredible; it's past the two minute mark before the drums and guitars really start to kick in. When they do, however, the vocals fade out, and the way that the instruments erriely climb higher and higher is enough to give you chills. The height of the track is absolutely incredible; it's such a massive sound, it's almost hard to believe. The song doesn't follow a traditional structure of verse chorus etc, but instead has two parts; the vocals, and then the instruments. All together, it creates a piece that you would be hard to match. It reflects a soundtrack feel, especially in the build, and I would be surprised if it didn't end up in a movie or a trailer for one.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the sophomore effort from Of Monsters and Men. It's different from their debut album, but that's good; too many bands get trapped in their own sound. They retained their core feel, but expanded to new territories.

Rating: 4/5
Recommended: "Thousand Eyes", "Human", "Black Water", "Hunger"

Monday, June 15, 2015

Drones - Muse

Muse has been around for quite a while now. They released their very first album, Showbiz, in 1999. Since then, they have become one of the biggest and most well known rock bands in the world, putting on shows all over and making a name for themselves as innovative and incredible entertainers. Every album has channeled their energy and desire to push themselves into new territories, from the saga-elements of The Resistance and the experimental and concept-aspect of The 2nd Law. Their latest album, Drones, is no exception to their constant pushing of the envelope. However, it might have not been a push in the right direction.

The main concept of this album had to do with the idea of drones, both in the literal sense relating to the U.S. Drone program and the metaphorical idea of people being drones that are controlled and guided by society. It is heavily reflected in the lyrics of the album, with many references to drones, individuality, and corruption in society and governing bodies. While Muse has always leaned towards the political side, they have managed to consistently approach it in an original and creative way. With this album, however, it didn't work as much. The message being put out throughout the album was extremely similar from song to song, with some of the lyrics sounding so much alike that they failed to help differentiate one song from another. The topic they were focusing on is a subject that should be discussed in the world today, but the way they did so could have been handled much better. Matt Bellamy has always been one of my favorite musicians; his talent is undeniable as a vocalist and guitarist. But his lyrics this time around were mediocre. If you listen to the quality of political songs they have done in the past, (such as "United States of Eurasia" and "Uprising"), he managed to write in a way that was informative and inspiring while being original. However, the lyrics of Drones lacked the same creative spark that previous albums contained.

For some fans, musically this album took steps in the right direction. Many complained about the heavy use of electronics on the last album, (which I have my own opinions about, but we'll stick to this album), and welcomed the returning focus to heavy guitars and the more "Muse" oriented rock sound. However, this return came at a price. They revisited the vibe that pushed them into the spotlight early in their career, but perhaps too much. While it definitely sounded like the Muse of Absolution and Black Holes & Revelations, that was the problem; it sounded exactly like their old material. While they incorporated some of the more recent electronic elements, it sounded very similar to Muse songs that I grew up listening to. Not only that, but by stripping away the electronic elements, they took away the epic sound that listeners have come to expect from Muse. There were some moments when they did achieve a more full sound, but lyrics took away from the musicality. The album finisher, for example, is simple vocals layered on top of each other, which comes together to create a Gregorian Chant inspired piece that is beautiful. However, the constant repetition of "killed by drones" takes away from what the song could do.

There's one song in particular that sums up the faults in this album; the lead single, "Psycho". Not only is it unnecessarily long, it repeats itself often and doesn't do anything particularly surprising. The use of swearing is another issue with the song. While I'm not against swearing in music, I think it should follow the same guidelines I use when putting swearing into my writing; it has to be effective and necessary. They wanted to emphasize their lyrics and the severity of what they were singing about. That's a great thing to do, but screaming about "I'm gonna make you, a fucking psycho" and "your ass belongs to me now" doesn't prove the point that they want. In terms of sound, this song sounds incredibly similar to the layout and sound of "Uprising". Another new song that sounds similar to previous work they've done is "Mercy", which has uncanny resemblance to "Starlight". And while I enjoy the opener "Dead Inside", it feels quite similar to "Undisclosed Desires".

Now, I'm not saying the whole album is bad. There are songs and elements that I genuinely enjoy. "Reapers" has almost a Van Halen feel to it, with the guitar part in the introduction, and the rest of the song is well done, between the aggressive nature of the instrumental and Bellamy utilizing his falsetto that he does so well. "Defector" has these wonderful moments where Bellamy's vocals are layered and he harmonizes with himself. Each of those moments are vary powerful in the way they hit the listener. The monster of a track "The Globalist", is easily a highlight of the album, capturing many elements of the band that fans love. It has the western-space element similar to "Knights of Cydonia", but overall it builds beautifully into huge, epic sounds that are what I had been looking for throughout the album.

 But as a whole, I think the album has some serious issues and dissapointments that cannot be ignored. This isn't a "I was a huge fan for a while but now they've changed so R.I.P. Muse thing" (I cannot stand that sort of comment. Maybe an opinion piece will appear in the near future...). This is a fan who listened to the progression of the sound of a band he still loves, but felt his heart break a little with this release. Perhaps with time it will grow more on me. But for now, I am not satisfied with this latest album from Muse. They're better than this.

Rating: 2.5/5

Recommended: Dead Inside, Reapers, Defectors

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Story So Far - The Story So Far

For a band that is at the fore-front of "pop-punk", The Story So Far has done a lot more growing up than most of the other bands in the scene. They have continually matured and tightened up their sound with every release, and their latest self-titled album is no exception. While a portion of the young boys they were with their first album still remain, the band has begun moving into heavier and darker sounds as well as shifting away from the high school nature of their lyrics and more into the 20-somethings era the band members have entered.

Some of the songs sound fairly similar to records they have put out in the past ("Mock", "Scowl", "Stalemate"), but even then, these songs contain a new heaviness that was not at the forefront of their music. Other songs such as the opener "Smile", "Heavy Gloom", lead-single "Nerve", and "Distaste" are among the grittier songs on this record. It's not so much as there has been a dramatic change in their sound; it's the fact that they have more weight to them, and there's a bit more variety in the way that they approach each song. They utilize different ways of beginning songs and instrumentation. A notable example is the drum lead "How You Are", which includes guitar but is very much more influenced by the way in which the drum patterns (which also incorporate some new ideas the band hasn't really used before) vary. Another example of variation is the slow tune "Phantom", showing the influence their latest acoustic Songs Of - EP and their 2013 single "Clairvoyant". The haunting "it's hard to attract you" over the non-overdriven guitars and the lack of drums creates a very vulnerable sound that is rare for TSSF. It's easily one of the best and most powerful songs on the record, creating some great contrast and really demanding the listener's attention. "Heavy Gloom" is another song that attracts attention to the difference in sound and mood. It's got some of the aspects of TSSF's familiar sound, but it also feels different, in a way that's hard to explain. Especially the bass that is present in the introduction, that is something that is not common in their previous work.

The changes within this band are not obvious; they're deeper than the surface, they take time to pick up on and process. With the first few listens, this album feels considerably like their previous records. But after the initial listens, the sound starts to seem different, the tone has changed, the lyrics are not the same old drama. Sure, Parker still sings about girls and being cheated on and being away from home, but he has approached it differently. He doesn't talk about it like a 17 year old boy who is discovering love and girls and the trouble that follows. He talks about it like a 22 year old man who is trying to figure out what love is and who the right girl is for him and where home is and who he is. He has evolved his lyrics just as he has matured as a person. That is what sets this record apart from the previous records. That is what reveals the potential of this band.

Rating: 4/5
Recommended: "Smile", "Heavy Gloom", "Nerve", "Phantom"

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Blurryface - twenty one pilots

twenty one pilots rise to fame has been one of great interest to watch. Surprising in any way? Not particularly. This duo exploded in 2013 and 2014, due to their unique sound, endless energy, incredible humility, and commitment to their music and their fans. They combine genres and tackle topics and ideas not common for a majority of artists. Their label debut, Vessels, was an experience of its own. Jumping from heavy to soft, gritty to polished, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun poured their heart and soul into this album. With the announcement of their second album for label Fueled By Ramen, it led to speculation about the sound and direction of the band for the future. The eyes of the world were now on the band; how would that impact the way that they wrote music?

It didn't. In any way, shape, or form.

Sure, you could say being in the spotlight changed them in some way. But at their core, they have stuck to the ideas and focus with which they have always tried to uphold in the band. And so, I present Blurryface.

If there's a song that encompasses the spirit of this album, it's the opening track "Heavydirtysoul". It kicks off with a combination of different genres, flowing from pop to hip-hop to a bit of EDM and some alternative thrown in. It spans the genres and is also not defined by any of them as well. That is exactly what this album is about. While most of the songs can be limited to one or two genres, it is hard to categorize the album as a whole. You have songs like "Stressed Out", "Fairly Local", and "Doubt" that are hip-hop oriented and "Tear In My Heart", "Ride", and "The Judge" that are alternative based. Even then, however, there are influences from other genres in all of these songs. Reggae can be found throughout the entire album, pop influences shine in moments here and there, even dance and EDM show up at points. "Lane Boy" is a combination of reggae and eventually drums and bass, as unlikely of a pairing as that is. It's ideas and aspects like this that show the creative and independent nature of the band is well alive, kicking, and not going anywhere soon.

It's an incredible experience to listen to from start to finish, not only musically but lyrically. "Stressed Out" is one of the more relatable songs I have heard in the recent past for 20-somethings. Lines like "between student loans and tree house homes, we all would take the latter" and "used to dream of outer space, but now they're laughing at our face, saying 'wake up, you need to make money'" hit home for those of us who are finishing up college and trying to figure out what to do with our lives and all the responsibilities that have begun to build up. "Tear In My Heart" combines the current state of radio and music with the idea of finding true love and being alive and unique. "We Don't Believe What's on TV" challenges the notion of what we're told in the media and what it means to pursue our dreams and be ourselves. "Fairly Local", "Polarize", and especially "Goner" wrestle with the evil we have within ourselves and becoming better people. "Goner" in particular is one of the most moving songs on the album, shifting from Tyler's almost-whispers and the piano to raw screams of "don't let me be gone" and crashing drums and guitars. "Lane Boy" tackles the music industry and the notion of a "perfect song" and the defining nature in which the people operate, while even admitting that some of the songs on here might be a bit too polished. It's a wide range of topics that are all attacked in generally unique ways

The album also varies in the moods it goes through, which is something that adds to the listening experience. You have heavier and darker songs ("Fairly Local", "Doubt", "Stressed Out"), but at the same time you have the lighthearted nature (captured in "Tear In My Heart", the piano and horns influenced "Not Today", and the ukulele driven "The Judge"). There is no stagnant aspect of this album. Nothing is the same, nothing settles for one thing that works. twenty one pilots pushed to remain unique in their sound and approach, and they very much succeeded in doing so. Cheers to overcoming the sophomore slump (even though this is technically your fourth album).

Rating: 4.5/5
Recommended: "Stressed Out", "Ride", "Lane Boy", "Doubt"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blink-182: Watching A Trainwreck

This post means a lot to me. And it both saddens and angers me that I have to write it in the first place. These are grown men that I'n writing about, grown men that have produced some of the music that was most significant to me in my formational years of high school. The music that got me through the good and the bad, that made me feel like a rebel when I clearly was not. Blink-182 did the same thing for countless teenagers who felt angst and emotions and rebellion. Their break up in 2005 was far from clean, and I know that their reunion in 2009 was an exciting new beginning. However, it appears as though the band will always have a dramatic element to it.

Since January, the band has been appearing in the news due to (what appeared to be) sudden fighting within the band. Tom was out, but he said he wasn't out, but Travis and Mark said he was, and a replacement was found, and Tom is releasing things on his own, Travis saying Tom should man up, and-

The above paragraph is complete garbage. This is not how grown adults act. This is how children act, children throwing tantrums and name calling and passive-aggressive bullshit. It's disrespectful to the band members, it's disrespectful to their legacy, and most importantly, it's disrespectful to the fans. Yes, sometimes people don't work together anymore. Sometimes they just need to part ways and move on. But there are much better ways that the current situation could have been handled. The members of Blink-182 could have sat down and talked about this like adults. They could have parted ways amicably.

However, as much as I'm disappointed with them right now, this is only fitting for them. This is, for the most part, how you would expect them to act. Sad as it is, it's all that is going to happen for now, until some sort of communication begins between both camps.

A final note; in a recent interview, Travis talked about the possibilities of recording new music with the current fill in member for Tom, Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio. He said "If we did make an album with Skiba, it would be unreal." This, while I'm sure is an exciting possibility for the current operating members of the band, makes me nervous. Tom may be making some stupid or childish decisions at the moment, but Blink will always be Tom, Travis, and Mark. Skiba filling in for a show is perfectly fine, but to have him join the band and still call it the same band isn't nearly the same, and especially seems a bit like rubbing gravel in the open wound. Fans are still hoping for some sort of resolution, and Travis appears to already be looking towards the future. That in itself is fine, but an album without Tom is not the same Blink of the past. And that is something to keep in mind, something the band members need to be very aware of.

So this is my plea to Tom, Travis, and Mark: get your heads out of your asses, stop standing with your backs to each other and your arms crossed, and sit down and figure things out. I don't care if you don't resolve your issues and the band is still not together, but be men about it. Have some respect for each other and for your fans.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

American Beauty / American Psycho - Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy has had quite a curious career. Rising rapidly to stardom in the mid 2000's, slowly fading away with a well publicized hiatus, recording a comeback album in secret and exploding back onto the scene with Save Rock and Roll, and now this; American Beauty / American Psycho. The follow up to a dramatic change in sound succeeds in cementing the new pop-oriented aspect of FOB, but without destroying their integrity as artists. They figured out how to be culturally relevant without selling out. It's quite the feat in this day and age. And I know people will argue that they did sell out and they've changed and "I want the old FOB back, true fans will agree". It's quite obnoxious, hearing that not only about FOB but the multitude of bands who mature as people and surprise surprise: their sound changes as well. It's the natural progression of bands. They have to move forward, otherwise to be stagnant is to fade away and die. Fall Out Boy understands this, and thus you have AB/AP.

The 11 track album moves even farther from their days of "Sugar, We're Goin Down" and "Dance, Dance". Drum tracks, synths, and even vocal effects are found throughout. The majority of these tunes are much more pop influenced and radio ready, moving away from the hip-hop tone that was prevalent on SR&R. Songs like "The Kids Aren't Alright" and "Fourth Of July" utilize pop norms aspects to make them feel ready to blast in a car ride, as well as the already heavily played "Centuries". "The Kids Aren't Alright" plays out like a ballad, while "Fourth of July" plays on a clever idea of two lovers being like fireworks "that went off too soon" to paint a catchy, yet tragic love story. Songs such as "Uma Thurman", "Irresistible", and the title track run in a similar vein in terms of radio readiness, but utilize quirks to make them unique. "Uma Thurman" samples The Munsters theme song as well as referencing Pulp Fiction to keep things interesting. "Irresistible" mixes a horn line with hip-hop drum tracks to make your next pump-up jam. "American Beauty/American Psycho" goes off into its own genre, delving into futuristic sounding hyper-rock that gets you on your feet and on edge, something quite unexpected yet quite welcome. The entire album is full of unique aspects, from the Nightmare Before Christmas-tone in the low "na na's" found in "Novocaine" to the Indian synth/guitar parts of "Immortals", which also made its way into the soundtrack for Big Hero 6.

What I'm trying to get at is that Fall Out Boy is experimenting. They're trying new things constantly, and they aren't slowing down anytime soon. They have discovered an aspect of music making that they love, and that's the kind of passion that doesn't go out because people don't like what they hear.

Rating - 4.5/5
Recommended - Fourth Of July, Irresistible, American Beauty/American Psycho