Friday, September 29, 2017

Gemini - Macklemore

After taking 4 years in-between the 2012 breakout album The Heist and his less-commercially successful 2016 follow up This Unruly Mess I've Made (for reference, the former has sold over 1.5 million copies domestically, whereas the later has sold not quite 700k copies), Macklemore is back after only a year and a half with his first solo venture since him and Ryan Lewis teamed up in 2009. It is clear on Gemini that there is a different tone in play here, with Macklemore approaching the content and vibes of the songs in a generally more lighthearted manner as opposed to the previous two releases.

Gemini is a bit of a departure from the more indie-rap vibes that were signature for his last two albums with Lewis. There are a lot more tracks on this release that feel much more similar to the kinds of songs you hear on the radio currently. Songs like "Glorious (feat. Skylar Grey)", "Marmalade (feat Lil Yachty)", "Willy Wonka (feat. Offset)", and "How To Play The Flute (feat. King Draino)" all are very mainstream oriented, with trap and pop influences abounding.

"Glorious" feels the most like a Macklemore song you'd expect, beginning with piano chords and a clap track highlighting the beat that eventually includes a choir providing some layers to this stadium-ready anthem. The addition of Skylar Grey definitely helps the track stand out and provides some contrast to Macklemore's never-slowing flow.

"Marmalade" also begins with a piano line, but goes in a different direction as the booming kick and steady high-hat hits provide a backdrop for Macklemore's autotuned, laid back raps about having a good time. The feature of Lil Yachty fits the tone of the track, (I personally don't like Lil Yachty's music, but he was definitely the right choice for the song). It's almost too cheery for my taste, but that seems like it was the intention with the song (hence the name).

"Willy Wonka" feels like it falls in the same category of ridiculous songs as "Thrift Shop", "Castle" and "Downtown. What does make it different than the other songs I mentioned is the instrumental. Instead of the indie-rap vibe, Macklemore goes full trap, huge bass kicks and a simple synth hook. It takes some getting used to, but this is definitely a song that you'll want to play in the car, very loud and very obnoxiously. You can't help but laugh a bit while listening to the chorus as Macklemore shouts "Bitch I'm Willy Wonka" (which I have absolutely no idea what that's supposed to mean).

"How To Play The Flute" is similar to "Willy Wonka" in both the ridiculous factor and the heavy trap vibe. This one definitely has a more of a sexual vibe (the title itself is an innuendo), although that's ruined a bit by the section where recordings of people sneezing alternate with Macklemore blessing them during the chorus.

Not all the songs are just for the good vibes or laughs, however. Tracks like "Ten Million", "Over It (Donna Missal)", "Church (feat. Dave B & Travis Thompson)", and album finisher "Excavate (feat. Saint Clarie)" all display a sense of depth, lyrically, that set them apart from their counterparts I mentioned above.

"Ten Million" has trap influences as well, but with a darker and harder vibe. This is a form of Macklemore we don't see as often, a cocky, taking-shots-at-other-rappers, boastful artist, where he takes them on in their own comfort zone (trap). Despite being heavy with the trap influences, I really enjoy this track; the trash talking that takes place in rap is part of what draws some people to it, with the exaggerations that are almost addicting.

"Over It" chronicles a toxic, cycling relationship where Macklemore goes back and forth about the relationship and how it continues to damage both parties involved. This song utilizes the instrumental to highlight aspects of the lyrics, making them stronger and giving them a bigger impact. At about the 2:30 mark Macklemore launches into one of his most powerful, moving, and fastest raps of the album that's absolutely captivating, very much thanks to his delivery, but also to the growing and tension-building instrumental (especially the string parts).

"Church" slows things down, bringing out a jazzy instrumental as Macklemore raps about where he's at in his life and the path that brought him to that point. Some of my favorite lines on the album are from this song, such as "I learn more from loss than the gain" or "You see I was given a role, never played my part". Macklemore seems to be reflecting on his own spiritual journey as he's grown older, found success, and had a child of his own. Whether he believes in God or not isn't made entirely clear on this song, but it is clear that he has been wrestling with the ideas of religion and what it means to him and the way his life has played out. It feels very honest and raw, something I enjoy immensely in artists.

"Excavate" is the final song of the album, and Macklemore wraps up his latest release in a powerful way. Saint Claire does an incredible job making a beautiful chorus - easily one of the best parts of the song; the lyrics are as follows:

"Fill my lungs up, pour my heart out, peel my bones away
Crack my window, shed my shadow, excavate my pain
And I found peace
And I found peace
And I found peace"

Macklemore uses this song to examine his purpose and intentions for pursuing the success he's had. He wants there to be meaning left when people strip away all of the fame, the money and success, and he wants to make a lasting impact on this world. It's a worthy issue to wrestle with, and Macklemore does a great job of being honest and laying out his thoughts on the track.

There are a few tracks that fall somewhat in-between these two main categories I've discussed above. "Zara (feat. Abir)" is a feel-good track about a budding relationship, full of cute and flirty moments that fit the bright and light-hearted feelings that are associated with a new fling. It's got a bit of a R&B vibe that fits (especially with the reference to 90's R&B in the song), as the relationship slowly erupts into something deep and meaningful.

"Good Old Days (feat. Kesha)" tackles nostalgia and the importance of enjoying where you are, as things change as time progresses. Macklemore specifically talks about the difference between when he started trying to become successful with music, and how he got to the place that he dreamed about but also still sometimes wishes he could go back to the times before the fame. Kesha's vocals are great on this track (I'm also just happy that she's been able to take back her image and create the persona she wants to be known, sans the auto tune, as her voice is actually very lovely without it).

"Corner Store (feat. Dave B & Travis Thompson)" and "Firebreather (feat. Reignwolf) both have a good times vibe to them, but differ in execution. The former has a mix of old-school and trap as Macklemore raps about being younger and the carefree nature before he was pursuing his dream The later takes a rap-rock approach, with a guitar line leading the song over drums from an actual drumset while Macklemore takes the opportunity to show off and brag a bit.

I personally think that Macklemore is at his best when he digs deep and talks about real, hard situations (especially his past and his struggles with drug addiction). Songs like "Otherside", "Starting Over", and "Kevin (feat. Leon Bridges)" are some of my favorites from him because they are raw and stripped down to the truth of the matter. Not to say that Macklemore's fun vibe is bad - "Thrift Shop" was one of the main reasons I started listening to him and I think he has a lot of quirky tunes that are a different kind of fun than you expect.

Back near the very beginnings of this blog, I wrote a little post (in January of 2013 - WOW) about my thoughts of him overall (see that post here). I went back and reread that, and noticed that the things I just addressed were the things that I talked about with him initially. I love his sense of purpose and pushing for the causes he believes in. That was the main aspect of this album that I felt was lacking, the depth and purpose that was so strong on his previous releases. And maybe this album was necessary for him, and I hope it's very successful because I still greatly enjoy his work and want to support him and see him succeed. My hope, however, is that his ability to highlight issues and causes that he is passionate about comes back even stronger on his next release, whether that's with Ryan Lewis again or not. He does get closer to this place near the end of the album, and that's the parts that I enjoyed the most.

In interviews that he has done regarding this album, he has mentioned that this album was made the way it was for a couple of reasons, two of which struck me. One, he wanted to make music that was the kind that he wants to listen to, and that a lot of the music is happy because he is in a good place. I can very much respect that, and if this music continues to be what he makes because he continues to be happy, then I'll continue to support him in that.

I have to add a note before I finish. After watching some live performances of the new songs, as well as listening to the album multiple times, I find it growing on me more and more. Despite the lack of a more serious tone, it is fun, it is catchy, and it's hard to resist that. Maybe, in spite of the state of the world and the tensions and problems, the timing of this album is perfect. We need something to remind us to have fun, not to take things so seriously, and to enjoy ourselves. The problems are still there, they're still being addressed, but if we let them bog us down constantly, then we lose the enjoyment that can come from life. And I think, perhaps, that was Macklemore's intention with this record. I was originally going to give the album 3/5 rating. But after some more thought, I'm going to bump it to a 3.5/5. I know that might not seem like much, but it's significant in my eyes.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended: "Glorious", "Ten Million", "Zara", "Over It", "Willy Wonka".

Monday, September 25, 2017

Melancholia Hymns - Arcane Roots

I discovered this album through a recommended playlist from Apple Music. They put the song "Matter" by Arcane Roots near the end, and I'm glad I was paying attention when I got to that track. I ended up checking out and downloading the entirety of their latest album, Melancholia Hymns. It's a perfect blend of so many genres -metal, indie, alternative, electronic, and pop. They have moments of raw aggression, ethereal bliss, and everything in-between. It never feels like it's reaching too far or mixing too much at the same time. It's a very natural fusion of different elements that creates an incredibly unique sound and experience.

The album opens with "Before Me", which feels a lot like something Sigur Ros would do. The slow build, the subtle addition of various instruments until the song finally erupts with drums crashing, synths blaring, and (what I soon discovered to be a staple) gang vocals all fading out to just a few synths and more subdued, electronic drums.

"Matter", the song that hooked me, comes in next with a very different, more minor feel to it (similar to Anberlin, but a bit heavier and less structured). The harmonies on the vocals in the beginning are captivating, hooking you right before the drums and guitars come in with a very urgent feel to them before exploding into a high velocity, raw section that's absolutely awe-inspiring. It shows off the metal side of the band, shifting into a bit of a breakdown at about the 3:15 minute mark where the band shows off their technical and speed skills as lead singer Andrew Groves screams over the thunderous drums and roaring guitars. The song ends with a very different outro, consisting of synths and an electric drum machine that still captures the aggressive feelings conveyed just moments before in a total different setting.

"Indigo" has more pop sensibilities to it, from the opening vocal lines; it's another sharp turn, but the kind that makes you scream with delight at the thrills you're experiencing of piercing, layered 80's synths and drums that back up the soaring vocals from Groves. Shifting later into a triangle (yes, a triangle part), lead guitar, and echoing toms build with a repeated vocal line of "Just say the word, I'll go, if that's what you're saying" that is eventually joined by more synths and a rhythm guitar that create an incredible moment. The song then shifts again, the driving force being piano and vocals until a distorted synth line gives the outro a soaring sensation.

The transitions are incredibly smooth, shifting from calm and sweeping sounds to more aggressive and defined moments without the slightest of hiccups. An excellent example of this is "Off The Floor", which starts as just vocals and a finger-picked acoustic guitar line for about the first minute. Within an instant, however, the drums kick in and the electric guitar joins the acoustic to alter the vibe of the song without making the listener uncomfortable. It soon becomes a more melodic metal song, with the vocals switching from soft and elongated to almost shouting over the double bass pedal hits and distorted guitar lines.

"Curtains" has a haunting sense to it, Groves feeling very melancholy with his vocals as he takes the main spotlight for the first two minutes with minimal instrumental interruptions. That is, until a distorted synth line takes over and twists the song from haunting to more celestial. The song eventual explodes into a full instrumental, the usual synths and drums joined by a string line that adds to the epic nature of the song. The metal comes out again, with Groves giving guttural screams over gritty guitars and absolutely tight, driving drums. The outro shifts back to electronic, but randomized in such a way that it makes the listener a bit uneasy. It's best to be careful listening to this song as it transitions into "Solemn", which begins with an extremely loud and distorted electric guitar chord that immediately sets the tone for the track. There's limited electronic elements present as the drums and guitars battle it out for the entirety of the song as Groves gives some of his more powerful clean vocals on the album. This song feels like rock through and through, one of the few tracks on the album to lack a series of drastic changes (there's one moment of screaming vocals, but it doesn't feel like a shift so much as an accent).

"Arp" begins with a light, bouncing sort of synth line, bringing to mind some sort of futuristic fantasy landscape. Groves' vocals are much more soft than in the previous track, giving the opening section a much more sensitive vibe to it. However, this shifts as the song opens up into something more inspiring as eventually the metal elements are introduced alongside (and somewhat overtaking) the electronic symphony occurring. At 4:23, it's one of the shorter songs on the album, and so fades into the next track, "Fireflies" after the momentary breakdown. "Fireflies" starts somewhat similarly to "Arp" in terms of the presence of electronic elements, although these are less delicate and more striking in their combinations with Groves more earnest vocals. The song continues in this same vein, not ever erupting into something bigger, but also refusing to die to a whisper. It feels somewhat like a transition track (which is not a diss, by any means), especially with the structure feeling a bit loose.

"Everything (All at Once)" is off with a bang from the start, the drums leading the charge this time and soon joined by a very low and brooding bass guitar line. Your head is bobbing along from start to end, between the incredibly fast and precise drumwork, the bass slapping its way along, the electric guitar shredding mightily and Groves' vocals pleading "Take Me" during the choruses. This song hardly lets up for a moment, the only lull coming right before the heaviest moment of the album that's an insane, thrashing, breakdown that leaves you breathless and wanting much, much more. It's the shortest track, but by far leaves one of the biggest impressions.

"Half The World" ends the album with the huge wall of sound you come to expect from Arcane Roots at this point. It's a culmination of all the elements; the synths, the electric guitars, the drums, and vocals all coming together for an arena ready powerhouse of a song that starts high and goes even higher and higher. There's an immense amount of hope in this song, the outro lyrics:

" Darling, I'm afraid
Be yourself when you're full of doubt
Hold on to the reins
Be yourself, and when it's falling down
Listen to the rain
Be yourself when you're calling out
Darling, we're the same
So keep your hands upon the wheel"

It's hard to listen to that part and not be left with a sense of encouragement, whether things are going smoothly or times are tough.

The fact that it's a three piece band that's making a huge wall of sound is even more remarkable. I wasn't planning on doing a detailed, song by song review, but I just couldn't help it as I listened through the album again. I was disappointed to see that there aren't any tour dates in California (let alone in the US), but I'll just have to be on the lookout for the next chance cause I most definitely plan on seeing these guys whenever they do make it over here. Their sound reminds me (as I mentioned earlier) of Sigur Ros and Anberlin; if those two bands had a musical baby and added some metal tendencies, then Arcane Roots would be the prodigy child.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended: "Matter", "Curtains", "Solemn", "Everything (All at Once)"

Related: Anberlin, Sigur Ros

Saturday, September 23, 2017

One Foot (Single) - Walk The Moon

Walk The Moon is finally back after nearly 3 years without new music with their brand new single, "One Foot". Riding off the surprise insane success of "Shut Up and Dance", the band follows up 2014's Talking Is Hard with indications that they are fully embracing their pop appeal. "One Foot" is a huge pop anthem, full of 80's vibes and bright poppy synths that are instantaneously catchy and get your feet tapping along. It also features guitars and drums, as the band prominently used in their previous releases as well, but the band has always been good about mixing the synthetic and real instruments. Nicholas Petricca's vocals feel as fantastic as always; his voice has an incredible range, not only in terms of the variety of notes he can reach, but his ability to switch from soft and sweet to these huge moments on the chorus where he's almost shouting with strength and power. There's a specific moment during the second verse (at about the 1:40 mark) where Petricca switches to basically rapping for a couple seconds, which may sound weird in theory but works out perfectly in the moment of the song; he gives it just the intensity it needs for it to come off as genuine and not forced. It feels just as fun as "Shut Up and Dance" felt when it first came out, but the more you listen, the more you begin to realize this song goes a bit deeper than a dance-pop anthem.

Lyrically, the song deals with the notion of moving forward after some sort of hardship. The pre-chorus hints at this:

"Oh, through the wilderness
You and I will walk into the emptiness
Oh, and my heart is a mess
Is it the only defense against the wilderness?"

and leads into the chorus:

"Well, cross my heart and hope to die
Taking this one step at a time
I got your back if you got mine
Oh, one foot in front of the other"

All of this points towards a struggle that has happened/is still happening, but that the best way to move out of "the wilderness" is one step at a time, one small movement forward followed by another. The band gets specific in what the hardship might be with the outro lyrics:

"Oh, in the so-called 'Land of the Free'
One foot in front of the other
Don't you know that all we have is each other?
One foot in front of the other"

Which seems to take a stab at the US and the given political and social tensions regarding race, sexuality, and other subjects that have been hotly debated as of late.

All in all, I think this song is an excellent return for the band. They're embracing their pop appeal without losing the core of who they are, making a radio-ready anthem that has dance vibes but still delivers an encouraging and important message. I'm ready for this one to be all over the radio and the charts, and I can't wait for the rest of the album!

Rating: 4/5

Related: "Million Bucks" by Smallpools, "Molecules" by Atlas Genius, "Something to Believe In" by Young the Giant

Friday, September 1, 2017

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell - PVRIS

When I started listening to PVRIS a couple of years ago, I immediately became entranced by their dark and gritty sound. The further I delved into their music, however, the more intrigued I became by their lyrical content, which explores some very different subjects than a lot of the other bands out there. They have a very otherworldly sense to their music, speaking of ghosts and paranormal type things but in the context of lovers and loss. It made for a very interesting vibe on their 2014 debut album, White Noise, which I highly recommend checking out if you haven't yet.

But fast forward almost 3 years, and we come to their sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell. I was very, very excited for new music when I heard the announcement, and gobbled up all the singles as they released. Heaven was our first taste of the new album, followed by What's Wrong, "Half", "Winter", and "Anyone Else"(see my review of the first two songs here). 

"Half" begins with a slow building guitar line, joined by a muted drum beat before opening into a full instrumental featuring a whimsical, floating vocal line from Lynn Gunn. This song really highlights Gunn's vocals throughout, letting her show off her softer side during the verses and the bridge, while also letting her build and grow into the roar and power that we first got used to in White Noise. She doesn't quite get gritty, but it's close enough to reveal the darker side that the band can delve into. The synth lines during this track really shine, between the subtle 80's sounding lines during the verses and the distorted electronic tones that come in later on that somehow manage to sound as if they're floating back and forth between high and low. 

"Winter" is a bit on the slower side, but certainly pulls its weight and punch through a lyrical stand taken towards a former lover. With lines like:

"You were just physical touch, not necessarily love
Just something to distract my aching brain for once
I feel too little and I think too much"

and the chorus

"Can you burn a fire in my flesh?
'Cause your love's so cold I see my breath
I can't take another night
Always frozen by your side"

it is clear that this was not a healthy relationship. This song is really intriguing through the instrumental, being much more electronically reliant than a lot of their previous work. The driving element of the song, apart from the vocals, is the prominent synth lines that pulse throughout. It's continuing the 80's vibe I mentioned for "Half", but provide an interesting contrast to the more raw, organic vocals Gunn provides; perhaps an intentional mix, to highlight the idea of the subject of the song and the singer being very different people, if not opposites. 

"Anyone Else" was the last of the singles released before the album dropped, and the one that really, really got my attention. First of all, the first half has an extremely poppy sound to it, much more so than anything PVRIS has done previously, utilizing an electronic drum beat to lay the groundwork for some of Gunn's prettiest vocals on the album, with some absolutely stunning harmonies as well. There's a shift after the first chorus, however, with more of their familiar elements entering the song like guitars and a drum set, as well as a harp line that has shown up in their work as well. During the bridge, there's this point where Gunn asks 

"Oh, my blood
What have you done
What have you done".

As she's singing that, there's this bass synth that rumbles, building until it roars in this dark and almost creepy manner before the song shifts into a bit of a breakdown for a few moments of just Gunn's somewhat distorted vocals over just a drum beat. It builds from her, with Gunn almost screaming "I don't belong to anyone else" until the song ends with a harp outro.The main thing that kept my attention focused on this song, however, were the lyrics. They start off seeming almost sweet, addressed to a lover. However, Gunn manages to shift from writing out of love to writing out of sorrow, utilizing similar lines with subtle changes that completely change the impact the words have. My favorite line from the song, and quite possibly from the album, is

"'Cause I could touch a hundred thousand souls
But none of them would ever feel like home
And no matter how far and wide I roam
You are the only one that I'll ever know"

The first time it comes off as sweet, as a reminder that there will be no one like the one Gunn loves and no one could have the impact that that person has had on her. However, when it becomes clearer that this is not a current love, but a former, those lines become bittersweet. A promise of never being able to quite escape, having your soul forever be attached, in a way big or small, to that of another. It's beautiful and tragic, blending these elements together in a way I couldn't get out of my head. 

With some of the first few singles, I was still excited, but I knew it wasn't quite the same as White Noise and so I became less eager. However, with "Anyone Else", that excitement came back, and I was quite eager for the album to drop. 

"Walk Alone" comes after "What's Wrong" on the album, featuring more of the harp and pop elements like "Anyone Else", although with a bit of a lighter feel. The verses are definitely a bit more reserved, with less layering and a bit more of a stipped feeling. However, the song builds into the chorus, where we get some of the more intricate drumming of the album, as well as these swelling distorted synths and Gunn giving us that gritty side we love. Contrast is a strong element in this track, between the pretty moments and the darker, more intense ones. 

"Same Soul" has a dreamy sense to it in the beginning, the picked guitar line having a bouncing feel before giving way to sampled vocals from Gunn providing the riff of the chorus as she yells 

"I'm just a body that you used to know
I'm just somebody that you used to know".

The bridge is the dreamiest part of the song, with the echoing vocals and the slow-growing organ/synth line. It eventually shifts back into the outro chorus, with three different vocals lines from Gunn providing a cacophony of sounds that makes it a bit difficult to discern which line should take the main focus. It adds to the surreal aspect of the track. 

"No Mercy" opens with a pair of synth lines, but quickly reveals its true colors as Gunn shows off some of the grittiest vocals of the album and the rock side of PVRIS comes out full force. The chorus is fantastic, with Gunn screaming "Show me no mercy" over the crashing of the cymbals and the snare drum snapping as we hear some of the few distorted guitar lines on the album. It reminds me a lot of the energy from "Fire" off their debut album, that dark alt-rock with a healthy mix of electronic moments and low moments to provide sufficient contrast. The lyrical focus seems to be between Gunn and a former love, but not of a bittersweet or contemplative feeling; this one is full of anger and rage. 

"Separate" pulls back a bit, a much more somber mood by far, a low rumbling synth bass giving just the right atmosphere for Gunn's more vulnerable vocals and the driving drums that keep the song from falling too far behind. The shift in instrumentation is also matched by the lyrical shift, with Gunn begging for her lover to stay by her side, instead of leaving like many of the other songs on the record. As a song, it helps to give some contrast to some of the more pop-oriented songs on the album, and comes off even stronger as it follows "No Mercy", which is one of the highest energy tracks they've done.

The album finishes up with "Nola 1", another very different sounding song from the others. Lyrically, it feels a bit more like White Noise, with even a mention of ghosts: 

"Cause its midnight and the ghosts might be coming soon"

as well as the second half of the first verse:

"My body didn't like the way it felt last June
And it haunted me the whole year
Then turned into thinking I was dying
Wouldn't pull through to see 22".

The chorus feels really fitting given the points I've just made, as Gunn sings about 

"You keep on saying that I've changed
I know that I don't seem quite the same"

and considering that there were a lot of changes in sound and subject on this album, it makes sense that the band might be struggling with all the things they've experienced and how to process it all and continue on the path they want to.

Instrumentally, it has some of the coolest and more experimental moments for the band. There's a point right at the beginning where there's just an electronic bass kick and this echoing, clean electric guitar riff that only lasts for a moment, but is so enchanting. It comes back a few times throughout the song, but it's the first time that's the best. The band utilizes a more pop-sounding beat and a compressed guitar line to fuel the verses before the sound opens up more for the choruses as Gunn questions and reassures herself simultaneously. It's not the most explosive or intricate song they've done, but definitely feels appropriate to close the album out, as it encompases a lot of elements that were explored by the band. 

It's evident that there was a lot of shifting for this album. Shifts in sounds, in instrumentation, lyrical content and songwriting approaches. It shows the band wants to continue growing, to explore new areas of music and let their music take on new life. There were some points that I felt weren't quite as strong as others, some songs that didn't quite feel like they worked out exactly like the band might have hopped. But, I think that this album was necessary for the band to continue honing their sound, and allowed them to showcase what else they can do beyond White Noise without letting themselves become pigeonholed into a specific sound. Definitely worth giving some time to listen and unpack.

Rating: 3.5/5
Recommended: "Anyone Else", "No Mercy", "Winter", "Heaven"
Related: Lydia, Halsey, Lights