Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Shapeshifter - Knuckle Puck

Knuckle Puck was one of the bands that I discovered during my pop-punk phase that have managed to stay on my radar despite that phase being over. Their earlier releases were more marked with aggressive instrumentals and raw, angsty vocals that were more yelling than singing, which was appealing to someone who was dealing with a lot of emotions. With their first album, Copacetic, and their sophomore release, Shapeshifter, the band has focused more on a structured, melodic sound that is still full of the angst and aggression of their beginning days.

What's great to hear about this band is that they've found the vibe that they like, and they've continued with each release to tighten and hone their skills and chops to make even better music in that same vein. Shapeshifter continues to showcase their pop-punk core with a fantastic balance of vulnerability with pent-up anger through the instrumentals and the vocals.

Joe Taylor is part of what sets the band apart in terms of a unique sound. He can balance the almost screaming/yelling with softer melodic moments, on different tracks and even on the same song, utilizing contrast (which, if you've read any of my other reviews, you'll know I am a big fan of).

The first half of the album keeps the energy and intensity high. The album opens with "Nervous Passenger", a shorter track that builds into a bit of a wall of sound near the end. The tempo is a bit slower than what they normally, which is cool in the way that it sets the tone for the album. It catches your attention before things kick into higher gear and fueling that teenage angst we all hold deep inside.

"Twist" comes next, more familiar ground for Knuckle Puck as they pick up the speed and intensity. The drums are really sharp on this track, with John Siorek providing a consistent foundation for the rest of the band to show off their pop-punk sound. The band has always leaned more toward the punk than the pop (see State Champs as an example of the opposite sound), and this song shows that tendency. 

"Double Helix" was one of the singles leading into the album, and was one that caught my attention very quickly. While "Twist" felt a bit lighter, more like a song you'd jump along to and rock out with, "Double Helix" is feels a bit more serious, a bit more angsty. Look at the chorus; it's almost all more screaming/yelling than singing, as Taylor and rhythm guitarist/back-up vocalist Nick Casasanto go back and forth with:

"Take take oh please just take it back
I don't want your double helix"

I confess that I had to look up what a double helix is, and when I did the song seemed to make a bit more sense. A double helix is related to DNA, with Dictionary.com saying it is "the spiral arrangement of the two complementary strands of DNA". So perhaps Taylor is singing to someone who he once was one with and no longer is, but is trying to move past the memories and frozen moments of the past that linger. Lines like this make that idea more clear:

"Cause the viewpoint never changes
When they're stuck inside a memory"


"Swallowed up in hatred while the surgery replaces who you areAnother time, another face to let go"

It was not an easy relationship to let go, or even still is difficult to move past. And using that concept, which is common in biochemistry, to relate to a relationship, shows some intricate and well researched songwriting, which I very much appreciate. (Upon further research, it seems that Taylor was actually talking about his dad and wishing he wasn't related to him. Hence the DNA references.)

Next is "Gone", which was another single leading up to the album. Musically it has a similar vibe to "Double Helix", leaning a bit more towards melodic on the chorus but close in terms of energy and intensity. The bridge takes the song down a notch before slowly building into the final chorus that ends in an almost breakdown that holds the intensity high. It's

"Everyone Lies To Me" plays a lot with contrast, using moments of high energy and intensity with more melodic and strung out musical elements all together. The first verse features some of the roughest vocals on the album, while the second features some of the most melodic vocals on the album. It's a cool use of opposites and opposing elements to create dissonance within a song that deals with people being dishonest, which is itself a dissonance in real life. The bridge features some cool instrumental moments, letting different instruments have the spotlight for a few moments and passing the baton to the next one.

"Stuck In Our Ways" leans more melodically than the last song, still having that edgy sense to it but lighter than some of the other songs on the album so far. It's got less yelling, with Taylor giving some great melodies over a instrumental that drives forward. It's a solid song that will get stuck in your head and provide great material to rock out to.

From this point, the album shifts into a more slowed down, mellow gear; but don't think it'll be music you fall asleep to.  "Want Me Around" was the last of the singles before the album, and stood out for a couple of reasons. It slows down quite a bit, leaning almost entirely on the pop side of pop-punk. The rhythm guitar, which is usually leading the instrumentals, is hardly distorted and in the background, giving the spotlight to the lead guitar. The drums are also fairly subdued, pulling back from the usual intensity found throughout the rest of the album. The focus is on the vocals, with Taylor giving some grit to his voice but keeping it mostly melodic throughout.

"Conduit" continues the more melodic, toned down vibe of "Want Me Around" even more, starting off very stripped down and quiet. Taylor sings over the lead guitar and a little keyboard line that are somewhat hollow, leaving room for the vocals to resonate and stand out. The song continues in this manner, slowly building into a climax where the intensity increases without compromising the vulnerable sense of the song. "Wait" begins on the softer side as well on the first verse, but shifts to a bit of a gritter tone on the chorus. It's not aggressive, however; instead, the grit comes in play through a wistful, almost regretful tone that is evident through the lyrics and vocals. The line at the end of the chorus,

"You always did feel just like home"

really stuck out to me, as I think it's something most people can relate to at one point or another when thinking of a past relationship. The follow up line in the bridge,

"You were always so unreachable"

takes any sort of pleasantry out of the nostalgia in the first line, bringing reality crashing down.

The album finishes with "Plastic Brains", which starts off slower and gradually builds into a wall of sound that ends the album on a high and intense note. There's some subtle female vocals on this song, which offer a bit of contrast as the female vocalist has a soft, gentle voice compared to Taylor's usual yelling and strained singing. The line "is there any trace left of me" echoes throughout the ending, as the song is fading away, giving one last thought for the listener before the end.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the album. In comparison to their debut, Copacetic, this album felt like the band took their talents and sounds and fine tuned them even more. There was a sense of precision evident throughout, as well as stronger songwriting and contrasting instrumental elements. The talent that this band has is clear, and I look forward to watching it continue to grow with future releases.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended: "Double Helix", "Gone", "Stuck In Our Ways", "Wait"

Related: State Champs, Neck Deep, Real Friends

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Headphones (Single) - Walk The Moon

Walk The Moon is back with another single for their forthcoming album, What If Nothing. While "One Foot" saw the band utilizing their pop chops (see my review here), "Headphones" goes in a completely different direction. Heavy usage of synths and flowing vocals are replaced with gritty guitar and bass lines, pounding drums, and lead singer Nicholas Petricca's utilization of both spoken word and yelling/almost screaming vocal sounds. The song feels very similar to Cake in the way that it opens, alternating moments of vocals and the guitar and bass, the latter of which has a bit of a 90's slapping tone to it. The song is quick to establish high energy; you can't help bobbing along to the infectious beat and instrumental. Petricca's low energy vocals during the verses help provide nice contrast to the shift in the chorus, where he pushes higher and raw vocals, unlike the pretty falsetto found in "One Foot". This track really shows his ability to shift vocally with little delay, and his gritty side that hasn't come out on many of their songs before.

The song also highlights the instrumental talents of the rest of the members of the band. Kevin Ray shows us the bass is not just a backing instrument, providing groove and a pulse to the track. Eli Maiman is given the chance to show off his skills on the guitar throughout the song and especially near the end of the song with the solo that's ferocious in the speed and precision of the finger work.  Sean Waugaman sits right at the center of the song, providing the drumwork to keep the intensity and energy of the song right where it needs to be throughout the wild 3:07 ride the song is. There are certain moments where all these instruments come together to create some moments that blow you away. Starting at the 2 minute mark, the guitar solo begins, and the song just continues to build and build until the breakdown that pushes all the way through the end. I think my jaw was hanging low by the time I reached the end of the track, I was absolutely thrilled with what the band decided to show us.

While I was impressed with "One Foot", "Headphones" is in a completely different playing field. The utilization of 80's and 90's influence is just enough to not overwhelm, the leaning towards a more raw, unprocessed sound as opposed to the shine of a pop-friendly track, shows that the band has so much more to offer than we've seen yet. The song released on Friday, and as of today (Monday), I've already listened to the song over 20 times. I'm having a hard time imagining that they're going to release something that'll impress me more than this song, but I would be glad to be proven wrong. I am even more excited to hear the rest of the album come next month, and beyond ecstatic to see them live in February.  This will be one of my top songs this year, that's for sure.

Rating: 5/5

Related: "The Distance" - Cake, "Never Swim Alone" - Death from Above 1979,  "Lights Out" - Royal Blood

Note: Most of the related songs I chose are more rock based than pop based. I did this because I couldn't find any groups in the alternative-pop scene that had anything even remotely similar to this track. It's unique, and hard to compare to anything else I've heard.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 - Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch

I recently saw Blade Runner 2049, and it struck me in such a way that I had to get some thoughts down on it, both for the music and for the movie as a whole. This post is a bit different than the norm on a few fronts. It's mostly a music review with a bit of a focus on reviewing the movie as well, and it's focused on the soundtrack of the film, which is outside of my normal scope of expertise.

As a disclosure, I took some music courses in college and am familiar with classical music to a degree, but I haven't kept it up as well as I should have, so I won't be able to talk technical in terms of theory and other related subjects. I will talk about the movie and plot as well, so there will be some spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie, I highly suggest seeing it first.

The soundtrack was composed by Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch, the former of whom I'm very familiar with and the latter I had to do some research. I haven't seen the movies that Wallfisch has composed and conducted for, but am familiar with some of them, such as IT (2017), A Cure For Wellness, and Hidden Figures. Seeing the list of movies he has worked with and listening again to the soundtrack for Blade Runner 2049, it makes a lot of sense that he was chosen with Hans Zimmer to work on this project. He has done a lot of horror and thriller movies, and while 2049 was not a horror movie, it very much played with tension and suspense through the soundtrack and other elements. Wallfisch's knack for that, plus Zimmer's propensity for huge sounds and massive peaks, creates a soundtrack filled with insane highs and deep, deep lows. The opening track, "2049", is a great example of the scope of the soundtrack.The first half of the song is brooding, almost ambient with booming drums alternating focus with long, echoing 80's synths that ease in and out. There's a middle point where the song contains itself a bit, with light piano chords leading into the climax of the signature synths from the original movie; high, bright, dissonant tones that are captivating in their immensity. These sounds and tones are found throughout the soundtrack. The composers also used these noises that I personally thought were actual sounds from the movie and not from the soundtrack itself. An example is from "Flight to LAPD", a dark and fast paced piece where at one point a sound cuts through the synths and pounding drums that is reminiscent of a motorcycle or tuned-up car accelerating down the street. I was very surprised to discover it was part of the music itself. There's tracks on the other end of the spectrum, such as "Rain", that utilize the same large walls of sound, but with less intensity and more emphasis on softer, more beautiful tones. It inspires such a sense of wonder within the track, which is very fitting given it's place in the film. The scene it provides background for it when the character Joi (Ana de Armas) is going outside and "experiencing" rain for the very first time thanks to K (Ryan Gosling) buying an upgrade for her that gives her the ability to go with him wherever he goes. She has a sense of wonder and being awe-struck, and that is expressed incredibly well by the music for this moment.

The soundtrack relies a lot on moments of quiet and moments of loud sounds playing on one another, and helps create a lot of the tension that is found within the movie. There's also a big emphasis on dissonance and a lack of more recognizable melodies. It works more on creating sounds than refrains that different than typical refrains that a lot of soundtracks aim for; notable arrangements of notes that people recognize outside the movie (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc). An excellent example of these ideas is in "Mesa" a track that starts off soft and builds into the big sweeping synths, that all lean more towards the bright side. At about the 2:15 minute mark, the music explodes into this short but intense moment of dissonant, unsettling noises that are vastly different from the bright sound pallet that was just used moments before. It builds tension incredibly, keeping those watching on the edge with the builds in volume and shifting intensity from moment to moment within the same song. "Furnace" is another song that utilizes dissonance and unsettling sounds to create an enthralling moment. It begins with sounds that bring to mind an airplane descending from a high altitude, individual at first but changing in tone and slowly building upon each other as an incredibly low choral line sings. It's contrasted and complemented simultaneously by occasional high synths that provide an alternative in tones and timbres while still adding to the existing mood created. A  moment further on consists of the choral voices beginning to break apart in their united front, with various ones singing in different moments and different notes and mumbles that create a frantic and eerie cacophony that's all framed by these huge rumbling bass notes. It's not a song that'll calm you down; as I write this, I continue to get chills down my spine from the mood set by the track.

"Sea Wall" is one of the more intense and lengthy songs from the soundtrack, coming in just shy of 10 minutes in length. It has one of the few moments of repetition from elsewhere in the soundtrack, using the same synth "melody" from the opening "2049" song starting at about the 2 minute mark. The first two minutes is more intense and upbeat, with an almost tribal drum beat that pounds along as the synths rise and fall in short bursts of distorted waves of sound. These two parts come together nearly halfway through the song, the huge bright synths and the low distorted ones fighting each other for dominance. This also creates a struggle for dominance in terms of the mood of the song, with these very different elements vying for control and shifting the tone of the song back and forth as they do so. This makes sense, given its placement in the movie. It's the backdrop for the final fight between K and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) as they're battling for Rick Deckard's (Harrison Ford) life, and it's a fight that goes back and forth and keeps the viewer on their toes.

The soundtrack does a very good job of using the 80's elements from the original movie without making them sound cheesy; something that is hard to avoid association when watching movies from that era. "All The Best Memories Are Hers" and "Tears In the Rain" are both examples of this, as they play out for the final few moments of the movie and provide the emotional weight that complements those scenes. Both songs are full of the brighter synths, relying heavily on those and keeping a more ethereal sound as opposed to the more gritty elements found in other parts of the soundtrack. The tone and quality of the synths are very much inspired by the sounds of the original movie, but used in a more somber manner than before. It's a very fitting ending to the film.

As for the film itself, there are so many elements that are absolutely incredible. The cinematography, the visual pallet that they drew from, the dialog and plot and acting are all very well executed. It's a bit lengthy, at 2 hours 44 minutes, but well, well worth it. The film does such a good job of drawing you in and making you experience the emotional rollercoaster the characters embark on with them as the story plays out. The soundtrack comes into play heavily in furthering the depth of each scene, adding tension where needed, creating shock and awe during intense moments, and giving the more emotional scenes the raw punch needed.

One of my favorite scenes is when K visits Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) and has her examine his memory of the wooden horse and the bullies. When she tells him that it's real, confirming his suspicion, Gosling gives one of his best scene performances, going from seeming like he's on the verge of breaking down in tears to letting out a guttural scream as he throws his chair across the room. It's a moment that grabs you by the throat, keeping you locked on until it passes into the next scene. After that scene played out, I realized I was gripping the arm rest very firmly with my hand, unaware I had begun to do so. Gosling overall had an excellent performance, and I hope that it leads to him in more roles such as this, where I think he has now shown that he can excel in.

Other notable performances came from Harrison Ford, Dave Bautista, Sylvia Hoeks, and Ana de Armas. Ford gave what felt like a very ranged performance in terms of the emotions shown. The scene where he meets Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and sees a replication of his love, Rachel, sees him actually shed tears for a moment, something I don't think I've ever seen in a performance of his. It was nice to see his grizzled, tough-guy exterior open for a moment. Dave Bautista's role was short but memorable, showing off his undeniable strength as he smashes Gosling's character against a wall inside his home repeatedly until Gosling goes through the other side. He also delivers a line that ends up being very important to the plot of the story: "You've never seen a miracle.", which references to the birth of a child from a replicant and a human. Sylvia Hoeks serves as the main antagonist of the film and provides Gosling with quite a challenge to overcome, almost succeeding herself in her mission. Her approach to the roll, an icy exterior that ever so slightly wavers when she is near Leto's character gives her more depth than a lot of movies give their antagonist; she is doing her job, which serves both as a reason to dislike her and a reason to sympathize for her. Ana de Armas serves as Gosling's love interest, which is interesting in itself given the nature of both parties involved (one is a Replicant, and the other is a holographic projection). One of the more intriguing and technologically facinating scenes is where she contacts Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to come to the apartment her and Gosling share as she attempts to give him a "real" way to make love with her. Armas and Davis "sync" together in a CGI spectacle, one that is easy to forget is computer generated at all. The implications of the scene are tremendous as well, with Gosling (a machine) making love to Davis (a human) who looks like Armas (a holographic projection). Talk about something to keep your mind occupied.

The play between what is real and what is not was another one of my favorite elements. The plot and characters really bring into question what is real, thanks to the replicants and the ambiguity in whether they are fully human or simply machines. The impression it makes and questions it raises feel very postmodern, in the notion of reality versus hyper-reality (when the imitation of reality actually replaces reality). I was thrilled with that idea, as it is something that very much intrigues me in stories and writing. It's not a new idea, as many other philosophers, thinkers, and writers have explored this topic before. The way that the movie approaches and displays the argument between reality and hyper-reality is very well executed, and I think serves as a great lesson in postmodernism for a more mainstream audience.

Overall, I was incredibly impressed with this movie. I had been looking forward to seeing it, but it far exceeded my expectations. I absolutely recommend seeing this movie, although it is rated "R" so be careful about bringing kids. You will not be disappointed.

Soundtrack Rating: 8/10

Movie Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Hard - EP - The Neighourhood

The Neighbourhood is back with a new EP, Hard. There's a more stripped sound to the EP, less focus on pop sounds and drawing from indie soundscapes. The songs don't expand into these huge sound walls as they did on the last release, Wiped Out!; instead they seem to dial things down a bit, drawing in further and inviting the listener to come closer, listen with a closer ear.

"Roll Call" starts the EP off with a moody, syrupy instrumental of just a brooding bass and muted drums create a hazy morning vibe over which lead singer Jesse Rutherford sings of the idea of conformity versus individuality. He alternates from moments of vulnerability and minimal vocal effects to almost rap-swagger and fully auto tuned, creating a very mellow, yet dark atmosphere; something the band excels at.

"You Get Me So High" picks up the pace a bit, with echoing, subdued synths and more of an emphasis on the hi-hat heavy drum beat for Rutherford singing in an almost talking tone that feels intimate, as if he's speaking directly to the listener. There's a really cool aspect about the melody in one of the keyboards; it pings from one ear to the other, as well as a part where they have the vocals come in alternating on different sides of the speakers, creating a 3D effect to the music that immerses the listener even more. It's got surreal vibes to it, which also makes sense considering the hook: "High all the time, high all the time, I wanna be, high all the time". It's indie-stoner-rock, if that's a subgenre.

"Noise" utilizes a drum machine and drum set to create a very simple, yet layered drum beat as a guitar resonates ripples of distorted chords that Rutherford sings over in a quiet, almost desperate appeal. There's a point where the melody shifts to a different set of notes that almost feels dissonant, yet also harmonizing beautifully at the same time. The song ends with just a capella echoing harmonies from Rutherford, bringing the tone down immensely and focusing tight on that last phrase.

"24/7" feels like the most upbeat and poppy song of the EP, lead by a drum machine-based beat and bright, metallic synths that get it stuck in your head long after you've turned it off. The band utilizes the emphasis on the beat in different ways to create varying pulses, moments that groove along and others that reign in the energy. The vocals again feel almost smaller, like the singer isn't going for it at 100%. It's not a bad thing; on the contrary, I think the more subdued vocals perfectly complement the sound of the instrumental.

"Sadderdaze" ends the EP in a similar way that it began; the slow thump of the beat and the acoustic guitar create a mellowed out experience. The addition of the violins, both when they are played normally and when the strings are plucked, adds to the melancholy themes that rise and fall throughout the song. The ambiguity of the name (Saturdays, sadder days, satur daze) is a nice play on words and sounds. The lyrics stand out on this track, with lines like:

"Saturdays are not the same as they used to be
Sadder days, why do they keep on using me?"

seeming to invoke a sense of nostalgia and a desire for the good days left in the past. It especially works with the way the instrumental is built; layered, flowing tones and touches of wistfulness that slowly fade out into nothing.

The EP definitely feels like something that the band wanted to do and wasn't quite as focused on airwave appeal. It felt like they took a step back from the pop tools and sounds they used on their last album, and sought a more gritty, less polished product. I think it works very well for them; it reminded me more of their first release, I Love You. (although I enjoyed their last album more). If it's an indication of their next full length release, then I will look forward to more of this sound. If it's by itself, then I still look forward to whatever will come next from this talented group.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended: "You Get Me So High" & "24/7"

Related: The 1975, Halsey, PVRIS