Tuesday, April 17, 2018

AMERICA - 30 Seconds To Mars

After nearly five years of waiting, the latest 30 Seconds To Mars album is here; AMERICA. Like it's title, the album is an intriguing mix of different ideas and sounds coming together in one place. The singles "Walk On Water" and "Dangerous Night" gave us glimpses of the new pop/EDM vibe, but "One Track Mind (feat. A$AP Rocky)" and "Rescue Me" both gave us a taste before the whole album dropped, and revealed to us some of the actual drops that we'd be hearing on the album. The former was more on the rap side, but still featured a big drop that shatters the dark, moody vibe of the syrupy verses, and features A$AP Rocky, which sounds odd in concept but works well in practice (see my review here for a more in-depth look). The later definitely has a more upbeat vibe and larger guitar presence, but still manages to drop hard during the chorus as Jared Leto screams for someone to rescue him before a catchy synth line and big beats kicks in.

A few more of the songs from the album follow in this same suit. "Hail To The Victor" and "Love Is Madness (feat. Halsey)" both feature pop and EDM sounds and structures to delve further into the new territory. The former leans more to the EDM side, with a bit of a darker vibe and gritty sense to it. It has a cool shift between the verses and chorus, a moving from the light to the dark, something that reminded me a lot of the way in which Yellow Claw orchestrates their club-ready EDM trap music (and something I felt very proud of when I looked it up and saw that they're listed as contributors for the song). The later feels a bit like something that could have fit well on Halsey's latest release, hopeless fountain kingdom, (which makes sense given that she's on the song), but throws in a bit more of a rock/epic sound to it. The duet aspect definitely sets it apart from the other songs, the back and forth nature of Halsey and Leto passing back and forth the vocal baton. They both are able to balance between the softer and harder sides, knowing when to sing low or let their voices soar high and full of emotion.

However, what it boils down to is that underneath the soaring synths, the trap high-hats and booming beats, the bright infectious pop, EDM drops, and hint of rock 'n roll, is very little. These huge sound walls end up revealing themselves as facades, too shallow to really bring anything of significant meaning. This is a big trouble that I've seen bands struggle with when making an album with crossover appeal or even just a straight up pop album - they get so into fitting a specific sound, that the content itself suffers in quality. Similarly, Linkin Park struggled with this on their last album, One More Light, although I think they managed to retain more substance than AMERICA seems to do. The other issue is that when a band lets other writers into their creative space and works with them, it always results in an altering of the sound that sometimes makes it feel less like a cool collaboration and more like an accommodation.

Now, does that mean I dislike this album? Not at all. The band took a direction that really stretched the limits of where they had gone before and what they had previously tried, and the results led to some really interesting sounds and combinations. Leto showed off his ability to sing very well in a more pop-friendly setting, utilizing the power and range that fits so well in rock to soar even higher than the instrumentals and really shine.

Some of the songs retain the epic sound that 30STM has mastered over the years, adding new elements to the formula to keep it fresh. "Great Wide Open" feels like one of the more authentic songs of the record, utilizing the imagery of a wide open space and a huge sound wall to make something that was truest to the band's past while still looking forward. "Monolith" brings to mind some of the orchestral sounds they've used in the past (such as "Birth" from Love Lust Faith + Dreams) and serves as an incredible, adrenaline-rush intro into "Love Is Madness". "Dawn Will Rise" also feels similar to their past materials, the tiny bit of French and the acoustic guitar intro for the song bringing to mind "Night Of The Hunter" from the 2009 This Is War. There's much more of an electronic feel, from the beat and synths to the vocal effects, but it still manages to be in a similar enough vein to sound like something true to the band.

Other songs didn't quite reach the same heights. "Remedy" is an acoustic, stripped down, polar opposite of the rest of the album, and normally would serve as great contrast to the synthetic elements found throughout. However, the vocals are done by Shannon Leto, who normally does the drumming. While it's cool to hear him step into a different role and come to the forefront of the song, it also feels very different in a way that loses it's connection with the album. The lead singer is not the band, but the lead singer is a big part of what makes a band unique. Jared Leto's voice has been a really big part of how 30STM has stayed where they are in the music world, and "Remedy" just doesn't have that same feeling. I also felt like "Dangerous Night" just didn't do enough for me. It felt a bit too safe, a bit too much like what you'd hear on the radio to stand out in my mind. I saw that it was produced by Zedd, and my reaction to it makes more sense and solidifies my feelings. It's not that it's bad; people clearly enjoy it. I don't feel as if it has a lot of staying power.

Overall, the album is another successful attempt to make a packaged experience. 30STM has always been theatrical, and AMERICA certainly meets that criterea. However, there's a bit too much inconsistency in the pace and flow of the record for it to top their last two releases. I really enjoy some of the songs, there's no doubt about that. But when the gaps between albums last from four to five years, it's hard for the anticipation not to build, and hard for expectations to be met in a completely satisfactory manner.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended: "One Track Mind", "Love Is Madness", "Dawn Will Rise", "Live Like A Dream"

Friday, April 13, 2018

My Dear Melancholy, - The Weeknd

After the star-studded, heavily pop-influenced Starboy, featuring the hit title track and "I Feel It Coming", The Weeknd has returned to his R&B and electronic roots with his latest release, My Dear Melancholy,. While I did enjoy some of the songs from his last album ("Starboy" is still one of my most played songs, I felt it was a bit too spread out, too many song and not enough bite and darkness that was so prominent in his earlier work.

The release came as a bit of a surprise to me, although I don't follow The Weeknd closely on social media. I was hanging out with my girlfriend when I saw it was out, so I put in headphones and played the first song, "Call Out My Name". When the first notes played, I couldn't help but say "Oh man" out loud, and was already sold on the song within the first ten seconds.  Much to my pleasure, the song unfolded from a brooding, gentle tune into a raw, emotionally-driven lament for a lover who has fallen out of love. The combination of The Weeknd's vulnerable and intense vocals and the gritty & haunting vibe of the instrumental comes together to create an instant classic - a song that will most definitely be one of my top songs for the year. The switch between the first and second verses, specifically in the vocals, is absolutely incredible. The Weeknd utilizes similar lyrics for each verse, which I'm not usually fond of; however, the second verse sounds so real and raw that it's impossible not to feel the desperation and affliction of his heart. You can hear the influence of Michael Jackson on that verse, showing off The Weeknd's range while opening up his innermost sufferings and laying them out for all to see. The line leading into the second chorus, where The Weeknd's cry of "So call out my name" is distorted and drawn out is the peak, the moment that hits the listener closest to home. 

Honestly, I could have just had that song and been content. I've already listened to it 14 times in less than two weeks, and I'm sure that number is going to continue to climb. But, there are five more songs on the EP, and while none of them reach that same level, a couple do get pretty close.

My other favorites from the release were "Try Me" and "Privilege", both for different reasons. "Try Me" is one of the lighter songs of the EP, utilizing a bit of the ever prevailing trap sound to lay the ground for The Weeknd to attempt to seduce a former lover back into his arms. His falsetto comes out strong on this track, fitting with the lyrical and thematic content of the song that's still dark but in a much more sensual manner. "Privilege" falls back into the haunting territory, very atmospheric and hazy in the way it crawls along for the first verse without a beat. The hook of "I got two red pills to take the blues away" serves to show the way in which The Weeknd is attempting to deal with the pain and suffering he has been going through; whether it's a reference to The Matrix and the blue/red pill choice offered to Neo or a reference to actual drugs, it's doesn't paint a pleasant picture. The Weeknd bookended the EP with sorrow, finishing with the same tormented soul he began with.

Now, to be honest, I could have done without the other three songs on the EP. "Wasted Time" is actually pretty good, with a pretty catchy instrumental (helped in part by Sonny Moore, AKA Skrillex) and The Weeknd showing off his softer side vocally. However, the biggest turn off for me is the lyric "I hope you know this dick is still an option", which is just...so unimaginative. I think the whole song, lyrically, feels a bit too direct, too obviously pointed at his most recent ex, Selena Gomez, making it less relatable than the other songs (unless you've dated big pop-stars, then I'm sure you can relate to this). The other two songs, "I Was Never There" & "Hurt You", both feature Gesaffelstein, a French techno artist who has previously worked with other rappers such as A$AP Rocky and Kanye West. I think that the collaboration was an interesting idea, but it just didn't land as well as they might have hoped. Both tracks feel a bit more like something that would have been on Starboy, and less of the dark and moody tone found on the rest of the tracks. Specifically, "Hurt You" feels just a little too close to "I Feel It Coming", which was produced by Daft Punk.  The electronic/techno instrumentals provided by Gesaffelstein don't mesh as well with The Weeknd's vocal style, leaving both of these songs to fall to the wayside.

Overall, the release was still a bit of a hit or miss feel, as was Starboy. However, when the songs hit, they hit right on track, and blew it out of the water. I'm glad The Weeknd has delved back into the darkness - it's allows his talent to shine.

Rating - 3/5

Recommended - "Call Out My Name", "Try Me", "Privilege"

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Crossing A Line & Nothing Makes Sense Anymore - (Singles) - Mike Shinoda

Mike Shinoda has now released two more songs to announce his debut solo album, Post Traumatic, which will be out in June; "Crossing A Line" & "Nothing Makes Sense Anymore". Both of these songs continue to show the ways in which Shinoda is coping with the loss of his former bandmate and dear friend, Chester Bennington. As the first batch of songs did back in January, these new songs tackle the struggles of coping with loss and grief and how to begin moving past it.

Both of the songs look at very different aspects of these stages and utilize music to convey the spectrum and diversity of emotions experienced. "Nothing Makes Sense Anymore" is unique in how it features no drum parts whatever, simply building off of vocals, keyboards, and synths to create the layers and depth it conveys. The beginning synth progression reminds me a bit of "FML" by Kanye West, in the haunting vibe it creates, but obviously in a bit of a different direction. The lack of drums or percussion helps add to the vulnerability that the song displays on full force, with some of the more sorrowful and powerful Mike lyrics/vocals in a long time. The bridge is especially devastating in it's simplicity and darkness:

"I’m a call without an answer
I’m a shadow in the dark
Trying to put it back together
As I watch it fall apart"

It's not an easy song to listen to, especially if you've experienced pain and loss like Mike is singing about. But it is stunning in the way you can feel the song push and pull you, waves of emotions crashing and tumbling in an impossibly huge and dark ocean of despair. It's heavy, but incredible at the same time.

"Crossing A Line", on the other hand, immediately feels very different from the previous song. Beginning with just synths, piano, and vocals, it sits for a moment before the beat kicks in and the mood is instantly set. Lighter, bouncing along as Mike sings to his bandmates (see his verified commentary for the lyrics on Genius) and reassures them that they are not forgotten, that he is not abandoning them in this solo project. He is using this platform and space to heal and express the grief he is going through, and wants the rest of Linkin Park know that they are still his best friends and he values them dearly. Lines like the opening chorus

"And they’ll tell you I don’t care anymore
And I hope you’ll know that’s a lie"

really demonstrate his desire to make sure the people most important to him understand how he feels and what he needs to do with this music. The song does all of this in a very upbeat and pop-centered song, which to me feels a lot like what Linkin Park was doing with One More Light. To be honest, I feel like this attempt worked better than some of the songs on the record. It's catchy, it steadily grooves along, all the while with lyrics that actually mean something significant.

I was already excited for new music from Shinoda, but these songs build the anticipation even more (especially since there will be 16 songs on the album!!!). His abilities as a musician and songwriter are shining even more now, and revealing the scope of his musical vision. He is not just the rapper from Linkin Park, he's not just the guy who does Fort Minor, he is a multi-talented musician with the ability to delve into different genres and sounds and create natural and organic sounds. Cheers to your upcoming album Mike, and the fantastic music you've already shared with us.

Rating: 5/5