Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Totally Unauthorized: 2014 Album of the Year Awards

There are several reasons why 2014 was not the greatest year in music or media. First off, Robin Williams died. Rest in peace to one of comedy's all time greats. Secondly, a metric ton of my favorite electro-pop bands either split up or went into extended hiatus. Nicolas Jarr's ambient guitar synth project Darkside fired the first shot by releasing an ambiguously worded statement that they were disbanding but left open the possibility to a future reunion. Electro-freaks The Knife called it quits, Alice Glass left the future of Crystal Castles in doubt by declaring her departure from the group, and all-time greats Orbital decided to hang up for the second (and presumably last) time. In the span of a few months, four of my favorite groups in the genre were no more.

Secondly, it just wasn't as good a year for music than what we've become accustomed to. When you think about it, who really had a big year? I suppose you could nominate War on Drugs. Lost in the Dream catapulted them from being random Pitchfork Best New Music act to 80s rock and roll enthusiasts' wet dream, but would their rise to stardom be as recognizable to the random joe on the street as that of Yeezus? Or Vampy Weekend? Or half a dozen others from the last few years? When the tale of these years are penned, they're liable to be best remembered for a six minute folk diss track than anything else. Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozalek had possibly his biggest moment yet, then managed to squander almost all his goodwill overnight with his stirring rendition of "War on Drugs: Suck My Cock." Foos were a good candidate for awhile. Their Sonic Highways HBO series gave a thought provoking look into the musical legends behind eight U.S. cities, and their ticket controversy at Ryman Auditorium on Halloween night attracted just enough any press is good press controversy to bolster their status as a major story, but then the album actually dropped and everybody realized: oh wait, it's yet another fucking Foo Fighters album. Swans already had their moment with The Seer. Aphex Twin, observing the success of comeback attempts by Neutral Milk Hotel, Nine Inch Nails, Outkast, and tons of others, decided to step out of the limelight himself but forgot that it doesn't really work the same way without the live act.

So here we are, at the end of another year, and I guess it could have been worse. If nothing else, this may stand as the year to reaffirm our faith in guitar based rock music. Cloud Nothings, Swans, St. Vincent, Ty Segall, Rodrigo y Gabriela, The War on Drugs, Spoon, Jack White, and Tom Petty all put out excellent albums, not to mention the fact that metal had a banner year. Electronic music had a slow start but recovered in the second half with strong releases from Caribou, Aphex Twin, and Iamamiwhoami. Rap, as mentioned before, decided to take the year off.

So if I don't seem that enthusiastic about this year, well, just think that with all the technological advancements we have now, coupled with all the musical breakthroughs of the past 60 or 70 so years, I know we can do better. And we will. But for now, let's get this out of the way so we can move on to the (hopefully) far superior 2015.
10. Badbadnotgood - III
One of the most intriguing occurrences of the year was Badbadnogood's transformation into an electro-jazz outfit. They shed some of their hip hop stylings but the atmosphere has never been better. It's like wandering around a darkened warehouse at night, but it's a mystical and awesome experience. Not to mention that each band member here -- even the bassist -- gets their moment in the spotlight with an array of dazzling solos, proving just how deep the talent runs in this outfit. These guys are bold, young, and know they're going somewhere -- and they make music that sounds like it.

9. Swans - To Be Kind

It's not that I didn't think anyone would ever make an album like this, it's that Swans make music in ways that never would have occurred to me in the first place. The first disc is an imposing slab of dark art rock, while the second disc sounds like a crazy priest chanting while the earth is being sucked away into a vortex. Admittedly, I like their more straightforward (at least for their standards) rock more so than the 15+ minute post rock nightmares, but Swans are who they are and no one can take their place.

8. Thee Silver Mt. Zion - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything 
Efrim Menuck has a way of talking about things that will stone cold sober you. This side project fronted by Menuck, of Godspeed You Black Emperor fame, touches on powerful themes including dealing with the bleak reality of everyday life, trying to pass on a better world to your children, and realizing that no matter how much love you put out in the world you can never put out enough. Sometimes it's a tough listen with walls of wavy guitars, Menuck's acquired taste vocals, and various elements that stack up and sometimes crash into one another, but there are other times where the post-rock/punk inspired ethos comes together with the backing choir to create sheer beauty. Conceptually, it's one of the most beautiful albums I've heard.

7. Behemoth - The Satanist

The complaint may be that there's not much new in metal, and blackened death certainly isn't either. But what makes The Satainst is all the little touches Nergal puts into it. He's not the first to have to bone to pick with the Almighty, but Nergal insists on elevating his dissent to the realm of high poetry. The amount of passion he put into this is staggering. There's abundance of biblical, Latin, and ancient Roman imagery that gives the album an atmospheric, silver screen type of feel, while the horns, backing choirs, and epic, weighty guitar solos will compel you to raise your hand like a Roman emperor in the coliseum over a downed gladiator. Do you point thumbs up or down?

6. Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive

9 Dead Alive marks a key turning point for this Mexican acoustic guitar duo. Once known for their white hot metal inspired guitar leads, however, this one is much more of a thinking man's album. Each song is dedicated to a luminary who fought to improve the human condition, or who has pushed the envelope with their creative endeavors. There are sounds of sorrow and of triumph, dedicated to finding our place in the world and meaning in our lives. It appears that their fans didn't follow them in their new direction as this is the least buzzed about album yet, but what they do put forth here is contemplative music to calm the soul, and I find great value in that.

5. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

The tagline everyone floated with this album focused on how bizarre and eccentric it is on the surface, but in truth it is actually a very confessional and interpersonal record for Ms. Clark. She proves she can kick ass and write a killer guitar lick, and crafts one of the most intoxicating albums of the year thanks to her rose tinted guitar and synth crunch. But she also reveals herself to be very sensual and full of longing and desire. Which of her revelations are the most confessional in nature? That she prefers her mother's love to Jesus? That she begins her day with taking out the trash and beating off? Or is it this line: I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the heights/I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind."

The mainstream publications may have focused on her zany image, but this album, maybe more so than any album this year, is a triumph of allowing us to see its creator as human and vulnerable.

4. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg have crafted their finest work yet. It's chock full of themes that will appeal to youth, including insecurities about the future, realizing the transience of people, places and situations when you're young, and figuring out who you are. There are themes of traveling or moving on from certain things in life, which calls to mind Dylan in a way. Even if you aren't a youngster, the breezy melodies, brilliantly arranged harmonies and that retro 70s folk/country vibe are so easy to get swept up in.

3. Caribou - Our Love

The electronic production here is better than any album I've heard this year, and can hold its own with anything this decade. A deep, dense, swirling world composed of IDM beats and hazy psychedelia rise up to engulf the listener from the moment the needle hits vinyl. Dan Snaith's tender croon paints images of love and love lost, but he never dives full bore into the subject lyrically. Instead, he allows his stunning dreamscapes to transpose the message he wants into the listeners' mind. This album that will penetrate every little pore if you let it.

2. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

This album is great for anyone who's ever felt uncertain about life, which is a feeling I think many of us can relate to. It presents a pulsating, driving hard rock sound accented with fist pumping choruses and guitar leads reminiscent of 90s punk. Meanwhile, Dylan Baldi pours out his frustrations and anxieties pour out in full force. It may not help you chart your course for life, but it will provide a hell of a soundtrack for doing so.

1. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2

One of the biggest areas in which music this year lacked was that there wasn't anything with much of a message. War on Drugs might have wowed listeners with waves of reverb, and Swans sure as hell developed some intense experimental soundscapes, but when you boil it all down it's all just music, and nothing more. Run the Jewels 2 was one of the few notable albums this year that actually attempted to say something relevant to its time. Now, I'm not going to try to tell you this is The Times They Are A-Changin' or anything, but a hell of a lot happened in 2014 that didn't involve our headphones and this sums it up as well as anything else. "Early" presented a depiction of police violence and a summation of our society's response to it. In a year in which violent protest dominated our headlines, it's enough to rank Run the Jewels 2 among the year's most socially conscious records.

Of course, the album is great for many reasons other than that. Emcees Killer Mike and El-P talk about some very real themes but don't shove it down your throat. They mix great production with mostly intense hardcore lyrics and then slip the themes in here and there. It's very intense in every sense of the word, from the beats and overall sound of the album all the way down the to lyrics and presentation. They laid down basically what they wanted to do with RTJ1, but this one fixed all of its problems. The beats are better, they cut the shit, cut out all the weak watered down hooks, and tightened everything up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 25 Live Shows of 2014

If nothing else, the concert scene in 2014 shows why it's important to strike while the iron's hot. Two of my top six acts are highly unlikely to tour again in the imminent future, and one of those are headed out on their final tour next year. That said, it was still another great year for live music. Here's the best I saw:

25. Deafheaven

February 18 at The End

Watching Deafheaven on stage isn't like watching a typical metal band.  This was an epic, energy draining set. Their frontman was kind of weird, but in a good way. He practiced lots of exaggerated hand motions, and he liked to scream right in the faces of people that were close. Of course, they were eating it up. His vocals were barely audible, though. I stopped by a Papa John's on the way back to ask for a bottle of water. They were closed, but thankfully they let me have one. 

24. Goat

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Even with all the shows I've seen, there's still few bands like Goat. Their sound is a carefully culled mixture of 60s psych folk rock, but the colorful gypsy costumes they don onstage and their bold sense of creativity makes this a must see. They're a rare act to catch stateside but with any luck a successful new album might bring them around more frequently.

23. Lily & the Parlour Tricks

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Glorious harmonies from this band. They showcase three part girl harmonies backed up by crunchy rock guitar. And if that's not enough, they closed with a cover of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which segued into Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain" before finally morphing into Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." They harmonized their three voices together to replicate the closing piano coda of "Closer." My jaw was on the ground.

22. Samantha Crain

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

Crain is a consummate singer/songwriter, in the sense that she definitely expounds on the motivations and inspirations behind her songs. Onstage, her manner of speaking to an audience causes her to feels very down to earth, and easy to relate to. An example of her loveable, quirky personality: she wrote a song inspired by a movie Convoy about a trucker running away from cops and said if Convoy 2 ever came out she hoped it would make the soundtrack. 

21. Swans

June 30 at Exit/In

They rose from the grime and grit of the early 80s New York art scene, but now Swans have finally arrived and they're here to kick your ass. There is also a strong art house vibe with frontman Michael Gira doing some weird Native American spirit dancing, and rolling his tongue all around the microphone. But more than anything else, it's all about those riffs.  The opening salvo on "Bring the Sun" hit with so much force it felt like the equivalent of being mugged on a street corner.

20. Machine Head

July 21 at Exit/In

Rob Flynn of Machine Head is one of the most well respected voices within metal today, not to mention one of the most thoughtful and insightful. On stage, he will stop at nothing to fire up a crowd. It may have been an odd, between album cycle tour but it marked the band's first headlining gig in Nashville in almost 20 years. The spitfire riffing in "Aesthetics of Hate" and the pounding, old school punishment of "Ten Ton Hammer" were as good of a welcome back present as any.

19. MS MR

June 12 at Bonnaroo

If you know me you know I love my synth pop bands, so the moment I found out that's what they were I had to check 'em out. They're more about vocals/hooks as opposed to electronics/production, which has its pros and cons. On stage though, the band is far too infectious to deny.

Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow ripped their way through most of the cuts from their debut, Secondhand Rapture, and tossed in covers of the Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know" and LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" for good measure. This was the first band of the weekend I saw people seriously getting hype over, and it looked like the band themselves were blown away by the reception they were getting. We were feeding off their energy as much as we were feeding off ours.

18. First Aid Kit

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

The Swedish dual threat of Johanna and Klara Soderberg have emerged as one of the day's most compelling indie folk duos, and the grand glory of their dual vocal harmonies rang forth in fine fashion at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. They also put on display considerable charm that wowed the audience, and left little doubt the only direction they're headed is up.

17. Rodrigo y Gabriela

August 8 at Ryman Auditorium

A duo doing little more than playing guitars on stage might not sound that exciting at first glance, but there's something living, breathing, and vital about Rodrigo y Gabriela onstage. They capture the giddy, whirlwind energy of street performers. Rodrigo works out speed metal inspired guitar leads and Gabriela practices the most insane rhythm playing I've ever witnessed. If that's not enough, they throw in a pretty bitchin' set of covers as well.

16. Cake

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Bahaha, these guys are insane. I knew of Short Skirt Long Jacket and The Distance, but didn't get really turned on to these guys until I started researching the fest lineup and heard their cover of I Will Survive. I had a front row spot for this show, and one of my friends caught a drumstick they tossed into the crowd. It's fun, sing along, breezy feel good music that makes you feel good and doesn't make you think too much.

15. Tune Yards

October 9 at Marathon Music Works

It has been a joy to see Merrill Garbus's band and stage show grow over the years. The band's presence is delightfully bizarre, while never deviating from their brand of exotic rhythm based pop music. They've gotten more diverse and electronic since I first saw them, and seem to be getting into the artier side in terms of dress and presentation as well.

14. Hundred Waters

November 11 at Marathon Music Works

I caught these guys opening for Interpol. I knew very little going in but they turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in a while. What impresses me most is their versatility. They vary from James Blake like downtempo soul vibe but can also get more upbeat and frenetic in their drumwork without losing their aesthetic. They can be more electronic/ambient at times, and sometimes the girl even pulls out a flute and starts wailing away. I found myself wondering if there's anything this band isn't capable of.

13. Janelle Monae

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Her set was significantly shorter than the last time I saw her, but Monae was undeterred as she demonstrated that sparkling, vivacious, electric showmanship that's made her one of today's must see acts. It was mostly an energetic set, only slowing down for rosy cheeked love tune "Primetime," in which Monae urged us all to bring our lover closer together for a slow dance. She closed the set by hopping off stage and mingling with the crowd before being carried off piggyback by one of her crew members.

12. Cloud Nothings

June 12 at Bonnaroo

One of my favorite Bonnaroo moments was raging out with this band. The set was a pure unleashing of energy and emotion.  So cathartic moments: the shrieking of "Psychic Trauma," the colossal build up and release of "Wasted Days", straight up to the eerie parting drone of "No Future No Past." The crowd responded in kind, whipping up some of the most intense moshing of the entire weekend. Apparently it was too much for some, as people were leaving the show in droves.

11. Kvelertak

November 6 at Marathon Music Works

Norwegian heavy metallers Kevelertak come across like viking conquerors onstage, come to smite us with heavy metal. Their frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, knows how to play to a crowd; he came out wearing an owl mask for their opening number "Åpenbaring," and never let up from there. The gang is very energetic on stage. They hit loud, fast, and hard, and played with the swagger of 70s rock and roll stars.

10. Elton John

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Seeing Elton was a highlight of the year, even if his show didn't quite live up to other headliner caliber sets I've seen. He opened with the 11 minute epic "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," which was among the greatest songs I heard at Bonnaroo. After drawing top billing, many festivalgoers began to wonder how he'd compare to last years #1 billed act, Paul McCartney. He didn't come close to the majesty of that set, but that's not a bad thing. Unlike fellow headliners Kanye West and Jack White, Elton didn't have much to say. He simply kept his head down and powered his way through his hits. It seemed like he was going through the motions to a certain extent, but when your catalog contains "Bennie and the Jets," "Tiny Dancer," and "All the Girls Love Alice," it's not hard to forgive. Not to mention that Ben Folds came out to join him for "Grey Seal." Before hitting the exit gate, I saw a group of people who joined hands together and ran/danced around in a circle, and then brought it in and high fived one another, and I managed to get in on it. It was one of my favorite moments of the weekend for sure.

9. Mastodon

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Mastodon has gained a reputation as one of the best live acts in their field for good reason. I saw them twice this year, and it was tough to decide which performance was better. Ultimately I'm going with their Bonnaroo set for its more varied setlist. They pulled a good amount of traditional metal from fan favorite albums Blood Mountain and Leviathan, but delved into their more noodly, progressive side also. They've got great stage presence, one of the best drummers walking the planet, and a killer light setup. I was also jazzed for Capillarian Crest, one of the best deep cuts they've done.

8. Beck 

July 15 at Ryman Auditorium

Last time Beck hit Nashville, we saw him stealthily slipping into a nearby restaurant to wow patrons with secret set. No such festivities occurred this time, but what we did get was a career retrospective from a stunning artist who observes no rules but his own. He shared the tale of how many cuts from his latest album, Morning Phase, originated from recording sessions in Nashville and wooed us with a handful of those dreamy cuts. The highlight, however, was when Beck rolled out yellow police tape and finished his set with a combination of crazed harmonica playing, 90s hip hop, and a mashup of Rolling Stones' "Miss You."

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

June 14 at Bonnaroo

I only caught the last half of Nick Cave, but even from that it is dead obvious the man was born to be onstage. He cast a sinister shadow as he leered over his crowd and wove his tale of the murderous madman Stagger Lee.  I loved how the drummer clashed his stick against the kit to make it sound like gunshots when Billy Dilly got filled full of lead. But if that wasn't enough, Cave drops a secret verse on us where Stagger Lee straight up kills the Devil! I loved the the chilled out dissonance of his Push the Sky Away material as well as the gothic, Quentin Tarantino vibe, but Stagger Lee was the most badass moment of Bonnaroo for sure!

6. Outkast

July 18 at Forecastle

Forget everything you've heard about that off-kilter Coachella performance. Hip hop's most dynamic duo dominated Forecastle during their Friday night headlining set, delivering spitfire rhymes and hooks tastier than Southern fried steak and gravy. The duo's reunion was one of the inescapable music stories of the year, and with a chance to hear "Ms. Jackson," "So Fresh So Clean," and "The Whole World," among many others, it's no surprise why. The only nagging concern was whether or not Andre was truly on board, and apparently he wasn't. In a post tour interview he talked about how much he disliked the entire experience so it's almost certain we'll never have the chance to see them again.

5. Damon Albarn

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Albarn is pound for pound one of the best pure performers I have ever seen, but the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz had no designs on hogging the stage during this solo set. Along with him came a dazzling cast of guests, paving the way for one of Bonnaroo's most unforgettable main stage acts in recent memory. He belted out hard rockers, hip hop inspired beats, more downtempo fare and even a bit of circus style music as he weaved his way through material from all the various bands and collaborations he has been a part of over his career. But when he brought out De La Soul for "Feel Good Inc." followed by Del the Funky Homosapien for "Clint Eastwood," an uproarious celebration broke out and engulfed the entire field.

4. Neutral Milk Hotel

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Few reunions have been more lauded by fans and critics than that of 90s indie folk darlings Neutral Milk Hotel. After a somewhat disappointing performance at Ryman Auditorium, their set at Bonnaroo showed me exactly why.What is typically a laid back affair became balls to the wall as the normally timid Jeff Mangum unleashed a torrent of buzzsaw guitars. The moshing, pushing and shoving became so intense that several people had to flee the set. But suddenly you got hit with the 8 minute ballad Oh Comely. After all the roughhousing we were all so drained it felt you were dying and that song was the only thing keeping you alive.

3. Darkside

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Navigating Bonnaroo, especially on a Saturday night, can be a trying experience. Fortunately, Dave Harrington's minimalistic, ethereal guitar work coupled with Nicolas Jarr's heavenly, all encompassing synth washes proved to be the perfect healing salve. Jarr's high pitched vocals sneak in to a track and then slip back out like a thief in the night. There was an booming bass beat that keeps kicking you in the chest. And then there was their gigantic mirror, reflecting radiant beams of light throughout the tent.  This was one of those experiences that made me forget where I was -- to just forget about everything for a moment. For that reason, I'll always hold it in the utmost regard.

2. Arcade Fire

May 1 at Bridgestone Arena

Win Butler and crew are some of the brightest, most innovative and forward thinking musicians of our day. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly it is, but everything about their stage show and production is a breath of fresh air. The band's first stadium tour had it all: raging calypso drums, blankets of confetti, Mexican wrestler masks and crystal monsters dancing around. Famed DJ Kid Koala even showed up to jam while the equipment was set up. But Arcade Fire also have the booming catalog to back it up. They could rattle the arena with Springsteen-esque rock or get experimental with more exotic material from their latest album, Reflektor, but it was the giant anthems that carried the night as the entire building was swept away in a riveting rendition of "Wake Up."

1. Jack White

June 14 at Bonnaroo

He may hail from Detroit, for but three hours in a field in Tennessee Jack White did all he could to position himself in the pantheon of all time greatest Southern musicians. He had a particular concept in mind, so I'll let him tell you in his own words:

"All the musicians up here with me now, I think they all mentally decided that the best thing to give to you right now was not a show that would put on a bunch of explosions behind us and give you some sort of pyrotechnics for some festival or something like that. But the kind of show that we show you what kind of music we would play if we were in a room all by ourselves and you were there too."

As simple as it may seem, some performers put too much stock into presentation or focus too much on trying to girls onstage topless with them. With Jack White it was not just about the music; it was a celebration of music. This show was special because everything about his delivery felt very personalized; it was like he was talking directly to you in the crowd no matter where you were.

But you also have to excel in terms of musicianship to make a concept like this work, and in White's case he's capable of doing things that many musicians can't. There are plenty of blues players with amazing instrumental skills, but White combines electrifying charisma with awe-inspiring musical chops, and he can actually write songs too. I found myself mesmerized by his playing. He belts out blues inspired solos but can also jam out quite a bit.

"Seven Nation Army" was the moment the audience had been anticipating all night. When he hopped onto the speaker and belted out that riff it was a full blown coronation. Of all the iconic, instantly recognizable guitar riffs that one is the most recent, and may well be the last for all we know. But what we do know is this: there may not have been any pryo at this show but you're out of luck if you're trying to determine anything else it was lacking.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mastodon shreds Nashville with help from Gojira and Kvelertak

It was one of the most hotly anticipated metal tours Nashville has seen in awhile, and the city's denizens turned out in full force. Atlanta heavy metal act Mastodon is part progressive metal and part sludge, but has been turning heads recently with their ability to make those sounds accessible to the masses. Their latest album, Once More Round the Sun, was recorded in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, and the lines nearly stretched to the end of the street in anticipation of the band's performance.

The set served as a showcase for the band's new found sound. With plenty of catchy, sing-a-longable hooks, it shows just how much they've changed from over the years. Their sound is characterized by an abundance of noodly guitar leads, with a tendency to jam out for sure. Brent Hinds demonstrated his guitar mastery all throughout the night, while drummer Brann Dailor made a rare appearance on lead vocals during one of the night's most propulsive cuts, "The Motherload." There's a significant difference between their earlier material and that of the last two records, but they've maintained their credibility by augmenting their catchy hooks with top notch musicianship.

Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds (left) are proving their place as one of the greatest metal bands of our time.

They started breaking out older stuff later in the set, but make no mistake -- with only two songs from Blood Mountain and three from Leviathan, this was a showcase for the newest album.

"Ol'e Nessie," from their 2002 debut Remission, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the set with its coarse, guttural shouted vocals and slow, crushing riffwork. But it was the older hits that had the fans tearing the place up. None did better than "Blood and Thunder," which tells the tale of a doomed sailing crew attempting to take down a mighty white whale. The gale force intensity coming off the pummeling guitar riff coupled with the devastating impact of Dailor's crash cymbal is enough to make you feel like you're right there with the crew, staving off a pounding rainstorm and aiming your harpoon right at the killer whale. Needless to say, the crowd lost their shit.

On the downside, their sound was kind of muddy -- not exactly the most crisp, clear or sharpest sound by any stretch of the imagination. The vocals in particular were very hard to hear, and has been that way both times I've seen them. Hinds has drawn flak in the past for his live vocals, and he honestly isn't the best pure singer of all time so that's likely a design decision. But when it comes to songs you're less familiar with it's hard to pick them out by their melody. It seems strange since that's what they're focusing on more these days.

Erlend Hjelvik and the guys from Norwegian metal band Kvelertak swipe, slash, and shred the stage to pieces.

They were preceded by French heavy metal act Gojira, whose star has been rising ever since the release of their 2012 album L'Enfant Sauvage. I had previously seen this band when they held down the opening slot on Metallica's Death Magnetic tour in 2009, but all I can remember is some long haired guy frantically running around the stage. This time around, with a much closer view, I can say they are most definitely the most unique metal band I have seen. This is clearly more thinking man's metal. Joe Duplantier's vocals sound like a demon serpent being dragged out of a portal from hell. It's very heavy with a good bottom end. You could mosh to it, but there's much more to it than that. The best way I can describe them is exotic, and I'm always pleased when I get to witness a band like that.

To top things off, we all had the good fortune to see Kvelertak as the opening band. These guys are a blast to watch on stage. They're like viking conquerors, come to smite us with heavy metal. The band really gets into it, rocking out hard and spinning their instruments around. Their frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, and knows how to play to a crowd. He came out wearing an owl mask for their opening number "Åpenbaring." They hit loud, fast, and hard and played with the swagger of 70s rock and roll stars. The only downside is there's not much variety in their sound as of right now, but they're still a young band and they're getting there. If you get a chance to see any of these three bands anytime soon, I highly recommend you do so.

Joe Duplantier of Gojira conjures odd time signatures and crushing rhythms to forge artistic and forward thinking metal.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Swedish duo First Aid Kit bring wonderful harmonies to life at Ryman

On Wednesday night, the glorious harmonies of Johanna and Klara Soderberg enchanted Ryman Auditorium. The Swedish sister duo, better known as First Aid Kit, mesh modern folk with the sounds of traditional country and do it better than just about anyone out there right now. They show off their playful side with cuts like "King of the World," while "In the Hearts of Men" and "Cedar Lane" show off a more contemplative side. They also demonstrated some serious bite during a cover of Jack White's "Love Interruption," a side of them that hasn't come across on their albums very often but they seem to pull off very well.

They felt right at home at The Ryman, spinning out a cover of The Carter Family's "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone." But perhaps most staggering of all was when the sisters sang side by side during an acoustic version of "Ghost Town" all the way back from their first album. It can't be overstated just how wonderful their voices are when they merge together onstage. They kept their set short and sweet at just around an hour, allowing the audience to head home sated but no doubt leaving eager for more.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tune Yards branch out into bold pop music collage on Nikki Nack

The opening track on Tune Yard's latest album, Nikki Nack, sees frontwoman Merril Garbus meditating on making changes, both inward and outward, and coming to grips with the difficulty of flipping that switch. It's a fitting opening for an artist who's been ever changing and evolving, and now her third album, Nikki Nack, sees the dynamic singer emerging from the cocoon all set to splatter our world with a palate of brighter colors.

Since the last album, whokill, in 2011, everything has gotten bigger, more complex, and, for the most part, better for the band. The brass and bass, which were huge driving forces on whokill, have been toned down in favor of a more complex, mulittracked electronic approach which at times borders on synthpop.

However, she hasn't ditched her emphasis on rhythm. Along with bassist Nate Brenner, the percussion and syncopation has reached new heights, and it complexity now rivals that of Thom Yorke's electro-precussive side project Atoms For Peace. But the production is also far bigger now than it has been on any of Garbus's previous offerings. The horn section that so wonderfully colored whokill are mostly absent, but in their place are a bevy of glorious electronic synths are present here. "Wait for a Minute" features cool, subtle background washes, while "Time of Dark" is backed by buzzy techno that wouldn't sound out of place on a 2000s era Nine Inch Nails record.

Garbus, as always, comes through with a big and bold personality. She brings plenty of swagger and attitude, her lyrics often bring the sense that she is a survivor, incapable of being held down. She is also the chief percussionist in the band, but this time around she's added another drummer as well.

"Water Fountain" with its playful and innocent nature, sounds like it could be a jump rope rhyme for the kids on the sidewalk.  But Garbus begins to cut loose as the track progresses, and it builds into something much more forceful and intricate. By the time the familiar melody arrives for the final chorus, it's the same but it has altogether changed. The clanging electronic production and much more complex vocal arrangements shows off Garbus's impressive ability to mix various layers together and make a song that is much more than the sum of its parts.

"Wait for a Minute" takes things in an opposite direction, showing off her mastery at slowing down and taking on more serene material, as well as confirming her status as a fantastic singer. She delivers power but also shows she knows how to reel herself in and deliver, sublime, beautiful melodies. The song shows off her stunning range, and the production is bang up as well.  "Wait for a Minute" is one of the best synthpop songs of the year, and one of the best she's ever done. It offers a dramatic contrast to her raw, jackhammer delivery on songs like "Real Life." Her ability to belt it out is impressive, but this song demonstrates that when she keeps it up too long it can become one note and lack variation, and after a while it grates on the nerves.

Meanwhile, "Stop That Man" continues to explore a lyrical theme of violence and crime in her native California, previously examined on "Gangsta" from whokill. It also sounds the most like her old material, as she declares in her ominous lower register that we'll have to be our own policeman. "Left Behind" and "Sink-o" are the most complex tracks rhythmically, but also are the most bass heavy and provide the best opportunities to shake your booty.

Nikki Nack is a strong listen from front to back, but the problems that do come up on on the album tend to result from mixing and arranging the various layers together. This is the most complex album Garbus has put together. There are more musicians, more layers, and just generally more going on here than on either of her two previous albums. Although it happens rarely, in some places things don't come together quite right. Opener "Find a New Way" kicks off with an awkward Vampire Weekend sounding opening and abrasive FIND A NEW WAY refrain. All the layers previously present in the song are reintroduced simultaneously at the end, but instead of meshing well with one another they all clash and conflict with one another.

The biggest offender, however, is "Look Around," which is super surreal but in all the wrong ways. Her dissonant ukulele combines with something in the background that sounds like a demented cuckoo clock, and is paired up with a halfhearted vocal track that doesn't mesh well with the music at all.

The entire album is abound with an African, Caribbean and world tribal influences, as well as playground chants that give the album a playful and inviting feel. It may sound like a lot to wrap your head around, and it is. But what's great is that the entire album operates off a pop sensibilities, so every song is pretty easy to get into without taking too many listens to get into, but the more time you do invest into this record the more layers you peel back that you may never have even noticed in the first place. This is what makes this one of the most refreshing and rewarding albums in recent memory. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Crazed folk band O'Death announce new album Out of Hands We Go

O'Death first caught my attention through an album cover. The art for their 2011 album, Outside, was so well done and thoughtfully illustrated I had to take a listen, and now the band is one of my favorite finds of the last several years. The best way I can describe them is that it's basically like a crazed, fire breathing Southern Baptist preacher fronting a stark raving mad folk band. I tend to think of these guys as the redneck folk version of Gogol Bordello, in large part due to the wild live performances both bands are known for giving. They've released a couple of new cuts from their upcoming album, Out of Hands We Go, which drops Oct. 7. They're not as rambunctious as some of their older material, but certainly not as subdued as Outside. It's good to see that O'Death seem to be reinventing themselves once again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Metal veterans Machine Head smash Nashville like a wrecking ball

The 90s have never been considered the most fertile time for metal, but I don't agree that the decade was some sort of wasteland for the genre as many experts like to assert. Machine Head is one of the many reasons why.

Their first statement was perhaps their loudest, dropping their debut album Burn My Eyes in in 1994. Combining the frenzied edge of thrash metal with a straight ahead riffing style and an aggressive, take no prisoners attitude, the album is still considered a classic to this day.

Oakland based heavy metal act Machine Head graced Nashville's Exit/In.

It had been far too long since we'd seen the Bay Area heathens properly tear Music City apart, as frontman Rob Flynn declared it had been 19 years since the last headlining tour from Machine Head hit Nashville. The occasion? Dubbed The Killers & Kings tour, the band had booked a small number of dates in support of their latest single of the same name. It seems like more of an excuse to get back out on the road more than anything else, but anything that gets Machine Head to venue near me won't have me complaining.

The setlist pulled almost evenly from the band's seven studio albums, but focused most heavily on their 2007 effort The Blackening. Now, it isn't too often a band releases their best album 13 years into their career, but Machine Head does not concern themselves with the operations of lesser mortals. If the spitfire riffing of "Aesthetics of Hate" or the lighters held high anthem "Halo" doesn't get you going, then buddy you've come to the wrong place.

Their latest album, Unto the Locust, is no slouch either. The technical complexity of the riffing in "Locust" demonstrates heady progress the band has made over the years. The real jaw dropper moment, however, came during "Darkness Within" as the crowd took over and sang the outro all by themselves, even after the band went silent. Chills.

Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel go back to back during a scintillating solo.

Their older material shined, too. The punishing riffs of "Ten Ton Hammer" were impossible, while "Old" and "Davidian" gave us ringing reminders as to why we fell in love with this band in the first place.

I've read several blog posts from frontman Rob Flynn, and he seems like a great guy full of personality. He was a relentless motivator, constantly urging the crowd on and demanding their all. Guitarist Phil Demmel also deployed some great showmanship. He sliced through solos with the greatest of ease while making faces toward the crowd and exuding showmanship that reminds me of the guys from Iron Maiden.

The crowd, for their part, heralded the band's arrival by taking up hearty cries of Machine Fucking Head  Other than that, though, they mostly just stood at respectful attention without really getting too into it.