Thursday, December 30, 2010

Avey Tare album should tide over fans of AnCo, but not much more.

Genre: Psychedelic/Experimental
Paw Tracks
Running Time: 34:44

2009 was easily the year of Animal Collective. That was the year the avant-garde indie/electronic rockers, to that point fairly obscure, dropped their glittering opus of totally tripped out electronic pop influenced album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the rest was history.

The band has spent this year on the sideline, but that hasn't stopped frontman Avey Tare from diving in headfirst with his debut solo album, Down There. Being as Tare is one of the biggest influences on his band's sound, you can expect Down There to offer heavy helpings of the trippiness that makes Animal Collective so unique. The sound you'll hear here is much closer to the signature Animal Collective sound than, say, a Panda Bear album.

The opener, "Laughing Hieroglyphic," features a demented accordion playing over gurgling electronic beats, while Tare's loopy vocal engages you and won't let go. At the same time, there definitely are some departures from Animal Collective. For starters, Avey's disc tends to be much more minimalist in nature than some of AnCo's works.

For those who tried to get into Animal Collective but were turned off by just how over the top it was, you might want to give this one a shot. The relatively subdued nature of the songs means that it's nowhere near as grating as some of Animal Collective's more over the top compositions.

But they also aren't as fascinating, either. Remember how the shimmering wall of synthesizers took your breath away the first time you heard "My Girls?" Or how about the brooding, all over the place vocal melody from "Summertime Clothes?"

Nothing on Down There can come close to the majestic results we get when the foursome of Animal Collective get togehter, but there is a lot here to like. One of the elements that make this album unique is its water theme. Worked into the mix are plenty of dripping, splashing, and tinkling sounds. It's like you're sitting in an underground basement while water leaks out of the pipes, listening to Avey spin his tale.

As far as the vocals go, no one's ever going to accuse Tare of being the greatest singer. But he covers that up a bit by submerging his voice into a myriad of different effects. I swear he's got a new distortion for every song. It gets to be so much that after a while you could start listening to the title track off Radiohead's Kid A album and think it sounds perfectly normal.

Instruments? Well, there's not a whole lot I could make out on this album. It's mainly driven whatever electronic effect Avey's got programmed into the background, thought I wouldn't be surprised if there was a guitar here and there.

Vocal samples also prove to be a considerable part of Tare's repitorie. "Glass Bottom Boat" begins with a guy looking for directions to a cemetery, and a stranger offers to give him a boat ride there. "Oliver Twist" features some guy talking about someone who looked into a rock and saw a skull or something. It's strange, but it fits the mood.

Some of lyrical themes are also pretty out there. "Ghost of Books" is, I'm pretty sure, a song about a guy who wants to make love to a ghost. But there are also some more evolved lyrical themes. "Heather in the Hospital" talks about feelings of depression when a loved one has to go into the hospital, while "Cemeteries" deals with feelings of anger and fear.

Perhps the biggest strength of Down There is its uniqueness. No one can make an album quite like Avey Tare, and you certainly won't hear anything else like this album this year. It comes off as more of an Animal Collective-lite, but if you're a fan you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you've been intrigued by the Collective, but find their sound to be too oppressive, you might find Down There to be a little more palatable.

Score: 70/100

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Agalloch forges frigid dreamworld with Marrow of the Spirit

Genre: Black Metal
Profound Lore
Running Time: 65:33

Imagine being in the middle of a dense forest. It is night and you are all alone. Snow coats the ground, while a stream babbles beside you on a clear frosty night. The silence and loneliness engulf you. You are now entrenched in Agalloch's world.

The quartet from Portland, Oregon, is one of the few bands to attempt black metal in the states, and their mixture of black/folk metal mixture is up there with almost anything produced by their Euro brethren. I've had trouble getting into black metal, but one thing I've always respected about it is how there is usually some type of nature influence in the music.

Agalloch have nailed that vibe here, creating an opus of an album that is dreary, bleak, cold, suffocating, and lonely.  The album art sums up the mood nicely - you see nothing but a stream running through a snowy forest at night. Water and nature are the two main themes present on the album. In fact, two of the song titles, To Drown" and "Black Lake Nidstang," contain direct water references.

The opener, "They Escaped the Weight of Darkness," features the sound of a running stream with birds chirping in the background, while mellow strings play alongside it. You're beginning to relax when suddenly a massive drum breakdown comes in and then the furious tremolo strumming from the guitars starts kicking your ass. Vocalist John Haughm has a raspy shriek that isn't the best I've ever heard, but it is authentic.

Much of Agalloch's sound tends to wandering and ambient, although that much should be evident from listening to their previous records. Outside of the intro, only one song is under 10 minutes. However, unlike Ashes Against the Grain, this album has a much darker feel. I would compare it to Opeth's Morningrise in terms of the folk metal influences.

"Into the Painted Grey" is solidly black metal, but "The Watcher's Monolith" features extended folk rock jamming before getting heavier. That leads into the albums's staggering opus, "Black Lake Nidstang," which clocks in at over 17 minutes.

The song opens with some ominous strains before giving way to Haughm's eerie whispered vocals. The main riff and drum beat don't kick in until around four and a half minutes. Around halfway through, Haughm switches to a bizarre type of hoarse sounding shriek/yell, wich sounds extremely awkward at first but becomes one of the song's defining elements.

You get some heavier riffs after that before fading into a spooky ambience that takes up about 1/3 of the track. But the song comes back with a vengeance near the end and delivers a truly memorable outro before slipping off into the night.

I find that, along with "Into the Painted Grey," "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" tends to stick out as my favorite song on the album. It's a bit more guitar and melody driven than some of the other tracks, and I really enjoy the riffs on this one. The closer, "To Drown," tends to wander, but the last few minutes end the album off in grand style.

The instruments do tend to sound flimsy at times, but the playing is top notch. The vocals are few and far between,but it makes it meaningful when Haughm finally comes in. It's true that Marrow of the Spirit tends to wander a bit, Sometimes I feel it works a bit better as background music, as it doesn't honestly hold my interest all the way through.

But it's also a very deep album, full of intricate nuances that reward the listener by revealing something new on each subsequent listen. Marrow of the Spirit stands as one of the upper tier metal albums of 2010 because it captures something that not many albums can do.

Agalloch have gone beyond simply making a metal album. They have created a bleak, icy world that's easy to slip away and get lost in.

Score: 81/100

Monday, December 20, 2010

Trans-Siberian Orchestra will have you ready to deck the halls

It seems everyone has a list of traditions they usually carry out during the holiday season.

Most people either Xmas shopping, baking gingerbread cookies, putting up decorations, or just doing their best to avoid it all.

But there's something else that should be on your list. Something that you need to do at least once. If seeing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra isn't on your list, shame on you.

The spectacle of lights, fireworks, neo-classical rock, and Christmas themed energy is something that everyone needs to witness at least once. And the Trans-Siberian Orchestra brought it to Nashville's Bridgestone Arena Dec. 12 in grand style.

Prepare to be amazed by the TSO light show.

Their first and most famous album, Christmas Eve and other Stories, is a rock opera that tells the story of a man on a search to find the meaning of Christmas. The first half of the show consists of a musical narrative of this story. You have a narrator who tells the story and sets the stage for each song. This part of the show will definitely get you pumped up and in the Christmas spirit.

The band lineup consists of three tuxedo clad guitarists, a drummer, a keyboard/piano player, and a elastic female violinist who looks like she could jump kick you in the face. I can't really name people by name becase I coldn't keep up.

And then there is the singer. Guy is truly an epic hard rock vocalist.

Members of TSO play off each other very well.
He has great range, emotion and feeling and really understands the concepts behind showmanship. His vocal pyrotechnics during "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" lit up the stadium just as effectively as any of the myriad fireworks or light displays the band utilizes.

The guitar playing is truly phenomenal. During "O Holy Night" they unleashed a flurry of sweeps and scales so fast that even Joe Satriani would be swelling with pride.

And the light show ensures there are always unique and elaborate backgrounds for every song. There are a lot of cool colors, a lot of purples and blues that help set the mood but every now and then the stage will be washed in a majestic gold light.

The narrator, Phillip Brandon, is a big guy that reminds me of Seal, or James Earl Jones. Personally I didn't know the story coming in, and I feel like you lose something without knowing that. The narrator does a fine job, he's all deep voiced and bombastic and everything, but after a while he started to get tedious. And having him come in between every song is a little much.

The second half of the show saw the band break out into a little more diversity. There was a mash up of the Beatles "Help!" with some other song I didn't recognize the name of. There was also a soprano falsetto vocalist who sang and danced on a stage opposite the main stage on the other side of the arena.

There were also a couple of Beethoven tracks, along with long catwalks extending out over the seating area that the guitar players walked out on.

Virtually everyone that I know who's been to a TSO concert has been blown away at their experience. Is it overwrought and over the top? Sure, but you can't help but admire it. It takes incredible effort to coordinate the lights, fireworks, choreography, and music.

I would have liked it if they did more covers; the Help! half-cover they did was pretty lame. And I would have liked a little more Beethoven. I'm also pretty sure there were a couple of songs they played more than once.

Overall I thought it was a good show, but I think the fact that over half the concert was spent storytelling turned out to be an issue. I had a problem making out what the narrator was saying, and after a while I didn't care. I think it would have worked better in a smaller, more intimate venue.

But that aside, seeing Trans-Siberian Orchestra is still a great show to see. Are they over the top? Sure. Do they reek a little of 80s metal? At times, but for your dollar there's no better way to get yourself into the Christmasy mood.

Monday, December 13, 2010

If this is Pink Friday, then I hope Monday comes soon

Genre: Rap
Cash Money
Running Time: 50:59

For many musicians, the struggle to hit it big can last a lifetime. For Nicki Minaj, all it took was a few mixtapes, a dash of personality, and a little luck.

Minaj started gathering steam in 2009 with her Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape before hitting it big with Young Money Entertainment.

That led to the release of her solo debut, Pink Friday. With an eclectic image and a major wave of hype, Minaj looks to hurdle her way to the top of the hip-hop landscape. But is Pink Friday really all that? In a word, no.

After having heard the album, I feel that most of the hype about Minaj is wrapped up in her marketing, wardrobe, and image. It's easy to see that's she's trying to portray the tough badass girl, but that's a trail that has been blazed before.

Her lyrics make it seem like she's all concerned about image. On "I'm the Best," she's bragging that she's got two shows in Brooklyn and Dallas, before flying off to the Buckingham Palace. On "Did It on 'Em," she says that if she had a dick, she would pull it out and piss on them. Who are they? Even after reading the lyrics I'm not totally sure, but you can be damn certain they're going to get pissed on.

But Minaj does have her moments. She looks back at her former self on "Dear Old Nicki" while she's trying to convince herslef to keep going on "Save Me." Her beats are bland, basic club techno at best and downright grating at worst.

The absolute bottom of the barrel comes on Check it Out with from the Black Eyed Peas. Annoying repetitive autotune vocals, with an aggravating bouncy beat makes me want to rage.

I will admit that Minaj is able to establish a decent flow for the most part. She really gets it going on tracks like "Last Chance" and "Dear Old Nicki." But in a year that saw album releases from Nas, Kanye, and Big Boi, you could do much better for your dollar.

The guest spots are decent, but can't disguise the fact that Minaj has trouble standing on her own. Eminem has a solid verse on "Roman's Revenge," but ultimately doesn't add much to the mix. I've honestly never thought Drake was that great of a rapper. Rihanna and Kanye have the best guest spots, on "Fly" and "Blazin" respectively., as I have stated before, could and should fall off a cliff with all due haste.

So ultimately, this isn't a horrible CD. It's definitely listenable and there are a few tracks I can definitely dig but Minaj at this point is basically a one trick pony. There's not much variation in her formula from song to song, and honstely Eve and Missy Elliot have done this type of thing better. I see some potential in Minaj, but it's going to take some major changes in direction for her to get there.

Score: 55/100

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Orphaned Land's ORwarriOR crushes all beneath its might

Genre: Progressive Metal
Century Media
Running Time: 78:23

Coming all the way from the dusty dunes of the Middle East, straight from the doorstep of Jerusalem, I give you Orphaned Land, progenitors of Israeli progressive/death metal.

It has been a long wait since thier last album, 2004's Mabool, but Orphaned Land proves the wait was worth it. The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR, is an imposing opus that reminds us of everything that's great about progressive death metal, and the method of delivery is probably unlike anything you've been listening to recently.

Orphaned Land works its magic by combining metal guitar riffing with acoustic, middle eastern folk inspired soundscapes. They remind me of a Middle Eastern Opeth. Both bands have folk influences.

Think of Opeth cuts like "Patterns in the Ivy" and you can get a sense of what I mean. And the combination of melodic and death vocals present on ORwarriOR is something else that Mikael Akerfeldt is well known for.

Vocalist Kobi Farhl has one of the best clean singing voices in the genre. The first several tracks on Mabool placed more an emphasis on growled vocals, but ORwarriOR focuses more heavily on actual singing. As a death growler, Farhl doesn't sound like a natural but he's adequate.

What he does possess is a truly epic, inspiring, and uplifting voice. He unleashes the full majestic quality of his voice on songs like New Jerusalem and Bereft in the Abyss, but whether he's singing, chanting, or shrieking, Farhl is guaranteed to astound you.

Also integral to the Orphaned Land mix is guitarist Yossi Sassi Sa'aron. Primarily, he's a beautiful melodic guitarist, but is also capable of delivering deafening blasts of metal riffery to deliver a shock to your senses. For proof, check out "From Broken Vessels" or "Barakah."

Sa'aron also proves himself capable of delivering spectacular guitar solos. The extended guitar outro on "The Warrior" is a wonderful example, but his solo on "Disciples of the Sacred Oath 2" is in another league. The aura delivered by the notes ringing from Sa'aron's guitar sears through the atmosphere like a heat wave rolling out of the Arabian deserts.

The female vocals delivered by Shiomit Levi provides another magical facet to the Orphaned Land recipe. She's used sparingly, but the contributions she makes on "Sapari" and "New Jerusalem" help take those tracks to the next level.

The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR is an epic journey, meant to be listened to as a whole, but if there's one standout track I'd recommend you listen to it would be Sapari. "Sapari" features Levi's alluring vocals followed by Arabian-sounding chants while Yossi Sassi Saron's guitar cuts through everything like a knife. The two vocalists do an expert job of playing off each other.

There are many subtle things that Orphaned Land do that make all the difference in their music, and this "Sapari" exemplifies that as well as any other. There's a great octave shift that occurs later in the song, which provides the song with a whole new level of intensity.

What I also liked is there's a refrain where the guitar riff always stops. It serves as an epic buildup to the final refrain at the 3 minute mark where the guitar just continues straight on through. It's a small touch, but it makes all the difference.

Lyric writing also proves to be another of Orphaned Land's strong suits. They tell of an epic struggle between light and darkness, and of the journey to confront evil. The lyrics also pull verses from the Bible and the Koran to provide a more authentic feel.

As with any progressive metal album, there are some moments where the album tends to drag a little bit but Orphaned Land do a good job of staying grounded and never sound too over the top. The drumming is good but I feel that it takes a backseat to the rest of the instruments and that the drummer gets forgotten about some of the time.

It's not a major complaint but I think the album would be even more amazing if the drums took a more central role some of the time. I also feel like Sa'aron's guitar solos were slightly better on Mabool, but Orphaned Land fans won't be disappointed with what he comes up with here.

All that aside, though, Orphaned Land have really outdone themselves this time and are almost a lock for metal album of the year. The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR is deeper than the secrets of the Nile and grander than the halls of King David. This album is a mandatory listen in 2010.

Score: 93/100

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sufjan Stevens takes a left turn on Age of Adz

Genre: Psychedelic/Folk/Experimental
Asthmatic Kitty
Running Time: 74:51

One of the great things about Sufjan Stevens is that he is never complacent. Stevens built his name as an indie folk god before unleashing 2005's Illinois, an odyssey into freak folk featuring acoustic guitars, dynamic arrangements, and a smorgasbord of well placed sound effects.

Fans hoping for more of the same might be let down by his latest, The Age of Adz, but Stevens uses the record to demonstrate one of his greatest strengths - his ability to adapt and evolve.

On The Age of Adz, Stevens has almost entirely dropped his folk/acoustic influences and has added electronic and ambient influences to his palette. And the zany arrangements that defined Illinois are more elaborate and over the top than ever, although you would never know that from the opener, "Futile Devices," styled much more in the mold of "John Wayne Gacy Jr." from the Illinois album. It's simple, effective, and beautiful.

After that song, however, be prepared to take a proverbial trip down the rabbit hole. "Too Much" features a slew of electronic beats while a zipping sound effect occurs in the background. Meanwhile, Sufjan's voice is floating along over it all like nothing's going on. That gives way to a spacey, mellow ambient section before coming back with one more blast of weirdness at the end.

The title track features a bleeping and booping electronic beat while a menagerie of sound effects clutter up the background, while "Now that I'm Older" starts with gospelly oohs and ahhs, before leading into Stevens's loopy, slightly demented vocal. Outside of the opener the folk element has almost totally vanished, although "Vesuvius" opens with a nice mellow acoustic section and "The Age of Adz" works a little of that into the mix as well.

Lyrically, the album has some great creative imagery going on, and the love letter that is "Impossible Soul" certainly has the power to move you. 

Of course, I couldn't go without mentioning the album's closer, "Impossible Soul," which clocks in at nearly half an hour. It's bombastic and grandiose to be sure, without necessarily being consistent over the course of its staggering 25:34 running time. It's got it's moments sure, but you can't deny that it also has its moments of repetitiveness.

The Age of Adz represents a major shift away from Illinois, but it comes with mixed results. If anything, I think Stevens may be guilty of trying too hard. Illinois represented the perfect balance of weird and wacky effects combined with well composed folk influenced music.

But on Adz the sound effects have taken over. There are just too many disparate background noises and effects on this album that don't go well together, and after a while it starts to give me a headache. There are moments of beauty on this album, but they're too few and far between.

I also have to call some of Stevens's vocal performance into question. I'm not sure if it's just because his vocals don't fit well with some of the backgrounds, or if it's an actual issue on Sufjan's part, but I noticed some moments on this album where he sounds whiny, and with the combination of the loopy background sounds it's more than enough to cause me to hit the skip button. There are also some repetitive moments, such as the last three minutes or so of "I Want to Be Well" or the end of "Impossible Soul," where he keeps repeating the same line.

I'm not saying this is a bad album, but it's certainly not for everyone. The Age of Adz is a very experimental record, even by Sufjan's standards, and there's a certain target audience he's trying to appeal to.  The album is somewhat like Animal Collective, in terms of the complex layering in almost every song. So, this album wasn't for me but if you think you might fit into the niche Stevens is aiming for by all means check this out. You might discover a new favorite.

Score: 70/100

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kanye's Fantasy? To twist the very fabric of rap

Genre: Rap
Def Jam/Rock-A-Fella
Running Time: 68:44

The rap game sure has changed over the years.

Back in the days of Chuck D and Slick Rick, rap was all about the message. Whether it be about social change or just simple storytelling, rappers were respected for the what they had to say. But now, as some folks might say, the game done changed.

These days it seems like the goal in delivering a rap album is to project a larger than life statement of who you are. The focus has shifted from the content of the message to the actual deliver of the message itself.

It's about trying to paint your ego on the fabric of rap. And no one exemplifies this better than Kanye West.

Although his brash persona has likely rubbed many people the wrong way, it's tough to knock his skills as a rapper and producer. After the moody autotune nightmare that was 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye began promising a return to "uplifting Kanye music."  

In an attempt to mend his image he started the Good Friday series, in which he released a new track each week leading up to the release of his album.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn't what I'd call uplifting, but it is a return to form.

You can tell by listening to this album that Kanye thinks he's God's gift to music. But he may not be far from the truth.

Kanye is at the top of his game, combining great flow and delivery with catchy hooks and elaborate arrangements. There's a definite club feel to many of the tracks, but it sounds fresh and original.

"Power" is reminiscent of "Jesus Walks," particularly in terms of the background chanting and general tone of the song. It also features an expertly placed sample from King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man."

"Gorgeous" features a moody guest spot from Kid Cudi while Kanye hammers it home with slightly distorted vocals. Raekwon also drops a great verse. And "Hell of a Life" is propelled by one of West's funkiest beats while he weaves the tale of how he fell in love with a porn star.

But Kanye is perhaps at his best when he's joined by his friends. "All of the Lights" features a stunning guest spot from Rihanna while Kanye raps over shimmering club beats. He warns that anyone who disrespects him is going to get taken down to "that ghetto university."

The visceral Rick Ross tags along for "Devil in a New Dress," while "Lost in the World" has folk singer Bon Iver awash in autotune.

And then there is "Monster." This track plays out like a who's who of rap in 2010. Rick Ross and Bon Iver deliver short opening statements before giving way to Kanye and Jay-Z. Jay-Z breaks out with a sing-songy type verse which sounds great, but he gets out-dueled by both Kanye and Nicki Minaj.

And speaking of Nicki Minaj, one of the breakout new stars of 2010 shows she's for real. Minaj drops a splintering verse in which she challenges the notion she's a rookie.

If I had a fantasy about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I would wish that the lyrics on this album were as solid as the rest of the music. 90 percent of it is utterly meaningless. A lot of what he writes is just all about sex, although there are a few funny moments here and there.

There are a few tracks where it sounds like Kanye is trying to a little too hard. The hook in "Devil in a New Dress" - "The way you look should be a sin, you my sensation" tends to get repetitive.

Then there is "Runaway," which cracks the nine minute mark with an extended instrumental outro. Sometimes I want to smack Kanye for trying to make a nine minute rap song, but the outro provides the album with even more diversity.

I'm not too huge on "So Appalled" because of the beats. The softer approach just really isn't my thing here.

But as it is, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a sure contender for rap album of 2010. Kanye has done more than just producing a simple rap album; he has developed a beautiful sound collage, and it's a very bold statement.

He's certainly moved on from being a college dropout. But anyone who overlooks Kanye anytime soon can expect to be dragged off to that ghetto university.

Score: 88/100

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I've got an interesting experiment going on...

...and it relates to my music reviewing, so I know you'll want to check it out.

I've started an interesting experiment over at I made a thread where site posters suggest 30 songs for me. There's no restricions - any genre, any era, anything goes.

I'm contractually bound to listen to it and review it, no matter what they throw at me. I'm at their complete mercy.

Then, they're free to agree or disagree, and argue or dispute my position.

If you want to get in on the action, or just watch the carnage as it unfolds,

Click here

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Taylor speaks now, but we've heard it all before

Genre: Pop
Big Machine Records
Running Time: 67:29

Radiohead's seminal hit "Paranoid Android" has an iconic opening line:

"Please stop the noise I'm trying to get some rest/From all the unborn chicken voices in my head"

Lately I've felt like I can relate. Expect instead of chicken voices in my head, it's been Taylor Swift.

The melodies on her new album, Speak Now, have burrowed their way inside my head, and they've been stuck there for days. Expect this to be the case if you decide to take in her newest collection of sugary pop tunes.

Initially, I wasn't expecting to find much diversity in Swift's music. But she mixes it up with upbeat pop tunes, sentimental ballads, and even makes a few excursions into alternative rock (although with mixed success).

However, one thing that's missing is the presence of an honest country sound. These days it seems the Nashville labels are all about pop-crossover bands, and the "country" label is essentially just in the marketing. But there's only one song on the disc that could even be remotely considered country.

I'm also not particularly taken by Taylor's lyrical content and subject matter. Traditionally, country music has been everyman's music; the lyrical messages have been something that people from all walks of life can relate to. But unless you're a fourteen-year-old girl, don't expect to be able to relate to Swift.

She seems to only have two main lyrical themes - being heartbroken by douchey boys and poking fun at slutty/mean girls. It sounds like she's perpetually stuck in high school, which is great, I guess, if you're in the teeny bracket.

However, I can't knock the fact that Taylor has considerable songwriting chops, particularity in her ability to write a catchy hook.

She's been quite successful at injecting her personality into her writing, which gives her music a distinctive brand. Even though she doesn't have an overpowering voice, you can hear one of Taylor's songs and automatically know it's her.

When this formula works well, it produces tracks like "Picture to Burn" and "You Belong With Me." Speak Now features a few songs where you can tell she was going for a similar approach, but the results are much more mixed.

The title track tells a rather far-fetched tale of Taylor breaking up her sweetheart's wedding and winning his heart, while "Better Than Revenge" seems to borrow heavily from Paramore and modern day alternative rock. Her vocal inflections here make me think she's trying a little too hard to mimic Haley Williams.

Some experiments work better than others. "The Story of Us" shows off some sure-fire alternative influences but is cleverly divided into chapters. Taylor's alternative material tends to remind me of Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin era.

"Enchanted" shows off some of Taylor's best vocal work and memorable melodies, while "Dear John" is a tale of a serial heartbreaker that will tug at your heartstrings. "Never Grow Up" is a ballad that shows off Swift's tender side.

Then you get a song like "Mean." When Taylor actually attempts a country song - surprise! It actually works out nicely. The vocal harmonies work to perfection, and the banjo is a brilliant touch. Taylor is trying to channel her inner Natalie Maines here, and it's very convincing.

So I guess it's now the time for me to speak now-ow about the latest Swift record. In general, I find it's a very safe record. There are a few new musical influences spread here and there, but the formula remains the same.

If you enjoy her first two albums and want more of the same, then you should be delighted with Speak Now. But at it's core it's just a collection of catchy pop tunes with little substance or depth.

Given the fact that her album have all been major blockbusters, it's really tough to forecast that she will ever try to change things up in the immediate future.

So here's my modest proposal for Swift. Leave the high school lyrics behind, and quit force feeding us the same thing every album. You might sacrifice a little in terms of $$$, but it will work wonders for your artistic integrity and development.

Score: 65/100

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter's magic shines brighter than ever with Deathly Hallows

I originally wasn't planning on seeing the new Harry Potter film. Personally, once I've read a book I don't often feel the need to see the movie.

It's tough because the film doesn't play out the way you saw it in your mind's eye when you were reading, and it ruins it. And most of the best parts get cut out anyway.

But somehow this Potter film seemed to defy all that. Maybe it's because it had been three years since I originally read The Deathly Hallows.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it's being split up into two movies for this last book, so as to include all the important scenes.

But whatever the case, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is a faithful, magical, and mystical interpretation of J.K. Rowling's final book in the Harry Potter series, and should be a delight to Potter fans everywhere.

So, a little about my overall experience. Josh and I grabbed our tickets last minute off Fandango and made the trek out out to Franklin's Carmike Cinemas. It was vitrually the only theatre we could find that wasn't sold out.

Needless to say, the scene was total pandemonium. Every spot in the parking lot was filled. Teenage girls cast spells at one another with makeshift wands. And anyone who wanted to see anything else that night was out of luck - Potter was playing in every auditoruim.

But the benefit of a packed crowd is the dynamic audience reaction. Laughter burst out through the audience at the scene where Harry dons a bra. There was lots of aww-ing at the final scene with Dobby, and plenty of giggling from teenage girls when Harry had to strip down to plunge into the icy water and grab Gryffindor's Sword.

So, about the film.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson reprise their roles as Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermoine Granger respectively. Naturally, Radcliffe's portrayal of Harry is going to steal the show, but it is perhaps Grint who delivers the most inspired performance.

Harry's quest to find Voldemort's horcruxes begins to strain his relations with Ron, and Grint does a masterful job of depicting Ron's moods and emotions that lead to him pushing Harry and Hermonine away.

I was also impressed with Rhys Ifans, who plays the demented and wacky Xenophilus Lovegood. Ifnas doesn't have that big of a spot, but he conjures the perfect amount of weirdness to pull off the part.

And of course I have to mention the charming helper elf Dobby who will certainly to steal away the hearts of the audience.

The final book in Rowling's Potter series was known for having a darker tone, and director David Yates did a fantastic job of capturing that vibe. The art direction in particular is definitely notable.

It's easy to admire the scenic Gothic architecture on display when Harry's crew visits the mysterious Godric's Hollow. A light snow mists the graves of Harry's parents while Bathilda Bagshot looks on eerily.

I did think the pacing tends to drag in places. The wedding scene in particular could have benefited from a little editing, although the film in general is mostly action packed.

But all in all, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, should be reason for Potter fans to rejoice. Harry Potter's spell will once again wrap around moviegoers tighter than Nagini and won't let go. At least not until the second installment hits theaters this summer.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Black Ops: more explosive than a jug of dynamite

Genre: First Person Shooter
Xbox 360/PS3/Wii

If you're used to seeing music reviews here, you may wonder why I'm doing a game review.

My original plan for this blog was to include regular video game reviews alongside the music reviews. As I got further into music reviewing, I noticed that game reviews didn't fit in very well.

But every now and then if there's a major blockbuster game, I may just take a little time to give my thoughts on it.

So here we have Call of Duty: Black Ops, the followup to one of the most successful titles in gaming history, Modern Warfare 2. Is it worth the wait? Modern Warfare 2, despite its massive success, faced considerable backlash for both its single player campaign and the glitchiness of the multiplayer.

Will Activison's latest installment restore a little lost luster, or will Black Ops leave the series with a black eye?

Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn't bring much new to the table, but it features explosive single-player, a deep multiplayer experience designed to suck your life away, and also adds in Treyarch's zany sense of humor - zombie style.

Dragovich. Kravchenko. Steiner. All must die.

Perhaps the single biggest upgrade that Black Ops delivers is it its single player campaign. Modern Warfare 2's campaign had its memorable moments, but I couldn't help thinking that it felt a little tacked on. No such worries here. For once, gamers get the chance to experience a first person shooter that actually places focus on a solid storyline with a memorable cast.

As you may have heard, this game takes place during the Vietnam War. However, very little of the game takes place in Vietnam or has anything to do with the conflict itself, which I found a little disappointing.

The overall premise of the storyline is nothing special, but there's a very interesting storytelling mechanic. When the campaign begins, your character is strapped to a chair, being brutally shocked and questioned by unknown interrogators about a mysterious set of numbers. As the story progresses, you slowly realize the horrific ramifications of the situation.

There are some pretty great moments in the campaign. Getting to wind your way through a dark cave, knowing the Vietcong could leap out at you any moment is pretty intense.

You'll also be gunning your way through the streets of Cuba, trying to take out Castro, and busting out of prison in the Soviet wilderness. You even get to meet with President Kennedy at the Pentagon.

And as far as the cast goes, let me say that Viktor Resnov is one of the most dynamic characters to appear in a first person shooter in a long time. He's a crazy liberal Russian who urges your character on in his quest to stop the Soviet masterminds Dragovich, Kravchenko, and Steiner.

Overall, the campaign is a major step up from Modern Warfare 2. It seems they actually cared about trying to make a memorable experience this time. Though it isn't up there with the Call of Duty 4 campaign, you can't deny the building sense of intensity as Black Ops storyline races toward its dramatic conclusion.

Multiplayer packed to the brim with vitriol

But let's level with one another here. The main reason most people have for buying an FPS these days is the mulitplayer. And the Black Ops multiplayer is startlingly similar to Modern Warfare 2.

The new big addition is Wager Mode, which allows you to gamble your Call of Duty experience points in a series of rousing gameplay modes. My favorite mode was "Gun Game."

There are 20 weapons, each placed into its own tier. You kill someone with that weapon, you move on to the next one. The first player to get a kill with all 20 weapons wins. And if you get melee attacked, you get demoted to the previous weapon.

I found the idea refreshing, and it was fun to try to see how far I could get before somebody won. I also liked "Sharpshooter," where your weapons keep chaining every 45 seconds, forcing you to have to be a great all around player.

Another new feature is the combat training mode, which allows you to play any of the normal multiplayer modes, but with computer controlled bots. It's a lot like the combat simulator from Perfect Dark.

Outside that, the multiplayer is fun, fast paced, and proves to be a terrific way to waste ungodly amounts of time. You still unlock new weapons, classes, and game modes as you level up. Getting sweet perks for racking up killstreaks is a real treat. Driving around a motorized explosive car to blow people up is one of the most awesome things I have ever done in an FPS.

The new maps are pretty solid. Nuketown is quickly becoming a fan favorite. It has a retro 50s vibe, and consists of two houses with a moving truck in the middle. It's a very very small map, which makes for a frenetic environment and gives you the opportunity to rack up absurd killcounts.

You also get a theater mode, which lets you capture your greatest moments and upload them for all to see. You can even splice parts of videos together to create your own highlight reel. And all without having to have advanced knowledge of video editing software!

Glitches and hacks were one thing that dragged down the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2. Although it's still early, I didn't notice any real problems in Black Ops. It seemed like I was getting connection errors a lot more frequently than I did in other games, which did get annoying after a while.

Zombie Mode: In times like these, our capacity to retaliate must be and has to be massive

Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch's last entry in the series, had a wacky mode known as zombie mode, which was a major hit with many gamers. Zombie mode makes its triumphant return, in Black Ops, and it's even zanier than before.

Like before, the goal is to fight off hordes of creepy zombies for as long as you can. You earn points which you can use to buy new weapons, activate traps, and open doors to new parts of the level.

But the awesome part is that you get to play as President Kennedy fighting off waves of zombies inside the Pentagon. There's a cutscene where Kennedy, McNamara, Castro, and Nixon all have a discussion about blasting zombies.

It's a fun little distraction, but my favorite part is the hidden zombie arcade game, Dead Ops. It plays like a ripoff of Zombie Apocalypse, but if you don't have friends to play with it's probably more fun than the regular zombie maps.

For kicks, Treyarch also included Zork, a 80s text based adventure game, which you can access on a hidden terminal. The zombie mode and the hidden extras inject a great sense of humor into the game, something that was almost wholly absent from Modern Warfare 2.

Sound, graphics, and final assessment

Treyarch did a good job of completing the package with great graphics and a solid soundtrack. I thought the graphics were a slight upgrade from Modern Warfare 2, but if you aren't looking closely you might not notice.

The score is action packed and cinematic, but also does a good job of not distracting you in the middle of a firefight. It suits its background perfectly.

The first time you land in Vietnam you hear Creedence Clearwater Revivial's "Fortunate Son," the stereotypical song included in practically every game or movie dealing with Vietnam, but whatever.

You also get Rolling Stones's "Sympathy for the Devil" and Eminem's "Won't Back Down," which are on the complete opposite end of the sonic spectrum from one another, but both fit in really well.

Black Ops is a solid game, and I enjoyed my time with it. My main criticism is that it's really not that much different from the previous games in the series. If you've played all the older Call of Duty games religiously, there honestly isn't much of a reason to play this game extensively.

Except, I guess, for the fact that a large chunk of the Modern Warfare 2 playerbase will be migrating to this game, and to say you've got the hot new game that all the kiddies want. It also seems like a major time sink, which is another thing that turns me away from it. I'm a busy man.

However, if you're looking for a game with massive replay value, you should already be playing this. The electric campaign is a major plus and the customizable character classes and killstreaks will have you coming back to the multiplayer time and time again.

Thanks to the efforts of Treyarch, the Call of Duty franchise should be safe for at least another year.

Score: 81/100

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Deerhunter delivers dreamy art pop with Halcyon Digest.

Genre: Indie Rock
Running Time: 46:03

Atlanta's Deerhunter has been making quite the name for themselves over the past several years. They generated shockwaves with 2008's Microcastle, but may have just had its finest moment yet with the recent release of their fourth LP, Halcyon Digest.

I'll admit, I had a hard time with this album at first. I saw Pitchfork giving it rave reviews, which drew my attention. But the vocals sounded strange and the music itself wasn't really doing anything for me.

Then I hopped on Youtube and listened to "Earthquake" and the melodies suddenly started to make sense. I was taken in by the fuzzy guitar/synthesizer sound that keeps fading in and out, like waves crashing on the sea.

This could be a somewhat challenging record for some listeners, because their sound is so unique. But this is what makes Halcyon Digest one of the greatest records of 2010.

Halcyon Digest is a very dreamy, spaced out record. But the use of melody is the main strength of the album; they're very mellow but haunting at the same time. I find it to be the perfect album to put on early in the morning when you just get out of bed and you're still trying to wake up.

I greatly admire the aesthetic of Halcyon Digest; it is a very atmospheric album. But it's also much more than that. Listen to the strums of the guitar in the opening of "Helicopter." They have a true pop sensibility to them. The rest of the song floats on at a midsummer night's pace; you can close your eyes and imagine floating in the ocean.

Bradford Cox's vocals are often awash in distortion, but this just adds to the dreamy effect of the album. Most of the tracks are pretty heavily melody driven. Every now and then you might find a really spacey track, but at their surface most of the songs are solid pop rock nuggets that stand on solid songwriting.

Two prime examples of this are "Don't Cry" and "Revival," which propels the album along after the bands comes back down from the sonic soundscape of "Earthquake."

Then you get "Sailing," which may be the sleepiest and most mellow moment on the album. But it's also utterly brilliant, and provides a nice change of pace from the two previous tracks.

Other highlights include "Desire Lines," which has a pretty extended outro that reminds me of Interpol. "Coronado" supplements its melody with a jazzy saxophone, which makes the track an instant standout.

The lyrics on this album are like short, moody, moving poems. "Revival" speaks of the jubilation of redemption, "Basement Scene" sees Cox struggling to deal with aging and death, and "Sailing" paints a portrait of desolation felt by someone who is all alone.

What defines this album, in the end, is the great sense of indie pop melody derived from the mind of Bradford Cox, along with the dreamy, sweet mellowness that gives Deerhunter its distinctive sound.

Score: 90/100

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bethany Cosentino is sorry she lost your favorite T-Shirt. She'll buy you a new one.

Genre: Indie Pop
Mexican Summer
Running Time: 31:39

What do you get when you mix sun soaked California surf rock from with the feminine intuition of Bethany Cosentino? You have Crazy For You, the debut album from the California pop rockers, and it does not disappoint.

The album's main strength is how it seamlessly fuses together so many different elements. There is a major emphasis on catchy melodies and solid songwriting. And there are some other key factors that give the music a unique vibe, such as the grainy, lo-fi production that provides that all important indie vibe.

And then there is Bethany Cosentino.

You can't overstate what a game changer the Best Coast frontwoman is. She's the kind of girl your mom doesn't want you to date, but you know you just can't stay away from.

Over the disc's 30 minutes, Cosentino reveals that she dropped out of school, she has a fondness for marijuana, and she lost your favorite T-shirt. (She'll buy you a new one. A better one!)

For most people, these would be really bad qualities to have. But for Cosentino, they establish her firmly in the mold of sexy rocker chick. The personality she injects into her music is a major part of what makes this record stand out.

Of course, drugs and rock 'n' roll aren't all Cosentio is about. She's a girl looking for love, and apparently has a hard time with it. "Boyfriend," expresses the angst you feel when you can't be with the person that you really want.

"Goodbye" speaks of feeling downtrodden when you're apart from your lover, while "The End" finds Cosentino hoping to find a love that will last for all time. On the surface, the album seems like simple, breezy summertime music. But the lyrics provide a contrasting melancholy feeling.

If you've heard the lead single, Boyfriend, you know Cosentino can do some special things when it comes to vocal arrangements. One of the most stunning examples comes on "I Want To," which has a striking shifting vocal melody. And the tempo shift that comes near the end of the song is genius.

I find many of the songs have really nice endings. "Goodbye" and, more specifically, "When I'm With You," employ a general buildup throughout the course of the song which leads to some truly breathtaking outros.

Crazy for You is chock full of shifting tempos and rhythms, crunchy surf rock guitar, and contains delectable melodies while still maintaining its indie sensibilities. And it's all delivered by one of the most magnetizing personalities to emerge in the indie scene in quite sometime. Give it a chance, and you may soon find that you're crazy for Best Coast.

Score: 91/100

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fang Island takes a bite out of Music City

I promise that's the last lame pun I make about this band.

At any rate, Nashville music lovers were in for a treat Sunday night at The End, where Fang Island played with Delicate Steve. They were joined by Nashville natives Bad Cop and Sleeper Agent, from Bowling Green, KY.

To get straight to the point, Fang Island tore it up. All of the bands were great, honestly. Fang Island is known for the incredible amount of energy they bring to a show, and that energy easily transferred to everybody in attendance. Guys were playing air guitar in the crowd and everyone was just generally having a great time.

Fang Island's Jason Bartell leads the charge.
I definitely recall hearing "Careful Crossers" and "Life Coach," which were two of the many highlights that night.

There was one nagging question I had about Fang Island after listening to their album, which was - are there any actual keyboards in their music, or is it all strictly guitar?

It turns out there actually are keyboards, which was my sneaking suspicion in the first place. The band had a keyboard set up along with an additional smaller synthesizer.

I'd also like to retract something I said about the band in the album review, pertaining to the vocals. I was somewhat critical of the execution and arrangement of the vocals on the album, but I have to say that the whole group vocals thing works much better live.

What I liked is that it offers a nice change of pace after lengthy instrumental passages. I do, however, think you need to experience their vocal style live before you can truly appreciate it.

Nicolas Andrew Sadler of Fang Island just destroys all.
The band also played a new song, which featured guitarist Jason Bartell taking the lead on vocals alone for the most part.

Could this be a sign that maybe the band is going to start spotlighting individual vocalists more often in the future?

Delicate Steve plays instrumental rock music that bears many similarities to Fang Island. Guitarist Steve Marion serves as their driving force. They rock hard but also have some pretty, quiet moments that you don't see much from Fang Island.

Drummer Mike Duncan had an interesting setup. His kit combined toms from an actual drum set with electronic drum pads, and he had cowbells attached to the side. It helped lend the band's music a unique flavor.

Mike Duncan lays down the beats for Delicate Steve.

The first two bands of the night played solid, upbeat rock music. Bad Cop got an impressive performance from Mikey Metal on guitar and Hardcore Frazier on drums, but their frontman, Adam Anyone, stole the show with his energetic showmanship.

What antics will Adam Anyone pull? Anyone's guess.
He jumped into the crowd several times, lit a fan's cigarette for him, and even threw a beer can across the room. A few drops soaked into my hair and jacket.

Sleeper Agent also impressed. They had a female vocalist, known only as Kidd, who shared the spotlight with guitarist/vocalist Tutone.

They created some interesting dynamics with the way the vocal arrangements wrapped around the instrumental backing and got the crowd buzzing early on with their lively performance.

The small size of the venue allowed you to get up close and personal with the bands, which led to a neat atmosphere. Overall, it was an evening well spent and I'm glad I made the trip.

Sleeper Agent wakes up the crowd.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fang Island bares teeth with energetic rock anthems

Genre: Indie/Rock
Sargent House
Running Time: 31:27

One of the great things about music is its ability to express emotion.

Many of us love to absorb the beauty that a cold, dissonant Radiohead album can provide, or take in the sonic dreariness of Deerhunter, but let's not forget the other end of the spectrum.

What about the days when the sun is shining, the air is crackling, and everything is right with the world? With their self-titled debut album, Fang Island has crafted music to get you pumped up. Fang Island can serve as your soundtrack to kicking down doors, eating cold ice cream on a summer day, and just generally being awesome.

The triple guitar assualt of Jason Bartell, Chris Georges, and Nicholas Andrew Sadler churn out a sublimely energtic brand of indie rock designed to get your fist pumping and your foot stomping.

The opening track, "Dream of Dreams," is more of an intro, but it does a good job of introducing what the band is about. The guitars sound more like keyboards sometimes, which provides the group with another layer of depth. (For that matter, I'm not entirely convinced there aren't actual keyboards lurking somewhere in the mix).

The following track, "Careful Crossers," however, is what really introduces what the band is all about. The vitriolic guitar playing exudes a sense of energy and good times. Drummer Marc St. Sauveur tears it up on the entire album, but he just goes nuts on this song.

Fang Island prove they're very proficient in constructing great riffs, as "Life Coach" and "Welcome Wagon" demonstrate. Elsewhere, "Treeton" has a nice bouncy aesthetic, but the album's real standout is "Sideswiper."

The song starts out with a yet another distinctive riff before settling into a energetic rock awesomeness. What really makes the track is the awesome guitar lead near the end of the song.

It starts off with super fast tremolo strumming, then carries the song to its power packed conclusion. It sounds like a Radiohead guitar lead, with the tremolo strumming reminding me particularly of Creep. A buzzing bass line delivered by Michael Jacober propels things forward, along with more great drumming.

"Davey Crockett" is an interesting diversion from the band's formula. It starts off slow paced and stays that way for the most part, while still building a sense of energy from the synth-like guitar lines.

I'm not a big fan of the band's vocal style. They're mostly group shout-alongs with an emphasis on chanting. Most of the lyrics are nothing really special either. Granted, vocals aren't what this band is about, but they should really look into doing something about those vocal arrangements.

It's very refreshing to hear a band from the indie scene who places focus on instrumentation, particularly on the drums, and Fang Island has managed to do just that. Having three guitars allows the band to create multiple layers to their music, as the ending to "Sideswiper" displays so nicely.

Sometimes I found my attention fading in and out a little bit. The progressive elements of the music do cause the band to drift a little bit a times. But they mix it up enough to keep things interesting, and Fang Island comes off as the perfect album for anybody just looking to have a good time.

Score: 81/100

Friday, November 5, 2010

Crystal Castles says we are not in love. I beg to differ.

Genre: Electronic
Running Time: 52:23

If someone were to record the soundtrack to your dreams, what would it sound like? Toronto-based electronic music duo Crystal Castles measure the rhythm of your subconscious with their second album, Crystal Castles (II).

To describe the album in a word, it's very dreamlike. At times, it has a distinctive rave sound, sometimes it's more laid back, and sometimes it's gruesome.

One of the biggest reason why this album works so well is because of the job done by Ethan Kath, the group's main music producer. On the first album, many of the tracks felt like a giant clusterfuck of a sound kaleidoscope. Here, it sounds like Kath had a much better idea of what he wanted to accomplish.

The song structures are very clear: during the first couple of minutes you'll hear the intro beat, distinct and clear, which leads in to the main beat of the song where everything just goes nuts. The lead-in beat continues to play underneath the main beat, and they play off each other so well.

As for the quality of the actual beats, well, they speak for themselves. Check out "Baptism" or "Intimate" and tell me you're not floored.

Of course, the other half of the Crystal Castles puzzle is vocalist Alice Glass. On the group's first album, her vocals tended to get lost in the hodgepodge.

On Crystal Castles (II), her voice acts as another layer to compliment the music laid down by Kath. In general, her vocals can go from being very cold and dissonant to touching and full of emotion.

Witness the emotional display she pulls off on "Celestica," which may be her biggest moment in the spotlight yet. Her most touching moment comes on the impeccable "We Are Not In Love," which tells the tale of lovers destined to remain apart. (As an aside, the group recently released this song as a single, with Robert Smith of The Cure on lead vocals. This version arguably bests the album version.)

Then of course, there is the less accessible Glass. She has a much harsher vocal style that she often combines with her melodic moments.

You have the muted screams on Doe Deer, the distant shrieks in the beginning of "Empathy" which show off a much harsher side of Glass. But the stunning thing is that these moments are still beautiful, in their own grotesque way. It takes serious talent to pull that off.

Song by song there are some real highlights to point out. "Baptism" captures the best of their rave sound. "Year of Silence" features a Sigur Ros sample, but "Empathy" may be the album's high point. The opening beat sounds something like the sound you make when you blow through an empty Pringles bottle. Glass's reverb coated vocals in the chorus may be one of the best things the group has done so far.

On their first album, Crystal Castles made a considerable effort to display a video game/arcade machine influence. That trend here has thankfully been eliminated for the most part, but "Pap Smear" dips into those influences a bit. The closer, "I Am Made of Chalk," gives the listener the sensation of being underwater with its bubble/oxygen tank effects.

With Crystal Castles (II), the group has made sonic leaps forward in terms of composition and delivery, and stands as perhaps the most riveting statement of the year in electronica.

Score: 91/100

Friday, October 29, 2010

L.A. harcore rockers terrorize the scene with "Keepers of the Faith"

Genre: Hardcore
Century Media
Running Time: 33:33

I'll make a few admissions here. I don't really listen to that much hardcore music.

I don't know much about this band.

But what I do know is that you need to hear this album.

Keepers of the Faith, the fifth album from the L.A. hardcore band, hits you like a fist to throat. The production on the album is fantastic. The guitar tone is crisp, clean, and clear. The production brings the general intensity of the music to the forefront without sounding overproduced.

Another great aspect about Keepers of the Faith is it's well edited. All the songs are short and concise - long enough for the band to make a statement, but never rambling. Every song on the album is like a tightly compacted keg of dynamite.

Along the way, Terror proves they're not just another cookie cutter hardcore band. The guitars take a break during the first verse of "Shattered" to give the drums and bass a chance to shine through.

The opening track, "Your Enemies Are Mine," gets off to a quick start with its spitfire guitar riff. And listen to the drums in that song. Man! He is tearing up his kit! I wouldn't want to be his snare drum when he plays that one.

"Only Death" starts off with a sound clip, and the closing track, "Defiant" starts off with the sound cranked down for the first 10 seconds. After that the volume is cranked back up to normal and the effect is dynamic. The ripping guitar solo is "Dead Wrong" is also a tasty treat.

Vocalist Scott Vogel also manages to cover quite a bit of ground lyrically. Naturally, there are the aggressive, hard hitting lyrics in songs like "You're Caught" and "The Struggle." On "Dead Wrong," he warns about the gritty ways of the world:

"They'll cut your throat in the blink of an eye
You got to find a way to keep yourself alive
In this ugly world, there's only one truth
Hold fast to what you love and put your trust in few"

Vogel is trying to be a realist in how he looks at the world, but also attempts to express hope. He talks about the importance of brotherhood; his lyrics express the mantra of sticking together in the face of evil. Songs like "Keepers of the Faith" and "Stick Tight" do a masterful job of articulating that notion.

With Keepers of the Faith, Terror have constructed a simple but effective treatise on intense music combined with worldly lyrics, all wrapped up in airtight production. For those of you who think hardcore music is nothing but a bunch of screamo tailored for the Hot Topic crowd, think again. Terror has proven they're the real deal.

Score: 85/100

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Destini Beard EP serves up Halloween scares

Genre: Goth
Linfaldia Records
Running Time: 22:18

True story: I was working as a cashier once when this guy comes through my checklane wearing a Midnight Syndicate t-shirt.

They looked like some sweet metal band, so I asked him who they were. He told me they played goth music and suggested I check them out.

So lo and behold, I did.

Midnight Syndicate is two guys - Ed Douglas and Gavin Goszka - who compose Gothic Halloween inspired soundscapes, and they've been at it since the mid 1990s. It's a neat idea but it's mostly just atmosphere music. It's not something I would sit around and listen to all day.

So I was intrigued to find the recenty released EP, The Dark Masquerade, which pairs Midnight Syndicate with vocalist Destini Beard.  The eerieness of the background music coupled with pretty female gothic vocals would make a winner, right? The Dark Masquerade is certainly a unique addition to anyone's music collection, though it suffers from being a little rough around the edges.

This six song EP is essentially a work of Destini Beard.  Beard, who was a soprano in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, wrote the lyrics and composed the vocal arrangements. The general sound is similar to Evanescence or Lacuna Coil, minus the rock influences. The Midnight Syndicate tracks are nothing new, with the exception of the title track. The rest are all pulled from the group's previous album, which is where the problem lies.

Many of the instrumental backing tracks were written years ago, and Midnight Syndicate almost certainly wouldn't have had a singer in mind. At times, it seems like this made it difficult for Beard to come up with effective vocal arrangements.

In the opener, "Awaken," Beard's arrangement plays off the melody established by Midnight Syndicate, but her vocals cover up those gorgeous, haunting synthesizers. I never noticed them until I listened to the instrumental track on its own. "Fallen" has added nothing vocal-wise other than oohs and ahhs.

The title track has more of a danceclub feel to it. Beard sings of being swept across the dancefloor by a mysterious stranger, creating a gothic romance vibe.Midngiht Syndicate change up the pace a little on this track, while Beard keeps them true to their gothic roots. This track represents the most effective pairing of these two artists.

This record is an interesting experiement, but the fact that the Midnight Syndicate tracks were pre-recorded tends to drag the record down a bit. If they sat down and worked on all-new material that fully complemented one another, the result could be dynamite. I recommend checking these artists out as they are both talented, though this may not be the best starting point.

Score: 63/100

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phil Selway drums up a hit with solo album

Genre: Folk/Acoustic
Nonesuch Records
Running Time: 32:49

I don't know about you, but it always seemed like Radiohead was Thom Yorke and those four other guys.

They are a major part of the band's success, no doubt, but Yorke was the face of the band. So it's no surprise that Phil Selway, the drummer in this band, was going to be mostly unknown, because:

a) Yorke steals all the headlines
b) most people don't pay attention to the drummer anyway

But maybe people should pay attention to this drummer. If there ever was a notion that Yorke was the only real talent in the band, Selway blows it away with his debut solo album, Familial.  

Familial is quiet, moving, introspective, and moody. The softness of Selway's vocal combines with acoustic guitar to make Familial one of the most sublime albums of 2010.

Selway wrote each of the 10 compositions himself. What Selway is doing here is not unlike Conor Oberst's work with Bright Eyes, though Oberst tends to be more folky. I have a hard time describing Selway as folk; it's more like "Karma Police" combined with the moodiness of "Exit Music (For a Film)."

"By Some Miracle," "Beyond Reason," and "The Ties That Bind" have the strongest sense of melody and as such, are the standout tracks. The drumming is kept to a miniuim and never makes much of an impact.

It's not really needed. Selway proves that he's capable of capturing the listener's attention in his own right.

Selway's lyrics are also superb.  One of the major themes on Familial seems to be dealing with conflict and feelings of fear, apprehension, and doubt.

"By Some Miracle" speaks about what it's like to struggle with personal demons, "Patron Saint" deals with being betrayed by a friend and the feelings of bitterness it leaves, while "The Ties That Bind" is a letter to a father wishing for a better life for his son.

"All Eyes On You" deals with a subject many people struggle with - public speaking. You've been invited to a once in a lifetime interview, Selway tells you, and the pressure of the situation makes you so nervous you can't speak.

"And you're embarrassed too
Afraid of the light that shines on you
So frail and so small
So scared, you're terrified by all
The eyes on you"

Granted, not every moment of the album is totally stellar. In some places the album is a little too mellow and wanders a bit, but it's a heck of a start for Selway. As good as he is behind a drumkit, he proves he's even better when taking center stage himself.

Score: 83/100

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Interview with Yossi Sassi Sa'aron from Orphaned Land

I caught up with Yossi Sassi Sa'aron, guitarist from Orphaned Land, after their show at the Masquerade on Oct. 5. I chatted with him about Iron Maiden, and his favorite concert venue, among other things. My friend Josh Rogers starts the interview, then I take over at about 5 minutes in.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Katatonia brings taste of Swedish Metal to the Masquerade

There’s something about a metal concert that words just can’t quite capture.

There’s the thump that you feel in your heart every time the drummer hits the kick pedal. The basslines that you could never seem to make out on the CD become so dynamic and fluid as it pulses through the crowd. And then, there is the decibel factor. When you leave a show, your ears will still be ringing when you wake up in the morning.

I got a chance to witness three great bands perform at The Masquerade in Atlanta Monday night, each with their own distinctive style and background. Progressive Rockers Orphaned Land, hailing from Israel, Finnish Doom metallers Swallow the Sun, and Swedish hard rockers Katatonia. It was an unbelievable night of metal that I won’t soon forget.

Hell Hath no Fury Like a Concert Goer Cramped

First, a little about the venue. The Masquerade consists of two concert arenas; the upper level is called Heaven and down below is Hell. Makes sense, right? Heaven, from what I’m told, is a spacious venue where the major bands play. I got to witness these fine bands straight from the jaws of Hell.

Hell is smaller and much more cramped, but you get a chance to get closer to the bands. If you go up the ramp on the right hand side there’s a seating area to the side of the stage, and there’s literally nothing but a rail separating you from where the band plays. You can slap fives with the band, etc., between songs and sets, and it makes for a great atmosphere.

Everybody jump for Orphaned Land!

The show kicked off with Orphaned Land, whose influences range from Iron Maiden and Depeche Mode to the more traditional Middle Eastern music of their homeland. On their albums, they’re well known for using a diversity of instruments, but here they went with strictly a guitar/drums/bass setup.

They interacted with the crowd very well. The guys looked like they were having a great time on stage, and that energy transferred into the crowd – It was something they could feed off of.  Their vocalist, Kobi Farhl, would instruct the crowd to jump while the band played, trying to get them into it even more.

I also thought it was cool how the drummer really got into it to. He would stand up behind his kit and try to get the audience into it. 

Orphaned Land brings a taste of the Middle East to Atlanta

Swallow the Sun Swallows the Tempo

Next up was Swallow the Sun, a band I had the privilege to see perform at the Muse in Nashville in 2009, and I also met their vocalist, Mikko Kotamäki there. When they took the stage the lights dimmed which made for a more gloomy atmosphere. 

Swallow the Sun slowed down the pace from the frenetic, bouncing around tempo that Orphaned Land established, but it helped set the mood for their style: a much more slow, heavy , doom type metal vibe. They do a fantastic job of creating atmosphere. 

Vocalist Kotamäki is capable of pretty melodic vocals, but can also deliver deep growls – picture Mikael Akerfeldt type growls. And he also pulls off bloodcurdling shrieks. They have great melodic guitar leads and expert arrangements on keyboard . 

Drummer Kai Hahto was also impressive. He was keeping some complex beats on the drum pads while employing lightning fast double bass. 

Myself and Josh Rogers with Juha, Mikko and Aleksi from Swallow the Sun

Chill Out: It’s Time for Katatonia!

The last band of the night was the headliner, Katatonia. What amazed me about them was how they were able to go from having a very mellow, chillout vibe one minute to being heavy as hell the next. I can’t think of many bands who can combine that as well as Katatonia. 

Their sound is based on pretty, melodic guitar leads and flowing bass lines, while still bringing the intensity of a metal band. Katatonia was playing without guitarist Fredrik Norrman and bassist Mattias Norrman, who left in 2009.

Katatonia’s appearance got the crowd even more engaged than before; The audience began  energetically chanting for “Forsaker.”  Somebody threw a bra onstage. And then the moshing broke out. 

The last major metal concert I went to gave me the chance to get my first brush in a mosh pit. It was neat; I got a major scrape right under my chest. The moshing didn’t really get started until Katatonia got into the meat of their setlist, but when it did it became frenetic.

Katatonia brings down the house at the Masquerade Monday night.
After a short encore, Katatonia was done and it was time to head home. I mingled with members of Orphaned Land and Swallow the Sun, who had gathered down by the merchandise table. I also snagged some merchandise, took photos, and got an album signed. The experience put a considerable drain on my bank account, but it was worth it for the great time and memories made.

I said there are things about a metal concert that can’t be put into words, although I guess I tried my best here. The best thing I can say is get out to your local venue and support some bands if you get the chance. You’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Katatonia has officially achieved Rock God status.

"The Final Frontier" is latest epic from Iron Maiden

Genre: Metal
Sony Legacy
Running Time: 76:39

Iron Maiden have been on a lot of wacky adventures over the years.

They've flown with the Icarus, discovered secret performances of satanic rituals, and hid out in the Rue Morgue. They've even read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Over the last 30 years, Maiden has been one of metal's most consistent bands. Since the release of their 1980 eponymous debut, the band has never gone more than four years without releasing an album.

So with the recent release of their 15th studio album, The Final Frontier, are they ready to continue their march forward, or have the years finally caught up with them? Maiden has released a decent album, but one that may struggle to stand the test of time.

The Giant Elephant in the Room: The Length

The two albums prior to The Final Frontier showcased two vastly different sides of Maiden. 2003's Dance of Death was very melodic, so much so that it almost sounded like a pop metal record at times.

The followup, 2006's A Matter of Life and Death, took the opposite approach by stringing out long epics. The Final Frontier fits more closely in the vein of the latter record than the former. The songs are long, drawn out, and usually don't really seem to go anywhere.

The #1 issue with The Final Frontier is not the length of the songs. It's more in the lack of melody, the lack of creativity and a general lack of direction in this album. It's a sobering thought, but it appears Steve Harris and Co. may be running low on musical ideas.

The guitar work, whcih was once one of Maiden's strengths, really dosn't impress on this album. Not even the guitar solos really do much for me.

And it's clear at this point that Bruce Dickinson's voice is no longer what it once was. The wear started to become noticeable on A Matter of Life and Death, but on the latest album it's hard to deny that something is up with Bruce's voice.

The fact that the songs are so long just further hamstrings the album's appeal. Out of the last five songs on the album, only "Starblind" is under eight minutes. Three of those songs clock in over a whopping nine minutes, with the closer "Where the Wild Wind Blows" nearly cracking the 11 minute mark.

You don't have to try to write Beowulf on every song, guys.

Maiden's Sense of Melody

There are three good songs on this album - "El Dorado," "Where the Wild Wind Blows," and the title track. Then there's one decent track - "The Alchemist."  The rest of the songs aren't bad, they just aren't particularly memorable.

When the formula works, it's because the band has its sense of melody working. For examples, see the chorus of "El Dorado" or the guitar lead in the beginning of "When the Wild Wind Blows." There definitely are flashes of brilliance.

Lyrical Brilliance

Oh, and speaking of positives, did I mention the lyrics? No matter what anybody says about this album, you can't knock the lyrics. "The Man Who Would Be King" tells the story of man on the run, wanted for murder. When you read the lyric sheet you can pitcure him making his way across desolate barrens, searching for salvation.

"The Alchemist" tells the tale of a once powerful mage who met an untimely end. And the closer, "When the Wild Wind Blows," is an emotional story about a family and society preparing to face nuclear warfare. If there's a standout track on the album it's this. No other song on the album pairs Maiden's storytelling talents with a compelling musical soundscape like this track does.

I thought the way the story ends was pretty lame, however. I won't spoil it, but it's just so lame and such a copout that it actually degrades the quality of the track as a whole. M. Night Shyamalan would be shaking his head in disgust if he were to read this one.

Maiden Reaches into their Bag of Tricks

On the opener, "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier," the band pulls off a little trickery. The album opens with a sporadic, twisting bassline and then ominous guitar strains break in over top of that. You'll wonder if you popped in the wrong CD.

Surely you think once Bruce's vocals kick in it will restore a sense of normalcy - but no! Dickinson's whispy and fleeting vocals tell the tale of a man trapped on a satellite being sucked toward the sun. It sounds like some kind of bizarre, alternate reality version of Maiden.

Just before the five minute mark the band changes gears and returns to the Maiden sound we all know and love. But the first part of the song does such an effective job of creating a sense of foreboding that it could literally put a lump in your stomach. Sadly, it's one of the few times on the entire album the band does somethhing interesting musically.

Where Maiden Stands with this Album

Iron Maiden possesses a great musical legacy, having come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Movement in the early 1980s. They're without question the only band from that era to still remain even remotely relevant today (the only other possible contender being maybe Saxon.)

But since their critically acclaimed comback album Brave New World in 2000, it's been a mixed bag. They need something fresh, a new sense of direction. When Maiden hangs it up for good, it will be a sad day for metal, but hopefully they can pull out something better before then. If not, their final years may end up being remembered as Wasted Years.

Tracks to check out:

Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
El Dorado
When the Wild Wind Blows

Lyric to use as your Facebook status:

"I was the keeper of the books
I had the knowledge of the scrolls
But now through ignorance and fear
I cast a shadow through the years"
 - The Alchemist

Score: 77/100