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 Scorehero.com. 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