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