Thursday, March 31, 2011

Everybody's been singing the same song for 10 years, but none do it like The Strokes

It seems like there's no way to say something about the Strokes these days without bringing up their debut album.

A decade after its release, it's still tough to deny that it is the benchmark for which everything Julian Casablancas and crew do, and it's still arguable that the New York quintet are still yet to produce an effort capable of topping Is This It.

I can still remember hearing "Last Nite" on the radio when that album first launched. The tag the media placed on the band back then was that they were a new school, modern band who were trying to emulate the sounds of old rock and roll, a sound that had largely been lost and discarded.

It was a neat experiment, but I didn't see where they could go with it long term. As cool as "Last Nite" was, I simply wrote The Strokes off as being a gimmick.

Now, ten years later here I am, spilling ink over these very same Strokes, so I guess the joke's on me.

You've got to admit it's been a hell of a ride for these guys. Whispers about these guys being saviors of rock have long dissapated, but the fact remains The Strokes are one of the few great rock bands remaining whose creative vision remains largely unblemished by the corrupting hand of major label influence (knock on wood).

And given that The White Stripes recently went up in smoke, this statement becomes even more true.

The Strokes are also one of a select few bands that have managed to change and evolve over the years without considerably straying from the roots and/or pissing off a large portion of their fanbase. In this digital age in which information travels at warp speed, that's a hell of an accomplishment in itself.

So the newest Strokes record, Angles, breaks a five year absence since the release of their last full length, 2006's First Impressions of Earth 

Angles rests its hat on three main elements: the off kilter but alluring melodies that can only be delivered by a singer like Casablancas, the always eclectic and innovative play of guitarist Nick Valensi, and a jangly 80s pop vibe.

If the faux retro 80s style album cover doesn't clue you in on that, expect to be made fully aware of it when the bouncy bassline and airy chords of "Machu Piccu" kick in. When Casablancas's vocal crackles through the microphone, you can just picture him sporting a giant boombox on his shoudler, with frizzy hair, and wearing his sunglasses at night.

But then you get to the chorus, where Valensi lets loose with a shredding guitar riff which reminds you that The Strokes do know how to rock.

The first three tracks are easily the standouts. "Under Cover of Darkness," with its soaring chorus and a sweet solo, could easily be one of the top songs of the year. "Two Kinds of Happiness" features some truly breathtaking moments, most notably the uplifting guitar riff following each chorus.

The rest of the album is still good, but can't quite measure up to the stellar 1-2-3 opening punch. The melodies are certainly unqiue, but not all of them click; it seems sometimes as if they're just throwing things against a wall to see what sticks and what doesn't.

"Call Me Back" moves by at a middling pace and doesn't really go anywhere, and "Games" doesn't do much better. But "Gratisfaction" kicks things back into high gear with an energetic tune that sounds like it could have been culled directly from 70s FM pop radio.

"Taken for a Fool" is a highlight with its sense of groove and attitude, while "You're So Right" buzzes by at warp speed. And "Life is Simple in the Moonlight" is the perfect parting for these Strokes, and perhaps does the best job of conjuring an Is This It type of vibe.

The Strokes are one of those bands where you never know exactly what to expect from them, but it usually turns out to be at least solid. Angles will sometimes make you question whether you're in New York City or Vice City, but does a great job of showing that the guys know how to loosen up.

Although not flawless, The Strokes have once again delivered another statement in rock and should be able to satisfy fans who have eagerly awaited this record for the last five years. It's been a long wait.

Score: 80/100

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Bodom LP has a message to deliver to naysayers

Over the course of the previous decade, few metal bands did a better job of capturing the attention and imagination of their fan base than Children of Bodom.

By combining elements of melodic death metal, black metal and power metal, throwing in homages to neo-classical metal, and featuring brilliant melodic guitar solos and dizzying keyboard runs, it's easy to see how the Finnish quintet were able to catapult their way to superstardom.

The first two albums were raw and jagged slabs of melo-death with an emphasis on power and speed metal.The band displayed its influences proudly by showcasing covers of Sepultura's Mass Hypnosis on their 1997 debut Something Wild and Iron Maiden's Aces High on the followup, 1999's Hatebreeder.

Bodom's third album, Follow the Reaper, propelled the band to a new level. Their sound became much tighter, cleaner, and more polished. For the first time, their aggression was tightly focused and packed into a powder keg of an album. The scythe was firmly entrenched into our public consciousness.

Hate Crew Deathroll, proved to be an even faster and more intense effort, which saw Bodom begin to pay tribute to the classic thrash metal sound. But after that, things began to change.

Their 2005 effort, Are You Dead Yet? and its followup, Blooddrunk, featured a drastic departure from its predecessors. Bodom began going for a slower, simpler approach and tinkered with everything from the tuning of the guitars to experimenting with an industrial element.

Not to mention the neoclassical elements have almost entirely been scrapped.  These changes have left many fans feeling cold. Will Relentless Reckless Forever do anything to sway them back into Bodom's pocket?

In short, probably not. The so called signature sound that defined Follow the Reaper and Hatebreeder is long gone and it's obviously not coming back. If you're hoping to hear that from this record you'll be sorely disappointed. 

One of the main consequences of opting for a more stripped down sound is that Bodom has lost much of what made it unique. The band that once wielded the scythe so menacingly now just sounds like an average heavy metal band, though not necessarily a bad one.  

Relentless Reckless Forever is still certainly heavy as hell, features great instrumentation, and prominently displays the ear splitting shriek of vocalist/lead guitarist Alexi Laiho. You can even get a clear sense of the band's melodic death metal roots from time to time.

"Not My Funeral," which easily ranks as the album's standout track, gets the album out to a rollicking start with great melodic guitar leads to be found throughout, especially in the chorus.

Bodom also manages to remind me of something that I miss hearing - metal that actually has good guitar solos. You can usually count on Liaho to lay down solos full of melody and feeling, and the "Not My Funeral" solo stands out as one of his best.

"Shovel Knockout" is a great moshing tune surely designed to crank the intensity up a notch at live shows. The instrumentation here is really stands out here, as the keyboards and guitars work together in perfect unison.

There are some riffs that remind me of Soilwork, but the best comparison I can make, oddly enough, is to "The Man with the Machine Gun" from the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack. Don't believe me? Listen to it yourself.

Other tracks of note include "Pussyfoot Miss Suicide," which contains a nice catchy chorus and a rather curious lyrical theme, which pokes fun at girls who threaten suicide but are only doing it to be melodramatic and aren't really serious.

Cause that happens all the time, right?

The title track is perhaps the hardest hitting song on the album, and another for sure highlight, while "Was It Worth It" throws in some catchy hooks. But the lyrics, which hail the party life, sound like they could have been lifted straight out of a Kesha song.

Contrary to what you might expect, the closer, "Northpole Throwdown" doesn't actually involve a fight between the elves and Santa, but it is the fastest and thrasiest track on the album. Bodom attempts their best impression at a Dyers Eve/Damage Inc. type track here.

And if you have the Japanese verison of the album, you also get to hear Bodom's exclusive cover of Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time," another satirical cover coming in the vein of "Oops I Did It Again" and "Somebody Put Something In My Drink." Although at this point it has gotten old.

Overall, this isn't Bodom's best album, but there are still some positives.  They dropped the grimy industrial sound that was so prevalent on the last two albums, which is easily one of the most welcome changes.
Relentless Reckless Forever isn't immune to having a few weak tracks, but as long as you're not expecting a return to the days of old there's no reason you shouldn't find something to like.

Score: 75/100

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rise Against strikes a mellower tone on Endgame

To survey the history of Chicago based punk rockers Rise Against would be to observe a band from humble roots trend more and more toward the mainstream.

Bassist Joe Principie, along with former guitarist Dan Wleklinski, cut their teeth in the hardcore punk outfit 88 Fingers Louie before that band disintegrated. But as the saying goes, every ending is just a new beginning, right?

Principe and Wleklinski recruited vocalist Tim McIlrath and drummer Brandon Barnes, and the foursome began to rise, against all odds, to form a band that would set a new standard for melodic punk rock.

Ten years have passed since then, and the Rise Against that largely aped the hardcore sound of their predecessor have become increasingly more commercial and mainstream, beginning with 2003's Siren Song of the Counter Culture.

Fortunately, Rise Against is one of a rare breed of bands where adding pop elements hasn't really diluted the music too much. In fact, I tend to prefer the melodic punk sound over the rough around the edges sound of the first two albums.

Following the release of their last album, 2008's Appeal to Reason, however, the band has come to a crossroads of sorts. At a certain point you've got to admit there's not much more your band can do to become poppier short of putting on *NSync shirts and rehearsing dance routines.

So reasonably, Endgame doesn't make much of an effort to trend any further toward the mainstream, but this album has its own set of issues.For one, the level of intensity seems to be declining compared to what we've seen from this band in the past.

To be sure, there are still some hard hitting tracks here, but not much of the blow your speakers out and kick in your bedroom door type of assault that defined cuts like "Chamber the Cartridge," "Bricks," and "To the Core."

Also, the level of musical creativity isn't quite what it was. Rise Against was once a band of fist pumping melodic guitar leads and driving drum lines; see songs like "Behind Closed Doors," and "Drones" for evidence.

On Endgame, the band spends much more of its time playing second fiddle to the vocals of McIlrath. The closest thing this album has to a standout guitar lead comes on "A Gentleman's Coup," near the album's close.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Endgame is above average as a whole.

The opener, "Architects," is an obvious standout, with McIlrath challenging his listeners to seize control of their own destiny. If you missed hearing Tim's screams on Appeal to Reason, you'll be delighted to know that you'll only have to wait until the second track to hear him break it out on Endgame.

"Help is on the Way," which seems to deride the federal government's slow response time to national disasters, has sick verses, but the chorus seems tailor made for mainstream radio play.

The band seeks to make a statement with "Make it Stop (September's Children)," which rails against homophobia. The band makes their case by citing examples of homosexual teens who committed suicide due to harassment over their sexuality.

McIlrath and Co. condemn the mindset of intolerance, then call for change:

"Make it stop.
Let this end,
This life chose me, I'm not lost in sin
But proud I stand of who I am
I plan to go on living"

"Satellite" is a track I feel a little torn about. It's definitely one of my favorite tracks on Endgame, but at the same time something doesn't quite sit right. Listening to it, it feels like it's built to be featured on some pre-game highlight reel for the Atlanta Braves.

It's just that when one of the biggest standout tracks on the album also sounds like one of the most radio friendly things they've ever done, that's not a good sign.

And let's not forget "Survivor Guilt," the song that McIlrath dubbed as the sequel to "Hero of War," the bloodchilling anti-war protest from Appeal to Reason. Don't be fooled by the talk; the two tracks have very little similarity to one another.

That aside, it's still a fine track, which tells the story of a man who died fighting in war, then questions whether the cause was truly worth it.

The only tracks I weren't big on were "Disparity by Design," "Wait for Me," and "Midnight Hands." None of those felt very inspired to me.

As a whole, Rise Against has put out an album that is close to the level of Appeal to Reason. The best cuts from that record - "Re-Education (Through Labor)," "Hero of War," and "Savior" - are better than the best that Endgame has to offer, although both albums pale in comparison to the awesomeness that was Sufferer and the Witness.

And therein is the main dig against Endgame. It's a good album, but the problem is just that - lately, we've merely been getting good albums from Rise Against, when we've become accustomed to hearing greatness from this band.

Score: 75/100

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lupe Fiasco still keeping his cool on Lasers

Since the release of his debut album, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor in 2006, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco has steadily been building a reputation within many of the underground hip hop scenes.

Hip-hoppers who have tired of the lack of depth and materialism seen commonly in mainstream rap praised Lupe for his organic approach and for speaking on subjects people could connect with.

Now he's looking to ratchet his stock up even farther with the release of his third album, Lasers. But how does it stack up?

Lupe's latest is solid but suffers from a bit of inconsistency. The word about this album pre-release was that it has a much more commercial sound than Lupe's first two albums, and after having heard Lasers in its entirety I can say that assessment isn't far off the mark. The beats on this album tend to be hit or miss.

"I Don't Wanna Care Right Now" and "Break the Chain" feature all out club/rave beats that sound like they could have been snagged straight off the latest lame Greatest DJ Dance Hits Vol. 17.

As far as Lupe's emcee skills, I can say this: as somenoe listening to Lupe for the first time he's certainly a competent rapper who can deliver a repectable flow but he's not elite. His voice has a twang to it that annoys me sometimes.

The good news is that Lupe's writing skills are still top notch. "Words I Never Said" sees Lupe examing the country's social and political ills while Skylar Grey drops a breathtaking chorus hook. This is easily the standout track of the album.

"Til I Get There" features some of the album's most clever and witty wordplay while "State Run Radio" and "The Show Goes On" touch on themes dealing with inner city issues and offer messages of hope to those who are held back by circumstances.

I'm also quite fond of "Never Forget You," which sees John Legend laying down a soulful hook, while Lupe drops a 2Pac-ian type flow on "Coming Up."

The most interesting piece, at least lyrically, is "All Black Everything," which imagines a world in which the people of Africa never left the continent and slavery in American history never took place.

It's an interesting premise, but some of the situations Lupe dreams up are a little over the top. In Fiasco's alternate universe, Bill O' Reilly and George Bush are born in Iran, Ahdimenjad wins the Mandela Peace Prize, (that's right, the Mandela peace prize) and 50 Cent is a white rapper. Hey Lupe, does he still get shot nine times?

But he takes his hypothetical and turns it into a call to continue to improve race relations down the road:

"And I know it’s just a fantasy
I cordially invite you to ask why can’t it be?
Now we can do nothing bout the past
But we can do something about the future that we have"

Now, for what I didn't like. The chorus hook on "The Show Goes On" is a blatant rip off of Modest Mouse's "Float On," with the overall melody and even some of the lyrics being the same.

I guess Lupe figures most rap fans don't listen to Modest Mouse. He's probably right. But fortunately, you have multi-faceted music fans like me who can call you out on it. Try harder next time, Lupe.

I also want to pick on one of the guest singers in particular. On several tracks, Lupe is joined by a little known R&B singer/rapper whose stage name is taken from the active chemical ingredient in ecstasy.

You'd be best off avoiding both. His unoriginal, generic, awash in autotune vocals really add nothing to the album. And it seems like he pops up on almost every track. After listening to this album you're going to need to call an ambulance, cause you're going to get an overdose of MDMA.

So it's about time to wrap this up. With Lasers, Lupe Fiasco continues to cement himself as one of the finest writers not just in today's hip-hop scene, but in the current music scene period.

Musically and beatwise I think the album loses a few points. Still, Lupe fans should find much to like with Lasers, although there's a good chance this may not replace his two previous albums as your favorite.

Score: 70/100

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Underneath the Pine is an interesting experiment, but fails to live up to its predecessor

I was having a chat with my buddy the other day, and he introduced me to Toro Y Moi, the latest trailblazers in a type of music known as chillwave.

What is chillwave, you ask? Good question. I think the best way to explain it is like this: picture this scene.

It's Friday night, and you're in the car cruising down past all the hip clubs and bars with your buddies trying to find some place to land on, but everything looks so totally awesome you just can't decide.

You need a super cool soundtrack for this situation, right? I mean, every generation has had their music for this type of setting. If you were growing up in the 70s, it might be the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. If it's the early 90s, you might be jamming to Haddaway's "What is Love?"

But if we're talking present day, my friend, then you might very well be listening to Toro y Moi's Underneath the Pine.

Toro Y Moi, also known as Chazwick Bundick, generated waves last year with his debut, Causers of This. The spaced out electronic record received a groundswell of positive review and even garnered whispers of album of the year in some circles.

Does Underneath the Pine live up to those lofty standards? It won't take long to notice this record is a little different. The sound presented here is, generally, a very mellow and laid back sound. Each track is awash in a variety of electronic and synthesizer effects.

But don't make the mistake of thinking this is dance music or anything, it's more like chillout music. It's the perfect thing to put on as background music when you're hanging out with your buddies having a few beers, or driving down the road at night. Through it all, Bundick's vocals hazily drift through the mix. It even sounds a little stonerish at times.

My take on this record: I admire it for its aesthetic and I'd recommend you to give it a listen. You probably haven't heard much that's similar to Toro Y Moi, unless of course you've been listening to other bands within the same scene.The closest comparinson would be to imagine Jamiroqui combined with smooth electronica.

I don't think Underneath the Pine is that great of a record in and of itself, but I respect the idea behind it. I think it could provide the blueprint for much greater musical works that come along in the future. Or maybe it will prove to be nothing more than a slightly wigged out electronic record. But it's still worth giving it a listen, if for nothing else than to experience the vibe.

Score: 75/100

Thursday, March 10, 2011

King of Limbs highlights Radiohead's artistic side

Genre: Electronic Rock
Running Time: 38:08

Following the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke famously prognosticated that the band would take an extended hiatus, then reemerge totally unrecognizable.

Nearly eight years have passed since then, and Yorke's prediction has been mostly accurate.  

In Rainbows represented a sonic step away from the Kid A/Amnesiac/Hail to the Thief arc. For those hoping for a return to those days, don't expect to be obliged by King of Limbs. I've heard some people compare this album to their Kid A days, but I don't see that.

My initial instinct is to say that King of Limbs bears some similarity to In Rainbows; the band has managed to  blend the sound of their instruments so well with the electronic elements of their music that it's tough to discern what's a live instrument and what's electronic.

In Rainbows was a pensive, emotional record, but that wouldn't be an accurate way to describe its successor. If I had to describe King of Limbs in a word, it would be hypnotic. It's not necessarily psychedelic, but it contains some hints of that.

I've heard comparisons to Animal Collective and I don't think that's really accurate but I can see it a little bit.With The King of Limbs, Radiohead has once again made something that sounds totally different from what they've done previously but it holds its own when stacked up against their back catalog.

One of the most striking aspects most Radiohead records is how they're able to set the mood for an album almost instantly after you hit play. Within the first 10 seconds of the opening track, expectations are forged or crushed. Here, you get Bloom, which sets the mood with its slightly psychedelic electronic intro.

But for a band that's well known for having stellar album openers, I can't help but feel that Bloom falls a bit short of the mark. Yorke's vocal sounds a bit flat, almost like he's just going through the motions. I think that most listeners will find Bloom to be one of the more abstract and experimental tracks to be found on King of Limbs.

Some of the effects sound like they could have been pulled right off Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz album. Not a bad track, but it took some time to grow on me.

Bloom segues perfectly into Good Morning Mr. Magpie, and if you're not paying attention it may sound exactly like the the song before it. The vocals are still a little flat, but the instrumentation is more interesting than in Bloom.

That leads into Little By Little, the first track on the album that really grabbed me from the get-go. The guitar work provides something rarely heard in a Radiohead song - a real sense of groove. That earns it bunches of brownie points in my book. And it sounds as though Yorke has finally had his coffee, as he comes alive on the first time on this album to show great range and emotion in his voice.

Feral is a bit unique. There are no actually articulated lyrics, just formless, misshapen moans that drift through the eerie ethereal fog that is the backing music. It's powered by an ominous buzzing bassline and other creepy electronic effects. This song makes me feel like there's something stalking me in the shadows, but I don't quite know what it is.

Louts Flower is easily my favorite off King of Limbs. The drums and bass work together perfectly to create a serene and enlightened listening experience. Yorke also takes the opportunity to show off the depth and dynamism of his range. Lotus Flower is entrancing, captivating and magnificent.

From this point the pace of the album begins to seriously mellow out and slow down the pace. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I personally lose a little bit of interest at this point.

Codex is the token non-experimental song, as it features just Yorke's vocal and a piano. It's nice, reminds me a little of Motion Picture Soundtrack, but not as emotional or as brilliant.

Give up the Ghost presents an interesting proposition. Radiohead has been a band often known putting a lot of emotion in their work, but that doesn't really show so much on this album until you get to this track. It's a heartfelt emotional ballad in which Yorke begs for the pain to stop.

The effects applied to the backing vocals sound similar to the distortion used on the vocals for You and Whose Army from the Amnesiac album. Not my favorite song on the disc, but one I've grown to appreciate.

All that's left after that is Separator, which I'm not really a big fan of. Most Radiohead closers are usually pretty emotional pieces but this one is not so much. It's just rather bland, and the looping drum pattern is just annoying.

So once again Radiohead has managed to make a solid record and do something different from their previous works, though I can't help but mentally group it in the same general family with In Rainbows. It may not ever be a serious contender for the title of best Radiohead album, and may even come across as slightly obtuse at certain points.

But give it time. It took a little while to grow on me, but I can now safely say it's moving up the ranks of my favorite Radiohead LPs.

Score: 80/100