Friday, April 22, 2011

What does it take to "break" in today's music industry?

If you're looking to see artistic works that will blow your mind, you'd be hard pressed to find a better place for that than the Nashville Film Festival, which wrapped up at the Green Hills Cinema Thursday.

But one of the best films of the week had to Broke, which made its world debut at the Festival on April 20. Broke is a documentary tracing the rise of Will Gray, an independent artist on a journey to establish himself in today's ever changing music industry

What's so special about Gray? He blends hip hop and R&B with folk music, and pulls off this mix of styles flawlessly. One minute you might see him spitting rhymes at warp speed, while the next he might be crooning a ballad, all while violins, banjos, mandolins, and other assorted instruments create music that wraps around Gray's rhymes.

The film, self directed by Gray, encapsulates his journey from the time he was a simple high school student, experimenting with sounds by dropping chains on a table, all the way up to his near miss at a record deal with Warner.

Along the way, we watch as he digs himself into a financial hole to fund his own tour, grows tighter with his group of friends/advisers/bandmates, and takes aim with T Bone Burnett to flirt with that elusive major label record deal.

Broke highlights Gray's story, and also briefly showcases several other independent artists, to open a narrative on much larger issues, such as the conflict between the artistic side and the business side in the music world, and discusses the merits of major labels vs. DIY approaches.

The argument the film goes for is that in an ever changing music industry, the influence of major labels will dramatically decline, or perhaps even vanish altogether, in favor of a more organic do it yourself approach.

Is it necessary to redefine what the definition of success is for artists in this new, upcoming model? What exactly is necessary to break an artist? Broke argues that an artist doesn't necessarily need to attain massive superstardom and kajillion dollar profits to consider themselves a success.

To be sure, Broke serves as a nice marketing piece for Gray and the artists he features.  He's a very charismatic figure, and you'll likely find yourself being able to relate and empathize with him.

In all, it proves itself to be a very insightful and informative film on one idea concerning the future of the music industry. It's chock full of interviews from industry insiders, along with Gray's personal story of perseverance. And hey, you even get an occasional Kanye diss.

Since its still making the rounds at film festivals, Broke isn't yet available to the public at large. But Gray, who was present at the Nashville Film Festival screening, hosted a short Q&A session after the movie and said he plans for a DVD release at a later date.

From watching the audience reaction during the show, it seemed like a sure bet that Gray earned himself a legion of new fans right there on the spot. Check out this film if you have the chance, and you may find yourself among them.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Prepare to be swept up in the clutches of O'Death

It's not unusual to find a band that tries to pull off a broad range of styles. The ones that make it work, let alone the ones that master multiple techniques, are quite the rare breed.

New York based sextet O'Death mixes folk, indie, alt-country, and Americana into a blend that sounds as if it hails from a place closer to the Ozarks than the city that never sleeps.

If you've lent an ear to the band's previous efforts, you may have heard a punkier, rootier side of O'Death. Vocalist Greg Jamie has become known for going totally nuts during performances, evoking an image of a stark raving mad, possessed by a banshee, fiery eyed baptist preacher, seeking in vain to reach out to sinners in the hands of an angry god.

Expect less of that on Outside. The new LP is a much quieter, more intimate and more personal experience. It's a very moody album; it paints a portrait of despair, discontent, and the inevitably of death.

The lyrics on this album on the whole are nothing short of fantastic. The lead single, "Bugs," reflects on how fast life passes by, and how it can be a struggle to make the most of it. "Alamar" tells of a man who lost his lover, and his hope of one day meeting her again in the next lifetime.

Other tracks are more blunt in their imagery. "Look at the Sun" sees the speaker caught in nightmare in which he is buried alive. You can sense the panic as describes the struggle to breathe, with the dirt covering his lungs. "Ghost Head" features even more sinister imagery, describing blood that is still fresh on the narrator's hands.

"Don't Come Back" is a nice little pensive instrumental, impressively demonstrating that the band doesn't even need lyrics to be able to set a mood.

And then there is the closer, "The Lake Departed." With its driving organ, oppressive percussion, and muffled vocals, it sounds like a demented funeral dirge. Or maybe like the world's ending.

This song will scare the hell out of you, and make you weep at the same time.

Musically, Outside is pretty heavy on mixing a gothic sound into its folk/country theme, particularity in the opening strains of each song. The combination of fiddle, banjo, and ukulele work together to create melodies that are eerie and disquieting, but you won't be able to stop listening.

The main tipping point on this album tends to be Jamie's vocals. On first listen I didn't think he was that great. At times he seems to come across as a little too quaint; he seemed to be fulfilling a few too many stereotypes associated with southern/country type singers.

But it's key to realize what Jamie is attempting to do here. As you listen to his tales of loss and regret, you can begin to empathize and relate to him, and realize he's not so unlike yourself. It's like he's a good old friend you're taking a journey with, an effect I don't think they could have captured with a frilly, over the top style singer.

What type of person would this album appeal to? Although it's not quite the same bag, it's likely this album would likely appeal to fans of the O'Brother soundtrack. Also, fans of revivalist country acts like The Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Secret Sisters may find much to like here.

But the real question: could a country music fan appreciate this record? Think of it like this. This album is about as far from the gleaming lights and honky tonk of Nashville as you can get.

This type of music will make you understand what it feels like to be alone in a dark shed in Appalachia for 20 hours a day with nothing but your banjo and a bottle of moonshine, and nothing to think about except for how the end is going to come. It doesn't get any more real than this.

Outside is undoubtedly a major step forward for O'Death. They've gone from being a novelty throwback band to creating a work of art that is inspiring both musically and thematically.

So don't be afraid to get swept into O'Death's clutches; death's embrace has never felt more chilling, nor tasted so sweet.

Score: 85/100

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Amon Amarth marches to war with red hot Surtur Rising

In Norse Mythology, Surtur was a giant who carried a flaming sword to do battle against the god Freyr. The carnage of the fight was said to have caused waves of flames to engulf the earth.

It's a perfect descriptor of Surtur Rising, the eighth album from Swedish melodic metal masters Amon Amarth. For those of you familiar with Amon Amarth, you should know what to expect already.

For those who don't, you can expect to hear intense metal epics illustrating tales of Norse gods, hailing the glory of victory while also depicting the agony of defeat and death. They're hardly the first band to do this, but they're doing it about as well as anybody today.

Musically, the band plays at a level of intensity rarely heard - the power and heaviness delivered by guitarists Johan Söderberg and Olavi Mikkonen will scorch you like flames being shot through a blast furnace. There are so many fast double bass parts here that you'll swear drummer Fredrik Andersson must have the meatiest calf muscles in all of Sweden.

Vocalist Johan Hegg frankly doesn't have the greatest range. He can muster about three styles - deep growls, deeper growls, and a higher pitched scream. This makes it hard for him to play into the band's melodic style, but he is able to pull off jaw dropping choruses in "War of the Gods" and "Destroyer of the Universe."

What Hegg excels at, however, is pulling off the image of badass tough guy Norse/Viking warrior. If your band expects to tell the story of 13th century mythological epics, you've got to have the right guy behind the mic to do it.

Surtur Rising carries on the theme of most Amon Amarth albums by alluding to Norse mythology, but they have many tunes that speak in more general terms.

"Slaves of Fear" attacks the corrupting hold of religion while "Live Without Regrets" trumpets the never ending bravado of warriors off to battle. "The Last Stand of Frej is perhpas the most eloquent portrait of the creedo of battle - Frej is facing a mighty foe he knows he has no chance of beating, but the rules of honor in combat prevent him from surrender and dictate that he must stand tall to the end.

On previous records, Amon Amarth have been known for brandishing more of a classical heavy metal feel, but Surtur Rising steps away from that a bit to favor more of a straight ahead metal approach. But there's some good diversity on this record. There is some distinct Dark Tranquility influence here, most notably on "Live Without Regrets" and "For Victory or Death."

The obvious highlights are the raging opener "War of the Gods" and the all out assault of "Destroyer of the Universe," undoubtedly the heaviest song on the record.

It's a shame that the rest of the album isn't really able to recapture the intensity that these two songs had. If they had managed to do that for the entire album, or even for half the songs, Surutr Rising might have been an album for the ages.

As it stands, though, Amon Amarth has still managed to mount an early challenge for metal album of the year. Give Surtur Rising a few spins and you'll be swinging your flaming sword with such precision that you'll be able to drive fear into the steely heart of Freyr himself.

Score: 88/100