Friday, September 30, 2011

Opeth's folk metal assault rains down on Cannery Ballroom

Mikael Akerfeldt sang that God is dead. But it's not true. God was on the stage.

When Opeth swept into Cannery Ballroom Wednesday night, it's fair to say they carried the crowd into a rapture with them.

The titans of prog metal kicked off the show with their latest single, "The Devil's Orchard," and with the eerie wash of blue lights enveloping the crowd, it wasn't hard to feel like you were being transported somewhere otherworldly.

Who's ready for some metal? This guy fuckin' is!

Their latest album, Heritage, puts major distance between the band and their black/death metal roots, and the live act seems to be following the same philosophy. The 12 song setlist focused on Opeth's lighter, folkier side.

Heritage and Watershed, the two most recent Opeth albums, formed a good chunk of the setlist, with tunes like "I Feel The Dark" and "Porcelain Heart" getting the crowd revved up early. But one of the biggest surprises of the night was when the band totally folked out with a mini-acoustic set, in which Akerfeldt played no fewer than three separate acoustic guitars. And it was punctuated with a pair of lesser known cuts - "Throat of Winter" from the God of War III soundtrack and "Patterns in the Ivy II" from the deluxe edition of 2001's Blackwater Park.

But of course, Opeth  wouldn't be Opeth if they didn't unleash some heavy metal. Akerfeldt introduced "Slither" by announcing it was written in memory of Ronnie James Dio, and it was inspired by his work in Rainbow.

"Now you can all headbang like it's 1978," Akerfeldt declared.

As soon as he began ripping off those riffs, the moshers went apeshit.

Opeth's old guard: Akerfeldt and Mendez.

And as an added treat, Opeth also played one of the best songs in their catalog -- "A Fair Judgement." A flawless combination of ethereal metal, 70s proggy acoustic folk, and majestic guitar solos, hearing this song live was an experience that was on my bucket list. I was totally pumped to cross that one off.

Akerfeldt also proved himself to be a great frontman with an awesome sense of showmanship. The performer/crowd interaction was the best I've ever witnessed. He hilariously ripped on metal bands who constantly down tune their guitars, made fun of Napalm Death's "You Suffer," and bantered over the pros and cons of eating ribs in Nashville.

And last but not least, I can't leave out the incredible drum solo by Martin Axenrot. The rest of the band stopped for about five minutes to let Martin do this thing, which resulted in an incredible display of precision as he kept perfect time while roaring away with the double bass pedals.

If there was one disappointment, it was with the lack of Mikael's death metal vocals. I don't mind them dropping that on the records, but to ditch them at live shows means some of the band's biggest concert staples get dropped from the setlist.  Songs like "The Leper Affinity," "Master's Apprentices," and "The Grand Conjuration" are a major part of Opeth's identity. If those songs are never played again, then it's like they're not even the same band they once were.

Fellow Swedish metallers Katatonia were the openers, and they were no slouch either. Their captivating blend of gothic and doom inspired metal held the crowd spellbound.  Jonas Renske's hypnotic vocals melded seamlessly with Daniel Liljekvist's lightning fast crossovers and wicked tom work, and the crushing guitar assault of Per Eriksson and Anders Nystrom completed the package. Katatonia pulled out a few sweet numbers, including "Leaders" and "My Twin," which were instant hits with the crowd.

Katatonia are not a force to be trifled with.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wilco's The Whole Love is a whole slab of awesome

Wilco is one of those bands you can never sleep on.

Nearly a decade removed from their most esteemed album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, circumstances have changed for the Chicago-based rockers. There was a time in which Wilco couldn't do anything without causing everyone to stand up and take notice.

My senior year in high school was the year A Ghost Is Born came out, and everyone was talking about that record. It was everywhere. You couldn't escape the buzz from that album if you bought real estate under a giant boulder.

But if you were one of those, like me, who soon tired of the Wilco hype, you eventually got your wish. It wouldn't be fair to say the hype died, but I don't remember the previous two albums generating the same level of hysteria we saw with Ghost.

But now it is 2011 and I've got to eat my words. I finally decided to give Wilco an in-depth listen, and I see what the big deal is. If there's a new wave of hype over the latest Wilco record, don't expect to see me run for cover. Because if there's any justice, The Whole Love should start a revolution of its own.

The Whole Love seems to strike a medium between the two extremes the band painted in the 2000s. It's certainly more level headed than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, but is more adventurous than their last effort, Wilco (the album). The opener, "Art of Almost," builds up slowly, leaving you wondering what exactly this album has in store for you. But when the extended guitar solo kicks in, you know you're in for one hell of a ride.

As a listener who appreciates variety, The Real Love is an easy sell. This album has it all, from sprawling epics to clashing rockers and well crafted pop nuggets.

"I Might" sees the band combining pop and rock styles like second nature. You are treated to strong hooks that are punctuated by guitar pyrotechnics going off left and right. When Jeff Tweedy's voice kicks in during the chorus, I can't help but notice he sounds a bit like John Lennon.

And speaking of Beatles influence, another treat comes on "Sunloathe." It's dreary at first, but picks up as it goes along. The second half reminds me of the Abbey Road medley, particularly in regard to the harmonies and drum fills.

One fact Wilco fans should be well aware of is that there's nothing quite like the effect of a dynamic frontman. There are few tracks that better accentuate that than "Standing O," a rollicking rocker on which Tweedy confidently asserts himself -- "Maybe you've noticed I'm not afraid of everything that I've done / Maybe you've noticed I'm not the same as almost anyone."

And if you like Wilco's lyricism, "Dawned On Me," will also be high on your favorites list. I enjoy the aggressive attitude and the way the words wrap around each verse. Look at the second verse:

"I've been lost
I've been found
I've been taken by the sound"

It's simple, but dramatic when delivered the way Tweedy does it.  This is the song most deeply ingrained in my head right now.

"Black Moon" and "Rising Red Lung" are mellow, quiet, and thought provoking. They're the two songs on The Whole Love that best reflect on Wilco's alt-country roots, and they're the two songs that best represent my state of mind when I'm ready to chill out.

"Capitol City" has a jovial, bouncy, show tune-y feel to it. "Open Mind" is an emotional ballad, with lyrics that tug at your heart strings. Then you have "Born Alone," one of my personal favorites. At first glance it's your typical pop/rock gem, but near the end it gets reflective and really rocks out.

The Whole Love comes to a close with "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" a devastatingly vivid 12 minute chronicle on the deterioration of a relationship between father and son. Pay close attention to the lyrics and it'll produce a lump in your throat.

What makes Wilco great is the sincerity of everything they produce, coupled with the unique musical ideas that seem to turn up on each of their records. The Whole Love is the perfect album if you're looking for something refreshing, or for anyone who's a fan of great songwriting.

Score: 90/100

Sleep ∞ Over: Forever is composed of nows

Stepfanie Franciotti recently had to deal with a falling out of sorts. Her fellow members in Sleep ∞ Over, Christa Palazzo and Sarah Brown, split during the recording of their debut album, leaving Franciotti as the sole member of the band.

But if you thought would slow her down, think twice. She finished the project solo and has bestowed upon us Forever, a stimulating foray into the world of richly textured noise/dream pop.

The music in general is very airy and spaced out, with a liberal dose of ambiance and a strong propensity to set a mood. Francotti's ethereal vocals quietly slip into a track and gently wash over you, subtly coloring the atmosphere and setting your mind at ease. Think Beach House, My Friend Wallis, and Silver Pines.

"Romantic Streams" is the clear standout track, and easily one of the best songs of the year. It is very reverent and powerful while being catchy at the same time. When Franciotti's whispy voice mixes with the somber, subdued synth melody, pure magic happens. Then drums intensify near the end which creates an even more stunning effect.

"Romantic Streams" is practically worth the price of the album on it own. Which is a good thing, because none of the other tracks on the album can quite match it. "Casual Diamond" and "Stickers" feature strong melodies, but don't possess the same punch in the gut effect as "Romantic Streams."

From there, you move into more experimental and spaced out territory. In interviews, Franciotti has testified to being a black metal fan, and some of the atmospheric elements found in that style of music are also present on Forever. Particularly effective is "Cryingame," which is ominous, foreboding, and mildly disturbing. The rest of the cuts don't stick with me that much due.

Some of them are nice, like "Behind Closed Doors. Some of them are bizarre, like "Untitled," which is 24 seconds of what sounds like a demented merry-go-round. But I like to hear a strong central hook, and some of these are a bit too ambient for my taste.

The album title was inspired by an Emily Dickinson quote - "Forever is composed of nows."

Don't expect Forever to be the album that gets her noticed now.

Stepfanie Franciotti is a definite talent and brings a fresh approach to a watered down genre, but Forever is just too inconsistent for me to consider it a great album. If there were a few more tracks like "Romantic Streams" and a few less like "Flying Saucers Are Real," we would have had a real winner on our hands.

Score: 76/100

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Justin Vernon cranks the volume knob on Bon Iver's latest

At once I knew I was not magnificent.

Justin Vernon delivers this statement on "Holocene" the third track of Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore release. His moment of raw self-realization is a humbling admission on all fronts. Anyone who's ever felt the way he describes here will immediately get it. And those who haven't will have a doorway opened in their minds.

Vernon's method of communicating is on a different wavelength from most of his contemporaries: he's able to take a particular emotion and explain it in a way that is universally understandable. Bon Iver is like an emotional catharsis; his quiet, stripped back approach and trademark falsetto promise to deliver a dynamic impact upon the listener. And when you've finished, you feel like you've learned something new about yourself.

This album releases in the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago, a record that focused on longing and regret. Not to be outdone, Bon Iver has a theme of its own - each track is named after a specific location, and is an ode to the memories that were made there.

Unlike Emma, this album is much less overt with its folk influences. Much of the backing music has much more of a post-rock feel to it. The opener, "Perth" spells this out as clearly as any track on the record. But what hasn't changed is the intimate impact Vernon delivers.

The songwriting tends to focus on personal relationships, and the memories they leave behind. The lyrics are usually rather vague, but have a very nostalgic and reminiscent feel to them. It's like he's speaking to an old friend about good times and no one will totally understand all the details of what is being said except the two of them.

While "Holocene" and "Perth" are the clear moody highlights, there are a few slightly more upbeat tunes for variety. Or at least upbeat by Bon Iver standards. "Towers" could be the soundtrack a leisurely wagon ride on a dirt road, while "Minnesota, WI," and "Calgary" give Vernon an excellent chance to show off his lower register.

With all that said, however, I can't help but feel that Bon Iver is something of a step back from Emma.

Emma excelled in having a very earthy, folky roots feel, particualry in songs like "Skinny Love" and "The Wolves," which Bon Iver lacks for the most part. In all honesty, it sounds like it's trying too hard to be a Hallmark card at times. The cheesy synthesizer intro on "Beth/Rest" is the biggest offender, but tracks like "Hinnom, TX" and especially "Wash." deliver the sonic equivalent of a Tylenol PM.

It's a very good record no doubt, but certainly not for everyone. Bon Iver is one of those artists who excel in one area and one area only, and you have to really be into it to enjoy the record as a whole. He seems to be trying a bit too hard at times, and I usually get bored about halfway through the album.

In the end, Vernon was correct. Bon Iver is not magnificent. But there are some real gems here, and if you've never witnessed the magic that Justin Vernon can conjure at his best, there's no better time to do so than now.

Score: 79/100

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Arch Enemy's recipie proving stale on Khaos Legions

So I'm not feeling the new Arch Enemy album. It's got its moments, but something about it just doesn't quite ring right. For those who haven't kept close tabs on the band, they've basically stuck to their guns ever since installing the always dynamic Angela Gossow as vocalist.

The result? Well... these Swedish/Gothenberg melodic metal outfits tend to have a limited shelf life, and Arch Enemy isn't exactly proving immune to that trend. There has admittedly been little evolution in the band, and it begs the question of how fresh Arch Enemy's idea well is.

The entire record is horribly one dimensional. Structure wise every song is virtually the same. The verses are heavy, raw, and thrashy, but every time there's always a noticeable shift in tempo that leads to a catchy melodic chorus. It sounds like a blatant attempt at commercialism. Granted, I'm a big advocate of melody in  metal, but I'm really not feeling the approach they went for here.

Interspersed between verses and choruses are a patchwork of nice little guitar leads and interludes that definitely create an Arch Enemy flavor, but even here it isn't pulled off as well as it has been in the past.  

Wages of Sin, for example, was absolutely crackling with intensity. It was taut, well edited, and smacked your eardrums with the force of a jet engine. And the guitar leads on that album were deeply inflected with a Gothenberg flavor, something wholly absent on this record. So clearly Arch Enemy doesn't display the same zest and zeal they once did. But does that make Khaos Legions a bad record?

Not exactly. Guitarists Michael and Christopher Amott certainly are still talented, and Gossow puts together a great performance as usual. There is also a common lyrical thread that ties most of the ablum together, as there is a focus on the theme of rebellion and defiance.

On the back of the album Gossow can be seen wearing a jacket with the words resist, rebel, reclaim on it, which sums up the spirit of the album pretty perfectly. She has the troops fired up for battle on "Under Black Flags We March," while she seethes at religion on "Bloodstained Cross." Not the most original topics in metal, but the personality she displays helps make it a little more original.

In the end, though, it's hard to call Khaos Legions as anything more than mediocre. "Through the Eyes of a Raven" is the only track I'm really excited about, as it features an absolutely spectacular backing riff behind the solo, and also has a sweet acoustic outro. The closer, "Secrets," is probably the most intense track, and therefore stands as another highlight (although I use the term loosely).

But the lack of variation causes all the songs to flow into another, and what you do get isn't the best work the band has done. It's certainly not bad, but if you're looking for a great metal disc you could do much better.

Score: 73/100

Monday, September 5, 2011

Goblin delivers dark and twisted journey into rap's netherworld

I'm a blogger, and I write reports about hipster indie music. Do you think Tyler the Creator wants to stab me with a pitchfork?

Goblin, the Odd Future phenom's sophomore album, hit under a huge wave of hype following the release of the initial single "Yonkers."  Dark, brooding, and methodical, "Yonkers" was able to conjure many feelings that rap hadn't really been able to generate for awhile. But it also created very high standards for the rest of the album.

Does it live up to the hype?

There's no disputing that Goblin does many things well. Like Bastard, his previous album, Goblin is set up as a conversation between Tyler and his counselor. Most of the tracks create a dialogue between the two, which Tyler uses as a vehicle to take us on a tour inside of the mind of a mentally unstable young man. Lyric wise there's quite a bit of gritty stuff that you're going to need to take with a grain of salt.

"Transylvania," which features some of Tyler's sickest rhymes and flows, is an easy standout. The vampire themed lyrics are humorous and serve as a  nice touch. "She" features my favorite beat and boasts a red hot slow jam chorus from Frank Ocean, which delivers a liberal dose of sensuality.

"Her" is Tyler's best work lyrically. It tells of romantic inclinations he has toward a particular girl. Just when he's about to make his move, she gets back together with an ex. He does a great job of describing the sense of heartbreak and wounded pride:

"I could tell them the truth and just say she didn't like me much
but instead I lie and say she moved to Nebraska."

There are a pair of tracks around the album's midway point, "Nightmare" and "Tron Cat," that are totally laid back with mellow R&B beats. I wasn't too impressed with either of these initially, but I came to appreciate how Tyler is able to work with a wide variety of beats and establish a very tangible mood on these tracks.

"Sandwitches" and "Radicals" are both aggressive and hard hitting tracks, but "Radicals" suffers from being a bit self indulgent and floats around in too much ambiance. The verses are killer though.

There is, however, a run of weaker tracks near the close of the album. "Fish/Boppin Bitch" is nothing special, but Tyler does find a demented flow near the start of the song.

That is followed up by "Analog" which mainly features Hodgy Beats, which is just a weak track in general and doesn't seem to serve any purpose.

Then you get "Bitch Suck Dick," which is an abrasive in-your-face track that comes out of nowhere and disappears before you have time to realize what's even going on. "Window" is okay, but I don't like to listen to the last part.

Goblin is certainly a solid effort, but it's not without its flaws. Tyler seems to put too much focus on shock factor here, and the album tends to wander at points. But Goblin is a very unique record, which sees Tyler establish a strong personality while also exhibiting great rap skills.

It's not rap album of the year, but you aren't like to find anything that leaves an impression on you like Goblin does.

Score: 83/100