Saturday, December 31, 2011

Black Keys zoom down your alleyway with El Camino

The Black Keys are bluesy, ballsy, and best of all, they're back. The Akron, Ohio, natives were saluted for their adherence to good old fashioned rock music on their 2010 breakthrough Brothers, and El Camino makes no effort to radically break away from that blueprint.

The Black Keys pull no punches and raise no smokescreens. Mixing rock, blues, and slight tinge of soul, El Camino is the band's decleartion that this is who they are and what they do, and like it or not, this is how it's going to be. Although I've got a strong feeling you're going to like it.

The opening notes of "Lonely Boy" are raw, loud and uncompromising, and set the stage for what's to come. Big, catchy choruses serve as the meat and potato of the album, but each verse gives Dan Auerbach a chance to display his patented hipness that gives the music a slight indie vibe.

If you like rock guitar, "Gold on the Ceiling" will be your wet dream.  It opens with some great riffing before breaking out a grooving keyboard piece. You'll quickly find yourself bopping your head to the groove of the chorus, but the best part yet is the slick little guitar lead that comes right after.

For the most part, El Camino sticks to a pretty strict formula. "Little Black Submarines" is one of the few times when the script is set aside.The acoustic guitar, coupled with Auerbach's seraching vocal, calls to mind the softer, folky side of Led Zeppelin. It's a buildup to the second half, where the fuzzy wall of guitar feeback begins to cascade upon your earbuds, and Patrick Carney capitalizes with some oh so perfect fills. This leads to a feeling of pure catharsis when Auerbach cuts loose during the final verse and chorus. It's tough to think that Jimmy Page himself wouldn't be impressed. 

The Black Keys also bring a bit of soul to the table with "Stop Stop," which sounds like it could be a Temptations song. The main riff is a slice of funkadelic heaven, the bells in the chorus provide a flavor of old school Motown, and when Auerbach hits that high note you'll be ready to boogie like it's 1976.

El Camino is relatively straightforward and tends to rely heavily on its choruses, which can cause the album to feel a bit repetitive at times.  But it is very, very catchy and is well executed piece of rock with a remarkable amount of zing. Hats off to El Camino -- it is one of the best records of the year.

Score: 87/100

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ghost Protocol's mission? Not entirely impossible.

I initially wasn't excited when I heard there was a new Mission Impossible film on the horizon. Nothing personal against action films, but I find that most titles from the genre are little more than a sugar rush -- chock full of adrenaline and nice window dressing, but little in the way of substance. Though perhaps the standard can't be thoroughly applied to the Mission Impossible franchise. Mission Impossible II was the coolest thing in the world to my seventh grade mind, but tastes and theories change.

Would Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol ignite a similar spark?

If nothing else, director Brad Bird does make some effort to buck the rules of the genre to some degree. The IMF is disbanded and disavowed after being accused of detonating a bomb within the Kremlin, which ensures that Ethan Hunt and his merry men have their back against the wall throughout the duration of the film.

The main plot sees Hunt and his crew attempt to stop Swedish nuclear scientist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from obtaining Russian launch codes and launching a nuclear weapon. The catch is that the Hunt's team is off the grid and in the dark, and has to draw up all their plans from scratch. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Ghost Protocol is that it bucks the trend of elite spy team who is always in control of all things at all times.

The film's sense of dramatic tension is simply astounding, and it derives from the fact that the team's plan seems so improbable. Something is always going wrong, and a good deal of that derives from the actions of the bumbling Benji Carter, (Simon Pegg) who has been upgraded to a field agent since the last film. He attempts to assist the team with his computer hacking skills, but often does more harm than good. Often to humorous effect.

And there is also the fact that Ghost Protocol simply executes its action scenes much better than most action flicks do. The pacing is breakneck, and the stunts are out of this world. You get to see chase scenes through a sandstorm in Dubai, a climactic battle inside a technologically advanced parking garage, and a game of switcheroo played against a dazzling femme fatale. And then there is also Tom Cruise's gasp inducing climb up the side of a building using nothing but sticky gloves. What's not to like?

In many action films, the acting often tends to take a backseat to cinematic action and dramatic tension. Ghost Protocol is no exception, but there are some examples of quality acting. Paula Patton tackles the role of IMF agent Jane Carter, and her grief and furor is highly evident as she embarks on a quest to avenge a fallen colleague.

Jeremy Renner also does a top notch job playing the role of an analyst with a conflicted past. If there's a weakness, it's that some of the characters aren't fully fleshed out. Patton's role gets downgraded later in the film to the point that she's little more than a bombshell , and I can't help but wish I had more backstory on the mysterious assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux).

Perhaps in the end, the action film genre is just going to be a genre that I don't see much substance in. However, I do have to give credit where credit is due. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol delivers a level of suspense and tension that is second to none, and is a masterful representation of all that an action film should be

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Steven Wilson's star shines bright on Grace for Drowning

I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood
I love the things that most people always overlook.

These two lines could sum up how Steven Wilson has built his career. Wilson has always had a peculiar outlook which has always colored not only his music but also his view on things in general. He's always gone outside the bounds of what people thought music should be, or could be, and in the process he's developed some of the most thoughtful and pertinent music in recent memory.

On his latest solo record, Grace for Drowning, he's tinkered the formula even more. His previous outing, Insurgentes, was a very eclectic record, hopping from one musical style to another. Conversely, Grace for Drowning builds up slowly and deliberately, enveloped in a fog of ambiance and mystery.

Wilson has never shied away from utilizing extended instrumental pieces in his music. In fact, he's released a pair of 100 percent instrumental albums with Porcupine Tree, which helps explain his decision to eschew lyrics on the first two tracks on Grace for Drowning.

After a brief uplifting intro, the album kicks in with Sectarian. The beginning sounds like the prelude to some epic battle, then tapers off after awhile but hits you with a sweet bassline. But the moment when it became obvious that this album wasn't going to play by the rules came during the heavy conclusion to the song. It was not at all what I was expecting and totally threw me for a loop.

From there we get into the real meat of the album. "Deform to Form a Star," easily one of the best songs of the year, opens with a series of absolutely beautiful piano chords and is accompanied by vocals to match.

The chorus feels dreamlike and mystic, as if a star is being formed before your very eyes. And there are a pair of majestic guitar solos to boot. The lyrics Wilson sings wrap around a haunting melody, focusing on the raw emotion of listlessness and despair. In the opening verse, he croons:

"No god here I'm sure,
this must be the cure
for all this carrion
and aimless drift"

In many ways, the sentiment delivered here is the overriding theme of Grace for Drowning; Wilson's words deal with picking up the pieces and attempting to deal with stagnation and regret. Though the event that prompted him to pick up the pieces is never made totally clear.

The thread continues onto the next track, "No Part of Me," which seems to be about a former lover that he realizes he never had true feelings for. Musically, the track is defined by a frantic and frenetic drum beat, but the music over top of that is hazy and and relaxed. It's a total contrast. But it's clear that the song is building up to something big, and then it hits in the second half when a meancing heavy riff breaks out, along with a guitar solo.

Then comes "Postcard," on which Wilson might as well be John Lennon lording over his piano. The track is still downbeat but has a vague sense of optimism that was largely absent on the two preceding tracks. It's like going through hell after a breakup, and then you finally hit that point when you realize that things might actually be okay, and that it isn't the end of the world as you know it.

The first disc concludes with "Remainder the Black Dog," a song title that sounds pretty creepy of its own accord. The eerie piano riff that plays through most of the song will nothing to dispel that notion. What impresses me about this track is how many different types of solos the band plays off that initial piano riff.

About halfway through you get a free form jazz solo played over a heavy riff, followed by a wall of riffing and some spastic solos, which then leads into a great bassline and acoustic guitar riff. There's a bit of minimalism, some ambiance, some messing around on the drumkit, and even a flute solo. It's enough to make even Yanni's head swim.

The second disc I don't feel like is as strong. My favorite song on that one is "Index," a very downbeat, minimalist piece with slight tinges of electronica. The theme of the song is about a compulsive collector who becomes obsessed with trying to organize and catagorize everything and it eventually puts a great mental strain upon him.  "Track One" is nice, but doesn't feel fully fleshed out, and "Belle De Jour" is an okay attempt at a New Age sounding intro piece. It's just that we have enough of those on the album already.

This brings us to "Raider II," the 23 minute behemoth and clearly the intended centerpiece of the album. The song's premise focuses on the elements that are damaging our planet and lives, to which Wilson assigns the term "Raider." The first 8-10 minutes are are great. Wilson's delivery grows increasingly intense on each verse, and the instrumentation is as taut as a drum. Later on it gets a bit indulgent. There's your fair share of progressive rock guitar noodling and several minutes of minimialist ambiance, but he's simply repeating himself.

If there is a major criticism of Grace For Drowning, it is that does perhaps feel a bit indulgent at times. While we do get to see more than a passing glimmer of the man's talent, I can't help but feel like this album is simply an indulgence for him. Much of the album feels like he's just dicking around; it's like he's trying to wade though layers of sonic soundscapes to see what sticks to the wall and what doesn't. Sometimes the album sounds somewhat unfocused, particularly on the second disc.

The 1-2-3 punch of "Deform to Form a Star," "No Part of Me" and "Postcard" is terrific, and I also really liked "Remainder the Black Dog" and "Index." It's a very good album, but Wilson seems to be more concerned in tinkering with various progressive landscapes and experimenting with different songwriting mechanics. It doesn't appear that he's aiming to make his next career defining LP here. That can wait until the next Porcupine Tree LP.

Score: 89/100

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Th1rt3en not a lucky number for Megadeth

Megadeth has been building up a head of steam over the past few years. United Abominations was a nice kick in the pants that served notice to all Dave Mustaine doubters. But 2009's Endgame delivered the band's biggest statement in over a decade. That album was a career revitalizer, packed full of aggressive energy and brimming with thrashy take no prisoners riffing that signaled a full fledged return to form for the Southern California metallers.

How do you follow that up?

Apparently not by sticking with what got you to that point in the first place. Th1rt3en vies for much simpler song structures and cuts away most of the excess riffing and intensity that made Endgame such a standout. Instead, Dave Mustaine is left to carry much of the load with his voice rather than his guitar, and the results are about what you'd expect.

The guitar solos are nice, for sure. The opener, Sudden Death, perhaps comes the closest to capturing Megadeth's signature thrashy rage. The lead single, "Public Enemy No. 1" has a nice lead in that recalls the carefree exuberance of 1980s heavy metal, coupled with a blistering solo that takes me back to the Peace Sells days. But only for a moment.

One major problem is that most of the song structures are very simple and formulaic, whereas Endgame had fewer qualms about mixing things up. Another issue is that Dave's vocals are really no longer up to par at this stage in the game. Mustaine's voice was widely considered the fly in the ointment on Endgame, but everybody was too busy paying attention to the instrumentation on that album to care.

His voice in general comes out very flat and lifeless, and when coupled with the safe and predicatble song structers it causes the album to feel flat and lifeless as well.

Lyrically, Megadeth continues with many of its conspiracy/anti-government themes, but it often comes across as more farfetched. On "Millenium of the Blind," Mustaine urges the American people to abandon U.S. leadership entirely, while "New World Order" treads on similar material we've heard Dave spout all too often before.

But perhaps the political soapbox suits Megadeth better, because the lyrics certainly don't get better when they tackle other subjects. "Fast Lane" feels like an old, cold retread of "1320" from the previous album, while "Whose Life (Is It Anyways?)" is a blantant attempt to cash in on the teenage angst/Hot Topic crowd.

"Wrecker" starts off with one of the best intro riffs on the album, but is quickly washed away by lyrics dealing with drama and realtionship issues. "Guns, Drugs, and Money" at least goes for a slightly different bent, telling of a doomed drug dealer who winds up in a heap of trobule after trying to execute a drug deal south of the border.

Th1rt3en isn't the worst album Megadeth has done but it does come across as extremely derivative and lackluster. Most of the best riffs are only found in the intros in most songs. There are some nice solos too,, but Megadeth seems to have forgotten one key thing.

Metal is all about attitude, which is one area where Endgame never faltered. Amidst all the riffs and the mayhem, there was always a cocky, fighting spirit that permeated that entire album. Th1rt3en, unfortunately, feels completely dead by comparison.

Score: 68/100

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trash Talk's Awake: the most devestating nine minutes of 2011

Not everyone understands hardcore. But for those who do, there's nothing else in the world that gives you a similar sensation. When it's done right, you feel something sweeping you up and taking hold of you. You're not sure if it's the kickpedal of the drums or the power of the message, but you don't want it to let you go.

Trash Talk is not the type of band to mess around; there are no frills, no excess, just straight ahead, stripped down thrash/hardcore. Their latest EP, Awake, has injected a welcome sense of variety into my playlists this year, and anyone who's interested in checking out this great band should consider this an excellent entry point.

Like the crack of a gunshot, Awake hits you with violent force. And at just under nine minutes, it shows up, slaps you in the face, and then it's gone again. It leaves you wanting more, but never overstays its welcome.

Many hardcore bands try too hard to dress it up, but Trash Talk stick to what they know best. It kicks off with the title track, a take no shit anthem tailor made to get your fist pumping in the air. Then follows "Slander," which packs in so much visceral brutality into such a small time frame that even Ian McKaye would be impressed.

Lee Spielman sounds like he must be totally devastating his vocal chords with each scream, and the rhythms pounded out by guitarist Garrett Stevenson will force you into prime headbanging position. For that matter, Sam Bosson's snare rolls prove that he's not a man to be trifled with.

It all wraps up with "Gimmie Death," the most devastatingly visceral track in the collection. It features Spielman dealing with intense feelings of disillusionment:

"I thought I was important. I thought I had worth. I used to think the world needed me, until I needed the world."

The frustration and confusion that he feels creates a wave which simply crushes the listener.

Awake may be short be sweet, but every now and then you need something raw and unrelenting to give you a kick in the ass. Listen to Awake before you hear any other hardcore disc this year.

Score: 89/100