Sunday, March 31, 2013

Totally Unauthorized 2013 1st Quarter Playlist: January - March

The work of compiling a list of the year's best is never a simple feat, so it necessitates an early start. As we end March, the 2013 music year has come in like a lion, and has promised incredible potential as we look forward to the summer months. Here are 12 can't miss tracks so far:


When the tracklist for A$AP Rocky's debut album was announced, Skrillex's presence was a major eyebrow raising moment. Many questioned whether two artists from such divergent scenes could successfully come together. But the union worked like a charm, in part because neither artist takes themselves too seriously, though they are serious about making sure people have a good time. Skrillex's over the top synth blasts provide a perfect foil to Rocky's spitfire rhyming.


Legendary punk rockers Bad Religion are 16 albums into their career, and their attack is still as blistering as ever. On "My Head is Full of Ghosts," they come across as eminently melodic and dignified as ever, while singer Greg Graffin provides some witty wordplay, and the exuberant harmony section is hitting on all cylinders.


Experimental electronic musician Chaz Bundick is quickly becoming one of the best at producing sleek, urban and sophisticated pop music. "Harm in Change" unfolds gradually like a warm summer night, with a slight sensuality present in Bundick's lyrics. But most impressive is his production work, as he mixes and weaves layers to create a sweet danceable mix.


Here, captured in a solitary five and a half minute track, is everything that makes My Bloody Valentine great. There's still the mind warping sense of fuzziness, drone, and distortion but they also pack a bit of pep in their step as well. Fast paced, energetic drums set the mood, while a lovely synthesizer line comes in over the top and carries the song to its conclusion.


Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter and his quartet express a vast variety of moods. This remake of a Weather Report song shows off his versatility in being able to sculpt old classics to fit with his current sound. He loves to experiment, even veering into modal territory when the situation calls for it, and "Plaza Real" is one of his greatest showoff pieces from the new album, Without a Net.


Riverside is a somewhat overlooked Polish band that does a great job of mixing prog with hard/heavy metal. There is a bit of Porcupine Tree influence,  but they also take cues from Rush and Pain of Salvation among others. Packed full of swaggering solos, headbanging riffs, and clean melodic sections, "Celebrity Touch" proves these boys know how to mix it up.


The final 1:30 of this song alone is awesome enough to put this song on the list. Those doomsday scales backed by Marco Minneman's manic drumming is one of the greatest musical passages ever blogged about on this site. But the rest of the song is no pushover either, as a healthy serving of flute, organ and guitar solos complement Wilson's story about a religious thinker gone astray.


Longstanding prodigies Darkthrone may no longer practice black metal on a daily basis, but there's still plenty to love. This old school blast of metal is impressive instrumentally, but even more absorbing is the classic fists raised attitude that is mostly missing from modern metal. And it's also tough to argue with the haunting acoustic intro. 


Dissonant and anguished soundscapes have never been new territory for Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor, but his new side project How to Destroy Angels does give him a chance to manifest his downbeat vision in new ways. Muted ambiance and creeping electronica replace the loud drums and guitars of NiN, while Marquieen Maandig steps into the spotlight with her smooth, sensual voice.


Trevor Powers draws influences from all over the map, and it's hard to think of music that's been this honest and down to earth in quite awhile. "Pelican Man" combines the humbleness of Animal Collective, the confessional nature of Tune Yards, and the playfulness of Sufjan Steven's The Age of Adz. All the while, the warped, wacky nature of the track suggests Powers might not quite be in the right frame of mind.


Bowie's re-entry into the field was sudden and dramatic, following the surprise announcement of the English rocker's excellent 24th album, The Next Day. The guitar crackles and the rhythm section is smooth, but if there was any question if Bowie is still capable of capturing your attention then it's time to put it to rest. He's still every bit as charismatic and enrapturing as ever, comfortably taking his place as one of rock's elder statesmen. 


Norwegian hardcore/metal outfit Kvelertak sound like they would be a hell of a fun group to hang with. At least, their music does a great job of giving off that vibe. Lead vocalist Erlend Hjelvik's voice bears similarity to Anders Frieden and Speed from Soilwork, but his band knows how to let their hair down better than almost anyone else. With an abundance of bluesy solos and a shoutalong chorus,  Kvelertak have delivered your next soundtrack for getting shitfaced.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Strokes launch tide of experimentation on Comedown Machine

It's no secret The Strokes have been on a downward spiral since the release of their landmark 2001 debut, Is This It. The recording sessions for their previous album, 2011's Angles, didn't do much to reverse the trend. Singer Julian Casablancas detached himself from the band and forced key songwriting duties onto other members of the band.

His intent was to develop a more democratic process, although all it really created was political gridlock. Having to write and record their parts without a singer present gave the band fits, and led guitarist Nick Valensi to complain bitterly about the whole affair.

If nothing else, the sessions for Comedown Machine seem to have served as a necessary panacea. The songs here have more room to breathe, and feel more organic. The 80s pop pastiche of Angles still serves as a motivating influence, but it no longer feels like they're trying to cram it in to places it doesn't fit. Rather, Comedown Machine sees the band experimenting with a variety of different sounds and approaches, which prevents repetition, a problem they didn't always do the best job of addressing on previous albums.

Big, catchy choruses are one thing that most songs have in common with one another. "Welcome to Japan" is hot and sweaty, sounding like the soundtrack to pedaling an exercise bike in the 80s. "All the Time," meanwhile, could have been Room on Fire material, and should satisfy fans of their old sound.

Following "All the Time," however, is a striking change of pace with "One Way Trigger," a shimmering keyboard focused track which is carried by Casablancas's high, near falsetto vocal. It's a good song, but it's jarring moving into this track from "All the Time," and is the most striking example of the album's lack of cohesion. Elsewhere, they pull off a tearjerker on "80s Comedown Machine," which is accented by a beautiful string section. This proceeds directly into the raucous rocker "50/50," the most frenetic song they've done since "Juicebox."

Along the way, there are more attempts to refine their 80s sound. "Chances" features subtle electronic keyboard backing, but the tune is much too tepid too be a major winner. More successful is album opener "Tap Out," which breathes much needed life into the formula first explored on Angles. The verse melody sounds similar to Yeasayer, another band well known for an 80s pop affinity, but they make the song their own with the main hook. One can easily picture Casablancas wearing his dark shades, capturing the rich feel of the post punk tradition.

In terms of progression, however, closer "Call it Fate Call it Karma," may be the band's most progressive song to date. It presents itself as a period piece; the soft sound of the piano, coupled with the intentionally crackly background hiss brings to mind a lounge jazz piece from the 20s or 30s. Julian's soft croon puts the finishing touches on the image The Strokes paint in your mind.

Comedown Machine expands upon the direction first hinted at on Angles, but is more successful in virtually every way. The album's main caveat is that it tends to lack cohesion or a sense of a central theme; it sounds more like a hodgepodge collection of songs by a band still striving to reinvent their sound. Yet there are more than a few quality cuts here that span a diverse spectrum, and that's enough to override its flow issues.

Now over a decade removed from the cries of saviors of rock and roll, no one is expecting the Strokes to compare to the Almighty, but Comedown Machine should suit anyone well who are just looking for the band to put out something respectable.

Score: 82/100
See also: The Strokes - Angles review

Friday, March 22, 2013

Punk icons Bad Religion prove it's never to late to play Music City

There's not much Bad Religion hasn't seen or done in the course of their 33 year career. Since forming in Southern California in 1980 they've been on countless tours and had numerous opportunities to challenge their fanbase to think for themselves. But there is one thing that's been missing from their agenda: a trip to play in one of music's most esteemed cities: Nashville, Tennessee.

It was a fact that frontman Greg Graffin didn't downplay, alluding to it several times during his interplay with the crowd. The band was top notch in every phase of the game, but Graffin especially shined with his ability to relate to his audience. He was wistful at times, reminiscing back to the slam dancers in San Fernando Valley in the 80s and reflecting on the fact that Bad Religion is perhaps the last surviving band from that scene.

Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin gives Nashville a lesson in Punk 101.

He made some moves to get the crowd into it without being too obvious, like when he invited them into a sing along while they played fan favorite "Generator." And he wasn't shy about dropping hints that this might not be their lone Nashville performance  Whether that's merely stage rhetoric remains to be seen, but if it is they at least left a hell of an impression on Music City.

Concise, catchy punk anthems backed by energetic driving rhythms were the order of the night, and they had the crowd moshing, rollicking  and singing their hearts out. Waiting for a specific song in the setlist? Don't blink or you'll miss them. With many song lengths well under the three minute mark, the best parts of their set translated into short but sweet adrenaline bursts. Fortunately, there were plenty of highlights to go around.

They hit most of the high points from their latest full length, True North, without going overboard. The band emerged onto the stage in darkness to the opening strains of "Past is Dead," a blistering rocker taking the public to task for their failure to learn from the nation's mistakes. Graffin blasted the Supreme Court on "Robin Hood In Reverse," while examining the plight of the working class man on set closer "Dept. of False Hope." But with a 30 song setlist, there was plenty of time to showcase the band's extensive body of work.

Obvious concert staples like "American Jesus" and "21st Century Digital Boy" take a look at America's role in the world and middle class society respectively, and are always good for getting a crowd amped. But the set was spiced up with the inclusion of slightly more obscure numbers like "Do What You Want," a deep album cut from their 1988 breakthrough Suffer, which sarcastically blasts mankind's oafishness and cynicism in a clever and revealing manner that can only be pulled off by a band with the insight and political acumen of Bad Religion.

And of course there were a couple of tunes dating back to the band's infancy, spawned during the hardcore punk era of the early 80s. They don't sound as raw or jagged as they once did then; in fact they fit in pretty well alongside the more melodic material of the band's later years, but their primal urgency and power ring through as clearly today as it must have done back then. Face it, what could be more gratifying than shouting "Fuck Armageddon this is hell!" at the top of your lungs alongside a legion of other rabid Bad Religion fans?
See also: Bad Religion - True North review

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reznor sideproject How to Destroy Angels delivers crushing gloom

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has always had a thing for dreary soundscapes, but one would be hard pressed to think of a time when he's sounded this apocalyptic. After testing the water for his latest side project, How to Destroy Angels, with a pair of EPs dating back to 2010, he now has his grand unveiling with the group's first full length, Welcome Oblivion, which features wife Mariqueen Maandig on lead vocals.

The biggest difference is that HTDA does not bear the same sense of aggression as NiN. There are no hint of the pulsating industrial guitars and drums, rather, HTDA does their damage by delivering a dark, brooding atmosphere delivered by heavily layered electronics and keyboards. It never gets in a hurry, taking the time to allow its eerie keyboard synths and washes to build up and reach its full effect. The outcome is that many songs deliver a painstaking sense of isolation and a suffocating sense of oppression.

The other key difference is, of course, Maandig, whose clear, smooth voice is dripping with sensuality. It's no secret that Reznor has espoused many sexual themes over the years. But with songs like "Big Man with a Gun" and videos like "Happiness in Slavery," he beats you over the head with it. Maandig, on the other hand, has a voice that sort of makes you think about sex, but she can do it without having to directly mention anything sexual.

But Welcome Oblivion really isn't about sex anyway, It's about delivering a crushing sense of Armageddon, whether emotional or literal. And while Welcome Oblivion is sprawling, it also gives Reznor and crew time to line up several different avenues of attack. The first four songs give a good idea of the album's motif. "Keep It Together" builds to an off kilter climax that features Reznor's and Maandig's voices overlapping one another, while building a sense of tension and despair. The title track, meanwhile, tempers Maandig's muffled shouts with a slinking, pulsing noisy electronic backdrop.

But far from being a constant gloom affair, Welcome Oblivion also showcases breathtaking beauty. Songs like "Ice Age" are much more pop based in structure, featuring mellow guitar and what sounds like gentle calypso drums, while Maandig's stunning vocal carries the day. The closing synth line of "Too Late, All Gone," is the most starry eyed section on the album, but "How Long?" is the most obvious bonafide pop hit. This is one of the few upbeat tracks, anchored by a big chorus that sounds like 80s Genesis Autotune, but in the best possible way.

And of course there are songs whose central feature is built around drawing us in with a mesmerizing production quality. "Strings and Attractors" twinkles and bounces all over the place, while providing an angelic ambiance behind the chorus. "The Loop Closes," with its NiN like title, also manages to sound the most like a Nine Inch Nails song with its lurching and lumbering electronics. Lastly, instrumental closer "Hallowed Ground" tries to end the album on a conciliatory note, with its gentle piano keystrokes and breathy, wordless vocals. It closes to the sound of falling rain.

Welcome Oblivion  is certainly a massive, sprawling album. At 65+ minutes it's a lot to take in and would  have benefited from some trimming. And it's certainly an album's album; there aren't many tracks that would work well in a random playlist aside from perhaps "How Long?" or "Ice Age." Yet Reznor and company succeed once again with stunning production and in delivering a creative vision. Welcome Oblivion evokes feelings of running across a barren, scarred earth, desperately pursuing a light in the distance but knowing you'll never quite get there. If that doesn't stick with you, odds are there isn't much that will.

Score: 80/100

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

David Bowie breaks 10 year silence with excellent The Next Day

It's been awhile since we've heard from David Bowie. Aside from a few appearances here and there, he hasn't had an album since 2003's Reality, so any output by Bowie now is a treasure trove for music fans. At 66 years old, there surely must be temptation to go through the motions, but rather than playing out the string, Bowie sounds fresh, creative, and energized. It results in The Next Day being a gem of an album.

His voice is still warm and inspiring, and he seems to be acclimating well to his role as one of rock's elder statesmen. The key to the album's success is that he's always keeping his backdrops diverse. Scuzzy rock song "Dirty Boys" slithers about, but eventually emerges from its cocoon with a hearty horn solo, while "Valentine's Day" and "The Next Day" are standout guitar rockers. And lead single "The Stars Are Out Tonight" is a catchy and well crafted pop/rock nugget. But he also has a bit to get off his chest. He speaks out against war on "I'd Rather Be High," singing, "I'd rather be dead, or out of my head/than training these guns on these men in the sand/I'd rather be high."

Not all of his gambles pay off so well. "Where Are We Now" is a languid ballad that stumbles under the weight of its own solemnity, while his monotone refrain on "Dancing Out in Space" is a little too warbly and left field. But for each of his stumbles (and there are very few of them), there are plenty of winners like "Boss of Me," where he is at his most charming and charismatic" He's somewhat self effacing as he declares, "Who'd have ever thought it/who'd have ever dreamed/that a small town girl like you/would be the boss of me."

With The Next Day, Bowie once again reminds us of his undying vitality and continuing relevance with another record chock full of great tunes. If it ends up being his last album it will be a shame, but it's also a record he and his fans can certainly be proud of.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Autechre's Exai seeks to overwhelm with electronic experimentation

English electronica duo Autechre have been invading our earlobes since the early 90s, evolving from highly melodic to highly dissonant, and then into a thousand directions from there. But over the course of eleven albums, Rob Brown and Sean Booth have proven themselves as masters of headphone music. Plop down in your bedroom floor, pop in your earbuds, and prepare yourself for a journey with Autechre.

Exai is not an album to be pinned down in one spot. Opener "Fleure" features a rumbling, low frequency beat offset by frenetic sounds of clinking and clunking running over the top. It contains many elements that become a common theme over the album's two hour running time, most notably its penchant for spastic, random effects and its dependence on dark, downcast, liquidy beats. More often than not, they sound like a broken radio gone berserk.

With its abundance of bouncy, watery effects and its slinky, sinister beat, "prac-f" demonstratively showcases Exai's water theme, while the pulsing beats and cold symphonic overtones of "irlite (get 0)" showcase a sense of variety.

As always, Autechre have turned in a mind boggling technical achievement that should satisfy the production majors, and it's not hard to appreciate their accomplishment. It is a much tougher task, however, to endear yourself to the album. There is no common unifying theme. There is plenty of ambiance, spacey synth washes, and lots of static filled, electrical effects, but there is little organization within the actual music. At the least, "T ess xi" has some semblance of progression, starting out very minimal before transforming into a garbled smorgasbord of percussive beatwork and warped synth patterns.

"Bladelores" is the album's standout, opening with a chilled out backbeat, and later sharing the spotlight with a airy wash that floats above an ever shifting bass beat. Eventually the bass drops out, leaving nothing but an angelic, reverent moody wash, which literally sounds lighter than air.

Exai bounces around, flutters, hisses, commits all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans, but never seems to truly satisfy. It's a very difficult piece of work; it's not their most out there album but not their most accessible either. Aficionados of experimental music should find something to enjoy, but Autechre is likely to confound newer listeners. It is impressive to see all the drops, breaks, and inventive sonic textures they dream up and how they utilize them, but it is not a casual listening experience. You either need a very specialized taste or to be in a very specific mood to get the most out of it.

Score: 72/100