March 2016 Album Round Up!

What did I think of what the music industry had to offer in March 2016? Meh. There was the excitement of some new Kendrick Lamar (which I didn’t include here since it wasn’t an official LP per se) in addition to a few other high profile Hip-Hop releases. There was a pair of excellent albums from Metal staples Killswitch Engage and Amon Amarth. There was The Knocks. And then there was a whole lot of uninteresting shit. Regardless, below is a recap of eight records I was checking out in the midst of obsessing over my college basketball bracket.

Incarnate – Killswitch Engage

The roaring return of original vocalist Jesse Leach for 2013’s Disarm the Descent set a new standard for Killswitch Engage. Incarnate, that LP’s follow-up, smacks its remarkably high expectations right on the nose. Tracks like “The Great Deceit”, “Hate By Design”, and “Alone I Stand” have the makings of future Killswitch classics. And while Howard Jones-era albums The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies are excellent, the three Leach records (not including the original self-titled effort) have floated to the top of the KSE discography for me. Here is a full review (I also did a print one here). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

This Is What the Truth Feels Like – Gwen Stefani

Between “Naughty” and “Red Flag”, Gwen Stefani has two of 2016’s worst pop songs, and we’re only three months in. The latter is an especially horrifying Iggy Azalea-meets-Fergie attempt sure to leave helpless ears in varying states of deformity. It’s a shame, because “Make Me Like You”, “Used to Love You”, and “Truth” are all highly listenable, radio-ready pop tunes. But then the 46-year-old Stefani makes a cringe worthy song like “Send Me a Picture”, and any album highlights are immediately drowned out. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED.

3001: A Laced Odyssey – Flatbush Zombies

Full disclosure here. I am brand new to Flatbush Zombies and have yet to hear their highly regarded BetterOffDead mixtape. But an act’s full-length debut is as good a place to start, isn’t it? Well, maybe not in Hip-Hop, but you get my point. Anyway, it didn’t take long for Flatbush Zombies to win me over, as Zombie Juice attacks the album’s first verse with a frantic inflection and a Grandmaster Flash shout out. Erick the Architect and Meechy Darko immediately follow with nimble flows and I was swoon. I have no context surrounding this LP aside from the group’s association with high profile collaborators like Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson (appearances they shy away from on here). What I can say, however, is 3001 is chalk full of charisma, grade-A lyricism, and unique production. If this is the future of Hip-Hop, the genre is in quite capable hands. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

55 – The Knocks

It’s hard to believe we’re a year and a half removed from when “Classic” dropped, isn’t it? Either way, a fuck ton of A-listers grace this duo’s highly anticipated debut. While there’s certainly tracks like “Tied to You” and the X Ambassadors collaboration “Comfortable” that I don’t care for, 55 has a remarkably high batting average. The track list comes out of the gate 5 for 5 and doesn’t really slow up. And most importantly, the guest appearances actually do the LP a service rather than simply get in its way. Cam’ron kills it. Wyclef kills it. Later on, Carly Rae kills it. 55 is diverse yet focused. It’s instantly likeable. It’s truly how EDM and Pop SHOULD merge (I’m looking directly at you, Avicii!). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Jomsviking – Amon Amarth

Amon Amarth’s tenth studio album and first full-blown concept record just might be their best in a decade. The Viking Metallers’ tried-and-true formula is accompanied by a trio of stylistic risks – the singalong chorus in “Raise Your Horns”, the blatant Maiden worship of “At Dawn’s First Light”, and a vocal duet with Doro Pesch in “A Dream that Cannot Be” – that ultimately pay off and help diversify the band’s sound. The cohesive storyline enriches the listening experience, recalling Amon Amarth’s best story-based moments (“Prediction of Warfare”, anyone?). Doro’s guest vocal appearance at the narrative’s climax (the aforementioned “A Dream That Cannot Be”) generated perhaps the most unique moment in Amon Amarth’s discography to date. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Black – Asking Alexandria

Sometimes a simple lineup change is enough to shove a new record into my ears from a band I have loathed from the beginning. And many a time I regret this morbid curiosity getting the best of me. Such is the case with Asking Alexandria’s fourth album The Black, their first with new vocalist Denis Stoff. Despite all the hype about stylistic departures and whatnot, it’s still more or less the faceless Metalcore of their first two LPs, albeit with a bit of traditional Hard Rock and Heavy Metal hastily thrown in. For instance, those chunky verse riffs in “Just a Slave to Rock ‘n Roll” have no business alongside the overly sappy melodic chorus – the track is completely Frankenstein’d together. In general, The Black offers a lot in the way of melodrama, but little in the way of thoughtful song construction or compelling musicianship. Hey, I did give this one a fair shot though. NOT RECOMMENDED

Collegrove – 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne

2 Chainz and Lil’ Wayne’s collaborative album (on 8 of the 13 tracks, at least) feels more like a mixtape most of the time, but in 2016 what the fuck is the difference anymore? Whatever label you feel is appropriate, this project is jam packed with lazy fucking hooks that tested my attention span and my nerves (see “Blue C-Note”, “Bentley Truck”, or “Not Invited”). It’s especially disappointing since the effective lead single “Gotta Lotta” surpasses any post-Carter IV music Wayne has dropped. And I did enjoy the cinematic trap beat and clever Weezy verse on “Smell Like Money”, as well as the production on “Dedication”, which sounded like something Wiz Khalifa would’ve spit over five years ago. But beyond that, Collegrove didn’t hold my interest. But I did learn the magnificently pretentious word “portmanteau” from its title. NOT RECOMMENDED.

That’s Hip Hop – Joell Ortiz

The four members of Slaughterhouse have been dropping projects as if they’re actively trying to outpace each other. Joell Ortiz did the !llmind collaboration Human last summer, Joe Budden dropped All Love Lost, Crooked I (aka Kxng Crooked) put out Statik Kxng with Statik Selektah, and now Royce da 5’9 has a new mixtape Trust the Shooter out that directly precedes Layers (out April 15th), and supposedly has ANOTHER full-length album on the way. Whew. I’ve never had to take a deep breath after typing something before. What caught my eye about Joell Ortiz’s new record That’s Hip Hop– aside from my Slaughterhouse fandom – is that he coaxed one of my favorites, the legendary Kool G Rap, onto a song with him! So I had to listen to the album. At 30 minutes and nine real songs, it’s got the feel of either Illmatic or a brief mixtape – whichever comparison you goons prefer. It’s also exponentially more aggressive than 2014’s House Slippers ,the last Ortiz project I gave thorough, repeated listens. While I did enjoy House Slippers, the Puerto Rican is rapping like he has something to prove again. That’s Hip Hop lives up to its name and then some! RECOMMENDED.

 

 

 

February 2016 Album Round Up!

We’re just over two months into 2016, and we’ve already – somewhat surprisingly – been blessed with a ton of exciting releases in the midst of typically low-key winter months. When this calendar year is in the books, will we be looking back at January and February as the peak of 2016? Pretty unlikely. But I still feel like I’ve had a fairly reliable, steady stream of high-profile albums to look forward to (some delivered, some did not). And yes, Kanye dropped. But I’m fucking determined to go as long as I possibly can without hearing it. Not for lack of interest either. Just ‘cause. Anyway, here’s a quick recap of nine albums NOT named The Life of Pablo that I spent some time with this past month. Looking forward to what March has in store!

Khalifa – Wiz Khalifa

In the first project of his I’ve enjoyed since 2011’s smash hit Rolling Papers, Wiz dropped some…well, smoking and drinking music. The production and hooks are significantly more effective – to my ears, at least – than O.N.I.F.C. and Blacc Hollywood (save those two albums’ singles). If you’re looking for great lyricism, steer clear, but I definitely found myself coming back to this record quite a bit for some day drinking and pregaming, especially two exceptional, Kush & OJ-style tracks, “Zoney” and “Elevated”. RECOMMENDED

For All Kings – Anthrax

Welcome back Anthrax! About ten listens in, I’ve evaluated For All Kings as “dangerously close” to the Thrash mastery of 2011’s Worship Music. The difference is really just a filler track or two. But the middle chunk of this record is some of the best Anthrax music I’ve ever laid ears on. Joey Belladonna gets the MVP. My full review is available here. YouTube review here. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Day One – From Ashes to New

This studio debut from Lancaster, PA outfit From Ashes to New made me want to vomit. They’re like an even more cheesed-up version of Twenty One Pilots meets Crown the Empire. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but it just made me cringe. This guy Matt Brandyberry sounds like an even more melodramatic Mike Shinoda when he utters (well, raps) the words: “I lay awake and look at the ceiling and wonder why/I’m so afraid to face all these feelings and want to die”. And that dubstep-y breakdown? Fuck outta here wit dat. Not to mention the clean vocalist sounds fucking IDENTICAL to the guy on Escape the Fate’s self-titled album. I mean, is Day One heavy and appropriately angsty? Passionate even? Sure. And it’ll dominate with the Hot Topic crowd. But holy fuck is it not for me. NOT RECOMMENDED

Sittin’ Heavy – Monster Truck

Simply put, this band’s sophomore effort is the best fucking throwback hard rock record I’ve heard since perhaps Kyng’s Burn the Serum. It’s all there: it’s energetic, passionate, and wholeheartedly convincing. Fans of ‘70s and early ‘80s Rock should check it out immediately! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

This one certainly hurt. Macklemore is someone I really root for, if not always for his talent but for his passion, honesty, humility, and sometimes ruthless self-awareness. The Language of My World is phenomenal, The Heist is a near-classic, but Mess, his second with Ryan Lewis, is a huge disappointment. Save a few shining moments (“Light Tunnels”, “Kevin”, and the must-listen “Need of Know”) this thing is all over the place in a BAD way this time. My full review is available here. NOT RECOMMENDED

I Like it When You Sleep – The 1975

Ok, LP number two for these guys, who seem utterly ubiquitous at the moment. I am absolutely in love with the tracks “This Must Be My Dream” and “Somebody Else”. On the latter, those snare drums with the 80s-style reverb are borderline euphoric. While we’re on the topic of the 80s, the standout “She’s American” could’ve squeezed right into an early Huey Lewis and the News disc. But we didn’t need 17 frickin’ songs here. “UGH!” kind of drags in the wake of hit single “Love Me”, and are BOTH “If I Believe You” and “Please Be Naked” necessary when the title track brings all the dynamics this album needs? Still, at a bare minimum this is a wonderful soundtrack to a night drive in the city. Though I tend to think it offers a whole lot more. And yes, I do think Matt Healy eerily resembles Patrick Stump at times. But we’ll agree to disagree. RECOMMENDED

Victorious – Wolfmother

Ugh. This record has one of the strangest dichotomies in any track listing I’ve ever encountered. The first 5 songs are excellent and on par with some of the best moments on Wolfmother’s debut, and the second 5 songs are pure throwaway filler garbage. “Uneven” is an understatement. My full review is available here. NOT RECOMMENDED

X (No Absolutes) – Prong

Album number 11 for Prong – but their 10th of original material – wastes no time with opener “Ultimate Authority”, some excellent Crossover Thrash which would be right at home on a classic like Cleansing (although I know mentioning that record is understandably played out). I love the dissonant yet super-catchy riff in “Without Words” (and, for that matter, “Soul Sickness”) X (No Absolutes) has an impeccable combination of melody and heaviness that all these scream/sing Metalcore bands can only dream about. It stays completely true to the Prong aesthetic, and it’s a set that is sure to devastate in the live environment. I have yet to catch these legends live, so I’m hoping to get the chance on the cycle for X. RECOMMENDED

Dead Dawn – Entombed A.D.

Dead Dawn (Deicide anybody?) is the second album from Entombed 2.0 since the legendary band’s legal battles and break up. One of Entombed’s distinct qualities is how much more groove-oriented they are than the majority of Death Metal, showcased in the title track, and they’re not afraid to get downright melodic, like in that song’s bridge, which sounds like something Arch Enemy would do.There’s nothing in these ten tracks that’ll blow your mind, but there’s some certainly some heavy-ass (surprisingly fun) metal! I’m especially a fan of “Down to Mars to Ride” and the dynamic “Hubris Fall” And it’s still really not THAT far off from Left Hand Path, so there’s that. RECOMMENDED

 

 

Wolfmother – Victorious Review

The official edited version of this review is available here.

If imitation is truly a form of flattery, each new Wolfmother record marks another occasion for 70s Rock icons like Jimmy Page, Roger Daltrey, and Tony Iommi to sit back with pride and soak up their own legacies. For over a decade, the Australian trio’s calling card has been an uncompromisingly retro delivery of Hard Rock in the vein of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and several more of the genre’s key pioneers. Critically speaking, Wolfmother’s blatantly derivative nature has been a double-edged sword, although when the quality is as unmistakable as their eponymous 2006 debut – a high-water mark the band has unfortunately yet to match – it becomes difficult to take aim at Wolfmother simply because “it’s been done before”.

Album number four for the Aussies, the Brendan O’Brien-produced Victorious, is anything but a stylistic departure. Very little of its lean 36 minutes of 70s-tinged Hard Rock will contain any surprises. What is truly puzzling, however, is the LP’s incredibly odd chronological duality – its first half stands toe-to-toe with the best moments in the band’s catalogue, and its second half is astronomically bland and uninspired.

“The Love That You Give” and the title cut are perhaps the most effective opening one-two punch on a Wolfmother album to date. The former is explosive yet concise as Andrew Stockdale effortlessly channels an early-70s Ozzy Osbourne. The latter is simply larger than life, with an irresistible guitar riff and an appropriately triumphant chorus. The keyboard-laced “Baroness” is another gem, calling to mind the less spacey moments in Blue Oyster Cult’s catalogue.

The band’s crunchy Rock assault is dialed back for the folky ballad “Pretty Peggy”, a tune that’s as anthemic as it is hopelessly romantic. Its slight resemblance to Alternative contemporaries like Mumford & Sons may turn a few heads, but it’s still firmly rooted in the “Going to California” tradition more than anything else. Closing out the first half of Victorious is “City Lights”, a smooth yet upbeat showcase of exuberant Rock and Roll. Stockdale’s vocal harmonies in the chorus are particularly airtight, and producer Brendan O’Brien’s bright, vibrant mix allows the tasteful bass lines to coexist harmoniously with the razor-sharp guitars.

Then, remarkably, as if this superb handful of songs exhausted all of Stockdale’s songwriting chops, Victorious takes a nose dive into its dreadful second half. In terms of memorability, inventiveness, charisma, or any semblance of a dynamic moment, these five tracks offer close to nothing. Promises were made on the album’s outstanding first half that simply couldn’t be kept. The shift is immediately noticeable on “The Simple Life”, which is a satisfying but forgettable affair, redeemed only by a colorful harmonized guitar solo that breaks up the monotony. After the catchy but similarly underwhelming “Best of a Bad Situation”, the LP’s diminished momentum plummets with the utterly lazy “Gypsy Caravan”, which contains the most unimaginative, transparently recycled guitar riff that’s likely to appear on a Rock album in 2016. “Happy Face”, another sludgy Black Sabbath attempt, drones on directionless for its first two and a half torturous minutes, and by the time it picks up its pace – both in terms of tempo and attitude – it’s too little, too late. “Eye of the Beholder” closes the record out with an energetic stomp but another drab, throwaway chorus; at this point, the boisterous swagger of “The Love That You Give” and the title track are barely visible in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps Wolfmother’s revolving door of musicians is its Achilles heel – frontman Andrew Stockdale is essentially a one-man band in the studio, writing and performing everything on Victorious save the drums and occasional keyboards. When it comes to crafting an entire album’s worth of standout Rock music, Stockdale has a hugely demanding task in front of him with each new batch of songs. All things considered, .500 is a commendable batting average, although the record’s two sharply juxtaposed halves are certainly strange. That the track list was knowingly arranged in this fashion is doubtful, but the yin and yang on Victorious is fascinating nevertheless – how even a shining display of excellence like the front half of this record can have a looming shadow not too far behind.

Score: 3/5

Recap: Playing Onstage with Jamey Jasta!

You really have to soak in the big moments in your life as they happen. As human beings facing an inevitable death, our goal is to live a life so fulfilling and so adventurous that eventually, we no longer fear its end. And last night I certainly took a big step. In front of a packed crowd at Irving Plaza in NYC, I got to get up onstage and play with my hero, Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed.

Me and Jasta

When it was announced that Jamey was offering a VIP option to jam onstage with his solo band during the summer tour with Fear Factory and Coal Chamber, it was one of those moments for me where fantasy and self-confidence intersect: fuck it, why NOT me?

After relentlessly nagging him via Gmail with a list of songs that I’d be down to play, Jamey finally came back with: “come up and do fearless! That’ll rock!” Whew, holy shit. This is really happening, isn’t it? Sixteen days and counting. Time to tune my guitar down, figure the song out, and play it ‘til I’m so fucking bored of it that I could play it perfectly while tripping acid and hanging upside down from a tire swing. (The track in question is “The Fearless Must Endure” featuring Zakk Wylde on guest guitar, off of the Jasta solo record).

It’s incredible how fast sixteen days can whizz by you with anything performance-related on the horizon. It was August 11th and I was feeling that beautiful blend of nerves and through-the-roof excitement that any musician has a phD in.

Three hours before Jasta’s set time, I met with Pat, the band’s lead guitarist, and we played through all the parts in an upstairs dressing room inside the venue. Right away, this was very quickly transitioning from nerve-wracking to just plain awesome. Pat (Seymour, also the lead guitarist for CT underground favorites Eyes of the Dead) revealed to me some of the completely badass changes the band makes to the live arrangement (I won’t speak guitar nerd here), and was totally cool with me playing two of the song’s solos. We talked Marty Friedman, Jeff Loomis, Oli Herbert, diminished arpeggios, and every built-up guitar nerd outburst I desperately try to repress while hitting on women. Given the fact that I attend a preppy catholic college where I have yet to see a piece of black clothing, talking guitar with Pat was akin to an immigrant finally interacting with someone from their native country.

Before Jasta’s set, I met Jamey backstage at the meet-and-greet in Fear Factory’s dressing room, and stayed back there with the band through all the setting up, warming up, and casual socializing. Just surreal for me. I simply stayed out of the way and grasped at any sensation I could hold onto and stow away into my brain.

Aside from an anxious paranoia about my guitar being in tune (shout out to the Fear Factory guys for being so understanding), I was beyond psyched as I watched Jasta tear through the first four songs of their set from the side of the stage. Sure enough, fifth song in the set, Jamey calls my name. And my God did the nerves disappear fast. What I remember is a lot of headbanging, flashing stage lights, and exchanging smiles with all the band members as we ripped through the song. As I unplugged my guitar, Jamey told me I would’ve made Zakk Wylde proud – the biggest compliment I have ever received. The fact that it came from my idol didn’t hurt, either.

Ironically though, the most surreal part of the whole experience came the morning after. I convinced my poor mother to come to the show and sit through Jasta’s set in the hopes of maybe capturing my time on stage on photo or video. In my email inbox the next day was a 10-second video in which I’m shredding the second solo, and Jamey points at me and goes, “that’s a badass motherfucker!” Anyone who has ever idolized someone can imagine what it felt like to see that. Watching the footage, I realized I had just created one of those rare memories – the ones that trigger an automatic, instinctive smile every single time your mind ventures back to it.

If you have an opportunity to create an unforgettable memory, don’t even blink. Grab it by the throat, and most importantly, cast aside every negative emotion you have ever felt and be completely present for it. It might be the most important lesson I’ve ever learned. Every corny, played-out “carpe diem”-related cliché applies here, in spades. When you live a moment that triggers that overwhelming rush of gratitude for being alive on planet Earth, it feels like you are hearing every one of those clichés for the first time.

Thank you so much to Jamey Jasta, the rest of the band, and the Fear Factory and Coal Chamber guys for being so accommodating and so cool to me, especially with me invading the cramped dressing room! I hope reading about my experience playing with Jasta inspires someone else to create their own special, lifelong memory.