August 2016 Album Round Up!

Hey guys! Hope your summers went out with a bang and the whole death-of-fun-and-sunshine-and-continuation-of-your-shit-life thing isn’t getting ya too down! As expected, August was relatively slow on the new music front. But in terms of new music, shit’s about to get crazy so I didn’t mind a quiet month. I got to chip away at my never-ending quest to “catch up” on classics, I got to drink excessively, and I got to put together a bit of a game plan for taking on the musical insanity that’s headed our way. Still, in any given month, there’s never a COMPLETE shortage of high profile albums. In fact, I think Frank Ocean and Young Thug purposely waited for a commercial lull to drop their hugely successful new projects. Not that either of them needed it, but it’s that much less space they have to share with their peers.

I’m so fucking psyched for the Fall. SO MUCH shit is dropping. Kinda like hanging out by the Seagulls at the beach. (Don’t worry, I didn’t actually just make that joke, it’s all in your head.) But for now, here are my thoughts on nine of this past month’s releases:

Emotion: Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen

That we didn’t get this earlier in the Summer is a travesty, but Carly Rae’s b-side collection from last year’s phenomenal Emotion LP is a rarity in that it’s as great as the main event was. Seriously, Emotion was in my Top 5 albums of 2015, and I’m enjoying these 8 tracks JUST AS MUCH. Carly’s songs are just as infectious when she’s bubbly and optimistic (“First Time” and Higher”) as when she’s down on her luck (“Cry” and “Roses”). As with Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered release earlier this year, Emotion: Side B proves that following a critical triumph with its leftovers actually HELPS rather than hinders its legacy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Slow Death – Carnifex

I expected to hate the shit out of this. Deathcore is potentially my least favorite style of Metal – more often than not, it’s brute force over nuance, nihilistic ranting over thoughtfulness, and aggression for aggression’s sake. But I’m so glad I gave this new Carnifex LP a shot. It’s hardly the one-track minded Deathcore of early Whitechapel or Job for a Cowboy – rather, it’s a formidable amalgamation of a few different Metal niches. Standout “Drown Me In Blood”, for instance, is more of a brutal Death Metal/Deathcore hybrid, with some seriously catchy riffing in the chorus, and “Black Candles Burning” brings a touch of blackened Metal to the table. Not to mention the keys throughout the album on cuts like “Pale Ghost” add a slight theatrical element. Sure, there’s an abundance of low brow lyrics (check the refrain in “Six Feet Closer to Hell”…eeek), and Slow Death isn’t a Metal Album of the Year or anything, but it’s a friendly reminder that genre elitism is the worst offense a music fan can commit. RECOMMENDED

Fishing Blues – Atmosphere

 These prolific indie Hip-Hop giants followed up 2014’s Southsiders with a set of tracks that showcase Ant’s midas touch for slick, tuneful beats far more prominently than Slug’s rhyming skills. The instrumentals on Fishing Blues are spot on, while the lyrics are spot-TY in places. Slug drops some questionable bars, like “I wanna put my DNA in your American Pie”, or the entire track “Next To You”, which is about jerking off next to his sleeping girlfriend, and is as painfully cringeworthy as it sounds. But as expected from an MC of Slug’s caliber, he also has moments of greatness, like the self-aware “Everything” or the elegant scene-setting in the title track. All things considered – barring a few skip-worthy cuts – it still adds up to yet another solid Atmosphere project. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

No, My Name is JEFFERY – Young Thug

The Atlanta MC’s latest mixtape has earned him unprecedented acclaim, and for good reason. Tracks like the funky “Wyclef Jean”, the uber-melodic “Swizz Beatz”, and the impossibly smooth “Guwop” are some of the best Hip-Hop songs of 2016. Jeffery’s track list is not bulletproof (exhibits A and B: the obnoxious voice cracks on “RiRi” and the plodding “menace” of “Harambe”), and there’s still a part of me that’s irritated as fuck with Thugger’s whole schtick – the squeaky delivery and the unimaginative sexual vulguarity in particular – but that part of me is quieter than he’s ever been with Jeffery. It’s just too damn catchy. I’d go as far as to call it the best Young Thug project to date. RECOMMENDED

Echoes of the Tortured – Sinsaenum

I will admit, upon hearing Echoes of the Tortured , the debut from this Extreme Metal supergroup (featuring ex-Slipknot skinsman Joey Jordison, Dragonforce bassist Frederic Leclercq, and vocalists Attila from Mayhem and Sean Zatorsky from Daath), I felt mislead, and to a lesser extent disappointed. On The Jasta Show, Joey and Frederic sold their new project in a manner that had me thinking it would be a Black Metal and Death Metal hybrid, equal parts Darkthrone and Morbid Angel. In reality, they’ve unleashed eleven tracks of Death Metal and ten tracks of campy keyboard interludes. That being said, despite a few lyrical clichés (the Deicide homage “Inverted Cross”), it’s flawlessly executed. Check the middle of “Condemned to Suffer” for some amazingly catchy riffing, and check tracks like “Army of Chaos” and “Final Curse” for stripped-back headbanging grooves that recall the early ‘90s. If you’re at all into Death Metal, this is a great listen. RECOMMENDED

Encore – DJ Snake

Fuck, I did this one to myself. Electronic Dance Music is the latest “genre project” in my obsessive music nerd manhunt – I’ve been falling deeper and deeper in love with its many subgenres and the 40-year history of Electronic music, determined to become qualified to review and write about it in the next six months or so. Unfortunately, this means I’m giving every EDM release a listen out of sheer curiosity, even total nonsense like this. DJ Snake ironically titled his debut album Encore, which I suppose is encouraging for us in his case because an encore usually signals the end. Either way, the flavors on this LP range from plain Vanilla to Sweaty Butthole (to clarify for any sexual deviants, that is a NEGATIVE thing). The Skrillex collaboration “Sahara” features the most obnoxious EDM drop I have ever fucking heard. “Pigalle” is a close runner-up. That’s all I’m willing to share. NOT RECOMMENDED

Blonde – Frank Ocean

Listen to this. It’s fucking beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Home of the Strange – Young the Giant

Young the Giant’s third LP comes with no major surprises – sauntering grooves (“Amerika” and “Something to Believe in”), reverb-soaked choruses (“Titus Was Born”) straightforward lyrical content (“Mr. Know-It-All”), and, periodically, some glossy synths playing back up (“Elsewhere”). I enjoyed the hell out of this band’s self-titled debut back in 2010 – it fit right in with Alt-Rock acts that I was into like Band of Horses, Cage the Elephant, and soon after, Imagine Dragons. For better or worse, Young the Giant are another agreeable indie Rock band. The (minor) issue that pops up with this particular sound is that Young the Giant and their peers tend to be pretty faceless and mild. Home of the Strange is often a fun listen, but it’s like wandering into a delicious pizza place in New York City- another block or two and you can find a similar experience. RECOMMENDED

SremmLife 2 – Rae Sremmurd

When I think of Rae Sremmurd, their music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. I think of Complex magazine controversially ranking their Sremmlife debut the third best album of 2015, ahead of Drake, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, and, well, every other album that came out that year except two (Future’s DS2 and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly). On their sophomore effort, the two MCs are a banger factory once again– there’s no denying that – but I find myself indifferent because there’s so little to explore beneath its charismatic surface. As a result, the record as a whole has had little replay value for me. But I will say that “Look Alive” is my favorite Rae Sremmurd track yet, and I totally understand why tons of fans are likely head-over-heels for this album. NOT RECOMMENDED

Dinosaur Pile-Up – Eleven Eleven Review

Final version of this review available here.

When Kanye West finally unleashed The Life of Pablo to Tidal subscribers after the messiest promotional campaign the music industry has ever seen, fans had a lot of questions. Would the album ever be for sale? Had “Famous” officially reignited the Taylor Swift feud? And why in God’s name is the track list STILL changing? One of the most notable discussion points, however, was centered around a track called “Father Stretch by Hands, Part 2”, which found Kanye’s entire fanbase wondering out loud: “Who the hell is this guy that sounds exactly like Future?”

That guy was New York rapper Desiigner, who would soon top the Billboard singles chart thanks to a comprehensive hijacking of one artist’s musical approach. Unfortunately for the newcomer, being a carbon copy of one of the most ubiquitous modern entertainers has already proven an all-but insurmountable obstacle. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from British 3-piece Dinosaur Pile-Up, whose third LP Eleven Eleven instead elects to emulate a defunct, critically lauded band from over 20 years ago.

Much of Eleven Eleven is overwhelmingly indebted to Nirvana, with frontman Matt Bigland often adopting Kurt Cobain’s raspy groan and strumming through rhythm guitar parts reminiscent of the Seattle legends’ more aggressive material like “Breed”, “Milk It”, or “Scentless Apprentice”. However, this isn’t to say that Dinosaur Pile-Up have absorbed all of Nirvana’s chaotic charisma– the songs on here that most prominently channel this influence do so with mixed results. Most successful is album standout “Crystalline”, a downtrodden anthem with a golden hook, airtight structure, and a climactic guitar solo. Least successful is “Grim Valentine”, which is like Nevermind fresh out of a processing plant – Bigland and bassist Jim Cratchley blend into each other for a drab, repetitive riff, and Bigland’s vocals are so apathetic that it becomes contagious for the listener. “Grim Valentine” is Dinosaur Pile-Up stepping in Nirvana’s snow boot-sized footprints with Crocs.

While Cobain and Co.’s fingerprints are the most prominent on Eleven Eleven, Dinosaur Pile-Up are not clones. The beefy, overdriven guitars call to mind Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, as well hints of early Rage Against the Machine in spots, particularly in the opening title cut’s monstrous groove. The band also brings a slight Speed Metal edge to the roaring “Bad Penny”, a late-album shot of adrenaline with a circle pit-friendly bridge section. “Nothing Personal” is another up-tempo banger that would fit right in as the token aggressive song on a Foo Fighters record (e.g. “White Limo” on Wasting Light, “Enough Space” on The Colour and the Shape).

Ultimately, the LP’s most egregious flaws aren’t caused by derivative ideas but simply creative misfires. Particularly challenging are the plodding melodies on “Willow Tree”, the monotonous chugging verses in “Friend of Mine”, and the limp angst of “Anxiety Trip”, on which Bigland delivers elementary lyrics like “I’m different, but I don’t care/I’m awkward….I wonder if I’m loved at all.” On most of these eleven tracks, Bigland’s vague disenchantment grows tedious.

Eleven Eleven is not a record that inspires a strong reaction in either direction, because it operates within narrow musical boundaries and isn’t terribly stimulating or provocative. At its best, it’s a meat-and-potatoes tribute to the revolutionary Alternative Rock of the early ‘90s. At its worst, you just want to pop in a copy of In Utero

July 2016 Album Round Up!

From a record label perspective, July is one of the worst times of the year to release new music. High schoolers are at camp, Jewish high schoolers are DEFINITELY at camp, college kids are grinding it out at minimum wage jobs to pay off their gargantuan student debt, and everyone else is cashing in on their vacation days. There’s a reason this coming September is STACKED with exciting albums – the industry’s waiting for all these fuckers to get back in their groove and start shelling out cash in search of an escape.

Still, July isn’t the wasteland that the end of December is. For those taking a crack at radio, the enticing pursuit of a summer anthem remains, and for others, summer tours like Warped and Summer Slaughter are in full swing and those merch tables look awfully nice when they’re adorned with brand new albums. In the end, July 2016 actually blessed us with quite a bit in the new music department. Below are my thoughts on nine of the records that came out:

California – Blink-182

This much-anticipated comeback from Pop-Punk’s most celebrated band was the first record I snatched up this month. It didn’t matter that Tom Delonge was gone and replaced by Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio, which would likely water things down. I just had to hear it, and I expected greatness. Well, “greatness” was not quite what I was greeted with. It’s a fairly enjoyable listen, but there’s so little on here that doesn’t already exist in a superior form on Enema of the State, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, or the self-titled record. Still, I will recommend 1) the lovably sappy ballad “Home is Such a Lonely Place”, 2) the mellowed out title track, which is littered with awesome vocal harmonies, and 3) “She’s Out of Her Mind”, which is vintage Blink. Oh, and the chorus in “Los Angeles” is fucking enormous. But other than that, there’s not much here in the way of replay value. NOT RECOMMENDED

Great Is Our Sin – Revocation

Boston, MA’s Revocation won me over in 2011 with their excellent third LP Chaos of Forms – some adventurous, versatile Death Metal that was tech-y at times, Thrash-y at times, and often dipped into Melodic Death Metal territory. Albums four and five (2013’s Revocation and 2014’s Deathless) were less experimental and more generic, but still solid. Great is Our Sin is the happy medium – straightforward and well-executed like its two predecessors, but it does a better job of breaking the monotony when needed. Case in point, the album’s closer and undeniable apex “Cleaving Giants of Ice”, which utilizes a – well, giant – melodramatic chorus in the Insomnium or latter-era Enslaved vein. For something more more technical, check “Crumbling Imperium”. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Summer Songs 2 – Lil’ Yachty

An 18-year-old Atlanta MC and freshly anointed XXL freshman, Lil’ Yachty blew up with his debut mixtape Lil’ Boat back in March. Naturally, I ignored it. But Summers Songs 2 came, and curiosity got the best of me. This is Yachty’s sophomore effort, and one key ingredient is egregiously missing: talent. Listen to him deliver the hook to “Life Goes On”, an otherwise decent song with a bright and bubbly beat. Does he realize how off-time his flow is? Even if he does, purposeful does not equal good. Yachty’s the product of the last decade of rap’s more “ignorant” side, and he may be a weirdo like Young Thug or Lil’ Wayne, but he’s nowhere near the former’s charm or the latter’s cleverness. NOT RECOMMENDED

 

Wildflower – The Avalanches

Sampling savants The Avalanches far surpassed ScHoolboy Q for the honor of most anticipated album of July 2016. We have waited longer for the follow-up to 2000’s Since I Left You than we did for Guns ‘N Roses’ Chinese Democracy. But Chinese Democracy was an egomaniacal mess and Wildflower is mind-bending, staggering, awe-inspiring, and every adjective that makes me sound like I’m getting paid off to write this. As with Since I Left You, Wildflower is going to take quite some time to fully process, but it took virtually no time to start enjoying. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Snake Church – Ringworm

Over 25 years into their career, these Cleveland Hardcore vets delivered a ripping eighth LP! Snake Church is a fantastic listen if you’re looking for a Metalcore record that’s truly an audible blend of Metal and Hardcore Punk, and not just a Groove Metal record with a handful of breakdowns. James Bulloch a.k.a. The Human Furnace is as visceral a frontman as ever, and he’s backed by a barrage of (mostly) great riffs. In particular, the track “Shades of Blue” is an uncharacteristically sludgy mid-album highlight that adds another dimension to an oft-monotonous style. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Blank Face LP – ScHoolboy Q

Q’s follow-up to 2014’s Grammy-nominated breakout project Oxymoron HAD to be worthy of “Top 5 Most Anticipated Hip-Hop Records of 2016” inclusion (perhaps alongside Kanye, Chance, Anderson .Paak, and maybe Kid Cudi because of how hilariously bad Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven was). For me, Blank Face LP turned out to be excruciatingly difficult to review; its stark inconsistencies nearly gave me a brain tumor. There’s pure genius like the jazz-tinged boom bap of “John Muir”, or the g-funk influenced “Neva Change”, a collaboration with R &B and soul singer SZA, but then Q turns around and gives you utter landfill like “Overtime” an insincere swipe at radio, or “That Part”, a dull and predictable club song. Oddly, it’s all neatly divided up into thirds in order of the track list: a disappointing first six tracks, a stellar middle section, and a decent but inconsistent final four songs. Pretty strange. But the heart of the album was banging enough to (mostly) compensate for the record’s egregious misfires. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Retrograde – Crown the Empire

In the five plus years they’ve been active, Crown the Empire have made zero effort to distinguish themselves from their Hot Topic-core contemporaries. But with 2014’s The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways at least they executed the formula admirably. Retrograde, their third full-length, finds them attemping to replicate the success of Bring Me the Horizon’s 2015 commercial powerhouse That’s the Spirit to mixed results. The first half has a couple decent singles like “Hologram” and “Zero”, but even then, these songs are like chugging a bunch of girly cocktails – they’re sweet, sugary, and go down easily at first, but you’re gonna puke them up and have a massive headache eventually. And there’s downright atrocious stuff on here too, like “Signs of Life”, which begs the tired old questions: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

The Poison Red – Nonpoint

YUCK. Granted, Nu Metal and Alternative Metal were before my time so I have no nostalgia to swoop in and rescue this album for me, but STILL…I’m having a hard time understanding how there’s an audience for this in 2016. A flaccid guitar tone, cringeworthy lyrics (“so you wanna be the type of motherfucker that person to person is personally an asshole” is an actual verbatim lyric), and unimaginative riffs are the stuff this record’s made of. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

 

Major Key – DJ Khaled

You can hate on Hip-Hop’s favorite Snapchat goon all you want, but this time around, DJ Khaled actually delivered a solid Pop Rap album! Since a Khaled LP is essentially a singles compilation, that’s how it ought to be judged, and there are more hits than duds on here. “Do You Mind” is one of my favorites. It’s smooth as hell, featuring a sensual piano line and one of the best guest spots Future has ever recorded. And if you’re a fiend for bars, there’s the fiery anthem “Holy Key”, on which Kendrick and Big Sean drop some serious heat, there are entire songs by Nas and J. Cole to munch on, and the track “Don’t Ever Play Yourself” boasts the best verse of the entire album courtesy of Jadakiss (“put me in the Hall of Smack”, anyone?). And the bland stuff, like “Fuck Up the Club”, is fairly inoffensive. RECOMMENDED

 

 

The Top 10 Alter Bridge Songs

Two weeks ago, TeamRock released their list of The Top 10 Alter Bridge songs. It was wrong. Very fucking wrong, to the point where I immediately started brainstorming my own list. And given that “Creed plus Myles Kennedy” just released lead single “Show Me a Leader” from their forthcoming fifth album The Last Hero, the timing feels appropriate.

Cherry picking songs from Alter Bridge’s four studio albums proved to be a strange process, because of their four existing LPs, two of them are excellent and two of them are aggressively mediocre. Fortress, the band’s latest and crowning achievement thus far, is the sound of a Metal-tinged Hard Rock band making a thunderous leap into Metal territory without abandoning their core sound. Blackbird, the band’s sophomore effort, is chalk full of tasteful anthems.

That leaves their debut LP One Day Remains and AB III. The former a) sounds incredibly dated in 2016, and b) though I nowadays refer to Alter Bridge as “Creed plus Myles Kennedy” in a facetious manner, it’s essentially just Creed with better vocals and a bit more edge. Hella boring. As for AB III, many of its unnecessarily high number of tracks just present themselves as Blackbird b-sides, and formulaic and repetitive ones at that. But AB III does have a chunk of good tracks, and if we did a Top 15 I could definitely squeeze a few more in. But having established the lopsided nature of Alter Bridge’s catalogue, it should no longer be a surprise that their four records are disproportionately represented here.

To be fair, I now have slightly more empathy for TeamRock than when I first gawked at their list, because putting this together has been like being stuck in a cesspool of second guesses and mood swings. I’m practically tortured by how much I’ll likely disagree with these picks in a matter of days or even hours. But that didn’t stop me, ‘cause I’m the Little Engine that Could of pretentious music writers. So, without further ado, here are the CORRECT Top 10 Alter Bridge songs! (Just kidding. Sort of.)

10. Ties That Bind (Blackbird)

A fan favorite and the explosive kickoff to the band’s most successful LP, “Ties That Bind” maintains an urgent intensity throughout and does so without sacrificing hooks or memorability. It’s also a sneak peak at the Metal-leaning approach Alter Bridge would explore more fully on Fortress.

9. Still Remains (AB III)

Unfortunately, this is one of only a handful of highlights on the band’s third record. Is it “Come to Life” part 2? Sort of. But its stadium-sized chorus and roaring stop-start riff are nothing to scoff at. Not to mention the Thrash-y bridge section at 2:40 foreshadows what Tremonti would later pursue with his solo band

8. Bleed it Dry (Fortress)

 “Bleed It Dry” is the closest Alter Bridge have gotten to a full-on Metal assault. Shouldn’t be a shocker that it’s one of my favorites. But it’s not just an aggression-fest; the track features an Opeth-style clean guitar break followed by Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti’s best solo section since “Blackbird” (spoiler alert!).

 7. Farther Than the Sun (Fortress)

“Farther Than the Sun” is what Alter Bridge attempted but failed to accomplish on AB III: a seamless synthesis of bright radio rock choruses and crushing, detuned Groove Metal riffs.

6. Open Your Eyes (One Day Remains)

The flawlessly executed radio hit that launched the band’s career still holds up. The beautifully delicate vocals at 2:40 and the ripping guitar solo from Tremonti helped it stand out from the Crossfades and Stainds of the world.

5. Calm the Fire (Fortress)

The intro to “Calm the Fire” is the band’s most adventurous musical passage to date, with Myles Kennedy’s ethereal, neoclassical-tinged vocals sitting atop a brooding acoustic guitar. The dramatic mood continues through a switch to distorted guitar, and the track is kicked into high gear with the pre-version section, which remains one of my favorite moments in all of Alter Bridge’s catalogue.

4. Cry of Achilles (Fortress)

The surprisingly ferocious opener to Fortress quickly informed listeners that this was going to be a different record. After a dark acoustic guitar passage sets things up, the band launch straight into a high-octane riff fest that never lets up.

3. Watch Over You (Blackbird)

“Watch Over You” is the tender, tear-jerking ballad to end all tender, tear-jerking ballads. Kennedy’s warm falsetto in the first chorus yanks at the heart strings, but it’s a dynamic track too – when given a distorted Rock and Roll push, the song not only holds up but builds towards a mountainous climax before settling back into its humble acoustic beginnings.

2. Come to Life (Blackbird)

The quintessential Alter Bridge jam. There’s a lot to love about this track, but its the vocal interplay between Kennedy and Tremonti in the chorus that ultimately makes it.

1. Blackbird (Blackbird)

Well, I guess the folks over at TeamRock did get one thing right. It’s difficult to dispute this one. Powerful and moving lyrics, stellar instrumental arrangements, and a solo section that Guitar World literally voted ONE OF THE BEST OF ALL TIME help “Blackbird” slide comfortably into the number one slot.