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

 

 

June 2016 Album Round Up!

What a month June was. The back end of the month saw me frantically putting together my Mid-Year Album Lists (check my YouTube channel for the video versions or check back with this blog in the next few days), and the month of June itself spawned five releases that ended up beating out albums I’ve been living with for months! Garbage, Gojira, Nails, Apathy, and Be’Lakor all wound up on my Mid-Year lists! June couldn’t have ever topped May, but it was an excellent month for new music! Here are my thoughts on ten albums that dropped:

Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie – Volbeat

Unfortunately, it is no easy feat to follow up a pair of excellent LPs (2010’s Beyond Hell/Above Heaven and 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies) that blurred the lines between Rock and Metal and nudged both genres forward in the process. Alas, the Danes have returned from half a decade of triumphs with something less exciting and more repetitive. But Volbeat retracing their steps still entails a solid helping of fun, catchy, immediately satisfying Rock songs. I especially dug “The Bliss”, the title cut, and the closing duo of tracks, “You Will Know” and “The Loa’s Crossroad”. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Why Are You OK – Band of Horses

When I sit and consider some of my favorite Alternative music that has ever been made, Band of Horses’ third LP Infinite Arms almost always springs to mind. It’s just a special record for me. Thus it’s a high water mark I can forgive them for failing to reach again on album number five, which otherwise performs as advertised.As Band of Horses continue to execute on their winning formula, much of these tracks wash over you with waves of mellow, calmly reassuring musical passages that occasionally pick up their pace and crunchiness, but still retain that same good-natured vibe. Standouts include beautiful ballads like “Hag”, “Lying Under Oak”, and lead single “Whatever, Wherever”, as well as the bouncy boardwalk soundtrack “Solemn Oath”. Overall, Why Are You OK is not necessarily the type of music that invokes an impassioned response in either direction . It’s pleasant, it’s unassuming, and if it were playing in my childhood home, my mom would walk by and go, “oh, that’s a nice song”. You can flip that evaluation to mean something positive or something negative. I definitely choose positive. RECOMMENDED

The Human Condition – Jon Bellion

Jon Bellion’s debut LP has got to be one of the highest anticipated releases of the summer. His mixtape buzz has been years in the making, and he’s already built quite a loyal fanbase for himself through both his Visionary Music Group affiliation and his ties to several gargantuan hits like Zedd’s “Beautiful Now” and Eminem’s “The Monster” (he co-wrote the latter). The Human Condition, the end result of all this hype, is enjoyable and well-thought out, but pretty spotty. It’s tough for me to sit through sappy, well-worn Pop terrain like “Fashion” or the One Republic knock-off “Maybe IDK” in order to get to tracks I dig like the rap-heavy “New York Soul, Pt. ii”. Nevertheless, these 14 songs have more successes than failures – not to mention these lyrical themes are so millennial-centric – so it gets overall approval from me. RECOMMENDED

Magma – Gojira

With Magma, these French extreme metal masters made the mainstream-ish gateway album that they only hinted at on 2012’s L’Enfant Sauvage. And guess what?? They’re just as convincing playing concise and simple music as they are being epic and long-winded. In fact, borderline Hard Rock track “Stranded” is potentially my favorite! Magma might be slightly flawed and not completely live up to the masterful trio of LPs that came before it, but that’s like saying Megadeth’s awesome Countdown to Extinction doesn’t live up to Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? or Rust in Peace. One of the best Metal albums of the year thus far. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Rude Awakening – Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, & TM88

I should’ve learned from Collegrove (this past March’s collaborative mixtape between 2 Chainz and Lil’ Wayne). I suppose I didn’t. But at least Collegrove carried with it the possibility of hearing an occasional flash of brilliance from Wayne reminiscent of his mid-00s mixtape run. Rude Awakening, however, is a different story. I could almost feel the neural pathways in my brain writhing in agony as I got clobbered with one rudimentary turn-up rhyme after another. On the track “All Night”, Wiz Khalifa actually says “I got bars like a jail”, making other lines like “Don’t SnapChat me that pussy, I want it for real” sound like Langston Hughes. Avoid this thing at all costs. NOT RECOMMENDED

Strange Little Birds – Garbage

I got into these beloved ‘90s alt heroes (specifically their self-titled debut) JUST in time for Strange Little Birds, their sixth LP overall. Admittedly, I’m riding a bit of a “discovery high” so check back in with me in a few months, but Strange Little Birds is fucking awesome. It manages to fit in with its modern contemporaries and avoid sounding derivative, yet it successfully recalls greatness of two decades ago. “Blackout”, ripping lead single “Empty”, and “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” – the latter which gracefully addresses growing pains – are among my favorites, but all 11 tracks hit their mark. More thoughts in this video. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Handshakes with Snakes – Apathy

Words can’t express what this album means to an old-school Hip Hop head like myself. Handshakes with Snakes is Apathy’s 5th studio album, but the CT veteran’s copious releases are well into the double digits. What we get on this LP is knocking, boom-bap production and thoughtful, lyrically complex bars. A song like “Pay Your Dues”, with a sweet Phil Collins sample, finds Ap railing against entitled, unoriginal new rappers, telling them “you can’t win wars if you ain’t swung swords” and reaffirming his commitment to the craft: “what’s love? Studying Illmatic like the Bible.” “Rap Is Not Pop” is another killer cut, with the MC boldly claiming he’s “Too Kool G Rap for these new school cats.” I’d fucking agree. There’s even a reference to Big L’s “H-E-double hockey sticks line” on “Blow Ya Head Off”. You can’t miss if you’re a fan of gritty 90s Hip-Hop, and for me, this is a contender for indie Rap album of the year so far. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Unden!able – Hellyeah

This Metal supergroup began their career with three albums in a row full of cookie cutter, throwaway Groove Metal and lyrics that made Fred Durst and Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody seem tolerable. Occasionally a song would find its way onto my work out playlist, but I was not a fan. Their fourth LP, 2014’s Blood for Blood, was a noticeable uptick in production and songwriting, with a decent chunk of the corny cut out, but I still wasn’t convinced. Unden!able is an ever-so-slight improvement on Blood for Blood, weighed down by several cringeworthy moments but featuring Active Rock radio slam dunks “Human”, “Leap of Faith”, “X”, and the soaring ballad “Love Falls”, which are juuust enough to tip it over the edge for me. That being said, every now and then I give something the benefit of the doubt and regret it later, and it remains to be seen if Unden!able fits that narrative. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

You Will Never Be One of Us – Nails

 The third record from Nails is a fucking exhilarating listen. Before the sludgy eight-minute closer “They Come Crawling Back”, it’s 14 minutes of pummeling Powerviolence/Grindcore/Thrash Metal/Death Metal combos that leave the listener gasping for air. The guitar tone is absurdly heavy, yet the production doesn’t muddy up any riffs or grooves. If you like music that inspires you to grab the cutest baby and just start violently shaking it, this is for you. Personally, it made my Metal Mid-Year List. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Still Brazy – YG

I just don’t see it guys. The hype behind YG’s follow-up to his breakout My Krazy Life album isn’t warranted to me. It’s definitely an improvement on that LP, but it’s not the West Coast Hip-Hop landmark that people are making it out to be. Sure, there’s some menacing bravado on “Don’t Come to LA”, and “Gimmie Got Shot” is a satisfying conceptual listen about mooching, but there’s nothing spectacular. But a track like “Bool, Balm, and Bollective” has such an unimaginative hook, and “Why You Always Hatin’” finds YG getting bodied by a singin’ nigga (Drake shows up for a feature and up-stages him). The best thing about this record is the production – “I Got a Question”, for instance, has to be one of the more interesting combination of sounds I’ve heard this year. The 1500 or Nothin’ beat sounds like DJ Mustard meets “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” meets a laser gun from an arcade game. It’s definitely not a BAD album, but it’s pretty good at best, and to my ears, it’s fairly non-essential. NOT RECOMMENDED

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.