Lupe Fiasco’s “DROGAS Light”: Four Singles Deep

As I mentioned in my last post, next month Alleged Jew-Hater-Turned-Rap-Retiree Lupe Fiasco will be dropping a follow-up to 2015’s highly acclaimed Tetsuo & Youth, rumors and click bait be damned. A fan of Lupe’s for almost a decade, I’m as excited as I am curious to check out and review the LP, titled DROGAS Light, out February 10th. And in the past couple weeks, Lupe has now unchained more than a quarter of the 14-song tracklist for our listening pleasure via Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube.

I almost fucking missed it. I WOULD’VE fucking missed it, actually, if I hadn’t noticed “Jump” make an appearance on Apple Music’s “hot tracks” list. And so I immediately diverted my attention (from reviewing Sepultura’s Machine Messiah – coming this week on my YouTube channel) and JUMPED in, horrible pun intended.

Made in the USA (feat. Bianca Sings)

Production-wise the most “stereotypical mainstream Hip-Hop” of these tracks (possibly on purpose), “Made in the USA” might be the most energetic I’ve ever heard Lupe on a track. Lupe’s delivery is always sleek and graceful, even when the subject matter gets intense. But here, he’s fucking hype. It is tongue-and-check? Probably, because as long time fans will likely recognize, he spits these lyrics with a familiar politically-charged facetiousness – one can only assume he’s not actually that proud to be an American right now. Especially since him and Colonel Sanders aren’t on such good terms– he mentions that “KFC is trying to kill me”, and whenever a fast food chain is coming for your head, you’ve seen better days. Kidding aside, “Made in the USA” is a confusing listen in the way that a track like “Bitch Bad” is – it SOUNDS like a banger, but ‘cause Lupe clearly wants you to dig deeper, you practically feel guilty enjoying it at a surface level. And that’s why this is my least favorite of the four songs.

 Jump (feat. Gizzle)

“Jump” – which, given its lack of an impactful hook, is surprisingly the most popular of the bunch – is partially cut from the “A Milli” cloth: rapidly repeated vocal sample, booming bassline, and lots of space for stream-of-consciousness bars. But it’s actually a story track, and if you follow along, it gets pretty damn weird – the protagonist and his new female companion get abducted by aliens, and she (“she” meaning lesbian fem-C Gizzle, who has written for TONS of big name rappers) talks about sampling some…alien pussy. But it’s entertaining through and through, and I like it a lot. Is there some symbolism behind the female character in the story, or maybe the entire plot itself? I’m sure there is, but I’ll leave it to the more pretentious listeners to sort that out.

Pick up the Phone

Listening to this track, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve boosted the success of Lupe’s heavily criticized third LP Lasers, his detour into Pop-Rap. In a way, this one’s got all the elements of a formulaic Pop chorus – acoustic guitars, simple radio-friendly chord progression, easily digestible vocal melody courtesy of Sebastian Lundberg, and some strings to add a tinge of drama. But the difference is it’s good. Really good, actually. By his standards, Lupe’s lyrics might be a tad disposable, but he flows in a way that’s friendly to Hip-Hop fans and mainstream listeners alike. We’ll see if this one can cross over. Also, the intro to the beat is reminiscent of “Superstar”, so it’s got that going for it.

Wild Child (feat. Jake Torrey)

Like “Pick Up the Phone”, “Wild Child” is another poppy affair, venturing even further in that direction. I’ll say this much: if the God damn radio doesn’t pick up on this song, I might hurt someone. Or have a stroke. Or hurt someone, then have a stroke. It’s so fucking catchy. “Wild Child” not only has a lot going for it musically – perky guitars, spunky bass lines, and a danceable, swinging groove in the chorus – it exudes a beautifully carefree vibe, and “carefree” is not a word you can use to describe ANY of Lupe’s music, really. Sure, the song’s Summer-y vibes might not fit the current mid-January climate, but who cares! I’m looking forward to having this as a sleeper song for pregames when girls are around.

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

Killswitch Engage – Incarnate Review

The official edited version of this review is available here.

With Incarnate, the Massachusetts quintet’s seventh full-length LP, Killswitch Engage faces a similar challenge that Thrash Metal veterans Anthrax faced on last month’s For All Kings. In 2011, Anthrax’s reunion in the studio with classic-era frontman Joey Belladonna yielded Worship Music, an album that shot past its impossible hype and thrust itself into the top tier of their storied discography. But once the reunion magic fades, delivering an equally worthy follow-up is the ultimate test, one that Anthrax, by all accounts, passed with flying colors on For All Kings.

Despite Killswitch Engage being part of a different generation of Metal, 2013’s Disarm the Descent was, in a sense, their Worship Music – the riveting return of original vocalist Jesse Leach that exceeded all expectations, wrestling its way into consideration for KSE’s best since 2002’s groundbreaking Alive or Just Breathing, the landmark that established a blueprint for the entire Metalcore genre. Arriving in the wake of such a triumph as Descent, Incarnate is thus a pivotal record, as the band has the opportunity to reassert their staying power, something they achieve in superb fashion here.

Before the band streamed over half of Incarnate ahead of its release in true 2016 fashion, the two initial singles were “Strength of the Mind” and “Hate By Design”, both quintessential Killswitch: delicate balancing acts between rage and beauty. Riff-wise, “Strength of the Mind” is pure Pantera, with an uplifting Jesse Leach chorus slapped on top, while “Hate By Design” takes an impassioned stand against the destructive legacies that prejudice and discrimination can leave, urging listeners to “redefine your life”. Both tracks undoubtedly hinted at greatness, a standard that is upheld by the majority of the remainder of the LP.

The aforementioned singles – both standouts in their own right – are surrounded by a remarkably consistent track list. There’s the defiant opener “Alone I Stand”, the soaring “Cut Me Loose”, and the sludgy “It Falls On Me”, which brings sharp contrast with its desolate aesthetic. “Embrace the Journey…Upraised” is perhaps the album’s apex, boasting one of Incarnate’s most crushing guitar riffs, a chunky bass riff, and an impeccable mixture of heavy and melodic, which is perhaps Killswitch’s strongest asset when firing on all cylinders. “Until the Day” is another highlight as the band channels Colony-era In Flames for the song’s lively refrain. Elsewhere, the riffs continue a familiar Thrash worship, answered with thunderous double bass drums and the occasional blast-beat. Even when Incarnate does lose momentum, it’s not until the final pair of tracks – the relatively forgettable “We Carry On” and “Ascension” – which by then are easily forgiven. And perhaps most importantly, from a sonic standpoint, the listener has access to every instrument; the production doesn’t stray from guitarist Adam D.’s winning, accessible modern Metal formula – crystal clear and pristine without being glossy.

Where Incarnate shines brightest is vocalist Jesse Leach, who outperforms himself as a clean singer, as a screamer, and as a lyricist. Lyrically, Incarnate is a deeply moving affair, transitioning from an empowering, hopeful first half to a bleak, despair-ridden second half (Leach spoke about this here). What makes his lyrics resonate with such strength is that Leach is the everyman when it comes to depression and mental illness – Incarnate finds him seeking solace in his pen and paper in the same way his fans seek solace in him. The aura surrounding Leach’s words is that of a very public exorcism of demons, of a man determined to conquer his own internal struggles through occasionally brutal but thoughtful catharsis. And his intense soul baring allows listeners to have a similarly powerful experience. By the LP’s conclusion, one particular lyric embodies the Incarnate journey for both fans and for Leach: “Ghosts of the past no longer torment me/I release the anguish”.

Score: 4/5

 

 

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

 

 

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

The official edited version of this review is available here.

A Hip-Hop pariah if the industry has ever seen one, Macklemore has bore the brunt of relentless scrutiny, mockery, and derision following the meteoric success of he and Ryan Lewis’ collaborative debut LP The Heist, which began its takeover in the fourth quarter of 2012, culminating with a controversial sweep of the Rap categories at the 2014 Grammy’s.

While not even Macklemore himself thought it deserved Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, The Heist was an excellent pop-rap album nonetheless, one that was miles ahead of similarly categorized releases that year from the likes of B.o.B., Machine Gun Kelly, Chiddy Bang, and Kid Ink. It showcased the Seattle emcee’s ability to put together conceptually focused rhymes about a wide variety of topics, all sitting over easily digestible and occasionally memorable production from Lewis. Even the noticeable moments of corniness, or worse, droning introspection, didn’t detract from its overall merit.

The duo’s follow-up, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, will prove much more difficult to defend. In reality, criticisms regarding Macklemore’s authenticity or genuineness are misplaced– he has existed in the underground for over a decade, addressing similarly goofy and uncomfortable topics long before he became infamous for it, showcased most notably on his solo debut The Language of My World. But album number two for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis falls flat artistically, its sprawling diversity a diluent and a weakness this time rather than an asset.

In all fairness, cohesion is clearly not the aim here. Conceptually, it is nearly impossible to dream up anything more disparate than the self-aware confrontation of racial issues on “White Privilege II” and the “deez nuts” joke in “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”. If both offbeat humor and overwhelming sincerity are the two definitive sides of the Macklemore coin that is perfectly fine, and both personas have a few effective moments, but when this sharply juxtaposed, they generate a scattered inconsistency that’s ultimately distracting. Macklemore pushes the two approaches impossibly deep into their extremities, making for a frustrating listen.

Perhaps it comes down to the album’s sequencing. In “Kevin” and “St. Ides”, the listener is pelted with two consecutive intense tracks addressing substance abuse, and not long after, “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat” occur back-to-back: two songs addressing, well, dancing and eating. The listening experience becomes akin to being smacked around in a confusing, never-ending pinball machine.

The crying shame of it all is that many of these tracks function well on their own. The Chance the Rapper-assisted “Need to Know” is the obvious standout, a little ditty about self-censorship in which Mack and the Chi-town youngster assure us that “the truth would be too much”. Macklemore’s guest outshines him with a verse that manages to slip in an off-the-wall reference to Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident. The aforementioned “Kevin” is an impassioned, thought-provoking tirade against the pharmaceutical industry’s complicit role in substance abuse, save its overly melodramatic hook and some funky guitars in the production that sound misplaced amidst the weighty subject matter. The album is also bookended by the excellent “Light Tunnels” and “White Privilege II”, the former a vivid first-person narration of Macklemore’s Grammy night experience, the latter a bold examination of a white rapper’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The misses occur more often on the silly songs, like the insufferable “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat”, the latter featuring blatantly unfunny body image gags (“I want to be like Hugh Jackman/You know, Jacked, man”). The one instance where he does effectively sell playfulness is on lead single “Downtown”, in which Mack’s nimble delivery in the verses sits perfectly over Ryan Lewis’ quirky instrumentation.

But when the solemn moments come back around, Macklemore is especially tough on himself. Many of album’s serious cuts (“Light Tunnels”, “Need to Know”, “St. Ides”, “White Privilege II”) contain such an abundance of ruthless self-loathing that there ends up being very little in the way of entertainment. A majority of the time, it is utterly suffocating.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is a formidable challenge to the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In the case of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ sophomore effort, its eclectic ingredients clash in truly exhausting fashion, rendering the LP’s overall message incomprehensible and convoluted.

Score: 2/5

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

Show Review: Panic! At the Disco @ City Hall Plaza – Boston, MA 9/17/15

For Boston radio station 92.9 – as well as a couple thousand excited Bostonians – this past Thursday was something to celebrate, with the station hosting and co-sponsoring a free concert in City Hall Plaza featuring alternative rock titans Panic! At the Disco. Surrounded by downtown Boston, the open Plaza area was bookended by a medium-sized outdoor stage in the front and sponsor tents and a crucial row of porta-potties in the back.

With a 5 PM temperature sitting somewhere in the upper-60s, accompanied by a light Boston breeze, the buzzing City Hall Plaza atmosphere felt like an extension of Summer. The Budweiser and Radio 92.9 tents set up in the back greeted me as I made my way across the plaza’s brick floor to the paved area closer to the stage, where a crowd of several hundred people had already formed in advance of opening act DJ Petro. In an interview with Radio 92.9 before the show, Panic! frontman Brendon Urie expressed his excitement: “I’m so stoked we get to play free shows. You get a massive, broader range of people, and it just makes the show insane.” And he was not wrong. For about three hours, City Hall Plaza became a melting pot of music fandom, with everybody from college students, to the Warped Tour crowd, to high school kids with cheap liquor in their Gatorade bottles, to out-of-place, mostly sober adults, all coming together to enjoy some free dinner time Panic! At the Disco, in weather that can only be described as a promoter’s wet dream.

Preceding Panic! was an opening set from the aforementioned DJ Petro, who spun mostly mash-ups for an anxious, rapidly-growing crowd. Throwback combinations of “Man in the Mirror” and “When I Come Around”, as well as “Turn Down for What” and Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” went over particularly well, while I chose to tune out the more painful reminders of my preteen years, like “Hollaback Girl”.

Panic! At the Disco made their entrance at 6:30 PM sharp with the bouncy “Vegas Lights”, easing into the show with one of the few deeper cuts that would divide the crowd. After several shifts, the band’s touring lineup currently consists of frontman Brendon Urie on vocals, guitar and piano, Kenneth Harris on lead guitar, Dallon Weekes on Bass, and Dan Pawlovich on drums. Accompanied by a modest light show that became increasingly central as dusk approached, the tight and energetic four-piece tore through a well-constructed eighteen-song set list for an audience that leaned more towards devoted followers than casual listeners. Less obvious choices like “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met)” and “Nicotine” did nothing to slow the band’s momentum, all the while satisfying dedicated fans.

Just shy of ten years removed from their classic debut album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the early Panic! material has not lost an ounce of appeal. The crowd, the majority of whom were likely in elementary school when Fever came out, responded feverishly (yep, I went there) to the energetic “Time to Dance”, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”, and obligatory closer “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”.

As the band weaved in and out of material from Fever as well as their other three studio albums – also tossing in well-received new single “Hallelujah” – frontman Brendon Urie’s vocal performance was nothing short of captivating. He embellished the songs with effortless falsetto shrieks and an abundance of charisma. The band also performed a spot-on rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, as well as a medley of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Along”, all of which Urie sang to near perfection.

By the time Panic! began to play Ms. Jackson, the twelfth song in their set, nightfall had arrived and the show’s magical, carefree energy received a noticeable bump. The stage lights were now projecting onto the surrounding buildings, the fully packed crowd was mirroring every word, and the last 30 minutes felt altogether more intimate. It was a night I truly felt lucky to be apart of. As I walked out of the crowd during the last chorus of “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, I felt some of my cynicism for popular music waft away. Sometimes a truly great band does get the spotlight, and when they do, be sure you’re there to witness it.

Mac Miller – GO:OD AM Review

Quick context: the following review was written for a publication that required a 600-700 word count range. The edited version can be read here

“Ain’t saying that I’m sober, I’m just in a better place”, croons Mac Miller over the Tyler the Creator-produced intro to his new album GO:OD AM. The Pittsburgh native’s third full-length LP follows a ten million dollar deal with Warner Bros. Records, a very public battle with substances, and a tireless creative process that resulted in Miller making over nine albums of material before arriving at his third album. No longer an independent artist, his drug use under control, and now approaching his mid-twenties, the word “reinvention” isn’t too farfetched in the Mac Miller conversation.

Perhaps most significantly, in 2015 Miller finds himself free of the “frat-rap” tag that once tortured him early in his career, framing him as a contemporary of the likes of Asher Roth, Sammy Adams, and Chris Webby, rather than the ten other emcees that Kendrick Lamar named in addition to Mac in his scathing 2013 verse on Big Sean’s “Control”. In the four years since Blue Slide Park, his critically-lampooned yet wildly successful debut album, the rapper who was once “Easy Mac with the cheesy raps” – as spit by battle rap extraordinaire Loaded Lux on Miller’s last album – has seemingly been on a never-ending campaign to shake his stigma and prove his worth to hip hop, with three projects that increasingly emphasized lyrical dexterity and artistic ambition, gaining more positive responses every step of the way. With GO:OD AM, Miller finally appears positioned for the true takeover that he has often alluded to.

GO:OD AM finds Mac Miller at his most confident and unapologetic, an aesthetic often absent from his previous work despite his undeniable talent. Lyrically, he continues to be wildly creative, dropping wordplay like “what’s a God without a little OD? /Just a G” on first single and album standout “100 Grandkids”. This time around, though, he raps like he has less to prove. On Miller’s last album Watching Movies with the Sound Off, his bars exuded an almost manic obsession with proving his technical ability, whereas on GO:OD AM he just appears to be having fun, though dense lyrical content certainly takes center stage at many points, such as in the first verse of album closer “The Festival”.

Longtime Mac Miller collaborators ID Labs handle the bulk of the production on GO:OD AM, alongside heavyweights like Flying Lotus, Sounwave, and even Sha Money XL on the first half of “100 Grandkids”. Sonically, the album maintains cohesion despite its diversity, from the trap-influenced, 808-ridden “When In Rome” to the piano and saxophone that close out “Brand Name”.

Though he has always had a flirtatious relationship with melody, Mac Miller’s most noticeable growth on GO:OD AM manifests itself in the songs’ melodic content. On tracks like “Break the Law” and the Miguel-assisted “Weekend” – not to mention the tender career highlight “ROS” – he effortlessly injects small doses of melody into what is still an undeniable hip-hop album. Brilliant future single “Jump”, which reunites Miller with “Donald Trump” hit-maker Sap, contains a hugely effective call-and-response section in the pre-chorus, a back-and-forth between swaggering bars and their melodic counterparts.

GO:OD AM does get occasionally bogged down by an oversaturation of misogyny and sexual innuendos. At times, allusions to sexual exploits become a crutch for Miller, in which he seemingly cannot finish a verse without wordplay about prostitutes, tongues, and vaginas – punchlines that fluctuate between entertaining and distracting. It is especially frustrating considering one the album’s shining moments: the aforementioned “ROS”, a touching, lovesick song that finds Miller as thoughtful and vulnerable as he has ever sounded on record. The introspective “God Speed” is another instance in which the rapper thrives in the absence of goofiness and braggadocio.

Likability has never been an issue for Mac Miller. In fact, it’s been his musical anchor at times, especially while weathering the “frat-rap” storm. On GO:OD AM, Miller loses none of the charisma or likability of his previous work, yet gains an abundance of vision and focus. Considering his second album, Watching Movies with The Sound Off, and last year’s Faces mixtape, GO:OD AM is by no means Mac Miller’s first great project. It is, however, his first work worthy of the tag “essential hip hop listening”.