August 2018 Album Round Up!

Hey guys! Psyched to make my return to Monthly Round Ups during an action-packed month! Apologies for my little hiatus – work these past several months has been an absolute bitch and it’s been straight up unrealistic to try and squeeze in several listens to 20-25 albums every four or five weeks. It just wasn’t gonna happen. But I’m proud to say that I’m back and here to stay! Kinda like when Jay-Z came out of retirement after not even a year and released a shitty ass record that no one liked but eventually went on to do things like marry Beyonce and make an album with Kanye and start his own streaming service so it was all good. Ok, maybe not quite like that. But still. God, there’s so much to break down from August 2018! I hope you’ve been keeping up via my email list and YouTube channel while I’ve been away!

Mac Miller – Swimming

Five albums and at least twenty (!) projects into his career, one fact remains: Mac Miller is a hell of a beat picker. On Swimming, he lines up an endlessly listenable and surprisingly unique platter of instrumentals, from the funky “What’s the Use?” to the jazz-tinged “Jet Fuel” to one of the sexiest beat switches I’ve ever heard in the trap-laced “Self Care”. Everybody from J. Cole to Flying Lotus to Kanye collaborator Jon Brion to fellow Pittsburgh natives ID Labs to “God’s Plan” producer Cardo contribute to this album’s impressive sound. However, another fact remains: Mac Miller doesn’t really have a whole lot to say. Even after a public split with Ariana Grande earlier this year, Miller’s lyrics on Swimming – rather than directly addressing his feelings – often find him simply crawling between various esoteric trains of thought that leave the production to carry him. I find myself wincing in the first verse of “Wings” when he clumsily points out “that’s a motif!”, and I really struggle through the bleary-eyed pseudo-raps of “Dunno”, the meandering mopefest of “Small Worlds”, and several other underwhelming lyrical moments. So while I dig this album sonically, I don’t find myself connecting with Mac’s words like I did on the lovey dovey Divine Feminine or the triumphant “I’m off drugs!” comeback that was GO:OD AM. I salute Mac for continuing to be carve out his own sound within hip-hop, but I probably won’t be returning to this all that much. NOT RECOMMENDED

Sinsaenum – Repulsion for Humanity

Back in 2016, when ex-Slipknot skinsman Joey Jordison and Dragonforce bassist Frederic Leclercq teased their new supergroup Sinsaenum as an epic collision between Black Metal and Death Metal, I was ecstatic at the thought. At the time, Behemoth’s The Satanist was the last truly great Blackened Death Metal LP I had heard, and I was aching for something new. Well, you can imagine my disappointment when Sinsaenum’s debut Echoes of the Tortured was pretty much just Morbid Angel worship with creepy keyboard interludes. But then, last year’s Ashes EP renewed my hope with a short set of killer tracks that gave me exactly what I wanted – some eerie-yet-brutal, Black Metal-infused Death Metal! So, anticipation was high for Repulsion for Humanity, the band’s sophomore outing and follow-up to Ashes.

Well, they kinda let me down again. Don’t get me wrong, Repulsion for Humanity is very well-executed, but on this record Sinsaenum spend far too much time on compositional Death Metal clichés, aimless guitar solos, and tired lyrical subject matter, rather than turning their attention towards atmosphere and genre-fusing like they did on Ashes. At the end of the day, I found more positives than negatives, but given the raw talent that this band posses, I still wish Sinsaenum would have given us more than a slightly-above-average, dime-a-dozen Death Metal record. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Travis Scott – Astroworld

Trap powerhouse Travis Scott came in hot with album number three, armed with quite possibly the craziest guest list of any Hip-Hop release this year (Drake, Frank Ocean, James Blake, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, Swae Lee, 21 Savage, Quavo, Juice Wrld, and Nav all appear). Not to mention, it’s a who’s who of Hip-Hop production as well, with people like Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, Cardo, Murda Beatz, Boi-1da, Thundercat, and even Tame Impala involved. If anybody has done a better job setting themselves up for an “instant classic”, I’d like to hear you argue against Travis Scott. And of course, many critics quickly obliged and gave it that label.

However, I find it surprising that any album containing a Drake verse about taking prescription drugs to fall asleep on a plane can be considered an “instant classic”. Not only do I find Drizzy’s aforementioned “Sicko Mode” verse boring, but a significant chunk of the LP as a whole, with mid-album cuts like “5% Tint”, “Astrothunder”, and “Can’t Say” lulling me to sleep. Surrounded by so many industry heavy-hitters, it’s strange but unsurprising that Scott and his familiar auto-tuned brags are the most non-essential part of this album. The beats are off the chain (see the tuneful Tame Impala and Weeknd collaboration “Skeletons” or the sensory overload of “Carousel”), and more than enough to keep me around most of the time, but Scott himself is just not that interesting to me. So, “instant classic”? Eh, don’t believe the hype. NOT RECOMMENDED

Snak the Ripper – Off the Rails

I got turned on to this amazing record by an Instagram post from Rittz (one of my favorite rappers for several years now), from whom Snak the Ripper had snagged a guest verse for the single “All Out”.

And yet again, Rittz has done great things for my life. I can’t believe how good this record is! Skill-wise, Snak is your archetypal rappity-rapper, packing dense rhyme patterns into complex, high-velocity flows, but his abundance of thoughtful content and his selection of low key, contemplative beats (see “I Ain’t Dead”, “I’m Good, or “Hourglass”) that give him room to let loose lyrically are what ultimately make him stand out. There’s not a single track I don’t like on here, but I’d especially recommend “Baby Boy”, where Snak has some touching words for his newborn son, “Driftin”, which has a super dope video with some tour footage mixed in, and “Knuckle Sandwich”, which brings on R.A. The Rugged Man for a murderous guest appearance.

Seriously, I can’t say ENOUGH good things about this LP! Should definitely end up in the year-end Hip-Hop conversation in a few months! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Jason Mraz – Know

Back in college, if you saw a corny dude wearing a fedora and strumming his Ukulele in the middle of campus, you’d make fun of him. The kid’s clearly just trying to get laid in the saddest, most transparent way possible.

Well, Jason Mraz’s albums are the sonic equivalent of that. I don’t know the guy personally, so if he really is this sunny and optimistic all the time, God bless him. Lord knows we have enough cynicism in the world at the moment. But this cutesy RomCom music is tough for me stomach. When I hear lines like “we could be bigger than cheese and macaroni” (on a song that is titled “UNLONELY”, mind you) I feel like punching him. A decade after Mraz’s most ubiquitous hits – “Lucky” and “I’m Yours” – he’s still using the same old chord progressions, the same child-like turns of phrases, and making the same manufactured Summer picnic music. NOT RECOMMENDED

 Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You For Today

I had no idea how much I missed Death Cab’s warm, comforting sound until I heard this LP. Regrettably, I skipped over 2015’s Kintsugi, so it had been around seven years. But I quickly got reacquainted thanks to misty-eyed highlights like “Autumn Love” and “Summer Years”, as well as the hooky “Northern Lights” and the contemplative intro track “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, which almost felt Kid A-esque to me. While it fizzles out a tad with the last few tracks (I’m not crazy about the somber “You Moved Away” or the generic “Near/Far”), Thank You For Today is a wonderful way to send Summmer 2018 off, and it’s inspiring to dig back into the Death Cab catalogue a bit! RECOMMENDED

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

I realize that 2016’s Dangerous Woman might’ve been the most overplayed Pop album of that God forsaken year, but I still thought it was excellent. Even the deep cuts. I still jam it all the time. And it makes me sad that I couldn’t feel the same way about its follow-up, Sweetener. I’m very lukewarm on this one, mostly because of the beat selection. Personally, I would much rather hear Ariana’s gorgeous voice over stuff like the bluesy “Dangerous Woman” or the boy band nostalgia-invoking “Sometimes” from her last record than, say, the obnoxious Pharrell-ism “The Light is Coming” or the generic trap of “God is a Woman”. It just doesn’t excite me. Sweetener already feels a bit tired by the time the stand out single “No Tears Left to Cry” arrives ten tracks in. But I remain a fan and look forward to Ariana’s next project. NOT RECOMMENDED

Alice in Chains – Rainer Fog

Rainer Fog is now Alice in Chains’ third album during the William Duvall era of the band. It’s crazy to think about how a decade ago, replacing AIC’s late great frontman Layne Staley seemed preposterous, but this current incarnation really grew into it quickly. With Rainer Fog, the sixth LP overall from the Grunge legends, Alice continue to do justice to their legacy by making lively Hard Rock songs that feel modern and exciting – see the driving title cut or the dissonant stomp of opener “The One You Know” for further proof. It might not be a perfect record – I have trouble vibing with the bloated Sabbathian cut “Drone”, for instance – but neither was Facelift if we’re keeping it all the way real. Seriously, it wasn’t! So I don’t care how much you love their early ‘90s material – the point is, for Alice in Chains to continue to make quality music like this over thirty years into their career, it makes them….one of VERY few grunge bands to do so. RECOMMENDED

A FEW MORE:

LIKE:

Alkaline Trio – Is This Thing Cursed?

Blue October – I Hope You’re Happy

Bun B – Return of the Trill

Eminem – Kamikaze

Nothing – Dance on the Blacktop

Trippie Redd – Life’s a Trip

DON’T LIKE:

The Amity Affliction – Misery

Black Tusk – T.C.B.T.

Excision – Apex

Matoma – One in a Million

Plain White T’s – Parallel Universe

YG – Stay Dangerous

 

 

 

 

 

Sum 41 – 13 Voices Album Review

For the first time in over half a decade, the music industry’s increasingly cluttered calendar of every possible thing imaginable includes brand new music from Sum 41, the Canadian five-piece responsible for ubiquitous punk-y radio smashes like “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep” in the early 2000s. However, the tunes responsible for this band’s rise to fame – as massive as they may have been and continue to be – feel obsolete and nearly irrelevant here; not only is planet Earth a different place in 2016 than it was back then, but the band are too. Now entering their late 30s, maturation and growth are only natural, and 13 Voices, their sixth full length, is a far cry from the snot-nosed Pop-Punk Sum 41 shelled out a decade and a half ago.

It won’t necessarily be a surprise to anyone has heard their last LP – 2011’s Screaming Bloody Murder, which found the band harnessing a roaring metallic edge – but casual listeners may find themselves a bit shell-shocked. 13 Voices often embraces influences that drift away from Pop Punk and towards the Hard Rock and Metal end of the spectrum. Take “Breaking the Chain” for instance, which features a blistering bridge section with chunky, chugging guitars that break into sugary harmonies – it’s straight out of the Bullet for My Valentine playbook. Or there’s the snarling riffage in the “God Save Us All” bridge – something that could’ve easily been plucked from Zakk Wylde’s unreleased Black Label Society recordings. These short dips into more aggressive territory add a sober earnestness to these otherwise hooky tracks.

Another commendable feature of 13 Voices is the band’s meticulous layering and experimentation with different instruments. The exceptional title track, for instance, finds clean and distorted guitars working side-by-side during the second verse, and later adds a taste of acoustic guitars to the mix. In the aforementioned “Breaking the Chain”, a string section is cleverly used as the main counterpart to frontman Deryck Whibley’s vocals. On the anthemic “There Will Be Blood”, a few subtle piano notes pop into….

Click here to read the full review.

April 2016 Album Round Up!

April 2016 was an insane month in my life. My final run as a college student, I spent my weekends living out of a suitcase and traveling up and down the East coast to visit friends at their respective schools before real life shows up and steps on our dreams. If I ever become a full-blown alcoholic, I will have April 2016 to blame. But in between binges on Jack Daniels, Xanax, and God knows what else, here are some releases that were the soundtrack to my escape (yep, that was an intentional In Flames reference!).

Weezer (The White Album) – Weezer

I couldn’t think of a better set of tunes to kick off the beginning of Spring. I haven’t heard anything from Weezer in over a decade that I’ve wanted to hear again, but the White Album is excellent. It has this light-hearted bounce to it that’s irresistible. It’s also succinct, not letting any of its ten songs slip through the cracks. Whether Nirvana deserves royalties for the “Lithium”-esque “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is anyone’s guess, but it’s a hell of an album either way. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Gore – Deftones

Quite possibly my album of the year thus far. I’ve never been a Deftones guy, but Gore converted me. It has layers upon layers so it takes a few listens, but if you allow yourself to go along for the ride, you’re in for something special. Chino Moreno’s vocal performance on choruses like “Phantom Bride”, “Prayers/Triangles”, “Xenon”, and “Hearts/Wires” is breathtaking. I’ve especially beat “Phantom Bride” to death. My God. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Views – Drake

Drizzy’s highly anticipated fourth album fluctuates between mildly underwhelming and utterly cringe-inducing. Views finds the Canadian-born superstar stagnating musically and regressing lyrically. Bars like “got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum” and “Girl let me rock your body/Justin Timberlake” drag listeners back to 2009 kicking and screaming for the “hashtag rap” era. The crying shame is that the first six tracks are excellent, but things nosedive quickly, save a couple late-album highlights like the Rihanna-assisted “Too Good”. A major letdown. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

You’ll Pay For This – Bear Hands

For Brooklyn, NY’s Bear Hands, album number three was a pivotal one. What an oversaturated market these guys are in. They are based in Brooklyn and they play electronic-infused indie Rock. Gonna go out on a limb and say it’s been known to happen. But You’ll Pay For This, while it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself stylistically, distinguishes itself in terms of quality. It’s simply a cut above its peers. And angst-ridden young adults will feel right at home with its lyrical content. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Layers – Royce da 5’9

In early March, Detroit OG Royce da 5’9 dropped “Tabernacle”, the best Hip-Hop single of 2016 thus far, to promote his sixth solo album Layers. It was intensely personal and deeply moving, with stellar storytelling and grade-A production. The opening track of the LP, it’s followed by a set of cuts that, understandably so, don’t quite measure up to it. A majority are enjoyable, while some, like “America”, “Off”, and “Startercoat”, are on the boring side. It’s thoughtfully sequenced, with Royce’s lady problems woven in and out of typical lyrical flexing. But here’s the thing about Royce that fans should understand by now. If you are in the market (as I am) for old school lyricism and for flows that are more derivative of Nas than Future or Lil’ Wayne, the reliable Nickel Nine will deliver. And if you’re not, move along because there’s nothing here for you. Simple as that. RECOMMENDED

Dust – Tremonti

This is the strangest record of the month for me. NOT musically mind you – it’s actually pretty straightforward Metal-tinged Hard Rock. But given that Dust is simply “part 2” of the same recording sessions that produced last year’s Cauterize – an album I didn’t hate but was pretty lukewarm on – I am SHOCKED at how much better it is! Still trying to wrap my head around that. Here is a full review. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Book of Shadows II – Zakk Wylde

20 years after Zakk Wylde’s mellow cult classic Book of Shadows, we’re blessed with part two. Better late than never! Like its predecessor, Book of Shadows II is best enjoyed on an overcast, hungover Sunday or, once October rolls around, a brisk Fall afternoon with some foliage. It’s beautifully gloomy, and Wylde’s gravelly vocals make you momentarily forget that he’s actually from Jersey and not a good ol’ boy belting these tunes out across his cattle farm. And even though he’s unplugged for most of it, he does plug in for RIPPING electric guitar solos on tracks like “Lay Me Down” and “Lost Prayer”. Like Mr. Wylde himself, the track list is a bit bloated, but that’s a minor complaint. RECOMMENDED

Generation Doom – Otep

Otep’s Generation Doom combines the lyrical imagination of Five Finger Death Punch with the corny delivery of In This Moment’s latest dud, sprinkling in some generic Nu Metal-isms for good measure. There are even some painful rapped passages, like in the track “Down”. We get it, Otep. You’re not a fan of conformity. You’re not a fan of the fact that America fights wars. And you appear to be upset about it. But for the love of God, please learn to communicate it in a compelling manner. I suppose Generation Doom is heavy, and I like heavy. But “heavy” is literally all it has going for it. NOT RECOMMENDED

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson

This is Sturgill Simpson’s third LP and follow-up to the acclaimed Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Like his sophomore triumph before it, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth completely transcends Country (or what has loosely become defined as “country” in the wake of the horrific Pop-Country explosion of the last half-decade plus). Simpson is unbounded in his use of horn sections, string arrangements, and anything in between on highlights like “Breakers Roar”, “Keep It Between the Lines”, and “All Around You”. I do have a gripe with the cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”: he made it his own, but I’m not sure the hard-hitting, singular sound of Nirvana’s debut should be tampered with in this fashion. Still, I’ve found a lot to enjoy here. I suppose “alt-country” is the categorical term, but what the hell do I know? Country is a genre I casually dip my toes into every now and then. And I’m quite glad I chose to get my feet wet with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. RECOMMENDED

 

March 2016 Album Round Up!

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

Incarnate – Killswitch Engage

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

This Is What the Truth Feels Like – Gwen Stefani

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

3001: A Laced Odyssey – Flatbush Zombies

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

55 – The Knocks

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

Jomsviking – Amon Amarth

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

The Black – Asking Alexandria

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

Collegrove – 2 Chainz & Lil’ Wayne

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

That’s Hip Hop – Joell Ortiz

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

 

 

 

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

Atreyu’s “Long Live” Single

The undisputed heavyweight champions of emo, watered-down, overproduced pseudo-metal have returned! Just kidding, I love Atreyu. Their unique blend of metalcore, alternative, and a touch of classic metal on albums like The Curse and A Death-Grip On Yesterday served as a major gateway for me into this beautiful world of aggressive music. I am also unflinching in my affection for 2007’s poppier, more old school Leads Sails Paper Anchor, and the album where it all came together, 2009’s career-best Congregation of the Damned. Thus, when the band announced an indefinite hiatus in 2011, I was definitely bummed. And by only the most intricate powers of deduction, one can assume that I was the opposite of bummed when Atreyu announced their return three years later, in June 2014.

Fast forward to July 2015, and we have a September 18th release date for the band’s sixth studio album, Long Live, and three singles, the latest of which is the title track, as seen above. First released was the anthemic “So Others May Live”, which beautifully merged crushing Pantera-style riffs, vintage Atreyu vocals from screamer Alex Varkatzas and drummer/crooner Brandon Saller, and superb lyrical content. It is quite possibly one of best songs the band has ever released. Next was “When the Day Is Done”,which I didn’t care for, if only due to the unforgivably cliche lyric “I’ll fly on broken wings”. Eeek.

“Long Live”, though, is another fucking gem. With a lead riff that could squeeze itself into a Slayer album, the track presents itself as a thrashier The Curse era. The gang vocals in the verses add a dose of hardcore that nicely juxtapose the song’s sleek chorus. The key to enjoying Atreyu is to see past any painful awareness of their formula. Screamed verses, melodramatic emo choruses, and some breakdowns. I know. But when the quality is at the level of “So Others May Live” and “Long Live”, it is difficult to fault a band for following a winning formula to perfection and adding some welcome, heavier new ingredients. Welcome back, Atreyu.

Broken Bells’ “After the Disco”: Quietly Universal

The concept of “universal appeal” has always intrigued me. While it’s an oxymoronic concept in and of itself, that doesn’t stop us from continuing to hypothesize its existence. Is it possible for all of mankind to unite in appreciation of a song? I mean, “Happy Birthday” is pretty damn close. And to my utter dismay, it certainly seemed as if Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was toeing the threshold in 2007, at least as it pertained to bar mitzvahs.

In theory, the music that is topping the pop charts has the greatest statistical proximity to “universal appeal”, but in reality is often surrounded by fleeting, sometimes manipulated circumstances and a potent counterculture. To escape the wrath of the purists and attain true universal appeal, there has to be a marriage of musicianship and accessibility. It can’t be Fetty Wap, and it can’t be Opeth. This is something I’ve always been drawn to about Alternative music. While many releases under this umbrella exist on the fringes of mass recognition, I often find myself asking “who wouldn’t like this?” when listening to the likes of Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, or The Kooks, for instance. To my ears, Alternative music as a whole comes closest to the balancing act of authenticity and mainstream-ready accessibility.

Which brings us to indie rock band/duo Broken Bells’ second album, After the Disco. Consisting in the studio of Shins’ frontman James Mercer and Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, the music on this album is so easy to enjoy it is almost sickening. Of course, my reliably cynical homeboys at Pitchfork weren’t too fond of it, but that site is just troll-laden background noise at this point. Upon hearing the infectious synths of opening track “Perfect World”, the 2015 version of me was instantly hooked. But interestingly enough, I have a feeling that 1999 Backstreet-Boys-fanatic me, 2006 thinks-he’s-black me, and 2009 angry-metal-purist me would all equally enjoy it (hence my rambling intro on universality). In a fluid, consistently interesting 45 minutes, Mercer and Burton weave in and out of dreamy, atmospheric synths, simple and catchy guitar riffs, and 60’s pop worship, only falling a bit flat for me on the bland balladry of “Lazy Wonderland”. Particular highlights include the irresistible title track, the reflective “Angel and the Fool”, and “Holding On For Life”.

Obviously I’m pushing my luck a bit, but After the Disco is a prime example of why Alternative music is – for lack of a better term – quietly universal. While often not entering the Billboard Top 100, artists like Broken Bells and many of their peers make music that is easy to like and difficult to dislike. It certainly leaves me wishing it got a tad more exposure.

Children of Bodom’s “Morrigan” Single

Maybe I am hungover. Maybe a night of uninspiring small talk and watered down gin-and-tonics has left me slightly cynical. But did one of my Mount Rushmore bands just disappoint me for the first time in my life? Did I just find out Santa Claus isn’t real?

Children of Bodom have undergone major stylistic changes with nearly every release in their career, leaving impossible-to-please metal fans cranky and disillusioned every step of the way. For almost half my life, I have vigorously defended this band, because to my ears, the quality has been incredibly consistent despite the variety of styles (head over to my Youtube channel for that rant). But, alas.

This new single is so fucking uninspiring that I might have to put my guitar down and go to law school. The riffs are boring, the solo is like a 30-second flatline, and the production just neuters the guitars. If I want overly-processed distorted guitars, I’m sure I have a copy of Nickelback’s Dark Horse laying around here somewhere. But this is metal. I need amps in the face. I need that raw, primal-instinct-triggering onslaught of rage that makes our music so beautiful and so unique. This song does nothing of the sort for me. This song makes me think of spooning my hypothetical wife 20 years into our marriage. All of this aside though, “Morrigan” does have a double bass-laden chorus that heavily compensates for the rest of the track. But for me, it still falls short of redemption.

Children of Bodom’s new album I Worship Chaos comes out October 2nd. Hopefully the complete vision is simply misrepresented by “Morrigan”. Or hopefully I will have found love and will be in a better mood.