February 2016 Album Round Up!

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

Khalifa – Wiz Khalifa

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

For All Kings – Anthrax

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

Day One – From Ashes to New

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

Sittin’ Heavy – Monster Truck

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

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

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

I Like it When You Sleep – The 1975

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

Victorious – Wolfmother

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

X (No Absolutes) – Prong

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

Dead Dawn – Entombed A.D.

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

 

 

Wolfmother – Victorious Review

The official edited version of this review is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 3/5

Panic! At the Disco’s “Death of a Bachelor”: Five Singles Deep

UPDATE: Full “Death of a Bachelor review here

As we cross the threshold into the second half of – what the fuck do you call this decade? the 2010s? – putting out two or three “promotional singles” for an album is a thing of the past, and streaming half (or all) of a body of work ahead of time is rapidly evolving into “industry standard”. It’s yet another music industry shift that benefits the consumer, as it allows fans to make a more educated guess about the quality of an upcoming release and a prospective “purchase” of it. Panic! At the Disco’s fifth full-length LP Death of a Bachelor doesn’t drop for another week and a half, but we can now stream 45.45% of the album thanks to the recent addition of a fifth single, “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time” (though the title track does count as six, it’s not technically part of the album’s stream). It’s actually been quite a slow ramp-up, with “Hallelujah” coming out as early as last July, but we’re certainly down the stretch now, and I figured I’d dive into these five singles simultaneously and see what Death of a Bachelor might have in store for us come January 16th.

Victorious: The album opener, which has been floating around the internet for a couple months now, has grown on me tremendously. My initial reaction wasn’t negative but was rather one of mild, underwhelmed indifference. But as I approach listen number ten or so, “Victorious” is truly brimming with energy, thanks in part to Brendon Urie’s rapid fire vocal delivery in the verses and the rollicking stomp of the post-chorus. It’s as hooky as ever too. “Living like a washed up celebrity” is an especially fun line that continues to stick with me. When I saw Panic! live this past September, “Victorious” wasn’t out yet, but this is a future live STAPLE if I’ve ever heard one.

Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time: The fifth and latest single from Bachelor is introduced with a silly guitar riff that recurs throughout the song, alternating time in the spotlight with an appropriately goofy descending piano line. When the chorus arrives, however, it feels noticeably stripped down and empty, especially compared to “Victorious”, which precedes it in the track listing. Perhaps this is intentional, but to my ears, it leaves more to be desired. I did enjoy the Ratatat-esque harmonized guitar solo, but I found this to be the least satisfying of the five tracks and debatable single material. However, it does sit quite well in between the explosive energy of Victorious and Hallelujah, leaving few strikes against it aside from “why did this need to be released in advance of the album?”

Hallelujah: My initial impression of this album’s first single was that it was a half-hearted attempt at an “anthem”. It still kind of feels that way to me, but after witnessing an overwhelmingly positive response to its performance in concert this past September, I’ve grown to appreciate its merits in that environment, and I do “like”the song. Plus we get bombarded by some candy-sweet vocal harmonies, a reminder of Brendon Urie’s absurd singing talents.

Emperor’s New Clothes: Along with having the most aggressive hook of the five singles, “Emperor’s New Clothes” finds Urie splashing around in the lower end of his vocal range during the verses which is a welcome breather (we’re on track four of the album now, mind you) . He’s accompanied by some colorful electronic flourishes and a high-register, borderline intrusive bass line, leaving the song feeling a bit on the busy side. Plus, what the hell are these lyrics? Finders keepers losers weepers? All dressed up and naked? Though we do get a (possibly unintentional) Biggie shout-out with “if you don’t know, now you know”. As a song it’s far from uneventful, but some of its eccentricities might not be for everyone. Personally, I enjoy the chorus and not necessarily the body of the tune surrounding it.

LA Devotee: So now we’ve moved from Vegas on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! to Los Angeles on Death of a Bachelor. Ok, sure. This is the track I did NOT see coming though. It has a totally different pace than the other four singles. A Pop-Punk influence hasn’t been this prominent on a Panic! At the Disco song in quite some time, but left turn or no left turn, it works. It really, really works. In what is likely to be an album highlight, the band throw a big, sexy – not to mention catchy – wrench in the works.

Love, hate, or indifferences aside, Panic! At the Disco continues to be distinctive. While my distaste for the band’s 2013 album Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! has worn off and I’ve come to really love a few of its tracks, my anticipation is definitely greater for Death of a Bachelor. I’m thinking it’s going to be a higher quality album, but most importantly, another unique chapter for an exciting band that refuses to write the same song twice.