Ryan-Adams-LP-Ashes-and-Fire-cover Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire

★★★☆☆

Identifying emotional honesty within music frequently stalls a tuned listener’s perspective of a perplexing record; Bon Iver’s music is heartbreaking, but are his lyrics as well? Are Weezer making fun of themselves, or do they just have a peculiarly honest sense of humor with their audience? Ryan Adams, in particular, confounds even the most dogged interpreter of his work. Most recently Adams put out a sci-fi metal concept album under the name Orion, preceded by a rootsy country-rock album with his favorite backing band, The Cardinals. He has a slew of unfortunately named side projects (Werewolph and Sleazy Handshake the least fortunate of the bunch), so that the troubadour’s new LP, Ashes and Fire, is recorded under his name bears out some sort of miracle. But lest listeners believe Adams would return to the easy pop of Easy Tiger or Gold, or even (one hopes) make a fitting sequel to Heartbreaker, the prolific songwriter’s compass has geared him toward plaintive dad-folk, at once contemplative, derivative and occasionally poignant.

But those who love the hardcore pop of Adams’ more AM radio geared fare will certainly be satiated. Violin soaked “Chains of Love” turns Adams into a back porch version of Coldplay, “Rocks” tunes the vocal pitch up to James Taylor levels and the title track recalls country fried Ben Folds. Adams has always been a man of many faces, but the faces he chooses to emulate here show themselves far more clearly than before. Some work better than others; “Kindness” recalls Bonnie Raitt in many of the important ways, and brings back one of Heartbreaker’s greatest strengths, that Adams’ voiced blends almost spiritually perfectly with a woman’s.

Even if he’s cooing duds like “do you believe in love?,” the vocal interplay and welcome introduction of a Wurlitzer pipe organ make up for the broad lyrical strokes that pepper the last half of the album.

Harder to determine, though, is whether those emotionally cloying phrases hurt Ashes and Fire. An album not built off of anything complexing, the breeziness of the music frequently drifts together with the wispy lyrics. Only the painfully naïve would allow themselves to be emotionally moved by what Adams is singing, but its a testament to his deep well of musical knowledge that he knows how to bend a tune to hit not just your ear. Easily the best track on the record, “Save Me” borrows heavily from Southern contemporary-pop legend Marc Cohn, building to something that isn’t quite gospel, but certainly has a certain first world style pain. Most of the songs here aren’t directed at anyone specific, which gives them a bit of a cinematic in the wrong way vibe; Ashes and Fire, in its bad moments (final song “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say”), sounds like obvious choices for movie soundtracks.

Ryan Adams has long shed his emotionally vulnerable skin, and he no longer has the verve to pipe up something powerful or adroit enough to enrapture a listener. Ashes and Fire is affirmation of that, as if his work with the Cardinals hadn’t hinted toward where we are now already. But instead of expected something groundbreaking, Ryan Adams has made something simple and effective, if broad-stroked and borrowed. The man remains a talented musician, and his do-as-much-with-this-little approach here works more than it doesn’t. Just don’t go in expecting “Come Pick Me Up.” He’s past that.

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire Tracklist::

  1. “Dirty Rain”
  2. “Ashes & Fire”
  3. “Come Home”
  4. “Rocks”
  5. “Do I Wait”
  6. “Chains of Love”
  7. “Invisible Riverside”
  8. “Save Me”
  9. “Kindness”
  10. “Lucky Now”
  11. “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say”
Kasabian Velociraptor Album Cover Kasabian – Velociraptor!

★★★½☆

Kasabian frontman Tom Meighan boastfully stated a few months back that the group’s upcoming album “will change people’s lives.” Is this a terribly overstated notion about his “band of pack hunters” and their latest endeavor? Probably.

Polished and more straightforward, Velociraptor! hits harder than the band’s previous outings. With more than a decade of experience behind them, Kasabian have moved from newborn indie-sensation to mammoth-sized beast of musical aptitude. Meighan, along with guitarist Sergio Pizzorno, have spent 12 years together as Kasabian, and it shows. Four studio albums later, these boys have crafted a record that fully realizes the potential hinted at in past releases.

For the avid Kasabian listener, Velociraptor! aims to please with familiar tendencies such as powerful hooks and striking ill-tempered vocals while subtly introducing smooth textures and beaten-down tempos, namely on cuts “I Hear Voices” and “Neon Noon.” Those flourishes are none other than the signature of producer Dan the Automator, whose work on Gorillaz’ debut album catapulted the then-unknown group to widespread acclaim. On Velociraptor!, the Automator aims to do the same; amping up the indie. And the rock.

The title track delivers a loaded punch (or, in this case, bite) with a tongue-in-cheek chorus over a rollicking, irresistible rhythm: “Velociraptor/He’s gonna find ya/He’s gonna kill ya/He’s gonna eat ya,” Meighan snarls. Suddenly, the exclamation mark becomes warranted. Album highlight “Switchblade Smiles” features a heavy-on-bass thumping groove, while “Re-Wired” dials in disco as the Kasabian frontman yelps, “Hit me!/Harder!/I’m gettin’ re-wired/I hit the switch to make you feel electric.”

With Velociraptor!, the English rockers have moved into a more accessible arena, reaching out to new listeners with rippling guitar statements and assertive vocals, all while rewarding an ever-devout fanbase. Hot off the heels of West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, a contender for the 2009 Mercury Prize, Kasabian have delivered a fierce set of new tunes.

Kasabian – Velociraptor! Tracklist:

  1. “Let’s Roll Just Like We Used To”
  2. “Days Are Forgotten”
  3. “Goodbye Kiss”
  4. “La Fée Verte”
  5. “Velociraptor!”
  6. “Acid Turkish Bath (Shelter from the Storm)”
  7. “I Hear Voices”
  8. “Re-wired”
  9. “Man of Simple Pleasures”
  10. “Switchblade Smiles”
  11. “Neon Noon”
Skeletons-People-Album-Cover Skeletons – People

★★★★½

Skeletons new album, People, pushes beyond what typical guitar, bass, keys, drums and vocals can do. This album goes right to your head. Just from the cover (an amalgamation of different people sewn together to form one singular Frankenstein-esque face), you’ll realize that even if you’re a person who listens to this alone in your room every night with headphones, you’re still part of the human experience in a very particular way.

Lyrically, this album is one giant story that sounds like a mix between transcriptions of news reports and slam poetry. However, the lyrics are delivered straight-faced by the band’s singer without screams or any studio effects and, most of the time, in a spoken-word way.

The songs on People are extremely minimal, but they take listeners somewhere and can leave them feeling suspended in an ethereal place of their own imagination.

The terrible things Skeletons sing about start appearing from the very first line of the album: “Little Rich got his face shot off.” The instrumentals on People are repetitive and catchy, and it works together to keep the focus on the lyrics, but you’ll get the various little piano hooks, and finger-tapped guitar riffs stuck in your head after the first listen.

The strange thing is that this album has the same sort of single-note mayhem on guitar that it does on piano. When the two instruments combine, forces on songs such as, “Walmart and the Ghost of Jimmy Damour” make you wonder what this band is doing. Were they together when they recorded this? Is the writing from personal experience or newspaper headlines? Are they insane?

The songs on People sound like Explosions in the Sky found a loop pedal and started dissecting their songs to create new collages with the little pieces. Each song is totally unique from the others, and Skeletons are extremely talented at their instruments. Nothing on this album sounds sloppy or out of place. The production is professional, and it doesn’t try to cover up mistakes or a lack of original songwriting.

If you are to listen to this album from start to finish as a whole, you’re not the same person coming out. The lyrics make you wonder about everyone you see on the street and their lives. It makes you take a look at the people around you and actually wonder what makes them tick. On top of that, the songs have small brushstroke details in the instrumental work that the band added, such as on “Tania Head,” that make the track stick out.

Whether it’s a flurry of notes plucked staccato style for one quick second or an unexpected pause in the melody or beat, it never hurts the song or seems thrown in at the last minute. Everything Skeletons does here is top-notch and has created a massive album with tons of replay value.

Skeletons – People Tracklisting:

  1. “L’il Rich”
  2. “Grandma”
  3. “More Than the One Thing”
  4. “Walmart and the Ghost of Jimmy Damour”
  5. “No”
  6. “Tania Head”
  7. “Barack Obama Blues”
  8. “People”
wilcothewholelove Wilco – The Whole Love

★★★★½

Every fan has a favorite Wilco. For some, it’s the breezy alt-country band of Sky Blue Sky. For others, it’s the chaotic kitchen-sink cooks of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Some fans are stuck between the two extremes, in the realm of Summerteeth. Wilco—a band of venerable indie grandpas—always has drawn in listeners for both its approachability and its conceptualism, its ease and its art.

On The Whole Love, Wilco’s eighth studio album, the 17-year-old band polishes and merges the extremes, packaging a sound more defined than any of its earlier work. It’s a record for every fan.

The album kicks off with—rather, mildly tosses its foot around with—”Art of Almost,” a seven-minute track that begins as a psychedelic haze of soft lyrics and synthesizer and ends a frantic, bleep-bloopin’ jam of layered electric guitars. “I Might” and “Dawned on Me” follow and are more distinctly Wilco, wrapped in rhythmic, key-heavy rock and snappy lyrics.

“Sunloathe” and “Rising Red Lung” are dreamy and achy—a style perfected by frontman Jeff Tweedy on early albums. (Quiet and unsettling are two things the band does very well, but not as often as it should.) Just three songs in, “Sunloathe”‘s lyrics (“I don’t know how to love anything, myself”) will solidly convert those who were drawn to young Tweedy’s self-loathing, lovelorn songwriting—a surely sizable portion of the Wilco fan base.

The Whole Love begs to be listened to all the way through—and again, just to make sure you’ve got the full effect.

Listening with headphones is a fitting recommendation, as the best thing about this album is its musical intricacies. It’s best heard on headphones, according to multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone; the album is subtle on some tracks and bursting on others.

The record’s final song, the 12-minute “One Sunday Morning,” is its greatest victory—the band’s best since 2007′s “You Are My Face.” And yet, it’s a completely different track—mellow and mature and lyrically epic, exploring death and birth and the conflict between. It’s a mesmerizing folk track layered with acoustic guitar, piano and winding, subtle electronica.  In context, it’s the perfect ending to the album’s story. But if you weren’t listening carefully — if the songs were playing over the speakers of some Starbucks, if you hadn’t spent the past 11 songs with the band—you might find it dull.

The Whole Love is ambitious and rejuvenating for a band whose biggest hit (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) was released almost 10 years ago. In a way, it’s a response to Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), which both were criticized for being too soft—too “dad rock,” too focused on Tweedy’s disillusioned lyrics and pleading voice. But between “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning,” Wilco has definitively become an indie-folk band that writes experimental, impress-all-your-friends records seamlessly, without dividing its fans. And it’s about time.

Wilco – The Whole Love tracklist:

  1. “Art of Almost”
  2. “I Might”
  3. “Sunloathe”
  4. “Dawned on Me”
  5. “Black Moon”
  6. “Born Alone”
  7. “Open Mind”
  8. “Capitol City”
  9. “Standing O”
  10. “Rising Red Lung”
  11. “Whole Love”
  12. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”
Print Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams

★★☆☆☆

It doesn’t just take a lo-fi fan to like Dum Dum Girls. It might take a second listen through and some extra persuasion. Something about the record they’ve put out calls for some other visual that isn’t obtainable solely based on the music put into their latest record.

The way Only in Dreams opens alludes to a sort of The Runaways vibe. No other vintage sounds would cut right to the chase, wasting no time and engaging the listener off the bat. “Always Looking” will grab fans’ attention very quickly and keep them through the set, especially where there becomes a chanting sort of repetitive nature though each song.

You’re going to have to be in the right setting to turn this band on. Dum Dum Girls don’t produce homework music, party music or exercise beats. Rather, picture yourself on the commute to work or taking a walk when listening. Do with it what you please, but the tunes are manufactured for a particular place and time.

The band gets clever with its vocals here and there throughout the album. Dum Dum Girls offer a splash of banter back and forth in a few tracks, which adds another dimension to the templated nature of their album in entirety.

Especially where we see many energies on the record, particularly in “Coming Down” where it isn’t all lighthearted and fluffy. Here, the mood breaks down to only vocal and drum, a very low point on Only in Dreams that remained strong through its hollowness. This highlights a special side of the band that diversifies the entire album.

As a whole, Dum Dum Girls have produced something particularly uninspiring. There is no spunk nor spark to the music the band laid unto their work with Only In Dreams. It’s sad in the least depressing way: not because it can bring you to tears–that would be inspiring, but because its styling is dense, lifeless and transparent.

The most noticeable flaw along Only in Dreams is the band’s tendency to repeat a line. Often the tactic is cool in its ways of getting a point across or adding intensity during the peak or chorus of a song. Though this is their signature, it could get them labeled as one-trick ponies after this album makes its rounds. Each song sounds great by itself, but when given a full listen through, it’s obvious to pick out a pattern in the frameworks of every song.

Only in Dreams could use not just a facelift but also a taste of heart. One would think that the work of four women would lead to an inevitably lovey album, but this release is quite cold. There isn’t a musician-listener relationship that addresses a story being unfolded, but more so a musician-musician relationship. Now is this what making music is all about?

Dum Dum Girls make noise that’s quite their own. It’s a lovely trip to times when this was considered the classics of pop-rock. Today, it’s considered avant-garde. Funny how that works.

Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams Tracklist:

  1. “Always Looking”
  2. “Bedroom Eyes”
  3. “Just a Creep”
  4. “In My Head”
  5. “Heartbeat”
  6. “Caught in One”
  7. “Coming Down”
  8. “Wasted Away”
  9. “Teardrops on My Pillow”
  10. “Hold Your Hand”
Das Racist - Relax Das Racist – Relax

★★★½☆

Are we all aware of the existence of “Xtranormal,” the website where users can create their own videos with slow-as-molasses cartoon characters and android-like computer voices? For those who are not: “Xtranormal” videos are hilarious because the comically monotonous delivery of whatever script is being performed unveils the inherent absurdities in what’s being said. (Duh.) It is delightful. It is unsettling, sometimes, what we become comfortable with because of good or stimulating delivery.

What Xtranormal does for text, Das Racist does for rap. Sort of.

The dance/rap trio (Heems, Kool A.D. and Dap) has become known for their humorous, infectious, self-aware and occasionally-deemed “nonsensical” lyrics. And based on the titles of their first two mix tapes—Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man—and now their first full-length album—Relax—it can be inferred that they may want listeners to stop overthinking their non sequitur style of storytelling.

But they don’t. While Heems himself has used terms like “dadaism” and “ non sequiturs” when describing their music, the lyrical choices they make go a hell of a lot further than nowhere. As notoriously polarizing as their music may be in terms of meaning vs. lack thereof, the discontent and disaffection within Das Racist is palpable. The silliness of their lyrics contain an intelligence and conscience within the comedy: it lays bare the absurdity in so much of the dance/rap/hip-hop music that becomes wildly popular. Adopted vocal personas and chants, like the pitbull tough aggression on “Michael Jackson” and “The Trick,” indirectly reveal the atrocious lyrics that we become comfortable chanting in a lot of commercially popular music; see, for example: “I’m fucking great at rapping!”

And they do more than function in stupidity alone even though the chants in “Michael Jackson” may seem completely nonsensical, the specific phrase choices seem to point directly at the hilarity and meaninglessness of celebrating ludicrous wealth to our Millennial Generation.

That said, the problem of Xtranormal must be acknowledged. While its deadpan, purely self-referential mode of being has a very specific and worthwhile function, it is not what we turn to as the kind of art that will satisfy us on a regular or prolonged basis. Similarly, the self-referential, unmoved attitude of Relax is important for a generation for whom there is such abundance of musical choices in which it is so simple to be mindless, it does beg for some substance to refer to at some point. At 14 tracks long, this blasé, meta-rap gets to be a bit relentless, despite the insanely great beats.

“The Trick” approaches some heart with its Lost Boy cry-out: “I’m ill/People really love me/I’m whack/People think I’m ugly/I’m ill/Five hundred for the boots/I’m whack/I never tell the truth/Four hundred for the boots.” But, again, its heart wouldn’t be present without an outside musical influence to criticize.

They’re functioning in this critical mode quite well. Das Racist makes amazing dance music with beats so infallibly badass, it makes the listener want to lower their chin, steady their gaze and mad-dog any motherfucker who dares to get in their way. Low, heavy tones abound, causing inevitable pursed-lipped, brow-furrowed head-nodding on nearly every song. The title track is particularly innovative in its disjointed, contagious sampling and auto-tuned cackling, which disintegrates into chaos by the song’s end.

But it also seems reasonable to ask what Das Racist cares about besides the shitty lyrics, beliefs or standards of everything that is outside of Das Racist. There is more to be said by these innovative, talented beasts besides “yuck.”

Das Racist – Relax tracklist:

  1. “Relax”
  2. “Michael Jackson”
  3. “Brand New Dance”
  4. “Middle of the Cake”
  5. “Girl”
  6. “Shut Up, Man”
  7. “Happy Rappy”
  8. “Booty in the Air”
  9. “Power”
  10. “Punjabi Song”
  11. “Selena”
  12. “Rainbow in the Dark”
  13. “The Trick”
  14. “Celebration”
Mastodon–LP-The-Hunter-cover Mastodon – The Hunter

★★★☆☆

Atlanta’s most successful progressive-sludge outfit, Mastodon, has grown exponentially since the release of its full-length debut Remission. The band garnered attention rapidly among metalheads and music critics alike by melding Neurosis-influenced sludge with mathy interludes, creating the first unique take on sludge in some time.

Mastodon’s ambition grew as it released three ambitious concept records in a row. Each one saw the group push itself in new directions, even if the albums could be a bit bloated and overwrought at times. On its fifth studio album, The Hunter, the band has created its first nonconcept record since Remission, and it’s the least Mastodon has ever sounded like Mastodon.

What The Hunter lacks in concept, it makes up for with pummeling riffs courtesy of guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. The riffs often are less challenging than what has appeared on previous Mastodon releases, displaying that Hinds and Kelliher were channeling their classic-rock influences in the making of The Hunter.

The group scales back its ambition, but despite the lack of time-signature shifts, drummer Bränn Dailor still makes the most of each song, even composing and taking up lead vocals on “Creature Lives.” After the pointless, minute-long intro is over, Dailor’s contribution proves worthwhile. It is perhaps the most stripped-down, classic-rock arrangement in Mastodon’s catalog, and Dailor’s clean vocals allow for huge harmonies to be placed atop and appear natural.

Throughout The Hunter, it is obvious there is little linking one end to the other.

It’s not that the record is disjointed; it functions as a collection of standalone rock songs instead of a cohesive record. This, of course, is not because Mastodon lacks technical ability. If anything, it appears that the group has been listening to a lot of Torche and is infatuated with that group’s pop-metal approach. Unfortunately, it takes the proficient bass playing and hard-edged vocals of Troy Sanders and ostracizes them from the rest of Mastodon.

The Hunter is an enjoyable listen when one disconnects the fact that it is a Mastodon album. “Curl of the Burl” is an example of how well Mastodon can turn sludgy riffs into a downright catchy rock song. But after 13 tracks that all employ this approach, it begins to feel as though Mastodon is holding back, eliminating the adventurous and progressive nature that made it so powerful.

The problem with The Hunter is not that it is a bad album; it just proves to be the group’s least-remarkable offering. There are numerous moments that are inspired, heavy and damn catchy, but it is far from unique. If it were pared down to an EP, it would be a highly enjoyable release that sees the group pay homage to its favorite rock gods. But after nearly an hour, it ends up wearing thin and offering few reasons to give it a repeat listen.

Mastodon – The Hunter Tracklist:

  1. “Black Tongue”
  2. “Curl of the Burl”
  3. “Blasteroid”
  4. “Stargasm”
  5. “Octopus Has No Friends”
  6. “All the Heavy Lifting”
  7. “The Hunter”
  8. “Dry Bone Valley”
  9. “Thickening”
  10. “Creature Lives”
  11. “Spectrelight”
  12. “Bedazzled Fingernails”
  13. “The Sparrow”
Blink-182-Neighborhoods Blink-182 – Neighborhoods

★★☆☆☆

PREFACE: Consider this while reading; did Untitled ever really happen? Or was it a dream?

—-

When faced with the derision that comes with identifying as a “Blink-182 fan,” defenders have decent ammo for why they are one of the most underrated bands of the past 15 years. The bratty youth revolt they foretold is only now taking shape (Best Coast and Wavves both regularly cover, and sound like, Blink), their down-strumming suburban amateurishness is relatable and occasionally even poignant, possessing a manic energy screaming, “I may not be technically good at playing this guitar, but I care enough to make this mediocre playing sound great.” Blink-182 always cared, even if it was writing a stupid song about a first date.

Neighborhoods is nothing like that. Blink-182’s sixth studio album is cold, damp and sludgy—the kind of record Blink nay-sayers have been waiting for.

One of the main things that broke up Blink-182 was Tom DeLonge’s stubborn desire to record only in his house, effectively splitting the band and crippling the creative writing process for their records. As if it weren’t evident on even a glancing listen, Neighborhoods was recorded this way. DeLonge recorded his parts in his house, and Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker recorded in a studio separately. While the band toured together, rekindling a companionship with their fans and with one another, their recording process drove their upcoming record to its logical end: the worst Blink-182 record since Cheshire Cat, a disjointed effort bearing no resemblance to the creative fruit created in the height of Blink’s greatness (2001-03).

Nothing has been made of the tragic loss of Blink production guru Jerry Finn, although much should be made of it, given the production sounds of Neighborhoods. Compressed to immeasurable levels, volume turned up to mask a lack of dynamism, the album is a gigantic stadium riff played without nuance. There are no more inventive production cues or ideas (with the exception of the flange-drum riff in “Wishing Well”).

But then again, the production matches the emotional weight put into it. While the lyrics trend darker (“death” is sung in at least half of the songs), DeLonge’s voice carries none of the urgency he imbued into his former Blink work, or even the best days of his Angels and Airwaves side project. (This is saying nothing of the fact that DeLonge’s voice now most closely resembles a frog.) Hoppus seems more on his emotional game than DeLonge, but even his delivery recalls Rancid’s later days: a mindless song factory to recall former glories. Hoppus is responsible for the albums two best songs, but even they don’t stack up against any of Blink’s back-catalog. They’re +44 b-sides, and they sound like it. It doesn’t matter that +44 was the most propulsive of Blink’s side projects. +44 was never Blink-182, and it shouldn’t be now.

The usual Blink aggression has all but vanished, as well. Most of the songs most closely resemble miserable AVA album I-Empire, simply because DeLonge is commanding the proceedings with stadium, sweeping riffs that are more lifeless than marshaling. Even the mildly innocuous “Kaleidoscope” gets mangled by a Creed-worthy chug of a chorus. There are myriad redeemable moments (the bridge of “After Midnight,” or the angelic way DeLonge and Hoppus’ voices harmonize), and even a song that sounds like energetic Blink (“MH 4.18.2011”). However, every acceptable—not great by any means—point is swathed by minutes of mediocrity of pointlessness (the ugly synths that seem to be all over the place). DeLonge and Hoppus rarely align on any song, and every effort carries overt signs of what the other put into it. Nothing meshes together. For the first time in Blink-182’s history, the sum of its parts doesn’t amount to anything whole.

The record’s fragments are more damning when viewed in a larger context; Neighborhoods can’t really be called a Blink-182 album. It’s certainly an album by Mark, Tom and Travis, but that’s not the point. Neighborhoods sounds like the work of three individuals forced to do a record because the reunion dictates it. It doesn’t sound like a band pushing themselves to get past their limitations to reach something beautiful, something Blink-182 have always been incredibly gifted at doing. As the album closes with “Love Is Dangerous” (quite easily the worst song any member of the band, together or separate, has ever composed), Neighborhoods just leaves. It’s not a travesty, leaving the listener in a rage. It just is. A misstep of an album made by three talented artists who should’ve thought a bit more about what made them the great band they once were.

Blink-182 – Neighborhoods (deluxe edition) tracklist:

  1. “Ghost on the Dance Floor”
  2. “Natives”
  3. “Up All Night”
  4. “After Midnight”
  5. “Snake Charmer”
  6. “Hearts All Gone (Interlude)”
  7. “Hearts All Gone”
  8. “Wishing Well”
  9. “Kaleidoscope”
  10. “This Is My Home”
  11. “MH 4.18.2011″
  12. “Love Is Dangerous”
  13. “Fighting the Gravity”
  14. “Even If She Falls”
Wolves-in-the-Throne-Room-LP-Celestial-Lineage-cover Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage

★★★½☆

For a region known for producing indie-pop darlings and first-rate coffee, it’s tough to imagine the Pacific Northwest as home to Wolves in the Throne Room, a black-metal outfit with a penchant for the dramatic. Brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver do the heavy lifting for the band while numerous session players pitch in.

Together, the Brothers Weaver have created the kind of music that would make Neurosis proud: elaborately conceived metal music that often operates on a somber, more ambient level between moments of frenetic rock ‘n’ roll.

On their latest album, Celestial Lineage, the band take this aesthetic and push it to the nines, crafting a collection of tunes that should leave fans of both the band and the genre adequately sated.

The mystique surrounding Wolves in the Throne Room has garnered as much intrigue as the music itself. The popular conception puts the Weavers’ somewhere deep the mighty woodlands of Oregon, communing with the trees and churning out pagan mood music for all to enjoy.

The actual process of recording the album probably isn’t all that grandiose, but you couldn’t say the same thing about the music. Full of sweeping instrumentation and intricate structuring, Celestial Lineage is an epically envisioned piece of black-metal theatricality.

Save for a pair of brief interludes, each track clocks in at more than five minutes, with some even surpassing the 10-minute mark. For those who aren’t fans of the genre, Celestial Lineage might be a tedious experience. This is an album about long, sustained ideas meant to evoke feelings of dread.

With song titles like “Permanent Changes in Consciousness” and “Prayer of Transformation,” it’s safe to assume the content at hand is weighty and not easily digestible.

But such epically scoped songs as “Subterranean Initiation” are indicative of how focused Wolves in the Throne Room are on each piece of the puzzle. Let’s face it: black metal (and metal in general) can be fairly monotonous. There’s a good deal of incessant instrumentation and a heightened focus on theatricality rather than pure musicianship.

Celestial Lineage represents something  more nuanced. In creating an overall package, whose sums are equal to its whole, the Weaver brothers have accomplished what so many black-metal acts strive to achieve but rarely do: making an album that’s as listenable as it is expansive.

Sure, there are the trademark moments that induce copious amounts of head scratching, such as on “Woodland Cathedral,” a song mostly composed of ethereal chanting and spaced-out synth sounds. It makes sense in terms of staying true to the genre, but the end result feels no less superfluous.

But things pick up quickly on the next track, “Astral Blood,” which is raucously fitted with speedy guitar work and a decidedly upbeat tempo. Compared with the rest of the album, “Astral Blood” seems out of place. But credit the band and their ability to shift between sounds so seamlessly.

Versatility is a valuable asset to any artist, and on Celestial Lineage, Wolves in the Throne Room have it in spades. These dudes are metal to the core, but their true skill lies in their ability to sprinkle in subtle—but no less effective—surprises.

Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage Tracklist:

  1. “Thuja Magus Imperium”
  2. “Permanent Changes in Consciousness”
  3. “Subterranean Initiation”
  4. “Rainbow Illness”
  5. “Woodland Cathedral”
  6. “Astral Blood”
  7. “Prayer of Transformation”
Apparat-LP-The-Devils-Walk-cover Apparat – The Devil’s Walk

★★★★☆

Germany’s electronic brilliance, Apparat (aka Sascha Ring), migrated south this past winter to create a musical landscape unlike his past explorations. The Devil’s Walk is a change of pace for Ring. The melodies glide a little more gracefully, and the beats land a little more subtly. Straying even further away from the techno-style dance beats that he jump-started his career with, Ring continuously brands himself in a new light with each album he releases.

Since his last full-length release Walls in 2007, Apparat has released several EPs and mixes to quench his fans’ thirsts. Delving into dubstep, techno and house, along with ambient and atmospherical textures, Ring melds a blend topped with his own variation of a tropical twist.

Nestled up in a mountaintop house with a stunning ocean view, Ring and several musician friends spent their time basking in the warm Mexico sun in hopes of creating an album with a lighter, breezier sound. Escaping the harsh winters of Berlin for inspiration was well worth the trek.

The Devil’s Walk is a dreamy, ambient soundtrack of whimsical melodies and airy textures.

“Black Water” is the melodic first single. The vocals are melancholy and soft, yet hopeful—like tears of happiness after a moment of self-discovery. The sunny influences are highly apparent in this track with an oceanic sound-filled backdrop: coated, airy vocals and echoed keys.

Easily comparable to Thom Yorke, in vocals and styling, Ring is just as genius (or close to) yet highly underrated in the American electronic music scene.  However, his work in Europe as a producer, co-owner of label Shitkatapult Records and experimental musician has gotten him ample praise. His meticulous production of various layers of sounds and emotional vocal complements makes the comparison clear.

In the most obvious example, Apparat relays carefully scattered glitches over continuous reverbs. The layers of fragile beats atop the relentless build-up in “Ash/Black Veil” unravel with haunting destruction. His atmospheric sound is encompassing and warm, yet tense and anxious. Combining highly produced sounds with organic ones, “Ash/Black Veil” is a beautifully eerie anthem.

Not every song off The Devil’s Walk is dark and mysterious, though. Album closer “Your House Is My World” is a peaceful ballad. Melodic and touching, this closer ends way too soon. The folk influences and graceful vocals are lined perfectly with a continuous, simple beat. The song is weightless and flowy, a perfect way to end an inspirational and long-awaited journey.

Apparat – The Devil’s Walk tracklist:

  1. “Sweet Unrest”
  2. “Song of Los”
  3. “Black Water”
  4. “Goodbye”
  5. “Candil de la Calle”
  6. “The Soft Voices Die”
  7. “Escape”
  8. “Ash/Black Veil”
  9. “A Bang in the Void”
  10. “Your House Is My World”
mogwai-earth-division-ep Mogwai – Earth Division

★★★★☆

The method of analysis known as titular criticism, the idea that objets d’art can be analyzed and interpreted via the titles the artists have given to their works, has always been a hit or miss concept, but certainly the Scottish “post-rock” ensemble Mogwai beg for such an approach.

Given that the group performs more than 95 percent instrumental music, it’s interesting that they’ve developed a penchant for seemingly ridiculous titles as “You’re Lionel Richie” (shudder), ”A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters,” “Punk Rock/Puff Daddy/Antichrist,” “Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep” (sic), “George Square Thatcher Death Party,”  and best of all, “Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Police and Loses His Slut Girlfriend.”  To say these song titles have little to do with the songs themselves might seem an understatement; since there are rarely lyrics, it’s impossible to extrapolate the meaning of the title from its relation to the lyrics.

On their new EP, Earth Division, they follow up their most recent full-length record, the excellent Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, released this February, with explorations of the more orchestral leanings, and the lush, lyrical instrumentation for which they have become known. In many ways, the EP seems to start in media res, with a piano-based, orchestral pop approach.

The song titles here are not quite as nonsensical, and certainly not as “laugh out loud” funny, and it’s not as difficult to relate the titles to the songs themselves.

On “Get To France,” perhaps there is a musical affinity expressed with something not as grandiose as their usual approach; this track could be background music to Juliette Binoche wiping down the chocolate counter after hours in Chocolat. In addition, given their affinity for referencing geography in their titles as well, most notably on the previous record’s “Mexico City” and “San Pedro,” it’s possible that Mogwai’s reference to a trip to France in the title is deliberate.

“Hound of Winter” is another rare Mogwai song, not only in the accuracy of its title, but most notably in the presence of vocals. The lyrics, sung in wispy, almost “not there” tenor, contemplate the passage of time, to wit:  “Where does it go?”  The hound in the title represents the prospect of the coming season of death.

The next cut is such an abrupt shift, it seems almost …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead-like by comparison, or imagine if The Flaming Lips adopted the approach of Neil Young’s Trans. “Drunk and Crazy” begins with a return to post-rock territory, with distorted electronic rhythms that pummel like a rusted rake against a white picket fence, but at the same time wash in and out like ocean waves receding from the craggy cliffs of Scotland. When the strings come back in at the midpoint of the piece, they are a sonic rescue boat dispatched to rescue the orphans of the sea. In the end, the two sonic approaches become one and they unite to form a whirlpool, a maelstrom of swirling, pounding waves that suddenly dissipates and sinks into the sand.

“Does This Always Happen?” ponders the consequences of such a musical approach. It’s a lament, a requiem for music as it was and never shall be again. The song is propelled by a simple guitar part that repeats throughout like a Buzzcocks cut skipping on a record played at too slow a speed. “Don’t pick it up!  Don’t pick it up!,” it seems to say of this musical hot potato that could shimmer in the sun but spontaneously combust like a powder keg that was once held together by strings swaying lackadaisically. Admittedly, most of that menace is implied, but it’s the underlying tension that generates such beauty, not in the majestic sprawling way that Mogwai loyalists may have come to expect, but in an unassuming fashion, full of delicacy and subtlety.

Perhaps with the Earth Division EP, Mogwai are demarcating a division from their previous work and their future direction, but regardless, it functions as a suitable coda to Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.

Mogwai – Earth Division EP tracklist:

  1. “Get to France”
  2. “Hound of Winter”
  3. “Drunk and Crazy”
  4. “Does This Always Happen?”
Clap-Your-Hands-Say-Yeah-Hysterical Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical

★★½☆☆

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah puts up a good fight. On Hysterical, the band has a clear evolution of the style they’re in right now. We, as listeners, can watch them become stronger within the energy they’ve conquered at this stage in their careers. It’s mostly light and flowing as opposed to their usual. What’s exciting about their change of pace can quickly be compromised for a single-toned sort of safe complexion throughout.

A lot of hype has gone into the release of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s new album. Unfortunately, many of the people who hoped for great music on this album might be let down. Hysterical has no surprises, no astonishments and no incredibility. Only once or twice does it have the listener really going. Aside from that, much of the same work is repeated musically. The record is a little more pop-rock than indie-experimental, and that’s its greatest mistake. The work of the band since their beginning has followed more of an individual indie-rock style, but it seems that they’ve settled for a more mainstream tone that we’ve heard before. It’s a shame that CYHSY couldn’t take a bigger risk or even go along with what they’ve produced in the past. This is an obvious downgrade from what fans are used to hearing from them.

Hysterical has decent craftsmanship and execution of thoughts and ideas. Their greatest moment is at the beginning of the album in “Same Mistake.” It’s unclear whether the song sounds good because it is a legitimately good song or just because it’s new to the listener and fresh because it’s the first song. Either way, it’s fun.

The sound is much like Two Door Cinema Club mixed with the New Pornographers and a drowsy vocalist. It’s not the most appealing combination, but it’s also its own tone. For that, they deserve a bit of credit.

After the leading track introduces the album, we hear the meaning of the album in the title track, “Hysterical.” You’d think that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah would put their all into this kind of title. However, their motives lack explanation. “Hysterical” isn’t actually hysterical. It’s more like “slightly laughable.”

CYHSY’s songwriting gets its best attention early on during “Misspent Youth,” an ode to the shamelessly shameful moments of childhood and adolescence. It’s neat how they use the lyrics, “The engine was not built to last,” as the perfect metaphor for their past.

“In a Motel” is where the album tries vehemently to get creative, impelementing some synth and interesting guitar riffs as it slows down a bit. It isn’t terrible, especially because it finally goes for a newer sound halfway through the album. Yet still, it’s obvious the band tried a bit too hard to sound edgy and avant garde on the track. It’s just weird.

What’s also weird is the way the band chose to sign off. The song before the instrumental could’ve amounted to something, but instead, the piano/vocal track sounded like it had taken a sleeping pill. From there, the pace picked up into a racing track where every instrument fought for attention, including the vocals. It’s difficult to listen to, and it’s not a good way to dismiss the listener.

All in all, Hysterical isn’t what it promises. It might be a play on words, but soon, it becomes a play on the listener, and eventually, a play on the band. Sorry, folks.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical Tracklist:

  1. “Same Mistake”
  2. “Hysterical”
  3. “Misspent Youth”
  4. “Maniac”
  5. “Into Your Alien Arms”
  6. “In a Motel”
  7. “Yesterday, Never”
  8. “Idiot”
  9. “Siesta (For Snake)”
  10. “Ketamine and Ecstasy”
  11. “The Witness’ Dull Surprise”
  12. “Adam’s Plane”