Saturday, December 5, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2014

I don't always listen to albums when they're released. It's not that I don't get around to it - it's just that most times a flavor is best savored for a certain time of the year. Moons align, winds change, seasons whither - everything has it's soundtrack. In turn, sometimes that leaves a two year window for which to satisfy my sonic palette, especially when a record is released just after it's most appropriately designated epoch. So consider this a list in arrears. These are my favorite ten albums that were released in 2014:

10. Big Wreck - Ghosts

It wouldn't take much for Big Wreck to become a ridiculously annoying mainstream rock radio act, ala their Canadian country-mates Nickelback, prob. just a right place right time sort of scenario; I can only assume the career long tenure of intelligent riffs and eclectic influences taints the almost sickening catchiness of some of the melodies singer/songwriter Ian Thornley has been spinning since 1997's 10/10 In Loving Memory Of. B-dub's fourth magnum opus (and I mean that as Ghosts clocks in at an hour and ten minutes) hands that equation over in spades. Ghosts does a fantastic job of incorporating a little bit of everything they've done in their discography thus far, as well as exploring new territory - a fantastic formula for fans who have been listening since their inception (me), and were still thirsty for more after the 13 year hiatus breaker Albatross. I have a soft spot for Big Wreck; so while most may feel Ghosts is a bit uneven and hit-or-miss I blame nostalgia and a lack of similar acts in my collection for my sway.  The "heavier" songs groove in all the right places and soar in their melodic chorus', so much so that the sugar would be almost too sweet in spots if it wasn't peppered along the way with more exploratory, sometimes near-brooding journeys that remind you why you haven't seen them play on the Super Bowl Halftime show - because despite the ridiculous radio catchiness in places, Big Wreck never dial back in lengths, or experimentation just off-the-mark enough to keep them off of the radar of impatient FM drifters.

9. Down - Down IV Part 2

The second EP in the four part series that will total Down IV is the least likely of anything they've done to win over any new fans. That being said, it gathers both it's strength and it's appeal from the group's back catalogue as both this EP and the one that preceded it seem an animal all their own, yet a fitting piece in the evolving totality of the body of work; as any seasoned Down fan will testify, as is each release, but Down IV Part 2 is easily the most raw and visceral of it's bretheren. It's the sound of a band that's completely stripped itself of the bells and whistles, there is a grainy salt to it that isn't easy to rub against; especially for the close-minded Douche-lords still clinging to NOLA as a work unrivaled. This is Down weathered and beaten, showcasing the seasoned veterans they've become, and the pioneers of a sound they've evolved from since emerging as a third-generation Black Sabbath influence, plugging in and just fucking going for it - and the album does an amazing job of capturing that vibe. It's dark, groovy and as heavy as a really heavy thing. At  near 40 minutes long this feels less like an EP and more of exactly what it's supposed to be, another cog in the damn wheel of the big machine; listeners would be crumbling under the weight of both EP's as one album like Atlas if they released them more traditionally. Yet Down IV Part 2 ends it's marshy tread in a warm and hazy acoustic passage that feels like a proper closing to a first half, an intimation of clearer paths ahead, and perhaps a promise to be fulfilled in the form of the unplugged record Down has been talking about for nearly twenty years.

8. Pallbearer - Foundations Of Burden

Foundations Of Burden is a fucking mammoth of an album, this low-tuned slab of Candlemass-like doom is like a slow moving leviathan laying waste to landscapes as it slowly treads forth, and yet in places in grooves...interesting. I typically limit myself in most of the more sub-sub genres of heavy metal so as not to water down what I already enjoy, at the risk of sounding too much like a Mountain Dew commercial, I typically gravitate to the more extreme of these; which means I like my doom weepy with church bells and at 0.5 beats per minute. While Pallbearer sounds more like a direct descendant of Warning, or dare I say a great, great grandchild of Black Sabbath, it still delivers right where it's supposed to every time. 'Watcher In The Dark' makes you move when it starts to roll - whether you want to or not, the latter half of 'Foundations' ties your heartstrings to an anvil before kicking it over into a chasm, and I've never heard a better, cooler or more subtle riff transition than the 5 to 7 minute mark of the fantastic 'Worlds Apart'. Not to mention the new dimension of sound that  'Ashes' exhibits, never previously heard from Pallbearer, for to which I'd love for them to expound upon in future endeavors.

7. Gridlink - Longhena

While most modern more moderate to major label (budget) Grind bands like to power forth like a jet-fueled bulldozer through a landmine field, Gridlink harnesses their art like a swarm of carnivorous locusts swirling high above and collectively dive bombing their target audience in a high-end, flesh-lacerating assault. Gridlink had announced that Longhena would be their final effort whilst they were hashing it out - thusly making it's initial digestions upon release an almost religious experience to their rabid fan base, myself included. While both of this album's predecessors, Amber Grey and Orphan were fantastically frenzied fits of pure-Grind-blurring madness - the second showing an impressive progression from the first - the pattern continues and unfortunately ends with Longhena. Almost longer than the first two albums combined, at 23 minutes Longhena's penchant for injecting an almost uplifting foundation amongst the trademark six-string hurricane fury makes the album feel like an exhausting Grindcore epic. Sans the blueprint-defying violin heavy third track 'Thirst Watcher' (which adds incredible scope to the album rather than breaking it's momentum), Longhena's remaining 13 tracks pin you helplessly against the wall like a giant centrifuge and pulls you along for the ride. Kudos to Jon Chang for also recruiting Joey Molinaro to contribute, who's violin cover of Chang's previous band Discordance Axis' The Inalienable Dreamless was one of the coolest tributes to have ever made it's way to day.

6. Beck - Morning Phase

Sea Change was one of those albums that just came along at the right time under the right circumstances and bore itself into my spirit and left a scar. A phenomena that seems to happen a whole lot more when you're a twenty something borderline alcoholic shut-in, living alone with questionable social anxiety disorder. The only other thing I own from Beck is the Loser single because I thought the B-side 'Fume' was goddamn dope - and I may have downloaded 'Chemtrails' somewhere down the line. The point is that while I totally respect the guy's Ween-like ability to do whatever he wants I'm not a huge fan. So it was always a hard pill to swallow that Sea Change very well could have been a once in a career kind of album for him. Enter Morning Phase; a reunion of the Sea Change session musicians and an unofficial sequel to that album. Morning Phase harkens back to it's kin strongest in songs with strong and slightly morose string arrangements, 'Cycle', 'Wave' and 'Phase' could easily be placed anywhere on Sea Change's tracklist and only have made that album stronger than it already was. The other songs all bear the obvious resemblance: heavily acoustic songs with southern twinges, the subtle electronic flourishes that peppered Sea Change are not exactly glaringly absent, but noticeable to a guy who played the shit out of it. The comparison is always going to be there, I can't talk about one without the other as I consider Sea Change to be one of the best albums I own, and even the artwork of Morning Phase strikes a resemblance - so this can indeed be construed as a sequel, if not sibling. Unfortunately head to head Morning Phase is slightly more than disappointing - but mind you I only said slightly, which means it's still a damn good album. Despite the stellar songwriting on here I can't help but feel that some of the emotion feels a bit manufactured, but Morning Phase is also a more uplifting effort than it's better half - of course I'm also a very different person than I was which leads me to wonder how I would have felt about it if this was the year 2003.

5. This Will Destroy You - Another Language

This Will Destroy You's 2011 album Tunnel Blanket was the first time in the band's career that they didn't sound like they were trying to be Explosions In The Sky. The second rate formula of climactic inspirational guitar movements was abandoned for ebow heavy, keyboard laden ambience that really didn't stress itself out if it didn't go anywhere - and it was awesome, because I'm kind of really into that sort of thing if it's done right. 2014's Another Language injects that formless beauty into their previous more traditional songwriting thus creating a congealed and atmospheric record that is grandiose and cinematic in it's scope. Each track brandishing new sounds between beautifully understated melodies gives every cut it's own character and chapter place. I enjoyed Tunnel Blanket more than this record, but with Explosions In The Sky busy wasting their time collaborating on movie soundtracks there is a gap in my collection that TWDY is slowly beginning to fill with their ballsy and improved upon experimentations in sound.

4. Cloud Rat - Blind River

On Blind River, Cloud Rat dilute their dark, claustrophobic grind with desperate melodies that hint of hope beyond the glimmer of light so far away that is the surface of normalcy. That filthy feeling of raging disgust in the face of relapse and withdrawl in a home that lets in no light. It's a formula that doesn't stray far from what the band has always done, but with each effort Cloud Rat seem to be chiseling down the shapeless effigy into something more beautiful despite it's hardened and bitter mold. The strict confines of the Grindcore genre always prove a challenging channel to navigate and be original in without losing ones vision or identity or just sounding like you're trying too hard. The emotive and vitriolic purge of Blind River builds intersections and options in that channel - all the while maintaining the minimalistic simplicity of the plug-in-and-play sound.

3. Life And Times - Lost Bees

After the not-as-good-as-the-rest-of-their-records 2012 release of No One Loves You Like I Do, Life and Times return to the front waving the bright and honorable banner of new-millennial space grunge colored to the same shade as their phenomenal mini-opus (EP) The Magician. Forgive the god-awful pop-culture reference here, but Lost Bees is all about dat bass. With a tone that cuts through butter, and dialed in to the mix so goddamn perfectly, it is the groovy-as-fuck anchor that keeps the songs moving along whilst vocalist/lead guitarist Alan Epps finger dances up and down the frets and punches in and out of different effects pedals creating high-end audio explosions of colorful sonic confetti that rain down upon the core until everything occasionally locks into a rhythm. This formula serves to amplify the sonic wallop you may be expecting in a crescendo but are never prepared for (i.e. the chorus of 'Again' and 'Passion Pit') even after the first couple of listens. It's like a handjob to the ears. Ever since the perfection of the all-too-short Magician EP, I've been longing for Life and Times to do something as similar and consistently awesome; a difficult feat for an LP - but Lost Bees comes very close to that notion. Extracting the five best tracks from this album: 'Again', 'Ice Cream Eyes', 'Bored To Death', 'Passion Pit', and 'King of the Hive'; to go toe to toe with the 22 minutes of alt-rock glory that is The Magician may result in a controversial split decision in the end. Add to that the fact that Lost Bees is indeed a full LP with arguably no filler (maybe 'Eyes and Teeth') and gives us five additional tracks on top of those may be cause to tip the scale in it's favor. That's not to take anything away from the rest of their discography, as it's all very good - it's just nice to experience a selfish desire come to fruition. And truth is there is no competition here, in the end Lost Bees is just a stop at a wonderfully cohesive and rockin' oasis in the Life and Times musical journey.

2. Opeth - Pale Communion

Pale Communion is everything you'd expect from modern day Opeth, which means you're not quite sure what to expect at all other than something cleverly progressive, which includes all of the trademarks that Pale Communion nails on the mark: eclectic instrumentation, organic sound and phenomenal songwriting. Everything else is the journey that this album feels like from the first song to the last. The pensive groove of 'Moon Above Sun Below' that takes a turn for the sinister in the latter half. The playful 'Goblin', which sounds as though it was directly inspired by the (specifically Roller-era) 70's/80's Italian progressive rock ensemble of the same name that scored such classic horror films as Suspiria, Zombi and the European version of Dawn Of The Dead.  The soaking-in-rain sadness of 'Elysian Woes', the surprisingly uplifting 'River' (which sounds like it could have been on a Foo Fighters album - in a good way), and the bleak and wintery 'Faith In Others' are all valleys, mountains, and deserts to cross. I've always said that Opeth sounds like what a Death Metal band would have sounded like in the 70's had Death Metal existed in the 70's (especially 2002's spectacular Deliverance). They may have completely abandoned their Death Metal roots, but their new straight-forward progressive approach isn't something as out-of-the blue as the jean jacketed long-haired hard-ons stuck in that phase whine about (hello? Damnation?). Both Pale Communion and it's predecessor Heritage pull from that era's progressive bands as influence, most notably old Genesis and the aforementioned Goblin. This is actually the best album on this list, however - it's not my favorite - so....

1. Lantlos - Melting Sun

What is it with pink albums from bands with Black Metal roots always making my #1? Produced to the nines, volume pushed to the tens, layered, layered, layered and lush, lush, lush - Melting Sun is an atmospheric Black Metal band gone beautiful and bombastic. Towing a line somewhere between Hum, Isis (the band) and Jesu, we're presented here with six giant bejeweled movements that damn near sound like the Summer time version of Type O Negative's October Rust (in atmosphere and overall vibe specific to the season, not baritone or style - nevermind). Unafraid to develop slowly, or not develop at all - such as the droning of 'Oneironaut' and the simplicity of closer 'Golden Mind' - we're allowed to go for the ride and sonically soar with gigantically beautiful birds of prey - and by that I'm inferring to the big shiny brilliant melodies here - as they fly too close to the sun and actually evolve from it. Honestly there is nothing really new happening here, and it's all so cosmetic. Strip this fucker down to four or five instrument tracks, and give it a way more modest production value and I can't really say that it would be as impressive to me, but that's not the way it is. It still tweaks and combines those Post-Metal and Shoegaze traits enough to present the listener with something fresh and never quite heard before. Just like it's chromatically gloaming pre-twilight packaging, this album is as sweet as candy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Book Review: Soul On Fire - The Life and Music of Peter Steele by Jeff Wagner

Type O Negative's enigmatic singer/songwriter/leader Peter Steele was truly unique, in both what he contributed to music as well as a human being. Though a majority of his catalogue is genre-bending if not isolated as it's own unparalleled flagship - the bands that he has fronted were often categorized in/or as a subgenre of Metal Music, and even there his views of lawfulness, government, and structure were more against the grain than the subject matter of a majority of even the most extreme offshoots of the genre. He was also a complete contradiction of what he appeared, often being referred to as a gentle giant, the icon's near 7 ft tall frame and menacing appearance (complete with incisors filed down to fangs) demanded attention in whatever environment it monolithically lurked, his physical presence was a walking contradiction of the withdrawn, introverted, kind man behind the murk. He died suddenly on April 14th 2010, and with that Type O Negative ended with the momentum of a jet car versus a 50 ton steel I-beam, and there was nothing more. No unreleased B-Sides, no live albums, no demos - just the wringing of the dead, dried up teet that was money-grubbing best-of albums that the band had no involvement with and a vinyl box-set release of all the old shit.

Soul On Fire is Jeff Wagner's tribute to the man, it is not a biography. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the read, and I fully applaud Wagner's efforts towards the project. Unfortunately, it was slightly doomed to be nothing more than a fan's tribute than anything more from day one, when the band members themselves refused to participate in the project. Wagner makes this clear in the introduction; also describing his own God-like projections onto the man that was Peter Steele, thusly churning forth the realizations from the reader that the book is being written by a man that really has the same relationship with it's subject that a majority of the fan base has; which is no relationship at all, except for through the music (and maybe one interview). I couldn't help but feel a disappointed comparison to Benjamin Nugent's Elliott Smith biography Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing; which basically consisted of acquaintances, producers, and an occasional barista's point of view on the mess of the man that was Smith and his music.

Wagner is quick to defend his work right from the beginning, defending his motives against the closest of Steele's companions, TON keyboardist and pseudo-fraternal companion Josh Silver, whom was most vocal about the project being unnecessary and disrespectful (I'm paraphrasing here). But Wagner kept on down the line; eventually recruiting ex-Carnivore bandmates, label representatives, neighborhood friends, and ex-girlfriends. I followed this project from the start, as a rumored inception through it's blossoming into an actual physical book; periodically checking in on Wagner's Facebook page which he dedicated to it's chronicling. Having heard all of the aforementioned speed bumps he encountered as they were happening kept my hopes low. It was only until the confirmed involvement of Steele's sisters that I became interested, shortly before it's release the Estate of Peter Steele (that being his surviving sisters) withdrew their endorsement of the book, based on their perception of a distortion of truth, and the work not being a celebration of the man's body of work. This also peaked my interest, as perhaps a reaction to a side of Steele that the family did not want revealed post-mortem - which is understandable, but it's also the foundation of any good biography, that and your subject matter still being alive enough to be involved. I'm not going to read something that I already know everything about. Unfortunately, for the most part that's what Soul On Fire is.

I've been pretty fanatical about this band for the past 20 years, they are my number one amongst a pretty damn diverse and large collection of musical acts. So, sadly, I've made an effort over the last two decades or so to read/watch every article, interview, review and so forth that made it's way into public media in whatever form. Actually it wasn't an effort at all, as I didn't even realize the encyclopedic knowledge I'd acquired of the band and their music that was made available to me until some of my peers began showing an interest in their music. And so, unfortunately I didn't really walk away from Soul On Fire with a whole lot I didn't already know, in fact I found myself asking 'what about this, or what about that' more times than not - to which Wagner usually got around to addressing at some point in the book. Except for Chapter 13, the final chapter - which actually enlightened me on so much I had wondered about for years following the last days of, and days after, Peter Steele's untimely demise. Any of the quotes coming from the members of Type O Negative themselves were acquired from past interviews and publications, and I recognized 90% of those and in some cases could even tell you the source without perusing the bibliography. That's not me bragging, merely showing you how pathetic my personal life is.

I can't help but feel like the Carnivore years, both in their original inception as well as their reincarnation in 2006, got a whole lot more coverage than was needed, and I feel like this is mostly because of the willing contributions of the Carnivore band mates, and the glaringly absent involvement of the rest of TON. This is most evident in the glossing over of the creative processes for each album; although, admittedly Wagner did a nice job of summarizing how each album came to be. I did enjoy the insight on some of the 'tricks' they used to capture the unique sound on Bloody Kisses as well as how a majority of Life Is Killing Me 's seedlings were initially composed by keyboard. I may be the only one out there who really wants to hear more about the concepts and how they came to fruition when it comes to each monstrous opus the drab four shat forth, but I think the majority may get bored with another 100 or so pages of that sort of detail. I guess I'm just funny that way.

I also couldn't help but roll my eyes and/or take with a grain of salt any quote from anyone involved on the Roadrunner label. Steele had made it quite abundantly clear how he felt about Roadrunner and the contract he believed he was a slave to in interviews over the years; a point of contention noticeably absent in the book. It addresses and sugar coats how they basically stole his work from him when the band recorded the demo that became the album Slow, Deep and Hard, as well as manipulating some of the band's catalogue without their permission in an attempt to produce more radio-friendly singles and necro-fuck their discography after the band had left the label in an un-permitted 'Best Of' album; and for those of us in the know that was only the tip of the iceberg. I understand business is business, but don't regale us with stories of the friendship you had with a cash cow you had chained up and were pumping. Yes, you supported Bloody Kisses; but after the next couple of albums didn't sound exactly like Bloody Kisses that support noticeably dwindled into just another act. I wonder if they only agreed to contribute to the book if Wagner agreed not to include any of Steele's ravings about his negative views on everything he felt Roadrunner had done to he and his bandmates over the years.

Wagner is a good writer, and his perspective on the music shares a kinship with my own. TON were fantastic at creating an entire world with their music; and it's not until you become familiar with said world and all the things referenced behind the scenes that you begin to truly admire the genius that the band was. When you know about the wet Red Hook roads, where the D-Train is going to take you, or you can make out that name being screamed behind the wall of lush sound in 'September Sun' because you know who it's about, it can reach you on a more personal level despite it's subject matter being intensely personal to someone else specifically. Wagner's relationship with the music and it's subject matter feels like a palpable dimension, much like the universe The Beatles created to their diehard fans; much like Type O's catalogue does for myself.  His descriptions, comparisons, and analogies of albums nearly mirrors my own, and his theories of certain songs - spanning a chronological distance of albums away - being extensions of each other are both interesting and personally relatable. Readers should utilize these ideas as a guide to what you should be getting out of this band.

His personal theories and perspectives unfortunately also creep into theoretical motives of what drove Peter to do some of the things he did, like become addicted to drugs, and return to a faith he loudly vocalized as being ridiculous later on in life - with a loose summarization of third party commentaries to go on he bases a every downward turn in the man's life on what he thinks the subject could have been thinking. Early on it's alluded that Peter made it a habit of never giving the same answer to a question in an interview twice, because he hated interviews, hated being misinterpreted, and wanted to keep it interesting for himself - so right there how do we know anything as valid from the horses mouth?

Soul On Fire, to me, is more a written documentary of one fan trying to piece together the enigma that was Peter Steele than it is an appropriate biography. There were a handful of moments of the man's life that were unveiled that I had no idea about prior to reading the book. The fact that this book even exists is awesome, because despite it's many short-comings; all of which were a result of a lack of cooperation from people who knew Steele best (including Steele - because, you know; he's dead again), it's still awesome to sit down at the end of the day and let the mini-series unfold in your head of the Brooklyn sheep-in-wolf skin's roller coaster ride of life, because it's still an extension of Type O Negative, despite their non-involvement; as funny as that sounds some of us need that closure after the sudden impact with which it all just fucking ended, and we're not going to get it from anyone in the band, as they've all seemed to appropriately moved on.  For die-hard fans of TON it's still a good read, but it's real purpose to me would be to serve as a 101 for casual listeners who want a quick catch-up to those of us who have been listening and immersed for the last 24 years; and maybe help elevate them to the next level of appreciation for this truly unique, and phenomenal band. Oh, and there are a lot of really cool candid photos.  You can order it here:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Seven Artists/Albums to Help Legitimize Your Gloomy October Soundtrack

Let's face it, our reverence for holidays is spun from the elated mysticism each one harbors so strongly at us as children. Christmas, Halloween, The Fourth Of July all seem to plant their seeds in our beings as impressionable youngsters and then germinate in us as we grow. They all seem to amplify the characteristics of the season they act as the pinnacle of, and for most create fond memories of what it is to be care free and still believe in their indelibly magical characteristics each presents to us before the anchor of science keeps our logical minds from flying so freely. Remember when the moon followed you?

This fondness of pre-adolescent tradition evolves as we grow older; but make no mistake about it - the semi-adult versions of all of these holidays: Mistletoe and eggnog, slutty costume parties at bars, barbecues and keg stands; only became and continue to become because of the experiences and magic - for lack of a better word - that we try to subconsciously recapture from those nostalgic memories of childhood as we fasten our seatbelts for the turbulence of the foreboding and inevitable grown-up years; where those of us who have spat forth larvae are allotted the opportunity to relive our own experiences as little ones through our children's excitement. The moon is simply so large and so far way that it plays on the shape of your eye to create the optical illusion that it is always in your presence.

There are plenty of songs about Summer and America - and a disgusting boiling over of Christmas jingles and Winter Wonderlandy serenades that start to get shoved down your throat as early as October. But those of us who have evolved to appreciate all of the Autumnal season are often shortchanged in the sonic representation of a crepuscular soundtrack that can act as a sort of diegetic sound to the images of a rainy late fall afternoon or evening. And what do we get for the actual holiday of Halloween? The hokey-dokey sounds of 'The Monster Mash', or a generic commercial re-imagining of John Carpenter's Halloween theme - no thanks. And so, in another insomnia-induced fit of frustrated boredom I have compiled a subtle list of selections and artists who do a bit more for the unflinchingly morbid vibe of the Fall season than some cheese-ball musical succubus trying to churn out the first pop-Halloween classic in an effort to live the rest of his days sipping margaritas, beating his Czechoslavakian wife, and collecting royalty checks. Hopefully some of these may tickle your twilight zones enough to open your mind more than it already is. yay.

In no particular order:

It's a hard way to start a list, with a band that got their break being signed to the lead singer of Korn's god-awful Elementree label back in the late 90's, thus being marked with the leprous stamp of being a Nu-Metal band and opening for the likes of Orgy and Videodrone, but let's just get past all that shall we? I really dig Deadsy, mainly because I think they were doing something different and so in-your-face simple that it was a hard thing to soak up for a lot of people, and I have yet to hear another band imitate them or use their formula properly in an effort to exploit the potential of being labeled a pioneer in what could be a really cool new genre. Deadsy is not a Nu-Metal band, and if you really take band images seriously or use it as an excuse to shit all over something before tasting it (which I certainly do) getting over their physical appearance and presentation may be like swallowing that razor-bladed snickers bar first out of the bag. I can be that close minded, so luckily for me I was so impressed with their dark little new-wave 80's serial-killer sound before I ever even saw them that I never paid much attention to their colored suit assignment / elemental goth make-up thing. But I guess in their defense, with this much androgynous synth-laden early 80's pop worship in their music, a little mascara and over-tone may really put a pretty little bow on the total package for listeners who want the whole kit and caboodle, and they never really plastered themselves all over their own album art to really try and exploit it - well, maybe a little bit.

Deadsy is really simple and easy to pick apart, but it fucking works. A sonically may-as-well-be single down-tuned E-string guitar sound laying the floor for a New Order bass guitar to white-guy dance on top of and a very creepy up-in-the-mix keyboard playing the prime melody in most of the songs. The drums sound like they were recorded from a 1986 Casio finger-drum pad complete with hand-clap sample and there is even an occasional robot voice that makes a cameo where appropriate (but really is it ever appropriate?  Ask Styx). Over it all is the Peter Steele possessing Peter Murphy-on-Barbituates crooning of vocalist Elijah Blue.   Remember that scene in Silence Of The Lambs where Buffalo Bill puts his lipstick on, tucks his schlong between his legs and then starts boogying the fuck out to Q Lazzarus' 'Goodbye Horses'? - Deadsy's first album Commencement  kind of feels like the soundtrack to a whole movie of that scene, only a tad more disturbing. I'd cringe too at the thought of somebody trying something like this, taking that already uneasy drug induced androgyny of the seedy 80's new wave underbelly and trying to make it feel even more uneasy - but what makes it rise above eye-rolling "they're trying too hard" cheesiness is the stellar song writing and melodies throughout. Even when it turns into something uplifting and beautiful within itself, it still lingers in a kind of eerie gloom, and I guess that characteristic alone kind of almost makes Commencement more of a goth-album than anything else, despite it's wonderful originality.

From the twisted sludge balladry of songs like "Future Years" and "Flowing Glower", to the danceable synth-laden trippiness of "Mansion World" and "She Likes Big Words", this album covers the gamut of known and unknown 80's new wave influences and drenches them in a neon-colored creepiness. There are a couple of times on Commencement when the music shifts gears from it's own serial killer-transvestite - dark new wave trappings and becomes full on Dark Carnival of Souls rolling through town.

Deadsy only has two albums under their belt, (not to mention an out-of-print limited demo/debut) and a 7 year gap between them at that. And with absolutely dormant activity at the headquarters and a whole bunch of side projects going on one can all but assume the band is done. While Commencement in my bass-ackwards opinion is a landmark of an album in it's own right, the group's second effort Phantasmagore leans more toward mainstream rock than the charming little niche of sonic glow-in-the-dark grave moss that it's predecessor bloated, but is still arguably worth owning for the fantastic 'Better Than You Know' alone. If you've never heard of them and give it a shot I think you'll find that there is no middle ground here, as you either really dig it or I've completely lost all my credibility, not that I had any to begin with - because people would actually have to be reading this to lose that. But if you find the charm that I did and want a little more than two releases be advised that there are an ass-load of fantastic B-sides and covers the band recorded that got released on various compilations or never actually saw an official light of day that are floating around the internet like chunks of space feces in Zero-G. So if any of the aforementioned over-use of the words new-wave, dark, and 80's appeal to you, put down your lipstick, grab your skin-suit and  give Commencement a whirl before you get all coked up and head out to the mandatory work costume party.

Recommended Album: Commencement

6. BODUF SONGS - Hard words and violent imagery whispered through beautifully soft melodies is the summarized modus operandi of the one-man haunted folk project Boduf Songs. Singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet weaves eerie tales of suicide, homicide, isolation, decapitation, and torture from a minimalistic pulpit of acoustic guitars and ambient drone. While the band's early works are a much more traditional one man/one guitar affair, each release is a subtle step forward into something darker, incorporating peppered electronic effects and keyboards, and even an occasional power chord just to get a point across.

The band's latest offering Stench Of Exist has taken so many small steps from the simple beauty of the group's debut Boduf Songs, that it's almost unrecognizable as the same band. But like watching a child grow every day, the artistic change is seamless and logical when you take the journey, and the change barely noticeable when you grow with them. The emotion conveyed behind the monotone hushed vocals of Sweet is impressive within it's limited context, a testament to the lyrical content and melodies that carry the words atop a bed of gloom. The music is a still lake on a cold day, quiet and reflective - with the invisible ravages of nature stirring beneath the surface.

Recommended Album: How Shadows Chase The Balance

5. MATT ELLIOTT - Such epic and grandiose Victorian misery has never sounded so wonderfully ominous than when sung from the wine-stained lips and played from the thorn-pricked fingers of the morosely talented Matt Elliott. The singer/songwriter pens hauntingly self-loathing tales of love and loss, illustrating an atmosphere within the music so literal you'll feel as though your reading a novel rather than listening to a record. Acoustic guitars that are sickly plucked evolve into dark waltzes accompanied with violins and ghostly Theremins, pianos and tubas -  you begin to feel as though you yourself are a spirit within the ballroom. Beautiful and elegant melodies come to an end only to be resurrected as doomy, baroque multi-layered vocal hums. Half dark folk, half cinematic score for a French vampire film - the music and context is deadpan in it's delivery and goes beyond ridiculous right back into genius.

 Every song in this man's catalogue hides textures within itself, and every song takes multiple listens to truly digest and remember. While each record sounds the same as the one before it to an untrained ear, further commitment and open mindedness will reward the listener with the subtle nuances of beauty wrestling with the drunken beast deep within the muck. Elliott's 2012 offering The Broken Man is his most epic and complete work in my opinion. Hauntingly beautiful songs dripping with misery, complete with Funeral Bells in the distance and the occasional chorus of howling wolves from afar, the songs are small in their stature - but magnanimous in their atmosphere.

Recommended Album: The Broken Man

4. Lurker Of Chalice - Black Metal's origins are firmly and proudly rooted in the pagan folklore of Nordic culture. Thusly making any U.S. native Black Metal band very difficult to take seriously for quite some time. It's only been recently that the genre's themes have expanded enough to be able to shed those xenophobic qualities and showcase a more worldly perspective on the style. Jeff Whitehead's one man U.S. Black Metal band Leviathan is arguably the primogenial of these to be respectfully accepted into the cult-like scene. When the woman he loved tragically died as a result of an inoperable brain tumor, Whitehead eviscerated his catharsis into a separate project from Leviathan called Lurker Of Chalice.

From start to finish Lurker Of Chalice is a harrowing descent into the sublevels of human despair. Part whirlwind-like buzzsaw guitar riffing, part droning sludge, part atmospheric avant-garde, all stitched together with the tortured bellows, cries, and demonic groans of a man emotionally torn to pieces in the dark. From the hypnotic speed and dissonance of the more traditional Black Metal 'Piercing Where They Might', To the almost triumphant strumming of 'Vortex Chalice', to the slow wade through the bile duct of an ocean of grief that is 'Minions', Lurker Of Chalice offers such a variety in it's torture that it's different enough to enjoy without owning a single other Black Metal album. The traditional low production level causes all of the instruments to occasionally congeal in all the right places here, creating sonic vortexes of abysmal gates into the psyche, and murky, almost orchestral movements of ugly endurance; such as the middle section of 'Fastened To The Five Points', which likens to Chopin's classic Piano Sonata No 2 "Op. 35: III. Marche fun├Ębre: Lento" aka Funeral March. Lurker Of Chalice's one and only album is both immensely sad, and don't-listen-to-in-the-dark scary.

Recommended Album: Lurker Of Chalice

3. THE CLASSICAL HALLOWEEN COLLECTION: CLASSICAL MUSIC OF DOOM, DREAD, AND ALL THINGS WICKED! - I'm fairly certain you can only find this gem on iTunes, but with 50 amazing songs at $6.99 this is arguably the best deal out there (as far as getting 50 songs for $6.99 goes). These are all the classical classics that you've probably heard hundreds of times around this time of year since you were a sapling but never knew the names of. They are the true-blue soundtracks to the Halloween season, as traditional as Silent Night is to Christmas. If I say 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King', or 'Funeral March of a Marionette' and you can hum the tune, then you know and enjoy it well enough to do yourself the favor of downloading this hidden treasure.

There are as many more familiar songs on here like 'Night On Bald Mountain', 'Danse Macabre', and 'Toccatta and Fugue', as there are off the map movements I'd never previously heard like 'Carnival Of Animals', 'Peer Gynt's Op. 9 Planets', and 'Syrinx'. The collection also respectively stays clear of the more modern film compositions that usually get thrown on generic Halloween compilations, so there is no 'Tubular Bells' or 'Theme From Nightmare On Elm Street'. Though there are a few passable cuts from 'Psycho'(did you see what I did there), and a phenomenal version of the theme from the movie Halloween that includes an additional little string segment on top of the already familiar composition that adds an impressive additional layer to the previously one-dimensional work (sorry John). As is thus far a reoccurring theme on this list, the music walks the line seamlessly between the light and dark, painting a world of fear and wonder around you if you're as vulnerable to atmosphere as I am. This is top notch introspective-appreciation-of-the-season music to throw on whether you're going on a midnight fog walk in late October, or simply sitting on the porch watching the leaves fall into the rays of the sun.

2. TYPE O NEGATIVE - Of all of the music that's out there from all of the generations that have left there fingerprints in the art form, none make me more grateful to exist as a young adult in the prime era of their music than Type O Negative - It makes me believe in predetermination to be alive in the very short window of time that they had been purging sounds. While I consider their entire body of work to be nothing short of phenomenal, I'd have a difficult time defending that same opinion to someone who scoffs at the very notion of it. How do you argue the greatness of a band whose vocalist occasionally rolls his R's in a mock vampiric lingo? Or pens a song titled "My Girlfriend's Girlfriend". It also doesn't help that the most fanatical of Type O fans are often stereotyped as chubby thirty-something Goth chicks who claim to practice Wicca and touch themselves to the chorus of 'Be My Druidess'. Unfortunately anybody that's ever been to a concert or two of the group would find that generality to be alarmingly valid - which also gives reason as to why the heavier, darker, more dirge-induced albums tend to be their least well-received by active listeners, but that's a whole 'nother rant completely (maroons).

Flying the flags I've flown for bands that seize in more extreme venues of sound coming out here and telling you I how much I adore Type O Negative is a bit like telling my asshole jock friends back in highschool that I think I may be in love with Katie Wilshmalski - the black haired, white faced, midnight eye-lined queen of darkness who wore spider-web veils to school and wanted everyone to call her Cruella Darkwidow. I've never tried to push Type O onto anyone because it's not until you immerse yourself enough into their body of work to realize that everything they do is layered in this thin smegma of self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek humor, and without that the band would crumble under the weight of their own depression or flame out in a ridiculous fizzle of complete gayness. So to simply hear it for what it is superficially and not entertain the notion that it does both flaunt it's amazing melodies, strong structures, and originality as well as make fun of itself all in one bombastic psychedelic dirge is to remove yourself from a situation that could better you because you just don't want to put the effort in. Or you just think it sucks, and without that aforementioned shmegma I would too.

Unlike the rest of the majority of music on this list, Type O are a bit more blatant about the motives and inspiration, citing Halloween and it's themes directly multiple times throughout their discography. Personally, I think the band and the season are symbiotic - there is a totalitarity going on there that only amplifies the experience of both if you're as passionate about music as I am. No two albums are the same in either their sound or delivery. From the raw Black Flag meets Black Sabbath hardcore dirge of Slow, Deep and Hard, and the lush and beautifully layered autumnal textures of October Rust, to the sonic anvil sinking into the abyss of World Coming Down, the psychedelic pop-rock of Life Is Killing Me, and the dark dicography-spanning melting-pot jams of the very under-rated Dead Again, TON leave a creepy green trail of original sounds that have never been successfully duplicated, nor ever will. While the styles from album to album may alter, the general sound does not. Distorted guitars and bass play over processed drums and gloomy to grand keyboards that create melodically lush soundscapes or underneath-everything funeral dirges.

Singer/Songwriter Peter Steele baritones his songs of fucking girls, getting fucked by girls, losing loved ones, and hating himself - sometimes channeling Lurch, sometimes channeling Tears For Fears, sometimes channeling the congealed spirit of every Brooklyn cab driver that ever got short-changed a tip. Amongst it all are subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos of Vampirism, Druidism, Lycanthropy, Necromancy, Murder, Suicide, and Drug Abuse all romanticized or mourned over in 5 - 15 minute epics of Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath meets The Beatles meets The Munsters gothedelic-hard rock bliss. Throw in some Gregorian Chants, rattling chains, pipe organ, and occasional woman screaming as she gets violated by a piece of machinery and these son's of whooors will become your best friends from this Halloween until the one you almost make it to.

Recommended Album: October Rust, World Coming Down, AND Dead Again

1. GNAW THEIR TONGUES - After the trick-or-treaters all go home, the candy is all but gone, and the last Jack-O-Lantern slowly burns itself out and succumbs to the bitter frost of the beckoning winter, we're left with the cold charmless nights of old. The cuteness of things that go bump in the night fades, and the fun that comes with fear when it's all wrapped up and commercialized suddenly fades away. Horror changes it's definition back to the dreadful thing it used to be that you never want to have to face. If all the other bands on this list were movies like Friday The 13th, and Nightmare On Elm Street, Gnaw Their Tongues is the untitled torture-porn snuff film you've only read about that got banned in 194 countries. This is one of those bands I honestly dare you to listen to in the dark. Zero fun, zero melody (though 2010's opus Le Arrivee De La Terne Morte Triomphante bleeds an occasional glimmer of hope from beneath an ocean of bile and excrement), an extreme audio journey into what feels like all-to-real violence, perversion, and ritualistic terror. I actually even once read a critic liken the music (if you can call it that) to seeing something you can never un-see, being 'marked' if you will.

Rumbling horns, thunderous percussion, clattering hardware, shrill strings, scraping metal, and screaming from both the vocalist and the victims paints dimly lit soundproof cellars with metal drains straining gore. This is generally categorized as black metal but Gnaw Their Tongues is really a one-man grandiose sonic experiment in the sounds of vile torture and human suffering - there is very little sonic pleasure to the ears here, but still a curiosity within it all that strokes the same synapses that make you slow down and look when driving past a fatality on the expressway.  With album art as gruesome and disturbing as the sonic massacre within it you'll feel like your name has gone on some government list somewhere after you've ordered it and given it a listen. If you should ever find yourself falsely accused of some grisly crime, an album or two of Gnaw Their Tongues pulled from your library to be used as Exhibit A may in fact seal your fate with any jury, so tread lightly and stay out of trouble. Probably one of the most extreme bands I own, the mood strikes to listen to Gnaw Their Tongues few and far, far between, still sometimes you just want to saw your own arm off without actually sawing your own arm off. Make no mistake, this is a terrifying sonic purging to test the boundries of oneself with - and you've got to respect that, and dig it a little too.

Recommended Album: All The Dread Magnificence of Perversity

Monday, September 28, 2015

Album Review: The Toadies - Heretics

In the nineties I always ran The Toadies parallel alongside Foo Fighters as just a straight-up fun rock n' roll/pop-punk band that emerged from the early rotting stages of the flower that was Grunge. Only difference being a lack of true commercial success on their part in comparison to those which I deemed their wingmen, which either forced them to stay the course, or their staying the course forced commercial success away from them. Mind you I don't have a very deep pocket of bands I pull from when it comes to this kind of music, because to be honest I don't indulge in it all that often, so for me these two are the heavy hitters and that's about it for that niche'. But just like their aforementioned contemporaries (Foo Fighters - if you're not following along here) released a retrospective acoustic album spanning their career thus far in 2006 (Skin and Bones), which included the infusion of new, more eclectic instrumentation into old songs reimagined acoustically as well as brand new songs written specifically for the performance, Toadies - twenty years into their career - have done the same.

The band took it upon themselves to celebrate their two decade existence by recording a studio version of an annual acoustic weekend that the band hosts in their native state of Texas called 'Dia De Los Toadies'. But don't let that light-heartedness fool you - if there is one thing the Toadies have always had a knack for it's spinning very dark first-first person narratives into bouncy and accessible feel good rock music: 'Tyler', 'Jigsaw Girl', and their calling card 'Possum Kingdom' are all prime examples of this - all of which appear on Heretics. And all of which almost seem darker and more emotive when stripped away from their red-level volumes and slowed down to a more sinister, and plotted thought (though 'Possum Kingdom' in it's original form still feels superior in my opinion). Low brass and keyboards accentuate the acoustic skeletons, thickening up the bones with swampy southern chunks of mud and re-visioning some songs with angles of lounge-like slipperiness ('The Appeal' and 'Dollskin'), and infusing others with back-alley jazz grooves and bluegrass ('Backslider', 'Beside You').

There are also a handful of new songs here, one of which being a down-tempo cover of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass'. The almost-danceable 'In The Belly Of The Whale' opens the album, while 'Queen Of Scars' sounds like such a trademark Toadies song that you'll forget you're listening to a specifically acoustic record, as it's hard to imagine the track any other way. The closer, 'Send You To Heaven', fantastically carries on that serial killer-in-the-sun knack of darkly spun trains of thought all gussied up as accessible pop that I adore from the band. I was hoping the final notes would be the ravenous ending of the song that the group recorded but never released (heavier than any moment on any Toadies record) as an anvil-like juxtaposition to the softness that preceded it. Yet the riding out of "The Beatles and The Stones" sung so melodically begins to feel less like a pretty little hitchhiker's musical predilection that will wind up signing her death warrant only twenty miles down the road, and more like the overwhelming submission to a dark and primal instinct from our narrator's point of view as he frantically digs past "the beetles and the stones" after the deed is done. Maybe I'm revealing a bit too much about my own fucked-upness here.

Heretics comes off in it's totality as a deeper perspective on a band that's often seemed to toy in musically shallow waters (not that their music is shallow - it's a euphemism), it's an unfolding of new dimensions from the group. Some songs stand on their own even though other versions of them exist on other albums, and some seem inferior to their original counterpart. I'd definitely recommend to any Toadies fan as both a retrospective to their career as well as an appreciation to the subtle nuances and textures they add here that propel them to another level in a different genre than the one they seem the most comfortable in. If you be a new-comer to the Toadies this probably isn't the place to start, as this batch of songs without the knowledge of how they were just doesn't have the strength to make you want to hear the originals, or may just lead you to bands who specialize in this sort of thing and therefore probably do it better. The fact that the band toys lyrically with themes of obsession, homicide, and self-defeatism does add a uniqueness to the over-all product here as this is something that's typically rare from bands who may specialize in this kind of music and always adds a ying to the yang when the right rock band pulls something like Heretics off. So if that is your cup of tea, I recommend it - otherwise, check out Hell Below/Stars Above.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Foo Fighters: Top 12 Favorite B-Sides

A Warning: I still dig the Foo Fighters, I cringe a little bit as their career moves on - every documentary that's released, every arena they play, every guest spot on an album from some rock icon, and every new theme that a record is built around feels like they keep moving farther and farther away from me. I'm not mad at them for it, if I were as much of fan now as I was in the 90's it would be the greatest thing ever, but it's a hard truth to face that an album like Foo Fighters will truly be a one-of-a-kind from them. Foo Fighters still reeks of that fuzzy 90's alt-punk nostalgia, even in it's heaviest moments it's still kind of soft, and at it's loudest it still remains quiet. A testament to the apprehension and lack of confidence in Grohl putting himself in the center of things after being in the background for so long. A quality you can hear in his restrained vocals throughout the entire album. The record feels ridiculously personal, like a warm closet. And I feel like a bit of that carried on into the next album, and a little after that, until there just wasn't enough of that charming uncertainty left to sprinkle here and there. I'd never have pegged them to be selling out Wembley Stadium in 15 years back in 1995.

These days there are no restraints - no emotional, no personal, no financial. They still sound like the Foo Fighters, just out of the closet and galloping in wide open spaces, like so many other mainstream rock bands out there. They just seem to ever-so-gradually blend a bit more into the herd with each record that gets released.  That foundation of thought is what the following list is built upon, FYI. The Foo Fighters have a shit-ton of songs out there floating about that never made it to an official album. These are my favorites of those:

12. The Colour And The Shape (Colour And The Shape French Limited Edition, Monkey Wrench single CD 1): I don't particularly get off when the Foo try to get all heavy-as-fuck, but this being probably the most heavy-as-fuck thing they've ever done amongst a very thick catalogue of poppy punk rock whoopee definitely stands it by itself and far away from the rest of the herd. Not to mention that it is a bit off-the-wall and bad ass. Aaaaaand I always think it's kind of cool for a song that an album is actually named after (in this case the band's "seminal" album) not to be released on said album and instead rear it's ugly head as a back alley B-side; see also Elliott Smith's "Figure 8".

11. Normal (Times Like These single CD 2): Ironically enough 'Normal' plays the role opposite of it's predecessor on this list, as it's a pretty straightforward by-the-numbers Foo Fighters track. That being said it feels like it embodies almost all of the qualities of their songwriting in one fell swoop, a little bit of rock, a little bit of pop, a touch of balladry, kind of singing, kind of screaming, stellar melodies.  'Normal' sounds like it can be thrown into the tracklist of any album after 1995 without fuckin' up the mix, which kind of makes it classic Foo Fighters.

10. Baker Street (My Hero single, Next Year single CD 2): Swapping the brass for a guitar as the main spine of the song gave it the grit that the original unfortunately never had for me. All the while it stays subtle and never gets as over the top as a song like this has the potential of getting when it's being covered by a rock band - probably more because of the production than the performance, but Grohl's quieter vocals keep it grounded too. The Foo's music has always been composed for a sunny fall day for me, this song always was too: combining the two was a lightning strike that just made sense.

9. World  - demo (Resolve single CD 2): A couple of months ago at the time of this writing, somebody released the "Million Dollar Sessions" onto the internet. These were the scrapped demos of a batch of songs that would later appear on One by One; essentially the writing on the demos doesn't differ too much from what was presented on the album. The demo's quality is, well, demo quality - for a band as big as the Foo Fighters that's still better than most, but it's still a whole lot more straightforward and a whole lot less bombastic than what was released in it's finality, and to me it sounded more like the Foo Fighters than what came out.  'World' is a demo, I don't know if it was recorded by an entire band or just Grohl, but it has the simple-but-good, less polished, less dynamic approach to it that reminds me of the early, lo-fi, less confident days of Dave by himself, which makes it feel all the more personal.

8. Petrol CB (The Pocketwatch Demos): The most Nirvana-esque of anything Grohl did by himself or with the Foo, it actually plays out like a photo-negative of any of the more manic songs on Nevermind or Bleach - pulling a switcheroo by distortedly screaming the verses and melodically singing the chorus. It's not on the list because it lacks it's own identity, it's on the list because it drips with the nostalgia of 90's guitar fuzz and the juxtaposed shoegaze-like melodies in the vocals during the chorus. It's insecure and awesome for it.

7. Dear Lover (Scream 2 soundtrack, My Hero UK single): So damn sappy it may in fact be completely tongue in cheek. It is Foo balladry ripped right from the Colour And The Shape era, only it never succumbs to power chords or the grand finale the way the aforementioned's 'Up In Arms' and 'February Stars' do - and serves as a full platter rather than the appetizer 'Doll' wound up being, which is the closest thing it relates to. They never came back to do anything like this again, and they couldn't without taking huge steps backward, which is tough for an arena band to do.

6. Milk (The Pocketwatch Demos): This is the epitome of all of the great things that Foo Fighters used to be, lo-fi guitars strumming with the momentum of Sonic Youth, the basement production, the straight forward unsure vocals floating on top of it all, simple lyrics, love it. Foo Fighters and The Pocketwatch Demos kind of share a space all their own in the band's discography, this track is one of the best on both.

5. The Sign (In Your Honor UK and Vinyl editions): This song fucking rocks - it's got that leaning forward keep-going-till-you-fall-into-something momentum that songs like 'Everlong' and 'Generator' flaunted. It sounds like late nineties Foo Fighters filtered through mid-2000 Foo Fighters. Actually, it sounds a whole lot like 'Fraternity', primarily it's chorus "give me a sign I'll come for you" / "I'll never be fraternity". That similarity is the only reason I can think of as to why this one never turned up an A-side. Like maybe he wrote it, recorded it, did everything they needed to do to it, then one night at 3 a.m. he shot up from bed like "FUCK!! Did that already....B-side.". This song is the reason Fraternity isn't on the list, I know it's kind of bullshit but with this I just don't need that. Dig?

4. Floaty - BBC Session (Big Me single): The alternative version of what appears on the self-titled debut is a softly strummed, lighter than air take whose fragility feels palpable. As though the whole song could dissipate completely at any moment like putting your hand through a vapor cloud hanging stagnant in the air. A better alternative version of any song in the catalogue that was remixed or reimagined acoustically.

3. Down In The Park (Songs In The Key of X, Monkey Wrench single CD 2): Yeah, it's a cover, but it's such a bad ass cover. Kind of dark and ominous (for the Foo), like I can smell the rubbish burning inside the garbage can as I stroll past in slow motion. The performance is straightforward but the tone and sounds are like melting yellow starburst on the pleasure zones of my brain. For me it is a perfect sonic representation of what the songs lyrics are about, more so than the original.

2. A320 (Godzilla soundtrack): This was released somewhere between The Colour and the Shape and There Is Nothing Left To Lose, which means it was recorded closer to the former. This was a flash of things to come from the Foo, but at the time it was something so seemingly out of their league that it became one hell of a hidden gem and a half. A gentle monologue that builds to a soaring instrumental latter half, sonically painting it's theme onto our imaginations as our narrator's plane comes gently plummeting to the ground, disappearing into the clouds below during the fade out. A mature and well written number that scoffs at mainstream rock song structures and actually includes, strings? Are those strings I hear from the band in 1998?  I know it seems a tad hypocritical to put this track so high on the list given my penchant for the simpler more stripped down approach that I hold the band in high regard for, but while this kind of thing is just another spoke in the wheel for the band now,  back then it was, in their catalogue, a beautiful and epic movement - and remains so for me.

1. How I Miss You (Winnebago/Big Me/I'll Stick Around singles): I know it's ridiculous, but this weak-ass, soft and simple little whimper to yowl is arguably one of my all time favorite songs from the band, for all of those reasons. Foo Fighters is my favorite album from this group, for all of the reasons I've sporadically listed above, but especially because of how personal it feels - this song is everywhere he didn't go in so many spots on that album all congealed together, in the end it's an extension of it. A final purge from a place he'd never go back to again.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Stone Temple Pilots - End of an Era

I love a group to carry on despite line-up changes, it sometimes forces a band to maybe progress in a direction they may not have had things all stayed hunky-dory within the dichotomy of the artists. Sometimes, depending on who is replaced, that shift is more radical than it needs to be. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Stone Temple Pilots have taken, in my opinion, a huge step backwards by replacing their very versatile vocalist Scott Weiland with the fuckin' guy from Linkin Park. Unfortunately, this is only compounded by the fact that they're also doing their best to not only retain their classic sound, but harken back to the glory days of their success by writing songs with similar structures to their first two (and coincidentally) most successful albums.

Mind you, this is all only based on a 5 song E.P. release that came out in 2013, which to be honest - still wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would turn out. So I can't write them off completely; but never-the-less it feels like the end of an era. Stone Temple Pilots got a bad rap as being both clingers to the wave of alternative rock that swept through radio land in the first half of the nineties, as well as writers of rock-radio friendly songs that gave them no merit. Unfortunately, while the first half of that statement may have credibility, the second has none. Here is my list/eulogy of my favorite/best Weiland-era STP albums; perspective....

#6 - Core (1992)

Not what you expected eh? Core is solid no doubt, it's got an instantly identifiable sound and the songs are really well written and drip with trademark characteristics of a little bit of everything that tickles your fancy about the golden era of Grunge. It rocks, it grooves, it contemplates and at times charmingly makes no sense to the listener at all. This album is a classic to most, and unfortunately mostly for the wrong reasons. Following in the wake of newly revealed heavy hitters in the genre like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains, looking back Core could be construed more as an L.A. chapter's strategic attempt to strike while the iron was hot using a hammer with the most comfortable grip than a watermark in the genre that helped propel it's popularity to a self-imploding apex. It's only upon the gift of hindsight 20 plus years into the band's catalogue that we experience what they're capable of, and how Core falls short of anything really inspiring and in it's true reflection is simply paint-by-numbers rock n' roll for the 90s.

That's not to say that I don't lose my shit when 'Dead and Bloated' kicks the fuck in, boogey the F out to the beginning of 'Naked Sunday' everytime it comes on, or yarl like a ninties rock god all the words I think I know to 'Plush'. On it's own away from the other children in the discography Core is still a good/great record, god bless the restraint of the mid-paced Grunge waltzes like 'Where The River Goes' and to a degree 'Sin' - complete with mandatory acoustic breakdown three fourths the way through. Call it a foot in the door for the group, or perhaps the early stages prior to their evolution, Core is still fairly one dimensional - as is most obvious in Weiland's singular vocal delivery from front to back, a type of Vedder-like deeper sing-style he would all but abandon by the time the group released their final album as a whole. I would wager this album is a lot of people's favorites more for it's nostalgia and accessibility than anything else, which I can be guilty of as well no doubt, the key is to make sure you're not confusing a favorite work of a group, as opposed to their best. Never-the-less, had STP come out of the West Coast gate pumping an album like Tiny Music to the masses back then, none of us may have ever heard of them.

#5 - Purple (1994)

For a long time after this album's release - well into the rest of the group's catalogue - I made the mistake of dismissing this album as nothing more than a sort of Core part 2. It was only a few years ago that I came back to it appropriately and was forced to applaud it as a proper evolutionary step in the band's career. Everything here minimally hints at what's to come, and also pays maybe a bit too gratuitous tribute to what already had gone. If you were to tell me that this was the best thing they've done I couldn't really argue it because I'd understand. It retains the thick grunge rock of it's predecessor ('Meat Plow', 'Vaseline', 'Lounge Fly') while also utilizing that sound to write different kinds of songs ('Interstate Love Song', 'Still Remains') thus in effect beginning to conceive a sound and style all their own. All of the songs however display a more versatile range in Weiland's vocals that wasn't present in the monochrome Core and add a very enjoyable looseness to the tracks which in turn helps in perceiving this album a bit more multi-dimensionally.

All that being said Purple's formula still doesn't stray from it's predecessor, and in turn does wind up sounding a bit more like a big budget sequel to their debut in it's totality. 'Meat Plow' takes the place of the lumbering 'Dead and Bloated', 'Vaseline' flaunts the rock of 'Sex Type Thing', 'Lounge Fly' arguably mimics the pattern and structure of 'Sin', 'Pretty Penny' is the mid-album acoustic interlude that 'Creep' acted as (though the former is superior), 'Big Empty' is the anthemic radio song that 'Plush' was, 'Army Ants' vs. 'Crackerman', and 'Kitchenware and Candy Bars' serves up the same kind of closure that 'Where The River Goes' did - and for the most part they're all located geographically in the same spots on the tracklist. So maybe I wasn't too far off on my initial generalization. Purple feels like baby steps out of the shadows of the peers in the scene that may or may not have influenced them, but they ended up sounding a whole lot like anyways - for that reason alone I appreciate a movement in any direction rather than standing still, and Purple raises the stakes by having better written songs than their debut. But in the grand scheme of things I could argue that Purple is merely a roided up, more conditioned version of Core.

#4 - Shangri-La-Dee-Da (2001)

Shangri-La-Dee-Da has always felt like the most epic, bombastic performance from the band to me. A characteristic I attribute to the huge production sound on the record, not to mention the more subtle yet lush instrumentation that fills in the less layered spots here and there that you may be privy to miss if you're not tuned into it. It's an interesting perspective considering the whole middle of the album is very chilled back. It's also bookended with a pair of thick-ass swinging anchors almost giving the batch of songs a sort of harkening back to the early days, the album's writing and pace feel like an almost back-to-basics approach, comparable to the formula of Purple. The opener 'Dumb Love' is arguably the heaviest thing the band has ever spat forth, possibly rivaled only by No.4's 'Down'. Followed up by the juxtaposition of the up-beat radio anthem 'Days Of The Week'. I'd go out on a limb and say Shangri-La-Dee-Da's four opening songs are as a batch the best first four opening songs on any of their releases. Nearly everything after the opening gallop never manages to get passed mid-pace, which is a slight unbalance that's evened out with each song's near-grandiose presentation. 'Bi-Polar', 'Regeneration', 'Coma', 'Wonderful', and 'Hello It's Late' all feel magnanimus to me, and longer than they actually are (in a good way). I still can't decipher whether or not it's a testament to the production on the album or a misconstrued first impression that I never got over. Here's something else I can't get over, unfortunately: 'A Song For Sleeping' - I absolutely can't stand it when a band, or perhaps more specifically a lyricist pens a song on an album specifically to his child/wife or whatever; utilizing a name drop in the lyrics and thusly negating any relation that could be conceived from an objective listener; especially considering how beautiful both the instrumentation and melody are with that song. Save that shit for home, nobody else cares except for the handful of listeners with kids of the same name. Staind's fucking 'Zoe Jane' is the same shit.

It's a fantastic record none-the-less, and a shame I have to put it so seemingly low on the list - but it's just a testament to everything else the band has done in the rest of their catalogue because Shangri-La-Dee-Da is still a beast of a rock record. I also think it's got some of the best compositional melodies going on in the background of the songs and is Scott Weiland's best vocal performance. Perhaps I'm a bit biased towards the seemingly less calculated approach, less produced sound the two albums that preceded it set as a standard. I actually like this record better than 2010's epononymous album, but can't sit here and tell you that it's better than it in terms of all the songs both individually, and packaged together as a whole. Shangri-La-Dee-Da was originally planned by the band to be a double-album, until the record company quickly refused to back that idea, I'd still love to hear twice the album this could have been; probably would have wound up pacing a whole lot better and truly been a monster of a sonic journey. Placing the raw, Seattle grunge-influenced rock of Core on one end of the spectrum, and the 60's influenced alt-pop trip of Tiny Music on the other, I'd say Shangri-La-Dee-Da would land you somewhere in the middle in terms of the evolution of their sound, yet still retains an identity and discernible vibe all it's own.

#3 - Stone Temple Pilots (2010)

The band never reached the pinnacle again the way they did in the couple of years that followed Purple; the last couple of albums prior to their self-titled were a bit under the radar in comparison to how they came out of the gate in the early nineties. Tours cut short due to the singers substance abuse issues and the problems with the law that ensued restricted the proper support to keep them on top. When they reformed in 2008 and confirmed that they were in fact working on new material for release I got really stoked, mostly because I had the opportunity to truly appreciate the body of work they'd done up to that point and had come to realize that you'd never really be able to put your finger on what exactly new material from STP would sound like, and that's an excitable trait for me. By this time I'd begun to view them as the 'Grunge' version of Faith No More; songs like '12 Gracious Melodies', 'So You Know', 'I Got You' and 'Atlanta' were evidence of a group with really progressive ideas that didn't mind experimenting a bit and throwing the listener a curve ball that may or may not go over well, all the while retaining their identity and sound beneath it all. A lofty perspective on my part considering the new trend of 90's bands reforming after extended time away and trying to replicate the 'glory days' of whatever the most successful album was in their catalogue through the medium of  a new album. Stone Temple Pilots did not disappoint.

Stone Temple Pilots was damn near as ninety degree an angle in their style as Tiny Music was upon it's release. While the first two tracks are the absolute embodiment of what had become the traditional STP sound ('Between the Lines', 'Take A Load Off'), the rest of the album was peppered with songwriting that went beyond showcasing influence and felt more like paying tribute to the bands that motivated them at their roots. 'Huckleberry Crumble' felt like the channeling of Aerosmith (whose guitarist Brad Whitford was an admitted influence of Robert Deleo), 'Dare If You Dare' seemed latter day Beatles-esque (a track not surprisingly written during the Talk Show sessions), 'Cinnamon' borrows from the pop-side of Cheap Trick's body o' work, and 'First Kiss on Mars' sounds like Bowie. You can throw 'Peacoat' in any tracklisting after Core and not bat an eye at it's fluidity, and everything in between is the band continuing to stretch their sound. The whole thing comes off as a stained-glass mosaic of styles and influences, making for one hell of an enjoyable listen.

Considering the praise I give Tiny Music for a lot of the same shift in effort, you'd think this would end up even higher on the list than it is. This is, to me, a stellar record - but the hold up I have with it is that some of the songs just don't feel as strong as past practice in my opinion. Both 'Bagman' and 'Hickory Dichotomy' could be plain fuckin' annoying to a casual listener, an opinion I shared for a while there upon the early few ingestions of the album. And while I love the fact that 'Cinnamon' is a track that more than a few would be (or were) hard pressed to identify as an STP song on first listen without prior knowledge, the lyrics just seem a bit underwhelming to me, even though upon recent listens it feels like they're simply reflecting the simple pop sensibility that the song was written to represent. In the end it is, especially considering the 9 year hiatus, a strong and ballsy four-star record, that keeps you excited to hear what's to come on first listen, and a yearning to hear it all again on subsequent indulgences. I will say that while 'Maver' is per their tradition a fantastic final track on the album they should have kept 'Samba Nova' on as the closer and not regurgitated it as a bonus track - that shit is butter.

#2 - No.4 (1999)

Following a failed tour, legal problems, the drastic sonic variation that was Tiny Music, and a side project that was basically STP minus Scott Weiland (Talk Show), not to mention the thick wake of  Nu-Metal's rock popularity sweep, STP's fourth album - appropriately titled No. 4 - slipped into the scene with barely any fanfare. Perhaps both the tribulations that came before it, as well as it's low profile in the mainstream subliminally added an element of pleasant surprise to it's presentation, because No.4 winds up being a complete consolidation of all of the band's musical strengths, in turn showcasing everything that STP was and was to be in a blueprint of sorts.

No.4. fronted a bass-heavy lower tone in the thicker songs here, an arguable influence of the aforementioned popularity of Nu-Metal at the time (let's not forget Scott Weiland's guest appearance on Limp Bizkit's 1997 album Significant Other), most notably in the slow-swinging wrecking ball that is the album opener 'Down'. While the band has always been able to flaunt a fantastic low range, on No.4 it sounds so much more organic and not overproduced than anything else they've done, a huge trait that keeps this album's tone magnificently palpable and almost dirty. The over-all sound is a perfect congelation of the thick power chords that dominated early albums, and the thinner more natural production reminiscent of Tiny Music. And with that perfect concoction of sound they run the gamut of their capabilities here. The thick stomp of 'Down', the heavy gallop ala 'Sex Type Thing' of 'Heaven and Hotrods', the art-rock of 'Church On Tuesday', the punk rock of 'Sex and Violence', the trippy folk swirl of 'Sour Girl', the soaring melodies of 'Glide', lounge-influenced 'I Got You', and closing with the phenomenal sunset serenade that is 'Atlanta'. In the end this record winds up sounding like a greatest hits of Stone Temple Pilots without actually being that; all of their best qualities and styles spread across 11 fantastically versatile and eccentric songs.

#1 - Tiny Music... (1996)

STP was virtually on top of the radio world with the success of Purple and more specifically songs like 'Interstate Love Song' and to a lesser degree 'Big Empty'. Remembering that lofty positioning only serves to amplify the greatness that is Tiny Music, as it not only presents as a ballsy experimental shift in sound, but also a kind of push back against all of the big business execs and mainstream hangers-on that were most likely trying to convince the band to rest on their laurels. Instead of going bigger and more bombastic, STP thinned out their sound, toned everything down - including the production, and even added more eclectic instrumentation into their songs in the form of organs, electric harpsichords, vibraphones and clavinets. The end result is a trippy little rock gem that feels like it does whatever the fuck it wants, including two idled down instrumental pieces ('Press Play', 'Daisy'), a trumpet solo ('Adhesive')  and a borderline lounge samba number ('And So I Know') which I believe to be one of the best songs in their catalogue (which most in my limited experience tend to skip right over, dummies). Weiland completely changes his primary vocal style for this record, only distancing themselves further from their previous trademark sound and it works on every level.

Written, produced and engineered to sound like the influences it's cut from which is 60's rock, but filtered through a mid-90's alternative rock conduit, Tiny Music sounds timeless. It ultimately has no edge to it (barring the aforementioned against the grain attitude by which it was conceived), even the "heavier" tracks on the album feel like they just sort of float about on a cloud, a bizarre juxtaposition to the real life events paralleling the records creation; which was the chronic substance abuse problems that led to the singer's multiple arrests and cancellation of a tour. Never-the-less Tiny Music flows wonderfully from start to finish and with it's highs and lows feels like the end of a fun little journey when it's over (maybe it parallels more to the effects of being high as a fucking kite)  - and oh how it ends. Arguably the best song the band has ever done, 'Seven Caged Tigers' ties the bow like a syrupy rock epilogue, it's final dissonant, reverberating chords drift off in such a beautifully haunting way; reminding me of the end of Led Zeppelin's 'Over The Hills and Far Away' - a procession I often wish would go on for another 10 minutes or so. Tiny Music is genius; it has the ability to give me comfort in it's sounds without ever losing any of it's muster, even after all these years. The saddest part about this record - besides the fact that it only resonates the awful truth that Stone Temple Pilots as we know it is done, is that I was only allowed to hear it for the first time once.

*If you dig this record as much as I do, and haven't checked out Talk Show yet maybe do so. It's a one-off album that's basically STP minus Weiland, and was written at the same time as Tiny Music. The Deleo brothers even admitted to splitting up the thirty or so songs they had done as either going to be an STP song or a Talk Show song by writing the singer's name on each track's demo tape. Barely compares in my opinion, but is still an enjoyable chapter to experience.