Archive for the Reviews Category

BROKEN BELLS – Broken Bells (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 11, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Danger Mouse doesn’t ever seem to sit still; he seems to find himself working alongside artist after artist after artist without a break. In the past few years, he’s teamed up with Cee-Lo Green, MF Doom, and Sparklehorse (rest in peace, Mark), produced albums for Beck, The Rapture and Damon Albarn’s albums (Gorillaz’s Demon Days and the sole The Good, The Bad and The Queen album), and now, he’s working alongside The Shins’ James Mercer on this project, dubbed Broken Bells. I’m not sure how far back Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse’s birth name) go; Mercer did appear on last year’s weirdest collaboration, Dark Night of the Soul (Sparklehorse was the major co-conspirator for that project), but then again, so did almost everyone who’s anyone in indiedom. The real question is what kind of a collaboration will this be? Is Broken Bells merely a one-off stunt, the album a result of curious but fruitless pairing, or is the music here alive with genuine intrigue and wonder?

Well, upon first listen, the pairing’s certainly not fruitless, but it isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, either. Broken Bells feels like too calculated a release, as if some record company execs laid out a whole bunch of ground rules for not alienating anyone, and Mercer and Burton were only too happy to oblige. Broken Bells is an album of gentle pleasantries (Trap Doors) and rich vocal harmonies (October). It coasts along on slick, rigid beats, it’s overly-polished demeanor not breaking in the slightest over the course of ten songs. In other words, while it’s an enjoyable album, in a certain sense, it’s also totally unmemorable. None of the songs stand out from one another; they’ve all got a beat, but not a pulse. It’s, unfortunately, an album that doesn’t make much of an impression on you, which considering the two powerhouses behind its inception, is a colossal disappointment.

Sometimes, collaborations just work. Mono and World’s End Girlfriend got together and made Palmless Prayer, Mass Murder Refrain, which is the closest thing we’re likely to get to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album in their absence. That collaboration was one of similar artists with a sympathetic aim. On the other hand, look at what David Byrne and Brian Eno did together; sure, their music wasn’t all that dissimilar from one another, but they certainly weren’t two of a kind, as artists. And yet, together, they made two wonderful, timeless albums. Broken Bells, by that metric, is a failure, in that it feels like little more than a novelty, one that’ll soon be forgotten.

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GORILLAZ – Plastic Beach (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 11, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Gorillaz, the brainchild of former Blur frontman Damon Albarn, is a band that could only exists here, in the 21st century. Oh sure, they’re not the first virtual band (Alvin and the Chipmunks, anyone?), but they are the first one to take a serious (read: not novelty) approach to popular music; as a (faux) collective, Gorillaz have culled their influences together from all across the pop music spectrum, and have assembled them into two irreverent collections of material (2001’s Gorillaz and 2005’s Demon Days). All this, plus an elaborate set of fictional biographies and promotional material means that Gorillaz were bred, not born, to thrive in the digital age.

To begin with, I applaud Albarn for making good use of an orchestral intro (the first song is actually unceremoniously named Orchestral Intro, which downplays how well it actually works as a lead in to the album as a whole); after what These New Puritans did with their intro on Hidden, it’s nice to know that people still are capable of using that device in a positive manner. The album’s first real song, Welcome To The World of Plastic Beach (featuring the unimitable Snoop Dogg), has great flow to it and a vast, expansive feel; when Plastic Beach works best (as in the aforementioned track, Glitter Freeze, Cloud of Unknowing), these are the qualities it exhibits: laid-back momentum towards an endless horizon.

Sadly, there are multiple songs on the album that don’t seem to go anywhere (or at least, not anywhere intriguing); the chief offenders here are the two main singles, Stylo and Superfast Jellyfish. The latter is simply annoying with its cartoonish verses and samples; it belies the sincere pop that the rest of the album exemplifies when its on the right course. The former is simply a weak song; as a lead single, it lacks the drive of Clint Eastwood and the sexiness of Feel Good Inc., and is easily the least of these by comparison.

Plastic Beach, when it works, is an album that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that mood can do more for pop music than spectacle. This coming from a “band” that consists of four primate-anime hybrids, is quite an accomplishment. Nevertheless, Albarn (just as he did with past Gorillaz albums) fails to create an album of consistently memorable songs. Like its predecessors, Plastic Beach is notable most for its glittering highlights, and not for superiority through cohesiveness as a whole. That being said, Plastic Beach’s are among the best material the “band” has ever presented us with, so Plastic Beach is, by that definition, Gorillaz’s best album. But alas, by that same definition, it’s also imperfect, a flawed career best. Perhaps sometime in the future, we’ll get an out-and-out masterpiece from this virtual ensemble, but that day is not today.

TITUS ANDRONICUS – The Monitor (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 9, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Titus Andronicus’ 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, was one of the best albums of that year. This was, for those with indie short-term memories, the same year that No Age and Vivian Girls got praised heaped upon them for doing, essentially, nothing. Well, that last bit isn’t true; both bands released startlingly bland albums that were lauded for their lo-fi aesthetics. Titus Andronicus, on the other hand, released a collection of literate, working-class punk songs, full of wry humor and raw energy, that bemoaned banality and celebrated endings, in all their various forms. In the song which bears their namesake, vocalist Patrick Stickles, yelping like Conor Oberst on a cocaine binge, screams the album’s penultimate decree until he’s just about to blow: “Your life is over.” In that one song, Titus Andronicus packed more sincerity, weight and raving emotion than No Age exhibited in all of Nouns. And with The Monitor, Titus Andronicus have upped the ante, releasing a sprawling, 70-minute concept album about the American Civil War.

Now, for most bands, releasing a 70-minute concept album about the American Civil War would be a career-ending move, but Titus Andronicus inject such a potent combination of youthfully existential angst and unyielding brotherhood into all these massive songs, that it becomes kind of hard to picture the band doing anything else for a sophomore album. The Monitor feels as though it exists out of necessity; this is an album that Titus Andronicus were born to make. Four Score and Seven transcends from folk roots to punk branches so perfectly, you may not even notice. No Future Part Three feels like the next logical extension of what I can only assume will be an ongoing song series. And the album closer, the 14-minute The Battle of Hampton Roads proceeds like a victory march – there’s even a bagpipe melody near the end of it, and in the middle, Stickles howls out a resigned monologue that highlights – nay, exalts – his deficiencies and failures, in a moment of earnest punk-rock defiance that likely won’t be matched all year. The entire album is filled with exhilarating grandiosity. More than that, it’s the sound of a band taking huge risks, and having every single one of them pay out in full.

I cannot recommend The Monitor enough. I’ve been listening to it all day. It’s not an album I’ll be putting aside soon, and it’s not one I want to. If you can’t wait for the new Hold Steady album to come out (sidenote: Craig Finn appears on The Monitor, reading some verses of Walt Whitman), or you’re just so tired of all the mall-punk that’s permeated our culture, The Monitor is just what you need. It has all the makings of a classic, and it’s the most American album I’ve heard in years. I can’t phrase it any better than that.

BORKNAGAR – Universal (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 8, 2010 by monopolyphonic

It’s been four years since we’ve heard anything from Borknagar, a Norwegian black metal ensemble that doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as they should, despite being every bit as established as their contemporaries (Emperor, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, etc.). Like the aforementioned bands, Borknagar have evolved a great deal since their inception in 1995; their eponymous debut album was released in 1996, and it was very reminiscent of mid-period Bathory, a style which the band would seldom touch upon again, as their albums traversed into more symphonic, avant-garde territory – the kind reserved for bands like Arcturus, though Borknagar never quite gave in to cosmological weirdness as much as they did (fun facts: Arcturus vocalist and Ulver ringleader Garm was the vocalist on Borknagar’s first album; after he left Arcturus several years later, who did the band get to replace him? None other than the first Borknagar vocalist, ICS Vortex, who left Borknagar in 2001 and was replaced by Vintersorg. Kudos to you if you understand everything I just said).

Borknagar took their most drastic turn with their last album, 2006’s Origin. It was primarily an acoustic album; it felt like a less sacrosanct version of Ulver’s Kveldssanger, and there are moments on Universal that definitely call Origin to mind. But the band that Borknagar seem to be channeling the most here is Winds. There’s a lot of orchestration on Universal, but they lack the tired bombast of bands like Dimmu Borgir or Cradle of Filth. No, the orchestration here is more contemplative, less about accenting the heaviness that envelopes them, and more about helping them to actualize the big picture. Overall, Universal is the most progressive album Borknagar have ever made; it’s not hard to imagine a band like Evergrey composing material like this. It’s definitely a strong step forward for the band.

I’m not sure if black metal is going to have as good a year as it did last year, but between Universal and Sigh’s Scenes From Hell, things are definitely going alright with the genre so far in 2010. It’s always gratifying to be pleased by an album from a band that’s been silent for the past few years, and that’s exactly what Borknagar have done here. More than that, though, they’ve proved that black metal (a genre which even now is notoriously resistant to evolution), can benefit from opening doors instead of just walling them off.

KALMAH – 12 Gauge (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 7, 2010 by monopolyphonic

“Watered down watered down watered down” – that’s what I kept thinking whilst listening to 12 Gauge, the latest offering from Finnish death metal warriors Kalmah. 12 Gauge has an unusual problem: it does too much right. As a result, we’re left with an album that, while enjoyable, doesn’t leave much in terms of a lasting impression. Kalmah have been broadening their sound for a while now, adding thrash solos, acoustic ruminations and Children of Bodom-esque keyboards atop their sold mixture of dueling guitars and needle-precise drumming. All those elements are on full display on 12 Gauge, and that’s the problem: everything meshes so expertly that you feel more like you’re made keenly aware of the album’s lack of a singular focus within no time. Or, to put it in a slightly more demeaning way: you’re made keenly aware that you’re listening to a more full-blooded Dethklok in no time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Kalmah at least manage to maintain some of their former glory here; they don’t devolve quite as ravenously as Arsis did with their latest album. There are sections of Swampwar and Godeye that are genuinely thrilling in their melodic carnage. But there are also a fair number of songs like Better Not To Tell and One of Fall, songs which proceed as they must and which offer us no surprises and no thrills. And because the scales of 12 Gauge are so heavily weighted in the latter’s favor, that’s ultimately the impression one winds up with of the album as a whole: a roadmap of wrong turns, full of misplaced modernization and homogenization. In the end, that’s what 12 Gauge hangs in my memory as: the sound of a band on autopilot.

It might sound counterintuitive, but metal needs a lot of passion to work well. It’s real easy to shred some guitars into oblivion and hammer out blast beats until your knees give out, but if that ferocity doesn’t stir your soul, it becomes uninteresting really quick. That’s the problem with death metal; if it’s done poorly, you feel like you’re listening to a bunch of marionettes twitching through the motions – but because it’s such an over-the-top style of music, we can see the strings, which lessens the impact even more. Kalmah show us a little too much of their strings on 12 Gauge. Here’s hoping they don’t continue down this path in the future like so many of their metal brethren have.

THESE NEW PURITANS – Hidden (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 2, 2010 by monopolyphonic

This is the first time I’ve ever listened to These New Puritans, and it may well be the last. I’m all for post-modern assemblage, but this is fucking ridiculous – when you’re dealing in simulacrums, the sum of your parts can be more than the whole (or vice-versa), but you absolutely have to elicit some sort of emotional response with what you’ve created. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why even make music? This is the problem I have with Hidden, These New Puritans’ second album; it seems to have been painstakingly crafted to prevent any sort of meaningful emotional response to it, so remarkably insipid are its components, and so banally have they been fashioned together, like a price-slashed IKEA clearance eyesore that’s one more ding or scratch away from the dumpster. Now, I don’t expect every band that experiments with aural alchemy to push the boundaries like Estradasphere or Mr. Bungle do, but when you take the most pedestrian aspects/trends of modern music, and cram them all together into song after song after song, how could you possibly expect to wind up with gold, and not talc?

Hidden is comprised primarily of big, fat, repetitious hip-hop beats (think 808s and Heartbreaks without any soul whatsoever), plodding, lethargic orchestrations that make elevator muzak seem alive by comparison, and airy, hushed vocals that may as well not even be there. Add to that some dull synth lines and a whole host of uninspired, minor-key melodica, and you’ll have Hidden. Opening track Time Xone doesn’t need to exist; it’s a short orchestral intro that, on a good album, would set the stage for something, but instead, it wastes two minutes of your time. Just as well, though – there’s really not anything to herald here, anyways. The next song, We Want War, is too long two minutes into its seven minute runtime; it’s a coma-inducingly boring song, and there’s still nine more to go. One of these songs, Hologram, drops the minor-key theatrics and borderlines on enjoyable, but it ultimately comes off like Junior Boys b-side. The same goes for Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie, though it feels more like Jóhann Jóhannsson walking into an ESPN teaser between Bowl Games. So pick your poison, because beyond that, These New Puritans don’t seem terribly interested in making music that achieves anything, save for tedium (and loads of it).

I can’t for the life of me figure out why this album is getting the praise that it is (it currently has an 84 on metacritic). But it doesn’t much matter – the music press loves to praise things as “groundbreaking”, even when they’re not, so this isn’t a new thing. Fortunately, I have my copy King Crimson’s THRAK on hand to erase Hidden from my memory. Which, if you’ll excuse me, is something I need to get going on.

HIGH ON FIRE – Snakes For The Divine (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 1, 2010 by monopolyphonic

If there’s one band who might be able to rival Mastodon for sheer, back-to-basics heavy metal mass appeal, it’s High On Fire. Like Mastodon (or formerly like Mastodon, I should say, given the sprawling, batshit craziness of their last album), High On Fire are big on three things: guitar, war drums, and mythological imagery. Unlike Mastodon, High On Fire don’t engage in highbrow conceptualism; their music is startling in both its immediacy and its simplicity – it exists to devastate, and it often does. So, with that in mind as the end goal, how much devastation does Snakes For The Divine provide us? Well, a fair amount to be sure, but somehow, the album feels lacking in some way, like there was some sort of crucial step that was missed during its creation.

I think the heart of the problem is that the band undeniably have never sounded better, production-wise, than on their second album (and first for Relapse Records), Surrounded By Thieves. No, not even in the extraordinarily capable hands of Steve Albini (the sonic architect behind their Blessed Black Wings) – and considering Albini produced what is, in my opinion, one of the heaviest albums ever (Neurosis’ Times of Grace), that’s really saying something. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me, but High On Fire don’t sound right with any notable degree of crispness to their sound; the guitars need to be low and muddy, the drums wet and booming, the vocals buried behind everything else. You need to feel as though there’s resin seeping out of your speakers. That’s not the feeling I get from Snakes For The Divine, the opening track of which begins with a razor sharp guitar riff that’d fit just as well on an In Flames or AC/DC album. Sure, it’s a fleeting thing, with the bongfuzz guitars coming in right on cue, but still, everything is too clear and precise for my tastes. Add to that fact that a lot of these songs move in circles for too long (despite this album being one of High On Fire’s shortest, it feels like one of their longest).

This is all a detracting shame, really – there’s some great songs on here that get lost in the shuffle (Fire Flood and Plague and Bastard Samurai, especially). But the bottom line is, my brain just does not hold onto them (devastating though they may be). Now, last year around this time, I wrote some very similar sentiments for Kylesa’s latest album , and one year later, I still stand by them (I actually don’t even own Static Tensions anymore; I sold it around September). I fear this may be the future for Snakes For The Divine.