Babymetal – Metal Galaxy [2019]

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If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the past few years, odds are you’ve come into contact with Babymetal. After finding their way into the meme-stream with 2014’s zany viral hit Gimme Chocolate, the group was suddenly everywhere: reaction videos, social media, metal magazines and websites, music festivals, and more. But this band wasn’t just a meme: their music was genuinely boundary-pushing, allowing brutal metal to coexist with upbeat and energetic pop sounds with ease. Of course, this immediately drew the ire of “true” metalheads, who insisted that the band’s manufactured idol background and catchy choruses did nothing but bastardize metal and everything it stood for. But with 2016’s Metal Resistance, the band once again proved that they were the real deal, fusing the very best of metal’s vast array of styles with a level of theatrical flair, emotion, performance, and sheer songwriting craft that was impossible to resist. And with this jewel in their crown, the band continued building a huge, dedicated fanbase by playing over a dozen countries around the world over the next two years, and made an unprecedented success out of themselves.

But sadly, no success story goes untarnished. After capping off their Metal Resistance world tour with a pair of massive arena shows in Japan, Babymetal soon met the new year with tragedy. Guitarist Mikio Fujioka, a member of the group’s live band, suffered serious injuries from a fall in late December 2017, and sadly passed away from them on January 5th. Losing a member so tragically took a huge toll on the group, and things were quiet for a while. But there was another reason for their radio silence, too: Yui-metal. She had been absent from those two arena shows in Japan, and fans weren’t told much outside of a brief mention of health issues. And when it came time for the band’s US tour in May, she was still missing in action, instead replaced by a series of seven revolving dancers that varied in formation from show to show. But by now the writing was on the wall, and in October 2018, Yui finally revealed that she was indeed leaving Babymetal. She was simply too ill to perform with such a demanding group, and had hopes to start a career under her own name.

In the face of all this turmoil, Babymetal’s future was uncertain for the first time in their career. With Yui gone, it spurred anxieties of Su-metal or Moa-metal departing as well, or the band ending altogether. At the very least, big changes were coming, and instead of caving to the pressure, Babymetal rose from the ashes in 2019. They got a lock on Yui’s departure by replacing her with a series of three “Avengers”, who are rotating dancers that fill her spot live and bring the group back to its traditional trio. They soon started to debut new material live too, making is abundantly clear that Babymetal was not going anywhere anytime soon, and was ready to broaden its horizons and look towards the future.

All of this brings us to their new album, Metal Galaxy. Just like the name suggests, the band is reaching for the stars and grabbing as many of them as they can. And that’s not just a metaphor: this album is star-studded with guest features, featuring Joakim Broden of Sabaton, Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy, Tim Henson and Scott LePage of Polyphia, Tak Matsumoto of B’z, and Thai rapper F. Hero. This wide ranging cast of characters is necessary for the vision Babymetal is chasing with this album, though: after spending years touring the globe from young ages, both the girls and the band’s producers have plenty of new inspiration to draw on, and they do. That manifests itself in a host of sounds, most immediately in the form of Shanti Shanti Shanti. This song mixes a crunchy guitar stomp with an Indian flavor, layering in sitars and register-jumping Eastern vocal melismas with great success. Elsewhere, Night Night Burn takes djent-inflected guitar riffs and juts them against a dash of Latin rhythms and flamenco lines, all fusing to create a pulse pounding pop-metal song. On Brand New Day, Polyphia’s dazzlingly chill jazz metal effortlessly blends with the song’s unadulterated J-pop vibe, and Elevator Girl is one of the hookiest songs you’ll hear all year. But Oh! Majinai is a song that almost defies categorization, sounding like a bizzaro pirate shanty courtesy of Joakim Broden’s gravelly chants and shouts overlaid on groovy riffs and jaunty accordion leads. The Japanese edition of Metal Galaxy has even more surprises, though: we find Su-metal spitting bars and flashing attitude over a trap-inspired beat on BxMxC, that’s expertly thickened up by fat 8 string guitar lines. And the other Japanese exclusive track, BBAB, is a trip through chiptune and future bass which is loaded with chiming synths, pulsing keys, and a dose of metal to make this one of the most unique odes to video games ever put to tape.

But for all these big jumps in genre and style, there’s plenty of classic-sounding Babymetal to go around too. Distortion pummels along with with exuberant synth lines reminiscent of their first two albums, staccato riffs, and expressive lead guitar lines. It’s also given an extra injection of aggression with Alissa White-Gluz’s harsh screams, fitting so seamlessly into the song that you almost can’t tell its not the original single released last year. Pa Pa Ya!! is a groove metal stomp that features an instantly shout-able chorus and an aggressive rap verse courtesy of Thailand’s F. Hero, and Kagerou takes their unique sound and pares it down into a slick hard rock track that would slot perfectly onto American rock radio (you know, were it not sung in Japanese). Then there’s Starlight, a song that’s packed with drop tuned djent riffs and serves as a heartfelt tribute to fallen guitarist Miko Fujioka. And Arkadia sounds as if it were cut from the same cloth as Road of Resistance and The One, packed with the sky scraping guitar work you can only get from the very best of power metal.

That’s the thing about this album, though. Just about every song here, taken on its own, is an immediate and excellently written earworm that blends genres and cultures without even blinking. But when you zoom out and look at the album as a whole, problems begin to surface. Simply put, these massive genre jumps quickly become dizzying, especially on the album’s first half. From IN THE NAME OF on, the album does settles into a more consistent and cohesive whole, but by then its already run the gamut of dance-pop, jazz metal, pirate shanties, and Eastern music, and its easy to feel fatigued at the halfway mark. Because at its heart, this album is literally taking on the world and trying to incorporate it all into the Babymetal universe. With that in mind, its hard to tell if Metal Galaxy simply suffers from a non-optimal track order, or if cuts need to be made, but things are soon clouded by another matter entirely. That cloud is the album’s production and mixing, which takes the album’s mission statement of “everything AND the kitchen sink” and runs with it. There is simply no sonic real estate left untouched here, with every nook and cranny filled by some sort of guitar layer or riff, vocal harmony, synth line, studio effect, extra percussion, finger snaps, or folk instrument. This makes an album that’s already unsure of its own flow and cohesiveness even harder to follow along with, as it is just constantly throwing everything it has at the listener. Sadly, the worst of these production issues fall upon Su-metal’s vocals. Having seen Babymetal last month, I’m well aware of what an amazing singer she is, exhibiting tone, control, and power well beyond her 21 years and all while dancing and jumping around like a woman possessed. But on Metal Galaxy, her voice is absolutely buried in unnecessary effects that range from vocoders, pitch shifters, Harmonizer, and autotune. It’s clear that this is an aesthetic choice, meant to suit the album’s futuristic and poppier vibe, but what it mostly serves to do is bury Su’s voice in the mix and obscure her powerful vocal melodies. In a way, it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved in Babymetal that these songs actually sound better live, but it’s a shame that the recorded versions are so bogged down by bad sound design.

So what’s the verdict on Metal Galaxy? Well, it’s not a perfect album. It lacks for a cohesive flow and has a tendency to pogo around genres like a kid in a candy shop, all while suffering from some over the top production choices that often drown out the best parts of the songs. But really, those issues are pretty easy to overlook given the absolute scale and ambition of this album. Babymetal tries just about everything under the sun here, and the vast majority of these songs only end up the better for it. Elevator Girl, Shanti Shanti Shanti, Brand New Day, Kagerou, Starlight and Arkadia are all easily some of the best songs this band has ever written, and the weirder experiments are an absolute joy to listen to even if your mileage will vary greatly with some of them (Oh! Majinai, anyone?). While these songs don’t always complement each other in the tracklist, on their own they’re simply great songs, and that’s always been the litmus test for Babymetal’s music. As long as they’re still finding ways to kick down new doors and dare the listener to tell them not to, then they’re still just as vital and exciting as the day they started. This band has seen the world and come away better for it, and in their quest to incorporate a little bit of everything into their universe, they’ve shown us that the one true way through adversity is an open mind, a willing spirit, and the fearlessness to dive headfirst in things that may or may not work. Because as long as you’re reaching for the stars, you’re bound to grab a few, and those are the ones that light up Babymetal’s Metal Galaxy.

William Patrick Corgan – Ogilala [2017]

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Things haven’t been too great for Billy Corgan the past few years. The Smashing Pumpkins auteur has found himself embroiled in a number of embarrassing spectacles and creative flunks, and has seemed to be lost for years now. The proof of that came most strikingly with his 2014 release under the Pumpkins banner, Monuments to an Elegy. This was an album that showcased a musician stuck between giving his fans the sound they wanted, yet who was also desperately trying to shoehorn his current musical ambitions into. The result was a strange amalgamation of classic Pumpkins guitarwork, fused with puzzling new age synths and lyrics that would be more apt coming from a 12-year-old boy than a 46-year-old man. Suffice to say, when he announced that he would be releasing a new solo album after a 12-year gap, I had virtually nonexistent expectations – this was a man who was lying to himself musically for years and seemed completely without a rudder, what would change now?

What’s changed is immediately apparent from the first piano chords of “Zowie”, the album’s first track. Here, Corgan has stripped away everything but the bare necessities, opting for something more akin to a singer-songwriter approach than the in-your-face maximalism that was the Pumpkins’ bread and butter for so long. This track (and the album at large) is carried solely by Corgan’s gentle, melancholy piano strains and a restrained, refined vocal performance. Where he once might have layered three or four tracks of vocals on any given song, he has nothing to hide behind here – his voice is raw and exposed, perhaps putting greater pressure on himself to truly deliver. And where his voice was once full of grit, rage, snark, and sneer, on Ogilala the overriding emotion is love, exploration, acceptance, and hope. He’s no longer belting out his pain towards anyone who will listen: instead, he sounds at peace, writing these songs as much for himself as for anyone else.

However, sometimes this bare-bones approach shoots the album in the foot. While there’s nothing as outright clunky or cringe-worthy as “Run2Me” or “Anaise!”, at times it feels fairly one dimensional, with one song flowing into the next without much to differentiate it. There ARE a few moments that break up the flow and add color to the proceedings, like the yearning strings behind Corgan’s earnest vocals on “Aeronaut”. And then there’s James Iha’s shocking turn on guitar for the track “Processional”, marking the first time the pair have recorded music together since 2000’s Machina. But overall, Ogilala’s palette could have used a little expanding, as several of these songs feel more underwritten than stripped down.

But despite Ogilala’s faults, this album represents a marked return to form for a musician that has been lost for a long while now, and it presents perhaps his most honest and humble songwriting in his entire career (or at the very least, this second stage of it). He is no longer grappling with what side of himself to present to the world: It is just William Patrick Corgan, for better and for worse – stripped of anger and overwrought ambition, more at peace with himself than ever before, and making music that seems to truly strike a chord inside himself. It’s a step in the right direction, and for the first time since the Pumpkins reformed in 2005, it feels like the man is genuinely inspired. Ogilala might be more quiet, meditative, and sedate than any of his prior work, but in this case, that’s a good thing.

Avenged Sevenfold – The Stage [2016]

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The past few years have been rough for Avenged Sevenfold. Ever since drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan died in 2009, the band has seemed unsure of what direction to go in: 2010’s Nightmare featured the Rev’s final songwriting contributions and had one of his drumming idols playing his parts, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy. But Portnoy’s role was only ever to be temporary, and they quickly found another drummer in Arin Ilejay for 2013’s Hail to the King. That album found the band attempting to regroup, simplifying their sound and mining through their various hard rock and metal influences for new inspiration. But instead of sounding inspired, the band often veered too close to becoming a cheap copy of those influences rather than honoring them, and the songs were further weakened by Ilejay’s limp and rudimentary choice of drum parts. Sensing that things weren’t working out, the band has once again switched drummers, enlisting Brooks Wackerman of Bad Religion to fill the seat.

But Avenged Sevenfold had bigger ideas this time around than simply swapping drummers again. It was clear that the band was gearing up to release an album, if not this year, then probably the next. But details were scarce and besides the release of a single, “The Stage”, early in October, no one even knew if this thing had a title yet. The secrecy turned out to be for good reason: inspired by the surprise releases of Radiohead, Beyonce, Death Grips, and more, the band performed a live VR concert on October 27th before announcing that, hey, they had a new album and you could go buy it right at that moment. And in a first for this type of release, the band managed to get physical editions made and heroically avoided a leak up until the very last minute.

The album in question is The Stage, and clocks in as their longest album to date at a whopping 73 minutes. Immediately from the titular opening track, it’s clear that the band has gotten back on track. The opening title track starts off with ominous organ akin to “Critical Acclaim”, before launching into their classic limber guitar work and muscular riffing. It’s also clear that the band has re-embraced their progressive rock roots more than they have since 2005’s City of Evil, with the track easily hitting the 8 minute mark and moving through an array of harmonized leads, classic guitar riffs, and blazing solos. “The Stage” sets the tone for much of the album, as songs like “Paradigm” (a track that’s traditionally heavy and powerful for them), “God Damn” (a song that shows off Wackerman’s drumming chops and highlights why Ilejay was such a poor fit for the band), and “Sunny Disposition” feature much of these same traits, mixing power with structural variety. The latter track, “Sunny Disposition”, is their most interesting sonic experiment in years, combining the power of traditional metal riffs with a trumpet section in order to create an eerie, unsettling effect rarely seen in their catalog. Elsewhere, the band experiments with Faith No More-esque vocal melodies on “Creating God”, and is a great example of the vocal shift on this album. It seems like their hero worship on Hail to the King wasn’t entirely forgotten or without merit, as M. Shadows switches up his delivery to include not just his stock shouted tough guy rasp, but also hints of Layne Staley in his harmonies and Axl Rose in his highs. But perhaps the biggest risk on this album is its closing track, “Exist”. Clocking in at over 15 minutes, it stands out as the band’s longest track yet, and also features its longest instrumental section as well. Opening with swirling spacey synth leads, the band comes in full force with swept arpeggio runs and thick riffs that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to any Dream Theater fan. After 7 minutes of various guitar runs, organ sections, and chaotic soloing from Synyster Gates, the track finally takes a breather and allows gentle vocals to take over. The break doesn’t last long, though, as familiar pieces from the first 7 minutes slowly reintroduce themselves under Shadows’ vocals, until the song finally gives way to a monologue about the universe and the humans living in it from none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson himself.

While it’s great that the band has finally found themselves again and have made a more progressive, more risky body of music, The Stage is not without its dead spots. Several of the songs on this album suffer from lacking a strong hook or vocal melody to hold them together, and as a result, songs like “Angels” and “Simulation” feel like plodding repeats of each other. Avenged has also always been a very vocally driven band despite all of their instrumental flair, so for them to switch it up here and use those instrumentals for much of the album’s melodic cues is – while not a bad thing – jarring and harder to get accustomed to considering their catalog of massively hooky songs. Sections like the impressive orchestral ending of “Roman Sky” are more immediately memorable than any of its vocal lines even after several listens, as are the aforementioned trumpets in “Sunny Disposition”. And outside of those motifs, in general most of the songs feel like they could have picked up an additional 5 or 10 BPM without suffering for it, as even album highlights like “Creating God” and “Sunny Disposition” don’t feel quite as urgent as they possibly could. In combination with most of the songs’ lengths, this ends up making the album feel a bit draggy and forgettable in its middle run.

But as a whole, The Stage is definitely a step back in the right direction for Avenged Sevenfold. They’ve embraced their core sound again without needing to outright copy their heroes, and are once again taking risks musically. And while not every song here is top tier material from them, overall The Stage feels like their most cohesive and mature work to date. So despite hitting a few stumbling blocks on this album, they feel more like growing pains as they move into a newer, more progressive sound, rather than a death knell for their creativity. For a band that has historically been so eager to dive into tired metal and edgy goth cliches, The Stage opens up an exciting new path for them to trod in the future, and it’s one that we can only hope they take till the end.

Key Tracks: The Stage, Sunny Disposition, Creating God, Exist

The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation [2016]

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As sad as it is to say, The Dillinger Escape Plan is throwing in the towel. That’s old news. Even older news is their storied commitment to fractured rhythm and teeth-grinding musical violence, their intensely physical and destructive live shows, their defiant DIY attitude that filters down to every move they’ve made in twenty years of existence. But the how and why of the band’s demise is quite possibly the newest thing here: the band is going out in a blaze of glory with one final record and a world tour spanning into 2017. They’re not killing this thing because they’re run out of ideas, or because their bodies are only being held together by sheer force of will, or because everyone hates each other. In fact, the band’s probably operating at its highest creative gear ever. Instead, they’ve realized that once anything reaches an apex, it eventually has to come back down. In the face of potential stagnation and diminishing returns, they’ve decided to clip that apex and kill the beast while it’s potent enough to still be missed.

That final record is Dissociation. And instead of pulling out all the stops and making some unhinged, off-the-wall masterpiece untethered to any expectations and obligations, they’ve instead consolidated their strengths into one album. Dissociation reads like a weathered road map of where the band has been before: touching upon the unrefined chaos and power of Calculating Infinity and Miss Machine, the freak-out glitch of Ire Works, and the melody and more traditional structures of Option Paralysis and One of Us is the Killer, it’s a summation of their body of work. But that’s not to say that Dissociation lacks for its own voice, either. On it the band sounds more crazed, more desperate, and more lonely than ever before, like it’s using those pieces of its past to hold itself together one last time in the face of the end rather than simply revisit the past.

It’s obvious on tracks like “Low Feels Blvd”, “Nothing to Forget”, and “Fugue” that the idea here is to take those past landmarks and channel them into some new feelings and emotions. On the former track, the band fires into breakneck Ire Works-esque riffing that pummels just as hard or harder than anything they’ve done before, and just as you feel like you know where it’s going, the bottom falls out. Suddenly the track takes a detour into Mahavishnu Orchestra styled jazz soloing from Ben Weinman, accompanied by frantic brass and strings and carried by choir-like falsetto from Greg Puciato. On “Nothing to Forget” the band opts to take the ominous, chunky approach they used on much of Option Paralysis, before opening up into one of the most straightforwardly pretty and melodic sections they’ve ever put on tape. Here the band is once again accompanied by a string quartet, but this time they opt for something a little more cinematic than “Low Feels Blvd”, using them to create drama and tension behind some of the most pure and honest-sounding vocals the band’s ever utilized. And “Fugue” builds from the band’s brief flirtations with electronics and morphs it into a full scale Aphex Twin/Dillinger hybrid, smashing Billy Rymer’s drums into quantized madness while layering them over one of Liam Wilson’s most unsettling bass lines ever, turning it into the album’s most jarring and sonically unique track.

But it wouldn’t be a Dillinger album without some tried-and-true landmarks, either. “Symptom of Terminal Illness” is the band’s usual “pop” track, but approaches its melody from an eerie, dramatic, and unsettling angle that quite possibly makes it their most compelling work in that vein yet. And songs like “Honeysuckle”, “Wanting Not So Much to As To”, and “Surrogate” deliver all of the musical shock and awe that their name has been built upon, featuring plenty of the band’s trademark jagged off-time riffing, vicious vocals, and chaotic power. And despite its mid-tempo, opening track “Limerent Death” is perfect for that role, as it feels like it’s dragging the listener kicking and screaming into something bigger, scarier, and more dangerous through it’s multiple build ups and breakdowns.

Bigger, scarier, and more dangerous perhaps sums up the whole record: while the band has been getting progressively more melodic and injecting some pop structures into their sound in recent years, Dissociation is much darker, more desperate, and less obvious as a whole. The first few listens won’t yield many obvious hooks, as the music is denser than ever before, and the lyrics betray a sense of fear, anxiety, and existential dread in the face of death. There’s palpable tension in every moment here; a sense that the beast is cornered and dying, yet strong enough to make its last stand and one final statement. Nothing sums that feeling up more than the album’s eponymous closing track, a track that’s far outside of their typical sound, and yet the most fitting possible conclusion to their discography. “Dissociation” is built entirely around keening, emotional strings courtesy of SEVEN)SUNS string quartet, and layered with throbbing electronics and skittering, off-kilter drum loops that threaten to spiral out of control. And strangely enough, despite Ben Weinman being the band’s only remaining original member, you won’t hear a single moment of his guitar work on this track. Instead, Greg Puciato croons what sounds like an epitaph for the band over all of this without ever raising his voice – lines like “don’t confuse being set free with being discarded and lonely” and “couldn’t stay for you / what a strange way to lose” feel like they were written with the band’s imminent death in mind. Even more strangely, the final moment of Dillinger’s final track fades out into a gentle falsetto, with all of the remaining instrumentation dropping away and leaving nothing but the lyric “finding a way to die alone” echoing out into the emptiness. It’s heart-wrenching in its truth, powerful in its contrast, and a completely unexpected ending.

On Dissociation, The Dillinger Escape Plan have truly found a way to die alone, but not in the sense you would think. They’re dying alone in the sense that, like everything else they’ve done, they’re going out in a way that no one else could. After years of setting the standard for mathy, technical metal and hardcore, with plenty of new musical ground left to tread and with an ever-growing fanbase, they’ve bowed out on top of their game with this record. They’ve left no opportunity for themselves to simply become another band that people wonder, “wow, those guys are still around?” about. Instead, what they’ve left behind is a perfect discography, with each record standing in stark contrast to each other, and one with a clear beginning, middle, and thematic conclusion. They’ve left a myriad of crazy stories, intense memories, and music that has influenced and will influence generations to come. It’s heart breaking to know that this is the end of a band at the height of their powers, but it would’ve been more heart breaking to watch them fade into mediocrity eventually. Dillinger has always been a band that stood alone miles above the rest, so for them, dying alone was always the only option.

Key Tracks: Wanting Not So Much to As To, Low Feels Blvd, Honeysuckle, Dissociation

Periphery – Periphery III: Select Difficulty

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Periphery are a band that’s always moving forwards. They were once just another bedroom guitarist’s project, and over the years they’ve flourished into one of the biggest names in metal today. And with each new release, they’ve found subtle ways of growing their sound and improving their songwriting in order to keep things from getting stale. But this time around, the band was faced with something of a tall order: how do you follow up a massive concept album that sprawls two discs and runs the gamut from radio-ready rock to some of the lowest, heaviest downtuning possible with metal guitars?

Well, the answer is simple: you don’t. Instead of feeling daunted by trying to follow up such a heady record, this time around Periphery has opted to just have fun with the process. Writing and recording in guitarist Misha Mansoor’s home/studio, the band deliberately put itself in a much more relaxed environment in order to not force things, and it truly shows: Periphery III: Select Difficulty features some of the band’s most straightforward, thoughtfully arranged, and vocally-driven songs ever. While there’s some typical heavy Periphery fare to open up the album with the back to back combo of “The Price is Wrong” and “Motormouth” (two tracks which, in all honesty, tread a little too close to many of their other songs), there’s a surprising amount of variety here for a metal band. “Marigold” is what happens when you build a rock song out of proggy guitar riffs and pure pop instinct, with string embellishments and gang-vocal chants to match, and “The Way the News Goes…” is comprised of a soaring, intricate clean guitar melody that refuses to stay in any one plac and later manages to meld a blast beat to a pop chorus in the same song. Following that theme, “Catch Fire” is the band’s purest attempt at a pop track yet, possibly more so than Juggernaut’s “Heavy Heart”. Surprisingly enough, it delivers in spades, showcasing that the trademark Periphery sound can stay intact while also being able to slot in easily on the radio, and proving that this band is impossibly dynamic within an incredibly narrow genre. And while it’s the closing track, “Lune” feels more like the centerpiece of the record. Periphery has always flirted with ambience and layering to thicken up their sound, but “Lune” is the most purely mood-driven track they’ve ever recorded. Opening with an introspective guitar line and taking its time to bring in several layers of synth, strings, and effects-drenched guitars, the song is a showcase for Spencer Sotelo’s vocal prowess. It’s quite possibly the closest thing to a ballad a band like them can get, and its worth its weight in emotional heft (which is even more impressive considering that, by most standards, its lyrics are pretty plain).

But on the parts of the records where they’re not stretching their muscles, at times it feels like they’re starting to run the risk of repeating themselves. As mentioned before, the two opening tracks feel like very by-the-numbers Periphery heavy tracks, handing in riffs that feel like they could have been written by anyone on the Sumerian Records roster. They’re nothing as impressively heavy as “Zyglrox” or “Make Total Destroy”, and they also fail to bring a new twist to that sound, either, which makes them feel a little flat. Also suspect is the fact that the band is continuing to revisit nearly decade-old Misha demos for new material: for a band that prides itself on having every member be a songwriter, enough so to base an entire EP around the concept of each member writing a song based around a singular overture, it seems a little odd to dredge up and rework such old material instead. Aside from those issues, it’s hard not to feel like a few songs here run just a little too long as well. “Marigold” features a two minute long outro consisting of nothing but guitar feedback and reverb, and when that happens just three songs into the record, it’s a total flow-killer. “Absolomb” suffers from a similar fate, but for a different reason: its outro is actually a gorgeous piece of orchestral composition, and should be showcased as its own separate track. However, it simply feels tacked on at the end to inflate the track’s length instead.

But considering that the band didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel for themselves with this record, that’s okay. There’s still a lot of growth to be found even on this more laid back, less ambitious undertaking. There’s heavy amounts of orchestral strings on this record, plenty of analog synths being seamlessly melded into guitar lines for added texture and flavor, a sharper eye for actual melodic songwriting instead of smashing riffs together, and more attention to detail than ever before. The band is still having enormous amounts of fun just writing and playing together, and even when they feel like they’re treading water, that fun is infectious. Overall, Periphery III: Select Difficulty is another welcome addition to the band’s catalog, and offers up yet another new flavor of their sound.

KEY TRACKS: Marigold, The Way the News Goes…, Flatline, Lune

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [2016]

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Radiohead isn’t a band that needs introduction at this point, at least usually. But during the lead up to their first album in five years, it seems as if they were trying to reintroduce themselves. In the days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, the band completely erased their internet presence, leaving nothing but a blank slate devoid of posts across their Twitter feeds and Facebook page. And when those gears DID start turning again, it was only to dribble out tiny clips of a child-like claymation video, which lacked any music, branding, or information of any kind. It signaled very clearly that something was about to happen, something that wasn’t beholden to their past, something cleaner and purer than before.

A Moon Shaped Pool is exactly that – it’s some of the cleanest, purest, and most human music the band has put to tape so far. Of course, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so they’ll always bear some of that cold, insular, and electronic edge they’ve explored for so long. But what’s so surprising about this record is the much more emotional and naturalistic side they’ve chosen to explore within it. Acoustic guitars, string sections, and pianos take far more precedence over drum machines, sequencers and laptops, and more than ever Thom Yorke’s lyrics are focused on the pitfalls of the human condition instead of his trademark claustrophobic technophobia and paranoia. “Burn the Witch” is a perfect example of this: opening with a percussive gush of strings unlike anything in their discography, it drives forward with little need for guitars or drums, while focusing on the division of different peoples and the fear-mongering that causes it. But that song is actually a bit of a feint, as it doesn’t take long for the band to dip into more downcast, defeated territory: “Daydreaming” is one of the simplest songs in their catalog, but one of the thickest with emotion. Built upon a simple repeating piano motif, Yorke’s vocals barely rise above a murmur, and are cocooned with flourishes of violins and electronics that establish the song’s true movement and feeling. And “Decks Dark” is a slow burn of a track replete with chilly, rattling guitar lines and an introspective piano line that buoys some of Yorke’s most expressive vocals since In Rainbows – ones that equate encroaching dread and fear to visiting aliens blotting out the sky with their flying saucers.

But it’s after that three track run that the album starts revealing its truest colors. For example, “Desert Island Disk” is the closest thing to a folk song that the band has ever recorded. Calm and quiet, it’s led by an aerobic acoustic guitar line, gentle swirls of background electronics, and an oddly out-of-character set of lyrics that inspire uplift and hope instead of fear and paranoia. This track also finds a cousin on the album’s second half in “The Numbers”. It’s another gentle, folky song that this time finds its inspiration in ’60s protest music, as Yorke quietly rails against climate change and the powers that be, insisting that the people have the power to create change – which doesn’t solely have to function as an instruction against global warming. And while not nearly as folksy, “Present Tense” is a Spanish-sounding love-lost groove that’s almost danceable despite it’s lack of any sort of beat and heartbroken lyrics. Acoustic guitars aren’t the sole driving force of this album, however. “Ful Stop” throbs along with a repeating bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood that establishes the core of the song, a song which chooses to fully explore that groove rather than searching out another, more obscure path. And on “Identikit”, the rest of the band allows Jonny Greenwood to take his electric guitar out of storage, resulting in a song with plenty of spiky dynamics and angular guitar lines to complement its grooving drums and expressive chorus.

But as always with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool has a moodier side as well. As “Daydreaming” foreshadows, this isn’t an album without its darkness. “Glass Eyes” is a short yet powerful piano ballad punctuated with otherworldy strings, exploring the anxiety one finds themselves faced with when arriving in a new place, and its bare bones musicality only serves to emphasize its narrative (one which is formatted in the spirit of a voicemail left on someone’s phone). And conversely, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…” finds itself straddling both that minimalist slant of “Glass Eyes” and a bigger, more sweeping cinematic feel. Its first half drifts around with little direction and a listless energy, until Jonny’s Bond-esque string score swoops in to take the song into an entirely different world. What at first seems like an almost disjointed track soon makes sense, as that swirl of strings leads into the crowning jewel, and closing track, of the album. “True Love Waits” is a storied song in Radiohead’s catalog, having been played live in one version or another dating back all the way to 1995. But it’s been a notoriously hard one for the band to try and capture, as it wasn’t until Yorke’s 23 year long relationship dissolved that they were finally able to find the inspiration to nail it. Once written with the hope and promise of a new love in mind, the song is now transformed into a fragile, twinkling, and bittersweet one of loss, barely held together as its gentle dual piano lines threaten to spiral away from each other. Despite being so gentle and low-key, Yorke manages to wring emotion out of every syllable and key, and the rasp that creeps into his voice during the chorus truly sells it.

A Moon Shaped Pool strikes a very fine balance as a whole piece of work. Despite featuring downcast, dreamy tracks like “Daydreaming” alongside folksy excursions such as “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” and percussive orchestral numbers like “Burn the Witch”, and despite also pulling songs from many different points in the band’s career (“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” originated in 2012 on the King of Limbs tour, “Present Tense” in 2009 a a Yorke solo gig, “Burn the Witch” in the Hail to the Thief era, and “True Love Waits” in 1995), it feels like a body of work that was created concurrently. These songs have been massaged and finessed into the gentle, moody, yet very human forms they appear in here, and feel like puzzle pieces that were always meant to fit together. Even more so, despite their disparate eras, the fact that much of their lyrical content syncs with the huge loss Yorke has recently suffered makes these tracks feel even more fated to be together. Radiohead may have erased their own social media presence, and in doing so took a stab at erasing their own past. But the album they did it in service of inverts that by collecting little bits of ephemera from throughout their career, and uses them to form their most gentle and intimate sounding record ever, and one that’s the closest thing to a traditional heartbreak album the band has ever made. Where they once feared the world’s ever-increasing reliance on technology, here they’re fearing the breakdown of personal relationships and the loss of love. After looking outward for so long, it’s not so surprising that they’ve finally chosen to look inside and take stock of their own hearts. No longer are they paranoid androids suffering from future shock, but instead have opened their hearts up a little more to reveal the glassy-eyed daydreamers they truly are.

Key Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Identikit, True Love Waits