Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun [2015]

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Coheed and Cambria have been the crowning nerds of rock since their first album was released way back in 2002. Spanning 6 full-length albums, their music is woven with a grand sci-fi concept that runs the gamut between love and loss, epic space battles, and even the destruction of the universe itself. But all that was partially a front – lead singer and songwriter Claudio Sanchez had been afraid to sing about himself, and used this concept as a way to veil his feelings without putting himself fully out there. But now, after a series of personal shake ups, he’s finally ready to take the band away from the fiction and into the real. Fans were worried what this band would be without the concept, and not surprisingly – it’s what’s kept a lot of them around or caught their interest in the first place.

So it’s funny that this album isn’t quite so different after all. Opening track “Island” starts with something akin to their normal intro tracks, with a sample of a subway announcement and the grinding rails of a train coming to a halt, before launching into Coheed’s signature muscular pop-rock sound. The song is a deceptive one – with its airy chorus and bouncing rhythm, it still sounds exactly like one of Coheed’s poppier tunes. But a closer listen reveals that instead of grand space battleships, Claudio is instead singing about being trapped in a big city and the stagnation that can come from it. There’s no trick or disguise to it, simply his feelings as they are. “Island” winds up setting the tone for much of the album, both lyrically and stylistically. Coheed has traded most of their progressive tendencies for sheer pop songwriting on this album, simplifying the riffs and leads for the catchiest results. For most bands, that would seem like a dishonest attempt at gunning for a hit and cashing in.

But there’s a good reason for this album to sound so upbeat, and that’s because in the past few years, Claudio has become a father for the first time. So instead of angst at former girlfriends or the damage done by his family and friends’ drug addictions, the focus is on the future. Sure, there’s still some themes of identity crisis (“Eraser”) and depression (“Colors” and “Ghost”), but the overall feel here is much happier. Tracks like “Here to Mars” and “Atlas” are nothing but pure love and joy, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” is a tongue in cheek self-pep talk, and “Peace to the Mountain” is a beautiful acoustic track about acceptance and change. Given all that, it makes sense that these songs aren’t crammed to the brim with technical riffs or crushing drum parts, and the band’s always had a strong pop sensibility, anyway. And despite the overriding upbeat mood of most of the album, there’s still plenty of variety to be found. “Colors” is a moving slow tune that lingers and evokes a strong sense of melancholy, but without being totally defeated. “The Audience” is a slab of classic Coheed prog, boasting a Tool-esque riff and plenty of fuzz, as well as breaking out of the verse-chorus-verse structure most of the album sticks to. And the aforementioned “Atlas” almost sounds like it could fit on the band’s first album, Second Stage Turbine Blade, because of it’s driving rhythm, length, and emotional vocals.

With all that said, it’s not a perfect album. “Young Love” is one of the blandest tracks the band has ever written, and as much as I like the track by itself, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” doesn’t add much to an album already stuffed with big pop hooks. And part of me is a little disappointed that they didn’t push any of their musical boundaries on this album, because Coheed’s reinvention from album to album has always been one of their best qualities. The tone of the album is different, sure, but it’s still comprised of the same parts the band’s always used (in fact, maybe less of them – a lot of the band’s weirder tendencies are completely missing, and the album feels very pared down as a result). But then again, given the band’s discography, there’s not much they haven’t done already, anyway, so it’s hard to blame them.

So maybe it’s not the band’s most essential album. But the result is an album that’s absolutely refreshing to hear in its simplicity and emotional honesty, and easy to revel in its large hooks and catchy melodies. It’s a hard album to hate unless you’re some absolute early-Coheed diehard, and it might even serve as a more palatable gateway album for a lot of new fans, too. So whether you’re a long time fan or someone just checking this band out, The Color Before the Sun is definitely worth the time.

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Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic [2015]

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I’ve had a rocky relationship with Between the Buried and Me for quite a while now.

I used to be a huge fan of the band during the Colors era, loving that album and the ones before it. But as time went on and their new releases piled up – The Great Misdirect, Hypersleep Dialogues, The Parallax II –I started to grow bored of their approach. It felt as if they had locked themselves into a sound and had no clue how to get out of it, turning every song into an endless marathon of stuck-together riffs and unending one-note growls. For a band that made a name by experimenting with their sound from release to release, Between the Buried and Me sure seemed like they were stuck in a rut.

I couldn’t bring myself to ever fully give up on them, though. This was the band that first got me into metal and progressive metal, so they will always have that place in my heart (this is the same rationale I use to justify listening to each new Weezer album, god help me). So when I heard about the upcoming release of Coma Ecliptic, backed up by the band’s assertions that they were pushing themselves in a new direction this time, I couldn’t help but give them another chance.

Coma Ecliptic is a concept album that’s styled after the classic rock operas of yore, from The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It follows a man who falls into a coma and is given the chance to explore other lives and worlds, and given the choice to decide whether to stay in one or continue searching for a better one. While Between the Buried and Me is no longer a stranger to concept albums, this being their second, Coma Ecliptic is an album that truly feels like a concept album. The music has a flow and a dramatic portent to it that The Parallax II lacked, drifting from tension building organ lines, horn sections, and their trademark metal approach with ease. This wasn’t something that was always easy for them in the past, because we ARE talking about the same band that has thrown hoe-down honky tonk music and horse neigh breakdowns into their music before. But on Coma Ecliptic, Between the Buried and Me takes a much more refined, measured approach to their writing, writing for the songs and the melodies rather than for the sake of experimentation.

With that said, it’s surprising that this is still the most experimental music they’ve recorded since Colors. The band has been showing off classic rock and prog influence in their music for quite a while at this point, but it often manifested more as a curiosity than a core element of their sound. But Coma Ecliptic shows the band stripping their sound down from their intensely technical prog metal into something more akin to a Yes or early Genesis record, bringing in organs, horns, piano, brash classic rock guitar leads, and a heavy focus on clean vocals. While those elements were always a part of the band’s sound, here they’re actually the focus and basis for much of these songs – “Node” is led almost entirely by a Rhodes piano, “Dim Ignition” is built around spacey arpeggiated synth work, and “Turn on the Darkness” boasts an unsettling atmosphere boosted by it’s huge bassy piano chords and minor acoustic guitar work. Every song here ends up having its own distinctive melodic core and musical ideas, and as a result these songs are immediately memorable. Coma Ecliptic isn’t a record that takes dozens of listens to unpack and parse, but rather lends itself to replayability by the simple fact that many of these songs are just plain catchy.

And one of the main reasons for that, besides the band’s new found penchant for smooth dynamics and instrumental experimentation, are the vocals. Much of Between the Buried and Me’s discography is led vocally by Tommy Rogers’ powerful growls, with small singing sections interspersed throughout. That script is flipped on this album, though. Where his clean vocals once sounded shy and robotic, he’s truly come into his own here. From his soaring, belted vocals in “Option Oblivion”, the muted and hushed opening of “Node”, or the crazed Mike Patton-esque delivery on “The Ectopic Stroll”, Rogers has a range and prowess on Coma Ecliptic that he hasn’t had on any other Between the Buried and Me album. Now that the band has stripped back much of their technical metal sound, there’s a space for his vocal melodies to carry the songs in different directions, and his growl is still there as a backup when the band decides to get heavy. It’s quite refreshing to hear these distinct vocal melodies where Rogers would have once opted simply to growl.

For most bands, it’s almost impossible to shift gears seven albums into their career. Many bands experiment early on and settle into a sound for the rest of their career, and Between the Buried and Me very nearly fell into that category. Instead, they wrote Coma Ecliptic, a record that challenged their own boundaries and opened up their sound to brand new territory. The result is their most focused, immediate, and rewarding album in nearly a decade. By blowing up their old school prog influences on a large scale, focusing more closely on melody and songwriting, and making clean vocals a major part of the music, they’ve written an album that will be refreshing to long-time fans, challenging to others, and exciting for newcomers. Welcome back, guys.

Artist Feature/Mini Review: Tricot

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Rock is in a weird sort of place at the moment. Bands are trying to increasingly mold their sound after radio trends in order to get the airplay necessary to sustain a career, and the ones that aren’t are usually too far off the map to ever be considered by the vast majority of listeners. Few bands try to walk the middle ground between the two, accessible yet arty, and even few manage to pull it off. Enter Tricot, an all-girl rock band hailing from Kyoto, Japan. With a mix of jangly guitars, melodic songwriting, and an eye for the arty, they’re quickly making a name for themselves not only in Japan, but around the world. The reason for this international appeal is clear once you listen to them – Tricot’s sound is incredibly dynamic, shifting between tender, almost whispered vocals to crashing guitars and drums, with Ikkyu Nakajima belting out her lines at the top of her voice. And on top of it all, guitarist Motoko Kida layers intricate guitar rhythms and limber arrangements, which are in turn held down by bassist Hiromi Sagane, giving them a sound and energy that stands apart from their peers. And yet, after all this uphill success, their second album A N D comes at a bit of a troubled time for the band. After touring through Europe and Japan, Tricot lost their permanent drummer. In a move befitting of their dynamic sound, instead of getting a full-time replacement, they instead opted to enlist the help of five of Japan’s most talented drummers. The result is an album that shows the band hasn’t missed a beat, and even in the face of adversity, they’ve only grown more confident in their music.

A N D doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather builds upon the blueprint that the band set for themselves with T H E. A N D is an album that feels more consolidated, more stripped down, and more confident – instead of dedicating an entire song to a specific mood or vibe, the band now often effortlessly mixes them together, like on “Hashire”. Starting off with a tense tremolo-picked riff and covered in reverb-laden vocals, it explodes into its chorus. “Pieeen” exhibits these dynamics as well, starting off with tender piano before kicking into the real meat of the song, blending in the band’s trademark guitars with piano work peppered throughout (and even including a piano solo). “QFF” is a long, slow build, a track that very nearly cracks the 7 minute mark, and features very little of their usual rock vibe. It’s a slow, drifting song, that isn’t overly concerned with structure or technique, and instead runs on mood and tension-building. If it wasn’t the second to last track on the album I’d consider it the centerpiece of the whole thing, but that title is a bit out of place with its actual placing. And while “Hashire” and “Pieeen” have the ability to shock with their dynamics, songs like “Niwa”, “Colorless Aquarium”, and “Noradrenaline” burst right out of the gate with all the jangly, punky urgency of any mathcore band. Ikkyu really shines on this album, vocally, especially on “Niwa”, where she shows off her punky, aggressive side, shouting and growling her lyrics with the kind of emotional power that’s not seen often in J-Rock. “CBG” shows another side of this emotional quality, too – Ikkyu sings almost in a whisper for the first half of the track, with gentle guitar arpeggios buoying the song along, and eventually achieves a catharsis resembling that of a post rock band when it finally chooses to kick things up. All these elements are what make Tricot such an interesting, exciting band. Their music is both catchy and technical, moody and aggressive, and even if you don’t speak a lick of Japanese, you can feel some real emotion come through. By taking all the best elements of mathcore and even some from grunge, they stand out as something special regardless of what country you’re from. And with this level of talent, it’s hard to see them going anywhere else but up.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress [2015]

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor are perhaps one of the most recognizable bands in their genre, and for good reason. Since the 1997 release of their first album, F# A# Infinity, they’ve solidified themselves as one of the most unique and evocative post rock bands in the world. And even after a lengthy eight year break up, they came roaring back with 2012’s excellent Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend!, packing in all the dense sonic fury and exciting dynamics that made their name. The only caveat to that album was that it consisted entirely of material from before their breakup, so it was up in the air whether or not Godspeed still had the power to move us with their music in the present day.

Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress is Godspeed’s first album of all-new material since their reunion, featuring 4 tracks that comprise the “Behemoth” track they’ve been playing and honing on tour the past couple of years. And all that touring has left Godspeed with the shortest, most pared down release of their career (excluding the Zero Kanada EP) – Asunder clocks in at about 40 minutes and 4 tracks. Right out of the gate, opener “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” crashes in with a wall of unison guitar riffing courtesy of guitarists Mike Moya and Manuel Menuck, and a bleating violin motif that begins building the tension early. There’s a hint of doom metal to the guitars here, sludging along with all the drama and portent that the genre can bring at its best. Eventually, those guitars give way into a wall of noise and feedback, giving breathing room to the trilling violins that carry the track off much, much more gently than it came in. “Peasantry” is a sort of reversal of the usual Godspeed trope: instead of gradually building up into a cathartic climax, it instead works its way in the other direction, slowly falling apart into gentle violin work and slide guitars. And from there, it lets go further, inconspicuously sliding into the drone-based middle section of the album.

“Lambs’ Breath” is a drone track that’s based around squalling guitar feedback, at times resembling something like a whale’s song, or even a giant, groaning metal machine. It’s much darker than it’s successor, “Asunder, Sweet”, which acts as a sort of long intro to the album’s second main piece. Unlike Allelujah, which spread out its two drone tracks evenly after each main piece, Asunder makes the bold choice of putting them back to back. At first, these tracks feel like they go on for a bit longer than they should, killing the momentum and mood that “Peasantry” had established. But right as they start to wear out their welcome, “Asunder, Sweet” unassumingly ends and segues into the final track.

There’s a reason for the long layover between the first and second main pieces on Asunder. “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” is a track that is intense even by Godspeed’s standards, rarely dipping into any sort of lull once it takes off (the only break being the fire alarm-esque squalls around the 7 minute mark). The first few minutes of the track revert to the familiar Godspeed formula, building up from the drone that came before it into lumbering distorted bass and harmonized violins, eventually exploding into an evocative climax replete with dramatic guitar chords and orchestration. It’s the prettiest, most uplifting Godspeed has sounded since their reunion, yet retains all of the urgency that makes their music so dramatic (an effect that is heightened by the drone tracks that precede it).

So, in the end, is Godspeed You! Black Emperor capable of writing moving, emotional music that’s up to par with their pre-break up discography? The answer is ‘absolutely’. Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress proves it by delivering all of Godspeed’s classic elements with vigor and purpose, without verging on self-parody or feeling flat and uninspired like so many other reunited bands trying to recapture the old magic. Asunder moves exactly like the one piece movement it originally was live, transitioning seamlessly from one track to the next, while using each portion of itself to heighten the drama and emotion of the others. It’s another masterful work from a band that’s made a career out of being masters, further cementing their legacy as one of the best instrumental bands of all time.

Key Tracks: Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’, Piss Crowns Are Trebled

Death Grips – The Powers That B [2015]

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Death Grips is a band that has continually defied and deformed any box or expectations that have been placed upon them. From leaking their own album while signed to Epic, dropping off of tours at a moment’s notice, and continually shifting their sound into ever more esoteric realms, they’ve become an entity that is at once fascinating and nearly impossible to define. So perhaps it’s not shocking that when they set out to release a double album, they broke the rules yet again – originally releasing the first half of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon in June 2014, then promptly breaking up. The second half, Jenny Death, was still promised to drop by the end of the year, but didn’t actually materialize until now, three months into 2015. But now that it’s finally surfaced, and the chorus of “JENNY DEATH WHEN?” has come to a rest, The Powers That B can be looked at and enjoyed as the full body of work it was always meant to be.

The first disc of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon, is the most distinct piece of work in the band’s discography. Here, Death Grips have ditched the usual bravado and confrontational attitude that has fueled the vast majority of their music, and in its place is a glitchy, paranoid piece of electronica that plays like a sort of digital purgatory. This is the cleanest, most clinical sounding music the band has ever made, throwing out the banging distorted synths and massive drum beats and replacing them with skittering, densely layered drum lines and synths that sound like muzak for Hell’s waiting room. It’s a taught, paranoid listen, and the constantly shifting song structures and Bjork’s shredded vocal samples keep the listener on their toes. In fact, the entire album purposefully runs together, segueing together seamlessly and making it nearly impossible to tell when one track ends and another begins. It feels like improvised, stream of consciousness music at times, jumping from one idea to the next almost as soon as they’re thought of. The same goes for Burnett’s cryptic lyrics, which throw aside the ‘badman’ character he usually plays in favor of fragments of thought, poetry that barely hangs together and feels all the more urgent for it. There are precious few moments of clarity in his lines, precious few lyrics that aren’t obfuscated by a soup of words, and this dissonance is belied by (or even emphasized by) its calm exterior delivery. In its entirety, Niggas on the Moon is like the panic attack of a deeply introverted and paranoid individual, the constant noise of thought being represented by the fragmented lyrics and music that barely holds together, shrieking and coiling and unwinding at a moment’s notice. It’s a journey into the mind of someone who has allowed their thoughts to venture into ever stranger avenues, outside the channels of ‘normal’ thought and into something more abstract and sinister, yet is almost (yet not quite) calm on the exterior. Songs like “Billy Not Really” and “Black Quarterback” barely cling to a shred of normality, with their hooks fighting to surface against the push and pull of the dense beats, and “Have A Sad Cum” is a fractured duet between the shredded vocals of both Bjork and Burnett. There isn’t a single moment in the album’s 35 minute run time where the claustrophobia lets up, until the entire beat finally falls apart in a cascading wall of broken noise at the end of “Big Dipper”, setting the stage for Jenny Death.

If Niggas on the Moon is a trip into an introverted mind, then Jenny Death is its polar opposite, the yin to its yang. Jenny Death is worlds apart from its other half, blasting out of the gates with the familiar cacophony and aggression of the band’s past with “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”. Everything you would expect from Death Grips is here and is blown out to macroscopic proportions: every beat is louder, every guitar and synth is more distorted, and Burnett’s voice is pushed to its absolute limits, cracking and rasping like that of some manic preacher. Perhaps the most striking feature of Jenny Death is that it’s the first Death Grips album to dip back into previous territory, sounding like Exmilitary‘s older, more psychotic brother on tracks like “Turned Off” and “Beyond Alive”. Because for the first time since that album, electric guitar is a major feature of a large number of the songs, provided by Nick Reinhart of fellow Sacto group Tera Melos. But unlike Exmilitary, the guitar work here lends a psychedelic edge to these songs, giving the music an almost upbeat and celebratory feel in the midst of its aggression. It also helps distinguish the songs, because where Niggas on the Moon is a seamless chunk of claustrophobia, Jenny Death is laden with hooks both vocal and instrumental. And guitar isn’t the only live instrument present, either – in the past Death Grips have relied mostly on electronic drum samples and drum machines, giving them a colder, harder edge. But on Jenny Death, drummer Zach Hill has finally taken the frenetic drumming that distinguishes the band’s live performances and laid it down over these songs, lending an even more ferocious and chaotic edge to their sound. And where its other half is cloaked in cryptic poetry and stream of consciousness ranting, Jenny Death‘s lyrics are much more personal and clear. Here Burnett returns to the style of lyrics he employed on the band’s first three albums, throwing shade at those around him and at the corrupted workings of a society he’s never fit into, while simultaneously reveling in his outsider status. But that’s just where it begins. As the album progresses, the lyrics slowly shift from the extroverted and violent to exploring depression and isolation, culminating in the penultimate track “On GP”. Burnett’s lyrics have never been clearer or more personal than they are here, depicting his struggles with suicidal thoughts and depression, stating that he only stays here for the friends and family he would destroy by destroying himself. This track is the true dramatic conclusion to the disc, building up, dropping out, and building up again to buoy the intense lyricism, breaking into a crescendo of noise that leads into the stuttering instrumental “Death Grips 2.0” (which is the only track on Jenny Death that recalls Niggas on the Moon). This song doesn’t end the album with any sort of cathartic resolution, but rather feels like it’s raising more questions than answers, feeling like it should lead into something else altogether (which from the title, may just be the point).

This duality of sound throughout both halves of The Powers That B is very deliberate, creating a clear contrast between their most introverted and most extroverted tendencies. Niggas on the Moon is a paranoid, dense, and unsettling slab of electronics, while Jenny Death is the extrovert trying to beat its problems into submission with the brute force of huge beats and walls of noise (yet ultimately failing, as the vocal-less final track suggests). Each disc of The Powers That B represents one of the furthest extremes of Death Grips’ sound, from the glitchy, distorted electronica of Government Plates to the most aggressive and in-your-face moments from No Love Deep Web. It’s also a good parallel to Burnett himself, who is so quiet and reserved in interviews, yet transforms into a primal animal on stage, conquering his Ego and living his Id. But on a much more surface, obvious level, The Powers That B also delivers both the most interesting and experimental material of their career as well as the most immediate and aggressive. From the opening moments of “Up My Sleeves” until the final skitterings of “Death Grips 2.0”, The Powers That B is an intense roller coaster ride of varying emotions and styles. If this is truly the band’s last album, there is no way that they could have gone out with a bigger bang, having blown every one of their traits out to the extreme and putting them on full display. It’s a proud piece of work, summing up everywhere Death Grips has explored in the past and pushing them into new territories at the same time, a (possible) final monument to the journey this band has brought us along on since 2011.

Key Tracks (Niggas on the Moon): Up My Sleeves, Billy Not Really, Black Quarterback

Key Tracks (Jenny Death): Inanimate Sensation, Turned Off, The Powers That B, On GP