The Dillinger Escape Plan w/Cult Leader, Car Bomb, and O’Brother – Union Transfer, November 15th, 2016

15146770_10210543057950582_1383439820_o

For the second time in a week, I’ve had the bittersweet pleasure of seeing one of my favorite bands on their final tour. This time around, I saw the total polar opposite to Brand New: The Dillinger Escape Plan. The band recently released their sixth, and unfortunately final, studio album this October, bringing to a close a nearly perfect discography with one of its strongest entries ever. And now with their swan song tucked away neatly under their belt, the only thing left to do is tear through the world one last time, bringing their violently intense show to cities across the world.

Out of all the places in the world that I could’ve caught this band in, I got to see them in one of their favorite cites and at one of their favorite venues, Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. Philly is already known for having nearly feral audiences, and the band obviously loves and feeds on that energy, as they’ve made sure to visit the venue nearly every year since I started following them in 2010. And this night was no different – having sold out completely, the energy was palpable even as the venue was filling with excited fans, ready to see this band tear the place down for the last time ever. The only exception to the usual Dillinger/Union Transfer combo was that this time around, the venue opted to put up a barrier. The band has made a point of getting the crowd to flood the stage during their final song, and it seems like the venue finally tired of it. But besides that small let down, the night was stacked with a group of diverse and exciting bands, and it was clear that the night would be a thriller.

First up was Cult Leader, a band out of Utah that brought with them a sound heavily informed by the noisier edge of Converge, the sludgier side of death metal, and a big helping of punk. While the venue wasn’t even half full yet, it didn’t put any visible dent in their energy, as they tore through their set with reckless abandon and expertly delivered their pummeling music. In stark contrast to Cult Leader was Car Bomb – following up Cult Leader’s raw, angry edge, it was clear that Car Bomb exists firmly on the other end of metal’s spectrum. The Long Island quartet brought with them a blend of mind-bending time signatures, clinical guitar precision, glitchy effects, and inhuman rhythmic technicality. Yet for all that precision, the band clearly didn’t lack for a punk edge, either. All these things combined makes Car Bomb quite possibly the only real successor to Dillinger’s throne in the wake of their imminent demise, and it’s clear why they decided to take them out on this final round of touring. Finally, perhaps as a way of creating breathing room in the set, Atlanta rockers O’Brother were up next. Veering away from the hard edges of Cult Leader and Car Bomb, O’Brother instead brought a smoky, sludgy, stoner rock vibe instead. While it was clear that some of the energy drained from the room due to their comparatively laid back sound, I already enjoyed some of their music prior to seeing the show and was glad to have the chance to see them and allow my neck a few minutes’ respite from headbanging. And any reservations the crowd had were not shared by the band, as they were fully present and had just as much stage presence as their predecessors.

But as with any great meal, the appetizers should only serve to make you hungrier for the main course, and by this point we were hungry for Dillinger and nothing else. And they were fully aware of that – even though it was clear that the band’s equipment was ready to go, they faked us out by abruptly ending their intro music and starting a fog machine, only to restart the music from the top again. But it only made the band walking out and launching into “Limerent Death” from Dissociation so much more powerful. As soon as the opening chords hit, the surge of the crowd was incredible, and I watched from the rail as several rows worth of people were suddenly compressed into the width of one. They only upped the ante from there, tearing into the classic cut “Panasonic Youth” and fueling the flames even further before coming back down momentarily with the more pop-leaning “Symptom of Terminal Illness”. But there were very few moments of respite built into their set, with “Black Bubblegum”, “One of Us is the Killer”, and the recently revived “Mouth of Ghosts” (which was a highlight of the set, featuring Ben Weinman taking up a spot on the piano while Greg Puciato crooned over his gorgeous jazzy chords) being the only moments one could catch their breath during. Otherwise, the band leaned heavily on Dissociation, which made for quite an emotional night, since many of that album’s lyrics are pretty clearly focused on the creative and personal relationship between Weinman and Puciato, as well as the band’s end. Screaming “Please let me be by myself, I don’t need anyone” from Nothing to Forget or “I’m afraid of how this ends” from Surrogate along with Puciato was a loaded and intense experience, as we all knew exactly what it meant and were in the middle of that very end.

But while they might’ve leaned on Dissociation for obvious reasons, the band knows how to put together a set, and didn’t ignore the rest of their catalog. The band covered everything from Calculating Infinity onward, touching on “hits” like “Milk Lizard”, “Sunshine the Werewolf”, and “Sugar Coated Sour”, as well as the most iconic song in their discography, “43% Burnt”. But as always, their discography wasn’t the only thing they looked to be inclusive about during the night. Greg, Ben, and Kevin Atreassian were unable to keep themselves on stage, taking heroic leaps into the crowd at every opportunity. I’ve been fan girling to myself for the past week over the fact that I got to help hold up both Ben and Greg during the last few songs of the set, over getting to be that close to the people who made the music that’s held ME up in dark times. It’s obvious that the band has so much passion for this music, and so much love and trust placed in their fans, and because of it they truly make their shows a personal experience by getting right in the middle of the shit with us. And even outside of that physical connection, the band is a joy to watch – even during the slower songs, they’re impossible to keep still. Demonstrating insane athleticism, intensity and fearlessness, bands half Dillinger’s age couldn’t hope to match their crazed showmanship even if they were in the middle of a psychotic episode.

But perhaps the realest moment of the show came from one simple sentence from Puciato, just before launching into the classic “Sugar Coated Sour”. He only said, “This is an old one, and it’s your last fuckin’ chance to sing it along with us, Philly”. This was a band very clearly on top of their game in all respects, literally proving it just feet away from me, and knowing that the better ending is always to leave people wanting more. By highlighting the biggest and best songs of their career through this set, as well as hitting us with the most emotional tracks from their newest and final record, the band was showing us exactly what we’re always going to want more of without giving into nostalgia or despair. Instead, we were celebrating together, screaming together, dancing together, all because of this strange, angular, aggressive, sense-assaulting music. This final tour is a precious and fleeting experience, as are all things worth experiencing in life, and you should always fuckin’ sing along like it’s your last chance.

Brand New w/Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms – PPL Center, November 11th, 2016

imag1897_burst001

Disclaimer: This review is only for Brand New’s set, not Modern Baseball or The Front Bottoms.

Brand New is currently staring down their demise. After announcing their intentions to break up in 2018 earlier this year, the group has been touring relentlessly while simultaneously working on a new, and presumably final, album. They’ve also released a bevy of miscellaneous singles, vinyl reissues for their seminal albums, and even an EP of rerecorded tracks from their infamous 2006 leak. After many years of indecision and stalling out, the band has obviously been looking both backwards and forwards as they attempt to end their career on a high note. Part of that looking backwards has coincided with the tenth anniversary of their landmark album, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me. With the band in such generous, celebratory spirits, they’ve chosen to play the album in full on every stop of their most recent North American tour.

Now, I’m only a recent convert to Brand New – I discovered them last November after buying Deja Entendu solely because I recognized its iconic cover. What I found on that album was some of the most personal, heart wrenching lyricism I’d ever heard, paired with huge hooks and undeniable melodies that were totally at odds with the pained words they carried. I fell in love immediately and dove deep into their catalog, becoming obsessed and memorizing every line. I was very, very late to the party, but I was oh so happy I found them at all. So for them to announce their break up so shortly after my newfound fandom broke my heart, yet also made me determined to catch them live at least once before their end.

I finally crossed that off my musical bucket list on November 11th, 2016. Brand New rolled through Allentown, PA and brought Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms with them to the PPL Center, an 8,000+ capacity venue that I had no idea that the band was capable of filling (which I’m quite happy to be wrong about!). But filled it was, filled with rapturous, adoring fans fully aware that this may be the last time they ever get to see this band grace the stage and fueled by the fond memories of some of the most important rock records of the 2000s. And in the spirit of embracing those memories, the band opened up with “Mixtape”, one of the rare songs the band still plays from their debut record Your Favorite Weapon. In its original incarnation, this song is youthful, energetic, a little sad, and a little snarky. But on this night, it sounds beleaguered, reflective of youth gone by, and weighed down by the passage of time. But that mood fits what’s to follow perfectly: the band may be looking at its past, but it’s not attempting to recreate it. And it’s Jesse’s voice that gives that song much of its new quality: as Jesse nears 40, his voice has changed considerably, but not for the worse. Where it once sounded naive and wounded, he sounds huskier and more resolute than ever, blasting through the music with a power and confidence rarely shown in Brand New’s music. As the set continued, the band played a good chunk of 2003’s Deja Entendu, enough of which to make me curious as to whether they were actually playing that album instead. Touching upon the classic “Sic Transit Gloria…”, “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” (which featured a snippet of Modest Mouse’s “Trailer Trash”), and an emotional venue-wide sing along to “Play Crack the Sky”, they got many of their “hits” out of the way and lulled the crowd into a false sense of security before launching into The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me.

From the opening notes of “Sowing Season”, the crowd went crazy. This album means so much to so many people and you could feel it in the room: from beginning to end, every word was being shouted out in unison, filling the room with just as much of the crowd’s voice as Jesse’s. And this being the second to last stop on the tour, it was clear that any kinks that may have been in the set had long since been worked out. The band faithfully recreated the album note for note, bestowing it with much of the same passion and energy that they had laid to tape ten years ago. But instead of being the heart-wrenching, stomach-churning experience that it is on the album, when rendered in this live setting, it became something more positive and celebratory. It’s hard to feel sad when thousands of people are joining along with this music, and it makes it clear why the band decided to adopt “Fight Off Your Demons” as their pet phrase- this isn’t music to suffer to, it’s music to unite to, to take strength from. And by taking this opportunity to perform the album in full, they’ve highlighted for us the reasons why they’ll be so missed, even though they aren’t quite gone yet.

Avenged Sevenfold – The Stage [2016]

14853011_10153815631040583_3866372690724630021_o

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]

the-dillinger-escape-plan-dissociation-738x744

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

13701203_10154423676383217_8615309397165986665_o

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]

cover.jpg

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

Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere [2016]

600x600bb

In 2012, after over 13 years of relentless touring, writing, and recording, Thrice decided to hit that ever-infamous “hiatus” button. The grind of being in a band their size had worn them down over those years, and they needed time to spend with their families – the value of which had been made even more apparent after several members losing loved ones during their last album cycle. With that in mind, the band embarked on a “farewell” tour that dug deep through fan-selected favorites, culminating in a huge 33-song long final show in July 2012. After that, the band dispersed to their families and new projects: Dustin became a pastor, Teppei opened a leather crafts shop, Riley started a baseball-themed grindcore band, and Eddie put in time with Angels & Airwaves. But the break didn’t last long, and in the waning days of 2014, the band announced their intention to get back together. And in a little under two years, they’ve returned with their first album of new music since 2011’s Major/Minor.

To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice essentially picking up where they left off with Major/Minor. The grungy, dirty rock sound they’ve had on that album and on Beggars before it is still firmly in place, but it seems like reconvening has also given them greater appreciation of where their music has come from in the past. One of the most obvious cues the band has picked back up are the larger, meatier guitar parts reminiscent of their Fire EP – “Death From Above” and “Blood on the Sand” both move with more power and weight than the band has shown in years, and while not quite as heavy, “Black Honey” and “The Window” pick up much of that EP’s dark and brooding undertones as well. “Hurricane” opens the album with a thick swirl of guitars and brooding atmosphere appropriate for the title, feeling as if it really could be buoyed on the winds of a storm. In fact, this record finds the band turning up the sludge and brood in every aspect, not just on the guitars – this thing is downright dirty sounding. Even in it’s most friendly and approachable moments, there’s a sense of claustrophobia and grit in the mix that doesn’t relent. Yet “Salt and Shadow” exists on that same album, a song with a gentle, heavenly atmosphere that would be able to slot itself perfectly on the band’s Air EP. But that’s about the only air and light that manages to work its way in both musically and lyrically.

Lyrically, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Dustin focusing much less on faith (as he had on more recent Thrice albums) and more on the social and political issues he first touched on with The Artist in the Ambulance. “Blood on the Sand” is a take down of the frightened apathy that causes us to build walls to keep out our fellow man instead of making an attempt at connection, and “Death From Above” tackles our willingness to bomb those same people from afar without ever putting a name or face to them. “Whistleblower” is an obviously pro-Snowden song, celebrating the individuals who risk their freedom and lives to enlighten the rest of the world to a massive wrongdoing, and “Black Honey” focuses on our often blind conquest to take the things we need without considering how the blow-back might affect us. It’s refreshing to hear Dustin have something to get angry about again, because it helps lend power to both the music and his own vocal delivery. Plus, even though some of the lyrics here suffer from being very on-the-nose, it’s brave for a band of their size to deliver a comeback album with lyrics that could potentially polarize old and new fans alike.

But for all the base-touching they do on this album, it feels like they’ve forgotten to bring anything fresh to the table. As a longtime fan you might be happy to hear those flourishes from throughout their discography, and as a new fan, they might even seem unique to you. But it’s disappointing that after five years apart – in such vastly different bands and even parts of the country – that they haven’t found one new thing to bring to the mix. In fact, a handful of tracks find the band veering dangerously close to rock cliché instead: “Wake Up” featuring a tired cock rock-esque chorus that settles for repeating the song’s title in place of any sort of lyricism, and “Stay With Me” apes U2’s worst arena rock tendencies and mixes them with a dash of sludgy guitars to no effect. At its worst, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere ironically finds the band sloughing off some of their character and flair in an attempt to be both radio-friendly and to pay homage to their previous sonic explorations.

Sadly, this album ends up being very much a mixed bag. There are flashes of the band’s former glories littered in almost every track, but they’re also tempered by some of the band’s blandest moments ever put to tape. It’s not a bad album in any sense of the word, but after five years apart and plenty of exploration for each one of their members, it’s a shame that To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice simply mining old territory and watering down the rest. Perhaps this is just the band’s way of getting back to ground, consolidating the parts of the band they loved the most as a springboard for whatever comes next. Or perhaps middle age and family life has dulled their fire to prove themselves and take huge risks. And perhaps it’s too easy to compare this album to the rest of the band’s towering discography, because if this were any other band, it might be something fairly special. But in the end, they’ve simply put out an okay album after so many great ones. It happens.

Key Tracks: Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, The Long Defeat, Death From Above