There’s not much to say about Kanye West – the person – that isn’t already very, very public knowledge. The lead up to his most recent album started nearly two years ago at this point, and included several album name changes, early and then later abandoned singles, and quite a few public meltdowns. And at every step along the way, it’s all been reblogged, reposted, and had gallons of digital ink spilled on think pieces analyzing single 140 character tweets. Whether it’s of his own creation, or if the media has a hand in egging him on and blowing things out of proportion, it’s been a tumultuous time to be both a fan of the man and the man himself. And nowhere does all of that become more clear than it does on the finally finished (?) project, now christened The Life of Pablo.
Kanye has made his name in hip hop for always having a clear vision and thematic core to each of his albums, from the humble-yet-ambitious soul sound of College Dropout, the alienation and loss at the center of 808s and Heartbreak, or the maximalist yet self-deprecating grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yet, for the first time, The Life of Pablo presents a man that somehow sounds confused, troubled, and triumphant all at the same time. It’s clear why, when you consider that the man is now married into the most famous family on the planet (for better or worse), has two young children, and a new fashion line all piled up on top of his usual responsibilities as a producer and a musician. Even for the best of us, never mind a notoriously ego-driven and opinionated person such as Kanye, it would be extraordinarily straining.
And when the man is being pulled into a hundred different directions at once, of course his music is as well. The Life of Pablo is a tumultuous listen, in the sense that one moment you can be listening to something as uplifting and life-affirming as the gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam”, and on the very next track you can hear Kanye rap about getting someone’s asshole bleach on his t-shirt. It’s why a song as gorgeous and transcendent as “Waves” can be followed up by bleak, faded, and emotionally draining tracks like “FML” and “Real Friends”. And it’s why, even within tracks that barely crack two minutes, beats can suddenly change and guests can cycle in and out like sounds carried on the breeze. Just like the album’s very public production, Kanye is using the music itself almost as if it were a real-time document of the turmoil within his own head, and it lends the album a strange sort of kinetic energy even in its weaker moments. And from the sound of things, he’s certainly not lacking in turmoil. “Real Friends” talks about the struggle that comes from trying to have real, honest relationships with friends and family after becoming massively successful, and with it, massively busy. “Wolves” lashes out at the media’s treatment of his and Kim’s marriage and their kids, and the unfair shadow Kim’s past casts on her present. “No More Parties In L.A.” laments the shallow and tiring atmosphere of the party life, and how inescapable his own public persona has become.
But The Life of Pablo isn’t all doom and gloom, either. Tracks like “Feedback” and “Famous” are Kanye at his most confrontational and outlandish, taking shots at celebrities and assuaging his own ego in classic fashion. “30 Hours” is a nostalgic, comedic look at an old open relationship he had that still left him jealous and mad at himself for. “Facts” is an unrepentant banger that throws shade at unlikely targets such as Nike, Steve Harvey, and Bill Cosby with such piss and vinegar you’d think he was taking on the world, not shoe companies and game show hosts. And “I Love Kanye”, while barely being more than a skit, shows Kanye at his most self-aware and self-deprecating ever: he knows people miss the old Kanye, the humble, less self-absorbed, “chop up the soul” Kanye, but he doesn’t really care. And “Fade” is a surprisingly groovy and upbeat ending to an album full of darkness and shade, even though it’s let down a little by it’s sparse bars and repetitive samples.
While the scatter shot and unrestrained nature of the album is one of its core strengths, it can also be its biggest weakness. “Freestyle 4” is a half-baked trap-styled hype track about fucking on the tables at a Vogue party, that feels painfully out of place both on the album and in the context of Kanye’s discography. “30 Hours” boasts an incredibly dreamy beat complete with an assist from the notoriously reclusive Andre 3000, but squanders it in the final two minutes by becoming an impromptu thank you-slash-outro track that comes three songs too early. And while only clocking in at four minutes total, “Father Stretch My Hands” is inexplicably split into two halves, despite the fact that even the individual halves barely comprise a cohesive song, never mind across both of them. But despite all that, the music still manages to succeed because of its inherent messiness and conflict far more often than it’s failed by it.
After sitting down and reflecting on this album, I may have been wrong about it not having a central theme like the rest of Kanye’s work. If you look at The Life of Pablo as a living document on Kanye’s last three years, instead of a grand conceptual work about fame or ambition or success, then it delivers in spades. Much like the man himself, this is an album full of conflict and contradictions, light and dark, humor and pain. And by allowing these emotions to spread themselves equally over the entire album, instead of relegating each one to their own songs, he’s created what feels like his most flawed and human work yet. He’s created something that lives and breathes in the moment, instead of trying to force itself into being a grand statement. He’s created the truest reflection of the multitudes Kanye West: the rapper, the designer, the father, the shit-stirrer. And in an age where public personas are carefully crafted and curated, and coming from a man who is so famously a perfectionist and a narcissist, it’s a breath of fresh air to see everything laid so bare.
Let Yourself Be Huge was a big step for Cloudkicker when it was first released in 2011. Up to that point, Ben Sharp had built his audience with his own brand of djent-tinged progressive metal, relying on heavy guitars, technical leads, and shifting time signatures to create his sound. However, after Beacons, he was ready to step outside of his comfort zone, and this EP is the result of that.
Entirely devoid of anything that might be deemed “heavy”, Let Yourself Be Huge is largely built around acoustic and clean guitars, light drum work, and moodiness. While the playing still sounds distinctly like Cloudkicker, the timbre is different, and the overall tone of the project feels like it’s the soundtrack to the aftermath of some huge disaster (which is fitting – his previous release, Beacons, took its song titles from the last sentence of various aircrash black box recordings). It’s peaceful yet droning, melancholy but not downtrodden, and it doesn’t feel the need to suddenly and dramatically shift gears like his prior work. In fact, much of the material here is pared down relentlessly, which few tracks bothering to even crack the two minute mark. Instead of creating full songs, the music here instead sounds like little vignettes, painting small little evocative pictures instead of grandiose statements. And despite the EP’s short length, the mood created by it is so powerful and so consistent that it almost feels like a complete album anyway. Let Yourself Be Huge may be short, but it’s a beautiful piece of music, and one of the best collections of music Ben Sharp has put together to date.
As always, you can download Cloudkicker’s music for free over at cloudkickermusic.com.
I used to think Bring Me the Horizon were a pretty shitty band. I did dig the song “Pray for Plagues”, but I thought the rest of the album it hailed from was repetitive, breakdown-filled deathcore. I had some more contact with their later releases after that, but for me they slowly got lumped into that “scene bands teenage girls” like category, and I just couldn’t take them seriously.
Then, last year, I heard they were working with Terry Date (Deftones, Soundgarden, Incubus, The Fall of Troy), one of my favorite producers, and I just couldn’t help but give them one more shot. What I found was Sempiternal, an album which found the band miles away from their deathcore roots, instead writing lush, textured, melodic songs with genuinely emotional vocals. And now they’re gearing up to release the follow-up to that album, That’s The Spirit, due out on September 11th. Part of that process is this new song and video, “Throne”.
Like the album’s first single, “Happy Song”, “Throne” finds the band picking up where Sempiternal left off. They’ve retained the dense, layered keyboard and guitar sound they had on that album, and “Throne” in particular shows off the band’s new found penchant for electronics. It’s a surging, bubbling, and exciting track, even if it does breathe a tad too much of the same air Linkin Park has in recent years. But the biggest change on this song is Oli Syke’s vocals. On Sempiternal he was still trying to find his clean voice, often times still sticking in the middle ground between screamed and sung registers. But “Throne” shows that Oli can now be considered a legitimate singer, as the first few seconds show a side of him fans have never heard before. And now he can go back and forth between raspy singing and shouting, whispered coos, and screams as the songs call for it, giving the band a whole new dimension.
Bring Me the Horizon have been catching tons of shit for this new sound of theirs, but I honestly can’t help but applaud them for it. They’ve gone from writing pretty run-of-the-mill deathcore to growing as songwriters, trying new sounds and textures and moods. Yeah, they sound pretty poppy at times, but at heart I’ve always been a sucker for a good song. And coming from such a heavy background, it’s poppy music that’s informed by heavy music, giving it a different feel entirely. I can’t help but compare the leap to In Flames’ album Reroute to Remain, where they famously shifted their sound from classic melodic death metal into something more modern and loose. This is how bands stay relevant and interesting – they take leaps, and sometimes the fans hate them, but it keeps the actual humans in the band that make the music stay happy and inspired. And happy and inspired musicians end up creating inspired music, so even if they’ve switched genres, the music they’re making is probably still damn good. You just gotta give it a chance.
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.
Good ol’ Frank Turner. The ever-reliable singer songwriter is back with another dose of his signature brand of rock-infused folkiness, with a new song entitled “The Next Storm”. From his upcoming album Positive Songs for Negative People (due out August 7th), the song doesn’t stray from Frank’s style at all, featuring vaguely inspirational lyrics and an upbeat bass line, with sprinkles of piano spread about. In all honesty, I don’t think it’s a very exciting song, especially after Frank’s promises that this album was supposed to be going back to his punkier roots – instead this track sounds like it could fit on pretty much any album past his debut, and that’s a bit of a let down.
Even though it’s only a little over a year since he released the Grammy winning Morning Phase, Beck has just released a new song. From the as of yet untitled record, “Dreams” features an upbeat, poppy sound he hasn’t explored much since 2005’s The Information. Flirting with touches of Oracular Spectacular-era MGMT and some garage-y guitars, the song is a welcome switch up from the claustrophobic feeling of Modern Guilt and the melancholy of Morning Phase. The song does go on about a minute longer than necessary, though, simply repeating it’s chorus after a late-stage breakdown of sorts. But that small complaint aside, this is the most exciting and excited Beck has sounded in quite a while, and it’s refreshing to have him back in the world of pop.