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.

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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

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

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

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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

My 2015 In Music: Highs, Lows, and Shows

It’s my yearly installment of a whole bunch of shit you ain’t gonna read! Cue up Huey Lewis and the News, cause it’s about to get all Patrick Bateman up in here. But anyway, this is the music I dug this year, the music that let me down, and whatever else fell in between. Here goes!

The Top Ten

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
It was honestly really hard for me to pick a number one album this year, or even a top five of any sort. But OPN gets the top spot for one very good reason: Garden of Delete is the most challenging, boundary-pushing album I’ve heard all year. Few albums ever give me that rare “what the hell is this and why do I like it?” feeling like Garden of Delete’s blend of angular, distorted synths, schizophrenic bursts of noise, and oddly melodic samples and robotic vocals did. It’s an album that refuses to stay in any one place for more than a minute, drawing in influences as far reaching as ambient and drone, dance music, rock, even industrial and metal, and yet somehow managing to make sense of it all. These disparate influences aren’t used as a way of showing off OPN’s production skill or as some hipster display of his own music taste either, they’re put to use as the building blocks of interesting songs and melodies – something that quite often falls by the wayside. No matter what genre you might claim as your favorite, I think Garden of Delete has something to offer you, and if you like being challenged by new sounds, it’s my highest recommendation of the year.
2. Death Grips – The Powers That B
Last year was an odd year for Death Grips. Within a month, they dropped their most esoteric and labyrinthine slab of music yet, Niggas on the Moon, “broke up” (but not really), and announced that that album was actually the first disc of a yet-to-be-finished double album. Well, that album was finally completed this year, with the March release of Jenny Death. Jenny Death is the polar opposite of its first half – where NOTM was built upon layers of skittering drums, vocal samples, and introspective lyrics, Jenny Death brings the aggression back in full force. This album finds the band incorporating more of a hard rock sound into their trademark blistering electronics, introducing psychedelic guitar riffs and crushing live drums to amplify their sound to the point of constant, audible distortion. And where NOTM found vocalist Stefan Burnett looking inwards, here he projects outwards, raging at the world and using that anger to try and cover up his own crippling depression instead of being consumed by it. When taken as a whole, it creates a thematic contrast between both halves of the album, and musically it presents the most evolved and intelligent version of the band yet. That, and there’s no better song to break in a new set of speakers with than the title track, “The Powers That B”.
3. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega
Periphery’s evolution as a band has been pretty interesting to watch. What once started as a one-man bedroom project has grown into a full-fledged creative force, with all six of its members having an equal, yet different, influence in the music it writes. And there’s no clearer example of that force than on Juggernaut, the band’s first concept album. Where once the band had a tendency to try and pack too many ideas into one song, here the songwriting is streamlined and purposeful, aiming to evoke a specific emotion or sound instead of showing off technical chops, while still retaining each member’s voice. There’s big pop choruses, bright electronics, crushing drop tuned 8 string riffs, progressive song structures, and brooding instrumentals that all combine to tell a single story with a range of emotion. It’s quite possibly the band’s best music yet, and having a concept behind it to dive into and puzzle out makes it even more rewarding to listen to over and over again.
4. Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic
BTBAM is a band that fell off for me, hard. After their landmark album Colors, each new album felt like another, lesser iteration of that sound, and it was losing steam fast. Possibly sensing that themselves, they took a left turn with their sound on Coma Ecliptic into entirely new territory. While their progressive metal elements will always be there, Coma Ecliptic finds itself rooted much more strongly in the prog music of the 70s, featuring just as many synth lead lines as guitar riffs. And on top of that, vocalist Tommy Rogers has finally stepped his game up to the point of being able to carry most of a song with his clean vocals, rather than his one note growls. It’s a refreshing change to hear the band’s music buoyed just as much by melodic vocals AND crushing growls, instead of just a moment or two of singing, and it’s a change that makes this new batch of songs instantly memorable and catchy. It’s the first time in years that a BTBAM album has truly surprised me, and what a good feeling it is to be surprised.
5. The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Simply put, there’s no other band out there that makes music quite like The Dear Hunter does. Of a certain kin with Coheed and Cambria, the bulk of the music is conceptual, telling one long story across several albums. And after taking a break from that concept to explore other sounds, Rebirth in Reprise finds them taking all those things they’ve explored and using them to make an even better record. From the start, this album is lush with string arrangements, layered vocals, grand soundscapes, and sticky melodies. At their catchiest, they write huge pop tunes like Waves or King of Swords, and at their most progressive, they write sprawling epics like A Night On the Town. That term ‘epic’ may have been horribly misused at the turn of this decade, but The Dear Hunter is truly deserving of it, because they’re capable of telling a story just as much with the music as they do with the lyrics. If you want to hear something refreshing, layered, and gorgeous all at the same time, you want to give this album a spin.
6. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
While I’m on the subject of big changes in sound, I can’t leave out Kendrick. After showing the world his talent as a storyteller and a wordsmith on 2012’s Good Kid, Mad City, To Pimp a Butterfly shows him taking not just one step from there, but a couple dozen further. This album is built upon a hypnotic blend of free jazz, funk, and soul, completely sidestepping pretty much any sort of “banger” beat you’d find on most of 2015’s hip hop releases. The music is dense and huge in scope, and boasts an all star cast of musicians and producers, from Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and Dr. Dre. But all that would be for nothing if it wasn’t backed up by great lyrics, and that’s where Kendrick truly shines. TPAB tackles a broad range of social, racial, personal and political issues, tying it all together with a poem that details his own struggles with fame, influence, and success, and thus grounding all these issues in the realities of his own life. Any way you look at it, it’s a modern classic.
7. Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m officially a fan of BMTH. After 2013’s excellent Sempiternal, which found the band maturing into their metal sound while expanding it with melody and texture, 2015 finds the band deciding to take the world by storm – and somehow succeeding. That’s the Spirit is, by pretty much any definition, a pop rock album. Gone are the metal and deathcore influences of their past, as well as much of the screaming, too. Instead, Oli’s learned to sing, and the band’s learned not to rely on drop tuned chugs, and they end up defying all expectations you might have for the band that once penned “Pray for Plagues”. But while they may have traded much of their old sound for a much more polished, melodic, and even a little calculated one, the reason this album succeeds is because it still has heart. The lyrics tackle Oli’s issues with addiction and depression, and how embracing your problems and wearing them like armor can help you through to the other side. But even besides all that, these songs are just ridiculously catchy – just try getting “Throne” or “Happy Song” out of your head for the next day or two after hearing it.
8. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
I first fell in love with Silversun Pickups because they were like a more subtle, more pretty version of Smashing Pumpkins. They brought the same sort of dreamy, fuzzed out riffs and airy vocals that even the Pumpkins hadn’t delivered in years, but without any of the cringey angst or hamfisted-ness they were capable of. But as time went on, they evolved away from that, dropping much of their guitars in favor of electronic elements and empty space, and it was a hard change for me to adjust to. But with their newest record, Better Nature, they’re found an equilibrium between guitars and electronics that leaves their trademark sound intact. Better Nature has more edge than its predecessor, Neck of the Woods, but it’s also prettier and mellower, sometimes opting for the obvious melodies and sometimes exploring a texture instead. And it’s all tied together with the band’s penchant for writing inherently ear-grabbing music, no matter which of those two things they’re doing, making this album a great next step for the band.
9. Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun
I mentioned Coheed earlier while talking about The Dear Hunter’s record, and here they are again. Coheed is another band that’s taken multiple albums to tell a sprawling story, but in their case, it was just as much to cover up their singer’s own insecurities as it was to actually tell that story. So this time around, Coheed switched things up and decided to drop the concept entirely for this album, and to put singer Claudio Sanchez’s real life at the front and center. The result is their most heartfelt, down to earth album yet, ditching much of the space opera sound they built their name on in favor of simpler, easier arrangements. Much of the music is bright and bouncy, evoking memories of their poppiest songs (“A Favor House Atlantic”, “The Suffering”) while keeping things feeling fresh and energetic. But the lyrics are a bit darker, detailing the conflicts and fears that come with reaching middle age and starting a family, yet eventually finding the security and meaning that comes from it. Who knew real life could be the most interesting story of all, huh?
10. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
You could call Clutch dad rock. Because they definitely are. But no other rock band in America does dad rock quite like Clutch does – while a lot of rock bands opt to drench their music in irony, Clutch doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word. For years they’ve been pumping out tough, hard hitting, kick ass rock n’ roll music and they mean every damn note of it. Psychic Warfare is no different, as it finds Clutch picking up where they left off on Earth Rocker. Dropping most of their stoner rock influences, Clutch instead take us through a gritty southern-fried romp through tales of no good women, monsters from another world, and good old fashioned mind control. Clutch is one of those bands that you know exactly what you’re gonna get every time they put out new music, yet for some reason, it just never gets old.

Honorable Mentions

Tesseract – Polaris
Polaris shows original vocalist Dan Tompkins returning to the fold after a 3 year break. In the meantime, the band has honed their songwriting from the sometimes amorphous lumps of riffs present on their first and second albums into something more approachable, giving each song it’s own distinct character. Combine that with Dan’s growth as a vocalist and you get Polaris, an album that can be atmospheric, heavy, and soft without forcing any of it. My only real complaint is that it could’ve been a song or two longer, but hey, it is what it is.
Tricot – A N D
Tricot is one of the best rock bands out there right now, not just in their homeland of Japan, but in the world. Their music takes elements of math rock – that is, odd time signatures, unique chord voicings, and distinctive rhythms – and combines it with the best elements of J-Rock and J-Pop. The result is a band that can rock hard, lay on the technical guitar chops, and write hugely catchy choruses all in the same song, without ceding any ground to typical rock cliches. And did I mention they’re all girls?
The Armed – Untitled
There’s not a whole lot to say about The Armed. They’re ferociously heavy, they play at breakneck tempos, and they can somehow infuse melody into all that chaos. Untitled is only their second full-length record in 6 years, but it’s well worth the wait – from start to finish, there’s rarely a moment to breathe, with each successive song finding another way to punch you in the gut. And you can get punched in the gut totally free at thearmed.bandcamp.com.
Babymetal – Babymetal
This is an honorable mention because technically, it came out last year – it just wasn’t released in America until this year. Babymetal is the guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasures, slamming heavy metal and Japanese idol pop together without any regard for the consequences. It’s catchy, it’s fun, you can dance AND mosh to it, and you can do it without understanding a single damned word in the process. Just do what the Fox God says, man.
Good Tiger – A Head Full of Moonlight
Good Tiger was formed out of the ashes of The Safety Fire, an excellent progressive metal band that ended far too soon. Recruiting former Tesseract vocalist Elliot Coleman, they continue on The Safety Fire’s sound with a slight twist. Coleman brings a soulful, almost RnB sort of sound to the band’s knotty technical riffs, opening up interesting melodic doors for the band that weren’t once there. It’s a short listen at a little under 40 minutes, but as far as debut albums go, it’s packed with potential, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Deafheaven made their name on the unique blend of shoegaze and black metal they presented on 2013’s Sunbather, but they knew they couldn’t just recreate that album for the follow up. Instead, New Bermuda shifts things more towards a metalcore influence, dropping the long ambient passages and focusing more on hard hitting riffs and pure aggression. They still bring a lot of texture to the music, but New Bermuda just feels a lot different than its predecessor, with more varied vocals and more focus on keeping things uptempo and energetic.
Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by this EP. Sonic Highways was a huge letdown for me, since the band had a chance to incorporate new sounds and influences and wasted it instead. But on this new EP, instead of walking that bland middle of the road sound they walked on Sonic Highways, this EP sounds much more like the classic Foo Fighters stuff. And if I can’t see them grow as artists and try new things, I’ll at least take something that’s a shade on the classic sound I first fell in love with from them.

The Disappointments

Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
I’ve been a fan of Modest Mouse for about 6 years now. I love just about all of their albums, but in the time that I’ve been a fan, I’ve never seen them actually release something new. The band took a sort of almost-hiatus in the 8 years between We Were Dead… and this new release, and expectations were high. Instead, Strangers to Ourselves finds the band having not evolved in the slightest in that time, mailing in a collection of songs that sounds less like a complete album and more like just that – a collection of random songs. I really liked this album on my first few listens, but it just didn’t hold up, and in the end there were only a few really songs worth keeping on it (“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, “Sugar Boats”, “Lampshades on Fire”, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”). Otherwise, Strangers is a very middle of the road album from a band that used to be very insistent on pushing their boundaries and making statements, and as such, it’s a let down.
Muse – Drones
Muse have been bad longer than they were good at this point. After a foray into cheesy Queen worship and overabundant keyboards in the past few years, Drones marked their return to the guitar based music of their roots. But even bringing guitars back can’t save them at this point: Drones finds the band succumbing to every arena rock cliche in the book, from overblown “epic” songs, obvious attempts at pop hits, recycled riffs, and godawful lyrics about Big Brother. Matt Bellamy has become the musical equivalent of a teenage kid typing a rant about the evil government on Facebook, and the rest of the band couldn’t seem to care less about stopping him – or ever writing a great song again.
Cloudkicker – Woum
I hate to be hard on Cloudkicker, because Ben Sharp is one of my favorite musicians, but Woum did nothing for me outside of being pleasant background music. The fun part about following Cloudkicker is that you never know what to expect from each new release, but once in a while that comes with a downside, too. Woum is a nice, warm listen, but it doesn’t have much in the way of actual songs or memorable melodies. I’m happy to hear artists explore new musical directions, but only as long as there’s great songs to back them up, and that just didn’t happen here.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Sweet, Asunder, and Other Distress
This is another album that I liked a lot initially. But the more I listened to it as a whole, the more its 20 minute drone midsection wore on me, until I eventually stopped listening to it altogether. The two main movements of the album stand right alongside the rest of the band’s material in terms of quality, but as a full piece of work, it unfortunately falls apart in the middle.
Chrvches – Leave a Trace
I liked Chrvches debut album. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was a nice little slab of well-crafted synth pop that didn’t overstay its welcome. But the problem with their newest effort is, well…it’s the exact same thing. There’s pretty much no measurable artistic growth between the two albums, outside of maybe slightly glossier production on this new record. And since I’m already familiar with The Bones of What You Believe, I can’t really see myself taking the time to familiarize myself with another album of the same thing.

Non-2015 Releases I Discovered in 2015

Brand New
Man, I am so late on this band. But within the past two months, I absolutely fell in love with Deja Entendu, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, and Daisy. There’s a distinct core of sadness and anger that runs through their music that I’m an absolute sucker for, and Jesse Lacey is a brilliant lyricist. So, even though I’m over a decade late on discovering these guys, I’m so glad I did.
letlive.
letlive. is my other big discovery of the year. Their first album, Fake History, is one of the best heavy albums I’ve ever heard. They somehow manage to take these intense moments of pure aggression and combine them with poppy elements, social commentary, and even a bit of soul in Jason’s vocal delivery, and that makes for a really unique mix. On top of that, their live energy is unprecedented, with the band giving such intense performances night after night that you wonder how Jason hasn’t been killed yet.

Concerts

Circa Survive
This was my third time seeing Circa, but my first time seeing them as a full-fledged fan. I finally had all the albums, knew all the songs, and I had the extra cash to spend on the meet and greet and acoustic session to boot. I got to sit in a circle a few feet away from them while they performed an intimate 3 song acoustic set, before taking to the stage later on in the night and delivering on every level. They’re a band that truly loves their fans and truly loves making music, and it shows in everything they do.
Slash
While it’s been a long time since I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, I’ve made it a point to see as many of their members as I can. I finally got the chance to see Slash this May when he came to the Sherman theater, and it was actually a damn good show. I got to see the GNR hits that first sparked my love of music as well as newer songs from his current band, The Conspirators. It was great to touch base with my adolescence that way and revisit the music I once loved.
Death Grips
There are few words to describe the raw power of this show. After waiting over two years for the chance to see them, I was already beyond hyped for this show. And when I got there, the band knew how to play the crowd like a fiddle – instead of having any openers, they instead played the band’s side projects and a 40 minute noise remix of unreleased material, making everyone antsy and on edge. So, when they finally did take the stage, the crowd fucking EXPLODED into a throbbing mass of pure hype and rage. I’ve never been literally scared of getting trampled or crushed at a show before this night, but that’s how intense the crowd was. The band ran through nearly two hours of music in one long, (nearly, thanks to a laptop glitch) uninterrupted set in which each song seamlessly transitioned into the next. How Zach Hill can drum like he does for so long without a rest is beyond me, and the same goes for how long Stefan Burnett can bellow his lungs out and contort his body. All around, it’s one of the craziest, best shows I’ve ever been to, and probably ever will go to.
Tricot
I never, ever expected I’d get the chance to see Tricot. But the stars aligned and this October, they crossed the globe to do a short North America run, and I got to see them on the first show of that run in a tiny, intimate venue. It’s rare that you’re literally close to enough to lean on the stage all night, and man, does it make a show so much better. I was blown away by the level of energy the band had, and how much they jumped around despite the tiny stage. I could tell this was another band who truly loves what they do, giving their all into every performance, and it was made all the more special by the small venue I got to experience it in.
Rise Against
I actually went to this show solely to see letlive. as an opener. As I expected, letlive. played an intense, albeit short set, which saw Jason Butler climb into the balcony of the Sherman Theater and get a circle pit going (I’ve seen many opening bands try, but never succeed). And I was lucky enough to see them play a brand new song, too, from their upcoming album. But I wound up being really impressed by Rise Against – I was familiar with their music, and I enjoyed a few songs before that, but they put on a heartfelt and powerful enough show that convinced me I need to pay more attention them as a band. I didn’t expect the crowd to go so nuts for them, but they definitely did, because they managed to get the second circle pit of the night going, which I definitely didn’t expect from a punk band. It’s a great feeling to leave a show as a fan of a band you didn’t like before.
So that’s that. What I loved, what I liked, what I downright hated in 2015. If you’ve made it this far, well, congratulations, and I hope I turned you onto some new music! If you just scrolled all the way to the end, well I see you too fam, it’s okay. Till next year!

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo [2016]

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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.