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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Smashing Pumpkins – Monuments to an Elegy (2014)

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Smashing Pumpkins’ – or Billy Corgan’s, however you want to put it – newest album, Monuments to an Elegy is the next part in the drawn out Teargarden by Kaleidyscope saga. Since 2009, Corgan has been releasing individual songs and entire albums under this theme, and he aims to conclude it next year with the next Pumpkins disc, Day for Night. All of the music under the Teargarden banner has been marked by Billy’s heavy experimentation with synthesizers and flowery subject matter, which obviously makes this material a very far cry from his “the world is a vampire” days. At times, though, he’s touched upon the Pumpkins’ former glory with it, most consistently on 2012’s Oceania (which balanced the heavy synth with heaping slabs of the band’s trademark fuzz).

However, Monuments to an Elegy comes up a lot shorter than it’s predecessor, both literally and figuratively. It’s run time is barely longer than that of most EPs, clocking in at 33 minutes with 9 songs. That means there’s no grand ‘Silverfuck’ or ‘Thru the Eyes of Ruby’ style epics here, or even the exploratory ‘Oceania’; the songs are short and sweet with predictable verse-chorus-verse structures. Figuratively, Monuments also finds Corgan dipping back into the synth-as-a-lead-instrument style that defined the early songs in the Teargarden cycle, for the worst. Almost all of the nine tracks here are either lead by, or feature prominent synth use – which would be all well and good, if most of them didn’t sound straight off of a New Age easy-listening CD. It comes off as painfully cheesy in the most un-ironic of ways, and it isn’t helped by Corgan’s absolutely dreadful lyrics. Besides clunkers like “Never been kissed by a girl like you/All I wanna, I wanna do/Love me baby, love me true/Oooh” and “alright alright/everywhere I go is shining bright”, you could literally die from alcohol poisoning if you drank every time he mentioned some variation of the word ‘love’ or ‘lover’.

But Corgan’s songwriting is so strong that, every once in a while, it does overpower even his most misguided tendencies. “One and All (We Are)” feels and sounds like a cut off of Mellon Collie, partly because it actually has roots in unfinished the Mellon Collie-era outtake ‘The Viper’. Grinding along with thick buzzsaw guitars and an angry inflection Corgan’s voice hasn’t held in years (and completely free of the cursed mini Moog), it’s a true dyed-in-the-wool Pumpkins song that reminds us of what he was once capable of. The prog-tinged ‘Tiberius’ manages the balance Oceania struck by successfully mixing a bright synth line with huge chugging chords, segueing into a heavier breakdown and back with ease. And the album’s lead single, ‘Being Beige’, has grown on me by leaps and bounds, bringing with it an Adore-influenced sound and gentle pop melodies.

I don’t fault Corgan for trying to explore new sounds and territories with his music, but he’s been mining this Synthing Pumpkins sound for five years now, and it’s seriously both wearing out its welcome and hurting his songs. The man who followed up one of the biggest double albums in music history with an understated gothic pop record is stuck in a rut, despite all of his grandstanding to the contrary. Monuments sounds deeply confused and flawed, jumping back and forth between guitar-driven rockers and new-agey synth and lyrics, rarely ever congealing into something cohesive. Ever since Corgan reformed the Pumpkins in 2006, he’s been struggling to find a sound for them that’s both relevant and in line with their past, and for all this trouble, he’s lost sight of what really matters – good songs. It’s a shame to see one of the ’90s greatest songwriters so mired in mediocrity, but at least at the end of the day we still wind up with a great song every now and then. That’s probably all we can ask for anymore.

Key Tracks: One and All (We Are), Tiberius, Being Beige

New Smashing Pumpkins Song ‘Being Beige’

Well shit, this one is a disappointment. The Smashing Pumpkins have just released a single from their upcoming Monuments to an Elegy, featuring Tommy Lee on drums, which is also the first of two albums from the band scheduled for release. What a mouthful.

Oceania found Billy picking up the pieces after the failed Teargarden singles series, but he still didn’t fire on all cylinders. Being Beige sounds like one of the weaker tracks from that album, which is worrying since it was chosen as a first single for Monuments. Starting off with piano reminiscent of Mellon Collie, the song quickly transitions into some strummy acoustic and Billy’s new, incredibly dry, vocals. It attempts to rock a little towards the end, but the production leaves it feeling limp and flat.

Hopefully the other 8 songs on the album are better than this, but suddenly I’m not as hopeful.

Top 20-ish of 2012

 1. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

 I have to say, Coheed has made me really, really happy to be a fan this year. This is the first album by them I’ve gotten to wait for by them since I’ve been a fan, and it was a bit of a wild ride. Mic Todd left the band after a run in with the law, and Chris Pennie quit shortly after due to creative differences. I thought the band was about to break up when they started dropping cryptic videos on YouTube. Instead, it turned out that drummer Josh Eppard, who had originally been kicked out in 2005, was rejoining the band – something totally unexpected, and honestly, the only right choice. Then we get introduced to the new bassist, Zach “Super Dooper” Cooper, who blended right into the band’s sound flawlessly.

 And finally, Coheed announced their new album. Free of a record label, they were finally able to write and record however and whatever they wanted – and this time that meant a double record. Ascension is the first part, a 40 minute ride that travels through mellow piano intros, a twisting 8 minute lead single, classic bouncy Coheed pop rock, and gentle electronics. It’s seriously crazy that they managed to pack so much into such a short album, but that’s one of it’s defining features. It’s short, to the point, and begs to be listened to again as soon as the last notes of Subtraction ring out. If Descension is even half as good when it drops in February, the album as a whole has serious potential to rank as their best. Hats off to the ‘Heed.

 2. Deftones – Koi No Yokan

 Deftones’ previous album, Diamond Eyes, was a beast that kicked ass from start to finish. It saw them reaching insane new highs 15 years after their first album, which is no easy feat for any band. So naturally, Koi No Yokan was my most anticipated album of the year.

 The result is an expansive album that expands on what Diamond Eyes did in terms of texture and sonic landscapes. Diving into it with a good pair of headphones is a must, because it’s the most sonically expansive and lushly textured album of their career. Eleven years after White Pony, Deftones has finally made good on the promise that record held, and have unarguably hit their stride.*However, that being so, it’s not as immediate as it’s predecessor. Several songs stand out immediately, like the monster Leathers, the spiraling dream pop of Entombed, the otherworldly Tempest. The highs are up there in the stratosphere with their best work, but that very quality is also something of a curse. At times it feels as if things are blending together, and a fair few of the songs took me a lot longer to get into and remember than some of the ones I named.

 That said, the “blending together” is also a good thing – each song flows into and complements the next so well that it doesn’t feel like almost an hour has passed by the time ‘What Happened to You?’ closes it out. Few albums dare to work so well as a whole in this era of singles and one-hit wonders, and the total package ends up being pure ear candy.

 3. Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal

 Periphery’s first album was definitely not one of my favorites. I liked some of it, but I just couldn’t really get into them. I liked the singing, but the screaming just wasn’t up to par. I loved the riffing, but it got too repetitive over a whole album. I felt like they could really be a great band though, and I decided to give them another chance when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Man, was I surprised – everything I hadn’t liked about the first record was gone. Spencer’s screams were absolutely throat shattering, the songwriting was leaps and bounds ahead of PI, and really, they just finally felt like a band (the first album had been written and recorded over a few years and with a few line up changes, so it wasn’t as cohesive as it could’ve been). It’s a fun record, insofar as djent can be fun. The choruses soar and stick in your head, the heavy parts make you feel like you could just walk through a brick wall, the drumming pummels you into submission (or at least into a complex toe tapping session).  It’s a record I can put on and jam to with no pretense, and one that has finally made me a fan of Periphery.

 4. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here

 On the other hand, I’ve pretty much always loved P.O.S. I’ve heard few artists fuse such disparate genres as punk rock and rap into something that works so well, hits so hard, and never feels forced or cliched. You only need to listen to ‘Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)’ to know what he’s about.*So go figure that my favorite album of his comes in the form of his least punk, most ‘club’ album yet. WDELH rips the floor out from underneath his punk experimentation and replaces it with a slick, futuristic sound, worthy of clubs around the world. Most other artists would be getting shouted down as sell outs for this, me probably being one of the shouters, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work perfectly here.And that’s because P.O.S’ core message hasn’t changed. At heart, his lyrics are still the same brutally honest and subversive ones he’s best at, it’s just the instrumentation that’s changed. And this sound even allows him to take that one step further – ‘Get Down’ is a scathing indictment of vapid club songs that manages to also be one a damn fine club song itself, and ‘Fuck Your Stuff’ pokes and prods at the materialistic pop culture that’s dominated the media the past decade. Honestly, this album is so packed with great songs, it’s all one giant stand out.

5. Circa Survive – Violent Waves

I found this album totally on chance. I always passed over these guys because I’d somehow lumped them in with a million other generic scene-y bands. But after seeing a lot of hype for Violent Waves, and finding a way to, ahem, acquire it, I figured it couldn’t hurt. And damn – right from the seven minute opening track I knew I was totally wrong about them the whole time. Violent Waves is spacey, progressive rock at it’s finest.

 Honorable Mention:

 6. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

 I hadn’t even known Big Boi was putting out a new album this year, so VLaDR came totally out of the blue when Spotify recommended it to me. If it had come out sooner it would probably be higher on my list, but I haven’t had much time to listen to it yet. And yet, in the week it’s been out, it’s quickly rocketed up to being one of my absolute favorites this year. It’s right on par with Sir Luscious Left Foot, with tons of experimentation, plenty of hooks, and some straight out wacky guest appearances (Wavves, anyone?).

 And now, in no particular order, here’s the rest of the stuff I liked this year.

 Cloudkicker – Fade

Ben Sharp can really do no wrong, and Fade continues to prove that. Strangely, he’s taken on a sound that’s in part reminiscent of alternative mixed in with the more atmospheric stuff he’s been doing lately, which is far removed from his old djent style, but is still just as good.

 Japandroids – Celebration Rock

You seriously don’t find a rock record more fun than this one. It’s perfect summer music.

 Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Mark Lanegan’s voice is untouchable. He’s one of the most distinctive singers I’ve ever heard, and his voice alone sounds like it could tell a few stories. Plus, the album is really, really good. It’s bluesly and electronic at the same time, which is actually a lot better than it sounds.

 Soundgarden – King Animal

I had really, really low hopes for a new Soundgarden record, but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. It’s still not a shade on their earlier stuff, but it’s new fucking Soundgarden music in 2012. Who would’ve thought?

 Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

Even though it’s just Billy Corgan with some other dudes these days, Oceania still has some really classic Pumpkins-sounding stuff on it. Plus, bringing back that classic Siamese Dream guitar fuzz is a dream come true.

 Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods

I wanted to like this album more, but it just didn’t stick with me as much as Carnavas or Swoon. Still, it’s got a lot of really good songs on it, and hearing their more electronic influenced side is cool, too.

 Say Anything – Anarchy, My Dear

I think I actually like this band better when they sound as laid back as they do on this album. Burn A Miracle, The Stephen Hawking, and Say Anything are all great songs.

 Muse – The 2nd Law

Having been massively disappointed in their last album, I was surprised that The 2nd Law was actually pretty damn solid (seriously, Panic Station is fucking funky) – even if it’s sorely lacking in their trademark guitar theatrics.

 Linkin Park – Living Things

I only actually started listening to these guys back when A Thousand Suns came out, so I’ve never been totally partial to the old nu-metal sound. This album takes the best parts of that style (most lyrically and song-structure wise) and combines it with the new electronic style they’ve been going for the past few years, with a ton of catchy songs.

 The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

I like long songs, and progressive music, but I usually can’t stand TMV. They tend to suffer a lot from audio wankery that stretches their songs out way past their welcome. However, Noctourniquet actually pares the song lengths down and focuses much more on songwriting than what I’ve heard from them in the past, and I think that makes for a much more enjoyable experience with this album.

 Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence

I wish I could’ve put this album in my top five, but either I’m just not feeling BTBAM as much these days, or they’re getting a bit boring. While it does get a bit repetitive over the full hour+ run time, there’s still a lot of great riffs and songs in there – they’re just a bit…buried.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Simply put, AWLWLB is Converge delivering yet again. The modern-day hardcore pioneers continue to thrash harder than bands half their age, and show no signs of stopping.

 Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

This guy has one hell of a voice, and channel ORANGE is smooth and soulful as fuck.

 Jack White – Blunderbuss

It’s a bit of a departure from the White Stripes and Dead Weather stuff, but hearing a bluesy, countrified album like this is a refreshing change once in a while. Sixteen Saltines and Love Interruption are two of my favorite songs from this year.

 Rush – Clockwork Angels

And here’s another band that’s still better than guys half their age, despite having been around for the better part of thirty years. It’s their first full concept album, and probably one of their heaviest records, too.

The Prize Fighter Inferno – Half Measures

It’s only an EP, but it was actually one of my highlights this year. PFI is Claudio Sanchez’s (Coheed and Cambria singer/guitarist) side project, which has a lot more of an indie/electronic feel to it. It’s really cool to hear such a different side to his music, and to hear him branch away from the concept album thing as well.

The Armed – Spreading Joy

Clocking in at only 9 minutes, I don’t think it could even be called an EP. But Spreading Joy is the angriest, heaviest, most intense 9 minutes you’ll hear all year.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allalujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

I actually didn’t get into these guys until very, very recently. The two drone tracks aren’t really anything special, but the two twenty minute beasts that are Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire are masterpieces.