Friday, March 28, 2014

Deadwood – Picturing a Sense of Loss

February 14, 2014 • self-released

Trying to find decent black metal these days is an interesting game, especially on Bandcamp where half the bands listed as such don't have anything to do with the genre. But I've found a few good nuggets from this year so far, one of which is German band Deadwood's Picturing a Sense of Loss, one which finally satisfied my search for a little while.

Deadwood's style of black metal is definitely rooted in the modern post-blackgaze era, with big walls of blastbeats and layered, atmospheric guitar combined with a hefty sense of melodicism and fusion with softer, dramatic sections. The harder metal parts are a little evocative of the kind of stuff we were getting out of Europe in the late '90s: not particularly fancy, but definitely refined and well past its early raw state.

Deadwood does have a tendency to get a bit melodramatic, though, which can be construed as a good or bad thing depending on your taste. Their aforementioned highly-melodic guitar lines got to be a bit too much for me at times. And while their use of clean, post-rock sections was generally done well and in good taste, their use can result in the music getting a bit sappy at times, like halfway through the very first track and a few other song intros.

That being said, Deadwood does still manage to write some pretty great songs and pull together a fine album. I doubt it'll be particularly well-recognized among its peers this year, as there isn't quite enough about it that truly stands out, but I would still definitely recommend it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata

March 18, 2014 • Madlib Invazion

This year's new hip hop phenomenon has finally arrived, and to my pleasant surprise it's legendary producer Madlib taking the spotlight, someone who I haven't really heard much from lately. While his partner choice in Freddie Gibbs is questionable, I'm not going to deny that Piñata is an album worth hearing.

Any Madlib fan is sure to be satisfied with the beats on this album, as he's as good as ever and his trademark style is still in full force—highly atmospheric beats, melodic vintage soul samples, and lush, organic-sounding instrumentation. Gibbs' comment that it sounds like a blaxploitation film is a very apt way to describe it; there's plenty of influence from old soul and jazz records and '60s-era soundtracks. I won't say it's his best work, but it's definitely up there. He does also have a tendency to add some horrible samples, though, mostly clips at the end of tracks that get a bit annoying and don't seem to add anything. Fortunately these are usually easily-skipped.

I don't think I've heard Freddie Gibbs before (he seems to be a relative newcomer, compared to Madlib anyway), but I admit he's really grown on me since I first heard Piñata. I still am not a huge fan of the somewhat-stereotypical gangsta-rap themes, and it sounds like his style is a bit stuck in the early 2000s, but his delivery isn't bad. The guest spots are hit-or-miss; it's cool to hear part of Odd Future and Raekwon on a Madlib album for sure, but others like Danny Brown don't do anything for me (seriously, that guy has one obnoxious style).

But I think the reason I'm not really as into Piñata is that even though Madlib and Gibbs are both performing well, their styles don't really gel. Maybe it's my bias due to my infatuation with Madvillainy, but seriously... Doom's jumbled, soft-spoken delivery and abstract lyrics worked well with Madlib's style there, but there's an inherent dissonance that gets created when you instead pair them with harder gangsta-rap flow like Gibbs'. It just doesn't really work as well. The single "Thuggin'" is an ideal example; it's got a very pleasant hazy, flowery soul beat, but the lyrics and rapping are brash and vulgar. It just feels a little bit wrong.

But on the other hand, it's not something I can't get used to, and this album is definitely growing on me the more I listen to it, so maybe it's just me. And admittedly there are some tracks that work fantastically well, like "Uno"; every track has its own flavor and feel so it's entirely to dislike how one track works and like another.

So yes—it's a good album, and stands up well in Madlib's discography. Since I'll probably never hear the true followup to Madvillainy I've been waiting for all these years, I'll have to make do with Gibbs—not a great replacement, but he'll do. Madlib's contribution is enough to make this album recommendable anyway.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thou – Ceremonies of Humiliation

January 29, 2014 • Dead Tank Records

Is this really the same Thou that released the great album Summit? Because I really couldn't believe it at first; I thought this must have been a different band. This is because Ceremonies of Humiliation is simply a disaster.

Let's be clear, though: this isn't a regular album; this is (if I understand correctly) a compilation of tracks from various past splits and EPs from before Summit's release. So you can't really approach it in the same way you would a standard album, and it's all older material anyway.

Even putting that aside, I didn't enjoy a single minute of Ceremonies of Humiliation. Thou plays a very doom- and stoner-infused sludge metal: drawling, plodding, dark, and heavy. It's not my favorite kind of sludge, but the songs simply aren't good anyway. It just feels like there's no reason behind the song structures and the band just flounders around on weak riff after weak riff, going nowhere. Nowhere are the dynamics and interesting compositions I expected—just and endless string of notes and an insatiable desire to try to be "heavy" that they never really reach in a satisfying way. I think there's a point somewhere right between sludge metal and stoner metal that I inherently despise for some reason, and almost all of these songs hit that point on the nose.

And, by the way, this all goes on for an hour and a half. A full eighty-eight minutes, almost every one of them torturous. Normally I listen to any given release a handful of times before reviewing; I couldn't get through a second one with this.

Just stick to Summit (I checked; it's still a good album) and forget this thing ever existed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Blank – Susperia

December 12, 2014 • This Charming Man Records

Blank is a modern-style crust punk band through and through, with a dark and gritty aesthetic and a sound that is quite dense and often complex. They also can comfortably move from crust to blastbeats and there are also some good atmospheric parts (like "Society of Glass"'s and "Lich un Eisen"'s intros and endings). So there's a good amount of different things going on in their songwriting, which is nice to hear from a modern hardcore band where diversity is often sadly absent.

I'm not totally sure how I feel about Suspiria, though. Blank has definitely laid down a solid foundation, but the songs seem to go by too quickly before they can really hook the listener. But there are still a lot of good ideas and some great riffs and I like where it's going, and maybe the fact that it's just an EP and not a full album has something to do with it.

So while this release is definitely a fine listen, especially for people already into this scene, and I am liking it, there is still a lot of untapped potential to be exploited yet. We'll see; I'm probably going to keep my eye out for future material from these guys. Blank feels like they are probably a great live band, at the very least.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Liars – Mess

March 24, 2014 • Mute Records

It was bound to happen; I never expected Liars to go back to their old noise rock roots and with Mess their slow transition through dark synth-pop on WIXIW, but at the same time I never expected them to suddenly become a full-fledged electro-house outfit. It seems appropriate though, somehow. Fortunately I think they've learned a lot from working on WIXIW and it sounds like they've worked hard to improve their sound, and it's really paid off.

When I first heard Mess I thought I was being pranked with a fake download (yeah, I didn't do my homework for this one), but it's really true. Heavy four-on-the-floor house beats, sawtooth synth bass lines, glitchy bleeps, repetitive sampling, topped off with Liars' trademark droning vocal style—the only truly familiar thing on the album. It's very bizarre to think that this is the same band I saw jamming out dense tribal noise just over a year and a half ago (but I guess a lot can change in that time, can't it?).

But I have to admit that these beats are pretty damn good. Things really start to kick in at the second track, with a great sweeping string line that forms the chorus and gives it a very dark and brooding sound while still maintaining a lot of energy and pulse. Then they really kick in with "Pro Anti Anti"'s awesome almost-industrial beat and organ (one of the sounds I was most surprised to hear, and on several tracks too—and somehow it fits in really well).

Another improvement is that there are much fewer songs that I'd call not-particularly-good; WIXIW had its fair share of dull songs but there are only a couple here, and they still aren't really that bad at all. They do enough of mixing up different sounds and styles that it's tough to be disappointed with any of it. And I guess the duller ones like "Can't Hear Well" serve well to give the listener a short break between the intensity of the other tracks, anyway.

It seems unfair to compare it to their older work since they're such a different band now (but no, it's still not as good as Drum's Not Dead), but relative to similar house and electro music I'd say that Mess absolutely holds its own. Great production, great writing; it's an album they can be proud of. And it's got the Liars aesthetic and tone that'll appeal to their fans, to boot. Score all around.

Käptain Krünçh Kîdz – #BloodBrothers

March 5, 2014 • self-released

Here's some more idiosyncratic indie-folky music from suburban Missouri; this time it's very odd and minimalistic folk-punk sort of stuff. The instrumentation is simply clean guitar, drums, and vocals; there's always a lot you can do with a small setup like that so it's interesting to see where people take it.

The drumming is very good, and I really like its style and the little fills and decorations that get thrown around. The guitar work is a bit hit-or-miss; it feels a bit sloppy on some tracks (especially where it sounds like the song is simply improvisation) but is pretty good at other times. The vocals are surprisingly good as well, at least on the few occasions they appear.

It's supposed to be kind of a silly release though (if the band name didn't tip you off) and, impressively, it succeeds well enough at being silly and quite listenable at the same time. I would definitely like to hear what they could do with some more fleshed-out actual songwriting and instrumentation; I bet it could be pretty great.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yautja – Songs of Descent

February 11, 2014 • self-released

Another random Bandcamp find; unfortunately I don't have a lot of background knowledge of Yautja, but I will say that going by this album, these guys are absolutely stellar.

Songs of Descent falls nicely into a bucket I like to call "sludgecore" (see Struck by Lightning and some KEN Mode), a combinations of dirty, heavy, chugging sludge with some of the faster technical elements of metalcore and modern hardcore—even a bit of grindcore, too, at least here. I haven't found many spectacular examples of this genre in action, but Yautja has definitely caught my ear. These are the kinds of riffs that really dig in under your skin—vile and nasty stuff but catchy and satisfying at the same time, and Yautja brings them non-stop and in full force.

The songs blast by quickly and there's a lot to process in a short time—fourteen tracks in less than forty minutes is lightning speed, especially with some of them being just a minute long. And they do a lot with the short time they have, going from Mastodon to Rotten Sound in seconds. It's a really interesting experience, one that demands attention from the listener as they never let what they're doing get repetitive or stale.

The one nitpicky thing I can think of is that the vocals are always pushed way far back in the mix (unless it's just my headphones?) that they often might as well not even be there. I think a better vocal presence could really push this band even farther. The rest of the band sounds great, though, and the mixing is otherwise very well-done.

Again, definitely worth giving a full listen. I definitely hope to hear more from Yautja soon.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Have a Nice Life – The Unnatural World

February 4, 2014 • Enemies List Home Recordings

It seems like Have a Nice Life's debut Deathconsciousness was the talk of the town for ages after it came out, and the hype level for their second album has been nearly as high. Though I thought it sounded like something I'd be into at first, I couldn't really get into their first album much, and it doesn't seem like much has changed this time around.

Stylistically, Have a Nice Life toes the line between dreamy, murky shoegaze and noisy ambient, with some dark and clanky industrial beats underlying much of it and the occasional post-punk grooving. It's an interesting mix (albeit not too original in this day and age). I definitely like the more rock-like songs better ("Defenestration Song", "Unholy Life", and "Dan and Tim" remind me of maybe a more modern The Cure), although "Music Will Untune the Sky" has a great majestic droning feel to it that sets it apart.

On the whole, the album feels like the sort of music that wants to feel epic, and begs to be played loudly and consume the listener's space, but it's not really as compelling as it wishes it could be. There are plenty of solid ideas and the execution is decent, but I don't think enough of the songs are particularly strong, and it feels like Have a Nice Life doesn't have a clear picture of where they wanted to take some of their ideas, leaving a lot of the tracks to just kind of wander around aimlessly.

Don't read too much into that paragraph, though. It's definitely not a bad album, and I'd be okay with spinning it a few more times casually. But it hasn't quite won me over in the same way it's done to a lot of people. Maybe I need to back and listen to Deathconsciousness again, or just wait for their next installment.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron

February 25, 2014 • Top Dawg Entertainment

Is it just me, or did the hype for this album drop off dramatically after it came out? Maybe everyone else, like me, decided that it didn't really live up to their expectations. Like ScHoolboy's previous album, there are some good—even great—cuts on Oxymoron, but there are also plenty of bad ones, and listening to the album becomes a matter of slogging through and picking the good from the bad.

The cloud rap of Habits & Contradictions has been stripped down and filtered through modern west-coast production, leaving it with a very different feel to it; "Los Awesome" feels, to me, like an ultimate expression of LA culture (whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you, but regardless it's great in a very cheesy way). I've always been more of an east coast person, so this album doesn't always click with me, but even I have to admit that a lot of the beats are fantastic ("Studio", "Break the Bank", and "Hell of a Night" are a few standouts for me). It's also interesting that many of them have a sort of minimalist style like "What They Want" or "Hoover Street" that you wouldn't think works with the west coast aesthetic, but somehow it does anyway.

But there's a lot about this album I simply don't like. Plenty of the tracks are boring or amateur-sounding, like "What They Want" or "Blind Threats", which is a huge turn-off since that's what I came for and there were so many good beats on Habits. It's weird since there are also some beats that really click for me (e.g. "Prescription" and "The Purge") even though they're similar to the ones I don't like.

ScHoolboy's rapping itself feels a bit subpar as well, although I don't think I've ever been that fond of his style in the first place (on the other hand, the guest spots are pretty good). The hooks are especially bad, on just about every track with a hook; something about them is just grating to me. And while I normally manage to ignore lyrics, there is plenty of awfulness here on too many tracks to list.

What's interesting is that the more I listen to Oxymoron, the less I like it. Either that or giving it a very careful, critical listen for this review revealed a lot of things about it that I didn't notice before. Either way, I'm pretty sure at this point that this album is definitely a step down from the last one. While there are still some good tracks, it's not enough to make sitting through the rest really worth it.