20180623

Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch & the EP trilogy


Bad Witch & the EP trilogy


Prelude

After Nine Inch Nails's last studio album, 2013's Hesitation Marks, underpinning an even more polished and poised electronic-industrial Trent Reznor, expectations were reasonably high for his eventual follow-up album. However, Reznor had been neck deep in scoring feature films and television shows with multiple time collaborator and director David Fincher, and the eye-opening documentaries Before The Flood and The Vietnam War, essentially fulfilling his lifelong dream of writing musical scores for films, and winning a Grammy while at it. No one could blame Reznor for being so ambitious, but it seemed almost impossible to imagine how he could fit Nine Inch Nails into such a tight schedule. Nevertheless, Reznor announced that 2016 would see new NIN material, and so anticipation ramped up. That same year, Reznor's longtime collaborator, Atticus Ross, was announced as the first official member to join Nine Inch Nails (Reznor would always use repeated and dedicated touring musicians to help him fully realize his primarily solo musical visions on stage). During the final month of the year, Reznor and Ross made good on their promise, finally announcing Not The Actual Events, the first EP in a series of three planned releases to comprise of an EP trilogy to be released right before the end of the year. Although this is a review of their final release of the three, Bad Witch, this is also a retrospective look at all three releases, and how the trilogy fits together as a whole, starting with Not The Actual Events. 

Not The Actual Events


This first EP is surely a doozy. Its murky sub textures and post-apocalyptic soundscapes throughout highlight the the overall themes of desperation and anguish. 

As a title, Not The Actual Events serves as an interesting choice in opening up this trilogy, having a clear resemblance to the phrasing of Reznor's live album, And All That Could Have Been. It has a implication of a smokescreen or a coverup, which is echoed in tracks like "Dear, World", the second track of the EP, as the voice of someone seems to affirm that "yes, everyone seems to be asleep" in the beginning and end of the track. The artwork also serves as a white blank canvas, with classic Nine Inch Nails font etched over the bleak frame, indicating Reznor's want for listeners to focus in on the music. It also does fit in with the bleak aesthetic of an uncertain and post-apocalyptic future which is put forth in the music. 

The EP's opener, "Branches/Bones", is a tough one, jump starting with a quick static-y drum beat and Reznor making statements which realize his maturity, as "parts of him are slowing down while time is speeding up". It is in this track where he utters the line, "cold and black and infinite with nothing left to lose", which  just so happens to be the name of his 2018 tour in support of Bad Witch, Cold, Black, and Infinite. There are classic NIN tropes to be found here which can teeter on the verge of cliche, since most of the themes in his work seem to repeat themselves and come back around, however, Reznor displays a self-awareness in his lyrics which still render his music fresh for new ears and older fans alike, as he sings in the chorus, "feels like I've been here before, yeah I don't know anymore, and I don't care anymore, I think I recognize", indicating Reznor's awareness of coming back around to the same sentiments that have tortured him all his life. Furthermore, the meaning of branches and bones in the title is that both Mother Nature and humanity are bound to break and succumb to a disparate future. 

"Dear, World" follows through without pause as "Branches/Bones" reaches its psychotic crescendo and gets cut off, allowing Reznor to display his tenacity and exploration of electronic programming and experimental drumming. Similar to groups like Radiohead, another personal favorite of mine, Nine Inch Nails is always willing to push the envelope into rhythmic dances of electro drumbeats and tempos to bring listeners into a variety of soundscapes and moods, and it's one of their defining features to be able to continue moving forward in electronic music experimentation. "Dear, World", therefore is the cleanest song of the bunch, both highly calculated in its instrumentation and thematically clear in its delivery as Reznor sings about seeing the world changing before him and the unfolding of events passing before everyone's eyes as he repeats, "and you didn't even notice, yeah you didn't even notice." This first EP thus serves as a cryptic warning or a statement that things are changing beyond repair,  and it's a message that cannot be more topically relevant in this day and age. 

"She's Gone Away" serves as the divider of this five track release, and almost immediately bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Reznor's much earlier released songs, "Reptile", off of his breakout album The Downward Spiral. Both in the theme of coming to terms with an unfaithful lover and subsequently having chased them away. Both songs keep the same dark tempo and atmosphere of industrial sludge and Reznor's emotional anguish couldn't be any more powerful than it is today in his pained screams on "She's Gone Away", furthering my personal theory that this track is the spiritual sequel, pushing forward the narrative of Reznor's damaged heart. Despite writing and recording "She's Gone Away" at the personal request of director David Lynch for the then-upcoming revival series Twin Peaks: The Return, one can't help but draw comparisons to his past material. As a side note, there also lies the connection between Not The Actual Events and The Downward Spiral with the vinyl version of this release. Since all 5 tracks are pressed on side A, a flip onto side B reveals the final 3 tracks of A Downward Spiral, but played in reverse, starting with "Hurt", then the title track, and finally ending with "Reptile" in reverse, deepening the connection and begging the question: what is Reznor's intention of connecting both this trilogy and his breakout album? The answers may or may not be revealed. 

In "The Idea of You", Dave Grohl guest drums on this frenetic, alternative rock and metal track, with Reznor's desperate vocals continuing to question who he really was to someone else, and if it was really him, asking the listener to go back to "the idea" of him and forget what he has been. It's a tough track for anyone who feels like they compromised their selves for another and can't take the inner suffering that goes along with it. It makes a fast and heavy approach for the closing track, "Burning Bright (Field on Fire)", which returns to Reznor's final statement of defiance and strength of who he really is. "I'm going back, of course I am, as if I ever had a choice, back to what I always knew I was, on the inside", Reznor sings alongside the droning guitars and slow and heavy drums, creating an anxiety-ridden tension that reaches its peak in Not The Actual Events. He sings, "Breathe, breathe, break through the surface and breathe", as a message for listeners to break through the bullshit in their own lives and take back control. 

Each of these tracks have their own distinct style of foreboding, atmospheric dread, and set the bar high for the next couple of releases in the trilogy. 

Add Violence


Seven months after Not The Actual Events, Reznor and Ross announced their second EP in the trilogy, Add Violence, and released it less than a week later on July 19, 2017. As quite a departure in tone from their first release, this EP serves up a much cleaner sound than Not The Actual Events, and references the systematic addition of violence in the media and western culture both in title and the artwork, which shows a machine designed with dials set to "add violence", "amplify chaos", and measure levels of anxiety.

"Less Than" is the first track and single that opens up this second EP, with sequenced synths and a new-wave style, Reznor aims at political leaders, "shut up, silence, add a little violence, and offend and pretend, and defend and demand my compliance". He sings, "and you can always justify, the missile trails across the sky again", pointing the finger and holding our current and past leaders accountable, then in the chorus flipping the focus onto the general masses who vote for their prophesized saviors, "So what are you waiting for? You got what you asked for, did it fix what was wrong with you? Are you less than? Go and look what you gone done, welcome oblivion, did it fix what was wrong with you? Are you less than?". In this chorus Renznor calls out the general masses of enablers, voting for leaders who have only caused more war and death, and makes a clear reference to the album title of his other band How To Destroy Angels, which he fronts with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig Reznor. Nine Inch Nails has long been using themes of chaos and destruction, political intrigue, and apocalypse in his work, and although feeling somewhat tired, it still is just as relevant today as it has always been. This track is probably the strongest track on Add Violence, and it leads into some of the most subdued material Reznor has released in many years.


"The Lovers" works to seduce listeners into Reznor's world, with synths and plucks that slowly build over minimalist percussion. He whispers sensually to someone throughout the piece, as if he's floating astrally through space: "I can hear you breathing, I've slipped out of time again, Leaving all of you behind, And I'm free, To return to the place where I already am, And have always been, If I just really looked and allowed myself, To see". Reznor is cool, calm, and collected here, and sounds self-aware as everyone else seems to still be sleeping. "Take me, into the arms of the lovers, Free into the arms of the lovers", Reznor sings, apparently longing for the feeling of being loved by someone, and the liberating feeling of it being all he really needs. The emotional heaviness which resides in this quietness isn't over yet though, as the EP moves into the middle track of Add Violence, "This Isn't The Place". Low humming synths and cautious piano melodies slowly rise out of the silence, and are eventually joined by eerie vocal moans that create a slow-building canvas of quiet dread. Reznor sounds choked up when he finally sings, as if he's fighting back bitter tears to deliver the shortest lyrics in the EP. "And if you see my friend, I thought I would again, A single straight line, I thought we had more time, Carry me, Carry me home", a possible reference to losing a close friend, which could quite possibly have been David Bowie, who passed away in January 2016, a year and a half before Add Violence, and who Reznor has had multiple run-ins with and shared various live performances with. This reference would seem to make the most sense, considering the very apparent Bowie/Blackstar influence in Nine Inch Nails's final release in the trilogy, Bad Witch. After this slow, churning, and emotional event, we get to the final two songs on Add Violence.


"Not Anymore" follows the same trend as "The Idea of You" did in Not The Actual Events, in the sense that it's more of the chaotic outlier of the EP and builds up the energy as it runs toward the final track. Reznor's lyrics again are full of doubts, disappointment, and trying to not change into somebody else, as he tries reminding himself who he is and what his purpose his, but responding with a negative, "well not anymore", pulling the song into a downward spiral of chaos and despair, and running into the last song, "The Background World". This closing statement before the third and final Nine Inch Nails release in the trilogy comes off powerful, as Reznor describes being unable to escape fate, despite feeling the disillusions of grandeur in previous tracks. "I know what’s coming, I feel it reaching through, There is no moving past, There is no better place, There is no future point in time, We will not get away", before speaking on the perpetual decay of everything in the world, "The world is bleeding out, It folds itself in two, Behind the background world, It's always bleeding through". The track finally falls into a catchy riff when Reznor asks us, "Are you sure, this is what you want?", over and over again. Before long, the song breaks down into a broken loop, slowly decaying and disintegrating into static and distortion, setting up the sound for the final release in the trilogy, Bad Witch...

Bad Witch




Bad Witch released. Just under a year after Add Violence, June 22, 2018 brings the closing statement to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's industrial trilogy, almost exactly a year and a half since Not The Actual Events started it all. If there ever was a feeling of coming back around full circle, but going even deeper into terrifying experimentation and breaking the cycle with horror-centric cinema soundscapes, then this is it. There hasn't been a release that so accurately reflects Reznor's affinity toward and work with scoring films as Bad Witch does, as the two instrumental pieces of the release here break into an overall sense of dread and atmosphere that cannot be matched by any other contemporary artist today. 

Clocking in at 30 and a half minutes, it's the longest of the three, and for this reason Nine Inch Nails classifies it as an LP, different than the first couple EP's, at 21 and 27 minutes respectively. Starting with the first track, shamelessly titled "Shit Mirror", there are beats that almost sound identical to the first track of NTAE, "Branches/Bones", but takes off with distorted fuzz, and Reznor jumping in without hesitation, "Got a new face and it feels alright, power and strength and appetite, I eat your loathing, hate, and fear, should probably stay away from here", most likely commenting on his new formation with Ross in NIN, the feeling that they are not slowing down, and with this confidence comes at the listener with his signature industrial aggression with the chorus, "Hey look what's staring back at you, caught reflecting in your eyes, well I'm becoming something new, it's getting hard to recognize... New world, New times, Mutation, Feels alright" Reznor is as much a part of the world of contemporary music as he was decades before. This opening declaration proves Nine Inch Nails is here to stay, adapt, and mutate with the times. 

If the first track doesn't revitalize interest and fascination with Reznor's artistic capabilities, "Ahead of Ourselves" doesn't wait for you to make your decision, because it takes off with a breakneck pace and dirty synth that assaults your sensibilities and pulls you in with Reznor's phased out vocals, bearing resemblance to his decades old industrial speed track, "Gave Up", from 1992's Broken EP. Commenting on the inability for humans to evolve past a primitive way of being, Reznor is most likely describing the selfish and egotistical side of human nature, adding that as we're supposedly created in "His" image, "we just can't seem to help ourselves", and asks "why try change when you know you can't?" in the violent chorus. According to Reznor, "we got ahead of ourselves" thinking that we could ascribe to something more as human beings, leaving a hard truth on the floor before hitting the brakes with his brooding instrumental piece, "Play The Goddamned Part". 

The third song of the bunch, one of the two instrumental tracks, leaves space for growth, and allows listeners to breath for a moment, only for the eventual buildup of cinematic dread. Bass, ugly distortion, and a band of saxophones slowly enter the arena, with tapped percussion and a repeated mantra by all. Nine Inch Nails has never been one to shy away from use of a more full and organic, orchestrated sound in his music, but this is the first that we hear of the woodwinds since their last cameo in his penultimate track "While I'm Still Here", on 2013's Hesitation Marks, his last proper full length album before this trilogy. When thinking of how his last album ended, it is almost foreshadowing that Reznor would weave in further orchestration and experimentation for his trilogy and this final LP in the trio. The song breaks down halfway through, only to slowly build up the dirty minimalist percussion and an arpeggiated piano line before it settles back into quietness, clearing the canvas for his pre-released single of Bad Witch, "God Break Down The Door". 

In terms of other artists that Nine Inch Nails has worked with in the past, there are probably none that affected Reznor as emotionally or on a creative level as much as David Bowie. Having been personal friends with him since they first collaborated in the mid 1990’s, Bowie’s sudden passing no doubt had a large impact on Reznor, and it’s most apparent on this new single, as well as Bad Witch’s closing track. Almost as if allowing Bowie to speak through him, Reznor allows his free jazz industrial flair of “God Break Down The Door” to break from his NIN formula in new and exciting ways, and his vocal performance just as much shows new promise as he seems to sing in a similar style to Bowie. If one were to compare, it has a not-so-uncanny likeness to one of Bowie’s final tracks, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, off of his final album before death, Blackstar, both with the fast drum n bass style beat and the style of saxophone drones, which were used prominently in Bowie’s album. Reznor sings a warning to those striving to uncover the truths of the ugliness of this world, stating that “you won’t find the answers here,  not the ones you came looking for”. 

“I’m Not From This World”, another terrifying cinematic composition, aims to slowly raise the tension once more, just like its predecessor, “Play The Goddamned Part”, except this one feels like it has its own callbacks to one of Reznor’s more memorable closing tracks, “Ripe (With Decay)”, off of 1999’s double album, The Fragile. Showing off Reznor’s aptitude for creating hypnotic, moving, and unforgettable soundscapes, this song has everything a fan of Nine Inch Nails can hope for: dark, brooding, industrial swagger that is unlike anything else in contemporary music today. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome either, as it’s rise and fall makes way for the perfect send-off of Nine Inch Nails’s already captivating exercise in episodic music releases: the ultimate track, “Over And Out”. 

A glitchy synth beat kicks right off, easily making this the most accessible sounding song on the album. It grows with slightly dissonant piano loops and slow melodic pads as Reznor sings the most poignant and memorable lyrics of probably all 3 releases: “Time is running out, I don’t know what I’m waiting for”. This deepening appreciation for Reznor’s own existential crisis makes this end all the more moving, most likely reminded of his close friend’s untimely death, and as a reminder to himself and others to not waste time, as it’s always ticking down. Not only does Reznor come off as sincere in this moment, but his singing style sounds like a departure from his usual tenor delivery, and his choice of melody and tone here suggest another direct tribute to his good friend David Bowie. 

Bad Witch aims, and succeeds, to leave listeners breathless, with a sensory explosion that only disguises itself in its quiet moments, but nevertheless works to get under your skin and assault your senses. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are intent on letting everything up to this point in the series unravel here, and the result is a relentless tour through the hearts and minds of these industrial rock legends. This willingness of theirs to explore musically makes Bad Witch an exceptionally absorbing play-through, which is over almost as soon as it starts, being Nine Inch Nails’s shortest length album to date, and demands repeated listens to appreciate all the fine (or shall I say gritty) details. As gravelly and as abrasive as Bad Witch may sound, it is actually a highly calculated and polished record, and will be remembered as another classic in the Nine Inch Nails discography, and a marked departure into more experimental and exciting songwriting by Reznor and Ross going forward. 

Conclusion

Bad Witch and it’s 2 predecessors purposely make multiple callbacks to previous Nine Inch Nails themes and albums. As a way of reminding listeners that they haven’t forgotten what made them, and that the amalgamation of all the decades of music prior have only strengthened their resolve and combine to make their music the pinnacle of what Nine Inch Nails is at its core: beautiful, dark, mysterious, heavy, a reflection of the times, and a window into the eyes of its creator and mastermind, Trent Reznor. Through Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have a vehicle to filter through the good and the refuse of the world and deliver a unique, musical reflection of the human experience as they see it. Whether their songs come across as cautionary tales, tales of loss, or of finding ones identity, they are masters in their craft and have promised with this trilogy and going forward that they’ll have more stories to tell.

Not The Actual Events - 8/10
Add Violence - 8.5/10
Bad Witch - 9.5/10

Trilogy average - 8.67/10

20180617

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Black Times


Black Times

As a fan of the always captivating genre of Afrobeat (African funk, soul, and jazz) and the legendary leader of the social-musical-political movement in said genre, Fela Kuti, I was delighted to learn that his music has lived on in his two musical sons, Femi, and Seun, Kuti. As I confess to not being fully aware of these brothers' catalogues since I was always obsessively digging in Fela's discography, I was filled with joy and wonderment to listen Seun's brand new 2018 album, Black Times, released in the beginning of March, and notably felt stunned when listening to the uncanny continuation of Fela's legacy.  Seun continues to carry to torch with Fela's original live band, Egypt 80, formally known as Nigeria '70, then Africa '70, in what can only be described as a bombastic celebration of revolution and humanity personified through Afrobeat music.

Black Times has only 8 tracks, but each of them are the proper length to justify the short list, and each are so stylistically interesting, and arranged and delivered with so much heart for the genre and the people of Africa, that the feel-good messages are positively addicting and cannot be ignored. Reading even a little bit into Fela's history, it's easy to see that Fela's disposition toward progress and humanitarian efforts is inseparable from the music, and it's this fusion which creates a symbiotic relationship with the listener, and a level of empathy and belief in the Kuti's family mission for a better world.

The album opens with the track, "Last Revolutionary", a signature activist song that embodies the entire purpose of the Kuti's legacy. In it, Seun is determined to make certain that there will always be a push back against the government and militant oppressors, with the memorable line sung from his backup singers, "'til we free, you and me, they'll never see the last revolutionary!" It is one of the many Afrobeat chants or anthems sung throughout Black Times.

One of the more notable aspects of this album is the inclusion of featured guest artist, Carlos Santana, in the title track, a very tasteful decision and the only one to join Seun and Egypt 80 on this record. A virtuoso in his own right, with a talent for drawing in the listener, "Black Times" works to pull the listener in even closer and disarm them with heartfelt lyrics, "Time don't come my people, now are you ready to rise, to be free? To rise, to be free?", in a repeated call to action. The track takes off in classic Fela fashion, jamming with Santana's catchy licks and Seun's call-and-response with his backup singers, making it nearly impossible to not want to move with the beat. It's this ecstasy laced throughout the title and following tracks that capture the essence of what it is to love one another and be human.

Songs like "Corporate Public Control Department" and "Struggle Sounds" are high in their intensity and clear in their intentions. Other songs such as "Bad Man Lighter" and "African Dreams" slow down the pace and work to create a feel-good atmosphere where Seun can express more toned down messages of following one's dreams and keeping the thoughts of those who've struggled close to the heart. 

Black Times is Seun's fourth full length album, and if there was ever any uncertainty that Fela's movement had died down, it couldn't be farther from the truth in 2018 with surviving sons Seun and Femi. While living in uncertain times, Seun delivers a much needed positive boost to the psyche and messages of hope for all people. There's something to love and sing along to in every song, and Seun's forthright need to bring humanity together in solidarity, through Afrobeat music, is a testament to the strength and groundwork that Fela laid down almost 50 years ago, and for this reason makes Black Times yet another gem in the genre's catalogue and marker in the music of human revolution. 

Black Times - 9.5/10

20180513

Anywhere - Anywhere II



Anywhere II


As a fan of experimental and psychedelic rock, and of bands that push boundaries beyond what is normally accepted such as The Mars Volta, I was extremely pleased to discover that their frontman, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, became involved in a new project, including former musicians from grunge rock bands Nirvana and The Melvins, a band called Anywhere in 2012. Listening to their exclusive record store day limited pressing of their debut self-titled album, Anywhere sounded like a mix between tribal music, world, progressive rock, and transcendentalism, with Eastern European musical influences and a feeling like they travelled to the top of a Tibetan retreat to channel their music. Maybe it's this eclectic mix that gave them their name, as it sounds like the music itself originates from a multitude of places. 

Six years later, Anywhere comes back to drop their sequel, Anywhere II, as another record store day exclusive with limited pressings. Knowing that this was an opportunity not to pass up, I jumped on my own copy of their vinyl, and dove in to what in my mind was a hotly anticipated follow-up album. This sophomoric effort contains the same essence and style of its predecessor, but whereas Anywhere's debut album felt like a timeless classic, their sequel album, Anywhere II, more so feels like an album out of time. 

The album's opener and second track get it off to a pretty strong start, creating a heavy, dissonant, rocker that pays off with an epic and melodic chord progression, landing on a very solid statement for the rest of the album. The second track, "Light The Portals", instantly sounds like a Zeppelin channeled tune, with a spirit and charisma that is infectious and worth many repeated listens. It's a sound that is close to their original sound on their debut, and related enough to fit in to their new musical palette exhibited here, and while it sounds like a clear tribute to Zeppelin, the band strives to make "Light The Portals" their own. 

At this point in the album, it's worth noting that Anywhere II is the strongest at its bookends, which is to say that it's the best possible outcome for an album that seems to miss some marks and opportunities as it ventures into the centerfold of instrumental jams. That's not to say that the middle of the album doesn't also have its moments. 

"Moon Burnt Mountain" is a enjoyable take, reminiscent of older Pink Floydian Umma Gumma Studio jams, but it's familiar style has already been covered before many times over, and seems like the band was just having fun and not feeling too serious in this moment. 

As songs that feel like they strongly channel musical legends from the 70's era prog and psychedelia, it has a quality of accessibility and enjoyment, but without the awe factor, which I found to be a little unfortunate. 

"Sunset Ruins" makes for a great slow-building, driving acoustic force to be reckoned with, as it builds into a western influenced musical crescendo, and "Flamenco Youth" is easily the most energetic and exciting of the batch of instrumentals, but it feels like, as the final jam before we get to more vocals, there's a slightly underwhelmed sentiment left by the series of compositions that came before it, and excitement feels almost wasted before Anywhere II arrives at some of the real electrifying tracks of the album.

Fortunately for the band, the last couple tracks swoop in to save the day. "Astrophysical Graffiti" boasts mathy rock riffs as Naima Mora's vocals soar for the ultimate release from the long vocal break. "You and I will spread our wings," Mora sings, "and fly away from here", before the band takes off again into a frenetic riff explosion. The feeling of transportation is real with this sequel throughout their many different influences and melodies, and it's most apparent and described in Mora's lyrics. "Olompali", follows with a slower, hazy, and otherworldly tune, with Bret Constantino's voice taking a turn to drawl out Doors-y vocals, swooning listeners into a trance-like state that becomes reminiscent of some of the slower 60's tune "The End", which is just a coincidence. Before too long, this same track takes off into a full rock chord and speeds into it's finale. A fitting conclusion, as Consantino sings, "and the emptiness is gone" to dissonant guitar solos and a storm of drums. Anywhere display in their sequel that they certainly know how to fill a space.

As a seeming tribute to many classic and progressive rock bands that have come before, it's a successful collage of imitations that will please any fans of hard rock, progressive, or psychedelia. It still feels as if Anywhere II could have benefitted from a couple more vocal tracks throughout its runtime, considering that vocals are primarily absent from the main body of the album, and that some of the instrumentals seem like they could have simply been born out of a weekend of studio jamming. The instrumentation is fun, but nothing here is groundbreaking or new, and a couple of tracks feel as if the band lost focus after creating the first half of the song and let it fall apart after developing their songs' early ideas, as most of them seem to fixate on their chosen riff and melody and ride it out for the duration of the song. 

For an album that tries to give the impression of being progressive, adventurous, and daring, I personally didn't hear very much songwriting that sounded like the band was willing to take risks or venture out from the safety or familiarity of their already established style. Unfortunately, it makes for an experience that is interesting and enjoyable, but also tends to venture dangerously close to turning into a mediocre and somewhat boring time, leaving a desire for more from a band that produced such a strong debut album. Although I have to admit that Anywhere II has grown on me over the past week, I still have a hard time shaking my initial feelings of the album: waiting for more vocal tracks throughout the middle and instead getting treated to 5 separate jams which display interesting ideas, yet remain singular in their execution. Despite this main criticism I have of the album, Anywhere remain a rock supergroup that shan't be ignored, and are cementing their place in progressive and psychedelic rock consciousness. 

Anywhere II - 8/10

20180423

A Perfect Circle - Eat The Elephant


Eat The Elephant

Almost a decade and a half has passed since the last release of a full-length proper studio album by A Perfect Circle, not counting their anti-war cover album eMotive, released in late 2004. One might ask themselves then, if too much time has transpired to give reason for releasing a third studio album, given A Perfect Circle's short timetable in the first place. It's this and other concerns which give Eat The Elephant a lukewarm return for the band, for it functions as a welcome back album that covers time-tested familiar ground, but also chooses to deviate, sometimes heavily, into newer, uncertain waters. 

As far as the artwork is concerned, this is the first album to feature the faces of its main songwriters on its cover, a departure from their abstract covers before, and they don't hesitate to show us a pair of unsettling images of Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel for fans to feast their eyes on. Both members are split and conjoined together in a hunched over pose and offering what can only be described as a red and blue octopus. Assuming they're making a political statement in artwork and title, it comes off rather grotesque, which might have been their intention. 

The title track, which happens to be the opener of the album, might actually be the explanation for the entire album in the first place, as the band's frontman Maynard James Keenan sings, "where to begin eludes me", displaying a vulnerability often felt for many artists during the creative process, and more generally, the feeling for anyone who has a great undertaking. Therefore, Keenan concludes to "take the step, take the bite", and eat the elephant. This may be a very telling view of Keenan when working with his bands A Perfect Circle and Tool, waiting for projects to transpire for many years, which was the precise reason why he invented Puscifer, to stay involved in making music from yet again another perspective creatively. It's not exactly the strongest track, but keeping it the album's title does explain the great obstacle the band faced in making a comeback album, and it serves to taper our expectations for the subsequent singles that follow it. 

Their first couple singles, "Disillusioned" and "The Doomed" are slow burners, with multiple movements and changes in rhythm as Keenan sings about disconnectedness and apocalyptic anxiety. Both tracks follow virtually the same construct, and it seems like they could have settled on picking just one of the two to be the album's single, as they both share the same successful, yet redundant, formula: compelling instrumentation paired with strong messages and vocals from Keenan. 

Directly following such a brooding and heavy single such as "The Doomed", one of the most confounding creative decisions of the album appears to have been to shoehorn in the most optimistic and joyous track A Perfect Circle have ever recorded, creating an undoubtedly jarring tonal shift in "So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish". The album would possibly have benefitted from the exclusion of this track for future release as a B-side, as it stands out as the band's attempt at stadium rock, with themes already covered in "Disillusioned", only this time executed with what might seem uninspired or goofy lyrics. The overall effect might turn many longtime fans away, and just be a track skipped over to get to the real meat of the album, but it still has the ability to brighten any listener's day with a perfectly captured mood. 

It's  not until nearly halfway through the album, on the 6th and 7th tracks, that personally I hear a stroke of genius, and the A Perfect Circle that I grew up falling in love with. The songwriting of "TalkTalk" and "By and Down the River" illustrate the best examples of A Perfect Circle's tender, yet intense juxtaposition, the closest they've come to the music they produced in their second album Thirteenth Step just under 15 years prior. "By and Down the River" has Keenan unleashing a vocal performance of unmatched brilliance when compared to his other recent release under his Puscifer moniker or even if you compare him to any other contemporary artists in alternative rock and metal. Keenan's voice has and always will be a major draw in anything he chooses to do musically. This single, furthermore, is probably the strongest track on Eat The Elephant simply because of the amount of time the song has been gestating with the band, appearing only as a non album single many years before in an earlier form. The rest of newer material presented on ETE may struggle to find a home, both in the ears of new listeners and longtime fans. There are newer ideas presented here, and still there are songs with traditional APC familiarity, such as "Delicious", which contains some Mer de Noms vibes with its slight dissonance and eastern musical scales and shows off another exciting Keenan performance as he plays around with his musical range and sounds cautiously optimistic, a feeling more fit for APC than the straightforward, hollow chanting of "hip-hip-hooray" in "So Long..." There's always more details and depths to dive into as a listener in tracks like "Delicious" and "The Contrarion", early on in the album, when compared to the weaker ones I've mentioned before. 

"DLB", the one instrumental, stands out from the rest of the album because it's the shortest track on the album, and also that it mostly seems like a half baked idea in the studio that was never fully developed. Maybe fatigued from writing the rest of the album, the band simply settled on stopping short of a fully formed song and left it undone. Even considering it as a transitional track, it doesn't really work since The following song abruptly starts without notice. Ultimately, it's another expendable song, which probably should have been excluded in the spirit of creating a tighter, more focused album. 

The final trio of songs all offer something different from one another. "Hourglass" utilizes a robotic vocal effect and a heavy rock sound for a novel experience, and "Feathers" casts a dramatic and emotional epic that doesn't seem to go anywhere, but it's the final closing track which continually leaves me perplexed and with a mixed response. "Get the Lead Out" starts off strong enough, giving the nostalgic feeling of just hearing a great band's comeback, when it shifts gears and breaks into a hip-hop beat, with heavy drums and violin plucks. Upon hearing this for the first time, I found myself agreeing at first with the catchiness of the melody and slowed down vocals, however, I soon began to question the artistic decision of A Perfect Circle to go this route. I found myself wondering if bands which have been so established in their respective styles should start incorporating hip-hop as a genre into their music, and how often this is heard in contemporary music makes APC's decision seem stale and unimaginative in my opinion. There are instances where this blending of genres works though, such as the funky, jazzy, hybrid album just released by Jack White, which was in my previous review, or bands like Portugal. The Man's 2017 release Woodstock, which was a welcome addition to their catalog since they're already the masters of catchy instrumentation and pop hooks. A Perfect Circle though, seems to be going an all too common route for their music with "Get the Lead Out" and it seems like they wanted to try to test this final track as a possibility for what they want to do in the future. It is admittedly a catchy and decent closer, but too much a diversion in the style longtime fans have come to appreciate and expect from them. 

Overall, Eat The Elephant is a well crafted, but mixed bag in terms of what fans want, and where the band wants to go. There are plenty of moments of genius and signature APC moments layered throughout, but there is also almost an equal number of missed opportunities and the desire of wanting more than they've delivered. With a sometimes uneven flow, the album would have received significantly higher praise from me if they were to cut the tracks that I mentioned earlier. It has something to love for hardcore fans, but not quite enough to satisfy the high expectations set by their previous releases. Approach with an open mind and you will enjoy it. 

Eat The Elephant - 7/10

20180422

Jack White - Boarding House Reach


Boarding House Reach


For someone as prolific and steeped in as rich a musical history as is Jack White, expectations were sky high for the follow-up to his much acclaimed sophomore solo outing, Lazaretto. Already bending the rules in genres such as garage rock, blues rock, and country, there seemed to be a bar set almost too high by White after proving he could have a solo career that is just as, if not more, successful than his time spent fronting The White Stripes. That's why it came as such a surprise when 4 years later, White came out of the studio with an album that surely tops Lazaretto with even more experimentation and a vision that is inclusive to all genres of music: Boarding House Reach. To classify this album is to describe it as a garage-blues-country-funk-electronic-jazz hybrid with sprinklings of hip-hop and stream-of-conscience absurdity, something which I never expected to see combined all in one record by Jack White. There was however, a hint dropped early before BHR's announcement that signaled White's departure from traditional blues and garage rock anthems toward a more experimental and jam rock approach in the release of his non-album single "Battle Cry", in 2017. This single builds into White's traditional heavy, fuzzed-out guitar riffs from the tribal chanting and clapping, and it sounds like it's a next step in evolution from his instrumental wild card, "High Ball Stepper", in Lazaretto. When looking at "Battle Cry" as a bridge for listeners to take to Boarding House Reach, this new record should feel like just the right follow-up from someone who has never stopped growing musically.

The album's warm opener, "Connected by Love", is one of the more familiar anthems which White is known for, and allows listeners to strap in while they listen to White's captivating words. The gospel-infused chorus and message makes this one of the strongest openers on any of White's albums and infuses a sense of universality and human condition which can speak to anyone in any walk of life. "Why Walk A Dog" follows with a slow hip-hop-like beat and dark blues angst, and one of the many fascinating guitar lines in the album. What's amazing about White is his ability to always keep things interesting with his guitar, and it never ceases to amaze me the amount of musical ideas and solos that are displayed in this album. "Corporation" is the first all out funk number from White, with serious festival and jazz vibes, and the first chance the listener gets to hear White's assembled band of sessions musicians feeling their own groove on this track. White calls out that he feels like starting a corporation and repeatedly asks the listeners "Who's with me" between insane screams, high-pitched squeals, and guitar riffs, and it's this high energy in "Corporation" which makes his invitation all the more compelling to want to tune into his musical movement and sync your body to grooviness of it all. Other tracks, like "Ice Station Zebra" and "Respect Commander" show White's desire for funky, bluesy experimentation, while "Over and Over and Over" gives listeners another accessible yet incredible hard rock anthem with White's signature garage rock flair. There are several spoken word compositions nestled in between the main body of tracks which are somewhat hit-and-miss, but they have an air of tongue-in-cheekiness that reveals a rare side of White. For some, this might be too drastic of a tonal shift, but for others it can be refreshing to hear a humorous, not-to-be-taken-seriously aside on the album, but ultimately it comes down to personal taste. Personally, I think that it can be a strength to reveal that one doesn't take themselves too seriously during the creative process, as if channeling Frank Zappa in terms of experimentation and absurdity. "Humoresque", the albums closer, sounds like a a songwriting session with Paul McCartney as it takes Boarding House Reach in for a soft landing.

Boarding House Reach is nearly perfect, with exception for the spoken word pieces, which are up to interpretation for each listener. The genre bending, in addition to the thought provoking artwork featuring Jack White's face, gender-ambiguous in a cloud of blue, a repeated color throughout each of his solo albums and music videos, makes for an accurate reflection of current times, as everything becomes more obscured with gender rules and everything, even in music, is borrowing and mixing and coexisting as a futurist blend of culture. Boarding House Reach will remain a compelling listen for many years to come, and come to be known as a defining album and one of the strongest to date of Jack White's solo career.

Boarding House Reach - 8.5/10










20170202

B Dvine & Various Artists - Dvine Intervention



Dvine Intervention


Dvine Intervention, the hotly anticipated mixtape by Long Island resident and beat conductor, B Dvine, is an extraordinary collection of collaborations for hip-hop heads everywhere. Dvine's first exclusively produced hip-hop mixtape is hosted by mixtape curator J-Love, and features collaborators such as Prolifik, Vital, Meyhem Lauren, D-Rugz, and J-Love himself. It’s been a long time coming for listeners and fans to be graced with something as completely Dvine as this mixtape package B has put together. From D-Rugz and Timbo King’s jazzy “The Message” to J-Love’s badass “Fan The Fire” to Vital’s “Smoke Good” with Dvine’s lo-fi guerilla beat, there are sure to be a number of favorites for any listener.

Despite featuring such an eclectic mixture of guest artists, the real star on this mixtape is B Dvine, with all the production flair culminating from his many years in the field of hip-hop. The Wu / J Dilla inspired freshness takes off right from the start, and leaves the listener with multiple irresistible headbangers. Dvine’s natural skill at composing masterful blends of bass, strings, drums, vocals and more is impeccable. There is no instrument Dvine can’t touch and turn to gold.



The only thing that Dvine Intervention could use more of is B Dvine himself in terms of verses. There is a nice self feature in his hit single with Tragedy Khadafi, “Divine Revolution”, where Dvine and Khadafi let loose a fury of lyrical talent that is unmatched and absent from any corner of mainstream hip-hop. Dvine Intervention is a pure form performance of the underground hip-hop movement, and B Dvine is at the head of the wave of emcees and producers that are making an impact. Perhaps one of B Dvine’s greatest strengths is his natural tendency to bring so many talented artists together under one roof. His drive to push beyond the mediocrity and create a fully realized movement through his mixtapes can be felt strongly, as Dvine Intervention certainly radiates an aura of togetherness in a genre that is sometimes divisive and at odds with other artists.

This recent release, paired with the hip-hop mixtape series Rhyme Regulators, makes B Dvine a definitive force in hip-hop to watch out for. After witnessing the track record he has laid down so far over the past few years, it is clear that he is only rising higher in the midst of hip-hop prolificacy.

Dvine Intervention - 9/10

20160824

Jahan Nostra - ESP



ESP 

When it comes to intelligent, forward thinking and eclectic hip-hop, the name Jahan Nostra as one of the more prominent emcees with this title becomes a no-brainer. Jahan, having been writing verses and slaying beats since he was a teenager, has already made a name for himself with a number of professional grade albums and releases. From releasing 2012's Bedtime Street album, and after releasing 2013's Sleepwalking LP, Jahan has made moves in directions both up and down the East Coast, touring in locations such as Newport and Providence Rhode Island, Brooklyn and New York City, and Greenville and Columbia in South Carolina. Now in 2016, ESP marks one of Jahan's greatest achievements in hip-hop storytelling and songwriting. 

A modern "real hip hop" masterpiece, ESP by Jahan Nostra reminds us the most important thing in the game of hip hop is a love for the art and for each other. ESP, which stands for "extra sensory perception", is probably what we all need now more than ever, as we are thrust into a world full of social networking, smartphones, and news feeds. In only the past decade, society has drastically changed, and the argument for better or worse is yet to be determined, and with the full range of emotions expressed through ESP's mesmerizing 16 tracks, they help remind us that we are all humans beings feeling the common struggle no matter how diverse or intense the experience, and the immediacy of Jahan's lyrics reach straight for the heart and soul.

The albums opening intro track wraps up the mood and tone, and describes the feeling of ESP as a basic summary of life. The first few opening numbers is the true essence of Jahan, with "Welcome Home", a classic new and improved comeback track after the 3 year break from Sleepwalking, "Embrace the Rain" featuring Puma Simone, a reminder to take what life gives and work with what you have, and the change-up mantra of "Vitamin D", which mocks the materialistic nature of our society and puts the essentials of life first and foremost. 
"Whole Life (Cruisin')", featuring Tone Trump, takes the tempo down a notch to illustrate Jahan's smooth flow, describing life as a ride and a call to go with it in the chase for greatness. However, when "Living Your Life" featuring Omar Wilson comes on, you can't help but feel the chills as this godly track makes an impact on your mind and heart. How many hip-hop tracks are as or more uplifting than the gushing positivity of these men who are no doubt living their lives in humbled bliss? The rarity of Jahan and Omar's sincerity is one of the true standouts of ESP.

The next few tracks also start up another insanely eclectic flow from song-to-song as well, with the anthem of living day to day in "One of Them Days" featuring Rey Vega, a shoutout and tribute to past jazz legends in "No Stress" featuring the prominent Smif n Wessun, the freedom chant of the shiny, synthy "El Chapo" feauring Ceschi, and the will to prevail and survive in this f'd up world that we live in, in "Time" featuring Kyro and Wednesday Atoms. The cerebral moments go on and on with real meaning and no fluff on Extra Sensory Perception. 
Jahan is an amazing hip hop artist because he for the most part keeps it positive and clean, which is what this genre needs. It's a rare quality that has the ability to uplift people, and paired with amazing production and lyrics, there couldn't be a better feeling while listening to ESP, which is essentially one of the most human albums in the hip-hop genre. As technology accelerates and forces us to change at an alarming pace, ESP will stand in the years to come as a true testament to the human potential and our shared desire to feel loved and connected to one another. 

ESP - 10/10