AM

AM - December 2015

- 470 words -

I know this is long overdue - I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe this album, especially in context of this band’s discography...

I’ve been listening to Radiohead for a few years now. However, I always ended up disregarding this album for some reason - maybe because it’s less experimental and so ‘normal sounding’ compared to the rest of their material - but I definitely shouldn’t have.

There’s little extreme or bombastic about this album, a contrast from the previous AM (and partially why this took so long to write about). The closest it gets to that is when Jonny Greenwood’s wailing guitars pierce the calm of Thom Yorke’s vocals e.g. when the bridge comes in (Nice Dream). But its quietness speaks volumes.

The opener Planet Telex introduces the hypnotic state that persists throughout the album - reflected quite nicely by the facial expression on the album cover. Louder, grungier songs like The Bends, Bones, and Just interject the moments of tranquility in this album, without overstepping any lines.

The flowery atmosphere on this album is achieved mostly through Thom’s performance on this album, both through his undulating vocals and acoustic guitar. Although, as expected from a Radiohead record, the mood conveyed isn’t always a positive one. For instance, the subject matter of My Iron Lung pertains to the band’s dislike of the commercialism they’d encountered upon the success of their single Creep, a song still synonymous with the band despite their disownment of it.

However, this album was released at a point in the band’s career when more introspective themes were still being touched on, and it shows in the lyrics of the other songs on here, as well as the music. I’d note Fake Plastic Trees as an exception, in that it creates a narrative and pertains to someone else - a man who’s worn out by the artificiality of his life. Then again, it seems as though Thom still sings about himself.

Verdict

This album is definitely among their more melodious ones, a category it shares with the love-themed In Rainbows and arguably even milestone album Kid A. Coincidentally, I’ve often seen the two aforementioned albums debated as being their overall best by more seasoned fans, while The Bends gets lost in the shuffle.

Although, even as I’m a little lost for words, I think The Bends is easily their most digestible album, thanks to its melodious nature and conventional instrumentation, with sparks of genius here and there signature of the band. It’s the album you’d probably want to introduce to a new fan.

 

 

8.5 / 10

Tracks I play the most: The Bends, (Nice Dream), Just, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, Sulk, Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Tracks I play moderately: Planet Telex, High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, My Iron Lung, Black Star

Tracks I usually skip: Bones

 

AM - November 2015

- 904 words -

Yeah, it’s a two-parter. And these are two really weird ones, at least for me.

So during the first half of the month I stumbled upon System of a Down after deeming them too American for my tastes a long while back. Then I watched their concert in Armenia and have been hooked ever since. I can’t iterate enough what watching live versions of songs can do to change your opinion of them. I went on to download Toxicity, which I thought to myself must be a good place to start given its place on many Top 10 lists.

Let’s get to the meat of it. In spite of the vulgarity and aggressiveness and general repulsiveness I tend to associate with metal - which in itself is amusing given how so much metal I’ve come across so accurately follows the stereotype - this album is almost all this, but also surprisingly and delightfully nuanced.

The songs and short and lead off into the next - not unlike another album I’ve reviewed - thus the album being so much greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a particular string of songs here that grab me every time; Needles > Deer Dance > Jet Pilot. These songs have similar anthemic choruses - each with a message of frustration to the powers that be, delivered in demeaning fashion e.g. the “tapeworm” in Needles - and calculated accentuations from the drums.

Unfortunately I can’t say I’m fond of the middle third, the songs Forest and ATWA in particular, and find myself skipping to the end where you’ll find songs that deliver a subtle change of pace from the first third.

The second album, Elephunk, I downloaded on a whim to satisfy a random R&B craving. I thought I was finished with the Black Eyed Peas in my middle school years. In spite of changes in tastes, I guess there’s something about this band - in this era of their careers in particular - that really resonates with my weakness for groove.

Now, giving this album the amount of praise I’m about to give it is a bit embarrassing as it’s painfully obvious these guys don’t take themselves as seriously as other artists in my palette. And I don’t mean that in the overly-ambitious, bombastic sense. The range of topics on this album span from long weekends to Latin girls to the regular “shawty move your booty” R&B signature of the mid-00’s, juxtaposed by some altruistic (Where Is the Love?) and introspective (The Apl Song) songs here and there.

The goofiness of this album is made up for by the utter grooviness of almost every single song on here. The grooves on here are as diverse as its subject matter. Labor Day (It’s A Holiday) and Let’s Get Retarded are driven by head-bobbing (maybe even head-banging) rhythms, while Hey Mama and Latin Girls are accompanied by Latin percussion such as cowbells, maracas, and bongos.

The ambitious instrumentation doesn’t stop there. The Apl Song features soft guitar picking while the arguably weirdest song on here, Anxiety, features Papa Roach supplying hard rock (yet muted) guitar riffs and drums. Take it as you wish, but I think it gives an acoustic, traditional R&B feel to these modern R&B songs.

One last thing that’s really the cherry on top of it all are the vocal performances by all four members of BEP. It’s obvious that each member fulfils a unique role in the album. will.i.am’s the leader of the pack, and that shows in his over-the-top performances at times, as if his vocal chords are tethered to an effect pedal. There’s Fergie who either gives the songs a soft touch with supple hums or a blast of energy through impassioned vocals. Then there’s Apl.de.ap and Taboo, whose contributions act more as extra flavour, but do a good job nonetheless. However it’s when their voices collide, sometimes even harmonise, that they create their magic, which is odd for their genre of music.

Verdict

Toxicity is a good album for what it’s been for me - a taster album. The real meat of their discography, for me at least, occurs later in albums like Steal This Album and Mezmerize/Hypnotise, where they sound a little more mature and a little less frustrated - a tone foreshadowed by the final song on Toxicity, Aerials.

It also made me pay attention to vocals and lyrics more so than any other artist in recent memory. Perhaps it's because they direct their anti-authority agenda to specific causes, as evidenced by some of their songs with topical focuses e.g. the Armenian Genocide.

 

7/10

Tracks I play the most: Needles, Deer Dance, Jet Pilot, Chop Suey!, Science, Psycho

Tracks I play moderately: Prison Song, XBounce, Shimmy, Aerials

Tracks I usually skip: Forest, ATWA, Toxicity

 

 

Although I have to say their stuff is pretty heavy-handed and can be tedious to listen to, which I experienced the first time I started listening to them. Elephunk has counteracted that almost completely with its “forget about everything and let’s just have fun” nature.

Sigh… such is the duality of man.

 

8/10

Tracks I play the most: Hey Mama, Shut Up, Latin Girls, The Boogie That Be, The Apl Song

Tracks I play moderately: Hands Up, Labor Day (It’s A Holiday), Let’s Get RetardedSmells Like Funk, Fly Away, Where Is The Love?

Tracks I usually skip: Sexy, Anxiety

 

AM - July 2015

- 800 words -

This one was recommended to me a little over a month ago by a friend. I thought I’d end up giving this band a fleeting couple of listens, especially since the band’s music is in Japanese. While it’s a language I adore to no end, I simply can’t understand a word of it. Luckily their music makes up for that completely.

One thing that struck me about the band when initially checking them out on YouTube was their minimalism, pertaining to their mostly analogue arrangements and plain visual identity. Actually listening to the songs in more depth once having downloaded their first full-length LP entitled THE reveals that their music is anything but minimalistic.

I’m a drummer who regularly relies on common time signatures when playing music, as do most musicians and bands. If there’s one thing that differentiates tricot’s music from the rest of my library, it’s the crazy time signatures that they incorporate - hence their categorisation under “math rock”. It caught me off-guard at first, but with time, I realised that instead of cold and calculated as usually connoted with the genre, their music was the opposite: fun, peppy, and even captivatingly emotive.

Now on to the album. It’s far from a concept album, but the album still shows cohesion. The songs are very similar in feel and structure (or at least similar in their pursuit of deviating from normal song structures), but not to the point that the album sounds like it’s simply droning on. With that said, it’s consistently enjoyable and surprisingly listenable.

The album opens with a soft guitar instrumental called pool side amidst studio noises and sound checking, wherein tricot makes their analogue intentions clear (this continues in their next studio release, AND, in which most songs open with the tap of an effect pedal). It’s worth noting that while tricot’s music involves a lack of effects, this initial instrumental manages to create a sort of shoegaze atmosphere in spite of it.

Then in comes POOL, which alternates between the energetic choruses and quietly sung verses, a pattern that exists in other songs on the album. The drum beats also alternates - one moment hard rock, and samba in another. Keep in mind that this is just one song I’m describing, but the amazing thing is that the song still sounds singular. I’m not sure how they pull it off.

Next comes 飛べ (Tobe). The backing vocals during the choruses make the song somewhat distinctly Japanese. The break after the final verse really emphasises the band’s ability to pull back and incorporate dynamics, instead of mindlessly accumulating noise. Perhaps little details like this is why the album doesn’t get tiresome.

The choruses of おもてなし (Omotenashi) are unforgettable and have been etched onto my brain. Again, the backing vocals, which sound like a lullaby in an otherwise dynamic song, just does it for me completely.

artsick is my favourite on the album. A lot of what I said about the opening track pool side applies here: minimal effects yet an otherworldly atmosphere is conveyed. C&C, while a generally louder song, carries this on.

If there’s one track that actually sounds calculated, it’s おちゃんせんすぅす (Ochansensu-su). There’s a lack of the feathery emotion that blankets across the rest of the songs, but it still has a rightful place on the album.

The album’s climax perhaps occurs in the aptly named song 99.974°C, around the final chorus where the vocals soar and melody is transposed a step higher to emphasise that.

Sonically, the album settles down from this point on. Three softer (yet great) tracks later comes Swimmer, which could very well be the auditory manifestation of sleep. I find it odd that this isn’t the final track on the album. Instead, it’s おやすみ (Oyasumi), which probably has a better place in the middle of the album rather than the end.

Verdict

Like last month’s album, this is one that’s easy to listen to over and over again without fail, at least if you’re willing to ignore the odd time signatures. Because the band doesn’t use much effects, the album as a whole is greater than the sum of its tracks, which is to say that the tracks alone are not particularly outstanding and I advise against listening to them apart from how they were meant to e.g. on shuffle. When listened to appropriately, however, THE makes for an amazing, holistic listening experience.

 

 

8 / 10

Tracks I play the most: First five songs, おちゃんせんすぅす (Ochansensu-su), 99.974°C

Tracks I play moderately: C&C, タラッタラッタ (Tarattaratta), 初耳 (Hatsumimi), CGPP, Swimmer

Tracks I usually skip: おやすみ (Oyasumi)

 

AM - June 2015

- 657 words -

Last week I prefaced my reintroduction of AM saying that I was content with the music in my collection. In the advent of Apple Music and freedom from curricular responsibilities - an alignment of stars, in a way - I’m now able to discover new artists and albums qualitatively. One of these is the album Comedown Machine, The Strokes’ latest album.

The Strokes is, unfortunately, one of the artists that’ve been filtered out of my consciousness when establishing my music collection. Fairly ironic considering that my band, Livewire, have covered plenty of Strokes songs over the years. Maybe it’s the album Angles, the first album of theirs I listened to in full, that’s stigmatised the band for me. Listening to Comedown Machine made me realise the grave error in my judgement of them.

The album opens with the track Tap Out. Like many opening tracks, it does a good job setting the tone for the rest of the album - with that said, the rest of the album does have a lo-fi, indie feel, as many modern rock albums do. However, Tap Out is more than that: within are incomprehensible yet dreamy vocals (signature of lead singer Julian Casablancas, as I hear) backed by digestible, if not yet infectious, melodies. Further listening reveals the genius that is the meticulous instrumentation and layering of said instrumentation, making Tap Out a standout track in its own right. Three tracks later comes my favourite from the album: Welcome to Japan. Few tracks have a beautifully executed groove that grasps me every time - Maroon 5’s Makes Me Wonder comes to mind.

The album slows down a bit by the middle third with tracks like 50/50, Slow Animals, and Chances. Each track has a shoegaze, trance-inducing element to them - 50/50 and Chances in their instrumentation; Slow Animals and Chances in the vocal melodies; and generally softer dynamics in all three tracks. More on this later…

The pace picks itself back up with another standout track, Partners in Crime. I say ‘standout’ for good reason - it starts with a weird, almost unsettling riff that seems not to know what it’s crescendoing to, before introducing a happy-go-lucky vibe that lingers through to the chorus. The bridge breaks into a Beatles-like extravaganza of sorts backed by cheery tambourines and a thumpy bassline that might as well have been written by McCartney himself.

Next comes the track Happy Ending, which is a part-solemn, part-dancey disco track - another odd combination. As with Partners in Crime, I don’t know how to react to this one emotionally (especially around the half-tempo bridge) yet it makes me want to feel something. It makes for a pleasant listen in itself which you can also sing along to thanks to more infectious vocals - all of which aren't uncommon in the album so far.

The album ends peculiarly with… straight-up elevator music, in the song Call It Fate, Call It Karma. Lo-fi is turned up to 11, with mostly sluggish instrumentation that can put any baby to sleep… until, of course (wait for it)… the vocals. They soar out of the blue, instantly putting the listener in a dreamlike-state, reminiscent of the album’s middle third and the guitars in the verses of the second track, All The Time. In this case, the old-timey feel makes it almost nightmarish, in the best possible way. Probably doesn’t belong on this album, though, let alone as the closer.

Verdict

This is an album I’ve probably listened ten times over without fail. It can lull in the background, yet isn’t afraid to show off what its got every once in a while. Looking forward to listening to more Strokes.

 

8 / 10

 

Tracks I play most: First four tracks, Chances

Tracks I play moderately: Partners in Crime, Happy Ending

Tracks I skip: 80's Comedown Machine, 50/50, Slow Animals, Call It Fate, Call It Karma

 

Reintroducing AM

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- 347 words -

I like to view my experiences with music as a journey. The Billboard Top 100 was (very, very briefly) my starting point. My tastes divulged away from ultra-digestible synths to guitars and drums, particularly those of Maroon 5 in their first two albums (the second of which I’ve written about a couple of years ago on my old blog). Long story short, that led me from one alt-rock band to the next.

At some point, perhaps a year ago, I hit somewhat of a stumbling block, being completely content with the artists I had in my library. It’s partially due to the lack of sufficient memory storage on my Mac, but I think it’s mainly because of the “playable factor” that the bands I’ve heavily listened to (and continue to heavily listen to) possess, in terms of playing along to their songs. The two big ones that come to mind are Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even having signed up to Spotify and downloaded their app, I could only muster up enough effort to add songs here and there to my collection, then shuffle that entire collection. I never really got into listening to songs on repeat or particular albums qualitatively… unless, of course, they’d been the artists I’d been listening to already (read: Muse B-sides).

I feel like that stumbling block is gone now - all of a sudden I’m listening to all these new albums in their entirety. Which brings me to my point - AM is coming back (basically Take 2). For real this time.

For newer readers, this is a series in which I talk about the album which interests me during a specific month. I’m not promising any commitments to covering an album every month, simply because fully processing an album I put on heavy rotation to at a time, let alone a new one, takes longer than just a month. Of course, I’ll do my best to write about one as often as I can. I already have one in the pipeline I’ll post next week. Hope you enjoy.

AM - October 2013

AM - October 2013.png

Straight off the bat, let me just apologise for the lack of a September AM post and the lateness of this post. A Levels has been a lot busier than I thought it would be, a lot more stress inducing as well, as you can see from my previous post.

This also happens to be my first AM post, and having little experience in regards to commenting on music, the format might be a little sloppy with the first few posts, so bear with me here. (In fact this post’s already been a bit sloppy to begin with…anyways, moving on…)

I’m an avid Muse fan. They’re easily one of the top played artists in my music library. Being relatively new to them, having only started listening to them a year ago, the Muse experience has been like a journey on a time machine. I’ve listened to each studio album, and as anyone who’s done so will tell you, there’s a definite evolution noticeable in their work. Most would argue it’s a decline to pop and selling-out, but if anything has been constant throughout the years, it has to be the bombastic, charismatic energy they inspire that you just don’t find anywhere else. That’s why they’ve become such a great go-to band in my collection.

Just when I thought I’ve heard it all, I discovered this album: Hullabaloo Soundtrack. It’s a half B-side, half concert album that was released in 2002, after Origin of Symmetry and before Absolution. When I listened to this album the first time, the first thing that came to mind was Radiohead. It had the dark undertones of Origin, but also incorporated the quiet, composed pining you’d hear from around the release of Showbiz (it’s no wonder really, since some of the B-sides came from that era). If Muse’s discography was a bright and glamorous city (or more fittingly, a burned-down, apocalyptic dystopia), you’d find this album lurking in the darkness deep inside an alleyway, if that makes sense.

I mean that especially for the first half of the album. I can imagine some of these songs being played through the speakers in a basement cafe at 1 in the morning, but of course tracks like Yes Please and Ashamed are simply classic, Nirvana-esque Muse. The tracks on this half also seem a little more human and relaxed than most of Muse’s work, which is famously decorated with outgoing themes such as the end of the world as we know it and existentialism in the vast nothingness that is the universe. For example, Map of Your Head and Shine Acoustic create a dark yet soothing dreamscape, especially accompanied by rain drops trickling down a window pane on a cold afternoon (which is pretty much what can be heard throughout Shine Acoustic, actually). But it’s a relaxing album in that (again) Radiohead sort of way e.g. Paranoid Android on OK Computer (actually, make that the entirety of OK Computer). There’s still heavy, melancholic meaning to the songs despite the fact that you could set some of these songs as a depressant’s lullaby.

In terms of pure sound, it’s ironically a really up-and-down roller coaster for an album I’d regard as toned-down for the most part, switching between edgy rock songs and soft, empathetic songs quite abruptly. As you’d guess, there really isn’t a solid dynamic (as you’d expect from a collection of B-sides). That seemed to be the case...until the last two tracks, which make for an epic ending. The Gallery, the second to the last song on the album’s studio-recorded first half, might catch you by surprise, not because of the lack of vocals but because it went through, at the time, untouched terrain by Muse: imagery. You can’t help but picture a montage of space exploration whilst listening to this song, the lack of vocals inviting the listener to paint the canvas for themselves. I like to think that the recording of this song lit the spark that would soon develop into Muse’s tendencies to create epic stories and theatrics through their ambitious themes e.g. The Resistance.

Then Hyper Chondriac Music, the finale. It’s a slowed-down version of Hyper Music, a song which was released on Origin. Now, this could possibly be one of the most emotional Muse songs I’ve ever heard (although I’d still put it behind Unintended), just because of the fact that it’s so slow and dreary yet almost overly dramatic and powerful in execution. It pretty much encompasses the songs before it into one awesome send-off package before it transitions to the second half.

 

Muse - Hullabaloo Live at Zenith (Paris)

The second half is comprised of tracks that have been played live at a concert, which can be watched above. The setlist in that concert featured songs from the entire range of Muse’s discography at the time, but not all of those songs can be found on the album’s second half. A good number of Muse fans have found disfavor with the songs that were chosen, but I’ve developed a liking for it.

It’s mostly composed of B-sides such as Dead Star and In Your World, as well as lesser known Origin tracks such as Screenager and Dark Shines (with a couple of hits from Showbiz). I think this selection of songs helps the album retain the dark atmosphere created by the album’s first half. It also keeps the listening experience fresh, and it helped me see some of the songs (especially the Origin tracks) in a new light (or should I say, new darkness). It showcases a band that can be harsh yet melancholic, as well as an authoritative modern-day act, which opposes what some people have a tendency to think of older Muse as: a contemporary show that picked up where Nirvana and Radiohead left off.

This two-part album leaves you in a state of feeling as if you’ve experienced something brand new. Perhaps the way songs were presented in this album was used as a springboard into what Muse had in store, which we know as Absolution, what some believe to be the band’s magnum opus. But an album that proved (to me, at least) Muse to be a band in their own right should at least be an album in its own right, and I think Hullabaloo Soundtrack went above and beyond that by presenting an engaging new experience with already existing songs. As far as I’m aware, that isn’t something that happens very often. 

Introducing a new series: AM

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Somehow I've never blogged about music very much, which is actually one of the things I'm most passionate about in my life. That obviously hasn't been translated enough on my old blog; I think I've only written about three or four music-related (or vaguely music-related) posts out of the fifty or so posts on it.

So to address this issue, I've taken it upon myself to create a new series of posts called "AM", short for "Album of the Month" (and not to be mistaken for the new Arctic Monkeys album, which may actually end up being part of the series at some point in the future, we'll see...). It's a pretty straightforward concept: at the end of every month, I'll write a post on the album that's impacted me the most that month, and why it should impact you as well.

One idea I've had floating around is introducing guest writers, to spice things up a bit. I realized that this series is a perfect opportunity to do that, since music is such a subjective and often debatable topic to write about (which may have actually hindered me to write about it in the first place). Let me emphasize that it is only an idea, so it may take a while before you see someone else as the author of a post on here.

Expect the first post in the series to drop sometime around the end of September or beginning of October.

PS: Meanwhile, lots of tech news is popping outta nowhere that I might  just have a thing or two to say about. I think it's likely that we'll see something a little thought provoking come around, so stay tuned.