Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Five-Minute Music Reviews

Muse - The 2nd Law  Muse's trajectory has been one that any band would envy, with sales and rep growing practically by an order of magnitude with each subsequent release. With the success has come a bit of mainstreaming; the Queen allusions more and more overt, the conspiracy theory lyrics moving on to more universal concerns of love and revolution. The kids are alright, even if they are a bit more comfortable.
That's not a slam at all, by the way -- every band that makes it big has to handle the twin challenges of massive commercial success and continued artistic development, and Muse has certainly handled it better than most. The 2nd Law picks up where The Resistance left off, in many respects, brimming with social consciousness, danceable hooks, and epic choruses, it tries to have it every which way, and does so with a pretty solid slugging percentage. Matt Bellamy's falsetto vocals are as plaintive as ever, as are his bristling, angry leads, though the latter are fewer and farther between.
The production, as on The Resistance, is spectacular, immaculate throughout, but here and there one wishes just for a moment for the tortured squall of Citizen Erased, or the Cure-tinged electro-funk of Map of the Problematique, or even the space opera of Knights of Cydonia. But songs such as Supremacy, Panic Station, and Big Freeze have bite, the closing two-part title suite is innovative, and bassist Chris Wolstenholme provides some nice vocal contrast with his two songs, particularly Liquid State.
You can't really say that Muse have "sold out"; they are so unabashedly commercial it would be practically impossible for them to do so. But they do what they do with great ambition and panache, and continue to till some fertile ground.

The Sword - Apocryphon  This one just dropped Monday, so I've only listened to it twice so far, not enough to break it down comprehensively. But it's enough to tell that the biggest little band from Austin is still kicking retro ass and taking names with their comic-book tales of doom, destruction, and adventure. If listening to classic Sabbath while reading old Robert Howard Conan books in a room with a giant Frank Frazetta poster and the whiff of stale bongwater sounds like your idea of good times, then The Sword are waaay up in your wheelhouse.
This is no mean feat, not at all, to take time-worn classic riffage, peg it to lyrics that are unapologetically cheesy, and make it really work. This is what playing it with conviction and passion are all about, kids -- these guys are clearly having fun with it, and it's infectious. Apocryphon is the band's fourth album, and as such, given the simplicity of the genre and the well-worn path it resides on, one might anticipate some cracks at some point, the need to change tack somehow. But aside from being apparently slightly less conceptually oriented than the last epic outing, Warp Riders, they are sticking to their guns, no doubt because they're pretty good guns.
The band was recently on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations farewell tour, which should up their hipness quotient even further, perhaps depending on how much of an insufferable prick you fell Bourdain is. (Personally I enjoy him, his show, and his books a great deal; Bourdain is much more self-aware and candid than just about anyone in the public eye right now. He is very much a WYSIWYG personality, which is generally a good thing, Donald Trump notwithstanding.) So far, I would pick The Veil of Isis, The Hidden Masters, and Seven Sisters as standout tracks, but in general, like The Sword's past efforts, Apocryphon is a solid stack of all-killer-no-filler riffs. These guys are poised to make the big jump, the way Mastodon finally did with The Hunter.


Devin Townsend Project - Epicloud  It is not an exaggeration to posit that former Strapping Young Lad mastermind Devin Townsend is this generation's Frank Zappa. A gifted, idiosyncratic guitarist who seems to live in the studio, Townsend is one of the most prolific, stylistically diverse producers out there right now. After putting out one of the best albums of the last decade with Synchestra in 2006, Townsend went into rehab -- and came out with 60 songs written and ready to record, which turned into the four-album Ki/Addicted!/Deconstruction/Ghost multi-opus, released over the next several years (the last two as a double set last year), each album completely different in musical style and focus.
So after all that, Townsend went back into the studio intending to record a sequel to his earlier Ziltoid the Omniscient space opera, and by his own reckoning, found himself writing more poppy, happy material. Not necessarily a bad thing, that -- that was the territory Addicted! traveled, and that one is a terrific, sorely underrated (if a bit short) collection. Epicloud is indeed very positive in outlook, obviously anomalous to most metal out there these days, which is at best nihilistic in most cases. But thanks to Townsend's rather angular sense of melody, peppered with his quirky humor (another similarity to FZ), and set in a lush choral wall-of-sound production, it works on a lot of levels. If the programming pinheads at Z-Rock could hear Townsend's stuff (or hell, The Sword, for that matter), maybe they wouldn't feel so compelled to dump the same fifteen-year-old Rob Zombie and Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks on their hapless listeners every fucking hour.
From the gospel-tinged choir bookending the album, to the ongoing collaboration with vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen on most of the songs, to the anthemic romp of Liberation and More!, to the sappy but heartfelt balladry of Where We Belong and Divine, there's a sweeping array of pop-metal stylings here, all of them more commercial than just about anything Townsend has done previously. But in a good way; again, between the glowing production and van Giersbergen's terrific vocals throughout, Townsend has earned the right to have a fat hit or two from this one.

Monuments - Gnosis  For better or worse, bands like Monuments probably represent the near future of technical metal. Combining Dream Theater-level chops with gutbusting Meshuggah-style vocals (frequently alternating with cleaner vocals in the choruses, similar to what bands like Scar Symmetry do), there's definitely a lot going on here. Great musicianship, good production, solid grooves -- musically it's all good. It's the vocals that throw me on stuff like this, and that's really just a matter of personal taste, but the pulsating neck-vein screaming is exhausting to listen to after a while.

Still, there are some really tight musical moments all throughout, particularly on Admit Defeat and Regenerate. If you like this type of music, with a lot of elements of bands such as Periphery and (again) Meshuggah, this is really well done. But you probably won't crank it up at your next party.


The Melvins - Freak Puke  I'm not as familiar with The Melvins' work as I should be, especially since there are plenty of bands I like who cite them as an influence. But it's never too late to get schooled, and as an album like Freak Puke is likely to get pegged as "experimental" or some such, it's not exactly a prime opportunity to bandwagon-jump a band that has never exactly been a household name in the first place.

From the opening cello(!) strains and brushed drums of Mr. Rip-Off, you know you're in for something odd and unpredictable. The lead track sounds like a sinister psychedelic '60s pastiche, between the arcane instrumentation and the atmospheric vocals.
And that's really the beauty of this album throughout -- no two songs sound alike (or, at times, even by the same band), and you just never know what's coming next. Stand-up bass and bowed chamber-music instruments figure in every song, right alongside fuzz-tone guitars and the spacey vocals. Unusual arrangements and interspersed sound effects just add to the chaotic proceedings. The closest thing to a conventional "song" is probably A Growing Disgust, or perhaps the cover of the Wings chestnut Let Me Roll It.
And again, it's precisely the unconventionality and weirdness of Baby Won't You Weird Me Out or Leon Versus the Revolution or the title track that make the whole thing so much fun to listen to. By the time you hit the meandering nine-and-a-half-minute capper Tommy Goes Berserk, you just want to hear what they're going to do next, which is about all you can of any album.

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