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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

letlive. -- Fake History

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Energy is an often overlooked aspect of music, and it can cover a multitude of flaws. Summer of 2010, letlive.'s Fake History was receiving rave reviews from the smaller outlets who covered it. I bought into the hype and listened. According to wikpedia, letlive. is a post-hardcore band, and I have no idea what that means. The best wikipedia can offer is that post-hardcore is hardcore with broader limits. Way to not say anything, wikipedia!
letlive.'s Fake History is fast, heavy music, with a lot of melody, and vocals split between singing and screaming. The vocals are provided by Jason Aalon Butler, the son of the dude who made this (thanks, Boondocks!). Butler does not sound like his father, and in the world of rock and roll, you shouldn't! Butler's scream is clear and satisfying. It is full of emotion, but, save for the times he goes intensely high, easy to understand, and near conversational. His singing is not up my usual alley, though, falling dangerously close to the high, nasal whining of so many in the screaming-band-that-also-sings galaxy. To be honest, I avoided Fake History for a few months because of the singing, but it finally broke me down to the point that I included it on my "best of the year" list (in the four spot!). Four years later, it's clear to see why. Despite my issues with Butler's vocals and his sometimes over-ponderous, and at times to over-the-top lyrics, Fake History's energy level is off the charts. I don't mean every song is blazing fast--the tempos and song textures actually vary quite a bit--I mean that over 11 tracks and 45-minutes the energy never lags. This brings up a topic I'm a bit hesitant to touch when I review recent heavy music. I am obviously out of the 18-25 demographic now, and a lot of the current music in that scene is not meant for me. However, I think good music and a certain energy and positivity in sound can transcend age. If the music lacks that, it can make an older listener feel old. But if it has it, and Fake History does, it can make an older listener feel young.

2010 Tragic Hero Records
1. Le Prologue 1:45
2. The Sick, Sick, 6.8 Billion 3:12
3. Renegade 86' 3:35
4. Enemies [Enemigos] 4:56
5. Casino Columbus 3:58
6. Muther (feat. Chelsea Warlick) 5:40
7. Homeless Jazz 3:41
8. We, the Pros of Con 4:13
9. H. Ledger 3:36
10. Over Being Under" 3:37
11. Day 54 6:45

Monday, October 27, 2014

Latitudes -- Individuation

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Now here's a good one. Though Latitudes' Individuation comes from an unknown British band on a tiny label, it feels like a landmark album. Only three of its tracks feature vocals, and only one clocks in at under five minutes. I say Individuation sounds like a landmark release because most other "instrumental" rock albums follow a similar sound. They generally feature twinkly guitars, uplifting chord progressions, a build up and a release.
Individuation is not twinkly. The guitars are heavy and complex, when they aren't suddenly slowing to thicken the atmosphere. The drums sound like a particularly sonorous avalanche. A Moog Synthesizer adds a sense of dread. This album's mood is not uplifting. Individuation is terrifying.
With that said, unlike some laboriously serious instrumental albums, Individuation is also incredible fun. I've saved its most original touch for last, though.
This is an instrumental album with vocals.
Latitudes' singer only pops up on "Imitation Ruin," "Shapeshifting," and "The Glacial Body", but he is Individuation's key instrument. While his haunting falsetto brings even more creepy atmosphere to the table, it's also a bit of a breather throughout the album, popping up when the music quiets down, then dissipating when the chaos returns. This is original stuff. I can't recommend it enough.

2012 Shelsmusic
1. Hyperstatic Forge 6:54
2. Imitation Ruin 9:20
3. Vortice of Malady 7:12
4. Isleward 2:35
5. Shapeshifting 8:27
6. Metabolic Pathways 5:53
7. The Glacial Body 7:25
8. Individuation (Telos) 10:23

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Strain -- Season One (Review)

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The Strain
2014 FX Networks
Season One
Score: 6/10

I like monster movies. Who doesn't? Okay, it's not for everyone, but guess what? There's an episode of The Strain called, "It's Not For Everyone!" Perfect, right?! This opening paragraph sounds desperate. I am pretty desperate for a good monster show, right now. At the end of 2012, I made the decision to end my relationship with the Walking Dead. Eternal grinding gears, lack of logic, and the fact that I couldn't tell the difference between the characters and the zombies fueled that decision. I've heard last year's season was a step up, and maybe one day I'll give The Walking Dead another chance, but I am going to let a little time pass until then so we can both heal. Until then, I have The Strain.
The Strain is a show about a vampiric outbreak. I'll let my usual review format take care of the rest.
The Bad: As I just said, The Strain is about an outbreak, and the disease is vampirism. The show begins as an odd combination of stately, gothic horror, and medical procedural. The thing is, that's not really the show. During this incubation period, the viewer has to sit through child custody depositions, and people just hanging out and doing boring things the viewer doesn't really care about. Finally, halfway through the season, the infection reaches a tipping point, and vampires start roaming the streets and eating people. At that point, The Strain turns into its best self, a campy romp about a ragtag crew that kills vampires...but it never completely turns itself over to that self. Because the show already established a tone, it has a hard time letting go of it. By episode eight, "Creatures of the Night," The Strain lets the campy action fly full-force, and it seems like the show has finally found its sweet spot. This sweet spot is a balance of horror, humor, and campy fun that, honestly, The Walking Dead could never pull off successfully. Going ahead, it seems like common sense for The Strain to continue down that path. It doesn't, though. The next two episodes slow down to a glacial pace, and focus on issues and characters the audience doesn't care about. After the slow build of its beginning, The Strain simply cannot afford to take it down a notch, let alone twenty. This can be remedied easily. Every factor that was making the characters the viewer doesn't care about unlikable is gone. The second season can be the fun, campy, scary romp this entire season should have been, and it can easily be because
The Good: Holy crap, this show can be fun. The Strain's two most likable characters, an aging, Holocaust-survivor vampire-slayer, and his hulk-like, rodent exterminator-turned vampire-slayer protege, are imminently watchable. As the grizzled old Abraham Setrakian, David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, and An Adventure In Space and Time (as first Doctor Who, William Hartnell)) proves that his incredible acting prowess is strong enough to beat down any bad writing thrown his way. As the Eastern European vermin-hunter, Vasilily Fet, Kevin Durand (who played the sociopathic murderer, Keamy, on Lost) is finally allowed to quit the villain business. As one of The Strain's greatest heroes, Durand knows exactly what kind of show he is in, or at least what that show can and should be, and his winks and wisecracks are well-earned because his vampire-killing enthusiasm and intensity is fully committed. Durand and Bradley could carry the show on their own, and every scene they're in together is elevated. With that said, the other actors aren't bad. As, Ephraim Goodweather, the character The Strain posits as the lead, Corey Stall is saddled with being the resident wet-blanket, frequently second-guessing Setrakian's wisdom because the plot requires him to do so. As co-lead, Nora Martinez, Mia Maestro is faced with the same task of slowing everything to a halt, chiding the real heroes for their quick-to-kill vampires attitude. That sentence sounded silly because this element of the show is extremely silly. The Strain actually has the balls to call its villains vampires from the get go (not saddling them with a ridiculous moniker like the Walking Dead's "walkers"(just call them zombies! In the real world, people know what zombies are! Just go with that! Ugh!!!)), so it should also have the balls to just let the characters it wants us to cheer for realize the same. The ethics of killing creatures that used to be humans is only interesting for five or six minutes. The act of actually killing those creatures is arguably interesting forever. I didn't mean to go to the bad again. I want to make it clear, when the main batch of characters is unified and kicking vampire butt, The Strain is a blast. When they are not unified, and they are having pointless arguments about pointless issues, it is not a blast. It is aggravating. To get back to the good column, The Strain's unique, snake-mouth vampire design is excellent. The make-up and special effects team did a great job of making the vampires disgusting, terrifying, yet fun to see. The lead vampire, The Master, features a design that is a little more divisive, as the makers went for a more throwback, solid, practical effects look over CGI (the lesser vampires are a combination of both). The Master looks a bit like an 80's horror reject, but for someone my age, that is far preferable to an all too fluid CGI monster. The Master might look a little goofy at times, but at least he has an actual presence. Finally, I need to say that anytime The Strain actually attempts some sort of suspense, it succeeds wildly. A scene where the enormous Fet has to crawl through a cramped tunnel with a svelter vampire nipping at his heals is money. It's the kind of moment that makes the viewer squeeze the marrow out their knees (Durant's believably terrified expression helps). More of that, please.
So overall, The Strain is a show torn between two directions: A lame one that will lead to early cancellation, and a fun one that could increase its viewership and thrill the viewers it already has. Come on, The Strain. Do what's best for all of us!!!
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lana Del Rey -- Ultraviolence

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After the critical and commercial success of the song "Video Games," Lana Del Rey seemed poised for a breakout. However, these things happened:
1. Some strange contingent of the Internet accused her of being a fraud. For some reason, the fact that "Lana Del Rey" is not Lizzie Grant's name is shocking to people. Not everyone gets to be born with a stage-ready name like "Madonna" or "Prince." Lana Del Rey sounds cool. Lizzie Grant as a performer's name doesn't really stand out. People also speculated about and complained that Del Rey came from a wealthy background, was a record-label creation, and on, and on, and on. If her songs are good, who cares. I meant to end that sentence with a period.  
2. Something really weird happened to her lips. Like she found the hive Winnie the Pooh gets all his honey from, and stuck her face in it. Or maybe botched botox. Again, does this have anything to do with her actual music? No.
3. She appeared on SNL, sounded differently from most people, and for some reason, the same contingent of Internet haters jumped all over her for being weird. The backlash was so ridiculous, Kristin Wiig had to perform a skit the next week lampooning the fact that people are mean to people who are different. Again, if Lana Del Rey is weird, but her songs are good, who cares? In fact, if she is weird, and she isn't forcing you to interact with her at gunpoint, who cares?
4. After all this fuss and drama, her major label debut, Born to Die, was finally released in 2012, and it is...lackluster. Unfortunately, Born to Die lacks cohesion, focus, and just doesn't work as a whole. Del Rey is still an engaging vocalist, but that album just doesn't seem to suit her. It sounds too new. I write all this, but Born to Die still ending up being the number five best-selling album in the world in 2012. Artistically, though, it falls short.
Hey, the list is done, let's drop the large font.
In regard to #4, Del Rey either realized this and strove to create something better, or has simply gotten better with time. Her latest album, Ultraviolence, suits her perfectly. With that said, what suits Del Rey certainly ain't a lot of people's cup of tea.
Where Born to Die was all over the place, Ultraviolence's twelve tracks are remarkably cohesive in sound and theme. That cohesion may be what turns off some listeners. Opener, "Cruel World," introduces Ultraviolence's sonic palette. Woozy strings (often synthesized), spy-guitar, thick atmosphere, and a slow, heavy, rolling molasses river of rhythm. This is the ideal background for Del Rey's seventy-five years too late vocals. She sounds at home alternately belting out notes, cooing like a dove, and playing husky-voiced lounge singer. Del Rey has a thing, and if you like that thing, Ultraviolence gives it to you in its prime. Lyrically, each song revolves around a particular woman (and perhaps particular versions of Del Rey) in relation to a man. The men in the songs are generally powerful, charismatic, and deeply flawed. Generally, the female character tries to fix the man, but can't. Sometimes, as in "Money Power Glory," the female has more sinister designs. At times, there's a certain vulgarity about things, and in small doses, that fits Del Rey, as well.
Del Rey closes everything out with a cover of Nina Simone's "The Other Woman," putting a nice period on everything with a sad saxophone solo, and the lyrics:

The other woman has time to manicure her nails
The other woman is perfect where her rival fails
And she's never seen with pin curls in her hair anywhere

The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume
The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room
There are never toys that scatter everywhere

And when her old man comes to call
He finds her waiting like a lonesome queen
'Cause to be by her side is such a change from old routine

But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep
The other woman will never have his love to keep
And as the years go by the other woman will spend her life alone, alone

After all the glamor of the previous ten songs, "The Other Woman" lets the air out nicely.
Del Rey worked with Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) on this album, and rumor has it they butted heads often, and pushed each other hard. They should work together again.

2014 Interscope
1. Cruel World 6:39
2. Ultraviolence 4:11
3. Shades of Cool 5:42
4. Brooklyn Baby 5:51
5. West Coast 4:16
6. Sad Girl 5:17
7. Pretty When You Cry 3:54
8. Money Power Glory 4:30
9. Fucked My Way Up to the Top 3:32
10. Old Money 4:31
11. The Other Woman 3:01

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lana Del Rey -- Video Games (Digital EP)

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Twitter is a strange beast I barely understand, and rarely visit. In October of 2011, I visited Josh Scogin's twitter and noticed he was giving a lot of props to some person named Lana Del Rey, for her new song, "Video Games." I checked out the song, and it is great. 2011 was a great year for me and for my family, and a string-dominated, sentimental-yet-honest song like "Video Games" was a lovely way to begin the end of it. The song sounds huge and ancient, Del Rey's alternatingly silky and husky voice fresh, and yet a ghost from the past. "Blue Jeans" is the perfect way to follow up such a song, as it is more upbeat and forward-thinking, giving an impression that a ball has begun rolling. That's it. Two songs. Two songs perfectly joined. I can't grant a two song EP higher than an "8," unless those two songs are both longer than eight minutes. Of course, there are the requisite remixes that play when the party is over, but I'm not counting those here. Still, this Del Rey kid has a future.

2011 Stranger/Polydor/Interscope

1. Video Games 4:46
2. Blue Jeans 3:34
3. Video Games (Mr Fingers Remix) 9:00
4. Video Games (Omid 16B Remix) 5:14

Friday, October 17, 2014

Re-purposed Destiny

Recently, I was spellbound by this video by Russian instrumental band, Sleep Dealer, for their song, "Nozomi."

However, I soon found out that the video was not in fact created for Sleep Dealer's "Nozomi," but The Audreys' lovely, if unremarkable, "Sometimes the Stars."

Someone took the video, cut out the audio, and replaced it with Sleep Dealer's song. However, the video's destiny and connection-seeking themes and mysterious, dreamy atmosphere fit "Nozomi" far better, in fact, miraculously so. To reiterate, as I watched the "Nozomi" version first, I was stunned at how well someone had translated the exact aural feeling of the song into a visual one. Watching the same video with "Sometimes the Stars" in the background is not nearly as serendipitous an experience. All of the backbreaking work by the animators, putting purpose to imagination, ended up better fitting a song they most likely never heard. How is that even possible? Why do I identify so much with this entire idea? Why do I feel like this describes my life? What is happening to me? Am I dead? Is my life flashing before my eyes! Am I dreaming someone else's life!? I need to get out of this study-library and pour myself a bowl of Frankenberry just in case it's my last! Is Frankenberry even real, or is it something I only dreamed, and that will cease to exist when I wake up, just like how I dreamed I had every Transformer I ever made sometime in 1987, then woke up to find I actually only owned three. WAS DREAMING THAT DREAM ONLY A DREAM?!?!
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Isn't this new, DC-Comics designed box, gorgeous? Was that too many commas? Are commas even real?
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lali Puna -- Faking the Books

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I picked up Lali Puna's Faking the Books shortly after its release because Radiohead told me to, and also because, at the time, I agreed with Lali Puna's politics. Lali Puna are based out of Munich, Germany, one of my favorite cities in the world (all the German-ribbing I do on The Nicsperiment is good-natured...I'm quite fond of that place), and I'm not usually one for loving cities.. Lali Puna are a rock band that employ a lot of keyboard, generally in place of the guitar (but not exclusively...there is still a bit of guitar in the mix). Wikipedia says Lali Puna is "electro-pop," and back when this came out, "hip" people were calling them IDM or EDM or something with three letters, but they have a bassist and a backbeat played by a live drummer, and their vocal hooks aren't very poppy, so whatever, cool people, Lali Puna are a rock band. Puna's songs...Lali Puna is a weird name...anyway, Puna's songs are about what living in a George W Bush-era America is like...for completely unaffected arty people living in a large German city. Politics aside, the band also explore the mechanization and dehumanization of life. This leads to their greatest musical flaw. Despite the fact that Faking the Books balances out its slower, tripper songs with some faster-paced jams, the album often feels like it lacks energy. After a decade, I think I've pinpointed the reason: their vocalist, Valerie Trebljahr, sings with a whispery monotone that sucks the life out of a lot of their songs. Don't get me wrong, dead-eyed female vocals can sound incredibly cool, but over the course of 11 songs, they can start to drain. Case in point, album centerpiece, "Grin and Bear."

Instrumentally, "Grin and Bear" hits on all cylinders, creating a sleek, building atmosphere that  is primed to explode during the song's extended outro. As Trabljahr repeats the song's final line, "We won't return here," all she has to do is emote. She doesn't, though. She sounds like she is leaving a fast-food restaurant who's service she is mildly dissatisfied with, and whispering the line into her mother's ear. She should be belting out these lyrics. The band loaded the gun, and she is disinterestedly taking out the bullets, hiding them in the sock drawer. However, it's not really until that moment that Trebjahr's vocals wear out their welcome.
Up until that point, they are, as stated earlier, quite cool. "Micronomic," the album's single, received a fittingly cool video. It's a highpoint on an album that's just a little too cool for its own good.
Meaning, her voice makes the songs a little too cold and distant. You got that from that sentence, right? Wasting all my good metaphors...grumble...grumble...

2004 Morr Music
1. Faking the Books 4:00
2. Call 1-800-Fear 3:24
3. Micronomic 3:23
4. Small Things 3:40
5. B-Movie 3:13
6. People I Know 3:05
7. Grin and Bear 4:41
8. Geography-5 2:27
9. Left Handed 3:44
10. Alienation 4:01
11. Crawling by Numbers 2:52