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Friday, October 20, 2017

Radiohead -- A Moon Shaped Pool


10/10

Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool sounds more like an album of moods and atmospheres than songs. For some bands, this would be a negative. Not for Radiohead.
Album opener, "Burn the Witch," sets the sonic tone, string-dominated music, steady, minimalist drums, acoustic or non-distorted electric guitar, and a Thom Yorke who sounds both engaged and resigned. Really, the story of A Moon Shaped Pool is the strings, with Johnny Greenwood putting his film composition experience to great use. They are absolutely beautiful, and they drive the album's strange, organic mood. The supporting all-star is some lovely, often treated piano work. These are not staples of rock music, and I would hesitate to even call A Moon Shaped Pool a rock album. The amounted of distorted guitar is minimal, almost entirely relegated to the raucous guitar solo tagged onto the end of "Indentikit," and by "tagged on," I mean unexpected, yet perfectly placed--not extraneous.
In addition to the non-rock instrumentation, A Moon Shaped Pool features a definite lack of hooks, choruses, or other pop-derived elements commonly found in much of rock music. This is why I consider A Moon Shaped Pool more an exhortation of mood and atmosphere than a collection of songs. Each track is distinct, but none, outside of the piano-based closer, exist under any pop or rock terms. They're more movements in a piece, making this more akin to classical music than anything. Of course, most classical music doesn't feature guitar, electric bass, and a drum kit, though to turn this statement around, the drums are aided by Portishead's Clive Deamer, a master of straightforward, propulsive, yet rhythmically minimalist beats--not exactly a staple-style of playing in rock.
Yeah, I am bleating on and on, but I could sum it all up by stating that A Moon Shaped Pool is some strange cross between a 50-minute classical composition and a 70's British rock album, replete with classic Radiohead electronics and sound manipulation. It sounds like emotionally-attuned space aliens who mastered music a million millennia ago created it, and it is evocative of a late fall afternoon with dimming sunlight falling on a lake and some old train passing on a hillside so far away you can feel it more than hear it, and a resignation that sadness might be here to stay and life goes on and is beautiful anyway. Every time I listen to it it sounds better and newer, and if Radiohead wanted to call it quits here, that would be fair, but if they want to release an album a year like this until all five members are in the grave, that would be alright.
What a great band.


2016 XL
1. Burn the Witch 3:40
2. Daydreaming 6:24
3. Decks Dark 4:41
4. Desert Island Disk 3:44
5. Ful Stop 6:07
6. Glass Eyes 2:52
7. Identikit 4:26
8. The Numbers 5:45
9. Present Tense 5:06
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief 5:03
11. True Love Waits 4:43

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Radiohead -- The King of Limbs


8/10

Ah, so the comment I made in my review of Hail to the Thief, "Almost every band I feel a strong emotional connection to has an album that I unfairly malign upon its release, only to come back to and love later" is doubled when it comes to Radiohead. Hail to the Thief isn't the only one of their albums to grew on me over time. The King of Limbs is another slow grower. Again, my own expectations were my biggest obstacle to enjoyment.
The King of Limbs follows one of Radiohead's greatest albums, and maybe their most complete, In Rainbows. In Rainbows features a full, lush, beautiful, enveloping, highly-textured,sound. The King of Limbs, in many ways, does not. It is beautiful at points, but in completely different ways. In Rainbows features a confident, complete sound. The King of Limbs is completely transient. It was creating by chopping the band's performances into bits and pieces, and then gluing them back together in hopefully a pleasing manner. Glitchy rhythms shuffle along. Guitars start and stop. Sometimes even the vocals are garbled samples. Thankfully, Colin Greenwood's basslines are allowed to roam free from the editing knife, and serve as a bedrock for each song. Tom Yorke's vocals, even more emotive and naked than his work on In Rainbows, at least when they're not diced up, soar high. This is a unique sound the band have forged here.
However, even getting past my "Ugh, it isn't In Rainbows" expectations, there is still some fault to find here. For one, having a restless sound that can't be nailed down can be invigorating at first, but it does grow a bit stale. When the weighty piano ballad, "Codex" comes at track six, it's refreshing that the song feels mostly intact. Also, the entire album is only eight tracks, the shortest ever for this band. This isn't necessarily a negative, but when the music feels so weightless, overall, the short length feels a bit cheaper. In some ways, The King of Limbs feels more like a quick thought than an album. Thankfully, though, despite the short tracklist and occasional feelings of restlessness, the album's positives are bountiful.
Opener, "Bloom," might be the most ascendant song in the band's catalogue, establishing the album's sound, even as it takes flight and soars past it. The diced up guitar and rhythm combine with a stunning Tom Yorke vocal and, of all things, a flugelhorn, to create a sense of sky, the ground far below a majestic blur. In fact, so majestic that the BBC paired composer Hans Zimmer with the band to create a new version of the song to theme their Blue Planet II.

As powerful as that version is, I actually prefer the headrush of the album version, with its Asian textures and more intimate setting, though the climax of the BBC version is almost so transcendentally emotional it is unreal, especially coupled with the BBC's gorgeous ocean imagery. It also helps that the opening verse is the most beautiful lyric Yorke ever penned:

Open your mouth wide
The universal sigh
And while the ocean blooms
It's what keeps me alive
"So why does this still hurt?"
Don't blow your mind with whys

Well, after that, just about anything would be a letdown. "Morning Mr Magpie" is a good natured, quiet and jittery little thing that's close to harmless. "Little by Little" is a little more forceful with its rhythm, creating a lot of momentum that is slightly squandered by the choppy and aimless instrumental, "Feral." This is immediately followed by the album's single "Lotus Flower," a funky, atmospheric song that really lets Greenwood's bass shine. It's not bad to dance to either.

Where the opener and earlier tracks conveyed a feeling of morning and blue skies, "Lotus Flower" brings on a feeling of night, which leads into the dark, piano-led "Codex." Continuing with the nature imagery that is certainly intentional, the music and lyrics of "Codex" are more evocative of a lake at night, pensive and moody. It's a bit gloomy, but well placed, as it is immediately followed by the sound of birds singing and golden sunrise coming through the curtains of "Give Up the Ghost." I've increasingly described Yorke's vocals as "vulnerable" in these last couple of reviews, but this is Yorke at his most vulnerable, totally emotionally exposed as he continuously sings "Don't hurt me," and "Into your arms," his vocals layered and layered on top of each other until he croons "I think I should give up the ghost." Not to get too emo on you, but years after my first listen, the 12th or so time I had heard Yorke hit the note at the end of the word "ghost," I suddenly started sobbing and realized that my bias against this album had been defeated. I love when reviews turn into me feeling like I am having a conversation with the album I am reviewing. Self-revelatory.
The album then ends with "Separator," a light, skippy, almost slight track, except for the reverb-drenched repeated outro vocal, "If you think this is over, then you're wrong/wake me up." This song sums up The King of Limbs to me. Not the most consequential work in Radiohead's catalogue, but one with enough exceptional moments to make it worthwhile. At that particular point in the band's career, after a decade-and-a-half of bearing the weight of having to top themselves again and again, perhaps The King of Limbs is exactly the album Radiohead needed to make.

2011 XL
1. Bloom 5:15
2. Morning Mr Magpie 4:41
3. Little by Little 4:27
4. Feral 3:13
5. Lotus Flower 5:01
6. Codex 4:47
7. Give Up the Ghost 4:50
8. Separator 5:20

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Radiohead -- In Rainbows


10/10

In 2007, I most definitely was not thinking about Radiohead. Sure, I had had magical experiences with their music in the past, but I was soured by Hail to the Thief (at least until the 2008 In Rainbows tour), and hadn't spun their other albums in quite a while. Before completely forgetting about them, I'd even begun considering the band derogatorily as "that downer band," thinking it quite easy to make powerfully negative albums as opposed to positive ones.
On an out of the blue October 1st, 2007, I saw a surprise announcement that the band had secretly completed a new album, and would be digitally releasing it for a pay-what-you-want price (even $0) on their own website in just 10 days. My interest was piqued at this before unheard of musical business model, but not enough to download the album on the 10th.
Thankfully, though, in the fall of 2007, I was experiencing firsthand the greatest workplace environment to ever exist: the circulation department of the Main Branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. Ten days after that Radiohead announcement, Chris, a co-worker who was always passing good stuff on to me (he'd get me Doctor Who episodes the moment they aired on BBC, back when that was a big deal) brought me a burned copy of Radiohead's new album, In Rainbows (don't freak out, I paid cold, hard cash for a vinyl copy a few months later). His wife Mary, who also worked in the circulation department, was a big Radiohead fan, so when he burned her a copy, he did one extra for me. The best part is that they weren't even the only people who gave me music and other media on a regular basis. Another co-worker (an co-former KLSU DJ), Eric, has contributed an entire shelf to my music collection (you can now hear him every week on 96.9 FM, where he broadcasts his show, Subterranean Nation). I also read Ulysses, The Brothers Karamazov, and every Harry Potter book at that library. What a great place to work.
Anyway, despite my previous reservations, I popped In Rainbows into my car stereo. The album itself was shocking. Radiohead, that Radiohead, seemed, like me at work, to be having fun. Not just on a song or two. On the whole album. And the album wasn't all dark and dreary, wither. Sure, there was a darkness, but it was all lush, and sultry, and sexy. Yes, this bunch of nerdy old codgers were making music that was sexy. What was happening? Was the world, as the band had posited in their own music so many times before, coming to an end?
I think 2007 featured a lot of great new music, and I was in one of those nice, peaceful places in life, so this review may be a bit biased. In Rainbows hits a sweet spot for me. In mood, it's most definitely a night album. It starts off with a lot of fun energy before exploring some more sensual tempos and textures. It's not like the early parts of the album sound like a bunch of anthropomorphic sunflowers dancing around on a wooden fence, though. Actually, that sounds terrifying. Anyway, this is still Radiohead. There's still a darkness, but it's strangely comforting. The band, operating out of a more traditional vocals/guitar/bass/drums mold, use strings and electronics to help create a warm, enveloping sound. This may be the hardest Radiohead album to describe to an outsider, which is why I am using such many staccato descriptions.
In Rainbows is just good. The ten track brevity is incredibly appreciated after the bloat of Hail to the Thief. The pacing is perfect. I love the way that the album's atmosphere thickens as it goes along, particularly with "Reckoner" and "House of Cards." The evocative acoustic guitar and strings combo of two-minute middle track "Faust Arp" is a perfect breather. Everything just works here.
I can't express enough how done I was with this band before the release of In RainbowsIn Rainbows not only reinvigorated my fandom, but completely recontextualized the band's previous works for me. Radiohead are not a one-note act. Radiohead are a multi-faceted band, capable of evoking many disparate emotions and feelings. In Rainbows showcases that more than ever. The desperate fate of man might be a pet-topic for Thom Yorke, but its not all he can sing about. In Rainbows, with its more personal, more universal lyrics, vocalized by some of Yorke's most open, vulnerable singing ever, proves that.
If you've ever wanted to get into Radiohead in the past, but found them too dreary, In Rainbows is your access point. This is an invigorating album. It not only changed the business model for how albums are sold, but it may have subtly influenced popular rock music more than any of the band's previous works--you can make a masterpiece without wallowing in despair. In a post-Y2K, post-9/11 world, that was and still is an important concept to master. The world didn't end, and it's time to make the best of it.


2007 Self-Released/XL
1. 15 Step 3:58
2. Bodysnatchers 4:02
3. Nude 4:15
4. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi 5:18
5. All I Need 3:49
6. Faust Arp 2:10
7. Reckoner 4:50
8. House of Cards 5:28
9. Jigsaw Falling into Place 4:09
10. Videotape 4:40

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Radiohead -- Hail to the Thief


9/10

Almost every band I feel a strong emotional connection to has an album that I unfairly malign upon its release, only to come back to and love later. Hail to the Thief didn't really have a chance with me in 2003. I could feel myself becoming more politically agitated as the year wore on, and an album which focused on all the stuff I was already angry about didn't really seem appealing to me. I wanted to escape from all that stuff. Plus, four-minute alternative rock songs instead of the vast experimentation of the last two albums? No thanks! Hail to the Thief also seemed like a big downer at a time when I was already...on a downer. I purchased this right about the time I began an anxiety-fueled migraine that lasted nine months--if you haven't figured it out by this point, The Nicsperiment is not a normal person.
Thus, Hail to the Thief was relegated to my CD shelf never to return again... Just kidding, it did return five years later. I won't spoil my upcoming review of Radiohead's 2007 release, In Rainbows...I will simply state that it restored my love for the band, and inspired me to ride out to Houston with a van-load of friends and family to catch Radiohead on their In Rainbows tour. On the way their, I had a long talk about life with my cousin Jessica, who always seems to offer a perspective I haven't yet considered. She vastly disagreed with my opinion of Hail to the Thief, and suggested I give it another listen on its own merits, free from my own expectations.
Later that night, at the incredible show, one of the most overwhelmingly powerful live performances by a live band I have ever seen, something strange happened: my favorite moments were from Hail to the Thief. "Where I End and You Begin," a song I had barely even noticed before, reduced me to tears, even as it sent my body into strange writhing motions that can only be described as "The Nicsperiment dancing." "There There," which I admittedly did enjoy before, became stratospheric. "The Gloaming" went from gloomy bore to fun.
Jessica was right. Time to reevaluate.
Radiohead are a complicated band, and Hail to the Thief, composed of 14 tracks, and running nearly an hour, is a complicated album. In the face of a war begun under false pretenses, a highly controversial presidential election, and a post-9/11 malaise that felt it would never end, Hail to the Thief is a defeated album, even for Radiohead. At the same time, if your head is in the right space, it's a lot of fun. Radiohead have never haphazardly recorded and released music like this before or since. In this one instance, they forced themselves to work quickly and send to market what they had created before they had time to overthink anything. Because of this, Hail to the Thief is at once too long, with songs piled up without winnowing, and incomplete. For instance, that previously mentioned live performance of "The Gloaming" featured a rocking, triumphant outro the band hadn't conceived of back in 2003, when Hail to the Thief was released. On the album, the song just sort of ends.
On the other hand, it's nice to hear the band acting on the fly without second guessing themselves. There is a certain livewire, firecracker feeling to Hail to the Thief that the band's other work lacks. You can see them throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, even if they aren't necessarily concerning themselves with what sticks where. The slow, b-movie horror stomp of "We suck Young Blood" is likely meant to be tongue in cheek, but placing it after the sky-scraping emotional power of "Where I End and You Begin," relegates it to camp. The minimalist, dark balladry of "I Will" is fine, but it slows the momentum of "There, There" heading into the fun, funky "A Punchup at a Wedding." This can make the album a bit of a slog, particularly when vocalist, Thom Yorke, already seems so beaten. The album's closing lyrics are:

I keep the wolf from the door
But he calls me up
Calls me on the phone
Tells me all the ways that he's gonna mess me up
Steal all my children if I don't pay the ransom
And I'll never see them again if I squeal to the cops
So I'm you just gonna...

Well, maybe "squealing" is the victory. Whatever the case, Hail to the Thief is flawed, but I can't deny its immediate power. The band wield despair here like never before. Tell me this performance of "Where I End and You Begin," which matches the album version's power, doesn't give you the chills.

"Where I End and You Begin" takes lessons the band learned from their experimental period, but puts them into a more immediate setting--instead of sweating over electronic manipulation for months, the band throw on-the-fly electronics into a more traditional alternative rock sound to create something more intense than anything they've ever made. The tension between the two is quite palpable and electric. The band experiences enough hits throughout the album by doing this that Hail to the Thief's strengths, over time, inexorably crush its flaws.
Fourteen years later, outside of dredging them up for this review, the flaws can't touch the album's highs. At the same time, the tension in the album created by everything I've already mentioned is an excellent encapsulation of the time it was made--I don't think Hail to the Thief could have been created in any year other than 2003--the year that gave me the nine-month migraine from hell. Removed from that year, "There There," and all of Hail to the Thief's wandering, aimless walk through these dangerous musical woods is more timeless than ever.

2003 Parlophone/Capitol
1. 2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.) 3:19
2. Sit down. Stand up. (Snakes & Ladders.) 4:19
3. Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky.) 4:18
4. Backdrifts. (Honeymoon is Over.) 5:22
5. Go to Sleep. (Little Man being Erased.) 3:21
6. Where I End and You Begin. (The Sky is Falling in.) 4:29
7. We suck Young Blood. (Your Time is up.) 4:56
8. The Gloaming. (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.) 3:32
9. There there. (The Boney King of Nowhere.) 5:25
10. I Will. (No man's Land.) 1:59
11. A Punchup at a Wedding. (No no no no no no no no.) 4:57
12. Myxomatosis. (Judge, Jury & Executioner.) 3:52
13. Scatterbrain. (As Dead as Leaves.) 3:21
14. A Wolf at the Door. (It Girl. Rag Doll.) 3:21

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Radiohead -- Amnesiac


10/10

For me, Kid A and Amnesiac exist in the same musical world. Kid A is blurry, and Amnesiac is a vision of that world come into focus. It's like an optometrist putting a new lens in front of a patient's eyes, and asking, "How does it look now?" Kid A is largely icy electronics, ghostly, alienating vocals, and only a bit of organic instrumentation. The world it paints, to me at least, is one of a post-apocalyptic, post-Western Civilization landscape, bathed in strange, cold light; artifacts of the world-that-was only curiosities for whoever is left. Jagged lines reveal themselves to be skeletal trees, fuzzy distance to be the background of a 1930's cartoon. Amnesiac puts that world into focus with more organic instrumentation--i.e. a lot more electric guitar and real drums, even strings--but it doesn't abandon the heavy lean on electronics. When the organic instruments arrive, they sound warmer. For instance, horns appear on one Kid A song and one Amnesiac song--the horns on Kid A sound like they are played by malfunctioning robots, butAmnesiac's feel human, even if they are ancient and ghostly. More than anything, though, more than my nebulous blurry vs. in-focus description is this simple fact: Kid A is tense, and Amnesiac is relaxed. Even though there is certainly tension within these songs, there is a certain airy freedom, a sense of space and unpredictability throughout Amnesiac. This becomes especially clear in its raucous, jazz funeral ending--that while this might be serious, incredible music, it is still incredibly fun. This is why, while I love Kid A dearly, I will give a possibly unpopular opinion: Amnesiac is my favorite Radiohead album.
 I'll close this review, which frankly, as I've said all I need to say, doesn't need to be any longer than this, with a quote from Evan Pricco's 2010 Juxtapoz interview of Radiohead's longtime artistic collaborator, Stanley Donwood:

How come you don’t live in London?
Because there you can’t get out. You can’t see the countryside. It’s too flat. I grew up in Essex County and it was very flat, and very close to London. Funny enough, though, London is my favorite city in the world. In a fucked up way, though.
I’m really into the history of a place, and the first thing I do when I’m in a place like San Francisco is say, “How did all this stuff get here, and what was here before?” And a lot of American history has been erased, a lot of the Native American culture and history destroyed. But in London you get a full history of things. People have been writing about it for 1,000 years. When I wander through London, I feel like I’m drifting through the autumn leaves of the past.
London is probably dying as a city, it probably won’t last another 100 years in terms of economic and political influence. The influence is waning. So I walk through this faded city, and everywhere I go, every name of a street means something, there is a story. And you can picture very clearly how everything in London looked 100 years ago, 200, 500… its all there. It’s all written about. That is why I love London.
And that is what all the artwork I did for the Radiohead album Amnesiac is all about: London as an imaginary prison, a place where you can walk around and you are the Minotaur of London, we are all the monsters, we are all half human half beast. We are trapped in this maze of this past.


So Amnesiac was a London album?
For me it was. The work I did on Amnesiac was done by me taking the train to London, getting lost and taking notes.

And that was sort of what the album was about, wasn’t it? Like finding all these historical documents in someone’s attic from a hundred years ago. Nothing sounds like it goes together, but there is this voice that links it all together, verifying that its from the same culture. That’s an amazingly underrated album.
We wanted it to be a like a book. And someone made these pages in a book and it went into drawer in a desk and was forgotten about in the attic. And the attic was then forgotten. And visually and musically the album is about finding the book and opening the pages. And that is why I wanted to make that physical book with the album that we did.



2001 Parlophone/Capitol
1. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box 4:00
2. Pyramid Song 4:49
3. Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors ([note 1]) 4:07
4. You and Whose Army? 3:11
5. I Might Be Wrong 4:54
6. Knives Out 4:15
7. Morning Bell/Amnesiac 3:14
8. Dollars and Cents 4:52
9. Hunting Bears 2:01
10. Like Spinning Plates 3:57
11. Life in a Glasshouse 4:34

Monday, October 02, 2017

Radiohead -- Kid A


10/10

Where's the guitar? If there's a joke to be made at the "listen to the album once while texting someone, then write a definitive review of the entire album" mentality's expense--and there are even more jokes to be made at that mentality's expense than there are words in this sentence--it's in the groupspeak reevaluations that invariably occur ten years after any truly great album was initially greeted lukewarmly. Then again, we are reaching peak mass to a degree that I wonder if any album released after 2010 is ever going to be reevaluated. There are too many of them, and genres have splintered and sub-splintered to a degree that the only people posting retrospectives will be blogs like this one visited only in the thousands per-month, all retrospecting different things so that it all only adds up to so much noise. Yep, I, the Nicsperiment, am noise. I just admitted it...
But of course, I love the sound of my own voice, and I set up this review with that lumbering intro simply to point out the fact that critics largely dismissed Kid A at the time of its release, wondering what happened to the old alternative rock band, confused by this experimental entity in its place. Then, all of a sudden, it's the greatest album of the 00's. My own nearly eight-year-old "HOT TAKE!!!" best albums of the 00's list put it at number one, as well. Now that I am older (I could be President now!) and considerably less hot-takey, I'd love to make a new best albums of the 00's list. However, I am not sure if I would replace the album in the top spot. Do I hate that I posted an opinion agreed upon by Pitchfork? Does Pitchfork even still exist? I'd type in the URL to check, but I didn't sleep well last night, and I don't feel like it. But yes, I do hate that not only did I post an opinion similar to Pitchfork's, but also that I cannot make fun of them for suddenly changing their minds about Kid A. They always thought it was perfect. However, I must say, I did, too.
*      *      *
Before Blockbuster Video became obsolete, Blockbuster Music became obsolete. Actually, our Blockbuster Music become Wherehouse Music, and then FYE, and now it's an empty building with a FOR SALE sign in front, which really makes me miss the 90's and 00's, random college nights digging through CD racks with friends. I also miss seeing posters of gorgeous album artwork plastered on Blockbuster/Wherehouse/FYE walls, which, if it was good enough, could coerce me into buying an album I'd never heard a song from. This happened one beautiful spring afternoon when I purchased a double-whammy of The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Radiohead's Kid A, Kid A's jagged, forlorn, majestic mountain peaks rising on the store wall, Yoshimi a marvel of graphic design. I dig that Flaming Lips album...at least the first half of it, but that drive home, and my subsequent hours of music listening were dedicated to Kid A. I felt transported. The gorgeous, dense CD booklet, full of incredible artwork heightened the experience even more--it was like I was unearthing artifacts from another world--you can even remove the back of the CD jewel case to see secret messages! Yes, jewel case! This really is an artifact from another world!
And get this: the CD version is actually the definitive one--the vinyl has a minimalist version of the original artwork, missing its secret messages and most key image. But what about the music?
*      *      *
I'll do a breakdown of song emotions, as I did for OK Computer, in a moment. First, I'd like to say something about the album as a whole, and why it checks off my boxes, but may not check yours.
World-building and musical storytelling are extremely important to me in an album. By that, I mean that I like albums that exude a cohesive tone and feeling, and that follow some kind of consistent emotional arc--the first track sounds like an opening, the last track sounds like a closer, and what comes in between follows a natural path from the first point to the last. Surprisingly, few albums actually do this. In fact, you could just shuffle most of them and never know the difference. They're more a collection of songs. A bunch of random Polaroids instead of photographs ordered deliberately to tell a story. I don't mean that I only like concept albums, but albums with a cohesive emotional flow. Kid A's got a Nile's worth of that. Again, as Kid A has been pontificated about to a great degree in a great degree of groupspeak, I feel it will be more worthwhile to break the album down by my emotional reactions to each of the ten tracks, particularly as those reactions have changed little in the last fifteen years:
1. "Everything in Its Right Place" From the icy, isolating opening keyboard tones, this album immediately envelops you. Even though this song is barely more than Thom Yorke's vocals, haunted by distortions of itself over the aforementioned keyboard and cold electronics, the listener is plunged into a unique aural dimension, continued with...
2. "Kid A" This song starts off like a suddenly come to life late-night railroad crossing in a mountainous, alien, blue-ice-toned landscape, as strange aurora blossom overhead. One can easily picture that landscape dotted by enormous, incomprehensible glacial shapes, as the floating train of Thom Yorke's nearly illegible computerized vocals cheerfully tell a story of horror over a glitchy, ice-tapped beat.
3. "The National Anthem" The best proof that this is a completely transportive dive into a fully-realized world of Radiohead's creation: The first song to sound anything like a "full band" song is the most unsettling yet, even though it's one of the most fun songs the band ever recorded. A propulsive bassline and funky drumbeat highlight the band's newfound reliance on rhythm, with atmospheric, space-filling spectral sweeps in the place of guitars, punctuated by a funky, insane chorus of horns, and strange radio snippets.
4. "How to Disappear Completely" A terrifying, acoustic-guitar-based track, pierced by the album's secret all-star, a Johnny Greenwood played ondes Martenot. The ondes Martenot is an ancient electronic instrument. It sounds like a jar full of ghosts. Thom Yorke's repeated utterance of "I'm not here. this isn't happening" is his quintessential alienation and depersonalization lyric.
5. "Treefingers" I love how this electronic instrumental is so warm, comforting, and organic, after the coldness and discomfort of the first four tracks. It's like a breather. It reminds me of NIN's "A Warm Place" in that way.
6. "Optimistic" Perhaps the only true full band song on the album, with jangly guitar, earth-rumbling drums, and everyone playing a rather normal part, even as Yorke's "You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough" sounds about as sincere as a Presidential handshake, especially when he follows it up with "...dinosaurs roaming the Earth," further bringing home the apocalyptic feeling I keep mentioning. There's a picture in the CD booklet that looks like future humans marveling at the detritus of our current civilization, which fits this album just perfectly.
7. "In Limbo" A really beautiful song with some gorgeous, circular, atmospheric guitar lines, evoking a feeling of getting lost in the woods...
8. "Idioteque" And what do you find there but this icily beautiful electronic nightmare, Yorke howling "women and children first" over a savage beat and creepy drones. This song sold me on Radiohead, and for all its insanity, even my seven-year thinks it's a really fun song.
9. "Morning Bell" I love the fact that, though this song is an intentional come-down from "Idioteque," it still keeps momentum going. I also love how spaced-out, disconnected, yet strangely emotional and urgent Yorke makes the lyrics feel, juxtaposing the "women and children first" line of the previous song with this one's "cut the kids in half."
10. "Motion Picture Soundtrack" A bizarro closer, with harps and organ, like having a depressing meal in a 1940's restaurant while an unconvincing friend tells you everything is going to be okay. I love the silence afterward before the short hidden track. Hidden sound might be more apt, a gorgeous electronic object streaking through the sky, crashing into the ocean, and then illuminating the surface, promising some sort of new and beautiful change.


2000 Parlophone/Capitol
1. Everything in Its Right Place 4:11
2. Kid A 4:44
3. The National Anthem 5:51
4. How to Disappear Completely 5:56
5. Treefingers 3:42
6. Optimistic 5:15
7. In Limbo 3:31
8. Idioteque 5:09
9. Morning Bell 4:35
10. Motion Picture Soundtrack 7:00

Friday, September 22, 2017

Radiohead -- OK Computer


10/10

Radiohead excavated the buried treasure of their true gift at the end of sophomore album, The Bends: the ability to convey despair. Since they pulled this musical feeling from the pit of their hearts, they've little deviated from it, even as their sound changes in leaps and bounds.
From the first notes of Radiohead's junior effort, OK Computer, the music espouses a certain feeling tragedy like everything in the world is irrevocably wrong. As, I said above, this feeling would dominate the next ten years of Radiohead's work, until In Rainbows let in just a little light. I find all four of the albums Radiohead released between 1997-2003, despite their aural differences, to be thematically and emotionally interconnected--as singular as OK Computer is, taken as a part of a greater whole, it is even more magnificent. Musically, OK Computer takes the instruments from the previous guitar-driven rock work of the band's first two albums, and hands them to ghosts. This music sounds like it was recorded by the spectres of humanity after the apocalypse, and sent back as a haunting to their formerly living selves. Kid A, which I'll get to next, sounds like it takes place in the rubble of this apocalypse (that I am creating as my own narrative because 500,000 think pieces have been written in the last few months in support of OK Computer's 20th year anniversary, and if I'm going to add a 500,001st, I might as well make it my own...otherwise, why add to the noise?).
The band achieved OK Computer's spectral sound by heavily experimenting with effects pedals and electronics, while beefing up and giving greater prominence to their rhythm section. At the same time, it is clear that each of the players have greatly increased in talent and experience--these songs never start to blur together to me the way The Bends' do after a while. Vocalist/lyricist, Thom Yorke, has mastered the finer facets of his voice, and uses it to the emotional hilt, fully exercising his shrill, yet enjoyable falsetto at moments of peak feeling--something that The Nicsperiment, who can only sing on pitch in his falsetto, greatly appreciates.
Yorke's lyrics have morphed here from straightforward declarations of personal feeling, to metaphorical, metaphysical cultural commentary. He strongly excels at this...actually, the entire band strongly excel at everything they attempt here, giving Gen X their own Dark Side of the Moon, or whatever Baby Boomer rock album you think wildly and trippily experiments, while putting a hat on the alienating feelings of the time.
Critics have broken down these songs on a technical level to such a vast degree, it is nearly pointless for me to do the same, so the only thing that seems relevant is attempting to convey my own emotional reaction to OK Computer. The funny thing is that, living and attending high school in a rural town, with only the local college radio station to let me know what was considered cool, my initial contact with OK Computer was limited. I didn't really get into the band until they released Kid A, and honestly, seeing the artwork at the record store intrigued me to purchase that album as much as the music did. The random songs I did hear from OK Computer, like for instance, "Karma Police," or "No Surprises," didn't really tickle my fancy. It was not until a few years later, after Kid A, that I heard OK Computer in sequence, and experienced those songs true, monstrous power. So in that spirit, in sequence, how about I list the tracks side by side with a corresponding feeling.
1. "Airbag" "From an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe..." The task of this tragic, cosmic hero feels full of despairing futility, on an epic, universal stage.
2. "Paranoid Android" The despair becomes earthbound, hyperkinetic.
3. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" And suddenly things are chill, and a bit wistful, staring at the stars over tall pines.
4. "Exit Music (For a Film)" Until the quiet hate of this song, with "We hope that you choke" never sung so softly, and yet with such veracity, burns that forest down.
5. "Let Down" Total depression, so damn beautiful in its twinkly chimes like a wake-up call to the reality of fruitless striving, but it takes "Everything Meaningless" to such a monumental, universal level, that it's infinitely crushing, "Let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug in the ground," the rhythm section a boot, stomping you down. Makes me think of the album cover more than any song here. My favorite song from OK Computer, analogous to the "American Radiohead," Appleseed Cast's "Rooms and Gardens." Let me go sob despondently for a moment.
6. "Karma Police" This song is like you drop out of the last song into a quiet, brown-grey street, and are immediately and nonsensically arrested.
7. "Fitter Happier" The automated spoken word of this song might be more depressing than "Let Down." This album, by this point, would be the hugest downer ever recorded, if not for the singular artistry on display.
8. "Electioneering" Suddenly, things get wild and fun, out of control, even though it feels just a little wrong, like things are going off the rails.
9. "Climbing Up the Walls" They don't want to choke you anymore, they want to creep up behind you and, in a moment of supreme terror, bash your skull in.
10. "No Surprises" Well after all that, as you lie half-dead in the gutter, things might as well get a little twinkly again.
11. "Lucky" Another thing that draws the thin line demarcating this album in the masterpiece quadrant, and out of the depressing drag one--the inexplicably positive lyrics of this song, like "I feel my luck could change."
12. "The Tourist" There's some bizarre closure to this song that makes it feel like it could go on forever in its demands, "Hey man, slow down. Idiot! Slow down!" infinity being the very opposite of closure. This album is perfect. On to the apocalypse. After the following rabbit-trail:


If you've never suffered from depression, just imagine this song as your mindset every waking second. You can't move. And just like the middle of a depressive episode, it feels like there's no end or hope in sight. Of course, there is, but when you're in the middle of it, that doesn't even seem like an option or possibility. "Let Down" thoroughly encapsulates these feelings better than any other piece of music I've heard.
Sorry for this digression, but I'd be remiss to review this album, say I'm getting personal, and then not mention this. Thankfully, if your life is this song, there are ways out. From someone who's been there--and in the sense that this is something that must be actively fought for a lifetime, even if I feel fine right now, is there--there's no shame in finding help.

1997 Parlophone/Capitol
1. Airbag 4:44
2. Paranoid Android 6:23
3. Subterranean Homesick Alien 4:27
4. Exit Music (For a Film) 4:24
5. Let Down 4:59
6. Karma Police 4:21
7. Fitter Happier 1:57
8. Electioneering 3:50
9. Climbing Up the Walls 4:45
10. No Surprises 3:48
11. Lucky 4:19
12. The Tourist 5:24

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Radiohead -- The Bends


8/10

I didn't get into Radiohead until Kid A and Amnesiac, which came out, respectively, when I was in college. I loved the experimentation and atmosphere of those two albums, but was amused by comments from many long-term fans, and several fellow college DJ's who wished Radiohead "would get back to the three-guitar rock of The Bends." Surely, I thought, The Bends can't be as good as Kid A and Amnesiac.
I won't bury the lead: I do not think The Bends is as good as 2000's Kid A and 2001's Amnesiac. My favorite albums flow organically as albums, don't drag on too long, and finish exactly when they should. The Bends is a really good album. It is full of great alternative rock songs, with some great singing from Thom Yorke, who uses his falsetto to full affect. The band utilizes three guitars, and while the multiple guitar parts aren't always distinct, they form a warm, full sound, amplified by Johnny Greenwood's pursuit of interesting effects. The rhythm section are solid, though firmly relegated to supporting players, though this would become less and less true with each subsequent album. The songwriting is solid, and each track sounds like it could be coming out of a football stadium's speakers. Yorke, in particular here, really has a flair for the dramatic, as songs like the weepy ballad, "Fake Plastic Trees," feature impressive levels of emotion. In fact, you can easily visualize a hyper-emotional late 90's British tele-drama starring a young James McAvoy, as he stares out a rainy dorm room window, sulking about a girl, while many of these songs are playing--and I don't mean that as a negative. The Bends does go on too long, though, and I do mean that as a negative--somewhere around "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was," The Bends' ninth track, I generally check out. Checking out would be a mistake, though, as album closer, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" is one of the band's greatest songs, and an all-time great song, period. It is an unbelievably stark portrait of despair, and it hints at what's to come from this great band.

However, at the end of the day, Radiohead's subsequent albums feature a culturally transcendent, timeless quality, and The Bends, outside of "Street Spirit," is just a great bit of fun.

1995 Parlophone/Capitol
1. Planet Telex 4:19
2. The Bends 4:06
3. High and Dry 4:17
4. Fake Plastic Trees 4:50
5. Bones 3:09
6. (Nice Dream) 3:53
7. Just 3:54
8. My Iron Lung 4:36
9. Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was 3:28
10. Black Star 4:07
11. Sulk 3:42
12. Street Spirit (Fade Out) 4:12

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Radiohead -- Pablo Honey


6/10

"Inauspicious." Radiohead's debut album, Pablo Honey, borders on this classification. Radiohead, known for pushing borders just years later, began their career as a fairly generic mid-90's alt-rock band. I posited a theory three years ago that several nations have produced their own equivalent of a Radiohead. The Appleseed Cast in America (this is not a rogue opinion). Kent in Sweden. Kashmir in Denmark. All four pushed the rock music format into startling new territories, but not before kicking off their careers with non-noteworthy, yet enjoyable debuts. Radiohead's does feature a bona fide hit, though, in "Creep," a song from which the band have spent most of their career distancing themselves. "Creep" features a certain pop-chorus, belt-it-at-the-bar feeling none of the band's other songs inhabit, even on this album. However, "Creep" isn't the only departure from later Radiohead.
Through the entirety of Pablo Honey, vocalist, Thom Yorke, lyricises with more transparency than on any of the band's later work, singing nakedly about romantic relationships as his mates plug away at the aforementioned generic alt-rock sound. The music does begin to yield fruit as the album jangles along, particularly in its latter moments, with the emotive guitar of "Lurgee," and the extended psychedelic freak out of a closer, "Blow Out," a harbinger for the anxiety-laden atmosphere Radiohead would soon explore in full. While Pablo Honey might not blow anyone's mind, as debuts go, you could do a lot worse. Radiohead have nothing to be ashamed of here.
Radiohead - Blow Out [Pablo Honey] from faustidioteque on Vimeo.

1993 Parlophone/Capitol
1. You 3:29
2. Creep 3:56
3. How Do You? 2:12
4. Stop Whispering 5:26
5. Thinking About You 2:41
6. Anyone Can Play Guitar 3:38
7. Ripcord 3:10
8. Vegetable 3:13
9. Prove Yourself 2:25
10. I Can't 4:13
11. Lurgee 3:08
12. Blow Out 4:40

Monday, September 11, 2017

It's Radiohead Time!


Cool cache for hipsters who can't even comprehend them. The band who changed how music is sold. Musical interpreters of the modern age. In all the talk about cultural impact, marketplace impact, aesthetic impact, blah, blah, blah, something about Radiohead is generally lost in the mix: they are a great band who has created incredible music.
Coming up soon: The Nicsperiment breaks down every Radiohead album...while also focusing on all that other crap, too. How lucky for you, gentle reader. It's like you followed the rainbow and these reviews were in the pot of gold.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Thursday, August 31, 2017

So Much for P



P, you nearly killed me. Well, not you, but somebody nearly killed me while I was writing you. And my wife had major surgery. And my son caught pneumonia. And that is all in the last month. But then again, now I have a new vehicle I like immeasurably more than the last one. My wife and son are well. And you, P, are finished. On to Q. Wait, do I even have any Q's? Wait...none? Not even like a Queens of the Stone Age album or anything? Not even Queen? Nothing? Oh, well. On to R...starting with one of my favorite bands of all time...after these brief messages from our sponsors!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Public Image, Ltd. -- Second Edition


5/10

Beware the accolades of ancient hipsters.
Public Image, Ltd.'s 1979 release, Second Edition, is one of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all times. It's a: Post-punk masterpiece! Avant-garde epic!
 Public Image, Ltd.'s Second Edition is a landmark album only in that they got a major label to somehow release it. Some great basic ingredients are here. Jah Wobble (Google how he got this name, it's hilarious) is an excellent bassist for a beginner, and he lays down the bedrock of every track in a sort of punk-reggae-dub hybrid groove. If you buy this album, you'll be buying it for that. The drums are sometimes an excellent complement to the bass, and sometimes just barely passable--multiple people, some not drummers--played the drums on Second Edition. Then we get to the problems. The guitar playing, presaging new wave, and to some extent, the tone of U2's Edge, is sometimes great. Then, without warning, the guitarist will start playing bad notes. I don't know why. Is it some kind of cultural commentary--I could play beautifully...but instead I play badly...just like society?! I love the combination of dominant bass and drums with minimalist, atmosphere-painting guitar, so this could have been right up my alley. I guess my alley ain't dank enough.
Why sabotage your own songs? How can you call this album a classic when it isn't even listenable? Even the odd keyboard touches do little to help. Oh, yeah, and Johnny Rotten on vocals.
Maybe you've heard of the Sex Pistols--Rotten, nee Lydon, fronted that band, too. . In person, Lydon, though he can't sing to save his life, is a force of nature. His off key, off time vocals are a lot easier to accept when his trippy, spiked visage is blurring in and out of your vision. I really enjoy the below live performance, to be honest. I think it presages bands like Radiohead ("Idioteque" comes to mind).

But on record, Lydon's constant wailing is a lot harder to take, as is the entire arrangement.

There are few musical acts I don't enjoy that I wish I did as much as this one. The visual aesthetic and idea of Public Image Ltd. are something I should really love on paper. But yikes, in reality, I don't! What an apt name!

1979 Virgin
1. Albatross 10:34
2. Memories 5:05
3. Swan Lake 4:11
4. Poptones 7:46
5. Careering 4:32
6. Socialist 3:09
7. Graveyard 3:07
8. The Suit 3:29
9. Bad Baby 4:30
10. No Birds 4:41
11. Chant 5:01
12. Radio 4 4:2

Friday, August 25, 2017

Propellerheads -- Decksandrumsandrockandroll


8/10

Like most folks who watched the Matrix in the theater, I was most impressed with the lobby shootout scene, and my favorite musical cue from that film was that scene's accompanying track. That was a fun theater experience even before the movie began, as I had to sneak my younger cousin into the film--post-Columbine, society's badly misaimed response was to crack down on movies and video games, instead of simply trying to better understand sociopathy. But The Rabbit and I would not be denied.
I, being of legal age, bought a Matrix ticket for myself, and he bought a ticket for EDtv, which I've heard is lousy. He did not see EDtv that day, and the thrill of sneaking him into that movie makes me feel sorry for kids coming of age in the era of assigned movie seats. How are you supposed to hide comfortably in the back row of Most Recent Sex Comedy or Newest Bloody Action Movie when some old biddy is looking at her stub, then at you, then at the seat, then back at you, then telling you to move? THAT'S ABSOLUTELY INTOLERABLE! SHE'S NOT EVEN GOING TO ENJOY THE MOVIE! THE DEMOGRAPHIC IS "FIFTEEN YEAR-OLD MALE!!!"
Anyway, in the joy that I get to regale of tales of 1999 in two reviews straight, I'm happy to say we got to see The Matrix uninterrupted on the big screen, and I immediately sought out whoever did the bass-centric music for that lobby scene.
Turns out it's a duo called Propellerheads. They have one album to their name, Decksandrumsandrockandroll, a cool blend of drum 'n'bass and cinematic touches, like a big orchestra on the reinvisioning of John Barry's theme to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service (the most underrated Bond film of all time)." Indeed, these tracks seem tailor-made to back the cinema of the late 1990's, carrying that "detritus of the 20th century" vibe I love, also found in say the music of Portishead or The Dust Brothers, though without the downbeat feel of the former, or the dark grimy layers of the latter. This is just cool, fun, mostly instrumental music, with a great energy, timeless in its datedness...and also, very, very British.
Decksandrumsandrockandroll does get a little grating in a couple of moments, namely in the repetition of its closer, but the overall quality is surprisingly on par with "Spybreak!," the song from The Matrix that hooked me so long ago.
It's as guilt-free as sneaking your 15-year-old cousin into a classic film!

Also, for some reason, watching them Matrix hasn't yet inspired him to recreate its violence.
I THOUGHT THEY SAID IT WAS THE MOVIES AND VIDEOGAMES!!!*

*movies and video games shown to cause mass incidents of run-on sentences and ALL CAPS

1998 DreamWorks
1. Take California 7:21
2. Velvet Pants 5:46
3. Better? 2:03
4. 360° (Oh Yeah?) 4:27
5. History Repeating 4:02
6. Winning Style 5:58
7. Bang On! 5:44
8. A Number Of Microphones 0:45
9. On Her Majesty's Secret Service 9:20
10. Bigger? 2:20
11. Cominagetcha 7:02
12. Spybreak! 6:58
13. You Want It Back 5:59

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Promise Ring -- Very Emergency


7/10

Under the looming shadow of Y2K, and the imminent removal of a possibly cancerous mass from my lower back, I spent a quiet autumn Friday night behind the cash register at my local Winn Dixie grocery store. A half-a-mile away, the majority of my high school senior classmates were either playing in my rural high school's homecoming football game, cheerleading, or watching. I never planned to be the guy who never went to anything--it was a conspiratorial effort between the previously-mentioned medical problem and something I'll just euphemistically, for the sake of brevity, call "family problems" that led to my solitary state.
Perhaps because I had just listened to Weezer's "Good Life," or perhaps because of a girl, or perhaps because I noticed the clock on my youth was about to hit midnight, I decided that as soon as I got off of work, I would meet my fellow classmates in the middle of a nowhere field to burn down a giant pyre of wood. My younger sister, who drove from the harmful events of our shared childhood in exactly the opposite direction as I did, was likely already at bonfire getting sloshed, and would certainly need a ride home. In that glorious age, none of us had cell phones, and actual word of mouth was quite important. However, in this case, I did need a phone, and as soon as I finished my shift, I drove over to the moonlit, south Louisiana Shell Station, and plopped a quarter in the payphone. "Hey, mom, I'm going to bonfire, I'll bring sister home, okay bye," I said, and hung up before you she could articulate even the preamble of her dissension. I hopped in my car with a rush of energy I hadn't felt in ages, popped on the radio, and jammed its offering to my night of carefree youth.

And yes, high-jinks did indeed ensue. Among my favorites:
-told a stranger how badly I was going to kick the ass of the guy dating the girl I drove there for, only for that stranger to actually be that boyfriend (he was strangely more reticent to inflict personal harm on someone his own size than he was on his 5'2" girlfriend--admittedly, my interests in the situation were more protective than romantic, and they broke up shortly after, so mission accomplished)
-a friend gave some girls fruit juice (or "jungle juice") he told them he'd spiked with vodka, only to confide in me as we watched those girls get sloppy drunk to the point of slurring their speech and falling over, that "I actually didn't put anything in that. They literally just got drunk on orange juice."
-someone tipped off the police that underage drinking was going down in mass quantities, they arrived, set up a barricade around the field, and announced that, in the interest of keeping drunk drivers off the highway, no one could leave
-my best friend at the time hopped into his V10-powered Crown Vic, rumored to have been bought by his mom from police auction, and tore threw a muddy unblocked corner of the field. He offered me a ride, but I didn't want to leave behind my car....or sister. We joked that he would get stuck after five feet, but by the time his headlights faded to pinpricks, then turned onto the highway, all we could do was whistle
-a near fistfight ensued when it was discovered that another friend, who had arrived shortly before the police, revealed he had run by McDonalds and had a 20-count McNugget in his car. Everybody wanted those damn nuggets
-you can only stare at a police siren while sitting next to potheads for so long before feeling a little high yourself
-around 3 am, the cops finally started letting people leave. I dug up my sister, who did indeed get completely sloshed. "Nice job!" I told her as I helped her into my passenger seat. "If they ask us anything when we are leaving, just pretend you are asleep," I said
-with my window rolled down, and a flashlight in my face
"You haven't been drinking anything, right, The Nicsperiment? You're a good kid."
"That's right sir, never."
"How about your sister there? She doesn't look too good."
"No, sir. She is very tired. She normally doesn't stay up this late."
"Okay, the Nicsperiment, that's a good boy, now be careful.
"Thank you, sir."
-unfortunately, at 3 am, most rural south Louisiana backroads are pretty foggy, and this was a regular Victorian nightmare. I couldn't see five feet from the car in any direction, and back then, GPS was just a thing the military used to shot missiles at Saddam. I drove roughly five miles in the wrong direction before turning around. I don't remember how late we got home, but my mom was awake in a kitchen chair like some solemn, angry ghost. I couldn't have cared less. I slept in the next day, picked up my cousin, and drove to the LSU game. That is still, likely, the best year of my life.
Years later, I thought about that song on that drive, and picked up The Promise Ring's Very Emergency. It's a solid pop rock album.

1999 Jade Tree
1. Happiness Is All the Rage 2:55
2. Emergency! Emergency! 2:56
3. The Deep South 3:42
4. Happy Hour 3:05
5. Things Just Getting Good 4:45
6. Living Around 4:05
7. Jersey Shore 2:39
8. Skips a Beat (Over You) 2:01
9. Arms and Danger 3:23
10. All of My Everythings 5:35

Monday, August 14, 2017

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Star Fox Adventures -- The Review You Never Knew You Wanted!



Slowly following up on my promise to dedicate more time to reviewing Nintendo GameCube games (even more slowly now that I have a Breath of the Wild-fueled Switch), here's a review for the unfairly maligned Star Fox Adventures. You can check it out at either The GameCube Archives or Classic Video Game Reviews.
Also, I just realized, after sixteen years, that it is "GameCube," not "Gamecube." Poor GameCube.

Friday, August 04, 2017

So Now What Do You Think About Project 86? Well, I'll Tell You! Reflections on a Month of Reviewing the Most Underrated Band in Christian Hard Rock.



Okay, why are you so high on this band?
Project 86 have existed through plenty of heavy music fads. They came up in the era of rap-rock and nu-metal, then existed through screamo, and metalcore, through whatever it is is existing right now. They've always sounded different from the pack, no matter what they're doing. I don't think you can pin them to any of those genres. They've changed their sound from album to album. None of their albums sounds like another--not by them or anyone. They constantly experiment. When they broke up, their frontman still managed to create a great album in the band's name. They have one of the most bizarre and winding stories in modern rock history. They deserve vastly more attention for successfully pushing the envelope, particularly in the hard rock world.

Twenty-one years of existence isn't anything to shake a stick at? How has this band created music for this long?
Because Andrew Schwab is crazy. No, seriously, the guy has kept this band alive through sheer force of his will. The first decade of this band's existence is marked by the unique elements each of its four members brought to the table. All but Schwab left shortly into the second, and he's still consistently putting out albums under the band's name. One of them is even better than the majority of albums the band made with its core quartet.

Okay. That's cool. Now rank their albums from best to worst. Do it now!
How about from favorite to least favorite...music being subjective and all.

I knew you would say something annoying like that. Alright, go ahead.
Well, wait this is hard.

I believe in you.
Thanks.

Okay, now give me the list.
1. Songs to Burn Your Bridges By
2. Drawing Black Lines
3. Wait for the Siren
4. Rival Factions
5. Truthless Heroes
6. Self-titled
7. Knives to the Future
8. ...And the Rest Will Follow
9. Picket Fence Cartel

Do you think Project 86 will ever get the recognition they deserve?
No. I think a small group of core fans will always cherish and remember what Project 86 have given us, and another contingent who only noticed who the band was touring with will remember them as "that late 90's rap-metal Christian band with the afro-singer." Everyone else, in the face of a never-ending avalanche of new music, will remain indifferent.

What's next?
Even though I've got at least another couple of years left in this "Every Album I Own" series, I feel like I'm entering the home stretch. Six years of reviewing, and I'm almost through "P." Feels pretty good. Excited about the letter "S," particularly.

Cool. Anything else you want to say?
A lot, actually, but I'll say it later.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Project 86 -- Knives to the Future


7/10

Darren King is the guitar player, and I am assuming primary songwriter, for the rock band The Overseer. I saw the cover artwork for their 2012 debut album, We Search, We Dig, and got really excited. However, upon listening, I was a little disappointed. King's guitar playing is unique, and very enjoyable at times, but it also has no recognition of the term "space." His style is angular, by which I mean if you were drawing a line to attempt to correspond to the frequently changing sounds coming out of King's guitar, you would be making a lot of angles--it's like his hands have ADD. It's like he's trying to create a tango with a heavily distorted electric guitar. This can get tiring, and it is extremely difficult to create a song in this style that can run for longer than three minutes.
For Knives to the Future, Project 86's second crowd-funded album after the incredible Wait for the Siren, frontman (and only remaining member), Andrew Schwab, enlisted King's talents on guitar. Andrew Schwab doesn't play any instruments, which left King to write Knives to the Future's music. Unfortunately, in this case, King's style is so singular, Knives to the Future ends up sounding like an Overseer album with Andrew Schwab on vocals. Added to these problems, whoever mixed this album almost completely forgot about the bass, and the low end of the drums. The first couple of songs sound like cymbal hell, trebly distorted guitar and no bass to speak of. This, after the much lower-budgeted Wait for the Siren killed it in the mix--you could feel the low end in your gut. Thankfully, Knives to the Future's bass and non-cymbal/snare drum pieces get turned up in the fifth track's bridge, and hang around the majority of the time after that, but how could the mix, overall, be so bungled? Considering Schwab got the same bassist from ...Siren to return, and that that bassist presumably has the same rig, here, there is absolutely no excuse. And there's no way new drummer, Ryan Wood, wants his kit to sound like this. In the album's worst moments, it's like someone is just spraying a hose at the cymbals and mic'ing it. Just dreadful!
I am being more abusive in my verbiage because of how disappointing all those factors are, after the absolutely perfect Wait for the Siren. After piecing together such an absolutely stunning album out of parts for that one, Schwab conditioned me for greatness. Knives to the Future is nowhere close to the level of ...Siren.
With all that said, Knives to the Future is not a terrible album. Despite the lousy mix, and the fact that King hasn't yet learned that he doesn't have to constantly strum his guitar and change chords every second, Knives to the Future is solid. A major reason for this is the consistency of Schwab's concept, lyrics, and performance. Knives to the Future tells the story of a soldier who wakes up on a battlefield, surrounded by corpses, with no memory of who he is. Schwab's passion permeates every line, going from screams, to howls, to quite respectable singing. Many times, the songs work, even if it isn't on a consistent basis. The album also get better as it progresses, peaking at the stunning eighth track, "Genosha." Schwab used some of the crowd-raised Indiegogo funds to pay for strings in a few songs, just as he did with celtic instrumentation on Wait for the Siren. While the strings aren't utilized as well, and aren't as memorable of Siren's additional instrumentation, they are still appreciated, particularly in the intro of the powerful "Genosha," which describes a dysfunctional father-son relationship.
 With the album's protagonist finding peace in death at Knives to the Future's end, the album actually feels like a fitting swansong for Project 86, even if it doesn't come anywhere close to the peaks of some of their previous work...but it's not. Andrew Schwab, with what looks like the same players featured on Knives to the Future, has crowdfunded yet another Project 86 album, in time for the 20th anniversary of Project 86's founding. He got yours truly to donate yet again. The album is coming this autumn. We'll see how it stacks up.
I wrote this review at a Starbucks.


2014 Team Black
1. Intro 1:10
2. Spirit of Shiloh 3:47
3. Acolyte March 3:12
4. Knives to the Future 3:17
5. Son of Flame 3:38
6. Captive Bolt Pistol 2:32
7. Ambigram 2:36
8. Genosha 3:38
9. Pale Rider 3:47
10. Valley of Cannons 2:55
11. White Capstone 3:40
12. Oculus 6:43

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Project 86- Wait for the Siren


10/10

What the heck? After a lackluster 2009 album, and a subsequent label-dropping, and a period where all of the members but the vocalist left, yet the vocalist still continued to refer to the band as "we," Project 86 releases one of, if not the best album under their name, Wait for the Siren. To make Wait for the Siren, that vocalist, Andrew Schwab, now missing a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, enlisted some friends to help, and created a crowdfunding campaign. I backed it, not expecting much, and feeling conflicted about Schwab keeping the band going without its original musicians. Eight months later, the CD arrived in my mailbox.
It's lovely to find that something you weren't even anticipating to be good is excellent. From "Fall Goliath Fall"'s opening seconds, Wait for the Siren shows itself to be a special album. A variety of celtic instruments play out a surprising intro, before crushing guitar and booming drums, featuring energetic fills, take over. The bass, as in Project 86's heyday, is turned up loud in the mix. Schwab's vocals are as solid as ever, lending inspiring lyrics to this inspired instrumentation, as the celtic instruments weave in and out of the song. What follows over the next twelve tracks is a brilliant mix of Project 86's heavier side, with a more diverse offering of straightforward rock, as well, and some surprisingly emotional softer songs.
The pacing is perfect, with neither side of the Project 86's sound wearing out its welcome, and the band never settling in the middle too long, either. I say "band," but here in the playing and songwriting, it's a miraculous mix of Living Sacrifice/Evanescence's Rocky Gray on drums, and The Wedding's Cody Driggers on bass, with A Plea for Purging's Blake Martin, Disciple's Andrew Welch, and newcomer, Dustin Lowery, all passing around the guitar. This shouldn't work, and it certainly shouldn't sound like Project 86, but somehow it does and it does. I won't even try to understand how.
Somehow, Schwab willed a quintessential Project 86 album into existence without the participation of any of the original band members, despite the fact that Schwab doesn't even play an instrument. His voice, though, is in top form, sounding great in his trademark yowling for the heavier songs, but belting out some surprisingly fine singing in the instrumentally lighter songs. His decision to bring in the celtic instrumentation also pays off brilliantly--the mandolin, dulcimer, and pipes only pop up on four songs, but they're done and spread out in such a way that they feel ever-present.
With that that added touch, Wait for the Siren takes on the high honor of sounding like Project 86, and yet having its own unique aural identity in the Project 86 catalogue. It might be the most diverse album to the band's name, the most interesting, the most affecting--and it's also received the best critical reviews of any album under the Project 86 banner.
Being at a crossroads in life when Wait for the Siren was released, I found the album vital (it topped my best of 2012 list--and I think that was a pretty great year in music). I still do. Sometimes you just take a miracle without question.
But there is a question. Randy Torres, Steven Dail, and Alex Albert had nothing to do with the creation of Wait for the Siren. Before it was released, I was of the opinion that the album should have been put out under a different band name. I am quite sure those three men feel the same way. However, upon listening, this album sounds uniquely Project 86. It contains an autumnal, epic feel that only that band can conjure. This is a Project 86 album. And it's a great one.

2012 Team Black
1. Fall Goliath Fall 4:16
2. SOTS (featuring Bruce Fitzhugh) 3:16
3. Omerta's Sons 3:34
4. Off the Grid 2:58
5. New Transmission 3:08
6. Defector 3:40
7. The Crossfire Gambit (featuring Brian "Head" Welch) 3:15
8. Blood Moon 4:10
9. Above the Desert Sea 4:14
10. Ghosts of Easter Rising 3:45
11. Avalantia 4:15
12. Take the Hill 5:08
13. Wait for the Siren 2:11

Monday, July 24, 2017

Project 86 -- 15. Live


8/10

In 2010, Project 86 ended the weirdest, most mysterious phase of their career with a live album performed by an anonymous band. I'm not exaggerating on the "weird" part. Project 86 recorded five albums with the same four members, announced the departure of their drummer, recorded another album, and then...the guitarist and the bassist left the band to no announcement. An album, Picket Fence Cartel, was recorded with the vocalist, maybe the bassist, and several anonymous players. And then, for some reason, remaining member Andrew Schwab decided this would be the perfect time for Project 86 to release their first live album.
I'll get this out of the way first: 15. Live is an extremely enjoyable live album, featuring rousing hard rock performances of a greatest hits melange from six of the seven albums Project 86 had released up to this point. It's an extremely fun listen, and I've spun it plenty of times. The instruments are incredibly clear in the mix, and Schwab's vocals sound solid. I love the song selection, even though it would have been nice to add just one number from the self-titled debut (it's the only album not represented here). The song order flows together almost perfectly. But who the heck is being called Project 86 here?
The album artwork features awesome stylized portraits of Andrew Schwab on vocals, a faceless guitarist, a faceless bassist, and a faceless drummer. It also notes that the album was recorded on the band's summer 2010 tour, but doesn't list any shows, making it even more difficult to pinpoint who is performing here. It's so strange that Schwab would not only want to record a live album at this moment in the band's careet, but name it after the amount of years Project 86 have been making music, when the guys who wrote all that music are no longer in the band...then again, he wrote all of these lyrics, and I'm sure he wrote them in a Project 86 headspace. He may feel just as much ownership for the songs as the original musicians.
For a fan, 15. Live is a strange, conflicting experience. This is one of my favorite bands because of the contributions of each member...all but one of those members are gone...and yet, this album sounds great. I really enjoy it. Two years later, this juxtaposition of emotions would only become more stark.


2010 Team Black
1. Sincerely, Ichabod 4:31
2. Safe Haven 3:29
3. Oblivion 4:09
4. The Butcher 3:03
5. Last Meal 3:50
6. Me Against Me 3:34
7. SMC 3:03
8. Illuminate 3:02
9. Evil 3:05
10. Destroyer 4:51
11. Stein's Theme 4:15
12. The Spy Hunter 4:20

Friday, July 21, 2017

Project 86 -- Picket Fence Cartel


6/10

2009, for The Nicsperiment, was a disappointing year in music. The Nicsperiment hated all of the critical darlings of that year--Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors--and others' interest in those bands seems to have been quite ephemeral considering none of these acts have never been heard from again. When all your fans are hipsters, they won't be fans for long. Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite bands also put out disappointing music in 2009. With little interest in the new music of the year, and my own favorites disappointing me, my top nine albums list from that year is extremely lackluster. Outside of my top three (which I think are legitimately good), I had to insert filler like I've never had before or since. With youtube making a multitude of music so easily discoverable, I don't think that will ever happen to me, The Nicsperiment, again. However, even under those 2009 circumstances, Project 86's Picket Fence Cartel barely made my list.
On first listen to Picket Fence Cartel, I had a strange sensation: This does not sound like Project 86. Yes, the music is heavy. On a pure genre level, this is more in line with Project 86's past work than their previous album, Rival Factions. However, that album still sounded like Project 86. This does not sound like Project 86.
Listen after listen, I could not shake this feeling. Vocalist, Andrew Schwab, guitarist, Randy Torres, and bassist, Steven Dail, were all in the promotional photos, but outside of Schwab's vocals, a completely generic band could have played Picket Fence Cartel's music. Where were Steven Dail's thick, dominant basslines? Completely absent. Where were Randy Torres' increasingly frenetic guitar lines and his distinct background vocals? Completely absent. What about Jason Gerken's steroidal drumming? Completely absent. Instead, it's a mix of fairly generic hard rock with keyboard adding dark atmosphere. But what about Andrew Schwab's deep, introspective lyrics? Absent. Schwab has never hidden his faith (well, maybe a little during the Truthless Heroes phase), but instead of racking up J's per-minute, he's managed to use it as a lens in which he lyrically interprets life--causing most of the band's previous albums to be deeply spiritual experiences. Picket Fence Cartel's lyrics are straightforwardly religious, and on a pretty basic "I just got saved" level. This is a disappointment not only for non-Christian fans, but for longtime Christian fans (like myself) who want something deeper, and have grown to expect it from Project 86. Lame.
So what's the deal? How did Project 86 go from a career peak to a career valley over the course of just one album? Why doesn't Picket Fence Cartel even sound like Project 86? I've spent the last eight years pondering that question, and now I finally know the answer.
I recently came across an interview of Randy Torres by Stavesacre's own Mark Salomon, for Salomon's podcast, Never Was. Turns out, Torres did not play or sing a note of Picket Fence Cartel. He left the band months before Picket Fence Cartel's recording sessions even began. He only appeared in the promotional photos for the album at Schwab's request, to keep up appearances. Outside of those who were in the recording sessions, no one knows who actually played guitar on Picket Fence Cartel. My guess is co-producer, Jason Martin. Martin's main act, Starflyer 59, is a favorite of mine, but hard rock isn't exactly his style, and the fairly generic nature of the guitar-playing would make sense--Martin playing in a genre he isn't comfortable with would produce unremarkable work for that genre. Plus, on the standout moments, like the call-and-response guitar line of "The Black Brigade," the guitar sounds like 2009-era Starflyer 59, not Project 86.
Indeed, it's these definitely-not-Project 86 moments that are truly standout. I'm thinking specifically of the aforementioned guitar in "The Black Brigade," the echo-laden guitar of "Dark Angel Dragnet"'s verses, the punk rock fury of "Two Glass Eyes," and the old southern spiritual vibe that shows up early in the album's keyboards, and pays off in the final three tracks in background vocal form. This conjures images of the devil chasing Schwab along the Mississippi bank at midnight, full moon coming in through oak boughs. The sheer force of will in Schwab's vocals is also a plus, even if his lyrics aren't up to scratch. These combined factors make Picket Fence Cartel a listenable, slightly above average rock album...but they do nothing to make the album sound like Project 86. And where is Steven Dail? His bass is completely subdued, background noise. Maybe he was busy focusing on the guitars? Who knows. So much of this album is a mystery, and will remain so until those who played on it offer more information. As it stands, Picket Fence Cartel is my least favorite of Project 86's albums, if it's even a Project 86 album at all.


2009 Tooth & Nail
1. Destroyer 4:49
2. The Butcher 3:02
3. The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts 3:12
4. Dark Angel Dragnet 3:23
5. Cold and Calculated 3:38
6. Cement Shoes 3:56
7. A John Hancock with the Safety Off 3:16
8. Two Glass Eyes 3:28
9. Cyclonus 3:46
10. The Black Brigade 2:54
11. To Sand We Return 4:35

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Project 86 -- The Kane Mutiny EP / This Time of Year EP


7/10

The Kane Mutiny EP puts a bow on the trio + Jason Gerken on drums phase of Project 86, with three previously unreleased songs recorded during the Rival Factions sessions, plus two  remixes of ...And the Rest Will Follow songs...creating an interesting, if non-cohesive five-song listening experience. Also, I've always wanted to put both a plus-sign, and the word "plus" into a sentence together. Mission accomplished.
The three songs from the Rival Factions sessions are all great, just about as good as anything on that excellent album. However, I can't see where any of them would have fit on Rival Factions. "The Kane Mutiny" is not quite on par with Rival Faction's other faced-paced songs, "Lucretia, My Reflection" is a cover song (an awesome cover song), and would have stuck out like a sore thumb as the only one on an album of originals, and "Rte. 66," though a total stunner, nevertheless features a straightforward declaration of faith completely lacking in Rival Factions' ten tracks--it just doesn't fit the theme of the full length. Thankfully, these three songs are collected here for the Project 86 fan's listening pleasure.

It's a curious choice to follow these three with remixes of songs from two albums before, but it seems the band wanted to give listeners more bang for their buck. The first is a cover of "Something We Can't Be" by Echoing Green cult legend Joey Belville, and it's just fine. The second is possibly longtime band guitarist Randy Torres' final contribution to the band (it's extremely difficult to tell exactly where in the band's discography Torres left), a remix of "From December." It's not bad, and helped launch Torres into a pretty storied sound design career.
If you're a fan, you should pick this up (it's only available digitally). If you're only a casual listener...eh...Youtube the first three songs...this isn't really a great place to start. Then again, if you're a fan, you probably already on The Kane Mutiny EP.


6/10

Here is where things get murky. No one knows for sure who is playing the instruments on the This Time of Year EP, outside of whoever was in the studio recording it. The drums no longer sound like they're being pounded by Gerken, and the feeling of the music doesn't bring to mind Torres work (he could have been there and phoning it in, I guess). It is known definitively that Torres left before the band recorded their next full length, but this EP is a bit of a mystery. Bassist, Steven Dail, likely played here, even though his distinctive style is absent. The band's style in general is actually fairly absent, making the prospect of Project 86 doing Christmas music less promising. What's here is murky, fairly generic sounding hard rock, with a creepy abandoned mall throughline, highlighted by plenty of haunting keyboard. Most of the songs here are originals, and none stick much, outside of "Misfit Toys," whose music and lyrical content click just right. Someone made a video for the song with footage from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer that fits its atmosphere and themes perfectly. I'd almost say this EP is worth it just for that song. If you like "Misfit Toys," you'll probably be okay with the rest. The other songs aren't bad, just a bit boring, though I do enjoy the atmosphere. I think it's at least worth a listen. Though it doesn't tickle my fancy as much as I'd like it to, this feels like one of the more subjective listens in Project 86's discography, mystery musicians or not.


2007 Tooth & Nail Records
1. The Kane Mutiny 3:31
2. Lucretia, My Reflection (The Sisters of Mercy cover) 3:41
3. Rte. 66 3:52
4. Something We Can't Be (Joey B. Remix) 3:40
5. From December (Randy T. Mix) 4:08

2008 Team Black
1. This Time of the Year 2:46
2. Wrought on This Holiday's Eve 3:14
3. Shiny Skin 3:46
4. Misfit Toys 3:26
5. What Child? 3:54

Friday, July 14, 2017

Project 86 -- Rival Factions


10/10

After listening to Rival Factions, Project 86’s sixth studio album, it’s clear what went wrong with their fifth, …And the Rest Will Follow. On album number five, the band clearly wanted to experiment, but instead of diving in, the band skittered around a sound not quite committed to experimentation or their more emblematic hard rock…crafting music that seemed, for a band known for its passion, a little half-hearted. On Rival Factions, the band, now a three-piece, dive headfirst into a deep-sea of experimentation.
The Nicsperiment thinks that most great albums have a clear, decisive palette of sounds. Rival Factions is a great album, blending an aggressive guitar tone from Randy Torres that bounces from deep crunch to high-frequency freak-outs, fluid, crunchy bass by Steven Dail, keyboard that ranges from 80’s nostalgia to Halloween creep house, and a truly inspired vocal performance from Andrew Schwab, who balances some of his most aggressive shrieking with his most powerful singing to date. However, the true star of the album is Jason Gerken, filling in on drums for the recently departed (from the band, not life) Alex Albert. Albert’s drumming was one of Project 86’s most distinctive features, so for Gerken to come in and do something completely different and have it work so well feels like a minor miracle. Gerken’s fast-paced, highly energetic drumming takes every song to an unprecedented level. The production, aided by Dail and Torres, is clear and punchy. With these weapons at their disposal, Project 86 pares the tracklist down to the shortest since their debut, with shorter track times, creating a lean, mean, unpredictable snake of an album. This sound caught many listeners off guard, causing some to dismiss it outright. Considering this might just be the definitive work of Project 86’s career, that’s a shame.
Rival Factions opens with three of the more aurally vituperative songs of the bands career, culminating with the insane “The Forces of Radio Have Dropped a Viper into the Rhythm Section.” This latter song lyrically posits the band as an indestructible analog force in a digital world, ironic as Live Free or Die Hard premiered three days later (ten years ago…and man, can my facebook-less, smartphone-less self still relate to that theme!). This somehow segues perfectly into the soaring 80’s dance-influenced “Molotov,” a shocking juxtaposition with the last song, and yet somehow the only logical thing that could follow. The album only gets weirder from here, flirting with aggression again on “Slaves to Liberty” before unleashing the bizarre, dark, yet fun goth-pop of “Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer.” These are all true things I am saying.
The final four tracks get even stranger, with the dance-mosh of “Illuminate,” the razor-sharp riffing of “Sanctuary Hum,” the sounds-like-what-it’s-called “Caveman Jams,” and the new-wave contemplation of album-closer, “Normandy.” None of these songs should work alone, and especially not in conjunction with one other, but somehow they do, and they do so perfectly. Each song complements the next ones, the former ones, it’s like this came from some alternate dimension. Yet this strangeness is not alienating, but creates a strange feeling of intimacy. Schwab’s lyrics, possibly the best of his career, discuss conflict (hence the album title) in relatable terms, matching the conflict of the disparate sounds that make up Rival Factions. Even the album artwork, featuring a sort of decoder jewel case, is some of the best of the CD-era. It’s all too good to be true.
Randy Torres, who names this his favorite of the band’s work, left after Rival Factions. Steven Dail was soon to follow. Gerken was just a temporary, hired hand. Nothing gold can stay.


2007 Tooth & Nail Records
1. Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)3:03
2. Put Your Lips to the TV 2:49
3. The Forces of Radio Have Dropped a Viper into the Rhythm Section 2:51
4. Molotov 3:12
5. Slaves to Liberty 3:02
6. Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer 3:56
7. Illuminate 2:40
8. The Sanctuary Hum 5:01
9. Caveman Jam 3:18
10. Normandy 5:03