Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Albums 2014 - Top Ten

A diverse year for music, here are my favorite albums of 2014. Enjoy. . . .

1. D'Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah (9/10)

Enigmatic and reclusive Richmond, VA, soul man D'Angelo has been a favorite of mine since the mid-90's when he dropped his debut album Brown Sugar - an exceptional 1995 launch that vaulted over its tepid R&B and "neo-soul" competition by merging tough hip-hop swagger with throwback musicality and charm. I even picked that album's version of "Cruisin'" over Smokey Robinson's 1979 original to sit alongside classic cuts by Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Withers on my wedding goodie-bag mix CD three years ago.

So, after a fourteen year hiatus plagued by legal troubles, substance abuse, weight gain, and the paralyzing anxiety of high expectation to follow up his acclaimed sophomore album, Voodoo from 2000, D'Angelo finally, and without much warning, dropped his long awaited third LP Black Messiah just a couple weeks back.  Billed as an album by D'Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah, was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York with lyrical and instrumental support from usual suspects Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Kendra Foster of Funkadelic, Questlove of the Roots, and renowned bass player Pino Palladino (who toured with Nine Inch Nails last year).

Black Messiah finds D'Angelo back in the groove, drawing from a deep well of black American music - jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, hip-hop, and beyond.  With lush instrumentation paired alongside unorthodox vocal gymnastics, the album is an expansive collage of freeform jams and off-kilter rhythms that recall Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Prince.  To be expected, Black Messiah, boasts a plethora of panty-dropping odes to love and sex like "Really Love" with its Spanish guitar and honey-sweet string orchestration, closing stunner "Another Life" with its flower-child psych embellishments and soaring multi-tracked vocals,  and "Sugah Daddy" with its lascivious pillow talk and playful vaudevillian piano, horn licks, and tap dance beats.

However, the album's true backbone is its unsettling political and existential subtext.   With its lo-fi cacophony of screeching guitar, plucked electric bass, and 808 kicks set to a muffled breakbeat, "1000 Deaths" uncoils like a seething animal - "They're gonna send me over the hill/ Because a coward dies a thousand times/ But a soldier only dies just once."  By comparison, "The Charade" is disarmingly saccharine with its meandering sitar and female vocal harmonies but its lyrics are no less chilling in light of current racial strife in America - "All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk/ Feet have bled a million miles we've walked/ Revealing at the end of the day, the charade."  Later "Till It's Done" laments a dismal state of human and environmental affairs over Questlove's gentle backbeat - "What have we become?/ Tragedy flows unbound and there's no place to run/ Till it's done."        

Some have compared D'Angelo's Black Messiah to vintage landmarks like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and I can't disagree.  Despite a decade plus gestation, Black Messiah does echo the socio-political tension, unease, and turbulence in America over the last year, not just through its timely lyrics delivered by D'Angelo in eccentric vocal tics, mumbles, and pained howls, but also in its jarring patchwork production and unhinged sonic arrangements.  D'Angelo himself apparently rushed the album release in the wake of recent turmoil on the streets of Ferguson and New York City.  It may be premature to call Black Messiah a classic of its time, and D'Angelo himself denies that the album title is self-referential, but it certainly does sound like the work of a man resurrected and delivering a musical message many people have been waiting a long time to hear.    

2.  Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun (8/10)

Mastodon, the Atlanta, GA, progressive-sludge four-piece, reached metal primacy in the 00's with a quadrilogy of highly celebrated concept albums - 2004's Leviathan arguably their artistic peak.  By 2011 however, Mastodon sidestepped expectation and released the polished and relatively uncomplicated The Hunter to mixed fan reaction.  This year's Once More 'Round the Sun, Mastodon's sixth outing, proves equally divisive but exceptional nonetheless.  Here the band delivers a dense collection of efficiently sculpted hard rockers while producer Nick Raskulinecz lends the album a raw clamorous atmosphere.  Brann Dailor, the band's phenom drummer and spiritual leader, takes the spotlight here - providing the album with propulsive jazz rhythm, lyrical heft, and its finest vocal performances; like on bombastic anthem "The Motherload."  A stellar album, Once More 'Round the Sun reaffirms the band's towering stature in contemporary metal and rock&roll.

3.  Aphex Twin - Syro (8/10)

Thirteen years after releasing his last album, the onerous double-disc Drukqs, influential UK electronica producer Aphex Twin returned with his sixth official studio LP Syro.  Aphex Twin always had an impish penchant for the ugly and the absurd so I expected Syro to be a piss-take mashup of irritating drill&bass and chalkboard frequencies.  Surprisingly, this turns out to be Aphex Twin's most palatable and funky statement to date.  Rich in texture, with analog synth and jittery robo-rhythm in constant oscillation across the stereo field, Syro finds Aphex Twin inspired, reenergized, and paying homage to some of his musical contemporaries and acolytes.  Evoking some of Orbital's anthemic spirit, Goldie's sub-bass boom, early Autechre's electro b-boyisms, Boards of Canada's haunted hip-hop miasma, Rustie's spastic "purple" funk, and even Thom Yorke's latter-day vocodered warbling, Syro plays like a favorite electronic music mixtape and looks to be a primer for more.

4.  St. Vincent - St. Vincent (8/10)

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, might just be 2014's most compelling artist and an encouraging portent for the future of rock&roll.  This year she released her fourth solo album, the self-titled St. Vincent.  Having attended Berklee College of Music and recorded/performed with the Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, and David Byrne, her approach to rock is already unusual.  Though Clark has few antecedents, at times she does elicit Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Bjork, PJ Harvey, and even Madonna.  St. Vincent plays like an alien communique with Clark weaving astute narratives on the mundanities of contemporary life on earth, while teasing and expanding the parameters of what a six-string guitar should sound like.  Not to say this album is overly abstract or unenjoyable, to the contrary, St. Vincent simultaneously revels in a certain irresistible glam bombast and seductive tenderness.

5.  Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (7.5/10)

2014 was a big year for doom metal, that prototypical metal sub-genre comprised of molasses riffs, oppressive low-end, and foreboding reefer smoke brume - originally forged by the godfathers of all metal, Black Sabbath.  YOB, Electric Wizard, and Earth all released outstanding doom albums this year, but none stood out quite like Pallbearer's sophomore effort Foundations of Burden.  Following their impressive 2012 debut Sorrow and Extinction, the Little Rock, AR, four-piece trekked to Portland, OR, to record with veteran sludge/doom producer Billy Anderson.  The fruit of that labor is a hefty slab of epic headbangers - most averaging ten minutes.  Foundations of Burden finds the band much improved, with bolder song composition and more confident vocals.  Frontman Brett Campbell bellows with clean operatic bravado, a rarity in doom, while bandmates Devin Holt, Joseph Rowland, and new drummer Mark Lierly assist with the dramatic, lofty instrumentals. 

6.  Gorgon City - Sirens (7/10)

British electronic dance music, as part of a hardcore continuum, has been an obsession of mine for decades.  Last year Disclosure connected the dots and ushered in a new era of UK garage and deep house with their worldwide smash debut, Settle.  That chart-topping LP cast a long shadow well into 2014 and kicked the door open for other likeminded Anglo producers.  Enter another duo, Gorgon City, with their debut Sirens.  This collection of bass-heavy club bangers went straight for the jugular, utilizing a battalion of vocal talent.  Irish-English crooner Maverick Sabre lends some yearning soul to intro and outro tracks "Coming Home" and "Hard on Me" while UK funky house veteran Katy B showcases on "Lover Like You".  Even Oscar-winning diva Jennifer Hudson features on the sky-high 90's house throwback "Go All Night".  Still, newcomers MNEK and Zak Abel steal the show on anthemic hit singles "Ready of Your Love" and "Unmissable" respectively.

7.  Beck - Morning Phase (7/10)

Musical chameleon and Los Angeles, CA, native Beck released his ninth studio album, the self-produced Morning Phase, this year.  Regarded by the singer-songwriter himself as a companion piece to his acclaimed 2003 album Sea Change, Morning Phase moves at a glacial pace but is immensely rewarding for the patient listener.  Here Beck's voice is multi-tracked and drenched in echo and reverb - ebbing, flowing, and soaring into infinity.  On "Turn Away" Beck harmonizes elegantly, evoking Simon and Garfunkel, while the simple melodies and pedal steel of "Blackbird Chain" suggest The Shins gone country.  The album's instrumentals are equally striking, like the heavily flanged and lumbering piano on "Unforgiven" and the album's centerpiece, a percussion-free "Wave," featuring arresting string orchestration courtesy of Beck's dad David Campbell.  Morning Phase breaths with a self-assured vitality and was a shoo-in for this top ten list, even early in the year.

8.  Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways (6.5/10)

It's hard not to admire Dave Grohl, an ernest workaholic and rock evangelist that rose to superstardom with his own band Foo Fighters after playing drums for Seattle grunge icons Nirvana.  Twenty years after Nirvana's untimely demise, Grohl and the Foos put out Sonic Highways - their eighth album, comprised of eight songs recorded in eight cities across America.  Released in conjunction with a stellar eight part docuseries on HBO directed by Grohl himself, Sonic Highways is the Foos' most ambitious and engaging project to date.  Produced by Butch Vig and featuring guest appearances by the likes of Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen, Zac Brown, and Gary Clark, Jr., the album finds Grohl taking inspiration from America's colorful music tapestry.  No coincidence the number "8" resembles an infinity symbol - these guys don't stop.  Grohl and the Foos are already gearing up for another massive stadium tour, more side projects, and the next Foos album.

9.  Smashing Pumpkins - Monuments to An Elegy (6.5/10)

Smashing Pumpkins founder and frontman Billy Corgan still has something to say, even if his original bandmates are long gone. For the Pumpkins' ninth studio album, Monuments to an Elegy, Corgan is joined by a skeleton crew of hired guns - Jeff Schroeder on guitar and Tommy Lee on drums.  Dire as that may sound, the Pumpkins haven't sounded this focused or energized in over a decade.  At a concise thirty-three minutes, Monuments' brevity is its greatest asset.  Here the band forgoes the protracted jams and angry bluster of latter-day LPs and tap into some of the dreamy romance and distilled power pop of their early material.  Despite some chintzy electric keys here and there, the Pumpkins bring back that husky wall of guitars on album highlights like "One and All" and "Monument."  The latter even finds Corgan in unusually high, maybe humorous, spirits, - "I feel alright, I feel alright tonight/ and everywhere I go it's shining bright/ Alright, alright, alright."

10.  Huxley - Blurred (6/10)

Like Disclosure and Gorgon City, Huxley is another UK garage and deep house producer on the rise.  Having already occupied many a DJ's setlist with a string of choice singles, Huxley upped the ante this year with a diverse collection of nostalgic British electronica and smoldering late night house on his debut LP Blurred.  A fitting title, Blurred effortlessly blends disparate club styles.  Twinkly minimal tech-house opener "I Want You" gives way to the stuttering 2step rhythm and dubstep wobble of "Barne Dance" while "Give 2 U" features a curious mix of proto-jungle and breathy cocktail bar vocal pop.  Following a short drum&bass palate cleanser, "Mxr," the album moves into more traditional deep house territory with highlights like "Say My Name," and "Callin'" featuring the exceptional vocal and co-production talent of Yasmin and house legend Roger Sanchez respectively.  Blurred is a solid journey through UK dance music's past, present, and future.

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!  Can't wait to see (and hear) what 2015 brings.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Live Show Photos, May - October, 2014: Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White, Black Keys, Ghost, and more. . . .

Pallbearer, Metro Gallery, Baltimore MD - 10/30/14

Tombs, Metro Gallery, Baltimore MD - 10/30/14

Slowdive, 9:30 Club, Washington DC - 10/22/14

Gorgon City, U Street Music Hall, Washington DC - 10/10/14

Earth, Rock & Roll Hotel, DC - 10/21/14

Earth, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 10/21/14

Black Keys, Verizon Center, Washington DC - 9/25/14

Jack White, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia MD - 9/14/14

Skeletonwitch, Empire, Springfield VA - 9/12/14

Beck, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia MD - 7/24/14

Queens of The Stone Age, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia MD - 7/17/14

Queens of The Stone Age, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia MD - 7/17/14

Queens of The Stone Age, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia MD - 7/17/14

Deafheaven, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 6/10/14

Deafheaven, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 6/10/14

Deafheaven, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 6/10/14

Pallbearer, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 6/10/14

Ghost, The Fillmore, Silver Spring MD - 5/14/14

Ghost, The Fillmore, Silver Spring MD - 5/14/14

Ghost, The Fillmore, Silver Spring MD - 5/14/14

Floor, Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington DC - 5/4/14

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Live Show Review: Failure - 6/5/14

Date:  June 5, 2014
Venue:  The Fillmore, Silver Spring, MD

Naming your band "Failure" seems kind of stupid - not just tempting fate but poking it right in the eye. Then again the early 1990's was a time when a rocker could be a "loser," a "creep," or "dumb" and still be a chart-topping superstar.  This was an era of drab irony and false modesty, when po-faced guitar heroes with secret arena-rock ambitions were saddled with the overwhelming weight of "punk rock guilt" - the pop-cultural pressure to act like you just didn't care.

It was in this miasma of anti-careerist posturing and slacker ethos that LA based alternative rockers Failure formed and eventually disbanded.  Comprised of Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, with drummer Kellii Scott and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen joining later, Failure did everything right.  Their debut album Comfort, released in '92, was produced by indie-rock iconoclast Steve Albini (famous for producing the Pixies' Surfer Rosa from '88 and Nirvana's final album In Utero from '93), they frequently opened for edgy prog-rockers Tool, were masters of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic, and composed impossibly catchy anthems about love, sex, and drug addiction - usually in the same breath.

Failure (left to right - Greg Edwards, Kellii Scott, and Ken Andrews)

Fate, however, wasn't on Failure's side.  Some record label marketing genius set a March 8, 1994, release date for their self-produced sophomore album Magnified - the same drop date as runaway platinum LPs The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails and Superunkown by Soundgarden.  Though Magnified mirrored and often bested those albums musically - Failure was overshadowed by their MTV whoring contemporaries.  The band put out a third album, an equally great self-produced Fantastic Planet in '96, but it was too late.  Drug abuse had taken its toll on the band and Failure's brand of jagged alternative rock was already slipping off the charts.  Living up to their namesake, the band dissolved a year later.

Full disclosure, despite being pretty keyed into the music scene in the 90's, I hadn't heard of Failure until the mid-2000's.  The band had developed a posthumous cult following as former members crept into the limelight on more successful projects that also happened to be some of my favorites.  Ken Andrews became a successful studio engineer and producer working with bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Greg Edwards founded critically acclaimed Silver Lake shoegazers Autolux, and tour guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen joined stoner-rock heathens Queens of the Stone Age.  So, it was a welcome surprise when Failure fired up their social media accounts, announced a reunion, and hit the road this year for the first time since 1997.


Forgoing an opening act, Failure opted to prep the audience with a twenty minute montage of scenes from films that inspired much of their material, including Stanley Kubrik's "2001:  A Space Odyssey," Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris," and Lewis Gilbert's "The Spy Who Loved Me."  As animation from Rene Laloux's surreal "Le Planete Sauvage" rolled onscreen, the classic Failure trio emerged, took their spots onstage, and exploded into "Another Space Song" from their last album Fantastic Planet.  Kellii Scott thwacked a steady drum beat while Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards coaxed a growling bass line and a familiar six-string arpeggio, respectively.  The crowd went wild.  Failure was back!

The band might as well have arrived aboard one of the spacecraft featured in their favorite vintage films.  Illuminated by the soft glow of carefully placed rope lights, the stage looked like the bridge of some strange starship - each band member stationed atop a circular riser and flanked by neatly arranged effects pedals, keyboards, laptops, mics, a full soundboard, and two monolithic Sunn amplifiers.  The plethora of custom gear on display alone reconfirmed that which always set Failure apart from their scruffy flannel-clad colleagues - a dedication to the concept of studio-as-instrument, that technology could be embraced and help shape rock music into new forms.  My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth were already on to this, in one way or another, but those guys rarely put out singles as infectious as Failure's "Stuck on You."   


Two decades on from their drug addled heyday, now sober and well practiced, Failure looked and sounded like absolute pros.  Sporting in-ear monitors (a tool sadly neglected by too many live musicians), the band never missed a beat or note and Ken Andrews' vocals were damn near perfect.  Failure played a dazzling two-part set dominated by choice selections from Fantastic Planet and peppered by fan-favorites from Magnified.  Devotees sang along enthusiastically, arms raised, smothered by waves of glorious sound.  Failure's mastery of slow rumbling low-end anticipated doom and drone metal luminaries like Sunn 0))) so molasses-thick jams like "Small Crimes" and "Heliotropic" put the band's towering amps and the venue's sound system through their paces.      

Failure closed out the evening in a cathartic whirlwind of squealing guitars and stratospheric chorus with a lengthy rendition of "Daylight" - incidentally the final track off their last studio album and the last new material fans heard from the band in eighteen years.  Rumors of a new album in-the-works abound and Ken Andrews has hinted as much in recent interviews.  So, fate may still reward this criminally unsung trio.  Despite a sarcastic band name that betrays their origin in a bygone musical era of affected pessimism and apathy, Failure's sublime performance at The Fillmore - easily my favorite of the year so far - proved that they do care.  So do the fans, more than ever before.  Welcome back gents.  We're ready, and can't wait for the next phase.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Live Show Review: Black Breath - 5/21/14

Black Breath
Date:  May 21, 2014
Venue:  Ottobar, Baltimore, MD

The twelfth annual Maryland Deathfest (aka "MDF"), apparently the largest metal festival of its kind in North American, officially kicked off in Baltimore yesterday, but any black denim and leather clad longhair who wanted to get a jump on the four day festivities had their chance at the sold out "pre-fest party" at Ottobar this past Wednesday evening - featuring New York veterans Immolation, Baltimore's Misery Index and Noisem, and Seattle's Black Breath.*

Black Breath (left to right - Jamie Byrum, Eric Wallace, Elijah Nelson, Neil McAdams, and Mark Palm) 

I've had a lot of fun navigating the metal scene at large with its plethora of sub-genres, over the last decade or so, but death metal (and its close cousin grindcore) has been a final frontier of sorts for me.  Like black metal, with its sordid history of violence and controversial politics, death metal isn't entirely inviting to outsiders.  Almost everything about this sub-genre, and I speak generally here, is designed to repulse - from its punishing instrumentals and guttural vocals to its gory lyrics and imagery.

I've never been a genre purist, so in my exploration of metal I've naturally gravitated to mixtures of styles - sludge prog, blackened thrash, black n' roll, and so forth.  My recent gateway to death metal has been Seattle five-piece Black Breath who combine the rhythmic speed and brusque vocal delivery of hardcore punk with the colossal buzz-saw riffage of traditional Swedish death metal.  The primary influence here is Entombed - a band that famously employed the Boss HM-2 guitar pedal, with all levels maxed out, to create a distinctive tone that became the hallmark of the early 90's Swedish death metal scene.

Setlist and Eric Wallace's effects pedals, including the infamous Boss HM-2

I'm a huge sucker for that classic Boss HM-2 sound and a lot of newer bands have been milking it shamelessly - Trap Them, Nails, All Pigs Must Die, and Black Breath - incidentally all produced by my favorite punk/metal studio man Kurt Ballou at GodCity Studio in Salem, MA.  Black Breath is my favorite of the bunch, and when I heard they were playing the MDF pre-fest party I couldn't miss out.  No disrespect to the other great bands on the bill, but I made the trip up I-95 specifically to see these "death n' roll" evangelists first hand.

Just as local death/trash phenoms Noisem wrapped up their manic opening set, Black Breath assembled onstage and bathed in the blood-red glow of Ottobar's stage lights launched into the accelerated bedlam of "Mother Abyss."  From the word go the band kept the packed house in a frenzy with molten cuts off their 2010 debut Heavy Breathing and 2012 followup Sentenced to Life fueling a near constant circle pit.  Vocalist Neil McAdams, sporting an epic beard, even encouraged some stage diving despite the posted warnings.  "Absolutely no stage diving" McAdams mocked, "but I don't give a fuck" - immediately provoking eager fans to climb the elevated stage and dive headlong back into the roiling crowd.

Black Breath

Notwithstanding the long locks and synchronized head-banging, members of Black Breath came up in the Seattle hardcore punk scene and make no bones about riding a hyper-speed d-beat on rippers like "Sentenced to Life" and "Virus."  Black Breath are also obvious Entombed acolytes so its no surprise that the gargantuan mid-tempo crunch of tracks like "Home of the Grave," "I Am Beyond," and "The Flame" - the latter featuring a killer solo by lanky guitarist Eric Wallace - had traditional death metal fans' fists up and hair flying.  The band got even better mileage from tracks that seesaw between both styles like "Feast of the Damned" and blasphemous fan-favorite "Black Sin," which closed out the set.
Black Breath drummer Jamie Byrum suffered multiple fractures in his left leg after being hit by a car this past January.  I feared the group would be sidelined and bow out of their spot at this year's MDF but the stout percussionist made a quick recovery and joined his bandmates onstage with nary a limp.  Already a solid drummer, Byrum never missed a blast-beat and undoubtedly kept his partner in rhythm, gigantically ginger-haired bass player Elijah Nelson, on his toes.  Even at a relatively concise forty minutes, Black Breath absolutely crushed it.  They're still booked for another set at MDF tomorrow (Saturday 5/24) on the Baltimore Soundstage, so if you're in town and enjoy this sort of audiovisual pandemonium - I highly recommend catching them.

Black Breath
*I had to hit the road, reluctantly, after Black Breath's set but I'm positive Immolation and Misery Index killed it too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Live Show Review: Mastodon, Gojira, Kvelertak - 5/13/14

Mastodon, Gojira, Kvelertak
Date:  May 13, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

Last Tuesday was the hottest day of the year so far in DC so it was only appropriate that DC's 9:30 Club host a sold out evening for the most scorching metal tour of the year so far - Mastodon with Gojira and Kvelertak supporting.

Mastodon (Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders)

Norway's top purveyors of beer soaked black n' roll, Kvelertak, hit the stage first.  This band's sophomore album Meir made my top ten list last year and I was lucky to catch them crush an awesome set at the tiny Rock & Roll Hotel too.  It's a tough proposition for a boisterous six-piece, whose amped-up party rock works best after guzzling a few brews, to capture a crowd that's still trickling in off the sidewalk - but Kvelertak had everyone in a stranglehold in short order.

Kvelertak (Marvin Nygaard, Erlend Hjelvik, and Kjetil Gjermundrod)

Lead screamer Erlend Hjelvik emerged with a stuffed owl on his head - by now a ridiculous ritual that will be tough to live down if the band ever try to get all Radiohead on us.  Not a chance - and the better for it.  Kvelertak fired through a short half-hour set of choice cuts from their debut and sophomore albums and, despite some mic issues that silenced some of the band's trademark gang-vocals, the band delivered.  It's fitting that Kvelertak linked up with Mastodon for this tour as (I've said this before) they're following a similar trajectory to crossover popularity.

Kvelertak (Marvin Nygaard, Erlend Hjelvik, and Kjetil Gjermundrod)

Next up, France's critically acclaimed technical death metal monsters Gojira. I'm not too familiar with these guys but I know a few good folks who swear by them.  The band, neatly dressed in black and not a single visible tattoo in the bunch, were the epitome of professional.  Lead guitarist Christian Andreu and frontman Joe Duplantier unleashed precision riffage while drummer Mario Duplantier hammered out blast-beats like a 50 cal machine gun.  Though I didn't know a single song, I was blown away by Gojira's commanding presence and energy. Can't wait to catch 'em again.

Gojira (Christian Andreu, Mario Duplantier, and Joe Duplantier)

Finally, Atlanta's progressive sludge metal titans Mastodon took their spots onstage in front of the roaring crowd.  The gentle sound of lapping waves filled the concert hall as the band teased out the winding intro to their roiling fourteen minute epic "Heart's Alive" from their classic sophomore album Leviathan.  With its meandering guitar twang, blistering solos, and knotty jazz percussion "Heart's Alive" reconfirmed Mastodon's debt to classic southern rockers like The Allman Brothers Band and prog-rock heroes Rush - putting them in a category altogether alien in heavy metal.

Gojira (Christian Andreu, Mario Duplantier, and Joe Duplantier)

Despite the imminent release of Mastodon's sixth studio LP Once More 'Round The Sun, out next monththis tour was unofficially promoted as a special treat for old school fans rather than a showcase of unfamiliar new material.  Riotous classics like "Crusher Destroyer," from their debut Remission, had co-vocalist and bass player Troy Sanders showing off much improved vocal control while progressive mind-fuck "Capillarian Crest," from Blood Mountain, had co-vocalist and lead guitarist Brent Hinds shredding in typical expert fashion.

Mastodon (Troy Sanders and Bill Kelliher)

Selections from The Hunter, Mastodon's most recent and radio-friendly album, not only featured more frequently in this set than expected but drew some of the best audience reaction.  With its pop-hooks and furious breakdown "Blasteroid" had the room going berserk, while the off-kilter groove of "Bedazzled Fingernails" had fans entranced - definite live classics in the making.  The band did unveil two new songs from their forthcoming album.  The briskly paced "Chimes at Midnight," sounding a bit like The Hunter's "Spectrelight," caught the room off-guard while the primordial chug and lofty chorus of new single "High Road" had everyone pumping fists and singing along in unison.

Mastodon (Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders)

Though Mastodon criminally omitted their best-loved anthem, "Blood and Thunder," and Hinds had to re-tune his six string mid-song on a few separate occasions, shooting dagger eyes at his guitar-tech each time, their set was predictably fantastic.  The band concluded with the ethereal calm of "The Sparrow," with phenomenal octopus-armed drummer Brann Dailor on clean vocals.  As the evening's last notes echoed into oblivion, Dailor came out from behind his kit to thank the audience:  "We hope you enjoyed these songs. We're going to put out a new album next month.  Then we're going to come back and play those songs for you."

I'll be there.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Album Review: Beck: Morning Phase

Beck:  Morning Phase
Label:  Capitol Records
Released:  February 25, 2014


Beck is one of the pivotal artists of my adolescence.  I distinctly remember seeing him on MTV's late night alternative-rock show "120 Minutes" in late winter of 1994, interviewed by that already legendary pillar of cool - Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.  Along with the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication (plugged on that same broadcast) Beck's major label debut Mellow Gold was my soundtrack of the summer.  Kurt Cobain had just committed suicide and for me, previously a grunge fanatic, that gesture put a bookend on the sanctimonious purism and unhealthy gloom that enveloped rock music at the time.  I was ready for something new - something brighter and more fun.  Mellow Gold's hodgepodge of punk, noise, folk, and hip-hop was exactly that and Beck has remained an indispensable fixture in my musical world ever since.

So here we are, twenty years on from Beck's improbable breakout success, with his ninth major label studio album Morning Phase.  I don't need to cover Beck's storied musical history, but it's worth mentioning that his album output tends to swing into one of two categories - fun and irreverent, or melancholy and austere.  Notice that albums in the former category never show Beck himself on the cover, while those in the latter category feature the artist's face prominently, eyes fixed on the camera, conveying a sense of personal connection and sincerity.  So it is that Morning Phase presents Beck's still youthful visage draped by blonde locks underneath an old time wide-brim hat, implying lineage to iconic troubadours of yesteryear like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan.

Fans of "wacky" Beck aren't going to get upbeat summertime jams from Morning Phase.  This album is slow, dare I say slower than Beck's first crack at languid orchestral folk - 2002's Sea Change.  Saying Morning Phase is a "companion piece of sorts" to Sea Change (per the press release) is an understatement, as both albums share many of the same musical and lyrical themes, session musicians, and luxuriant string arrangements from Beck's dad David Campbell.  One major departure is the absence of Beck's frequent producer Nigel Godrich, who lent Sea Change an impossibly plush sound (I still audition new headphones with Sea Change's "Paper Tiger").  Here Beck handles production alone, doing a fine job and nearly surpassing Godrich in delivering soundscapes so rich and voluminous they could rupture speakers.

Despite arriving in the guise of an intimate singer-songwriters' album, Morning Phase isn't lyrically profound or particularly confessional.  Quirky free association and stream of consciousness have long been Beck's modus operandi and Morning Phase is no different.  Despite the lyrical looseness, each song on the album is linked by some notion of loss, regret, isolation, or surrender - heavy on metaphors like being buried or carried away by natural forces.  These sorts of themes made sense on Sea Change, which was allegedly written and recorded after Beck's breakup with a longtime girlfriend, but Beck is supposed to be happily married with children now.  Why so sad?

This sort of somber aesthetic is just a great vehicle for Beck's new-found singing and production acumen.  Sublime vocal harmonies abound on Morning Phase, with Beck's pipes front and center, multitracked, drenched in echo and reverb, ebbing, flowing, and soaring into infinity.  On "Turn Away" Beck harmonizes elegantly, simultaneously evoking Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," while the simple melodies and pedal steel of "Blackbird Chain" suggest The Shins on a desert detour.  The instrumentals are equally striking.  The lumbering piano on "Unforgiven" is treated with a disorienting flange effect, while the album's centerpiece, a percussion-free "Wave," features arresting string orchestration recalling Bjork's "Hunter."  With its growling cello and naked vocals, "Wave" is one of the most unusual and sinister pieces in Beck's catalogue, eliciting goosebumps long after first play.

Though Morning Phase uncoils at a glacial pace and doesn't break a lot of new ground for Beck, the album is still an immensely rewarding listen.  Rumored and mislabeled by many to be a minimalist "acoustic" album before its release earlier this year, Morning Phase actually turned out to be an exercise in polished maximalism.  The album breaths with a self-assured vitality, bursting at the seams with finely crafted sound - strings, keys, glockenspiel, guitars, and voice surge and twinkle in an all-enveloping auditory flood.  Morning Phase is a welcome addition to Beck's larger repertoire, and if the man himself is to be believed, we'll be seeing another side of Beck soon enough.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Live Show Review: Tycho - 4/20/14

Date:  April 20, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

I rarely attend good shows on Easter Sunday - apart from the choir at the occasional sugar-fueled church service (admittedly, it's been a while).  This past Sunday I checked out Tycho at the 9:30 Club.  It happened to be 4/20 as well - a day famously dedicated to a different kind of ritual sacrament.  Despite that apparent contradiction, Tycho's mix of pastel colored grooves and heady atmospherics seemed entirely appropriate.

Tycho (Joe Davancens, Rory O'Connor, Zac Brown, and Scott Hansen)
Tycho, real name Scott Hansen, is a San Francisco-based indie-electronica musician and graphic artist who previously worked solo but took on a full band for his latest album Awake.  I had just reviewed Awake and was excited to see how Hansen would perform his latest material with new bandmates Zac Brown and Joe Davancens alternating between guitar, bass, and synthesizer, and Rory O'Connor on drums.

If I had to sum up the show in one word, it'd be "bass."  Relentless, bowel quaking bass.  It might've been my close proximity to the subs at the foot of the stage but, as Davancens plucked the first bass notes for opener "Awake," the titanic low-end threatened to drown out the rest of the band.  However, after the initial concussive shock of sub-frequencies morphed into more of a tranquilizing ambient vibration, other sonic elements began to filter through - twinkling synthesizer, tremolo guitar, and percussion.

Tycho (Joe Davancens, Rory O'Connor, and Zac Brown)
O'Connor faithfully hammered out the simple kick-snare rhythms common to most of Tycho's music, but got to flex some serious chops on more challenging material like "Apogee" and "Spectre" from the newest LP Awake.  Most impressive was O'Connor's transcendent beat-for-beat take on "Past is Prologue," the set's lone inclusion from the album of the same name.  I had criticized Past is Prologue in my review of Awake, but forgot that the title track itself is an oddity in Tycho's repertoire - a brisk drum & bass roller featuring complex breakbeats.  O'Connor and the band absolutely nailed this one.    

Tycho (Joe Davancens and Rory O'Connor)
Apart from a couple technical flubs, one of which caused a minor delay as Hansen stopped the music to readjusted some knobs, Tycho delivered a fine set.  The band dependably recreated and enhanced choice cuts from their growing collection of hypnotic jams while projecting some striking visuals onscreen, no doubt curated by graphic artist Hansen himself  - panning slo-mo of crashing whitecaps, desert landscapes, surfers gliding atop ocean swells, and nude models draped in gauze shuffling seductively across sunset illuminated sand dunes.  No Easter candy to be had, but not a bad way to conclude a beautiful holiday weekend.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Album Review: Tycho: Awake

Tycho:  Awake
Label:  Ghostly International
Released:  March 18, 2014


Tycho is to Boards of Canada what Coldplay is to Radiohead.  After the latter band pioneered an appealing sound, then defiantly veered into "difficult" territory, the former band emerged to fill the new gap - shamelessly emulating the latter band's original pop sensibilities.  This isn't a total indictment however.  Why did Boards of Canada have to alienate fans by following up the infectious Super 8 trip-hop of their classic 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children with that onerous collection of nightmare vignettes Geogaddi in 2002?  Enter a host of unapologetic imitators like Tycho, with albums like 2006's Past is Prologue, giving hungry fans a generous helping of that classic Boards of Canada sound.

Tycho is the alias of San Francisco audiovisual artist Scott Hansen.  As Tycho, Hansen creates instrumental electronic soundscapes as impeccably as he does graphic art (design alias ISO50).  All washed out pastels, hazy landscapes, abstract nostalgia, and an ethereal sun baked atmosphere. After the aforementioned pastiche of Past is Prologue, Tycho released the much improved Dive in 2011 (on Ghostly International, a Stateside analogue to UK's Warp Records).  Dive brought more focus and definition to Tycho's fuzzy Instagram aesthetic. That trajectory continues on this year's Awake.          

On the appropriately titled long player, Awake, Tycho breaths new vitality into his sound by integrating live session players into the project.  Tycho now sounds more natural and organic - like an actual band rather than a solo bedroom project.  Bass lines are beefy, drums snap vigorously, guitars shimmer, and ear-worm melodies ebb and flow vividly.  Album openers "Awake" and "Montana" ride elastic bass grooves reminiscent of a funkier Cure, while "L" and "See" incorporate straight-forward 4/4 kicks that beg for extended deep house edits suited for poolside sunset deejay sessions.

Toward the end of the album, "Apogee" and "Spectre" expand Tycho's audio dynamic by merging crunchy breakbeats with spiraling synth arpeggios, before fading out gently with the ambient wash of "Plains."  Whereas previous albums buckled under lengthy run times, Awake runs a merciful 37 minutes - staying engaging throughout while demanding repeat play.  Though Tycho isn't breaking any barriers with Awake, he's definitely going in the right direction and forging his own identity.  Fortunately, even studious mimics can break the gravitational pull of their biggest influences and blast off into uncharted space.