Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Monday, February 25, 2008
And when this happens, their career can take many roads. They can continue to push their sound forward with the same passion that marked their early releases, or they can change their approach to where everything is calculated and constructed in their music. When this happens, it’s usually the band’s own indulgences in the studio that decreases the quality of their work.
For The Used, their new digital E.P., Shallow Believer, is the perfect illustration of how a band transitions from earnest, passionate song writing, to overworking and overloading their music. The 10 track E.P. is a collection of b-sides and rarities that spans the group’s three studio albums; showing fans that The Used’s drastic change in sound has served them as “hit or miss” at best.
“Dark Days” begins the collection and right off the bat you can tell that the band is aiming for a dense sound. Quinn Allman’s dry acoustic guitar is layered with ethereal sounds, synthetic drums, and faint murmurings from front man Bert McCracken. It’s ambient for the sake of ambient, because after 20 seconds McCracken lets loose a throaty shriek that welcomes chugging guitars and a pulsing mid-section.
The song continues in typical fashion with McCracken’s half-spoken verses and large swelling choruses carrying the melody, but the ending is where it gets ridiculous. For the last minute, the instruments cut out leaving only McCracken’s forced falsetto and a lone piano to close out the number.
Since when did The Used start channeling Elton John?
This exemplifies what’s wrong with Shallow Believer and the way that the band approaches song craft these days. There is simply too much going on in these tracks, like they took bits and pieces of unrelated sounds and strung them together as well as adding extra instrumentation that overburdens the material. Rather than consolidating and scaling back the arrangements, or making logical progressions, the band overworks the material and destroys the spontaneity of the songs.
Not every song needs a giant string section, a somber piano break, or glitzy electronic beats to catch people’s ears. Some of these tracks like the sparkling “Sun Comes Up” and the melancholy “Sick Hearts” might have had more staying power if they didn’t sound like they were backed by a full orchestra, or if they sounded remotely close their lyrical subject matter.
The only time where this schizophrenic merging of sound comes up with something interesting is on the fuzzed out “Into My Web” and horn driven “Back Of Your Throat.” A b-side from their second album, “Into My Web” displays a more natural progression from cascading melodies, to a pulsing up stroked guitar rhythm and a, messy bridge that adds depth rather than length. It’s one of the few times on the E.P. where McCracken’s processed voice doesn’t detract from the song.
Elsewhere, the bombastic and swing influenced “Back Of Your Throat” sports an almost grungy guitar line and is augmented by full horns. It lumbers along just barely because of McCracken’s manic vocal delivery, but fails miserably with lyrics like, “In this exchange I often touch myself/To go ahead and let those dirty words pass right through me.”
McCracken is no Bob Dylan, but he’s penned some truly haphazard lyrics for these songs, ranging from horribly awful to incredibly forced. The acoustic closing ballad “Tunnel” sports huge swelling string arrangements as well as uninspired lines like, “Cause we are/The light in the tunnel/We are the living and dying/See how we are/Alone in the world…”
It’s clear that with lines like that, McCracken is hoping to have The Used show up on a “Monster Ballads” compilation one day.
Still, there are bright spots on this collection of songs; moments that remind you that The Used once filled their music with passion and reckless abandon. “Choke Me,” the hidden track on their self-titled album makes an appearance here to inject some life into the middle of the album. It’s an abrasive and caustic song that features the band battering away at their instruments in tightly organized chaos, while McCracken spills his guts out into the microphone.
The E.P.’s standout is “Slit Your Own Throat,” a song that failed to make it to the final cut of their previous album, “Lies For The Liars.” The frenzied drumming gives way to Allman’s dissonant and gritty guitar while McCracken spews some of the most venomous and hateful lines directed towards those that broke his heart.
In between McCracken’s tortured screams you can see what The Used began their career as and why they were so compelling in the first place. They used to perform songs with such anger and hatred, but tempered it ever so slightly to make it palatable. Lines like, “I gotta take this moment just to push you down/Spin you around with my foot at the back of your neck…” remind listeners of a band that reveled in how ugly and twisted they were, rather than how many hooks, or instruments, they could cram into a song.
And ultimately, Shallow Believer doesn’t live up to what the band once was. However, it proves that The Used were at their best when constructing chaotic and demented songs rather than overblown pop ballads. Perhaps on their next release, they’ll have little more faith in the old adage, less is more.Sounds Like: Lead Sails Paper Anchor (Atreyu), The Black Parade (My Chemical Romance), Lies For The Liars (The Used)
Key Cuts: Slit Your Own Throat, Into My Web, Choke Me
Author's Note: This review appears in a recent issue of the
Monday, February 18, 2008
In every genre, there are bands that I suppose the elitists gravitate to because of their skill, technicality and overall craft. These are the bands that people flood message boards with as to show of their “impeccable musical taste” and to undercut anyone that typically listens to anything remotely popular.
For metal heads, that band is Meshuggah.
My first brush with these ridiculous Swedes was a few years ago when I downloaded their I E.P. I marveled at their technicality as well as how they seemed to beat listeners into submission with their gigantic riffs and manic vocals, everything that the music elitists told me I’d love about Meshuggah.
So, does their latest release obZen follow in the same suite? Well, yes and no.
The first thing that’s immediately clear with obZen is that the elongated song experimentation left over from the I E.P. and Catch 33 is gone and done away with. Instead, the album hearkens back a time where the band explored tighter and more compact songs, with clear beginnings and ends.
If this scares you, it shouldn’t. The average song time is 4-5 minutes so it’s not like they’re striving for radio exposure with 2 minute pop diddles. And in true form, the band starts right off the bat with “Combustion,” a track that begins with a nimble guitar line and cymbal work in a completely different time than the rest of the rhythm section. It’s here that it all breaks in an explosion of sound, with Jens Kidman’s death howl showcased in a crushingly beautiful fashion. It’s capped off by an incredibly flavorful and melodic solo by Fredrik Thordendal’s jazzy lead guitar work.
“Combustion” serves as a reminder that the band that has been at the forefront of progressive metal is still here to bring brutality, but the there is something distinctly different about the overall sound from here on out.
For starters, the band welcomes back drummer Thomas Haake after they implemented the use of a drum machine on Catch 33. With Haake, behind the skins once again, the album’s drumming feels far more fluid that the endlessly sequenced machine-gun drumming found on their last release.
That’s not to say its softer, but the obZen benefits from a human player rather than some mechanized apparatus keeping time. The album’s title track benefits from Haake’s innovative cymbal use and his deft ability to keep multiple time signatures going at the same time.
Still, not everything is perfect on obZen. As a whole, the record is very clean sounding for as detuned as the guitars are, and it’s probably the most shocking change for the band. The grit that has pervaded most Meshuggah releases has all but been done away with, so songs like “This Spiteful Snake” lack staying power. Had the guitars seemed less compressed as a whole, and the band had allowed a tad more feedback to seep through in the recordings, the album might have been a tad more urgent and immediate.
And with Meshuggah streamlining their sound from their last album’s ruthless experimentation, listeners can’t help but feel like the material on obZen is a tad regressive. It’s not that the songs are sloppy, but there is no evolution in their sound, nothing that’s truly carried over from Catch 33. In fact, the album reminds me of what plagued Tool’s last release: it was almost too listenable and failed to really challenge its listeners. And while listening to tracks like, “Pineal Gland Optics” you almost feel like these thunderous riffs have been down before, and that the band is capable of pushing themselves even more.
obZen’s crown jewel however is “Bleed.” It’s the one spot on the album where it feels like a nod to their past as well as push forward and it's perhaps one of the most dynamic songs on the album. The main thrash riff feels like it never ends, but merely swells and descends as the pummeling drumming rolls alongside it. “Bleed” also features seamless transitions between those odd time signatures that really peak you’re interest.
The track expertly displays how good these men have become at shifting the churning directions of their songs. And the ambient midsection shows off their versatility and fascination with atmospherics. It’s shame though, because if the album had more tracks in the vein of “Bleed,” it would have really felt like another masterpiece from these bizarre Swedes.
As it is, musical elitist will have to settle for average from their darling favorites, showing that even the best of us can’t be perfect all the time.
Sounds Like: Nothing (Meshuggah), Bless The Martyr, Kiss The Child (Norma Jean),
Key Cuts: Combustion, Bleed, Dancers To A Discordant System
Monday, February 4, 2008
When referencing a band, it’s most common for one’s thoughts to gravitate towards a specific member of the ensemble. For better or worse there are dynamic individuals that draw the attention of fans as well as critics.
The problem is that more often than not, this idol worship overshadows the skills and contributions from the other members in the group. And while Ben Gibbard comes across as the resident genius in Death Cab Fur Cutie, it’s important to realize that there are others in the group working just as hard.
Such is the case with Chris Walla, Death Cab For Cutie’s incredibly fluid and underrated guitarist. While Walla might follow along in Gibbard’s shadow, he’s been busy during Death Cab’s absence, acting as an expert producer for groups like Tegan & Sara and Hot Hot Heat, as well as putting together his own album of material.
As a whole, Walla’s solo effort, “Field Manual,” doesn’t stray too much from the lush arrangements of Death Cab For Cutie albums. The record contains the familiar big sounding drums, coupled with watery bass lines, nimble guitars and a smooth tenor rounding out the sound. Yet, the album carries a different tone than Walla’s primary band.
For the most part, “Field Manual” contrasts the expansive melancholy of Death Cab For Cutie and aims for melodic indie influenced rock instead, adding splashes of keyboards and electronic flourishes. The album opens with the lush “Two-Fifty,” a dense track that makes liberal use of layered vocal harmonies, chopped up drum beats and pulsing bass. Walla’s soft but not soaring vocals cut the air singing, “All hail an eminent collapse/You can fumble for your maps/But we're exhausted by the facts…”
Walla peppers many of the songs on “Field Manual” with his personal politics but he’s careful not to browbeat listeners or aimlessly rail against the establishment. Instead, his lyrics are more emotive, dealing with choices and morality rather than policy. And while tracks like “Achers v. Light” state “I wanna see your pro-life/Bare no exception/Young senator…” Walla never mines blind liberal rage for inspiration.
Yet aside form the bouncy and fuzzy power-pop of “The Score,” a majority of the album tends to rely on slower tempos. “Field Manual’s” standout is the brilliantly catchy “Everyone Needs A Home.” Dry acoustic guitars lay the ground work for rumbling bass and a fleeting piano melody that seems to glide on by. Surprising, the whole track pushes forward quite quickly against Walla’s somber voice.
However, if there’s one thing that Walla’s album showcases brilliantly, it’s his ear for production. Here, the instruments suite their arrangements nicely, appearing fully fleshed out and audible rather than muddled and cramped. Walla creates an album that isn’t encumbered by studio polish and shine, but that packs enough brightness not to be considered lo-fi. Songs such as “Our Plans, Collapsing” display his deft production talent, skillfully balancing acoustic folk leanings with soft electric touches. As a producer alone, it’s clear that Walla gives the songs just enough room to breath without stifling them, allowing the record to have a truly organic quality.
Still, “Field Manual” isn’t perfect by any means. For one, the record suffers a bit due to Walla’s lack of dynamics. Save for two tracks, the album is heavy on the slow and mid tempo song speeds. That’s not to say that Walla needs the explicitly upbeat rock number, but even Death Cab’s material balanced out the ballads with the higher energy compositions.
The short track lengths found on “Field Manual” are both a blessing and a curse, for while they allow Walla’s material to be digestible in short compact bursts, they don’t allow the songs to grow beyond Walla’s rigidly defined song structure. The buoyant wordplay and song craft found on “Sing Again” feels cut short and abrupt due to Walla’s need to have the songs wrap up nicely.
Perhaps, the album’s biggest obstacle is the fact that Walla’s work might not be different enough from his material with Death Cab For Cutie. The last two tracks, “It’s Unsustainable” and “Holes” find the guitarist doing his best Ben Gibbard imitation, stretching his tenor further than normal while driving the album’s tempo to its slowest.
It’s not that the songs are poorly constructed, but it seems like Walla could have made different choices with the tracks rather than trying to sound like his primary band. It calls to question why Walla would put out a solo record if it sounds too familiar to what he’s previously done.
In the end, that will probably be the factor that keeps his solo album overlooked.
But regardless of its short comings, “Field Manual” is an extremely compact and engaging experience from a rather underrated musician. And while it won’t change the world, or why people feel drawn to Ben Gibbard, it shows that sometimes consistent musicians can be just as exciting as the front men.
Sounds Like: Plans (Death Cab For Cutie), Circle Gets The Square (Kevin Devine), Left & Leaving (The Weakerthans)
Key Cuts: Two-Fifty, The Score, Everyone Needs A Home
Author's Note: This review appears in a recent issue of the