Protomartyr Drops Impressive but Short EP, Consolation

This EP is far from a perfect release, but it’s a much appreciated update for fans of this very promising group.

     Protomartyr is post-punk outfit from Detroit, Michigan. They’ve been slowly gaining popularity on the national stage, beginning in 2014 with their debut, Under Color of Official Right. This was followed by the even more acclaimed sophomore release, The Agent Intellect in 2015, and finally by Relatives in Decent which was widely considered by critics to be one of the best albums of 2017, and one of the best post-punk albums of the last few decades.

   The group is notably for their doom instrumentals, droning style, and above all, for Joe Casey’s poetic, Sinatra-esque vocal performances. The many, seemingly incompatible influences which build this group culminate in a sound which is wholly unique, and often takes a few tries to enjoy. Despite their inaccessibility, however, Protomartyr enjoyed a fairly extensive US tour last year and are now lauded as one of the most exciting acts in modern rock music. This year has been devoid of a traditional studio release, as one would expect after such a busy schedule in 2017, but that hasn’t stoped the rockers from dropping their first true EP, Consolation.

   The EP is perfectly in line with what we’ve come to expect from Protomartyr, to the point that it almost comes off as a collection of unused tracks from Relatives in Decent. Alex Leonard’s drum work is particularly impressive on the opener, “Wait,” where his fast hands and heavy cymbal shots drive an atmospheric track along a steady pace. Scott Davidson’s bass line is the clear highlight of an otherwise uneventful closer, “You Always Win,” and “Same Face in a Different Mirror” is a unique entry to the Protomartyr catalog, focussing on far more personal topics, as apposed to the group’s usual penchant for outwardly political lyricism.

   The best track on the project, however, and one of the best tracks that Protomartyr has ever released has got to be “Wheel of Fortune.” Clanging guitars, screeching overdrive, and a driving bass and drum combination lay an apocalyptic base coat which is soon polished off by one of Joe Casey’s best performances to date, both lyrically and vocally, and a fantastic feature from Kelley Deal on harmonies. Focussing on the brutality of modern capitalism and it’s effects on the third world, Casey writes with his signature poetic touch and a rhythmic stream that lulls a listener into a sense of comfort, slipping lyrics by in a way that plants them deeper within the psyche than they’d generally be allowed. It’s just a master class in songwriting from one of the bands in the modern rock scene.

   This EP is far from a perfect release, but it’s a much appreciated update for fans of this very promising group.

3/5

HEAR CONSOLATION:             https://open.spotify.com/album/5XOHZ0WQFA1ivHjHDfFqoN

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Alice in Chains Releases Yet Another Incredible Record With Rainier Fog

We already knew that Alice in Chains was once one of the most influential, creative, and talented rock bands in the world. All that Rainier Fog proves is that they still are.

     Alice in Chains is a grunge/metal outfit from Seattle, Washington. They’re considered one of the “big four” of grunge rock as well as one of the most successful rock bands of all time. Their first run in the spotlight is perhaps the more memorable, debuting in 1990 with Facelift, followed by Dirt and the self-titled LP in ’92 and ’95 respectively. In addition, one can’t help but mention the group’s icon pair of EP’s, Sap and Jar of Flies, that latter of which is a dark horse choice for their best release. Despite tremendous success, the group went on hiatus when lead singer, Layne Staley began to spiral downward after the death of his fiancé in 1996, until his eventual passing in 2002.

   Alice in Chains wouldn’t return to the shelves until 2009 with the fantastic and powerful, Black Gives Way to Blue. This was followed in 2013 with The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, with which the band received further praise, and now they’ve returned again with Rainier Fog. Despite endless controversy and difficulty over their career, when Alice in Chains goes into the studio, they rarely disappoint, and this most recent effort is no exception.

   The elephant in the room when it comes to the most recent run from the band is, of course, the lead vocal. William DuVall is no slouch when it comes to rock history with a long career in the hardcore punk scene, but it is and always will be true that Layne Staley is irreplaceable. However, DuVall does quite the job fronting the band on this record. He turns in a fantastic performance on opener, and my favorite track, “The One You Know,” as well as “Deaf Ears Blind Eyes,” and “Maybe.” The mix allows him to be at once etherial, and yet commanding and powerful.

   Mike Inez’s bass work is also quite the highlight on this project. What he may lack in speed, he more than returns with an ear for interesting bass melodies. Tracks like “Fly,” and “Never Fade,” simply wouldn’t be the same without his bass lines.

   Lyrically, Alice in Chains keeps it characteristically dark. The closer, “All I Am,” focuses on regret and searching for meaning, while “Drone,” touches on toxic relationships and mental health. “Red Giant,” even delves into fame and politics, topics which DuVall is more than comfortable dealing in, given his work with punk acts like Neon Christ. In each of these songs, as well as across the entire album, the lyricism finds some way to be both expressive and visual, yet direct and pointed.

   The drum work stands out quite a bit as well. The snare shot’s on the title track are sharp and well mixed, and Sean Kinney anchors every single track with rhythms which are ever present, but never smothering, even including a few fantastic tempo changes.

   The real highlight of this project, however, is the guitar work. Jerry Cantrell, a founding member of Alice in Chains, crafts one thickly layered instrumental after another, and is generally the best part of every single track. His rhythm work on tracks like “Never Fade,” and “The One You Know,” set’s a fantastic tone while his leads on “All I Am,”  and “Maybe,” are easily the best pieces of already fantastic songs. Throughout every second of the nearly hour long runtime, Cantrell seams to be giving his all, and it is much appreciated.

   This album isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t Alice’s best, but it is supremely impressive. Nearly three decades after their infamous debut, one of the most revolutionary bands in rock and roll is not only still kicking, but dropping excellent work. All too often, when rock bands find their way to the limelight for being ahead of their time, they tend to chase trends in an attempt to stay at the top of the industry. This has been the fate of far too many from Linkin Park to Aerosmith, and it’s a sad fate to see befall a beloved group. But Alice in Chains, in spite of the march of time they’re battling, in spite of the loss of Layne Staley, one of rock’s most incredible voices, and despite constant pressure they’ve endured at the top of their fields for so long, has given us yet another amazing album to enjoy in Rainier Fog.

   We already knew that Alice in Chains was once one of the most influential, creative, and talented rock bands in the world. All that Rainier Fog proves is that they still are.

9/10

HEAR RAINIER FOG:                      https://open.spotify.com/album/4AAPRl8BKlsIVC5aeedlBv

Thou Drops Brutal “Rhea Sylvia” EP as Their Third Release of 2018

     Thou is a sludge/doom metal band based out of Baton Rouge Louisiana, notable for their consistent studio output, dark aesthetic, and the brutal vocal performances of Bryan Funck. They released their first full length studio effort in 2007 entitled Tyrant, and would go on to put out 10 more releases over the following decade, including three in 2018, of which Rhea Sylvia is the shortest and most recent.

   In the interest of full transparency, I’ll admit that, coming into this EP, I was completely new to Thou’s work, as well as relatively unfamiliar with sludge metal as a whole. However, upon my first listen to this record, I was simply baffled by everything I heard, and knew instantly that I had to review it. From the eerily slow tempos to the striking use of minor chords, from the clear grunge influences to Bryan Funck’s gut-wrenching scream, this EP fires on all cylinders.

   The first and most obvious point of note is Funck’s vocal performance. His clean work, on “The Only Law,” for example, is monolithic, spacey, and at once feels inviting but ominous. He draws you in with this, but strikes back violently with his screams, reminiscent of some sort of goblin, gravely and furious, but with a hint of desperation. While there are many factors which make this project work, but the inspired vocal work must surely be listed chiefly among them.

   The lyricism is also quite fantastic, especially on “Restless River,” or “Unfortunate Times.” Thou paints such a dreary environment in which to base their philosophical writing, which is immediately chased by this ever-present sense of dread which is formulated through Bryan’s poetic language. This writing truly adds another layer to the project as a whole.

   From here, let us turn to the instrumentation, which is flooded with so many clear influences that listeners may need a few listens to get it all. The guitars, in particular, are quite similar to heavier, early grunge acts like Alice in Chains, especially in their perfect balance between distortion and melody, and the clever use of unique minor chords to color progressions like that of “Non-Entity.” The tempos, however, are that of a funeral dirge, allowing plenty of space for Tyler Coburn’s almost progressive drum work, as he does quite explosively on “Deepest Sun,” and again on the closer, “The Lasting Dose.”

   This is, of course, is all brought to life by solid production. Take the nightmarish soundscape of “Unfortunate Times,” for example, and one will see the importance of producers who know how to perfectly balance each piece of the puzzle. The effects work well, adding space to the seven minute epic, and the distortion on the guitars is simply superb. Above all, however, its the appreciation for instrumentation through not allowing the vocals to overpower it, which is the most important. There are a few minor points where there seems to be a bit of unplanned dissonance between instrumentation and vocals, but for the most part, the production is spot on.

   Throughout the entirety of the very manageable thirty minute runtime, Thou use their experience, talent, and insight to take listeners on a ride through one brutal world after another, writing with purpose and performing with pure rage. Their experimental brand of sludge metal is one of my favorite styles I’ve found since I began my attempt to immerse myself modern metal music, and its a style which I simply can’t wait to revisit at the end of the month for Thou’s next full length LP.

4/5

HEAR THOU: https://open.spotify.com/album/5Ac00pCJxh7f4bC8P0172p

Halestorm’s “Vicious” Impresses Fans and Newcomers Alike

     Halestorm is an American hardrock/metal band from Pennsylvania, mostly notable for their backbreaking tour schedule, often playing as many as 250 shows in a single year, and joining forces with the likes of Alter Bridge, Chevelle, Stone Sour, and Three Days Grace, to name a few. They seem to have firmly established themselves as one of the hardest working members of the modern alt-rock scene.

   Their studio work, for that matter, is one of the more under-appreciated discographies in modern rock music. Their 2009, self-titled debut remains one of my favorite albums of that year, filling one track after another with a tight blend of heavy guitars, grooving drums, and Lizzy Hale’s undeniable vocal. The follow ups, first in 2012 and again in 2015, sport much of the same, each with their own highs and lows, but consistently impressive throughout. With such a strong early catalog, I found myself quite excited for the upcoming fourth installment, and on July 27th, the group gave us Vicious.

   The first thing that longtime listeners may notice about this album is the maturity in the melodies. The guitar distortion is used much more sparingly, and the group even includes a few vocal-only tags to add a layer of dynamics when the heavier instrumentation returns. This is used to great effect on on the opener, “Black Vultures,” which also benefits from an excellent intro, but with diminishing returns on tracks like “Do Not Disturb.”

   Joe Hottinger’s guitar work is a real highlight as well. While much of his work tends to fade into the mix, his ability to toy with harmonic minors on tracks like “Skulls,” and “Painkiller,” shouldn’t go unnoticed by more focused listeners.

   Lyrically, the record is something of a mixed bag. Lizzy writes well on “White Dress,” and “Conflicted,” when focusing on her bad-girl persona, and penchant for partying and one night stands. She’s even passable on “Buzz,” which focuses on a similar topic, though her vocal performance certainly covers a few weak and repetitive lines. However, tracks “Killing Ourselves to Live,” or the title track, “Vicious,” simply string together one cliche after another to form a few almost unbearable verses.

   Undoubtedly the worst sound the band attempts on this album is their flirtations with the classic, acoustic guitar driven, rock ballad. The closer, “The Silence,” is somewhat listenable, especially in the early going, before becoming simply by the end. The other attempt at this sound, however, comes earlier in the track-listing with the “Heart of Novocaine.” This is easily the worst track on the record, mixing a cheesy, Nickleback-esque chord progression with overly dramatic lyrics and a rare bad performance from Lizzy. It’s truly the only track on this project which is without a redeeming quality.

   Above all, though, virtually any mistake made on this project is easily painted over by Lizzy Hale’s ability to turn in one genuinely incredible vocal performance after another. A quick listen to “Uncomfortable,” likely the best track on entire release, will easily prove my point. Her voice is violent, powerful, and commanding. She has solid control over her runs, as well as an ability to wail like few in the rock world can today.

   The Alt-Rock/Metal of the mid-2000’s has been slowly drained of heart for several years now, but Vicious sees one of the genre’s hardest working, and most underrated acts doing their best to breathe a new life and passion into the sound. It may not top every chart, but it’s nothing if not a supremely enjoyable listen.

6/10

HEAR VICIOUS: https://open.spotify.com/album/6hIMdrqgLXY73T9411Y7Ux

Arctic Monkeys Present Brave New Sound on Sixth Studio Album

     The Arctic Monkey’s have been blues rock darlings since their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which was certified gold and introduced the world to a kind of pure garage rock which had been missing for nearly a decade at that point. Their proceeding three releases in 2007, 2009, and 2011 each charted moderately well, and received platinum certifications in Britain, the band’s home country. However, the groups career trajectory changed forever with the massive success of 2013’s AM.

   The album was a 40 minute masterpiece which seemingly flaunted the band’s powerful sound and technical ability in the faces of anyone who would listen. Drawing on wide-ranging inspirations and utilizing fantastic production techniques, The Arctic Monkeys had created a rock album that truly felt like a classic from the first note. After a five year hiatus, the group is back with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, an album that simply refuses to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, but instead forges a fascinating new path.

   Lead vocalist, Alex Turner, referred to this record, as well as some of his personal favorite projects from other bands, as being “like places you can visit,” and this is certainly true for the majority of the album. Songs like “Star Treatment,” “She Looks Like Fun,” and the title track really do have a palpable energy to them, and instrumentals which listeners can swim in for many repeat listens.

   One important change which rears its head on this albums is the sharp turn away from the noisy nature of the groups earlier garage rock influence. Instead of multiple layers which listeners can slowly unpack through focus and replays, the Monkeys instead aim for a more minimalist style, using repetitive instrumentals to present new lead ideas on a silver platter for every listener. Guitar solos, like that of “One Point Perspective,” or Nick O’Malley’s excellent bass guitar work on tracks like “American Sports” are no longer consigned to the back of the mix, but instead rise to the top clearly.

   This style, of course, doesn’t always work. Namely, the two song run of my personal least favorite track, “Golden Trunks” followed by “Four Out of Five” fail to capture as effectively as the rest of the project because they present nothing of significance. Instead, we are left with two forgettable and repetitive instrumentals which play to unimportant lyrics. The midpoint lull on this record threatens to take the winds from the freshly opened sails, before they are saved by the eerie “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip,” which benefits from some of the best lyrics in the Arctic Monkeys discography.

   Above all else, this album is made by the absolutely fantastic vocal performance and lyricism of Alex Turner. One needs only listen to tracks like “Batphone” and “Science Fiction” to feel the importance of Turner’s presence. He instantly turns relatively uneventful songs into ear-perking hits with nothing but his smokey tone and commitment to the unique feel of the project. There is a clear resemblance and influence from the late, great David Bowie, and this record will almost definitely send listeners directly to revisitations of the legend’s work as well.

   Lyrically, Turner spends almost the entire runtime criticizing the role of social media and technology in our modern society, following the lose conceptual framework of post-apocalyptic human race, before closing the album with my favorite track, “Ultracheese.”

   The song is a swinging, reminiscent ode to what Turner calls, “America in the golden age.” Heavily inspired by the rat-pack, and jazz vocalists like them, it departs a bit from the style we’ve heard thus far, and delivers and effective and emotional send off to an all around fantastic record.

   The 40-ish minute runtime keeps the album from overstaying its welcome, and as Turner’s final, croon is delivered, a cappella, listeners are left wondering what they’ve just heard. This is an album that requires repeat listens and focus, and it would certainly function poorly as an introduction for new fans to this band. This is because unlike the Arctic Monkeys discography up until this point, it doesn’t force you to listen or beg for your attention, but instead offers something. A sobering contemplation of modern society, a minimalistic approach to instrumentation, creative and innovative melodies, and one incredible vocal performance after another await any listener willing to give this album a try, and if you ask me, it is well worth it.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/1jeMiSeSnNS0Oys375qegp

YOUTUBE LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqIXGleG2I&list=PLTgCbzV-FEabYmih60WIG-ZRBPcsUH08u

A Perfect Circle Returns

     It’s been twelve years since Maynard James Keenan climbed from his underground wine cellar to feel the sun on his face once again, and give us all the gift of 10,000 Days. On top of this, it’s been fifteen years since the boys of A Perfect Circle, namely MJK and Billy Howeredel, were together in the studio for a project full of original music, instead of covers. But in late 2017, the group dropped “The Doomed” to much acclaim and apparently didn’t see their shadow, and so, here they are with the appropriately titled, Eat The Elephant.

   For those of us who are familiar with APC, much of this record will come as a surprise, and the opening, title track is no exception. The title refers to the old phrase, which goes something to the tune of “You eat an elephant one piece at a time,” which MJK seems to imply rings true for the vast task of identifying the issues of the modern day and addressing them. The sparse instrumentation and simple vocals fly in the face of everything listeners have known about this group, but this doesn’t last long.

   “Disillusioned” was perhaps the most impressive of the pre-release singles, and serves as a high point on the album itself. The band is immediately opting for a more industrial sound, something they’d flirted with on their last studio release, which was entirely covers.

   “The Contrarian,” fits nicely into the niche carved by this first half, and is a welcome addition to an already impressive early lineup.“The Doomed,” by following in the trend of lyric heavy vocals and industrial instrumentation, really makes listeners worry that the old APC may not make an appearance on this project, as they’ve been known for all these years.

   The group returns to form, however, on “Talktalk,” which is highlighted wonderfully by Billy Howerdel’s signature, growling guitar. Maynard’s vocals on this track are characteristically droning and omnipresent, and for a moment, they’re back. While the records second half is certainly the weaker, it isn’t without its highlights.

   Maynard’s vocal presence on “Delicious,” is indescribably welcome to old school Tool and APC fans as he strings together the type of melodic and lyrical combo that only he can. This over the first truly rocking instrumental on the project makes for one of my favorite tracks in the setlist. The album is not without it’s weaknesses, though.

   I was a fan of “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” when the band released it, but I never expected it to actually end up on this project. I had considered it a bit of a joke, and a fun reference to something of a cult classic sci-fi film, but it’s presence on Eat the Elephant is just jarring, and interrupts the rather serious overall tone.

   It is, however, enjoyable on its own, which is more than I can say for “Hourglass,” which is simply annoying and over produced. A massive part of APC’s appeal has always been their organic rock sound, and while a turn to the less accessible sound works on most of this album, it is never so alienating and out of touch as on “Hourglass.” The effects on Maynard’s vocals ruin what may have been a catchy hook, and the instrumental itself never really finds its direction.

   I found myself pleasantly impressed with Howerdel’s ability to utilize the kind of formless, interlude track on “DLB” as that is an often ignored skill which he puts to good use. He’s much less successful, however, on “Get the Lead Out.” An outro track who’s odd, hip-hop drum beats and out of place record scratches do no more to justify it’s nearly seven minute runtime than Maynard’s floundering and pointless lyrics, most of which just repeat the title. If you couldn’t tell, this is my least favorite track on the project.

   The project is more than redeemable, though. MJK’s lyricism may not hit on every track, but when he’s on, he’s on. When “Delicious” opens with “How inconvenient and unexpected and harrowing for you, as consequences tend to be,” I just can’t keep from smiling. He takes on many of his familiar targets, namely religion, selfishness, addiction, and any general bad behavior he sees in the world today, while avoided the pitfalls of overly politicized writing. And his vocals are nearly as impeccable, making up for their apparent lack of edge with experience, and thoughtfully conjunct melodies.

   Howerdel, for his part, is no slouch either. He really takes risks on this project, which were wholly undemanded by a fanbase which was excited even to hear anything new. Most of Billy’s risks paid off, and those that came up empty didn’t miss the mark by all that much.

   Overall, when a mega-popular rock group comes back to the public light after a decade and a half of wine making and whatever Billy Howerdel does in his free time, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to regurgitate the old sound. By contrast, A Perfect Circle challenges us. Howerdel asks us to follow him down musical rabbit holes which are often, totally unpredictable and MJK hits us with lyrics that push on the flaws he sees in everyone’s lives, from our religious hypocrisy, to our sense of numbness to the current state of the world. One can only hope that we will hear a followup to this very respectable project within the decade.

7/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/3Jr1RhAyndBxtyi8rJs3Op

YOUTUBE: https://youtu.be/kBwsRdX_pEA

Jared Leto Returns to Mars, But Can’t Save an Underwhelming Project

     Thirty Seconds To Mars debuted with their self titled record in 2002, before really busting into the mainstream just three years later when 2005’s A Beautiful Lie reminded the world just how exciting a new set of rock anthems could be.

   From there, the three piece, arena rock outfit released a couple more solid projects, with front man Jared Leto finding time between cutting massive amounts of weight and mailing used condoms to coworkers for roles, (Dallas Buyer’s Club and Suicide Squad, respectively) to record a very iconic lead vocal over his brother’s drum work and various other contributions from a relatively small staple of instrumentalists. Their discography is relatively diverse, but their recent release, AMERICA, changes their formula more than ever before.

   A part of me nearly stopped this record in the first ten seconds, as the opener, “Walk on Water” bursts in with heavy synth and overproduced vocal shouts on a hook, but I stuck it out, and for the most part, I’m glad.

   The record consistently toes the line between cheesy, pop-rock on tracks like “Dangerous Night” and genuinely interesting arena rock on tracks like “Hail To The Victor.” A casual listener may face the creeping fear that Mars is going the way of Fall Out Boy, but there is something of worth in much of this project.

   Leto’s vocals, above all, are excellent! Seeing as the band seems to have done away with the more traditional elements of a rock record in favor of heavy synth and canned drums, Leto’s vocal leadership is make or break here, and he makes it work here. He’s easily the highlight of every song, and old school Mars fans have something to enjoy in his performance.

   This does not, however, apply to his lyricism, which boring and platitudinous throughout. Lines like “A thin line, the whole truth. The far right, the left view,” hint at a desire to speak to the current state of American politics, but Leto constantly stops short of saying anything substantive aside from cliched calls for unity. Not everyone needs to write about politics, and in fact, I’d be completely happy to hear a 30 Seconds To Mars project which is devoid of any politics, but instead we get half baked, safe statements, and it really devalues the tracks.

   And that sums this record up in a lot of ways, a safe release that lays claim to more controversy and importance than it truly has. The several interesting album covers which have circulated range from listing rich YouTubers, to lists of popular sex positions, each seeming to make a statement, but each saying nothing in the end.

   Essentially all of Shannon Leto’s drum work is either boring or extremely distracting, and if I hear one more bombastic synthesizer I’ll lose my mind! Features like A$AP Rocky and Halsey fall extremely flat and add little to the overall direction of the project.

   The final few tracks are redeeming, and the acoustic ballad “Remedy,” is by far the best track in the lineup, and “Rider” serves as a depressing reminder of just how good and interesting this album could have been as it abruptly closes out the forty-ish minute runtime. But even these aren’t enough to make up for the relative blandness of this project.

   AMERICA is worth a listen for fans of the group, but it certainly won’t turn you into a fan if you aren’t already. For that, might I suggest any other entry in their now five album discography, as this is by far the weakest link.

3/10

HEAR AMERICA – https://open.spotify.com/album/0XcHdI2ZyNADjfvo5Ubs39