Blackstar: David Bowie’s Under Appreciated Final Masterpiece

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

The year was 2015 and David Bowie, at the age of 68. was dying. Few outside of his family and close friends knew this, but he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the liver and the future wasn’t looking bright.

Bowie was as close to God-like status as one can be without being either a Beatle or Elvis. From his time has The Thin White Duke, to iconic tracks like “Space Oddity,” to his many concept albums and rock operas, most of which were written and performed in an array of strange characters, David had pushed the boundaries of rock music and music and general for his entire life and with 25 studio albums, five of them platinum in the US and nine platinum in the UK, he’s one of the most successful artists that ever lived.

On his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, Bowie released what is likely his darkest and most haunting artistic statement of his or any other career, his 25th LP, Blackstar. On it, Bowie deals in topics of death, mysticism, mortality, and the afterlife. The true artist he was, David Bowie had spent his final days writing and recording one last project, which he lived just long enough to see brought into the world. While the main thrust of this piece is to show you why you absolute must hear the record, it’s worth discussing why it hasn’t been as widely discussed as it should be.

The most obvious reason is that the record is far from accessible. Most of the instrumentation is made up a very dense and crushing form of Jazz and Bowie’s vocal melodies and lyrics are experimental to say the least. However, I’d say that there was another cause which weighed much heavier. Namely, Bowie’s death itself.

When a star of that magnitude passes away, fans often go back to classic releases to relive the golden days, and that caused many fans to ignore Blackstar. On top of that, the record itself is so dark and deals so heavily in death and mortality that it doesn’t allow listeners to escape to a time when Bowie was on top of the world again, but instead refuses to turn away from his death. All this being said, it’s long past time that Blackstar gets the respect it deserves.

Firstly, the record is instrumentally fascinating. Partnering with a litany of accomplished jazz artists with a flare for the experimental, Bowie created a project which is equal parts dense and dark. From the circling drums and staccato saxophones to the cacophonous backing vocals and the tasteful but jarring electronic elements, Blackstar rarely touches down on earth. Instead, it’s a orbits about, vaguely recognizable but never predictable.

This is, of course, before we touch on David’s performance itself which is simply breathtaking. His voice finds the perfect mix between power and sincerity and it’s generally our only tether to the real world, sonically. There are more than a few moments which could easily move a longtime fan to tears, even after multiple listens, either in his ability to honestly portray his own frailty or in the moments when everything comes together and just for one short moment, he’s back to his full glory.

The record’s best asset, without a doubt, is Bowie’s lyrics. There is just something indescribable about hearing one of the greatest artists that ever lived so unflinching facing his own demise. On Lazarus, Bowie details his own visualization of his walk into the afterlife beginning with the line, “look up here, I’m in heaven! I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” And, of course, on the opening, nine minute epic of a title track, he essentially writes a soundtrack to his own funeral.

Beyond all of this, the visuals involved with the record are stunning as well. The video for the title track is a psychedelic funeral for Bowie’s iconic Major Tom character from “Space Oddity” while the bizarre and at times frightening video for “Lazarus,” was packed with clues to his approaching demise long before his disease was known to the public.

Ultimately, the question is this: why should you listen to Blackstar? Why not remember Bowie as the almighty Ziggy Stardust and move on?  There are a few answers to this. The first is that Bowie intended this record to be his swan song and it should be treated as such. He spent his final moments creating this work of art and it should be respected by fans for what it’s meant to be.

That being said, there’s an even more important reason to visit this album which stands beyond just David Bowie himself. The fact is, there’s never been an album like Blackstar and there may never be again. To hear one of our greatest, an icon, and a truly brilliant artist confront death in its most real and inescapable form and he could think only of one thing, his music.

Blackstar is brave not only for the superficial reasons of it’s wide pallet and bizarre structures, but it is brave in the truest sense of staring death itself in the eyes, staring it down, and using your final breath to sing about what you see.

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

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The George Washing Machines Drop Brutal and Daring EP

Overall, FUNERAL CRACK BINGE is one of the more daring and brutal projects I’ve heard this year, and while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s a must hear if who wish to explore the fringes of underground music.
**TW: Bad Language**

The George Washing Machines is the experiment grindcore/doom metal alter ego of Jack Simpson. Created in 2012 in Washington, D.C., with the explicit goal of creating “the worst band of all time,” the outfit dropped a large collection of about 22 singles before falling off the map as Simpson shifted toward EDM music. Six years later, after the death of a close personal friend, Jack reignited GWM as an outlet to deal with depression while dabbling in experimental writing styles like taking quotes from a former crack addict or directly reciting a breakup letter written to an ex-girlfriend. Now much more mature and with a wide array of fascinating influences, the George Washing Machines has dropped FUNERAL CRACK BINGE.

The record opens with the hilariously titled “ANTHONY FANTANO WOULD PROBABLY GIVE THIS RECORD LIKE A 6.3,” which, itself, begins with a long and angry statement claiming that this is “not music.” The track that follows is a hellish, doom metal-inspired cut that is one of the better openers I’ve heard all year. This is the first of many points on the EP in which the drumming is excellent, but the brutally distorted guitars are actually the highlight for me here, aided by the periodically disorienting feedbacks.

It’s followed by “BITCH GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE,” which is a real freight train of a song. There’s a much heavier thrash and grindcore element as the fuzzy guitars chug along at a much faster tempo and the drums are driving and explosive. The vocals are quite impressive here, despite having no lyrics aside from repeating the title, bringing a gravelly quality that really adds to the track. The highlight, without a doubt, is the bizarre and abrasive breakdown that leads into the final chorus. While the electronic elements are fairly scarce across the EP, they add quite a bit to this song.

The best of the six tracks, “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND,” comes next, and it’s here where Simpson finds a sound that this fairly unique to him. With heavy influences from post-punk and hardcore, this track turns out to be certainly the most accessible on the project, though that isn’t saying much. The drums are excellent on this cut, as are the vocals, and the balance struck between crushing instrumentation and singable melody is truly something to be proud of.

We seem to take a left turn to hell immediately after, however, with the title track, “FUNERAL CRACK BINGE.” This is one of the more brutal and caustic songs I’ve heard in quite some time, from the screeching loops to the pummeling screams and the almost reptilian effects of the outro. It’s a lush hellscape that should satisfy fans of the group’s earlier sound.

The post-punk returns, however, on “ANNA, PLEASE DON’T MOVE TO PORTLAND WITH JAKE.” The quick switches from heavy but accessible verses to genuinely horrifying choruses are jarring in the best way possible. There’s a desperation conveyed very well in the lead vocals and the guitars are gut wrenching on the choruses. Once again, the drums shine as being extremely well played and arranged, and it makes for yet another fantastic track.

We close out with “I MEAN I GUESS WE CAN FUCK IF YOU WANT TO…” and it’s here where I will find my first substantive complaint as the more electronic, industrial style of this track makes it feel quite out of place in the lineup. That being said, it is a great song. The loops are extremely well utilized, the rapping from Young Socrates is phenomenal and jam packed with emotional delivery, and the ending may be the best on the record. Though it does feel a bit out of place here, it does give hope that future releases could tend toward more electronic, Death Grips inspired tone.

While my complaints are minor, I do have a few, most of them stemming from the production side. First and foremost, the drums. While they’re perfectly performed, they seem to have been left almost bare in terms of EQ and could do with a bit of touching up. Additionally, the there is a pervasive static across the record, which likely comes from the several higher pitched cymbals and the near constant overdrive on guitars and vocals. Having a constant amount of noise is, of course, not a bad thing on a noise rock record, but much of this seems to come from nowhere, and could likely be fixed with a bit tighter EQ on the instruments. All of this, however, is fairly forgivable, considering the EP’s DIY style.

Overall, FUNERAL CRACK BINGE is one of the more daring and brutal projects I’ve heard this year, and while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s a must hear if who wish to explore the fringes of underground music.

4/5

HOMESHAKE’s Fourth LP is Full of Ambition but Lacking Ideas

Helium may be a promising sign for the future, but in the present, it’s hardly worth a second glance.

HOMESHAKE is a lo-fi, indie pop singer/songwriter from Montreal, Quebec. He debuted in 2013 with two mixtapes, The Homeshake Tape and Dynamic Meditation. He gained something of an underground following which eventually lead to his departure from Mac DeMarco’s band in 2014 and the release of his debut LP, In The Shower. His follow up, Midnight Snack came about a year later followed by Fresh Air in 2017. Over the years, he’s transitioned from a slightly indie-tinged, guitar pop act to a more lo-fi experimental project. Helium is his latest effort, and it leaves quite a bit to be desired.

The album does have quite a bit going for it, not the least of which is ambition. The Seinfeld-esque bass guitar on “Like Mariah,” is a creative touch and “Other Than,” utilizes an interesting siren loop which fades in and out across the entirety of the track. There are plenty of moments like this, where HOMESHAKE seems to have the ambition needed to experiment with a large pallet, and though they don’t always work all that well, it’s fun to hear him try new things.

There are even a few genuinely well put together cuts on Helium. “All Night Long,” is an enjoyable, lo-fi track that features some great, subtle instrumentation. On the other hand, “Just Like My,” and “Nothing Could Be Better,” range from shimmering to ethereal, each full of strong creative decisions and set to fun grooves.

There are even a couple impressive interludes. “Heartburn” is relaxed and features a pleasing roll of wind chimes, while the most daring piece on the record comes in the form of the 90-second, “Salu Says Hi.” The chaotic spoken pieces drape over the droning instrumental well and the bouncing effects near the end are quite intriguing. Unfortunately, it’s on the topic of interludes where we find our first issue.

It should stated that there are far too many of these short instrumentals between tracks, and several of them seem either to be padding the runtime or like they’d fit better as intros to the next track. Beyond this, the opener, “Early,” for example, is just plain boring, with almost nothing happening for the entire 90 seconds.

Boring is a term that applies to much of this album. “Anything At All,” and the closer, “(Secret Track),” are perhaps the worst offenders as their entire runtime seems completely devoid of ideas. One great quality of electronic and lo-fi music is the many subtle layers, each with its own progression, leaving much to be uncovered on repeat listens. Much of Helium however, seems to be the absolute bare minimum, with little thought put into the melodies or especially the underpinning pieces.

In addition, The vocal performances are most just passable at best and frustrating at worst. “Another Thing,” for example, has some of the worst vocals on the album. Some of this may have worked the vocals had been heavily produced and used as another element, not the focus, but with a relatively dry lead, the shortcomings just can’t be ignored.

Worst of all, though, is HOMESHAKE’s insistance on repetitive sound effects, worst of all, the static. Several tracks are saddled with this backing static, though the “Trudi and Lou,” interlude and “Couch Cushion,” spring to mind as especially egregious examples where one, bland static is played behind the entire track. Something like waves on the ocean may have done this slightly better as at least there is some variance, but this static is omnipresent in the mix and absolutely lifeless.

As the album wraps up, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. While I’ve never been massively invested in HOMESHAKE’s work, Helium did seem to be striking on a vein that could yield very unique and interesting results. Unfortunately, he stops short and only delivers a surface level collection lo-fi wallpaper with only the hint of further depth.

Helium may be a promising sign for the future, but in the present, it’s hardly worth a second glance.

3/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2NhfRbU

Xiu Xiu’s Newest Release is Hellish and Fascinating

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

Xiu Xiu is an American experimental rock outfit from San Jose, California. They debuted in 2002 with Knife Play and have gone on to release 13 studio albums with rarely a year going by without a Xiu Xiu release. Few have charted, though their Record Store Day special, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks hit number nine on the US heat charts. By and large, their work has been largely underground, though they’ve built a respectable cult fan base. David Espinoza compared their sound to a mixture of Robert Smith and Trent Reznor while Pitchfork noted a “continual poetic and romantic beauty,” in their lyricism.

Sonically, Xiu Xiu is hard to place, not the least because each of their albums vary widely in style and influence. The majority of their work can largely be placed under umbrella groupings like industrial rock, noise pop, and experimental psych, each of which do describe some aspect of what’s happening on a Xiu Xiu record. Most importantly, their manic energy, massive pallet, and disregard for traditional rules of music make for an unpredictable and unique experience. Girl With Basket of Fruit is their most recent effort and it’s the darkest and most crushing to date.

From the first moments of the album, it’s pummeling and horrific soundscape becomes extremely clear. The opener and title track features abrasive loops of electronic instrumentation at a breakneck tempo while “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” sounds like a soundtrack to a hellish rave with grating, high pitched tones setting a quick pace which melts away into bizarre breakdowns that will likely sound alien to even the most dedicated fans of experimental music.

There are clear looks to the past of experimental music with tracks like “It Comes Out as a Joke,” utilizing the kind of manic chaos that characterized the most insane works of artists like Captain Beefheart and Jim Morrison. Meanwhile, “The Wrong Thing,” is reminiscent of the haunting, experimental jazz works of David Bowie’s final releases.

On the other hand, the sound pallet of this album contains a fascinating duality between past and future. Take a song like “Ice Cream Truck,” for example, where futuristic lasers and hisses are intercut with guttural growls from unknown creatures, only to dissolve into a dancing baseline played on upright bass, the recording of which is left almost raw. “Scisssssssors,” on the other hand, mixes a rolling collection of latin-inspired drums and a few chilling screams with synth squeals and low, rumbling buzzes. This imbalance is fascinating and contributes to the overall sense of unease this album creates.

This sense is made far stronger by some of the most unnerving lyrics in recent memory. “Amargi ve Moo,” seem to be written by a man so unhinged from reality that he speaks on of horrendous ideas with a poetic beauty which permeates even his descriptions of collecting tumors and beheading saints. On the other hand, “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” recounts the true story of the appalling murder and forced abortion of a Southern black woman in the early 20th century with such unbridled honestly that I’ve genuinely never been more disturbed by a piece of writing.

As excellent as the album is, it seems to stumble just a bit at the finish line. The closer, “Normal Love,” has a lot going for it, namely intriguing vocal performances and well written lyrics, but the relatively simple chord progression and many of the more cliched vocal ad libs in the background completely kill the momentum of the record thus far. The song also lacks some of the cohesion that made earlier cuts so fantastic.

Regardless, Girl with Basket of Fruit is absolutely incredible. Every second of the project is daring and spellbinding. It reaches some of the darkest lyrical places I’ve ever heard a record go,  and it gets there with mind-boggling instrumentation and production.

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

9/10

Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/2X8UrSM

Daughters is Back After Eight Years With the Best Metal Album of the Year

 You Won’t Get What You Want is an advanced piece of noise metal that is quite nearly perfect, and easily the best metal album of the year, if you’re up for the challenge.

     Daughters is an experimental, industrial metal act from Rhode Island. They’re well known for an absolutely hellish style, disjointed rhythms, wide array of influences, and, until recently, jarringly short tracks. Their 2003 debut LP, Canada Songs, had a runtime of just 11 minutes, with very few songs clearing a minute, which was complimented by the thrashing instrumentals of their early work. This continued on the slightly longer, Hell Songs, in 2007 which also hits hard and fast with a bit more character.

   This all changed, however, with what was meant to be their farewell project, which was self-titled and released in 2010. The record mixed elements of thrash, noise, and experimental metal with a heavy dose of post-punk to create a gothic cacophony of a farewell with a runtime that neared 30 minutes. Having bid the band farewell, their cult following was quite excited to hear news of an upcoming fourth album, and though listeners were quite surprised, they certainly weren’t let down.

   From the opening track, “City Song,” it’s very clear that we are in for something very different. The track feels like being lost in a dark ocean, with a driving bass, jarring snare-shots, and a panicked but hopeless vocal performance by Alexis Marshall. It’s sets a bleak tone, which the rest of the near 50 minute is all too happy to follow relentlessly.

   Energy is high on tracks like “The Reason They Hate Me,” or my personal favorite, “Long Road, No Turns.” Here, the drum work is explosive and the grating electronic leads make a listeners heart race. Daughters is able to use this manic noise rock to build tension in a unique way, not unlike a horror movie. It’s a style that, I would imagine, the vast majority of music listeners simply haven’t heard anywhere else.

   Tracks like “The Flammable Man,” and “The Lords Song,” call back to the earlier days of the group as the only songs to come in under three minutes. Here, we’re treated to a much heavier bleed in from the group’s more traditional punk influences along with the thrash style of released like Canada Songs. The bass guitar is especially brutal here, well mixed, and following a blistering tempo.

   On the other hand, “Satan in the Wait,” and “Ocean Song,” each top seven minutes, and make the most of every second. The former carries a horrific narrative over rhythmic drum and a howling guitar which almost mimics a siren, ending with a hellish chaos of shouting, squealing, and crashing cymbals. The latter is a true post-punk tune, telling what is essentially a horror story  over of the best instrumentals I’ve ever heard. These tracks are so fantastic and the slow burning style of Marshall’s story telling is so listenable that even longtime fans will find themselves wishing that Daughters had always been in the business of long-form, post-punk epics.

   The real shining point of the album, however, is the extremely unique instrumentation. The closer, “Guest House,” features a screeching synth that over scores the howling vocals well. “Less Sex,” is highlighted by a melodic choir part in the chorus, giving the track a distinct blues sound, and “Daughter,” opens with a gloomy piano riff which, though a bit gimmicky, is an interesting hook around which the rest of the tune is built.

   My complaints are slight, leading me to seriously contemplate my second ever perfect score, but, unfortunately, my complaints are present nonetheless. “Daughter,” is easily the weakest piece of the tracklist, held down by an odd organ section in the bridge. In addition, a few of the rhythm changes can be a bit underdeveloped, and the electric guitar, while used well for effect, could do with even a short turn in the spotlight. Aside from this, I must admit that the album lacks severely in replay value, with a tone so bleak and overbearing that, if you don’t find yourself in the mood, the project can simply come off as irritating, although, in fairness, it doesn’t seem that replay value and accessibility were ever goals held by Daughters.

   You Won’t Get What You Want is exactly the kind of album that music critics love. It tests the bounds of what music is and, in doing so, challenges even the most experienced music listener to make heads or tails of such a difficult piece of art. This album uses it’s smothering, gothic tone to tell interesting stories and create something that just doesn’t exist elsewhere in the music world, carrying all the lushness of a big budget rock album, but trading in the sweetness for horrific electronic tones and constant dissonance.

   You Won’t Get What You Want is an advanced piece of noise metal that is quite nearly perfect, and easily the best metal album of the year, if you’re up for the challenge.

9/10

HEAR YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANThttps://open.spotify.com/album/7w7ZTlk8YLc0OxviTp97qA

Twenty One Pilots Reemerge With Catchy but Deeply Flawed Fifth Album

With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

     Twenty One Pilots is an alternative hip-hop/pop/electronica duo from Columbus Ohio. They worked their way up through the music industry with an organic, grassroots fanbase eating up their self-titled debut and the follow up, Regional at Best in 2009 and 2011 respectively. They went on to sign a deal with Fueled by Ramen and release their breakout LP, Vessel in 2013, which still holds up to this day thanks to it’s youthful exuberance and experimental nature. Their 2015 follow up, Blurryface hasn’t aged nearly as well as it’s predecessor, though it was well received with the “Stressed Out” single netting them a grammy in 2016. Earlier this year, Blurryface became the first album in music history to have at least a gold certification for every track.

   Twenty One Pilots have been touring relentlessly since their last release until their recent and rather pretentious announcement that Trench would release later this year. Social media was abuzz and the first few singles showed quite a bit of promise. Though the once dominant Fueled By Ramen label has, in recent years, become a cesspool of thirty-something year old pop-rockers singing to twenty-something fans reliving their high school emo days, Twenty One Pilots showed a few signs of life and maturity in their lyricism and sound. I found myself excited to hear Trench, if a bit cautious, and now that it’s out, the record does pack a few surprises.

   The band’s best talent on this record is, as it always was, their ability to write hooks. Tracks like “Chlorine,” or “Morph,” are built around undeniable ear-worms that will bounce around in a listeners head for weeks to come. Even some of the records later cuts, “Bandito,” for example, are extremely catchy and feature very well written choruses.

   Beyond this, Josh Dunn’s drums are, of course, a treasure trove of fun fills and rhythms. “Legend” features a fun, easy rock beat which stands as one of the last remnants of the duo’s earlier sound. Much of the closer, “Leave This City,” on the other hand is driven by a fairly complex cymbal rhythm which all but makes up for the unremarkable nature of the track.

   Tyler Joseph’s contributions, however, are not as consistent. He gives an excellent, emotional performance on the opener and my favorite cut, “Jumpsuit,” and his quirky vocal is perfect for the upbeat tribute to his wife, “Smithereens.” His rapping, though, is not nearly as exciting on the trap influenced “Levitate,” or most anywhere else he raps on this project. Where Tyler’s screaming flow was once erratic and youthful, it comes off as awkward or uninteresting on much of Trench.

   The instrumentals are rarely memorable, but do provide a few highlights. The fuzzy guitar on the aforementioned opener are fantastic, and the discreet ukulele on “Nico and the Niners” is a nice touch. Furthermore, a few of the more electronic tracks like “My Blood,” or “The Hype,” are actually quite rich and mix in Joseph’s newfound love of bass guitar well.

   Lyrically we find an odd issue rearing its head. Songs like “Neon Gravestones,” or “Legend,” benefit from interesting choices in topic, especially the former which indicts our culture’s glorification of mental illness and suicide. The bulk of the lyricism is relatively inoffensive, though a bit repetitive.

   However, Trench is constantly plagued by an effort to develop an absurdly intricate concept following a dystopian future and some kind of rebellion against a theocratic government with so many characters and details that virtually no casual or even dedicated listener could unweave it without reading the loads of written material which the band uploaded along with the album. The vast majority of the storyline takes place in the writing with the album only casually mentioning it and many tracks completely forgoing the concept all together. This has the effect of interrupting otherwise interesting songs with ridiculous and meaningless lyrics which only exist to loosely tie in the plot of this external story. In short, Trench is a textbook example of how not to write a concept album.

   The only other complaint I have falls mainly over the second half of the album in that much of it is simply boring. Tracks like “Cut My Lip,” and “Pet Cheetah,” are messy and go nowhere, with the latter easily standing as the low point of the record. “Bandito,” though featuring a nice hook, doesn’t justify it’s five and a half minute runtime as none of the musical ideas really grow or develop in anyway.

   Trench is an odd album because it shines in many ways. Josh Dunn is as good as ever on drums, Paul Meany’s production leads to many interesting, small touches to be discovered on repeat plays, and Tyler Joseph clearly still has the ability to craft interesting musical ideas. This album could even pass as an alright addition to the Twenty One Pilots catalog, but after revisiting Vessel or even Blurryface, it becomes clear that Trench lacks a certain youthful energy which once glaze over the weaker elements of the band’s work.

   With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

5/10

HEAR TRENCH: https://open.spotify.com/album/621cXqrTSSJi1WqDMSLmbL