Earl Sweatshirt Drops Unique and Enjoyable 3rd Album

Some Rap Songs will likely be adored by true fans, but may not connect with the uninitiated.

     Earl Sweatshirt is a rapper and producer from Los Angeles, California. He’s best known as a member of the rap super group, Odd Future along with Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean among others. While his fellow OF members have reached much success in recent years and stepped out from the shadow of the group, Sweatshirt has struck up more of an underground path to fame. After a few self-released mixtapes, he made his major label debut on Columbia in 2013 with Doris. The album was mildly successful, in fact more so than it’s 2015 follow up, I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside. The latter, however, became a massive cult hit, slowly building a small but dedicated fan base.

   His flow is heavily inspired by his Odd Future counterparts, particularly Tyler the Creator, who’s early work is remarkably similar to that of Sweatshirt. The fanbase, though, was far more drawn to his lyricism, which is quite impressive. He writes with brutal cynicism and focusses heavily on dark topics. His storytelling is excellent and, especially on his second record, he has an excellent ability to paint a picture. After seeing the strange cover and title for Strange Rap Songs, I knew I was in for a unique experience, and Earl didn’t disappoint.

   The first thing you’ll notice about this record is extremely short runtimes and long tracklist. The longest and perhaps best tracks the album are the opener, “Shattered Dreams,” and “The Mint,” each clocking in under three minutes. These actually feel like complete ideas, though they’re essentially just long verses, as Earl lets the beats shine a bit longer and the latter features a fantastic soundbite. The rest of the album is somewhat woven together.

   Because of the quick changes, we’re given one fantastic beat after another. The closer, “Riot!” is completely instrumental and utilizes a catchy, well played horn passage near the end while tracks like “The Bends,” and “Veins,” are built around well cut vocal samples which are used to set tone as well as rhythm. Earl shows versatility around every turn as the music simply refuses to sit still for more than a moment.

   His flow is also quite listenable. “December 24,” and “Cold Summers,” feature the kind of classic, Earl Sweatshirt flow we know and love, as do “Red Water,” and “Onmyway!” Here, he’s unrelenting and with the slight tinge of violence and intensity. On the other hand, tracks like “Nowhere2go,” and “Eclipse,” display a sleeper, more laid back form of the same sound.

   Overall, the record shows a reckless disregard for tradition. “Loosie,” and “Azucar,” find Earl barely clinging to the beat of minimalistic instrumentation with a bizarre transition between the two. Furthermore, several tracks mix the beats louder than Earl’s vocals and his vocal constantly fades between vocal effects.

   Not every risk pays off though. “Playing Possum,” is the only moment on this very short project which I would truly call boring as it is devoid of rapping and instead built around selections from speeches by two women over a relatively weak beat. “Peanut,” seems to never quite find its rhythmic footing, and though I have respect for the experimental nature, it ultimately misses wide of the mark.

   In total, Some Rap Songs is a unique listening experience which really must be taken in in one sitting to be appreciated. When Earl stays in his wheelhouse he is quite effective, but the branching out yields a bit of a mixed bag of results.

   Some Rap Songs will likely be adored by true fans, but offers little for the uninitiated. 

5/10

HEAR SOME RAP SONGShttps://open.spotify.com/album/66at85wgO2pu5CccvqUF6i

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Montana of 300 Finally Realizes His Potential

A Gun In The Teacher’s Desk is a return to form for one of drill’s most promising early artists which keeps many of the qualities that drill fans have come to love, while improving on the genre’s faults in a mature and creative way.

     Montana of 300 is a drill rapper from Chicago. He built a name for himself with several mixtape releases on the popular streaming service, Spinrilla, but his debut LP came in 2014 with Cursed With a Blessing. The album was one of the best of the year, sporting better instrumentals than most of his counterparts and elevated highly by Montana’s hard-hitting flow and daring lyricism. Nevertheless, the LP was seemingly lost in the sea of drill releases coming out of Chicago at the time and he became something of a second tier drill star, lacking the crossover name recognition of artists like Lil Durk and Chief Kief.  Since then, he’s dropped four albums, beginning with 2015’s Gunz n Roses, which was widely criticized for sanding off the rough edges of the drill sound to find a wider audience.

   This was a shame because Montana’s sound on Cursed was the perfect, distilled essence of what made drill what it was. He wrote boldly and delivered his lyrics with an explosive flow. All this over hectic tracks which, while they did abuse the electronic cymbals, weren’t infected with the bass heavy mixing style of trap. Gunz n’ Roses was a major turnoff for me as a fan, adding rock instrumentation poorly and watering down his writing. Thankfully, A Gun In The Teacher’s Desk is something of a return to form.

   The truer drill influences are clear from the first moments of the opener, “Favorite Teacher,” as well as the later track, “Art Class.” Here, the abrasive instrumentals and lo-fi production are perfect throwbacks to the golden days of Chicago rap, which has now been mostly taken over by trap beats. The latter even features a few excellent drop outs, a veritable staple of the genre, which are timed very well.

   The flows on this album are absolutely bombastic. “Been A Beast,” follows the opener and simply refuses to quit. “Good Luck,” is another excellent example of 300’s strong flow. Both see him dropping one meaningful bar after another and dance over the beat with an unpredictable rhyme schemes. Over the tinnie instrumentals, these vocal performance drive each track along, as not one drags, even for a moment.

   Beyond the flow, he also seems to have quite the affinity for writing hooks. “Long Way,” is perhaps the most obvious example of this, sporting an excellent, autotuned hook, but “What’s Wrong With Me,” slips comfortably into the latter half of the track list despite a catchy chorus, good message, and well-sampled guitar.

   Above all, though, it’s the lyricism that sets Montana of 300 apart from his drill counterparts, as it always has. The fantastic closer, “Bloodsport,” showcases his ability to address serious topics like his mother’s drug addiction, his desire to leave his dangerous neighborhood, and one of his favorite topics, organized religion. The latter is particularly unique within the genre.

   There are two underwhelming cuts on this project as well. “FGE Cypher Pt. 8,” while fun, certainly doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. In addition, none of the features live up to the standard which Montana set’s throughout the rest of the record and several lean on an overdone, triplet flow, causing the track to fall a bit flat.

   The only truly bad song on the album is “Dip-N-Sauce.” This is the only cut that I likely won’t revisit again after this review as the strange flute melody and annoying reggae influences feel like a strange entry from the depths of left field. It’s also, mercifully, the shortest song on the album and as a function it feels a bit underdeveloped. 

   I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few general, structural complaints about A Gun In The Teacher’s Desk, but I can overlook most all of them for two reasons. Firstly, this album does a lot of things, namely pacing, cohesiveness, lyricism, and production, which are generally considered absent from the drill genre as a whole. Each song clocks in between four and five minutes and that runtime is used well to develop ideas and write full choruses. This is incredibly rare in one of rap’s most anarchic subgenres. The second of these is quite simple:

   A Gun In The Teacher’s Desk is a return to form for one of drill’s most promising early artists which keeps many of the qualities that drill fans have come to love, while improving on the genre’s faults in a mature and creative way.

6/10

HEAR A GUN IN THE TEACHER’S DESKhttps://open.spotify.com/album/2o5kWHEh53gIQZwZxKDfqr

The 1975 Capture Millennial Apathy With Third LP

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a balanced blend of gallows humor and and youthful dissociation with glittering britpop and bright instrumentation which very well expresses the apathy and sensory overload of today’s youth.

     The 1975 is a britpop/pop-rock act from Manchester, UK. They debuted in 2013 with a self-titled LP which received mild critical praise but very quickly built a rabid cult following that rocketed the band to superstardom in the US. This was followed by their 2016 which sported this cringeworthy title: I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. Despite the title, the record debuted at number one, perhaps helped by their signing to Interscope, and became The 1975’s second straight platinum album.

   Despite the commercial success and strong base, however, the band has received rather middling reviews over the years and developed something of an image problem, being seen as a quintessential hipster band. Mainly, they’re criticized for their thoughtful, experimental aesthetic being absent in their actual music, which is mostly glossy britpop with psuedo-intellectual lyricism and a unique 1980’s influence. Personally, I’d found their previous efforts bloated and lacking in substance, but not devoid of enjoyable moments. However, with A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, the band seems to have matured quite a bit, finally bringing much of their potential to fruition.

   The record opens, as does every 1975 album, with a short interlude baring the band’s name as a title. This one interesting, borrowing the hectic, chorusing effect which was notable used by Bon Iver in his track, “CREEKS.” It’s used slightly less effectively here, but the track is still enjoyable. It doesn’t hold a candle, though, to the albums other interlude, “The Man Who Married a Robot/A Love Theme,” a cynical dark comedy which both laments the apathy and dissociation of our generation and perfectly incapsulates Matt Healy’s authorial tone on this album.

   Lyrically, Healy writes sardonically, comedically, and with a strong dedication to the project’s general aesthetic. The seamless blend of genuineness with black comedy on tracks like “Give Yourself a Try,” is unique and engaging, and it contrasts with “Inside Your Mind,” which mock’s it’s own roots in pop power balladry by following a man who loves a woman so much he wants to split her head open to see her inner thoughts. Even beyond this, the album’s highlight “Love It If We Made It,” gorgeously satirizes the modern would with a level of desperation that taps into that of The 1975’s very young demographic, making the song’s “modernity has failed us,” hook ring especially poignant.

   Sonically, the album covers a wide rage, most of which is quite enjoyable. They’re certainly at their best on tracks like “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” “I Like America, America Likes Me,” or “It’s Not Living.” The glitzy, gloss pop instrumentals and the shimmering production is perfectly juxtaposed against the songs’ dark subject matter, that being infidelity, gun violence, and heroin addiction respectively. 

   Even a few of their more genre bending tracks work well. “I Couldn’t Be More in Love,” is a George Michael-esque, power-soul ballad, complete with chimes and what Healy called “a real key change.” On the other hand “Mine,” is a lounging jazz tune which, despite weaker lyrics, is infinitely listenable and features an amazing saxophone solo. This is also very well done on the closer, “I Always Wanna Die,” which would’ve felt right at home in the early 2000’s, among the likes of Oasis. Here, the band wears their influences, unashamedly, on their sleeve and craft loving tributes to these inspirations.

   However, a few of these experiments fall short. “Sincerity is Scary,” is at least respectable in it’s attempt to dip a toe in the waters of groovy soul music, though it feels a bit awkward and doesn’t really fit in the tracklist. This is more than I can say for tracks like “Be My Mistake,” or “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies,” two stripped down, folksy tunes which feel like bland left-overs from the previous two records, and who’s heartfelt lyrics seem to be mocked by the rest of the album’s irreverent cynicism. The worst of all these tracks is “How To Draw/Petrichor,” which feels like an aimless, Planet Earth sound track which relegates the previously used chorus effect to near novelty status.

   As the near 60 minute runtime draws to a close, my mind is drawn to The 1975’s previous efforts, both of which are roughly as long. Where they felt like psuedo-thoughtful slogs, Brief Inquiry feels like a genuine commentary on modern times. It isn’t perfect, but the infusion of punk attitude and black humor has brought The 1975 to a truly respectable stage in their development.

   A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a balanced blend of gallows humor and and youthful dissociation with glittering britpop and bright instrumentation which very well expresses the apathy and sensory overload of today’s youth.

8/10

HEAR A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPShttps://open.spotify.com/album/6PWXKiakqhI17mTYM4y6oY

Every Maynard James Keenan Album Ranked!!

This one took me quite awhile, but here it is! Every Maynard James Keenan album (post Opiate) ranked!!

12. Emotive (2004)- A Perfect Circle

     The most critically maligned effort in Maynard’s post-Tool career, and admittedly the most underwhelming, I will still be the first and loudest defender of this album. All too often, Emotive is subject to overly brutal criticism because it is viewed through the same lens as the band’s previous work. Instead, the album toes the line between full blown third release and something of a side project. I think, had this been followed quickly by a true end to the band’s trilogy with Virgin Records, much of the distaste would’ve subsided. However, Emotive is what it is, that being, by all accounts, a mixed bag.

   Maynard’s lyricism can hardly be discussed here, as the album is made up of political covers, but the song selection does provide an interesting peak into his inspirations. Track’s like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” come off admittedly awkward, but “Passive,” is one of the band’s best efforts, and incidentally the only original on the album, enlisting the help of fellow industrial rock legend, Trent Reznor in the writing process. Additionally, Maynard’s choral rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is one of my favorite songs of all time. In short, while the album does land at the bottom of the list, it is by no means a bad album.

11. Money Shot (2015)Puscifer

   While this is, admittedly, the weakest of the three Puscifer LP’s, that certainly doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means. Money Shot’s biggest sin is its inability to differentiate from the band’s previous two entries. While this is decidedly not a meaningful failure in the eyes of many fans, it does seem to run counter to Puscifers appealing quality. While Tool and APC have solidified styles, Puscifer is meant to be an outlet for Maynard to use his complete control to radically experiment with a multitude of new ideas. In this vein, I’m much quicker to forgive the outfit’s few misses on earlier projects than to excuse the safe tracklist of Money Shot.

   That being said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. “The Arsonist,” may be Puscifer’s best song, and “The Remedy,” brings back a bit of the cynicism and comedy of the band’s debut, a quality which is completely absent on the rest of this album. The instrumentation is more organic on this album, and performed quite well by all involved. All in all, Money Shot is an enjoyable effort, but Maynard seems to be in a bit of a creative rut throughout, unsurprising as this would be his 11th LP in just over 20 years. Fitting then, that this would be the last puscifer LP for awhile as MJK began to undertake the writing process of APC’s return in 2018.

10. Opiate (1992) – Tool

    There are very few bands with a stronger debut than Tool. The majority of the record is recorded live, but it still lands on this list because the tracks don’t appear anywhere else in the group’s discography. The live raw energy of a Tool show really comes through on this album as well, and it’s hard not to laugh when Maynard says “get that Bob Marley wannabe motherf***ker out of here.”

   There is plenty not to love here, on the other hand. The recordings, being live and probably cheap, lack the excellent production we would hear on later Tool releases. The tracklist itself is a bit of a weakness as well, mostly coming in around four to five minutes and missing much of the lyrical thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from MJK. The closer and title track, however, remains one of my favorite Tool songs of all time and stands as the first chapter in the very long, open dialogue between Maynard and organized Christianity. This kind of bold, angry writing from such a young band, coupled with the jarring and mildly offensive cover, set a tone for a band and an artist that would speak their minds loudly in the years to come.

9. Conditions of My Parole (2011)Puscifer

   The second Puscifer release certainly doesn’t exceed its predecessor the way Thirteenth Step did, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable entry on this list. The tone is much closer to the larger body of MJK’s work, sacrificing some of the debut’s uniqueness for a more palatable, anthemic style. It did, however, retain much of what makes Puscifer such a unique side project.

   The changes are most notable on tracks like “Tiny Monsters,” and “Green Valley,” where the industrial instrumentation and drum heavy mix is still very present, but the lyricism and, even more so the vocal melodies, are much more in line with what longtime fans have come to expect. “Telling Ghosts,” could very easily have landed on an APC album. A few of the tracks can come off as somewhat forgettable, but the bulk of Conditions of My Parole is an absolute blast.

8. “V” Is For Vagina (2007)Puscifer

   With APC on hiatus and Tool stuck in a perpetual creative vortex, Maynard found himself sat idle for this first time in many years. This seemed to last all of a few days as V Is For Vagina was released just a year after the Tool record and Puscifer was born. While the band wouldn’t receive a lot of mainstream attention until their ’09 single, “Cuntry Boner,” longtime Maynard fans were greeted in ’07 by a total 180 degree turn with surprisingly enjoyable results.

   Puscifer’s sound embraces a form of industrial rock which was only slightly present in MJK’s previous work, and combines it with the kind of sardonic humor which Maynard is known for. Tracks like “Queen B,” and “Vagina Mine” may be somewhat jarring for Tool and APC fans, but they are very well crafted and infinitely listenable pieces of industrial rock, some of the best of the era. V Is For Vagina is a must listen for any and all MJK fans, especially considering his near total creative control over the project.

7. Eat the Elephant (2018)A Perfect Circle

   Perhaps the most divisive of Maynard’s albums among fans, Eat the Elephant marked the return of A Perfect Circle to prominence after a nearly 15 year hiatus which had been filled with three MJK releases under the Puscifer moniker. As a result, this album does often seem to capture more of Puscifer’s experimental nature than APC’s anthemic tendencies. It’s one of stranger albums on this list, but it’s one that I enjoyed quite a bit.

   Tracks like “Disillusioned” and the title track featured surprisingly soft piano passages while “The Doomed,” and my personal favorite, “TalkTalk,” fall much more in the vein of APC’s arena rock style. The latter half loses quite a bit of steam, but overall, Eat the Elephant is a respectable return to form for a group which seems to have matured quite a bit during its hiatus.

6. Meir De Noms (2000)A Perfect Circle

   Following the massive success of Tool, and during a very odd time for rock music in general, A Perfect Circle was formed by MJK and Billy Howerdel and released their debut album, Meir De Noms to massive critical and commercial success. The group’s sound was much more oriented toward arena and alternative rock, as apposed to the progressive and industrial styles that filled Tool projects.

   Meir De Noms contains the band’s best and most popular song by a mile in “Judith,” but also features classics like “The Hollow,” and “3 Libras.” Throughout, Howerdel’s guitar is anthemic and Josh Freese’s drumming is explosive. Maynard’s vocals are, in many ways, given more focus here than on previous Tool projects and his lyrics take a turn for the platitudinous in the best possible way. If the album has one strike against it, it’s a general lack of cohesion and clear vision. However, Meir De Noms is an excellent debut LP and did a great job of setting APC apart from Maynard’s other projects. 

5. Undertow (1993) – Tool

   Oh, how we all miss the days of two Tool releases in back to back years! Following the breakout success of the Opiate EP, Tool followed up with their first full length project, which improved on their previous work in virtually every way. This album features classics like “Prison Sex,” and “Swamp Song,” as well as Tool’s first major hit, “Sober.”

   Undertow is also where we hear Maynard beginning to come into his own as a writer and performer. His screams are powerful and his running vocal lines are nearly ethereal. The record is far better mixed and recorded, though still not as tight as later projects, and there’s a certain air of professionalism about Undertow that begins to make Tool feel like as special a band as they are. Overall, it’s an excellent studio debut and features some of the band’s best instrumentation and MJK’s best lyrics.

4. Thirteenth Step (2003)A Perfect Circle

   The highlight of APC’s catalog, Thirteenth Step is the Terminator 2 of alt-rock albums. Everything we loved from the debut is back, but better focused and turned up to 11. The non-cohesive but impressive tracklist of the debut is replaced with a moody, melodic piece of alt/arena rock with a clear and decisive aesthetic.

   Nearly every song on this album is fantastic, but a few of my favorites include, “Blue,” “The Outsider,” and “Pet, although my personal favorite from the album has to be the orchestral reimagining of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me.” The entire album is a testament to what can be accomplished by two especially creative artists when they mesh well and benefit from excellent work ethics. Thirteenth Step was APC’s second consecutive platinum album and it left the band with hits that are still popular today, 15 years later.

3. 10,000 Days (2006) – Tool

   For many Tool fans, this is the end all be all of Tool albums. In fact, I’d even call it my personal favorite, if I wasn’t speaking critically. Released in 2006 after a five year hiatus, 10,000 Days is the most recent Tool album to date, and it is, in some ways, the completion of an arc which began with ’96’s Aenima, that being the gradually increasing psychedelic and progressive influences into the band’s alt-metal roots. This album gives itself fully over to the prog side and it is from this that both its strengths and weaknesses are born.

   There isn’t a single track that clocks in under six minutes, save the “Blame Hoffman,” interlude which is nearly four minutes of purely atmospheric build up. “Rosetta Stoned,” is nearly 11 minutes of blistering rock music with some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. The highlight of not only the album, but possibly Tool’s entire catalog, is the two part epic of “Wings for Marie,” and “10,000 Days,” which chronicles the passing of Maynard’s mother, and her ascension to heaven. It’s a piece of pure art which will leave goosebumps on the arms of anyone with a pulse.  My only hangup with this album, however, comes in the long and sometimes aimless interludes. Where earlier intros like “Parabol,” felt like a lingering shot of runners on their blocks before a race, a track like “Lipan Conjuring,” seems to spin its wheels and never get anywhere. Regardless, 10,000 Days is Tool’s most personal effort, and one of my all time favorite albums.

2. Ǽnima (1996)Tool

   When it came to deciding my top two for this list, I found the decision virtually impossible, and my opinion may even change day to day, but in the end, and through no fault of its own, Aenima lands at number two. Following the breakout success of Undertow, Aenima takes Tool’s hard rock sound and adds a multitude of brand new layers.

   “46 & 2,” and “Pushit,” deal in complex issues with a kind of reverence which was somewhat new to the band at this time. On the other hand, “Stinkfist,” “H.” and “Eulogy,” touch on serious moral issues with a cynical humor that only Maynard can execute this well. Beyond that, even, tracks like “Hooker With a Penis,” and the title track feature the kind of dark humor which would be largely absent from either of Tool’s post Aenima efforts. But it’s the closer, “Third Eye,” that sets a precedent for what we could expect in the future. Clocking in over 13 minutes and making the most of a couple hilarious Bill Hicks samples, the track is a sprawling, expansive end to an incredible album. Aenima is so very close to being perfect, but for me, it’s beat out ever so slightly by our number one.

1. Lateralus (2001)Tool

   It’s virtually impossible to name the best Tool album, let alone the best album from all of MJK’s catalog, but if it must be done, I simply can’t place anything above Lateralus. I tend to view Tool’s last three albums as a trilogy, following an especially gifted alt-metal four piece as they grow to an infamous, prog-metal juggernaut, and in that sense, the fast majority of the leg-work is done by Lateralus. With a tracklist featuring much longer tracks, including “Reflection,” which clears 11 minutes, lofty concepts, and a heavy influence on math and sequences, Tool challenged themselves in nearly ever conceivable way and they succeeded.

   Tracks like “Schism,” and “Ticks and Leaches,” showcase Tool’s remarkable ability to bend time signatures and tempos, “The Grudge,” and the title track feature Adam Jones’ gritty, powerful guitar work, and “Parabol,” and “Parabola,” is one of the best two part tracks of all time, slowly developing into explosive payoffs. Throughout Maynard’s voice is dynamic, ranging from guttural screams to droning, contained melodies with equal intensity and brilliance. His melodies are every single bit as well written as any riff or beat on the project, and his lyrics are meticulous, yet thematic. All of this is tied together by the legendary David Bottrill, who’s work in the producer’s chair elevates this record to all new heights. Put simply, Lateralus is a remarkable accomplishment for one the greatest bands of all time, and the crown jewel in MJK’s legendary catalog.

Thoughts on My Mount Rushmore of Songwriting

This was written as a class assignment, but I thought it would make an interesting discussion piece!

Stephen Foster (1826-1864)

     Today, he’s likely the only name on this list that isn’t a household name, but with hits that include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camp Town Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” his music is surely known by the vast majority of music lovers, even as we near the 200th anniversary of his death. While the influence of his songs alone can’t be ignored, Foster is best remembered for what he means to the industry as he is, according to most, the father of American songwriting itself.

Stephen Foster

   Much of Stephen’s life could only be described as nearly unbearable. He suffered from alcoholism for the majority of his rather short life, dying after in a hotel at age 37 with only 28 cents in his pocket. In addition, much of his success came on the massive popularity of minstrel theatre, a fact which seemed to trouble Foster as much during his life as it would his fans a decade or so later. Because of this, he constantly struggled with the fear that he was creating low art. In many ways, Stephen Foster was also the father of the troubled young artist archetype which would come to be exemplified by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morison.

   His feelings aside, however, his work will forever be held in the highest esteem as the work of the man who single-handedly forged the American popular music industry into existence. His memory has faced some racial controversy in the past few years, but may historians have pointed out that, relative to the culture of his time, Foster was quite generous and supportive of people of color.  Though he lived a hard and depressing life, history will forever remember him as a legend and that, better than any single song or work, sums up the true power of a wonderful songwriter.

The Beatles (1960-1970)

   The Beegee’s are often called “The Beatles of Disco,” The Ramones have been called “The Beatles of Punk,” and a few different groups, Wu Tang Clan and NWA most notably, have vied for the title of “The Beatles of Rap.” The truth is, however, that all of these titles are foolish because there never was and never will be a group like The Beatles.

   No one will ever captivate an entire nation the way The Beatles did upon arriving in the United States. There were massive advancements made to live sound technology solely so that The Beatles could be heard over the deafening screams of their fans. According to most people lucky enough to have attended these early shows, the advancements were not successful. One massive change that the band made to the songwriting world was writing their own music. The writing team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is one of the most prolific of all time.

The Beatles

   An even more direct line can be drawn, however, to the explosion of album-centric writing which took over the 1970’s and lead to the most lucrative decade in the history of the music industry. Following the near constant frustration of loud fans drowning out all of their live performance, The Beatles chose to distance themselves from the touring world and become a studio band, spending all of their time crafting massive albums. Their seminole 1966 effort, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is widely considered the first concept album and would inspire the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, and many more. Until The Beatles came on the scene, a “good” rock song came in around three minutes, featured a good hook, and got a lot of radio play. The Beatles encompassed what should’ve been three decades worth of genre evolution within a vigorous ten year span and likely changed the face of rock and roll more than any artists before or since. There will never be another Beatles.

James Brown (1933-2006)

   Possibly the most overlooked artist on my list, James Brown’s impact on the industry just doesn’t receive nearly the respect it deserves. He’s often referred to as the King of Funk and the Godfather of Soul, titles which he certainly earned, but which seems to sell Brown extremely short.

   James himself began as a particularly energetic R&B vocalist, gaining notoriety for fiery performances and a passionate vocal. He would go on to reach massive success and acclaim as his sound began to morph into something all his own. Upon the release of his hit single, “Cold Sweat,” he had become the King of Funk and forever changed the musical land scape forever. His sound was beat driven. It was something you could only feel, not count. He was, in many ways, the first artist who’s music focused heavily on the beat itself, laying the ground work for rap music, which would soon dethrone rock music as the dominant stream of the American popular music. This is why James Brown, and specifically his drummer, is the most sampled artist of all time.

   What makes Brown especially important in this sense is his involvement in this musical development. Where most band music, say that of The Beatles, must be attributed to the collective, James was also renown for his constant creative control when it came to his band’s performances. When James Brown stepped on a stage or into a studio, it was truly his creation which was on display, and it was his creations which forever altered the course of music history. It seems to me more than likely that, without Brown’s influence, rap music and the rise of African American music in the mainstream could never have happened.

Bob Dylan (1941-)

   The only member on this list who is still actively working, Bob Dylan will make the shortlist of nearly any well versed music listener’s Mount Rushmore. His catalog includes records like The Times They Are A-Changin’ Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, and Love and Theft. This very long list of albums, only a highlight selection from his nearly 40 studio releases, is one of the most accomplished in all of music history. 

   He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received the presidential medal of freedom in 2012, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the only musician to ever do so. Beyond this, he has 11 Grammys and, perhaps most importantly, it would be virtually impossible to assemble even a small group of famous musicians who weren’t heavily inspired by Dylan in some way or another. Even many infamous artists from the 90’s, during the rock renaissance, site Bob Dylan as a massive inspiration.

   Unlike the other artists on this list, Dylan was not able to hide behind long instrumental passages. Instead, he utilized a simple strophic scheme and basic instrumentation so that his lyrics were easily heard. What makes Dylan special is that he never failed to show up. He was a young, small man with a powerful creative voice, and just like his hero Woodie Guthrie, he never shied away from speaking his mind. When the time came, during the American Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan was there. And when the time kept coming, the Vietnam War in the 70’s, AIDS and income inequality in the 80’s, drug epidemics and disillusionment in the 1990’s, economic collapse and the rise of far right identity politics in the 20th century, Bob Dylan was always there to show us the undeniable power of three chords and the truth. He is, more so than anyone else in history, a testament to the art of songwriting.

Mumford and Sons Branch Out With Fourth LP

Delta isn’t the best album of the year, it isn’t even the best album in the growing Mumford and Sons catalog, but it is a powerful and decisive step from a once niche band toward branching out and finding new footing. For that, it deserves respect.

     Mumford and Sons is a folk/indie rock act from London. They burst onto the underground scene in 2009, at the hight of the hipster movement, with their debut LP, Sigh No More. The record has since sold more than five million copies and is absolutely essential to understanding the musical landscape of this decade. Their follow up, 2012’s Babel charted at number one in the US and catapulted Mumford into super stardom, birthing the trend of Irish-Irish-inspired folk which would include the likes of Ed Sheeran and Phillip Phillips. 2015’s Wilder Mind was a bit of a misstep, though it still went platinum, seeing the group add a drummer and experiment with truer rock influences.

   Mumford and Sons’ sound has evolved over the years, but a few tendencies remain constant. There are thick, obvious ties to Irish folk music throughout, particularly in indulgent harmonies and driving time signatures. They also sport a unique instrumental pallet which includes a banjo, upright bass, and the occasional mandolin or pair of spoons. Their latest release flirted with blues and rock and roll, but with Delta, Mumford seems to have found a new home in the world of arena rock.

   Let it not go without mentioning, though, how sharp the band’s folk roots are in cutting through the spacious instrumentals. The opener, “42” features a gorgeous set of harmonies throughout, and “Beloved,” is driven by a heavily effected banjo. It’s here that longtime Mumford fans will find enjoyment. I myself could feel the high school freshmen in me soaking in every second, but this album doesn’t stop here.

   Tracks like the lead single, “Guiding Light” and “Woman,” dive headlong into the stadium rock aesthetic which is meant to characterize this project. The reverb-heavy mix, looping guitars, and catchy hooks make for a fun foray into this new territory, which will likely leave something to enjoy for fans and casual listeners alike.

   This album is most effective, however, in its final third as the group crafts a long string of intimate but singable tracks to close out the rather long runtime. “If I Say,” and “Wild Heart,” are genuinely quite moving, “Forever,” is a strong piano ballad, even the very experimental “Darkness Visible,” is unique and intriguing, and though the closing title track leaves a bit to be desired in the creativity department, Marcus Mumford’s lead vocals make it infinitely listenable.

   This brings us to Delta’s most noticeable quality, that being Marcus’ excellent effort on every second of the album. Both lyrically and vocally, the band’s frontman is perfectly on his game at all times. Tracks like “Slip Away,” and “Rose of Sharon,” which fall in the middle of the record and feature the weakest instrumentals of the bunch, are more than rescued Mumford’s total commitment and heartfelt delivery. On the other hand, an already well made track like “The Wild,” is made all the better by his touch as the centerpiece.

   The best song on the record, by a mile, is “October Skies,” which is able to sum up the best parts of Delta without falling victim to any of its shortcomings. The organic instrumentation and howling vocals are perfectly evocative of vintage Mumford, yet the drum kit adds an enjoyable groove. Beyond this, the track is beautifully produced, as is much of this album, building a cozy sonic space upon which to view closely the stark beauty of the louder, more powerful moments. The choir, as with the wide pallet on the project as a whole, is simply a brilliant touch.

   This album isn’t perfect. Several of the anthemic staples the band touches on feel somewhat stale and done to death, and you’ll find more than a fair share of cliched lyricism. However, it’s a step that is much appreciated. There is a clear and palpable passion that comes along with this album and it is hard to deny, especially when the wide pallet, good production, and talented performances gel smoothly.

   Delta isn’t the best album of the year, it isn’t even the best album in the growing Mumford and Sons catalog, but it is a powerful and decisive step from a once niche band toward branching out and finding new footing. For that, it deserves respect.

6/10

HEAR DELTA:  HTTPS://OPEN.SPOTIFY.COM/ALBUM/3THBKS5IJZ41MABAOAT7WC

Bufihimat Drops Technically Excellent If Poorly Paced Debut

I is a brutal slog of an album with plenty for extreme metal fans to appreciate if they’re willing to overlook a few weaknesses.

     Bufihimat is a tech/death metal outfit from Voronezh, Russia. They arrived on the scene in 2015 with a single, “Last Journey Through Pain,” and then fell out of the public eye once again. While the track was fairly well received, whatever momentum they gained was all but lost over the three year hiatus which followed.

   Their sound is brutal, generally falling under the umbrella of “extreme metal,” but their main style is death metal, sporting a low, guttural vocal and heavy instruments. They are also, however, incredibly talented, frequently performing extremely difficult passages at a blistering speed. With the release of their first full length LP, I (One), they’ve officially thrown they’re hat in the mix of the extreme metal world, and they’ve done so quite skillfully.

   First and foremost, the drumming on this record is lightning fast. On tracks like “Thy Flesh Consumed,” or “Last Journey Through Pain,” the blistering speed sets quite a tempo with double kicks, which is then shown to be malleable with excellent fills in nearly every open space. The drums really take front and center on this project, and thanks to talented musicianship, they make good on this status.

   The guitars are also well utilized here. Tracks like “Human Hive” or the opener, “Splited” mix the hellish brutality of the distorted rhythm guitar quite well with the almost video game-esque lead guitar licks. The lead is one of the very few less extreme portions of the mix, and it shines well over the slugging rhythm riffs.

   The vocals, while a bit lacking in variety, are still quite impressive. A track like “Qualia,” just can’t come together without a vocalist like this. His screams are thick and gravelly, yet he has the ability to hold out notes far longer than one would expect. In “Decline of the Fading Suns, he lets out long, brutal screams which are accented by hectic instrumental passages, making this the best track on the album.

   My biggest complaint with the project, however, is the lack of variety. While the closer, “He Saw Himself,” provides something of a change by incorporating an organ and well-performed guitar arpeggios, it comes on the tail end of nearly a half our of ear-piercing distortion and near constant double kicks. While I appreciate the brutality of this record, it seems they may have traded in some of the creative possibilities in an effort to create the loudest, heaviest album possible.

   Even on a track like “Digging the Hole,” which begins with a thinner, higher scream and some heavy grunge influence, we find ourselves right back to the sludging tech death that characterizes the rest of the project. This may be the first time that a runtime under 30 minutes has felt like a slog, and it’s due entirely to poor pacing and strict adherence to form.

   That being said, I did enjoy I. There are certainly shortcomings, but for a debut LP, it’s quite an accomplishment. The instrumentation is extremely technical, the production is far better than one would expect from a lesser known group, and the songwriting shows a lot of promise. It is definitely enough to land Bufihimat on my radar for future releases.

   I is a brutal slog of an album with plenty for extreme metal fans to appreciate if they’re willing to overlook a few weaknesses.

5/10

HEAR I: https://open.spotify.com/album/4QSpHxTrr6Txzhp0LFyBMS