Dinosaur Pile-Up Signs With a New Label and Drops Enjoyable Fourth LP

Celebrity Mansions is an enjoyable project, but falls short of being anything more.

Dinosaur Pile-Up is an alt-rock band from Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. They debuted with three well received EPs in the late 2000’s before dropping their first full length album, Growing Pains, in 2010 with charted in the UK. They quickly signed with SO Records and releasing the follow up, Nature Nurture just three years later and supporting it with a tour that brought them to the United States for the first time. Eleven Eleven dropped in 2015, their third full length studio effort and final partnering with SO before landing a massive signing with Parlophone Records. With the much larger label, Dinosaur Pile-Up has access to the highest budget they’ve ever had for an album, a massive growth from their debut which was recorded in at home. With this budget, they’ve recently dropped their fourth studio LP and, for the most part, it’s a blast.

Like any good rock album, one strong feature of the record comes in the form of its lead guitar. Matt Bigland brings a handful of creative ideas to tracks like “Back Foot,” and “Black Limousine,” meshing noticeable, smooth melodies with chaotic, garage rock tendencies to make for quite a few impressive moments. For many listeners, this detail may fall by the wayside because of louder, more commanding elements, but no rock record is complete without strong guitar work.

That being said, Bigland is far more impressive in his duties as the band’s lead vocalist. His range and energy make cuts like the opener, “Thrash Metal Cassette,” and the title track infinitely listenable. He’s so clearly having a great time and it comes through in virtually every second of music. Not to mention, his screams are quite impressive, especially for the genre.

Even more addictive than Matt’s work as the frontman are Mike Shells’ fantastic drums. Virtually every track is impressive, but a few of my favorites include “Stupid Heavy Metal Broken Hearted Loser Punk,” and “Black Limousine.” Throughout the LP, Mike is exactly the kind of drummer this genre demands as none of his rhythms are particularly eye-popping but all of them bring an explosive style that takes each track to a whole new level. The drum kit is also particularly well mixed, which brings me to the true highlight of the album.

The production on this album is excellent. The new label’s money is well spent hear as the album carries a perfect balance between the sharp, tight mix and the messy, ringing instrumentation. The sharp cut off on “Pouring Gasoline,” is a fantastic example of this. On the other hand, there are a few creative moments like the surprising use of radio effects on “Round The Bend.” It’s this strong production throughout which elevates every track and even saves a few poor ones.

However, unfortunately, I do have quite a few complaints with this LP. Perhaps the worst quality comes in a few cringe-worthy lyrics on later cuts like “K West,” and “Professional Freak.” This is especially disappointing as lyrics on earlier tracks are quite strong. Additionally, several tracks on the latter half of the album just don’t carry their weight and seem to drag a bit. 

All in all, Celebrity Mansions is a fun listen. It brings back much of the alt-rock and pop punk styles of the early 2000’s with a bit more precision and maturity as well as some very strong production. However, several lyrical and melodic moments don’t quite live up, causing the album with a runtime of only just over half an hour to feel bloated.

Celebrity Mansions is an enjoyable project, but falls short of being anything more.

4/10

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Luke Combs’ Fourth EP Is Fun but Underwhelming

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

Luke Combs is a country singer/songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina. He debuted in 2014 with a pair of self-released EPs which found some underground success and landed him a signing with Columbia Records in Nashville. His powerhouse voice and outlaw sensibilities made him a perfect fit for the rising tide of alt-country which has overtaken much of the industry and he road that wave to a very well received third EP, This One’s for You which was later expanded to become his first full length album. The expanded version went double platinum, topped the US Country chart, and Combs was named one of Sounds Like Nashville’s “Artists to Watch,” and won the CMA award for “New Artist of the Year.” To date, he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and he’s once again returning to the EP format for The Prequel.

The project opens with the raucous, twangy lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The track is simply drenched in country twang but Combs’ strong vocal sells it with every word and the explosive instrumental helps quite a bit as well. There are a few production decisions which hold the song back from being truly fantastic, but it’s still an impressive, unapologetic opener that sets the tone extremely well.

This is followed by “Refrigerator Door,” which is a bit of a mixed back. Yet again, the twanging vocal and crashing instrumentals are pure country and the guitar solo is far more impressive than that of the opener. Additionally, the concept of using the refrigerator door as a window to larger reflection on life is quite an interesting idea, but unfortunately, most of the writing and rhyme scheme feels lazy. What’s worse, the photos that are described are fairly run of the mill and universal. It’s still a strong track, but it would’ve been much stronger if filled with well written lines and more personal details.

“Even Though I’m Leaving,” falls in the middle of the EP and once again, Luke brings a very classic country sound. Unlike the last cut, however, this track tells an interesting and heartfelt story of a father and son which feels much more personal. The more organic instruments are a welcome touch, especially with the inclusion of brighter tones like mandolins and acoustic guitars which offset the blues heavy sound thus far. All in all, it’s still a bit cheesy, but Luke sells it with a lead vocal that runs the gamut of emotions and has a genuinely vulnerable moment on the third verse.

“Lovin’ On You,” comes next and this track crosses the line just a bit for me. Combs’ accent is exaggerated to the point of being difficult to understand and the lyrics are entirely thoughtless. It’s not without its bright points as the saloon piano is a great touch and a handful of rhymes are somewhat impressive, but it just tries way too hard to lean into the country sound while lacking the storytelling and melodic writing that any great country song should have. 

“Moon Over Mexico,” closes out the project quite well. It’s a bit nondescript and doesn’t stand out amid the tracklist in any noticeable way, but it is quite well written and tells something of an interesting story. Once again, the song is plagued by a handful of strange and unnecessary production choices, mostly in terms of vocal effects, but a strong performance shines through those issues and makes for a much appreciated final track.

All in all, the EP certainly isn’t bad. For most listeners, I’d imagine the enjoyment of this project will come down to how much they enjoy country music on the whole. This is fairly well written and performed country music of the very twangy variety, but it fails to be anything more than that. Combs has the potential to be a crossover success on the level of Stapleton or Isbell later in his career, but to do that, his storytelling and lyrical chops will need to improve.

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

3/5

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My Top 5 Shows From Sonic Temple 2019!!

Here’s the highlights from a fantastic week of rock n’ roll!!

5. Badflower

After a tiring drive to Ohio and a long wait in line on day one, we found our seats just in time to kick off our weekend with Badflower. The group was one of many up and coming artists on the lineup and easily one of the best. Josh Katz is a fantastic frontman, bringing an infectious energy and powerful vocals to every track. The setlist was predictably packed with cuts from their latest LP, OK, I’M SICK, and when they closed with their recent mega-hit, “Heroin,” after announcing that it had just reached number one on the US rock charts, they felt like a headliner in the making. This was an excellent way to kick off the weekend and a strong showing for a promising young band.

4. Ghost

Leading up to Ghost’s performance, I was admittedly uninformed on the group’s discography, but I was quite familiar with their reputation for theatrical performances. After an extended intermission during which an elaborate stage was assembled, the band of nameless, masked instrumentalists appeared to roaring applause followed by front man, Tobias Forge clad in his newest character, Cardinal Copia. Though I didn’t know the songs nearly as well as other acts from the festival, the energy was simply undeniable. Their music is heavily inspired by golden age acts like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath and by combining that sound with a dramatic flair and fantastically talented musicians, Ghost has crafted a truly unique experience.

3. Halestorm

Kicking off the top-billed lineup for day one was Halestorm, perhaps best known for their near constant touring over their very long career. That experience pays dividends in massive shows like this as they absolutely brought the house down. The set kicked off with a long drum solo from Arejay Hale and continued at a breakneck pace for its entirety. The setlist was nicely mixed between older classics like “I Miss the Misery,” and newer hits like “Uncomfortable,” which sounded much better in their live settings than on the record. Lizzy Hale’s show-stopping vocals were captivating and, combined with excellent performances from the rest of the band, allowed Halestorm to stand comfortably, toe to toe with the other legends on the bill with them.

2. System of a Down

Heading into this festival, no band had me quite as excited as did System of a Down and they certainly did not disappoint. While the show was somewhat held back by noticeable technical issues, I found myself in awe of the talent before me. One simply cannot overstate the vocal abilities of Serj Tankian who brought a manic energy and breathtaking vocal range which stretched from thunderous growls to screeching highs and was razor sharp everywhere in between. Song selection leaned heavily into Toxicity but touched on hits from every record including their debut. The true star of the set was lead guitarist Daron Malakian who brought intensity and style to every track. It was an excellent performance from a legendary band.

******** HONORABLE MENTIONS ********

  • Movements
  • Amigo the Devil
  • Parkway Drive
  • Killswitch Engage
  • The Struts
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • Gojira
  • Lamb of God

******** HONORABLE MENTIONS ********

1. Foo Fighters

There is perhaps no band in modern rock music quite as renowned for their live performances as the Foo Fighters, and this was further solidified with their set which closed the festival. After extensive rain delays which closed down the stadium for a few hours, Dave Grohl took the stage shouting “You didn’t think we were gonna play, did you?” Which set off a deafening roar from the crowd. The set lasted for two hours, twice as long as any other band on the lineup, and every bit of it was fantastic. From powerful performances of the group’s endless collection of hits to Grohl taking over on drums so that drummer Taylor Hawkins and Luke Spiller of The Struts could cover Queen’s “Under Pressure,” this show was a blast from start to finish. In many ways, a Foo Fighters show feels like a celebration of rock and roll itself, and so naturally, they were the perfect closers for a star-studded weekend which brought some of the best rock music has to offer.

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Defeater’s Self Titled Return is Brutal Yet Heartbreaking

Defeater is a riveting story of struggle which packs a punch of brutal instrumentation and heartfelt lyricism.

Defeater is a melodic hardcore band from Boston. They debuted in 2008 with Travels which tells the story of a young man born in New Jersey near the end of the second world war. This family and the circumstances surrounding them would go on to be the focus of the entirety of Defeater’s discography with each album expanding the world and introducing a litany of new characters, some acting as sequels and others as prequels. In addition to the sprawling narrative, the band’s unique ability to mix hardcore instrumentation with a keen sense of melody makes them one of the most interesting bands in the modern metal scene. They officially parted ways after the 2015 release of Abandoned, but announced in early March that they would return with a self-titled fifth LP.

From the opening track, “The Worst of Fates,” the most prevalent highlight of the band’s sound is clear, that being Derek Archambault’s vocal performance. Throughout the album, especially on cuts like the aforementioned opener or the more subtle “Desperate,” Archambault brings an intensity that can’t be ignored. Under that roughness, however, there’s a genuine vulnerability through which he imbues every story and character with a gruff sort of humanity. It’s a brutal scream, but heartfelt all the same.

Beyond this, Archambault’s lyrics are once again enthralling. Of course, the story telling and conceptualism of the album is every bit as excellent as expected. On tracks like “List & Heel,” or “All Roads,” though, he goes above and beyond in painting vivid imagery and writing with a truly cinematic eye. Along with its many other functions, this album is the fifth installment to a long series which deals with the same family and, in that department, it succeeds wildly.

Instrumentally, the record is a masterwork. Perhaps the most noticeable piece of the puzzle is Joe Longobardi’s drum work. On cuts like “Mother’s Sons,” or “No Guilt,” Joe transitions between complex rhythms and lightning quick fills and does each incredibly well. He has an excellent ear for timing and despite rather predictable time signatures and somewhat weak production, his work shines through as a definitive key to the band’s impressive sound.

Another great element is Jake Woodruff’s grinding lead guitar. While a few of choices are a bit questionable, his contributions to tracks like “Stale Smoke,” and my favorite song on the album, “Debt/Debtor,” can’t be ignored. His drowning style provides a more solid counterpoint against some of the album’s most driving, fast paced beats and he has a talent for writing hooks. On a few cuts, his leads provide the catchiest moments on the album in addition to laying a more layered atmosphere.

My favorite aspect of the band’s sound, though it may not be as immediately noticeable, is founding member Mike Poulin on bass guitar. He grants a heaviness to songs like “Atheists in Foxholes,” and “Hourglass,” and he’s to thank for much of Defeater’s fantastic sound. The chugging, rhythmic bass stands as the foundation of nearly every melody and it is, in many ways, the glue that holds the album together.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Defeater combines all of this for an epic, creative finish in “No Man Born Evil.” This track embodies much of what makes this album so good with a ringing lead guitar, thundering bass, and explosive drums underscoring an unbelievable performance from Derek Archambault which brings to life a harrowing storyline. It’s the perfect ending to a nearly perfect album.

Defeater’s self-titled come back is almost everything fans could’ve hoped for. We get to return to the dark, gritty world which they’ve created over the past decade, guiding by great writing and wonderful performances from the entire band.

Defeater is a riveting story of struggle which packs a punch of brutal instrumentation and heartfelt lyricism.

8/10

Tool Sells Out the Enterprise Center For An Incredible Performance

Tool is still one of the best rock bands in the world, without a doubt, and this tour has only further codified their place in rock history.

Tool is an alt-rock/prog-metal four piece who rose to popularity in the early 1990’s thanks to their unique sound, bizarre live performances, and a fantastic debut EP called Opiate which came out in 1992. At this time, their sound was heavy, often droning, and far more melodic than the majority of the underground metal in the early nineties. As they progressed, and thanks to the additions of Peach bassist Justin Chancellor and King Crimson producer David Bottrill, Tool took on a more experimental and cutting edge tone which led to massive success and critical acclaim which has continued to this day.

I’ve seen Tool three times, and this was by far the best of the bunch. My first experience came in 2016 at the Chaifetz arena in Saint Louis. It was a smaller tour and Chaifetz is a smaller arena, but the show was fantastic and seeing one of my favorite bands for the first time was a blast. The second came as the headliner and final performance at 2018’s Rock on the Range festival where Tool, though not on tour at the time, brought the house down musically but didn’t quite have the stage set up one would expect from the group. Last night, I saw them for the first time in their peak form, in front of a sold out crowd of about 18,000 roaring fans at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

Of course, a giant question looms over any review of a Tool concert in 2019, and so I’ll answer it immediately. Yes, they played new music and it was fantastic. Coming into the show, I’d heard a few shoddy cellphone videos of new tracks like “Descending,” and “Invincible,” but I found myself shocked at the extent to which those videos don’t do these songs justice. The former was brutally heavy, featuring a few of the thickest breakdowns in Tool’s catalog and the latter has an interestingly bright tone and some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. As the intermission before the encore came to an end, the screen went blank and lit back up the word’s “August 30th” written in white, referring to the release date for Tool’s first new LP in 13 years, and having heard these new songs in person, I found myself filled with a brand new excitement like I’ve never felt for an album before.

Beyond new music, all four members of the band gave simply incredible performances on a litany of Tool’s best hits over their long career. They opened with “Aenima,” which was a perfectly heavy way to kick off the show. Maynard’s cleaner vocal sounded excellent on tracks like “The Pot,” and his screams were gravelly and powerful. Adam Jones’ guitar work on songs like “Jambi,” was thick and impressively fast-handed.

The stars of the night, however, were certainly the drums and bass. Justin Chancellor’s bass line on “Schism,” was as excellent as ever, and throughout the show, he was an absolute ball of energy, swinging his hips like an ape and playing with a deep, rich tone that seemed to shake the walls of the entire arena.

Just behind him, Danny Carey helmed a massive drum kit and proved once again that he is one of the best drummers of all time. From his complex rhythms on “Forty Six & 2” to his explosive playing on “Vicarious,” and “Intolerance,” his playing commanded respect and attention for the entirety of the show. The encore began with an extended drum and synth solo from Danny, alone on stage, which was an extremely welcome break in the action to appreciate one of the most talented musicians to ever pick up a set of sticks.

Highlights of the show included a sprawling, expansive performance of “Parabol/Parabola,” early in the set and the ferocious performance of “Stinkfist,” to close the show. These were made that much better by an awe-inspiring light show which included an array of lasers, a lighted, colorful pentagram which moved about in the background, and a multitude of entrancing videos on cranes behind the band, most of which consisted of Tool’s infamously strange music videos.

All in all, this was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. Nearly 30 years after their debut, to see Tool returning to form in front of a sold out arena is an exhilarating experience. It’s hard to believe that we’re only about three months away from finally hearing the new album and this show left me more excited than ever.

Tool is still one of the best rock bands in the world, without a doubt, and this tour has only further codified their place in rock history.

Catfish and the Bottlemen Stay True to Form For Better or Worse on Third Release

The Balance is a fun project full of great efforts that just can’t quite break the atmosphere of its own uninventive creation.

Catfish and the Bottlemen are an indie/alt-rock outfit from Wales. The debuted with 2014’s The Balcony which went platinum shortly after its release. Prior to their debut, the famously cut their teeth playing in the parking lot before larger bands’ gigs, and that experience very clearly informed much of their commanding sound. After the massive success, the launched two tours and dropped The Ride as a follow up LP in 2016, which went gold. The back to back strong releases netted the band a spot as an opener on Green Day’s Revolution Radio tour in 2017. In January of this year, Catfish and the Bottlemen released a new single and announced the release of their third studio record, The Balance. It’s finally here, and it’s mostly meets expectations.

One strong addition to The Balance that wasn’t nearly as prevalent on previous releases is a string of excellent bass lines. On tracks like “2all,” and “Basically,” Benji Blakeway is given the front seat, melodically speaking, for much of the runtime. His parts are well written and he performs confidently but, of course, the tone of the bass can’t be ignored. The thickness that Blakeway along with, presumably, the production team achieved is fantastic, and it brings another level to his work.

Additionally, Bob Hall’s drums are quite the asset. On a cut like “Fluctuate,” he finds a danceable rhythm and delivers it throughout, where as on “Mission,” his bombastic style guides the group extremely well through multiple timing and style changes. His style is nothing revolutionary in rock music and he rarely shows incredible speed or complex rhythms, but there’s something to be said for reliable simplicity, and that is delivered in spades.

Of course, this is a rock album, and so it’s nothing without the guitars. Luckily, Johnny Bond, the band’s newest member, holds this down quite well. Here, Catfish seems to have improved the most over previous efforts as they’ve found a consistent tone and style which works well with their sound. Tracks like “Sidetrack,” and “Coincide,” feature driving and catchy riffs that will remain in a listeners head for quite a while. 

The album’s strongest points, however, are Van McCann’s vocal performances. From the opener, “Longshot,” to the closer, “Overlap,” and even cuts throughout the middle like “Encore,” McCann brings a confidence and punk energy which is, frankly, more that what he has any right to. His range is quite impressive and, thanks to a handful of grin-worthy one liners, he’s charming enough to carry the record through most of its rough points.

All this being said, I am left with a few complaints, one of which I’d expected before ever hearing The Balance and had hoped the band would be able to mitigate better than they did. Namely, this album can often be boring. It lacks and width whatsoever in its instrumental pallet, and each cut comes in somewhere around the three to four minute range and is built on nearly a identical structure. This can often ignored thanks to strong performances and a magnetic frontman, but on songs like “Conversation,” and “Intermission,” the veil of talent just can’t obscure the numbers by which this album was painted.

However, that certainly doesn’t make the record unenjoyable. In fact, if you want to shut your brain off for a moment and enjoy some fun, meat and potatoes alt-rock, The Balance is the album for you. There’s plenty to enjoy, especially on the first few listens, and it’s worth checking out for any fans of the alt-rock scene that once ruled the world just a few years back. However, there just isn’t enough risk or creativity to be found here, and the record suffers for it.

The Balance is a fun project full of great efforts that just can’t quite break the atmosphere of its own uninventive creation.

5/10

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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.”

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