East of the Wall Returns After Five Years With a Strong Prog Rock LP

NP-Complete is a fun listen for fans of progressive rock and metal, though it may turn off some outsiders to the genre.

East of the Wall is a progressive metal outfit from Keyport, New Jersey. They debuted with a self-titled EP in 2006, which kicked off a fairly impressive career and expansive catalog. However, after their fourth full length LP in 2013, they seemed to fall off the map a bit, only releasing one EP in 2015 under Epistemic Records instead of their usual partners, Translation Loss Records. After a long hiatus and more than a few notable lineup changes, they’ve finally returned with their first full scale release in almost six years, NP-Complete.

Much of what works so well about this album is what one would expect from a prog metal band of this caliber, but there are a few surprises, namely in the production. The stereo imaging on this album is absolutely wonderful, and really demands a nice set of headphones. Take a track like the opener, “Tell Them I’m Sorry,” for example. The production work doesn’t quite jump out, but closer examination shows that not only is every instrument, especially the drums, extremely well mixed, but every sound has a direction allowing this album to really surround a listener. 

Another strength which is all too often ignored in the metal world is the excellent bass guitar work. From cuts like the hilariously named “Fast-Bang Pooper Doop,” to the later “Somn 6,” the bass is not only extremely well played, leaving the guitars side for some inspired melodic lines, but it’s also able to cut through the rather chaotic mixes and shine quite effectively. It’s often missing from even the best metal records, and so a strong bass presence is a welcome feeling on NP-Complete.

Of course, the staples of great progressive rock are still here. A multitude of electric guitars form the melodic front to nearly every track, even verging on some shoe-gaze inspirations at a few points. “Leinholder,” is an excellent example of the pure proficiency with which these guitars are played by nearly every member of the band and the track dances through strange signatures and quick riffs with ease. The closer and best track, “Non-Functional Harmony,” on the other hand, is more sparsely populated with a driving and well written riff.

However, while the guitars may be the muscles of this project, Seth Rheam on drums is definitely the backbone. Nearly every song incorporates complex rhythms, strange signatures, and remarkably fast fills, all of which Rheam does with relative ease. “Clapping on the Ones and Threes,” is a nice shining moment for the drums as Seth strikes a great balance between tight, sharp fills and explosive cymbal shots. “N of 1,” on the other hand kicks off with a fantastic drum solo which carries over into one of the best, most rhythmic cuts on the album.

All this being said, I do have a few loud gripes with the album. First and foremost, the vocals leave quite a bit to be desired. While there are a few nice moments like the brutal screams on “Somn 6,” but the majority of the album is packed full of incredible instrumental work and sub par vocals.

Additionally, the instrumental and overall sound pallet are a bit clean and safe for my taste. Nearly every guitar sounds almost pristine, and the majority of vocals are clean as well. When they do attempt to add other instruments, be they synths or a saxophone on the closer, it feels mostly out of step with the direction of the track. I can’t help but wish for a more daring, and perhaps more abrasive pallet.

Worst of all, though, the pacing varies widely, but leans on the side of slow and dense. This, of course, may not be an issue for the hardline prog-metal fan, and I myself can forgive some of it, but a track like “The Almost People,” illustrates this quite well as it just becomes lost in itself over the near eight minute runtime, with no discernible sectioning or direction.

Overall, I enjoyed NP-Complete. It can be a bit of a slog at times, and the lack of risks does catch up with the band at times, but for fans of long-form, jazz-influenced, technically challenging music, this is a treat.

NP-Complete is a fun listen for fans of progressive rock and metal, though it may turn off some outsiders to the genre.

6/10

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

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Lukas Graham Disappoints With Major Label Debut

The Purple Album is rarely unbearable, and often somewhat listenable, but it is, first and foremost, a disappointment.

     Lukas Graham is a pop/soul vocalist from Copenhagen. He catapulted into the American music scene in 2015 with the release of his breakout single, “7 Years.” This track hit number two on the US Billboard and currently sits at five times platinum according to the RIAA. Lukas rode this success to the relatively successful release of of his second LP, The Blue Album, which peaked at number three on the US charts and gained a gold certification.

   Graham’s sound, particularly as it was showcased on “7 Years,” was both unique and refreshing. His soulful performance, thoughtful lyrics, and minimal instrumentation broke virtually every rule for writing a summer pop hit, and yet succeeded massively. His large and seemingly effortless range, coupled with his clear hip-hop and R&B influences made him one of the most intriguing artists in the indy/pop scene, a status which didn’t fade with his LP. Unfortunately, The Purple Album sees Graham teaming with Warner Bros. record and flushing much of his unique sound down the drain.

   The vocal performances on this record are fairly impressive. Tracks like the opener, “Not a Damn Thing,” or “Promise,” find Lukas dancing around the upper reaches of his range with control and an excellent control. Even his lower register sounds fairly impressive on tracks like “Stick Around.” This album, as a whole, is a beast for any vocalist, featuring virtually no instrumental leads, and counting on Graham to carry every track, which he is, for the most part, able to do.

   Lyrically, this album is a mixed bag, though not without it’s highlights. “Everything That Isn’t Me,” is an interesting look at Graham’s shortcomings throughout his life, told in a series of apologies to those in life that he’s let down. “Say Yes,” my favorite track on the album, tells the tale of a man watching his wife walk down the aisle in the same church which held his father’s funeral. This juxtaposition provides a well written commentary on moving forward and finding happiness after loss.

   It’s in this same department, however, where I find my first major complaint. Virtually every track aside from the two I mentioned, are dripping in platitudes, repetitive topics, and few meaningless statements about love for good measure. “Love Someone,” for example, could’ve been written by a computer, and “You’re Not the Only One,” has an interesting message on the need for new artists like Bob Marley and other great, feel-good artists from the past, but it’s delivered with tactless, boring lyrics that rarely match the song’s original premise in creativity.

   The instrumentation is another quality of this record which varies across the relatively short run-time. There are tracks like “Unhappy,” which builds from a minimalistic, drum-heavy track effectively, or “Hold My Hand,” which benefits from the a more nocturnal beat and an organ with a lot of character. However, they are balanced on the other end by tracks like “Stick Around,” which is the musical equivalent of vanilla ice cream, and “Lullaby,” which features one of Graham’s best performances, vocally and lyrically, butchered by strange instrumental choices, decorating the chorus with a boring piano and the choruses with a terribly mixed string section which never appears again on the project.

   All of these issues are magnified tenfold by poor production. For some artists, signing to a major label deal improves the quality of their work and feels like a talented, indy voice finally being given the support they deserve. For others, it sucks the life and uniqueness from them, leaving a radio-ready but uninteresting final project. Lukas Graham falls firmly in the latter category. Overused trap drums, strange and random instrumentation, thin mixing, and a multitude of other problems plague this already flawed project, dealing quite a bit of damage to the final release.

   Lukas Graham showed a lot of promise with his breakout single in 2015, but three years and a Warner Bros. signing later, we’re given a bland pop record. The signs of life aren’t gone from the young artist, but they’re buried under weak lyricism, poor production, and boring instrumentation.

   The Purple Album is rarely unbearable, and often somewhat listenable, but it is, first and foremost, a disappointment.

4/10

HEAR THE PURPLE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/02gV87QEIFp2T9q7OqVBjj

Coheed and Cambria Drop Epic Album, Keeping the Fire Alive on Ninth Release

The Unheavenly Creatures is a blast to listen to, and a must hear for fans of Coheed and Cambria or fans of good rock music in general.

     Coheed and Cambria is a progressive/emo rock group from Nyack, New York. They’ve been working fairly steadily since 2002, though they’ve achieved little commercial success save two gold records in 2003 and 2005. Regardless, they’ve begun to amass a substantial fanbase over the long run, many of whom are willing to follow the group down the conceptual rabbit hole that is the Coheed and Cambria discography.

   On top of the intricate, longwinded concepts that are riddled throughout their work, the band has built quite a unique sound. They blend elements of progressive and arena rock with a heavy dose of 1970’s rock influence. The guitars are screaching, the drums groove, and most importantly, Claudio Sanchez’ lead vocals and frontman presence is powerful and commanding. Today, the sound comes off as a bit indulgent, especially for listeners like myself who grew up enjoying the massive wave of loud, metal influenced, emo-rock of the mid 2000’s. Thankfully, The Unheavenly Creatures is more of the same.

   The key to this record is tightness. Coheed and Cambria move across this 70-minute runtime as one perfectly cohesive unit, swelling and falling together, in a way that’s rarely seen in rock today. Even on the less listenable tracks like “Love Protocol,” or “Old Flames,” listeners have little trouble following them because the instrumentals are so well crafted and each member plays off of each other so well.

   Tugging the band apart for a bit, Travis Stever’s guitar is the closest to a lead instrumental voice. His leads on “True Ugly,” or “All on Fire,” color the tracks well and make them some of the best cuts on the album, but his best contribution is in the rhythm department. His hooks on “The Dark Sentencer,” or “Pavilion,” for example, are thick and driving, mixing a great tone with excellent play.

   Zach Cooper and Josh Eppard helm the bass and drums respectively and their parts are hard to separate because of an interesting technique they use. Cooper’s bass is, among other things, used primarily to color the kick drums and tom grooves throughout the album. This is perhaps most apparent on a tracks like “Black Sunday,” and “Queen of the Dark,” where a prominent bass part follows the lower pitched drums, giving another layer to Eppard’s work.

   None of this, however, is as meaningful to this album as Claudio Sanchez’ vocals. He sings with an epic power but an expert touch, never overpowering a track but finding perfect ear worm hooks and blasting them to the forefront. This applies to nearly every second of the record but to name a few, the title track, “Toys,” “It Walks Among Us,” and especially “Night-Time Walkers,” benefit from this in a massive way. There is just no way around saying that Sanchez is the best part of The Unheavenly. Creatures by a mile.

   The best track on this album is so good, I thought it would deserve its own paragraph. “The Gutter,” is one of the funnest, most indulgent rock songs I’ve heard since the days of My Chemical Romance. It’s a sugar rush of power chords, grooving drums, and an undeniable performance from Claudio Sanchez. The production is excellent here as well, maybe the only time it’s really noticeable, as the the vocal harmonies are well placed in the mix and pushing the stereo image is especially rich near the end.

   My complaints with this record are far from substantial, but they are nagging. Several of the intros feature odd pianos or synth instrumentation which rarely works at all and often only serves to kill any momentum gained by the soaring moments of the previous tracks. In addition, the two worst tracks on the album, and the only ones I genuinely can’t imagine myself ever revisiting, are the opener “Prologue,” and the closer “Lucky Stars.” The former runs far too long with little to offer and is the only track to focus so heavily on the concept, a storyline which has run across nearly every release of the band’s decade and a half career, to be enjoyable for the uninitiated. The latter does feature some solid acoustic guitar work and a fun guitar solo from Stever, but it just doesn’t mesh with the overall sound of the record, and so doesn’t feel like a satisfying conclusion to such an epic project.

   If I could choose one word to describe The Unheavenly Creatures, It would be indulgent. For fans of the epic, emo-rock of the mid 2000s, this album hits the spot in a major way. There are some issues, but those flaws, for the most part, are small and forgettable, quickly blasted from our ears by the next soaring chorus or powerful guitar riff.

   The Unheavenly Creatures is a blast to listen to, and a must hear for fans of Coheed and Cambria or fans of good rock music in general.

8/10

HEAR THE UNHEAVENLY CREATUREShttps://open.spotify.com/album/42S0lDJT9wHKCVaMGgqKdm