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Monday, March 31, 2014

"Stereo" by Pavement

Pavement are the epitome of '90s indie/alternative rock.  Granted, I didn't know who they were until the mid-2000s and it took me even longer to finally get into them, but once everything finally clicked I couldn't get enough of them.  And even though Pavement are no longer a band (despite their brief reunion in 2010, in which I was fortunate enough to catch one of their live shows), frontman Stephen Malkmus has been releasing rock solid solo albums since 2001 (his latest, Wig Out at Jagbags, was released earlier this year).

"Stereo" is the first track off Brighten The Corners, an album that is rightfully overshadowed by its superior predecessors, but still an excellent album in its own right.  The song begins with a quirky-as-hell bass line and some fuzzed out guitar notes.  Enter Malkmus's trademark I'm-too-cool-to-sound-like-I'm-trying vocals and we're off.  The almost off-key vocal melody clashes with the idiosyncratic bass line in such an unconventional way that it creates a dissonant bliss that shouldn't work, but leave it to Pavement to figure out how to make it work.  And then we have my all time favorite Malkmus lyric, "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?/I know him, and he does!".  Perhaps it's my favorite due to my overwhelming love for Rush and the fact that I "get it", or maybe it's just that this lyric perfectly encompasses the sarcastic humor found throughout Pavement's and Malkmus's entire discographies.

Everything I love about Pavement is contained within this three-minute rocker.  It's peculiar, it's hard rockin', and it's damn funny.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Concert Review - Dream Theater at Hammerstein Ballroom 3/28/14

Dream Theater.  The undisputed kings of progressive metal.  The band that every other progressive metal band is inevitably compared to.  And for good reason too.  Say what you want, but they deserve to be the band that draws all the comparisons.  They have been releasing some of the very best albums of the genre since 1989.  Many would cite them as the band that started the entire genre.  For me personally, they were the band that introduced me to an entire world of music I previously didn't know existed.  I listened to the song "6:00" from their dark masterpiece, Awake, and I never returned.  Scenes From A Memory was the first album I purchased by them and I immediately had a new favorite album of all time.  I owe a large percentage of my music collection to these guys.

The amazing thing about them is that they are as good live as they are in the studio.  For music this complex, one would expect them to lose some of their mastery when taking the stage, but somehow that's not the case.  James LaBrie seems to defy nature and sound better with age.  At age 50, his voice sounds better than ever, and I don't say this with any sense of hyperbole.  I've seen Dream Theater eight or nine times and his performance at last night's show ranks up there as the very best I've ever seen.  Not to mention, his performances on recent studio albums, Dream Theater and A Dramatic Turn of Events, have been full of energy and passion; a sort of return to form to his glory days of the '90s.

It's rare to attend a show billed as "An Evening With..." but last night's Dream Theater show was one of the few I've had the pleasure of seeing in my concert-going life (I've seen perhaps three or four shows like this, and this was the second time I've seen Dream Theater perform such show).  They took the stage at 8:00 and opened with the hard-hitting single, "The Enemy Inside" from their latest, self-titled album.  Despite the insanely perfect performance, the sound at the venue was a bit off, and that would unfortunately continue for much of the first set.  A few more songs from recent albums followed, which were all enjoyable, but no classics.  Right as the sound started to improve, they busted into one of my all time favorite epics from their 1997 "pop" album, Falling Into Infinity - "Trial of Tears".  I'm talkin' 13-minutes epic.  Full of sweeping keyboard bits, emotional guitar solos, soaring vocals, and all other aspects that make a prog-rock epic an epic!  It was such a treat hearing a fairly underrated song from such an underrated album in the DT discography.

They followed that wonderful song with their latest instrumental, "Enigma Machine", from their self-titled album.  I'm not crazy about this song.  As far as instrumental songs go, I feel this ranks towards the bottom of their catalog.  However, the band has been known to incorporate hilarious animated videos into their live show (proving that Rush have inspired them in more ways than just the music) and the "Spy vs. Spy" spoof entitled "DT vs. DT" that played during this song turned it into a very enjoyable live song.  Not to mention, Mike Mangini, the dude who replaced the legendary Mike Portnoy, showed off his masterful drumming skills with an insane drum solo in the middle.  The first set carried along with another song from their latest album and finished with my favorite song from their previous album, "Breaking All Illusions".

After a 15-minute intermission, the band returned for a second set.  I nearly had a heart attack when I found out during the first set that the band was celebrating both their 15-year and 20-year anniversaries of Scenes From a Memory and Awake respectively.  Those two albums just happen to be my two favorite Dream Theater albums!  They opened the second set with "The Mirror", the crushing track from their 1994 classic, Awake.  No matter how much longer this band continues making music, this will always be the heaviest song they've ever written.  They'll never top this one in terms of heaviness.  And they haven't lost a step since writing this song 20 years ago.  They sounded just as fresh last night as they did on the recorded version.  As I anticipated, this song led right into the next track on the album, "Lie", which is almost as heavy and equally satisfying.  They followed that up with one of their most beautiful ballads, "Lifting Shadows Off a Dream", at which point I realized they would likely be playing the last five songs on the album in succession.  To my sheer happiness, they did indeed continue on with the 11-minute epic, "Scarred", as well as the emotional "Space-Dye Vest".  Now, let me just say, in all my years of seeing Dream Theater live, "Space-Dye Vest" was probably at the very top of my list of songs I thought I'd never see them play live.  Written by their original keyboardist, Kevin Moore, I assumed this song vacated the band's live repertoire upon Moore's departure.  Thankfully, I was wrong, as seeing it performed last night was such an incredible surprise.  As if this second set alone wasn't already better than most shows I've seen in the past year, they ended it with a bang by playing the 22-minute closing track on their new self-titled album entitled "Illumination Theory".  Their performance was simply flawless, complete with beautiful videos accompanying the too-pretty-for-words orchestrated middle section.

After a very brief break, the prog masters returned for a glorious encore comprised of songs from my personal favorite album of theirs, Scenes From A Memory - a concept album that tells a twisted tale of love, murder, and reincarnation.  "Overture 1928", the blazing instrumental that sets the stage for the album, set the stage for the four-song encore.  The crowd ate up every note as it seamlessly transitioned into "Strange Deja Vu", a song that lays the foundation for the complicated story that lies ahead.  The complex instrumental, "The Dance of Eternity", was up next which led into the grand finale, "Finally Free", which gave way to a crowd sing-a-long of the "One Last Time" reprise contained within the middle of the song.  Labrie's final lyrics, "We'll meet again my friend someday soon" was directed towards all the happy fans who just experienced a perfect display of music mastery.  I hope to see you again someday soon.

The full setlist can be viewed here:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Lighthouse" by Sieges Even...or When Is It Too Soon To Call An Album A Masterpiece?

Discovering music in the 21st century is much different than it was in the 20th century.  Instead of having to sit by the radio waiting for the DJ to announce the name of the song you just heard, you can discover anything you want at the click of a button on your computer.  This is both a wonderful advancement in modern technology for those who want everything and they want it now as well as a detriment to those who are too lazy to search the virtual library of literally everything that was ever created.  But, with the benefit of having literally everything at our fingertips, it has been made possible to listen to as many albums as time permits.  The only restriction is our willingness to search (well, and time).  With that, we are often quick to deem an album a masterpiece, often times before the album has even been released in a physical format!

Ok, so fine, in the 21st century we get ahead of ourselves and get overexcited when something great comes along.  It's not often that a true masterpiece graces our presence.  To be fair, only time can truly dictate whether or not something is a masterpiece.  Expectations play a large role in our initial opinions, and what may seem wonderful at first may wear thin after a week, a month, a year.  When is it acceptable to declare an album a masterpiece?  A classic?  An album that will stand the test of time, even though we don't want to wait for the test of time to actually run its course?

Well, perhaps I shouldn't be the one answering this obviously rhetorical question.  I've been known to hyperbolize from time to time.

Having said that, The Art Of Navigating By The Stars by the German outfit, Sieges Even, is a fucking masterpiece.  Sure, I've only just discovered this album a month ago and only listened to it four or five times, but I just know it, it's a fucking masterpiece.  Within the first two minutes of my first listen I knew I was in for something special.  The utter beauty hit me right away and every song somehow managed to be more gorgeous than the last.  And then I listened again.  And again.  And now I find the chorus of the second track, "The Weight", stuck in my head at all times.  I crave this album.  I can't pinpoint exactly what it is I love most about it but I just know that when I'm listening to something else, I get mad at myself and wonder why I'm not listening to it.  Perhaps it's the smooth, chill vocal approach from Arno Menses.  Or perhaps it's the subtle, yet brilliant guitar work from Markus Steffen.  Or maybe it's the coherent themes that connect each song, with everything coming full circle in the final track, "Styx", with a reprise of the chorus from "The Weight".  Whatever it may be, there is some overwhelming power this album holds over me that is drawing me back for more listens.

It's difficult to pick one song from the album to highlight, but the song that hit me harder than the rest on my most recent listen was "Lighthouse".  This song perfectly captures the mood of the entire album.  It contains some fantastic vocal and guitar melodies, but the real highlight here is the guitar part that begins at the 3:45 mark.  Call me a sucker for acoustic guitar solos (which I most certainly am), but I just lose my shit anytime I hear something like this.  I don't need technicality or flashiness - I just need a few beautiful notes and I'm set.  The brief acoustic guitar part leads into a 15 second heavenly flute bit which then leads back into one of the main guitar riffs (which is also beautiful!).  Every part flows into the next so perfectly, which can be said for every song on the album.  Come to think of it, the one aspect that draws me to this album more than anything is the flawless songwriting.

This song is brilliant.  This album is brilliant.  Is it crazy of me to declare this album a masterpiece after only several listens?  Perhaps, but I don't care.  Right now, this is greatness to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"No No No" by Deep Purple

Somehow, I always feel as if Deep Purple is underrated. Perhaps it's because their peak only lasted a few years and about four albums. Perhaps it's because bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Rolling Stones were just so good they overshadowed the brilliance of Deep Purple. But, I don't think they get enough credit for being truly awesome. Ritchie Blackmore is a fantastic guitar player - up there with Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page as one of the best of his era - and yet, I feel as if he's not as well-known as those four. 

"No No No" is a punchy, midtempo tune that deviates a bit from their usual style -  in the bridges, they slow it down more than they usually do. The main verses are awesome, featuring a great bassline from Roger Glover and Ian Paice's typical jazz-blues drumming style. Jon Lord proves he's one of the best keyboard players of his era in the second half of the song. And Blackmore's solo kills me every time I hear this song. It starts off with some dissonant sounds and morphs into a rocking blues solo with perfect note selection.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Forget Not" by Ne Obliviscaris

One of my favorite contradictions in music is calling a brutal death metal song "beautiful".  To someone unfamiliar with metal, one listen to a death metal growl may scar them for life, leaving them with no hope for the state of the genre.  But if you are willing to dig a little deeper, perhaps look past the harsh vocals, then you may find some beauty blended in with the brutal vocal approach.

That brings me to one of my latest metal discoveries, Ne Obliviscaris, a little progressive black/death metal band hailing from Australia.  They approach the "beauty & the beast" vocal style like no other band I have ever heard, often overlapping the clean vocals with the black metal shrieks and death metal growls.  They also have another element that I have never heard in the genre before - electric violin.  And we're not talking a few strokes of the violin here and there.  I mean some serious violin playing by Tim Charles (who also provides the clean vocals on the album).  And therein lies the overwhelming beauty found throughout the entire album.

"Forget Not" is the first song I heard by these guys and I was immediately sold on them.  The song opens with a 6+ minute instrumental section filled with beautiful violin playing, epic guitar sounds, and bombastic drumming.  We are then graced with Tim's gentle, yet powerful vocals.  Xenoyr eventually comes in with his manic vocals, overlapping the clean vocals.  The whole way through, you get filled with this feeling that the song is literally exploding until it finally comes to a sudden halt after 12 incredibly epic minutes.  This song is sheer, ethereal beauty.

If you, like myself, find light in darkness and beauty in the extreme, give this song a spin.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"With Age" by Karate

I can still remember my friend sending me this song in college - indie jazz? I was riveted on first listen and still am to this day. What a great song - it's not even about the two ridiculously soulful, perfectly placed guitar solos (well, it is.) It's also about the way they perfectly blend multiple styles - it's a jazz sound in an indie rock song structure. Farina's guitar tone is just perfect and the rhythm section complements it perfectly. His voice isn't anything special, and in fact he might have the most limited range of any singer ever - but in that little range he can sing, he constructs an overall sound that makes my ears rejoice. This song also features the best lyrics Geoff Farina has ever written. Singing about a chance meeting with an ex-lover at a bar, it has some of my favorite lines: "They tried to cut us off/They even turned out the lights/But they can't turn off the grace/With which she listens to every word/Clear among the din of glass and laughter, unheard./With an attention and respect that I could hardly return/ In such a crowded place."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Impossible Germany" by Wilco

"Do you still love rock and roll?" This was a question once posed by Wilco. Well, you are not misunderstood, we still love rock and roll. Music has a way of putting a spell on people and causing a stir of emotions that normally wouldn't show themselves. There are a few songs that could bring me to tears with such joyous emotion. "Impossible Germany" is one of them. The notes played by Nels Cline are some of the most gorgeous sounds ever strung together on guitar. The song may start slow for those listening for the first time, but at the 2:35 mark Nels's guitar takes over. Every note is played with gusto and the sounds speak a beautiful language that can change anyone's mood into a happy mood. So do yourself a favor and listen with an open mind because this song will turn any sky into a sky blue sky.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Go" by The Apples in Stereo

Are you currently feeling tired?  Depressed?  Irritable?  Don't worry, you're just suffering from a case of the Mondays.  But don't fret, I have the antidote right here!  Opening with a boppin' horn section, you'll be dancing in your seat in no time.  And when you hear the lyrics in the first verse, "When you go into the place/that you work you have no face/You know you wanna go/the moment that you get there", you'll want to dance right out of your office.  But stay put!  We can get through this together!  A simple, yet exciting chorus follows, leading into that jolly horn section again.  We then come upon a nice little instrumental section filled with keys, more horns (!), and a guitar solo, before returning to happyland with a final trio of verse/chorus/horn section.  "Go" is a perfect slab of (extremely) upbeat pop rock that's perfect for curing the Monday Morning Blues.