Album Reviews

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You’re Dead – Flying Lotus

Listening to a Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison) record for the first time, from ‘1983’ to ‘You’re Dead!’, you are simply awestruck. So many things, all at once, it shouldn’t work, et cetera. This same train of thought leads to the major criticism of Flying Lotus: he creates music which is disjointed, sketch-like, overloaded with ideas. On his last record, ‘Until the Quiet Comes’, he withdrew. The songs were still short, but they weren’t overdosed with the rhythmic mayhem that ‘Cosmogramma’ and everything before had melded so perfectly in my opinion.

The opening tracks of ‘You’re Dead!’ would suggest that Ellison has got hyperactive again. The aptly titled ‘Theme’ introduces the various “sounds” that make up FlyLo’s latest offering: the woozy synths, jazz instrumentation, the breakbeats and everything else imaginable. On the following instrumentals, they styles come and go as quickly as they appear, but the chopped-up jazz samples are consistent, acting as a base for each track. Ellison’s ability to seamlessly blend snippets of the past, present and future is what has made him a unique artist, and this ability is still deafeningly obvious.

This opening of fantastic tracks culminates with the albums second single, ‘Never Catch Me’, a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. Compton’s good kid’s Midas touch continues with the verses he provides for Flying Lotus’ wandering and morphing track. As the speed builds, dropping the piano chords for trap claps, Lamar’s lines become more frantic in an attempt to keep up with an amphetamine-bass riff; but then back to the piano and another chopped and screwed beat builds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXD0vv-ds8

It’s a shame that the highlight of the record comes only 8 minutes in. It’s also a shame that it’s followed by one of the blandest moments, but what could we expect of a collaboration with the Snoop Dogg of late? The intricacy of the previous tracks has vanished on ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’, clunky beats and repetitive samples – yeah, the album’s called ‘You’re Dead!’ – are overlain with Snoop’s relaxed, and ultimately dull, lines.

The series of eight instrumentals which occupy the groove until the next collaboration, the non-event of ‘Decent into Madness’ with Thundercat, ebb and flow with tempo and style. You are taken in by undulating synths and repetitive bell chimes. The meditation is broken by some sci-fi beats. These reform before your ears and you are again gently swaying. The climax of these woozy instrumentals is Flying Lotus’ uncredited collaboration with Herbie Hancock, ‘Moment of Hesitation’. The track is a tight little jazz number which Ellison has twiddled his knobs over. What should be out of place on an electronic record sits well. The track really highlights the similarities in Flying Lotus and Hancock’s practises, and coalesces the samples used throughout ‘You’re Dead!’ in a satisfying way.

After another lacklustre collaboration, this time with FlyLo’s alter ego Captain Murphy, the record slows down and we are left with a repeating gospel sample, “We will live on, forever”, before the needle lifts and ends Flying Lotus’ study of death.

A frustrating record, ‘You’re Dead!’ is let down with its collaborations and these, unfortunately, occupy the foreground when the LP comes back to mind. Lamar and Hancock’s appearances are extraordinary, as are a number of the small instrumental numbers, but these again are punctuated with mediocrity.

3/5

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Gerard Way steps out of the shadows

Gerard Way has always been way more than the emo superstar most people have taken him for over the past decade or so. As My Chemical Romance’s ashes grow cold (ending on ‘Fake Your Death’, an insanely uplifting song about a band’s end), Gerard Way is stepping into a musical spotlight he often was not afforded as lead singer of MCR.

He’s always been ready for this spotlight though. You can see it in the characters he has created, particularly for ‘The Black Parade’ and ‘Danger Days’. His references have always been broad; remember MCR’s cover of ‘Common People’?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xjTtV4x8pM&w=560&h=315]

So ‘Hesitant Alien’ should not be a surprise.

But in some ways it still is. The bright red hair against the navy blue suit that has been part of the promotion has already separated Gerard Way from memories of his old band. The aggressive guitar line, soaked in jagged feedback, that announces the album with ‘The Bureau’, makes a statement. It’s a statement we’ve heard before and it says that you don’t underestimate Gerard Way. He’ll prove you wrong again and again.

The singles, ‘Action Cat’ and ‘No Shows’, have been floating around for a while now. ‘Action Cat’ doesn’t quite demonstrate how good the album as a whole is. It sounds very close to ‘Danger Days’ era MCR, without bringing anything new. Otherwise ‘Hesitant Alien’ is actually a huge break away. However, ‘No Shows’ makes up for it. Opening with eager ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ (a feature of the album) and crunching guitars, it works as the single. You can dance and sing along to it, before a chord change and guitar solo so cheesy and magnificent Aerosmith could have written it. It’s unashamed.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsDSIEq7O08&w=560&h=315]

The songs are short and the album as a whole flashes past you in a hyperactive, intense way. Guitar lines recur, vocals get distorted and Way sounds menacing. Sometimes he yells, sometimes he snarls and sometimes he serenades. When you think you pin the album down, it flips on its head, like ‘Juarez’ which is the lovechild of early Manic Street Preachers and grunge. Which then morphs into ‘Drugstore Perfume’, probably the most obvious homage to Pulp on the album, as Way’s tunes sound exactly like they could have come off ‘His n Hers’. His lyrics may as well have been pinched from Jarvis Cocker’s repertoire too:“dead leaves, desperate summers/all age clubs and metal summers”.

It’s on ‘Brother’ that Gerard Way really shows how much he is in fact capable of. Beginning with the kind of the simple piano progressions which My Chemical Romance always harnessed to huge emotive effect, the song is rousing. It encapsulates the essence of everything Way has stood for over ten years in music as he yells “Does anyone have the guts to shut me up?”

On paper, ‘Hesitant Alien’ is brave. The disparate list of influences, none of which pertain directly to most of MCR’s oeuvre, should be hard to bring together. Yet, listening to it, it sounds confident. Not cocky, just someone who knows he’s giving as good as it gets.

5/5

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A love letter 2 AFX

RDJ releases first new music in thirteen years! Yeah, except this, true to form for Cornwall’s favourite ginger, lying, tank-driving ‘n blimp-flying son, is not quite the whole truth. As wiser heads writing excellent first-listen pieces over at FACT magazine and the Quietus have pointed out, the man known most famously under the moniker Aphex Twin has, in a sense, never been away. Throughout the last decade he has been steadily producing techno 12’’ records under other aliases. That’s all out there if you want it. Not as many people listened, probably because it wasn’t Aphex.

(more…)

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Alt-J give glimpses of something great

From the incomprehensible lyrics to the impressive soundscapes, alt-J have gone a long way since they first captured attention with their double A side of ‘Matilda’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’. Two years later and they now have a Mercury Prize to their name, as well as being one band member short. Bassist Gwil Sainsbury left at the beginning of the year, just months before alt-J began to record ‘This Is All Yours’. (more…)

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The Drums’ return is not as encyclopedic as they would have hoped

“Encyclopedia’ is full of magic and surprise” claims The Drums’ lead singer, Jonny Pierce, in the album notes for their latest release “Encyclopedia,” out September 23rd. The combination of these bold claims with the excitingly uproarious lead single “Magic Mountain,” and that title – Encyclopedia –  promised an album of daring breadth and scope from the New York indie-pop band. And while “Encyclopedia” certainly delivers in many regards, it falls short of meeting the expectations it creates for itself, failing to find enough fresh ideas and new ground given the three years since sophomore album “Portamento.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IbkytcnRa4

The album at least finds The Drums having more fun than when we last saw them, on 2011’s relentlessly dark Portamento. The album opens excitingly enough, with lead single “Magic Mountain” introducing us to Encyclopedia’s grander vision for the band’s sound. The song showcases the LP’s expanded production – gone are the threadbare guitar and synth combinations of the previous two albums in favour of a richly produced, dramatic soundscape, which throughout the album incorporates hand claps, 8 bit samples and even breakbeats. When first released as a single, “Magic Mountain” caused considerable debate amongst fans about the new direction The Drums were taking, but traditionalists needn’t worry – this new record, whilst more ambitious and accomplished, still sounds assuredly Drums-like. And yet that’s not necessarily a good thing.Whilst Encyclopedia delivers a more ambitious sonic production, it fails to depart from The Drums’ standard lyrical territory, returning to the well of heartbreak, nostalgia, and lust with diminishing returns.

However, that’s not to say that the songwriting hasn’t matured. The Drums have always been great at wrapping enigmatic, unsettling lyrics around inescapable pop hooks, and this holds true of “Encyclopedia,” even whilst the songs feel more rigorous in their expression and self exploration.  “Face of God” provides the album’s most radio friendly song, mixing stadium sized cheers and a menacing riff with an anarchic chant. The song returns to the twisted sexuality that pervaded 2011’s Portamento – “I kiss the hand of satan when I kiss you,” Pierce intones in the opening line – but uses its symbolism to better explore the roots of the band’s darkness. In this way it feels at once more personal and more accessible. Other standouts include the irresistibly bratty “Let Me,” where the lyric “they might hate you but I love you / and they can go kill themselves” is matched by the accompanying whiney synths. It’s in these moments of creative bravado that “Encyclopedia” shines, so its a shame that several tracks in the second half of the album such as “Deep in My Heart,” or the insipid “U.S. National Park” have such limited ambition.

Encyclopedia also includes the first writing credit for The Drums by keyboardist Jacob Graham in the form of album closer “Wild Geese.” Taken from his solo LP “Cascading Slopes,” the song provides a surprisingly delicate and hopeful final note to the album, moving on from the band’s trademark angst. Replacing the tortured introversion of Pierce’s lyrics, the track feels romantic and liberated, its beautiful melodies and tapestry of sounds complimenting the track’s avian metaphor, whilst still hinting at the darkness found elsewhere. It offers a tantalising glimpse at where the band could go, but consequently also hints at how much more they could have offered this time around.

The album is an exciting progression for the band, exploring new sounds and concepts, even whilst its balance of darkness and playfulness feels like the thematic culmination of the previous two LPs. The songs return to the same lyrics and metaphors throughout, the album echoing itself in a cohesive package that nevertheless is somewhat underwhelming. Ultimately, it seems to be straining against what it wants to be and what it needs to be, a necessary stepping stone to fresher, more mature lyrical pastures. If The Drums intended to write a definitive encyclopedia of themselves as a band, this is a strong first volume, but not the full set.

3/5

‘Encyclopedia’ is released on 23rd September

CreativeCommons
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Why should you listen to Ice Cube’s new album?

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black males, have spurred protest across America this summer. Al Sharpton, Rand Paul, and every major newspaper have all been in agreement: American police departments have structurally racist problems that need to be addressed. As well as this, police need to be held more accountable. The FBI’s unified crime reports, the closest thing to a system of accountability for police, still have no reliable records on how many people the police are killing.

This leads directly on to Ice Cube’s new album, to be released on October 21st. His acerbic critiques of American neoliberal politics have made him one of America’s most controversial musicians. Ice Cube defines his lyrics as “street knowledge,” in which he tries to let “the streets know what the politicians is trying to do them,” while also “letting the politicians know what the streets think of them, if they listening.[1] From his early days with rap group N.W.A. up until now, he has been trying to bridge the gap between the two separate Americas. However, often he has only stirred up more trouble and division. For example, “Fuck tha Police” (1988) caused so much controversy that the FBI even wrote a letter to N.W.A.’s record label concerning the group’s violent lyrics.

Since his breakup with N.W.A., Ice Cube has gone on to have a successful solo career. His first three albums are now all considered classics that helped establish West Coast gangsta rap. After those first few albums, his acting career began to take off. While starring in movies such as Friday (1995)and Barbershop (2002), many people forgot he was still rapping. And many of those who did notice thought he should stop. His last few albums have been ignored by major media outlets, especially since he went independent for his last two albums, Raw Footage (2008) and I am the West (2010).

“I’m not doing it for the money; I’m doing it because I’m a goddam B-boy in my heart.”

Ice Cube addressed his numerous critics, saying, “A lot of niggas don’t think I should still be in the game. I’m not doing it for the money; I’m doing it because I’m a goddam B-boy in my heart.”[2] Hip-hop has changed, yet Ice Cube has remained constant. A genre that was once known for speaking truth to power and exposing the underbelly of the American Dream has now become commercialized to cater to the masses. However, Ice Cube has continued to spit “street knowledge.” The lead single for Raw Footage, “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” satirically argues that his raps are not responsible for America’s inner city problems; rather, they respond to the policies that caused them. In the two verses of his cleverly titled song, “Hood Robbin’”, from his last album, he firstly addresses how the Great Recession disproportionately hurt poor blacks in America, yet only the big banks – not the poor – were bailed out. The second verse addresses the need for universal health care in America (“I know you ‘bout to die, but can you pay this fee? / If you can’t pay, then please have a seat.”). The hook puts it best: “Aint that a bitch / When you gotta steal from the poor and give to the rich.”

His upcoming album, Everythang’s Corrupt, will be more of the same. On the hook of his lead single, “Everythang’s Corrupt,” Ice Cube screams on top of the dissonant sounds he is known for rapping over, “Everythang’s corrupt. Everythang’s fucked up. / Everythang’s by the bout’ to buck me shit out of luck.” The verses go deeper into the problems with America’s crony capitalism with critiques of dark money used to buy campaigns, police brutality, prison privatization, and more. However, even if one disregards his socio-political insights, the man can flat out tell a good story, as demonstrated in his most famous single, “It Was a Good Day,” (1992) which describes an ideal day in Compton. Or, one can jam to another of his classics, “Once Upon a Time in the Projects,” (1990) in which he describes the worst day one could have in Compton.

American democracy is under threat. Senators Tom Udall and Bernie Sanders just wrote a piece in Politico to address it. A major part of the Voting Rights Act was recently gutted. Along with Voter ID, minority voters are continually marginalized. The Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014) Supreme Court decisions have effectively drowned out working class voters due to super PACs. These problems, along with Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, have caused many to criticize America’s legal system. The irony is that Ice Cube has been writing about these problems since the 1980s – since “Fuck tha Police.” The first lines from his verse read, “Fuck the police comin straight from the underground / A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / they have the authority to kill a minority.” It has taken America over thirty years to realize the truth in these words. During that time, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and many others have fallen victim to racialized police brutality, and the gap between the rich and the poor in America has increased. Though Ice Cube has been trying to bridge the gap between the two Americas for nearly 30 years, the FBI and others have wrongly considered him the problem. Mainstream America is finally realizing that the FBI should stop worrying about Ice Cube’s lyrics and start worrying about the police. In Ice Cube’s honor, and for our good, we should go back and really listen to his words, and eagerly await what his new album has in store.

[1] Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)

[2] http://blogs.villagevoice.com/statusainthood/2006/05/ice_cube_best_r.php

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