Album Reviews

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Confused and Confusing; Foxygen go astray on their third offering ‘…And Star Power’.

The third offering from California neo-psychedelica wunderkinds Foxygen, let’s make it clear, is largely full of individually great songs. Following on from the resoundingly pleasant tones of their second full-length, the boldly titled ‘We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace, Love and Magic’, the boys mine their exhaustive record collections ever more deeper, pushing their horizons outward to provide us a tapestry speckled with a greater variety of shades. While the wizened shadows of Messrs. Jagger, Richards and Wood loomed over their previous offerings, and certainly still have their influence, here Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd provide a welcome expansion, and perhaps, at their most zany, even Beefheart has his role to play; ‘..And Star Power’ is an attempt to write a bona-fide prog album (even if work indebted to the progressive music of yesteryear presents something of a conundrum). (more…)

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

The Oxford Student

Oxford's Newspaper since 1991