Here are my reviews and scores for August 2017 albums that I did not feature earlier.
Dead Cross – Dead Cross
The album’s brevity is a bit of a blessing and a curse to listeners. Regardless of its frailty in caliber when compared to the entire world of music, I must admit that I enjoyed the overzealous, daring, and wild decisions in timbre. From the exacerbated yelling to the riveting texture shifts to the energetic builds that blow the roof off, the craziness was welcomed and did well to give off personality and style, which lots of heavy metal never quite finds. With all that said, here’s what didn’t go well: the sound lulled and become dull when accentuating a verse-chorus form led by an annoying solo vocal, much of the harmonic layer had no sense of direction or purpose beyond sounding harsh, and above all the melodies never matched the sonic intent with their slow, quarter note rhythms and complete lack of shape. Sounding careless and free can be a neat aspect, but not when the surrounding foundation is muddled with poor musical choices. Their lack of strong decisions in basic songwriting prevented them from coming anywhere close to a Frank Zappa-like level, but they certainly didn’t lack intent, uniqueness, and energy. I won’t listen to this abrasive work again, but with the important slice of worth that it has, it may just be a rewarding listen for some.
Final Score: 91/180
Popular Manipulations – The Districts
This is a “blink and you’ll miss it” type work that deserves more praise than what it may give off on the surface. The Districts succeed in many ways here, perhaps the most important way being their cool, interesting sonic distortions that bring their timbre to the forefront and use what the modern world has to offer in a big way. Their experimentations worked especially well in the solo vocal layer. Most songs, while never too dull, didn’t have as powerful of a background musical structure as it needed to bring everything together in a profound way. Rhythms were sometimes a bit stale despite well-formed harmonic progressions. Other than that, the songwriting was quite impressive. Melodic shape was mostly a delight, and some of the forefront textures were so neat and enjoyable that it produced a couple of great songs, such as “Violet”, given the already dominant sound. When I say you’ll miss it if you blink, I am talking about the actual amount of quality a listener may not perceive due to the work’s categorization in the music world and the similar approaches to music that this band has to so many others. It could be lost in the sea of decent indie rock albums that don’t get enough credit for their musical successes, only because the genre has so many of them at a high level today. Modern rock fans should really enjoy this, but need to listen to it without categorization in mind.
Final Score: 135/180
Cost of Living – Downtown Boys
Sparks of fun energy and interesting meaning throughout the album’s presentation made it a decent listening experience, but overall the band’s creative process and unique sound didn’t do enough to reach anything of real importance. Their signature tactic of speaking/yelling in rhythm rather than singing dominated the work with its abstract being. While coming off as more important than just a workaround based on any limited ability, it didn’t ever reach a sense of power within itself that could enhance the surrounding music. Timbrally, it was a cool effect the first few times to show uniqueness and grit, especially when the dynamic contrast was obvious. In being the singular melodic layer, though, it was well too basic and overly repetitive to really sell the meanings that the album tried to give off. It was neat that nothing ever seemed settled, instead always moving to a new musical idea for short amounts of time, which did enhance the progression and gritty intent of the work. Some ideas were cool enough to create quite an enjoyable short song, while most others were simply tiny jams that were fun to an extent but didn’t amount to much. The end of the album was stronger than its beginning, which was actually quite refreshing given the age of streaming and marketable singles that are always at the front. This was good enough, but I’m not recommending it to everyone.
Final Score: 117/180
Fifth Harmony – Fifth Harmony
Well, at least it was short. This was quite a tribulation to get through. It’s disgustingly danceable, meaning it does serve a purpose and uses certain techniques that have been known to be popular with crowds, but it’s cruel in its awful disguise and sickly interior, as if it’s taking candy away from babies. Indeed, this album feeds us so many lies about what enjoyable music really is and what the steps are to get there. Monotonous melody lines were abundant, and to make matters worse they completely dominated the texture and were unnecessarily shoved in the listener’s ear, so as to brainwash them. The underlying harmonies at times gave us the only worthwhile musical substance with interesting uses of iii and vi or strength in its drive, but it also flip-flopped with being very redundant and basic beyond tolerance. The sound was mostly extremely scanty, annoying, and weak despite an all too gaudy synthetic instrument in every song, only being bearable in a couple of moments where there was a syncopated drum machine beat or a less raspy instrument was featured on the bass line. The bottom line is that this work deserves nothing and is a waste of time. It’s for laypeople that don’t have an understanding on the purpose of music and unknowingly abuse it, and at the same time are being unknowingly poisoned. This kind of music is like the McDonald’s of the music world. It serves cheap crap that people use to shamefully nourish themselves, and while convenient it does harm to the consumer and the environment. Choosing to listen to this over other music because you actually like it is akin to having unlimited money and time but choosing to eat at McDonald’s when there’s a Five Star cuisine right next to it. Little kids might do it, but seriously, let’s grow up.
Final Score: 65/180
Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear
The intelligent uses of simple and accessible songwriting conventions were quite strong, and everything was made even stronger by the success of creating a feel-good atmosphere through atypical sonic combinations. Overall, the work was convincing through its intelligence, fun in its friendliness, and interesting through its timbral experimentation. Grizzly Bear did very well with employing different synthetic textures at varying amounts of density to drive the emotion of each song. To me, their biggest accomplishment was in their harmonic progressions. To use looping progressions as much as they did came off as a bit lethargic at times, but the wonderful borrowed chords and lack of any boring resolve made for some very nice harmonic structures. This work missed out on being more substantial and remarkable than it was in two ways: the doses of lethargy as I mentioned earlier that crept in as a result of no important movement, and the melodic layer not getting a consistently strong hold on direction or individuality. The melodies were congenial and kept the listener’s interest, but didn’t have the strength in shape or configuration as it should have to really give off strong meaning. That just comes with more “lightning in a bottle” moments that this band may yet find later on. This is a quality listen for any modern rock fan.
Final Score: 137/180
Beast Epic – Iron & Wine
This was my first listen to a full Iron & Wine album, and my immediate impression after hearing it was that those who know Sam Beam’s music well probably have a good understanding of what they’re going to get from him every time. In this case, that happens to be very positive. Beam is a musician with a clear knack for melodic organization and pleasant campfire guitar playing. This album fully succeeds in bringing out the beauty of straightforward folk music with strong melodic delivery surrounded by sweet simplicity that’s easily reminiscent of happy emotions. If a listener can go into a new piece of music and already expect something like this off the bat, than the musician can call their career a success no matter what. Heavily expounding this simplistic voice on this album did unsurprisingly create a lot of similar sounding songs, but for someone looking for sheer musical quality without any abstract hopes, this is not an issue at all. There were even some melodic standouts in the first half that really gave off important character and the potential fuel to get over the top and make the work great. That didn’t quite happen, though, as the harmonic language got too wearisome and overall structures became a bit washed out by sticking to a routine rather than finding more ways of expression. The sound was always pleasant and well done, but its lack of additions or real nuance couldn’t launch the music to greater heights. The album eventually settled onto a median road in terms of quality, but there’s nothing to complain about. It’s certainly worthwhile, and if this is what we can consistently get from Sam Beam, I’d consider his music career a true success.
Final Score: 135/180
Sketches of Brunswick East – King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
Musical solidity is a very generic term without a hard and fast definition. I use it quite often in the context of weighing musical quality, with “solid” being one of the names of the ranks I give. Since I have begun reviewing albums this year, this may well be the quintessence of a “solid” album in my terms. It loosely means that all aspects about the work reach a certain degree of quality that makes the listener have an all-around enjoyable experience while getting a glimpse at the mystery of music’s power. That couldn’t be truer with King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s third studio album of the year. Collaborating with jazz soloist Alex Brettin, they created a short, straightforward, and loveable experiment combining small melodic ideas with over-the-top drive and captivating funky sounds to find a wonderful dosage of musical freedom. Indeed, with as much talent and sheer musical brainpower that existed in the making of this, they can really be as free as they want and something enjoyable will always be the result. As I surely do recommend this album to everyone based on its level of quality, I will say that the level of experimentation and overall unconventional songwriting tactics here may be difficult to find worth in from people used to simplicity and industry approved sound. Sucks to be a pawn of the industry, right? If you describe this work as simply being “weird”, then I probably think you’re pretty weird. Now, there is another side to the “solid” rank, which is that the musical elements never necessarily come together in a powerful way to produce something consistently brilliant, beautiful, or impactful. That’s what the ranks of “great” and “incredible” are saved for. In this work, while having moments of cool interest around every corner, none of the experiments amounted to create anything to sweep you off of your feet or draw important attention to itself. Melody was an obviously thinner area than the rest, and never quite had a momentum or allure to it that could match the deep, interesting textures. These guys sure know what it takes to be awesome, though. It’s a solid album, and it deserves a listen.
Final Score: 137/180
Villains – Queens of the Stone Age
If nothing else, this album is a simple reminder of the true hard rock spirit in the midst of its decline among musicians. The influences and overall style of Queens of the Stone Age greatly parallel those throughout history who have shown true passion as well as strong musicality while simply having fun and sending a message. While they have now been active in the music world for 20+ years, it’s not necessarily their experience that comes through the most in this work, but rather the plain fact that they came from an older generation, one that was inherently more successful at expressing passion through effective musical elements. By those standards, this wasn’t even that passionate of a work, but in today’s standards, it exceeds. That in itself is not a judgment of musical quality, but rather an observation on the wayward directions of the modern music world. These are nine strong, well-written, well cared for, and intriguing songs that deserve a listen. The overall ease and expectedness of each song’s conveyance made it seem like they hardly had to lift a finger to produce something this captivating. There were two heights in musical organization, especially in the harmonic progressions, which were “Domesticated Animals” and “Head Like a Haunted House”. There were also two lower points, “Un-Reborn Again” and “Hideaway”, where nothing quite caught on or rose to a level of real significance. Every work like this will have some peaks and valleys, but its worthiness depends on what level the musicianship is operating. Like I said earlier, due to their generational upbringing and influences, that level is rather high for them, as evidenced by the awesome harmonic twists and aggressively riveting melodic delivery. What makes this barely miss out on greatness? As a whole, it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific improvements that could be made, aside from perhaps the guitar taking on a bit more versatility or adding another versatile instrument to the texture. It really comes down to the point of not needing to lift a finger to achieve this musical success. There was a bit of a lack of effort that came across, and they aren’t good enough to simply deliver greatness with that much ease. This was close, though.
Final Score: 144/180
Dark Matter – Randy Newman
The man behind some of the greatest non-diegetic Disney songs in history steps into reality for a change and delivers a collection of songs meant for a modern adult audience. While the music always had Newman’s signature harmonic genius on piano, the nine songs varied wildly in meaning, structure, feel, and musical priority. That may hurt the work a bit when taken in as one full album, but nonetheless these songs each had considerable care and style to them that came to be rather delightful. While just zany at worst, the sound sometimes dipped into a bit of a lull when being driven by an ordinary, although fun, jazz combo. The sound was at its peak of brilliance when Newman’s piano playing was the focal point, which happened in three songs. Not only did that allow Newman to explore his highly successful soft dynamics at the keys, but also fully brought out his harmonic language, which was truly the meat and bones of the album. Melodically, there was some good catchiness, but never any great form or purpose, especially when doubled by the piano as if the lines were simply made up on the spot. Still, it was fun, quirky, and heartfelt all at the same time, even if the organization of songs and the album as a whole may seem too loose to some.
Final Score: 134/180
To The Bone – Steven Wilson
To The Bone was big, bold, and beautifully done. Wilson swung for the fences showing his veteran savvy with a brash and vibrant sound anchored by strong electric guitar builds and surprising texture shifts all within recognizable acoustic instrumentation that delivered a nice amount of power. The guitar did especially well to move between rhythmic punctuation and lengthy solo passages. It’s the kind of large, fascinating, yet simple sound that works well both in solitude and in a big stadium. The difference maker on this album was the eyebrow-raising harmonic journeys that provided coolness, motion, and intricacy into the more basic rock n’ roll instrumentation. That, along with the unpredictable forms and dynamic shifts within each song, easily made this a solid and worthwhile listen. Some songs, like “The Same Asylum As Before” and “People Who Eat Darkness” had better purpose and more togetherness within their contrasting sections than others like “Refuge” and “Detonation”. The only main drawback of this work was that the melody rarely played a pivotal role. The melodies were direct and quite well formed so as to add more direction and interest, but they were never left alone enough or made a real focal point, which would have given even more weight and importance to the music. Nevertheless, Wilson’s experience comes through greatly here and delivers one of the year’s best straight-up, no-nonsense, audacious albums.
Final Score: 141/180
A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs
When you cross this many bold melodic formations and creative stretched harmonic loops with thoughtful, gorgeous builds in sound and uncomplicated delivery, you get one of 2017’s best albums. The combination of fearlessness to sound simple and inventiveness in musical structure was incredibly rewarding. On top of that, this group takes full advantage of the tools available today in the production studio, using their resources not as a crutch or to only keep up with standards, but to accentuate their intended delivery through cleanliness. The glue that holds everything together is powerful harmonic structures that use patterns of I, IV, and V so delightfully. Too many times this year have I listened to the first couple songs of an album and notice a certain weakness that I’d have loved to see improve throughout, but it never does. After the first two songs here, I thought that if the harmony could just use better tendencies and break away from consistent meter, this would have a chance to be a great album. Lo and behold, the harmonies improved in that way, and the album was great. Specific highlights were “Holding On” and “Strangest Thing”, where simple harmonies thrived, melody was a strong driving force, and timbral builds were exceptional. I also thoroughly enjoyed the solo vocal, sounding reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan being very charismatic and passionate while approachable and favoring emphatic delivery over tone quality, which was well done. As a 2017 release, A Deeper Understanding sticks out among the modern wash of lazy, timid, and attempts at timely works by delivering some timeless music comparable to the successful output of 25-35 years ago. While not quite on tearjerker level, which would be the next step and require immense intuition and connection, this was one of my favorite listens of the year, and I hope it’s one of yours as well.
Final Score: 147/180