Category: Music reviews

Too-Rye-Ay (1982)

I’ve always loved rock music, especially from the 70s and 80s. Of course, that genre encompasses a lot of sub-genres, which, in turn, cross a number of countries. The vast majority of rock bands from that era were from the US and the UK, but even in those two nations, there’s a lot of variety.

Some bands are huge hits in the US and not in the UK, or vice-versa. And some alleged one-hit wonders in the US aren’t one-hit wonders in the UK.

Dexys Midnight Runners falls into the latter category.

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I feel that Dexys Midnight Runners is a chronically under-appreciated band. This experimental soul group had a massive worldwide hit in 1982 with “Come On Eileen,” which was a number one hit in both the US and the UK. But after that, they’re essentially known as one-hit wonders outside of the UK and Ireland.

In the British Isles, however, Dexys had another number one hit (the single “Geno” in 1980) and also had six other career singles that cracked the Top 20. To this day, they’re cult classics, especially in their hometown of Birmingham. All three of their studio albums represented changes in musical style, personnel, and appearance.

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was Dexys debut in 1980, and it showcased a strong mixture of jazz, soul, and Celtic folk music. Too-Rye-Ay followed in 1982 and featured more strings and keyboards. The group’s third effort, Don’t Stand Me Down, came out in 1985 and is more of a classic new wave album featuring a smaller lineup.

Today, I’ll be reviewing Too-Rye-Ay. But, as I’ve found, most people know very little about Dexys (besides being the “Come On Eileen” band). So I’m about to get historical up in here, because in order to understand this weird band, you have to understand their numerous influences.

Dexys Midnight Runners was formed in Birmingham in 1978 by lead singer Kevin Rowland, an Irishman who had briefly been in a punk band called The Killjoys. After growing tired of the punk scene around Birmingham, Rowland formed Dexys with guitarist Al Archer. They were hoping to hop onboard the growing Northern Soul train.

The Northern Soul music scene started in the early-to-mid 70s and was considered a distinctly British genre. The majority of the kids in the northern cities of England listened to obscure soul and jazz records (mostly from America) that were never big anywhere until well after the fact. So when Rowland helped form Dexys, he had some intriguing (read: hipster) musical influences. It’s also worth noting that Rowland was considered a meticulous and difficult artist, and started gaining a reputation as a serious control freak.

After Dexys debut in 1980 (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels) brought them modest success, Rowland mixed things up for the next album. He brought in more string players and made his band change wardrobes. This time around, they all looked like blue-collar longshoremen, complete with overalls and big scarves.

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“We didn’t want to become part of anyone else’s movement. We’d rather be our own movement,” Rowland said in an interview. “We wanted to be a group that looked like something: a formed group, a project, not just random.”

To that end, Dexys began to experiment musically, starting with Too-Rye-Ay. Before the recording of the album, violinist Helen O’Hara recruited more string players in order to give the album more depth. The brass section – Brian Maurice and Jim Paterson – was unhappy with their diminished roles and decided to quit the band (although Rowland eventually convinced them to complete their parts for the record before leaving).

The opening track is a folk-inspired tune called “The Celtic Soul Brothers,” and it became one of the three singles from the album. Track two, “Let’s Make This Precious,” is a fast-paced song with a fun ska influence, and the fourth song is an upbeat cover of “Jackie Wilson Said” by Van Morrison. It’s a great song, and all the parts fit together very nicely (I particularly enjoyed the walking bassline from Giorgio Kilkenny).

Tracks five and nine (“Old” and “Until I Believe in My Soul”, respectively) are more down-tempo ballads. I like them, but “Until I Believe in My Soul” gets a little rambling and repetitive towards the end.

The sixth song, “Plan B,” was going to be released as the first single from the album, but contract disputes with the record label caused the release to be cancelled. In my opinion, “Plan B” is another catchy tune with a memorable chorus; I’d say it’s one of the CD’s better songs.

“I’ll Show You” is short and sweet, clocking in as the shortest song on the record at 2:41. After a couple of slower songs, “Come On Eileen” concludes the CD – and it’s a real crowd-pleaser.

Lyrically and musically, “Come On Eileen” is the best song on Too-Rye-Ay, and I personally think it could be one of the most romantic songs of the decade. It blends feelings of nostalgia, hope, and love into a wonderful song.

Written in the context of Britain’s economic depression in the late 70s and early 80s, you would expect “Come On Eileen” to be gloomy and dark, but it’s an upbeat song about overcoming obstacles and going on romantic adventures, as opposed to living glum lives like the other people around them. As Rowland croons in the verse and pre-chorus:

These people ’round here, with their beaten-down eyes and smoke-dried faces,

So resigned to what their fate is

But not us, no not us

We are far too young and clever…and we’ll hum this tune forever.

Essentially, “Come On Eileen” is the perfect ending to an eclectic mix of soul and jazz, Celtic folk, and rock. Too-Rye-Ay is an enjoyable musical journey, even though Rowland’s nasal voice sounds like a weird mix of Bob Dylan and a Sesame Street character. If you like discovering a cult classic band with a wide variety of influences, Dexys Midnight Runners is the band for you.

Rating: 8/10

TRACK LISTING

  1. The Celtic Soul Brothers – 3:07
  2. Let’s Make This Precious – 4:03
  3. All in All (This One Last Wild Waltz) – 4:08
  4. Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile) – 3:06
  5. Old – 5:00
  6. Plan B – 5:04
  7. I’ll Show You – 2:41
  8. Liars A to E – 4:10
  9. Until I Believe in My Soul – 7:00
  10. Come On Eileen – 4:07

PERSONNEL

  • Kevin Rowland – vocals/guitar
  • Billy Adams – guitar/banjo
  • Giorgio Kilkenny – bass
  • Seb Shelton – drums
  • Brian Maurice – saxophone
  • Paul Speare – flute/saxophone
  • Helen O’Hara – violin
  • Steve Brennan – violin
  • Jim Paterson – trombone
  • Mickey Billingham – keyboards/piano/organ/accordion

 

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Art of Life (1993)

In 1992, symphonic metal band X Japan were already hugely popular in their home country and were gaining popularity throughout the Far East, riding the coattails of their first two albums, Blue Blood (1989) and Jealousy (1991). They were also one of the first Japanese bands to get mainstream airplay and acceptance despite being on a independent label. And while many of their hard-rock peers from the ’80s were getting left by the wayside, X decided to go even bigger and better.

Following a minor lineup change (bassist Taiji left the group and was replaced by current bassist Hiroshi “Heath” Morie), songwriter/pianist/drummer Yoshiki decided to record X’s new album in the United States.

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He arrived in North Hollywood and dropped in at One on One Recording Studio, where Metallica had famously recorded its self-titled debut album. Yoshiki was blown away while taking a tour around the place, and he remarked that it was the best place he had ever seen as far as recording drums were concerned. He expressed interest in buying some studio time, but the manager said they were full, joking that if Yoshiki really wanted to record there, he’d have to buy the studio himself.

The next day, Yoshiki came back, money in hand, and bought the studio.

Always meticulous and methodical as a composer, Yoshiki decided that he wanted the entire album –titled Art of Life– to be one song, clocking in at 29 minutes long. That’s ambitious enough, but Yoshiki also wanted to have tempo changes, solos, no set chorus, and heavy orchestration. He got it, and a progressive symphony was born.

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A classically-trained piano player from the age of four, Yoshiki was inspired by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” when he was composing Art of Life (which took about two weeks to write). Lyrically, the song is intensely personal, written from Yoshiki’s perspective after his father committed suicide. The song/album was recorded in numerous locations, including Yoshiki’s own studios in L.A. and Tokyo, while the orchestra parts were recorded at England’s legendary Abbey Road Studios.

Art of Life starts with a dreamlike acoustic intro accompanied by Yoshiki on piano. Vocalist Toshi sings the opening lines and this goes on for a few minutes until the power metal riffs start, filling the air with dueling guitars and a manic gallop from the drums. Several recurring motifs occur musically, but there are no real verses or chorus, instead allowing for guitar solos, heavy use of strings (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), and a few spoken word passages.

And this is all before we reach the 11-minute mark.

At around 15 minutes, a piano solo starts and goes on for a good eight and a half minutes, featuring layered melodies and lengthy improvisation. It’s jaw-dropping to say the least. The final seven minutes of the song are another verse and several other complex parts before going into another recurring melody (but again, not an actual chorus). It’s really amazing how well it all connects, musically and emotionally.

Obviously, progressive rock/metal isn’t new and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I’d certainly recommend X Japan to anyone who would listen, but Art of Life, even more so than the rest of their catalogue, requires patience and an open mind. I’d also say that you also need some type of basic appreciation for classical music before you dive into X’s discography.

But none of that takes away from Art of Life. It’s a truly unique piece of art that is extraordinary and powerful. Blending so many complex emotions as effortlessly as it blends classical music and hard rock, Art of Life stands as maybe the biggest statement that X has made to the world of music — their “Stairway to Heaven,” if you will.

“If you like music, you owe it to yourself to hear this,” says Nick Butler of Sputnik Music.

TRACK LISTING:

  1. Art of Life (29:00)

PERSONNEL: 

Yoshiki – piano/drums/lyrics

Toshi – vocals

Hide – guitar

Pata – guitar

Heath – bass

String arrangements and orchestration by Dick Marx and Shelly Berg

Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

 

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Silent Planet

(Note: this post will function as both an artist spotlight and as an album review.)

Silent Planet is on a mission. They have set their course and are looking to become major stars in the world of Christian metalcore. Formed in Los Angeles in 2009, this band has set themselves apart in a genre that needed some new energy. After releasing two EPs independently, Silent Planet were noticed by Christian label Solid State Records, who played a prominent role in the success of Underoath, Norma Jean, and Haste the Day. And in 2014, Silent Planet showcased their musical and lyrical prowess on their debut CD, The Night God Slept. 

Silent Planet’s first album is exceptional. Musically, it features harsh screams, technical breakdowns, a brilliant blend of clean vocal melodies, and dream-like soundscapes created via a beautiful mix of lush synths and clean guitars.

Lyrically, it deals with a myriad of subjects: the history of Christianity, sociopolitical issues, and personal experiences of persecution and human suffering. Of course, being a Christian band, Silent Planet expresses all of this in a context of a loving God and a world gone wrong. They even took their name from the C.S. Lewis science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet.

Much of this is symbolized in the band’s logo: a barren-looking planet with a giant tear across it. Earth was created perfectly whole, but is torn away from God by the problem of sin. Still, God desires to see humanity made whole and united by the message of Jesus.

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Unlike most Christian bands, Silent Planet does not exclusively write songs from a personal perspective that deal with personal relationships with God or with other people. Their lyrics also don’t specifically suggest eternal struggles of good versus evil, as many bands do.

Certain songs, such as “The Well,” “Depths II,” and “First Mother (Lilith),” deal with various topics, with scripture references, poetry, and literary details scattered throughout.

The Night God Slept is notable in that it features three songs about various countries in WWII, two of which–“Tiny Hands (Au Revoir)” and “Darkstrand (Hibakusha)”–are written from the perspective of female protagonists.

“Women in heavy music are caught in a binary. They are either written as a ‘good’ moral, ideal woman or a ‘bad’ sinful, tempting woman–but almost never written from their own perspective,” lead vocalist Garrett Russell explains. “What links all of the women in our songs is that they ultimately have to make difficult decisions under the systemic oppression of their coercive ruling forces, which include government, authority figures and the society they live in.”

“Tiny Hands” is the album’s fifth track and is written about Marguerite Rouffanche, a French woman who survived a Nazi-orchestrated arson of a church in June 1944. The song contains powerful details (as written from Rouffanche’s point of view) and features clever guitar work that eerily resembles the sound of an air-raid siren.

“Darkstrand (Hibakusha)” details the story of a Japanese woman and child trapped under rubble and separated from each other as the bombing of Hiroshima ensues around them. It’s another aggressive, intense piece, full of thought-provoking lyrics about the beauty of creation being destroyed as lives are lost. Russell’s lyrical penmanship shows his characters not necessarily as good or evil, but simply as human beings–this is one of the album’s more underrated songs.

The second track on the album is called “XX (City Grave)” and deals with the crisis of sex-trafficking in America.

“We buried our sisters in a glass display, only to evaporate to a toxic skyline / Underneath we sell off the bodies….Where you drown in the comfort of our complicity,” growls Russell. It’s an intense song to say the least.

Track four, “Native Blood,” focuses on the shameful treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government in the 19th century, and how–regrettably–Christianity was complicit in the deaths of innocents. Part of the first verse reads, “You built your Father’s house over my mother’s grave,” invoking the tragic irony of erecting a church on an Indian burial ground. However, the emphasis of the song is not “white guilt” (for lack of a better term), but rather a mix of sorrow and compassion–and ultimately, hope.

“Firstwake” is a song about the intentions of Christianity, as opposes to the mainstream public’s perception of Christianity. “Wasteland (Vechnost)” is an examination of Soviet Russia, which suffered the most casualties of any of the Allied nations in WWII. The song explores the Soviet Union’s views on religion and the implications thereof.

Russell really excels as a vocalist and lyricist; his passionate screams showcase the raw power and energy of his lyrics. A humble person by nature, Russell has a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and actually worked in a counseling center before pursuing music full-time. The son of missionaries, Russell chose to emphasize the struggles of women on this album because he was the only boy in his family and grew up with a basic honor and respect for women (among other reasons, as listed above). He’s also mentioned that his passion for life and pursuing deeper thoughts through music come from a relief trip to Haiti when he was 16.

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The heart of Silent Planet comes through Russell, the band’s lyrical mouthpiece. He is frequently the one posting on the band’s Facebook page, and on stage, he oozes passion and dedication. While that’s true of many vocalists, Russell’s compassionate demeanor and his desire to probe tough subjects earns him brownie points with many fans, both Christian and non-Christian.

And I can both respect that and identify with that. As a Christian, it’s difficult to grapple with the problem of evil–whether it be represented by repressive, dictatorial regimes or the brutality of the sex-trafficking industry. It’s hard admitting that many believers sat idly by and did little to stop the government forcibly relocating and killing Native Americans.

But Russell shows, through his humility and love for others, that he can bring an authentic message. As someone who has seen Silent Planet live in concert (twice!), I can vouch for Russell and his desire to see others know God and repair the dividing tear between the divine and the earthly.

“Hopefully our message is just that we see God as whole. God’s complete and we’re so incomplete. I think our hope is that we can be made whole again from that tear that separates me from you,” Russell says.

As Silent Planet embarks upon a new year and recording a new album, I can safely say that this ambitious band has nothing but positive things going for them. They are well worth checking out. Period.

Rating: 10/10

Track Listing:

  1. The Well – 3:00
  2. XX (City Grave) – 2:52
  3. I Drowned in the Desert* – 1:28
  4. Native Blood – 3:53
  5. Tiny Hands (Au Revoir) – 3:31
  6. Firstwake – 4:14
  7. Darkstrand (Hibakusha) – 3:18
  8. First Mother (Lilith) – 2:35
  9. To Thirst for the Sea* – 1:07
  10. Wasteland (Vechnost) – 3:30
  11. Depths, pt. II – 3:14

*instrumental track

Personnel:

Garrett Russell – unclean vocals

Spencer Keene – guitar

Mitchell Stark – guitar

Igor Efimov – guitar

Thomas Freckleton – bass/keys/clean vocals

Alex Camarena – drums

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Iwrestledabearonce – EP (2007)

If you follow music as closely as I do, you’ll know how diverse genres can get. Iwrestledabearonce is basically the epitome of a modern band that constantly eschews all recognizable labels and genres.

Actually, I take that back. IWABO started out as actually a very dynamic and interesting band — albeit a metal band that was charting territory that hasn’t really been approached by their fellow bands. What other group could release songs with goofy titles and goofier samples, change tempos, styles and distortion settings as frequently as they change socks, and also feature the trademark blast beats and breakdowns?

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The answer is not many.

IWABO began in 2007 in Shreveport, Louisiana; they apparently took their name from an old Gary Busey sketch on Comedy Central. They released their self-titled debut EP independently, which I’ll be reviewing today.

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Iwrestledabearonce – EP is experimental to the extreme, boasting numerous technical breakdowns, out-of-nowhere tempo changes, and genres ranging from Latin-infused swing to mathcore to electronica. So, essentially, ridiculous in all the right ways.

The EP features five tracks, all of which incorporate traditional metal elements with crazy progressive elements. It’s astonishing how well it all fits together, even while IWABO jumps around like a five-year-old who just stopped taking his Ritalin.

They’re goofy enough to sample the Super Mario Bros theme and include quotes from Clerks, but also serious enough to throw in some crushing breakdowns, dance-worthy jam sessions, and even some smooth jazz. They didn’t even have a drummer at the time of recording the EP, instead using a programmed drum machine for all five songs.

This was considered revolutionary at the time and got IWABO a large cult following that continues to this today. They snagged a deal with Tragic Hero Records, who re-released the EP and also released their debut album It’s All Happening in 2009, which gave them even more exposure and prompted a move to L.A. Since then, they’ve gone through numerous lineup changes, released three more full-length albums (including two remixed albums), and gone on tour with metal heavyweights as Between the Buried and Me, All Shall Perish, August Burns Red, Chelsea Grin, Blessthefall, and The Dillinger Escape Plan.

I love this EP. For me, the highlight of IWABO’s earliest work is lead vocalist Krysta Cameron. Cameron nails it on every song, going from soaring, angelic clean vocals to death growls at the drop of a hat. Just like the schizophrenic genre-jumping, Cameron’s vocal range goes from innocent and sweet to brutal and unforgiving. Her performance really elevates the other band members, all of whom do great as well.

There is a bonus track, a remix of the first song which I felt was largely unnecessary, but as a whole, the EP is killer. IWABO will always be a fun guilty pleasure of mine. I give their debut EP a 9/10.

TRACK LISTING

  1. Ulrich Firelord, Breaker of Mountains (3:47)
  2. Alaskan Flounder Basket (2:45)
  3. Vlork, Mighty Wielder of Sheep (4:49)
  4. Still Jolly After All These Years (2:40)
  5. Corey Feldman Holocaust (4:04)
  6. Ulrich Firelord – Remix by Dada Yakuza* (5:40)

*bonus track

PERSONNEL

Krysta Cameron – vocals

Steven Bradley – guitars/keys/samples/programming

John Ganey – guitars/keys/samples/programming

Brian Dozier – bass

Frances the Mute (2005)

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Progressive rock has long been involved in the broader landscape of rock music. Ever since the British Invasion, there has been no shortage of psychedelic and prog-rock hidden between the cracks of mainstream radio rock. Most people have a lot of familiarity with the classics of the late 60s and most of the 70s, but I bet the average guy on the street probably wouldn’t be able to name a lot of experimental/prog-rock bands in the last couple decades.

One of them is The Mars Volta, a prog band from the dusty streets of El Paso, Texas that was active from 2001-2012. I’ve gone into great detail in previous posts about the career of The Mars Volta, specifically regarding the broader careers of vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. But I’ve never reviewed a full TMV album. So today, I’m changing that — by examining TMV’s sophomore album Frances the Mute.

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Rodriguez-Lopez wrote all the material on Frances the Mute while TMV was on tour promoting their debut album Deloused in the Comatorium. To understand Frances, one must first try to understand Deloused. 

Deloused was an excellent debut for the band, selling 500,000 copies in its first week despite limited promotion, and receiving lots of critical acclaim. And apart from that, it was a darkly-themed stroke of genius. Inspired by the tragic story of a childhood friend from El Paso, Deloused follows the fictional Cerpin Taxt, a damaged man who OD’s on a mixture of heroin and rat poison, slips into a coma, and starts battling the dark side of his mind. It’s one of the more ambitious and progressive albums of the decade, highlighted by Rodriguez-Lopez’s frenetic guitar riffs infused with heavy Latin and jazz flavor.

On March 25, 2003, in an eerie turn of events, TMV’s sound manipulator, Jeremy Ward, was found dead in his L.A. apartment of a heroin overdose. He was 27. The band was on the road when they heard and immediately canceled the rest of the tour.

So during the songwriting process for Frances the Mute, Rodriguez-Lopez was reminded of a story that Ward had once mentioned. Ward briefly worked as a repo-man and once stumbled upon an anonymous diary in the back of a car. Ward noticed several striking similarities between the author and himself, particularly the fact that they had both been adopted. Therefore, Frances the Mute became a story of an orphan trying to find his birth parents, while being guided along the way by various shady, eccentric characters.

Rodriguez-Lopez wrote and composed the entire album, with Bixler-Zavala penning the lyrics. Inspired by the methodology of Miles Davis, Rodriguez-Lopez brought the individual parts to the band members one-on-one, without allowing them to hear the part or the context of the part before playing it. Rodriguez-Lopez would play everything over slowly with the individual members, allowing them to become comfortable with the part.

“We’ll sit there and play it forever and slow—real slow—to understand what’s happening. It’s easy to play something fast and loud, but to play it soft and slow takes a certain amount of discipline. Then once we understand the part, everyone’s free to elaborate—their personalities come out and it’s not my part anymore; they get into and give it that swing that I can’t give it,” Rodriguez-Lopez said.

The band had a mixed reaction. Keyboardist/synth player Ikey Owens didn’t like it at all, but bassist Juan Alderete and drummer Jon Theodore had more positive reactions. Theodore said that it was the first time in his career that he had ever been so methodical about the recording process. “This was the first instance where I considered every single hit all the way through, every figure up to and including every change. There were no question marks,” he said.

Rodriguez-Lopez explained the method to his apparent madness: “When you’re in the studio ‘what ifs’ are your biggest enemy, so my general rule is, if it’s something you can’t live with, then we should examine it. Not that there isn’t a lot of refinement to what we do. Obviously there is, but I consider it a balance of raw energy and refinement.”

After an intense, demanding recording session, Frances the Mute was released on March 1, 2005 to positive reviews. The album is without breathers, with all songs fading into each other. Therefore, as a concept album, it’s designed to be listened to in one sitting, rather than being seen as individual songs.

The album is extremely experimental, blending jazz-fusion, math rock, space rock, and Latin-American music. It also features strange, eerie soundscapes, especially the beginning of track four (“Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore”). The song opens with the pre-recorded sounds of Puerto Rican coqui frogs, blended within a thick layer of synthesized fuzz and bizarre sound effects. Similarly, the final two minutes of the comparatively pop-sounding “The Widow” contains distorted, looped sound effects and extensive use of an organ.

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It’s an ambitious and epic record for sure. Rodriguez-Lopez’s ample use of effects pedals add plenty to the musical landscape. In addition to his unorthodox playing and epic solos, Rodriguez-Lopez eschews traditional sounds, using dozens of effects and manipulations to make his guitar sound weird, as well as his fondness of odd chord progressions (especially the tritone).

The opening track “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” starts with a Latin-infused acoustic part before blasting out of the gate with complex rhythms, changing tempos, and lengthy soloing courtesy of Rodriguez-Lopez. After 13 minutes of that, “The Widow” starts, with a more radio-friendly acoustic-based set of verses, before breaking into a Led Zeppelin-esque chorus and a soaring guitar solo. It’s by far the shortest song on the CD at five minutes 51 seconds, although it has a lengthy two and a half minute outro.

“L’Via L’Viaquez” boasts a very catchy salsa-style rhythm, showing off TMV’s Latin background, and it clocks in at about 12 and half minutes. Towards the end of the song, Rodriguez-Lopez has a dueling, back-and-forth duet with his childhood idol and primary influence, salsa pianist Larry Harlow.

Now here comes the fun part.

The aforementioned “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” and “Cassandra Gemini” contain numerous sequences respectively, coupled with lengthy jam sessions and trippy, synth-based weirdness. “Miranda” is four songs in one, totaling just over 13 minutes, while “Cassandra Gemini” clocks in at 32 minutes and 32 seconds.

This is clearly where the experimental side really begins to show. The two songs also include guest musicians such as Flea (bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) on trumpet, and Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez on flute and saxophone, in addition to lengthy improvisation.

While sometimes I feel like the music can get a little too indulgent for its own good, it is still composed impeccably and everything flows together nicely for the most part. It’s just a matter of patience for most people — I mean, it’s a 77-minute album. It honestly took me two or three listens before I really began to appreciate Frances the Mute as some type of weirdly good CD — and something more than the outward pretentiousness and grandiose scope. And even now, when I listen to it, I alternate between feeling like “oh hey, this is really unique and interesting” and “OH MY GOD WRAP UP THE JAM SESSION AND START SINGING AGAIN.”

In fact, The Aquarian Weekly, while praising Frances and giving it an A grade, said “You have to be really patient to even think about getting into this record….a real heavyweight fight for a listener to get through.” Other critics agreed, praising the scope and sound of the record, but concurring that Rodriguez-Lopez & Co. would have to “rein it all in” on subsequent albums.

So in short, I very much like Frances the Mute, but I can’t recommend it to someone who doesn’t have a very open mind. I give it an 8.5/10.

Track Listing:

  1. Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus (13:02)
  2. The Widow (5:51)
  3. L’Via L’Viaquez (12:21)
  4. Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore (13:09)
    1. Vade Mecum
    2. Pour Another Icepick
    3. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)
    4. Con Safo
  5. Cassandra Gemini (32:32)
    1. Tarantism
    2. Plant a Nail in the Navel Stream
    3. Faminepulse
    4. Multiple Spouse Wounds
    5. Sarcophagi

The Mars Volta is:

Cedric Bixler-Zavala — vocals/lyrics

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez — guitars

Juan Alderete — bass

Jon Theodore — drums

Isaiah “Ikey” Owens — keyboards/synth

Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez and Lenny Castro — additional percussion

Flea — trumpet

Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez — flute/saxophone

John Frusciante — guitar on “L’Via L’Viaquez”

Larry Harlow — piano on “L’Via L’Viaquez”

String, brass, piano, and percussion arrangements by David Campbell

The Interruption System (2013)

Adam Kills Eve was born in December 2006 in Tuscany, Italy, out of a sense of obscurity. All of the founding members had worked in different capacities and played in vastly different rock bands, but they hadn’t known each other very long and just felt like kicking it, making music, and having fun. They assumed it wouldn’t really go anywhere, but they were wrong.

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They started writing material almost immediately, seeking to infuse a synth-based pop sound and soaring vocal melodies alongside harsh screams and heavy breakdowns — into a genre that many of us now know as post-hardcore or electronicore. And it all worked really well, as AKE started gaining underground popularity in nearby Florence and they started playing numerous gigs all over the country by 2007 and 2008. Despite frequent lineup changes, AKE was warmly received due to their fun, energetic live shows and their on-stage intensity.

In late 2008, they entered the Bro Studios in Turin to record their debut EP, called They Almost Killed Us with Their Hypocrisy. AKE began with some fresh ideas and turned the EP into an overnight success, led by their single “Ready, Steady, Save the World.” They embarked on two major tours all over Italy, and a year and a half later, this album came out:

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AKE started writing The Interruption System in late 2009 and early 2010, enlisting the help of longtime friend and notable producer Helio Di Nardo. They started writing songs rapidly, coming up with a more mature lyrical approach while retaining their basic energy and sound from the EP, but the band members weren’t satisfied. Halfway through the writing process, the idea for a science fiction-based concept album was approached, and they went with it. They also hired a new bassist and a new guitarist/backup vocalist to help spur the album towards completion.

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On September 4, 2011, AKE performed their biggest gig yet — the I-Days Festival in Bologna. There they played alongside international bands like The Offspring, Simple Plan, and Taking Back Sunday, and were well-received from the get-go. AKE seeks to reach every country with their music and have fun along the way.

The album itself is really fun. Combining post-hardcore elements with space rock and occasional acoustic bits, AKE showcases their diversity with every song, and they’ve developed a smart approach to keeping things interesting in what has become a stale genre over time. They have serious talent, and they utilize it well on The Interruption System. The first single, “Maybe In Space,” was the first AKE song I had listened to, and I really, really enjoyed it, and the album sure doesn’t slow down from there.

I give The Interruption System an 8.5/10. Looking forward to getting more material from AKE in the future!

Track Listing:

  1. Intro (0:56)
  2. Maybe In Space (3:29)
  3. Paralysis 2.0 (3:35)
  4. The Bottom of My Heart News (interlude) (2:03)
  5. Ms. Destruction (2:57)
  6. The Love Life Beneath (3:33)
  7. The Log-Out Therapy (3:54)
  8. Paralysis 1.0 (interlude) (0:53)
  9. A Little In-Between (2:45)
  10. The Revised Hedgehog’s Dilemma (3:14)
  11. More Than the Sum of Our Parts (3:26)
  12. The Completion System (3:34)

Adam Kills Eve is:

Federico Bini — vocals

Giovanni Macca — guitar/backing vocals

Francesco Agozzino — guitar

Alessandro Gavazzi — bass

Oscar Gigli — drums

Pop or Country?

No, I’m not doing a compare-and-contrast post again — especially about the two least-palatable genres of modern music. And I was hoping I wasn’t gonna have to make a post like this, but (sigh) here we go.

Unless you’ve been living around a rock for the past year and a half, you’ll notice one thing:

Taylor Swift has conquered the world.

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She’s become a bonafide super star and has made headlines constantly since her mega-hit 1989 last year, which sold more copies in its opening week than any album in the previous 12 years. To date, Miss Swift is the first and only artist (of any genre) to have sold three straight albums with over one million first-week sales. For someone her age (25) and her talent, this was unthinkable. She was even recently ranked #65 on Forbes’ annual Most Powerful Women list.

Born on December 13, 1989 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Taylor Alison Swift was raised on a Christmas tree farm in nearby Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. Her dad was a financial advisor and her mom was a marketing executive who had spent numerous years overseas as a child. Taylor and her brother Austin were raised in the Presbyterian faith.

Sounds like a fairly normal middle-class American childhood, right? Sure. But this brief mini-bio is already uncharted territory for most of country music, a genre that is painstakingly traditional and, until recently, was impervious to influences outside of Nashville. I mean, seriously, Johnny Cash himself was not considered “country” enough once upon a time, back when he was incorporating gospel, blues, and southern rock into his music — even though he grew up in backwoods Arkansas and spoke with a heavy drawl.

I’m digressing here. My point is that a skinny blonde from rural Pennsylvania is much, much less likely to make an impact in country music than — oh, I don’t know — another skinny blonde from rural Oklahoma (yes, that’s a Carrie Underwood reference). Nonetheless, with her parents’ blessing, Taylor moved to Nashville at the age of 14 and focused on becoming a country music star. Heavily influenced by artists such Faith Hill and Shania Twain, young Taylor began writing her own songs on guitar and attempting to get a record deal.

Basically, that’s where the Taylor Swift phenomenon begins. As we all remember, she was, in fact, signed and released her self-titled debut in 2006, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout high school, everyone I knew listened to Taylor Swift. Everyone. Admittedly, it took me awhile it get into her stuff. Partly it was my disdain for country music while living in a town where everyone and their mother listened to country music, partly it was because I just didn’t like stuff that was popular on the mainstream radio charts. Keep in mind that when I was in high school, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown were also starting to get big. I had good reason to be skeptical about anything on the radio.

But I swallowed my pride (and my dislike of country) and started listening to Taylor Swift. I distinctly remember enjoying her songs “Haunted,” “Our Song,” and “Should’ve Said No.” Still, there was criticism of her, mainly centered around her being out of place as a country singer who was born north of the Mason-Dixon Line, or as a teenage girl who mostly sang about cheesy teenage girl things. And yes, both of those criticisms were true to a point. But Taylor was also very sincere about her music and seemed confident in her creative direction — something rarely, if ever, seen in any type of modern music. For all intents and purposes, she had a great voice and seemed like a sincere, down-to-earth person. At the very least, her music was relatable, and definitely served the female teenage populace better than (God forbid) Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga. And honestly, the long-standing criticism of her writing “only teenage love ballads” and “always blaming the guy in the breakup” were not necessarily well-grounded. Contrary to popular belief at the time, there was definitely more to Taylor Swift than met the eye, and she had personality, good looks, and a pretty voice to boot.

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And then the wheels came off.

On October 22, 2012, Swift released Red, her fourth studio album, most of which she wrote entirely herself. It marked a change in genres, as it was more pop and less country, but most “Swifties” were fairly happy with it.

I was more uneasy. Songs like “22,” “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” just felt stale and boring to me. I felt like Taylor was going through an identity crisis, and that it was becoming increasingly harder to market herself as someone who could effortlessly straddle the country/pop line. The album was too experimental and just felt more artificial. So I began to distance myself from Taylor’s music, as I was a sophomore in college at the time and my tastes were evolving anyways.

But I couldn’t have anticipated what happened next.

Almost two years to the day that Red came out, Swift released 1989. I had already been bracing myself for its release, because it was being trumpeted as her biggest album yet, and I had already endured two straight months of exposure to the cringeworthy lead single “Shake It Off,” which was all style and no substance: a catchy beat with awful lyrics and a career-worst music video for Swift. But, not surprisingly, the public ate it up like hot cakes and, as mentioned previously, gave Swift unprecedented success in mainstream pop music, and she followed up “Shake It Off” with “Blank Space,” another weird song. It actually had decent enough lyrics, but that was betrayed by a boring, unimaginative beat and composition. And then the next single, “Bad Blood,” was completely unrecognizable, despite a solid contribution from guest rapper Kendrick Lamar and a stylish music video. And you guessed it: all three singles went to number one on the charts and stayed there.

Almost all artists go through sell-out phases. I mean, even Bob Dylan tried the whole crossover genre thing in the mid-60s (from acoustic folk to electric rock), and there was serious controversy and uproar. Dylan was always hard to pin down, and he had to go through phases like that (just like any other artist does) in order to evolve and not become predictable.

But who am I kidding? TAYLOR SWIFT IS NOT BOB DYLAN. And we shouldn’t expect Dylan’s experimental artistry and weird creative genius to be universal standards for music in a decade that has been, so far, legitimately and historically awful.

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And the real question remains: Was Taylor Swift ever really that country? I know I shouldn’t be talking about this, nor am I qualified to talk about this. I grew up as a southern Virginia kid who hated country, remember?

But at the same time, it’s getting pretty darn easy to point out phonies in all genres of music these days, and country music has a fairly predictable formula: raised in a small town, longing for a simpler life with giant lifted trucks, cowboy hats, unrecognizable southern accents, and gallons of Jack Daniels. And that’s not necessarily bad, just as in the same way that rap and hip-hop culture identifies with African-American ghettos and slums in large urban areas, and the related hardships of growing up in such areas.

But my point remains: it’s easy to point out who isn’t authentic, even if you don’t like a particular genre. Just as a Pennsylvania girl doesn’t really belong in country, a white kid from rural Utah doesn’t really belong in hip-hop.

And that sucks, because Taylor Swift started out as such a rare find — someone who it was ok to like and who genuinely seemed to be heartfelt and a good role model. Those times are gone, and America had better get used to bland pop starlet Taylor Swift rather than cheesy-but-fun every-girl Taylor Swift.