ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): VINCE STAPLES – “BIG FISH THEORY” | 24th June, MMXVII

It’s almost the end of June and therefore it’s time for another hip hop album review to be happening on these glorious ARM frequencies. (No don’t worry you shouldn’t have picked up the causal correlation between time and rap criticism in the previous sentence, simply because there is none). Some (who?) may say that this is a rather big deal, given that such an occurrence hasn’t happened too often in the meanderings of this site. In fact, if we’re really in the mood for a trip down memory lane, one could actually count on one hand the instalments scrutinising, discussing, and dissecting a hip hop release: first it was Kanye back in February last year, merely because noblesse oblige, then shortly after it was the irresistible and sexy Anderson .Paak, followed by a little bit of Chance The Rapper for a Summer music preview, finishing last with the mighty Bad Rabbits and their role as raconteurs of an American nightmare.

So, it was in this sort of stream of consciousness that 23-year old, Odd Future-associate Vince Staples’ recent album release came as a perfectly timed blessing. The sophomore LP by Long Beach, CA-based rapper goes by the title of Big Fish Theory and dropped on 23rd June under prominent and influential label Def Jam. The 12-track/36-minute long effort follows the widely critically acclaimed debut album Summertime ’06 (2015) as well as significant anticipation from leading news outlets and the whole scene more in general. I myself had been eyeing the MC for quite some time, although not necessarily out of a musical fandom calling – even though his most successful single off Summertime ’06 “Norf Norf” being an absolute gem – but rather because the dude, a very sharp-straight-edge-off-the-tabloids-vocal man in his early 20s who loves Sprite, seemed like a very interesting person to me. Therefore, when on 18th May lead single “Big Fish” truly grabbed my active attention (although Vince actually released an earlier first single called “BagBak” as back in time as 3rd February, though with no hint of a full album backing the track at the time), I made damn sure I wouldn’t miss the whole LP once out.

I actually wasn’t incredibly fond of the first track I fully devoted my ears to, i.e. “Big Fish”. Whilst I completely understand the song being picked as lead single as well as thematic frame for the whole concept of the album thanks to its forward-leaning catchiness and immediacy, the overall delivery results a bit too repetitive and empty, as if its main driving electronic sound and repetitive lyrics were the lowest common denominator Vince could find to fill that vacuum. A similar feeling is the one I get with reference to “BagBak”, at least as far as the instrumental track goes, nothing much than an simple, experimental base ending up being too hypnotic and unvaried to really assume he gave it a proper thought. Yet the song gains value when the lyrical delivery gets considered too, with aggressive, bold, and political elements all successfully intertwined (“Clap your hands if the police ever profiledYou ain’t gotta worry, don’t be scary ’cause we on nowAin’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole townTell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now“).

One aspect that’s very interesting about Big Fish Theory, and one that my esteemed Twitter followers have already had the viewing pleasure to obtain, is that this is an album on which the opening track might actually be the best song overall. I find that too often artists tend to “sacrifice” the album opener either with a preface/prelude/intro which normally is too ambient-y anyway and doesn’t really add much to the overall musical frame, or with an annoying and unnecessary skit/oddity (this especially with hip hop/rap albums), really only contributing to boosting the track amount and nothing to the songwriting package. I’m actually a huge fan of openers and if I ever were to release my own music I swear I’d put my best song(s) right at the start of the tracklist, mainly to show myself the listeners what for. To me, this is what Vince Staples has done by placing the brilliant “Crabs in a Bucket” at number one on Big Fish Theory’s tracklist. The song, wonderfully co-produced and heavily influenced by Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, is a dark and distorted backtrack with loads of experimental sounds and a pumping, near-to-perfect vocal delivery by Staples, refined and wrapped up by a thin, sensual, and necessary closure by Kilo Kish. The kind of song that immediately reminds me of some of my favourite rap tunes of all time.

Other album highlights include the sweaty and visceral “745”, which in many ways is that what style-related “Big Fish” and “BagBak” should’ve been, as well as the electric and vibey “Party People”, a song that despite its fun title deals in fact with deep self-search and overcoming of struggles (“Move your body if you came here to party / If not then pardon me / How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction’s all I see?”). The latter tune is also probably the only one that could’ve competed with “Big Fish”‘s radio-friendly character as main single, and in retrospect perhaps an even better choice for it. Last one to save is LP-closer and Ty Dolla $ign-collab “Rain Come Down“, a groovy G-funk cut with explicit leaning to auto-tuned, trappy sounds and the longest track on the whole record with almost 5 minutes of running time.

Unfortunately, the LP carries a number of less fortunate compositions, led by the purposeless skit “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” – I mean, come on, for once that an hip hop album is actually limited in its track listing one might as well just focus on the best songs, not least considering the fact that a skit’s main purpose is to let a 19-track album breathe… – and the not-so-dissimilar “Alyssa Interlude”, i.e. an isolated Amy Winehouse voice recording laid hand-in-hand with a sample of “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations. I’m still looking for the whole point of those ones. In fact, I realized I’m not a fan of voicemail-turned-music trend songs at all, as none of the ones recently included in albums e.g. by Kanye West (“Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” on The Life Of Pablo), Frank Ocean (Blonde’s “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story [Ft. Sebastian]”), or even Kendrick Lamar (outro on “FEAR.” in his recent effort DAMN.) really made any sense to me. The list of insipid tracks on Big Fish Theory continues with the one-two “Homage” and “Samo” at number eight and nine on the tracklist, where I simply find myself being completely indifferent towards them, mainly because the mood and genre adopted by Vince on those two songs is something that I find being not easily digestible.

Lastly, there’s one song which I’m still not convinced I truly dislike, or in other words, one that might as well end up among the ones I enjoy listening the most. That track is the mighty Kendrick Lamar and Laura Jane Lowther collab “Yeah Right”, and such a feeling stems principally from the realisation that the composition is a nothing else than a combination of parts that for me are hard to get (Vince’s industrial-rapping intro plus outro) and very positive and inspiring moments, such as the Lowther-sung refrain and Lamar’s powerful and delicious verse. If one thinks about it, this could actually sum up most of Vince Staples’ enigmatic and fascinating public character, both as an individual and in his musical persona, further amplified by the obscurity of the album’s title meaning and some of the rapper’s promotional statements, like for instance the genius move about labelling his record’s overall sound as “afro-futurism”, only to then to admit of not knowing what it really means but still enjoying “saying stuff about black people to white people”. How can one not be attracted to someone like this? My kind of artist for sure.

AV

VINCE STAPLES

“BIG FISH THEORY”

2017, Def Jam Recordings

http://vincestaples.com

VS_Big Fish Theory

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NOTES FROM BARCELONA: CAPÍTULO UNO – SPRING INDUCTION | 14th June, MMXVII

This is a start of something that will hopefully last for a long time, namely a multi-instalment column called Notes from Barcelona in partnership with mighty Punktastic, which for those of you unfamiliar with it is an alternative rock / punk / hardcore / metal website, with news, reviews and the best in international new music. The feature will try to bring you the best (and the worst) from the local live music scene in the Catalan capital, which since a couple months also doubles as the place I now call home, thanks to a new employment I recently began down here. I’ll try and come out with one new blogpost every month touching upon a variety of topics, which I will lazily re-post on here 48 hours after the original publication over on Punktastic, sometimes with additional commentary or context here and there, other times through shameless copy-and-paste procedures deriving from the original source. Below is the first instalment, which had me attending glorious music festival Primavera Sound and reporting some of the best moments I experienced, all through a trademark Catalan reading lens.

Still, I’d urge you all to check out the source feature article directly on Punktastic too, as it’s wonderfully wrapped in shiny and fancy designs as well as relevant music discovery embeds that massively elevate the final product. More generally, go show them some love and explore all the incredible articles and reviews they publish, as it’s by far a much better site than this one and you won’t be disappointed.

———- NFB

Welcome to the first chapter of Notes from Barcelona, hosted by the Catalan capital’s newest expat: Alex Volonté. I’m honoured to be bringing you the most interesting and compelling aspects of the local alternative/punk music scene.

Since recently relocating here from London, I’ve been getting to know the musical pulse of the city and its region. Barcelona is in fact a rich and lively artistic hub. It has become increasingly attractive and forgiving to start ups and new creative businesses, especially in its modern, post-1992 Summer Olympics Diagonal Mar/22@ neighbourhood east of the city center. Furthermore, the city is home to major music festivals such as Sónar, Cruïlla, International Jazz Festival as well as global music trade conferences. It also lies just a short trip away from Cannes’ MIDEM, one of the world’s leading music industry events.

I couldn’t wait to explore Barcelona’s musical heritage first hand and find out for myself. That began with the most important live music festival in Spain, and one of the fastest-growing internationallyPrimavera Sound.

The event, generally considered a strong incubator for the indie scene, and leading widespread efforts in pushing artistic boundaries with cutting-edge content programming, such as last-minute, real-time show announcements, took place this year from 31 May to 4 June.

Spreading out to a multitude of locations across the city, the festival was accompanied by its international trade conference arm, Primavera Pro, as has now become custom for the past seven editions. The main event was set in the astonishing sea-adjacent Parc del Fòrum, surrounded by a variety of aesthetically pleasing ornaments such as massive solar panels, elegant rafts, and beach strips, wonderfully wrapped up by a long perimeter of Mediterranean waters.

This year’s bill was headlined by Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The XX, and Aphex Twin, and from an alternative standpoint presented a very tasty line up of world-class punk-rock and metal bands including Slayer, Descendents, The Damned, Gojira, Converge, Death Grips, and Against Me!. I immediately knew Primavera was off to a good start when the first live rendition I heard was the visceral ‘Warning’ – third single from their 2014 album ‘LOSE’ – by festival openers Cymbals Eat Guitars, which made for a pretty beautiful induction into the whole experience. Speaking of which, I suggest you all take some time to revisit that whole LP as it’s one of 2014’s best ones and quite simply a sprawling and kaleidoscopic listen.

Yet, what attracted me even more was the rich Primavera offering of live shows by regional acts, most of which unsigned or simply championed by little or precarious local indie record labels. In retrospect, I’m so glad I did, as boy did I discover a variety of quality local outfits over the course of the festival.

In fact, a significant chunk of Primavera’s musical programming is intentionally devoted to delivering a spotlight on local Catalan musicians, an initiative brought forward by Catalan Arts, the Catalan Government’s Ministry of Culture umbrella term used to campaign in favour of local music. The Catalan Arts brand, besides working towards amplifying artistic outputs from the region of Catalonia internationally, with its overseas offices in Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris, promotes and supports a big number of musicians throughout different markets on a regular basis. I thus made sure to pinpoint all those artists spanning genres from pop-punk to metalcore beforehand, trying my best not to miss them performing live within such an important platform for Barcelona’s prolific alternative movement as Primavera.

The festival’s scattered locations, as well as the unavoidable but still annoying line-up clashes, made it hard to catch everyone, however I came away from the festival with a juicy selection of a handful new music discoveries.

First on the list is the post-hardcore four-piece It’s Not Not, who delivered one of the most convincing live shows of the whole event with a direct, fun, and scintillating repertoire. Their live delivery blazed fierce emo influences and heavier moments, yet all minimalistically glued together by unpretentious and thin string sounds just sticking to bare bone basics. Their irresistibly catchy track ‘We’re Gonna Get Out’, for instance, from their latest effort ‘Fool the Wise’ (2016), could easily compete for major international hit status, although the highlights in their rollercoaster of a repertoire aren’t limited to that song alone.

Another one to bookmark, worthy of a proper listen, is About Leaving, a power alternative-emo quintet born and bred in the Catalan capital. Their live experience wasn’t helped by the fact that they got to play in a rather surreal setting of close to complete darkness whilst outside temperatures were on their way to hitting 30°C, all squeezed into a remote ballroom during the Primavera Pro conference. An early Jimmy Eat World meets Texas is the Reason, their set marched through long atmospheric bubbles and reigned by giant, skilled guitars (three in total in the band’s line up) and heavy-hitting drums. About Leaving’s debut album ‘An Echo’ came out last year, whilst elsewhere in their discography one also finds a rather pleasant Death Cab for Cutie tribute release track with a cover of ‘Passenger Seat’.

Yet there’s many more outfits worthy of closer attention, such as the fiery and vibrant Montseny-based Les Cruets, who released their debut LP ‘Pomes Agres’ through the  eclectic, multi-genre Barcelona label Bankrobber. They offer an explosive punk assembly crafted with Catalan flair from start to finish, so make sure to check out album opener ‘Creure’ as well as the wild and relentless combo ‘Instantània’ and ‘Anem Perdent’ for a biting taste of what they’re made of.

Then there’s a personal favourite in Rebuig, a sludge metal quartet from the Barcelona underground scene, currently achieving noise and recognition on a national level with their filthy and experimental sound, instigating sonic fireworks somewhere in-between Slayer and Black Sabbath. Their latest EP ‘Mort i Futur’ came out in spring last year, and despite the predictably limited tracklisting it actually averages at a surprising album-like length, with the two opening songs ‘Penjat i Empalmat’ and ‘After al Pati de Llums’ both nearing the 10-minute mark. An instant grower for sure.

Finally, my last recommendation is Les Sueques, a girl-powered, colourful and rather lo-fi post-punk group who have been very active in the past half-decade and have just released their newest record ‘Moviment’ this past February under local label El Genio Equivocado.

One of the leading exponents of national garage indie, the electric and artsy four piece is also one of Barcelona’s biggest prides. Their latest, fully Catalan-sung LP seems to reaffirm their subtle flirt with big poppy vibes and it sounds just like it could’ve come out of the same writing sessions as Paramore’s latest ‘After Laughter’, for one. Don’t forget to give their oldest material a try too (2013’s ‘Cremeu les perles’ and ‘Educació física’ from 2015), as there’s no shortage of crunchy, blistering, and potent songs on those collections.

My personal baptism in the local music scene in Barcelona far from a disappointing one, with a rollercoaster of genres and emotions experienced during my first attendance at Primavera Sound. The schedule consisted of extremely long days, starting mid mornings at Primavera Pro and its live showcase programming lasting all the way through the night with last sets finishing shortly before the next day’s sunrise.

Whilst I couldn’t resist some of the bigger shows by more renowned acts – Cymbals Eat Guitars, Death Grips, and Descendents all in flawless form as far as I’m concerned –  I quickly realized that Barcelona and its socio-cultural imprint is so much richer than just the Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí, and FC Barcelona.

Fins la pròxima vegada!

———- NFB

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

PrimaveraNet

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): PARAMORE – “AFTER LAUGHTER” | 19th May, MMXVII

Just about a week before Paramore’s fifth studio album After Laughter came out on Friday 12th May, another incredibly highly anticipated record – for about 17 years, to be precise – found its way to the world: in•ter a•li•a by El Paso, TX-based emo/post-hardcore legends At the Drive In. For multiple times during practically the past two weeks I’ve been so close to fall to temptation of turning that release into my next branded ARM instalment, yet for once I decided I would rather challenge myself whilst at the same time keep any potential sources of fandom and obsession intervention at an historical minimum. That’s why I eventually rather opted for the Hayley Williams-fronted pop-punk trio’s last and freshly released LP, which to be fair didn’t come without substantial media talk and hype for itself either. Nonetheless, before we go any further down that route, I’d still highly solicit you all to immerse yourselves in a deep listening experience of At the Drive In’s latest effort, but please do make sure – even if you’re not an  hysterical audiophile – you wear proper headphone equipment or blast those tunes out of decent speakers. No, I don’t mean your regular MacBook internally built-in ones. Decent speakers I mean. You’ll thank me later.

One of the most interesting aspects about Paramore’s After Laughter, released under Warner-owned label Fueled by Ramen and co-produced by guitarist Taylor York and longtime collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen, is perhaps that it came to be after a lengthy period during which the band actually threatened fans (and themselves) to break up for good. However, such crisis momentum was then luckily resolved by a non-negligible line-up change – bassist Jeremy Davis out, drummer and founding member Zac Farro in – and a substantial twist in sound and overall vibe, as mightily and unapologetically displayed by the Memphis Group-influenced album artwork (cfr. below).

Moreover, After Laughter follows the vastly successful and Grammy-winning self-titled album released back in 2013, which came along with huge hit singles “Still Into You” and “Ain’t It Fun“, and obviously set a very high precedent bar in the band’s artistic past. Yet, when on 19th April After Laughter’s new lead single “Hard Times” was released, it soon became clear how there was no need whatsoever to keep holding on to past trophies as there was meaty new substance to speak and get excited about again. The track widely showcases Paramore’s heavy leaning to new musical directions, specifically embracing a spongy-disco 80s sound with imposing synths and new-wavy atmospheres. This feeling got further reinforced by the album’s second single, titled “Told You So“, released just two weeks later and presenting more rhythmic and melodic references to past musical decades but also drawing discrete elements off their self-titled mood here and there.

A fascinating attribute that both songs possess, and which immediately reminded me of some of my favourite tracks such as Taking Back Sunday‘s “Stood A Chance” or The Cure’s “The Last Day of Summer“, is what sometimes call happy sad, that is, those musical arrangements where the instrumental composition and the lyrics find themselves in fundamental juxtaposition to each other, usually with the former denoting harmonious, positive, and upbeat feelings only to be dismantled by the devastation and desperation of the words sung on top of them. To me, doubtlessly one of the most beautiful and powerful aspects of music.

Generally, in fact, the whole 12-track album actually tackles rather dark and sombre themes, especially on a lyrical level, whereby cuts such as “Forgiveness” (“You hurt me bad this time, no coming back / And I cried ’till I couldn’t cry, another heart attack”), “26” (“Reality will break your heart / Survival will not be the hardest part / It’s keeping all your hopes alive / When all the rest of you has died / So let it break your heart”), and incredibly beautiful closer “Tell Me How” (You keep me up with your silence / Take me down with your quiet / Of all the weapons you fight with / Your silence is the most violent) make an effort of pairing the obscurity of their lyrical content with their overall sound. On a number of other tracks, on the other hand, such as potential fan-favourite “Rose-Colored Boy”, the vibrant and electric “Pool” as well as personal favourite and arguably best moment of the whole record “Grudges”, the music and the melodic instrumentation result way more upbeat and colourful, in spite of their lyrical content. This trademark songwriting formula seems to be working quite well for Paramore along the entirety of After Laughter, at least judging by the strict cohesiveness of each listen and the smooth song transitions to be found on the tracklist.

There are however some weak moments too, fronted by the messy and at times irritating “Caught in the Middle” and especially the eleventh song on the record, “No Friend”, basically a useless repeating guitared arpeggio loop led by an edgy drum beat and almost inaudible voice recordings, which actually turned out to be of mewithoutYou‘s Aaron Weiss, a friend of the band. It’s seriously hard to understand what kind of statement Paramore were trying to make by including this track into the final packaging, given its lack of structure or rather purpose, if not discouraging the listeners to quit their auditive experience right before the highest and finest moment on the whole LP, the aforementioned piano ballad “Tell Me How”. “No Friend” does indeed represent a shameful inclusion looking back at the whole release, not least because if follows what is potentially one of the catchiest songs on After Laughter and yet another testament to the band’s more or less hidden tributes to 80s synth-wave productions, “Idle Worship”. A hurdle-less transition between the latter and curtain caller “Tell Me How” would definitely have landed the record to higher appreciations, as far as yours truly is concerned. Yet, there’s no need to create scapegoats at all, as After Laughter can stand very firmly and convincingly still on its own, where the good and exciting bits go cast a shadow onto the weaker ones presenting a more than decent overall output. In this very case though, Paramore seem to perhaps have taken the act of casting shadows a bit too literally.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

PARAMORE

“AFTER LAUGHTER”

2017, Atlantic Recording Corporation

http://www.paramore.net

Paramore_AL

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): COLD WAR KIDS – “LA DIVINE” | 1st May, MMXVII

Hello there y’all. I’ve probably never been more distracted when drafting an ARM blogpost before and this really does come as a warning. I’m in the middle of moving house and country of residence, lord Ryan Adams just dropped a thunderous and tenacious collection of 19 (!) B-sides to his recent, critically acclaimed, and ARM-grilled album Prisoner and, last but definitely not least, Californian soul-punk outfit letlive. split indefinitely two days ago to my overwhelmingly unpleasant surprise. Yet, I really want to gift my musical impressions to the world as well in regards to San Pedro, CA-based indie legends Cold War Kids’ highly anticipated sixth studio album LA Divine, which came out early last month on Friday 7th April.

However, before I dig into the main bit of this piece, I feel I owe letlive. a short, impromptu obituary that will hopefully help demonstrate my love and affection for the band and, most of anything, the impact they’ve had on me. As I spotted their official goodbye statement a couple days ago on my social media feed it was one of those moments where the first thing you do is rub your eyes and re-read the whole thing, just to double- or even triple check that you really saw what you saw. I guess I’ve been quite lucky and fortunate in my musical fandom life so far as I almost never had to go through such a frightening realisation for the bands I love most and I will never betray or forget. Whilst it’s true that Nirvana and The Police, arguably my top favourite musical representations of all time, were actually already defunct and no more by the time I even started getting into them, other major artistic and incredible living influences on me such as Taking Back Sunday, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam or even Blink-182 are all still rocking stronger than ever. Yet letlive., who became an immense part of my life and world-perception around 7 years ago and have gone on deeply affecting me ever since, really feel like the first true, real-time musical abandonment in my life.

Letlive.’s music, energy, devotion, and lyrics all felt to me more urgent and necessary than almost anything else out there, whilst their profound carefulness for longstanding racial and social issues served as endless inspiration to say the least. Moreover, experiencing the Los Angeles-based post-hardcore band live in concert was a whole universe and life-changing occasion of its own, as I humbly tried to account for in this note. Losing them as a musical outfit is an irreplaceable loss not only for my very own artistic spectrum but for the wider alternative and counter-reacting scene as well, as possibly now more than ever the world and music would have needed their protesting rage, insurgent rebellious nature, and willingness to fight back against the establishment. With this I’d just want to thank them for having existed and wish all of the members’ very well in this hard but apparently necessary decision.

II. 2002 – 20XX. F O R E V E R Soul Punx. II._Forever

Back to our regularly scheduled programme, namely Cold War Kids’ latest 14-track effort LA Divine. I kind of have this theory where I think no good and superior art critic should ever review the same artist twice, as I feel doing so would detach them too much from that necessary fresh outlook that tends to kick in when someone is reviewing something for the first time, ultimately swallowing the critic into a subjective, self-reflecting and precedent-leaning rabbit hole that at the end of the day doesn’t benefit anyone. Thus, since I’m not a good and superior art critic myself, I feel ready to blindly omit the fact that almost exactly two years ago I already wrote – rather negatively – about Cold War Kids’ previous record Hold My Home.

The pre-release promotion for LA Divine was a rather ambitious one, with as much as four singles with correspondent music videos released in anticipation of the 44-minute long full-length effort. Incidentally, the San Pedro-native five piece decided to gradually release all first four songs on the tracklist in chronological order, paving the way with sparky and energetic lead single “Love is Mystical” on 2nd February, followed shortly after by the introspective and slower “Can We Hang On?” on 2nd March, and wrapping up with the Bishop Briggs soulful collab “So Tied Up” as well as 5-minute epic “Restless” in short succession just weeks before the full album release. Looking back, this really does feel like an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive choice, as the four tracks aren’t too dissimilar from each other at all – that is, piano-heavy, chorus-driven bangers that all lean more than one hand in both sounds and vibe towards Cold War Kids’ previous LP Hold My Home – whilst the rest of LA Divine has so much more to offer indeed. Truly noteworthy out of the singles-bucket are the opening track, with its potent intentions in both beat and lyrics, as well as “Restless”, a rather beautiful tribute to Los Angeles and its ability to shape love relationships (“I don’t get jealous, I get free / Everything good comes back to me / It seems like wherever you are / Is just a better place to be“) all embedded in carrying melodies with a groovy piano and catchy verses doing most of the job.

As previously hinted at, this album has way more to offer and enjoy though than its singles (unsurprisingly, given that with its 14 tracks LA Divine marks Cold War Kids’ longest release to date). As our good ol vinyls teach us, this record too is shaped in such a way to be divided into four main bits/themes, sequentially separated by something close to an interlude, or skit, or even filler, depending on what one prefers to call them (“LA River”, “Wilshire Protest”, and “Cameras Always On”). For instance, the first psych/lo-fi interlude “LA River” is followed by what is arguably the album’s most exciting part, with great cuts such as the live-like uplifting “No Reason to Run” as well as the gangstery “Open Up the Heavens”, which presents some of the best vocal harmonies on the whole album and comes with irresistible badass-guitars.

“Luck Down” and “Ordinary Idols” make up the main third bit of LA Divine, with the former being a solid enjoyable indie tune and the most aggressive and sped up cut of the LP, whilst the latter arguably representing one of the dullest and most boring moments, only to be partially saved by quite sublime lyrics (“Why would you idolize me? / There’s nothing I got that you don’t / You keep on fantasizing / I’ll always be the underdog“). It follows the social media/instagram-hysteria critique skit “Cameras Always On”, which then throws the listener to the final part of the record and boy, that is one hell of a closure. Both the gentle and beautiful “Part of the Night” as well as the spacey and ambient-driven “Free to Breathe” make for an excellent wrap up with a rising and extremely inspiring note. This is true especially for closing track “Feel to Breathe”, which sees Cold War Kids at their songwriting best whilst at the same time surprising the listener with unexpected guitar arpeggios and wonderfully sung by frontman Nathan Willett.

Overall, LA Divine might as well be Cold War Kids’ most inspired and coherent album in a decade, with the band’s signature groovy and R&B piano once more dominating all major tracks and undoubtedly entailing some of the band’s best songs ever written (see “Restless”, “Part of the Night”, “Free to Breathe”). Yet, the album does come with highly skippable moments as well (see “Can We Hang On?”, “Ordinary Idols”), while here and there one can’t help but feel like some of the material on this records just sounds a bit too second-hand and recycled from previous work, above all 2013’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and 2015’s Hold My Home  (doesn’t “Love is Mystical” sound just like it could’ve come out of the same writing session as Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’ and Hold My Home’s lead singles “Miracle Mile” and “All This Could Be Yours”?). In other words, LA Divine could certainly have benefitted from more guitars and edgy sounds and less predictable piano-formula. It’s a shame, but nothing to despair. Cold War Kids might have been ok with rendering their home town of Los Angeles divine this time round, hopes for a switch to their songwriting abilities are high for what’s next to come.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

COLD WAR KIDS

“LA DIVINE”

2017, Capitol Records

http://www.coldwarkids.com

CWK_LADivine

MUSIC IS FOR EVERYONE (AND SO IS FREEDOM) | 3rd April, MMXVII

I know it’s been a fairly high amount of ARM instalments on these premises lately, hence why I won’t be framing this very one as yet another one of those and, even though it most certainly deals with and celebrates the power of music, just putting out a friendly warning that Everything Must Swing might never have gotten this political before. Getting straight to the point and without unnecessary clicks-generating namedrops, in the past couple years the Western socio-political world has come to exist in a seemingly never ending state of widespread dysfunctional crisis and democratic disenfranchisement, mostly through forms of radical political movements gaining decisional power and by consequence hurting both economics and well beings of societies at large. Whilst I’m aware that, luckily, there have been many shapes and forms of protests over time (and one of them many has made its way into this site before) – principally because protest and countermovements can be of different nature intrinsically and by design – there’s one particular initiative leveraging the power of arts and music more specifically that I’d like to bring to every reader’s attention.

The initiative I’m referring to is a music compilation album put together and curated by Taking Back Sunday‘s lead guitarist John Nolan, brilliantly called Music for Everyone and out just a couple days ago on 30th March via Collective Confusion Records and Californian Hopeless Records’ charity arm label Sub City Records. All proceeds from digital sales of the compilation will help support non-profit organisation American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a movement that for over 100 years has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties of people. Music for Everyone is a mighty 27-song compilation that features rare or unreleased music by an incredibly rich and talented bunch of artists ranging from punk legends Anti-Flag to rapper Gift of Gab, from emo-icon and former My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero to modern generation singer-songwriters such as Dave Hause and Kevin Devine. Not missing from the collection album’s tracklist is of course John Nolan’s very own Taking Back Sunday, who contributed with an exclusive new acoustic cut entitled “Just A Man”. This is John Nolan himself speaking about some of the reasons that brought him to put together such a massive collaborative effort:

“I also wanted to give artists an opportunity to express something about what’s gone on in this country over the past year and what’s coming in the next ones. I needed that for myself and wanted to connect with other people who needed it. And I wanted to take that need for self-expression and channel it into something bigger than all of us.”

The compilation and its stamp are quite clearly directed at angrily pushing back and expressing widespread discontent towards the recent election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the USA, as the main curator goes on explaining:

“In the next four years, there is a lot of potential to see policies that will discriminate against people of color, Muslims, women and the LGBT community. The ACLU has a long history of fighting discriminatory and unconstitutional policies and I wanted to do something to unite people in support of that fight.”

While there is little to add to such a noble and honourable intent, I do believe that the  inspiring and positive initiative brought forward by Music for Everyone could and should be applied in many other contexts regardless of background and geographic specifics, as in the end it’s all about those values of incisiveness, togetherness, tolerance and freedom that are currently being put under threat in so many geopolitical circumstances. If anyone feels that said values should indeed be protected and reinforced across the board whilst realising that so much of the free world is currently underway to limiting individual rights, then the least one could do would be to show some support by contributing to the cause by purchasing the album on its dedicated Bandcamp page. It’s a Name-Your-Own-Price (NYOP) model whereby each of us – very much in the spirit of the whole campaign – can freely decide how much to donate towards the project and the benevolent actions of the ACLU, starting with a price of $10.

As of now the compilation album is only available digitally in all its formats (download, streaming, etc…), and according to a recent Facebook Q&A session with John Nolan physical and vinyl releases might be planned for the future, depending on early successes of the initiative. Music-wise, as one can imagine with a tracklist of 27 songs, the album is extremely varied and rich in genres and sounds, carrying the listener through sonic journeys of punk rock draft tunes (Anti-Flag’s demo opener “Buried the Shame”), beautiful and heartbreaking songwriting intimacy (a live performance of “Honest Man” by wonderful Travis Hayes), upbeat dystopian scenarios (“I’m Paranoid” by Brett Newski), dirty and muddy existential anger (Frank Iero’s “Getting Into Heaven Can be Hell”) and, of course, more or less veiled punches in President Trump’s face, with the aforementioned Taking Back Sunday tune “Just A Man”, the vulnerable and addictive “sinn” by Cameron Boucher and anthemic hope closer “The Day After Tomorrow” as only some of the many highlights across these 90 minutes of protest music.

In a present world increasingly afflicted by humanitarian and identity crises across the board, there was never a more important time to state that we all were born in this together and that our energies are doubtlessly better spent elsewhere than in close-minded populist narratives and actions. Very much like our human race, music has always been there from the beginnings, crafting in itself a universally coded language driving progress and connection among nations, borders and ethnic groups. The Music for Everyone initiative is just a catalysing spark that is very much up for grab and re-invention, re-interpretation, and re-appropriation in other political and societal scenarios, acting so much as inspiration as it does as concrete localised initiative benefiting the immediate concrete actions of the ACLU. Let’s embrace this, let’s pick our own organisations to endorse and let’s try to push back at the injustices of present times, reminding everyone possible that just like music, freedom is for everyone.

Before we wrap up, make damn sure you read more on the various ACLU’s commitments to stand up for human rights in the wake of the recent US presidential election:  www.aclu.org/news/aclu-statement-donald-trumps-election

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

MusicForEveryone_CCR

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): RYAN ADAMS – “PRISONER” | 1st March, MMXVII

If you follow this blog with a certain regularity – and I assume it’s almost none of you reading right now – you might have noticed that 42-year old North Carolina-native Ryan Adams is somewhat of a big deal for who’s writing this. The singer-songwriter’s self-titled album, released in late 2014 to moderate success, has had an overwhelming impact on me that only few others have over my whole life and, surely in some ways because of that, I have come to thoroughly enjoy everything he has put out ever since (not mentioning revisiting his impressively huge and prolific past catalogue). Plus, carved in the history of this blog there is also a commentary slash review of Adams’s stunning live performance at London’s Hammersmith Apollo back two years ago, as well as a rather loose take on his largely talked about 1989 cover album revisiting in his own signature style one-by-one all the songs contained in Taylor Swift’s best-selling release from 2015. Furthermore, in an attempt at celebrating and highlighting Adams’s multi-artistic talent, another blogpost entry was dedicated to one of his free verse poems off of his debut collection titled Infinity Blues and published through Akashic Books in 2009. To sum it up in other words, as you can easily judge by yourself Ryan Adams is a pretty badass talented artist.

It is with this spirit in mind and with great enthusiasm that yours celebrated the release of Prisoner, Ryan Adams’s 16th (!) studio album of his career, which came out officially a little less than two weeks ago on Friday 17th February. Prisoner is Adams’s latest release under his own LA-based label PaxAmericana Recordings and it spans 12 tracks across 43 minutes. The record was previewed by a series of singles (“Do You Still Love Me?”, “To Be Without You” and “Doomsday”) and multiple promotional trips/talk show appearances which often saw the Grammy-nominated musician performing exclusive acoustic cuts off of the record. Furthermore, as part of the album cycle, the not-so-secret metalhead and cat lover started off his own radio show called The Midnight Wave on Apple’s Beats 1 and came up with glorious deluxe packages for every fan’s delight. Obviously, Prisoner’s release is also to be accompanied by a massive worldwide live tour that will keep him busy for the remainder of 2017. This is to say, is really does look like to Adams this record means something special, something that possibly wasn’t there in with previous ones or that perhaps he himself wasn’t able to experience and embody as much, as confirmed in a recent Facebook Live Q&A.

Enough for background and scene setting, let’s jump into the actual craftsmanship of this new album without any further ado. As briefly mentioned above, the first taste of Prisoner came through its lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”, made available late last year (7th December) and very much in line with Adams’ self-titled album from 2014, both sonically and thematically with respect to the overall record. The track is one of the “rockiest” ones with huge, arena-like guitars sitting on a bed of mellow and all-encompassing keyboards. Think of Tom Petty having a go at AC/DC in an ’86 London recording studio. Lyrically, the track finds Ryan questioning (his) love longing for answers but only to find more question marks along the way (“I been thinking about you, baby / Been on my mind / Why can’t I feel your love? / Heart must be blind”). Such a sappiness and inner melancholia is in fact a key reading lens for the overall record, further confirmed by the thin, acoustic second single “To Be Without You”. The track, most than any others on Prisoner, takes the listener back to the early, folky-alt-country songwriting era of Adams with trademark heartbreaking and touches of liberation and carelessness here and there. Definitely an interesting choice for a second single as, looking back, the track is pretty much left on its own in the tracklist, i.e. not being truly representative of the overall sound (yet this might as well have been a very thought-trough choice by weirdo Adams). Wrapping up with singles, the third one revealed through YouTube, “Doomsday”, is by contrast a unique musical pearl culminating from the songwriters’ latest sonic directions including, but not limited to: 80s Bruce Springsteen, The Smiths, Bruce Hornsby and Neil Young. This song at number three on the setlist combines wonderful lyrics (“My love, we can do better than this / My love, how can you complicate a kiss? / My love, you said you’d love me now ’til doomsday comes / ‘Til doomsday comes”) with musical finesse, mixing perfectly harmonica and guitars. In pole position to becoming a Ryan Adams classic for years to come.

Just preceding “Doomsday” on the record’s tracklist is title track “Prisoner”, which unfortunately, even after prolonged and insistent listenings, might funnily enough be one of the dullest and tasteless tracks on the whole effort. Albeit being a doubtless uplifter mood-wise, especially when considered within the context of this overall moody record, the track results a bit too incomplete and frankly too naked to be a final album version, but probably too confused and at the same time elaborated to be considered as a demo or B-side. However, the title track probably remains the only lower moment on Prisoner, which indeed sees a number of incredibly subtle and powerful cuts, such as the perfect modern-day acoustic number “Haunted House” at number four, or the minimalistic, heart-wrenching, and chilling “Shiver and Shake”, both carrying exclusive signature Adams’ sound and harmonies as developed and nurtured over the past five years. These two tracks, still very much in line with an irresistible – and at times cheesy – Springsteenian 80s echoy, chorusy, and reverberate sound, with the aforementioned “To Be Without You”, come to complete side A of the LP. And yet many would say that the best is yet to come.

Track number seven is “Anything I Say to You Now”, a fiery, 5-minute long classic rock cut with numerous walls of guitar sounds that dial in direct digits to The Smiths and some lateish Police vibes, just to name a few of the influences very explicitly worn on Adams’ sleeves. No doubt the rockiest moment on the whole album alongside the lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”. Immediately after that we find the superb guitar work of “Breakdown”, possibly among the most electrifying and proud tracks Adams has released in years, with the addition of an high catchiness alert. Following the energy of “Breakdown” it’s time for yours truly’s favourite bit on the whole record (and potentially of the whole Ryan Adams catalogue, although “Shadows” and “Dear Chicago” remain hard to beat), called “Outbound Train”, which if one were not to look carefully could easily be mistaken for a song off of Bruce Springsteen’s 1986 Tunnel of Love (“Two Faces” anyone?). The track perfectly encapsulates anger, emotion, love and much more in a very uncompromising climax of sounds and lyrics (“The cars don’t move in the middle of the night / Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights / I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl”). Tempo, structure, and rhythm all take each other by the hand and carry the listener in a phantasmagoric four and a half minute journey marking intimacy, honesty, and rawness on Adams’ behalf.

Moving on, the last trio of songs on Prisoner begins with the mellow and rather hopeless “Broken Anyway”, which finds regularly captivating and dreamy electric guitar strums accompanying a rather simple acoustic lead with pleasant vocal melody. Also, this very song, alongside the following one “Tightrope”, bear heavy influences and remnants of Adams’ Taylor Swift interpretation and recording sessions for 1989, as both tracks just simply possess that vibe and overall feel which are impossible to negate. Prisoner calls its curtains with the properly titled “We Disappear”, which showcases what might be the best guitar sound that’s been heard out there in the electrical pantheon in a very long while and turns very quickly, very weird, perfectly matching the personal mission that Adams himself has been advocating for long (read his Twitter bio).

It’s no secret by now, being two weeks into its release, that Prisoner has found enormous success and praise by both critics and charts, demonstrating once more how amazingly the singer-songwriter is still able to not only reinvent and re-craft his musical outputs but also becoming an artist on his own, disregarding for the most part trends, genres, and commercial reasonings. The overwhelmingly positive reception the record has gotten around the world does nothing else other than confirming that we, the people, needed a record like this in present times of disorder, dismay and loss of connections. That is, by figuratively stripping himself completely naked and putting his most inner emotions out there telling stories of his failed marriage and connected despair, Ryan Adams showed us all that there is nothing to fear in being open and transparent about oneself and, most importantly, that honesty and truth will eventually unite us all in appreciation. Because at heart, we really shouldn’t be capable of nothing else.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

RYAN ADAMS

“PRISONER”

2017, PaxAmericana Recording Company

http://paxamrecords.com

prisoner_ra

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): THE MENZINGERS – “AFTER THE PARTY” | 4th February, MMXVII

Yet another saturated and exciting musical phase (after what honestly was a pretty dull and modest first month of the new year) approaching yours truly, with new releases planned and expected soon from the likes of Ryan Fu**ing Adams – kind of a big deal because of thisthis and even this – and indie rock kings Cold War Kids, as well as brand new music already announced for later on down the year by mighty Blink-182, 30 Seconds to Mars and Linkin Park. It is with such an uplifting and reinvigorated spirit in mind that I’m immensely excited to introduce you all to today’s artist, featured in 2017’s first ARM instalment: meet Pennsylvanian punk-rock minstrels The Menzingers.

After the Party is The Menzingers’ fifth studio album and comes after almost four years of restless touring in promotion of the moderately successful Rented World, released in 2014. This new effort is out on influential and devoted punk-rock Hollywood-based indie label Epitaph Records, founded by legendary Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz more than 30 years ago and that over its history has released major productions by seminal, genre-defining bands such as Pennywise, Social Distortion, Descendents, and, obviously, Bad Religion. It is precisely within such a sonic framework that one should broadly position The Menzingers, as more or less explicit influences of the outfits above and a handful more are easily to be found along the band’s catalogue so far. After the Party, which at time of writing came out officially yesterday, 3rd February, overall delivers a solid, 13-track release cutting at just under 45 minutes of unstriated and uncompromising melodic punk-rock which is overwhelmingly driven by loads, loads of guitars. Personally, it’s been quite some time I hadn’t revisited such a genre – which for me in the past had been taken care by folks like Rancid, The Gaslight Anthem and potentially a bit of Against Me! – and if anything it really felt good immersing myself in such waters again. Yet, even after repetitive listens, the album sort of leaves you a bit dry and longing for something more that was missing once closing track, albeit singularly convincing, “Livin’ Ain’t Easy” calls the curtains.

In fact, I guess the biggest problem of this record is its first half, with unfortunately really only presents  the wonderfully composed and melodically rich “House of Fire” at number six for future talks. This is despite side A of the album having included two of the three major singles releases off of After the Party, namely the pretty predictable and over-heard “Thick as Thieves” (number two on the tracklist) and the following, rather dark cut “Lookers”, which despite an interesting and touching intro kind of loses itself one minute into the song and at its best results too self-referential. Furthermore, album-opener “Tellin’ Lies” might even be ok for opening live shows and festival slots but in all frankness is not far from the exact reason why this kind of punk-rock simply got too boring at one point in history. “Midwestern States”, at number four, is certainly a pretty good song on average, though definitely not something to be remembered and quite possibly not one of the songs that will stuck with the listener after the album is over. The following “Charlie’s Army”, instead, is likely to be the worst track on the whole entire record, with not only a slim vocal lead but also heavy, at times disturbing disynchronization between all instruments included. Definitely one that could have been left off the final track listing.

Fortunately, things start to get much better with the album’s middle song “Black Mass”, a sweet semi-acoustic ballad that entails great vocal emotion and superior lyrics (“We used to want to take the back roadsBut now we found a distance shorterYou used to call me darlingNow you prefer more formal“). Moreover, at number nine on the tracklist we find “Bad Catholics“, which was released as lead single late last year, arguably a right decision. The track is among the catchiest and radio-friendliest on After the Party and despite a wonderful and tempting main guitar riff doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends up at 2:52, making it the second-shortest song on the whole album. What follows is “Your Wild Years”, which alongside the aforementioned “Black Mass” contains some of the best words on the record highlighting and romanticising multi-ethnical backgrounds in form of an unusual love declaration, possibly more needed now than ever given present political times in the USA. Yet the very best of After the Party is without doubt found in its last two, closing songs “After the Party” and “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”. The former and title-track almost completely reaches songwriting and execution perfection mixing up raw emotion, fuelled guitars and drops of Taking Back Sunday, Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters here and there, which made me connect to it in a very intense fashion. Also, the intro guitar riff might be among the best in a good while within the recent punk-rock pantheon. Speaking of guitars, album closer “Livin Ain’t Easy” also decides to deliver chills down the listener’s spine via electric six strings, with its leading guitar lick wrapped up in beautiful reverb and chorus effects probably very reminiscent of last year’s Moose Blood’s Blush. Extremely well done and appropriate closing track.

There’s a lot of regret in me after listening to After the Party as a whole, precisely because of the last two tracks’ beauty and effectiveness. What I mean by that is that if it weren’t for the handful of boring and rather dull songs included in the LP (“Tellin’ Lies”, “Charlie’s Army” and “The Bars” leading the group), this album could’ve been really, really good and (already!) landed straight to this year’s list of best releases. Yes, because there are indeed songs that are truly exceptional (“Black Mass”, “Bad Catholics”, “After the Party” and “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”), and this Menzingers’ effort could have become a classic if, for example, released as an EP with its best of. However, in my opinion there are too many flaws to be acknowledged as such and sadly After the Party really can’t be labelled as more than an average, solid record. Yet, my love for certain, selected tunes might as well be catalysed precisely by those other poorer moments on the record, allowing them shine and emerge in contrast to the remaining ones and with regard to an overall perspective. And I guess this is exactly the splendour and magic of music: hard to explain and different for everyone. So please go on and come persuade me that this album is a masterpiece if you truly believe so, I’d be all ears.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

THE MENZINGERS

“AFTER THE PARTY”

2017, Epitaph Records

http://themenzingers.com

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