ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): J. COLE – “KOD” | 2018-04-27

ARM is back as I sort of forced myself to switch gears from relentlessly sucking up all of Kanye’s new tweets and the constructively enlightened discourse his catalysing sparks of debate are generating every time he rapes that blue bird submit button. As you might have realised, the hip-hop editorial leitmotiv is back too, after having caught a little break (and a fever) more recently in favour of punk-rock execution. Whether I like it or not, mine and any above-average music fan’s exposure to the rapping game has in current times become as inevitable and ubiquitous as parsley for Italian cuisine, while the genre and its underlying culture went to be the dominant form of cultural expression in the mainstream. Digressing a little bit on a different artistic form tangent for a moment, yours truly can’t recommend enough HBO’s four-part TV documentary miniseries The Defiant Ones, revolving around the rise (and no fall) of Apple Music boss and industry influencer Jimmy Iovine as well as rapper, record producer and all-round don Dr. Dre. The documentary narrates their relationship through the decades as well as extremely insightful glimpses into how to create, run, and destroy successful music ventures in the modern age. It should be available on Netflix depending on where your praiseworthy soul is based, so go check it out if y’all trust your hostess with the mostest.

Now, this very ARM instalment is some sort of unchartered territory for me as three Michelin star-studded music critic, because for as terribly and unforgivably late to the party I might be, North Carolina-rapper J. Cole‘s newest album KOD is honestly his first one I listened to, out of his now 5-unit strong discography. I’m not really sure why, but something about the woke and modern conscious rapper par excellence never really clicked with me, and out of the eternal epic rivalry between him and King Kendrick that both the trade press and different fanbases initiated years ago, I’ve actually always kinda been more of a K-Dot guy. However, this ephemeral platonic musical marriage between who writes this sentence right now like, for real, and J. Cole was probably bound to happen at some point, as only a few months ago I was to remain quite impressed and affected by a sung feature of his on the track “Zendaya” by Los Angeles-MC Cozz, off the latter’s debut release Effected, out in February earlier this year. Incidentally, Cozz’s album came out on Cole’s own Dreamville Records label, which goes to explain not only the artistic collaboration between the two but quite probably a timely heightened creative rollercoaster for Mr Cole himself.

So without any further ado, let’s delve into J. Cole’s latest (fifth) studio LP KOD, which as the Fayetteville-native explained himself, holds various different meanings and interpretations (Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, Kill Our Demons), which I bluntly choose to convey at discretion of each listener’s preference. The project came out on Friday 20th April on Dreamville and runs over a thin-for-hip-hop 42 minutes, spanning 12 songs with no external feature whatsoever – except for his alter-ego alias moniker kiLL edward on a couple tracks. I thought this was a rather interesting and debatable choice, given his prominence of late shining on other people’s material. Anyway, the album was promoted by the bouncy and malicious “ATM“, accompanying a catchy hook with a fast-paced and muddled verse flow spitting reflective bars philosophising over the vices of money lust (“Proceed with caution / I heard if you chase it only results in / A hole in your heart / Fuck it, I take the whole cake and I won’t leave a portion / It’s only an organ”). Not much later as part of KOD’s release week, J. Cole unveiled another music video for song number seven on the tracklist, “Kevin’s Heart“, starring comedian and actor… Kevin Hart. In fact, very much on brand with its visual casting skills, the track turned out to be rather underwhelming, only partially made bearable by a pleasant intro motif/refrain sandwiching tedious and off-putting trap vibes stretching throughout the too long verses.

So much for a promotional campaign of KOD (to be fair, J. Cole himself only announced the arrival of the record mere days before the 20th April at scattered record listening parties thrown in the USA and UK), although luckily, this realisation doesn’t get in the way at all, as the best moments on this album are all to be found elsewhere. Beginning with the powerful, groovy, and elastic title track at number two (preceded by a slow, dusty, and soporific jazz-infused skippable intro tune), which has the NC-rapper put on his more braggadocious and haughty clothes, slugging and kicking the listener with ferocious lyrics very much in a tell-all mode, as well as one of the most fortunate and successful choruses on the whole record (“This is what you call a flip / Ten keys from a quarter brick / Bentley from his mama’s whip / K.O.D., he hard as shit”). Unfortunately, “KOD” is followed by the complete mess and swerve that is “Photograph”, which despite its laudable and illuminating message (put your phones down, kids), completely fails in both melodies and delivery/production.

But earlier we were trying to head somewhere nice, somewhere pleasant, and this can actually be achieved by going down the “Cut Off” road, a song immediately following the wasteland that “Photograph” provoked, and one of the longer cuts on the project just short of four minutes in length. Perhaps J. Cole’s “Yah”, the track features the MC as kiLL edward in form of a tuned down, low distorted preaching voice cradling a main harmonic melody wrapped by dangerous and introspective bars flowing at what I might dare to say could be J. Cole’s sweet spot in terms of vibe and aesthetic. Similarly, the bulk of lengthier cuts on KOD actually turned out to be the most enjoyable overall, offering convincing song dynamics, lyricism, and general artistry manifesting in various refreshing ways (once it’s through high-pitched intermezzos, another time spitting out jaw-dropping lines about family, friends, and the value of life). Tracks included in this latter elite inner circle are the monumental and instructive “BRACKETS”, the wonderful and painful “FRIENDS”, and the trap-done-right “Window Pain (Outro)” (albeit not actually the outro on the album).

Regrettably, this album does entail 12 records after all, and almost half of them aren’t actually able to leave a mark on me as listener and three Michelin star-studded music critic, even less so when taken into perspective with the more fortunate compositions on here discussed just above. In addition to the previously mentioned wretched pipsqueaks “Intro”, “Photograph”, and “Kevin’s Heart”, the tasteless and corny “Motiv8” as well as – brace yourself for… – the too minimal, too dry “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” go join this group of rejects, perhaps partly reminding myself why I never really vibed with Mr Cole in the first place. So all in all, it was nice to eventually meet you J. Cole, you are a talented and smart rapper sparking long-overdue and much-necessary conversations, but you should know that your final packaging often betrays your praiseworthy quality of intentions. “FRIENDS” and “Window Pain” are outstanding tracks and trust me when I tell you that I shall be spinning them for long. But man, four to five subpar songs out of a total of twelve is simply too many. See you perhaps in another five album’s time again?

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

J. COLE

“KOD”

2018, Dreamville Inc.

http://dreamville.com

180417-J-Cole-KOD-cover-800x800

Advertisements

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): THE FEVER 333 – “MADE AN AMERICA” | 2018-03-30

I caught the fever. The music industry caught the fever. The world caught the fever. Yes because, last Friday 23rd March, Los Angeles-based soul-punk-hip-hop trio The Fever 333 dropped its first official bundled musical effort out of thin air in form of a 7-track EP entitled Made An America. The highly-anticipated and extremely urgent project includes a number of scene-setting and flagship songs already previewed throughout the course of 2017, namely the violent and ambitious “We’re Coming In“, the incendiary and furious “Hunting Season“, and the anthemic and explosive “Walking In My Shoes“. While it was continuously hinted here and there across their social media footprint, Made An America also acts as compelling event marking their heavyweight mentoring from superstar producer and Goldfinger-frontman John ‘Feldy’ Feldmann and true gangsta don Travis Barker, as well as their official signing to Warner Music’s portfolio label Roadrunner Records in association with what presumably is their imprint moniker 333 Wreckords Crew.

Now, since I’ve already written at length (<– read this!) along these airwaves about the band, its inception, and the main underlying motifs behind their origination, and considering my long-standing adoration and alignment with post-hardcore/punk letlive., at this stage I’m only going to remind y’all esteemed readers that The Fever 333 is composed of singer/instigator Jason Butler, guitarist Stephen Harrison, and drummer/percussionist Aric Improta, alongside the obliging acknowledgement that the movement is about so much more than just music and entertainment. The prominent and unexpected EP, just about shy of 20 minutes in length, acts first and foremost as primary conduit for the movement’s broader objectives, encompassing elements of messaging protest and resistance, catalyzation of socio-economical change, and strong components of charity and philanthropy. More specifically, the numerical reference in the movement’s labelling (333) points to a poignant triad of meaning, as frontman Jason Butler himself explained in a recent interview:

“The thing we’re putting forward is the idea of the three “C’s” — community, charity and change. I think that kind of encapsulates the idea of giving a f**k about someone other than yourself, which I don’t think [Trump] has exhibited the ability to do, [he has] truly full-blown characteristics of a nihilist, an actual egomaniac, his frontal lobe is f**ked, he’s crazy. I think ultimately there is this large idea of putting in efforts and consideration beyond one’s own and that, to me, is, if you were to distill the message, it would be three “C’s” and those encapsulate the idea of thinking about what happens when you’re not on this earth anymore. What are you doing today to affect tomorrow, next week, next year, next decade, next millennia? There are other bands doing this and I want people to know that and we need them to speak up. We need them to feel like they are being supported and part of this. Not only are there other bands, there are other people, many people out there that feel voiceless, that feel like they don’t have a platform or anyone who has dedicated themselves creatively, politically as a representative. And that’s also what this band is trying to do, we’re trying to offer representation for people to feel like they have a catalyst for change. We, as individuals, are not the catalyst, but the message we carry with us is in fact that catalyst.”

That being said, for as necessary and praiseworthy the different manifestations of the ancillary and contingent dimensions to the movement are, Made An America is principally an artistic statement processed and delivered in form of sonic audio waves, and therefore it most certainly warrants a closer, more detailed look at how exactly it presents itself musically. As introduced above, the EP entails all previously previewed singles by The Fever 333, which appear to have remained virtually unchanged except for a couple production embellishments here and there as well as, most notably, an additional marching drum rolling climax coming in – pun intended… – at about 1:20 and some deep, distorted incomprehensible outro lyrics in “We’re Coming In”.

The latter composition, curiously placed as second on the tracklist,  is quite clearly the band’s prime introductory statement in the world’s ecosystem, funnelled by insurrectionist lyrics (“So let me tell you about / Where all my people from / We hear them sirens come and then the people run / So let me tell you about / Where all my people from / We’re living hand to mouth and dying by the gun“). To this day, and holding through in hindsight to the release of the whole EP too, the song represents the best welcoming résumé for anyone new to the project. But, while the Travis Barker-featured “Hunting Season” – although it seems like the blink-182 drum-god allegedly recorded all drum tracks on the record – channels a lot of “We’re Coming In”‘s abundant rage and angry societal liberation coefficient, it’s the grungy and catchy “Walking In My Shoes” as penultimate cut on the tracklist that candidates itself most prominently for the spot as most important and exemplary hymn for group, championed by a superbly soar and meaningful rapped verse and a waterfall-y explosion in a perfect in-your-face refrain.

Taking a step back all the way to the opening self-titled song, kicking off with a futuristic and bubbly synth motif only to be abruptly replaced by a raw drum and bass section, the track’s first lines – delivered through a successful and convincing rapping by Jason – enlist the project’s whole mission in a perfectly distilled fashion: “We are the melanin felons / We are the product of / Plunder and policy that you gotta love / Casinos, amigos on forty acres, uh / They built this shit on our backs / Made an America“. Expanding on the latter argument, popular and brilliant UGC-music lyrics and meaning site Genius provides a useful, and in my view correct, interpretation of the song’s overall message:

“‘Made An America’ is a pun on the nationalistic slogan ‘Made In America’. The phrase is often used in the context of bringing jobs back to America or rejecting foreign goods because they are inferior. Jason sings/raps about American history in which the modern nation of the USA was arguably built by the efforts of brown and black immigrants and slaves. It’s a passionate indictment of the way white America suppresses historical truths through a racially tinted lens.”

(The First Stone) Changes” at number three on the EP features Alabama-rapper and Travis Barker-frequent collaborator Yelawolf for what is in fact a pretty underwhelming moment on the project, only to be partially saved and restored by an incendiary chorus and what appears to be Jason’s attempt at a speedy and technical flow spitting a series of bars taking over from Yelawolf on the track’s second verse. Moving on, following the aforementioned “Hunting Season” at number four, is the abrasive and heavy “Soul’d Me Out”, personally the highest and finest moment on the whole EP, whereby one can’t say enough good things about this cut, from the outstanding and groovy drumming work, to the fast and violently distorted guitars, passing through arguably Jason’s best vocal performance in years and a counter-intuitive yet perfectly adhering plain-landing chorus exclaiming simple but upfront lyrics, via a vocal line no too dissimilar from a lullaby melody (“Sell me out down the shallow river / Could I hate you more? / Could I hate you more?“), just moments before collapsing and disappearing into a scratching scream chanting the song’s central topic, perfectly mocked and intertwined with the expansive meaning of its title: “Sold me out, sold me out / You sold me out to the highest bidder / Sold me out, sold me out / You sold me out to the highest bidder“.

The EP’s closing track “POV” indeed leaves the listener longing for so much more, as despite the energy and voltage levels are being kept extremely high throughout the whole running 20 minutes, the necessity and urgency that The Fever 333 are able to transmit with their work demand so much more, and are clearly to be seen only as an initial sparking moment of a much bigger narrative. The track’s introductory crunchy and jungly drums, overtaken for the most part by a minimal yet charismatic drum machine texture, take up the driving seat for a short and fulminating raging wrap up, adorned once again by Jason’s nervous and fat rapping highlighting the quintessential recapitulation of much of this initial body of work arising from the band’s movement: “Middle finger to the face, that’s our point of view“.

This standpoint is such a fiery and glorious closure to an incendiary landing onto the wider musical scene and the world of art-driven activism and protest, which without wanting to sound like a broken record, is best understood when placed as only the beginning of an incredible global community invested in socially-conscious, bottom-up societal change. This sentiment is further solidified by the realisation that the band appears to have so much more material up its sleeve ready to be offered to the wider public, as revealed through their increasing and amassing demonstrations (support slots for Nothing More, Eyes Set To Kill, and To Whom It May, as well as mighty The Used are in the books for this summer) in conjunction with a smart keyword YouTube search.

That is, apparently The Fever 333 have already written and played live several other songs like “Animal”, “Endgame”, “Southside of Inglewood”, and “One of Us”, in addition to the unbelievable performance on US national TV of “Burn It” on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly. It really does sound like amazing things are ahead for The Fever 333 – and in turn all of us recipients of the message and ascribing to the movement –, hence dreaming of another chunk of recorded material being dropped fairly soon doesn’t seem too forbidden at this point. Considering the scope and magnitude of the broader project, a new record would merely be another little brick in the giant wall for these gentlemen (in real life).

Stand up. Resist. B3 Fr33. Letting them know, there’s a fever coming…

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 FEVER 333

“MADE AN AMERICA”

2018, Roadrunner Records/333 Wreckords Crew

http://thefever333.com

TheFever333_MAA

 

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): AUGUST GREENE – “AUGUST GREENE” | 2018-03-11

So this whole ARM thing is clearly getting out of hand, but trust me it is by no means my intention to interrupt your regularly scheduled social media programming as often as it is happening lately. It’s just that there is so much stupendous music coming out recently that it’s hard to resist the temptation of populating the ether-waves with due-diligence artistic criticism whenever a release truly warrants it in my eyes. So let me just cut some of the fat here and get to the point as quickly as possible. I’ve been closely following a specific cluster of hip-hop/soul/jazz-prodigies for a while now, originally captivated by the significance and wholesome effect of the intertwined sonic highways found specifically in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 socially-conscious rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly. One of the members of this specific watch-group of musical excellence is Texan jazz pianist Robert Glasper, so when I saw that he announced the formation of a new jazz-rap supergroup called August Greene earlier this January – joined by the conscious rapper par excellence Common as well as multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist, but mainly drummer and Kanye West muse Karriem Riggins – I just had to keep an eye on their debut release.

Said debut release came in form of a self-titled, self-published, and self-released 11-track and 50-minute project licensed exclusively to Amazon Music as part of their ‘Original’ content series. Now before going any further and risking to go over this point too quickly, I thought this album distribution deal was pretty interesting to say the least. And this is for two main reasons. The first one being that in the present quintessential prime age of listeners requesting access to versus ownership of music, restricting such an exquisitely appetising effort to only a handful proprietary digital national stores through windowing is pretty much the 101 on what not to do in 2018 if one hopes to stand out from all the noise and remain relevant to the millennial musical discovery radar. Secondly, I guess this move puts Amazon Music quite significantly in a position to advantageously compete not only with the hundreds of other DSPs (digital service providers, i.e. Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer etc…), but also and perhaps most importantly against record labels themselves, despite what Amazon’s Head of Music likes to say. At a certain point it doesn’t really matter how and who handles publishing and recording for a specific album, if Amazon Music is all people see advertised and plastered in association with the content, then I’d say a whole new layer of issuing reality is constructed in the eyes of the consumers and the industry at large. But I digress, back to this gorgeous list of tracks.

August Greene first manifested to the world on 18th January through the release of their first single “Optimistic” featuring R&B-singer/songwriter Brandy, issuing a proud and uplifting soul-infused musical statement borrowed as cover song from Sounds Of Blackness‘ 1991 original composition. A month later, the star-studded trio delivered a mighty 35-minute acoustic live session as part of NPR Music’s stunning Tiny Desk-series, making it one of the most glorious ones amidst female empowerment, free-flow freestyles, and preview cuts off their debut release. Experiencing the whole session ahead of the album drop did nothing but enhance the excitement for such a unique combination of sounds, moods, aesthetics, and lyrical advocacy all comprised in just over half an hour. Do yourself a favour and give it a watch/listen, it’s streamable for free (as opposed to dubious and obscure album deals struck with Amazon geo-fencing the fruition of  content…), and you’ll leave the session enlightened and sonically content. You’ll thank me later.

August Greene’s debut work officially came out on 9th March after having been previewed exclusively on the aforementioned NRP Music, and overall strikes the listener as an inspiring, intense, and groovy ride spearheaded by Common’s top-form rapping and outstanding lyricism, Riggins’ unique blend of hypnotic and distinguished percussion craftsmanship, as well as Glasper’s channeling and pervasive output on keys. A song like “Black Kennedy“, the August Greene’s second single and Tiny Desk performance’s opening track, best encapsulates all of the above winning compositional and performing elements wrapped in a contextual discourse of racial empowerment, black excellence, and overall defiance to obstructionism. Common’s lyrics on this one are flawless both in significance and delivery (“The streets where we from, beats heavy drums / Wish I could put Jordans on the feet of everyone / Black Kennedy, royalty with black identity / Leader of the freestyle, I go to penitentiaries“, or during the poignant pre-chorus: “If I was a Kennedy, I’d be a black Kennedy / Black car, black tux, this is black symmetry / Raised in the Chi though my family from Tennessee / I remember me, ‘Riem, Dilla, we was in the D“), and the little help August Greene receives form New York-based pianist and composer Samora Pinderhughes feels quite fitting and nicely sewed into the texture of the track’s overall aesthetic, although it might come across a little awkward at first.

Pinderhughes actually lends his vocal duties on a number of standout tracks on the album, including the soulful and smoothy “Let Go (Nirvana)” at number three on the tracklist, as well as its follow-up murky “Practice”, a song as gloomy and heavy as it transforms into a call for hope and inspiration by yet another striking and well-oiled flow by Common (“Mountains sing songs, kinds dream long / In a simple act is when a scene forms / I improve to improve and involve the ‘been throughs’ / The ‘near falls’, the ‘them fools’, the ‘brickwalls’ and venues”). Another aspect bringing qualitative critical mass to this supergroup project is something that has already been explored elsewhere alongside these frequencies, namely the early placement on the tracklist of the better, most complete, and most convincing cuts of an album. Proudly represented by the piercing, sharp, and anthemic opener “Meditation”, a flagship thematic track for August Greene which finds Glasper’s simple but penetrating synth variations accompanying Common’s best and most meaningful bars on the whole album (“They body snatchin’ black girls in DC Politics and propaganda on the TV / Distractions, distractin’ us from action / It’s time for some, time for some passion“), clawed by Riggins’ signature syncopated dreamy drumming (no he’s not off-beat, I get that impression too but it’s actually not, in case you’re wondering…).

It might now become clear that this August Greene’s self-titled debut is not only a fantastic, well-rounded musical statement by three world-class musicians at the top of their respective games that don’t shy away from successful experimentation and cross-pollinated genre contamination on a nice blend of songs (“Fly Away” and “No Apologies” are guilty as charged), but also a very much necessary hip-hop/jazz insurrectionist opera seeing multi-award-winning protagonists re-inventing themselves yet again by converting into messengers for the oppressed and forgotten ones, quick to indicate that the only fruitful way to fight the machinery’s negativism is by juxtaposing to it the exact opposite, namely flourishing optimism.

I guess my only concern with this project is that it’s almost too short, as I most certainly would’ve loved to hear more from this good-shaped August Greene, especially as far as further musical experimentation is concerned. Besides the over-the-top and rather forgettable jazz opus and self-indulgent 13-minutes long album closer “Swisha Suite”, I wouldn’t have minded more artistic freedom and exploration on tracks such as the dull and linear “Aya” or the recycled “The Time”, as well as a mightier track listing more in general. After all, since it didn’t take long for Common, Glasper, and Riggings to get in a studio together and come out with a splendidly solid collection of eleven tracks, hoping for something more from them fairly soon doesn’t seem too unreasonable. For one, this type of optimistic faithfulness is exactly what this album preaches us to express. Lesson learned, I guess.

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

AUGUST GREENE

“AUGUST GREENE”

2018, August Greene LLC

https://www.facebook.com/pg/AugustGreeneband

August-Greene-Album-Cover-Full

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): TURNSTILE – “TIME & SPACE” | 2018-02-27

I was almost starting to get seriously afraid that I would never heal from my current and long-standing hip-hop appreciation addiction syndrome, contracted almost exactly a year ago and that kept me ruthlessly away from virtually anything that didn’t have something to do with the broader West Coast rap culture, this ranging from music to film and lifestyle. One might have noticed this by the pretty linear editorial trend that the latest ARM instalments (as well as other content on this page) took, kicking off almost exactly around the time of last year’s musical scrutiny of Vince Staples’ LP Big Fish Theory. I mean, even one of my favourite and most exciting non-hip-hop legacy projects coming out in the past year, The Fever 333, owes way more to the rap counterculture movement than I’d like to admit (considering that it directly stems from letlive., a quintessential soul-punk project with plenty of hardcore flair). Yet if you follow this site with some regularity, you’ll know that yours truly is a real punk rock OG minstrel at heart, reason why lately there has been the need for many reassurances and explanations to my closest homies, all aimed at justifying the sudden hip-hop extravaganza fever that recently got the best of me.

Luckily, words can now be accompanied by actions in that, finally again, a non-rap record caught enough of my attention to deserve a fully fleshed-out critically acclaimed artistic review within the ARM feature on this site. Now enter Baltimore, MD, hardcore-punk quintet Turnstile‘s freshly released sophomore full-length studio album Time & Space, released under Dutch-American major imprint Roadrunner Records on 23rd February. I’ve got to admit that the way I learned about this mixed-race punk outfit was (yet again) through one of my latest guilty pleasures on the Interweb, aka The Needle Drop, aka Anthony Fantano, aka The Melon, aka “The Internet’s busiest music NERD”. The funny this is though (and this also sort of acts as a plagiarism avoidance disclaimer), it wasn’t even through an actual music review that I started to embark onto the Turnstile discovery rabbit hole, but rather via his simple retweet of NPR’s announcement of the early exclusive album stream of Time & Space on their site. In fact, as of today, The Needle Drop still hasn’t dropped a review of the record, so it’s definitely a very good thing you’re first getting informed one here as I promise I’ll arm you esteemed reader with everything you need to gloriously banter about Turnstile’s latest effort in full class and style during your water cooler convos at work. Without further ado, now for the main bit.

So, pretty much in line with the average modus operandi of hardcore efforts, this album cuts at just about 26 minutes in length and lists 13 mighty tracks, with second single “Generator” being the longest one wrapping up at just 3:14. In other words, what for a noise/ambient metal group might simply be the prelude to an intro song in terms of track length, for this explosive and fiery punk opera it is its most diluted cut. Interesting though but I digress. While “Generator” might be the longest track on the album, it by far isn’t its biggest, crunchiest one, an award that has got to be mutually shared by Time & Space’s lead single/opener “Real Thing” – providing both hammering catchiness and an aggressive bass interlude encapsulated in a little over two minutes – as well as standout cut “I Don’t Wanna Be Blind“, slithering through a heavy bass intro flowing into a huge chorus (“KNOCKED OUT / WHEN YOU’RE AROUND“), wrapping one of frontman Brendan Yates’ best vocal performances on the whole project.

While it’s true that I had little to no preconceived expectations about either the album or Turnstile as a group before jumping into this listen, what surprised me the most going into repetitive spins of this record is the excellent harmonic work on vocals and more generally the overall quality of song compositions. That is, this band isn’t your typical underground hardcore mould of just unorthodox speedy/thrashy wall of sound with aggressive, abrasive, and incomprehensible lyrics in your face for as long as you can sustain it. Quite the opposite, on many occurrences throughout Time & Space, Turnstile proves that the youngsters can indeed write their own music and aren’t afraid to flirt with poppy and conventional compositional elements. Case in point, the impressive and gorgeous “Big Smile”, with an incredible melodic twist after the initial 30 seconds of pure intense hardcore delivery as well as wonderful outro harmonies wrapping up the track at a minute and a half. Or even “Right To Be”, perhaps the most ‘classic rock’ song structure on the whole record, ornamented with sporadic drops of synth sounds (alongside production credits for freaking Diplo, of all people?!), which wouldn’t be too out of place on a Foo Fighters record, for example. But take also the gloomy, spacey and fun “Moon“, where bassist Franz Lyons takes over vocal duties only to deliver some of the catchiest hooks on the whole album.

The impression is that a lot of these songs can’t possibly fit your typical hardcore punk leitmotiv for as much as you might try to think otherwise, and I feel this is what makes a record like Time & Space so great, where incendiary rage and fury can coexist with more accessible and beautiful soundscapes within frames of extremely well-written and more than decently executed songs. While it’s true that this LP has its fair amount of self-indulgence, see e.g. a couple pointless and avoidable fillers (“Bomb” and”Disco”), one last track fully deserving a special mention is the wonderful, wide, open, and water-y “Can’t Get Away”, showcasing pretty much all of the best skills Turnstile has to offer in their repertoire. This ranges from outstanding guitars to eclectic percussion delivery, to songwriting sophistication and punchy lyrics (“Running since the day I lost control / Never gonna’ find me anymore“). What is there not to love in a good old hardcore punk record with just the right amount of everything it needs to kick ass? So much for a temporary obsession with hip-hop. To be continued…

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

TURNSTILE

“TIME & SPACE”

2018, Roadrunner Records

http://www.turnstilehardcore.com

Turnstile_TimeSpace

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): VARIOUS ARTISTS – “BLACK PANTHER: THE ALBUM” | 2018-02-12

After a period of over a month in which new exciting music releases were almost nowhere to be seen, perhaps understandably since most people were still wrapping up 2017 and/or getting ready for 2018, Friday 9th February came and saved the day for all of us. On said date, a wealth of both long-awaited and rather surprising releases hit Spotify’s New Music Friday shelves, offering a rich and large banquet to choose from across a wide variety of genres and styles. After sleepless nights and a lot of switching gears, my own personal choice eventually made it to a narrower clustered selection of three potential full-length studio albums to be reviewed among the ARM column. I was caught in a triple limbo between New Jersey rockers The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon’s sophomore solo record Sleepwalkers, indie-pop-psychedelia prodigies MGMT’s highly anticipated first LP in five years, Little Dark Age, and obviously, mighty Marvel’s Black Panther’s curated soundtrack album, executed by his Majesty Kendrick Lamar as well as Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith. It soon became clear to me that all the signals pointed at both the challenge and opportunity of putting under harsh scrutiny a compilation of songs from various artists about a movie I’ve yet to see, as it was a one of a kind chance that I might not have had again for a long time.

Black Panther: The Album accompanies the massive Marvel Comics feature film of the same name, and, as anticipated above, was primarily masterminded by the multi-award winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar (performing on nearly all songs), who hasn’t necessarily enjoyed a ton of free time from the spotlight and the mainstream since releasing his breakthrough hip-hop opera To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. Needless to say, this writing only and exclusively pertains to the sonic artistic output of the Black Panther franchise, that is to say, there is zero reference to the content of the movie or the comic books, not least because I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t had a chance to come round to enjoy and consume and of them yet. Yet, at the same time, I thought I’d be interesting to review a soundtrack hit compilation album so strongly tied to a different artistic medium and see how this sort of premise might influence both the listening experience and the overall judgement of the record.

The 14-song album, featuring more than 20 performing artists, dropped – rather predictably – under Kendrick Lamar’s home record label TDE, and was previewed throughout the whole January/beginning of February by three big, star-studded singles. First it was the record’s crown jewel and very melodic “All the Stars” on 4th January, featuring the curator himself paired with gorgeous and impressive label-mate SZA, followed up shortly thereafter by “King’s Dead“, a 4-minutes stomping epic that saw the return on the scene of Black Hippy member Jay Rock alongside Lamar, again, Future, and James Blake. The third and (as of now) last track premiering the full LP, debuting exactly a week before the full work, was called “Pray for Me” and saw commander in chief K-Dot deliver one of his most well-rounded and convincing performances on the whole project, albeit kept pretty brief so as to allow R&B megastar The Weeknd channel his most direct and harmonic Michael Jackson influences. The latter track, perhaps tied to “All the Stars”, also seems the one to have been chosen as prime flagship anthem for the movie roll out, judging by the amount of placements in airplay and promotional clips.

The choice of funnelling most of the album’s condensed promotional image to these three songs appears to be justified in my opinion by their extremely hooky melodies and refrains, as well as the portfolio of heavyweights featured on each track. However, if one were to stop here and try to forecast the rest of the musical critical mass on the album along similar lines, they couldn’t be further from the truth. While this selection of singles, championed especially by “All the Stars” and “Pray for Me”, has pretty much all it takes, from production, delivery, and lyrics (“Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me / You can bring a bullet, bring a sword, bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me”), to overshadow and outshine the rest of the songs, the album’s best moments live and breathe elsewhere.

A perfect example of such an unsung hidden gem on this Black Panther: The Album is “Redemption”, where Los Angeles-based neo-soul rising star Zacari mashes up with South African/Zulu singer Babes Wodumo, assisted yet again by Kendrick for a funky, groovy, and multi-coloured afro-beat hymn, previewed by a fitting interlude setting the scene for this high moment on the record. I figure the song is a quintessential example of what the overall project is trying to convene on a conceptual level, i.e. a global contamination of black music influences with an army of songwriters on a quest for expressions of freedom and empowerment. In the eyes of this type of analysis, “Redemption” ticks all the boxes.

Competing with “Redemption” and “All the Stars” for best cut off of the album is another hard-hitting, stomping industrial tornado of sound aggression, encapsulated in the fifth song on the tracklist “Opps”. The record features straight-edge rap/hardcore favourite of yours truly Vince Staples, accompanied for the occasion by another South African rapper Yugen Blakrok and – surprise, surprise – Kung Fu Kenny, who this time takes up more room than usual for it being a track not spearheaded by him. The song has abundant amounts of rough, hypnotic beats, that for one of the only times on the whole album, fit extremely nicely all featured artists, and to an especially pleasant degree Vince Staples himself, for whom it surely didn’t take long to realize that the tune could’ve easily been gestated during the afro-futurism-tainted writing sessions for his last album, Big Fish Theory. Furthermore, to me the song emanates just the right amount of carelessness and aggression that I’m somewhat expecting to perceive during the wider cinematic experience (albeit yet to be seen), this way solidifying its legitimacy to be a key sonic moment of the record.

Pretty unexpectedly for me, this LP doesn’t get away with a number of fairly underwhelming choices and sub-par executions. Interestingly, these are mostly to be found in tracks that draw heavily on the current trap trend (see ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz & Saudi’s “X”, or Kendrick & Travis Scott’s “Big Shot”), with slow, at times mumbly, high pitched charleston sounds and auto-tuned vocals that, with all due respect, might have little to do with a longstanding discovery journey through legacy black music. This gets even more exacerbated when I get the impression that some of the easy and safe artistic pairing choices came more from a deliberate intention to ride the zeitgeist, rather than daring to risk a bit more to achieve a more experimental outcome instead. Undoubtedly, this goes to de-value a little bit Kendrick’s work as curator, who this time I’m not afraid to say is not without blame and can’t get away from it all without some criticism (besides pointlessly featuring on almost every single track on the album, often times bringing little to no added creative value to each song’s table). For instance, why not include more folks like the brilliant Babes Wodumo, Yugen Blakrok, upcoming rap collective SOB x RBE, or even Zacari himself, instead of reheated soups like ScHoolboy Q, Future, and Travis Scott? Definitely a missed opportunity here for Kendrick to offer a huge platform for rising black stars to resonate and amplify into the entertainment mainstream.

Now, there indeed are enough decent solid tracks to make up for the aforementioned flaws across just about 50 minutes of newly assembled material. Joining the squad of favourite cuts out of this Black Panther soundtrack album are the melancholic and gloomy “I Am”, performed by the impressive Jorja Smith and another example of where K-Dot’s laid back harmonising support work fits very nicely with the overall mood and aesthetic of the song; the hectic and hooky “Paramedic!” (by Zacari, Kendrick & promising Californian hip-hop group SOB x RBE); or even the slow and gorgeous “Seasons”, where Sjava’s Zulu chants are wonderfully wrapped by two of the most convincing bar sections on the whole project, spit out by Californian rapper Mozzy and fellow South African MC Reason. That being said, this collection of songs does leave the listener with a slight bad taste in their mouth, found lost in-between safe and sexy artist orchestration choices that address current hip-hop and R&B trends, and an overarching struggle to find a truly owned identity that sets it apart, perhaps trying too hard to be liked by the ruling voices, at the expense of versatility, experimentation, and freedom. If you think about it, nothing too dissimilar from some of the dynamics found in wider societal racial struggles against power and hegemony. But that’s a whole other discussion that involves an ocean of additional considerations and voices. So let the music speak for now.

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

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“BLACK PANTHER: THE ALBUM”

2018, Top Dawg Ent./Aftermath/Interscope

http://smarturl.it/BlackPantherAlbum

Black Panther_The Album

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2017 | 2017-12-22

prisoner_ra RYAN ADAMS – PRISONER (PAXAM RECORDING)

Buy it here. Read the ARM review here.

 

CWK_LADivine COLD WAR KIDS – LA DIVINE (CWKTWO CORP.)

Buy it here. Read the ARM review here.

 

KDot_Damn KENDRICK LAMAR – DAMN. (AFTERMATH/INTERSCOPE)

Buy it here.

 

ATDI_Inter Alia AT THE DRIVE IN – INTER ALIA (RISE RECORDS)

Buy it here.

 

68_TwoPartsViper ’68 – TWO PARTS VIPER (CHARIOT MUSIC, INC.)

Buy it here.

 

BH_Saturation BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION (QUESTION EVERYTHING, INC.)

Buy it here.

 

VS_Big Fish Theory VINCE STAPLES – BIG FISH THEORY (DEF JAM RECORDINGS)

Buy it here. Read the ARM review here.

 

Tyler_FlowerBoy TYLER, THE CREATOR – FLOWER BOY (COLUMBIA RECORDS)

Buy it here.

 

BH_SaturationII BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II (QUESTION EVERYTHING, INC.)

Buy it here.

 

BH_SaturationIII BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION III (QUESTION EVERYTHING, INC.)

Buy it here. Read the ARM review here.

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

AV

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): BROCKHAMPTON – “SATURATION III” | 2017-12-16

It’s been almost an astonishing six months since the last ARM instalment saw the light of day on top of these frequencies, which might as well be the longest gap ever as far as this page is concerned, but hey who’s counting really. Undoubtedly, this is mainly due to the orbital enterprise partnership recently undertaken by yours truly with almighty online music zine Punktastic, which has kept me fairly (and fairy to be fair) busy throughout the latter half of 2017 and materialised itself in form of the ongoing Notes From Barcelona column series. While it’s certainly true that I kept being tested and teased by music gems over time, each one asking me to find some time to draft up a speedy ARM review here and there (see Tyler, The Creator, The Killers, The Front Bottoms, and J Roddy Walston & The Business as main perpetrators), I was kind of waiting for the truly right release to drop and thoroughly steal me back into ARM mentality. So what better way to resurrect the instalment than the third album of an annual trilogy dropped by a boy band literally unknown even a year ago? Enter and welcome BROCKHAMPTON‘s Saturation III.

BROCKHAMPTON is a Texas-raised, Los Angeles-based hip-hop collective sensation – declaring to be preferably referred to as boy band – founded three years ago, primarily by a bunch of lively nerdy teenagers chatting on Kanye West tribute Internet forum KanyeToThe. What the 14-member strong boy band has achieved this year is nothing short of incredible, releasing three (!) full length LPs among a multi-media artistic trilogy called Saturation. That is, after their 2016 free mixtape All-American Trash, in 2017 alone the virtuoso Texan minstrels have undergone a terrific one-two-three album release constellation, with their debut record Saturation out in June, its follow up Saturation II released in August, and the very subject of this review Saturation III out on their own record label Question Everything just a day ago on 15th December.

By effect of the above, esteemed readers please be conscious that this is inevitably as much a review of Saturation III as it is of their whole gianormously epic Saturation fatigue, a go-to-market creative decision pretty much unprecedented in mainstream hip-hop music, as far as I’m concerned. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be undertaking an analysis of BROCKHAMPTON’s latest musical effort – and what an effort – if it weren’t for the Internet’s busiest music nerd The Needle Drop and his unbelievably favourable reviews of both Saturation and Saturation II. The notoriously harsh and commonly feared influential online music critic not only opened me the starry and pearly gates to the BROCKHAMPTON’s universe, but at the same time he also referred me to the boy band’s leader Kevin Abstract’s stunning recent solo album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story by sharing related content on Twitter, a record which to be fair would be owed a separate and fully dedicated ARM review for itself. These two (well, three to be exact) sonic lightning strikes combined out of the blue led me to a deep, long, and tempestuous quest to becoming borderline obsessed with any thing to do with the California-stationed street posse.

This infatuation of mine with BROCKHAMPTON and particularly its lead members, fronted by the aforementioned mastermind Abstract and key member rappers Ameer Vann (doubling as album artwork-model for the Saturation series), Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon, and Matt Champion, got stronger and stronger as I progressively discovered how fresh, avant-garde, modern, and digital-first their whole entire definition of a boy band is. Yes, because BROCKHAMPTON isn’t merely composed of singer-songwriters and musicians, their understanding of boy band extends to include producers, graphic designers, web developers, artistic directors, and even tour managers, as wonderfully and hilariously mapped out in their VICELAND TV mini-series American Boyband. No other contemporary artist – let alone vast hip-hop outfit – has in my opinion been able to capture the essence of being a modern-day, self-sustained, multi-media act in control of their own destiny better than these guys scattered in a huge old house in South Central, Los Angeles, manufacturing and shipping one convincing delivery after the other with literally no one else to interfere with their business or artistic ambitions.

It’s essentially amongst the above premises that I enthusiastically and frantically awaited for the third and final chapter in the Saturation trilogy to drop the week before Christmas eve, certainly not without some kind of an aura of mystery due to an early December promotional tweet by the group announcing that Saturation III would not only have been the last of their epic Saturation saga, but even their last studio album as BROCKHAMPTON altogether (only to be cryptically dismissed by Kevin Abstract in a later promotional interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio show). The first piece of music off Saturation III delivered to the public was its first groovy, intense, and elastic single “Boogie“, dropped just three days before album release alongside an enigmatic and convoluted short-movie called “Billy Star“, directed by none other than Kevin Abstract himself – who by the way conducts all music videos outputted by the BROCKHAMPTON factory – and crafted by the whole boy band. But there’s more. Shortly after the release of “Billy Star” the 22-minute short-movie, Kevin Abstract announced with a tweet that a full-length motion picture release for the same franchise is in the works with proper distribution in movie theatres. Talk of literal saturation of the market.

Wonderfully along those lines, Saturation III’s release day was truly nothing short of amazing, with not only the new 15-track record hitting the world’s airwaves for the first time in its full length, but the parallel release of a native smartphone app providing a ‘unique live audio experience’, as well as the almost unbelievable announcement of indeed a fourth studio album (!) coming out in 2018. Early listening experiences of the last Saturation-era LP were thus inevitably tainted with feelings of incredulity, admiration, and excitement. After having allowed enough time and repetitive spins to flush away any potential threat of biased judgement, the album certainly strikes as a fitting and well-rounded culmination and wrap up of the release marathon undertaken by BROCKHAMPTON this year. Even though both tracklist and running time have progressively decreased throughout the Saturation release cycle, the boy band still decided to play with numerous skits – all delivered in Spanish for the occasion by BROCKHAMPTON’s web developer member Robert Ontenient – as well as a slower, guitar chords-driven, mellow album closer (before Saturation III’s “Team”, it was “Waste” in Saturation and “Summer” in Saturation II) for the last instalment of the series. Another interesting parallel format across the three LPs is the inclusion of a gorgeous quasi-interlude/half-song towards the former section of the record, as exemplified by the dreamy and melancholic “2Pac” in Saturation, the sombre and raging “Teeth” in Saturation II, and the tell-all and introspective “Liquid” in this latest drop.

This almost mechanical reproduction of thorough art schemata is clearly something that the crew studied and achieved meticulously (no wonder the boy band labels their home-turned-recording studio the “Brockhampton Factory”), as in addition to the aforementioned recurring tracklist patterns, one could easily notice how all song titles within their Saturation trilogy were reduced to one single word with incremental numbers of letters with each new album released, with every last song on each record hinting at the increment that’s to come. That is, Saturation only contains 4-letters titles, Saturation II tracks have five letters, while Saturation III’s songs are all six letters long except for album closer “Team”, going full circle returning back to the first chapter’s title policy. But wait, there’s more. Remember how every last song on each record hinted at the next one and also how I said earlier that BROCKHAMPTON has already announced a new album for 2018? Well, guess what its working title is supposed to be? Team Effort. Pretty remarkable wordsmiths the young muchachos.

Saturation III to me is an album of dichotomies, juxtapositions, contradictions, much like the whole boy band at large. The record entails in my opinion some of the best and most forgettable cuts of their entire trilogy, with an overall approach that defines itself by less immediate tracks than its two precedents, but arguably bigger and more sophisticated productions as well as more convincing and distributed flows and deliveries by the group’s rappers/singers. On the negative side of the spectrum of juxtaposition I place songs like “Zipper” – which unofficially became Saturation III’s third single through the release of a music video for the track via their app – as well as “Stupid”. The former definitely feels too out of place on this record and would’ve perhaps found a more fitting environment on the G-funkier and exotic sounds of Saturation II, given that its impact simply feels too redundant following up the already siren-y, dense, groovy, and layered “Boogie” as second track on the record. The impression I get from “Stupid”, instead, is that the composition really tried to stay true to its title by leveraging trivial and at times irritating melodies and flows, not mentioning the slightly annoying and underwhelming refrain (“Boys wanna play with my cell phoneBut I don’t want nobody to see what’s in it“).

On the other hand, at the other end of the quality spectrum of Saturation III we find some of BROCKHAMPTON’s best songs ever, such as the gorgeous and heart-wrenching “Bleach”, with honourable mention of the outstanding and incredibly impactful lyrics (“They said do you make mistakes or do you make a change? / Or do you draw the line for when it’s better days?”); the weird, wonderful, and experimental “Sister/Nation”, perhaps the song in which BROCKHAMPTON’s versatility and artistic contradictions shine most; as well as the album’s second single “Rental“, the track chosen by the boy band as visual wrapper for the trilogy, and to me the one where they truly became a boy band in the traditional sense of the word, whereby even OG rapper Matt Champion mellows down with softer harmonic melodies. To this bucket entailing the best moments of Saturation III I can’t not include the magnificently contagious and visceral first single “Boogie”, in my opinion the most convincing single/teaser to a BROCKHAMPTON record alongside Saturation’s “Heat“.

In-between the quality bi-polarism of Saturation III there are a number of still sensational and unique cuts, such as “Johnny”, “Hottie”, and “Stains”, and truth be told this is the real chunk of tracks that actually have me realize how much of a beautiful holistic artistic oddity this group has been this year. Yes, because I feel like sometimes what are to be labelled ‘average tracks’ on a given album are in fact a much better and more reliable indicator for evaluating the overall musical impact of that record, and in BROCKHAMPTON’s case they are still sounding better and fresher than almost anything I’ve heard all year. Yet ‘average’ isn’t a word that ought to be associated with the Los Angeles-collective in any shape or form, given its composition of mixed race, queer, multi-disciplinary, and outstandingly talented members. It’s no wonder, with something this special, that with their Saturation multi-media album trilogy BROCKHAMPTON have accomplished one of the most uniquely defining moments in recent hip-hop history.

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

BROCKHAMPTON

“SATURATION III”

2017, Question Everything Inc.

http://www.brckhmptn.com

BH_Saturation 3