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

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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

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): VINCE STAPLES – “BIG FISH THEORY” | 2017-06-24

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

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ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): PARAMORE – “AFTER LAUGHTER” | 2017-05-19

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” | 2017-05-01

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

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