Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Music Review - Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil - Goliath

It's almost a year since I wrote this review and I'm still jamming to this one. This is one amazing album. At first blush it seems like simple heavy roots rock but there's so much beneath the surface. Which is to say that it's simple enough for the average radio listener and complex enough for the die-hard headphone-wearing audiophile. A pefect ten... maybe an 11.

Way back in 1987 Steve Taylor wrote and directed a video for nearly every song on his I Predict 1990 album. It was obvious that filmmaking was in his blood so it was no surprise in 1993 when he announced that he would no longer be making albums but would instead focus on videos for other bands and making a feature film. That film ended up being Blue Like Jazz and it came out in 2012. That’s a big project. So what to do after completing a massive long-term goal? Why not grab some music veteran pals and make an album? And why not tap into your enthusiastic fan base via Kickstarter and exceed your goal three times over? But first you have to stop by the DMV (Department of Music Veterans) and renew your license to rock (search “Steve Taylor DMV” on YouTube for one of the most clever and humorous videos I’ve seen in a long time.)

Could any album be worth a wait of over two decades? Probably not. Chinese Democracy certainly wasn’t. Fortunately I am relieved and pleased to announce that this new album, Goliath, is crazy good from start to finish, easily one of the best I’ve heard this year. The first few listens, though, left me lukewarm. The songs seemed overly simple and none of Taylor’s usually satirical lyrics caught my ear. But then it happened. The song was “Moonshot”, which starts airy and modest, just vocals and clean guitar, when all of a sudden a big furry bass dive bombs in and turns the entire song into a funky retro swagger (think Spoon). It was then that I started to realize how incredibly well recorded everything was, albeit somewhat dry which only lends to its aggressiveness, and I started to hear all kinds of nuances supporting but never distracting from what I first thought were simple songs. For instance, the guitar which opens “In Layers” is sublimely ratty with the (likely vintage, not modeled) amplifier on the verge of falling apart. This killer song sports its own heavy, dirty groove, helped along by judicious use of horns, redefining the term “blistering.” I was firmly in the grip of the Tom Petty-esque “Double Negative” when I realized who I was dealing with. Guitarist Jimmy Abegg has “played the big rooms” since before I learned how to type and drummer Peter Furler is known in some circles as “OHMYGOSH-ITSPETERFURLER!”, drummer, lead singer, songwriter and founder of Christian music’s Newsboys. And then there’s John Mark Painter. Don’t be fooled because this man is “just” playing the bass. This is the guy behind the orchestrations of early Ben Folds Five albums. Oh yeah, he’s also a multi-instrumentalist (those horns don’t play themselves), composer and studio guru, to name just a few of his accomplishments. How can an album sound simultaneously trashy and crystal clear? Only Mr. Painter knows…

Aside from the three mentioned above, it’s difficult to pick out favorites on this album. The album rips to life with “Only A Ride”, each song hitting hard in their self-described “rock, but in an indie-alternative kind of way”, slipping in shards of humor and often marinating in a funky groove reminiscent of 70s-era Rolling Stones, not letting up until track ten, the contemplative “A Life Preserved”. But look at me, prattling on and on about the music and leaving the crafty lyrics in the cold. Well how about “The saints came marching in this morning / And they marched right out the door / Wholly offended / No pun intended.” This is from “Comedian”, a song which hipsters might say has much in common with The National but to me it sounds like a perfect Steve Taylor closing song, opening quietly with piano, a touch of cello and timpani, and blazing to life halfway through with a wall of distorted guitars and hissing cymbals.

It’s a shame that Goliath came out in November because it’s raucous, raw songs are perfect for blasting from a car with the windows rolled down. Fortunately it’s good enough that I’m certain this high-energy album will still be on my MP3 player in spring.

Music Review - Devin Townsend Project - Ziltoid 2

It's been about a year and I'm not reaching for this album any more. 'Tis a pity 'cause I'm part of the galactic choir or whatever he called it. Anyway, my overall impression is that these two albums are decent but won't be looked back on as a highlight of his career.

As a rule I don’t care for operas. To me it seems like the music takes a backseat so some fancy-pants singer won’t be upstaged. That’s how I initially felt about Dark Matters, the follow up to the amazingly fun Ziltoid the Omniscient. You know, the Devin Townsend metal rock opera about a coffee bean thieving alien who is actually a hand puppet? Now I’m not saying that Mr. Townsend wears fancy pants but Dark Matters has so much dialogue and narration in its attempt to tell a story that I couldn’t fully hear the music underneath.

Fortunately I purchased the deluxe set which includes a CD of Dark Matters sans dialogue and my mind has been changed. Like much of Mr. Townsends music it is an odd mixture. At times Dark Matters is heavy, flooding your ears with triple kick drums and complicated non-traditional time signatures, such as the opening track “Z2” which stands alongside his most punishing pieces on Deconstruction. Still heavy, but not as prog-thrash, is the engaging “March of the Poozers”, though I won’t spoil the album by telling you what a Poozer is and the party they play in saving the Earth. “Ziltoid Goes Home” is a speedy little number packed with distorted guitars and… ya know what? Most of the songs on this album are heavy and fast, though true to his brain all are just a bit weird. The only consistently slow (but still heavy) track is the finale, “Through The Wormhole” where Devin is joined by a choir of over two thousand fans (this dorky author included) who recorded themselves singing along to a Devin-provided guide track. It’s the largest choir ever to appear on a metal album, or so says the sticker on the album which makes me wonder if there have been larger choirs on, for instance, a reggae album.

Because Devin’s record company didn’t want just another complicated heavy album and because Devin apparently writes three songs every time he uses the facilities, Sky Blue was born. Twelve songs (four bathroom trips, if you’re keeping score) in the gossamer power pop style of Epicloud. Yes, a second fully produced and executed album as in “not demos.” Like the Ziltoid album, and despite its seemingly more simplistic songs, Sky Blue took a number of listens before it sank it. Loud volumes helped as well. While the songs span loud and quiet, fast and slow, heavy and ethereal, the overall impression is of a joyous secular church revival service with the songs drenched in Devin’s trademark wall of soft reverb plus an occasional appearance by the massive fan choir.

Mr. Townsend is one happy man, now that he’s freed from all of his addictions, and his exuberance for life shows forth on both Blue Sky and Dark Matters so much that it’s practically addicting to the listener. Whether its maniacal hand puppets bent of universal domination or positive heavy pop-rock songs pumping with energy, Devin’s world is a blast for those souls curious or demented enough to enter the celebration.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Music Review - Flying Colors - Second Nature

A good album but I'm still going back to their first for my "melodic pop-prog" fix rather than this one.

The idea was to assemble a band of seasoned veterans and have it fronted by a younger pop vocalist. Hey, it worked for Garbage and it worked for Flying Colors, so much so that I kicked myself for “discovering” their album too late to write a review (it’s a music dork kind of thing). Do you remember hearing “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes or “Heat of the Moment” / “Only Time Will Tell” by Asia, both in MTVs early days? The pop hooks grabbed me instantly and though I wasn’t brushed up on my music theory, I could tell that something very interesting was going on under the hood. Such was the music on the first Flying Colors album where gossamer melodies fought each other for time inside your head while some seriously fantastic music played underneath.

While I’ve found myself humming a few of its melodies Second Nature does not reach the same dizzying heights of perfection as its predecessor. One of its biggest problems are the lyrics. They’re kinda cheesy, especially for a rock album made by veterans who should know better. Non-imaginative song titles include “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World” and “Lost Without You”, a nice shorthand for the lyrics they contain. Also instead of creating explosive blasts of intelligent pop music the band returns more to the trough of 70s era prog rock, evoking thoughts of Kansas (“Bombs Away”) and Styx (“A Place In Your World”).

But it’s not all bad. The first track, “Open Up Your Eyes”, is a traditional Neal Morse progressive rocker with four minutes of instrumental bliss before lyrics encroach, eventually filling out twelve and a half minutes with catchy melodies, interesting musical twists and non-offensive spiritual lyrics. Channeling Muse is “Mask Machine”, their single that starts with Dave LaRue sporting a fuzzy and delicious bass tone, similar to that applied to vocalist Casey McPherson. Overall the song is a bit simplistic, especially at six minutes long, and repeats “Woo-oo-oo” much too frequently (as in every few lines) but the song does rock. Watch the video to hear for yourself and to see proof that there is no way to make rock keyboardists look cool. Sorry Neal, but you know it’s true. Drummer Mike Portnoy, on the other hand, would look cool baking a quiche. “Peaceful Harbor” is a nice slow build, growing from acoustic guitar to power ballad complete with some very tasteful guitar solos via Steve Morse. My only beef with the song is the inclusion of a gospel choir at the end, a very tired way of “ending big.” Fortunately the band shows how to “end big” the right way on the last song, the twelve minute “Cosmic Symphony” (they are humble, no?). Constructed of three equally captivating musical ideas, nicely fleshed out and held together by more astounding Steve Morse guitar solos, the song “ends big” by ending quietly and introspectively, reflecting the profound and intelligent lyrics contained within.

Now don’t get the idea that Second Nature is a bad album. It’s good but just seems to be missing something, like the band is too nice to each other and will accept “good” instead of pushing each other for “better.” “Better” was their first album but if they keep at it I’m sure one day they will release “Best.” I can hardly wait.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Hard Root Beer Review - Not Your Father's Root Beer

I had been overhearing co-workers talk about "Not Your Father's Rootbeer"* for some time so when I saw a single bottle at Trader Joe's I decided to give it a whirl. Because I'm all about the quirky and unusual drinks out there I decided to write about it, and make a new series. It's not uncommon for me to pick up some unknown can of unknown substance and unknown origin at Big Lots and give it a swig. In this way I'm uniquely suited for the job of trying and writing about this recent surge of root beer flavored adult beverages and I'm not one to back away from a task for which I'm uniquely suited.

The ABV of this beverage is 5.9%, about on par with a dark beer. It smells very much like root beer but doesn't have a lot of carbonation. My first impression was that it was very sweet and then that the mouthfeel was wrong. It just seemed thin, more like water than pop** or beer. Even Lite beer. And then the aftertaste hit. Aftertaste in an ale? Unfortunately so. The only way I can describe it is "kinda oily." Weird. This didn't go away with subsequent tastes. Super-sweet, off-setting thinness, twang of oiliness. Repeat. Notice that I didn't include "enjoy root beer flavor" in that list as it was lacking any kind of depth. It was like someone poured cheap rootbeer flavoring*** into an average ale and added a couple of drops of 3-in-1 oil.

Once again I'm on the outs with the general population. The popularity of this brew is seemingly creating a market for other kinds of hard root beers, or at least it seems to from suddenly seeing this and others at the supermarket where before there were none. Go on, John Q Public, and buy your Not Your Fathers by the case... I have no need to put this into my mouth again.

* I work in one of those dreaded cube-farms so you hear every conversation going on within twenty feet of you without trying.

** "Pop" is my regional expression for carbonated sugary drinks. Deal with it.

*** We're talking store brand, as in Sav-A-Lot.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review - Youth Choir - Shades of Grey

NOW I get to write a review of Shades of Gray, a five song EP from 1986 the band recorded in a hurry so they would have something more to sell while on a prestigious twenty city tour with the prestigious Steve Taylor. The urgency of the recording process translated into a very energetic feel to these early songs despite being 80% drum machine. Yes, drum machine again but at least it was programmed by someone who knew their way around a kit because they are very convincing rhythms. Let’s dig in, shall we?

“Fade Into You” opens with a crisp piano, played by Derri. Bass and drums enter, propelling the song into the verse where Tim playfully colors outside the lines. Funny how I just noticed how Tim plays a few notes off the root, adding some wonderful tension. Also extra-deluxe is the middle passage which is 100% keyboard but sounds amazingly orchestral due to the counterpoint arrangement and decent synth-string sound. The song sports amazing lyrics, yearning for a closer relationship with God, that are the kind of fresh and earnest worship that I wish were more en vogue today.

“15 Doors” lyrically foreshadows a Hindalong specialty in telling a story from a brief episode and expanding it to broader implications. This story is that their tour van broke down and they had to knock on fifteen doors before someone let them in. Imagine from the band’s side: They are late twenties and harmless Christian believers. Imagine from the home owners side: It’s late, it’s dark, and these spikey-haired punks are knocking on your door. However as Steve artfully puts it “I saw somebody in the window / A light on in the hall / Could I step inside for one moment / And give my wife a telephone call? / So sorry to alarm you / I’m not gonna harm you / Don’t call the night patrol.” There’s a tremendous amount of energy in this song perfectly encapsulated in the U2-ish guitar riff.

“More Than Words” is another early indication of their sound, utilizing Dan’s echoy lyricon to make a whispy, gauzy puff of a song with amazing lyrics told from our Redeemer’s viewpoint. While only 2:36 it seems just the right length for this shoe-gazing experiment.

You know it’s the eighties because “Tears Don’t Fall” has a sax solo. It’s a good one but still, it’s there. While more in line with their debut the production is better. So is the bass (which is up from in the mix and sounds thick a meaty) and the extra musical flourishes that keep your interest. “All Night Long” prefigures yet another Choir pattern, that of the moody and dark yet melodic and hopeful perfect pop song.

Shades of Grey is a foreshadowing of all that The Choir will become with strong pop-based melodies and a sense of experimentation and adventure, but not so much as to scare off youth pastors raised on Petra.

* Um, what are they looking at on the cover?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Review - Youth Choir - Voices In The Shadows

There I was, all keyed up to review Shades of Grey when my pre-writing research rudely reminded me that this was not the recording debut of The Choir. Yes, I forgot an entire album, which is a pretty good indication of the impression Voices in the Shadows made on me.

Recorded under the name of Youth Choir, Voices in the Shadows was produced by some guy named Thom Roy (or Roy Thom) who has since disappeared into his own shadows. In addition to the name difference, drummer Steve Hindalong was on the fence between joining this band and continuing with another band named “Lucky Stiffs” (which included future Choir bassist Tim Chandler) so he didn’t play on the album, although he is credited as having done so. Instead drum duties were handled by a drum machine. I’m sure it made sense back in 1985 but the lack of a drummer’s sensibilities and finesse and inventive chops definitely gives the rhythm section a kind of generic blandness*. And speaking of generic, there’s bassist Mike Saurbrey who appears now and then on Choir albums when Tim Chandler is stuck in the potty with roadside food illnesses. I have nothing against Mr. Saurbrey or his playing (except that he reminds me painfully of myself in the following description) but consider this: Mike: capable but unremarkable bass lines, looks like just some guy up on stage. Tim: crazily inventive melodic monster bass lines that add tension and depth to the songs, amazing stage presence. No contest! And then there’s the lyrics. Future albums had Steve Hindalong writing most of the lyrics and the man has a poetic way with words that brought acclaim to this band. This time out guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Derri Daughterty wrote the lyrics. As far as they go, they are decent but nothing spectacular, focusing on hopeful optimism not tainted by doubt and “who will help the children”, a subject that was quite en vogue at the time.

So what’s good about this platter? In listening to the album again for the first time in a decade I’m impressed with the quality of the songwriting and the vocal melodies. Sonically it’s a pretty good engineering job so kudos, Thom (or Roy)! However the standout feature of this debut album is Derri’s guitar playing. While not yet fully developed, one can hear the influence of British bands that will be explored more fully on later albums and on “Another Heart” one gets to hear the chiming, floating, ethereal playing style that will later become a huge part of the signature Choir sound. But at this point only one of the four players is in place so it really is a different beast than the band that will become THE CHOIR. Overall, it’s much better than I remembered (or didn’t remember). If the unvarying programmed drums were replaced with a real drummer this album would improve dramatically, possibly becoming a great example of upbeat 80s Brit-rock. Another standout is the pure eighties keyboard sounds! For the most part, keyboards were dropped from the bands later albums, except for when played through the lyricon of Dan Michaels. Oddly, no one is credited at playing these magnificently vintage tones.

* And now, the rest of the story: From a discussion on Facebook with Steve, he says "That's all nonsense. I was in the band (Youth Choir) since '83. First album came out in '85. Derri had written all the songs and the producer wanted to use a drum machine but barely knew how to program it. Anyway, we evolved."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review - Atomic Opera - For Madmen Only

Encouraged by my pal's postive review of Atomic Opera's For Madmen Only I harkened back to the days of my youth, remembering how the album was decent but not great, and decided to give the album a refresher spin to see if my opinion had changed. In referring to my handy-dandy-uber-dorky database to find which backup DVD contained the album, I noticed that I had given it a seven, while giving their two subsequent albums (Gospel Cola and Penguin Dust) only fives. Hmmm...

The first two songs make the album. "Joyride" and "Justice" are two very hooky metal-pop songs that managed to creep into my brain now and then over the years. I had forgotten how the guitars are especially beefy, chunky and thick, like a good salsa. This is good stuff, Chester! But as the album wore on the guitar tones didn't change and there were very few melodic hooks, which is why I couldn't remember any songs other than the first two*. About halfway through I started to check to see how much of the album was left... never a good sign. And nothing personal but the vocalist has a generic voice that is nearly bereft of any kind of distinguishing characteristic, which also doesn't vary. I feel bad saying that because I'm sure he's a nice guy and all. It's actually a very good, strong voice but just not very textured. It was also about halfway through that I started to develop ear fatigue from the compressed production. Crunchy walls of guitars are great but ya gotta let them breath!

I'm not saying that the only redeeming quality of For Madmen Only are the first two songs. There are many strong points but not enough or of the right kind to make the album with me. For instance, the start of War Drums makes me think of the Spinal Tap song "Big Bottoms," which is neither a good or a bad thing. Some of the songs vary from the typical 4/4 meter, which is usually good, but doesn't develop this change into anything memorable. The lyrics are intelligent throughout and of a Christian inclination, without being overt. A favorite is from the song "Blackness" where he sings "We all wanna change the world / We don't wanna change our minds." I'm sure I turned this towards "the unsaved" back in 1994 but I've since seen that the church is equally blind and sheeplike, no longer looking once they've found what they're looking for. The album ends on a strong note with the nearly ten minute epic "New Dreams", a trick which producer Sam Taylor was fond of making King's X do on their earlier albums. In fact, "New Dreams" sounds a bit like King's X guitar tones, though with a bit less character, and having enough variation within itself and from the preceeding songs that it was quite enjoyable. Oh, did I fail to mention that Sam Taylor produced this album? It's probably why I even picked it up in the first place. It might also have been the last time I picked up an album based on this guy's name.

I think I'll stand by my rating of seven, though I'm tempted to drop it to six. 2.5 songs does not an album make.

* Two extremely good songs and the rest just kinda meh, somewhat like Jet Circus from the same era. STEP ON IT!