Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Brutal Planet

Well, here it is. The end of the series. Sure, Cooper wrote albums after Brutal Planet but I was writing CD reviews for Whatzup by then so these have already been handled. I wonder what I'll review next? Who knows! Who cares!

So as I just said, Alice Cooper came out with Brutal Planet in 2000, a mere six years after his previous release. Six years? Was he going to Bible college or what? Whatever he was doing Cooper came back with an album that proved that he could love Jesus while rocking harder than ever before, making Brutal Planet his heaviest and darkest album to date. In many places it's darn near industrial and Alice even admitted to going for a Marilyn Manson sound on a few songs*.

So it's heavy but is it good? You betcha! A lot of metalheads who don't consider themselves Alice Cooper fans have only this album and they like it**! And what's not to like? The title track kicks things off with a grinding rhythm guitar and mechanical sounding lead guitar pounding out a low and heavy riff. Lyrically the song concerns sin with overt lyrics like "We took advice from that deceiving snake" and female background vocals which are strangly offsetting to the thick sound. Cooper has always had a knack for memorable melodies and this song is no exception. In fact, well over half of the songs on the album have melodies so strong that one could easily play them folk-style on an acoustic guitar and the little ladies at church would listen attentively***. "Wicked Young Man" is just as heavy and twice as industrial, examining the concept of the innateness of sin via a young man who confesses "It's not the games that I play / The books that I read / I'm just a wicked young man." "Sanctuary" is an atomic explosion with breathless pacing and an anthemic chorus that is equally cathartic. Featuring a massive groove riff "Blow Me A Kiss" is another excellent song that captures timeless truths in a unique way. The dragging "Eat Some More" is the first of the very few clunkers on the album, though instead of clunking they kind of never really take flight. But who cares when most of the album kills? "Pick Up The Bones" is 100% creepy, telling the tale of someone picking up the body parts of family members and friends after a war massacre with a wall of thundering guitars and appropriately toned vocal performance. "Pessi-mistic" is good but sounds like a remake of the former song. "Take It Like A Woman" likewise is a fine song but appears to be a token ballad in the vein of "Every Woman Bleeds". Sonically it doesn't fit at all with the rest of the album**** so I can only assume it's inclusion was some kind of contractual obligation*****. Closing things out is "Cold Machines", the most industrial of all the songs, an extremely heavy song with a crushing riff sure to please all but the most finicky of metal mavens.

As an addendum, I just noticed that on my review for Dragontown I kind of dissed this album. In the last thirteen years I've listened to Brutal Planet more and it's twice the album of Dragontown. So there! Take THAT, stupid reviewing self from 2001!

Rank: Quality but not classic

* I should point out here that he had only one bassist, Bob Marlette, who was also the keyboardist, arranger and co-writer on most of the songs. I hope he got paid for all these hats.

** Also a lot of Christian hard rock fans who don't consider themselves Alice Cooper fans have only this album and they like it!

*** That is until one sings "Over there we filled the ovens / Right in the holocaust."

**** Which is why Alice apparently cut the song "Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me." Huh?

***** Or he lost a bet.

Music Review - Opeth - Damnation

Possibly my favorite Opeth album. Sure, it's not really metal but that's what make it so unique... there's metal aggression beneath those supposedly tranquil melodies and therein lies the uniqueness.

Opeth is the salvation of the metal genre. Yes, that's quite a bold statement to make considering I forgot to take my medication this morning but it's true. While I sincerely doubt that their music will ever get broad airplay or rotation on MTV14, Opeth has consistently made music that inventively blends boundaries, music that most only wish they could create, ultimately influencing countless musicians. One day one of these musicians will find a way to water down the magic until the public finds it palatable and then that musician will make millions (think Collective Soul and King's X). When that happens, remember that it was Opeth who figured out the alchemy to combine death metal, prog, pop and classical.

So why does this Podunk reviewer think Opeth is so funk-tastic? Any band that can make death metal appealing to this Beatles-raised farm boy has got to be doing something right. The first Opeth album I heard was Blackwater Park, their fifth release. Starting with crushing guitar, vocal growling and thunderous tones the band opened the curtain on their dark night and like the dawn after a tumultuous thunderstorm, shards of light dappled in the puddles, birds returned and colors regained their brilliance. I still don't know how they pull off this trick time and again, seamlessly and effortlessly fading harsh tones into acoustic manna and back again.

With Damnation, Opeth is taking a huge risk for any metal band - tossing out the distorted guitars and writing an album of clean, acoustic songs. The majority of metal bands simply don't have the chops, hiding their sloppy technique behind volume, but Opeth does this with ease. Far from an album of ballads, Damnation is a compelling, sinister, haunting rumination on human loss. Acoustic guitars, mellotrons, pianos, clean vocals with perfect pitch harmonies create an atmosphere that is much heavier than one might expect and yet retains an almost other-worldly lightness. There are goosebumps on these songs with your name written on them.

Astounding production, intricately and expertly written songs, beautiful melodies, tastefully selected instrumentation - it's a masterpiece! Fans of Tool and Radiohead especially should buy this album and immerse themselves in real music. Musicians of all styles and calibers should buy this album as should anyone who has ever owned a Led Zeppelin recording or imbibed water. Plain and simple: this is a great album regardless of your personal musical tastes and I'm going to hold my breath until you add Damnation to your music collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp in 2003.

Music Review - Opeth - Ghost Reveries

Perhaps worth a return listen. I think this is the last album they made that I enjoyed.

By now every fan of heavy rock knows who Opeth are, right? I mean, you’ve got all seven of their albums and rushed right out to buy Ghost Reveries, thus sparing me the necessity of trying to put into words the enigmatic orchestral splendor contained in the eight compositions, er, songs, right? You know all about their unique and proprietary blend of death metal, folk, classical and progressive so there’s no need to stretch this writer out of his comfortable, stagnant hole.

You’re gonna make me earn it, aren’t you?

My accidental exposure to Opeth is chronicled in the vast whatzup online archives, but it was soon after that I read exploits of this band. Despite being of the metal ilk, they weren’t tearing up hotel rooms or ravishing nubile nymphettes; they were preparing to record instructional videos with extreme musicianship. Even with the distortion turned off, the author was astounded at their intense technical abilities and intricate playing. As a testament to their skills, Opeth wrote Ghost Reveries in a new open tuning, forcing them to examine their parts and avoid any comfortable licks. Far from being intellectual or sterile, this process resulted in their warmest, most human album to date.

The 66 minutes of Ghost Reveries is a complex yet easily enjoyable album, giving instant gratification. But ultimately there’s a lot to digest. Each song goes through a myriad of changes constructed of many layers, and not a one is superfluous. To try and discuss the details of even one of these expansive, beautiful and brutal constructions would be like trying to describe a movement of a symphony, losing the essence in the details. But in broad strokes, expect brain-mashing guitars, growling vocals and pounding rhythms that transform effortlessly into quiet moments of mellotron, organs, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies, all done with such a deft slight of hand that you’ll never see smoke or mirrors. As on their Damnation album, the quieter moments really steal the show by setting calming, gloomy moods that are torn apart in a frenzy, warmly welcoming you into a comfortable house inhabited by the Manson family.

You don’t need to be a snobby music critic or fan of bands like Tool, The Mars Volta and Pink Floyd to appreciate and enjoy the music of Opeth. You can think that death metal cookie monster growling is silly and still find no shame in owning all of their past albums. You can also think that progressive music is sterile, classical music is boring and folk music is simplistic, and still feel confident in shelling out the cash to purchase Ghost Reveries. You are forgiven of all these preconceived notions and may go in peace.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp in 2005.

Music Review - Opeth - Blackwater Park

I followed up on Opeth and had a co-worker with their entire back catalog. The album before this one was quite good but before that they were too Cookie Monster/Thrash for my tastes. A few albums after this one were enjoyable but then they started getting, er, Satanic? So I stopped.

I get a lot of unsolicited CDs to review, mostly death metal bands with corpses and satanic goats on the covers, bands with names from a morticians text book and members whose names are full of umlauts. After a quick glance, these CDs usually go into the trash or into the hands of my Venisection neighbor. And so it was as I opened the latest brown puffy mailer. Opeth. Never heard of 'em. Their bio sheet says they are from Sweden (aren't they all?)... no umlauts but lots of funny little circles, and that this is their fifth album. But the cover intrigued me enough to at least put the CD in for a sample. Very heavy and passionate with an interesting riff, fast but not to the point that it becomes blurred. And then the singer started in with the typical death metal "belching the alphabet" roar. Had it not been for the progressive, irregular rhythm and raw yet focused energy, I probably would have removed the disc. Five minutes into this dark, heavy track, the meter changed to 3/4, the tempo slowed, and light broke out as the hard-edged metal guitars were exchanged for acoustic, the rough melody replaced by a real, singable melody and the gravelly voice traded for silken, clear vocals. Two minutes of this startling interlude and the listener was plunged again into the dark roller coaster ride. Other tracks continue in this chiaroscuro, taking the listener through the darkest storm only to surprise them with rays of sunshine and abating rain. Instead of being abrupt, these drastic transitions are expertly executed, going from one extreme to another seamlessly and naturally. There seems to be a common theme throughout the eight tracks, though I've yet to be able to find a riff or a melody that ties it all together. This cohesiveness lends a nearly symphonic feel to the album. Most of the songs range from six to twelve minutes and this band works exceptionally well in such a large-scale environment. The songs never become tired or repetitive due to it's depth, sophisticated song structures, progressive elements and use of dynamics and atmosphere. Lyrically Opeth is pretty bleak but intelligently written, but what do you expect with song titles like "The Funeral Portait" and, well, "Bleak." With it's simmering black caldron full of death metal, prog, folk metal and classic rock, this album is difficult to categorize but easily one of the most pleasant and surprising finds I've had in the last year.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2001.

Music Review - Saint Low - Saint Low

Good but not as good as Madder Rose, which was good but not great.

Best known as the vocalist for the Madder Rose, Mary Lorson has accumulated quite a catalog of her own material. A quick listen to this CD will reveal why these songs were better held for a solo release. Instead of the textured walls of psychotropic guitar sound of Madder Rose, these songs are sultry and passionate, a smoldering collection of torch songs that borrow heavily from the age of jazz. Such songs fit in perfectly with Lorson's pure voice that sounds like the girl next door, only sexier, a playfully seductive voice that can make a young man fall in love and make a fool of himself. A June fool?

"Johnson City" is a prime example of the songs on this album with Lorson singing an aching melody in two-part harmony over a sedated mamboish rhythm that reeks of a melancholy memory, a song to slow dance close to. Equally smoky is "Crash", a smoldering song that evokes images of dimly lit nightclubs and those huge 40's microphones. "Only One", with it's infectious up-tempo melody and layered guitars is the only song that could fit on a Madder Rose album. My personal favorite is "On The Outside", a song of loss and alienation with an emotive violin line that permeates the song like a solitary tear moving down a beautiful face. The melody in this song, as in the others, seems intended to rend the heart of the listener. Overall, this album helps prove that Lorson is more than just a singer. The melodies are fresh and haunting and the entire "confessional song" feel of the album draws the listener into a secret confidence, an imaginary nightclub in the 40s where Mary is singing to you alone.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2000.

Music Review - Madder Rose - Hello June Fool

I still give this and other Madder Rose albums a listen every few years. It's good, melodic stuff and way too mellow to be a regular part of my diet.

An hour of high school petting and then going home. Such is the music of Madder Rose. With incredible self-restraint, this New York quartet creates richly textured songs with a controlled aggression lying just below the surface. The tension this creates is both tremendous and unnerving. As Mary Lorson's honey dulcet voice floats dreamily over Billy Cote's atmospheric melodies backed by a fuzzed-out yet controlled guitar, you expect that at any minute the cage door will open and the pent-up guitar will break into a ravenous frenzy... but it never does. The gentle, relaxed melodies are original and inviting while the music is a mixture of playful psychedelia and ethereal simplicity with Cote's distorted guitar pacing around the edges like a hungry animal.

With the exception of one song written exclusively by Lorson (with an annoyingly repetitive chorus), the songwriting on their latest release, Hello June Fool, is strong throughout. "Feels Like Summer" certainly does, transporting the listener to a lazy summer afternoon, laying in the sun-speckled shade of a tree, the temperature just right. "Overflow" has a subdued funk feel and tastefully placed wah-wah guitar that tugs at you, seductively promising release that never comes. "Hotel" is an ironic story of longing ("he took his life when he wanted to take yours") and "Train" has an incredible, and incredibly complicated, drum part that indeed sounds like a train. In "Goodbye June Fool", Lorson's rich voice contains just the right mixture of playfulness and sorrow to capture the feeling of paradise lost present in this song. The near-pop melodies and rich, textured feel of this music should appeal instantly to fans of The Breeders, The Choir, or Psychedelic Furs. However, anyone wanting to hear well-crafted music that appeals to both the heart and mind would do well to check out this latest release by Madder Rose, a band that knows who it is and where it is going.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 1999.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Music Review - Plankeye - Strange Exchange

I have zip, zero, zilch memory of this album. Of course I reviewed it thirteen years ago and can barely remember yesterday but still, Plankeye was/is a fairly well known Christian rock band so one would think that would have translated into some kind of memory.

Plankeye has gone through so many lineup changes that it’s questionable that any of the original members remain. While their earlier albums were definitely rock/punk excursions for a younger audience, Strange Exchange and their last album, Relocation, show a growing maturity both lyrically and musically from this youth-group mentality. What has not changed is the ringing, bristling guitars that capture the muscle of these indie rock tunes.

The album opens with “This Is,” perhaps the strongest track. The punk influence of their early albums is evident in this driving rock n’ assault full of pulsing guitar riffs and an intense, bursting rhythm. “The Meaning of it All” takes a slower turn with a definite U2 or Oasis vibe and cryptic, somber lyrics that search for, well, meaning: “With age comes time/And leaves to the earth must fall and die/Before they can find the meaning of it all.” The acoustic guitar is brought out for “My Wife,” a delicate track full of intricate playing that matches this emotive ode to the singer’s spouse.

< In the last two tracks the passion and intensity finally catch up with the frenetic pop exuberance of the album’s first few songs, resulting in some very fine songs indeed. But it’s too few too late. Between the energetic opening and the emotional ending, there’s 20 minutes of “I’ve heard this before.”

The album is full of well-executed post- indie rock with doses of The Tories and Semisonic and a dab of Brit-pop. The music is passionate, often dark and layered. The production is sparse and dry with enough experimental flourishes (thanks to veteran Chris Colbert) to keep your interest throughout. Unfortunately, it’s not an album that sticks with you. When I listen to this CD, I enjoy what I hear when I’m hearing it, but when the album is over I don’t find any of the songs sticking around and I don’t find myself thinking, “Hey, Mr. Cheesesocks, how about we listen to that new Plankeye CD?” Obviously the catchy melodic hooks aren’t sharp enough to stay in my mind longer than 45 minutes.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2001.