Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Music Review - Soen - Tellurian

I decided that for 2015 I should get back into the game and write more CD reviews, shooting for one a month and hoping that this would lead to the discovery of some great new music. The first album I reviewed was this one and it didn't cost me a dime 'cause I just listened to the full album on YouTube a few times. My how the times have changed.

The debut album by Soen sounded more like Tool than Tool sounded like Tool on their last few albums. Since Tool’s music doesn’t wind my gears, neither did Soen’s debut album. Their second album, Tellurian, is a different story. Sure, the Tool influence is there but it’s mixed with mid-90s Opeth. I’m a finicky lad so to my ears Opeth’s first few albums were too raw and their albums after Ghost Reveries seemed to be lacking oomph so I’m left with a small handful to enjoy. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the drummer for the Opeth albums that I like (and not the drummer for the albums I didn’t like) is Martin Lopez, also the drummer for Soen. I never would have imagined that a drummer could exert so much influence over the style and sound of a band but perhaps I’m just ignernt.

What does such a Tool/Opeth love-child sound like? At times it’s light and airy and others it gets downright heavy, progressive but never overly complicated (like some King Crimson), often melancholy and atmospheric but not downright dark. And vocalist Joel Eklöf, to his credit, never goes Cookie Monster on us, even though there are times when I feel that a little vocal gravel would have been appropriate. So while at times the music will burst into a frenzy of distortion and tumbling rhythms, the vocalist remains as tranquil and smooth as his cue-ball head. Some songs, like “The Words,” hypnotize you with soothing melodies, only occasionally bringing in the distortion as a kind of background noise, while other songs like the angular “Ennui” kick off with a bang and only let up long enough to make sure the next punch lands in the right spot. None of the songs are going to rip your head off, though there are quite a few times when your pulse should quicken. Rather, the music is almost artful and, dare I say, delicate, but in a masculine kind of way (he says scratching himself in a manly manner). Going back to Opeth, the album is mostly sedate like Damnation, never coming even close to the frenzy found in parts of Blackwater Park, and yet there are times when the songs pulse with the energy that only distorted guitars can provide.

Now about that cover. Look at that, will ya? It’s an anthropomorphic rhino eating little humans. Unsual, yet artfully presented. Tellurian is a bit like that: a little bit artsy, a little bit monstrous, and a little bit human.

Hard Root Beer Review - Sprecher

Next up is Sprecher's Hard Root Beer, an "adult" version of their regular root beer.

The first word that came to my mind upon the first taste is "weird." It's not quite a root beer flavor but it's not quite NOT a root beer flavor. It's definitely not a beer flavor. There's lots of foam when you pour it into a glass but there's no carbonation in the actual drink, which makes for a disconcerting mouthfeel where the flavor makes you believe you should have some tingle but there's no tingle. Unlike Father's this one isn't overly sweet, which is a mark in its favor. But it isn't overly good either. A quick check of the label shows that they pretty much just took malt liquor and added their normal flavoring (with natural and artificial flavors, which can mean just about anything except it's made with 100% roots and berries).

And so another one bites the dust. I won't be purchasing any more Sprecher's Hard Root Beer, although I'm curious now to try their regular root beer to see if it's as bizarre tasting as their hard version, or if it's actually good. I figure it must be or else how would it have lasted this long on the grocery shelves?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hard Root Beer Review - Blackmaker

There I was, in my local Belmonts Beverage, looking to pick up a bottle of something my wife needed for a recipe: Grand Marnier.

On cell phone: "Hey, this stuff is like thirty bucks for a bottle. How much do you need for the recipe? Two tablespoons? How 'bout we use some triplesec instead?"

On the way out I saw a display of these nice rounded bottles filled with a black liquid. Blackmaker Rootbeer Liqueur, or so it claimed to be. Seventy proof, ten bucks for a 750 ML bottle and its made with real spices. I'm a sucker for trying out new liquids (hence my tendency to pick up cans of unknown origin at Big Lots), plus I didn't want to leave without buying something and have the employees think I was shoplifting, so I took a bottle home. After paying for it, of course.

WHAMMO! While most of the stuff sold as "root beer" is meant for mixing so as to cover up a flavor born in a laboratory, this stuff is the real deal! Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, sweet birch, anise and wintergreen all combine to make a drink of depth and complexity such that all you need is a little ice and water ('cause it's bloomin' seventy proof!) to enjoy. It has no carbonation 'cause it doesn't need any. It's so good I would drink the stuff sans alcohol.

Blackmaker is the real deal. It's the root beer beverage by which all others will be judged, although unfortunately it is no longer available at Belmonts. From what folklore I can gather, Belmonts picked up a bunch of cases of this stuff as it was being discontinued at the distillery and sold it for ten bucks instead of it's usual $25 or $30. 'Tis a shame but I was able to snag another bottle before it disappeared from this world forever.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Music Review - The Choir - Diamonds and Rain

Choir – Diamonds and Rain – 1986 I picked up on The Choir with Wide-Eyed Wonder so I didn’t get to hear the band as they developed their sound. This meant that by the time I heard Diamonds and Rain I had also heard Chase the Kangaroo and other classics, putting this 1986 album at a disadvantage. It doesn’t help that the album contains two songs that are among the worst that the band has released. Maybe that’s why for decades I felt that the entire album was unlistenable, blaming the cause for this at the feet of producer Charlie Peacock.

I was wrong. Aside from the two songs, and the bass being way too low in the mix, the album has some very fine examples of songcraft. The album opener, “Fear Only You”, is a fantastic and energetic worship song, made before it became obligatory that worship songs be bland, repetitive and mindless*. Another solid praise song is “All That Is You”, especially if you like slinky bass lines, ringing clean guitars, saxamaphone and cool breakdown sections in addition to your honest and reflective lyrics. “Render Love” is a poetic song full of open space and the kind of inventive yet simple bass lines that makes we want to pull my Carvin 5-string out of its case and plug into my amp. This song was also referenced in Chase the Kangaroo, which I always find enjoyable and amusing.

Speaking of the Kangaroo, “Black Cloud” would fit right in there with its edgy guitars, dark, murky sound and potentially fretless bass sliding all over the place (a classic Chandler sound honed from his days of playing slide trombone). And lots of echo and reverb. Whereas in 1986 a Christian song with the title of “Black Cloud” would have an obligatory final verse where the listener is cheerfully reminded that Jesus will take away all of your black clouds this song takes the Psalm 88 approach and gives no such reassurances. Such is life. Also outside of the (1986) norm is “Listen to Her Eyes,” an excellent and mature love song that makes no attempt to force the lyrics into also being about God. By not trying to stretch an analogy the band is able to write a beautiful song of “If your love is more than words / Listen to her eyes / Read her tears like pages / Hold her when she cries.” “Love Falls Down” is the final strong song on the album with creative instrumentation, a catchy melody, and an energetic bridge that quickens the pulse.

Perhaps the reason Diamonds and Rain retained such a low opinion in my brain are the quartet of mediocre or worse songs. “I Painted Mercy” is the best of the lot, followed by “When The Morning Comes”, a song which seems to want to be a big, dramatic closer but just doesn’t come together. From there we come to “Kingston Road”, a Peacock song with an irritatingly cheap sounding synth clarinet and a trite, sing-songly melody that makes one glad it’s 1986 and your CD player has a skip button. But don’t push it too many times or else you’ll land on “Triangle.” It’s a song about addiction that probably should have been recorded by Petra or Degarmo and Key.

Again, I will admit that Diamonds and Rain is immensely better than I previously gave it credit for, containing far more solid songs packed with character and poetic insight than most other Christian bands of that day. Plus the band decided that since they were pushing thirty they should probably drop the “Youth” from their name, a wise move in pre-internet days although now it’s kind of like naming your band “3” and wondering why people can’t find you on their favorite search engine. And yes, I realize that I’m all about ‘dat bass here but hey, I’m a bassman. So allow me to point out that Steve Hindalong plays on the entire album and comes up with some very creative and catchy drum parts and Derri Daugherty continues to come into his own by combining his love of fuzzy shoe-gazer guitar with true melodies and U2 (most Christian guitarists did) to come up with his own sound.

* 99.5% of ‘em, anyway.

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.