Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review - Devin Townsend Project - Epicloud

Devin Townsend is one of those guys upon whom you could waste an entire review trying to describe, which means that for most people the adjective “weird” suits just fine. “Oddball” might also be allowable (the man has sold puppets on his web site… PUPPETS!!!!) During the last few years Devin did a massive personality probe, fracking it into four distinct parts and recording an album for each facet. Admitting that this was self-indulgent Mr. Townsend decided to clear the air by unleashing his “inner Def Leppard,” which in Devin’s hands turns out to be something quite different, but oddly similar to, the arena rock we all know and (go on, admit it) love.

Epicloud is that carnival view of arena rock and it lives up to its name. It’s big (epic) and it’s loud. Except the first track, where Devin apparently though it would be humorous to have a churchy choir singing a harmonious theme that makes appearances elsewhere in the album. It’s hard to kick that self-indulgent thing. “True North” follows and it’s fairly characteristic of the rest of the album. Heavy yet catchy guitar rhythms float on a spacey bed of reverb while Anneke van Giersbergen adds angelic vocals and Ryan Van Poederooyen (I’m not making that up, to steal a line) goes completely donkey kong on the drums. Now and then the band may change things around but mostly the songs are intentionally much simpler than much of Devin’s past work. This is never more evident than in the single “Lucky Animals (The New Beige)” which is so refined and streamlined that it will make a bee-line for your brain and stay there for weeks. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT watch the YouTube video Mr. Townsend made of himself for this song… in his back yard in one take. Okay, go ahead. I’ll wait. “Liberation” is another killer song, a kind of trip to the moon with Cheap Trick at the wheel and the cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the cargo bay. I’m perfectly serious here. The entire album is a kind of raucous tent meeting as a full choir makes an appearance on many songs. But instead of, say, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones where a choir signifies that you’ve jumped the shark, Devin pushes past irony with his use of the choir, having them sing such glorious lines as “Rock! Let’s rock! The time has come to forget all the bullsh!t and rock!” It’s impossible to listen to this album and not smile. To keep things balanced there are a few slower songs such as the touching “Divine” which features lyrics of “Loving you is the best thing in the worst thing in my life.” I think it’s a love song. In fact, maybe the entire album is a love song. Maybe it’s to himself. Or maybe it’s an anti-love song/album. One never can be too sure about such things.

While at times a bit lean in the ideas department, at least compared to his past albums where layers exist to enhance the layers that augment the layers of layers, Epicloud is a joyous, happy album that has more than its share of highly accessible songs. Sure, it’s a little off the beaten path but it’s a journey well worth taking.

Review - Neal Morse - Momentum

In two weeks world class drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theatre) is scheduled to stop by and records on your next album. There’s just one little problem: you have only one song written and it’s short. Time to panic? Not if you’re Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard), master musician, composer, song crafter and all-around nice guy. Instead you double down and churn out an hour of music. And not just filler but solid, melodic songs that stand among the best of your long career. I’m doing my best not to be jealous.

While the album first fell flat on my ears it didn’t take long for the hooks to take hold. Both “Momentum” and “Weathering Sky” are high octane positive rockers. Though Morse is known for his progressive rock roots both of these songs are free from any “weirdness” such that they should find a tidy home with fans of classic rock. “Smoke and Mirrors” reflects acoustic guitars, electronic piano and strings, building from a gentle verse section to an impassioned, dramatic crescendo before backing off again. Fans of Neal’s more adventurous side will take heart with yet another installment in his “Thoughts” series, this one being part five. Layered a cappella sections via Gentle Giant battle with disjointed rhythms, creative sounds, scorching Hammond organs and invigorating extended instrumental sections. I’ll take this over a cuppa coffee any day! Stretching himself a bit, Morse presents “Freak”, an upbeat song built around a staccato string part, building big into a full orchestra before dropping off to accentuate the punch line.

And of course no Neal Morse album would be complete without at least one gigantic song. This time out its “World Without End” which runs a modest (by Morse standards) thirty three minutes. While I enjoy this song as it’s pumping through my brain the sheer scope of it has preventing the melodies from sinking in. I have little doubt that this is only temporary. I will say that this song gives Portnoy and bassist Randy George many chances to stretch out and dig deep into their immense talents and I’m hearing lots of sections that make me perk up my ears like a schnauzer hearing a can opener.

Neal Morse titled the album Momentum and a more appropriate title cannot be found. While his solo career had a rusty start as he found his footing every album since then has consistently knocked it out of the park. I keep waiting for the man to slack off and release a dud but to my immense pleasure he’s on a roll and I, for one, am happy to come along for the ride.

Review - Daniel Amos - Shotgun Angel Reissue

So, fans of classic rock operas, you think you’ve heard them all, do you? From Tommy to The Wall, you’ve got ‘em all. You even have a special place in your heart for Journey to the Center of the Earth and you’re comfortable admitting it in mixed company. But have you heard the end-times rock opera on side two of 1977s Shotgun Angel by Daniel Amos? That’s right. 1970s era end-times, as in The Late Great Planet Earth. Fortunately the anti-Christ has held off his appearance in anticipation of the expanded collector’s edition release of this unique album.

Daniel Amos started out as what would be called alt-country, if such a term existed in the mid 70s. This didn’t last for long because by Shotgun Angel, their second album, the band was less and less country (most of it to be found on side A) and more alt. Imagine Firefall or The Eagles morphing into 10cc and you’ll have an idea of the sonic transformation captured on this album. As you might expect, the vocal harmonies are incredible, the melodies indelible. And despite the 10cc influence being contained mostly to the aforementioned Side B, there’s a strong sense of humor throughout many of the songs which would help the country medicine to go down smoother (for non-country fans) if the A.M.-friendly medicine wasn’t so silky smooth to begin with.

As good as the first half is, you know you’re in for a treat when you turn the record over, or whatever it is you kids do these days. “Finale: Beresith Overture” is a true overture, blending in musical themes of every song on side B and played by an orchestra. Yep, cellos, flutes, timpani, woodwinds… the whole shebang. There was a big budget for album and it shows! All the digital scrubbing of the original master tapes doesn’t hurt either, allowing everything to shine through clearly. “Lady Goodbye,” a mournful piano ballad, picks right up after the overture, quickly fleshing out with full orchestral accompaniment to become a grand and gorgeous statement. Ominous sound effects lead the way to the creepy “The Whistler” while the brief, peppy, Beatlesque “He’s Gonna Do A Number on You” gives a break from the heady topic at hand. “Better” picks up the rock theme with loads of sizzling guitar parts injected between the vocals of “Just take my groceries and put ‘em in the sack / No checks, no cash, don’t give me no flack / ‘Cause my little number hasn’t failed me yet.” “Sail Me Away” is pure A.M. radio candy, oozing with strings and vibes and even a harp, a song which is presumably about the rapture. The alt-country element comes back in with the final song, “Posse in the Sky”, bringing the album full circle, just in time for the end of the world, er, the end of 2012, which is nigh at hand!

Review - Terry Scott Taylor - Return To The Neverhood

In the beginning Doug Tennapel, creator of Earthworm Jim, also created The Neverhood by utilizing hundreds of pounds of clay. And Doug said unto Terry Taylor, “Make me music that sounds like clay.” And Terry did. And it was very good. So good, in fact, that it won awards and cavalcades and a round of congratulatory back slaps so robust that Terry sought the anointing of St. Benjamin Gay.

Many years later, for reasons unknown to us mere mortals, after twenty years Doug and Terry decided to Return To The Neverhood, although substituting a more cost-effective comic book over a claymation-based video game. As I dearly loved to squishy, malleable, goofy, inarticulate music of the original I dutifully shelled out some cash but braced myself for the worst because we all know that sequels almost always stink like a three day old diaper. I’m happy to say that despite a reference to “pooping my pants” in the Spanish flavored song “The Love Sweet Love Suite” there is nothing stinky about Return To The Neverhood. You gots yer standard Dixieland combo on psychotropic drugs, a smattering of ethereal Star Trek vocals, a few jazzy combos with scorching trumpets, general goofing around and oodles of sticky melodies. In essence you’ve got everything that made the original so endearing. A favorite track is “Huh?” which is a peppy surf-like ditty punctuated by sax and clarinets that every now and then breaks into a spacey gush of noise that causes the mush-mouthed vocals to exclaim, “What’s going on here?” and “I don’t get it.” Seriously, I want this played at my funeral. Another zinger is “It’s a Ding Dang Day,” a lo-fi bluegrass romp that packs four minutes of fun into one minute. “Fishin’ With The Sculptor” perfectly captures the essence of the original Neverhood theme without directly quoting it, throwing in a drunken horn section that proudly makes a number of musical and amusical sounds not appropriate for mixed company.

Listen to this avant-garde folk album at your own peril: you may find yourself singing the nearly-legible lyrics at work, home, or play, thus bringing the curious looks of onlookers looking your way. You’ll have a “ding dong dickey dang day” and it will be very good.