Tuesday, September 29, 2015
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.
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
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.