• Breaking Benjamin - Dear Agony (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 20 2010, 17h29

    Let it be known: it’s taken literally WEEKS to come to terms with my feelings on this album and then even longer to find the words to describe those feelings. No album up to this point has taken as long to survey as this one; I’ve had practically entire nights dedicated to rehearsing in my mind how I should explain my thoughts. Here, finally, is my attempt to actually explain myself in writing.

    My involvement with Dear Agony starts with the fact that nibchan and StarPiece both love Breaking Benjamin. And I mean absolutely LOVE them. There was a period last school year that they practically seemed to dedicate to being huge fans of this album—I can quite vividly remember the first time I heard the chorus to what I later found out was Fade Away blare out of nibchan's laptop speakers, with her and StarPiece jamming and singing along to it; and the number of inside jokes they’ve created because of this band and this album is quite amazing.

    My first thoughts basically boiled down to “Why all the rage over this? Doesn’t sound like anything special.” Eventually, I delved a little farther into song samples solely out of interest in slightly tackling that question, fully heard and liked Fade Away and thus downloaded it, and when they saw that I had it, they talked about how they were gonna turn me on more to them, to which I responded NO THEY WERE NOT, for just one good song from a band not in my scope of interest does not sufficient interest create. Two songs apparently does, however; I found out later on in the semester that I digged I Will Not Bow, and that made me want to delve even deeper into Dear Agony, and I therefore borrowed it from nibchan.

    So, to start, my initial impression of this album being “nothing special” was quite wrong. I originally pegged Breaking Benjamin’s sound as being of the postgrunge Nickelback/Creed/the like variety, but upon closer listening, I sense strains of old-school Linkin Park, emo bands, and sometimes even Disturbed permeating throughout their music. I’m not especially huge into any of those reference points, and it’s also not the most eccentric combination of influences gathered under one roof, but I can get behind it. Just so long as that sound is put in the service of good songs. And Dear Agony gets pretty interesting when it comes to that. It’s probably best that my overall opinion on it be stated first before getting into specifics. So, my verdict: as a whole, this album is average, but not great. In pieces, however, it sometimes reaches greatness; strip away nearly half the tracks, leaving just the best ones, and what’s left could make for a great EP.

    Most of the best tracks on the album are the first ones. Take Fade Away, a pretty relentless track boasting sixteenth-note riffing that introduces the verses, short verses that are just kind of quiet but quickly give way to some of the most bombastic choruses on the album, and an excellent guitar break that even incorporates a little quirkiness with a fake stop. And I Will Not Bow, which, though the chorus could be a little better, is the most unique track here with its abundance of musical intricacies like the excellent stuttering riff following its synthesized introduction, nice guitar play during the verses, even more great guitar play in the instrumental bridge, and a set of guitar chords dedicated just to the closing.

    Then there is Crawl, a ballad-hard rock hybrid with the album’s sweetest vocal melodies (“Are you holding on? Still holding on?”) and crystalline high guitar chimes in the verses working harmoniously with the palm-muted guitars in the second part of the verses and the total heaviness of the chorus, complete with well-placed screaming. It’s the best thing on this album hands-down—the greatest early Linkin Park track made by a different band—which makes it such a shame that Give Me A Sign, a perfectly respectable song in its own right and one that I quite like, follows right after. That bit of sequencing just serves to highlight that it’s a lesser song than Crawl and also takes a more obvious approach: straight-up rock balladry seemingly bred for crossover potential, complete with acoustic strumming (to its credit, very delicate and tasteful strumming—Nickelback should take note) in the verses.

    After that song is where Dear Agony starts faltering. Not because the following songs are really bad, but rather because they’re just average: songs with good aspects that are marred by flawed elements. Hopeless has a pretty badass introduction riff and boasts double kick drums, but outside of that, it’s little more than a sawed-off Fade Away with screaming in the chorus that, especially when compared to its use in Crawl, is ridiculous and unnecessary. What Lies Beneath is a waltz rocker where I feel like I have to survive through the clunky and graceless distorted guitar chords of the choruses and bridge if I want to enjoy the darkly pretty verses. Anthem Of The Angels, apparent right off the bat from its not-so-modest title and the cinematic-strings introduction, is a slow anthem that’s probably a little too histrionic for its own good. On a somewhat nicer note, the title track Dear Agony does the soaring-anthem approach better, even being MORE anthemic than Anthem without sounding as ham-fisted, but it could be an even better song by using more clean, delicate guitar tones (especially the one in the introduction. It’s actually quite beautiful) rather than mixing in so much brute-force distortion.

    There are a couple more straight-up good tracks left in the latter part of the album—Lights Out makes a thematic change from the overall self-agonizing of most of the album’s lyrics to showing apathy, attaches it to a sonic assault whose relentlessness matches that of Fade Away, and the second parts of its long choruses (“And when the lights go out on you…”) are probably the most transcendently awesome parts of the album. And Without You pulls off desperation quite nicely, most notably in its good choruses and a well-done dramatic second half (complete with melancholy string outro) perfectly appropriate of its last-song designation.

    At the end of it all, despite my opinion on the worth of the entire album, I’m glad to have borrowed it because of all the good stuff it’s brought me. Breaking Ben may still not have my love, but they have my respect. And, also, my eternal thanks for making Crawl.

    Breaking Benjamin - Dear Agony

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  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 21h51

    I liked It's Blitz! a whole lot, and even though I knew beforehand that their first album sounds markedly different from that one, I dove in and expected to like what I heard. Well, expectations were a bit unfulfilled at first, haha - it wasn't until the second listen that I really started appreciating it. I've found that the first two tracks don't really pull me in (but maybe they'll grow on me, too?), but starting with Man and going forward, it's all great stuff. Between Karen O and the guitars (something to note about em: like The White Stripes, they bring the low end where bass guitars usually are), it's often a noisy and crazy affair, with Man, Black Tongue, and Cold Light being especially high marks of that.

    Adding onto that goodness, the four songs at the end of the album where the insanity is toned down - Maps, Y Control, the remarkably pretty and melancholy Modern Romance, and the hidden track Poor Song, also hold up excellently.

    Overall, I prefer It's Blitz! to Fever To Tell, but this one is still a damn fine album.

    Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell

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    This review could probably use slightly more detail. So I might update it with a more fleshed-out description at a later time. - 08/19/10
  • The White Stripes - Icky Thump (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 21h43

    Hearing this, I now know that the naming of my fake Rock Band band, White Stripes, is fully justified. When this album hits the mark, it absolutely rules!! It sounds so lively, and sometimes batshit insane. Even though Meg is no technician behind the drums, she makes up for it in raw power. And I really like how the guitars pack so much of a low end, effectively stealing away the job of a bass guitar. Plus, Icky Thump gets extra points for having an Irish jig, Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn.

    Favorites: 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Bone Broke, Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn, I'm Slowly Turning Into You, Catch Hell Blues

    The White Stripes - Icky Thump

    This review needs more detail, I'm finding. This was one of the earlier albums I wrote about, and at that time my evaluations were pretty short. This will probably be updated at a later time... - 08/19/10
  • Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 21h32

    Josh Homme and Dave Grohl have reunited a good seven years after working together on the best Queens of the Stone Age album, Songs for the Deaf, and they've joined with a legend, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, to fill out the rest of the rhythm section. Theoretically, something good should be coming out of this partnership. And that's despite the fact that this is a supergroup, for Josh and Dave are highly experienced with side projects. In practice, something good DOES result, which is Them Crooked Vultures! The real question, then, is HOW good?

    So, the first thing about Them Crooked Vultures: they're NOT the Queens in different clothes, though some songs still display unmistakably QOTSA-like qualities (for example, Elephants shares the fast intro-slow midsection-fast outro setup done on Queens' Song For The Dead; Bandoliers and Spinning in Daffodils have somewhat of a Lullabies to Paralyze feel to them). You see, what makes QOTSA what they are is its meticulous nature, with lots of attention so obviously spent on musical frills and tooling around with the sound. In comparison, the songs of Them Crooked Vultures sound like they were put together quickly with a minimal amount of time sweating details. The final result of this is straightforward rock n roll to a degree that QOTSA would never be - think about it like older Beatles vs. newer Beatles. The hands-off approach works both for and against the songs, in my opinion. On one hand, I really like how lively the hands-off approach makes the performances sound, and it highlights the impressive instrumental chops of everyone involved. But on the other hand, I also get the feeling that some of it could be markedly improved with Queens-style tooling.

    The what-if speculation isn't a big deal, however, because ultimately, with the exception of the sleep-inducing second half of Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up and the meh Caligulove, the songs are overall great stuff in their own right, with the best being stellar. Right off the bat, No One Loves Me & Neither Do I is a catchy little number for its first half, but most of its brilliance lies after the bridge, when it transforms into a musical hammering with tricky time signatures. Dead End Friends has a brisk pace and some especially nice guitar tones. Bandoliers is dreamy, especially with its main verse riff and the second part of its chorus. Reptiles sounds as wonky as the circus suggested in the lyrics, along with having my favorite line in the whole album ("Questions are a fire that needs feeding/So just you let those flames die down.").

    The absolute best songs, however, are the most fun ones - New Fang is laced with irrepressible bounciness, Elephants kicks off with a killer rifftastic intro before going into a slow Take Me Out-style stomp, Gunman flattens everything around its dance beat with rapidfire wah-wah riffage, and all three sound like they could have been made with Rock Band or Guitar Hero playing in mind.

    So, the answer to the real question from before: it's more than good. It's pretty damn GREAT.

    Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures

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  • Shinedown - The Sound Of Madness (Bonus Track Version) (Summer Music Listening…

    Ago 19 2010, 21h19

    Most postgrunge rock has caught very little interest from me with just a few exceptions, so it's kind of a coup that I ended up really interested in Shinedown via Devour. Probably a huge coup, actually, since the samples I've heard from their previous two albums interest me very little. How the hell THIS album got some sharp fucking teeth compared to what I've glanced of their earlier stuff, I don't know, but it works excellently. Even some of the softer songs like Second Chance and The Crow & The Butterfly have enough color and straight-up songwriting goods to be high-quality.

    However, for all the praise I'm giving it, I must mention that the album is also a little infuriating, since given all those good qualities working for it, The Sound Of Madness unfortunately falters after Sin With A Grin. I'm especially looking at you, What A Shame: as if you weren't cloying enough, there had to be a goddamn key change at the end, too?!

    But that's no big deal, because those first seven tracks are absolutely golden - of hugest note, Devour has a brilliant military march intro and then shoves on at a ferocious pace with anger at wartime conditions; and that's still just the THIRD most furious track here, being outdone by Sin With A Grin's great pummeling rhythms and the unfalteringly feverish Cry For Help, the best track on the album in my book - and The Sound Of Madness has the good grace to end on a nice note with the piano-and-string-backed Call Me.

    Also, being that I got the Deluxe version of this album, there are three more bonus tracks after the initial songlist. With the potential exception of only Son Of Sam, they're not as top-notch as the first half of the actual album, but they're still fairly good - good enough that I'd argue they should outright replace the three tracks between Sin and Call Me on The Sound Of Madness.

    So, to summarize, that's 11 out of 14 tracks that pass my muster, with 7 out of those 11 ranging between seriously great and brilliant. An extremely worthwhile addition to my music collection.

    Shinedown - The Sound of Madness (Bonus Track Version)

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  • Röyksopp - Melody A.M. (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 21h10

    Electronica doesn't have to be all high-energy, all the time. In fact, it can even be quite...mellow. This is the realm that Röyksopp - who some of you may have gotten exposure to via Remind Me, which was featured in Geico commercials - often inhabits on Melody A.M. I had been meaning to get this album for a good while, but it wasn't until I took advantage of an iTunes gift card and the cheap buying price (only $6.99!) that I actually did so. And I'm happy that I did!

    So, going into the actual music itself, the percussion is pretty much always hip-hop, but the songs as a whole are mostly out to be eargasmic headphones-listening rather than clubbing or breakdance material. This mode of sonic attack yields some pretty great stuff. A couple highlights of that: Eple is packed to the brim with twinkling synthesizers, and when it hits its chord progression, it's brilliant. Sparks is absolutely dreamy, with glitchy beats, electric piano chords, and even a female vocal sample. In Space manages to be be both fast with its beats and yet still mellow, thanks to the 70's-throwback synthesized strings (which reminds me of Snoop Dogg's own 70's homage Sexual Eruption, since it uses em, too) and plucky synths sprinkling about the track. And then we have the album's weirdest track 40 Years Back Come, which starts off sounding like a robot's thought process for the first minute, but then with merely an eerie, beautiful synth melody playing for the last three minutes.

    Röyksopp occasionally pick up the energy level, with Poor Leno, a straight-up house number infused with melancholy, and the seven-and-a-half minute Röyksopp's Night Out, where brass blasts and some funky guitar exude cockiness. To Röyksopp's credit, both of them are very well-done songs, showing that they have credible range. So, as a whole, Melody A.M. keeps my ears happy.

    Röyksopp - Melody A.M.

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  • Radiohead - Pablo Honey (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 20h59

    Up until very recently, it's the only Radiohead album I didn't listen to. I chose to stay away from it because this is the one with Creep on it. But when nibchan got it, I decided to borrow it because, ultimately, why hate an album that I've only heard one track from? Having now listened to Pablo Honey, I must say that it's better than I was expecting, considering Creep is the only song from it that I really dislike. It's still not top-form Radiohead, though, since the overall production style hasn't aged well, which does no favors to what is sometimes bland songwriting - The Bends fixed both those problems, thankfully. It's unquestionably Radiohead's lowest-ranking album in my book, though still not bad.

    It's ultimately a worthwhile-enough listen because there are pangs of greatness every once in a while. You introduces itself with a nice clean guitar line, and then rolls along with a waltz-like 3/4 time signature...but showing that Radiohead already had some weirdness in them, they abruptly interrupt their waltz rhythm every once in a while to good effect. Anyone Can Play Guitar succeeds despite its production shortcomings from having such catchy melodies. Prove Yourself is just such a well-constructed, well-paced song, with a guitar-and-vocals beginning, its eccentric chorus, even guitar soloing in places, and it does its whole thing in under two minutes, thirty seconds. Lurgee actually takes advantage of Pablo Honey's production style with some lovely-sounding guitars.

    And then there's the last track, Blow Out. It's phenomenal: being at once the greatest track on the album and most "Radiohead-esque" of the bunch, with its eccentric drum pattern, Thom Yorke providing his own vocal counterpoints in the chorus, and starting up quietly while ratcheting up the noise until it reaches its monstrous ending. In retrospect, there evidently must have been a great band in Radiohead popping up every once in a while back in 1993. Fortunately, that band eventually reared its head fully.

    Radiohead - Pablo Honey

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  • Muse - Black Holes and Revelations (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 20h51

    I think my album-listening experience with this one suffered since I had listened to many of its tracks beforehand, so there was not much new to discover. And most of the tracks that WERE new discoveries were either just pretty bad or didn't live up to the previously-heard tracks. Big offenders: their shot at delicacy, Soldier's Poem, and their super-empowering anthem, Invincible, which both fall flat.

    Ultimately, however, it must be pretty good, because I like all but three tracks. Plus, who am I to argue against the digitized Supermassive Black Hole, the techno/trance-infused Map of the Problematique, or the aggressive metal-like assault of Assassin, even if I had already heard them all before? And for all the criticism I give of the tracks I hadn't heard before, two of them - Exo-Politics with its introductory drum break and catchy riffs, and Hoodoo with its combination of spaghetti western guitar and a marching-stomp midsection - are actually pretty nice.

    Muse - Black Holes and Revelations

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    This review could probably use a little more detail. It was one of the earlier albums I wrote about, and at that time my evaluations were pretty short. It might be updated at a later time, if more useful info could be fitted in. - 08/19/10
  • Mastodon - Crack The Skye (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 20h43

    There are only five metal records at this point that I have. Of those five, Mastodon takes up three of them, Crack The Skye included in that total, and that's because they're awesome. Having now listened to their latest, I'm feeling it a LOT. It doesn't have the same degree of aggressiveness or guitar sludginess as their earlier work, instead putting a significantly greater emphasis on dreamlike, otherworldly sonic textures.

    And WOW, do they pull the sound off well! They already did single songs with this kind of emphasis on texture (quite well, in fact) with Naked Burn and Sleeping Giant, but Crack The Skye ups the ante majorly. It sounds downright epic, both as a full suite of songs and also throughout single songs. As evidence of the latter, hear Quintessence with otherworldly high guitar tones during its verses and a huge horizon-spanning sweep of the guitars during its choruses, and Ghost of Karelia, which sounds like an ever-deeper descent into the abyss.

    The best proof I can give that Mastodon are truly on-point, however: There are two huge risks with Crack The Skye - it's only seven tracks long, and not just one, but two of them (The Czar: Usurper / Escape / Martyr / Spiral and The Last Baron) are more than ten minutes - and both of them totally pay off.

    Mastodon - Crack the Skye

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  • Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster (Summer Music Listening Series)

    Ago 19 2010, 20h35

    One thing that I didn't mention in my thoughts on the first The Fame, but which bears being told now, was that contrary to the impression given off by all the most widely known singles from the first, about just 6 of the 16 tracks were modern pop in that vein. Pretty much the rest of the album leaned retro. And of those 6 tracks, the only one I'd call really great is Paparazzi, with Poker Face and Money Honey trailing somewhat closely behind. Thus, around The Fame, her non-retro stuff was fairly half-baked.

    Then The Fame Monster came around, and suddenly she got a WHOLE lot better at modern dance-pop. Most tellingly, I really liked all the singles that have been released, something that I can't say the same about most of what was released from The Fame. Lady Gaga seems to have come into her own when it comes to this style - Bad Romance is Just Dance and Poker Face in a perfected form, Alejandro and So Happy I Could Die are like drastic upgrades to LoveGame, and her sound even broadens into more uptempo dance numbers like Dance in the Dark and Telephone (feat. Beyoncé), both of which are really well-done. And there's also a particularly dangerous-sounding, seductive little number called Teeth.

    This is musically a great improvement over her first album; borrowing from European techno and dance music has done her wonders. Lyrically, The Fame Monster does away with the satirical undertones that drove The Fame, but in its place is more emotional heaviness and a broader range of topics - Dance In The Dark looks at female self-esteem, So Happy I Could Die makes references to masturbation, Teeth has its fair share of S&M imagery, even Bad Romance was written from the perspective of being in love with one's best friend. Overall, The Fame Monster is great stuff. Superior to Lady Gaga's first; if she stays on this kind of track, I wouldn't mind having her around for a long while.

    Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster

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