Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Steve Vai - Where The Wild Things Are (September 29, 2009)

Uh, Steve? I think someones already using that. Yes, this year. Yeah, I'm pretty sure its a big deal. Are you sure? I mean, we could think of another-- Okay, fine. We'll keep it, but it better be good.

This is how I imagine the conversation went when Steve announced his intention to name his latest album after his favorite childhood storybook.
//Oh God, I wish I was funny..

Its  backstory time.

Vai has quite the history, weaving through many different highly respected players and artists, and has become highly critically acclaimed as well as an inspiration to many an amateur guitarist.

Steve's first experience in the world of music came when he was only ten years old, when his parents persuaded him to take up the (don't laugh) accordion (I did not make that up.) However, after hearing one of his sister's Led Zeppelin records, he devoted himself entirely to the electric guitar. In the early 70s, Steve even managed to receive lessons from another highly critically acclaimed guitarist, Joe Satriani, who would later become a lifelong friend and partner in many endeavors. He then went on to attend Berklee College of Music, graduating in 1979.

Highly interested in the music of the legendary Frank Zappa, Vai made it his goal to attract Frank's attention. He decided the best way to do this was by transcribing, by hand, all of Frank's incredibly complex piece The Black Page, and mailing that to the Zappa residence. This transcription was eerily accurate, and impressed Frank enough to take on a young Vai to transcribe more guitar parts (excerpts of which are floating to the left as part of this blog layout) for what eventually became the official Frank Zappa Guitar Book.

//For anyone absolutely far too interested, I actually lifted both pieces for this blog's layout from Vai's work, the first being a chunk of the original Black Page transcription and the second being the second Violin solo from Mo 'n Herb's Vacation off of Zappa's first London Symphony Orchestra album (ref).

While working to transcribe all the absolutely ridiculous parts that Frank threw at him, Zappa began to recognize Vai's his potential as a guitarist, and eventually granted him status as a full-fledged band member. He appeared on several Zappa albums, before leaving the band to be recruited by David Lee Roth (after his recent estrangement from Van Halen) as the guitarist for his first solo album. Vai was compared very favorably in the press to Eddie Van Halen, making not only a name for himself, but also launching a career for his teacher Joe Satriani in the process.

After a short ordeal with Whitesnake (which he has never seemed too happy about), Steve began recording mostly instrumental solo albums which have garnered him incredible respect and esteem amongst amateur guitarists and musicians of all variates for generations. His second release, Passion and Warfare, immortalized him the eyes of many guitarists as one of the next greats. His sometimes comical approach to songwriting stood in direct contrast with serious musical ambitions, and highly technically proficient guitar parts, creating something truly unique.
"For example, for 'Down Deep into the Pain' from his new album Sex & Religion, Vai worked with a scale he created which divides the octave into 16 equal divisions instead of the 12 divisions of the equal temperament, to evoke a "divine dissonance" in the tune's final section. With unbridled creative license in his own studio, Vai has consistently produced thoughtful and technically astonishing music on his solo albums."
                    -Berklee Today, 1993 Fall Edition

I know that so far this review has been entirely about Steve instead of Where the Wild Things Are, but I felt it was important to fully explain where he's come from to understand where Wild Things falls. Anyway, I promised myself this would a short one, but so far its not looking that way, so lets cut to the good stuff.

Where the Wild Things Are was recorded at a show in Minneapolis during Vai's tour supporting his 2007 orchestral album, Sound Theories (which has one of the best album covers of all time.) It contains a few new songs, but mostly consists of somewhat reworked versions of older material. For this tour, Vai assembled a new band which featured critically acclaimed violinist Ann Marie Calhoun (previously of Jethro Tull and Dave Mathews Band). This band is absolutely fantastic, and when I heard them in action I was almost able to forgive Steve for releasing a live album recorded on the tour for his last live album. Ann Marie, who I was previously unacquainted with, performs wonderfully on almost every track, and plays some of the most inspiring solos on the album.

The album opener, Now We Run, stylistically feels a lot like modern progressive metal acts like Dream Theater. It also showcases his violinists' ability almost immediately, with a stunning solo by Ann Marie. Oooo has a deep groove, fantastic bassline and shrieking violins. The arrangement of the violins doubling Vai's outro solo is incredible.

Building the Church is the first serious high point on the album. The incredibly fast paced, nearly alarming intro is somewhat stripped down from its original studio version, and is much easier on the ears. The near-lyrical feel of the chorus (and verse) strongly evoke the style of his teacher, Satriani. Once again, the use of the violins adds a lot to this song versus its original version. Bryan Beller shines here as well, incorporating strong, devastating basswork in with some slap-style soloing under Steve's outro.

Tender Surrender is one of Vai's most popular, powerful and delicate pieces. Its performance here is about the best version I've ever heard, absolutely awe-inspiring from beginning to end. This is one of the most sensitive, emotional performances you'll ever hear from the man, and does not disappoint.

Freak Show Excess, famous for its terrifying (don't laugh) excess, is extended here into a framework to facilitate a fantastic sitar solo, as well as a top-notch bass solo. Like quite a few other performances on this album, I was never very fond of the studio version of this song, but it feels much more textured and fun live.

Fire Wall, as well as All About Eve, suffer from the same serious flaw, one that has hurt Mr. Vai's shows for years: Steve can't sing. His voice, no matter how hard he tries, simply doesn't sound very good. Steve is a fair songwriter, and if he only got someone who could really sing by his side again he could go really far, but this hasn't happened. I've always hoped he would get back together with the estranged thrash legend Devin Townsend (of Strapping Young Lad) who sang on his third album. This has never seemed very likely, but there have been some positive signs recently. Either way, Vai's voice is stale and uninspiring, and really takes away from everything it touches, especially live.

That being said, Fire Wall sounds absolutely fantastic, if you ignore the vocals. The violins have been arranged to mimic the horns on the exorbitant studio recording, and do so wonderfully. Vai's solo here is probably the best on the album, soaring for what seems like half the song.

Die to Live is a slow, powerful piece, and has always been a gem in the Vai catalog. Its performance here definitely does the music justice, although it doesn't feel adequately different from its studio version to justify its existence, its place here paces the album nicely.

For what I believe is the first time on a live release, Steve breaks out the acoustic guitar on a large chunk of the second half of the album, including All About Eve, Treasure Island, and Angel food. All About Eve is one of Vai's favorite songs, as he seems to perform it everywhere. The the addition of the violins compliment it nicely, and I find this version even more enjoable than the studio take.

Angel Food is a fantastic piece which originally came from the Fire Garden Suite. Its performance here is stunning and perfect, and features some of the best acoustic work I've seen from Mr. Vai. In fact, instead of writing more about it, why don't you see a little for yourself?

(Clip courtesy Vai's official YouTube Channel, from the DVD version of Wild Things)

Vai seems to have fallen into a creative slump as of late. Almost all of his recent albums have been live, with limited new material. The only notable exception to this is 2005's Real Illusions: Reflections, which (in my opinion) is no Alien Love Secrets or Passion and Warfare. Wild Things is no exception. However, although the material isn't all new or incredibly reinvented, the performances are absolutely fantastic, and this is overall one of the most enjoyable albums he's put out in at least 15 years.

Degrees to Zappa:
Vai played in Frank's band, appeared on several albums, and transcribed almost everything Zappa has ever needed transcriptions for.

  1. Paint Me Your Face - 1:59
  2. Now We Run - 6:38
  3. Oooo - 5:07
  4. Building The Church - 8:36
  5. Tender Surrender - 6:19
  6. Band Intros - 2:27
  7. Fire Wall - 6:02
  8. Freak Show Excess - 11:01
  9. Die To Live - 6:30
  10. All About Eve - 5:09
  11. Gary 7 - 0:48
  12. Treasure Island - 1:54
  13. Angel Food - 6:23
  14. Taurus Bulba - 6:48
  15. Par Brahm - 2:15
Highlights: Tender Surrender, Die To Live, Angel Food, Now We Run
Overall: ★★★★

Slash unveils a glimpse into upcoming solo album

Saul Hudson, better known as Slash, exploded onto the music scene in the early 90s as one of the most recognizable members of the band Guns N' Roses, mostly due to his admittedly fantastic hat. In the mid 90s, Slash broke off from GnR, spawning one of the most publicized and dramatized feuds in rock history with Guns frontman Axl Rose.

Since then, he's recorded numerous records with different bands, most famously Slash's Snakepit in the 90s and Velvet Revolver with Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland in the 2000s. Scott Wieland recently either quit or was kicked out of Velvet Revolver (depending on who you believe), leaving Slash free to record his first solo album. The album, to be entitled Slash & Friends, is nearly complete, and slated for release in early 2010.

Instead of creating a single band for the album, Slash assembled a different group of musicians for each track, and has been very tight-lipped about some of these mystery guests. Confirmed guests include the likes of Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) Dave Grohl (Foo Fighers, Nirvana, and now Them Crooked Vultures), Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath, solo), Christ Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave), Fergie (Black Eyed Peas, solo) and fellow Guns N' Roses vet Izzy Stradlin.

To promote the album, he released the first single to the album in Japan yesterday. This particular single features the Japanese signer Koshi Inaba (of B'z) who also sang on the Steve Vai's track Asian Sky (off 1999's The Ultra Zone). The single is entitled "Sahara", but thats as much as I could discern about its subject matter as all the lyrics are in Japanese.

According to the man himself, this song will never make it onto the US version of the album, and the vocals really are rather strange, but the music behind it just might give us a small glimpse into what the album will sound like. Slash seems to have returned to something more reminiscent of his early work with GnR than his more recent Velvet Revolver creations. Although I enjoyed Libertad (VR's 2007 release), it would be fantastic if Slash & Friends was based on this bluesy sound, particularly after the disaster that was Axl Rose's latest solo album, Chinese Democracy.

Love it or hate it, you can check it out now:

(And yes, I do know about the monstrosity B-side that came with this one, but I've chosen to ignore it. I suggest you follow suit.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Them Crooked Vultures?

Recently, I've seen the name Them Crooked Vultures tossed around almost everywhere, trending on Twitter nearly every day for the past week, on the front page of Reddit, and referenced on Blabbermouth and every other music-related sites I frequent. Generally, massively popular bands who I've never heard of generally end up being silly pop bands, so I promptly ignored it and moved on.

 A few days later I finally looked into it, and it seems counting them out was a rather large mistake.

Them Crooked Vultures is not only a new band, but a serious supergroup the likes of which we haven't seen in a while. The Vultures are also a power trio, with guitar and vocal duties filled by Queens of the Stone Age veteran Josh Homme, drums by the Foo Fighters guitarist/frontman Dave Grohl (who is admittedly is a bit more famous as the drummer for Nirvana) rounded out by one of the most legendary bassists of all time, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

The music proves the Vultures are more than huge names and uncomfortable images of anthropomorphized birds, and sports a very fresh, modern feel with heavy allusions to the music from all members' collective pasts. To promote the release, they decided to stream the entire album on their website, so you can check it out for yourself right now. I recommend listening to at least out Mind Eraser (No Chaser) (which is somewhat grungy), Scumbag Blues (which sounds like a modern Cream song), New Fang (laid back, bluesy-rock)  or Elephants (which feels most like modern alternative) or before casting judgment.

The album drops next week (vinyl in December), but you can preorder it now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Recent Releases

I originally intended this blog to exist only for reviews of recent albums, assuming I'd have the time to write one at least every week or so. However, recently this has simply not been the case at all. There are a *lot* of albums I'd love to write about (I have about 8 unfinished reviews in progress right now) but simply don't have the time to. So, for this week, I decided to do something different and leave you with a list of recent releases I enjoyed that I might have missed, or may not have the time to review. So, without and further adieu, I unleash upon you Jesse's Recommended Listening List #1:
  • The Great Misdirect - Between the Buried and Me (October 27th, 2009)
  • The Whirlwind - Transatlantic (October 23rd, 2009)
  • Where the Wild Things Are - Steve Vai (September 29th, 2009)
  • Xenophanes - Omar Rodríguez-López (September 28th, 2009)
  • Meet the Meatbats - Chad Smith's Bombastic Meatbats (September 15th, 2009)
  • The Incident - Porcupine Tree (September 14th, 2009)
  • Live from Madison Square Garden - Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood (May 19th 2009)
I also decided, mostly for my own amusement, to tack a Degrees to Zappa section onto every review I write from now on. For example; my last published review was on a Mars Volta album that featured a significant number of guitar parts from the Red Hot Chili Pepper's guitarist John Frusciante, who's original ambition in music was to join the Frank Zappa's band, and who wrote the linear notes to a recent Zappa album. Frank's influence on much of the music I enjoy is very strong, and its incredible how his impact is still felt on releases today.

I won't lie, I mostly began posting here again exclusively to vent about how pop-oriented the latest Pearl Jam release was, but the overwhelmingly positive response I've gotten back has encouraged me to keep writing. If you're reading this, thank you! I have quite a few reviews in the works, so check back soon!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Mars Volta - Octahedron (June 23, 2009)

What's this? The prestigious Mars Volta, releasing a low key, partially acoustic, synthesizer-ridden album with no saxophone? This is madness!
Well, it certainly isn't Sparta.

Its backstory time.
The Mars Volta was formed in 2001 by Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, both previously of the post-hardcore group At the Drive-In (the other half of which went on to form Sparta, which is why that last joke is funny. Get it? Hilarious, right? Awesome.) Needless to say, the group was founded with more ambitious goals in mind than anything the two had previously created.

The Mars Volta actually is actually two bands, centered around the partnership of Cedric and Omar. The group who record their albums (referred to as 'The Mars Volta Group') consists of a wide array of musicians, including the esteemed and ever-musically ambitious John Frusciante. All music is written by Omar, and all lyrics by Cedric. Omar records Volta albums using a technique pioneered by jazz legend Miles Davis, in which each musician is given only their parts of a song without knowing the musical context or how important their part is. This way, they put as much of their talent into recording that standalone piece as possible, so it is even more effective when plugged into the whole again. The touring band is a more minimalist, five-piece set without members (such as Johnny Fru) who obviously can't attend a tour.

Previous to its release, Cedric claimed that he considered Octahedron to be their "acoustic" album, which perplexed nearly their entire fanbase. The band is less of a stranger to softer music than most people would think (see The Widow off of Frances the Mute) and to my delight, just because Cedric considered this to be an acoustic album doesn't mean that its actually entirely acoustic. Instead of focusing on the heavily layered loud-and-resounding sound of previous Volta songs, Octahedron aims for a more atmospheric, resonating feel that is definitely a very fresh style for them.
John Frusciante's influence is very evident on this release. At 6:50 into the first track, you can even hear his signature guitar sign-off he used on nearly every song on Stadium Arcadium (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2006). More importantly, the ambient, textured feel closely mimics the style he adopted for his most recent solo album, The Empyrean.

The first track (as well as the first single in the Americas,) Since We've Been Wrong, is very much indicative of the rest of the album, and was one of the sons that debuted at the band's legendary acoustic performance on December 31st, 2007 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. It begins slowly, drawing the listener in with a fade into a combination of static and tone for a whole minute and a half before beginning to reveal itself. A soft, acoustic guitar arpeggio ushers in the true start of the song, complimented by modulated frontmost guitarwork, and haunting, soaring background guitar. The chorus features Cedric harmonizing with himself in a surprisingly effective manner with some powerful guitarwork by John Frusciante floating over it, growing louder and louder until dipping back into silence, and the next verse. As the second chorus drifts in, it brings with it something truly special; as Cedric's vocals slowly become more and more mournful, the instrumentals deviate into something sadder and the first instance of any drums in the song accentuate the shift in tone perfectly. From here forwards, more and more instrumental parts find their way into the piece, until finally all dissipating into the static from which it all came. This is a powerful piece. I never could have imagined The Mars Volta creating something that evokes such a mournful feel and pulling it off so well until now, but they've proved themselves once again. Its actually truly hard to believe that this is the same band who brought us Wax Simulacra.

Teflon begins with an aggressive percussive bit before being layered with a soaring slide guitar part, modulated to sound almost as if the instrument is choking. Halo of Nembutals beings in the outro static to Teflon (the same that began Since We've Been Wrong) and is mainly driven by synthesizers and heavily modulated guitars. Cedric is absolutely in top form here as well, and showcasing the full breadth of his vocal ability. Some excellent and strangely poignant pianowork aids its outro, and direct flow into the next song, With Twilight As My Guide.

Twilight is a terrible movie. With Twilight As My Guide, however, is another acoustic guitar driven song, layered with deep, soaring Pink Floyd-reminiscent electric guitar work. Cedric once again shows off how well he can sing softly yet again. Its notable that any percussion at all is entirely missing from this song, and its rhythm is entirely based on the acoustic guitar arpeggios. The song's dissipates into a fantastic outro, driven by deep feedback roars and haunting slide guitar and devastating that is about the closest thing to Floyd I've heard a modern band accomplish.

Cotopaxi, the next song, is a bit more of a traditional hard rock track driven by a devastatingly strong guitar riff and an absolute knock-out performance by drummer Thomas Pridgen. Not only is it a departure from the rest of the album, but it also feels even more traditional than most Volta songs. This is okay though, because its still a fantastic piece. The transition from Twilight's slow, simmering outro directly into the this is about the most shocking moment on the album, and is very effective. Frusciante is prominent here as well, as his signature wah sound permeates the bridge. Cotopaxi is apparently actually a volcano in Ecuador, and this piece definitely lives up to its namesake with absolutely explosive riffs, smashing percussion, and grating synthesizers. 

Desperate Graves begins with shimmering electric guitarwork and what seems to be a wind chime, before diving deep into a heavily modulated guitar-based verse, and terse, heavy chorus. Copernicus is almost entirely vocally driven, and by far the softest song on the album. As if to break your last holding perception of the band, its also almost entirely un-embellished, except for a minor bout with a synthesizer mid-song and a little grand piano in the second half. Luciforms makes use of the same type of layering and dominating guitarwork normally indicative of the Volta, but is based around a much slower tempo.

This is an excellent album, and definitely one of my personal favorites from this past year. The Mars Volta have always aimed high in all their musical ambitions, so even when they push further out of their usual style than ever before, they've still succeed in creating something absolutely stunning. Although previous Volta fans may be initially turned off by the different approach this in this album, I'd advise you to remain open minded. Those unacquainted with TMV should absolutely check this one out, as it is slightly more accessible than the grandiose Bedlam in Goliath (or any of their previous releases, really) and could introduce you to a whole new world of fantastic music. However, I should probably warn you to remain even more open minded. This is The Mars Volta, after all.

Track Listing:
  1. Since We've Been Wrong - 7:21
  2. Teflon - 5:04
  3. Halo Of Nembutals - 5:31
  4. With Twilight As My Guide - 7:52
  5. Cotopaxi - 3:38
  6. Desperate Graves - 4:57
  7. Copernicus - 7:23
  8. Luciforms - 8:22
Highlights: Cotopaxi, Since We've Been Wrong, Teflon, Desperate Graves
Overall: ★★★★½

Thursday, October 8, 2009

John Frusciante - The Empyrean (January 20th, 2009)

I always believed John Frusciante to be one of the most introspective, deepest and creative musicians in the public eye, but never before had I a recording to point to which could undoubtedly prove this, until The Empyrean.

First, a little backstory.
John Frusciante is most famous as the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and is very much personally responsible for both their rise to fame in the early 90s, and return to glory just before 2000.
Originally drafted into the group at the age of 18, he immediately changed the Peppers forever. His obsession with the likes of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, an obsessive practice schedule and pseudo-virtuosic musical ability pushed the Peppers to new heights, and directly into the public eye. After joining, his abilities (coupled with the infallible musical duo of Flea and Chad Smith) scored the Peppers chart-topping singles like Higher Ground, Give It Away, and Under the Bridge. John was uncomfortable with the fame, feeling that it ruined the intimacy the group had with its fans, and quit the band. He spent years in his own world, dominated by a terrible heroin addiction, introspection and despair. He pushed himself to the very edge, selling every guitar in his possession for drug money, shooting up so often he required skin grafts to cover the entirety of his tattered arms, needing to have every one of his teeth removed (and replaced) due to a near-lethal oral infection, and nearly died from a blood disease.
Then, one day in 1997, John quit cold turkey and checked himself into a hospital. His descent into his own dark world and subsequent recovery process were brutal, but left him a stronger man. He re-invented his life from that point forward both personally and musically, finally having found freedom from his addiction(s). After his replacement in the Peppers (Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction) was fired, he was asked to rejoin by Flea. A year later, they released Californication, which is (as of 2009) their most successful album to date.

"Well, that's certainly a fantastic tale," you're probably thinking, "but how is that relevant to The Empyrean?"

"Its really not," I would say, "But it sure is an awesome story, isn't it?"

On a bit more serious note, this time in isolation left John a deeper man, and this shone through in all the music he had released from that point forward. In 2004, he announced he would release 6 new solo albums over the course of 6 months, and low and behold he did it. These albums ranged from the excellent experimental band Ataxia's Automatic Writing, the darker DC EP, the more electronic Sphere in the Heart of Silence, to the acoustic Curtains. He also began to work with the progressive group The Mars Volta, eventually becoming a member of the Mars Volta Group, and recording almost all the guitar parts for Omar Rodríguez-López in recent releases. Together, all of these expressive mediums allowed one a glimpse into one of the most creative musicians still alive.

Apparently originally recorded as a concept album, John has said the Empyrean tells a single story which involves no actions in the physical world, and is told through the eyes of two characters that only exist in someone's mind.
He then continued: "The mind is the only place that anything can be truly said to exist. The outside world is only known to us as it appears within us by the testament of our senses. The imagination is the most real world that we know because we each know it first hand. Seeing our ideas take form is like being able to see the sun come into being. We have no equivalent to the purity of that in our account of the outside world. The outer world appears to each of us as one thing and it is always also a multitude of others. Inside to outside and outside to inside are neverending. Trying and giving up are a form of breathing."
Needless to say, I think its safe to say John put more thought into this album than most people put into their entire careers.

From the very first track, The Empyrean reaches for greatness. Before the Beginning begins slowly, with a clean rhythm, then a strong, soaring solo that strongly evokes the feel of Eddie Hazel's masterpiece, Maggot Brain on Funkadelic's 1971 album of the same name. It clocks in at 9:09, making it the longest track on the album, but every second is a treasure.

Unreachable is probably the best song on this album. It begins with a slower intro verse powered by absolutely fantastic bass work by fellow Pepper Flea, surrounded with an ambient tonal soundscape not many could conjure up. About a minute in, the song shits tones entirely, with a whooping bass line, slightly modulated vocals and an added vocal harmony with John's perfect falsetto. Two minutes in, the song shifts once more, suddenly becoming mournful, casting a completely different mood than the first two minutes had entirely. With the song half over, the lyrics cease. In their place John inserts the most powerful, emotional guitarwork I've ever heard. The instrumental part begins with an ambient, less prominent style very reminiscent of Hendrix's 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) off Electric Ladyland. However, as the piece pushes towards its climax, John's guitar begins to soar, becoming nearly a scream, in a way so perfect it has to be heard to be believed. I would be remiss not to mention how perfectly the lyrics contribute to the mood of the song as well, the second half of the song would highly suffer without their setup.

Song to the Siren is actually a cover of Tim Buckley song off his 1970 album Starsailor. Its slow, deep, spacial, haunting and definitely gives me goosebumps every time. God is the darkest song on the album, featuring John's trademark vocal style over a varied assortment of synthesizers, strings, dark distorted guitar and a tamborine. Dark/Light is an eight minute epic, featuring Donald Taylor and the New Dimension Singers' background vocals (modulated by John) over a drum machine, accentuated by an excellent bass line which is attributed to Frusciante himself. Heaven is probably the most traditional song on the album, featuring John's songwriting, an ambient, guitar based atmosphere, backed by strings and static.

Central is also undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album. Clocking in at seven minutes, it slowly builds up, incorporating almost every element utilized on this album, including a fantastic solo, a near-perfect scream, absolutely wonderful use of the strings, wonderful utilization of a grand piano, haunting guitarwork and powerful vocals.

One More of Me features John singing over strings, with almost no embellishments at all, before descending into a simply fantastic instrumental piece at the end. The last track, appropriately titled After The Ending, is a slower, piano-based piece that really showcases John's ability for vocal arrangements before fading away into static.

This roller coaster of tone, feel and style all collectively make for a musical experience that leaves me winded every time. Experimental/progressive music is in a wonderful surplus right now, but even then, not just every album pulls so much into one powerful, cohesive unit.

John's music is not for the closed-minded. If you like the Chili Peppers and are looking for more of them, you should probably avoid this one entirely. However, if you're looking for something that will truly stretch your mind, music so deep it'll sear its way into your very soul, The Empyrean is a must.

Track Listing

1. "Before the Beginning" - 9:09
2. "Song to the Siren" - 3:33
3. "Unreachable" - 6:10
4. "God" - 3:23
5. "Dark/Light" - 8:30
6. "Heaven" - 4:03
7. "Enough of Me" - 4:14
8. "Central" - 7:16
9. "One More of Me" - 4:06
10. "After the Ending" - 3:38

Bonus tracks

11. "Today" - 4:38
12. "Ah Yom" - 3:17

Highlights: Unreachable, Central, the rest of the album.
Overall: ★★★★★

UPDATE: This entry was recently featured on, one of my favorite websites on the internet. Many thanks!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

State Radio - Let It Go (September 29th, 2009)

This is a bit more of an obscure one, and probably relevant to much less people than Pearl Jam, but I wouldn't be being true to myself if I didn't review it as well. State Radio's music has been a large part of my life for half a decade, and I'm more partial to them than I should probably admit to.
For those unfamiliar with State Radio, they were formed in 2002 by guitarist/songwriter Chad Urmston, who had just broken up with his previous band, Dispatch. For those unacquainted, Dispatch was probably the most popular independent band of all time, with a following so fervent that their last performance drew a crowd of over a hundred thousand. State Radio was founded with entirely different musical goals in mind, combining elements of punk, reggae, folk and ska with searing political views, as their latest's cover art would suggest.
//side note: the artwork actually terrifies me now, as my place of residence was recently invaded by riot and army squads dressed exactly like that, donning tear gas and sonic guns

State Radio's latest, entitled Let It Go, was arguably the most anticipated album the band has ever released, due to its material being popular at live shows as far back as 2002 (Blood Escaping Man) or 2004 (Held Up). The folk/acoustic element of the band is noticeably missing here, focusing almost entirely on their reggae and punk aspects.

The opener, Mansin Humanity, is a sprawling, distortion-laden five minute epic about the Armenian Genocide. This is State Radio at their best; featuring a harsh, in-your-face devastatingly loud sound, a slow, mournfully melodic chorus, and the political implications they've been known for for so long. The recording is near perfect, with guitar tone just harsh enough to drive the topic home, and a perfect, blood-curdling screams near the end by bassist Chuck Fay.
Calling All Crows, although not necessarily a bad song, suffers from odd production, and an almost unbearable bell ring at the opening provides the worst transition from the previous track I could possibly imagine. It showcases the reggae side of State Radio, along with a call to action for woman's rights in Africa, further supported by the band's excellent organization of the same name. When performed live previous to its release, this was one of my favorites in the band's catalog, but the recording just doesn't cut it.
Doctor Ron the Actor is a true gem. It leans more towards the Ska side, evoking the likes of Streetlight Manifesto with a terse, traditional ska verse and a roaring horn-backed chorus. Chuck Fay absolutely shines here, as the basswork really is the driving force behind the song. The percussion is also absolutely top notch (kudos to Mad Dog), as are the vocal harmonies. Nothing about this song isn't perfect, except for some strange mixing on the cymbols in the chorus.
Held Up is probably one of the best songs State Radio has ever written. Its vocal melodies are some of the catchiest Chad has ever penned, with some of the most powerful music in their catalog. The guitar roars stronger than ever before, and the percussion is absolutely devastating. This one needs to be heard to be believed.
Still and Silent features a completely new sound for the band, integrating something that sounds more like modern alternative bands into State Radio's traditional punk roots. The percussion is absolutely fantastic here as well, although mixed towards the back more often than not. The songwriting is Chad at his best, demanding how one can stay "Still and silent" with the world functioning as it is.

Arsenic and Knights are both solid songs, the latter adopting the feel of an anthem that many a Bostonian would be proud to don. Blood Escaping Man features a fantastic harmonica intro, and is by far one of my personal favorites.
Evolution is an attempt to directly emulate the old Jamacian reggae style, which it does rather nicely. That being said, it seems terribly out of place, and feels nothing like its surrounding songs. Bohemian Grove is also reggae, but feels a lot more organic, and fits much more nicely. Its entirely chorus driven, with a slow, droning verse lasting until almost halfway into the song before its amazingly catchy chorus takes over. The title track, in direct contrast, is entirely verse-based, with only a three-word chorus of (you guessed it) Let It Go. It starts very strong with a highly melodic verse before diving into a surprisingly rough chorus, and an outro that feels like a loose jam.
The hidden track (Indian Moon) is actually not a new song at all, but a reggae version of an acoustic song released years previous. It was apparently recorded 'live' in the studio, with the bassist and drummer switching instruments. Although it definitely could have been edited into a solid track, there's something raw and just plain fun about this recording. It hasn't failed to bring a smile to my face yet.

Let It Go has some very strong parts, but also suffers from a few awkward points. Nonetheless, its very much worth checking out, and is highly recommended to both newcomers to State Radio and devoted fans alike. Vinyl lovers of the world will be thrilled to see their own release, the first of its kind available from the band

Track Listing:
  1. "Mansin Humanity" - 5:07
  2. "Calling All Crows" - 3:38
  3. "Doctor Ron The Actor" - 4:02
  4. "Arsenic & Clover" - 3:06
  5. "Bohemian Grove" - 4:35
  6. "Knights of Bostonia" - 4:26
  7. "Let It Go" - 3:12
  8. "Evolution" - 3:55
  9. "Held Up By The Wires" - 4:37
  10. "Blood Escaping Man" - 3:32
  11. "Still & Silent" - 4:06
  12. "Indian Moon (Reggae) (Hidden Track)
Highlights: Doctor Ron The Actor, Held Up By The Wires, Still & Silent
Overall: ★★★★½

Pearl Jam - Backspacer (September 20th, 2009)

I'll admit, when I first got this album I was pretty apprehensive. Pearl Jam's nearly flawless 2006 self titled has influenced me so much that anything less than perfect would never suffice. This sense of foreboding was not helped by early reviews declaring Backspacer was heavily influenced by Pop and New Wave. Now, one can absolutely take new wave influences and craft them into something wonderful (see the Red Hot Chili Pepper's excellent 2002 release By The Way), but this seemed like such a strange fit for the group that brought us Even Flow or Animal. Pop, on the other hand, just terrified me. I'd seen their performance of Got Some on Tonight Show on June 2nd (link), and was rather confused. This was not the rough-and-ready Pearl Jam I'd known and loved in 2006, this was something else entirely.
Needless to say, the curiosity was killing me all summer. So, when I finally got my grubby little hands on this album, I was ready to be shocked, confused and upset. The real surprise here was that I was not, at all.

Backspacer is a very different album from anything else Pearl Jam has ever released for one reason: its happy. From their very inception as a band, Eddie's lyrics have always been very deep. From the terrifying story of Jeremy (Ten) to the politically charged World Wide Suicide (self titled), no Pearl Jam album has been without some angst, until now. Instead of loud, angry anthems, Backspacer features shorter, more concentrated material with an element of fun so large it works its way into your mind until you can't put it down.
As soon as the first track (Gonna See My Friend) began to roll, all my fears of anything too pop-ish melted away. Matt Cameron absolutely outdoes himself here- the percussion is top notch, the guitars roar as loud as they always have, and Eddie's screams are as powerful as ever. This is Pearl Jam as we've always known them, just a little happier.
Got Some is a bit more of a departure. Its verse is rather sparse, and more rhythmically based on a funk-like guitar riff by McCready. Its chorus roars as loud as the last song, and sews the piece together nicely. The Fixer, the next track (and their first single from the album) is about the happiest track Pearl Jam has ever released. Here, the feel of the album really shines through: the lyrical optimism, happy-go-lucky feel, a few poppish-claps even a synth (1:17) leave the track feeling like nothing Pearl Jam has put out yet. Many fans have been immediately turned off by this one, but don't judge the entire album because of it.
Its at this point I realized something, each track I'd head thus far all clocked at almost exactly three minutes. In fact, almost every song on the album is very short; then entire album clocks in at just shy of 37 minutes. Without a doubt, the theme of this album is tighter, undiluted songwriting.
Just Breathe is another departure. It heavily evokes the feel of Eddie Vedder's 2007 soundtrack to Into The Wild, to the point where it would feel almost more at home there. Featuring Eddie solo on acoustic guitar backed up with some strings (and attributed entirely to him,) I consider this one of Eddie's solo pieces. It still serves as one of Pearl Jam's most tender moments, and its placement on the album is near perfect.
Amongst the Waves is pure optimism, and Supersonic is a loud, happy harder rock tune about one's love of music. Speed of Sound feels somewhat out of place, and is the only track on the entire album that hasn't grown on me. Force of Nature is a loose, fun, more laid back tune that feels like it should be longer than it is (4:05). The album ends on a low key. Its final track, "The End", is another Vedder-penned solo acoustic song, featuring some of the most emotional, powerful lyrics on the album.

When I first picked up this album, I wasn't expecting to rate it more than 2/5. However, its proved itself a very strong addition to Pearl Jam's already impressive catalog. Fans may fear it, as its definitely the most pop-ish album by the Seattle quintet yet, but don't fret, its more raw than The Fixer would have you believe.

Track Listing:
  1. "Gonna See My Friend" - 2:49
  2. "Got Some" - 3:02
  3. "The Fixer" - 2:58
  4. "Johnny Guitar" - 2:50
  5. "Just Breathe" - 3:36
  6. "Amongst the Waves" - 3:59
  7. "Unthought Known" - 4:09
  8. "Supersonic" - 2:40
  9. "Speed of Sound" - 3:34
  10. "Force of Nature" - 4:04
  11. "The End" - 2:58
Highlights: Got Some, Amongst The Waves, Supersonic
Overall: ★★★½

Music Vs. Jesse

I haven't looked or even thought about this blog since I created it, mostly out of laziness. However, the absolutely fantastic slew of releases this year have forced me to reconsider.

The late great Frank Zappa once said "Writing about music is like tapdancing about architecture," and I'm inclined to agree with him. Music is so subjective that no one person's review is really relevant to what people will get out of it. That being said, I think this blog could be a fun medium to express my own personal taste, and who knows, maybe some people will agree with me.

As I previously mentioned, I'm convinced 2009 was one of the best years for music in recent history (or at least since 2006,) so I figured I'd start writing reviews now, but just in case I can't catch up here's a few of the year's highlights (roughly in chronological order):
And the year isn't over yet, I'm still looking forward to the likes of Between the Buried and Me's follow up to their excellent 2007 release Colors, The Great Misdirect on October 27th.

Please check back later, and I might actually begin writing. After a while, the reviews might actually be good, too.