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!