Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Just the way I'm feeling: Grimes & Donora

It's funny how our music tastes change. Not just with age, which is the obvious one, but even within a space of time as short as a couple of weeks - or even literally overnight.

Don't worry, dear reader, I'll get round to recommending some music in a few paragraphs' time. For now this blog post is going to be a little more personal than usual - but hey, blogs are meant to be personal, right?

I first downloaded 'Oblivion' by Grimes back in, I think, October, and thought it was a pretty good song. I went on to listen to the second single, 'Genesis', but it didn't really grab me and so I didn't bother checking out the album.

If you read this blog regularly - errr well, as often as Ben and I post content - you may have caught my frothing-at-the-mouth review of Visions back in March. So what changed? The cynic in me wants to say that it was hearing 'Genesis' again on 6 Music ('Fro brain logic: this is on 6 Music, ergo must be trendy), but I like to think that my adoration for the album was brought on, not by peer pressure, but a very dark mood.

Yes, for those who may not know, three months ago our very own Quiff pipped me to the post to become editor of our student newspaper. I hold nothing against him for it, but I was, I hope understandably, pretty upset. Suddenly, Visions made sense. Its bleakness and alienation spoke to me in a way that I don't think it would have done before - certainly at least not to the same extent.

I'm pleased to say that I feel considerably more positive today; yet, while my outlook has improved, Visions has as the same time lost some of its appeal for me, the same intensity and bleakness which originally drew me to the album instead turning me off it. I still think it's a tremendous piece of work - I just don't want to listen to it anymore.

On to the present (and music recommendations, yay!): What sums up my present mood is a great record called Boyfriends, Girlfriends by Donora. I downloaded the single 'And Then The Girls', an angular indie-rock boogie with a killer chorus, after a recommendation from I Guess I'm Floating. It's one helluva track, and after a couple of listens to sister single 'Mancini Dance Hall' I felt compelled to download the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I was a bit let down by the rest of the album - I was expecting upbeat disco tunes throughout, but instead a lot of it seemed a bit saccharine; romantic pop-rock for teenage girls. I'm not really one for soppiness, and I started cherry-picking the more bittersweet and danceable tracks.

That very same night, I caught up with someone I hadn't seen for a while and - well, I'm not spilling my entire personal life on here. But the next morning I had 'The World is Ours' in my head, a track I'd already pretty much written off, and suddenly the 'soppy' tracks seemed so much richer than they had twenty-four hours earlier. In fact, the catchy disco-tinged tunes which had initially drawn me to the album seemed, in comparison, a bit shallow.

God, this turned into a proper wall o' text, didn't it? To summarise the above: life can have a massive influence on the music you love, and you should go listen Boyfriends, Girlfriends by Donora now, as it's significantly deeper than first appearances might suggest.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

We Need To Talk About Muse

Muse. It's been a while. Three years, in fact, since The Resistance split their fanbase down the middle, managing the impressive task of seeing the band becoming even more a parody of themselves whilst simultaneously taking another step towards being successors of Queen (if Queen ever wrote musical versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that is). Many fans turned away. Easy to see why, really, given the sheer flamboyance on display from the band who once gave us the certainly dramatic but utterly camp-free 'Muscle Museum', 'Bliss' and countless others. The hard edge was replaced by a poppier sheen, though that's not to say it was any more commercial - if anything their ambition was also kicked into almost self-parodic overdrive with a stunning full-blown three-act symphony seeing out the record.

For all that it was an extremely silly and over the top album, there was still something likeable about The Resistance, something that I was willing to defend. Sure, the lyrics had all the metaphorical subtlety of a giant heart-shaped wrecking ball crashing into the Houses of Parliament for all their 'love vs. the establishment' imagery, and the near-plagiarism of Orwell's epic dystopian vision seemed more lazy than anything. The harmonies were sheer glam-rock Freddie Mercury, and the OTT pomp abandoned any sense of cool that the band still held.

But there was something ballsy about its outrageous campness. Many of the songs were firmly rooted in strong pop traditions ('Resistance'), others were almost endearingly batshit ('United States of Eurasia'), whilst the electrifying magnitude ("pop pop!") of their early hard-edged rock material made a return on the likes of 'MK Ultra' and 'Unnatural Selection'. The slinky R'n'B of 'Undisclosed Desires' made for uneasy initial listening, but was easily one of the album's best tracks. Oh, and the 'Exogenesis' symphony was absolutely superb - an incredible achievement, but mainly just a beautiful, powerful piece of music. Thematically, The Resistance's Earth-bound 'humanity's screwed!' mantra also seemed to form some kind of continuity as a precursor to the Space-opera of previous album Black Holes and Revelations ("You must pay for your crimes against the Earth", proclaims Bellamy like some sort of alien judge on that album's opening track 'Take A Bow').

This week saw the announcement of a new album from Muse via a 'trailer' on YouTube:

So, it seems to be called The 2nd Law (apparently something to do with thermogenesis, and all that waffly talk in the middle of the video). It's apparently out in September. And oh boy, I don't feel good about this.

Firstly, I'm aware that this is a trailer. For all we know, it technically says nothing of the album's content (musical or lyrical), so as such any comment made is on the trailer itself and what the trailer seems to be presenting the album as being. Secondly, WHAT THE HECK.

To get the elephant in the room out of the way, that was Muse seeming to go all dubstep on us. Say what you will about Bellamy's use of a KAOSS pad and the fact that it appears to still just be the three of them making up the sound, but it's undeniable that the music they're creating there is not-so-distantly removed from Skrillex's hyper-energetic, commercialised "wubwubwubSKREE" take on the genre. This, apart from not being my cup of tea at all, is not inherently a problem in itself, although criticisms that the band are jumping on a bandwagon they've already missed are justifiable.

"Yeah, it's like the all-seeing eye and the stock markets and stuff, you see?"
What IS a problem is everything else. Even before that whole sledgehammer of WTF drops, I was already cringing enough to require facial reconstructive surgery by the 1-minute mark. The rest of the video is guilty of the very worst that people less tolerant of Black Holes... and The Resistance turned their noses up at.

"It's, like, really topical and stuff about what the world is like
and the future kind of thing, yeah."
Cliché after cliché litters the screen - shots of the stock markets failing, the price of fuel rising, pollution from power plants filling the sky. "Look how bloody topical we are!", Bellamy seems to be bellowing into the ear of his captive viewer. "Don't you get it? It's like, the evil corporations running the world and stuff, and the system and everything, and CAPITALISM, right? And it's UN-SUS-TAIN-ABLE." Similar themes may have appeared in The Resistance, but at least that record, in pillaging so frequently and knowingly from Nineteen Eighty-Four, seemed to place itself in some sort of fictional dystopia, granting it more of a license to stray into ridiculous hyperbole. In locating itself in decidedly real-world issues, the trailer for The 2nd Law is almost relentlessly banal and downright cheesy in its imagery - not only does it lack imagination and retread old ground, but it appears as a caricature, a Spitting Image-puppet of all of Muse's previous works. At least there was the sense (or perhaps the hope) in The Resistance that the band itself was in on the overblown joke, but with this trailer, I feel more like I'm laughing at them rather than with them - the po-faced self-importance on display in the opening segment is ludicrous, made worse by the incredibly hackneyed symbolism being used.

OK, now you've got to be taking the piss.

And then just when you think it won't get any more cringeworthy, a sodding great evil CGI robot face whizzes around the screen in a matter which I'm pretty sure isn't supposed to be as utterly hilarious as it is. Factor in the aforementioned 'dad's having a go at dubstep' accompaniment and, ladies and gentlemen, I think we may have a disaster on our hands. Adding insult to injury is that awful silvery font that looked absolutely dire on Born This Way and looks similarly cheap and ropey here, a feeling which carries throughout the trailer.

This font should henceforth be known as 'Kill It With Fire'
There are no words (except WHAT THE SHIT IS THIS?!)

There's still hope that this is all somehow a big joke, or a misrepresentation of what The 2nd Law will eventually be, but even as someone who's defended much of Muse's recent output (yawn-inducing Twilight soundtrack tune 'Neutron Star Collision' aside), this has made me facepalm right through my skull. Worst of all, it's everything that I've previously tried to argue that Muse's last few albums were better than. Maybe I was wrong. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go and listen to Origin of Symmetry and feel all superior and that.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Album Review: Sleigh Bells - Reign Of Terror

A roaring crowd. A distorted guitar chord. “New Orleans!”, screams Alexis. “What the fuck’s up?”

So begins the second aural assault from Brooklyn’s distortion-drenched duo Sleigh Bells. With a name like Reign Of Terror, it comes as no surprise that opener ‘True Shred Guitar’ arrives with the subtlety of a sack of sledgehammers, all chugging riffs and yells of “Enemies! On your knees! Suffer please!”

Any concerns that Sleigh Bells’ appeal might have been limited to the raucous charms of debut Treats are dispelled in approximately thirty seconds, as are any fears that a follow-up might merely aim to emulate that record’s relatively singular brain-smashing sound.

Though ‘Born To Lose’ opens with stomping guitars, filtered as ever through overblown-speaker effects, it concludes with Alexis’ vocals cooing (as opposed to her trademark yell) over atmospheric reverb-drenched strumming. As the band had suggested, Reign Of Terror is less of a party album, the hip-hop influenced beats that drove Treats exchanged for a more ‘80s guitar-led sound.

The demonically-possessed-cheerleaders feel remains, from the looped stomping-on-the-bleachers beat of ‘Crush’, to snarling-yet-anthemic album highlight ‘Demons’. With a ferocious chorus, complete with brilliantly unnecessary brutal double-bass pedalled drums, it’s destined to be a new live favourite. Single ‘Comeback Kid’ strikes the perfect balance between anarchic noise and stunningly catchy pop melodies.

Throughout the album runs an emotional undercurrent of loss and vulnerability absent on Treats. Between the two records, guitarist Derek lost his father, an emotional blow reflected in many of the album’s tracks. The slower tracks are a welcome progression, silencing any naysayers’ accusations of Sleigh Bells being a one trick pony. ‘Road To Hell’ is oddly reminiscent of Pixies’ ‘Silver’.

There’s nothing as sadistically thrilling as ‘Infinity Guitars’ or ‘Crown On The Ground’ here, but despite perhaps needing one more overblown behemoth in its closing stretch, Reign Of Terror is everything that a fan could want from a follow-up to Treats. A progression it may be, but this is still pure ear-shattering Sleigh Bells.

Pick up a copy of Reign Of Terror from banquetrecords.com - they're stocking the CD and the LP, which is pretty tough to track down in the UK.

Originally published in The Courier

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Why Visions by Grimes is the best album of 2012

Visions is the first album of 2012 - maybe even of the last twelve months - to make me want to shout about it (or indeed blog about it). It's an album that throws out (most of) the clichés of electronic music and takes stunning risks - not in an overblown, prog rock fashion, but entirely unpretentiously.

There's plenty of lo-fi electronic music about at the moment (mostly of the Washed Out variety), and you could be forgiven for mistaking Grimes for another one of these acts. But thought it may also sound as like  it's been produced on a MacBook, Grimes (the pseudnonym of Claire Boucher) it swaps fashionable fuzzy textures and 80s synths for a piercingly sharp and (ahem) grimy style. Like Crystal Castles, it contrasts angelic voices, beautiful keyboard and harp accompaniment with Skeillex-esque roars and demonic voice modifiers.

In fact Crystal Castles is probably quite a good comparison, except that Grimes swaps its blistering teenage angst for something more meditative and considered - and ultimately, scarier. The songs are too of a high standard, with complex melodies that are somehow catchy despite being impossible to sing along to.

And speaking of singing - the greatest risk taken by Boucher on Visions is with her voice, which switches frequently between a squeaky whispering lisp and an ethereal siren's voice. Both of which are undoubtedly an acquired taste, but believe me, it's worth sticking with.

That said, it's not a perfect album: in particular, the opening and closing tracks are two of the weakest, neither providing a good introduction to the album or providing a satisfying conclusion. In fact, it's an album that works as well on shuffle as it does in order.

I've long thought that the 21st century's singer songwriters won't just be stuck with guitar and piano, repeating the same old sounds as previous generations - no, the future is in exploring the new opportunities increasingly affordable music software can offer. We've had plenty of electronic music, mostly dance, in the past two decades, but solo artists like James Blake and Grimes are producing a new breed of ground-breaking, deeply individual electronic music with emotional depth.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Childish Gambino: Everything In Its Right Place

It sounds like such a backhanded compliment when you say it at first. It's not the most obvious way to praise an album - usually you'd go for, 'the tunes are amazing', or 'it's lyrically brilliant', or something along those lines. To praise something seemingly superfluous to a record itself could come across as derogatory. But it's true - the best thing about Childish Gambino's label debut Camp is the way it's sequenced.

Sequencing is a funny thing. In some ways, the better the track sequencing on an album is, the less you notice it. It's only when something seems out of place that it can feel strange, that the flow of an album can be suddenly interrupted by a bit too much of a lull here, or a desperate need for a chilled-out track there. Case in point: The Hold Steady's fantastic 2008 album Stay Positive. It's an album I really, really love, and so for Christmas I asked for a wonderful double LP version - for some reason, the tracklisting is slightly different. Two tracks in the middle are switched over, and the latter half is given a bit of a re-shuffle with an (amazing) extra track in there too. Overall, it's nothing too massive, but on listening to the album it just doesn't quite flow as well - it's nothing too great, but it's noticeable. Incidentally, at the moment of writing, Stay Positive on CD (limited edition with three incredible bonus tracks) is currently less than £4 on Amazon, I highly recommend it.

So, back to Gambino, aka Troy from Community.

Released in November last year, Childish Gambino (real name Donald Glover) put out Camp, following a string of free online releases, including debut album Culdesac (still free, here), and the EP, erm, EP (reviewed by our 'Fro here). Now, I never really clicked onto EP in the same way that Elliot did - I did really like 'Freaks and Geeks', even though it seemed to have a worryingly strong fixation on, well... a particular lady-part.

"The word itself makes some men uncomfortable."
It had some snazzy lyrics, but aside from cracking wise, I couldn't help but be left wondering whether Donald Glover really had anything in particular to say. Well, I was pretty blown away on my first listen through Camp - the wit remained, but here was a record with a bruised heart as well as an erect penis. Over the past few months, the album's fluctuated in my mind between unrelenting praise and a nagging feeling that maybe I've overrated it. As it turns out, the track sequencing, for me at least, is the real key to the record. You'd be hard-pressed to really call Camp a concept album, but it's structured in such a way that it feels like one.

Camp isn't a perfect record by a long way. Take any track on its own, and you'll find a flaw with most of them. In hip-hop music, there are so many cliches to tread around - how hard life is on 'the streets', how much money you're making, how many hoes you've got in your bedroom, and how you're the 'realest' in 'the game'. Pick apart the Childish Gambino album and you'll tick all of these off your list. BUT, take the album as a whole and the album provides a pretty startling, intimate portrait of who Gambino is, and why these cliches are adhered to and subverted.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Fixers: In Love With A Tropical World

"I'm in love with a tropical world, I'm in love with a tropical world..."
Whenever I sit down and think about Fixers, I find myself somewhat conflicted. The reason for this is very simple - for the most part, I think they're a great band who're doing something both fun and interesting with indie pop music. It's just, while they have a load of great songs, some of them are a bit... well, we'll get to that later.

First with the good stuff. It is obligatory to mention that Fixers hail from Oxford - OMG LIKE FOALS YEAH?! With that out of the way, it's safe to say that the band sound basically nothing like Foals, though the energy and pep that permeated that band's early work can be found here. With obvious Beach Boys influences (check out those harmonies), strong pop sensibilities and an emphasis on experimentation, Fixers sound like a shaken-up can of Fanta with a tiny bit of LSD in it. Served with ice.

  Another Lost Apache by Fixers. 

The best example of this continues to be the Fixers' breakthrough EP, Here Comes 2001 So Let's All Head For The Sun (full stream here) released in May of last year. Opening track 'Another Lost Apache' is propelled along by an ebbing/flowing momentum, whilst single 'Crystals' leaps out with its pure ear-candy chorus. The EP's b-side is where the scales begin to tip more in favour of intriguing experimentalism than pop with the still-melodically-strong 'Uriel' and the disappointingly disjointed 'Passages // Love In Action'. The first three tracks in particular are certainly worth checking out.

  Crystals by Fixers. 

Here Comes 2001 So Let's All Head For The Sun
In a recent interview, the band admitted to tiring quickly of their own material - it's a claim which is evident in the tracks that have followed Here Comes 2001... First up was summer single 'Swimmhaus Johannesberg' which, for me, sadly didn't live up to it's excellent title, but introduced a new vibe in the form of '90s house-esque piano, yet more vocal warping and an opening that sounds like that "BOOM chicka chicka" song from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

New EP Imperial Goddess Of Mercy (full stream here) sees somewhat of a return to the flavour of Here Comes 2001..., especially in the standout tracks. Single 'Majesties Ranch' sees the summery surf of 'Another Lost Apache' imbued with a renewed sense of urgency, an infectious hook of "Oh-eh-oh-eh-oh-eh-oh" and yet more Brian Wilson-indebted vocals.

Majesties Ranch by Fixers.

Elsewhere, 'Trans Love' features the relentlessy catchy chorus "I'm in love with a tropical world, I'm in love with a tropical world" - it might sound a bit like a Fanta slogan, but simply sounds right in the middle of the song, which certainly ranks in the upper echelons of Fixers' poppier repertoire. Best of all, it's currently a free download from their Facebook page.

  Trans Love by Fixers.

Now here comes the big 'however'.

HOWEVER, a few of the tracks on Imperial Goddess of Mercy feature elements that border on the seriously grating. 'Selinah's weirdness is pretty endearing, a patchwork of various melodic segments stitched together, but the lumbering feel of the oriental-influenced 'Evil Carbs' takes a considerable amount of plays to grow, and often feels at odds with the other much more accessible material. The main offender though is final track 'Divorce', which sees a great middle section sandwiched between a looped phrase which practically induces insanity before the 3 minutes and 38 seconds are through. The voice is either saying "It's a bit like when kids took their masks off, yeah" or "It's a bit like when Kiss took their masks off, yeah". I don't know. But it's really, really, really annoying.

If you're willing to sit through a whole minute of that looped phrase, you reach a fantastically hazy treat of a song. But trust me, it's a slog to get there.

Selinah by Fixers.

Imperial Goddess Of Mercy
Overall then, not much of a big 'however' after all. For the most part, Fixers are shaping up to be a great band who are obviously committing themselves as much to the 'psychedelic' aspect of the 'psych-pop' genre as the 'pop' bit. With a fair bit of variation in their material so far, the most interesting thing to see will be what the forthcoming debut album sounds like - will the band's more experimental material be resigned to their early EPs, or will it sit comfortably alongside their more accessible tunes on the record? Only time will tell.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get back off to singing "I'm in love with a tropical world, I'm in love with a tropical world..." ad nauseum.

Get Here Comes 2001... on Amazon mp3 for £1.69 here, and Imperial Goddess of Mercy on Amazon mp3 for £1.99 here. Bargain.