Saturday, December 30, 2017

Discography: Blues Traveler

When I was younger, and first getting seriously into music, there were two bands/artists that were my initial forays. One of them was Meat Loaf, who I have talked about at length before, and the other was Blues Traveler. Yes, I was one of those people who heard them first through "Run Around" and "Hook", but the start of a story isn't as important as the ending. Over the years, I have followed along with everything they have done (including all of John Popper's outside/solo projects - a topic for a different day), and have remained a fan. This holiday season, I got into a mood where I listened to almost all of these records anyway (because Popper voices my favorite Christmas song), so the time has come to run through their discography.

Blues Traveler (1990)

The band's first outing is what you would expect from a young group finding their footing. There are moments of greatness ("But Anyway"), and times where their indulgences get the better of the music. They were lumped in with the jam band scene, and as that is music I'm not all that fond of, this is one of their weaker albums for me. You could hear where the band was going, but they weren't there yet.

Travelers & Thieves (1991)

This is a leaps and bounds improvement over the debut, but one that was still setting the stage. The sound shifted a bit, with their blend of acoustic and clean guitars serving to make the music lively, and almost imbued with a hint of folk. Popper's literate lyrics are quirky, charming, and the songwriting tightened up around their instrumental tangents. "Sweet Pain" is a quintessential Blues Traveler song, and with the mile-a-minute "Optimistic Thought" challenging sing-alongs, things were certainly looking up.

Save His Soul (1993)

Which brings us here, to the pinnacle of the band's first era. "Save His Soul" sharpens the knives, and gives us song after song that showcases the band at their best. We get the gritty "Love & Greed", the playful "Whoops", and the flawless "Conquer Me", all of which elevated the band to new heights. For over an hour, there's barely a wasted moment, as every song delivers a memorable take on one of the band's different sides. Critically speaking, this is the band's best-written and most consistent album, a fact I was regrettably slow to come around to.

Four (1994)

The album that everyone knows, which is for good reason. The highlights of "Four" ("Run Around", "Hook", and "The Mountains Win Again") are as good as anything the band had ever, or would ever, write. Though the lyrics look cynically on society and the record industry, their truth is proven in the sharp hooks that became big hits. The shift in Blues Traveler was starting here, as the success on the charts would create an influence on future music, but "Four" is an album that largely holds up extremely well.

Straight On Till Morning (1997)

This album is confused. It hearkens back to their original incarnation for half of the record, while pushing forward to the mainstream on the rest. "Most Precarious" was an obvious push for a single, but despite it being a really good track, a song with a title pop audiences wouldn't understand was never going to work. "Canadian Rose" is truly gorgeous, while "Felicia" continued in the mold of Popper's unique verbalizations. The heavier aspects get pumped up as well, and they are what didn't work quite as well. It left the record a bit disjointed, even if all the songs worked on their own. Still, it was my favorite Blues Traveler record for quite a time.

Bridge (2001)

The biggest changed occurred here, with the passing of bassist Bobby Sheehan. The new version of the band streamlined their sound, and introduced a number of new, lighter elements. This record is bouncier, brighter (with a huge exception), and more fun than the previous few. All of that is anchored by "Pretty Angry", the searing remembrance of their fallen friend, and one of the absolute highlights of their entire career. This album started their fade from the top, but I say it's one of their stronger, and most unappreciated, records.

Truth Be Told (2003)

The tightest, most consise album yet, "Truth Be Told" is Blues Traveler making as much of a pop album as they can. That is countered by the actual sound, where the guitars get darker, and the production slicker. We get our requisite gems in "Sweet & Broken", "Mount Normal" and "Let Her And Let Go", but there are also songs that, pardon the pun, stumble and fall. This is a good record, but not one of their absolute best.

Bastardos (2005)

Shifting gears yet again, we now get to see the band flexing their rock muscles. This is their most guitar-driven, heaviest album. It's as dark as Blues Traveler gets, which makes it a unique record in their lineup. While "Amber Awaits" is a fantastic single that could have placed anywhere, songs like "Nefertiti" and my personal favorite "After What" couldn't have existed on a different Blues Traveler record. They work only because this is a record that insists on showing their power. It's another very good record, but it's one that doesn't sound as inviting as their earlier ones.

North Hollywood Shootout (2008)

Another album, another change. This time, we see what was described as an experiment with more melodic songwriting. A decade on, I still don't hear what was meant by that. This is, unequivocally, Blues Traveler's worst album. The ballad "Borrowed Time" is lovely, but that's about it. These songs lack the sparkle, wit, and even the melody of everything they had done up to this point. It's flat, uninspired, and I take it as a warm-up for one of the solo efforts that was yet to come. Capped off with Bruce Willis doing spoken word, this is an album I haven't wanted to listen to in years.

Suzie Crack The Whip (2012)

This is the album that logically would have followed "Truth Be Told". It's Blues Traveler embracing their pop leanings, and writing songs that are geared for mainstream radio, which is odd, considering they weren't going to get any attention from there. That said, this is a massive improvement over the previous album, and has plenty of sticky melodies and memorable songs. It might not have been the most logical direction to go, but the results speak for themselves. This album is actually very strong, despite its lack of acclaim.

Blow Up The Moon (2015)

And finally we get to their most recent album, which continues in the blatant pop style, but this time with collaborators on every song. While there are tracks that are great ("Matador" being the best), I have continued to struggle with the concept of the record. If I'm listening to Blues Traveler, I want to hear Blues Traveler. I don't want to wait until the second verse of a song to hear John Popper's voice. It's not a bad record, but I don't really believe it's a Blues Traveler record. I'm not sure Blues Traveler is interested in being Blues Traveler anymore.

So after a career filled with twists and turns, shifts and changes, we're left with a collection of albums that are mostly very good, occasionally great, and featuring only one dud. I don't know what the future holds, but the past has been pretty good so far. I'm not sorry to have gotten on this ride.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Take: Music & Misery

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

Those were the words of Rob Gordon in the movie "High Fidelity", and they have long stuck with me as being more than a bit of wordplay. There is a connection between music and mood, an intrinsic bond that adheres a specific feeling to a song. We often hear about the genesis of a song, the feeling in the artist that sparked them into creating the piece of music. We take it for granted that music is emotional for the people who are writing and performing it, as that is the way in which the best music is created, but what about the rest of us?

As listeners, we might not have access to the intended feeling, but we have an emotional response to great music as well. Music can take us in all directions, holding a power over us that is stronger than we might like to admit a piece of art could have.

That brings up a point that I struggle with. There is a large amount of music that is made, specifically in the metal world, that actively promotes a dismal, miserable mood. Whether we're talking about music that plugs the amps straight into the players' anger, or black metal that treats the world as only containing misery, it's not easy to be a fan of certain types of music without finding yourself falling down into a well of negative emotions.

I made a conscious decision a while back to try to avoid these kinds of music. While I can understand the artistic need for the artists to pour those feelings into their music, if that's where they are in life, but as a listener I have no interest in following them down that path. Perhaps I am merely a cynic, but life makes it too easy to dwell on negativity as it is. The last thing we need is to intentionally pick up music that encourages those thoughts to take control.

I understand that many people say that miserable music actually makes them feel better, but that has never made any sense to me. I am by no means an empath, but hearing someone screaming their misery prompts me to think about that, to share that feeling, not to feel better knowing that someone else is going through tough times. Being miserable in a crowd of miserable people doesn't actually do anything to alleviate the problem, so it seems to me like a bit of self-delusion to claim it does.

I've noticed that since I have been actively avoiding those kinds of music, I have been a happier person. Music is an outlet, a release, and it can act as one when it focuses on being something other than a sonic noose we find perverse pleasure in tying for ourselves. I've seen a shift in the records that I've been listening to and reviewing, one where I have put a greater importance on how enjoyable it is to listen to the music. I'll never dismiss a well-written miserable record, but my praise will always come with the caveat that I'm not going to find myself listening to it often, because I don't see any point in subjecting myself to a mood killer when I don't have to.

So to circle back and answer the question that opened this, you can listen to miserable music because you're miserable, or you can be miserable because you listen to miserably music. Either way, I don't believe misery shouldn't be a part of music, so if you feel that way, I'd say you're doing something wrong.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Top Ten Songs Of 2017

When we talk about music around here, it's almost always in the form of albums. I'm old-fashioned in that way, as I prefer most of the time to put on a record and be able to sit back and enjoy a particular band or artist for a solid stretch of time. I find mood to be important, so shuffling between a dozen artists over the course of an hour, listening to singles that have nothing at all to connect them, isn't my preferred way of listening. However, that doesn't change the fact that the basic unit of music is the song, and great songs don't always appear on great albums, or even albums at all. Sometimes, a great song exists in its own little universe, and they don't deserve to be forgotten just because someone couldn't write ten more that were just as good.

So now, let us celebrate my ten favorite songs of 2017, some of which came from my favorite albums, and some of which didn't. Regardless of how they were released, these were the songs that captured my attention the most this past year.

11. Serious Black - Witch Of Caldwell Town

One year after appearing on this list, Serious Black is back again. This time, they use one of my favorite tricks, slowing down the pace for the last chorus, giving what was already a great hook an epic flair. The album was a bit of a step down, but this song is right up their with the band's best.

10. Fastball - Just Another Dream

Fastball have a history of writing some truly fantastic pop songs, but they also haven't managed to keep that up through an entire album. That continued this year, with an underwhelming full-length that did give us two gems, including this one. Tony Scalzo has a knack for coming up with some of these bouncy melodies, which become infectious the more you hear them. This song is classic Fastball.

9. Sorcerer - The Crowning Of The Fire King

When doom isn't really doom, you get Sorcerer. Their approach is melodic, sweeping, and epic as all hell. This song is the crowning achievement of their album this year, and blows the doors off what doom can be. Sounding more like dark, sorrow-drenched power metal, Sorcerer has given us a song of remarkable scope and execution.

 8. Nocturnal Rites - Heart As Black As Coal

Nocturnal Rites returns where they left off, blending modern heavy power metal with huge pop choruses. That's a formula that works every time I hear it, and that's the case again here. Just as you get sucked into the heavy rhythms, the melody comes and sweeps over you in the best way possible.

7. Pale Waves - Television Romance

Pop music had a bad year, but here is the shining light. Pale Waves takes up the sound of "1989", but throws in a heavy dose of detached millennial ennui, creating a sonic identity that is both cold and bouncy. It's a unique combination, and all I can say is it works. Boy does it work. They are a band to watch in 2018.

6. Creeper - Black Rain

If Jim Steinman came around when punk and emo were a thing, "Black Rain" is a song he could have written. If you want to know how much melodrama can be fit into three minutes, here is your answer. This is dramatic music, a bit cheesy, and one unforgettable little number.

5. The Dark Element - Here's To You

Power metal is unique among heavy genres, because it's the one place where the music can be uplifting. That's what The Dark Element provides here, giving us a song that can put a smile on your face. Sometimes, that's the most important thing in the world.

4. Harem Scarem - One Of Life's Mysteries

AOR gets a bad rap, but a song like this is why those people are missing out. This is feel good, sunny weather music, the kind of song that you can't believe gets absolutely no traction from anyone but the most devoted fans of AOR. A modern update of 80s melodic rock, this is just beautifully hooky rock.

3. The Spider Accomplice - Swallow

Just like how the little engine that could kept going up that hill, The Spider Accomplice keeps appearing on these lists. Their new single, "Swallow" (available Christmas day), is a delightful gift. It has the group's blend of rocking energy, unique guitar riffs and textures, and powerhouse vocals. "Swallow" is a propulsive track that sounds sweet, but packs a mighty punch, and it continues the roll The Spider Accomplice has been on.

2. Soen - Opal

Some bands sound too unique to be duplicated, but then you hear a song and realize you were wrong. Soen captures the intricacies of Opeth's music, writing this song filled with positively Opeth-ian guitar riffs, a stunning melancholy melody, and a bridge that pushes the energy exactly the right amount. It's absolutely brilliant music, and could easily have been the best song of the year, if not for...

1. Michael Monroe - One Foot Outta The Grave

Michael Monroe's last album was good enough to be an Album Of The Year from me, but it just missed the mark. This single may or may not be a harbinger of the future, but in this moment it's Michael Monroe at his best. This is the very heartbeat of rock and roll, a gritty sound that is powerful and energetic, while still being relatable and hooky. This is a song a frenzied crowd would be shouting along with in a hot, sweaty, smoke-filled club. It's simply fun, and it's also the most enjoyable song of 2017.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Here It Is - The Top Albums of 2017

Another year, another chance to partake in our society’s two favored pastimes – the ranking of things, and the arbitrary judgment of subjective arts.  That being said, let me of course follow with the usual tongue-in-cheek rigmarole about how this list is the definitive list of all the lists you will read, blah, blah, blah.  Oh, and Chris’ list is right, too.  How does that work, when we don’t have a single album in common?  The answer is, it’s our blog.

In all honesty, perhaps more this year than in year’s previous, what I bring to you should not necessarily be taken as unmolested gospel for the best albums of the year.  What you, gentle reader, should glean from this is that these are what I thought to be the best records of the year, and I firmly believe that they are worth your time and exploration.  You may or may not agree with my choices, but let’s have that conversation, and the only way for us to start that conversation is for one of us to make a statement.  Therefore, this is my statement.

The rules, as frequent readers have come to know them, are brief and as follows: all entries must be original studio material.  No live albums.  No compilations.  No cover albums.  No re-releases.  Oh, and I do a top 11, because, say it with me now, it goes to eleven.  That’s pretty much it.  Without further preamble, let’s get to it:

EP of the year: Charcoal Tongue – “24 Hours: My Deterioration”
I’m taking a page from Chris’ book here and declaring and EP of the year, because there were a number of them worth mentioning, and it doesn’t always feel fair to judge an EP against a full album.  Unless that EP is Nine Inch Nails’ “Broken,” it’s hard to go up against records of full sample size.  But that by no means lessens the quality of Charcoal Tongue’s effort, which is very raw but full of promise, as they send out cascades of rock and metal at full bore into your speakers.

Honorable Mention – Serenity - “Lionheart”
Listen, I don’t want to sound all pompous, but I often feel like I’m ‘done’ with power metal as a genre.  Like, most of the bands sound similar to me, the records are similar, and the songs all follow the same progressions and arcs.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many I hold dear, but more often than not, I hear a new power metal record and I shrug and go on about my business.  Serenity’s “Lionheart,” managed to grip my attention several times, and each time I thought I knew what was going to happen next, the band would mix in some new, powerful riff that snapped me right back to attention.

#11 – Life of Agony – “A Place Where There’s No More Pain”
This album is here because of what it is, but also because of what it represents.  From a musical standpoint, it’s a more mature, careful Life of Agony, but that brings it with it a new paradigm, a pleasant shift from the fury of their youth.  It’s well designed and expertly executed.  It also represents the accomplishment, at least in part, of a marginalized segment of the population.  At the risk of making a political stand, no one should be marginalized because of who they are.  There’s a lot of that going around, and it needs to stop.

#10 – ELM – “Dog”
Every year, there’s an album that cracks my list because it throws all the rules of style and convention forcefully out the nearest airlock, and plays music solely based in grit, piss and vinegar.  And for all the artistic vision of the other albums on this list, ELM sits here proudly in blatant defiance of that.  Their record is noisy, overdriven, disorganized, and a pure joy to listen to.  The music is so fuzzy it makes you feel like you’re chewing on a mitten.  And I love it.

#9 – Dead Quiet – “Grand Rites”
In stark contrast to the comparative miasma of ELM up above, Dead Quiet’s “Grand Rites” is a slow-burning, trippy, rising tide of music that gradually consumes your senses with its weird but infectious combinations of drawn-out harmonies, rocking melodies and authentic vocals.  Don’t ask me to put my finger on exactly why I like this album, just know that I do.

#8 – The One Hundred – “Chaos + Bliss”
And we’ve officially hit the first album that requires some specific punctuation if you want to google the title.  I honestly don’t know if rap metal will ever make a comeback, but if it does, this could well be the form it will take.  The One Hundred do an excellent job of combining some of the tenets of that genre with a more mainline take on alternative metal, and a healthy dose of hardcore thus mixing three sounds ranging between forgotten and stale into something new and novel.  The creativity and dare I say bravery of this effort lands it in this spot.

#7 – Ember Falls – “Welcome to Ember Falls”
We’ve talked about this a lot through the years, but one of the private and unexpected joys of being a music journalist is those rare occasions when you find something that’s different.  In some ways, this is superior to even finding an album you really like.  This album came out early in the year, and every time I thought about if I had a totally unique listening experience this year, my brain returned to Ember Falls.  Not only is this a quirky record with a lot of different genre mixing and oddly matched cadences, but it’s actually fun to listen to, which separates it from the crowd of albums that want to be different just to be different.

#6 – “Galaktikon II: Become the Storm”
It’s not quite Galaktikon, and it’s not quite Dethklok.  It is, in fact, an amalgam of both, equally representing Brendon Small’s ability to be melodic and forceful in his musical explorations.  There’s probably not a lot I can say here that you at home don’t already know.  This is a great record, and it still strikes me as interesting that one of the year’s best metal albums came from a guy who isn’t necessarily part of the inner metal circle.  There’s a lesson there, to be sure.

#5 – Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”
The one great thrash record of the year was a really great thrash record.  These upstarts from Texas exercised all the right lessons when constructing this album – great riffs, lot of open space to let them breathe, percussion that has an accurate sense of when to push the pedal and when to lay off.  In a year where thrash spun rather in circles and couldn’t get out of its own way, Power Trip took the flag and ran with it.

#4 – Troubled Horse – “Revolution on Repeat”
I think I finally have this album properly rated.  When I first heard it, it passed by me without much though, but by some Providence, I kept coming back to it.  I spent a month in Waco, Texas one week this summer, and this album was a frequent companion on my travels and travails.  Now that we’ve settled into the winter, I think this is where the record fits in the grand scheme.  Rock fans will love it; it’s loud, it’s tight and the message is on point.  If Graveyard wasn’t going to release an album this year, this is the next best thing.

#3 – Nachtblut – “Apostasie”
And now we come to what might be the most ‘fun’ album of the year.  Which is odd only because so much of the record’s imagery lingers around skulls, darkness and bodies painted black.  I don’t know, maybe I’m reading it wrong; I don’t care, if I'm wrong, I like my version better.  Anyway, there’s a lot of power on this track, and the German band finds ways to integrate the best traits of KMFDM, Rammstein and Combichrist into one gleefully raucous experience.  The riffs are catchy as hell, the drums pound like hammers and the contrasting pacing in the songs between the gothic leads and the industrial walls of noise is perfect.  Bonus points for the band’s cover of the German pop song “Was Ist Denn Los Mit Dir.”  The album would made it on this list without it, but having it just puts it over the top.

#2 – John 5 and the Creatures – “Season of the Witch”
In the history of my year-end top ten lists, there have only been two albums to crack the rankings while not featuring a single lyric.  This one, and John 5’s previous album “Careful With That Axe.”  Unlike so many other virtuoso guitar players, John is trying to not just entertain with his impressive skill, but write songs that actually have movements and sound like songs people would want to listen to.  His variety of styles doesn’t hurt, as he bends from rock to metal to country to ballad and occasionally mixes them with great success.  Part of what made the old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons work so well is that the artists had an amazing ability to tell stories without words.  It’s a rare talent and John 5 taps into that same vein, though through a different medium.

#1 – The Midnight Ghost Train – “Cypress Ave”
No album this year has me coming back to listen to it again and again more than this one.  Robert Heinlein has a great quote in his book “Time Enough for Love” that concludes with “Specialization is for insects.”  Midnight Ghost Train, off the strength of their very solid previous album “Cold Was the Ground,” adamantly refuses to specialize, exploring six or seven different musical idioms within their one album.  They can play rock, blues, metal, hip-hop with brass accompaniment, ballads of hurt and songs of praise.  They are, in turn, comedic and campy and angry and cautious and chastising and thoughtful.  All of that occurs on “Cypress Ave,” before you even get to the best part.  The album’s final cut, “I Can’t Let You Go,” as powerful an expression of the combination of blues and metal and pure songwriting as has ever been recorded.  It’s the best song of the year, on the best album of the year.  If you ignore everything I’ve said up to this point, then I urge you to take heed of this record.  It’s that good.

Monday, December 18, 2017

"Swallow" The Nectar Of The Spider Accomplice

In both 2015 and 2016, The Spider Accomplice released the best EP of the year, and at least on these pages, established themselves as the hottest under-the-radar band coming up on the scene. This year saw the release of the single "User", but could that possibly have been all the band had in store for us this year?

Of course not.

The Spider Accomplice has deigned to give us a Christmas gift of the best kind; a ripping new single. This song, "Swallow", continues the band's growth, balances out the darkness "User" gave us, and once again hits the mark dead in the center of the bulls-eye.

First played and released as an episode of their "Spider Sessions" video series, "Swallow" immediately stood out even among their other strong material. It features everything that's great about The Spider Accomplice, with guitar playing that is just left-of-center, powerful vocals from VK Lynne, and an energy that becomes infectious as the song spins its web around you. Before you know it, you're wrapped up and can't get away, not that you would want to.

The Spider Accomplice is ever evolving, and exploring what their mix of modern/alternative/pop rock can be. They have tried on the hats of many styles, but stay themselves throughout, because they are personalities, and are not wedded to a uniform. With "Swallow", the band is finding new footing, and carving out a unique space for themselves.

Arno's guitars rise and fall, building a song that doesn't stand still for a minute. His initial riff is quirky (and has a bit of "Crazy Train" in it), and something that demands your attention. There are hints of punk in it, and the propulsive chords in the chorus, but the song has beauty and shimmering guitars that turn the song into a kaleidoscope of sounds. And when VK belts out the hook, backed by what sounds like a choir of angels, it becomes an anthem. This is the biggest and brightest The Spider Accomplice has ever sounded, and damn if it isn't impressive.

"And once it's in the blood, distorted days are all we see," VK sings in the chorus. Perhaps, but I can see clearly, and what I'm gazing on is another gem.

"Swallow" is easily one of the best songs of 2017. It will be released on Christmas Day. Find it then, and everything The Spider Accomplice, on Bandcamp, or their Facebook page.

Until then, enjoy this live, acoustic version of the song:

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Conversation: Wrapping Up 2017

Chris C: Time may be constant and linear, but the way we experience it is not. As we age, each day, week, month, and year becomes a smaller and smaller fragment of the time we have experienced, and much like a snowball rolling downhill that picks up speed as it grows bigger, I have to take a step back and say; "Is the year really over already?" That seems a funny thing to say, in one respect, because the world around us has been so chaotic that it feels like ages ago that things were calm and normal, but it's also come as a shock to me that we've already reached the end of this year. It hasn't felt like a year since we gathered for this task last year, or six months since we made note of where we were in the middle. Time flies, they say, and this year it certainly has seemed to.

As always, there are certain things about 2017 that have stood out, both for good and bad. We had the now requisite deaths (we'll get to Tom Petty, I'm sure), the failure for a new 'it' sound to emerge, and a string of artists trying to stop us from throwing the first shovel of dirt on their career. Plus, a cultural touchstone from the pop world that can unite us all in head-scratching "WTF"-ness.

I'll tackle the second of those first. One of the things that has disappointed me, as a musical anthropologist, is the lack of any development in the scene. We have been here long enough to have seen the thrash revival, the onset of djent, and the bro-ing of the mainstream. But for the last couple of years, there hasn't been anything new for us to sink our teeth into, whether we like it or not. I was never a djent fan, and I absolutely loathe Meshuggah (who birthed it), but it was interesting to see how something new could be absorbed and twisted by bands on all edges of the genre. That hasn't happened at all this year. We've made the point before that at this point, there isn't much left that can be done with traditional instruments, but nearly every record this year can be pegged pretty easily in an old category. That doesn't diminish the quality of many of them, but it does leave everything feeling a bit.... predictable.

That makes it hard to find a particular trend or theme running through the year, but if I have to make such a judgment, I think my theme of the year are the feeble and disappointing releases that came from so many established artists who should have known better. But before I get too far down that rabbit hole, or explain why Slayer and Taylor Swift have much in common these days (I'm serious), I'll let you give your initial impressions of 2017.

D.M:  I agree with you in many regards.  My initial feeling on 2017 is that I have very little in the way of an initial feeling.  To your point, there’s no single aspect that seems to jump out at me as being unique or revolutionary at this juncture.

In some ways, my main take away from the year seems to be that it involved a regression to the mean, or something like it.  I find I only have perhaps seven albums that I really feel strongly about (in a positive sense,) and that the mid-layer, which in the past has been turgid with ‘hey, that was pretty decent’ records is very much emaciated by comparison this year.  This feels, to me, a lot like 2013, which was a year similarly in flux, particularly in terms of my conviction towards the albums I really liked.

Whether that last is a result of the music being of lesser quality, or if it’s a function of my generally decreased attention for things I feel like I’ve heard before, is hard to determine, and probably too subjective evaluate properly.  But there it is.

What I find most interesting about this lack of innovation (which sounds harsh, but it’s what I’ll do with,) is that apart from there being no overarching trend to govern the auspices of the year, there was also no geographical location dictating that shift.  There’s always been, even on a minor scale, a Seattle or a Gothenburg, or even a Montreal, but no locations rose up this year to declare themselves the ‘it’ scene.

I will add this, though.  While I agree that a novel innovation is hard to envision given that the paradigm of guitar, drums and bass seems immobile, but I think the future will be written by those who can creatively mesh the already existing permutations together.  Destrage, although they didn’t release an album this year, is at the forefront of this, and several others are sending probes out into the void to see what resonates.  The One Hundred’s album this year wasn’t the best album out there, but it was an interesting experiment in the possible resurrection and ultimately assimilation of rap metal into this new landscape.

Naturally, we also need to leave room for the perpetual constant that someone who can do the established with great ability will stand out no matter what.  We’ll get into this more later as we talked about what we liked this year, but as an illustrative example – LeBron James didn’t invent or innovate the game of basketball, but it remains enjoyable to watch him play the established game very well.

CHRIS C: You bring up an interesting point that I'm not sure we've really covered much before, and that seldom gets talked about at all; ourselves. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but when we talk about music, we tend to do so in objective terms, as though the music exists outside the vacuum of our lives. While it would be nice to think that everything we experience doesn't come down to sheer stupid luck, I can't sit here and tell you that my favorite records would still be my favorites if I had heard them at different times, or been in different mental states when I first encountered them. Our lives ebb and flow, and we aren't always going to be as open and receptive to certain things, or anything, as we could otherwise be. When life gets in the way, it can be hard to find the enthusiasm for sifting through all the new music that's out there. I know there have been times when I haven't been jumping with joy that I needed to sit down and absorb the next week's new releases. And when we think about the responsibilities of getting older, combined with the fatiguing nature of the news these days, music does seem to lose a bit of its luster. Even I will say that.

I've been waiting, and I suppose I'm still waiting, for the pendulum to swing, and for America to become a hotbed of activity again. The European scene has been leading the way for so long, it just feels like we're due for someone on this side of the pond to gets things kicked into gear. But when I look around at what's at the top of the rock charts over here, its a rather depressing lineup. We have stagnated in a place where the soupy post-grunge that birthed Nickelback is still the main template. Not only are we not seeing anything new come up, but we're hearing mostly the sound of ten years ago still. It's not pretty.

The one name that has been generating buzz for any hope of a mainstream crossover is Greta Van Fleet, the poorly named band being pushed by everyone from Billboard to Eddie Trunk. While it would be nice to get a rock band back in a position where it could influence popular music at large to shift back a bit in the direction of being more organic, I haven't been able to figure out why these guys are the ones being heralded. If you want to talk about derivative, here you go. Every single time I've heard their name brought up, Led Zeppelin is in the same sentence. It's for good reason. Rock is in trouble if the most hyped young band out there is basically a tribute band to one that has been defunct for over thirty years. Graveyard deserves that attention, since they actually did something fresh with a throwback approach, and sound entirely like themselves. At least we have news that they are headed into the studio soon.

Didn't LeBron innovate? I can't think of anyone before him who basically is all five positions at once. Sure, Magic was a tall point guard, but no one before realized the potential of being everything at the same time. He created the Mack truck version of basketball.

I'll hand this off with two questions for you. 1) What did you most like and dislike this year, and 2) Compared to Tom Petty's death, was the impact of Malcolm Young's passing neutered, in a sense, because the band themselves had already moved on without him?

D.M: Listen, you’ve known me a long time.  As I think about it, a really long time (could college have been that long ago?  Shit, how old am I?)  You know me as someone who, and I admit I am firmly in the minority on this, does not have the usual affiliations between music and the time of ear, or music and my emotional state.  I don’t even have the normal reactions of most people to the music that I like.  I think most people who really enjoy aggressive music do so because they find it energetic or cathartic or in line with their deep-seated anger or whatever the case may be.  By contrast, and maybe this is a product of however many decades of listening, I find that same music to be, if not relaxing, at least comfortable.  It keeps my heart rate stable, relaxes my brain if I’m stressed – in short, it’s almost like a trip home.  I’m weird, I know.

But I said all that nonsense because as odd as my musical variations and attitudes are, you touched on the one thing that I can’t avoid in my musical appreciation.  Life does get in the way.  For a variety of reasons that I won’t bore the readers at home with, 2017 shaped up to be the busiest year quite possibly of my entire life.  Attentive fans may have noted that my contributions to our editorial commentary were much fewer and farther between this year, and that was no accident; the time just wasn’t there.  And to that end, not only did it effect my outgoing product, but it definitely took a toll on my ability to process music and adversely impacted by ability to even ingest music in the same manner.

When we started our preliminary talks about the timing of this conversation, I was surprised to look back and find that I only had six or seven albums I truly felt strong about.  Now some of these I enjoy a great deal, which we’ll get into later, but there is a palpable, weighty feeling like I might not have been paying enough attention, or was too quick to dismiss something simply because I didn’t have the time evaluate it properly.  My patience (or lack thereof,) was mostly limited to bands who were providing me with something different (although I’ve been on that train for a while now,) or something familiar that was immediately and clearly superior to its contemporaries of the genre (perhaps surprisingly, I actually came away with more of the former than the latter.)

So in the end, I feel like I heard an awful lot of records that made me shrug and say ‘well, this is fine, but I’ve heard it before somewhere else, arguably better.’  In previous years, would I have tried to dig deeper and find greater value in that return?  Quite possibly.  Even so, to quickly address Greta Van Fleet, this is where they fall for me.  They’re a fine band, but I’ve heard it before.  It was called Led Zeppelin.  I own all those albums.
But in the process of admitting my failings, let me tie that into your point, and perhaps this becomes the overarching theme of our entire missive.  Particularly from America, but all over the musical spectrum, we’re hearing a lot of sameness.  There seemed to be fewer risk takers this year, which is disappointing.  And I’m with you – as much as it sounds like musical xenophobia, (and I promise it isn’t, as a guy who’s two favorite bands right now are from Finland and Italy,) it would be nice to see a handful of Americans (besides The Sword,) represent the country with some strength.  Even on a wider base than just rock, there was always an assumption that the United States would lead the league in pop music, but since Ed Sheeran seems to own the world these days, we’ve lost that title as well.  So all the US is leading in right now is rap, and outside of Killer Mike there’s not a lot in the mainstream to be excited about there, either.  Yikes.

Quick LeBron aside, since I love to talk basketball – you’re right, he’s a unique player in the history of the game.  Even as a Spurs fan, LeBron is borderline must-see TV.  I have watched a lot of NBA basketball in my life (and yes, I saw Jordan, relax out there,) and I have never seen a basketball player like LeBron.  You’re right on the Mack truck portion of his game, and that’s what makes him unique – because he can get to the rim anytime he wants, everything else in his game blossoms from that aspect.  The passing lanes are open because defenders have to collapse on him.  His jump shot is available to him because every defender has to respect his ability to get into the paint.  He’s unbelievable.  And I don’t know if that makes him better than Jordan, but it does make him equally compelling.

Okay, one more thing – Giannis Antetokounmpo has the potential to be the same kind of player.  But even his game is more built around his agility and length than sheer power.

I do want to get to your questions, but I think I’ve droned on long enough for now.  Take it back!

CHRIS C: We're all weird, just in our own ways. You find metal cathartic, and I'm someone who can't answer the question of who my favorite _____ is. If you ask me about guitarists, despite the fact that I am one, I honestly can't give you an answer. I don't look at music that way. There isn't anyone who has amazed me through sheer force of charisma to the point where I pay attention to everything they do. I'm someone fully immersed on the side of songwriting above all else. Someone like Yngwie Malmsteen is supremely talented when it comes to manipulating the frets, but he writes lame, boring music, so I don't care about him. I would rank many guitar players who struggle to do anything a second-year player couldn't higher than him, because a lot of those people are better able to use their instruments to make music I want to listen to. Look at a guy like Slash. He's got great style, and he's an amazing soloist, but there isn't a single record after "Appetite For Destruction" I ever care to listen to in full again. I'm an instrumentalist without instrumental heroes. Weird, right?

What you're saying about wondering if you had the time to properly invest in records leads me to a point I've debated with other people. I am of the belief that there is only so much music any one of us can listen to and absorb in a given frame of time. I come across people who listen to a thousand albums a year, who can put together a list at the end of the year of at least a hundred they liked. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom how that is possible. To say I truly like or love an album, I need to listen to it repeatedly. I know I love one when I listen to it five times in the first week I get it. If I liked a hundred albums in a year, I would not have the time to do anything but listen to those albums day in and day out. My life would be nothing but making sure I like albums.

That's why I've always felt that people who say such things are disposable fans, if you will. They listen to an album once, say it was good, and then write it down on a list as though they actually have given it any thought. It's no different than seeing someone attractive from across the room. Sure, we can see plenty of people who catch our eye, but how many of them do you actually want to spend (family appropriate) time with? As you mentioned, we've known each other a long time, so you know what I'm talking about. We met plenty of people back in the day who looked good at surface level, and then turned out to be questionable when you dug deeper. We do that with music. We have standards things have to live up to, and it's irresponsible to think that any great percentage of records can do that. As I put it somewhere else; if I were to love roughly half of the albums I listen to, I would therefore be loving music closer to the average. Average shouldn't be good enough for that label, and that's how I treat it. Good is good, but good doesn't mean you get raved about all the way through the year.

I think there's a slight flaw in talking about who rules the pop world; namely that there is no world to rule anymore. This has been the single most dismal year I have ever seen for pop music, but I only know that because I go out of my way to at least read the headlines of what's going on. Pop music doesn't permeate beyond the pop bubble anymore. I heard Taylor Swift's new songs more often as buffer music on Monday Night Football than I did on the radio. Losing the crown doesn't really mean so much when the kingdom is in ruins.

Don't get me started on mumble rap. As a writer, and a lover of words, I find it blatantly offensive. Something I've been saying for a long time is that any singer who is not intelligible cannot be considered to have delivered a good performance. If a song has lyrics, it's your job to deliver them and get the message across. If we can't understand you, you have failed in a major part of your job (Michael Kiske, I'm looking at you).

I get annoyed by the talking heads who say it's an objective fact that Jordan is the best player ever, and no one can ever possibly top him. There's no reason why legitimate arguments can't be made for other players. Myself, I think there's a strong case to be made for Bill Russell. Ultimately, the nature of athletics has changed so much that today's players are actually 'better' than Jordan, in terms of speed, shooting ability, etc. Jordan was amazing relative to his time, but it does seem worth asking if his time was simply one where wing play was so unathletic (Detlef Schrempf anyone?) he had no competition. Patrick Ewing created a flood every time he went to the line back when the game was played so slowly. How many players from that time could survive in the flowing game of today? (This is true of all sports. It's progress moving us closer to the limits of human potential.)

I'll quickly answer one of my own questions, before you get to them. What I liked most about this year was how pretty much nothing that will be appearing on my Top Ten list is anything I would have pegged to be there at the start of the year. Being surprised can be a good thing. What I didn't like about this year was how everything I was anticipating disappointed me to some degree. It was not a good year to look ahead.

D.M: Two points countering your first point (and I’m making a tepid defense at best here.)  First, I’ll stand up for “Use Your Illusion I.”  I don’t like the sequel nearly as much, but UYI1 is a pretty solid record, even if I like their cover of “Live and Let Die” for entirely the wrong reasons.  Second, there is one reason to care about Yngwie, and probably one reason only – he has released a series of the most ludicrous album covers ever seen.  Whether he’s fighting off a dragon with the righteousness of his guitar (“Trilogy,”) summoning ribbons of fire like a rhythmic gymnast (“Fire & Ice,”) seeing literal rainbows in the dark as his ghostly visage looks down upon weary pilgrims (“Inspiration,”) preparing to kiss a camel’s ass in a picture of himself clearly taken twenty years prior like a bad dating profile (“Perpetual Flame,”) or summon a great orgasm of cosmic lightning from his guitar (“Spellbound,”) he can’t resist!

I’m totally with you on the pace of music consumption I’m capable of.  I figure I probably sample four to five hundred records a year, just by virtue of going through the promotional materials we receive.  But the bulk majority of those are scant, one-minute cross sections to see if I want to explore further.  At the peak of my writing power, I could probably truly absorb around a hundred albums a year, maybe as many as 110, which divides out to roughly two a week.  I can’t imagine trying to take in and process more than that.  Which is why, to pop ourselves a little here, I think we do a pretty good job of having discerning taste in our review selection, and also explaining why those albums are even worthy of review (though I am a little remiss here – there will be albums in my top ten that I did not officially review.)  You said it best, average shouldn’t be good enough.

When you talk about people we knew who looked good at surface level, are you talking about that girl who was being forced by the school to take a drug test because of a cocaine violation?  That’s a story for another day….

Allow me also to mount a tepid defense of mumble rap.  As someone who likes a lot of bands with unintelligible vocals, there’s plenty of good music out there where the lyrical message is secondary (which you and I will fundamentally disagree about, which is fine.)  Sometimes, at least in the case of metal, the method of lyrical delivery is as much a part of the meaning as the words themselves.  At least, that’s the thought process.  However, I will cede that in rap, which is predominately a vocal medium, the words carry additional weight.

1) I love that you talk about the flood of Patrick Ewing’s sweat.  2) A brief aside on my grudge against Detlef Schrempf, and it’s really not his fault.  If you had the home version of NBA Jam, the Sonics were composed of Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.  My brother and I always teamed up.  He always wanted to be the Sonics.  He always wanted to be Shawn Kemp.  I spent a lot of time playing gritty defense and shooting the occasional corner three as Detlef Schrempf.  Which in NBA Jam, is precisely zero fun.

But there’s actually a common theme in the two things we’re talking about.  Real greatness, whether in music or sports, comes from a combination of two factors.  Yes, you have to be incredibly talented, that’s the first one.  You also have to have the wherewithal to recognize how talented you are, and hone that talent to a fine edge with focus and training and the ability to outwork those around you.  All the true, transcendent greats possess both – Jordan, LeBron, Bruce Lee, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady (ugh,) Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on.  (A handful of notable exceptions – Bo Jackson and Randy Moss, who were so athletically gifted that they could crush people without trying all that hard, and Wayne Gretzky, who certainly outworked everyone, but was not physically dominant.)

Getting back to the questions you asked which I didn’t answer, there were a handful of things I liked this year.  I liked that bands I though I already knew and liked were able to present me with new versions of themselves.  Twists in their music, changes to their identity (for the better,) blending of new and different sounds.  Galaktikon and Midnight Ghost Train were two, but there were others.  I also liked the depth at the end of the year.  You and I both know that once the summer season ends, the business starts to slow down, and by the time Halloween is over, everybody’s about packed it up for the year.  This fall, all the way through to Thanksgiving, has had some nice releases, which is a pleasant change of pace.  And as much as we complained about the stagnation of American bands, as I whittle my list down to ten, at least four of them are American, with a handful more in the mix.

It’s harder for me to gauge what I didn’t enjoy, because in my limited time, anything I didn’t enjoy was dismissed out of hand.  Maybe that in and of itself is something I didn’t like, that there was still so much material that I either cringed at or shrugged noncommittally.  I remain disappointed that The Oxford Coma isn’t a better band, because I love their name.  I actually am struggling to finish my top ten, not because I have too many entries to whittle down, but because as we discussed, I may not have enough.  Oh, and I still don’t like how good the New England Patriots are (‘don’t like’ is a gross understatement.)

As for Malcolm versus Petty, it’s a little bit apples and oranges.  The Heartbreakers can’t move on without Tom Petty because the band’s full name is “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”  AC/DC could function without Malcolm because even at his apex, Malcolm was never the face of AC/DC.  It’s not even the same situation as when The Who kept touring after John Entwistle died.  Entwistle became more important to The Who after the death of Keith Moon by virtue of still being upright and ambulatory.  When they went on without him (and didn’t even cancel the tour they were on,) that was weird.  I love Malcolm Young as much as the next guy, but he’s not at the fore of AC/DC legend.  It was much more bizarre, and much more damaging to the reputation of the band, when they proceeded after forcibly removing Brian Johnson.  Sadly, that sort of writes it for them – as if they weren’t already, they’re now just another touring museum band who wants some cash.

The passing of Chris Cornell affected me much more deeply.  I know grunge hasn’t had the lasting impact that I foresaw, but he was a singular talent who’s reach far exceeded the grasp of his genre.  Vocalists from all over, in every walk, credit him as an influence.  His death also reinforced that sometimes when your friend says he’s alright, he’s not alright.  Be good to your friends, people.

CHRIS C: That pace you describe is pretty much in line with my own. As of this moment, I've listened to 145 albums and EPs this year. I don't keep track of how many I've heard a song from, or a few short samples. That level of engagement is negligible, and takes up no brain power. These 145 for the year are the ones I invested at least half an hour in, and frankly, I don't want to listen to many more than that. We have the good fortune to have access to many more albums than that during a given year, but even if they were all in my wheelhouse, I can't imagine myself listening to more than I am right now. Two a week is more than it sounds like, and any more leaves no time to revisit old favorites. Even the campy "Batman" show only aired twice a week, and that was like visual junk food. If records were new every single day, we'd be living in a jukebox soap opera, and who the heck wants to do that?

You know, I hate to say this, but I can't say for sure we're talking about the same person. I think so, but the details have become fuzzy (it's a good thing I wrote down 30,000 words of memories a long time ago). She did have one of the greatest/worst lines of my life; "Your birthday is my birthday too. We should fuck on it." Higher education at its finest.

You're absolutely right that greatness is a combination of talent and drive. I'll segue over to my sport here for a moment. Is Tiger Woods the most talented golfer to ever play? Heck no he's not. With the amount of times he's rebuilt himself from the ground up, we've watched him will his body to do great things. John Daly is a complete mess of a human being, but I'll be damned if he isn't one of the most naturally gifted players ever. He didn't have to work, or think, or even be sober, and he could hit the cover off a ball. That's one of the problems with music, actually. We have so many bands made up of people who've spent their lives practicing and working on their instruments, who didn't spend that much time training to be songwriters. While neither one of us particularly likes Bruce Springsteen (there's our annual shot at him), I have a lot more respect for him as someone who wrote and wrote and wrote until he could give people songs they wanted, than I do for people in technical bands that use their technical skills to cover up the fact they have nothing to say. Hard work is only meaningful if you're working towards the right goal.

I guess my inquiry about Malcolm Young is getting to the question of just how much we're supposed to be importance on the people who make the music. It struck me as he retired from the band as callous how little the others seemed to care about his 'legacy', and insisted on carrying on as though he didn't matter. They recruited his nephew (who would have looked a lot like him), and had him play Malcolm's rig. They were going out of their way to make it so that nothing changed, when in fact they should have taken the opportunity to get someone different in the mix so we aren't left thinking Malcolm was utterly replaceable. You had plenty of guitarist out there calling him the greatest rhythm player ever upon his death, and the band themselves treated him like KISS makeup; it didn't matter who was playing the part. That's what made it sad. I'm not saying AC/DC needed to end, but they certainly could have acted as though losing Malcolm was a big blow. Actually, between that and Axl Rose now fronting them, they have to be in the running for the saddest end to a once great band.

Speaking of endings, before we wrap this up, let me ask what you're excited about for next year. Myself, I'm working on tempering my expectations. I've been saying I'm excited for the same few things for the last couple of years, which never happen, only to leave me saying them again. I think I'm going to try to go into 2018 without undue anticipation. That said, I am excited for any new music my friends The Spider Accomplice put out, there's a pure pop band called Pale Waves whose debut record could be highly interesting to me, and there's another band who made my 2016 year-end list who have already given me the opportunity to hear their new album before the release strategy is even put in place. That's exciting right there.

And so, having said my piece (I think), I will leave it to you to wrap things up for us.

D.M: I really enjoy the term “jukebox soap opera.”  Though dude, don’t sleep on Victor Newman.  He’s nefarious!

Oh man, I actually don’t think we’re talking about the same person!  Because I know who you’re talking about, and it wasn’t her.  Damn, how many deviants did we know? (Don’t answer that, it would take too long.)

Yeah!  Suck it, Bruce Springsteen!  Glad I’ve managed to turn this into a joint tradition.

It’s an interesting point about songwriting, and something people don’t pay enough attention to.  To continue the parallel between this and our sports conversation, songwriting is like ‘hands’ in a wide receiver.  It’s an underrated quality, but in many ways, is the most important one.  Yeah, being able to play fast or play with intricacy or jump high or run fast are all attractive characteristics, but unless you can actually secure the ball in your hands, or use those skills to weave a musical storyline, all you are is a nice, highly produced tech demonstrations.  One wonders who you would get to teach proper songwriting since it seems to be so rare, but that’s beside the point.  We are, as a musical society, flush with people of style but no substance.  As a matter of fact, that seems to be going around in many societal aspects.  Take from that what you will.

As for what I’m looking forward to, that’s hard to answer for me in music.  I think I would have to knock off several prerequisites first, not limited to finding a better balance between work and career and scraping together larger segments of my meager free time into a cohesive whole.  That said, one of the releases that intrigued me most this year was from The One Hundred.  I was not and am not the greatest advocate for rap metal, but I also think that there’s a place for the genre both now and in the future, one that’s more prominent and properly fitted than either its apex or nadir.  Curious to see if that brings with it a Renaissance of sorts (probably overstating it,) for the style.  I am curious to see if thrash can rebound from a couple sad years and give us something of greater gravitas and import (see the section on songwriting above.)

As I do every year, I’m renewing my call for Blackguard to release their completed but never released album “Storm.”  It stood to be great, and damn it, I want to hear it.  I would like the Mets to add a couple of contact hitters, and the Spurs to win the NBA title.  I think that’s it.

Happy holidays to all.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Worst/Most Disappointing Albums Of 2017

Here's a tautological truth; not everything can be above average. Just by basic logic, and the definition of the word, a large amount of any product is going to be of lesser quality. When it comes to music, that is certainly the case. If anyone seems to like nearly everything they listen to, either check to see if they have the best luck you've ever seen, or disregard their opinion. There are people I listen to who are of such mind, who will be able to list a hundred or more albums at the end of a year that they enjoyed. I don't trust them for a minute. First of all, I find it impossible to listen to and properly digest that much music to be able to say such a thing. Second of all, I don't believe there is that much good music being made in a given year.

In a busy year, I will listen to approximately one hundred and fifty albums, in addition to hearing plenty more singles, and sampling many other albums. Based on my those numbers, my success rate is low enough that collecting my top ten albums at the end of the year wil encompass the majority of the records I will still remember a year from now. Tapping my toe for forty minutes isn't the same thing as truly liking an album enough to put it on your shelf and commit much of it to memory. Most albums don't make any impact. Only the good ones do, or the truly terrible.

This year has been special in the number of albums that have given me real emotional stress, where the act of sitting down and listening to them even once created real distress. Whether it was because the records were so bad they never should have been released, or because they murdered my hopes, bad records can leave just as deep an impact on you as a great one. Here are the five worst, and five most disappointing, albums that I was unfortunate enough to hear in 2017:

The Most Disappointing:

5. House Of Lords - Saint Of The Lost Souls
The previous House Of Lords album, "Indestructible", has become one of my favorite melodic rock albums of recent years. The more I've listened to it, the more it has grown in my eyes into a true highlight of the genre. Their raw guitar tone and huge melodic hooks made the songs irresistible, and marked what I believe to be the long-running band's career best. That gave me high hopes that their next album would continue where they left off, but that was not the case whatsoever. This time out, everything about the album is flatter and less exciting. The guitars are pushed back in favor of more keyboards, and James Christian's melodies lack the spark and bite I was expecting. After hitting a home run, House Of Lords hit a line drive single this time, which isn't bad, but it doesn't get the crowd roaring.

4. H.E.A.T. - Into The Great Unknown
Likewise, H.E.A.T.'s previous album was phenomenal. "Tearing Down The Walls" hit everything right on the mark, with heavy guitars that bristled with rock attitude, and hooks upon hooks that rivaled anything pop had to offer. It was about as good as a modern-styled melodic hard rock album could be done, which pointed the arrow in the right direction for the future. This time, the approach changed entirely. While half the album follows suit, half the album pulls back on the guitars to take the 'rock' approach that has a chance to cross over on the radio; ie, not rock at all. Those songs are cheap, fluffy filler that doesn't even sound like the same band, and it was these tracks used to sell the album. H.E.A.T. made it clear with this record where they intend to head in the future, and it's not anywhere I want to go.

3. Fastball - Step Into Light
Fastball has been criminally underrated for years. While people may remember their two hits, they have been consistently making good to great pop-rock albums all along. Their catalog includes dozens of catchy songs that fit an updated spirit of Beatles-esque hookiness. After each member of the band made solo records, they reconvened for their first collaboration in several years, and it shows Fastball as much more of a change-up. There are two classics on the record, "Just Another Dream" and "Secret Agent Love", but the rest of the record lacks any of their bounce, fun, or knack for writing timeless melodies. In all honesty, this record is the worst they've ever made, and Tony Scalzo's solo album easily outshines it.

2. Jorn - Life On Death Road
Jorn is someone I know I shouldn't expect much from, yet I do anyway. With his massive voice, he should be standing atop the metal universe. And after contributing to the writing of both the very good fourth Allen/Lende album, and the "Dracula: Swing Of Death" album that won Album Of The Year from me, I thought he had finally ingrained the lessons from his myriad guest roles into his own work. I was wrong. This album is just another Jorn album, which means it has one great track, a couple decent ones, and far too many cheesy attempts to recreate the legacy of Dio. Jorn is so much more talented than this that it hurts to hear him wasting his voice on such mediocre material, especially when an entirely new band was put together to make this the best Jorn album yet. It's not, not by a long shot. Jorn crashed back to earth with this release, and I don't know how to explain his bizarre career.

1. Incura - Incura II
But the most disappointing album of the year is this one. A few years back, Incura released a debut album that made my list of favorites, and did so with a theatrical style of rock/metal that fused heaviness and cheesiness akin to a metal tribute to Meat Loaf. That was right up my alley, so I was hoping they would grow even further, take their music up a notch, and deliver a magnum opus of overblown melodrama. Instead, after what I can only assume were issues with their label, this album fell from the sky one day without warning, and it's not hard to hear why. Everything that was great about Incura is gone from this album. It lacks the energy, the glamor, the pizzazz of their debut. Instead of merrily embracing their ludicrous sound, it's toned down here to the point they sound like a rather average rock/metal band. The metal meets Broadway approach is gone, replaced with melodies that sag, limply moving just enough to let you know they're alive. Incura had the style and substance to be something special, but "Incura II" is a pale imitation of their potential. I wasn't let down more all yeaer than the first time I listened to this record.

The Worst:

5. Danzig - Black Laden Crown
Danzig is a legend, and for good reason. His first four records set a standard for bluesy heavy metal that few bands have ever matched. But even legends can fall, and Danzig surely has. While he has been trending downward for years, he has (maybe) hit bottom this time. After a covers album that was torn apart by everyone, he returns to original material, to the same end. The problem for Danzig is that he one thing that set him apart is now gone; his voice. These songs are boring, and terribly produced, but that isn't out of the ordinary. The issues with Danzig's ears go beyond the production, and extend to himself. It boggles my mind how he was able to listen to the perforances he gives on this record and signed off on them. He sounds like a hollow shell of himself here, struggling to get notes out without croaking like a movie zombie. He is not the only one to be going through this (Meat Loaf sounded the same way on his last record), but it's painful to have to listen to. Like a quarterback who held on too long and had to be stretchered off the field, Danzig is just waiting for someone to take his career behind the woodshed and put it out of its misery.

4. Operation:Mindcrime - The New Reality
We all saw this one coming. The first two chapters of this unnecessary trilogy were both relative disasters, so it would have been foolish not to expect the final entry in this series to deliver the knockout blow. Three albums written and recorded at the same time had no chance of every being good, but Geoff Tate continues to find new depths to fall to. This is a concept album that, even after three discs, is indecipherable, but that's not the worst part. Tate's band provides long instrumental backdrops that are poorly recorded, lacking riffs, and overpowered by keyboards mixed too loudly. With that awful base, Tate paints not in sepia, but in the colors of rot, decay, and dirt. His voice is shot, and he has no idea how to write melodies that work with the little range he has left. This album is an embarrassment, but that's part for the course for Geoff Tate. What makes it even worse is that I bothered to give all three albums a chance, just to see if he could get even a slight bit better. He couldn't.

3. Quiet Riot - Road Rage
If ever there was a band from the 80s that shouldn't have come back, it would be Quiet Riot. A band that made history largely by covering someone else's material, they very well might have the biggest gap between name recognition and actual accomplishment in the history of metal. Never a good band, they have only gotten worse as age has inflated their egos. Combine that with a situation where the album's PR campaign had started before the band decided to kcik out the singer and rerecord the entire thing with a singer who once competed on American Idol, and you can already see how this was going to turn out. "Road Rage" causes said condition if listened to in a car, because this is inexcusable from anyone, let alone a band that has been around as long as Quiet Riot. The songs are bad, the vocals are even worse, and the entire thing sounds like a rough demo produced on Windows XP. I only wish the band lived up to their name, because the quiet is much preferable to listening to this album ever again.

2. Steel Panther - Lower The Bar
I kind of liked Steel Panther when they came out. They mocked glam metal, while writing some songs that were better than most of what they were making fun of. Unfortunately, the band has run through their best musical material, as this album sees them writing the least fun, debaucherous, and memorable songs of their career. The bigger problem, however, is that the joke has run its course. It was funny the first time to hear them more explicitly talking about the sexual exploits many of the old hits were hinting at, but after dozens of these songs, there's no humor left in hearing them talk about banging strippers and floozies. Plus, as the culture around sexual assault has shifted rapidly, their 'jokes' come off more and more like a defense of awful human behavior. The jokes aren't funny, and the topics no longer feel appropriate. Steel Panther is going to have to change their ways, because after this abomination of a record, I don't know how they can make another one all about taking advantage of women. It's become very creepy.

1. Dead Cross - Dead Cross
I struggle when musicians are afforded huge legacies when they are not the driving force behind the music that made them famous. Dave Lombardo is rightly credited as one of the great metal drummers, but what did he really contribute to the records he played on? In the grand scheme of things, not much. That's why I didn't understand the hype for a new band featuring him and Mike Patton, another figure not known for being the strongest of songwriters. I was right to fear. It turns out Dead Cross is an unlistenable mess of noise, the kind of album that you would expect to be made by two people who think that screaming and banging on things constitutes music. On a record that lasts less than half an hour, they tear through what is supposed to be crusty, punk hardcore, but the results sound more like a group of angry teenagers starting their first band two days after getting their instruments. The songs are loud, ugly, and devoid of anything that would make you want to listen to them again. There is so little structure to the songs, and so little message behind the lyrics, that it's hard to tell the difference between the proverbial blender they through their influences into, and an actual blender. In fact, given the properties of white noise, the real blender might be more enjoyable. It would certainly be more useful. Dead Cross is a band with no past, no present, and certainly no future. Bah Humbug, guys, you've just made the worst record of 2017.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Top Ten Albums Of 2017

Every year is its own journey, new paths leading through unseen terrain, landscapes rising out of the horizon fresh with each step we take. Looking to the past is fruitless when moving forward, as all we will be able to see are our own footsteps, not able to tell if we have been moving towards or away from our goals. We only look backwards to make sure we haven't doubled back on ourselves, repeating history in an endless loop, time running like a mobius strip.

This year has been unlike any other than I can remember. As an avid music fan, it has been a wild ride filled with a panapole of great albums that have built a list of favorites I am more than happy with, while at the same time providing me with more albums that offended my very soul than I can ever remember. This was a year of extremes, with the good being great, and the bad being truly horrific. Perhaps that is merely a reflection of age, where I have less energy to devote to records that don't meet my standards, since the collection of music I do love continues to grow, and time is needed to make sure I don't ignore old favorites in favor of mediocre newer releases.

The crop of good music this year was very good, and does extend beyond the album listed below. I was disappointed to not be able to include the albums from Eclipse and Skarlett Riot, as they are both fine efforts that I listened to repeatedly, but this was a tough year to earn a spot. They would have made the list in several of the previous years, but there were just a couple extra good ones this year that kept them relegated to honorable mention status. That's not anything to be ashamed of.

There were plenty of surprises to be found, including in the top half of this list, but the one thing about the year that disappointed me is the smaller than usual number of albums I was able to find from small and independent artists to showcase. That is one of my favorite aspects of doing this, but only one such album stood any chance of being one of the best of the year.

So with that out of the way, let's now talk about the best that 2017 had to offer.

EP Of The Year:

The Winery Dogs - Dog Years
The Winery Dogs were one of the best stories a few years back, coming out of the gates with a debut album that was a stunning bit of hard rock majesty. Their follow-up didn't live up to those standards, going off in more indulgent tangents, which is to be expected from three players with massive amounts of instrumental talent. This EP gathers the songs that were left off their albums, and it brings us right back to the start. These five tracks are beautiful blends of instrumental flourish and melodic hooks, showing the diversity of what the band is capable of. These are strong, focused songs that are immediately engaging, and deep enough to sustain repeated listens. These are the kinds of songs that remind me why I thought The Winery Dogs could be the next big thing. This is what modern rock and roll is supposed to be.

The Top Ten:

10(tie). Nightmare - Dead Sun
My favorite singer in the world is not terribly prolific, nor involved in music on the heavier end of the rock spectrum, though I have often wondered what that would sound like. Thanks to Nightmare, I now know the answer. Introducing new singer Maggie Luyten to their ranks, "Dead Sun" is a crushing, heavy, thrashing power metal attack that never lets up on the intensity. This is heavy metal in the real sense of the word, bristling with energy and strong songwriting. Capping all that off is Luyten, who pushes her voice to its limits, and in doing so is a near clone of my heroine. It's a sound I absolutely adore, and the fact the album lives up to her performance makes it one of the best of the year.

10(tie). The Black Marbles - Moving Mountains
As both a listener and a musician, I have always appreciated music that sounds natural and organic. That's why I have been supportive of the retro/vintage rock movement, even if most of the bands aren't producing much good music. The Black Marbles are one I stumbled across late in the year, and they fit the bill perfectly as far as what I'm looking for. They play 70s classic rock, but updated with the power of modern production. They embrace the songwriting of that time, letting the songs push and pull, and go wherever the next good idea happens to be. When it's done right, classic rock and roll is timeless. That's what I feel this album is.

9. Orden Ogan - Gunmen
Orden Ogan has slowly built a name for themselves, but they are still less known than they should be. They took where Blind Guardian was with "A Night At The Opera", and turned it into a roaring metal beast. Heavier than power metal has any right to be, Orden Ogan writes songs that sound epic on every front. They have been doing this for a while, and have never released an album that wasn't very good, but this is their most solid effort since my personal favorite, "Easton Hope". In fact, "Gunmen" is a more focused effort that that one, and is relentless enough that metal fans of all stripes should love it, which means it might be the album that ultimately defines them.

8. The Warning - XXI Century Blood
I would not have expected a pop/rock album made by three teenage girls from Mexico to be a can't-miss, but this album is. These three ladies have, on their own, written an album that stands up with anything that comes from the melodic rock factories or the big labels. If you compare them to a band like Halestorm, The Warning has done by themselves what took an entire team of industry professionals to achieve for Halestorm. There are moments where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and there are moments when you are fully immersed in the sun. The Warning's future isn't bright. Their present already is.

7. Creeper - Eternity, In Your Arms
There was a time some years back when bands like My Chemical Romance and AFI were redefining emo into a theatrical sound that emoted like the biggest over-actor on the stage. That sound died out quickly, but is brought back to life by Creeper. Borrowing the themes of Peter Pan (much like Jim Steinman did), this album is a bit pop, a bit punk, and completely a reminder that you can pack plenty of drama into three minute morsels. In some ways, Creeper has made the album "Bat Out Of Hell" would have been if it was made by twenty year olds with electric guitars. That sounds like music to these ears.

6. Nocturnal Rites - Phoenix
Nocturnal Rites was one of the power metal bands that helped get me into heavy music, but it was easy to forget about them during their ten year absence. That time away was put to good use, as they return with an album that picks up right where they left off. Combining the deep riffing and flashy solos of modern heavy metal with leather-lunged hooks pop songwriters would kill for, Nocturnal Rites is firing on all cylinders here. "Phoenix" is heavy, catchy, and an absolute delight.

5. Sorcerer - The Crowning Of The Fire King
Music can effect moods, which is why I try to avoid music that aims to depress. I don't see the need, as a listener, to intentionally go down that road. That means I listen to very little doom metal, and nearly skipped out on Sorcerer's latest effort entirely. That would have been a collosal mistake, as Sorcerer has made what might just be the best doom album I've ever heard. Instead of grinding a handful of slow riffs into the ground, Sorcerer's sound is a beautiful tapestry of guitars that weave epic and beautiful soundscapes. Cap that off with utterly fantastic vocals and melodies, and the result is a stunning effort that needs to be heard to be believed. If it helps, you can think of it as slow power metal, because doom doesn't convey its grandeur.

4. Rise Against - Wolves
I have a feeling that the next few years will be ripe with political rock and punk music decrying these troubled times. While waiting for those albums to come to fruition, Rise Against fills the void with a political album that reminds us the world was going to hell long before this latest turn. Taking on issues from water pollution to lack of self-worth, this is a biting, powerful album that wraps up a message of engaged empowerment in a veneer of rousing punk-ish rock and roll anthems. A triumphant effort.

3. Harem Scarem - United
Over the course of a year, I get to hear plenty of melodic rock bands that are melodic, and sort of rock, but don't deliver anything truly memorable. Harem Scarem, after decades together, found something special in themselves, and delivered easily the best album of their career. While formerly a rather bland act, this album sees them upping the ante in every respect. The guitar playing is more inventive, while the songs are hookier than a backwoods bait shop. Imagine if The Winery Dogs introduced more pop elements into their vocals, and that gives you an idea of just how good "United" is.

2. The Dark Element - The Dark Element
I have long loved Anette Olzon's voice, and was excited to see her return to the world of rock and metal. If you wondered what Nightwish could have been if they hadn't been trying to prove themselves as composers rather than a metal band, The Dark Element is the answer. Symphonic metal done the right way, this project is a tightly constructed juggernaut of orchestras, roaring guitars, and stirring vocals. Anette is every bit as good as on Alyson Avenue's seminal "Presence Of Mind", and the songs deliver her the best material she's had to sing in ages. My expectations were high, and this still exceeded them. That's a hard feat to achieve.

1. Soen - Lykaia
The best album of 2017 is one I have wanted for years now, but didn't expect to get from Soen. I fall into the category of people who thought Opeth ditching their death metal side was a good thing. What I thought would be the result of that change was a sound that took the quirky and inventive guitar playing, kept the rhythmic intricacies, and added in more doses of somber melody. That never happened until now, when Soen delivered the record Opeth seemed destined to make. "Lykaia" is deep, challenging, and beautiful at the same time. It finds the balance between being cold and depressed, and being overwhelmed by the beauty of a moonlit winter's night. While there were plenty of albums this year that were great, and offered up fantastic songs, "Lykaia" felt like something more, something closer to an artistic manifesto. They have been shape-shifters so far, so there's no telling if this will be a one-off along their circuitous path, but what I can say for sure is that "Lykaia" is hands down the best album of 2017.