Album Review: ‘Singles: OST’

I discussed the reissue of the soundtrack of the grunge era, Singles: OST.

The soundtrack is better than the movie. A quarter century later, this is true of the Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. This is no fault of the movie, which is a fine rom-com; but while the movie may have left little resonance in its wake, its great music lives on, a mix-tape of the early ‘90s that sends you back to another time. Sequencing and song choices complement each other perfectly, and its various artists didn’t just throw leftovers at quick product: there are songs here that rank among the artists’ finest. Singles: OST is also a nearly perfect primer on and microcosm of the grunge/alt-rock scene that was then nearing inescapable cultural phenomenon status (so much so that a rom-com was made around it). Indeed, as artists on its roster were going platinum, so too did the soundtrack. Think of it as Alt Rock for Dummies.

But if you were or are a fan of grunge and/or alternative rock, you knew all of this already. Discussing the solo of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” and how it’s the best and worst of the band’s career, or arguing that Pearl Jam’s “Breath” would’ve made Ten an even better record is stuff for a 25th anniversary column.

We’re talking about Singles today because of the deluxe edition’s bonus disc, more than a third of which is previously unreleased material that’s not just vault-clearing fluff. Much of what’s offered further solidifies the album as the best point of entry into early 90’s rock. Demo and alternate versions of songs from the original release, coupled with the inclusion of obscure and/or defunct bands from the Sub Pop roster (i.e., short-lived grunge acts Truly and Blood Circus), alone makes this a must for fans.

Paul Westerberg’s jangle-grunge gem “Dyslexic Heart,” for example, perhaps the ex-Replacement’s finest solo moment, takes on two different forms. There’s a campfire-like acoustic take and a folky instrumental called “Blue Heart.” The former removes all the “na-na-na-na”’s (except for the bridge), adding greater emphasis to its low-key pop melody and clever, heartfelt lyrics, while the latter demonstrates that Westerberg’s songwriting easily translates between genres.

Elsewhere, the fantastic Alice in Chains live performances from the film (“Would?” and “It Ain’t Like That”) finally get a CD release, as does Soundgarden’s performance of “Birth Ritual”. Having both studio and live versions of these songs available is a joy and proves just how powerful these two bands were in either setting.

If there is inessential material here, it’s Mike McCready’s swampy “Singles Blues 1” and the “score acoustic” version of Westerberg’s “Waiting for Somebody”. While the former is a fun, two-minute instrumental jam, it’s largely a curio that really only warrants a couple listens. The latter, meanwhile, is only worth hearing if you enjoy Westerberg’s other superb track whittled down to the “Some-bod-a-hay” line on loop.

The reissue of Singles: OST arrived one day after Chris Cornell’s death, leaving an unfortunate shadow looming over it. While unintended, the soundtrack does provide an epitaph, if only because he appears across its two discs more than any other artist. This includes the final two songs of the collection, “Ferry Boat #3” and the instrumental “Score Piece #4”. Both are cautiously optimistic, yet in light of the details surrounding Cornell’s death it’s tempting to read into the final words of the collection: “And when you wake to your loss/ To blame your dreams won’t relieve you of the cost/ Help me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s semi-inspirational as Cornell reassures the listener with variations on the ‘not all who wander are lost’ theme. It works both as a farewell to the greatest vocalist of the grunge era and a fitting end to the soundtrack that defined a generation.

Album review: Suffocation | ‘…Of the Dark Light’

I reviewed the new Suffocation album, …Of the Dark Light, for Spectrum Culture.

Since reforming in 2002 after a four-year breakup, Suffocation’s output has been promising, if a bit spotty. The quality of the band’s albums trends upward, yes, but it starts at a fairly shallow point. Their records go from the band awkwardly finding its footing (2004’s Souls to Deny), to slowing the pace down for improved results (2006’s self-titled LP and 2009’s Blood Oath), to making one hell of an impressive display of sheer aggression a quarter-century into its existence (2013’s Pinnacle of Bedlam).

Bedlam is easily Suffocation’s best offering since 2002, and among the best in their career. Yet, if there is a flaw to be found within it, it’s the same flaw that has plagued much of the band’s catalogue: too often the band mistakes mindless jackhammering and apathetic brutality for songwriting. Sure, blast beats and endless riffing are cool and easy to headbang to, but the slope of diminishing returns is steep. The closest they came to shedding it was Oath, a record that shifted the focus from headlong sprints to groove-based compositions but suffered the same issue regardless.

Sadly, the band hasn’t fully shed that tendency on their new record, the often brilliant …Of the Dark Light. While breakneck jackhammering is still prevalent throughout (especially on “Return to the Abyss,” “The Violation” and “Some Things Should Be Left Alone”), the songwriting is more varied than Bedlam. In this way, Light appears to borrow ideas from its two predecessors and combine the results. As an example, “The Warmth Within the Dark” is mostly a mid-tempo stomp (with bursts of speed that equals anything they’ve done) with a main riff during the quasi-chorus that has a slightly uplifting feel and is even catchy.

But Suffocation knows when to borrow from other bands to break up the monotony, too. Immolation, a fellow New York death metal institution, seems to be a source of inspiration on the opening of the punishing “Your Last Breaths” and the psychotic title track with their eerie leadwork over frenzied guitar crunch. Notably, the title track also slows down as it progresses – mimicking the passing of time in the lyrics – making it one of the few truly different compositions offered.

And then there are times when pummeling concrete does serve a purpose. “Some Things” illustrates this the best. It’s a sci-fi horror scene that finds some innocent strangers encountering a creature from another dimension that kills them purely for “wrong place, wrong time”. The song’s lyrics paint a grisly picture (“Spines snapped/Heads cracked/Carnage ensues”) as flailing riffs and light-speed drumming attempt to match said carnage. The song ends with vocalist Frank Mullen stating that the unlucky person(s) to stumble onto this “scene of malevolence shall be forever scarred” which is then followed by a delirious solo from lead guitarist Terrance Hobbs, as if to imagine the thoughts of the unlucky.

In keeping with a tradition dating back to 1995’s Pierced from Within, Suffocation ends …Of the Dark Light with a re-recorded track from 1993’s Breeding the Spawn. This time around it’s the fantastic “Epitaph of the Credulous,” riff-fest that describes a winged creature searching for “helpless victims” to feast upon. Mullen notes that, “The beast has no feelings/ It sees no remorse”, which is an apt description of the band itself. Suffocation begins its fourth decade next year, and there are no signs that this beast can be stopped.

Album review: Arcadea | ‘Arcadea’

I wrote about Brann Dailor’s latest project, Arcadea, for Spectrum Culture.

For his new project, Arcadea, Mastodon’s vocalist and drummer Brann Dailor joins forces with two keyboardists and vocalists, Core Atoms of psychedelic weirdos Zruda and Raheem Amlani of black metal experimentalists Withered. The trio’s self-titled debut is a concept album that the band has described as envisioning “a future five billion years from now, where the impending collision of galaxies creates a new order of planets…where cold, distant moons pledge alliance to new suns and expanding gas giants implode into black holes” and where “Arcadea reign supreme as the last surviving space wizards since the final extinction.”

It is within this context that you begin to understand what Arcadea is: namely, a frontrunner for oddest album of 2017 and the silliest thing Dailor has ever been a part of—and keep in mind that Mastodon once made a record about a child’s soul traveling into the body of Grigori Rasputin via astral projection who tries and fails to overthrow a Russian czar…or something.

If the explanation of the record’s content isn’t ridiculous enough, simply refer to the lyrics. When the vocalists aren’t busy singing in the first person as a group of electrons (“We spin freely/ We breed orbit/ Velocity/ We crash to ignite, we are electric”), they’re trying to sell absurdist word salad (“Crystals that form on the outside of life/ Lifeless the seas that have sent them in waves/ Perfect destruction, we’re floating away/ Swim through the static, the ocean alive”) and cosmic beat poetry (“Push past the pulsar phantoms with future kind/ Erase, replace, deface, create the space”).

The assumption, then, is that it’s better to focus on the music and melodies, right? Well, mostly. The darting, nimble melody of “Gas Giant” and the ethereal vocals of Susanne Gibboney’s guest spot on “Neptune Moons” suggest as much. Hell, the vocoder-heavy vocal melody of “Through the Eye of Pisces” sounds like the first draft of a Daft Punk song, and “Motion of Planets” has an actual groove. The majority of the album, however, imagines oddball scenarios like electro-funk having an epileptic seizure or a pinball machine doing an impression of an Atari 2600. Keyboards and synthesizers pulse, twinkle, fizz, bubble, jab and stutter, yet to accurately describe this record is to traverse dangerously close to Dr. Seuss territory with onomatopoeic non-words like “skwonk,” “squink” and “twonk.”

Either way, Dailor’s drumming throughout demonstrates his unwavering faith in the proceedings. His effort to break up the wall of bong-ready keyboards and synths via his insistent jazz-style playing is both Herculean and Sisyphean in equal measure. Even on subdued compositions “Neptune Moons” and “Through the Eye of Pisces,” where he largely acts as time-keeper, Dailor can’t help but let a few fills seep out as if to imply the songs weren’t interesting enough as is.

Still, the record is not a total loss. Sure, there’s undeniable, right-brain creativity here, like when the keyboards in the left and right channels have a ray-gun fight (“The Pull of Invisible Strings”) or when the band attempts to soundtrack electrons colliding (“Army of Electrons”). Even the jam session that closes the record is loosey-goosey fun. But, it’s that esoteric nature which ultimately becomes Arcadea’s downfall. Weirdness is good in art, maybe even essential. When weirdness goes unchecked, though, it tends to suck away good ideas into oblivion—kinda like a black hole.

Spectrum Culture work, vol 9

DREAMCAR (No Doubt + Davey Havok) put out its self-titled debut and I wrote about it. I even brought back some snark from my college days.

Davey Havok is quite the busy man. Since April of last year, two of his projects (AFI and Blaqk Audio) have released full-lengths and toured behind them. Now, it seems, he’s decided to further crowd his ridiculous schedule with a new project: DREAMCAR. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with Havok fronting a band consisting of No Doubt members not named Gwen.

That trio from No Doubt – guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young – began writing music for a new project in 2014 and later asked Havok to join. The group’s eponymous debut, presumably, is only now getting a release because this is simply when there was time to promote and tour behind it.

In a recent interview, Kanal says that the project was largely kept a secret, allowing them more creative freedom since they weren’t beholden to a record company exec or a manager. Given that the band brought Tim Pagnotta on board as a producer, this is a curious statement. Pagnotta has worked on two of the most inescapable Skittles overdoses of the last few years: Neon Trees’ “Sleeping with a Friend” and WALK THE MOON’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

“Creative freedom,” then, appears to mean “follow the current trend of doing your best ‘80s pop-rock impression.” In this way, Pagnotta was the logical choice. He knows how to paint any band in bright, “Miami Vice”-esque pastels to get the desired aesthetic, and he does so here with almost cynical precision. Darting and tickling synths are paired with itchy guitar, and they’re polite enough to each other without forming a partnership.

Actually, it’s kinda like how the first third of the record finds Dumont, Kanal and Young answering the question, “How many different ways can we write the same anthem that builds to a soaring chorus over which Havok can howl his goth-tinged kabuki theater witticisms?” Yes, “Kill for Candy” and “Born to Lie” have massive hooks (despite trite lyrics like, “But I’ve grown too tired to lie/ And you’re born so sick of truth”), but they’re hollow and empty. Throughout DREAMCAR, the means are the end – and that’s the problem.

See, when you don’t have an earworm hook (as most of side B demonstrates), you’re left with tepid, mid-tempo synth-rock. There are flashes of brilliance (“The Preferred” struts around on a scratchy guitar lick, and “Don’t Let Me Love” opens with a playful, sing-songy riff that leads to twinkling guitar and pulsing bass effectively complementing each other), but not enough to break up the monotony.

The end result is a record where most of its material demands your attention but is forgotten 10 minutes later. In effect, DREAMCAR is like a sugar binge – you only kept going beyond the first few pieces because it was in front of you, and at the end you’re left feeling unfulfilled and wondering what it was all for. Or as Havok puts it in a bit of laughable irony: “You do nothing for me/ But don’t ignore me.”

Spectrum Culture work, vol 7

Full of Hell released their fifth LP, Trumpeting Ecstasy, and I reviewed it.

For all the havoc Full of Hell has wreaked, the first thing you hear on Trumpeting Ecstasy, the group’s new full-length, is not the band. Instead, it opens with German director Werner Herzog speaking. “Nature here is vile and base,” he declares. “Of course, there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery.” As you might imagine, his thick accent (as well as the audio’s manipulation) gives those words a certain malevolence, setting the tone for the audio terrorism to come.

Ecstasy is FoH’s fifth LP overall, but it’s the first non-collaborative album since 2013’s Rudiments of Mutilation. Coming off of a particularly aggressive (and surprisingly catchy) split seven-inch with Nails from this past December, the effort sees FoH fully embrace the death metal aspects of their sound that have slowly creeped to the forefront and use them as the basis for much of the record’s songwriting.

This includes Dylan Walker’s vocals. While he was mostly a vein-bursting screamer in FoH’s early work, he’s added a death growl into the mix over time, giving him two distinct vocal styles to utilize. In some instances, the former controls the song; in other cases, the latter. Sometimes there’s a back-and-forth between them (as on “Gnawed Flesh”), allowing Walker to perform as if two personalities are fighting for control of his mind.

While a sizable chunk of Ecstasy is death metal-tinged, FoH is still a grindcore band. Interestingly, “Bound Sphinx” and the six-minute closer “At the Cauldron’s Bottom” seem to act as a bridge between the two worlds. Both begin as flailing nightmares before suddenly pivoting into droning, hardcore-esque marches. Perhaps as a way to reiterate the band’s roots, there appear to be nods to other grind stalwarts. “Crawling Back to God” has a zig-zagging riff that would make Pig Destroyer proud, while the sub-minute spastic tantrums “Branches of Yew,” “Digital Prison” and “Fractured Quartz” recall early Napalm Death.

Speaking of Napalm Death, Walker’s lyrics are similarly (far) left. Walker is one of extreme music’s sharpest lyricists, and has tackled left-leaning subjects before (proletariat suffering, societal apathy, etc.). Thus, it was only a matter of time before “man vs. nature” was discussed – hence the album’s opening. Nature as a literal topic, however, is only part of the story. Walker addresses man’s egotistical towering over nature (“Society is a blister on the skin of the planet/ Man is a pustule on the face of the Earth” and “The planet sings sweetly of empty chambers/ Of a future without the threat of species”). But he also reflects on man’s egotism in other aspects as well. “The Cosmic Vein” and “Gnawed Flesh” both castigate man’s assuredness of itself (with “Man will fail/ Man will always fail” being a blunt thesis), while “Crawling Back to God” and “Branches of Yew” see Walker return to a classic punching bag: religion.

Despite being only 23 minutes, Trumpeting Ecstasy offers much to unpack both lyrically and musically, and is a beautifully paced soundtrack to the apocalypse. And while Full of Hell’s whirling dervish outbursts aren’t anything new or unexpected in grind (except for the title track, which resembles last year’s joint work with The Body, One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache), Ecstasy is nonetheless a worthy addition to the genre.