Album Review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

It still sounds weird to say it, but the Foo Fighters might just be the biggest rock band in the world.  Sure, U2 still sells more tickets to their concerts by virtue of being U2, but in terms of how important they are to the state of rock music, no one touches them.  They are the only rock band that can place singles on the radio, cross over, and appeal to pretty much everyone.  If people are saying that rock is dead, the Foo Fighters are the only mainstream answer to that criticism.

Part of being the biggest rock band in the world is buying into that mythos, which the Foo Fighters have now done.  Their last album was an attempt to write songs that cascaded hook upon hook, tossing away great choruses as bridges, and trying to write the ultimate catchy rock songs.  I don’t think it quite did that, but “Wasting Light” was a very good album with several of the best songs they band has ever written (“Arlandria” and “Dear Rosemary”).  Trying to top that would be tough, and the band decided to expand their scope accordingly.

Being epic is not something that can be forced.  You either have ideas that are big enough to support that kind of bombast, or you don’t.  If you try to force yourself to be epic when it isn’t your forte, the result is going to sound like a hollow echo of what was intended.  That is the dilemma that every band that tries to do more than just write songs faces, and it’s what drags the Foo Fighters down.

Dave Grohl is a great songwriter, but these are not his best songs.  “Sonic Highways” tries to be an epic album that tells the story of America, but all of the effort that goes into that strips away the band’s personality.  Rather than hearing the band hitting on all cylinders, the album sounds like a spit-polished version of who they’ve always been.  The charisma they have always had is gone, as are the hooks.

That is the biggest problem with “Sonic Highways”; the hooks aren’t there.  The one thing you could always count on with a Foo Fighters record is great hooks.  The run of singles they have put out is incredible, and yet there is nothing here that can approach any of those previous songs.  “Something From Nothing” was the nominal single, but it lacks anything resembling a catchy melody.  It’s fine as an album cut, but when it’s the catchiest thing on the album, or is believed to be by the band and record label, it’s a major problem.

“The Feast And The Famine” is the only song here that brings much of a hook to the table, and that makes it the best song here.  The “God As My Witness” half of it’s track is solidly melodic, but all of these songs are melodic in the same way that chamber music is.  It’s pretty, but there’s nothing below the surface.  A song here and there like that would be one thing, but it’s a factor on every song on the album.  There just isn’t enough here in the songs to make them engaging as more than background music.  The band has, in a way, created the Muzak version of themselves.

I wanted to like this record, because I am a fan (even if I’m the lone person whose favorite is “One By One”), but I just can’t do it.  “Sonic Highways” is an album that tries too hard, and doesn’t have the gravitas to back up its posturing.  By trying to prove that the Foo Fighters are the biggest rock band in the world, they sound smaller than ever.  It’s a shame, because rock could have used another great Foo Fighters record.

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2014: The Year Of Neal Morse

In the olden days of the music industry, it was common for one artist to dominate a year, because they were releasing music at a far greater clip. When albums were only half an hour long, and sales were booming, product got churned out at an incredible clip. That led to some of the greatest music ever recorded, but it also meant that a lot of material that shouldn’t have seen the light of day got past the editor’s desk. But as a fan, if your favorite band put out two records in the span of a year, it was a magical time to love music, because you could find yourself overwhelmed by how much great material you had to listen to.

These days, things are different. With the average time between albums growing ever longer, and bands growing more popular in the years when they don’t release albums, being a fan can be frustrating. The waiting can seem endless, and then when the album does come along, there’s the inevitable question of why we had to wait so long for a mediocre piece of work. If the greatest bands of all time could write an album a year, most of which were classics, how can it take today’s bands four years to write a bland record?

There are exceptions to the trends of the times, and Neal Morse is one of them. 2014 is the year of Neal Morse, as he has dominated my experience this year like no one else I can ever think of.

At the start of the year, Transatlantic released their critically-acclaimed “Kaleidoscope”, which I raved about from the first time I heard it. It immediately took the spot as the front-runner for album of the year, and so far it has not ceded it’s position. Transatlantic is, simply put, the best prog band on the planet right now, and “Kaleidoscope” is their best album yet. They have done remarkable work to this point, but “Kaleidoscope” was able to condense the band’s history into one perfect record. Both Neal Morse and Roine Stolt were ramping up with their own careers, and they have now peaked with my favorite prog album ever, and what is sure to make my list of favorite albums of all time.

That wasn’t enough for Neal, who then released “Songs From November”, a singer/songwriter album that went in the complete opposite direction. As a fan of Neal’s work, this was the album I had wanted him to make for years. His progressive music is amazing, but what makes him stand out from everyone else in prog is his ability to write catchy melodies that bury in your head and force you to sing along. “Songs From November” is a simple album, and showcases Neal as the best songwriter in prog. Like “Kaleidoscope”, it resides right near the top of my current list of favorites from this year.

But even that wasn’t enough, as Neal was also a major contributor to the sophomore Flying Colors record. That was an album that I had a massive mood swing on. The band moved in a more progressive direction, which I thought was the wrong thing to do, given how much progressive music the members had made. In time, the more I listened, I came to love what the album was. I still miss the blatant pop sensibilities of the debut, but there is still much to love about their second effort. Once I got over the disappointment of where the album went, I could see how beautiful that place was.

In the years that I’ve been writing about music in one form or another, there have been a handful of times that one person was a part of two important albums (including Neal himself when he released his own “Momentum”, as well as the first Flying Colors album). But to the best of my recollection, there has never been a year in which one person was a part of three albums, let alone three that were as good as these.

By the time my Top Ten list is official this year, Neal could very well wind up contributing thirty percent of my favorite releases. That number baffles me, and it also saddens me. Not in the sense that everyone else making music couldn’t make enough albums to compete, but in the sense that it is far too rare for anyone to release albums at such a pace, regardless of the quality. Neal is prolific, for sure, but he never releases anything that isn’t of the highest quality. Perhaps there is something to be said for always writing, always working. The act of continuously producing new music could keep the well of inspiration running, not allowing the creative muscle to atrophy over the normal years of inactivity.

Whatever the reasons are behind the mystery of creativity, 2014 is the year of Neal Morse. Long may the king rein.

Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” 2.0: A Zombie Needing To Be Killed

As anyone who has ever done anything creative knows, there comes a point where you have to draw a line and say something is finished, because endless tinkering can no longer make the end result any better.  It’s a difficult line to see, because it is not brightly lit, and it’s especially hard to discern when you are talking about your own work.  But it exists, and it has killed many a project over the years.  Think about an album like “Chinese Democracy”, which spent fifteen years being toyed with in studios.  Did those extra years, and the little blips of sound that got plastered onto the skeletons of the songs, justify that amount of time?  Did they make the album any better than if it was slightly more stripped down?

The answer is usually no, but it’s hard for an artist to ever be satisfied with what they have created, because they believe in their heart they can still do better.  Sometimes, however, they really can’t.

Last year, I was one of the few critics who gave Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” a positive review.  It wasn’t the result of picking sides, because up until that point I had never enjoyed a Queensryche album before.  I gave it a positive review because I genuinely thought it was a solid record, even if the rest of the world seemed ready to use it to slit their wrists.

The main problem with the album was that it was horribly produced.  Being rushed to get out ahead of the other (at the time) incarnation of the band, the mix the album came out with was dense and cloudy, and made the songs difficult to listen to.  I had heard that version, and thought it was promising but a disaster.  There was, in short order, a rushed remix of the album that showed the impact production can have on the music we listen to.

That version of the record was suddenly clear; the guitar had bite, the sounds were balanced, and you could hear every nuance (for good and bad) of Geoff Tate’s vocal performance.  That version is the one I reviewed, and the one I still listen to a year later.  Without that haze hanging over the songs, you can hear what is going on, and I still believe there is quite a bit of good material on the album.  No, it is not a classic, and no, “Slave” and “Dare” are no better than they were back then, but the melodic and melancholy songs are still striking.  It is clearly a better record than the album put out by the group that now owns the name, which was also marred by grievous sins in the production department.

I mention this because “Frequency Unknown” is being re-released, complete with a second disc that features yet another mix of the album.  The label says there was not enough time at the original release to complete this mix and get it out, and judging by what I have heard of it, perhaps it should have stayed that way.

Instead of a simple remixing, this is a re-imagining of the record, with new focus and instrumentation added onto what we have already heard.  Nothing of the effort makes the music an ounce better.

First of all, the sound quality of this new version is atrocious.  The guitars are stripped of their heft, sounding thin and weak, and pushed well behind the drums.  Geoff Tate’s voice is likewise drained of it’s energy, sounding like a demo sung by someone trying to sound like Tate.  The whole package sounds cheap, flimsy, and not at all like the rock record is was supposed to be.  This version is as much a beat-driven pop album as it is a Queensryche record.  What’s worse, the added orchestration is obviously synthetic, and is slathered atop songs that were not written with room for such things to be added.  They feel tacked on, because they are.

The first version of “Frequency Unknown” was terrible, and this new version is even worse.  But the version in the middle, the rushed remix that very few people got the chance to hear, is the gem.  It shows the music as it needed to be, and sounds fantastic.  If that version of the album had been released to begin with, I honestly believe much of the criticism of the record would have been revealed to be petty gripes dealing with Geoff Tate personally.

What we learn from all of this is that making music is not as simple as writing a song and playing it while a microphone records it.  There is an art to making a record, and the production of the music can kill an album before it ever has a chance to succeed.  That happened the first time with “Frequency Unknown”, and it’s happening again this time.  They got it right after the initial debacle, and now they’re forgetting all about that and shooting it to hell again.

Why?

For some people, good enough is never good enough.  If they think they can do even a little bit better, they will try.  Sometimes they manage to hit the mark, and sometimes they throw the first shovel of dirt atop their own casket.

I’ll let you figure out which one this case is.

Album Review: Night Mistress – Into The Madness

Metal is, despite it’s propensity for renegade imagery, a genre that chased trends as much as any other.  Whenever someone comes on the scene with an original sound, it is soon to be copied and rehashed by dozens of others.  I don’t say that as a criticism, since innovating is hard, and plenty of great music comes from those followers.  It’s simply a fact of life that we need to acknowledge.  What amazes me is that while certain sounds have been aped to death, there are others that never find that kind of collective footing, even when the inspiration is beloved in the metal community.

Bruce Dickinson found his sound as a solo artist when he released “Accident Of Birth”.  That album, along with “The Chemical Wedding” and “Tyranny Of Souls” are a trilogy of nearly flawless metal, and a monumental artistic statement.  They are nearly universally adored by traditional metal fans, with “The Chemical Wedding” being often named one of the greatest metal albums ever made, and yet very few bands have attempted to capture the sound and spirit of Bruce’s best solo work.

Night Mistress is one of the few who have, and they are without doubt the best to have tried.  “Into The Madness” is a phenomenal metal album, and the closest thing we are likely to get to another Bruce Dickinson solo album anytime soon.

What makes an album like this work so well is the ability to combine chunky, heavy riffing with smooth melodies, without making it sound like an uncomfortable cut-and-paste job.  Very few bands that play deep-throated, rumbling heavy metal like this have any melodic sense at all, and to hear Night Mistress so easily include catchy choruses into every song is a feat that deserves applause.

A song like “The Place I Belong” is practically perfect.  The guitars are thick, the riffs are heavy and chunky, and the hook is to die for.  As a song, it’s every bit as good as you could hope for, and it’s not alone.  There are plenty of gems on this record, in the form of exceptional tracks like “Longing For The Devil” and “Grieving Stars”.  This is the brand of modern heavy metal that needs to be more common, with simple riffing that grabs your attention by being heavy and catchy, not dazzling you with the number of notes being played.  It may not be trendy, or popular, but it’s damn effective.

There are one or two tracks here that aren’t quite at the same level, but that’s a minor criticism.  “Into The Madness” is a great record, and is right up there with the best metal releases of 2014.  If you’ve ever enjoyed a Bruce Dickinson solo album, or if you just enjoy good ol’ heavy metal, you need to hear this.

Album Review: Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift became arguably the biggest pop star in the world in an odd fashion; by not being a pop star.  She came up through the country ranks, and challenged the modern notion of pop music by continuing to play an instrument and write songs that had more of a connection to singer/songwriters than corporate hit-makers.  She was the lone star able to straddle the fence between the old and the new, a crossover artist who could appeal to everyone.  That is what made her rise possible, and it’s why “1989” is such a risk.

“1989” is not a record that will appeal to everyone in the same manner that “Speak Now” or “Red” did.  Those albums dabbled in modern pop, but still had elements of other sounds so that people who weren’t enamored with the current Billboard chart could embrace her.  This time, Taylor has abandoned all pretense of who she has always been, using “1989” as an experiment to see if her music could translate beyond the borders of the Taylor Swift persona.  By traveling back in time to the synthesized sounds of the 80s, and by applying a lacquer of fake instrumentation, Taylor is trying to reveal the humanity behind her songs.

Perhaps that’s too deep a reading of the album.  Maybe “1989” really is just Taylor wanting to have fun and record some pop songs.  Whatever the reason behind the shift, taking such an abrupt turn with her music is a definite risk, the kind that you seldom see people selling so many records make.

What distinguishes “1989” from everything that came before is that it is a synthetic, icy, computer-driven record.  The only thing through these tracks that sounds the least bit human, or musical at all, are Taylor’s vocals.  Against a backdrop of homogenized drums, cut up into easy to digest beats, Taylor’s vocals are the ray of sunlight trying to melt the ice.  There are times when she does this, where she can turn what is a pedestrian backdrop into a stunning pop song through the sheer force of her personality.  These are few and far between, however.

The majority of the album doesn’t feel like a Taylor Swift album, nor does Taylor feel like herself.  In trying to play the part of the modern pop star, who plays second fiddle to the producer manning the boards, Taylor has robbed her music of it’s best element; her.  Instead of using the production to put a different gloss on her music, to highlight the strengths of her songwriting, she gets swallowed by the same sonics that drive every other female pop star currently on the charts.  Her lyrics are never given a chance to shine, dumbed down to fit the rigid constructions, to the point where “Out Of The Woods” repeats so often as to sound like a demo waiting for the lyricist to finish writing the actual words.

What makes “1989” maddening is that while there are such glaring errors and missteps with the direction and execution of the album, the hook are so sharp that it’s hard not to get sucked in.  Taylor has always had a knack for writing melodies, and she and her collaborators come up with some great ones here, writing earworms that are going to dominate the charts right through next year.  Even though I don’t like this style of pop, I have to say that I found myself playing “Blank Space” in my head when I least expected it.  This album has a way of digging in and hanging on for dear life, infecting you like a pop music parasite.

Before you know it, you’re under the spell of this record.  I can’t explain how it happened, but I found myself enjoying “1989” far more than I know I should have.  It goes against everything I believe about music, but “1989” is too enjoyable for even me to hate.  If that doesn’t prove Taylor Swift’s power, I don’t know what does.

Taylor Swift & Pop Music’s Sins

The biggest story in music this week is going to be the release of Taylor Swift’s new album, “1989”.

While I have never counted myself a fan of Taylor Swift’s music, I am not one of those people who has any sort of problem with her.  Her music has always been in the periphery of my life, and what I have heard has been pleasant.  She doesn’t make the kind of music I would seek out and absolutely need to listen to, but when it comes on, I don’t mind it.  I can see her appeal, and I can understand why she has become the megastar she is.

That being said, what I have heard in the run-up to “1989” leaves me confused.  I understand her desire to do something different, and I don’t for a second mind her going full-bore into the world of pop.  My problem is that by doing so, she has shown the fatal flaws in what it means to be pop music these days.

The first tracks that have come out from the album, “Shake It Off” and “Out Of The Woods” fall into the same category; rhythm heavy electronic music that drills and drills the hook into you.

Pop music today is no longer a medium for instruments and melodies.  Instead of having skilled session musicians playing the musical backdrop for a catchy melody, we have entered a phase where ideas have been stripped down so much that they barely exist.  I have issues with the electronic nature of pop music, and how the removal of a human player disconnects the music from our very humanity, but more than that, the focus on rhythm above all else is a decision I can’t get behind.

Rhythms are fine, and I appreciate a good one, but when a beat remains static throughout even a three minute song, it gets too repetitive for its own good.  Hearing it a few times is exciting, whereas hearing it fifty times in a row is not.  That is where pop music is.

More than simply repeating beats, the ideas of the songs follow suit.  In both of her new singles, Taylor repeats lines in the songs so often that they feel like the rough sketches you make before writing the final lyrics.  The fact that these songs have been released, and critically praised, is baffling to me.  A song should say something, and it should do so with more then three words.  Endlessly repeating a line is lazy songwriting, whether you’re Taylor Swift or Iron Maiden.  We should expect more from the music we listen to, but there I go again being old-fashioned.

By all means, I hope Taylor Swift finds all the success she’s looking for with her musical shift.  Taking an artistic chance is a courageous move.  I just wish there was more actual art involved.

Album Review: While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Over the years, While Heaven Wept has transcended the confines of doom, shedding their skin and becoming a progressive band. Long gone are the days when they played solemn, thunderous doom, with slow tempos and epic melodies. At some point, the band decided that they could do more than color within the confines of doom’s limited playbook, so they recruited a new singer and started moving in proggier directions. “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was the first step, an album that was incomplete, but still one of the more beautiful pieces of music of the year. The follow-up was even more scattered, but without the massive hooks that allowed the band to make a few mistakes along the way. As they ventured further away from their original identity, the struggle to find a new one was obvious.

“Suspended At Aphelion” finds that band fully in progressive mode, a forty minute album made up one of track, separated into sections. This kind of album-length writing is a staple of the progressive world, but it’s one that requires not just an acute sense of songwriting, but a series of ideas strong enough to warrant the criticism that will come with such creative indulgence. Albums like this can’t just be decent, they have to be amazing, or else they will rightfully be accused of being more about the idea than the music.

Buying into the clichés, the album opens with three-plus minutes of orchestral swells, serving as the overture to the record. That leads into the first segment, the twelve minute “Icarus And I”, which will further test the patience of anyone who isn’t a fan of prog. The track is a bit of a beast, with poorly snarled harsh vocals, some riffs that come straight out of black metal, and a chorus that I swear I heard on “Vast Oceans Lachrymose”. It is certainly an odd way to start the album, with fifteen minutes of music that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths.

The good news is that the band’s sound is as epic and lush as ever, and Rain Irving’s vocals are a captivating balance to the music. The bad news is that for all that While Heaven Wept can do right, they don’t package that into songs and albums that come close to matching their talents. They have moments here and there, but they indulge their inner artist too often, producing songs that don’t seem to go anywhere. They get caught up in the beauty of what they can paint with sound, without realizing that they haven’t actually captured an image.

Take a song like “Heartburst”, for example. The strings that underpin the clean guitar figure are beautiful, and Rain gives a passionate vocal performance, but where is the song? There is nary an interesting melody or motif to be heard. It’s the sonic equivalent of being distracted by a shiny object. It’s great, until you realize the whole thing has been a con job.

I don’t want this to come off as harsh as it sounds, but “Suspended At Aphelion” should be so much better than it is. I know While Heaven Wept can do better, because I’ve heard it. There’s no reason why they can’t play this style and create an album of epic prog that blows me away. But this album isn’t that. There are moments, like the hooky “The Memory Of Bleeding”, that remind me of the best moments of their past, and that only discourages me even more about this record. While Heaven Wept bought so much into the idea of making a concept album that they forgot the most important thing; they’re making an album. What they’ve captured here is beautiful, and it has compositional skill behind it, but it’s not an engaging listen. This is music for the people playing it, not the people listening to it.