When I feel like it Occasionally, I review albums for a website called Alternative Addiction. If you grew up on the alternative rock of the ’90s as I did, or like modern/alt. rock in general, you might like what they cover over there. This is an ongoing archive of those reviews, for those of you who:
- Are depressed that I rarely update the ‘Music’ section of the site
- Are wondering what my writing would look like without gratuitous strong language
Enjoy, you fucks!
Following the departure of Howard Jones and subsequent reunion with original singer Jesse Leach, Disarm the Descent ends Killswitch Engage’s four year absence from the studio. Fans wise enough not to expect a complete retread of the band’s seminal, rawer 2002 release Alive or Just Breathing should find much to appreciate here – in fact, a more accurate appetizer for this album was Times of Grace, the 2011 side project consisting of Leach and KSE guitarist/producer/mastermind Adam Dutkiewicz. Disarm is stacked to the rafters with sharp guitar work and fist-in-the-air choruses, while the production couldn’t sound any more crisp and polished. Though Leach has long been a powerful singer, his clean vocals sound almost robotic in their crystal-clear precision, obviously an aesthetic choice. A couple of duds crop up in the second half (“All We Have”, “No End in Sight”) and penultimate power ballad “Always” is sure to have its detractors, but nevertheless this is a solid album and a more inspired effort than 2009′s Killswitch Engage. (Continuing in tradition with previous albums, the deluxe CD/DVD edition sports two additional studio tracks, a couple of live tracks and a making-of documentary.) Best cuts: “Beyond the Flames”, “A Tribute to the Fallen”, “Turning Point”
Nine albums in, there’s really no question what to expect from Sevendust. Pummeling rhythms and aggressive guitars mixed with an often soulful, melodic vocal delivery is the prevailing formula, which the group have (perhaps wisely) rarely deviated from. The only question with each release then is whether the songs themselves will hold up. The group took a minor dip in the mid ’00s, producing a trio of albums without the songwriting contributions of co-guitarist Clint Lowery. Black Out the Sun is the group’s second album since Lowery’s return, following 2010′s relatively solid Cold Day Memory. “Decay” is a fine addition to an impressive repertoire of singles, while tracks like “Mountain” and “Dark AM” chug along while providing some hummable melodies. Meanwhile, “Till Death” and “Got a Feeling” represent just how hard and soft, respectably, the band is willing to go, and both are highlights. Ending things in strong fashion is “Murder Bar,” a song that arguably distills everything quintessential about Sevendust into a tight three minutes. Overall, Black Out the Sun is business as usual for Sevendust. But fortunately, business is still pretty good. Best cuts: “Till Death,” “Decay,” “Murder Bar.”
Every so often a band comes along and, without reinventing the wheel, still manages to sound like a breath of fresh air. InAshton’s debut album is filled to the brim with unapologetically catchy, crunchy pop rock – the type you’ve probably heard plenty of. But aside from the memorable melodies throughout, what truly sells it all is lead singer Morgan Clamp’s impassioned delivery, with a voice that has enough ballsy rasp to remind you that underneath all the sugar, you’re still listening to a real rock band. The group specializes in concise cuts of energetic pop rock (“It’s Ok… It’s Ok,” “Can’t Stop Me Now”) and also manages to score high with a couple of ballads (“Forget Your Head,” lead single “Days Away”). Two additional acoustic versions are a nice bonus, but otherwise there’s enough ear candy here to keep you humming along through 2013.
Apparently less of a proper new album than it is a newly-recorded collection of b-sides and previously unreleased concert staples, the appropriately titled Delayed Reaction is the first new offering from Soul Asylum since 2006′s pseudo-comeback album The Silver Lining. It also fares slightly better; there’s a scrappy energy here that seemed to get lost in translation on the grandiose and occasionally self-important previous album. Lazier critics may back-handedly compliment the guys for reliably carrying the ’90s post-grunge torch, but this has very little in common with 1992′s Grave Dancers Union, still by far the band’s most recognized album. In fact, Delayed Reaction is quite eclectic for a short, 10-song set, mixing up energetic rockers (“Gravity,” “Let’s All Kill Each Other”) with breezy, mid-tempo pop-rock (“Into The Light,” “The Juice”) while throwing in oddities like the plodding slacker anthem “I Should’ve Stayed In Bed” and even a smoky lounge number (“Cruel Intentions”). There’s probably little appeal here for those who only have “Runaway Train” on their iPhones these days, but real fans of the group will appreciate much of what this album has to offer.
Eight years is a risky amount of time to be away from the spotlight, but due to reasons largely beyond their control, that’s exactly how long it’s been since the members of Lit have made any music together. Regrouping after the loss of drummer Allen Shellenberger to cancer, the band has bounced back with an additional guitarist as well, and nabbing producer Butch Walker for this new set was a good move. Despite its title, The View from the Bottom is short on gloom and long on good times and gigantic hooks. It’s a fun summer rock record from a band that practically specialized in fun summer rock records. If Lit wants to shamelessly take you back to the late ’90s, let them; if you’re creeping towards your 30s as I am, you might recall that life was just a little less complicated then.
Days really do go by for The Offspring, whose last outing was 2008′s Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Actually, four years has become the standard amount of time between albums for these guys, which arguably creates some added pressure to deliver something substantial. The end result of reteaming with producer Bob Rock and at least two years of sporadic recording sessions, Days Go By is merely an okay effort, with a handful of decent songs as well as at least one groan-worthy one (that would be “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk)”, which continues to indulge the band’s love for borderline-parody novelty numbers, even at the expense of sounding disconnected from the rest of the record). The title track fares slightly better, but bears a mildly suspicious resemblance to Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.” However tracks like “Secrets from the Underground” and a re-recorded, beefier “Dirty Magic” are worth checking out, and the set finishes nicely with “Divided By Zero” and “Slim Pickens Does the Right Thing and Rides the Bomb to Hell,” two quick blasts of retro Offspring goodness.
Rush have enjoyed quite the late-career resurgence, ever since reconvening in 2002 after a personal double-tragedy struck drummer Neil Peart and put a huge question mark over the band’s future. Perhaps improbably, their popularity has reached new heights these past few years, thanks in part to a well-received documentary (2010′s Beyond the Lighted Stage) as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s continued shunning of the band, which seems to have only gotten more people talking about them with each passing year. While they remain a tremendous and popular live act, Rush should be commended most for continuing to surge forward with new albums every several years, when they could have easily resorted to being a “legacy act” that just tours with their old songs every now and again.
Clockwork Angels has been a long time in the making (its first two songs were released in 2010, long before the rest of the album would be written and recorded) and it’s notably their first “concept” album in a quite a long time, as every song contributes a piece of one overarching story. Musically, the band is in top form as usual; they (along with co-producer Nick Raskulinecz) continue to push and challenge each other, and the results are sometimes staggering. Where the album comes up short has to do mainly with vocalist Geddy Lee who, while continuing to prove his superiority as a bassist, often struggles to find any discernible melody from singing Peart’s often wordy and ambitious lyrics. While some entries do provide some subtle pop flavor (“Caravan,” “The Wreckers”), too many find the scale tipped so much in favor of the music that you find yourself almost ignoring the vocals and lyrics (oddly enough, this is the first Rush album in a long time not to include an instrumental). Contrast this with their late ’70s to early ’90s output, which provided loads of memorable songs that coupled hummable lyrics & melodies with an ever-changing and often-challenging musical backdrop. Fortunately, there’s enough strong material here to overshadow any shortcomings, and by quite a big margin in the long run.
Eve 6 had a pretty good thing going back in the day; they released three albums (each slightly different in its own way) and among several singles scored at least two massive hits: late ’90s alt/rocker “Inside Out,” and practically everyone’s turn-of-the-century prom/graduation theme “Here’s to the Night.” Then they called it a day sometime in 2004, though singer/bassist Max Collins and drummer Tony Fagenson continued to collaborate together. Eventually their new project would morph back into Eve 6 anyway, and when guitarist Jon Siebels returned, they reunited with original producer Don Gilmore for album #4, Speak in Code.
If there’s a general criticism to get out of the way, it’s that there appears to have been a conscious effort to harken back to both the sound and overall vibe of their sophomore album, 2000′s Horrorscope. This is understandable – Horrorscope was arguably their biggest album – but it makes Speak in Code sound more like a sequel rather than its own entity. And considering how Eve 6′s sound had previously evolved from album to album (not to mention the near-decade layoff), it’s a little frustrating to see them content with just recapturing the past and partying like it’s the year 2000 again. But points must be given to a band that chooses to keep things light and fun, even if songs like “Situation Infatuation” and “B.F.G.F.” sound a little silly coming from dudes who are now in their 30s. And there are a handful of really good ones here, including opener “Curtain,” unofficial first single “Lost & Found” and closer “Pick Up the Pieces.” Speak in Code might sound like a calculated reunion, but it’s a welcome and worthwhile release nonetheless.
Just as they were approaching superstardom in the mid-’90s, The Cranberries opted to experiment a bit, by switching producers and adopting a more muscular sound, while also getting heavy on the politics. They were ultimately chastised for it; while the bold but uneven To the Faithful Departed produced two or three hit singles and expensive-looking videos for MTV, it turned off fans who normally associated the group with the dreamy folk-pop that put them on the map. As a result, solid follow-up album Bury the Hatchet failed to capture the same American audiences, and after 2001′s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, the group decided to call it quits.
At least for a while, as it turns out. Quasi-reunion albums such as Roses can be refreshing in some cases, not least of all because they come from a band who have had several years to mellow out and stretch their legs elsewhere, with various side projects/solo albums and away from the major label machine that can wear on bands after several years of nonstop album/press/touring cycles. The Cranberries certainly have nothing to prove at this point, and free from major label obligations, were able to write and record this album at their own pace, and on their own terms. Matched once again with longtime producer Stephen Street, they have returned with an album that’s closest in overall vibe to their debut than any previous one has been. Fans of their first album will therefore find much to like about this one, while fans expecting something in the vein of “Zombie” or even “Salvation” may feel left in the cold, as there’s nothing here that approaches that level of aggression. The album also lacks any immediate knockouts – don’t expect another “Dreams” in this set. Still, this is a pleasant and cohesive-sounding album, and if it’s not quite as inspired or risky as some of their past efforts, it’s not as shaky as some of them, either.
Proving that their 2007/08 reunion tour with David Lee Roth wasn’t entirely a money-grubbing fluke, Van Halen have returned with their first new album since 1998, and their first with Roth since 1984. Perhaps succumbing to the pressure to try to recapture the formula of their glory days, Roth and Eddie Van Halen plumbed the vaults for various demos, b-sides, and other unused scraps to form the basis of at least several songs here (including lead single “Tattoo,” which is a reworking of a late-’70s tune called “Down In Flames”). Other tracks sound a little all-too-familiar as well, such as “She’s the Woman” (a re-recorded demo from 1976), and “Stay Frosty,” which appears to be a tongue-in-cheek rewrite of “Ice Cream Man,” from their 1978 debut. With this method, the band recaptures their past by literally doing just that, but it also feels like they’re cheating a bit, by releasing old – albeit unreleased and revamped – material, and passing it off as new (when introducing “She’s the Woman” at an intimate club gig last month, Roth called it a “brand new song”). Also of note is the glaring absence of bassist and founding member Michael Anthony, who was quietly booted from the group in favor of Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. Wolfgang is a more than capable musician, occasionally displaying the same technical flare as his guitar wizard dad, but Anthony’s underrated backing vocals were an essential – and apparently irreplaceable – component of the band’s original sound.
However despite the occasional dipping into their past, the band comes out rocking here, with a ferocity that seems not only undiminished, but even provoked by their years of dormancy. And on tracks like “China Town” and “As Is,” the monster-sized riffage of some of their later work with Sammy Hagar are met with Roth’s inimitable vocal swagger, proving that Van Halen is indeed possible of combining the best of both worlds. Commercial appeal may no longer be in the cards for these guys, but thankfully they’re finally back regardless – and with their most charismatic frontman and the same unflinching guitar hero.
Foxy Shazam are the latest throwback rock group rising to the top, though they’ve been around since 2004. Like The Darkness and Wolfmother before them, they liberally borrow pages from the books of Queen, Bowie and Zeppelin, wrapped up with an appropriately ’70s exploitation-sounding name. Though they show signs of desire to reinvent themselves (opening number “Welcome to the Church of Rock and Roll” has lines like “Your music sucks including us; it’s time we clear our name”), having The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins produce their latest album isn’t helping matters. Yet while there’s not much by way of originality here, there’s still a healthy amount of hooks to sweeten the bombast, and if singer Eric Sean Nally seems a little too in love with Freddie Mercury at times, he at least has the pipes to back it up. The Church of Rock and Roll is a fun record for sure, but Foxy Shazam would do well to break out of The Darkness’ shadow if they’re to make a name for themselves.
For their latest release, Lacuna Coil have reteamed with producer Don Gilmore, who by now is an old pro at giving bands a glossy but meaty sound. The group’s formula for slick, catchy pop-metal largely remains the same, though it’s arguably refined and perfected here. Otherwise, any fan with even a passing familiarity with Lacuna Coil should know exactly what to expect. Singer Cristina Scabbia’s pristine voice is still the main selling point, while raspy co-singer Andrea Ferro is still the weakest link (though, admittedly, he’s become increasingly more tolerable with Gilmore at the helm). The arrangements are tight and the melodies are strong, at least with the exception of a bizarre, D.O.A. cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Who made that call?
After scoring a minor hit with his former band Collapsis (and a brief stint in Athenaeum), Mike Garrigan has spent the bulk of the past decade as both a solo artist and a producer/recording engineer for others. He continues his seasonal-themed solo albums with The Return of Spring, his first since 2002′s The Promise of Summer. The album is largely acoustic-based, with the drums and minor bits of electric guitar in strict supporting roles. But highlights like “Static” and “The Original Pullman Palace Car Dream” are snappy pop-rock cuts, and it’s clear you’re in the hands of a capable songwriter. Though the album runs a scant 33 minutes and change, it’s the culmination of several years of writing and re-writing, recording and re-recording. Perhaps the album’s lengthy history and gestation period is more interesting than the finished product, but sometimes an album is more enjoyable when you recognize the large amounts of time and thought that went into it.
Everyone’s favorite dinosaur rock supergroup returns with their second meaty offering, cheekily titled Chickenfoot III. It’s a slight improvement over their shaky debut, which certainly had its moments, but suffered from too many “songs” comprised mostly of riff-laden jams with lazy lyrics thrown on top. This time there seems to be a more conscious effort to step up the songwriting, as evidenced by tracks like “Different Devil” and “Come Closer”, which both manage to take the band in new and refreshing directions. Though lead single “Big Foot” is nearly a rewrite of the previous album’s “Oh Yeah”, much of III makes for a surprising successor, when it could have been a mere retread. However not all change is welcome, as proven by “Three And A Half Letters”, which consists of Sammy Hagar reading letters written by unemployed fans, before bottoming out with a chorus consisting of him shouting “I need a job!” over and over again. It’s surely an odd moment and the album’s biggest misfire, perhaps proving that Chickenfoot are much better at throwing a party than clumsy attempts at social and political commentary.
Fountains of Wayne routinely take a full four years in between albums, but every time they do offer up a new batch of tunes, you know they’re going to be solid and well-crafted. Sky Full of Holes is no exception, with a dozen or so short stories backed by a wall of (seemingly) effortless hooks and melodies. Songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger continue to populate their songs with a variety of characters, like the woman with some amusingly bad memories of “The Summer Place”, or the bumbling business partners in “Richie and Ruben.” This time around, however, the music is considerably rootsier and more laid-back; the songs are primarily acoustic guitar-based, with hardly any of the electric crunch that dominated many songs on previous albums Traffic and Weather and Welcome Interstate Managers. I guess this makes Fountains of Wayne less of a “power pop” band this time around, but so be it.
There’s arguably no such thing as a perfect “best of” album; the bigger the band’s catalog, the more squabbling there’s likely to be over which tracks should or shouldn’t have been included. However the better compilations are the ones that try to appeal to both casual and longtime fans equally, which is usually accomplished by providing new material for those who already have most of the band’s albums. The standard method is to include a handful of new songs or b-sides, while another is to offer remixes, edits or alternate versions of songs that differ from the ones on the albums. Top Contenders gets points for both: it not only includes three new songs, but the rest have all been newly remixed. This gives them a more uniform sound throughout, but fans also interested in the production side of music may enjoy comparing the new mixes to the original ones – with some songs the differences are more subtle, while others sound as if they were completely re-recorded. It’s an interesting perk that longtime fans should enjoy checking out, and for new fans, the 26 songs here should get you more than acquainted with Strung Out.
British indie act Gomez’s first three genre-defying albums scored big with those fed up with Britpop, but since then they have been refining and polishing their sound with each subsequent album. Such tactics may garner you a bigger audience (and some airplay on Grey’s Anatomy), but you’re also poised to lose the fans who liked your adventurous (and decidedly anti-commercial) side. Their latest, Whatever’s On Your Mind, should stand as proof that while the band’s early experimental nature remains toned down, there’s certainly no shortage of interesting arrangements and instrumentation up their sleeves; the melodies and lyrics may seem fitted for radio and TV, but it’s what’s happening around them that really grabs the ear.
Throughout Whatever’s On Your Mind, you’ll hear songs augmented with string, horn and woodwind sections, an assortment of drums samples and percussion, and a slew of different synthesizers and other sound effects, all in addition to – or sometimes in place of – the standard guitar/bass/drums (and occasional piano) configuration. The constant rotation of the band’s three vocalists keeps things moving (though Ben Ottewell’s gravelly baritone remains the most distinctive), and at ten tracks it’s a relatively quick listen. Not every song is a winner, but overall this is an album that proves it’s possible to straddle the line between being musically adventurous and commercially accessible.
Despite multiple shifts in sound over their now-lengthy career, nowadays you pretty much know what you’re getting with each new In Flames album. For the most part, the band has followed the same formula since 2002′s Reroute to Remain, offering only mild variations on their aggressive but melodic metal sound as they move from album to album and producer to producer. And so despite losing one of their founding members and guitarists in the interim, it’s no real surprise to find that Sounds of a Playground Fading largely follows the same trajectory as 2008′s A Sense of Purpose, albeit with slight improvements – both sonically (a livelier, more punchy mix this time), and structurally (better pacing, more memorable songs). Though there’s still some filler to be found and little here to win back the purists who bailed after 2000′s Clayman, this is still an admirable effort, proving that these giants of Swedish melodic metal still have some gas left in the tank.
Most albums have their highlights, and Wasting Light is no exception. Yet it’s harder to pull off an album that also has little by way of “filler” tracks, and for that, the Foo Fighters should be commended here. Though they’ve never lost their reputation for being one of the more well-respected modern rock acts, the band’s previous few albums were largely unremarkable (especially their last, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace – “The Pretender” notwithstanding). Maybe it took Dave Grohl’s extended detour with Them Crooked Vultures to properly re-energize, but that’s what has happened. Recorded in Grohl’s garage with Butch Vig (Nevermind, Siamese Dream) overseeing things, Wasting Light has a brash garage-rock feel to it, yet also sounds sculpted with incredible care. Opener “Bridge Burning” manages to distill every quintessential Foo Fighters sound into one song, while lead single “Rope” bears a subtle Rush influence, particularly in Taylor Hawkins’ drumming. Other potential singles-in-waiting include “These Days”, “Back & Forth” and “Walk”, but there’s nary a skippable track to be found among the bunch (perhaps “Dear Rosemary” and slow burner “I Should Have Known” are the only ones slow to stick). In short, Wasting Light won’t waste your money, or your time.
Green Day had roughly 15 years, 7 studio albums and 1 Greatest Hits package under their studded belts before issuing their first live CD/DVD (2005′s Bullet In A Bible), but here comes a second live collection, with only 2009′s 21st Century Breakdown being the only new album in between. I suppose when bands begin taking several years off between studio albums, you can expect record labels to usher these things into stores to tide fans over and keep the money flowing in. However Green Day certainly has enough history and material to fuel multiple live albums, which at least gave Awesome As F**k a chance to live up to its title, even though it falls short. The disappointment with Bullet In A Bible was that it served mainly as a live document of American Idiot, with only a handful of older songs tossed into the mix. Awesome As F**k is more career-spanning, and even though a handful of songs from 21st Century Breakdown is to be expected, it’s the inclusion of b-side “J.A.R.”, a couple of pre-Dookie songs, and a newer, previously unreleased one (“Cigarettes And Valentines”) that make this a welcome release.
Elsewhere, the album is mostly careful to avoid repeating songs from the last live album, though did anyone really need reprises of “American Idiot”, “Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”? Of course “Good Riddance” makes its obligatory appearance, but expecting Green Day to leave that out of their set is like expecting Foo Fighters to deny their fans “Everlong”. (Still, someone needs to explain to Billie Joe that while he may understandably be sick of singing that song, we pay to hear him sing it – not the crowd.) This CD/DVD package also gets credit for not giving fans the exact same thing twice: while the DVD consists of one specific concert, the selections on the CD are culled from multiple nights – so while many of the songs overlap, only one performance (“Geek Stink Breath”) is the same on both.
Trust Company were one of those groups that seemed to get yanked from the spotlight just as quickly as they were thrust into it. Breaking out in 2002 with The Lonely Position of Neutral, they briefly enjoyed success with a hit single and a gold-certified debut album, until they were pulled from touring by their label to begin work on a follow-up album. Largely recorded under pressure, 2005′s True Parallels would be shelved for nearly a year, before being quietly released into stores with very little promotion. Chewed up and spat out by the Major Label Machine, Trust Company temporarily called it quits, while members pursued other musical and non-musical projects.
Though it may be the product of several years off, Dreaming In Black And White turns back the clock as if Trust Company never went away. The band’s formula remains largely intact; whispery verses give way to big, infectious choruses, delivered by huge drums and guitars, with no shortage of melody and sugary vocal harmonies. Producer Chuck Alkazian delivers a good approximation of previous producer Don Gilmore’s sound, wrapping the band in a big, punchy modern rock sound that’s equal parts thudding and crystal-clear. The album comes flying out of the gate with several killer songs in a row, but after that things get patchy; a couple of hit-or-miss power ballads admirably attempt to break up the flow, but monotony inevitably sets in before things come to a close. Perhaps shedding one or two filler tracks in the second half would help its case, but overall this album is a fine return for a band that got swallowed up by the chaos at the time.
You don’t often see “sequels” to live albums (KISS’ Alive series comes to mind), but Live on Ten Legs is very much a belated sequel to Pearl Jam’s Live on Two Legs, their first live release from 1998. It’s careful not to repeat any songs from its predecessor, and even plugs in the few bigger hits notably absent the first time around, including “Jeremy”, “Alive” and concert staple “Yellow Ledbetter”. Of course a lot has changed since 1998, and the band’s extensive collection of “official bootlegs” released over the years between CD and digital download is likely to make this single-disc offering look paltry by comparison. However there’s real appeal here, particularly for casual fans who prefer a singles and hits-heavy live collection, but also for those who take comfort in knowing that a single-disc live collection, culled from several tours, usually means that only the best performances were chosen.
Ben Ottewell is one of three voices in Brit-rock outfit Gomez, but his is arguably the richest and most memorable. His solo debut is predictable only in that it’s essentially a distilled version of his main gig, with the comparably stripped-down production being the biggest difference, rather than any surprising detours in songwriting. Still, there’s plenty of piano, strings and occasional electronic flourishes to supplement the standard drums, bass and guitar, though Ottewell’s voice rightly remains the main focus. The songs vary from the tightly arranged (“Lightbulb”) to seemingly more whimsical and free-flowing (“No Obstacles”), yet all are sturdy. The nine-song tracklist suggests that Ottewell only used the songs he felt were essential to the album, and this “all killer, no filler” approach has paid off.
For their first collection of new material in over five years (not including their 2008 b-sides album Have Another Ball), everyone’s favorite punk rock super-group cover band return briefly…make that very briefly…with an EP of songs by some Aussie groups. INXS, Air Supply and Olivia Newton-John are among the latest to get the Gimme Gimmes’ makeover, and the covers are thoughtfully (re)arranged and predictably fun to listen to. If there’s a complaint to be made here, it’s with the scant running time; with a mere five songs each running under (or well under) three minutes a piece, there’s hardly enough here to justify the $8-10 many retailers are charging for it. Still, it’s good to have these guys back, if only for a few minutes. And if they’re choosing their targets by location now, perhaps they should hit Canada next – I’d love to hear what they do to a Rush tune.
Critics who were surprised at the considerable lack of club-ready material on Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk’s first foray into film scoring, apparently didn’t see Tron: Legacy itself. While the French duo and the sequel to an ‘80s techno-adventure flick seemed like a match made in heaven, Tron: Legacy takes great strides to be a serious blockbuster sequel to a campy cult flick, and its soundtrack follows suit. Here, Daft Punk employ a full orchestra and get their Hans Zimmer on, as several of the string-infused pieces sound awfully close to recent scores of Inception and The Dark Knight (Zimmer is even thanked in the liner notes). Still, Daft Punk add plenty of robotic touches of their own, from stinging synthesizers to more subtle dashes of electronica, and indeed there are a couple of dance-worthy tracks in the middle of the album. Overall, however, this is a score that’s more interested in setting a mood than getting you moving. It’s an exciting marriage of sounds, though not the blistering set of beats many were apparently expecting.
Apparently taking a cue from bands like Chickenfoot and Tinted Windows, The Damned Things are the latest unlikely supergroup to spring up. Comprised of members from Fall Out Boy, Anthrax and Every Time I Die, the sum isn’t as odd as their parts suggest. Their debut strikes a balance between Anthrax’s aggressive guitar assault and Fall Out Boy’s melodic hooks, with ETID frontman Keith Buckley presiding over the mic, and largely abandoning the screaming he does during his day job. The resulting debut is 39 minutes of fun, high-energy pop metal and hard rock that, despite the sound of its title, thankfully seems irony-free. Buckley is the MVP here, displaying an impressive set of pipes and a sense of swagger to his vocal delivery. And while the riffs are appropriately meaty and there’s solos aplenty, it’s the big choruses and a genuine sense of fun that’ll likely keep you spinning this.
Alter Bridge’s debut album (2004′s One Day Remains) was a radio-friendly hard rock album that sounded almost exactly how its ingredients suggested: Creed with a better singer. Not until 2007′s Blackbird did singer Myles Kennedy become more fully integrated into the band – taking a bigger role in the songwriting as well as additional guitar playing – and on the recently released AB III, Alter Bridge are hardly the same band they were on their debut, much less a derivative of Creed. The group’s talent is on full display throughout: Kennedy’s ever-impressive vocal range, Mark Tremonti’s frenetic yet skillfull guitar solos, and the rock-solid rhythm section of drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall.
So what’s the problem? Everything is impressively performed, but with the exception of a couple of tracks, there’s very little variety to be found here. The bulk of the songs follow the same brooding hard rock formula, and at a whopping 16 tracks (including two bonus tracks), making it through to the end becomes an endurance test. There are a couple of welcome detours, such as the anthemic pop-rock verses of “Ghost of Days Gone By” and the Kennedy/Tremonti duet “Words Darker Than Their Wings”, but too many of these songs blend together and just simply aren’t very memorable. Perhaps it’s due to the relatively quick 2-3 months the band spent writing and recording, or perhaps it’s because they’re no longer concerned with being “commercial”, but a talented band like Alter Bridge can only go so far without memorable songs, and sadly that’s where AB III falls short.
By this point, it’s safe to say that the Gin Blossoms have no interest in straying too far from the ’90s Southwest-flavored alt/rock sound that put them on every fan’s map; they’re smart enough to know what works for them, and they’re wisely sticking to it. Still, No Chocolate Cake offers a few mild surprises, like the crunchy power-pop of opener “Don’t Change For Me”, the piano-based ballad “If You’ll Be Mine”, and the addition of a horn section on “Dead Or Alive On The 405″. For the most part, however, it’s chock full of the pleasant melodies, vocal harmonies, and jangly guitar interplay that come standard with every Gin Blossoms album, and hats off to singer Robin Wilson, who is in especially fine form throughout.
Where No Chocolate Cake falters a bit is in the songwriting. It’s not a huge secret that the band’s biggest hit “Hey Jealousy”, along with several other songs and singles from their smash debut New Miserable Experience, were penned by late co-founder Doug Hopkins, whose struggle with alcoholism would end his tenure in the band before the album took off. Since then, the rest of the band have often failed to match the potency of their earliest hits with Hopkins, even if their future efforts were all solid in their own right. While No Chocolate Cake doesn’t have as many filler tracks as 2006′s comeback album Major Lodge Victory, it doesn’t have as many standouts, either. The result is an album that’s a pleasant listen from start to finish, but won’t grab your ear along the way as often as previous albums did. This particular “cake” is sweet, but it could’ve been a lot richer.
If their previous trio of albums weren’t enough of an indication, Something For The Rest Of Us proves once and for all that the brash and hungry Goo Goo Dolls of albums like Superstar Car Wash and A Boy Named Goo are long gone. Ever since “Name” put them on the mainstream map and “Iris” launched them into the stratosphere, the Goo Goo Dolls shed the last remaining punk energy they had, perfectly content with releasing a new batch of serviceable mid-tempo pop-rock songs every four years or so. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (especially when John Rzeznik’s songwriting remains a step above that of many of his AAA peers), but things bottomed out in 2006 with the overproduced and energy-deficient Let Love In.
Things have improved this time out, however; the glossy production at least has some kick to it, and the album doesn’t get bogged down by too many ballads. Bassist Robby Takac, whose songs and voice once shared equal disc space with Rzeznik, again has a mere two cuts as he did on the previous album, but his songs are reliably lively and his distinct, raspy voice at least shakes things up a bit. The Goo Goo Dolls may only know how to make music for the masses now, but at least they do it reasonably well.
The Trouble With Angels is being heralded as a “return to form” of sorts for Filter leader Richard Patrick, supposedly revisiting the more aggressive and industrial sounds of Filter’s early days (most notably their debut Short Bus, before the band steered more towards straightforward rock with each subsequent release). This is partially true, as Angels contains layers of buzzsaw guitars, bombastic solos, and the occasional bit of drum programming to satisfy fans who’ve stuck around since 1995. Yet it’s important to note that Richard hasn’t ditched the melodic sensibilities he’s developed over the years either, as the songs here find the right balance of melody without filing down the edges. What he does largely ditch is the heavy political flavor of 2008′s Anthems for the Damned, opting instead for a more diverse (and introspective) set of lyrics and themes this time out, set to music heavier than anything in recent years, and delivered in Richard’s powerful and seemingly undiminished voice. Perhaps there’s some remaining Short Bus devotees out there who will be tempted to turn and run at the first sight of an infectious chorus, but for the rest of us fans, this album is a heavily enjoyable ride.
After the radical changes that 2005′s City of Evil and 2007′s self-titled album each brought forth (following the band’s metalcore beginnings), Nightmare isn’t so much another direction for Avenged Sevenfold than it is a further refining of their sound. At this point, it seems the band has finally found a general formula they’re happy with: catchy, groove-laden rock and metal with plenty of guitar and drum acrobatics, and a ballad or two to break things up a bit. The biggest change here is the loss of drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan, who died suddenly at the end of 2009 while in pre-production for the album. His bandmates ably soldier on without him, enlisting Dream Theater drummer (and one of Sullivan’s idols) Mike Portnoy to fill the vacant drum throne. Yet his presence is felt (and heard) throughout, most chillingly in the powerful penultimate track “Fiction”, which preserves some of the vocals he recorded for the song before his passing. Other highlights include the rip-roaring “God Hates Us”, and the epic, thunderous finale “Save Me”.
Yet despite plenty of strong moments, more acoustic-based ballads than usual slow the album’s pacing a bit, and while Sevenfold have usually worn their influences on their sleeves, they sometimes do it just enough (like the Mike Patton-esque crooning that opens “Victim”) and go overboard elsewhere (the Metallica clone “Buried Alive”). While a fantastic drummer and background vocalist, Sullivan also brought his songwriting skills and a strong production sense to his band’s albums. While Nightmare is a solid enough continuation without him, he is still sorely missed.
Authority Zero have long incorporated shades of ska, reggae and Latin influences to their melodic punk rock palette, and that multi-layered sound has helped to give this Arizona quartet an identity among the many pop-punk bands that surfaced in the late ’90s and early ’00s. While their last album, 2007′s 12:34 seemed to ditch a lot of these additional influences in favor of a more streamlined melodic punk sound, Stories of Survival sounds more open and eclectic, while still firmly rooted in punk rock.
Lyrically the album is defiant and occasionally angry at the state of the world (or perhaps just this country) today, but the music remains fun, with upbeat tempos and a slick energy that rarely lags from start to finish. New guitarist Zach V contributes some impressive lead guitar work, and vocalist Jason DeVore’s rapid-fire delivery remains largely intact. In addition, Jeremy Wood’s intricate basslines are equally essential, often competing for attention with the guitar. Longtime producer/mixer Ryan Greene gives the album a typically punchy sound, perfectly suited for this type of affair.
While it doesn’t necessarily break new ground, Stories of Survival is another solid effort from this always-reliable band. If you’re already a fan, there’s little opportunity for disappointment here.
For his first album with the Heartbreakers in eight years, Tom Petty has molded his supremely talented band into a no-frills blues rock outfit. Largely recorded live, with the band playing together in the same room and with minimal overdubs, Mojo works at first, largely due to the caliber of musicians involved. Make no mistake about it: The Heartbreakers have always been one of the finest live rock ‘n roll bands, and they prove it yet again here. Petty still sounds great, and it’s refreshing to hear the typically restrained Mike Campbell finally let loose with some truly killer guitar heroics.
Yet despite those pleasantries, there’s no getting around the fact that the fifteen songs here are largely devoid of the pop hooks and lyrical emotion that Petty normally pulls off so naturally. It’s understandable that Petty and his band want to flex their bluesy muscles (and commendable that they’re still freshening themselves up after well over 30 years together), but the songs themselves – no matter how well they are executed – simply aren’t memorable enough to entice repeated listens. Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers have usually done things their own way, playing for themselves first and foremost. They certainly do that here, and while Mojo should at least keep them relevant in today’s record industry, it might not click with much of their audience.
After two albums on indie label Sub Pop, Band of Horses return with Infinite Arms, their maiden voyage on major label Columbia. Frontman Ben Bridwell has stated that this feels like the first true Band of Horses album (presumably due to shared songwriting, arranging and vocal duties), even though he’s the only remaining original member since the 2006 debut Everything All the Time. While their first major label outing doesn’t exactly find the band “selling out”, it certainly finds them mellowing out, and perhaps a bit too much.
The album starts off nicely with the opening trio of “Factory” and first and second singles “Compliments” and “Laredo”. Then the energy comes way down, and never really recovers. “Dilly” arrives midway through to kick up some movement, but it’s sandwiched in between six slower numbers – all pleasantly executed, yet all possessing the same lackadaisical vibe. It’s not that Band of Horses can’t pull off ballads; they very well can, especially when armed with Bridwell’s shimmering voice and lots of nice melodies and vocal harmonies. Yet too many can derail an album, especially when not properly sequenced (a sparse acoustic guitar and vocal tune like “Evening Kitchen”, for example, would make for a perfect album closer, but placed near the middle it grinds everything to a halt). This band has always done well at balancing guitar-driven pop-rock and laid-back jangly folk, but Infinite Arms is too much of the latter and not enough of the former.
It’s interesting that Stone Temple Pilots would release a self-titled album nearly 20 years into their career (following a lengthy hiatus, of course). Funny then, that it’s the album where they sound the least like themselves. Of course this is a band that has continuously evolved and toyed with new styles from album to album, but they’ve never sounded like they were deliberately mimicking other artists as much as they do here. Vocalist Scott Weiland and other members have talked about this album having a heavy ’60s vibe, and they weren’t kidding. However there’s also plenty of big ’70s arena rock and hints of blues and glam thrown in too, yet very little of the ’90s alternative that STP are known for. There’s the obvious Beatles-inspired cuts like “Bagman” (which also may remind you of the “Batman” theme song, given how Weiland sings the title), while “Huckleberry Crumble” perfectly duplicates Aerosmith’s groovy swagger. There’s dashes of Cheap Trick, Zeppelin and The Doors as well, and if Weiland wasn’t trying to sound just like Bowie on penultimate track “First Kiss On Mars”, I’ll stop writing about music.
Those observations aside, however, this album still brings some truly excellent stuff to the table. Weiland is in fine form throughout, sounding much more comfortable here than he ever did in Velvet Revolver, while Robert DeLeo remains one of the most underrated and creative bassists in rock music. Yet it’s guitarist Dean DeLeo who might be the MVP of this album, contributing a slew of meaty riffs and a few rip-roaring solos. The breezy pop-rock of “Cinnamon” and the piano-assisted closer “Maver” are sleeper highlights, but the truth is if you can deal with all of the heavy-handed influences, there’s plenty of good music here. Stone Temple Pilots may be having an identity crisis, but they can still show you a pretty good time.
Add Diamond Eyes to the list of great albums born out of tragedy. In November 2008, Deftones bassist Chi Cheng was rendered comatose following a near-fatal auto accident. With Cheng sidelined indefinitely, the band chose to shelve their nearly-completed album Eros, opting instead to start fresh with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains) and a new batch of songs that more accurately reflected the band’s emotional state. Rather than wallow in despair, however, Diamond Eyes is more hopeful than expected. It’s considerably more focused than 2006′s uneven Saturday Night Wrist, and their most solid effort since 2000′s White Pony.
Overall, it’s a near-perfect distillation of the quintessential Deftones sound: a marriage of brooding, groove-laden alternative metal and dreamy atmospherics, with a pinch of pop sensibility. Vocalist Chino Moreno still knows how to give a whisper as much bite as a scream, but it’s his hauntingly melodic crooning on songs like “Sextape” and the title track that’s equally impressive. Kudos also to guitarist Steven Carpenter, whose deceptively simple, propulsive and sometimes punishing riffs knock a song like “Rocket Skates” out of the park. Every Deftones fan certainly wishes Cheng a speedy recovery, and for Eros to one day see release. For now though, they’ll have to make do with one of the band’s best albums to date.
Sometimes you don’t know just how influential a particular band member is, until they leave the band. Guitarist and co-writer Clint Lowery left Sevendust after their fourth album (2003′s Seasons). Since his departure the band has released a trio of decent but largely unremarkable albums, which all seemed to hint that without Lowery’s presence, their best days were behind them.
Cold Day Memory, however, sees Lowery back in the band, and things are immediately better and back on track. The usual appealing elements of Sevendust are present (in particular Morgan Rose’s powerhouse drumming and singer Lajon Witherspoon’s dynamic voice), but what Lowery seems to have brought back with him is his accomplished songwriting. The production (courtesy of Disturbed/Finger Eleven producer Johnny K) is suitably crisp and punchy, even if the occasional industrial and ambient sound effects sound a bit dated. Still, Cold Day Memory has all the ingredients to put Sevendust back on top.
The Cranberries reunited last fall after a lengthy hiatus, for successful North American and European tours. Their former label, Island Records, hopes to join in on the party by issuing Bualadh Bos, billed as the band’s first-ever live album (though compiled and released without the band’s participation or prior knowledge). It’s actually more of a live compilation, and a rather bizarre and uneven one at that.
The first seven tracks, for instance, were culled from am intimate studio concert in 1994, comprised entirely of songs from their debut album (with the only real “hit” among them being the song “Linger”). The rest of the disc is scattershot, and comprised mostly of hits recorded at considerably larger venues. While the first seven tracks sound fairly good, the recording quality begins to differ afterwards; several of the songs almost have a bootleg quality about them, as the mixes are sometimes uneven. Furthermore, going from recordings taken from a small performance studio to ones recorded at large arenas makes for quite a jarring transition.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but the die-hard Cranberries fan enjoying this, as only six or seven of the fifteen tracks here are actual hits (with a whopping nine of them being from the first album alone). While it’s hard to see this as anything but a cash grab from their former label, I wonder why they couldn’t have assembled a more cohesive live package.
One of the more underrated acts of the mid-’90s, post-grunge rockers Sponge have faded into relative obscurity in recent years, partly due to a series of lineup changes (that eventually left singer Vinnie Dombroski the only remaining original member), but also because of a shift in direction towards more straightforward, Velvet Revolver-esque hard rock. The band’s 2010 EP Destroy the Boy is self-described as being reminiscent of their earlier sound, and “certain to please the die-hard Sponge fan”. It’s definitely the most “Sponge”-sounding release since 2003′s For All The Drugs In The World, the last album made with founding guitarist Joey Mazzola, whose melodic riffs and jangly guitar tone were a big part of the band’s identity. Though Mazzola remains out of the picture, Destroy the Boy is still a welcome return to form. The opening title track is a propulsive, arena-ready rocker, and it accurately sets the stage for a series of anthemic choruses and the kind of tuneful, pop-infused hard rock that put Sponge on the map in the first place.
Despite lending his production skills and co-writing songs for a revolving door of pop and rock megastars, Butch Walker continues to save his richest material for himself. Although the title may conjure up emo imagery, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart builds upon the ’70s glam-infused indie rock sound Butch has been keen on lately, flirting with country and folk along the way. And though this is the second album to credit his backing band (The Black Widows, a revamped version of the Let’s Go Out Tonites), it’s not nearly as raucous as the last one that did so. Sonically, it tends to have more in common with Butch’s last true solo outing Sycamore Meadows, though the lyrics here are typically more whimsical. Opener “Trash Day” sounds like a close cousin to Sycamore opener “The Weight Of Her”, and every bit as infectious. Other immediate standouts are “House Of Cards” (the best song Jeff Lynne never wrote), and the anti-cynical closer “Be Good Until Then”, one of the most poignant pieces of this man’s career. Butch still knows his way around a killer hook, but his trump card is never letting it dilute his lyrical wit, or cheapen the song. Perhaps that’s what keeps him just slightly outside of the mainstream, but perhaps that’s just where his fans want him.
It’s practically a crime that it’s taken this long for the great Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to issue a proper and comprehensive live album, but The Live Anthology, with its four discs’ worth of live recordings spanning nearly 30 years, is about as comprehensive as it gets. Just about every major era of the band is covered here, with the track listing showcasing deep album cuts and big hits equally. The sound quality is also stunning, with each song given an immaculate new mix. The big surprise (and only minor complaint) is the hefty amount of cover songs here. Though their presence makes for an accurate document of the band’s live history (since they’ve never shied away from reinterpreting others’ songs in concert), one wishes the disc space was given to more of Petty’s own songs instead.
John Mayer, the celebrity, is an entertaining guy, and anyone who follows his constant barrage of Twitter updates, or witnessed his hilarious one-off VH1 special “John Mayer Has a TV Show”, can attest to that. Unfortunately, John Mayer the recording artist saved very little entertainment for his latest album. Battle Studies is Mayer’s fourth proper studio effort, but not since his debut has he sounded so predictable. After making a tremendous artistic leap with his last album Continuum, Mayer seems to have played it safe here, churning out a collection of songs that sound like a sidestep rather than a progression forward.
It all sounds pleasant, for sure, but there’s nothing here with much bite to it, either. If lead single “Who Says” sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it veers pretty close to “Stop This Train” from his previous album. And perhaps that album’s scorching version of “Bold As Love” set the bar too high, but the bland re-interpretation of “Crossroads” here comes across as pointless filler. Lyrically, Mayer doesn’t do much to salvage the relatively unexciting musical arrangements; self-described as a sort of “handbook” for the broken-hearted, the amount of love/war metaphors are seemingly endless, to the point where I was half-expecting a cover of “Love Is A Battlefield” as a hidden track.
Battle Studies is not necessarily a bad album…just a disappointing one. After seeing how far his career has progressed in the past few years, and the recent three-year wait between albums, I expected something a bit bolder than this.
The holidays are fast approaching (department stores would say they’re already here), and that means it’s Greatest Hits season. But while many best-of compilations are premature and obvious cash grabs, the Foo Fighters, believe it or not, have become quite deserving of one. That makes this child of the ’90s depressed (was it really 14 years ago I sat watching the “Big Me” video on MTV?) but it must surely make Dave Grohl happy all the way to the bank. It must also make him happy to have been a part of two critically and commercially successful bands, and while the Foo Fighters will never touch Nirvana’s legacy, Greatest Hits should serve as a reminder that they’ve consistently been one of the best “mainstream” bands of the past 15 years.
Judged as a package, Greatest Hits presents just what you’d expect – a long string of singles, followed by two obligatory new songs to hopefully reel in those who already have the rest of the albums. It gets a few things right: the tracklist is mixed (instead of a predictable and boring chronological order), and the two new tracks, while far from spectacular, are catchy enough to justify their presence. But it also stumbles in places. I suppose the second, acoustic version of “Everlong” that closes the set is to be expected; it will probably always be Grohl’s most-recognized and best-loved song. However there are some curious omissions, in particular “I’ll Stick Around”, the band’s first single. And why not use this opportunity to resurrect “The One” (from the Orange County soundtrack) or the band’s excellent cover of “Baker Street” – all minor hits in their day? While their absence doesn’t exactly leave gaping holes among the collection of towering hits here, they would have made for a more complete retrospective.
Diehards are likely to download the two new tracks, but for those who are just thinking about jumping on board, the Foo Fighters (or at least their record label) have put together a respectable collection here. Modern rock radio still needs them, so hopefully the Foos make it to Volume Two someday.
To say that Creed had a lot to prove with this, their first album in eight years, would be an understatement and a half. After being one of the biggest bands of the late ’90s (and their last album Weathered holding the #1 spot on the Billboard charts for a remarkable eight weeks), Creed collapsed in one of the most embarrassing ways possible, being sued by several concert goers after singer Scott Stapp was too intoxicated to properly sing at a 2002 concert. On top of that, the remaining members of the band went on to form Alter Bridge with the immensely talented Myles Kennedy on vocals, which probably left even less people itching for a Creed reunion.
But here they are anyway, and while Full Circle certainly does nothing to win over any of the band’s previous haters, it’s most definitely a step above their last outing, and a decent album overall. Following the powerhouse Myles Kennedy has only further magnified Stapp’s limitations as a singer, but what he lacks in range he makes up for with conviction; although his lyrics are frequently heavy-handed and overblown, there’s never a moment where he sounds like he doesn’t completely believe in what he’s singing. And while guitarist Mark Tremonti doesn’t burn up the fretboard as much as he does with Alter Bridge, he remains in fine form throughout. The band also receives a slick sonic upgrade courtesy of producer Howard Benson and mixing engineer Chris Lord-Alge, and the frequent blending of acoustic and electric guitars gives this one a bit more dynamics than the typical Creed album (though the band will always have the subtlety of a sledgehammer).
There’s a couple of forgettable, derivative rockers (“Bread Of Shame”, “Suddenly”) and at least one plodding, sappy ballad (“Away In Silence”), but overall it’s a fairly solid collection of tunes, with “A Thousand Faces”, “Time”, and the title track being immediate highlights. If you hated this band before, you should probably still stay away. Fans of the band however (even those who haven’t listened since 2001) should check this one out.
I’m sure quite a few people were scratching their heads when a relatively unknown band called Bowling For Soup scored a Grammy nomination back in 2003. Several years later it’s even harder to believe, considering the quality of the band’s recent output. Bowling For Soup have always had a sense of humor about them, which yielded great results when coupled with surprisingly well-crafted and catchy songs. Lately, however, the music seems to have taken a backseat to the jokes, which in addition have gotten more and more juvenile.
After their last album The Great Burrito Extortion Case came and went without much acclaim, the band took their time recording their next one. Unfortunately (and as evidenced by the album cover, which features the band being flushed down a toilet), Sorry For Partyin’ continues their downhill slope. This time we’re given songs based entirely around jokes that only 12-year-olds may find funny (such as “No Hablo Inglés”, an excuse for getting out of various situations, or “My Wena”, which I probably don’t need to elaborate on), and other stale ideas (“I Gotchoo” completely mimics Sugar Ray, which I didn’t think anybody wanted to do in 2009). Even the more clever moments, like opener “A Really Cool Dance Song”, which pokes fun at bands who change their sound to fit in with the latest dance-rock trend, don’t offer anything musically to keep you listening once the joke wears thin. The album’s few highlights (in particular “Only Young” and “Love Goes Boom”) are the ones that are lighthearted and fun without sounding overly silly, and have memorable hooks to back them up.
Bowling For Soup were at their best when their humor supported the songs, but now it’s clearly the other way around. Perhaps they need to work with Butch Walker more often, or perhaps they just need to grow up a bit.
Strung Out, while for all intents and purposes a punk rock band, have always flirted with heavy metal. They also happen to be stellar musicians, lest anyone automatically associate punk music with sloppiness. As such, their brand of technical, melodic punk-metal has helped distinguish them from the pack, while influencing bands from Rise Against to Avenged Sevenfold along the way. It also polarizes their fans, because for every fan who praises their increasingly melodic and metal-infused last couple of albums, there’s certainly one who wishes they’d cut the crap and play simple, fast punk music again.
If Agents of the Underground (a title that no doubt smirks at the band’s ability to remain just outside of mainstream success) doesn’t satisfy both parties, then it’s likely nothing ever will. The band ups the tempos and cuts down on the guitar solos, resulting in an album that apes the feel of their earlier albums, but with the technical proficiency of their later ones. It’s a cohesive (if a bit one-dimensional) 36-minute blast, as all of the songs have a similar tone and flavor to them, and the energy doesn’t lag one bit. The band’s strengths and weaknesses are all on display too, from the strong melodies, razor-sharp guitar shredding and powerhouse drumming, to lead singer Jason Cruz’s increasingly monotonous vocal delivery and the tendency for some songs to sound similar to one another.
Agents of the Underground is Strung Out at their most condensed, simultaneously giving a nod to their early days while not completely eschewing the musical advancements of their later work. Whether you view it as a mature version of their earlier sound or a simplified version of their more recent efforts depends on the type of fan you are.
With all the fuss about Alice in Chains carrying on with new guy William DuVall (stepping in for the late, great Layne Staley), Black Gives Way to Blue, the group’s first album in thirteen years, really ends up being The Jerry Cantrell Show. Back in the band’s heyday, the group’s lead guitarist would sing the occasional lead vocal, but it was his dual-vocal harmonizing with Staley that helped give the group their signature sound. Here, Cantrell is the lead vocalist on most of the songs, with DuVall usually in the backing vocal department.
While at least some of this album is naturally reminiscent of Cantrell’s two solo albums, for the most part it sounds like 1992 all over again. Though Staley is sorely missed, this still manages to sound like an Alice in Chains affair, from the dual-vocal harmonies (which Cantrell and DuVall pull of quite well together) to Cantrell’s unmistakable lead guitar work and the group’s grungy hard-rock sound.
Things get off to a shaky start with the relatively unmemorable “All Secrets Known”, but quickly get rolling with the excellent “Check My Brain” and “Last of My Kind”. Two otherwise strong numbers, “Acid Bubble” and first single “A Looking in View”, begin to overstay their welcome at seven minutes a piece, while the beautiful, Staley-inspired title track that closes the album (and features Elton John on piano – who saw that coming?) is a bit too short, ending things rather abruptly.
While Black Gives Way to Blue won’t let you forget Layne Staley anytime soon, it’s certainly a much better album than anyone had a right to expect.
Pearl Jam’s latest album doesn’t quite sound like an average Pearl Jam album, and it’s all the better for it. Indeed, Backspacer, with producer Brendan O’Brien at the helm for the first time since 1998′s Yield, brings something new to the table: the sound of Pearl Jam having fun. With Bush out and Obama in, Pearl Jam put the brooding on hold and crank up the amps, resulting in an album that bristles with an upbeat and infectious energy that’s part punk, part old-fashioned rock. Eddie Vedder’s lyrics also follow suit – more personal and introspective than political, and refreshingly optimistic.
The stellar opening trio of “Gonna See My Friend”, “Got Some” and lead single “The Fixer” establish a momentum that carries through the album’s surprisingly short but sharp 36 minutes. Even the minor detours are welcome, particularly “Just Breathe”, an acoustic-based love song reminiscent of Vedder’s work on the Into the Wild soundtrack. Heartfelt and tender but not overly saccharine, it’s one of the most strikingly gorgeous tunes of the band’s career.
Perhaps only time will tell for sure, but there’s enough immediate winners here to nominate Backspacer as one of Pearl Jam’s most solid – and certainly most focused and concise – albums.
Much like their forefathers The Grateful Dead, Phish’s legacy will always be their monumental live shows – even to the point where if someone were to cue up their music at a party or BBQ, it’ll more likely be a live recording than a studio album.
Yet in 1996 Phish released Billy Breathes, arguably their finest hour in the studio, and the album proved their worth as recording artists in addition to a massively popular live act. Largely due to their collaboration with producer Steve Lillywhite, the band trimmed the fat and kept the songs focused and concise, with the emphasis on quality songwriting rather than meandering jams.
Joy finds Phish (back from a lengthy hiatus) reunited with Lillywhite, and while the result isn’t as immediately remarkable as their previous collaboration, it’s certainly the band’s best album since. There’s plenty of flavors throughout, from the pop-rock opener “Backwards Down the Number Line” to the bluesy rocker “Kill Devil Falls” and the reggae-pop of “Sugar Shack”, and everything is pleasantly melodic enough to hook even those who can care less about three-minute-long guitar solos. Perhaps most importantly, everything here has a point; even the 13-minute behemoth “Time Turns Elastic” (by far the longest track here) plays more like a tightly arranged prog suite than a sprawling jam session.
While hardcore Phish-heads may get more excited about catching an upcoming concert than a new batch of studio songs, it’s admirable that, after 25 years together, the band is still releasing material capable of winning over new fans.
Collective Soul can always be relied on to deliver a solid album (even 2000′s minor misfire Blender still contained a handful of good tunes), and their latest is no exception. Their second self-titled album (destined to be referred to by fans as the ‘Rabbit’ album) fits snugly alongside their previous two albums, as it mostly continues the bright and snappy pop/rock sound that started with 2004′s Youth.
This time, however, the formula works best. While Youth was a bit too glammy (especially for those longing for a return to the post-grunge days), its successor Afterwords was a step in a more natural direction, and this new album brings it even closer to home. There’s whistling, handclaps, and lots of backing vocals of the ‘ooh and aah’ sort, but also plenty of big guitars (and some truly memorable riffs) to keep these songs driving. And while Collective Soul’s music hasn’t been without loops and other electronic flourishes since 1995, they’ve mostly gotten back to the feeling of five guys in a room playing rock music.
If a minor complaint is to be made here, it’s the monotony that inevitably begins to set in after three albums of more or less the same sound. After successfully re-inventing themselves for 1999′s Dosage, and again in 2004 for Youth, I cautiously hope Collective Soul do it once more for album #9, and take us down yet another road. But as long as they can keep rolling out quality songs with their current sound, there’s nothing wrong with the road we’re on.
Metalcore pioneers Killswitch Engage turned a few heads when they announced their decision to work with big-name rock producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, The Offspring), for this, their fifth (and second self-titled) album. It was an interesting decision, partly because they’re a metal band choosing to work with a mainstream rock producer, but mostly because it’s the band’s first time working with an outsider (guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz has been at the helm for the band’s previous albums).
However, the presence of O’Brien doesn’t seem to bring all that much change to the proceedings; Dutkiewicz still co-produced it, recording the guitar parts in a separate studio, and the band only mines slightly more melodic territory than they already did on 2006′s As Daylight Dies. Sure, the production is smooth, but no smoother than Dutkiewicz’s was on previous albums, and the band retains its signature sound. Overall, Killswitch Engage sounds like a natural progression for the band.
The problem here is that despite some well-crafted melodies throughout, many of the songs simply don’t stick, and are forgotten almost as soon as the next song begins. The band’s not-so-secret weapon remains vocalist Howard Jones (who is in top form throughout) and his voice, along with air-tight guitar riffs and intricate fret work supplied by Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel, are front and center, as they should be. However in spite of all the pleasantries, the formula does not work quite as well this time around.
Interestingly, the bonus track “In A Dead World” is better than most of the songs on the album, so fans should be advised to pick up the deluxe package, which also comes with a trio of live songs and a short documentary DVD.
The progressive rock genre is rife with irony, for many of its bands do not “progress” very much at all. Meanwhile, the bands that have evolved and stepped out in new directions (Rush, Genesis, Marillion) were often labeled as sell-outs, and received backlash from fans on a strict diet of long, epic songs and complex musical arrangements.
Dream Theater, in their 20+ years together have usually managed to straddle that line, occasionally stretching their musical and melodic boundaries without defying their progressive rock and heavy metal roots. Unfortunately, they seem to be stuck in a rut. 2003′s ultra-heavy Train of Thought was the last time they’ve released anything truly fresh, and it seems they’ve been on auto-pilot ever since. While Black Clouds & Silver Linings is certainly stronger than their previous two albums, it still sounds like a band going through the motions.
With four out of the six songs clocking in at 12 minutes or more, the highlights (and there are a fair amount) are not entire songs but rather sections of songs – songs that begin strong are bound to either overstay their welcome or go off in a new direction and lose your interest, while others may get off to a weak start but reward you later on. Elsewhere, songs that would have otherwise been strong all the way through get bogged down in the middle by sprawling solo sections, that probably should have been saved for when the band plays these songs live. Having self-produced their albums for the last 10 years, it’s probably time for the band to consider working with outside producers again, in the interest of bringing new ideas to the table and shaking things up a bit.
If you are a Dream Theater fan, there’s just enough flashes of musical brilliance here to remind you why you liked this band in the first place, but also plenty to suggest that, creatively speaking, they’re running out of steam.
Chickenfoot is the latest in what is becoming a long line of “supergroups” to crop up over the past few years, but it’s one of few that seems relatively genuine and natural. If nothing else, the overt silliness of their name should clue you in as to how much fun these guys seem to be having. Like most supergroups, however, Chickenfoot is bound to disappoint those who see the names of the musicians involved and let their expectations skyrocket.
Despite ex-Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony’s pairing with another virtuoso guitarist (Joe Satriani), this is not the second coming of Van Hagar. Satriani, though a technical wizard on the guitar, settles fully into a band setting here, preferring simple but meaty riffs over a flurry of notes, and keeping the solos short and to the point. As a result this is a meat & potatoes rock record that’s more akin to a Sammy Hagar solo effort if anything, albeit with the finest backing band imaginable.
The caliber of musicians involved aside, the songwriting itself suffers in some areas. Too many songs (“Avenida Revolucion”, “Soap On A Roap”, “Oh Yeah”) feel like loose jams with lyrics tacked on, that were probably more fun for the band to play than for someone to repeatedly listen to. Best are the songs that seem a bit more melodically structured and labored (“My Kinda Girl”, “Sexy Little Thing”) and are much more memorable as a result.
Chickenfoot may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but this a pleasurable listen nonetheless. It’s big, old-fashioned rock infused with a genuine sense of fun, that can be enjoyed so long as you keep your expectations in check.
Back in 2001, Dave Matthews jettisoned longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, and co-wrote a bunch of songs with producer/songwriter Glen Ballard. The resulting album, Everyday, felt like Dave Matthews Band in name only; band members were brought in to play songs already written without them, and the airtight arrangements and slick, hyper-compressed pop/rock production left no room for the looser, earthy chemistry of their first three albums. Though remaining one of the finest (and top-drawing) live bands around, DMB have since been unable to turn out an album anywhere near as engaging as their first three.
Until now. Bringing Green Day/Goo Goo Dolls producer Rob Cavallo on board had me expecting Everyday Part II. Instead, Big Whiskey & The GrooGrux King sounds like a band reunited and re-energized, if not exactly under the best circumstances: founding member and saxophone player LeRoi Moore passed away last summer, early on in the sessions for the album. Carefully preserving the parts Moore had already contributed and finding the inspiration to soldier on, Matthews and the band have crafted an album more vibrant and lively than anything they’ve done in the past decade. Moore’s presence looms large over the album (he’s the GrooGrux King of the title), and the bulk of the lyrics, when not alluding to him, contemplate life, death, and love. Matthews still enjoys singing about getting down and dirty with his woman, but even his sexual propositions are part of a bigger picture this time – it’s all about what makes life grand. The spirited vibe here is not just informed by Moore’s passing; largely recorded in New Orleans, the rich essence of a city on the rebound has no doubt seeped into the music as well. As producer, Cavallo gives the band a big, clean, muscular sound (also courtesy of frequent collaborator Tim Reynolds, who provides electric guitar throughout) but never lets things sound too glossy or overworked. As a band, they’ve never rocked harder. And it’s a band record through and through, with most of the songs collectively written and built from the ground up.
In the wake of tragedy, Dave Matthews Band have responded with their first truly vital effort of the new millennium.
Swoon was initially described to me as sounding like a Smashing Pumpkins album, if Billy Corgan hadn’t lost his mind. In fact, Silversun Pickups can’t seem to get anywhere these days without a Pumpkins comparison in tow. This is certainly justifiable; album opener “There’s No Secrets This Year” sounds like a Siamese Dream b-side, rife with fuzzed-out guitars, nasally vocals and Chamberlin-lite drum patterns. The band also brings shades of Sunny Day Real Estate and Coheed & Cambria to the table, but Swoon will reward those patient enough not to dismiss them as rip-offs. The main formula here is balancing gobs of distorted guitars with layers of crystalline, emo-esque vocals, but there’s enough melody to make most of it stick. Lead single “Panic Switch” and soaring, melodic “Sort Of” are undeniable highlights, while “Growing Old Is Getting Old” perhaps best encapsulates the Pickups’ sound, running the gamut from hypnotic and entrancing to explosive and raucous. Though not every song deserves mention, Silversun Pickups should be commended for crafting a true album, where the songs retain a similar tone throughout without ever sounding too much alike.
The latest supergroup not named Chickenfoot, Tinted Windows is a collaboration between Taylor Hanson, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, with the driving backbeat of drummer Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick) for good measure. Although Pumpkins purists and loyal Hanson fans will likely take notice, the driving power-pop songs here suggest a smoothed-out Cheap Trick or a streamlined, less quirky Fountains of Wayne. Indeed, the bulk of the songs were penned by Schlesinger, closer in spirit to his theme song for “That Thing You Do!” than most of his work with Fountains. Production-wise, the sound takes a cue from the 60s and 70s, where pop music could have a big, bright, polished sound without the use of Pro-Tools and overly-processed guitars and drums. And despite Hanson’s presence this is a keyboard and synth-free affair, with Iha’s raw guitar and Carlos’ propulsive drumming laying the foundation for an array of hooks, sing-along choruses and vocal harmonies. And though everything is sugar-coated enough to give your eardrums diabetes, the trim 35-minute running time keeps things short but sweet. Simple and superficial but upbeat and undeniably catchy, this is a fun little album tailor-made for driving in the sun with the top down.