Dream Theater – The Astonishing (2016)

Have you ever been to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus” I have, and it was exhausting. Fires, tigers and acrobats repeated variations on a singular theme for hours on end, punctuated only by brief intermissions of empty calories. Sure, it was exhilarating for a while – the gaping-mouthed attendees staring in bewilderment, captured in time by the company’s public relations photographers, stand as testament. But there’s only so much excitement, so much drama, my seven-year-old-self could handle. If there’s one thing The Astonishing does right, it’s emulating that vivid experience. Essentially, the album plays out like a Broadway rendition of Star Wars, except our hero uses a guitar instead of a lightsaber. Here, Dream Theater goes big – bigger than Tommy and Quadrophenia combined. It’s epic in every sense of the word. Vocals soar higher than the bravest tight-rope walkers, and the strings rise and fall like lions through flaming hoops. It does this for only two hours and ten minutes, making the experience slightly less tedious than the carnival. By the time the twelfth ballad comes around it’s difficult to remember if it’s better than seventh one. Regardless, the album’s six-or-so riffs are kind of cool, but riffs have been heard before. There is a bass guitar in some songs. As Dream Theater reaches the final circuit of its grand performance, it’s likely you’ll have to hit pause and take a restroom break because the album is over two hours long. Pausing doesn’t work at carnivals, but thankfully it does here.

Scale the Summit dives headfirst into its own reflection on In A World Of Fear

Chris Letchford once wrote on Scale the Summit’s Facebook page that “the band is a business.” Context of a muddy, dramatic line-up change aside, he’s not wrong. Listening to In a World of Fear conjures up the image of a transaction – a service provided to listeners in exchange for money. If there’s more to the record than this it’s not at all obvious. Any sense of soul or wit that once came from Scale the Summit’s earlier recordings is wholly absent, much like the band members who seem to have been the only force keeping Letchford’s self-indulgence on leash. With no chaperones, Scale the Summit has drowned itself in its own Narcissus’ pool so thoroughly you can practically the see the last gasps of air bubbling up to the surface, fighting against the inane songwriting. Normally, a reviewer would single out a track to push the point he or she intends to make, but Letchford’s insistence on cramming as many unrelated, disjointed ideas into each “song” makes any attempt at distinguishing one piece from another needlessly difficult and entirely unworth the effort. You know what to expect if you’ve ever heard a Scale the Summit record. You can expect the gaudy sheen of Letchford’s guitar tone to glamourize the clinical guitar-work, running ad nauseam over the record. Moreover, you can expect improbable bass runs playing out like logic puzzles assembled in-factory for the sole satisfaction of the assembler. In other words, Scale the Summit is just running business as usual – just more stale than ever.

The Stargazer’s Assistant’s Remoteness of Light is morose and mysterious in equal measure

One of my fondest, most vivid memories from childhood is exploring the vast wilderness behind the neighborhood tennis court. I ventured out from the familiarity of concrete into the obscurity of dirt and dusty roads, flanked on each side by oceans of shoulder-height wheat grass. Pressing on, I eventually reached the end of the road, and I gazed straight up at the monolithic electrical towers – towers that straddled the horizon from my house. Pushing even further, I hit the woods, a maze of mystery for the heart of an eight-year-old. Exploring it was fun, exciting, and about as close as that child ever came to feeling like Indiana Jones. I bring this up not as some sappy personal tidbit, but as a sort of bridge into what makes the Stargazer’s Assistant’s Remoteness of Light so wholly gratifying. David J. Smith’s newest project, through its twisting washes of ambient evocations, may lack the youthful vibrancy of those distant, childish excursions, but it rekindles that critical sense of discovery.

Here, songs are as absent as light itself, leaving the listener to flounder and fumble through the album’s wilderness. Sound slow drips through speakers like water through caverns, and no vocals anchor the proceedings with relatable personality. Album opener “Agents of Attitude” extends its wispy fingers in alluring invitation: minimal percussion feather-dances over cyclical, airy woodwinds, repeating and reverberating before collapsing into oppressive washes of white noise. At 19 minutes, it’s a big ask for undivided attention, but the obtuse, open-ended nature of the track justifies itself in its willingness to let the listener loose in the dark. Stargazer’s Assistant conjures a mire of shifting soundscapes and asks the rhetorical question “are you ready to step inside?” The rhetorical becomes literal when the album’s closer, “The Remoteness of Light,” bursts into a frenzy of swirling synths and free-form percussion; the answer is “yes.” It’s the payoff to an hour-long voyage into the unknown. In a climactic confrontation of scraping, digital blips and tribal rhythms, clawing against the washboard surfaces and punctuated spasms of electric guitar, Smith and his entourage lure the listener through a maelstrom into a vast and empty space of nothing. The record ends, unresolved, undecided. More than anything, it’s the record’s statement of intent. Morose and mysterious in equal measure, The Remoteness of Light is an album without a destination, and its all the better for it.


The Grammys Need an Intervention

The Grammys haven’t been a music fan’s music event for some time. It’s clear that the focus has shifted to “big music,” irrespective of anything but social media trending and record sales. Scouring the internet, you would think the world was on fire, sold out to a nefarious elite who subliminally work to destroy our way of life and, possibly, our  very existence. It’s not quite that dramatic, but it’s still a joke – the kind of joke an obnoxious, abusive friend pulls and pulls again, thinking it’s funnier the second time. Grammys, its time we talked: the 58th time isn’t a charm.

It seemed, for the briefest of moments, that there was some justice in the world when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly won the best rap album category (as if there was any competition). That glimmering spark of hope was quickly snuffed out when Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat Kendrick for the illustrious album of the year award. As the eroded but-still-brilliant Professor Farnsworth of Futurama would say, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” 

Anyone remotely versed in hip-hop and pop music tradition should come away from both albums with the same conclusion. To Pimp A Butterfly, regardless of personal preference, is a more important and demanding work of art. Lamar conducted a musical autopsy not just of himself, but of the black man in America. From careful introspection to seething rage, Lamar put everything on the table in an exhaustive personal and social statement. Taylor Swift wrote some catchy hooks.

Essentially, the Grammys pulled an Oscars last night by voting white girl problems over a thorough, soulful dissection of black life and culture. The naivest of viewers might believe its an honest mistake, but grizzled Grammy veterans know better. This isn’t the first time. It surely won’t be the last. That’s why the Grammy’s need an intervention. It’s not going to be easy, but the first step in recovering credibility is admitting there’s a problem.

Just admit it.

Elephant9’s “Silver Mountain” Breathes Fresh Air into Psych’s Overflowing Canon

Psychedelic rock, at least the modern variety, has been consistently sabotaged by some members of the press and casual listeners alike as a poor man’s genre – a style of music rooted in the ”good old days” of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators with nothing to say. They’re not entirely wrong. It seems increasingly difficult to find inventive, innovative acts operating within the confines of psych. From the dazed-out-pop of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to the far-out, volcanic jams of Earthless, these are essentially the same kaleidoscopic conjurations your parents heard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “What’s next” is a question many bands of this ilk wrestle with, whether in the studio or deep in the lion’s den of music journalism. But Norway’s “best live band” Elephant9 brings a simple answer to the table: “just add jazz.” With “Silver Mountain,” Elephant9 rejects the pretense of modern psychedelia and embraces its namesake with arms and minds wide-open.

Minds-wide open seems like a good tagline for the record, as the band’s ingenuity is apparent from the get-go. Whereas the prototypical psych outfit contents itself to ride a colorful passage for all its worth, Elephant9 and Reine Fiske reject stagnation. Much like the genre’s namesake, compositions shift shape with regularity, evoking variegated hues and visual patterns. “Occidentali” snakes and slithers its way through curious, jazzy instrumentals before blanketing the audience with echoing washes of synth and guitar. The calm, however, quickly snaps into a spastic freak-out. Guitars, courtesy of Dungen’s Reine Fiske, rocket through the percussion’s inconstant gravity before dying out. Moments like these come in ready supply and almost always captivate. Though it should be obvious by now, it warrants clarification: this isn’t your parent’s psych. “Silver Mountain” doesn’t ride the strength of its instrumental creativity alone, though.

Both production and mixing play significant roles in the album’s success. Each instrument breathes in relative clarity, but makes allowance for the natural obfuscations warranted by the genre. Fiske’s guitar is given extra attention, piercing through moments of tranquility with a colorful, pin-point trajectory. Here, the music is vivid – vibrant, even – but never polished to a fine sheen. Centerpiece “Abhartach” pounds its way through an off-kilter groove dominated by side-step drum patterns and surreal, thick spikes of distortion. Elsewhere, the militant, pounding rhythms of “Kungsten” hammer down with serious gravity, weaving in-and-out of line while battering the listener. It’s noisy, often chaotic, but it sounds exactly as it should: evocative and engrossing. And really, if you can say a modern psych album is evocative and engrossing, not just a despondent and derivative addition to an overflowing canon, then you’ve got a winner.


Best Albums 2015

I could type a spiffy intro telling you how this year was miles beyond any other year, but that would be redundant and probably untrue. What I am going to do is cut right to the chase: these are my favorite albums of 2015. I hope you find something you enjoy.

  1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Elephant9, Silver Mountain
  4. Failure, The Heart is a Monster
  5. Dungen, Allas Sak
  6. Anekdoten, Until All the Ghosts are Gone
  7. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird is Home
  8. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
  9. Chelsea Wolfe, Abyss
  10. Tigran Hamasyan, Mockroot
  11. Intronaut, The Direction of Last Things
  12. Hiatus Kaiyote, Choose Your Weapon
  13. Deafheaven, New Bermuda
  14. Zombi, Shape Shift
  15. Emancipator, Seven Seas
  16. Baroness, Purple
  17. Golden Void, Berkana
  18. Freddie Gibbs, Shadow of a Doubt
  19. The Moderator, The World Within
  20. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
  21. Clutch, Psychic Warfare
  22. Beach House, Depression Cherry
  23. The Dear Hunter, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
  24. Bjork, Vulnicura
  25. Father John Misty, I Love  You, Honeybear

Artist Spotlight: Ulver

Chameleonic, unpredictable and bizarre are just a few common buzzwords tossed around in discussions about Norway’s Ulver and not without good reason. The band’s 1995 debut Bergtatt has reached cult classic status with black metal fans worldwide, bolstered by adventurous songwriting and the angelic vocals of Kristoffer Rygg. Since then, though, the band has opted for an “anything goes” approach to songwriting – literally, anything.

From avant-rock to downtempo trip-hop to dreary ambient soundscapes, Ulver has thoroughly abandoned its blackened roots to pursue god knows what god knows when, and the stylistic guessing game has been nothing if not exciting. 2007’s Shadows of the Sun found the band at an artistic peak with its surreal atmospherics and heavy vocal focus, playing like a nine-part hymnal for the departed. Since then, classical compositions have met electronica on Messe I.X-VI.X, and the history of psychedelic rock has been explored on Childhood’s End.

Next year, however, promises a new frontier for the Norwegian four-piece.

The band’s next album, ATGCLVLSSCAP, hits shelves January 22nd, 2016. According to the group’s new label, House of Mythology, the record will feature “mostly improvisational” “rock and electronic soundscapes” in the double album format. If history is anything to go by, Ulver’s upcoming record should be another event worthy of your time and attention. Keep your ears peeled.