Monday, June 29, 2009

Sweet Mutation (aka Since We've Been Conditioned)

I'm still smarting a bit from the death of the king, but luckily i've had some great new music (and a copy of HIStory) on hand to get me through.

The Temper Trap – Conditions (Liberation, 2009)

Few Australian bands have built a more effective buzz around the release of their debut album as The Temper Trap has. Thanks to a series of key supporting act slots (with the likes of Cold War Kids and Franz Ferdinand), through to some headlining gigs and a slow drip of singles through the course of the previous year, the best of all being Sweet Disposition.A song so good it seemed impossible that a group could top it. Further, it risked casting them as one-hit wonders.

At face value, Conditions doesn’t contain anything as resplendid as Sweet Disposition, but then how could it? Thankfully, The Temper Trap know it and avoid spending the record slavishly attempting to bottle lightning a second time (though Fools comes perilously close).

More importantly, Conditions is an album that justifies the hype. It’s confident, strident in parts even, each track given space and texture instead of being ramshackled into a radio-friendly accessible shape. Though there are some sure fire hits on offer too. No, instead The Temper Trap follow their own muse, with one eye on thoughtful, earnest rock and the other on populist, well-pointed songs.

The most striking element is Abby Rai Chrisna Mandagi (or just Dougy for short)’s vocals – a powerfully engaging falsetto that sounds like an edgier Prince, or more relevantly Tunde Abimpe of TV On The Radio. Either way, it demands attention and provides engagement, even lifting an overly simple mood piece like Rest to a whole other level.

Certainly it is this voice that guides the listener through both bold-faced hits (Love Lost, Fader, Rest) with a depth of feeling while providing the transient point for more experimental fare.

The first of which, Down River, has the pounding affirmation of The Arcade Fire in full anthemic flight, urging you to join in the march to “take a chance on something.” Immediately following is Soldier On, a slow-burning number that initially focuses on Dougy’s lonely voice against a gently strummed guitar before lighting a slow fireworks display of echoing guitars and looming drums. Later Ressurection stretches the group’s sound to a dark, gloomy dub with the voice as the only guiding light.

For every track like Science of Fear that rings with a darker edge, there’s another to counter-balance it, such as the gleeful pop of Fader. At ten tracks there’s plenty of attention given to each song, even the near-perfect Sweet Disposition manages to avoid casting a looming shadow over proceedings.

All in all, Conditions manages to fulfil on much of the promise The Temper Trap first made. Honest, affecting rock that doesn’t need a gimmick to get on the cool list, nor pandering to hipster stereotypes in order to keep from getting booted from it. It’s a measured and impressive debut, by any standards, whose faults only reveal room for growth – not deep seeded flaws. It is also executed with such casual grace that they’ll become easy targets for cynics and naysayers.

Following the album’s release The Temper Trap decamped to London in a hope to establish a foothold in their music scene, here’s betting they simply re-create the game plan of Conditions.

Click here for an audio stream of the album

or simply check out their MySpace for a smattering of singles

The Mars Volta – Octahedron (Rodriguez-Lopez Productions, 2009)

Rarely do artists so accurately provide a self-reflective assessment as when Mars Volta frontman Bixler-Zavala stated prior to the release of their fifth studio album, “It’s our version of what we consider an acoustic album.” Indeed Octahedron is not strictly ‘unplugged’ – but in spirit and tone it is most certainly an acoustic album. Bixler-Zavala further explains “That’s what our band does – celebrate mutations.”

If this is the case then Octahedron is a most interesting genetic strand, in striking contrast to the titanic progressive rock of their previous records. Where previously The Mars Volta have been described as ‘electric’, ‘epic’ and ‘powerful’, rarely have adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘melancholic’ or ‘plaintive’ surfaced in describing their work. There is simply no other way to describe new tracks such as Since We’ve Been Wrong, With Twilight As My Guide or Copernicus.

Off-setting the lucid moments are cuts such as Cotopaxi, Teflon and Desperate Graves, direct evolutions from the boiling pot rock of Bedlam In Goliath (2008), but for the most part the album is stripped back to key elements; Namely, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’ guitar arrangements and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. Both provide fusions that are their most forthright and precise since their debut, Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics in particular are some of his most direct in, well… ever actually.

Certainly there’s still an encyclopaedia of surreal, borderline nonsensical, imagery on offer that is Bixler-Zavala’s ground zero territory, but it’s counterpointed by some truly straightforward poetry accompanied by affecting performances.

The album opens with the melancholic Since We’ve Been Wrong in which multi-tracked harmonies sway against a pattern of acoustic guitars, setting a pace and tone for the record. Halfway through the track, the rest of the band arrives on drummer Thomas Prigden’s elegantly simple drum fill. It should be noted that although the rest of the band’s contributions are kept to a minimum, they are no less important. Keyobardist Isaih Ikey Owens provides texture and melodic counterpoint, while Juan Alderete de la Pena’s bass keeps the rockier tracks chugging along. Besides, by maintaining a pattern that alternates between quieter, introspective tracks and the more propellant cuts, it emphasises the synergy of the full Mars Volta palette. The eight tracks flow with vibrancy and cohesion manifested by a barely-audible organ drone that reappears across the record.

Any concerns long-term fans have should be checked at the door, the appeal of The Mars Volta has always been in their explorations and combinations of disparate genres and ideas into a single, pulsing beast. Octahedron is best thought of as a journey into yet another unique musical landscape.

It may not be their best record, but in a strange way it is perhaps their most daring. While they have always been adventurous and almost impossibly creative, Octahderon ignites a different kind of creative spark. One that may actually appeal to a different, wider audience who found their previous excursions inaccessible.

It’s a very different sounding Mars Volta but one that is familiar too, in short Octahedron is a mutation, and that’s what the band does – celebrate mutations.

You can hear tracks at the band's MySpace;

or check out Copernicus and Teflon at YouTube

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

As you have probably all heard by now, Michael Jackson, musician, entertainer, artist, was announced deceased this morning, suffering a heart attack he died in an ambulance en route to the hospital. Needless to say, it's pretty shocking news.

Now I didn't want it to be a cliche to turn my personal blog into a fawning tribute for a day, but I think that in all the brou-ha-ha that has surrounded Jackson in the last decade or so, and pre-empting the wave of media nonsense that will surround his imminent demise - that it's only fair I put in my five cents worth before things get blown out of proportion.

So, for probably the only time ever on AMR (knock on wood), a tribute.

Michael Jackson. 1958-2009. R.I.P.

Transformation. If there's one word that can summarise Jackson's career, it's transformation. From a young pop novelty to world-famous icon, from cheeky afro-crowned boy to the elusive ghost of his loner years, and quite literally from black to white. Michael Jackson was forever cultivating, honing and changing his image to suit whatever pioneering venture he had his talents and creative mind set on next. Nowhere is this theme of transformation more evident than in his series of iconic videos.
Starting with Billie Jean, where his magical touch illuminates all he encounters - like some sort of dapper King Midas. The videos for Bad, Beat It and The Way You Make Me Feel all saw him transgressing from a member of street level gangs, to protestor and mediator - often within the same song. Thriller, quite possibly the greatest music video of all time, contained his most drastic (and iconic) transformations, firstly as a werewolf, then later as a zombie leader of an equally undead dance troupe.
Black or White featured the famous morphing sequence, people of all colours and races morphing into one another as an obvious visual metaphor for racial equality. The extended version saw Jackson himself turning into a svelte panther, what followed was a series of fantastical transmogrifications enabled by video techonology. Remember The Time cast him as a shape-shifting entertainer in a magical Egypt, the wonderfully strange promo film Moonwalker had him changing from gangster with a heart of gold to a robotic deity.
Magical video-enabled shape-shifting aside, Jackson transformed his career too: from world-topping icon he attempted to enable his position as a spokesperson for the downtrodden and neglected. Though musically it meant for some credible missteps or awkward sentimentality, one couldn't fault Jackson for misplacing his intentions. Heal The World, Earth Song, even the fuming They Don't Care About Us all marked a shift from Jackson the entertainer to Jackson the politically minded pop star.

As we all know too well, Jackson's popularity and musical legacy has dangled for a good decade and a half, and I would argue it was because he'd run out of ideas in regards to his image, and the reflective perception the greater public had of said image. In other words, he'd run out of transformations. Back in the mid-90's, when every breathe he took was monitored with the full power of the media and a ravid fanbase, he could do no wrong. He cleverly manipulated and transformed his image in an ebb and flow with the media world that sustained him. Once he finally lost touch with the world, however - ensconcing himself in a series of financial, emotional - and now obviously, health woes; he could no longer use the music to reclaim his once unstoppable fame. Instead, he coasted on a series of re-releases, compilations and stunted comebacks to reinvigorate his popularity. There's something ironically tragic that his death came a mere month before he'd booked dates in the UK for a comeback.
Still, for all the slandering and controversy, it hasn't tarnished his incredible legacy. It's almost impossible to gauge the full extent of his influence on the musical world, let alone the utterly unique path he cut in history: his live shows, his performance, his dancing, his activism, his inimitable personality, least of all his incredible music. He truly was the King of Pop, and there will never ever be another like him.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How To Lose Your Female Fanbase In 7 Easy Steps

I'm expecting to cop a lot of flak for my latest entry, in fact I was debating for a little while whether to post it at all. But it's something i've really wanted to write and put quite a bit of work into.... so I've decided to go ahead with it and let my readers' reactions be my guide.
In an effort to pre-empt any scorn, may I defend myself and say that the aim is to still celebrate great new music, and yes - i am a male - sue me. Why all the controversy? well...


While it may look like a sneaky FHM style series of pin-ups, this list actually celebrates a new wave of female singer-songwriters in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Tori Amos, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. Women who, while being physically beautiful, were also impossibly talented, courageous and creative without having to compromise or exaggerate their femininity. Unlike whomever the pop-starlet-of-the-week may be, there is much, much more to them than a big single and a sexy video. So the following list of females comprises those, who given time, will join the ranks of the names above and other great rock gals of history - or, at the very least, will be remembered for more than just their looks.

Have I undermined my credibility? Want to see a list that caters to the female contingent? Think there's something wrong with my ears (and eyes)? Then comment away dear friends, comment away.

Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie announced earlier this year that he was getting married, that he was to be wed to Zooey Deschanel surely split males 50/50. There was none more deserving of Ms. Deschanel than indie royalty such as Gibbard, but at the same time most guys were just plain jealous.
Zooey Deschanel is probably better recognised as an actor than a singer, but she's found greater success (and credibility) as one half of She & Him with M. Ward than she has funnymen's love interests (Elf, Yes Man, (500) Days Of Summer). With her piercing eyes and flexible bob she seems to tap effortlessly into a retro-chic; as well as looking strikingly similar to faux-lesbian pop star, Katy Perry. Whether she continues to carry her career on the beauty of her looks over the beauty of her voice is to be seen, but one thing's for sure - don't they make a cute couple?

6. Patience Hodgson (The Grates)
In a band that thrives on kook, energy and cuteness, lead singer Patience Hodgson is easily the kookiest, most energetic and cutest. While she may have stolen a few tricks from Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), namely crazy stage dancing and an extensive wardrobe of zany costumes, she seems to do it in her own way. She is the bouncy, effervescent centrepiece of their live shows and an endearing little sprite in her promotional duties (i can empaphise with Sam Simmons in this clip). Despite her effortlessly quirky lyrics, she's got a great voice and presence that really pulls The Grates' otherwise disparate looniness together, and you can't help but singalong.

5. Amber Cofman (Dirty Projectors)
The talent:
Dirty Projectors - Stillness Is The Move
Dirty Projectors - Two Doves
Dirty Projectors - Knotty Pine (feat. David Byrne)

The beauty:

Unlike others on this list, Amber Cofman is not a solo artist nor the frontwoman of a band, she is actually an integral component of current indie darlings Dirty Projectors. Still, her talent shines through as both a guitarist, and one-third of their beautiful vocal harmonies of the band's sound. One of the greatest moments of Bitte Orca, and the only one to share composing duties with lynchpin Dave Longstregth, is her song Stillness Is The Move. Hell she even wrote a song that impressed Bjork enough to join them for a one-off performance. That's all the credibility you need in my book.

4. Chan Marshall (Cat Power)
The talent:
Cat Power - The Greatest
Cat Power - He War
Dirty Three w/ Chan Marshall - Great Waves

The beauty:

Chan Marshall aka. Cat Power rose to fame due to a series of sleeper hit records and an underground buzz calling her the female-Dylan. There was a strange fascination about her painfully shy live performances too - crying, fudging her songs, and even leaving abruptly. But they did little to undermine her credibility and her obvious creative artistry.
With her awkward years behind her, she has blossomed into a brutally honest artist who is a captivating performer and an excellent interpreter, proven by her two cover records. Her appeal manages to gulf many divides, somehow managing to encapsulate a svelte, smouldering beauty with the spirit of rock'n'roll and a rebellious attitude. Even when she committed a music sin by becoming the face of Chanel she managed to do it without a chorus of naysayers chiming 'sell out.' Maybe everyone is just too smitten with her feline charms.

3. Lily Allen

The talent:
Lily Allen - The Fear
Lily Allen - Not Fair
Lily Allen - Never Gonna Happen

The beauty:

I didn't really go for Lily Allen when she first came round, she seemed like a cheeky starlet who was riding the wave of her MySpace buzz and tabloid controversy to get her way to the top. It's only when I stopped judging and started listening, in particular to her second album It's Not Me, It's You, that i realised that her media persona was all part of her personality.
Here's a girl who, despite appearances, is whipsmart and really just won't play the media game. If she seems like a controversy-magnet it's only because she gets into trouble doing exactly what she wants to do. She's sexy and sassy, with the media eye obsesed over her - and she knows it.
Her music says much about her talents, a writer who's disarming honesty is at once both humourous and realistic. I doubt there'll be a better lyric this year than Not Fair's second verse "Oh, I lie here in the wet patch in the middle of the bed/I'm feeling pretty damn hard done by/I spent ages giving head."
It's clever, funny and silly - demonstrating a woman who knows not to take the whole pop star thing so seriously. Like a female James Bond, men want her and women want to be her.

2. Jenny Lewis

The talent:
Rilo Kiley - Portions For Foxes
Rilo Kiley - Breakin' Up
Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Jenny Lewis - Godspeed

The beauty:

Back in 2005, when Jenny Lewis 'went solo' with Rabbit Fur Coat it signaled an artistic shift for the red-haired indie queen. While her day job as lead singer/guitarist/and co-writer for Rilo Kiley is nothing to be sniffed at, her first solo record found her satisfying her urge to be an alt-country star. And she succeeded, even bringing some of that vibe to the following Rilo Kiley album Under The Blacklight.
Last year's Acid Tongue merely further cemented her position as a female artist with 'the package': she looked and sounded great while writing her own tunes and managing her own creative persona. It's important to note, that like most on this list, she doesn't take herself too seriously (she even dolled up as the pink power ranger once).
There remains a precarious tension however as to what she'll do next, continue her career as solo artist, or continue to push herself as the face and voice of Rilo Kiley. Either way, it's a textbook win-win situation.

1. Natasha Khan
(Bat For Lashes)
The talent:
Bat For Lashes - Daniel
Bat For Lashes - Prescilla
Bat For Lashes - Moon & Moon
Bat For Lashes - Sad Eyes
Bat For Lashes - Pearl's Dream
(Boy, i was hard-pressed not to just put up the entire tracklist of her two albums)

The beauty:

I'm in love with Natasha Khan.
Head-over-heels, giddy as a schoolboy, secret crush, long flowery letters, 'no you hang up first' in-love with Natasha Khan. Now, while I must admit she hasn't crowned this list because she's uneasy on the eyes (she's gorgeous), but the reason i'm so stupid for her is that more than any other artsit represnted here, or any others in recent times, she best personifies everything I enjoy about female musicians.
At the start of this rant I mentioned how this list was a small tribute to great artists like Joni Mitchell, Bjork et. al. Well, Natasha Khan, in her kooky-tribal, electro-balladeering, alt-edge-hobo rock outfit Bat For Lashes captures something of the spirit of all those artists and presents it in a thrilling new way, which is also, ironically, entirely her own.
Now permit me to go all jealous boyfriend... I want to make it clear, before the whole damn blogosphere claims they discovered her first, that i've made these comparisions and sung her praises before almost two years ago when she first debuted. And she's only gone from strength to strength since.
Bat For Lashes extends past the music, to a fruitful array of visuals that portray Khan as so effortlessly cool and mystical. It also allows her the opportunity to raid the dressing-up box to indulge in a flexible amount of imagery that includes punk chic, tribal nativity, witch, hippy, nature's child, chanteuse, girl-next-door - you name it. Chances are Khan has brooched it in her amazing promo shoots.
So in no short amount of words, that's why i'm in love with Natasha Khan. Because i'm in love with her music and her musical identity, and in love that's she's in love with it too.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Just a few words today dears, i've been in the throes of moving out (which is going ace) but is not music related so let's not dwell. I figure a lot of you haven't got through the bulk of my last post about concept albums, so i'd redirect your attention there if your starved for music articles.
Otherwise, i'm just going to direct you to three records from three of my favourite artists

If there were any band more deserving of a break, it's Bloc Party, who have already treated us to a remixed version of their third album Intimacy this year. But, of course - why rest and abuse your status as cutting edge rock stars like so many, when you could be making great music?
The four-piece have just announced that they'll be premiering a brand new single on Zane Rowe's Radio 1 show tonight. Entitled One More Chance, it was a track recorded back in April with Jacknife Lee, and the single proper is due for August 10th.

While this is a bit of a shock announcement, it follows a regular pattern of Bloc Party releasing singles in the downtime between albums (eg. Two More Years between Silent Alarm and A Weekend In The City then Flux between that album and Intimacy), usually signalling a stylistic shift. Colour me pumped.

Having spoken to frontman Steven Wilson first-hand for Beat Magazine, I knew Porcupine Tree had a new album due in September, but quite what to expect: I did not.

And what are we getting? A double album, that's what. The Incident will be Porcupine Tree's twelfth studio album, and their first double since 1995's The Sky Moves Sideways. The first disc is the entirety of the title track which is a 55 minute song cylce, while the second disc will be four tracks recorded during the same studio sessions at EP length: Flicker, Bonnie The Cat, Black Dahlia and Remember Me Lover. Although not confirmed, it's safe to say that artist Lasse Hoile will be involved with the artwork. Full details are at the band's website. The record is due September 21st through Roadrunner Records. Album of the year speculations begin now.

And finally, the folks over at FasterLouder have provided this modest little behind-the-scenes video of Melbourne's leading genius (© Al's Music Rant 2009) aka Paul Dempsey. Giving a sneak peek into some of the sounds of the forthcoming Everything Is True, out August 14th. It seems that lead single Out The Airlock was a perfect taster for what sounds to be a largely acoustic album. Still i'm already chomping at the bit to get my hands on this one.

well, I'm off to get my copy of The Temper Trap's album. 'Till next time music lovers.

Monday, June 8, 2009

An entry that is as long as it is winded

I've had a flood of ideas for posts recently and i've been trying to tie myself down to just one and save the rest for later, but i'm usually at the whim of what i've been listening to (which at the moment is a large amount of Bat For Lashes, Wilco and various prog rock).

So... i'm going to go wtih my first idea and instinct which is all about concept albums. Partly inspired from my review of Placebo's latest Battle For The Sun in which I declared it was categorically
not a concept album. I thought i'd set the record straight with what a concept album categorically is, at least - in my humble opinion. Drumroll please...

Eight Great Concept Albums
(-or- Proof That Concept Albums Aren't Just For Prog Rockers!)

It'll probably help, especially for the unitiated among you, to give a little background on the history of the concept album. Arguably it started (with most things related to modern music) with The Beatles and their 1967 magnum opus Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Inspired, in part, by the vast psychedelic canvas and emotional unity of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds the previous year, the mop tops set about crafting their own version... and the rest is history. But it was the album's overall unified concept that set the template for what we call the concept album, and while it was a fairly weak one (Beatles pretend to be the band of the title and play songs) it set a standard in which a record could engage with an overall story in which each track contributed to the narrative.

This is the important point, while prog rock took the proverbial ball and ran with it (or to furhter the metaphor, instead created their own sport with it), the basic idea is that a concept album is an album that tells a story; and all the usual elements that go along with it: characters, setting, drama, metaphor and so on. A subtle but important distinction, there's a difference between an album in which the music or lyrical themes are unified and one which tells a story. That's not to say that an album can't do both, but there is a difference between an album trying to tell a story and one that is trying to impart a set of themes and ideas.

Whether you know it or not, you've probably heard a lot of concept records - some modern examples being
American Idiot by Green Day, The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance or - at a stretch - some Kanye West. While some argue that the concept album has had a resurgence, it's never really gone away, it's always been here in one shape or form. Anyway.... any further questions should be directed to your closest Wikipedia entry... on with the show!

8. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)

The Story: St. Jimmy and Whatsername engage in a rage versus love standoff against a milieu of decaying American suburbs and a messiah called the Jesus of Suburbia, it turns out that St. Jimmy is the messiah but commits suicide in the face of a disaffected, commercialised society.

Behind The Story: After spending four years in a commercial hinterland, Green Day returned with a record inspired both by the rock operas of The Who (Quadrophenia, Tommy) and their resentment of the current Bush administarion. While musically not much had changed in the Green Day camp, still all punk energy and four chord shout-a-longs, the transformation had occured in their maturity to structure and compostion.
Gone were songs about masturbating, bong hits and picking scabs and in their place came conglomerates of their past riffs (
Jesus Of Suburbia), political rebuke (Holiday) and power ballads (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Wake Me Up When September Ends). The sudden explosion of popularity that American Idiot generated wasn't so much to do with the band's evolution, they'd skirted mainstream popularity with deceptively clever tunes before (cultural phenomenon Good Riddance for instance); but that their sensibilities and concept album structure would synergise so precisely with the zeitgesit of American youth.
Undeterred by the album's heady ambition, 'the kids' were content to just sing-a-long to large choruses custom-built for them, the likes of "Are we, we are/are we, we are the waiting" or head banging to the virile Letterbomb.
It's understandable then that it would take Green Day half a decade to release a follow-up, this year's
21st Century Breakdown, the verdict is still out on the album, but it's obvious it follows the same blueprint of American Idiot.

7. Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
The Story: Focussing on the character of a time-travelling alien surgeon, who performs a variety of bizarre medical procedures, botches most of them and disguises himself as a female gynecologyst in order to have sex with nurses and patients alike.

Behind The Story:
Believe it or not, hip hop is a genre that is as obsessed with the concept album as much as prog rock. While its usually the likes of Yes and Genesis who are blamed for taking the story record idea too far, its usually a blind eye thats turned to the swathe of mid-nineties rap and hip hop artists who conjured equally bizzare and far out albums. Examples include Wu-Tang Clan's obssession with martial arts that informed their early records or N.W.A.'s court-room setting for Fuck Tha Police. The hip hop 'skit', the long cemented hallmark of the genre has its origins in concept albums. But I digress...
Dr. Octagon is the invention of none other than rap pioneer Kool Keith teaming with underground production legend Dan "The Automator" Nakamura; whose obscure samples and psychedelic work behind the decks blended perfectly with Keith's hallucinatory lyrics, informed by sci-fi, pornography and vivid word play. The whole affair delivered in a package of the darkest of black comedy and murky beats that became highly influential to Britain's burgeoning trip-hop scene. Aside from gauranteeing the creative powers and careers of its progenitors, Dr. Octagon also marked the highest point in hip hop's concept album fascination.

6. Michael Franti - Stay Human (2001)
The Story: A call-in radio show, Stay Human, hosted by Brother Sunshine and Media Poetess showcases the plight of one Sister Fatima, set to be executed due to a false conviction. A situation which a governor is using as a political platform to get re-elected. In the end the benign Fatima is executed and new evidence proving her innocence results in the station being shut down mid-program by the FBI.

Behind The Story:
Michael Franti was no stranger to lacing his politically and socially charged opinions with a good story, it was the basis of his former groups The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Where those previous efforts occasionally succumbed to the anger and outrage that informed them, Stay Human is a much more accessible and enjoyable trip for the ears. By using the pirate radio format it allowed the songs to be abstracted from the story and the likes of Rock The Nation, Soulshine and Sometimes became successful singles in their own right. In context though, they still do powerfully reflect the case of Sister Fatima and its real-world consequences. At points the all too real familiarity of the radio segments will have you wondering if it is actually a staged drama at all (thankfully, it is).
But the brilliance of the record lies in this duality, acting both as a powerful political statement and also as a succession of excellent R&B, soul and hip-hop cuts.
Channelling the elegance and intelligence of '70s soul music, the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, but always using the narrative as a foil to voice Franti's serious concerns regarding socialism and politics. In other words it is the sugar pill to the medicine of the conscious lyrics and ultimately it is not Franti's political bent, but his creativity and charisma that sells it.

5. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (2009)
The Story: A young woman called Margaret falls in love with a shape-shifting forest creature which incites the jealous rage of the Forest Queen who besets a vengeful murderer, called The Rake, upon the young couple. A number of events occur that lead to the couple drowning.

Behind The Story:
That The Decmeberists would deliver a full-blown folk opera as their fifth studio album was no surprise to their dedicated fanbase. In fact, it was a promise fulfilled considering their previous track record, a series of records that were half-narrative based songs, half-folk indie revelry always invigorated by frontman Colin Meloy's old-world poetic muse. In short, The Decemberists were nothing if not literary.
With titles like Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) and The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone (*phew*); The Hazards of Love flaunted Meloy's bookish lyrics to the fore. The already seven piece strong group even roped in the likes of Becky Stark (Lavendar Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to voice the female parts and Jim James of My Morning Jacket to provide backing vocals throughout.
All the vocal and lyric aesthetics are matched by the powerful folk-prog of the music, with clearly discernible recurring themes and motifs it's a record that demands to be heard in a single setting, with none of the proverbial chapters of the story incapable of functioning apart from the other.
In this way it is, song for song, perhaps not The Decemberist's best record, but it is certainly the closest in matching Colin Meloy's grand literary ambition. It's a work that's best judged alongside the likes of Victorian-era song cylces or the grand Vienese operas of the classical music tradition. This would suggest that the record is desperately out of time, and in a way - it is - but it is the album's greatest strength. A deep, demanding, sometimes draining journey at a time when such works are anathema to the mainstream.

4. Devin Townsend - Ziltoid The Omniscient
The Story: The intergalactic alien overlord of the title appears in Earth's orbit and demands its greatest cup of cofee. Producing only an insatisfactory beverage, Ziltoid destroys planet Earth. Captain Spectacular, returning from an intergalactic voyage, discovers the planet's distruction and vows to make Ziltoid pay for his crimes. Ziltoid, discovering Spectacular's plans, attempts to awaken The Planet Smasher only to be rejected, seeking out the Omnimensional Creator for answers, it is revelead that Ziltoid is merely a puppet in an overall grand design... but the truth is interrupted by the reveal that this is all the daydream of a Starbucks employee.

Behind The Story:
If that ridiculous plot synopsis didn't make it clear, Ziltoid is the rarest of records, a concept album that lampoons concept albums. With lashes of impish humour and tongue lodged firmly in cheek, Ziltoid The Omniscient takes the grand architecture of progressive rock fantasies and heavy metal masochism and reduces it to a sci-fi B movie parody. It's a story you're willing to follow because, unlike most creators of concept albums, it doesn't take itself seriously. Two of many, many examples are when Ziltoid booms "If there were to be two omnisciences, I would be both!" and The Planet Smasher grunting "By the way the name's Herman, and I hate musicals." From Townsend obviously voicing all the characters in a saturday morning cartoon way, to the Python-esque absudrity of the lyrics, right down to the text-book cliche of the 'it was all a dream' ending, it's a uniquely funny and entertaining record. The fact that Devin Townsend achieves this while retaining his fierce technicality and shimmering produciton is a major accomplishment. There are fewer guitar sounds with more power and clarity than Townsend, and he knows it, stretching and pushing his axe to create pure sheets of noise or layers of texture. In keeping with the humourous spirit of the album however, he even satirizes the guitar histrionics of heavy metal, including his own. During Ziltoida Attaxx!! Ziltoid melts the earth with his guitar playing skills, squawlling and screeching all over the place, while championing his own prowess in a wry commentary. The powerful, booming rhtyhms of the drums were created using a computer program called 'Drumkit From Hell', meaning that even a lifeless machine can calculate and re-create the proficient displays of metal drummers.
It's an album of contradictions that polarised many of Townsend's fans: managing to be both clever and dumb as well as a powerful prog-metal prodcution and a biting prog-metal commentary. Townsend manages to have his "Fetid! Foul!" coffee, and drink it too.

3. The Mars Volta - De-Loused In The Comatorium (2003)

The Story: Cerpin Taxt attempts suicide through a concoction of morphine and rat poison, it fails however and instead sends him into a week-long coma in which he traverses a dreamworld known as The Comatorium. Experiencing visions of psyche and humanity, he awakens from The Comatorium only to find the real world unsatisfactory and kills himself properly by throwing himself off a bridge.

Behind The Story:
De-Loused In The Comatorium will justifably go down in musical history as one of the most powerful opening statements from a band ever. Fully realised, excitingly fresh, impossibly dense - it was all these things and more.
After the dissolution of At The Drive-In, core members Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala looked for a way to voice and combine their multitude of diverse influences.
The result was The Mars Volta.
In early interviews the two wore their pretension and obscure cultural references as a geeky badge of pride, heralding their outsider status and openly admitting the bombastic tendencies of their concept debut. All this bravado would have smacked of arrogance, leaving them with mud on their face and much more than a tarnished legacy, if it wasn't for them backing their crazy preparations with an equally crazy, and impressive, result.
A heady combination of surrealist, philosophical and psychedelic obsessions with a musical witches' brew of punk, rock, metal, jazz, salsa, fusion and anything else they could throw into the concoction. Bixler Zavala's banshee vocals and poet-laureate, surrealist lyrics were near impenetrable while Rodrgiuez' atonal guitar work seemed to be played by an army of spiders. All that however, had been evident from the band's early EPs and demos, what really took Comatorium to the next level was the professional production by the legendary Rick Rubin with studio help from Chili Peppers' Flea and John Frusciante, lending the album respected credibility and a polished finish.
Here was music that could have conceivably come from the future or arrived from some distant planet if it wasn't for the endless passion and energy that the band put into their music. It was this passion that let you know that it was something made by humans, humans fired by the hardest of drugs and a powerful urge to push the musical envelope, but humans to be sure.
The story is nearly impossible to decipher from the lyrics, but what Bixler-Zavala lacks in sense, he more than makes up for in vivid, provocative imagery.
Lyrics like "Made its way through the tracks
of a snail slouching whisper/A half mass comute through umbilical blisters/Spectre will lurk/Radar has gathered/Midnight neuces from boxcar cadavars/Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed" may look like garbled nonsense on the page, but in combination with a snaking melody and the behemoth music it leaves a powerful impression.
That is the magic of The Mars Volta: the music as metaphorical journey, where you end is most certainly not where you start, never mind all the craziness that happens along the way. And it is in this way that De-Loused In The Comatorium tells its story. It's there in the immediate transition from abum opener Son et Lumiere to the relentless Intertiatic ESP (the only track to receive radio play), or the brutal coda of Drunkship of Lanterns. Or when Cicatriz ESP re-emerges from a cavern of atmospheric noises to a guitar duel, in the elegiac acoustic creepiness of Televators or the jagged corners of the dissonant This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed. It's an endlessly surprising, occasionally frightening, never boring trip that will take your breath away, lingering in your mind long after it has finished pulverising it.

2. David Bowie - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972)

The Story: After the world is given an apocalyptic message that it has five years left to live, an androgynous alien arrives on earth as the ultimate rockstar: Ziggy Stardust. His aim is to spread the word of peace and love, but he is undone by his own excesses - namely sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Eventually he is unmade by the very same fans who first celebrated his arrival, burning out in a glorious rock and roll suicide.

Behind The Story:
Aside from a fistful of glorious pop moments previously, there was little to suggest that Bowie would deliver such an undertaking as Ziggy, it seemed to spring out of nowhere. With hindsight, it's clear that the seed was planted early on with influences ranging from Japanese Kabuki theatre, to the use of a stage persona in rock and glam's predication for dressing up and stage theatrics. But all the preparation in the world couldn't have captured the zeitgeist quite like Bowie and his band (The Spiders From Mars) did with his 1972 landmark album. In tone, style and production it's like a riveting timecapsule of the era and yet a timeless record thanks to its brilliantly concise songwriting.
Even without a story, here was a record destined to succeed on the strength of its tunes, the tracklisting reading almost like a best-of compilation: Moonage Daydream, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Rock N Roll Suicide. They're all here, and all perfectly comfortable in isolated context from the narrative of Ziggy, in fact the story is quite vague - particularly while trying to slot in the surf rock tribute Suffragette City - but it is the autonomy of the tracks that led to its widespread acceptance. Bowie knew that it was his art-rock conceits that held the record together and resonated for a specific audience, but he also knew the rest of the kids just wanted something to rock out to - and rock out they did.
Another remarkable factor is that, unlike most concept albums of the time, the story reflected consequences in the real-world - mainly due to Bowie's foresight. Ziggy's rise and fall paralled and predicted the rise and fall of the glam rock era with startling accuracy. While countless artists crashed and burned clinging to a genre that was quickly fading, Bowie rode the wave of glam rock to new shores, managing to jump ship by the mid seventies and siphoning onto a variety of styles in a variety of guises.
The use of character to drive his musical escapades is something he would employ throughout his extensive career, and is exactly why is often labelled a 'chameleon' - but it all started with Ziggy. It's not just one of the greatest concept albums ever, this is one of the greatest records ever, period.

1. Pink Floyd -
The Wall (1979)

The Story: A jumbled chronology of the life of the nameless frontman of a rock group (usually referred to as Pink). Taking in his birth, his tragic youth in which his father is taken by the war and he is abused at school, through to his possessive mother, his malicious wife and his adult rock star lifestyle that leads to an inevitable downslide into insanity. The Wall of the title being a metaphor for the emotional barrier that Pink has built over the course of his life that shields him from any kind of emotional conncetion to the world.

Behind The Story:
The major theme of The Wall is isolation, from others and from one's self. Originally the idea was borne of an incident in which Roger Waters (bassist/vocals) spat on a fan attempting to climb up onstage during a concert performance. Shocked by his own actions, Waters set about analysing how and why such a metaphysical 'wall' had been constructed. Focussing on a distinctly harsher and more theatrical approach to songwriting, the result was a sprawling canvas of themes and ideas that stretched to a double album, all unified by the metaphor of 'The Wall'.
It is arguably not Pink Floyd's greatest album - that accolade consistently falls to 1973's Dark Side Of The Moon - but there is certainly no other record like it in Floyd's, or any other group's, catalogue. It is a story that can only be told through the album format.
Sure, it was later made into a big budget movie (directed by Alan Parker, with animations by Gerald Scarfe, starring Bob Geldof), but that merely provided images that bolstered the narrative - rather than aided in telling it. It is an utterly unique audio experience that draws you in with sounds both familiar and starkly alien. Its time-jumping aesthetic is never jarring thanks to some brilliant segues and is in fact key to the experience, both subjective and objective it is deliberately ambiguous. It often feels like we're inside the mind of the protagonist - his scattered thoughts and memories mixed into a strangely directed flow, while objectively following the course of his life and the bevy of characters that fill it which means we can never really be sure that what is being presented is the whole truth.
Even at this analytical level 'The Wall' exists throughout, as a lyrical concept that unifies the record: it is peerless. Moulded to an endless parade of themes and ideas, whether its the conformity of instutional systems (Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, Empty Spaces), the division between performer and audience (In The Flesh, The Show Must Go On), idyllic safety (Mother, Goodbye Blue Sky), mental isolation (Is There Anybody Out There?, Hey You) madness (One Of My Turns) depression (Don't Leave Me Now) and so the list goes on...

It resonates as a timeless piece of art that takes in scatching contempts towards war, fantatical institutions and even ponders on the very meaning of the human condition.
This dense, complex record would also resonate on a commercial level with the blockbuster single Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, its defiant chorus "We don't need no education/we don't need no thought control" etched in the cultural conscience. So too the breathatking epic of Comfortably Numb that, even if it didn't quite condense the entire album into six and a half minutes, still blew listeners away with David Gilmour's life-affirming solo, one of the greatest guitar moments committed to tape. It's worth mentioning here the consistently excellent performances of all members of the band, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Drake included, across the album. Even Waters' usually inferior everyman voice lent itself beautifully to the pained, crazed lyrics and theatrical characters.
It is the glorious end to a miraculous decade of glorious albums by Pink Floyd and their last great record before Waters left the band in a nasty split, and the remaining members sank into an uninspired cycle of underwhelming albums and live shows that rode on their past glories.
Whatever the damaged consequences of its laborious conception, it was more than worth the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. For without it, concept albums - records that told stories and most certainly every entry on this list that came after it - would never have existed. Most concept albums are a fanciful way to unify an artists' themes and ambitions, few change the landscape of the music world as we know it like The Wall did.

Whew! still with us?
That ended up being just like a real concept album - long, deep and a lot to digest in one setting. In some ways, this list only the scratches the surface of the bevy of great concept albums out there and I know i've missed more than a few... so if you can think of any, let me know by commenting below. More over, it should inspire you to seek out the records mentioned but if nothing else, hopefully this list has changed or better informed your opinion of concept albums.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This sugar pill

I was feeling horribly guilty about my last post when an e-mail arrived like a glimmering beacon in my inbox. 'Twas an opportunity sent from the world of Placebo to listen to their new album Battle For The Sun prior to its release. Granted, that's only two days away now, but No Matter! I saw it only as a chance to rectify my lazy posting with a live track-by-track account similar to my Bloc Party assessment.

But first, an introduction.

Placebo have been around for more than ten years now, and while they have flitted with the mainstream now and then they have been critically underrated. Generally, this is due to criticisms that the band have developed little since their 1996 inception, but I would argue it is precisely this familiarity, and variations on their own themes, that have led to their widespread popularity. Brian Molko's nasal snarl is one of the most distinctive voices in the industry, and their mix of edgy rock and po-faced introspection remains their selling point; unified by an aggressive energy across their catalogue. Their singles collection (2004's Once More With Feeling) proved they were efficient craftsmen of accessible rock, while remaining indebted to their gothic muse and while their albums are a string of consistently solid efforts, they have yet to create an unabashed masterpiece.

And so we come to
Battle For The Sun. Which could conceivably be a minor rebirth for the band due to a combination of a three year absence since 2006's Meds and the first with new drummer Steve Forrest (after the departure of Steve Hewitt). David Bottrill (whose credits excitingly include Muse, Tool and Silverchair) lends production duties while the engineer from Meds, James Brown (don't even think it) returns. Touted as a darker, heavier affair it is also the band's first concept album (insert sound of inhaling shock). First speaking to NME Magazine, Brian Molko had this to say:

"I believe
'Battle' to be the first of our albums to tell a story over the course of its 52 minutes. Our previous releases were really only collections of songs and even though the songs are ordered according to the musical flow, I hope that if you listen hard enough to the words that some kind of discernible thematic unity will begin to emerge."

It sounds like an ambitious record and a welcome return from one of Britain's most unique bands.
But now it's time to see if that's really the case...

1. Kitty Litter
A few choppy chords and we're straight into it and lyrically, we're dealing with some customary themes, namely desire, in this case in the impressionistic object of Molko's affection, or should that be sexual lust?
Just before the finale the song breaks down into handclaps and drums with Moko intoning "I need a change/ I need a change of skin." Ironically, this track isn't it. Placebo have a history of great opening tracks, from their debut's scintilatting
Come Home to Bulletproof Cupid on 2005's Sleeping With Ghosts, this however seems to break the run. It's Placebo by numbers.

2. Ashtray Heart
OK this is more like it, the song opens straight into a chorus, both in structure and in a mass of singers chanting something I can't quite decipher. We move to a quieter verse with a bouncing keyboard apreggiating in the background. There's a nice sing-a-long style pre-chorus before we return to that opening refrain. The rest of the track retains the same structure, save for a mild middle 8 section. It's not bad, but nothing special, perhaps an obvious single and thus it being so high in the tracklist.

3. Battle for the Sun
This track has already been heard by most, offered as a free download a few months back. Essentially it's very Placebo, which is to say it's reliably familiar in the same way the first two tracks are, but there's a rising ambition to it that sets it apart. A dissonant guitar line is built into a large rock workout, complete with a string arrangement to buff the main sound, the kind similar to a previous album cut like
Song To Say Goodbye. It demonstrates new drummer Steve Forrest's new dimension to the band, giving them a bit of a kick in the more energetic moments and providing some interesting rhythms and sounds in the verses.
There's some ominous lyrics too, particularly the refrain of "
Dream brother/my killer/my lover" as well as images of breaking bones and loaded guns. As the album's longest track it is given time needed to develop and grow, and surely will offer further rewards on repeated listens.

4. For What It's Worth
Chugging bass line and it's onward with the album, first verse "
The end of the century/I said my goodbyes/for what it's worth I always aim to please/but I nearly died." Then into the biggish chorus, the second verse has some cool falsetto that sounds like backing female vocalists and some more strings sliding about. The second chorus curiously breaks down into what sounds like an elaborate ring tone or a video game twittering in the background, later there's even a spattering of horns. This contains some deceptively experimental moments in the course of its sub-three minutes. Very cool.

5. Devil in the Details
A blipping synth moves in a descending pattern against a low-end bass and some hissing hi-hat from the drums. The album's first curse is a ripper too, "
He's a fucking pal of mine/that devil in the details." The chorus again seems to be fairly widescreen, that's not to say that Placebo haven't had a penchant for big sounds before; but there's a warmth and clarity to the kinds of choruses on this record so far that embrace space, as oppossed to previous records which favoured claustrophobia. A subtle difference, but interesting to note given this track's closing moments - they sound far bigger than three men.

6. Bright Lights
Speaking of oppositions... this starts with a bright, shiny keyboard part sparkling atop a wall of guitars. Reminds me of the first time I heard
Starlight by Muse, a keening, yearning pop hook from a band who usually decried such casual approaches. So too here, with Molko comforting "No one can take you away from me" it's even a little reminiscent of Editors' brooding arena rock. It's three and a half minutes go by pretty quickly, finishing with a couplet of "A heart that hurts/Is a heart that works"

...can't believe we're at track seven already.

7. Speak in Tongues
Suppossedly Molko's favourite track on the album. An intriguing texture opens the song with a looped riff played by both upper-register piano and, I dunno, is that xylophone? It's a beautiful effect none the less. This pattern gives way to big chugging power chords which then give way to a lilting refrain with a breathy mass of singers. Again there's a lighter touch here that flys in the face of the jagged, rougher edges of previous records. At this point, i'd have to agree with Mr. Molko, the best track thus far.

8. The Never-ending Why
Not such a surprise then that it should be juxtaposed with a dark crunchy opening like this. Interestingly though it soon shifts to a brighter sound, again with a plinking part atop the melody (xylophone again I think). Around the two-minute mark there's some pounding emphasis on the chords that has some horns amongst the mix again. The last few tracks seem to be setting a new consistentcy in sound of a brighter Placebo, with a richer palette.

9. Julien
A dance backbeat and a throbbing bass changes the pace a little. To sidetrack for a moment, it should be mentioned that Placebo have a history of electronic dalliances on their records from. Here though it soon goes back to 'rock mode', a shame really it was starting to get interesting. Even more disappointing is that the violin part makes it sound like a retread of the title track.
At this point, i've heard little of the 'concept album' happening, i've been keeping an ear out but there don't seem to be any of the regular signifiers, characters or story-telling, of a concept album. Even the lyrics don't seem to have any recurring motifs. Perhaps there'll be a revelation to come.
...oh by the way all this digression from the track at hand is because it seems to be pretty derivative.

10. Happy You're Gone
Ah, do we have a ballad on our hands? Slower tempo, a marching snare drum and gently strummed guitar ....oh guess not, like
Julien the interesting intro gives way to 'rock mode' once again, it's not bad, more a louder section that says 'we're at the chorus now.' It's a nice track otherwise, Molko's semi-whine has always suited itself to yearning, those strings rear their head again too.

11. Breathe Underwater
This sounds like old skool Placebo, i'm talking
Without You I'm Nothing era here. Nothing more, nothing less. It's slightly faster in tempo and higher in aggression to what's come before it, an enjoyable addition to the tracklist.

12. Come Undone
A pretty restrained start offers another track to track juxtaposition but is yet again undercut soon after it sets its mood with a brash shift into alt-rock territory. It's not only a shame that this keeps happening on Battle For The Sun, but also a little confusing given the title tracks' structure lending it time and space to develop, something that these later tracks aren't afforded. Are we rushing to the finish line or something? either way, what starts promisingly shifts to a pretty average rock song.

13. Kings of Medicine
Luckily, the album finishes strongy with this, possibly Placebo's most interesting arrangement to date. All the elements that usually make up their sound are pushed to the background in favour of piano, acoustic guitars and a full-on horn arrangement. As its size expands so too does its symphonic appeal. In spite of the fretting, pessimistic lyrics "Don't leave me here to pass through time/without a map or roadsign" it's given an optimistic mood by the colourful clarity of the mix.

And there you have it...

Upon reflection, my first point has to be that is categorically, not a concept album, no matter what Molko says, this is not their American Idiot or even their Black Parade, in fact it's almost the opposite. It feels more like a collection of songs than ever before, there's even - dare i say it - some filler (in the shape of Julien and Come Undone). To be fair, this is after only one spin - perhaps the charms of the lesser tracks will reveal themselves upon further exposure. But as far as a unifying theme or story that ties the album together - no dice.

But In fact Battle For The Sun can only be called a disapointment when measured against the anticipation set up for it's unveiling. It's not a concept album - disappointing, new drummer Steven Forrest doesn't change the dynamic much - disappointing, there's no major development in their sound even with all those strings and horns - disappointing. There are however, other surprises to be had instead. Those horns and strings aren't a contrived inclusion into the group's sound but a rich addition - surprising; there's a brighter, spacier bent to some of these tracks - surprising; the ambitious desire for a concept record hasn't resulted in Placebo disappearing up their own backsides - very surprising.

So in summation, it's the kind of record that Placebo have always made, and while its lack of winning reinvention won't grab new fans, it won't really upset their current diehards either. It's what I pointed out was so good about Placebo to begin with, it's a comfortably familiar, reliably solid album and sometimes, that's all you need.