Wednesday, February 20, 2019

video review: 'anima mysterium' by yugen blakrok


You know, I get the funny feeling I'll be going back to this one a lot over the course of 2019 - meditative and alien and hard-hitting, this was fun.

But after Billboard BREAKDOWN we're going back to metal, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

video review: 'can't say i ain't country' by florida georgia line


And this was not good - man, I'm surprised I just had so much content out of it.

But heading for something of more quality...

video review: 'forgotten paths' by saor


Just catching up on a few posts here - and this is a fantastic album. One of the best of 2019, definitely worth it!

album review: 'anima mysterium' by yugen blakrok

So I never reviewed the Black Panther soundtrack proper last year - hell, I reviewed the movie, most of the soundtrack wound up on Billboard BREAKDOWN anyway, and most of what I heard hadn't exactly blown me away. And sure, I think some of that might have been rooted in inflated expectations - it was curated by Kendrick Lamar, for god's sake - but my general impressions were more that it was solid but lacking immediate distinctive standouts, at least when it came to complete songs. And I make that distinction because if you dig into individual verses, you can find some real gems, and I do credit Kendrick for digging outside of the box for MCs who could fit the vibe of the project rather than just big names.

And if you want one of the most stark examples, we need to talk about Yugen Blakrok, a South African MC featured on the song 'Opps' opposite Vince Staples and Kendrick himself... and let's not mince words, she stole the show, with the sort of ruthless, tangled verse full of sci-fi references that seemed to owe more to Wu-Tang than anything else. And that was definitely an impression that continued when I dug up her 2013 debut Return Of The Astro-Goth, the sort of thorny but layered and atmospheric underground hip-hop that fell at the intersection of Company Flow, Deltron 3030 and maybe a splash of CZARFACE. But where CZARFACE has always felt like a bit of an exaggerated goof-off, Yugen Blakrok was playing all of this deadly straight, and the sample-rich, dusty beats and her relentless flows proved she could absolutely sell it - yeah, there weren't many hooks, but when the rhymes and flows were as hard-hitting as they were, who could care? In any case, I had the feeling that with the boost from the Black Panther soundtrack she might parlay her sound into something tighter and maybe even more accessible - to a point, I didn't see the sci-fi stuff going anywhere on an album called Anima Mysterium - so what did we get?

Monday, February 18, 2019

album review: 'can't say I ain't country' by florida georgia line

You know, on some level I've always thought it was a cheap thing to judge an act like Florida Georgia Line by their album titles, especially when they're a solid five years past their prime in terms of relevance and seem to be fighting tooth and nail to preserve whatever's left. Their first two albums were called Here's To The Good Times and Anything Goes, bro-country projects that reflected a shallow, tossed off vibe that didn't really invite a lot of deeper thought, and while I'd call neither album precisely good, for what they were I couldn't exactly get angry or all that annoyed with them. No, where that manifested was on their third album in 2016, Dig Your Roots, not their first attempt to say they were going back to their core but arguably their most revealing of what that core could be, the project where they wanted to settle down and get 'mature'... but did so against some of the most lifeless pop-leaning production to date. And that did feel a bit telling... because for as much as these guys have referenced the pop of their youth, this album could have indeed referenced their roots directly - they're just not really all that country.

But you can tell Florida Georgia Line has taken this as a slight, and from the lead-off single 'Simple' that sounds like a mash-up of High Valley and Edward Sharpe to the defensive album title, this looked to be a lot of posturing and maybe even some hurt feelings at being so effectively sidelined by the pop-country of Dan + Shay or the heavier smolder of Brothers Osborne. So I'll admit a little concern when I saw their newest album was described by them as a tribute to 90s country - and then stacked with features from Jason Aldean and Jason Derulo, not to mention all still produced by Joey Moi! That said, I was willing to give this project a chance, mostly because Florida Georgia Line have a weird habit of sneaking at least one single through that's pretty good - I liked 'Dirt' back in 2014, I liked 'Simple' last year, I had the hopes there'd be something more on what looked to be their longest album to date... so what did I get, can Florida Georgia Like prove that I can't say they ain't country?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

album review: 'forgotten paths' by saor

So when I covered Astronoid a week or so ago, I mentioned that in my exploration of black metal I tended to gravitate towards more of the atmospheric side and the stuff that was blending in sounds from other genres, adding a little more familiar colour and texture to ease me in. And in 2016, after a draining year where I had again not covered enough black metal and I desperately wanted to hear more, I found an album by an English band called Saor, where they were taking atmospheric black metal textures and blending them with Celtic folk...

And the rest is history. That album Guardians wound up as one of my favourites of 2016, a windswept, textured experience balancing out acoustics, strings, and even bagpipes against the surging tremolo guitar lines and guttural vocals for a wild, cacophonous experience rich with huge melodies, and absolutely keeping them as a band to watch going forward. And for me, it was those layered melodies that sealed the deal - almost a visceral, borderline power metal appeal at its root, it was a band striving to sound epic and they absolutely nailed it, so you can bet I was interesting in their newest project. Four massive songs, with Neige of Alcest contributing vocals to the title track, this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2019 - so what did Saor bring with Forgotten Paths?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

video review: 'into the blue' by alice wallace


Okay, I know I'm late to the party with this one, but it's really something special, especially if you're into indie country - definitely check it out!

Next up... you know, I feel like some dense underground hip-hop, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

album review: 'into the blue' by alice wallace

So I've said a number of times before one of the biggest problems with indie country is how it can really struggle to get the word out surrounding new acts - internet-driven groundswell has started to take more shape over the 2010s, but it's been scattered at best, and too often I find myself going back to dig up acts where if they hadn't slipped below the radar I'd have given them a ton of acclaim.

And Alice Wallace is a pretty striking example of this - a California-based singer-songwriter, she's been putting out albums since the beginning of the 2010s with a pretty damn striking voice and a fondness for yodeling, but what really captured my interesting was her 2015 album Memories, Music & Pride, where the songwriting took a measurable step up along with production that picked up more detail, refinement, and muscle. And it's tough to nail down an easy comparison for her sound - a little more stately and neotraditional than Karen Jonas' gritty early material but not as inclined towards pop as Caitlyn Smith or cutesy as Kacey Musgraves, as observational as Brandy Clark but not quite as wise just yet. But hey, that comes with time, and Memories, Music & Pride probably deserved a solid review back in 2015, it's a great album, so you can bet I was curious about her follow-up this year with Into The Blue - so what did we get?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 16, 2019 (VIDEO)


A short week, but a pretty solid one. Enjoy!

video review: 'thank u, next' by ariana grande


...sigh, I really wish I didn't feel like I was going out on a ledge with calling out the issues of this project, but whatever.

Anyway, next up is something a LOT more indie, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 16, 2019

You know, in the four-plus years I've been doing this series, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a week this slow. We only have two new songs, not a lot of change elsewhere, and while I'm sure next week's Ariana Grande album bomb will change that, I'm going to enjoy having a short episode on Billboard BREAKDOWN - it's a rare occurrence to be savoured, that's all I'm saying!

album review: 'thank u, next' by ariana grande

So as some of you know, I'm currently working on an extended video essay surrounding the separation of art and artist and how especially in the modern social media/tabloid landscape it's a theory that's increasingly unfeasible. Of course, my larger point will be that it was never that feasible to begin with, but you'll have to wait until I release that project in... I'd like to say a month or so before I explain further - just something to think about.

But really, if you're looking for a project that might as well prove my point in block capitals across every fiber of its being, it was the rushed creation and release of the album thank u, next by Ariana Grande, and yes, before even getting into the album directly I'm calling this a rushed job. Not only was sweetener released midway through last year, singles were still in charting circulation. And this was not a case like Taylor Swift's reputation where the album was tanking upon arrival - the singles had staying power and top 10 presence, and the reviews were solid. But like reputation, it was hard to avoid the feeling that thank u, next was being presented as a slice of spin control in the tumult of Ariana Grande's public life, with both the collapse of her engagement to Pete Davidson - which in going back to sweetener and especially the song she titled after him it was so easy to predict - and the tragic passing of Mac Miller, where in both cases Ariana Grande faced the sort of toxic social media backlash that would be hell for anyone. 

Now as I said last year when the song 'thank u, next' was first released, Ariana Grande had a few advantages over Taylor Swift in that she didn't have the insane weight of cultural expectations placed upon her, and that allowed the song and response to be so breezy and magnanimous, a moment of well-timed spin control that seemed to work in her favor. But that is what it was, especially with the inclusion of names which gives the song additional emotional impact and intensity - pull back from that, separate the art from the artist, and the entire track seems flighty and disposable, an underweight fusion of pop, R&B and trap that for an outside observer would make no sense to sit on the top of the Hot 100 for weeks, only made to feel more because Republic is throwing more money than they probably should to make it stick. And if 'imagine' increased those suspicions, '7 rings' confirmed it, along with the cheap, controversy-laden rollout that for an artist and her team so measured and big-budget over the past three albums that felt alarmingly slapdash. Combined with such a quick turnaround time - she's bragged that this album was written in a week and recorded in not much longer - that is actively cannibalizing singles from the previous project... yeah, I'll freely admit I was worried this would be a rush job and not nearly reflect the potential shown on sweetener for the sort of experimentation and emotional maturity that gave that project such promise - was I wrong?

Friday, February 8, 2019

video review: 'astronoid' by astronoid


Well, this was a thing... a pretty good thing, but not one I see myself revisiting a ton, sadly.

Next up, though... yeah, let's get Ariana out of the way. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

album review: 'astronoid' by astronoid

So as all of you have seen in the past few years, most of my discovery and embrace of black metal has followed what I'd describe the 'hipster-path' into the genre. Yeah, I was listening to prog metal and power metal ahead of time that laid some of the groundwork, but it was the more atmospheric stuff that hooked me and even then, it was never 'pure' black metal that truly won me over, instead more material in the vein of Panopticon or Saor that was crossbred with other genres. 

But hey, that happens - you start building up your lexicon of what you like in the genre, you revisit the classics when you can, you do your best to avoid the more obnoxious of the fandom... and yet when I was prepping to review Astronoid and going back to revisit their 2016 breakthrough Air, I had a real sinking feeling, mostly because this is exactly the sort of accessible 'crossover' project that could have grabbed me three years ago, but leaves me colder now. The most common comparisons have been Devin Townsend and atmospheric black metal acts like Deafheaven and Alcest, grabbing the clean production and vocals of the former and the furious blast beats and tremolo picking of the latter... but there was something that felt oddly anodyne and calculated about Air, capturing the tones to serve as one of those bridge acts, but little of the instrumental dynamics or hooks that made their inspirations so special. And while its tones meant I was inclined to like Air - certainly explains the critical acclaim - it wasn't one that really stood out to me, or stepped into the realm of greatness.

So was this just a case of me only gravitating to the heavier, more visceral acts in black metal these days, or was Astronoid just not one of those acts that could resonate with me? Well, for further evidence I checked out their self-titled follow-up this year, which somehow is getting even more critical acclaim - did it deliver?

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 9, 2019 (VIDEO)


So this was a pretty reasonable episode, generally liked this fine enough...

Anyway, next up... hmm, I've got some time ahead, let's see where this goes - stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 9, 2019

There's a part of me that wants to invest this cooldown week with a bit more significance than it probably deserves. Sure, none of the debuts seem all that big and the song rising to the top ten isn't all that interesting and more of the story seems to come in the returns than the new arrivals or dropouts, but I get the impression that the current relative stasis is more unstable than it appears, especially with the number of 2018 songs that are lingering a bit longer than expected.

video review: 'wiaca' by SUNDAYS


Yeah, I'm not sure if this just hit my joy receptors on melody alone, but hell, when the writing is this good too, I have to believe I hit gold with this debut. DEFINITELY give this release more attention, it's a beauty.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I'm back into a Bandcamp dive - stay tuned!

Monday, February 4, 2019

album review: 'wiaca' by SUNDAYS

So one thing I've started doing far more in 2019 is at least once a day, I do a dive into whatever random acts crop up on the front page of Bandcamp, which has allowed me to build up a hefty list of albums I'll cover that are a bit off the beaten path but could attract real attention all the same. And while I'm most focused on metal and underground hip-hop - more on that in the coming weeks - something you find a song from an act that surprises you out of nowhere, with the sort of structure and refinement to suggest a band with compositional chops that can sometimes feel rare or at least underrated on Bandcamp.

So, enter SUNDAYS. They're a Danish band on a pretty small indie label, Wiaca is their debut project - an acronym for 'Where It All Comes Alive' - and what immediately grabbed me was their lead-off song 'Shade Of The Pines', which in bring the harmonized vocals and a real hook really caught my attention. And I figured if they could deliver another half-dozen of those across ten songs, we could have something really pleasant and special, so what did we get with Wiaca?

video review: 'resist' by within temptation


Damn, this one hurt. But hey, they tried something that didn't work, it happens. Let's hope the turnaround isn't another five years, let's just say that.

Next up... ooh, this'll take the bad taste out of your mouths quick, this is something unexpected and special, so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

album review: 'resist' by within temptation

Well, this has been long-overdue.

And I do get the feeling that I'm not the only one who thinks this - it has been about five years since we last heard from Within Temptation, and coming off of a somewhat controversial release, that did strike me as surprising. And yes, I do consider Hydra a little polarizing, especially in comparison with the massive but relatively straightforward symphonic metal Within Temptation released beforehand. Maybe some of it was incidental and linked to the album of covers they released close to it, but it was also their cleanest, most electronic, and most accessible project to date coming from arguably symphonic metal's most accessible act still working - hell, they had a song with Xzibit on it that was later released as a single, and I don't think anyone was expecting that! And while I did like Hydra a great deal back in 2014, I will admit the more streamlined and uniform tone didn't always match their more experimental work in the 2000s, or hit with the huge punch of 2011's The Unforgiving.

So after several extended tours, the band opted to take some time off - frontwoman Sharon den Adel cited exhaustion and writer's block, and the material she did compose translated into an indie pop solo project released last year - which didn't surprise me, I expected that solo project to come a decade ago. The band also switched labels from Nuclear Blast to Vertigo and Spinefarm, which didn't prompt much concern until I heard the band was opting not only for even more electronic elements, but also were taking more of a political angle in their writing. And look, I've been a Within Temptation fan for comfortably over a decade, and yet I can say this was the sort of direction that raised some concern - this is a band that's never been all that deep, and while they've been more willing to play to a mainstream audience, there is a part of me that wishes Within Temptation had taken the Nightwish route with more creative, off-beat experimentation. But since we're not getting another Nightwish album until at least 2020, what did we get off of Resist?