At this point, I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't have even covered that surprise Drake album - because if the radio is going to decide to play the entire record, I'm going to end up covering all the songs anyway. I would say that, except that none of the songs I actually thought were great from If You're Reading This It's Too Late have made the Hot 100. I will note this: for as much as many critics hypothesized that there didn't seem to be an easy radio hit off of Drake's new record, not since Taylor Swift have we seen this many album tracks crack the Hot 100. And speaking of her, she's got another single - and even though I reviewed her album, it's not one I've heard yet... interesting.
So by now the majority of you know that I'm a fan of progressive rock and metal, and as such it shouldn't really be a surprise that one of my favourite acts in that vein coming out of its brief revival in the 90s was Porcupine Tree. While I wouldn't say every album they dropped was stellar - there definitely were moments that were indulgent, overwrought, or experiments that just didn't quite come together - they had a unique sound that distinguished them from their roots while still calling back to their past, and they wrote some truly gorgeous material.
So when their frontman and mastermind Steven Wilson split off to go solo, I was optimistic. The man was a gifted songwriter and he had a solid voice, I had reason to expect good results. But my reception to the three albums Wilson has released since Porcupine Tree has been... complicated. A comparison that I've made in the past between Steven Wilson and Kanye West - stay with me on this one - in that they're both musical geniuses with a unique sound, they both use plenty of vocal effects to accent their personalities, often more than they should, they both can be introspective in releasing vulnerable and evocative records, and they both are kind of insufferable. I might have liked Insurgentes and I respect his commitment to audio fidelity and dynamics, but only releasing a digital copy as FLACs which can't be played on most players and making a short film where he smashed iPods reeked of pretentiousness in the worst possible way. And this would have been fine if the music was good - and for the most part, it definitely was, but then he followed it with the more jazzy experiment Grace For Drowning. Which wasn't a bad album, let me stress this, but it pushed Wilson's more indulgent side and my patience to the limit and lacked a lot of cohesion.
Fortunately, he pulled things tighter with the significantly stronger The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), and with this record Wilson was stating he was moving more towards electronic or even pop music structures, I was definitely intrigued, especially when he described the themes, inspirations and story he was trying to tell. And hell, even though his solo work hadn't always gripped me, I'm still a fan, so I checked out Hand. Cannot. Erase. - what did we get?
I haven't been looking forward to this. Because those of you who are familiar with this series probably know that I'm not a fan of Big Sean, something that seems to baffle his bewildering number of fans. And if you take a look at just his highest charting singles, it'd be hard to disagree with that. This is a rapper whose first and biggest hit was a song with Nicki Minaj called 'A$$' that seemed to be made on a bet to see how asinine hip-hop could be - no pun intended. This was a guy who for no adequately explained reason showed up on a Fall Out Boy record on what was otherwise a good song to completely miss the point with sixteen bars delivered in a nasal whine that completely lacked presence or lyrical punch and stole a punchline from goddamn Simple Plan. But those were aesthetic quibbles - going deeper, was there anything more to him? Well, I'll say this, at his best, he worked with some producers that I did like such as No ID and he did have personality, which can do a fair bit to redeem lyrical deficiencies. And while Big Sean is not a terrible technical lyricist, his punchlines are so basic and corny and his vocal style is so cartoonishly nasal that I only really find him entertaining when he's trying to be funny - which isn't often. Coupled with incredibly thin subject matter that barely descriptive or interesting, there's so little dimension to Big Sean for me to grasp beyond the moments that just irritate me. And don't even get me started on songs where he's trying to be hard - I'm sorry, but he's got nowhere near the heavier timbre in his voice to pull that off. He doesn't sound imposing or threatening, he sounds laughable - and the sad fact is that the majority of the time he's either not funny or not trying to be funny. That said, when I heard that the title of this album was Dark Sky Paradise, I laughed my ass off - as I said, we wouldn't let symphonic metal or goth rock get away with that, and somehow Big Sean's getting a pass, coupled with some pretty damn awful opening singles to boot? And I wasn't enthused by the changes in his producer line-up either - you swapped out No ID and The Neptunes for Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard? Sure, you might have gotten what is popular right this second, but dark minimalism and atmosphere was the last thing Big Sean needed for his usual bars of clumsy bragging. But you all kept asking that I cover this, so what did we get?
Well, that turned out pretty damn great. Think I need to get to some more country soon... So yeah, I'll be covering the new Mavericks record, but first... hmm, not sure yet. Need a bit more time before Big Sean, so I might take care of some old business first. Stay tuned!
You know, I don't tend to talk much about southern rock - and really, I'm a little surprised at that myself. Inspired by blues, country, and hard rock - three genres I do really like, it was most prevalent in the 70s from the country rock scene originally driven by the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and from there it's been around for decades in scattered that do accrue a fair amount of popularity, spanning Tom Petty to Kid Rock to the genesis of sludge metal. As such, it falls into a bit of a weird niche, typically landing on classic rock radio or some of the harder country stations, never quite reaching the peaks of the 70s beyond scattered success from a few acts. You could almost argue that it's gone underground, but it's less that and more that like other genres such as bluegrass or grunge or some offshoots of punk, it's just not as popular as it was and ends up catering to smaller, cult fanbases. That's not saying that there aren't some southern rock bands that are worth following. Case in point, Georgia band Blackberry Smoke. Affiliated with acts like the Zac Brown Band and Eric Church, if you're looking for an act that would define modern southern rock - a distinctive country twang matched with groove-heavy hard rock - Blackberry Smoke would be that band. And for the most part, they were a pretty damn solid band - the melodies were prominent, the guitar solos were great, Charlie Starr's vocals had real flavour, and with every record, the songwriting was steadily getting more nuanced and distinctive. If I were to pinpoint an early weakness on those first few albums, it'd probably be in some of the lyrics - not that they were bad for the genre, but that some of their material began to run together a bit. And like most hard rock, sometimes the sleaze could get a little obnoxious. But their 2012 album The Whipporwill was their best yet, and I was curious to check out their 2015 record Holding All The Roses, especially when it managed to top the country album charts last week. And sure, country's been slow thus far this year, but to think that the album had enough coming from an independent label without a huge single tearing up the radio was promising, especially considering the album has notched some solid critical acclaim. So I checked it out - how is it?
And to think there was still worse things that neither Jon or I could mention, like Tyga referencing OutKast when he has no business doing so or referring to a girl as 'Ass-zilla.' I wish I was kidding. Next up, something better!
I was expecting the Billboard Hot 100 to be busy this week. Coming off of the Grammies, it always is - you get performances that remind people that certain songs exist and they start rising again or ever return to the charts. Big award shows are like that, and even though most of the critical public treats them with professional disinterest - well, at least until one of our favourites wins like with St. Vincent this year - the public puts a lot of stock in them regardless. That was the plan... and then a certain Canadian rapper decided to drop an album out of nowhere and suddenly - and I hate that I'm saying this - but the radio turned into the Drake show. Let me stress this was US radio - where you guys got five new Drake tracks charting - and not even the best ones, at that - guess how many we Canadians got? One - once again, proving the universal truth that the Canadian charts are always better.
Dear god, I love this record. Seriously, it'll be one of my favourites of the year, bar none - so witty and charming and ridiculous, it's been on constant loop for the past couple days, definitely can see this holding up. Okay, tomorrow is Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!
So let me ask you all what might seem to be an interesting question: how seriously should we take music? And I don't mean this in the tiresome argument that, 'oh, you take music too seriously, most people don't care about bad lyrics and they just want to dance and it's popular and on the radio and ergo it's good' and all that nonsense that I hear whenever I review a bad pop record. No, this is more related to music with more of a comedic or whimsical tone - and that in some cases, it doesn't get a lot of respect. Let me put it this way: it's very rare outside of specific comedy records that an album or an artist being funny or light-hearted is praised, at least not as a primary focus. And I'm guilty of this too - I love the albums from Run The Jewels and Open Mike Eagle last year for their composition and technique and raw emotional power, but I didn't really highlight that they also had a real sense of humour and wit beyond their dramatic emotional pathos. The frustrating thing is that comedy can have real emotive power just like drama, and I'd argue it's even more difficult to achieve, especially if you're looking for something with staying power. And going for something like carefree whimsy is even harder - by its very nature it's frivolous and flighty, something that might bring a ready smile but it's extremely rare it can connect on that deeper level on its own merits without resorting to darker, dramatic cliches. I guess the closest thing I can think of are the Discworld novels by Sir Terry Pratchett, but he's a one-of-a-kind genius and is frequently praised for it. So why bring this up? Well, when I started listening through the 2012 debut album Fear Fun from Josh Tillman under the alter ego Father John Misty, I really got a sense of that whimsy managing to stick for me. The album is a little difficult to describe - reminiscent of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, but instead of hazy hippie earnestness, Fear Fun was a rambling, semi-coherent record from a caricature of a hippie cult leader who is not only entirely self-aware, but careening out of flights of drug-addled cartoonish silliness. But there was wit and insight and a bacchanalian feel to the lyrics that was really infectious, even if to some extent it was completely full of shit. Josh Tillman may have initially built his reputation as a serious artistic folk singer-songwriter and some wildly exaggerated by everyone except him work with Fleet Foxes, but he sounded way more comfortable in a more lighthearted vein. Now the album did suffer for its more serious moments and its more conventional instrumentation, but I still recommend it and I was definitely curious to really dig into his sophomore followup I Love You, Honeybear - how is it?
So as many of you probably know, I listen to a fair bit of rock music - and since plenty of you probably follow Billboard BREAKDOWN, you're all probably aware that we don't get a lot of rock music on the charts anymore. It's been declining for years, really since the 90s, but ever since post-grunge had its last gasps, most of the rock that lands on the radio is indie-flavoured or is so gutless it'd have been laughed off the radio in the late-80s, when hair metal was at its most poppy. As of now, if I'm being charitable we might have eight rock songs out of a 100 on the charts right now, and some level, that makes me a little sad, especially considering it has been like this for a while. So going back to 2012, when I heard 'It's Time' by relative unknown Imagine Dragons, I didn't care it was only on the charts thanks to Glee and that the production was a little colourless, it was an indie rock song that landed on the Hot 100, I took what I could get. 'It's Time' landed on my 2012 best list, and the massive follow-up 'Radioactive' landed on my list in 2013. I'm not going to say that either song is fantastic, and I would have preferred to hear Queens Of The Stone Age on the radio than them, but again, there weren't many other options. But I was more curious about the band so I did pick up their debut album Night Visions, and for the most part I liked it. Lead singer Dan Reynolds had presence and power that reminded me a lot of Bono in a good way, the lyrics were reasonably solid albeit a little basic and overly broad, and the anthemic quality of many of their tracks did stick with me. But let's be honest, that album has not aged well, mostly thanks to the monochromatic production courtesy of hip-hop producer Alex da Kid - many of the guitars were crushingly dreary, the percussion was over-emphasized, and the fact that the album was a composite of three different EPs and a few scattered songs really works against it. In other words, I was definitely curious where the band was going with their sophomore record Smoke & Mirrors, half because the band said they were going in more of a rock direction and the singles seem to be reflecting that. But then again, it's also getting produced by Alex da Kid, who I've never really been impressed with as a whole. So what did Imagine Dragons deliver?
And now we come to an artist to which I have a complicated relationship, the sort I can definitely respect but not quite love, one that I understand but struggle to like. An artist that has received critical acclaim throughout her career, but a career that I'd ultimately brand as pretty uneven. Yep, it's time that I finally talk about Bjork, Icelandic singer-songwriter and one of the most distinctive and unique performers of her time. Breaking the mid-90s, Bjork immediately established herself through her uniquely expressive voice and half-playful, half-tragic approach to her delivery and songwriting. And for the longest time for me, that voice put me off really getting into her, unearthly and surprisingly visceral but just never really gripping me. And one of the reasons this review is late is because I went back and listened through Bjork's entire discography before covering this record, which leaked months ahead of schedule. So now with the benefit of added context, what do I think of her? Well, while I've come to appreciate her and found some of her material very powerful and evocative, she can be very hit-and-miss for me. Like most critics, I tend to like her 90s material a lot more than her releases in the 2000s, mostly because those newer records have some great ideas that don't quite materialize as well as I'd hope. Part of this comes in a change in focus, in that most of Bjork's early work had a more intimate, almost primal thematic focus, which allowed her off-kilter vocals and abstract lyrics to really shine. But starting around Medulla, her material got a lot more fragmented, with experimentation that felt half-realized and really did not pay the same dividends as they did on previous records. The a capella of Medulla, the horns on Volta, and especially the attempted blend of delicate melodies with the half-formed, spasmodic grooves of Biophilia, they never resonated in the same way as her earlier material did, and with her lyrics becoming more politically-themed and outwardly focused which didn't fit nearly as well, I just couldn't connect with Bjork's material in the same way. I'm not saying it didn't have an audience, but these were records that felt thin conceptually and almost unfinished, lacking the melodic presence and foundation to support the flights of experimentation. But rumour has it her newest album was coming back to earth, back to the potent emotions that drove Homogenic and Vespertine. And while Post is probably my favourite Bjork album, Vespertine is a close second, so I planned to revisit her entire discography to prepare - and then the album dropped two months early. So much for that, but I figured I wanted to be fair and thus went through the back catalog regardless - better late and right than early and uninformed. So finally I dug into Vulnicura - is it the return to form for which we've been hoping?
I didn't expect this to happen - but the more I think about it, the more I should have. See, after Drake released Nothing Was The Same in 2013, you could tell that he was looking for more of the acceptance of other hip-hop artists and lyricists - even though he was an A-list rapper, one of the few that could notch bonafide hits in today's day and age, a lot of his music was dismissed as just being for girls or the mass public, especially considering the fact many of his albums also had a R&B side to them. Now that wasn't true, as he was lauded by plenty of critics and hip-hop fans as bringing a unique sound and style to the table, a darker, bleaker vibe that often implied more depth than it really had, but for me, I've never been blown away by Drake. Does he have good bars on occasion? Yeah, but very few lines I'd consider amazing and his technical limitations as a writer with sloppy rhyming often prove to be exceptionally irritating for me. Honestly, I've tended to like his R&B side a lot more - it's expressive and moody, and it allows him to eschew some of his weaknesses as a technical rapper. But that didn't seem to be the direction Drake wanted to go, and his biggest hits in 2014 were dark, minimalist straight hip-hop tracks like 'Believe Me' and '0 To 100/The Catch-Up', which did see him improve as a lyricist, but his content just was not engaging me whatsoever. For as much as Drake was trying to be hard, I just couldn't buy it - he didn't have the menacing presence or the intimidating voice of a gangsta rapper, and many of his bars felt like half measures, never putting his neck on the line or dropping a name at the artists he was trying to challenge. Hell, that was often my issue with his more emotive raps as well - it was always subtext and implied, not actual text, and you can only coast for so long before actually putting your money where your mouth is. Well maybe this was the chance for him to actually do it, as out of nowhere Drake dropped a full album on iTunes - not really a mixtape, it was available for cash which meant he got his samples cleared - and as a marketing decision, it was a masterstroke. Forget Kanye rolling out his fashion line, forget that upcoming album from Big Sean called Dark Sky Paradise, forget that collaboration album between Chris Brown and Tyga, Drake quite literally stole the hype from under their noses. And coupled with Lil Wayne's threats to take Nicki Minaj and Drake with him on the exit from Cash Money, you have to wonder if this was Drake's step to fulfilling his contract by repackaging what might be considered a hip-hop mixtape as a full record, with few features and a much tighter focus on hip-hop. Could this be the hard-hitting record from Drake that earns him the respect he clearly desires?
Bit late getting to this, but with a week this underwhelming, it kind of fits that it's this late. Next up, I was going to cover Vulnicura, but I think I need to deal with this surprise Drake album... hoo boy...
Okay, we've got another busy week on Billboard BREAKDOWN here - multiple new entries into the top ten, a whole load of songs shuffling up and down the charts, and a slew of new chart arrivals, some that were easy enough to predict and some that did seem to come out of nowhere. More importantly to my American audience, the week chronicled by this Billboard Hot 100 corresponds with the Super Bowl, and that meant one artist performing at the Half Time show managed to make a big impact with two singles surging back to the charts. Here are two clues: it wasn't the headliner, and it was one of the few things interesting about the whole experience before the mother of all bad calls courtesy of the Seahawks. I mean, wow - no matter how many bad songs show up this week, I don't think anything is beating that.
Man, I wish this album was better. Not terrible or bad, but it should be better than it is. Okay, next up is Bjork, but this one might take some time, Billboard BREAKDOWN might drop first (I've got a busy evening tomorrow night, might not get time to film). But outside of that, I've got a few more artists on the docket that do look promising - stay tuned!
It's going to surprise a fair number of you when I say this, given my reputation for having some pretty tough standards for hip-hop... but I've got a bit of a soft spot for Kid Ink. And for the life of me, I have a really hard time understanding it. I mean, I get why I like certain artists as a critic: my love of country comes from my fondness for Westerns, good bourbon, and better storytelling, my liking of folk and power metal can be directly linked to the wall of fantasy novels in my apartment, my passion for space rock and progressive metal comes from my sharper, more analytical side that also deeply loves sci-fi, and my taste for gothic music in various forms from symphonic metal to post-punk comes from the appropriation of religious iconography and darker moods that I find compelling. My love of punk from my anarchist days in high school and university, my fondness for boy bands comes from the years I've been singing karaoke and vocal harmonies, and hell, even my liking of an act like Kesha comes from an outgrowth of a wilder, trashier side of pop music that reminds me over of the over-the-top earnest cheese of hair metal more than anything else. But Kid Ink? As a critic, I've struggled with why I've tended to like his material more than most from objectively more polished and skilled rappers. His writing is not stellar, his concepts are not unique, and he arguably has less personality than many of his features. So why am I more inclined to give him a free pass over, say, Nicki Minaj? Well, part of this comes down to artistic intent, in that I don't think Kid Ink's trying to make music that's more than simple club rap, and in that area, he's extraordinarily competent. His flow and technical rhyming ability isn't bad, he has some good production with melodic hooks, and while he can definitely be sleazy, he tends not to push his luck as much as, say, Lil Wayne does. I'll say it, I liked Kid Ink's sophomore record My Own Lane - it's not a great record and he still works with Chris Brown more than any artist should, but at the end of the day, the album does exactly what it's designed to do, and on that merit, I have a hard time calling in a failure. Yeah, he doesn't have as much personality as a duo like Rae Sremmurd or an artist like Young Thug, but his technical skills are better and the personality he does have doesn't make me want to set things on fire. That said, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this. Early critical buzz was suggesting that Full Speed was a step down from his last album, and his most recent features and tracks haven't exactly impressed me. And let's be honest, there were an awful lot of guest stars on that track listing that didn't exactly enthuse me. But then again, I did like My Own Lane, so I gave Full Speed some listens - was it any good?
You know, for as much as I advertise myself as one of the few critics on YouTube who bothers to cover country music, I really haven't been doing that good of a job on that lately. Let's change that a bit, shall we? Now to be fair to myself, there's not a lot that's really out right now - January tends to be a bit of a fallow period for mainstream country - and oh god, the country charts reflect that, as we're getting third and fourth singles from various artists landing traction where in most worlds they would never reach the charts. It's gotten so bad that Sam Hunt's bad pop disguised as worse country and Cole Swindell's flavourless mush is still rising up the charts, and that's just wrong on so many levels.
So in the mean time, let's talk about the indie scene, and let's start with The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn-based trio that I probably should have covered in 2013 but that just slipped the net. And while I'm not usually one to point fingers and say that country should only come from Nashville or Texas, if you were to imagine a group that sounds like Brooklyn indie folk dabbling in a bit of snarled country rock and soul-inspired vocals, The Lone Bellow should jump to mind - a lot of plucky guitars and banjos that call to mind your standard Mumford & Sons wannabe, slightly softer distortion than the Drive-By Truckers or Sundy Best, and a male/female dichotomy that reminds me more than a bit of Little Big Town before that band went crazy on Pain Killer. But how do I feel about them? Well, they were pretty good and they tended to avoid the pretentious nonsense that puts me off a fair chunk of that brand of folk rock, but that first album always seemed to lack the textures, grit, or songwriting edge and nuance that would characterize other Americana-inspired acts like Doug Paisley or Bill Callahan. In fact, the group they reminded me most of was The Civil Wars, a group I mostly respected who wrote very pretty songs that occasionally had some moments of wit, but for the most part made very tasteful, pretty, safe music that never moved or interested me as much as I wanted.
But I figured, 'Hey, it's their debut, originally driven off of songs frontman Zach Williams put together on his own. Give them a little time and a producer who can push their choral vocals into some harmonies and their instrumentation into more grit, and we could have something special here.' And when I heard they were working Aaron Dessner of The National, I thought it was a perfect match and definitely sought out their sophomore record Then Came The Morning - how is it?
By the Nine Hells, it gets annoying when the upload keeps failing. In any case, I'm actually really quite happy with this episode - finally, some good songs and signs for the future. Next up... you know, I haven't done a country review in a while. Let's change that, shall we...
This was one of the more deceptive weeks for the Hot 100 - not that it was a bad or good week, we'll get to that, but that from first glance, not a lot seemed to change or evolve. I mean, the Top 10 barely seemed to shift at all, and we only have seven songs, new or returning, to talk about. But look a little deeper and you'll start to see a lot more traffic, some expected, but a fair bit that did surprise me.
Let's talk a little bit about competition in music. In some cases, it's been there since certain genres' inception - hip-hop wouldn't be the same without various MCs fighting for the crown. And since the beginning of rock, there have been beefs and fights, sometimes more driven by the fans of their respective bands more than the bands themselves. Or you'll get cases like the incredibly ridiculous 'beef' between Sun Kil Moon and The War On Drugs last year, two indie acts where it seemed like the music media hyped up the feud more than Mark Kozelek actually did, who treated the whole thing with the grumpy tongue-in-cheek style for which he's famous. But if you want to look for the definition of contrived competition, you need to look no further than pop music. It's been around in some form or another for decades, but you need to look no further than the 'fight' between the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync to see the insane marketing genius at work. Both had similar management, both worked with similar songwriters, both had songs that could be mistaken for the other if you didn't have a keen ear for the subtleties, and in both cases, the management milked the competition to drive up sales in the late 90s for all it was worth. And ever since then, various record labels have tried to recreate this lucrative strategy... and yet it rarely clicks, mostly because getting that dual balance and timing is incredibly difficult. It seemed like there'd be another one starting with The Wanted and One Direction in 2012, but The Wanted couldn't stick the landing stateside - a shame, because I liked their style and sound a lot more - and One Direction won out under the direction of Simon Cowell's Syco Records. And yet you can tell Simon Cowell wanted to replicate the money-printing boy band war, and for a second in 2013 it started to look like he had set the pieces in place for a girl group duality, both signed to his label. One was British, one was American, both came from X Factor... and yet the timing misfired. Not only did Little Mix hit market first, they dropped two albums - the second of which, Salute, I actually liked a fair bit. But I had significantly bigger misgivings about their American competition, because while Fifth Harmony managed to drop and make more of an impact in the States, they barely could penetrate beyond it and their debut album had been delayed time and time again - mostly because their singles were a lot less interesting or good. Undaunted, I figured I might as well give Fifth Harmony a chance to impress me in the same way Little Mix did - did they come through?
I've said before that it's hard to talk about legends, especially as a critic and especially when you know these bands had a seminal impact on shaping their genre. But do you want to know what's even harder? Talking critically about musical acts that were so formative to my musical evolution that I couldn't imagine being a music critic without hearing this band, who I first discovered online in the mid-2000s on clunky fantasy fansites as making music to a favourite novel series I was reading at the time. At the time I was a teenager absorbed in the Dragonlance series of novels, and I discovered that at the time, two metal bands actually wrote songs surrounding some of the characters from those stories. I'll talk about the second band in a month or two, but the first... Now keep in mind at this point I pretty much only listened to pop, hip-hop, and country, with limited exposure to rock and pretty much no metal. And I had never gone through an 'angry white boy' phase, I had no reason to listen to nu-metal or metalcore or even much punk, but I was curious.
The song was called 'The Soulforged', the album was A Night At The Opera, and the band was Blind Guardian. It might have taken three or four listens, but I was hooked - and from there, I started listening to power metal and symphonic metal. The folk tinges pushed towards fantasy-themed acts like Blackmore's Night which led me to Deep Purple and hard rock and blues, and the explosive, fast-paced chugging riffs pushed me towards the greats of thrash metal and punk. The rest is history, but I can say this definitively - if it wasn't for Blind Guardian, I probably wouldn't have this channel today.
And thus revisiting the band is a little daunting for me, half because of their reputation and half because I know so much of their music by heart. Hailing from Germany, they started out as a speed metal band in the mid-80s before transitioning into a more epic, fantasy-inspired scope with Tales From The Twilight World in 1990. Plenty of fans hail the Tolkien-inspired Nightfall In Middle-Earth as their seminal work from the 90s, but for me it's always been Imaginations From The Other Side - the perfect blend of their speed metal roots and the folk-inspired power metal they would evolve into, and a damn classic, at least for me. And that evolution reached its apex with 2002's A Night At The Opera, a title that matched the overblown Queen-like bombast of its sound that features some of my favourite Blind Guardian songs like 'The Soulforged', 'Battlefield', 'Sadly Sings Destiny', and of course the gargantuan fourteen minute 'And Then There Was Silence'. But the record really is indulgent, and a lot more uneven than one might expect. It was enough that their drummer Thomas Staunch left the band, dissatisfied by the change in direction for the band.
And by all reckoning, he might have spoken too soon, because Blind Guardian changed again in 2006 with A Twist In The Myth, with less over-the-top bombast and more for a straightforward, hard-hitting thrash feel. And not only was the production stronger, the drumming of Frederik Ehmke was more intricate, varied, and wasn't as reliant on triggers for drum fills, which I definitely preferred. It didn't always hit the high points of A Night At The Opera, but I'd argue it was more consistent and a lot tighter. Unfortunately, that didn't really carry over into their 2010 album At The Edge Of Time, which... yeah, it wasn't bad, but that tightness wasn't there, which meant the album had a lot of pomp and bombast, but not quite the great songs to really stick the landing for me.
But now, five years later, Blind Guardian are back, with Beyond The Red Mirror, an album that was being hailed as a sequel to Imaginations From The Other Side, my favourite Blind Guardian record. And let's be honest, it's been twenty years from that album, and if you're planning to make a sequel to one of the best power metal albums ever made, you had better do it justice? I have to admit, I was worried - did Blind Guardian pull it off?
So let me pose to you all a question: how easy should art be to consume?
Because as a critic who covers so many genres of music - especially pop music - it gets to be an interesting conversation when you ask this question. On the one hand, you'll find plenty of critics, scholars, or people looking to challenge themselves who seek out all sorts of challenging or draining art that can push the mind or body. On the other hand, you'll find all sorts of art that's not designed to challenge at all - whether by catering or pandering to its audience or by tapping into specific pleasure centers, it goes down easy.
Now let's pose the hard question: what is better? Well, it's a loaded question, especially when you bring artistic intent into the mix. On the one hand, art that is experimental or thought-provoking is often hailed for pushing those boundaries, disparaging more commercial products. And yet as I've said in the past, there's craftsmanship in populism - sure, there might be a formula to commercially accessible art, but creating something truly special in that vein, or wrapping challenging subject matter in an easy-to-swallow package, that's much more difficult.
But let's ask a different question: what makes art - in this case music - difficult to consume? Well, you get your power electronics or certain subgenres of metal that are actively abrasive, but then you get bands like Swans, who put together two-and-a-half hour albums with thirty four minute songs - sure, it's a tough sound to get used to, but what's really daunting about such an album is the length.
And then you get an act like the Minnesota hip-hop collective Doomtree, a group that's not daunting because of length, but because of sheer density. Five rappers known for aggressively cerebral lyrics that recall beat poetry interwoven with hard-edged social commentary, set against production that's explosive and rough, Doomtree records can be exhausting to take in and fully comprehend - and unsurprisingly, this album has been one of my most anticipated of 2015. I originally got into Doomtree through one of their members - Dessa, who I'd easily put down as one of my favourite female MCs ever - and the group won me over fast. I wouldn't say they've made a perfect record yet - some of the more experimental production choices haven't always worked and the politically-minded lyrics can occasionally venture into conspiracy theory nonsense - but both their self-titled debut and No Kings had some fantastic cuts on them that are rewarding both on an intellectual and visceral level. So you can bet I was absolutely psyched for their newest album All Hands - did we finally get that classic?