Wednesday, June 25, 2014

album review: 'a town called paradise' by tiësto

So here's something you might not know about me: I listen to a lot of trance.

See, there was a brief period for me in around 2009-2010 that I started delving into this melodic brand of EDM, mostly out of a desire to find out was else was in this musical landscape beyond drum & bass, dubstep, and my appreciation for The Chemical Brothers. And with its melodic focus, mid-tempo energy, and sweeping production, I came to like a lot of trance music and listen to a decent bit even today.

So why haven't you seen me review many, if any, trance records? Well, you could put it down to an overloaded schedule and the fact that I still struggle somewhat with reviews of instrumental albums, but the truth of it is that I just drifted away from the genre. A lot of modern trance got more glitchy and staccato and began co-opting elements that took away from the soaring, melody driven trance I tend to like. What's kind of hilarious in hindsight was that even as I was moving away from that particular brand of EDM, the larger genre in general was moving towards the mainstream faster than ever with the success of house DJs, the rise of dubstep, and the general acceptance of EDM on this side of the Atlantic.

So with that in mind, let's talk about Tiesto, who started releasing trance albums in the early 2000s before drifting into darker, electro-house territory, which culminated in his 2010 release Kaleidoscope. The funny thing with that record was that you could see the shift towards a more pop-friendly sound already in the works, with shorter, more conventionally structured songs, and the biggest arsenal of vocal collaborators outside of an Armin van Buuren album. So when I started to see Tiesto songs cropping up on the lower ends of the Billboard Hot 100 chart his year, I wasn't exactly surprised - with EDM becoming more mainstream, it wasn't a surprise that those that would crossover first would be the most accessible to a pop audience, not to mention to a critic who has difficulty reviewing EDM. So on that note alone, I figured I'd give A Town Called Paradise by Tiesto a look - how did it turn out?

Well, it's pretty good. Not stellar or an EDM pop record I'd be inclined to jump up and grab ASAP, but it's the sort of album that I can listen through and understand immediately why the artist has millions of fans. And honestly, in comparison with some of his charting contemporaries like David Guetta or Calvin Harris, I'd probably prefer listening to Tiesto, and while he's not as experimental as Avicii, he does have a practiced and solid grasp on his sound that gives him a fair amount of appeal.

So let's get the lyrics out of the way - they don't matter. Come on, it's EDM, you all know this - but to be fair, Tiesto has included more lyrics in his compositions, with only a single pure instrumental on the record. But even with that, the lyrics are pretty boilerplate for EDM, mostly in songs about breaking free in 'Red Lights', 'Footprints', the title track and 'Set Yourself Free', and the party/hookup tracks in 'Let's Go', 'Close To Me', and 'The Feeling'. Now what tends to make Tiesto stand out is his inclusion of some breakup and troubled relationship songs, but I wouldn't exactly say he's bringing a lot of nuance to the table: 'Written In Reverse', 'Echoes', and 'Light Years Aware' are songs of desperate longing and reminiscence that work well enough, but they aren't really as interesting as the darker song 'Last Train', which is walking the line between regret and real bitterness surrounding a lonely ex left behind. And then there's 'Wasted', probably the one song that is most hurt by its lyrics about two unpleasant people who can only tolerate each other when they're drunk - if it wasn't for the hard bounce of the guitar strumming bouncing against the brittle edges of the percussion, it'd be the throwaway track of the record. The one song on the album that did have some genuinely solid pop lyricism was 'Set Yourself Free' featuring Krewella, and it definitely helps matters that she brought some expressive personality to the table to back it up.

That's where we start looking at the guest vocalists - and honestly, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Cruickshank and DBX have some solid texture, Andreas Moe brought a lot of energy to his track, and I was amused to hear Zac Barnett of American Authors have better vocal production here than he had on their debut album, but I didn't really like Matthew Koma's unremarkable tenor overloaded with pitch correction, Ladyhawke's throaty yet strangely detached delivery did nothing for me, and Ou Est Le Swimming Pool's nasal delivery did not fit well on 'The Feelling'. And once again, the big disappointment was with Icona Pop - for a duo of sisters who are plainly capable of harmonizing and delivering a ton of personality and energy, their chorus on 'Let Go' was incredibly lackluster. To Tiesto's credit, I wouldn't say any of the vocalists sounded out of place or inappropriate in his mixes, but at the same time, I'm not sure there were many standout performances either, in comparison to John Martin or Foxes or Aloe Blacc, which was a little disappointing.

Now this takes us to instrumentation and production, the real meat of what Tiesto brings to the table - and here's the thing, Tiesto's mixes are dense, but when they can bring a solid melodic focus, they can have a lot of flow and character, especially whenever he ventures into different instrumentation. His use of breezy guitar tones does a lot for 'Red Lights', and 'Footprints', and the rich piano melodies add a lot of character to 'Light Years Away', the title track, and 'Last Train', even though on the last track they openly lift part of the melody from 'Not Over You' by Gavin Degraw. It's really where we start moving into the synth choices that things get a little trickier, and it's here where I'll make my preferences plain: when Tiesto can bring an interesting melody to the table and focus on it with different interweaving synths and smart modulation, he can makes some killer dance tracks. The instrumental 'Rocky' and the album closer 'Set Yourself Free' are the big highlights of the album because they deliver precisely that, going for heavy, textured synth riffs that feel well-structured and are never overwhelmed by glitchiness, loops, or the fuzzier beats.

If only that was the case for the entire album. 'Written In Reverse' begins with a solid piano hook with a sandy, swirling beat, but then takes the melody into a blaring synth that somehow sounds shrill and nasal at the same time, and 'Echoes' ruins a pretty solid drum escalation with grinding synths, an excess of glugging watery effects, and squawking at the back of the mix. And that's not counting the tracks that just become bland or irritating, like the brittle, aggressive 'The Feeling', or the hazy, echo-overloaded 'Shimmer'. The largest problem is that, more often than not, Tiesto gets in the way of his own melodies and adds an excess of wobbles, loops, glitches, or fuzziness to the production - which would be fine if they did anything beyond simply making the compositions choppier and weakening their overall flow. 

But look, overall A Town Called Paradise by Tiesto is actually decent, with some solid melodies, some decent vocal performances, and while the lyrics are pretty shallow, they never really reach the point of insulting my intelligence. What frustrates me most with this record is that Tiesto doesn't always place the most focus on his melodic compositions, which means the album can lose some tightness and occasionally feel overloaded for no good reason, and that can also lead to some tracks coming across as a bit interchangeable. And what's probably most frustrating about this record is that I want to like it a fair bit more than I do, but as it is, it's a strong 6/10 and something of a recommendation. Look, if you're familiar with EDM or pop music, you can inevitably point me to a dozen better acts as I'm sure you will, but for what this record is... eh, it works.