Showing posts with label dubstep. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dubstep. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

video review: 'assume form' by james blake

Honestly, I'm really proud of how this review came together, generally one of the better ones to put together - I dig it.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I think I've finally got time for Aesop Rock - stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

album review: 'assume form' by james blake

So am I the only one who is a little bit surprised there's so much hype surrounding this album? Or indeed around James Blake at all - I get that he's quietly racked up the sort of credits and connections for production details and work you'd be hard-pressed to notice, but it's not exactly the sort that seems designed to build a following, let alone a mainstream one.

Granted, it's not like James Blake has been entirely in the indie scene - he's had hip-hop verses as early as his second album Overgrown, of which I go back and forth whether it's better than his debut, and again, he's had credits on songs with Beyonce and Kendrick. And I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that he'd have crossover appeal - in comparison with any number of experimental electronic artists he's probably one of the most accessible - but I remember in my review of The Colour In Anything that I said I wasn't sure if he'd ever cross over, or if he even wanted that. Granted, if said crossover was going to help him tighten up a flabby album that lacked a lot of the character that made his first two projects so striking - seriously, that album has aged rather poorly since 2016 and I think I was too nice on it even then - I wasn't going to be against that, but I was skeptical about this. While Overgrown had credits from the RZA and Brian Eno and The Colour Of Anything had Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, this album... has credits from Metro Boomin and Travis Scott. Now granted, it also has a verse from Andre 3000 and the critics have been praising this to high heavens so I had reason to believe this could be great, so does James Blake deliver on Assume Form?

Monday, May 9, 2016

video review: 'the colour in anything' by james blake

I'm honestly not sure how this review is going to be received. I mean, the album is good, but I get the feeling people are going to be pissed that I don't think it's great... because I don't. Eh, it happens.

Next up, Death Grips, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the colour in anything' by james blake

So on Billboard BREAKDOWN earlier this week, when I was covering Beyonce's 'Forward', the collaboration interlude she made with PBR&B and post-dubstep artist James Blake, it was implied by someone that I'd like to see James Blake drop an album sometime in the near future. And while that's definitely true, I started trying to dissect why, because he's not often an artist I seek out, but one I'm happy exists all the same. His brand of moody yet soulful atmospheric electronic R&B can be surprisingly compelling, albeit more for the performance than the content. All of James Blake's biggest strengths shine through in subtlety, and the details, and while I never really loved his self-titled record or his 2013 sophomore release Overgrown, they were both records I found myself revisiting to try and extract more.

So little did I expect that James Blake would seemingly follow up on my suggestion and drop a record with no warning whatsoever! Now as much as I'd like to say I called it and would love to further test my precognitive powers, in reality it's probably just a matter of timing. After all, for the first time in his career James Blake has landed a featuring credit on the Hot 100 thanks to 'Forward' with Beyonce, so why not push that moment of hype further with the long-teased third record The Colour In Anything. But on a similar note, I was concerned that the release might be overshadowed by louder or more famous entries, especially when hours later Radiohead announced they were releasing a new album this Sunday! And that's not considering the album itself, which running over an hour is nearly double the length of previous James Blake albums, and I was a bit concerned how well that sort of atmosphere would translate to a longer project. But enough dancing around the issue: how did I find The Colour In Anything?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

video review: 'shatter me' by lindsey stirling

Well, this was quick. Glad it came out as well as it did.

Okay, I think I'll talk about Ought first, then either Lily Allen or Lykke Li. Stay tuned!

album review: 'shatter me' by lindsey stirling

I wasn't planning on covering this album.

See, the last time I talked about dubstep was with Skrillex, and since I haven't had as much of a chance to familiarize myself with that musical subgenre since that review, I felt as though tackling more reviews of it might be a misstep. And since I also tend to be a music critic with more of a focus on lyrics, primarily instrumental albums leave me feeling simultaneously lacking material and out-of-my-depth. I tend to focus on lyrics more than most because I'm a writer and my expertise is stronger in that sort of analysis - but while I have a fair amount of musical knowledge, I'm by no means classically trained outside of several years of piano and a few years of theory. 

And with all of that, I was feeling a little intimidated to talk about Lindsey Stirling's newest orchestral-dubstep album Shatter Me. A critically beloved YouTube musician who built a huge following through covers and fusing her amazing violin skills with electronica, she's got more musical talent and creativity than I'll ever have. But that being said, I was curious all the same and I figured the more exposure I get to these sorts of eclectic fusions, the better it'll be for me in the long run anyways. So I bought Shatter Me by Lindsey Stirling and hoped for the best - did I get it?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

video review: 'recess' by skrillex

Hey, you asked for this.

Okay, next up is a bit of a breather, as I'll tackle Perfect Pussy and The War On Drugs. Stay tuned!

album review: 'recess' by skrillex

You asked for this.

And honestly, if I hadn't gotten a request for this, I wouldn't have covered it. Hell, until I got a request for this, I didn't know Skrillex was actually putting out an album, let alone his major label full-length debut. Yeah, turns out all of the singles I had seen cropping up on the charts were really just off of a collection of EPs, which apparently were enough to win this guy multiple Grammies. And while I'll restate the commonly held assertion that the Grammies are a joke, this guy has beaten out the Chemical Brothers, and that's just wrong.

Ugh, look, I don't often cover a lot of electronica - mostly because I'm a sucker for great lyrics and that's rarely ever a priority on electronica records, and half because the genre is so heavily populated that it would be physically impossible for me to cover every release in this category and anything else. That's not saying I don't like electronica - I love the Chemical Brothers, I listen to more than my fair share of trance, and I like some of the weirder crossover material, but I'm more than well aware of the shortcomings in my knowledge in this sector.

That said, I also know what I like, and very little of what Skrillex has released has ever engaged me beyond irritation and anger. Say what you will about dubstep, but I honestly thought the mainstream had absorbed the elements of it we liked into modern pop music and had sent Skrillex and his ilk back out to the EDM or club scene - and even with that, there's so much better dubstep than the squealing clash of harmonics that Skrillex rams together. And the infuriating thing is that I actually see potential behind Skrillex, as some of the melodies he's crafted aren't half bad, but then he triggers his mutated brand of drop and what makes a whole set of angry white boys cheer gives me a throbbing migraine. When he teamed up to work with Korn, it was a musical fusion that made perfect sense to me - irritating, painfully shallow abrasion that doesn't have the decency of having a coherent tune.

But I've always said that making judgments without in-depth knowledge is not the mark of a good music critic, so I picked up his debut album, which had collaborators that looked interesting at the very least. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

album review: 'this is... icona pop' by icona pop

So, approximately six months ago, back before I was regularly doing these reviews for every album that came underneath my nose and browsing Pitchfork for the ones that slipped the net, I heard a song on the radio that had apparently been connected with Snooki and JWOW's spin-off show and had yet received critical approval from a certain majority of critics. And considering those two facts are rather disingenuously paired together, I took a deeper look at the song and discovered that it was called 'I Love It' by Icona Pop, featuring Charli XCX. To be completely honest, at that time I wasn't a big fan of the song, mostly because it sounded like fuzz-saturated house music with ephemeral lyrics and maybe one clever line, but I discovered that the song had been a big enough hit to help propel Charli XCX's debut album True Romance out of development hell and I figured that I might as well give it a look. And I actually did review that album and found it rather lacking, a expansive and well-produced darkwave-inspired album that threw out the hooks, the interesting lyrics, or absolutely anything compelling courtesy of Charli XCX. It was thoroughly below average, and outside of rave reviews that made no sense to me (seriously, for the most part the lyrics were completely worthless and Charli XCX either sounded vapid or too disconnected to care), I've spent the larger part of this year forgetting it existed.

Now 'I Love It', on the other hand, stuck around a little longer in my mind, mostly because the pop charts for this year have absolutely sucked. Compare this year to 2012, which had songs that at least seemed to have some staying power in the popular consciousness ('Gangnam Style', 'Call Me Maybe', 'Some Nights', I could go on), and you'll see charts that have no idea what style or genre is popular and thus a whole lot of junk (often really boring junk) rose to the top. So perhaps it was the benefit of lower standards that caused me to warm to 'I Love It', but then again, I can't deny it does have certain merits: the dual voices give it some real populist appeal, it has a lot of energy to match the crackling instrumentation, and the sheer wild abandon of the song, particularly in the bridge, is definitely infectious.

So on those qualities, I figured what the hell and I picked up the international debut album from Icona Pop. How did it turn out?

Friday, July 19, 2013

album review: 'stars dance' by selena gomez

So for those of you who aren't aware, Chris Brown did the world a much-deserved favour and delayed his album indefinitely. And while I can't say I'm disappointed with that choice, it does mean I have to set aside my monologue surrounding that 'artist' for another day. Also, purely by chance, it means that this review is the fourth in a row I have done featuring a solo female pop artist, which is interesting in its own way, particularly in a comparative sense.

But let's put that topic aside for a moment, and instead talk about cultural appropriation.

Given the cataclysmic flop of The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's justly-criticized performance as Tonto (when he is not, in fact, anywhere close to a full-blooded Native American), the discussion surrounding white cultural appropriation has resurfaced again in the media. Many have rightfully said that the role of Tonto should have been played by a Native American, particularly when many Native actors and actresses are not often given the chance to play such a major role and Johnny Depp's eccentric choices were to the severe detriment of the film. Instead of subverting unfortunate or libelous racial stereotypes, Depp may have done the exact opposite.

And speaking as a white, Caucasian heterosexual male entering this conversational minefield, let me lay my cards on the table. Yes, I believe the artwork should be judged on its own merits outside of the identity of its creator (while, of course, keeping in mind authorial intent). I believe there's a standard of quality that should hold up regardless of the race, gender, and sexuality of the author. However, when it comes to enabling opportunities for minority players, I strongly believe that the role should be filled by actors that best fit the story, setting, and tone. In other words, if you're looking to cast a Native American part or tell a Native American story, the person who is oft best served in playing that part or telling that story is a Native American. It adds a certain degree of authenticity and nuance in the details, and in film, is often required to maintain the cinematic immersion. So in the case of The Lone Ranger, it should be obvious that a Native American should play Tonto (as one did in the serials) and thus maintain the verisimilitude of the production. Johnny Depp is a great actor, but it breaks immersion when you see a white guy obviously playing a Native role.

And yeah, I get that some nincompoop is probably going to say this is a double standard, that I'm promoting opportunities for minorities instead of just letting 'quality win out'. And yeah, it's a double standard, but in the era where we have a massive predominance of white, male, heterosexual stories written and told by white, heterosexual men, there is absolutely nothing wrong with introducing variety into the cultural narrative, and it often feels most authentic when delivered by those closest to it. I'm going to go ahead and say this outright: white privilege and the weird defensiveness that surrounds it right now is poisonous, and I'm strongly looking forward to the day when there are no more barriers to entry other than requirements of intellect and hard work. And if this means that Idris Elba continues to play Heimdall in the next Thor movie and we see continue to see a rise of popular cinema highlighting strong performances from other genders, races, and sexualities that might usually be cast by white actors, so be it.

Unfortunately, this cultural paradigm shift is still a work in progress, and there are still plenty of Caucasian artists who want to tell stories appropriate elements, themes, or stylistic quirks from other genres, and here's where we reach the tricky topic of cultural appropriation, in this case discussing music. Now it's true that white acts co-opted rock 'n roll from African-American acts and made it into the commercially successful genre it is today - and really, the sad history of how much black R&B musicians lost in the dawning days of the record industry is absolutely heart-breaking, and it's a goddamn shame more of them aren't remembered today. But even today, we see plenty of musical acts co-opt rhythms or styles that are rooted in a different cultural tradition and incorporate them into their music, and it's an interesting discussion whether or not this is cultural appropriation.

For example, let's take The Talking Heads, one of the most acclaimed acts of the 70s and 80s. If you've listened to their material, you've inevitably heard rhythmic sections that have a distinctly African sound. For those of you who don't know, The Talking Heads were originally composed of three Caucasian students (plus Jerry Harrison from the Modern Lovers). Now, is the usage of African-influenced rhythms in their music cultural appropriation? Well, to be completely honest, I don't really think so, because The Talking Heads grasped and captured the spirit behind those rhythms. They knew what they were doing, and the rhythms fit the tone of their material, particularly on Remain In Light (plus, as I mentioned, they were The Talking Heads and they easily met the standard of quality). But let's fast-forward to today with Vampire Weekend, a band that also uses African-inspired rhythms and claims to draw influence from The Talking Heads. A lot of people would argue their material isn't cultural appropriation because of Vampire Weekend's high quality, but given the weirdly defensive stance the band has taken towards white privilege, it's a little harder for me to defend them.

Look, as long as we have distinct cultures, this conversation will continue. And really, while I could wish that all artists treat their influences with quality and thought, I also know that The Lone Ranger movie exists. 

And finally, we come to Selena Gomez. You may have heard of her from her show Wizards of Waverly Place, or from one of her hit singles, or from her star-making performance in Spring Breakers (which you should all see NOW), but most likely you know her from her on-again-off-again relationship with Justin Bieber. And like with Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, you probably have dismissed her as a Disney starlet that produces pre-fabricated pop garbage.

Well, you might want to rethink that assumption, because of the three Disney starlets I mentioned, Selena Gomez would probably be my favourite. It's a little hard to quantify why, particularly when it's tricky to tell how much Gomez writes of her music, but I will say that's a passable singer with a lot of energy and personality. It helps that she seems significantly smarter than her peers and has a much tighter control on her image and personal life. And from a little bit of research, it also seems that she has some interest in world cultures outside that of the United States, which occasionally comes out in her music videos. As for her actual songs, her backing band The Scene has a remarkably tight groove that used to balance well against Gomez's delivery. Yeah, she has made some terrible songs, but she has also made some really good ones.

So when I heard that her new album Stars Dance not only ditches The Scene, but also might contain cultural influences (her opening single 'Come And Get It' certainly seems to have something of a Bollywood vibe, and that's not even touching that awful album cover), I had justifiable reservations. Sure, Selena Gomez might be a smart girl (although given that she's giving Bieber another chance, I seriously question her tastes), but without the tightness of The Scene or a strong guiding producer, is she in way over her head?

Youtube review after the jump

Sunday, May 12, 2013

album review: 'overgrown' by james blake (RETRO REVIEW)

Define 'dubstep'.

It's not easy, I reckon. It's the sort of topic that spurs flame wars and heated arguments among music critics and fans alike, particularly in the indie electronica scene. It's difficult to reach consensus on what true dubstep is, and even harder to define good dubstep, a problem only exacerbated further by the mainstream breakout of acts like Skrillex and his collaborations. And as much as I want to avoid the argument over semantics, I can't help but feel that when I say that I'm generally not the biggest fan of dubstep, I'm not conveying the message aptly.

So let me make this clear: I'm not the biggest fan of what one would consider the traditional mainstream dubstep 'sound' - it's an electronic stylistic gimmick blown up to eleven, and it has never really sounded 'epic' or 'kickass' or produced the slightest reaction from me besides general antipathy. Part of this, I think, comes from my love of symphonic and power metal, a genre that approaches 'epic' on all fronts, often to the point of ridiculous cheesiness - to me, dubstep can't really match that Wagner-esque sweep and impact.

But I'll be the first to admit that dubstep, when used correctly, can make for some great songs. For example, Muse appropriated some of the stylistic flourishes and made 'Madness', a jaw-droppingly great song from their messy album The 2nd Law. Imagine Dragons also used some dubstep styling with their surprisingly strong song 'Radioactive'. These two songs, plus an examination of the monstrosities that Skrillex continues to shovel out, seem to indicate two factors on how the dubstep sound could work in the pop setting. Firstly, you need tight control of the sound; it can't be allowed to overpower the track. Why 'Madness' and 'Radioactive' are such great songs comes back to a tightness in the production, letting the traditionally atonal and off-balance dubstep track supplement the mix. Compare this to the disaster of a track 'Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites', a Skrillex track that seems for the first thirty seconds or so to have some control and depth - until it all blows up and the squealing, shrieking hook overwhelms the entire mix and leaves you with a migraine. And this leads into the second factor: the dubstep part of the mix cannot be the only thing used to enhance/amplify the atmosphere. Muse supplemented their dubstep with elaborate choral arrangements and the full strength of the fact that they are a prog/stadium rock act, while Imagine Dragons uses lead singer Dan Reynolds and his amazing voice and energy to provide a counterweight to the dubstep track. Skrillex, on the other hand, supplements his overblown dubstep with obnoxious screeching and lyrics that barely exist. 

It really doesn't help matters that Skrillex also seems to be working with acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit, and while that is tonally consistent, it also links dubstep to some of the most insufferable and terrible acts ever to grace modern music. I've already written extensively on how I can't fucking stand rap rock and rap metal, and to see Skrillex work to revitalize those genres with his popularity just makes my skin crawl. But it also shows a certain stagnation when it comes to the dubstep sound, by pigeonholing it into a certain archetype and tone, which could well lead to limited commercial success.

Fortunately for us all, Skrillex isn't the only musician and producer working with the dubstep sound, and there seems to be plenty of people who are interested in taking dubstep in new directions, and have accrued a certain degree of critical praise for their efforts. And you know, as much as the dubstep 'sound' doesn't really engage me, I must acknowledge that managing to hammer it into some sort of workable music requires real talent.

And with that, let's talk about James Blake.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

movie review: 'spring breakers'

Last summer in about June, I wrote 'Last Call', a short story that was published in this anthology. 

I wrote that story when I was unemployed, amidst a listless haze of bizarre art films, channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, and the discography of Ke$ha. It's a story of a girl named Natalie who goes to a nightclub and experiences a bloody, terrifying surrealist nightmare, complete with drugs, alcohol, and far, far worse. It's not an easy story to read - I know this - and the common responses from people who have read it are 'I didn't get it' and 'it's really dark and disturbing'.

Yeah, it is. It's dark, and disturbing, and since it's partially based on truth, it's more than a little personal. It's the kind of story I had to write, if only to finally put to bed some of the darker memories of my past. But while I was writing it and trying to get inside the head of my protagonist and everyone she encounters, I felt a sick jolt of realization: that there's something deeply, perversely wrong with my generation. It's not something that can entirely be explained, even though I'll try in this review. And while many have pointed the finger at us for being the progenitors of it all, we were not the only forces shaping it. After all, we're all shaped by culture in some way, and it's very rare that we're the ones creating the culture that shapes us.

And the fact that Spring Breakers, the new Harmony Korine film starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, is able to so aptly cast, vivisect, and place that wrongness on display... It is incredible and more than a little terrifying. It's one of the best goddamn films of the year, and deserves to be held up the heavens as a cultural touchstone of my generation. And yeah, I know that's a damning indictment but I don't fucking care, it's an indictment that needs to be made. It's an indictment I've made and I'm willing to include myself as one being indicted. 

It's 'Last Call', except where I optimistically saw a painful way out, Harmony Korine has a much bleaker, bloodier view.