LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

As the story goes, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (lead vocalist and jack-of-all instruments for the band) had no plans to make this record. He was content to stay in retirement after the band closed the door on their legacy with a massive sold-out show in New York City. He couldn’t stop writing songs, however, and all of that creative energy had to go somewhere. It went into the band’s newest record, and one of the best records of the year, American Dream.

The themes are American Dream are familiar ones to LCDSS’s work – love, aging, trying to stay hip, partying, and emotional disconnect in the digital age. The first track, “Oh Baby,” has Murphy pleading for a lover to come back to him as synths beats bubble underneath his vocals. The wicked bass and beats on “Other Voices” underlie the scathing message directed at adults acting like spoiled children instead of sticking up for themselves and others. “Time isn’t over and times aren’t better so it’s letting you down. You keep dragging back to it, keep going back to the well,” Murphy sings before telling us that we’re still babies and pushovers. Vocalist / keyboardist Nancy Whang claims, “It sounds like the nineties.” at one point. We’re back to the emptiness that decade only twenty years later. The final verse is particularly damning: “You’re just a baby now. You should be uncomfortable. Fake like you mean it.”

“I Used To” is a classic example of Murphy realizing he’s an aged hipster and remembering when he thought he was going to change the world (which, in some ways, he has). It’s a track Gary Numan would love, as it sounds like early Tubeway Army material but with vocals more soulful than robotic. The best lyric is “Oh sure, we’re talking tough, yeah, we’re talking tuff, but on suburban lawns in prone positions.” “Change Yr Mind” has LCDSS verging into post-punk with Murphy’s chop guitar work and the snappy beat. Murphy laments his younger days of being Joe Cool with self-introspective lyrics like “I’m not dangerous now, the way I used to be once. I’m just too old for it now, at least that seems to be true.”

“How Do You Sleep?” has Murphy wondering about a former lover who warned him about cocaine even as she was diving into addiction and left him stuck hanging out with “vape clowns.” It’s almost a goth track with its deep bass and Pat Mahoney’s tribal drumming. It’s a stunning piece that I’m sure is a highlight of their current live shows.

“Tonite” is one of the wittiest songs Murphy’s ever written as he salutes and takes down modern pop music (and growing older) at the same time with wicked beats and synth work. His lyrics are brilliant and include gems like “You’re getting older – and there’s improvement unless you’re such a winner that the future’s a nightmare,” “You’ve lost your Internet, and we’ve lost our memory,” and “…embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted by versions of selves that we thought were the best ones.”

“Call the Police” was one of the first songs off the record. It’s soaring synths and Go-Go’s bass propel Murphy’s lyrics about fake rebellion and forgotten passions (“The old guys are frightened, and frightening to behold. The kids come out fighting and still do what they’re told.”).

What is the “American Dream” alluded to in the album’s title track? It’s love. In particular, love that is often right in front of us but we choose to ignore out of fear it will be painful or difficult or might lead to further responsibility. The track is vintage synths, finger snaps, and Murphy’s passionate vocals (“So you kiss and you clutch; but you can’t fight that feeling that your one true love is just awaiting your big meeting, so you never even ask for names. You just right through them as if you already came.”).

“Emotional Haircut” sounds like a forgotten Love and Rockets track with Murphy’s savage guitar work and Mahoney’s wicked drumming. Murphy sings about knee jerk reactions to tragedies and then not being able to move past them at a later date (“You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete and you got life-affirming moment in your past that you can’t repeat.”). The album’s closer, “Black Screen,” is almost a darkwave track as Murphy remembers a lost friend or lover who might be dead or simply taking a vacation from the worldwide web. In this day and age, both are equal for many.

LCD Soundsystem wants us to remember that the American dream is achievable if we remember that it’s not about money. It’s about love, helping the little guy, acknowledging our rough past, and not repeating the same mistakes. The nation will be better off if we at least try.

Keep your mind open.

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Mark Vickness – Places

Easily one of the best acoustic albums I’ve heard all year, Mark Vickness‘ Places is just him and an acoustic guitar that he plays in the “modern finger style” method, which involves using the guitar as both a stringed and percussive instrument.

There are no vocals on the record, only songs about and inspired by places Vickness has visited either alone or with his family over the last few decades.  The impressive “A Thousand Islands is about a lake in the Sierra Mountains where he proposed to his wife.  The almost sad “Wind River” is about a place in Wyoming.  The images of “Prince William Sound” and “New York City” are obvious, but Vickness’ skill is anything but ordinary.  He makes his guitar sound like chimes, an old clock, a dulcimer, and even a sitar at some points.

“Flight of the Rays” is about seeing manta rays swim through the ocean near Hawaii, and Vickness does a great job at bringing the peaceful yet strange images to find with his guitar.  “Bishop Pass” is about another spot in the Sierras and would be great for a drive up there.

“NYC 2.0” is about a return trip Vickness made to the city two years ago.  The song is a bit darker and funkier than the earlier track, reflecting his new perspective on the Big Apple.  The three-part “Wonder Lake Suite” is his salute to Wonder Lake in Alaska and is almost a meditative experience.

The album ends with “I Must Tell Jesus.”  It’s a classic spiritual song that was the favorite of Vickness’ adoptive grandmother, and his imagining of it for the acoustic guitar is both a loving tribute to her and a nice update on a wonderful gospel standard.

Places is a good record if you’re into instrumental guitar and looking for something to chill you out after a day of bad traffic, pointless meetings, and bad coffee.

Keep your mind open.

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Wavves – You’re Welcome

Surf / garage punks Wavves (Alex Gates – guitar and vocals, Brian Hill – drums and vocals, Stephen Pope – bass and vocals, Nathan Winters – guitar and lead vocals) make no bones about what they think of their new record.  It’s entitled You’re Welcome.  It’s their gift to us, and we should be thankful for it.

Opener “Daisy” is all about wanting to make it with a cute girl, and the title track right after is an uplifting track.  Both are fuzzy and catchy and just the kind of carefree rock we need in these turbulent times.  The opening distortion on “No Shade” breaks into a wicked performance by the rhythm section and rips past you faster than a cute girl ignoring you as she runs late to the bus station.

“Million Enemies” has Wavves not caring about forces conspiring against them.  “I got enemies, a million enemies; but, baby, I’m feelin’ fine.”  The guitar solo on it is a great, squeaky mess.  I’m sure this song generates a lot of call-back singing when they play it live.  The bass on “Hollowed Out” is downright funky, and “Come to the Valley” is a love letter to Wavves southern California neighborhood. “Animal” has more great bass work, and “Stupid in Love” is a great title for a Wavves song because it sums up many of the themes in their work so well.  Wavves have always crafted catchy songs about the weirdness of love and attraction, and this fun pop-punk track is a prime example of their knack for such tunes.

“Exercise” isn’t so much about physical activity as it is about exercising your right to protest.  Lyrics like “Dancing while the world is burning down,” “I can’t believe the shit they feed to us,” and “They’re lying to our face.” only reinforce the belief.  “Under” is about how love can drag us down if we hold onto it too tight.  “Close your eyes, I’ll be whatever you want me to be…It builds until I can’t take it.  It bends and then you break it.”

“Dream of Grandeur” is about the hopes of a new relationship and quickly realizing those hopes were pipe dreams, and it’s appropriate that an album so heavy on themes of love and strange relationships ends with a track entitled “I Love You.”  It’s also appropriate that it sounds like a 1950’s jukebox favorite love song with its vocal harmonies and guitar strumming.

You’re Welcome is probably the most fun record about the weird world of love I’ve heard all year.  Thank them for it if you get the chance.

Keep your mind open.

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Melkbelly – Nothing Valley

Chicago post / noise-punk rockers Melkbelly (James Wetzel – drums, Bart Winters – guitar, Liam Winters – bass, Miranda Winters – guitar and vocals) are in no mood to take prisoners on their new full-length album Nothing Valley.

“Off the Lot” opens the album with a rapid-fire attack of Wetzel’s drums and angry guitar chords.  “Kid Kreative” brings to mind some of the Breeders‘ heavier tracks with Miranda Winters’ voice mixing post-punk attitude and garage rock urgency.

I don’t know what “R.O.R.O.B.” means, but I do know that it’s almost a goth rock classic.  Liam Winters’ bass line is one I’m sure Front 242 would love to have in their back pocket, and the rest of the band brings in a slightly creepy vibe you can’t ignore.  “Greedy Gull” has more angles to it than a 20-sided die.  The guitars are restless, but Wetzel’s drumming and Miranda Winters’ vocals keep the song rooted.

“Petrified” might indeed petrify you with its building wall of distorted sound.  By contrast, “Middle Of” will flatten you as it charges like an out of control steamroller.  “Twin Lookin’ Motherfucker” has great jagged guitar riffs throughout it.  “RUNXRN” chugs so hard it’s almost doom metal.  It abruptly ends, making the chaotic drums of “R2PCM” even more jarring.  At first, “Cawthra” sounds like a warped record (in a good way) and is an unexpected and welcome psychedelic diversion before it turns into a rock blitz.  I don’t know if “Helloween” is named after the German metal band, but the track is far more post-punk than metal (although some of the distortion in it would please any metal fan).  It’s also the longest track on the album at over five minutes.  This gives Melkbelly time to stretch their vocal and instrumental muscles in different directions, even dipping their toes into the goth pool for a couple moments.

This is one of my favorite rock records of the year.  I’ve been on a post-punk kick and Nothing Valley is a great addition to my collection.  It would be to yours as well.

Keep your mind open.

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Slow Magic – Float

I’d heard a few singles from Slow Magic‘s album, Float, and I was intrigued with his neat mix of electro, house, and ambient sounds.  I’m happy to say that the entire album is as good as I’d hoped.

Opener “Valhalla” (the drinking hall in the heaven of the Norse gods) starts subtle like a Valkyrie’s caress after death and then it fills with thundering drums and multilayered rhythms that snap you awake from anything fuzzing up your mind.

“Mind” (with Kate Boy on vocals) is probably already tearing up dance clubs in various remixes with its futuristic house beats.  “Skeleton Pink” somehow moves fast (with its beats) and slow (with its synths) at the same time.  “Shivers” brings in a heavy hitter with none other than MNDR on vocals (#swoon) for a big and bold track.

“Drum” loops distorted synths and electronic beats into a groove that you can’t get out of your head.  It might be your new favorite track for sprint workouts.
“Belong 2 Me” (with Peter Silberman taking up the vocals this time) takes you from the racetrack of the previous song to the race’s afterparty complete with premium cocktails in the VIP lounge and a killer dance floor for the people who aren’t too cool to dance.  “Diamond Ring” is a brief moment of synthwave before the grand house track “Wildfire.”

The beats on “=” (“Equals”) are so savage that the song almost sounds like an early 1990’s hardcore rave track.  Things are a bit quieter on “<3” (“Less than three,” “Heart,” or “Love,” depending on your choice), almost like you’re walking out into a morning rain after an all-night rave.  “Light” (featuring Tropics) reminds me of some of Bayonne‘s songs with its echoing vocals backed by poppy and fuzzy synths.

“Midnight Sun” sounds like something from a late night 1980’s sci-fi adventure comedy – and I mean that in the best possible way.  The closer, “Relent,” is a simple, lovely piano piece that leaves you wanting more by the end.

Float is a good debut.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Slow Magic playing EDM-themed festivals in 2018.

Keep your mind open.

 

Northumbria – Markland

My wife and I were staying on the eighteenth floor of a downtown Toronto hotel while on vacation, and one night I could hear dark, heavy drone rock coming from…somewhere. It seemed to be coming out of the sky like the hum of UFO engines and up from the darkest parts of the city’s sewer system at the same time.

“Do you hear that?” I asked my wife. “I think someone’s playing some drone rock over at the plaza.”

“Is that what that is?” She asked.

It was Northumbria. To be specific, it was Dorian Williamson and Jim Feld playing a guitar and bass loud enough for us to hear it one block away and eighteen stories above the street. Furthermore, it wasn’t just noise. It was ambient, haunting waves of sound that immediately changed the feel of everything around you. Their new album, Markland, is an impressive journey through shadows and starlight.

Take the opening track, “Torngat,” for instance. They somehow manage to create guitars that sound like baritone saxophones. “Sunstone” is appropriate for druidic rituals and flying through a rainy street while hunting replicants. “The Night Wolves / Black Moon” is sure to freak out your dog (as it did mine) with its creepy sonics.

Thunder hails “Ostara’s Return,” which seems like the right way to start such a heavy and creepy track. “Still Clearing” does bring to mind an early morning on a beautiful glen, but there’s a hint of menace underneath it – as if the glen is haunted by a dark tragedy. I think the sun referred to in the title of “Low Sun I” is the setting sun, because it has a creepy dread to it.

That dread is amplified to near-horror movie soundtrack levels in “The Shoes of the Suffering Wind.” It evokes images of rocky shores, ship graveyards, and glistening fish-men rising from black depths in search of prey. “Low Sun II” is the soundtrack ofa tired army marching across a swamp for dry land before the sun sets on them. The beautiful “Wonderstrands” gets me thinking about string theory, and with “The Stars As My Guide” to end the album, I suppose that thought process shouldn’t surprise me. The final track is full of cosmic guitars that eventually whittle down to a lonely hiss not unlike an open communications link between a dead astronaut and mission control.

Another amazing aspect of this album is that there is no percussion in it. It’s all guitar and bass effects (as far as I know) and it’s never boring. Markland changes your perception of everything around you whether you’re across the room or eighteen stories above the street.

Keep your mind open.

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Live: Brian Wilson – South Bend, IN – October 03, 2017

My wife and I had missed Brian Wilson at Levitation Austin last year when the entire festival (and thus his performance) was cancelled due to bad weather.  I learned he and his band were touring the world and performing many Beach Boys tracks as well as all of their masterpiece, Pet Sounds.  I was determined to catch this tour and to hear such an important record played by the man who wrote it.  Luckily for me, Mr. Wilson brought his show to a theatre less than an hour’s drive from my house.

He had a killer backing band that included one of the founding Beach Boys – Al Jardine – and another Beach Boys guitarist – Blondie Chapman, and they opened with the the classic “California Girls.”

Other treats included Wilson having a fun time singing “I Get Around,” a lovely rendition of “In My Room,” and Al Jardine’s son doing a great job on the vocals for “Don’t Worry, Baby.”

The highlight of the night, of course, was hearing Pet Sounds played from beginning to end.  I’d been humming “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” all day leading up to the show and the band nailed it right out of the gate to open the second half.  “Sloop John B” was a crowd favorite, and I forgot about the two fine instrumentals on the record.

Wilson got a standing ovation for “God Only Knows,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” seems rather relevant today.  The encore started with “Good Vibrations.”  When Wilson asked, “Did you come here for bad vibrations?”  I briefly hoped the Black Angels would come on stage, but it was fun to hear the best psych-surf ever written live.

Other hits like “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Surfin’ USA” followed, but Wilson ended the show, which he dedicated to his wife (It was her birthday that day.), the victims of the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay shooting, and Tom Petty, with the heartfelt “Love and Mercy.”

It was a lovely, fun show.  Wilson’s songs are so ingrained into American culture that you can sometimes forget how good and fun they are.  See this tour if you get the chance.  Wilson is getting up there in age, and sometimes needed a steadying hand to walk him to his piano.  He’s claimed this is the final time he’ll perform Pet Sounds, so don’t wait.

Keep your mind open.

Slowdive – self-titled

2017 has been a good year for shoegaze music because two legendary British shoegaze bands returned this year with excellent new material. One of these bands is RIDE, and the other is Slowdive (Nick Chaplin – bass, Rachel Goswell – guitar and vocals, Neil Halstead – guitar and vocals, Christian Savill – guitar, Simon Scott – drums).

Slowdive’s self-titled album is perhaps the lushest, loveliest record of the year. The opener, “Slomo,” immediately seems to lift you off the ground and send you into an idyllic sky with its floating guitars and ghostly vocals about “curious love.” The band has lost nothing in the last twenty years. They only seem to have improved on everything. The title of “Star Roving” (a song about sharing love even when it seems daunting) couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s a sonic blast that burns as bright as a comet.

Goswell’s vocals on “Don’t Know Why” start subtle but then the entire song opens like a flower and becomes a stunning piece about trying to escape the memories of a lover who has moved on to someone else. “Sugar for the Pill” was the first Slowdive had released in two decades, and it immediately set the music world on fire. It’s no surprise, because the song is stunning. Slightly goth bass, echoing guitars, lush synths, and smoky vocals about not being able to live up to a lover’s expectations all mix together to produce one of the prettiest songs of 2017.

“Everyone Knows” bursts with energy, whereas the follow-up “No Longer Making Time” is like a lovely walk through a morning fog that is lifted by the sunrise. Slowdive has mastered the art of making guitars both loud and soothing. “Go Get It” is a master course on how to put together a shoegaze song: shifting levels of distortion and reverb, solid drumming, and mysterious vocals.

The album ends with “Falling Ashes” – which is little more than a rain-like piano riff, subdued guitars, and quiet vocals (often repeating the album’s theme, “Thinking about love.”), but that’s all Slowdive needs to hold you in the moment.

I know most of this review is merely I saying, “This record is gorgeous,” but that’s the best way I can put it. Parts of it sound like Slowdive stepped out of a time machine from the 1990’s, but other parts of it are rich with new energy that’s hard to describe.

“Gorgeous” is the best word that comes to mind.

Keep your mind open.

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King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe

In this day and age, I’m fairly certain that few bands could make a good concept album.  Fewer still could make one about a cyborg who wants to be fully human while interacting with a wizard attempting to stop a monster from destroying all of creation.  King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have done just that, however, with Murder of the Universe.

In case you’re unaware, this is KGATLW’s second album of the year, and they plan to release three more before the end of 2017.  The first was the excellent Flying Microtonal Banana and the third, a collaboration with Mild High Club called Sketches of Brunswick East is already available for pre-order.

Lyrically and sonically, Murder of the Universe links up well with Flying Microtonal Banana and the outstanding Nonagon Infinity.  It’s like they’re a complete trilogy, and some people have suggested the robot in Nonagon Infinity‘s lead track, “Robot Stomp,” is the cyborg caught up in the Murder of the Universe.  You can also hear the beginning of Nonagon Infinity‘s “People Vultures” on this new record (on “Some Context”).

The album’s intro, “A New World,” has a haunting poem spoken by a young woman describing the aftermath of a nuclear war and how even more horrible things are to come afterwards.  The first is an “Altered Beast (Part 1).”  The band comes out like an angry, roaring bear from of its den.  Parts 2, 3, and 4 of the song alternate with the three-part “Altered Me.”  The war’s survivor realizes he must adapt to the new environment and new beastly overlord to survive (or did the beast alter him for a dark purpose?).  Each song flows seamlessly into the next and KGATLW slays each part.  Guitars assault you from every direction but can still stop on a dime.  The double drumming is insane, and the synths bring a wild, weird 1980’s horror film vibe to the whole thing.

The survivor has become an altered beast by the end of “Altered Beast IV,” feeling nothing but still remembering his humanity and the idea of freedom.  He has lost the concepts of “Life / Death,” but still clings to the idea of revenge.  He finds a possible ally in “The Lord of Lightning” (in which lead singer Stu Mackenzie yells “Nonagon infinity!” a few times).  It’s a wicked song that would leave anyone who’d never heard a KGATLW song before dumbfounded.  It tells the story of an epic mystical battle yet the song blasts by you like something shot from a catapult.

“The Balrog” could be the altered beast, but he is certainly the Lord of Lightning’s enemy.  The song is a sonic fiery claw in your brain with crazy percussion and even wilder guitars.  “The Floating Fire” is all that’s left after the war between the Balrog and the Lord of Lightning.  The Balrog becomes “The Acrid Corpse” by the end of it, but only eternal darkness remains after the Lord of Lightning leaves.

The future is left to the few survivors who have become cyborgs in order to live in the new world.  It’s all “Digital Black” in this new time.  People have willingly given up their humanity (“We’ve turned our bodies into computers…”) in a quest for what they thought was perfection.  The bass riff in this is great, as is the hard-hitting beat throughout it.

One such cyborg is “Han-Tyumi the Confused Cyborg,” the survivor of the original meeting with the altered beast.  All he wants is to vomit and die.  He wants pain, stench, and some sort of end instead of his endless digitized illusion of life and pleasure.  His “Vomit Coffin,” a machine of his own design, might help him do it.  It’s another weird rocker mixed with digitized vocals and synth grooves as Han-Tyumi gives himself over to full digitization in order to free himself (and perhaps the world) from his living death.

The title track has Han-Tyumi expanding far beyond his physical form until he’s traveling at the speed of light and infiltrating every living cell and atom.  The only way for him to find death is to destroy everything, and he does it.

So, yeah, it’s not a happy-go-lucky record.  It’s a crazy concept record about a giant monster attack nearly destroying the world and changing the few survivors left into cyborgs who are left with an even bleaker world after a lightning god battles a giant fire monster, which drives one of the few cyborgs with any shred of humanity left to destroy the entire universe in order to free himself from an eternal life of cold, digital monotony.

Why haven’t you bought it by now?

Keep your mind open.

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“Welcome to an Altered Future,” has the cyborg, Han-Tyumi, describing how the digital age led to the death of the world thanks to artificial intelligence.  “We turned our bodies into computers,” the band’s lead vocalist, Stu, sings on

Comacozer – Kalos Eidos Skopeo

Australian psych / stoner rock powerhouse Comacozer have returned with another instrumental freakout – Kalos Eidos Skopeo.  The name of the album, of course, is a play on the words “kaleidoscope” or “kaleidoscopic,” suggesting that the music can be viewed / interpreted many different ways at once.

Take the opener, “Axis Mundi” (the cosmic / world axis), for example.  It begins with squawking guitars that sound like something from a slasher film soundtrack, but the track becomes almost a meditative piece by the time it reaches the five-minute mark thanks to skillful use of guitar reverb and subtle yet precise drumming.

“Nystagmus” might bring on its namesake (involuntary twitching of the eyes) with its cosmic jam guitars, slightly creepy bass, and doom metal drumming.  I love how “Hylonomus” (the name of the earliest known reptile) starts off sounding like it’s a spaghetti western song and then morphs into a Middle Eastern-flavored dream that might be happening in the mind of an ancient lizard dozing in the stump of a massive, dead tree.  It then morphs a second time into a great groove that belongs in a car chase sequence in a big budget film.  It’s great to hear Comacozer cut loose like this.

Need to knock out a wall in your house to expand your kitchen?  Don’t bother with sledgehammers.  Just play the closer, “Enuma Elish,” and aim your speakers in the right direction.  The song is about the Babylonian creation myth which involves – among other things – the god Marduk defeating the goddess of the oceans and creating the earth and sky out of her body.  Comacozer somehow manages to put all this epic stuff into one song (that last nearly 12 minutes).

You might have noticed that this album only contains four songs.  Don’t let that worry you, because all of them are around thirteen minutes in length.  It’s a full album of instrumental cosmic psychedelia and worth every penny.

Keep your mind open.

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