Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard

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There are few bands that can do what Genesis did in their early days. They gave the 1970s a masterful piece of crafty songwriting and witty musicality in the form of incredible works art such as Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They had very worthy solo artists like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. And, they were served as a valuable piece of progressive rock. Now, to move ahead 30 to 40 years later, and modern progressive rock is back underground. However, that doesn’t mean anything. A new prog rock group was planting its roots to the ground in preparation to continue the lyrical expertice and other similar characteristics sprouting from Genesis. Come the year 2009, and after building up experience from their last few albums, Big Big Train has finally struck a rich sounding album that has worthy Genesis influences, The Underfall Yard, a new exciting entry for prog rock.

What makes The Underfall Yard so brilliant? Well, for one part, it is the way Big Big Train captures songwriting and musicality in a way almost mirrored to that of Genesis. Like them, Big Big Train and their vocalist, Dave Longdon, don’t seem to connect very well with the sexual energy contained in most mainstream albums. Instead, they also rely upon 19th and 20th century tales of England to decorate their music. From train conductors, flooding foundations, to Victorian engineers, the lyrics are epic, interesting, exciting, and act in similar methods to Peter Gabriel’s songwriting style in a positive, modern reinforcement. Not only are the lyrics ace, so are Longdon’s Gabriel-esque vocals. They represent an incredible resurrection of the original Genesis frontman. This is very difficult to beat. Finally, something else that is Genesis-inspired in The Underfall Yard is the musical structures. Take for example, songs like The Underfall Yard, Victorian Brickwork, and Evening Star sound very similar to famous early Genesis works such as Supper’s Ready, Watcher of the Skies, The Cinema Show, The Fountain of Salmacis, and Time Table. But that isn’t all of the pie to The Underfall Yard.

Big Big Train also tries to make themselves sound unique at the same time. The result is a profound, modern rendition of a prog rock journey that stretches well over an hour. By the way, it is a good hour. Examples include the classically-fused instrumental motifs expressed my guest musicians, such as Rich Evans, Dave Desmond, Jon Foyle, Nick Stones, and Jon Fruscott. At the same time, The Underfall Yard hasn’t lost a necessary rock attitude that still gives the band credibility towards their own music. In fact, the balance between these two impression is controlled mostly in a positive manner. This is cheers to ex-Spock’s Beard Nick D’Virgilio, Andy Poole, and Gregory Spawton, who have began to figure out the good way to creatively hold and express progressive rock. In a way, this also represents how unique Big Big Train is.

All in all, The Underfall Yard was a mostly positive result of past prog rock influences, daring modern pursuits, a plethora of musical talent, and the creative songwriting prowess. They built upon themselves in their previous albums, gained inspiration from a former prog rock titan, and executed a truly complex album as a result. Not just complex, but also noteworthy. Perhaps, the members of Genesis might be proud of these guys.

4.1/5

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Soundgarden-Superunknown

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Ironically enough, this is the album I turn to when everything sounds stale. An alternative rock (using this as a blanket term) record that went to number 1 on the Billboard album chart, catapulted a band into stardom, created one of the biggest radio hits of the ’90’s and boasted four other successful singles. An album that on paper should not be anything incredibly special somehow found its way into my heart and stands as one of the most creative and ridiculously unpredictable albums ever recorded. Soundgarden’s Superunknown isn’t just a fantastic record; it’s a landmark, the album by which all other modern rock albums should be judged, and should serve as a manual on how to keep your listener interested. The band always have a new trick up their sleeve, not letting the album drag for a second of its monolithic running time. This is simply because not a second is wasted.  Because of how big of a record Superunknown was, its unorthodox nature comes as a shock, and makes the album a more worthwhile experience. Soundgarden was one of the few (well-known) bands during this time period that was truly adventurous, a band willing to write songs about street performers or have a bass solo take up half of a song. The album’s true charm lies in its pacing, and this record is certainly well-paced. For an album that lasts seventy-three minutes, every note has to be meticulously planned out so that the length is justifiable. Soundgarden passes this test with flying colors. Each track is exactly the correct length, and an incredible amount of density and ebb and flow is found throughout this absolute monster of a record.

Each member of the band is in top form on Superunknown. Superunknown is a guitar-driven record, so it should come as no surprise that Kim Thayil is in his prime here. Some of his best work is found within the confines of this twisted hour, primarily on the more metal-oriented track. His chameleon-esque time shifts and unusual tunings only further single him out as a truly innovative guitarist. Just take a gander at “Limo Wreck” which opens up with one of the absolute beefiest riffs I’ve ever heard, or perhaps the omnipresent “Black Hole Sun” in which Thayil feeds his guitar through a Leslie speaker and gallons of distortion to produce a trippy and ripe tone. However, no discussion about Kim Thayil is complete without at least one reference to “4th Of July” the absolute densest and heaviest Soundgarden track ever. Opening with an enraged, lazy thunder of a riff, the track only builds as it courses through its five-minute running time. The song peaks with Kim’s solo, a minimalistic motif full of emotion and darkness. It fits the song’s visual themes (drugs, nuclear holocaust) perfectly and personally makes me feel as if I’m being lifted into space and then thrown down with brute force. Bassist Ben Shepherd also turns in a grade-A performance, as this was before he decided to bogart the songwriting process and break up the band for thirteen years. Shepherd penned what are easily the oddest tracks on the record. “Head Down” is a percussion-driven, surreal rabbit hole of a track elevated to a state of psychedelia by Chris Cornell’s repetitive, droning falsetto and lyrics. The song closes with a drum battle between Shepherd and actual drummer Matt Cameron that sounds strangely musical, especially when Shepherd plays a bass lick or two over it. His other contribution is the often-maligned “Half”, a song I think gets too much shit around these parts, or anywhere really. The lyrics are nonsensical and the music is inscrutable, but the whole album is like this in some way. The track closes with a forty-five second bass solo that defines beauty. Thayil’s soaring feedback accentuates the bass melody and gives this song some replay value that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

However, the two members that really define this record are Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron. In his better days, Cornell was untouchable in terms of lyricism and vocal ability. Never before have I heard a voice like his, and anyone trying to replicate it would simply sound ridiculous. Chris’s vocals truly speak to my heart, although sometimes I can’t tell why. His rambling on “Head Down” is just as captivating as his haunting soliloquy on “Like Suicide”, because his voice carries that much weight. The lyrics on this album are nothing short of brilliance. Opening with the rather cryptic command to “stretch the bones over my skin”, Superunknown has only introduced you to the twisted character and unpredictability that Cornell has lent it with his words. “Mailman” is a triumph lyrically, a damning condemnation of isolation and loneliness. The character seems to have given up all hope, and the way Cornell slowly rises into a falsetto at the end of every phrase is enough to send shivers up the spine of any dedicated music fan. Once he hits the chorus, the repeated belting of “I know I’m headed for the bottom” hits the listener in the gut like a wrecking ball demolishing an office building. The way his vocals slowly grow more intense over the song’s runtime, only to explode with fifteen seconds left before the conclusion, is a fantastic exercise in tension and release and something often overlooked by many. Other Cornell highlights include the aforementioned “4th of July” with Cornell’s most vivid lyrics and a double-tracked performance of his lower and higher registers, “The Day I Tried To Live”, a track almost as disturbing as “4th of July” with Cornell wailing throughout the song’s famous chorus, and “Fresh Tendrils” a song showing off Cornell’s flexibility as a vocalist.

Matt Cameron’s performance is jaw-dropping. He is the glue of Soundgarden, keeping the band in check and making their insane musical ideas sound extremely natural. His rapid fills on “Let Me Drown” are just the first sign of how good this man’s performance is. Cameron plays around with time signatures to no end, shifting meters numerous times throughout songs. “The Day I Tried To Live” or the mind-numbing technicality of “She Likes Surprises” show how steady Cameron is, making any beat sound just right and never exercising the boundaries of the song to the point where he overplays. His drums are tuned to perfection, the toms sounding hollow and bleak, perfect for this album’s empty atmosphere and themes. Cameron’s snare is noticeably heavier-sounding than on Badmotorfinger, proved by the hard-hitting rock beats of “4th of July” or the punk frenzy of “Kickstand”. He is also very rigid about tempo, never letting the band get out of place. This is what makes the faster (“Spoonman”, “My Wave”, “Let Me Drown”) and slower tracks (“Mailman”, “Limo Wreck”, “4th Of July”, “Like Suicide”) so much more effective. Superunknown also includes Matt’s only drum solo with Soundgarden on “Spoonman”, which fits exceedingly well into the song’s otherwise straightforward structure and provides a much needed variation from a song that could have eventually grown bland.

More than anything, Superunknown is a musical journey, an opus or odyssey of sorts. Each song contains its own special characteristics that separate it from the rest, which is what makes this the best grunge album ever. “Let Me Drown” is aggressive and punchy. “Mailman” and “Like Suicide” possess an undeniable and palpable feeling of loss and longing, so much that the listener may actually empathize with the characters. “Fresh Tendrils” and “Black Hole Sun” are the album’s psychedelic gems, lyrically obscure (“Give me little bits of more than I can take”, “Call my name through the cream and I’ll hear you scream again”) and instrumentally light and distorted. “Spoonman” is the band’s one chance to break free and have fun, to escape from the eerie and terrifying world they have retreated into. “Limo Wreck” is guilt incarnate. “4th Of July” is the agonizing moment when one realizes that all hope is lost. “The Day I Tried To Live” is the wish that things had gone differently. It truly sucks you into all sixteen of its anecdotes, and you will come out of the album a changed person, regardless of whether you even enjoyed the album.

One last thing I want to discuss is the album title. Superunknown is quite possibly the most intelligent album title of all time, simply because of its accuracy. I still don’t know what this album is or what it represents. It seems to have an undeniable sense of unity in that no track off this album could be removed without the quality being sorely affected as a result. However, the album is so jumpy and scatterbrained that it works in the most unpredictable way. Certain things about this album still catch me off guard, like the faint sound of silverware hitting a surface in “Spoonman” or the stomach-churning bass line of “4th Of July”. But then again, there are things that just shouldn’t work (“Half”, “Head Down”, “She Likes Surprises” as a closer instead of “Like Suicide”, Chris Cornell’s literally constant vocal belting in the title track) that boggle my mind because of how much effort Soundgarden put into them and how well they pull them off. This album sounds fresh when everything else is bland and uninteresting. Nothing on here ever gets old, if only for the reason that upon my first few listens everything was so unexpected. For these reasons I can’t give Superunknown anything less than a perfect store. It is one of the few albums ever released that is perfect, and I will stand by that opinion as long as I live.

5/5.

Tracklist

1. Let Me Drown

2. My Wave

3. Fell On Black Days

4. Mailman

5. Superunknown

6. Head Down

7. Black Hole Sun

8. Spoonman

9. Limo Wreck

10. The Day I Tried To Live

11. Kickstand

12. Fresh Tendrils

13. 4th Of July

14. Half

15. Like Suicide

16. She Likes Surprises

Strawbs – Hero and Heroine

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Some things are easier said than done. If you wanted to create something prophetic, dark, and telltale-esque, prog rock was a perfect place for you. There was a catch, though; you were either all in or all out. The risks were only even higher if you wanted to drive a Gothic sound through the genre. Few artists have done so and even less did it well. However, there was a band that was in the right for the tough, specific, and risky criteria. That group was Strawbs.

Strawbs was well on its way when it achieved success in Grave New World and Bursting at the Seams, and was looking for something different. What they wanted was something that was a cross between the fantasy-like sound of Yes, the conceptual diversity of Pink Floyd, and the melodic driven folk nature of the early King Crimson. The personal demands of the group would become the result of Hero and Heroine, a dark, Gothic, and doom-laden album that does more than first thought.

There’s an advantage that Hero and Heroine has in comparison to other progressive rock bands of the time. It can work with a variety of different music forms and yet retain its prog-rock identity. Strawbs has been able to create dark, Gothic, blossoming, beautiful epics, such as Autumn, which gives flavor and spirit to the album. The group has been also able to construct simple, easygoing, fun mainstream folk-rock ballads that are able to attract both ears. But what Strawbs does best is producing the highly prophetic themes throughout every single song of the album, whether it is just a single stanza or the entirety of the lyrics. Examples include the title track, Round and Round, and Midnight Sun, which take on the darkest perspectives of the album. Strawbs ended up rocking the hardest on Hero and Heroine, which led to flourishing success of the fruitfully musical content.

What came along with the advantages of the dark, prophetic album is the lesser accessibility of the whole album itself. What of lack of accessibility does it suffer? The problem is simple, yet complicated: it is only capable for young, giddy men who like using and abusing drugs. This mislabel was unfortunately too complex and serious and ended up becoming a soundtrack associated with the generation of “drug takers” and becomes a defenseless target on No Man’s Land due to the rejection of auto-sensitive popular music lovers. To desensitize an album strictly ruled by prog rock elements are almost on both on the band’s and the critic’s scourge against itself. How could that change? Simple: rely on some popular genres and techniques. That’s what Strawbs did.

What made up for the lack of commercial and radio support on was the highly respectable guitar driven lead by Dave Lambert. He delivers romanticist-era solo sections in sections of songs such as Shine On Silver Sun and Deep Summer’s Sleep while executing cold dark slashing riffs in other songs like Round and Round. Add the excellent, yet subtle songwriting and folk-style lyrics of Dave Cousin help and you get back-up for the sharp guitar playing of Lambert. To top it off, you get the muscular rhythmically heavy riffs done well by Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes and the result of a very heavy progressive rock. This was vital to the success of Hero and Heroine.

Hero and Heroine was a finely-executed progressive folk album that incorporated some special content in the end. It had an exceptional foundation of fine instrumentality, a variety of effective rock elements, and Cousin’s great songwriting, which made up for the infrequency of publicity. This album, if popular and mainstream criticism disregarded, could be considered one the darkest and best done prog folk rock works of the mid-1970s.

4.3/5

Cradle of Filth – The Principle of Evil Made Flesh

This is the Cradle of Filth that people are way too unfamiliar with. If you’re a fan boy like myself, you know that back in the year 1994, these guys released their debut album The Principle of Evil Made Flesh and you also know that it’s an album that makes newer fans of the band scratch their heads. This album is really the only album that showed the “true” or “kvlt” side of Cradle of Filth. The album’s booklet presents pictures of the guys covered in corpse paint, wearing t-shirts in support of other black metal bands (such as Marduk), etc.

The music on The Principle of Evil Made Flesh matches the image. This is a side of Cradle that only the real fans have seen. Production on this album is much more raw and unpolished (in true black metal fashion) than any of the albums that followed. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s still a shitload of melody to be found here and that’s shown best on the 5 instrumental tracks on the album. The gothic element is present from the very beginning as well, which really separated them from other black metal bands at the time, such as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, or any of the other big names. It created a very horror movie-esque type atmosphere, something other bands at the time weren’t really doing. The credit for this can go to keyboardist Benjamin Ryan.

The guitar work on the album is a lot like something you’d hear from a second wave black metal band. Mostly tremolo picking and very fast-paced riffs displayed on tracks such as the title track and To Eve the Art of Witchcraft. The Paul’s (Allender and Ryan) also know how to slow it down. Take for example the riffs during the first half of The Black Goddess Rises or the chorus of The Forest Whispers My Name. The drumming, which is done by the now famous Nick Barker, isn’t really a focal point here, but he gets the job done. Faster stuff, slower stuff, he can do it all. You can tell he wasn’t a veteran in the scene at this point though, as the drumming can get a little sloppy at times, but never bad at all. Even the bass is noticeable, which isn’t common in black metal at all. Robin’s basslines, take the title track for example, were a big part of what Cradle was doing in their early days.

The biggest surprise of the album is Dani Filth’s vocals. Most people are used to hearing his grandiose high-pitched screaming. You’re in for a big change here though. While his voice is still high, it’s a lot more raspy and throaty. The only thing that is remotely similar to the albums following this are his deep death-metal growls, which he doesn’t get enough credit for even today in my opinion. There’s also a brief appearance by a female vocalist, but it isn’t Sarah Jezebel Deva, who didn’t join until 1996. They are done by Andrea Meyer, who also worked with Satyricon on their Nemesis Divina album. She only appears once on To Eve the Art of Witchcraft, but it’s a nice little change of pace.

If you guys didn’t already know, this album, and the first 5 albums by this band in general, are absolute classics to me. I think this album is one of the best debuts by a black metal band just for the simple fact that it introduced something new to the genre. No other band at this time was creating an atmosphere like Cradle was in their early days and they were the first band to integrate gothic themes into black metal. And this is where it all started…

5/5

1994

Tracklisting:

1. Darkness Our Bride (Jugular Wedding)

2. The Principle of Evil Made Flesh

3. The Forest Whispers My Name

4. Iscariot

5. The Black Goddess Rises

6. One Final Graven Kiss

7. A Crescendo of Passion Bleeding

8. To Eve the Art of Witchcraft

9. Of Mist and Midnight Skies

10. In Secret Love We Drown

11. A Dream of Wolves in the Snow

12. Summer Dying Fast

13. Imperium Tenebrarum (Hidden Track)

Boards Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children

2591***Written In celebration of Boards Of Canada’s new studio album Tomorrow’s Harvest***

It’s been fifteen years since the release of Boards Of Canada’s first studio album, and it hasn’t aged a bit. Music Has The Right To Children is still as fresh and inviting as it was on its release date, and new intricacies can still be found in the music if one listens attentively enough. This truly is a record that stands the test of time and becomes more exciting with each new listen rather than growing stale. One of the reasons this works is because of how the album uses time to its advantage. MHTRTC takes the listener back to several different times in their lives, some of which may not even exist. The nostalgic qualities of this album are so stunning that they are difficult to put into words. Songs such as “Bocuma” will have you bobbing your head while simultaneously reminiscing about some vague childhood memory that may not even be yours.

Emotional qualities aside, the album is also a treasure trove of musical ideas. The group’s musical process mainly consists of layering analog keyboards and samples over thick, reverbed hip-hop beats. Some songs feature intense, disorienting sound manipulation (“Smokes Quantity”, “The Color Of The Fire”) as well as thundering drum beats and loops (“Sixtyten”, “Aquarius”). The samples that the duo dug up are obscure, intriguing and at times quite frightening. The sudden uttering of “I love you” on “An Eagle In Your Mind” will warrant different reactions from each listener. Some will be chilled out of their skin while others will be sucked into the music even further. This rabbit hole only descends further on tracks like “The Color Of The Fire” where a sample of a child is tampered with to the point of being nearly unrecognizable by the track’s end. This is often considered the eeriest track on the album, but this reviewer respectfully disagrees. “The Color Of The Fire” is one of the most nostalgic tracks here in my opinion, akin to someone feeling true love for the first time in their life. The keyboards are sunny and warm, and put me into a deep trance every time I’m within earshot of them. Boards Of Canada also run the gamut of several different types of electronic music, dabbling in dub (“Telephasic Workshop”), trip-hop (“Rue The Whirl”, “Aquarius”), experimenting with drops (“Pete Standing Alone”), and even adding touches of ambience (“Olson”, “Open The Light”).

One of the best things about this record is how well it flows. Not a second is wasted on this album and at the end of my first listen, I heard absolutely nothing I wanted to change. About fifty listens later, I still feel the exact same way. The album flows seamlessly, gliding by without so much as a single hitch. The way the group splices drawn-out electronic epics with short, melodic vignettes gives the album an entirely new layer of depth. Even a sudden curveball like the extended endings to “Triangles & Rhombuses” and “Sixtyten” doesn’t feel even a centimeter out of place. Repetitive sections like the first half of “Rue The Whirl” don’t feel boring, but rather entrancing. The duo of “Bocuma” and “Roygbiv” are perfect companion pieces, supporting each other and kicking off the greatest string of songs on the album. Besides this, the second most apparent pro of the album is its production. The album truly feels as if it is a disorienting time warp, thanks in part to the mildly fuzzy keyboards and drums that sound as if they were bought in a rundown store for $50. When listening, one just might get the strangest feeling they’ve heard the music before.

Music Has The Right To Children is a triumphant achievement in electronic music and music in general. It stands as Boards Of Canada’s greatest work and is the greatest electronic album, I personally, have ever heard. The influence of this album is massive and the way it uses human emotion to suck the listener deeper into the music is genius. If you haven’t heard this album, I strongly recommend it. It was released fifteen years ago and still shows no signs of aging.

5/5.

Tracklist

1. Wildlife Analysis (1:18)

2. An Eagle In Your Mind (6:24)

3. The Color Of The Fire (1:46)

4. Telephasic Workshop (6:36)

5. Triangles & Rhombuses (1:51)

6. Sixtyten (5:48)

7. Turquoise Hexagon Sun (5:10)

8. Kaini Industries (0:59)

9. Bocuma (1:37)

10. Roygbiv (2:32)

11. Rue The Whirl (6:40)

12. Aquarius (5:58)

13. Olson (1:33)

14. Pete Standing Alone (6:08)

15. Smokes Quantity (3:08)

16. Open The Light (4:26)

17. One Very Important Thought (1:19)

18. Happy Cycling (Bonus Track) (7:51)

Sunn O))) – Flight of the Behemoth

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It’s incredibly difficult to describe the appeal of Sunn’s music – not a lot of
people will be eager to hear a 50 minute record that’s built around only a
handful of songs with riffs that can last up to two minutes at 10BPM. The band –
built up of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley rarely, if ever adhere to a
traditional rock/metal song structure, often opting instead to ride out many
riffs, improvising as they go.

If you’ve listened to other Sunn records before, <emmilar, but this time the band have upped the atmosphere and the riffs like never before. The guitars sound particularly ominous and huge, and that’s something Sunn do far better than many of their contemporaries. Don’t be fooled though. Although riffs are present, they are still incredibly slow and downtuned. At a high volume, the clean (as far as the genre’s standards go) production of Flight Of The Behemoth results in the extremely minimalist guitars sounding suffocating, threatening almost. And that’s where the band scores points. The atmosphere present here is leagues above their previous releases, and indeed many releases within the genre as a whole. The bleakness conveyed throughout these 50 minutes brings about thoughts of trudging through dark forests during wintertime dressed in black robes.

The album’s flaws are evident in the middle – the two tracks which feature collaboration with Merzbow are disappointing to say the least. O))) Bow 1 and 2 sees the Japanese musician layer swirling electronic sounds and incredibly disjointed and atonal piano lines which undermine the incredibly desolate atmosphere the band has been working towards for the past twenty-something minutes. It’s not like Merzbow’s contributions are short either. He manages to fill twenty minutes of the album’s runtime with his contributions. After this, the album isn’t quite the same. The album finishes on a high note though as the Metallica cover of For Whom The Bell Tolls is an incredibly innovative and sinister spin on the original.

The only flaw to be found seems to be Merzbow’s contributions which wreck any chance of Flight of the Behemoth being considered a classic among the genre. However, all contempt for the middle two tracks aside, the band have created yet another solid piece of doom influenced drone metal.

3.5/5

Tracklist

1. Mocking Solemnity
2. Death Becomes You
3. 0))) Bow I
4. 0))) Bow II
5. F.W.T.B.T.