CD Review: “Steppin’ Out” by Beauregard and the Downright

This summer, Beauregard and the Downright released their album Steppin’ Out, a ten track masterpiece that embodies the obscure balance between grit and grace. If you are not familiar with these guys, Beauregard and the Downright is a refreshing blend of folk and reggae with truly soulful southern undertones. These music craftsmen put their heart and soul into each of their performances and did no less for their first album. Steppin’ Out starts out with it’s cover art, as all albums do, but in this case the art houses its known capacity of a thousand words. The front of the album shows a young, tattered survivor shielding his vision away from a post-apocalyptic scene of exploding missiles wiping away any remains of civilization. But that’s just one perspective, which never yields the full picture. On the back of the album, we can see what has captured the lone survivor’s gaze, a scene of tranquility that escaped the self-destruction of mankind, a scene where peace has prevailed and the wonderment of nature roams free. The artwork foreshadows what is found within the tracks of the album, which is a brief, blissful escape from the crazy, chaotic life we all struggle with at the snail’s pace that is the ticking away of time.

Steppin Out starts off strong with the track “Death & Destruction”, a well composed reggae tango where the lead switches between an extremely catchy horn chorus and mellow vocals that capture the chiaroscuro of humanity with each passing verse. Following this solid start, there is a drastic shift in tone with the second track called “Falling in Love”, As done with their album art, Beauregard and the Downright shows that there is more than one perspective on life. From here, the album goes into some very soulful jams that keep it real with some more sick horn melodies and groovy yet gritty guitar rhythms that pair perfectly with the truth found in each songs’ lyrics. Holding down the middle of the album is the ballad “Atlanta Anthem”, a true look into the depths of Atlanta with the unexpected yet delightful strummings of a ukulele. The band even gives some shoutouts to some of the city’s hotspots such as the Old Fourth Ward and local venues that the band frequents, such as the iconic 529 in East Atlanta Village. However, these shoutouts aren’t just an homage to our wonderful city but help spin the tale that is Atlanta, a city of hustlers and players where sorrows are lost in the bottom of glasses and bliss is found within a night out on the town. More bumping tunes follow in the album, with each song full of new surprises to the ears, really showing the dedication that Beauregard and the Downright put into their first big impression in the music scene. There is even a skit thrown in about the ordinary struggles of ordering some good pizza. To close out Steppin’ Out, the band did a cover of “I Wanna Be Like You”, as best known from the movie The Jungle Book, with all of this track being a live studio session with portions that are stark tributes to the aforementioned movie. These guys can definitely say they went out swinging on this album.

Check out Steppin’ Out for yourself to see what all this hype is about. I really am looking forward to seeing, rather hearing, how Beauregard and the Downright tops their sophomore release.

CD Review: “Eat the Elephant” by A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle hasn’t had a new album for 14 years, despite promising one for the last ten. Between other projects and creative squabbles, it felt like the super group might be finished until a steady trickle of singles started showing up ahead of the release. What those singles hinted at was a very different kind of album.

It’s hard to write about Eat the Elephant without leaning on words like “matured” and “unexpected.’ A Perfect Circle has always been the gentler and more polished of vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s cavalcade of bands. And Eat the Elephant still fits that description, but it also distinguishes itself in tone. It’s slower and softer, subdued and experimental. It’s heavy on despair and light on anger.

It can’t be mere coincidence that the single “TalkTalk” shares its name with a British art rock band whose albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, bears much in common with A Perfect Circle’s new direction. Jazzy rhythms, cowed vocals and the use of silence as an instrument are all shared hallmarks between the two. The first three tracks of Eat the Elephant form a minimalist trilogy of quiet desperation that could almost live on a Talk Talk album.

“The Doomed” and “By and Down the River” are the most familiar tracks. “The Doomed” is the only song to bring out the fiery and raspy growls you might expect from Keenan, although its marching rhythm and foreboding fanfare still maintain a stillness that’s of a piece with the rest of Eat the Elephant. Elsewhere Keenan experiments with his vocal register, utilizing whispered falsettos that are simultaneously serene, intense and dripping with anxiety. These strained moments form the soul of the album. However, his electronic dabblings are easily the album’s low point. Luckily there are only two instances, “Hourglass” and “Get the Lead Out,” and both toward the end of the album, but the effect is jarring. This delicate, morose album is suddenly preempted by a trip hop dance party.

A Perfect Circle starts strong but loses its momentum at the end, as if the band got cold feet about going the moody/low key route and tried to overcompensate. But the final tally is still favorable, offering: two cringey tracks, two throw away tracks and eight really solid, surprising songs. Eat the Elephant comes frustratingly close to being a masterpiece, and while it falls short of that mark, there’s still plenty of material here to keep fans happy until Tool gets off its laurels.

CD Review: “The Sciences” by Sleep

The seminal stoner metal band Sleep has been dormant nearly 20 years while the side projects of guitarist Matt Pike (High on Fire) and vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros (Om) took the spotlight. There had been rumors and rumblings, the occasional tour and a new single, but year after year no album materialized. Some Sleep fans were skeptical, but it’s not out of character for the band to move at sloth’s pace. It’s also not out of character for the band to eschew a Record Store Day release in favor of a surprise “4/20” release date.

Thankfully, the wait wasn’t wasted. The Sciences is a behemoth of an album. It’s crushingly heavy and glacially slow but maintains the band’s meditative aesthetic. The riffs are hypnotic in their repetitive lumbering, each built on a strong foundation of psychedelic blues. New drummer Jason Roeder (Neurosis) adds a percussive stride that goads Pike and Cisneros into bolder experimentation on tracks like “The Botanist” and “Antarticans Thawed” and drives the aggressive riffs of “Giza Butler.”

The writing on the album is heavily focused on the music over the lyrics which, when present, are delivered with Cisneros’s mantra-like chanting. But like Jerusalem, there is a sort of story underlying the album. What lyrics there are expand on the band’s existing mythology, calling back references to the holy mountain, marijuanauts, and the sonic titan. There’s also a lot of Sabbath worship, A LOT of Sabbath worship. This is a narrative where Tony Iommi is the namesake of a religion, a planet and a layer of atmosphere (it’s safe to guess what that atmosphere consists of). Such slavish idolatry would be cringe worthy if the album was taking itself seriously, but this is an album about a marijuana-powered astronaut who may or may not actually just be a stoned-off-his-ass hippy living under an overpass.

The Sciences might be Sleep’s strongest effort. The music is nothing short of trance-inducing and the album itself is rife with codes and hidden references that might lead fans down a conspiracy laden rabbit hole but are never actually meaningful. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting high and that, perhaps, is the highest praise that can be offered a Sleep album.

‘Designed To Disappear’ by Dead Empires

“Rock ‘N Roll never felt so good.”

When we last left our musically-inclined heroes, Dead Empires, they were releasing their sophomore album, Secret Snakes / Silent Serpent.  Since that time, they’ve done something rather unusual: this instrumental band has adopted a vocalist!  The New York trio has brought in a new member, Jason Sherman of Torrential Downpour, who has taken all those unusual song titles I spoke about in the past, and he’s put poetry on paper.  And as grandiose as the display upon Liberty Island in 1983, when David Copperfield caused the Statue of Liberty to vanish before the eyes of onlookers, so is Dead Empire’s new album Designed To Disappear.

Now, my friends, I must eat my words, for in my review of that previous album I said, “Vocals? They don’t need no stinkin’ vocals!”  And while the band might not need vocals, per se, they certainly work them into what they’re doing quite well!  But Sherman brings more than just that to this ensemble, for he is adept at noise manipulation.  Armed with a slew of digital deviations, he adds to the already monumental sonic acid trips regularly embarked upon by the remainder of the band.  This is readily apparent in tracks like “The Form,” in which the foursome take the listener upon a journey through digitized vocals, static ether, and a nebula of changing rhythmic patterns.  One can experience that for themselves in an exclusive by Invisible Oranges, though I must warn those prone to epileptic episodes to stick strictly to the audio.

I’ve been listening to this band since Monuments debuted, and I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I heard of the altered line-up, fearing Dead Empires might opt for a more straightforward approach to songwriting.  But Designed to Disappear is 8 tracks which cover a plethora of styles, both vocal and musical.  From the instrumental opener entitled “Spectacular Ruin,” we’re greeted with an auditory vision of a crash landing, causing us to roll and tumble our way into this forthcoming endeavor.  “A Summertime Song,” midway through, slow things down a bit; arpeggiated chords expanding the atmosphere of the experience, while the low-end digs a trench between the notes over which clean vocals soar.  There are plenty of other adventures to be had, all the way to the final, 12+ minute title track, where organs blare as we catapult through wormholes of space and time, the bass keeping us afloat in a cosmic sea, and the guitar dancing like starlight, while the percussion washes over us like pulses from far off supernovas; we are in no danger of the mundane here.  One moment we are in the ether, transcending mind and body, and the next we’re in a punk rock mosh pit, alive and well.

John Bryan, Phil Bartsch, DJ Scully, and Jason Sherman are not ordinary men, nor is Dead Empires an ordinary band.  Each album they release forms less of a tracklisting, and more of a painter’s palette, blending aural colors for the delight of all those who enjoy partaking in riptides of riffing and guttural screams, with the occasional clean vocal.  And one more thing I should note about Sherman’s lyrical contributions: they’re beautiful.  As harsh as he can be, and listening to the first single, “Slay Rider,” will certainly confirm he can be, the lyrics are poetic, thoughtful, and full of hope.  So many of these tracks conclude with a smile across my face, and that’s welcome indeed.  Designed To Disappear is not only a great Dead Empires album, but it might be my favorite yet.

 
Pre-order Designed To Disappear (23 FEB) on CD/Digital/Cassette: Here
Pre-order the limited edition vinyl: Here

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CD Review: “Sterilize” by Unsane

After a five-year hiatus, New York noise trio Unsane returns to its roots on its eighth album. The dour disposition of the band’s previous release (Wreck) is long gone. Sterilize is raw and angry and relentless. It sounds like a band that’s young and hungry, not a band with 30 years and a healthy discography under its belt.

The album is lean. Every song feels essential and connected to the whole. Unsane oscillates between ranting ragers like “The Grind” and “Distance” and a seething southern-groove swagger on tracks like “Aberration” and “We’re Fucked.” The result is a staggered tempo that periodically pumps the brakes but never loses momentum. The tempo is so compelling that long stretches of instrumental noodling sneak past largely unnoticed.

Sterilize is a politically charged tempest of droning, squelching and clanking, a controlled chaos on the verge of breakdown. Chris Spencer’s vocals are panicked and angst-ridden, screeching desperate lines like “We’re going to run out of time.” But he finds opportune moments to trade off his soapbox punk vocals for melodic bits of chorus that offer a nice dynamism. There’s a definite craftsmanship guiding this chaos. Unsane knows when to let a riff sit and stew a few extra measures and when to launch head long into a feral cacophony.

This album is, without a doubt, a crowd pleaser. Fans are sure to find it refreshing to see Unsane stripping down and resetting. It’s harsh, but entirely accessible and an easy entry point for newcomers. Sterilize may not be the most innovative or the most experimental album in the band’s oeuvre, but it might just be the heaviest.

CD Review: “Cold Dark Place” by Mastodon

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The Cold Dark Place EP bears the Mastodon moniker and the members of Mastodon are performing the songs, but this is only technically a “Mastodon” album. Fans still high on Emperor of Sand should temper their expectations. That’s not to say this is a bad album, but it’s markedly distinct in tone and temperament from what one might expect from the band.

The EP was originally conceived as a Brent Hinds solo work. Hinds created the concept behind the album, wrote all of the songs, and collaborated with artist Richey Beckett on the album art. The tracks were recorded during the Once More ‘Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand sessions, but sound little like either album. This is Brent Hinds featuring Mastodon moreso than it’s Mastodon.

Cold Dark Place was inspired by a difficult break up and it strives for a slow, melancholy atmosphere, but Hinds is too much a southern boy to resist twangy solos and funky breakdowns. It makes for some odd and occasionally schizophrenic songs. The single, “Toe to Toes” combines an Allen Toussaint/”Southern Nights”-esque acoustic intro with a chorus largely lifted from the Ozzy Osbourne/Lita Ford duet, “Close My Eyes Forever.” Streaks and flashes of classic and southern rock abound throughout the EP. These four tracks are admittedly closer to Mastodon’s body of work than it is to other Hinds’ projects like West End Motel or Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, but there’s no doubt that Hinds is the dominate creative influence.

Hinds has created a strange and interesting bird with this EP. It’s well worth checking out, but it lives more as a footnote than a follow up. Cold Dark Place will definitely draw interest from diehard fans, but there’s little meat for casual Mastodon listeners.

CD Review: Arcadea – “Arcadea”

Arcadea is proof that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor is a huge nerd. Fresh on the heels of Mastodon’s seventh studio album, Dailor’s side project debut, the eponymous album Arcadea, reveals an unyielding love of proggy, synth-laden rock operas and a fascination with science on both an astronomical and microscopic scale. HUGE. NERD. But this nerdy love of detail and technical attention makes for a pretty trippy tour of the universe.

It’s clear that Dailor’s proclivities make him at least one of the leading forces driving Mastodon away from metal and toward psychedelic hard rock. Arcadea is the stuff of black light posters and planetariums and half-smoked joints. Teamed with Raheem Amlani (of the fantastic black metal outfit, Withered) and Core Atoms (Zaruda), Dailor’s songs are written from the point of view of electromagnetic waves, black holes, and constellations. Nearly every song obsesses with juxtaposing microcosms and macrocosms and casting the clockwork tedium of celestial activity into epic stories. A supernova becomes a march to war across the galaxy for an “army of electrons.” Lyrics like “I’ll split the oceans, I’ll make the mountains melt, Molecular motion rising, Shockwave of thunder felt,” relates the creation of a star as the birth of a primal cosmic god.

Both in form and substance, Arcadea is a perfect throw back to 70s prog rock, but retains a definite Mastodon-esque sound. Despite the synth-heavy melodies and Neil deGrasse Tyson level lyrics, the band maintains a rock savvy aesthetic that never lets the concept overpower the song writing. The resulting album has a creepy sci-fi groove that’s catchy and compelling. It’ll make you want to dust off your lava lamp. Arcadea is a promising project and hopefully won’t be a one-off band that disappears into the cold reaches of space. Whether you’re a Mastodon fan or maybe just a huge nerd, Arcadea offers a lot to love.

For more information on Arcadea, visit their Facebook page and order the album at the Relapse Records website. Want to give it a listen first? Relapse Records is offering a stream of the album, which you can find below.

CD Review: “Spüken” by Ninjaspy

 

Before I even knew their name, I found myself dumbfounded and adoring that Vancouver threesome known as Ninjaspy.  By mere happenstance, I witnessed them in concert and reveled at the tumultuous exhibition.  Here were three men, producing a monstrous sound, hurtling around the stage like crash test dummies.  I was sure of some horrible collision.  Yet, despite the energy that exploded from the stage, each man was in full control of the situation and his own musical prowess.  At the end of that concert, I went home and bought every piece of music the group had yet released.  To my delight, a new album is on the horizon for Ninjaspy: Spüken becomes available April 14.

Ninjaspy self-describe as “three blood brothers in a hook-laden metal fusion fist fight to the death,” and honestly, that’s not too far off.  When the word ‘fusion’ gets thrown around, it’s not always clear what is meant.  Most bands I know take fusion to mean possessing an element of jazz in their playing, and I can certainly think of at least one moment on this disc featuring a lounge-jazz respite.  However, given their back-catalog, as well as their live show, that fusion seems to more predominantly feature metal mixed with reggae!  An odd combination, to be sure, as metal is often viewed as technical and exact, while reggae brings to mind a laid-back attitude and a certain level of looseness. But Ninjaspy combine these two elements surprisingly well, keeping the listener fully engaged with this merger within their songs.

Spüken is Ninjaspy’s second full-length release, but third overall, coming after their debut, Pi Nature [LP, 2007], and later No Kata [EP, 2013].  It’s been quite a wait for their hungry fans, but this has given the group time to dial in the ten songs featured on this album to their liking.  The opening track, and lead single, “Speak,” is a great characterization of the rest of the album.  It can be loud and boisterous, but it has no issue backing down to allow the dynamics of low and high to truly shine.  And of course, all the songs feature an underbelly of groove for good measure.  I’m sure some of you are worried about exactly how much metal there is in this metal-reggae fusion.  Rest assured, Spüken leans for the most part into the metal spectrum, which just a touch of the other thrown in for flair.  In fact, it dials back the reggae significantly from what was witnessed on former releases, a little to my disappointment, as I felt some of the excursions from the metal realm could have been pressed a little further before returning to the brutality.

I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with this release thus far.  So many of the songs have a special little something that makes them stick in my mind, whether it is the endless and circular lick from “Brother Man,” the funk-filled “Jump Ya Bones,” or the ethereal-turned-energetic “Azaria” (also available in an acoustic version).  Perhaps my favorite song in terms of sheer contrast and dynamics is “What!!,” a track that begins so seriously and erupts into one of the kookiest choruses I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.  While I’d highly recommend starting with Pi Nature and working your way forward to Spüken, simply to make sure you don’t miss out on treasures like “Hit By A Cement Mixer,” “Out Of Tampons,” and “Skaingkh (The Skank),” you honestly can’t go wrong here.  Spüken is a metal powerhouse, carefully crafted and expertly executed, quite unlike any reggae-infused album you’ve heard before.

 
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CD Review: “Emperor of Sand” by Mastodon

Emperor of Sand is a chrysalis of an album. Like Crack the Skye before it, it’s a harbinger of a new sound. Not that Mastodon ever really stops tinkering with its sound, but the band’s seventh album gives every indication that it’s ready to shed the last of its metal cocoon and fully emerge as a psychedelic, hard rock band. But there’s still plenty of metal to shed.

Like many Mastodon albums, Emperor of Sand is a concept album. It tells the story of a man condemned by a sultan to die in the desert, which is an allegory for facing cancer and the emotions one deals with when learning he or she is going to die. The desert imagery coupled with the inevitability of death is a little reminiscent of “Ozymandias” if the old king knew what was coming.

Sonically, the album follows the trend toward hard rock established on The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun, but some of the softer dalliances are jarring. The single “Show Yourself” has an unusually radio friendly pop aesthetic that may put off longtime fans. It lacks the proggy layers of a typical Mastodon song and the absence of hard edges makes the track feel flat at first blush. But to its credit, “Show Yourself” is an incurable ear worm. Lines like, “You’re not safe as far as I can tell, and I can tell,” burrow deep. It’s the song you’ll catch yourself humming days later. However, “Show Yourself” is something of an outlier. There are moments, flashes, in songs like “Precious Stones” and “Steambreather” that reflect a similar commercial gleam, but as a whole, there’s not another song like “Show Yourself” on Emperor of Sand.

Mirroring the journey from denial to acceptance, the songs get heavier and angrier making for some of the heaviest songs Mastodon has produced in the last eight years. Brann Dailor’s clean vocals dominate the early half of the album, but increasingly give way to Troy Sanders’ growls. Sanders’ harsher vocal are further anchored by guest appearances from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp on the final tracks.

Emperor of Sand hits a sweet spot mid-way through with a trilogy of songs (“Word to the Wise,” “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny”) that hit an epic pitch, granting a sense of grandeur in the face of a feeble and fearful passing. It’s a sad album and an angry one. One that refuses to go peacefully and fights it out to the end. Something familiar is fading out on this album, but something new and (hopefully) interesting will follow.

Mastodon is currently on tour and you can catch them with Russian Circles and Eagles of Death Metal in Birmingham, AL on April 28th at Iron City. You can find tickets here and a copy of the new album comes with every pair of tickets purchased online.

 

CD Review: ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ by The Neal Morse Band

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It’s been a long day.  A very long day.  But luckily, The Neal Morse Band’s newest release, an immense double-LP concept album, The Similitude Of A Dream, is the perfect companion.  I have been glued to this album for two weeks straight, and I can assure you that this piece of work is nothing short of breathtaking.  The foundation of the story is John Bunyan’s 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress (specifically Part 1), with a little artistic license thrown in, and it’s beautifully done.  One might expect that telling such an old story would come across feeling anachronistic, and that we might not be able to connect with the material.  But Morse, along with Mike Portnoy [drums], Randy George [bass], Bill Hubauer [keys], and Eric Gillette [guitar], have modernized and made mesmerizing what many might find to be a dated, historical Christian narrative.

I can sense some of you turning off right about now.  Did I say that this album is a Christian narrative?  Yes, I did.  But before you turn away, let me say that you certainly don’t have to be a Christian, or even religious, to enjoy what these fellows have created.  Similitude is such an organic release that it carries you along effortlessly.  This is a tale, more than anything else, of a man who is moved to live his life in a way that others don’t understand.  His desire and goals scare those around him, simply because he doesn’t fit their way of life, and he is constantly impeded by those who would rather see him let his dreams slip away.  I think we can all empathize with the Journeyman, as we’ve likely met resistance at least once in our lives when reaching for our dreams.

 

Perhaps there are those of you who are more in the loop than I am.  I will shamefully admit that this is my first foray into the world of Neal Morse.  But what a foray it has been!  It was immediately clear that I was listening to a collection of masters.  Each member of this ensemble is here for reasons quickly evident, most of which are made known by the second track!  But there’s are things more important than being proficient at a musical instrument.  It’s called chemistry, and this collection of individuals have it!  Perhaps more astounding to me than the buttery guitar solos, the beautifully crafted piano arrangements, or the funky basslines that litter this release, are the utterly astounding vocal harmonies.  The blending of vocal harmonics in this group is stunning, as evidenced in “The Ways Of A Fool” (a personal favorite).  Not just that, but the trade-off of one vocalist after another, such as in “So Far Gone,” allows not only for this concept album to make great strides in character development, but to keep it fresh as well.

I know I’ve gotten a bit sappy, so let me reel things in.  The Neal Morse Band has created a truly delightful release with The Similitude Of A Dream.  While it certainly possesses a Christian message, it is far from preachy and lines up with what I can only imagine so many of us desire ourselves: a little less resistance and a little more encouragement for us to achieve our dreams.  But just like the Journeyman, many of us aren’t on an easy road.  Life is tough, and full of those who would gladly have us fail, or even unintentionally divert us from our goals.  But the message in the music is, to quote Shia LaBeouf, “Don’t let your dreams be dreams.”  The Similitude Of A Dream is out November 11, and I think my recent foray has turned into a journey itself.  I encourage you to take that first step.

 
Buy The Similitude Of A Dream at: Amazon | Radiant Records

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