Halsey – Badlands

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We seem to live in the comedown from Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. A few years ago, a lot of women got on TV with weird outfits and bragged about how much sex they have and how much they drink. The parties didn’t have to look fun. Mostly, it looked like a bunch of cool people trying hard to impress you. What’s important is that you’ll find them profound, strong, going against the norm. As we know, nothing is more rebellious than drinking alcohol and having sex.

Only your mom is actually against partying, and even that population of anti-partying moms is dwindling. Pretty soon a new type of female Pop rose, one that was still about lots of sex and partying but acknowledged the fact that made your Mom despise those parties. Where there are people, there are feelings and getting hurt. People sometimes get hurt before, during or after the party. Sex is fine and all, but it’s not as easy doing vocal acrobatics and calling it a song.

Halsey is a latecomer to this scene, and it shows. Lana Del Rey may have kicked it off, but singers who came later didn’t stick to the formula. For all of the ‘alt girl’ posing on Tumblr, these singers did show there was room for personal expression in Pop music. Compared to what came before, these singers gave a voice to all the kinds of experiences you go through when young.

Halsey may be considered ‘generic’ in that movement, but it’s a movement that’s defined by not sticking only to bragging about sex. In fact, her personality is actually more solid than it first seems. If she seems like a stereotype of the dyed hair, feminist teenager that’s on Tumblr posting better content than you it’s only because she throws herself fully at it.

True enough, we need it. I’m not one to complain about how there aren’t enough Black people in a certain field, or how there are too many males in a different one (As we know, all males are exactly the same). There is something different about these lyrics of youth though, something that’s far from the rage and angst of the male-dominated rock genre.

Instead of tales of hatred, rage, and heartbreak we get tales of confused and confusing sexuality, of drugs that are fun and wrecking at the same. Overall, life is a huge set of contradictions. Now that’s emotional depth for you. In contrast to bands where sex was always a bad thing, where romance lead directly to agony here it’s unclear and blurry. “Strange Love” is about a relationship so messy we don’t even bother to define it. On “Hurricane” she manages to overcome the guy all the girls can’t overcome. All that confidence is gone on “Drive”, a contemplative, atmospheric song that’s soaked in the amorphous and somewhat profound thoughts of an over-intelligent youth.

I know it’s fun to assume young people are idiots – that’s why we got such a moronic educational system. They experience things, though. The best music of youth captures this spark and more. Halsey is at once a young girl who lets herself get carried away by her sexuality, is totally in control of it, utterly confused by it and has the wisdom of a sage – sometimes in the same song. “Hurricane” isn’t the best song here, but it’s the best example of when it all collides at once.

Can these lyrics be anything less than ridiculous? Actually, they’re quite excellent. They aren’t a bunch of vague lines about sex and pain strung together, but there’s a coherent idea connecting them each. The distinct subject matter is what helps the songs stand out. True, “New Americana” is awful, but that’s because it’s the only song where Halsey pretends to be important. Name-dropping Nirvana and Biggie especially sounds stupid. Isn’t she younger than me? Did she feel comfortable listening to “One More Chance”? Statement-making was far more convincing in “Castle”, a slow-grinding song where Halsey sounds like an overconfident youth with all the good that it implies.

She’s actually at her best when she throws herself at an idea. The more contemplative songs, where she sounds too grown for her age can blur together – “Hurricane” and “Roman Holiday” are cute, but “Gasoline” contains lyrics that in any other context would stupid. “Are you deranged like me?” is as attention-wanting as it gets, but it nails the feeling of being misunderstood with others on the internet. “Colors” is the big highlight about loving a guy who’s on the road to self-destruction. The lyrics may be sappy, but being young is about being sappy. If you got the bonus tracks then “Control” is another highlight. I have no idea how it didn’t end up on the album.

People talked about how Halsey is constructed, artificial and is ‘not real’. Is Lady Gaga real? Sure, she flaunted how her imagery was fake but we were supposed to take seriously the idea she’s not real – or whatever postmodern hullabaloo went over there. Music is performance, and what matters is how the performance goes. Halsey is dead-on in what she’s trying to achieve. I met the type of girls who are into this music and heard their stories. Halsey’s lyrics match their stories, if not in precise details but in vibe. In the end music is more about capturing a certain essence of feeling or of experience, rather than the exact details. While it’s true Halsey doesn’t have too many quotables – her peers are much better than her, as a whole her lyrics are fantastic. Few songs get what loving a dangerous and self-destructive guy is like “Colors”.

Badlands is overall a fantastic Pop albm with everything you’d want – great hooks, great production and enough personality to make it memorable. That personality can annoy people, especially if you’re too busy with authenticity or getting angry over weirdos on Tumblr. It’s also possible you’re too busy looking for things to make fun of rathe than experiencing the world. Irony culture has yet to produce something as fun as “Colors”.

3.5 sexy boys out of 5

 

Papa Roach – Crooked Teeth


While Papa Roach’s previous album was decent, it also put the band at a crucial point. The songs lacked emotional punch, were nothing but decent stadium anthems but had nothing going to them besides things to sing along to at shows. It didn’t even sound like the band could pretend to have emotions. They didn’t even try to make tools for venting your frustration. So while pretty melodies like “Falling Apart” are nice, they had to give us something more or quit music. It’s been this way for a few albums now, but F.E.A.R. was their driest record yet.

And Crooked Teeth is exactly the kind of album I wanted from them, yet I never thought they were capable of making it. Sure, I believed they could crack an earworm or too. So when “Help” dropped, it was a good sign. It was ordinary mid-tempo rock, but there were subtle differences that hinted at a sense of purpose. Acoustic guitars were quite prominent and the vocals weren’t as explosive, adding a layer of vulnerability. It’s still an anthem, but it now had a bit of that shallow emotional sentiment that makes it work outside stadiums.

Then there was “Crooked Teeth”, which of course was praised because it was loud and we all know Pop music is bad. It’s not just the noise, though – it was truly chaotic, opting for a half-screamed verse and the band just hammering on their instruments. Most weird as the short Hip-Hop break in the middle. In the past I said “Gravity” was a brilliant career highlight but I wrote it off as a fluke. Most of this record builds from there.

You can’t escape how Hip-Hop-driven this record is, as if Papa Roach looked to the controversy surrounding Linkin Park and decided to replace them. Papa Roach were some of the worse genre-benders in Nu Metal and their rapping didn’t add much back then. Here, though, the rapping is far more focused and smooth.

Shaddix sounds like an actual rapper, having an actual flow and adopting the right tone for rapping. Even for someone used to Rap-Rock, these songs are confusing at first. “Break the Fall” and “My Medication” might as well be Hip-Hop with some guitars. Later they even adopt the genre’s bragging antics for “Born for Greatness”, where they also use their guitars for a bass drop. Add the cheery, easy vocals and you have a fantastic, chest-beating anthem that sounds confident and huge.

This rediscovery of Hip-Hop either causes, or a symptom of rediscovery of purpose in their music. Each song has its unique vibe now, nothing sounds like just another anthem. The aforementioned “Help” would sound generic in any other album, but here it’s one of a kind. Its subtle unique traits, like letting the acoustic guitars stay prominent rise to the surface. On “My Medication” and “Break the Fall”, they re-capture the spirit of teen angst that made their old music so good. What was lacking in their latest album was that.

Teen angst may be shallow, generic and too general for any depth. It can be effective though, especially with good hooks. “My Medication” has a manic energy in how the guitars roar and Shaddix sounds like he cares about this subject matter, like he is a drugged-up rockstar living a reckless life. The anthemic nature of the songs is secondary to their purpose. Even their ballads improved. “Periscope” lets the guitarists try something else for a change, a pseudo-underwater riff while Shaddix along with Grey keep the vocals low. It’s a song you’d expect from Deftones if they tried to go Pop. If this sounds like ripping off, it might – but Papa Roach throw themselves with full conviction that people in YouTube got worried over that track.

The highlight of the album is easily its oddest track – “Sunrise Trailer Park”. In a way it’s a spiritual successor to “Gravity”, only it pushes so far into Hip-Hop that it has no business being on Rock radio. True, it’s not as harrowing emotionally was it wanted to me. Lyrical imagination was never one of their strong points and the subject matter of losing a friend from drunk driving – and being guilty – has no depth here. Still, the band is sincere enough, letting the emotions rise out without forcing them. It might be obvious, but it’s never overt and there is something quite haunting and damaged in the line “I’m still haunted by the best years of my life”. At the end of the songs these lines just float with the beat. Such decisions can only come from a focused band who knows what their songs is about.

What I wanted from Papa Roach was focused songwriting and capturing the old energy of frustration rock. In some cases – like in the title-track or “Help” this is what I get and it’s enough. The addition of rapping, exploring new sounds and territories, having “Sunrise Trailer Park” suddenly hints that maybe this band has something in them more than just venting tools. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up. You may not have emotional depth, but you realize you’re free to try whatever you can. Hopefully this is a rebirth and maybe they’ll become genre-benders like Linkin Park.

3.5 crooked teeth out of 5

Slipknot – All Hope is Gone

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Normalization is the worst thing that could happen to a Nu Metal band. Back in the 00’s everyone whined about bands ‘selling out’, but they were concerned with the band’s image rather than quality. If a band decided to sing more and perhaps tone down the noise, it was wrong because it was accessible. Whether it lead to good music or not didn’t matter. So all the critics going hammer missed out about bands dropping elements, turning their vision more and more narrow.

The 00’s were surreal times, and pretty awesome. You could listen to Lostprophets without feeling guilt and overly serious EDM didn’t dominate the airwaves. A wave of loud rock bands rose, deciding that genres are silly. You can have funky rhythms, rapping, Dream Pop atmospherics and coherent screaming – sometimes all in the same songs. They weren’t afraid of being danceable or loud or poppy. “Eyeless”, a full-on rant with Jungle elements was considered unoriginal. It was unoriginal compared to, what, exactly? Long guitar solos and lyrics against Jesus Christ?

When Disturbed and Papa Roach dropped their quirks, it was a bummer but not too much. They weren’t too good at working with them anyway. Slipknot, however, are the band that suffered the most from the normalization. They didn’t distill their quircks into an accessible sound that still had shades of a unique personality. Korn still sounded out-of-place when they made “Make Me Bad”. Slipknot obviously read all the reviews that whined about how Machine Head does something other than an overly serious Pantera and decided, ‘hey, we’ll do it too!’

Why would anyone want to listen to “Gemataria” over “Eyeless”? What is it about the former that makes it more fun, more aggressive, catchier, more creative, more anything positive? Slipknot was so bizarre in their noisy rants that were somehow friendly to Rock radio. You would expect that the music would still have a shed of personality. If Slipknot makes ordinary music, it should at least sound like they’re playing the genre on their own terms.

Instead, it sounds like a creative band trying desperately not to come off weird, like a dude trying to hide his Slipknot shirt underneath a suit & tie. “All Hope is Gone”‘s chorus breaks into a Hip-Hop beat, and the chorus can be adapted into a Hip-Hop song. Since Corey displayed good rapping skills, nothing prevents him from breaking into a full Rap verse. It would be bolder to end the album with pure Breaks and rapping. The groove that drives it comes less from Pantera, and sounds more like the Funk-influenced ending of Prong’s “Cut-Rate”.

Elsewhere, “This Cold Black” and “Wherein Lies Continue” are more embarrassing examples of how hard Slipknot are trying to fit in. The latter has a slow groove that’s not danceable. It’s only ‘heavy’ in the sense that it’s not pleasant to the ear if your musical vocabulary consists of Backstreet Boys and the one Michael Jackson everyone knows. Imagine a Groove Metal track you’re supposed to brood too, rather than dance to. If you can imagine that, you need not ever listen to the song – or the whole album, actually. You’ll also desperately need something to make you forget this image. The former of these two track is the banding slamming their instruments seriously. There are no fun, catchy lyrics like ‘fuck you all, fuck this world’.

Really, people, why must anger be serious and dramatic? Vulgarity is informal. It mixed so well with Nu Metal because it gave it a lightness, a bouncy fun aspect to the music. Vulgarity makes the anger less serious, and the tracks more akin to venting than making grand philosophical statements involving fear and trembling. “Gematria” is limp and anemic, the band slams but can’t come up with anything truly hard-hitting. Spitting poetry about America being a killing name is so hilarious over these theatrical, brooding metal riffs. “We’ll burn your cities down” is the one highlight of the track, because Slipknot used to sound like they want to burn cities down for the fuck of it. Corey sounds more serious than angry, and you’re only allowed to be serious with Nu Metal if you’re weird enough.

Slipknot could’ve have justified their new, ‘no fun allowed’ approach since they were one of the few Nu Metal bands with an artistic bent. Vol. 3 didn’t suffer from it. In fact, it justified it by having fragile atmospheric ballads like “Danger – Keep Away” and weird noises during party tracks like “Pulse of the Maggots”. Nothing here is as brave and progressive like “Three Nil”, a track that was as angry as it was experimental as in was contemplative. It sees Slipknot utterly unrestrained by either Pop or Metal structures. Corey never once touches the conversational tone of that song, and no song has its unique, ever-changing structure except “Gehenna”. It’s an interesting song, at least, which counts for something in an album so lacking in spark or imagination.

The highlights are only “Psychosocial”, “Vendetta” and “Butcher’s Hook”. They don’t reach the heights of Slipknot’s older material except for “Psychosocial” – a fist-pumping stomper that tries to put a serious face, but still cares more about the party than grand statements. The other songs see Slipknot letting loose for a while. “Vendetta” may seem normal, but not because Slipknot are trying to be normal, but because they felt like kicking a straight-forward rocker. “Butcher’s Hook” sounds more like something out of Vol. 3 and has some fantastic atmospherics. DJ Starscream has always an important rib of Slipknot. His odd sounds made them sound more dangerous than any metal riff can, and the intro to the song is more intense than any Thrash Metal record.

Slipknot deserve so much more. While at first they seemed like they were Nu Metal’s most brutal band, they were also one of its weirdest. Even at their worst they sounded off-kilter and actually dangerous, like a band who can’t contain themselves. On this album Slipknot restrain themselves, and if this doesn’t sound awful to you consider this. “Danger – Keep Away” is an extremely soft ballad where the band jumps into its idea with full conviction. It has no build-up, just pure ambiance and creepy lyrics. Slipknot are unrestrained even in their soft songs. Nothing here sounds as dangerous or intense or authentic as that one. Here, they try to please those morons who whine about Machine Head being unoriginal since they expanded their sound. Such people you don’t want at your party, and you don’t want this album either (except “Psychosocial”, that’s Prong-level of party starting).

2 butchers out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Stephen King – Carrie

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It’s odd to read this now. King is a behemoth. People who don’t read books probably know his name and he’s synonymous with Horror fiction. It doesn’t feel like he wanted to be a horror writer in his first novel. There’s blood, cruelty and a general depressive tone. What defines a story is more than these techniques.

At its heart, this is a psychological novel. Its main concern is not with horrifying, but exploring different viewpoints. A lot of characters are pushed to the extreme, especially Carrie’s mother. It doesn’t make them any less understandable. King just makes everyone equally exaggerated.

Carrie’s mom is terrible, but she has reasons for what she does. While she’s an exaggerated portrait of an overprotective mother, she never becomes a strawman. King writes events that make her personality understandable. She was already predisposed to extreme religious views. When so many things happen that only strengthen that position, her already narrow view becomes narrower.

It’s weird to see King forgive his antagonist like this. He didn’t do it in other stories, where someone was evil because of something in the past and ruined the fun for everyone. Margaret White is more of a warning, showing us how we can become so protective (and thus dangerous).

The Evil Hot Girl gets a worse treatment, but it’s still there. Things make sense from her point of view. She’s used to getting what she wants easily. Such people react with anger when people challenge them, especially if it’s to protect a weirdo. Chris was raised in praise of normality. Her cruelty comes from hatred towards Carrie, but the hatred doesn’t come out of nowhere. Carrie was a challenge, a weirdo who made her presence known and that people sided with. Of course Chris will feel threatened.

The novel isn’t about horrifying readers. It’s about bullying. It doesn’t even use this controversial subject as an instigator to spill blood. The first half of the book is concerned with what bullying is and how it can affect people.

There’s an irony here. Parents want to protect their children, especially from bullies. This overprotectiveness can become bullying. Margaret has good intentions, but she still bullies Carrie. Confining, locking away and limiting a person’s freedom is a form of bullying. It’s just as harmful as insults. It’s a form of violence. Margaret tried to protect Carrie from the world, but her overprotectiveness made the world more dangerous since she never taught Carrie how to handle the world.

Bullying doesn’t start from pure sadism. A person becomes a target for bullying when he’s odd enough and don’t know how to react. This what makes the locker room scene so effective. The whole blood-from-vagina thing isn’t an a horror thing. It’s just texture. The purpose of that scene is to show what makes kids bully another. Carrie was a weirdo, getting her period late and not knowing what it is. It’s something the kids can use for their entertainment.

Yes, bullying is that cruel. There was nothing very exaggerated about it. Bullying escelates from insults to such acts of violence, complete with the crowd cheering. Not everyone is going to jump in, though. This is a surprising insight from King. Instead of painting everyone as just out to make Carrie miserable, he recognizes not all of them are evil.

Some of them may even regret. Some of the popular kids are probably busy having too much fun to care. That is far more realistic. Some people will get drunk with power being at the top of the popularity chain. Others will have too much confidence, enjoy their life too much to make time to make someone else miserable.

It’s hard to trust them when you’re used to bullying so much. When you’re a nail, everything looks like a hammer. Carrie isn’t an antagonist but a tragic character. She was pushed around so much that she couldn’t believe a good thing was happening. She is quick to look for how other people will hurt her and jump to conclusions.

The most horrifying thing about the explosion at the end is not all the blood and the damage. It’s the fact we understand Carrie and that her reaction seems reasonable.

There are excerpts from various fictional texts scattered around the novel, and they further emphasize that people were acting based on what they know and what seems reasonable to them. It’s not just a way to show off writing styles. The focus is how each text treats the case – an autobiography with a personal tone a cold interview and an academic text that remains skeptic of everything.

This causes King to spoil his own book. He would continue doing it in later novels, but it doesn’t matter here. The novel relies more in its exploration of viewpoints than withholding information. The fact King already dispenses How It Ends and the Secret Power allows him to spend the rest of the pages developing characters.

It does take a nose-dive in the climax. While it remains fun, all the depth is gone. It’s a typical King climax where everything goes batshit crazy. Gas stations explode, people die, blood pours like rivers and so on. It’s not scary anymore. It’s just one disaster after the next. It moves in brisk pace, but there’s nothing to it.

At least it never becomes too pornographic. King doesn’t waste two paragraphs on drop of blood and keeps the events moving. Still, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have any of King’s weirdness which lifted his weird stories. It doesn’t develop the characters furhter. The editor went AWOL in that section and it shows.

Overall, it’s a tight book. I guess the reason King’s later works are so unfocused is because he was beyond editors. Here,

3 periods out of 5