Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

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Many find this to be the awkward one, the child that doesn’t belong anywhere. It’s slotted between two punk-spirited albums full of anger and vitriol, often eschewing melody for lyrics. The Manics sounded on their previous album like they’re more interested in starting fires than playing rock music. The Holy Bible was a philosophy professor going off-topic and refusing to let his students go. What does this collection of depressed soft rock has to do with anything?

Maybe these two albums were actually the abnormalities, not this. If you listen to them closely, you’ll find the same despair lurking there. Generation Terrorists wasn’t a victorious, rabble-rousing album but a car on fire just waiting to crash. What fueled its anger was despair, the thought that no matter how loud they’ll play nothing will change. That’s why it sounds so different compared to other political music. As for The Holy Bible, beneath the philosophy and big words it had “This is Yesterday”, “Die in the Summertime” and “4st 7lb”. The only reason the lattermost doesn’t fit here is because it’s not melodic enough.

This is the definitive Manic Street Preachers. It’s not their best album and it suffers from filler, but it’s one that captures their essence. If you have to distill the Manics, they’re a melodic rock band with as much brains as they got despair. ‘Despair’ is the key word here, because every song drips with it.

Just look at the song titles. It’s one of those albums that can convince you of having a concept – “Life Becoming a Landslide”, “From Despair to Where”, even a title like “Roses in the Hospital” hints more at despair than anything else. Even when they sing about something other than despair, it comes to that. “La Tristessa Durera” – a contender for their best song – is about a veteran who’s been abandoned by society, forced to live with his memories alone. I wasn’t in combat duty, but I did have a tough role in the military and that song is dead-on in expressing the alienation, the loneliness, how everyone treats your service like everyone goes through it. To me, this song is a godsend, showing us someone understands the loneliness of a discharged soldier.

The music is more softer, more melodic. Some expressed astonishment at this, but were the Manics ever brutal? Even The Holy Bible has its melodic, almost poppy moments. They just play at mid-tempo, which brings their melodic chops to the surface. If it was odd that their later records were so melodic, it’s only because we wanted to forget this record and believe in the Manics as explosive rock-n-rollers.

They never were that. Gold Against the Soul is the only logical continuation of their debut. All its fury and politics and anger and telling to people to fuck off were a last attempt at recovering from despair. Here, they wake up, quite indifferently, to a reality they knew they couldn’t change. How else to react to a rebellion you knew was lost in the first place?

The album’s power comes not just from despair, but a unique hopelessness. There was never a good time according to this music. Everything was always bad, but they just happen to sing about it now. “Life Becoming a Landslide”, in one sentence, points to a past that’s the same as the present. A lot of depressive music wax sentimental about a fall from grace. The fall is a common element in our thinking in dark times. Nostalgia is a place to run to, knowing that if things used to be good then maybe they have a chance of improving. The darkest albums have these, since they describe some kind of deterioration. There’s none of that here, just a monotony of despair.

The mood and sound are strong, but the songs alone don’t reach these heights. The album especially falters after “Roses in the Hospital”, and the final tracks are bursts of noise that only help to keep the overall mood, but not add to it too much. It’s also reliant on its sound more than anything. It sounds great when played from beginning to end, but if you find yourself choosing an individual song the choices narrow. “Sleepflower” is fantastic as an opener only.

When it’s good, it’s brilliant. “La Tristessa Durera” is a masterpiece. “Roses in the Hospital” is the second highlight, a funky Alternative Dance number that turns its despair into a protest. It’s the one song that captures some of the debut’s anger with the cry of “We don’t want your fucking love”, but only to fall back to despair. Other songs need the album’s mood to stick, but they’re good enough – “Life Becoming a Landslide” is strangely pretty, “From Despair to Where” is okay with brilliant lyrics and “Drug Drug Druggy” captures some Hard Rock intensity.

It’s also the album where the Manics begun their career as some of Rock’s best lyricist. The poetic titles are enough, but there are countless quotables here – “My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography”, “I am just a fashion accessory”, “I feel like I’m missing pieces of sleep”. If you need words to give your thesis or your book a title, there’s plenty here.

So it’s not their best album, but it is their best album, but if I have to direct a beginner I’ll direct them to this. They have more explosive albums, angrier albums, smarter albums and catchier albums. No album captured their essence like this, a poetry full of despair and intelligence that happens to go along with Pop hooks and guitar noise. Start your exploration here.

What the hell does the album title mean, by the way?

4 roses in 5 hospitals

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Panic! At the Disco – Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

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Did Panic even want to make this album?

Every Panic album makes some kind of statement. Even Vices & Virtues had a clear aim, which was to deliver a straightforward Hard Rock record. When Panic have a target to aim for, they’re unstoppable. “Vegas Lights” is your ordinary dance song about partying until you drop. It’s not original and Urie adds nothing of his own, but it still bangs and the chorus is great.

Everything else is confusing. What’s the purpose of this record? Is it mean to be some record inspired by Vegas? Then Vegas isn’t such a fun place. “Girl That You Love” is very serious and it’s a huge downfall from the fantastic “Vegas Lights” which comes before. “This is Gospel” is okay, but a weird opener. All the whoa-whoa in the chorus and it still feels too serious, like partying is for shallow stupid people. Urie comes off like he’s hoping to pick up girls in a dance party by looking serious.

If this is supposed to be cliched 80’s, it’s the bad stuff. It’s not the weird party music that Oingo Boing or early Underworld made. Rather, it’s Rock music with a little noise, a little dance backing and vague sexuality. It’s so toothless you wonder whether the cool kids will prefer this over the weirdos who tried to combine Industrial with Synthpop.

In fact, Urie doesn’t commit to the concept. “Casual Affair” is a Space Rock rock, and a decent one. The weird wobbles leap out, sounding like they’re inspired by Brostep without actually attempting it. The ballad “Far Too Young to Die” have no room in here. While it’s nice to see Urie trying to bend genres, he doesn’t throw himself into these ideas like he should. The boring melodies overpower the sound, instead of the sound inspiring the melodies.

Then again, perhaps it’s good that he doesn’t try too much to make party music. Aside from “Vegas Lights”, “Nicotine” and “Girls/Girls/Boys” are very uninspired. The former is a joke. Urie stretches his voice in some way to convince me or you that the party is on with serious lyrics. The horns in the chorus aren’t new, but they were better a few years later in “Crazy=Genius”. The latter is another joke, a rewrite of “Somebody Told Me” about gender confusion that’s not sexy or stupid. A rock band just wrote a song about sex that doesn’t even have macho bullshit.

What went wrong here? Panic’s strength is how traditionally ROCKSTAR! Urie is. He always sounded full of bravado, sneering at everyone while having a party. Making party rock should be the ideal for him. It should allow him to brag and boast about how cool he is.

Here, he sounds and unsure and desperate to appeal to people. So he puts a semi-dance beat behind a weak chorus with lyrics that aren’t too serious and not too light. I’m sure some people are impressed by generic sentiments like ‘show me your love’ over muted guitars and drums, but all I hear is a band who doesn’t want to make this kind of music. “Vegas Lights” and “Miss Jackson” sounds so bizarre in context. Urie actually sounds like he wanted to make those songs. They have a specific sound and as generic as “Vegas Lights” is, at least Urie sounds passionate about a simple dance song.

Panic moved on from this and made the excellent Death of a Bachelor. That one shares similarities with this one, only it’s good. Whether it’s soft or tough, Urie throws himself into his ideas fully. This album sounds like a band at its beginning that’s afraid of drawing criticism. If you’re afraid of drawing criticism, you’re not worth anyone’s attention.

2 girls out of 5 boys

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

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It’s amazing how you can both capture a sound perfectly and have no idea what to do with it. The problem with Humbug isn’t that it’s a departure. They didn’t sounded too excited about the Dance-Punk sound in the previous album anyway. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of hooks because plenty of records can survive without hooks.

The problem is they’re playing a form of psychedelia that relies on melodies. Psychedelic music is often melodic and accessible. It uses weird sounds along with an easy melody to make something both weird and accessible. That’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” is so popular (or at least covers of it).

This is not the Heavy Psych that blasts off to outer space. It’s closer to “Planet Caravan” and Monster Magnet’s ballads. These songs were brilliant because their sound enchanted already great melodies. “Planet Caravan” would’ve been nothing if the melody wasn’t sound so close to the lonely Bluegrass style.

“Crying Lightning” is the best song here for that reason. It’s one of the few here that actually has a chorus. The fact that it progresses and reaches a conclusion is just a bonus. It has a catchy melody that benefits from the sound. Turner drops words like ‘twisted and deranged’ which are perfect for this music.

Everything else, however, tries too hard to be ominious. The band is obsessed with beeing spooky. Turner stopped being a sex-mad smug asshole. Maybe it has something to do with erectile dysfunction. On “My Propeller”, he lets us know in the climatic bridge that he can’t get hard. Such issues affect a man, especially one who bragged about having sex with girls he doesn’t like.

That song sums up the album well. It has no chorus. The chorus has Turner whispering “have a spin of my propeller” not in a sexy manner. It’s as if he’s standing behind your back in a haunted house. It sounds pathetic because it’s such an obvious technique to make you look scary.

Or maybe it’s actually about drugs. That’s a better explanation of the rest of the songs. They sound druggy in a good way. The guitar licks and rolling drums in that sound like a calm before the storm. They can’t keep the atmosphere for long. It’s not even good enough for the song which saved by its catchy climax.

There are other tricks, many of them impressive and none of them are enough. “Pretty Visitors” has tempos shifts and thudding drums that are coming after you. The sound effects in “Secret Door” are supposed to fit the title, but too bad the melody is uninspired. Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s singing an actual melody but just mumbles things.

The sound fails mainly because it doesn’t serve the songs. The end of “My Propeller” and “Crying Lightning” would sound much worse in any other sound. Instead of sounding seductive, Turner sounds like a desperate and perhaps dangerous addict on the latter song.

On all the other songs, it just makes for a ‘huh, that’s cool’ reaction. They sound like demos, ideas that are worth attempting but are so new to the band that they’re only worthwhile for a B-Side compilation. The lack of confidence isn’t just because the band moved from the loud Dance-Punk. It’s because they have no idea what to do with the sound, even if it sounds cool.

Smack in the middle of this album you get the gorgeous “Cornerstone”. It’s a ballad that’s closer to “505”. The band has a fuzzy relationship with ballads. Turner is too arrogant to get them right but when they get it, they made brilliant ones. “Cornerstone” is one of those. It’s sad that this song got buried here. “Crying Lightning” at least makes everything around it worth attempting. “Cornerstone” should’ve been on the better next album.

It’s an interesting album and a stepping stone for the band. Their later albums proved they still got it in them and they were just confused. I’m sure this sounded worse when it came out. Albums like these are either a death sentence or a stepping stone to a new era. The Monkeys haven’t outdone their debut (and probably never will), but this sounds much better in retrospect, when you know they got over this confusion.

2.5 cornerstones out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

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This album doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debut was explosive. Arctic Monkeys didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they sounded like they were really into the Dance-Punk thing. The band sounded so energetic it’s like they couldn’t notice they forgot to write a song in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”.

Although the album opens with an explosive track that does sound stormy, the album doesn’t have the spark of the debut. Instead of honing their craft, they’re just going through the motions and kicking danceable Indie Rock. There’s talent and hooks, but the lack of spirit makes it hard to react to this strongly.

The main difference between this album and the debut is that this one has no concept. Whatever knew it was a Dance-Punk album and had lyrics that described that party environment with humor and wit. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a fun collection of songs that are great when they’re closer to their debut and weaker when they move further way. There’s also a fantastic ballad thrown in.

The band sounds lost on the more melodic/casual tracks like “If You Were There” or “Balaclava”. They were at their best when making sonic mayhem. On these tracks they’re turning it down but not replacing the noise with anything. There’s not much going in these tracks. On “Balaclava” Turner becomes annoying, speaking in a smug way rather than singing. Even “Flourscent Adolescent” doesn’t work. There is melodic beauty buried somewhere behind the vocals, but Turner refuses to commit to one style. He doesn’t decide whether to rap, sing or sing-rap like Astronautalis. The result is a Pop song without a melody.

Even the harder tracks feel like something is missing. The instrumental storm of “Brianstorm” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a party. It’s more artistic, trying to capture the song’s title rather than to start a mosh pit. It’s still effective though. Other tracks have some explosive hooks – “D Is for Dangerous”, “This House is a Circus” and “The Bad Thing” are all rocking. Something in the production does feel flat, nothing in these tracks compares to the mayhem of “Fake Tales” or “I Bet You Look Good”.

I can’t tell whether it’s the production or the band itself. The melodies work in the same way. There’s no change in focus. It’s still sharp, aggressive melodies with noise behind them. “D is for Dangerous” is their most danceable song, actually. Perhaps it’s the production, which is cleaner, more pleasant. It works in some tracks, but it makes these ones sound less party-ready.

There are two odd successes here. “Only Ones Who Know” is a beautiful ballad. It’s different from “Riot Van”. That one still had the lyrics about wild life of the night. The musical backdrop was different but it stuck to the concept. “Only Ones Who Know” is truly tender, with Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s putting on an act. There are whole bands basing a career on making such songs. If only Adele or Coldplay knew that great ballads work because they don’t try to attract attention. That song never explodes and always remains quiet. If it did, it’d undo its beauty.

The ambitious “Do Me a Favour”. It’s the most ambitious track here, building towards a conclusion and letting every band member contribute. “505” also does the build-up thing, but it’s a familiar end-of-album ballad that’s too ordinary to get a reaction. “Do Me a Favour” sounds like a deliberate attempt to write a great break-up song and it’s a success. The drums create tension all the way it explodes with telling someone to fuck off.

At its heart, this is just an ordinary Indie Rock album. If it was released by any band it probably wouldn’t gain any hype. It’s pretty consistent, has some great songs for a playlist but that’s it. That said, it’s a terrible album to listen to for your first album by the band. Since all they do is just kick songs, it might leave you confused on what the big deal is. Actually, that’s all they ever did – just kick catchy Pop Rock with a charismatic singer. You don’t need more than that to become popular.

3 nightmares out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

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It’s amazing what cultural differences can do. This was apparently a pretty big deal in the UK. It had something to do with how Pop music dominated the charts, or that it gave a voice to macho dudes who only want to pick up girls in the club (but liked guitars), or that they gained their success via word of mouth. I’m here, listening to it 9 years after it came out. I can tell it’s big, but not really why.

It sounds like it has a mission statement, but what it states is different than everything I heard. You can’t rely on historical context for too long. Eventually there will be a generation who never heard those Pop bands you knocked off the charts. They might even like them. They will care more whether the files they got from iTunes are worth doing air-guitar to or singing along to.

The album is a Dance-Rock album. It’s not about creativity or delivering a message or being weird. It tries to do the same thing Glam Metal, later Nickelback albums and Dance-Punk artists like !!! and Test Icicles do. It wants to throw a party with guitars.

The lyrics are more sophisticated than your average Glam Metal track. They swing from trying too hard to sharp. “Fake Tales” is fantastic. It’s a great attack on people who go on and on how cool other countries are. The irony is, in Israel you can switch “San Fransico” with “London”. This just shows how the message is more than just for the locals.

“You Probably Couldn’t See” is another bomb. Turner makes fun of the guys and how they all change their behavior with hopes of impressing a woman. It describes word-for-word every social situation I’ve seen where there was an attractive female there. Even the guys who claimed they’re not into it were influenced. It’s the best song the album.

While these songs give the impression that the band is a vehicle for Turner’s lyrics, it’s not. They’re just seasoning that makes these songs better, but what drives them are guitar riffs, hooks and hard drums.

Turner is a great vocalist. While he can come off as too smug (Especially on “Still Take You Home” where he’s your typical douchebag who has sex with girls he dislikes) he also easily captures an air of coolness. He sounds both smart and hedonistic, like a person who can have fun at a rock club and later make articulate arguments about the last book he read.

He never drowns out the band. In fact, they often threat to drown him. The playing is so energetic and full of life. “I Bet You Look Good” opens with what sound like Metalcore riffs. The band sounds like it’s dying to slam. On “When the Sun Goes Down” it sounds like Turner is trying to keep up.

What makes the band so good is that they know what they’re doing. This is party rock. It exists to be catchy, energetic, to slam and to sing along to. That’s why the moshpit-friendly sections in “I Bet You Look Good” don’t feel too out of place. It’s impressive how the album never runs out of steam. The last two tracks are slightly weaker, but almost everything before it sticks to the concept and never lets up.

There are a few cuts that try to tone down the noise. Only “Riot Van” succeeds, and it’s a surprising one. It only has Turner and some guitar strumming in the back, but it’s beautiful. It comes right in the middle, the right time for a small break. This is the tracks that they will draw inspiration from in their second breakthrough.

Ignore all the people who talk about what it was like when it first came out. This album still sounds great now. It’s a party rock album where the riffs are energetic, the hooks are catchy and everyone sounds like they’re really into it. It even has some cool lyrics that prevent it from sounding moronic but rarely too smug. It’s everything a party rock album should be.

3.5 fake tales of san francisco out of 5