Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

GoldAgainsttheSoul1992_zps68db1fa0
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

Coldplay – X&Y

XY
This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

Viva_la_Vida.jpg
Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head

art_arushofbloodtothehead

“The Scientist” towers above everything else here. It’s the one song that doesn’t try to fit a stadium. It’s the one song that sounds like it could be on Parachutes. This is not a co-incidence. It’s also one of the few songs that Chris Martin improves, instead of dragging down.

Coldplay became a pretty big band after the release of Parachutes. Here, they decide to live up to the their popularity by sounding big. It’s a miracle they’re still around. Nothing here works in the same way “Yellow” or “Shiver” did. Nothing here, aside from “The Scientist”, tries to achieve what these songs did. Songs like “Don’t Panic” don’t really translate well to a live performance, but is this a good reason enough to wreck the beautiful melody of “In My Place”?

That’s the problem with Rush of Blood. It tries to take the basic sound of Parachutes and make it fit for a stadium. That’s a misunderstanding of both what made Parachutes great and what makes stadium music great. Music for stadium needs to be loud, catchy and also energetic. The best stadium rock has an aggressive edge. You don’t go to a Nickelback or Def Leppard show to contemplate the meaning of life. Even stadium ballads don’t work in the same way Coldplay think they do.

As for Parachutes, it was a minimalist and intimate album. These two qualities are what stadium bands try to avoid. Since Coldplay are not talented or versatile enough, they can’t merge these qualities. Instead, we have a compromise that sucks the life out of everything.

“In My Place” and “Clocks” best illustrate this. The former has a beautiful guitar melody, but the production tries to make it an anthem. Chris Martin sings like that, too, as if the song is so profound it will be played in a climatic scene. It doesn’t mesh well. “Clocks” is just bad. It’s admirable to have a pop song with an instrumental chorus, but it’s hard to get over how hard it tries to big.

Who thought that putting a lot of guitar noise behind Chris Martin is a good idea? It was the scarcity of sounds that made “Sparks” beautiful. “In My Place”, “Warning Sign” and “A Whisper” all have that guitar noise that Oasis love so much. The production team forgot that Oasis is muscular and tough, and even when they wrote ballads where they toned down the noise. “A Whisper” is especially bad. What exactly they were trying to achieve is unclear. Perhaps all that noise was a borrowed idea from Ride, but the execution is too incompetent. You don’t produce such a mess of noise when you have an example to follow.

There are some other sonic experiments, and most of them fail too. They offer more than just size, though, so they’re far more interesting and may worth a couple of listens, “Daylight” has a nice orchestral backing, but Chris Martin sings a non-existant melody and the song remains awful until the end. “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” is a more aggressive track that should’ve been played by Oasis. You can feel how uncomfortable they are in it. “Politik” is another Space Rock-influenced track, but unlike “Yellow” it also wants to be big. It’s still interesting to see Coldplay attempt these things though. These songs at least have ideas behind them, and most of them fail because Martin’s melodies are bad. If “Politik” was instrumental, it would be pretty good.

Only the title-track, “The Scientist” and “Amsterdam” are worth listening to. That’s not an exaggeration. There only three worthwhile tracks here, and two of them could fit on Parachutes. The title-track is a little different. It’s the first time they actually sound like Radiohead, not just sonically but the emotions are the same. It sees Coldplay truly departing from Parachutes, because the what they are trying to achieve is different. It doesn’t have anything special that makes it good. The chorus and the lyrics are all good, and Martin doesn’t sing with a falsetto.

It’s sad that a song as brilliant as “The Scientist” and the pretty great title-track are here. The former could have slotted in Parachutes, and the latter would have made a nice closer in X&Y. It’s a wonder how Coldplay stayed relevant when everything they do here is a career-killing move. It’s easy to see X&Y as a disappointment when you consider how hard Coldplay tried here, but the regression was improvement. I wonder how Viva La Vida will fare. It’s supposed to be even bolder.

2 scientists out of 5

Coldplay – Parachutes

coldplay-parachutes_cd

“Yellow” has plenty of loud, crunchy guitars. There’s no Coldplay song that rocks this hard. Its existence is puzzling.

The two things that first come to mind about Parachutes are both misleading. Parachutes can sound like just the beginning of a band who became the biggest. It also can also sound like someone erased the subtitle Songs Inspired By Radiohead’s the Bends. Both of these views are misleading, and miss the point of what Parachutes is trying achieve.

It has the same sound as The Bends on the surface, including flirting with Space Rock on “Yellow” and “High Speed”. The atmosphere and the emotional core though, are different. Radiohead, as soft as they are, belong more with Nine Inch Nails and Industrial music in terms of emotions. The music is always cold, scared and paranoid. The difference between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails is that Radiohead is the sound of not even trying to fight. In Radiohead’s world, there’s an antagonist. There’s no such thing in Coldplay’s Parachutes.

Parachutes is warm. It’s all about achieving an emotional intimacy with the listener. It turns down the distortion and hard drumming because this isn’t music to performed in a stadium. It’s meant to be listened late at night when you’re not sure if you’re feeling that bad. That’s where you get the slow bass in “Sparks” or the twinkling guitars in “Shiver”. The guitar playing also owes more to Midwest Emo than Radiohead. It creates twinkling sounds that engulfe the listener to create warmth. They’re not trying to create a texture as cold as modern life.

That’s why viewing this as a small debut album is doing it an injustice. It reveals exactly why Coldplay failed often after this. They’re not suited for making big music for big stadiums. The minimalism is not because of a lack of ideas, or because of fear of trying. Coldplay had a clear idea what Parachutes is. If they broke up after making this, it’d make sense.

It’s an album that gets its idea for most of its length. “Sparks” is the best example of the sound, with a bassline that makes the whole song. “Yellow”, despite being the loudest thing the band has ever done, has a Space Rock edge to it that brings it back to the concept. Warm Space Rock sounds impossible after “Planet Caravan”, but it exists. “Shiver” is the obvious highlight. It does sound a bit like Jeff Buckley, but it’s good in the same way Jeff Buckley was good.

It does sound like a classic in those great moments, especially in “Sparks” and “Shiver”. The problem is, while the band is excellent, Chris Martin brings everything down. He’s less the problem than what he sings. Plenty of times, he’s just given good enough when melodies. “We Never Change”, “Trouble” and “Spies” are all beautiful in instrumental department, but the melody Martin sings has none of the inspiration the band has. Remove the vocals, and it’s brilliant. Add them, and you’re getting a lot of noise preventing you from enjoying the song.

Chris Martin is also a fan of the falsetto, which is a problem. I’m sure the falsetto is hard to achieve, but it’s not a good defense of the technique. In fact, it makes it seem worse. Singing in this kind of album needs to sound natural, no matter how hard you practiced for it. Coldplay are trying to get an intimate atmosphere, after all. You can’t achieve that by making yourself seem different. Whenever Martin breaks into the falsetto, all it does is tells us Martin spent some time practicing. That’s great, but it sucks the emotions out the songs. Just listen to “High Speed” or “Shiver” and how well the choruses work without the falsetto.

Trying to understand why Coldplay are now the biggest band is fruitless. The band just appealed to a lot of people. They don’t have anything unique in them, and that’s okay. Parachutes is successful at what it does most of the time, even if the falsetto is too much sometimes. It doesn’t to seem to be going anywhere, so we’ll make do with what we have. “High Speed”, “Shiver” and “Sparks” are all very good songs anyway. Be prepared to be let down by the next installment.

3 Parachutes out of 5