Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

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Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here

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New Found Glory – Makes Me Sick

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New Found Glory exists currently for about 20 years. I know people who are younger than this band. This is so bizarre. Recently I sat with a friend and we reflected (or lamented, or celebrated) the fact we’re getting older. What makes this all the more bizarre is that New Found Glory works in the genre of youth. Even if you weren’t a teenager in the days of Punk Pop – I was, but was more of a Nu Metal kid – this still sounds like music for teenagers to get loud to. It was catchy, it was loud, it was angry and victorious at the same. For the 30-year-old man, a song like “My Friends Over You” means nothing. For a 16-year-old kid trying to convince himself that he’s not attached to a girl, this song means everything.

In a way, this album is an acknowledgement that these dudes are getting older. Whatever their previous albums sound like, “Party on Apocalypse” is the sound of an out-of-touch adult who remembers being young, yet realizes his youth has been replaced. In style it’s what you expect from a grown-up Punk-Pop band. The riffs are moved to mid-tempo and they discovered you can dance to something other than pounding drums, so you get a slightly funk rhythm. Musically it updates the genre for parties, and many bands went this way. Eventually we find our friends and want to chill with them.

The lyrics are different. Many heard about how the current generation is stupid. Just ask Socrates and how he hated writing. The lyrics are full of discorn, of venom towards the current generation. It doesn’t come from an adult perspective or reminisincing on better days. It’s just as suited for any 16-year-old today who’s confused about how to have fun.

The first verse immediately kicks off with how the ‘living for the weekend’ mentality is stupid. Coming from the band with that nasty tone, they sound like the ones who are actually having fun. All these people who pass out in parking lots and care so much about their image look ridiculous. The band doesn’t get angry over it, but confused and mocking. Later there’s even a slight at Social Justice. It’s the outsider perspective, how things look from the outside. All those people putting pictures on Facebook of them with beer bottles and all this identity politics thing, where people think their race or gender must be their whole meaning. Thankfully the chorus saves it from being just a song about being grumpy about waiting for all the trends to die. In the end it’s a party song about looking at the world from outside, thinkinkg it’s ridiculous and knowing you have more fun.

Two more other songs take this delusional approach – “Call Me Anti-Social” and “Your Jokes Aren’t Funny”. The latter is pretty obvious. Someone’s jokes lost their spark, like when you’re 22-years-old and memes about rape jokes just don’t do it for you and actually look offensive. “Call Me Anti-Social” continues from “Apocalypse” with being even more anti-social, but there’s something charming about it. Like the previous song it’s another response to a world where we’re surrounded by images of people being social (Which is not the same as actually being social). In this world, it’s far easier to feel isolated and alone. Unless you’re sticking your tongue out in Ibiza, you’re no fun. As an anthem of tiredness, it’s fantastic and exactly what I’d expect from a rock band who notices how different the rock landscape is now.

Everything else after that is just a retreat of Sticks & Stones. That’s okay, because New Found Glory have more charm than any band they influenced and overtake them. Anyone else would’ve ruined “Party On Apocalypse”, but it’s their everyman, ordinary people with loud guitars approach that makes it so charming. So when they talk about being used for sex (“The Cheapest Thrill”) or a weird unstoppable love (“Barbed Wire”) it’s cute.

It also lacks vigor. It lacks the authenticity of youth. I’m not saying they are pretending. I’m sure they really care about these songs and the only time a song is close to bad is because the melody is dull, like how uninspired “Blurred Vision” is with repeating a single phrase over and over. Yet what made their original material so powerful was how youthful it sounded, that it wasn’t a professional band knowing their genre but a bunch of dudes who had passion for romance and were really confused over being young. “Barbed Wire” is really cute and the lyrics are adorable, but I wonder what it would’ve been like if they played it 15 years ago. They do sound grown-up, which is excellent for some songs. When talking about broken hearts though, they’re just professionals going through the motions. It’s still good, but this isn’t the heart of Punk-Pop.

“Party On Apocalypse” is a fantastic and should be at the top of end-of-year lists talking about the best songs. It’s everything I want from New Found Glory now that they’re older. Someone should’ve expressed disillusionment and confusion over contemporary times and this nails it. Besides that, it’s just a rehash of old material without the same youthful energy. It’s fun, sure, but besides “Call Me Anti-Social” I can get everything here in better form in previous albums. Get these two tracks though.

I wish they would’ve used a better album title. What could be more generic?

2.5 apocalypses out of 5

(hed) pe – Blackout

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I was no naive at the time. I wanted desperately to like this. The album cover was beautiful. The word ‘blackout’ is pretty cool. The band’s name was badass and made no sense. Best of all, there were supposed to be one of the more Hip-Hop orientated Nu Metal. My previous experience with them was with Only in Amerika, which was good if you ignore how it treated women like the Japanese treated their specimen in Unit 731.

Something about this record felt off, though. Sure, the opening song was great and bizarre with its melodic-yet-aggressive vocals. Everything else lacked the punch, that Nu Metal chutzpah that (hed) pe did better than anyone else. After following them further into their career, the position of this album became clearer. It also explained why Only in Amerika was such a hateful record towards women.

This was their normal record. Apparently, the label pushed them to make this. Making a more radio-friendly record means less profanity, less lyrics about partying and more straight-up rock about the general gloom of life. The fact the record still sounds at home in the Nu Metal speaks volumes about the band’s talent. The label couldn’t crush the party. Even while playing straight, the band is weirder than their peers.

The key to this is the band’s natural talent. On previous albums, it could be said the genre pushed them to great moments. Here, they’re dealing with a duller sound that only talent can lift up. Check that ominous riff in “Dangerous”, that jerky guitar line in “Bury Me” or the frantic bassline in “Flesh and Bone”. Whenever a Nu Metal band normalized their sound, they had no such moments. They kicked ordinary riffs. (hed) pe can still finds unique sounds even when making generic gloom rock.

Jahred’s vocals are, of course, an integral part of the charm. His vocals are just as versatile as last time. He raps a little less, but he still jumps freely from style to style. It sometimes even sounds like there are two vocalists in the band. On “Suck It Up”, his singing voice goes ridiculously low. I talk a lot about the balance between melody and aggression which Nu Metal bands are great at capturing. That song is another perfect example of how it works.

He does sound defanged. The title-track should be an anthem against conformity, about trying to fit in. Jahred doesn’t have the same bravado and conviction that made “Crazy Legs” so thrilling. He just sings. His voice is pretty, but is that what people call ‘inauthentic’? In the previous records, his personality dominated. Here, he’s just an extremely talented vocalist. The only time he sounds like the old times is in “Crazy Life”. That’s no coincidence, since it’s the one song that relies more on rapping and some hedonistic lyrics.

At least he has a beautiful singing voice. On the acoustic, Everlast-esque “Other Side” his voice is so pretty it doesn’t really matter that it must be insincere. If we learned anything from the Lostprophets fiasco is that music’s an act. Jahred’s act may not be the most convincing, but his natural charisma lifts up the already excellent melodies. No one else should perform “Revelations” or “Get Away”. Then again, who really cares about authenticity in Nu Metal? It’s a genre about partying and vague complains about life. Blackout may more serious than their previous album, but the title-track is still a banger.

There’s actually a good side to removing the band’s personality. In later records Jahred came off like a misogynistic rapist. How he didn’t get involved a sex scandal is a mystery to me. In fact, I’m sure he did his sure of sex crimes that just weren’t reported yet. Blackout is unique in the band’s discography. It has all the band’s main talents – the crushing riffs, odd sounds, genre-hopping, versatile vocals – without the obnoxious “Women are evil and I love sex” lyrics. It’s the one (hed) pe album I can listen to without squirming.

Despite defanging and normalizing the sound, the natural talent of this band lead to a strong set of songs. It may lack their unique personality, but then again their personality sometimes got in the way. Everything you need in a Nu Metal record – hooks, loudness, variety are here. Not every record can be as brilliant as (hed) pe’s self-titled, but each of these 13 songs should be on a playlist for a rock party.

3.5 crazy lives out of 5

Korn – The Serenity of Suffering

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So Korn has turned into Sevendust.

The problem hearing albums like The Paradigm Shift when they come out, is that their role isn’t clear. Parts of it point to Korn still experimenting, just unsure what to do with their sound. There are still bassdrops in “Never Never” and “Spikes in My Vains” had something like rapping in it. The new edition also had “Hater”, their poppiest and catchiest song yet. On the other hand, a song like “Love & Meth”, as good as it was, had nothing going for it but the melody. Many tracks showed no interest in sound but just kicking melodies.

In an ideal world, Korn would work on both directions. They would have some weird tracks, some poppy tracks and continue to insert new genres in unexpected places. What the new album proves is that they weren’t confused at all in The Paradigm Shift. Rather, they were lacking inspiration so they couldn’t do anything with the rapping in “Spikes in My Vain”. They have seemed to lose almost all interest in their music.

What’s so disappointing about The Serenity of Suffering is how familiar it is. Nu Metal should never sound familiar. It was always about mixing genres but being catchy at the same time. That’s why silly metalheads and serious critics couldn’t make sense of it. You can stop many of these songs after the first chorus. Sometimes, you can stop them halfway through the chorus. Korn exhausts their ideas within a minute into the song.

I stopped listening to “Rotting in Vain” as soon as the hook kicked in. Korn repeats the same chorus structure for “Please Come For Me”, “Die Yet Another Night”, “When You’re Not There” and so forth. “Take Me” merely repeats its title. It was released as a single and I have to wonder what motivated them to do it. The song barely makes it to B-Side status with how lazy the chorus is. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write such a dull hook, not even a songwritier strapped for cash. Someone should’ve reminded them they already had a song called “Hating” back in Untouchables.

Untouchables is a reference point for many reviewers, but what people praise about is exactly what’s wrong with it. Back then, it was necessary. Korn had a bizarre sound but few hooks. “Freak on a Leash” sounds great because of the bass-heavy hook. Its melody exhausts its ideas in the first second, just like most hooks here. Now, I’m not sure what the purpose of this album. Korn proved they could write straightforward rock, so what’s the point?

Yet, there are a lot of hints here of Korn, of their unique personality. “Rotting in Vain” is as generic as you can get until the middle, where Davis breaks into his skat singing. “Insane”‘s hook may sound like a melodic carbon copy of “Let’s Do This Now”, but the band thrashes and adds some aggression to an otherwise ordinary song. Many of the songs also sound way better in the album’s context than standalone. Even “Take Me” sounds better here, since it’s surrounded by other Korn sounds and what dominates is their personality.

Speaking of their personality, it’s not adjusted for this material. Nu Metal was always shallow, so the best Nu Metal was always aggressive, angry and with an edge of fun it. The best Korn songs are “For No One” or “Right Now”, where the band was allowed to boast a little. Davis is an unimaginative lyricist, so much so that “Rotting in Vain” begs to be parodied (Only it’s not attention-grabbing enough for this). So all these songs are only about hooks. There’s no emotion here. The band has nothing interesting to say and in shows. That’s why the album often feels like above average ordinary rock. It’s being played by people who are more fun at parties, but not one you’d share your emotional troubles with.

Two tracks do stick out. “A Different World” is absolutely brilliant. It’s one moment where the emotion is convincing. Davis has a lyrics focus, and the song doesn’t just hurry to the chorus. That little build-up with the rolling drums contrast with the hook, which is itself a contrast. Davis sounds distresses, lashing out but literally backing against the wall while guitars smash behind him. They deliberately chose a steady rhythm. Corey’s guest vocals are used brilliantly, becoming more present with every appearance of the hook. It has a guarantee in the next Greatest Hits package. There’s also “Next in Line”, which proves that Korn can sometimes conjure a beautiful melody. If every song had such a hook, I’d be more forgiving.

On the one hand, I’d rather hear Korn playing a bunch of ordinary rock songs than other bands. On the other, I’d rather hear Korn playing anything but ordinary rock. They still stick out like a sore thumb. You have to do when your guitars screech and Davis’ voice is still one of a kind. It’s not a bad album and it has “A Different World”, but it has no purpose. It doesn’t add anything new to their sound and its set of songs isn’t particularly strong. Korn just goes through the motions, which is fine but I don’t want Korn to be ‘fine’.

2.5 different worlds out of 5

Excision – Virus

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Before we talk about the album, let’s talk about the Brostep. We all know what happened. Along came a loud genre that was popular, so people decided it was stupid. Once everyone stopped with those crappy YouTube remixes of memes, the scene flourished. Excision was integral for the scene. His Shambala mixes were highly anticipated and were a document of where it was at. His two best mixes – of the years 2013 & 2014, showed Brostep turning into something different. It was no longer about plain heaviness, but switching BPM’s and experimenting with odd sounds. When Skrillex collaborated with Justin Bieber, it was expected. That’s how wide-eyed the scene was.

Then something happened to the water all the DJ’s were drinking. Everyone took a step back to a time where it was all about cold heaviness. Never Say Die’s Black Label imprint was a leader in it, and although it had some good releases its influence was incredibly negative. The new producers forgot what made Brostep so appealing in the first place. It’s a Dance genre relying on ridiculousness. The more ridiculous your sounds are, the better it is. The new movement only emphasized some form of darkness. In some ways, it set out to be deliberately anti-Skrillex.

So the result was a lot of dull, heavy and no-fun bangers. The scene stagnated and it’s still in a problem. What should’ve happened a year after Skrillex blew up happened now. Finally, heaviness overpowered it and it’s embarrassing to hear MUST DIE!’s new song with Habstrakt. One of the most inventive producers is now doing nothing but white noise. Sure, there have been highlights. The recent experimentation with Deep House were a success, but overall the scene became monochromatic.

Virus sure feels like it should be the scene’s savior, but keep in mind Excision’s music was rarely as diverse as his mixes. In fact, he was never that diverse, not when compared to Skrillex or Knife Party or these new dudes, Barely Alive. In the current climate, there’s room to worry that Virus would be the finally nail in the coffin – showing Excision completely running out of ideas, missing the entire point and just making a lot of noise.

Thankfully, Virus is closer to getting everything right about a dance album.

In terms of sound, this is still all about brutality and noise. In fact, it’s less experimental than previous albums with no forays into new genres. Drum and Bass is barely here (Only the drumstep thing in “Rave Thing”). House is represented by “Mirror” and other than that, Excision powers through like 2013 never happened. It actually makes him sound of touch. After LAXX and Barely Alive, surely he can come up with some new sounds?

What didn’t change is Excision’s perfect understanding of the genre. Where he differs from the new boys is that there’s no posturing here, no attempt to sound cool by turning the sounds down low. In fact, Excision plays this record like 2015 never happened, either. It’s soaked in the mid-range madness of 2011, when it was all about roaring and being ridiculous. How else can you explain “Rave Thing”? It was out of place back in the 2015 mixes, where it roared and wobbled while everyone just growled. It’s a track that constantly ups the ante, that takes the most parody-esque elements and exaggerates them. As an attempt to out-Skrillex Skrillex, it’s quite brilliant.

Virus reminds me of why I love the genre it’s the first place. It’s so ridiculous, so oblivious to classy dance music. “Neck Brace” has Messinian, and he roars more than he raps. The drop imitates machine guns, but the sounds is right between midrange and low-range. “Harambe” literally stomps like a gorilla while alternating between the sounds of its 3 producers. “Throwin’ Elbows” shows Excision can still mine this style for new sounds. At this point, he doesn’t pretend to be concerned about rhythm. The drop consists of what sounds like laser beams shooting and the sound of reloading. As for “The Paradox”, it’s a brave attempt to make a defining song. Something is missing – it doesn’t as ridiculous as it should – but it would be an attention-grabber in any mix and would require an immediate change of BPM.

A dance album can’t rely on a single idea though. Even Dance artists whose genres are defined by heaviness switch it up. What’s odd is how Excision does these switches. There’s a foray to House in “Mirror” which borrows from the whole ‘bass house’ thing, but it’s not too alien. Excision is finally comfortable with guitars. They’re not sampled any more. “Throwin’ Elbows” is loud as hell, and can “Death Wish” be classified as an EDM song at all? It’s a Rap song with guitars for a chorus. Sure, there are Trap drums but the guitars play riffs.

The oddest excursions are to the sort of melodic Brostep most producers stick for tokenism. Excision now throws himself fully at them. There are 3 such tracks, and for once they have a purpose other than offering a break. “Drowning” has a glacial, sad quality to it. Compare it to “With You” which appears near the end. The former song doesn’t actually have a melody, but sound design meant to create atmosphere. “Her” has Dion Timmer’s chimpmunk vocals singing about a heartbreak over a weird drop. It’s somewhere between melodic and wobbling, creating this odd feeling of heartbreak and acceptance. It’s an odd moment of beauty that’s rare in the genre.

If you look at the tracklist you probably wonder how can you sit through 16 minutes of Brostep. It’s quite easy, actually. Making a dance album isn’t too hard. All you need to do is make sure everything bangs and there’s enough variety. All the brutal tracks bang, and there’s enough offer a break while keeping the rhythm going – “Are You Ready?” is the only attempt towards contemporary Brostep and it’s a nice stepdown, and while “Mirror” isn’t as good as his other House tracks it’s a welcome break. The only problem is putting “Harambe” as a closer, especially when “The Paradox” is right before it. The latter is epic, huge and roaring. It’s a climax. “Harambe” stomps like a mid-mix banger, a track that comes with no build-up and immediately locks you in its groove. As a closer, it’s perhaps the worst song.

Virus isn’t exactly what I want from Excision right now. I want to see the genre expanding, mixing with others and creating one of the most vibrant musical movements. Excision is still content in the midrange, but at least he backs up his obsession. When it comes to loud, midrange Brostep then all I want are tracks like “Neck Brace”, “Harambe”, “The Paradox” and “G Shit”. Hopefully, this will spread and the new riddim movement will die.

3.5 dead gorillas out of 5

Lady Gaga – Joanne

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Many will be surprised at Lady GaGa’s new sound. Yet, you could’ve predicted this album all the way back in the Fame Monster era. Sound is superficial. What’s important is demeanor and purpose. They tell you far more about what sounds the artist will try next and why they work. That’s why it wasn’t surprising Linkin Park turned out to be experimental and not Slipknot. Slipknot may have started out with more outside influence, but Linkin Park’s music truly acted like there were no genres.

What defined Lady Gaga wasn’t her sound, but her personality. As for her personality, it was one of the most insufferable you could find in Pop. It wasn’t until Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear that Pop music had a more obnoxious, pretentious figure. Even when “LoveGame” boasted about disco sticks, all I heard was decent Pop with squicky clean vocals without personality. However, Gaga was sure this shit was profound. She supported LGBT people, which is totally radical. She had a song called “Government Hooker”, which is more bizarre for reminding me of Combichrist than that title. The music videos were long and contained ‘weird’ outfits that all boiled to seeing Lady Gaga scantly clad.

I don’t know. I found La Roux’s semi-androgynous image far weirder, with “Bulletproof” containing more punch than anything Gaga made. She surely had no guts to make something like a CHRVCHES, who made one of the most hateful songs with “Gun”. Instead, she experimented with a bunch of mainstream genres and called it ‘influencing Pop culture’. The difference between her and all other Pop singers is that they focused more on hooks, and she more on her image.

Joanne is hilarious. It’s not bad, but it’s laughable. The only thing keeping it from a self-parody is the fact it’s overall pleasant. Lady Gaga, a singer obsessed with her own image (And not the music) makes an album full of Heartland Rock in an attempt to shed her ‘image’ and become ‘real’. She’s so naive. Anyone who spent some time in music forums is over these cliches. Hell, I know 14-year-olds who listen to Thrash Metal that never had the ‘Pop isn’t music phase’. The album is retro not in sound, but in attitude. It’s a throwback to when people thought guitars were ‘real’ and electronics were not.

God, this album is pretentious. The whole thing is an attempt to sell Gaga as a ‘serious’ artist, buying into every moronic notion of how music that ‘stands the test of time’ should be. Listen to how subdued “Dancin’ in Circles”. It barely has a melody and smack in the middle Gaga breaks into a vocal acrobatic. Why would you howl like a banshee in American Idol in a lighthearted song about masturbation? On “Perfect Illusion”, she instructs the producer to turn down the drums. Although they beat like a club song, they’re anemic. If they’ll bang too hard the song might be fit for dancing, and as we know dancing is silly and moronic. Gaga performs the song with utter seriousness, making sure we’re impressed by her vocals while forgetting the lyrics are supposed to convey pain.

Lady Gaga said she wanted be an actress but music came in the way. You can feel it here. Sadly, she’s not a good actress. Music is an act, in the end. Good singers don’t just sing, but play a character. It’s far more important to sound like you mean what you say, to sound broken and angry rather than sing well. That’s why Adele is so awful, because she sounds far more concerned with impressing the audience than with venting.

As an actor, Lady Gaga is awful. She’s awful not just because she’s a bad actor, but because she can’t seem to imagine herself actually walking in those characters’ shoes. “Hello” is a lackluster act, but Adele at least sounds like she’s aware she should be believable. Lady Gaga never tries to sound genuine. Everything is dripped in insincerity, in awareness that music is just an act. “Hey Girl” has an otherwise beautiful melody, but it begs for a singer that’s less full of itself. Imagine if Carly Rae Jepsen sang it. It may not be as impressive technically, but Carly has more warmth than Gaga can ever conjure. Lady Gaga can’t divorce herself from being an actress, too afraid of jumping headfirst into genres and sounds. The irony is, the fear of being trapped leaves her without much personality or diversity.

Many of the songs are the audio equivalent of a magician explaining his tricks and while performing. Worse, it’s a pompous magician who thinks his tricks are really clever and put him above everyone else. “Sinner’s Prayer” isn’t so much about being a heartbreaker, but about Gaga’s vocal acrobatics and a token song about rambling. Lady Gaga’s overblown sense of self-importance rears its head the most in the ballads. “Million Reasons” and “Angel Down” just beg for you to take her seriously by using sparse arrangements, but for what?

The musical backdrops reek of tokenism, instead of genuine experimentation. Although she uses a few guitars, she never slides next to like Drive-By Truckers, Steeldrivers or even early Taylor Swift. You can use these sounds for a remix of “Marry the Night” and it wouldn’t feel any different. Despite showing off her connection to ‘real’ music, the purpose remains the same. The music is about how awesome Lady Gaga is. Changing the instrumentation slightly means nothing. It’s no surprise “Government Hooker” is one of her best songs since that one actually pushes her to the back.

It’s far from awful, and that’s because it’s not too serious. Lady Gaga can’t separate herself – and doesn’t really want to – from her partying and lots of sex. So “John Wayne” ends up the album highlight, where Gaga sounds like she means what she says instead of just acting. “I’m so sick of their city games/I need a real wild man” – that line jumps, because it’s sung dripping with sexuality and no attempt to impress. It’s also the song that jumps into its genre with the most conviction. I can imagine some Colt Ford dropping a rap verse there, or that girl who was in Drive-By Truckers singing it. It’s a lone moment of sincerity that makes you wonder if, perhaps, Gaga should stick to country for the sake of it.

She’s also more restrained than she should. If it’s a deliberate decision, then Gaga isn’t all hopeless. She often used her voice to prove how ‘serious’ she is – just check the atrocious piano version of “Poker Face”. Her performance here is more restrained, with acrobatics appearing sporadically. Sometimes, they even fit. “Come to Mama” and “Hey Girl” have these indulgences, but it fits the feel-good nature of these songs. If she’s happy, she should have the energy to belt out like this. A track like “Diamond Heart” would’ve been destroyed by Sia’s bullshit, but Gaga never loses track of the melody. She strains her voice just enough to show strength but stops short before the melody’s gone.

The problems with Joanne run deeper than song quality. They’re mostly okay, with only “John Wayne” and “Diamond Heart” being keepers. The problem is, it proves Lady Gaga was nothing but a buffoon with zero self-awareness. I know it’s harsh, but we’re talking about an artist trading in EDM for pseudo-Heartland Rock to show us she’s serious. Even the album title and cover reek of smugness, as if giving a person’s name and posing ‘casually’ is somehow profound. Gaga mistook style for substance, and this is the first time she wanted to have more substance than style. I can forgive her because the album isn’t the trainwreck that is Any Recent Sia Song, but some pleasant Heartland Rock by a person who cares ore about appearing ‘serious’ isn’t my idea of a good time. Lady Gaga needs John Wayne, but I need a Carly Rae Jepsen.

2 perfect illusions out of 5

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

tooweird
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