Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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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

Cassandra Clare – City of Bones

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Other reviewers listed the stories that this novel borrows from. Characters are, apparently, plucked from someone else’s movie or book, given a different name and a slightly different attire. I’m not familiar with the Big Things of teen fiction. I’ve never watched Buffy and never immersed myself in Harry Potter. This still felt so derivative.

This is another book that came out of fan fiction. You’d expect it to have more verve, more energy. Copy your favorite story, but at least show the passion you have for it. If the novel had the rabid energy fans express over Harry Potter or Star Wars then the unoriginal story wouldn’t matter so much. It’d at least have excitement.

City of Bones feels tired all the way. It’s written by an amateur author who has little experience with what stories can be. It never imagines stories can do other thing than just become more convoluted. We all had this phase when we thought that plot twists was proof the writer was clever, but I thought we’d outgrown it. Surely, even the overrated Nolan proved thrillers have more than just “Surprise!”.

Clary does nothing. Calling her a ‘weak female protagonist’ would at least means she has some sort of role. A female whose role is only to help the main male character at least does something, active in some way. Clary is an observer. She stands around and things happen.

It’s amazing how many events rain down the characters and how little of them are instigated by them. It’s not the examination of “life is out of control” idea. The events have nothing to do with the characters and Clare doesn’t examine their reactions. She introduces a conflict, the characters solve it because of brute force and then they wait until something else happens.

If Clary helped solving the cases, it’d add some intensity. She tends to sit back and look at everyone do their thing, Shadowhunters shadowhuntin’.

There’s something tempting about such protagonists. They’re easy to write and they give the reader (or more important, the author) a hole to insert themselves in. This way, you can watch the story happen through someone’s eyes.

This character is never actually a part of the story though. The camera is never a part of the film’s plot. Some stories deliberately create such characters, but this ‘observer’ nature is addressed in the story and a part of the personality. Clary’s personality is never meant to be a shy observer.

Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of sassy heroine. She sometimes slap people or gets mad at them, but that’s not enough for a character. A character’s personality is established by multiple incidents that can be connected. More importantly, how the character reacts needs to be connected to the personality. Even if all your characters are cruel, they each need to do it in their own way (something Future Diary does well, for example). Clary just gets angry.

The other characters don’t have much going for them. The other female is supposed to be much prettier (although Clary gets the red head), there’s a gay dude who could have been interesting and the Nice Guy/Brooding Assole dualism. Is daddy issues a new thing in this type of fiction?

You know these characters are different because the characters themselves say it. Somehow, they see things that Clare didn’t write or left off. Everyone talks in the same way. Everyone makes the same sarcastic jokes. I know sarcasm seemed like the newest thing when you’re at your teens but isn’t it a little old? So the books are set at a time when sarcasm is still new. There’s no way everyone is witty.

Her world borrows every fantasy staple. She adds nothing we haven’t seen before and none of the staples she uses are interesting. Vampires still suck blood and have pale skin. Werewolves learn to control their shape-shifting, mostly because one of the good characters is a werewolf and that would be inconvenient. Warlocks are more interesting. They’re hedonistic party animals who dress like they’re in a rave. Here’s a way to modernize a fantasy staple. Too bad that the warlock only appears for one scene and his role is (like everyone else’s) to give us more exposition.

It always happens with such books. The side-characters end up being more interesting because they’re more conflicting. Even Alec, who gets little page-time is a more interesting idea. He’s a gay who’s into a straight dude. That’s a worthwhile situation to write about, but that would require focusing on psychology and character interaction. Such a story couldn’t rely on events just happening.

Using Biblical names and fantasy staples doesn’t make your fiction fantastical. The world here is so familiar, so ordinary and I’m not even well-versed in fantasy. I also watched High School DXD while reading this and the whole devils ‘n’ angels things kept getting mixed up. The difference between the two is that Clare has no purpose for what she does. DXD knows it’s just an overblown ecchi show.

We also get an evil character who wants to purify the world and kills what he considers bad. As Fallout 3 displayed, this idea is still worthwhile. It can be used to explore racism and bigotry by giving the bigot some reasonable basis for his beliefs. Clare had a potential here because the creatures the bad guy wants to kill are a bit in the morally grey area.

Instead of showing the issue from different perspectives, we just have the bad guy laugh maniacally and dream of strength. Then again, halfway through the book or so it’s revealed the series is named after a series of plot coupons.

Clare’s writing isn’t too dense, but it’s also not smooth enough. There are a lot of similes, many of which are pointless. Clare doesn’t overdo descriptions. She lingers on the odd details, the type that stick out to the eye. Her description of a party room is great, pointing out all the colors and odd shapes.

Her way of writing is devoid of personality. The smilies are random, exists mainly because Clare can’t think of describing something without a simile. At first, the huge variety of them is fun. After about fifty of them it gets tiring. It’s a sign Clare has no interesting way of looking at things or of writing about them.

The novel relies mainly on things happening. Werewolves arrive, parties are getting rocked, someone turns into a rat, swords clash and blood pours. This can be exciting even if your characters have no reason to exist but enact these events. Clare’s writing isn’t exciting. It doesn’t drag the scenes down but doesn’t add energy to them because she has no interesting phrases. The event themselves can’t stand on their own. It’s mostly blood pouring and swords clashing.

There’s some fun to be had in this novel, but I expected more. Even as just a Young Adult adventure about hot brooding guys, paranormal beings and saving the world this could’ve been more fun. Clare writes like she’s just trying to please herself. I hope she’s passionate about generic werewolves and passive heroines because it sucks to write about things that bore you. Still, if only a little passion leaked to the page it’d elevate the story. The only remarkable thing about this is the controversy surrounding it.

2 cities out of 5 bones

Mobb Deep – The Infamous…

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The Infamous has a very one-dimensional sound. Every song is a collection of street tales over hard drums with creepy piano lines. There is almost no variation.”Drink Away the Pain” deals with relationships, and it and a few songs have slightly softer drums. They do little to break from the general atmosphere of the problem. This is both the album’s biggest strength and weakness. Despite its simplicity, it’s one of the more confusing canonical rap albums.

The Infamous‘ main attraction is what it does to Gangsta Rap. Although most rappers use this sound just to tell you how tough they are, Mobb Deep add a layer of emotion. The piano hits and the hard drums are not just there to provide enjoyable and banging beats. There’s something cold and paranoid about them. The atmosphere is not of toughness, but of fear. Prodigy and Havoc sound more scared than confident.

It’s unique in a genre that’s known for its hedonism. It sounds pretty far from “Gangsta Gangsta” or Doggystyle. There’s a joylessness that’s all over the album. “Party Over” is about the party being over. On “Eye for an Eye”, they rap as if they stick together only for the sake of survival. The alliance doesn’t run deeper than that.”Drink Away the Pain”, although deviates from the gangsta stories, best illustrates this depth. Unlike a lot of songs where rappers talk about the pains of being an alpha male, sex in Mobb Deep’s world is just another drug that gets the pain away. Prodigy doesn’t sound like a tough guy who gets every girl on “Drink”. Instead, the messy world of sex is just as fucked up and hopeless as selling drugs in the streets.

This emotion layer is why Mobb Deep have been praised for being ‘real’, despite their background. Selling drugs and running from the police doesn’t seem very fun. The fear and paranoia in The Infamous makes it more real than any other rapper that’s confused over whether he shoots more niggaz or fucks more bitches.

The problem is, this extra emotional layer is the only thing the album has.

Mobb Deep don’t explore the street life from various angles like the Notorious B.I.G.. They only rap about the scary side of it. All they do is add an extra dimension, and not much beyonf that. Most of the songs are interchangeable. “Right Back at You”, “Party Over”, “Eye for an Eye” and “Shook Ones” are all variations on the same idea. They’re all really good, but they all do the same thing.

The problem is that Prodigy and Havoc aren’t very capable rappers. They’re competent, but they add nothing special to their raps. They’re both cursed with fairly generic voices and have few catchy lines. When Nas and Raekwon pop up, it’s a blessing just because there’s someone else rapping. The production is also one-note. It’s brilliant – every beat here hits hard, but they still all revolve around the same idea.

Only two songs manage to rise above. I already talked about “Drink Away the Pain”. The other great song is “Temperature’s Rising”, which has some coherent storytelling that make for the best lyrics in the album. It’s impossible to choose the third best song. “Shook Ones, Pt. II” is pretty good, but is it better than the hard drums of “Right Back at You” or the piano in “The Start of Your Ending”? It’s hard to choose a standout when all the songs sound the same.

It’s a good album, but it’s successful at just one idea. Don’t expect the variety of Ready to Die. The Infamous is just a single song looped for an hour. It’s a good song that I can listen to for more than ten minutes, but it begs for a standout. It’s better than most of the canonical rap albums I heard, but it beg for a “Life’s a Bitch” or a “We Can Get Down”.

3 shook ones out of 5