(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

The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Manic Street Preachers – Generation Terrorists

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In the gigantic discography of the Manics, this is the anomaly. Other albums have unique points – The Holy Bible is steeped in philosophical pessimism, Gold Against the Soul is almost funky, This is My Truth is the most melodic. However, they all paint a consistent picture. Manic Street Preachers are a band who plays traditional rock music without being traditional people. They play like they got Bowie levels of fame, but instead of hot, skinny dudes they’re a bunch of well-read guys who lived their whole life in a university and are despairing from the human condition.

Generation Terrorist does fit the narrative, but the Manics here are different people. Instead of despair, there’s anger. The lyrics are incoherent, mostly mumbling something about how much the world sucks and that we should leave this country. It hints at the despair of the later record, but anger is the keyword here. That’s why it still sounds so bizarre yet so familiar at the same time.

Is Glam Rock an angry genre? I don’t know, but listening to Queen or David Bowie points otherwise. In fact, a lot of classic rock paints a fairly nice image of reality. Sure, there’s heartbreak but the people playing it are always cool, always kind of weird but not really and will give great sex to your daughter. Velvet Underground are guilty of it, too. Their debut isn’t that scary anymore since, at the end, it’s just more praise for how cool New York is.

Although Rock ‘n’ Roll has always been painted as rebellious art, art that’s meant to shock and devastate and scare your parents, it hasn’t always been this way. Actually, maybe it is but nowadays who is scared of David Bowie or Queen? They paint a fairly nice picture of the world, rarely, if ever, addressing hostility or darkness. For all of their theatrics, they never sound like outsiders or oddballs or dangerous people. Rather, they just have above-average social skills and can afford to express their sexuality.

The Manics don’t sound like this. Generation Terrorists has zero political coherency because it’s so angry. “Love’s Sweet Exile”, “Slash N’ Burn” and “Repeat” blaze through, making a lot of noise and saying how much the world sucks. Sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to be happy or cool, but underneath it the anger and misanthropy is all the more apparent. “Love’s Sweet Exile” has a riff that sounds like an engine and lyrics about leaving the country. It’s more of a cry of distress, a song about loneliness rather than the joy of leaving your country.

The sound is Glam Rock, but there’s a roughness to it that fits the despair. The riff in “Love’s Sweet Exile” couldn’t appear in Ziggy Stardust. It’s too loud, too aggressive for it. “Another Invented Disease” is hilarious. The melody is victorious and the rhythm is danceable, but the lyrics – perhaps attacking psychiatry? – break the illusion. It’s another cry against something, protesting about how much something sucks. “Damn Dog” would be a fun number in other albums, but here Bradfield sounds in genuine panic and self-loathing when he screams “feed me!”.

At this stage of their career, Bradfield’s vocals are integral to their unique sound. He sometimes sounds like Bowie, but his voice is rougher. In some songs he just screams, such as “Repeat”. This edge in his voice never leaves him. He’s the star of the record. The other band members kick a lot of good riffs and rhythms, but he adds the hatred to “So Dead”. I can imagine these songs played by different Glam bands, and none of them would sound as good. No one could match the scream in the beginning of “Repeat”. Two versions of it appear here, and both sound great.

It’s a loud, angry album that states this from the band’s name to the title to the song titles to the lyrics. It’s so angry that you forget how accessible this material is. People shouldn’t be surprised the Manics became a Pop band. “Stay Beautiful”, “Love’s Sweet Exile” and “Another Invented Disease” have joyous melodies. They’re written like old-fashioned Glam Rock, back when we believed the world is a fine place. The contrast is all the more fascinating. It’s a bunch of victorious songs played with the demeanor of “Fuck everything, we need extinction”.

Sound is what drives the album though, not hooks. Then again, this album is 73 minutes long. The performance is good enough that the band doesn’t lose steam – “Crucifix Kiss” is played with as much bravado as “Stay Beautiful”, but the writing suffers. Few songs rise out, with many sound better in context than outside. It’s an album to put on, headbang or sing out your rage to and then put aside. The sound isn’t too varied either. Many songs are interchangeable, and most are just weaker re-writes of “Stay Beautiful” that are good enough for a few spins. As for their ballads, they still haven’t found their gorgeous melodies with “Little Baby Nothing” relying mainly on its lyrics, but “Motorcycle Emptiness” could go on forever. Along with “Spectators of Suicide”, we get songs that predict their most acclaimed albums.

Generation Terrorists sounds more important than good. No surprise the band bullshitted about selling millions of records in Senegal and then breaking up. There’s something iconic in this bravado and cocksure attitude mixed with misanthropy, along with despair creeping at the edges. More than any record, it sounds like the bridge between the happy-go-lucky silliness of the 70’s and the serious (sometimes overly so) demeanor that we have since the 90’s. Add “Stay Beautiful”, “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Another Invented Disease” and you got yourself an album worth owning. They would only improve from this.

another 3 invented diseases out of 5

AWOLNATION – Megalithic Symphony

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What’s originality, anyway?

Artists make breakthroughs all the time. People mix genres for the first time, all the time. It’s not so much that we invent stuff, but we discover it. Ideas are bones buried in the ground and we’re all digging. Every idea will be discovered someday. The original artist is the one that collects a few bones and constructs something unique to them. Their construction is something no one will ever be able to replicate.

It bogs down to ‘personality’ and that’s something an artist cannot copy. You can copy techniques or sounds, but you can’t copy the demeanor, the attitude in the singer or their overall approach. People who criticized Manson for ripping off Ministry missed their radically different approaches. The reason Mechanical Animals renders Ziggy Stardust irrelevant is because the latter is, at the end, mostly a melodic rock album. Its approach was easily replicated.

I doubt anyone will be able to replicate Awolnation’s approach. Some bands come close. Twenty One Pilots specifically sound like a more personal and sincere version of this. A lot of modern Pop bands now don’t see the lines between genres, but none blur them so explicitly and effortlessly like Awolnation.

A lot of genre-bending artists make a conscious effort to be weird. They’ll produce huge albums with long titles. Sometimes they’ll even inform you of the genre they’re imitating and will send the most obvious cues. That approach is far from bad, since their mere excitement of what you can do with music is engrossing. Bruno doesn’t sound like he’s experimental on purpose. It comes naturally to him.

You can hear traces of many genres in this music. Any attempt to put it in a single genre is misleading. Although the vocals are rough like a Hard Rock record, the backdrop is mostly electronic. It’s not all pleasant synths there, too. There is plenty of static, Industrial noise.

The center of attention is never the experimentation. By the time “Wake Up” arrives and Bruno starts rapping, he already experimented with screaming, aggressive singing and soulful singing. It’s hard to notice it, though. He’s so focused on the songwriting.

While the effortlessness is impressive, it also sounds like Bruno is holding himself back. If he’s capable of putting “Burn It Down”, “Sail” and “Kill Your Heroes” in the same album, what is he capable when he has ambitions? Only “Guilty Filthy Soul” is annoying with the pausing in the hooks, but until then the hooks are killer. “Sail” doesn’t dominate the album like it should. It’s the weirdest experiment, but the aggressive “Burn It Down” and the Pop masterpiece “Kill Your Heroes” rival it for attention.

The closing track is the heart of the album, and should’ve been one of the most talked about tracks of 2011. It’s a ten-minute Dance song with ten different hooks and a Rap verse. It’s a behemoth that’s hard to dislike unless you consider noise a necessary element in music. Music nerds will fall for its experimental nature, but anyone else has great hooks and a bassline to groove to.

It’s a clear attempt to make something important and attention-grabbing, but the rest of the album is casual. The approaches are both similar and different. It’s as if the whole album is a collection of B-Side for “Knights of Shame”. Until halfway through it, Bruno doesn’t even sound capable of such a song. He’s a great Pop songwriter but he’s too scared to go full-on weird.

The last track may be confusing, but it’s the perfect closer. Megalithic Symphony is a genreless, ear-friendly album. Bruno should be capable of bigger things. A person who can mix genres without even trying deserves to drop a classic. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine people finding this completely worthless.

4 knights of shame out of 5

(hed) pe – (hed) pe

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All this time, a great rock album was a click away.

(hed) pe are extremely talented and completely stupid. Their singer is versatile, capable of doing anything with his voice and has plenty of personality. His lyrics are often so misogynistic that listening to Lostprophets is more comfortable. They were a band Nu Metal needed. Nu Metal had plenty of weird bands, but it needed someone to go full retard. Bands flirted with genres, but very few threw themselves with conviction. No surprise the genre spat out a bunch of decent, but fairly one-dimensional bands. In the end, the experimentation was used mainly to drive angry and catchy rock tracks.

How can such a difficult task be done so well on the first outing? (hed) pe are genre-benders and you’d think they’ll need experience before dropping a classic. Yet here they’re fully formed. Everything you want in a Nu Metal album is here whether you’re looking for noise or experimentation or fun. It even beats Lostprophets’ debut (which doesn’t count thanks to Watkins) and Slipknot’s self-titled. It has consistent songwriting, variety and little of the misogyny that plagued later records. All this time I’ve been dying for them to drop a classic and here it was.

It’s a dizzying, confusing album. No album destroys the claim that “Nu Metal was generic and whiny” like this one. (hed) pe don’t even have to experiment with critic-approved genres like Deftones to gain credibility. Nu Metal, at its best, was about making the best Faith No More album that never was. Mike Patton was too preoccupied with being weird which took away from the song. King For a Day is an impressive album, but it’s more about the Jazz in “Star A.D.” and the screaming in “Cuckoo for Caca” than a good hook with a sound that makes it more fun.

The band creates a unique sound for each track, but it’s rarely tokenism. Their pool of influence may be more limited – primarily Hip-Hop and Punk Rock, but it allows them to explore these influence more deeply. You don’t bend genres by simply dropping a rap verse there and screamed vocals in the next song. You have to integrate it into your overall sound. Sometimes they isolate elements, like in “33” or “Firsty”. Mostly, the genres blur into each other. Even on Punk songs like “Circus” you’ll get a few rapped lines here and there.

It’s the sort of album you have to go song-by-song to express how varied it is. There’s the vague Heavy Psych of “Hill”. “Ken 2012” leans towards G-Funk. “Serpent Boy” is a straight-forward Rap Metal track that puts Rage Against the Machine to shame. “Ground” has a Punk-Pop chorus to it which makes it the melodic anchor of the album. There’s another ingridient that’s necessary for the perfect Nu Metal album – a mix of fun and anger.

Another unique aspect of Nu Metal was that it was both angsty and fun at the same time. Bands who didn’t borrow Hip-Hop beats still had its party attitudes. Many songs would sound great whatever mood you are in. That’s one reason no other Rock genre has yet to replace it. Punk-Pop was too silly. Grunge was too depressed. Metalcore and Thrash are so serious it’s funny.

(hed) pe perfectly captures the fun-yet-angry mood of Nu Metal. “Firsty” is the definitive angry song full of shouting about not giving a fuck. Its lyrics are full of refusing to be what people tell you to be. “Ken 2012” has macho bullshit and bragging, only to go full Metal in an angry, but still cocky hook. “Hill” is the only track that sinks to self-pity with the inspiration of Sisyphus. It’s actually out of place – it’s a slow, sad rocker in an album full of ‘fuck you’ Punk songs and ‘I’m awesome’ Rap songs. By the time it arrives you’ve gotten so used to genre-hopping that it fits the mood.

The ultimate highlight must be “Darky”. It’s pretty long, but only because it aspires to be the best Nu Metal song ever. The rapping is surprisingly competent. The beat is funkier and the bars are busier. The chorus has pseudo-Deftones whispering and atmospherics and it ends with talking about dropping bombs and telling someone to fuck off. It’s a song you can’t comfortably slide into any genre. In general, the band is more comfortable and forward-thinking in their Rap songs. It’s bizarre they bragged about being Punk Rock when it’s the rap songs – “Ken 2012”, “Tired of Sleep” and “Serpent Boy” where they play with structures and elements. The band became incredibly stupid later, but still talented. You can’t reconcile their overall stupidity with such sophisticated songwriting.

(hed) pe is an experimental, angry, fun and catchy album. If this doesn’t convince you Nu Metal is worthwhile, then nothing will. Then again, why would someone who’s into loud balls out rock wouldn’t like this? It has Nu Metal’s fury without the whiny-ness and stupid lyrics. It has Rap’s macho bullshit attitude without boring Boom Bap. It’s experimental without resorting to tokenism, creating a sound that’s both diverse and consistent. Such albums can’t be debut. It’s supposed to take great skill and musical knowledge to produce such an album. From here it was all downhill, but at least (hed) pe dropped this before becoming insufferable douchebags.

4.5 fucks that were not given out of 5

Coldplay – X&Y

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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