Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 roses in 5 hospitals

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Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next  one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men 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

The Doors – The Doors

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I wonder if people who think ‘music isn’t as good as it used to be’ are taking the same drugs the Doors were into. You don’t have to go too far into modern times for this to sound dated. A year after this came out Iron Butterfly dropped “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It was the same year the famous version of “Just Dropped In” was released. How did this stick in people’s consciousness?

I can understand why, but it’s not a flattering reason. The Doors sound like the protoypical ‘classic rock’ album. It’s a little loud, it has sex in it and some psychedelia to give it an edge. It has some long songs and it sounds very important. That’s the difference between “Light My Fire” and that Iron Butterfly song. Iron Butterfly just got a banging bassline and rode for 17 minutes. The Doors were sure they discovered new frontiers.

Maybe they did back then. The record has some charm in how big it is and how much it thinks of itself. Every song is deliberate, revolving a clear idea. The sequencing makes perfect sense. The first is a fast-paced rocker. The second is a macho pick-up-women song. The third is a weirder psychedelic ballad. The band wisely chooses these songs to introduce people to basics. “Light My Fire” comes later, after you’re used to the band to show you they can be weird.

Of course, ‘weird’ back then meant long songs and free improvisation. “Light My Fire” just sounds like an ordinary rock song with a jamming session. It works there because finally the band lets out all the energy they have. Add an extra minute or so to that section and the song wouldn’t be any worse.

The difference between that song and everything else is that it’s less caught up in making a statement. Compare it to “The End” (which sounded way better when I saw Apocalypse Now). “The End” doesn’t justify its length. The band tries hard to let you know this is the climatic ending with drum rolls, a serious atmosphere and Jim Morrison telling you it’s the end. The result is just showing off, but no energy or fun or substance. On “Light My Fire”, they just bang their instruments.

The album is part of the era before Rock was divorced from its rock influence. It’s no wonder artists were so confused. Only later artists like Black Sabbath and Five Horse Johnson knew how Blues worked and combined it with loud guitars. The band thinks being theatrical equals to being bluesy. The cultural appropriation debate is pretty stupid, but not as “Back Door Man”. It’s better than Led Zeppelin’s attempts, but it sounds the guys heard some Blues on the radio and made a song based on a few parts.

Even at their best, it’s just serviceable classic rock to play in bars so no one would get offended. There’s nothing really annoying about “Soul Kitchen” or “Break On Through”. They’re pretty catchy and fun, but they don’t have that attitude that made “Just Dropped In” so successful.

Psychedelic Rock can work in two ways. Either the band sounds like they’re off in another dimension, or that they make a melodic, pleasant song with weird sounds. The Doors only try the former on “The End” and “End of the Night”. Neither of them are weird enough, but the latter is good enough to make it the blueprint for the next album. When they try the other method, they make some pleasant music but nothing like the Zombies or Monster Magnet or “Planet Caravan”. The worst are the songs where their sense of self-importance comes through. “Take It As It Comes” is the sort of Classic Rock crap that ignorant listeners think is ‘meaningful’.

I heard that Morrison’s lyrics are supposed to be a big deal. I hear nothing attention-grabbing. No lyrics are bad or good. What exactly is a soul kitchen? I don’t know, but the song doesn’t make me care to find out. It’s easy to assume Morrison just wants to have sex with that woman. Weird lyrics that don’t make sense are a lot of fun. Even if the lyrics were moronic, I would’ve enjoyed them. Morrison’s lyrics are just various ways to tell a woman he wants sex without the vulgarity. It’s less impressive on record.

There are some fun songs here, but what’s the point? The psychedelic parts are rudimentary and you’re better off with their next album, or any of Monster Magnet’s psychedelic works. If you enjoyed the bluesy stuff here, check their own L.A. Woman or Black Sabbath. The Doors sound excited here. It does make these ideas sound new, but everyone – including the band – improved on this.

2 doors out of 5