Linkin Park – One More Light

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Anyone who was born when Hybrid Theory first came out is 17-years-old now. If they’re lucky, they have experienced heartbreak, romance, sex, drugs, fighting with parents, have a solid group of friends and are thinking of what to do with their lives. I say this so you’ll realized how long these guys exist. We still live in the fallout of their first two albums which captured the anxiety of youth so well. So now we’re listening to Mike’s half-apology to his kids and wonder what the hell happened.

It’s the same question a parent will ask themselves when they realize their baby is now as big as them and discovered sexuality. These guys are old. Moreover, they always hopped from genre to genre, each album a clear response to what was before. Minutes to Midnight was their attempt to break away from Nu Metal, experimenting with different kinds of structures and isolating the Hip-Hop elements so they’ll become their own. On A Thousand Suns they said goodbye to everything and to every audience, jumping headfirst to experimental electronica, themes of nuclear warfare, emphasizing their Hip-Hop elements and producing such a wide-eyed vision that nobody could keep up with them.

After that, things made a bit more sense – but only a little more. Just when you thought they went full artistic, they dropped Living Things, a simple punchy albums that combine all their previous elements. Yet that album wasn’t a regression, since it had “Victimized” and “Until It Breaks”, the band refusing to settle to a genre and to a single structue. After everyone got used to blippy electronics and with a new fanbase, The Hunting Party threw it all away for huge, angry Rock that still included their experimental elements – see “A Line in the Sand”.

So how is the direction they took on this album a surprise? This album is the complete opposite of The Hunting Party without going ambient, not just in sound but in vibe. Linkin Park have always been quite angry. One More Light isn’t just a move to a new sound – you heard some of these ideas back in “Breaking The Habit” but to a whole new emotional dimension. 3 years ago they were angry adults, now they’re content adults.

It’s amazing people still react to this band with the surprise. As an attempt to go commercial, this is the complete opposite of their essence. When it does sound like ‘what’s on the radio’, it’s a drastic improvement. For the first time Linkin Park are allowed to be happy. The main shock behind “Battle Symphony” was how joyous it was, how it was so full of hope it didn’t have to to be bombastic but ride a glitchy, funny riff. Chester sounds content, not stretching his vocals but keeping the fun, careless spirit. This, along with “Nobody Can Save Me” are songs for an easy summer and we all could use such a summer.

Even when the songs are more serious, there’s a grown-up attitude of contentment, of looking back at your past and coming to terms with it. So you get “Halfway Right”, where Chester pours out his troubled with past with the happiness that it’s all behind him. Or there’s “Sharp Edges”, a move to Country which would’ve been cliched – and is – but check the ending. It’s been so long since the “What doesn’t kill you…” line sounded good, but the song explodes with life-affirming energy.

There’s a problem in music where artists ‘grow up’ and lose vitality. Many artists don’t know how to grow up, and what passes for lack of restraint is actually losing the energy and desire to make music. Linkin Park doesn’t fall into that. They enjoy keeping the songs low-key. It’s the kind of happiness where you don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why the ending to “Sharp Edges” or the ‘na na na’ thing in “Halfway Right” works. The band isn’t a spent force and their adulthood didn’t drain them of energy. Instead, they found joy. Nothing in “Sharp Edges” is particularly new if you listened to Mumford & Sons, but with such a joyous ending there’s no need to get lost in the dictionary in search of profound words.

The most important tracks are the title-track and “Sorry For Now”. They’re so good that they deserve their own paragraphs. Why “Sorry For Now” wasn’t released as a lead single is mystifying. No song grabs the listener and is full of surprises like that one. First off, we hear Mike directly addressing his kids and nothing shows us how old these guys are like this. Then there’s the chorus, which is beautiful and odd in its dismissal of angry children – a ‘someday you’ll understand’ that’s almost flippant but not too much. Right before the final chorus Chester comes to sing-rap, and it makes a happy song already more happier. At this point, they believe they can do anything – so they combine personal lyrics, a bass drop, a happy melody along with switching roles. By far it’s one of the most joyous song I heard, a band sounding so happy where they are so they just go with whatever.

Then there’s the title-track, which is harrowing. Linkin Park made few ballads, but this is the best of them. It’s not just about losing someone. The driving line – “Who cares if one more light goes out/in a sky of a million stars?” expresses how small we are in the face of death. It’s a song that should change the world. We hear about people dying everyday, and we can’t care about it all but goddamn it matters. It’s a hushed, warm ballad that, again, never explodes to vocal acrobatics. Brad’s guitar in the background is just as fragile as any of us. This is a song we all need to take in, to affirm our importance and our fragility at the same. No surprise they decided the song was so important they should title the album after it.

Releasing “Heavy” as the first single was such a stupid move. It remains the worst song here, although it’s only bad for the first minute where Chester sounds too whiny. As soon as Kiiara joins it becomes a decent ballad, updating the existential angst to adulthood. The album sounds nothing like that song. Actually, this album doesn’t sound like anything. Glitch is a big element, but just when you think you captured the sound of the album something slips. “Good Goodbye” is an aggressive Trap song. “Sorry For Now” is too big. The last two tracks drop the electronica for acoustic guitars. Comparisons to Twenty One Pilots are a good idea, but that’s because Twenty One Pilots are another band who refuses to stay in one place. So everyone calls them ‘unoriginal’.

Some have said this is a good Pop album but a bad Linkin Park album. Actually, when you look at it in the context of the band’s discography it becomes better. It’s another adventure, another evidence of how creative this band is. It’s not just the exploration of sound – there’s plenty of beautiful melodies and song progression. Add “Sorry For Now” and “One More Light” which are masterpieces, and this is another success. Of course, people who grew up on guitars will hate this. That’s less fun for you.

4 battle symphonies out of 5

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Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

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The appeal of Boom Bap still mystifies me. I’m sure it gives the people who listen to it a comfortable feeling. They feel tough in how their beats are hard, but not too hard. The lyrics are about being a tough guy, but it’s never too vulgar. Boom Bap also makes you smart. It’s the Hip-Hop equivalent of boring Post-Punk. The main appeal of it is that it’s not accessible.

I know, I know. Talking about the fanbase takes us nowhere. Diving through the ‘wordplay’ and ‘metaphores’ of GZA or Ghostface never appealed to me because they never gave me a hook to latch on to. In fact, nearly every rapper that tries to sound hard over those type of beats comes off as pathetic. Smooth flows and jazz horns don’t sound tough, just restrained.

I was ready to dislike Big L. A Boom Bap album full of punchlines has nothing to offer me. Then I hear Big L talking about how if he has AIDS, then every other girl has it. The same songs include various threats of rape and murder and about how your family will be dressed in all black.

This is everything I wanted in street rap that’s about being tough. All those rap songs tell you how rough it is in the streets, yet they sound calm. Big L is angry. The punchlines aren’t just good on paper. I don’t want to hear anyone else say them but Big L. His performance is so energetic. It’s impossible to imagine him not rapping any clever lines. ‘Sounding hungry’ is dropped often in rap reviews, but there’s no better way to describe Big L. He’s immersed in the battle rap bullshit, sounding like he genuinely believes everything he says. Check his verse on “Da Graveyard” and how he loses rhythm because of how literally hungry he sounds. You can imagine him biting the microphone. Everyone else sounds utterly pathetic after him.

I always found ‘complex’ flows to be overrated. A lot of multi-syllabic and interior rhymes aren’t helpful if it’s just a string of rhythmless words. Expression is far more important. No one in Wu-Tang Clan can muster the same anger Big L does when he says he can’t afford the “O-R” in ‘poor’. Big L emphasizes catchy lines that stick in your head. His flow is clear and his to follow, rather than pile rhyme upon rhyme upon rhyme. After all, what’s the point of dissing sucka MC’s if the line doesn’t make sense?

Surprisingly, the beats keep up with Big L. It’s hard to imagine a Boom Bap beat fitting him (“Flamboyant” sounds better with Popeska’s bass growls) but they do. Although they never become true bangers, they at least don’t do the boring smooth crap. They’re skeletal, driven only by drums and basslines. There’s a roughness, often exeggerated to them. I can’t imagine Wu-Tang rapping over “Da Graveyard”. The drums are too loud. Even at their more atmospheric moments, they beat RZA at his own game.

Beats like “All Black” sounds detached from musical conventions. It’s deliberate. Like Big L’s demeanor and lines, it’s an expression of the personality. Besides punchlines, Big L has the street nihilist personality to give his raps context. Beats like “All Black” sounds like the producers couldn’t care about whether the beat is appealing or not. They lack the pretentiousness of RZA’s beats since they never try to be artistic using conventions. There are no sounds posturing as ‘weird’. The producers sound like they simply don’t give a fuck just like Big L.

The album as apparently ignored until Big L’s death. That’s weird, since the album doesn’t need a death connected to it. Sure, you can connect L’s nihilistic attitude but he doesn’t explore it like Biggie does. He simply does the Boom Bap thing much better than others. He has more passion, funnier and catchier lines, better beats and doesn’t obscure the songs behind ‘complexity’. It’s everything you wanted in a battle rap album. 36 Chambers is slightly better than this, but Big L almost tops it and he’s just one person. He’s that good.

3.5 families dressed in all black out of 5

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5

Saw (2004)

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It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

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What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

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The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

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The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

Knife Party – Abandon Ship

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There are two ways to view this album, both of which are related. There’s an attempt to follow the blueprint for every good dance album. Artists that follow this blueprint make sure that first and foremost their tracks bang, and then surround them with quirks and amusing ideas to make them memorable. There’s also an attempt at a statement-making album. Knife Party tells us they are beyond the Bass Music scene. Why would they try to go beyond it is a mystery. It’s a scene that spawned LAXX, Skrillex, Excision, MUST DIE! and Barely Alive. Unlike the bland European house that Knife Party borrows from them a bit, Bass Music artists actually understand how dance music works.

Either way, this statement is a failure. Knife Party’s version of being ‘experimental’ is merely avoiding Brostep. Many of the ideas they replace the Brostep with are not only less original, but are not worth exploring. “Red Dawn” relies on a Middle Eastern melody, and this one-note idea makes it sound like a DJ tool by some Martin Garrix clone. The melodic “Kaledioscope” is just a less progressive Orbital, and “Begin Again” is Hardwell or Avicii with better vocals. “EDM Trend Machine” doesn’t add anything to the modern Deep House formula. The snippet of Brostep and Big Room before the drop doesn’t change much. It’s barely a second, so it doesn’t leave any effect. This idea was later improved on by Getter’s “Dubstep Is Dead”, who used this structure much more effectively. He also added a Hardstyle drop.

Another problem with these songs is that Knife Party operates in an area they don’t feel comfortable with and show little understanding of it. “Going soft” seems radical for an artist as aggressive as Knife Party, but the aggressive tracks sound much more inspired. It makes you wonder if Rob Swire only churned “Kaledioscope” just to say that he can do more than make noise, but why would he avoid making loud noises if this is where he’s most inspired? “404”, “Micropenis” and “Boss Mode” are just as aggressive as anything by Excision, and this time the quirks actually work. There’s a chiptune breakdown in the middle of “Micropenis” that sounds jarring at first, but actually fits in such overblown music. “Boss Mode” is a Drumstep track masquerading as Twerk. “404” is pure mayhem. The melodic build-up is the only thing stable about. Error sounds, glitches and a Big Room drop that takes the genre to its extreme. Even their attempt at Disco in “Superstar” sounds like they added a little funk to “404” instead of borrowing their ideas from Daft Punk. Disco never had such hard drums.

Rob SWire’s attempts at originality failed, but it barely harms the quality of Abandon Ship. As a dance album, it’s fantastic. Every single track here is a banger. The aggressive tracks are much stronger than the softer ones, but even the soft ones are good enough to not let the album down. It’s a testament to Knife Party’s talents that “Begin Again” is as a good as it is. Give it to Hardwell or Avicii or Armin Van Something, and you’d get white noise. In the hands of Knife Party, this style of melodic house sounds like it has a future. It’s not just Rob’s vocals. When the drop comes, it’s focused more on an uplifting atmosphere, and it doesn’t rely just on its drop anyway. The drop in “EDM Trend Machine” is being done to death, but there’s still a great bassline there. Only “D.I.M.H.” is bad. It’s a bland, melodic track that is supposed to be ‘traditional’. If it is, I’m glad Leftfield and Underworld destroyed that trash. There’s no way the people behind “Give It Up” made such a shoddy production job.

Once you get over the pretense that this album is more original than its peers, it’s a great dance album that gets everything right. Knife Party’s transition to album should’ve come earlier. Abandon Ship actually feels too small. It could definitely use a few more tracks, perhaps an actual drum and bass one or another moombahton. Despite Rob Swire’s attempt, Abandon Ship belongs to the Bass Music section and another example of how exciting and underrated that genre is. Just forget about “D.I.M.H.”.

3.5 abandoned ships out of 5