Review: Gorillaz – Humanz

Gorillaz hold a special place in my heart. They served as my introduction to the virtual band when “Demon Days” released way back in 2005 as well as for millions of other young anime-heads. The grim combination of rock, electronica, and hip hop was something my little 11-year-old self had never heard before. It was bizarre new territory, which is what Damon Albarn, the mastermind behind the band alongside artist Jamie Hewlett, will argue is the point. Each subsequent Gorillaz release since the self-titled record back in 2001 has been a testing ground for new sounds and styles.

“Humanz,” the first project under the Gorillaz name since “The Fall” in 2010 and “Plastic Beach” earlier that year (the most accomplished Gorillaz project to date), continues the experimental and exploratory idealism Gorillaz has always stood for. This time around however, our virtual band members we’ve all come to know and love: 2-D, Murdoch, Noodle and Russell, have been set on the sidelines. The fully electronic production of “Humanz” marks a drastic shift from the consistent rock sound the band has always had. A massive number of collaborators helm a majority of the songs as well rather than keeping Albarn’s vocals as 2-D front and center. This decision is likely be to divisive to many. The album feels less like a project by a band, fake or not, and more like a house party DJ’d Gorillaz alongside friends. The result is not as strong as past Gorillaz albums have been, but includes a good handful of highlights, and is enjoyable enough for what it is.

The large number of features on “Humanz” fits within a theme, a focus on humanity in times in turbulence. Politics has always been a mainstay in Gorillaz music, but rarely does it face the bleakness with such exuberance, as if barreling towards the end times with a beer in hand and a hard beat. Many of the songs on “Humanz” are undeniably catchy and dance focused. However, they are very hit and miss. One of the lead singles “Satrunz Barz” features excellently dark Chicago House production, with Popcaan’s famously incomprehensible, Jamaican-accented vocals on top. The production feels dense, the bass is loud, and Alburn’s 2-D vocals really shine through on the hook.

“Momentz,” a dementedly jolly electronica/rap track which features the return of De La Soul (famously featured on “Feel Good Inc.”), is another highlight. Pusha T and Mavis Staples are in peak form on “Let me Out” on top of a crisp and finely crafted boom-bap beat.  One of the weirder cuts on the record, “Hallelujah Money” featuring the unconventionally full-throated vocals of Benjamin Clementine is fascinating in that it veers from the dancey electronica of most of the record for something more eerie and unsettling.

Where “Humanz” ultimately suffers is the inoffensiveness and lack of realization on many of its tracks. Songs like “Strobelight” and “Charger” are, bluntly put, boring and forgettable vanilla electronic tracks. If it weren’t for Albarn’s vocals it would be difficult to tell if they were Gorillaz at all. Others like “Sex Murder Party” and “We Got the Power” are not only forgettable, but unenjoyably hammy as well. The album also struggles to find a place for many of its features. So many features feel undercooked, such as Danny Brown on “Submission” and D.R.A.M on “Andromeda,” who, if it weren’t written right there next to the track name, you probably wouldn’t even know was there. What few Albarn/2-D dominated tracks there are, like “Busted and Blue” and “She’s My Collar” are enjoyable enough but don’t particularly stand out of the shadow of past Gorillaz work.

The nature of experiments is that some will work and some will not. It comes with the territory. For the most part, “Humanz” works, but just narrowly. The album features enough enjoyable creativity musically, both in its traditional side and more experimental side to make for a nice listen. However, much of what Albarn wanted to do on this record could have used a bit more time in the oven, a disappointing flaw considering the wait for “Humanz” spanned nearly seven years. Still, “Humanz” features some nice inclusions to the party playlist, and enough bleak hijinks to keep most Gorillaz fans loyal.

7.1/10

 

Review: Arca – Arca

Oftentimes in art, beauty overlaps with the grotesque. Such is the case with the new, self-titled album by Arca, the stage name of Venezuelan electronic producer Alejandro Ghersi. In looking inward, stripping down his sound, and adding his delicate vocals, Arca creates a deeply sincere self-portrait, one that manages to find common ground between the ethereal and the unsettling.

Having produced works for experimental musicians in the past, such as Björk and FKA Twigs, Arca not only feels at home in the unconventional, but relishes in it. With his first two albums, “Xen” and “Mutant,” Arca thrived in the creation of visceral, blistering electronic music that were practically pummeling in their complexity. The compositions on “Mutant” especially delved into a sort of noise jazz that unpredictably ricocheted between enveloping spaciness to claustrophobic and punishing dissonance.

Traces of the Arca formula still remain in his new, self-titled record. Though instead of carrying on the crushing, overwhelming jazz-esque sound of “Mutant” he gravitates towards more orchestral, thinly composed music. “Arca” embraces the emotional effectiveness of empty space, as if each song is a blank void with sound painted, or in this case carved, overtop. Arca also adds his vocals to his music for the first time, a stylistic choice he has initially been anxious and apprehensive to include. The opener, “Piel” (which means “skin” in Spanish) begins with his light and delicate humming, which becomes coated with ear-splitting and shiver-inducing feedback that builds in intensity over the track’s course. The juxtaposition between Arca’s sublime vocalizations and the eerie and harsh musicality is the foundation of the record, and it works wonderfully.

The second track, “Anoche” (last night), is a stunningly gorgeous piece of work. A turn from the harsh, piercing “Piel,” “Anoche” is a deftly composed and achingly sincere love song. Arca’s skyward falsettos reverb with the enthralling expansive of a soloist in an empty cathedral. The lovely lyrics match the ethereal beauty of the music as well; “Last night I missed you/Even though I haven’t met you yet,” a line no doubt borrowed from Björk’s “I Miss You” functions as both an homage to one of Arca’s musical inspirations and counterparts, but as a gift of emotion all his own.

Thematically, “Arca” is immensely introspective, more so than any project he has released so far. Growing up in a wealthy family, Arca went through drawn out struggles coming to terms with his homosexuality, and his stripped clean emotion is directly translated into music. The song “Reverie,” yet another gorgeous composition, combines layers of warped strings and industrial electronic percussion into a sort of primal and raw work of love. The lyrics “Love me again/If you dare” are a self-defeating warning that highlight Arca’s feelings towards himself.

The rest of the album continues these emotional highs with very little room to breathe, but less in a sense that it’s smothering you, but more so that it takes you in its grip and squeezes. Arca’s ability to translate feelings into music is something to behold. The track “Castration” is one of the few instrumentals, and is reminiscent of his earlier works in that it is brash and noisy, but in much more of a structurally sound and precisely composed sense. Piano keys thump over spastic noise, in what feels like Arca’s musical representation of emasculation. The closer “Child” accomplishes this in a similar vein. It’s breathtaking portrait on innocence (or perhaps the loss of innocence), in musical form. There’s no distinct answer, but the music speaks to you, and forces you to form meaning from the sounds. It doesn’t hold your hand. Rather it tosses you, naked in helpless, into Arca’s world, where you must fend for yourself.

In all, this is easily Arca’s most fully realized and beautifully constructed project to date. As the album cover (an extreme close-up of his face), would suggest, “Arca” is a high-definition glimpse inside a man’s psyche, combining gorgeous compositions and vocals, and melding them with distorted and warped instrumentals. This is not a project for everyone. Its eerie dissonance, complex orchestrations, and noise can be grating and difficult to listen to initially. But finally breaking through the overlying gloss of the grotesque, one will find a deeply human, and beautiful work worthy of embrace.

8.8/10

Review: Phourist and the Photons – While We Still Have the Morning

A bloody instrument in the aftermath of a live performance is an enduring symbol in music, indicative of both dedication and sacrifice. Such was the state of Nick Hill’s keyboard in the aftermath of a release show on March 25. The release in question was “While We Still Have the Morning,” the latest record from Louisville trio Phourist and the Photons, for which Hill is frontman.

When it comes to Phourist and the Photon’s sound, even they are not sure how to concisely label themselves; their Facebook page description reads “cinematic-piano-folk-melodic-ambient-prog” which is as varied and all-inclusive as it sounds. Hill began the project as Phourist (a play on his middle name Forrest), a one-man band several years ago. Soon after, he decided to expand. After a series of failed additions, drummer Scott Boice and bassist Stuart Wicke finally stuck, solidifying the band’s current incarnation.

“I came out of the womb playing piano,” Says Hill, whose influences range from the end credit music of Apollo 13 to Brian Eno’s seminal 1983 ambient work Apollo. Boice draws inspiration from drummers of several eras and genres such as Art Blakely, Neil Peart, and Brian Chippendale, while Wicke’s musical idols include Pink Floyd and Paul Simon. The band’s first album as a trio, In Infinite Indigo, was released in 2015, and tapped into each musician’s specialties, creating a fascinating, and enthralling exercise in musical synthesis.

While We Still Have the Morning takes on a different path from its predecessor, mellowing out its sound for more ethereal and spacey compositions rather than the frantic, jazz-esque sound that dominated In Infinite Indigo. While these elements still appear frequently, such as in the immensely catchy lead single “Sound the Alarm,” they are more subdued, refined, and nuanced.

The ambient music that has influenced the band in the past blooms on this record. A couple tracks are straight ambient, such as the opening track “Good Day Off” which begins as a warm piano amidst nature before glitching into eerie dissonance. Other tracks, like “Well This Fiction…” a folk ballad with essence of electronic distortion highlights the band’s ability to seamlessly mesh genres. Even the more simply composed tracks such as “Childlike,” a delicate number that highlights Hill’s abilities as a song writer, stand firm on their own.

While We Still Have the Morning tries a lot of things, and succeeds in practically all of them. The album is consistently equal parts lovely, eerie, ethereal, and catchy; always engaging, but never jarring. The final track, simply titled “12” features the sound crashing waves along an ocean shoreline, suggesting the future of Phourist and the Photons is that of unexplored and open territory. Whatever the future may hold for them, and even they are not sure, it will most certainly deserve your attention.

8.0/10

Review: White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band

In troubled times, nostalgic escapism becomes a hot commodity, and White Reaper have hit the motherlode. The band’s second record, wryly-titled The World’s Best American Band, scratches an itch so few do well, precisely emulating those times when Thin Lizzy and Ramones posters lined the walls of every garage, and a band of dirty, rebellious friends occupied each one. Fuzzy guitar riffs and cheap beer flowed freely.

But White Reaper have moved beyond the garage and into the arena, as indicated by the dissonant roar of a crowd that galvanizes the opening title track. An opening drum fill leads into a triumphant, high-energy, and undeniably catchy guitar riff, a trend that, astoundingly, persists over the record’s full ten-song track list. The production is much cleaner as well, wiping away much of the lo-fi fuzziness of their debut, White Reaper Does it Again, into something more polished, but no less authentic.

The title opener leads into “Judy French,” a poignant and nostalgic love jam. Tony Esposito’s jovial, nasally vocals sell the charmingly sincere, yet simple lyrics about a hard-to-get girl with “ripped jeans” that “makes him want to pout.” Along with impeccably crafted power chords and ethereal synth lines, this is White Reaper at their musical peak so far.

White Reaper hit this peak and keep the energy flowing for the entirety of the record’s 33-minute run time, one of many impressive feats on this record. The World’s Best American Band is a prime example of how to translate classic sounds into a newer time. Riffs are strummed with gleeful enthusiasm, and lyrics are delivered with infectious humor.

The World’s Best American Band doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, but there’s no need when said wheel has aged beautifully. White Reaper tap perfectly tap into that nostalgic well that makes music groups like them so appealing. Sometimes a few power chords, a cheap beer, and a good time are all you need.

8.2/10

Review: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar’s latest record begins with his death. The opener, “BLOOD” features Kendrick being shot dead by a blind woman on the side of the road. The track sets the stage for “DAMN,” a cerebral, cryptic and heavy project, unlike anything the Compton rapper has made before in his career, but just as insightful, intelligent, and introspective as we have come to expect from him.

Gone are the mountainous beats of “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” and the multilayered jazz and funk instrumentals of “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The production on “DAMN” is trimmed and sparse, down to drum, bass and synth, topped off with the occasional samples. Unlike the grandiose nature of his past work, “DAMN” feels compacted, as if it takes place in a void. As a result, there exists an eeriness that pervades the album’s vibe. This was hinted at a few weeks back with “The Heart Part 4” in which he says, “I’ve died/ What you’re hearing now is a paranormal vibe.” With Kendrick shot in the first track, these could very well be a rush of thoughts through his head before he dies, or perhaps even insight from the afterlife.

Apart from giving the album its own signature feel, the stripped-down production also makes the album much more accessible, but no less thematically varied. Bangers like “DNA,” which rockets off the opening track like a fist to the jaw, the lead single “HUMBLE” and “XXX” (featuring U2, no less) will more than satiate those looking for something to bounce to, but they are each introspective and pointed. “DNA” breaks down the components that make him who he is, all the way down to his flow, before building into a furious finish, while “HUMBLE” is a sharp jab at the bragadocious attitude that infests the hip hop industry, and where Lamar himself stands amidst all the foolishness.

Other tracks explore new sounds and ideas to huge success. “LOVE” is a beautiful, melodic track that is new territory for Lamar, while “FEAR” feels bleak and vulnerable. “PRIDE” is a spacey jam, glazed with distorted guitar strums and falsetto. These variations in sound and ideas are threads that tie the album together, but is ultimately a look inside Lamar’s head; an intimate study of what he believes his place in the hip hop scene is and the value of life.

There is just an absurd amount to take in on this record. Lamar accomplishes so much so incredibly well. “DAMN” is a solid as bricks in its structure. The final track, “DUCKWORTH” (Lamar’s real last name), rewinds itself to the opening lines of the record, suggesting an infinite cycle; a constant repetition of the thoughts that make up this album. Lamar takes on the rap industry and media perception while simultaneously exploring his own feelings on life, death, love and identity, all while shifting to new musical territory he has never explored before. And he makes it seem easy. In “HUMBLE” Lamar states that “If I quit this season I’ll still be the greatest.” Whether intended to be taken as irony or not, he’s probably right.

9.3/10

Review: Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

These are absurd times we are living then, and there is probably no one more aware of it than Joshua Tillman, also known as Father John Misty. Since going solo from folk group Fleet Foxes (in which he was drummer), Tillman has put out a handful of records showcasing his witty and sardonic persona. His second album, I Love You, Honeybear was an immensely charming, sharply written meditation on personal relationships, and one of the best records of 2015.

Tillman’s latest, Pure Comedy, is easily his most ambitious record yet. The biting commentary effervescent in Honeybear is blown up to massive scale. Tillman tackles everything from media, politics, life’s meaning (or lack-therof) and the absurdity of human existence. At 74 minutes, Pure Comedy is a dense, challenging, and at times, exhausting album. At times, Tillman’s vision feels too sweeping in its scope, and his songwriting and a lot less subtle than his previous efforts. Those who were swept away by Honeybear‘s razor-edged reflections on love may be turned away by the long, almost rambling waterfalls of insight that make up Pure Comedy.

It can be argued that Honeybear is indeed the better record, as it is certainly the more refined. Pure Comedy could benefit from some consolidation, and more instrumental variety. After so many piano and guitar ballads with only the occasional horn or string section, they begin to blend together. Pure Comedy is also much more difficult to listen to in portions as well. It works much better with straight-through listens rather than picking out individual tracks.

That being said, the whole of Pure Comedy is a very strong record. Tillman’s insight is scattered and overwhelming, but this seems to fit the album’s theme: our crushingly overbearing modern culture. Knowing Tillman, he probably made the album very specifically for this reason. The album covers a range of emotional engagements, from the goofy and quippy “Total Entertainment Forever,” to the lovely, drawn out ballad “Leaving L.A.” and the angry, impassioned title track. Where Pure Comedy falls short in refinement and musical variety, it makes up for in pure emotional engagement and sincerity. This is an album that will draw you in and demand your attention. And while Tillman is famous for his occasionally obnoxious ironic view of the world, it feels like the man really seems to care about what he’s saying here. The album’s absolutely beautiful closer, “In Twenty Years or So,” Tillman argues, despite treading for over an hour on despair and absurdity, that “It’s a miracle to be alive/ There’s nothing to fear.” An “everything will be alright in the end” finish is rarely more cathartic.

People may be put off by the Father John Misty persona, and that’s understandable, but they’d be missing out on the work of a very talented, one-of-a-kind modern songwriter. Pure Comedy may have flaws and can be a bit of work to get into, but with a few listens and some effort, it is a very rewarding, and insightful listen.

8.4/10

Review: Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, the latest project from New York rapper Joey Bada$$, is a densely-packed cautionary tale. Though Joey has always been wise beyond his years (see his excellent mixtape 1999), All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ reinforces this fact over again. Though conscious, political rap has existed for decades, and this project doesn’t do much to shift the subgenre in any new directions, it accomplishes what it’s shooting for. It is a rock solid record.

The production on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ veers away from the sample-based, smooth and chill beats that highlighted his earlier work into the cleaner, more layered and modern type sound. There are essentially two sides to this record; the poppier, cleaner side, and the dirtier, angry side. The first half, including the big single “DEVASTATED” and the poignant, yet infectious track “TEMPTATION” doesn’t hook quite as hard as the later half of the record, but it works incredibly well as a complimentary lead-up.

The anger hinted at by the album’s title is channeled heavily in the second half, beginning with the loud and grim banger “ROCKABYE BABY” featuring Schoolboy Q, and continues unabated for several songs. “Ring the Alarm” is a ridiculously dense and tight banger, while “SUPER PREDATOR” is a visceral shot at political elitism.

Joey’s lyricism on this record, which is consistent throughout and touches on everything from evil politicians, the black experience, and current events culminates in the final track “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” which channels the late, great Capital Steez in its straight-forward, hard-hitting lyrics. The album concludes with a warning: “Amerikkka is force-feeding you lies down your throats with a silver spoon/ And eventually, we’ll all be doomed, real, real real, soon.” Unless we get our shit together, the outlook doesn’t look good, and Joey makes that very clear.

While All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ may not take very many risks stylistically, in the grand scheme of modern hip hop, Joey has never sounded better in his raps. The record is impressively solid and densely packed from beginning to end, and absolutely deserves your attention.

8.1/10