Review: Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

Mastodon have been at the forefront of the prog metal for most of the century so far. Beginning with the brutal “Remission” in 2002 and following it up with a series of critically acclaimed concept albums such as “Leviathan,” a sprawling retelling of Moby Dick, the band shot into the stratosphere of the genre. It was with 2011’s “The Hunter,” that the band shifted their style to a more accessible rock type sound. This trend has continued all the way through to the band’s latest record, “Emperor of Sand,” but while “The Hunter,” and even its follow-up “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” remained interesting and enjoyable in their own right, “Emperor of Sand” may very well be the first real dud of the band’s discography.

“Emperor of Sand” marks the group’s first concept album since 2009’s “Crack the Skye.” During the album’s recording, several members of the band had family members suffering from cancer, and as such, the album’s themes include that of mortality and death. While the band’s struggle, and terrible circumstances are to be empathized with, “Emperor of Sand” features some of the worst, most ham-fisted lyrics they have ever written. Perhaps the worst offenders are “Show Yourself,” a poppy, radio-friendly power jam, and “Precious Stones” whose chorus is trite to the point of bewilderment (“Don’t waste your time/ Don’t let it slip away from you”).

The musicianship on “Emperor of Sand” is easily its strong suit, with some tracks like “Andromeda” and “Sultan’s Curse” which give bright, albeit brief, flashes of the dense musicality that the band is known for. Unfortunately the highlights stop there as the rest of the compositions on the album, while not necessarily terrible, are just plain boring and unmemorable. There’s a frequent feeling that the band has made similar songs before in the past, but much better and more inspired than they sound here.

A band shifting sound shifting their sound is not inherently bad at all, and neither is exploring personal struggle with music. But these can be done so much better than they are here. Mastodon have written some of the best prog metal songs ever, but most of “Emperor of Sand” unfortunately feels like either watered-down retreads, or uninspired cheese.

5.7/10

Review: “Love” Season 2

They say love is a fickle thing. It can be wonderfully pleasant initially. Sunshine on a cloudy day. The next instant it can be crushingly overbearing, an insufferable beast you only want to be rid of. The same can be said of the half-hour Netflix comedy “Love,” the second season of which premiered earlier this month.

The Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked-Up”) produced show follows a couple and their interactions with each other and their friends in Los Angeles. Gus (Paul Rust, who is also a writer on the show), is an awkward, socially-inept dork who tutors the star of a terrible fantasy sitcom on-set, while Mickey (Gillian Jacobs of “Community,” “Girls” is a drug-and-sex-addicted mess. The two of them also happen to have feelings for each other.

Such is the story of “Love” whose first season that was released last year (on Valentine’s Day, fittingly) was an excellent examination of what draws people together, while simultaneously being immensely endearing, sharply written, and quite funny. The new, second season is a continuation of all of these characteristics, but stripped down, often to the point of unenjoyability. Unlike that of the first season, which at least seemed grounded in reality, the writing in season two straddles the line of absurdity, and unbelievability.

This fault is indicated well in the first episode, which picks up literally right where the last season left of: with Gus and Mickey in an impassioned kiss at a gas station, despite having the mutual need to separate and work out their individual flaws (which made for a great, open-ended closer to season one). They travel back to Gus’ apartment, which becomes locked down by police because of a nearby robbery, and they are forced to stay with each other (how convenient). Upon attempting to escape, Gus is violently assaulted by police for being confused as the suspect. This scene, which is practically slapstick in its execution and draws parallels to the violent humor of lowest common denominator R-rated commons is a jarring change in tone from the last season, where the humor was often evoked from interactions between characters rather than one of them being tackled.

Unfortunately, this trend of seemingly dumbed-down writing persists through the rest of the season, hampering not only the humor of the show, but the character development and enjoyability as well. There are not only scenes, but entire episodes that solid mold and solidify dislike, if not outright hatred of certain characters. Of course this is a show where the characters are flawed and pathetic, but they at least came off as endearing and well-meaning in the last season. Here, everyone seems like they’ve burnt through a few brain cells, and seem hellbent on outdoing each other on stupid, rage-inducing decisions. I get that the characters are meant to be broken and “realistic,” but there is a line where this trait becomes insufferable and this season of “Love” crosses it several times over.

While the character development has flown off the rails, and the writing taken a dive, the show is still, surprisingly, not terrible. The show’s initial and remaining strengths are highlighted in a simple episode called “A Day,” in which Mickey and Gus, well, spend a day together, from getting lunch to a trip to the park. It’s an exercise in simplicity that markets how great the writing can be in this show, and how naturalized and realistic that show can be. It truly seems like you are just viewing an average day in the life of a couple. Unfortunately, this strength falters for the rest of the season as both of the main characters make increasingly poor decisions and become absurdly unlikable. Characters are allowed to be flawed, but this can be done well (see season 1) without sacrificing the entire likability of the characters. The final episode of the season in particular is a fury-inducing slew of bad decisions from the main characters that the main reason to return for season three becomes wanting to watch the characters crash and burn.

“Love” still has the potential to correct its course with the next season. Perhaps this one is just a sophomore slump. Nonetheless the dip in quality from the first to second season is palpable. There are still the inner workings of a great show here, it’s just a matter of whether they can dig it back up or not. Maybe “Love” can end up working, but if not, we’ll have to break it off.

6.5/10

Review: Drake – More Life

Listeners know what to expect from Drake at this point. If you put on a drake album, you’re going to get some catchy pop rap, R&B and dancehall hits, likely about himself, his girl problems and his feelings. This has always been the way it is, but the formula is simply beginning to wear thin.

“More Life” is the latest project from Drake, deemed a “playlist,” but not bearing any discernable difference between a conventional album or mixtape other than semantics. With 22 songs adding up to an hour and twenty minutes, “More Life” can be an exhausting full listen. And simply put, many of these tracks sound so similar, there is little here to make a straight-through listen worthwhile or interesting.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few gems on this record. “Passionfruit” is a catchy dancehall track that doesn’t deviate far from traditional Drake, but highlights the sound that he’s good at. Unfortunately, many of the songs in the rest of the album, especially in the second half begin to meld together, and occasionally the features standout even more so than Drake on his own album. Sampha, who released his debut earlier this year, has his own song “4422” which is lovely, and may be the best song on the album. Young Thug brings his signature quirkiness with his feature on “Ice Melts” adding a bit of light to the second half of “More Life” but not enough.

“More Life” is not really a bad record. It’s more of what we’ve come to expect from Drake, which has worked well in the past, but is beginning to become predictable. His last record, “Views,” made some attempts to mix up Drake’s formula, but feel a ways short. “More Life” feels like it picks up right where “Views” left off and suffers for it. Drake is a good rapper, and has released some excellent projects (see “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”), but “More Life” just does not feel like it does enough creatively. There is a handful of good material here, but it’s just surrounded bloat and throwaway tracks. Whatever Drake does next, I’m hoping he takes us all by surprise instead of offering what we’ve all come to expect.

6.4/10

Throwback Review: The Microphones – The Glow Pt. 2

With the release of Phil Elvrum’s new Mount Eerie project A Crow Looked at Me officially releasing this week, I’m taking a look back at one of the projects of his original band, The Microphones. Released back in 2001, The Glow Pt. 2 is regarded as one of the best indie albums of the 2000s and one of the most beloved of its kind. To this day, the record’s brand of lo-fi noise folk remains both cutting and gorgeous.

The Glow Pt. 2 is a dense album, and is a piece of work that will disorient and potentially off-put casual listeners. Elvrum’s lyrics are often cryptic and forlorn, hidden amidst a sea of fuzz and noisy guitar. But these areas are where the album shines. Beauty through the grimness. The opener “I Want Wind to Blow” evokes the ethereal essence of the cascades on a dark and cloudy evening. The music is delicately composed. While lo-fi may seem easy or ugly to some, the way The Glow Pt. transitions between moods, emotions, and sounds, is nothing short of brilliant. In the realm of indie folk, you’re hard-pressed to find a more delicate, unique, somber and lovely album.

9.5/10

Review: Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now

Thematically, music can take on a near infinite number of forms. Occasionally, you may be in the mood for some that will dig your brain a bit. Other times, you may want something to make you smile, get up and dance, and lift your spirits. Or maybe something poignant to tug your heartstrings a bit. The latest record from Swedish musician Jens Lekman, “Life Will See You Now,” will hit all of these notes, and a few more.

 Lekman has been making his mark on the indie pop landscape for years now. His big break came with his second album “Night Falls Over Kortedala” in 2007, a record lush with layered, exotic instrumentations, witty anecdotes, and outright beauty throughout. It was named one of the best records of the year by several publications, and has since been regarded as one of the best albums of the 2000s. Lekman’s follow-up, “I Know What Love Isn’t” carried on that sound, but with a sharper sense of solemnity, as it came to fruition at the heels of a breakup.

 “Life Will See You Know,” Lekman’s first new album in five years never deviates far from the signature style he is most known for, but it reinvents it in new ways. The pop in indie pop is emphasized this time around, with Lekman focusing on dance-heavy beat grooves and infectious high-key melodies. From the album-opener, “To Know Your Mission,” it’s clear that Lekman definitely has not lost his lyrical prowess over the years. “I just want to hear people’s stories / Hear what they have to say,” he croons with his endearing Swedish accent. “My friends say ‘just be a shrink then’ / But I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll have the grades.” The track is certainly catchy and joyous, if the instrumentation feels a bit overcrowded and silly, a problem that nags throughout the album.

Songs like “Evening Prayer” are the highlights of the album. A rock-solid track of sampled “do-do-dos” give the flavor of disco, and strangely contrasting lyrics on 3-D printing a model of a tumor. The uproariously jubilant instrumentation mixed with the oddly cryptic lyrics are an excellent highlight of the clever irony that Lekman can pull off so well. Another great example is “Our First Fight” which recounts a sharp argument with a significant other, and the following resolution over a soothing, warm, subdued guitar line. It’s songs like this where the music is more grounded that “Life Will See You Now” really shines.

There are a number of other highlights as well. “Wedding in Finistere” is a wonderfully catchy, samba-esque tune on how people of a certain age view those older than them. The lead single “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” is an enjoyable cacophony of steel drums, but it highlights the issues of the album as well. The track bounces from Caribbean dance, to soothing strings, and electronic so sporadically it could give you whiplash. “How We Met, the Long Version” is another track that struggles with this. The otherwise quite humorous song (So titled because he begins at the big bang and moves through the stages of evolution. Long version, indeed.) is hampered a bit by the busy, busy instrumentation. It seems as if Lekman had gathered a number of styles to use of the past several years and decided to simply throw them all in together in a flavorful and tasty, if occasionally too rich, stew.

The album ends on subdued and poignant note, as though the energetic dance party of the earlier half of the album is beginning to wind down, and it works in the album’s favor. “How Can I tell Him” sounds like it could have been pulled from one of his earlier albums. It’s a sweet and somber track that furthers Lekman’s ability to tell a lovely story within only a few minutes.

“Life Will See You Now” may bite off more than it can chew at times, and come off as bloated, but what it occasionally lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer charm. So much of the music in this record is pure, concentrated joy. It’s clear the long gap between albums hasn’t hampered Lekman’s abilities as a songwriter either. From sentimental ballads to catchy jams, strings to samba, and wit to spare, you will be getting the full course out of this record. And how tasty it is.

7.8/10

Review: Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele)

The horror genre has had a massive upswing in recent years. Films like The Babadook (2013), It Follows (2014), and The Witch (2015), have added new narrative and aesthetic flourishes to the genre, and rejuvenated its artistic standing. With this new revival also comes a newfound appreciation for allegorical narrative: these films aren’t just scary as hell, but they have something to say apart from simply spooking you.

The new horror comedy Get Out is one of the shining examples of this type of film. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, of the beloved sketch comedy show Key and Peele, Get Out deftly mixes humor and comedy, as well as providing vital and cutting commentary on race relations and the depiction of African Americans in film. It’s easily one of the most inventive, enjoyable, and important horror films in recent years.

The basic framework of Get Out is one that has been told many times over: a black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) in a potentially awkward first meet-up with her parents. She assures him that her parents are incredibly liberal and that there is nothing to worry about. This is seemingly the case when they arrive, as the parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), are welcoming are polite, albeit with more than a more than a few awkward race-related exchanges. However, something does not seem quite right with the black servants the family has around the home.

Get Out is expertly paced throughout its run time. It starts out slow and steady, building with hints of eeriness, and menial uncomfortable exchanges. As the secrets behind Rose’s family are revealed, the film becomes increasingly pummeling in its anxiety. By the time the big reveals occur, and the climax begins, these feelings reach a critical level, and the jaw is left agape, both from the shear originality in the directions the story takes, but also from how genuinely effective it is in captivating its audience.

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The themes and moods that this film juggles are finely balanced as well. Get Out is a sincerely scary film, but it different ways than usual. The cinematography effectively captures Chris’ isolation in this house through grim and claustrophobic set pieces. The music is effective as well, consistently eerie, but never bombastic. But thrills are absolutely not the only areas the film succeeds. It’s actualy quite funny. Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery) a TSA agent who is left to babysit the dog, is pitch perfect comic relief. He acts as a vehicle for what would be standard audience responses to the film. His exuberant and animated responses to the events of the film as he seeks to help his are not only hilarious, but provide a brilliant layer of self-awareness to the film.

The area where the film really shines however, is what it has to say about race. Low-hanging fruit would have been to go after the backwoods, redneck brand of racism, but instead, the film tackles the benevolent racism of white liberals, and does so in such a way that is immensely creative. The racism extends from casual character remarks like how the father unwarranted mention that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have to a family friend specifically mentioning he knows of and likes Tiger Woods. This brand of racism is put in high gear in this film to terrifying levels, but also in a way that turns the horror genre inside out.

How often does the black character live in a horror movie? How often is it that they are the ones fighting for survival on their own? Chris as a character is unique not only for a horror film, but films in general, never fitting in a stereotype, always aware, and acutely aware. His actions in the final moments of the film take what is the usual aspects of horror films and turns them around. The final scene is absolutely unforgettable, in that it forces you to look the current conditions of not only film, but society as a whole. It is one that is simultaneously brilliant, hilarious, and incredibly satisfying.

As a film at any point in someone’s canon, it would be a fantastic one, but for a debut it is astounding. Jordan Peele proves that he not only has the to write both hilarious comedy, and effective horror, but also make a powerful statement doing it. If Get Out really scares you, you are encouraged to take a better look at our current society and see why exactly that is.

9.2/10

Three Essential Ambient Albums

Ambient as a musical genre is difficult to classify and delve into, and even more difficult to critique. What is not difficult, however, is deriving enjoyment out of it. Ambient, in all its avant-garde, and ethereal glory, can bring one to a state of relaxation or intense discomfort, depending on what exactly you’re listening to. The genre is stacked with records in this day and age, and it can be a little difficult hopping in, but if you’re interested, here are the three records you should check out first.

Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports

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British musician (and genius) Brian Eno is attributed with coining the genre “ambient” as we know it today. After a series of art rock albums throughout the ’70s, Eno composed Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978, kicking off a series of ambient records that are still legendary to this day. It was difficult having to choose from just one of them (Apollo should be one you check out as well), but, as this one was first, I think it deserves recognition. The piano and vocalization mixes on this record are stunning, and I think would make a good starting point for anyone wanting to try ambient. There are tons more from Eno as well, the most recent being Reflection released this January.

William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

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This is where things get a little strange (that didn’t take long, did it?) William Basinski is probably the second most prolific ambient composer behind Eno, and The Disintegration Loops is his defining work, though he has more famous ones (92982 is worth a listen as well). A set of four records made from deteriorated music from old magnetic tapes, The disintegration Loops also include sounds recorded from Basinski’s rooftop the day of 9/11. Stills from that recording are featured on the covers. The story and creation behind this project simply isn’t matched. It’s a haunting work.

Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children

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Released in 1998, the debut record from Scottish duo Boards of Canada was light-years ahead of its time. It’s not exclusively ambient, music of this album can be considered electronic dance, but upbeat it is not. Music Has the Right to Children is a deeply unsettling and atmospheric experience even to this day, let alone 20 years ago. If you’d rather be unnerved than soothed, and want to experience what set the course for experimental music in the upcoming century, this is a must-listen.