Thursday, October 27, 2016

Music Review #94:
Dave Matthews Band

To say that Dave Matthews Band is well known is an understatement. Approximately two decades after their formation, they had sold over 30 million record copies worldwide, and are one of if not the only group two have 6 consecutive albums hit number one on the Billboard chart. Whilst DMB is known for their most radio friendly material, like 'Crash Into Me', the band has a profound set of epic material on much of their early material. Believed to be the band's first stellar hit was that of 1996's Crash, an album with much to offer and little to take back.

Described mainly as part of the 'jam' band scene, Dave Matthews Band encompasses a handful of different genres into their live performances, the more prominent of these being jazz. Dave Matthews has stated in interviews that his jazz influence came from the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba. While these artist's jazz aspects originate entirely from Matthew's preferred South African scene, these African influences aren't exactly prominent on Crash. Instead, there's a more warm-blooded, swaggery style of pseudo-jazz rock that brings elements from commercial pop rock to make a wonderful twist. The album, while not as profound as say Before These Crowded Streets (1998) with it's grandiose complexity, Crash has it's fair share.

Admittedly Crash is a primarily alternative rock release. There is a clear Barenaked Ladies or R.E.M., or even Phish influence on tracks like 'Say Goodbye' and '#41', especially when it comes to Matthew's guitar playing. These tracks sort of meld into each-other if they become to dull, which they entirely can, but being what the band is primarily known for, the pop-rock songs are played extremely well and are full of heart and emotion. But when the album hits more complex music, lord does it hit well. The beast that is 'Two Step' is perhaps one of the greatest songs to come out of the 1990's, with it's melodramatic tone, somber choruses, fantastic hooks, and of course that bari-sax! It's truly one of DMB's best and is of course my number one recommendation from the album. Now 'Two Step' is really the only song that goes all-out in the vein of progressive music but there are numerous aforementioned alt-rock slammers that are well-know- for good reason. '#41' blends eclecticism with flashy film-score emotional value to great affect. 'Crash Into Me' is by far the most well known song from the band's repertoire, and it's not bad. It's by far one of the more simple songs from the tracklist, but it's cheerful tone and playful lyrics are enough to make it notable. 'Proudest Monkey' is a very interesting song, clocking in at a whopping 9 minutes, but it hits numerous structural high points throughout it's run time. Imagine 'Crash Into Me', but longer, more improvisational, and more interesting lyrical quality. That's basically what the song is, and to someone like me that's greatly appreciated.

The greatest think by far about Dave Matthews Band however is Dave Matthews' Band. This band has what I think to be some of the most talented musicians ever put on an album. Now personally I think soppy songs for them are a restriction of true perfection in the long-run, but I'm always happy with what I've got, as well as solace of more illustrious material in their near future after Crash. On board with Dave Matthews' throaty howl is electric guitar god Tim Reynolds (a highly underrated musician), Stefan Lessard on bass, and LeRoi Moore and Boyd Tinsley as the two-man orchestra between the violin and the horn section. My only partial complaint is Carter Beauford's drumming. To say he's bad would be a denial of reality but I can't help that think that on this album (and consecutive ones), he's way overdoing it. You're playing pop, man; keeping it simple creates catchier material, at least for me. Simple drum fills could easily keep a good balance with the material provided, but I suppose going overkill works just as well financial-wise. Granted it does get much more fitting on later albums, but for this the over-complexity just seems abnormal when sitting next to something like '#41'. Just a thought. Even with that though the band has such a wonderful, unspoken cohesion that just makes them play so well. It truly is one of the highlights of the band in general.

Crash, while slightly entry-tier for someone more willing to get into it's progenitors' material, is still a colorful, inspiring release. Slow down to check this Crash out.

2016 - The Frying Pan & Thatcher 
Originally written for Jazz Music Archives on 10/27/2016.
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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Music Review #93:
Big Boat

Big Boat is a bit of a return to basics for Phish. Two years later after Fuego (2014), an album that was nothing short of a re-invigoration for Phish, the band decided once again to team up with famed producer Bob Ezrin- who if you don't know has worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Kiss, Hanoi Rocks, and others- and have crack at a second round.

Phish, like any other band, has a formula. This formula goes something like this: 3-4 bouncy, eclectic tracks, 2-3 rock n' roll and/or hard rockers, 1 (maybe 2) 10 minute + epic, and throw in a few slow ballads for good measure. Over the years I've found myself very comfortable with this formula, as Phish is able to follow it without replicating previous creative choices to an insulting degree. It's obvious there's a difference between these set tracks on each album- 'Down with Disease' is different from 'Character Zero', 'Sample in a Jar' is different from 'Theme From the Bottom', etc. But this time around, of all times, Phish decided to turn the tables (at least slightly), presumably to turn down the tedium. There is a few more funk rock tunes on here than were present on Fuego (which really condensed them into the bombshell that was '555'), but most of them are pretty good. 'Friends' was an absolute anomaly for me on the first listen, because it actually had sole vocals and songwriting attributed to drummer Jon Fishman of all people (this doesn't happen too often if I'm correct). It serves as sort of the theme for the album, and rightly so. It's a loud, thundering song that sets an adventurous mood quite well for the rest of the experience. 'Home' is a McConnell track, and unfortunately not his best work. Balanced between bland, linear pop rock and overwrought noise, it's a tough listen even for what should be an easy listening song. The only notable fast-paced track is 'I Always Wanted It This Way', another McConnell one, but this time a strange Foster The People-esque indie rock song with a synth-pop beat. It's really so strange for Phish that I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it, but it's not too horrible (definitely not among the band's worst).
The slower/bouncier songs are where I believe Phish shines and always have shined. I've already talked about 'Breath & Burning' in my review for the promo single, but I do stand by my opinion that it is rather good. 'Tide Turns' is one of my favorites, with a confident horn and brass section parroted by Fishman's powerful drumming. The pseudo-epic 'Miss You' is very similar to Billy Breathes (1996)' 'Waste', albeit stretched out for two or so more minutes. I prefer Waste's quiet atmosphere to this, but it rings true of Phish's talent for writing good cheesy songs. The only truly quiet ballad is none other than 'Running Out Of Time', a wonderful ditty that takes some elements of CSN&Y to create a wonderful song worthy of some of Phish's best. 

Now for something a bit closer to home for some of you reading this. Phish has created a variety of epics and suites over the years- some 25 minutes ('Union Federal'), some 10 ('Demand'). They contain some of Phish's most prolific work: their most creative atmospheres, best musicianship, best lyricism, best everything. As Phish progressed these epics became less of jams and more substantial, moving pieces of art. I believe this transition might have hit it's peak in 2002, where the band included four different epics, all with their different qualities and attributes. After Phish reconvened subsequent to their hiatus, they compressed all of their talent into one specific song. This was none other than 'Time Turns Elastic', a suite written by Anastasio that was originally 29:38 but was compressed down to 13 for Joy (2009). It was a crowning achievement for the band, with each movement shining in their respective ways and bringing out all different kinds of emotions. I've been hard pressed to find an epic that surpasses it in quality (except 'The Divided Sky', personal-taste wise in that regard however)- the title track for Fuego didn't, so all that's left to this date is whatever's on Big Boat. For that, we have 'Petrichor', a song I've been eagerly waiting to hear since the track-list for Big Boat was announced in September. And I must say, it comes close. Veeeeerry close. But not quite.
'Petrichor' has a much floatier atmosphere than the dark-tinged 'Time Turns Elastic', but has the advantage of a full-blown brass and string section to accompany it. It gives off a strong film-score vibe than many of Phish's previous works, which depending on your feelings towards that certain genre, could appeal to you in different ways. The quadruple-edged blade that is the full-band vocals of Phish adds brilliantly to the almost Floydian-like atmosphere, the latter which makes itself loudly and proudly pronounced specifically towards the second half. Like I say with great epics, I believe personal experience is the only way to truly get a feel for it. Sorry if that's a cop-out.

Another quick note:
The production is fantastic, as usual. Bob Ezrin made a point to have this album be as if not more crisp and clean than Fuego, making this interesting divide between the quasi-amateurish Fuego and Big Boat. He is truly fantastic and I wish him more luck in the future with his endeavors.

After all this fanboy jargon, I think a TL;DR is necessary. Big Boat is a mature, billowing album that delivers Phish in a satisfying and new way. If this happened to be Phish's last effort, I'd be completely fine with that. But I know that's not the case, because Phish aren't ones to give up in the long-run. Here's to many more phases of phun, boys.

 2016 - The Frying Pan & Thatcher 
Have a nice day! 
Music Review #92:
Metal Blade

The reason I've found that most people even know about the band Engine is mainly the band's singer, Ray Alder. Alder is best known for his work in the progressive metal outfit Fates Warning, taking over from previous vocalist John Arch in 1987.

The 90's were a strange time for Fates Warning, especially at the time of nearing the 21st century. 1997's A Pleasant Shade of Gray was an album that was all over the place, a collage of neo-classical industri-prog that split their audience down the center. But with all with Fates Warning going all out artistic on their albums, somewhere along the line, Alder decided to take a break and do something a bit different. Enter Engine, a supergroup formed by Alder himself. On board was some familiar faces of the past few decades. These include Armoured Saint's Joey Vera on bass, Agent Steel's Bernie Versailles on guitar, and punk band Face To Face's Pete Parada on drums.

Now if you're expecting something similar to the complex prog that I mentioned before on this album, you're sorely mistaken. Engine's first (and most notable) album was released in September of 1999, and is the most blatant alt metal album you could find at the time. Unapologetic post-grunge influence combined with the dark, edgy stylings of seasoned metal veterans- what could go wrong? Not much to be honest. The songwriting isn't complex, lyrics aren't overthought or needlessly poetic, Engine is just a 9 track collection of some pretty good alternative metal material. Like I said before there is a palpable dark quality to the album, mainly given off by Alder's somber vocals and Versailles' slow, echoing riffs that seem to blend into each-other as each song progresses. Engine draws from a variety of influences, such as 90's Soundgarden, Staind (particularly on my personal favorite 'You're Awake'), and a variety of other hard rock/ alternative metal bands at the time. Sometimes Alder's voice reflects a bit of Jonathan Davis' at times. Melodic tones are also used to great affect, notably 'Tree of Life' and 'Falling Star'.

This isn't progressive material, and if you're looking for that kind of stuff I suggest just keeping up to date with Engine's members' original bands. But if you're looking for some supergroups formed by great musicians, then I suggest you check out this little-known group. It's worth it.

2016 - The Frying Pan & Thatcher 
Originally written for Metal Music Archives on 10/16/2016.
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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Music Review #91:
Timeless Miracle
Into the Enchanted Chamber

I think it's a bit poetic that the singular album from a band called Timeless Miracle would turn out to be both dated and nothing short of expected.

Power metal in the 2000's was already hoisted as cheesy and very poppy, with very strong fluctuations of quality. On the negative side of that end we have an album like this. Into the Enchanted Chamber is the epitome of banality. To it's contrived, bouncy riffs to the simple songwriting, this album exudes everything wrong with the decade's power metal.

Also, keyboards. I for one am a fan of keyboards used in music, especially rock and metal. Keyboards, here played by a one Fredrik Nilsson, are done in an almost robotic way, and only exist to sort of keep a fake-sounding elated atmosphere of the album going. These combined with the violins, makes for nothing short of an album fit for a soundtrack, and I mean that in a certainly negative way. Minus the already over-exuberant vocals of Mikael Holst, Into the Enchanted Chamber is an album whose over-the-top songs would fit perfectly into the background of a movie or video game action scene of a B-rated production. And as I said before, I don't mean that in a good way. That aspect further brings away from the awe-inspiring sound that I've come to expect from the power-metal scene, especially Dragonforce when it comes to that decade. Unnecessary and grandiose symphonics don't equate to epic material, and the Achilles' heel of this album is the failure to recognize that.

The hackneyed, family-friendly atmosphere of this album unfortunately made for a listening experience that really turned this one into a disappointment for me. There actually is skill with the band, and I think with the right attitude and sound Timeless Miracle would've been able to get the epic, adventurous sound that they easily could have. Perhaps with less keyboards.

Written for Metal Music Archives' July 2016 Reviewer Challenge.

2016 - The Frying Pan & Thatcher 
Originally written for Metal Music Archives on 7/14/2016.
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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Music Review #90:
Toward the Sun

Does cloning Yes well make a good album?

Well if we take that "well" part, then you must be. Having the ability to play so similarly to such an eclectic and talented band must mean you have a certain share in that talent. This is the case for the 70's symphonic rock band Druid, and their debut Toward The Sun in 1975.

This album is undoubtedly influenced by Yes, who was a very prominent example of progressive music, especially during the 70's. But no matter how eclectic or dynamic Yes was, they still followed a formula, and that formula could be done by other bands. Many are quick to juxtapose many symphonic prog bands with Yes, but it's really only true in obvious examples. Toward The Sun is one of these examples. Everything from 'Dane''s high pitched, ultra soprano vocals to Neil Brewers thumping Squire-inspired bass. One thing I do have to give to Druid is that their percussionist, Cedric Sharpley, is fantastic. His abilities hold a candle to both Bill Bruford and Alan White with his talents.
Don't simply shrug this off as just a Yes clone just yet, because there's a deluge of other influences Druid takes in other than them. Dane has certain moments where during his self-harmonizations sounds oddly like Crosby Stills Nash and Young of all bands, most prominently on 'Remembering'. With this is an admitted folk undertone, no matter how vague and poorly executed it is. Some jazz influences that hopefully become more prevalent with their followup Fluid Druid (1976) that are done pretty well, as Druid sort of deals with this genre of symphonic jazz rock, a genre so strange that I wouldn't mind seeing more often.

Okay, I have to come clean. This album is not easy to review. At all. If you've heard Yes enough you've come to understand and accept their formula: overly complex drumming, long winded choral-like guitars, and high airy vocals. Many bands did copy this concept, but the worst ones were the ones in the 70's, where there was no newer technology present where they could tinker with the idea in any unique way, and were simply stuck to just playing the same thing. Druid, or rather Toward the Sun is one of these 70's rehash. I'll say it now and in the future; if I want to listen to Yes symphonic prog, I'll listen to Yes. There's no other reason to listen to a practical trudge through the same concepts as the band except with a lack of creativity.

Sorry if this was harsh, but Toward the Sun is not a good album. Good musicianship is present obviously which hopefully will be utilized to a greater extent on future releases. Good luck, Druid.

2016 - The Frying Pan & Thatcher 
Originally written for Prog Archives on 10/1/2016.
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