Classic Album Review: KANYE WEST My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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It’s difficult to find an album with a bigger sound than Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. Nevertheless, I find it disappointing that such grandiosity could only be achieved with a small army of producers and the sheer star power of other artists. For someone with such an egocentric persona, Kanye shares the spotlight generously with the likes of Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Rihanna. This record is undeniably a great triumph in lyricism, rapping, and production.  It is a true model of success, but to say that such success belongs to Kanye alone would be untrue. This record would not have been an instant classic without the contributions of many others.

Kanye is undoubtedly a skilled producer and rapper. Had he kept the features on “MBDTF” to a minimum it would still have been a great success. Take “Yeezus” for example. A minimalist album with Kanye at center stage. “Yeezus” may be reactionary to the maximalist ideals of “MBDTF”, but I also like to consider it as what the previous release would have been without leaning on other talent. On the other hand, Kanye’s voice is not the most pleasant voice to listen to for an entire full length record. He does well to include so many features on “MBDTF”, giving us a break from the nasal oppression. He is to be thanked for keeping his singing at a minimum on this album, a lesson he no doubt learned after the volume of criticism of “808’s and Heartbreak”.

The featured artists do a great job of contributing to the album for the most part. Each Pusha T and Kid Cudi verse adds dynamic to the rap vocals, and the clean vocals are refreshing apart from Bon Iver. Although, Justin Vernon simply does not belong on this album.  He is out of place among other things, like Chris Rock’s skit in “Blame Game”, which is simply just boring and a waste of time. The sampling work, however, is brilliant. Kanye’s integration of progressive rock band, King Crimson, into “Power” was unexpected and seamless. The only homage the album could do without is the “Iron Man”-like progression in “Hell of a Life”.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is all about Kanye’s views of wealth, fame, and his façade. He handles the concepts well with smart, humorous, and accurate lyrics. The portrayal of his excessive persona is humbling and in good taste, but falls short of the impossible job of excusing his bravado. Relevant and interesting his philosophy may be, Kanye’s audacity inevitably ruins the possibility of anyone taking his ideas seriously. Rap may be accessible to a great many people, and it is easy to get behind “MBDTF’s” swaggering beats, but it is not the medium for deep thought. Kanye gave it his best to make this record about the consequences of fame and wealth, but he just comes across as another rapper flaunting his extravagant lifestyle. We get it Kanye, we know you have money, cars, women, and fame, are you running out of ideas?

 

Score: 8.9/10

 

Album Review by Zach Norton, January 2017

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”:

Classic Album Reviews: BEACH HOUSE Bloom

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Beach House has been making the same album over and over since 2006, and each time they get a bit better at it. “Bloom” is the third iteration of their self-titled record. Immediately recognizable from the first moments of “Myth” is the group’s signature melancholia. They do a fantastic job of creating an immersive atmosphere, one that is enjoyable and easy to get lost in. However, there isn’t a moment’s rest from the sleepy air, and suddenly the songs are audible molasses. This isn’t helped by the downhill trend in quality of the songs and Legrand’s mild vocal cadence. Frankly, the album is far too safe and familiar. The instruments are not so much deliberate as they are timid, and the vocals never attempt anything to seize attention. Not only is its depression overwhelming, but it is difficult to hold back the yawns. “Bloom” has the qualities of a lullaby.

While most of this record is slow, it is not without exceptional moments. “Myth” has stylish guitar flourishes and is an all-around quality song that stands out from the ones following it. “Wild” ends in a seamless fusion of the vocals and synth and “New Year” is plain catchy. The rest of “Bloom” is a different story. “The Hours” has choppy vocal delivery, “Wishes” is just a long and pointless buildup, and “Other People” is the kind of song that might as well end after the first chorus. Even after multiple listens, few of the tracks distinguish themselves in memory. Needless to say, these songs are all tedious listens and sound too similar. “Lazuli”, an equally dull song, goes nowhere for three minutes and then leaves us with a two-minute broken record of an outro. Over repetition makes another appearance in the final track, “Irene”. Halfway through a song with an excellent melody, everything cuts except a droning synth and guitar. Next, the layers are brought back at an excruciatingly slow pace that is enough to botch the song’s climax. Then, after minutes of silence, a hidden track meanders its way to the album’s close.

The Shoegaze genre faded from existence for a reason; people get bored easily. Beach House cannot expect to make the same songs and hold the twenty-first century listener’s attention. Unless they make some major changes to their sound, their following won’t be getting much larger.

 

Score: 6.8/10

 

Album Review by Zach Norton, January 2017

“Bloom”:

 

Classic Album Review: FALLUJAH The Flesh Prevails

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I hadn’t listened to Fallujah before I heard “The Flesh Prevails”. I believed what I was told and anticipated a polished progressive metal album with a deep atmosphere. I knew my expectations had got the best of me from the first volley of machine gun double bass. After accepting that Fallujah was in fact a death metal band, I strapped in and started again. Even with my expectations out of the way, I found myself dissatisfied. While there isn’t anything terribly wrong with the album, there isn’t much to praise either.

“The Flesh Prevails” is by no means a poor album. It is a valiant attempt at the difficult task of combining atmosphere with sheer brutality, but fails to seamlessly unite the two themes. Instead, atmospheric trances are often interrupted by grisly vocals, and soaring guitar leads compete with the domineering rhythm guitar. Their use of contrasting elements is, at best, partially effective at lending gravity to critical moments. An overabundance of bends, reverb, pinch harmonics and sparkly tremolo is often their idea of ambience. This style works in small doses, but gets tiresome too. On the other hand, the pensive atmosphere gives the album a wonderful sense of organic flow. But at the same time, its unity is cause for giving songs lack of distinction from each other.

Fallujah was certainly successful in making their music powerful. Each component is complicated, or simply busy enough to contribute to the sense of onslaught. Alex Hoffmann’s vocal delivery, both punishing and gorgeous to behold, is the backbone of the album’s muscle. Even though I can only make out one out of every ten words heard, it does not detract from the vocals’ emotion.

The instruments donate to the cause as well, but fall victim to the botched production job. They have a noticeably sterile sound. The drum kit and bass guitar in particular feel very synthetic, reminiscent of crappy post-hardcore metal bands. Double bass is heard without end and is regularly just a source of noise. However, the band does make interesting use of it in moments such as the blazing drum fills in “Sapphire”. The other instruments receive their moments in the spotlight too. The guitar isn’t at its best in the solos or nonchalant shredding, but in its excellent regular lead lines, like those amid “The Night Reveals”. The bass has increasingly more involved parts as the album goes on, being featured in the beginning of “Levitation”, but it occasionally gets swamped by the other instruments. Despite any setbacks, the album is full of moments of true brutality that manage to hold an elegant air.

In the end, “The Flesh Prevails”, is restrained by the production effort. The guitars and drums are turned up to eleven and are both in competition with Hoffmann’s voice. The volume is taxing and distracting, but the down time we get from “Alone with You” and “Allure” helps some. The production really gave this album a flat tire. Perhaps with better mixing and mastering, Fallujah could have achieved a more persuasive atmosphere and a palatable drum kit. Perhaps it could have been great.

 

Score: 7.2/10

 

Album Review by Zach Norton, December 2016

“The Flesh Prevails”:

 

Classic Album Review: METALLICA St. Anger

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Metallica may be a thrash metal band, but for all their aggressive drive, they manage to make their music balanced. The same cannot be said for “St. Anger”. To put it quite simply, it is a mess. In an attempt to recreate the raw sound of their early work, Metallica decided to make new material for their album in an old military barracks. A noble idea, but one that ultimately failed. In the end the band decided the sound was too raw, and moved to their own studio to record the final product. Sadly, even a bona fide studio and the skills of producer Bob Rock were not enough to save this album.

Shortly before recording started, Metallica’s bassist Jason Newstead left the band. Determined to release a new album, Metallica had Bob Rock step in as a temporary replacement. James Hetfield’s alcohol addiction and personal issues further complicated recording, and a sloppy album was the result.

Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich is often criticized for his decision to remove the wire from his snare drum, and for good reason. The drums are overwhelming. The kit doesn’t sound raw, but like it is composed of trash cans. The gimmick is distracting from the rest of “St. Anger’s” noise, which is probably a good thing. Apart from their sound, the drumming is tame compared to the skill Ulrich has shown before.

Putting it mildly, the vocals are strident. Hetfield is frequently off key and manages to sound far less suave than before. Uncomfortable wailing and ugly shouts plague the album too. The lyrics are all things childish, cliché, and boring. In the title track, Hetfield spouts cringe worthy lines like “fuck it all and fuckin’ no regrets” and the album ends up sounding ridiculous, rather than metal. Other times the lyrics are lazy.   For example, Metallica lists off as many words as they can think of ending in “or” in the track, “Dirty Window”, to show off their rhyming skills. The background vocals are usually buried in the mix, but Metallica has hung on to the kind of gang vocals that have worked for them in the past. Unfortunately, we can often hear what sounds like layers of Hetfield screeching over each other, like what is heard on “Some Kind of Monster”, as if he wasn’t making enough of a ruckus already.

It was depressing to listen to a Metallica album without a single guitar solo. Kirk Hammett usually delivers standout riffs at the least, but none were to be found on “St. Anger”. In general, the guitar could be described as uninspired. Hetfield’s performance wasn’t very impressive either. It doesn’t have much of an impact on the album, instead it’s just there. Perhaps they are rusty or old, but it was a lackluster performance.

Bob Rock’s bass performance was completely drowned in the mix, which is strange considering he was the album’s producer. You really have to press your ear to the speaker to notice the bass, and when you do, it sounds like a carbon copy of Korn’s signature rattling bass, especially when listening to “Purify”. On the other hand, who knows what that sound is. It could even be Hetfield puking into one of Lars’ trashcans.

“St. Anger” is not cohesive. Each transition is clumsy, and the instruments fail to complement each other. Not a single aspect of this album is without flaw, and that includes its themes. The lyrics, like those heard on the track, “Invisible Kid”, try to be philosophical, but sound like they were written by an angsty teenager. The songs last too long and even when they have something good going, they ruin it moments later. One of the albums redeeming moments, reminiscent of the stylish rhythms of Metallica’s self-titled album, is when the band lays down a grooving riff to Hetfield’s well delivered lyrics of “Open your heart, I’m beating right here”, but the moment is murdered moments later with more horrible wailing. Overall, this is a horribly discordant album that relied too much on production despite its goal of achieving a raw sound. Something tells me that recalling an album on the sight of a trashcan is not a good sign.

 

Score: 3.4/10

 

Album Review by Zachary Norton, November 2016

Classic Album Review: MASTODON Crack The Skye

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Of all the albums in Mastodon’s vibrant discography, “Crack the Skye” is the most distinctive. Its distinction isn’t due to a higher level of quality or a lack thereof, but its departure from Mastodon’s original identity. The unreserved sludge held in common by their first three records makes a precious few appearances in “Crack the Skye”. Interestingly enough, the occasional bellow and plundering guitar riff seem even more powerful among the often churning album. The grumbling bass guitar in “Ghost of Karelia” and the familiar screams of the album’s title track, are no exception to that. Instrumentally, Mastodon has demonstrated their instrumental prowess once again, delivering precise riffs, solos, and drum fills that outclass the efforts of other sludge metal bands. Nevertheless, “Crack the Skye” is best described as progressive metal with a healthy dose of space rock; certainly not sludge metal. The mash up of genres grants the record an immersive atmospheric quality which is deliberately broken to lend a commanding air to their guitar solos and vocals. For the first time, singing has taken center stage over Mastodon’s signature guttural shouts. Their harmonies can be glorious, but are sometimes awkward such as in the pre-chorus of “Oblivion”. Despite their relative inexperience with singing, it still manages to add to the record’s synergy. Each song flows seamlessly into the next.

“Crack the Skye “continues on with the bands tradition of following a concept. However, never have they undertaken one so personal. Make no mistake, the album may be chalk full of topics like astral projection and the legendary Rasputin, but its true inspiration was the early death of a bandmate’s sister. Unfortunately, the concept is a bit too fleshed out and outlandish. The band may have overdone it in this aspect. Apart from this, there is little to complain about. The album starts off strong and ends even stronger: in a thirteen-minute epic. There is hardly a low point besides a couple of transitions featuring over repetition, something that could be mistaken for laziness. Given the emotional investment in the album it is more likely a thorough attempt to stick to the albums unique tone, which the band does very well. They put their fan base at risk with this album by changing their sound, but musically it is a success.

Often when a metal band lightens up their musical palate, it is seen as an attempt to reach a larger audience or “sell out”, despite what they may claim. It is not uncommon for the quality of writing to decline too. The reasons for Mastodon’s decision to move away from their roots in “Crack the Skye” is unclear. The personal investment they have in the record, and its overall quality suggest that it could be their earnest attempt at something a little different. It’s not uncommon for artists to experiment with their ideas occasionally. However, looking at Mastodon post-“Crack the Skye”, it seems certain that the album was intended to test the world’s reception of a new sound before they committed to what might be called hard rock.

Score: 8.5/10

Album Review by Zach Norton, November 2016