A Wilhelm Scream
An unfortunate number of bands like A Wilhelm Scream leave me cold. I hate to say it, but it's gotten so that most of the folks out there who sound like these Northeastern boys (and apparent diehard Red Sox fans) all just bleed into one another -- they combine the speed and heavy guitars of the hardcore world with sweet pop melodies and indie-rock songwriting conventions, and while that's generally a damn cool thing (at least, to me), it's pretty hard to be innovative and stay interesting if you're doing the same thing thirty other bands are doing. What was innovation becomes generic fast when everybody's climbing on the bandwagon.
To their credit, with Ruiner A Wilhelm Scream sprint out ahead of the pack, charting their own unique musical course and worming their way into my head in a major way; by about halfway through the album (right around "In Vino Veritas II"), I'm won over. By the second time through, I can't stop singing along. The band does a fine job of differentiating themselves from the herd, although they do it partly in an unorthodox way, by incorporating elements of prog-rock into the mix. Opener "The King Is Dead" starts with noodly, subtle, complex guitars worthy of a Geddy Lee falsetto...right before, naturally, the ferocious hardcore guitars and alternately yelled/sung vocals come crashing in. Along similar lines, "The Soft Shell" is reminiscent of both No Knife's sharp-edged sci-fi rock and the updated prog of the horribly underrated aMINIATURE, and "Mercy Day For Mr. Vengeance" jumps time signatures deftly, switching directions and varying tempos like indie heroes Jawbox, all while managing to somehow hold things together.
Even when they play it straight, the band doesn't miss a trick. Songs like "Killing It" and "The Kids Can Eat A Bag of Dicks" bring to mind Braid's best moments (on the latter, melded with Snapcase-style metalcore), while "Congratulations" is an angry, Jawbreaker-like blast. "In Vino Veritas II" is reminiscent of Jawbreaker, too, albeit in a different way -- it's simultaneously gorgeous and thunderously depressive, like Blake Schwarzenbach's bleakest elegies on Dear You. I haven't heard a melancholy song with guitars this overwhelming and powerful since Dinosaur Jr.'s Where You Been. Then there's "Me Vs. Morrissey In The Pretentiousness Contest (The Ladder Match)," which is wonderfully fast and crazed, pumping with adrenaline (and no, I have no clue what the song titles here have to do with the songs themselves), and "God Loves A Liar," a beautiful pop song that's been thoroughly soaked in bile and then blasted with cosmic radiation 'til it looks/sounds nothing like its former self.
The best part of the disc, though, has nothing to do with the music itself -- it's all about the energy. From start to finish, Ruiner is frantic and frenzied, like a car blazing down the freeway at 90 MPH with the windows down, dodging cars on all sides and seemingly always right on the verge of slamming into a barricade. The songs are nicely short, just quick little bursts of rock that charge in, say their piece, and get the hell out; the album moves so fast, in fact, that I find myself hitting the "Rewind" button every few songs, because I keep missing these intricate little passages buried deep within. I'll get to the next song, and it'll hit me: "Hey, hold on a second -- did I just hear what I think I heard?" Before I know it, it's over...and I feel like I need to go back and listen again.
Another time through, and I've got my conclusion: Ruiner is bitter as all hell, melodic yet wild-eyed and dangerous, brutally smart, and hard-edged enough to draw blood at all the right places. If this is the new face of rock, hey, I'm all for it. (JH)
(Nitro Records -- 7071 Warner Ave., Suite F-736, Huntington Beach, CA. 92647; http://www.nitrorecords.com/; A Wilhelm Scream -- http://www.awilhelmscream.com/)
The April Skies
The Breathe EP
Any band that nabs their name from a band like the Jesus & Mary Chain better have the chops to back it up. The April Skies' name naturally draws attention (and in the early '90s, apparently got labels interested), but many of the band's new songs hold little to capture the listener's attention -- and after an 11-year hiatus, one would think the band would be able to do more than simply rehash styles of the past twenty years (even if that's the thing to do right now). Since the Hershey, PA, band sounds like a lot of other bands out there -- and also closely resembles their hometown brethren in The Ocean Blue -- a lot of the songs will resonate with some listeners.
The band continues to tour the East Coast, and their two releases since reforming -- The Breathe EP and 2005's Flood -- show a talented band whose music is basically middle-of-the-road, alt-rock. But those with more discerning tastes will quickly peg the band as too middle-of-the-road, and therefore unnecessary. It's a fine line, for sure, but there are too many ignored great bands out there for one this blah to get through. (DAC)
(WIAB Records -- P.O. Box 414, Hershey, PA. 17033; http://www.theaprilskies.com/)
Futurists Against the Ocean
With a quartet of slow, loud, thick, and very long pieces, Asva sets the listener adrift in a sea of undifferentiated time. And yet, if Isis, in their own opinion, evokes the ocean, with a sense of massive, inexorable, inhuman power -- and the uniformity of a natural landscape -- Asva, their titular aspirations aside, is of an industrial scope, alienating, colossally labyrinthine, and machinic. Futurists Against the Ocean is most often the sound of a vast, unpeopled, and incomprehensible city of craggy monoliths.
This evocation is most effective on "Zaum: Beyonsense" and "Fortune," both more sound art than music, even when they contain musical elements. On "Kill the Dog, Tie Them Up and Take the Money" and "By the Well of Seeing and Living," Asva takes on a cross between post-rock and doom metal (very slow, of course) that is not unlike Pelican's recent work. These are less successful; the presence of drums quantizes the pieces and breaks the droning smoothness of guitar and bass. Without that smoothness, without the sense of being adrift in time, it's too easy for the listener to lose interest in what is fairly pedestrian if very slow metal.
Like a hand holding sand, the less Asva tries to grip their audience's attention, the less likely the audience is to slip through their fingers and slip away, realizing how dull the music really is. That's always the challenge with minimalism -- to bore the listener into a state of hypnosis without putting them to sleep. Once they get their bearings, this is no longer possible. (DM)
(Mimicry Records -- http://www.webofmimicry.com/; Asva -- http://www.dosfatales.com/)
Well, folks, it looks like epic arena rock is back, and thank God for that. I was starting to get worried that Coldplay, who pretty much single-handedly made grand, Floydian, not-too-rough rock cool once again, were a fluke, but thankfully, here comes fellow Brits Athlete, with Tourist, and between 'em (okay, and Keane and the somewhat darker Muse, and probably a few others, to boot), this is starting to look it could be a trend. And personally, that's fine by me -- I wasn't a huge Oasis fan, but there was never any doubt that they made "big" music, music that soared and couldn't be contained by just some rinky-dink nightclub in Soho, and I firmly believe there always needs to be that kind of thing going around.
Now, with that said, Tourist caught me somewhat off-guard. I'd heard a few things off of 2003's Vehicles & Animals, and while the memory of those songs isn't real fresh in my mind, what I keep coming back to while listening to this album is, "Is this the same damn band?" Don't let the intriguing cover art and the fact that they're on Astralwerks throw you -- this time out Athlete have thrown out most of the electronic experimentation in favor of piano arrangements and careful, heartfelt pop-rock. Hence the Coldplay mention above; and sadly, it's a comparison that I keep coming back to. Album opener "Chances," for example, begins quiet and delicate, with piano and vocals, and while it does quickly swell into a beautiful, orchestral piece of sweeping rock, well.... No offense intended to Joel Pott (vocals & guitar), Carey Willetts (bass), Steve Roberts (drums), and Tim Wanstall (keys), but in this day and age, if you're starting songs (and albums) with emotive piano figures, you're pretty much pigeonholing yourself. Heck, every time I hear the song's intro, I find myself expecting Pott to break into "The Scientist."
Just to clarify, I'm not saying that Athlete are just a bunch of Coldplay wannabes, or that Tourist is a bad album. On the contrary, I'm worried that the inevitable "Call Coldplay and tell 'em they've got their own personal Stone Temple Pilots!" reaction could overshadow the reality that there are some excellent, thoughtful, affecting songs on here. Take, for three examples, "Half Light," with its shimmery, ringing guitars and odd little electronic touches, a track that sounds like Badly Drawn Boy's Damon Gough on a steady diet of Death Cab For Cutie; "Trading Air," all subtle piano and atmosphere; or "Yesterday Threw Everything At Me," which hits its best moment at the end, when the noise fades out and leaves Pott alone in an empty room, banging on a guitar and singing naked and unfiltered.
Then there's the aforementioned "Chances," the urgent, desperate balladry of "Twenty Four Hours," and the album's closer, "I Love," which is all quiet, acoustic guitars and vocals floating over washes of melodic noise, like Sigur Rós backing Billy Bragg at one of his softer moments. The album's absolute highlight, though, is "Wires," a touching, exhausted-yet-jubilant outpouring of love from new father Pott to his newborn child. The vocals are detached and flat, even as the vocalist sings about running down corridors to get to the plastic cube where the baby's hooked up to machines, but the emotion's there, bubbling beneath the surface, tense and afraid; when Pott finally sings "I see it in your eyes, I see it in your eyes / You'll be alright," the relief is palpable.
In case you can't catch it from the above, the ballads work. They may occasionally be too quiet, too unthreatening (and yes, there's a slight whiff of Adult Alternative to some of the tracks, I'll admit), but y'know, even with that, they work. They take some time to talk their way into the room, sure, but once they're there, it's to stay. Oddly enough, it's when Athlete tries to step back to its Vehicles & Animals roots that things fall flat. They attempt it twice, on the title track, which grooves, but robotically, like a de-sexed Maroon 5 song, and on "Modern Mafia," which aims for the catchiness of the band's pseudo-hit "You Got The Style" but ends up just being boring and repetitive. The two songs stick up like ugly, out-of-place weeds in the middle of Tourist's lush, heartfelt, mellow soft-rock field.
The funniest thing album this album is that while the music's definitely captivating, it's the lyrics that steal the show. There's a serious theme running throughout Tourist, all about love and distance; it's the sound of the melancholy, still-hopeful yearning of a modern man stranded far from the people he cares about. He's a tourist in a foreign land, simultaneously enjoying himself and desperately longing to be back home. At their core, these are love songs for the digital age. Take the desperate "Twenty Four Hours," for example, where Pott talks about how everything's "caught wide screen," "Wires," which is all about the cold, efficient machinery of a modern hospital, or "Half Light," where he sings "It's you and me connected to a satellite / It's you and me and love through a machine."
All of this wonderful technology, he seems to be saying, the stuff that's supposed to make our lives simpler and more convenient, it's created even more distance between us as people. The closing break of "If I Found Out" might as well serve as the album's thesis: "I thank you or soul / No point unless you got soul / This world has got to have soul." And at the risk of being tagged as a Luddite, I'll come out and ask the question that Pott and the rest of the band are dancing around on Tourist: really, what is the use of all that technology without soul to keep us feeling alive? (JH)
(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th Street, New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/; Athlete -- http://www.athlete.mu/)
City of Evil
What the hell? Okay, let's try to think this through: Huntington Beach rockers Avenged Sevenfold look like a bunch of Goth-punks, sing the most beautiful harmonies you're likely to hear anytime lately (including on those treasured emo albums you hide from your too-cool friends), play convoluted, prog-rock-like metal passages that jump time signatures effortlessly, thrash like Metallica used to back before they all got haircuts, craft the noodliest guitar solos this side of Steve Vai, and sing/scream complex song cycles about devils, whores, and brutal wars. And that's just on one album, the seemingly-conceptual City of Evil.
It's a little overwhelming, really. Just when I think I've got those Avenged Sevenfold guys pegged, they throw me a curve, like the Guns N' Roses-esque break in "Blinded In Chains," the angelic vocals and Spinal Tap-esque intro of "Beast And The Harlot," the quiet, delicate guitar break in "Bat Country," and the hymnal feel of the end of "M.I.A." The brilliant opening track, "Beast And The Harlot," is easily the high point of the album, but that doesn't mean that it goes downhill from there -- "Beast" simply sets the wheels in motion for the rest of the story. Other bright spots include "Bat Country," "The Wicked End," and "Seize The Day," for three.
Stylistically speaking, the eleven tracks on the album jump deftly from heavy thrash ("Burn It Down") to heartfelt, almost countrified rock ("Seize The Day") to stark, desert-sounding stoner-metal ("Strength Of The World"), but the transitions are so smooth as to be practically seamless. Heck, I find myself having trouble discerning where one song ends and another begins, and for once, I don't mind. The band hits a good dozen metal touchstones in each song, from Iron Maiden to L.A. Guns to Killswitch Engage, and yet they've made the whole thing their own. City of Evil is all over the place, but somehow, it works.
On top of all that, there's the literate, fire-and-brimstone vocals, most of which seem to be telling the story of a city doomed to be obliterated for its sins, a modern-day Sodom or Babylon. Kind of. There're also some hints in here that the "City of Evil" is also a metaphor for the good ol' US of A, like in "Blinded In Chains," where vocalist M. Shadows grouses that "I turn around another fuckin' war, man," and points the accusatory finger at average joes like you and me for letting ourselves be blinded to the consolidation of government power. Then there's the album's closer, "M.I.A.," which appears to be sung from the point of view of a soldier on the ground in Iraq -- "I walk your land, but don't belong / Two million soldiers can't be wrong." The song's narrator ends the epic final track with a more plaintive cry, quietly sung-spoken at the album's very close: "Forgive me for my crimes; don't forget that I was so young / Fought so scared in the name of God and country." When vocalist M. Shadows' voice cracks with emotion, it's a poignant moment worthy of any album, much less one put together by a bunch of guys with tattoos and dyed-black hair.
At the end of the day, City of Evil is the most fully realized, most perfectly crafted metal epic I've heard in years, harking back to the glory years of metal, when albums like Reign in Blood and ...And Justice For All weren't afraid to bend and even break the "rules" of metal. Back then I was a big fan of all those concept albums by "progressive" metal bands like Savatage (Hall of the Mountain King), Fates Warning (Perfect Symmetry), and Queensryche (Operation: Mindcrime), because it felt like those bands had finally realized that metal could be intelligent, complicated, and nuanced and still have the balls and heavy guitars to pull it off. Listening to Avenged Sevenfold, I feel the years drop away. And it's a great feeling.
Forget that the mistakes of "nu-metal" ever happened, forget that grunge ever wussified rock, forget that alt-rock radio ever dumbed-down our collective musical intelligence, and envision a world where hardcore and metal exist happily side by side and play Beatles albums to one another just for fun, and you'll get a pretty good glimpse of the alternate reality Avenged Sevenfold's building. It's grand, it's raw, it's beautiful, it's smart as all hell, and it's angry and bloody as anything. It's albums like City of Evil that make me love metal again, the way I did when I was a kid. (JH)
(Warner Bros. Records; http://www.warnerbrosrecords.com/; Avenged Sevenfold -- http://www.avengedsevenfold.com/)