Dragnet

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Album: Dragnet

Artist: The Fall

Released: October 26th, 1979

Highlights: Psykick Dancehall, Printhead, Muzorewi’s Daughter, Spectre Vs Rector

Accessibility is not a word one would use to describe the work of The Fall, the post-punk English band led by rock music’s most beloved curmudgeon, Mark E. Smith. Yet, when they presented themselves to the world via their first full-length record, “Live at the Witch Trials”, they did so through songs that, although dirty in their aura and rough in their musicality, did receive a production treatment that made them stand somewhat close to the angriest spectrum of the predominant scene. Nobody really played like The Fall, nobody wrote lyrics like Mark E. Smith, and nobody had the guts to sing their words in a manner that resembled the vocal approach of the band’s microphone-wielder. Yet, a listener with some knowledge on the musical currents that sprung out of the smoky wreckage of the punk movement would easily place the music of “Live at the Witch” trials somewhere towards the end of the 70s. It is a nature that, by all means, is not enough to outweigh the group’s idiosyncrasy to the point it makes the songs of their debut friendly to a wider audience, but it does have the effect of making the tracks slightly approachable.

Released just seven months later, “Dragnet” goes the other way. Like “Live at the Witch Trials”, it contains post-punk music at its boldest and raunchiest state. Unlike it, though, it takes no steps whatsoever towards making its tracks less abrasive. Where the former had found a way to filter its filthiness without extracting the most poisonous particles out of its thick muddy juice, the latter submerges that already radioactive substance repeatedly in the sludge that pours out of the factories that dominate the northern portion of England. And it all turns out to be a fitting choice; after all, formed in the Greater Manchester, The Fall – from the get go – came up as a vehicle for Mark E. Smith to air the grievances of a working class that was as oppressed by the system that pinned it down as it was by the smoke of the industries that turned the cities and neighborhoods where its members lived into suffocating traps. And Smith did so by ranting, often wildly and incoherently, over circular, repetitive, and psychotic riffs and grooves that sounded as if they had come out of the sewers of his hometown. Unsurprisingly, that is just about what he and The Fall do during the course of “Dragnet”; the difference is that, here, the soot is broadcast through the speakers in lo-fi frequencies, as if the album had been recorded by placing a set of microphones around the open manhole out of which the grime in the city’s bowels sang of the horrors it saw.

Smith’s lyrics, partially a collage of words and partially free prose, stand between surrealistic realism and the incoherent ramblings of a bitter man; yet, even to those who are unable to crack them or understand the words drenched in his thick accent, it is quite clear that they ride waves of anger. He does not care about how they come out or if they harmonize with the instrumentation; it is only important that they get out of his system, not to alleviate his rancor, but to make way for more garbage-laden speech. Always anchored in maniac and frantic repetition, The Fall’s music finds plenty of room to breathe varied air in “Dragnet”. Frequently, it drinks from literary sources: in Dice Man, based on a book of the same title, Smith nods to freedom of choice by relating the story of a man who makes decisions based on the roll of a dice while the band puts a twist on a traditional Bo Diddley riff; meanwhile, “A Figure Walks” and “Spectre Vs Rector”, the album’s longest cuts, are winding and monotonic jams that become stellar in how their music and lyrics give off a horrifying atmosphere that does justice to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Similarly dark are “Muzorewi’s Daughter”, which verges on the disturbing thanks to Smith’s shrieks during the chorus and verses carried by a riff that resembles the menace found in The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”; and “Before the Moon Falls”, where with the apocalypse approaching, Smith, cryptically, speaks of everything from establishing a new regime to thanking the heavens the lack of jobs in the north has helped him avoid the traps of routine and working-class marriage.

The Fall’s favorite pastime, though, seems to be the implosion of musical structures that could – if executed by other bands – be immediately likable; and Smith’s favorite activity is the airing of vicious words towards the music industry. The former can be seen in opener “Psykick Dancehall”, where a stellar snaking riff goes wild in the speedy and energetic chorus; in “Flat of Angles”, in which a rare warm acoustic strum and a noisy guitar are used to illustrate the psychosis of a criminal hidden in an apartment where he believes he is being watched; and both “Choc-Stock” and “Put Away”, which could be catchy if they were not so messy and noisy. On the other hand, the two preferred strands of band and singer come together in “Printhead” and “Your Heart Out”, which could be poppy if Smith were not ridiculing negative reviews that The Fall got from members of the press that disliked his mixture of talking with singing and even went as far as calling him a drunk and stating the band was “little more than a big crashing beat”. Although – to a point – accurate, those evaluations failed to see that it was through these characteristics that Mark E. Smith and The Fall gained a cult following, inspired other groups, occasionally flirted with the mainstream, took post-punk to unique terrains, and achieved success and respect by following their own rules and staying true to who they were. And in “Dragnet” those qualities were very much present and blatant, even if slightly hidden below inscrutable lo-fi production.

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Delta

delta

Album: Delta

Artist: Mumford & Sons

Released: November 16th, 2018

Highlights: Guiding Light, Slip Away, Delta

Mumford & Sons’ decision to drop the banjo and completely leave the indie folk scene in 2015’s “Wilder Mind” was not inherently bad; in fact, a change might as well have been precisely what the band needed at the time. With their two first albums, “Sigh No More” and “Babel”, Marcus Mumford and his peers had struck a perfect balance between the pop sensibilities of the mainstream, the anthemic recipe of indie rock, and the quirky energy of bluegrass music. It was a combination as irresistible as it was unlikely, for not many could predict one of the most popular bands of the new millennium would reach the top of the charts through the transformation of a genre, bluegrass, whose success seemed to have been relegated to a geographic region, the Deep South, and to a time period, the 20th century, that were both very distant from the English roots of the group as well as the massive appeal of their tunes. That mix of originality and fame, though, spurred dozens of imitators, and soon the sound Mumford & Sons had validated was being so overused by other banjo-wielding groups that it had deteriorated into a silly caricature. And when faced with the risks of artistic stagnation and of being lost among a crowd of indie folk rockers, Mumford & Sons wisely abandoned the ship.

The problem is that, when doing so, they ended up on the island of sterilized pop; a piece of land that is itself overpopulated. Worse yet, their destination meant they had traded their position in the vanguard of one scene for a standing as mere followers of another. With “Delta”, the successor of “Wilder Mind”, the band had a pretty great opportunity to adjust the course and leave the dull waters onto which they had veered, which would in turn make the pop accident of “Wilder Mind” feel like a weird detour in the middle of the road. However, the direction they take here is actually the total opposite, for Mumford & Sons navigate deeper into their safe take on pop music, effectively confirming the contemporary nature of their new version. As such, all the issues that plagued “Wilder Mind” also attack the core of “Delta”, the difference is that in the latter they appear in a much higher degree. The excessively polished production kills any chance the album has of displaying organic sounds, making everything from Marcus Mumford’s voice – the focal point of the record – to the instrumentation feel processed and calculated. And if “Wilder Mind” had showcased an astounding lack of energy for a group that had become known for their explosive tunes, “Delta” amplifies that lethargy to absurd heights.

That happens because the main difference between the two records is how “Delta” is far more introspective. “Wilder Mind” held a couple of tracks that, in spite of their lustrous modern outfit, boasted the songwriting touches that Mumford & Sons had employed on “Sigh No More” and “Babel”, for they had driving beats and melodies. “Delta”, on the other hand, has absolutely none of those. The album contains more than sixty minutes of slow-paced pop. At times, it is carried by inconsequential beats; on other occasions, it is led by guitars – electric and acoustic – that are so lightly played that their presence is rarely meaningful. And thanks to the low-key demeanor of that instrumental layer, the burden of truly giving shape to these songs falls on the shoulders of Marcus Mumford’s voice and lyrics, making the band’s leader wear the hat of some sort of pop superstar. The role, though, does not suit him, or at least it would have suited him just fine had he come up with verses and melodies that were not so shockingly mundane. As such, not only does “Delta” fail to muster any truly remarkable moments, but it also feels a whole lot like a compilation of hooks and subjects that have been approached way too many times by pop musicians.

Amidst so many monotonous sequences, the album’s saving moments come up when the band is able to sprinkle a little bit of dynamism into their sound. “Guiding Light”, “Slip Away”, and the title track are not thoroughly exciting, but they do present a continuous musical crescendo that gives “Delta” a small doses of the human spirit found in the previous incarnation of Mumford & Sons. These are tracks that start out simple and slow but progressively build into cathartic explosions that make them worth it, and although there is not much about them that qualifies as refreshing, they are at least enjoyable to listen to. Through the rest of its length, though, “Delta” is dull to a truly flooring level. The record neither grates nor offends due to instances of sheer poor taste, which perhaps can make it work as decent background music for either the band’s most avid fans or those who like their pop to come with no special spices. But as the fourth album by one of the world’s most well-known indie groups, it is a very bad effort that shows that even though change is certainly necessary for artists not to become irrelevant caricatures of themselves, executing such shifts with success is not an easy task.

Merrie Land

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Album: Merrie Land

Artist: The Good, the Bad & the Queen

Released: November 16th, 2018

Highlights: Drifters & Trawlers, The Truce of Twilight, Ribbons, The Poison Tree

It took a lengthy eleven years for The Good, the Bad & the Queen to produce their second work, and although a long absence of the sort is certainly unwelcome for a group that gathers such unique and varied talents, it makes a whole lot of sense for their sophomore effort to come out towards the tail end of 2018. And that is because Damon Albarn, their leader and the creative force behind the band’s lyrics, has always had a knack for dissecting the intricacies of British life and exposing them through delightful pop hooks; a task he thrived in during the middle period of his career as the singer of Blur. And with the realm of Elizabeth II amidst some historical political turmoil as it tries to find a way to negotiate the United Kingdom’s way out of the European Union, Albarn unquestionably ranks as one of the musical voices that could broadcast the troubles of the current day. As a man of many simultaneous projects, he could have called upon any of them to give musical backing to his lyrical exploits. However, since Blur has long moved beyond British themes, Gorillaz exists in its own weird universe, and his solo output is often more concerned with matters of the depressive mind, it is only natural that he would reactivate The Good, the Bad & the Queen: an outfit whose name and debut record indicate it was born to dive into all that is British.

“Merrie Land”, then, is a vehicle to talk about the Brexit, which – naturally – makes it more British than tea. Yet, as far as its writing style goes, the record’s inspiration could not be more American. As stated by Albarn himself, when putting lyrics to paper, he took a page out of the Lou Reed book of songwriting, which favors prose over poetry and throws both metric and rhyme out the window. Interestingly, though, stepping out of both his comfort zone and also the area usually explored by Reed, Damon is not very concerned about specific characters in “Merrie Land”; his eyes, in fact, turn towards the environment and scenery he sees in a nation that has, through its voting, revealed sadness, anger, frustration, division, and general unhappiness with the image it sees in the mirror. As such, while Reed rode the subway and walked down the dirty alleys of New York to write about the people whose existence the city itself preferred to ignore, Albarn moves through the piers of Blackpool to try to capture the atmosphere that led to such a critical decision. To a point, it works. “Merrie Land” is bleak; so much that its title feels sarcastic. And the album has an introspective stream-of-consciousness mood that makes it quite clear it was built through observation and loose writing.

It is a combination that makes it an alluring piece to anyone trying to catch a glimpse of the situation it describes, even if at times Albarn’s lyrics get too cryptic for one to grasp the link between what he is singing and the social moment he is portraying. But “Merrie Land” has its share of problems. Musically, Albarn and his keyboards are joined by Paul Simonon, the bassist of The Clash; Simon Tong, the guitarist of The Verve; and drummer Tony Allen, one of the creators of Afrobeat. And, together, they come upon stellar instrumentation (which includes all sorts of synthesizers, a choir, and strings) that finds a unique middle ground between contemporary pop and the traditions of British music hall, forging a sound that is complex, decadent, and gloomy; a perfect complement to the album’s subject matter. Sadly, the wild prose of Albarn does not adhere very firmly to that fabric. In tracks such as “Merrie Land” and “Gun to the Head”, the spoken nature of the singing these kinds of lyrics require does click with their instrumental backing. The same, though, does not apply to the meandering “Nineteen Seventeen”, “The Great Fire”, “Lady Boston”, and “The Last Man to Leave”, an issue that becomes more serious when one considers the lyrics to many of these songs are obscure in meaning.

As a statement on how Albarn’s delivery of prose can become aimless at times, the moments when “Merrie Land” avoids dullness entirely come when he abandons that style and takes a more straightforward approach to his craft. “Drifters & Trawlers” has an interesting contrast in its pairing of a breezy, almost sunny, instrumentation with a lethargic and appealing vocal line. “The Truce of Twilight”, carried by a mean Paul Simonon bass line and an infectious call-and-response melody, evokes a sinister vibe. “Ribbons”, which depicts the colors of the countries that form the United Kingdom tied around a Maypole, is a gorgeous and evocative folk number. And closer “The Poison Tree”, where a sad European Union seems to come to grips with the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving, is a song of heartbreak lifted to relaxed resignation by colorful guitar and keyboard work. As a whole, therefore, “Merrie Land” is not consistent, for its lackluster cuts are almost as numerous as its good numbers. Nevertheless, like any album where Albarn talks about English life, it provides an interesting look into staples of the country’s society while also working as a point of reflection to anyone who wants to understand why phenomena of the kind have been happening in other nations. And even if the picture it paints is not as complete as the ones seen in Blur’s “Modern Life is Rubbish” and “Parklife”, it is still vivid and thought-provoking.

Alice In Chains

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Album: Alice in Chains

Artist: Alice in Chains

Released: November 7th, 1995

Highlights: Grind, Heaven Beside You, Head Creeps, Over Now

Time and geography have always made it somewhat easy to label Alice in Chains as a grunge band; after all, any group jumping out of the Seattle era during the early nineties was bound to receive such a classification. Musically, though, the quartet challenged that notion. Their tunes were often so heavy that comparisons to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi were not rare, a fact that put them much closer to the metal genre than to the style practiced by their local contemporaries such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Yet, their tunes, most of the times, dove so deeply into thick sludge they gained slow tempos that did not make them stand firmly beside heavy metal acts either. And that diverging nature pleasantly stranded them in the indescribable middle of the road. However, the trait Alice in Chains possessed that truly gave them the ability to elude categorization was certainly a highly melodic nose, for all the darkness and despair created by Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work was smoothed out by the unlikely beauty that emerged from the way he was able to harmonize with lead singer Layne Staley. And the band seemed to be so aware of that unique characteristic that they went on to explore it greatly in the making of two soft and gorgeous EPs: “Sap”, released in 1992; and the astoundingly commercially successful “Jar of Flies”, published two years later.

The self-titled “Alice in Chains”, the group’s third full-length effort, arrived not too long after the latter, and following two detours towards the delicate embrace of acoustic strums, not to mention the highly-regarded “Dirt”, itself an album that thrived in the merging of heaviness and softness, one could easily expect the group to keep on going down that fruitful path. “Alice in Chains”, nevertheless, shuns it almost completely. It is certainly hard, probably much harder than any of their previous efforts; it unquestionably has a nice amount of notable riffs, and they are as sludgy and ominous as ever; and both Cantrell and Staley join their voices in stunning harmony so frequently that it feels like the band has two lead vocalists. What is missing, therefore, is melody. It is hard to tell whether that result originates from a conscious decision by the group or from the simple reality that, by 1995, Jerry Cantrell had simply run out of hooks of the sort. But the bottom line is that “Alice in Chains” is obviously lacking in that department, and although that characteristic allows the band to explore a different vein of their music, one that is cruder and more violent, it also harms the final output, because it is missing one of the key components that had made them so great in the first place.

“Alice in Chains”, truthfully, is not completely devoid of great melodic moments, as these do come up from time to time. The problem is that they are considerably outnumbered by duller sequences. As such, tunes where the record truly shines in the traditional Alice in Chains fashion are a bit rare. Opener “Grind”, for instance, has a mean guitar crunch in its verses and finds beautiful relief in its chorus; meanwhile, closer “Over Now”, which is almost relaxed when compared to the rest of the album, offers a nice and balanced pairing between acoustic and electric instrumentation, as Cantrell combines two guitars while extracting the best of both of them: delicate picking from the former and a fantastic solo from the latter. Moreover, “Heaven Beside You” and “Head Creeps” also find success, but they do so in a slightly different manner: by exploring the two central facets of the band to their utter extremes. With lyrics centered around a failed relationship that Jerry Cantrell went through, the first one is a sorrowful ballad that unlocks melodic beauty without abandoning a brooding aura. The second one, quite contrarily, ranks as the nastiest of the songs of “Alice in Chains”; penned by Layne Staley on his own, and ridden with bizarre distorted vocal passages, it is a glimpse into his heroin addiction that is noisy and terrifying, but that never loses sight of the value of a good melody.

Through the course of its other eight tracks, though, “Alice in Chains” oscillates too much between the decent, the average, and the outright bad. At times, the songs themselves are not blatantly problematic, such as “Sludge Factory” or “Frogs”, but their general slowness and lack of very memorable moments can become boring when their long length – seven and eight minutes respectively – is considered. And that reveals another minor issue that holds the release back from being better perceived: its excessive sixty-four-minute running time, which is a bit too much given the monochromatic soul that permeates most of the album. The very good “Facelift” as well as the masterful “Dirt” were almost equally long works, but even if they did not vary in terms of theme, they found musical space to flex their muscles. “Alice in Chains”, on the other hand, remains stuck in the deathly grips of anger, depression, and drugs, but fails to bring forth as much stylistic breathing room. And if, in a way, that consistency is very helpful when it comes to pulling listeners into the hopeless Alice in Chains universe, which is exactly where anyone playing their records expects to go, the songs contained here make it harder for one to enjoy the twisted trip.

Era Vulgaris

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Album: Era Vulgaris

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Released: June 12th, 2007

Highlights: Turnin’ on the Screw, Sick Sick Sick, Into the Hollow, Make It wit Chu

The music produced by Queens of the Stone Age has always been underlined by a thick, yet low-key, layer of dirtiness. It has been present in the uncanny sway of their drone-like riffs; it has been vivid in the way Josh Homme’s elastic voice, which can quickly transit from low and menacing to an alluring falsetto, adds unlikely prominent hips to muscular hard rock; and it has hinted of its presence through lyrical subjects that have included revenge, drugs, dark imagery, and all sorts of sensual pleasures. All that filthiness, however, had – up until the release of “Era Vulgaris” – been of the sexual kind. Rock music and sex were never strangers to one another. Yet, somewhere along the move from the bouncing rhythms and riffs inspired by the genre’s pioneers, such as Chuck Berry, to heavier and stiffer styles that often dabbled into foreboding subjects, that link got lost, and Homme and his ever-changing crew took it upon themselves to bring such connection back to the louder spectrum of the rock universe. In that sense, “Era Vulgaris” is notable because, after four albums, it breaks that pattern; the band is no longer channeling the pleasurable dirtiness of sex, but the raw and physical filth of a good old garage.

It is not, of course, that the group suddenly went, over the course of two years, from the melodic, mid-tempo, and relaxed desert rock of “Lullabies to Paralyze” to the no-frills rock and roll of a garage band. It is just that, here, they take the most basic approach they could possibly use to reproduce their signature sound. Homme is still pulling off colorful explosions of soothing melodies in the midst of vicious guitar pounding, as he does when “I’m Designer” goes from its verses to its chorus; likewise, the band is still taking slow-tempo detours, and in “Era Vulgaris” they materialize in the poppy and playful flirtation of “Make It wit Chu” as well as in the sinister “Into the Hollow”, where Homme shines not only through his rising falsetto, but also via an utterly remarkable lap steel guitar line. However, save for in the former tune, where Queens of the Stone Age gets close to the mass-appeal they tapped into during “Go with the Flow”, there is no hip-shaking, no rock and roll swing, and no sensual delights. “Era Vulgaris” pounds mightily, and its highly distorted guitars – which are captured in all their grainy rawness – land accompanied by loud and dry drums. It is groovy stoner rock without the filters that usually make its edges rounder, and it alternates moments when it clicks with instances where it sinks.

During the moments it is firing on all cylinders, “Era Vulgaris” sits comfortably beside the band’s other stellar records. “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “Battery Acid” are taken straight out of Josh Homme’s songbook of tunes that, carried by almost monotonic guitars, crush listeners repeatedly until they fall into a state where they either experience sheer delirium or crave for mercy. Similarly, “Turnin’ on the Screw” is a classic Queens of the Stone Age track that oddly and perfectly matches sludgy evil (in the slow pace and mean riffs of its verses) and catchy melodic hooks (in the relaxed and nearly psychedelic vibe of its chorus). When it falters, though, the album falls into dull patterns that make it easy for one to agree with the established perception that says “Era Vulgaris” is the group’s weakest work. “3’s & 7’s”, led by a riff that recalls the one from “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, is energizing and fast-paced until it reaches a disappointing bridge that makes it stop dead on its tracks and lose its initially excellent direction. Meanwhile, “Misfit Love”, “Suture Up Your Future”, “Run, Pig, Run” meander in search of a clever idea or defining trait but find absolutely nothing of interest, making them feel like they last much longer than their actual length.

Perhaps, with the help of a lusher production, such as the one employed in the dense “Lullabies to Paralyze”, some of these duller tracks could have gained some value; the sinister atmosphere of “River in the Road”, for example, could have certainly been made extremely immersive with a more layered sound. Amidst the empty spaces left by the basic approach of “Era Vulgaris”, though, their flaws become very clear. However, the main problem of the album is not that the appealing feminine aura that surrounded the band’s violent sound in previous works is absent, because even if Queens of the Stone Age is indeed a far less interesting entity when it is all testosterone, the rawness of “Era Vulgaris” feels refreshing and makes it different. The issue here, sadly, is that Josh Homme falls short of the high standards usually expected of him in relation to coming up with sexy melodies, nasty riffs that pound as well as they bounce, and hooks. Still, “Era Vulgaris” is not bad; after all, at least half of its twelve tracks rank as enjoyable, and if listeners are willing to excuse a few bumps on the road, that number can be even bigger. Nevertheless, for a group whose name has, ever since its inception, stood as a synonym for quality and inventive hard rock, the album does not deliver as much as one would hope.

Queen

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Album: Queen

Artist: Queen

Released: July 13th, 1973

Highlights: Keep Yourself Alive, Great King Rat, My Fairy King, Jesus

Numerous have been the classic rock bands that poured out of the gate with a fully formed sound, certainly a benefit of being able to develop their tunes and artistic aspirations for a while before going into the studio for the first time. Queen, however, is not one of those cases. Their self-titled debut does not quite compare to the initial efforts by other giants of the era, such as Led Zeppelin and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which arrived to the scene firing on all cylinders. Yet, it is also equally far from sounding like the introductory works by groups such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Who, which despite making themselves be known to the music world via very good albums, still carried blatant signs of immaturity when they landed. “Queen” stands on a middle ground between both extremes, because even though the record is clearly a bit rough around the edges, a good portion of it reveals traits that – in the future – would launch the band to the pantheon of immortal acts. As such, it displays that the quartet knew pretty well where they wanted to go to, but it reveals they were still learning how to follow that path.

From the get go, Freddie Mercury and Brian May emerge as the band’s two major creative forces, as the former brings in five songs and the latter four, with drummer Roger Taylor contributing with one track of his own. And, in the three cases, the material they deliver speaks loudly about what they would go on to do in the future. Taylor’s “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a somewhat silly moment; the point in which the record veers the closest to straight heavy metal, as the track blasts by within less than two minutes and is highlighted by May’s pounding guitar, a fast solo, and the drummer’s stunningly high falsetto, making it stand safely besides the merely decent contributions Roger would create during Queen’s early days and far away from the remarkable classics he would pen much later. May, meanwhile, explores the two core facets that would define his writing: the catchy hard rock tunes that shine due to his distinctive guitar tone, the fast “Keep Yourself Alive” and the sluggish “Son and Daughter”; and the sweet balladry, in the pop rock of “Doing All Right” and in the folky “The Night Comes Down”. In both the heavy and the soft, May would eventually do better, but not only are these tracks mostly enjoyable, they also fit in spectacularly well with the songs Mercury hands in.

May and Mercury’s compositions unveil a match that was made in heaven because of their joint extravagance. Built on solid hooks strong enough to lure all kinds of listeners, their tracks are entirely unafraid to take in those that buy into them on an unpredictable roller coaster ride, for they are as wild as they are poppy. Whether they last for three or six minutes, these tunes are characterized by how they blur the line between hard rock and progressive ethos. Their tempo changes frequently, their flow is interrupted by flamboyant spiraling solos and unexpected instrumental turns, and their outlandish structure is punctuated by operatic intermissions where May, Mercury, and Taylor unite their great voices to bring a dash of concert hall onto the sweaty and dirty rock and roll stage. Freddie’s remarkable “Great King Rat”, the album’s best cut, packs all of that into six minutes of loud, theatric, and fast-paced metal; and alongside his slower and heavier “Liar”, these two numbers include more riffs, rhythmic shifts, and melodic lines than some bands are able to create for entire full-length records. In comparison to them, even the excellent “Jesus”, which has a powerful harmonized chorus and a long frantic instrumental break, sounds sober.

Nowhere, however, does the group come together as impressively as they do in “My Fairy King”. Approaching Mercury’s favorite subject during the first stage of his career, medieval fantasy, the song could easily be taken as an embryo of “Bohemian Rhapsody” thanks to how it includes absurd vocal effects one would not expect to find in a rock album, piano-based sessions, otherworldly guitar tones, transitions between soft sweetness and hard aggressiveness, delicate harmonies, and a construction that is almost psychedelic. Like much of what can found in “Queen”, its ideas are not completely matured and sometimes its grandeur is so ambitious and exuberant that the band’s tight budget could in no way be able to support it successfully. Yet, it speaks volumes about the group as a smooth unit that brought together unlikely and eclectic talents that wanted to sprinkle rock music with a dash of extravagance. “Queen” ends up striking an odd mixture between boldness and accessibility that would propel the group to be beloved by the masses, admired by those who have a liking for absurd experimentation, and disliked by the ones not prone to look up to drama and excess. Nothing could really work as a truer introduction letter for the band.

Tusk

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Album: Tusk

Artist: Fleetwood Mac

Released: October 12th, 1979

Highlights: The Ledge, What Makes You Think You’re the One, Storms, Beautiful Child, Tusk, Never Forget

Inside the confines of Fleetwood Mac’s most popular period, “Tusk” is often regarded as the weird one. There is, of course, some truth to that evaluation. After all, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was reportedly so bent on avoiding repeating the formula of the stunningly successful “Rumours” that he drove himself to the line that separates absurd stress from sheer madness. At the same time, though, there is also a good degree of familiarity to be found in the record. It is not that “Tusk” comes off as a natural evolution of the sound of its predecessor while also being able to feel like a natural and bold evolution. That would be a way too common path to be followed by an album filled with so much weirdness and that is the product of a band with as much internal turmoil as commercial recognition. “Tusk” is, instead, able to include the unpredictable and the expected because, stylistically, it is absolutely all over the place. Miraculously, the two albums that came before it had – despite the fact they had been written by three songwriters that worked fairly independently – achieved a level of uniformity, as if they had been created with a singular vision in mind. In “Tusk”, however, the magical glue that had been tightly uniting a bunch of wild and creative pieces that did it their own way starts coming loose.

Given their usual status as physical representations of a grand and homogeneous artistic target, most albums would rightfully be panned for such inconsistency. Nonetheless, “Tusk” dodges those bullets because besides being chaotic, it is also very lengthy. Long records have historically benefited from variety, because homogeneity becomes a problem when one has to dive into a piece that lasts for more than one hour, and “Tusk” – with its twenty tracks and seventy-four minutes – is not different. With so many tracks to fill, and with three composers that were either peaking or going through a period of remarkable quality, the album allows them to run loose with their pen. Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks each turn in five songs or more. And although these tunes do not come together as neatly as the tracks the trio had created for “Fleetwood Mac” and “Rumours”, as “Tusk” often appears to be three solo efforts that have been joined under the same umbrella, it is hard to find fault on what they deliver. The common ground that unites the compositions is the production and arrangements, which are far sparser than those of the records that preceded “Tusk”; everything else, though, from lyrical content to genres covered, works towards separating them.

Stevie, who shines as the member of the band that delivers the best collection of tracks, brings in five character studies that range from personal (“Storms”) to fictional (“Sisters of the Moon”). She channels the mysterious and exotic vein she had uncovered in the classic “Rhiannon” and finds uncanny variety in it. Surely, all of her songs are delicate ballads grounded on pop; but the instrumentation they gain and, especially, their utterly jaw-dropping melodies give each a particular beauty of their own. Christine, like Stevie, is also responsible for the part of the record that feels familiar, for the styles she tackles are not too distinct from what she had been presenting ever since she joined the group. Hers are the simple and catchy pop rock numbers that are easy to dance to while singing along (“Think About Me”, “Honey Hi”, and “Never Forget”) and the introspective efforts that rank as the album’s most fragile moments (“Over & Over”, and “Never Make Me Cry”). She does, however, find some room for experimentation in “Brown Eyes”, which even if not entirely successful, represents a pleasant addition to her songwriting palette due to its relaxed vibe that merges blues and loose jamming.

With those pieces in place, it becomes clear that the madness that is frequently used to define “Tusk” comes from the member that was extremely worried about repeating himself: Buckingham. His shot at keeping the group relevant through the explosion of post-punk and the upcoming turn of the decade yields complete wildness. With nine tunes, he dominates the album, and much of its incongruity derives from how his pieces clash with those by Stevie and Christine. Partially mad, positively angry, and with no regard whatsoever for pop conventions, his creative output in “Tusk” is noisy, as the drums of Mick clang like cans and the bass of John has some of fuzz to it; and strident, because Lindsey’s voice – as well as those of the backing vocalists – is in an odd place between singing, talking, and screaming. Furthermore, while some of his songs come off as unfinished, as if written in an explosion of insanity; others bang on the same melodic hook repeatedly. They are weird; they are heavily inspired by the bouncy awkwardness of the Talking Heads, especially on the frantic rhythmic party of the title track; and they are also completely brilliant, as they are unique not only in the Fleetwood Mac canon, but in rock music as well. And they make “Tusk” not only one of the brightest and most special albums of the decade, but a bold move towards the unusual by a band that could have easily kept on shaking the money-making tree they had found with “Rumours”. Certainly, in a way, both Stevie and Christine do not go far from that source of success, but they provide the safe and usually excellent support for Buckingham to go absolutely nuts, a fact that turns “Tusk” into what is perhaps the most individualistic group effort ever created.