Born Again

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Album: Born Again

Artist: Black Sabbath

Released: August 7th, 1983

Highlights: Disturbing the Priest, Zero the Hero, Born Again

For a band whose nineteen albums are uniformly grounded on the same tight niche – the one of menacing and plodding doom-laden heavy metal riffs – Black Sabbath sure has an unexpected number of phases; and that nature, consequently, causes the band’s discography to feature a whole lot of works that could qualify as landmarks. A good portion of the credit for that characteristic can obviously be attributed to the fact that, after the departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, the group went through a large amount of vocalists, but the separation points go beyond who was holding the microphone. “Sabotage”, for instance, is the last chapter of Black Sabbath’s classic period; “Never Say Die!” is the final breath of the original lineup; “Heaven and Hell” is their first encounter with Ronnie James Dio as well as their reconnection with the art of making good music; “Headless Cross”, in a similar vein, would later show the veterans still had fuel to burn; “13” marked a return to their pioneering sound; and the list goes on.

In that sense, “Born Again”, their 1983 release, could be seen as the first chapter of a relatively obscure run of albums that would extend all the way to “Forbidden” in 1995. With Osbourne having success in his solo career and Dio, whose two-record stint alongside the band revitalized their music, also out of the building, Black Sabbath would go on to struggle to maintain relevance, not only because they would embark on a frequent switching of vocalists that would all fail to give the group a distinctive personality, but also because – for a myriad of reasons not exclusive to the writing itself – guitarist Tony Iommi would be unable to put out enjoyable songs with the same consistency he did during the group’s heyday.

On paper, the lineup of “Born Again” is a heavy metal dream. The instrumentalists of the classic Black Sabbath period – Iommi, Butler, and Ward – are joined by another demigod of the genre: Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan. Unfortunately, a group that seems just about perfect in theory does not necessarily translate into good results; there is, after all, a very important variable to that equation called chemistry. And “Born Again” shows how critical and mysterious that little detail is, because regardless of the camaraderie that existed between the parts out of the studio (as Gillan famously agreed to join the band after drinking too much in a pub with both Iommi and Butler), in front of the recording equipment the always elusive artistic magic escaped them.

It is ridiculously limiting for one to dictate what a band should be about; therefore, saying that Iommi, Butler, and Ward plus everything that Ian Gillan brings to the table does not qualify as Black Sabbath would be to unfairly shove the group into a corner of shackling expectations. There is, however, a sense of incongruity emerging from many parts of “Born Again”. Gillan’s writing is light and somewhat more earthly than that of Dio and Butler – who was responsible for the lyrics during the band’s classic era. As such, the supernatural and slightly philosophical style of the two men, which had dominated Black Sabbath’s discography up to that point, ends up – in “Born Again” – being largely replaced by fun lyrics about cars, women, love, fame, and drinking.

Approaching matters such as those is certainly not a crime, but it creates a problem for Black Sabbath – and, more specifically, for the album – in two points. By “Heaven and Hell”, Iommi had already abandoned a little of his signature slow guttural riffing for a more traditional and crunchy heavy metal approach to the guitar; in “Born Again”, that tendency is still present in some tunes, and when it meets the mundane – though well-penned – subjects of Gillan, the members of Black Sabbath stop being the lords of the most sinister brand of hard rock and start sounding like a common metal band, as it happens in “Trashed” and “Digital Bitch”. On the other front, that is, when Iommi is summoning guitar lines that appear to have come out of the darkest furnaces of hell, the songs seem to be made up of parts that do not gel entirely, with the instrumentation pointing to utter doom while the lyrics nod to easily relatable topics and the high screams of Gillan recall a much looser and faster brand of metal, a mismatch that is very visible in “Zero the Hero”.

Issues like those mean that “Born Again” is one odd creature, lending it a stylistic confusion that – in Black Sabbath’s canon – can only be equaled by the mess seen in both “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die!”. As a consequence, many are the tunes it has that sink due to that characteristic: “Digital Bitch” boasts blistering Iommi solos all over it, but its lyrics and chorus are ridiculous; “Hot Line” packs an irresistible – albeit slightly commonplace – riff that could have done without Gillan’s high-pitched vocal inflections, which drive the tune to campiness; and “Keep It Warm” threatens to go the same way thanks to its overly melodic chorus, which turns one otherwise heavy track into a power ballad. Despite those faults, “Born Again” is not exactly one monolith of uninspired moments. For instance, although sounding like middle-of-the-road heavy metal, opener “Trashed” – which describes how a drunk Gillan destroyed the car of drummer Bill Ward – is a very good specimen of the breed, as it is fun, fast, energetic, and catchy.

Ultimately, however, three are the tunes in the album that could stand beside the band’s best work, if not in terms of sheer quality, at least as far as atmosphere is concerned. “Disturbing the Priest” is horror-movie material: ridden with sinister effects, a dark gothic-like keyboard that emulates a Gregorian choir, and – of course – a riff that seems to come with a knife on its hand at the listener, the song sees the band transforming the humorous real event of a priest complaining about their loud music into a ominous religious experience. A similar darkness emanates from the seven-minute “Zero the Hero”: one of the heaviest tracks of the Black Sabbath discography, it carries a hypnotic doom that takes it rather close to the group’s debut album. Finally, and perhaps more significantly, there is the title track: the band’s best shot ever at creating a ballad, it merges beauty, haunting terror, and melancholy into one powerful number whose challenging and dramatic vocal lines could not have been more ideal to Gillan’s incredible reach.

Truth be told, “Born Again” might have been improved if the record was not riddled with such lousy mixing, which gives birth to a terribly muffled sound. Without that issue, its nearly flawless good moments would have gained extra power; meanwhile, its bad tunes, which are usually carried by solid riffs and instrumentation in spite of the bitter result brought by the junction of their different ingredients, would have been more pleasant to the ear. Yet, even if that enhancement would have made it clearer that under the suffocating wrapping lies one of the heaviest albums of the band’s catalog, the fact would remain that the one shot Gillan and the Black Sabbath instrumentalists took at putting together a record was far from successful. What seemed like a glorious match made in hell on paper came off as a confused and mostly heterogeneous substance. As it turns out, chemistry of the artistic kind is very far from being an exact science.

Fever Dream

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Album: Fever Dream

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

Released: July 26th, 2019

Highlights: Alligator, Ahay, Wild Roses

If there was one particular fuel that powered many of the groups that were an integral part of the boiling indie wave formed during the late 2000s and early 2010s, that substance was innocence. It is not that the young people who played in those bands believed the world was a perfect place that would seek to do them no harm; after all, Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”, perhaps the foundation stone of that movement, was an album very much built on trauma, disappointment, and loss. It is just that, from the perspective of an outsider, it seemed those groups were confident that the youthful, honest, and somewhat naive energy that ignited their hearts could lead them not just to a better future, but also embed them with the inclination to continuously celebrate regardless of all the pain.

However, as most people – either through personal experience or third-party reports – know, sometimes the obstacles simply win out, and all those colorful gestures, anthemic sing-alongs, and jubilant musical catharses stop making sense. At that point, if a group is not true to their hearts, they can easily continue to put out tracks that keep up appearances; a strategy that may work for a short while, but that will eventually turn the artists into a caricature of their original selves, as it will not take long for the false facade to start showing its cracks. If, on the other hand, the musicians in question are sincere, they are likely to produce the frequently labeled mature album, a record that replaces whatever happiness and excitement existed there in the first place with loads of introspective sorrow.

With “Fever Dream”, it seems that Of Monsters and Men have reached that crossroad in their career, and the Icelandic quintet has chosen to take the latter path. It is not exactly a very surprising turn of events. Firstly, because honesty and vulnerability have always been essential components of their appeal; and secondly, because even though they were part of the indie scene’s branch that was the most prone to excessive naiveté and celebration (that is, the folky one), their songs, including the festive hit “Little Talks”, invariably carried sad undertones that stopped them from coming off like the many phony and slightly obnoxious bands that plagued the genre and made them emerge as likable, true, and relatable humans.

As a consequence of that truthfulness, “Fever Dream” cuts ties with any sort of wide-eyed wonder. The vocal interplay of Nanna and Ragnar, always an integral part of the Of Monsters and Men sound, feels less like a duet between partners that find in each other shelter from the storms of the outside world and more like distant messages exchanged by two lovers who are drifting so far apart they can barely touch and who see themselves so numb to any external stimulus that it is nigh impossible for them to feel anything. Therefore, “Fever Dream” is fragile, tense, and extremely intimate. So much, in fact, that at times it seems both singers are whispering rather than singing, and that quality makes the record stand quite close to the work of The XX, a band that, also via a mixture of female and male vocals, operates inside those same confessional confines.

That is not, however, the only break that “Fever Dream” brings to the table, since it also represents a huge shift in sound for the band. Truth be told, Of Monsters and Men have never actually sat still in musical terms, for stylistic differences between their debut, “My Head is an Animal”, and their sophomore record, “Beneath the Skin”, were already pretty notable. This time around, though, the leap is far larger, because the band instantly goes from an indie rock ensemble to a synthpop outfit. There are, of course, a few connections that can be made between “Fever Dream” and its predecessor, particularly in terms of the wide soundscapes they present and of the heavy use of prominent percussive bases in some tunes, like it happens in “Alligator”, “Vulture, Vulture”, and “Wild Roses”. In the end, nevertheless, the two are totally different creatures, as the large ringing guitars that characterized “Beneath the Skin” give way to keyboards, synthesizers, and a whole lot of electronic beats.

Even if commendable from a musical standpoint and honest from a thematic one, “Fever Dream” is not exactly a success. Its first two singles, “Alligator” and “Wild Roses”, are undeniably great, perhaps because they tap into a very good balance between the band’s charming melodic indie work and their recently discovered fondness for synthesized instrumentation. Everywhere else, though, the group simply struggles to latch onto a thread of personality. As such, “Fever Dream” ends up being one of those records that never truly offend listeners with outbursts of poor taste, but that fail to leave any sort of considerable mark to make them stand out from the surrounding crowd. Surely, at times, it is arguable that the album goes way too deep into its introspection, degenerating into sequences of slow tracks that are too similar to one another in their sulkiness; still, none of its pieces are truly bad.

The core issue here is that, for the most part, the catchy components of the songs – such as the choruses of “Stuck in Gravity” and “Wars” – are so commonplace there is always this looming feeling that they have already appeared somewhere else; more specifically, in the output of an artist that writes, produces, and arranges tunes with the sole purpose of propelling them straight to the top of the charts with a good amount of certainty. To a degree, it is sort of ironic that an album that is, in content and in lyrics, attempting to be honest winds up sounding so calculated, but it is precisely on that weird middle ground that “Fever Dream” lands, specially in the tunes, which are – sadly – the majority, where not even a glimpse of the original Of Monsters and Men can be caught.

It is always tough to identify the point after which change is so radical that it erodes what made a certain group sound great in the first place; and it is equally complicated to measure how much of that evolution is praiseworthy artistic growth and how much of it is negative loss of personality. And “Fever Dream” will offer plenty of ammunition to the sides that see it under a good and a bad light, for while it is hard not to be touched by the pop beauty of “Ahay” or moved by the way Nanna almost breaks down while singing the chorus of “Róróró”, it is equally unlikely that the ears of many longtime fans will make it unscathed through the excessive and fabricated gloomy gloss of “Waiting for the Snow” and “Stuck in Gravity”. Due to that, “Fever Dream” is worth at least one thorough listen, because despite lying at the end of a road that was new and exciting to the band, the path they chose to follow led them to the overcrowded waters of safe pop music. And even if to some that final result will be unpleasant, there is always a crowd out there that will fall right into the embrace of that kind of sound – especially when it is so genuine and relatively well-written.

In Through The Out Door

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Album: In Through the Out Door

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: August 15th, 1979

Highlights: In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, I’m Gonna Crawl

Albums that are produced by fractured groups do not always necessarily suffer from such a context, as rock history has plenty of examples of records made amongst turmoil – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – that, nevertheless, found greatness amidst personal chaos. Sadly, “In Through the Out Door”, by the giants of Led Zeppelin, is not one of those positive instances. Famously, as the work that would turn out to be band’s final release due to the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham just one year later was being put together, the English hard rockers were broken into two camps.

While bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant were clean and fully committed to the project, despite the fact the latter was suffering from the recent loss of his young son, guitarist and main songwriter Jimmy Page as well as Bonham himself were struggling with substance abuse. As such, it is easy to attribute much of the surprising irregularity of “In Through the Out Door” to that state of affairs, because with Page – their main creative force – failing to be his usual productive self, it fell on the shoulders of Jones and Plant to guide much of the album in composition and arrangement, with the pair getting full writing credits in two of the record’s seven cuts and with the bassist – previously a rare sight as a songwriter – having his name, alongside those of Page and Plant, attached to the other five tunes.

The shift in the gravitational center of Led Zeppelin’s creative process can be heard clearly, because where the group’s first seven records featured Page’s guitar as their leading instrument, in “In Through the Out Door” it is the synthesizer of Jones that takes the spotlight. With the exception of the excellent “Fool in the Rain” and the passable “Hot Dog”, a tongue-in-cheek jab at rockabilly which at least turns out better than the band’s shots at reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and funk (“The Crunge”) seen in “Houses of the Holy”, the tool that was used as the immaculate backing to inventive exercises on hard rock suddenly gets to carry songs all the way to the finish line. And, unfortunately, it reveals it is not totally up to that task.

Nowhere is that notion clearer than in the ten-minute “Carouselambra”, where the band tries to create yet another lengthy track of epic size and magnitude, in the vein of classics such as “In My Time of Dying” and “Achilles Last Stand”, only for it to become dull before the conclusion of its first ninety seconds due to the lack of inspiration of its synthesized hook and the clunky, almost non-existent, melody of Plant’s vocals. Surely, along the trip, it tries to – in an almost progressive fashion – shift in tone and go through distinct phases, but the more it contorts itself the more awkward it gets and the more blatant its problems become.

Although problematic, “In Through the Out Door” is not to be thrown away in its entirety. Certainly, there are consistent annoyances that run through it, like the lackluster guitar solos Page executes and the fact Plant’s voice is in a weird limbo between his signature wails and his solemn lower register, being unable to find any of those edges and standing – instead – on an awkward middle ground that does not seem right for any of the songs save for “Fool in the Rain”. Still, there are bright spots.

Opener “In the Evening” succeeds where “Carouselambra” fails, as its nearly seven minutes are well spent creating a song that has a psychedelic edge and displays urgent power, perhaps because – for it – Page bothered to come up with a mighty guitar riff that is worthy of the band. Meanwhile, “Fool in the Rain” is a sunny and stylistic oddity for Led Zeppelin; a playful and light song about the despair of a guy waiting for his date at the wrong place without realizing it, the tune features clever interplay the piano of Jones and the guitar of Page, and contains a samba-inspired shuffle where Bonham proves why he is constantly ranked as the best rock drummer of all time. And as a final highlight, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a relaxed slow-paced blues that locks on a perfect balance between synthesizer and guitar to create an atmosphere of pain, tension, lust, and anguishing love.

Ultimately, what these tracks reveal is that for “In Through the Out Door” to have worked as a whole, Led Zeppelin would have had to build it via the same approach employed in their first seven works; that is, through cooperation. Page’s state of mind during the album’s recording harmed far more than the songwriting, because even his usually stellar production work feels sloppy, as the balance between the instruments and Plant’s voice feels off in pretty much all tracks, and better arrangements or a firmer sound could have done big favors to decent tunes such as the straight rock of “South Bound Saurez”, and the sweet synth-based ballad of “All My Love”, whose lyrics were written by Plant to his deceased son.

However, given the context that surrounded it, Led Zeppelin’s usual balance of forces and creative collaborations does not show up in “In Through the Out Door”. The musical shift the album proposes, whether purposely or not, is an interesting one, for if the band had continued, one can only hope they would have moved forward stylistically. Unfortunately, the fate of Bonham and the band’s admirable decision to refuse to go on without their friend turned what could have been seen as an interesting transition record that had the potential to pave the way to more masterpieces into an irregular farewell that clearly displays the band was not working together.

Leisure

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Album: Leisure

Artist: Blur

Released: August 26th, 1991

Highlights: She’s So High, Bang, Sing, There’s No Other Way

There are bands that put out debut records that indicate they seem know where they want to head to but clearly display they are still ways away from getting to the place they have their eyes on. Meanwhile, there are groups that produce first works that are so fully formed and confident that a listener unaware of the artist’s rookie status would think the album was put together by wise veterans. And then there is the case of introductions such as the one created by the Britpop giants of Blur. “Leisure” is a major oddity; an initial step that stands so distant from everything that would come later that it could, save for Damon Albarn’s recognizable voice, easily be blindly labeled as an effort made by a group of English blokes somewhere between 1989 and 1992.

Its placement within that four-year interval and inside the geographic boundaries of Great Britain would not be without reason, and that is because “Leisure” reeks of the era in which it was made: a time when British rock, though still producing a solid number of remarkable works, was stuck in the patterns established by the shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine and the Madchester of The Stone Roses. Inside that spectrum, “Leisure”, despite its balance between noise and pop, is far more in line with the latter than with the former, as it is more concerned with sugary hooks than sonic assaults. Its problem, however, is that such an alignment might be too close for comfort.

One can, of course, find distinctions between what Blur does in “Leisure” and what The Stone Roses did in their self-titled masterpiece. Although both records have reverberant and colorful underwater soundscapes, the guitar approach of Graham Coxon greatly differs from that of John Squire, because where the second was an orchestrator that followed on the footsteps of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the first emerges as a noisy pounder whose dirty and mighty distortions become cleverly hidden by the pop flavors Albarn likes to throw into the compositions.

And for those very same reasons, “Leisure” could – in a way – be linked to the rest of Blur’s output, as during its fifty minutes Albarn reveals his nose for catchy melodies; Coxon engages in some fearless racket; and the duo of Alex James and Dave Rowntree join those diverging spirits via some firm yet lively playing. Two key ingredients, though, are missing in “Leisure”: creativity and personality. It does not quite do enough to carve out a shape of its own, and Albarn’s lyrics, which would by 1993 develop a social sharp eye akin to that of The Kinks’ Ray Davies, are frequently dull and feel unfinished, even if the words to “Bang” do show glimpses of what would come later.

In fact, it is a comparison to the band’s inaugural Britpop effort, “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, that reveals where “Leisure” falters the most. Because in that album, Blur was able to mix old-school English musical traditions with absolutely contemporary sounds in order to forge music that was as quaint as it was current. Here, contrarily, listeners will surely get the contemporary; that is, the pop of The Stone Roses with tinges of the noise of My Bloody Valentine.

What they will miss, though, is the classic dosage that lifted Blur to stardom and allowed the group to find their own acre of land in the widely varied Britpop scene. Amidst the criticism it deserves, there are bright points to be seen in “Leisure”. The three singles extracted out of it are genuinely great. Following a clearly defined formula, they stand out thanks to impossibly catchy melodies and stellar guitar playing. “She’s So High” is backed by a gigantic guitar wall whose riff pounds as well as it cuts; meanwhile, “Bang” and “There’s No Other Way” have all the playful bounciness of Madchester. However, given the recipe that is used in the creation of those standout moments is repeated over and over again during the course of the album, many of the other tracks end up merging into one another due to a mixture of excessive similarity and utter lack of remarkable traits. And although many of the tunes that use that mold cannot truly be labeled as bad, except for “Slow Down” and “Repetition”, they can be accused of being generic.

To be fair, “Leisure” does – in two of its twelve songs – step out of the confines of its basic framework. Those instances are “Sing” and “Birthday”, and in them the band plays around with constructing ominous and noisy atmospheres that broadcast feelings of suffocating depression and endless lethargy. Though equally interesting in purpose and experimentation, their results could not be more different, for while “Birthday” manages to both be lyrically lousy and feel long despite lasting for under four minutes; “Sing”, with its drone piano, steady drums, and ear-piercing effects, is nothing short of a master work, one that is – in an album filled with safe choices – so strange in its inventiveness that it would be used as the basis for one of the best songs, “1992”, of the group’s most wildly experimental album, “13”.

Its greatness, however, cannot save “Leisure” from being – at most – harmlessly average. Its four best tracks are certainly a mandatory listen for anyone who is even just remotely interested in the fantastic trajectory of one of England’s greatest rock bands; the rest of its tunes, and the record itself, though, are only worthy of the time of Blur fans or dedicated music aficionados, because not much about it hints of what was to come with the arrival of 1993 and the beginning of Britpop, making the leap between “Leisure” and “Modern Life Is Rubbish” stand as one of the best and most impressive transformations in rock history.

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.

Songs Of Experience

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Album: Songs of Experience

Artist: U2

Released: December 1st, 2017

Highlights: Get Out of Your Own Way, Summer of Love, Red Flag Day, 13 (There Is a Light)

In their never-ending quest to be perceived as the biggest band in the world, it seems that – somewhere along the way – U2 completely lost the ability to reinvent themselves. Gone are the days when the Irish were able to take weird and productive stylistic turns, such as the one that gave birth to the excellent “Achtung Baby”. And, likewise, ambitions and the passing of time have apparently eroded their ability not to take themselves too seriously. As such, “Songs of Experience” is not different either in spirit or purpose from “No Line on the Horizon” and “Songs of Innocence”, its two immediate and bland predecessors: it is a record clearly written with the purpose of being listened by as many people as possible. Consequently, U2 runs away from production and songwriting choices that have the slightest possibility of throwing the average listener off, settling for what is safe, familiar, and – ultimately – insipid.

Seeing mass appreciation as a starting point for the album, rather than a natural consequence of writing great tunes, causes the band to be stuck in the meandering land of soft adult-oriented rock. “Songs of Experience” is a work where the guitar, drums, and bass are stripped off their power, making the bed on top of which Bono’s voice and lyrics, by all means the stars of the show here, stand feel lifeless. Directing the spotlight towards these two elements is somewhat ambivalent: while it is a move that highlights the fact Bono can still magnificently belt an emotional tune, it also makes the flaws of his lyrics greatly apparent. Throughout the record, and perfectly aligned with the work’s title, he wears the mantle of a wise spokesperson on the hardships of life; however, his pep talks do not carry the revelatory wisdom he seems to think they posses: what he says, as evidenced by the titles of many of the tracks, is quite mundane.

For all the criticism it deserves, “Songs of Experience” is not without qualities. At this point in their career, the members of U2 know a solid melody when they see one, and through the length of the album the melodic hooks are plentiful, both in the poppiest side of the spectrum (“Lights of Home”), in the touching quiet moments (“Love Is All We Have Left”), and when the group rocks out (“American Soul”); all of those moments, however, come with the caveat of occasionally veering towards the cheesy and commonplace. The pieces that are enjoyable without any sort of warning labels are, unfortunately, not numerous: “Summer of Love” is a nice percussive tune with a Caribbean sway to it; “Red Flag Day”, by a large margin the best track of the bunch, could have been written by U2 during the recording sessions of “War”, as it carries the aggressiveness and heart of that period; “Get Out of Your Own Way” blows up into a cathartic chorus (which instrumentally recalls “Beautiful Day”) where The Edge’s guitar, for a moment, puts the band back on its track; and “13 (There Is a Light)” achieves gorgeousness in a non-forced way, a rare achievement for U2 these days.

As a whole, “Songs of Experience” will undoubtedly fulfill the plan U2 held for it when they entered the studio. It is easy to picture how many of the cuts contained within will be the soundtrack to gargantuan stadium concerts that will continue to build upon the band’s mythological aura; its success and sales will keep one of rock’s longest-running institutions away from being at the risk of living the twilight of their career as an act that leans on the distant past for survival. It punctually refreshes the setlist to what will be the greatest concerts of the lives of thousands of people, and keeps the group’s creative juices flowing. At the same time, from an artistic standpoint, it carries little value, because not only is it devoid of unexpected twists, but it is also mostly unremarkable.

The Visitor

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Album: The Visitor

Artist: Neil Young and Promise of the Real

Released: December 1st, 2017

Highlights: Almost Always, Change of Heart, Carnival, Forever

With the coming and passing of yet another year, the ever restless Neil Young finds yet another worthy cause around which to construct an album. As such, “The Visitor” marks the fourth time within the past decade the legendary singer-songwriter sits and writes topical tunes in which he wears his still-strong hippie mantle and takes it upon himself to wield his guitar and his pen in an attempt to fix the problems of the planet and rise against those he feels are destroying it. After “Living With War” attacked the Iraq War and the Bush administration, “Fork on the Road” served as an ode to electric cars and an angry letter to the oil industry, and “The Monsanto Years” defied the titular corporate giant and its genetically modified crops, “The Visitor” catches Young aiming his canon of vitriol towards Donald Trump, his anti-immigration policies, and the hurtful hatred found in the speeches of the incumbent president.

Neil Young, himself a Canadian who has adopted the United States as his home since the start of his career some fifty years ago, praises the freedom and prosperity that lured him into the country, and argues the current political scenario of the nation is corroding the ideals that made America great in the first place. It is a worthy message, and one that Neil was unquestionably eager to shout about; so much, in fact, that “The Visitor”, continuing a tradition that has been the norm in the late part of his career, was quickly recorded and cut, coming out one year after his most recent batch of original songs, “Peace Trail”. Due to that, “The Visitor”, at points, feels rushed and not thoroughly developed: there is no subtlety whatsoever to most of the lyrics, emptying them of any poetic value and making the words come off as a straightforward (and punctually cheesy) speech; and some of the tracks, namely the bluesy pair “Diggin’ a Hole” and “When Bad Got Good”, are blatant throwaways both musically and lyrically.

However, where the equally rushed recording pace of “Peace Trail” yielded an album that was devoid of qualities, “The Visitor” hits surprising highs. Its three acoustic numbers are touching: “Almost Always”, which borrows a hook from the classic “Unknown Legend”, reads like a journal where Neil expresses his sadness with the state of his adopted country; “Change of Heart” carries a simple melody and a half-folk-half-country rhythm that make it sound like a track from the wonderful “Comes a Time”; and “Forever”, led by a simple strum, is a ten-minute tune that does not overstay its welcome. On the electric end of the spectrum, the brief “Fly by Night Deal” is rather entertaining not only for its groove and catchy chorus, but also because Neil talks and rants through most of the track; and “Carnival”, with its Spanish guitar and circus vibe, is a rare case when an artist with an extremely lengthy career suddenly finds new unexplored territory and goes on to produce something entirely unique and remarkable.

Everywhere else, however, “The Visitor” is a patchy work. “Already Great”, where Promise of the Real pulls off a solid Crazy Horse imitation, is passable, with its obvious lyrics, weird backing vocals, and awkward protest chants ruining what is a decent instrumental track; and both “Stand Tall” and “Children of Destiny” rank as unbelievably corny, with the latter being one of the worst tracks Neil has ever put put, sounding as if it belongs to a soundtrack of a lousy Disney movie that stumbles upon all possible save-the-world clichés. Consequently, while “The Visitor” is a work whose heart is in the right place and that continues to show the astounding and rare prolificness of a brilliant artist at an old age (a gift that should be treasured by all lovers of rock music), it is also an album that could have benefited from a longer incubation period. The urgent need for its message, though, partially justifies its irregularity and bluntness.

Concrete And Gold

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Album: Concrete and Gold

Artist: Foo Fighters

Released: September 15th, 2017

Highlights: Run, The Sky Is a Neighborhood, Arrows, The Line

It is hard not to be affected by the uncontrollable enthusiasm of Dave Grohl. The bandleader of Foo Fighters has, perhaps more than any other musician of his generation, emerged as a lone mainstream musketeer of pure rock and roll. He has become a musical entity that is not only omnipresent, but also invariably sporting the highest amount of energy a human being seems to be able to carry. Sure, some may interpret his endless displays of excitement as non-genuine, because no living creature can – in theory – be so thrilled with such an astounding frequency. But if actions do speak louder than words and perception, the fact he has spent the biggest portion of the last two decades captaining a major and productive rock act, and contributing with his excellent drum-playing to the albums of seemingly everyone he happens to be friends with should say volumes about his work ethic and passion for what he does.

As such, the most unbiased opinion one can have of Grohl is that, maybe, he simply knows how lucky he has been, and – for that reason – he cannot help feeling good about it and trying to give back to his fans and colleagues alike. Therefore, perhaps he just wants to make people happy, and he tries to achieve that by making them like him and by giving them what he understands he does best: friendly and catchy hard rock. In a way, that completely hypothetical analysis of Dave’s psyche may explain why the Foo Fighters have not made any bold artistic moves during their lengthy career: those shifts may cause fans to be alienated by a new musical direction, which invariably leads them to turn on the artist. Given negative feelings do not seem to exist in the world of Dave Ghrol, his band has stood as reliable a safety net; going into a Foo Fighters record is getting precisely what one expects of it, and “Concrete and Gold” is not different.

If an effort has to be made to differentiate “Concrete and Gold” from its predecessors, one could – as the band’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins, did – call it the weird record. The opener, “T-Shirt”, for instance, begins with punctual acoustic strums accompanied by Dave’s quiet singing before exploding into a gigantic Queen-like operatic catharsis (and it does all of that in less than ninety seconds). Nothing else in “Concrete and Gold” comes close to such oddity, but most of the other tracks show little delightful quirks. “Run”, which alternates a great deal of screaming with a more melodic chorus and bridge, has a very peculiar song structure; “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” dresses the hooks of its catchy chorus with choir-like backing vocals; “Dirty Water” is half acoustic contemplation and half borderline drone riffing in the vein of Queens of the Stone Age; the sweet “Happy Ever After” has soothing harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys; “Sunday Ray”, sung by Hawkins, is a slow-stomp rocker; and the closing title track is heavy and lethargic to a point that it is almost psychedelic.

As far as late-career victories go, “Concrete and Gold” is not as brilliant as “Wasting Light”; still, it is a more solid and engaging album than the aimless “Sonic Highways”. At this point, expecting the Foo Fighters to deliver a grand artistic statement is setting oneself for disappointment. Like the Ramones and AC/DC, they know what they do well and they are aware of what their fanbase desires; they will not stray away from that. “Concrete and Gold” adds melodic and harmonic flavors to the group’s sound. It wiggles inside the spectrum of the Foo Fighters’ area of operation. In doing so, it finds a set of good songs and some highlights that would have not appeared anywhere else in their discography. It is not an evolution; it is an adjustment of perspective, a look at the same themes from another view. With it, the hard rock safety net is still standing, and the worldwide ambassador of rock music can keep on fighting the good fight.

Triplicate

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Album: Triplicate

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: March 31st, 2017

Highlights: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, I Could Have Told You, Once Upon a Time, The Best Is Yet to Come, Day In Day Out

Bob Dylan has never been shy to do the exact opposite of what the expectations around him look forward to. He did it in 1965, when he shunned his folk followers – and angered them deeply – by picking up an electric guitar; he did it in 1969, when he chose to become a country crooner even though his voice had always been a point of contention among his critics; and he also did it in 1978, when he released the first of what would be a trilogy of albums containing originally penned Christian music. Fast forward through four decades, and here we are again, sitting – possibly – in the end of yet another trilogy in which Dylan did not give one drop of attention to what his fans wanted and proceeded to do whatever it is he wished to, which – in this case – was singing covers of classic American songs that were once done by Frank Sinatra.

It is unquestionable such free will and disregard for outside opinions have been key in making Dylan the artist he is – one that recently earned the Nobel Prize in Literature via his songwriting. And in “Triplicate” he multiplies – and flaunts – the liberty he has by putting together a whopping three records – containing ten songs each – in which he squeezes most of the juice that was left in the American songbook. Aggregated with “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, then, “Triplicate” – if it indeed turns out to be Dylan’s last effort in the field – is the final brick in the construction of his statue as one of the most important interpreters of the genre; someone who has dared to bring these old treasures into the modern music world. Although such journey was neither as well-documented nor as resounding as it would have been had it happened decades ago, it is still a pretty remarkable achievement to fall alongside his medals of folk bard and rock and roll legend.

“Shadows in the Night” was nocturnal and moody. “Fallen Angels” was more energetic in its balance between ballads and numbers with faster tempos. Given “Triplicate” carries thirty tunes, one would expect it to be one of those traditional lengthy albums that carry a little bit of everything. That, however, is not the case. “Triplicate”, save for rare exceptions that never quite reach the swinging pace of the most exciting moments of “Fallen Angels”, is uniformly built of slow songs. And in such a massive set, that is quite a problem, because anyone who is not familiar with these tracks will have an awfully hard time telling them apart. Through most of its ninety-five-minute running time, then, “Triplicate” is not about emoting its listeners to high degrees, but luring them into the web of its atmosphere, and it does a great job in that regard.

It all works because even though “Triplicate”, like its two predecessors, is a homage to a time that is the antithesis of the singer-songwriter model that Dylan himself – along others – made popular, it is clear Bob and his band are having a blast playing these tunes. The arrangements are true to those of the originals, but they are masterfully executed; and over this musical bed Dylan captures the heart of these songs with his scruffy voice and an endearing delivery that tries to reach notes it knows it cannot get to. Due to the size of its content, “Triplicate” is not as immediate, likable, and easy to get into as “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, and a greater variety of tempos would have done it a big favor. Nevertheless, it is a finely produced music set.

Revolution Radio

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Album: Revolution Radio

Artist: Green Day

Released: October 7th, 2016

Highlights: Bang Bang, Outlaws, Still Breathing, Too Young To Die

During the twelve years that preceded the release of “Revolution Radio”, Green Day worked in two gears: one of operatic grandeur, seen in full display in the theatrical guitar statements of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”; and one of bloated prolificness, exposed in 2012 when, over a period of four months, the group put out three albums of original material that, in total, held thirty-seven songs. Therefore, in a way, “Revolution Radio” is mundane: a brief focused package of twelve songs that proves Billie Joe Armstrong has a ridiculously unbelievable ability to adorn punk riffs and rhythms that are somewhat similar with melodies that are catchy and unmistakable. At the same time, it manages to come off as pleasantly refreshing, because given 2000’s “Warning”, the album that came before that run of extravagance, had a knack for unexpected eclecticism, it is possible to say the last time the group sounded this fierce and immediate was in 1997’s “Nimrod”.

The version of Green Day that emerges from that lengthy musical voyage may carry a no-frills-all-thrills philosophy that relates to their early years. However, their recent experiments and successes have certainly changed them. For starters, in many of the tracks – like the opener “Somewhere Now”, which begins with a gentle acoustic picking; and “Still Breathing”, the poppiest tune they may have ever recorded – the group plays around with transitions from quiet moments to loud explosions, one of the main musical motifs of their two rock operas. From those works, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool also borrow marching rhythms that lead to anthemic choruses, as it happens in “Say Goodbye”, a song that would be right at home in “American Idiot”; and lengthier compositions that border on being multi-phased tracks, such as “Somewhere Now”, “Outlaws”, and “Forever Now”, the latter of which is broken up in three distinct pieces.

Thematically, “Revolution Radio” also owes a whole lot to the pair of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”, as it is drenched in political and social ideas. The lead single, the vicious “Bang Bang”, explores the mind of a mass-shooter, and many of the record’s other tracks tackle similar issues related to the violence that seems to permeate modern society as a whole. The title cut was inspired by the riots of the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing a positive take on the fact people are inclined to fight for what is right. Similarly, but also contrarily, “Say Goodbye” looks at all that social unrest with a drop of fear and concern, wondering about how awful a world in which actions like those are necessary is. Given he is free from overarching concepts and scripts, though, Armstrong also finds the time to veer away from those themes and write about the boredom of life (“Somewhere Now”), the rebellion of youth (“Outlaws”), and his young wife (“Youngblood”).

“Revolution Radio” neither pushes any boundaries nor presents any musical surprises; with a few rare exceptions, Green Day never really aimed to be the sort of band that dabbles in that. It is, however, an album that rocks with loud passion, is filled with great tunes, and packs remarkable melodies in every one of its corners. After a long detour that yielded two excellent rock operas, with one of them ranking as one of the few rock albums of this century to achieve widespread popularity and have impact beyond the musical spectrum, it is good to have a leaner version of Green Day back, even if it is not quite as spectacular.