The xx

I’m waiting for The xx to come on the main stage at Glastonbury.

Although I would rather be right at the front of the crowd, I will have to make do with the BBC’s live coverage.

As the darkness falls and smoke fills the stage, the haunting intro synth of ‘Try’ kicks in waiting for their arrival on stage. It’s hard to imagine a stranger band to be ending the festival; the audience aren’t expecting high tempo songs to party along with into the night, but a complete immersion in the melancholy atmospheres provided uniquely by The xx.

After the clapped rhythms and sparse melodies of  ‘Heart Skips A Beat’ grips the stage, a short burst of high tempo from ‘Crystalised’ dissolves back down into the textural soundscapes with both Romy Madley Croft’s and Oliver Sim’s voice bouncing off each other perfectly. The energy on stage is remarkable for a band that makes Placebo’s ‘Meds’ album sound like a soundtrack to a joyous birthday party.

The night continues in the same direction with the distinctive steel drum verses and choruses of ‘Reunion’ (ignoring the titling errors provided by the BBC) and the introverted yet orchestral ‘Missing’. ‘Fiction’ sees Sim’s deep, raw vocals given a chance to shine, as he puts the bass to the side and takes to the microphone for the whole song.

A much needed injection of energy comes from the electronic beat backed outro to ‘Night Time’ with its tangible tempos continuing into reworked versions of  ‘Swept Away’ and ‘Shelter’. The up beat nature is renewed with the sing along ‘VCR’ and ‘Islands’ getting the fans heavily involved. It’s clear to see The xx have judged the dynamics of their set list brilliantly, knowing exactly when to change from sombre chords to lively beat-driven passages.

As the chilling, instrumental track ‘Intro’ ends, The xx’s heart felt thank you to the fans is a giant reminder that the band is barely eight years old, yet they have the presence and finesse of a band that have been around for three times as long.

Overall it is an hour of beauty, stripping back the performance so that the music shines through. All of the miniscule details of the original songs are masterfully recreated and are combined with new elements which, in most parts, only added to the music. The xx have more than justified why they were headlining Glastonbury on Sunday, with a flawless show and a rare moment of aural heaven.

 

 

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Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails (NIN) are back. In 2009 band leader Trent Reznor announced the end of the band’s musical output and touring for the “foreseeable future”. The news came as a shock as it followed a spell of high productivity in 2008, with the albums ‘The Slip’ and ‘Ghosts I-IV’, and the ‘Lights in the Sky’ tour, following the departure from Interscope Records.

Fast-forward four years and whilst Reznor has maintained a consistent output with a mixture of soundtracks (‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and ‘The Social Network’) and several releases from his side project ‘How To Destroy Angels’, all NIN activity had remained deathly silent. However, behind the scenes, Reznor was secretly busy finishing a new NIN album entitled ‘Hesitation Marks’

‘Came Back Haunted’ was the first, and currently only, material released from the new album due September the third. It is typical NIN; dark synths weaving between a tight electronic drum beat overlaid with Reznor’s half-whispered, half-bellowed vocals. ‘Came Back Haunted’ fits well into NIN’s discography, with the atmosphere of ‘The Fragile’, the rhythms of ‘Year Zero’ and the power of ‘With Teeth’. It would be easy for Reznor to not develop the NIN sound, keeping it safe and consistent, but immediately the song has new elements. An influence from the heavily electronically-based How To Destroy Angels is apparent, as well as a more groove-orientated approach.

As a reunion-of-sorts, there is always a risk of disappointment from unrealistic expectations caused by a craving that has been building for years. Not only is ‘Came Back Haunted’ a solid re-introduction to NIN, but with the reveal of the cover art by Russell Mills (who produced the cover for their second album ‘The Downward Spiral’), the pressure to produce a masterpiece is only heightened. Although for many fans the new album will never come close to the brilliance of the original three albums, even the worst of NIN albums would still be a masterpiece. Reznor doesn’t do second-rate and I expect this will still be the case come September.

As is the case with most bands, the most prominent songs aren’t always the best cuts from the album. Nowhere is this more true than for the quite substantial NIN back catalog. So here are five of my personal favourite ‘hidden-gems’:

5 – ‘All The Love In The World’ from ‘With Teeth’: This is a song of two halves. What starts off as a mellow piano ballad, framed in atmospheric swells grows into an foot-stomping, piano-led, near-dance tune.

4 – ‘Big Man With A Gun’ from ‘The Downward Spiral’: Whilst this is nowhere near the best material on the album, it’s lyrical content is what gets its place on the list. After a first listen it will sound like just another shallow song about a man and his “big old dick” because that’s what Reznor wanted people to hear. It was really a satirical look at a lot of popular rap music where misogyny was rife and women were treated almost a sex slaves. This song covers a very topical subject matter which is still a relevant almost twenty years later.

3 – ‘The Great Destroyer’ from ‘Year Zero’: Again, this is a song of two halves. The first is a catchy rock song with crunching guitars and pounding electronic drum beats, which merges into a barrage of distorted effects and burbling electronics resembling something close to dubstep. As a song which is formed around what is either a love or a hate moment, this is probably a controversial pick, but purely for its originality, it earns the number three spot.

2 – ‘Right Where It Belongs Version 2’, bonus track from ‘With Teeth’: Bonus tracks are a dodgy area. Sometimes what was left off the album was left off for a reason and using it as a bonus track is cheating the fans. Other times, they’ll make you scream at the band in disbelief that it wasn’t included on the main album. This is one of the latter. Version two is just a stripped back version of the original which is on the album. All the effects and electronic shenanigans are removed, leaving a fragile shell of music encompassing some of Reznor’s most heartfelt lyrics. Cue shivers and goose-pimples.

1 – ‘The Frail’ and ‘The Wretched’ from ‘The Fragile’: These two songs were always played live together as one long seamless musical piece, just like the album. ‘The frail’ is a sparse piano prologue to the power that awaits in ‘The Wretched’. The verse builds with churning synths and pounding drums, until it explodes to life with layers of guitars in the chorus. True brilliance.

…Like Clockwork

‘…Like Clockwork’ is the sixth studio album from Queens of the Stone Age. The album features contributions from eleven special guests including Elton John, Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor. The contributions, although plentiful, are woven discretely into the music and will take a keen ear and constant referral to the credits, to work out where each musician appears. Drumming duties are shared between former drummer Joey Castillo, returning-guest Dave Grohl and the newly appointed Jon Theodore of The Mars Volta fame.

Whereas ‘Era Vulgaris’ split the fan base in half, the six year break between records resulted in a very strong album, from a rejuvenated QOTSA. Anyone familiar with Queens of the Stone Age, will know Josh Homme likes to experiment and nothing changes with ‘…Like Clockwork’. Any fear of a mediocre, middle-of-the-road attempt can be thrown away as soon as the haunting intro riff from ‘Keep Your Eyes Peeled’ broods beneath the thumping drum beat, which is finally overlaid by Josh’s wail. It was a bold move to start the album with such a dark and aggressive track, but it sets the almost Gothic mood perfectly for the album.

Coming from the previous track, ‘I Sat By The Ocean’ breaks more familiar ground, with a more standard structure and sing-along verses and is reminiscent of something from ‘Songs For The Deaf’.

The mood sinks back down with the next couple of tracks; ‘The Vampyre Of Time And Memory’ is a strange song which evolves from a piano melody to a manic crescendo and ‘If I Had A Tail’ is the highlight of the album, opting for a sparse choruses and an equally simple chorus which you will be singing for days with your best Josh Homme impression.

‘My God Is The Sun’ is the lead single of the album and continues the Gothic feel of the album. It is a solid track, but doesn’t really provide anything new to the album, apart from injecting a stab of energy into the middle of the record.

‘Kalopsia’ is my least favourite song on the album – although it’s an interesting idea, it is poorly executed and drags on. Josh Homme again opts for a wail type vocal, which turns what could be a beautiful song into an experience akin to having your ear stuck in a blender. With the lull in quality over, the second half of ‘…Like Clockwork’ can start in earnest with ‘Fairweather Friends’, a powerful hard-rock song, oozing with keys and overdriven guitar licks.

The second highlight of the album is ‘Smooth Sailing’, a groove based, bordering funk song. I’m sure it won’t take too long for the comparisons between Muse’s ‘Panic Station’ and ‘Smooth Sailing’ to begin, with the verses having an almost identical rhythm and melody. In fact, I actually had to check if Matt Bellamy was one of the many special guests on the album when I first heard the vocals.

‘I Appear Missing’ is another hard-rock song, which for many bands would be an excellent track, but with the success of other tracks on the album, ‘I Appear Missing’ just gets lost in the mix and is quite forgettable. The album concludes with a song of the same name, and is a beautiful way to end the album. ‘…Like Clockwork’ starts and ends with a poignant piano and vocal duet, with a clever guitar solo interlude, laden with effects to try its best to sound like an instrument from the horn section.

If you’re new to Queens of The Stone Age, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It is a very aggressive and moody album throughout, but doesn’t get bogged down in its Gothic feel, instead it blossoms into a tumultuous and surprisingly complete rock album. Josh Homme probably only has one worry; how can he top this record?

The Dear Hunter

Recently I’ve found it difficult to find any new music that grabs my interest. That all changed when Amazon sent me an email recommending an album by a band called ‘The Dear Hunter’ in response to me buying Steven Wilson’s latest effort. Unlike most recommended-for-yous (looking at you Spotify) I’ve found that Amazon’s tend to work, so I immediately gave them a listen.

(Ultimately Amazon got what they wanted as I ordered one of their albums five minutes later.)

The album I ordered was called ‘The Color Spectrum’, which was a collection of nine four-track EPs released as a triple album (they can also be bought separately). The nine EPs are named: black, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and finally white and each have a unique style and sound which is related to the colour they represent.

The Black EP focusses on an industrial metal sound, where harsh notes and bleak electronics are contrasted with beautiful choruses. The percussive elements of these songs are really highlighted with some of the best drumming I’ve heard in a long time. These four songs had the potential to be too abrasive and dark, but Casey Crescenzo (vocals, guitars, keys, programming) managed to form this darkness into something beautiful, yet still definitely industrial metal.

Red moves towards hard rock territory, with its opening song ‘I couldn’t do it alone’ sounding like a mixture between Queens of the Stone Age and Nirvana. The tracks are deliberately raw and not over produced, resulting in an EP that channels actual anger and emotion.

Orange softens the rock down another tone towards classic rock, with a dramatic emphasis on groove. The bass lines and meaty tones of the guitar riffs are tumultuous and are enhanced with lashings of old school organs. This is the EP where Marshall Amps are cranked to eleven and wah-wah is a rite of passage.

The musical journey relaxes into as Casey puts it “Californian coast in the mid-60s” with a “classically poppy vibe” in Yellow. To anyone who loved both Black and Red, this new direction may seem scary and off-putting. Don’t be afraid! This is up there as one of my favourite EPs of the collection. This EP also reminds me of one of my favourite bands, which I discovered last year, called ‘Hey Ocean!’, who are guitar and bass driven acoustic pop band. They too, are well worth the investigation!

Green and Blue are both acoustic led EPs and are both very poignant and thought provoking. They are the minor key brothers of Yellow and Orange and provide a good break in the two and a half hours of music. Indigo, like Black, is an electronic EP, with ambient soundscapes ranging from sparse notes to rich textures, electronic drum beats, Thom Yorke (Radiohead) inspired vocals and a layer of haunting keyboards. This is also the only EP to feature an instrumental track.

Violet is a grand, operatic rock EP, which brings Muse to mind. There are saxophones and trumpets and every song is pompous and theatrical. This EP represents the sound of the band present on earlier releases such as ‘Act II’ and ‘Act III’ and follows a short concept of a politician and his dealings. This is a very unique sound and ultimately words don’t do it justice.

The spectrum concludes on White, which is supposed to be the polar opposite of the Black EP, giving nothing but hope and clean, beautiful sounds. Each track is devoid of tension and harsh notes, instead choosing harmonious layers of guitars and synths. On a vocal stance, the lyrics are very uplifting and White ends the journey perfectly.

Whilst the idea for this project was ambitious and grandiose, The Dear Hunter are one of the few bands that have the musical vision and talent to pull this off, without it sounding forced or ruined by filler or overkill of ideas. Casey Crescenzo is the musical leader of this band and has an amazing voice, which can pull off anything from dirty rock to angelic. It’s a shame that someone with his talent is not more widely praised. There is undoubtedly something here for everyone and in most cases I suspect you will end up loving it all.