Yeezus

The tagline might say “fishing the oceans of rock, metal and prog”, but this week I thought I’d branch out –  to none other than hip hop.

It’s hard to notice the critical acclaim that Kanye West’s latest album ‘Yeezus’ has been receiving and so I thought I’d give it a chance. Collaborating with a vast list of artists and producers, including Daft Punk and Frank Ocean, ‘Yeezus’ is an experimental hip hop album deeply in debt to the industrial genre. Released in June, the album began life on the top floor of Paris hotel, and a mere 15 days before the record was due to be released, West introduced Rick Rubin to the project to strip down the songs and change structures. The result is a powerhouse of dark textures and strange effects.

The album opens with the hard-hitting ‘On Sight’, with a grinding industrial synth riff straight from Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Year Zero’ era. The pounding rhythms are juxtaposed when the song suddenly breaks down into a re-recorded refrain from  ‘Sermon’ by the Holy Name of the Mary Choral Family. The use of Samples and other such recordings is a key theme across the record, and are generally used to good effect, appearing when you least expect it.

The first single off the album, ‘Black Skinhead’, comes next making use of another industrial rock/metal riff with energetic drums and a thumping bass line. West again makes use of a long intro (a format which is rarely used by chart-orientated artists), which cycles through three distinct phases before the vocals come in. The vocals are predominantly rapped and rely heavily on dynamics – most noticeable in the chorus where the intensity builds up from hushed to screamed matching the drums.

Unfortunately at this point the first negatives begin to crop up. After two songs the needless use of profanity has already become wearisome – f*** is on seven,  s*** is on eight and not to mention the misogynistic use of b*tch on six and the unnecessary six counts of the n-word. The aggressive use of profanity and racial remarks for the sole purpose of trying to sound edgy and somehow more relevant has the opposite effect; Kanye West’s lyrics just seem immature and unable to convincingly convey a theme without relying on a dirty vocabulary – the sort that rebellious teens will lap up.

Nevertheless I persevered with the album, trying to judge it on its musical qualities, rather than on the lyrics. The harsh industrial soundscapes, with droning bass and effect laden vocals continue across the album, none more so than with the egotistical ‘I am a God’ (apparently featuring God himself).

However, on the fourth track the lyrics become the centre of attention – but for all the right reasons. ‘New Slaves’ is a song of two halves; the first an extended powerful rap about racism, over a very minimal repeated synth phrase. The songs emotion builds until the second half where effect-driven vocals layer over a much richer musical section. ‘Hold My Liquor’ again takes the stripped back approach, mixing thin instrumentation, with harsh sounds and slow vocals, to create a very chilling, almost depressing piece, although the lyrics once again ruin the song.

One of the potentially most interesting songs from the record is ‘Blood on the Leaves’, which makes use of samples from Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Strange Fruit’ –  a haunting poem dealing with racism and lynching, which is sung in a chilling beauty over a sparse piano back drop. Unfortunately I don’t think the song does the sample justice. Kanye West’s outbursts of horrendously auto-tuned vocals in between Simone’s heart wrenching vocals is the artistic equivalent of scrawling a penis on Munch’s ‘The Scream’. It’s sad that a contemporary artist can’t recognise if he has managed to add value to preexisting piece or not. In fact it’s sad that the several samples used throughout the record probably make a better musical statement than the complete package.

Tracks like ‘I’m In It’ and ‘Guilt Trip’ continue with the more aggressive industrial style, the latter incorporating some truly weird effects both vocally and musically. However it’s the last two tracks the really stand out from the second half of the album. ‘Send It Up’ features a riff that is sonically abrasive yet still memorable and oddly catchy. The track is dark and is driven by a rumbling bass line and musically could have come from any of the major bands the nineties industrial metal scene.

The last track ‘Bound 2’ is the second single to be released from the album and is predominantly based around soul music samples, most notably ‘Bound’ from seventies soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One. The use of these particular samples could possibly be a throwback to West’s original sound, where his style closely resembled soul. ‘Bound 2’ acts a great conclusion to the album; a brighter song both musically and lyrically to the rest of the album, whilst nodding its head at Kanye West’s own roots.

Musically ‘Yeezus’ is brilliant. I honestly never thought I’d be saying this, but it is; if this was the new Nine Inch Nail’s album, albeit with Trent Reznor’s vocals not Kanye West’s, it would be a classic. However, the album doesn’t quite resonant with me vocally, resorting to too much pointless profanity and often poor lyrics. I was impressed with his delivery in openers ‘On Sight’ and ‘Black Skinhead’, it’s just a shame that the quality of what came out when his mouth opened wasn’t on par with the rest of the album. The foundations were there for truly great record that could have appealed to a wider audience than even he had imagined, but unfortunately it isn’t quite realised, which is true shame.

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Reading & Leeds

Pack your tent, dig out your wellies and prepare as the Reading and Leeds festivals quickly approach. This year the twin festivals boast a line up which is nothing if not varied, with acts ranging from Skrillex and Eminem to the likes of Nine Inch Nails and System of a Down.

Whilst the Reading festival has been running is some guise since 1971 (except for a two year ban imposed by the council in ’84 and ’85), it wasn’t until 1999 that the Leeds site was added due a continued increase in popularity and ticket demand, the like of which the Reading site could no longer sustain.

The main stage on the Friday* is headlined by pop-punk heavyweights Green Day, who make their second appearance in as many years following their ‘surprise’ slot in last years’ festival. Although I’m not a fan of their particular brand of pop-punk (a result of my general dislike for most of the genre, save for a few exceptions like Blink-182 and The Offspring), their 2004 Reading headline performance was worth watching more for the energy of the crowd than anything else; at some points throughout the set the crowd’s singing easily drowned out Billy Joe Armstrong’s voice.

The rest of the the main stage line up on the Friday follows a similar rock/metal theme, with two of nu metal’s survivors (see last week’s blog) Deftones and System of a Down, metal-reggae-punk hybrid Skindred and love-them-hate-them Bring Me The Horizon. The only act playing the main stage on Friday who doesn’t quite fit with the theme is Frank Turner, who is playing his seventh consecutive performance at the festival. Whether you have ever heard any of his unique folk-rock before doesn’t matter; I was fortunate enough to catch him (and Deftones) playing Reading two years ago, where he were simply phenomenal, managing to get the crowd to sing along to songs they had never even heard before. Elsewhere on the site, the festival plays host to Skrillex, Bastille, Sub Focus, Kate Nash and even Alkaline Trio, who are headlining the Lock Up stage.

The main stage on Saturday mellows down from Friday’s rock onslaught, with headliner Marshall Bruce Mathers III or as he’s more commonly known: Eminem. The american rapper first headlined the festival in 2001 and is the first rap/hip hop artist on the mian stage since Dizzee Rascal appeared in 2009. The announcement was in part controversial, but hip hop artists have been a part of Reading for years now including sets from 50 cent and Ice Cube. The whole of the main stage line up for Saturday leans towards a more ‘commercial’ appeal with Chase and Status (live), indie rock band Foals and The Blackout.

As fan of harder rock and beyond, the Saturday line up doesn’t really excite me. In fact I would much rather stay on the Lock Up stage where The Bronx, Sick of it All and Tomahawk are playing or even the NME/BBC Radio 1 Stage with Tame Impala, Johnny Marr and Deaf Havana. Also playing this year are two of last years’ biggest new acts Imagine Dragons and Alt-J who will probably draw some of the biggest crowds over the course of the weekend.

However if I had to choose just one day to see, it would be the Sunday. Headlining are the brilliant Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro, who whenever I’ve seen any of their festival performances are always amazing, somehow managing to fill the stage and excite the crowd no matter what the weather. Nevertheless it would be Industrial legends Nine Inch Nails that I would be most looking forward to. Although I had my doubts to whether they will be able to give the full NIN experience in a festival setting, videos from their recent festival appearance in Japan show Trent Reznor and co. firing on all cylinders alongside a marvelous visual experience, featuring giant silhouettes and a creative stage presence.

The interesting feature to the Sunday is the one-day-only rock stage, acting as a kind of mini Download festival with performances from Enter Shakari, Crossfaith, Heaven’s Basement, Gallows, Filter and Funeral For A Friend to name a few. Those with weekend tickets who came primarily for the Friday will not doubt be inundating the Rock Stage on the Sunday, as the main stage once again caters for the lighter end of the rock spectrum with Fall Out Boy, Editors, Don Broco and The Lumineers.

Like always Reading and Leeds provides such a varied musical experience it would be near impossible to say you don’t like any of this years’ line up. Overall it looks like a great weekend and am jealous of anyone with a ticket!

Recommended Listening:

  1. Alt-J – ‘Breezeblocks’ from ‘An Awesome Wave’
  2. Imagine Dragons – ‘Radioactive’ from ‘Continued Silence’
  3. Tomahawk – ‘God Hates A Coward’ from ‘Tomahawk’
  4. Nine Inch Nails – ‘Copy Of A’ from the upcoming ‘Hesitation Marks’
  5. Skindred – ‘Stand For Something’ from ‘Shark Bites and Dog Fights’

Thank you for reading (no pun intended!). Please like, comment and subscribe to email updates.

*The days I have referred to in this blog are from the Reading line up. Acts who play the Friday at Reading play the Saturday at Leeds, acts who play the Saturday at Reading play the Sunday at Leeds and acts who play the Sunday at Reading play the Friday at Leeds.

The Decline of Nu Metal: 10 Years On

Nu metal began to take shape in the early nineties, taking influence from more groove based metal, industrial/electronic music and most notably hip-hop. Nu metal enjoyed mainstream popularity for a five year period from 1998 to 2003, before declining, and being replaced by less abrasive rock, mainly in the forms of emo and pop-punk.

Fast forward ten years beyond 2003 and the nu metal scene is pretty much dead. If you look at all the popular nu metal acts from the turn of the millennium, they can all be placed into one of two categories; those who stuck with nu metal and those who jumped ship and adapted.

The first category includes the likes of (hed)PE, Static-X, Saliva and most notably Limp Bizkit. These bands all chose to stick with the genre (or close variations) and ultimately were hurt by it, getting pushed from MTV fame to small venues and dwindling album sales. Limp Bizkit were the headline act for the first Download Festival in 2003 (until they pulled out) alongside Iron Maiden, but ten years on they were relegated to playing the Zippo Encore Stage at the same festival. Frontman Fred Durst recently conceded that Limp Bizkit “were a moment in time and it’s over”, whilst also admitting they no longer tour America due a decline in their popularity. The same can be said for the other bands in this group; (hed)PE, Static-X and Saliva all faded from attention, maintaining only a small loyal following.

The second group of bands have fared much better. Deftones changed from their nu metal sound in 2000 with the release of their third album ‘White Pony’, drastically expanding their fan base, before rejuvenating their image once again in 2010 with the critically acclaimed ‘Diamond Eyes’. Linkin Park’s last nu metal record was in 2003; their attention changing to hard rock and then onto electronically driven rock music, resulting in the release of an ambitious concept album on nuclear war. This album, entitled ‘A Thousand Suns’, was the antithesis of nu metal; gone were the three minute radio-suited songs, replaced by experimental instrumentation, samples of speeches and an album that has to be played in order.

Naturally some of the bands that adapted their sound failed to carry forward the momentum beyond the early half of the new decade. Bands such as Papa Roach, Mudvayne and Godsmack, went down a more hard rock approach and found their popularity staying roughly constant, keeping fans happy and interested, but not really enticing a new wave of attention. The same can be said for the heavier acts like Slipknot or Disturbed. They removed the ‘nu’ and kept the metal to their sound and saw their popularity plateau, perhaps waiting for whatever incarnation is next.

This brings me nicely to Korn, who, alongside producer Ross Robinson, are arguably the fathers of nu metal. Korn’s ‘Follow The Leader’ was the first nu metal record to really capture the true essence of the genre and act as a springboard for all the other bands mentioned above. It combined hip-hop and metal perfectly, resulting in it going multi-platinum.

However, since the departure of guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch in 2005, Korn have struggled to find their post nu metal sound. Last week Korn premiered the first song ‘Never Never’ from the new album ‘Paradigm Shift’ due in October. Like 2011’s heavily dubstep influenced ‘The Path of Totality’, this carries on with the same electronic theme, but adds a few more layers of guitar into the mix.

Their drastic change into electronic music has been quite controversial with the fans; some (including me) love it, others simply hate it. The ones who hate it generally want Korn to return to their ‘traditional’ nu metal sound. However, I can’t get my mind round this. In 2010 Korn released ‘Korn III: Remember Who You Are’ which did exactly what it says on the tin; Korn rediscovering the past with songs that could have been off any of their first four albums. Yet that record didn’t feel right. On paper everything seemed perfect; bass-like guitars, Jonathan Davis’ wail, pounding grooves and dark atmospheres, but it seemed forced, almost Korn-by-numbers. The reason for this is because it was forced – it came as a result of someone saying “you know what guys, our fans want nu metal, so lets write some“.  Can you really see four guys in their forties actually organically creating an angst-filled nu metal record? I think Korn have finally found what kind of music they want to embrace and as a result it sounds believable.

The decline of nu metal just goes to show that the majority of bands have to change their sound and adapt if they want to survive. Naturally changing alone doesn’t guarantee survival; your new direction still has to produce the same quality of music so that you can receive the necessary exposure to stop you being forgotten like Limp Bizkit, but the benefits of refreshing who you are as a band far outweigh those of sticking to your sound.

Recommended ‘Post-Nu Metal’:

  1. Deftones – ‘Beauty School’ from ‘Diamond Eyes’
  2. Linkin Park – ‘Castle of Glass’ from ‘Living Things’
  3. Papa Roach – ‘I Almost Told You That I Loved You’ from ‘Metamorphosis’
  4. Mudvayne – ‘Beyond The Pale’ from ‘Mudvayne’
  5. Korn – ‘Bleeding Out’ from ‘The Path Of Totality’

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The Smashing Pumpkins 2.0

In an interview last year, following the release of the new album Oceania, The Smashing Pumpkin’s front man Billy Corgan was asked how the new band members that surrounded him “dealt with the shadows of former members”. Corgan’s answer stated that the new members were honouring the past members by continuing on their legacy and concluded that “the ideology of The Smashing Pumpkins is more important than the music of The Smashing Pumpkins.”

His vision of the band as more than just four people playing together went as far as suggesting that he “can envision a scenario by which The Smashing Pumpkins would continue beyond [him].” He proposed a situation that in five years if he decided to stop touring, he  would leave the band, but still contribute music to a lineup that was completely different to the original.

It’s an interesting proposition. At first my thoughts were probably like many of yours now – something along the lines of lunacy, but if you actually to stop to think about it, it makes sense.

Take a band like Dream Theater. Their first album ‘When Dream and Day Unite” was released in 1989 with a lineup that consisted of John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy, John Myung, Kevin Moore and vocalist Charlie Dominici. By their next album ‘Images and Words’ they had a new vocalist in the form of James LaBrie. Keyboardist Kevin Moore was replaced by Derek Sherinian for their fourth album, who in turn was replaced by Jordan Ruddess for their fifth album. Finally in 2010, drummer Mike Portnoy left the band and was replaced by Mike Mangini.

Say in five years time John Myung leaves and then in another five years John Petrucci decides it’s time for something new, then each original band member would have been replaced. This new lineup would still be Dream Theater and because of the gradual change in personnel the band would continue to sell out arenas.

There are many other bands touring today who have tiny fractions of their original line up left, yet that hasn’t had any impact into their popularity. Who says this can’t continue on further?

If this still sounds ridiculous think of a television soap or drama. For example, let’s look at Doctor Who. Last night the twelfth actor to play the role of The Doctor was announced. Will this impact on the show’s viewing figures? No. No, because the show is more than just a few recurring faces; characters may come and go, but the show’s canon remains in tact. This canon is analogous to the musical vision of  band; the hairy people playing in a dark dingy venue are just characters that can come and go, but the band name will live on.

Corgan understood the potential backlash of performing such an audacious move. He wouldn’t expect the new Smashing Pumpkins to still do the world tours in large venues, but he did note there would be fans willing to accept that idea if he left. Corgan suggested the reason that fans would find it such an odd move is because “fans have been coddled in the last ten years of internet culture to believe they run the show. They don’t run the show. They would rather have four or five people on stage…who don’t get along, don’t share Christmas cards…than [have] those people to be healthy and make healthy music.”

It’s worrying when you realise he is right. Calls for lost lineups to reunite, fans demanding they play album x or y, cries for side projects to be put on hold. It’s the equivalent of going to work everyday and having colleagues moaning that you’ve moved on from cheese and tomato sandwiches and they want a return to the classic. It’s ludicrous. It’s their business and ultimately their way of life.

They may hate playing nu metal, but as long you’re happy, that’s all that matters right?

Please comment, like and subscribe, and if you have forty minutes to watch the whole interview, whether you are a Pumpkins fan or not, I really recommend it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A20G4kNqeis

Recommended Smashing Pumpkins:

  1. ‘Cherub Rock’ from ‘Siamese Dream’
  2. ‘Zero’ from ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’
  3. ‘Ava Adore’ from ‘Adore’
  4. ‘7 Shades of Black’ from ‘Zeitgeist’
  5. ‘My Love Is Winter’ from ‘Oceania’