another music update.

They Will Know Another – Thy Art Is Murder

I used to work at a fifties restaurant back home in junior college. As I worked my way into the kitchen as a short order cook in my last several months, one of my coworkers offered up a blood caked musical platter of black metal bands by way of Immolation and Dark Funeral to plug into our small jam box. He would crank this stuff in the kitchen during long weekend shifts to keep the energy running when orders poured in by the time the clock struck 5 pm on Friday nights. Keep in mind that black metal has never been a palettable genre on account of its overt Satanic cloitering, so even if the music is well written, it still doesn’t strike anything with me by association of the message it generally promotes. Given Paul’s exhortation that while we were sinners, Christ died for us, this is not meant to be a critique of its people or my coworker for that matter. Even corpse paint and anti Christian imagery doesn’t take away from its forerunners being image bearers of God when the amps turn off.

Having said that, Thy Art Is Murder have come the closest that any other band has (and probably ever will) to tipping a hand at this genre in a manner that made my ears pique and it’s not via meta messaging in its lyrics. It has everything to do with how guitarists Andy Marsh and Sean Price took a style of metal they already excelled at and then injected a shot of blackened tremolo minor chords synthesized from core influences like, Behemoth, forging their contribution to a three way split between Fit For An Autopsy and The Acacia Strain into a true ripper of a song.

The band’s subtle changes in style and uncharacteristically slowed pace gives They Will Know Another an apocalyptic ambiance with a full charge of blast beats, menacing vocals from CJ McMahon, and impressive production, hitting you with blunt force trauma when you crank it on a good sound system. Lyrically, They Will Know Another, traps the listener in an echo chamber with the social, economic, and environmental shockwaves captured in the music video’s lowlight reel shows between studio clips of the band with FFAA’s lead guitarist Will Putney at the controls (which is not for the faint-hearted, either). Far from hopeful, aggressively bemoaning, and altogether intoxicating. This is one of the most standout, uncompromising tracks I’ve heard in a while, especially since it’s had such high replay value since its release last July and it’s a promising direction for Thy Art Is Murder if this is what they choose to march on with on their next full length.

 

Of Dirt and Grace – Hillsong United

When I bought Relient K’s alt rock opus, Forget and Not Slow Down, five years ago in my hometown’s record shop, I immediately gravitated towards one single, excessively playing I Don’t Need A Soul until all the other tracks became muted against the canvas of Thiessen’s proclamation of contentment all-la Foo Fighter Counting Crows 90’s rock instrumentals (the good kind). Eventually, I moved onto other songs as a way to take a break between that song, repeating the process of being hooked on one track until I sojourned the whole record from cover to cover. It remains one of my favorites to this day as a result of the journey.

This is my parallel experience with Hillsong United’s Of Dirt and Grace.

Coalescing the on site significance behind these songs and well executed performances (with little rehearsal), these acoustic renditions of Empires and Zion showcased on Of Dirt and Grace breathe a different spectrum of life that is palpable. Though their original recordings primed record sales and waves of congregations to pick up these spirit charged bridges on Sunday mornings, there’s something special about hearing Scandal of Grace recorded outside the empty tomb or Prince of Peace sung overlooking the dome of the rock outside the old city walls and on the side of a destroyed Abrams tank from the 6 day Israeli-Palestinian war. The visual accompaniments let already well-crafted songs take flight. I can picture myself stopping dead center in reflection on the Via Dolorosa and taking in the rich, melodic reverb of Street Called Mercy as I ponder Jesus carrying a Roman cross bar up a half mile through congested city streets to Golgotha. I can almost feel the soft breeze between my fingertips and cattails brushing on my skin on the mount where Jesus delivered the beatitudes when I hear the acoustic plumes in, Say the Word. Much like Explosions In the Sky did with specific visual correspondence in each song, I think Hillsong brilliantly does with Of Dirt and Grace, because it showcases a depth of care and detail put into the theology behind the tapestry and that matters, a lot!

Returning to my allegory about FANSD, Touch the Sky was the only song I really liked for a while, because I first enjoyed its original studio recording. As I traversed through other songs like Here Now and Empires, I really began to chip away at Dirt and Grace, binging on every minute detail of these songs until I made my way through a full listen of this album and as a result, I have a newfound appreciation for it! Though these are acoustic versions of their original songs, they are still dense with layers of reverb, keys, and acoustic subtleties. In addition, and probably most importantly, the vocal performances on this record are astounding! Everyone in United is bountifully talented and delivers passionate performances, bringing encouraging lyrics with just as much depth as their aesthetic to full bloom. This is up there will We Will Not Be Shaken as one of my favorite worship records and I have found a lot of spiritual resonance in these songs!

 

Neurotic – Hundredth

Do you remember this polarizing phenomenon when Linkin Park dropped Minutes to Midnight in 2009? Long time fans of the band’s cornerstone nu-metal records unhinged at the sound of singles like Shadow of the Day. When you put their entire catalog on a timeline and take in Chester Peddington’s commentary on the matter, Minutes to Midnight was Linkin Park’s reaction to their disdain of the looking glass self they felt like fans and the record label were wanting to see in the mirror. At this point, they weren’t all the way there in a full turn around, but Minutes was a shocking 90 that culminated in the 180 that was, A Thousand Suns.

Much like Slipknot, Linkin Park, is a fascinating case study of musical evolution for my generation. Autobiographical programs like VH1’s Behind the Music (#nostalgia #bringbacktrl) chronicle bands with long careers proving a certain acumen and then shifting their musical tectonics in another direction to parallel their maturity as human beings and artists. Just like James Hetfield of Metallica is no longer a teenaged mullet rocker committed to sleeping on UHaul blankets in the pursuit of pure thrash and Chester Peddington/crew didn’t want to write another three carbon copies of Meteora, front man Chadwick Johnson has expressed in multiple interviews that Hundredth is a far cry from the 18 year old Carolinians who wrote When Will We Surrender in 2010. Evidence shows through their new single, Neurotic, teased from the band’s forthcoming record, Rare. The band has commented that through their double EP and their last full length, Hundredth wanted to stylistically reach in new directions while still keeping their core sound rooted in a comfortable niche that didn’t alienate the original fan base which heralds When Will We Surrender and Let Go. If the former releases didn’t at least challenge that notion, then Rare definitely will, if Neurotic is any indication of their new direction.

Abandoning all traces of their melodic hardcore grit, Neurotic trades in driving, up-beat rhythms and breakdowns for a shoegaze/punk vibe that puts Chad Johnson on guitar for the first time in the band’s history and trading in anthemic yells for filtered clean singing that compliments the distorted, electronic undertow. Speaking as someone who compliments Let Go as one of the first real hardcore records that ever captivated me, I anticipate the potential for this band charting new musical territory, because Neurotic is a convincing listen that showcases Hundredth’s aptitude. Don’t get me wrong though, this song is aggressive (though its lyrics don’t speak for that much), but it’s expressed in a more subtle way that gets you bit by bit when you study the subtleties of this song after multiple listens. To be honest, the aforementioned is my favorite quality about Neurotic. Rather than letting you take it full force on impact like much of their discography, Neurotic calculates it into a more intelligent delivery that still has an edge to it. Bottom line is that I’m stoked for Rare if this is what I’m in for!

Advertisements

a conversation with Zach.

I got together for a conversation yesterday afternoon with my buddy, singer-songwriter, Zach Zurn about his roots, songwriting inspirations, faith, and politics. We enjoyed good, organic talk at his home studio in Rochester with a couple sparkling waters and dreary mid winter overcast conditions.

Check out Zach’s music!

http://www.zzurn.com/

https://www.facebook.com/zachzurnmusic/

https://soundcloud.com/zach-zurn-275903268/white-christmas

 

 

 

 

christmas tunes.

I’m currently on a mini vacation, away from the bitter cold, and staring at the base of the Catalina Mountain range south of Tucson from my dad’s back porch. In between the couple days off of spending time with family, I’ve taken time up in the air en route to soak in some Christmas music a little late into the season, but with the intent of doing a short review of some old and newer favorite tunes to play this week (or into the new year if that’s your preference).

 

Someday At Christmas – Jack Johnson

The acoustic plumes of Jack Johnson drip with nostalgia in high school when In Between Dreams was a sleeper indie sensation that sweetly rocked my closet romantic Mr. Hyde to an otherwise aggressive Jekyll that was getting into bands like The Black Dahlia Murder and Whitechapel. I’ve always enjoyed Johnson’s hushed vocal delivery painted in similar brushstrokes like Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Sufjan Stevens. But more than that, I like the instrumental gamut ran between unplugged and subdued ballads like Angel to swingers like Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology that remind me of John Mayer’s Robert Johnson cover on Battle Studies. Though I have not listened to much beyond 2010’s To the Sea, I can confidently say that I still like Jack Johnson if not for that same aforementioned nostalgic factor. On the opening kickoff to an indie Christmas compilation from 2008, Jack Johnson returns his track Someday at Christmas with a satisfyingly nimble presentation that captures the insouciance of earlier work that earned him mainstream success. A simple chord progression carries Johnson through a brief lyrical sojourn wishing for a literal peace on Earth between nations, races, and even gender. It feels timely in our political climate, but surprisingly doesn’t fall to its own clichés on such subject matter. I like the catchiness of Johnson’s vocal melodies and the warmth in its tone. Compared to others on this list, Someday at Christmas is a nice change in pace that puts my feet up in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night.

 

Good King Wenceslas – Westminster Chorale

Shifting gears to a more traditional drivetrain, I’ve always had a thing for older hymns and gospel songs penned by forefathers of my faith in Europe during the reformation of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Their lyrical complexity, theological depth, and thought put in by the writers makes songs like Come Thou Fount (spoiler alert to later down the list). And, that is especially the case with Christmas songs like Good King Wenceslas. Originally written by an English hymnist in the mid 1800’s, this song dives into old Czech folklore about a king who rescues a peasant outside his castle during a winter storm during the Christmas holiday. With this peasant unable to return to his home through the storm, the king braves the weather and provides him with food and shelter. There’s something about the humanity demonstrated and symbolism in this song that makes it appealing to me. If you look into teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, this song draws parallels in the snow with stanzas such as this… Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing (James 2:14-17). Perhaps my favorite thing about this song is how my family used to play it as part of a compilation on an old 45 record that showcased a traditional choir in Westminster Abbey. Hearing such rich, diverse, and impeccable tone from a large choir gives this song an even more timeless feel and brings me back to decorating the house in my formative years.

 

Hosanna – Josh Garrels

I grew up liturgically rooted in those same hymns like the ones aforementioned in the previous song. My upbringing in the Episcopal church meant we were well versed in red leather hymnals and having a long-established service structure in corporate worship. Though my faith has evolved since and serve in a different denomination, I can still remember many of those old hymns when played anywhere, and that’s how Josh Garrels’ cover of Hosanna made it on this list. Garrels vocal style listens like an amalgam of Chad Gardner’s (King’s Kaleidoscope) soul, a dash of Bear Rinehart’s (Needtobreathe) grit, and the intricate restraint of Michael Gungor. It makes for a heartfelt listen with enough passion coming through to keep your attention yet with enough gentleness to cradle you through the experience. Though I haven’t successfully traversed a whole listen of his new Christmas album, The Light Came Down, I’ve been hooked on songs like The Boar’s Head and Hosanna. Before taking communion, the presiding reverend would walk us through the story of the last supper from one of the Gospels, bless the bread and wine, and would lead us in a chorus of Hosanna. The orchestral flourishes and subtle percussion behind Josh’s acoustic guitar gives this song a lot of character. As the song progresses, it builds in a way that preserves its mellowness but still has enough flavor to keep on the tip of your tongue. In fact, I think the profound lyrical content of celebration contrasted against such a comparatively tempered instrumental delivery makes the song even more spiritually powerful. It’s not a “Christmas” song, but it belongs on his Christmas album and it’s good, so I’m still counting it.

 

I Had A Heart – Real Friends

Pop punk has never been accused of taking itself seriously. Part of the culture in this subgenre is characterized by preserving a sense of wonder and rebellion that’s pined after through heartbreak and fumbling through adulthood. And, judging from Real Friends’ contribution to Punk Goes Christmas from 2013, that same attitude still sits at the Christmas table of dysfunctional family dynamics with enough angst to go around. I Had a Heart is the musical equivalent of watching a Hallmark Christmas movie that revolves around a hopelessly romantic young adult, alone during the holidays, and with a turbulent family dynamic. It’s emotionally bombastic and a bit cheesy, but the thing about those movies and this song…

I like them both.

This song comically captures a cynical side to the holiday season where people can become annoyed by extended family and wallow in singleness. I think it’s actually a clever cultural critique about what we place as important during the Christmas season and jokingly offers an opposite perspective to tidings of comfort and joy. Acoustic, punk instrumentals and a vocally austere performance from lead singer, Dan Lambton, fit this song’s message of teenage angst that is undeniable. I Had a Heart is not one to take as seriously or with as much conviction than the predecessors on this list, but I still think it’s fun and shakes up my Christmas playlist in the best way possible.

 

 

Honorable mentions:

Carol of the Bells – I Declare War.

If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase, you’ll understand half the jokes littered between death metal vocals and aggressively rendered instrumentals.

Come Thou Fount (Synonym) – Penny & Sparrow

Come Thou Fount is one of my favorite worship songs on account of the narrative behind its writer Robert Robinson. It’s a tragic, yet beautiful story and there’s a modern reenactment of it on Youtube. Acoustic duo Penny & Sparrow capture this song with effortless charm, great vocal performances, and really hazy production.

Where the Light Shines Through – Switchfoot: Music Review

As a kid, my parents used to screen the music I bought, but at the time I thought it was a torture tactic that deprived me of an inhibition to listen to heavy music instead of seeing it as a necessary filter on my developing mind. In the end, it did prevent me from latching onto legitimately bad music (shouts out to mom and dad). When I was in fourth grade, I petitioned for Linkin Park’s Meteora – an album that toed the line of hard and maybe a little dark for me at the time, so instead I was given a supposedly underwhelming alternative that I had no idea would leave such a long lasting impression – Switchfoot’s, The Beautiful Letdown. Released in 2003 as the band’s major label debut on Vanguard records, it rode the wave of early 2000’s pop rock/post grunge revival that crashed on the shores of MTV, Vh1, most mainstream radio stations, and for me – summers at Trout Lake Camps. The band’s edgy, lo-fi production style soldered with industrial sampling, and a message of honesty against a culture of excess made The Beautiful Letdown and their subsequent album, Nothing Is Sound, game changers for the band as they continued to refine their style.

Admittedly, I abandoned Switchfoot after Oh! Gravity and pre Hello Hurricane after leaving the tall pines and cold lake water of church camp behind me in high school. At the time, their music didn’t have an impact outside of being a memento to that epoch of life. Instead, I traded in grungy earworm melodies for meaner music. However, that changed after going to Winona State and moving in with a few guys my senior year – both of whom are die hard fans that stuck  with Switchfoot the whole course up to their last record, Fading West. I would hear random tracks from some of these albums here and there when my roommates cooked dinner with their Spotify playlists on, and over time I began to appreciate the direction that Switchfoot took at the break in the yellow wood. Now, that I have rekindled a liking for this California surf rock quintet, saw them live a couple years ago, and am now sinking my teeth into this new record, I’ve come to the conclusion that Switchfoot are a band that ages well. These guys are married, have children, trying to balance a career, writing from the heart, and becoming aware of their mortality (ahem, Where I Belong). Yet, in that, they manage to let their hopeful and inspiring message be the period at the end of each album cycle, after each tour, heck, after each track.

Fading West was by far the band’s most ambitious release in which Oh! Gravity’s most experimental junctures pale by comparison. I reviewed it briefly in a summer playlist post last year, noting that the channeling of all-la-Kasabian alt rock with distorted synthesizers, intriguing and energetic soundscapes, and textured production made Fading West a prolific milestone in the band’s career. I was curious in the lead up to Where the Light Shines Through what direction the band would go after the success of the former’s alternative sound…

The result on Where the Light Shines Through is telling about how the band is continuing to age, maybe a bit nostalgic, and still wanting to try on new, musically. Foreman and crew are on their tenth album.13178934_10154832778271679_6040195207218796408_n They are more mature as human beings, fathers, husbands, and musicians who have traveled the world a few times over. I will go out on a limb in saying that Where the Light Shines through is Switchfoot’s most subdued presentation, yet the most energetic, inspirational, moving, and balanced record they have released yet.

Where the Light Shines Through is a collection of introspective epistles that belong in a spectrum much like a dimmer on a light switch. There’s a whole range that reach cathartic heights on songs like the opening track Holy Water and Healer of Souls, the funky Red Hot Chili Pepper flourishes of Float, the experimental curve ball on Looking For America, and to the other end of the dimmer with arena ballads like I Won’t Let You Go, Live It Well, and Hope Is the Anthem. It reminds me of how The World Is A Thorn allowed Demon Hunter to be more frenetic, yet more hushed than ever before on the exact same record. Everything in between is some kind of fusion between the two poles that brings the listener back to homeostasis.

When I listen to Where the Light Shines Through cover to cover, I have these flashbacks to moments on all other releases. Electronic samplings, energetic rhythms, and driving funk on Bull In A China Shop and Holy Water bring me back to the experimental jive on Fading West; the driving, hopeful pace of If the House Burns Down Tonight is reminiscent of Hello Hurricane’s title track; and Live It Well’s anthemic melodies remind me of songs like Restless off Vice Verses. The best part is that within those nostalgic filigrees, Where the Light Shines Through still maintains its own identity with new flavors – particularly Lecrae’s feature on Looking For America. Point being, there is a little something for every fan from every mile marker within ten records. Some of the subtleties in production like the static in the channels of speakers, plugging instruments into amps, and rehearsal moments within the recording process that are left in these songs actually give Where the Light Shines Through a lot of character. For me, the passion soaked in inspirational sounding melodic leads, a bombastic bridge section, and Foreman’s falsetto vocals make I Won’t Let You Go this record’s most passionate delivery and one of my favorite songs. Also, Healer of Souls gritty, lo-fi tone and bouncing rhythm takes my eardrums down memory lane to Remember the Titans when the Alexandria high school football team sojourns to Gettysburg by tune of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In the Sky… therefore, I like it.

Lyrically, this record touches on Biblical themes of us being strong in our weaknesses, embracing adversity, and reflecting on faith with lines like, So let’s go there, to that place where we sing these broken prayers, where the light shines through. The wound is where the light shines through. Yeah, the wound is where the light shines through.” Though, Switchfoot’s catalog proves they’re not foreign to such subject matter, I think this album is more unapologetic – Foreman is upfront and honest about it in ways I haven’t heard since The Beautiful Letdown. In that sense, it lives up to the social media hype that the band created about how this is one of the deepest albums they’ve written with some of Foreman’s favorite lyrics he’s penned so far in his career. The title track and The Day of Found God are highlights that bring the band the closest to living out the message of hope they always sing about in perfect matrimony.

Ultimately, Where the Light Shines Through is an album that is the result of ten albums, twenty years, and all their influences being pulled more inwards to a balanced release. It’s one of their most believable performances that I look forward to taking in more and more. Though this album is not my favorite in their discography (congrats Fading West), it’s still worthwhile and pleases the fourth grader in me who bought that copy of The Beautiful Letdown with allowance money.

take a listen.

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

I was sitting at Culver’s with my roommate one night and I told him that I have this habit of hopping on the bandwagon of good music, late. As a result, I kick myself for a moment, thinking, “What have I been missing out on??” I say this, because I am catching onto The Lumineers kind of late… what have I been missing out on??! They’ve been a functioning band for the better part of a decade, using personal tragedy to write affectionate vingiettes that culminate in their debut self-titled album. Though I didn’t get too much into it aside form songs like Slow It Down, I appreciated The Lumineers knack for artful folk music. I heard a lot of buzz about their forthcoming sophomore LP, Cleopatra, so after hearing singles like Ophelia and the title track at my favorite coffee shop in Winona played on repeat, I intentionally sought this one out upon release.

Cleopatra is an effluent indie affair, buoyed by a sort of timeless soul that brings you back to smoky bars and rootsy Americana imagery strapped to leather boots, rumbling piano registers, and Wesley Schultz’ throaty vocals. This is a fun record and its accessibility gives a lot of replay value. I can’t stop nodding my head or wanting to belt out the chorus to Angela, bounce along to the dizzying piano arpeggio in Ophelia, and clap along to the stomp of the title track.12654337_10153292167941332_5061469366406380348_n Other songs like Gale Song, My Eyes, and Long Way From Home express a more musically stoic side to the band, settling for hollowed out lo-fi guitar tones that draw you into an intimate experience. Patience gently closes the record with a piano instrumental that fades into soft keys. I can best describe The Lumineers as an emotional storm in a teacup. Though, their songs have a lot of musical build up and strong lyrical imagery, it never reaches the point of being melodramatic. Overall, I feel this album is more subdued in its presentation than its predecessor and therefore makes it a more convincing and enjoyable listen for me. All of this is bolstered by effective production that captures the heart and soul of a sound that the band is aiming for. The echo chamber sounding vocals, subtle string accompaniments, and organic guitar tones make this record shine.

Though Cleopatra retreads recycled lyrical themes of young love, women, and relationships, the band finds a refreshingly innocent twist to such subject matter. They weave really dark narratives in between them, like on the title track. It’s almost like I’m watching film noir at the Sundance Film Festival.

Bottom line, go listen to this album if you need to feed the softer side to our musical soul. It’s an easy listen that I’m still sinking my teeth into.

 

Invent Animate – Stillworld

Modern, progressive metal is running out of original ideas. I hate saying it, but evidence of this is quantified by the new wave of records released from this subgenre this year. Though many of those albums are enjoyable and I actually like a lot of them, I’ve come to this conclusion that most of it is beginning to live in a shadow cast by its forerunners from the late 2000’s. But, if there is any sort of dying artistic breath from this renegade platoon of metal bands (other than Architects or Shokran), Invent, Animate does not go gentle into that goodnight.

I reviewed their debut album from Tragic Hero Records, Everchanger, last year. I especially liked how that album soldered ambient overtures from the likes of Helios with a Singularity era Northlane vibe and I still enjoy that album a lot. The good news is that their anticipated and well-received sophomore record, Stillworld, expands on a familiar formula from Everchanger that is further honed and perfected.13240590_1291634440857984_1190591693122597874_n Many, if not all of the same elements from Everchanger carry over to Stillworld, making this like a software update with a few tweaks to an already solid platform. Indigo kicks off this record…. absolutely insane! It touts some of the catchiest riffing, flows well between the soft and harsh passages, and in my opinion does the best job of stratifying Invent, Animate’s mission statement. Other tracks like Darkbloom and Soul Sleep showcase this juxtaposition from the insanely heavy to the suddenly calm and atmospheric, and White Wolf has by far the catchiest and most forward chorus/clean singing the band has written yet.

Lyrically, this album muses familiar territory from Everchanger – abstract allegories of faith, doubt, finding purpose, etc, but with that said, they’re written well and have some legitimately awesome lines to scream along to. Furthermore, I think this is a very well produced record and balanced record. The bass rumbles behind chugging guitars, the clean chromatic tapping comfortably coalesces with the rhythm, the drums are crisp, and the vocals are well placed.

I’m still head banging and power stomping my way through breakdowns and sweeping passages on this album and don’t anticipate putting it down any time soon!

 

King’s Kaleidoscope – Beyond Control

In my musical mind, King’s Kaleidoscope fit comfortably into a category of Contemporary Christian that follows in the lineage of Michael & Lisa Gungor, Rivers & Robots, Citizens & Saints, and Dustin Kensrue of Thrice – artists positioning themselves on the fringe of their own genre who craft honest, thoughtful, and transparent music reflective of their trials and triumphs in faith. If you’ve read this blog before, you might understand the stance I have on “Christian” music, but for the purpose of a good album like this, I don’t feel like that commentary is warranted.

Enter Kings Kaleidoscope.

I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge of this band outside of their former affiliation with Mars Hill Church in Seattle and (what I’m going to term as) their “dope-tastic” cover of In Christ Alone, but that was until I was tipped off to their new record, Beyond Control. My shotgun consensus…

Weird, but really good.

Upon first impression, this album feels like a B-side of experimental mastered material tossed into obscure cloud files and then sold as an extended play, but when you pay attention to the subtleties, Beyond Control is decorated with textured layers of soundscapes and shifts in style that still fit within a cohesive musical narrative. This album gives itself a lot of room to take some risks and because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, 13344507_1278219798878738_7414307795631577230_nthe band pulls off every stunt well. Out of the gate, A Resting Place sounds like organized orchestral chaos that I would find on the local classical station, but transitions into Enchanted, which sounds a bit like A Head Full of Dreams era Coldplay coalesced with the eccentric funk of John Mark McMillan’s Borderlands. Other songs like Lost? Strip away layers for a more simplified experience with acoustic guitars and orchestral synthesizers filling out the sound. Dust is a neo-jazz banger with an accompanying choir arrangement behind the chorus that captures the soul of traditional gospel music. In This Ocean Part 1 follows suit but has what I think are the catchiest melodies on this entire record. I think that speaks to the production of Beyond Control, because it is dense but not bloated. Even when this album reaches these bombastic moments in the arrangements, there’s enough variety and creativity in it all to make it justified.

Surprisingly, Friendship, is my highlight on Beyond Control. It’s a near three-minute instrumental interlude that’s led by piano, drums, and a French horn that swing you back and forth in a jazzy daze. Not only is the instrumental awesome, but throughout the track you hear members of the band commenting on cool licks made by the horn player, cracking jokes, laughing, and casually singing along with the melody. It’s playful. It’s a fun break in between what is otherwise a lyrically powerful (albeit vulgar at one point on A Prayer) sojourn through doubt, triumph and even social dejection from social media as discussed on Enchanted.

If you want to look up some wildly creative worship tunes that you can have some fun to, look no further… to quote the band from a moment in Friendship, “Whoah! That was sick!”

 

Explosions In the Sky – The Wilderness

People who know me best understand the love I have for this band and their ability to create moving, emotional oceans of nimble guitars, cathartically executed kettle drums, and crecendos reminiscent of classical movements that take you on a musical journey. If you’ve read this blog, then you’ve probably figured out why a record like The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place really needs no introduction. It will forever be a musical triumph that sits on my catalog’s throne. Now, their last full length album before The Wilderness was shockingly disappointing to me and in such a way that made me not even give that album a full listen. Maybe I’m being too hard on it and maybe it has to do with the fact that I place some of their earlier work with such high esteem, but it sounded like they were exhausting ideas and trying to pull you inwards to a more intimate atmosphere than before. In between albums, they have since written a few soundtracks, all of which showcased Explosions branching off into different soundscapes and experimentation all while still signing and sealing them with signature and familiar elements I know and love. I reviewed the first single, Disintegration Anxiety that showed off a distorted flurry of warped guitar tones and electronic sampling that caught me off guard at first, but was something I warmed up to over time. It felt like a breath of fresh air that I haven’t heard from a band in this genre in a while… and that’s the best way I can describe The Wilderness.

Fresh, but familiar.

Disintegration Anxiety is an appropriate sounding appetizer for an album laced with electronic filigrees, glitchy percussion, and a palate of different soundscapes. One of the best features of The Wilderness is that the band released a collection of still images captured by members and crew over the course of 17 years worth of writing, recording, and touring that inspired each of the nine tracks. Listening to these songs and pairing them with the images gives a more intimate view into the band’s imagination. For example, the opening track, Wilderness, is drawn from an image taken late night at an airport concourse in Europe with a focus on the gate sign reading, Austin. The band wrote about how it was a reminder that after being on tour, they were almost home. You can almost hear that sense of longing to return to their 12509094_10150599760549987_5072979378544854382_nroots when you reach the end of the track and hear a twinkling guitar loop that fades out to the end, reminiscent of their early work. Rather than crafting something with the flow of a classical piece like the rest of their discography, they wrote something more straightforward and spliced that still retains the same musical meta-narrative – much like different scenes in a film. Logic of a Dream reaches the most cathartic heights with these orchestral crecendos that sound like something off Hans Zimmer’s work in Interstellar, and Landing Cliffs ends the record hushed and spacey with atmospheric synths cradling gentle guitar chords.

This album had to grow on me, because it’s a sonic departure from albums that I’ve loved from the band. However, this new style they’ve embraced is in some ways even more emotional than other work. I don’t know how else to describe this, but I’ll end with a quote from Pitchfork writer, Brandon Stousy, about his thoughts on The Wilderness…

Because the group has done so much soundtracking, it’s difficult when listening to The Wilderness not to think of images that could go with these songs. Instead of making music for dramatic moments in football games, we’re getting sunsets you’ll remember a decade later, stumbling first kisses, half-heard car alarms during a comforting dream, that horribly unreal and frozen moment when you first hear a friend has died, walks alone at dusk, laying on your back and watching the constellations with the person you want to grow old with, the calm of seeing a loved one sleep. These songs feel personal. They tug at important moments.”

 

 

 

(un)answered.

Massachusetts hardcore quintet, Defeater, recently released an album called, Abandoned – a visceral 40 minute epistle about a Catholic priest coping with grisly experiences while attached to an infantry unit in Europe during World War II through the abuse of alcohol. Consequently, this character feels distanced from God as he struggles to reconcile the horrible things he has seen, the choices he’s making, and trying to be the spiritual leader he needs to be – out of ammunition and cowering in a spiritual foxhole, waiting for God to answer his cries for help. The album’s concept ties into a meta-narrative that weaves throughout Defeater’s entire discography about a blue collared family from New Jersey in the 1950’s swallowed by tides of drug abuse and murder. According to the band, this album is a topical tangent written to outlet their struggles in believing in God. The angst shines bright through songs like Unanswered

11542085_10153905563592119_1150329397823165649_n
Abandoned – Defeater. Epitaph Records.

I was a good man once, I was a good man once.
But years of unanswered prayers have left me faithless.
I was a good man once but now hopeless and abandoned.
I was a good man once, I was a good man once.
But years of serving in hell have left me faithless.
I was a good man once but now hopeless and abandoned.
Now hopeless and abandoned.
Hopeless and abandoned.

Doesn’t that sound like a familiar mantra in many of our spiritual lives?

I think it’s interesting how much social commentary prayer receives and Defeater is one of many examples I’ve seen and heard. In season 4 of Boy Meets World, Sean Hunter, begs God to save his father figure/mentor/English teacher that slipped into a coma from a motorcycle accident. Jason Street castigates his girlfriend in Friday Night Lights for praying healing over his paralysis from a tackle gone wrong in the series pilot. Prolific country artist Garth Brooks peacefully reconciles unanswered prayers in a song of the same title calling them “some of God’s greatest gifts.” Others like Mitch Lucker of Suicide Silence musically riot over prayer on the band’s debut record, The Cleansing, where in torment he screams on yet another song of the same title, “How much must I curse your name and put your beliefs to shame before you prove yourself and end this life? And I’ll say a ****ing prayer, because I know it won’t be answered, where is your god? Where is your ****ing god?” Prayer, or our attitudes about it, reveals a lot about us. Though all these examples are anecdotal, they all press into an intimate topic that muses how we see God. In fact, Christian poet, George Herbert, calls prayer a “natural human instinct” that we default to in distress. Prayer may be comforting, sometimes it’s even painful, and other times it draws blanks.

Pastor Tim Keller wrote a book on prayer that I’ve been leafing through in the last month or so. I first picked it up at my roommate’s brother’s apartment in the North side of Chicago while on a short vacation and when I returned to Winona, I checked out a copy from the public library. There’s a lot of historical exposition from early church practices, famous theologian’s commentary, and scriptural based application of prayer as a discipline – all of which has offered valuable perspective.

In this book, Keller often looks to the example of Paul – a guy who survived and even thrived multiple imprisonments (Ephesians), shipwreck (Acts 27), poverty (Philippians 4), and a mysterious lingering ailment (2nd Corinthians 12). In a sermon series about prayer from the early 2000’s, Keller references David expressing ruthless honesty. The psalms are laced with illustrations (Psalm 3, 51) of a guy who has the baggage of an affair/murder caper and a rebellious son of his who wants the crown and to kill him. Both examples are derivatives of Jesus’ demonstration of how powerful prayer is. I could go on long tangents about the awesomeness and depth of Keller’s work, but here is the bottom line I learned…

David, Paul, and Jesus offered their everything and nothing to God. When times were good, they offered praise and thanksgiving for provision. Under taxing circumstances they brought their fears to the feet of God, trusting He will make all things right.

So should we.

When writing this post, I cracked open an old journal I bought from Target at the beginning of my junior year in college. In it, I’ve scratched down sermon notes from college group on Monday nights, Sunday mornings, entries pouring through break ups, moments of joy, retreats,  a twelve step group, and leafed through almost three years worth of prayer requests. Its pages are stained, have rips, wrinkles, and a tattered, sticker covered, brown, leather cover. There are even sketches and a few laughs laced in between. It’s like that journal breathes. It brings back memories of prayer meetings, deep conversations with the people I care for, processing the recurrence of anxiety, and sorting out my shortcomings.

One of my favorite quotes in Keller’s book is when he said, “Prayer—though it is often draining, even an agony—is in the long term the greatest source of power that is possible.”Airing out my dirty laundry in those coffee stained pages traversed a lot of emotional landscape. I went on this odyssey back to my junior year of college that told the story of someone struggling with addiction and anxiety. Much like Defeater’s overtures… I was a “good man” once, but years of unanswered prayers to ease insecurity left me hopeless and abandoned. That kid experienced something profound, because after I finally took hold of the hand God extended to me in rescue, something changed. I cared about others for the first time. I saw God in the sublime – a cooked meal on my table, a bed to sleep in, friendships, and moments of laughter. Looking back on those entries, I saw the narrative of a guy who was scared. I was beginning to face systemic, lifelong issues that I wasn’t sure how to deal with, but all I knew is that my encounter with Jesus resorted me to lift these fears up in prayer. Those were not easy. Like Keller said… draining. Even agonizing. They haven’t really gotten any easier with time, but God has taught me through recovery that prayerfully processing the good, bad, and ugly is where I’ve experienced the most peace and gained the most perspective.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. It’s the story of a widow begging a godless, tenacious judge to give her justice in her case against someone who wronged her. Eventually, the judge agrees when he is burdened by the widow’s willingness to plead her case over and over again. Jesus says in verses 6 through 8, “And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Most importantly, the first verse in this parable says, “Then, Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Keller echoes this in his book, saying, “The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.

When I began to see prayer as a conversational dialogue with God and let Him (and others) in, prayer became easier. Easier. Not perfect. It’s a hard learned discipline that I’m still sharpening. I don’t want this to come across like I have this together and keep a strict schedule…. it’s sometimes very sporadic. But, I have been learning the value in keeping this line of divine communication open and active. I don’t know how many people can truly say they’re content with their prayer life. I’ve known a few and I’m definitely not one of them, but it’s part of the process in God operating on me. Letting the Holy Spirit surgically remove my character defects through conviction, counseling, support groups, vulnerability, and prayers of confession and praise has been part of this healing process. I am still learning patience. God giving me a “later” doesn’t embitter me anymore, but it can still be frustrating when I’m desperate for an answer. Hence, the persistence echoed by Jesus in Luke 18. Years of what I thought was unanswered prayers was God forging me in fire.

God wants us to enter into something intimate and vulnerable with Him. I cannot guarantee that God will grant you or I something like a promotion, a spouse/relationship, or even happiness, etc. but I can say from experience and from what scripture promises, is that prayer will change how we see temptation, trial, and even the smallest moments of joy. It’s like wearing a new corrective lens. Things become sharper. Clearer. James 5:16 is one of Celebrate Recovery’s most cherished passages and one I would share with anyone…. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 artists expanding my musical taste.

 

Modern Baseball

In my formative years, pop punk was a genre that helped bridge gaps between the gritty and sugary of pop and rock. Somewhere between Linkin Park, Breaking Benjamin, Usher, and John Mayer was Blink 182, Relient K, and Danger Is My Middle Name when I scrolled through my 2nd generation iPod color – affectionately nicknamed, the brick. Bands like these in the latter brought enough energy and musical prowess with catchy hooks to create an aesthetic that was both accessible and memorable. I fell out of favor with the style for a bit in late high school and most of college, trading it all in for heavier, harder, faster, and meaner music that those bands never reached the ceiling of. Now that I’m in a phase of life where recovery is probing the nostalgic regions of my mind, I’m beginning to retread this music as a way to unlock many memories I have within that phase of life. It began with finding Neck Deep and The Hotelier – go listen to both of them – and now it’s stumbling upon Modern Baseball.

These Philadelphia homegrown college dropouts have released a couple albums within the mid 2010’s that have undergirded many bands that I have now grown to like concerning influences. In homage to groups like Foxing, I decided to give Modern Baseball a listen, and it came at a time when their newest album released earlier this month, Holy Ghost, was released. I found their first single, Wedding Singer – an endearing confessional of lovesick angst coated by blankets of indie, punk, and pop rock that’s organically produced, and sounds like the soundtrack to late teenage and twenty something years of self-discovery.

Ian Cohen of Pitchfork provides some good commentary about the band’s style and his conclusion, as it is mine, is that Modern Baseball plants a flag in multiple genres within the same cluster that makes itself a bit like an emo, post punk, indie zebra. Though their sound doesn’t really reinvent the wheel, Modern Baseball are the result of their amalgam of influences that go back to bands like American Football (another great group!). I really like this band’s presentation of being down-to-earth and at times cheesily honest about their struggles through college and navigating the vagrancies of social media, teenage wanderings. Not to mention their music is well written, balanced, fresh enough to be interesting, and good enough to make me revisit parts of my musical taste that’s been shelved for a while.

 

Glass Cloud

There are times when I look back on previous entries and weave my musical evolution together with how my faith has developed and how I’ve matured (though that latter is somewhat relative). I reviewed Oceano’s (then) single, Dead Planet, on this blog two years ago as a memento to junior college when deathcore was a musical id impulse. My conclusion was that hardcore was becoming more palatable, because the raw aesthetic and emotional prowess proved to be more authentic than down tuned, calculated, bloodlust. So, as a result, I initially didn’t really like it. Some of the bands that I previously enjoyed within the genre became almost unlistenable (and some still are), but I’m surprisingly able to stomach the musical grime of the former again. Consequently… Dead Planet, and the album it’s on, is now awesome for being what it is… heavy for the sake of it. What’s curious about this band, Glass Cloud, is that they take two subgenres of metal that would otherwise have much ado about nothing to do with one another and brought them together in chaotic musical matrimony.

Glass Cloud are an experimental metal supergroup formed by remnants of The Tony Danza Tap Dance Extravaganza (yes, this is an actual band), Of Mice and Men, and a couple of graduates from Berklee School of Music. From what I have heard on their debut record, The Royal Thousand, they do it surprisingly well with a dyadic sound that aggressively fuses the melodic with the slamming heavy that culminates into something unique. The novelty of A Thousand Royals made it accessible to me. A couple of Youtube demonstrations from guitarist and mastermind, Josh Travis, pointed me to their last EP Perfect War Forever, which evidently uses some pretty stupid low tunings on 9 string guitars that I’ve only seen After the Burial attempt until now. The morbid curiosity drew me into an EP packed with a lot of the same elements from TTR, but with more intentional focus on ambience. Though this EP loses some of the technicality laced through the former, it makes up for it by providing a lot of fitting atmosphere.

I include this band in my list, because they dare to redefine paradigms of modern metal in ways that I’ve heard few bands do well, let alone at all. Not only that, but it’s allowing me to enjoy some of the heavier extreme metal that I used to be into without having to lyrically rely on lurid maxims of nihilism and with emphasis on songwriting. Much like Oceano, these guys slam hard instrumentally, but juxtapose it with more raw vocal delivery like the hardcore I’m now a fan of. The band is daring to explore with different tunings, and fuse together styles that may hit or miss, but in this day and age of metal becoming pigeon holed to its own subgenres, these guys are a real breath of fresh air for me.

 

Jon Bellion

I’ve wanted to review this guy for a while (over a year in fact) since I picked up this guy’s last album, but I think this is the appropriate time to include him on a list like this given his penchant taste for hip hop, jazz, and pop music. I’ve always been a closet pop fan, but for a while tried to distance myself from it in the name of protesting corporately produced radio fodder… or me acting like a hipster. Either way, I now feel that picketing accessible music like this doesn’t really do justice to or make my taste any superior. More than that, I’m only kidding myself if I deny liking songs like Honey I’m Good or late Hilary Duff. With that said, I still have some of the same sentiments about pop music being an oversaturated melting pot seasoned by the same four chords and song structures. Thankfully, Long Island college dropout, producer, writer, director, rapper, pop singer, Jon Bellion puts his own flavor into the mix that sounds fresh and undeniably fun! His album, The Definition, is a theatric and endearing collection of bangers that leaves a lasting impression with ingeniously crafted instrumentals, R&B flourishes laced throughout, and enough diversity that gives each track its own distinct flavor.

What’s even better is the personality at the helm of a macbook bro and beat pad. In the behind the scenes of all these songs, you see a vibrant slice of humble pie, influenced by such a diverse pool of influences that range from Bon Iver to Kanye West. He doesn’t hang nearly as much bragadocia in the links of gold chains and an overly lavish lifestyle as your average artist in his genre. In fact, he’s conscious of the temptation to feel that way with the success he’s had, but struggles with newfound public recognition and the tension it exists in between his family and relationship with God. Like I said, it’s a transparency that I don’t see from many pop artists in this day, especially in an age where social media proliferates see through personalities that hide behind club hits. You hear it on songs like Human and Luxury where he confesses to sacrificing the bond with his mother in pursuit of happiness and wanting to still maintain his homegrown roots despite his fame.

Because of those things, artists like Jon Bellion make me believe that pop actually has some substance that is tangible, relatable, and not hollow barbs of one night stands and drug binges. I’m looking to see Bellion with his live band in Minneapolis this summer, so hopefully I get to experience it in person and up close!

 

Twenty One Pilots

For better or worse, one of the beauties about college/living in a college town post graduation is that I get to keep an ear to the streets for what music is in vogue. Some of which I come across falls on my half deaf, ringing ears, but more often than not, most of it comes across my Spotify search bar in curiosity. Thank you, Twenty One Pilots, for being such a band/duo/what are you guys anyway??

If you keep reading this review, you’ll hear me say this even more about the next band on this list, but Twenty One Pilots are a double triple edged sword of indie rock, alternative, pop, and hip hop that plays itself out on their new album, Blurryface, in a telling hour of hit after hit. You know those bands that write songs that crawl all over the radio, Youtube, Facebook, your friend’s car, playlists, etc. but you never know the title or artist behind them? That’s basically every Twenty One Pilots song for me, but in the best ways. Songs like Stressed Out and Message Man have these crystalline, spacey beats that envelop you in a bassy echo chamber, while Tear In My Heart take these left turns into indie rock. More surprisingly, We Don’t Believe What’s On TV sounds like a nod to acoustic Mhmm era Relient K… now that I think of it, both members of Twenty One Pilots tip their beanies and gnarly looking red hair to the boys from Canton for being a core influence growing up. Within those hip-hop flourishes that slither through songs like Heavydirtysoul are moments that switch from one musical pole to the other. Though some might say that the lack of cohesion is a weakness, for me it’s an inherent strength, because you can’t pigeon hole them into a genre or two that have crossover appeal. These two guys are what they are and it works well.

I like that Twenty One Pilots have this collective personality that’s consciously aware of the fact that they’re getting older and somewhat critical of the culture at large in their lyricism, but in a lighthearted way. Though Stressed Out has one of the most honest moments of nostalgia, they don’t take themselves too seriously and I think that’s one of my favorite things about Blurryface and ergo the duo at the wheel of the music. Much like Jon Bellion, Twenty One Pilots is making pop music much more palatable for me. I look forward to exploring more of them! Thanks Winona!

 

Issues

Okay, this is an unexpected one that some of my buddies might make fun of me for. That’s okay. I don’t know whether to call these guys a guilty pleasure or just genius, but I found Issues a couple years ago when I stumbled upon their single, Never Lose Your Flames, on a Youtube binge. I was watching the music video, frozen in confliction, because I was loathing and loving this eccentric avant garde of pop, r&b, nu metal, and EDM. At first it sounded like, as one publication put it – Limp Bizkit covering Justin Bieber, but for whatever reason, it began to grow on me as I ashamedly stayed in the closet and cranked it in my headphones. The description may sound like Issues is nothing more than musical entrophy that reaches in too many directions, but in my opinion, they manage to take such an amalgam and pull those influences inwards. The result is understandably polarizing, because in between the articles I found lauding the uniqueness of this record are an almost equal amount of critics who have lambasted this band for the same reason. In all honesty, some of the critique is regarding childish lyricism, which is a valid and agreeable point for me. Irregardless, they are what they are, and what they are to me is unable to be ignored.

Recently, Issues began releasing new songs off their latest record, Headpsace, which caught my curiosity, wondering if the band could somehow pull off a second batch of the same brew. If the singles released before the record dropped were any indication, then yeah, I would say they pulled it off pretty well! Songs like COMA and Blue Wall ride the wave of their respective influences and even manage to still include some novelty… and when I say novelty…. I mean jazz. Yes. JAZZ. The bridge section in The Realest actually has slap bass solo with organ synths that sound straight out of a bebop record in a smokey bar or Seinfeld. But, admittedly, their trek into strange new worlds doesn’t pay as catchy or convincing of dividends. I saw an interview with the band behind the scenes at a video shoot in which the lead singer, Tyler Carter, discussed his affinity for country music, which shows on Yung & Dum laced within this kind of pop punk vibe. I haven’t quite decided on it…. Yet, I’m still listening. Oh, who am I kidding? I’M IN DENIAL.

Issues is one of those bands that is doing what I described Glass Cloud doing, but on an exponential level – soldering genres on opposite ends of the planet that sounds convincingly creative at points and at others incredibly corny. Their material has its moments of falling flat on its face in the concrete, but I celebrate this band for the good, bad, and ugly. Either way, they’re doing something different, accessible, and I’m digging it so far.