heavy.

At my desk chair, moving the baffle a few more inches down the fabric in my machine, I see purposeful footsteps arrive at my cubicle. My coworker and good buddy gave me the news of Chester Bennington’s death. In the weeks that would follow in tribute covers of Crawling, Numb, and Points of Authority by esteemed musical counterparts, and even by Coldplay, the world seemingly devolved further into chaos with Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean swallowed in the literal undertows of record breaking hurricanes. Between those events, lions at the gate in the current political coliseum foamed at the mouth over the events of Charlottesville, and my old high school experienced an explosion that caused two deaths and multiple injuries. Culminating in the events of last weekend, a close family member of mine tragically passed in an accident. As I’ve had the time, particularly in the intentional silence of that same cubicle, to process it all, I can’t help but feel the heaviness of these events.

I don’t write this touting a bulleted list of resolutions that rest the aforementioned events and circumstances peacefully, it’s more of a memorial, observing the antinome between good, evil, joy, peace, good times, and bad times.

When I was in high school, my confirmation classmates and I were given Bibles with our names stamped in gold on the bottom left corner of its imitation blue leather with a date penned on the inside of receiving. Ephesians was accidentally ripped out, is stained with root beer and has seen a lot of wear and tear. Between the inroads of its aesthetic imperfections lies all my notes scribbled within one of the most celebrated yet confusing books of the Old Testament…

Ecclesiastes.

This (seemingly) despondent epistle is a collection of grievances that air out Solomon’s tension between a world where we can simultaneously enjoy the ingots of meals, friends, laughter (3:22; 8:15) and the malfeasance of unexplained suffering and inevitability of death (2:22; 7:15-18). By the time its 11 chapter run time takes a bow, Solomon never arrives at a triumphant conclusion on the matter. Instead, he’s okay with understanding that trying to reach such conclusions is, “vanity.” As if he’s saying that holding the tension is healthier than trying to dissect meanings beyond our human intellect and heart capacity. Similarly, his exhortation reminds me that my finite consciousness and understanding of God is unable to adequately explain why Linkin Park’s lead singer left behind a wife, six kids, and his band at the hands of his own suicide. It cannot rationalize natural disasters or demonstrations of racism. It cannot anymore undo my high school’s tragedy or bring back my Uncle Morgan’s jovial personality, laughter, and his Forrest Gump impression.

My mind asks a question that Chester Bennington sang near the end of his life… “Why is everything so heavy?” On an album that polarized long time fans of their previous work, Heavy, takes a sharp musical departure from its nu metal roots, but with Bennington’s passing, it has the ambiance of a funeral dirge when you listen to his musings about a life down-turned. Much like Solomon, Bennington never reaches a peaceful close in this song, giving it the smack of a personal lamentation.

I’m sure we’ve all cogitated a similar thought of why is everything so heavy when our worlds begin to show signs of buckling (as tragedy has its tendency to do) when reason arrives nowhere near our desired destinations. I have in the last week and especially when I hear the chorus echo those thoughts like a call and return. Yet, when I think back on how Uncle Morgan’s lively personality made family gatherings that much more vibrant, how Minnehaha Academy is moving forward with confidence into this school year, the humanitarian response to the said natural disasters, and the legacy of Bennington’s art on a generation of musicians, I remember once again that my explanations will ultimately draw blanks when I try to put a punctuation at the end of it…

And that’s ok with me.

My conclusion that I can confidently draw is that God’s ways and thoughts are higher, perfectly developed, and good in contrast to mine (Isaiah 55:8-9). Putting those verses through the parallax of my family’s recent turn of events, I am resolute that I could spend time bargaining somehow to hear Uncle Morgan talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers or help polish the heads on his Alfa Romeo one last time, but Solomon would tell me that time is better spent acknowledging that life is what the original Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, translates as “vapor.” It’s short enough, but life can be truncated by tragedy. I will carry the memories with me in suitcases, through photographs, and stories shared with family as the best of ways to celebrate a life lived passionately. In the mean time, Solomon does give us counsel to relish the tokens of joy we can tangibly experience through fellowship with other people… I feel like things such as a good meal with friends around the table, laughter, sunsets, early morning coffee, and a good walk are places to start to honor his life and honor the God who loves. If there is any conclusion I can draw in all of this, it’s knowing that when tossed and fro by the waves that James paints in his New Testament letter, I have that same resolve and confidence that his brother Jesus is in the hull of the ship calming the swells (Mark 4:35-41), ferrying me through to the peace that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

 

 

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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!

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.