Monday, 27 April 2015

Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp A Butterfly

Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Album: To Pimp A Butterfly
Record Label: Aftermath/ Interscope
Release Date: N/A

Kendrick Lamar's latest full-length is both intensely creative and vitally distinct in its understanding of community, race and empowerment

There probably isn't another MC in mainstream hip-hop who can create a narrative as vividly as Compton's now world famous upstart Kendrick Lamar. His intensely powerful portrayal of growing up in suburban, poverty-stricken LA on 2012's 'Good Kid, Maad City' has lead to that album being upheld as a modern classic in many people's eyes; a rightfully deserved but semi-dangerous accolade that has condemned his third full-length 'To Pimp A Butterfly' to a serious amount of pressure. 

Those approaching 'To Pimp A Butterfly' expecting more of the same as was on the previous album will be immediately thrown, both musically and lyrically. It speaks volumes about the kind of "mainstream" force Lamar is that despite achieving rigorous critical acclaim, his latest offering is probably his most left-field major release yet. The continuous concept of the record lyrically is a pivotal one, revolving largely around issues of race, pride, unity and self-identity both in a personal and universal sense. However, as we've come to expect, there are so many layers and so much content thrown in to many of the songs here that's both endlessly ambiguous as well as upholding a distinct ideology. 

The Isley Brothers-sampling lead-off single 'i', on the album version, is a live performance cut short half way through by Lamar to deliver a righteous speech about equality. It's less about his mental health an d more about empowerment. It's a clever move with, in the hands of someone less capable, would have just come off as corny. On 'Institutionalized' he's "trapped inside the ghetto" and seems ashamed; Just like 'Money Trees' on "Good Kid..." it sees him longing to escape the double-edged life he experienced growing up. 'These Walls' is a funky, poetic and graphic re-living of a sexual encounter that at its mid-way point becomes a remorseful and cynical eye cast on the temptations Lamar's been offered by his new found life, and how empty they leave him feeling. 

'U' is perhaps the most deranged and vulnerable Lamar has ever sounded. "Loving you is complicated" he wails as the song's chief refrain, and as it continues and he gets consistently more angry and helpless it becomes clear that he could be referencing a plethora of the issues he's had to deal with, from the President to alcoholism and his own depression. 'Momma' is about the importance of staying in touch with your roots no matter how far removed it seems you've become, and 'How Much a Dollar Cost?' unveils a sharp story about an encounter with a homeless person used as a metaphor for all the pot-holes in the constitutional and economic system, as well as the personal insensitivity wealth can inspire. 

It's the sense of race and identity that carries the heaviest message of the record though, and three songs in particular epitomise this. 'King Kunte' is the album's pop song, an insatiably Mark Ronson-esque bass-driven funk lunge which sees Lamar identifying as the cult African-American hero (sample lyric: "Everybody wanna cut the legs off him... Black man taking no losses"). 'The Blacker the Berry' is a heroically fiery assault on racism and at a deeper level perhaps a slight hit at the more institutionalised aspects of it; "I'm as black as the heart of a fuckin' Ayreon". The monolithic 12-minute closer 'Mortal Man' could almost act as a summary for Lamar's entire moral persuasion and intended message. "Just because you wear different gang colours to me doesn't mean I can't respect you as a black man" he intones during a recital of the poetic monologue he drops in and out of throughout the album. The track ends on a mysteriously recorded conversation between himself and 2Pac, and serves as a final unifying and empowering note. 

'To Pimp A Butterfly' is an imperative release for two primary reasons. Firstly, Lamar has increased his individuality rather than allowing it to be swallowed by record label tycoons who would have him imitate Big Sean. Secondly, for a mainstream rapper to appropriate and deliver race conviction as powerfully as Lamar does here gives one hope that not all commercially favoured rap is as flaccid as radio 1's daytime playlist. 


Key Tracks: 'Momma', 'The Blacker The Berry', 'Mortal Man' 
For Fans Of: Ab-Soul, Joey Bada$$, Flying Lotus

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Leviathan- Scar Sighted

Artist: Leviathan
Album: Scar Sighted
Record Label: Profound Lore
Release Date: 3rd March 2015

Jef Whitehead's controversial one man Black Metal project comes through with its most diverse, unpleasant and life-affirming album to date

As is nearly always the way with any controversial figure in modern music, the reaction to Jef Whitehead's (aka 'Wrest') new album as Leviathan, "Scar Sighted", has been saturated by references to his somewhat contemptuous personal past. It always seems like a record is handed a bit of a short straw when the judgement of its music, as a force of its own, is weighted by moral condemnation. Whilst Whitehead's personal life and world view certainly inform his output (most infamously on his gruesomely divisive 2011 effort "True Traitor, True Whore"), on "Scar Sighted" it seems almost entirely irrelevant in the context of the album itself which is, by the way, a work of breath taking magnitude. 

It begins with '-', a 2 minute long bout of depth-ridden, reflective synth atmosphere that pans out in eerily colourful style the range of influences that coalesce here. It leads into the thoroughly unpleasant 'The Smoke of their Torment''; "Every fuckin' thing that crawls is gonna pay... Rejoice" intones Whitehead as the first audible gambit of the album over a disgustingly thick and sludgy hybrid of Black and Death metal nastiness. Between vicious bouts of ugliness and spoken-word nihilism, it sets the precedent for the record's epic scale. 

'Dawn Vibration' re-tracks a more traditional BM blueprint, flitting between a myriad of rollicking tremolo picked riffs and melodies. Whitehead's vocals reach perhaps their most feverish on the album, and all of it sounds absolutely massive. 

Whitehead's understanding of the multitude of musical styles he endorses here comes through at some point on every track. There's a slight post-rock inflection on the spaciousness of 'Wicked Fields of Calm'; 'A Veil is Lifted' begins in slightly stripped back form. Mystical, Eastern-tinged effects on the plucked guitar interventions add ethereal ghostliness to the lumbering dirge before the cascading force and rhythmic pummeling charge the foray into full-throttle territory. Just like 'Dawn Vibration', it feels almost triumphant in its harrowing but soaring climax, Wrest sounding like he's transmitting his vocals from the descent into the nine circles of Hell as though it's a sort of homecoming. 

The agonisingly slow slither of the 10-minute title track is the most "fuck me, this is bleak" musical moment you're likely to have this year. It's as though its layered, cold and eventually vast oeuvre is the soundtrack to Whitehead crawling out of the grave. 'Within Thrall' is a barn-storming slice of BM punk aggression, complete with otherworldly clean vocal harmonies and the album's most rock 'n' roll indebted groove towards its close. The celestial heights reached by the fusion of marching drums, the same heartfelt synth overture from the intro and glorious tremolo picking on 'All Tongues Toward' recall a more nihilistic slant on the sort of transcendentalism endorsed by much modern US black metal. 

It's a shame that a record which is so obviously a considered piece of art will be forever marred by moral indignation. But for those of us who believe that music should be received on its own merits, "Scar Sighted" is absolutely the whipping boy that fans of black metal and extreme music in general have been tearing at the carcass of modern American metal for. That's less to say that unique modern metal albums are hard to come by and more to say that this is Whitehead's most life-affirming offering yet. 


Key Tracks: 'Scar Sighted', 'A Veil is Lifted', 'Wicked Fields of Calm', 'Dawn Vibration'
For Fans of: Altar of Plagues, Lurker of Chalice

Monday, 2 March 2015

Drake- If You're Reading This It's Too Late

Artist: Drake
Album: If You're Reading This It's Too Late
Record Label: Cash Money Inc.
Release Date: 12th February 2015

Drake's latest Album/ Mixtape finds him occasionally more creative and confident than ever, though it's often slightly unfocused and haunted by monotony

Despite the fact that he's one of the most successful Hip-Hop artists of his generation, explaining Drake's appeal is not always an easy ordeal. Almost perennially choosing to stay clear of the "hard man" rap persona pastiche he's carved his niche out of a lyricism largely concerned with money and women, with varying kinds of mentality towards the latter in line. In many ways, Drake is the epitome of the 21st century hip-hop star; banging, catchy beats and simplistic wordplay entwined with hooks galore means that mainstream radio and TV channels have lapped up every drop of him released. 

One's enjoyment of "If You're Reading This It's Too Late" (released initially as a free mixtape and then turned into a purchasable album overnight) is likely to revolve around how much of a Drake fan the listener is in the first place. There's nothing particularly new in terms of subject matter or production aesthetic in regards to Drake's previous work here, but it's true that in terms of creativity and flow he sounds rejuvenated. The monotony of much of Drake's previous output is once again a serious calling card occasionally here, but on the whole he sounds more confident than ever. 

On the opener "Legend" his braggadocious claims of "If I die, I'm a legend" are more infectious than they are irritating (if slightly inaccurate). He still indulges in vulnerability (sample lyric: "It's so hard for me to let new people"), but generally he sounds like he's going in as a reaction to criticisms that he's too "soft". "Energy" rolls along an uncharacteristically sparse beat that's reminiscent of an off-cut from Mobb Deep's "The Infamous", all the time Drake dropping cocksure hints that he gives less of a fuck than people previously assumed. 

On "6 God" is as though his days of whining about heartbreak are over as he retorts "just like everything in my life, you can have her when I'm finished". On "Used To" he's feeling the pressure of life in the spotlight but adapting to it adequately. On "6 Man" he references both The Matrix and John Carpenter's classic horror Halloween before firing "I didn't make this fuckin' tape for CNN". The real highlight is "You & the 6", a touching paean to his mother and perhaps lyrically the most favourable thing Drake has ever written. When referring to the dog-eat-dog- world nature of the music industry he pulls out his most brilliantly volatile lyric yet as he spits "I'll pull that knife out my back and slit their throats with it mumma". 

The times that Drake's monotony comes back to haunt him are in his more average moments lyrically, especially as he's out-shone by the production, like on the gorgeously reflective "Now & Forever" and the more ambitious "Star67". On moments like this and "No Tellin'" the fact that Drake still isn't that creative is impossible to ignore. "Preach" features a nigh-on unbearable auto-tuned gambit from PARTYNEXTDOOR which is every bit as vapid as you'd expect, and Drake largely fails to add any meat to the bones. Again, PARTYNEXTDOOR's R. Kelly-lite pastiche on "Wednesday Night Interlude" ruins a potentially sensual nigh-time tune, and "Company" features one of the album's clumsiest allusions as Drake raps "I only text her man I never call; I'm a canine at heart I'm still a dog". 

There's a fine handful of moments on "If You're Reading This...", upon which Drake sounds more flavoursome and effortless than ever. Overall it's a patchy affair, and one suspects that Drake has honed his craft as much as he thinks is necessary, but with a little more focus and more of the brighter lyrical moments scattered around here, the next Drake album could be something rather special. 


Key Tracks: "You & the 6", "Energy", "6PM in New York"
For Fans of: Lil Wayne, Frank Ocean

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Aphex Twin- Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt.2 EP

Artist: Aphex Twin
Album: Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt.2 EP
Record Label: Warp Records
Release Date: 26th January 2015

Richard D. James' latest experimentation engages some solid and well-worked ideas, but spends a lot of it's time feeling half-finished

There's an old idea that revolves and the music industry and music fans that once a band or artist gets to a certain stage in their career they can "do whatever they want". The most innovative artists, like Richard D. James for example, are able to attain that status sometimes after their first slew of releases. Whether under the guise of Aphex Twin or one of his various other outlets, James has been doing whatever he wants for the past 25 years, and it's mostly been completely solid too. These facts combined mean that a release as diasporic as "Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt.2 EP" is pretty much acceptable in any environment, no matter its duration or impact. 

With that in mind however, it's slightly easy to be cynical about "Computer Controlled...", especially in light of last year's excellent "Syro". Yes, he has every right to release something this lo-fi; it's not like it's totally vapid or poorly produced. There are some moments on here that show James' understanding of depth, texture and rhythm as well as ever. The problem is that these mostly feel like semi-forgotten half-cuts that he's had lying around for 20 years. You may argue in response that it's important to remember that those would be APHEX TWIN half-cuts, but unfortunately it's not quite enough in this case. 

There's a consistently brooding and stripped back tone to this EP that leaves a distinctly dark flavour in the mouth. "Diskhat ALL preparedmix13" is lead by resounding, heavy handed piano keys and an increasingly powerful organic drum groove. It's sparse in terms of melody and replacing it are atmospheric fade-ins and weird squelches; it's more about rhythm than actual music. "Diskhat" rolls along on an unashamed drum shuffle that could have come straight from the B-side of a peak-era Will Smith single. "DISKPREPT4" is one of the highlights; it's layered as well as being subdued and grows distinctly with a definable melody but once again is much more about the instrumentation involved. A gorgeous double-bass melody and nervously odd piano tinker combine mid-way through for a wholesome effect.

Other highlights arrive later on in the shape of "disk prep calrec2 barn dance (s l o)"'s ritualistic, eccentric "Wicker Man"-esque waltz and penultimate track "Piano un10 it happened" is a gorgeous, summery piano melody, one of the few injections into the songs here. But more often than not there are songs with not enough meat on them here, or that feel half-finished. There are random 8 second drum fills and "0035 1-Audio", while possessing a cool rhythm, cuts out abruptly after 30 seconds mid-stride. "hat 2b 2012b"'s deep-seated tub- thumping, although short-lived, feels like it outstays its welcome. 

It feels harsh to say that it's hard to see the point in "Computer Controlled...", because yes, James' artistic expression has always allowed him the space to do whatever he wants. It's just that there's not much in the way of substance here. As an Aphex Twin release, it's just disappointing that it's distinctly average. 


Key tracks: "DISPREPT4", "Piano un10 it happened", "disk prep clarec2 barn dance (s l o)"
For fans of: Squarepusher, BADBADNOTGOOD

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Xibalba- Tierra Y Libertad

Artist: Xibalba
Album: Tierra Y Libertad
Record Label: Southern Lord
Release Date: January 26th 2015

Spanish-inflected California Hardcore crew bring consistently thrilling and crushing weight to their Sludge/Crust hybrid

You know how every now and again you have one of those days where you just want to bulldoze your uptight arsehole of a boss' house down, or drive a steam-roller through your own garden fence just to prove you can DO something? Well it's quite probable that if you listen to Polmona, California mob Xibalba's latest full-length "Tierra Y Libertad" then this relatively short but wholesome LP will become the most satisfying soundtrack to those days. 

Opener "Enemigo" is as good a precedent as any for the brutality that is to come. It flits between monstrously groovy, sludgy chugging and two speeds of furious Hardcore drum pummeling. It melds their proudly worn influences rather seamlessly, and proves that they take just as much from Pantera and Crowbar as they do from Dismember and Madball. Repeated grunts of "I have scars too deep to feel" confirms that Hatebreed's cheesy sense of over-sized optimism this ain't. 

The anti-establishment savagery of "Guerilla" is almost a fists-in-the-air call to arms, whilst the magnificent "En Paz Descanse" starts as perhaps the album's most nail-bitingly harsh Death Metal-inflected turn before becoming a desperately slow battering of which Kirk Windstein would be proud. 

Only twice do they deviate from their admittedly exhilarating down-tuned formula. "Pausa" is a slice of eerie, thick harmonized dueling that at 1.16 in length leaves you feeling like they could have made slightly more of it. The closer "El Vacio", however, is 12 and a half minutes of epic, melodic and suitably miserable sludge in it's heaviest, most atmospheric guise. Despite the potential of becoming one dimensional, "Tierra Y Libertad" never becomes tiresome, and its bone-shattering weight and swagger is so immovable that if you don't violently nod your head at least once then you've a heart of stone. 


Key tracks: "En Paz Descanse", "El Vacio", "Enemigo"
For Fans of: Crowbar, Dismember

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Mark Ronson- Uptown Special


Artist: Mark Ronson
Album: Uptown Special
Record Label: Sony
Release Date: 12th January 2015

The mastermind song-writer's new full-length may not be exactly what people were expecting, but it's a superb lesson in eccentricity and pop craftsmanship nonetheless

There has been much written on this site in the past about the current state of pop music and how, a bit like another organisational body that has the attitudes of many in its palms, it needs to change. Certainly Mark Ronson has never been a totally conventional pop star; a purely music-orientated songwriter, his constantly behind-the-scenes stance on radio play and in videos has meant that he's managed to avoid being seduced in the wrong way by the whole fame thing. "Uptown Special", however, may be about to stake a claim for change in regards to Ronson's appreciation. In what way exactly remains unclear, but one thing's for certain; this is an album rich in artistic expressionism. 

What's clear from the get go on "Uptown Special" is how meticulously written, produced and considered the record is. Fans expecting more of the straight-up, shameless funk-pop that overnight megahit "Uptown Funk" alluded to should dash that expectation immediately, and that in turn is a testament to how Ronson is one of the most important mainstream songwriters of our time. There's no adherence to contemporary pop culture here; this is a joyous, organic excursion into a time-warp dream-scape fusing Ronson's record collection with his excellent craftsmanship. 

It begins with "Uptown's First Finale", a shady but warm interlude-esque intro complete with an understated vocal performance from Stevie Wonder and '80s Baywatch sunrise vibes, and leads straight into the equally as languid but more illustrious shuffle of "Summer Breaking" featuring Tame Impala's Kevin Parker. Tales of road trips and getting high perfectly suit the song's lunch-time beach-front feel. We're then thrust straight into the driver's seat with the fabulous "Feel Right". The track's James Brown/ Sly & the Family Stone sex panther funk's simple and addictive smoothness is spearheaded by an insatiable rhythm section and rapper Mystikal's spleen- rupturing vocal delivery. 

"I Can't Lose", featuring Keyone Starr, on vocals recalls the synth worship present on previous hits like "Bang Bang". Gorgeous keyboard chords entwine with another inexplicably tight rhythm oeuvre. The righteous stabs of brass and classic funk guitar noodling complement Starr's  assertions of "I can't lose when I'm around you" wondrously. The hypnotic lead guitar riff of the second Kevin Parker feature, "Daffodils", leads into increasingly Flaming Lips-style weirdness with its bleepy, oddball synth dalliances and rushes of guitar distortion. 

The sleepy, remorseful hue of "Crack in the Pearl" sees guest vocalist Andrew Wyatt introduce some break-up blues into the proceedings which offers another unexpected dimension, whilst the stomping Toto-esque '70s rock of "In Case of Fire" featuring Jeff Bhasker on vocals is a glorious re-injection of throwback energy; there's a sense of well-honed haze hanging over the track giving it a sense of precise, immediate but rapturous control. 

It's not as if "Uptown Special" is worlds away from the creed suggested by its lead-off single; these are pop-songs in the truest sense, and 30 years ago may have been top 10 charters in their own right. But the idiosyncracy, creativity and flow of the record shows that its about vastly more than shifting units; it's about sunsets on beaches with wine and good friends, or midday cruises along the golden coast... You know, the sort of things modern pop music SHOULD be about. 

Key Tracks: "Feel Right (ft. Mystikal)", "Daffodils (ft. Kevin Parker)", "In Case of Fire (ft. Jeff Bhasker)"
For Fans Of: Tame Impala, Smokey Robinson, Hall & Oates


Monday, 29 December 2014

Gnaw Their Tongues- Wir Essen Seelen In Der Nacht

Artist: Gnaw Their Tongues
Album: Wir Essen Seelen In Der Nacht
Record Label: Self-release
Release Date: 1st November 2014

One man BM project's latest offering is strong at conjuring horrible atmospheres, but not so strong at conjuring memorable tunes

In an age where experimentation in music is consistently taking on a more extreme course, artists like Maurice De Jong (aka Gnaw Their Tongues) could reserve the right to feel slightly gratified. Although Gnaw Their Tongues' appeal has always been confined to those reaching for the most unpleasant depths of the underground, years of hard-graft and boundary-pushing sonic brutality have meant his presence and influence have not been wanton. 

On "Wir Essen Seelen In Der Nacht", a typically understated 4 track release that's hard to track down anywhere besides GTT's bandcamp, De Jong seems more keen to emphasise his artistic expressionism over writing anything that one could really sink their teeth into. The resulting produce is one more categorised by its atmospheres than by craft. Opener "A Calm Friday Night in Hinterkaifeck" broods with a metallic film-score menace, more of a nightmarish scene-setter than a song. The title track starts off like a true psychopath's re-interpretation of the original "Nosferatu" soundtrack before descending into the absolute skull-fucking chaos of improvisational bass flourishes and horrific screams. 

"The Gate of Death" is much more considered in its psychosis; there are waves of tuneless static surrounding a mid-paced bass drum boom that recalls The Haxan Cloak. The closer "Droom Van De Rattenvreger" is where the atmosphere is at its most-horrific. Blastbeats and distortion provide a back-bone for the odd-ball, nerve-wracking male & female opera vocals, whilst its final two minutes are the most musical the EP has to offer. 

Although commendable for its audacity, this is music with shock tactics used purely to be torturous; by no means a new trait of extreme metal, but ultimately deducing any real soul other than a black pit of attention-seeking noise in "Wir Essen..." is problematic. 


Key tracks: "Droom Van De Rattenvreger"
For fans of: Pharmakon, De Magia Veterum