BROCKHAMPTON

 

Iridescence

5

Self-help studio therapy

by Jericho Cerrona

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What a difference a year makes for hip-hop supergroup (or “boy band”) BROCKHAMPTON, who stormed into public consciousness in 2017 with their highly lauded Saturation trilogy. Some may view the group’s rise as a sad commentary on the Internet age, where SounCloud rappers and meta-pop stars flourish while mainstays of the industry (Eminem, here’s looking at you, kid) stumble into irrelevancy. The truth is the insane amount of music BROCKHAMPTON managed to unleash in such a short amount of time actually delivered the goods; showcasing 15 members playing off one another’s strengths effortlessly. Saturation II was an especially potent distillation of the band’s strengths; combining funky synth-laden production with aggressive rapping and pop-oriented song structures.

However, trouble was brewing even before signing a huge deal with RCA records and hunkering down in London’s famous Abbey Road studios to record major label debut, Iridescence. Allegations of sexual misconduct against founding member Ameer Vann hit hard, causing a split with arguably the most talented MC in the band. Cancelled tour dates and written apologies followed, and very quickly, the mighty BROCKHAMPTON seemed to be on the verge of implosion. Would the painful in-group shakeup, not to mention financial payout for signing the RCA deal, relegate the talented young men creatively bankrupt? For all its production muscle and ambition, Iridescence is indeed the sound of a band swallowed up by expectations; whether external or self-imposed.

Right off the bat, the most noticeable thing about the album is its lumbering excess. On the surface, this isn’t such a bad thing, since BROCKHAMPTON have always thrived on their unbridled abrasiveness and unchecked emotion. Part of the outfit’s appeal is how they manage to cram each member’s songwriting prowess into the length of any given song, but throughout Iridescence’s 15 tracks, the band equate loudness (with every conceivable sonic bell and whistle) as a sign of maturity. Take, for example, album opener “New Orleans”, in which producers bearface and Jabari Manwa allow a weak bass kick, low hum of distortion, and Merlyn Wood’s dancehall verses to plod along for over 4 minutes. The song is a repetitive start to a record which rarely, if ever, finds its footing. “Thug Life” attempts to combine sugary piano with 90s R & B style crooning, but even here, BROCKHAMPTON sound as if they are trying too hard. Rather than stripping the song back (the piano motif is actually quite lovely), Kevin Abstract’s cheesy chorus regarding the trappings of wealth take the tune into the realm of self-parody. We get it. Becoming overnight celebrities is a bummer, and money isn’t everything. This theme is also explored on piano ballad “Tonya” and trip-hop influenced “Tape”, in which Matt Champion raps about Vann’s absence in ominous tones. The tale of DIY trailblazers caught in the whirlwind of success has been captured in all its messiness, but this arc is so predictable as to be nearly irrelevant at this point.

The album’s two best tracks, “Where the Cash at” and “District”, showcase the band at their most focused. Both are typical BROCKHAMPTON bangers in that they feel raw and unhinged; using the newfound studio sheen to fuck with sound, tempo, and vocal range. Elsewhere, there are novel stabs at honesty, such as Abstract’s confession to being attracted to men on “Weight” and the Gospel-tinged choir refrains throughout “San Marcos”. Most of the time, however, Iridescence comes across like a product of studio overhaul.

Ultimately, there are too many voices here. Too many ideas. Too many producers throwing in sonic arrangements. Of course, with a group this large and a major label debut this anticipated, the pressure to deliver on every conceivable level must have felt overwhelming. In many ways, Iridescence caves into these pressures while only occasionally allowing a purity of vision to peek through. Sadly, BROCKHAMPTON sound desperate, and their strain of braggadocious introspection about the perils of fame, is in dire need of the edit button.

Guerilla Toss

 

Twisted Crystal

7

Tossing in earworm melodies to go along with the weird

by Jericho Cerrona

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If slap bass isn’t back in vogue, no one bothered to tell New York new wave/noise band Guerilla Toss, whose latest album, Twisted Crystal, goes full bouncing fret on multiple occasions. Of course, getting out the funk, as it were, isn’t that surprising in this case. On their last record, GT Ultra, Guerilla Toss managed to dispel the notion that they had no interest in making pop music; (albeit pop music coded in acid), by cranking out some exuberantly fun tunes. Twisted Crystal is a far mellower listen, but no less bizarre; playing like psych new wave spun through a worn out VHS tape.

One of the major changes for the band (who have been kicking around since 2010), is the clarity of singer Kassie Carlson’s vocals. Of course, one listen to 2013’s abrasively bonkers Gay Disco and you can be forgiven for wondering if this is even the same group in terms of sound. Still, Carlson’s growth as both a singer and lyricist is probably the most forward-thinking aspect of Guerilla Toss’s recent move to DFA records; a label specializing in experimental dance music. In the past, Carlson couched her scrappy melodies behind reverb and effects, but throughout Twisted Crystal’s nine tracks, she allows herself less leeway in terms of fading into the background. The interplay between guitars, synths, angular percussion, and her voice is much more melodic here than on previous releases, starting with opener “Magic is Easy”, which sounds like 70’s funk rock recorded inside a fish bowl. Meanwhile, lead single “Meteorological” is easily the most straightforward her vocals have ever been as she adopts a spoken word style delivery reminiscent of David Byrne or Grace Jones, which is foregrounded by blipping sound effects, lazer synths, and a dancey backbeat.

Guerilla Toss channel more avant-pop on “Come Up With Me”, which feature that aforementioned slap bass, along with kitschy guitar leads, shimmering keyboards, and a killer chorus. Meanwhile, “Walls of the Universe” feels like a trip deep into the cosmos, with Carlson’s robotic vocals overlapping amidst spacey strings and synth crescendo. Is she disappearing into the nexus of the universe or simply enjoying the ride? The line between genuine introspection and winking pastiche is a fine one, and what’s so enjoyable about Twisted Crystal is the way it throws out philosophical ideas regarding the unknown without ever betraying the band’s vibrant aesthetic.

Twisted Crystal is undeniably a pop record, but one that takes its cues from 70s/80’s acts like Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan. However, though Guerilla Toss’s influences are obvious, this is not some cynical pastiche job. In their own unique way, the band manage to distill the outlier tendencies of these aforementioned acts with the more accessible signifiers of modern pop. If Gay Disco and 2016’s Eraser Stargazer bombarded the listener with an array of conflicting sounds, then Twisted Crystal, and to a lesser extent GT Ultra, open their arms to melody as a defining trait. The sonic detail here is just as ambitious and overwhelming, but more focused on songwriting and less intent on blowing your hair back via sheer lunacy. And therein lies the album’s magic. It combines the whacked-out with the serene, the absurd with the reserved, the spiked high with the placid come down. And, less we forget, there’s that slap bass to contend with. There will always be that glorious slap bass.

Death Grips

 

The Year of the Snitch

8

Junk folder punk

by Jericho Cerrona

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Death Grips are still here. Death Grips have put out at least one album per year since their inception. Death Grips are post-fan service. Death Grips are noided. Death Grips are, umm, online.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sacramento, Ca hip-hop/noise/industrial trio's sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch, is that it exists at all. For who could have conceived of a universe in which a group which released 2011's mixtape Ex-Military in 2011 and seminal The Money Store a year later, would still be using the Internet as their troll-heavy marketing tool? Of course, real Death Grips fans (and they are an army lurking on Reddit forums) would suggest that there's more going on here than Shrek memes and surprise self-leaked albums. 

Honestly, if Death Grips managed to crash and burn in spectacular fashion--see their post Money Store fuck off to major label Epic Records--then it's reasonable to assume they would have disappeared inside the Internet void by now. Instead, they've managed to release a string of albums in wildly different modes while still maintaining their distinctive sound. Part of the band's mojo stems from their use of public and private abstraction. On the one hand, their music remains excitingly inscrutable, while on the other, you aren't going to see frontman MC Ride dropping revealing Instagram posts. In a way, Death Grips have used the Internet to both bolster their mystique as well as troll their fanbase/critics. 

If 2016's Bottomless Pit was a sonic summation of the band's M.O. (rap, grime, electro, noise, rock, among other things) inching them back towards the accessibility of game-changer The Money Store, then Year of the Snitch is something else entirely. While still maintaining their signature sound, rapper MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin take a leap into genre-bending absurdism this time out. Sure, the album is still noisy as fuck; but also weirder, looser, and more unusual than anything they've attempted yet. Featuring turntablist DJ Swamp and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (though the latter's contributions, much like Bjork on Side 1 of The Powers that B, remain tough to accurately pin down), Year of the Snitch is all over the map; fusing electronica, hip-hop, prog, psychedelia, Krautrock, metal, and even 90's techno into one unholy stew.

Revelations come right away with opener "Death Grips is online", which blares like a 1995 Netscape rave before descending into seesawing synths and Ride's shrieks. The muddy soundscapes continue with "Flies", where lyrics about suicide merge with lo-fi beats and some of Ride's most understated (and melancholy) rapping. "Black Paint" scrapes off some of that Jenny Death-adjacent rock instrumentation; with ascending guitar riffs, abrasive shouting, rolling drum fills, and turntable scratches that eventually crescendo in a fit of squealing keyboards. It's easily the heaviest song on the album (aside from the appropriately titled "Shitshow"), and one likely to get old school fans primed to explode. Allusions to the Mansion family comes during bizarre electro mashup "Linda's In Custody", Hill gets to show off his off-timing drumming with "The Horn Section", a throwback to his early days jamming in instrumental outfit Hella, and then there's "Streaky", which is either a trap rap in-joke or an attempt at the kind of Soundcloud banger Death Grips usually seek to invert. Either way, it's ridiculously catchy; farcical and hip swaying in equal measure.

Leaning hard into the experimental side of things is no huge surprise given Death Grips' uncompromising nature, but much of Year of the Snitch is baffling in all the best ways possible; resisting easy readings, coherent themes, or even musical consistency. By the time Shrek director Andrew Adamson shows up intoning I’m in the studio with Death Grips. They have a dilemma, but they’ll win their dilemma on Dilemma, one half expects the entire project to collapse under the weight of its own inward-looking absurdism. However, and this has been abundantly clear over the years; Death Grips are potent songwriters. No matter how off-kilter things get--the vaporwave toss off "Little Richard" and jazz trip "The Fear" come to mind--there's no denying the band are operating at the height of their powers.

During the final track, "Disappointed", Death Grips pretty much call out their fanbase for reading too much into the band's mythos. We could all learn a lesson from this. Stop analyzing. Stop obsessing. The Internet is a gross, hostile place. Death Grips fans are biased. In other words (or in the words of Ride), Talk less, show less, snatch yours trap doors. Amen.

SOPHIE

 

OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES

9

Plastic. Elastic. Pop.

by Jericho Cerrona

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At its very basic level, pop music seeks to give the listener a comforting feeling; incorporating current sounds into an accessible package by using medium to short song lengths, verse-chorus structures, and catchy hooks. However, this is a fairly reductive description since there's real craftsmanship in making an exemplary pop tune. While many artists simply copy and paste a formula, the very notion that pop music is at the center of the culture means experimentation is essential in redefining the rules.  Los Angeles-based Scottish producer/singer/songwriter Sophie Xeon (aka SOPHIE), who has spent the last few years working with everyone from Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, understands the contours of pop music very well. In fact, with her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, the former recluse opens up both lyrically and musically; using the foundations of pop and then warping it to her own ends. The results are thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant.

Utilizing elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise, SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. Thematically, the album revolves around gender identity and feeling loved inside your own skin. Sonically, it takes accessible song structures and chews them up inside a latex-crunching pop machine. Opening track "It's Okay To Cry" is a bit of a curveball right away based on what's to follow; with twinkly piano, warm synths, and clean vocals setting the stage. Clearly, SOPHIE wants the listener to open up and trust her intentions. There's a wounded vulnerability here; a soaring invitation to allow one's anxieties, fears, and pain to be enveloped within the auditory journey. It's a surprising opening salvo, and one that SOPHIE will build upon, often in unpredictable fashion, for the remainder of the album.

For a record about self-empowerment and reclaiming one's identity, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES often unfurls like a schizophrenic war of contrasts--pairing jarring kick drums, abrasive noises, and vocals which sound buried inside a digital processor with tender balladry, gorgeous synth-scapes, and genuine emotion. "Ponyboy" is a filthy BDSM-inspired dance track full of herky jerky rhythms, humorously affected vocals, and a driving metallic beat. "Faceshopping" takes the deliciously simple line My shop is the face I front/ My face is the real shop front and makes a discordant banger out of it; all squealing keyboard, clanking percussion, and propulsive basslines. Some of the more melancholy tracks, like the absolutely beautiful synth-arpeggio backed "Is it Cold in the Water?" and the warped R & B ballad "Infatuation", showcase SOPHIE's smart incorporation of pop styles with mind-bending production. Truthfully, nothing out right now sounds quite like OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES. Even when we get an infectious dance-pop tune like "Immaterial", which inverts Madonna's "Material Girl" into a giddy Chiptune blast, there's a strange detour such as instrumental "Pretending", which rumbles along like a lost Brian Eno B-side. 

Obfuscation is a central theme in SOPHIE's work (both in terms of creating a public persona and the actual ways in which the songs flirt with pop accessibility), and this contrast is at the heart of identity never finding a fixed station. Though she covers consumerism, obsession, sexuality, and body mutilation, SOPHIE never pigeonholes herself here (tellingly, there are no lyrics specifically mentioning the words queer or trans), instead allowing the music itself to speak volumes. For example, when guest singer Cecil Believe sings I don’t even have to explain/just leave me alone now/I can’t be held down on "Immaterial", there's a direct link to the feminine/masculine dichotomy trans people live with every day. SOPHIE, like everyone else, simply wants to love and be loved. To exist. To be.

By the time closer "Whole New World/Pretend World" comes rumbling along at just over 9 minutes, SOPHIE has engendered so much good will that the glitchy, atonal weirdness she conjures as her exit strategy feels more than simply cathartic; it's the journey of pop music writ large. The highs and lows. The comfortable pleasure oozing into squelching waveforms. Bombast as sentimentality. The Disneyfication of pop star branding reverse-engineered. A whole new world, as it were. If the future does indeed reside in our ability to transform, then SOPHIE is making the case that being yourself (in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes) is the true aim of pop music.  

 

   

  

Parquet Courts

 

Wide Awake!

8

Dad rock gets political

 

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“Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive.”

That's a line from the song "Total Football" which perfectly encapsulates the thematic concerns running throughout Parquet Court's sixth album, Wide Awake! The Brooklyn band; made up of vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage, guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage, have carved out a pretty sweet niche revolving around the anti-establishment sensibilities of punk and the sardonic weirdness of early 70's art rock. It should be noted that Wide Awake! was produced by Danger Mouse, and therefore sounds more polished than past material while still maintaining a wonky charm. The newfound sociopolitical "seriousness" as it were, is also something of a tease; both earnest and artificial, searing and absurdist. As a whole, Wide Awake! is a total blast; a party album about the numbing ills of modern life that can be cranked loud at a backyard barbecue. 

The idea of a lo-fi post-punk outfit getting together with a producer like Danger Mouse (whose worked with huge acts like U2 The Red Hot Chili Peppers) might initially sound like a sellout move, but the truth is Parquet Courts have never been about fitting into a pre-conceived genre box. Maybe it's just the musical landscape we've found ourselves surrounded by in 2018, but there's something almost novel about a band employing guitars, bass, drums, and clever lyrics as their main selling point.

Again, going back to that tune "Total Football", and particularly that stellar line, one can clearly see the use of drunken sports anthems as a rallying cry for the plight of the working class zero. However, there's always been something slightly embarrassing about the visage of white men screaming via microphone about the plight of the oppressed, but Parquet Courts use that to their advantage; referencing Black Panthers, The Beatles, poets, and Italian singers before dropping a big diss on football star Tom Brady. The idea of yet another rich white man profiting from our collective need for patriotic entertainment is rife with satire; as is Savage's beat poetry rants on "Violence", which are positioned as defeatism before a haunted house-style organ and cartoon voices kick in. Meanwhile, "Before the Water Gets Too High" uses Sean Yeaton's funky bass lines as the main groove while Savage speaks in weathered tones over Max Savage's unflappable drumming. There's also alt-country ballads ("Mardi Gras Beads"), Jay Reatard-esque punk ("Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience"), synth-laden prog rock ("Back to Earth"), and even a little David Byrne homage with the dancey title track. Most impressively, Parquet Courts really diverge from their signature sound on songs like the children's choir-backed "Death Will Bring Change" and Elton John-influenced pop stomper "Tenderness".   

Wide Awake! splits the difference between the working class anger of 2014's Sunbathing Animal and the more subdued tones of 2016's Human Performance. The push toward funk and Americana is a welcome one, as is this idea that Parquet Courts are maturing without sacrificing their integrity. In fact, retreating into yet another batch of rowdy post-punk anthems would have seemed, at this point in the band's trajectory, something of a letdown. Fears of an uber-producer takeover are also unfounded, as Danger Mouse's contributions seem relegated mostly to better production quality and a few instances verging on power pop. No, Parquet Courts are fully in command of their collective angst, political malaise, and danceable punk; culminating in the band's most cohesive, genre-hopping record yet. Again, if Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive", then the sounds of Wide Awake! just might be the protest album from four dorky white guys we all need right now.

 

 

 

Iceage

 

Beyondless

6

Maturity sounds a lot like your heroes
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In the world of punk, ambition counts. In fact, the genre is notorious for being risk-adverse; channeling raw energy, confrontational attitude, and youthful dissatisfaction as a means to an end. This may sound like a reductive argument since there are always exceptions, but a band like Iceage have built their brand upon unleashing grueling punk/goth rock that never pretended to be anything but a sonic onslaught. The Danish outfit's searing debut, 2011's New Brigade, still remains a quintessential post-punk/hardcore statement made by four friends under the age of 21. Not even being to legally buy a beer at the local pub is an essential aspect of what drove Iceage's methodology; that reckless rage, the flailing attempts at finding one's identity, the snot-nosed fuck you to adult responsibility. New Brigade encapsulated all of that, with singer Elias Rønnenfelt's nearly unintelligible, abrasive rants leading the charge.

But, of course, people grow up. They learn. They adapt. Iceage's last album, 2014's Plowing Into the Field of Love, felt like awkward baby steps toward the idea of maturity rather than an actualization of it; adding layers of baroque rock, alt-country, and piano balladry to the mix. The results were uneven; like a group of sweaty punk kids climbing out of the basement and onto an anthem-sized stage in hopes of courting a larger audience. This all leads to their latest record, Beyondless, in which Rønnenfelt and company do their best The Birthday Party era Nick Cave impression, with decidedly mixed results.

It's not as if the intent isn't noble, and again, ambition counts for a lot, but Beyondless often comes off like young men equating dour self-seriousness with artistic growth. Iceage have always been an angry band, but by slowing things down and issuing social commentaries (complete with strings, horns, and stuttering piano) something gets lost in translation. There's the melodic opener "Hurrah", in which Rønnenfelt spits out police state proclamations like No, we can’t stop killing / And we’ll never stop killing over a driving rhythm section and soulful guitar work. Meanwhile, the Sky Ferrreira collaboration "Pain Killer" goes full orchestral pomp; with blaring horns and a repetitive chorus giving off a decidedly Foxygen vibe, except without the winking humor. The grimness continues with country-ish dirge "Under the Sun" and the sludgy, Iggy and the Stooges-inflected "The Day the Music Dies", wherein Rønnenfelt slurs his way through over-produced bombast. The angst here sounds earnest enough, but the band mostly fail at channeling this inner turmoil into a rallying cry. If anything, most of the music feels like confessional diary entries scribbled out during drunken jam sessions. Moody ramblings work wonders for Cave, and The Rolling Stones made a living out of contorting sensual debauchery into primal rock n'roll, but Iceage are often playing against their strengths here.

This doesn't mean there isn't an appealing nihilism to Beyondless. In the span of 40 minutes, the band manage to take the lyrical mantra The future’s never starting/ The present never ends from the chorus of “The Day The Music Dies" and apply it writ large. This is an apocalyptic record; part classic rock throwback, part horn-fueled beat poetry, part sonic noir about the end of all things. The album's standout track, "Catch It" exemplifies this by luring the listener into it's twisted web. Building slowly like a marching rite of passage with Rønnenfelt repeating phrases, the song morphs-- drums ascending, strings breaking, middle eastern chimes humming--before everything erupts into a psychedelic frenzy of distorted chords and atonal horns.

With this song alone, Iceage prove they could be capable of moving into The Velvet Underground territory; using the Lou Reed mode of sing-speak narratives and rock experimentalism to challenge genre altogether. However, some of the band's other attempts at homage; like the sloppy saloon rock of "Showtime" and the neo-folk ditty "Thieves Like Us" feel like young men playing a round of middle-age pastiche karaoke. There's a long history of young rock band's trying to outrun the shadow of their heroes, and Iceage are on the right track; but only time will tell if they can carve out their own version of gothic punk Americana and maybe, just maybe, crack a smile or two.

  

Young Fathers

 

Cocoa Sugar

8

Stripping back by going deeper
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Genre labeling is a bitch. It can confine, pigeonhole, and dictate expectations. Conversely, it can unburden, sabotage, and defy those expectations. It's something writers and critics (this one included) often use as a crutch; a way of condensing the essence of a thing down to a pull quote. These days, Scottish trio Young Fathers are doing everything they can do make give critics migraine-spinning writers block. On paper, their third album, Cocoa Sugar, carries a more "mainstream" and "streamlined" approach when placed up against their 2014 debut Dead and abrasively brilliant 2015 followup, White Men Are Black Men Too. The dub/hip-hop/R & B/ Krautrock tags certainly apply, as does the lyrical obsession with identity and otherness. Still, the group grapple with the polarities of diasporic community by using symbolic language rather than clearly defined ideas. Therefore, if White Men Are Black Men too was an angry rant of lo-fi anxiety about not fitting in, Cocoa Sugar is what happens when fitting in means realizing the world is rotten to the core.

Made up of members born in Liberia, Nigeria, and Edinburgh, Young Fathers use their differing cultural experiences to unify a cohesive message of wokeness. Utilizing rapping, chanting, and soft-sung vocals over wobbly synths, looping piano, and African rhythms, Cocoa Sugar continues the group's avant-pop sensibilities while managing a more straightforward narrative flow. While there are still songs here bordering on the experimental; the jittery "Fee-Fi", Dan Deacon-esque chiptune of "Turn", or the growling chants on the muffled dirge "Wow", Young Fathers turn even more toward the spiritually accessible/cynical. Lead single "In My View", for instance, uses the biblical character of Delilah as a placeholder for losing oneself in "sinful" behavior, while "Holy Ghost", the most overt hip-hop track on the record, gives us the refrain You can tell your deity I’m alright/Wake up from the dead, call me Jesus Christ over a buzzing synth-driven beat. Meanwhile, "Lord" is essentially a deconstructed gospel song; complete with a haunting piano motif and beautifully emotive choir-like chorus. In true Young Fathers fashion, however, the distorted keyboard and reverb-heavy beat take over, resulting in something blown out; sprawling, drowning in sound, and reaching towards epiphany.

Though more a populist effort, Cocoa Sugar is by no means a step backwards for Young Fathers. In many ways, it's the record they have been working toward all along; less abrasive and genre-defying to be sure, but no less idiosyncratic. The lyrical content on display--love, hate, fear, longing, cynicism, spiritual uplift-- are trapped inside layered production and startling vocal harmonies. At its best, the album lulls one into a relaxed state of contemplation only to shake your bones with a line, turn of phrase, or odd sonic embellishment. It is the sound of a group purging themselves of genre labels, expectations, and rules. It is the best kind of political album; using elements of religiosity and transcendence to tap into actual existential and societal fears. To that end, Cocoa Sugar is an internal protest album; one that may have you humming and head-bobbing before slipping into a dark night of the soul.   

 

 

  

Ty Segall

 

Freedom's Goblin

8

Segall's School of Rock

by Jericho Cerrona

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On his 2017 self-titled release, Southern California singer-songwriter Ty Segall seemed to be in a caring and sharing mood; alternating between Marc Bolan-esque glam, Beatles-imbued balladry, and worship of all things The Kinks. It wasn't a surprise to anyone paying attention to his trajectory, coming off like a natural extension of a decade-long pursuit for channeling 60s/70s style into an accessible rock n'roll package. The abrasiveness of 2016's Emotional Mugger was gone; replaced by the vision of a tireless musician nearing the age of 30 who had perhaps tried out every pose he could think of. It was more or less a sonic survey, and predictably, an entry point for all things Segall up until that point.

His latest record, Freedom's Goblin, also won't shock anyone attuned to the man's knack for wearing influences proudly, but there's also more ambition here, not to mention a newfound attraction to sprawl, that makes this perhaps his boldest release yet. Recorded over a lengthy period between five studios and the help of returning producer extraordinaire Steve Albini, Freedom's Goblin is a grab bag of post-punk, disco, funk, sludge metal, Jagger-esque rock stomp, Beatles-adjacent balladry, and everything Marc Bolan. Expected, yes, but also sublime.

Threatening self-indulgent bloat, Freedom's Goblin stays the course by never allowing the running time--19 tracks, around 75 minutes--to get in the way of earworm melodies and controlled songwriting. Tunes like opener "Fanny Dog" about his beloved pet, rollick along with self-deprecating lyrics and boisterous horns, and a reworking of Hot Chocolate’s 1978 single “Every 1’s A Winner” keeps the funky rhythm, but adds more fuzzy guitars. Elsewhere, there's nice variation to the usual Ty template, such as the sleazy glam-disco of "Despoiler Cadaver" and the squealing jazz freak-out, "Talkin 3", which sees Segall adopting a hoarse falsetto that feels like it might break apart at any moment.

Freedom's Goblin is really about being at a place in your life where contentment and excess aren't mutually exclusive. Recently married (check out the blistering punk anthem "Meaning" with wife Denee on lead vocals), Segall seems to be relishing the chance to jam in studio with a revolving cast of talented musicians without the need to indulge in sloppy rock decadence. It's a tricky balance; loud, bombastic dirges mixed with plaintive balladry, but Segall manages to pull it off.

For every barn-burner, like the Black Sabbath-inspired "She", there are a handful of gentle acoustic numbers ("Cry, Cry, Cry", "I'm Free", "My Lady's on Fire") which not only conjure The Beatles, but more surprisingly, Neil Young and Wilco. As a kitchen sink double-album where no genre is off the table, the listening experience really should be unwieldy, but the amount of pop hooks rising from every guitar solo and skronking saxophone means that there's a little something here for everyone. Of course, such an assortment of disparate elements might feel messy from the standpoint of conceptual consistency, but it's hard to argue that, from song to song, Freedom's Goblin emerges as the most unqualified version of Segall's school of rock to date.   

MGMT

 

Little Dark Age

7

More pop, less weird, but still chasing psychedelic highs
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MGMT may never make an album as brilliantly bonkers as 2010's Congratulations. Considered by many to be a middle finger to everyone who swooned over smash singles "Time to Pretend", "Electric Feel" and "Kids" from their hugely successful debut album, Oracular Spectacular, the record was actually a distillation of duo Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's sonic obsessions. The fusion of druggy psych and electro-pop may have hit the Coachella scene like a mainstream bong rip back in 2007, but on the whole, Oracular Spectacular was a much weirder record than those singles suggested. Therefore, Congratulations merely doubled down on that strangeness; coming off like a wonky cross between Television Personalities and Syd Barrett. 2013's MGMT followed; another left-field swing into proggy noodling which once again denied fans the obvious hooks and melodies they craved.

The generational optimism MGMT helped usher in became a curse for the band, since they were never really interested in making mass appeal pop music to begin with. The two albums which followed Oracular Spectacular weren't simply reactionary moves, but exist as a natural pivot into the off-kilter soundscapes dominating the rest of that record. MGMT's resilience in making the kind of music they want, regardless of expectations, is noteworthy in parsing their latest release, Little Dark Age. Some will see it as a "return to form" after nearly a decade of self-indulgent excess, while others will criticize the duo for conceding to a slicker pop sound. The truth is somewhere in between, as Little Dark Age relishes the chance for a more focused set of songs which bridge the gap between accessible 80's synth-pop and acid-fueled psychedelia.   

At its heart, MGMT's latest is about thirtysomething malaise; the absurdity of being young enough to have some level of aspiration, but old enough to realize that it's probably all for naught. If Oracular Spectacular was a free-love ode to living in the moment, then Little Dark Age is the attempt to reconcile wasted youth with the uncomfortable vanities of contemporary life. Opener "She Works Out Too Much" is a telling example of this theme; a satiric riff on keeping up with a girlfriend who is active both in the physical sense as well as the social media sense. With its self-aware instructional audio cues and chintzy keyboard flourishes, the tune sets up an ironic distance that comes and goes throughout the record. There's goth darkwave with an infectious hook ("Little Dark Age"), anthemic power-pop ("Me and Michael"), and mocking tales of self-defeat and suicide ("When You Die"), but mostly, MGMT tap into the idea of inverting pop tropes in order to experiment with their now patented sound. At their worst, they fall back on flat textures, like the dub-influenced  “TSLAMP" about the tech phobia of spending too much time on your phone, or the psych-folk ditty "When You're Small", which plays more like a parody of stoner balladry than a homage. At their best, they utilize a mishmash of vintage keyboards, jazzy interludes, and stereo-panning soundscapes that rarely overwhelm some of the more focused songwriting of their career.

Elsewhere, MGMT lean into the pop pastiche of artists like Ariel Pink (who gets a vocal harmony on "When We Die") and John Maus (especially the retro synth work on "One Thing Left To Try"). Though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser certainly know their way around a gorgeous melody, they don't quite have the self-reflexive charm of someone like Pink; a guy whose spent decades reappropriating past sounds and aesthetics into something approaching originality.

Nonetheless, throughout Little Dark Age, MGMT strike a rather elegant balance of sugary pop and moody introspection; getting a few hooks out of their system while basking in the paranoia and fear of burning out in your mid-30's. There's a telling line during "When You Die" which speaks to this idea of using shimmering pop in order to hint at darker impulses, as VanWyngarden sings Go fuck yourself… don’t call me nice again. It sounds eerily like someone who made his name on empowering zeitgeist-chasing anthems now doubling down on the sham of it all, and maybe that's just the kind of sentiment, for better or worse, we need in 2018.   

  

 

Destroyer

 

Ken

7

Dan Bejar dreams of the 80s and still sounds cranky

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one sounds quite like Dan Bejar. To say he's an original is an understatement, even as the music he's conjured as Destroyer over the past two decades never hides its undeniable influences, which include David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, and Leonard Cohen, among others. Collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake have further added to his mystique as one of the most mercurial of singer-songwriters. His last record, 2015's Poison Season, was a surprisingly accessible mixture of Easy Listening pop which channeled both Hunky Dory-phase Bowie as well as Frank Sinatra. At the time, the album felt like a direct response to the critical success of 2011's 80s-influenced jazz rock opus Kaputt; this time using piano, bongos, lush strings, and Bejar's hippie musings to showcase a more relaxed side of the enigmatic frontman. The results were predictably expansive, but also intimate; coming off like the sound of a man reaching for empathy existing just outside his grasp.

With Ken, Bejar goes back to the sounds of the late 1980's British music scene and creates something which initially feels like Kaputt Pt.2, but in actuality, is going more for a New Order/The Jesus & the Mary Chain/ The Cure type of vibe. If anything, Ken is aimed squarely at the converted. Since Bejar comes across as downtrodden as ever, those who may have found his odd vocal delivery off-putting in the past will find little to latch onto here. There's theatricality, excess, and even musical adventurousness all over Ken, but the man creates the sensation of someone looking back on a lost time with ironic distance. Opener "Sky's Grey", for example, links the sociopolitical tensions of the Thatcher era with lines like Bombs in the city/Plays in the sticks and I've been working on the new Oliver Twist over soothing piano, digital blips, and melancholy synth washes. It feels like a distillation of everything Destroyer has done creatively up until this point; a collision of intellectual concerns wrapped in a sad/pretty sonic package. Is Bejar really the alienated poet, too disinterested to muster up answers for the horrors of our times, or is he still just playing the part of cranky uncle?

Whatever the case, Ken isn't all doom and gloom. Though initially a track like "In The Morning" seems like a straightforward homage to Robert Smith; complete with thumping drums, Disintegration-esque guitar leads, and airy synths, it transforms via Bejar's playful vocals. Somehow, he even manages lines like A death star in bloom/ Another thought in the incinerator/ You wanted it to be cool/ Oh you thought it would be alright/ In the morning without coming across overly twee. Meanwhile, the electro-pop of "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" has the veneer of a New Order cut, but Bejar shrugs off the will to dance by lamenting I couldn’t see, I was blind/ Off in the corner, doing poet’s work. Certainly, part of Bejar's appeal is his sleazy, faux-romanticism. The constant use of wandering saxophones points to this near-camp aesthetic, as does visual representations of smoking under foggy lampposts, cool black trench coats, and tales of lonely poets. However, though Ken certainly tilts toward corniness, Bejar's strengths as a songwriter gives everything a neurotic energy.

To say Ken is far from Destroyer's best work is damning with faint praise, since Bejar's output has been consistently sublime. The poignant wordplay is on display, as is the flowery prose, and there's gothic new wave style here too, but overall, the album is less than the sum of its parts. Truthfully, the recurring motifs; both lyrically and musically, seem to indicate a sense of catharsis found in cycles. Much like Bejar's exploration of different sounds and textures throughout his extraordinary career, these cycles hint at something darker and more oppressive at the edges of his music. Of course, he may simply be winking from behind rambling non-sequiturs and jangly production. The failure of Ken is that the line between irony and self-importance feels unresolved at best, while the album's strength lies in the mystery surrounding that very thing. Ultimately, Bejar would rather strike an empty pose, since as he puts it in his uniquely Dan Bejar way, A pose is always empty.


 

    

Protomartyr

 

Relatives in Descent

9

Watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time

by Jericho Cerrona

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It's no secret that the post-punk genre attracts the lonely, disaffected, and working class zeroes struggling to survive. There's always anger stemming from feeling ostracized, personal sleights turning toward political ideology, and slurred protests signaling the rallying cry for a multitude of would-be revolutionaries. Without this kind of pretentiousness--seeing oneself as a victim, wallowing in self-defeat, conflating society's ills with some form of generational sickness--post-punk bands like Pere Ubu, The Birthday Party, and The Fall wouldn't exist. Detroit rabble rousers Protomartyr also fit snugly into this paradigm; unleashing noisy post-punk over the past decade by placing personal angst alongside social consciousness, from the cacophonous roar of 2012 debut No Passion All Technique to the driving outrage of 2015's The Agent Intellect.

Frontman Joe Casey's lyrical ramblings--political, familial, internal--have always been the band's defining force, but what's most surprising about their fourth full-length, Relatives in Descent, is it's relative restraint. Casey still has much to say about how shitty our world is (the record was mostly written during the 2016 election cycle), but this time, there's more tangent-jumping sonic detours to wind through. Throughout, drummer Alex Leonard, guitarist Greg Ahee, and bassist Scott Davidson match Casey's street preaching by applying a more varied instrumental palette to the usual punk onslaught. While not technically a concept album, Relatives in Descent is littered with lyrical connections and rhythmic symmetry. Ideas and concepts reoccur, guitar lines loop back in on themselves, and literate musings spewed from a shouting prophet contain cyclical patterns.

From the outset, it's clear Protomartyr are going for a slow burn rather than a drunken stage dive. Opener "A Private Understanding" takes Casey's usual sardonic poetry and places it at the service of rolling drum fills, repetitive guitar loops, and a mood of intimate dread. I don't wanna hear those vile trumpets anymore, he laments, and it's just the kind of existential salvo the world needs right now. When Casey finally stammers, she's just trying to reach you, during the outro, one can sense either a grand political statement or some kind of self-help therapy session. Thankfully, this push and pull quality--the tension between internalized ennui and macro social concerns--is held together masterfully throughout the album's 44 minutes. The band certainly have their influences; The Fall, Nick Cave, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, but they also manage to synthesize these influences with a modern outlook. Moreover, Relatives in Descent is the first great post-Trump record; a series of tightly wound dirges expressing fear, paranoia, doubt, and even some much-needed wit, in the face of destruction.

Unlike many protest albums, however, Relatives in Descent never succumbs to sermonizing. Casey doesn't have answers, only more questions. This is what links Protomartyr's bleak perspective with the universality of the common man fucked over by a system too evil to be overthrown. "Here is The Thing" threads lines like dread 2017-18, airhorn age, age of horn-blowing with thick basslines and interweaving guitar, while on "Chuckler", Casey leans into scathing hopelessness; I guess I’ll keep on chuckling 'til there’s no more breath in my lungs / Lord how I wish there was a better ending to this joke. The American dialect is now at a point where divided political rhetoric has drowned out any sense of rationality, and this is crucial to what the band are going for here, with Casey acting as an observer wryly commenting on his own lack of empathy. It's difficult to get angry when the things to get angry about have become too innumerable to keep track of.

Throughout, Casey's lyrics nods toward gentrification ("Here is the Thing"), gender entitlement ("Male Plague"), sins of the father passed on to the son ("My Children") and attacks on liberal-minded frauds ("Don't Go to Anacita") while his bandmates maintain a balance between hard-edged noise and melodic catchiness. More so than any of their past work, Relatives in Descent melds the anti-capitalist venom of the post-punk genre with the introspective hooks of indie rock. Perhaps the record's defining moment comes on the haunting "Night-Blooming Cereus", where 80's-inflected synths merge with Casey's Nick Cave-esque spoken word; envisioning a cactus flower as a sign of hope, even as the lights grow dim. It's unquestionably the most hopeful song on the entire album, but then it transitions seamlessly, and rather brilliantly, into galvanizing stomper "Male Plague." Even here, the start of something optimistic is interrupted by patriarchal grandstanding; the kind of ironic gesture that eventually comes full circle on closer, "Half Sister." Here, amidst crunchy power chords and atonal dissonance, Casey sees truth as a babbling prisoner, linking the elusive "She" from opener "A Private Understanding" to a ghostly figure still hoping to embrace a diseased world. In other words, truth is the half sister, still trying to reach you. But, does truth even exist? Casey certainly doesn't give a direct answer, and nor should he. Instead, Relatives in Descent emerges as the sound of an entire generation watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time.

Ariel Pink

 

Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

8

Warped pop mastermind finds his muse

by Jericho Cerrona

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The title for pop provocateur Ariel Pink's latest album is more than simply a nod to fellow Los Angeles fringe artist Bobby Jameson, whose career trajectory mirrors so many other lonely souls swallowed by the black void of Tinseltown. If Jameson found minor notoriety in the 1960's by conjuring psychedelic pop in the mold of Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, then the following two decades would see him spiraling into drug abuse, depression, and music industry fallout. Incidentally, Pink has spent the better part of the last two decades conjuring his own version of cheesy psych-pop whilst imagining himself a tortured weirdo. His lyrical preoccupations are bizarre, kitschy, and often problematic; while his interview persona tilts toward the rambling and anti-PC. Of course, Pink is smart enough to know that trolling social justice warriors is part of what makes pop stars glimmer in 2017, but meme culture sensations are of secondary concern to a guy who's always obscured intent under the guise of retro mystique.

Back in the early 2000s, before the age of Twitter and Reddit threads, Pink was slinging out various cassette tapes, CD-Rs and ramshackle home recordings in an unapologetic ode to his hero, R. Stevie Moore. Like Moore, who released hundreds of lo-fi projects, Pink seems more interested in appropriating long-dead sounds of AM radio full of tape hiss, radio jingles, and warped pop balladry than making cohesive records standing on their own. Of course, the relative success of 2010's Before Today (made with a full band called Haunted Graffiti) changed that; catapulting him out of the basement and into the realm of 4AD-approved hipsterdom. He disbanded his group shortly thereafter in order to run solo again, leading to 2012's Mature Themes and 2014's Pom Pom. If the latter was a direct response to touring burnout and disdain for the pose of the reluctant rock star, then Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is a response to that response. Pom Pom was a work of brilliant maximalism which saw Pink pilling on every sonic tangent into one aural kaleidoscopic vision, while Dedicated to Bobby Jameson feels like a warm hug. The two records seem to be working in stark contrast, but upon multiple listens, the truth is that all of the work is of a piece; telling a very specific narrative, even as Pink imbues this tale with another mini-narrative about a fledgling L.A. songwriter unraveling in spectacular fashion.

Truthfully, there's a marked change in tone signaling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson as a more somber affair than it's predecessor, and Pink has admitted as much in recent interviews, where he talked about feeling depressed and world-weary. The death of innocence and pitfalls of fame is a central theme here; even as lyrically, Pink often sideswipes such navel-gazing by applying witty one-liners, weird puns, and earworm melodies. There I go again/Falling in love again/Knew better just like before but here I go Pink croons on the Cure-inspired "Just Like Heaven" with the kind of detachment reserved for someone nearing 40 who no longer believes in the kind of romanticism the tune implies. Elsewhere, on "Another Weekend", probably the saddest song Pink has ever written, he laments wasted time and the kind of loneliness that can only come after achieving a measure of success. The dichotomy of realizing that fame is poisonous to human nature is in direct contrast with the life of Bobby Jameson; a man who spent the better half of his life complaining bitterly about how no one took him seriously. Then, he was dead.

Despite the less wacky tone overall, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is by no means a complete bummer. There's goofy organ drones and looped quasi-British accents ("Santa's in the Closet"), warbly garage pop with Netflix and Uber references ("Dreamdate Narcissist"), and funky disco basslines ("Death Patrol"). Try not to chuckle, for instance, when Pink sings He was a Tinseltown tranny and mayor of the Sunset Strip on the 60's-sounding freak folk/psych title track. Still, there's an obsession with regret and sadness lingering around every sparkling melody and odd detour here that implies more than simply another cog in Pink's ever-growing catalog of bizarro pop.

Calling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson a focused or mature record, though, is another matter. As always, Pink uses pastiche, sleazy glam poses, and long-forgotten modes of production in order to comment on our need for self-reflection, even as he remains coy about how he really feels. If anything, the album's mantra comes in the form of the Krautrock jam "Time to Live", where the lines Time to live/Time for life/Time to live/Time to die repeat into oblivion, poking fun at the inane cycle of our existence. If Jameson were still alive, he'd probably be jealous.  

 


 

Tyler, The Creator

 

Flower Boy

8

Lazy summer soul-bearing with a dash of satire

by Jericho Cerrona

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26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he's built his brand on an ever escalating series of Internet-savvy trolls and pokes at PC culture. After the demise of blog-hyped rap collective Odd Future, Tyler went off on his own, disappearing into the netherworld of narcissistic meme wars, homophobic slurs, and bracing musical bravado. 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011 followup Goblin now feel somewhat quaint in Trump's America; less transgressive than juvenile, more of a social media trigger warning for millennial snowflakes than an actual modus operandi from a young rapper with something to say.

Now, with Flower Boy, Tyler has supposedly "grown up" and made a mature record detailing a new found social consciousness, earnest stab at vulnerability, and the most attention-grabbing headline: his apparent identification as a gay black man. When word initially leaked that Tyler was coming out on his latest album, the response on social media was predictably polarized. Some praised him for his bravery, but most simply thought it was another way to stir up a reaction. Let's not forget, Odd Future made shockwaves years ago with homophobia and rape lyrics, and as a solo artist, Tyler has more or less continued waving that flag. There's a tension throughout Flower Boy--on the one hand, it's the least vile and most seemingly genuine thing Tyler has done yet, while on the other--there's a sneaking suspicion that underneath the left-field production and gravely voice, he's pulling yet another mean-spirited joke. Such is the pitfalls for any young artist known for provocation and controversy; it's hard to tell sincerity from satire.

Knowing what we know of Tyler (on and off stage) will undoubtably color one's reaction to Flower Boy. However, taken on its own merits, this is a beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative hip-hop record. Unpacking Tyler's lyrical preoccupations is another matter, and determining whether or not he's actually being sincere or simply adopting a persona is instructive, but not necessarily essential. Can someone largely known for hate speech be forgiven? Does Tyler even want forgiveness? Are his pleas for connection and lovestruck longing for a male suitor (referenced here as "95 Leo") to be taken seriously, or has the anti-comedy mold of misogyny and vitriolic hate merely grown into something more outwardly acceptable? 

As an album, Flower Boy doesn't exactly answer these questions, and it's probably not meant to. Instead, Tyler lets us into his headspace through the power of verse and production. On "Foreword", he nods towards the Black Lives Matter Movement while simultaneously using the platform as a way of addressing his sexual orientation. Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne. Whether this is an apology for his previous homophobic preoccupations or simply a plea for understanding is debatable, but it's nonetheless a shocking opening salvo from someone known mostly for dick measuring contests and faux-braggadocio. The sensitivity training continues with cuts like "See You Again", which sounds like N.E.R.D. crossed with a sultry R & B jam, the synth-driven lovestruck ballad "Garden Shed", and "Glitter", which sees Tyler leaving infatuated voicemails for his elusive male crush. Throughout, the incorporation of funky beats, wonky keyboard flourishes, auto-shifting vocals, and Neptunes-inspired soundscapes keeps things floating in the realm of pleasurable awe. Of course, there are appropriately savage tracks here too that we've come to expect, such as "Who Dat Boy", which opens with creepy violin strings and off-kilter synths like something of a Darren Aronofsky film before exploding into an all-out rant, and the bong-ripped slow banger, "Pothole."

Those expecting a standard rap album will most likely be disappointed by Flower Boy. Tyler seems more interested in jazzy interludes, old school R & B, and progressive elements than typical verse/chorus/verse flows with club-ready beats, but this makes the record much more satisfying. In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Here, there's a rigor and clarity that hints at progression and maturity, even if it's still too early to unequivocally state that Tyler has officially grown up. In a way, Flower Boy is a deconstruction of public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all of the controversial verses, pitch black horror imagery, and ego-stroking seems to be a forward-thinking artist interested in both aggression and tenderness. Guest spots from the likes of Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Corinne Bailey Rae, Estelle, and others also point to this fact, as if he hopes to redefine himself as the spiritual funk/soul grandson of Quincy Jones.

Has the detached, homicidal observer transformed into the open-hearted "loneliest man alive" or has great effort simply been spent creating another post-modern troll on listeners who have grown accustom to knowing everything about their idols via social media? Part of the fascination with Tyler is our inability to get a firm read on him. As such, Flower Boy is either a daring Andy Kaufman-esque con, or the evolution of the artist in full bloom, and honestly, does it really even matter?

 

 

 

Arcade Fire

 

Everything Now

5

Society sucks, as does scolding from a band who should know better

by Jericho Cerrona


If there's a trajectory to the ever declining state of Western Civilization ( be it economical, political, artistic, psychological, whatever), then the post-Trump era seems to be the tipping point. At least, that's what indie rock icons Arcade Fire would have us all believe. To be fair, this regression into tyrannical anarchy isn't really anything new. Even taking a cursory glance at history reveals the cyclical nature of this decline--wars, political hypocrisy, racial unrest--that is part and parcel of humanity's narrative, American or otherwise. That said, there are few torchbearers less adept at handling what can be perceived as a slide into irony than Arcade Fire. This is a group of multi-instrumentalists who blew open the modern indie rock landscape with their effervescent 2004 debut, Funeral, and later distilled the notion of nostalgic small town Americana on Grammy-winning LP The Suburbs. Even when things got somber, like on their sophomore effort Neon Bible, there was grandstanding declarations of hope and renewal breaking through the hazy fog. For better or worse, being critical and commercial darlings of a certain kind of rock n'roll bombast meant that when the perceived universe went to shit in 2017, there were expectations that somehow, Arcade Fire would offer some form of relief.

Instead, the group's fifth studio album Everything Now, represents a marked shift away from the kind of optimistic joy (mixed with darkness) they've been dabbling in for over a decade. Like their previous record, 2013's sprawling new wave/disco-influenced Reflektor, stripping away the earnest stadium-ready sound of the past and moving onto strobe-lit dance floors feels like a stark reaction to public perception. Accusations of pretentiousness and U2-level Messiah complexes (particularly when it came to singer Win Butler) have been leveled at the band for years, but up until now, Arcade Fire have been able to back up their oversized ambitions with legitimate songwriting. Everything Now trades in the guitars for synthesizers, millennial uplift for Trump-era cynicism, and coherent tunes for egomaniacal finger-pointing. This attempt to "lighten up" and make a dance record about the inherent fakeness of our content-binge culture isn't a terrible idea on it's face. It's simply that irony doesn't suit a band like Arcade Fire, who have spent so much time masquerading as sacred purveyors of life, love, and other hippie mantras.

More galling than the PR campaign behind the release of the album-- a "fake news" blog, ridiculous costumes, Fidget Spinners, Ritalin cereal, a bogus negative review of the upcoming record--is the actual music on display. It would be one thing for Arcade Fire to chastise it's audience by holding up a mirror to the ways in which we are stuck inside a feedback loop of screen-based distractions by actually saying something meaningful, or at the very least, clever. Instead, Everything Now is just as vapid and trite as what it's criticizing. Part of what has made Arcade Fire such a powerful force has been the purity of their vision. Even if you found their grandiose sentiments dopey, their earnestness was never in question. They meant well. They aspired to huge things. They may have come across pretentious and downright silly, but the strength of their convictions were matched by soaring harmonies, layered instrumentation, and Butler's commanding wail.

Everything Now has none of the band's previous purity of vision. There's a song called "Peter Pan" where Butler literally (and rather creepily) intones Be my Wendy/ I'll be your Peter Pan over a half-baked dub beat. "Chemistry" is a horn-fueled failure on every level, an embarrassing attempt at 80's kitsch whose chorus, You and Me/ We Got Chemistry/ Baby You and Me is probably the worst songwriting of the band's career. "Signs of Life" sounds like Saturday Night Fever filtered through LCD Soundsystem, with a throbbing bassline and upbeat tempo. However, lame declarations like Looking for signs of life / Looking for signs every night / But there’s no signs of life indicates that Arcade Fire find no real pleasure in partying the night away. It's all meaningless. Vapid. Finite. Sure, that makes sense, but then what's the point in concocting such a danceable slice of 70s-cribbed disco? Ditto for "Electric Blue", a David Bowie homage which asks Regine Chassagne to reach a falsetto that she just simply can't hit. The results are both pleasurable (the track has a competent synth-pop groove) and aggravating, with Chassagne's alien-like vocals reaching new levels of ear scrapping annoyance. Elsewhere, on the electro-tinged "Creature Comfort", the band attempt to lambaste fame and vanity by applying a narrative concerning a girl who nearly kills herself inside a bathtub. She told me she came so close / Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record / Saying God, make me famous / If you can’t just make it painless. Of course, the first record in question is Funeral, and of course, the patronizing attitude Arcade Fire take towards this young fan (whether the story is true or not is irrelevant) verges on narcissistic obliviousness.

Everything Now does contain a few fleeting glimpses of Arcade Fire's strengths. "Put Your Money On Me" has a rhythmical sense of building momentum, with layered production and an ABBA-esque vocal refrain. "We Don't Deserve Love" is a somber meditation on giving up during our trying times, with a simple fuzzed-out synth and Butler's earnest falsetto giving way to a rather beautiful chorus of overlapping chants. During these moments, the band hint at the less superficial, more honest record that could have been. Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Everything Now, beyond the limp songwriting, is the condescending attitude it adopts masked as winking satire. Lyrically insipid, conceptually trite, and musically uneven is the order of the day here, and try as they might, Arcade Fire cannot convince us that this is all somehow the point. The soulless cynicism the group seem to be parodying (hence the marketing rollout) is the very thing that ultimately derails their artistic statement. In other words, if you are going to create art scolding us about the dangers of our modern media landscape, then, well, just make it painless.

Shabazz Palaces

 

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines/ Born On A Gangster Star

7

The state of hip-hop, as seen from the cosmos

by Jericho Cerrona


Getting a proper handle on Seattle duo Shabazz Palaces remains a futile enterprise. When their debut Black Up materialized out of the Internet ether in 2011, it signaled the reemergence of a brand of abstract hip-hop most closely aligned to artists like Flying Lotus, Madlib, and MF DOOM. Featuring the talents of Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, formerly of jazz rap unit Digable Planets), and multi-instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire, the duo occupied a niche within the hip-hop community prizing sonic experimentation and bizarre thematic concerns over recycled club bangers. 2014's Lese Majesty followed; a psychedelic free-jazz rap epic which bucked conventions and was even more lyrically obtuse than their debut. This has all lead to the simultaneously released Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, which is like listening to an alien life form's diary entries while traveling through interstellar prog-rap portals. Or something. The brilliance of Shabazz Palaces has always been their ability to confound, obfuscate, and challenge the listener, and their latest madcap astral projection of contemporary America is no exception.

Narratively speaking, the two records are linked by Butler playing the role of Quazarz, a sentient being sent from some distant galaxy to patrol two dystopian parallel versions of America. The results are thrilling weird (as expected), but also connected to a familiar horror present in the modern day black experience. We post-language, baby, we talk with guns, Butler raps on "Welcome to Quazarz", a cogent reminder that this is no imagined dreamscape, but an actual reality. Elsewhere, on cuts like "Late Night Phone Calls", we are faced with the intangibility of human contact dispersed through post-Tinder language, while "Eel Dreams" reimagines our content-saturated existence as an electro-fueled series of hazy beats. Of the two records, Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines is the more accessible; with melodic song structures that poke at our reliance on digital technology. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is the much more abstract listen, but together the albums form a world-building paradigm which Shabazz Palaces milks for whatever specific or non-specific themes one wishes to pull from them. In a way, the duo are creating defiant art while trolling an audience that will likely overpraise or dismiss them for being "challenging" and "polarizing."

Like a lot of artists these days, Shabazz Palaces are obsessed with the idea of being slaves to a screen-based digital landscape where commercialization of content is king. Even Arcade Fire, those unhip indie rock stalwarts, have traded in the earnest bombast for cynical commentary on vain Instagram culture on their latest LP, Everything Now. However, unlike Arcade Fire, Butler and Maraire make no attempts at unlocking their labyrinthine conceptual framework. Instead, they drop bread crumbs (interstellar sex, mechanical computer parts, Frank Herbet allusions, political mumbo-jumbo) that can either be viewed as giving listeners interpretive power or simply blowing celestial moon dust up their asses. Of course, all of this is foregrounded by woozy, lo-fi instrumentals which rarely stick around long enough to land a sustainable groove. Even the more dance-heavy tracks, like "Fine Ass Hairdresser", stutters away it's initial beat-driven sound, while the thumping groove on "That's How City Life Goes" gives way to a herky jerky rhythm which stimulates the brain while leaving the hips in a constant state of flux. 

As a distillation of jazzy hip-hop in the Brainfeeder mold, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is a daring, if obtuse, project that nearly topples over into self-parody. What keeps everything from devolving into prog cosmos-spanning nonsense is Butler's keen ability to tie the high concept into something resembling life in the here and now. Police brutality, capitalism, and the ways in which rap music has been utilized as a diseased form of materialism are key themes. During "30-Clip Extension", Butler lets loose one of his more searing verses; Flossing in a peripheral sanity / chauvinist with feminine vanities / Puffing out his tattoo’d chest / towering his arrogance / Monetizing intelligence / all while narrowing our elegance / Parodying Our sufferance for a pittance like a pence penance / Some bitch shit so that’s your favorite rapper and he’s the best?  Crucially, he's mocking not only egotistical MCs, but also hip-hop culture at large, performed in a hushed flow that feels even more biting than if delivered as a hardcore rant.

Taken together, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star at times feels more like an art installation piece rather than a coherent hip-hop album--heavy on science fiction, tech phobia, and skeletal drum loops--low on easily accessible song structures, but there's legitimate ambition here. Call it Afro-futurism, abstract sci-fi rap, whatever. Mostly, it sees Butler and company looking forward by reaching backward; whether that be through the prism of 90s hip-hop traditionalism or imaginary worlds as seen from distant planets.

 

At the Drive-In

 

in•ter a•li•a

4

...and if this clock keeps ticking away
will a comeback be hesitated?

Oh, how the mighty of fallen.

There's really no sense in bemoaning the state of rock music in 2017. Hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. Synth-pop is back. DJs get more groupies than long-haired guitar wielders. If At the Drive-In had put out a dancey new wave record, they may have been praised for getting with the times or reinventing their sound. Instead, the El Paso post-punk icons, whose seminal breakup album Relationship of Command (2000) was a bold shift away from nu-metal, rap-rock, and whatever The Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing at the time, have essentially tried to recapture lightning in a bottle after a 17-year hiatus. The results are strained and often laughable; sounding very much like men of a certain age trying to rip like it's 1999.

Die hard fans will likely embrace the fact that there's new material from a band long thought extinct, despite the fact that singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López have already exhausted whatever goodwill they had achieved during the early days of prog-psych band The Mars Volta. With Inter Alia, they've ditched founding guitarist Jim Ward but have otherwise tried to reproduce the volatile combination of heaviness and melody from Relationship of Command. Whereas that record stemmed from the explosion of youthful creativity, relentless touring, and bouts of heavy drug use, Inter Alia is caught in an awkward position of mimicking the intensity of youth while also going for mainstream Dad rock. Gone are the knotty riffs, weird instrumental detours, and visceral shout-sung-screamed vocals, replaced here by feigned rage, surprisingly brittle guitar leads, and vanilla Audioslave-esque choruses. Certainly, Cedric still writes puzzle-box lyrical nonsense, but whereas in the past such things worked as a novel asset in the band's appeal, now it simply feels silly. 

At 41 minutes, Inter Alia is mostly a record which refuses to have it's own identity. Listen to the band's 1996 debut Acrobatic Tenement, and you can hear the sound of scrawny kids blasting through angular post-hardcore racket before that was even really a thing. Turn up 1998's In Casino Out and witness a unit fully in control of their Fugazi-esque punk bravado. Give the electronic textures and eccentric production of 1999's Vaya EP a spin. And of course, Relationship of Command still slays in all of its overproduced glory. Trying to place Inter Alia into this context is tricky because so much time has elapsed, but there's no question after the opening track "No Wolf Like The Present" that ATDI are sputtering here in uninspired fashion. 

Making comparisons to a band's back catalog from a much different time is both understandable and reductive. There's no way ATDI could ever outdo their past efforts during our current musical climate, but a song like “Governed by Contagions”, with it's lame hand-claps and Cedric's hammy vocal delivery, does make one yearn for the intensely catchy velocity of "One Armed Scissor", which, for the record, was dismissed by the group as being something of a sell-out single at the time. Worse of all is the production by Muse alum Rich Costey, who mixes the album so that everything lacks density and tension, resulting in a clean sound that doesn't do the band any favors. Sure, Andy Wallace and Ross Robinson's production on Relationship of Command was similarly polished, but the "bigness" of the mix was reflected in the musical dexterity of the actual songs themselves, which constantly veered off in surprising directions. The tracks here are suitably bombastic, but despite some agile guitar work by Rodríguez-López, who seems like he's at least trying to replicate the band's off-kilter sensibilities, there's very little variation from standard verse-chorus-verse song structure. There's cringe-inducing early aughts emo ("Pendulum In A Peasant Dress"), limp pop punk ("Incurably Innocent"), and Mars Volta-esque prog ballads ("Ghost Tape No. 9"), all of which sound like ATDI without the one thing that can never be regained; the feral uncertainty and drive that comes with being young, angry, and devoid of expectations.

In their attempts at conjuring an anthemic call to arms over the entirety of their comeback album, ATDI misses what made their music so vital to begin with. During these divisive political times, we urgently need rock music that can contextualize how we feel, even if that simply means triggering an emotional response through squealing guitar chords and stream of consciousness rants. Instead, Inter Alia always feels as if it's trying to cram faux-fist pumping passion into every song without stopping to allow the music a chance to worm its way inside the listener's eardrums. Sadly, the return of one of rock's most influential post-hardcore bands feels more like an obligation than a celebration. In the words of Cedric himself from an In Casino Out deep cut , it's in the past...and now we toast.  

 

 

Future Islands

 

The Far Field

6

Moving forward by looking backward

If retro revivalism has taught us anything, it's that aping past decades can be a slippery slope; leading to a state where conjuring a sense of nostalgia is the primary goal. Often, pastiche goes down well enough with the mainstream crowd (just look at Netflix's Stranger Things), but it rarely translates into something beyond its influences. In terms of our musical moment, rock and pop bands have been rummaging through the debris of 70s and 80s fallout for inspiration because, let's face it, hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. A surge of glossy synth-pop has made its way back into popular music over the past decade, and with it, plenty of generic basslines, soft drum machines, and washed-out vocals. Baltimore-based Future Islands are a band that fit into this mold, but there's a difference, and his name is Samuel T. Herring.  

As the frontman for a group that's been toiling in relative obscurity for the better part of a decade themselves, an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2014 which inexplicably went viral marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon for a guy who seemingly just wanted to dance awkwardly, beat his chest, and howl into the night. This is not to disparage the work of fellow band members William Cashion (bass/guitar), Gerrit Welmers (keyboard) and Michael Lowry (drums), all competent musicians in their own right, but it was Herring's undeniably bizarre and yet riveting stage presence which captivated audiences. What followed was a surprising instance in which retro nostalgia butted heads with something operating by its own rules; exemplified by a bona fide synth-pop hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" which managed to overcome its derivative sound mainly by the sheer operatic power of Herring's vocal range. Oh, and yes, the sad Dad dancing helped.

Lyrically, Herring has always been interested in kineticism; in this idea of forward momentum at the expense of domesticity or even happiness. The love-sick ballads strewn throughout 2014's Singles revealed a man shaken by bitter breakups, but still hopeful. On The Far Field, he sounds positively defeated, with tales of failed relationships marked by a steady stream of bass-driven grooves and retro synths. In terms of sound, Future Islands have always looked backwards, which gives the lyrical preoccupations an irony which Herring seems genuinely in on, even as he often trips over flowery metaphors and simplistic sentiments.

If Singles was a coming out party for a band who have been subtly refining their sound for years, The Far Field is a slight tweak to a now standard formula which, despite the uniqueness of Herring's voice, has become somewhat repetitive. The songs here are subtler, gentler, and more refined in terms of production, but lack the dramatic spark and raw energy of similarly-sounding tunes from Singles. The closest the band comes to a "Seasons (Waiting On You)" type hit is probably lead single "Ran", with interwoven melodic lines blowing out into a declarative chorus, backed by a steady beat and airy keyboard washes. However, the album highlight is undoubtedly "Shadow", which pairs Herring's deep croon with Blondie's Debbie Harry raspy voice; culminating in a magical duet which takes the band's sound into more adventurous territory. Too bad the majority of the record remains planted firmly in the "what works" realm rather than snaking off in more unexpected directions.

If retro revivalism is sputtering, no one has bothered to tell Future Islands, and beyond that, Samuel T. Herring shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as he sounds throughout The Far Field, the notion of forward momentum at all costs is beginning to show its age. No one, not even a man with a throaty growl and untamed heart, can keep running forever. Eventually, life catches up, and with it, all those predictable basslines and familiar synths.

 

Pillorian

 

Obsidian Arc

7

Living in a post-Agalloch world

by Jericho Cerrona


Forged from the ashes of black metal stalwarts Agalloch's recent demise, (a dissolution, by the way, stemming from intergroup conflict), Pillorian is a band who seeks to usher in the apocalypse by eschewing that former band's more ambient neo-folk tendencies and getting right to the heavy. Honestly, Agalloch vocalist/guitarist John Haughm took to propping himself up as the sole genius behind his band's grandiose mixture of layered riffs, shrieking vocals, and folksy post-rock textures, and subsequently, watched the entire enterprise collapse under the weight of sheer ego. 

At once familiar to fans of Agalloch as well as a shift away from some of the more progressive metal signifiers, Obsidian Arc fully commits to Haughm's method of fast-picking tremolos and full-throated vocals. The results are an album which, aside from a spare acoustic intro and outro on "By the Light of a Black Sun", sees Haughm, drummer Trevor Matthews, and guitarist Stephen Parker forging ahead with symphonic intensity. On tracks like "Archean Divinity", which begins as a doom-laden series of escalating riffs and thunderous drumming before exploding into blast beats and demonic vocal shrieks, and the ferocious Scandinavian-tinged black metal ripper "A Stygian Pyre", Pillorian simply lay down the sonic gauntlet. There's even a brief ambient guitar solo near the end of the latter song which speaks to the band's desire to overlay heaviness with moments of atmospheric texture.

Obsidian Arc will inevitably be linked to Agalloch's past work and by extension, will suffer from such comparisons. Whereas records like 2010's Marrow of the Spirit and 2014's The Serpent & The Sphere are both unqualified triumphs, Haughm's latest effort doesn't have the expectation-defying shifts in tone which caused such controversy in the notoriously strict community of black metal enthusiasts. If Agalloch opened up the parameters of what could be allowed within the genre; (bands like Krallice and Falls of Rauros have openly benefited from their success), then there was an expectation that Pillorian would perhaps further reinvent the wheel in some respects. This is an unfair assessment, of course, but still a natural reaction given Haughm's central involvement, and the foreboding slow build of dread and obsession with nature and rebirth have been replaced here with more streamlined breakneck shredding. There are isolated moments, such as the proggy ambient guitar tones on "The Sentient Arcanum" and the drone of closer "Dark is the River of Man", where Pillorian come close to approximating a more nuanced mode of instrumentation. However, the majority of Obsidian Arc, no matter how skillfully executed, stays in one or two modes of dark/black metal onslaught.

Still, Pillorian's ability to change tempo, shift melodies, and throw in some blood-curdling screams with gargantuan hooks, are on full display throughout. Haughm's self-proclaimed status as a "visionary" may have been at least partially unfounded, glossing over the indispensable contributions of his former bandmates in order to elevate his own cult, but his presence is nevertheless all over Obsidian Arc. If this slightly different, though familiar, direction with a new band feels a bit more rushed (both in terms of the relentless driving force of the songs as well as the opaque conceptual framework of the album as a whole), then it's probably because Haughm felt pressured to conjure classic black metal melodies rather than noodling with ebb and flow. Whatever the case, Obsidian Arc marks a debut of considerable power and pummeling force, only hiding briefly behind Agalloch's formidable shadow before stepping out into the light for some sonorous riffs and crushing doom.

 

 

 

Ty Segall

 

Ty Segall

7

Taking retro revivalism for a ride

by Jericho Cerrona


As of this writing, Ty Segall isn't even 30 years old, and yet he's already amassed a staggering catalog in the lo-fi garage rock scene which also birthed the likes of Thee Oh See's John Dwyer and Tim Cohen of The Fresh and Onlys. Along with side projects, collaborations, various EPs, and even a T. Rex covers album, Segall has taken the "more is better" Robert Pollard approach to songwriting, and has consequently been both praised and dismissed for such productivity. Obviously, being young and reckless has a lot to do with it, but Segall is seemingly on a mission to carry the 60s-influenced psych garage rock mantel for a whole new generation. On his latest self-titled release (his only previous self-titled came out in 2008), he compounds all of his obvious influences and past work into one cohesive vision.

Ty Segall feels like a collision of the classic rock of 2014's Manipulator and the glam punk balladry of 2012's Twins. There's little in the way of last year's brilliantly abrasive Emotional Mugger, a record which took the fuzzy psych to extremes by burying everything in muddy reverb and demonic vocals. Instead, Segall feels much more open to sharing and caring throughout his new effort; alternating between Bolan-esque glam, Beatles-cribbed balladry, and Kinks worship, among other things. Part of the problem with Segall's aesthetic has always been a tendency to wear his influences a bit too heavily, leading to a certain kind of sameness from album to album. However, if he's taking a cue from 60s artists which he undoubtably loves, then this near constant stream of content is not only understandable but necessary.  

Things kick off right away with "Break a Guitar", a crunchy ripper which isn't so much a primer for the remaining 10 tracks, but a statement of back-to-basics purpose. For Segall, raiding the late 60s/early 70s sonic closet is more of a loving patchwork for the kind of rock' n roll that doesn't exist anymore than an empty gesture toward nostalgia. There's heavy metal-sounding sludge ("The Only One") which recalls not only Black Sabbath but The Beatles in "Helter Skelter" mode, Syd Barrett-inspired folk ("Orange Color Queen"), and some pummeling Ramones-esque punk ("Thank you Mr. K). Segall masters all of these various mode effortlessly, but the real triumph is nearly 10-minute epic "Warm hands (Freedom Returned)", a monstrous combination of deranged vocals, squealing guitar solos, and noodling instrumental breaks which reveals Segall as a more ambitious songwriter than one might expect.

Not to be undersold is the fact that Segall is also working with a full band this time out; as regulars Charles Moothart (drums), Mikal Cronin (bass), and Emmett Kelly (guitar) are joined by newcomer Ben Boye on keys. Boye's contributions are especially noteworthy throughout; with jagged piano motifs providing a brief respite from the sounds of crunchy distortion and intertwining guitar leads. In his early days, Segall would play all of the instruments and self-record, but this time out he has legendary producer Steve Albini handling the recording and mixing duties. The iconic mastermind ditches the more low-end muddiness of earlier recordings (aside from the pop sheen of Manipulator) and embraces mid-fi production without losing the fuzz. Therefore, the more ballad-heavy songs, like "Orange Color Queen" and "Talkin" pop with texture, while standard garage punk numbers ("Break a Guitar, "Take Care To Comb Your Hair", "Thank You Mr. K.") crackle with grit and clarity. 

As a comprehensive survey of his musical preoccupations over the past decade, Ty Segall is a nifty entry point to all things Ty Segall. As a further indication of where another decade will take him, however, it's slightly more uncertain. Either way, you can put money on the fact that his signature guitar solos will keep zig-zagging and wailing on into the night. Long live rock n'roll. Just make sure to comb that long hair, man.

 

The Flaming Lips

 

Oczy Mlody

4

Cosmic flop

by Jericho Cerrona


The "what the fuck happened to The Flaming Lips?" narrative is, in some senses, completely natural given Wayne Coyne and company's decades-long desire to do whatever they want whenever they want. Since the band have entered the iconic psych pop canon with classics like 1999's Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the trajectory from seminal experimental outsiders to celebrity-trolling punching bags seems all the more alarming. However, for every misstep like 2006's At War with the Mystics, there have been adventurous lo-fi statements of purpose such as 2009's Embryonic, which suggested that Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins hadn't completely disappeared up their own asses.

2013's The Terror was another example of the Lips' pushing forward and exploring synth-driven ambience, but unfortunately, the relative success of that record was overshadowed by lame Beatles covers and ill-judged bong-rip sessions with Miley Cyrus. As it turned out, The Flaming Lips had gone from the niche band everyone admired to the bloated self-parody of grey-haired hippies doing too many drugs and seeing too many rainbow-colored wormholes. Had Coyne been able to sell all of this as some kind of commentary on mid-life crisis joining hands with over-sexed, strung out millennial privilege, then such annoying excursions could have had a degree of self-effacing context. However, somewhere along the line, The Flaming Lips forgot about the actual music. In true egomaniacal fashion, Coyne believed that the main draw of his band was simply their abrasive unpredictability rather than compelling songwriting.

On their 14th proper full-length Oczy Mlody, the Lips retreat inward by combining many of their old signifiers; demon frogs, rainbows, unicorns, and Pink Floyd-inspired acid psychedelia, with some of their more recent fixations; a Miley Cyrus guest spot, somber synths, hip-hop-influenced beats, etc. The results are an album which strains for a shroom-trance atmosphere and lyrical provocation that the band simply don't believe in anymore. When Coyne sings White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground/Legalize it-every drug right now/Are you with us are you burnin' out?/Kill your rock n'roll, motherfuckin' hip hop sound on "How??" the obvious intent is to engender a reaction, but the vibe of the song is so washed-out and unmemorable that the likely reaction will be a shrug. Elsewhere, Coyne's self-satisfied ramblings reach a pinnacle on "Galaxy I Sink", where he mutters How can the stars really know me now/When I fear their light will burn me up? It's a lame attempt at profundity where none exists, further exacerbating by the song's lush symphonic arrangement. Worst still is the ironic detachment which Coyne trots out at will here; with references to dayglo strippers, edible butterflies, and rainbow sluts being especially representative of the record's lyrical vomit. 

Truthfully, Oczy Mlody isn't a complete train wreck. It's much too subdued and sonically textured to be dismissed outright with any kind of passionate disdain, and it's tough to deny the tactile propulsion of "A Night While Wizard Hunting" or the pleasant blippy electronica of "Almost Home." However, what's missing here is the sense that The Flaming Lips are challenging themselves in some way or moving forward with a clear musical direction or thematic purpose. Though uneven, The Terror at least attempted to use ambient keyboards in order to accentuate Coyne's pessimistic lyrics concerning the breakup with his longtime partner and Drzod's relapse. On Oczy Mlody, The Lips have very little to say, clumsily trying to incorporate "hip" modern touches like auto-tune, pitch-shifting, and dreary wannabe hip-hop inflections to cover for a lack of substance.  

In interviews, Coyne has described Oczy Mlody as "Syd Barrett meets ASAP Rocky", and therein lies a huge problem since, for one thing, it's unclear which movement of Barrett's career he was referring to. Like Barrett, The Lips began as trailblazers only to steadily fall into appropriations of their own inflated pretensions. Misguided left turns such as the 24-hour gummy skull experiment, Yoko EP, Christmas piano album, countless limp cover records, and that Miley Cyrus debacle, have been signaling career implosion for some time now. Of course, The Flaming Lips know this and probably planned it out that way. Still, it's tough to remember a time when the cult of Coyne was referenced with hushed reverence rather than the kind of pained grimace which greets them now. Fittingly, Oczy Mlody ends with background in-studio chuckles from the group. At least someone is laughing.