Tag Archives: concept album

Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

Mastodon - Emperor of Sand coverFor the best part of the last two decades Mastodon have carved a path through hard rock and heavy metal that is all their own. Often combining conceptual themes with crushingly heavy sounds they have gained a formidable reputation across six albums and have now release their seventh, Emperor of Sand.

From the off everything one would expect is here as the four-piece build from a clear influence from metal originators Black Sabbath to create a sound that marries thrash, doom, stoner and prog into a unique package.

Within all of this the band find a core that is remarkably accessible and this really comes to the fore on Show Yourself that has a sing along type streak and hook laden feel that almost takes it into pop metal territory.

Precious Stones meanwhile brings elements of the concept, based around time, to the fore in impressive style before Steambreather shows the band’s groovier tendencies excellently and that’s followed by several moments that I can’t help but think current Metallica is ironically striving (and largely failing) to emulate.

Mastodon

Mastodon

Across the record as a whole there’s a feeling that Mastodon are doing their best to fill every space  with a sound of some sort and, while in the hands of some this could be unbearable, they balance it out so nothing is overriding something else and, while it can be claustrophobic at times, it never feels like this isn’t the band’s intent.

That said there are moments where it feels like Brent Hinds might be heading slightly too far into guitar histrionic territory but it stays just the right side of being over the top and just feels like guys who can play and aren’t ashamed to hide it.

As the record goes on it builds in power and intensity with largely clean vocals giving way to more abrasive sounds and the soaring solos are matched by swirling riffs escalating it all into a maelstrom of sound that could easily derail things but comes with a smoothness often not present in more experimental metal (not that it always needs to be, but here it fits perfectly). This all reaches a bracing crescendo on Scorpion Breath.

Mastodon liveThis is all brought to a point on final track Jaguar God that seems to do everything the preceding 10 tracks have done in seven and a half minutes as it weaves its way from a piano and acoustic opening to an astral plane tripping climax that, like the rest of Emperor of Sand, continues to stake Mastodon’s claim as one of the most interesting heavy bands coming out of America this century.

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Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

foo fighters sonic highwaysMuch like many concept albums that came before it the idea of Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways could, on paper, sound massively self-indulgent. Across eight tracks the band travelled around the USA visiting eight cities and in each city visiting a different iconic studio to record a song.

What sets this apart from being an exercise in pure self-indulgence is two-fold. First is that the album they came up with in these unique circumstances is, somewhat bizarrely, one of the Foo Fighters’ most consistent albums to date.

Second is that as well as visiting these cities band leader Dave Grohl continued his new-found love of film, first seen in Sound City, by making a documentary TV series focusing on the musical culture of each city, while taking a behind the scenes look into the album’s recording.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways album cover

Sonic Highways album cover

The album itself is a great modern rock record, combining everything that has made the Foo’s reputation so far, but with an added sense of exploration and maturity.

As with much of their previous material there are hints here of where the band came from with grungy overtones and screamed vocals still present. These are tempered with huge melodies that feel custom-built to fill stadiums and festivals come the summer.

Along with that comes the more conceptual end of things where stylistic flourishes, lyrical nods and guest musicians related to each city are added to the usual Foo Fighters mix to create something extra.

While these could be overlooked on a quick listen they are there and reward re-listening brilliantly, like references and ‘Easter eggs’ in movies, just in appropriately sonic form.

Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl

While Sonic Highways is certainly the closest the Foo Fighters have come to so-called ‘Dad Rock’ it retains enough of the edge of the band members’ shared musical history to set it apart and make it a great album.

While it may not have stand out ‘singles’ like many of their other records, this new-found consistency is refreshing in an often ‘shuffle’ centric musical world.

While the album is very enjoyable by itself, it really comes into its own after absorbing the accompanying documentary series.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways TV series

Sonic Highways TV series poster

It would be very easy for Grohl and his crew to have taken the easy approach here by telling the obvious stories of each city, but, while these are reflected, each episode adds a personal level.

This varies from the intense connection the band has to Washington DC, Seattle and Los Angeles to the more exploratory links to Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville and Austin while the series’ climax in New York City brings it all back together.

Across the series a real insiders view of the band in the studio is also presented as we see their crew rigging the studios and the band working out the songs and recording them over the course of a few days in each location, while producer Butch Vig gives some brief but surprisingly in-depth insights into the nature of the work he and the band are undertaking.

Much like the album this comes together into something fascinating and highly enjoyable whether your interest lies in the musical heritage explored or the behind the scenes glimpse into the world of one of the rock’s biggest bands.

Butch Vig

Butch Vig

The real highlight of the whole project comes in its conclusion where Grohl, during an interview with US President Barrack Obama, puts the work into the context of a wider American culture and the notion of the ‘American dream’.

Alongside this comes a more universal idea of how the perception and value of music and culture seems to be evolving for good or bad depending on your point of view

While its conclusion is, possibly, a little on the positive and sugar-coated side (as you might expect coming from a band making millions from their art) it also leaves questions open and introduces ideas that leave the more adventurous viewers with a starting point from which to explore many new avenues of music and culture.

This makes Sonic Highways a genuinely successful conceptual, multi-media, work from a band firmly planted in the current mainstream – though I got the feeling each episode had a lot more to say that their hour run time allowed.

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The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys – Gerard Way, Shaun Simon and Becky Cloonan

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys coverReleased as six-part run by Dark Horse Comics, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is a spin-off to the final album by My Chemical Romance. While I am a fan of the album, the idea of taking its fairly more thematic than narrative concept and turning it into a comic book led me to approaching it with a certain sense of apprehension.

Prior to this I had read Gerard Way (MCR frontman) and Gabriel Ba’s The Umbrella Academy series and very much enjoyed it. It’s off kilter sense of b-movie pastiche, superteam and obscure pop culture references perfectly balance a sense of humour with some surprisingly dark themes. This though, just from the cover artwork, seemed to be something else.

With writing duties divided between Way and Shaun Simon there are moments where what Way showed in The Umbrella Academy poke through but, for the most part, the story mixes generic, post-apocalyptic, locations and characters with a generally paper-thin and at times downright confusing plot.

Rather than telling the story of the album it seems to be more bothered by getting in as many track names as possible while also labouring some very obvious moral moments.

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys artworkThe story is divided into two. One side focuses on a group of outlaws in the desert, the titular Killjoys, along with a potentially messianic young girl and a pair of pirate radio DJs.

The other deals with the inhabitants of Battery City (a 1984-lite development) and specifically a pair of ‘porno droids’ who have fallen in love but one of who’s batteries is failing and Korse a chief Scarecrow of the ruling powers but who is discovered to be in love as well and therefore becomes something of an outlaw himself.

This setting is, it would seem, several years after the events of the album’s loose story and so the original Killjoys, the characters portrayed by the band in the record’s promo material, aren’t really involved and are instead transformed into heroic legends, though we never really find out what made them so heroic.

My Chemical Romance

My Chemical Romance – The original Killjoys

This is problematic as the main target audience for the book, and certainly myself, would surely rather prefer the story of their heroes rather than some dubious extrapolated other.

Other than this though the main problems with the book are that the tone is hugely imbalanced. It is at once hugely simplistic, particularly in its moralising, but deals with some rather dark issues with Room 101-like torture implied and generally vein of nastiness that, while never as graphic as the likes of Preacher, doesn’t sit with the younger aimed core.

The other problem is in the artwork from Becky Cloonan. While the colour scheme is entirely in keeping with its source with bright and vibrant colours on the Mad Max-esque desert folk and monochrome tones in the city, the actual drawing style is very flat and lacks detail.

DraculoidsBecause of this the whole thing seem rushed and generic and doesn’t add adding anything of its own to an already well established genre.

If I weren’t a fan of My Chemical Romance I really can’t see there being much to appeal in The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, and, while it isn’t really bad, it’s not really very good either and just felt somewhat empty and pointless, particularly when compared to The Umbrella Academy. I can’t help but think if Way had had the time to develop it like he did that other series, it could have been a far better piece of work.

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Gerard Way – Hesitant Alien

Gerard Way - Hesitant AlienFollowing hot on the heels of his former band mate, Frank Iero’s, Stomachaches, ex-My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has released his much hyped debut album, Hesitant Alien, on the world.

From a first glance at the album cover, as well as the title, its clear that Way is taking some influence from Bowie, but that’s more on the design side of things than the music, as what’s on the disc (or download depending on your preference) is very clearly Gerard Way.

Continuing where My Chemical Romance’s last album Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys left off, but with something else thrown in too, Hesitant Alien is a bit of a mish-mash of sounds that seems designed as a concept album, but one where the concept never entirely coalesces.

So while opener The Bureau seems designed to pull us into the world of Way’s new alter-ego (an idea he’s been toying with at least since The Black Parade if not ever since forming My Chemical Romance) which is backed up through all the associated visuals, the rest of the album comes and goes in terms of reflecting this, which, at times, leaves the whole thing feeling a bit disjointed.

That said, individually there are some great sounds here.

2014_gerardway_reading_AF_22.08.14-0794While Britpop has been heavily mentioned in other reviews it is only a small part of the overall vibe on offer. As well as this there are moments of grunge, pop, rock and electronic with a bit of glam thrown in for good measure and something of a debt to Iggy Pop and The Stooges too. Quite tellingly as well, there is nothing even close to the punk or emo-core that made Way’s name in the mid-2000s.

At its best this mix of styles creates a kind of alternate reality sci-fi pop, with fuzzy guitars and bass, some pounding rhythms and Way’s distinctive vocals. At its worst the album is some decent, if not astounding, pop-rock and, while there is certainly nothing bad on the record, there’s not a lot (on the first few listens at least) that really stands out as a sure-fire killer song, though ‘singles’ Action Cat and No Shows come close.

In the end Hesitant Alien sounds like an artist trying to find their sound, an understandable position for a debut solo record, and has some very good, catchy pop-rock with a nice amount of fuzz laced through it. Following the weight of expectation, though, it doesn’t quite set the world on fire like it was clear many had hoped, and some are claiming, it does, though there is definitely something here worth listening to and a lot of promise for what’s to come.

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Whitechapel Murders – Dune Hexalogy EP

Whitchapel Murders - Dune EP coverEven before you get to the music the arrangements of instruments in Whitechapel Murders let you know that what is come is not conventional. Comprised of two bass guitars (played by Dave Spars and Kyle Lopes) and drums (Chris Day) the trio make music that, so far, has been largely inspired by mid 20th Century sci-fi, so, following on from their debut EP predominantly based on Orwell’s 1984, we get their long hinted at work drawing on Frank Herbert’s epic Dune series.

Starting with a wall of sound the music coalesces into God Emperor which draws on the sounds of David Lynch’s film version of the book to create a soundscape that uses noise to paint a picture of the vast empire and the sprawling history and genealogy on which Dune is based.

(l-r) Dave Spars, Chris Day and Kyle Lopes

(l-r) Dave Spars, Chris Day and Kyle Lopes

At this point I’ll point out I am a fan of both the books and, in a sense, the film, and I think that without knowledge of these things the themes may not coalesce in the same way – that said, from a musical point of view, I don’t think this knowledge is essential.

It is in this first track that we get the sound that has marked Whitechapel Murders since their formation as the two bass guitars take turns to create what could be described as ‘rhythm’ and ‘lead’ parts while their sounds swirl together and are joined by the off-kilter beat of the drums to create not just a soundscape but a ‘spacescape’ appropriate for the subject matter.

Whitechapel Muders - Chris and KyleAs the EP goes on the tracks draw on everything from stoner rock and doom to extreme metal and avant-garde rock, with Dave Spars’ vocals barking and crooning within the mix adding an extra layer to the sound that comes to the fore at times but at others joins the instrumental noises to add to the atmosphere.

Each track has a title taken from the books and deals with motifs and ideas relevant to them so, on Atreides, we are confronted with the existential angst of the series lead character, Paul Muad’dib, while on Harkonnen we get a sense of the industrial destruction of the antagonists and Children of Dune and Arrakis, Dune, Desert Planet paints a picture of the world the stories are set on and its Fremen inhabitants conflict with outsiders.

Whitechapel Murders - Dave SparsThis all comes together on the EP’s epic closer Messiah which sprawls and swirls across eight minutes of jarring sounds, music and samples to create a dense piece that, like every track here, can at once get heads nodding and brains ticking depending on how you want to listen.

If heavy and noisy isn’t your thing then its unlikely you’ll find much in this EP, however, if you like to push the boundaries of music into territories that are less often seen and explore a dense world of sound, then Whitechapel Murders’ Dune EP is certainly worth exploring.

You can download the EP via the band’s Bandcamp page.

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