Friday, August 31, 2012

Rick's Discoveries Volume XXVI

What's going on in my life will definitely influence what I listen to. When I'm depressed, I naturally gravitate towards doomy and gothic music. If I'm head-in-the-clouds happy, it's usually pop-punk or upbeat hardcore. Anger leads to deathcore. And so on… so with this eclectic mix of albums in front of you, I think it's safe to say I've been all over the place lately, both in music and life, but here's to hoping my scattershot listening habits at least net you a new album or two to check out!

Essence - The Defining Elements

At a very basic level, you can look at this album as an intro, an interlude, and 7 tracks of August Burns Red worship and you wouldn't be wrong. Not many metalcore bands trying their hand at the ABR style of metalcore do it very well. Essence, on the other hand, does. And that's all you need to know. If you want quality metalcore, here's an album for you.

Katabatic - Heavy Water

Any band that can bring to mind Isis in any way is going to get me to turn my ear their way. Katabatic evoke some Isis moments as they craft a mixture of atmospheric sludge with some post-rock leanings. The majority of these 7 tracks churn and ooze their way through your speakers, methodically pulsing and riffing as they move from beginning to end. At times it also almost feels like there's an upbeat undercurrent behind some of the band's riffs, but it is usually crushed under the weight of the band's thick wall of sound.

Landscapes - Life Gone Wrong

I really miss Modern Life Is War. They called it quits to soon. Luckily you can hear the echoes of their brand of hardcore in bands like Landscapes. This entire album is played at the mid-tempo, boiling-under-the-surface pace that MLIW was known for. You can also taste a bit of Defeater coming through from time to time. The emotional punch that this album packs into 30 minutes is stunning. Hardcore fanatics should not skip this album.

El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

This is a great year for experimental hip-hop with releases from both Aesop Rock and El-P. Unlike Rock's latest, which was laser focused on letting Rock's rhymes take center stage, Cancer 4 Cure is more so about big, booming beats and creative song structures. El-P still puts his flow on full display, but it isn't always the center focus, making many of the songs to be found extremely dynamic. Hip-hop fans, this is a can't miss album that you must check out.

Cypress Hill & Rusko - Cypress X Rusko

I really should hate this, and I'm sure most of you will actually hate this, but if you want some wobbly, brostepping hip-hop, you could do worse. The combo of pot-obsessed Cypress Hill and dubstep artist Rusko should have failed miserably, but if you find yourself looking for something that's banging to hammer through your headphones while hitting the gym, this should do. I'd actually be interested to see a full album collaboration between these two.

Scott Kelly - The Forgiven Ghost in Me

Kelly is known to most as being the voice of the legendary Neurosis, but he has a solo career that is just as dark, but not nearly as heavy. The Forgiven Ghost in Me is Kelly's third solo album, and it finds him continuing to craft haunting and depressing contemporary folk songs. These songs are sparse, desert-like affairs, but are so expertly put together that there is no way they won't elicit a sense of heartbreak and world-weariness inside of you.

Glass Cloud - The Royal Thousand

Here's a novel combination--post-hardcore, djent, and some prog metal. And, believe it or not, it actually appears to work! This album swings from moments that are more aggressive than Periphery's heaviest moments to post-hardcore passages that wouldn't sound out of place alongside something from Hands Like Houses. There's a bit more leaning on the heavier side of the spectrum, but the lighter moments are not simply there to give you a break--they're actually very well done and fit within the structures of the various songs.

Inborn Suffering - Regression to Nothingness

Death/doom metal is a tough genre to get into. You usually need lots of patience, have to have an appreciation for the genre's aesthetic, and you can't be scared away by wails, shrieks, and tempos slower than nearly any other genre. I don't often possess those traits, so it's a special death/doom album that can capture my attention. Inborn Suffering, despite most of their songs delving into 10+ minute territory, don't wear out their welcome. It's most likely due to their propensity to simply stretch and slow down the death/doom approach of band like Ghost Brigade orSwallow the Sun instead of falling into the trappings of adding in some funeral doom influences. Whatever it is, this is a spectacular death/doom metal album.

While She Sleeps - This Is the Six

This was a surprisingly release in that it made me fondly remember some of the things I loved about listening to bands like Trivium (before they turned into horrible Metallica wannabes), Unearth, Sanctity, and early As I Lay Dying--raspy vocals, full-on attacks on your eardrums, and a sense of genuine aggression. Whereas so many bands today seem to fake the metalcore approach (and you can hear the fakeness in most bands if you listen for it), this album feels aggressive with a purpose. The couple of instrumentals are really the only downside to an otherwise stellar metalcore album.

Polarization - Chasing the Light

The best way to describe this album is to say that this is very similar to what a combination of an instrumental version of TesseracT plus Dan Dankmeyer plus a bit of Paul Wardingham would sound like. If your tastes are anything like mine, simply mentioning those three names together should have you salivating. Chasing the Light is exactly what you'd expect when thinking of those names and the, by now, well-established djent template. It's 11 prime cuts of djent goodness!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Abel - Make It Right Album Review

In the past I've had a hard time when it comes to listening to Abel's music, mostly because of the extremely blatant and over-the-top Christian lyrics (see my comment in Decoy's review of The Honest Love). The underlying music was always a very competent emo/indie blend that's usually easy on the ears--inoffensive, measured dynamics, and just enough differentiation to stand slightly above background music. Those lyrics, though, were just too much to get past.

On Make It Right, Abel has matured greatly, shedding some of their tendencies to be simplistic songwriters and stick to overtly preachy lyrics. That's not to say they don't sometimes revert to some of these tendencies, but even from the outset when listening to "I'll Be Waiting" you know that this is a different band as they have a newly found edge to their music; there's a fury there that wasn't there before.

After the solid opening, "Fire Walk With Me" comes across as possibly one of the best songs on the album. Starting off with a chanted beginning, the song is able to capture the Christian beliefs of the band without being too cheesy, let's the band create a catchy indie emo vibe, and still introduces some southern flavor to the whole thing. If any song demonstrates how much this band has grown up, this is it.

In growing up, Abel also hearken back to the good ol' days of the early 00's emo scene where bands like Further Seems Forever, The Juliana Theory, and Jimmy Eat World reigned supreme. You can hear hints of each throughout the album at different points. Abel never directly rip off these stalwarts, but they are easily identified as influential components that guided the direction, whether blatant or not, of where Abel have traveled.

What keeps them from being mere clones is a combination of infusing their songs with an easy-going, southern, pop-rock component while also pulling in some minor, modern, post-hardcore tics. These tics mostly revolve around some of the more aggressive moments, like on the aforementioned opening track, or on "Fine Lines," or "Daughter," where they sometimes feel natural… but not completely in the band's wheelhouse quite yet. They add some much needed dynamics, but sometimes pull you away from the feel of the rest of the album.

It deserves mentioning one last time--these guys have definitely grown up, demonstrating that in some cases a band simply needs time to get to a point where they are confident, experienced, and mature enough to put forth a solid album. Abel are now a follow-up album away from cementing themselves as masters of this genre.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Spot On Energy Misses the Mark

I've been battling a very open addiction to caffeine for more than a decade now. I've come to terms with my addiction and have established a somewhat stable routine. I only binge on caffeine to assist in medicating migraines when they pop up. Otherwise, I've been quite good about sticking to a few cups of coffee and a Diet Coke in a day. Every now and again, I'll crack open a Monster instead of a Diet Coke, but I think I've finally moved past the days of needing to ingest pots upon pots of coffee every day.

However, that's not to say I'm still not intrigued by the crazy caffeine related products that pop up from time to time. When I noticed that someone made a caffeine patch, I figured I had to at least give it a try, and I'm glad I did because it proved that patches, while a nice novelty, aren't going to replace your usual liquid consumption of caffeine.

I ordered a sampler pack from Spot On and in reading the label, I found there's only 20 mg of caffeine per patch, which is pretty minimal. To put things into perspective, your usual cup of coffee usually has in excess of 100 mg. Spot On suggests you apply two patches at once (getting you 40 mg of go-juice), so if you buy 20 patches, realize you're only really getting 10 servings. Also, if you want to replicate the amount of caffeine you get in a cup of coffee, you're going to have to put 5 or more of these patches on yourself.

I tried an application of two patches, both of which were square, not round (as you'd assume from the packaging). And... it didn't do much. I maybe got a little bit of a pick-me-up, but it was nothing like a good ol' cup of joe would get you. And when you want to take them off, they don't come off easily. The adhesive is quite... adhering! I made the mistake of putting one patch on the inside of my arm where it got applied over a few hairs, which are no longer on my arm but are still attached to the patch. So at least you know the patches won't accidentally fall off while you're wearing them! They also left some sticky residue on my arm, which is kind of gross, but it did eventually rub off.

So, really, at the end of the day these supposed magic caffeine energy patches aren't really worth the hassle, price, or effort to use. I'd suggest just sticking with coffee or your favorite diet soda instead of getting these things stuck on you. It's a great idea... I think... but the execution just isn't there.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rick's Discoveries Volume XXV

Want to know what the key to true happiness is? New music. So here's some stuff to check out. Go. Be happy.

Sinew - Pilots of a New Sky

Progressive alternative rock has been a genre with some stellar bands cropping up in the last few years, as well as seeing stalwarts releasing superb efforts of their own. Sinew, on their sophomore effort, channel some of the best there is in the genre. They would fit right at home between listening toPorcupine Tree, Karnivool, Oceansize, and Junius. And if you even think about questioning Sinew's prog cred, just listen to the 13+ minute epic "The Descent to the Heart of Mount Sadhana."

Oddland - The Treachery of Senses

I'm surprised that there haven't been more progressive metal bands that try to marry some of the currently trendy metal styles (ie: djent, tech-death, etc.) with more classically accepted prog metal stylings (read: sounding like Dream Theater). Oddland take a stab at doing the new meets old sound by planting themselves firmly in the traditional prog metal realm while adding some slightly mechanical, TesseracT-ish guitar tones, some Opeth-like melodic sections, and even the occasional Leprous-like non-metal musical diversion. But don't be fooled by the name-dropping of those bands; Oddland is still very much a traditional prog metal band… they're just trying to evolve the sound a bit, and it definitely works!

3 Pill Morning - Black Tie Love Affair

Radio-rock is not usually my forte. There are some decent bands in the genre, but it feels like for every 10 Years I find there are about a hundred versions of Shinedown I have to wade through. 3 Pill Morning are one of the few decent bands to rise above the usual radio-rock fare. They have 10 Years' pacing, the occasional Chevelle tonality, and the chorus creating ability of Thousand Foot Krutch. This leads to an instantly listenable album, even if it's been done before.

Headspace - I Am Anonymous

Headspace is probably best described as a proggy prog rock band with some heavy prog metal influences. Yeah, if you haven't guessed, the name of the game here is… prog. You've got lengthy tracks, solos, multiple movements within songs, hints of pretentiousness… it's all here. So if you enjoy bands likeDream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Ayreon, or Fates Warning you should feel right at home listening to I Am Anonymous. It'll satiate any prog lover's appetite.

Endevor - 296 Above Parallels

How do I classify this album? It's definitely leans in a post-hardcore direction, but it's also filled with some pretty meaty riffs throughout… not a song (other than the intro) clocks in under 5 minutes… there are pieces of sludge metal influence to be found… but there's also some Junius-esque prog rock elements. And then you have the well placed piano and keyboards throughout. It's like you tossed together Hands, TesseracT, Emarosa, Junius, andCaspian into a salad bowl, tossed heavily, and had it for dinner… the ingredients are very diverse, but the combination simply can't be beat.

Bend the Sky - Origins

Australia, you are simply the country for good music nowadays. Bend the Sky will wow you with their mastery of symphonic & progressive styled instrumental metal. The key to a good symphonic metal album (in my mind) is well placed, accentuating, appropriate keyboard usage while the key to progressive metal is fluid movements throughout songs and a strong sense of being able to create necessarily complicated soundscapes. Bend the Sky does both of these things supremely well. It's like you mixed Dream Theater, Katatonia, TesseracT, and Within Temptation together, but kept vocals out of the mix. It's lovely.

It's pretty much a given that we'll never get old Minus the Bear back. That doesn't mean their influence can't still be felt in other bands, such as Mutiny on the Bounty. Whereas MtB have changed their focus to hone in on catchy songwriting, MotB feel solely focused on showing how technical they can be in the math/indie/post-hardcore realm. This isn't a bad thing at all, but it can leave you exhausted at times as you try to digest everything the band is doing. Thankfully, they toss in a few breaks, allowing you to catch your breath for the next intricate salvo of guitar and bass noodlery.

Violet - The Brightside

I'll admit right away that at times Violet try to stretch themselves a little too far, but I'd rather see a band pushing themselves than playing it safe. OnThe Brightside you'll no doubt pick up some Dance Gavin Dance influences, most notably in the combination of the clean vocals (which are very Johnny Craig-lite) and harsh vocals (which are slightly better than Jon Mess). There are some musical flourishes that are very DGD-ish as well, but you also have some more standard post-hardcore approaches to be found. I think these guys can really take off if they iron out some of their vocal issues (both vocalists really try to stretch their ranges too far).

BT - If the Stars Are Eternal so Are You and I

With all of my recent infatuations with dubstep and related styles of electronic music, I've sometimes forgotten about some of the artists that originally got me into electronic music. BT was one of those artists. He's slowly evolved throughout his career from doing more straight forward trance to soundtracks to ambient. With this album I think BT is at his strongest, creating sprawling audible landscapes, texturing his ambient style with some glitch and mellow dubstep elements. He demonstrates here he knows how to craft fully realized compositions that completely utilize their run times (4 of the 7 tracks on this album are 11 minutes long or longer). Epic ambience has never been a term I thought I'd use until I heard this album.

Lorn - Ask the Dust

As soon as you flip this album on, you'll instantly feel way cooler than you actually are. It'll feel like the world is moving in slow motion while you smugly take everything in; you're above it all and you know it. This album feels custom-crafted for slo-mo cinematic scenes. There's a deep low end that anchors everything, while pieces of downtempo dubstep litter the IDM landscape created. There's even a faint trip-hop vibe to some songs. Just go listen to this already and bask in your newfound awesomeness.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A Hero A Fake - The Future Again Album Review

You may or may not have complained about having to learn geometry in high school, wondering when you'd ever need to know what a rhombus was or when you'd use a logarithmically expanding curve. Since you may not have loved geometry, math, statistics, or any of those other classes you'll "probably never use," I'll keep it simple (something A Hero A Fake also did this time around… but I'll get to that shortly) and talk about a simple bell curve shape since A Hero A Fake's career trajectory, to this point, seems to fit it perfectly. So class, let's take a look at the figure below!

When Volatile presented A Hero A Fake to the metalcore world, it was pretty rough around the edges and there weren't a lot of fully realized, high-quality songs to be found. However, there was a lot of potential there that could be tapped, so on the figure above we see the band starting out around a 2 rating at the beginning of their career.

With Let Oceans Lie we saw exactly what A Hero A Fake was capable of. They tapped into their potential, creating some very solid, if slightly derivative, Between the Buried and Me styled progressive metalcore. The trajectory that the band was on from Volatile to Let Oceans Lie promised even greater things for the band in the future.

But then we have The Future Again… and with it gone are many of the progressive elements, replaced with breakdowns, underdeveloped songs, continued weak vocals, and a real lack of anything substantive. A Hero A Fake has regressed backwards to the level they were at when they first released Volatile which, if we extrapolate out further into their future, doesn't bode well for them.

Setting the graph above aside, it was quite a let down to sit through the extremely short 8 track album that is The Future Again. Even though it's classified as a full length, I'm hesitant to treat it as one. At under 28 minutes, it feels a lot more like a glorified EP to hold over fans until an actual release. It also feels like it was rushed out the door. I'm not sure if the band's intention was to purposely scale back their progressive metalcore tendencies to stick with a much more simple metalcore template, but they're definitely not flexing as many of their musical muscles as they had in the past, so when you listen to it alongside their other albums, it feels very, very lazy.

It should be noted, however, that this album is extremely polished and if you ignore the band's history, it's a relatively capable effort. But I just can't bring myself to look at this release divorced from the rest of the band's career, especially when they can still make a decent song that gives glimpses of where they could go, such as "Princess of the Sun," the album's closing track which, being the best of the album, leaves you begging for the band to give you more.

Let's collectively hope that A Hero A Fake isn't going to stick to this bell curve trajectory because it only foretells a horrible remainder to their career. Instead, I'll hold out hope that we're actually looking at a sine wave pattern, which would mean their next album should be back up to the level of Let Oceans Lie!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Halo Effect Book Review

The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive ManagersThe Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers by Philip M. Rosenzweig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've always loathed business books and management books because they all usually set out with the goal of providing you with some magic formula that will make your management style or business transformational! Data tells us so! The thing is, just like any magical investing formula, if it actually worked EVERYONE would be using it and it wouldn't be some secret that has been a mystery up until the publication of said book and after publication everyone would be using it. There is no magic bullet, and I'm glad The Halo Effect illustrated that.

However, this common sense principle of "no magic bullet" was stretched pretty far throughout this book. The first half of the book is simply examples of contradictory feelings on companies dependent upon performance and then illustration after illustration of halos existing. This is all good and well, but the point is made pretty quickly and I felt there was a bit of padding here.

Categorizing the different issues with some of the past business books was actually the most interesting piece of the book and it was a small section towards the end. I would have loved a more thorough breakdown of past business books and how their "results" were tainted by the various styles of halos. Alas, what is there is at least engaging.

At the end of it all, this is a good counterbalance to the myriad of management books out there that make you think you can do one specific thing to be a better manager or create a better company, but I feel it left a lot of unexplored territory on the table.

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