August 26, 2018

Alice In Chains - Rainer Fog Review

As a group that has shown perseverance and evolution through its tumultuous beginnings and tragic loss, Alice In Chains has become a shining example of an act who's show can, and must, go on. Jerry Cantrell, original founding member and songwriter of the group, learned to find his voice after the tragic overdose of legendary vocalist Layne Staley left him with no other choice but to step in and become the lead. Of course, all wouldn't have been as easily possible without enlisting the help of close friend and co-vocalist William DuVall. Through this questionable decision to continue on without their chief vocalist Staley, Alice In Chains have been able to grow into a healthy, heavy, and critically acclaimed second act in their career, first with the release of their 2009 comeback album Black Gives Way To Blue, and then in 2013 with The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. The loss of Staley can be felt, but the alchemy between Cantrell and DuVall created a new future for a band that was originally thought to never be able to get back on its feet. Now, with an equal split of albums through two generations of Seattle's defining grunge and alternative metal band, Rainier Fog is another step in the right direction for Alice In Chains, despite falling for some of the cliches of an aggressive band getting older, and some thematic material getting recycled.

When it comes to album artwork, Alice In Chains have always put forth a strong visual aesthetic in their covers, usually accompanied by a specific colored mood or theme. Starting most notably with probably their most acclaimed album, Dirt, with an orange filter over a girl lying in the desert, and followed up with their third eponymously titled album featuring a three legged dog licking his lips over a neon yellow (sometimes green) filter. This aesthetic is also very apparent on their last album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, featuring the skull of a triceratops over a red filter. As far as this continuity is concerned, the band seems to have rather abandoned the idea entirely and opted for a more lazy and obvious route of using the all-seeing eye, and pyramid Illuminati imagery. The artwork itself features a man walking into the pupil of the eye, which is enclosed in a faded outline of a sun, within a pyramid, and furthermore is surrounded by what's likely to be the forests of Washington state. Whether they felt somewhat of an obligation to put this as their album's artwork, or if they wanted to fit into a culture already saturated with this type of tiresome imagery, remains to be seen, but unfortunately, it becomes one of the most glaring missed opportunities of the band to refuse to make a statement all their own in terms of visuals.

The album opens with their first released single in promotion of Rainier Fog, "The One You Know", and it has all the classic Alice In Chains notes. It's a strong start to a new chapter, featuring the heavy guitar riffs and vocal harmonies that have defined them. Their title track follows close behind and builds up the driving energy that helps to carry listeners through the album. "Red Giant" takes on a more metal Slayer styled riff structure and it captures an essence to them that can't be matched by any of their metal rock contemporaries. There are plenty of tracks that make their play-throughs worthy for longtime fans, such as songs like "Fly" and "Maybe", taking their softer songwriting skills to the forefront. Most of their head bangers on here as well have their moments to shine, such as their second released single, "So Far Under", towards the final leg of the album. This is the Alice In Chains that has pervaded the minds of 90's youth, and haunted our musical imaginations since they stormed onto the grunge scene, to deliver the darkest and badass version of the musical movement. It is tracks like "So Far Under" and "All I Am", an unforgettable and defining closing track, that make the band feel like they haven't aged one bit.

Rainier Fog carves a special place in the already critically acclaimed discography of one of grunge's defining bands. As a full album, it never falters as much as it delivers more of what fans already love about the band. This entry can work as a fresh jumping off point for new fans, although I would personally recommend a chronological listen to fully appreciate how far they've come. Now with three albums post-Layne, there is an equal number of early versus later albums to explore, and Alice In Chains are proving that in their maturity, they have not even come close to hanging up their guitars.

Rainer Fog - 7.75/10

Recommended Tracks: The One You Know, Drone, So Far Under

August 11, 2018

Gorillaz - The Now Now Review

In terms of an all-encompassing artistic package, few bands come close to the audio-visual experience that is the Gorillaz. The only group that immediately comes to mind who truly comes close to or possibly exceeds in their musical and visual cohesion may be an act such as Tool, but not many bands show as much complete dedication to their visual aesthetic as Gorillaz, a co-collaboration between British singer-songwriter Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett. These two members have worked in tandem with each other to birth a mythology of virtual cartoon band members to go along with their albums, singles, and music videos. These four members, named Murdoc, Russel, 2-D, and Noodle, broke through the rock, electronic, and hip-pop mainstream consciousness with their storied music videos and live, projected stage presence with Albarn and his backing band. Just a year after releasing their feature-stuffed, colorful, and somewhat polarizing album Humanz, their legacy continues with their spontaneously released follow up, The Now Now.

After receiving some criticism for Humanz having the most guest features and collaborators to date, a hallmark ingredient of Gorillaz songwriting, Albarn and Hewlett opted to cut a record with significantly less guests, and decided to focus on an album primarily geared toward Albarn's singing and the band's live performance, which was recorded in a short span of time to be ready to debut during 2018's summer festival season. This process has only been replicated for their 2010 album The Fall, which Albarn recorded solely on his iPad during their Escape to Plastic Beach Tour, and subsequently didn't require any extensive planning or studio sessions with multiple guests. It's the only Gorillaz album which has been released in quicker succession than The Now Now, having been released in December, the same year as their third album, Plastic Beach. Albarn has stated about The Now Now that he wished to push out a new album similar to The Fall, but have it feel more cohesive and complete, and to make it more focused on his band's live performance as they prepared for touring in 2018.

As evidenced in the album title and artwork, Gorillaz seem to have taken a turn from the meticulously planned out, heavily produced, and sometimes experimental, Humanz for a spontaneous songwriting session in the studio, making music as it comes to them in the now. The artwork itself, featuring a bright and playful color scheme and virtual member 2-D, lead singer of the group, sitting on a stool and playing an electric guitar, lends to the credence that The Now Now is more rock, or live performance centric. Also a nod to this: their first feature is jazz guitarist George Benson on their opening track and first single, "Humility". As The Now Now plays out, it's apparent that Albarn took a highly optimistic approach in creating this piece of work, as it diverts in tone and atmosphere from its sometimes brooding predecessor. The feel good nature of "Humility" sets the vibe for the rest of the album, and is a positive message for anyone who needs a pick-me-up or motivation to be the best versions of themselves, as Albarn sings in the chorus, "Reset myself and get back on track, I don't want this isolation, see this state I'm in now?" Albarn seems to have reset himself and humbled himself for the music on this record.

"Tranz", the second track, follows the same energy wave of the opener, and turns on the synth pop dance vibes, as Albarn wants to put listeners into a "trance". "Oscillate yourself tonight, when you're in your bed, assimilate the dopamine, I send through your head, when you get back on Saturday night, And the room is cavin' in, do you look like me, do you feel like me, do you turn into your effigy, do you dance like this, forever?" Albarn doesn't shy away from suggestive subject matter, and his climax in the chorus doesn't hesitate release a groovy and subversive energy, brewing with sexual awakening. Albarn insists that we are all cut from the same cloth, and we burn our effigies (shame) as we release the stress of our hard and busy days. This ecstasy, anthropomorphized in music, elevates Albarn to one of the most clever songwriters in modern day. "Hollywood", the third track, and only hip-hop centric song, opens with funkadelic gyrating bass and bubbly synth-y beats, is the final track to feature guest artists: Jaimie Principle and Snoop Dogg, who reprises himself from Gorillaz' opening track "Welcome To The World of The Plastic Beach". The final single to be released thus far, "Hollywood" fits into the album well enough, and doesn't take anything away from the rest of the mood in the album.

Other notable songs in this trim album include the forward moving "Sorcererz", with notable, positive lyrics, "Everybody hold on, everybody hold onto your inner vision", and the funky festival dance track, "Lake Zurich". Before you know it, the album ends with "Souk Eye", a gentle acoustic closer which builds with bossanova vibrations. The Now Now begs listeners to be played again, making this Gorillaz' shortest album to date, running just 11 tracks and 40 minutes long. When compared to their previous offerings, this album would be a perfect jumping off point for any new listeners of the group, while offering a breath of fresh air to any longtime fans who have grown a bit tired of their experimental and genre bending ways in Plastic Beach and Humanz. It is the most cohesive and straight-forward release that Albarn and Hewlett have put together, making The Now Now a must-listen for any fans of electronic, pop, or rock music.

The Now Now: 8/10

Recommended Tracks: Hollywood, Sorcererz, Lake Zurich