Showing posts with label Masterpiece. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Masterpiece. Show all posts

October 11, 2020

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #3: Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral Masterpiece Album Review

Alternative and grunge rock were left for dead in the wake of Alice In Chains' punishing grunge-metal-hybrid album, Dirt, which we covered in our Masterpiece Crate #2. It was an album that ignited mainstream culture in a way that no other heavy metal act could do at the time, and there was almost no way another album could top the sheer aggressive tones and tonal density caught on tape and pressed into their sophomore record. However, another challenger approached, just two years later, and this time, it brought another genre with it into the worldwide spotlight. To call this album mainstream (despite its worldwide commercial success) would be a disservice to its ultimate goal, which was to peel back the skin of superficiality, but its overall effect on mainstream culture still reverberates to this day. This album shook the world with its naked honesty in its final track, while still showing the world how sexy, dirty, and seductive it feels getting closer to God. That album became known as The Downward Spiral, released in 1994 by studio mastermind, visionary, and musician, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.

If you've noticed a trend in this Masterpiece Crate series of articles, it's that up until this point, each group created their masterpiece record in their second albums: Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and now Nine Inch Nails used their first albums as testing grounds to find their sound and ended up crafting extraordinary works of art in the second go-around. Trent Reznor, a classically trained pianist who grew up in the rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, didn't have a particularly rough childhood. Growing up with his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced, he states that nothing was particularly affecting that might have influenced his musical output, other than the isolation and loneliness of small-town, USA. A big influence up to this point was all of Reznor's mainstream media: television and magazines that portrayed an American lifestyle of superficial vanity, all of which was alien to him at the time.

After a year of college, Reznor dropped out and moved to Cleveland, Ohio to become an assistant engineer and custodian at the Right Track recording studio. In his free time, he was allowed to record raw demos of music that he envisioned. From these demos spawned his classic, debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, but his refinement wasn't complete until The Downward Spiral, which was recorded in the infamous (and likely haunted) Manson murder house in California. Whether this ominous essence was somehow burned to tape is up for speculation, but it is undeniable that the overall themes throughout this concept album, which chronicle nihilism and self-destruction, is a chilling tale of loneliness and despair, and unlike the previous entries of this series, has so much insight to be gained by being the first concept album to be covered. Its series of tracks can be related to by all those who have felt down and out about society, and for that, it takes its place as a masterpiece of modern culture. Now finally, on to the music. 

The Downward Spiral Package Artwork

The opening track of the album, Mr. Self Destruct, opens up the album with the unmistakable and chilling sounds of a slow, beating drum, which sounds more like a pulverizing blow as a person in the mix moans in pleasure (or torture). As Pinhead of Hellraiser would say, "Ah, the suffering. The sweet, sweet suffering," and there is a definite motif in this album of sadomasochism that occurs from the act of self-harm or inflicting pain on others. Reznor comes in at the height of the drumbeat and speaks as the vices and temptations for the central character of the album, who for all intents and purposes will be referred to as the protagonist from henceforth. "I am the voice inside your head (and I control you), I am the lover in your bed (and I control you), I am the sex that you provide (and I control you), I am the hate you try to hide (and I control you)." It's a cryptically poetic set of lyrics that set the stage for the many themes of the album, and it cuts to the core of what pushes this tortured soul down the path to self-destruction. 

Piggy and March of the Pigs, two songs that reference an animal used for many themes, such as gluttony, unclean desires, greed, and probably even a reference to the verbiage used by the Manson family, are defined by their introductions to the other agents of the album that the protagonist sees as lesser beings and disgusting in their desires or motives. The protagonist's attempt to address the pigs is a theme that has recently been explored in mainstream culture with Joaquin Phoenix's mesmerizing turn as the DC Comic Books villain Joker, which is itself inspired by the 1976 Scorsese picture Taxi Driver. Both films dealt with a central character whose disgust for society and overall view of the city streets as a cesspool of disease, addiction, and prostitution, sought to remedy the ills by their own means, which led to violence and a self-righteous effort to justify their actions. Piggy is the protagonist's attempt to address those who have left him to rot, "Black and blue and broken bones you left me here I'm all alone" and "what am I supposed to do I lost my shit because of you." The semi-downtempo and jazzy number serves as an introduction to how the protagonist feels about being betrayed by other people in his life. It is the very first song in the NIN legacy that features the repeated line throughout multiple releases "Nothing can stop me now, because I don't care anymore." An interesting producer note about Piggy is its latter half drum solo, which was performed by Reznor himself and was meant as more of a studio soundcheck, except Reznor, liking its disjointed and chaotic style so much, decided to keep it for the song's final take. March of the Pigs is the protagonist's view of society, and how the pigs like to tear down the people of higher standing and watch their downfall "I want to break it up, I want to smash it up, I want to fuck it up, I want to watch it come down, maybe afraid of it, let's discredit it, let's pick away at it, I want to watch it come down." 

Heresy tackles another popular theme of The Downward Spiral, the problem with religion and belief systems that the protagonist feels has plagued the world. It is important to note how directly this song is a product of Nietzsche's popular rendition of the phrase "God is dead", originally written by German philosopher Philipp Mainländer. Nietzsche's reinterpretation claims that the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of scientific discovery gave way to the decline of religion or faith-based ideas and that the role of God and His significance was diminished as more people turned their trust to science and naturalism. Not only this theory, but the protagonist's view of religion as one of the leading causes of war and genocide are felt throughout the lyrics, "He tries to tell me what I put inside of me, He's got the answers to ease my curiosity, He dreamed a god up and called it Christianity," and "He flexed his muscles to keep his flock of sheep in line, He made a virus that would kill off all the swine, His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering, and pain, demands devotion atrocities done in his name," is answered by the scathing declaration "Your God is dead, and no one cares, if there is a Hell, I will see you there."

Closer Heartbeat Music Video Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral

Closer, the worldwide phenomenon, is a sexy, albeit desperate attempt, by the protagonist to reconnect with humanity and spirituality through the act of sexual intercourse. As if any non-Nine Inch Nails fan didn't already know this obvious fact, that Closer was about "I wanna fuck you like an animal" and getting "closer to God", Closer was an industrial-disco hybrid track that ended up being a repeat hit on the rock radio airwaves and signaled that the 80s arena rock and 90s grunge rock were now relics of a more distant time, and the electronic-industrial-rock fusion that Nine Inch Nails offered was the new wave of even more dangerously satisfying music that was here to stay in pop culture. Nothing of the time could come close to Closer's pervasiveness and perversion of getting closer. Its opening industrial heartbeat, timid singing by Reznor, and scowling primal chorus define its sweaty dance vibes. It is the desperate plea by the protagonist to satisfy his most basic instincts, and hopefully, in the process, find something, or someone, to reconnect to, but ultimately this act isn't enough to save his soul, and he is pulled by his past memories into much, much darker territory, with the close follow-up song, Ruiner. 

Ruiner and The Becoming are both transitionary tracks for the protagonist in this story, and they both are dealing with entirely separate issues that some people who've dealt with trauma and addiction can relate to. Listen closely, as Ruiner is one of the most bone-chilling songs on the record, which is tough by The Downward Spiral's standards. "The Ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe, the Ruiner's your only friend well he's the living end to the cattle he deceives, the raping of the innocent you know the Ruiner ruins everything he sees, now the only pure thing left in my fucking world is wearing your disease." Childhood trauma with a molester and abuser makes the almost unintelligible lines all the more shocking and haunting. "Maybe there will come a day when those that you keep blind will suddenly realize, maybe it's a part of me you took to a place I hoped it would never go, and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know." The protagonist can't get right with God or right with others if his life is plagued by the Ruiner, and Reznor's production work to make this song a vibrating well of sounds doesn't pull any punches either. After his lines "What you gave to me, my perfect ring of scars, you know I can see, what you really are," the drums break away momentarily, and the fuzzy atmosphere is greeted by a bit-crushed guitar solo performed by Reznor himself. Similar to the drum solo in Piggy, Reznor displays a special aptitude for each of these instruments, and both exude a dusty and jazz-like swing in their performances. They speak to the unique attributes and moments that really make The Downward Spiral shine. It isn't long before the industrial drums march to the tune while the protagonist repeats, "You didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me, you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now." The Becoming, the immediate follow-up, is the climactic metamorphosis track of the album and chronicles how the protagonist loses all humanity and allows the cold nihilism to take over his being. The character Annie, who the protagonist refers to, is a legitimate source of emotional pain for Reznor, a past heartbreak that allowed him to channel all the teeth-grinding hurt and rage that encapsulates The Becoming, "Annie, hold a little tighter I might just slip away." The beat that stampedes through this track afterward is full of organic and electronic noises, unlike any other song that's come before it, and it screeches and hollers as the protagonist loses all gound with what it means to be human. 

Trent Reznor 90s Era The Downward Spiral Performing Live
I Do Not Want This, the protagonist's quiet resolve to his fate is highlighted by the industrial drum loops and his vulnerability. "I'm losing ground, you know how this world can beat you down, I'm made of clay, I fear I'm the only one who thinks this way." The timid singing and subsequent whispers start to become buried in the suffocating mix, which almost gives the sensation of drowning in the noise. Eventually, the protagonist erupts in anger and rage, "Don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, you don't know just how I feel!" The buildup and contrast of the protagonist's self-doubt, heavy machine drum loops, and eventual screaming that he wants to "know everything", "be everywhere", "fuck everyone" and "do something that matters" crashes right into Big Man With A Gun,  and it peels off the skin of regret to become the ultimate example of madness and violent male toxicity. There's not much more that needs to be said for this aural assault on sensibility, other than it hits the hardest of all the preceding tracks. It is the epitome of the protagonist's rage, all wrapped into a song that marries the abuse of power and hatred of women into one. It's sudden, unapologetic, and brutal, but it is also Reznor's response to the misogyny in mainstream hip-hop and popular culture. As sudden as Big Man With A Gun blasts through the speakers is the sudden quietude of the instrumental self-reflective track A Warm Place. The only peaceful and tranquil song of the album, the damage has been done, and the protagonist hasn't had much room to breathe or understand the consequences of his actions. The few fleeting moments of clarity soon gives way to the slowly growing and buzzing reverberation of the industrial monolith, Eraser. 

Eraser is another big moment in The Downward Spiral's mythos, and it's distinct in its slow-burn, industrial place-setting. The protagonist of this story has to come to terms with the person that he damaged and abused, coming full circle with the cycle of abuse that cast him down this path of destruction. The protagonist says all he needs to say in the final moments of the song, "Need you, dream you, find you, taste you, fuck you, use you, scar you, break you, lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me." The protagonist now turns the hate unto himself, all set to heavy metal guitar riffs and growing distortion and abrasions in the mix. Reptile, a NIN concert favorite, defines the relationship of the protagonist with a past lover as one riddled with betrayal, infidelity, abuse, and impurity. The protagonist attempts to justify his actions through a scathing characterization of his lover. "Oh my beautiful liar, oh my precious whore, my disease my infection, I am so impure." There is a thread of truth as the protagonist acknowledges himself, and whether or not their relationship was as plagued as he claims is up to interpretation, but ultimately, it's this slow decline in self-referential hatred that leads the protagonist to his final act in The Downward Spiral, and his haunting epilogue, Hurt.  

Trent Reznor Barbed Wire The Downward Spiral Era Press Photo
The Downward Spiral is the protagonist's final thoughts, as he "couldn't believe how easy it was, he put the gun into his face, Bang! (So much blood for such a tiny little hole)." The narrator's perspective is half-omniscient, half from the protagonist himself, as he describes the act in a chilling, casual conversation-like tone. It refers back to the protagonist, most likely the afterthought of his soul leaving his body, "Everything's blue in this world, the deepest shade of mushroom blue, all fuzzy, spilling out of my head." A final echo of the pain and suffering that the protagonist has gone through resonates for the remainder of the track, before dissolving into Reznor's arguably most famous song. 

Hurt couldn't be any more painful than it already is, but Johnny Cash reinvented and took ownership of Reznor's song in a way that puts it in an entirely new perspective. Still, Cash's Hurt couldn't exist without Reznor's own masterful ode to despair and regret. It opens with a shockingly bare-bones approach, and the protagonist gives listeners a final word on the feelings of a person that has ended up so damaged by the end, and whether or not any of it was worth it. "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real, the needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting, try to kill it all away, but I remember everything." The protagonist continues as he reminisces on what he has done and addresses a person he loves. The self-pity and depression in his reflections can relate to any person who experiences regret, and that's what makes this song so powerful and a concert mainstay whenever Nine Inch Nails performs live. The final chorus is an admission of defeat while promising if he ever got another chance to do it again, he would not go down The Downward Spiral of self-destruction. "You could have it all, my empire of dirt, I will let you down, I will make you hurt, if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way."

Nine Inch Nails was propelled into worldwide stardom with The Downward Spiral. Its unapologetic and tragic story burned itself into the ears of fans as a cautionary tale, and its two radio sensations, Closer and Hurt, couldn't be more apart from mainstream music clichés. As the world was about to reel from the infamous and suspicious death of grunge rock heartthrob Kurt Cobain, Reznor introduced the world to an even dirtier and darker (than Alice In Chains' Dirt) form of rock, and brought industrial to the main stage of popular culture. The studio work was so unlike any other album at the time that it still feels modern over a quarter-century later and continues to be discovered by new generations. Reznor's legacy will ultimately be defined by both this album, and our upcoming entry in our Masterpiece series, his follow-up masterwork, 1999's double album The Fragile. 

Trent Reznor Nine Inch Nails

Recommended Tracks: Piggy, The Becoming, Reptile

August 30, 2019

DJ Dark Flow’s Masterpiece Crate #50: Tool - Fear Inoculum

It is rare that I pass down perfect scores on albums, but when I do, it is entirely earned by the artists through pure ingenuity, vision, cohesion between members, and production value. Tool is one of those bands, and 2019’s Fear Inoculum is one of those albums. This review also serves as my masterpiece series entry number 50, as it fits chronologically after my 49th listed album that I still have to write about, and at the same time shifts my sequential writing order significantly since I have only written a couple of articles in this series thus far (my next article will be about the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral). My masterpiece crate series will occasionally grow beyond the big 5 0 and my original 49 album collage in my introductory article, but for all intents and purposes, this needs to be done to keep up with the release dates of current albums which rise to this rare occasion.

What can be said of the highest-anticipated metal album of all time after a 13 year gap between Tool's last album, 10,000 Days, and this one, other than its expectations have grown to mammoth proportions since 2006's studio effort. The band's never-faltering fanbase remained as loyal as ever to wait, sometimes ironically and jokingly referring to the next album's release coming "at some point in the next 30 years", but never losing faith that their heroes would return. This year, they have, after many years of sparse updates, delays, evasiveness and snarky comments by members, most notably lead singer Maynard James-Keenan, who grew tired of the all-important question, "When is the new Tool album coming out?" Now fans and the world are at a point that felt nearly impossible to reach, and now in 2019, we have a brand new heavy, progressive, psych, art, metal masterpiece to grace our eyes and ears in Fear Inoculum!

In 13 years, the age of social media, digital streaming, mass shootings, and fear have dawned on our culture and collective consciousness in ways that have infected our psyches and humanity. Tool's 10,000 Days was released the final year before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to the world, so it is a clear indicator that a lot has changed in 13 years time. The members of Tool have rolled with these changes. Some have taken this brave new world in stride, but Tool are not bending to the social trends or fear-mongering that exists today, much like in the past as they've been well-known to follow their own direction and see where their spirits take them. As they remain true to themselves, their music shows that as they have not a single radio-friendly song on this album. Not by design, but just a reflection of where the members are at this time in their lives. Suffice it to say, Fear Inoculum is an 86 minute record (on digital), shortened to 79 minutes on CD without its transitional tracks, and overall is a response to the world we live in today. As you introduce fear into your being, how will you respond to it? As you face that which you cannot control, how will you choose to move forward? This is the true intention of their music, as it calls out for people to be more divine than fearful, to stay strong, evolve spiritually, and to be the person that they were meant to be.

Tool also aren't worthy of the simple descriptor of heavy metal music either. Their sound has showcased a more dynamic range and an embrace of other styles of music, such as meditative trance or world, in their catalogue more than any other metal act in the game today. Heady ideas, such as the state of humanity, the spirit, sacred geometry, philosophy, science, and mathematics, coupled with virtuosic performances by all members who sound distinct in their instrument, whether it's bass guitar, vocals, percussion, or lead guitar, all come together in a magical and unusually perfect way when their various albums unspool. Tool also have a talent for marrying the dichotomy of the beautiful with the ugly, as some of their themes feature sexual violence, blood-suckers, the hunger for death on tv, and alien abductions, while other songs contain beautiful humanistic themes such as rekindling communication with the one you love, being in the moment of life, achieving personal enlightenment, and riding the wave, or shall I say spiral. Fear Inoculum is no exception, and actually is a step above the previous monuments they've built in their discography.

In a sense, this album is the rebirth after a decade-plus of quiet incubation and evolution as individuals. What stands apart about this release when compared to previous albums is Maynard's absence of heavy metal screams and aggressive growls. Instead, he sings akin to how he would in his side bands A Perfect Circle or Puscifer, and it creates an atmosphere of angelic excellence and a particularly superb accompaniment to the foundation-building instrumentation in each track. The first song on the album, the title track, is undeniably the most straight-forward cut, and it still clocks in at nearly 10 and a half minutes! It made waves in the music industry as the first 10-plus minute song to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart, as well as their catalog of albums breaking even more Billboard records since they released all their previous studio albums on all streaming platforms ahead of Fear's release. As a single, Fear Inoculum succeeds as an all-encompassing and utterly awesome introduction to Tool for any first-time listeners, and an example of the refined quality of their compositions up until this point, as it performs a completely flawless buildup of guitar, percussion (mallets and tabla), drums and bass guitar, before Maynard's vocals soar in to sweeten the deal and cap the perfected sonic landscape of Tool's architecture.

The quiet, meditative, reverberating guitar strum of Pneuma inspires chills as their album starts to drift beyond their previously released single, and the reality starts to sink in that we are really here finally, listening to another masterwork by these legends unspool before us. Guitarist Adam Jones's moody introduction is paired with plucky, synthesized percussion by virtuoso drummer Danny Carey before it breaks into a delayed guitar riff and sets off into an arhythmic beat, most likely in the number 7, a common recurring theme throughout the album in both time signature and motif. Pneuma, the ancient Greek word for "breath" and also a term used for "spirit" or "soul", is another example of the common esoteric and heady themes Tool is used to exploring. It's mysterious delayed guitar riff and drumbeat soon burst into a slow-marching, heavy metal presence, with a riff that solidifies Tool's talent for creating gentle and tender soundscapes to flip the switch on and make heavy as hell. Pneuma eventually flows through this movement again and dissolves into an atmospheric synthesized piece, sprinkled with Carey's transportive and entrancing percussion and Jones's slow-building melodies. It's a nearly 12-minute track, but hardly the longest, as there are still three more songs in the body of Fear Inoculum that stretch even further.

Although there are such long runtimes in most of the songs on this newest release, there is hardly ever a dull moment, as captivating melodies, riffs, and instrumentation are strung together to create one epic song after another. Such is heard on the third track of the album, Invincible, as Jones opens with a cool guitar melody that forms slowly and is repeated in the first few minutes and Maynard sings softly and slowly about a "warrior, struggling, to remain, relevant" to a poignant, soft drumbeat. It brings to mind the existentialism of the band itself, as they are emerging after almost 15 years with new music to a vastly changed world. The awesome bass guitar tones that Tool are so well-known for, and crafted by master musician Justin Chancellor, are heard really well on this track, and it's one of the first songs besides their single where all four members sound distinct in their instrument and where all four come together to create an interlocking mechanism of music.

Descending, similar to their title track from their previous album, 10,000 Days, opens with naturalistic sounds and feels like a calm before the storm in a sense. Most all of Tool's songs on Fear Inoculum have a slow and retrospective introduction, but they all build into epic masterpieces and still maintain their own identity within the album. Descending is no different. Also like most other tracks, Adam Jones takes a dive into more guitar solos than ever before on any previous record. It is a sign of personal growth within the band, and each member displays their own personal growth as they have never sounded better, both individually and together. Culling Voices takes a stab at all of the noise of the present world, in politics, social media, and news, and falls on the defiant, repeated line sung by Maynard, "don't you dare point that at me" as the song takes off into another hard rock groove. It's one of the shorter songs on the album, and probably the second-most straightforward song after their single. Possibly due to its somewhat limited framework, it works in this case that it remains on the shorter side, but it has all the necessary foundations of a seminal Tool song.

Chocolate Chip Trip is the first to break the format of all previous songs, and it's probably one of the ballsiest tracks Tool have ever committed to tape. It's purely a Danny Carey composition, as he has become more interested in experimenting with synthesizers and syncopated synthesized percussion. As the name suggests, it's the wildest psychedelic track of the album, as the synthesized atmospheres blend and morph into a repeated mantra of melody and percussion while Carey takes to his enormous drum set to perform a mind-bending drum solo that benefits from being heard in a really good sound system. Chocolate Chip Trip will become known as the song to play for your friends who are on a really good amount of drugs, since it plays as both a feral dance of percussion and also as if it's an extensive and engaging live drum solo at a summer music festival. While different enough to break the mold that Tool have cast for most of this album, it is not jarring, since Tool are no strangers to songs designated to either mind-expansion or psyching their listeners out.

7empest, which is the most self-referential title in terms of their running theme of the number 7, is also the longest track to finish up the album, running at just under 16 minutes. Its beautiful palette-cleansing guitar melody washes away the trip that Carey took listeners on just prior and prepares them for the mind-melting journey to come. After the meditative, trance-like vibes Jones and Carey conjure up, Adam pulls a left-hand turn into classic metal territory with a Black Sabbath-inspired riff to kick off the magnum opus of the album. The style of this final track pulls from the hard rock and metal sound that Tool was built on, and it has an uncanny vibe of methodology that was featured most prominently on their debut album Undertow. This blending of new and old feels fresh without forgetting what came before, and Maynard's singing also reflects this classic Undertow-style. Ultimately, the 15 minutes and 45 seconds fly by in this straight-up hard rock and metal jam as Jones and Chancellor string together multiple frenetic riffs and melodies that are awe-inspiring and fluid. Maynard's message to fans and listeners to "control your delusions" is the final jewel of transcendental music education that no one would have expected to turn up in a progressive, heavy metal album, but this being Tool, there is no lower expectations to be had. The unforgettable melody in the chorus of instruments in 7empest feels timeless and stays with listeners long afterward.

Fear Inoculum is a DENSE album to unpack, and it is made for those with the patience to unwrap it. In a sense, it is a defiant statement to the world and the music industry at large to respect the pure creativity of artists, as this music serves as an example that music and art could and should follow its own rules, and shouldn't have to fit into the standardized radio-friendly music box. Danny Carey mentioned in an interview with Revolver the pros and cons of having 13 years to form the album, the con being that each song was picked to pieces, scrapped, rearranged, and built up again endlessly, but that the advantage of this amount of time was that they could make the best songs that they possibly could. Its layers show off a discernible maturity for each of the band members, and each track has an inherent accessibility despite their lengths that no self-proposed fan of hard or prog rock couldn't appreciate, yet their sound and mix after 13 years of growth does not sound washed up or tired of being a band at all! After the 13 year absence since 10,000 Days, the work really shows that these 4 artists are at the top of their game, and the reaffirmation of their previous catalog on streaming services breaking multiple records on Billboard shows that their presence will continue to be felt and music welcomed for generations to come.

Fear Inoculum - 10/10

Recommended Tracks: Pneuma, Invincible, 7empest

Note: As I mentioned earlier, this album's full length is 86 minutes, which includes 3 transitional tracks that are included on the digital release. To keep the record at an audio CD length, these 3 shorter tracks were cut in favor of keeping the real meat of the album on the disc. While these synthesized interludes don't necessarily need to be included for experiencing Tool's return, they are interesting for some strategically placed breaks between these long and progressive songs. Overall, it adds to the wonder of the masterpiece that is Fear Inoculum.

July 29, 2019

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #2: Alice In Chains - Dirt

If Nirvana created the perfect storm for grunge to come into the fold with their worldwide hit, Nevermind, then Alice In Chains took the genre a giant leap further, with their second full-length album, Dirt. Like Nirvana, Alice In Chains also came into their own after recording a gritty debut, punk-grunge album, Facelift in 1990, before the release of this grunge-metal masterpiece. Facelift displayed some true potential for the band since they produced some excellent hit songs which have just as much staying power today as some of Dirt's best songs, such as Man in the Box, Bleed the Freak, and Sea of Sorrow. These singles were also a big indicator that lead singer Layne Staley's talents were a grade above those of Kurt Cobain's, as his vocal cords could easily handle an excessively powerful release from within all the while maintaining his delicate flutter as he sang. It seemed only a matter of time then, after Nevermind, that Alice In Chains would continue to top themselves after Facelift, and they most certainly did with what is undisputedly the strongest album in the group's career.

Fronted by Layne, who shared songwriting duties with lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell, Alice In Chains benefited from their combined effort of Layne's powerful and stunning vocal range and Jerry's personal life struggles personified through the music. Dirt covers many themes in life such as pain, anger, addiction, toxic relationships, war, death, heartbreak, and depression. As it stands as an album that contains so many of these heavy topics, Dirt, while classified as grunge or alternative rock, was the heaviest and darkest offering of the genre at that time, and oftentimes turned more heavy metal than grunge, as can be heard in their brutal and tortured opening track, Them Bones. Alice In Chains doesn't hold back with this one, with chilling cries of agony and heavy metal guitar riffs chugging through the track. Written by Cantrell and executed so well by Staley and company, this is the reason their combined force was so strong and compelling, and they address the existential threat of our mortality right away here in this opener as Layne sings, "I believe them bones are me, some say we're born into the grave, I feel so alone, gonna end up a big 'ole pile a them bones."

Dam That River doesn't let the energy die either, as it starts up another metal rock riff and moves the album forward with another heavy-hearted tune, laced with imagery of violence and anger, as Layne cries out, "Oh, you couldn't dam that river, and maybe I don't give a damn anyway, so you couldn't dam that river, and it washed me so far away." Rain When I Die caps off this opening trio of tracks with dark, dense motifs and incredible singing by Layne, before Dirt cuts back into one of the strongest songs on the album, Down in a Hole. Written by Jerry, this powerful rock ballad was his ode to his then-girlfriend, Courtney Clarke. The eventual falling apart and heartbreak that ensued from his life's choice of being in a rock band and touring created a song that he felt hit him the hardest. The nature of their lifestyles and touring schedules meant he couldn't hold on to his longtime love, and it left him feeling "down in a hole." It's the first heartfelt piece of music to come out of Dirt and Layne treats the material delicately and beautifully as he sings on Jerry's behalf, "Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved, see my heart I decorate it like a grave."

Sickman trades marching heavy metal riffs for brooding sludge and doom metal as it moves from verse to chorus and back again, and Layne sings about the struggles of living in the sick world that he's created for himself and having no control in life. It's also a commentary about the world at large, as Layne groans, "I can feel the wheel but I can't steer, when my thoughts become my biggest fear, ah, what's the difference I'll die, oh, in this sick world of mine." The pure grunge-rock grace of Alice In Chains is felt most on the following song, the most memorable track of their career thus far, Rooster. A watery guitar slowly strums and repeats as a gospel-like choir croons an iconic melody that can only be known as the precursor for one of Layne's best performances yet, his storied rendition of Jerry's own personal fears of losing his father in the Vietnam war. The music video dives deeper than the music, as Jerry's own father is interviewed about his experience of being drafted into the army and surviving the harrowing and horrifying life experience. It makes for a haunting and inescapable piece of grunge-rock history that has been burned into the minds of listeners for generations.

After Rooster comes to a finish, the first half of the record gives way to an even more honest, insightful, and punishing set of tracks, with a trio of heavy, yet emotional songs: Junkhead, the title track Dirt, and Godsmack. Junkhead was Layne's willingness to admit his rampant and tormented drug use, an addiction which plagued him for the rest of his short life. It is full of desperation and self-reflection, as Layne comes to terms with his afflictions and tries to place listeners into the mind of a user, as he sings, "You can't understand a user's mind, but try with your books and degrees, if you let yourself go and opened your mind, I'll bet you'd be doing like me and it ain't so bad." Layne cuts back into a fully-unrepenting chorus as he sings, "What's my drug of choice? Well, what have you got? I don't go broke, and I do it a lot, said I do it a lot." It's one of Layne's most straight-forward and honest songs about his addiction, and although he sings with an air of calm, his screaming spirit can be heard just beneath the surface. Dirt pulls the curtains back at a relationship that's gone to sh*t, for lack of a better term. His focus on what it's like to be made to feel like dirt by another person is full of doom and gloom, as he describes the experience of feeling buried alive by the person he loves, and ultimately forces him to retreat inward. Godsmack doesn't lighten the load much, but it does feel like a breath of fresh air for that matter, as Jerry and company pick up the tempo from the previous two tracks and Layne experiments with a fluttering vocal stutter, singing, "Don't you know that none are blind, to the lie, and you think I don't find what you hide? What in God's name have you done? Stick your arm for some real fun." He later finishes the song with a penetrating line, "So your sickness weighs a ton, and God's name is smack for some," effectively drawing the parallel to people's addictions and feeling the presence of God as being the most high.

The final four songs open with a track sometimes left untitled, sometimes listed as Intro, or Iron Gland, and it's a short but dark, menacing signal that Alice In Chains is far from over. Hate to Feel gives listeners a look at the anger buried deep inside Layne, as he is the sole songwriter credited here. He sings in the chorus, "All this time I swore I'd never be like my old man, what the hey it's time to face exactly who I am." Angry Chair, one of the five singles, was Layne's only other solo songwriting credit. It's the penultimate track on the record and makes heavy metal blows with guitars and drums as Layne howls his deepest insecurities, "Loneliness is not a phase, field of pain is where I graze, serenity is far away, saw my reflection and cried, so little hope that I died, oh, feed me your lies, open wide, weight of my heart, not the size, oh." His pain is almost immediately disregarded in a half-hearted dismissal of a chorus, "I don't mind, yeah, I don't mind." The epic final track is Layne and Jerry's ultimate send-off for Dirt, which was never repeated again with their few final releases that remained, with Would?. Layne takes his vocals to the full range that he is capable of, and with Jerry's writing and vocal turns on the verses, they make a killing, as they barrel towards the final message that they have, and Layne unleashes an unforgettable grunge vocal performance in the chorus. Written for Jerry's late friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of Seattle alternative grunge band Mother Love Bone, who passed in 1990 from a heroin overdose, Jerry had a heavy heart from the matter, and knowing Layne's repeated drug use, it is a completely haunting track to hear knowing full well where Layne was heading. Layne sings, "Into the flood again, same old trip it was back then, so I made a big mistake, try to see it once my way."

It cannot be overstated how much Dirt's music was attributed to Jerry Cantrell's personal life experiences and songwriting talents. His writing was in effect taken to a place he could never get to with the addition of Layne Staley to help the band reach incredible heights in the first half of their career. While Jerry is still alive and well with this latter half iteration of Alice In Chains, it will never be the same without the awe-inspiring vocal powers of Layne, and there's no other album that they recorded during Layne's life where their collaboration was as perfect as it is here in Dirt. It's another masterpiece after Nevermind, and its themes took grunge and alternative to a very dark corner of life, all while maintaining its heart and keeping its core true to the struggles that afflicted its two leading songwriters.

Recommended Tracks: Down In A Hole, Rooster, Would?

June 23, 2019

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #1: Nirvana - Nevermind

September 24, 1991

Starting off this 49-album series is the worldwide commercial breakthrough of an entire genre and the monolithic rise of a band destined for tragedy. Another band I have been exposed to later in life followed a similar trajectory with their frontman just over 20 years prior, and that was The Doors, a band which had a frontman full of mystery, intrigue, and demons, who ultimately succumbed to a death that was equally as suspicious as our latter subject's demise, but this group was before my time, and so I digress.

Everyone growing up knows the instantly recognizable cover. The 4-month-old baby suspended in a pool of water swimming towards the dollar bill on a fish hook takes on a meaning of its own and reflects lead singer Kurt Cobain's attitude of capitalism and commercialism. His angst and outlook on life could also be attributed to the band's hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, a state that is known for it's overcast and rainy weather, and given the physiological reaction to lack of sunshine, there is something to be said for the origins of grunge itself, which emerged predominantly from the Pacific Northwest region.

Nirvana's response to 1980s new wave, hair metal, and pop was an aggressive and abrasive mixture of distorted, drop-D guitars, booming drums, crashing cymbals, and Kurt's relentless screaming vocals. Their rebellion against mainstream music of the decade led to an almost metal-like album titled Bleach in 1989. Producing a couple of tame singles, such as About A Girl and Love Buzz, their debut album gained them moderate notoriety in their area, and they regularly toured to support it. Cobain's songwriting skills were on display in their simple, but powerful execution and their presentation showed promise for future releases. After a lineup change that dropped their former drummer Chad Channing and recruited a young Dave Grohl, Nirvana were ready to change the world and music forever.

Released at the end of 1991, Nevermind ushered in an era of 90s alternative rock and grunge music and defined a generation of young adults who felt apathy and disillusionment with American mainstream culture. It marked the beginning of a shift in the perception of youth, who mostly felt ignored and underrepresented in a music industry which previously was mostly dominated by the baby boomer generation. Overnight, Nirvana's tonal shift towards a more "poppy" grunge rock sound became a worldwide sensation, and suddenly overwhelmed Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl with superstardom and pressure to tour across the globe. The Beatles-like hysteria, thanks to Cobain's sense of humor, was later mirrored in their music video for In Bloom, their final single from the album released just over a year later. The actual explanation as to why Nevermind was propelled in this way while other iconic grunge acts, by comparison, trailed far behind may be hard to determine. It could be simply attributed to the group putting just the right amount of pop, punk, rock, and angst in an album that was the released at just the right time. While Pearl Jam's classic album Ten was released only a month prior, its stadium rock formula was already familiar to mainstream audiences thanks to acts like U2 and other arena rock bands. Nevermind, on the other hand, was the forgotten voice of a generation and it took the world by storm.

The album kicks off with a series of the group's best-known songs and opens the album up in a beautiful way. The trio, Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, and Come As You Are, all boil down the deep emotions Kurt and the band were feeling, the pain of feeling misunderstood and left behind in this world, all while mainstream audiences just want to be entertained without hearing the true meaning of their lyrics. This can be found in their now best-known song, the rock anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit. Kurt sings, "With the lights out, it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us," commenting on the mindless consumerism in the music industry. In Bloom follows a similar trajectory in their chorus: "He is the one, who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he don't know what it means, don't know what it means, and I say yeah," as Kurt's tired attempts to get fans to understand his deep-running emotions, he feels like giving up already and saying "oh well, whatever, nevermind." Come As You Are is the first soft opening track of the album and a look into tumultuous relationships, as Kurt sings "Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be, as a friend, as a friend, as a known enemy," and later in the chorus trying to sound assuring as the sound builds in intensity, "And I swear that I don't have a gun," a mantra that repeats throughout the chorus and back half of the song. It's a chilling dichotomy of a passionate relationship that has disintegrated into a volatile and possibly violent state. What set Nirvana apart from most other music was Cobain's ability to put these deep-rooted confessions on tape, which were dressed in a catchy yet rebellious grunge rock flair. The only other artist that was putting their emotions on the line like this at the time was probably Nine Inch Nails with Trent Reznor's debut album Pretty Hate Machine, but his follow-up album will be covered in a later article.

The following tracks start the cyclical nature of the album, trading off between fast-thrashing punk rock and melancholic hard rocking tunes. Breed fits more of the former as it covers the reckless nature of starting a family and breeding with a partner. "I don't mean to stare, we don't have to breed, we could plant a house, we could build a tree, I don't even care, we could have all three, she said." Lithium is a rare uplifting track in the album, which illustrates Cobain's bipolar state of mind. His previous entries in the album all have had a heaviness in subject matter and those emotions almost feel disregarded in this single of theirs, the title of which is known to treat manic-depressive disorder. The armor Cobain puts on as he sings, "I like it, I'm not gonna crack, I miss you, I'm not gonna crack, I love you, I'm not gonna crack, I killed you, I'm not gonna crack," upon further inspection is actually unnerving and alarming, but its tone is set apart from the rest of Nevermind and there is a happiness, even if temporary, in dismissing the crushing loneliness and pain Kurt feels in the land of the living. Polly is a fascinating choice for a quiet, acoustic follow-up to Lithium, and it envisions a kidnapper/prisoner relationship that was directly inspired by a publicized abduction Kurt had learned about in Tacoma, Washington in 1987. The abductor had snatched a girl leaving a rock concert one night, and subsequently hung her upside down in his mobile home and raped and tortured her with a blowtorch. Kurt decided to take some creative liberties with the story and include a part where the kidnapper is tricked into thinking that his prisoner is enjoying it, and their lowered guard helped them escape. In reality, the prisoner in this story was able to escape by jumping out of their truck at a gas station and attracting the attention of nearby people. Kurt's decision to make his lyrics in the first person perspective of the captor was his way of commenting on the vile nature of humanity and how men can and have treated women.

Territorial Pissings, like Breed, picks up the intensity as Grohl, Novoselic, and Cobain smash their instruments together. Kurt sings, "Never met a wise man, if so it's a woman," again relaying his thoughts on gender politics. "Gotta find a way, to find a way, when I'm there, gotta find a way, a better way, I had better wait." Kurt knows that there's a better way for the world to be, but understands that it's not going to change for the better anytime soon. Drain You, a love song of sorts, is full of medical references, and opens with two babies meeting each other for the first time, possibly on neighboring hospital beds. The fact that these characters are babies is most likely a reference to Kurt's thoughts on innocence and finding love at a young age. It goes down as Kurt's second favorite song, losing only to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Lounge Act is the next logical progression of losing the one you love to another. Kurt's words show that he is trying to shield himself from the hurt, but that he will ultimately "go out of [his] way, to prove [he] still, smells her on you."

The final trio of tracks all leave different parting thoughts for fans and listeners, as Stay Away is the resulting revulsion Kurt feels towards people who are followers and sheep of mainstream cultural trends. His original title of the record was going to be Sheep anyway, and with that in mind, the themes and messages of the group's music therein become all more obvious; it was probably a smarter decision to retitle it Nevermind. On A Plain, a personal favorite, is the final high point of an album full of distaste and rebellion against human nature. "One more special, message to go, and then I'm done, and I can go home, love myself, better than you, I know it's wrong, so what should I do, I'm on a plain, I can't complain." Kurt's bouts of self-love and self-serving behavior places him in a field of euphoria, but it isn't enough before he drops back into his final manic episode of darkness and self-loathing on Something In The Way. Inspiring chills in all listeners is this final, haunting ultimatum that Kurt leaves with us. This track pulls at the heartstrings of those who have felt this low, and it is the slowest song on the album. Kurt's dealings with rejection and feeling discarded from society is also a meditation on the paralyzing effects of depression. He uses the analogy of living homeless underneath a bridge. Having no friends or anyone left to rely on, it is the song that listeners who feel the same way cannot get out of their heads, and it possibly makes this final song the most affecting of the entire album.

The legacy of Nevermind is still felt to this day. Over the decades, waves of youth who feel misrepresented adorn the Nirvana memorabilia and merchandise as a badge of honor, possibly relating to the words of Kurt Cobain more than most other musicians. His tragic ending, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, is a warning of caution to those who suffer the same feelings of hopelessness growing up. It is important to talk about these dark thoughts that we have, but sometimes it just feels better, safer even, to relate to the words and the music. This album was a deeply emotional journey for myself, as I felt similar while feeling the adversity and bullying while growing up. It will remain a favorite album of mine forever, and it thus concludes the first article of my masterpiece crate series. Stay tuned for my examination on the Alice In Chains classic album, Dirt, and until that time, listen to music and connect with one another.

Recommended Tracks: In Bloom, Come As You Are, On A Plain

March 19, 2019

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate: Introduction (Titles Subject to Change)

Every so often, an artist or a group releases an album that fans often consider one of their best pieces or work, or even a masterpiece. In my lifetime, I would argue that a great number of music albums have achieved this high class distinction. Of course, every pick is a highly subjective and personal matter, yet I would go as far as to say that many fans of the artists I listen to would mostly, if not whole-heartedly agree with me that there are music albums out there which reach this class without question. Thus begins my introduction to DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate.

I have been affected musically by a wide variety of music genres in my life. I wanted to pay tribute to albums which have released in my lifetime by creating a new series of articles focusing on this highly personal collection that I hold up high. As a general rule, I didn't want to get into any of the undisputed classic albums that have released before my time, so anything older than my 30 year history (pre-1988) will be omitted from this series.

Additionally, I will not attempt to put a number rating at the bottom of each article. It is obvious that I already think very highly of the music I will be covering, and they will be covered in chronological order sorted by release date and year. For this new and exciting series, I came up with a list of 49 essential albums that have released from 1991 all the way up to 2017.

There are plenty of other albums that didn't make the list that I know other listeners may ask why they're not on here, but that explanation simply comes down to the fact of what I was exposed to growing up and what affected me personally. So over the next year or so, I will start releasing breakdowns and examinations of these 49 "masterpiece" albums starting with the first album on the list, Nirvana's worldwide commercial breakthrough, Nevermind.

Stay tuned for this new and exciting series, and feel free to drop comments as these articles come out. Discussion about music is a communal experience, and the understanding achieved from the music of these great artists is the greatest gift they could have hoped to give to us and the world. Peace.