Tag Archives: Concept Album

Nightwish – Imaginaerum

Time for another album by that band, with the operatic female singer, with the mythological imagery, with the symphonic arrangements and the heavy-metal guitars! Evanescence! Okay, it’s Nightwish, but you get the joke – a band has to work real hard to make a case for itself in female-led symphonic metal these days. When it comes to bands like the two above, the similarities are multitude (though Evanescence technically beat Nightwish to the table by a year): female vocalist, heavy orchestra, operatic vocals, mystical imagery, and a penchant for power chords. The defining make-or-break difference, of course, is ambition: Nightwish is Finland’s most profitable musical export, they were a foundational influence to bands like Epica, they’re charged with crystallizing the female-led symphonic metal genre – in a real sense they helped open symphonic metal to a female audience (and girl vocalists!) without letting it suck. For their last two albums they’ve recruited Pip Williams – the noted orchestral director whom at this point might as well be a band-member – and while doing so mysteriously and ceremoniously dumped vocal powerhouse Tarja Turunen for Anette Olzon (at 40, six years her senior), to the chagrin of many a longtime fan. Imaginaerum is Olzon’s second album with the band, after 2007’s just-okay Dark Passion Play – which included one of the most epic female-led symphonic roller-coasters out there – but here on Imaginaerum she really hits her groove; to hear Metal Hammer tell it, this is Metal Album of the Year. To hear the sales figures tell it, Imaginaerum went double-platinum in Finland on the day of its release. High praise, indeed – so is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s finest hour, and symphonic metal album of the year? If you know what you’re getting into, and you don’t mind the odd timpani-drum or song about mermaids, it just might be.

For many, as on Dark Passion Play, Olzon’s inclusion is going to be the major sticking point of this album: Tarja was a vocal juggernaut, her super-operatic voice overflowing from tracks and helping to make Nightwish one of the most idiosyncratic symphonic metal bands out there (even while unbalancing a large part of their efforts). Some of that idiosyncrasy is indeed lost with Olzon, and at times her considerably more-conventional vocals do tend to take backseat on these tracks, at times lost in the bombastic choral and orchestral arrangements (when she isn’t thoroughly over-dubbed) – and this would be a huge problem if she didn’t recognize her weaknesses and tune her presentation accordingly. When Olzon connects, the results are absolutely some of Nightwish’s coolest moments yet: “Slow, Love, Slow”, of all things, was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and emerges as a slithering bluesy romantic meditation (written by Audrey, we can only assume). “Storytime” is almost an homage to their old ways, stomping out of the gate accompanied by Nightwish’s trademark power-metal riffage and an orchestral arrangement that vaults Olzon’s multi-tracked love-letter to Literature into Imaginaerum’s obligatory Finnish chart-topping single, and features a poppy chorus the likes of which Tarja could never have brought us (with a video that begs us not to take them seriously). “Taikatalvi” gives us exclusively male vocals in Finnish, a rarity and a lullabye (and a Moomin tribute) whose orchestrations are subtle and beautiful. When Imaginaerum falls into place, as it often does, it reveals itself as Nightwish’s most thematically and instrumentally confident work yet.

Speaking of cohesion, would this be a Transylvanilla review if Imaginaerum weren’t a concept-album? Of course not: loosely (or tightly, if you ask the band), Imaginaerum is the story of a dying composer imaginatively reliving key moments of his life, which was apparently a Tim Burton film. That isn’t a dig or a joke either: Imaginaerum really is an upcoming film (by “The Islander” director Stobe Harju), and the band has expressed its heavy reliance on a trifecta of influences including Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman and Salvador Dáli (let’s call this The Holy Gothic Trinity, eh?). These influences do emerge as well, with Pip Williams’ Elfman-tinged orchestrations doing an fantastic job of bringing life to the otherwise now-generic Nightwish formula of blasting horns and choral refrains – in fact, the bonus disc contains nothing but his orchestrations. It stands handily on its own, too – for Tarja devotees, the bonus disc may prove a far superior album. Good luck actually following the storyline (they swear its in there!): lyrically this is very much a Nightwish album, all magic and fantasy and imagination, and I can’t say that even after several listens any track is jumping out at me lyrically the way “The Islander” did back on Dark Passion Play, though their dabbling in intertext certainly appeals to me. Despite this, some tracks still jump the shark entirely – the 13-minute “Song of Myself” is, as my significant other described it, “an abomination and an insult to Walt Whitman,” and while I might not completely agree, it certainly positions itself as an homage (to the point that some are confusing it for a read-through of the famous poem itself). Sadly, if you know Whitman, it entirely fails to stand up under close lyrical inspection. Mind, if you don’t know Whitman (or ignore the reference) at thirteen choir-filled moments it certainly positions itself as the album’s apex, and is at this point prototypical of their style (which means good). Like all Nightwish releases, Imaginaerum stands up for itself most effectively when it’s shoving power-chords under its enormous orchestral, folk, and mythological influences, which thankfully it does on every single track.

So, is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s greatest work? Does it deserve Metal Album of the Year in a world where bands like Agalloch and Amebix exist to make music? Well, not necessarily. Make no mistake, Imaginaerum is Nightwish’s most musically diverse entry yet, to the extent that Pip Williams was given free license to craft this for the album’s closer and came up with a practically Disney orchestral sing-along of every track on the album (beautiful, silly). Speaking of Disney, like much fantasy and mythologically-entrenched work, it can be very hard to take Nightwish seriously, especially during their more heady narrative moments or when you find out they inked an endorsement deal with a Disney Comics Magazine to promote the album’s most potentially pretentious and boring, poppy track, “The Crow, The Owl and The Dove”. The extensively fantastic lyrics (in the fictional sense) can be exhaustive and occasionally threaten to fall flat on their mystical faces, as on the power-metal “Last Ride of the Day”. If you’re a big Walt Whitman fan (or a scholar), you’ll need to acquire the orchestral mix of “Song of Myself” and swap it into the album’s playlist to retain your sanity. As with all Nightwish work, Imaginaerum is over-the-top, bombastic and carries very little of what might pass for subtlety. Then again it’s Nightwish, dammit, and whether or not this is a problem for you will depend almost entirely on whether or not you wish Evanescence would be more fantasy-oriented, more sensory-overloading with their instrumentals, and whether or not you can stomach anyone but Tarja (the-vocal-Atom-Bomb) on the mic.

If, as a listener, you don’t approach Nightwish just so, you’re going to laugh it off as poppy faux-literature – which is fine, as the entire symphonic metal genre seems to labour under that yoke. Yes, they’re a new band now, and that turn is going to be a bit jarring to anyone that disliked or flat-out avoided Dark Passion Play; Nightwish isn’t Tarja’s house any more, and hasn’t been for six years. If, however, you’re prepared to listen to what might be Nightwish’s most ambitious, thematically cohesive and orchestrally exciting work yet, then yes, there’s a very good chance you’re going to love it. You’ll probably even give it Symphonic Metal Album of the Year. Take Imaginaerum at face value, remember it’s alright to have fun with your fantasy tropes and your fantasy music. There’s nothing wrong with re-reading The Golden Compass or Bay Wolf while you’re at it. Pretend you’re a wide-eyed kid again, that things like snow-covered crows’ wings and a number called “Turn Loose the Mermaids” don’t have to be condescending or hokey. Christmas is coming, and fantasy just seems to fit the mood: if you aren’t religiously inclined (or are symphonic metal inclined), let Nightwish dethrone Trans-Siberian Orchestra as your twinkling Festivus music this year. They’ve worked hard, they’ve earned it.

8.5

Editorial note: Yes they’re a guilty pleasure. No, it isn’t my favourite Nightwish album. “Oceanborn” is, duh. This doesn’t come out in North America until January 10th, 2012, so don’t go looking for it on store shelves. How did I get ahold of it, you ask? Haahaha Vancouver is in Finland, silly. Hyvää joulua!

PS. You and me? We’re seeing this movie when it comes out. 

Originally published right here, December 2011.

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Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats – Blood Lust

So I spent this last weekend participating in the free three-day trial of Killing Floor. Whatever notions you might have about a game called Killing Floor are significantly more nuanced and thematically complex than Killing Floor itself, I promise you. This is a game whose average gameplay-session runs to the tune of “Oh look! A zombie. You have shot him; you are in a haunted barn. Now you’re petting the cat. Another zombie! Try and shoot him while calling your girlfriend, or eating some corn chips for the extra challenge!” – they were thought-provoking times, indeed. Yet I found myself drawn to modest Killing Floor, the first-person shooter in a very long and proud history of FPS’s, doing exactly what it loved to do and doing it to the full extent of its slight ambition. I ended up playing a number of hours, hitting a groove, dropping those zombies like it meant something, man, and by the time the trial ran out I was bored and satisfied and moved on with my life. Looking back, though, I sure wish I’d had Blood Lust for my soundtrack.

I’d never heard of Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats before the other night, when Ryeburg pulled through with the weekly metal reconnaissance, predicting jazz and doom (in that order). As luck would have it, this is only the Cambridge startup’s second full-length (after last year’s Volume 1), and they’ve been hard at work perfecting how best to channel Black Sabbath into psychedelic sludge while making the whole thing sound like the soundtrack to some forgotten 70’s horror-exploitation flick. Who knows – maybe they even used broken amps and fuzz pedals to record in a haunted barn or something. Oh wait. Yes, Blood Lust really is the concept-album tale of an insane and sadistic drug-addict – whom apparently hunts a witch and then finds the devil – recorded in a spooky slaughterhouse by men with broken equipment: perhaps subtlety and sophistication aren’t Uncle Acid’s strong points. What is amazing, though, is how damn good they make it all sound.

Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are revivalists at heart, churning up a blend of heavy, sludgy riffs into a blues chug that only ever slows down once, for “Curse in the Trees” (before the oddly pretty bonus track). Lovingly gathering the majority of their cues from early Black Sabbath, Uncle Acid makes doom metal, taking its time, plodding through a psychedelic cloud, their eerily high-pitched singer cutting something like a corrupted falsetto wail through the fog-machine haze. His lyrical themes wander from murder to witch-hunting to drug-laced murder again, and by the time the group closes out “Death’s Door” (the second track) you’ll already have formed a staunch opinion on their musical direction. Likewise, you’ll also have an informed opinion of what the rest  of the album sounds like: as with so many revivalist groups, luxuries like significant track variety are likely to emerge later down the line (notable exceptions being the aforementioned the crawling, menacing “Curse in the Trees” and bonus “Untitled”). There’s a storyline here too, but you won’t catch it on your first listen – and that’s perfectly okay. What you will catch is crunching and hypnotic riffs, echoing 70’s-style guitar solos (with the appropriate grain filter) and vocal harmonization with enough texturing and density to really sink your teeth into (bad joke, I know).

Blood Lust, like Killing Floor before it, knows exactly what it wants: as the proposed soundtrack to a 70’s exploitation flick that could never be, it functions brilliantly. As an extended homage to Black Sabbath, doom metal, and seemingly more recent progenitors of revivalist classic-metal like The Sword, it’s a love-letter, and quite a good one, avoiding the dead-boring copycat antics and posturing of so many other revivalist bands. Blood Lust stands quite handily on its own too, with its conceptual lyrical components uncomfortable and descriptively vivid enough to withstand critical readership, and its chillingly unique vocal ticks handily setting it them apart from its multitude peers. Like humble Killing Floor, Blood Lust slides really nicely into its groove, and while it is a bit low on ambition – tracks can be repetitive, and some run long – the final bonus track (“Untitled”) drops a tantalizing hint of what the Cambridge creeps are capable of in the long-term. For now, though, I think I can start stockpiling music for next year’s horror-movie season: Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats fulfill their promise in spades. Someone get Rob Zombie on the phone.

8.0

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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The Roots – Undun

I have black thoughts, therefore my name’s the same – Black Thought, off 2008’s “@15”

I always listen through an album at least three times before I commit anything to paper, that’s basic policy. Few albums make it past six, fewer still become rituals, enduring works that worm their way past the review process to install themselves in my listening regiment (and on my iPhone) as I gradually unravel their intricacies. Undun is one such album – in fact, you’re safe assuming this review is a work in progress: The Roots have crystallized their trademark inventions into a conceptual powerhouse that seems to constantly beg re-assessment. Everyman Redford Stevens isn’t an enigmatic figure, and his story is (perhaps) a prototypical one, but it’s compelling. I keep going back through his reverse-narrative looking for details, digging for the causes to his downfall, each time returning with something different to turn over in my mind. Readers, consider this your teal deer (tl;dr): Undun is a dense and exciting little concept-album and it deserves a half-hour of your time. If you like thoughtful hip-hop that doesn’t compromise in the name of authenticity, this can be your winter joint. It’s dead short, so go spin it so that we can discuss it later – over Guinness and comics, perhaps.

This album’s been available for free online streaming for while now, so Roots fans are already going to know what I mean when I say that Undun is really brief (even disappointingly so), and more than a little strange. “Memento-style” gets thrown around a lot in critical reviews of this album (being critics’ favourite cinema reference after “Rashōmon-style”), and there’s an extent to which that’s true: Undun is the reverse-narrative of one Redford (“‘Hood Everyman”) Stevens, and it begins very emphatically and obviously with his death, marking an instant and refreshing reversal of the typical concept-album protagonist’s narrative. By now, readers, you also know that I love concept albums, and Undun doesn’t disappoint: by intentionally reversing the linear formula of thematically similar concept-works like The Wall and even Tommy, The Roots set themselves apart. The fate of their African-American protagonist is prefigured in the first instrumental track, and as an audience we’re left to pick up the pieces reverse-chronologically in order to figure this whole mess out; the results are predictably disorienting and relentlessly ominous. Another novel touch, the plethora of performers articulating Redford don’t go around blaming anyone the way Pink did back in the late 70’s: even to the extent of narrow-mindedness this is Redford’s story, and it centers around his decisions and his conditions. Undun is one black American’s struggle, beginning (that is, ending) with a lengthy piano suite, and ending (or beginning) with the silence of his death. So how does the eleven-strong Jimmy Fallon house-band go about sonically retelling the details of Redford’s downfall? To be frank, they hardly do at all.

Undun opens to silence, and then to the drone of a failed heart rate monitor and a partially back-masked instrumental, fading gradually into the strings and choirs and organs whose accumulation slowly immerses us into “Sleep”, the album’s proper starting-point. Because this is The Roots, the grand majority of the instrumentals on display are performed live, and as I’ve mentioned in several previous reviews, live instrumentals ground hip-hop – they have a way of forcing things down to street-level. As a result, even when Aaron Livingston breaks the ambience of the opening track, singing “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams/And I do not miss them yet/I wouldn’t wish them on than worst of enemies/Let them burn, go from here/Like when autumn leaves”, the backing beat never loses itself to the poeticism of the lyrics; from the metronome snaps to the organ arpeggios, “Sleep” is ominous but unpretentious. It’s the moment before Redford dies, but Black Thought and co. keep things introspective and eerily quiet, it gives the audience foreboding when they might expect triumph (or vindication), and as is Undun’s thematic mantra, reveals effectively nothing as to Redford’s actual cause of death. Things (literally) come to life following that, as “Make My” flourishes out of a great guest verse by up-and-comer Big K.R.I.T., waxing materialistic-yet-thoughtful lines on his opener, “I did it all for the money lord, it’s what it seems/Well in the world of night terrors, it’s hard to dream/Hollerin’ cash rules everything, let’s call it C.R.E.A.M./cause when it rises to the top – you get the finer things”. The Roots’ resident MC, Black Thought, even thinks to remind us ahead of time that we won’t be fully assembling Redford’s story, that it’s an entirely intentional conceit: ““Unwritten and unraveled/It’s the dead-man’s pedantic” he tells us, preemptively denying answers to questions that nag the listener throughout Undun. “Make My” is comfortable and lush, a slow groove with shifting keyboards and Dice Raw thoroughly justifying his presence on the sung chorus – again taking the listener another step backwards into the life of Redford Stevens, further into his late-life introspection.

Intermission time. Basically, I can do this sort of writeup for every track of the album and end up with a 5000-word review (and believe me, the option’s tempting). Every track features gorgeous, full production (thanks in no small part to live-instrumentalism). Every track is introspective, here gloomy, occasionally celebratory (on the intermission-like “Kool On”). Every track features a glut of guest-artists that miraculously manage to sidestep the collaboration-effort feel that has, in the past, prevented me from fully enjoying The Roots’ efforts. “One Time” features a ?uestlove drum-line that opens like something off Rising Down. Several tracks feature sung Dice Raw choruses that have more or less completely legitimized him in my sight. “The OtherSide” is stark and crushing, with Just Blaze yelling on the intro and Black Thought channeling Redford (perhaps in his teens), claiming “You might say I could be doin something positive … But when that paper got low, so did my tolerance/and there aint no truth in the dare, without the consequence/Listen if not for these ‘hood inventions I’d just be another kid from the block, with no intentions”. It’s partially autobiographical, and like all of Undun it’s looming and desperate and gives almost no plot details at all. To get further into the lyrical inventions here would be to start block-quoting – which I’m going to staunchly oppose – but rest assured that the tone of personal advancement through criminal behaviour, of desperate situations and the seemingly-inevitable means invented to survive them, absolutely pervades this album. The helplessness and claustrophobia intensify as the listener nears the album’s closer, naturally expecting some twist-ending genesis to Redford’s downfall. By the time you hit the album’s final vocal line with Dice Raw’s “I’m just tryna tip the scales my way”, and hear it followed by four brief instrumental tracks, you realize the album offers no resolution whatsoever, and depending on your aesthetic leanings you’ll either be thoroughly perplexed or absolutely impressed (I know which I was).

So Undun is perplexing and contradictory, it denies itself a proper narrative in the name of generalizing and acting as a metaphor for the experiences the underprivileged and desperate in America; that much is clear. All of this it accomplishes as well as any other album I’ve heard, and it isn’t alone in it’s concept (The Roots themselves approach this topic constantly in their work). Of course, Undun isn’t a perfect album either – for instance it’s a gigantic downer, and despite one or two exceptions (“The OtherSide” and “Kool On”, tenuously) every track is depressing and realistic. Undun’s ‘hood dreams are locked firmly in the realm of reality, and for Black Thought et al. that reality is one of brief ecstasy, crime and premature death. Perhaps Undun is a quietly triumphant work (being, after all, a creation of African Americans that circumvented Redford’s destructive cycle), but it absolutely is a sad, slow album; for me, at least, it’s perfect somber Autumn music. The charge of pretension can be leveled at Undun (and, yes, this accusation sticks against all Roots projects), though I feel its complexity need not be a weakness. Undun isn’t condemning, it’s staunchly realistic, and if it’s overarching gloominess proves too much to bear, evoking those emotions is well within Undun’s artistic intent. More problematic is the fact that Undun has blinders on: there are no women here, no secondary characters (if you assume all collaborators are articulating in the character of Redford, as the album seems to intend), no concrete plot details or resolution, no family or friends. It can be argued the album even loses focus of its reverse-chronological conceit halfway through, though the finale brings everything into focus. Regardless, Undun is, very emphatically, one lonely doomed man’s gradual slide into death. Redford is a prototype and a metaphor, and apparently for that reason The Roots opt to excise almost all specific details of his life from the album (though we know he’s a poet, writer, and comics fan, and the music videos fill out his character even more). It makes for an isolating listen, and it undeniably hinders the experience in a sense – for some its limited lyrical scope will significantly impact their enjoyment. Likely for these same reasons, I’m again obligated to mention that Undun is just short as heck. Clocking in at a slim 38 minutes, closer to 30 if you discount the instrumental tracks, ‘concept-EP’ might be a better way of explaining The Roots’ thought-process here. Personally I’ve found their sprawling, lengthy discography to be a hindrance in the past, but certainly for full asking price listeners are getting an uncharacteristically slim amount of content here.

Undun is an unapologetic art piece. It’s short and narrow-minded, conceptually dense, sad and desperate. This is all to say that I’ve really enjoyed it, but it falls far outside the norm (even for an album by The Roots). You have to know what you’re getting into here: it’s slim profile and status as The Roots’ first and only concept-album are inevitably going to set it apart from their catalogue. If anything I’ve written here sounds appealing to you, Undun might be exactly what you need. And if it sounds like a pretentious art-piece that drags The Roots and their pack of collaborators off to a haughty place you’d rather not see them go? Well, there’s always last year’s How I Got Over.

9.0

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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