Monday, April 26, 2010

The World We Know Review

Ace Enders would have trouble making bad music. With his career with The Early November he showed that he had both solid writing skills and one of the more soothing voices in the industry. During the moderate success and attention gained from The Early November, he began a side-project under the name I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business. Aside from having a rather ridiculous name, it held a mostly simplistic tone and a unique touch that Enders was hoping to imbue in it to separate himself from his other project. After the self-titled release, Enders went on to make another record with The Early November which would eventually lead to their hiatus. This all builds up to the release of I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business' (which I'll just refer to as Ace Enders from here on out) second album, "The World We Know". With it, Enders brings back everything you've come to expect from him to this point. Groovy, mostly simple guitar work, subtle drums here and there, thoughtful writing, and of course his wonderfully smooth vocals which never fail to hit each note with the utmost precision.

Despite the project's relatively pretentious title, the style in which he presents his music is far from it. The utilization of simplistically enjoyable rhythms really contributes to the album's overall timid feel. It is immediately present on the opening track, "Sleep Means Sleeping", where the guitar keeps the song moving at a steady pace while Enders lays on the crisp vocals. The subtle crescendo in that track is one of the many uses throughout the record ("Old Man", "You're Not So Good At Talking Anymore", "Telling Me Goodbye"), and it really accentuates how Ace is able to shift his voice in whatever direction he sees fit.

The record has a decent length, coming in at forty minutes. Several of the songs range between the three and five minute mark and yet they never seem to drag. One of the core strengths of the album is its substantial song structure. "Old Man", the lengthiest track, keeps your attention with its soothing guitar and Enders providing yet another tidy vocal job. The song builds, adding drums and piano near the end for a very enjoyable listening experience. However, that doesn't mean that the record is filler-free. The second track, "My Hands Hurt", has always come off unnecessary with its brief length and mostly boring music work. This would appear to be the only blatant fault of the record and really sticks out among the other musically stable songs.

It's the up-beat rhythm and catchy drum and guitar work on "Stop Smoking Because It's Not Good For You" that really feel like a nod to Enders' former work. This is in no way a bad thing either. His ability to switch between fun, flowing tunes to slow, melancholy tones in a seamless fashion has always been one of his strongest aspects and it is certainly present here. In complete opposition to that, on the next track, "100 Dollar Bills", he cuts out all the background noise. He makes all the drums feel frivolous when compared to his wonderful utilization of the acoustic guitar. The simple moments such as these really convey the epicenter of his talent -- Smooth vocals and simplistically thoughtful songwriting.

"The World We Know" isn't so much an abstract work of art as much as it is a simple (as if I haven't used that word enough already) display of one man's desire to craft something unique to what he's been known for. While he doesn't stray too far from the sound he's been capitalizing on with The Early November, it is still a solid presentation of how less can be more. Sure, there are a few slip-ups, but for the most part, Ace Enders creates something admirable in its own regard -- A fun, innocent album that doesn't strive for anything that hasn't been done before. Whether you want to criticize it for that or embrace the straightforward experience, it would be hard to not find something to enjoy here. The carefree melodies sprinkled throughout the record can really have you tapping your foot and the slower, melancholic tunes can embrace you with their relatability. My advice would be to take a line from "Baby Steps" in stride. "Shut off and just live for a while".

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Archer (Short Story Series Pt. 2)

A loud twang and the arrow darts across the meadow and sinks into my target. I smile victoriously, my breath appearing before my face as I heave a happy sigh and trek down to my prey; no longer wary of alerting nearby wildlife with my loud steps. It is a cold day, wonderful for hunting. My bow bounces merrily on my back as I trudge through the muddied forest. The trees are spread quite well in this area, making for an easy shot. A timid sun shines through the canopy of leaves just above, illuminating the ground with a pale light. There's a small frozen creek just between me and my kill. I'm not sure as to where it leads, but the thought doesn't stay in my mind for more than a few seconds as I hop over.

The sound of scurrying wildlife nearby is the backdrop as I finally arrive at my destination. My arrow firmly connected just beneath the creature's ear and I grin at my accuracy. I've always been an excellent marksman, never once failing to bring my prey to the ground. This deer is no different -- A simple trophy to be added to my collection. Though, I must admit my disappointment. It isn't nearly as large as I assumed it was from a distance. My arrogant smile shuddered a small bit, but I'm still endlessly proud of my victory over the creature. I pull the arrow from its neck and lick the tip. "The taste of victory," my father always said, "is sweeter than any honey in the market!"

He was a marksman as well, and a mighty great one at that. Since I was only a small child he took me with him, and I immediately caught on. He was immensely proud. I have fantastic talent, and I'm not shy to say it! Very few could trump my shot, and no animal could live to tell the tale. I'm somewhat of a legend in these parts. The women adore me, the forest fears me, and the children praise me. I took my talent in stride and have created a trophy collection the likes this land has never seen. From bears to rodents and from birds to snakes -- I have them all. This deer is one of the more miniature of my catches, but I'm proud nonetheless.

After savoring the taste, I approach the frozen creek. With one mighty stomp, the ice shudders and breaks to reveal a flowing stream just beneath. I lean down and wash my arrow clean of the crimson. A small, dark red trail of blood flows down the water and I watch as it disappears into a thick collection of trees just where the creek runs out of sight. My mind ponders whether I wish to follow this stream or not. I know of no river in these parts and the appearance of the stream is odd. In fact, I don't recall there being any river or pond anywhere near here! Perhaps it is a simple trick of the mind, but my interest is peaked.

The thought immediately leaves my mind as I remember the freshly slain deer just behind me. I chuckle at my ignorance and turn around to find there to be nothing but a puddle of blood. My mind races. Did some larger animal come and snatch up my kill? Preposterous, I would've heard such a creature. Nothing sneaks up on me, nothing! The confusion is overwhelming. It couldn't simply disappear, and it most certainly couldn't have walked away! I take two fingers and prod them into the small puddle of crimson and lift them to my nose.

No smell; no familiar scent of sweet victory. No taste; no sensation on my taste buds that informed me of a wonderful kill. My tongue is numb, not a single taste to be had. I take bread from my pack and attempt to eat it; to get some sensation back on my tongue. Nothing. My mind struggles to understand what's happening. It was a simple kill, nothing special, nothing spectacular to be had today -- Just a small deer. Barely worth killing at all. Now some sort of insane phenomena is occurring. No logical explanation, just a puddle of tasteless, scentless blood and a man alone in the forest.

I should make my way back. This mystery is no more than nature fooling with me. Perhaps I just need a nice, warm meal. I place the arrow into the quiver on my back and turn around to make my back across the creek and up through the sloped forest. My eyes immediately connect with the deer I once believed was dead. I know it is the same one. It stands on side of the creek opposite of me; observing. Before I have time to analyze this ludicrous situation, he charges. I get one glance at the antlers; they're unnaturally sharp and seem to adjust in order to make impact with me. My feet begin to shuffle, but to no avail.

My rib is pierced in several spots by the jagged thorn-like antlers. The small of my back hits the ground with a sickening crack and the air leaves my lungs. I get one last glance at the spot on the neck where I pierced the animal; there is a small circle of pink flesh. It leaves my sight and I hear its distant hooves stamping the ground. The pain hits. My teeth clamp down and I let out a muffled shout. I clutch my ribs and stare at the canopy above. My breath appears before my eyes and I chuckle at the irony. The hunter becomes the hunted, like from a sappy wildlife campaign. I would never hear the end of this from my father.

A pathetic quiver travels throughout my body and the cold becomes comfortable. My hand grips the dirt I lay on and I push myself up. My head slumps over and a mixture of saliva and blood drips to the ground. A miniature puddle forms, but dissolves before my eyes. Appearing to evaporate in a puff of crimson. A final loony thought before death takes its grasp I assume. Perhaps the strangest day of my life, and perhaps the last. The blood pouring from the wounds in my chest doesn't alarm me. No regrets for me. I led a successful life. The greatest hunter around now defeated in a haze of hallucinations.

Colors fade in and out, rapidly flickering. It's hard to keep my eyes focused. I hear the faint sound of rushing water. I stare forward and force my eyes to adjust. The once frozen creek now flows at a steady pace. Ridiculous, but beautiful. I crawl forward, blood dripping into the mud beneath me and then instantly evaporating. My knees give out just as I reach the stream. My hand cupped, I reach for the stream. A small scoop and I attempt to raise it to my lips. Strong shivers snake through my body and the water falls back into the stream. It's strange, the life of the forest is bleak and gray in the winter light, but this creek is bright as day.

Determined to get this water on my lips, I go in again with my hand. I grip the edge of the creek and pull myself forward, feeling the dirt grind into my wounds. My face tightens with a cringe but my lips are inches away from the rushing water. It flows beautifully through this crack in the earth and my eyes shine with awe. I splash water upon my face, expecting frigid temperatures, but instead am greeted by warm and refreshing liquid running down my cheeks. The splash removes all the dirt and grime from my face in a single dousing. A sigh of relief followed by another splash, this time directly into my mouth.

I gulp gladly and taste the purest thing to ever grace my taste buds. My tongue no longer numb, my body no longer frigid, my wounds still pulsate with blood however, and I know this mustn't be true. A mere trick of the mind in my final moments. I soak in my last minutes of relaxation, accepting my fate. After a few seconds of staring into the water, my earlier suspicion of its destination hits me once again. I stare down into the forest beyond where the water flows and my eyes open wide. My determined mind leads my weary body to its feet and I'm soon stumbling down, blood dripping pathetically onto the cold dirt below.

I nearly slip into the creek several times as my feet lazily drag on the ground. My eyes are focused directly onto the dense crowd of trees where the creek meets the trunk of a rather mighty elm. A horrible cough nearly brings me to my knees. I see the blood fly from my teeth and watch it sizzle away into the air the moment it touches the ground. The pace at which my feet move slowly increases as I grow nearer to my destination. A downward slope makes the water run faster and more determinedly, and my feet follow suit. I nearly make it to a jogging pace as I'm mere feet from the trunk.

I collide with the tree and hug it to keep my balance. My breathing is ragged and my knees tremble. The in-and-out focus of my eyes worries me. I have not much time to discover what has been puzzling me. The stream runs straight through the trunk of the tree and each side of the thick tree is densely protected by trees. They stretch on as far as the eye can see, as if sealing off human intruders to what lies beyond them. My fingernails grip the bark of the large tree and the small tree next to it. They are pressed firmly together but I still stubbornly try to rip them apart. My last will is to see what lies behind them, and I will not be stopped. I pound and slam my fists into the hard bark and my knuckles are soon bleeding. No mark is made upon the trees. Much stronger than I anticipated.

My lungs feel as if they may burst. Never have I felt this weak and exhausted. A truly sad spectacle of a man. A burning sensation in my eyes. Tears? Me, crying? Preposterous, I could never. No, no it appears I am. I slump down to my knees and cover my eyes with my dirty, bloodied hands and weep. I've never felt so defeated, so worthless. Goodnight, I. I have lost to my own foolishness it seems. Not even the trees allow me passage. The death of an arrogant marksman.

A peculiar sound, bark ripping, leaves falling, sticks crunching. The deer returned to finish the job? My stinging eyes open to a strange site. An oval opening in the trees ahead, just large enough for me to fit through. Unsure if I have the strength to walk through. Can't see much beyond the hole, it is unnaturally bright. Curiosity claims me once again and I struggle to my feet. My hand couldn't grasp the bark of the tree and I fall through the hole flat on my face. A chuckle at my own frailness. The brightness does a job on my eyes and it takes a moment for them to adjust, but when I tilt my head up to see where I've landed, a truly spectacular sight is before me.

A beautiful body of water the size of a large pond just below the ledge that I fell upon. The stream forms a waterfall that gently trickles down. The water shimmers in the odd sunlight that shouldn't be present in these parts. The dense trees form a ring around the entire area, shielding all from the stunning sight. A familiar noise behind me and the trees close up on their own. The broadest of smiles spreads across my face as I pull myself up; ignoring the large pool of blood that soon evaporates below me. There's a small beach on the other side of the water and my eye catches onto something I didn't expect. The deer.

I pull the bow from my back and sluggishly place an arrow into it. A hunter's instinct, if that hunter isn't half blind and half bleeding to death. My eyes focus on the target and I realize that it is no deer. Just before my hand releases the arrow, my mind catches on to what is on the other side of the beach. There is a young man, lying on the beach fully nude. He's smiling as he stares up, seemingly carefree. I'm dumbstruck as I lower my bow. He catches my sight and looks at me and smiles. He raises his hand and waves. I raise mine and a mighty cough comes over me, blood spouting from my throat. A small wave is all I manage before I collapse on the dirt. I barely catch a glimpse of his smile turning to concern before my mind goes blank. A dirty mess on the ground. A beautiful pond before me, just out of reach. My destination reached, my curiosity pleased. I feel comforted here. I have found my solace in a pool of my own blood.

Monday, April 19, 2010

OMNI Review

Since the release of their 2002 LP "Highly Refined Pirates", Minus The Bear have been providing mellow tunes riddled with lyrics that inadvertently make you feel bad about your sex life. Indeed, a good amount of the groups writing consists of shameless sexuality and tales of the lavish party life. Yet, they're never labeled pretentious despite the overtly flashy tales that they tell throughout each smooth song. Perhaps it's the style in which they do this. With their ability to produce each seamlessly flowing record with the up-most production value, they've consistently pumped out successful album after successful album. Not once have they come up short in their previous efforts, and with their newest creation "OMNI", they surely don't stumble in their musical stride.

Perhaps "OMNI"'s greatest strength and weakness is its utilization of synth to keep the song flowing at a steady pace. During the course of the record, there are some great uses of it; keeping the track flowing smoothly and maintaining a catchy, rhythmic tune -- but in other situations it falls flat, feeling bland and even overused by the end. On the opening track, "My Time", the bass is barely present among the overpowering synth pattern at play and the guitar is all but absent. Not to suggest that there isn't some groovy guitar work on the record, though. On "Summer Angel", which will certainly be on everyone's summer playlist this year, the wonderful guitar blends wonderfully with Jake Snyder's clean vocals. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the record, capturing the sound that MTB has performed so well in the past. On the same note, the final minutes of "Into The Mirror" are absolutely wonderful with its superb guitar and a small guest appearance which pleasantly adds to the song overall. However, that doesn't take away from the major gap where prominent guitar would normally be heard. It could easily be criticized for just that -- and in some cases I could agree with it. Many of the songs can feel somewhat boring with nothing but synth to please the ears. Minus The Bear have never been a very "deep" band in terms of lyrical styles, but they have always provided wonderful music to backdrop said songwriting. Despite a few dragging moments here and there, they mostly do this again on "OMNI", though not quite to the effect that will undoubtedly be expected.

Jake Snyder returns with his ever-crisp vocals here and uses them to full effect. He easily hits those high notes and shifts back to his smooth tone that always appeases the ears. It could easily be said that he holds one of the most fitting voices in the indie genre. He never fails to move perfectly with the rhythm of the song and accentuate the mood, whether it is the romantically charged numbers like "Thief", or the more somber tracks like "Hold Me Down". The tone that's constant throughout the record maintains a smooth vibe and contributes greatly to "OMNI"'s sound overall.

On the flip-side of that, one of the major setbacks of the album is the song lengths. With choruses being repeated several times on tracks like "Animal Backwards" it can become a bit drab after a few listens. The album is rather lengthy at 49 minutes over 10 tracks. Yet, contradictory to that, it doesn't quite feel that long when you're simply relaxing and taking in the music. It can drag at some points, but it doesn't necessarily take too big of a shot at the album's merit.

As the conclusion and longest track of the record we have "Fooled By The Night". The ever-present synth returns once again to assist Snyder in telling another lustful story about the night life. Everything that worked well on the last nine tracks returns again to make a solid end to the album. And although it suffers from the repetition that I mentioned earlier, it is still one of the better tracks of the record. The vocals are smooth as ever and work great with the story being told. Not surprisingly, Snyder tells another superb tale of the apparently several women he's encountered.

There isn't one word that encompasses what Minus The Bear has to offer. They strive to make unique records while somehow always revolving around the same subject matter. Perhaps that's what makes them so engaging, maybe it's their tranquil music, or how they consistently excel with their lascivious songwriting. It could very well be that no matter who you are, you'll find something to enjoy about them. For "OMNI", there's the sometimes very well executed synth, Jake Snyder's appropriate voice, impressive musicianship sprinkled throughout, and of course the cleverly sexual lyrics. Appreciate one aspect, or appreciate them all, you'll surely find something to enjoy in Minus The Bear's latest effort.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Defense Of The Genre Review

If Say Anything's mastermind Max Bemis rubbed you wrong on the band's previous two releases, don't expect the band's third effort to change a single thing about that. Max and crew return three years after the release of "...Is A Real Boy", not counting the re-release, in full force--bringing back everything that made the last album so brilliant and adding four-times the pop. With Bemis not being nearly as stressed and mentally unstable as he was during the writing of his last creation, "In Defense of The Genre" is a much more accessibly poppy and concise album. That may work to the band's benefit or be viewed as a fall from grace, but Bemis undoubtedly displays his impeccable writing ability once again. He brings catchy, incredibly poppy music but with his strange wording and abstract lyricism, creating another foot-tapping album that still holds his creative touch.

Contrary to their last release, Say Anything actually worked together as a band to create this project instead of Bemis laying down everything except the drums. The teamwork is clearly seen with the layered musical segments in songs like the show-tune driven "That Is Why". The group sets their skills to work in seamless fashion, never utilizing filler and keeping you constantly aware of every instrument at work. The synth returns in a less robust fashion and works to great effect in its subtle presentation. On "Shiksa" the synth is still there and distinguishable among the other instruments, but is never blatantly apparent and distracting.

Aside from Max, there are several vocalists appearing amidst the 27 tracks that make up the album. It is stretched over two discs which made plenty of room for each artist that Bemis desired to be heard on the album. He didn't fail to hook some of the most well known names in the pop-punk world such as Gerard Way on the title track and Matt Skiba on "About Falling". They all have relatively small parts and never take away from Bemis' spotlight, but still they add a nice, diverse touch to the record.

The songs all circle around a single story, but could easily be taken on their own. Bemis has stated that it revolves around the story of his temporary insanity and falling in love. This of course makes for some very abstract songs like the charmingly strange love song "Retarded In Love". He uses his unique wording and never-failing strange metaphors to great effect with lines like "They take advantage of him all of the time/Their fingers rape his cavities". That is what sets this album apart from many of the mainstream pop-punk groups today. The group utilizes their wonderful musicianship to create catchy music, but Bemis supplies some truly intelligent and odd writing to make it stand out in midst of the sea of radio-punk.

While Bemis has never had trouble creating addicting music, he brings some of his catchiest work to this album. On the club-pop song "Baby Girl, I'm A Blur", which holds a great deal of synth in comparison to the rest of the record, and "Spores" he uses honest and intelligent lyricism to accentuate the wonderfully catchy rhythms. The latter is one of the more emotional songs on the record as well as the conclusion featuring Kenny Vasoli (of The Starting Line) and Hayley Williams (of Paramore), "Plea". You'd be surprised by how Hayley's vocals on this song differ from how she's heard with Paramore. Indeed, the band brings out the best in their guests to create some truly memorable appearances.

With the silly and overwhelmingly poppy "Sorry Dudes, My Bad" leading you out of the first and into the second disc, you might be surprised with the sudden mood shift. With the opening line on "Spay Me", "I f***ed someone with words, broke a promise", you'll get a taste of the scatterbrained style in which this record is put together. There are several differing genres, all of which the group utilizes wonderfully. From the up-beat, toe-tapping rhythms to the rough, distorted guitars Say Anything somehow keeps your attention through 27 tracks of memorable and enjoyable music. While this is a rather unconventional method of music creation, it is done to great effect and is one of the stronger aspects of the record and only displays this groups sky-high potential.

The personal and honest songs that Bemis brings to the table on this record contain some of the best lyrics that he's written to this date. "The Church Channel" tells the story of his stay in the hospital he was put in after his mental breakdown shortly after the release of "...Is A Real Boy". While keeping that synth-driven, poppy style he successfully tells the story that is continued throughout the record. It's incredible how easily he can place you inside the mind of the narrator and portray his tale with such vivid accuracy. The style is used again with "Sorry Dudes, My Bad" and of course the vividly miserable "Hangover Song". While these are the more blatant examples, he continues with it through the course of the record, telling the story in a cryptic and roundabout way; but still effectively getting the point across to the listener.

While there isn't much musical diversity in the realm of instruments, "In Defense of The Genre" remains a stunningly unique display of catchy rhythms and intelligently honest lyrics. Max Bemis is still the driving force behind Say Anything, but the other members of the band contribute their part and make this record increasingly more enjoyable with the layered guitars and subtle use of synthesizers. This is of course the more accessible Say Anything record with its undeniably poppy music, but still remains lyrically wonderful; never falling into monotonous themes and boring rhythms. It certainly lives up to all the hype produced after the release of their first record, and in some aspects excels where the original couldn't. Still, it remains my second favorite album of theirs, and one of my favorite listens when I feel like engaging a well-thought and honest story.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hypothermia (Short Story Series 1 Pt. 1)

Crouched down beside the lake that nearly took my life. My hair drenched and my hands trembling as I pick up a single stone from the mud on the shore. I reminisce on the events that took place not more than half an hour ago. I stepped upon the frozen surface of the lake, a large rock in my hands. My intent was to end my life. Use the rock to break the ice at my feet; to let the chilled depths suck me in. I gave one last look to the overcast sky and breathed a sigh. A sigh that I hoped would be my last. I exhaled all the breath from my lungs, not wanting to give myself a fighting chance. I dropped the rock, and felt the ice tremble beneath me.

A beautiful crack spread beneath the rock and under my feet like the smile of a demented man. I felt the final shudder of the frigid lake and it gave way to my weight. A final smile spread across me as my hair shot upward and my legs were thrust down. The water was indescribably cold. I felt it burn my eyes and turn my skin to a ghostly pale. I grasped the rock as I sank and held onto it the way a mother would hold a child; Cradling the catalyst that set my life spiraling down.

My eyes gazed up to where the ice gave way and I felt as cold as the water. A lethargic stare at the cloud filled sky, barely visible through the small space of chipped and broken ice. I planned for this to be my last look -- But the clouds parted, giving way to a gleam of overwhelming sunlight. It filled the water, revealing the various aquatic life that had stopped to lay witness to my demise. I looked at them, knowing none of them would understand what they were seeing and then looked back up at the light. I was still slowly sinking as the light hit the water, and I could almost feel its warmth in the overwhelming chill.

The ice was illuminated above me, creating the most beautiful canvas of pale blue I had ever seen. I desired to stare forever, but my lungs were beginning to give way. The pain in my chest began to make itself known and my head was pounding. The smallest of regrets grew in my throat, and for once I felt the need to live; to witness the gorgeous phenomenon that was occurring above my to-be grave. Normally this wouldn't influence me, but there was something in that sunlight that drew me to the surface. I had to see it; to feel its warmth.

My grip on the miniature boulder in my hand slacked and my arms stretched toward the hole in the ice. A frenzied attempt at life is what came over me in that short moment. For the first time in years I felt the desire to survive. The natural instinct of man that never appealed to me. I swam and swam, feeling my skin become puffy and blue. I felt my toes go numb and the sensation spread upward through my legs. My limbs no longer shook, my body was completely still as I desperately grasped for freedom; for life. Finally, within inches of the hole, I smiled as my finger tips felt the frigid surface of the lake.

A sudden rush of air to my lungs, of light to my face, and sensation to my organs. I feebly collapsed on the surface of the lake, breathing in a new air. An air I'd never tasted before. The delicious faceless gas crept down my throat and rejuvenated my senses. I absorbed the sunlight like a snake on a rock and began to laugh. The chuckling remained for several minutes and I began to feel like I was losing my mind. The joy that I felt was overwhelming. An onslaught of emotion that I'd never felt before. Rejuvenated and alive, but unfathomably cold. The strangest of sensations occurred. A glance at the sun, then back at my hands. Pale and cold, but not shivering. I grew increasingly warm. The heat grew from my fingertips and made its way through the rest of my frame. My body temperature skyrocketed and I rejoiced on the ice. I felt delusional and dizzy, but knew that I survived my self-planned demise.

My skin stuck to the ice and I peeled it off as I crawled back to the shore. The clothes on my back weighed a ton but it didn't bother me. The dirt clung to my cheeks the moment I laid my face on the earth. A feeling so powerful and foreign -- The desire to live out the rest of my years in harmony. I knew I could do it. I survived sinking to the depths of a frozen lake. Nothing could harm me. Drops of chilled water hit the ground as I shook my hair and smiled. An all-powerful feeling of self-accomplishment remained omnipresent through my bones as I sat up to a crouched position. As I reached down to a grab a small pebble from the ground I notice my hands returned to their trembling state. I remained warm and invincible, but still my hands shook with an unbelievable fierceness. My eyes moved from the stone in my shaking hands to the lake before me.

No longer frozen, a beautiful and swaying masterpiece of aquatic art. My mind couldn't comprehend it, but my heart knew it was right. Small waves crept up the mud under my bare feet. My shoes were gone. I timidly observed the naked skin of my feet and soon realized that it was not only my shoes that were gone, but all of my clothes. I was naked on the shore of the lake that should have been my grave. An unbelievable mystery, but I took no notice of it. I simply smiled out at the lake, the sun shimmering on the surface. No clouds were to be seen in the sky, just a beautiful blue atmosphere with a single burning star bursting with energy above the calm lake.

I rubbed my thumb across the surface of the stone in my right hand. It was smooth and perfect, ready to be freed from the mud of the beach. My thoughts drift back to me dropping the rock, sinking slowly but surely. I cast the rock out onto the surface of the lake. It skipped two times, sending small ripples onto the surface of the water, scaring away all the critters wafting calmly below it. Before disappearing below the reflection of the sun, it sent large ripples across the once-frozen lake. A final testament of its freedom. Finally taken from its muddy prison into a beautiful world full of life often overlooked by passersby.

My hand cups and scoops up a feeble amount of water from the lake, most of it dripping between the cracks of my pale fingers. I take my palm up to my mouth and suck in the clean liquid. It flows down my throat and makes me salivate with an unending thirst. I drink and drink, eventually sticking my mouth into the shallow surface just before my feet. One last sip, and I fall onto my back, unconcerned with the dirt caked in my finger nails and hair. Staring up at the sun with previously unknown passion, I accept what has happened today. I shook the hand of Death and came back alive -- As alive as I'd ever felt. Every thought that once clouded my brain disappears with the clouds above, leaving only sunlight. This place knows no twilight.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What It Takes To Move Forward Review

When it comes to the emo genre, I have little experience. I've of course heard of the major emo movement that took place during the 90's, but I've never taken much interest in the artists within it. Up until the moment I was introduced to Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate), I was completely oblivious to what I may have been missing out on. It didn't take long for me to grow accustomed to the heartfelt lyrics and dreary musical trend that would be a constant throughout their album, "What It Takes To Move Forward." Initially, I wasn't sure what to think of the group hailing from Michigan, but after a few listens there wasn't a doubt that I would soon become enthralled by Empire!'s surprisingly superb first impression on me.

The band itself has little past, releasing two albums (to my knowledge) within one year of each other. It began with front man Keith Latinen working the band as a solo project and it eventually evolved into the full group that they are today. Onto the album at hand, "What It Takes To Move Forward" meshes together all the necessary elements to make a successfully emotional album -- A decidedly whiny singer over the clean and ever-calm music, as well as some heart-wrenching, yet intelligent lyrics. Empire! appears to do everything right here, never once slipping up in the musical department, with the guitar riffs on songs such as "An Idea Is A Greater Monument Than A Cathedral" and "What Safe Means" providing a wonderful backdrop for Latinen to work his magic with -- And he indeed works magic here.

Contrary to the excessively long song titles, the music never displays overtly pretentious facets -- which is surprising with only one song falling under the four minute mark. The music perfectly complements Latinen's sorrowful lyrics and ever-shifting vocals. He swings from highs to lows with surprising ease on "Keep What You Built Up Here" and the music follows suit with its rapid rises and steady falls. The crescendo never once feels stale or abused despite it being utilized more than once throughout the record. On the other hand, his vocal work could easily be a turn off for new listeners with its consistently whiny tone and fragile delivery -- But if taken in context with the lyrics it feels appropriate and even accentuates the mood of the song.

Speaking of the songwriting, Latinen's vocal delivery isn't the only thing drenched with emotion on this record. On "With Your Greatest Fears Realized, You Will Never Be Comforted" he creates a gloomy stage with use of wonderful imagery and tells an exceptionally depressing story. With lines like "The summer she gave her life for you/And your father blamed you/Was the summer you began to blame yourself too" you can't help but be plunged into the darkest depths of the character's mind. This beautiful narration is used for the majority of the album and works to great effect with the band's music, leaving a definite emotional impact.

When I first encountered Empire!, I had high expectations from the moment the first track started. It was hyped a great deal for me and I couldn't resist expecting a wonderful album, and what I got was not just a wonderful album, but a wonderful experience. Throughout the eleven tracks that make up "What It Takes To Move Forward" you're fed emotionally assaulting songs that never cease to impact you. Whether it be the combination of Latinen's genuine vocals and his keen ability to write cheerless words to make your heart ache or the wonderful musicianship presented, you'll be entranced by Empire!'s beautifully sad release, "What It Takes To Move Forward".

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Agony & Irony Review

Since the release of their 1998 album "Goddamnit", Alkaline Trio has been a consistent source of catchy punk music. With lead guitarist Matt Skiba and bass player Dan Andriano providing some of the darkest and most heartfelt lyrics in the genre, they hooked many people (including me) into their addicting, aggressive records. It comes as no surprise that a vast majority of their growing fan base were disgruntled by their signing onto the major record label, Epic. There were immediate cries of selling-out, which is no shock. When a band as dark and gloomy as Alkaline Trio signs onto a well-known and respected record label, the outcome can somehow appear bleak.

And thus came "Agony & Irony", the sixth studio creation from the Trio as well as the most radio friendly display of dark pop-punk to come from the group. In terms of their past efforts, this could easily be seen as on par with "Crimson", which was viewed as one of their more somber records. With A&I the group returns with the same morbid outlook, but with a more polished and poppy execution. The change is immediately present when you start the opening track, "Calling All Skeletons". A clap-along beat and some simple guitar begin the hooking ride that can be expected for the remainder of the album. It's a great opener and helps you get the feel of what's to come whether you like that or not.

The following three tracks, "Help Me", "In Vein" and "Over And Out" are very solid and memorable songs, the first being one of the catchiest songs the Trio has produced. "Over And Out" tells a heartfelt story which utilizes Skiba's superb writing skills, which are unfortunately mostly absent for a good portion of the record. From there is where we see the record begin to sink. The following tracks are undoubtedly catchy in their own respects, but as you'll see on "I Found Away", the writing is absolutely boring.

"I found a way/Over the fear and through the flames/I'm diving in don't follow me"

I mean, sure it makes you want to sing along, but the words just seem so hollow when you really think about them -- And it's a continuing trend throughout most of the record. Another of Matt's songs, "Live Young, Die Fast" shows some of his worst writing to date. With lines like "So live young, die fast/No one will last/Sit back and relax/Enjoy the crash" it takes a lot for me to not question where his witty and intelligent metaphors went. He once held the crown for one of the best writers in the punk genre, but this record is a major step down for him. Yet I somehow still want to sing along. Each hook and chorus contains the distorted guitar shredding and smooth bass lines that keep me coming back for more. With a song like "Love Love, Kiss Kiss", one of the blandest displays of heartbreak that has spawned from the Trio, they still find a way to keep it stuck in your head despite how much you may despise it. It without a doubt proves that Alkaline Trio can make whatever they have to work with incredibly catchy.

Dan Andriano has always held most of the singing talent for the Trio, and it's no different here. Despite Matt being a wonderful emotional singer when the music calls for it, he's not nearly as crisp as Dan is here. "Ruin It", one of the redeeming tracks on A&I, displays some of those aforementioned singing chops. He has wonderful control over each note and tone change that it almost overshadows some of the weaker writing bits. He's not shy with that bass either, each song filled with those thick, flowing bass lines that he's been delivering since '98. Perhaps if Andriano had more than four songs on the record things may have been a different story in terms of the reception it received.

The music on the record is nothing short of what is expected from the group. They've been providing repetitive guitar chords over sludgy bass lines since their debut and it's no different here. Though there is the notable addition of synthesizers on "Lost And Rendered" and a few other tracks. This is a lovely touch but doesn't really add much to what the music is doing since you really have to strain to hear it under the guitar.

Despite being one of the catchier albums that the band has produced, "Agony & Irony" is extremely flawed with its poor writing and forgettable music. Though I suppose it is what was expected by the naysayers who jumped ship the moment they signed with Epic. Yes, even with its dark and gloomy themes, A&I remains a radio friendly punk record spawning from the band who did just the opposite not too long ago. It's not an awful record in any sense, but it certainly doesn't contain anything spectacular in terms of lyrical content. Though, it is definitely worth a few listens for the few gems to be found in it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Domestica Review

Heartbreak can be utilized to make some really fantastic, emotional music or it can completely tarnish your message by coming off whiny and pretentious. In the case of Cursive's 2001 album "Domestica", it works to the band's advantage. They create a consistently intelligent and cryptic record through lead man Tim Kasher's wonderful writing. He uses every form of figurative language at his disposal as a tool to form wonderful atmosphere and raw emotion. Coming off of his divorce just before the band's reformation after a short hiatus, he had plenty of material to pour into the band's third studio effort. It may take more than a few listens to absorb all the thick metaphors found within "Domestica", but you'll have no trouble starting again from the beginning to enjoy this raw, dark ride.

The opening track wastes no time with introducing you to rough guitars and cymbal crashes. It soon slows down to allow Kasher to work you up to the chorus, which moves back to the guitar and drums. This track, like the rest of the record, weaves a story through metaphors accentuated by Kasher's perfectly emotional shouts.

"There's still a hole where the phone was thrown
It's growing as we speak
And it's sucking us both in"

When the music cuts out and all you hear is Kasher shouting the above lyrics you get a raw view into the desperate mind of the narrator. There's no pseudo-passion to be found on this record, with each song spouting uncensored rage and depression. Kasher delivers each line with the perfect tinge of sadness and desperation and you know he's been through all of it. His flawless display of his heart demands respect and he certainly earns mine.

Despite being dark and moody, Cursive finds a way to make some very catchy songs. The faster moving songs like "Shallow Means, Deep Ends" and "The Radiator Hums" hold some of the catchier choruses of the record. The guitar work on the latter song is impressive and rhythmic with the way it flows in the intro and with Kasher's voice in the chorus -- The same could be said for the bass line in that song as well as in "The Game Of Who Needs Who The Worst". "The Lament Of Pretty Baby" is another of those emotional and cryptic tracks that beg for an explanation but the meaning is left up to the listener.

One wonderful aspect of this record is how songs later on in the record tie back in to the earlier numbers. This can be found on "The Night I Lost The Will To Fight" as well as "The Lament Of Pretty Baby" where they both tie back into the opening track, "The Casualty". These subtle nods help bring the story full circle while not being blatantly obvious. Of course, you'd have to attempt to decipher what they meant in the first place, which is difficult enough by itself.

On the subject of the story, it is told through two characters going through a divorce. They go by "Pretty Baby" and "Sweetie", both being mentioned many times throughout the record. Taking both of their stories and fitting them into place with each other creates a truly remarkable story arch which is impressive to display through music. Tim Kasher takes the metaphors he's so talented at creating and uses them to their full effect to create a story that hits close to home with him.

It could easily be said that Tim Kasher is what makes "Domestica" so effective, but in truth the record wouldn't be quite as memorable had it not been for the musical contributions from the other members of the band. The music is raw and appropriate for the material it is setting the backdrop for, as well as being impressively played. The sharp guitar and flowing bass on "The Martyr" seem so natural with the vocals that you really appreciate the work put into constructing it.

"Domestica" is Cursive's masterpiece. The solid and vivid story told through the wonderful music and raw emotion pouring from Tim Kasher are what make this so memorable. It grew and grew on me with repeated listens and honestly it demands several hearings in order to take it all in. You can't truly appreciate the beauty of it until you sit down absorb the words and feelings coming from the narrators. It is no surprise that they went on to make more successful and well-written records as well as catch the attention of many fans and critics. "Domestica" will be seen as where Cursive began to really get a flow as a band and for good reason -- It is nearly perfect with what it is trying to do.