Meshuggah – “Koloss”

Remember the good ol’ days? The industrialized ones accompanied by maniacal and mechanic riffs that were at first entirely too difficult to comprehend? Remember? Upon first listen to the alien entity that is Meshuggah, you were forced to destroy, erase, and improve your ability to interpret. You were forced to pry open your tunnel vision, forced to take a wrecking ball to your small world rife with fake food, fake heroes, and fake dreams. Everything changed the moment you put the needle to the vinyl and heard the first riff of the rest of your life. Yeah…it changed you. It changes us all.

I still remember my first mind fuck like it was yesterday. A close friend and bass mentor recommended the band after a lesson one day long ago. He told me not to expect anything except for a proper life-altering experience. He also explained how he couldn’t listen to it in big doses, but when he was in the mood for it, there was nothing better. Statements such as those made if very difficult to not have high expectations. So, my dad and I went to the record store as soon as we possibly could and picked up three different Meshuggah albums. Destroy Erase Improve, Chaosphere, and Catch Thirtythree were my choices after pulling the straws at random. Once back at the car, the latter album was thrown in and “What the fuck is this shit?” instantly came to mind. At first I had no idea what to think. Was I even supposed to think? Of course I was supposed to; how else would any of it even begin to make sense? How else would I find my way back in the shit storm I had gotten myself into? To this day, I still don’t know why I stuck with any of the albums at that point. Something in me made me continually return to the albums. My curiosity in the unknown and my nonconformist attitude, maybe? I mean, I wanted to understand the wholly non-understandable. Thank Satan I stuck with ’em though. Thank Satan I kept returning to Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere, because if I hadn’t, I would probably still be listening to “Corn” and “Limp Biscuit.”

That was 2005. I was 15. It’s 2012 and I am now 21. A lot has changed. Not just for me personally, but for the band as well. 2008 produced an almost perfect album. Obzen was an incredibly complex and progressive affair that was not only brilliant and trying to listen to, but was hard for the members to recreate live. I had always hoped to see “Dancers to a Discordant System” live, but to my dismay, the song was never even attempted. I digress…

Today, though, today marks a special day here in America. Their first album in four years has finally been released, and boy, is it…is it…different.

Koloss is unique, as is all of their other albums, but this one is even more so. Something is different, something has changed. The thrash tempos and completely complicated nature of past albums is no longer readily apparent. It’s not that the album is more simple, it just seems slower and less mechanized. Before, they acted as a machine producing gut-wrenching and mind-spinning riffs that took a few listens to fully wrap one’s head around. Now, they’re producing more organically brooding songs that seem to drone more than pummel, torture more than kill. Not to mention, Haake’s drumming was something otherworldly, now, it’s something oddly familiar.

Gone are the obscure and elaborate drum beats Tomas Haake was and is known for (he’s like the Neil Peart of the metal world, if you didn’t already know). What remains is an incredibly strong, groove oriented rhythm section that provides a wholly unique and unyielding plane for all of the other band members to find comfort in and thrive on. His blast beats and wave-like cymbal riding allow the others to naturally produce some of their best material since 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve. Thordendal is still as ferociously avant garde as ever, shredding in ways nobody has shredded before, and Haake’s lyrics (yes, he writes them also) are as mind-opening as ever.

Koloss is a more mature Meshuggah, if one could ever exist in this reality. Their sound and theme is the same, their execution though, is slightly different, slightly more curious, and slightly more wise. This is new ground for the band and for you, the listener, to fully comprehend all of it’s nuances, your mind needs to be as open as the day you first listened to them. Ingest whatever you need to, just don’t expect anything.

4 out of 5

The Mars Volta – “Noctourniquet”

“Future punk.” That is how Cedric Bixler-Zavala, lead vocalist for The Mars Volta, described the unreleased album that would eventually be dubbed Noctourniquet in an interview during SXSW in 2011. Nearly one year later, however, it would seem that all the attention is on the decision of duo Bixler-Zavala and lead guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López to reunite At the Drive-In at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival next month. Nevertheless, March 26 marks the release of The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album and first since the band released The Bedlam in Goliath and Octahedron in back-to-back years, 2008 and 2009 respectively. Noctourniquet may not spawn a new genre of punk, but it sure is one hell of a psychedelic adventure.

“I am a landmine, I am a landmine!” wails Bixler-Zavala on the album’s opener, “The Whip Hand.” The track soothes during verses before blistering eardrums with choruses of chainsaw guitar tones and electrifying vocals. Rodríguez-López incorporates reverse-delay riffs to add flavor and to turn this into a fantastic groove track – the perfect recipe for getting fans right back into the psychedelic, progressive rock mindset that The Mars Volta have built a career on. “Aegis” can be both hypnotic and aggressive at times; the blend of vocals and guitars create a haunting beauty that acts as a running motif throughout Noctourniquet.

Bixler-Zavala’s lyricism, although not as strong as on previous releases, still manages to be heartfelt amidst the chaotic shrieks. Having relied on chanting, Spanish, and other forms of unique lyric play in the past, this album is quite metaphor-heavy overall. Although he comes off as emotionally driven, the alteration may test fans of the traditional form of lyricism, such as that found on 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. Rodríguez-López on the other hand is as fiery as ever. In a BBC Radio 1 interview last month, Rodríguez-López admitted that Bixler-Zavala actually had to pull him aside because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the guitar playing. Rodríguez-López’s shredding ranges from chaotic to celestial on the album, incorporating wah-heavy solos, vibrant acoustics, and an array of experimental guitar tones. With Rodríguez-López at the helm, the instrumentation on Noctourniquet provides a great complement to Bixlar-Zavala’s haunted and hypnotic vocals.

Noctourniquet’s brilliance doesn’t come without the occasional obstacle, however; the album is demanding of listeners, a challenge at times, and will only truly reward those who return for more. This may create a problem for the casual listener of today’s impatient era of music. Continuous listens, however, will unlock secrets in tracks like “In Absentia” and “Trinkets Pale of Moon” that may not have been caught on first or second listen.

Noctourniquet creates an experimental rock journey and couples it with At the Drive-In’s intensity to culminate in what surely is The Mars Volta’s best album since 2005’s Frances the Mute. Although admittedly not for everyone, the album is a 13-track collection of dark, haunting, aggressive, and vivid nursery rhymes that serve as solid reminder that the rumors of The Mars Volta’s demise over the past two years have been greatly exaggerated.

4 out of 5

The Shins – “Port of Morrow”

My first exposure to The Shins was back in 2004 because of the film Garden State, and ever since, I’ve been hooked. Well…mostly.

Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow, and Wincing the Night Away were all albums I would tend to turn to for the same reasons. They were upbeat, made me feel good, and made the perfect soundtrack to the beautiful days that are so frequent in the paradise that is Southern California. I still turn to them for those exact reasons! The uplifting melodies and general positive feel of the past three albums got me through the many horrors of being a teenager in this crazy world.

Due to these positive existing emotions towards the group, I had high expectations going into Port of Morrow, which the group has been kind enough to put up, in full, on iTunes for fans to listen to free until the album is released on March 20. I leaped at the opportunity.

It becomes clear quite quickly that the album is not what most would be used to from The Shins. The opener, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” is very fast-paced. This is a trend throughout the album; it is not as mellow as listeners are accompanied to. “Simple Song,” the album’s second track and first single, is a bit more like their previous works, and brings us back to our sonic comforts zones for a short time. However, we are soon completely ripped from them (and I believe James Mercer, on the album, was too). “It’s Only Life” seems to be an attempt at some sort of ballad in which Mercer sounds as if he pushes hard to achieve the vocals, and though his try is admirable, it made me feel uncomfortable and annoyed.

When track five, “September,” arrived, I felt at ease and pleased within seconds. The song sounded like The Shins we all know and love, and not only that, the lyrical content was honest. You could say it’s a love song, but in no way cheesy or typical.  It’s saying that none of us are perfect, and we make mistakes; but when you really love someone you, accept such imperfections and still love them. This realistic perspective is respectable and refreshing.

Unfortunately, this ease and pleasure doesn’t last long. Track six is just outright confusing. The music sounds happy, which we expect from The Shins, but their words are angry.  It seems to be politically charged, maybe even an ode to Occupy Wall Street. They seem to be referencing the goal of the movement through the lines “a tiny few catch all the rays,” “a tiny few are having all of the fun,” and “apologies to the sick and the young, get used to having dust in your lungs.” Together, these and other statements help to develop a theme of a stark division of socioeconomic status in the world.

From there, the rest of the album doesn’t improve much.  Overall, there is a general feeling of negativity not felt on the last three albums.

I am glad to say that they have remained true to their nature in several ways: the album still has many nautical references, just as past efforts did, and the general sound of the album is mostly what fans are used to. Everything just feels a bit darker and more forced. Port of Morrow will find an uncommon place in my library, but will be the last album choice when looking for my Shins fix.

2.5 out of 5

Cursive – “I Am Gemini”

Cursive are no strangers to the concept album. Veterans of Conor Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records, the post-hardcore/indie rockers from Omaha, Nebraska, struck it big with 2000’s Domestica, 2003’s masterpiece The Ugly Organ, and 2006’s Happy Hollow – all of which were concept albums. Following a lack-luster release in 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen, Cursive return to their conceptual formula with I Am Gemini.

I Am Gemini tells the tale of two twins – one good, one bad – that were separated at birth and are meeting for the first time. The album gets off to a great start with “This House Alive” which is both melodic and soft at first, but gradually builds as lead vocalist Tim Kasher introduces the good twin to the evil one. He belts out “There are voices in the dead of night / As I am screaming ‘I am Gemini.’” Kasher has always been known to be very personal, very tongue-in-cheek when it comes to lyrics, but in a very keen way Kasher is able to relay the same passion and cleverness through the perspective of the two twins.

The album features a consistent array of catchy riffs and snappy drumbeats, but each track features a different nuance that serves as a memorable moment in the grand scheme of I Am Gemini. Take “Warmer Warmer” for example: an upbeat, palm-muted toe-tapper that evolves eerily into Kasher whispering “Warmer warmer, cried the farmer’s wife / Warmer, warmer, with a carving knife” before kicking into a finale very reminiscent to the days of The Ugly Organ. Another example would be the keyboards to “Gemini” and the memorable line “Somebody’s building a monster it seems and the parts look a lot like mine.” One of the more addictive tracks, “The Cat and Mouse,” highlights Kasher’s impressive lyricism and the band’s overall musicianship, building up to a fast and gritty outro that features the lyrics “Kill the demon, kill your doppelganger.” The final track, “Eulogy for No Name,” features a low-pitched Kasher singing “Soon as you were born, you were aborted, cast away / Child of moral doctrine and rape, Lord knows the monsters that marriage makes” and serves as the perfect ending to this novelesque album.

Although there are numerous moments that impress on I Am Gemini, the album fails to leave the lasting impression of previous concept albums. The album has a consistent flow, but many tracks simply cannot hold their own when taken out of the greater context of the album, thus making it tough to fully enjoy the brilliance of the band’s songwriting on this effort. Although I Am Gemini is an album better served for listening from start to finish and rewards those with the attentiveness to do so, credit must be given to the ability to tell a story – and a captivating one at that.

3 out of 5

Every Time I Die – “Ex Lives”

In an age where bands like Nickelback dominate the radio airwaves, sometimes a gut punch is needed to remind us that rock music is still alive. Enter the anti-mainstream, always unintimidated Every Time I Die.

You just don’t see it that often these days: a band that has not only survived over fourteen years and five impressive albums, but finds a way to stay true to their anti-establishment (yet somehow poetic) form of southern metalcore – all while furthering the genre to boot. On their sixth full-length, Ex Lives, the Buffalo natives unveil a fast-paced, unique, and brutally honest record that shatters the standards of the genre like a Molotov cocktail through a record store window.

As the story goes, lead vocalist and songwriter Keith Buckley was on tour with side project The Dammed Things and whilst feeling pessimistic on life, penned what would be the lyrics to “Ex Lives.” As an explanation for his current struggles, he explored the idea of his past life as a horrible human being. Certainly if there was a Most Valuable Player on “Ex Lives,” it’s Buckley. A former English teacher, his lyrics are cynical, witty, and crafty without relying on tasteless clichés or coming off as condescending. As Buckley has joked in interviews, you can hear every cigarette smoked and beer consumed on this album. The dry-throated vocalist has shined on previous records, but never quite like this.

One of the album’s strongest features is its pace. The band storms out of the gate with “Underwater Bimbos from Outer Space,” a track that conjures elements of 2003’s Hot Damn! as Buckley screams “I want to be dead with my friends / When the iron sharpens the iron.” The following two tracks, “Holy Book of Dilemma” and “A Wild, Shameless Plain,” are no different (both songs under two minutes apiece), featuring new drummer Ryan “Legs” Leger bringing a refreshing element of metal that was less potent on previous releases. The album’s pace is not without a hiccup or two along the way, however. The intro buildup of “Typical Miracle” briefly alters the flow of the record, but all is forgiven when the verses kick in. The track is solidified at the end as Buckley proclaims “There was whiskey in the Devil’s blood, and there was blood in my cup / So I will make me a better grave, I will find my way.” The album’s pace is completely derailed in the final minute of “The Low Road Has No Exits” as we’re greeted with relaxing ambiance and guitar tones. Although the rest period serves as an extended introduction to the single “Revival Mode,” it serves the album very little overall.

Although there is noticeably heavier lyrical content on Ex Lives, the band hasn’t quite dropped their “party metal” roots completely. There isn’t anything quite as upbeat as “We’rewolf” off of 2007’s The Big Dirty, but Every Time I Die still make room to have some fun on tracks like “Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow.” The track commences with a blistering banjo solo before exploding into a Southern rock-fest with Buckley describing a bar fight with Satan himself. The track is chaotic, crafty, and refreshing – much like the album as a whole.

It’s as simple as this: not many other bands are making music like this anymore. Nothing quite as honest, nothing quite as creative. The criticisms of this album are miniscule at best and even those new to Every Time I Die will surely find aspects to latch onto, whether it be the numerous riffs or Buckley’s uncanny lyricism. Ex Lives is an extremely urgent and ferocious album that is not only brutal, but beautifully arranged as well.

4.5 out of 5