LITURGY – H.A.Q.Q. album review

LITURGY – H.A.Q.Q.

YLYLCYN, 2019

Transcendental black metal/Avant-garde metal

It’s Black Friday, so I thought it might be fun to highlight a black metal album from the year. A sort-of Black Metal Friday if you will. I don’t know, maybe it’ll turn into a thing. Anyway I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer that, in general, I am not really a big black metal fan. I understand it, I know what they’re trying to do, but more often than not the music that comes out of the scene just isn’t for me. So when a black metal album comes around that I actually enjoy, there’s usually something about it that separates it from the norms of the genre (hence why I’m featuring a Liturgy album now).

Now, I know featuring Liturgy at all is going to be controversial to other fans of the genre, but regardless of how you think Liturgy does or doesn’t fit into the realm of black metal, you can’t deny the clear influence that black metal has on the music that they produce. For those that don’t know, Liturgy is an American band based in Brooklyn and fronted by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. The band’s lyrics and compositions are all built around a transcendental religious ideology that Hunt-Hendrix has developed over the years. A lot of the controversy surrounding Liturgy stems from the heavy-handedness and apparent pretentiousness of this philosophy. I’m not going to try to pretend what it all means, but the end result is some pretty damn good music, so more power to Hunt-Hendrix and his crew for that.

All that being said, H.A.Q.Q. is Liturgy’s fourth album, released digitally on November 12 with no prior announcement. The title is an acronym for Haelegen above Quality and Quantity, which refers back to Hunt-Hendrix’s belief system diagrammed on the cover of the album. Once again, I’m not going to pretend to know what any of that means so let’s just get to the music. Sonically, H.A.Q.Q. sits roughly between the band’s breakout release Aesthethica and their last release, The Ark Work. It’s filled with relentless metal intensity, augmented by classical instruments like strings, harp, and glockenspiel, broken up by piano interludes every eight minutes or so. The electronic influence of The Ark Work shows up in the occasional glitchy interruption. And it all closes with an ambient, droning finale.

Another break from The Ark Work is the absence of clean vocals or the bizarre “chanting” from some of it’s tracks. Most, if not all, lyrics are delivered in a harsh, black metal style. The album flows incredibly well. While you might think the piano interludes might disrupt the flow, they actually enhance it, serving as palate cleansers or relatively calm respites before going back into the intensity. And the metal tracks on this album are really, really intense. The album’s closer is brilliant because, while still technically harsh, provides almost an introspective release, allowing you to process the journey you just completed.

There’s only a couple negative things I can say about this album and they’re both really subjective. The primary one is a point that goes with any kind of avant-garde or experimental music: it’s not going to be for everyone. There’s no denying that this is a very challenging listen, and even though I think it’s great, it’s not an album that I’m just going to put on to listen for fun. The second is even more subjective and that’s the fact that Liturgy does not fit into the aesthetic or themes of black metal at all. Now, that’s 100% intentional on the part of the band, but if that’s something really important to you, you probably won’t be into this.

Overall, H.A.Q.Q. is a very impressive, but challenging piece of heavy music. Liturgy continues to push the boundaries and expectations of black metal as well as refining their own implementation of black metal as a transcendental medium. It is easily one of the band’s best releases, and while it might not be for everybody, you can’t deny that it is an incredibly well crafted collection of tracks.

4.0/5.0

COLDPLAY – EVERYDAY LIFE album review

COLDPLAY – EVERYDAY LIFE

Parlophone, 2019

Pop rock

Coldplay doesn’t really need an introduction. For a brief moment they were a cool band for hipsters, but almost overnight they were simultaneously global superstars and the butt of jokes. Even after the the bulk of the hype has died down, a new release from Coldplay is still a pretty big event in the music world. Every one of their albums so far has sold millions of copies worldwide. But in recent years the quality of their output has decreased a bit. And their last album was the first in 10 years to not reach #1 on the US charts (though it still reached a more than respectable #2).

Everyday Life is the band’s eighth album and their first double album, split into the halves Sunrise and Sunset. Despite being a double album, it’s not the band’s longest, coming in a few minutes short of A Rush of Blood to the Head and a full 10 minutes short of X&Y. While Everyday Life‘s 16 tracks could technically fit on one album, there is allegedly a line drawn between the themes of the two halves, but I’m not so sure that line is as bold as they think it is.

To use a cliche music journalism term, the production on Everyday Life is much more organic than Coldplay’s recent releases. There is considerably less electronic and disco influence on this album and some moments sound closer to their “classic” albums than they’ve been in years. But that doesn’t mean there’s no growth or experimentation. There are songs with influences from gospel, Middle Eastern, African, and even bluegrass music. Even songs without a clear musical influence have passages sung or recited in Arabic, French, Spanish, and the Igbo language of Nigeria. And just because the production is “organic” it doesn’t mean there aren’t big moments. A few songs have orchestration, but they aren’t as squeaky clean as songs on an album like Viva la Vida.

Lyrically the overall theme of the album is the shared struggles of all humanity and how love is the thing that can help us all endure. This is clearest on the track “Bani Adam” (which is printed in Arabic in the track listing and translates to “Children of Adam”) that takes its title from a poem by Saadi Shirazi. The track is essentially an instrumental interlude or extended intro for “Champion of the World,” but it has a recitation of the title poem, a sample of The Sun by John and Alice Coltrane, and a sample of a Nigerian gospel song. The theme of all three samples is that we are all God’s creation and of equal value.

Other issues that are specifically mentioned are the way black Americans are treated by law enforcement (“Trouble in Town”), absent parents (“Daddy”), America’s unhealthy obsession with guns (“Guns,” duh), and political unrest in the Middle East (“Orphans”). It’s also worth noting that this is the first album from Coldplay to contain explicit lyrics, dropping the fuck-bomb on “Arabesque” and “Guns” to emphasize the point of each song.

My main criticism with this album is a common one with most double albums, and it’s that there’s some stuff on here that doesn’t really need to be included. Namely the opening instrumental and “WOTW/POTP,” the latter of which is literally an unfinished sketch of a song. The lyric booklet actually reads “I haven’t finished this one yet.” There’s clearly an emotion being conveyed, and while that comes through in the demo, I’d rather have the finished product. Also, while it’s nice to see that a band as big as Coldplay is still willing to experiment, I do wish some of that experimentation went a little farther. Similarly, other people might wish they dug a little deeper with the political lyrics, but I personally think this is about as deep as we can expect a band on this level of international stardom to get.

Overall, Everyday Life brings some welcome changes for a fan of Coldplay’s “original trilogy.” Super clean production and collaborations with Beyonce and Rihanna are traded for a more organic sound and more cohesive lyrical themes. Experimentation with other sounds is welcome but could have gone further. The flow of the album is a little uneven, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. The biggest problem is that there really aren’t any tracks that stick with you quite like some of the classics.

3.5/5.0

JEFF GOLDBLUM – I SHOULDN’T BE TELLING YOU THIS album review

JEFF GOLDBLUM & THE MILDRED SNITZER ORCHESTRA – I SHOULDN’T BE TELLING YOU THIS

Decca, 2019

Jazz/Pop

For the past few years actor and living meme Jeff Goldblum has been trying to add another line to his resume, that of jazz pianist and bandleader. Goldblum has actually been studying and playing jazz piano for many years, and the world got its first taste when he and his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, started playing live shows earlier this decade. This all led to a record deal with Decca and last year’s Capitol Studios Sessions live album, which featured guests like Sarah Silverman and Haley Reinhart.

I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This is the follow-up, and unlike the Capitol Studios Sessions, is a proper studio album in a possible move to further prove the legitimacy of this venture. But if we’re all honest, part of the charm of the Capitol album was the snippets of Jeff’s interactions with his guests and the audience. Even if some of the humor in the moment was lost in translation, they did elevate the experience. On Shouldn’t, a casual listener wouldn’t know they were listening to Jeff Goldblum until the final track.

As on Capitol, those hoping to be serenaded by the dulcet tones of Goldblum’s voice will be disappointed. Instead, he defers vocal duties to an impressive list of guests that includes Sharon Van Etten, Fiona Apple, and Miley Cyrus among others. The guests perform well for the most part, but at times it’s very obvious that these are rock and pop vocalists and not jazz singers.

It’s worth noting that the guests aren’t just singing straight jazz standards. A few get to sing clever mashups, like Inara George singing Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” over Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” or Anna Calvi singing Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English” over Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six.” This shows Jeff’s cleverness as a bandleader and curator of their repertoire.

Musically, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra once again proves to be competent but not too flashy in their presentation. The solos are not so wild that the tracks would be unwelcome on a restaurant playlist, but close listening uncovers skillful musicianship. Similarly, Goldblum’s piano doesn’t slow the band down in the slightest. He’s competent to say the least, but he still chooses to let others shine.

Goldblum does offer his vocal talents on the final track, the lullaby “Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day.” While the performance certainly isn’t the strongest on the album, there’s something strangely comforting in having everyone’s internet dad sing you to sleep.

Overall, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This is an enjoyable but safe listen. Jeff Goldblum has more than enough star power to phone it in on a lazy celebrity holiday album, but instead he has decided to shoot for a musical career based on real talent, which he has. While I lament the exclusion of his on-stage banter, he’s produced a celebrity jazz album that will probably be loved by boomers and millennials alike. However, it’s hard to ignore that the success of the album will largely be based on whose name is on the cover.

3.5/5.0

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA album review

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA

Polydor, 2019

Soul/R&B

Michael Kiwanuka got on my radar back in 2012 with his debut, Home Again. I don’t quite remember where or how, but I heard the track “Tell Me A Tale” and I was just enamored with the meticulous recreation of that retro soul sound. I will admit that when I bought the album I was surprised to find that the majority of the tracks were much quieter, more acoustic-driven songs, but that didn’t effect how much I ended up loving it.

2016 brought us his very warmly received follow-up, Love & Hate. With this album Kiwanuka brought in producers Danger Mouse and Inflo and saw him embracing that retro soul sound even more (including the tendency of those artists to write 7+ minute songs). While the album was almost universally well reviewed, I personally felt that some of the personality of the first album was lost and I didn’t enjoy it as much.

This all brings us to his third (technically self-titled) album, KIWANUKA. Danger Mouse and Inflo both return as producers on this album. While my reaction to their last collaboration with Kiwanuka was less than stellar, Inflo did produce one of my favorite albums of this year so far (Little Simz’ GREY Area), so I went into this a little more hopeful. Right out the gate, things are looking better.

This album has Kiwanuka leaning hard into the retro style once again, but some of that personality that was lost on Love & Hate has been regained, signaled by a burst of noisy fuzz guitar within the first minute of the first track. This same guitar tone returns a few times on the album, and is just one of the ways that retro soul is interpreted through a modern lens on this album. In fact, the first five tracks of this album flow incredibly well. “Rolling” and “I’ve Been Dazed” flow so well, that I often think they’re the same track when I’m not paying attention.

Other standout tracks are “Hero” with its intro track and the 7 minute “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which is also the only 7+ minute track on this album, another improvement). Lyrically Kiwanuka is pulling from his retro soul influences again with lyrics of personal struggle that point political at times. He uses audio clips from the Civil Rights era of American history to further emphasize that while his lyrics would be at home on records from the ’70s, they are (unfortunately) still relevant today.

My one major complaint is that the album really starts to lose steam when you get to the final four tracks. None of these are particularly bad, but “Solid Ground” and “Light” in particular feel like they drag on a bit too long. There are also the interlude tracks. Some of them are great, like the intro tracks for “Piano Joint” and “Hero,” but “Another Human Being” and “Interlude (Loving The People)” do more to interrupt the flow of the track list than enhance it.

Overall I think KIWANUKA is a much better execution of what was attempted on Love & Hate, and honestly a pretty exciting release. He has taken greater steps to make this sound his own and has done a clever job of interpreting the modern world through a retro lens while interpreting that retro music through a modern lens. It’s a tricky balancing act that Kiwanuka is becoming more and more skillful in performing.

4.0/5.0