Archive | June, 2016

The Strokes: Future Present Past

10 Jun

The Strokes

Success came too early for the Strokes. The band’s first studio album, Is This It, is widely considered to be one of the most quintessential indie rock records of all time. Musical kingmakers like NME heralded the leather-clad quintet as the saviors of the entire rock genre. In an era marred by Linkin Park and Nickelback, the Strokes provided the soundtrack for the drunken heydey of an entire generation of now-nostalgic twentysomethings. What more could they achieve?

The threat of great expectations colored their next few albums. Sophomore record Room on Fire certainly had a handful of gems in the Strokes’ signature style; First Impressions of Earth had fewer. Disagreements often cropped up between the members, particularly against lead singer Julian Casablancas. In 2009, Casablancas noted to British daily The Sun that “a band is a great way to break up a friendship”. Demise seemed certain.

However, the band still owed two records to RCA, the label that won them in a bidding war during their prodigal days. The Strokes halfheartedly released Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013, both to lukewarm reviews (at best). Their early days – immortalized in the carefree exuberance of Is This It – seemed to be gone forever.

Future Present Past

It is into this complex atmosphere that the band released the Future Present Past EP. Over a media-heavy two days in late May – uncharacteristic for the infamously aloof band – the Strokes released the four songs that make up the band’s first EP since January 2001. Finally unburdened from RCA’s stifling contract, the Strokes have breathed fresh air into their stagnant career.

“Drag Queen” is a dense piece driven by Nikolai Fraiture’s sludge-like bass line, almost reminiscent of mid-career Killers. The lyrics, oblique as with most Strokes songs, seem to hint at an anti-capitalist stance (“I don’t understand your fucked-up system, messing up the city/Try to sell the water, try to sell the air”). Could it be a message to RCA and the music industry?

“OBLIVIUS” hits closer to the band itself. “Untame me, it’s not my midnight yet” sings Casablancas on the opening line, speaking to the band’s fresh start after the five-record albatross. Musically, the song would fit right in on Room on Fire: not as crisp as their first songs, but certainly as driven by a clean click track. The song also features two enmeshed guitar pieces – one soaring, one pulsating – bedded under Casablancas’ condenser croon: all vintage Strokes. The EP also includes drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s remix of “OBLIVIUS”, wherein an electronic version of the bass line and guitar riffs are brought to the fore, atop a flattened version of Casablancas’ vocals.

However, “Threat of Joy” is the song that completely revives the Strokes. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr trade simple, crunchy guitar riffs over Moretti’s clean drums – straight out of Is This It. Casablancas opens the song with a Lou Reed-esque drawl but moves into an early 2001-version of himself, his voice filled with more joy than we’ve heard in years. “Place your bets this time/Just has to let it ride,” he ventures, perhaps talking of their newfound freedom. If you loved Is This It, you will love this song: it’s right up there with “Someday” or “Hard to Explain”.

In a way, Future Present Past is perfectly named. The three songs present a condensed version of the Strokes’ repertoire: from the unadulterated, old-school perfection of “Threat of Joy” to the soaring complexity of “OBLIVIUS” and finally to the more arcane “Drag Queen”. Unencumbered by record companies and with absolutely nothing to prove, the Strokes have all the choice in the world. We’re excited no matter what they do from here.

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Your Chin at The Humming Tree – 22/5/2016

5 Jun

As far as shows in Bangalore go, seeing Your Chin at The Humming Tree is not bad. Your Chin is essentially royalty in the Indian indie scene and The Humming Tree is the one of the few major concert venues that Bangalore has to offer. It’s just a shame that both disappointed.

via The Humming Tree

The Humming Tree has a problem. People interested in the show, people who know Your Chin and like his music, skipped this show simply because of the venue. It’s crowded, it’s expensive and it’s shaped completely wrong. The Humming Tree gives the impression of a minor bar that puts up shows simply to differentiate itself. It is not designed for people to listen to live music and doesn’t give the impression that it’s particularly enthusiastic about the fact that people do. It exists less for the show and more for the Instagram updates of the day after.

And yet, The Humming Tree performs a very important function. India has a lot of very literate people making contemporary culture. Like everything else, Indian indie music is just waiting for the one breakout success to give credibility to the others. The fact that music is doing so much better than the other fields is in part thanks to places like The Humming Tree. It is fantastic that there are places that I can go to see my favorite Indian bands, and it’s necessary for there to be a place where I can interact with my favorite musicians.

The problem is that The Humming Tree is not a satisfactory place to go for the music – it is just the place where the music happens.

Komorebi


via The Humming Tree

The opening act was actually very good. They ran some very clever music that put down excellent foundations and then chopped the weirdest interludes into them. They played like a stranger, more interesting SOHN. Their performance was possibly a little rougher than it should have been, and a couple of songs would have benefited from some refinement with fresh ears, but it was still an excellent act. The venue failed them a bit, as their lights were atrocious and Your Chin’s set-up took up much of their stage, but they nevertheless had a great live presence. They were just fun to watch and fun to listen to. I’m definitely going to check them out again when they are next in Bangalore.

Your Chin

via The Humming Tree

I actually really like the new Your Chin EP, Peeping Till It’s Noise. It’s light-hearted, it’s energetic and it just makes your day better. It could be a little smarter and slightly more varied, but it is still just fun to listen to. This is also true live, just far less so. Raxit Tewari just had no stage presence. His low-energy, laid back demeanor on stage did nothing to help his music. His visuals helped, but were overall unimpressive.

Contrast him with Broken Bells or with The Postal Service, both of whom had highly energetic shows that really helped make the experience. No matter how fun the music, if the singer doesn’t involve himself with the show, it’s hard for the listeners to have fun as well.

Additionally, his music was far too repetitive and took no advantage of being live to become varied. Part of the point of a live concert is that, as a listener, you can focus on the music. It’s then incumbent on the artist to hold up their end of that deal and reward your focus. The best concerts have their music step up, but failing that, the artist must. Swaying slightly back and forth just does not make for a compelling show.

Peeping Till It’s Noise is a fun EP and I highly recommend that you check it out. It’s free to listen to on Soundcloud and is just good, solid electro-pop. It’s absolutely the perfect thing to put on while taking some time to relax. It’s just not worth going to see live.

@murthynikhil

Dream Theater – The Astonishing – live in New York City, 23rd April, 2016

1 Jun
Picture courtesy: The Metalist.

Picture courtesy: The Metalist.

If you follow the concert reviews that I write for this blog (for example, this, or this, or this, or well, even this), you would notice my incurable – almost clinical obsession – with a rather particular genre of rock music – viz. progressive rock.

The one band that opened the floodgates of my obsession for this genre was Dream Theater. Of course, I had been listening to Pink Floyd before, not quite knowing that A Dark Side of the Moon was “prog”. Or that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Heart Club Band had actually laid the foundation of the concept album – which has become central to prog music today. And of course, once the floodgates had opened, the usual prog suspects followed – from the 70s British scene right up to the progressive metal of today. But Dream Theater was that one band that really introduced me to the genre, made me aware of what the genre really entailed, and taught me how to appreciate music that’s instrumentally elaborate and technically sound.

Thus, when Dream Theater announced their 2016 tour to support their new album, “The Astonishing”, it wasn’t long before I had a ticket for myself for their NYC show at Radio City Music Hall, on the 23rd of April.

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Picture courtesy: Blabbermouth

Now, I am well versed with most of Dream Theater’s discography, but The Astonishing is a new album. It was certainly brand new when I booked my tickets – it had released only a week or so back. So getting to “know” the album would be central to the concert experience. Thus, during the next few months – right till the hour before the concert – I was on a mission to familiarize myself with the album, to the very best of my abilities. I’ve written before, how prog songs don’t hit you immediately. They aren’t like “Hey Jude”, or “Stairway to Heaven”, that you fall in love with, the moment you hear them. They require multiple listens; they grow on you slowly, steadily; and after you’re well aware of the various twists and turns that the song takes during its generally expansive lifespan, do you really begin to appreciate them in their entirety. The Astonishing is no different. However, from a Dream Theater perspective, it does see a marked departure from their usual albums. There are no longer gratuitous instrumental solos in each and every song. There’s no 20+ minute opus towards the end. Lastly, and most interestingly, there’s a lot more focus on vocals – arguably more so than on any other Dream Theater album so far.

All in all, by the time the concert began, I had assimilated The Astonishing thoroughly. I had poked and prodded every section in it with my my scalpel of musical critique. I had examined virtually virtually second of the album under my magnifying glass. In the end, I felt fairly prepared to enjoy the concert. It was after all, going to be my first Dream Theater concert – and I was determined to make it a memorable one.

The Astonishing is a concept album. In other words, it’s not a set of unrelated songs like a general music album. The songs make up a narrative, and they follow in logical sequence, one after the other. The narrative generally has characters, a plot, and a denouement. The storyline in The Astonishing is a fairly typical one that one finds in progressive music. It explores themes such as dystopias, futurism, and creates a storyline set in a post-apocalyptic United States, where freedom of musical expression does not exist. Instead, all the music in this world is regulated by the Great Northern Empire of the Americas and produced by noise-machines or NOMACs. The plot follows the Ravenskill Rebel Militia in their efforts to defy this Empire using the power of their own music. Yes, the story does seem heavily inspired by Rush’s classic 2112, and also seems to draw from modern/popular fantasy franchises like Game of Thrones, and even Star Wars – but let’s get this straight – you really don’t get such albums these days. Sure, the world moved on from progressive rock in the 80s, but there’s still something about an album of this type – be it in the amount of thought that goes into it, or the incredibly high level of musical talent it showcases – that simply sets it apart.

Now, on to the concert.

A prog concert is a lot more than just a musical concert. There’s a lot of supporting paraphernalia – from sound effects, to props (remember Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour? Or Genesis during their Peter Gabriel days?) – that are used to create an experience that is more theatrical than simply musical. So was it the case with this. A number of tracks in this massive 34-track double album are purely synthetic tracks of pre-recorded sounds (Don’t roll your eyes, Pink Floyd used plenty of synthetic tracks too – like this or this). These pre-recorded tracks serve more of a narrative role than a musical role. Accompanied with videos and other props, these tracks serve the function of advancing the story. The first track for example, “The Descent of the NOMACS” – with its cacophony of electronic sounds – was used, to introduce the Noise Machines to the audience. As those sounds subsided, the instrumentals kicked in, and the music bridged into the second song, “Dystopian Overture” – a magnificent instrumental. And from there on, it was full-blown Dream Theater. The stage lit up in spectacular fashion, as John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, John Myung appeared – seemingly out of nowhere – to massive cheers from the audience. Behind them, was Mike Mangini’s absolutely sensational double-decker drum kit. One could only discern the presence of a person sitting behind that contraption owing to glimpses of his flying hair that showed through the gazillion cymbals and drums that kept him engaged. The other highlight on the stage was Rudess’ keyboard, which looked more like a spaceship than a musical instrument. It swiveled around in all directions, about every axis, while his fingers performed the wizardry that has made him one of the greatest keyboard players on the planet.

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It wasn’t till the third song, The Gift of Music, that James LaBrie appeared on stage, swinging his arms wildly, and beating his palms with the mic. The vocalist, who has been splitting fan opinions for more than two decades now, looked quite the character . However, to be fair to him, what he lacks in panache that the other band members possess, he does make up for with the effort that he puts in to every song that DT record. Sure, his voice isn’t to everyone’s taste, but one cannot deny the absolutely incredible vocal range (Learning to Live, anyone?) and technical ability that he brings to the band. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say, that The Astonishing showcases his very best efforts till date. Apart for a rather high-pitched and frankly non-melodic portion in Lord Nayfaryus, his contribution to every song in this album is fantastic. If you were to turn a blind eye to his “I’m trying to be rockstar, but I’m not” histrionics, and focus only on his voice, he really is phenomenal. Because, let’s get this straight – these songs are complicated. It’s not easy to deal with unconventional time signatures that change over time, when you are singing live. But LaBrie absolutely nailed them all. He reached every high note with the most consummate ease (Brother, Can you Hear Me?), he was well aware of every twist and turn the songs had throughout the concert – A New Beginning was particularly memorable. And in the end, one couldn’t but help feel bad for the amount of criticism this top-class vocalist draws from fans.

 

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Nothing much needs to be said of the other band members. Being among the most decorated and critically acclaimed masters of their crafts, Petrucci, Rudess, Mangini, and Myung displayed a level of poise and technical proficiency that I’ve honestly not seen in a live concert before. Petrucci, the six-time G3 legend seemed to transcend all barriers of human ability with his guitar. Ruddess was in a league of his own, blitzkreiging his way through his keyboard, and the arsenal of other fancy gadgets that he is well known to use. Myung, unarguably the most unassuming of the lot, kept the supremely difficult bass riffs ticking like clockwork. Regarding Mangini however, I had a few reservations – not because he was any less good at the drums, but because the drummer has traditionally been the virtual “front man” for Dream Theater. When the legendary Mike Portnoy left the band, the band didn’t just lose one of the greatest drummers in the world. The band lost someone who imparted an identity to the band when they performed live. If you watch videos of past Dream Theater concerts, you’ll see Portnoy, not just as a drummer, but as the real “face” of the band. He awed audiences with his techniques on one hand, and commanded their attention on the other. He masterminded the sound, and orchestrated the people’s emotions, . With him gone, and with his replacement, Mangini, being more of a drumming machine than a human being, the band sorely lacks a person who takes on that onus. Brilliant with the guitar as he might be, John Petrucci isn’t really the flamboyant performer who rivets the audience’s attention upon himself. Rudess is too cerebral, Myung, too modest, and while LaBrie gets an A for effort, he fails horribly when it comes to being a galvanizing front man.

And therein was my greatest disappointment with the concert. You couldn’t put a finger on any single thing that was “wrong” with it. The music was beyond phenomenal. Each of the band members was at his very best. The atmosphere was surreal. But what was lacking was a personal connection. It didn’t feel like a truly live concert. I could well have been watching a recording of the concert, and I doubt I’d have felt anything too different than what I felt that night. Added to that was the fact that notwithstanding how well I had assimilated this new album “within” me, I still wasn’t as familiar with it, as I am with their earlier work. Therefore, while Dream Theater still remains one of my top bands, (and I will probably not give up an opportunity to see them live again in the future), this particular concert, unfortunately, did leave a few things to be desired.

words and photos by Subhayan Mukerjee (@wrahool)

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