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The Top Five Albums of 2016

1 Jan

2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.

5. Sept. 5th: dvsn

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dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.

And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.

Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.

Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.

Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”

4. Blonde: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.

Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.

“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.

Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.

On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.

Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”

3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino

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Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).

It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.

The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama.  (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.

Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.

Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.

Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”

2. Lemonade: Beyoncé

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.

Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.

Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.

The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).

After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.

Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.

Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”

1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West

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In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.

In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.

Where does all that fame land him?

It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)

It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.

It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.

It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.

Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.

Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”

Guns N’ Roses – “Not in this lifetime” – live at East Rutherford, 23rd August, 2016

27 Aug

Fewer band-break-ups had broken more hearts around the world than Guns N’ Roses’ infamous split back in 1996. It wasn’t surprising when it happened. There was no denying that back in the day, they were the most combustible band in the world – a boiling concoction of rag-tag junkies, contraband substances, and one massive ego, barely held together by a brand of music that was almost as lethal and explosive as they were themselves.

The split was therefore completely understandable. The fact that Axl Rose and Slash, arguably the most iconic on-stage pairing of the time would never be seen on the same stage again, caused many a tear to be shed. The story of Gn’R became this almost poetic narrative of the life of a rock n roll band that had risen from anonymity, exploded on to the global stage as an almost overnight success, and then imploded as spectacularly within a very short span of time. Of course, the name Gn’R would continue to live on, and Axl would continue to perform with his new band members till as late as 2011 – but for all practical purposes, the real Guns N’ Roses – would be history. Given the bitterness of the split, and the rancor that existed between Axl and the rest, a reunion seemed impossible.

Fast forward 2015. Rumours of an improbable reunion of the classic Guns N’ Roses had begun doing the rounds on social media. Towards the end of 2015, the official Guns N’ Roses website verified the rumours, and teased a historic “Not in a lifetime tour”. The entire classic line-up wouldn’t be involved: but Axl and Slash would be. What more, they’d be joined by the original bassist, Duff McKagan, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed (who had stuck by Axl for the entire duration of the split). If everything went according to plan, this would possibly be the greatest, most historic reunion in music history ever. An LA based marketing expert even predicted, “… the band only need to do a year on the road and would never have to worry about money again in their lives.”

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Thus when the tour did get underway, it was fitting that Top Five Records would be there to attend one of the concerts. Thus, on a warmish summer evening in New Jersey, I found myself perched atop a seat in the massive MetLife Stadium – a stadium of a size that truly reflected the immensity of the act that was about to unfold.

The opening artist of the night, Lenny Kravitz got the music underway with his brand of R&B and soul, and played out an entertaining one hour set. But it wasn’t going to be until late in the night that the crowd would get a glimpse of those who they had really come to see. It started out with a recorded version of the Looney Tunes theme (that has become a staple in this tour), and then yet another recorded track – Harry Gregson-Williams’ The Equalizer, which eventually transitioned into the first song on their set-list – It’s So Easy – as the crew exploded on the stage in a dramatic manner. The collective cheer that erupted around the stadium was quite unlike any audience I had heard in my life. These were people – almost rabid fans – who had waited for two decades to see one of the most iconic groups perform live, and here they were being treated to just that.

The set list that followed would have left no fan unsatisfied. In all fairness, their discography isn’t really massive – just the four “classic” albums – that had catapulted them up billboards around the world, and then a fifth in 2007. And the concert was thus, nothing short of a tour-de-force, that explored their entire oeuvre right from their legendary debut Appetite For Destruction, through the epic double Use Your Illusion, a smattering of covers, and some select numbers from Chinese Democracy.

The 80000 capacity MetLife stadium

The 80000 capacity MetLife stadium

It’s So Easy was followed by one of their more groovier songs – Mr Brownstone. The title track from Chinese Democracy came next, and then they embarked on one of their biggest hits Welcome To The Jungle, the same song that had announced their arrival to the world back in 1987. The moment when Axl screamed “Do you know where the f*** you are? You’re in a jungle baby. Time to die!” will perhaps live on in my memory for the rest of my life. That, followed by Slash’s instantly recognizable riffs set the stage for what would be one of the greatest performances that evening. Axl dispelled all doubts about his vocal prowess that some fans might have harboured, given his age. His voice reached the same raspy zeniths as it did plummet the lowest of depths with great aplomb. Coupled with his electrifying on-stage presence it not just a memorable act, but one that also felt visceral. Slash, with his iconic Les Paul and his even more iconic swagger kept the riffs flowing effortlessly. Hit after hit followed – from the outrightly dirty Double Talkin’ Jive to the more mellow Live and Let Die and everything in between. They did all of their classics including Estranged, Civil War, Sweet Child O’ Mine (of course), and the author’s personal favourite, November Rain. November Rain saw Axl take his seat at the piano, and the recreation of what is arguably one of the greatest rock-ballads ever written left nothing to be desired. The emotion in Slash’s solos was palpable – one could almost taste it in the air. Of the various covers they did that evening, the guitar-only cover of Wish You Were Here stood out. For that, Slash was joined by Richard Fortus, and the pair constructed an absolutely ethereal guitar duet of the Pink Floyd classic. Other covers in the main setlist included the Love theme from the Godfather, and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, which Axl urged the entire stadium to sing along with him to. Finally when they concluded with one of their all-time classics – Nighttrain – the 55000 strong audience wouldn’t be silent – just yet. Thus, when the band returned on the stage for the encore, the applause that greeted them back, was absolutely deafening.

 

Slash and his Les Paul

Axl Rose

 

Slash and his Les Paul

Slash and his Les Paul

 

Duff McKagan

Duff McKagan

The encore consisted of one of their most soulful, acoustic, and soft numbers – Patience, which got the whole crowd singing along. This was followed by a very entertaining cover of The Seeker, and for the final act of the day the band put together a rendition of one of their most loved hits – and an absolute classic of the “stadium rock” genre – Paradise City. The anthemic chorus got the crowd worked up in a frenzy, and Slash’s dizzyingly fast riffs enraptured the fans. Coupled with a spectacular show of fireworks, Paradise City left many indelible marks on thousands of minds that night. It was well past midnight when we made our way out of the stadium, but the memories that we had gathered that night weren’t ones that would fade away any time soon.

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The whole crew. From left: Richard Fortus (guitar), Dizz Reed, Duff McKagan, Axl Rose, Slash, Melissa Reese (keyboards), Frank Ferrer (drums). Courtesy: http://radio.com/2016/06/17/guns-n-roses-add-opening-acts-to-not-in-this-lifetime-tour/

In the history of music in general, and rock in particular, there appear these flashes – flashes that hold great promise, but then fade away. Guns N’ Roses is one such flash. One can only imagine the contribution they could have made to music had they not had broken up, had they not gone on a 20 year hiatus from making great music together.

But then again, it is the very nature of being a flash, that makes flashes, so very special. Their fleeting nature is much like that of a shooting star in the sky, that you enjoy only while it lasts, and then feel lucky to have caught a glimpse of while it lasted.

In the case of Guns N’ Roses, the shooting star decided to make a comeback, and what a phenomenal comeback it was.

Photos and text by Subhayan Mukerjee. Follow him on Twitter @wrahool.

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.

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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.

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)

The Last Shadow Puppets: Everything You’ve Come to Expect

28 May

everything-youve-come-to-expectIn 2008, the world was a different place for Alex Turner and Miles Kane. Turner was a shy lad, still getting used to the stardom accosted onto him after two hugely successful Arctic Monkeys albums. Kane was exiting from the Little Flames, a venture that failed to produce even a debut album, and touring with his new band, the Rascals, alongside the Monkeys. Perhaps as an escape from their main storylines, Turner and Kane began playing together backstage: a pair of gentle, romantic boys almost clinging to each other in a turbulent and uncertain time of their lives. This side project, dubbed The Last Shadow Puppets, culminated in a baroque-pop testament of drama and nostalgia entitled The Age of the Understatement.

A lot has changed in eight years. As Turner said in an interview with British late night host James Corden, TLSP seems to serve as an octennial documentation of the duo’s personal and professional lives. After five successful Monkeys albums, Turner has taken on a stereotypical rock-star persona (whether affected or real is still a matter of contention among fans). Kane has transformed into a modish cad, dating an array of models on both sides of the pond and attiring himself solely in razor-sharp silhouettes. Even in a very literal sense, both men have moved away from their roots in northern England to hedonistic mansions in LA. In a sense, Everything You’ve Come to Expect feels like a reconciliation between the 2008 versions of the two men and their 2016 versions.

This sense of reconciliation can be seen (as is often the case with pop stars) in their songs about girls. In 2008, Turner and Kane mainly wrote songs about wooing girls, in a tone that can best be described as early-Beatles-esque naivete. In 2016, the duo mainly writes songs about girls that have done them wrong, girls that are ill-advised pursuits, girls that are no more than that night’s entertainment, and so on.

In first single “Aviation” (about getting high, get it?), the narrator tries to convince a druggie girl with colorful eyes to start a casual relationship with him. In the eponymous title song, the narrator speaks of getting cheated on by a girl who liked him only because he was part of TLSP. “The Element of Surprise” takes a slightly different route; Turner talks about his rustiness at the wooing game, after meeting a girl who has caused him to fall in love after a long string of seemingly casual relationships. “Sweet Dreams, TN” is the thematic next step: an ode to his current girlfriend Taylor Bagley, who’s a Tennessee native with a septum piercing just like the girl in the song. Even though Turner’s friends and fans think of Bagley as a Yoko Ono of sorts in the Arctic Monkeys universe, Turner feels that he’s truly in love with her. It’s only on the album closer, “The Dream Synopsis”, that we see a glimpse of the old Turner. On that song, he reminisces to his new girl (probably Bagley) about his simple, pre-fame life in Sheffield – and immediately takes a self-conscious step back into nonchalance (“Isn’t it boring when I talk about my dreams?”).

Even though they have changed dramatically, one cannot underplay Turner’s signature lyrics. The Transylvanian descriptions on “Dracula Teeth” (“The full moon’s glowing yellow and the floorboards creak/C’est horrifique!”) paint a horror-movie setting for a girl that haunts the narrator like a ghost. On “She Does the Woods”, Turner speaks of a “spirograph of branches” behind the girl he’s shagging in the woods. On “Pattern”, he describes his complicated relationship with an ex as a spider slipping and sliding on an icicle. It’s the kind of intuitive imagery that we’ve come to expect from Turner’s words.

On a practical note, Everything You’ve Come to Expect does have everything you’d expect from a Puppets album: lyrics that smoothly roll off the tongue, the genius of Owen Pallett’s arrangement, the famed Turner-Kane chemistry. On a philosophical level, however, The Last Shadow Puppets no longer exists. What exists in its place is another side-project by an eight-years-later version of the same two men: a real-world example of the Ship of Theseus. The Age of the Understatement was a collection of lushly orchestrated novellas, created by two boys who wrote tender love letters in the age of Tinder and text message hookups. Turner and Kane are no longer those boys. In fact, they are now the very playboys that represent the “understatement” of modern-day romance. Understatement felt like a natural outlet; this album feels like more of a forced output. Still, it’s worth a listen, if only for Turner’s lyrics.

Best song: “Dracula Teeth”

 

 

Steven Wilson – Live in New York City, 5th March 2016

9 Mar

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The disappointment was palpable. The thousands that had filled up Manhattan’s historic Beacon Theater on a cold March evening were probably beginning to regret their decision. A crew member had just announced that Steven Wilson, the main attraction of the night was unwell. For the first time in his 20 years of touring, Wilson had lost his voice on the night of a concert.

When he did come out on the stage however, the applause was deafening. Perched up on the first row of the balcony, I could hardly contain my excitement. Needless to say, Wilson was a person whom I practically worshipped. Being a huge lover of progressive rock music myself, I have often felt my musical taste to be somewhat of an anachronism – displaced in time by a few decades. Consequently, it is difficult to find musicians these days who create progressive rock in the manner it was meant to be created. Amongst the few who do create such music however, Wilson stands out as a towering, trailblazing figure – his greatness in the genre comparable only to the thematic depth of his compositions; his multifaceted brilliance, matched only by the melancholic beauty of his lyrics.

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Despite his illness that night, Wilson made a statement of intent that the concert would be unique, but that his vocal contributions would be limited. He went on to confess that his music was depressing, and that the crowd would definitely have to be miserable to have paid to come and watch him that night. With that bit of wry humour he began the first of his two part set. The first part was essentially a complete live rendition of his album Hand. Cannot. Erase. He called upon his harmonic partner, the very talented Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb to fill in his parts as he himself fulfilled his guitar and synth duties. All the disappointment that had burdened the atmosphere in the theater vanished the moment Ninet delivered a flawless, breathtakingly powerful rendition of the title track. Screaming through the chorus at an octave above the usual, she dispelled all notions of mediocrity and quickly established herself in the adulation of the audience. She continued her class act – tackling pieces ranging in vocal difficulty – from the relatively easy Perfect Life to the rather complicated Ancestral. Steven himself took over the vocals for the less demanding songs (Home Invasion and Happy Returns) – choosing to alternate with Ninet on several occasions. The other members on the set were absolutely top notch- particularly the drummer, Craig Blundell, who, Steven revealed was only “slightly less sick than he was”. The brilliance of the instrumentalists stole the show particularly, during the drum and keyboard heavy pieces – Home Invasion and Routine #9.

The second part of the set comprised Wilson’s earlier work with Porcupine Tree, and some of his own. The lead guitarist, Dave Kilminster who had sung 3 Years Older in the previous set returned to the vocals for My Book of Regrets. Ninet delivered yet another mesmerizing piece – this time a Porcupine Tree classic – Don’t Hate Me, but her crowning achievement of the night came in the form of Sleep Together – which saw her unleash a stunning vocal duet with Wilson. Her voice reached heights of epic brilliance while the audience looked on in awe and wonder. It wouldn’t be too far from the truth if one were to contend that she effectively stole the limelight from Steven that evening. The other pieces in the set included Index and Vermillioncore – two of Wilson’s earlier works, both of which, much like the rest of the concert, had the Steven Wilson brand of eerie melancholia and pensive depression plastered all over.

 

The David Bowie tribute

The David Bowie tribute.

While the set officially closed with Sleep Together, the encore saw Wilson arrange a tribute to the late David Bowie – something that has become a running feature in his current North American tour. Ninet took to the vocals for one last time, while Wilson strummed along to the iconic space / psychedelic classic, Space Oddity. Needless to say, it was received with huge applause from the audience. For the last act of the night he requested the crowd to accompany him along for one of Porcupine Tree’s most loved numbers – The Sound of Muzak from the 2002 album In Absentia. The crowd acquiesced. The result was an absolutely thunderous recreation that left many a mark on many a mind that night. Wilson may not have sung a word in that song, but he had made his intent clear enough. Progressive rock is much more than singing the songs out loud. It has more to do with the state of mind, and the musical epiphany that results therefrom. And in that, Steven had absolutely nailed it, and driven home his point with a poise that belied his present indisposition.

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When one follows the meandering history of rock music in the 20th century, some names stand out more than others. This is not just owing to the oeuvre of work they created (though that certainly goes a long way) but also owing to the legacy they leave behind. Then there are the other names who didn’t quite make their effect felt in their time. Their music remained underground, only to be resuscitated much, much later by adoring audiences around the world. In spite of being largely eclipsed during their lifetimes, the influence they had in paving the path forward for rock music simply cannot be denied. Velvet Underground, and the enigmatic Lou Reed, for example, never achieved commercial success. But the legacy they left behind was monumental.

Broadly speaking, Steven Wilson has all the makings to be in the latter category. His music will never be considered “hip”. It will never hit the mainstream, nor will it ever feature high up on the Billboards. His voice will seldom be heard on popular radio. But even after years have passed –

after we’ve lost the skyline

we stepped right off the map

drifted into blank space

and let the clocks relapse,

… Steven Wilson will shine on like a star in the night sky. For his will be legacy that is timeless. A legacy that Nothing. Can. Erase.

words by Subhayan Mukerjee (@wrahool). Pictures by Karuna Ahuja.

Hinds: Leave Me Alone

6 Feb

It’s ironic that Hinds released their debut album, Leave Me Alone, in the peak of winter: there couldn’t be a more carefree summer sound. The title is also ironic, because their songs are a tribute to the genuine joy of being young and free in the Spanish sun.

Hinds - Leave Me Alone

Hinds is an up-and-coming indie rock girl band from Madrid, consisting of dual singers Carlotta Cosials and Ana Perrote, bassist Ade Martin and drummer Amber Grimbergen. Their sound is characterized by a youthful vocal interplay between Cosials and Perrote, layered over delightfully unrefined guitars and bass. (It’s really more fun than it sounds.) Besides, the band has perfected the art of making videos that are essentially extended Vines: candid portraits that capture how fun it must be to hang out with these girls-next-door.

Perhaps the most noticeable element of the album is the fluidity of their DIY garage sound. It’s clear that they aren’t focusing on musical dexterity – their melodies are often picked one note at a time – but that’s what defines their rough-around-the-edges sound. Hinds makes it sound so easy that you’re left wondering if good indie rock is really that easy to make. (It’s not: you need to be that young). For example, “Chili Town” layers simple sounds of the summer over heavily-accented sing-song vocals about flirting with a hot guy. The video fits perfectly – the girls are seen hanging around their neighborhood, doing everyday activities like drinking orange juice, chugging vodka, smoking cigarettes and catching Cheetos in their mouths.

It’s also clear that the foursome – especially Cosials and Perrote – are very good friends. Their dual-vocal style works especially well on “Bamboo”, which features Cosials’ deeper, more emotive voice volleying against Perrote’s chirpy pop sound. The two girls’ strong friendship, which forms the core of the band, is evident on the video for their excellent cover of British garage band Thee Headcoatee’s 1992 hit, “Davey Crockett”. In it, Perrote sprays whipped cream into her mouth and joins Cosials to dance on a table, on a bright summer’s day. In a sense, that one scene defines the band.

In 12 short pop gems, the band has captured the cheery, lighthearted essence of youth without any typical millennial trappings. They are happy, but not self-consciously so. They are the girls next door, but they aren’t trying to be. And it is that sincere likability that powers Leave Me Alone and leaves us extremely excited about the band’s future.

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