For a group of demonic missionaries (after all, their name is the The Black Angels), they sure know how to conjure the inner-psychedelic savage out of every listener. Eerie and haunting while shaking the bad juju off from a horrid trance, Alex Maas and the Austin, Texas troupe lay down all of the tarot cards and voodoo bone casts on Death Song to remind you that the devil comes in kaleidoscopic shapes and forms. And as their follow up to 2014’s Clear Lake Forest, Death Song stretches their lifelong dedication to the garage psych-rock of the Velvet Underground (see their 1967 release on The Velvet Underground & Nico, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”…) and much of the psychedelia to come out of the 60’s and 70’s. But what’s truly different about Death Song from past releases like 2010’s groundbreaking Phosphene Dream is it’s ability to charm their conjured demon into a groovy boogie. The impending apocalyptic doom is still looming like a dark cloud, but songs like “I Dreamt” and “Medicine” get the devils feet tapping and hips shaking as if it’s the last chance before that dark cloud takes over (after all, the record is dubbed Death Song…). And while certainly more cheekier than before and never short on cynicism, Death Song drives with an upbeat lifeblood faster and further than ever before, while still including that sinister synth squeal from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” to shine a light on how dark the lifeblood truly is.
Dark and demonic, spacey and airy, and poppy and carefree, Wolf Alice’s follow up to 2015’s My Love Is Cool tests the boundaries that were considered anything and everything under the sun. The only difference is on 2017’s Visions of a Life, the band includes just about everything under the sun a traditional indie alternative rock can throw a rope around. With a raucous reminder that guitar is still (and most likely always will be) front and center, Wolf Alice’s ability to weave in and out of light and dark nuances is rooted in their ability to elevate and compose on the guitar, as if poking other band members on the shoulder for their response. And with guitar being a golden calf of sorts for the group (low and behold, there are two guitarists in the group), “Sadboy” explores the horizon of Wolf Alice’s repertoire that typically end up emphasizing elements of alternative hard rock. Kicking off like Pearl Jam’s 1993 mammoth, “Daughter” with only double hi-hats and acoustic guitar, “Sadboy” gradually rises with dooming effects in the chorus that are split up with a demonic breakdown. And on the colossus “Visions of a Life” where all cards are laid on the table, the listener is notified once more that distortion and cymbal-laden drum parts aren’t secluded to Rock or Metal, despite hearing the slightest nodes of both.
When listening to Visions of a Life, it doesn’t take a whizkid to realize it’s dark demeanor. But what’s astonishingly unique about this release is not it’s damn-near violent mystique, it’s also the magnifying dynamics within instruments and effects that act more like the hills of a roller coaster. In natural Wolf Alice fashion, every song encapsulates unmatched light and shade, except the shade part is dark – deviantly dark.
Back in the saddle again after their monumental and roaring comeback release …Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age return with a through and through well-done and meticulously crafted release in Villains. As their third release in ten years, Villains stands to attest that the bad boys of Palm Desert don’t make much noise unless the noise is really worth making (side projects aside, of course). And with never a shortage of talent on virtually anything and everything Josh Homme graces (see Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression for a recent colossus), the addition of Mark Ronson on production bolsters different shades, sounds, and textures to a well-established and thoroughly solidified underlining. Ronson is the icing to the cake without being overtly prominent, and although sounds may seem to wander from their hardened sound, Villains is very much a testament to their vampire and black leather rock beginnings.
For those looking a smidgen too deep into the somewhat odd and unusual pairing of Ronson and the desert rockers, look no further than the production caliber of two seasoned powerhouses, both within the group and Ronson. Yes, Queens of the Stone Age and Villains in particular sound drastically different than say “You Know I’m No Good” or “Uptown Funk” (the latter being polar opposites). But oftentimes production quality goes far beyond the surface of sound and asserts itself in subtle yet incredibly prevailing manners, especially with the collaborative and weathered nature of both the group and Ronson. Think of an album like Beck’s 2008 release Modern Guilt. You get two indescribable talents in Danger Mouse and Beck himself, and yet the result is as subtle as it powerful. It certainly isn’t fool-proof (see Red Hot Chili Peppers’ The Getaway), but when it works well, it goes the distance, and that’s exactly what Villains does. So let’s get into the weeds, shall we?
Talent goes quite the distance when you have Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita in the backdrop. And it’s not just backdrop where their trappings can be heard, it’s solely their ability to layer guitar parts on songs like the chorus of “Domesticated Animal”. Having three(ish) guitar players enables the group to weave and intertwine melodies on a level that most acts can’t, and it certainly sets them apart when composition demagogues collide. But what’s starkly different about having Ronson behind the board on Villains is that it doesn’t scream in your face. It’s indirect, tasteful, and well orchestrated. “Un-Reborn Again” is a classic example of this. It drives a melody like the black-leather rock band they are, but kicks off with electronic nodes that point towards a genius of a DJ like Ronson, specifically in the beginning and towards the end with those erie whistle-like additions. The hit single “The Evil Has Landed” highlights the best qualities of both worlds. It sounds like something straight off a QOTSA live jam (or Them Crooked Vultures, anyone?) with quick, funk-like guitar strumming behind the screaming-eagle guitar solo.
As a whole, Villains is a piece that stands out as colossally different from anything the group has tackled. It’s certainly ambitious to add Ronson to the mix, but it pays off with an added edge that only sets the album aside from the vast majority of their catalog. It’s abundantly clear that the group wanted to expand their spectrum of sound while staying true to their tattoos and skull rings core. Take the freakabilly of a mess “Head Like a Haunted House” or the dancehall shake and twist number like “The Way You Used to Do”. Their signature winding guitar melodies are backed by driving drums and bass on “Head Like a Haunted House”, and the hallowing whistles and harmonizing guitar all throughout the chorus speaks more of vampires and black leather than not.
Villains is direct and to the point. It’s a no-bullshit-type release that explores different sounds and angles that are only uplifted by the talent of Ronson being the mixing board. Tried and true, it’s a QOTSA archetype that will more likely than not stand out among the rest as something that’s as classic as it is unique.
For the follow up to a release that magnified their roots and origin, Foo Fighters return with a blend and broad mix of sounds that speak more to their foundational form than a nostalgic glance in the rearview mirror. Where talent gave way to rationale on Sonic Highways, the band substitutes principle for ambition on Concrete and Gold. And it’s by no means an accident or coincidence that the group returned to their original tendency of broadening the spectrum of sound despite Sonic Highways standing in salute to that very endeavor. The polar differences lie in the sound, and Butch Vig (all hail) transitioning to the hit-pumping assembly line in Greg Kurstin provides the footing for releasing two drastically different albums in three years (or three in six years and change, if you’d like to throw Wasting Light into the mix).
Concrete and Gold is undoubtedly authentic to the bone, much like the monolithic return to form on Wasting Light, and it pushes the needle in favor of a band well on their way to renowned distinction. What separates it from the pioneering aura of Wasting Light is its delineation between sounds, style, and cohesiveness. Though Concrete and Gold certainly tangents off into different avenues of both unique and original pathways, the confined and concise aptitude that speaks strictly Foo Fighters comes full circle. One avenue in particular that is fresh from a catalog perspective is exploring the hard rock assets of the 80’s and 70’s. The group dives into their childhood roots of 80’s big hair and arena rock with the synth-like melody on “La Dee Da” and driving hi-hats on “Make It Right”. And though these numbers sound a bit off kilter from their repertory, they more or less point to more recent and undoubtedly comical alter-ego ventures in Chevy Metal (see here).
But where Concrete and Gold seems to venture off the track, it holistically fits into the grand scheme of their inventory. Setting the tone early on an album is certainly a facet the group has emphasized in the past, and Concrete and Gold kicks off with quite the bang in the marathon-like Rock anthem in “Run” and a the 70’s-esque epic in “Make It Right”. There’s a Jazzy/acoustic number in “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)”, a hard rock chorale in “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”, and a soft melodramatic drive on “Dirty Water”, which mirrors the blueprint of previous releases like The Colour And The Shape and There Is Nothing Left To Loose.
Positioning Wasting Light, Sonic Highways, and Concrete and Gold in comparison undermines intrinsic and individual value. For the entire catalog and discography, some stand out more than others, and, whether purposely or not (though definitely on purpose), defining their individual value is just that-Sonic Highways was a multi-media project that delves into the heart and soul of the group paired with an album where the others are solely the latter. Taking in the quality of sound and composition becomes another matter; possible but almost a forlorn ambition. Concrete and Gold focuses on the music rather than pairing aesthetics, and it’s very apparent on the record.