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Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil

Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil

Goliath

Splint Entertainment

I thought my already weak hipness coefficient was slipping: how could I miss a guy with a page full of Billboard, Emmy, Grammy, Addy and Dove awards? “Dove” awards? That should be my clue; this excellent singer is spending his career in the rather obscure field of Christian Alternative Rock. You can read his biographical details at the usual internet fact accumulator, but the main point of his career is a strong use of satire to poke fun at other Christians he doesn’t agree with. There’s plenty of that in his snappy collection: “Happy Go Lazy” stabs the overly aggressively proselytizers that talk you into church but don’t make you a better person. His sound is an upbeat new wave bounce; there are no soaring strings or small town mom safe platitudes. “Comedian” starts with a throbbing bass chord, the saints come marching in to his show, laugh, and leave offended and want him dead. This is the essence of his message: most sects believe “do it our way or die, and Jesus was just joking when he preached love your brother.”

I avoid faith based music outside of church or a Christmas program; it tends to be self-righteous and somehow oily. There’s an assumption the singer has had a revelation and you are a bad person for not swallowing whatever story he tells. But Mr. Taylor takes a more subversive approach; he’s somehow like Luther nailing a few innocuous sounding theoretical questions on the door. What begins as a perfectly sincere an intellectual query turns the world around. Perhaps Mr. Taylor can jump start us past the tiresome debates that boil down to “I’m right and your wrong.” But even if he’s not, he’s an entertaining singer with subversive lyrics, a wide ranging style and an engaging presentation.

www.SteveTaylorPresents.com;

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Music Reviews

Braid

Braid

No Coast

Top Shelf Records

Every time a band from my youth reunites and puts out new material, I can’t help but get giddy with anticipation. If you’re in your mid-30’s or older, you likely remember listening to Frame and Canvas for the first time, mouth agape, thinking, “Holy cow! this is some incredibly unique melodic post-punk!” It was a dark winter’s night in a van somewhere when my friend Rob (a guy “in the know” at the time) happened to get an advance copy of Frame and Canvas. We listened to it for three days straight as we drove to our own shows, each time, loving it more than the previous time. We rarely agreed on anything, but it was unanimous (and still is): Frame and Canvas is a seminal album, a portrait of excellence from a time long gone.

Braid’s reunion record, No Coast, being so highly anticipated by many of my age, deserves a song by song write up, so here goes.

The first song, “Bang,” opens with unmistakably Braid-esque guitars similar to the opening of “Forever Got Shorter.” As the song kicks in, seasoned fans will note that, while things are still rocking well, the speed & urgency is pretty much gone. Also, the vocals are really high in the mix, and it sounds like they spent a fortune recording the album. What is familiar in this opening track are Braid’s trademark discordant guitars which sound as awesome as ever.

“East End Hollows” is the second track. It’s a bit peppier than the first track and has the shuffled drum bits common in their early work. The guitars are exceptional, quintessential stuff from these guys with one guitar laying down discordant sounds while the other noodles a lovely melody atop as the drummer pummels away. Interestingly, Chris Broach sings the first two songs on the album, and on this second track, he sounds strangely like Tom Delong of Blink 182. Regardless, this song is a keeper.

The album’s title track, is a slower, lazy track with Bob Nanna singing. It sounds like “Divers” from Frame and Canvas, but it lacks the fever & urgency of that song. The chorus is kind of cool, but sounds kind of like watered down Superchunk.

“Damages” opens with a rolling, thick, and chunky bassline and a propulsive drumbeat; this song sounds unique to Braid’s catalogue, with female backing vocals in a few spots (it sounds good). This song is the first on the album to stand out as a “new-direction” sounding Braid song, as the first three were quite reminiscent of old songs they’ve already done.

“Many Enemies” is a classic tune that will please long-time fans. It sounds as if it could have been recorded during “Please Drive Faster” sessions; again, Broach sounds to be mimicking Blink 182’s vocalist, but it works. The guitars are especially strong on this song, opting instead of discordance for a driving wave of chords that flow throughout the track.

“Pre-Evergreen” showcases Bob Nanna at his very best. His voice is fluid and clear, warm and inviting, and dances above a steady muted verse with an off-kilter drum beat. This song sounds al lot like early “Age of Octeen” Braid, in that the fancy guitar work is set aside for a more simplistic, power chord assault. Ironically, there’s a mid-1980’s rock hits-vibe, a la Damned Yankees, Survivor, and that ilk (no joking).

“Put Some Wings on that Kid” is a return to form for angular Braid fans, with a jagged guitar cadence that matches a starty-stoppy drum progression. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a less complicated “Ariel,” and again features a Bob Nanna at the top of his game. This song will please fans of the band’s more mathematical side.

“Lux” sounds like a rehash of “Please Drive Faster.” It’s a nice little tune, but it’s identical to the aforementioned song and is instantly forgettable.

“Doing Yourself In” is another mid-tempo piece of classic Braid fare. It hits hard with galloping basslines, sparse guitars that clang erratically against the drums. Again, Nanna’s voice is like butter here; the best part of the song is the guitar melody that plays during the chorus – it’s triumphant and declarative. Broach offers his classic screams in the background of the latter sections of the tune, sending the listener dreamily back to the late 90’s. With this song, this far in, the album has established itself as something that will make longtime Braid fans happy.

“Light Crisis” is “A Dozen Roses”-esque Braid, i.e. laid back, melodic, and aurally pleasing. It’s pleasant, but not mind-blowing.

The closing song, “This is Not a Revolution,” is a slow, plodding anthem of a song that sounds a lot like Braid mixed with mid-1990’s Flaming Lips. It’s definitely a unique sound for the band, but Broach’s vocals are exceptionally strong and prophetic here. It’s a long song, in relation to the others, but will make for a really nice middle of the set song for their upcoming tour.

All in all, No Coast is rock solid; I enjoyed it immensely (it also gets better with each listen). The songwriting is strong, although a lot of them sound like rehashed or reworked arrangement from their past albums; however, I’m totally fine with this. It’s their first release in 16 years, so they’re no doubt relearning how to write songs as Braid again. As far as new releases from long broken apart bands go, “No Coast” is stellar. For Braid fans, this one is definitely worth the investment.

www.topshelfrecords.com/artists/braid

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Music Reviews

Scenteria

Scenteria

Art of Aggression

New Aeon Media

Sticking to the time-tested formula for greatness, “keep it simple and do it right the first time,” Sweden’s Scenteria toe the fine line between thrash acts like At The Gates and The Haunted and math-rock bands like Children of Bodom. Thankfully, these guys stray from the headache-inducing time shifts of Children of Bodom, opting instead to deliver a forward-moving plow of destruction and power.

Fans of mildly melodic death/thrash stuff will like Act of Aggression for the same reasons that they like The Haunted (hopefully they do!): guitars that sear and serrate with unbridled precision. Scenteria’s guitarists follow The Haunted’s manual for “How to Construct an Effective Death/Thrash Riff.” While, to many, this will be seen simply as a dishonorable rip-off tactic, I find it quite welcoming; if there’s any thrash band to emulate, The Haunted is the best. The vocals here are pretty standard fare mid-range barking, with an occasionally decipherable word. The drummer is solid, and he never really struts his stuff much, save for on the album’s closer, “The Abyss.” On this track, he busts out some pretty sweet fills.

Sadly, possibly because this is their first album, this band likes to stick close to their comfort zone: repetitive The Haunted riffs, mid-tempo beats and a very formulaic construction of songs. It’s fine with me, though. I really like the way these guys sound. Surely this album makes a nice addition to the consummate thrash fan’s record collection.

Karmageddon Media: www.karmageddonmedia.com

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Music Reviews

Shepherd

Shepherd

The Coldest Day

Exile on Mainstream

Shepherd is the kind of band that you will listen to after a rough day. Their music is drenched in anger, frustration, gloom and doom; the best way to accentuate your crappy mood is to put on a disc like The Coldest Day and let it all soak in.

To give Shepherd the simple “doom” tag is unfair, as they are much more than that. The band has a flair for sinister yet catchy melodies, which they play on guitars that hark back to Sabbath in their heyday. Their bass player also goes for the overdriven sound, and the combination of the two overdriven instruments sounds rather ’70s in tone. Yet, the songs do not sound dated at all. Their melodies are based in various blues structures that sound timeless and triumphant. It’s as if Shepherd’s music is the battle cry for the frustrated and pissed.

I had a hard time getting into singer Andreas Kohl’s voice. I would have liked to have heard a vocalist who sounds a bit angrier; Kohl sings a bit too much, in a strange, almost Nick Cave-esque voice. It just doesn’t mesh well with the music.

Overall, The Coldest Day takes the somewhat tiresome “doom” genre and ups the ante by adding undeniably catchy melodies and hummable hooks. While this is definitely some dark and angry stuff, it might have a bit too much sunshine in it for fans of Khanate, Sunn 0))) and Isis. You really need to appreciate strong songcraft and melodies to enjoy Shepherd. Surely, fans of Sabbath, Grief, and The Obsessed will find this album quite enjoyable.

Exile on Mainstream: www.mainstreamrecords.de

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Music Reviews

Before Today

Before Today

A Celebration of an Ending

Equal Vision

Before Today are yet another in the endless stream of “screamo” bands currently floating from the top of the mountain. They play distorted, melodic guitar parts that occasionally border on being metal-based. The singer has a super high-pitched singing voice, and of course, he screams during the band’s choruses. These guys are basically a faster and less entertaining version of Thrice. Their sound is stale and totally overdone. Yet, the band’s guitarist deserves kudos for his fascinating skills. If you do buy this album, pay close attention to the little guitar fills he does, such as the one about 30 seconds into “Enlarge Your Hearts”; he hits about 20 notes in like two seconds. It’s amazing! It’s not just his hot licks that are awesome; his riff construction and ear for catchy melodies are quite striking.

I swear, when one’s guitar playing can make up for an album that’s entirely marred by one of the worst vocalists ever, you know you’re listening to true talent. It should also be known that the drummer is strong, as well. Unfortunately, he’s buried in the mix, underneath the guitars and vocals. I have a hard time believing that these guys will be able to keep up with the likes of Thrice, simply because their songs are almost too fast and too high pitched, even for the wussiest of emo-wussies out there! Try this one out at your own risk.

Equal Vision: www.equalvision.com

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Music Reviews

Bear Claw

Bear Claw

Find the Sun

Sick Room

Holy Crap! This Bear Claw album is so good that I want to drop to my knees and thank The Maker! The music is tribal, rudimentary, awkward, angular and incredibly aggressive. Fans of Shellac, June of 44, Dianogah and the like, take note! Find the Sun is an album that you MUST own! Not only do these guys sound a lot like Shellac, they had Steve Albini produce this album for them.

Bear Claw is comprised of drums and two basses, much like the aforementioned Dianogah. Yet, while Dianogah sounds boxey and completely mathematical, Bear Claw is able to step outside of the confines of using only two bass guitars. Songs like “Chameleon” stutter and scamper in an early Dismemberment Plan manner, totally contradicting the robotic stereotypes of “mathcore.” The guys in Bear Claw are excellent musicians. Their melodies are spastic and multidimensional, turning the typically boring bass guitar into something more dynamic.

In short, this album pummels, punishes and makes me want to jump out of my seat and boogie down. It’s a welcome sound in today’s current flood of screamo saturation; Bear Claw hasn’t forgotten what it means to tamper with the dynamics of sound, with the end goal being to create innovative music that pushes the envelop. This is clearly one of the year’s top 10 albums, of any genre. I absolutely love it!

Sick Room: www.sickroomrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Year Future

Year Future

The Hidden Hand

Gold Standard Labs

I imagine the teenage fans of The Killers will hear the latest Year Future EP and say things like, “Oh man, these guys are totally ripping off The Killers!” Thankfully, people who’ve been alive for more than 16 years are cognizant that Year Future’s sound is actually much more than typical late-1970s Gang of Four borrowing…

While there are hints of Gang of Four on The Hidden Hand, many of the band members’ previous bands come out through the three songs here. The unbridled ferocity is reminiscent of the late and incredibly missed Angel Hair, and the grooviness of the songs recalls memories of VSS. However, these guys are not stuck in their respective pasts; they’re making music that totally intimidates, growls and spits in the face of today’s “punk” music. With no chance of selling hundreds of thousands of records, Year Future cares more about rocking your pants off than putting forth a good public image. Now that’s “punk.”

These three songs rock a lot harder than previous Year Future releases I’ve heard, and they’re totally addictive. The only downside is that the disc is only 10 minutes long, so don’t get comfortable while listening.

Gold Standard Labs: www.goldstandardlabs.com

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Music Reviews

Estee Louder

Estee Louder

Ohio’s Best

Diaphragm

Ohio’s Best offers a most fascinating album cover. It features two young ladies (who I suppose play in the band), sans clothing, with their breasts in their hands. On their tummies is written the band’s name, with a blue ribbon superimposed between the ladies. Each time I pick up this CD, I feel like I am a voyeur or something, as the ladies’ heads aren’t visible.

That said, the music on the disc is much less captivating. It’s straightforward rock & roll with lots of loud, overdriven guitars. They sound a lot like Bikini Kill crossed with early Black Flag. The music is raw and sophomoric, but it has a lot of appeal. The ladies play their instruments with aggression and force, something that’s often lacking in music of this sort. Fans of really basic guitar-driven power pop will probably think that Ohio’s Best is great. My personal feeling is that the band should fire the lead singer, as his voice is kind of corny. However, the ladies sing in the background throughout the record, and they actually sound quite good (in a Kim Deal sort of way). It’s not a great album, but it’s not bad either. It’s just easily forgettable.

Diaphragm: www.diaphragmrecords.com

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Music Reviews

3 Inches of Blood

3 Inches of Blood

Advance and Vanquish

Roadrunner Records

3 Inches of Blood takes it back to late-’70s Britain, a time when “metal” was all about harmonized guitar licks, overly processed guitar tones, drums buried deep in the mix and lots of medieval melodies. Advance and Vanquish even has the ridiculous song titles: “Deadly Sinners,” “Dominion of Deceit,” Wykydtron,” “Swordmaster,” “Axes of Evil,” “The Phantom of the Crimson Cloak,” and so on.

Corniness aside, these guys rock out. The aforementioned “Dominion of Deceit” is a crushing beast of thrash metal, with galloping, Iron Maiden-style rhythm guitars, dizzying lead guitars and a brief reprise from Cam’s over-the-top, annoying vocals; he calms it down a bit for this track, letting his amazing band have the spotlight. The guitarists are excellent riff constructors, coming up with some jaw-dropping stuff from tracks 1 to 13. The drummer is finally given some face time on the sweet “Premonition of Pain,” which opens with a stomping beat that would make a 25 year old Lars Ulrich nod in approval. The drummer also delves into the land of bizarre time changes on this track, a skill that he demonstrates sparingly, but effectively, throughout the album.

Advance and Vanquish is a pretty solid album of old school melodic thrash metal. The musicianship is absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, the band comes up with some really creative and destructive stuff only to have the awful Cam vomit all over everything with his embarrassing vocals. Simply put, this is a great record, tainted by bad vocals.

Roadrunner Records: www.roadrunnerrecords.com

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Music Reviews

W.A.S.P.

W.A.S.P.

The Neon God: Pt. 2 – The Demise

Sanctuary Records

It may just be me, but it seems like W.A.S.P. slowly has been transforming themselves in a clone of The Cult over the last couple of decades. Their transformation seems to be nearing it’s completion with this, the second part of Blackie Lawless’s much hyped “The Neon God” saga, The Demise.

Lawless and crew are rockin’ out like it’s 1988 all over again. It’s clear, judging from Lawless’s song titles and lyrics, that he’s not lost his flair for the profound: “Never say die, never say die, no, no, never say die, my boy.” True poetry. I guess you should also know that the lyrics of the album act as a script between “Jesse” and various other characters, including his “congregation” and his mom. Apparently, Jesse is struggling with being “The Neon God.” He could also be struggling because the band telling his story is W.A.S.P.

Without a doubt, the music on this disc is some of the most uninspired “heavy metal” that I’ve ever heard. The only thing that even sort of sounds passionate is Blackie’s voice. But after decades of being a rock star, his voice sounds gnarled and worn out. He still gives it his all, and he totally gets into what he’s doing, but the music behind him is stale. The guitar tone is totally late ’80s glam metal (in a bad way), the drums are almost completely missing from the mix and the song structures are formulaic. W.A.S.P. could have saved the world a headache if they had just broken up when the ’80s ended.

Sanctuary Records: www.sanctuaryrecords.com