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  • First Impressions of Black Metal

    28 Nov 2010, 1:41

    (Reflections based on my first few listens to black metal as a total newbie; in particular, written shortly after listening for the first time to Tristesse Hivernale)

    The radically lo-fi production of black metal records make for a quite unique listening experience, one marked by a curious sense of distancement. It is like the listener, instead of feeling lost amidst one of those oft-evoked snowy wastelands, finds him/herself watching from the top of a mountain some helpless wanderer. Or, while in hiding, catching a glimpse of a brutal scene through a peephole... the screamed vocals projecting unintelligible lyrics only add to this impression. The possible psychological effects range from shiver induction to mere detachment from the music, with the latter being more common in my (very brief) experience.

    In any case, the black metal conventions make a very interesting way of interacting with the record possible: countering said distancement by mentally "zooming into" the music, using the power of imagination to add extra layers and projecting how the piece would sound with a clearer presentation. Another thing that draws my attention is that, once one gets past the production and the screams, black metal is hardly "extreme", brutal or ear-destructive - just moody, ominous and minimalistic mid-tempo metal. That should not be surprising - after all, sonically assaulting the listener would never work when coupled to the distancement effect. As far as I am concerned this non-brutality is not a problem at all; however, as a total neophyte I wonder about how (un)conventional black metal sounds live, without the thousand curtains of lo-fi sheltering the music...

    Bottom line: listening to black metal can be an interesting experience, and I am puzzled enough to explore the genre further.

    Alcest Burzum Mayhem
  • Cidadão Instigado no CCSP

    18 Oct 2010, 20:10

    Sun 17 Oct – Cidadão Instigado

    Sendo um neófito no que se refere a essa banda cearense (fui sem conhecer nenhuma música, e saí querendo encontrar os CDs), não vou fazer uma crítica detalhada. Apenas digo que o rock psicodelico-nordestino deles funciona muito bem, com licks e texturas legais e variações interessantes de dinâmica, resultando em música bem construída e divertida. E não pensem que se trata de psicodelismo de flores e nuvenzinhas: they rock - hard!

    Cidadão Instigado
  • Impressions from Rush at Morumbi Stadium, São Paulo, Brazil

    9 Oct 2010, 18:33

    Fri 8 Oct – Rush - Time Machine Tour

    In order to avoid running out of superlatives too soon I will not write this as a regular review, but merely point out some observations in short notes:

    * Organization was generally quite good; and, from just behind the fence dividing the "premium" floor and the regular floor, audio and visuals were excellent as well.

    * On the fans' T-shirts: beyond the expected symbols (fisrt album logo, owls, starman, current tour shirts, etc.) there was a really diverse blend of references to nearly every era of the band. I only missed more from the mid-80's tetralogy - I saw nothing but one guy with a Hold Your Fire shirt (and by the way it seems I was the only one draped in Presto imagery).

    * Speaking of fans, I still find it hard to understand why the male-to-female ratio among Rush fans is so unbalanced (in my immediate vicinity it was 10:1 at the very least) while they have written, for instance, one of the most intelligent lyrics on gender relations around.

    * I managed to fully appreciate the point of holding a concert for a packed stadium. Namely, it is to have the audience acting as an extra player and instrument, following every breath and answering to every note. When that works, with both artists and fans willing - and it sure did yesterday - the result is awesome. Nothing beats the feeling that Geddy was actually playing thirty thousands synthesizers during, say, Subdivisions.

    * By the way, we sung YYZ splendidly.

    * The guys from the band remain in excellent form, energetic and enjoying themselves throughout. Geddy's voice is actually healthier than in Snakes & Arrows Live, and the humourous video commentary on the interludes still rocks.

    * Yesterday the night was indeed black, and there was no moon in the sky.

    * I might have been a tiny bit skeptical beforehand, but seeing the whole Moving Pictures live, and singing and bouncing and anticipating every phrase is indeed something else...

    * I should also mention that Caravan is brilliant live, and sets high hopes for the upcoming album.

    * One discussion we were having before the show was whether the organization staff around us (security folks, first-aid rescuers, snack sellers, etc.) actually cared about the show around them or not. As one guy pointed out, the bouncer nearest to us seemed largely unconcerned about the musical proceedings... until Neil Peart got on with his tour-de-force, that is.

    * And finally: if, by any chance, Rush travels to your city / region / country, do yourself a favour and BE THERE. That might be rather obvious already, but I'm reinforcing the message just in case.

    SETLIST (with concealed links to avoid spoilers)

    First set:
    01
    02
    03 (Yeah!)
    04
    05
    06 (Nice to see more from this great album)
    07
    08
    09
    10
    11

    Second Set:
    12
    13
    14
    15
    16
    17
    18
    19
    20
    21 (+ solo-Alex intro, and a very smartly modified ending)
    22
    23

    Encore:
    24
    25
  • Disbelief and Its Suspension, or Why I Like Yes

    14 Sep 2010, 1:53

    The motivation for this essay came from the reaction to a video of a live performance of Changes, by Yes, that I posted in another social network. A friend left a commentary on the clip, saying it was the "evil side of the 80's". After I and another guy replied trying to cast Yes under a more positive light, that friend replied with:

    "I only hear soulless, quasi-mystical pomp."

    Now, judging by the tone of the previous paragraph, you might be concerned that this text will develop along the lines of "That guy doesn't have a clue on what he's about!" or "He just does not get it...". That will not happen for three reasons. First, those judgements are not true - the author of the that commentary has a refined taste for music and arts in general; and furthermore, he does share a number of preferences with myself (notably, a soft spot for the neo-romanticism in 80's goth and darkwave music). Second, if I went down that route the essay would degenerate into just another boring fanboy rant, and thus I would be wasting both my time and yours.

    And third: I kind of agree with him to a significant extent.

    The criticism that Yes is no more than a lot of hot air is not new. To pick but one example, consider George Starostin. He is a talented amateur rock critic which keeps his album reviews on a website that was quite popular during my musically-formative years. I value highly his essays, although I hold many divergences with his positions on specific issues (for one, he utterly despises my favourite band). On the subject of Yes, Starostin, though moderately positive, has quite a few gripes:

    "See, I don't like prog-rock just for the sake of being 'progressive', i.e., long-winded, symphonic and mystical. Moreover, I'm certain you shouldn't like it for these things alone as well. I really only care for those prog rock bands who manage to make this long-winded, symphonic and uncomprehensible music interesting: whatever that might mean."

    Their [Yes] music was always what you might call 'prog for the sake of prog'. Sometimes it feels that the band's only desire in life was to get as complicated as possible so as to blow away all competition, and, what's even worse, sometimes it feels that this complicatedness only served to mask a general lack of truly creative ideas.

    And then, later on, when reviewing The Yes Album...

    Anderson's lyrics have gone totally nuts, jumping from one baseless image to another, absorbing all kinds of high-style cliches and non-cliches. Yeah, I know they're supposed to be 'poetry', but true poetry is supposed to work, filling your head with images and impressions, while Anderson's broodings are nothing but a nasty cosmic put-on, whether it be the love allusions on 'Yours Is No Disgrace', visionary gallucinations of 'Starship Trooper', or pseudo-epic puff-ups of 'A Venture'.

    It is not exactly easy to counter this position. Consider the interviews in which Jon Anderson appears to be several clouds too high to be affected by the concerns of us, mere mortals. Or then try to decipher a story with some sense from the lyrics of Starship Trooper (and I won't even mention the Topographic Oceans). On first inspection, such evidence seems to lead to one of two conclusions: either Jon and the other guys were, and still are, way off their rockers or there is no depth to their music and it is all contrived pomp, style without substance - in one word, soulless.

    I concede all of that may well be true. And nevertheless I still sincerely appreciate the music of Yes. The search of a rationale that dispels this apparent contradiction leads to several interesting questions about art and music. For instance: How can we be sure of the sincerity of an artist? Does it even matter? What should be understood for the "soul" of a piece of music?

    I will begin the argument by generalizing a concept which is normally employed in the context of film. It is called suspension of disbelief, and refers to the process through which the spectator, consciously or not, chooses to ignore logically flawed, bizarre or otherwise unrealistic premises of the universe in which the story unfolds. For a simple example, consider House M.D., the TV series. It is reasonable to assume that most people who know the series and spent more than a couple seconds reflecting on its universe agree that it is a little weird for any hospital team to get those insanely complicated medical cases once every two weeks or so; or that any reputable hospital would have fired Gregory House long before the upcoming seventh season. Even so, there are lots of fans of the series are perfectly aware of these artifacts - they just accept the compromise and do not allow the unrealistic premises to get in the way of their appreciation and enjoyment.

    Suspension of disbelief is not generally mentioned in music discussions because, in principle, listening to music does not demand us to accept any premises - unlike a film or TV series, in which there is a well-defined plot and universe. In practice, however, we do care about the intentions of the artist, spend hours trying to decode colourful lyric sheets and use (or at least are constantly exposed to) terms such as "fake" and "sellout" when discussing music. That leads us to invariably include many kinds of premises in our appreciation, and if those premises are untenable we will be drawn to tossing away the relevant songs, albums and artists. For an example of how that can happen, consider the taboo about Richard Wagner's music in Israel (chronicled, for instance, by the efforts by Daniel Barenboim to conduct Tristan und Isolde there). Wagner was a staunch anti-Semite, and his music was liberally deployed as soundtrack by the nazists. That makes his music a delicate subject among a number of Jews and Israelis, and some of them are understandably unwilling to ignore the symbolic associations with Nazism. The effort necessary to sidestep such extra-musical issues when listening to Wagner is closely related to the suspension of disbelief in action when watching a film. Even if it is not quite the same thing, for the moment I will stick to the "suspension of disbelief" terminology when talking about music due to the lack of a better alternative.

    Now, back to Yes: I do agree there is very little philosophical and metaphysical depth in their lyrics, and I don't see Jon Anderson as a beacon of light. In fact, if he declared today that there was no sincerity in anything they did and that they were just chasing big bucks all of the time (both in the early 70's when prog rock was hip and in the 80's with their shift towards pop) my feelings about Yes music - and, to a very large extent, my respect for them as musicians - would not change. I enjoy listening to Yes because, even if they did not intentionally put deep layers of meaning behind their music, the style of their compositions and the imagery conjured by the lyrics - backed, it must be said, by their exceptional skills as musicians - have a strong uplifting effect, and often are just downright gorgeous. Such appreciations were built by me as a reaction to the music alone, and are detached from the artists' intentions. In effect, when I listen to a song by Yes I do not look for the messages they tucked in it, but rather absorb the music and re-signify it according to my thoughts and feelings. Granted, it is almost an instinctive impulse to look for a more personal connection to the artists, and it is desirable to be able to believe they really did mean whatever we find in the music. But in the case of Yes (and a number of other acts) I am willing to suspend my doubts about extra-musical commitments.

    This kind of detachment is not always attained as simply as I made it look like in the previous paragraph - the Wagner in Israel situation amply illustrates that. In music - often more than in film - suspension of disbelief can require significant effort, particularly when it comes to putting moral impulses in standby. When one becomes aware of the possibility of achieving it, however, an interesting change of perspective can happen. As an alternative to the question "Do these guys really meant it?", it becomes possible to ask "Is their music worth the effort I will have to do to suspend my judgement?". Both questions are valid; however, there is a clear advantage to the second one. While it can be impossible to find out the correct answer to the first question, the second one is essentially answered using a force entirely in control of the listener - taste. If one does not see enough cultural or entertainment value in a piece of art there is no point in pushing oneself to absorb it - be it House M.D., Wagner or Yes.

    At this stage, many of you readers must have been set in yellow alert about the point I am trying to make. I am sailing on the Sea of Subjectivism, dangerously close to crashing this ship on the rocks of Relativism. For, if personal taste is the key metric to music appreciation, how should we expect to hold any reasonable arguments and discussions on the quality and musical value of a song? Again, a change of perspective and plane of discussion can be helpful. Instead of kickstarting the reasoning with "Do I like this song?", a more tenable possibility could be "Is it reasonable to seriously like this song?". An objective answer to the second question can be found in a number of ways. The one which I am more strongly drawn to relies in finding out which elements of a song lend themselves to assimilation and re-signification by the listeners. For instance, if I had to formally answer why do I find run-of-the-mill teenage pop or generic hair metal drivel deplorable my explanation would include how music in such genres lack any elements from which I could build a personal interpretation of the songs, even if I wanted to. Obvious themes, even more obvious lyrics, in-your-face deliveries and song building based on nothing but a few heavy-handed (even when potentially pleasurable) musical ideas which are repeated to exhaustion through the course of a song or album. The elements unavailable from this sort of music - which I would call substance if that wasn't such a loaded term - can be found in abundance with Yes. It should be clear that I am not saying that since Yes has this kind of "depth" everyone must like them - that would be plain dumb. The point is that the combination of skill and creativity of the band members with a consistent approach to song building allows people with matching sensibilities (like myself) to appreciate in depth their music for more than ten minutes at a time and attach to it a new layer of personal meaning - in my case, one that can be summarized with the adjectives "starry-eyed", "naïve" and "ethereal".

    To conclude an already very long piece, this "defence" of Yes eventually led to a much more general hypothesis, which can be summarized by affirming it is possible, though not mandatory, to detach the appreciation of music from the intentions of the musicians. Doing so requires the listener to, in his mental constructs about a piece of music, replace the purported intentions of the artists with his own subjectively attributed layers of meaning. For that process to be tenable, a key demand is that the music possesses a minimum amount of depth (which can manifest itself in a myriad of forms) so that the listener can find elements that can be subject of re-signification. As of now, these propositions are very far from being possibly taken as universal laws, but at least they go a long way in providing a rationale to my experiences when exploring musical territories, both the well-known and the uncharted ones. Moreover, and most importantly, they allow for a world in which there are rational people who can either like or dislike Yes, both groups being able to live in harmony and have sane discussions about music together. Just like me and my friend from the introduction - who I effusively thank for triggering the composition of this essay.
  • Muse: The Resistance, its predecessors and where they are heading to.

    14 Dic 2009, 18:37

    The Resistance is, from the perspective of Muse's established fanbase, a divisive album. While it has contributed to attract a broad new audience to the band, a large share of old-time fans felt alienated by it, and some even came to write off the band altogether. The new album led to hasty, precipitate judgement on Muse and the direction they are taking. In order to dispel any possible misconceptions, it is essential to understand the evolution of the band towards The Resistance. For that reason, this argument will begin with brief reviews of their four previous "main" studio albums.

    ---

    The path began some ten years ago with Showbiz, which is a strong and surprisingly consistent début effort for the still very young band. Granted, it is somewhat more conventional than its follow-ups, and in a few select places it does sound kind of like you-know-who. Nevertheless, many of the elements which would set Muse apart were already blooming at that stage: the sweeping, falsetto-laden ballads (which are arguably better here than anywhere else), the twisted song construction (like in the supremely under-rated Fillip) and the crazy, over-the-top intensity of the rockers (Uno, and most of the second half of the album as well).

    Showbiz was a promising starting point, and its follow-up, Origin of Symmetry, fully delivers on that promise. Origin is often revered by the fans as a immaculate, never-to-be-topped masterpiece. While it is certainly not difficult to see from where such a feeling comes from, the actual aura that emanates from the record is a quite different one. Origin is, essentially, the sound of a young band exploring the possibilities ahead of them as expansively as possible. The frenzied piano interpolation in Space Dementia, the violent sonic assault of Hyper Music, the unearthly high falsetto in Micro Cuts... all is done without ever taking any compromises, even accepting the risk of sounding off-putting at times. And it pays off big time, in the form of music which sounds full of life and imagination, and which deserves all the admiration showered on it by their fans.

    After the unbelievable expansiveness of Origin, Muse probably felt the need to follow it with a more focused effort in order to further hone their craft. And that is exactly what Absolution is. Their more evenly-sound album, it also is more well-defined structurally, both within songs and on the album as a whole. But this extra focus comes at a price. The dark, at times almost oppressive feel of the album, maybe coupled to the unusually high number of ballads, make it drag a bit, specially on its final third - and such a feeling is exacerbated by comparing it with Origin. For that reason, Absolution is a step below its predecessor. Nevertheless, its peaks are still incredibly high - Stockholm Syndrome is all one needs to dispel any doubts about the sheer power of the band.

    Then we get to Black Holes and Revelations which, in a way, triggered a smaller-scale preview of the split of the fanbase we would see with The Resistance. Contrasting it with the previous album, the clear impression one gets is that the band itself was feeling oppressed by the dark, ponderous approach of Absolution (and the band seems to confirm such impressions) and chose to subvert it. The result was an album which shifts seamlessly between many diverse styles but still feels unified by an energetic rocking approach throughout (save for a couple breathers). The diversity works beautifully, as there is hardly any weaker track on it - BHaR is by far the most consistent Muse album up to now. Of course, it also included their first ventures into pop songwriting and electronics, but they are engaging and done flawlessly (an aside: it is hard to understand how the fans which derided Supermassive Black Hole didn't notice how its danceable styling was clearly anticipated by Time Is Running Out in Absolution). And most important of all: it is an incredibly fun record! :-) As a personal note, I got into Muse through BHaR, and what first impressed me about them was their sheer versatility, as they pulled off successfully song after song. I believe that first impression made me appreciate the heights reached on Origin and Absolution even more.

    ---

    And now we are back in 2009... my original expectations for The Resistance were that Muse would, after recharging their batteries with BHaR, concentrate their efforts in a well-defined direction, much like they did in the Origin -> Absolution transition. The early talks about a concept album and the "symphonic monster" only reinforced such expectations. Curiously enough, almost the opposite happened. While there was a lot of diversity on Origin and BHaR, the band never felt like they were trying to move in opposite directions as they do here - even when they were pretty much doing so. While such clashes highlight the broadness of their approach, they also remove much of the appeal of The Resistance as an unified, conceptual piece (although it should be noted that the album is not really organized as a concept album to begin with).

    Such kind of internal incoherences would of course be only a minor issue if the actual songs were, on their own terms, fully convincing. Unfortunately, a number of songs in The Resistance are not quite as solid as one would expect from Muse. It doesn't help that the opening three tracks/singles do not leave a strong impression. Uprising, while amusing, has just a fraction of the power Take a Bow had as an album opener; Resistance tries to incorporate the more dramatic colours of Muse styling into a soaring love anthem but it does not quite gel; and as a pop crossover Undisclosed Desires is nowhere near as imaginative - or as fun! - as Supermassive Black Hole. The pop and electro crossovers in The Resistance end up not being really successful, but not just because they are pop or electro (as some traditionalist fans often protest) though - it is simply a case of the songs not being that good, period.

    Thankfully, the album has its high points as well. United States of Eurasia (+Collateral Damage) displays their bombast and grandiosity in full blossom, and musically-wise the notion of a continental anthem is cleverly reinforced by the Middle Eastern-ish melodic fills and the Chopin coda. I Belong to You/Mon Cœur S'ouvre à ta Voix (however you choose to tag it) shows that delicious quirkiness that led them to put something like Feeling Good amidst the swirling fury of Origin is not at all lost. And Unnatural Selection rages powerfully. Some may argue it is merely a remake of the rockers in Origin of Symmetry, but it is also tempered by their maturity and musical growth along the last eight years, which makes this sort of revisiting totally valid from an artistic standpoint. The only annoyance in listening to Unnatural Selection is realizing that nothing else on the album comes remotely close to rocking this hard - certainly not the neat, interlude-like Guiding Light; and MK Ultra just pales in comparison to most of its predecessors.

    And then, of course, there is the tour-de-force which is Exogenesis, divided in Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture), Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross-Pollination) and Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption). As satisfying a composition as it is, the most important role of the suite within the context of The Resistance is as a statement of intentions. It shows very clearly Muse intends to remain idiosyncratic and keep exploring uncharted territory as they move further towards superstardom. Some commentators criticize Muse arguing that doing a symphonic crossover is not a particularly innovative move for a rock band circa 2009; and while that is true, it is also completely besides the point. A more pertinent remark which is sometimes made that Exogenesis would be actually a quite simple classical piece. That also rings true - to my layman, untrained ears at least, but it is not quite fair to raise that accusation against Matt as he is just a beginner classical composer, Exogenesis being his first full-blown orchestral piece. Whether he will push further the envelope on that new direction - and, crucially, what would be Chris and Dom's feelings on such a move - is an interesting question for the future.

    Overall, The Resistance is a mixed bag of an album. It is flawed as a conceptual piece and quite uneven, some songs lacking the proverbial spark. But it also shows Muse keeps a broad artistic vision and still possesses enough creativity to deliver the goods. While it is understandable that it may be taken by many as a letdown, in no way it is a total disaster, nor it damages their credibility by any means. It is quite off-putting when long-time fans claim that the magic is lost, or that they should go back to their Origin of Symmetry sound. What these people do not understand is that the "magic" in Origin stems directly from Muse being a band in its early stages undergoing a rapid evolution, and that they can't possible go back to that point. What they are surely able to do is to move forward, maturing and aggregating new elements to their sound. I am fully confident that Muse are perfectly able to capitalize on their status as a rising force in contemporary rock to deliver a focused, imaginative career-topping (thus far) sixth album, which will relegate any missteps on The Resistance as a necessary transitional prelude to further greatness. But that is something that only time will tell...
  • An alternative Zeppelin compilation

    2 Dic 2009, 2:56

    The playlist I propose below is my personal take on showing what makes Led Zeppelin such a great band. While picking the tracks, I tried to avoid very obvious, overplayed songs and to display how they were able to pull off very engaging and very diverse songs. Thus, I hope it can portray them from a somewhat different perspective than usual. I constrained the compilation to a set of two LPs (or two sides of a 90' mixtape if you prefer), each of them having to make for a consistent listen in terms of flow and moods. Therefore, I had to make some sacrifices - most noticeable will be the absence of darker blues epics (Tea For One, When the Levee Breaks, ...). Disc One is arguably closer to what one would expect from a traditional Zeppelin compilation, while Disc Two is rather different in that it focuses on the latter albums and aims for sheer playfulness (an element which I find to be really overlooked when it comes to discussing Zep music). Anyway, here are the picks:

    Disc One

    The Song Remains the Same (Best album opener ever! Perfect for starting a day with a shot of adrenalin as well. I was tempted to follow it with the marvellous The Rain Song as in Houses of the Holy, but doing so would overload the disc with long songs.)

    In My Time of Dying (Want a massive blues epic? Fine, as long as it doubles as the most hilariously over the top piece of gospel music ever!)

    Hey Hey What Can I Do (Like they used to do on the shows, this will have an acoustic set in the middle. We start with this cheerful non-album (!) B-side from the Led Zeppelin III era.)

    Going to California (Maybe their most beautiful ballad. And extra points for the Joni Mitchell references.)

    Tangerine (A simple, gorgeous ballad, this time a bit darker. Might have put Gallows Pole here instead but it just wouldn't fit so well.)

    Achilles Last Stand (Oh my. This is the quintessential Led Zeppelin song with regards to their epic, unlimitedly powerful side. From the manic galloping beat to the towering guitar orchestrations to the unbelievable solos... in one word: mindblowing. And it comes from the often derided Presence no less.)

    Disc Two

    Carouselambra (The insane propulsive rhythm coupled to the massive - and "cheesy" too, but who cares? - synth lines are set to drive you straight into top gear)

    Nobody's Fault But Mine (Raw, stripped down and very heavy blues which happens to be immensely compelling and fun as well)

    Ramble On (Bit of an odd choice here, but I found it adequate to have something from I/II, and nothing better than this innocent, starry-eyed Tolkien rocker - with neat bass work too, BTW)

    Dancing Days (Bliss, pure refreshing joyous bliss. Hard to resist the urge to stand up and, well, dance to this one!)

    Fool in the Rain (Great lightweight tune which glides on some wonderful drumming. Not to mention the totally awesome faux-Latin breakdown.)

    Down by the Seaside (Delicious, even relaxing (!) song which really conveys a maritime feel. Hugely overlooked, this one.)

    Misty Mountain Hop (And to finish off in a mood as cheerful as possible, a straightforward rock song that is pure fun from beginning to end!)
  • Presto, by Rush - a Review

    2 Nov 2009, 6:18



    As part of my ambition to eventually get hold of all of the studio albums by Rush, I just couldn't pass the chance of buying a copy of Presto randomly found at a local shop. Presto marks a clean break from the synth-dominated style typical of 80's Rush. Here, keyboards fill in a mostly auxiliary role, as the songs are driven by either guitar or bass lines. This change of approach does not mean the overall sound became particularly heavier, though, as it would later on in Counterparts (likely my next acquisition, BTW), giving a somewhat transitional character - and also bringing a not very positive reputation - to the album. But how do the actual songs stand up?

    Show Don't Tell starts things up with a driving, rhythmically distinctive riff. Geddy's delivery on the "SHOW! DON'T TELL!" pre-chorus might get a little annoying depending on your mood, but that is easily ignored, and even forgiven after his very cool bass solo towards the end of the track (it costs nothing to mention that Geddy's bass lines alone could justify listening to any given Rush record. But I digress). Certainly a fine opener, with enough punch to get things rolling.

    Show Don't Tell is followed by what was to me the most interesting find on the record. Chain Lightning, with its angular riff and melodic lines bouncing on each other, makes me think of Origin of Symmetry era Muse songs (this is meant to be strong praise, in case you don't know what to think of this comparison). A quite interesting and fun song overall.

    Next is The Pass, arguably the stand-out track of the album and a personal favourite of mine. The poignant lyrics might draw comparisons with Afterimage, which also dealt with death (even if the actual lyrical subject was very different). But here the streamlined arrangement allows for much more direct emotional impact. Geddy's excellent interpretation of the lyrics and the build-up of the harmony firmly grip the listener as they lead into an ethereal, simple yet very effective Lifeson solo and then to the powerful conclusion on the final reprise. Maybe one of their most beautiful songs, and one that certainly points the way to the approach later seen in albums such as Counterparts.

    I am somewhat ambivalent about the following song, War Paint. The lyrical concept is actually quite likeable (martial camouflage as metaphor for superficiality in man/woman relationships), and the song itself appears to be worthy, but the hard-hitting intro and the nice build-up around the two minutes mark which ends up lost in the overall structure of the song suggest the arrangement is a little overblown. Still, it seems I get to like it a little more after each listen, so it may well be a grower.

    The fifth track, Scars, is the mandatory Peart showcase, with the percussion lines leading the way through, underlined by a groovy, infectious bassline. There is one issue, though: the atrocious chorus - "Scars of pleasure/Scars of pain/Atmospheric changes/Make them sensitive again" - which is pretty hard to ignore while trying to follow the rhythm and the quite cool melodic hooks on the vocal lines. Still, a fine enough showcase for anybody's tastes.

    Precisely on the middle of the record, we find the title track, awareness of which is surprisingly small. A pity, as Presto is a strong candidate the most interesting track on the album. With interweaving short segments, some added emphasis on textural development (largely based on tasteful acoustic guitar work - and not on synths!) and pleasant lyrical imagery, this is the track that most closely approaches 70's Rush composition style, if not necessarily in actual sonority. A lovely song, really.

    At this point, unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse. Superconductor is mainly a big riff in 7/4 time signature, but the riff is neither really heavy nor actually remarkable. To make matters worse, the lyrical concept just falls flat. When I first looked up at the title I thought it would merely be a silly little hi-tech/sci-fi piece, but it actually is something far less innocuous. The following song, Anagram (For Mongo), actually does have kinda interesting wordplay-based lyrics, but they are wasted on a tune devoid of anything remotely interesting melody-wise - on that respect the chorus is particularly offensive. At least it is the shortest track on the album, even if not by much.

    The proceedings improve somewhat with Red Tide, where, after the grinding two previous songs, we thankfully get some dynamic changes, with contrasting quiet verses and sweeping (and, as another reviewer pointed out, quite Police-like) guitar/synth lines. It does not succeed to conjure the mood suggested by the lyrics as well as some more famed predecessors of the synth era (Distant Early Warning, for instance), but is a definite improvement within the flow of the album.

    Next, we have, Hand Over Fist, a rather simple song but actually an amusing one, with some neatly placed guitar phrases going alongside the verses and a completely unexpected catchy, sing-along chorus! Can be quite fun if you are in the mood. And closing the album there is Available Light, which is in essence a rather nice mid-tempo ballad with no particularly remarkable attributes. I particularly enjoy Geddy's singing on the rousing pre-chorus and chorus, culminating on the "In the available light!" line sung on his glorious upper register.

    Overall, Presto can be taken as an interesting, if not entirely consistent transitional effort. The leaner approach taken here is refreshing and led to some great moments, but in some places it just left the songs too thin. It is far from being a bad album, and Rush fans likely won't be disappointed, even if it does not really need to be a priority if you're just starting to explore their catalogue. Unless, of course, you find yourself utterly intrigued by the mesmerizing presence of all those bunnies on the cover art. I know I certainly did... ^_^
  • Song Battles - BRAL Cup Round 2

    2 Mar 2009, 21:31

    As I was looking for a relevant theme to write a journal entry, the Second Round of the Singles Cup held by The British Rock Artists League provided a good opportunity. The League, and the Cup in particular, provide a nice opportunity to motivate one to explore bands previously unknown, and in fact I regreted having missed the First Round (had no time to listen to all 32 songs). Being a classic/prog rocker at heart, but one honestly willing to find new stuff, I was not familiar with most involved bands, particularly the so-called "indie rock" ones (I find the designation to be generally useless, but I'll use it here for the sake of convenience). Now I'll present my rationale in making my votes, without regarding the actual results (I leave it to you to evaluate my picks). Comments are welcome - it should be needless to mention this is just my opinion, but feel free to flame at will if you must, as results are often amusing... anyway, on to the matches!

    Bauhaus - Too Much 21st Century v. The Shock of the Lightning - Oasis

    The Shock of the Lightning sounds pretty much like an usual Oasis song (their brand of tough, somewhat menacing Britpop), and is a rather good one in that. In fact, it may well be, objectively, a better song than the Bauhaus entry. Too Much 21st Century, on the other hand, is a fun little song that sounds pretty distant from the usual Bauhaus sound (or at least the Bauhaus sound I'm used to). And since I've grown quite bored of Oasis over the last few months, I'll support Bauhaus.
    Winner: Too Much 21st Century

    Radiohead - Nude v. The Enemy - Paradise Lost

    Starting with The Enemy: for a band tagged as doom and gothic metal (subgenres I do not find attractive), this was surprisingly good. It sounds somewhat like mid-period Metallica, but with added drama that works fine on this song (Paradise Lost fans: forgive me and my poor knowledge of metal if the above comparison is ridiculous). I guess I could vote this song ahead of most others involved on this round... but not ahead of Nude, I'm sorry. (too bad Paradise Lost got such a hard draw...)
    Winner: Nude

    The Futureheads - The Beginning of the Twist v. This Train Is My Life - Marillion

    Marillion was a band that, in spite of their "honourable" neo-prog origins, never really managed to cause an impression on me. Kayleigh is their only song I actually care for, and it is quite far removed from actual progressive of course. And so is this recent single, a reasonably pleasant slow ballad but one that simply fails to capture my attention. The opposing song by The Futureheads wasn't quite sucessful either... it represents a kind of standard "indie rock"/garage revival that has not much going for it in terms of musical cleverness or surprises, and the music didn't exactly compelled me to listen closely to the lyrics either. If this was a regular league round, the result should be 0-0, but as I have to make a decision let it be Marillion, by the thinnest of the hairs.
    Winner: This Train Is My Life

    Biffy Clyro - Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies v. Mercury - Bloc Party

    Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies disappointed me a little bit - after the supremely cool and hard hitting intro (too bad so many fans despise it as "pretentious", if the song shoutbox tells the truth) I expected something more deviant from the norm than the hard rock tune that followed. Still a good one, though. Moving to the Block Party entry, at first I found the voice effects on the chorus very annoying, but one can't deny it is catchy as hell anywyay, and the song has enough quirkness to keep things interesting to the end. It increaed my pre-existiong curiosity to listen to more of Bloc Party. Thus I must go for Mercury on the merits of overall consistency, in a match that was stronger than the previous ones.
    Winner: Mercury

    Oceansize - Unfamiliar v. Grounds for Divorce - Elbow

    Unfamiliar was a song I already knew following recommendations of other BRAL members interested in new prog. The 7/4 time signature surely add interest to the dynamics of the piece, but overall the song just does not strikes me with much distinctiveness or emotional ressonance, and I do not like the style of the vocals very much either. Overall, my appreciation towards the song does not go beyond cold respect. And it couldn't be more different than my reaction at the opposing track... I already had caught Elbow on last.fm radio. The song was The Fix, and I immediately loved it. Since The Fix was done in partnership with a guest, I was left wondering if the rest of the output of the band was on the same level, but had no time to investigate. Grounds For Divorce dispels my doubts simply on the basis of being so much fun! Elbow really deserves my attention, that's for sure. And I will likely support this song to the end of the Cup, should it get there as it deserves =) (BTW, this is a good time to point out the gamut of reactions I had toward to all "indie" songs involved only shows the general uselessness of said tag)
    Winner: Grounds For Divorce

    The Verve - Love Is Noise v. Always Where I Need to Be - The Kooks

    I guess most of the points I would mention on the song by The Kooks were already covered by the previous bashing of The Beginning of the Twist. Even if this song may be a little bit better than the entry by The Futureheads, it still has no effect over me. Love Is Noise is no spetacular song either, but it is surely more interesting than this flavour of "indie". And it gets a bonus point for the cartoon choir backing vocals.
    Winner: Love Is Noise

    Feeder - Miss You v. Viva la Vida - Coldplay

    Mild and pleasant, as most Coldplay songs are, Viva la Vida is a nice little song. It is not mindblowing either (neither are most Coldplay songs), but not that it would need to be in this context. I guess you must be a bit tired by now of my bashing of generic "indie rock" songs here, so suffice it to say this particular track by Feeder is by far the worst offender among the songs on this round.
    PS.: I don't care even a little bit that Coldplay borrowed the vocal melody from a Satriani guitar line (guess someone had to mention it eventually... ;D)
    Winner: Viva la Vida

    Kaiser Chiefs - Never Miss a Beat v. Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors - Editors

    Never Miss a Beat stands above many of the "indie" songs already covered, as it has more interesting twists that make it more fun to listen. Let's say Kaiser Chiefs are closer to Franz Ferdinand than, say, The Kooks in that respect. Nevertheless, the Editors song emerges as clear winner here. How I overlooked this powerful song the first time it appeared on last.fm radio is beyond me. Comparisons with Interpol are appropriate, but there is nothing bad about them - we need more good bands with a darker sound that still rock nevertheless.
    Winner: Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors

    Artist pages to which this journal might be relevant include Paradise Lost, Biffy Clyro, Bloc Party, Elbow and Editors.