Music

MUSIC REVIEW: The Acacia Strain, “Gravebloom”

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Good old TAS, the OG’s of nihilistic downtuned modern metal music. Ever since their inception around the turn of the millenium (has it been almost 20 years already?!?), they have been kicking our collective asses. In their first 10 years, they released three legitimate classics: 2006’s “The Dead Walk” (is there anything heavier than the beginning of “4×4”?”); 2008’s “Continent”, which was/is 10/10 perfection from beginning to end; and 2010’s “Wormwood”, which would begin a shift from the mid-tempo malevolence into the slower, doomier sound that they are known for now.

Now it’s 2017, and there are probably hundreds of bands out there operating from The Acacia Strain’s influential musical template. So, what do they do? Why, record and release “Gravebloom”, of course, which certainly ranks among their best albums (released June 30th on Rise Records).

It opens with “Worthless”, a self-loathing song set to swirling guitars which has a surprising dynamic shift around the 2:45 mark. Things don’t get any happier: the indictment of society on “Plague Doctor”, exploring how to not be a model citizen on “Model Citizen”, the funereal dirge of “Cold Gloom”, and the Deftones-esque dissonant wall of sound on “Abyssal Depths”.

“Bitter Pill”, “Dark Harvest”, and “Calloused Mouth” pick up the tempo and are more reminiscent of the old-school TAS sound that we all know and love. “Dark Harvest” in particular is musically and lyrically reminiscent of the awesome “Holy Walls Of The Vatican” off of their previous album Coma Witch.

The lyrics of Vincent Bennett alternate between suicidal desperation and hostility towards the corruption of society. When he screams “We exist inside a wasteland / Rolling fields of agony / Bodies hanging lifeless / In a forest of dying trees / The last great disciple of the human race / Slipping through the cracks of time and space” on Bitter Pill, he paints a dystopian picture that is bleak, yet defiantly in acceptance of its fate.

When you get a TAS album, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Aside from the occasional shift in song dynamics, Gravebloom pretty much sticks to the sound that The Acacia Strain is known for. And let’s be happy they did, because they have released one of the top metal albums of 2017.

 

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The 25 Ta Life soap opera just had a plot twist

Anybody who is familiar with the hardcore band 25 Ta Life, knows how much drama surrounds them (check out one of my earlier articles if you are unfamiliar).

In a somewhat unexpected plot twist, however, James “Stikman” Ismean from the New Jersey hardcore band Fury Of Five has signed on to be the vocalist for 25 Ta Life’s upcoming performance at This Is Hardcore 2017.

Considering Stikman recorded a diss track towards Rick Healey (the longtime vocalist for 25 Ta Life) a couple years ago, this is unexpected indeed…

 

Remember when Axl Rose first started performing with AC/DC, and how ridiculous THAT sounded? Well, imagine if Axl had talked shit about Brian Johnson and threatened to kick his ass, and THEN signed on to do performances with AC/DC.

Yeah, it’s like that.

25 Ta Life with Stikman admittedly sounds good, however, especially with the return of OG guitarist Beto…

 

Either way, TIHC 2017 will be awesome, and as a longtime fan of both 25 Ta Life and Fury Of Five, this will be one of the most anticipated performances.

From White Stripes to black circles

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I never was a big White Stripes fan (although “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is still my jam), but I have always had my respect for what Jack White has done for music. He brought a punk ethic to a music industry that was, at the time, full of boy bands and second-rate nu metal bands. He proved that you could take a shitty 1960’s Strat copy guitar and (along with Meg White) a basic 4 piece drum kit, to become a successful artist. Sure, part of it was image, as Jack would fully agree to. But the songwriting was always there, and the White Stripes had some good songs. To this day, you can’t go into a college football stadium without “Seven Nation Army” blasting through the PA system at some point during the game.

But what Jack White has done goes way beyond creating music. In recent times, he was one of the early champions of analog recording and vinyl records. With his Third Man Records, based in Nashville, he constructed a top of the line studio with analog recording equipment. Except for Steve Albini and Electrical Audio in Chicago (which Albini started in 1997), there have really been no top studios dedicated to analog recording in the U.S.

And, now, Jack White has went full circle from musician and producer to record distributor. His new Third Man Records factory in Detroit is dedicated to producing vinyl records for his label, and to pressing records for other musicians and labels. Records aren’t just some trendy hipster scene anymore, as they are projected to be a billion-dollar worldwide industry in 2017.

But WHY are vinyl records, and analog recording, so important? My thoughts:

Analog recording (reel-to-reel tapes, as you might picture on an old school movie projector) has been the only constant in the music recording industry. Cassette tapes (which is basically a miniaturized tape reel in a plastic case), with their much smaller sizes, became popular in the 1980’s, but were only suitable for consumer use, and were eventually replaced by compact discs.. CD’s have been the consumer audio standard, but they are quickly falling to the wayside, with digital audio sales and streaming providing the vast majority of music sales nowadays.

Digital audio tape (DAT), which looked like cassettes but were considered suitable for professional music storage, were briefly in vogue in the 1990’s to 2000’s. There were even ADAT tapes (Alesis Digital Audio Tape, which were Alesis proprietary tapes the size of video cassettes for VCR’s). But these soon fell into obsolescence. Back when I was studying and interning for music production in the early 2000’s, DAT and ADAT was still being used, but fully computer-based digital recording was quickly overcoming it. Digital recording software has been in use in the music industry since the 1980’s, but the limitations of computers back then made it impractical. By the late 1990’s, digital recording would become the standard, or at least analog recording with digital mixing and mastering.

With that being said, analog recording has been the only constant recording format. Vinyl records will last many decades without suffering any appreciable loss of sound quality. Compact discs (CD’s), on the other hand, are quick to scratch up and will eventually rot (I have CD’s at home I bought less than a decade ago and are already rotting out). Cassette tapes, with their thin magnetic tape, will eventually lose sound quality. For consumers who want to archive a music collection, vinyl records are at this point in time the only product that will be guaranteed to last their lifetime. 

Sure, you could archive a collection of digital music, such as 99% of us have done. Who doesn’t have songs on their computer or phone? We have MP3, WAV, and AAC files for basic sound quality without requiring too much memory, and FLAC files for higher sound quality. Unfortunately, these audio coding formats aren’t guaranteed to last. There have been many changes in consumer audio and video formats (remember Betamax, laserdiscs, and Mini-Discs?), and things could change yet again. Plus, what if your hard drive seizes up, or you accidentally erase your digital recordings? You can easily transfer analog files to digital formats…but it’s a hell of a lot harder to transfer digital audio to an analog recording.

I can also argue that vinyl records are beneficial for ALL musicians, even the ones who don’t record onto them. With the prevalence of digital music, songs have become as disposable and fleeting as any other trend. But having a tangible product in your hand such as a record, with the artwork and liner notes, makes the music listening more of an immersive experience. It makes you actually appreciate the music, because you’ve invested more time into getting it than simply pressing “download” on Google Play. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of digital music; on the contrary, it has many upsides. It is much easier to listen to music nowadays, and much easier to create and edit music when recording (ever try to splice a reel when editing tape?). However, that doesn’t mean that digital music should be the only format. Analog recording has its place, especially for audiophiles and music archivists.

Selling physical products, such as records, is important because that’s where a lot of a musician’s profits are going to come from. Merchandise (“merch”) is another good profit source unless you are signed to a major label with one of those God-awful “360 deals”. Sure, you can make most of your money touring, if you are a big enough artist who doesn’t have to “pay-to-play” at some shitty club. But what about musicians who don’t go on tour, or have a bunch of merch pressed up for sale? Let’s take a look at royalties. For Spotify, one of the largest digital music streaming services, the average per-stream payout is .0005 cents. For an actual album purchase, digital royalties are still less than royalties for physical album purchases, although this is finally starting to even out. 

If I were to record an album and sell 1,000 copies of it, I might make a few cents per copy from iTunes. But for the average independent musician who presses up a physical album and only pays for distribution (to stores, etc.), he or she will make a few dollars profit for each album sold. If they were to have their own website and only sell the album from there, they would profit even more. This goes for any physical album format: records, CD’s (which, believe it or not, still exist) or cassette tapes (which, believe it or not, also still exist, as the newest hipster trend in music recording and collecting). The more records that get pressed up and sold, the more that physical music releases will become popular again. As a consumer or as a musician, this is a good thing.

Jack White has done a great service to musicians and music fans, and also to the city of Detroit for building this factory. I certainly hope for his success, as a music fan and as a proponent of analog recording.

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s influence on music

Today, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame would have been 50 years old. He, unfortunately, committed suicide in 1994, leaving fans in shock. As talented as he was, Cobain was by all accounts ill-prepared for the fame that Nirvana gained.

Growing up as a kid, Nirvana was one of my favorite bands. I can still remember hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time on the radio (I used to listen to the radio with a blank tape on cue so I could record songs that I liked). Even through my Sony boombox’s tinny speakers, Teen Spirit had a massive sound that I had never heard before. It was simple yet powerful, and the production and mixing on the Nevermind album is still one of the best in modern music history, in my opinion.

And it wasn’t just Cobain who was the sound of Nirvana, because without the melodic and prominent bass lines of Krist Novoselic, and the dynamically powerful drumming of Dave Grohl, the songs that Nirvana had would have never been nearly as good. The angular interplay between Cobain and Novoselic made for some killer songs, and Grohl would eventually come into his own as a songwriter, showing his metal influence by co-writing Scentless Apprentice off of In Utero, and by eventually recording his old songs written during Nirvana’s existence for the excellent Foo Fighters S/T debut album.

I have recently revisited Nirvana’s music to play on the guitar, and it’s pretty amazing how simple and similar many of their songs are. I can hardly read music, and I usually use open tunings on my guitar to bang out barre chords more easily. If you open tune to E flat, B flat, and E flat on the top 3 strings, you can easily play almost every Nirvana song. Most of their songs use many of the same chords in different combinations. And, here are my 10 favorite Nirvana songs, in no particular order:

-Aneurysm

-In Bloom

-Stain

-Dive

-Lithium

-Negative Creep

-Territorial Pissings

-Drain You

-Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

-Breed

I can still remember the day I heard of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I am usually non-plussed by celebrity culture, but as a kid I can remember shedding a few tears upon hearing of his death. I had just moved to a different town, and a girl who I had met in school tearfully called me with the news. At that age, even though I have struggled with depression most of my life, suicide was an otherworldy thought: it was incomprehensible, and all I knew was that one of my favorite musicians was no longer with us. 

Cobain was a huge influence on me: as a left-handed guitarist, he would help inspire me to pick up the guitar since I’m a lefty, too. His usage of simple barre chords was influential, too, as I am a rhythm guitarist at heart and love banging out some heavy power chords. As someone who was introverted with social anxiety and who felt out of place like many teenagers, Cobain’s honesty was also inspiring. He was certainly one of the best songwriters of the modern music era, and his influence will never be forgotten. RIP Kurt.

MUSIC REVIEW: Esham, “Trust No One”

Esham is the true king of underground rap. The Detroit rapper has been kicking the wicket shit for almost 30 (!) years now, starting with the release of “Boomin Words From Hell” in 1989. Since then, he has been setting trends in the rap game whether you have noticed or not. Esham has been highly influential with his production skills, especially with the heavy metal sampling on the Judgement Day albums, and the innovative dystopian soundscapes of the Natas albums.

Now it’s 2017, and Esham is still bringin it to us raw with the release of “Trust No One”, his latest single from his upcoming album Scribble. Weaving snaps and snares through synths and sound effects, he rattles off a list of people he doesn’t trust, from baby mamas to the president. The hook is catchy, and Esham even deviates from his usual blunt-force rapping to get creative on the mic with some different styles. It has that classic Esham sound: catchy enough to keep your head nodding, and creative enough to keep you interested.

To purchase the single, merch, or to find out more: https://www.acidrap.com/

The Grammy Awards disrespect metal music, yet again

I don’t watch the Grammy Awards, or any celebrity awards shows for that matter. It is basically a way for narcissists to feel even more delusionally self-important, and for the rest of us to live vicariously through their questionable wardrobe choices.

The 2017 Grammy Awards had 2 notable mishaps, however, and both were over 2 of the biggest metal bands in existence: Metallica and Megadeth.

-Upon winning a Grammy for Best Metal Performance (“Dystopia”), Megadeth were summoned to the stage to get their awards. And what song should play on cue, but Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets”? For those who are unaware, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine has had an acrimonious history with Metallica, and even after he left Metallica, he would claim that Metallica stole uncredited riffs from him…up to the Master Of Puppets album. Nowadays, Dave and Metallica get along decently well, and I’m sure he can look back and laugh about this, especially since this is his first Grammy despite being nominated 12 times before this year.

-Metallica performed “Moth Into Flame” with Lady Gaga…which seems positively ridiculous, even though Lady Gaga is a fan of Metallica. Anyway, Lady Gaga was introduced as the sole performer while Metallica stood on stage, and when they started playing, James Hetfield’s mic wasn’t working properly, leaving Lady Gaga to solely sing the lead vocals until the mic feed got fixed. Hetfield was so pissed that he threw his guitar at the guitar tech after the performance. And, who could blame him?

This isn’t the first time that the Grammys have disrespected metal music:

-In 1989, the Grammys first recognized metal music as a category…and they awarded the inaugural Grammy for Best Metal Performance to Jethro Tull, who were never a metal band.

-In 1993, Nine Inch Nails would win for “Wish”, despite NIN not being a metal band (they beat out Helmet’s “In The Meantime”, which is one of the best and most influential metal songs of the 1990’s). NIN would win this award again in 1996.

-And, in 2015, comedy band Tenacious D would win for “The Last In Line”, beating out a true metal nominee in Motorhead (whose frontman Lemmy would pass away 10 months later, in December 2015). At least Motorhead had already won in 2005 for “Whiplash”…yes, a Metallica cover song.

Luckily, most metal fans could care less about the Grammy Awards. But if you are going to actually nominate and give awards to metal musicians, at least take the time to do it right. The Revolver Golden Gods awards show is a good example, even if the Golden Gods has been increasingly ridiculous itself lately.

NAMM 2017: Highlights

Although I have never been to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show, I have always followed the news that talks about the new products that are featured in it. Music product companies use NAMM to showcase their upcoming product lines, and 2017 looks promising indeed. Here are some of my favorite picks:

Elektron Digitakt

This is an awesome blend of old-school interfaces and sounds, and new-school technology. The Digitakt is a standalone sampler and sequencer, and can be hooked up to a computer or workstation for further processing. It features 8 audio and 8 MIDI tracks, has a powerful sequencer and FX processing, a 1 GB hard drive and 64 MB sample memory, and an OLED display screen. It is scheduled for release on April 2017, and should retail for $650.

ARP Odyssey

If the ARP Odyssey sounds familiar, that’s because the original synthesizers have been featured on countless songs from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Now, Korg owns the rights to the name, and they have faithfully recreated the original ARP Odyssey, complete with analog sound along with sliding faders and controls. It has 37 keys, and should retail for $1,599.

Fusion Guitar

Now, here is an interesting product. There have been guitars that interface with MIDI (Line 6 was the first to release one), but this actually has a dock for your iPhone 6, 6S, or 7 to interface with your phone. There are thousands of apps that can be potentially used, in order to record, use effects, or even play along to instructional videos. The guitar itself has an integrated speaker, and will even charge your phone if it is connected to an amp! Unfortunately, there isn’t any model that will work with Android phones…yet. The Fusion Guitar should retail for $1,200.

Gibson M2 guitar

This is another interesting idea. As you might be aware, Gibson is considered a high end guitar brand, and Epiphone is the lower end guitar brand that is owned by Gibson. Now you can buy a Gibson for the price of an Epiphone! This may sound redundant, but I don’t believe this will dilute the Gibson brand. They look sharp, and if you swap the pickups out, you can have a beast of a guitar for a very reasonable price. They should retail for $399.

Jackson Misha Mansoor HT6 signature guitar

I’ve never been a big fan of Jackson guitars, but this one might change my mind. This is the new signature guitar for Misha Mansoor of Periphery, and it is a nice looking guitar that is built for heavy riffing, shredding, and palm muting. And it will be at a reasonable price: $799.

Digitech Freqout guitar pedal

Now here is a conundrum: a pedal that creates feedback, with true bypass! It may sound ridiculous and impossible, but to me it sounds great in theory. Instead of uncontrolled feedback, you can control and create your own, and have easier ways of playing harmonics. In fact, there are 7 harmonic modes. I look forward to the release on this one.

AKAI Professional MPC Live sampler/sequencer

Akai has been at the forefront of standalone samplers ever since the MPC 60 back in the late 1980’s. The 16 pad square layout is incredibly intuitive and has proved to be highly influential, since this layout has since been used on many products. The new MPC has that same intuition and ease of use, but is now even more powerful. It is completely portable with its battery power capabilities, or it can be AC powered. It features 16 GB of storage, and even comes with a 10 GB sample library.

Vox MV50 guitar amplifier

A class D guitar tube amplifier with 50 watts…for only $199? That’s what you see here. With the Class D circuitry, the MV50 is versatile and energy efficient, and the 50 watts should give you enough power to play any club gig.