Saturday, 20 June 2009

Devin Townsend Project - Ki

After a two year hiatus from creating original music, Devin Townsend returns with the first of four in a series of records under the imaginative moniker of ‘Devin Townsend Project’. Whilst perhaps more known for his extreme metal outfit, Strapping Young Lad, Townsend has never been a stranger to the more melodic side of rock and metal, entertaining a highly prolific ‘solo’ career and creating some of the more unique progressive albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It comes as no surprise to fans then that, having cleaned up his lifestyle of mind-altering drugs and habits, Townsend returns to the mellower side of his output. However, quirky ambient albums such as Devlab and The Hummer aside, never before has Townsend been so instrumentally laid back as on Devin Townsend Project’s debut, Ki.

Described by Townsend himself as a record to ‘set the stage’ for the entire project, Ki as a whole is unimposing when compared to the oppressive wall-of-sound production techniques that encompass most of the musician’s prior output. That is not to say there are not moments where Townsend’s trademark hostility and dense instrumentation dominate. On the contrary, the third track, ‘Disruptr’, seems to indulge the metal side of “Hevy Devy” about half way through, with a gradual crescendo of snarled vocals and distorted guitars quickly building up to assault the listener as if out of nowhere. What is different though is that this aggressive momentum doesn’t explode, but rather deflates itself almost as quickly as it began, cutting off before its musical climax to begin the initially mellow-paced song ‘Gato’. Whilst several songs on the album do similar, there are often clever musical juxtapositions to diminish the effect of the outright heavy moments - whether it’s the rhythms of jazz and blues drumming veteran, Duris Maxwell or the slightly disjointed, yet oddly serene additional vocals from guest singer Ché Dorval. Whilst actually only having one writing credit on the entire album, the mere presence of Maxwell seems to have inadvertently influenced a lot of the rhythm riffs of the album - Townsend opting for clean electric guitars and playing slightly off-beat grooves that will inevitably have the listener clicking their fingers along to the track after a few plays.

Although fairly subdued, Townsend’s bizarre sense of humour is also noticeable on occasion, as Ki is littered with moments that are guaranteed to bring a smile to the listener’s face. For instance, as ‘Heaven Send’ reaches a point of dense guitars and horns, it suddenly cuts out to reveal a small exchange from recording sessions between (presumably) Townsend and Maxwell before returning to its prior insanity. Indeed, the musical variance is almost witty in itself. ‘Trainfire’ seems to have an undeniable 50s rock & roll vibe, Townsend’s vocals reeking of a rather charming Elvis tribute act for most of the song, whereas penultimate track ‘Quiet Riot’ borrows a melody or two from ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, with the acoustic guitars offering a stark contrast to the hit cover version of the titular band. Whilst a radical change in comparison to a lot of his work of old, for those familiar with albums of the Devin Townsend Band and previous pseudonyms, there are more than enough similar stylistic points for the fan to feel at home. The title track itself smacks of Devin Townsend Band’s Accelerated Evolution, with its floating vocals, soothing guitars and eventually huge melodic overlay of music acting as the angelic equivalent to the album’s earlier deafening disorder.

Upon initial listens, Ki’s fluctuation between laid-back, gentle tones and unrelentingly dissident fury is extremely daunting to even the most seasoned Townsend listener. It certainly takes a couple of spins to actually get used to the bouncing back and forth between the two extremes. However, it is in these repeated listens that Ki really begins to shine. At times, there is almost too much going on musically and the listener is led in to a false sense of smooth jazz-based security. As such, the listener needs to get to grips with this difficult fusion of musical styles before they can really begin to enjoy the album. This is certainly not an album for the casual music fan, demanding far more attention than to be relegated to just background music. Whilst possibly one of Townsend’s most alienating releases, Ki also appears to be one of his most well-crafted. Clearly a huge amount of thought has gone in to creating a rather eclectic collection of music, from the diverse mix of musicians on the records to the huge variance of sounds presented on the album. If this album is only an appetiser for what is to come from the Devin Townsend Project, I eagerly await the next course.

Hot Leg - Red Light Fever

After dabbling with a rather short solo career, rock vocalist and guitarist Justin Hawkins resurfaces in a new band, Hot Leg (and not a moment too soon either, with his ex-bandmates more than ably progressing without him in Stone Gods). In The Darkness, Hawkins was primarily known for his infamous shrieking falsetto, taking a note or two from Freddie Mercury, the band itself eliciting either responses of amusement and enjoyment or ridicule and disgust. Their unashamedly dated brand of rock displayed great musicianship and wore its influences on its sleeve but also retained a tongue-in-cheek attitude. A ridiculous flamboyancy engulfed the entire affair and Hot Leg does very little to derive from this formula.

Perhaps one of the main things that distinguish Hot Leg from Hawkins’ previous band is the era of rock influences that the band pay tribute to. Whereas The Darkness drew a lot of inspiration from 70’s rock (at least on their debut – sophomore album, One Way Ticket became a bit more of a Queen tribute album, thanks to its bombastic multilayered vocals), Hot Leg seem to have far more of an 80’s glam vibe. Of course, there are some classic style rockers, but tracks like ‘Cocktails’ tend to remind the listener of 1984-era Van Halen with bouncy synthesisers being no stranger. The lyrics certainly reinforce this cock-rock idea, ranging from love and lust gone wrong (of course laced with the expected innuendo) to judgemental aggression – as was standard fair with any brand of hair-metal of the late 80’s / early 90’s. One song that seems to break out of this trend however is the track ‘Trojan Guitar’, which is more Led Zeppelin than Mötley Crüe due to its narrative nature and occasional folk guitar, making it an odd, but welcome inclusion. As to be expected, Red Light Fever is laden with vocal hooks galore and guitar solo trade-offs, showing that both guitarists, Hawkins and Pete Rinaldi, are equally well versed in widdling away on the six-string. Indeed, the entire band consists of tight performers, but all seem to take a bit of a backseat to Hawkins. This is partially as these songs are nearly exclusively his creation, but also due to his stellar performance - undeniably, one of the best aspects of the album his voice. Hawkins has an incredible set of pipes, especially when it comes to falsetto wails (just listen to him out-shriek guest singer Beverlei Brown, on ‘Ashamed’). It also doesn’t hurt that he has also developed some variance in his voice, occasionally switching to a low and gritty bark - presumably so any glass located near the speakers isn’t completely shattered.

What this album does right is meld together the different aspects of what the band clearly adores – classic rock. Whether it’s the somewhat bloozy beginning of ‘Prima Donna’ or the chicken-picked riffage of single ‘I’ve Met Jesus’, there’s definitely enough variance within the album to keep it from becoming stale. Clocking in at around 35 minutes, the ten cuts are short and sharp and tend to refrain from too much self-indulgent repetition, which is one of the key problems of many of Hot Leg’s predecessors. Perhaps the most important thing about this album however is that it is fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and yet is delivered with conviction and fantastic ability. Like the best of the classic rock bands, Hot Leg are clearly enjoying themselves and making sure their audience is aware of the fact. Rather than whine incessantly about their never-ending pain, as do many modern “rock” bands, Hot Leg want their listener to remember when rock was more about having fun (albeit, slightly misguided fun). Whilst the album is hardly groundbreaking (I don’t think it could actually be walking on more beaten paths), it is an enjoyable listen for fans of slightly-glam classic rock (and of The Darkness) and is unapologetically ridiculous. Red Light Fever is a strong debut and hopefully only a sign of things to come.

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers

14 years after the initial disappearance of original band member Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers take the “risky” move of writing an album based entirely around the remains of Edwards’ lyrics. With their third album, The Holy Bible becoming synonymous with the often impenetrable contemplations of their almost-guitarist and lyricist, it is inevitable that the new album will be held up to the high standard set by The Holy Bible – a standard that seems unachievable. But the Manics have made a great job of trying to reach it.

From the very beginning, Journal for Plague Lovers evokes nostalgia for the band’s classic, The Holy Bible, through its sample-based opening – a concept that almost littered the latter record. Unavoidably, there are many common links with the album that became Edwards’ swansong, with Journal for Plague Lovers continuing the theme of lyrics on the slightly darker side of human thought. Whilst the Manics have never exactly been the happiest of bands throughout their career, their prior release Send Away the Tigers, whilst an enjoyable album musically, had some overtly uninspired lyrics (such as the chorus to hook-laden swayer ‘Autumnsong’, insipidly rambling about ‘what you’ve done with your hair’). As a result, it’s a welcome change to actually be able to appreciate the lyrics on their own, as nihilistic and self-pitying they are. As to be expected, there are references to a variety of topics, ranging from social commentary to artistic output, serving as a vehicle for displaying the intelligence, observational skill and huge ability to absorb information that Edwards had. As with The Holy Bible, the lyrics alone have a great propensity to stick in your head, with simple chorus lines such as the title track’s ‘Only a God can bruise / Only a God can soothe’ becoming a perpetual placement in one’s mind.

Great emphasis was put on the use of Edwards’ words by the rest of the band throughout the creation of the album, leading to many expectations of another The Holy Bible, with its suffocatingly enjoyable song-writing immersing the listener in a world of incomprehensible and unchangeable anguish. However, whilst the musical side of Journal for Plague Lovers is impressive, it doesn’t live up to the almost unreachable goals set by its effective predecessor. Where The Holy Bible was muddily and disconcertingly produced, Journal is primed and polished. Where Bible had an oppressive wall of sound (take for instance the chilling-beginning of ‘Of Walking Abortion’, where the violently sludging and ominous instrumentation kicks in over a suddenly garbled quote), Journal is extremely tame on the ear. There are moments of trying to capture that unique sound through the use of similar guitar tones (for instance, the verse guitar lines of track ‘Marlon J.D.’), but it would be impossible to recreate. And why would they want to? The songs are well-constructed, but despite the band believing the record as a whole to be possible commercial suicide, there are more than enough sing-along moments for even the most casual of Manics listeners to enjoy the record. Taking a few song-writing cues from one of their best received records, Everything Must Go, the songs are far less alienating than the lyrics might suggest, but still act as a completely suitable accompaniment to Edwards’ hard to follow and deeply alarming lyrics.

The album has a fair mix of radio-friendly rock songs (the first single, ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ immediately comes to mind), energetic songs (‘Pretension/Repulsion’s chorus makes punching the air almost compulsory) and unnervingly soothing acoustic songs (with ‘William’s Last Words’ reading almost like a pleasant suicide note). Whilst the Manics are no stranger to musical variety (indeed, they have come a long way from their Guns N’ Roses meets politics and occasional bad drum machine debut), Journal seems to do a brilliant job at encompassing all the aspects that have made the high points of their back catalogue so good – catchy choruses, well crafted songs, exceptional performances (especially from James Dean Bradfield, whose voice seems to not have wavered in quality in the last 15 years, as well as his guitar playing being criminally underrated) and intelligent lyrics. Journal for Plague Lovers, perhaps most importantly, stays consistent through out. There is not a weak song on the record and, despite its variation. Journal seems to remain appropriately in tone with itself keeping a steady feel, rather than an erratic mish-mash of different styles. Whilst not blown away on initial listening, the album has certainly proved to be a grower, with some of the best aspects of it only showing themselves after repeated listens (for instance, the charmingly dated and yet fantastically placed piano segment after ‘Viriginia State Epileptic Colony’s second chorus). Whilst Journal for Plague Lovers was never going to be able to live up to the legacy of The Holy Bible, it is a great record in its own right. Not only has it shown that the three-piece of James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore are still a musical force to be reckoned with, but it is a more than worthy way to honour their clearly sorely missed band-mate, Richey Edwards. It’s only a shame that Journal for Plague Lovers is damned to live in The Holy Bible’s shadow because of it.