Monday, October 7, 2019

Album review: Comatose by Skillet

So, this is awkward. If I'm going to review a Skillet album I should really preface it by saying I am pretty strongly opposed to christian music. I won't get into the details here, but the short version is that the more I learn about music, the more I realize that christian music is the least interesting, least useful, and most potentially damaging music genre out there. As a musician, I hate when musicians make something other than music the most important thing about their art, because if there's something more important than the music it always ends up compromises the music as a result. With all these ideas and more in mind, I recently purged my CD collection of christian music. And somehow, Skillet survived. Just barely, though. Today I'll be listening to Comatose for the first time in years.

I really don't want to make this article the "let's bash christian music" episode, but if you're into that, check out this youtube video that pretty much sums up my stance on this.

Maybe I kept my Skillet CDs around because, unlike other christian music, I actually really connected with it at one point. I think Skillet was really one of the first bands that I liked because I liked it, and not just because I felt like I should. It sort of bridged the gap between the christian music that I was supposed to like, and all that other music that I actually liked but couldn't admit to myself that I liked. Skillet was the perfect band band for christian teenagers like me who didn't like the bland christian pop music our parents liked, even if Skillet was really just as bland christian rock instead. My first exposure to Skillet was actually a YouTube video combining "Falling Inside the Black" with scenes from the Star Wars prequels- two things that defined my childhood, but I am quick to disavow now.

There are actually some good songs on this album. "Rebirthing" still sounds pretty cool to me, and "Comatose" isn't that awful. But then there are songs like "Better than Drugs", which even at the time I knew full well was a cringefest. Thank goodness I don't tend to care about lyrics that much, because if I did, this album probably would not have been one of my favorites.

The hardest part of listening to this album again in 2019 is actually not the creepy feeling I get from -hearing an old man tell me how cool Jesus is- it's the awful overcompression. Every time the drums hit, the cymbals and the guitar sounds drop in volume a little bit. This is usually a good thing, and good music producers do this on purpose using something called sidechain compression. But on this CD, every time there's a spike in volume it sounds like the whole song is getting "squished", and that squished sound hurts my ears. I actually loaded the song "Comatose" into Audacity just to get a quick look and see what I could see.

You see all those red lines? That's clipping, and that's very bad. That's an amateur audio engineer mistake (that I've made plenty of times, of course). The sound is so squashed down that the loud sounds like drums are at about the same volume as the quieter sounds, which is why the song hurts my ears so much. This isn't the worst overcompression I've ever seen, but it's pretty darn bad. You can forget about listening to this album on headphones if you want to have a good time.

Of course, when I went to Florida with my grandparents, I listened to this album countless times in cheap earbuds. While I did get sick of it by the time the trip was over, I genuinely enjoyed it. Now when I think about Comatose, Awake, or Skillet in general, I think of that trip. I was just getting good enough to learn Skillet songs on guitar (including "Those Nights"), and I didn't know or care about overcompression.

Comatose is an album that means something to me. But as my values have changed and my knowledge about music has increased, I've learned that there is a lot of music that is much more worthy of my attention. I'm probably not ready to get rid of my Skillet CDs, but I'm also not likely to pull Comatose out again any time soon. I can thank Skillet for helping me develop my own personal tastes in music, but I've moved on to bigger and better things.

I give Comatose one star, and my favorite track is "Whispers in the Dark", which might possibly be the first song I encountered a harmonized guitar solo in, laying the groundwork for my love of Metallica's "One"- but we'll get to ...And Justice for All in a couple months from now. No spoilers.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Album Review: Master of Puppets by Metallica

During my sophomore year of college, the walk from my dorm room to the music building was approximately nine minutes. I know this because I could start the song "Master of Puppets" at the time I left, and the song would be finishing just before I made it to class. I have no idea how many times I did this, but it was definitely at least a few times per week, if not every day at some points during the year. As a fan of Metallica, I don't think anyone should be surprised at all to hear me say that Master of Puppets is an absolute masterpiece.

The first track on the album, "Battery", is definitely one of Metallica's best songs, and one of the best album openers I can think of. On the flipside, "Damage, Inc." is one of the best album closers as well. Between these two bookends, we have some of the best songs of Metallica's early years. Similar to Ride the Lightning, there's not really a bad song on the album. But Master of Puppets definitely sounds more refined and deliberate than either of Metallica's earlier albums. To me, Puppets sounds like the culmination of everything Metallica had been developing from their inception to Cliff Burton's death shortly after the release of the album. Nothing Metallica has released since has sounded quite like this.

While Master of Puppets is absolutely the pinnacle of Metallica's early sound, there are songs, such as "The Thing that Should Not Be", that remind me more of the way Metallica sound later in the band's career. Some people like to say that Metallica sold out and slowed down with their self-titled black album, but they probably haven't listened to Master of Puppets very closely.

Now, I'm going to have to come out and say it. I like Ride the Lightning more than Master of Puppets. Don't get me wrong, they're both amazing albums that I 100% recommend to anyone who's even remotely interested in listening to metal. But there are some songs on Master of Puppets that I just don't like as much as others. But of course, you know an album is really special when my main complaint is that some songs are great and others are merely good.

In my last review, I mentioned how I love energy and excitement in music. Master of Puppets, like any good Metallica album, absolutely brings these elements in spades... most of the time at least. The heavy energy is balanced out with some of Metallica's most beautiful interlude sections, which usually involve incredible guitar harmonies. Harmonized electric guitar is one of my favorite sounds in music, right alongside the Saxophone soli. "Orion" probably is the best example of this, which is coincidentally my best listening recommendation for classical music nerds who don't "get" metal.

Is Master of Puppets my favorite Metallica album? Nope, not even close. But is it a masterpiece anyways? Absolutely. The world is better off because this album exists and every metalhead whose favorite album is Puppets is absolutely right that Master of Puppets is arguably Metallica's best album ever. In my album reviews, I've decided to only award a whole number of stars between one and five. But for Master of Puppets, I really wanted to give it four and a half stars. Of course, I've already broken my own rules before, but this one seems a little bit more important because it could mess up my spreadheet. So, to decide between four and five stars, I will be flipping a coin. And the result is...

I give Master of Puppets four stars out of five, but it's the best four star album possible. My favorite track is "Master of Puppets", mostly because it has one of my favorite guitar solos of all time during the interlude.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Album review: XXL by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band

We've finally made it. Today I'm reviewing a jazz CD. And it's not just easy jazz album, either. It's the one that got me hooked on jazz.

In high school, I was just starting to take guitar playing really seriously. I joined the school jazz band as something fun to do, and was quickly hooked. During my first year of playing jazz, my band played the ninth track on XXL, "The Jazz Police". As a budding jazz musician, this song was exactly what I needed to hear.

I love energetic music. I love everything exciting, fast, and loud. Prior to hearing the Big Phat Band, I had no idea just how exciting a jazz band could sound. In my defense, I grew up with 1940s big band swing as my only exposure to jazz, and those recordings are honestly pretty tame sounding from today's perspective. When I finally heard a top class modern big band, I was completely unprepared for how amazing it would sound. Instead of sounding like a fuzzy mess, you can actually hear what's going on in every part of Gordon Goodwin's arrangements, and hear every little detail clear as day. We take that for granted now, but most big band recordings were made before music production really took off.

As amazing as the Big Phat Band sounds, I know now that a CD still doesn't even come close to matching a live big band sound, just like old recordings of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington's bands can't compare to what big band records sound like now. I've heard some really good big bands in person over the years, and each time they blow me away. But without some gateway into jazz, I might never have taken the style seriously.

XXL was an excellent gateway to jazz for me. I don't really listen to big band music that much anymore; my tastes have definitely shifted towards smaller groups as I've learned what I like. But when it comes to modern big band music, it's really hard to beat Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band for me. The arrangements are top class, the soloists are incredible, and the melodies are both catchy and modern sounding.

And yet... most of the songs on XXL aren't all that memorable to me. There are a standout few, of course, including "What Sammy Said", "Thad Said No", and "Hunting Wabbits". When I listen to XXL, it's usually as background music when I'm doing something else. It's excellent and amazing and all that, but aside from a few songs I really like, the album as a whole doesn't quite capture my interest the same way my favorite jazz albums do. I'm willing to bet, however, that this album would be much better to listen to live, or even just with a video to see what the band is doing and give it some visual interest. The quiet parts of the album are so quiet it can be hard to pay attention to, and the shout sections are so comparatively loud that I can't really turn the volume up to hear the quiet parts without being constantly ready to turn it down again. This wouldn't be a problem in a live setting.

Overall, I give XXL a score of two stars out of five. There are absolutely some five star songs, but not everything on the CD is quite my cup of tea. That's totally fine though, the presence of music I don't like does nothing to detract from the fact that there's plenty of music I do like. My favorite track, even after all this time, is still "The Jazz Police".

Monday, September 16, 2019

Album review: Hardwired... to Self-Destruct by Metallica

This week I will be reviewing the deluxe edition of Metallica's latest album, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct. As soon as I started the first CD of three, I instantly remembered how much I love this album. The opening track, "Hardwired", is possibly my favorite album opener ever. It's fast, heavy, and gets me excited to listen to nearly three hours' worth of Metallica.

Since the release of Hardwired (the album), Metallica have posted hundreds and hundreds of live videos from their Wordwired tour, including live versions of all but two songs on the album. Metallica also made a music video for every single track on Hardwired. and behind the scenes videos of the album recording process and the music video shoots. For fans of Metallica, there is an absolute goldmine of videos on the band's YouTube channel. Seriously, Metallica are absolutely spoiling us and I love it.

Hardwired is a very long album, and there are certainly songs I would classify as filler material- but even the filler songs are pretty darn good. Throughout the album, James Hetfield's voice is pretty much the best it's ever sounded. Hardwired may not sound like a classic Metallica record, but I think that's okay. It sounds like the band came full circle, and incorporated elements from their lesser appreciated albums into one monster release. The band learned from the Napster lawsuit, the St. Anger and Death Magnetic mistakes, and the hit-and-miss songwriting of Load and ReLoad. Everything came back together for Hardwired... to Self-Destruct and the results almost make all those ups and downs worth it in my mind.

When I reviewed Ride the Lightning, I complained about the paper sleeve the CD came in. The deluxe version of Hardwired comes in a similar packaging, but significantly upgraded. There are actually plastic inserts to hold the CD like a normal jewel case! This is the way paper CD packaging should be. It's high quality, looks great, and the CDs and booklets don't fall out. There's just one problem- it doesn't fit in my CD rack. I can forgive that this time, though, because I doubt any 3 CD case would. I just wish Metallica's reissues could have had the same treatment.

The final track on the album, "Spit Out the Bone", is quite possibly one of the best Metallica songs ever, at least since the 80s. When I first listened to the album, I didn't pay much attention to it, probably because of listening fatigue from sitting through an hour of my favorite band's new music. It was quite a bit overwhelming at the time, so I forgive myself for not immediately recognizing the genius of that last song. Since then, though, I've fallen in love with "Spit Out the Bone", and it remains one of my favorite songs to play on guitar. It was my first Metallica song that I learned from start to finish. Since then I've gone on to learn more songs by my favorite band, but Hardwired really got me started with heavy metal guitar playing.

Today when I listen to songs from Hardwired, I think of playing Grand Theft Auto V. I set my personal radio station in the game to just play Metallica songs, and Hardwired songs seemed to come up more often than anything else. I've raced around stunt tracks, robbed banks, and blew up cars listening to this music. As as result, I've listened to every song on this album many times, but completely out of order. I've listened to the whole thing maybe three times all the way through, including today. The other times would have been my first time listening to the album at all, and then my first time listening to my copy. I never listened to Hardwired obsessively like I did with ...And Justice for All or the black album, but nevertheless this collection of songs means a lot to me.

I give Hardwired... to Self-Destruct five stars out of five, and my favorite track, after much deliberation, is a tie between "Halo on Fire" and "Spit Out the Bone". I do have to give an honorable mention to "Lords of Summer" from the bonus disc, though.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Album Review: From the Outside by Hey Violet

I have a confession to make. You see, when I came up with the idea to review every CD I own, I decided those reviews would be in a completely random order. After my collection was sufficiently shuffled in my spreadsheet and after I committed to reviewing them in that order, I came across two problems. First, I didn't want to review Christmas albums in any other month than December, which was easy to fix. But then, to my horror, I realized that my favorite CD I owned would be one of the last on my list.

This injustice could not stand.

I feel really, really guilty, but I let this one CD cut in line. That's just how much I love Hey Violet's 2017 debut album From the Outside.

From the Outside, of course, is the band's first album under the name Hey Violet, but not technically their first album. In 2012, the band that would become Hey Violet- then called Cherri Bomb- released This Is The End of Control, which is brilliant but not a part of my CD collection. Like many bands, Hey Violet took a few releases to really come into their own. They've definitely matured a lot since This Is The End of Control and From the Outside, but there's no question that there was something special happening in 2017, despite the changing lineups.

One of the my favorite things in music is energy. It's hard to describe precisely, but when it's there you feel it. From the Outside has energy, excitement, immaturity, passion... the list goes on. I've already written an essay before about this album's lyrics and how they both satirize and acknowledge the enjoyment of party culture. Every song makes perfect sense taken on face value, but there's more to them than that when you look below the surface. From the Outside is fundamentally an album about acceptance, community, and wanting life to be better than it is- themes that I really resonate with, personally.

I would describe the style of the music as pop rock, with an emphasis on the pop. One of my complaints about pop music in recent years is that it seems to have lost a bit of the edge that I like, which is a completely justifiable artistic choice that I just don't prefer. I love brighter sounds- harsher synths, crunchier guitars, heavier beats, louder singing, and so forth. From the Outside is basically my ideal pop sound. It makes me sad that Hey Violet is mellowing out with their new singles, but of course they don't have any obligation to only make music the way they used to.

Hey Violet first crossed my musical radar on November 24, 2018. It was a time in my life when I absolutely needed music to deeply relate to, and Hey Violet was that band I needed. Even now, listening to this album brings me back to how I felt then. I was in a new relationship I knew wasn't going to last much longer. I was stressed and barely functioning. The only thing that kept me going was passionate love for all the new music that I was finding. I wanted stuff free from the emotional baggage I had associated with my old favorite bands, so I was on the hunt for new bands I had never heard of before. I think "Guys My Age" was the first song I heard from Hey Violet, and I was hooked from the beginning. Before long, From the Outside had usurped ...And Justice for All as my favorite album, and that meant I really didn't have a choice.

I had to buy that CD.

Without any hesitation, I give From the Outside five stars out of five, and my favorite track is O.D.D.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Album review: Give More Love by Ringo Starr

This is the first CD I've reviewed that I don't think I would have ever heard of if it hadn't been given to me. I've never been much of a Beatles fan, and I certainly haven't kept up with any of the former members' solo projects. I've always written it off as "old people music", even if I wouldn't have used those exact words. After all, I only have so much time in the day to listen to music, so why don't I just listen to the stuff I already know I like? The obvious problem with that statement is that sometimes you miss an absolute gem or two- and Ringo Starr's 2017 album Give More Love is absolutely a gem.

There's just something remarkable about the combination of old fashioned songwriting and modern production. While listening to Give More Love, I thought about how it would have blown peoples' minds in the 60s. Back then, nobody had heard recorded music sound this good. Because every song sounds like it could have been written fifty years ago, I can really hear just how far music recording and production has come since then. Every detail in the music is laid bare before the listener, and there's no modern synthesizers or heavy distortion to saturate the mix. The reverb and delay on the vocals is almost as clear as the lead vocals themselves, which sound exactly like they came off a classic rock album. The instruments, however, sound as modern as they come.

Before going further, I have to immediately give props to the guitarists who played on this record- all thirteen of them. I was massively impressed. None of the guitar work was necessarily complex or mind blowing, but it was exactly what the record needed to sound best. Really, nothing about Give More Love could be described as over-the-top, extreme, or ground breaking. But that sure doesn't mean it isn't a darn good CD. Every detail is tasteful.

It must be said, however, that I'm not a huge fan of Ringo's vocals. He can hold a tune, that's for sure, but the rough rock n' roll aesthetic with heavy delay really doesn't work for me. It's perfectly appropriate for the tone of the songs, but it's easily the most outdated sounding element of the album. It almost sounds out of place with the modern clarity, but I bet it would have sounded great sixty years ago.

When it comes down to it though, I like rock music. I play guitar, it's practically baked into my DNA at this point to love some good rock, and Give More Love is absolutely good rock. I found it incredibly easy to groove with- which of course is only possible because the drums are on point. I may not know much about the Beatles, but I know enough that I feel the compulsive urge to defend Ringo's drumming on his own album.

I give Give More Love three out of five stars, and my favorite track is "Laughable".

Monday, August 26, 2019

Album Review: The Moment by Kenny G

I'm not even sure where to start with this one. I should probably mention that after listening to this album, I checked the duration to see just how many hours of smooth jazz saxophone I had experienced. One hour, three minutes, and forty-five seconds. I could have sworn it was at least two hours long. Seriously, each song could have been about half the length and I don't think I would have lost anything. Actually, I think I could have just listened to one song at random and had a pretty good idea of what the entire CD is like.

Let's get one thing out of the way- Kenny G is not jazz. I'm not going to be reviewing The Moment as a jazz CD, because it's pretty clearly 90s pop ballads played on saxophone. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, which is why I get annoyed when people say that Kenny G is crappy jazz. If this were a jazz album, I'd totally agree. But just because Kenny G isn't a jazz musician doesn't mean he can't play saxophone, because he totally can. After listening to the title track of this album, I was already itching to get my hands on a soprano sax.

The production on The Moment is, in my opinion, the best part of the album. Everything sounds crystal clear and beautiful, and the saxophone sounds are amazing. Low notes are still kinda honky, which makes me think they mic'd up the bell of the saxophone, but honky low notes are a small price to pay for that sound. And besides, after you throw a ton of compression and reverb on it nobody can tell except saxophone-playing audio nerds like myself. But because I'm sure nobody is coming to this review to hear me ramble about sax microphone techniques, I'm gonna move on. Suffice it to say I would have done things differently, but I'm not Kenny G so what do I know?

Overall, The Moment makes me feel... good, I guess? It's probably the cheesiest album in my collection but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I wouldn't listen to it every day, and I doubt I'll pull this CD out again any time soon, but I did enjoy it today and that's something worth mentioning. If there's any big musical idea that Kenny G makes me think of it's the idea that sometimes music can be good just because the actual sounds are good. He could play just about any melody and it would probably sound just as beautiful.

As a music major, I go to a lot of recitals. On one jazz combo recital, I really enjoyed the first solo that the guitarist of the group played. He had some nice licks and everything sounded nice and cohesive. And then they played another song, and the guitarist played all the same licks in his solo on that one too. This time, though, I wasn't that into it anymore. I know as an improviser we all have those licks we play almost without thinking about it, but as an audience member it kind of ruins the moment (no pun intended) when you notice that the soloist only seems to know a couple distinct musical phrases. That's also exactly what listening to Kenny G sounds like, and why I said that listening to one song is pretty much as good as listening to the same album. It's the same licks and melodies in every song, and I could have sworn I heard bits and pieces of jazz standards in there too.

I give The Moment two stars out of five, and my favorite track is "Moonlight".

Monday, August 19, 2019

Album review: Ride the Lightning by Metallica

The first time I ever remember being exposed to Metallica was seeing somebody wear a Ride the Lightning T-shirt. Today, I probably own more Ride the Lightning-related Metallica merch than for any other album. It's not that RTL is my favorite Metallica album, it's just that the artwork looks so darn cool. I don't own many vinyl albums, but Ride the Lightning is definitely one of them.

My number one complaint with Ride the Lightning has nothing to do with the music, and everything to do with the packaging of my physical copy of the CD. Instead of a plastic jewel case, Metallica's early albums have been released inside paper sleeves. These are probably a lot more environmentally friendly, and maybe even more attractive looking, but they utterly fail at containing a CD and booklet. Worst of all, they don't fit in my CD organizer. But of course, I'm here to review the album, and not the woefully inadequate packaging.

Ride the Lightning is, in my opinion, the best of Metallica's first three albums, featuring bassist Cliff Burton. I love every single song on this record, and the production isn't half bad either for 1984. Ride the Lightning certainly packs a sonic punch that not every album does. It truly is Metallica at their best- aggressive, complex, and thoroughly sincere.

During some of the hardest times of my life I've turned to Ride the Lightning. There's something about it that just speaks to me when I'm at my lowest. There's just something comforting about hearing someone else say that life sucks, and knowing that you aren't alone. The song "Fade to Black" in particular is probably the most relatable one of the album for me- it's another slow build up song with a huge emotional payoff at the end, which is my favorite kind of song. I remember listening to the end guitar solo and refusing to take my earbuds out to talk to my then-girlfriend because there was no way I was going to cut Kirk Hammett short. I handed one earbud to her instead, but I don't think she really felt it the same way I did. Not everyone will relate to the same music, or be emotionally touched by the same things. That's totally fine. But when you do find something that means the world to you, it's important to listen close and enjoy it. For me, I guess that means I need to listen to more 1980s thrash metal.

When I think of classic Metallica, Ride the Lightning and the songs on it will always come quickly to mind. The album is made up of nothing but absolute classics and underrated gems. Among the under appreciated songs of the album, "Escape" stands out to me. It's the most optimistic song on the album, and probably the most happy sounding song too at times. The contrasting tone really sets it apart in my mind. After all, most of the album is about death, destruction, and how much life sucks. It's kind of nice to have a song about taking initiative.

I give Ride the Lightning five stars out of five, and my favorite track is "Fade to Black", with an honorable mention to "Creeping Death".

Monday, August 12, 2019

Album Review: Fallen by Evanescence

Today's album is Fallen by Evanescence. It came out on March 4, 2003, the day before my birthday. It would be over ten years before I first listened to it in high school, though. I never had a proper goth or emo phase, but if I did this album would have probably been at the center of it. Evanescence was recommended to me by a cute girl in my high school chemistry class, which is a surefire way to get interested in a band. She also recommended Killswitch Engage, which I never really connected with, and Halestorm, which I still listen to today.

Later that year I recorded a cover of "My Immortal", the fourth track off Fallen, with a friend of mine. That cover was never released as far as I know, but it was one of the first times I recorded myself playing drumset. Two years later, while moving out of the bedroom in which I recorded that cover, I sat on my bed listening to the physical CD for the first time, which I had just bought along with Metallica's S&M. On the first day, I broke the CD case, so the disc doesn't quite sit right in there. When I opened the case today, little bits of plastic from all those years ago fell out into my lap.

Wikipedia describes Fallen as nu metal, alternative metal, and goth metal. When I listen, however, I don't really hear a genre. I hear a band with a sound that nothing else I've heard quite compares to. I've always preferred clean vocals over screaming, and Amy Lee's voice is possibly the most beautiful in metal. I love the flowing melodies and vocal harmonies sitting above the heavy driving rhythm section. I often like to say that metal is a style of music for people who love music, and I think Fallen is a good example. The album features strings, a choir, and electronic sounds along with the core rock band- and it all works. If metal is about sounding big and impressive, Evanescence absolutely wins at metal in my opinion. If I had to mention one flaw, however, I might say that the album feels a bit over-produced.

From song to song, Fallen is  one of those albums that really sounds cohesive. There are no filler songs, and each track sounds like its contributing something to a greater whole, kind of like movements in a symphony. These are the best kinds of albums in my opinion, the ones that sound best when you listen to them straight through in one sitting. I've actually probably listened to Fallen straight through more often than I've listened to most of the songs on their own. The only exception is "Bring Me To Life", which I play on guitar pretty frequently. I know it's a meme song these days, but I don't really care.

I give Fallen three stars out of five, and my favorite track is "Going Under".

Monday, August 5, 2019

Album Review: Load by Metallica

Today I will be reviewing Metallica's Load, which came out in 1996- two years before I was born. If someone asked me to describe Load, the first thing I would say is that it's one of those hard rock albums Metallica made during their "Metal doesn't sell" phase. When I listen to Metallica's discography on shuffle, songs from Load are the most likely to get skipped. On this blog I really want to stress the point that music is more than just the stuff you listen to, but a part of me thinks that Load might actually be a better album without all the backstory. For example, I liked the album art a lot more before I learned that it was called Blood and Semen III. Similarly, I think it's possible that I might like Load better if there was a name other than Metallica on the cover. It's not that Load is bad, it's just that it really doesn't cut it when compared to, say, Master of Puppets.

Backstory aside, I do quite like listening to Load from time to time. I bought it on Amazon during my first year of college, with money from my job at the campus bookstore. "The House that Jack Built" is my standout favorite track, with honorable mentions to "Mama Said", "Until it Sleeps", "2x4", and "Hero of the Day". For a long time, "Hero of the Day" was one actually one of my favorite songs, and it appears on my very first Spotify playlist, which I made in fall 2017. I'm a sucker for when songs can pull off the slow build, and "Hero of the Day" does it quite well. When the heavy guitars finally come in at the bridge, I really feel it.

Load is a hard rock album, and it absolutely gets heavy at times. But songs like "Mama Said" and "Hero of the Day", while absolutely out of place in a Heavy Metal™ playlist, offer a breath of fresh air that metal doesn't usually provide. And then there are songs like "Cure" and "Poor Twisted Me", which sound like they're trying way too hard to sound cool but just wind up sounding obnoxious. There's no way I would have ever listened to Load if I hadn't fallen in love with Metallica, and that is just a fact. I wouldn't have made it past the first track if I didn't have to hear every album my favorite band ever made. I only own this album because the collector in me absolutely had to complete my Metallica CD collection, duds and all (well, maybe not Lulu). So on one hand, maybe this CD was a waste of five bucks. But on the other hand, "Hero of the Day" is amazing, and if a poorly conceived album with a cover showing a mixture of gross bodily fluids is what it took to make that one song happen, maybe it's a little bit worth it. I can't stress enough how much I loved "Hero of the Day" during my freshman year of college.

In my last review, I identified Goodbye Lullaby as an album that I love despite its un-coolness. I think Load is the exact opposite- I love it because it was made by Metallica, and I love everything Metallica. Load isn't a very good album, in my opinion. Most of the songs aren't quite my cup of tea, and there's something that just sounds off about it all, like the production and the band weren't quite on the same page. Something just isn't right to my ears, and it's hard to enjoy the good parts when something always feels off. It really makes me wonder how good some of these songs could be if they were rerecorded, possibly by a different band. I'm sure I'll also mention this when I review ReLoad, but I think Load and ReLoad really should have been one album, and at least half of the songs from each of them should have been cut.

I give Load two stars out of five, and my favorite track currently is "The House that Jack Built", but of course "Hero of the Day" will always have a special place in my heart.


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Album Review: Goodbye Lullaby by Avril Lavigne

Over the next year or so, I plan to review every CD in my collection. First up on the list is Avril Lavigne's 2011 release Goodbye Lullaby, which I purchased on one of many trips to the local shopping mall with my high school girlfriend. I had been listening to Avril's music for years at that point, and thought it was worth buying a CD to hold on to and maybe listen to at some point in the future. Today, listening to Goodbye Lullaby brings back two sets of memories- watching Avril Lavigne music videos in middle school and wishing I could be a sexy guitar playing punk girl too, and sitting alone in my high school cafeteria listening to this album on my phone. For me high school was a time before music streaming, so I only had access to the music on my phone's SD card. I was mostly over Avril Lavigne in high school, but this CD became a part of my lunchtime soundtrack simply by virtue of me owning the CD.

The songs themselves are okay. There are a few hits, like "What The Hell", "Smile", and "Wish You Were Here", but most of the album is comprised of forgettable but catchy pop rock love songs that don't hit nearly as hard as the singles. Perhaps, though, my opinion here is clouded by nostalgia. When I first listened to Avril's music, I was watching music videos on YouTube. I only heard the singles, so I'm not exactly surprised that the songs I love now are mostly the same ones I loved before I even listened to the entire album. Speaking of songs that stuck with me, "Smile" is the only Avril Lavigne song that I actually learned on guitar, years later. I still play it from time to time, and remember how edgy it made me feel when I was younger.

The way we listen to music has changed a lot since I was in high school. I have hundreds of Spotify playlists now, which I use to organize the handful of songs I listen to, hand picked from the seemingly endless Spotify catalog. I'm not going to say that having access to practically unlimited music has caused music to lose its value, but it certainly feels like that sometimes. I certainly don't feel as emotionally connected to music when I listen on Spotify as I did when I pulled Goodbye Lullaby out of my CD organizer, took it out of its nearly pristine jewel case, and set the disc in the tray of my computer's optical drive- a piece of hardware, I should note, that is quickly going out of style. I set the CD case under my monitor while I listened to the music, so I could just look at it. I know I can't pay this much attention to all the music I listen to, but it feels good to pay this much attention sometimes.

I've written before how I feel about physical CDs in general (spoiler alert: I love them). This CD in particular has done its job. Listening to it makes me feel connected to the person I used to be, just like I hoped when I bought it. I feel like I can relate to my past self. I sincerely wish everybody could have this experience from time to time.

Goodbye Lullaby is probably one of my favorite albums of all time, but I can't really recommend it unless you, like me, have a deep personal connection to the music. What can I say? Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. To someone who has never heard Goodbye Lullaby before, it probably would sound pretty lame. But that's okay. One of my core principles is that I try to love things unironically as much as possible, and reject the idea of guilty pleasures. If you like it, you should be able to like it without having to justify it to yourself, no matter how lame it is.

I give Goodbye Lullaby four out of five stars, and my favorite track is "What The Hell".

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dear Future Me: Let's Talk About Practicing Guitar

Dear future me,

Hey there. It's you from the past, and I just wanted to say that I'm really happy with the way I've been practicing lately and I thought you might appreciate it if I wrote down a little bit about my modus operandi right now. Hopefully in the future I'll have an even better system, but this is what I've discovered so far.

First things first, you've got to decide what to practice. I spent about a week writing down everything I practiced, and then compiled all of the categories into a big ol' online spreadsheet. I tried checking these categories off every day directly in the spreadsheet, but it just wasn't tangible enough for me. The solution: a printable practice sheet.

This sheet has gone through many revisions, but I've eventually settled on these general categories, which I try to hit every day:

  • Warmup Exercises: Things to get my fingers warmed up. Right now, that means Giuliani arpeggio studies, mostly. Chromatic scales also work really well here for me.
  • Scales & Arpeggios: Let's be honest, it's more scales than arpeggios. At the moment, I'm working on open position scales in any key (picked at random with a d12), and the modes of the major scale in thirds.
  • Music Reading: Sometimes this means picking out a lead sheet I haven't seen before, and sometimes it means playing through a few pages of my Ottman sight singing book. Right now I'm just focusing on treble clef, but I plan to take a stab at bass clef, alto clef, and sight transposition this summer.
  • Repertoire: The stuff I'm actually supposed to be practicing the most, but it can get boring quickly. If I'm ever going to use a timer to keep myself honest, it's this section.
  • Improvisation: When I'm taking this section seriously, it means targeting chord tones and playing arpeggios over the changes. When I'm busy, though, I pull up a backing track for a standard I like, give it a playthrough, and move on.
  • Just Play Music: This is just a reminder to have fun, and do something musically fulfilling. On days when I play in an ensemble, that usually fills this space.
  • My list of 50 random things to practice
  • 50 Random Things: On the back of my practice sheet, I have a list of 50 random things that I'd like to practice but don't consider worth doing every day. So instead, I pick one at random every day. This keeps things fresh and interesting. Some of these random things are extremely hard, and others are extremely easy.
  • Practice Quality: A little place for self-assessment on a scale from 1-5. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with this information but I might think of something in the future.
Underneath the table, I have space to write down my goals and any assignments I might have for the week. I'm not really using all that space, though, so I definitely have room to add something else above or below it- I just don't know what yet.

Having a physical, printed out practice sheet contributes quite a bit to my motivation to practice. I feel like I'm taking ownership of my practice time because I designed my routine myself, and nothing is more satisfying than filling out a piece of paper with beautiful black ink. Just seeing my practice tracker sitting on my music stand makes me want to practice.

And now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to print next week's practice sheet and archive the old one.