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.