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".