Friday, 25 March 2011

Ultravox - Vienna (1980)

1. Astradyne
2. New Europeans
3. Private Lives
4. Passing Strangers
5. Sleepwalk
6. Mr. X
7. Western Promise
8. Vienna
9. All Stood Still

This Is How It’s Done – 7,7/10

Let me take you back to the very early eighties and the very beginning of the eruption of many so called new wave and post-punk bands. Though in my reviews I often referenced to these genres simply as synth-pop, there’s a lot more to them you might think at first sight. Take Ultravox, one of the most well-known eighties new wave groups with extensive use of the synthesizer as a prominent instrument. Their most successful full-length release to date is and will possibly always be Vienna.

I personally found it hard to believe, but Ultravox actually began their career as a punk band. Their first three albums had a slightly different lineup as well, with the most notable difference the vocalist. Vienna marks the debut of new guitarist/vocalist Midge Ure; a man whose vocal talents would take Ultravox up the charts. There are still traces of the punk-past to this album and then I mean the less-is-more attitude in rock songs like “New Europeans” or “Private Lives”. The entrance of Billy Currie’s synthesizer is what makes Vienna stand out as well. This is innovating because never before has the instrument been used to texture the songs this way before. It can be on the background filling up the emptiness with soft chords, but it more than often treads to the foreground to dress the song up with a catchy theme or a modest solo. Currie sounds more comfortable in doing solos on his violin or piano though. But what makes me happy the most is the combination of a raw guitar sound with these synths. Ure throws in some really raw riffs to, in turn, texture the background while Currie is on the foreground. And there’s where the strength of this record lies. On Vienna, Ultravox know how to combine the raw sound of rock with the newer, more robotic sound of the synthesizer.

Opening track “Astradyne” is the perfect example. It’s a seven-minute instrumental which perfectly gets you into the Ultravox mood. There’s interchanging catchy synthesizer themes all around and a brooding solo at the end to top it off. The guitars have not yet kicked in on this song yet, but they are bound to blow you off your chair when “New Europeans” kicks off… at least, if you play it on high volume. The riff is delightfully punchy and very catchy. The warm voice of Midge Ure invites us further into the song unto the climax and a very melodic instrumental theme completes this track. Currie’s synths really shine on the rocker “Private Lives”, whereas the guitar riff and offbeat drums in “Passing Strangers” blows you away. It’s been a pretty powerful start of the album and “Sleepwalk” doesn’t let you rest in an upbeat synth-rock track; or more an experiment to rock without guitars. Surprisingly it sounds very fresh and uplifting. On “Mr. X” I think the experiment has been taken too far. It’s a dark, synth-only track (even drums have been mimicked) that stays the same for six minutes long. This is the reason why I usually don’t listen to eighties new wave. Fortunately we have the strongest song of the record straight ahead: “Western Promise”. The violin leads us to a beautiful exotic theme, right before we crash into one of the most powerful, almost industrial, themes that are the verses. “Vienna” needs no introduction; it’s a very atmospheric pop song with a catchy chorus and a classic right after it was released. With “All Stood Still”, a track that tries to go back to the power of the first four tracks closes the record, but it’s not one of the most memorable tracks on this album.

All in all, Vienna is a pretty solid record. With only one real flaw on the album I can really recommend it. If you are really into the genre you probably have already heard this album but if you haven’t, you definitely should check it out.

Strongest tracks: “New Europeans”, “Private Lives” and “Western Promise”.
Weakest track: “Mr. X”.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

System of a Down - Toxicity (2001)

1. Prison Song
2. Needles
3. Deer Dance
4. Jet Pilot
5. X
6. Chop Suey!
7. Bounce
8. Forest
10. Science
11. Shimmy
12. Toxicity
13. Psycho
14. Aerials

Political, Wacky and Heavy – 7,6/10

System Of A Down really need no introduction, yet I will still give one. Founded in the nineties, they did not need long to convince the world they were one of the most relevant nu-metal bands from their time. The very heavy sound of the band sometimes even resembling barbaric wardances combined with the often political lyrics of frontman Serj Tankian, but melted into one insane, wacky formula by guitarist and main songwriter Daron Malakian, has laid a powerful mark upon the music business with their self-titled debut album from 1998. It was heavy as hell, made a clear political statement and was very, very original. Its follow-up, Toxicity, was, however, the main breakthrough for the band, both critically and commercially.

Yes, this was commercially successful indeed, especially with the two hits “Toxicity” and “Chop Suey!”. The big change from their debut is immediately noticeable: it’s less heavy. How else can you make hits of course? Still, this is a heavy record and even primitive at times. Take for example the main riff of “Prison Song” or “Deer Dance”; they clearly show the more-is-less attitude of the band and the production adds to that a very back-to-basic feel, especially in combination with Tankian’s barbaric shouts. But it’s all less primitive than the debut album still, mostly due to the clearer production by the famous Rick Rubin. They clearly commercialized the sound they established on the debut album, but still tried to keep the essence of that sound intact, which succeeded quite well and made the sound more accessible. Not to mention Tankian’s grunts have decreased notably. Only “Prison Song” features those grunts and they sound more like someone left the window open on a windy day. What stays the same from the debut is the wacky song structures, the chaotic variation of lots of different themes all stuck together in a two- or three-minute song.

With “Prison Song”, the band creates the perfect ambience for the album: heavy, aggressive, crazy, wacky, and of course topped with a spicy political theme. The wacky structure of this track and the merciless heaviness is the true charm of Toxicity’s strong opening phase. “Needles”, “Deer Dance”, “Jet Pilot” and “X” all plainly exist just to pound your brains out with simple, primitive riffs and mad shouts, but somewhere also with sheer genius. Middle-eastern melodies like those on “Deer Dance” or “Jet Pilot” give more credit to the band’s Armenian origin. “Chop Suey!” is righteously a hit with its extremely catchy chord progression, speedy lyrics and of course great chorus. In between the heaviness of this record so far, it’s really refreshing to hear gentler verses that actually sound very well. It’s the proof this band can do more than just make your head bang. Later on “Forest” is a relatively lengthy track with its four-minute length. Its vocal melodies are very praiseworthy as this song sounds close to being an epic. Later on we get pounded once more with “Shimmy”, the popular “Toxicity” and “Psycho”, which has a title that suits the track rather well. “Aerials” closes the album rather well with a threatening attempt at going epic.

You may have noticed I skipped a few tracks. That was not by accident. “Bounce” is a short track with nonsense lyrics that I find hard to enjoy as it doesn’t really have a head and tail to it and seems just plain noise. “ATWA” or “Science” really fail to deliver as well as they have gone by so many times and still I have not noticed a hook or a catchy fragment on those tracks. In a defined music style as the one System Of A Down has, this is essential. Every song has to matter or else the album has a sleepy moment. The biggest downside of this, rather good nu-metal record is not the lack of good tracks. No, quite the contrary. The main problem is the lack of variation and the feeling the follow-up to this album should be really special and new again. Steal This Album! is a really fine album, but doesn’t add much new to the sound established on Toxicity and therefore they will always belong together.

In short, Toxicity is quite a good album. Though lack of variety and repetitive moments may occur, there are not much weak tracks and especially in the first half it’s extremely useful for wrecking someone’s mind. This album is absolutely essential to fans of the nu-metal genre.

Strongest tracks: “Prison Song”, “Deer Dance”, “Chop Suey!” and “Toxicity”.
Weakest tracks: “Bounce”, “ATWA” and “Science”.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Static-X - Machine (2001)

1. Bien Venidos
2. Get to the Gone
3. Permanence
4. Black and White
5. This is Not
6. Otsego Undead
7. Cold
8. Structural Defect
9. a Bag
10. Burn to Burn
11. Machine
12. A Dios Alma Perdida

Machine Metal – 7,3/10

As industrial metal gained popularity in the late 90s, most bands of the new industrial released their first album in that decade and so made a footprint. The follow-ups to those records, however, are almost notably worse. Why? Mostly the bands seemed to be one-trick ponies or they did try something new but failed horribly. Machine is definitely no competition for Static-X’s debut record Wisconsin Death Trip, which is a very powerful milestone in the industrial metal genre. Yet Static-X was no one-trick pony and Machine doesn’t completely fail. Then what does the album do?

They basically saw the path they walked on with Wisconsin Death Trip and walked a lot further down the same road. Machine clearly builds on the grounds made by the debut album, but yet takes it to newer areas as well. The album’s title perhaps best describes what it contains. The band sounds way tighter and the electro samples have become more dominant. The riffs are all very… angular… very choppy and above all aggressively heavy. At times it sounds more like a machine making music in a factory than in a band, which at itself is quite a nice concept and its fairly well executed as well. After the goofy intro “Bien Venidos” the extremely heavy “Get to the Gone” literally kicks in with machine-like riffs and the equally machine-like monotone voice of Wayne Static, which only adds to the concept and also to the listening experience. Tracks like “This Is Not”, “Black and White”, “Structural Defect” or the danceable title track really expand upon the machine concept and are downright Static-X classics. “Permanence” features hard industrial at its best.

While the entire record basically consists of killer industrial tunes and rhythms there is an overall vibe to the album that doesn’t make me want to rate this higher. The concept is a machine and they mimic machinery very well and combine it with music perfectly, but a machine-vibe to your album makes it sound a little artificial. This is great music to kick ass to on some action video game or something, but to regularly listen to this adrenaline-filled hyper-angular type of industrial… it mostly gives me headaches… I also get headaches in factories when the machines make huge noises.

In short, as a sophomore studio album, Machine is not a very disappointing record. It does not match the brilliance of the first album by far, but we’re not given a bad album at all. I highly recommend this to fans of the industrial genre and fans of Static-X in general.

Strongest tracks: “Black and White”, “This Is Not”, “Structural Defect” and “Machine”.