Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man

After the necessarily dark, grand and stunning strains of 2009’s Two Suns, the next question for Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) of where to go next appears to have been difficult to answer.  Two Suns was a magical record, effortlessly creative with expansive pop, piano balladry and experimentation. Three years later, The Haunted Man is the rather stark reaction. As the cover suggests, it’s stripped down and honest with little to hide. Trouble is that after repeated listens, that’s not necessarily a great thing.

In picking apart her approach to songwriting and keeping the instrumentation light, Khan has made sure her work is even more penetrable than before, with only light rhythms and her soulful, honest vocals offering to hold the attention. The good news is that this approach works very well for her singing; this is her strongest vocal performance to date. Marilyn’s soaring chorus features a command of the high register that Khan had only been able to casually hint at previously and the piano-led Laura demonstrates the other end of the scale, mostly offering proof of her ability to quietly seduce and overpower emotionally. There are also enough angular yet enjoyable beats sprinkled throughout to save things from getting too stale, with the welcome bounce of A Wall standing out.

Musically is where this approach stumbles, however. Extracting the grandiose edge has forced Khan into a position where choirs, loud rhythms and melodrama aren’t instantly welcome, so The Haunted Man often relies more on its subliminal melodic edge as a means of attraction. Simply put, it doesn’t always work. All Your Gold is wonderfully playful and catchy, featuring a sparse electro-accompaniment along with some gorgeous string work. The aforementioned Laura is slow, moody and beautiful, with barely any touches to distract from the vocals and piano. But Horses of the Sun asks far too much of Khan’s voice, with a middling, slightly angular drum-machine beat offering driving proceedings without giving much back. This can be lumped in with at least four others that offer little reason to return, which means the gems of the record are in short supply. For a songwriter of Khan’s invention and experimentation, this is a shame as opposed to a disaster, but it’s still impossible to ignore.

After the grand statement Khan made with Two Suns, offering her music more space must have felt logical. The Haunted Man is by no means a weak record because it doesn’t exist in the same dramatic space as its predecessors. Despite its lack of power, it’s a ballsy record in that it even exists, and it was a risk worth taking for Khan’s career.  But it is a weaker record, and doesn’t hold the attention or display quite the same level of allure as well as Khan’s previous efforts.


Periphery – Periphery II : This Time It’s Personal

Periphery’s ascendancy from guitarist Misha Mansoor’s bedroom project to progressive metal heavyweights has been as swift as it has been deserved, on the back of almost two years of global touring on their 74-minute self-titled debut. Possessing much more skill and range in their songwriting than the majority of the djent scene they were initially lumbered with, expectations for their sophomore effort have been understandably high. That they’ve been reached with the goofily titled Periphery II – This Time It’s Personal after losing two members in 2011 and so much time spent on the road is impressive enough, but managing to exceed that album’s quality, production and poise makes it all the more enjoyable.

As with its self-titled predecessor, Periphery II’s strength lies in its diversity. This isn’t a band of one trick ponies stuck in a vacuum of low-tuned chugs like many of their peers; they’re capable songwriters who don’t like making the same sort of song twice. The best example of this is the crushing, spastic mania of Make Total Destroy being immediately followed and contrasted by the ultra-melodic hooks of Erised. The former is the album’s centrepiece and an incredible metal assault, whilst the latter is much more emotional and a powerful display of vocalist Spencer Sotelo’s clean singing. The frontman has upped his game considerably this time around, adding more range, emotion and the occasional burst of the dramatic to his singing to the benefit of every song on the record.

Whereas Periphery’s debut was the culmination of 4/5 years worth of Mansoor’s demos, Periphery II benefits from increased output, the Sotelo-penned Facepalm Mute a lurching beast and guitarist Mark Holcomb’s Scarlet, a thoroughly accessible, jagged melodic attack. His axe-toting colleague Jake Bowen has been afforded even greater freedom with his electronic talents, adding spots of beauty with ambient interludes and the short, cleansing Epoch to the din surrounding it.

Even more impressive is that the album’s only missteps are so small that they only slightly disappoint. Erised and thudding closer Masamune don’t quite fulfil the promise of their stirring openings but are still thoroughly decent songs, and Luck As A Constant is album’s only entry that doesn’t provoke some form of marvel. Even when Periphery are coasting, as on the rhythmically generic The Gods Must Be Crazy!, they’re still so far ahead of the pack and able to throw in a skilfully addictive discordant beatdown with ease.

At this point in time, Periphery are so far ahead most of the metal genre that it’s quite shocking. Periphery II has so much strength in its composition, production and delivery that it has the effect of making other music feel listless and tired, and as such, it’s one the best example of heavy music 2012 can offer.

Marilyn Manson – Born Villain

There’s a tendency with artists whose careers have spanned as long as Marilyn Manson’s has to cast a lamenting eye on the glory days when each new release arrives. In this case, it must also considered that we’re dealing with a man who spent a number of years holding the prestigious honour of middle class America’s favourite hate figure around the turn of the millennium. Sure, the glory days of that era and Holywood, the album spawned as a result of the incredibly vitriolic campaign directed against the band after they were blamed for influencing the two teenagers for the Columbine High School massacre is now twelve years gone. It’s only natural that Manson eventually fell from the public consciousness and each new release since 2003 and the classy, stylised anthems of The Golden Age of Grotesque has seen falling interesting and declining quality. Time has certainly meant that the Marilyn Manson of 2012 is a far cry from a band who were once openly slated and hated almost daily by the media, politicians and every Christian league you could imagine, but Born Villain confirms that it’s also blunted their approach, their spirit and their ability to, at the very least, write a decent song.

The basic ideal of simplistic, thudding, rock songs coupled with Manson’s bleak poetry that has preserved a career remains largely unchanged on the band’s eighth release, but from start to finish Born Villain is a dull, sloppy album. Devoid of any hooks, it has no engaging tunes to speak of and offers little reason to come back for a repeat listen. Admittedly, long–term collaborator Twiggy Ramirez has written some great songs for this band in the past but this is a poor, loose and surprisingly juvenile collection. The main riff on first single No Reflection sounds more like something a twelve year old banging away on his first Fender Squire would come up with as opposed to a band that’ve existed for almost twenty years in some shape or form. Musically, Marilyn Manson were never going to be a progressively-engaging beast, but the lack of basic development or polish here is startling. The drums are heinously soft on the ears with an unforgivably sparse quality to them that limits any power these songs might have, and that’s even before you get to Manson himself. This is what awaits you for the chorus on Pistol-Whipped; “You’re a little pistol, and I’m fuckin’ pistol-whipped,” sounds as juvenile and weak as it looks, and this lowbrow stamp is all over the album.

Having recently managed to catch some footage of Manson performing The Dope Show from 1998’s Mechanical Animals along with No Reflection at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards last month, Born Villain simply helps to confirm everything that was apparent from that brief set; there’s nothing vitriolic or interesting left within this band. On that night, Manson stalked the stage almost as a parody of himself with some truly abysmal vocals and his band looked passive and disinterested. Manson has also described this record as having a “suicide death metal” style, which just goes to show you how far removed from reality his world has become. Everything about Born Villain, from the desperately schlocky lyrics and sloppy music suggests that Marilyn Manson almost believes that his band is still dangerous, still edgy and still subversive. What this actually represents is far more worrying, because this is a record of exceptionally low quality that Manson seems to assume that he can simply get away with it. God knows who he’s trying to fool, because there’s nothing dangerous and barely anything listenable on Born Villain.


Meshuggah – Koloss

In the four years since the release of Meshuggah’s last effot, 2008’s superb obZen, it’s no stretch to say that the metal world has changed a bit. Massively downtuned guitars and polyrhythmic structures are pretty much vogue these days and this is the band predominantly responsible for that. Bands like Periphery, Tesseract and Uneven Structure have taken palm-muted guitar riffs to heart and pushed that core musical ideal further than Meshuggah perhaps ever could, which has led some to ponder aloud if Sweden’s biggest metallic cult band are relevant anymore, as their original formula has been so refined and, in some cases, improved upon. Whilst it is true that there are a number of bands doing exciting things with a sound Meshuggah inadvertently popularised, suggesting that they’re over the hill as a result of that comes across as exceptionally trite when you consider how young the scene known as djent actually is. Couple that with the fact that we’re dealing with a band that only tends to release an album every 3 to 4 years (the Approximately Whenever We Feel Like It timescale) and you’re left to wonder if people want Meshuggah to fail. Interest in Koloss, the band’s seventh full length is understandably high, and ultimately, it’s a mixed bag, failing to match up to previous classics, but providing enough evidence to casual bat aside any notions of irrelevance.

As early as the slow, rumbling stomp of opener I Am Colossus, it’s clear that attempting to predict Meshuggah’s reaction to the host of chuggy whippersnappers consistently aping their sound was foolish; it appears that they haven’t really taken any notice at all. In a way, good on ‘em; Meshuggah’s approach throughout Koloss remains as uncompromising, nihilistic and satisfyingly brutal as ever. Follow-up The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance is one of the most pulverizing songs of the band’s career, with its constantly pounding double-bass beat over an elastic main riff, and Behind The Sun lurches and evolves into a deliciously dark epic. As with obZen, Koloss’ greatest strength lies in its variation and ability to change things up, refusing to anchor itself to a singular tempo or sound. It also represents frontman Jens Kidman’s best vocal performance to date, with a welcome clarity added to his admittedly one-dimensional bark not previously heard of.

This sailing doesn’t stay consistently plain, however, and Koloss does have its issues. Whilst Meshuggah have certainly earned the right to have their music judged on its own terms and without the influence of the output of perceived peers clouding anyone’s judgement, you can’t escape from the fact that this is simply not one of their best releases. Demiurge gets stuck in a primitive, uninspiring thud that it doesn’t recover from, Swarm offers a fairly sparse rhythm that it never fully develops, only being saved by a typically obtuse solo from Fredrik Thordendal and The Hurt That Finds You First seems so preoccupied with bouncing along with a speed of a hardcore punk number that it never attempts to be a decent song. Even first single Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion relies far too much on its atmosphere, offering riffs that never grab your attention. This hardly amounts to a grand failure, but in the context of a Meshuggah album, after four years of waiting, these issues stick out and hold it back. This severely diminishes the impact of closer The Last Vigil, a haunting instrumental guitar passage, and Koloss just gently slips away from you innocuously, leaving you to ponder just how much of an effect it’s truly had on you.

Ultimately, if you strip away the hype, the waiting, the questioning and that legendary aura surrounding Koloss, then you’re left with what amounts to a decent metal record. It certainly never veers towards the disastrous but it doesn’t flatter as consistently as you might expect. It is somewhat disappointing considering Meshuggah have taken four years to follow-up obZen, and returned with what amounts to a record spent mostly on cruise control. That sort of coasting would be unacceptable if not for the quality of some of the material on offer, so credit where credit’s due. The problem is that you know Meshuggah can do better.


Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band Of Light

In some ways, the way Jenny Owen Youngs went about getting the ball rolling for her third album is so modern, charming and honest, it’s almost perfect. In July of 2010, wanting to keep control of her own work and make a record on her own terms, she contacted her fans about the Kickstarter campaign she has just begun, aimed at raising the funds for making An Unwavering Band Of Light. Within 28 hours, the $20, 000 target was achieved, and she went on to raise 38 grand within just a few weeks. It’s all the more impressive if you consider that Jenny’s nowhere near rolling in cash, self-released her first album Batten The Hatches and doesn’t have a label behind her to speak of at all. Even better is what started as a simple request from fans has helped to create the best work of her career.

Sure, JOY’s always been able to marry up thoughtful, smart, poppy tunes based around her acoustic, and as recently as last album Transmitter Failure, that’s taken on more of a rockin’ full-band approach. Still, every aspect of her work is more streamlined and focussed here. The uplifting, jaunty numbers like Love For Long and soaring closer Wake Up over up an almost illegal level of catchiness, the reflective fragility of the acoustic O God and piano-led So Long find new heartstrings to tug on and there’s even room for the angular, volume and Russian-tinged horns of Sleep Machine.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about this record is that it doesn’t sound like a penny of the money raised has been wasted; fair play to the lady in question as she’s surrounded herself with great musicians who play everything with effortless ease. It makes the energetic rhythms on the sugar-rush of Pirates or the insanely catchy whistled melody of Why You Fall stand out even more (seriously, that melody will burrow it’s way into your brain with the guile of an angry shark). Lyrically, it deals very openly with sticky situations of the heart, specifically their pitfalls and occasional futility, but it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced, and thankfully, massively contrived. “We make the most of the love we got, cos it won’t be love for long;” as an introductory chorus, it’s hardly swimming in aimless positivity but it’s honest, and it’s backed up by a ridiculously catchy and jaunty melody.

If this is the first you’re hearing of Jenny Owen Youngs then you’ll find instant evidence on An Unwavering Band Of Light as to why her fans responded so quickly and impressively to her call for assistance. It’s well written, varied and genuinely great to listen to. And what a note to an industry that we’re constantly told is in trouble that a singer/songwriter is able to ask the fans that buy her albums and go to her shows to fund the making of a record they were always going to get anyway.


Lamb of God – Resolution

In some ways, given that Lamb Of God’s stock has risen so impressively high since the release of 2006’s Sacrament that they are one of few modern metal bands able to fill arenas, their sixth offering Resolution doesn’t stand to lose much at all. Any naysayers crying “sell out” were flattened in the brutal wake of 2009’s Wrath, which came so pleasingly after the band’s commercial breakthrough. That album, once again, posted huge sales to the point where you could say this was a band that now has a safe, protected career; albums will be bought, big gigs attended, money made etc. As such, it’s perhaps not so stunning that Resolution is a particularly unsurprising offering.

There’s very little room for misinterpretation here; this is very much a solid, heavy and mostly unremarkable Lamb of God record. Sure, the introductory sludge of Straight For The Sun is a welcome surprise, yet it’s followed by the immediately recognisable groove of Desolation, which on another day could just as easily be Redneck in disguise. The follow up, Ghost Walking has been described by frontman Randy Blythe as a song fans would find familiar, which is indicative of the majority of Resolution; recognisable, comforting and pleasingly heavy. Combining the groove and accessibility of Sacrament and Wrath’s speed and venom makes for a listen tempered by the occassional sidestep but still instantly familiar.

That’s ultimately where Resolution fails as a progression for Lamb of God in that it doesn’t go anywhere particularly engaging. There are a few too many songs on it sound like outtakes from predecessors, which detracts from the power of those moments that stand out a little more like the lurching thrash of Invictus or King Me, easily the band’s biggest curveball to date thanks to a combination of grand choral work, strings and malevolent stomp.

Still, in the context of Lamb of God’s career, this represents another loud, defiant statement. If there was to be one band to profit so vastly from metal’s re-emmergence as a commercial force, then you could find many more undeserving candidates. Perhaps the lazy Pantera comparison people seem desperate to make can come in handy here, with Lamb of God’s global popularity so high and with Resolution acting very much like a modern Reinventing The Steel; solid, dabbling in experimentation but ultimately a capable statement of a band’s power that won’t stun anyone. There’s still pleasure to take from those trademark buzzsaw guitars and Blythe’s gutteral growl, just not as much as you might be used to.


Bleeding Through – The Great Fire

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There are few things more disheartening in music than seeing a fantastic album get bogged down in label politics. Trustkill, Bleeding Through’s previous label managed to muck up the release of 2008’s superb Declaration spectacularly thanks to a lengthy delay and barely any promotion to speak of. Considering the band’s previous effort (2006’s The Truth) sold a quarter of a million copies worldwide, the paltry 6, 000 units its predecessor shifted in its first week was a massive shame for such a epic, brutal and truly engaging metal record. Claiming that this has defined the band’s career subsequently would be a mistake, and The Great Fire, just like 2010’s self-titled effort is another solid collection of hardcore-influenced extreme metal, but it struggles to distinguish itself from the band’s career highlight.

Before angry crowds gather to pick fault with the old “it’s not as good as such-and-such album”, it’s worth stating that The Great Fire is still a beast. The symphonic keyboards, brutal blastbeats and Brandon Schieppati’s commanding bark are still here along with a more traditional, hardcore approach with most of the fourteen songs on offer clocking in at under three minutes. It’s concise, to-the-point and leaves little room for misreading its intentions of kicking your backside up to your throat. The occasional melodic passage and clean vocal do break things up from being an extended session in being pounded but this is as savage and straightforward as Bleeding Through have sounded in some time.

That’s great an’ all, but are there songs to back that up? The short answer is ‘just about’. The desperate intensity of Final Hours and the thrash fuelled one minute and fifty four seconds of Faith In Fire certainly hit some thrilling buttons, but ultimately the album suffers the same problem Bleeding Through had two years ago; it doesn’t really distinguish itself. Admittedly, Dave Nassie has proven a sturdy replacement for Jona Weinhofen in the axeman department since the latter’s departure after Declaration, but since then, there’s no denying that some of the creative spark and identity hasn’t been restored. The subtle nuances, use of different keys and variation of that period in the band’s career hasn’t been carried over into the post-Trustkill days. The Great Fire is very sturdy, heavy and well-composed stuff, and certainly some of the most scathing of the band’s career, but brutality cannot carry the weight of an entire album, and there’s getting less and less to distinguish Bleeding Through from the rest of the pack.