Linkin Park – One More Light

Image result for linkin park one more lightLegendary nu-metal trailblazers and one of the best-selling acts of all time, Linkin Park, release their seventh studio album and somehow manage to throw aside all the aspects that drew people to their music in one fell swoop. One More Light is a pop album through and through, as the band trades in their guitars for EDM drops and bubbly choruses. The only aspect retained from their older work is lead vocalist Chester Bennington’s whiny vocals and emo inflections that harder tracks give credence to.

I should really tread lightly here, as Bennington asserted in an interview that he would punch anyone who said the band was doing this primarily for monetary gain in the face, but this is a completely unrecognizable shell of a band grasping for relevance, attempting to ride trends that are already dying off instead of creatively reinventing themselves for a new era of music. There are almost no redeeming qualities about this album, and it leaves me wondering who it was even intended for.

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If there’s anything particularly good to say about this album, it is that you can see that the actual musical composition of these songs isn’t completely terrible when the guests appear. “Good Goodbye” is a track catered to rappers who actually know what they’re doing, and Pusha T and Stormzy both ride the beat much better than Mike Shinoda’s uncomfortable stuttered flow and El-P impression. Kiiara’s contribution to “Heavy” fits in because, well, it’s an instrumental that a young female pop singer would typically be heard on.

There are actually some pretty great musicians here for a project so abundantly terrible. Production and songwriting is mostly handled by band mastermind Mike Shinoda, but assisting are some of the best — current princess of pop songwriting Julia Michaels, a legend in JR Rotem and even incredibly creative rising producer Blackbear. “Nobody Can Save Me” is actually quite a bit better than the rest of these songs, as the drop at least gives somewhat of an illusion of anything other than synthetic and overproduced sounds being present, and features Bennington’s least annoying enunciations.

These tracks are all filled with Chainsmokers-esque shallow emotional musings meant to sound incredibly profound and moving. Something as egregiously catered to be uplifting as “Battle Symphony”, complete with triumphant synths kicking in on the second chorus and Bennington sounding like he’s trying to sound distraught so much it’s almost cracking him up, is the band’s response to tracks like “Roar” and “Fight Song”. And this really is the underlying problem with the album – all of this is mindless following of trends with no real artistry or identity of their own. Since the album took a few years to make, many of these trends are already outdated. This might have had a chance at a play for the radio airwaves 2 or 3 years ago when we were hearing track after track of EDM sensibilities being blended into other genres for the first time. Something like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up!” comes to mind, one of many of these tracks that had the same fake-deep lyrics.

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These lyrics are delivered by Bennington and Shinoda with the most obnoxious emo tone possible, which sounds laughably out of place on these pop instrumentals. Shinoda’s turn on “Invisible” sees him repeating the title in the chorus with the cadence of someone making fun of an emo piano ballad (this chorus, might I add, awkwardly picks up in tempo for no reason).

The reason people were drawn to Linkin Park initially was Bennington’s ability to perfectly encapsulate real emotions and issues that were affecting youth in his vocal delivery, delivery that was backed up by the urgent and chaotic wall of noise behind him. The most urgent thing on this album is Mike Shinoda’s pop chorus on “Sorry For Now”, as he repeats the same tried-and-true lyrics about not being there for his children while on the road, backed up by a misplaced attempt at … putting a kinda-trap beat on a kinda-dubstep drop?? Whoever did it had absolutely no knowledge of the genres they were trying to emulate, the rhythms coming it at the wrong time and creating the most blatantly unmusical song I’ve heard all year. By the time we reach the title track and Bennington emotes “Who cares if one more light goes out? Well awwwwyyy dyeeewwwww” I want to take up his offer to “stab [myself] in the face” – another thread aimed at people claiming they sold out.

I really haven’t come anywhere close to mentioning everything, but it was hard to pick and choose what the absolute worst things about this album were. Ultimately, the fact that a band that amassed a huge following by doing something new and different devolved into … whatever this is, is very sad.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody Can Save Me, Heavy

Least Favourite Track: Sorry For Now

Score: 1/10 (Yup. That’s a BensBeat first.)

T-Pain/Lil Wayne – T-Wayne

Talk about a blast from the past. This long-rumoured project finally dropped out of the blue after T-Pain reported feeling “spontaneous” on Twitter, bringing to us 8 semi-completed ideas recorded in 2009 that had been sitting on his hard drive this whole time. It feels strange even giving this project a review, seeing as it isn’t put together like a typical polished project would be, and it sounds so incredibly dated that it fits nowhere into the musical landscape of today. But as a hip-hop nerd, I have to give this project its due diligence, and hearing Lil Wayne rap like he did on his classic album Tha Carter III again fills me with delight.

There are certainly many aspects to this that might have been better off never seeing the light of day – this came from an era where dumb wordplay and gimmicks dominated hip-hop (looking at you, T-Pain’s top hat and Segway), and there are some cheesy and underdeveloped concepts and bars that would never fly today on here. Still, the fact that it exists is pretty incredible.

Image result for t-pain and lil wayneThis is what they used to wear. This is what we’re dealing with here.

These tracks come straight from 2009 – these are some hard-hitting and repetitive rap beats that allow the two to go as hard as possible. Full of synth melodies, drum machines and sirens, this is some classic production from producers of the era like Tha Bizness and Bangladesh. Hearing their producer tags again brings back so many memories. The project is split between both artists’ brand of punchline rap and Auto-Tuned R&B jams. Although the tracklist opens with “He Rap He Sang”, it’s never that concrete – hearing a track like “Breathe” where Wayne breaks out more of a sing-songy flow before T-Pain comes in with a rap third verse makes me glad these weren’t lost to time.

The camaraderie between the two was always undeniable, it’s the reason why “Got Money” and “Can’t Believe It” were such big hits and it keeps up here. One thing we never heard on their hits were the two trading rap bars – once T-Pain reached the height of his popularity he didn’t rap often. The two are kindred spirits in the antiquated practice of the rap punchline, some of which are hilarious and most of which make you roll your eyes at the sheer audacity they had to say them on a track. The real appeal of this project is hearing some things that would never happen today: “Listen To Me” features a beat which interpolates the Oompa Loompa song and a flawless prime Wayne verse overtop. I dare you not to smile.

This is a time when hip-hop didn’t take itself so seriously, and these are two of the guys who always had the most fun with it. Neither artist outshines the other, they both go all-out on the harder rap instrumentals and drift into the same woozy area sonically on the slower R&B tracks.

The thing is, these songs aren’t finished. There are places here with too much empty space, and a few of these songs are very short. Some of the ideas still need a bit of tinkering as well – “DAMN DAMN DAMN” sounds like the two goofing around in the studio after recording “Can’t Believe It”. It extends past 5 minutes and basically features both artists warbling a few “damn”s and “whoa”s with heavy Auto-Tune. They go overboard with the layering at the end and it’s pretty unlistenable.

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Again, it feels strange reviewing this because it is clear that if more time were put into these tracks, many of them would turn out spectacularly. But as it stands, these are some subpar versions of the kinds of tracks they would put out back in this era, shining brighter today due to the nostalgia factor. Not even that allows it to escape some of its blatant datedness. In a time when hip-hop artists are consistently finding ways to push the boundaries of the genre, expanding it into other musical worlds and many using the intricacies of a well-written rap verse to speak about the state of the world, T-Pain’s puns about boomboxes and Mrs. Butterworth don’t really cut it anymore. Although – hearing them make references to “Lollipop” and 808s and HeartbreakThat’s a lot of fun.

The bottom line is, if you were invested in any way in hip-hop music in the late 2000s, you owe it to yourself to give this a listen. This is a hip-hop museum of sorts, and while it’s certainly nothing I would throw on today, it’s worth it just to hear Lil Wayne’s “Listen To Me” verse. If only he kept that up.

Favourite Tracks: Listen To Me, Heavy Chevy, He Rap He Sang

Least Favourite Track: DAMN DAMN DAMN

Score: 6/10

Harry Styles – Harry Styles

aEx-OneDirection member Harry Styles becomes the second of his group to release a full-length studio album, taking an unexpected musical turn and abandoning his boyband past in a major way. Introduced by the epic, Bowie-channelling single “Sign Of The Times”, this album continues trends of bringing back popular sounds of the past and modernizing them. However, it is perhaps the first to do so with rock and roll music with such a wide audience. Styles would fit in perfectly at one of those high school dances you see in movies set in the 60s and 70s, drawing influence from the acoustic soft rock which dominated the airwaves at the time.

The ambition to pull off a project like this as a debut studio album, for a singer as well-established as Styles, is quite admirable, and the beautiful simplicity of his melodies and surprisingly classic-sounding voice often carry it well. However, there is not much here that comes close to matching “Sign Of The Times”, and Styles’ lyrics leave a lot to be desired.

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Styles’ vocals are frequently layered with a slight echo effect to give them a spacey and ambient quality, which often fits in well with his lower-key acoustic ballads. The project alternates between these ballads, complete with harmonies and layered vocals, and all-out rock and roll numbers which feature abrasive and in-your-face guitar-driven instrumentals – Styles couldn’t sound any further away from his past. Grammy-winning producer Jeff Bhasker, who has worked extensively on great albums like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and fun.’s Some Nights, as well as sporadic contributions to many of our biggest pop stars, worked on every track here and has primary credit on 8 out of 10 of them. If Bhasker knows how to do anything, it is the creation of melodies that are beautiful in their simplicity, as well as the sneaky and subtle interpolation of numerous musical aspects. We see both extensively here.

Styles’ voice is very pleasant when it is used in the right way: that is, I prefer when he isn’t screaming at me the whole track. One of the greatest things Styles does across the board on this project is the slow build-up to a dramatic climax, taking his time in the quieter area beforehand. The greatest example is, of course, “Sign Of The Times”. We’ve all had a while to digest this monster by now, but my goodness is it a pleasant surprise. The song is nearly 6 minutes in length, and its attention to detail stands out far above its counterparts on this album. By the time we’ve reached the point where Styles’ voice is at its breaking point and choral vocals and winding guitar solos are thundering in the background, combined with the lyrical weight of the song – a dying mother giving advice to her newborn son – it is extremely powerful.

Regarding the tracks that remain on one side of this slow build, the quieter ones are a lot more enjoyable. Tracks like opener “Meet Me In The Hallway” and “Sweet Creature” are acoustic and minimalistic, drawing all the attention to producer Jeff Bhasker’s great ear for melody and Styles’ passionate and intense delivery. “Two Ghosts” is another great track, sounding like something Bhasker could have made for fun. (The band!). It’s the best written chorus here in a musical sense.

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It is when the louder guitars and power chords kick in that the project goes off the rails a bit. Styles doesn’t have the charisma that he thinks he does when his lyrics are this clunky and underwritten. When he delivers louder vocals that sound like more of a parody of the style he is aiming for on songs like “Kiwi”, repeating things like “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business”, it works about as well as everyone thought a Harry Styles rock album might. It’s almost as if Styles did a lot more research on one side of the classic rock music he tries to emulate than the other.

While his full belt doesn’t sound particularly bad, it certainly makes me miss the tender vocals he was delivering before. These pure rock-leaning tracks also contain some of Styles’ most questionable and cheesy decisions. “Only Angel” is driven by falsetto “whoo-hoo”s and a cowbell. No, really. Styles’ lyrics might be the weakest aspect of the whole thing, however, frequently describing women in the most awkward possibly way or becoming too cliched or repetitive. “Ever Since New York” could basically be a Chainsmokers song, while the chorus of “Woman” is literally just Styles repeating the word with the same melody and cadence.

This project is far from perfect, but the good things about it work really, really well. Perhaps it’s just because of the surprise factor that this is Harry Styles, and “Sign Of The Times” blew our collective minds when it dropped, but it helps me forgive some of its shortcomings. This is the start of what is sure to be an interesting solo career.

Favourite Tracks: Sign Of The Times, Two Ghosts, Meet Me In The Hallway, Sweet Creature

Least Favourite Track: Kiwi

Score: 7/10

Paramore – After Laughter

Image result for after laughterIn the wake of numerous legal troubles and lineup reshuffling that saw the return of drummer Zac Farro, Paramore comes together once again to deliver their fifth studio album and first since 2013’s self-titled effort. On After Laughter, they expand upon the slight pop edge that tinged their self-titled work, deviating from the punk rock that characterized their early beginnings. The change is understandable – it’s easy to forget how long Paramore have been going. Frontwoman Hayley Williams is nearing her 30s and can’t be expected to write songs about teenage angst anymore, and the current musical landscape has slowly begun to phase out their previous style.

Working with the same personnel as before, Paramore masterfully adapts to this new sound, while maintaining many of the aspects that fans came to love the band for. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into what might be the band’s most fully realized album yet.

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The production value of this album is top-notch, done entirely by guitarist Taylor York and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is responsible for 2013’s album as well as some great projects by Young The Giant, Tegan & Sara and M83. The combination of Paramore’s guitar hooks with the bubbly synth pop of the 80s comes together to make some powerful and intricate instrumentals, building up to huge climaxes when necessary to accompany Williams’ vocal power. This particular musical niche is a running theme for most of the album, but clear deviations in style still exist – “26” is a lower-key acoustic ballad, while “Caught In The Middle” has an almost reggae flavour, for example.

“Hard Times” is the perfect culmination of all the things they were aiming for on this project, and was a great choice for a first single – it is truly one of the best songs of the year. The albums opens with a steel drum instrumental and mimicking guitar pattern, capturing the spirit of 80s pop but keeping the presence of real instruments evident. The guitar part during the verses is catchy enough to be termed a hook on its own, before the song builds up into a triumphant power pop chorus, complete with harmonies that come in at just the right time. The sugar rush of the song is almost enough to make you forget that it’s about depression. Smiling through the pain is a common lyrical theme here.

“Fake Happy” is another track that shows this, as well as being the most dynamic and musically exciting track here. The song opens with a lo-fi recording of Williams sounding absolutely hopeless, before picking up immediately with some Caribbean-sounding synths that bring to mind the most bubblegum of pop tracks – it sounds somewhat like Katy Perry’s “Chained To The Rhythm”. The conflict of emotions as Williams puts on a fake smile is symbolised by these musical themes, ultimately exploding into the chorus where things shift again. The heaviest guitars on the whole project chime in to back up Williams’ cynical observations, asking people to realize they are just as fake as she can be. By the time a four-part harmony of “ba-da-ba”s closes the song out, we’ve gone on a complete musical journey.

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Hayley Williams has always had one of the most dynamic and effortless deliveries in her genre, and it works just as well delivering catchy hooks. Her full belt is obviously very impressive, but the few times she chooses to dip into her lower register can give me the chills. One of the greatest things Williams does with her vocals is turning up the intensity even if it doesn’t mean turning up the volume – at a crucial moment in “Rose-Colored Boy” she drops down to a quieter low harmony that surprises the listener with how unexpectedly well it fits with the background. The chorus of “Pool” comes to mind here as well.

Since the sound of the album is so uniform, the weaker tracks are easier to pick out – the arrangement of the guitar and drum patterns with Williams’ snappy hook in “Told You So” still hasn’t really clicked properly with me, while the  first half of the album stands out as clearly stronger. These songs are all still pretty great, but when songs like “Hard Times” and “Fake Happy” exist in basically the same niche it is easy to see them beginning to run out of steam by the album’s end. “No Friend” is the only deviation from the sonic palette of the album, continuing the band’s trend of placing a heavier, grunge-influenced song at the end of their albums. In such a perfectly realized work, however, the complete 180 in sound and the awkward spoken word vocals from mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss have no place here and stand out as a confusing choice.

Paramore have gone through many changes as a band, in terms of their personnel and their sound, but always seem to come out on the other end with a project that perfectly captures the musical moment they are writing in as well as their own personal situations. No matter what they sound like, the consistency and resilience of the band for the last 12 years is something to marvel at.

Favourite Tracks: Hard Times, Fake Happy, Rose-Colored Boy, Forgiveness, Pool

Least Favourite Track: No Friend

Score: 9/10

Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1

Chris-stapleton-from-a-room-volume-1.jpgFresh off his Grammy win (and Album of the Year nomination!) for his debut album, Traveller, Chris Stapleton is back to offer another brief compilation of tracks showcasing his outstanding voice. From A Room: Volume 1 blends together Stapleton’s brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in Stapleton’s vocal delivery. Many of these instrumentals are rather stripped back, and for good reason: Stapleton’s vocals are simply unmatched, and the emotion he packs into each note makes these ballads incredibly affecting, as he frequently contemplates lost love. Stapleton just continues to establish his dominance over this musical niche with this album.

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Stapleton is a master at writing a great melody, but also at capturing the exact emotion he is trying to convey as the numerous sounds explored on this project are cycled through. “Broken Halos” opens the project with a soulful acoustic ballad, and the musicianship demonstrated by the syncopated guitar pattern and Stapleton’s effortless voice delivering a deceptively simple melody – accompanied by vocals runs and trills you hardly ever see in country – causes you to get lost in the track. It’s 3 minutes long, but it feels like a minute and a half. It then transitions to a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which succeeded at getting me more emotional than perhaps any song this year due to the believability of Stapleton’s performance. He reflects on the immediate aftermath of a relationship’s end to an absolutely heartwrenching degree.

“Up To No Good Livin'” is the peak of Stapleton’s homages to outlaw country, as he tells the story of how he can never escape his past of partying hard – “People called me the Picasso of painting the town”. Although he’s now grown up and changed, nobody believes him, affecting his romantic relationships. This is all set to the most infectious and classic-sounding chorus on the album, backed up by some great harmonies by his apparently equally talented wife, Morgane. She appears on a few tracks here, and their voices bring out the best in each other in a special way that only a deep connection can.

As the album reaches it’s middle point, tracks start getting even more stripped back – “Either Way” and “I Was Wrong” both feature Stapleton stretching his voice to its absolute limits, shocking the listener with its power as he growls his way through some impressively high notes and trills. Stapleton explores quite a few genres on this project, which might get disjointed and confusing for other artists, but he truly possesses the musical ability and the voice to play it all to an enjoyable and effective degree. It just makes it all the more impressive that he can convincingly act as both a classic bluesman and an acoustic country balladeer. Some people are on another level.

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The instrumentals here can get a bit too repetitive, although I recognize that this is rather characteristic of genres like blues and southern rock. “Death Row” is a rather quiet and uneventful track to close out on, as Stapleton sings from the perspective of a prisoner counting down his last days. Most of the track contains a symbolically repetitive guitar pattern and fleeting vocals from Stapleton. “Second One To Know” is the most rock-influenced track on the album. He certainly goes all out on the delivery, but this is the only time when the instrumental, a loud guitar loop, becomes distracting from Stapleton’s vocals.

Chris Stapleton has so many effective aspects to his music that his technically perfect vocals are an added bonus. The talent displayed here is nothing short of mindblowing, and should appeal to even the biggest critics of the genre of country music due to its incorporation of other aspects. Watch out, Grammy committee.

Favourite Tracks: Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning, Up To No Good Livin’, Broken Halos, Without Your Love, I Was Wrong

Least Favourite Track: Death Row

Score: 9/10

Logic – Everybody

Image result for logic everybodyHey guys, did you know that Logic is biracial?!

Maryland rapper Logic’s third studio album, Everybody, is yet another dense and sprawling concept album from the technical wizard. While there are still some great moments where we get to see just how impressive Logic is as a pure rapper, everything I have criticized about his music in the past is multiplied here, turning the project into what is easily his weakest effort. Logic builds a loose thread of a story around Andy Weir’s novel “The Egg”, where the album’s central character Atom has a discussion with God, played by scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in which he learns he has been getting reincarnated as every person who ever lived in order to understand the full scope of human experience.

Logic frequently speaks on his own life and the racism he experienced from both the white and black community, emphasizing a message of peace and love. While this is certainly an admirable message to have, the way Logic delivers it is heavy-handed, preachy and even contradictory at times. This is disappointing, as the music at its core is about as good as it’s ever been.

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Logic often comes across as more of a hip-hop fan who made it big than his own artist with his own creative vision, and he continues to wear his influences on his sleeve throughout. Everybody contains some standard hip-hop beats that frequently draw influence from rappers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake – all infused with an orchestral and cinematic quality that might be Logic’s most original recognizable trait. He demonstrates his impressive double-time flow on almost every track here, showing that he is still among the top of his class in terms of sheer technical ability.

A unique range of guests appear here, most of them discussing these important issues with much more gravitas than Logic can – Killer Mike delivers a preacher’s sermon at the end of “Confess”, rising R&B artists Alessia Cara and Khalid join forces on Logic’s suicide prevention anthem, and “America” brings together rap legends Black Thought, Chuck D and No ID. Even more unusual is Logic trading bars with his polar opposite Juicy J, and the appearance of actor Ansel Elgort singing at the tail end of “Killing Spree”.

Logic’s performance across the board is equal to or possibly even better than his previous works – it’s a shame that what he’s saying brings this way down. I could go on forever about the nuances of Logic’s dexterous flow, and even his singing voice here is a pleasant surprise, appearing more than you would think. Every track but one here is produced by Logic’s close friend and frequent collaborator 6ix and Logic himself, trading off on who receives primary credit, and these instrumentals are a very strong aspect of the album as well. Learning that Logic took on a bigger role in production than he has before impressed me even further – these are some seriously dynamic and energizing beats which should have provided a backbone emphasizing the importance of Logic’s message. “America” is driven by a classic old-school boom-bap beat and a catchy yet absolutely menacing synth bass loop, while the beat of “Take It Back”, one of the album’s best, is wasted on a two-minute rap and a 5-minute speech.

Logic’s aspirations as a movie director cause him to extend his skits even further than before, as the central thread of the story and Logic’s discussions of his own life experiences often extend past 5 minutes. Some tracks have more talking than music, decreasing the album’s replayability. Everything is made even more ridiculous when it is revealed that the whole world Logic paints here is just a part of the one he created on his previous album, The Incredible True Story. This album turns out to just be walking music for the astronauts on the planet Paradise. Logic has frequently been accused of being a “biter” – that is, blatantly lifting aspects other rappers have popularized for himself. “Everybody” is one of the album’s best tracks, but that’s because it’s basically just Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It all becomes even more evident here.

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Logic’s subject matter is the real problem here, however – I have criticized him for speaking about his race, and almost nothing else, to ultimately the same effect even before this album came out. On this album, the same message is repeated on each and every track. Logic’s observations are quite surface level, telling us little past the facts we already know – that these problems exist, and awareness is important. Even the little meaning we can derive from this is lost when we are beaten over the head with this repeatedly. I could speak more about Logic’s muddled message, but I’ll leave it at this: Juicy J literally proclaims to his detractors “Kill yo mothaf**kin self” 3 tracks before Logic’s suicide prevention song, a song that contains the lyric “Who can relate? Woo!”

The idea of this album is very admirable and interesting in theory, but falls completely flat in execution. Logic has been proving that his intentions are in the right place for a few albums now, but he lacks the narrative coherence to effectively bring out what he is trying to say, settling for repetition of surface level concepts instead. But hey – he’s a pretty impressive rapper.

Favourite Tracks: America, Everybody, Mos Definitely, 1-800-273-8255

Least Favourite Track: Killing Spree

Score: 5/10

Gorillaz – Humanz

Image result for humanzVirtual band Gorillaz, the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, return with their highly-anticipated album Humanz, which features an impressive list of guests and stands as their first full-length studio album since 2011. The future of the band seemed rocky up to this point and Hewlett made his displeasure known with the decreasing role of his art in the band’s overall presentation, while Albarn turned his focus to other projects including his own solo work. Albarn describes Humanz as “an emotional response to politics”, yet he made sure to edit out anything that could be read as pointing to a specific individual or situation, making his musings rather surface-level.

In the aftermath of all of this, one might understand how Humanz ultimately registers as an inconsistent step down for a band previously touted for their creativity. There are still some absolutely spectacular musical moments on here, coming in the rare occasions when a guest is used to their full potential, but Humanz feels empty – like anything but human.

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Gorillaz continue to be as genreless as they have ever been, running through hip-hop, soul, EDM, dancehall and many other sounds depending on the guest of the hour. If one running thread can be identified, it is likely Albarn’s funky synth melodies which serve as a driving force for most of these tracks. A wealth of guests obscure, rising and legendary appear here, giving us a world where a collaboration between Mavis Staples and Pusha T is a reality. They are joined by indie darlings such as Vince Staples, D.R.A.M., Danny Brown, Kelela and Kali Uchis, while fully established artists such as Peven Everett, De La Soul, Anthony Hamilton and Grace Jones bring a veteran presence.

Almost all of these guests deliver a fantastic performance by their own standards, but the instrumentation around them, or their placement in the structure of a song, often lets them down in a recurrent theme. Albarn’s vocals are largely relegated to a supporting role, but when they take center stage they are as equally parts charming and menacing as they’ve ever been, often providing great contrast.

In an interlude, actor Steve Martin implores a crowd to repeat “The Non-Conformist Oath”: “I promise to be different! I promise to be unique!”. Gorillaz certainly follow their own advice here, to varying degrees of success. However, there is no doubt that they are making music that sounds like absolutely nobody else right now. “Saturnz Barz” features Jamaican artist Popcaan, perhaps marking the greatest departure in sound Gorillaz have ever made, and it stands out as one of the album’s greatest tracks. Albarn’s lower-key epilogue to the slowly creeping, slightly dancehall instrumental which houses Popcaan’s up-front vocals contrasts nicely.

However, it is Chicago soul legend Peven Everett who is helped most greatly by the instrumental around him on “Strobelite”, which features a rattling beat and infectious bassline which gives way to his soaring chorus. His vocals throughout are characteristically impressive and should fill dancefloors all year. Some of the hip-hop tracks here stand out above the rest, as the energetic instrumentals seem to bring out the best in a rap feature. Vince Staples, Danny Brown and especially Pusha T do their best to take control of this anarchic end of the world dance playlist.

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Unfortunately, it feels at times almost as though Albarn has lost the magical X Factor that made Gorillaz’ sound so special, putting less effort into making sense of the frenetic chaos that surrounds a typical Gorillaz song and leaving it to run rampant across these tracks. A few of these songs simply have way too much going on. Tracks like “Ascension” and “Momentz” are driven by rapid-fire breakbeats and abrasive synths which never quite click together. “Momentz” in particular is an absolute mess in this regard, as a heavy-handed electronic beat, falsetto vocals, a bubblegum pop bridge, rap verses and WAY too much layering collide painfully. In addition, a general lack of dedication is shown further on tracks that are blatantly underwritten, with repetitive and meaningless lyrics and long musical stretches where it sounds like something else was supposed to exist that never materialized. Can someone please explain to me what in the world “Sex Murder Party” is even supposed to be?! Description of a song hasn’t evaded me quite like this one in a while.

The biggest problem that plagues this project, however, is the misuse of guests. Even when they deliver a good performance, the relegation of someone like D.R.A.M. to background vocals on a track clearly tailored for him, the tacking on of a Danny Brown verse on a song where it didn’t belong, and placing punk-rock band Savages’ frontwoman Jehnny Beth on the most egregiously poppy song here, among other decisions, make no sense at all. It just continues to show the lack of polish placed on a project 6 years in the making.

Damon Albarn is an undeniably talented artist, and he continues to show the inner workings of his mind in an entertaining way throughout Humanz. However, the logistics of this album fall flat in every way they possibly could have and then some more on top of that. Please, don’t let this be their final album.

Favourite Tracks: Strobelite, Carnival, Let Me Out, Saturnz Barz

Least Favourite Track: Momentz

Score: 6/10

Cashmere Cat – 9

Image result for cashmere cat 9Norwegian producer and DJ Cashmere Cat’s highly anticipated and frequently delayed debut album has finally arrived, in the wake of well-received production credits for some huge artists such as Kanye West and Ariana Grande. The high-profile appearances continue over the course of 9‘s brief runtime, as the guest vocalists attempt to adapt to the constantly shifting world Cashmere Cat outlines. People are drawn to his music due to his very experimental take on pop, sounding like the kind of thing that might be dominating the airwaves in some kind of dystopian future.

This album consistently subverts expectations, as Cashmere Cat lets his creativity run wild. However, this is not always a good thing. For the most part, this is some truly captivating and hypnotic work, but seeing as he has been fraternizing with some artists at PC Music, their trend of being so out-there that they forget the actual song lying underneath can pervade here as well.Image result for cashmere cat

Cashmere Cat’s music is full of small nuances that become an unlikely centerpiece. The tiniest electronic blip of the ringing of a bell can mean so much in the context of a Cashmere Cat song. The sound he has constructed, that could only be representative of himself, is shown in full force on 9. He seems to have a great time toying with expectations. Where you think a huge electronic drop is coming, he falls back into a calming pattern of strings or soft, beautiful synths. Where you think there might be a dominant pop chorus there is electronic distortion and chopped up vocals. He seems to have been heavily inspired by Francis and the Lights’ use of Prismizer here, as Francis himself appears on “Wild Love” and similar effects are applied to many other artists’ vocals.

Cashmere Cat seems to have been restrained to a very small degree by the presence of co-producer and pop mastermind Benny Blanco on every track here. However, the presence of experimental individuals like SOPHIE and Evian Christ is much more understandable. There are a wealth of high profile collaborators here, including massive pop stars like The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, and rising artists like Kehlani, Camila Cabello and Jhene Aiko, who sounds most like herself on closer and standout track “Plz Don’t Go”.

I really do have to commend Cashmere Cat’s creativity here. There are sounds on this project that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams to not only be part of a song, but work effectively. He definitely has a great ear and is capable of creating some truly beautiful and mesmerizing pieces of music, something that is not often characteristic of his genre. His trademark creeping synths and melodic blips provide a perfect musical background to the many layers he applies to his guests’ vocal work.

“Quit”, his third collaboration with Ariana Grande, might be the best song here, throwing a sonic wall at us as Grande’s vocals reach their pleading peak before dropping back into a subdued electronic chorus that attacks us with contemplative synths and quiet bells rather than a big bass drop. Cashmere Cat seems to work best with R&B artists rather than the pure pop singers he brings on board. Ty Dolla $ign has never sounded more soulful than when he is backed up by the pulsating synth chords and descending symphony of bells on “Infinite Stripes”, the Prismizer harmonies bringing out the dimension in his voice you never knew was there.

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Sometimes, however, Cashmere Cat’s creativity goes so far that these songs are not particularly enjoyable as a song per se, but rather an atmospheric world. “Wild Love”, at its base, is really not much more than The Weeknd crooning the song’s title, ascending and descending the scales over a simple beat and what sounds like more layers than Francis and the Lights has ever used in his career. It’s all way too much, especially with the inexplicable use of a spring sound which is slightly off beat throughout. “Love Incredible” is similarly disjointed, as Camila Cabello’s vocals are chopped up and distorted, and the energy of the song goes through so many abrupt shifts that the actual underlying thread of song structure is lost.

The title track “9 (After Coachella)” is an enigma. The song opens with featured vocalist MØ delivering the catchiest chorus on the entire album, before the reason for PC Music producer SOPHIE’s actual feature credit is revealed with a drop full of clunky metal noises. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious and terrible things I’d ever heard on a song, but upon further listens I’ve admittedly been a lot more appreciative of it when I’m in the right mood.

Cashmere Cat is showing us the future of pop music on 9, and for the most part, it looks bright. While the album as a whole supposedly went through many revisions and personnel changes, contributing to its disjointedness, is a very enjoyable journey through the weird and wonderful world of Cashmere Cat.

Favourite Tracks: Quit, Infinite Stripes, Victoria’s Veil, Plz Don’t Go, 9 (After Coachella)

Least Favourite Track: Wild Love

Score: 7/10

Incubus – 8

Incubus 8 Artwork.jpgEarly 2000s rock band Incubus returns with their first album in 6 years, which intrigued me due to the fact that the album went through a second stage of production and mixing done by none other than Skrillex, who is apparently a friend of the band. While the presence of the brostep king’s trademark sounds is not particularly felt here at all, his work in post-hardcore band From First to Last likely is. While Incubus frequently drifts closer to the softer side of the alternative rock spectrum, especially on their hits, 8 marks a return to a much louder sound. Now in his 40s, singer Brandon Boyd’s voice is still incredible, but ultimately many of these tracks come across as bland and uninspired.

Listeners are re-introduced to Incubus as a pure rock band within the first 5 seconds, as we hear a distorted guitar screech and Boyd stretching his voice to its upper limits. This continues for the majority of the album, as powerful guitars clash with Boyd’s effortless delivery of a seasoned rock frontman. They briefly drop back to a quieter, more introspective soundscape at times to provide contrast in the songs, but for the most part this is very guitar-driven.

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The band is certainly capable of creating catchy hooks, one of the main reasons they crossed over so well to a mainstream audience back in the day. “State Of The Art” is the best song here, perhaps it’s just my love of harmonies but they are a welcome surprise on the soaring, anthemic chorus. It sounds like the band’s best attempt to create a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded song on the project. While it may not have been true for the majority of their career, Incubus is best on this project when they are at their hardest. “Glitterbomb” is one of the most low-key songs on the tracklist, failing to grab my attention until the song begins a much louder breakdown featuring an impressive guitar riff. “Love In a Time of Surveillance” is another great guitar part, as the distortion continues in the background throughout and reminds me of old Muse music.

Many things are so close to being there on this project – Boyd’s voice is technically very impressive, exercising the full extent of his range over the course of the album, but it lacks personality or conviction, while the rest of the band demonstrates some great musicality at times but too often falls into formula. The instrumental track “Make No Sound In The Digital Forest” is quite captivating, showing the band’s lingering potency.

It’s hard to tell if Skrillex’s involvement late in the game did more harm than good, or if he did the best he could pulling together some half-baked ideas. Many of the instrumentals are nothing we haven’t heard before, fraught with power chords and repetitive chord progressions. “Loneliest” sees the addition of some fleeting digital sounds and effects placed on Boyd’s voice that seem incredibly out of place. These instrumentals do not paint a world with much urgency, which would fit Boyd’s delivery, but even this sounds much less emotional and involved than we know it can be at times. Especially on an album that frequently sounds like it is faintly alluding to the US political climate, Boyd should be more present.

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The lyrics are often underwritten, stopping just before they say anything particularly profound or revelatory. I wish we got as much personality from the lyrics and Boyd’s vocals as we do in the interlude “When I Became A Man”, in which he jokingly sings about his first romantic encounter. Boyd’s way of over-enunciating his words often makes even his most playful lyric sound incredibly serious, so when he shouts something like “You’re a nimble bastard” repeatedly in the chorus of the album’s second track, it’s quite laughable.

There are additionally some very weird transitions here – opener “No Fun” is one of the hardest tracks on the entire album, but the song’s bridge abruptly removes all of the energy as they leap into an entirely new genre, sounding not unlike a band like Soundgarden. It doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t fit at all. We then hear the heavier hook a cappella before jumping back into the song.

For an album 6 years in the making, you would think it would sound slightly more polished. The band’s energy and musicianship is still incredibly evident and present here, but the personnel switch late in the development cycle shows that the completion of the album was a difficult process to begin with, as settles for middling thrills.

Favourite Tracks: State of the Art, Love in a Time of Surveillance, Undefeated

Least Favourite Track: Loneliest

Score: 5/10

blackbear – Digital Druglord

Image result for digital druglordFlorida singer, rapper and producer blackbear has been quietly prolific, releasing four studio albums since 2015 and contributing production work to artists such as gnash and G-Eazy before catching the recognition of the general public with Digital Druglord. Here, blackbear focuses more on his singing voice, closely resembling Ty Dolla $ign with the lyrical content of The Weeknd, which he pairs with his own fresh and intoxicating take on alt-R&B production. This world of music is certainly becoming a crowded market, but the personality and humour blackbear infuses into his music and his dynamic instrumentals make him stand out from the rest.

blackbear rides the popular wave of moody alt-R&B music, but does so with a twist. There is more musical variation here, giving the impression of what might happen if Ty Dolla $ign got rid of his trap producers, became an EDM DJ and started producing his own music. Once you get past the first few tracks which are more representative of the popular sounds of the genre, blackbear lets the producer side of him run wild, replacing the minimalistic and creeping backgrounds that usually accompany his singing style. Instead, we receive gargantuan beats with a great sense of musicianship, complementing his harmonies well.

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Lesser known rapper 24Hrs appears on “moodz”, fitting in with blackbear’s laid-back and matter of fact style much better than Juicy J’s appearance on “juicy sweatsuits”, where he adopts a Migos flow which would be more appropriate for a poppier track.

blackbear’s lyrics are clearly influenced by the nihilistic debauchery that artists such as The Weeknd indulge in, but for some reason, the way blackbear presents them makes them more believable and endearing. His lyrics are blunter, more specific, and that often makes them funnier. “do re mi”, the lead single, makes a clever twist on blackbear’s ascension of a musical scale – “I wrote a little song for ya, it go like do, re, mi, fa, so f**kin’ done with you”, he sings.

However, the true strength of this album lies in its production. Done almost singlehandedly by blackbear himself, he tweaks the typical slow and moody formula for a more hip-hop and electronic influenced sound. Outside of some of the more generic tracks at the album’s beginning, blackbear’s melisma and runs while crooning about his woes with the opposite sex are juxtaposed with dramatic synth stabs and complex, EDM-style rhythms, usually with a more prominent drumbeat featuring hip-hop hi-hats and 808 bass. blackbear’s voice is serviceable, but the greatest songs on here stand out due to his producer’s ear for great melodies layered on the innovative backdrop.

“i miss the old u” drops into an outstanding chorus elaborating on a running catchy piano loop, with a huge synth drop and blackbear’s jubilant melody repeating the song’s title on top. The album’s second half continues the production hot streak on every song, and the combination of constantly surprising and danceable synth beats and hilariously crude lyrics make Digital Druglord a winner – “Just used my last one percent to text you, that s**t wasn’t worth it”, he sings on “wish u the best”. “chateau” is another great track, the synths battering the listener endlessly as blackbear screams “No love no love no love” during the chorus.

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blackbear can go overboard with his singing sometimes, in the rare occasion he attempts to overpower his complex production work. On “juicy sweatuits” he makes his greatest effort to display his singing voice, with complicated R&B vocal runs that he never quite hits perfectly. In addition, the two opening tracks “hell is where i dreamt of u and woke up alone” and “moodz” are a little generic and underwritten in the context of the rest of the album, sounding more like a Ty Dolla $ign clone than a unique and exciting new artist. This doesn’t really make sense to me, seeing as he chose one of his more experimental songs, “do re mi”, as his single.

Digital Druglord is another exhilarating trip down the pathway of blending genres that sound like they should never belong together to a surprising degree of success. blackbear’s hitmaking ability was revealed on his co-writing credit on Justin Bieber’s smash hit “Boyfriend”, and his musicality is clearly there. The future is looking bright.

Favourite Tracks: chateau, i miss the old u, wish u the best, do re mi, make daddy proud

Least Favourite Track: moodz

Score: 8/10