The most unlikely of album releases

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I’ll be honest with you. I don’t really know how to write this, how long it’s going to be or how much of it will make sense. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it without sounding too naïve, childish, young. It’s difficult because I’m not sure how I feel about it myself and as has been pointed out to me, I didn’t go through it so can’t have that strong emotions regarding it. I can’t imagine how the direct participants in it felt. I can’t begin to imagine the lows they felt, the feeling that their world had been taken from underneath them and turned upside down, that their dreams had been cancelled, that all their hard work over many years was all for nothing. I can’t imagine being huge names in music one day, then being nobodies the next.

Maybe the best place to start would be with the facts. There was a band, hailing from Pontypridd in Wales (funnily enough, the same town as Tom Jones) who called themselves Lostprophets. They were an alternative metal band, heavier and darker than most stuff I liked but, in my experience, not heavy or dark enough to be considered a band that anyone above the age of 15 should like. Not something I agree with, but a view held by many. Anyway, enough of that, they released 5 successful albums and were creating a legacy for themselves in music and Wales. It all ended when, on the 19th December 2012, their lead singer, Ian Watkins, was arrested for child sex offences.

I had been a Lostprophets fan for quite a while, ever since A Town Called Hypocrisy – so all the way through 3 albums, and I had bought their previous 2 as well. At the time, and indeed for quite a while afterwards, they were my second most played band on last.fm. I had their poster on my wall back home. It was fair to say that they were one of my favourite bands. On the 8th November, so about a month before the allegations emerged, I saw them live at Manchester Apollo and quite frankly, I was blown away by how good they were. It had reignited my love for them. They only played 6 more gigs as a band.

For most people, Lp weren’t a 6-piece band – they were a one man one. If anyone could name any of them it would, even before Dec 2012, have been Ian Watkins. The other 5 were fairly anonymous, living in the shadow of a front man who was very good at being one. Very few people would know who Lee Gaze, Stuart Richardson, Mike Lewis, Jamie Oliver and Luke Johnson are, let alone recognise them in a promotional picture. It was immensely unfair on all of them, who all had more talent than Watkins had anyway. If there is one thing I remember from the gig I went to, it was being seriously impressed by guitarist Gaze’s skill.

Most people wouldn’t know that they were on the verge of splitting up anyway, that Watkins had become impossible to work with and at least one member, Gaze, has confirmed that he found the music they were making inappropriate for 30-odd year olds. Gaze and Richardson refuse to listen to the music they made together, in fact Richardson has smashed their platinum disc received for Liberation Transmission. All of the members have children; all of them would have felt the betrayal and deception as parents let alone band-mates, even friends. All of them refuse to be seen as victims, they all say the real victims are the families involved with the actual abuse and they are spot on there.

For almost a year we heard nothing, before they confirmed that Lostprophets were officially over as a band (it didn’t really come as a shock!). I follow them all on twitter as they apparently went their separate ways. Gaze focused on his love for coffee, Oliver decided to print some of his paintings (interesting side note: Jamie only came into the band because they couldn’t afford to take an extra member on tour in their early days yet wanted a photographer so he learnt the turntables) and Lewis became the manager of some smaller bands in America. Then, in April 2014, rumours began to grow that the band were back in the studio.

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No Devotion, made up of Lostprophets’ 5 members as well as former Thursday lead singer Geoff Rickly, debuted their first single on the 1st July. It was nothing like the Lp members had done before, being more mainstream rock and less like it was made for teenagers. There was a sigh of relief amongst the fan base, who had been through hell for almost two years, here we were finally re-embracing 5 musicians who had done nothing wrong except choose their friends badly yet were being tainted by association. It was yesterday, quite a while after Stay’s release, that their debut album, Permanence, was released.

Here’s the thing. Technically, I’m going to class this as a review yet I’m not going to review a single track. The reason? I will never judge Permanence on whether I find the music good or not, it’s worth more than that. It’s the album that I, the whole of the fan base, the whole of the music industry, never thought would be made. I can’t listen to Lostprophets now, every now and then I try again but find it too difficult, but at least I have some music, more than that a record, which I can listen to made by the good guys of Lp, the men worth being so in love with Lostprophets in my teenage years.

If No Devotion release nothing else in their career, at least the five of them (Johnson has since left) will always have their contributions to this record. It won’t be as commercially successful as the stuff they did before but it was unquestionably mean infinitely more to them personally. They sunk to the bottom but kept their heads up and managed to rise again. There is no question that Ian Watkins is a horrible human being that deserves to rot in jail. He tainted all of their names; he made the music they had made for years worthless. He ruined many lives, not just these 5 men but all the families who he abused. While I hope they have turned their lives around, this record proves that the members of No Devotion have.

Drones: The natural progression in Muse’s remarkable career

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Drones is Muse’s 7th album, which is an impressive return for a trio of men from Teignmouth, Devon. Over 20 years and 6 albums they’ve conquered rock music, headlining stadiums on a remarkably regular basis. It’s credit to their success that an album containing the destruction of the world, the crumbling of civilisation, a JFK speech and a capella singing isn’t considered too over the top. Drones takes everything which Muse do best, draws on influences from their favourite bands (Queen, RATM etc) as well as from their own previous efforts and combines it all to produce a monster of a rock album.

How do I begin to explain the madness that is Drones? Well, it’s a fully blown concept album, which brings tons of challenges. Concept albums, albums based around one single story or/and character, have been dying since the hay-day of Prog Rock. Nowadays, very few bands attempt it and if they do they fail to develop the concept, base it more around similar ideas rather than a traditional story. Muse are brave to attempt it, although it feels like the natural next step in their career given that they’ve played around with prog-rock before (Knights of Cydonia) and albums based around the same idea (all except Showbiz and arguably Origin of Symmetry).

The idea for Drones is fairly simple if not traditional, a man loses love, gets turned into a killer by the army before rebelling and revolting. The story throughout the album is pretty clear (to me anyway, I’ve seen people who say it isn’t), until we reach The Globalist. Apparently, this is where the second story comes in – involving our protagonist and another character, the shady controller of the drones, who ends up destroying the world. Of course, this is Muse – it’s completely overblown and apocalyptic. It just wouldn’t be right otherwise!

Drones draws on a number of different influences without sounding recycled. What’s more, these come from various parts of musical history and different genres. The final two tracks cover both Elgar and Palestrina while Reapers borrows from Rage Against The Machine, Defector from Queen and a few of them sound a little like U2 sounded like back when they were good. Every band take influences from other bands to mould their own sound, Muse respect the history of music and use it to their advantage. Very few bands are willing to add lyrics to early 20th century classical music or change the lyrics to Renaissance pieces, it’s not stupid either – it gives classical music a footing in the modern scene.

I’ve come up with a timeline to explain how I see the Muse albums fitting into a vague story: Showbiz was the start of their journey, both literally and in my timeline, with usual modern day frustrations and a much bigger focus on love rather than globalisation. Origin of Symmetry doesn’t really fit, however its themes are more expansive than Showbiz and start to look towards some form of apocalypse. The 2nd Law saw the world collapse under weight of corruption and pollution, and Muse seemingly ended it with a few people rebelling against the powers that be (see the videos for Isolated System and Unsustainable used in their stadium gigs), which leads us nicely onto The Resistance. Drones fits in next, with the government fighting back and turning people against each other. Drones ends with the world being destroyed, which is exactly where Absolution starts and Black Holes (especially Starlight) deals with the remainder of humanity leaving Earth behind and searching out new lives in the stars. Drones fits in perfectly with the overall Muse plot arch.

All the songs got their own artwork

All the songs got their own artwork

No album is perfect and Drones is no exception. The main gripe I have with Drones lies in the lyrics. Matt Bellamy has never been fantastic at writing lyrics, being at a particular low point with Muse’s 7th album. I get that it’s hard to fit lyrics around a theme however they should be better than what they are. They get close to ruining certain parts of the album (your belly is all yellow, your ass belongs to me etc) and indeed make sure that Drones won’t be remembered as Muse’s best piece of work. Oh, and that bloody Drill Sergeant, that’s just embarrassing.

Then again, the quality of music is much better than anything since BHAR. They’ve reintegrated guitar riffs and the album flows more consistently from one song to the next. It’s an album which is made to listen song after song, but that doesn’t mean that listening to one song at a time isn’t enjoyable. It’s a concept album but each song stands on it’s own and begs for listening time. The concept is dealt with well (besides the lyrics) and at the end of the day, I can forgive them for the lyrics because at least they aren’t singing about sex or drugs like everyone else seems to be at the moment. Matt’s vocals are also better on this record than any of the previous 6; he’s hauntingly chilling at times.

Maybe the best way to do this review would be to consider each song individually and provide a ranking out of 10:

Dead Inside:
Story: Protagonist falls out of love and loses hope

There’s no better word to describe Dead Inside than “grower”. The first time I heard it I knew it was good, yet I was a tad underwhelmed given what Muse had promised us. The next day I couldn’t stop listening to it. The first half is ok, but the second half might well be the best 2 minutes in Muse’s catalogue. The first example of Matt’s mesmerising voice, it won’t be the last. A good choice for a first single and sets the story up nicely.

Ranking: 8/10

[Drill Sergeant] and Psycho:
Story: Protagonist becomes controlled by the “Army”, becomes the drone

On the 10th November 1999, Muse, to the best of our knowledge, introduced the world to Psycho. Following Agitated, they played a riff, which would take 16 years to be turned into a song. The riff has been played at many gigs in the time between then and now, and for Muse fans the use of it on the album was a real homage back to their early days. I love the riff, I don’t love Psycho. Lyrically, and musically, for me this is the album’s low point. If it were a minute shorter without the drill sergeant and with a better chorus then it would be an incredible song. Shame really, but it fits in with the story and the use of the riff is brilliant plus apparently it’s incredible live.

Rating: 5/10 (would be 6 without DS)

Mercy:
Story: Fighting against the control being placed on them

I really quite enjoy listening to Mercy. It has a chorus you can belt out and is a nice hark back to Black Holes and Revelations / Absolution. The verse is similar to Starlight, the chorus to Stockholm Syndrome and the melody is more positive than the first two songs. A good choice for second single, it’s probably the closest to a mainstream pop-rock song and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rating: 7/10

Reapers:
Story: He’s now killing people in a war-like scenario

The best song Muse have written since Map of the Problematique. Complete with some insane guitar work is a wonderful chorus and lyrics that fit with the song. The solo is unusually improvised for Muse and the ending riff is based on Freedom by RATM, a perfect fit for the song. It just immediately sounds like a Muse song and has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it. Sums Muse up for despite how heavy it is, Matt’s voice can still sound beautiful.

Rating: 10/10

The Handler:
Story: Starting to rebel against the forces that control him

The first of three songs that took me completely by surprise when I first heard them for I never anticipated Muse to be this dark. As the title suggests, it revolves around the protagonist’s handler and the hero realising that he no longer wants to be controlled. Let me go, let me be. I’m escaping from your grip; you will never own me again. The album has started to turn.

Rating: 9/10

[JFK] and Defector:
Story: Isn’t this obvious? He’s defecting 

The JFK introduction works really well here, and is a clip of a speech he made in April 1961. It’s about conspiracy and intimidation and so the message is exactly what Muse are trying to convey in Drones. Musically, Defector is a good song although slightly let down by the verses. The Queen like chorus (free, yeah I’m free from society) is catchy however the lyrics in the verses leave a lot to be desired which I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced by. Ending the song with JFK saying “with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent” gets a big thumbs up from me.

Rating: 8/10

Revolt:
Story: It appears there is now a revolution against the handlers

The second song that surprised me, for this is strangely poppy for Muse. It’s already getting a bad rep from Muse fans however I don’t buy any of it. A positive message is being reinforced by some of the better lyrics (you can make this world what you want) and the melody is insanely catchy. Not genius, but a good attempt at doing something a little different.

Rating: 6/10

Aftermath:
Story: He’s re-finding love; finally clean of all he’s done

I think Muse are at their best when performing ballads, as it provides an opportunity for them to show true emotion. Of course, fans who just want head banging music won’t understand the finer intricacies in songs such as Explorers and Ruled By Secrecy however they are beautiful and Aftermath slots alongside them quite nicely. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this on Drones, as I expected them to leave the rock ballads alone this album. We’ve gone against the tide, all we have is each other now, I’m coming home now, I need your comfort. It seems as though this will have the happy ending we all want.

Rating: 9/10

The Globalist:
Story: The second part, as the dictator destroys the world

It was never going to be that simple! Muse have their roots firmly set in prog-rock and this 10 minute piece showcases how prog rock can survive in the modern era. Split into three parts, it starts with guitar and whistling similar to a western film before “going nuclear” with a heavy instrumental middle section. It ends with Matt covering Elgar on the piano. They’ve described it as Citizen Erased part II, it’s more similar to Exogenesis but stands on it’s own two feet and doesn’t deserve comparisons to other songs. Yet again, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired at times.

Rating: 8/10

Drones:
Story: Everyone appears to be dead, so this is merely an ode to the dead

Ah, the a capella Renaissance piece, a re-working of Palestrina’s scores. It’s a very bold ending to an album, one that a lot of people won’t understand however it’s the one time where you have to consider the overall picture. This album was meant to be a concept and that needs an ending, it’s very likely that with nuclear destruction any remaining humans or fragments of humanity would look to religion as a way to understand suffering. As a result, the singing works. Not usually my type of music however I adore what they’ve done with it and respect the audacity to branch away from the norm.

Rating: 6/10

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 (Excellent)

Drones is a very good attempt at a concept album and, if they get their way, will probably be turned into a musical one day. That would be nothing less than it deserves. Harking back to Muse’s rock roots, it’s an album that doesn’t abandon the experimentation on the last couple of outings, just merely shrinks it and increases the core instruments. As with all their good stuff, at times you can’t help but be amazed at how only three people are making such a sound. All are unbelievably talented at all they do and for me, this is the first album since Origin to really highlight that. I was dead excited for this album and it hasn’t let me down.

The deluxe version was very well presented with the CD, DVD of live songs, Vinyl and two art prints

The deluxe version was very well presented with the CD, DVD of live songs, Vinyl and two art prints

If you haven’t heard a Muse album before (then where have you been since 2005?!) I wouldn’t recommend starting with Drones. You’d probably be confused as to why it was so overblown and seemingly illogical. Muse have always been like that, Muse will always be like that but on Drones the absurdness is turned up to max. Quite frankly, I like the fact they make such huge music. If they did things softly or subtlety it wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable to listen to. Even their ballads such as Explorers and Aftermath mention leaving the world behind or crumbling states. It’s understandable why they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but for me there is no band or artist in music I feel anywhere near as much connection with or love for. Drones doesn’t hinder that, it increases it.

Hold My Home isn’t a modern masterpiece but is a very enjoyable listen

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Hold My Home, the 5th album by Cold War Kids

 

In 2006, Cold War Kids burst onto the scene with their debut album Robbers & Cowards receiving worldwide praise for the blend of indie and blues-rock seamlessly knitted together. Since then, they’ve been on a musical journey through many different styles without achieving much mainstream success. They’ve certainly now gone down a more pop-driven route, and a few people have said they’ve sold their soul to the masses or become another generated band. I disagree with all that for I find that their music has soul, passion and heart in every song, which I find incredibly easy to listen to. As a result, they’ve become one of my favourite bands. I’ve been criticised for being too positive in this blog in the past, I apologise for that’s going to happen again. Cold War Kids have just released their 5th album and I am very fond of it.

This album seems to have taken ages to arrive. Following Dear Miss Lonelyhearts in 2013, the band returned to the studio and recorded songs for a new record. These songs started to appear in July 2014, with the release of first single All This Could Be Yours. A release date for the album was pencilled in, October 21st 2014. Due to my love for the band, I pre-ordered the signed version almost immediately and received downloads of All This as well as another new song, First. For some reason, the album was delayed in Europe and didn’t end up being released until March 8th 2015. The release date went ahead as planned in America and Australia, so the only possible reason I can think of for the delay in Europe was a record label problem. By the time the album arrived, I had received a download of a third song, Hot Coals. Despite the problems with the release of the album, the songs were of an incredibly high standard.

This album sums up everything that has made Cold War Kids great and so listenable. It takes some of the blues influences, fuses it with the catchy pop appeal they’ve developed and combines perfectly with Nathan Willett’s marvellous soul voice. That isn’t to say that Willett holds the band together though, as some people would have you believe. It’s my belief that Dann Gallucci has now put his stamp on the band, improving the guitar sections and gaining the right chemistry with Matt Maust, their talented bassist. The two new musicians, drummer Joe Plummer and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Schwartz have allowed the band to add more layers and styles to their back catalogue. The result is quite spectacular.

However, it isn’t perfect. Hotel Anywhere, the fifth song on the record, is a song that doesn’t really go, excuse the pun, anywhere at all. Even Willett’s voice seems to fade a little bit, it’s possible they were trying to focus on the instruments but for me, it just doesn’t work. In Nights & Weekends, he croons about Black Friday, which doesn’t seem to be a proper CWK subject matter to sing about. It’s too obvious what the song is about, and then the chorus seems to leave the subject matter far behind, which improves it but not enough. Neither are bad songs, they just aren’t up to the usual CWK high standard. As a final negative, the album’s title track, Hold My Home, doesn’t remain in my head for as long as the others and some of the lyrics seem to be forced rather than inspired.

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It would be harsh of me to allow you to judge the album based on those songs. I find the other 8 to be wonderful in various ways. All This Could Be Yours is catchy and remained in my head for days after first hearing it, whilst Hot Coals provides the improvement in guitar pieces I’ve mentioned before. First has a chorus worth belting out, as Go Quietly (which btw would fit perfectly on Mine Is Yours – no bad thing!) provides the best of Willett’s vocal talents. For me, the two highlights are two almost quintessential Cold War Kids songs, despite only appearing on this album. Drive Desperate, with a guitar solo and a catchy bridge at the end becomes almost impossible to stop listening to. Flower Drum Song, appearing towards the end of the record, is about CWK as a song can get, featuring a sing-along chorus and a giant burst of energy. Throughout the album, Maust/Schwartz, especially on Drive Desperate where, for a refreshing change, the most memorable vocals are provided by the backing singers, suitably support the outstanding vocal range of Willett. Another improvement on past albums is the ending. DMLH ended with the title song and Bitter Poem, both good but improved upon by HMH’s ending of Harold Bloom and Hear My Baby Call, which I would describe as the growers of the album. Not spectacular at first, but I’ve found myself listening to them more and more as time passes.

Cold War Kids will never be a chart band and neither will they ever be hugely popular in this country. In fact, Hold My Home hasn’t even charted here. Is that a bad thing? No, it isn’t. I don’t buy the argument that they are stagnating; in fact I believe they are improving. They aren’t a perfect band, too many of their songs are middle of the road to be considered that, however they produce many great moments in songs that inspire and excite in equal measure. The albums are good but they are at their best when playing live gigs, as they can implement all their energy and desire to produce music into an hour and a half of unforgettable fun. This collection of songs will only bring better shows and a stronger set list. It’s been a month since this album was released in the UK and there hasn’t been a day I haven’t listened to it, hardly forgettable, as some would have you believe. It has individuality that separates it from their other outings whilst being certainly theirs.

The music industry is flooded with bands and artists who do the same thing every time, copy other artists and refuse to evolve yet when a band comes along who breaks that trend they are criticised for it. Cold War Kids aren’t in music for money, they are in it for enjoyment and as a result their albums are immensely easy to listen to and love. As the title suggests, all this had led me to believe that this album is not a modern masterpiece but one that I will listen to over and over again, for it is enjoyable and catchy.

Rating:

  • All This Could Be Yours – 7/10
  • First – 7/10
  • Hot Coals – 8/10
  • Drive Desperate – 10/10
  • Hotel Anywhere – 3/10
  • Go Quietly – 8/10
  • Nights & Weekends – 4/10
  • Hold My Home – 4/10
  • Flower Drum Song – 9/10
  • Harold Bloom – 6/10
  • Hear My Baby Call – 6/10

Album Rating: 6.5/10 (Very Good)

 

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