Review – “The Glory EP” by Animal Giant

The Glory EP by Animal Giant

When I first heard that John LaRussa of Inhale-Exhale (and formerly Narcissus) was going to release a solo EP, I was pretty excited.  While I’ve only heard his work in Inhale-Exhale, I always thought he had some of the more interesting riffs in the genre, and certainly some of the most unique guitar tones.  I assumed he would recruit other musicians to help record the album, but it turns out he didn’t have to.

All five tracks on The Glory EP were produced and performed entirely by LaRussa.  While one may assume a guitarist knows only part of what it takes to write great songs, his long and intimate relationship with heavy music immediately shines through.  From the opening track and throughout, the songs aren’t simply a backdrop for inventive guitar work, though there is certainly plenty of that.  Some of his signature guitar tones make appearances, and the sounds vary from fast tremolo picking to grungy riffs to thick chugging.  He really does cover the full range of techniques for heavy guitar, including some dissonant squeals here and there.  The drums take a featured spot in the mix, as one would expect from a metal-influenced style, but they don’t steal the show.  Blast beats and punk beats ensure that listeners will be tapping their feet and banging their heads all along the way.  Bass holds it all together and only takes the spotlight for the occasional slide.  One thing which I really appreciate is the way LaRussa uses instrumental breaks in several places to build tension before plunging back into the fury.  That’s something I haven’t heard lately, but it’s very powerful.

Production-wise, the album is truly top-notch.  It’s incredible what one man can create in a studio by himself anymore.  The mixes are well-balanced with powerful drums, a solid bottom end, and plenty of room for the guitar and vocals.  Sonically, this is definitely an album that deserves the full-volume car stereo treatment.  Studio effects are used judiciously, and a couple of longer, noisy intros give the five tracks some room to breathe.  The stereo imaging is very well done, including some well-timed hard panning of guitars.  I applaud him for finding a good balance between raw energy and production.  Some may have preferred less of a tight and clean sound, but I’m glad for the polish he added.

Looking at the album with a critical eye, I can find only a couple of soft spots.  While the vocals are strong and never strained, there isn’t a lot of variety.  John’s throaty scream is at the front of every track with only a couple of sections where toned-down melodic singing is used for effect.  The other point which could have been different in my opinion are the lyrics, though I understand that is highly subjective.  When it comes to heavy music, I’m a fan of themes that are more grand and philosophical.  Many of the lines on The Glory EP are personal and directed at the second person (or possibly one’s self), such as those in the title track:  “I want to hear your story / Always falling short of glory.”  I would love to know more of the background of the songs to grasp his intent, but sometimes the beauty of art is in the mystery.

In the end, this is a very solid EP if you enjoy heavy music in general and LaRussa’s work in particular.  It is well worth the current asking price of $4 on Bandcamp, and fans can appreciate the fact that they’re paying the artist directly.  This album is a fresh and creative offering in a genre where it is very difficult to sound original.  You can follow Animal Giant on Facebook and download The Glory EP on Bandcamp.

Throwback Thursday – “Crashings” by Falling Up

Crashings by Falling Up

I think I hit the peak of my love for alternative Christian radio in spring of 2004.  Not coincidentally, this is also when I picked up the album Crashings from Falling Up.  And I loved it. Never mind the obvious parallels with Linkin Park’s electronic-infused rock, there was still something unique about this group of guys from the Northwest.

Like many bands of the era, I think there were roughly fourteen guys on stage at any given time.  I’m exaggerating, but there were at least six, including a dedicated synthesizer player. For a pop-punk kid like myself, this was unfamiliar territory.  Still, the music married hard-hitting rock with infectious hooks, interesting sonic elements, and vaguely faith-based lyrics, so I was sold.  The production was stellar (though I unconsciously expected that of all music at the time), and it was interesting, yet accessible.  When I say the songs are “accessible,” I don’t mean that they are upbeat and happy; on the contrary, they have the weighty, somewhat dark undertone I have grown to truly love in music over the years, acknowledging the broken state of the world and its need for redemption.  At the same time, there is nothing too heavy, and the structures are somewhat straight-forward.

I don’t have a ton of particular memories of this album in my life like I do some others.  I bought the CD for my then-girlfriend for her birthday in 2004.  She was my first serious girlfriend who then left for several weeks in the summer to spend time at a church-based internship, which was crushing for my 18-year-old heart.  I do distinctly remember going to the Sunbury fireworks on the 4th of July, missing her, and sitting in the horrible traffic on the way out as I listened to Crashings in my ’96 Jetta.  I probably even keyed in on the one love song, which is a worship song depending who you ask.

I’m taking a few jabs here, but I honestly do consider Crashings a great album.  The sound is consistent yet diverse throughout the twelve tracks which speak largely of grace and redemption.  While there are some lyrical passages that are cryptic, the general message comes into focus if the listener knows the worldview of the band.  Guitar riffs and drum parts remain interesting, while electronic and keyboard elements surface just long enough to remind you that Falling Up is not a traditional rock band.  The few missteps on the album are when rap vocals suddenly burst into the otherwise melodic landscape.  To me, it comes across as trying too hard to cater to a wide audience, possibly for that radio appeal I mentioned early.  I skip those tracks altogether, especially “Jackson Five.”  On the flip side, the few places where muted, distorted screams arise in the background are awesome, even if the intent was the same.  Aside from a few places, it’s a great album full of good songs.

Over the summer, my infatuation with Falling Up waned as I discovered new music (namely UnderOath), but my college band played “Broken Heart” at our first show the following spring.  Such was the impact this album had on my musical outlook.  I think I loved that it was hard-rock enough to satisfy my need for energy, but mellow enough that the average person couldn’t complain.  For a while, Falling Up was the band I could use to find common ground with almost anyone.  Once their contract with BEC Recordings expired, they branched out into more of an experimental sound, and it’s hard to use that as common ground.

In the end, I give the band credit for blazing new trails in the Christian music scene, even as they took a somewhat popular phenomenon and made it their own.  You can find the hard-hitting, digitized sound of Crashings on Spotify and Amazon.

20,000 Scrobbles on Last.fm

delongtj Last.fm 20,000 Scrobbles

I’m a geek.  I like music.  Therefore, I love Last.fm.  If you’re not familiar with the site, it serves a couple of functions.  It is a music discovery service similar to Pandora, but it also keeps track of everything you listen to.  This wouldn’t mean much if it only tracked your activity on the site, but they provide plug-ins to “scrobble” your digital music listens in virtually any setting – desktop media players, mobile apps, and even competing music services like Spotify.  Thanks to this nifty feature, I have been tracking almost all of my music listening activity since October of 2010, and I recently hit the milestone of 20,000 scrobbles (or listens).

This is where it gets geeky.  Last.fm provides some pages to let you pore through the rich data of your listening behavior, including your top artists, top tracks, listening trends, and more.  It is bliss for a numbers nerd like myself, and it’s fun to have hard data for what you actually listen to, not just what you perceive it to be.  It’s fun for me, anyway.

Without further adieu, stats on my first 20,000 Last.fm scrobbles (or the last two and a half years of my life):

  • Began scrobbling on October 29, 2010
  • Average of 22.3 listens per day
  • Top 10 bands (in order)
    1. As I Lay Dying (1,307 plays)
    2. August Burns Red (1,053 plays)
    3. Thrice (968 plays)
    4. Emery (899 plays)
    5. UnderOath (833 plays)
    6. My Epic (645 plays)
    7. Norma Jean (615 Plays)
    8. City and Colour (569 plays)
    9. The Devil Wears Prada (567 plays)
    10. Explosions in the Sky (451 plays)
  • Top 10 songs (in order)
    1. “Anodyne Sea” by As I Lay Dying
    2. “Condemned” by As I Lay Dying
    3. “Parallels” by As I Lay Dying
    4. “Perfector” by My Epic
    5. “The Darkest Nights” by As I Lay Dying
    6. “Nothing Left” by As I Lay Dying
    7. “Dreaming in the Face of Disaster” by Deadhorse
    8. “Without Conclusion” by As I Lay Dying
    9. “Pour” by My Epic
    10. “Exiles” by Deadhorse
  • 20,000th scrobble – “Colorblind” by TwoThirtyeight

I could dig into more specific stats, but I mostly find it interesting how, apparently, I am a metalhead.  I wouldn’t have given myself that label a couple of years ago, but you can’t argue with statistics.  My top two bands are far and away heavy metal with a third (The Devil Wears Prada) rounding out the top ten.  The rest, of course, paints an accurate picture of the kind of music I listen to – nothing too cheery.  I thought other styles may feature more prominently, but it’s likely because they don’t have only a couple of artists which dominate the genre in my library.  If you dig a little deeper beyond the top ten, instrumental and alternative rock make a good showing.  Full charts of my data captured at the momentous occasion can be found here:  overview, artists, songs.

If you’re a music geek like me, be sure to check out Last.fm and its various plugins to keep track of your listening habits.  It’s a great conversation starter and a mostly effortless way to get a good picture of what exactly you listen to.

Throwback Thursday – “Holiday at Sea EP” by Party or Die!

Holiday at Sea EP by Party or Die

This album admittedly doesn’t throw it back very far (only to last year), but on a balmy and humid night such as this, it absolutely fits.  Last June I had the privilege of seeing Party or Die! perform in Nashville.  A friend of mine plays guitar for the band, but that truly has no bearing on how much I enjoy their music.  It is solid indie rock through and through.

With a name like Party or Die! one may expect dubstep or any of a number of dance-able styles.  If that’s what you want, you may be disappointed.  While the gentlemen in the group are super fun to be around, the content of this EP is quite serious at times.  It describes a series of losses and tragedies, the protagonist often questioning and reflecting.  “I thought I would find / Some peace of mind / That was a lie.”  All throughout, the honest voice of singer Patrick leads the way over well-executed clean and crunchy, over-driven guitar riffs.  Tight drums and solid bass fill out the sound while every so often taking the spotlight.  The album has a great range of dynamics for a seven-track offering, ranging from upbeat rock passages to lonely guitar and vocal sections, sometimes within the same song.  Spacey picking and group vocals make a few appearances, while a classic Telecaster sound is featured throughout.  The production isn’t perfect, but still quite good; it lends a wonderful indie charm to the album as it explores seemingly hopeless situations.

I definitely came across the music at a seemingly hopeless time in my own life, and because of this, the trajectory connected with me.  I was feeling somewhat directionless at the end of a two-year relationship.  What could possibly come next?  How would I move forward from such a crash?  I was re-evaluating so many things in my life when I first heard these songs on an early summer night in a bar in downtown Nashville.  They sank in even more on the drive home with the sunroof open.  The lyrics spoke of broken relationships, shattered dreams, and confusion.  Yet as the album progressed, there was a slow arc toward the hopeful.

The guys don’t leave us hanging.  The final track echoes with hope eternal, the catchy refrain repeating:

You took everything
And you turned it on its head
You took all our suffering
And you gave us joy instead

A solid reminder of the ultimate victory in the Gospel is exactly the place to end up after a loss and setback.  There truly is reason to hope, no matter what adversity may come our way in this life.

I was lucky enough to snag a limited, hand-stamped CD while the band was in town, and I still enjoy giving it a spin when I feel like a journey from suffering to redemption.  You can find the wonderfully-indie sounds of the Holiday at Sea EP on Bandcamp.

Throwback Thursday – “The Weak’s End” by Emery

The Weak's End by Emery

Early 2005 was a very tumultuous time in my life.  During my freshman year of college, I was in the midst of a difficult long-distance relationship which hung on by a thread at many points.  Between January and April, everything more or less fell apart in dramatic fashion.  It was during this time that I found The Weak’s End by Emery to express the exact feelings of my heart.

I had heard a couple of the singles on the radio, but they didn’t catch my attention because I wasn’t going through heartbreak, and I wasn’t listening for detail.  When I finally got around to purchasing the album, the intricately crafted songs sucked me in.  There was a strange melding of truly beautiful harmonies and pseudo-heavy soul-rending screams, unlike the more punk-influenced vocals of a band like UnderOath.  In many ways this juxtaposition perfectly expressed the sullen loneliness and explosive frustration of betrayal and abandonment in romance.

To this day, this work is tied for my favorite Emery album, along with In Shallow Seas We Sail.  As I’ve listened to it countless times over the years, I still occasionally hear nuances I had missed before.  I love that the guitar work doesn’t rely on many tricks or effects to make it interesting.  Complimentary melodies, complex chords, and feedback swells blend perfectly in most every song.  Though passages of certain songs become heavy, as I mentioned, it isn’t the macho or dark heaviness of metal or hardcore.  In some ways, it’s almost more genteel.  The instrumentation drives such sections full-force, but it’s the passionate vocal delivery, often interleaving singing and screaming, that gets the point across.  The song structures themselves retrain intriguing facets such as a prolonged synthesizer intro or sudden time signature change, which I still don’t understand how anyone could write.  All the while, bass, keys, and drums rise to the occasion, remaining interesting without distracting from the core of the music.

Lyrically, the songs deal almost exclusively with romance, often when it is on the rocks, though there are a couple of moments when matters of faith shine through.  It was definitely the former subject matter that captivated me as I went through the ups and downs of that season of my life.  “Fractions” and “The Ponytail Parades” are two of the best break-up songs ever composed, in my opinion.  Each captures the full gamut of emotions involved in such tough times, accompanied by harmonious music which builds to ferocious crescendos.  This section of dueling vocal lines from the bridge of “The Ponytail Parades” is exemplary:

How can you take all these days
(What is inside of me? What have I done?)
and throw them away
(Is this the only way that you’ll notice me?)
as I sit here waiting for you (for you)
(Dead words for closed ears – all this is sung for you)

I stay up nights
(If you’re still pretending this is what’s right)
until stars leave the sky
(Why can’t you look at me?  Can you only see)
knowing what my dreams can take away
(One side, your side, can take away?)

It’s impossible for me to believe that this record was released over nine years ago, but the fact that I still love it is a testament to the quality of Emery’s songwriting.  You can get the beautifully dynamic, bipolar sounds of The Weak’s End on Spotify or Amazon.

Jesus and the archetypical failure of society

Jesus

I’m sure that there is no shortage of work on Jesus being the archetype, the perfect example of so many things in narrative and literature.  To me, this confirms that the story of God is written on the hearts of men, not the other way around.  While other legends may contain pieces of the story of Christ, his in the context of the biblical arc is the only which fully satisfies.

In reflecting the past few days, I came across another way in which I believe the saga is unique, lacking nothing.  I was thinking about how the death of Jesus transpired.  What led to it?  What forces were at work?  It was then that I realized that three major societal forces rejected him.  Religion, government, and friendship form a major framework for culture throughout most of civilization.  I would consider them the three largest man-made institutions in history.  The obviously large influence of the family structure seems more of a natural necessity, though the form it takes is often synthetic.  All are supposed to help the individual and society flourish, yet all are so easily corruptible.  With the three largest establishments of mankind betraying him at once, Jesus truly shows humanity at its darkest.

Perhaps the institution which most blatantly opposed Jesus was the religion of his day.  It’s no secret that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were the impetus for his downfall.  Supposedly holy men conspired to eliminate him at any cost.  Indeed, the temple guard were among those that arrested him in Gethsemane.  He was tried before the religious authorities who were the first to confer a death sentence on him.  The cultural cornerstone of religion despised and destroyed the very one who would fulfill it.

Secondly, government provided the cruel mechanism by which Christ would be executed.  Since the beginning, government has been about, ideally, the right use of power.  Yet history shows again and again that it more often becomes a tool of oppression.  Rather than protecting citizens, governments just as quickly slaughter them in the name of one ideology or another.  For Rome, it was the idyllic “pax romana” which was so quick to sentence death, whether warranted or not.  While a first century Jew could hardly expect an occupying Roman governor to protect his life, Pontius Pilate appears to make such an effort for Christ.  The Gospels don’t reveal much of his motives, and the outcome is the same regardless.  Pilate exemplifies that the broken notion of human government can never truly care for people, even the completely innocent.  The representative of Rome hands Jesus over to be beaten and killed in order to keep a measure of peace in his district.  In this way, the cultural centerpiece of government disposes of the only one who will ever rightly wield power.

Lastly, the deeply personal act of friendship provides the opportunity for the larger cultural forces to strike.  Without the betrayal of Judas, a covert arrest would not have been possible.  As the other followers flee and deny him, Jesus experiences the pitiful nature of self-preservation present in all of us.  We may expect to be cast aside or abused at the hands of large, impersonal institutions, but friendship is supposed to be the pinnacle of human experience, man looking after his companion.  The intimate band of twelve were no more present after Gethsemane than any of the fair-weather followers we encounter in the Gospels, even after the perfect love Jesus had devotedly shown them for three years.  Though it is supposed to be the bastion of care for fellow man, the social anchor of friendship failed Jesus even more tragically than the others.

This struck me because God did not have to weave such a complex story of betrayal and power plays to sacrifice Jesus.  He could have died sinless any number of ways, but I believe that there is purpose in the events as they transpired.  Had Jesus simply been stoned to death for a purported violation of the Jewish Law, human government would not have been exposed for the violent sham that it is.  If he had been executed as a revolutionary, the tragedy of personal betrayal, the evil within the individual, would not have been displayed.  If he had quietly been murdered by a jealous or greedy friend, the twisted abuses of religion in the hands of man could not have been seen.  Somehow as these three forces conspired together, the wholesale brokenness of humanity is laid bare, all of us at our worst.  Through the hypocritical priest, the indifferent governor, and the malicious compatriot our best systems are shown for the hollow and hopeless attempts they are without a redeemer.

So I thank God for the depth of the story, the elaborate tapestry of events He wove to show us that we cannot save ourselves, and that given the chance, we will destroy the only one who can.  Religion, government, and friendship are little more than shadows of the perfect Kingdom until they are fully redeemed by Christ.