Justin Bieber – Under The Mistletoe

Well, the first 5 words that you read on today’s entry should indicate to you that today we are going to talk about the BAD of Christmas. Yesterday we talked about the good, so you should understand that, no matter how bad things get in THIS entry, there is always the good.

Today though, things are going to get really bad:

A look that screams 'Hello teenage girls, I AM HERE FOR YOUR SOUL *HISS*'

Justin Bieber (or Justice Beaver, a crime-fighting beaver, if you prefer) is very popularly, VERY understandably, both a target of lust for women of all ages (no matter how creepily young or old) and absolute, deserved ridicule from just about everyone else.

Still, this isn’t about hating Justin Bieber himself, because come on, everyone does that and they will continue to do that and it’s a lot better than any insults a mere blogger like myself can throw. This will be about hating his music, as soon as I actually listen to it.

The thing is, I have only heard maybe the one song that he did on his last album, which some wealthy rappers produced for him for his 13th birthday (all I got was a Ninja Turtles action figure and Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo… in many ways I still win). Basically, I am the world’s expert at avoiding music I know I’m not going to like,  but in this seedy world of practically anonymous journalism, sometimes one have to make sacrifices, and I am no exception.

So, in the spirit of something I did before that was fun, I am going to listen to Justin Bieber’s dubious holiday classic, Under The Mistletoe, for the very first time while blogging about the experience. I have never read a review on the album, and I have only Wikipedia’s dubiously factual page about it for fact-checking.

And away we go!

(Author’s Note: it should be noted that, the very second I picked up my mp3 player to press “play”, I suddenly started choking on my own spit and have just finished a monster coughing fit, so yeah, looks like we’re getting into something heavy here)

Track 1: “Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas”

Well, busting out of the gate is pretty much exactly what I was to expect from a modern teenage demographic pop song, it’s an auto-tuned disaster of this kid singing while simultaneously trying to sound “breathy”, complete with actual heavy breathing hiding in the percussion which is really creeping out this 29 year old blogger, let me assure you. I think about 5 choruses have passed by while I was busy writing that last sentence and attempting to extract that last bit of phlegm from my gullet, and now the song’s over! Praise the lord, at least that was short, only the rest of my short life to go!

Track 2: “Mistletoe”

The very instant that the acoustic guitar starts this plastic reggae piece of sterilized pop nonsense, I began vehemently cursing Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and just about any other douchey college bro who figured out that upstrokes are the easiest thing to play on an acoustic guitar while you’re drunkenly trying to hit on women, and thus made it the standard for modern romantic music, probably until the day I die, which may be today if this chorus doesn’t go away soon. Seriously, is he saying “shawty with you”? Is he even legally allowed to use the word “Shawty?” where are his parents through all this?

Wow that was bad, I may have made a terrible mistake…

Track 3: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) feat. Usher”

Oh man, that sprinkly bell thing that all pop songs have had since the 90’s. I don’t even care that that last sentence is a fragment, it says more about this song than I needed to know. The only thing more predictable than this song appearing on this album, besides the almost obscene amount of singing “around” the notes, Mariah-Carey-style, is that it features Usher. Yeah, well, so do my nightmares, and you don’t seem me making millions off of them, just an ill-advised blog entry. Wow, Justin Bieber cranks out a pretty mean guitar solo half-way through this using his speak-and-spell, not too bad at all.

Track 4: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

JUST when I was about to remark on how this track appears to be spitting on the grave of the Jackson 5 (if all 5 Jacksons were replaced with robots), Bieber comes in with this “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING GURL, WOO” and I had to stop the recording to sit here and HATE THAT with all my concentration. Otherwise, yeah this song is pretty much spitting on SOMEONE’S grave, because I can’t imagine who would do this to anyone in the name of love, though I guess that guy that shot John Lennon thinks he was doing a good thing? Anyway, this song also features one of those horrible R&B talk-downs half-way through, and I am pretty sure I’m losing the vision in my left eye.

My fingers are now poised over the phone, having dialed 9 and 1, and if this next track doesn’t pick things up I am going to have to put this review on hold and hit that other 1.

Track 5: “Fa La La feat. Boyz 2 Men”

Speaking of things that killed Motown, Boyz 2 Men make an appearance on this complete mess of random syllables (which makes sense since “Fa La La” aren’t technically words) making Bieber sound like a eunuch version of the Decepticon Soundwave. Understand, however, as someone who was watching Transformers at the age in which Bieber made his first billion dollars, that the actual Soundwave is all man.

Track 6: “All I Want For Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!)” feat. Mariah Carey

Well! Speak of the devil and the washed up singer he stole his vocal vamping and upper octave range from, Bieber does a duet with Mariah Carey here about how much they want to bone each other (no surprise there, that’s what every single other song in this album has been so far), and I shouldn’t have to point out that he is 17 and she’s 41 and that’s really creepy, so instead I will point out something even better: Mariah Carey’s own best-selling Christmas album called Merry Christmas was released November 1st, 1994, the year Justin Bieber was born. In fact, THIS VERY ALBUM was released on 11/1, the 17th year anniversary of her album, which might be considered creepy and sinister, but in fact most Christmas albums come out around that time so yeah. I just really needed something to distract me from the rest of this song because this is truly awful.

Track 7: “Drummer Boy feat. Busta Rhymes”

Now, being a bit of a Christmas music hater, so I don’t have any special attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy”, especially since it’s not really a hymn, despite what people may think. Thus, I am not mad that Bieber does his stupid auto-tune vocal scale warmup on the traditionally staccato “Parumpa pum pum” (which is supposed to emulate a drum, you idiot, drums don’t do scales!), nor am I even upset at the inclusion of a rapper doing some truly awful things to the institution of rhyming and shouting in between lines pretending the other vocal track can hear him, as I have always theorized that Justin Bieber is a tool that the R&B/Rap community are using in order to get revenge on white people. No, what upsets me about this song is that it’s supposed to be about a kid who drums because he’s too poor to do anything else for Jesus, and so Bieber doing this song implies that, having a similar background, the original drummer boy must have struck it big on Youtube and become an evil prepubescent millionaire for the his act of percussive generosity, when really he probably just remained poor for the rest of his life and had to tell that Jesus-smiling-at-him story to his disinterested grandchildren as the only thing interesting that ever happened to him. It just makes me mad that it couldn’t have been the reverse, is all.

Track 7: “Christmas Eve”

Now that we’re done hearing Bieber rap about how great he is at the drums and how he should be canonized into the damn Bible, we’re back to a confusing mess of notes about how much he wants to get laid on Christmas. I’m sure you can work that into your schedule of featuring formerly popular musicians and appearing in court for Paternity suits, kid, so buck up! I love the line “I don’t need no presents, gurl, you’re everything I need”, as if Justin Bieber would otherwise require presents. What would you even get a 17 year old kid who’s been given a free ride to the top? An abortion of the illegitimate fetus of his choice?

Wow I’m getting mean; that means the album must almost be over!

Track 8: “All I Want Is You”

We’re now at the 3rd song (or is it 4th? or All Of The Above?) about how all Bieber wants for Christmas is YOU, person who purchased his album. Seriously, remember that line I quoted above? Here’s the first line from this chorus: “Any I don’t care if I don’t get anything; all I need is you here right now”, exactly how much do you need to pound that point in Bieber? I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that this album wasn’t written by Rick Derringer and they just replaced all the references to America with Christmas and Gurl.

Track 9: “Home This Christmas feat. The Band Perry”

I don’t know who The Band Perry is, but they really should win a Grammy for “band that somehow managed to completely un-change a Bieber song”. About the only thing I can tell that separates this song from the previous 8 is that there’s a live drum set being played flaccidly by a drummer who will probably do nothing else in life except tell his disinterested grandchildren about how he drummed once for Justin Bieber… for a smile.

Track 10: “Silent Night”

I am starting this track up and hearing a sedated Bieber singing what seems like a straight version of this song (except he does an intentional pause after the word “virgin” and I don’t know what to make of that). I am expecting there to be some kind of rap segment or auto-tuned background singers singing about how he’s totally going to get some on this silent night yo gurl.

COME ON SONG, how could you fail in your task this fantastically? Well, at least each line ends abruptly so Bieber can try and pronounce the next word on the page and let the echoey bits trail off and remind all of us that this is still part of a terrible pop album and not some random, displaced bit of sincerity in this monster of an album.

AND IT’S FINISHED! PRAISE THE LORD (no I didn’t get the special edition, I’m no fool!)

Now that I’ve made it through to the other side of that train-wreck, I am now able to confirm a suspicion I’ve had ever since this Bieber kid and Lady Gaga and all them became the biggest economic forces in music:

Basically, the world as we know it is ending.

Oh, we’ve heard about it for a while, but with the world economy treading thin ice, the music industry collapsing, the world of retail cannibalizing its own limbs in an effort to stay alive for just one more holiday season, we’re staring straight into the face of an entire world of entertainment that was meant to  provide us with a good, general distraction from our daily lives, panicking and flailing under the pressure of today’s internet-based culture, where we can be entertained by anything we want, whether it was recorded in the past or in the present at the great expense of some rappers who are on their way out anyway.

In the face of that, the entertainment industry is trying its hardest to manufacture anything that will sell, and can no longer take any risks or do anything interesting that might be less popular than the last thing. Thus, we have “safe” Justin Bieber crooning his thinly veiled songs about getting laid, we have “safe” Lady Gaga who rakes in millions by cultivating a shock image without actually doing anything shocking, we’ve got retail stores and Starbucks hanging up their Christmas decorations/shopping reminders on Oct. 1st, and we’ve got all the soul and sincerity and warmth of what’s supposed to be a single day of loving your family, thinking of Jesus (if that’s what you do), and eating a lot of food and giving/getting gifts, completely stripped away and set aside until the world feels comfortable with celebrating love instead of money. When that day comes, maybe someone who sings about Christmas and really means it will go to the top, but until then, we get to either laugh, cry, or hate on artists like Bieber until they too get swept under the rug.

Or alternatively, we can just forget about all that and have a kickass party, so stay tuned for TOMORROW’s entry when we leave this depressing ghost of Christmas Presents and bring the hope back to Christmas. Stay tuned, and happy holidays!

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Smalltown Poets – Christmas

In lieu of updating this thing 12 times with 12 different Christmas albums in a theme I like to call “Chris is starting to show OCD tendencies”, I decided to update 3 times this week with 3 different Christmas albums. They will represent the Good, the Bad, and the Twisted*, and believe me, there is nothing I’ve needed more this year than something Good in Christmas music, which is why today’s entry is about an album that I still can’t believe exists, Smalltown Poets Christmas:

I get it now! Smalltown Poets was his SLED

Why would a Smalltown Poets album about Christmas be such a surprise? Well, as I might have mentioned before, the band has been on hiatus for 7 years. That’s longer than I’ve even been in bands (well, good ones anyway), so it’s like being visited by the ghost of Christian Rock past.

Still, the thing that finally brought them all back together after so long was making a Christmas album, so it stands to reason that it wound up being a pretty good Christmas album, right?

Yeah, try the best Christmas album ever.

Now, you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I have about the institution (I’m saving that for tomorrow), I will re-iterate that  Christmas music has a habit of being very cheeseball and almost incoherent in the face of the rather broad cultural changes that occurred between the 50’s and today. I am almost sure that at least 3 generations grew up wondering why Jingle Bell Rock doesn’t actually rock (because that’s what they HAD for “rock” back in the 50’s).

In the glut of overdone Bing Crosby hits, hideous novelty songs, and the rank odor of popular artists “cashing in” on the holiday with their own take on Christmas, one may begin to crave, even ache for, some piece of genuine Christmas love that touches the soul and reminds us, as a TV special once did, what the true meaning of Christmas is. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I am about to tell you about an album that does just that!

Christmas opens up with guitar feedback, which may seem unsettling, but don’t worry, they’ve got this under control. You then hear church bells (how I love church bells in music), and just as this seemingly epic song starts to swell, it all simply goes away, and in its place, a piano starts playing “The Carol of the Bells”, but immediately after that, a voice starts singing “O Come O Come Emmanuelover the tune to Carol of the Bells. It almost seems unfair that a Christmas song can be that awesome, but that floored me about this recording, and we’re not even a minute into the song.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the OTHER instruments burst into the song and give it a full rock band sound for like a second, and then mostly disappear for another verse, comes back in again, and then disappears entirely so that Michael Johnston’s amazing voice (which sounds just as good if not better than it did in 1997) takes a chorus entirely unaccompanied, then suddenly the song becomes a verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which gave this old Calvinist chills.

In listening to this album, expect amazing moments like this to pop up with absolutely no warning. On top of these smooth and introspective interpretations of classic hymns, Smalltown Poets took it upon themselves to refer to other songs within the songs, and you’ll find yourself wishing that these parts were actually longer, which is surely the sign of a good recording.

Speaking of good, the second track of the album is “In The Bleak Midwinter“, which, while listening to the album without looking at the CD liner notes, I was SURE was a Smalltown Poets original, as it’s a beautiful poem contained in this heart-breaking melody, but no! It’s totally a hymn (based on a 19th century poem, no less!) from 1906! How did they find an awesome Christmas hymn that I have somehow never heard before?

Still, there is no shortage of well-known hymns given the modern rock treatment. In particular, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel” (the latter featuring a really cool drum part from Byron Goggins) are given the full rock band treatment, but certainly not to their detriment; in fact, the backing parts doing an amazing job reminding one that these old familiar melodies are actually still really strong, and nothing is going to get in their way.

I will say this, however, the backing parts and re-arrangements (many of which are credited to Danny Stephens, SP’s errant keyboardist, boy am I glad he’s back) actually help some of the hymns that I feel don’t really stand on their own otherwise. I’ve never been a big fan of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with its traditionally bouncy 2/4 brashness, but Smalltown Poets slow it down, add some tasty Kevin Breuner guitar goodness and a cool groove from bassist Miguel DeJesus and drummer Byron Goggins, and then throw in an almost secret taste of “Silent Night” to make this song a real stand-out on the album. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.

In fact, speaking of the “Silent Night” interval, one of the most interesting things about this album is how satisfied it seems with simply reminding us of certain songs without actually playing them all the way through. “We Three Kings“, “Angels We Have Heard On High“, and others are only introduced briefly before giving way to something else. I am fascinated by this, because it seems to me that, instead of being this showcase of the band saying “Look what we can do!” by making a huge production out of every song, the album is just this kind of fluid journey through these beautiful yuletide melodies, and even without singing the words, you understand what is being said here. Then the band gets back into the full-form songs and they just become  all that much better.

Possibly my favorite hymn to receive a much-needed rearrangement is “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (especially after Dylan’s version, yeesh). I am not kidding when I say I may have been cutting onions during the first 4 or 5 listens of this song, but the lyrics to the song are incredible, and the Poets even include my favorite verse that seems to go unnoticed in other versions, so kudos to the boys for that one.

Another great thing about this album is that there actually are original songs to be heard. They’re given almost no spotlight (and, in fact, you may mistaken them for the traditional songs like I did), but are nonetheless excellent. “On Christmas Day” is kind of a reworking of Ave Maria (which I’m not too familiar with, being Protestant, but it’s a good tune) that has some great lyrics, and the penultimate track is “His Delight“, which is a great kind of folky song that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Speaking of wrapping one’s head around something, there is an almost uncharacteristically bouncy track close to the middle of the album called “St. Nick Is Alright” which evokes both memories of SP’s second album (which I need to get on here soon) and The Beatles during that magical mystery era (at least at the end). It’s a sweet song, and it’s always interesting to hear a Christian group essentially singing about Santa Claus, but they handle it so gracefully that it then becomes something to ponder further, which is something I’ve almost never done with a Christmas song, much less one about St. Nick. As impressive as this album is, I am not surprised in the least to find myself hearing the songs multiple times to find some more hidden ideas and meaning, until I think of it as a Christmas album again and notice that Christmas will be over next week.

Thus, Smalltown Poets have performed what I can only describe as a Christmas Miracle; they recorded a Christmas album that I am going to sorely miss when the season is over. From beginning to end, this is a superior album by any standard, and is a bright spot in anyone’s existence, especially if they find themselves brought down by what Christmas has become thanks to modern culture, which I will get to soon enough, but for now, thank you, Smalltown Poets, for bringing Christmas its soul back.

I seriously can’t wait for these guys to record another album of originals, and if this recording is an indication, they may be able to outdo even their earliest work, which would be awesome. Until then, please check out Christmas and give it a purchase or two, and make it part of your Christmas antidote for yet another rendition of “White Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red Nose-I can’t even finish that title”. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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*Note: I never did write this third entry. There’s always Christmas 2012 I guess! 

King Crimson – Lizard

Greetings, fellow persons!

Sorry about the delay in updates, but this whole week was spent doing some awesome stuff like “modding” my Mp3 player to do amazing things like play video game soundtracks and Bejeweled on top of its already awesome audiophilic capabilities (I’m totally a FLAC fiend now). Also I had to do holiday shopping, attend parties and, oh yeah, finally obtain some gainful employment, since this blog doesn’t pay for itself unfortunately.

Thus, it’s been a hectic, confusing, yet ultimately rewarding week for me, so I have decided to top it all off with an album that… well ok I selected this at random, but here you go, King Crimson’s Lizard:

Yeah keep telling me you miss the olden days of album covers. I'm listening.

While looking back at old entries of this here blog, I was surprised at first that I never wrote about this album, but then I remembered the very important reason why: I had no idea what to say about it.

All I could remember about my first listen to Lizard was NOTES and then NOOOOTES (Notes). I really don’t think any coherent thought entered my mind in the 42 1/2 minutes of the album’s run-time, which is odd because this blog might show you that I have a lot of thoughts about music usually.

Fast-forward a year or so, and something magical happened: a guy from a prog group called Porcupine Tree decided to work with Robert Fripp to painstakingly remaster, from the original master tapes, ALL of the King Crimson catalogue. Despite this being a very good idea, since master tape remasters are practically the only way to get these ancient albums to sound good on modern mp3/vgm/Bejeweled players, it was also kind of a predictable idea, since King Crimson had already issued 30th AND 35th Anniversary remasters of their old material. Still, from the master tapes, maaaaan.

Among the first albums to be remastered, quite mysteriously, was Lizard, so this is where I gave Lizard what I would consider my first true listen. Then again. Then again. Then again… to be honest, I’m not done listening to it, but at least I’ve finally formulated enough opinions to write a blog entry!

Fact is, I had so much trouble coming up with a single coherent thought about the album because there isn’t a single coherent thought IN the album. I have now listened to the album dozens, possibly hundreds of times, and I know every single note by heart, but I can’t begin to try and guess why any two of them are put together the way they are.

Of course, the 40th anniversary re-issue of the album comes with some  pretty interesting liner notes (penned by Fripp himself) which, when paired with the Internet, paints a rather interesting story about the album’s production.

Without going into too much detail about the band’s personnel problems in those early days between 1967 and 2009, I will say that King Crimson were basically like watching a typical teenage garage band go through the motions of getting together, going nowhere, and breaking up, except instead of that middle bit, you’ve got “becomes the biggest rock band in the world for a while”. Despite having the world in the palm of their hands through a combination of VERY quickly cultivating a uniquely complex sound the likes of which had never been heard, showcasing extraordinary musicianship with even more extraordinary focus on music rather than image, and as Fripp put it himself, being in the right place at the right time, King Crimson simply could NOT get started on that crawling thing before they were already running.

At the time that Lizard was being recorded, they had already lost vocalist/bassist/donut fiend Greg Lake to a little-known band whose name escapes me at the moment, and that was after losing everybody else as well. Basically, Fripp was a man without a band (but his non-musician lyricist remained, more on that later), so he decided to rebuild from scratch.

Apparently Fripp didn’t get the memo that you’re not supposed to include a jazz pianist and four woodwind/brass players in your hard rock band, so that’s exactly what he did. Still, if you were the only member of a garage band that left you and the only other musicians you know from school are in the marching band, are you going to say no?  Also joining the fray is, not kidding, his actual highschool bandmate/roommate Gordon Haskell on bass and vocals, and the only drummer he could find who would take part in this mess, a hero by any standard named Ian McCulloch.

With this motley crew of masterful musicians, Fripp finally had a force to be reckoned with; a band that would record an album that, maybe this time, would not sound quite so much like a repeat of In The Court.

Well, it sure wasn’t a repeat of In The Court, in sound or amount of success, but the fact that the album even happened is perhaps even more a miracle than the huge success that was the band’s first album. Basically, let’s just say that collecting such an assorted cast of kids did not lead to a lot of civilized agreement of ideas, and when your vocalist/bassist is only good at one of those things and doesn’t even like the music, well… let’s talk about the music!

It starts off with some synthy kind of harp strumming sounds, which is not bad, and then Haskell’s voice kind of staggers into the door spilling cough medicine (the type that they ban in most countries) all over the place, and your first thought might well be “Dude, do you need to lie down or turn on a humidifier or something?” And then he punches you and you can hear the wail of ambulance sirens as the paramedics revive you and, oh wait, that’s just Fripp’s guitar playing brash, diminished bits on his guitar as Gordon’s voice comes back in with all the clarity of a wet shoe.

Still, it’s hard to tell what’s more congested, Gordon’s voice or Peter Sinfield’s lyrics. The first track is called “Cirkus” (back before Mortal Kombat made it decidedly un-cool to replace c’s with k’s willy-nilly), and is full of rather obnoxious words strung together by pure pretense, which would seem like faulty songwriting if not for the fact that the same can be said about the music itself.

The material gets even more ridiculous afterward, in fact the song “Indoor Games” ends with a genuine burst of laughter from Haskell as he attempts to figure out how best to emotionally deliver the line “Hey ho”. An understandable bemusement, to tell the truth. Add to this some rather intriguing clean guitar riffs trading off with the saxophone, and you’ve got a song that is by no means bad, if bad songs are something you like.

The next song, “Happy Family“, doesn’t feature any corpsing, but does contain some thinly-veiled allegorical statements about The Beatles, a somewhat well-known rock band from whom Fripp apparently derived the idea to make an entire band around recreating the musical shock that was the ending to Sgt. Pepper. To be honest, the lyrics might be terrible in this piece as well, but Gordon’s voice is so well hidden behind a rather tasty synthesizer effect (plus his own natural store of phlegm and wintertime nuts) that, mercifully, not a word can be understood by humans.

After all that fun nonsense, we go into WHOAH WHERE DID THAT FLUTE COME FROM… I mean, “Lady of the Dancing Water”, a song that calms the storm of weirdness either to prepare the listener for what is to come, or to try and make up for the rather melody-free events that had previously transpired. It’s a very pretty song, but I wish anyone other than Gordon Haskell had sung it, because seriously somebody give him a shot of adrenaline; I think he’s had some kind of reaction.

Finally, the fifth and final track of the CD (or the entire B side to the record) is a 23 minute opus called “Lizard”, wherein Gordon Haskell was kindly shuffled off the roster to make room for a real singer, Yes’s own castrato sensation Jon Anderson. Funny enough, after several songs’ worth of passages go by, Gordon breaks back into the studio to sing for a bit before disappearing forever and ever, missing and presumed eaten by bears.

So I have written all of this to kind of give you a sense of the chaos that has unfolded in this album, but did you see that bit up there where I said I listened to it again and again? That’s because I completely love this album.

Seriously! Sure I may idolize strong melodies, and some of my very favorite songs can be played within a single octave on a piano, but something in my brain simply becomes obsessed when weirdness, the abstract, obtuse, endlessly and needlessly complex musical ideas come into play, and boy do they come in with this album.

Your average music listener, even one who otherwise enjoys King Crimson and their razor’s edge approach to pushing the envelope into the seat of their pants, will probably detest Lizard for any number of good reasons. It sounds out of tune, it hunkers down into rather long passages of go-nowhere note tinkling, hell, it sounds like Jazz in places, but the confusion and befuddlement is what keeps me coming back for more. The anticipation of another sequence of bewildering notes is a rush to me, and thanks to the amazing remastering job in the most recent re-release, the textures and tones really sing out in a good set of headphones. All 23 minutes of the album’s ending track keeps me thoroughly entertained, which turned out to be really good training for becoming an actual Yes fan, turns out.

I truly can’t knock this album for what it is, because it really shouldn’t have been, and I am so glad it was anyway. Apart from being musically one of the most interesting things I’ve heard, it’s also a rather clear window into a band that was falling apart before it even came together, and sure enough, only 1 member of the band remained to help Fripp through the next album, and it was the damn flute player.

Also, in true garage band fashion, when drummer Ian McCulloch left the group, he was immediately replaced with his ex-roommate, who could also play the drums. God bless King Crimson.

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Armcannon – Armcannon 2: Return Of The Attack Of The Legend Of Pizzor + Interview!

Today, one of the truly awesome bands in the Video Game Music “scene” released a super cool video of their newest song, a mash-up of music from the game Gears of War and the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, (specifically the REM version) which the company that published Gears of War famously used in their TV advertisement:

Watching this video (which I suggest you do!) tells you almost everything you need to know about Armcannon; they’re clever, adept at their instruments, metaltastic, funny, and they do music from video games.

They are easily one of my favorite groups to have run across at various points in my own doings.

Let’s talk about their almost-second-newest album, Armcannon 2: Return of the Attack of the Legend of Pizzor!

Get equipped with: Mega Pizza Boots!

It’s almost unfair to call the band a “VGM band” (in fact, I am not even sure the band calls itself that), because while this album is MOSTLY about video games, it’s bookended by two covers of ultra-famous themes from anyone’s 80’s childhood.

The first is the theme to the original “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” (titled “Morty Miphon” in one of MANY spoonerisms used by the band when making titles). I guess it COULD be argued that it COULD be a cover of the theme from the Super Nintendo game based on the TV show, but let’s be realistic here.

On top of being sped up and metal’d up to be the kind of kickin’ rock anthem that makes the perfect beginning to an album/show/birthday party, it features something you don’t often hear with “Video Game” themed albums: mighty vocal work! Guitarist Mike Willard does an awesome job impersonating the show’s antagonist, Rita Repulsa, while simultaneously holding down those sweet guitar riffs and those timeless lyrics.

After everyone’s favorite TV theme, the video game tunes start, interestingly enough, with one of the creepier tunes to ever come out of Nintendo’s flagship composer, Koji Kondo: the “fortress” theme from Super Mario World, titled “X-1234” here.

This track is an excellent reproduction of one of my favorite moments in 16 bit gaming*, and really showcases keyboardist Chris Dlugosz, as it should.

Keeping the Mario going is a lovely medley of one of my favorite video game soundtracks, Super Mario Bros. 2 (“Two Excellent Italian Brothers“), which shows the band’s affinity not just for metal, but other styles as well. This song also draws attention to something else Armcannon does a little differently from other bands in their area of music: original solos and breakdowns. The solos are quite good and avoid deftly the trap of being too laborious (unless you just don’t like solos at all, in which case, shame on you).

Half-way through the album, the band pays tribute to the unquestionably American (and questionably awesome) songwriting of Rick Derringer with the Hulk Hogan theme “Real American”, which then gives way to Shawn Michaels’ theme song “Sexy Boy”. I don’t know much about wrestling (though I know enough about Hulk Hogan’s songwriter), but one only needs to love INSPIRATION to enjoy this song.

Now for my favorite part of the album! After the wrestling montage (I always picture a montage with that song) comes the band’s tribute to one of my favorite video games, Rygar on the NES (titled here simply “Rygar Medley“) which includes one of my favorite VGM songs ever, the Sagila’s Cave theme, and DOESN’T include one of the worst VGM songs ever, “Palace of Dorago” (seriously try keeping that melody from turning into the “Meow Mix” song in your head).

The band also uses this part of the album to cover music from Contra, Mega Man 2 (A really funky version of the Crash Man theme, and the first Dr. Wily stage theme, which is like the “Brick House” of video game bands), Castlevania 3, and perhaps best of all, Kid Icarus, the very best video game in which you can turn into an eggplant because of magic (and was originally composed by my hero, “Hip” Tanaka).

The band finishes out with a very spirited version of one of the best movie themes ever, Huey Lewis I MEAN Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”, which let me tell you, really brings down the house, whether in an actual house or just nice headphones like what I’m wearing.

After the band stuff and cover stuff is over and done with, the 12th track on this excellent album is an original chiptune composition by guitarist and VGM-jack-of-all-trades Dan Behrens, who moonlights as “Danimal Cannon” in the VGM inverse universe of “Chiptune**”.

As for Armcannon, their second album is about the most fun you can have with a video game band, and the best part is that they branch out of that and into all kinds of areas of artistic and rocking, and even have plans on evolving their abilities into something entirely original, which has this blogger all kinds of excited. You would be a fool not to buy this album immediately and tell all your friends, so I will leave you to that…

…but not before showing you an interview I conducted with Armcannon’s co-founder and keyboardist, Chris Dlugosz!

Chris Taylor: Firstly, thanks to Chris Dlugosz from Armcannon for answering these questions that burn in the hearts of music lovers everywhere. My first question is: How did Armcannon come about, and how will it all end?

Chris Dlugosz: There was a particular lounge room in college with couches and a TV in which dozens of people regularly hung out between classes. Many were so regular that they all just became well acquainted friends over time. this included myself and Danimal [who had hair back then haha]. During a typical day of lunch-hour-esque chatter, he and I discovered that we both held a particular love in our hearts for the Kraid theme from Metroid ever since childhood. Naturally, that sparked all kinds of hyperactive discussion of the playing of videogame music. This was around the time where only the minibosses existed. Another friend in this lounge was our guitarist Mike, who had pretty much zero interest in videogame music, but infinite interest in anything to do with playing guitar, as he is indeed virtuosic and still laboring hard at all of the disciplines to this day. Soon enough, the three of us found ourselves in my dad’s house, and we hammered out a sketch rendition of Kraid, the official first Armcannon song. We felt the energy of potential, so we nabbed the closest bassist and drummer at hand, and practiced in a freezing cold dirty apartment attic for months. Armcannon will not end, but the trend of videogame music might be past its prime. I can see us keeping our name but morphing into an original prog music band.

CT: In my own opinion, you guys are made up of some of the most individually talented musicians in the VGM community, and the recordings definitely showcase that. Was it a conscious decision from the start to include things like original solos and breakdowns within the structure of the original material?

CD: It was 2005 when we formed, and during that time, the word “remix” was huge in the budding world of video game music. We kept calling our songs remixes, and intentionally stayed away from “covers.” Naturally, the word remix demands insertion of new content, and not just crappy techno beats over midi files. Our goal was to wrangle down our flood of original content into something that appropriately amplifies and celebrates the covered melody. We are not even fully successful at that, as I consider some of our original content too superfluous. Thankfully, part of our mission is to make the music enjoyable to non-VGM listeners as well.

CT: Something that kind of sets Armcannon apart from other VGM groups, as far as I can tell, is a very obvious sense of fun when it comes to the material, such as the vocal parts added to the music of “Tecmo Super Bowl” and Crashman’s Theme. Is there any kind of planning behind this, or is it a spontaneous thing?

CD: Much of the time at practice, we all act like idiots, intentionally make glaring errors in the middle of a song for the distinct purpose of making the rest of the band crack up at the absurdity. There are times when entire songs are played intentionally wrong by every member of the band and we are just cracking up endlessly. It’s only hilarious because of its mis-behavior, similar to a 5th grader writing the number 5318008 on a calculator and turning it upside down. Naturally, scraps of this behavior have survived into the final cut of some songs. Some stupid gimmick ends up being hilarious every single time, but gradually gets less hilarious, and eventually becomes literally as normal as the rest of the song, but at that point, removing it would be like re-writing the song.

CT: Another thing that sets Armcannon apart is the emphasis on puzzles and intellectual references. The secret track on Leg Vacuum has to do with note sequence algorithms and most of the tracks on both albums are titled with spoonerisms and anagrams. My question is: who is the professor of the group responsible for this chicanery and why?

CD: That would be me. My instinct was to fill the entire album, both in audio and art, with easter eggs, or secrets to be discovered. That goes hand in hand with the spirit of old NES games. Invisible mushroom blocks in mario or bomb-able cave entrances in Zelda. Meanwhile, I have been literally addicted to spoonerisms over this last decade, and the addiction has spilled forth to the rest of the band, to the point that it’s almost our signature mannerism, as we constantly interrupt conversations to insert a half amusing, half belabored, spoonerism of something that was just said. We take our music very seriously, but we never once cared what the titles to our tracks are, so the only things guiding me on what to call them was our tomfoolery and addiction to word play.

CT: I want to give some big props to whoever decided to cover Rygar and Kid Icarus on Armcannon 2. What, if any, is the criteria for VGM material selection?

CD: Rygar came from our guitarist Mike (Willard) who never actually played the game, but watched someone else play through it enough that the music permated him as a child, and he brought it to the table at band practice. Criteria for song selection is [1] based on if myself, Danimal, and Mike happen to all know the music already, and [2] a process of one person knowing the piece, and selling it to the rest of the band, usually in the form of plugging in a laptop or smartphone into the amps and just playing the source material. There have been many times where we just sit there for an hour and a half listening to song after song of source material from one entire game, cherry picking what we would love to play, and mashing it together into a medley. That is precisely how we did Tecmo Super Bowl, Rygar, and Ninja Gaiden, among others. It’s extremely helpful that I have every NES and SNES audio rom file on my droid.

CT: Being that this is an album blog, what is your favorite album?

CD: Particular favorites changes constantly. but I can tell you that the only thing we all listen to together is pretentious over-composed brain-bending prog-metal and jazz-fusion. Musician’s music.

CT: Being that you guys are mostly a video game group, what is your favorite game?

CD: Mine was always Super Metroid for a myriad of the usual reasons. Mindblowing at the time. Perfect establishment of amazing moods. Music that will never be matched. One of the pinnacles of sidescrolling action.

CT: Separate from favorite game, what is everyone’s favorite VGM soundtrack and/or composer?

CD: Danimal and I are complete suckers for every single note written by Tim Follin. Our bassist Ian, who is much younger than us, treasures SNES the way we treasure NES. He loves every bit of the music to A Link to the Past, and I cannot say I disagree with him there. Also, I consider Koji Kondo’s arrangement of the castle music in Super Mario World to be one of his most delicious and audacious works, probably because it is decidedly dastardly in mood compared to the rest of his work.

CT: How do you feel about the recent news that Nobuo Uematsu is going to be rocking out at MAGfest, a festival normally reserved for VGM bands that DIDN’T write all their own material?

CD: I consider his attendance utterly appropriate, and impressive that the Magfest staff, all of whom I know personally, managed to swing this. However, I fear that his presence might suck up too much focus of the convention. It’s like God coming to a Jesus camp. I would not be surprised if the guy gets overwhelmed with rabid fans and does not want to return. Also, get ready for every band there to bust out every Final Fantasy track they got, because obviously Mr. Uematsu will be watching every band perform, right?

CT: Any plans for Armcannon 3?

CD: MANY! The core of the band is myself, Danimal, and Mike. We spent the last few years wrestling with securing a bassist and then a new drummer. They are finally in place and practiced up, and we are back to the writing phase. We all feel that if we do not kick out a new album, one that blows our other work out of the water, then we are just wasting our time. Armcannon 3 is mandatory and is already happening.

Thanks again to Armcannon for their awesome albums and to Chris Dlugosz for giving this interview. Go buy their stuff!

Hey all, Chris Taylor here. Liked this article? Why not “Like” Album Du Jour on Facebook! Also, should you be interested, I have a Video Game Music project of my own, also on Facebook.  


*The realization that, holy crap, the Super Nintendo can do 3D-looking transparent effects when you punch the doors on the inexplicably-placed fence.

**If you don’t know what “chiptune” is, it’s basically a song written and played entirely on 8-bit soundcards, so it’s kind of like Gameboy meets modern song, and Dan actually just released an entire album of this awesome stuff on the Ubiktune label (check it out here!)

Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Well, to some of you who may have read my entry on the “final” Johnny Cash album toward the end of the 2009 project, you may remember me saying something that “that closes the book on Johnny Cash”, but it looks like I was wrong! American Recordings put out an album for Cash’s 78th birthday this last February, and wow did they ever save the best for last. Think “Hurt” is the best he could do*? Think “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” was the best “farewell” song to a performer’s life since “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile”? Well think again, because American VI: Ain’t No Grave blows all of those out of the water!

And if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d be interested in showing you, to borrow an old idiom.

Speaking of borrowing something old:

Man he wasn't looking half-bad for a man in his 70's.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, American VI is a fantastic album, and one of the highlights of 2010 for me. I can’t knock this album on any level, but there’s no use trying to hide the fact that it’s an album for a certain kind of Johnny Cash fan, which is what I would consider myself. I’ll explain.

There is this company called Bear Family out in Germany who, for folks like me, are a God-send; their main thing is to collect every Cash studio tape they can get their hands on, and come out with these amazingly comprehensive (and equally expensive) box sets of everything Johnny Cash recorded in a certain time period. Are you the kind of person who would purchase such a set and revel in the lost studio recordings that never made it onto the properly planned albums, just because it’s Johnny Cash singing a song you hadn’t heard him sing yet?

If so, congratulations! You owe it to yourself and your creepy obsession with The Man In Black to buy American VI, so go do it. 

For the rest of you weirdos, I’ll explain what there is to like about the album, and I’ll try my best to empathize with those of you who aren’t totally into everything Johnny Cash ever did as best I can, and tell you what you might NOT like about the album.

As you turn the album on and the acoustic guitars gently weep out some sad minor chords, you may be struck with a sort of sense that you have heard this before, and indeed, as soon as the 2/4 stomp comes in (complete with chain rattling foley!), you realize that “Ain’t No Grave” is basically the same structure and mood as the single off his previous album, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (only thankfully without the modern pop stars and celebrities goofing up the thing with their stupid mugs). Not only do those songs sound pretty close, but you may notice the video, a smattering of old archival videos and photographs, seems pretty similar to the video for “Hurt“, only without the emotional appeal and the subtle story being told by the mix of old imagery with new.

That video and song pretty much represents what you might not like about this album. It’s less of a cohesive story or collection of songs meant to convey Cash’s emotional state, but really more of a collection of stuff put together in such a way as to pass the requisite time and give people who want to hear Cash a little something more to hear. Now, since the man has been dead for almost 10 years, having any new content is something to be thankful for (and trust me I am thankful), but if you are expecting the same tear-inducing melancholy from any of the other American albums (especially IV and V), this album may come up a bit short at best and, at worst, derivative of Rick Rubin’s much better production work on the other albums.

Man, even WRITING that seems harsh to me, so I am going to cut that out and talk about the good stuff on this album, as there is plenty of that.

For one, the minor chord weepy guitars don’t end at “Ain’t No Grave”, in fact they continue right on into one of the stand-out tracks, “Redemption Day“, which is one of those kind of songs I probably would not like if it wasn’t Cash singing it, since it’s actually a Sheryl Crow song and is by far the “youngest” song that Cash covers in this set of songs.  As it stands, it’s a very good song, and conveys very well Johnny’s life-long message of sin vs. redemption, plus the instrumentation that accompanies the song is quite appropriate, as it is for the rest of the songs, really, so you’re off the hook this time, Rubin.

Another essential part of this album is in its lone original track, which Cash penned based on the Bible verse “Corinthians 15:55“. While it’s not nearly as original as “Like The 309”, in some ways I like it better. I think the main reason is because it sounds like an authentic old Baptist hymn, and I love those songs a lot. As the verse goes, Cash begs the question “O Death, where is thy sting?” which is his old-religion way of fearlessly recognizing the end of his life, and to those of us who may have a ways to go, it’s quite an inspirational number.

Speaking of inspiration, I was happy that the formerly-Kill-Bill-exclusive “A Satisfied Mind” wound up on this release, because I quite enjoyed that song but don’t dig those kinds of films.

Something interesting about that song (originally a Porter Wagoner song) and indeed the rest of the album is that it’s actually the most “Country” of the later American albums, which is something I definitely count as a positive in this album. Although I definitely concede that Cash could make his own any song he was interested in, but his love for Country music was quite obvious, and definitely comes out in the performance.

One thing that kind of surprised me, however, was that Cash re-worked an old classic he had taken on years ago with “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream“, which serves as the penultimate song on the album. It’s a rather cute folk-ish song about the author dreaming that war had ended, and it’s quite the classic (according to my SECRET internet sources, it’s been translated to over 70 languages around the world). The interesting thing about the song’s inclusion is that, despite it being written in 1950 (possibly in response to the Korean War), Cash covered it in the early 70’s while he was protesting the Vietnam War, and indeed using it in 2002 (when he recorded it) can be seen as a response to the “War on Terror” or war in Iraq or whatever you want to call it (“Overseas Contingiency Operation”? Anyone?), and indeed, when the album came out in 2010 and even as I write this, that war is STILL going on, and the song takes on a new meaning and urgency with every moment that passes. Just think, if the war had ended, it’s possible that song might not have been included on the album, which would be a shame because it’s such a beautiful song.

Speaking of, the album ends with a song that is equal parts beautiful and mystifying. “Aloha Oe“, also known as “The only song from Hawaii that anyone knows”, finishes out the album in a sweet but rather puzzling way. It’s kind of interesting, when one looks at “We’ll Meet Again” or “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now“, the closing numbers on the previous American albums, both songs are eloquent and meaningful in their own little ways, but then you get to the final Final album and Cash sends himself off as if he was going home from a cruise or something. In a way, it almost seems fitting, especially when one considers that he spent most of his later years in a home in Jamaica, and thus was rather used to island living by that point, but it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around.

I guess, despite how seriously one can take life, it’s almost never worth it to do so. Indeed, as seriously as someone can take Johnny Cash, some people (myself included) should more fully realize that the man was an entertainer, and despite being a fantastic American hero, was really just a guy who really loved songs. Why should we be all morose when thinking about Johnny Cash, just because he’s gone? His music is still here, and will always be here, and we should be thankful to everyone involved that it happened that way.

For that reason and more, American VI is a fantastic album and you should definitely pick it up. It may not be a Bear Family Box Set’s worth of lost treasures, but at least it wasn’t lost.

*Apparently, NME thinks so; they voted it the number 1 best music video of all time. Not too bad!

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