Marilyn Manson – “Heaven Upside Down”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia) Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “WHERE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE” “Threats of Romance”

One of the most predictable things of the early-2000’s was the downfall of Marilyn Manson. After the group’s surprise hit in 1996’s “The Beautiful People” and the subsequent smash of 1998’s “Mechanical Animals,” the controversial facade of the group had to wear off. And it did, resulting in declining sales and popularity. But one of the lesser expected things would be the comeback. After a few albums of water-treading, goth-y nonsense, the group washed away all of their previous controversial conventions for 2015’s “The Pale Emperor.” The album was a blues-metal masterpiece, filled with songs that the eponymous singer sounded like he had wanted to record for years. The band’s follow-up is a more typical Manson album, but one that renews their energy and their goth and industrial influences, while mostly doing away with the dopey-ness that has plagued their lyrics.

This album starts strong – really strong – with “Revelation #12,” a track that periodically uses a police siren as an instrument. Manson’s voice comes through loud and crisp in a way that often faltered in the band’s down years. Really, the album maintains a high energy, especially on tracks like single “We Know Where You Fucking Live” and closer “Threats of Romance.” The band embrace their goth heritage on these tracks, calling back specifically to legends like Gary Numan and former collaborators Nine Inch Nails. The album’s best line may lie in “We Know Where You Fucking Live,” where Manson sings, “We don’t intend to eat the street, the asphalt is the good meat.”

The album has a ferocity to it that hasn’t been seen on a Manson album in some time. The album’s standout track (and the band knows it) might just be “Saturnalia,” a completely engaging and bold track that stretches just one second shy of eight minutes. It allows the band to stretch out into territories they haven’t before, resulting in a fiery, burning track that not only benefits from the length, but represents a tentative change in style. After “The Pale Emperor,” the band seems completely energized to record music that might be similar to what they recorded in their heyday, but on their own, nondescript terms.

And there is a calmness to a few tracks as well. The album’s third- and second-to-last tracks, “Blood Honey” and “Heaven Upside Down” bring in acoustic guitar and more approachable melodies. Manson himself described the album as a soundtrack, where the title track is the end credits. If the album had ended there, it would’ve been equally effective. That said, it ends with the punishingly repetitive “Threats of Romance.”

Still, as with any Manson album, it isn’t without some corny moments. The one-two punch of “Say10” and “Kill4Me” don’t land too well, even with the latter being a single. Although “Kill4Me”is by no means a bad song, with synths balancing the blasts of guitar, it still suffers after the dopey and similarly-titled “Say10,” a track that sounds like the regular album schlock of 1996. Likewise, the stupidly-titled “Je$u$ Cr$i$” doesn’t do anything for the album, just a stupid song with a stupid title, even with a solid beat.

The corniness of a post-98′ Manson album is kind of a cherish as much as a detriment, and this album balances the more silly lyrics with literal punches at the bookends that cement this as one of the band’s better albums. The sudden resurgence with “The Pale Emperor” continues with this album that somehow manages to be bold in 2017. While “Emperor” excelled on outside influences, “Heaven Upside Down” takes the best elements of Manson’s past and reverberates them into a sound that is equally throwback and current. Casual listeners might not be grabbed by an album of this intensity, but Manson fans will surely be glad that an album from the group in 2017 can still maintain such an anxious, monstrous and deafening level.

-By Andrew McNally

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Metallica – “Hardwired…To Self Destruct”

(Photo Credit: Metal Injection)Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Atlas, Rise!” “Moth Into Flame” “Spit Out the Bone”

Do you ever just stop and marvel at Metallica? I sure as hell do. They not only helped bring metal into the mainstream, they’re the faces of the genre. Metallica are considered one of the “big 4” thrash-metal bands of the 80’s that helped popularize metal as a whole. But, unlike Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, they’ve stuck. All four bands are still active, and have been since the early 80’s. But the other three, in their own distinctive styles, have stuck to their bases in order to not lose credibility. Metallica have done anything but that. They’ve always taken risks, knowing full well they could jettison their core fans. Their first four albums thrust thrash metal into the spotlight, but their 1991 self-titled album was a divisive affair of radio-friendly hard rock that proves to still be radio-friendly 25 years later. It was significantly lighter than previous work, putting focus much more on production and and the lumbering elements of the songs; it is beloved by music fans, and hated by many thrash metal fans. (This reviewer personally finds it very boring, but sees its value.) 2003’s disaster “St. Anger” ditched guitar solos for a garage-rock sound (and the crappiest production in the land), and failed on incomprehensible levels. And 2008’s “Death Magnetic” brought the group back around to their thrash roots.

Their highs and lows are higher and lower than most bands can claim, so in the rare days when Metallica actually releases new music now, there’s the see-saw teetering worry if it will actually be any good or not. Well much like their last album, “Death Magnetic,” there isn’t much reason to worry, but not much excitement either. All of the elements are present: hard-hitting riffs, James Hetfield’s sometimes-dopey-sometimes-effective lyrics, Kirk Hammett’s bulging guitar solos, Rob Trujillo’s thundering bass and Lars Ulrich’s no-frills, rapid drumming. The production is, thankfully, excellent – the first time since ’91, an issue that most big bands never face. It’s just that the music itself is lackluster. Despite the band’s claims, it’s easy to think they’re losing steam.

This album was billed as a double-album. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why, exactly, other than to be different and maybe provide a fabricated moment of relief. It does indeed clock in at 77 minutes – but their previous album clocks in at 74. Splitting the album into two doses of 6 songs does seem to send a message though – a message that fans, and the band, might not want to be pummeled with sound anymore. These dudes are aging, whether they like it or not, and an inconsistent energy throughout shows.

The album’s first half is absolutely stronger than the back half. The album opens with what is actually their second shortest song – “Hardwired,” an absolute bruiser with the energy of anything from “Master of Puppets.” The lyrics are among some of the dopiest that James Hetfield has ever written – but spin the song a few times and you won’t really care anymore. “Atlas, Rise!” follows, with significantly better lyrics (best of the album), and the second of two already punching Kirk Hammett solos. Follow-up “Now That We’re Dead” suffers from Metallica’s biggest problem – the long intro. They made needlessly long intros work in the 80’s, but ever since then they’ve made long intros by just…playing the same thing over and over again. And that’s how this track starts. The track itself is enough of a puncher, but loses faith in taking too long to get to a point. Second single “Moth Into Flame” is probably the best work on the album, a truly ripping song that showcases everything the band does best. Hopefully, it will go down in the Metallica canon as an all-time great. Watch them rip apart Jimmy Fallon’s set to see how great the song is. The first disc closes out with “Dream No More,” a song that would seem fairly bland if not for Hetfield’s excellent vocals, and “Halo On Fire,” the album’s longest song, and a very effective pseudo-ballad that harkens back to their best tracks from the self-titled album.

The second disc falters, though, with nearly every track sounding like one that just made the cut. “Confusion” isn’t a particular winner, with dumb, overused lyrics complementing some less-than-engaging music. “ManUNkind,” bad title and all, is just boring through and through. “Here Comes Revenge” overstays its welcome, but has more of an energy to it that is lacking in the previous two songs. It’s a fun track, one of the album’s many that might sound better live. In a very similar vain is “Am I Savage?,” a bruiser that ultimately isn’t interesting enough to make the first disc, but still plenty enjoyable. Penultimate track “Murder One” is aided by being the only track on Disc 2 that’s under 6 minutes; it feels comparatively brisk, and the beat, although not inherently interesting, feels stronger because of it. Finally, though, comes the closer, “Spit Out the Bone.” Oh man. The song reinterpolates the opening track, “Hardwired,” taking a song that’s already very quick and playing it even faster. Much more than any other song on the album, “Spit Out the Bone” is pure thrash. It ultimately goes on far longer than necessary, but it’s the first time in many, many years that Metallica have proven they can cause whiplash in listeners.

Metallica don’t have anything to prove in 2016. They haven’t had anything to prove in a long, long time. They’re the only one of the “big 4” that’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’ll likely stay that way. They’ve outsold the other three, combined. They’re still one of the best live bands, ever, and yeah – they can make every track on this monster sound great. So when you listen to this album, keep in mind everything Metallica has been able to accomplish, everything that has led them to be able to make an album like this so far into their careers. No, it’s not perfect, and it’s not even great. But damn, when these dudes want to, they still go hard, and they’re still great guys. This won’t win over any new fans, and it’s by no means a classic. In fact, they should have cut multiple songs and/or twenty minutes of runtime. No Metallica album needs to be as long as it is. But, by default, it’s the best Metallica album in a long, long time. It’s a mixed album, for sure, but one that will likely improve with the band’s incredible live show. And for now, best to just sit back and strap in.

-By Andrew McNally

Megadeth – “Dystopia”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dystopia,” “Death From Within”

I don’t think there’s very many people, at least besides Dave Mustaine, who would argue for present-day Megadeth. Their releases have been inconsistent, and none in many years have matched the band’s late 80’s to early 90’s heyday. I was barely a month old when “Rust in Peace” came out, but I was probably rocking out to it already. So Megadeth are past their prime, and they showed it on 2013’s “Super Collider,” which was, frankly, awful. They had lost that lovin’ feelin,’ and by that I mean the music had been drained of energy in an ill-fated attempt at reclaiming a wide audience. Then the band members suffered a bunch of personal and professional turmoils, resulting in the departure of the drummer and the non-Mustaine guitarist. Armed with half of a new line-up, Megadeth kick it back into high gear on their 15th album, “Dystopia.”

Much of the album, and especially the opening tracks, mimic 80’s thrash metal surprisingly well. It’s sweaty, massive, and makes you want to punch someone in the face. This trend follows across nearly every track, with only small instances where they give way to a different form. The only real departure is “The Emperor,” which is less sustained, although it could just be seen as a point to stop and breath. Mustaine’s riffs are gigantic, and the dual-guitar solos come up strong. The title track is the only one that’s very guitar-heavy, this album’s “Hangar 18,” but the electric crunch throughout runs deep. The addition of Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler is a nice pick-up as well, his drumming can switch from chaotic to restrained to pummeling based on whatever calls. There’s also a two-song set in the album’s middle that, although two separate songs, act as an inspired mini-suite. “Poisonous Shadows” takes a decrescendoing break from thrash, and builds back up into the instrumental “Conquer or Die.” From a musical standpoint, this is one of Megadeth’s best albums in a long, long time.

And that’s where it stops. Megadeth’s lyrics have rarely been Pulitzer-ready, but they’ve gotten worse over time. Megadeth has a Dave Mustaine problem. His awful, corny and racist lyrics ruin all the goodwill “Dystopia” otherwise builds up. “The Threat is Real” is about enemies attacking from within, and sure as hell seems to be pretty anti-Islamic in that belief. It’s also got lines about “vultures coming home to nest.” He sings about American triumph, and the emperor’s new clothes. The theme of dystopia is clearly important to the album, but the super-conservative Mustaine vaguely presents a dystopia that’s really an American utopia. America is the strongest country, join or get out. Which, okay buddy, maybe it’s time to let some other guys do the writing.

Thankfully, when the music is as strong as it is on “Dystopia,” Megadeth becomes like a themed roller-coaster. It’s all about the ride, and the theme (in this case, the lyrics), only serves to feed into the brand. It’s a Superman roller coaster because the track is painted blue and red, and that’s easy to ignore. The real thrill comes in the mechanics, and that’s the music. A new and improved Megadeth bring the ferocity back, even with the consistently garbage lyrics.

If you like this, try: Slayer’s passable 2015 album “Repentless,” although if you like this, you’ve already listened to that album. Also try turning off the Xbox and going outside for a bit.

Deafheaven – “New Bermuda”

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Luna,” “Gifts For the Earth”

Let’s get this out of the way – there’s no such thing as ‘pop-black metal.’ It’s a combination that would go together like salmon and cherry. To call Deafheaven the “poppiest” black metal band is a misnomer, it’s a meaningless statement. The last person to complete a marathon still completed a marathon. Yet listening to Deafheaven is like running a marathon – it’s a test of physical stamina, and not everyone will finish. The black metal band’s third album greatly loosens the grip on shoegaze, but tightens it on the metal, making for an even louder listen.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already have an opinion on Deafheaven. Anyone even remotely aware of current metal does. I raved over “Sunbather” way back when, and I think “New Bermuda” is an even more intense record. “Sunbather” was split into sections, where the listener was offered a break after every draining track. “New Bermuda” comes without that option, offering solace only in the songs themselves. At five songs, it’s slimmer than “Sunbather” and shorter, too. And it’s because the ear breaks come at shorter intervals.

The album’s breaks in volume are centered in quieter guitar rhythms, soundclips, and fade-outs. Twice the band fade-outs early, leaving the last few minutes of a track to audio clips and stuff you can quickly tune out to. Thanks, Deafheaven. The band grabs hold of the listener early and doesn’t really let go.

Although the band strays much further away from shoegaze, they still find ways to keep it original. George Clarke’s vocals are simply louder than on previous records. Instead of blending him into the music, the band has decided to put him front and center, his screams searing through the guitars like a katana in the rain. His lyrics are deeply poetic, if not entirely unintelligible. Opening track “Brought to the Water” is less draining than the “Sunbather” songs. And closer “Gifts For the Earth” actually features acoustic elements that border more on alternative than metal, much to the chagrin of late-20 somethings in Megadeth shirts.

But still, Deafheaven are here to bring the pain. “Luna” is possibly the most merciless song they’ve ever done. It starts like any Iron Maiden song – with its muted guitar riff and speedy drumming. But it is relentless. The whole album is, occasionally giving the listener glimpses of what life on the outside of Deafheaven is like, a less painful world that they cannot share in. Deafheaven, in their third album, have distanced themselves from their famous roots – they don’t want to be seen as pop-metal famous, and don’t want to contribute to polarized metal. But polarization is a key part of music, even metal, and Deafheaven have proven that they can not only write a record that’s brutal in sections, but one that’s brutal throughout. “New Bermuda” has a wide potential audience, maybe one wider than they expected. But it’s not for everyone, and sour metalheads that made their mind up two years ago aren’t going to be swayed back. Their loss.

-By Andrew McNally

A few words on Marilyn Manson’s “The Pale Emperor”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles”

I have a distinct memory, in 2007, of downloading the lead single from Marilyn Manson’s ’07 album “Eat Me Drink Me,” called “Heart-Shaped Glasses.” I downloaded it, and realized that I was a seventeen year old grabbing a song from someone who relevancy had left behind years ago. I don’t know what I did next, but the realization of adulthood crept in so I probably bought a checkbook or scheduled a doctor’s appointment by myself or something. It’s now eight years later, and Manson’s name has been written into the history books as a somewhat flash-in-the-pan shock-rocker from the 90’s. But it’s time to make that edit.

I wasn’t planning on reviewing this album. I didn’t even know if I’d listen to it. I keep a running tab on new albums throughout the year and listen to whatever I can – Dylan’s covers album isn’t on Spotify, and Mark Ronson wasn’t tickling my fancy today, so I just threw on “The Pale Emperor,” remembering it had been getting more press than his previous few albums. I don’t know the last time I listened to a Manson album in full; I’m not positive I ever have. But I’m glad I did, because I’m finally getting the Marilyn Manson I’ve always wanted to hear – the real Marilyn Manson, the real Brian Warner.

My problem with Manson was that it never seemed real – he wore weird make-up, but so did Alice Cooper. He sang about hating people and culture, but so did everyone else. He sang about sadistic things, but so did Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden. And when school shooters started admitting their love for Manson, he was forced to break facade and tell people not to do that. His music was meant to shock, but it was way, way too melodic. Whistle “The Beautiful People” to yourself right now. I bet you can. The Dead Kennedys were more violent and sloppier, and you can’t say that Manson would strike any nerves musically that Nine Inch Nails or, hell, Merzbow hadn’t already.

Manson fell into irrelevancy, once we all accepted his existence and decided to turn him into the butt of jokes instead of the envelope-pushing musician he was trying to be. And although the band has been releasing albums this whole time, “The Pale Emperor” is the first time we’ve seen Manson as a musician. The album doesn’t always turn the volume up; it’s poetic, melodic and, at points, bluesy. It’s even occasionally a little fun, even in it’s darkness. These feel like the songs that Warner – not Manson – has been sitting on for some time, waiting for a time to record. Maybe he waited too long, but they’re a welcome change for someone who had outplayed himself and his band.

Manson sounds like he’s actually having a good time on this record, and it’s a fun we can all engage in. It’s not all great, and it’s not overly memorable, but it’s a side of the band we’ve never seen before. Song titles like “Slave Only Dreams to Be King,” “Birds of Hell Awaiting” and “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” sound like typical Manson, but they’re not – because he’s not aiming for radio anymore. Manson – and the band – have finally hit the point where they don’t have to fight for hits any longer. People are either in it for the long haul, or they’re not.

I was never onboard the Manson train, I was a little too young, but this album excited me. I’ve always seen the band’s problems being the forefront of their music and their actual music on the backburner, and that’s finally switching. I titled this review “A few words on Marilyn Manson’s “The Pale Emperor”” because I wanted to talk more about his legacy than the album itself (and because I didn’t expect to go on this long); I’m not that familiar with his discography and how different this album really is. But it is a breath of fresh air from a musician who is finally able to be comfortable with himself. No forcing, no goals, and only the theatrics he wants – “The Pale Emperor” is still a dark, heavy album, but it’s finally one by Manson’s standards, not one by society’s.

-By Andrew McNally

My Fictions – “Stranger Songs”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Mt. Misery” “Postcard”

Boston group My Fictions know how to do hardcore right. Their new album, “Stranger Songs,” is fast, slick and uses volume to punish the listener’s emotions, not just their eardrums. At 10 songs and 28 minutes, it’s the work of a band that sounds frustrated and confused by the world around them, and they take out their feelings as quick as they can, with no unnecessary embellishments. “Stranger Songs” is loud and assaulting, with a dark and uncertain tone to boot.

The album’s opening track, “Mt. Misery,” starts with a bit of a cop-out intro, before jumping suddenly into a menacing, hardcore blast. Its follow-up, “Postcard,” the shortest track on the album, is an all-out assault on the listener. It is, as many of the songs are, centered on the frantic and explosive drumming that drives the beat further and further into submission. “Parking Lot” and “Stranger” also play around with false or building openings, and the energy behind the kit never lets up throughout the album.

But the album isn’t just about volume, it’s about using it properly. The album has an almost tantric feel to it, quickly softening and building back up, sometimes hitting a huge climax, sometimes not. “Airport Song” drops off completely at the end, leaving just faint bass notes and distant vocals. “Lower (A Selfish Song)” slows down towards the end for a punishing mid-tempo climax that’s as abrasive as they can get. My Fictions don’t come out of the gate and pound the listener into the ground with speed and volume – they welcome the quieter moments and tempo changes that enhance the hardcore sound.

“Stranger Songs” is not a summer album. I’d been receiving e-mails from (the excellent) Topshelf Records about the album’s release for months prior, but it’s a little difficult to get into it when I have the air conditioner running. It’s a dark and dense album, with the lyrics’ emotions coming out through the strained vocals. The band have an aura of unbridled frustration, no more apparent than on the aptly-named “Wake Anxious.” The guitars are dissonant and thundering, the drums heavy and the vocals distant and screamed. They sound disturbed by something, just in general, and use this album as their release. The album’s midpoint, “Concern,” is centered around a soundclip of someone asking a poet, “How can you write poetry if you’re not bothered by something?,” a line that comes up again in the final song. Taking a thunderous approach to your music only works if we believe there’s the frustration and anger behind it, and it’s on display here. They’re bothered. And it comes on full force. So prepare yourselves.

On an unrelated side note, I will be attending grad school in the fall. That does put this blog’s name in jeopardy, for sure. But I will be going to Emerson which is, by sheer coincidence, partially pictured in the cover of this album. I would like to promise this didn’t influence this review but no guarantees.

If you like this, try: I’m not up on my hardcore, I’m usually floored by a hardcore band’s stability throughout an album. So I’d like to suggest fellow Boston band Defeater’s recent “Letters Home” album, a continuation of their insane multi-album concept.

Nepotism – “Black Sheep”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Track: “New American Drugs”

Nepotism are a very eclectic group from South Carolina, taking the best parts out of 90’s punk, modern rock, metal and more, to make a distinct alt-metal sound. The five track EP jumps all around, making sure each song is unique, nearly all of which are successful. What makes Nepotism immediately attractive is the catchy quality of their music. While a lot of louder guitar-based alternative bands aim for discord and noise, Nepotism look for harmonies and memorable rhythms within volume.

The album’s stand out is “New American Drugs,” the most punk-influenced of the five songs. The song has a speedy and relentless central guitar rhythm, that’s equal parts funky, catchy and angry. It wouldn’t sound out of place on your favorite 90’s throwback radio station, but that doesn’t mean it sounds old. Closer “Nobody Knows” is another great track, in the same vein. It’s ferocious and non-stop, but still comfortably accessible. The song is nuzzled in rock radio – fit for radio, but not fit for all of radio’s audience.

“In Disguise” might be the only weak song on the EP. It is the EP’s slow song (hesitate to call it a ‘ballad’) and although it’s a completely successful song in it’s own right, it sounds a little too close to 311’s “Amber,” in many ways. It also suffers from being placed too early on the EP. As the second song, it kills the momentum brought up from strong opener “Let It Out.” All that said, those criticisms are easy to ignore, and I found myself humming on the second listen.

Nepotism are like many alt-rock bands today, taking their inspirations from eclectic groups and genres. This EP shows hints of Incubus, Tool, the Stone Roses and many 90’s alt-rock bands. While those bands all created molds and became victims of their own product, bands like Nepotism are using the molds made by everyone from 311 to Green River and turning them on their heads. “Black Sheep” is five songs that are definitely recorded by the same band, but really don’t sound alike. And that makes for a pretty unique release.

The album can be streamed and downloaded here.

If you like this, try: Pissed Jeans’ “Honeys.” Not really all that related, but there were certain moments where I was reminded of the post-rock band’s excellent (and equally diverse) new LP.

-By Andrew McNally