Beck – “Colors”

(photo credit: shop.beck.com)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Colors” “Dreams”

Beck is a literal cornucopia musician – you never know what the next album is going to sound like. And while there’s plenty of other musicians that do the same, they rarely have such big hits as Beck, and rarely do it so alone. Let’s take his 2005 album “Guero” – there’s 11 other credited musicians, but Beck is credited on 20 instruments, and two of those other musicians are credited with spoken word bits and another is credited on “additional sounds.” This album was made with Greg Kurstin, who is credited on veery song along Beck, and almost no one else shows up. Beck has always straddled the line of total outcast – often improvising lyrics in the studio and blending combinations folk, rock, rap, pop, and electronic genres on a whim – and industry favorite, helping to define and cement alternative music more than almost any other artist. On “Colors,” his thirteenth album, he again takes a hard left-turn, this time embracing the pop spotlight he’s so often avoided.

This is Beck’s first album since 2014’s “Morning Phase,” which won a shocking Album of the Year Grammy (an award so much in Beyonce’s favor that Beck’s speech was barely above surprised mumbling, and featured a tongue-in-cheek Kanye interruption). “Morning Phase” was a soft and blissful record, mistaken for somber. It was a direct follow-up to 2002’s entirely acoustic “Sea Change,” with Beck marking the passage of time and the acceptance he has gained since the disastrous break-up that spawned that classic. But the album’s outlook is much brighter than the music seems. And it makes sense that while Beck was working on that record, he was also developing some of the tracks on this album, even though the albums couldn’t sound more different. The tracks on “Colors” are easily the poppiest thing he’s ever done, at least on a full-album scale. This is a straight pop album, and while it isn’t always effective, it is a lot of fun to hear Beck bounce back in an unexpected way.

“Colors” might be the closest thing to a genre album that Beck’s ever done. Even later albums like “The Information” had diversity amongst tracks. This album has big pop beats throughout and, at times, Beck’s return to the pseudo-rapping of his heyday. Radio pop is the one thing Beck really has left to conquer, so it makes sense that at this stage in his career he would attempt it. By this point, he has nothing left to lose and a solid legacy intact. The title track has a pan flute, “I’m So Free” has rapping, “Wow” has both. And every track on this album is inherently catchy and dancefloor-ready. Even at his weirdest, Beck has always mastered catchiness, but here it isn’t hidden behind slide guitar, or robotic noises, or sitar, or whatever else he had laying around.

The album isn’t without downtime, however. Even though it clocks in at 39 minutes, there’s some fat on the album’s bones. Songs like “No Distraction” and “Up All Night” suffer from bland lyrics and the vague catchiness that plague the entire generation of indie music right now, most of whom are imitating Beck in some way. Although Beck’s music hasn’t always been perfect, he’s never seemed like one who would become a victim of his own creation like he does on “Colors.” Also, a weird disappointment of the album is that the whole piece is centered on the song “Dreams,” a guitar odyssey with one of the most memorable bridge sections in any alternative song. But, the song was released a single over two years ago, and has already gone through the whole radio rise-and-fall process and drifted from many people’s radars (not mine admittedly, I love the track). To center the album around this song seems like a cash-out, like Beck admitting that in the two years since he hasn’t been able to craft up something as good.

Still, the album is a fun and accessible, if not forgettable listen. It stands along with “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” as the most directly cohesive listens in the Beck discography, therefore also making them the outliers. He successfully hides his years throughout “Colors,” pulling off a batch of songs normally reserved for musicians who fell in love with “Loser” in middle school. It’s another new side of Beck: party Beck. And while I hope party Beck doesn’t stick around very long for fear of getting very tiresome, it is a welcome presence. It also makes me ravenous for whatever Beck will have up his sleeve for his next album. But for now, enjoy all the different shades of Beck’s “Colors.”

-By Andrew McNally

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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

St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

(Photo Credit: Northern Transmissions)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Pills,” “Sugarboy,” “Young Lover”

Annie Clark has big shoes to fill. Her last album, 2014’s “St. Vincent,” was consistently ranked among the best albums of the year, a busy year. The album saw her rise from indie darling touring the festival circuit to playing the season finale of “SNL” and winning a semi-surprise Best Alternative Album at the Grammy’s (ironically, presumed winner Beck also released a new album this week). After all that, “St. Vincent” is my favorite album. Like, ever. All-time. Has been for three years. So “MASSEDUCTION” has high hurdles to clear and, to our baited breaths, it jumps over those hurdles in every way that Annie Clark can think of.

Don’t let opening track “Hang On Me” and lead single “New York” fool you – this is a big album. At 13 tracks and 41 minutes, it packs a whole boxer’s array of punches. Although the opening song is inexplicably lackluster, the album kicks into high gear with the guitar-heavy satire “Pills.” The track’s fuzzy, chomping guitar sounds like an “Actor” lost cut. One of the album’s few disappointments is that this is really the only track where Clark lets loose on guitar, something she still does a little infrequently. But when the album that follows is as good as it is, it’s hardly even missed.

Other standout tracks include “Sugarboy,” with a super catchy and choppy beat that’s sure to rip through audiences in her live show. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is a slight ballad with some unexpected country slide-guitar, stuck right in the middle of the album. “Savior” is a funky and sexy pop song, but one that includes industrial elements (although he doesn’t have a songwriting credit, the album was co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who cowrote and produced a similar, excellent song on Lorde’s album earlier this year). “Fear The Future” hits super hard after the emotional but slight “New York,” with a deafening sound and incredibly anxious lyrics. “Young Lover,” the tenth track, seems like the beginning of the wind-down as, frankly, the song’s first section is dull. But it transforms into a full-bloomed vocal track, the best of the album and one of the best in Clark’s discography. The album’s final song “Smoking Section” is a satisfying conclusion, with Clark repeating “it’s not the end.” The song’s title and placement might be a reference to David Sedaris’s classic essay “The Smoking Section” – let us not forget that Clark’s debut contained references to “Arrested Development” and MAD Magazine.

“MASSEDUCTION” is not without fault, of course. There are rare moments of downtime, in tracks like “Hang On Me,” “Slow Disco,” and, to a lesser extent, the title track. There is also a palpable lack of guitar wizardry. Although Clark’s guitar pops up throughout, the album generally lacks the riffs designed to pummel live audiences to their core. It’s a confounding stylistic choice for someone who is becoming known as one of the best live acts. Still, audiences haven’t seen these songs performed yet, so who’s to say what Clark has planned (also, she’s just free to record whatever she wants, maybe she’s just tired of guitar).

Although not her best overall, this album stands as easily the most cohesive record in the St. Vincent discography. It has the fewest amount of skippable tracks (there’s only two that I’d even consider and I’ve *just* listened to it), it has everything from anxious noise about the future to industrial-funk to genuinely beautiful ballads to satire about the medical industry. I’ve written (in a few places, extensively, sorry) about the impact that Clark’s 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, “Love This Giant,” seemed to have on her confidence as a performer. That newfound confidence shines throughout this entire record, front (back?) and foremost with that album cover. Clark has always been an interesting songwriter, but this album continues her trend of pushing listeners out of their comfort zone with the frequent genre changes and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics.

This album is a borderline-masterpiece, if not one outright. Although it lacks specifically-standout songs like all of her other albums (“Rattlesnake” & “Birth In Reverse,” “Cruel” & “Surgeon,” “The Neighbors” & “Marrow,” “Now, Now” & “Your Lips Are Red), it works as a huge cohesive unit that really doesn’t have much time to cut. It’s a challenging pop album, asking the listener to accept satire, sorrow and directly sexual lyrics amidst their catchy music. This album feels like all of the highs, lows and middles that Clark has been living since and possibly before her last album. This album was likely going to be the one that people really judged Clark on. Her last album is, for all intents and purposes, a breakthrough – so the eye was on what she would do with the exposure. And if this album is what Clark can do under the pressure, then it’s safe to say we’re welcoming in a new legend.

-By Andrew McNally

Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(Photo Credit: JamBase)Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Picture That” “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

It feels dishonest to talk about the solo works of Pink Floyd members and compare them to “The Wall,” but in this case, Roger Waters might want us to do that. This album is reminiscent of that behemoth in many ways, most obviously in a political sense. Waters hasn’t released an album in nearly a quarter of a century, and for a while he seemed more than content doing tours of both his own work and Pink Floyd’s. But in the age where fascism has seen a sudden, scarily impressive rebound, Waters followed closely behind.

People talk about Pink Floyd’s politics, but it’s still often obscured by (clouds) talk about the more avant-garde, experimental music that dominated their discography. Still, their tenth and eleventh albums, “Animals” and “The Wall,” feel eerily relevant in 2017 (“Animals,” as it happens, turns 40 this year). “Animals” is easily the bleakest album the band put out, a deeply anti-fascist album with a famously grayscale cover and extremely long, grinding songs. “The Wall,” as we know, is a much more cinematic album (and literally a movie), but hardly less political. Both albums were rooted in anti-authoritarianism, something Pink Floyd did even more than other classic rock bands.

Waters exploits the albums’ best qualities for his new work, wonderfully titled “Is This the Life We Really Want?.” Waters, even more than most musicians, is not shy about his personal politics, and they are on full, angry display across the album’s twelve tracks. Even the opener, “When We Were Young,” is miserable in its worldview. “I’m still ugly, you’re still fat,” a man says flatly to an unknown listener. “Was it our parents who made us this way, or was it God? Fuck it.”

Waters goes past the point of being blunt and gets downright confrontational on the album. The best example to go back to is “Mother,” from “The Wall.” That song includes direct lines like “Mother, should I trust the government?” Musically, much of this album resembles that song – airy guitar, strings, a lot of acoustic elements. The music is not nearly as urgent and frantic as the lyrics, which turns out to be effective, because it comes off as more honest and less theatrical. Waters’ voice also sounds similar to that era, almost like he’s been frozen in time. His sort of powerful-whisper thing is still front and center, only sometimes allowing itself to grow huge.

Again, to drive this home, this is the fiercest political work we’ve seen since the Trump campaign started, and I’m not forgetting YG’s song “Fuck Donald Trump.” This album is absolutely littered with profanity and extremely specific references to all of the world’s current ailments. Nowhere is this as direct as on the title track, which has a set of lyrics that go: “Fear keeps us all in line / fear of all those foreigners, fear of all their crimes / is this the life we really want?” Soon after, he sings, “every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale / every time a journalist is left to rot in jail / every time a young girl’s life is casually spent / and every time a nincompoop becomes the president / every time someone dies reaching for their keys / and every time Greenland falls into the fucking sea.” The whole song is a direct message to those who are blind or ignorant to the problems in the world. The song also opens with a brief Trump audioclip. Sure, calling Trump a “nincompoop” ranks down with Kendrick Lamar’s “Trump is a chump” as a pretty low-level insult, but it still gets the job done. And it’s okay, because on the equally great “Picture That,” he sings “picture a shithouse with no fucking drains / picture a leader with no fucking brains.” While not directly about Trump, he’s absolutely one of the potential ‘leader’s mentioned.

The album ends on a beautiful three-song suite that comes kind of out of left field, but works as an effective finale nonetheless. “Wait For Her” is an emotional pseudo-ballad centered around a heavy guitar crunch. The song transitions into “Oceans Apart,” a minute-long interlude that changes pitch and sheds most of the instruments, before bringing them all back in and returning to the central rhythm for closer “Part of Me Died.” Although Waters all but sheds the politics that infiltrate every other track, it’s still a beautiful addition. Otherwise, the album is all about the bleak state of the world today. “Smell the Roses” starts off sounding optimistic, before diverging into lyrics about terrorism ruining the world’s beauty.

I mentioned stylistic similarities to “The Wall,” and there’s definitely some easter eggs throughout that will please Floyd fans (like myself). “The Most Beautiful Girl” is one of the album’s lesser tracks, but it does feature Waters painfully sing “I’m coming home,” just as he did on “Hey You.” “Bird In A Gale,” one of the album’s most urgent tracks, has Waters repeat the word “floor” just like how David Gilmour repeated the word “stone” on “Dogs” back on the “Animals” album. “Déjà vu,” a brutally confrontational song, has the sound of a wall crashing in the middle. And, lastly, “Smell the Roses” has references to money and a rhythm similar to “Money.” Some or all of these may be unintentional, but when multiple major powers have descended into the world Floyd sang so strongly against on “Animals” and “The Wall,” it makes sense for Waters to pat himself on the back for the 40-years-early predictions. A lot of this album is “I told you so, now here’s what happened.” The album isn’t so much an emotional roller coaster as much as it is an abrupt freefall. The album is immediate, outright, furious, and downright necessary. It has more urgency and necessity than many of Pink Floyd’s albums, and even outranks some of them. Necessary times call for necessary measures, and sometimes, just like with A Tribe Called Quest last year, we have to call on the veterans to fully ground us. Waters is about as anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-everything bad as they come, and this album is a lyrical ground-pounder that we need to level us in 2017.

-By Andrew McNally

At The Drive In – “in•ter a•li•a”

Photo Credit: StereogumGrade: B+

Key Tracks: “Continuum,” “Governed by Contagions”

It would be more than safe to say that At The Drive In were given the highest of expectations for this album. This past decade or so has seen plenty of alternative and hard rock reunions that produced new material (Dinosaur Jr., the Avalanches, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Hole, allegedly even Temple of the Dog, and many others). And as with any reunion, fans hold with baited breath when a new album is announced. Often, like in the cases of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the productions are fair and fan-serving, but not memorable against the rest of the band’s albums. Sometimes you get Pixies, who stained their own legacy with one mediocre and one painfully bad album. And sometimes, you get Dinosaur, Jr., who worked out the (few) faults of their early albums and improved on (most) of them. But ATDI aren’t like those bands. ATDI didn’t sustain a period of fame and radio familiarity. They broke up in 2001 right as they started to become a name, and it wasn’t through the radio. When my local rock station WBCN folded in 2009, the DJ’s spent the last week going freeform. One DJ played “One Armed Scissor,” the band’s most well-known song, because he’d never been allowed to before. ATDI have never and will never be a radio-friendly band. The music jumps from abrasive to dissonant to chaotic, and is rarely ever beneath those points. But their last album, “Relationship of Command,” is almost inarguably the best post-hardcore album of all-time. In fact, it remains one of the best rock albums of the century so far. It is a brutal hailstorm of riffs, lightning drumming, crushing energy and performatively energetic vocals.

My point here is, there are high hopes for this. Not only are they following a behemoth, they’re following a behemoth that has had plenty of time to age, and it has aged very well. Luckily, the band knew this, and they have let their age show purely in good ways. “in•ter a•li•a” shows hints of containment. Certain tracks like “Ghost-Tape No. 9” and “Call Broken Arrow” lean closer to traditional rock than anything the band’s done before. Their slight leaning might not be a reflection of age, but a response to their work in the interim. When ATDI first split, they broke into two distinctly different bands – the more alternative approaching (and mostly forgettable) Sparta, and the wildly ambitious prog-rock band The Mars Volta. Two of ATDI’s three key members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, let all their wildest ideas fly in the Mars Volta. So after years of incomprehensibly difficult guitar riffs and half an hour long songs, it makes sense why ATDI might want to settle for something more basic. (The other key member, Jim Ward, chose not to rejoin the group and is not present on this album. He was replaced with fellow Sparta member Keeley Davis. The band also dropped the hyphen in their name).

Simpler does not mean less effective. ATDI were often at their most effective when they simply went unhinged. The band’s shotgun opener to their last album, “Arcarsenal,” remains one of the most thrilling rock tracks just because of sheer energy. And for quite a while on this album, it seems like the energy might hit a pummeling point. “No Wolf Like The Present” opens the album with a contained blast, like the moment when you realize a storm is getting really bad. And that storm hits even harder on follow-up “Continuum,” arguably the album’s most intense track. This song shows how Bixler-Zavala’s vocals have grown into a more classic rock sound, less manic but stronger. It also pairs well against the wallpaper-tearing music around it. The song ends with a whispered, a capella bridge from Bixler-Zavala that feels like an antithesis to his screaming past, but is somehow equally effective. Lead single “Governed by Contagions” keeps it going with a pummeling tempo, and with the album’s best use of duel vocalists. Davis gets his best opportunity at vocals here, filling in most of the song’s chorus.

The band doesn’t always pull slower moments off well. While “Call Broken Arrow” uses its conventionality to a good use, “Ghost-Tape No. 9” feels like a lackluster penultimate track. Thankfully, there aren’t many slower moments. This album is a continuous cannon-blast, and even in 2017, they’ve proven themselves exhausting. This is a new and different At the Drive In, but the fundamentals feel the same. The energy is there, the occasionally-difficult music is there, and the lyrics that jump from incomprehensible to political are there. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics remain deeply impenetrable,a byproduct of both years spent in a prog-rock band, and his decision to write about some touchy subjects. As expected, they’re dense and borderline nonsensical, sometimes poetic and sometimes poetry-adjacent.

“in•ter a•li•a” is certainly no “Relationship of Command,” but it is still a force to reckon with. Their last album came out at an awkward time for rock. Boy bands and slightly-underage girls were dominating the charts, and rock was mostly delegated to Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, and regrettable Rage Against the Machine ripoffs. The fact that the band dropped “Relationship of Command” and bailed seemed like a purposeful shake-up. “in•ter a•li•a” doesn’t necessarily feel that way, but given the 2017 state of music, it does feel a little similar. While “rock” music isn’t really a big thing anymore, delegated to specific radio stations that play mostly the bands that were already coming into fruition in 2000, it does come at a time when indie and EDM are both getting stale. Is this album going to change music? No, of course not. But does it remind the listener that anything is possible? Yes. And At The Drive In have proved that on an album that will never be legendary, but is certainly timely and unforgettable.

-By Andrew McNally