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

House Olympics – “…And My Mind is Restless”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: B+

Key Track: “Everest”

All hail the Midwestern emo scene, it seems to produce winner after winner. The same goes for House Olympics, a new group with a decidedly heavier influence from Bloomington, Indiana. The band takes it’s influence from emo’s more punk roots, opting for heavier vocals and more straightforward guitar volume but keeping the genre’s poetic lyrics. Their first release, the “…And My Mind is Restless” EP is four songs of angry music and mixed emotions, all of which feels purposefully unresolved.

As with many emo bands, the band – TJ on guitar and a pair of Adams on drums and bass, with all singing – makes an effort on unique song titles. The opener, “Get #rekt Steve Jobs,” is instrumental, but sets the tone with a forceful rhythm that builds upon itself, to drum up intensity going into the first proper song, “Tossing, Turning, Treading.” “Tossing” is equally forceful, at least at first, with some strained, screamed vocals and the punk-emo blend at it’s strongest. But the song takes time for an extended breakdown, so it isn’t just a blast of energy.

“Everest” is a more lyric-based song, with clearer vocals and lyrics about going to great and sometimes violently emotional lengths to figure out your personal issues, without any resolve. “I would be willing / To get hit by a car / Just to knock the sense back into me.” The lyrics are pretty typical of emo – introspective and sad, rough and filled with questions that don’t have answers. It’s the EP’s most emo-based song, and possibly the best song. The finale “Super Smashed Bros” (another great title), meanwhile, is a more punk-based song, with a deceivingly emo rhythm played over some distant-sounding drums, until the song builds into a long and grinding climax. Layered vocals and a crunching guitar add to what becomes a dense and loud finale, a little unsuspecting at the beginning of the song. Despite only being four songs, House Olympics manage to give their EP a strong intro and outro.

House Olympics benefit from having all three members sing – their different voices are noticed throughout the EP. Where the vocals are particularly throaty in “Tossing,” they’re sometimes clear and even spoken in “Everest.” This, alongside the punk/emo mix, helps the four songs to stay unique from each other, while maintaining a cohesive sound for the young band. “…And My Mind is Restless” is a promising release, as House Olympics are able to develop their own sound without rehashing what their predecessors have done. It’s within the realms of emo and punk, but isn’t truly either. It’s loud and emotional, and properly conflicted in both it’s tone and it’s themes.

The album can be streamed and downloaded here.

If you like this, try: I’ve come across a number of punk-influenced emo bands lately, so I’d link House Olympics up with Grammer and Sinai Vessel.

-By Andrew McNally