Reasons to Enjoy Pop Music: A Self-Rebuttal

Quite a while back, I wrote a post outlining “Three Legitimate Reasons for Hating Pop Music.” That post, (which claimed not to bash others’ music tastes) was essentially just me bashing others’ music tastes, going so far as to pretentiously declare that I might cause you to listen to artists with “genuine talent,” and that “reader discretion” was advised. While that post still exemplifies some of my frustrations with the music industry and the consistent unoriginality of chart-toppers, I’ve since come around to realize that there isn’t a single compelling reason to keep yourself from listening to pop music if you enjoy it.

Allow me to make a statement that may shock you if you would place yourself into any of the following categories: folk aficionado, metalhead, self-proclaimed musical intellectual, bass junkie, indie music scout or classic rock apologetic.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking popular music.

No matter how many times you let someone know that you listen exclusively to progressive jazz fusion, you can’t deny that you secretly enjoy the bassline to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” If Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” hasn’t left your vehicle’s CD player since 2006, you can still recall the few times that you’ve scrolled through the radio frequencies, landed on your local pop station, and listened for the remainder of the drive (not forgetting, of course, to dial back to the classic rock station before you leave the car). Even if you decry the merits of any music not written by one of the great classical composers, claiming that Mozart’s work is inherently superior to any work produced after 1900, you have assuredly heard the infectious melodies of One Direction and subtly tapped your foot.

The reason for this is that the enjoyability of any variety of media is entirely in the eye – or ear, rather – of the beholder. As you, your opinions, your emotions, your beliefs and your surroundings change, your tastes change with them. Much to the chagrin of any hipster, there are no particular aspects of a piece of media that can be quantified to determine its quality.

A common pitfall of humanity, especially in modern western culture, is to try to find one’s identity in the uniqueness of your choices in media and entertainment, when in reality, there are few things that could give your identity less meaning. The fact that you listen to a certain variety of music or only read certain books is, in the grand scheme of things, utterly meaningless.

“Wait,” you cry. “Are you suggesting that my music is not superior to everyone else’s?” After all, your tastes are what define you. The idea that your affinity for the intellectual rhythms of mathcore does not somehow set you apart from everyone you know is borderline blasphemy.

Yep. That is exactly what I am suggesting.

No matter how much of your identity is wrapped up in letting others know the distinctions you make in your personal consumption of media, it can’t define you. Attempting to place yourself in a predefined group of likeminded consumers warps the idea of identity just as much as accepting mainstream ideals and diagnosing yourself with Bieber Fever. Man chooses to tell himself the lie that he can find the truth about himself by knowing what he likes, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Paul tells us many times in the Epistles that a Christian’s identity can be found only in the work of Christ. Therefore, be glad! You are free from worrying about such petty conflicts as what your friends might think of your music choices. Whether or not you listen to songs at the top of the charts, your identity isn’t found in the media you choose to consume. This idea isn’t exclusive to mainstream music: it also applies to those who refuse to listen to Christian music because they think it’s uncool. (It’s not necessarily good to listen to Christian music exclusively, but that may be a topic for another post.) In fact, the idea that discriminating between media in any way makes you a better person or one of superior social status is eliminated by the work of Christ. The idiom rings true that “the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”

This cuts the choice of whether to listen to pop music to two simple criteria: whether the song is acceptable to listen to, and whether you enjoy it. Acceptability is a criterion which is generally considered to be pretty subjective, being more of a conscience issue than anything; and enjoyability quite obviously varies from listener to listener. Therefore, if you were to boil the choice down, it becomes simply a matter of whether you legitimately enjoy the music. If you do, great! Listen to it! If you find yourself agreeing with my former self in the belief that pop music is dull, inartistic drivel, then don’t. No one is forcing you to. It’s a simple matter.

When it comes down to it, popular music is just that: music which happens to be popular. It’s not a reflection of your quality as a human being, and certainly not what you find your identity in. Relax about what others think of you, rest in your identity in Christ, and don’t be afraid to play some One Direction when people are looking.

The Christian and the Dreaded M – Some thoughts on mature video games

ImageWhile the Bible was written for us, it was definitely not written to us as a culture. This means that there are some things, especially in our entertainment-obsessed culture, that seem to be grey areas. One of the most well-known and disputed grey areas is the subject of video games, namely the more violent or mature ones. Since the Bible doesn’t have a commandment that says “Thou shalt not play M rated video games,” this requires some thought and study to decide what is acceptable to play and what is not in the life of a Christian.

First of all, when we decide what games are and aren’t acceptable, we have to realize that the ESRB was not sanctioned by God to be the standard for what we should and shouldn’t play. It isn’t perfect. When a game has the dreaded “M” in the lower right corner of the box, it should raise a red flag. However, that red flag should give pause for thought and deeper understanding of why the game is rated that way, rather than instantly forcing you to place the game back on the shelf (or more accurately, click the back button on Amazon). Rather than going by only what is on the back of the box, it’s best to do some research on the positive AND negative aspects of the game. (A great site for this is Plugged In, run by Focus On the Family, which gives bible-based, family-oriented reviews of all sorts of media.) Many M rated video games, much like R rated movies, have positive aspects to them that aren’t covered on that black and white rectangle. There have been plenty of games that most people will believe were mis-rated, whether the rating was too high or too low.

By contrast, we also need to understand that the media we take in can have an effect on the way we live and how we think. This isn’t necessarily always true, which is the reason why some mature video games can be found acceptable. But if you’re blatantly doing evil in “choice” style games such as Mass Effect, you may find yourself drifting towards those choices in real life; or if you’re endlessly mowing down civilians in an open world game like Grand Theft Auto, you may find yourself with violent tendencies, or more disturbingly, viewing the people around you only as targets. Yet, as I said, playing a violent video game will not necessarily make you a more violent person or decrease your value of human life. This is because of the biggest aspect of choosing appropriate media:

Know thine enemy. And in the case of any human, our biggest enemy is the sin that is with us from day one of our lives. It’s our master unless we trust Jesus for salvation, and it’s still a huge temptation afterwards. But, as Luke 16:13 tells us, we can’t serve two masters, because “…either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If our goal in choosing “appropriate” media is focused on seeing how close we can get to the line of “this is sin, and this isn’t,” we’re probably not truly devoted to Jesus, and we’re really just desiring sin.

When you’re choosing your next game, think about the sins that you specifically struggle with. If you have a tendency towards anger or hatred, you should avoid games centered around violence. If you struggle with lust, don’t play games marked with sexual content. If you’re a former or current drug addict or alcoholic, avoid stirring up those desires with a game marked by “drug use” or “alcohol.” If you are susceptible to making video games your idol, you may not want to purchase any at all (or if you really must, buy ones that aren’t deep and immersive or addictive).

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When deciding whether to buy a game, you have to compare both the content of the game and your own maturity. If you think a game will cause you to have intelligent and wise thoughts, such as “Is it ever okay to use violence for a good cause? Was XYZ a good choice? Are lies acceptable in any situations?” then it may be a good choice to play that game. If it may not cause you to have thoughts as deep as those, but the thoughts it does cause are mostly innocent, a la “Whoa! That was awesome! What a cool explosion!” then you may want to consider getting another game, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea to get this one. However, depending on your maturity level, these thoughts can be a slippery slope to cruel-spirited ones like: “Hahahaha! Killing civilians is hilarious!”

However, there are some games that I believe Christians shouldn’t play, period. One of these types of games is the game that blatantly glorifies sin. Games like Grand Theft Auto fall into this category: namely, games that glorify violence, generally in the form of murder, against the likes of innocent civilians, cops, and rival gangs. …Which, of course, you commit in bulk. Desensitization to violence or death is real, and should and can be avoided at all costs. We’re made in the image of God, and life is precious. (It is worth noting, though, that this is very different from a game that has military or justified violence.) Games that depict grotesque, horrid or demonic-looking creatures or claim to show actual demons should also be avoided not only on the amount of scariness, which may or may not apply to you, but because of the dark, false spiritual content that is frequently attached. While there may be some Christians that are probably solid enough in their faith that they can easily pick apart the false religions in these kinds of games, they sure don’t live up to the standards of Philippians 4:8, because dark and disturbing images have a way of sticking in your head, and the twisted spirituality will likely come along for the ride.
ESRB-May-Contain-Content-Inappropriate-For-Children-small
So, all in all, it would be unwise to say something along the lines of “I’m never ever going to play or buy any M rated games.” We have to remember the inherent imperfection in ratings, the effect a game’s content can have on our spirit, and our own maturity and susceptibilities. If you follow these guidelines and select games appropriate for yourself (or your children), these games can become useful for entertainment, stress relief or fellowship with others.

If you’re still a child, the odds are you are simply not able to accurately judge whether you’re mature enough to play certain games. This is why, even if your parents don’t force you to, you ought to continue to rely on them to make the final call on whether you should be allowed to buy the latest shoot-em-up. (After all, you may be just a tad bit biased.) If you’re a parent, don’t instantly drop the ball when you see that M on the box of the game your child is asking for. But, after you compare the game’s content with your child’s level of maturity, don’t be afraid to give either response to their request, even if it means they’ll be disappointed.

Like Wreck-It Ralph, we’ve gotta take it “one game at a time.”

A Solid Debut – “Clarity” Review

Zedd-album-clarity-e1349219645299Take your average electro artist, and he’ll be the equivalent of a decent rock band. That’d make German EDM artist Zedd the equivalent of an orchestra. His debut album, Clarity, displays some of the finest music that EDM has to offer, whether in the form of progressive electro, vocal electro or complextro. (Yep, all “-lectro” derivatives.) Comprised mostly of soaring vocals, fuzzy synths and complex bass hooks, this album is one of the best debuts I’ve heard in a long time.

Zedd got his beginnings with some decent complextro, heavily influenced by artists such as Wolfgang Gartner. (Complextro is a subgenre of electro music defined by melodic and complex bass lines, originaly coined by Wolfgang Gartner.) This influence is definitely noticeable on Clarity, mostly on straight-up bangers like “Shave It Up” and “Stache.” The guy definitely knows what sounds good in a concert or party setting, as I’m sure these songs are crazily popular at his concerts as a result of their memorable hooks and wall-shaking basslines.

However, Zedd’s best tunes are definitely his vocal electro tracks. While you don’t hear vocals too often in electro (while they’re found more often in dubstep or trance), they work incredibly well here. Due to some connections in Skrillex’s label, OWSLA, he’s fetched some great vocal talent to complement his instrumentation, including British singers Foxes and Ellie Goulding. These combinations work so well that you really just have to listen to them. Zedd knows exactly how to balance the soaring vocals and his own electronic sounds so that they’re both prevalent, yet never overshadowing each other. He also knows exactly what sounds to use and when to use them to display the emotions of his songs effortlessly, whether it be a bittersweet love song or an on-top-of-the-world feeling.

Zedd completely avoids “Where-Have-I-Heard-This-Before Syndrome” with chord progressions that are mostly unfamiliar, yet easy to follow. Better yet, the first time through, you’ll probably lift your head up a few times when you hear a chord you didn’t see coming, then smile as you enjoy something you earnestly haven’t heard before. (Wait, maybe this is just what I did.)

As to be expected with a secular EDM album, Zedd’s music falls somewhat short in the department of lyrics. However, there are some moments when the songwriting does well, most noticeably on the songs “Hourglass” and “Clarity.” The lyrics on their own are nothing worth getting terribly excited (or emotional) about, but combined with Zedd’s masterful instrumentation, they really become something memorable. Still, none of them broach any new territory, mostly falling into the broad categories of “regret songs,” “love songs” and “songs that you can’t decide whether they’re highly artistic or just meaningless.”

Best Songs:

“Hourglass” is one of my favorite electro tracks ever. This bittersweet vocal and piano-driven masterpiece is the definite highlight of the album.

“Shave It Up” shows off Zedd’s considerable complextro chops at their best, with memorable bass lines and synths aplenty.

“Epos,” the album closer, shows some softer electro, combined with complextro and a unique chord progression for a unique and memorable track.

Weakest Tracks:

“Lost At Sea” is a decent song, but the lackluster songwriting and bland melodies single it out starkly against the rest of the album.

“Codec” has an interesting melody, but the drops seem underproduced and the melodies too simple to live up to the tracks around it.

Overall Opinion:

With Clarity, Zedd has certainly made himself noticeable in the EDM community, with his own unique takes on vocal electro and complextro. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best debuts I’ve seen in a long time, and possibly my favorite EDM album.

9 out of 10 stars.

Rollercoaster Ride – “The Third” Review

Family-Force-5-The-Third-2013-Album-TracklistOne thing’s for sure: Family Force 5 doesn’t like to put out the same album twice. This idea carries over into their latest album, The Third. When Family Force 5 released their aptly titled third album, III, there was a bit of an uproar, caused by the Family’s seeming departure from their 100% clean lyrics. Songs like “Mamacita” and “Dang Gurl,” though not nearly as troublesome as most tracks from the “party” scene, were less innocent than most fans would have preferred. Whether it was by the record company or by the band, the wise decision was made to re-release the album with an altered track list. Now titled The Third, this album sports eight tracks from the original album, with the less fortunate tracks replaced with two songs from the III.V EP. The question is not whether the album was improved by this decision, but whether the Family’s latest lives up to their previous material.

Their debut, Business in the Front, Party in the Back, was a fresh, original “crunk rock” record, full of crunchy guitars and hip-hop beats. Dance or Die, their sophomore album, was an equally unique dance album, harkening back to the 80′s. The Third takes an approach closer to that of modern pop, whilse still retaining some of the Family’s freshness. However, something this album severely lacks is a sense of continuity. One can expect some changes in flow from a re-release, but the frequent changes in guitars and synths do not work in its favor. These stylistic changes give the album a disjointed feel, which is disappointing. It feels less like an album as it does a collection of songs. And, as would be expected with an album so disjointed, there are definite highs and lows.

The highs are certainly found in the songs where Family Force 5 nails the combination between their previous sounds. While they mostly drop the 80′s vibe here, the dance elements from their sophomore album are here and in front. While the crunchy guitars and southern twang are less prevalent, they can still be heard on some songs. The tracks where these two aspects come together are the highlights of the album, most notably “Paycheck” and “Love Gone Wrong.”

The lows of this album are songs that are hard to categorize into a genre. If I were to name it, it might be called “whatweretheythinking.” Songs like “Can You Feel It” and “Get On Outta Here” are not only meaningless lyrically, but their music is nearly cringe-worthy. As I said before, the songs are highly unique, but that doesn’t make them good.

However, the pitfall that most of this album falls into is the category of mediocre songs. (Random note – there really ought to be an ode to all songs from this category, titled “Land of Misfit Songs.”) I cannot recall a single note of “Superhero” or “Not Alone,” whereas some songs I would have preferred to have forgotten. Songs like “Wobble” and “Zombie” are fun to listen to, but will likely be out of your playlist after the first few listens.

Lyrically, the band hasn’t improved much, or at all, yet this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Family Force 5 has never been a preaching band. They’ve always provided good, clean party music with a positive message, without shoving the Gospel in your face. While this may not sound like a great evangelical strategy, it allows them to witness and empathize with people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard the Gospel or would have ignored it, which they have been known to do – frequently. However, I generally look for artistry in lyrics, which is a large reason why I love music, and there’s not much artistry here. It seems most of the lyrics are meaningless, which seems like a “dumbing down” of a project that could have been much more. But FF5 has always been this way, so if you’re okay with a simple, positive message, you’ll probably enjoy The Third.

Best Tracks:

“Paycheck” – Family Force 5 has done what few bands have been able to do before: create a song about money that doesn’t idolize it. It takes the best elements from their first two albums and combines them with a message inspired by some of their fans.

“Love Gone Wrong” – Similar to “Paycheck,” this song tells a story using the best elements of the Family’s reportoire.

“Cray Button (ft. Lecrae)” – I feel like a hypocrite. Not only do I hate overproduced pop music, but I find the word “cray” (a replacement for “crazy”) incredibly annoying. Yet, while this song falls under both categories and doesn’t fit in with any other FF5 song, I can’t help but love this catchy, bassy tune.

Weakest Tracks:

“Get On Outta Here” – A rather meaningless song, seemingly about kicking some guy out of a club. Even if Satan is the metaphorical party crasher, it still feels mean-spirited and lame musically.

“Can You Feel It” – This song is…weird. It’s pretty hard to describe, you really just have to listen to it (or ignore it.) Lyrics are equally mediocre.

Overall Opinion:

With “The Third,” Family Force 5 has created a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Some people may choose to buy it simply because they enjoy the band, but because of the stylistic change, I’d recommend listening to the songs first and picking which ones to buy (if any). That’s not to say “The Third” is a bad album by any means, but it’s certainly not the Family’s best. Call me a hipster, but it seems like they might be going mainstream.

6.5 out of 10 stars.

Into The Arcade – “Wreck-It Ralph” Review

ImageWhen I started seeing trailers and movie posters for Disney’s newest animated family film, Wreck-It Ralph, my expectations were not too high. I wasn’t expecting the film to be much more than a money grab for the parents of video game-addicted children. When my family rented it for movie night, I was admittedly even less excited. (I secretly thought we should have rented The Dark Knight Rises, though that probably wouldn’t have been for family movie night.) However, when we popped in the disc and started the movie, I quickly was sucked into the universe of the arcade.

The premise of the movie is that Ralph is the beefy-handed “bad guy” of the popular arcade game, “Fix-It Felix Jr.” He’s unhappy with his life because while Felix and the denizens of Niceville reside in the skyscraper where the game takes place, he lives alone in the nearby dump. Shortly into the film, he becomes enamored with the idea of getting a medal, convinced that he’ll be accepted. He eventually ends up in the kart racer, Sugar Rush, where he meets Vannelope Von Schweetz, a young girl who wants to become a racer in her game.I can’t say much more without spoiling much of the plot, which is rather complicated for a family film.

The premise of the movie actually turns out to be very good. Anyone who has played a few video games before will be grinning when the arcade closes and the characters start coming to life. The way in which the transition from real world to game world happens is very clever, and the transition from pixelated characters to three-dimensional ones is equally so. Inclusion of both old school and new school characters is also very cool.

The two best things Wreck-It… has going for it are its plot and its high level of cleverness. The plot, as said above, is pretty complex for a Disney film, but flows well and isn’t hard to follow at all. Anyone who is prone to crying may want to keep a few tissues nearby, because if you connect with the characters well, there will be a few tear-jerking scenes. There are multiple twists in the plot near the end, which are for the most part completely unexpected and turn your assumptions about some of the characters on their head. There are a few minor plot holes (which I’ll refrain from saying), but they don’t ruin the film and are easy to overlook.

The best thing about this film, though, is its sheer wit. Most of the jokes in the film are actually worth laughing at, which is more than could be said for most children’s films today. The way characters move and interact with each other correspond to how their games work, some of which are hilarious simply to watch. (Most of) the characters also work together well, and are pretty likeable. Fix-It Felix is actually incredibly funny because of just how good of a “good guy” he is.

You don’t even have to like video games to enjoy the movie, because despite the numerous game references and cameos, the plot isn’t centered around them and is therefore easy to follow even for those who know little to nothing about video games. Even my mother, who has never liked video games, enjoyed the film and laughed with the rest of us.

However, Wreck-It Ralph isn’t without its flaws. While it’s not terribly prominent, there is some unneeded potty humor in places. While most jokes are tasteful, these seem completely unnecessary. (However, the inevitable comparison between the words “duty” and “doody” admittedly made me giggle just because of how it was presented.) While the film is essentially free of any language, there are also some poorly veiled references to cuss words (“move your molasses,” etc.).

What’s really unfortunate is that the biggest flaw in the film is one of its main characters. Vanellope, the girl in Sugar Rush who wants to be a racer, is simply unlikable. Her backstory is actually interesting, and the dilemmas she faces are as well, but her personality can best be described as “really annoying.” Her voice is unpleasant and raspy, and she seems to remain hyper and insulting the entire film. Much of what comes out of her mouth is a taunt of some sort, and these taunts make up most of the potty humor in the film. She’s a main character, so the viewer is treated to her raspy insults throughout much of the film.

Wreck-It-Ralph-Game

Overall Opinion:

While having some flaws,Wreck-It Ralph is definitely a good movie. While it’ll never live up to the greats such as Toy Story or Finding Nemo, it’s definitely worth renting and enjoying with the family. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it unless you really enjoy it, but I would definitely endorse seeing it.

7.5 out of 10 stars. sure you’ll enjoy it.

Wait…Indie Metal Is A Thing? – “Assemble Dismantle Repair” Review

Assemble Dismantle Repair

Not to be confused with “Amadeus.”

It’s no secret that I have an affinity towards indie bands. While there may be a lot of less-than-interesting music to weed through, once you have, you find a goldmine of artistry, unhindered by producers or record labels. Independent metal band AmeDeus  (loosely translated from Latin as “Love of God,” or possibly “God of Love) is a definite example of that unhindered artistry, as shown with their latest EP, Assemble Dismantle Repairwith which they have definitely proven themselves worthy of a record deal.

Musically, this sixteen-minute, three track ride doesn’t let up in the slightest. (The tracks are aptly titled “Assemble,” “Dismantle” and “Repair.”) It hits you with grungy guitars from the beginning of “Assemble,” yet complements with almost solely clean vocals for the first 80 seconds, reminiscent of the style of Wolves At The Gate. However, when the screams kick in at 1:20, there’s a sense of raw emotion in contrast to the amount of cleans. The screams are not amazing, though they’re very similar to Mike Hranica’s from The Devil Wears Prada. Still, they’re decent, and as a result of the sparse use, I find myself excited for the next scream section.

The instruments of this band really have it all together. The solos and chords are very technical (which, contrary to popular belief, does not necessarily mean that it sounds good), and it works very well with the vocals. In stark contrast to bands like August Burns Red, breakdowns are also used sparsely, but when they’re used, they’re really, really good. Deliciously good. As in, you may grow a beard as a result. (Okay, maybe not.) The band doesn’t seem to follow much of a familiar structure (such as verse / chorus), but there are repeated sections so that you’re not completely lost. There are dueling harmonies and guitar licks aplenty, not to mention many other techniques I can’t name, that all sound extremely good.

Lyrically, these guys have written a masterpiece. In three tracks, it seems they have hit on many, if not most of the major points of the Gospel, most of it done through direct paraphrase of Scripture. “Assemble” tells the story of man’s fall, taken from Genesis 1-3. “Dismantle” shows man’s rebellion after being removed from Eden, inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:18-19. “Repair” tells about God’s sacrifice, and later, about how Satan will be removed from power and every knee will bow, taken from Revelation 1: 17-18, among other places.

Most bands who quote scripture, either directly or indirectly, come off dreadfully forced and cheesy. However, AmeDeus has managed to condense more scripture into a three-track metal EP than most worship bands do in an album, and still sound poetic and artistic. The lyrical influence of Oh, Sleeper is plentiful, as every lyric is from the perspective of one of three actors in the story: “Man,” referring to men individually or collectively, depending on the context, “Creator,” the voice and thoughts of God, and “Deceiver,” the voice of the serpent / Satan. (The band has helpfully provided lyrics on their Bandcamp page, including notations for different perspectives.)

Overall Opinion:

AmeDeus is definitely a band worth a listen. With Assemble… they’ve pulled off their own unique spin on the metal / metalcore genre, arguably better than many bands in the mainstream industry, Christian or secular. With musical artistry and excellent, scripture-based lyrics, this EP is definitely worth your money.

9.5 out of 10 stars.

Listen to / purchase the album for $3.00 here!

Identity Crisis – “Release The Panic” Review

Release The PanicOver the years, Red has floated in and out of that zone of Christian bands who are too hard to be called just rock, but aren’t really hard enough to be hard rock. Their debut, End Of Silencewas a gem, but their subsequent releases became increasingly generic. Before releasing their latest, Red promised a change in style, but whether they followed through is a topic of debate.

Musically, Release The Panic is fairly sub-par for the band. The singing is hasn’t changed much since the band’s inception, but goodness gracious, Michael Barnes’s screams have become awful! Rather than a unique, raw fry scream like End of Silence, or even his decent false chord scream from the previous two albums, it has been replaced with a lackluster yell / growl, which does NOT compliment his voice at all. His voice when singing is near perfect, which actually annoys me. I enjoy hearing the raw emotion of a singer’s voice, and it’s lost when there’s pitch correction, or when the singer sings different parts then edits them together, which seems to be the case here. I am a firm believer that the band should play the song through from start to finish when recording, rather than piecing it together.

But I digress.

The guitars and drumming, in general, have really not changed at all, which is frustrating considering the amount of change the fans (myself included) were hoping for. The differences that the band was referring to are not as apparent as they made it seem. The guitars sound grungier, but that’s about the extent of the change. The really strange thing is how split the album feels. There are heavy songs that are arguably heavier than anything Red has done before, yet the lighter songs sound like they’re made for K-Love. While some of these songs are good on their own, placing them all in the same album makes for a very strange listening experience. Unfortunately, Red has chosen to follow the stereotypical Christian rock formula for most of the songs, which consists of a sung chorus, screamed pre-chorus, and a screamed / sung chorus. While there are a few standout tracks, the music doesn’t stand up to any of Red’s previous records.

Lyrically, the songs are very generic. They cover most of the usual topics of Christian rock: Man is fallen, man needs help, man receives help. What’s worse is that there are very few references to God, blatant or vague. Not a great effort.

Best Tracks:

Despite the new screams, “Release The Panic” is still pretty good, especially the chorus.

While it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album AT ALL, “Die For You” is a pretty good song on its own.

“Hold Me Now” unfortunately is yet another ‘cry of desperation’ track, but is musically the best track on the album.

Weakest Tracks:

It’s hard to pick a weakest song from this album – not because they’re all good, but because most of them are mediocre.

However, I don’t like “Same Disease.” In addition to yet another song about brokenness, the song comes off as annoying.

Both of the remixes on the deluxe version are mediocre, and obvious attempts to cash in on the dubstep fad. (There’s a definite difference between the legitimate dubstep genre and the fad that it has become.)

Overall Opinion:

While I respect Red for trying to branch out, this album was probably their worst. I don’t think anyone would mind if they returned to their unique, post-grunge sound and refined it rather than changing heir sound dramatically. I doubt any of the musicians in this band were challenged at all during the recording of this album, which is what an artist should always stride for. Unless you’re a diehard Red fan, I’d recommend downloading the first three tracks and ignoring the rest. The best thing to come from this album? A re-release of “Breathe Into Me (Remix Acustica),” which was originally only found on the rare deluxe version of End Of Silence.

5 out of 10 stars.

High Expectations – “Vital” Review

anberlin_vital Anberlin has always been a good band, but when they created the album Cities, they became something brilliant. Their unique blend of alt-rock, synths and Stephen Christian’s unique vocals came together perfectly to make a positively amazing album. Then…there was New Surrender. It was still a decent album, but there was something missing. It was like the raw emotion of Cities wasn’t there anymore.

The explanation for this is that Aaron Sprinkle, the producer of Cities, did not produce New Surrender or the following album. When news broke last year that Anberlin was bringing him back as a producer, expectations were set high. REALLY high. As in, “could-this-album-ever-be-better-or-even-as-good-as-Cities?” high.

The answer is no. However, Vital comes pretty close.

When I put the CD in and was greeted with “Self-Starter,” I had mixed feelings, but I needed to remind myself that this album wasn’t Cities, it was Vital. The first thing I noticed was that Stephen Christian’s vocals have changed significantly. They’re still instantly recognizable, but some of his unique tone and pronunciation has been lost. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I know quite a few people who don’t like Anberlin because “the singer sounds weird.” (Their words, certainly not mine.) While I may not love the change in vocal style, it may not even be something that could be changed. Some singers sound very different later in their career than they did in the beginning.

In general, though, the album is very good musically. For the most part, Anberlin seems to have refined their unique, heavy alt-rock style rather than deviating from it. There are a few tracks that aren’t standard fare (“Other Side,” “Innocent”), but they work well in the flow of the album. My only disappointments: There’s a lack of synths throughout the album except for one or two synth-heavy songs, and a couple that include them, And the vocals are frequently put through a filter, which is not only annoying, but when used poorly, can destroy an album. It thankfully doesn’t here, but it does bother me.

Lyrics, though, are where Vital is weaker. Anberlin has never been terribly up-front with their Christianity, but Cities made references to it (including some very good ones in their masterpiece of a closer, “(*Fin)” ). However, Vital is not strong in this area. I have trouble finding much meaning in most of the songs. (This is why I wish that every CD and every MP3 download had a booklet explaining the meanings behind every song). There are still a couple of references to God, but not many. Some lyrics sometimes seem to (almost) go against what the band believes, like:

“Don’t we all want to be loved,
Don’t we all write our own songs,
Don’t we all learn right from wrong…” (“Modern Age”)

If Anberlin is a Christian band, it seems they would have chosen to end the song (or change it) with the idea that God is the writer of our lives, and something to reconcile the line about right and wrong. Ironically, the best lyrics come from “God, Drugs and Sex,” the song with the title that probably steered many people away from this album. However, it’s a great song. The lyrics are about how a relationship between a Christian and a non-Christian is destined not to work, and how God, drugs and sex just don’t mix.

Best Tracks:

“God, Drugs and Sex” is the best song on the album, easily. Featuring great vocals without noticable filters, a softer side of the instruments, and great lyrics, this is not a song to be missed.

“Someone Anyone” is like the “Hello Alone” of Vital – the similarities are instantly apparent. However, it’s a unique, synth-heavy rocker that I really enjoy.

“Self-Starter” (which happens to be the opening track), is another great rock track, though lacking in synths, but I hope Anberlin makes more songs like this.

I really love the music of “Modern Age;” it’s definitely the best on the album, but it does have the aforementioned lyrics problem, which kind of reduces my enjoyment of it. However, the music still (mostly) redeems this track. Because it’s really, really good music.

Weakest Tracks:

“Innocent” is okay lyrically, and okay musically. In fact, that’s the best word to describe this track: “okay.” It’s too synth / filter heavy for my tastes.

Weird, abrupt section changes, uninteresting lyrics, and unnecessary gang vocals make up “Desires.” This would have been better as a B-side track

vitall

Overall Opinion:

Going into Vital, you simply cannot expect every aspect of Cities repeated over again (which I made the mistake of doing the first time I listened to it). While it definitely doesn’t surpass Cities on my list, it’s an easy #2 for the band, and it grew on me the more I listened to it. Despite its imperfections, this is still a great album and an easy recommendation for any fan of Anberlin or good rock music.

8.5 out of 10 stars.

Not Just a Skrillex Clone – “The Dead Symphonic EP” Review

20130203-222324.jpgRemember a few days ago when I gave my opinion on pop music? I supported it with Wikipedia’s definition of pop music. Part of it was this:

“…the main goal is usually that of being pleasurable to listen to, rather than having much artistic depth.”

This applies to not just pop music. There are quite a few genres that generally fit into this definition, dubstep being one of them. One of the few artists that consistently transcends this definition is Zomboy.

Despite not having released an LP, Zomboy quickly rose to the top of Beatport’s dubstep and drum and bass charts. This success can probably be attributed in part to his similarity to the crazily popular Skrillex (I’m pretty sure he’s even used some Skrillex samples), but he definitely has his own unique style. His second outing, The Dead Symphonic EP, defines his style even better than before.

The album dropped in September of last year. It’s got some unneccesarily gross album art (nothing grotesque or gory, just some unneeded creepy zombie figures, mostly silhouettes, but some have some visible wounds), but when you get past that, you find some dubstep gold. The EP is short enough that I’ll do a track-by-track breakdown.

Nuclear (Hands Up): Definitely one of the better tracks on the EP, Nuclear starts out with a reggae-ish intro, with the repeated call of “C’mon, now lemme see ya hands in the air.” Obviously not the most meaningful lyrics, but it’s made up for with the excellent drop in classic Zomboy style. The second drop surprised me a little – rather than a remixed version of the first, like most dubstep, Zomboy basically turned the second half of the song into the only DnB (drum and bass) song I like. Definitely a standout track.

Hoedown: This track is not great. In fact, it’s pretty poor. It starts off with a generic one-note wobble behind some staccato strings and some generic drums. The drop is introduced with an Angry Birds sample, which is interesting but a little strange. The drop is unique, but I just didn’t like it. There was a little too much high-pitched oscillation for my tastes.

Vancouver Beatdown: One of my favourite dubstep tracks ever, and the best on the EP. It’s also one of the few dubstep tracks that compells you to dance rather than headbang (or spasm awkwardly). There’s no defining structure other than the beginnning of the first drop, yet the whole song flows flawlessly, and there’s some surprising sonic changes throughout the song. Definitely a keeper. (I apologize for all the alliteration so far. I promise I’m not trying.)

City 2 City: I’ve never been a fan of vocal dubstep, but this track works better than most others. Unfortunately, like most EDM with lyrics, the words are pretty meaningless.

“City to city, we’re stepping on the same ground
Make it loud, come listen to the sounds like
Whoa, whoa
Open our eyes if you’re dying in the sunlight
Try try, but don’t always get it right like
Whoa, whoa”

Still, Belle Humble’s vocals are good despite the emptiness of what’s being sung, and dubstep is really meant only for entertainment and musical artistry, never to make someone ponder lyrics. Thinking sonically, though, the drop would probably be Zomboy’s best if it weren’t for the awkward reversions to the intro that happen occasionally, which really detract from the song. Still, the drop is good, with more bass than Zomboy usually uses, making this still a solid track. The unnessecary use of “2″ in the title still bothers me, though.

Deadweight: This track isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really stand out. The intro is pretty predictable, and the drop isn’t amazing either, but at the same time, I can’t find anything else bad to say about it. Not a track to skip, but not one to seek out either.

Gorilla March: I really can’t stand this track. Not only does it disappoint because it has nothing to do with gorillas (which could have been really cool), but it’s very annoying. The intro is mediocre, and the drop is just a 4-5 note hook replayed with some vocals being sampled crazily fast plus DnB percussion, which I rarely enjoy. I never listen to it all the way through. It’s too bad this was chosen as the closer.

Best Tracks:

“Nuclear (Hands Up)” is a catchy, dancable track, along with “Vancouver Beatdown”, which is very unique.

Weakest Tracks:

“Hoedown” is pretty repetitive, and has more high pitched sounds than bass, but “Gorilla March” is just awful.

Overall Opinion:

Zomboy has definitely improved with this EP, and has more of a distinct style – he’s no Skrillex copycat. While there were some poorer songs, the EP as a whole is pretty good. Rather than purchasing the whole album, priced at $6.00 on iTunes, I’d recommend picking up the two strongest tracks and possibly “City 2 City.”

6 out of 10 stars.

Three Legitimate Reasons for Hating Pop Music

Warning: this article contains strong opinions. It may change some of your beliefs about music, or in some extreme cases, have you listening to artists with genuine talent. Reader discretion is advised.

The term “pop” has evolved over the years. Pop music originally was a softer version of rock and roll, and more appealing to the masses. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summarizing pop music:

“There are core elements which define pop. Such include generally short-to-medium length songs, written in a basic format (often the verse-chorus structure), as well as the common employment of repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and catchy hooks.

So-called “pure pop” music, such as power pop, features all these elements, using electric guitars, drums and bass for instrumentation; in the case of such music, the main goal is usually that of being pleasurable to listen to, rather than having much artistic depth. Pop music is generally thought of as a genre which is commercially recorded and desires to have a mass audience appeal.”

I think this is a pretty fair definition. Like any branch of music, pop has many subgenres (some good ones including piano pop and pop / punk), and there are a few of these that I enjoy. However, in recent years, “pop” has come to mean “whatever music is popular.” The problem is that most popular music is terrible music.

In general, I try not to bash anyone else’s music tastes (and I don’t plan to in this article), but I’m baffled why so many people enjoy music from the Top 40. I can’t understand why they don’t see what is so blatantly clear to me.

1. The music is mind-numbingly dull.

Part of this is personal preference, but the other part is the repetitive, redundant and repetition-filled songs. Really, though, have you ever listened to Top 40 radio with a critical ear?

Most “pop” songs use the exact same structure: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus. I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with this structure; many artists of other genres use it successfully. At least, there’s nothing wrong with it on its own.

It gets more repetitive when you break it down further, though. After hearing Top 40 radio all summer at my local public pool, I quickly noticed something worse: they all used the same chord structure, or at least something similar. You’ve got your happy / dance songs, your sad songs, and not much else. This, too, is not that bad on its own, but it gets even worse.

Then you have the blatantly obvious: there’s little change in sound from song to song, almost ever. Most “pop” music today has a thumping beat, some kind of synth sound, and a singer. None of these elements on their own make for bad music necessarily, but when you put them together, you have a specific formula for producing music that people just eat up, for some reason. Some other musical things wrong with “pop” are:

Autotune: This serves no purpose. If the artist uses this to cover missed notes, they should buy singing lessons instead of buying fame. If the artist just thinks it sounds cool…it just doesn’t. They’re smothering any emotion the song was trying to convey.

Attitude: If these people are trying to sound like they don’t give a (insert interjection of the artist’s choice here), they’re succeeding. And I don’t understand why people like it.

Ke$ha: In addition to following the “pop” formula exactly, Ke$ha talk-sings. Her voice moves up and down, but it’s not really singing. It has a vague rhythm, but it’s not really rapping. It just sounds kinda stupid…and on top of that, it’s autotuned. And this garbage sells millions. It makes me angry.

Still, most of what I’ve said so far is just my personal preference. If you’re not bothered by a simple, repetitive structure, that doesn’t really bother me. There are plenty of artists I like that have a somewhat predictable sound; so this reason may only apply to a few people. (However, I cannot understand anyone liking Ke$ha.)

But this isn’t where the real problems are.

2. The lyrics show one desire – the opposite gender.

Have you ever wondered why children nowadays are more infatutated with romance, and earlier, than ever before? It could have something to do with the music they hear.

Take Justin Bieber. Who makes up most of his fanbase? Teenage girls. I’m not generalizing, I know that not all teen girls like the Biebs, but it’s a fact that most people that like his music are teen girls. Why is this? Because everything he sings is a love song of some sort.

Some examples are such lyrical masterpieces as “Baby,” “One Less Lonely Girl,” “Boyfriend,” and many more. I’m not saying that love songs are a bad thing, but it’s literally ALL HE SINGS. The ONLY exceptions are “Pray” and his covers of Christmas songs. And when someone listens to love songs constantly, romance is gonna be on their mind constantly.

Obviously music isn’t the only culprit responsible for lovestruck eight-year-olds, but it certainly contributes. What few songs in the pop industry are not about love are generally about alcohol, partying and even drugs. It’s amazing what gets on the radio – I can think of a few songs which are either blatantly sexual or talk frankly about smoking weed or doing drugs. But hey, that’s what people like, right?

Which leads me to the biggest issue with “pop” music.

3. It’s all a money grab anyway.

Justin Bieber is a talented guy. I have no problem admitting this. Yet, when I hear his music, I don’t hear much of his talent. Why is this? Production. (I know this is a little hipster-y, but this whole section also explains why I like indie music, and why it’s almost always better.) I looked up some old JB videos, and I respected him. The guy was a good singer and a good drummer. Why the change?

His career follows the same path as a lot of “pop” artists: He was discovered by an agent while he was singing something good, then was turned into a pop idol. It wouldn’t have mattered if Bieber had wanted to sing another style of music; his producers knew that songs with power-pop instrumentals were popular, so that’s what he sung. They knew that tween girls would go crazy over him, so they had him sing love songs. And a star was born…or something like that.

It’s surprising how many pop idols were once just humble, talented singers. Justin Bieber, One Direction, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, just to name a few. In fact, many pop idols were once Christians or at least religious. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry used to sing in their churches, and even Lady Gaga used to be Catholic. We can’t judge for sure whether they are Christians, but most of them don’t seem to show it with their lifestyle.

Because that’s what many producers and record labels do: they take people with genuine talent and reimage them into whatever’s popular. (Compare Owl City’s old music with his new music for an easy example.) Sometimes I wonder if the stars themselves really realize how much they’ve been taken advantage of. Sure, their career will end with them being rich, but when they decide that they want to start writing their own music and make songs with meaning, their fifteen minutes will already be up. It’s sad, really.

When you hear the next terrible, overproduced pop song on the radio, you’ll know it’s not really the artist’s fault that the song stinks, but the producer(s). I’m not saying producers are evil, but many of them take advantage of the artists and strip them of their old identity and ther creativity, and replace it with what the masses want. That’s just what the industry does.

So that’s why I hate pop music. It’s not wrong to enjoy some of it. Even I have listened to One Direction voluntarily…multiple times. So if there’s some pop that you like, I’m certainly not telling you to stop listening to it completely. However, I have trouble listening to most of it because of my personal music tastes and the tasteless lyrics, but even if I could reconcile those, I don’t think I would ever pump any of my money into the pop music industry because of what it does to talent and the people who have it.