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.

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!

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.

Acoustic Music at its Best – “The Weight Of Glory” Review

ImageHeath McNease creates a very interesting, diverse kind of music. Taken from his site’s biography:

“Growing up, his mom gave him The Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles. His brothers gave him gangster rap. Classic rock, blues, and folk would eventually collide with his love for hip hop and…yes…musical theatre.”

Heath makes good hip-hop, but I’ve always been drawn more to his acoustic music, which has always been really good. In August of last year, he undertook a project of high expectations: an album based solely on the works of C.S. Lewis, entitled The Weight Of Glory.

Lyrically, this album is VERY good. I haven’t read many of C.S. Lewis’s books (only the Narnia books) but from what I can tell and from what people have told me, Heath does an excellent job summarizing the key points of Lewis’s books, into 3-4 minute songs, no less. I personally like the lyrics in “The Four Loves” and “Surprised By Joy.”

Musically, this album is even better. Heath has definitely found his niche in acoustic music. That’s not to say his hip-hop is bad, but his artistry is shown better through his acoustic music. The Weight of Glory only includes one song with rapping (“Mere Christianity”), where it does fit pretty well.

While Heath’s acoustic guitar and voice are the driving musical forces throughout the album, they are frequently accompanied by other instruments, such as the piano, tambourine, xylophone, synth and occasionally, a lightly distorted electric guitar. Each song is different in its arrangement, and it works extremely well. Only a few songs are below par for this album, and even they aren’t tracks you’d want to skip.

Heath’s voice is also top-notch. He’s got a great vocal range, singing high notes for songs like “Screwtape Letters” and “Surprised By Joy,” and singing lowly and intimately for “A Grief Observed” and “The World’s Last Night,” and a mix for most of the other songs, most notably the album’s closer, “The Weight Of Glory.” On only one song does his voice become unpleasant: “Edmund,” where there’s a frequent cry of “Edmund….” but it ends up sounding more like “Wuhhmuhhh….”

Best Songs:

“A Grief Observed” is a great track, featuring only Heath and his guitar, singing “Mercy on my soul…”

The incredibly catchy “The Problem of Pain” is unique lyrically, and is stuck in my head…a lot. Did I mention it’s catchy?

Weakest Songs:

“Edmund” has the aforementioned problem, plus it just doesn’t stand out that much. It’s the only track I skip.

“The Great Divorce” has a drum pattern that sounds a little strange, and a little too upbeat compared to the rest of the album. Still a good song, but not a great one.

Overall Opinion:

The Weight Of Glory is a great album. Anyone who is a fan of Heath McNease, C.S. Lewis or just good music should pick this up immediately. 9 out of 10 stars.

…which leads me to the best part. This album is 100% free to download from NoiseTrade.com or Heath’s BandCamp page, as are all but two of his other albums. If you like this one, I’d recommend downloading his older album, The House Always Wins, or if you’re interested in his hip-hop, The Nintendo Thumb Mixtape.

Sophomore slump? Nope! “The Fourth Wall” Review

ImageThe Vespers, a female-fronted folk / bluegrass band from Nashville, have become pretty popular – which is impressive, noting that after two full LPs, they’re still indie. Their first album, Tell Your Mama was temporarily released for free on NoiseTrade, and it was a solid debut. Word of mouth brought them quite a few fans, and they released The Fourth Wall April of last year.

Now, the problem a lot bands run into when they start out is a ‘sophomore slump.’ That’s when a band pours all of their content and talent into their debut, and their second album ends up really bad in comparison. Thankfully, The Fourth Wall doesn’t fall into this category. Before listening to The Vespers, I didn’t really like folk music, and now I have them to thank for letting me enjoy it. They’ve improved on their already good formula and made it an excellent one.

Lyrical content has vastly improved since their debut. Tell Your Mama had good messages in some places, such as: “I pray The Lord your wounds to heal,” or the message in the title track, but many of the lyrics were vague, or in some cases, downright strange, most notably the ones in “Melatonin Rum.”

“Two linked hands make toodleroos
But gamma rays can make them too
Oh, The Taming of the Shrew
Have you seen it? No. Have you?”

However, The Fourth Wall has excellent lyrics. My favorite lyrics on the album come from “Got No Friends.”

“Well I got no friends today,
And I wonder if tomorrow will be the same,
But I know, no matter what I do,
Jesus, I will always have a friend in you!”

Simple reminders of truths like these are found throughout the whole album. The Vespers aren’t really a band that leaves their words open to interpretation – their message is crystal clear. They’re one of the few artists talented enough to be up front about the Gospel, yet not be cheesy or boring-sounding about it, which is refreshing.

Musically, the band has also improved. The instrumentals, which are handled by every member of the band, are very diverse. Nearly every song has a different combination of instruments, from the banjo to the piano to the ukelele. It may sound weird, but it just works, especially in instrument-heavy songs like “Footprints In The Snow” and “Jolly Robber.” The production quality is also upped from the last album, and is impressive, noting that they’re still not signed to a record label.

The strongest part of their first album makes a stronger return here: the amazing vocals. Callie and Phoebe Cryar’s voices are great on their own, but together, they complement each other amazingly well. On their debut, they were very quiet, even relaxing, but it’s really nice to hear them showing their full vocal chops in addition to their softer side. It’s hard to describe their voices and how good they sound, you’ll just have to hear them yourself.

Best Songs:

“Flower Flower” is the catchiest and happiest song ever. This issue is not debatable. It’s that happy.

“Grinnin’ In Your Face” features only Callie’s vocals, a cool stomp-clap rhythm and a deliciously raw and southern-y (I don’t think that’s a word) acoustic guitar.

Weakest Songs:

It’s hard to put any song on this album under the category of weak songs, but “Instrument For You” and “Will You Love Me” suffer (mildly) from being forgettable. They’re not bad songs, in fact, they’re pretty good. It’s just that they don’t stand out that much compared to the rest of the album.

Overall Opinion:

Overall, this album is excellent, and I definitely recommend it. 10 out of 10 stars.

If you’re not totally sold yet, check out this sampler from NoiseTrade.com. It features two songs from Tell Your Mama, three from The Fourth Wall and one Live ‘un (yup, that’s what it’s called). Plus, these songs are yours. To keep. Forever. For free.

What Makes A “Christian” Band?

Music is an amazing gift. It can uplift us, it can sympathize with us, and it can tell us stories. Many bands are created by Christians, ranging stylistically from praise and worship to death metal. Yet, this question is asked of almost every band: “Is __________ a Christian band?” The truth is, there’s no one definition for a “Christian band.”

Many people have taken positions on what makes a band Christian, but I would consider a lot of them to be wrong. One interesting quote was made by Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf:

“I don’t know what you mean by a ‘Christian rock band.’ It’s hard to say that because people all have a different definition of what that means. If it means that we’re Christians, then, yeah, we’re Christians, but if a plumber’s a Christian, does that make him a ‘Christian plumber?’ I mean we’re not playing for Christians. We’re just playing honestly and that’s going to come out.”

A lot of people seem to have taken this idea to heart – similar comments can be found all over the internet. The problem is, Lacey’s comparing apples to oranges. When you call a plumber, you’re not asking him to do anything related to your mind or soul. It doesn’t affect your beliefs when he says: “Well, I unplugged your drain and toilet. That’ll be fifty bucks.” However, when you listen to music, something unique happens. The music transports you to the viewpoint of the songwriter, and if the music has a Christian message, that’s probably what you’ll be thinking about while you listen. The same is true for secular or even evil messages – your mind will dwell on those while you listen. (I would consider Flyleaf a Christian band – keep reading for why.)

Another popular viewpoint is that the idea of a “Christian band” is just silly. A frequent comment goes along the lines of “LOL. Christian band. When DC Talk died, it didn’t go to heaven.” This argument just doesn’t make sense, though. It’s attacking a position that doesn’t even exist. No one (I hope) thinks that bands have souls and go to heaven when they “die.”

The most frequent mistake people make, though, is when people over-label bands as Christian. Many people seem to assume that if a band puts out a mostly positive message and doesn’t cuss while doing it, then the only explanation is that it’s a Christian band. It REALLY irks me when someone labels a band Christian because they have one vaguely faith-related song, or one or two of their members are religious. Linkin Park is not Christian. Seriously.

So, how can you define the great line between secular and Christian music? (Underoath fans, see what I did there?) Like I said before, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition. Like many things, you just have to take it on a case by case basis. The main thing you have to look at are a band’s lyrics, which should show where the band’s heart is at. This is the best indicator, because it tells you what message the band really wants to get across. Not every chorus has to be shouting “HALLELUJAH, GLORY ON HIGH!”, but the way you judge a band’s Christianity is similar to the way you judge a person’s – the Gospel doesn’t have to be pouring out of their mouth constantly and awkwardly, but their life and words should show that that’s what they are truly centered around.

So, in the end, whether a band is Christian or not is really up to the interpretation of the listener. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even bad to listen to non-Christian music. It’s fine for entertainment, or for a glimpse into what they believe, but if you’re looking for something to nourish your soul with, it’s best to listen to something that centers around the most positive message of all: the Gospel of Christ.