STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 2: RondoNumbaNine- Rondo Lane (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Aww, yeah – this is some proper subcultural realness right here! Dreadful, muddy mastering? Check! Album art that looks to have been designed on a budget of maybe six dollars? Check! Incomplete and/or misspelled tracklisting? Check! Ratings on RateYourMusic? Six! The closest this guy ever came to a brush with fame was a terrible guest verse on a terrible song by the terrible Lupe Fiasco, and that only came out after he was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison for first degree murder. Psht – and people like The Game have the balls to call themselves gangsters?

Yeah, this is for the enthusiast only, and even for us weirdos it can be kind of a slog sometimes. That stretch from “Savage Up” to “Ridin Dirty” is so littered with horrible guest spots and forgettable beats that it really takes a bite out of the energy, and that’s kind of a mortal blow ‘cos the energy is really all this thing has. Lines like “Choppa spittin’ like a water gun, I’ll spray a nigga like a water gun” really test the limits of my affection and/or tolerance for simplistic drill lyrics, and I’m pretty sure Rondo himself isn’t even on a couple of these tracks. And of course, as with most drill, I really have to be in the mood for it or else the ceaseless, senseless repetition really does drag me down and leave me feeling kinda depressed. Still, it’s only about forty minutes long, and when I am in the mood there are some real gems in those forty minutes.

Rondo’s a nihilist, but unlike Keef he at least he usually comes off as an actual human being rather than a degraded puddle of primordial sludge. Mind you, I’m not entirely convinced he’s all human, ‘cos he displays a level of raw, unfiltered aggression more commonly found in velociraptors, angry male bears, and hardcore punk vocalists. He’s got a gravelly, harsh voice, usually made harsher by the gloriously inexact doubling effect applied to his vocals on most tracks, and he’s also got an ear for rhythmically catchy hooks. “My Team Winning” doesn’t really sound like it should be catchy or memorable, but it is nonetheless, and it’s been stuck in my head for days, as has “Ridin Dirty” (though, to be fair, I can’t actually be totally sure he’s the one rapping there). His adlibs are also hilariously appropriate – behind every main vocal track is a bunch of animalistic “rrrrAHR!”s and “grAWWH!”s, and on “No Question” they’re so loudly mastered that they occasionally overwhelm the rest of the track and drag the whole thing into hilarious cacophony. It should sound awful, but somehow it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Is it amoral to be so charmed by the music of a proud murderer? I mean, it’s not my fault it’s so endearing!

It’s not all unintentional comedy, though. All the horrendous mastering and nonexistent mixing in the world can’t get in the way of just how ridiculously hard this stuff goes, and I found myself properly headbanging – not just bopping, but seriously banging – to it at multiple points. If Back From The Dead was no wave, then this is proper DC hardcore, and it packs as much abrasive, raw energy as that suggests. There’s not much use describing most of the tracks, because the majority of them are exactly the same – there’ll be a brief, ominously sweeping intro until the harsh, drilling hi-hats and filthy synths come in, with Rondo snarling out a bunch of aggressive boasts and territorial postures until some guest rapper comes in and does much the same. It’s proper trunk banging music, but it’s also way too harsh, lo-fi and abrasive to fit into any Atlanta party trap playlist. Sometimes those big, booming basslines are barely even audible, and the synth chords are way too macho and powerful to work in any strip club. Nah, this isn’t music for parties – this is music for killers, and not the calculating kind. After all, killing tends not to be a very intellectual business; mostly what you need (so I’m told) is a lot of raw rage and testosterone, and this has those in abundance.

There are definitely a few notably great tracks, though. “Money, Power, Respect” has a surprisingly delicate keyboard riff coexisting with all the bass & drum cacophony, and the way it interlocks with the main synth melody in the hook might actually be described as intricate. “Face Down”, meanwhile, has this sassy little plinky-plonky piano riff that lends the track a stylish swagger, but there’s still a wailing whistle synth soaring above it and some harsh, distorted keyboard notes thunking underneath it in case you forgot where you are. “We Savage”, meanwhile, sounds like it could almost fit on a God of War OST, with those huge, choral synth chords presiding over that thunderous, percussive riff that rolls under the whole thing. Rondo’s really great on that track, too – he inflects his rage with just a touch of spicy contempt, and it really goes that extra mile in pushing the track from yer average nihilistic drill banger to something more memorable and fun. “We in that field, we totin’ drill/ we’a whack a nigga for nothin‘!”, he proclaims, unfiltered disgust twisting the last word like a knife. It’s brutal, uncompromising, and fucking awesome. Drill can be mind-numbing, soul-crushing stuff sometimes, but at its best this tape energises me like little else in the musical world. Great stuff.

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STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 1: Chief Keef – Back From the Dead (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Exploring self-contained musical subcultures has long been a passion of mine. I find something deeply fascinating about them; they’re usually completely divorced from the trends of the mainstream, but if they stick around for long enough they usually end up influencing the mainstream in at least some small way. Exploring a musical subculture is like delving into a separate world, but it’s also a way to see the world through new eyes; subcultures have their own rules, their own conventions and their own ideas of the way music should be, and they tend to reflect a thoroughly non-mainstream way of thinking. As such, I’m now starting a series called Subcultural Explorations in which I shall delve into various different musical subcultures and try to get to the bottom of what makes them tick. It’s not gonna be organised and I’m not gonna keep to any sort of regular schedule, but I’ll try to update frequently.

So, without further ado, here’s the inaugural post!

THE INAUGURAL POST

So – drill music. Nihilistic muck flowing from the streets of Chicago like blood. This mixtape holds the dual distinctions of being both the scene’s breakout moment and a definitive summary of its general philosophy and aesthetic, so I feel it’s as good a place to start as any.

Make no mistake: Chief Keef really is as utterly, all-encompassingly nihilistic as the harshest noise artist. He’s a rapper, technically, but he doesn’t really come across as one; it’s more like he’s leading a series of baying, primal chants, slowly forcing out each syllable as if they’re getting caught behind his teeth. He packs each word with such contemptuous, vindictive force that after a while he starts to sound demented, like a dumb war-beast on some rage-enhancing drug, gutturally barking out the word “Bang!” through a layer of hot spittle while mindlessly brandishing his firearm. At no point in this mixtape does Keef express anything resembling a complex sentiment, and very rarely does he use a word that goes significantly over the two-syllable mark. He’s a soulless, barbarous brute, and he operates entirely on instinctual lower functions. It’s a damn good thing this mixtape is only forty-two minutes long, ‘cos any longer and all the bludgeoning would start to become genuinely numbing.

I don’t buy the idea that it takes no talent to rap like this, though. Soulja Boy and some guy called Yale Lucciani deliver their guest verses like they’re trying to cop Keef’s style without fully understanding what makes it tick, and in both cases the end result is dismal. SD and Lil Reese do better – Lil Reese’s “You not with the shits, you could die tonight” might be the most quietly frightening moment on the whole tape – but they’re still not as effortlessly captivating on the mic as Keef himself. I don’t know exactly what talent Keef possesses that makes him such a fascinating presence, but he’s definitely got something; the guy really does manage to sound like he’s been dredged out from the base neanderthal sludge at the bottom of human nature. It’s a very one-dimensional aesthetic, but it’s very convincing.

Besides, he’s got Young Chop behind him to keep things interesting. That guy’s beats surround Keef like dense fog, packed so full of rich sounds and conflicting little motifs that he sometimes almost disappears behind them. On “True Religion Fein”, he has to spit his epithets through a dense collection of hi-hats and snares that take up so much space they threaten to drown him out entirely; on “Sosa”, he’s accompanied by a synth ostinato that sonically metamorphoses into something different for every segment, sounding like a piercing digital siren one moment and a distant mechanical whine the next. There’s some soft little pianesque synths on “Designer” that somehow still manage to sound kinda foggy and dirty, and some reverent tones emanating from a church organ on “Trust None” as he wields his mace and destroys the pews. Then, of course, there’s “I Don’t Like”, with that little synth metronome chiming ceaselessly away like it’s part of the fabric of the universe while percussive bass notes erupt from underground, surrounding and subsuming Keef like a pyroclastic flow as he spits and bays. It’s all very grandiose, sweeping and ominous, but the strength and density of that rhythm section keeps it grounded. I mean, listen to the hi-hats on “Everyday” – they’re so fast they’ve all blurred into one continuous tone!

Of course, even judged on its own merits it’s not perfect. A good number of Keef’s lyrics dip below his usual nihilistically mindless level and end up outright cringeworthy; “Realnigga.com, bitch nigga log in” is a proper facepalm moment, and Yale Lucciani’s “You don’t have a chance/ Bitch I shop in France” is no better. The autotune that creeps in on a couple of tracks towards the end is very amateurish, and sounds deeply unpleasant in a way that doesn’t really add to the aesthetic. “Save That Shit” is pretty much an entirely pointless throwaway, and King Louie just sounds weird and out of place on “Winnin'” – he’s always been the most Atlanta-esque of all the Chicago drill rappers, and his feelgood materialism doesn’t quite gel with Keef’s pure destructive nihilism. And on a broader level, you can’t listen to this too many times in a row or you really do start to feel yourself degrading to a primordial state; after finishing this review I think I’m gonna blast some 80s synthpop or maybe 70s funk & soul, ‘cos I’ll need it to purge all the soul-blackening muck Chief Keef poured down my brainstem while I was writing it. But that’s drill, and that’s why I find it so fascinating. The blackest depths of Michael Gira’s output in the 80s don’t match the sheer, mind-numbing intensity of the nihilism you can find in this kind of music, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. Expect more on it soon, for sure.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: HANK WILLIAMS – Lovesick Blues (1949)

Review by: Michael Strait

(Quick intro disclaimer: if you’re listening to 40 Greatest Hits on Spotify, what you’re hearing in place of Lovesick Blues is, for some reason, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson. Which is also an incredible song, but it’s not Lovesick Blues, so go swap it out in your playlist for the real thing.

Anyway.)

I’ve got a process for reviewing great songs. I sit at my computer, listen, and splurge out an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness paragraph containing my reactions to the song as it goes. I then take this raw material, mine it, and refine it into the reviews y’all know and ignore, arranging all the more insightful things that sprang forth from my subconscious into a coherent paragraph or two.

I tried that here, but halfway through I had to stop. I just couldn’t type fast enough; there is so much here that I just couldn’t possibly get it all down in one listen. I ended up having to do three separate listens in order to get all my thoughts down, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed it. This song is astonishing.

It’s almost indescribable, actually, but I’ll try as best I can. I gotta start with his voice, ‘cos it’s this song that made me realise that Hank Williams is one of the greatest singers that has ever lived. The guy’s yodel is so perfectly refined and so utterly seamless that it doesn’t sound like he’s yodelling so much as just breathing out his creased, holey soul, helplessly exhaling the very fabric of his being and baring it all before you. He’s so consistently loud and piercing on this track that one could conceivably describe him as having no indoor voice, but at no point does he ever come off as even slightly obnoxious. Naw, this guy is in total, perfect control of his limitations, and he knows exactly how to apply himself. This is a cover, but he sounds so totally, utterly sincere that it’s hard to imagine he didn’t find something to relate to in the lyrics. Man, trust Hank to take a song written as a lightweight showtune and turn it into a soul-splitting heartbreak ballad!

Of course, his singing talent goes beyond the yodeling. He’s also an absolute master at the all-important, oft-overlooked art of phrasing, and it’s his unique phrasings that push so many of these lyrics into the realms of genuinely affecting profundity. The way he strategically dips into falsetto at the beginning of the word “c-hryyy“, drawing out the second syllable (‘cos it has two syllables when he sings it, of course) into this drifting, fading peal of misery; the way he warbles on “lonesome”, the way he accents “me” in the second verse, the way he just ever-so-briefly dips after the “s” in “seems” before stretching out the rest of the word into this rising wail of despair… man, it’s just incredible. Other singer/songwriters could paint worlds with their words; Hank could paint worlds with a word.

And by God almighty, but the melody he’s singing here! The way it just rises into the distance at the end of each line, and the way it turns into something so beautifully, regretfully wistful in the third line, and the way it resolves in the final part of the verse before seamlessly stretching into the chorus; the words “That last long day she said goodbye”, and the way the tune rises towards “daaay” and then Hank expertly draws it out into this desperate, lingering peak, only for it to helplessly, inevitably drop in disappointment on “she said” and then fall further down for “good” before it it forlornly, mockingly rises again on “byyyye”, with Hank drawing it out like a train disappearing into the distance… fuck. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you get the second verse (or is it a refrain, or some sort of weird post-chorus? I dunno, man – the song is structured so gloriously weirdly!), which key-shifts and then dips in a way that conjures more emotional devastation than every other heartbreak ballad ever written put together. If there’s ever been a popular song with better melodies than this one, I’ve not found it. This song is melodic nirvana.

With all these vast oceans of raw, unfiltered musical beauty and perfection erupting from Hank himself, it’s easy to forget the arrangements here, and they’re quiet enough that I’m willing to believe that was the intent. Thing is, though, there’s actually quite a lot going on, and the fact that it’s all so quiet only makes it more rewarding. Keep your ears open just after that forlorn electric guitar intro, for example, and you’ll hear the tiniest little mouse of a Spanish-style acoustic guitar plucking away around the edges, just adding a hint of a texture that makes it all feel so much more fulsome. There are also some deft little electric guitar chimes casting a touch of warm light from behind Hank’s vocals in the chorus, and the occasional distant fiddles fleshing the whole thing out. And then, of course, there are those gorgeous little slide guitars that bloom up in the chorus every time there’s a break in Hank’s singing, which, like the best flower arrangements, take up but a fraction of all available space and yet add such a tremendous injection of beauty that their value cannot really be calculated. It’s like the instruments are whispering words of comfort in Hank’s ear as he cries, but it’s no use; he’s desperate, tired, and overwhelmingly, utterly lonesome. No amount of music will salve these blues.

Is this the greatest song of all time? I dunno, man, but it’s way up there. I’ve listened to this song more times than I can count while writing this review, and it hasn’t lost a fraction of its power. I could listen to this forever. Two minutes and forty-three seconds of everything popular music could ever aspire to be; art of the highest order. For this record alone, Hank Williams deserves all the acclaim and hyperbole he has ever received.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 3

Written by: Michael Strait

More singles! Once again, no theme here at all – just stuff I am interested in and felt inspired to write about. I should mention that if any of y’all have any singles you want me to review, feel free to suggest ‘em and I’ll try and include ‘em in the next list.

On with the show!

Lana Del Rey – Video Games (2011)

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only Lana Del Rey song. The first time I heard it, I was skeptical, and I still think the songwriting is underdeveloped. The verse melody is very basic, after all, and the whole thing feels a bit disjointed – there’s no prechorus and no bridge, and the end result is that each song segment kinda feels like it’s floating on an island by itself, lacking that seamless connection that makes the best pop songs so sublime. 

But by god, guys, the production on this thing. Those little flowering harp strokes; the strings, played with enough poise and patient reserve to keep them from seeming corny or melodramatic like strings in pop songs so often do; that quiet, deep bass drum, rolling in like some distant beast’s sleeping heartbeat. And I gotta admit that Lana herself is utterly captivating here, too; the way she delicately drops the last line in the chorus is legitimately goosebump-inducing, and she manages to sound fragile and vulnerable without coming off like some pathetic simp. Her lyrics aren’t particularly great, but I get the impression she means every one of them, and it’s that firm emotional grounding that keeps the production from sounding excessively airy or fantastical. To be honest, in my weaker moments this song leaves me feeling kinda depressed, ‘cos I’ve never experienced anything close to the life-affirming, soul-enriching love this song conjures and I don’t know if I ever will. If the world really does feel this gorgeous when you’re in love, then I’m missing out; all I can do is let this song wash over me and experience its glory secondhand. Beautiful song.

Also: very possibly the best music video of the decade. That’s exactly how ya do an aesthetic without making it overbearing; pity I can’t say the same of her other videos.

SahBabii – Pull up Wit Ah Stick (2016)

God, how weird is it that the streets are listening to this stuff? It’s a light, soft r&b ballad sung in a tender, feathery vocal tone through a thin layer of autotune, with some clean synths brightening up the background and a pleasantly wholesome set of lyrics about murder and armed robbery. This isn’t even weird for the trap scene anymore, that’s what gets me – it’s entirely normal these days to find hard street gangbangers bumping this sorta melodic croony shit, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how surreal that is. ‘Course, the melodicism here isn’t actually particularly good – it’s basically just one little tune repeated over and over again – but I kinda like the vaguely hazy, druggy feel, and I can’t deny that it’s been stuck in my head for days. Looking back on this kind of music in twenty years is gonna be even more surreal than living through it, but as of right now I quite like it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to like it when the inevitable Drake remix makes it inescapable.

Coldplay – Hypnotised (2017)

Other people seem to be enjoying this, but personally I find it impossible to take seriously. The chiming keyboards and slide guitars sound kinda nice, I guess, and it’s certainly a tremendous step up from Adventure Of A Lifetime or whatever bullshit from their previous, but the double-tracked vocals fall somewhere between ugly and mawkish, and I’m not convinced the acoustic guitars belong here. All those major chords mean the entire thing ends up sounding kinda like the sort of stuff you’d hear in the background to a YouTube slideshow of pretty nature photos, and appropriately enough that’s pretty much exactly what the lyrics video is. It’s so corny that it actually made me chuckle the first time I heard it – I heard the introductory piano notes and assumed it must be an advert before I realised it was the actual song. Mediocre, in other words, like most of the stuff they’ve done since the turn of the decade. Ignore this.

Lorde – Green Light (2017)

I’ve listened to this song countless times in the last couple of hours, and it really holds up under scrutiny. Her husky voice is as utterly gorgeous as it ever was, of course, but there’s a newfound vindictiveness to it – she sounds like she’s spitting the words out with fury, even when she’s singing those higher-pitched harmonies in the refrain. The sonics, too, are good – not remarkably good, and they don’t do anything to distract from the excellent songwriting, but nonetheless they absolutely do the trick, and I particularly like the way the instruments go all distorted towards the end, fuzzing out like lite noisepop guitars as the song retreats from its emotional climax. But the real draw here is sheer catharsis of the hook, which has that wonderful pre-chorus buildup that develops more and more energy until those dark synths finally swoop right up underneath her, letting her ride them higher and higher as she desperately yells and purges all the black muck that has built up in her soul. It’s all very intelligently tuneful, too, and each new melodic development feels like a perfectly natural and satisfying progression. Her lyrics aren’t quite as immediately, impressively excellent as they often are, but that might actually be a sign of maturity, signalling that she’s lost the desire to prove herself as a poet and is now content with writing just the sort of well-constructed, intelligently simple lyrics that pop music these days could really do with. “Did it frighten you/ How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?” may not be as evocative as some of the stuff on, say, “Team”, but it efficiently places a very complete emotional & physical picture in my head, and I think that’s just as valid a success. 


Man, I am so glad she’s back. I can’t fuckin’ wait for the album.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)

I wanna be very clear about this: this song is only enjoyable by total accident, and on its own terms it is an absolute failure. The clean synths in the verses are cheap and corny, the lyrics are trite nonsense and the melody is just kind of a waste. The chorus is kinda catchy, I guess, but it’s a pop song – you don’t get a pat on the back for that! 

Nah, I like this song ‘cos it’s cacophonous. Honestly, I can scarcely fathom how this song became a hit while Skinny Puppy languish in obscurity, because that massive, discoloured wave of lurching synths in the chorus is as abrasive as anything they ever did. That roaring mechanical whirr, pulsing in rhythm with those bludgeoning kick drums; that little falling treble sound, cascading through the cracks; the grating, popping little textures bubbling up from underneath every time the big synths fade away… I mean, fuckin’ hell, does the average person seriously enjoy this? I thought I was alone in my appreciation of discordant, assaultive electronic noise, but now I’m thinking that maybe my friends will be open to harsh noise & industrial music after all! Next time I get invited to a dance party I’ll throw some Guilty Connector on the playlist. It’ll work like a charm, I’m sure!

Blur – Parklife (1994)

Alright, so this is literally just a novelty song where the novelty is that it’s British, but I think it’s quite funny! The chorus is indeed just another part of the pastiche (designed specifically to evoke the 60s pop style for which Britain will always be famous, of course) but it’s also legitimately catchy, and those cheeky horns push it fully over the edge into the realm of pure cartoonish silliness. I also like how the guitars still retain just a touch of that angular, hard edge inherited from punk rock, though of course not enough to dent its popularity in the slightest. I know many despise this song for being among the most ridiculous excesses of Britpop nationalism, but I’m sure the self-parodic nature is intentional and I love it. Plus, I catch myself randomly muttering the words “Park-life!” all the time – though thankfully I’ve yet to do it in earshot of anyone else. Good song.

Lil Reese – Us (2012)

I can’t decide if Lil Reese is the apex of Chicago drill nihilism or its nadir. I guess he’s both; a true nihilist, after all, has no values whatsoever, and Reese’s valueless cynicism runs so deep that he can’t even be bothered to turn in anything that might be said to even slightly resemble a good verse. The hook has an air of foreboding, paranoid menace about it, I guess, but even then I’m pretty sure it’d be nothing without that beat.

And make no mistake: that beat is the only reason I’m rating this thing as high as I am. ‘Cos that beat is easily, easily one of the best trap beats ever made, and as perfect a summary of drill music’s appeal as I can imagine. Those gold-plated, percussive notes in the verses, and the machinegun hi-hats burrowing through and around them; those filthy organ strokes rubbing themselves all over the edge, leaving nearly audible dirt marks; that squelching, groaning synth riff in the chorus, squirming around like a malfunctioning mouse droid as additional synths and drums crash in all around it, collapsing the gilded walls and burying it under misery… heaven help me, it’s insane. That perfect, seamless fusion of opulent grandiosity with abrasive grit is exactly what makes the best trap & drill music so fascinating, and I guess that’s because it feels like a perfect musical expression of the conflicting and contradictory themes that have defined rap music for so long. That contrast between violent, grimy poverty and vain, capitalistic excess has been an inescapable dichotomy in rap music since at least Ready To Die, and in trap music it finally found a fitting musical reflection. There are, of course, many rappers who can do far better justice to this music than Lil Reese, but there are few producers who can capture its essence quite as perfectly as Young Chop. As far as I’m concerned, this song should be attributed to him; sometimes I forget Reese is even on this thing.

 

Nicki Minaj & G Herbo – Chi-Raq (2014)

A million remixes later, and I still think my favourite verse that’s ever been delivered over this beat is G Herbo’s right here. Nicki’s verse is great, of course, but I gotta admit it loses some of its impact after Herbo; lyrics like “Smack bitches, no smack cam/ Closed fists, no back hands” kinda lose any power to intimidate next to stuff like “Run up on a nigga with the llamas flyin’/ leave his loved ones all traumatized”. Still, she tones down all her corniest impulses here, and it’s definitely one of the best verses she’s ever delivered – those first four lines (“Ain’t yellin’ cut when it’s shootin’ time/ Sign up, it’s recruitin’ time/ Big wigs with a suit and tie/ And them big things got two inside”) are just the sort of clever, memorable opening a great verse wants, and her reserved flow melds to that malevolent beat like they were born together. 

But man, Herbo is just exhilarating. That guy’s in serious contention for the title of best rapper going right now, and this verse is one of his very best. Reading the genius page for this song is really fascinating, actually, because the contrast between the two verses is so clear – you have Nicki’s, positively drowning in similes, puns and cultural references, and then you have Herbo’s dispassionate list of facts, statements and ultraviolent threats. His verse is built like a concrete housing estate – monochromatic, utterly utilitarian, knucklebreakingly hard and covered in grimy stains from countless ill-fated endeavours, ‘cept these ones are more likely to be blood than vomit. His flow is highly aggressive, but it’s not an aggression borne of passion or anger so much as of territorial defensiveness and survivalist posturing. And he really does understand how rapping works, too – just listen to the way he places emphasis in the middle of the verse; “I’m in Hollywood, came from Kingston Food/ Shorties standing in the streets with tools/ Where I’m from, we don’t play no games/ Ain’t no April fools, you will make the news” – skipping the rhyme on that penultimate line was such a subtly brilliant move, ‘cos when he finally, cruelly twists the word news out of his mouth it comes with an inescapable fatal emphasis, really ramming home the naked, plain brutality of what he’s saying. Unladen with metaphor, unadorned with exaggeration, unencumbered by any moral scruples – there’s nothing here in the streets of Chiraq but death, and Herbo is its angel. This verse is everything drill music has ever aspired to be in a minute and a half; it’s incredible, and it blows me away every time I hear it. Straight brilliance.

Aside: an entire beef was conducted in remixes of this song! Not one, not two, but three tracks were exchanged – all using this beat. All great, too! That’s gotta be a record, surely?

Tempa T – Next Hype (2009)

Man, is this thing even a song? It feels more like a force of nature, or perhaps a sonic manifestation of raw potential energy. There’s almost nothing here except a synth riff and the vocals, but the synth voice sounds like it’s made of raw pig-iron and the vocals are so full of primal, overwhelming force that listening to it feels rather like placing oneself in the path of an oncoming train. Usually, when I encounter a five-star single, I’ll be able to come up with a bunch of pseudo-profundities to spout about its importance or the deftness of its construction, but I really can’t do that here. This song could shatter bricks; listening to it feels like tapping into an arcane vein of universal energy. Sometimes, when I’m blasting this on headphones, I accidentally touch a wall and feel momentarily surprised that the energy transference didn’t blast a hole through it.

Mariah Carey – Fantasy (1995)

In which Mariah Carey and Dave Hall take a really great Tom Tom Club song and give it the stratospheric commercial success it always so richly deserved.


Actually, I’m being a little unfair – this song is even better than the original. The new age synth intro is pretty wack, sure, but it doesn’t last long enough for me to deduct any points, especially not when the rest is this gorgeous. Most perfect pop songs take at least a couple of listens for me to confirm their perfection, but I knew this song was perfect the moment I heard it, and it’s still perfect now. Part of that perfection certainly does come down to that incredible weirdo-disco groove the Tom Toms came up with, but on the original it just existed for its own sake; here it’s the foundation for what feels like a whole rich, luscious universe of angelic light and otherworldly beauty. At least, that’s what hear when I listen to that first verse, which has the most utterly divine, joyous, totally contented and profoundly happy melody I’ve ever heard in my life. Shit, maybe it’s just the way she sings it, but the good vibes that wash all over and through me when I hear that tune are nearly indescribable, and the effortless way it transitions into that fluttering, floating, brightly glowing chorus just straight-up takes me into another plane of existence. No problems exist in this world when I’m listening to this song; the entire concept of imperfection becomes foreign to me. That sassy little G-funk synth, descending in that sweet little whistle past all the singing angels; that bridge, where Mariah’s voice echoes in from the distance, bearing sleepy impressions of absolute joy and perfect, contented wonderment… sweet Jesus, is this even music or is it essence dripped from heaven itself? This is transcendent. The love I feel for this song is overwhelming; it is one of the best songs in pop history. Absolute perfection.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 2

Written by: Michael Strait

Mostly gonna be more positive this time. Here, have a bunch of songs I like – and one I don’t.

Azealia Banks – The Big Big Beat (2016)

Y’know, I’m convinced there will never be a more soulful sound in the world than the house groove. It’s an inherently, overwhelmingly gorgeous fucking thing: an ethereal synth bassline, a bouncing, all-encompassing set of electronic drums and, most importantly, the sampling! A good chopped-up, stuttering vocal sample, integrated well into a song, fills my soul up with love like nothing else in this universe. UK Garage and its various offshoots are best for this, with their twisted and swirling female soul samples, but American house is no slouch either. All those elements, combined, end up creating a sound that is gorgeous mostly because of how tonally complex it is – it’s fuckin’ groovy, and it makes you dance, but it also doesn’t feel grounded on this Earth; the bass synth tones always sound just a bit too heavenly, the melodic (well, usually more like textural) lead synth accompaniment too shimmering and shiny, and the vocal samples too distant and nostalgic, like elements of songs you used to know in your youth that now soundtrack your dreams in misshapen fragments. It’s deeply human, but also feels like it’s in connection with something greater; it’s dance music as meditation music, the physical as the religious.

Anyway, what does all this have tae do with lil Azealia Banks here? Well, part of me kinda wants to hate her for songs like this, considering how closely tied house music has always been with the LGBT community she seems to hate, but I can’t quite bring myself to. This, see, is a great house song – not a great house beat (though certainly a good one, with all the elements that make house music so divine) but a great dance song sandwiched quite nicely into a pop song structure. Another reviewer on RateYourMusic has already noted the way they let the tension rise and build before finally introducing that big, big beat, and it’s surely a great moment, but the greatest moment – to my ears – comes at exactly 1:18, where she unexpectedly launches from that quietly confrontational rapping into a tender, super pretty vocal melody completely outta nowhere. It’s inspired, especially considering that it didn’t even need to exist – Azealia’s easily got the strength as a rapper to carry an entire song on the back of her verses, and I’m sure nobody’ve complained if the song was just three and a half minutes of her spitting that venom in her pleasingly deep voice, but the hook adds a welcome softness that goes nicely with those synths. So, what we’ve got here is a pop song that understands how house music works and knows how to mine from it without just cluelessly appropriating it – it’s a gem, in other words. And it ain’t even one of her best! Of course, it ain’t one of the best house songs ever, either, so I don’t really know why I made it the recipient of my love letter to house music, but it proves that Azealia has retained a frustrating level of talent even as her mental health seems to have spiraled down the drain. Great singer, great rapper, great taste in beats – now if only she wasn’t a fuckin’ Trump supporter…

The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – Something Just Like This (2017)

The Chainsmokers make music, I guess, but it’s the lowest and most debased form of music I can imagine. Most bad music at least leaves me something to say about it, but the Chainsmokers usually don’t; their music is not just bad but boring, and those who know me know well that this makes my blood boil far hotter than the most ridiculous pile of overambitious failure ever could. The guy from Coldplay’s on this, I guess, but I don’t care; with the Chainsmokers, all guest vocalists are melted down and poured into the same vat of nondescript, ineffectual dullness. There is absolutely nothing worth saying about the Chainsmokers and I have no idea why I’ve already said so much. Though I do suppose it’s worth noting here that the drop on this song is almost exactly the same as the one they used on their prior single “Roses”, which was always perhaps their only tolerable song; not content with merely figuratively making the same song over and over, they now appear to be doing it literally! Give these hacks no quarter.

Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom (2016)

Bubblegum Bass” my ass. There is nothing bubblegum about this; this is twisted, malicious, paranoid and discordant, and one of the most thoroughly noncommercial things put out by a popstar in the last few years. Charli’s always been a terrible lyricist, and that’s as true here as it ever were (“Ice cubes on our tongues because we like to keep it freezy” – aaargh), but for the most part here she actually works as a sort of pointed parody version of the Instagram generation; she’s proudly vain and bellicose, gluttonous for attention and seemingly incapable of fidelity. “All my life, I’ve been waiting for a good time,” she sings, and it looks like she’s gonna have to wait a bit longer – this track most definitely does not represent a good time. I sure as hell have a good time when I’m listening to it, though.

 

French Montana & Kodak BlackLockjaw (2016)

I’ll tell you what Kodak is – he’s a texture. His lyrics are nothing, his flow no better, but his voice is one of the most legitimately fascinating and unusual things I’ve heard in rap recently. It’s like his throat is made of sandpaper, his words coming out all scratched and crumbly, falling apart by the time they exit his mouth so one can barely make them out at all. “It be hard to understand because my jaw keep lockin‘”, he says, and I’m skeptical, but at least he acknowledges it.

I love his voice, personally, but it does render him a kind of one-trick pony. Aside from that voice, after all, there’s nothing to his music except the beats. Fortunately, the beat here is absolutely fantastic. This’d fit right in on an early A$AP Rocky or Lil B mixtape, this would – it’s prime-tier cloud rap, atmospheric without forgetting the importance of melody and without feeling corny or cheap. This smooth, gleaming backdrop really emphasises Kodak’s jagged knife of a voice, and French Montana’s contributions ain’t all that bad either. He’s still a forgettable bloke, but his vocal tone really ain’t bad and he rides this beat like a professional. I tell ya, if you’d told me a track by French Montana and Kodak Black was gonna be one of the smoothest and nicest things of the year I’d have looked at you funny, but here we are.

Calvin Harris – Slide (2017)

Starin‘ at my diamonds while I’m hoppin‘ out the spaceship!”

This song is lovely, and I hope I hear it all over the radio this summer. That synth riff isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s not meant to be – it’s more a texture than anything else, sliding in between the various vocals to add to the general sense of warmth and wellbeing laid out by that confident, breezy bassline and those glowy pianos. Frank’s an absolute star, of course, but that’s no surprise; the guy’s voice has always sounded rather like a nice, warm blanket, and his melody here is so obviously perfect for the song’s mood and atmosphere that I’m having difficulty coming up with any sort of way to describe it. I guess “relaxed” will do; this melody perfectly captures the feeling of laying back in a car as the wind blows through your hair and the midsummer sun beams down on your face, not quite hot enough to be uncomfortable but warm enough to keep the windows rolled all the way down all the same.

As for the two Migos that bothered to show up, well – they’re not here for very long, but Quavo’s just as good a melodist as usual and Offset’s sense of humour fits this track like a glove. They know well enough to tone down their more abrasive street rap tendencies for this track, and there’s certainly nothing in their lyrics that contradicts the overriding mood here. This is a song for sweet summer days, and as much as I hate the Florida summer I can imagine this track making it a little bit more bearable. Nicely done, guys.

Lady Gaga – Million Reasons (2016)

Look, I can’t really defend this song.

The melody in the verses is, well, tiny! Almost underwritten, in fact! The lyrics are repetitive at best, trite at worst! It sounds like a million other ballads on the radio!

But I love it!

I can’t help it – I really do love it. Her voice is searing – it just powers through all the noise and interference, cutting a great hole through which the light of that gigantic, huge, fucking gorgeous chorus can shine and burn away my ability to really appreciate all this song’s many flaws. It’s absolutely mawkish, totally lacking in any sort of nuance, maybe even clichéd – but it’s a sincere and unpretentious cliché, and I believe she means every word. If you hate this song, I can’t blame you; if you want to sing a lament for the direction Gaga’s career has taken, I’ll fully understand. But don’t involve me, ‘cos I’m on board with this shit. I’ll never fully outgrow my teenage love for soaring, sky-high arena-pop hooks, and this fulfills a need I didn’t know I still had in my life. Thanks, Gaga.

Little Mix – Black Magic (2015)

Yeah, so I can’t tell any of them apart and I don’t give two shits. The tunes are gorgeous, the drums are big, the groove is smooth and the mood is… erm… lewd? Aw, fergit it with that rhyme scheme…

Anyway, yeah, I really love this song. When a pop song’s been blessed with a hook this good it almost doesn’t need anything else, but actually this song has everything else a pop song could ever possibly need, from those proudly, naively life-affirming teenage lovesong lyrics to the wonderful and intelligent way each melody resolves itself. They’re all good singers, too – they’re all maybe trying a little too hard to imbue each syllable with verve and charisma, but there are four of ‘em, so you never have time to get tired of any one of them in particular. The guitar groove has drawn some comparisons to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and I can totally hear it in the chorus, but for the most part this is more nostalgic for the nineties than the eighties. I’m okay with that, actually – the nineties were pop music’s dark age, but if this sort of revisionism is how people wanna remember it I can’t complain. I’m gonna be humming this tune till the day I die, my dudes – don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a great song.

Katy Perry – Chained to the Rhythm (2017)

I like the soft, velvety production on the pianos. The melody is catchy and sweeping, but it’s not obnoxious and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to insult me. The lyrics do, though – but what did you expect? This is Katy fuckin’ Perry, the worst pop lyricist of our generation; exactly why she ended up being the first popstar to go political in the wake of The Trumpening is beyond me, but I guess I can’t complain about the sentiment. I will certainly complain about the lyric “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”, though! “We think we’re free”!? Shut the fuck up, you rich airhead!

Shame, too, ‘cos aside from those lyrics the hook is actually pretty good. Like the rest of the melodies on this song, it’s surprisingly and pleasantly understated, avoiding the arena-pop clichés Katy’s never been sincere enough to pull off while carrying a fair amount of danceable energy. The bass is good, too, at least sonically if not compositionally. And Skip Marley’s part doesn’t really bother me as much as it probably should – the lyrics are more trite middle-class faux-rebel nonsense, of course, but melodically it fits right in and his voice actually provides a fairly nice and natural contrast to Katy’s. So, yeah – musically intelligent, lyrically dumb; not a bad song, all told.

Playboi CartiBroke Boi (2015)

I’unno if we should be thanking Lil B or Chief Keef (probably both!), but rap’s punk revolution has been in full swing this decade and this song is an excellent summary of its ideology. It can’t really be compared to punk rock, of course, because it’s utterly materialistic and proudly self-centred (what could be more American than that?), but it rejects technicality and perfection in favour of absolute simplicity and brutalism. Rap has always been inherently boastful and combative, after all, and this new generation is just boiling away the fat. Older heads may complain that these lyrics lack nuance or artisanship, but the core message is the same. “Why should I keep juggin‘ all these broke boys?” is, roughly speaking, a sentiment you can find expressed in rap music from just about any era; this song just eschews wordplay as a needless indulgence and gets right to the point. Traditional conceptions about rapping – the point of it, the basic reasons for doing it – go out the window; the new wave challenges and disdains them all. This song explores the contours and limits of the human voice, not used in a traditionally musical fashion but simply the cadences, textures and cracks associated with speaking in rhythm, and the physical and spiritual impact this can have when combined with floating synths and rolling, smooth bass. And if it sounds ridiculous to talk about the “spiritual impact” of such a profoundly materialistic song, well, you probably place the spirit on too lofty a pedestal anyway – in my experience most spirits really just want to relax. So lay back in the sun with this blasting from your speakers, or bounce to it in the backseat of your mate’s car – your spirit’ll be at peace either way.

Rihanna – SOS (2006)

The pulsating groove on this song is taken from a Soft Cell song, yes – but it’s better here. It sounds more muscular and, if ye can believe it, darker too. With that loud percussion punctuating it, it sounds downright aggressive and dangerous – and then so does Rihanna, except she drops the “dangerous” and replaces it with “sexual”, ending up in exactly the right place between roaring, drunken cornered tiger and whispering lynx. And the melody teases and undulates while those squelching computer bleeps echo in from the distance, and bam – I’m in another world entirely, albeit one a little bit too twilight-y for my poor human eyes to make out in full.


Trent Reznor has spent nearly his entire career trying to make this song. Naturally, he hasn’t managed it.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitsize Reviews: Vol. 1

Written by: Michael Strait

When I want to mock terrible shit with my friends, I open the songs in Opera so that it does not clog up my YouTube recommendations on my homepage. This has had the unexpected and most entertaining side effect of turning my YouTube homepage on Opera into a fascinating shrine to all the most awful music in the world. On the encouragement of my good friend Lex, I decided to rank the songs there today and give each one a short review. Enjoy.

Santana- The Game of Love

 

Alright, I know why this is here. I don’t know much about Santana, but I know their music is generally reputed to have declined in quality after the seventies, and so when somebody linked me a single from 2002 I of course assumed it would be bad and opened it in Opera. Shockingly, it turned out to be pretty good! It’s kinda generic and a little forgettable, but it’s got a pleasant atmosphere, a nice singer and an entirely decent hook. It won a Grammy, apparently, and considering some of the thoroughly worthless dreck that has received Grammys in the past I can’t honestly say I object. It’s an unpretentious lil slice of feelgood pop, and I gotta admit there’s something charming about the simplicity. Brace yourselves, though – it’s all downhill from here.

Avicii- Wake Me Up

The depth and breadth of my philosophical and ideological loathing for Avicii is far too biblically vast and furious to fit in this box, so for now let’s just settle for a teaser. Avicii is a vulture, or a vampire, or perhaps a tick; he sucks parasitically at the veins of not just any subculture, but the entire concept of subculture, fattening himself up on its riches and its resonances while inflicting naught but evil and malice upon the host. Dance music was already deep in the throes of corporate exploitation by the time he came along, of course, and Avicii is as lazy a producer as any of the faux-rockstar hellspawn to have emerged from the EDM death camps, but what really sets him apart is his habit of supplementing his abominable preset wankery with dregs pillaged from country, soul and other such music-of-the-downtrodden. It’s the most abominable kind of musical cynicism, and the only thing that prevents this from being right down at the bottom of the list is the thoroughly herculean effort of Aloe Blacc on the vox. He really does try his absolute hardest to salvage this thing, coming up with the best melody he can manage over this incredibly generic chord progression and somehow even doing his best to turn the hackneyed tempo-jump halfway through each verse into a rousing call to arms. Even his lyrics, really, aren’t that bad – “I tried carrying the weight of the world, but I only have two hands” may be a little stupid, but it’s very endearingly and sincerely stupid, and I believe he really does mean the sentiment. Sadly, there’s nothing he can do about the instrumental drop – which, aside from all the more obvious issues, suffers from the frankly baffling problem of being mastered way more quietly than the rest of the song, thoroughly depriving it of the impact it really needs – or, for that matter, the video, which is really quite disquietingly mean-spirited towards rural America for a song that draws so heavily from a form of music that wouldn’t exist without it.

The Chainsmokers- Paris

I have no intelligent insights to offer on this utterly boring, totally vapid, absolutely nonexistent collection of nonmelodies, nonhooks and nonlyrics. I defy any of you to remember a note of this when it’s finished. Quoth Devilman: “I’m not even wastin‘ no more bars on this prick!”

The Chainsmokers- Closer

This one is marginally worse than the other one, on grounds that the melody is actively bad and lazy rather than simply boring. This blares out of the local supermarket’s stereo system all the time, and I’ve grown wearily used to it. I never expected to encounter a song on which Halsey was the best part, and now that I have I feel no catharsis – only endless boredom and vague existential despair. Man, I never thought I’d say this, but I liked The Chainsmokers better when they were a novelty group.

Minus One- Alter Ego

“WAKING UP ALOOONE, LIKE A MAN THAT FAAAAILED”

This was one of the Eurovision entries a couple of years ago, and I gotta confess I find it difficult to be anything other than deeply amused at its existence. As far as I can tell it’s a blend of mainstream trance, buttrock and hair metal, with a touch of power metal sprinkled in to add just that little bit more melodrama. I honestly can’t figure out if this thing takes itself seriously or not, but it doesn’t much matter – this is exactly the sort of thing the Eurovision Song Contest is famous for, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stitches – One Million Dimes

As far as I can tell, RYM doesn’t catalogue this because it isn’t actually an official single. No matter – this is Stitches, a.k.a Florida Man himself, and he wants to remind you that he’s got a soul too. I gotta say, this is actually kind of a remarkable improvement – he’s stopped screaming like a dismal Waka Flocka Flame impersonator and embraced what could conceivably be called an actual flow, complete with a surprisingly pleasing deep, gravelly voice that sounds custom made for struggle rap. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we gotta remember that this is still motherfuckin’ Stitches we’re talking about, and the motherfucker’s still dumb enough to a) write the lines “Before I get a job I rather get a gun and rob a store” and then immediately follow them up with “I’m tired of committing crimes; man, this shit is getting old”, and b) think that remixing Adele’s “Hello” into a plaintive trap lament was a good idea.

Twenty One Pilots- Holding On to You

Seriously, what the fuck even is that logo? That ain’t no letters, that’s a damaged TIE fighter.

And what the fuck sorta mischievous poltergeist thought it’d be funny to convince Tyler Joseph to rap? I tell ya, I find that motherfucker imma exorcise him so hard his ectoplasm’ll be dripping from the ceiling for months.

There ain’t no competition, and y’all know it: Twenty One Pilots (not to be confused with professional skreet homie Twenty One Savage) are the worst band in America right now. There’s nothing new, of course, about making rap for people who don’t like rap, but this accomplishes the difficult task of sounding not only like rap by people who don’t like rap, but rap by people who are morally outraged by the existence of rap and would rather everyone listened to nice, wholesome, Christian music instead. “Is it time to move our feet/ to an introspective beat?” pleads the self-important fucking blurrytwatface from amidst his legions of contagiously middle-class fans, facepainted like a horde of white teenage Apaches bearing gentrification rather than death. This stuff makes me recoil; I wish it did not exist.

Rick Guard – Stop It (I Like It!)

This ain’t catalogued by RYM either, ‘cos as far as I can tell it’s a one-off novelty song. Damn good thing, too, or it might be the lowest-rated single on the whole site. These lyrics really do seem to have sprung right from another era; “They got bumps and curves just for hors d’oevres/ and I haven’t even mentioned the lips!/ They got wild eyes that make me lie/ And legs right up to the hips!” sleazes our lead jock from behind a smugly seductive smile, delivering his lyrics with just enough breathy sweat to send red flags scattering across the vision of any woman who might be unfortunate enough to talk to him at the bar. Why is it that mambo music is only ever co-opted by the weirdest perverts, anyway? “Mambo No. 5” may have been even more off-putting than this, and that was actually a hit. That ain’t on my Opera homepage, though, and this is, so I’ll just settle for calling this straight-up loser music for the alone & delusional and move on to the next.

Avicii- Hey Brother 

Oh. Fuck. Off.

Right – look, I’m sure Dan Tyminski is a very talented man. His stuff appears to be rated highly on this site, and I’m sure those ratings are deserved. But his style does not mesh nearly as well with Avicii’s horrifying fucking cookie-cutter pseudo-dance as Aloe Blacc’s does, and I’m afraid the end result of this collaboration is one of the most legitimately offputting things I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, fucking shit – is this what America means to some people? Vapid, meaningless platitudes about brotherhood and friendship (editor’s note: that certainly sounds like what America means to me) scattered aimlessly across a smattering of thinly-picked acoustic guitar, the skeletal remnants of a techno beat and a bunch of horn sounds that clearly came with the fucking synth? What the fuck is the point of this music? This is repulsive. I mean, I never thought I’d bump into a song that managed to be the nadir of two vast musical forms at once, but here we are! The long, storied history of American folk music and the bright, lively spirit of underground dance music meet here in a vomitous drizzle of pathetic meaninglessness and overwhelming stupidity. I’m an American, and this right here is nearly enough to make me ashamed.

Charlene- I’ve Never Been to Me 

Give ol’ Charlene this: at least she didn’t write it. She should still be ashamed of singing it, mind you – rather than doing the decent thing and, you know, calling the fucking cops on the monsters who actually wrote these lyrics – but she’s more a victim of inexcusably lazy corporate songwriting than anything else. Still, her vocals are so simpering and so utterly pitiable that it’s difficult to resist the urge to hate her when listening to it; this woman has absolutely no self-respect whatsoever, and it makes this song deeply loathsome in that way only hideously sappy adult contemporary ballads can ever be. And for that matter – “adult contemporary”? “Adult” my ass! This song feels like the horrifying result of a failed experiment to see if the gift of eternal youth can, in fact, be delivered through music, except when the scientists lost control they realised they had created a monstrous beast that actively infantilizes all who lay ears upon it, preserving their physical age while reverting their minds to a childlike state. “I spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that cost too much to be free”, she sings at one point, and for the life of me I still can’t understand what the fuck that even wants to mean. This music is a viscous, cloying, clawing liquid that seeks to fill my lungs and choke my brain; it is a malignant force, a being that wishes naught but ill upon the human race. It is an abomination, and the sooner it is destroyed the better.

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Tin Drum (1981)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 5/5
Japan embrace China – didn’t expect to read that sentence anytime soon, now did ya?

The idea of a band named after an East Asian country embracing East Asian influences for the title and cover is hardly a far-fetched one. A band called Japan taking influences from China, though? Man, that’s just asking fer trouble. Though one could say, of course, that Japan plundering China is really nothing new – but that’s opening a can o’ worms that could get me into trouble with the Japanese government, and maybe stretching the metaphor too far anyway. Let’s get back to the album! It’s really good – are you surprised?

If I’ve a problem with this album, it’s that most of the songs follow the same basic formula. You’ve got a drunken, woozy, fucked-up bassline, some mostly snare-based weirdo drum patterns, a bunch of riffy synth atmospheres and, coursing through all of it like a mountain stream, you’ve got Sylvian’s clear, glistening voice. But that’s not really a problem, ‘cos this formula is near-guaranteed to result in excellence, and accordingly this album is pretty much perfect. The vaguely gothic darkness of Gentlemen Take Polaroids is mostly gone (even if one of the songs is called “Ghosts”), and the tone that replaces it is much harder to define, but I guess, in a pinch, I’d say the album sounds like it takes place in a white-backdropped world of bizarre right-angled shapes and oddly asymmetric geometries, from which Sylvian observes the world in which we live and attempts to understand our designs.

I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the godlike genius of Mick Karn on previous reviews, so let’s devote a bit of time here to appreciating Steve Jansen. He’s not as good on the drums as Karn is on the bass – who is? – but the strange patterns he traces with his kit & machines are essential components in the construction of this album’s atmosphere. Take “Talking Drum”, for example – the drums don’t talk, as such, but pay attention to those little skittering cymbal taps that subtly fill the spaces between the big snare hits and you might be able to imagine that they are at least whispering, tapping at the edge of one’s consciousness like pattering rain on a corrugated roof. Then there’s “Visions of China”, which has all sorts of hand-drum sounds (mayhaps synthesized, mayhaps not) playing the sort of danceable pattern that many a well-meaning liberal journalist has probably described as “influenced by world music”, and which go very nicely with the very hip-swayingly funky bassline. Dancing to this would be difficult, but not impossible, and if ye don’t feel like getting out of yer chair then there’s plenty enough going on to satisfy the inner workings of yer mind. Yer heart, too – Sylvian’s voice is just pure velvet, all seductive and high-class and sophisticated. If he sounded like a dark parody of the average new romantic vocalist on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, here he just sounds like the logical endpoint of the entire style – he is peak new romantic; there will never be a more new romantic singer than him. If you’ve an aversion to over-enunciated posh vocals, you’ll probably find him absolutely insufferable; myself, I can’t get enough of it. I’d contract Sylvian to sing me to sleep every night if I had the money.

I might contract Barbieri to back him up on piano, too. After all, it’s just him and Sylvian on “Ghosts”, and it’s great! Sylvian’s just being his usual self, of course (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but the best part is hearing Barbieri fully exploring what he can do when freed from the rhythmic confines imposed on him by Karn and Jansen. Of course, the boundaries of those confines were always unusually wide and fluid – this is Japan we’re talking about, after all – but it’s fascinating to hear just how fully Barbieri can fill up a song with nothing but his synths. There’s a placid, reserved atmosphere that conjures an art gallery or tranquil old museum, and the tones are all fulsome and glowy like any good futuristic synthpop tones should be, but it’s also plenty melodic and quietly riffy. In fact, Barbieri might be an underrated riffster in the synthpop world – he’s not obvious about it like Paul Humphreys or Magne Furuholmen, but he’s got a real talent for coming up with catchy, melodic riffs. It’s easy to forget them with so much else going on, but just look, for example, at “Still Life In Mobile Homes” – there’s nary a moment in that song that doesn’t contain some memorable synth bits, and the only reason they’re not more noticeable is because a good portion of them are buried under even more memorable bass riffs and vocal melodies. The whole song is pretty much just pure melodic bliss from beginning to end; come to think of it, the entire album is pretty much pure melodic bliss from beginning to end. 

The catchiest song on the album is probably the closer, “Cantonese Boy”, which is one of the two songs to immediately spring into my head whenever I think of this band (the other one being “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”). It’s got Barbieri’s most noticeable and immediately memorable riff(s), and the vocal melody in the chorus is gently, incisively perfect, like a surgical device designed specifically to painlessly and smoothly stimulate the relaxation and pleasure centres of the brain. There’s also the opener, “The Art Of Parties”, which has some of Barbieri’s most left-field riffs, some of Jansen’s most unusual drum patterns and some of Sylvian’s best tunes – especially in the pre-chorus, when the synths drop to this low, dark hum and he croons out perfectly controlled, placid meditations on futility and entropy. Funnily enough, this is also the first Japan song since Quiet Life to contain really substantial guitarwork – there’s even a solo! Poor Rob Dean must have felt mighty put upon when he heard this. Mind you, even he couldn’t possibly have had any complaints about the instrumental track “Canton”, which is awesome – it’s basically a Chinese folk song played as if it were a synthpop song, and it turns out that traditional Chinese folk-style melodies make great synth riffs. I’m not sure what the traditional Chinese masters would have made of Karn’s jumpy bassline, but as far as I’m concerned it fits just fine.

There ain’t a weak track here at all, in fact. Some might be willing to call “Sons Of Pioneers” a bit boring or repetitive, but to them I say phooey – it’s patient, steady and comforting, and if there’s one man I’d listen to play the same bassline over and over for seven minutes it’s gotta be Mick Karn. As far as I’m concerned, this album is flawless, and it’s as fitting a sign-off from this group as one could ever have hoped. I guess this much raw creative energy could never have stayed in one place for long without finding some way to dilute itself anyway, so I’m not too upset, and I’m certainly glad the band finished on their highest note rather than steadily descending into bullshit like certain other groups I’ve reviewed (ahem). As you might expect, this wasn’t the end of the road for any of the members: David Sylvian went on to a long and apparently very rewarding solo career in which he collaborated with everyone from Robert Fripp to Sachiko M, creating art-pop double albums and cavorting with the avant-garde in a way that presumably alienated a good deal of his old-school fans; Barbieri eventually decided to pollute himself by joining Porcupine Tree in the nineties, taunting us with an ambient solo album every so often just to keep us on our toes; Steve Jansen briefly formed The Dolphin Brothers with Barbieri and has sporadically collaborated with him and with Sylvian ever since, while recording the occasional solo album whenever he can find the time and/or motivation; and Mick Karn, naturally, almost immediately jumped into the world of jazz fusion, perhaps the only genre in the world truly suited to his phenomenal talents on the bass. All four of them briefly reunited in 1991 for a project called Rain Tree Crow. As for Rob Dean, well, he eventually ended up retiring to Costa Rica and became its leading expert in ornithology, and never had to worry about egotistical singers or disloyal bandmates ever again.