Wednesday, October 28, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: Gorillaz - Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

Perhaps one of the brightest moments of this terrible year was Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's virtual band, Gorillaz, making a comeback at the beginning of it. For those who don't know Gorillaz or Albarn, it's a bit of an interesting project to explain and I'll try my best to do so. Albarn first became a popular face in music when his band Blur hit it big in the Brit-Pop scene with big hits like Girls And Boys, Parklife, and probably the most notable Song 2. (the WOO-HOO song, you know which one I'm talking about.) In 1990, Damon met cartoonist Jamie Hewlett through Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon. Originally the two didn't really like each other with Hewlett saying Damon was "arsey." Nonetheless, time healed the wounds and the two eventually became flatmates in 1997. Late one night on an MTV binge, Albarn and Hewlett got tired of seeing nothing of substance on the channel so they got the idea to create a response to that. They decided to create a "virtual band" made up of 4 cartoon members, singer 2-D, bass player Murdoc, drummer Russel, and guitarist Noodle. They released their first self-titled album in 2001 which was met with a lot of critical acclaim. Me personally, I don't really care for it but there are still a few great songs on it like 19-2000, M1 A1, Tomorrow Comes Today, and most notably, Clint Eastwood, which is still one of the best Gorillaz songs of all time. After the first album and a huge single, many critics saw the band just being a gimmick and a one-hit-wonder but in 2005, Albarn proved all of those critics wrong when Gorillaz's second album, Demon Days was released.

The band posing with Hewlett and Albarn (Top: L to R, Murdoc and Russel, Bottom: L to R, Jamie Hewlett, Noodle, 2-D, Damon Albarn)

With Demon Days, the band embraced a darker and heavier sound and it worked out amazingly. It's probably the Gorillaz album I come back to the most just because of how great the production is and how addicting the songs are. The feature list is also great with legendary appearances from De La Soul and MF DOOM. 5 years later we got Plastic Beach which is a "must-listen" for anyone who wants to get into the band. The album sees them going into a more synth-heavy sound and once again, it works out amazingly. This is, in my opinion, their best album. The production blows me away every time, the environmentalist themes are strong in the lyrics, and it just makes me happy to listen to. The band took a bit of a hiatus starting in 2012 where Albarn released a solo album and reformed Blur. In 2017, Gorillaz showed signs of life again but to hardcore fans, it was the start of a sluggish period. While I did and still do enjoy their 2017 album Humanz, it's easy to see how there are too many features or how the tracklist is too bloated. And while I love The Now Now, it's still pretty hit or miss. So with this project, it's easy to be worried that since every single song has a feature, it might be Humanz Pt. 2, and the rollout of the band dropping one single per month might make some of the songs seem boring by the time we get the album but I am happy to report that that is not the case.

As a matter of fact, I enjoy some of these songs more now than I did when they first dropped. While we're only getting 4 new songs with the standard edition of the album, all of these songs still work together incredibly well. Also, before I talk about any of the music, I have to acknowledge the feature list that Damon and co-producer Remi Kabaka Jr. put together for this album because it is honestly crazy. The album features everyone from Beck to ScHoolboy Q, has Elton John and 6lack on the same song, and even managed to get Robert Smith on a song in 2020. Another note real quick is that I'll be referring to Damon's singing as 2D even though I'm not as interested in the lore and backstory of the cartoons as some people are. 

The album kicks off with its title track, Strange Timez, featuring Robert Smith who's voice is just timeless. He still sounds the same as he did when The Cure first burst onto the scene nearly 50 years ago. I love how Robert's loud, grand voice contrasts with 2D's muffled, almost spoken-word vocals. I love the beat switch about halfway through where these dance beat drums come in. It really picks the energy up. Then there's The Valley of The Pagans with Beck that almost sounds like an LCD Soundsystem song at first. I don't know, the crisp drums and quirky synth bass almost feels like something from Sound of Silver. But the song gives us one of Beck's best performances in a really long time. I'm honestly super impressed with how well he does on the song. The song is a critique of the LA lifestyle with Beck singing about how he's happy in the city yet he feels something missing, but when the sun hits his face, all is forgotten. There's also a really cool part near the end where 2D's voice syncs in with the synth line and it's just amazing. 

The Lost Chord is a super subdued slow burner. 2D's voice is pained and sad and it fits on top of the song perfectly. Ultimately, it's the production and Leee John's performance that really makes this song amazing. The chorus on the song is super pretty with this great progression of John's falsetto reaching up farther and farther and it just sends my soul into another dimension. PAC-MAN featuring ScHoolboy Q was my favorite single going into this album and is still one of my favorite songs on this album. The beat wouldn't sound too out of place on Plastic Beach. 2D's voice has the signature muffled effect on it while the beat behind him does sound like something out of an old arcade game. Then ScHoolboy Q comes in and absolutely murders his verse while the beat keeps building up behind him. I love his charism on the second half of his verse where he raps:

Keep a peace, no Buddas, got the whole hood boomin'
I’m like a Crip high student, you on your ass, stuck stupid
You makin' weed look bad, I'll ride the beat, won't crash

Chalk Tablet Towers was my most anticipated song going into this album due to a feature from none other than Annie Clark of St. Vincent but, I'll be honest, it originally let me down. I was mad that there wasn't a guitar solo and I felt that Annie was underused, but the more I listen, the more it's grown on me. 2D and Annie duet on the chorus and it sounds beautiful. I also love the "OH OH OH OOOoh" chants throughout the song. And while it sounds like a fun banger, the lyrics are pretty sad with 2D singing about a lover he can't be with, possibly because he's in rehab. Singing about how he can't touch his lover because he's shut off from the outside world with no contact. Also asking at the end of the song if she'll still be there at the end of the summer. 

The Pink Phantom has one of the strangest pairings feature-wise on the album with the legendary Elton John and R&B star 6lack coming together for a grand piano ballad with another gut puncher lyrically. 2D, 6lack, and Elton are all singing about a girl that left them in the past, possibly the one from the previous song. And while a lot of fans have been brushing 6lack's feature off, his first verse might be my favorite part of the song because he does the best job of capturing the sadness, singing:

I tried to tell you that I love you but I’m choked up
You forgot and that makes me feel like no love
Were you ever really there? Did you ever really care?
Wait, I got so many examples of all of the
Good times we had, long summer nights
Held you long time, put your name in my rhyme

Then there's Aries which is not only my favorite song on the album but is also in the running for song of the year in my opinion. There's an amazing bassline courtesy of Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order and the production is quite literally insane. I love the glitchy drum fills and the absolutely eargasmic chorus. 2D's performance on the song is so, so good. There's a certain anxiety or tension in it that just really sets it over the top for me. I also love the almost out-of-tune synth swells that pop up during the chorus. Everything about this song is incredible. 

Ever since the first time I listened to it, I've hoped the song Friday the 13th would grow on me but, it hasn't. While the instrumental is fantastic, I just can not stand Octavian's voice. His raspy voice almost ruins the verses while his Swae Lee impression in the choruses doesn't make things any better. I guess 2D's echoed refrain at the end of the song kind of redeems it but not really. However, the album gets past this little speed bump and picks up almost immediately with the song Dead Butterflies which made me laugh the first time I heard it thanks to the "Mike Will Made It!!" tag at the beginning of the song. I also love the bit of the studio banter at the beginning with Damon asking "Can we just loop that piano." I always love little raw moments like that on songs. The song itself has a pretty minimal beat with a little hi-hat/snare pattern with this super heavy bass. Roxani Arias has a beautiful verse right after the first chorus before Kano comes in hard and flows super well while the synths build up a little bit in the background. The instrumental doesn't build much more afterward, in fact, it gets tamer as the song continues going from that super heavy bass/snare/hi-hat pattern to these cute, twinkly pianos in the outro. 

The album ends on a really, really strong note with the first two songs we heard from the project, Désolé and Momentary Bliss. The former has a new extended intro and outro and it just makes the song that much better. I absolutely love how the song progresses from verse to chorus. The verses are pretty bare with just 2D's voice, some drums, and a maraca in the background then the choruses are these explosions synths, guitar, and Fatoumata Diawara's incredible voice. And I think even saying incredible is selling her short because she comes through with this huge, soulful, booming voice. There's a little break around the 3:20 mark where there's this chaos of horns that all somehow fit together before giving way to some piano and tense strings, then one more chorus to end the song off. There's nothing I like more than when an album ends on one final banger and Momentary Bliss is that banger with features from Slaves and Slowthai. The energy on the song is insane and the positive advice in Slowthai's lyrics is easy to be lost in his angry delivery. It's the most pissed off pep talk I've ever heard, and I've been in the locker room for varsity football pre-games for the past 4 years. I love the tremolo effect on the guitars during the verses where these chords just keep popping in and out, almost like they're muted the second after they're played. It's an absolutely fantastic way to end this album.

I am so happy that this album was as good as it was, and the fact that they could drop one song a month and still have all of these songs sound amazing is a testament to timeless Gorillaz music is. While it was easy to write this album off as Humanz 2 because of every song having a feature, it beats Humanz in almost every aspect as the guests are placed better, 2D is present throughout all of the songs, and the tracklist flows so much better than Humanz. I'll end this review saying this, I'm very happy to add Gorillaz to the list of bands that are dropping amazing albums years after they arguably peaked a long time ago. Loving this album, a lot.

I would rate
Song Machine
By Gorillaz


Now I will touch on the deluxe songs a little bit but they weren't going to affect the overall score so I figured I would just add this onto the end. I guess the easiest way to describe the deluxe songs is "hit-or-miss," and the hits really outshine the misses. While I originally didn't care too much for the song Opium featuring Earthgang, it has grown on me with time. The Earthgang guys flow very well over this looped dance beat that just grows and grows as the song goes on. I don't really care for the songs Simplicity and Severed Head, the former I just found to be kind of boring and uninteresting, the latter because I have not been a Goldlink fan ever since his Mac Miller stunt, and his delivery has not changed, ever. The last two songs, With Love To An Ex and MLS are fantastic. The former has one of the most interesting beats on the entire album with a great explosive outro while the latter has amazing features from JPEGMAFIA and Chai. So once again, there are some good songs tacked on to the end, but it's obvious to see why they weren't included with the standard album. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW: Madvillain - Madvillainy

Remarked as one of the best underground hip-hop albums of all time, Madvillainy is the first and only collaboration album between legendary rapper MF DOOM and legendary producer Madlib. The album was recorded between 2002 and 2004 with Madlib apparently relying on 3 pieces of equipment to make all of the beats, a Boss Digital Sampler, a turntable, and a tape deck. For those who aren't familiar with both of these artists, Madlib is a legendary rap/hip-hop producer out of California who started working with the Stones Throw label in 1999. His usual style includes a lot of old vocal samples mixed with vintage live instrumentation to make something magical. DOOM, on the other hand, is a little bit more mysterious. Born Daniel Dumile, he started rapping under the MF DOOM name in 1997 when he would perform with a woman's stocking over his head. In 1999, he put out his first album under the DOOM name entitled Operation Doomsday which had some solid moments but it's a very hit or miss album. DOOM and Madlib first met in 2001 when DOOM got some instrumentals from Madlib and fell in love with them. The two began working on the album in 2002, where allegedly, all they did was, record music, drink beer, eat Thai food, smoke weed, and take psychedelic mushrooms. 

In these times, leaking music was a huge make or break deal, so when the album leaked 14 months before it was set to be officially released, the two abandoned the project completely. They got fed up with people appreciating the album at their shows so they forgot about it. Madlib went on to release a collaboration album with J Dilla and DOOM, well, does anyone ever know what he's doing? 

MF DOOM (left) and Madlib (right) posing in a promotional image for the album.

After two years of working on their own, the duo reconvened and dropped this album on my 2nd birthday, March 23, 2004 and was met with instant praise. The album has also made its way onto multiple "Best Albums of All Time" lists. At 22 songs but on 46 minutes of runtime, this album is pretty slick. None of the songs have hooks or choruses, rather, it's DOOM just spitting for 1.5-2 minutes backed with some sick sampling and beat making. For those of y'all who have listened to this album and know DOOM's music in general, you won't be surprised by the next thing I say, but the number of insane bars and amazing one-liners on this album is crazy as hell. Every song on this album has at least 5-6 great lines in it and it's almost hard to keep up with all of them. Also, his flows on this album are top-notch. He flows so well on top of all of these beats and for someone who uses the same flow on every song, it manages to never get old. 

The first song on this album is Accordion with DOOM wasting no time dropping great lines, giving a god-tier bar just 4 lines into the album saying:

Dick Dastardly and Muttley with sick laughter
A gun fight and they come to cut the mixmaster

Just look up this line on Genius, it's crazy. Also, there's a really clever one-liner with DOOM saying, "It's like they know what's 'bout to happen / Just keep ya eye out, like 'Aye, aye captain.'" Right after this line he starts going off lyrically giving us one-liners like "giving y'all nothing but the lick like two broads / got more lyrics than the church got 'ooh lords!'" and a line that never fails to make me laugh where he says, "don't touch the mic like it's AIDS on it." I would like to remind you guys again that this is only the first full song on the album we have a long way to go in terms of bars and production. The song Meat Grinder has a really cool two-part beat, the first half has this really interesting Frank Zappa flip with some great drums. The second half is the polar opposite with some super grimey bass and maracas leading the song. Once again, DOOM is flexing his pen game with my favorite bar in the song being:

Still back in the game like Jack LaLanne
Think you know the name, don't rack your brain

Raid is an upbeat, almost jazz-rap song with one of the few legitimate features on this album as most of the features are either DOOM or Madlib alter-egos. DOOM doesn't have too many standout bars or one-liners on this one but he comes through with a great threat towards people wanting to bite his style saying:

Don't let me find out who tried to bite
They better off goin' to fly a kite in a firefight
During tornado time with no coat than I caught ya

America's Most Blunted is an ode to weed with both DOOM and Quasimoto's verses dealing with smoking weed or just being high in general. The production on this song is absolutely insane and both verses are fantastic. The song Sickfit is an instrumental bit that deserves a verse spat on top but as legend has it, DOOM thought the song was too good and didn't need a verse so they left it as is.

The song Curls is one of my favorite songs on this project with DOOM's bar going harder than ever, opening the song by rapping:

Villain get the money like curls
They just tryin' to get a nut like squirrels in his mad world
Land of milk and honey with the swirls
Where reckless naked girls get necklaces of pearls

The rhymes on Money Folder are even crazier with DOOM saying at one point that he owns his own microphone and he brings it everywhere he goes "so he can bring it live to you in stere-ere-o." He also manages to take a shot at himself saying, "Poor guys, what a sight for old, sore four-eyes / Now hook me with two apple pies and a small fries." Operation Lifesaver is a hilarious 90-second song about an interaction DOOM had with a girl who had bad breath. It's probably the least serious song on here but he still manages to pull off some memorable lines like DOOM's first on the song saying "Wow, it caught me off guard, went to breathe out and then she made me cough hard" or a line closer towards the end of the song, "Fellas don't fess, some of 'em just need to eat the whole thing of Crest." It's hilarious. Figaro has a really sweet guitar sample and some tambourine heavy drumming. This song is pretty much one solid verse and I don't even think DOOM takes a single breath throughout the whole thing. It's just so lyrically dense and his rhymes on this song are insane, starting off by rapping:

The rest is empty with no brain, but the clever nerd
The best emcee with no chain ya ever heard

He just goes off for 2 and a half minutes straight and the rhymes just keep on coming and keep blowing my mind both reading them and hearing them. The one that gets me every time is when he goes:

A shot of Jack got her back it's not an act stack
Forgot about the cackalack, holla back; clack-clack, blocka
Villainy, feel him in ya heart chakra, chart-toppa
Start-sh*t stoppa, be a smart shoppa

The song Fancy Clown is another hilarious song sung by another DOOM personality Viktor Vaughn. The song shows Viktor angrily calling his girlfriend to confront her after he found out she was cheating on him...with DOOM. There's a really sick ZZ Hill sample led by a piano that's really easy to get lost in. The lyrics are bitter as hell with Vaughn holding nothing back in the verses. The first verse shows Vaughn just going right in while the second verse shows him getting a little petty and trying to stab back at her rapping about, erm, fun times he had with his ex's friend, a hotel maid, and even his ex's mom(?), this is tough. 

The last three songs on the album, All Caps, Great Day, and Rhinestone Cowboy end the album spectacularly. All Caps might have my favorite beat on this entire album sampling a cartoon intro and pausing whenever DOOM hits a punchline. And if you're annoyed by me capitalizing DOOM everytime I type it, blame the line, "Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name." Great Day shows his wordplay in full swing again, at one point breaking up his rhyme scheme to clear his throat to throw the listener off rapping:

Spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches
One thing this party could use is more... ahem
Booze, put yourself in your own shoes

The joke here being you expect him to say "b*tches" but he pauses, switches up his flow, and changes his rhyme scheme. There's also a hilarious line about how his flows are drowned in "Lawry's seasoning," which makes me laugh every time. Then last but not least is Rhinestone Cowboy which shows DOOM going off one more time before the album closes and it's fantastic. There are too many lines in the first verse to include but two standouts are DOOM calling himself the "phantom of the Grand Ol Opry" and there's another line that always blows my mind with DOOM saying, "Got more soul than a sock with a hole." Just an absolute god tier bar.

If you're a fan of rap music at all, it doesn't matter what style, I highly suggest you give this album a listen. DOOM has slowly become a top 5 rapper of all time for me just because of how well he flows, how lyrical he gets, and the beats he decides to hop on top of are always fantastic. He definitely has paved his own way through this scene and while he might be in hibernation for the rest of our lifetime, nothing would excite me more than getting another MF DOOM album soon. Until then, this album in the middle of his hottest hot streak is still the crown jewel and definitely a classic album. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

LIST: Ranking Every ACL Fest Set I've Ever Seen

A picture I took of the American Express Stage in front of the Austin Skyline at the festival in 2018.

Right now I should probably be in Zilker Park. I'd probably be seeing the beginning of a set at either the American Express or the Honda Stage. Maybe I'd be finishing up a Korean Chicken Sandwich from Chi'lantro, or maybe I'd have meeting an artist at the Waterloo Tent. Of course, we can't be doing that this year and while I accepted it early on, it still stings. There's no greater joy than being able to party with 75,000 strangers every day for 3 days straight. Enjoying the artists I love, exploring new sounds, and most of all, meeting tons of new people. This year was supposed to be year 3 for me. As speculation ensued, I was excited to hear that maybe this was the year I would get to see Rage Against the Machine or Kendrick Lamar for the first time but now, I'm just excited for the virtual fest this weekend.

In the past two years, the festival has helped me find my new favorite artists and let me see artists who I don't think I would normally. So to honor this ACL weekend, I figured this would be the best way to celebrate by counting down all 13 ACL sets I've seen. (I know that seems low but keep in mind, I only went to the festival Saturday of last year)

13. Megan Thee Stallion

I don't even think I have to explain this one. I walked into the fest planning on going straight to the Miller Lite stage and was shocked to hear no music even though I showed 20 minutes into when her set was supposed to start. At least I got a better spot for a set I'll talk about in a little bit

12. 21 Savage

This is the only still the only festival set I had to leave early because of just how boring it was. Now don't get me wrong, I like 21 Savage's music. I Am > I Was was one of my favorite trap albums of the last decade and I still keep songs like Bank Account and Don't Come Out The House in constant rotation, but the man is just not a good live performer. Giving little to no effort while singing, pacing back and forth atop of a giant LED mountain. Maybe I would've have had a better time if I was maybe 10-15 rows back from the stage, but good performers will keep you entertained no matter how far back you are. 

11. Highly Suspect 

Highly Suspect is another band that falls under that same category, I love their music and was excited to see them live but man was it disappointing. The band themselves are super tight and all of the performances were great, it was everything in between that rubbed me the wrong way. Most notably, the picture up above. Before one of the songs, lead singer Johnny Stevens walked along Metallica's Snake Pit and as he was walking said, "Can I borrow that sign real quick?" After the fan handed it too him, Stevens walked to the edge of the Snake Pit and said, "ALRIGHT. Before we do this next song, I need everyone to say one word, and that word is F*CK. On the count of three, we're all gonna say f*ck, ready? 3, 2, 1!" Of course, usually when an artist instructs you to do something, they usually say "nah you can do better," but Stevens took a different approach and instead took 8 minutes to make sure he got the response he wanted. Also notable was on another trip along the Snake Pit, Stevens asked everyone to put two hands up "because it looks pretty when y'all do that." He then noticed someone in the audience in the VIP area who didn't have in hands up and said, "TWO HANDS UP! EVEN YOU MOTHERF*CKER! DON'T THINK YOU'RE SPECIAL BECAUSE YOU'RE VIP." At least Lydia slapped live. 

10. Khalid

Photo Courtesy of Rolling Stone

Khalid is the first ACL Fest set I ever got to see so he'll always have that honor for me. I do still enjoy his music so getting to see him was big for me. However, the more I look back on this set the more I realize not how bad it was, I had a great time, but his performance was just lazy. Khalid is a Pop and R&B singer, he's not a rapper, yet he kept thinking he could get away with letting the crowd sing half of the songs. He's a singer, he's expected to sing all of his songs. But there kept being these weird moments where the chorus would hit and I was immediately met with a backing track. And sure, I wouldn't mind this if it was just for a couple songs but it happened for every single song. I can't go too hard on this set though because I didn't leave disappointed. Khalid has great energy on stage and is very engaging with his audience, who was also great. They sort of enable him to get away with backing tracks because they're all singing along to every word, dancing, and for some reason, even moshing at one point. That I still don't understand. So while I'd never pay to see him again, I wouldn't mind seeing another Khalid festival set sometime. 

9. Deftones

This set was a big moment for Deftones. Being 18 years past their biggest album, sub headlining the biggest festival in Texas was an interesting booking. But the band has developed a really awesome cult fanbase that will always be there for them. However, this set got off to a rocky start, like, really rocky. This set was my first introduction to Deftones so when the riff to Rocket Skates started and lead singer Chino Moreno screamed into his mic, causing a lot of distortion, I thought Chino just sang with a distorted mic but as the set went on, I realized that the sound was just messed up. This persisted for the first 25-30 of their set which eventually led to the band to just walking off stage. When they returned however, it was glorious. I had realized even with the sound issues that these guys are amazing live. Abe Cunningham's drumming is amazing, Steph Carpenter is playing these huge chunky riffs, and Chino is running all around the stage like a 2-year-old in a grocery store. I also couldn't help but laugh whenever bassist Sergio Vega would bang his head as he had a giant, almost afro but it always looked hilarious. 

8. The Wombats

I think my most memorable takeaway from this set was just how hilarious these guys were. Every moment between songs they had me busting up laughing. One of the funniest being when a plane promoting the Netflix show Big Mouth flew by the park carrying a banner that read "ANDREW HAS A BONER." (I know, not the best weekend to be Andrew.) When the drummer noticed this, he immediately pointed it out to which lead singer Matt Murphy responded "is he just continually erect? We have a doctor on tour with us now so if Andrew needs any medical assistance, let us know, we can help him." He then dedicated the next song, Greek Tragedy, to Andrew and his erection. Another takeaway from this show was just how fun it was. There was such a fun vibe in the pit that made this show so enjoyable and it helps that the music was great too. I also need to make mention of the band bringing actual people in Wombat costumes on stage during the song "Let's Dance to Joy Division" because that was honestly a highlight of the weekend. 

7. Brittany Howard

Before ACL 2019, I had never listened to Alabama Shakes, had never heard Brittany's solo album Jaime, and honestly, I didn't plan to see her. However when schedules were released and my group planned on camping for Billie Eilish, I was sort of forced into it, but I was blown away at how great the set was. To start off, I do wanna say I feel kinda bad for Brittany because I don't think too many people were there for her, rather, it was just the set they needed to get through before Billie, and she even kind of made reference to that when she walked out on stage saying, "How you doin'!? There's so many of y'all I like that," but nonetheless, she won me over. Her voice, her stories, the music, it was all fantastic. Her backing band was on fire for the set mainly thanks to legendary drummer Nate Smith slapping the skins behind her. There was also a phenomenal Prince cover about halfway through her set with Brittany just pouring her heart out over the song. Other highlights in the set included her speech about love before the song Baby with Brittany saying, "mmmm. Love. Such a tender thing. 50/50 love is the best thing in the world. But sometimes, you get that 70/30 love. And you're on the wrong side of it." The performance of Baby was honestly incredible with this super awesome piano solo right in the middle of it and Brittany is hitting these heavenly high notes. If you haven't listened to her debut solo album yet, please do it, you won't regret it. 

6. Denzel Curry

Already disappointed by a Megan Thee Stallion no show, I wasn't thrilled when 3 PM rolled around and Denzel wasn't on stage. However, the second he came on stage about 10 minutes later, all was forgiven. Almost immediately a flurry of mosh pits opened up and it was off to the races. This may sound like an exaggeration but I literally did not even see him until  Denzel didn't even really have a big intro. His DJ just came on stage, played a football hype up chant, then started the title track from his 2019 album ZUU, before Denzel just sprinted on stage and started rapping. For the next 45 minutes, it was mosh pit after mosh pit, banger after banger, and Denzel barely stopped for a breath a few times. On stage, he was unstoppable. Between jumping and sprinting across the stage, Denzel was still nailing every bar and even served as his own hypeman most of the time. His performance of the song Ultimate opened up one of the biggest mosh pits I'd seen in my entire life. For reference, I was about 25 rows back from the stage before the song started and I was 10 rows back when the song ended. If you're a rap fan and you have yet to see Denzel live, make sure you get around to it when concerts come back. 

5. Billie Eilish

Love her or hate her, you can't deny just how big Billie Eilish has become and if you want to deny it, just look at any pictures of her crowd from this set, or look at the fact that she sold out her entire arena the week of this festival when shows weren't supposed to start until March. While at times it seemed like she may have just been going through the motions, the energy of the fans around me made the set memorable. Her stage design was minimal for someone in her position, just a riser, a keyboard, and a drum set aided by an LED screen behind her, and she made the most out of the little she had. Her stage presence was incredible and you could tell she enjoyed being up on stage. The set, however, was not without a few hiccups. For starters, it's no secret that Billie isn't exactly the loudest singer so you figure that her voice would be mixed a little louder so we could hear her singing. Nope, in fact, it was quite the opposite as her voice was mixed so low that it was hard to even hear her talk in between songs. Also while I loved the energy the fans provided, you could tell that some of them didn't really know how to behave themselves. Screaming at inappropriate times, breaking out into mosh pits (terrible ones at that), and a lot of pushing and shoving to get closer to their queen. The worst of it being when Billie came down onto the ground and stood along the barricade to get closer to her fans. First, she was held around the neck by someone who really didn't want to let go, then, after returning to the stage, Billie told us, "Yo, somebody stole my ring." So while her performance was great and Billie is amazing, I doubt we'll be seeing her back at ACL anytime soon. 

4. The Cure

I know that this one shouldn't count because I didn't see the entire set but man, the 30 minutes I got to see were incredible and I almost regretted seeing Childish Gambino over them. Even as far back as I was, I was in awe of how great this band was live. It's obvious that age is catching up to frontman Robert Smith but he still sounds just as amazing as he did in the 1980s. His voice hasn't missed a beat and neither has the band behind them as the songs they played in the encore set I saw sounded not just as good, but even better than the studio recordings. But the one thing that stuck out the most was Smith's pure happiness being on stage. At this point in his career, Smith could easily be phoning it in, just playing the hits and leaving but I don't think he did this huge tour just for the money, you could tell that he just really loves playing live. When I got to the Honda Stage, the band had already been playing for a solid hour and a half, yet they showed no signs of fatigue as they were ripping through "The Caterpillar." Their performance of "Friday, I'm In Love" was possibly one of the best live performances I've seen of any song, ever. It just hit every feel good bone in my body and put the biggest smile on my face. With rumors of the band releasing two albums "this year," I'm hoping the band continues to tour because I will not hesitate to snatch up tickets.

3. Childish Gambino 

Donald Glover is a mysterious man, so while this might not technically be the last show he ever plays under the Childish Gambino name, he made it special considering it might be. He had one of the grandest entrances I've ever seen in my two years of going to the fest, popping up in front of the soundboard and rising up on a platform studded with disco balls. Glover spent as much time in the crowd as he did on stage, signing an Awaken, My Love vinyl, taking selfies with a few lucky fans, and talking to us about his band. On stage, he was an unstoppable force. He has an amazing voice, he's an incredible dancer, and the live band behind him was insanely good, adding another level to the songs I already knew I loved. His stage show was also great with lots of lasers, fireworks, and video screens making it feel like I was watching a concert film directed by Glover himself. The show was split into three sections, the first third being the bangers, songs like The Worst Guys and Worldstar, the former of which featured touring guitarist Ray Suen absolutely killing the guitar solo, the trippy songs, which featured more moodiness and performances of songs like Have Some Love which featured a really awesome dance break right in the middle, Riot! which had an absolute explosion of sound after a tuned down intro with just Glover and a guitar strumming a few chords, and Terrified which dead serious brought me to tears. The last section, and possibly the best, was all of the hits starting with This is America right before the encore break then leading into Sober, 3005, and Sweatpants which sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy before ending his set with Redbone which was the cherry on top for the best show I saw last year. 

2. Metallica

I was sort of skeptical when I saw Metallica headlining ACL Fest. Don't get me wrong, I love the band and they're the reason I got into harder rock and metal music, but for them to play ACL? The heaviest headliner before them was Foo Fighters and they aren't exactly the heaviest rock band out there. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity, got to the AmEx stage at 1:30 that afternoon, and after a tumultuous day of music, my day of waiting paid off. This late into their career, the band is still in excellent form, still bringing a ton of energy on stage and still dishing out those fast, chugging riffs that they made their name on. James Hetfield is still an amazing frontman while he has obviously calmed down over the years. After the one-two punch of Hardwired and "Atlas, Rise!" to kick off the show, Hetfield stood in front of a mic and said, "I SMELL BARBEQUEEEEE!!!" Over the next two hours, the band delivered hit after hit and the crowd ate it up. For someone seeing the band for the first time, the setlist was almost perfect. And dare I say, most of the songs sounded better live, songs like Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and even One, the latter of which might have been the highlight of the night for me. The band's last two songs produced the biggest sing-a-longs of the night with Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman closing out Saturday. Enter Sandman was complimented with two separate firework blasts and one last "AYE AYE AYE" chant before the band threw out guitar picks and drumsticks then thanked all of us before heading home. While I knew to expect something good, I didn't expect the show to be quite as good as this was. I still listen to the live recording of this show quite often and it takes me right back to standing there in Zilker.

1. Paul McCartney

I think the best way to describe just how great this show was is by saying this isn't just the best ACL set I've ever seen, it's the best concert I've ever been to in my life in general. I know this might sound terrible of me to say but I wasn't incredibly hyped up to see Paul. Sure I knew a couple of Beatles song and knew Maybe, I'm Amazed but walking over to the AmEx stage, I decided that I was only gonna go just so I could say I'd seen him since it was such a big booking for the fest. As showtime got closer and closer, the anticipation grew more and more. His show started with what might be one of the softest intros I've seen from a headliner at ACL in my time going. A little video played, then the house lights turned on, and out came Paul and his band. He opened up with Hard Day's Night which, to this day I still don't remember hearing the opening chord because of how loud and excited everyone around me was. After that first song alone, I knew the rest of the night was gonna be special. The next 2 hours and 15 minutes were an amazing trip through Paul's entire career and his backing band was on fire for all of it. Something I remember vividly was his performance of Letting Go which has this huge horn section in the middle of it. I heard the horns but I couldn't figure out where they were coming from but a camera showed them standing along the barricade in the middle of the pit. 

While I did enjoy the whole show, there was nothing I enjoyed more than the last half of the show where the setlist just became hit after hit after hit. Let it Be was one of the songs I knew beforehand and singing along to it with 60 thousand strangers was honestly beautiful. After that was Live and Let Die which was an insane flurry of pyro, fireworks, lasers, just absolute chaos on stage but beautiful chaos. And then, Hey Jude, which gave me chills just thinking about it. Leading up to the festival I had been waiting for that part, the NA NA NA NANANANAAAA and it was incredible. You could tell I wasn't the only one and to be quite honest, I wouldn't have any problem if it kept going on for two more hours. It's such a beautiful thing to think about moments like that. Very rarely can you get such a large group of people to just drop everything they're doing and just sing along. The performance of Helter Skelter was everything I expected it to be. The guitars were loud, Paul was screaming his head off, and the drums were just booming away. His show ended with the trilogy of Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End and after a burst of confetti, McCartney walked off stage. This is probably a bold statement but if you ever get the chance at all to see Paul McCartney live, take it. He's still as energetic as he was at 30 as his is now and he still sounds amazing. Even if you don't like The Beatles or Paul's solo work, give his show a chance, you will not regret it. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020


Ultra Mono | IDLES

When it comes to music, every year I seem to follow a pattern. I'll stumble across a band or artist I've never heard of, I'll listen to a couple songs and think "Eh, these guys are decent," put them on the backburner, come back a month or two later, then realize that they're one of my favorite bands ever. This was the case for IDLES last year. While scrolling through BBC's YouTube page trying to find highlights from The Killers headlining set, I stumbled across this band and the thumbnail honestly made me laugh. A man with a bushy mustache playing guitar in his underwear on stage, I knew I had to check this band out and the resulting performance was amazing. The video was a performance of their song Danny Nedelko from their 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance and it was incredible. The band's stage presence, the energy in the crowd, everything about this was incredible. I immediately watched the full performance and was just blown away by how amazing this band was. Frontman Joe Talbot was coming through with these really thoughtful lyrics paired with an incredibly passionate delivery. Guitarists Mark Bowen (Mr. Mustachio) and Lee Kiernan were playing these heavy, super chunky riffs, and the rhythm section of Adam Devonshire and Jon Beavis was honestly just brutal. Beavis is beating his drums so hard they might file assault charges and Devonshire is providing awesome background vocals and adding to the energy in general. 

So when news broke of a new IDLES album, I was super excited. The first single Mr. Motivator was honestly hilarious with Talbot just making all of these nonsense similies singing "Like Connor McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades...Like Flava Flav in the club riding on the back of John Wayne," following all of these saying "How'd you like them clichés." While I've slowly fallen out of love with the song, the riff still bangs and the energy is great. Then there was the song Grounds which honestly might be one of the best songs I've heard all year. There's this really cool delayed and pitch-shifted guitar intro that gives way to thundering drums, bass, and distorted guitar. Joe's lyrics on the song are great and really appropriate for the times, singing in the second verse:

Not a single thing has ever been mended
By you standing there and saying you're offended
Go ahead, tell them what I've intended
I'll say what I mean, do what I love and f*cking send it

There's nothing brave and nothing useful
You scrawling your aggro sh*t on the walls of the cubicle
Saying my race and class ain't suitable
So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful

I also really love the chorus on this song with Talbot asking "Do you hear that thunder? That's the sound of strength in numbers." After this single we got a complete curveball in the song A Hymn which is super slow, led by synths, and is honestly just a moment of reflection for Talbot. Singing about how he wants to be loved just like everyone else. There are also some hilarious lines in the verses with Talbot singing about how he did hot Zumba classes to lose weight for his wedding and later singing about how Teletext has a special place in his heart because they gave him a 10% discount. 

We got back to the bangers with the last single Model Villiage, which, the more I listen to it, the more it reminds of a Slowthai song. Just the way Talbot delivers the lyrics and the general vibe of the song, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Kenny Beats had a hand in some of the production on this album. Reading into the lyrics though, it reminds me more and more of that Simpsons meme, the "Old Man Yells at a Cloud" meme. It's really just Joe whining about things he doesn't like about this village he lives in, which gets kind of tiring by the end of the first verse, although the chorus is hilarious with Talbot screaming "I BEG YOUR PAAAAARDON / I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR ROOOOOOSE GARDEN!!" So with this mixed bag of singles, I was interested to hear what the band could offer on a new project. I was hoping they could keep up the consistency of their past two albums Brutalism and Joy as an Act while coming through with of course, fresh lyrics and maybe some new sounds picked up from two straight years of touring, and in a sense, I got that. 

Sure, the riffs are still super heavy and there's still of a ton of energy but there's a huge component to IDLES music that is severely lacking on this new album and that is Talbot's lyrics. I don't think his lyrics have ever been this weak ever. And that's not to say all of them are entirely terrible, every now and then he has a good one line or a solid verse, but I can't get behind just how blunt his lyrics are. It sort of backs you into a corner since it's so on the nose that you can't really disagree with anything he sings about. Especially on songs like Ne Touche Pas Moi where after the in between the chorus and verses, Talbot and Jenny Beth are just screaming CONSENT! CONSENT! CONSENT! after Talbot sings about how "your body is your body / and it belongs to nobody but you." I can't hate the message of the song and of course, being IDLES, there's still a great riff and a lot of energy but it's just so unoriginal on all fronts. 

IDLES in a promotional image for their live album "A Beautiful Thing: Live at Le Bataclan." IDLES is (from L to R) Lee Keirnan, Joe Talbot, Jon Beavis, Mark Bowen, and Adam Devonshire

The song Anxiety is another in this vein. There are so many creative ways to sing about anxiety, depression, other mental issues but just screaming I HAVE ANXIETY almost comes off in poor taste. Almost like the South Park episode where Cartman finds out he has anxiety.  The lyrics somehow get even more blunt later on with Talbot singing about how "The government hates the poor" and how the government keeps the drugs that the poor can't afford "so the poor can't buy the cure." The song doesn't have a central focus lyrically with Talbot going from singing about his girlfriend dumped him to singing about anxiety to talking about why the government is terrible. And even worse is, this sounds just like the song 1049/Gotho from their album Brutalism except, instead of depression Talbot is singing about Anxiety. I think that's an overarching with the whole album. I honestly think the band is starting to run out of ideas and if they don't find a fix soon, I think they'll fade away after two more albums.

With that being said, I can give this album some praise where praise is due because once again, the band is coming through with banger after banger. The opening song War is honestly kind of hilarious with Joe's onomatopoeia throughout the whole first verse, opening the album by singing, "WAACHING! That's the sound of the sword going in." The song has honestly grown on me a lot since the first time I heard, the guitars and the drumming on this song are honestly nuts. Jon Beavis pulls off this crazy fill around the 1:30 mark. I also love the song Kill Them With Kindness. Talbot sounds hungry and pissed off on this track and it sounds incredible. The lyrics on this song are about smiling in the face of injustice with Talbot singing in the second verse: "It doesn't mean you have to bow, or say "Your Highness" / Just kill 'em with kindness / If you wanna beat the machine, keep your teeth clean / And kill 'em with kindness." 

The song Carcinogenic might be my favorite writing on the album. It's a song about how people work their asses off but aren't really rewarded for it financially meanwhile their bosses are constantly getting raises and "smiling through their new teeth." I also love the chorus with Talbot singing about how you only die once so while you're on Earth, love what you can. The song The Lover is another song about smiling in the face of hate with Talbot singing about how everyone around him has given him the confidence to look at his haters and simply say, "F*ck you, I'm a lover." I always crack up at the line "Look Mom! I'm a soul singer / Singing in the faces of the middle fingers." I'm also guessing that Talbot knew what controversy and what complaints were gonna come from this album because he drops a whole verse about how he doesn't care that people "don't like our cliches, our sloganeering, and our catchphrase." And while I love the closing song Danke, I hate just how abruptly it ends especially considering it takes us nearly 2 minutes for Talbot to start singing which isn't really all that great for a 3 and a half minute long song. 

All in all, I didn't really get the same enjoyment and didn't come out of this album feeling the same way I did after listening to Joy and Brutalism for the first time. And that's not to say this album is bad, it has great highlights and Grounds might be one of my favorite IDLES songs ever. My problem is, I already knew I loved this song and all the teaser tracks going into it and those same songs are my favorite on the album. Pair that with Talbot's weak, almost painful lyrics at times and I came out conflicted. I want to like this album more but, I just can't.

I would rate
Ultra Mono