Deftones, Deftones (Maverick)
Some bands are considered to be the examples to follow, the originators of a movement. The musicians they influence bow down to the great mighty musical lords that they are made out to be. Deftones are one such band. But can these bands continually live up to the standards they once created?
After tentatively being called Lovers, the fourth Deftones album is simply self-titled. And considering the diversity of sounds and the severity of its mood swings, it's probably a good choice. A skull embedded in a cobweb of roses on the album cover symbolizes the music's violence as well as its more mellow moments. Produced by Terry Date, Deftones swings up and down, from highs to lows, but rarely in between. It's all about extremes and much darker than anything they've done before.
Lead vocalist Chino Moreno fights and releases his inner beast on this collection of love songs à la Deftones. His voice is sensual, vulnerable at times, and violent at others. His signature primal screams screech at life's psychodramas, at all the angst-causing dysfunctions of this world. He's angry, and very angry, when he's not extremely pissed.
Opening with "Hexagram," the band is clearly out "to protect life's indigenous sound."
The intensity is there, as is the metal aggression. Just listen to Abe Cunningham hammering away at the drums. If that's not tension release, then I don't know what is. The down-tuned riffs of Stephen Carpenter's guitar keeps it consistent. More crushing and grinding melodies follow. They've created a certain ambience, often disturbing because the tension is so tight, and Chino's chilling shrills cut right through it.
Despite the thespian range of Chino's guttural bellows, however, the music lacks color. As his anger and passion wear off into broodiness before ascending the heights of madness again, so does the sound. On the plus side, the first few tracks are peppered with some noteworthy industrial riffs and spooky-as-the-skull scratches. And the band ventures into Korn-ish art rock, shedding their habitually minimal sound to take on more abstract vibes on tracks like the catchy "Battle-axe" and the swiveling "Minerva." The lyrics dissect love and all that goes with it; pride often comes up. "I think it's sweet of you, and your parents are proud," he sings in "Hexagram" and reiterates the same sentiment in "Battle-axe" by claiming "you make me so proud."
The least commercial band of the lucrative nu-metal movement certainly created a trend, but they seem to be stuck in "that" moment and appear confused on where to head. One can only admire their attempt at diversity or experimentation by incorporating synthesized sounds and a ballad. The electronic effects in "Lucky You," which also appears on the Matrix: Reloaded soundtrack, are very mid-80's Depeche Mode-ian. But the ballad "Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event" doesn't quite cut it, hence breaking the flow of the album at the crucial moment of its nearing conclusion. After the storm, there is way too much calm, so to speak. But then we are served with "Moana," and it's as if all the accumulated emotional tension has finally been released and they are back to being classic Deftones again.
Overall, a progression and, at the same time, a regression from previous material, the band's latest opus should've and could've been better.
Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues, Hanapepe Dream (Tone-Cool Records)
Taj Mahal is one of those rare artists, difficult to pin down. While most would recognize him as a blues man, he's not rooted to a particular style, such as Delta or Chicago blues. Rather, he draws inspiration from all shades of the blues, incorporating musical bits from Africa, the Caribbean, and just about any place on the planet. On his latest disc (and his first with Tone-Cool Records), Mahal draws on the Hawaiian sound to give the blues a new slant.
His uncanny ability to fuse distant styles is apparent on a few of the disc's country blues standards, such as "Stagger Lee" and "My Creole Belle." Mahal's version of the latter, a Mississippi John Hurt tune, is a bouncy, happy one, reminiscent of a jazz band from the '20s. The basic finger-picking guitar pattern found on the original is still there, but it's the clarinet and slide guitar gently weaving in the background that transform the song, giving it a feel more of New Orleans than the Delta. On "Stagger Lee," the rhythm section generates an island feel via an up-tempo beat while the guitar chords are light and breezy. Again, a solo, this time on a saxophone, shifts the song, providing a hint of a '50s rock-and-roll number.
Mahal also tackles Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," with the slide guitar creating an eerie fill in the background as the sax provides a solo on top. Mahal's voice, which goes from gravel to gruff and points in between, sounds neither stressed nor anguished, yet his plaintive and forthright approach manages to evoke a feeling quite different from Dylan's version. He even revisits his own material with "Black Jack Davy" (from his 1974 release, Mo Roots), a bright reggae number.
On "King Edward's Throne," there is almost a sense of Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing" as the song runs through. The minor key similarity is there, and the pulsating beat is not that far away from the Gypsy version.
Essentially, it all boils down to the 15 years that Mahal was based in Hawaii. Obviously, it was time well spent. His incorporation of the islands' musical styles and influences, combined with what he already possessed (and that's quite a lot), have created for the listener another album that is complex in its origins, yet a joy to listen to.
Otis Taylor, Truth Is Not Fiction (Telarc Records)
If his previous release, Respect the Dead, could be viewed as the beginning of a journey down the mighty Mississippi, then Truth Is Not Fiction can easily be viewed as a continuation of that journey. And just as Taylor was pushing the limits of the blues on that last release, so again does he find ways to stretch the envelope. Blues purists may be taken aback or put off, finding little in the way of the traditional 1-4-5 progression or songs that begin with lyrics like "Woke up this morning..." though it is precisely those aspects that stagnate the majority of blues releases. Taylor, however, pushes, and pushes hard, establishing droning tones, riffs whose repetition creates hypnotic trances, and haunting soundscapes to host his tales of sadness and sorrow.
And on this disc, Taylor finds more of an electronic edge. While Respect the Dead was primarily acoustic instruments, Taylor makes use of electric mandolins, electric guitars, and once again Eddie Turner on lead guitar. He also includes Ben Sollee on cello, Kenny Passarelli on bass (who produced the last three discs), and Cassie Taylor (his oldest daughter) on backup vocals. Oh sure, there are acoustic numbers, like "Nasty Letter," with just Taylor on guitar and Sollee on cello. And some dark numbers, like "House of the Crosses," a tale about a prison in Russia. Here, the cello provides eerie, droning notes, along with Cassie Taylor's backing vocals. It's the kind of song that shuts down your immediate environment and makes you focus.
Yet the bulk of the numbers rely on electric instruments, and it is here that Taylor continues to push the limits of blues. It is not surprising that Taylor's musical evolution parallels blues in general, in that the blues began with only acoustic instruments and progressed to electric; such a statement may seem an oversimplification (or merely by invention it could progress no other way), but I would prefer to view such a parallel track as one where Taylor has absorbed the canon and spewed it back out in his own terms. And just as he could have melded his lyrics to the "Woke up this morning" style of storytelling, he chose instead to tell the tales of suffering and the mundane in a brutal and up-front way.
In "Past Times," for example, the song is described in the press kit as, "A man has just a few hours to live, and then his suffering will be over." Taylor begins the song with a strong rhythm on guitar,
then bass and lead guitar float in, and then we hear guttural sounds, like coughing and wheezing. Then the lyrics, "Past times, feeling old, devil told the doctors, time to go." The song continues on, building a trance-like feel, captivating the listener as Taylor bemoans this tale of suffering.
By transforming the standard blues tune into something wholly different, but retaining its roots, Taylor makes his music intriguing. You feel that connection to the past, but are also rewarded with a glimpse into the future, or at least one direction the genre can take and still remain true. And similar to his last release, Taylor once again takes a bold step forward, a step few have dared to take, but one that needed to be taken.
Cold, Year of the Spider (Flip/Geffen Records)
This is the third release for the band out of Jacksonville, Florida, and though it entered the Billboard charts at number 3, I am having a hard time understanding what the buzz is all about. Whatever started out in Seattle, giving birth to Nirvana for the alt set, Pearl Jam for the mainstream, and Alice in Chains for the headbangers has given birth to bands that play a muddy, listless mess of overproduced rock that does its best to dull you down like an overdose of Nyquil. Maybe that's a harsh generalization, as the production on this album is quite good, and the boys can play their instruments just fine,
but there's nothing in the music that reaches out and grabs you.
Hooks are hard to find or are conspicuously weak.
The vocals are tinged with a bit of effects that give them a metallic edge, and
the music is packaged so tightly, there's no sense of spontaneity.
If I were to describe the sound, I'm afraid I'd have to say it was like P.O.D.'s, like Staind's, like every other band's out there that plays soulless metal. The songs are dark, the lyrics darker, but perhaps that's due first to frontman Scooter Ward's sister getting cancer, and then his girlfriend. A one-two punch like that would send most people straight to the bottle. And, yet, with lackluster arrangements, the lyrics do nothing for me. There's no retention; you're not compelled to walk away from the CD player singing or humming anything, and without that kind of pull, the lyrics could be written by Shakespeare and would still go unnoticed.
No doubt there will be countless fans who take umbrage at this review, but all I'm saying is the disc lays flat for me. Despite emotional lyrics, there is no emotion in the music, nothing that returns an investment on my listening.
And the real irony? The closing track is called "Kill the Music Industry," in which the chorus tells the listener, "Sick of all this monotony, Kill the fuckin' music industry." Roger that.
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