Tag Archives: alternative rock

10. Foo Fighters – ‘Wasting Light’ Review

After fifteen years together, the Foo Fighters have not lost any of their intensity or ability to write hit songs. On the contrary, they have upped the ante, and their seventh album Wasting Light explodes out of your speakers like a bomb just got dropped about five metres away from you.

It’s always hard to follow up on a huge success, especially when that success (2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace) earned you multiple Grammy nominations and awards, including wins for Best Rock Album and Best Hard Rock Performance for the smash-hit-single ‘The Pretender’. That album was incredibly balanced and slightly experimental (by Foo Fighters’ standards), placing them at the peak of their powers. What happens afterwards?

Dave Grohl at the V Festival, England in 2007

For Wasting Light, guitarist and lead singer Dave Grohl wanted to go back to basics. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s real after you’ve gained the ability to sell out stadiums on a fairly regular basis. He has become what most people would agree to be ‘the nicest guy in rock ‘n roll’ – melding a playful, joky persona off-stage, with a rabid, earnest and powerful one on-stage. The same could be said of his band, and the style they embody: post-grunge rock mixed with pop melodies, delivered with a tireless precision. But he felt that they needed to revisit their roots, to tap into their harder, grungier influences and just rock out, old-school style.

So, he converted his own garage at his house in Virginia into a studio and the band recorded the entire album using traditional analogue equipment (with only minor post-production done digitally).  Former guitarist Pat Smear also re-entered the picture permanently, and they roped in former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic for one track, and Nirvana’s producer Butch Vig to guide the process; and thus allowed for the closest thing to a Nirvana reunion since Kurt Cobain’s tragic death in 1994.

Wasting Light album cover

Grohl’s legacy has always been wearily-linked with Nirvana’s, and on ‘I Should’ve Known’, he pens the album’s closest attempt at a ballad, which seems to be a lament for a friend that’s killed himself. Although it doesn’t mention Kurt’s name, it may as well, with lyrics such as “I should have known that it would end this way/I should have known there was no other way/Didn’t hear your warning/Damn my heart gone deaf”. The other surviving bandmate Krist plays bass and accordion on this one, and it’s a somber, heartfelt respite from the brutal, free-wheeling chaos of the other tracks.

Every song on Wasting Light is like being caught in a cross-fire of 3 ferocious guitars (with Smear back in the mix), grinding bass, vicious drumming from the ever-entertaining Taylor Hawkins, and Grohl’s distinctive growls, wails and screams. The fact that they can capture this lightning-in-a-bottle and make it accessible to mainstream fans, as well as metalheads, just boggles my mind. Album-opener ‘Bridge Burning’ makes its intentions known right off the bat: as each guitar enters the fold one-by-one, Grohl declares with gusto “These are my famous last words!”, and the ride begins with a vengeance. Cue fist-pumping and head-banging…

Amidst the reverbs and distortion is a distinct sense of melody, and first single ‘Rope’ is a fine example of this element: the guitars are more chimy, the rhythm is more staccato-like, and it ends with a swirling climax that leaves you gasping for air only two tracks in. Hard luck, friend, the Foo’s are only just getting started with their aural assault on your ears. ‘Dear Rosemary’ continues in a similar vein, albeit with some brash pop harmonies and an almost cha-cha-like rock rhythm. Grohl gets the backing of Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould in the vocals department as well, and his gravelly voice is a great influence.

The album’s most surprising moment for me was the arrival of ‘White Limo’. They have sometimes considered dabbling with the idea of turning the volume dial up to 11, and going all-out heavy metal (Grohl has his own heavy metal side-project Probot, and has been in Queens Of Stone Age, known for their darker, metal tendencies), but never like this. This song delivers aggression and swagger in equal amounts, with thrashing riffs and Grohl literally snarling the vocals out, making it very difficult to pick out any of the lyrics in the cacophonic haze. It’s enough to leave you trembling afterwards in the foetal position.

A scene from the ridiculously-funny amateur music video of White Limo

‘Arlandria’ settles back into a more loud-soft dynamic, channelling a children’s nursery rhyme in some of the verses (believe it!), but still retaining that hardened edge to it. ‘These Days’ and ‘Back & Forth’ evoke the spirit of their magnificent early albums The Colour And The Shape and There’s Nothing Left To Lose: the former going for the gentle, yet booming, simplicity of ‘Learn To Fly’, whilst the latter settles in the catchy groove of something like ‘Monkey Wrench’ or ‘Breakout’, where fun and a sexy chorus are favoured over deep emotions. Both shine brightly here.

‘A Matter Of Time‘ bops along with a familiar crisp style that we’ve come to expect from the band, and this middle-of-the-road number slots neatly into the tail-end of the album. ‘Miss The Misery’ explictly goes for a chugging, mid-pace, stadium-sized roar, and sounds as if it was actually recorded on a gigantic stage in front of 80000 people. Next is the already-mentioned ‘I Should Have Known’, slowing things down further whilst cranking up the emotion. The curtain call finale ‘Walk’ ends matters on an undoubted high: a slow-building triumph, as Grohl begins crooning but soon screaming out the impassioned bridge as the tension builds up to a jaunty end.

Wasting Light is one hell of a ride, and definitely the Foo Fighters’ strongest album in terms of execution since 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Like a tireless puppy wanting to play ball with you, they continue to produce workmanlike rock records, eager to impress as if each were their first. There are no real drawbacks to this album, once you’ve viewed it in the context of why it was made: they deliberately set out as a band to rock as hard as they could, and should get 10/10 just for that. Next album, we can talk about subtlely and experimentation. For now, embrace the unrelenting power of Wasting Light.

Tracklisting:

  1. Bridge Burning
  2. Rope
  3. Dear Rosemary
  4. White Limo
  5. Arlandria
  6. These Days
  7. Back & Forth
  8. A Matter Of Time
  9. Miss The Misery
  10. I Should Have Known
  11. Walk

Release date: 12 April 2011

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9. South African Rock Royalty – aKING

Three albums in, and aKING have undoubtably risen to the status of princes of South Africa’s rock royalty. Balancing critical and commercial success, the boys from Bellville have toured relentlessly since their 2008 debut Dutch Courage, crafted their sound from album-to-album, and now The Red-Blooded Years is a mature and confident claim to the throne.

aKING - The Red-Blooded Years

Combining their well-known catchy rock ‘n roll/country rock style with some sonic experimentations, such as the use of keyboards and synthesizers, the new album has an amalgamation of sounds and influences, whilst still retaining that undeniable aKING vibe. This is mostly due to the unique, brooding, gritty baritoned voice of lead singer Laudo Liebenberg, who once again infuses each track with rousing bravado, passion, sincerity and even tenderness. The band also has a line-up change in the departure of rhythm guitarist Hunter Kennedy (due to his hectic work schedule being in Die Heuwels Fantasties as well). His replacement is Andrew Davenport, whose arrival must’ve prompted the band to reassess their sound, as well as the 3-month rush it took to record 2009’s Against All Odds.

aKING - SA rock royalty. New member Andrew Davenport is on the far right

In certain songs, bassist Hennie Van Halen also contributes to keyboards, and this change is immediately evident on the lengthy synth-heavy intro of album opener ‘Catch Alight’, first single ‘The Runaround’, power ballad ‘Holding On’ and soothing charmer ‘All In The Wind’. These new additions sound rather natural for the band, and they meld with their image quite smoothly. Both Andrew and Hennie contribute immensely to the backing vocals, which gives each track an added boost in the crowd-pleasing stakes.

This was particularly evident in their live show I had the good fortune of seeing at Kirstenbosch this past Sunday (3 April 2011). The band enthusiastically get into the swing of things vocally, and in my opinion, its effect is the markings of a band hitting their stride musically. Drummer Jaco ‘Snakehead’ Venter is one of the most exciting drummers to watch live, and could make a funeral dirge look like a Broadway musical the way he smashes those drums. His eager playing style makes for some seriously contagious beats emanating from behind the kit.

Rocking out at Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts (3 April 2011)

Despite the mostly upbeat demeanour in their music, aKING has always had an intriguingly dark, oftentimes sexual side to them and their lyrics. ‘Cut-Throat Tongue’ is this album’s most obvious example of that side (“Lift that cursed skirt, vicious young jackal/My confidence is coming”), but everywhere else there’s smatterings of songwriter Laudo’s angst-filled, ambigious confessions and musings. They’re the kind of lyrics that might pass over you first time round, but will soon start to resonate with you after a couple of listens. My personal favourite lines are from ‘All In The Wind’: “I don’t drink too much, just enough/To sink my teeth into the evening/And grind through the days”. Not bad for a group of primarily Afrikaans-speaking gentlemen…

The Red-Blooded Years is a thrill-ride from start to finish; something that you can come to expect from this band, whose dynamic is getting stronger and stronger with each release, adding to a bubbling melting-pot of ideas and talent. The only possible negative I can think of is the instrumental ‘The Sleeping Sound’, which finds itself tagged on as the last track. It rocks out really well, however, and closes the album in a similar ambient style to the one that ‘Catch Alight’ opens it with – a beautiful symmetry perhaps?

This is their coming of age. Long live aKING.

Tracklisting:

  1. Catch Alight
  2. The Runaround
  3. Cut-Throat Tongue And Razor
  4. Kick Me
  5. So Close
  6. Holding On
  7. All In The Wind
  8. Weak Man’s World
  9. Any Other Way
  10. First Brush
  11. Red Blooded Years
  12. The Sleeping Sound

Release date: 1 March 2011

3. Radiohead – ‘The King Of Limbs’ Review

On Valentine’s Day this year, one of the most important and inventive rock bands of the last 15 years decided to announce the existence of their eighth studio album. And that it will be released in 5 days time. Then, just to wreck havoc with fans and the musical press, they released it a day earlier than expected. Go figure…

As sudden as the release of The King Of Limbs (named after what is supposedly a 1000 year-old tree in Wiltshire, England), a tidal wave of opinion flooded the internet, and people were desperately trying to put theirs out before everyone else’s, rushing through a few hurried listens of the short 8-song product and then spurting out what they could glean from them.

Album cover for The King Of Limbs

We should’ve seen it coming. After In Rainbows ingenious marketing scheme, whereby the album was released on the band’s website and fans could pay what they like for it (essentially ‘donating’ to the band, if they chose to pay), TKOL’s release format adds to the sheer unpredictability of a band that chooses to do what it wants, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Every output of theirs is always a dense affair, so I thought I’d be reasonable and weigh in with my opinion of it after I let it sink in for a few weeks.

TKOL is their shortest album to date, briskly ebbing and flowing through its 37 minutes like a dream. Continuing their experimental expedition into electronic territory that started with 2000’s ground-breaking Kid A, the album prickles and hums with little bleeps and bloops, ethereal background vocals, imposing, fuzzy bass and clockwork, yet uncommonly-timed drumming. Anyone holding out for a return to the alternative guitar-rock anthems that defined Radiohead in the 90’s will probably be disappointed. Guitars are very downplayed, and the sonic influences seem to be more from underground electronica artists than anything else. Many good bands don’t want to remain static, but rather mature and move on. It’s exciting to see Radiohead wanting to pursue this route, despite my love for their earlier works like The Bends and OK Computer.

It'll be interesting to see how these new tracks will be pulled off live

The album starts off with ‘Bloom’, a real ‘grower’ in the true sense of the term – an atmospheric, woozy, ambient jumble of looping ideas: an intentionally lop-sided, clattering rhythm, a repeated piano pattern, an evocative, warbling bass lick, and all the while Thom’s vocals float above it all like a swirling cloud. Incredibly weird, but it definitely lures one in with its cryptic lyrics, such as ‘Open your mouth wide/The universal sigh/And while the ocean blooms/It’s what keeps me alive’.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’ is a taut, claustrophobic and tense track that chugs along intently with a sort of African groove. Sinister and almost funky, the guitars link up how they do in ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ (from their previous album), but in a very different mood. A panic seems to be setting in with the beat, and it leaves the listener feeling very unsettled, especially when an accusatory Thom wails ‘You’ve got some nerve coming here/You stole it all/Give it back’.

Continuing from where ‘Magpie’ left off, ‘Little By Little’ tumbles out the speakers with a toy box of rising and falling basslines, jazzy drumming and surprisingly tender vocals, with rare seductive lyrics for a Radiohead song, such as ‘I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt’. The confusion climaxes mid-album with ‘Feral’ – a near-totally instrumental, abstract, cacophonous shuffle, which combines many of the elements of the previous three tracks. It has a very difficult, throbbing melody to follow, and a song for which first-time Radiohead listeners (and many others too) will be left wondering ‘Huh?’

This is definitely an album of two halves, as the second one is profoundly different in tone and in mood to the first – more nature than machine, more beautiful and serene. The first single ‘Lotus Flower’ is one of the album’s standouts, not just for its wacky black-and-white music video of Thom’s spastic dance moves, but for harnessing the best elements of the album’s sonic architecture into a cohesive whole. The bass silkily propels forward with an addictive backbeat, one more suited to a late night post-clubbing comedown, and the ethereal, falsetto vocals unfurl outwards just like the lotus flower. Added to this awesome groove are the occasional handclaps and spacey effects: a sexy aural cocktail indeed.

Stills taken from Radiohead's music video for 'Lotus Flower'

TKOL has some underlying Buddhist themes of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, along with many metaphors involving nature (jellyfish, flowers, magpies, lakes, dragonflies, etc). This is a very interesting progression from the overarching themes of Radiohead’s work, which have mostly been about the conflict between man and machine, humanity and technology. Here it seems that the natural world is the focal motif.

‘Codex’ is one excellent example of the thematic change, and this piano-based ballad should be hailed as one of Radiohead’s masterpieces, in the vein of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ or ‘Nude’. The murky piano sounds as if it’s being recorded underwater, like the chords are forming part of a requiem. A harmonic string orchestra and horn section enter about midway through, adding to the bliss, and once again, Thom’s vocals are sweet and melodic. The lyrics echo the first track’s imagery of jumping into a clear lake, with only nature around him.

It's time to bring out the piano...

The sounds of twittering birds and possibly a day in the countryside segues ‘Codex’ with ‘Give Up The Ghost’: TKOL’s most emotionally-vulnerable, organic track. Framed by a lone acoustic guitar, a soft, spiraling lead guitar by Jonny, and a chorus of background vocals (alternating their chants between ‘don’t haunt me’ and ‘don’t hurt me’), this song has an immersive, rustic feel to it; territory that Radiohead have never really ventured into before. We are now a long way away from the album’s opening, jittery tracks.

This chapter in Radiohead history closes with ‘Separator’ – my personal favourite from TKOL, and one where the band dynamic is at its strongest, most vibrant self. A crisp drumbeat by Paul Selway, a lush introduction of delicate, shimmering guitars from halfway in, and a smooth bass throughout make up this intriguing number. Some conspiracy theorists say that it alludes to a possible second set of songs to be released in the near future. The offending lyric (‘If you think that this is over/Then you’re wrong’), the conjunctional nature of its title, and the album’s sudden ending on a supposed happy note might be good evidence for that theory, but I doubt the band would intend on doing that. Each album of theirs is a complete package that needs to be unwrapped slowly to appreciate its intricacies. And the dreamy ‘Separator’ bookends their current progression from In Rainbows to now near-perfectly. Its final notes and heavenly background chorus will be echoing in your ears long after you’re done listening.

Stylistically, this album feels like a long lost twin of Amnesiac (2001’s misunderstood electronic smorgasbord), just like In Rainbows seemed spiritually connected with OK Computer (both combining experimentalism and crowd-pleasing ideals), it’s not going to completely revolutionize the industry as previous outputs of theirs have, but this soulful snapshot will just solidify their position as a band of an esteemed quality, able to morph into whatever they feel like and still fascinate listeners and critics.

Radiohead have gone for the bold and avant-garde, and get the gold again.

Tracklisting:

  1. Bloom
  2. Morning Mr Magpie
  3. Little By Little
  4. Feral
  5. Lotus Flower
  6. Codex
  7. Give Up The Ghost
  8. Separator

Release dates: 18 February 2011 (digital), 28 March 2011 (physical)