Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nevermore - This Godless Endeavor

Here's a band that is making a move that is somewhat opposite that of Dream Theater and a lot of other prog bands that are trying to become metal bands, Nevermore is a heavy metal band that is broadening it's sound with elements of prog rock. (Swearing ahead, but just once)

It should be obvious from the song title that this song is a bit anti-religion, but it is much more than a song screaming at organized religion. Musically and lyrically, it is very complex and layered. The opening lyrics, sung over the clean guitars, paint a very vivid scene of being at a crossroads and confused as to the path to take. Not a totally original setting for a song, but perhaps new to the metal genre. The line that I love the most in the intro is "standing face to back, Still afraid to see our eyes". It shows the band's view of religious blindness, walking in line without seeing the people around you, or even the world around you.

The next verse (or so I'll call it, the lyrics are not as cut and dry as other songs) is a vision, at least that's how I interpret it. I view it as a guitarist playing in a dark room when a visitor arrives with answers, but doesn't really tell him what they are before he leaves. This is how humanity sort of has to live with the limited knowledge that we have of the world right now. So close to answers but not quite knowing or understanding them. Religion is one way to get answers, but at the same time there is faith involved, which is not the same as knowing.

In the next 'verse', the narrator tries to come to a compromise with religion asking "Can we agree to disagree on the concept of god?", but is shot down by his 'brother', which I believe is figurative, for being naive. This is how atheists (like the guy writing this blog) view organized religions, unable to deal with other groups existing because they have to be right.

The next section is where the music takes a prog twist while maintaining the heaviness of the song. Fast riffs in odd time signatures, mixing with even time signatures. Where the guitarist (Jeff Loomis) shows his best skill (I think) is around the 6 minute mark, where he plays what I can only call heavy metal grooves. These riffs break away from the intense and driving riffs that define and simplify most heavy metal.

After this break, the guitar part shreds away in a sweep (guitar term) section that is extremely influenced by Jason Becker with its blazing fast speed and classical tones. This section for me (as a guitar player) was the pinnacle of the entire album and I find it extremely powerful.

The ending lines of the song show that the character's non-belief has gotten him ridiculed by everyone else on the figurative planet, and he sees them as worshiping industry and the disease that humanity spreads. So dark ... so metal. In the last 'verse' he says everyone is using random interpretation to try and figure out the world, which I choose to include science in there because even through they are taking the logical steps toward increasing our knowledge, we still don't know a whole lot. He blames the god for watching the human race kill itself over his existence or non-existence, and finally the song ends on "the sky has opened", which is the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of the apocalypse. Self-fulfilling because religions that preach that non-believers should be converted or killed tend to have an 'end of the world' myth, which correlates with religious strife in a great way. A great combination of heavy guitar with surprising variety and a complex lyrical structure.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dream Theater - Honor Thy Father

Here is a journey to the heavier and darker side of progressive music. (Fair warning, swearing ahead)

It should be instantly apparent that this is a much more metal song than usual with the intense drum solo and the beginning that leads into the first heavy riff. The distorted guitar is a recurring theme of anger in the song that pops up in between the more mellow parts that accompany the opening lyrics.

The lyrics in this song are, predictably from the title, about the bond of family, but more importantly about familial lies that strain that relationship. The frustration working so hard to please his family is driving the main character of the story to become angrier and more hostile throughout, which is why the music accompanying the verses becomes heavier throughout the song.

About halfway through the song we come across a classic feature of prog music, the instrumental section with movie quotes played over it. There is a constant narration over all of it with other related quotes throw in, with all of it to establish family tension. Some of them are asking for things, others are denying things, and at the end most of them are wishing the others were dead. The main narrator of this section eventually breaks down with regret at what he's done to his family, but what exactly that was isn't clear. As if that wasn't enough, that is followed by a trademark Dream Theater instrumental section, followed by solos.

I particularly like this section because it is based mostly on rhythms instead of an aggressively technical style, which I find fits the heavy riffing style quite nicely. The drums are playing a simple pattern (which is uncharacteristic of Mike Portnoy), the guitar is playing simple rhythms with the bass, and the keyboards are playing a simple pattern over the whole thing. Since the entire song is a buildup of anger, that simplicity builds up into a more familiar drum pattern that better fits the rest of the song. Then of course, the rhythms get a little more complicated when the dueling guitar riffs enter, reflected in the right and left speakers. A quick keyboard solo, and we're back to the lyrics.

With each chorus, the words slightly change to stronger and stronger language until we get "Fucking blind" and "Blame this shit on me". What this does is 1) make the song more metal, and 2) demonstrate the nature of the song. It isn't about when a family broke down, it's about the process of a family breaking down, each section is exposing a little more about what the main character is feeling about his family. I find songs like this more interesting than most because the story is developing instead of having everything you need to know in the first verse.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Porcupine Tree : Fear of a Blank Planet

This song from the album of the same name is a good demonstration of the dynamic sounds and styles that Porcupine Tree has to offer with their music.

This song is less of a story and more of a commentary on the direction that modern life is taking with technology, especially with youth. It starts out really simple, with an acoustic guitar lick followed by a bare bones drum beat. The transition from the acoustic music to the synth and lyrics feels representative of the transition from a simpler life to the modern one, especially with the vocal distortion.

The structure of the lyrics as fast paced spoken word shows the unemotional and inexpressive nature of the modern era that is inherent in the content of lyrics. Everything in the content is rage against the MTV generation/Generation X trend that seems to cause adolescent violence. What the video and lyrics in combination convey to me is that an excess of the electronic age causes children to become desensitized to the violence and because of that inhabit the violence that they were exposed to.

Since this song is only four minutes long, I think I can forgive the simplification of the issue and as a modest songwriter myself I can understand that the narrative is about the extremes and not the issue as a whole. As a gamer the "XBOX is a god to me" line felt like the standard public backlash to a school shooting, blaming the tech for the child's behavior. The kids in the song are on pills, playing games, carrying guns around, and it isn't the parent's fault for letting them do all of that shit, buying them the pills and games. As a personal belief, that is often where I stand on a lot of the issues brought up in the song.

Aside from that little rant that the lyrics made me write, I think that the musical progression is solid, leading up to the simple guitar riff that drives most of the song. The chorus is a great difference from the verses, sounding more like a plea from the child instead of being a brain dead consumer. All in all, a good track.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nine Inch Nails : Lights in the Sky

NIN, as the kids call it, can be quite a dividing band in my experience. People either love Trent Reznor (the frontman, founder, and only permanent member) and borderline worship him or think he's arrogant, selfish, and depressed. I like him, and this will not be the last post about his music, so too bad. I'm also starting out with quite possibly his most depressing song, so everything should be uphill from here.

Live Version:

Lights in the Sky was a small track on The Slip, the last album they released (for free by the way, if you want it), and I found it by far the most powerful because of it's original orchestration with only piano and vocals. NIN is at their best, in my opinion, when they use simple musical ideas to create emotion, in situations where other bands would try and get a big and full sound to express something, NIN will use single notes, and it is just as, if not more, impactful. The main 'riff' in the song is three notes, the same three notes repeated over and over. The main soul of the song comes from Trent's singing style, which is almost spoken word. Plus, in the live version I've linked to, his voice cracks in such a perfect way that I can't quite tell if it was accidental or intentional (though I've seen his voiced give out on different shows on that tour, which is part of why I believe he chose it for his last tour).

A trait that NIN uses a lot in their music lyrically is a first person narrative that is metaphor heavy, and therefore applicable to a wide range of situations and listeners. This narrative is all about reconciling with a loss, the female counterpart in the song is drowning, and the main character is going through all of the emotions of losing a loved one at once. He wants to drown with her, can't see going on without her, trying to deal with her being gone, but not doing a good job of it ... anyone who has lost someone will find their own emotions in this song.

One warning about this song, and the band in general, they aren't afraid to take a song to a depressing place and just leave it there. There is no redemption for the character, no resolution, just a fade out. The song ends on the line "Right beside you", and where he is is drowning, just like the woman.

Man, that was depressing. I'll go over a MIKA song next.

John Legend & The Roots : I Can't Write Left Handed

It's been awhile, mostly due to school work, but after being subjected to some Lady Gaga recently I feel the need to make a couple posts, so here we go.

While my normal listening doesn't normally consist of R&B and Hip-hop, as the artists in the title would suggest, I love old style blues, which is what this song is. This is a cover that John Legend and The Roots did, and it is originally by a blues guitarist named Bill Withers. He wrote it in the wake of the Vietnam War, and it's about an American soldier coming home from the war with a wounded shoulder, making him unable to write with his right hand (and as the title suggests, he can't write with his other hand).

One of the most powerful aspects of this song is the use of volume swells, when the lyrics are docile the music is quiet and minimalistic, and when the soldier remembers getting shot the music picks up with big drum fills and distorted guitar, and it feeds the emotions of the song in a way that I think is somewhat hard to find in modern music. Especially since it isn't very hard to translate this song from Vietnam to Iraq.

Another brilliant addition by the drummer (Questlove) is that whenever the lyrics turn back to Vietnam, he starts playing the snare in a way that you would hear in a military marching band, trying to keep soldiers marching in time. In a way they're sort of the modern drums of war, and whenever the soldier thinks of getting shot he can still hear them, it really throws the listener into the a military state of mind every time the chorus ends, which I think is really clever and powerful.

The lyrics themselves set themselves apart from what most war songs and stories try to do, which is show the battlefield or what the war itself is/was like. What this song does is show the aftermath, what the soldiers do when they return, trying to go back to normal lives. It is a great example of social and political commentary. On the one hand, he can't do simple tasks because of his physical injuries, but that isn't what is the worst thing for him. It's the chorus, where he's talking about the war and the Vietnamese man that he's never seen before who shot him, that's where the music picks up and shows anger and emotion. The normal life doesn't bother him at all, but the thought of shooting strangers and getting shot at by these other people that he doesn't really have any quarrel with at all.

I think that this song is powerful because it provokes many contemporary images of the Iraq war, and I believe that this song will continue (or should continue) to pop up in mainstream music and culture as long as wars continue to be fought.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hearing The Music

Small post here on listening to the songs I talk about. Sure, you could go Youtube it and maybe even stumble upon a music video, but that isn't what I do for music I don't have in my iTunes. Personally, I recommend Grooveshark. It's an online music player that let's you choose what is being played and lets you form playlists, with NO AUDIO ADS. Too good to be true? Go check it out, I think it's good enough to give it a free promotion.

Dream Theater - Another Day

Here's an older track from Dream Theater, which I believe at the time of it's release was somewhat mainstream (complete with music video, which I can't embed for you). I picked this song to give some contrast to my first post, which is dark and metal and all that good stuff, so this song has a lot of (somewhat) hopeful elements in it and of course James Labrie's singing style is just cheerier overall compared to James Hetfield.

The tone of the song itself is constantly keeping the listener on it's toes, switching constantly and seamlessly from major and happy to tender sadness. Add on to these switches the back-and-forth between solo piano and full band, not to mention that they throw in a a sax player just to add an extra touch of emotion (although at times I can't help but think of Kenny G, ugh). The song never wants to let you be completely content with a major key, but it will always almost give it to you, which makes complete sense with the lyrics.

This song is entirely metaphor heavy, and I'll admit that without being a huge Dream Theater nerd and reading interviews and watching the music video, I would probably have no idea what this song is about. From what I can gather though, this song is about a little girl who is diagnosed with brain cancer, and throughout the parents and doctors are trying to console and keep the girl's hopes up while simultaneously dealing with the terrible disease. Now, that is a LOT more depressing than the song sounds, because the story isn't about the little girl dying, it's about her living to see "Another Day"( I feel like James Bond dropping the title of his movie IN the movie right there). So the lyrics are full of encouragement and at times, the acceptance of death, but sort of in the sense of Carpe Diem than just lay down and die.

What separates this song from most other Dream Theater songs is the more standard structure of it, mainly that there isn't a huge instrumental section in the middle, which brings me to a point about this song. This song is an example of a progressive group writing a song that I believe was intended to be mainstream and get them public awareness, while other songs on this album are more traditionally crazy (of course, "Pull Me Under" is what actually got them fame, but I digress). My point is that these musicians are good enough to bend the framework of their genre, both restrictively and expansively, and are still able to write good music. Thus ends my justification for choosing this song on "Images and Words", instead of "Learning to Live" or something.

Here is a an awesome acoustic version. Pay special attention to the short shorts and high tops, good 'ol 90's.

Bonus Prog Blog: