Cults – Cults (2011)


Starting off as a bedroom project, this New York duo has made quite an impression ever since being discovered on Bandcamp, spawning their hit “Go Outside“. Having released their self titled debut, it is very fair to say that Cults are capable of making more than just the one good song.

Singer Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion, both originally from California, capture the fun and bright atmosphere in resemblance with surf pop, with the ripples of soaring, jangling melodies carried throughout the album. It is clear they have been influenced by the music of ‘60s girl groups like the Shangri-Las (easily spotted in “Bumper” ), as the warm and sweet melodies echo along with the unpolished production – which in this case, works effortlessly in making the album sound as dreamy as it does.  At the same time, however alluring the music may be in all its smiling and doe-eyed impressions, there is something quite the opposite in what Follin sings as she captures the frustration of growing up and experiences with the opposite sex, sometimes displaying her angst with loud outbreaks of vocals: “Cause I can’t sleep alone at night/ yeah, you know what I mean”.

The first three tracks are probably the highlights of the album, breathing life into it from the very start. “Abducted” begins with the faded out strumming of guitar and Follin comparing the feeling of falling in love to that of being abducted. Although the whole album is more or less about her situations with boys – telling of how much she wants him, then telling him “fuck you” –it can’t be said that it is done in an obvious or off putting way. There is still an appeal to listeners who have no interest in the subject matter, with the singing done in a careless manner, as if Follin really doesn’t care if we’re listening to her words – we can just enjoy hearing the sound of her voice. A nice subtle addition to tracks like “Abducted” and “Bumper” is the male viewpoint, sung by Obvlivion. Despite the Follin’s slightly saddening lyrical content on other tracks, this lonely idea that we form of her is nicely contrasted against Oblivon’s own little inputs: “If she’s this crazy now/ There’s no telling what’s in store”, showing us a more amusing side.

One little personality trait of the album is the sampling of quotes from cult leaders. Jim Jones is heard at the start of “Go Outside”: “To me death is not a fearful thing; it’s living that’s treacherous”. Although the samples have been woven into the music without really affecting the quality of the songs, they don’t really do much for the album either. I can assume that they are supposed to add to the mystique and sinister feeling beneath the happy sounds, but most of the time it’s hard to hear them clearly, or to even significantly notice or care for them. There is little new about the album – everything has been created with borrowed elements from Indie pop and 60s girl groups, but there is indeed an overall freshness and air of nostalgia. However, it may seem like the high and sugary sound is too much in some places, which is true of “Walk At Night” and “Most Wanted“, and that is probably why the album is one that is cited as a good summer record – it only really has one type of mood. Even so, Cults should be credited for choosing not to exploit this for too long, with the album only lasting the bearable amount of time. The selected three minute tracks keep it short and easily listenable.

For an album that provides uplift, amusement and some form of sinister and sadness, Cults does pretty well to integrate them all into a small package. It isn’t likely that you’d tire of it quickly if you should happen to enjoy hearing its light and summery sound.

Best Tracks: Abducted, Go Outside, You Know What I Mean, Oh My God

77/100

Cynikal – Breakfast (2012)


British hip-hop doesn’t have too much of a history, and has failed to aquire much exposure on a worldwide scale – it is safe to say that Cynikal’s Breakfast is a fine example of why.

It is true that some people don’t fare too well with the English accent, when it comes to rap – but even if you do, it’s not the accent that lets the album down. Vocally, Cynikal has a voice that although is recognisable, fails to be capturing or pleasant to listen to. It is also pretty safe to conclude that singing isn’t one of the rapper’s strongest points, as the nasally use of his voice can only be described as simply annoying. This isn’t helped much by the fact that the hooks don’t redeem the already tiresome lyrics – either being repetitive or weak. The album does feature other vocalists, but the only possible positivity this gives to the album is that the female vocals on “Won’t Let You Down”  does sound a little bit like Rihanna (take that comment as you please). On the bright side, his flow does seem to come into place about halfway through the album, and there isn’t much disjointedness in his delivery.

The thing that made “Breakfast” vaguely enjoyable to listen to, was picking out the corny lines the rapper uses. It was a delight to hear “it’s a pain for me…and that shit ain’t funny”, and I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t laugh every time I heard “sorry I don’t do brunch, that don’t do much for me”. Quite frankly, some of them don’t even make sense ( “coming with the fists of a falcon”…..anyone? Falcons have fists now? Or is that meant to be a reference to something that most people don’t know about?). All in all, this has led me to conclude that Cynikal does resort to just rhyming things for the sake of rhyming. On the other hand, the lyrics could also be seen as a blessing in disguise, because at least they provided some form of enjoyable entertainment.

It is probably worth mentioning his use of British slang – which of course, is understandable, as he draws on the language and culture he knows – though, admittedly I did laugh…again. Not because the slang is funny, but because it seems hard to take this man seriously when he tells us he is “writin’ this with a flippin’ smile”. Most of the record is about how he has reached a new “state of mind” and how he “wants to be something”. Yes, it spells out all the clichés you can think of (the predictable phrase “Knowledge is power”, sampled on “Exhibit A” is only one of many examples. It’s fair to say that the original by Jay Electronica had a better use of samples) and it almost feels like he is trying to convince us that he is not looking for fame and” status”, that he is something fresh and new – it is quite ironic that he has actually just created an album that is an attempt at an already played out style. Just to complete our expectation from this album, “The Struggle” is a storytelling track about a teenage boy who had a bad childhood and leaves to make something of himself – naturally, none of us saw that coming.

The production itself is mainstream friendly, (it sounds like he strives to be like J.Cole, only further supported by his rework of “Losing My Balance”). Not bad, but at the same time, bland, with the exception of, “Travellin'”, which holds a nice enough drum beat and an enjoyable looping sample. Once again, there is a lack of anything outstanding with this element of this music as well. Perhaps the criticism about his predictable use of sample and beats wouldn’t be quite so severe, if there was something more believable or genuine in what Cynikal is saying. Unfortunately, the combination of the two failing factors makes it hard to be forgiving.

Overall, I can’t exactly call this groundbreaking, and I’m not likely to recommend it to anyone. In fact, it appears to be a showcase of how British hip-hop culture is still relatively backward, in comparison to its American counter part.

Best track: Travellin’

25/100

Download Breakfast for free here.

Dir En Grey – Six Ugly EP (2002)


There are very few bands I can think of that have changed their style and music as much as Dir En Grey have. Being one of the most well known bands to have emerged from Japan in recent times, they have been credited with gaining a worldwide audience, without having to use very much English in their songs. Originally starting as a Pop Rock band, they then remerged in Visual Kei (just think of it as the Japanese version of the Glam Metal look…except more creepy and better done), before the release of Six Ugly, which marked the start of their experimentation with Metal.

Like all of Dir En Grey’s releases, the EP can’t fully be compared to any of their other works, but can be described as sporting similarities to American metal bands. The guitars are heavy throughout, and the riffs are clear and repetitive, making it pretty easy to the ear. Lead singer Kyo has one of the most diverse vocal ranges you can find in a singer, which is one of reasons he is able to adapt so easily between genres. That voice is also instantly recognisable, but on this particular release, there aren’t many points where Kyo impresses us. Although, in fairness, there are only six songs on the EP. Bearing in mind that this was made around the time when Nu-Metal was all the rage, it’s quite clear that “Children” happens to be more or less, a Nu-Metal song, as Kyo raps (well, I wouldn’t call it rapping, it’s more like…speaking in rage) over the heavily layered riff. It also happens to be the catchiest song. For some reason, opening track “Mr. Newsman“, sounds as if it has been recorded at a lower quality than the other tracks, which makes it a rather off putting introduction. But once we hit “Ugly, the composition of the music seems more organised and suddenly, the appeal kicks in. If it hasn’t kicked in by this point, it probably isn’t going to kick in. The last song, “Byou Shin“, is actually a re-release of a track that featured on their previous EP, Missa; but a lot heavier, and the vocals turn into light roars. I can’t say it’s a great re-take, and runs the risk of becoming boring halfway through.

Now, I’m willing to bet most people reading this don’t speak Japanese, but that’s ok, because most people who listen to Dir En Grey probably don’t either – even the few times where he sings in English, he pronounces the words in a weird and distorted manner, so it sounds as if it’s Japanese anyway. You don’t need to know what he’s singing about, but their subject matter does raise some interest. Kyo sings at us: “Smiles bought for money, show on the fuzzy TV, screamed from within the flock of senseless pigs, Ladies and gentlemen, victims laughing at crime, crying at crime, Sneering pigs, always, you see, even now, you see”. They seem to be making a commentary on modern day life – the bombardment of useless products that surround us, the superficiality of it all. The album art supports this, with the various references to western Pop culture, and the band name written in the font of Coca-Cola. Though, once again, to some listeners, this can be considered entirely irrelevant.

One thing to understand about Six Ugly is that it’s all in the same style – if you don’t like hearing loud repetitive guitars, you’re probably not going to like this. There are a few fillers on it that pass you by (despite it being a quick listen). All in all, an enjoyable EP, as long as you can enjoy that particular style of music.

Best Tracks: Ugly, Children, Umbrella

70/100

teenagersintokyo – Sacrifice (2010)


Following the release of their debut album, Sacrifice,  teenagersintokyo (and with all the irony of any indie band, they are not teenagers, nor are they from Tokyo…..) were named one of the fresh upcoming bands of 2010. Although there have been no new releases from the band since, they have managed to distinguish themselves from the modern Indie scene, with this art-pop, electro beat album.

Starting simply with the music; the bass is thick and explicit in pretty much every track, the guitars are sharp and the drums are edgy. Then on top, there is Samantha Lim’s fragile and nonchalant voice (often reminiscent of other bands on the scene like The xx), yet also sometimes exposing a darker tone of voice in the verses. Lyrically, the words suit the music, singing of how “I lose myself every time I stay out late night”,  but nothing other than that can be said about them. The second half of the album begins to feel as if teenagersintokyo are a cult of some sort , with the suicidal atmosphere of the darker keyboard chords kicking in, and the vocals becoming more desperate and fluctuating.  The music however, is nothing short of danceable and easy listening.

There is no denying that the album has a lot of 80s influence.  “Long Walk Home” recalls the synth lines of Joy Division, and the album as a whole is awash with the electro punk style of Siouxie And The Banshees. The opening track, “Sacrifice“, is not a great introduction to the band – it appears to have less substance to it than the rest of the album, mostly made up of a bass line, and the crying of “Sacrifice!” from Lim. However, once you get past that first track, the album starts to take on more of an identity. “End It Tonight” pretty much depicts that the band as having an attitude that is fearless and cool, and its relentless catchiness has inevitably allowed it to receive the remix treatment. Despite the “we-are-cooler-than you” edge of the album, it all ends on the track “3046”, which is a stark contrast to the others, presenting a softer and more relaxed side to their music – but is still one of the better songs.

Overall, the album is certainly memorable for about a few of its tracks; the others are mediocre or forgettable fillers. Teenagersintokyo prove themselves to be different from the bands that are often thrown under the sub genre of ‘Indie’, and although it draws heavily on the popular 80s styles, there is a fresh polish on Sacrifice which stops it from merely being a copycat album.

Best Tracks: End It Tonight, Isabella, 3046

65/100

Poison – Look What The Cat Dragged In (1986)


Poison. A band that presents what many people loved – and hated – about the explosion of successful big haired, make up wearing Glam Metal bands of the 80s. Sporting neon guitars, and – at least in the case of later Poison – gracing MTV with their tacky synchronised dancing (don’t believe me? Look up the video for “Nothin’ But A Good Time”), this band are indeed a signature stamp of their era.

Now it’s only right that I address the album cover first, since it incidentally happens to be a reflection on Poison’s music – very gimmicky. On this striking debut, what appears to be four brightly made up women (if you squint a bit), actually happens to be the four members of Poison. Even amongst other famous bands of the time, this band somehow managed to take the drag look to a new level.  It has been argued that the cover is merely meant to be a funny parody of the Beatles’ Let It Be, because apparently the guys had a real sense of humour. Fair enough. On the other hand, it seems clear that the cover is not a parody, but a representation of what the band – and many rock fans – thought was cool at the time. It must be…. this is a band that claimed they put the “first wheel on the frickin’ (glam) bandwagon…well fine, alright, second wheel…first was Alice Cooper”. Yes, ok Poison, let’s just ignore every other glam band that came before 1986, shall we? Not to mention that Motley Crue and Van Halen did the same thing with their album covers, and still managed to make it look vaguely cool.

However, even though the band are often ridiculed by rock fans these days (and quite rightly so, they just set themselves up for it), let us put this into context. This is a debut album by a band that made themselves to look outrageous because that’s what the 80s rock scene was like at the time. Lyrical content was cheap and guitar riffs were large. So condemning them only for being annoyingly cheesy and catchy would be a little too quick to judge.

Instead, starting with a good point; this album is probably a better album overall than any of their other material. Certainly better than their more famous album Open Up And Say…Ahh! as it has far fewer cringingly cheesy moments. Musically, it can’t be said that it’s bad. CC Deville’s guitar riffs are on point,  as heard in “Blame It On You, though his solos are nothing special or entertaining. The drum fills are good. The bass is about as good as you may expect from your average Glam Metal band. The music isn’t complicated, or intricate in the slightest – it is just the direct delivery of easy listening riffs and hooks.

However, the album has downfalls. Lead singer, Bret Michaels, appears to exaggerate his accent when he sings; and it comes across as pretentiously over the top.  It doesn’t help that what he sings is actually cringe worthy in itself a lot of the time, as he tells “I’d like to slide it in / but where do I begin?” because he “can’t get no nookie”.  Coming from an era of bands that concentrated their lyrics around “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” Michaels’ lyrics are still weak in comparison. Choosing to name a song “#1 Bad Boy speaks for itself.

Look What The Cat Dragged In has to be turn off for people who can’t stomach the obnoxiousness, or 80s chart rock in general. It’s definitely listenable if you are looking for something fun and easy, without being too judgemental. Actually, taking everything into account, this album probably deserves a higher rating than any other Poison album.

Best Track: Play Dirty

40/100

The Smiths – The Smiths (1984)


To kick-start the non hip-hop album reviews that will feature on this blog, I have decided to go with an album that I’ve grown to know only too well; the self titled debut by The Smiths. The album centres around a loss of innocence, in what appears to be an obscure and detached young man. The front man, Morrissey, displays a fear and disgust towards sex, and subsequently plucks at the strings of homoeroticism (“This Charming Man). The theme of love, and its corruption, comes hand in hand with the protagonist’s aversion to sex and implications of misogyny: “I lost my faith in womanhood“, completed with a twisting turn of focus on child murders.

Without the lyrical storytelling, this album would fail to be worth commenting a great deal on. The imagery created in our imaginations is that of Morrissey kissing under an iron bridge, and the” fresh lilac moorland fields” of England – all images that are so charmingly and eloquently presented, yet all of which are later found to be attached with corruption. Even the tale told in “Suffer Little Children, which is based on the real life Moors Murders, creates beautifully cold and quivering reflections in the telling of child killings. What Morrissey does so intriguingly is write the lyrics as if they were a stream of thought; closely drawing parallels at times to Holden Cauldfield, of The Catcher In The Rye. The songs appear tales of personal and brutal honesty: “No I’ve never had a job/ because I’m too shy“.

Though the vocals have been described as depressive and whiny, (a view I whole heartedly agreed with upon first listen), the album appears to come to life after being listened to again. The vocals soon begin to appear soaring and pretty, convincingly exposing a vulnerability in the male voice. His vocal style captures a mystique that strays away from both the exaggerated masculinity of 80s pop culture, and the sombre tone of the 80s Post-punk movement – the vocals instead appear to be seductively sung, as Morrissey lingers on words, allowing his voice to frequently waver on vowels. At times, there are outbursts of high pitched vocals, as he breaks free from the lazy tone of his voice, to reveal a desperation behind it.

Musically, I can only describe The Smiths as mildly impressive in their simplicity. However, guitarist Johnny Marr’s jangly pop guitar lines work quite perfectly in saving the album from simply being a nostalgic story. Although it’s hard to imagine wanting to dance along to a song by The Smiths, the delightfully colourful riff in “This Charming Man” does just that. The introduction of the garage-punk guitar riff in “What Difference Does It Make?“, and the basic, yet hypnotising guitars in “Suffer Little Children” allow new moods to be created, in contrast to Morrissey’s rather monotonous signature vocal style. One point that must not fail to be mentioned is the attention to detail that is put into the music, which makes the album compelling on an entirely new level.  As “Pretty Girls Make Graves” begins to come to an end, the band incorporate a fresh guitar line into the last 30 seconds of the song, which is so fluidly and effortlessly done.

Though I can find much praise for this one album, in both its concept and technicality, I can also understand how it can be considered boring on first listen, and tiresome after several listens. This debut is not one that is filled with exciting moments, but one that I consider as consistently thought provoking and graceful. It is most definitely the best way to be introduced to The Smiths, as it so perfectly epitomises all their signature styles.

90/100