ADRIAN BELEW, Elevator (Self-released). One of Adrian Belew’s greatest musical gifts is when it comes to his solo projects, he always endeavors to sound like Adrian Belew. He doesn’t use his skills or technology to blend into the current popular sonic landscape. Adrian is Adrian. We should be thankful for that. Elevator is yet another case in point. Belew uses his sizable multi-instrumental chops and modern tech to create an air-tight progressive pop album. Like in days of albums past, he keeps the proceedings relatively brief (right around 36 minutes total) compared to the length of other artist’s modern efforts. But there’s a LOT of information crammed into Elevator’s 12 songs. Casual listeners will find the melodies pleasant and singable. Prog nerds will revel in the chaos often taking place under that perceived simplicity. Belew’s skills as a producer also deserve recognition, even if he’s just producing himself. He knows what is supposed to go where, and why. Clever wordplay, creative loops, pleasant harmonies, shrieking guitars … it’s all here. It’s all Adrian. It’s all good.
KENDRICK LAMAR, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers (Aftermath/Interscope). Rap and hip-hop have gone through many phases throughout the years. “Party,” “Message,” “Gangsta,” “Geographic,” “Neo-Soul,” and “Socially Conscious” have been among the many approaches to hip-hop. Each style has its share of highlights. But “Introspective” seems to be yielding some tremendous results. Kendrick Lamar can count himself among the top inward thinkers of his generation. A deeply personal look at fatherhood, homo- and transphobia, and the (very raw) nature of the domestic partnership are among the many topics he explores. Mr. Morale is Lamar considering the man he was against the man he is trying to become. Many rappers can’t see past the moment they’re in, often believing the future is for others. Lamar’s approach says he plans to be here for a while, and he means to pass on what he has learned so far. There’s nothing wrong with personal growth expressed via microphone.
MARY HALVORSON, Amaryllis (Nonesuch). The road traveled by a Mary Halvorson composition rarely goes in a straight line. So it seems almost surprising to hear her play it relatively straight on “Night Shift,” the opening track of Amaryllis. But just when we everything has settled into the groove, the guitarist reverts to her usual self, leaving us scrambling to keep up. That’s perfectly okay. Halvorson’s sextet — which includes Jacob Garchik on trombone and Patricia Brennan on vibes — takes us on a rollercoaster ride with steep dives, loops, and twists, that never let us grow complacent. Left-of-center composition is Halvorson’s gift, and why she should be recognized as one of 21st jazz’s most important composers.
STEPHAN THELAN & J. PETER SCHWALM, Transneptunian Planets (RareNoise). Regardless of context, you have a good idea what’s coming whenever guitarist Stephan Thelan gets involved in a musical project. The thrill comes in learning what he intends to do with that approach. His work with J. Peter Schwalm is no exception. While Thelan maintains his highly mathematical approach to guitar, Schwalm’s contributions shoot by and explode like comets in the sky, often delving into unexplainable — but incredibly interesting — musical realms. Some will wonder how they wound up at this musical destination, but others will wonder why it took so long to get here in the first place.
JO QUAIL, The Cartographer (Norse Music). Cellist and composer Jo Quail personifies the musical amalgam by bringing a Classical-oriented instrument into progressive rock territory. But The Cartographer is not just prog. No, no … this album has MUCH more imagination than that! The album is a 48-minute suite originally commissioned by Tillburg’s Roadburn Festival, where it was originally performed. The five movements are equal parts classical masterwork, epic movie soundtrack, and post-metal headbanger (sans the use of extensive guitars until the final movement). The pieces thunder down with the force of a summer squall demanding the listeners attention from the very beginning. This is not dainty chamber music destined for the background at dinner parties. No … this is FRONT and CENTER music meant to not just dominate, but envelop any space it enters. It should be played as loudly as possible AFTER you secure the breakables on the shelves.
BJØRN RIIS, Everything to Everyone (Karisma). Best known as the guitarist for Airbag, Bjørn Riis steps into the solo spotlight for the fourth time, this effort being an elegant collection of respectful compositions constructed with a distinct nod to 70’s and 00’s era progressive rock. Still, the music arrives in these areas via its own means, with Riis providing thoughtful guitar lines with creamy and slightly bluesy tones. His singing voice is honest while not excessively urgent, reminding one of Steven Wilson’s early solo works. One of Norway’s favorite sons has been searching for the meaning of it all, and he appears to have come up with at least a couple of good answers.
BRIAN JACKSON, This is Brian Jackson (BBE Music). An unusual adjective comes to mind when attempting to describe this music. That word is comforting. Brian Jackson has created a laid-back collection of jams that remind listeners of what made 70’s soul records in the vein of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield cool. The arrangements are steeped in groove with a steady bottom end accented with just the right amount of percussion. Jackson voice — whether singing or on the flute — is on top of it without being all over it. This album feels like slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes: it won’t take long to figure out why they’ll never be thrown away.
GREG GERMANN, Tales of Time (Origin Records). There are two types of drummer-led jazz records: the ones where the drummer can’t wait to show off his chops and dominate the mix; and the ones where the drummer lays back and lets his band carry the day, stepping forward only now and then while holding down the steadiest of grooves. Greg Germann had opted for the latter on Tales of Time. While all 11 compositions are his, Germann’s band (Donny McCaslin on sax, Luis Perdomo on piano, and Yasushi Nakamura on bass) give his tunes a sense of determined personality with taut chemistry and good taste. Vocalist Chelsea Forgenie adds an additional sense of class to the mix when she arrives. Not every record can burn and chill at the same time, but this one does the job just fine.
THE SMILE, A Light for Attracting Attention (XL Recordings). It’s highly questionable when and if we will see another album from Radiohead. Things just run their course. Nevertheless, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have found a way to occupy their musical time. Teaming up with drummer Tom Skinner (best known for his work with Sons of Kemet), The Smile has formulated an album that contains elements of both Radiohead and the solo efforts of York and Greenwood. The combination has culminated into a deeply pleasant listen, full of futuristic percussion grooves and lush orchestration. Now that they’re approaching middle age, the band has found that sweet spot that both bobs heads and presents the need for inward contemplation. That’s not to say things don’t get a little aggressive from time to time. This band has just learned how to pick its spots. This is a project highly worthy of attention.
PORCUPINE TREE, Closure/Continuation (Sony Music). Steven Wilson has been messing with us. Okay … that’s a facetious statement. But fans of Wilson’s progressive rock outings via his band Porcupine Tree have lamented as he gradually moved from the vintage sounding prog of The Raven That Refused to Sing toward the relative pop sheen of The Future Bites via his solo albums since 2013. Where, oh where was the band and sound prog fans held most dear? Apparently, Wilson had been working on it all along! Closure/Continuation is as apt a record title as you will find, for we truly don’t know if this is the end of Porcupine Tree or the beginning of the next stage. After all, Wilson had been slowly working toward this album for the better part of a decade. The lack of punch behind PT’s first “finale,” The Incident, is somewhat made up for for via this release. “Harridan,” the album’s opener (featuring a bass riff played by Wilson that perhaps sends a message to fans concerned by the absence of longtime bassist Colin Edwin) sets the tone nicely for what is to come from Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, and drummer Gavin Harrison. Still, one can hear a great deal of Wilson’s recent solo efforts, including a bit of that pop sheen, within this music. The band’s playing is rock solid, even if no new major musical ground has been broken. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Wilson has, for the most part, given Porcupine Tree Fans what they have been clamoring for. It’s possible they may even be willing to accept it.
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Talk about a feast for the ears! I’d already decided to download the Belew, but now you’ve got me interested in the Thelen/Schwalm collaboration and the Brian Jackson album as well.
Amaryllis (along with its chamber music-oriented sibling Belladonna) and The Smile’s debut (which carries over traces of Jonny Greenwood’s impressive soundtrack to the film Spencer) are already on my favorites list for the year. As for PTree, I’ve found the new one compulsively listenable since it’s release – good stuff.
And the Kendrick Lamar is in a category by itself for me — powerful, gripping and utterly immersive. I think I’m actually afraid to listen to it again because of how intense my first exposure to it was! The man has deep technical and conceptual chops, as well as an almost cinematic sense of structure and flow. The rawness of it is what holds me back, I think — along with a slight skepticism regarding how “real” his recorded persona might be. (On the other hand, what artist’s persona isn’t exaggerated for dramatic purposes?) Thinking that I need to tackle his back catalog in order to get a better handle on this one.
It’s a thumbs down for the Kendrick Lamar for me, but all the rest deserve some serious attention. So, that’s quite a collection for a single post!
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Thanks. I think that’s gonna be a habit for me: listen to a couple every day while I write, then kick them out every couple of weeks or so. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
What’s your issue with Kendrick?
Well, I’ve never been able to get into that whole rap/hip-hop thing. I didn’t like it when I first heard it, and the more of it I hear, the greater my dislike becomes. I’m just not wired that way, I’m afraid. 🙁
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Sounds like your disdain for the genre handicapped you pretty seriously from the get-go. Clearly, this style isn’t for you. No harm, no foul.
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