Month: January 2015

Rock Song Review: Halestorm – “Apocalyptic”

Let’s round out January with a rock song review, shall we? Today’s review is “Apocalyptic,” the new single from Halestorm.

First impressions: Dirty, heavy, groovy but tough… well now, I do like this.

The music: “Apocalyptic”, we’ve been told, is a “middle ground” between Halestorm’s earlier sound and the sound they’ve taken on their new album, Into the Wild Life. The sheer polished aggression of “Love Bites (So Do I)” and “Mz. Hyde” is gone for the most part, but its spirit remains in the sonic muscle the song carries, not to mention the dual attack of the guitars and Lzzy Hale’s vocals. Instead “Apocalyptic” is a lot looser and drier in sound with a tinge of the blues to its slithering melody. The lead guitar is just filthy, sliding and firing off notes like the cries of a wild animal, while the rhythm instruments carry this nice, grinding little groove. If I’m not mistaken there’s also a dynamic range here that wasn’t present on the last album, which often felt like a wall of noise slamming into you with each chord. Instead there’s a snap to the drums and a muddy crunch to the guitars, so it feels like a band of musicians actually playing together in a room. It’s still way too loud, though, which is a bit of a shame.

The melody is catchy and, as if from the Ozzy Osbourne School of Rock, tends to follow the riff in the verses and bridges, which does have the effect of accentuating the punch of the rhythm. I have to say, I really like Hale’s vocals here as well. That intrinsic ferocity of her voice is still there but it’s dialled back slightly; instead there’s a raw, gritty quality here she hasn’t quite explored before. I don’t want to throw off a creepy stalker vibe here, but it sounds like there’s also a tinge of desperation in the few higher-pitched notes she throws in every now and then, like in the third bar of each verse and the middle-eight, to counter-balance the attitude and confidence. Not a great deal has changed – Hale’s still the sex goddess of previous songs – but she’s never sounded like she actually wanted it as much as she does here. Halestorm have sung about sex before but it’s rarely been sexy as much as it’s been intimidating. “Apocalyptic”, however, is easily the raunchiest thing they’ve ever written.

The lyrics: So it’s another Halestorm sex song. I remember one commenter on the YouTube video complaining about the fact they’d written yet another sex song, but looking back I don’t recall them having that many. There’s “I Get Off“, “Dirty Work“, “Love Bites”, “Mz. Hyde”, “Don’t Know How to Stop“… and those are all the ones that come to mind. If you remember any more, please jog my memory. Yes, please do.

“I wear my nine-inch heels when we go to bed / I paint the colour of my lips blood red.” So we’re still going with the dominatrix aesthetic that’s been prevalent in hard rock culture since, what, the late Seventies? A little overdone, but that’s fine, I guess. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll is all about the glorious illusion, right? Specifically here the illusion that Lzzy Hale would want to have sex with you. I’m betting there aren’t too many male critics of this song.

“When it’s switching up, physical, always slamming doors / You’re a bitch, throwing fits, always waging wars / Me and you, sad but true, it’s not us anymore / But there’s still one thing we’re good for.” Ah, right, so it’s about a relationship gone sour – now we really are in traditional Halestorm territory. And, as usual in popular music, there’s only one thing left that unites these estranged lovers, one primal act of aggression and self-fulfillment that’ll solve their problems, if only for one hot, glorious night: a game of Yahtzee with Antiques Roadshow on in the background. All right, it might not actually be that.

“I’ll give you one last night, so make it twisted / Give you one last shot, go on and hit it / Give you one last time, don’t make me miss it / Baby love me apocalyptic, come on.” The grammar goblin in my chest is giving me heartburn right now. Admittedly the “apocalyptic” descriptor didn’t make a lot of sense until I read it in the context of the preceding lines. Apocalyptic, as in the end of all things or, more specifically, their relationship – if it’s going out, it’s going out with a bang. But it also provides a referent for you to pull in your own images. What do you associate with the apocalypse? Nuclear bombs? Fire in the sky? Riots? The ground shaking beneath your feet? Zombies? Well, apart from that last one this is quite the one-off spin of the wheel they have going here.

“Nothing lasts forever.” Well, except bad credit, but that’s admittedly a far less sexy subject to write a song about.

Verdict: “Apocalyptic” isn’t a quantum leap from their usual style but there’s enough here to suggest that Halestorm are trying something new. Something good, too. 3 out of 5.

Today’s double-up couldn’t be anything else. Well it could be, but it won’t: “Apocalyptic Love” by Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators.

Pop Song Review: Maroon 5, “Sugar”

Love is lovely, isn’t it? Lovely, lovely love. What a splendid, charming and not-at-all dangerous or aggressive emotion. Oh, no shaking us out of our comfort zones here, no sirree. So let’s all sit down, have a nice cup of chamomile tea and review the new Maroon 5 single, “Sugar”, like the nice people we are.

First impressions: Hang on a minute – the bubblegum pop sound, the gate-crashy video… this is Katy Perry’s “Birthday“. How the… is the music industry just regurgitating its hits and hoping nobody will notice?

The music: So, The Adam Levine Band ha–sorry, Maroon 5 have decided to write a love song. Well, another one – and the theme of today’s love song is “cute”. As in, the subject matter is cute, the music is cute and gosh darnit if it isn’t all just so flipping cute. Hey, remember when Maroon 5 were an actual rock band? Weird, huh?

“Sugar” trundles along politely through an anemic pop song structure, held aloft by a shiny backdrop of keyboards and synthesised sounds set to a rigid, timid little beat carried by what I swear is not an organic set of drums. There’s a guitar player in this band but stone me if I can hear any guitar through the sheer coat of polish that’s been slapped on to this song. I think I can hear a bass guitar poking its way through the gloss, though that might just be my heart beating in my ear as an ultimatum.

Of course, Maroon 5 are a band now in the same sense Wings were to Paul McCartney. Adam Levine’s vocals are given top billing here, hovering over the sparser verses and rising to a falsetto when the music dresses itself up a bit for the chorus. His voice even gets its own spotlight for the middle-eight, as if it needs another one, as the instruments all but completely fade away for a moment like they’re saying, “were we ever needed here?”

Then it leads to that chorus and… oh jeez. You know, I’m not sure there even is a chorus here. I mean, there’s a bridge, a slight change in the melody, Levine goes falsetto and the music swells a little, but otherwise the chords don’t change all that much, there’s no big rush (which is strange for a song titled “Sugar”) and, if it weren’t for the bridge, I’d just assume it was another verse, which it might as well be. It’s a chorus but it isn’t a chorus: it just passes through with no effect on anything around it, no emotional impact on anyone who heard it and no mark to indicate it was ever there. It’s the musical equivalent of a ghosty.

Look, I get that this is supposed to be “happy” music, as evidenced by all the major chords, the chirpiness of the vocals and the simplicity of the song. And you know what? Yes, there’s nothing wrong with silly love songs, and sometimes the simpler and chirpier the song the better. But “Sugar” isn’t simply because it knows that’s what works, it’s simple because it’s lazy. Listen to that McCartney song I linked to. Just listen to just how much is going on in that song: the strings, the horns, the shifts in structure and melody, the bass groove… not to mention that the song has an original and intriguing point to make.

And I’m not taking any “but he’s a Beatle” arguments – no, you’re not Paul McCartney, but why not try and be? Because it’ll be hard? Punching above your weight class is what being an artist is all about, and if you can’t push yourself to at least try and be the best, get out of the ring. Admittedly if Maroon 5 pushed themselves any further they’d fall over and fly off with the breeze, but the fact they’re not even trying shows just how cynical this whole endeavour is. This isn’t a song trying to win your heart, this is a song handing you a cheap box of chocolates in the hopes that you’ll do all the work in bed later.

And yes, that chorus melody is remarkably similar to Katy Perry’s “Birthday”. In fact the whole song is reminiscent of “Birthday”, except somehow even less interesting than that half-witted piece of nothingness. I would argue that Maroon 5 have reached the “Invisible Touch” stage of their career, but that analogy would require me to make comparisons between early Maroon 5 and early Genesis – a mistake a man only makes once in his life and, frankly, I’d still rather not make it. Also, “Invisible Touch” is a decent song.

The lyrics: It’s about love. Bet you didn’t see that one coming? Now, I’d wager that most songs are about love, but the best songs can take the subject and give it a new twist to make the listener think differently about such an overdone subject; or they can inject it with a fierce sense of personal experience, plumbing the very depths of their soul and facing their innermost feelings, to intensify the emotional resonance of the music. Or they can just string out the same Hallmark card clichés everyone and their gran has scribbled out at one point or another, just so the singer has something to squawk about for three to four contractually-obligated minutes. Take a wild guess which direction Maroon 5 went with for “Sugar”.

“I’m hurting, baby, I’m broken down / I need your loving, loving, I need it now.” “Down” and “now” don’t rhyme. But yeah, he needs your love, because he doesn’t have it or something. How much more of this do I have to write again?

“When I’m without you, I’m something weak / You got me begging, begging, I’m on my knees.” “Weak” and “knees” don’t rhyme. But yeah, you make him weak at the knees. What a pleasant experience this all is. I would like to remind the reader that this is the same band that once wrote “The way it felt between your thighs / Pleasure that made you cry.”

“Sugar, yes please / Won’t you come and put it down on me?” So he means “sugar” in the sense of a pet name? I suppose it’s a little more sultry than “pookie” but it’s still tame as all hell. And what does he mean by “put it down on me?” Put what down? The sugar? You, er, you want her to put some sugar on you, in what would likely be some sort of pouring motion? Now there’s an original idea!

“My broken pieces, you pick them up / Don’t leave me hanging, hanging, come give me some.” “Up” and “some” don’t–for crying out loud, Maroon 5.

“I don’t wanna be needing your love / I just wanna be deep in your love.” A human being wrote this. A sentient, sapient human being actually sat down, wrote this out and thought, “yes, this is acceptable music lyricism and I feel perfectly at ease releasing this to a public audience.”

“Yeah, you show me good loving, make it all right / Need a little sweetness in my life.” That one line there is as close as we get to any sense of metaphor or wordplay in this song. The word of the day is “lackadaisical”, meaning “without interest, vigor or determination; listless; lethargic.”

Verdict: I honestly didn’t think Maroon 5 had any more capacity to dilute their sound, mostly because I didn’t think you could water down water. But this might just be the most pointless, boring, lazily-written waste of studio time this non-band have ever subjected their audience to. There is nothing here – nothing – that is interesting, original or worthwhile in any way, shape or form. There’s more nutritional value in an actual spoonful of sugar (plus it makes the medicine go down, and if you’re listening to Maroon 5 on a regular basis I imagine you’re taking it for something). 1 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones. Great stuff, isn’t it? Just imagine, if we stopped letting little girls dictate the music industry, we could have this again.

Silly Industry Quote of the Day

Here’s your silly industry quote for the day from Greg Thompson, EVP of Capitol, talking about trying to match the commercial success of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream with her follow-up record, Prism (via Billboard):

“We didn’t think that we could repeat Teenage Dream, but that’s like saying, ‘I’m gonna go paint another Picasso.'”

Yeah, no, it really isn’t. I don’t think he’s actually equating the two in terms of artistic merit (at least I hope he’s not), but really? That’s the comparison he thought would be best to go with? Silly Greg Thompson.

Pop Song Review: Fall Out Boy, “Centuries”

Well, we’re back to this, it seems. Pop music will never die, but you and I will. So today’s review, and the first single review of 2015, is “Centuries”, the new single from Fall Out Boy. As a primer, though, I recommend you go read “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I think it might provide a useful context to this song.

First impressions: This song feels like getting shot in the face with an Airzooka. Sure, you feel it for a little bit, but it’s still just air. Nothing’s been broken, you’re fine and the endeavour is more startling than enjoyable, so what was the point?

The music: If this blog were more widely read, I’m sure I’d get a heap of flack for calling this a ‘pop’ song. ‘But it’s got guitars!’ the hypothetical masses cry. ‘It’s got loud drums! It’s got… a bunch of guys, I guess. Rock bands have those, right?’ Look, I’m sure this is as close to rock music as many mainstream listeners are willing to get (and for those of you in that group, here’s hoping you never stumble across any Pantera lest you brown your shorts in horror), but… you know what, I’m getting off point.

So this is a song designed to inspire confidence in the listener – and it tries really, really hard as well: first you’ve got that “duh-duh-duh-duh” chorus line (which sounds suspiciously similar to the chorus melody of Arctic Monkey’s “Knee Socks“), then you have this giant, thumping beat and those sky-high melodies working in tandem to make you get up and bally well have a run around the park, as Bertie Wooster once put it; then you have another chorus line singing “hey-ey-ee-ey-oh” or however it goes, then you have Patrick Stump sounding as if he’s trying to pinch one out as the verse stomps on, with surprisingly sparse instrumentation and some added Queen-esque harmonic spikes thrown in for good measure, before it all swells together for the massive chorus.

Unfortunately the whole effort is brought right back down to earth with that horrible, overly-sincere piano, the plodding tempo and Stump’s painfully processed, quivering yelp of a voice singing what amounts to a strangely downbeat melody, as if the idea of being remembered for centuries annoys him somehow. In fact the song itself is all minor chords, if I’m not mistaken, in what I assume is an attempt to sound “dramatic”. It’s funny, actually, because I’m working on a piece for this blog at the moment on why good drama needs humour to give the audience a sense of relief from the truly dramatic moments in any form of entertainment (it’s a creeper post, though, so don’t hold your breath), one of my points being that if you don’t provide the humour in your work, the audience will find it themselves, and another being that “seriousness” does not necessarily equate to “drama”; so this is quite timely actually.

As you might have guessed “Centuries” is probably the most pretentious thing Fall Out Boy have ever put out, and this is a band who, only three years ago, claimed they were going to “save” rock and roll. Well, it would have been nice if they’d actually written some rock and roll for a change, because the guitars are pushed so far into the background here and so heavily compressed I have trouble deciding if that actually is a guitar or whether a bee flew into the room during the recording session and they just left it in.

They’ve clearly cribbed more than a few ideas from Imagine Dragons who, themselves, are about as rock and roll as a DFS sale, but these sorts of “call my name”, testosterone-fuelled, chest-beating anthems are only fun if they’re… well, fun. But the music on “Centuries” is weirdly morose which, if the song were about the funeral of a Roman emperor or something, might make more sense. In fact that’s not a bad interpretation to pull from all this, but the band haven’t given me quite enough reason to buy into that explanation and, frankly, I’m not doing the legwork for them. This is plastic, posturing pop rock on steroids. It’s what Maroon 5 would sound like if they tried to write an “epic” song. In fact, surely this is just “Animals” with a “We Will Rock You”-style “anthem” beat? The melody, the chord progression, the instrumentation – doesn’t it all strike you as a bit familiar?

The lyrics: The chorus pretty much sums up the gist of the song: “Some legends are told, some turn to dust or to gold / But you will remember me, remember me for centuries.” And that’s about it: you’re gonna remember them. Well, good show everybody. Lights out, let’s get those tables folded up and… wait, you want me to go on? Huh, okay.

“The kids are all wrong, the story’s all off / Heavy metal broke my heart.” Well, they’re clearly riffing off The Who’s “The Kids Are All Right” with the first half of that first line, but “heavy metal broke my heart”? Some people really can’t let St. Anger go, can they? No, you see, what this lyric is about is… er, the youth are going to… uh, we’ve all been misled and… um, something about being remembered? Eh, I don’t know.

“Come on, come on and let me in / The bruises on your thighs like my fingerprints.” First of all, “in” and “fingerprints” don’t rhyme. There’s assonance there, but they don’t rhyme. Secondly, if a person’s thigh-bruises resemble fingerprints, that means they were probably caused by somebody’s fingers, which sounds to me like enough of a reason to get social services on the blower. Coupled with the line “come on and let me in,” I’m getting a very bad vibe from this lyric.

“I can’t stop ’til the whole world knows my name / ‘Cos I was only born inside my dreams.” You were only born inside your dreams? So you’re admitting that all this braggadocio is just a big fantasy of yours? Let’s be clear, “Centuries” suffers from the exact same problem “Uptown Funk” did lyrically: we’re never given a solid, convincing reason to buy into the bravado. However, “Uptown Funk” was at least fun and didn’t take itself too seriously, unlike “Centuries” which has these towering melodic hooks, these inflated chords and this big, punchy production all built on a very po-faced mission statement.

But it all rings hollow: the imagery is vague, the message is cheesy and hackneyed, and there’s no punchline to all this build-up. I’ll remember you for centuries, will I? Why? How? What have you done, exactly, that is worth remembering? Again, if it wasn’t so serious I could take it as a cheeky statement of intent from an arrogant young band of rascals, but Fall Out Boy are in their mid-thirties trying to build what amounts to a ten-bedroom mansion on a bed of sand. I suppose you could make the same argument about Queen’s “We Are the Champions”, which seems to be the reference point for all these hollow “I’m the greatest” songs, but at least that song had the trump card of being “We Are the Champions.”

“Until you die for me, as long as there is a light, my shadow’s over you / ‘Cos I am the opposite of amnesia.”  Oh, I know the year’s young, but I’m calling that out as one of the downright worst lyrics of 2015. “The opposite of amnesia”? What in the good Lord’s name is that supposed to be? So you remember everything? Or rather, you’re the living embodiment of being able to remember everything? Is that why we’re supposed to remember you – your impressive memory skills? You know, with such over-the-top music and such stupid lines like this married together, this is turning out to be a pretty funny song. I don’t think the band intended it to be so, of course, which naturally only makes it funnier.

“We’ve been here forever and here’s the frozen proof / I could scream forever, we are the poisoned youth.” Oh, what in sweet mercy are you talking about? “Frozen proof”? See, now you’re being too specific, because all I can think about is a bunch of ill, angry teenagers stuck in a big block of ice. Here’s a little equation for any budding lyricists out there: dumb imagery + melodramatic music = copious laughter from the listening audience. You have been warned.

Verdict: Yeah, this is pretty bad. It’s not awful – there are some decent hooks buried in there – but it’s just completely over the top, which would be fine if it was any fun. But it isn’t: it’s deadly serious that you should remember it for hundreds of years. If it gave me any worthwhile reason to keep it in mind for that long I’d budge a little, but I can barely remember it five minutes after listening to it. 2 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Who Are You?” by The Who.

Red Dwarf II, episode 5: “Queeg”

Red Dwarf II, episode 5: “Queeg”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 4th October 1988.

What happens?

Holly’s computer senility causes Red Dwarf to collide with a meteor, forcing the system to replace him with backup software Queeg 500. The crew largely welcome the change until Queeg’s extremely strict regime forces them to reconsider how much Holly means to them, leading to a duel to the death between the two programs.

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What do I think of it?

“Queeg” is considered a favourite among fans and it’s not hard to see why. Up until now this is probably the biggest spotlight Holly had ever been given in an episode; come to think of it I can’t think of an episode afterwards where Holly is at the centre of proceedings this much either. As a result we get some interesting themes of mutiny, friendship, ageism and the quiet value of the less prominent members of our social groups, specifically the huge unspoken importance the senile Holly has in the day-to-day lives of the crew. It also showcases the tight group dynamic of the cast: when one member is displaced or replaced, the entire system is disrupted and they have to work to restore it. Useful viewing material for any budding dramatist or comic writer.

The episode has a lot of fun throwing its characters out of their comfort zones. Rimmer, as usual, is undone by his own hubris as Queeg calls his bluff on the exercise routine he supposedly maintains but never actually carries out (due to Holly “conveniently” forgetting to wake him up early enough), which leads to Queeg taking control of Rimmer’s holographic body and forcing him to run laps around the ship even after Rimmer passes out from exhaustion. The image of an unconscious Rimmer being forced to jog around, body pounding away as his thoughtless head lies slumped on his own shoulder, is a recurring delight. As for Cat, naturally his biggest problem is not being able to take as much food as he wants and, for once in the series, we actually get to see Cat working, kneeling on the floor alongside Lister as they scrub it clean with their spit. Possibly my favourite moment in the entire episode comes with Lister’s dinnertime as he laments the loss of the single pea he earned for his hard work (though at least he gets to eat his toast). Queeg pushes these characters to the brink of sanity and it’s a dark, delicious treat to watch.

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Not surprisingly, this has been quoted as the favourite episode of Norman Lovett, who played Holly for these first two series (as well as series 8). This might just be his best episode as well: Lovett does a great job here of coming across as sympathetic and quietly tragic without ever dropping his mildly amused deadpan tone. That he does it all as a head against a black backdrop should also be pointed out and commended (as should his retiree get-up, which is simply adorable). Charles Augins also gives an excellently straight-faced and intense guest performance as the tyrannical Queeg. Fun fact, though: Augins was initially brought in to choreograph the “Tongue Tied” sequence from the following episode, “Parallel Universe,” which… you know, let’s leave that one for the next review.

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Eventually we get to the final confrontation between Holly and Queeg which, surprisingly, is actually pretty tense. It turns out to be a game of chess which, given the game Holly was playing with that other computer in “Better Than Life”, you could argue had been foreshadowed to an extent. However, given that Rimmer was playing checkers earlier in the game you’d think the writers would have gone for a bit of dramatic neatness and have the final game be the same as the game played at the episode’s start. Then again, dramatic neatness was never really Red Dwarf‘s bag, and as the duel is a battle of wits then checkers isn’t really the right game (they could have had Rimmer playing chess instead, but that comical shot of his cornered piece wouldn’t have worked). The final twist is quite tasty. too, and genuinely threw me on first viewing, though I’d argue that the episode works on repeat viewings even when you can see where it’s going because the plot, humour and characterisation are just spot-on throughout. Definitely a standout episode of series 2. Peace out, suckas!

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Some stray smeg:

  • It’s a bitter disappointment that we never get to see those singing potatoes in action.
  • What, Robert Hardy himself?
  • The damage to the damage report machine making it unable to assess the damage reminds me of that bizarre network centre troubleshooter in Windows 7 that can never actually figure out your internet problems because it always has to connect to the internet for it to work. Probably a good sign that we shouldn’t put too much faith in technology.
  • Chris Barrie gets another opportunity to show off his impressive impersonation skills as the system malfunctions and he finds himself possessed by the personalities of several crew members, including Lister and Cat. His Craig Charles is impeccable.
  • “Smart shoes” might have been a literal joke in 1988, but in a modern world so lazy we now have shoes that lace themselves, you just know someone somewhere is developing ones that do your walking for you too. They’ll probably have stock updates and a Twitter app to boot (pun not intended).

Looking Forward to 2015

Now that we’re over a week into 2015, I feel as if I should update you with how things are going viz a viz the blog and myself.

First things first, the blog. If I’m honest my interest in Crash Course was waning during the first half of this year, but being able to write about pop songs in a semi-sarky manner has helped reinvigorate my interest in blogging. Unfortunately at present there isn’t much new music going around in the charts for me to review. It seems the only song I haven’t reviewed so far that’s doing very well at the moment is Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” which has been out for months and is only big right now because of all the accolades it’s been getting.* As a result, I’m going to wait about a month or so before I get back into reviewing pop songs. In fact I might even review some new rock songs while I’m at it and help promote the music I’m passionate about.

For the time being, though, I’m working on getting the second series of Red Dwarf reviewed as part of my ongoing retrospective of that show and moving on to series three for the spring, along with possibly looking at some other sitcoms. I’ve got some other posts coming slowly along too, including another edition of my recently-launched new feature Second Spin, while the spring should bring with it a new slew of Eurovision contenders for me to review. Also, as you might be aware I’m currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing, so there will still be a bit of a balancing act there to contend with. I’ve just about finished up my work for this current semester, though, while the next starts towards the end of January; the modules and their subject matter are a bit closer to my comfort zone this time around, so it should be easier to balance work and writing for the blog.

Besides all that, 2015 is personally looking to be a great year for entertainment. There’s so much promising new rock music coming out this year it’s silly: already we’ve been promised new albums from The Answer, Noel Gallagher, Scott Weiland, Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Europe, UFO, Anthrax, The Virginmarys, Def Leppard, Black Star Riders, Whitesnake, Stereophonics, Faith No More, Buffalo Summer, Deep Purple, Halestorm, Living Colour… the list goes on and on. That end-of-year list is going be tough, I can tell you now.

Television-wise it seems to be business as usual. The second series of The Musketeers is trundling along nicely and the second half of the second series of Atlantis looks to be good too. That show in particular, I feel, has really stepped up its game a bit since the first series, so I’m happy to see where they go from here. There’s bound to be another series of Doctor Who airing later this year, a show that I used to love but has done nothing but disappoint me for a while now. One thing that does peak my interest is the Odd Couple revival CBS are bringing in to replace the outgoing Two and a Half Men. I have a huge soft spot for the Seventies TV series so I’m really looking forward to seeing how they bring the format into the 21st century. Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it’ll be terrible, but I have high hopes. The misstep of every modern sitcom is an overreliance on “easy” jokes, usually revolving around sex and marijuana, which can be fine in small doses but gets tiresome quickly, so hopefully the producers of this reboot can dodge that bullet and do the brand justice.

As for film I’m not much of a cinema buff, so there are only two movies this year that peak my interest and they’re both nostalgia trips: Jurassic World and Star Wars Episode VII, both of which I’m looking forward to tremendously despite the internet’s insidious climate of naive cynicism doing all it can to derail my expectations. There really aren’t any other films I need to see in 2015, to be honest. I’ll probably get around to watching the second Avengers movie but if I ever get desperate for two hours of robot punching in my life I’ll just watch the first one.

Speaking of nostalgia, the LEGO franchise, BIONICLE, has recently been rebooted. Now, this isn’t something I’ve spoken about before on this blog, mostly because there’s been no reason to, but BIONICLE played a huge part in my upbringing. Not simply the sets themselves, which were consistently awesome, but the layered storytelling, the exquisitely crafted lore, the characters, the quests and the simple truths of unity and heroism at its heart (not to mention that gut-punch of a twist back in 2008) were extremely influential on my wanting to be a writer – so to see it resurrected with some of the original characters is an absolute delight. I honestly thought I’d bought my last set back in 2009, a year before the original line was cancelled, and although I won’t be buying all that many of these new sets I will be picking up a choice few. This is going to be a tough year for my wallet, but I think we’ll make it.

Coming back to writing, I’m hoping this is going to be a big year for me and I’ve already set myself two major goals: to finish the manuscript for my first novel, and to finish the pilot script for the screenplay I’m developing. The former project is pretty interesting: it’s been in development since 2011 and started out as a play before it turned into a book, and then turned back into a play, then back into a book, and so on until I finally decided enough was enough, sat down last autumn and started hammering the thing out. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it won’t be amazing and I don’t expect it to be a bestselling masterpiece – it’s a debut novel, how many truly are? – but I believe that simply getting the thing written and sending it off to agents will prove to be a huge stepping stone for me. The latter is an idea I’ve only been working on for a little while but it’s promising, if I do say so myself. Even if it never gets picked up, I think it’s something I need to do.

There are numerous other creeper projects I’ll be developing this year, including a comedy play, some short stories and future books, including a detective novel, some psychological horror, a 20,000 Leagues-style adventure story and a fantasy saga encompassing, at present planning, about eighteen books(!). This is looking far, far ahead into the future, of course, so who knows what truly lies ahead? 2015, you mysterious little minx, we’re ready for you now.

In the meantime, here’s some Europe. Why? Because they’ve been having the comeback of the century and we should all be glad about that.

*Well, there are two other songs, Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin'” and Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One”, that I could review. I’m reluctant to give them any attention, though, because they both seem like they’d be a waste of time: Trainor’s career is showing all the telltale signs of one-hit wonderdom and Smith bores the life out of me.

Second Spin: Megadeth, “Risk”

Today I’m kicking off a new feature I call Second Spin, where I take critically- and publicly-maligned albums, films or whatever, give them a once-over and discuss whether they actually deserve their infamy. For the inaugural post I thought I’d go with a doozy of an item: the 1999 Megadeth album, Risk.

By the late Nineties people were already fed up with the legends of Eighties thrash for diverting from the aggressive speed metal that had made their name. Metallica might have struck gold (well, several-times platinum) with their eponymous 1990 album, but follow-ups Load and Reload did nothing for the fan base with their incorporation of different styles and sounds, further removing the band from its roots. By that point, though, Metallica had streamlined their original thrash metal sound to a smoother, less harsh hard rock with simpler song structures and a greater emphasis on melody and groove.

Megadeth took a similar approach in the early Nineties: after the thrash assault of 1990’s Rust in Peace, they went in a different direction for the 1992 follow-up, Countdown to Extinction. The material took a similar approach as Metallica did in regards to melody and groove while still retaining the band’s intrinsic heaviness and (again, much like Metallica) was a rather massive hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 and scoring sizeable hits with “Sweating Bullets” and “Symphony of Destruction”.

1994’s Youthanasia continued this process with an even greater focus on hooks and less on speed and aggression which, while still mostly successful, didn’t quite catch fire in the same way its predecessor did. By 1997 and the release of Cryptic Writings the complex thrash metal of their Eighties albums was very much gone, which naturally displeased their fans. It probably didn’t help, either, that Dave Mustaine’s gritty vocals had lost their original acerbic edge, despite improving greatly in terms of range and melody. Personally I actually prefer his vocals during this period, but this isn’t about what I think. Well, it kinda is, but… look, let’s move on.

By the end of the Nineties Megadeth wanted to do something different – and something different they did, with the release of their eighth studio album, Risk. That isn’t an arbitrary title, either: this is possibly the most experimental album Megadeth have ever put out, with flecks of alternative rock, world music and electronica cropping up throughout its run-time. For the most part, though, the songwriting itself is simply an extension of the melodic hard rock approach of Cryptic Writings – in fact, songs like “I’ll Get Even” or “Almost Honest” sound as if they’d fit in well on Risk. Not exactly business as usual, but hardly a Kid A style upheaval of their approach.

The contemporary reception wasn’t exactly cold, at least critically. The Los Angeles Times‘s Sandy Masuo gave it three stars out of four, stating that “richer arrangements (strewn with strings and sitar) add an exotic allure, but it’s sharper songwriting that gives this album more bite.” Entertainment Weekly‘s Laura Morgan didn’t mind it too much, either, giving it a B- grade while stating that “the headbangers prove their mettle when they modernize their bone-crushing rock.” Allmusic‘s Steve Huey was a bit less impressed, giving it two-and-a-half stars out of five (in what appears to be a relatively recent review, but it’s always hard to tell with Allmusic) though still commending it for being “more reflective, melodic, and conventional than the Megadeth of old [and its] well-played set of hard rock tunes suitable for metal and AOR fans alike.”

So in terms of critical reaction, you’d think Risk was a perfectly acceptable entry in the Megadeth canon. Ask the fans, though, and you get a very different impression: “risk worst megadeth album” was a recommended Google search and the general theme of the links it threw up seems to be a vehement hatred of the album: MetalSucks refer to it as “infamous” in its supposed badness, while SputnikMusic users gave it an average score of 2.3 from 1130 votes, indicating “average” reception (which doesn’t seem that bad to me, honestly, but what do I know?). Just have a look through some of the links in that search yourself – there are a few standing up for the record, but they’re in the minority.

The band themselves don’t seem too keen on it either: only “Crush ‘Em” was included on the 2000 compilation Capitol Punishment, while no songs from the record made their way on to 2005’s Greatest Hits. No material from Risk is performed live to this day, either, though an excerpt of “Prince of Darkness” is regularly used as an intro tape. One song in particular seemed to cause significant anxiety for Megadeth, and that would be the aforementioned hit single, “Crush ‘Em”, which was built on a pop songwriting structure and even had a disco-influenced bass-line underpinning it. It was Megadeth’s “I Was Made for Lovin’ You“, for better or worse. Even Mustaine himself doesn’t especially care for it – and yet, the video below has an approximate 92% approval rating, going by the likes alone, ergo somebody does. So what gives?

In all honesty, song-wise the album really isn’t that bad. Opener “Insomnia” is a bit weak, although its energy is undeniable and the Spanish guitar inflections are very tasty. Euphoric ballads “Breadline” and “I’ll Be There” are simply lovely with their alternative rock influence, showing just what Megadeth were capable of when they let themselves really stretch out. I’m also going to give props to “Ecstasy“, a personal favourite of mine which has a nice sparse vibe to it, some good contrast of light and heavy and a great chorus to boot. It’s essentially a pop song, especially given its little electronic touches, but a good one nonetheless. Even “Crush ‘Em”, however you might feel about disco music, has an infectious stomp to it, not to mention a terrific, if slightly cheesy chorus – but then hasn’t metal always been a little cheesy?

If anything I’d argue that the songs simply lack not only the inspiration of previous Megadeth material, if not in terms of musical variety then certainly in terms of song construction, but also the consistency. Cryptic Writings may have had a melodic hard rock sound far apart from Peace Sells, but at least it stuck with it throughout. It’s not all experimental, you see: the menacing, demonic march of “Prince of Darkness”, the catchy uppercut of “Seven” and the climactic crunch of “Time: The End” keep things heavy and violent, proving that Megadeth didn’t need speed to conjure wicked things in the minds of listeners. It’s also possible that teasing listeners with these heavier songs soured them further on the more varied material.

I have to admit that, on my first listen, I was disappointed as well, so it took me a little while to appreciate the record on its own terms. An initial gut reaction really can affect your impression of an album, and with metal fans as passionate as they are it probably accounts for such even more so – and of course, an album can’t just disappoint you or fail to grab you on first listen, it has to actively suck. It’s not that we don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get. To a disgruntled music fan, disaffection on the part of the listener becomes inadequacy on the part of the product.

Did the fact there was no big hit single from Risk hurt its long-term appeal as well, I wonder? All the previous albums had at least one: Countdown to Extinction had “Symphony of Destruction“, Youthanasia had “A Tout le Monde” (a ballad, it should be pointed out, and arguably as divorced from the band’s thrash sound as could be, released five years before Risk) and Cryptic Writings had “Trust“. The closest Risk had to a hit were “Crush ‘Em” and “Breadline” (both of which, to be fair, did reach an impressive #6 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in the US), and neither of them were what you’d call standard Megadeth material, so they don’t really mesh in with the band’s other hits. If “Prince of Darkness”, which Megadeth fans generally tend to have much warmer words for, had been released as a first single instead of “Crush ‘Em”, might the story have been different? (Also, you’d be surprised how much more willing critics are to give an album a positive reception if it has at least one big hit on it, even if the other songs aren’t up to scratch.)

Also – and this is just a personal theory – it seems as though there were some steps made on previous album Cryptic Writings to return to a faster, more aggressive sound that Risk didn’t quite pick up on. Songs such as “She-Wolf“, “Vortex” and “The Disintegrators“, along with the breakdown of “Use the Man“, are tighter and more visceral than pretty much anything on Youthanasia or Risk. Perhaps people didn’t care for what appeared to be one step forwards and two steps back? Maybe in that sense we should also consider Mustaine’s lyrics, which lacked the frothing polemic of earlier releases and focused on broader emotions and sensations. Metalheads like them some angry, after all.

I don’t know, you know. If anything the argument is there to be made that the songs don’t go far enough in terms of experimentation. The softer flourishes give the record more colour than the relative gloom of previous releases, but there’s still that heavy bedrock on which it all floats over. This isn’t an album to punch walls to but nor is it a piece of music you can really lose yourself in: it seems to be aware of just how far it should go and, as a result, never goes any further. Mustaine said himself that releasing the album under the Megadeth name probably hindered its chances from the off: “I could have put this out under a different name and many people would have loved it,” he claims in the liner notes of the 2004 remix/remaster, also claiming that “people who loved those types of songs wouldn’t be scared off by the name Megadeth.” Do you agree? I’m not sure, but I can definitely see his point. There’s also an amusing symmetry to be found in the fact that the band’s 2004 comeback album, The System Has Failed – widely hailed as a return to form and one of their best records in recent memory – was originally planned as a Mustaine solo effort.

Perhaps if they’d stuck to their guns and tried not to stick too close to their roots, they might have come up with something really out there? Sure, it would have annoyed even more hardcore fans (as if that’s ever a bad thing), but it might also have been a more respectable release just for its sheer cahoneys. As it is, though, there’s always going to be that crowd of metaldom, the purists that every genre has to put up with, who won’t accept anything beyond their narrow understanding of “true” metal; and even to this day people lament the end of the “real” Megadeth, even if, by their own odd logic, that band surely died about seven years before Risk came out.

As it happened, both Metallica and Megadeth tried to return to an earlier, harder-edged sound with their follow-up efforts: Megadeth released The World Needs a Hero in 2001 which, while not bad exactly, tries too hard to recapture the streamlined hard rock of Countdown and, as a result, never ends up being more than average; while Metallica’s St. Anger, released in 2003, aimed to replicate the band’s Eighties thrash sound but just ended up enraging their fan base even further (though there are, of course, various other factors to consider there, which I may have to go deeper into in another edition of Second Spin). By the millennium, it seemed, neither band could win no matter what they tried – but hey, at least neither of them went nu-metal, which is what fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax came dangerously close to doing with 1998’s Volume 8: The Threat is Real. I wonder why nobody ever brings that up? Is it because they’re all still trying to figure out what “Cupajoe” is supposed to be?

In the end, Risk was exactly that: a big leap for Megadeth that didn’t really pay off. Personally I think it gets too much flack for its experimentation and I could defend any one song on here if I liked (except perhaps “The Doctor is Calling“, probably the one song on Risk I never quite got), but the arguments against it have their points. Final verdict: a thumbs up from me, but that’s just my opinion.