Category Archives: Music

Lacuna Coil Conert Review

[Note: This article was originally published on July 17, 2009 on my new web site, www.zestfulcontemplation.com.  If you enjoyed this article and would like to read my more recent articles, please feel free to pay my new site a visit.  Thanks.]

Having managed to see Lacuna Coil live three times previously, it was refreshing to finally see them as the headlining act, rather than a support band.  With their June 6 performance at the Diamond Ballroom, the first in the North American leg of their headlining tour for their new album, they overtake Rob Zombie as the band I have seen the most times live.

This is not without good reason.

They are a fantastic band to see live.  They have a great stage presence and energy and, like all good live performances, it really shows through that these guys love what they’re doing.  Considering how heavy Lacuna Coil tends to tour, the fact that they still enjoy it and put on such a good show is pretty remarkable.

Going back to my Rob Zombie reference a minute ago, however, it is worth mentioning that seeing the two bands perform together twice is not the only connection the bands have with one another.  They also share a penchant for short set lists.

Having seen Zombie give the same one hour and fifteen minute on-the-dot set three times, I always came away satisfied but wanting more.  His concerts are full of enough energy, showmanship, and spectacle that their short length doesn’t come as a great detriment.  I always thought that his concerts would mark the low end of the length spectrum for full concerts, however.

Up until now, I was right.

Lacuna Coil performed for barely over one hour.  One hour and six or seven minutes, to be precise.  I won’t pull any punches here – had I not seen them live three times before, performing many of the same songs, this would have been incredibly disappointing.  Even though the ticket price was fairly low, after waiting for three hours through crappy support bands, one hour is just not enough for a headlining act.  Period.

Luckily for my own experience anyway, it only came as a minor disappointment because a missing fifteen minutes or so isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve seen them three times prior.

In this light, the fact that the concert was so damn much fun while it lasted presents the concert goer with a dilemma.  On the one hand, what’s there was so good that you might not care it was short.  On the other hand, it was so good that you would have given anything for just a few more songs to make it that much more fulfilling.

I’ll spare you too much detail about the support bands.  Suffice it to say I wish they had gotten out of the way for Lacuna Coil to play much earlier and none of them blew me away like Volbeat did opening for Nightwish at the same venue not too long ago.

Dommin opened and was somewhat unimpressive musically, but at least had decent stage presence and a humble, nice, approachable quality suitable for an opening band.

Kill Hannah was third and, while their music isn’t exactly my style, they impressed me a lot more than I expected them to.  They had a great on-stage persona, they seemed like really cool, down to earth guys, and they gave an energetic, enjoyable performance with a few songs that were much catchier than I expected.  Not sure I’ll be seeking out their music in studio form, but they were by far the best opener.  The green lasers mounted on the ends of their guitars were a nice touch.

Seventh Void was sandwiched in the middle of those two.  They sucked, quite frankly.  They came off as arrogant and trying way too hard to be cool.  Musically they were completely uninteresting to me.  Their songs seemed to go on forever and everything ran together into one long blur of uninteresting, mid-paced, generic riffage.  The crowd seemed to agree with me, as the place seemed rather subdued and bored when the other two openers actually got decent responses.  I even got the feeling a few people might have been there to see Kill Hannah as much as Lacuna Coil.

The Diamond Ballroom itself is a bit of a dump.  It’s located in the middle of nowhere, has a gravel parking lot, and what looks to be a large trash pile out back and a discarded, decaying old trailer off to the side of the place.

Still, the venue provides an extremely intimate atmosphere for live performances and the two shows I have seen there (Lacuna Coil and the aforementioned Nightwish show) will easily go down on my short list of favorite concerts.

As an added bonus, their sound seems to be mixed rather well, which is a nice change from damn near every other concert I’ve been too which either had sound level problems or was so loud it was distorted and unpleasant.  The Diamond Ballroom certainly keeps it loud, and perhaps uncomfortably so for its size, but the sound is good at least.  And as I choose to be a total square and wear earplugs during concerts (I make no apologies for my lameness here, by the way, as it is worlds more comfortable for me, not to mention safer) the volume wasn’t really a concern.

I do think I would have appreciated it if the place wasn’t running more than a full hour behind.  Call me crazy, but I consider it a little unprofessional when the advertised time for the doors to open is 6:00 p.m. and I finally get in at 7:15 or so.

I also got the distinct impression that perhaps the concert organizers had tried to pack just a little too much action into such a small tour.  Three warm up bands in a venue this size before a one hour set from the headliner just seems a little excessive.  The poor roadies were struggling to put one band on stage an hour.  There were no fewer than three full sound checks.  Lacuna Coil didn’t take the stage until just after 10:00, a full three hours after the advertised start of the show.
I’ll make no secret of the fact that this is probably another reason their short set didn’t bother me so much.  By the time everything was finally finished I was so exhausted that being able to go back to my car and actually sit down was like a little gift from heaven.  I don’t even think you have to be as horribly out of shape as I am to think that standing on your feet for five hours for a concert, most of that spent waiting for doors to open or bands to get set up, is more than a little tiring.

But, as I said, it was all worth it.  Lacuna are a terrific live band and I can’t possibly think of a better place to see them than in an intimate venue such as the Diamond Ballroom.  The band was having a great time on stage, the audience was loving it, and Cristina’s voice was there in full force, as impressive as it always is.  There was plenty of good crowd interaction and between song banter, but not so much that it slowed things down or got in the way.

As a huge Lacuna Coil fan, I was somewhat disappointed with their most recent album.  I thought it was far too repetitive and lacking the creative spark and energy that made their previous releases so memorable.  On that note, while new songs did comprise a decent portion of the short set, not only did they not overwhelm the old favorites, but they also work far better live than they do as studio versions.  The energy infused into the tracks by the band on stage adds new life to songs that were flat in the studio and the atmosphere of the concert means the repetition is both less noticeable and less important.

Actually, as much as I may have been disappointed with their new album, reflecting on the concert I think it was actually refreshing that they played a good number of the new ones.  Perhaps a product of being so short, their set list consisted of nothing I hadn’t seen them do live before outside of the new tracks (and one old slower tune, Entwined, that I will admit to not actually having recognized at the time as I don’t listen to their oldest material much).  Not seeing another old favorite or a slightly different lineup other than the bare essential hits they’ve been playing at every concert they’ve given for such a long time is a little disappointing, but hey, don’t fix what isn’t broken.  All the songs I had seen them perform before were still as full of energy, excitement, and fun as the other times I’ve seen them, and perhaps even better due to the small venue.

I stand by my assertion that, gripes and all, it is one of the best concerts I have been to.  Lacuna Coil is a band tailor-made for a small venue like this and it was fantastic to finally see them in their element in a headlining gig.  They seem to be a very down-to-earth group and this really carries over into their shows, even on a larger scale, but especially in such a small venue.  It just feels like a bunch of friends getting up on stage and rocking the hell out because that’s what they love to do.

If you ever get the chance to see them, do it.  You won’t regret it.  I’ve seen them four times and I sure haven’t.

Side Note: Whist at this concert, I was lucky enough to experience first-hand a pretty healthy majority of the variety of concert-goers featured on Cracked.com’s list of 7 Obnoxious Assholes that Show Up at Every Concert.

Set List:

To the Edge
Fragments of Faith
Swamped
I Won’t Tell You
Not Enough
Fragile
Entwined
Closer
Daylight Dancer
I’m not Afraid
Enjoy the Silence

Encore:
Heaven’s a Lie
Spellbound
Our Truth

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A Magical Musical Obsession

[Note: This article was originally published on July 15, 2009 on my new web site, www.zestfulcontemplation.com. If you like this article and would like to read my newer material, please feel free to visit.  Thanks.]

That rarest of wild beasts, a new Rammstein single was leaked onto YouTube last night in what one can only assume was a tremendously early fashion, causing all sorts of commotion among fans, at least one fan web site to close their forums (“due to piracy” their site states – wish I had been awake to see what happened there), and undoubtedly some very panicked members of Rammstein’s management – and possibly the band themselves.

But as much as I would like to gush about the new single, or describe it and how excited I am about what it might mean for Rammstein’s music, or, even better yet, repost it myself and get into loads of trouble, I’m not going to do any of those because that’s not what this story is about.

Listening to this new single last night has only reaffirmed what I have already long known – this band holds a very special place in my heart.

I know that sounds horribly cheesy, and it is, but I don’t mean that in some sort of obsessed stalker fashion.  What I mean is simply that there is no other band that I hold in quite the same regard as Rammstein and I wouldn’t give that relationship up for the world.

The key to my special feelings about this band lies in the fact that they were a formative band for me.  They were one of the few, the key, the building block bands that defined my musical tastes when I was younger.  They struck a chord with my tastes so strongly that it almost feels as if every other band I’ve ever listened to is somehow judged against their sound.

I don’t even mean to say that Rammstein are the most talented band around or that they make the best music ever. Simply because my biased ears tell me that is true doesn’t mean it’s true for any more normal person.

That’s exactly what I love about this musical relationship, though – unlike every other band I listen to, I seem to be relatively incapable of objectivity when it comes to Rammstein.  I just love them.

There is no other band I listen to, out of the many occupying my iTunes library, that gets me anywhere close to as excited as I get when hearing new Rammstein music.  It is a rare experience indeed, as Rammstein is certainly not the most prolific of bands, but that just makes it all the more special.

Listening to new music from the group, such as the track making the rounds last night, produces a feeling of pure joy in me unmatched by no other entertainment experience I’ve ever been a part of.  I’ve long wished that I could find another band like Rammstein, simply because I wish to experience such musical bliss more often.

As much as I love letting my analytical mind do its thing, when you’re as hyper-critical about everything as I am, it’s wonderful just to sit back and let the happiness wash over you when hearing music for once.  I don’t have to worry about why I like it.  I don’t have to worry about whether anyone else will like it or why or why not.  I just take in the churning industrial goodness with a big, goofy grin on my face.

Sure my analysis will come eventually, even for a band I place on such high a pedestal as Rammstein.  Unlike with just about everything else, however, it will only come with time.  Once the music has thoroughly sunk in, once the music has ceased to be “new”, once every note of the music has been locked into my brain, and once I can listen to it without said big goofy grin on my face, then and only then will I begin to analyze it like I do everything else.

But this won’t make me like it any less.  In fact, it may simply serve as a way to extend my enjoyment.  If I can no longer smile because it is new, then I can smile because it is different and there are details to pick out and analyze and compare.

I realize that some may find the level of dorkiness of such a strong, irrational obsession for one band simply off the charts.  I completely understand this reaction, but I make no apologies.  I wish everyone could have such a strong affinity for a band, as it is difficult for me to think of anything at all that brings as much instant, irrational, sweeping, total joy as hearing new Rammstein music, as last night served to prove.

Everyone deserves the chance to be as stupidly happy as I am during those fleeting moments.  It’s a feeling I truly wish I could share.  It’s a feeling I truly wish got the privilege of experiencing more often.  More than anything else, it’s an experience I greatly cherish.

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Death = $$$

This is definitely not the first time I’ve seen this trend (I remember it with George Carlin specifically, as one example) but, as it turns out, death is a really, really good marketing move.

Only works once though.

Honestly I had little to no affection for his music and I thought he was more than a little weird, but he was an icon that deserved to live far longer than 50 years. Hell, everyone deserves to live far longer than 50 years, I don’t care who you are.

I only hope, for the sake of his families and true fans, that his music is remembered over the scandals and strangeness of the 90s. I doubt it will be, but I hope I’m wrong.


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Review: KMFDM – Blitz

Once again a KMFDM album manages to sneak up on me and surprise me after I had my mind all nice and set up to hate it.

I’m not sure why this happens so regularly with KMFDM albums for me. It’s not like KMFDM drastically revamps its sound very often. Going on 25 years now they still sound more or less in the same ballpark as where they started. You would think that as a long time fan this would be a situation where no great amount of thinking should be required to decide my position on new releases.

I think my initial coldness toward Blitz actually stems from Tohuvabohu, their previous album. Tohuvabohu was surely the best album when taken as a whole that KMFDM has produced in quite some time, possibly ever. From start to finish there are fewer low spots than normal and the entire production just seems more cohesive and energetic than some of their other more recent material.

KMFDM has two “personalities”, if you will. One is their more guitar-driven industrial metal style as shown off so fantastically on Tohuvabohu. The other is a dance-floor chic electronic industrial style that KMFDM really haven’t dabbled in with this level of purity since perhaps their Symbols album in 1997.

As a followup to Tohuvabohu, the long running masters of the Ultra Heavy Beat have decided to give this electronic style another go and, quite frankly, it wasn’t what I wanted out of Blitz at first.

After finally giving it a good number of plays and time to sink into my brain, I think Blitz has managed to hook me. I just about gave up on it, but I now think it has what it takes to be called a solid album. What it doesn’t do is master its chosen style as well as Tohuvabohu did.

The album’s biggest failing is not any one specific element, but rather a general absence of “kick” – that all-important spark, the spitting anger and venomous beats that drive the best KMFDM songs. In its attempt to go back to basics, the band has not only thrown out some of the layers of complexity that had been building up in their more recent work, but they have also managed to lose some of the aggressiveness that had become so addicting in their music. A chunk of vital intensity seems to be missing here.

The Beat isn’t so much Ultra Heavy here. Maybe calling it the Moderately Intense Beat would be more appropriate this time around.

A lot of this might stem from the fact that much of the album was reportedly made by lead singer and frontman Sascha Konietzko with little aid from the rest of the band. The sheer synth dominance demonstrated on most tracks lends credence to this. What made Tohuvabohu so great was the way the whole band had finally started to gel as a team. The days of the “rotating door” policy at KMFDM were over. The lineup had stabilized and after a few albums to find their footing they really got into the groove and knocked one out of the park together.

With Blitz, much of this has been thrown out of the window. There is little evidence of many of the band members on the album, save for singer Lucia Cifarelli’s still great vocal performances and some sparse guitar work that usually feels more utilitarian than inspired. Sascha and his synth dominates and the final product feels a little lifeless without the group cohesion that made the last album so great. It is telling that one of the strongest tracks on the album, Strut, is also the one that seems to most fully involve the entire band (not to mention guest singer Cheryl Wilson, who lends a distinctly “Juke Joint Jezebel” vibe to the track with her wonderful performance).

There’s just no comparing most of the cuts on this album to the stern-voiced intensity of Free Your Hate, or the aggressive, multilayered masterpiece of Tohuvabohu’s title track.

At least the album starts out strong, as almost all of the best tracks are squished together in the first half.

Sticking both of the “experimental” tracks in the middle of the album was a questionable decision. People of the Lie and Being Boiled are both interesting to various degrees, but they disturb the flow too much placed so close together. People of the Lie feels a tad bland but is serviceable as a pace changer and Being Boiled is certainly interesting (and it’s undoubtedly amusing to hear Käpt’n K calmly chant, “Listen to the voice of Buddha”), but it doesn’t really stand up to some of KMFDM’s other recent cover songs.

The pace picks up after its drag in the middle with the aforementioned gem Strut, but things start to go a little astray again after that. Bitches is an amusing song where KMFDM once again makes fun of themselves and pretend to be money-grubbing evil bastards, but why anyone would choose to play this uninspired take on the theme over the brilliant “anti”-KMFDM anthem Sucks I have no idea.

Me & My Gun does provide a nice and needed end-of-album shot of energy in a song that, like the album itself, has grown on me the more I listen to it.

Blitz’s final note is sadly a little sour. Take’M Out is a slow, meandering track that not only fails to go anywhere, but is also fairly generic. It begins with air raid sirens for heaven’s sake (and the song’s not done with them after the intro either). I like a good air raid siren and all, but I think we can all agree they’re a tad overused gimmick in music these days. This mediocre closer is especially disappointing after the scathing Auf Wiedersehen from Hau Ruck and the unique, catchy Bumaye from Tohuvabohu provided such good closers to their respective albums.

That’s not to say that the whole album goes down like curdled milk. While none of the album’s best tracks bring much new to the table, after 25 years of existence it would be a little foolish to berate KMFDM for this now. Bait & Switch, Davai, Never Say Never, Potz Blitz! and Strut can all safely be added to any fan’s frequent playlist. Plus, while a decent number of Blitz’s cuts may fall a little flat, there are no outright stinkers present, making the album fairly listenable from beginning to end.

Perhaps with another album or two in this more minimalist electronic style under their belts, KMFDM will manage to turn out a dance floor masterpiece on the same tier as their recent metal gem Tohuvabohu. Hau Ruck was basically in the same position as Blitz – a good album that lacked a certain spark and energy that makes it now feel mediocre next to its more accomplished follow-up, Tohuvabohu. Perhaps someday Blitz will get its Tohuvabohu.

Ultimately the variety Blitz brings to the table is probably more important than being the best thing the band has ever done. We now have a different kind of album to like; a modern update to a style KMFDM hasn’t touched for ten years or so. It may not be exactly what I would have wished for, but it’s a better outcome in the end than stretching Tohuvabohu’s style too far and giving me too much of a good thing.

Perhaps its fitting that on their 25th anniversary KMFDM should produce an album that so clearly harkens back to the roots of the band in a way that many of their recent albums have not. Whether this is good or bad will depend heavily on the individual listener’s tastes. For what it is, Blitz is a decently-crafted slab of KMFDM’s classic sound with a few chinks that probably shouldn’t deter any fan from picking it up.


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Review – Skold vs. KMFDM

The idea of Tim Skold collaborating once again with KMFDM is exciting. Two old friends together again.

Even the concept of the album itself is unique. Every track would be created by one half of the pairing, then traded to the other for a different take on the material. The end result would then be more than a full album’s worth of material, giving both KMFDM and Tim Skold plenty of time to showcase their unique styles.

Unfortunately what is fascinating in concept is thoroughly snooze-inducing in execution.

KMFDM is no stranger to albums that are a little longer than they probably should be, but Skold vs. KMFDM feels like an album of rejected B-sides that weren’t good enough to make it on a compilation of already mediocre B-sides.

The potentially interesting competing personalities idea is almost completely unrealized. Most of the full tracks are the same style of generic, plodding electronic/dance/industrial and show no sign at all of the person behind them.

The album’s biggest failing, however, is the “interludes”. Quite frankly, they’re a joke.

Instead of being alternate versions of existing songs, the vast majority of them just sound like electronic, atmospheric white noise. Only one of them is over two minutes long, but you’ll quickly grow appreciative of that because there’s not a single one of them that’s worth listening to.

Calling any of them a “song” would be vastly stretching the definition. There’s usually little to no beat, no tune, no melody, no lyrics, no actual structure, anything catchy, or anything remotely appealing about them.

You know those little short, pointless atmospheric interludes that some bands like to throw in the middle of their albums because they think it changes the pace a bit or adds variety or something? The miniature not-songs you’ll listen to once and then skip because they add nothing to the album, totally screw up its flow and pacing, and have nothing appealing about them at all? The tracks that basically have no reason to exist except for being filler, giving the band an excuse to fiddle around with their shiny computer programs, and possibly adding that nice little bit of pretentiousness to the whole affair?

Imagine an album with one of those obnoxious things in between every single track. I dare anybody to get into the flow of this album. Hell, I dare anybody to find the flow of this album. It’s an impossible endeavor. These needless wastes of time totally ruin anything even resembling momentum this album could have ever hoped to have.

Not that it had much chance of gaining traction with the listener in the first place, seeing as how even the majority of the full-length tracks are forgettable. Even the most well-realized songs on this album could be bested by some of KMFDM’s more mediocre efforts.

And may the higher powers above help us, KMFDM has now been involved with a track that uses Auto-Tune. Error 404 is almost sickening. The thing sounds like an escaped Eiffel 65 song or something. Slow and plodding just like most of the rest of the album, with the added bonus of sometimes cringe-inducing lyrics and that abhorrent vocal effect grating against the eardrums in the chorus. This song is a prime example of why these folks shouldn’t try to do ballads. Yuck.

Bloodsport is the sole appealing cut of the entire album. It has a great beat, catchy chorus, and most of the other makings of a pretty decent KMFDM song in their purely electronic dance style. Find this one song somewhere and add it to your collection, but don’t bother with the rest.

That’s not to say absolutely everything else here is terrible. Why Me, Love is Like, A Common Enemy, and Alkohol are all varying shades of listenable.

But that just brings us back to the problem with the album as a whole. I’m not sure whether KMFDM wanted to do something new and experimental with this release and failed at innovating, or if they were just trying to go back to basics and failed at making it interesting, but it’s one of the two.

Not only does this album fail at bringing anything new to the table, it doesn’t even do generic very well. Even its biggest successes are drastically overshadowed by so much of the band’s other work that Skold vs. KMFDM is almost laughably pointless for all but the most fanatically die-hard fans.

It’s truly a shame. I was looking forward to what this unique concept could bring to the table. All I found in the final product was a lot of boredom and wasted potential. KMFDM’s 25th anniversary deserves a better celebration than this. Let’s hope Blitz can bring it, though I’m not as hopeful of that prospect as I once was.


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Review – Captain Dan: From the Seas to the Streets

Infamous pirate rapper Captain Dan is back with his Scurvy Crew in tow for another album full of cannons, wenches, rum, and gold. But does his latest adventure live up to past outings, or has the old captain finally run out of amusing chanties to throw our way?

When I was listening to the iTunes previews for the songs in “From the Seas to the Streets”, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to purchase it, I was disappointed with my initial 30 second glimpses. They didn’t seem to contain those same, accessible, catchy beats that made Captain Dan’s version of rap music entertaining even to someone like me, who traditionally stays away from the genre.

Frankly, it worried me. I didn’t want to lose my Captain Dan. I didn’t want him to turn into some overly serious act, interesting only to those heavily invested in the genre, more a parody of his former self than the genre he was originally taking off of.

Thankfully, he has avoided that fate.

Perhaps some of my initial worry was just a product of iTunes choosing the wrong 30 seconds to demo, but I think there’s more to it than that.

After springing for the full album in blind faith that Captain Dan wouldn’t do me wrong and subsequently listening to it all the way through, I realized I had been unfair during my preview. I was listening specifically for those overly catchy hooks and, yes, they are perhaps less obvious on the whole than on previous albums.

What’s gained in their place is greater variety and maturity (although I hesitate to use that particular term with this group for some reason) in song construction. It’s not less accessible, and certainly no less catchy, but it relies less on the overly obvious hooks of yore to achieve its goal this time around.

In another major step forward, more than on either of their previous albums I can listen to the whole thing all the way through without wanting to skip anything – either because of a joke that got tired, a hook that got old, or a song that was just never all that good in the first place. The album is strong all the way through – a notable accomplishment for any band, much less a “novelty” act like this one.

Overall, far from being significant downfall for the rapping pirate like I had at first feared, this is, on the whole, his strongest work yet.

Even the previously abysmal (but pathetically amusing) British rapper is decent this time around. They must have given him some serious lessons, because it’s a huge (and welcome) improvement.

This is also the first Scurvy Crew release where no two tracks really sound the same, even on first listen. The variety really is much appreciated. It makes it much easier to play the whole thing from start to finish without getting bored.

Admittedly they do retread a lot of the same themes. I mean, they’re rapping about piracy, there’s bound to be some overlapping topics now and again. That said, none of the tracks feel especially tired or flat. I already had my finger on the skip button when “Chests O’ Plenty” rolled around, threatening another strained take on the “oh, aren’t women and prostitutes just dandy” theme that I had learned to skip consistently on their previous two albums. Too much actual rap theming and not enough pirate in those particular cuts for my liking, I guess.

Imagine my surprise when I found that I actually loved the track. Euphemisms and puns abound and plenty of laughs are to be had here. It strikes the right balance between sexy, funny, pirate, and rap, and doesn’t stray too far toward any of the individual directions.

I’m not accusing “From the Seas to the Streets” of perfection. I’ll probably start skipping “That’s How We Row” before too long and I’m already not overly fond of “Diggin’ for Gold”. Still, the tracks aren’t poorly done. They just don’t resonate with me as much as others on the album do. Both are perhaps a tad minimalist for my tastes.

A couple of the tracks are modern rap takes on traditional pirate chanties and, let me say, this is a brilliant move. They change up the pace and provide amusing takes on what are sure to be familiar tunes to most listeners.

To even further raise the variety bar, they invited a couple of female guest rappers for “Ladies in Scarlet” to sing about how the better gender experiences life on the high seas.

Overall, wherever my worrying first impression came from, it was certainly a flawed one. This is one captain who has only improved with age. His third album has greater variety in rhymes and rhythms, more polish than ever before, far fewer duds than its two predecessors, and just as many catchy hooks and accessible head-bobbers to draw in those those not into rap that doesn’t happen to be fronted by a pirate.

Rap fans, pirate fans, humor fans, and those that just like a catchy beat should not hesitate to pick this one up. Nobody does the buccaneer technique quite like Captain Dan.


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t.A.T.u. – Minus the Blippy

When a band decides to pursue the path of change with a new album release, the trail is always fraught with danger.  It seems that t.A.T.u. have attempted to brave this tricky task with their newest album, Happy Smiles (or Vesyolye Ulybki for those of you who can’t read Russian and would rather look at a jumble of incomprehensible letters than read the outlandishly stupid English title).  The end result, despite the stupid name, is a more serious and mature effort than their previous albums, but one also lacking the poppy fun that was their signature.


There is a part of me that can see the good in this change.  It’s something new.  It’s no longer needlessly overproduced.  They have slowed the tempo, delving into a more minimalistic, melodic style.  It is, dare I say it, (slightly) more unique than their generic techno-pop of old.

t.A.T.u. actually manage to sound human on this album.  Being able to tell a real, live female is singing the tracks is a major shift from the computer-aided fakery I was used to from them.  That’s not to say the outside aid has disappeared from the vocals, because it hasn’t, but it’s less obvious, obnoxious, and ever-present than before.

For better or worse (which is to say, better), the duo’s trademark high-pitched caterwauling has also disappeared in favor of a lower-key (again, more human) approach.

On the other hand, that old generic techno-pop of theirs sure was catchy.  This new material seems to have lost a little something by comparison. Happy Smiles is somber and minimalistic.  Their first album was largely electronic instrumentation only, just like this one, but it was blippy.  They’ve stripped all of the blippy out of this release.  What’s left is more mature, but less fun.


Happy Smiles is bookended by its most memorable pieces. Beliy Plaschik and You and I hold up the front lines as the first two songs on the album, as well as the only two that really even remotely resemble prior albums.  Indeed, You and I fulfills the requisite role of the new version of the All the Things She Said/All About Us formula, and it succeeds dutifully, almost managing to fade into mediocrity, but the changes to come on the rest of the album lend it a greater importance than it might have otherwise had.

Vremya Luny, placed second to last, provides something different.  The sound is almost rock with even a tinge of industrial.  t.A.T.u. has used guitars before, particularly on their second album, but this has a different feel to it.  It’s a welcome and highly listenable change, marking one of my favorites on the album, though it probably would have been better served earlier in the lineup to give the plodding pace a little kick in the pants.


I will freely admit that I tend to be biased against slower music, but I did enjoy a lot of these tracks despite their slower nature.  I’m not sure how much I’ll end up going back to the album as a whole in the long run, but there are some beautiful, well-done songs here.

Still, as a whole, the disc needed some pep to it.  It could have used more songs like Vremya Luny.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, but energy is hard to come by and somewhat unevenly distributed when it does appear.  The album drags by the end as a result.  The severe minimalism of most of the tracks doesn’t help, either.  Even just a song or two closer to their older style might have livened the proceedings up a fair bit.

Happy Smiles is a change that is handled well and ultimately manages to impress, but fans of their prior work will feel a distinct void where the peppier, livelier tracks used to be.  What’s here is good, but some otherwise memorable tracks are lost in a middle section that’s too flat for too long.


Happy Smiles, oddly, is not a happy disc, choosing to slow things down and introduce more mature, melodic elements.  It works better than I would have thought, but I still can’t help but miss the catchy tunes I liked so much from their first album.

What can I say?  I miss the blippy.

And seriously, what the hell is up with that cover?  Really now, t.A.T.u.  That’s just hideous.

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