D̼͓̋r̫᷾̑e̎ͥ̀a̫ͬ̀m̟̕͞ T᷾̕͟h̟̑͘e͔͕᷊a̰͊͆t̤̿͂e̘͐͗r̜̪̂ -̴̡̟ I̴͍̅m͐̀̀a̻ͭ͘g̱̳̑ě̟͍s̉᷁̾ A̹̿̋n̲ͤ͋d̈́̿᷀ W̡̞̪o̊ͣ̊r̺̈́̕d̻͞͡ș᷈͐ [͑͛͢P̘ͫ͠Ȃ̛̓R᷁ͣ͆T͗ͥ͝ T̖̂̚W᷁ͥ́O̬̎͠]̬̗ͣ

Here I am again to continue my review of the best album ever—or at least one of the best albums around!

  1. After the Metropolis rollercoaster, Under A Glass Moon greets us with a majestic riff that gets the layering treatment until we get to the chugga-chugga. We also get a nice dissonant bit before getting another rhythmic riff as the backdrop for the first verse. This is probably the smoothest song on the album in regards to weird meters: it sounds like a normal metal song until you try tapping your feet to it and realize the first verse is in 6/4! And while the chorus is strictly 4/4, the instrumental section tries some stuff like 11/4—you may not notice it at first, as it sounds like two bars in 4/4 followed by one in 3/4—and 7/8, one of those odd (as in opposition to even) meters that feels like a 4/4 meter that skips half a beat every bar. As a bonus, we get some other cheesy keyboards in the second verse!
  2. Wait For Sleep starts piano and pads, and stays there. I̭t᷉ àc͈t̂ủa͛l̓l̪y̔ a᷉c͌ṫsͣ a̰sͯ a͡ p̃r̶e᷿l͙uͨd̏e᷾ t̺ȏ tͬh̓e̝ nͮe͌x̱t̆ t͝r̄a͉c͗k᷄,̟ t̝͚ͬh͔͝ͅa̦̿͡t̖̉ͮ w̡᷾̈́i̺̿͑l̲̲᷀ḽ̷͗ r̓᷇᷇e̱̙͞u̙᷀ͅs̷̺̈́e̖͔͔ ṡ̘̃ő̙͆mͮ̈͝e͇ͯ͘ ȏ̮ͦf̧̦̹ t̪̪̾ḫ͇̰e͍᷿͒ m̵̺ͪo̰̭̹t̗̊͟i᷁ͦ͞f͚̀ͤs᷇ͪ᷄ f̙́͋o͉ͤ̚u͍͘͜n̢̹͋d͉̓͜ h̸̭̪e̛̖͐r᷀ͫ͒ë̥̱.̢͎ͦ T̳̃͟h͉͙̼eͭͭ͢ m̢̕͟͏̛̬͐͘͢ą̷̷̶͎̰̪ͭ͑ͦ͝i̽͏̷̷̙̪ͫ́᷀͜͞ň̶̥͠͡͠͞ ̨᷊᷁͂̕͟r̸̡̞͓ͥ̅͜҉҈į̸᷂̖᷃͏̵͏̼f̷ͦͮ͞͠f̶̸̗̩̦́̅̉̕͟͜ ̴᷊̈́ͩ̕͞ẁ̧̼͎͕̊̋̇͝͞͞a̸̴̧̜̤͋ͭ͘ͅn̸̸̍᷇̋t̵̷̨̘᷂̔́᷈̕͟͝s̷̷̷̴̹̊͑ͪ̿᷈͢ ̔͠m̡̡͓̋̐͜͝ē̷̴͕̦̦̕ ̬̀̅͜d̛᷃̒̏͞e͚̺̕͘͜a͍͒ͦ́᷉͘͡d̷̢ͤ᷀́͘͜͟͏ ̭͎̀ͧ̀͠a̡͎̘᷉̕p̗᷀́ͦ͡҉̲҃͜p̷̵̧ͫ᷾̀̕a̢̪᷃̋͡r̵̷̡͇᷂̩͑͘͞͠͞e̢̢̛̗͔̋̿͡ͅn̨ͨͧ́̀̄͟͠͞t̢͚᷃́ͬ̓̕l̢̽̎͏̤ͯͪ̀͘ÿ̵̶́̃͌̂ͩ̀͢͟͠.̶̡̡̹̜̥͎̑᷅͘͞.̢̡͙.̶̲̿͗̀ ̵̢᷁̓͘͠c̢̢̛̜̘͏̹h̷̵̄̾ͧ̋͘̕͝͠͏ẽ̛̲᷾͜ç̸̛̺᷾̃͛͘͜͢͡k̴̷̨᷄ͯ͜͜ ҉̜҅͑͢͞f̴̤͎́͢ơ̴̮͋̅͐̀̕͞ŗ̴̱ͯͦ͡͞ ̸͎͏ͬ̔͢y̴̵̴̴͇̤̬ͨ́o̧̡̐ͮ͡u͈̅͘͠ͅṟ̨̧ͧ͌s̶̛͊̐͜e̶̸̢̨̊͒͘l̢ͭ᷆̕͡f̶̶̨̧᷊̏͒᷄́͜͡:ͫ҉҅ͪ́̏͠
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Dream Theater – Images And Words [PART ONE]

Images And Words album cover

If you asked me what is the best album ever in my opinion, now I’d probably tell you something along the lines of “I can’t really pick one, there are so many different kinds of music and there’s no absolute best”. But if you really insisted on wanting a title from me, it would be Images And Words.

Released in 1992, the second album of progressive metal band Dream Theater is a milestone of the genre and it inspired many bands to follow in their footsteps. But if your stereotypical metalhead tried to approach this album they would be surprised to say the least, for it is way more progressive than it is metal. I mean, the heavy riffs are still there, but the context in which they’re placed is so markedly different from your typical metal song (nobody could probably see the cheesy saxophone coming in Another Day, for example) and throughout the album there’s a good deal of pop sensibility. And that’s remarkable, considering that the music in many occasions veers into unconventional time signatures and other weirdness. I was just as surprised as anybody when I couldn’t tap my feet to certain sections but the tune was still catchy nevertheless. And speaking of virtuosity, Dream Theater often get the criticism that they show off their instrumental prowess for the sake of it and at the expense of emotion; and while I totally agree with them when talking about some of their later efforts (I’m looking at you, Scenes From A Memory), it’s definitely not the case here. Every crazy solo has actually something to tell, and it never lingers past its purpose in the song.

I don’t like to talk about albums by going over them track by track, but if this album is so high in my personal chart it’s because it’s one of those no-filler albums, so you won’t regret it I promise!

  1. Pull Me Under is the only proper hit Dream Theater had, and their most well-known song. And it deserves all of it. The main riff (perfect to headbang on!) strikes you as something that could be in some weird time signature but it’s actually in 4/4: the odd feel is just drummer Mike Portnoy doing all he can to make it weirder, crazy fills and whatnot (that’s something he does all throughout the album, by the way). I especially like the bit right before the vocals kick in: snare and guitar use the same rhythm but the drums come a 16th note earlier. Brace yourself for the ending with the ominous Latin Shakespeare chanting and another surprise I won’t spoil you.
  2. This is where most listeners go WTF, and for good reason: yeah, Another Day is a cheesy 80s ballad with smooth jazz saxophone. It’s also a good performance by singer James LaBrie, and it gets a little more guitar-heavy in the second half. The solos here are definitely not a soulless display of playing ability.
  3. Take The Time is one of my favourites. It has the trademark “progressively add instruments” start, it gets straight to the heaviness and then BOOM! DISCO! Although the drums are a little crazier than a straight disco jam, the bass line can’t deny its origin. And LaBrie can’t deny he’s going after Michael Jackson here, just a little more operatic. This whole section would feel at home in Thriller, indeed. Don’t worry, the disco lasts only twelve bars and leaves space to heavier stuff, but before that notice how the section is in 6/4! And the following part of the verse is in 7/4, and the whole song really changes meter and tempo at every frigging section BUT IT’S STILL SO CATCHY! Another thing of note is the use of… sampling, of all things. And I’m not just talking about the snippet from Nuovo Cinema Paradiso coming right before the instrumental section. Right before the vocals first kick in, we get one after the other samples from Kurtis Blow, Frank Zappa and Public Enemy. Metal bands sampling hip hop?!?!?
  4. Surrounded is another of my favourites. It doesn’t hit as hard as Take The Time, but it’s got some lovely keyboards to compensate. After 80 seconds or so the band kicks in, and with it what I love the most about this song: in the 9/8 sections (told you this album was full of weird meters! It feels like there’s 4.5 beats in a measure) bassist John Myung plays only one note the whole time! It’s basically a pedal bass under a changing chord progression, although he changes octave sometimes to spice it up. Did I mention the beautiful keyboards?
  5. And here we come to the epic song, Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper. Another slow start with instruments entering one after the other (the first being one of those ridiculously 90s new age patches) leading into the bulk of the song. Here for the most part weird meter changes are limited to the fills at the end of sections, and the song relies mainly on arrangement to provide interest. But after the second chorus we get this little 5/4 bar acting as sort of a jingle of awesomeness telling us “here it comes the instrumental section”! The same jingle will appear after almost four minutes to announce the end of the section to lead into the epic finale. What happens in between is all the weird meters you could expect, all band members taking turns to the spotlight or sharing it for moments of awesomeness (like the video game music inspired run of guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Kevin Moore after the bass solo). All throughout the section there are little recurring motifs, like the two that separate different solos in the first half and the 6/8 riff working as the backdrop for some of the solos in the second half.

Metropolis‘ instrumental section is one of the few in this album that comes most close to being just a show-off for the musicians but it manages to never be boring, something that the following tracks on this album don’t manage to do as well. Probably it’s more a result of being overwhelmed by all the awesomeness in the previous five tracks: my brain at least can’t take any more music after witnessing the first part of this album. So I’d suggest you to listen to this album in two different sessions, leaving the last three tracks for another day. That’s why I’m splitting this review in two parts. See you next time for the second part of the track-by-track overview and other overall considerations on this album!

Nick Jonas – Levels

A turning point in the way I experience music was when I realized that I actually enjoyed listening to the Jonas Brothers. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, and it taught me to not trust too much what other people say about artists more known for stealing the hearts of little girls than for their music¹. But despite I had a soft spot for the three guys since 2009, I never managed to enjoy their attempts at solo ventures. Nick and Prince’s backup band? Suspiciously country-sounding. Joe? What a letdown of a chorus. Not even Jealous, which is probably the thing the world liked more from any of the three since 2008, managed to win me over and to me existed only to giggle about Nick’s falsetto and the ridiculously forced rhyme hellish/jealous.

But this, man. I first heard it on the radio during my first days in Montreal, when the airwaves almost managed to make me hate music by overplaying the same songs over and over again. It was a relief every time it came on. Then I Shazam’d it and WHAT? IT’S NICK JONAS? WAY TO GO PAL! There’s probably something about a cappella bass lines that is funny to me in a good way, and now that I think of it that element was probably inspired by the song everybody was inspired by this year, but Levels doesn’t feel at all like a ripoff. And don’t get me started on how the chromatic up-and-down melody totally fits the whole levels/elevator metaphor, I just love when songs make an effort to reinforce the lyrics with musical choices—and I’m starting to think that the synth pluck sound that appears on the first off-beat from the second part of the verse is meant to mimic an elevator bell. Actually, why don’t I just drop a score on you just to make the whole thing look cooler?

Score of Levels' bass line
Fig. 1: Can you see the levels?!? #overexcited

By the way, I just realized that this song employs modality, which is always a nice thing. The song as a whole stays grounded in the key of F, but uses different modes of the F key throughout to keep things interesting. The verses use the Mixolydian mode, that sounds just like a major scale but with a flattened 7th pitch, removing much of the tension that usually comes with what would otherwise be called the leading tone (being just a semitone away from the tonic, it tends to resolve towards it) and giving the scale some of the character of a minor mode while keeping the characteristic major third interval between pitch 1 and 3.

Score of Levels' verse
Fig. 2: I always wonder why nobody bothers to transcribe vocal ornaments, so I did it! To me, they’re just as important as the main melody, and songs just don’t sound the same without them. Well, ornaments are a performance detail and two people singing the same song won’t use the same embellishments, but here I’m transcribing Nick Jonas’ version and to omit his embellishments is making it look and sound dumber.

The chorus, on the other hand, switches to F minor (or, if we want to keep speaking in terms of modes, F Aeolian) with a twist: the underlying chord progression is made entirely of major chords—F, E♭, D♭, B♭ and A♭—whereas a minor progression without borrowed chords would require minor tonic, dominant and subdominant triads. The chords that don’t belong in F minor are F major and B♭ major, which are the tonic and subdominant function respectively². The vocal line underlines this by starting off the chorus on the third degree of the underlying F major chord, the pitch that makes a major chord major.

Lead sheet of Levels' chorus
Fig. 3: Transcription of the chorus.

Hey, I just wanted to say how groovy this song is and I ended up doing a compositional dissertation!


¹ That’s one of the reasons I didn’t jump on the Justin Bieber hate bandwagon when he first emerged before actually listening to his music. When I did listen to it, I didn’t fall in love but I didn’t find it bad either, and that was my opinion of him until he started being an entitled asshole in his public relations and Skrillex started doing “expensive sounding” things with his voice. He even managed to save a will.i.am song! Yeah, I’m conflicted about him. Sounds like a fine singer, but such a dick in real life. Oh, like my ex-favourite producer

² There are no dominant chords in this song, which is entirely built on plagal cadences that, just like the flattened seventh of the Mixolydian mode, prevent any possibility of leading tone tension. It’s important to note that the “imperfect” nature of the plagal cadence the Wikipedia article refers to is such only in the context of classical music: it’s been used so much in the popular music of the last century that it sounds just as resolutive as a so-called perfect cadence (V-I) to most people. In fact, one could make the point that blues-derived genres like R&B and hip hop (rock and especially jazz music witnessed a greater influence from Western art music idioms so for them the point is not as strong) are based more on the contrast between I and IV than I and V, as seen in the 12-bar blues chord progression.

Haruomi Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki & Tatsurō Yamashita – Pacific

pacific_blu-spec_cd2_314403-1

My discovery of vaporwave in February this year opened my ears to a lot of interesting music: not just vaporwave in itself, but also the sources from which the Internet’s Warhols tap for their trippy slowed down jams. And as weird is might seem, vaporwave unlocked something in my mind and now I find myself enjoying all kinds of incidental music and stuff meant to be put as background and left there. Some vaporwave circles have a fixation with Japanese music from the 70s and the 80s, before j-pop was even a thing. It was music I kinda knew in passing thanks to vintage anime soundtracks, but never explored in depth before then.

The LP I’m bringing to your attention today (yeah, that’s a download link) was made in 1978 in occasion of the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the CBS/Sony record label, and reunited the best session musicians Japan had to offer to make an album that would evoke the atmospheres of South Pacific islands, the kind of places Japanese people spend their vacations in. While the mention of session musicians could make you think that the people behind this are total nobodies, it turns out that got involved in this no other than the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the only Japanese band that managed to get so well known and influential in the West that most people don’t even remember it’s Japanese—and this is gold in a world where Asian music is often only recognized in light of its perceived “weirdness”. Add to the mix my yummiest find in this pop-jazz-fusion scene and you get some very nice tunes, perfect to zone out but that can also be listened to with focus.

New Dreams Ltd. Initiation Tape – Part One

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You find yourself in a dark room, sitting by the bed, looking into the darkness. You realize there’s a light source behind you, so you slowly turn around. There’s a window looking at a night city landscape. You stand up to take a better look, and you start walking around the room. Muffled piano chords ring in the distance. You look outside. A strange feeling fills your heart. It’s cozy, in a way. A voice echoes in your ears. You don’t want to ever leave. The initiation has begun.

What separates Vektroid from many of her imitators is how good she is at creating powerful atmospheres from the very beginning of an album. Here she opens the Initiation Tape, one of the first releases of the New Dreams Ltd. canon, with haunting piano chords and an unsettling pitch-shifted vocal. It should be kinda spooky, but the jazz feel and the analogue hiss makes it very intimate. Despite the sweet delivery, though, the words remind us of what we’re about to listen. This is not going to be an easy listening. Worse, it’s gonna be like dying. And the introductory lullaby gets cut short by a CBC title card followed by a noisy orchestral cue looped over and over as to become droning, pioneering a technique that will be used successfully by acts like Infinity Frequencies. It seems like the mood has reached a new, cozy plateau, but we’re mistaken again. We soon get dragged inside a TV promo. We even get what could very well be a phone-on-hold jingle or the introduction to an investigative serial. What the hell am I listening to?

The Initiation Tape is a study on the ugly. In tracks like drftrzzz / dstryrzzz, hydrocodone / prom night, you appeared / you didn’t, yr slave and rationalization long forgotten songs from the 80s are brought again to the light of day, looped and slowed down in a way that exposes their intrinsic ugliness. The guitars especially, when stretched out like this, reveal their empty glossiness and stink like burned plastic. Combined with the obnoxious pitched down vocals, it creates a claustrophobic feeling. Songs that many probably enjoyed at the time of release and then disappeared from public consciousness are forcibly brought to our attention in a way that reminds me of how Marcel Duchamp basically turned a urinal upside down and exhibited it as a piece of art, making us for the first time consciously reflect on them. Why they were forgotten? Will the songs that we enjoy at the present rot in the same way? On the other hand, other sections of the album indulge in legitimately beautiful and soothing short snippets like camaro, upper spheres of consciousness and album closer new life now! please, which are a nice breather from the overbearingness of some of the other tracks and also make us think of what this album is trying to tell us: wasn’t this supposed to be a mishmash of ugly loops and an intentionally awful record? After all, Vektroid herself said that the whole New Dreams Ltd. saga started as a social experiment on how bad you can make an album and still have people try to find a deeper meaning in it just to feel more hipster than thou (and if I’m writing this I probably fell into the trap as well). Why are we enjoying parts of this, so much as to make us overlook the obviously repugnant bits? This jarring contrast is especially clear in meditations save me o lord, where a gorgeous arpeggio synth figure is juxtaposed with a drawn out pitched down howl. It’s supposed to sound grand and holy, but it comes across just as fake as everything else. Yet it’s still beautiful in an awkward way. Go figure.

In a way that makes the Initiation Tape title kinda ironic in hindsight, in this album are showcased trends and techniques that will be reprised in vaporwave by her and other artists. Late night lo-fi, later perfected by Luxury Elite and her Fortune 500 label, is anticipated in timecop; by putting another, beautiful spin (almost Daft Punk-y in how it manages to create a totally different feel from the source material) on Toto’s Africa in psr41 and borrowing that album’s staple techniques in neu fatale, Vektroid pays homage to Chuck Persons’s Eccojams and marks it forever to her successors as the proto-vaporwave album. In the next installment of New Dreams Ltd. saga, the esc 不在 double album, Vektroid will expand on the concepts of exposed ugliness and naïve beauty explored in this album, respectively on Black Horse and MIDI Dungeon. In fact, those two albums, now redacted from Vektroid’s opus, will be later reworked together with this album and combined in the 2014 Isle of Avalon Edition of the Initiation Tape, which is actually the only one officially approved by Vektroid presently. The use of TV snippets and commercials is further explored on this album’s sister release, Fuji Grid TV’s prism genesis (another very good release that Vektroid sadly redacted), and upper spheres of consciousness anticipates some of the more ambient bits of Floral Shoppe.

While this album is not as pretty an introduction to vaporwave as Floral Shoppe is, the way in which explores and pushes the boundaries of cheesy sample choice and encloses in itself most of the trends seen in following vaporwave releases make it one of the first releases I’d recommend to everybody who wants to understand what vaporwave is and where it comes from. I strongly advise to listen to it in a dark room at night with view on a cityscape, it will all start to click.

Original Mediafire download link (thank God Vektroid didn’t remove it!)

YouTube playlist with some of the samples used

Psy – Daddy

After Gentleman (which stood out to me just for the ridiculous misheard lyrics you can do with it in Italian) and exorcist-worthy Hangover I had lost hope on Psy’s ability to reach Gangnam Style‘s heights again and thought that the best thing for him would have been to stop trying to woo Western audiences and concentrate on doing the silly songs Koreans love him for as if Gangnam Style never happened, because that song’s rise to most watched YouTube video ever was more due to it fitting and perpetrating the “weird Asians” stereotype to a T than to the song’s own merits—hey, it was a hilarious well-executed attempt at LMFAO with awesome dance attached, but it’s still just an attempt at LMFAO. That’s why I had a sigh of relief when I saw him doing exactly that (seriously, Napal Baji should get just as much attention, I loved seeing him having fun with brass and funk guitars), but it still didn’t prevent him to try capturing the West’s attention again on the side with this song.

AND THANK GOD HE TRIED. This is what Gentleman should have been. It starts thundery and big with a ridiculously badass Big Bang worthy Eurodance riff, segue into a neat combination of Gentleman’s bassline with a Gangnam Style reminiscing gliding figure (here courtesy of an ohsocurrent vocal sample), Gangnam Style’s synth fill gets an awesome successor, then the song sends you back in Eurodance territory and you start realizing that South Korea should get into Eurovision as soon as possible and send Psy there to loot their houses and violate their wives. After CL gets a timely cameo as part of Korea’s world domination plot, the drop arrives and you’re grounded. Where you would expect a stuttery statement Psy instead dons his best sexy (?) voice over a super slick EDM beat before destroying you in hilarity when he pitches up and down the “I got it from my daddy” line you were expecting from the beginning but never arrived and you had kinda forgot about. THIS. IS. A. FUCKING. BANGER.

Gangsta Psy GIF
This song in a facial expression

Still wondering about the sense of the “my papa was a superman” section, though. A CL verse would have been fantastic there. But there’s no reason to complain when the song overall stands out beyond its novelty element. This is just as good as Gangnam Style if not better, and I’m now more convinced than ever that YG should give Teddy some rest and let Psy produce songs for 2NE1 and Big Bang. And maybe CL’s American debut, who has by now reached Duke Nukem Forever status. Yeah, Hello Bitches didn’t speak to me (introducing a Korean “rapper”* to the world with a Middle Eastern beat? I get it’s a reference to I Am The Best and MTBD, but it’s been a little overdone for her now) and I’m worried that Skrillex and Diplo are leaving her the scraps while another Scooter Braun-managed dude reaps all the hip benefits.

*reading MTBD’s lyrics made me cringe and almost ruined the song for me. Then well, if Iggy Azalea managed to be relevant I guess CL can too.

Did Taylor Warn Boys Or Not?

Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn ya

We’re obviously talking about Blank Space, but what she exactly means here? Let’s dissect it: you might have heard a phrase like “don’t say I didn’t tell you it was a bad idea“, meaning that we told somebody that something was a bad idea, they didn’t listen to us and now are coming back to complain because it turned out badly as we predicted. Here Taylor is saying the same, but what she said is that she didn’t warn the boys. She admitted she didn’t warn them. So torture will be apparently, no excuses!

…or maybe I just suck at double negatives. I don’t really think the schoolboys from that Pink Floyd song were against “no education” after all.