Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound


Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Carpark/Wichita (2017)

I’ve got to admit, initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of Cloud Nothings’ new album Life Without Sound. I’d even go so far as to say my first impression was anxious disappointment. “It’s so clean,” I thought. Smoother. Slower. More subdued. And lacking the same threat of imminent rhythmic violence pulsing through the angsty Cleveland, Ohio indie rockers’ 2014 album Here and Nowhere Else.

I wasn’t begrudging Cloud Nothings their success. They worked their arses off touring Here and Nowhere Else. And naturally, this time around, they were always going to sound bigger, bolder and more expensive. But frontman Dylan Baldi’s voice sounds unfamiliar early on, lacking the same desperate rasp and emotional hints of madness I’d come to expect. For lack of a better word, Cloud Nothings sound more… “mature.” Contemplative, that’s it.

But track four, “Darkened Rings,” brings the roof down on that theory. Baldi’s voice sounds raw again. Deeper. Less Ben Gibbard, more Kurt Cobain. And drummer Jayson Gerycz slips back into the busy fills and frantic, aggressive rhythms he brought to Life Without Sounds’ predecessor. It’s a stark, sudden reminder.

After that, things mellow out again, but the melodies and hooks gain momentum and personality. “Modern Act” is an instant classic. A quirky, thoughtful indie rock jam with a bleeding punk rock heart and a chorus that’s catchier than nursery rhymes. Baldi’s voice sounds more natural. You can almost feel his breath in your headphones again, yet the hooks are still poppy enough to infiltrate your brain. “This is more like it,” I thought, as broody, emotional banger “Sight Unseen” builds to its explosive conclusion.

Then penultimate song “Strange Year” heads out in a slower, grungier, more kicking-and-screaming direction that sounds a million miles away from the first three tracks. Before album closer “Realize My Fate” comes on like a funeral procession, as Baldi tackles his own mortality with chugging rhythms, dark melodies, death-marching toms and a mantra that gives way to desperate screams in the dark. It’s an intense, abrupt and final way to bring things to an end.

Life Without Sound definitely peaks towards the middle, where it blends the sweet pop sound of the first few songs and the gutsy, angst-ridden malaise of Here and Nowhere Else perfectly. But there’s enough going on to get into your head, get into your blood and make you feel what they’re feeling.

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toyGuitar – Move Like A Ghost

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toyGuitar – Move Like A Ghost
Fat Wreck Chords (2016)

I love toyGuitar frontman Jack Dalrymple; from his fuzzy, indie-punk guitar riffs and old-fashioned ’70s crooner rasp, to his perfect long hair and denim jacket, San Francisco swagger. It’s all good.

In my opinion, Dalrymple’s previous band Dead to Me peaked on their 2008 EP Little Brother. And when he left, none of his replacements had the same charisma. The same infectious, magnetic personality. Luckily, Move Like A Ghost is soaked in it.

Hot on the heels of toyGuitar’s catchy as fuck debut full-length, 2015’s In This Mess, Move Like A Ghost features six hip-jangling new anthems, which I’ve listened to on repeat for days now. Dalrymple’s timeless garage-rock, pop-punk flair is in full-swing on the EP. And in many ways, it’s the follow up to Little Brother we didn’t get to hear – yet, by the sound of things.

By now, toyGuitar’s really nailed their sound down – like Charles Bronson booby trapping a house. There’s jangly, up-tempo rock ‘n roll jams, perfectly crafted slower tunes and more hooks than a ’90s horror movie. The band sounds like a tight outfit, and Dalrymple’s groovy melodies are perfectly backed by drummer Rosie Gonce, bassist Paul Oxborrow and guitarist Miles Peck, who seem to realise they’ve got something special (and allow him to thrive). Gonce’s party-on drumming suits the band’s sound perfectly; never stepping on any toes but getting toes to step.

More than anything, Move Like A Ghost sounds like a good time. A party you’d love to snag an invite to. Short, sweet and memorable. In truth, toyGuitar cram a lot into their 13 minutes. It’s a total trip. A mixed bag of bouncy, in-your-face lightning bolts and swirly slower jams. Dark. Entertaining. And uplifting. All at once. Ending with “Turn It Around,” a “cathartic” Dalrymple ode to his former One Man Army and Re-Volts bandmate Heiko Schrepel, who, sadly, died in 2015. My only complaint is that it’s too short…

Moose Blood – Blush

moose-blood-blush
Moose Blood – Blush
Hopeless/No Sleep (2016)

At first, I wasn’t blown away by Kent powerhouses Moose Blood’s new album Blush. In truth I checked them out because I’d seen their name around – a lot – and it’s a cool band name. But instead of the hairy, red-blooded mountain men I was expecting I got sensitive, well-groomed dudes in skintight jeans, glasses and no socks.

I’ve used the word “emo” to describe Moose Blood to friends. More The Starting Line than My Chemical Romance, though, with a similar, well-articulated English-accent rasp to London’s Apologies, I have None. And sure enough, the catchy, emotionally wrought pop jams grew on me big time.

The most striking thing about Blush is its sincerity. It’s likeable, easy to relate to and contagious, and the more you listen, the more memorable the songs seem to become. Frontman Eddy Brewerton’s lyrics are honest, heartfelt, reflective and full of feeling. And I really like lead guitarist Mark Osbourne’s smooth, super melodic doodles, which compliment the brooding power ballads perfectly.

Sometimes, Blush does cross over into Counting Crows territory, which is when I hit the skip button. But it got under my skin. I keep coming back to it.

Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate

descendents - hypercaffium spazinate
Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate
Epitaph (2016)

We had to wait 12 years, but the world finally has a new Descendents album. And depressingly, the band that didn’t want to grow up finally has. Then again, earlier this year, frontman and biochemist Milo Aukerman told Spin magazine that he’d quit working for chemical giant DuPont, to “try this whole music-as-a-career thing,” for the first time, at the age of 53.

From the first few seconds of opening track “Feel This” to the last of closer “Beyond the Music,” Hypercaffium Spazzinate purrs with raw rhythmic power. “Lead” bassist Karl Alvarez is a monster, punctuating the album with incredible, unmistakably finger-style flourishes. Backing him up, death-cheating drummer Bill Stevenson is truly one of a kind – such a unique, unchained and powerful style, that sounds surprisingly modern and in-touch as well.

Despite the wait, Hypercaffium Spazzinate doesn’t waste time on overindulgence – in fact, track five, “No Fat Burger,” is a grease-free ode to moderation and reeling it in for longevity. It’s no-nonsense; the perfect combination of Descendents’ influential brand of abrupt, geeky hardcore meets pop punk, with reflective, thoughtful, emotional lyrics and catchy melodies.

Song by song, Hypercaffium Spazzinate reveals how staggeringly influential Descendents have been, on everyone from Lagwagon and NOFX to Green Day and Blink-182. And even now, 34 years after their first studio album Milo Goes to College, they sound vital and alive. The lyrics are pensive and reflective, with topics ranging from death and illness to friendship, brotherhood, looking back and, ultimately, love. Everything you’d associate with getting old and lives well spent.

My favourite song, “Without Love,” is an instant classic; relevant, pertinent and understatedly beautiful. “Shameless Halo” is another standout, with the kind of rich, layered, catchy melodies made famous by L.A. punk rock legends Bad Religion. And songs like “On Paper,” “Victim of Me” and “Fighting Myself” keep Hypercaffium Spazzinate bubbling at a high-level.

Of course, there’s still time for an angry Aukerman to rage against the government, only this time, as a parent, furious with the limiter forced on his son, who was diagnosed with ADHD. It’s also interesting to see how well shared the credits are, with lyrics and songs coming from all four bandmembers.

In 1996 Descendents asked “What will I be like when I get old?” And even though Hypercaffium Spazzinate is dark and intense, it percolates with an air of putting the past to bed, optimism and trudging forward. Additionally, Descendents recently wrapped a quick-fire European tour and are about to launch into a full-scale U.S. one (and play São Paulo, Brazil in December) – so the future still looks pretty bright for Milo and co. Let’s just hope he still tries to grab his wife’s ass…

White Lung – Paradise (Domino)

white-lung-paradise-album-new

White Lung – Paradise
Domino (2016)

White Lung’s new album Paradise has been lurking on my Spotify playlist for weeks now, and every time I listen I’m sucked right back down the rabbit hole. Guitarist Kenneth William’s ultra-creative punk rock doodling steals the show, really, swinging schizophrenically from progressive slaps in the face to hair-tingling noodles and complex indie rhythms. But somehow, the hip Canadian punks’ fourth album washes over like a smooth wave of glossy pop punk cohesion.

Perhaps it’s the treatment on Mish Way’s lead vocals that keeps things so steady, dream-like and detached. She almost sounds too consistent, like an angrier Karen O, and I often found myself wishing for a more natural rawness to her voice that might have grabbed my attention sooner. She definitely has a lot to say, and her lyrics are smart, topical and thought-provoking. Vicious yet unwavering.

Still, Paradise is a powerful, uncompromising and intelligent trip that I find myself coming back to again and again. It’s provocative; edgy and raw, yet smooth, washy and sophisticated at the same time. Guitars at the forefront, pounding drums that never really step on any toes, the occasional distorted bass forray and dreamy female vocals that snarl wittily beneath it all.

Blink-182 – California (BMG)

blink 182 california d face
Blink-182 – California
BMG (2016)

The Blink-182 machine’s back in full-swing and coming to a stadium near you. Former guitarist and founding member Tom DeLonge thought they couldn’t go on without him. Big mistake; Blink’s new album California, their first since 2011’s hit-or-miss Neighborhoods, just replaced Drake’s Views’ as the number one album on Billboard’s Top 200 list. Making it Blink’s first Billboard Top 200 number one since 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.

As far as the album goes, I wanted to love it. I grew up listening to Blink and new guitarist Matt Skiba’s band Alkaline Trio. And the involvement of producer John Feldmann, who fronts punk-ska legends Goldfinger and pretty much introduced the world to The Used, added an extra air of excitement. Here we go.

Things start well with up-tempo punk rock anthem “Cynical,” which definitely sounds like it could be about Tom. The song reminds me a lot of NOFX classic “Linoleum” – which is a good thing. And Skiba’s backups sound incredible. In fact, it’s probably the best he’s ever sounded, which adds even more emotion to his anti-apologetic “Not sorry… I’m not sorry” lament – perhaps a tongue-in-cheek play on Blink’s 1997 song “I’m sorry.”

Mega-single “Bored to Death” is a classic new-Blink singalong that highlights Feldmann’s work perfectly. The production is unreal. I just wish they’d skipped the second breakdown. Gets me every time.

“She’s Out of Her Mind” kicks off like classic Enema of the State-era Blink. And the girl in the song sounds like someone Skiba must have dated; “…black shirt, black skirt and Bauhaus stuck in her head.” Maybe she should hook up with Rancid’s “Time Bomb” dude. Again, Skiba’s verse sounds potent and alive. Mark’s voice is classic, loveable Blink, but so far Skiba’s stealing the show. Travis, of course, is next level – his drumming could make James Blunt interesting.

“Los Angeles” is easily the worst song on the album. It sounds like they picked it up off the Linkin Park cutting room floor, complete with cheesy early 2000s riffs and vocal effects.

After that California picks up but doesn’t regain the momentum it had before the derailment. Co-written by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, “Sober” is pretty good. “No Future” is terrible; what a weak chorus – have they not heard Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t All Right”? And hopefully Mark’s “life won’t wait” lyric is a reference to Rancid’s 1998 album of the same name.

Track nine “Kings of the Weekend” brings things to the boil again. And “Teenage Satellites” keeps the good times rolling. The rest of the album’s pretty solid, but definitely could have done with some pruning – especially when it comes to title track “California,” which reminds me of The Used, without Bert McCracken.

“Rabbit Hole” is probably my favourite song overall, especially lyrically. Mark sounds pumped. “San Diego” is very Alkaline Trio-like. “The Only Thing That Matters” name-checks Skiba’s Marilyn Manson paintings. And then 30-second closer “Brohemian Rhapsody” gives the Tom squad a taste of what they’ve been crying out for, before its premature end. Sorry, folks.

Blink with Skiba was always going to be different. But in many ways, California sounds more “classic Blink” than Neighborhoods ever did. The production’s mental, it’s got its heart on its sleeve, and it’s sentimental and sincere. But it’s also overweight with a few cringe moments – “She’s not complicated… ated… ated at all” – and cutting a few tracks would definitely have tightened the experience. Then again, according to Mark they recorded around fifty songs, so stay tuned for the deluxe version, with commentary. Interestingly, Feldmann is credited ahead of Skiba on the album’s writing credits.

The Strokes – Future Present Past EP (Cult Records)

the strokes future present past ep
The Strokes – Future Present Past EP
Cult Records (2016)

Whoomp, there it is. A brand new Strokes EP. Future Present Past. And typically, they’re way too cool for commas. To be honest, I hadn’t been paying attention and this new EP caught me off guard. Last I’d heard, frontman Julian Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. had spun off in different directions – and there was Little Joy.

First single “Drag Queen” kicks off with an unfamiliar, low-tuned-sounding ’80s rumble. Almost Joy Division-like, over a simple, yet hypnotic Fabrizio Moretti beat. But the fruitier sound the band perfected on 2013’s Comedown Machine soon washes over. Casablancas sounds different, though. Future-gazing. At times, duelling with himself schizophrenically. And for a second, he dips into pioneering Alvin and the Chipmunks, helium-crooner territory. He’s all over the place, but as usual, everything he tries works perfectly.

The second track, and second single, OBLIVIUS – this time they’re too cool for proper spelling – instantly sounds more familiar. The most striking thing, though, is how accomplished and at ease with themselves they all sound. The playing’s perfect but the impression is effortless. Indifferent. Yet confident and self-assured. Casablancas’ vocals really impress towards the end, as he hits a supersonic kind of warble.

“Threat of Joy,” on the other hand, sounds much lighter than the first two tracks. More Is This It with sunshine than Angles and Comedown Machine. Even Casablancas seems to step back from his broodier, mysterious, more avant-garde new persona in favour of a back-to-basics approach.

The final song is Fabrizio Moretti’s remix of “OBLIVIUS.” A strange way to end the EP, really. Almost like they disagreed about how it should sound. If anything, the remix is much more “future” Strokes. Spookier and more saturated. The vocals are more repressed and there’s some weightier synths and alien sounds to replace the tropical guitars. It’s a taster, really. And hopefully there’s more to come.

Tiger Army – V •••– (Rise Records)

Tiger army - v

Tiger Army – V •••– (2016)
Rise Records

After nine years in the wilderness, Tiger Army and Nick 13, the sweet prince of psychobilly, are back – and more bittersweet than ever. Nick 13’s a crooner. A poet. One part Morrissey. One part sad cowboy. One part quivering werewolf. And unlike his 2011 countrified solo release, V •••– is my kind of poison.

Like Tiger Army’s 2007 album Music from Regions Beyond, V •••– continues the band’s (Nick 13’s, really) progression towards a smoother, more accomplished ode to the moon, rather than a full-blown, kicking-and-screaming primal howl. Only this time, 13 has dropped the top and hit the evolutionary Route 66 with a full tank of gas.

The more you listen, the more the subtle nuances jump out at you, like sirens in the moonlight, gently dragging you towards unblinking nocturnal eternity. And from Mariachi trumpets, to Elvis Presley boogies, string-laden cowpoke jams, creepy Martian-sounding theremins (?) and disembodied operatic backing vocals, the band’s progression is breath-taking.

It’s heart-breaking. It slips through your fingers. It lurks in the depths of your mind. And the more you listen, the more beautiful it seems to become. It’s timeless, really, soaked with vintage, familiar-sounding ’50s and ’60s Americana flourishes and black-and-white noir haunts, yet it’s alive with something new. Modern, sentimental pop that’s not of this world.

Leftöver Crack – Constructs of the State (Fat Wreck)

Leftover Crack - Constructs of the State

Leftöver Crack – Constructs of the State (2015)
Fat Wreck Chords

I’ve never been a massive Leftöver Crack fan. Sure, they’ve got some awesome songs – “Gay Rude Boys Unite,” “Rock the 40 Oz.,” the under-appreciated pop gem “World War 4” – but nothing that really sucked me in for an entire album, from start to finish… on repeat… for days. Leftöver Crack’s third full-length Constructs of the State, however – their first since 2004 – is the real deal, showcasing a band at the height of its creative powers.

By now – from Choking Victim to Star Fucking Hipsters – frontman Scott “Stza” Sturgeon and his band of merry anarchists know exactly what works. They’ve developed, and refined, their own sound, and Constructs of the State dips into that back-catalogue with confidence and flair, cohesively swinging from straight-up anarcho-punk, to pop punk, ska, thrash metal and back again.

The songwriting’s accomplished and eclectic (eccentric, even). The production’s badass. And technically, it’s the best Leftöver Crack’s ever sounded. Stza’s vocal range is amazing. Even when it sounds like he’s singing through the side of a busted throat, there’s just so much melody and feeling in his voice – the result of screaming his lungs out for the past 26 years.

With former Intro5pect members Donny Morris (drums) and Chris Mann (guitar) on board, the drumming’s knuckle-tight and the riffs are perfect. There’s also an unshakable soulfulness that pulses from song to song – linked with secret interludes, banjos and epic gang intros. But most of all, Constructs of the State sounds intelligent, soaked in been-there-done-that, matter-of-fact sense of reflection.

“The Union Jack. On Shaka’s back. Zulus at dawn ah! Isandlwana!”

It’s one of those albums that sounds considered from every angle, agonized over for years and put together with blood, sweat, tears and hangovers. A place for everything, and everything in its place. “My only concern… was… it had to be as good as our first two full-length efforts. I wasn’t going to put a new record together until I felt like that standard was met,” explains Sturgeon. It might have taken him 11 years but he got there in the end (and then some).

Adding to the decade-long-wait celebration feel of the record, there’s a host of famous punk rock cameos as well. Most noticeably, perhaps, Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels ignites the flames of nostalgia on ska-punk stomper “System Fucked.”

Mixing synths, gang vocals, mad punk-rock and metal into a foaming frenzy, “The War At Home,” an Intro5pect cover that Sturgeon sang on originally, is the perfect way to end things – and perhaps a taste of what’s to come in 2026.

David Bowie – Blackstar (ISO/Columbia)

David Bowie - Blackstar

David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
ISO / Columbia

News that David Bowie had died of cancer hit me harder than Monday morning. It was such a shock. What the fuck? I had no idea. I spent the day listening to his final album Blackstar, released two days before his sudden departure from this planet. And I couldn’t believe what I heard.

Everyone from Brian May to Kanye West sang Bowie’s praises on Twitter. He was described as the greatest, a genius who changed the face of pop music forever, and on Blackstar – his 25th album – you can hear it like a freight train. It’s phenomenal; a timeless, textured adventure lightyears ahead of, and simultaneously behind, its time.

Listening to Bowie’s carefully planned goodbye in context is truly heartbreaking, yet there’s a peaceful sense of acceptance and resoluteness to his now not-so-subtle clues that the mothership was coming back to get him. And amazingly, the videos for singles “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are filled with defiant, captivating and very physical assertions that the show must go on until the final curtain. Even on his deathbed, Bowie’s performances are mesmerising.

Musically, punctuated with such mind-blowing consideration and driven dedication, every pulsing note, layer and breath sends shivers down your spine and arms your skin with goosebumps. Bowie’s band is incredible, rallying around and supporting their ailing Thin White Duke with such palpable emotion and respect. It’s an immense parting gift; bitter-sweet and haunting.

“Just like that blue bird, oh I’ll be free…”