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Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak

Don’t be deceived by “Southern rock” descriptions of Kings of Leon.

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In End of the Century, a recent documentary that takes a behind-the-scenes look at The Ramones, the band isn’t shy about expressing confusion and frustration over never making it big in the U.S. Sure, most people have heard of The Ramones and if you played “I Wanna Be Sedated” for a random selection of Americans, most people would recognize it. These days, it’s even retro-chic to wear Ramones t-shirts (now sold in Urban Outfitters and Express). But compared with the band’s success in the U.K., the following here is minimal.

Kings of Leon face the same dilemma. The band’s first release, Youth & Manhood, is platinum almost two times over in the U.K., but only sold about 125,000 here. There’s no good reason, really; like The Ramones’ predicament, it’s pretty much unexplainable. The band even has a great story—three brothers and first cousin decide to form a band and sing songs about debauchery despite being the sons and nephew of a fundamentalist traveling preacher from Tennessee; the oldest member of the band (drummer Nathan Followill) is 25 and the youngest (bassist Jared) is 18. It’s hard to top that story, and it’s made them media darlings as well, with solid reviews and/or features in Rolling StoneSpinNMEMaximThe Boston GlobeThe Philadelphia Inquirer, etc. Yet, mainstream America has yet to embrace the hairy brethren.

It’s tough to say whether the Kings will overcome what The Ramones couldn’t. Snagging the opening slot for U2 could do wonders. But, fan base or not, the band’s new album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, is deliciously dirty, gruff rock and roll. Don’t be deceived by “Southern rock” descriptions of Kings of Leon. You won’t find any five-minute guitar solos or anything reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd/Allman Brothers (well, maybe one song). The sound is closer to 60s garage rock, and though comparisons to The Strokes are misguided, a more visceral Creedence Clearwater Razorlight isn’t too far off. Aha was recorded completely live in Los Angeles, with no overdubs, giving the sound an authentically raw quality. (Think 8-track in a neighbor’s basement.) The 12 tracks come out to about 35 minutes.

Caleb Followill’s vocals are almost too slurred and gravely to be endearing. After a while, though, his crusty voice fits right in with songs that mostly deal with long, lascivious nights (or their repercussions). It’s sometimes hard to tell he’s dealing with anything. “Pistol of Fire” ends up sounding much more like “Pistowwww of Fiiiyuh.” “Milk” seems to involve something about a comb over, an hourglass body and a toothbrush, all sung in Caleb’s dry-as-a-bone, toxic (like drinking orange juice after using the aforementioned toothbrush) tones. So for half of the album, you might not pick up on what the 21-year-old is saying, but you can still be pretty sure Papa Followill isn’t proud. Thinly veiled sexual allusions run rampant, such as on “Soft”: “I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party / But I’m soft.” (“Soft” = “Sowwf.”)

The stripped-down songs don’t become predictable either. Nice morsels of fuzzy guitars lay on top of impressive bass lines (which are possibly the best part of each track) in every song with hip, didn’t-see-it-coming tone and melody changes. Nathan’s drumming is simplistically creative with a danceable, new wave feel. In “Slow Nights So Long,” the track is mostly upbeat with an infectious bass riff, then settles down at the end for a surprisingly pleasant and even slightly smooth outro with soft piano and lightly strummed (clean!) guitar: “Rise and shine all you gold-digger mothers / Are you too good to tango with the poor, poor boys.” The opening guitar riff for “Day Old Blues” is almost a direct cop of the Allman Brother’s “Melissa,” but it morphs into ballsier, pure rock and roll. The Kings’ first single, “The Bucket,” rocks the hardest of all and probably conveys the most emotion, mostly because the majority of the song is somewhat decipherable.

I’ll be anxious to hear what Kings of Leon have in store for the next album. And, though I wouldn’t trade the sound on Aha, I’d be curious to see what the Kings would sound like with some more production—just a little reverb and some overdubs? But, if they never make it big over here, maybe we’ll be treated to an entertaining albeit bitter documentary years down the road. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

(RCA Records)

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Good Riddance – Thoughts and Prayers

The fire still burns brightly for Good Riddance

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It would seem that the current US administration has proven to be fertile fields for political punks. If there is a positive to have come out of the past few years, it is in the form of angry punk rock records. The aptly titled Thoughts and Prayers, the new record by Good Riddance, could very well be the best of them. For many like myself, Good Riddance was the gateway to a world of punk rock socio-political commentary; wrapped in aggressive, melodic hardcore that opened your mind as much as it punched a hole in the wall. 1996’s A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and the really terrific 1998 record Ballads from the Revolution, were eye-opening propositions for a wide-eyed kid. Good Riddance resonated because their songs were hard-hitting commentary that sounded like broken-hearted punk rock songs. They sang intelligently about inequality, human despair, and the sometimes broken system in which we live in. And when their broken-hearted punk rock songs weren’t about society and politics, they were broken-hearted punk rock songs about broken hearts (don’t think there have been love songs as good in the genre as “Jeannie” and “Not With Him”).

Four years since their comeback record, Peace In Our Time, we get the much more furious Thoughts and Prayers. 12 songs of trademark breakneck melodic hardcore that talks about the divisive current political climate without going as far as saying things like “Trump sucks”. But that’s never been the Good Riddance way. Vocalist and chief lyricist Russ Rankin has always found a way to express his anger and disappointment with poise and intelligence- sounding more like a well-read poet than a man yelling on a street corner.

In the track “Don’t Have Time”, he sings about the futility of repeating history to trumpet nationalism; “And those same old fears arise / With eyes too drawn to counteract / The ghost in you comes rushing back / Too caustic to subside / Just what have we done? / We killed a mother’s only son / Just to remain at number one“. And lyrically, much of takes a similar route of well-written stanzas that question a lot of what is going on in the world at the present time. Songs like the opening “Edmund Pettus Bridge” (let’s hope everyone knows the significance of this landmark), replete with Michael Douglas Wall Street sound byte, sings of social inequality but does it with a trace of hope. While songs like “The Great Divide” are an example of melodic hardcore’s finest moments; unrelenting sonic pummeling that is as melodic as it is potent. “Wish You Well” takes cues from Good Riddance’s “softer” tones of catchy choruses and mid-tempo verses; akin to the track “Saccharine” (from 2003’s Bound by Ties of Blood and Affection). Perhaps the best thing about the 12 songs here is that they are all very succinct, potent, with rarely a moment of filler. The album is consistently good, and while it rarely deviates from the Good Riddance sound, it never lacks in the fire and fury we’ve come to expect.

The album itself SOUNDS fantastic, credit again to Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore at The Blasting Room for their production. The guitars rip at the right levels while the percussion work hits just right. The mixing levels are as close to perfect as you can get without any one element dominating over another- a constant the band have found since 1999’s Operation Phoenix (no surprise, the first of their albums to have been produced at the Blasting Room).

The appeal of Good Riddance has always been two-fold. Firstly, their music has shown steadfast quality, and the albums have found longevity due to the way Rankin and company write their songs. With lyrics referring to and talking about a multitude of humanist issues without having to directly reference them, they remain political, timely, writing music as urgent as it was through the 90s as it is today. That may be a sad indictment of society itself, but it doesn’t take away from their effectiveness and influence. Rankin himself has said that their music may not have changed the world per se, they continue to open eyes and minds. This writer can attest to the latter- and the importance of that can’t be underlined enough. Their early discography spoke to my generation about life, self, and the interconnected reality of the world we live- no matter how hard to try not to believe it. Thoughts and Prayers is a furious, timely, and potent slab of hard-hitting melodic hardcore and shows that the fire clearly still burns as passionately for Good Riddance as it did all those years ago. And perhaps it’ll be what A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and Ballads From the Revolution was to me for a whole new generation.

(Fat Wreck Chords)

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Hatriot – From Days Unto Darkness

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities

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When it comes to Bay Area thrash metal, there are two bands that sit atop the mountain forever entwined to its history; Metallica and Exodus. Both bands linked together by Kirk Hammett, both bands crucial to the Bay Area’s most destructive form of music. Exodus may not have their name in lights as Metallica does, but Exodus’ influence cannot be mistaken- and many point to them as being the one true progenitor of Bay Area thrash. Hatriot, a band that was started by Exodus vocalist Steve Souza in 2011, are a real chip off the ol’ block. Surprisingly, it isn’t just musically that Hatriot follows suit from Exodus, its a family thing too. While Steve Souza left Hatriot in 2015, his sons Nick and Cody continue on percussions and guitars with the latter taking on vocal duties once the older Souza returned to Exodus.

Hatriot does more than just follow on the Exodus path; they’ve loudly carved their own slice of the thrash pie. Led by Kosta Varvatakis shredding guitar work and Cody Souza’s blistering (sometimes ominous) vocal work, Hatriot may have found their Fabulous Disaster, ironically, also three albums in.

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities; machine gun percussion work (I’m a sucker for some great double bass drums), shredding guitars, soaring solos, and vocals that does the growling well, and the screaming even better. Tracks like “Organic Remains” and the blistering “Carnival of Execution” showcase the band’s ability to craft songs that are equal parts urgency and solid musicianship. Thematically, From Days Unto Darkness covers the usual thrash metal spread; the end times, death, destruction, and humanity’s failing graces- all done with equal breakneck, ear piercing destruction sonically. “World, Flesh & Devil” is perhaps the album’s best outing- a raging beast of a song, that if carnage could be written in music form, this is it incarnate. At 4:26, it is one of the shorter tracks of the release, but much of the album features in at the 6-7 minute mark- a trademark of thrash metal’s desire to not only showcase talent but to do it over extended periods.

What the album lacks perhaps is that one magnum opus of a track. Sure, it’s not easy for any band to write “Master of Puppets”, but From Days Unto Darkness rarely takes a breather. It’s mostly positive, but while Master had at times, slow interludes to let you catch your breath, Hatriot takes absolutely no prisoners- staying true to their thrash metal heritage. If you’re not quite up for it, this album will hammer you into a stupor.

The halcyon days of Bay Area thrash metal may be long resigned to nostalgic documentaries, but Hatriot are not interested in just being a throwback to their roots. From Days Unto Darkness is not for the weak and if this is the sign that thrash metal is alive and kicking, then the future and present are in damn good hands.

(Massacre Records)

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