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R.E.M. – Around the Sun

Around the Sun is worse than being a new low for the band. Instead, it’s a continued low.

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Need proof that R.E.M. were extraordinary? Lets say the fact that they released some of the most significant indie releases ever and have inspired everyone from Nirvana to Death Cab (We all remember Kurt saying the follow-up to In Utero was going to be “his REM record,” don’t we?) just isn’t good enough for you. Well here’s your proof: Pavement spend three and a half minutes of recorded time gushing over them. That’s right, Pavement’s track on the highly popular No Alternative compilation (a great time capsule in the “alternative explosion” of the mid 90s), “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” is a song about how much cooler R.E.M. are than … well … anyone else. They were loved not for musical talent (always questionable), but instead for insightful borderline poetic lyrics and songs that managed to be equal parts irreverent, fun-loving, and yet full of conviction. C’mon, I’ll repeat it again for all you kids who missed their original peak, Pavement fucking loved these guys!

So when did R.E.M. become a caricature of itself? Or more importantly, when did this become a bad thing? Was it after their 1994 halfassed bid for radio-play (which they had already gotten several times) with the far-too-grunge influenced album Monster? No, I’d argue, because the group quickly distanced themselves from this mistake and rarely plays any tracks from it at their shows? Was it after their manic, solemn and unforgettable (I wouldn’t dare say underrated because just about every review I’ve read of R.E.M. since this album was released called it a watermark) New Adventures in Hi-Fi released in 1996? No, because despite loosing the normal freewheeling ease that had accompanies all their albums up to that point, and giving the band the pretentious label that had plagued it to this day, it managed to be almost entirely an extraordinary album. Was it after drummer Bill Berry left the group? C’mon, folks. I’m a drummer myself, so I have sympathy, but the clear answer in this case is no- Berry had very little influence in the songwriting, and although a great drummer, he did little that a good studio drummer couldn’t. Perhaps there is no event that one can point to, but over the course of the past three albums, R.E.M. have lost it all. It hasn’t been a downward slope, because, to be honest, Around the Sun is just as boring an album as Up which was just as bad as Reveal. They all have a few tracks that bring you to tears because they come close to being good enough for rejects for Reckoning or Automatic for the People.

So Around the Sun is worse than being a new low for the band. Instead, it’s a continued low. I have never had an R.E.M. album opener pass by with so little notice as “Leaving New York.” There is nothing interesting about the melody, the tempo, or even Stipe’s increasingly bored sounding delivery. Track two, a track that would make Guster, Third Eye Blind, or Hoobastank proud for its utterly generic sound, has Stipe declaring “…and who am I? / I’m just a guy / I’ve got a story like everyone.” I hate to keep harping on the past, but Mike, you didn’t used to be just a guy- you were something more. I don’t know if I want to buy that you’ve become the average dude who throws football parties and spends Saturdays waxing his car, but this song certainly helps your case. “The Outsiders” features another fallen great, rapper Q-Tip formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, and what could’ve been a great rap-rockkgfdgsfgd…oh sorry, I dozed off there for a second, anyhoo, Q-Tip’s cameo fades out almost as quickly as it begins, and you have the feeling it wasn’t a production trick, but instead him running out of the studio after hearing the song he was adding his name to.

The closest the album comes to anything interesting is in a brief track called “Wanderlust.” The track, propelled by a fast (for this album at least) beat, has the band sounding interested, for once, with Pete Buck’s guitar playing a few dissonant chords, and Stipe actually sounding fierce during the chorus. I had high hopes for “The Worst Joke Ever.” Its title would suggest something deeper, a personal story, a political polemic. No, not at all … it’s a telling of a joke followed by self-righteous rambling about how death is wrong. But to steal from that song’s chorus; “Give me a minute / and I’ll tell you the setup for the worst joke ever.” I myself am working on one- I don’t have anything but a punch line decided yet, but that goes “…and after Around The Sun, R.E.M. went on to make four more equally heartbreakingly half-assed albums before calling it quits.”

C’mon, Led Zeppelin only had one In Through the Out Door, Pink Floyd ended with The Final Cut, [and The Wall, but that’s an entirely different debate], The Stone Roses had Second Coming and The Clash had Cut The Crap. You’re allowed one pre-breakup debacle while still maintaining a glorious legacy. At this point, guys, think long and hard before entering the studio again. I’d say your muse left long ago, and I sure as hell don’t want my memory of your guys to be soiled by any more stuff like this.

(Warner Bros.)

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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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Reviews

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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