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Zero 7 – The Garden

On their third full-length album, The Garden, British downtempo darlings Zero 7 play (or at least attempt) a little bit of addition by subtraction.

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On their third full-length album, The Garden, British downtempo darlings Zero 7 play (or at least attempt) a little bit of addition by subtraction. The new record marks the first significant shift in personnel in the band’s short history, as well as a handful of tweaks in the sultry, languorous sound that quickly became their trademark following the release of their smash debut Simple Things.Gone are Tina Dico and Mozez, both of whom have been tending to the release of their own solo albums in recent months, and Sophie Barker, who along with Mozez was a big part of the group’s signature style with their vocal performances on both of Zero 7’s first two full-lengths.

In to stem the tide of their loss in the vocal department are Jose Gonzalez, the Swedish folkie wunderkind whose European debut Veneer hit the Top 10 in Britain following its release, and original Zero 7 co-conspirator Henry Binns, who takes a few moments away from producing and arranging to take up vocal chores on four of The Garden‘s tracks. The lone holdover amongst the exodus is Sia Furler, who has also released a solo record of her own recently; she takes the lead about as much, if not more than any single vocalist in the group’s canon to date.

The Garden is more of a grower than any of Zero 7’s previous efforts; the effortless resplendence of Simple Things and the best moments of When It Falls have been replaced in part by arrangements that are more dense and involved than before, and closer to the conventional notion of “pop.” In their attempt to find a reliable fallback in all of the turnabout, Binns and Zero 7 co-founder Sam Hardaker find it in the four contributions from Gonzalez, whose songs provide the most immediate impact of any on the album. His high, steady tenor burrows itself right into the fabric of “Futures,” the lead-off track, the reflective “Today” with its double-tracked vocals, and the 75-second songlet “Left Behind,” which evokes ghosts of Nick Drake with its minimalist acoustic & voice treatment. Binns & Hardaker even get a crack at retooling Gonzalez’s own “Crosses,” transforming the spare original into a full-bodied soul rave-up, stocked with congas, synths, strings and handclaps, and a rolling, circular bassline that frames his dance-friendly refrain of “cast some light and you’ll be alright.”

Sia, now the only female in the fold with Dico and Barker gone, finds herself in the unusual position of being the closest thing to a “star” that Zero 7 has ever contained, after her sudden success from the appearance of her song “Breathe Me” on Six Feet Under. Her best moments come on lead single “Throw It All Away” and “Waiting To Die,” the latter of which belies its title and goes the route of a breezy, sun-splashed lark instead. Her mannered stylings are much more of a contrast to Gonzalez and Binns (with whom she duets on three tracks) than they were to Mozez and Sophie Barker, who were stronger and more assertive vocalists. Gonzalez and Binns are not as much suited to feature status on a full-blown pop record, which The Garden has sporadic aspirations of being, even as the group’s roots are still well-represented. Thus, it does take a little longer to get acclimated with the back-and-forth approach this time around. Worry not, though, benefits will be reaped, even as it does take a little bit longer than before.

Simple Things was one of those landmark albums, one of those untouchable achievements that always lingers in a group’s rearview mirror as long as they’re in existence, cited by critics and sparring fans alike as the yardstick for everything that comes after it. The chances of Zero 7 reaching that level ever again are remote, but they’re far too early in their career to be worried about recreating their original halcyon moment. The Garden finds Binns & Hardaker weathering the bumpy effects of their newfound status as “veterans” of the downtempo scene quite nicely. The results might not be as immediately satisfying as their earliest material, but with the help of truly talented folks like Jose Gonzalez, they’ll downshift into the heart of their career with ease to spare.

(Atlantic 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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