Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Concert Review: Tool @ Red Rocks, 6/29/2010

I had the good fortune to get my hands on tickets to see Tool on their summer mini-tour this year, where they played two nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. Here's my review of the show.

The first time I saw Tool was at Bonnaroo 2007, where they headlined on the main stage. At the time, I considered that show to be the best I'd ever seen, until I saw Nine Inch Nails on their Lights in the Sky tour. Tool's visuals were as spectacular as I expected that night, and they played a great, if a little predictable, setlist with the fantastic live sound for which they're known. Last year's set at Mile High Music Festival was almost identical, though with a somewhat poorer sound mix that left me just a bit disappointed. In light of that, I went into this week's show trying not to get my hopes up too high for any surprises; if anything, I expected another solid set from one of the best live acts in the business.

Fortunately, my expectations were blown away from the first note. After a dismal set from hip=hop duo Dalek, the lights at Red Rocks went out and the amphitheater began to echo with the sound of Timothy Leary's ragged voice stating, "Think for yourself...question authority." Fans of Tool will recognize this as the live intro for "Third Eye," the thirteen-minute, rarely-played closer to Tool's second album, Aenima. Tuesday's rendition of the song was easily the best live version I've heard, and it charged the night atmosphere with furious intensity. It was an entirely unexpected start to one of the best shows I've ever seen.

Maynard James Keenan's vocals were the strongest of his that I've heard in a live setting. Likewise, his energy was off the charts for most of the concert; the simian dance of his mohawked silhouette was a constant source of entertainment. Instrumentally, Tool is always stellar, both on album and live, but they seemed especially tight for this show. Bassist Justin Chancellor provided a meaty foundation for guitarist Adam Jones, whose distorted guitar lines were as varied and complex as I've heard from him. Of course, Danny Carey continues to prove that he is by a wide margin the best drummer in music today. Watching Carey play is one of the greatest displays of musical excellence in the business; the man simply astonishes every time he takes his seat behind the kit, and Tuesday was no exception.

Following "Third Eye," the band moved into the heavy chug of "Jambi," from their most recent album. From their, Tool moved through classics like "Stinkfist" and "Schism," always concert favorites on which the band has expanded and perfected over the years. Another pleasant surprise came in the form of "Intension," which provided a downtempo interlude before the heavier "Right In Two," which was also unexpected. Of course, no Tool show would be complete without the nine-minute epic that is "Lateralus." Tool invited openers Dalek onto the stage for this number, and the duo did an admirable job of not butchering the song. It wasn't as memorable an appearance as, say, Tom Morello's at the Bonnaroo show, but Dalek's ambient electronics provided an interesting take on a song that is already great. Tool closed the show with "Aenema," the fiery title track to their second album. I saw them play this at Bonnaroo, but Tuesday's performance was intense in a way that was not possible at a festival show. The entire crowd seemed behind this one, ranting and screaming and pleading along with Keenan until the final blast. It was a massive display, and is definitely one of the best tracks I've ever seen performed live from any band.

Visually, Tool seems to have somewhat reimagined their live approach for this tour. The large screens that backed the band previously were increased in both size and number, and Carey's drum kit was lit from underneath. The screens played a mostly new series of animations, some from Tool's stop-motion videos and some different entirely. This effect was coupled with a stellar laser setup that kicked in at perfect moments throughout the show. The most remarkable visual element was, however, not the band's doing. About an hour and twenty minutes into the show, the moon rose behind the huge rock formations around the stage, bright orange and gargantuan. It provided an anchor for the chaos of the lights on stage, and was the kind of perfect moment that happens only very rarely at any live show.

Ultimately, though, it's Tool's instrumental preciseness and the fullness of their live sound that makes them such a great act to behold. When the band sticks to their comfort zone and plays their hits, they're great. When they take chances, as they did with "Third Eye" and "Right in Two" last night, they're phenomenal. Despite claims that the band is aging, Tool's show is still one of the very best, and is something that any music fan should see.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Roots - How I Got Over

For almost two decades, The Roots have remained a beacon of musical and intellectual quality in the mire of a hip-hop scene that has undergone constant fluctuation. For a casual hip-hop listener like myself, The Roots embody everything that is best in the genre: powerful lyrics, aggressive production, and a stellar live show that stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Lead MC Black Thought has never shied away from a bit of modern wisdom rapped with spirit and intensity, backed by the always-excellent production and percussion of drummer ?uestlove (I'm going to try to write that name as few times as possible for the sake of my sanity). Unfortunately, their unique approach to hip-hop has always kept The Roots more or less out of the commercial spotlight, though fans of the genre will undoubtedly appreciate their influence. This trend has never really changed, so whenever the band decides to release an album, it always comes as both a surprise that they continue to successfully reinvent their music and a disappointment that their type of work isn't less prevalent in the popular music scene.

The band's latest effort, "How I Got Over," comes after they have been thrust into the spotlight by virtue of being Jimmy Fallon's late night band (probably the only thing of value Fallon has ever been associated with). On a large scale, the album marks a significant departure from the band's last release, "Rising Down," which was 16 tracks of caustic hip-hop fury at its finest. This time around, The Roots find themselves more or less in relax mode. "How I Got Over" contains some of the most laid back material the band has ever released, largely as a result of its chilled-out, almost ambient production style. As usual, the songs are anchored around ?uestlove's beats, which are as solid as ever, if not particularly remarkable here. More surprising is the use of piano and light synth samples that seem to float around the drums. These musical choices have the dual effect of creating an exceptional flow over the album's duration while making the individual songs nearly blend together. As a cohesive product, the album works particularly well in this regard; it is listenable on a broad scale in a way that "Rising Down" was certainly not. Unfortunately, this makes "How I Got Over" difficult to engage in on the intimate, smash-your-face way that makes much of The Roots' material so effective.

Fortunately, it doesn't seem that the band's recent exposure has altered their poetically realistic worldview. Black Thought seems as inspired as ever, engaging in topics ranging from religion, modern discourse, poverty, and so on. As usual, guest appearances abound here, with P.O.R.N., Truck North, the Dirty Projectors, and various others offering their stylings to the record, but none with the same power as Black Thought himself. His disgust with the state of modern media is apparent on "Dear God 2.0," the album's first standout, where the MC observes, "technology turning the planet into zombies/ Everybody all in everybody's dirty laundry," and asks, "Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?" These are deep issues for any rapper, and Black Thought tackles them with courage and intensity. For all the uncertainty contained in the first half of the album though, The Roots seem to offer some reconciliation. On "The Fire," a notable collaboration with John Legend, Black Thought raps a kind of fierce determination that was previously absent from the album: "You can't escape/ the history you was meant to make/ That's why the highest victory is what I'm meant to take/ You came to celebrate/ I came to celebrate." Coming from Black Thought, it's a convincing sentiment, and is ultimately the emotional high point of the album.

More than anything, "How I Got Over" is the most mixed bag The Roots have created in years. In the end, enjoyment of the album will likely come down to the listener's mindset. Longtime fans, especially those who enjoyed "Rising Down," may be disappointed by this album's laid back tone, mostly devoid of musical aggression. However, listeners are also encouraged to take in "How I Got Over" a few times before making judgment; its ideas are rapped in such density that it merits repeated listens. Though it lacks a significant number of excellent songs, the album works well enough as a whole that the dedicated listener will forgive the absence. If nothing else, "How I Got Over" proves that The Roots are as observant as ever, and are perhaps even hopeful about what they see.


Stream the album for free here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Destroy Angels - EP

Those readers who have followed my blog or who know me personally will know that I am a diehard fan of both Nine Inch Nails and its key member, Trent Reznor. This week, How To Destroy Angels, Reznor's first project since declaring Nine Inch Nails to be on hiatus, released its debut online, a free six-song EP. The band features Reznor along with his new wife Mariqueen Maandig (formerly of West Indian Girl) and longtime colleague and multi-instrumentalist Atticus Ross.

Early clips and suggestions from the band's members suggested that HTDA would at least be influenced by Reznor's musical signature, but differences in sound were evident from the start. Most notable of these is the introduction of a female vocalist in Maandig, whose undulating whisper provides an intriguing change to the sound that Reznor more or less perfected in two decades of Nine Inch Nails. The first single, "A Drowning," finds Maandig at her most aggressive, breaking over the song's mix of fuzzy electronics and distorted guitars to lend a firm foothold on a song that focuses mostly on atmosphere. The song is unique in this way, because for the majority of the EP, Maandig's vocals are mostly used for texture, rarely rising above a soft lilt.

Thankfully, the combination of her voice and Reznor's signature electronics seems to work, at least for a short set like this. Though the EP certainly isn't short on atmosphere, its greatest strength lies in its percussive hooks, most of which are reminiscent of late era Nine Inch Nails. Computerized distortion blares in tandem with the more organic sounds of keyboards and occasional strings, creating a synthesis acoustic and electronic that recalls tracks from Reznor's masterpiece, "The Downward Spiral," while incorporating the harsh soundscape of "Year Zero." The EP's final single, "The Believers," represents the most complete fusion of these elements. The song's acoustic elements lend a tribal feel to the heavy percussive beat, punctuated by bursts of the static and fuzz that made "Year Zero" memorable. Maandig's vocal restraint also contributes here, an almost instrumental sigh that intones, "We are the ones who still believe." Focused without being constrained by its own direction, "The Believers" is the strongest number of the set. Indeed, it seems that Reznor has found inspiration in this new project, in which he is free to explore sonic realms outside the darkness embodied in Nine Inch Nails. Likewise Reznor, and the musicians around him, truly do seem to believe that they are on the road to capturing something musically unique.

Despite this, it occasionally feels that the group loses direction. "BBB" commands, "Listen to the sound/ Of my big black boots," a line that seems ridiculous by itself, let alone repeated ad nauseum as it is. It's an unfortunate lapse, because musically, "BBB" boasts one of the tightest, sexiest grooves on the album. It's certainly a hook worthy of Reznor's extensively sexual canon; it's just a shame that the chorus line comes off so hackneyed. Fans will easily forgive the oversight, though, and it remains one of the set's only weak points.

On a large scale, "How to Destroy Angels" accomplishes exactly what it intends, introducing a new brand of industrial pop backed by the genre's undisputed master. Fans of Nine Inch Nails will undoubtedly seek to locate the record within the NIN catalogue, but this EP really needs no history lesson. It knows its strengths and plays to them well, drawing on powerful contributions from each member (Atticus Ross' bassline on "Parasite" is one of the best in years), and it inspires hope for the band's future. In the past, Reznor was at his best when he sought to construct cohesive, complex albums without shying from the power of a great hook. A short collection like this, successful as it is, makes us wonder what the trio plans for its first full-length release, presumably later this year or early next. If nothing else, let it be said that "How to Destoy Angels" shows great promise, and it proves that age and marriage, at least for Reznor, are not creative obstacles in the least.


Get the album here.