311-coverThere is no better way to introduce this month’s album picks than by simply stating the fact that March and April were filled with triumphs, surprises, and tons of great music in the alternative scene. While I’d like to write up about twenty records that have come across my desk, I’ll stick with what I feel were the best three, and let you do your own research on what has been the strongest four weeks of releases in a long, long time.

311 – Stereolithic (March 11th)

Placing a label on Omaha, NE natives 311 is like trying to explain the theory of relativity to a 5-year old – absolutely impossible. Over a span of 11 albums, the band has crossed over between rock and metal, to punk and rap – all the while maintaining an alternative edge with reggae-influences and soaring vocals. While 311 was definitely more “edgier” early in their career, the dedication to create fresh, left-of-center music has not only earned them a HUGE fan base, but well-deserved respect from the music writers of today. Even their last record, the less-than-stellar “Universal Pulse”, got more acclaim than it probably deserved, but I credit that to the fact that the band has put together a rock-solid career that gets a free pass now and then in light of their otherwise outstanding body of work.

This, did, however, prompt me to give the band’s latest release “Stereolithic” a more careful listen than usual. One bad album could be cited as just an accident, but two in a row would be a trend, and if 311 were on the downward spiral, I wanted to be sure to let my adoring public in on it.

Thankfully, such is not the case. The band is still the same, the inspirations are unchanged, and 311’s lineup reads the same as it did back in 1991 – yet somehow the group has found a new energy and passion that pushes “Stereolithic” to even new heights. Maybe they took the few bad reviews of “Universal Pulse” to heart, but whatever the reason, the band’s new album is nothing short of amazing.

Tracks like “Showdown,” “The Great Divide”  and “Boom Shanka” find the band returning to a more funky, rap-filled groove, while “Ebb and Flow” and “First Dimension” are straight-ahead rockers that showcase the vocals harmonies of Nick Hexum and SA Martinez, and crunchy guitar/bass combos from Tim Mahoney and P-Nut Wills.

What pushed the record past a typical 311 release, however, is the great “chill-out” moments showcased in tracks like “Sand Dollars”, “Tranquility” and “Friday Afternoon” – displaying great songwriting and tempo shifts that feel more like a musical vacation than just a song on the radio. In fact, the whole record feels like a great journey through the past present and future of 311 – and it’s a trip well worth taking.

9/10

foxy shazam coverFoxy Shazam – Gonzo (April 2)

When buying records – whether it be at the store or online – “price” does factor in. The luxury of being a music writer has its perks, as rarely do I have to buy an album (although I DO try to pick up records and support the bands I like the best). For most, the best price on anything is “free” – and that’s exactly what you have to pay for the new album from Ohio’s Foxy Shazam. Riding a wave of popularity and success after 2012’s “The Church of Rock and Roll”, the band that is so hard to explain did something that is so hard to understand. They self-released their latest album, and opted to make it free to the public via their website. This could be seen as a quite noble move, perhaps – or maybe they felt it only fair. You see, stylistically “Gonzo” is a huge departure from the album before it, and giving it away might have been the best approach, as fans won’t see this coming – and that usually means bad news. But maybe not in this case.

If you think 311 is a diverse sound, just wait until you get a load of these guys. Lead singer Eric Nally cites everyone from Evel Kneivel to Iggy Pop as influences, and his high-pitched vibrato challenges the likes of Freddie Mercury and Meatloaf. Who do they sound like? Absolutely nobody – and everybody. The title track might remind you of Sly and the Family Stone, or something out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, depending on which part of the song you are paying attention to. “Brutal Truth” almost sounds like a disorganized Joan Jett song, and  “In This Life” could easily be mistaken for a David Bowie classic. But this is no tribute album. The oddity of the structures and scrambled lyrics make for one strange-yet-beautiful soundscape – and defines Foxy Shazam the best way possible. By defining nothing at all.

While not as shiny and clean as its predecessor, “Gonzo” succeeds in being honest and true (the band recorded the album together in one-room recording sessions earlier in the year). It may not have the production value they spoiled us with last time around, but the energy and grit more than make up for it.

If you’re looking for something a little unusual, a bit chaotic, and teeming with brilliance, go download this album immediately. It’s not like it’s going to cost you anything. Worth noting is the band is going to be touring pretty much everywhere the rest of the year, so keep your eyes open for a Denver gig, an Aspen appearance, or dare I say a possible Grand Junction sighting in the not-so-distant future.

8.5/10

 

pixies_coverThe Pixies – Indie Cindy (April 19)

Alternative music has seen its share of legends over the years, but maybe none more mysterious and revered than The Pixies.  While grunge music was changing the way we listen to music in the late 80s/early 90s, The Pixies quietly went about business, releasing five albums in five short years. College radio loved them, discerning critics raved about them, and even more popular acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam credited them as influences. Kurt Cobain even went as far as to openly state that his band’s biggest hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a blatant Pixies rip-off.

Despite their growing popularity, The Pixies were faced almost immediately with one of the biggest problems in rock and roll – they couldn’t stand each other. Founder and lead singer Frank Black had one of the most interesting voices and songwriting skills of the time, but also was a complete asshole. He and bassist Kim Deal often fought over the groups musical direction, and arguments often led to Deal refusing to perform shows, skipping rehearsals, and other typical rock-and-roll behaviors. Their love for one another came to a head during a show in Germany, where Black threw his guitar at Deal mid-performance and walked off stage, bringing an end to a band that had seemingly just gotten started.

Black went on to record several solo albums, Deal joined her sister and formed The Breeders, and fans were left hung out to dry. But the music of those five albums lived on. It almost seemed as though radio and pop culture appreciated The Pixies far more after they disbanded, and after a long stint on the sidelines, Black decided to take a trip down memory lane and reform the band for a reunion tour of colleges and festivals. What was originally slated for 15 semi-exclusive shows turned in to several years of touring, as the media and fans alike welcomed the band back with sold out venues and high praises of their performances. Due to the success of these tours, Black and Deal agreed that the band should start writing new material, and while Deal left the band again in June of last year, the band has released three EPs over the last nine months, all containing new music.

If you missed these releases, don’t feel bad. The band has decided to combine them into a full-length titled “Indie Cindy”, hitting record stores later this month. The question is out there, though. How would the band’s creative forces sound after 23 years of not writing music together? Would their sound go to new places or would it rehash over new ground?

The answer? Both. “Indie Cindy” is undeniably a Pixies record throughout, with Black’s unique vocal stylings continuing to pair well with the often out-of-tune guitars and screeching feedback of bass. There is, though, a refined, refreshing feel to it all. While “What Goes Boom” opens the album in an expected frenzied nature, tracks like “Greens and Blues”, “Silver Snail” and “Andro Queen” show a much softer side to The Pixies than even I expected – and I’m one of their biggest fans.

Also, there were plenty of new tricks up Black’s sleeve. “Bagboy” is a nice fusion of guitar heavy rock with an almost hip-hop beat, “Blue Eyed Hexe”  has a distinctive underlying southern rock vibe to it, and “Jamie Bravo” might be the poppiest punk song the band has ever written – all a pretty far departure from their usual “spaghetti-western-soundtrack-on-acid” approach. While I enjoyed the fresh approach the band has taken on this record, there have been plenty of my peers that have not. Some reviews blast the band for “merely cashing in on their past success” or “making a mockery of their legacy one guitar line at a time” – but I have to disagree. Having been a long-time fan of the band, there was a high level of expectation to this release, but the flip side of that coin is that the music world has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years and getting another album like “Doolitle” simply was not going to happen. Instead, we get more Pixies music, new Pixies music, and I – for one – couldn’t be more happy about all of it.

9/10

pusa2Last issue we gave you a sample of a half a dozen or so albums that had recently been released, and the response – three text messages, 17 Facebook “likes”, and one drunken conversation at 3:00 in the morning – was so overwhelming that I thought I’d follow the trend and load you up with a few more of the latest and greatest releases over the last few weeks.

It may have been the shortest month of the year, but that didn’t stop it from having an avalanche of new releases from artists from every corner of the soundscape. There were quite a few “decent” records and a fair share of forgettable ones as well, but there were plenty of great albums from all kinds of bands. I’m only highlighting three here, but do yourself a favor and hit your favorite music store and check out all the new releases, as 2014 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever in music.

Adrenaline Mob – Men of Honor

adrenaline coverAdrenaline Mob was formed a few years back as a result of longtime drumming legend Mike Portnoy losing his day job with prog/metal icons Dream Theater. Portnoy joined forces with Symphony X frontman Russell Allen, guitarist Mike Orlando, with bassist Paul Di Leo and guitarist Rich Ward (both of Fozzy fame) filling out the roster. The band released a better-than-average effort dubbed Omerta in 2012, and seemed to be destined for a long run of success in the world of metal. And then came the monkey wrench.

Portnoy – almost inexplicably – quit the band abruptly in 2013, citing scheduling conflicts, and it seemed the Mob was gone before they even had a chance to get things started. After all, in a school of big fish, he was definitely the shark. Somehow, though, the remaining members (which now included Disturbed bassist John Moyer) rallied the troops, found a replacement for Portnoy (in the form of former Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero), and moved on like nothing ever happened – and somehow got even better.

Men of Honor (released February 25th) shows that Adrenaline Mob aren’t making any excuses, and – instead – are just making chest-pounding, bone-shaking rock and roll. The absence of Portnoy is noticeable (if you compare it to the first album), but almost in a good way. Gone are the technical fills and intricate patterns, replaced by the type of in-your-face anthems that define everything good about hard rock.

adrenaline mobTracks like “The Mob Is Back”, “Let It Go” and “Feel The Adrenaline” keep it simple, but still knock your teeth out with raw energy, The softer of side of “Behind These Eyes” and “Crystal Clear” bring back the glory of the power ballad, and the experimental “House of Lies” might remind you of early Foo Fighters stuff. All of it is very good on the surface, and making it even better is the emergence of Mike Orlando.

If Omerta was drumming showcase, Men of Honor is the absolute introduction to one of rock and metal’s best-kept secrets on guitar. Orlando absolutely tears this album apart. If you needed a new guitar hero, you may just find it in this album, as the fret work and solos are out of this world throughout. Which only adds to an impressive effort across the board, and makes me believe that if this unit can remain cohesive, we will be hearing lots from Adrenaline Mob for years to come. 8.5/10

Hatriot – Dawn of the New Centurion

DOTNC-cdFor most of you, experience with true American thrash metal is probably pretty limited, Outside of a few Metallica songs and being able to draw the Slayer insignia, not many followed the scene which was popularized by acts such as Megadeth and Anthrax in the late 80’s and disappeared back into the shadows shortly thereafter.

But thrash has been going strong all these years. While now more of an “underground” scene, some of the best albums over the past twenty years have been released by these bastard children of the more popular sub-genres of metal. Some bands, like Annihilator, Metal Church, and Testament (to name just a few) never put down their guitars the last thirty years, while newer bands like Toxic Holocaust, Municipal Waste and Skeletonwitch have taken the torch and brought thrash metal into the new age of metal. Somewhere in between the old and the new lies this author’s new favorite band, Hatriot.

hatriot-ps04xWhile not yet one of the most known bands in metal, Hatriot does showcase one of thrash metal’s most known alumni – vocalist Steve  “Zetro” Souza, who’s work with Exodus is legendary. Zetro is joined by shredder extraordinaire Kosta V (and apparently some younger family members) and delivers not only a definitive reinvention of his classic Bay Area style, but puts him right back on the map of the thrash metal scene. When this type of music is done right, it leaves a devastating path of destruction along the way, and this record is nothing short of a nuclear bomb.

From the opening riffs of “My Cold Hands” all the way to the pummeling conclusion of “Consolation For The Insane”, Dawn of the New Centurion is a thrash fan’s wet dream. Is “Honor In The Rise And Fall” every bit as good of a track as “Master of Puppets”? You bet your ass. And that’s only one song out of a list of a dozen that is executed with insane perfection, making you wonder why all thrash metal isn’t this damn good. If you pick this up, get the deluxe edition that includes a great bonus track – a cover of the classic Krokus track “Midnight Maniac”. 9/10

The Presidents of The United States – Kudos To You!

pusa-coverRemember the song “Peaches” from the 90s? Are you already singing it in your head? The song that made no sense, and was so overly hip that it ended up being one of the most annoying songs of all-time? The guilty party behind that song was Seattle’s The Presidents of the United States of America, whos self-titled album also gave us the eccentric “Lump”, the awkward “Kitty”, and somehow sold millions of records with their punk-meets-folk lo-fi approach to “alternative music”. Not unlike their brethren Cake and Weezer, The Presidents… made a career of often-confusing, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and thigh-slapping ditties that dug their fingers into your brain like a commercial jingle and refused to let go. Success was unfortunately fleeting, as the musical landscape focused more towards the serious “grunge” scene – and after the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, there didn’t seem to be much place for joking around in the world of rock and roll.

Not long after recording “Cleveland Rocks”, the theme for television’s “The Drew Carey Show” (yes, that was them), the band called it quits in 1998. Vocalist/bassist/songwriter/founder Chris Ballew wanted to spend more time with his family, and drummer Jason Finn sought out other musical avenues. After a decent layoff, the band reunited in 2004, adding Seattle area guitarist Andrew McKeag, playing a few shows here and there, and writing a new song or two along the way – but it wasn’t until the 2008 release These Are Good Times People that the band really seemed to truly be back. That album received great critical response, but failed to catch on outside of college radio, and the band was again in the position of asking themselves “what next?”

Fast forward to November 2013. The band wasn’t really planning on recording another album (and didn’t have the money to self-produce), but after a succesful PledgeMusic campaign (a program which artists are using these days to fund albums from donations from fans), decided to hit the studio with little to no expectations. What those sessions produced was pretty damn impressive.

pusaYou could never place an exact label on the style of The Presidents… and Kudos To You! is a glaring representation of this hodgepodge style.  There are songs about bugs (“Slow Slow Fly” “Flea vs. Mite”), the supernatural (“Crappy Ghost”), apathy (“Poor Little Me”), and all other sorts of simple-yet-nonsensical topics. The flow is all over the place, incorporating honky-tonk rockabilly, sensible pop/punk, alternative rock and everything in-between, yet somehow coming all together for 40 minutes of pure fun. While it lyrically is pretty simple and straightforward (my 5-year was singing along to most of the choruses on the first listen), the hidden depth of the verses makes it worth listening to over and over again.

I don’t want to claim the record is over-produced, but it is obvious that every detail on the record was spit-shine polished bright enough to match Bellew’s hairless head, and it’s this type of perfection that only makes a great listen even better. While Kudos To You! may or may not end up being the last album recorded by these guys, it would certainly be a fitting farewell, as it is undeniably their record, recorded on their terms, with a spirit that can’t be called anything but genuine. It probably won’t be the most popular album of 2014, but for my money, it is definitely one of the best. 10/10

crystalSo January happened. In case you missed it (and I’m sure you did), yours truly took a break from the rigors of writing last month. Blame it on the turkey/eggnog induced coma brought on by the holidays. Blame the freezing temperatures we’ve endured here in the Grand Valley. Blame an overall lethargy brought on by the flipping of the calendar. Whatever the case, it’s time to get back to business.

Instead of the normal, drawn-out review of just one record, I’m going to throw a few condensed reviews at you this month of some of the highlights of January, as well as a couple of sneak-peeks of some records coming in February, so buckle up and pay attention – this is going to be a lot to swallow.

The Crystal Method – The Crystal Method:

crystal-methodThe Grammy Awards just happened, and to a lot of people’s surprise (myself included) the DJ team of Daft Punk took home the gold for both album and artist of the year. Normally house/electronic music doesn’t get a lot of chatter in the overall industry, but we may have a repeat Grammy shocker in 2014. Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are collectively known as The Crystal Method, and released their ninth (and self-titled) record January 14th. The electronic music world has changed a lot in the past two decades (The Crystal Method are celebrating their 20 year anniversary in 2014) from the days when acts like Moby, KMFDM, The Prodigy and others pushed boundaries and challenged listeners. But the scene has scene a resurgence of late, and who better to keep the momentum going than these guys.

The album itself stays true to the duo’s roots, but freshens itself up to the modern craze, moving from dubstep beats to electro-funk guitars to smooth vocal tracks with seamless effort. Guest appearances are all over the place, including country/pop star LeAnn Rimes, Dia Frampton (of Meg & Dia fame) and former Scars on Broadway guitarist Franky Perez. If you liked The Crystal Method all along, this album will exceed your expectations, and if you are new to electro/house, you’ll get a quick lesson on perfection from one of the best in the business. 8.5/10

Throwdown – Intolerance:

throwdownIt’s been five years since frontman Dave Peters and his hardcore band Throwdown have released an album, and with good reason. Peters hasn’t really had a band. The revolving door of talent has spun at breakneck speed for the band over the last twelve years (who’s list of “ex” band members reaches double-digits), and frankly, the music world seldom waits around for people to get their shit together. But together the shit has gotten.

Throwdown’s new release Intolerance is one of the band’s strongest efforts to date, filled with mosh-inducing blast beats, and the angry, Pantera-influenced vocal stylings Peters has been known for. Lyrically, Peters goes a little off the deep end at times in his proclamation of his straight-edge lifestyle (which, for those that don’t know, involves being drug/alcohol free, amongst other things), but the album is a powerful assembly of everything good about hardcore metal. If you want to feel like your being chased by a crazed pitbull that just broke off his chain, tracks like “Fight Or Die” and “Without Weakness” are just the ticket. It’s hard, it’s aggressive, and it’s about as good as it gets. 9/10

Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel

red-dragon“Who the hell is Red Dragon Cartel?” you are probably asking yourself. Well, the answer is simple – it is the new band from former Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands guitarist Jake E. Lee, and that’s kind of a big deal. Lee has pretty much spent the last twenty years in recluse, surrounded by unfounded rumors of his demise, addictions, and even death. In all actuality, he was simply hiding out in Las Vegas.

His emergence from hibernation is as much of a surprise to me as anyone, as Lee had stated in the few scarce interviews over the last two decades that he was “done” with music (although he had hinted on VH-1’s That Metal Show in 2011 that he might return at some point). Apparently Jake didn’t leave his guitar too far behind over the years, as he sounds as triumphant as ever on the band’s debut, eponymous release.

reddragoncartelThe album’s opener “Deceived” will immediately remind you of  “Bark at the Moon”, and that style of fretboard assault continues throughout. There are other moments of brilliance as well, the first being “Feeder” which features Robin Zander (Cheap Trick) on vocals. This song has a trippy, Cheap Trick feel to it which unsurprisingly suits Zander’s voice. This track is also the first to be released for radio play which is a clever move. Another track of note is “Wasted” which again features guest vocals, this time supplied by Paul Di’anno. Again the rough nature of the track suits Paul’s gruff delivery well. Main vocal duties for the album are supplied by D.J Smith who is more than capable of carrying things off himself alongside Lee’s excellent fretwork. Overall, though, this is a good album rather than a great one. What is great though is to see Jake E Lee back in the rock fold where he rightly belongs. Hopefully Red Dragon Cartel can grow and deliver something special in the future, as they certainly have the talent to do just that. 7/10

Behemoth – The Satanist:

behemothWhile I understand that black/death metal isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, February 4th is a great day for fans of Poland’s Behemoth. The fact that this album even exists is a bit of a miracle, as lead singer Negral has overcome all odds and won a life-or-death battle with leukemia. The fight took from him his long, windmill-ready hair, but gave him something far more valuable – a second chance.

The band’s new album – The Satanist – is an extraordinary statement of renewed intent from a band that already had the respect of the metal world. Behemoth has perfected the art of taking the listener through the abyss and back with epic structures, dark, evil lyrics, and pristine production, and The Satanist is all that and more.  The standout moment, however, lies in the title track. The guitar line is beautifully haunting and there’s a good thick tone throughout. It’s an incredibly striking song that requires a few listens to fully take in because there’s just so much to it. A truly beautiful piece.

Granted, The Satanist (and Behemoth as a whole) isn’t not something you want your youngsters to listen to – and your grandma won’t approve of the message, but if pitch-black grandeur is what you seek, you’ll find it here. 8/10

Beck – Morning Phase:

Beck-Morning-PhaseIt’s been a while since we heard from the messy haired “loser” and college radio darling Beck, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been keeping busy. While he hasn’t had a record of his own since 2008’s Modern Guilt, Beck has been filling up the last six years writing songs, producing albums, and basically just being himself – a chilled-out father-of-two keeping his ear on the music scene.

Morning Phase (to be released February 25th) finds Beck in familiar territory – crafting songs with stunning harmonies, laid-back attitude, and heavy emotions – and sounding all the wiser along the way. The quirkiness and hipster vibe has taken a back seat to a more mature, free-flowing style. While the tracks may remind you of such bands as Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and others, the album is definitely his.

The record, as a whole, has a warm and comfortable feeling, but the biggest selling point in Morning Phase is that it is absolutely beautiful. It might not be profound or deep or daring, but it’s as embracing as it gets. In this day and age of indie music, making something sincerely and simply beautiful seems either incredibly difficult, or something artists are not just as interested in doing. But Beck pulls it off almost effortlessly, so much so that it’s hard not to listen to this album over and over again. 8.5/10

metallica-posterYou know the history of California-based thrash rockers Metallica, and with good cause. In a storied career of thirty five fast, furious years and nine studio albums, the band has pretty much built the Taj Mahal of heavy metal, and has been living comfortably in it for decades. Conquering adversity has also been one of the band’s strength’s over the years – from the death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, through the fight against file-sharing pirates Napster at the turn of the century, to the inexplicable musical direction taken with the head-scratching releases of St. Anger and Lulu (which the band collaborated with the late Lou Reed). Metallica still takes the stage proudly, middle-fingers in the air, and struts their stuff with an attitude and perseverance unmatched by almost any other band.

So it was no surprise when the band took on a few new challenges in 2013. The first was starting their own independent label – Blackened Records – and acquiring all of their intellectual rights to their back catalog and properties. The second? Creating a “ground-breaking” movie/concert film mash-up titled “Through The Never” that hit IMax and theaters late last year. That film is now available on DVD and BluRay, but before rushing out to buy/rent what sounds like the most amazing thing a metal fan could ask for, take warning.

It’s not.

Unless, of course, your idea of a good time is watching a band slam through nothing but their pre-2000 hits while throwing in a ridiculously fictional story that never should have been their in the first place. There are really two things at play here: the “story” and the “concert” – so let’s address these separately before we get to far down the rabbit’s hole.

metallicaThe story: Dane DeHaan plays a roadie named “Trip” who is sent out on a mysterious, important mission at the beginning of the film just as the band is taking the stage in front of  sold out crowd in Canada. While driving his far-too-ironic, beat-to-shit van, Trip wrecks his vehicle and comes across director Nimrod Antal’s vision of post-apocalyptic something-or-another in pursuit of a duffel bag, whos contents are as much of a mystery as the rest of this head-scratcher. The “story” breaks contain some good visuals despite the narrative, but are too few and far between, as most of the film is devoted to the band and their performance – so much so, that tying any of it together was an exercise in futility. I even tried to correlate the story line with the lyrics to the Metallica songs they coincided with, but to no avail. The “story” just didn’t make sense, and all I really wanted to see was more of the “concert”. Or so I thought.

The concert: Huge stage, amazing lighting, massive pyrotechnics, and million-dollar effects. All of this was pretty cool for the first 45 minutes or so, until I realized the unfortunate truth that Metallica hasn’t had a song worth its weight in pastrami since around 1995. They performed with machine-gun precision, but considering they have played these tracks about a hundred million times, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as I had hoped. Add to that some obviously rehearsed and somewhat corny “accidents” on stage (Were they supposed to tie in with the story? Did they really set that guy on fire?), and what started with a lot of promise quickly fizzled out in to something lost, disjointed, and completely average.

You can’t blame Metallica for trying, though. The concept was there, and the premise looks good on paper – but the end result is something that mirrors the last ten years of the legendary bands career…

Completely forgettable.

3.5/10

Bad Religion – Christmas Songs (2013)

Posted: November 30, 2013 in Music

christmas-songsThe holidays mean different things to different people, but no matter your beliefs or how you celebrate the twelfth month of the year- there is one underlying theme that you just can’t escape: christmas music.

For most, that means breaking out the ugliest sweater your grandma ever made, spiking your egg nog with as much rum as you can handle and throwing on some Burl Ives or Bing Crosby. Holiday music – no matter the style –  seems to calm the insanity that surrounds the season and makes the days a little more “merry and bright”, or so they say.

Let’s be honest, though. The standard holiday classics are overplayed, redone by various artists with little variation, and usually become tiresome by the middle of the month. It’s barely past Thanksgiving, but if I hear “Jingle Bells” in one more car commercial, Santa will be bringing me a new television on Christmas morning. One without the remote thrown through the screen.

In an attempt to break up the “normal”, I try to search out holiday records with a little more punch. Over the past few years, I’ve treated friends and family alike to such gems as “A Twisted (Sister) Christmas”, Billy Idol’s “Happy Holidays”, and Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford’s “Winter Songs”, to name a few – but this year the stakes have been raised. A lot.

California legends Bad Religion have spent the last 34 years pretty much single-handedly keeping punk rock alive and well. With millions of fans and 16 great records, the band has apparently earned carte blanche among the scene – which is the only reason I can even comprehend the making of their seventeenth album – “Christmas Songs.”

You see, not only has the band had a long and illustrious career – but they have done so writing songs that constantly take aim at government and organized religion. Lead singer  Greg Graffin – an admitted atheist who holds a Ph. D from Cornell University – is the last person I would ever expect to be caroling about the birth of that guy from the Bible – but “Christmas Songs” is exactly that. You would think the band would use the opportunity to take shot after shot at christian beliefs – but, almost ironically, they don’t. Instead, the record is filled with pretty honest, straightforward renditions of classic christmas hymns – played, of course, at breakneck speed.

And it works. Completely.

Want an example of how powerful their signature vocal harmonies are? Listen to the a cappella first half of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. While they stay true to the structure on all of these tracks, the performances of guitarists Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson, bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Mike Wackerman make this undeniably a Bad Religion record first, and a christmas record second.

badreligionEven though the covers of “White Christmas”, “Little Drummer Boy”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Angels We Have Heard On High” and others are well worth your money (The only thing remotely out of place is a remake of the band’s own “American Jesus” that closes out the album), the real reason to stuff your punk rock stocking with this album is that Bad Religion is donating 20% of all sales of “Christmas Songs” to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests)

So the album may be a subliminal slap in organized religion’s collective face after all, but the quality and conviction of this record makes it obvious that Bad Religion has a real affection for these standards – putting them in a long line of punk and metal acts that find religion interesting – even if they, like me, don’t believe in it for one god damn second.

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

Posted: November 6, 2013 in Movies

hr_Escape_From_Tomorrow_1

In today’s world of movie-making, it is hard to come up with that “magical” concept: something no one has done before and so ingenious that the world is surely to take notice. We’ve seen some new ideas over the last year or so from the unique and mind-bending Cabin in the Woods to the absolutely breathtaking Gravity , but none of that compares to the ground-breaking approach taken by rookie filmmaker Randy Moore.

Moore’s directorial debut – Escape From Tomorrow – follows a family on their vacation to Disney World. Just the mention of “Disney” brings back so many amazing memories and fantasies from our youth, and you can’t help but smile when you think of the magical whimsy of the Disney theme parks. But sometimes, even the best planned vacation can be a disaster.

The movie focuses on Jim White, an average everyman living the dream  with his wife, Emily, and their two children, Elliot and Sara. On the last day of their  vacation, Jim receives a phone call alerting him that he has been laid off from his job. This clearly distresses him, but he keeps it to himself in order to ensure as much happiness as his family can get out of their final day at the resort.

As the day progresses, though, Jim’s sanity slowly begins unraveling – from near-blackout hallucinations to alcohol-induced fantasies – and the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred faster than a descent down Space Mountain. The irony of losing one’s mind in a place regarded as one of the world’s great escapes is genius, and the black and white presentation only adds to the darkness taking place in the “happiest place on earth”.

While loosely labeled a “horror” movie, the film feels more like a stomach churning ecstasy trip, with obvious influences from such visionaries as David Lynch and Roman Polanski. The acting is superb (considering you have never seen anyone in the cast before), and the story is well-written, uniquely presented, and just weird enough to keep you focused throughout.

ESCAPE-FROM-TOMORROW22

For me, though, the most interesting aspect of the movie is that it was filmed at the theme park without the permission of the Disney Corporation. Using a well-contrived system of hidden cameras and spy-like communication, Moore managed to get his footage “guerilla-style”. That of course means a couple of shaky camera sequences and muffled audio parts – but only adds to the ominous atmosphere Moore is able to stitch together almost effortlessly.

The film (which premiered at Sundance a few weeks back) is available for rent and purchase at amazon.com – and I would suggest watching it sooner than later. The legal representatives of Disney are usually pretty interested in getting their king’s ransom of anything involving their intellectual properties, and the fact that Moore did this film without their consent will most certainly bury Escape From Tomorrow in legal hell long before it ever reaches DVD or BluRay.

That won’t bother Moore, who, with his middle-finger  raised high in the air, will surely move on to new projects (several of which are already in development)- which will hopefully all be just as magical.

The Hangover Part III (2013)

Posted: October 21, 2013 in Movies

hangoverWhen “The Hangover” hit movie theaters in 2009, audiences turned the underrated comedy into one of the great successes of the year, and subsequently made stars out of the main characters. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zack Galifianakis all went from virtual nobodies to superstars overnight, and with good reason: the film was an absolute comedic classic. You knew the minute you watched the credits roll that there would be a sequel, and that’s where the rabbit-hole immediately got a little tight.

“The Hangover: Part II” was odd. I’m not sure if they took the joke to far, or forgot the punchline, but the sequel was ghostly in comparison to its predecessor. Maybe I didn’t know enough about Bangkok or transvestite strippers to “connect” with the humor, but the film came across as dark and blurry photocopy of the first- which was the complete opposite of what I (and other movie-goers) expected. When rumors began circulating for a third installment of the trilogy, I wasn’t sure I cared anymore. Was I willing to suffer through two more hours of bad cock jokes and dated drug-use references? I knew I certainly wasn’t going to go to the theater and drop fifty bucks on a night I would probably regret, but now that The Hangover: Part III is available on DVD and BluRay, I decided to see if “The Wolfpack” had any gas left in the tank and any laughs left to offer.

wolfpack

Where the first two installments begin with the crew waking up after a forgotten night of partying, Part III takes a different angle. The gang has reunited after the death of Allen’s (Galifianakis) father, and have decided to escort him to a mental institution in Arizona. En route, the pack is hijacked by a crime boss named Marshall (John Goodman), who demands they find and retrieve Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) because he stole $21 million in gold from him. Marshall figures the group’s previous run-ins with Chow make them the best men for the job and so he takes Doug (Justin Bartha) as insurance until they bring him in. Luckily Chow continued to keep in touch with Allen after he escaped from a Bangkok prison and let him know he was going to be in Mexico, which conveniently narrows down their search.

The movie unfolds with some funny exchanges and a couple of predictable double-crosses, all funneling into a anti-climactic conclusion that wrapped up the trilogy in a nice tight bow, but what made the movie more entertaining than expected is the effort to expand on some real human emotions (Chow and Allen’s friendship being the most prominent). It felt as if director Todd Phillips and his co-writer, Craig Mazin had actually grown up from the original premise and had something to say this time around, and it freshened up the overused premise.

If you want to laugh until it hurts, though, I would definitely go back to the first film, as “The Hangover: Part III” failed – again – to live up to its reputation as an epic comedy and proved, if nothing else, that the whole concept has pretty much run its course.

Rated R, 100 minutes

Available October 8th on DVD and BluRay