Electronic Music

Not the Actual Events EP – Nine Inch Nails

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 7/10

When Trent Reznor announced last year that we would indeed get new Nine Inch Nails music, I was ecstatic. Throughout the year, Reznor shot down any rumors of new NIN material. After months of speculation, he finally gave us new music. It’s not a new album, but it’s a taste of what’s to come. But rather than being a release that displays his best work, it’s more like something to shut up NIN fans and let Reznor work in peace.

Though trying not to make comparisons, the opening track “Branches/Bones” sounds like a leftover from Hesitation Marks. It’s brief, but the upbeat rock oriented music is similar to material from Reznor’s previous album. It kicks off the EP with a rush of energy thanks to the non-stop guitar riff that plows through the song. The music is loud and jarring sounding like it’s being played through blown out speakers. The track is decent at best, but it’s not that notable. At least it’s decent at kicking off the EP.

All the songs are solid, but very few of them stay with you afterward. “She’s Gone Away” and “The Idea of You” are good, but don’t grab you by the throat and pummel you like other NIN tracks. The only song that stands out is the eerie “Dear World.” Whether it’s the synth groove or the creepy opening vocals with Reznor singing “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep” this was the only song I actually remembered from the EP. The song has dark undertones as if something horrible is about to happen. Reznor’s monotone manner and the cold, robotic music makes it seem like something from an 80s dystopian film. There’s also a hypnotic air to it. The way Reznor speaks quietly seems like he’s trying to put you under a spell. It’s one of the coolest and unnerving tracks on the EP.

One thing the EP excels at is creating this dark, claustrophobic feeling. Songs like “She’s Gone Away” and “The Idea of You” have gritty music that puts you on edge. The former has a slow droning drumbeat as if ushering in some unforeseeable doom. And the way Reznor’s wails after the chorus gives it a haunting atmosphere. Everything in the song sounds so foreboding. The latter song has quiet vocals as if Reznor’s on the verge of breaking. Then chaos unleashes during the chorus when everything clashes together for a destructive mood.

The closing track “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)” continues the musical trend of impending doom. With the booming, fuzzy music it sounds like the end of days is coming. Just like with the rest of the EP, the music is the high point of the song. It instantly draws you in. The singing and the lyrics are where things get weird. The chorus of “break through the surface and” is fine on its own, but for the verses, Reznor does this weird spoken word style. Instead of being smooth, it sounds like a random rant. His flow goes against the music making it disjointed and off-putting. Near the end, the music and singing clash together creating a jarring wall of noise. It’s another solid song but doesn’t really hit that sweet spot for NIN fans.

Reznor’s always been a master of electronic music and it’s no different on this release. Each track has gripping music and is a mix of cool grooves with cold, metallic sounding electronic soundscapes. It’s the highlight of the EP. The same can’t be said for the lyrics which are forgettable. In his time, Reznor has crafted some of the most anguished filled, aching, and heartbreaking songs. Little of that is on display here. The lyrics seem meaningless and difficult to pinpoint what he’s trying to get across. Lines like “Still can make out pieces with the opening sewed shut/Yeah, parts of me are slowing down, time is speeding up/Spiders crawling everywhere, infected Japanese” (“Branches/Bones”) come off as forced. As if he’s trying too hard to be poignant and unnerving. They’re not as engaging or thoughtful as they are on past NIN releases. Hell, even the lyrics on Hesitation Marks are better. This makes it seem like Reznor rushed out this release to stop fans from asking about new NIN music.

The EP is solid, but does it really jump out at you? No. The songs don’t punch you in the gut like we expect from NIN. If anything, they’re fairly decent rock songs with some electronic elements. The EP isn’t terrible, but it’s far from Reznor’s best. There are bits and pieces of past NIN releases in the song, like elements of The Fragile, but few of them leave an impression. You’ll find yourself struggling to remember most of the songs after listening to it a few times. Very little about it is notable and there’s little to say about it. The strongest point is the music, but the lyrics fail to be engaging. For fans longing for a NIN release, this isn’t going to satisfy them for long. Still, it does make me excited for what NIN has in store for us. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long for more new music.

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Material – Blaqk Audio

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

Blaqk Audio is the synth and electronic based side project of AFI’s Davey Havok and Jade Puget. Moving away from punk rock, the duo explore lush beats, swirling rhythms, and hard hitting synth. They’re not doing anything completely unique with the genre, but they work with it well. Their debut album, Cexcells, was solid, but their follow up Bright Black Heaven seemed more or less the same. How does their long awaited third release hold up?

With this album Blaqk Audio doesn’t take any risks and sticks with their well worn formula of electronic and sythpop infused songs. This doesn’t necessarily make the album bad, but there’s very little about it that catches your attention the first time you listen to it. That’s because so much of the record sounds familiar or too similar to their past efforts. The dark nature of “Black at the Center” and the way Havok wails “I’m helpless/am I’m freezing” brings up similarities to “Ill-Lit Ships.” The rapid and catchy “First to Love” seems to continue the 80s, New Order vibe found on many of their other songs. And “I’m a Mess” uses the synth/piano format they seem to admire.

Despite this, there are some stand out tracks on the album. One of the best is “Curious Friends,” which starts with cold, futuristic music out of an 8-bit game. Havok sings in a robotic manner giving this feeling of isolation. The song amps up during the ear worm hook of “Does he tell that he loves you/like you do” and turns into more of a dance song. Everything about it is so satisfying it grabs your attention right away. The opening track “Waiting to Be Told” is another highlight. It continues the dark mood of the record with harsh, throbbing electronic beats opening the song. It’s one of the most intense on the album.

To Be Alone” has this great slow build up where the beat pluses and throbs while Havok softly sings. The track comes alive as things get more intense with eerie ambient noises sounding like other worldly moaning. Again, like other songs here it does sound like one of their previous tracks, but it still grabs your attention. “Material” is more of a forgettable song. The music and style is actually reminiscent of New Order’s “Blue Monday” and it’s not the first time their influence pops up on the record. It’s not a bad song, it’ll still get you moving. It’s just buried underneath the stronger tracks.

For some reason Blaqk Audio like having one super upbeat, poppy dance song on their albums and unfortunately, here is no different. Don’t be fooled by the name, “Graphic Violence” is the complete opposite of its brutal sounding title. The whole thing is really bright and sickeningly sugary sweet. It sounds like something that would play on a teen show on Nickelodeon. You picture pink splashes and lots of hearts when you hear it. It is slightly catchy, so it has potential to grow on you, but it sticks out on the album and doesn’t warrant itself for repeated listens.

The album hits a low point towards the end with generic sounding tracks “You Will Hate Me” and “Ceremonial.” On both songs, the mood shifts to upbeat dance music better suited for a Rihanna song. Rather than being stark, dark, and heavy hitting, the music is everything you currently hear on pop radio. Though they can be catchy at times, both of the songs are pretty bland and are filler more than anything. Luckily, the closing track “Anointed” ends the album on a high note. Though it doesn’t stray too far from what we’ve already heard on the album, it does add dirty guitars giving it more of a rock edge than the other tracks. There’s also an air of mystery and sensuality that makes it appealing. It manages to be another stand out track on the record.

With Blaqk Audio Puget and Havok show how versatile they are with music. They easily move out of their comfort zone to play around with something new. The problem is this album, just like their last one, sounds so similar to what they’ve already done. They even address the same themes of love, sex, and loneliness. You don’t expect them to do something so drastic it doesn’t even sound like them. Rather, you’d hope they’d find someway to make the album stand out from their others. Material is still another solid entry in their catalog with more irresistible songs. But since it’s so similar to their other stuff, it may take a few listens for the album to take. Still, it’s great to hear from Blaqk Audio again.

You’ll Pay for This – Bear Hands

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I first heard of Bear Hands when I saw them open for Cage the Elephant in 2014. I really dug their revolving musical styles and upbeat songs, so I quickly became a fan. I was pumped to hear about their upcoming album, looking for more infectious synth and unique tunes. And I was not disappointed.

The band has a knack for mixing synth with indie rock and it’s no different on this album. It opens with the 80s tinged “I Won’t Pay,” which starts out soft and mellow with falsetto vocals by Dylan Rau until it amps up for a bigger sound. When the guitar takes over during the bridge, it gives the song a rock edge. It’s catchy, which is a running theme for most of the album. Next comes their current single “2AM.” Though it describes partying until the early morning, the music is surprisingly chill. The mood is very soft and kind of atmospheric as it explores trying to stay out even though you’re too old. Lyrics like “All I want is/to forget how old I am” and “I put my best dress on/crawl back in bed” brings up images of being stuck at a party feeling miserable. It’s not the most grabbing song on the record, but it grows on you after repeated listens.

The band continues exploring getting older on “Too Young,” which sounds like a lounge song from the 70s at times. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not horrible. It manages to be interesting with it’s subject of being too immature for a relationship. The song does boast the memorable line “Youth is overrated,” which goes against the grain of common thought. Things are tuned down for the dreamy “The Shallows.” It begins with soothing sounds of rain and continues the calming theme with falsetto vocals and light surf rock guitars. It’s not necessarily a high point on the album, but the relaxing nature of it allows listeners to catch their breath.

Similar to their previous release, most of the songs on the album are fun, memorable, and made to get you dancing. “Like me Like That” has a simple hook and is another song taken straight from the 80s and “Chin Ups” is a synth pop, energetic ride with a hint of rock. Bear Hands let’s their old school influences run wild on the catchy “I See You.” With even more raucous synth and spacey sound effects, it sounds like it was taken straight from their favorite era. It sticks with their established style, but it’s another upbeat hit for the band.

The mellow, tropical opening of “Boss” seems unfitting at first, but once the hook kicks in the song comes alive. The guitar has a Southern rock flavor giving the song a boost. The track gets stuck in your head from the memorable hook of “I’m the bitch and you’re the boss.” The 80s feel returns on the bouncy and infectious “Deja Vu.” As soon as the bright synth riff kicks in, it makes you feel good. This is mixed with Rau’s rapid rap-like flow to make an irresistible track. The mood gets even better when brassy horns come in towards the end and amps up the feel good mood.

The most forgettable track is the closer “Purpose Filled Life.” Even though it’s dreamy, atmospheric, and has heart behind it, it’s buried under the stronger songs. The music is innocent, sounding like something from a simple Casio keyboard. The song itself seems to deal with making sure your life has meaning to it, which is a universal feeling. It’s kind of a depressing way to end a thrilling album.

What makes Bear Hands’ music so appealing is how exciting, different, and fun it is. Fans will be happy to know there’s more of the same on this album. It doesn’t really stray away from their beloved electric, synthpop, rock vibe, but it cranks up everything they did on their last effort and makes it better. The theme of the album is at least different and will be relatable to fans in their late 20s and older. It seems the longer Bear Hands around, their output gets stronger.

How Do You Feel Now? – Joywave

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 8.5/10

Before seeing them live with Metric I had a vague idea who Joywave were. I heard the name a few times, but didn’t have an idea about the music. After their 45 minute set, I went back to the merch booth and bought this album. Though they span various genres they mainly make dance music, which I’m not the biggest fan of. It’s often too repetitive for my tastes, but Joywave find a way to keep their songs fresh, fun, and exciting by mixing things up.

Things kick off with the slick, cool groove of “Somebody New.” It begins with what sounds like electrical equipment breaking down. It then turns into cool pulsating synth beats. The vibe of the song is real slick and smooth thanks to mix of electronic with a hip hop edge. It also doesn’t hurt that the hook of “Don’t wanna ever wake up/Don’t wanna ever wake up, I don’t/Don’t wanna ever wake up/Next to somebody new” manages to be memorable. “Carry Me” sounds more like a typical club song with rapid synth, upbeat guitars, and bright keys. It reminds me popular radio dance songs from the 90s. Because of its familiar sound and repetitive music, it’s not as strong as the other tracks, but it’s still pretty fun to listen to.

From here the album ramps up and takes listeners into overdrive with back to back to back stellar tracks. The weird, “boom boom” sampling at the beginning of “Tongues” sticks with you. It’s odd enough, yet still catchy to make it the most defining thing about the song. It automatically gets you in the groove. The rest of the song is smooth and relaxed especially with the way vocalist Daniel Armbruster sings with a stop-start rhythm. Even though “Destruction” begins with an unnecessary spoken word intro, it’s one of the best songs on the album. Here is where Joywave breaks from their electro style. The music is gritty and harsh sounding like a blaring siren in your ear. It plays off the light, whistling melody that comes in. The whole thing is funky and fun, but still has a bit of an edge.

Now” has a straight up rock and roll vibe with the driving guitar and energetic feel. There’s some hint of synth during the verses for a slight New Wave mood. There’s such a burst of energy and fun in this song, it makes you want to jump up as soon as it comes on. “Parade” is another standout on the album. It has a booming blast beat that sounds like it’s burning out your speakers. The music is really jagged and harsh, which again is paired with Armbruster’s falsetto singing. It’s fun the way many of their songs have loud, distorted music, but calm vocals. Though the song is thunderous and a good time it does end with a weird sample from Bambi about eating clovers, which makes sense due to the next track being named “In Clover.”

These odd samples are a running theme throughout the album. “Feels Like a Lie” has one at the end talking about space, while the closing track “Bad Dreams” ends with an instrumental from Peter Pan. They’re kind of interesting, but take you out of the song. It’s unnecessary unless you think about it in the scope of the album. Many of the samples relate to the next song, so listening to these tracks on shuffle make these parts jarring. But when you listen to the entire album from start to finish it makes more sense. Maybe its Joywave’s way of making sure listeners consume the entirety of their album. Or it could relate to the fact the band does a lot of DJ sets and the samples feel more comfortable in that setting.

Things start tapering off near the end of the record. Songs like “Nice House” and “Traveling at the Speed of Light” are tolerable, but don’t hold your attention as well as the other songs. “Nice House” sounds like it was ripped from the 80s. It has a cheesy bright synth riff you expect to find in a Duran Duran song. It’s not horrible, but it takes a bit to grow on you. If anything the lyrics will catch your attention: “I’d thought I’d have a nice house/to my brains out.” The latter song is more on the subdued side. It’s quiet and atmospheric with a little funk to the guitar. The flow of everything also gives it this unexpected sensual feeling. Again, it’s not a low point on the record, but it’s not something you’ll fall in love with right away.

The album closes with the atmospheric “Bad Dreams.” Like so many of their other songs, this one has a slick opening featuring a pulsing that sounds like a heart beating. Even though it starts out a bit mellow the music gets more intense as the song grows. There’s even a point where operatic singing comes in making it sound like scary chanting. The creepy feeling grows with lyrics talking about being “chased down the street with torches in the air.” Armbruster tries to reassure us to not worry about these bad dreams, but it doesn’t do much to change your mind about the haunting song.

What makes Joywave’s music so refreshing is all the different sounds and elements that go into it. They make a lot of dance music, but their blend of electro, pop, rock, and funk make them hard to pin down. There may be some low moments, but the album is all around great otherwise. It’s a lot of fun, upbeat, energetic, and gets you moving, which seems to be the goal of the band. Their songs are exciting because you never know what’s coming next. Is it more electro pop? Or is it a bittersweet ballad? They know how to make dance music exciting and appealing for those who may not be into it. I know I can’t wait for what they’ll do next.

Power, Corruption, & Lies – New Order

Release Year: 1983

Rating: 9/10

New Order rose from the ashes of Joy Division to become one of the biggest New Wave acts of the 80s. Now that they’ve released their first new material in a decade, it’s a great time to look back at one of their groundbreaking albums. Though their debut did fairly well, it’s their sophomore effort that got everyone’s attention. With more electronic and synth influences than before, the band helped usher in dance music into the new era.

One thing about the album is all the songs are catchy as hell. Even if you have no idea what the lyrics are about or even what’s being said, the pulsating music and ear catching synth riffs will get you moving. “Age of Consent” is a great introduction to the album with its upbeat music and bright synth putting you in a good mood. The music keeps adding new layers really fleshing out the sound especially during the bridge where each part begins playing off the main riff. The whole song has this great energy and vibe, though just try not to compare it to Joy Division. Luckily, this is the only song that will make you think of the iconic band.

It would’ve been easy for the band to stick with really catchy synth and repetitive beats, but there are several songs where they pay homage to the previous era of dance music. “We All Stand” has a killer bass groove ripped straight from a funkadelic song from the 70s. It’s sure to get you moving, but the lyrics will leave you scratching your head. They’re very ominous with an image of a solider waiting at the end of the road. Whatever he’s singing about you know it can’t be all that good. “5.8.6” sounds like it was inspired by disco with the energetic beats and steady rhythms, but there’s so much more to this track. There’s so much going on with the thudding scattered beat, stark synth that’s wonky and distorted, and some more funk flavor. The music has a lot of weird noises that lure you in to see where the band go next. And that’s part of what makes the album so great.

The problem with so many dance records is how repetitive it all gets after three or four songs. Sure, they may be catchy, but after a while it loses your attention. The reason New Order are so successful especially on this LP is they set up those initial beats and riffs to catch your attention and then the music evolves just when you think you have it figured out. Just listen to the insanely popular “Blue Monday.” There’s so much going on from the enigmatic lyrics to the deep bass grooves and the odd synth bridge; you don’t mind that it’s over seven minutes long. It’s the same thing with “Your Silent Face” with its dreamy music matched with snarky lyrics. Because they keep fleshing things out and pushing the music to different heights, it keeps listeners on their toes, but makes sure they never lose the beat.

Another thing that makes these songs so interesting are the enigmatic lyrics. On many of the songs you’re not always positive what’s being talked about, especially if you get lost in the music. “Ultraviolence” has some pretty ominous that sounds like he’s talking about something sinister: “Who felt those cold hands/Touch my skin/Deep within/Burn my soul/Fell to the ground” and he gets a little snarky on the closing track “Leave Me Alone” as he calmly sings “For these last few days leave me alone.” These are songs you can spend as much or as little time trying to pick them apart, which is a reason to keep coming back to the music.

This album helped New Order become the iconic band they are today. Not only did this album help usher in good dance music into the mid-80s, but it also changed the way people thought about synth and electronic music. The band proved it didn’t have to be repeating, pulsating beats that drone on and on. Instead it can be intricate, complex, yet still be catchy at the same time. Of course there are times where you can hear Joy Division’s influence, but it never sounds like they’re ripping themselves off. Also, you gotta admire a band that reformed themselves after a tragedy, which is something many groups can’t seem to do properly today.