Friday, 31 January 2014

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Against Me! has had themselves a pretty wild ride these last 17 years - an artist that in some circles went from being an absolute unknown, to ideal punk icons, and to others they sold out from their sneering anarcho-punk roots. Now, their lead singer Laura Jane Grace, born Tom Gabel, has suddenly found herself as this huge iconic figurehead for the transgender community, as she bravely came out to the public and her decision to continue making music in the punk scene. It was at this point that Against Me! began writing and recording their most difficult album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which is a fairly self-descriptive depiction of Laura’s emotional struggles over her entire life. The question is, would the album be her magnum opus, or a huge publicity stunt? Stay tuned lovelies. 

So to put things in perspective, we start with the first Against Me! studio album, Reinventing Axl Rose. It was released in 2002 and has since come to be regarded as a pretty great record by lots of respectable folks. It’s notable in its folky style, taking cue from folk-punk legends like The Pogues and Violent Femmes, but in a sincere and uniquely new hardness to it. Think GG Allin levels of energy but with the sanity of someone who can write lyrics as witty and poignant as those featured in the records big hit “Baby, I’m An Anarchist!”, a thundering call for, well, anarchy. This is the album to hear when going through that quintessential Alex DeLarge phase of life with all the anger and angst that accompanies it. 

The follow up, Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy suffered a bit from sophomore slump, a slicker album that felt over-produced and the cultural posterity in lyrics and song titles with names like “Cliché Guevara” does have a pretty short shelf-life, and does not make for repeat listening. They rectified this considerably with their third studio release, Searching For a Former Clarity, a surprisingly intellectual concept record dealing with themes of self-isolation and disassociation. A splendid joy for fans of the band, however a likely a painful struggle for Grace, beginning to come to terms with her gender confusion. The next steps would probably only make things more complicated for her and her band. 

Their fourth record New Waves would find them for the first time on a major record label, produced by Butch Vig, a great producer but not exactly reputable in the folk-punk community. Not that you could really call Against Me! a folk punk band anymore, there wasn’t any acoustics on New Waves at all. The fans hated it. Diehards from the early Axl Rose-era would denounce the band entirely as too poppy and sell-outs. The same thing most bands go through, but the folk-punk hipster scene can be particularly brutal. A world of self-made cassette demoes and Pabst-Blue Ribbon doesn’t take kindly to glossy Best Buy deluxe editions and music videos premiering on Fuse TV. 

All that shit aside, it wasn’t a terrible record, if you listen to it with a grain of salt. It’s just a confused record. Laura still doesn’t seem to know who she is. Some of what she was doing before comes through on some tracks like “Thrash Unreal” and “White People For Peace” which really echo the lyrical nihilism and anarchic themes of her early recordings. But there’s some definite flaws as well particularly with tracks like “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” and “Stop!” are examples of substandard. Additionally, Laura’s coming to terms with her gender and issues start becoming apparent in songs like “The Ocean” which, in retrospect is a great song, giving hope that perhaps an album of material like this would be just as good. 

Against Me! returned with a fifth studio album White Crosses featuring a new drummer and sounding wearier and somewhat like elder-statesmen, which in part, they were. They’d been playing shows for more than ten years together at this point. And Laura seems to really empathise with the anger of her fans at their selling out and abandoning them, but systematically calls them out on this and a need to grow up and move on, adapting and not so much selling-out as, being a realist. The lyrics of “I was a Teenage Anarchist” are an absolutely fantastic sequel to “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” Spitefully flicking off all the punk-ass former fans while wistfully wishing for the days when she was one of them. If only the rest of the album held up to that particular tracks standards, this might have signalled a new era of greatness for the band. It was not to be. One or two of the other tracks are decent and similarly nostalgic for younger simpler days, but just not the same. The Foo Fighters styled riffs and power chords just don’t suit the band very well. 

Financially speaking, both White Crosses and New Waves were very successful, prompting of course the assumption that the band might stay with this style. There was always the chance they could return to their more acoustic and punk roots though. 

Then Laura decided to come out as transgender in a fearless article with Rolling Stone. She announced her intent to remain the lead singer of the band, and promised their long-time fans she would rock just as hard in a skirt. It proved to be true; they played several shows post-gender transition to ravenous and supporting fans. The punk rock community being supportive to the plights of an emotionally damaged feminist transsexual? Maybe there’s hope for the GOP too. 

So then last year the band announced their sixth studio record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a chronicling of Laura Jane’s struggles. It came out this month and it’s pretty good. Albeit it’s a bit of a mess, in the sense that it is trying to regain some of the fierceness of their early days as well as maintain their newer slicker sound, and their dynamic with two new band members, this time a bassist as well as a drummer is without question a bit uncertain but all that becomes irrelevant in the opening slashes of the title track as Laura screams furiously about her entire life’s woes and the clanging energy of Reinventing Axl Rose’s “Pints of Guinness” is felt for the first time since then. 

Not every track is at that level of excellence. But there’s a few that definitely shine fairly brightly. “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “FUCKMYLIFE666” and “Black States” are good examples. There’s filler, there’s shitty over-produced nonsense, but Laura’s heart is definitely here. Be you a fan of their early stuff, their new stuff or simply interested in this very brave girl’s story, you should listen to this album. It’s not a grand masterpiece of sexual discovery and not perfect, but it’s heartfelt and earnest and that is enough. 
~Johnny Hoel

Live Show - Delamere / Moral Panics

Where: Stoke-on-Trent
Venue: The Sugarmill

Independent Venue Week managed their repertoire of artists well the other night (29/01/13) as various local, and further afield artists performed to a near-full audience at The Sugarmill in Stoke-on-Trent. It was never about catching a glimpse of your favourite local artist - though some audience members did retreat after just one hour. The artists lucky enough to take the stage at The Sugarmill were well prepared and catered to their respective fanbase, while remembering the music on offer varied slightly from a one-genre dimension. It was a night of messages and influence from one artist to another, from artist to audience, and audience to artist - support your local music venues, support your local music.

Delamere prepared for their set with a fierce soundcheck, which sounded absolutely fantastic from the side balcony. You could tell just from the soundcheck what Delamere are all about, and where they want to take their sound. The quartet played material from their past releases as a younger, less technical outfit, to their present more innovative sound orchestrated with their new single through Scruff of The Neck Records. Their set ranged from a few older, less rhythmic recordings, to an array of math rock/pop songs influenced by the identity of indie rock's past.

Songs like "Do You Want Me?" and "Heart" set the tone of their performance, but it was "Colour Me In" which seemed to have the greatest effect on the IVW goers. It showed that Delamere warrants respect from fellow artists and critics alike, for their ability to spot the potential not just lyrically, but what’s written in the songs textures. For instance, it's all well and good having a talented guitarist, but it means jack squat as 1/4 of a band if your creative partners can't match it. Delamere control their sound well and utilise skills both with guitar effects and percussion - because they're multi-instrumentalists beneath the cover of their character.

The only criticism towards Delamere on the night involves their lack of audience participation. Some artists find it difficult to 'talk' or just communicate with an audience, and I personally think Delamere could have done with a few plugs, and perhaps a little bit more encouragement for the night ahead. That being said, Delamere were thankful for the support audience members were showing, as we all know how difficult it can be to be the opening act at a small venue. Besides, Delamere's music and ideology does in fact ride on an emotional connection, rather than a physical 'let’s go mental' / 'hands in the air' aesthetic.

Moral Panics managed to clear the room after their set was over, surprised? I don't think anyone expected anything less. They clearly know how to attract an audience, how to participate, and even cater to that audience on a personal level. Their friendships with audience members helped, but it was their quick wit and indie rock band charm that made Moral Panics an instant crowd pleaser.

Their live set ranged from the simplicity of basic barre chords, to the technical skill and complexity of the lead guitar. They played positively throughout, though did lack depth when it came to varying from the norm. On occasion it seemed as if they suffer from multiple personality disorder, because they were criss-crossing from math rock to indie rock. It never really sounds like a defining sound, or a complete mix of the both - they had one hand under the cold water and one under the warm.

Moral Panics do have the potential to widen their audience massively, and Independent Venue Week is a great testimonial to local artists like Moral Panics, who want to achieve something far greater than the Staffordshire circuit. Along with Delamere, Moral Panics use the bottom end of a lead guitar to play math rock styled music, while keeping melodies and rhythms suited for rock lovers - Foals esque, but with less to bring to the table. Moral Panics have Foals written on their influences, and you don't need to ask them if this statement is true. But that's not so bad, the early Foals recordings relied heavily on unusual time signatures and structures not heard so popularly in the UK before. The excitement and straight up difference of math rock over other genres is its ability for limitless creations - backed by decent song-writers, and you're pretty much owning your niche.
~Eddie Gibson

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Discovery: Enslaved Mirror - True Illusion EP

Germany is a beautiful country which hosts some of the finest heavy metal acts this planet has come to see. We've had bands like The Scorpions, Kreator, Edguy and Rammstein to name a few. All four acts specialise in their own way, which is what an appealing factor of Enslaved Mirror is for this EP.

It’s named True Illusion, with the first track called “H.A.T.E.” This track title seems to indicate that it'll be whiny, but when you listen to it and get the lyrics up, well it's hilarious. It’s comical but serious at the same time, which a lot of people surely must relate to. The soft piano intro isn't instrumentally talented, but it adds to the humour, until the song kicks in with guitars which are skilful. The tempo changes and musical progressions are often in this song, which is pulled off greatly. There’s a line: “Slow this shit down,” which is a highlight, shame the breakdown didn't last a little longer though. Around the two minute mark, it goes from breakdowns to Dream Theater - the clean vocals aren't James Labrie as such though.

Then “The True Illusionist” kicks in to blast through your headphones. It's pretty much the same formula as the first track, and kind of cements the thought that Enslaved Mirror isn’t the kind of metal band you will take seriously. The clean vocals grate a little bit, though not to be taken seriously, but the screams are ferocious. The piano makes its return, along with some lyrics which can be a bit of a ball ache to grasp at first; a lyric sheet would help, as they seem to be quite fun lyrics. This track acts like a rock opera, something that's beautifully done, kind of like a death metal version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

Follow Me” is next in line and offers a juicy guitar riff at the very start. The lyrical theme of this EP so far seems to be social awareness, and kind of takes a few swings at it. Enslaved Mirror’s singing style with the clean vocals sound amusing, and the screams sound fucking awesome, with the lyric: “But why should I give up my life?” sounding like an attempt at Eastern Asian singing styles, Hm. The breakdowns bring out their metalcore influences, whilst the synths make it a lot more Dream Theater-esque, as I previously stated. “Follow Me” is more akin to breakdowns and epic solos than the previous two that have had piano ballad-type music. The instrumental quality from Enslaved Mirror is superb so far in to True Illusion.

Shine” starts the second half of the EP with pretty decent fucking lyrics. This is the most in your face track on the EP, with guitar riffs chugging through the first minute and straight into a mini solo and back to the synth sounds. Another breakdown comes three minutes in, with nice melodies popping over it alongside whispering vocals. This track seems to be more of the inspiring track on the EP when you put the lyrics (if you can't understand them or read lyrics online) in to perspective.

And last but not least, there is “Inner Blaze”, the shortest track on True Illision. The piano makes another lovely appearance, while making sounds like a mini prog metal track, but it's done nicely. The breakdown is great in this track, as well as the solos, which are the most appealing factor coming from this EP. The ending of this track seems quite fast, but it's a nice way to end the True Illusion.

True Illusion offers a range of instrumentals; however the typical metal genre instruments remain the strongest due to the fast percussion, two separate breakdowns in each track, and also the melodic solos flowing within and out of each track. The piano has been a great aspect, and even though the playing is simple, it's still a fun factor. The screams are the best quality vocally, whilst clean vocals aren't really up to scratch, but I'm not sure if that is deliberate. They did a pretty fun cover of PSY's “Gentleman”, which can be seen on YouTube, showing how Enslaved Mirror likes to have a laugh. “H.A.T.E” seems to be the highlight of their EP - being solid in every way for a metal song, this deserves credit. Enslaved Mirror are heavy as fuck, yet polite in places. They’re quite like an anchor if it had a personality (yes I am aware that was a dumb comparison.) It puts metalcore on a different level in places adding synths, so like Dream Theater if they were high off of crack - I mean this in a nice way, these guys are insane and that's a win in my books.
~Matthew Clewley