Latest Reviews

Second Look: Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

By Brendan Frank; August 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

As a child, you typically listen to the music that your parents are playing, be it on their stereos or the radio. At the very least, you do this until you’re old enough to realize there’s other stuff out there, but those formative years will affect your listening habits for life. In a sense, we are all musically indoctrinated, with built-in biases and tastes, and these are often shaped by our families. I come from a musical background; some of my first memories of my little brother are the two of us jamming when the only “instruments” we had were drumsticks, miscellaneous pieces of Tupperware from my mom’s kitchen and a plastic two-octave Yamaha keyboard. Home life = music in the Frank household. It was as much a part of my life as eating.

But growing up with that innate adoration, your parents’ music can only satiate you for so long. I hated most of what was on the radio (Strokes and Stripes excluding), and I had yet to really clue in to the communicative power of the internet. I distinctly remember a friend throwing on “Balaclava” in his car in the fall of 2007. To my total surprise, and despite everything my parents had told me, 2001 actually wasn’t the last year that good music was released. Every time I play “Balaclava” the same feeling rushes back like a spring flood. I’d never experienced anything quite like it. Favourite Worst Nightmare was the first record I listened to that truly felt like something I had discovered, something that was mine. It was uncompromised, de-corporatized, breathlessly paced rock music. It hadn’t been played to death on the radio, and my family had never heard of Arctic Monkeys. Check and check.

Every track on Favourite Worst Nightmare kicked and punched like a band that had been slaving away to capture this particular strain of ferocity for years, but Alex Turner, Matt Helders, Nick O’Malley and Jaime Cook were only four years my senior. It also didn’t hurt that Turner’s lyrics were dripping with the sort of sardonic smarminess that every teenager wishes they could conjure in their most sullen moments. At age 17, the less effort you appear to putting in, the better it looks on you, and I couldn’t have been a better stage in my life to fully appreciate the cheekiness of the record’s opening line: “Brian/ Top marks for not tryin’.” “Brianstorm” hit so hard it hurt, almost metal-like in its fury. I am of the opinion that Matt Helders is the best drummer of his generation, and this is still one of the best cases he’s made so far. Every fill, crash and flurry erupts with creativity and confidence, like the world will end if the music slows down (the live version is even faster). The floor tom’s synchronization with the guitars blows me away every time I hear it. Five years on, “Brianstorm” is still the most played song in my music library.

As a musician, there aren’t many pleasure centres in my brain that Favourite Worst Nightmare doesn’t address. It’s a guitarist’s guitar album, stuffed to the rafters with one-off licks, sublime interplay, and bizarre keys and chord progressions. Songs that are superficially simplistic, like “Old Yellow Bricks,” are still incurably catchy and carry a surprising level of depth in other areas.

Favourite Worst Nightmare rarely sounds less than brainstem-grippingly vital. Every note on “Teddy Picker” hits like a gunshot, with teenhood fantasies of fame shattered instantaneously by Turner’s agile vocal work: “The kids all dream of making it/ Whatever that means.” “If You Were There, Beware” metamorphoses flawlessly from slinking insect to thrashing beast, also serving as a glimpse into the sonic territory that the Monkeys would make their own on Humbug. “This House Is A Circus” takes a strobe-lit party and lends it a sense of carnivalesque madness, where the alcohol and whatever else has so far removed you from reality that the house you’re in feels like a maze. From the opening two-note tick to the demented riff it leads up to, you’re in that maze, collecting venomous looks right beside Turner.

Then there’s “505,” arguably the band’s finest moment yet. Turner’s race against time to make it back to a hotel room to meet his lover, with whom he is struggling to keep things afloat, is both invigorating and heartbreaking. It’s flashy, but its subtleties are numerous. Case in point: Helders’ rim shots that emulate the sound of a ticking clock.

Not only is the musicianship here unusually accomplished, the lyrics often read as poetry. Thanks to mainstream radio, I was used to hearing rhyme schemes like “you/true” and “good/would”. Alex Turner rhymed “black hole” with “Tabasco,” “whirlwind” with “girlfriend,” “use me” with “jacuzzi,” and used words like “megadobber” and “soul-pinchers” as if they were a part his regular vocabulary. The closing line on “Do Me A Favour” is still my favourite couplet of his: “How to tear apart the ties that bind?/ Perhaps ‘fuck off’ might be too kind.” It’s tragically, dejectedly brilliant, and it’s something that only he could have written.

Favourite Worst Nightmare is noteworthy as a standalone piece, but it’s even more remarkable because Arctic Monkeys haven’t yet felt the need to make a sequel. Nor is it a sequel itself. If it doesn’t match the hormonal, first-person rantings of Whatever People Say I Am, but it builds upon new strengths: tighter compositions, lyrical breadth, and heightened urgency. They released the fastest-selling debut in British history as teenagers, lost their bassist shortly thereafter, then toured the world, and it still only took Arctic Monkeys fifteen months to top themselves. The weight of these expectations would have crushed most bands, but the Monkeys took it, ran, and ran far. Favourite Worst Nightmare is thoughtful, pugnacious, and totally essential. As a statement on what new school rock and roll can and should be in the age of the blog, it stands very tall indeed.

Second Look: X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents

By Joshua Pickard; August 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

The glitz of glam rock had faded away to make room for the noisier, more distorted visions spewed forth from bands like Suicide and The Dead Boys. The free-spirited attitude of the ’60s was long since forgotten, and the world was back to being one fucked up place. Not that it hadn’t been all along, but people were just more willing to focus on the hippies and psychotropic drugs and less so on the general poverty and despair. Ignorance was a powerful drug, and it was a habit that most people weren’t especially eager to kick. With the approach of the ’80s, things didn’t seem to be getting any better. People were getting angry and, in a fashion similar to the protest songs of the ’60s, punk rock seemed as good a way as any to vent. Even still, most punk bands were still singing about getting drunk, getting laid, and consuming vast quantities of drugs. The politicism and anti-consumerism of punk that was to come had not yet taken hold. But it was coming. 
 
Punk rock in the United Kingdom, specifically anti-establishment punk, was already well entrenched by the time it made its first waves here in the States. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were tearing up bars long before the majority of the US took notice of their overt political viewpoints and decided to co-opt the sound. When it took hold, however, bands began springing up from every dark corner of every bar. This punk insurgence came about side-by-side with the No Wave movement which incorporated elements of jazz, punk, avant garde, and experimental music.

While No Wave could be said to have the more varied approach to music, punk was the more affecting and longer lasting of the two. Taking their cues from the jagged rock of The Stooges and MC5 and turning them into a kind of mantra, these artists developed a style that emphasized an overwhelming emotional overhaul in the form of punk culture. The mohawks, piercings, and generally haphazard appearance all became as much an aspect of the punk movement as the music itself. And as is often the case, the things that the genre became known for were the very things which came to be thought of as synonymous with its excess. Before the inevitable fall, however, punk was a vital force in music and had a legitimate claim to call for social change. No band exemplified this serious call to arms better than X-Ray Spex.
 
Based in London, the band released very little in the way of official recordings in their short time as a band, but their influence can be felt and heard in bands throughout the interceding years between their first 7” release in 1977 and today. Where would the grrrl riot movement have been without X-ray Spex lead singer Poly Styrene? The frenzied embodiment of female empowerment, Styrene was a walking, screaming tornado of unrepressed sexuality, anti-consumerism, and political determination. She would make a difference, come hell or high water. And they had a saxophone player in the band. Who thinks that a saxophone player has any business being in a punk band? She did. And that saxophone is one of the most raucous, invigorating things you’ll ever hear. Their lone full-length (not including their ’95 album Conscious Consumer…ever), 1978’s Germfree Adolescents, was an album so determined in making its own history that it rose above the sometimes banal punk truisms and became something else entirely. It meant something. It was a serious record in a time when punk rock was being derided by the majority of mainstream media. How do you make people pay attention to your message when all they see is the dyed hair, screaming kids, and torn clothes? You begin by tossing out all the old punk attitudes and musical confinement and creating something new and determinedly vitriolic. You record an album that can’t help but be noticed, and Germfree Adolescents was certainly that, which makes its geek-music obscurity all the more mystifying.
 
But why is it that the canon of punk rock so casually overlooks their place in its storied history? Why do most people remember The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Richard Hell so much more clearly than Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex? Obviously, their short tenure as a band has played a large part in their relative anonymity, but punk rock was notorious for having important bands release just an album or two of significance and then fade away, leaving other bands to pick up their mantle and carry on.

I think some of the problem also comes when the group, after having broken up, went off and started other bands, and in their enthusiasm for these new bands, they may have inadvertently short-changed the importance of what X-Ray Spex had come to mean to their fans and to the evolution of the punk movement. By taking their own clearly acknowledged influences (The Dictators, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground) and merging them with this burgeoning self-aware political punk movement, the band had created something singular and intensely conscious of itself. And something that was, up to that time, only hinted at in the foremost recordings of the bands who were beginning to understand what punk rock could be. Germfree Adolescents was a true incongruity in punk canon up to that point, and I think that it’s for this reason that so many who claim to hold punk in high esteem have little regard or knowledge of the album.
 
The opening lines of the album, “I know I’m artificial/ But don’t put the blame on me/ I was reared with appliances in a consumer society” set the tone for the next 36 minutes. The commercial and possessive aspects of society are all unmistakably in the band’s sights. That opening song, “Art-I-Ficial,” clearly lays the sonic and thematic groundwork for every song that follows. From the outset, the guitars charge forward, recklessly trying to outdistance everything else, and when Poly Styrene’s vocals come in, you know that this is something different, that this is something you need to pay attention to. The title track “Germfree Adolescents” drops the churning guitars and hypersonic beats in favor of a slower tempo and a more reflective take on the Spex musical worldview. They’re approaching a proto-’80s synth-pop sound on this song (although it is somewhat of an anomaly on the album), and it is all the more effective for its seeming prescience.

“Identity” races along with its swirling guitars struggling to keep pace with the intensely catchy saxophone, some small piece of funk from a Stax masterpiece that never got released. And despite its decidedly non-militant sound, it is one of the most lyrically zealous descriptions of society’s inability to help the youth of the UK and, by association, the US. The song is based on an experience that Poly Styrene had where she witnessed a girl slashing her wrists in a bathroom at a local nightclub. It draws a connection between the girls’ beaten outlook and the pressure that society places on young people to conform to a uniform standard. Rocker “Obsessed With You” hits straight from the gate, the guitars chugging along like a freight train. The saxophone isn’t superfluous here, adding squeals and backing atmosphere where it’s needed and silence when it’s not. The album is also a good deal more melodic than you might expect.
 
One of their most memorable songs, the angrily propulsive “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” with its kinetic saxophone riffs and scorching vocals, seems right at home closing out the record as it could be seen as a kind of mission statement from the band. But you may be saying, “Hey, The Stooges had saxophone in some of their songs. What’s the big deal?” And you would be right, but I feel that there is a musical kinship between The Stooges and X-Ray Spex that hits on a deeper understanding of people’s ability to relate to music. The manic spirit that infused The Stooges is found in abundance on Germfree Adolescents, and the record revels in this connection. The rest of the record is a whirlwind of sardonic anthems (“I Am A Poseur,” “I Live Off You”) and punk aphorisms (“Let’s Submerge,” “I Can’t Do Anything”) concerning the difficulties of attaining and maintaining your own unique personality. This ability to disconnect yourself from the modern world and reject the strict conformist attitude and materialism of contemporary society was one of the most personal and fervent ideas that the band ascribed to.
 
The album fractured the idea of what I thought punk was capable of. After Germfree Adolescents was released, people began to notice that punk was more than just a group of screaming people in torn clothing, that it could be more than that. The songs that made up the original album felt more like political and anti-consumerist tirades than straight punk songs. X-Ray Spex seemed to be heavily indebted to the ideals of French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who argued that the current system of capitalism values consumption over production, and that as we find better and more efficient ways to tell people that they need to possess “things,” we lose our own individualism at a parallel rate. This idea of exposing consumerism’s ugly underside and promoting the assertion of individuality was at the heart of why X-Ray Spex was founded. 
 
By looking at the history and circumstances of the band at the time of the album’s release, we get a better understanding of the album itself. This was a band still in its infancy, not wanting to wait to have its say. Due to their lack of maturity as a band, coupled with Styrene’s fiery political and social rhetoric, X-Ray Spex was always going to have a short shelf life. This kind of intensely honest street corner sermonizing always burns out very quickly. And after the exhaustion of a full UK tour in 1978, Poly Sytrene left the band around the middle of the following year. After her departure, the band fell into disrepair and disbanded. Their mammoth intensity for X-Ray Spex all but burnt out, the band members fell apart and went off to join and found other bands like Classix Nouveaux, Agent Orange, and Transvision Vamp. Even now, the memory and love of the band endures, and this is in no small part the responsibility of their cosmic punk statement Germfree Adolescents, an album that showed the world what music could accomplish if backed by the drive and ferocity of true artists.

Second Look: Smog – Knock Knock

By Andrew Halverson; August 3, 2012 at 12:01 AM 

Bill Callahan has one of the most storied careers of any active musician. There are veterans who have spent more time on Earth releasing records, but Callahan has used his now-twenty years of life in the album space without wasting a moment. From Sewn to the Sky, the debut record that challenged ears in a most difficult and abrasive fashion, to the latest of Callahan offerings, Apocalypse, he has used very specific attitudes and characters that add up to personal growth within himself. His voice and music have progressed from philosophically-interested whines of a late-teen to a man of lessons to teach and wisdom to pass on, however it hasn’t just been a product over making a great many records–it took its true turning point in the form of Knock Knock.

The album takes its most elated, hopeful, and generally brimming track and places it at the beginning. “Let’s Move to the Country” finds Callahan’s character on Knock Knock in one of his weakest states: one that is willing to love and risk it, but at the same time he is still unsure. He poignantly sings “Let’s start a… let’s have a…” and without even finishing a sentence, the syllables of the word he wants to say are rather a couple notes from his guitar. Why he excludes that lyric could be interpreted as anything, he wanted what love was able to create and that follows through right until the very last track of the record where lack of that one word is simple foreshadowing of what the artist cannot have.

“Left Only With Love,” the album’s last hurrah, is a sparing song on losing a person to somebody else, and maybe the reason Callahan leaves out those words on “Let’s Move to the Country.” Ostensibly, the only sources of sound on this song are his voice and guitar. One moment, some drums attempt to kick in, perhaps in effort to start a ballad, but they live only for a brief few seconds until they are stopped abruptly, leaving Callahan alone once again.

While Knock Knock has a concise theme and story, it contains a few of the greatest songs that Bill Callahan has ever written. “River Guard” for instance, one of his lyrical staples, contrasts the differences between prisoners, prison guards, and everyday free citizens. He notices while watching over them in the river that they are having “the time of their lives” and as he looks closer at the situation, he becomes the real prisoner, consistently ringing “We are always on trial, it’s a way to be free”: a depressing thought, but one to think about.

Like other works of Smog, Knock Knock isn’t musically complex–it just builds around a few chords and fills it with strategically used accompaniments that work so well in Callahan’s favor. Take “Hit the Ground Running” for example, which follows a two-chord melody, but gracefully fills its nearly seven-minute runtime with intense background instrumentation. With early, perfect minimalism, he can make two chords sound not only grandiose, but beautiful and spacious.

“Teenage Spaceship,” this album’s most personally resonant song to me, relates easily and closes a chapter in Callahan’s music. The song suggests that the world of a teenager is just like space: you’re sort of trapped in this new, mystical, ever-changing wasteland, but mostly you feel alone inside it. This song is a look back at the nostalgia of being alone and secluded, but he knows he’s moved past using it as a tool of feeling better about life these days, especially in ways about songwriting. He harkens back to his experimental, noisy past: “I was a teenage smog, sewn to the sky.” It’s the album’s ultra-fitting thesis that strikes notions of what it’s continually like to wander in the same place.

Second Look: The Replacements – Tim

By David Wolfson; July 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Tim is an oddity of an album. Sandwiched between The Replacements’ magnum opus (Let It Be) and their first album with pronounced commercial aspirations (Pleased To Meet Me), it lacks both the rowdiness of the old Mats and the polished approach of the new Mats. It’s the first major label album from a band that helped define the alternative rock scene. It’s the last album to feature founding member Bob Stinson’s guitar playing, before he was booted from the band. It has throwaway tracks like “Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose Of Thunder,” but it also has by far the best closing trio of any Replacements album. Perhaps it’s the irony of things like these though, that make it the definitive Replacements release.

In 1984, The Mats were in a situation that was becoming increasingly common for indie bands at the time: they’d reached the point where they were too big for their label. So they signed to a major (Sire Records), and while it was the beginning of the end for The Mats, their descent into oblivion was more of a one-winged spiral than a sharp plummet, and with many great moments along the way. The first cog to come loose was founding member Bob Stinson, as the band felt that they needed to make adjustments, and Bob’s simplified punk ethos conflicted with Paul Westerberg’s maturing songwriting. But before Bob’s departure, we got Tim, in all its ragged glory.

The album opens with the charming but largely unintelligible “Hold My Life.” A closer listen to the lyrics reveals impending feelings of paranoia at the thought of growing up; a surprising admission that was only the first sign of Westerberg’s ongoing journey to maturity. It’s the antithesis to Let It Be‘s “I Will Dare” in that instead of taking reckless chances, The Mats are now calling for a safety net. But what really makes it special is how the instrumentation and Westerberg’s vocal delivery retain the band’s youthful edge, in contrast to the song’s subject matter.

“I’ll Buy” is a bit of a regression when pitted against “Hold My Life,” as it sees Westerberg going back to his “I Will Dare” mentality, telling his girlfriend in the chorus “Everything you say, dear/ I’ll buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.” Only his delivery is a bit tongue-in-cheek, especially during lines like “Give my regards to Broadway/ Tell ’em I don’t really care,” suggesting that Westerberg in fact no longer believes in the fleeting, reckless lifestyle that so heavily influenced the band’s earlier work. “Kiss Me On The Bus” is perhaps the most lighthearted song on Tim, expressing the unparalleled youthful sentiment of not being able to be with a crush. “Your tongue, your transfer/ Your hand, your answer” ranks among the best couplets Westerberg has ever penned, and the Stinson solo that leads into the song’s final chorus is a prime example of how The Mats helped bring guitar solos back into the underground repertoire.

But then, hitting cleanup is “Dose Of Thunder,” the first trough in Tim‘s cycle. It’s sloppy, reckless, and snotty in a way that hearkens back to the band’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash days, but is frustrating to hear on Tim just because the surrounding songs are so much better and more complex. The best thing you can say about it is that it exemplifies The Mats’ astounding ability to crash and burn right after blowing everyone’s socks off; one of the defining characteristics of the band. Attribute it to being the only song on Tim that wasn’t written solely by Westerberg (Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson also share credit). “Waitress In The Sky” is a whimsical track that targets, of all things, flight attendants for their high-horsed behavior. Over a shuffling beat, Westerberg chides “Struttin’ up the aisle/ Big deal, you get to fly/ You ain’t nothing but a waitress in the sky” half-jokingly. It’s easily the most nonsensical and random song on Tim in terms of subject matter, but because of its instant appeal and sheer catchiness, it’s a welcome detour from the heavier sentiments found elsewhere on the album.

“Swingin Party” closes Side One and is Tim‘s bona fide ballad, à la Let It Be‘s “Sixteen Blue.” If “Hold My Life” was Westerberg’s call for help so that he doesn’t fall over the edge, “Swingin Party” finds him after he’s gone over and is about to pay the price. The price, of course, being a trip to the “Swinging party down the line,” or to state it explicitly, Westerberg’s hanging.

Opening Side Two with a blast is “Bastards Of Young,” Tim‘s lead single and, by default, rallying call. This is the song they bombed their SNL performance with, and even without seeing the footage, it’s not hard to imagine it: opening with a raw, throaty, wordless cry from Westerberg and centering around the proclamation “We are the sons of no one,” “Bastards Of Young,” in retrospect, could very well be seen as The Mats’ last true youth anthem. It also features the lines “The ones who love us best/ Are the ones we’ll lay to rest/ And visit their graves on holidays at best/ The ones who love us least/ Are the ones we’ll die to please/ If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them,” which add up to a disturbingly true notion about social nature that is notable in its own right.

Right after “Bastards Of Young” though, almost as if to remind us of who we’re dealing with, is “Lay It Down Clown.” As was the case with “Dose Of Thunder,” “Lay It Down Clown” hearkens back to the band’s early style, but doesn’t work because their early style is so inferior to what they’re doing elsewhere on the album. It seems unfair to dismiss these two dud songs as such when Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash is, for what it is, actually a good album, but what it is (simplistic garage punk) doesn’t quite stack up against the more developed songwriter that began to bloom within Paul Westerberg on Hootenanny and flowered throughout Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased To Meet Me.

After “Lay It Down Clown,” prospects seem low for Tim living up to Let It Be‘s status as an instant classic. But then The Mats went and redefined how good they were with (dare I say it) one of the greatest closing trios in alt-rock history. It is these three songs, more than anything else they ever did, that define their legacy. It starts with “Left Of The Dial,” a song that perfects the loud-soft-loud dynamic that Dinosaur Jr. and several waves of shoegaze artists would lay claim to as their signature just a few years later. The lyrics are written as a love letter to a girl in another band, and the result is an indie anthem on par with the best of ’em.

“Little Mascara” is, above all else, Tim‘s heartbreaker. At this point in his career, Westerberg has all but perfected that wounded stray yowl that was part of his trademark, but it’s utilized here better than anywhere else. Topping it off is one of Bob Stinson’s most affecting solos, and when paired with lines like “Don’t you worry if you wonder why he ran” and the chorus of “All you’re ever losing is/ A little mascara/ That you cry,” “Little Mascara” becomes not just a highlight of Tim but of The Replacements’ career.

Finally, the last song on Tim is also the most downtrodden: “Here Comes A Regular.” As early as 1981 b-side “If Only You Were Lonely,” it was clear that Paul Westerberg was capable of dealing with a wider range of emotions than the average punk frontman, but “Here Comes A Regular” is a step up even for him, set over punctuated acoustic guitar chords and even featuring strings in the outro (gasp!). It’s not only the longest song The Mats put to tape but also the barest; not in production, but rather delivery, as Westerberg is able to harness his band’s status as “regulars” themselves for a five-minute comedown from the catharsis of “Little Mascara”‘s lyrics. The lyrics to “Here Comes A Regular” itself use a metaphor about bars to address everyone’s innate desire to be special, to have someone, to make the most of themselves; just to have ambition period, while the every-man Westerberg is alone as the only (ironic) regular. For a band whose appeal is largely based on their status as “regulars” in both senses of the word (as everyday people and as bar regulars), it’s a fitting end to the album.

Tim is not the best Replacements album. “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” quickly put an end to any argument there. But while it may not be their best, it is the Replacements album. It was the last album where Paul Westerberg was in firm control of the band, enacting his will, before the band fell apart around him. It also bridges the gap between two distinct periods of the band and is able to synthesize elements of the two with a unique sound that no one has been able to replicate since. The Replacements are a hard band to pin down, as far as what made them really good goes; I’ve done my best to express it here, but they’re a band whose ability to hit home truly needs to be heard to be understood. And for that purpose, there is no better album than Tim.

Second Look: Strata – Strata Presents the End of the World

By Andrew Bailey; May 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Strata are no longer making music together, but back when they were, I saw them share bills with the likes of Finger Eleven, Chevelle, Smile Empty Soul, and Trapt. Uh-huh. Trapt. These are bands that, as indie snobs (yes, I’m haphazardly bunching us all together), we tend to scoff at*, much less cover here on this site. But hang with me for a minute. Hear me out.

* I can’t offer very many straight-faced endorsements of these bands, but I do feel compelled to stress that, in the case of Finger Eleven at least, you shouldn’t get too turned off by preconception or what you might have already heard (you do remember “One Thing,” don’t you?). Their first two records, 1997’s Tip and 2000’s The Greyest of Blue Skies, are actually quite good, especially if you’re contrasting it against other radio-ish alt-rock stuff. That said, you should totally avoid their most recent albums, Them vs. You vs. Me and Life Turns Electric.

The band formed in 2001 under the guise of Downside, but by 2003 they’d changed their name and then a year later had their first album, a self-titled release, on record store shelves (Sam Goody!). That album, which ended up contributing a song to Madden 2005 and The Punisher soundtrack, is what lured me to the band. The simplicity and generic nature of some of the lyrics — “I am on the brink of losing everything/Hanging on the edge of every word she says/And you were never there/You were never there” forms the intro to “Never There (She Stabs)” — is probably enough to make a Sufjan Stevens fan’s head explode, but sophistication is secondary in this case. The fact is, the music sounds fantastic. The production is spectacularly smooth for a debut, the hooks and climaxes are undeniable, and from a composition standpoint, Strata is a hell of a lot more Lateralus than, say, We Are Not Alone. Don’t let the nu-metal, post-grunge, alt-rock tags deter you.

Three years after the release of their debut, the band dropped Strata Presents The End of the World. Instantly, the band’s sound, structure, and lyrical composition — actually, everything — took a jarring left turn. The new album sounded like… well, kind of like an indie rock record (okay, fine: an “indie rock-ish” record). The hooks were still prevalent and the production was just as clean, but the nu-metal skin in which the band had previously slithered had been completely shed. In lieu of fist-pumping, anthemic rock songs, the band went atmospheric, building a foundation on the juxtaposition between light instrumentation and oftentimes dark subject matter. “Cocaine (We’re All Going to Hell),” for instance, is a poppy dance tune aesthetically, but the lyrics themselves are about a girl fascinated with the club scene who goes home with someone, overdoses, and then has her corpse disposed of like a bag of raked leaves.

The End of the World subtracted a lot of the cut-and-paste lyricism of their debut in favor of a more narrative-oriented songwriting method. “Poughkeepsie, NY” tells the story of an encounter with the embodiment of Satan in a dank New York bar, while “The New National Anthem” is an onslaught against the war in Iraq, a critique of those who stand to gain the most from the bloodshed, and an assertion that patriotism is defined by more than just flags and yellow ribbons (which is absolutely true, by the way). “Hot/Cold (Darling, Don’t)” is a little bit campy (“Look at the map on the wall/Put your fingers on where we are/No matter where I go we’re just an inch apart”), but it doesn’t feel like the product of a formula. Throughout the record, even the weakest of words are forgiven in the name of strong sounds.

Of course, this new approach should have come as no surprise. In 2006, the band’s singer and creative force, Eric Victorino, released his first book of poetry and prose, Coma Therapy (The End of the World features a track of the same name). Around the same time, Victorino began a loose partnership with Giovanni Giusti, who at the time produced beats under the moniker of Nozebleed*. Their demos were far more reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie’s work than anything Strata had ever put their name on, foreshadowing what was to come for Victorino’s band.

* Victorino and Giusti are now known as The Limousines. “Very Busy People” marks their most recognizable track to date and, if you haven’t already, it most certainly begs hearing. Full disclosure: I reviewed The Limousines’ debut record, Get Sharp, back in the summer of 2010 and when Giusti came across it, well… he wasn’t happy. It wasn’t a particularly offensive review (in my mind), but it wasn’t glowing either. I’d forgotten all about that altercation — can you really call a spat over Twitter an altercation? — until midway through this writing. The past is the past, but it seemed to warrant mentioning. And no, I won’t be linking that review.

About six months after the release of The End of the World, Victorino left the band to explore other creative endeavors. Ryan Hernandez and Adrian Robison, Strata’s guitarist and drummer respectively, would go on to form Beta State, who released their debut album, Stars, in September 2010.

The one thing that most certainly will not be a part of the experience for someone listening to The End of the World for the first time is the nostalgia that I get from it on a personal level. Strata dropped their first album when I was 19. They just happened to be opening a show for another band (whose name I can’t even remember now) and I was dragged along by a friend. At the time, my music tastes were still forming*. Save for the timeless stuff, there aren’t many bands that I listened to then that I still enjoy now. But Strata’s music still resonates for me. It doesn’t necessarily provide the literary or emotional depth of a Hospice or The Monitor (to pull examples out of thin air), albums that stimulate the more mature parts of my brain that didn’t exist eight years ago, but it certainly helps my mind escape to a place and time where things were a little bit easier, where the constant, swarming pressure of adulthood wasn’t relentlessly poking at my ribs.

* Consider that in 2004, when I was 19, the internet hadn’t yet become the platform for music discovery that it is today. MySpace (which was really the first popular social network for teenagers and young adults) and Facebook were just getting off the ground, Google wasn’t a publicly traded company until August 2004, and indie music giant Pitchfork was more or less a seed. Music downloading was just taking off, but you had to do it one corrupted, screeching track at a time. To make things worse, I vividly remember introducing friends to The College Dropout that same year, so I wasn’t exactly surrounded by people on the cutting edge of music, either.

Every now and then I wonder about the icons of music that were lost at a young age, before their talents ever had a chance to fully bloom. You know the names. Each time, I end up asking myself whether or not their passing was ultimately a good thing for their legacy. Don’t get me wrong; their deaths were certainly not “good.” But there’s something to be said for the way in which death can crystallize one’s prominence, preventing a star from tarnishing and keeping the questions about what would have and could have been forever ignited. A band calling it quits and fading off into the sunset (relatively, at least) provides a similar function.

As such, Strata Presents The End of the World made for an excellent note on which to walk away, a testament to reinvention. Years ago, seeing them open for bands that have gone on to sell out arenas and saturate radio waves (and maybe even accrue less than glistening reputations among the probably-smaller-than-you-think artsy, hardcore music fan population), I recall thinking to myself, “man, how are these guys not more well-known?” These days, I’m content to hit play on what became their final record and enjoy not just the unheralded addictiveness of the music, but the soft solace that comes with knowing I’m in on something that so many others seem to have let slip past.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

By Jason Hirschhorn; April 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

As one of the two post-Roger Waters albums Pink Floyd released, The Division Bell remains difficult to contextualize. Much had changed in the years since the first of these two albums, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. The legal wrangling that had kept keyboardist Richard Wright out of the band were over, however his exact place in the group was unclear and a point of contention. Gilmour was freshly remarried and recovering from his cocaine addiction, yet his struggles to produce new Floyd material without Waters remained. To assist in the songwriting process, the band recruited bassist Guy Pratt, former Floyd producer Bob Ezrin, and Gilmour’s new wife, Polly Sampson.

Sampson’s role would prove a major frustration for the Floyd camp. Originally, she had been involved merely as a form of encouragement and support for Gilmour, but that quickly evolved into a fully credited songwriting partner. Producer Ezrin in particular was irked, seeing Sampson as somewhat of a hanger-on and a potential hindrance to completing the album. “It wasn’t easy at first. It put a strain on the boys’ club and it was almost clichéd to have the new woman coming in and then get involved with the career.” More frustrating still was Wright’s skewed voting on which tracks would make the cut, perhaps a byproduct of his aggravation over his lack of full band membership. “It came very close to a point where I wasn’t going to do the album,” Wright would explain years later. “I didn’t feel what we agreed was fair.”

All of which makes the cohesiveness of The Division Bell all the more remarkable. Unlike its predecessor, the album has an overarching theme: the breakdown of communication between people, in many cases making thinly veiled references to former leader Roger Waters. On “A Great Day For Freedom,” Gilmour sings about “the day the wall came down,” an obvious allegory to both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Waters dominated Floyd album, The Wall. Gilmour makes his feelings even clearer on “Poles Apart,” which celebrates early band member Syd Barrett (“you were always the golden boy then… you’d never lose that light in your eyes”) while painting a darker portrait of Waters (“it never bothered you anyway, leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes”). Even the vaguer “Lost For Words” reads like a fuck you to Waters, “While you are wasting your time on your enemies engulfed in a fever of spite, beyond your tunnel vision reality fades like shadows into the night.” Waters isn’t the only target on The Division Bell. “What Do You Want From Me” shows Gilmour taking on his fans (“settle in your seat and dim the lights, do you want my blood, do you want my tears?”), and “Keep Talking,” which samples Stephen Hawking, addresses the invention of the spoken word. Regardless of the exact subjects and individuals being referenced, the concept of communication as a great but limited tool can be found at the heart of all the songs on album.

Last year’s remastering of The Division Bell was long overdue. Many contemporary reissues of analog recordings suffer from “iPod remastering,” i.e. pushing for a louder mix while sacrificing the sonic dynamics of the original tapes. Thankfully, that is not the case here. The reissue is intended to be heard on quality audio gear and the mix stays true to the original album. Much like the Beatles’ 2010 reissues, The Division Bell sounds great when heard on any platform. Granted, the album has flaws that no remaster can cover up, and it is not essential listening for those only interested in the ’70s glory years. That said, the album has aged well, and a complete telling of the Pink Floyd story cannot be told without it.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – Ummagumma

By Will Ryan; April 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Ummagumma is a pretty good snapshot of where Pink Floyd was in ’69. “Ummagumma” is a colloquial slang for sex (maybe). The album sleeve is a sort of pointlessly busy portrait within portrait of the band in all their long-haired, blank t-shirt glory. And the double album itself is a split between four of the most interesting and moving psychedelic excursions the band ever recorded, and some of the most over-indulgent, divergent, and uninspired art-piece improvisations you can find in the Pink Floyd archive. But even those first four compositions are telling. They’re live recordings, for one. “Astronomy Domine” was taken from the group’s 1967 debut, The PIper at the Gates at Dawn, “Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun” and “Saucerful of Secrets” can be found on the record named for the latter song, and “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” was a B-side from the Saucerful sessions. It’s all sort of a mess. Floyd was still in the throws of an identity-loss with the absence of leader Syd Barrett that they wouldn’t quite recover from until 1971 on Meddle. But regarding those four tracks, it’s perhaps the only post-Piper, pre-Meddle Floyd document to capture the brilliance of a more exploratory band that seems to belong more to the German psychedelia that came with Ash Ra Tempel and Amon Duul rather than where the band came to define themselves on The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.

The first half of Ummagumma in fact so typifies the opposite of what Waters and company become by the time that definitive string of albums appeared that its hard to reconcile the sound as being a result of the same four Englishman. The 1970 film, Live at Pompeii might be a better sampler and conclusion of sorts to the more psychedelic and less progressive end of Floyd’s trajectory, packaging the space-rock classics in a more cohesive and viable document. Though that end still remains quite overlooked and pondered for the sake of what was to follow in its wake and how Pink Floyd managed to contextualize those more experimental tendencies into songs like “The Great Gig in the Sky” or “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” which is unfair. Yes, it was a time of palpable transition and the search for solid footing as a band was apparent in the music itself, but with Ummagumma we have a wildly embryonic vertical slice of group that exists in a space working beyond boundaries and limitations to simultaneously create some truly singular and moving works of music worth cherishing as well as some borderline-unlistenable half-cocked noodling.

Like many I had to backtrack from Meddle to Live at Pompeii and Ummagumma in order to experience songs like “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” and “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” And, again, like many I’ve never quite forgiven the world for so perilously tossing 1968 – 1970 Floyd into the precipice of ambivalent curiosity. I understand it though. As much as Pink Floyd became defined by lengthy instrumentation with Wish You Were Here, Animals, and to a lesser degree “Echoes,” “Careful” and “Saucerful,” while pushing and exceeding the ten minute mark, don’t tread the same grounds of orchestration and sophistication. They’re abrasive and unpredictable and feral and scary. “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” features an other-worldly inhaling scream from Roger Waters and “Saucerful of Secrets” is a rhythmic tribal massacre of conflicting electronic noise punctuated by a wordless vocal melody from Gilmore.

It’s easy to trace the latter three tracks of Ummagumma‘s first album to Syd Barret’s sense of psychedelia featured on songs like “Interstellar Overdrive” and Ummagumma opener “Astronomy Domine,” but without the direction of their original leader Pink Floyd seemed to push that element into less harmonized, more astrologically-bent realm. Gilmore proved to be a more aggressive and inventive guitar player than Barrett and no one yet seemed entirely comfortable to take the vocal and songwriting reigns, resulting in approach we find on Ummagumma Part 1 (and 2 for that matter). As a snapshot of the band you later came to worship along with everyone in it, these live cuts are endlessly fascinating for how each of Pink Floyd’s members take to their instruments. Beyond the generality of “improvisation,” which translates here into a slower-to-rise, more atmospheric and delicate, each finds an individual identity in their instrument. Perhaps the most interesting is David Gilmour and Richard Wright as the they’re often left to divining their parts on the spot, gravitating toward a the more textural and exotic. Gilmour especially seems to embody the antithesis of where he managed to stake himself as one of the best guitar players ever – focusing on soggy abstracted effects and sonic outcomes rather than emotional and technical precision.

It’s worth tracking down the original cut of “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” only to compare it to where the song found itself when recorded live for Ummagumma. The original lacks the detonation of the crescendo found in the 1969 version as well as the passion that emblazons Waters’ alien shriek. The difference is as telling of Pink Floyd’s place as a group in ’69 as the material on Ummagumma – a band floundering in incrementation and improvisation and poorly advised ideas, yet still able to meet some compelling ends with decidedly suspect means. Often times I find myself daydreaming about where Pink Floyd might have gone if they had chosen improvisation over orchestration, lamenting the more constricted direction the group decided to take during the 1970s. Then I remind myself that new found sense of purpose resulted in The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall and it’s easy not to feel so bad about it. We’ll always have Ummagumma to return to.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – Meddle

By Daniel Griffiths; April 19, 2012 at 12:01 AM 

Every band has their cult album; an album that is revered in critical circles and fan circles, but, for reasons unknown, will never be the first album that’s recommended by a friend nor will it be the album that goes down in history when the band have long since gone. With Pink Floyd, it’s easy to select Meddle as that album.

“One Of These Days” might just be the very pinnacle of Pink Floyd’s catalogue pre-Dark Side of the Moon. It resembles something of a snarling attack from the vey get go, Roger Waters’ bass line providing the menace from the moment it enters. Slowly, but surely, the rest of the band enters but never move into their highest gear lending an ominous air to proceedings. After the breakdown, a section that sounds like a very, very early form of dubstep containing Nick Mason’s only lead vocal part in the bands history, the song explodes into life with every band member finally showing their hand, driving the song along. It’s a roller coaster ride and we’re only one track in.

The next four tracks are a journey: the absurd “Seamus,” an ode to a dog complete with authentic dog howling (courtesy of Seamus the dog); the whimsical and breezy “San Tropez” highlighting Waters’ ability to write songs of a less dark nature; “A Pillow of Winds” is a bonafide Pink Floyd love song that doesn’t resort to banal lyrics about love, lines such as “Now wakes the owl now sleeps the swan/ Behold a dream the dream is gone” sitting quite comfortably alongside “Sleeping time when I lie with my love by my side,” allowing the song to sound inherently Pink Floyd, regardless of the subject matter. The music itself is dreamy, the acoustic guitars almost hypnotic as they become more intense as the song progresses; “Fearless” toys with the listener, beginning with a grand sounding guitar, then retreating into a quiet verse. The inclusion of a recording of the Liverpool FC crowd singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” appears slightly at the start and fully at the end and is simply spine-tingling, lending a grandiose feel which in turn allows the lyrics to flourish.

Without the album ender “Echoes,” Meddle is enough of a musical journey. With “Echoes,” Meddle becomes something entirely different; the song is a tour-de-force and a remarkable way to close an album. ‘Echoes’ big success is that at no point in its meandering 23 minutes and 31 seconds does it sound contrived, nor is it a chore to listen to. Being split into three distinct parts it’s an intriguing listen; the only ground that the band retread is the ping sound that opens the song and precedes the final part, and the music at beginning and end. The opening part is typical Pink Floyd, a middling pace rhythm section pushing the song forward without being extravagant, leaving David Gilmour’s emotive lead parts to be the icing on the cake. Part I segues into Part II, a self-assured sounding section with a strut-like rhythm. It doesn’t go anywhere in particular, but it does keep going. That fades into a third section containing the oddest of noises, backed by what can only be described as a solar wind sound straight from a ’60s T.V. show. This transforms into a full band crescendo before a coda in the final few minutes of the first section brings “Echoes” to a natural and fulfilling conclusion.

In all, Meddle has a little bit of everything to cater for every listener. Every track is different to the one before it and the one after it leading to a diversity which makes the album so compelling; the twists and turns keep it from becoming stale. It’s both mood driven and song driven, with the lyrics being just as strong as the music.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – A Saucerful of Secrets

By Daniel Griffiths; April 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

In many ways, when you listen to A Saucerful of Secrets you’re listening to the very beginning of Pink Floyd as we know them: the emphasis on soundscapes, feel and emotion in the music; the slow and less chaotic compositions; carefully composed longer pieces and a softer guitar sound compared to the jangly and abrasive tone favoured by Syd Barrett that characterised Piper…; all of these defining features for the band on latter albums were bought to the fore on this very album.

To begin with, you have “Let There Be More Light,” an album opener with intent that highlights a completely new band and a fresh approach to doing things. The fast pace gives way to a dirge-like tempo which helps to back-up the ethereal, otherworldly vocals. The move away from jangly guitar pop towards something more psychedelic and progressive isn’t limited to just “Let There Be More Light.” “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” is downright mysterious throughout, carefully pushed along by Nick Mason’s delicate percussion which provides more than a drum-beat for the song; it resembles a heartbeat more than anything else.

Fortunately, the odd and jangly pop isn’t completely dispensed with. “Corporal Clegg” provides a moment of light relief to proceedings as a jolly sounding ditty, with the band heard laughing towards the end. Of course, the subject matter is anything but light-hearted; a man losing his leg in WWII. However, the irony and sarcasm behind the lyrics only go to show how accomplished Roger Waters was as a lyricist even at this early stage, proving that taking over from Syd wasn’t such a daunting task. “Jugband Blues,” the other Piper… sounding holdover, provides a poignant and fitting tribute to the bands former leader and creative driving force.

The title track, “A Saucerful of Secrets” is the unmistakable centrepiece of the album, full of four completely abstract sections which incorporate everything from feedback to dissonant piano strikes. The beginning section is spacey and echoey, segueing into the second section, the heartbeat of which is a drum loop peppered with cymbal crashes and guitar chords. Section three is fairly short, using only an organ and chimes. Sections three becomes section four seamlessly, the organ changing into what sounds like some sort of lament; it’s the first time Pink Floyd move away from dissonance to an actual melody. A lyricless vocal melody is added shortly after wards making the lament far more emotive. As centrepieces go for a fledgling band, it ain’t half bad.

A Saucerful of Secrets gave the band the opportunity, or the burden if you wish, of striking out on their own which is no mean feat considering the input and influence Syd Barrett had on the band up until that point. In the face of that adversity Pink Floyd created a slow-burning and enveloping album; essentially, the complete opposite of Piper. While firmly rooted in the present, it gave a glimpse of what was to come later.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

By Josh Becker; April 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

I’ve long felt self-conscious listening to Pink Floyd’s music. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but at this point, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and company have become so ingrained in the “psychedelic ’70s” trope that upon putting on one of their records I can’t help but wonder where I’ve been keeping my lava lamp and stash of kush. Mind you, this isn’t a slight against the band’s musical output; in fact, you could argue that during the 1970s, they practically invented the post-rock genre, and the enduring popularity of albums like Dark Side of the Moon is certainly a testament to the group’s significance and talent.

Still, they’ve never been one for subtlety, have they? From the stark imagery of The Wall to the blunt social critique on epic tracks like “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” Pink Floyd have always been quite obvious—some might say heavy-handed—about their grand messages. And it’s this obviousness, this “Dude, shit’s messed up” quality to their work, that’s hampered my enjoyment of it. Maybe it’s not a generational problem but rather a personal one, but I sometimes feel like I’m being lectured by a Sociology 101 freshman when I listen to their music, the LP-length equivalent of a Bob Marley poster and a Che Guevara t-shirt.

Except, that is, for Wish You Were Here. Really, this ought to be their most heavy-handed release — just look at that cover! — but it remains palpably moving, largely because it’s a work based more off personal traumas and problems than sweeping ideological concerns (e.g., “Just another brick in the wall”). Lyrically, the album is littered with real-life grievances that speak more to Pink Floyd’s status as a band and an industry juggernaut in the 1970s than to “society” or “the world.” Wish You Were Here is at once their most epic and their most personal album, which is why it’s my favorite in their discography.

Lyrically, this is an album littered with true-to-life grievances and worries. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is almost uncomfortably intimate, a heartfelt tribute to their one-time bandmate and friend Syd Barrett (who, perhaps not coincidentally, visited the studio while they were recording this album but had let himself go to such an extend that the other Pink members didn’t recognize him). A casualty of “the crossfire of childhood and stardom,” Syd is now a shell of a man. His eyes are “like black holes in the sky,” and his legacy has been reduced to a “target for faraway laughter.” On the album-closing second half of the composition, Roger Waters seems to whisper in Barrett’s ear personally: “We’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph, sail on the steel breeze. Come on you boy child, you winner and loser. Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine.” Thus, the titular command—to “shine on”—is framed as ambiguous, either encouraging or lamenting (or, most likely, both). Does Barrett “shine” by exhibiting his skill, or does he “shine” by simply reveling in his burgeoning insanity? Waters doesn’t say—the lines I just mentioned are the last ones of the album. A lonely Moog and almost achingly tender piano carry the track to its conclusion.

As for the band’s industry success, well, don’t think they just took it in stride. We hear echoes of the music industry’s ignorance in “Have a Cigar” when acquaintance of the band Roy Harper, here tackling vocal duties after Waters strained his voice recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” repeats executives’ numbing lip service: “Well I’ve always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely. The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think. Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” We can practically envision the band members squirming in their chairs while uncomfortably making smalltalk with some industry fat cat behind an imposingly wide executive’s desk. They can really hit it big “if we all pull together as a team,” which must have sounded especially hollow to the band in the wake of Barrett’s absence. They’re chugging along the gravy train all right, but where’s the handbrake? Do they even want to find it? Is this even what they really want? As David Gilmour relates being lectured on “Welcome to the Machine”:

It’s alright, we told you what to dream.
You dreamed of a big star. He played a mean guitar;
he always ate in the Steak Bar; he loved to drive in his Jaguar.
So welcome to the machine.

This is Pink Floyd’s big, dark, beautiful fantasy, culled from notes taken in the boardroom and the most honest shadows of the band members’ minds. The music itself reflects this; Wish You Were Here is sprawling, haunting, glacial, inscrutable. More blatantly synth-based than any of their previous releases, they find both superficial sheen and poignant pathos in their Moog machines. “Have a Cigar” exemplifies this: the unforgettably melancholy chord progressions of the intro, the artificial strings, the forceful guitar stabs that give an edge to the widescreen psychedelia, the hopeful-to-crushing chord changes as Harper quotes another executive: “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? We call it riding the gravy traiiiiinnnnnnn.” On Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd melded their songwriting ability with a dramatic but never forced epic long view; five long tracks wind their way through hooks, riffs, and even ambient noise in order to present the band’s vision.

The indisputable apex is, of course, the title track. A radio-static-drenched orchestral recording gives way to a crunchy guitar that sounds like it’s being played over the telephone. Finally, at the 1:40 mark, we get to the meat of the song: an almost suspiciously folksy acoustic guitar and revivalist piano accompany David Gilmour’s bitter alienation: “Did you trade a walk-on role in the war for a lead role in a cage?” must have seemed an especially difficult question to young American listeners still recovering from the sobering shock of the Vietnam War—some of them draft-dodgers themselves, now forced to reckon with the possibility that they made the wrong choice. A million young Syd Barretts in the face of a bleak, faceless destiny: how could their idealism help them now?

And that chorus. If ever there were a festival-ready Pink Floyd number, this is it; “How I wish, how I wish you were here,” Gilmour sings, drawling out the last word as though it were a curse. “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year.” This is certainly not the sound of a band taking a victory lap following the commercial and critical triumph that was Dark Side of the Moon. No, they still miss Syd Barrett—achingly so—and perhaps see visions of their own destitute futures in his warped breakdown. That fear—of losing momentum, fans, friends, love—can be found all over Welcome to the Machine, but nowhere is the very human ennui that often accompanies such fears more evident than on the title track.

Which makes its transition back into “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” all the most disturbing. Back to the cold, uncaring synth tones, beautiful in their own right but perhaps representative of this all-encompassing “machine.” Back to the riffs and jams that extend past some distant horizon. Back to those electric guitars that echo like warning sirens in an English countryside. Back to the paranoia, the shame, the grotesque obsequiousness required of musical artists that want to “hit it big.” Back to all the things that make Wish You Were Here such a scary behemoth of a statement; never again would the band dig quite so deeply into themselves, returning not with answers but only blacker, more disheartening questions. “What did you dream?” It’s not that the band doesn’t know — it’s that they do know, but the answers terrifies them.

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