January isn’t even over yet, and I’m having trouble keeping up with all the deaths. Just a few quick tributes before we get started.
Alan Rickman was always, in everything, an absolute joy to watch. I’m pretty sure I first saw him in Die Hard, but I first became aware of him as someone I enjoyed in the otherwise terrible Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. After that, I saw just about every film he made. I was especially pleased when Kevin Smith cast him as the voice of God in Dogma (I was a big Kevin Smith fan at the time), and by Grabthar’s hammer, I couldn’t get enough of him in Galaxy Quest. He was the perfect Marvin in that lousy Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, and the perfect Severus Snape in eight Harry Potter films. Rickman’s death at age 69 of pancreatic cancer was a total shock, and it made me as sad as I’ve ever been at an actor’s passing.
Glenn Frey was a founding member of the Eagles, and an accomplished solo artist. In fact, it was his solo work that I heard first – “The Heat is On,” from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, was one of my favorite songs as a kid. I’ve never quite connected with the Eagles, though I think they’re one of those bands you grow to appreciate as you get older. But there’s no denying their accomplishments, or their place in musical history. (And man, they could sing together very well.) Frey died at age 67 from complications following surgery, just a few years after releasing his first solo album in two decades.
David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey are just three of the many people death has claimed in the past month. On top of all that, Steven Moffat has quit Doctor Who. This is really not the best way to start things off, 2016. I hope you have better plans ahead.
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When people have asked me which new records I am most looking forward to this year, I have not hesitated to name Megadeth’s Dystopia.
Longtime readers know this, but it always surprises people who don’t know me all that well: I’ve been a Megadeth fan for more than 25 years. In a lot of ways, part of me is still living my teenage metalhead phase, and when I am in the mood for technically powerful yet still melodic metal, most of Megadeth’s output fits the bill nicely. Rust in Peace remains one of the finest metal albums I own, right up there with Ride the Lightning and Reign in Blood – just a complete classic of the genre. And in recent years, Dave Mustaine and his rotating cast of characters have kicked things into high gear, rivaling their earlier material. Mustaine sounds older and crankier now, but still hungry, which is fantastic.
Dystopia is the band’s 15th album in 31 years, and in all that time, the only stumbles they’ve made have come when they’ve wandered off the heavier path. Fans still look askance at 1999’s Risk, a detour into FM pop territory, and they have the same concerns about 2013’s Super Collider, a diverse collection of more tuneful material. I must be getting old, because I liked Super Collider, and I’m starting to appreciate Risk. But if Dystopia proves anything, it’s that Megadeth is at its best when Mustaine chucks all that experimentation in the bin. The new album is a blistering return to straight-up metal that focuses on Mustaine’s strengths: there is no one else able to be compact, heavy and melodic in equal measure as well as he can.
Mustaine is joined this time by longtime bassist Dave “Junior” Ellefson and two newbies: Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro and Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler. Together they’ve made a 47-minute burst of classic Megadeth – this album can sit proudly next to anything bearing the band’s name. None of it is flashy – this is a record that gets the job done in four-minute hits, Mustaine and Loureiro taking plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it solos, but never at the expense of the song. These tracks are technically complex, but don’t call attention to themselves – they’re nimble, fleet-footed and direct. The longest of them, “Poisonous Shadows,” is the only nod to experimentation – there are strings, and a slower, more contemplative tone. But that’s it. The rest are quick and pummeling, and the record even ends with a light-speed cover of Fear’s “Foreign Policy.”
Time has done no favors to Mustaine’s voice – his range has deteriorated, leaving him with a sour, curmudgeonly scowl in audible form. Sadly, that fits his lyrics well. On Dystopia, as he has for a while, Mustaine comes off like a grumpy old man watching Fox News from his underground bunker. Opener “The Threat is Real” is his most xenophobic, making the fear-driven argument for turning away refugees: “Messiah or mass-murderer, no controlling who comes through the door.” (The 20 seconds of Middle Eastern soundscape at the beginning drive the point home, and leave me wondering if Mustaine told Jordanian singer Farah Siraj what the song was about before she laid down her haunting vocals.)
“Death From Within” has the same point to make, and “Post American World” is full-on Fox jingoism: “What will we look like in a post American world, why cower to all those who oppose the American world?” “Lying in State” lays it out upfront: “What we are witnessing is the decline of western civilization.” When Mustaine isn’t grousing about the state of the country, he’s complaining about women who abandon him. It’s pretty standard stuff for him, and Dystopia, like other recent Megadeth albums, is an exercise for me in appreciating (even loving) the music while disagreeing with the sentiments it expresses.
Luckily, I’m good at that, and Dystopia‘s music deserves that particular skill. It is one of the strongest records Mustaine has given us, and not just recently – this one can honestly shine in the same orbit as his more revered works. Mustaine will be 55 this year, and even though he’s turned into a paranoid, crotchety geezer, he’s still delivering with no sign of slowing down. There aren’t many bands who, 30-plus-years into their career, can make something as tight, powerful and just plain killer as Dystopia. I honestly didn’t think Megadeth would be one of them, but here we are.
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If you want a real trip into the heart of darkness, though, you should check out Savages.
This London band crashed out of nowhere two years ago with Silence Yourself, an album that felt like a rawer Siouxie and the Banshees to me. Now they’re back with their second effort, Adore Life, and it’s much darker, a bit scarier, and certainly less concerned with whether you or anyone else will like it. For the record, I definitely like it.
The touchstone this time is Patti Smith – the songs on Adore Life are doused in feedback and noise, some of them rushing forward like a tidal wave, some crawling like a tar pit. The (almost) title track is pure Smith, inching along a pitch-black hallway on a wary bass line, leader Jenny Beth embracing both fatalism and joy: “Maybe I will die, maybe tomorrow, so I need to say I adore life…” In one of my favorite moments on the record, the band drops out entirely before the title phrase, and then builds and builds to a powerful conclusion.
In truth, the record is full of moments like that. Savages sound like they’re right on the edge of losing control of this powerhouse they’ve conjured, but they never do. The album is tightly arranged under all that feedback, and Gemma Thompson knows how to drape her sheets of guitar over the rhythm section in a way that feels haphazard, but clearly isn’t. “I Need Something New” is a great example, Beth kicking things off with a Bjork-like caterwaul and the band basically delivering a one-note groove for four minutes, with Thompson spinning out galaxies of noise. At first it sounds like something they threw together in 10 minutes, but upon repeat listens its more complicated structure becomes clear, especially as it slides into delirious cacophony.
Adore Life takes the ball Savages were tossing around two years ago and runs with it. It’s an inky whirlwind of a record that will leave you a little dazed, but in a good way. I’m glad to see them going further into their dark, twitchy, less accessible side – it proves they’re in it for the long haul, and makes me excited to follow along.
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Megadeth was number one on my list of reasons to love 2016. Number two was Shearwater, a far less well-known outfit from Austin, Texas. I’m very happy to report that both of my first two anticipated records have delivered, and delivered strong.
I didn’t have any doubt, though – Shearwater has never let me down. The brainchild of Jonathan Meiburg, who possesses one of the most original and captivating voices I know, Shearwater specializes in the massive and the sweeping. They’ve been changing up their formula lately – after expanding their sound on a trilogy of records at the end of the last decade, they released Animal Joy, their loudest and most guitar-oriented gallop forward, and then Fellow Travelers, a superb set of (mostly) obscure covers.
Now, with their ninth album Jet Plane and Oxbow, they’ve woven in electronic textures. Which, granted, is a bit of a cliché, but don’t worry. Meiburg and company are subtle about the electronics they do use, and by the album’s midpoint, they’re all but gone. And blessedly, they’re just textures – the real meat of this album is the songs, which, as usual, are magnificent. Shearwater were always good at orchestrating dramatic moments, but they’ve become masters at it here, arranging songs around a single sustained note breaking through the clouds, or around a mesmerizing harmony.
The effect, then, is an album whose closest touchstone is probably Echo and the Bunnymen: propulsive, bass-driven, synth-inflected, expansive and aiming to scrape the sky. The singles are up front – “Quiet Americans” is as clear-eyed a pop song as Meiburg has written – but the best material is the spacier, more open anthems in the later going. “Filaments” is six minutes of thumping bass and driving-through-tunnels atmosphere. “Glass Bones” is wicked, its tricky guitar rhythm never sitting still, its final minutes a celebration.
Best of all here is the penultimate track, “Radio Silence.” Over a wonderful six and a half minutes, Meiburg and his band give us an insistent rock song that explodes into a wonderful refrain around the three and a half minute mark. The song takes time to breathe and explore the space it’s been given, and I didn’t want it to end. Jet Plane and Oxbow continues Shearwater’s winning streak, managing to push their evolution forward while retaining everything that makes them special. While this year has already taken its toll, I’m beyond pleased that its music, at least here at the start, is making the grade.
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Next week, Dream Theater goes insane. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.