Artificial Heart
Finding the Soul in the Machine

Today I pulled out Megadeth’s Rust in Peace.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, Rust in Peace was pretty much my favorite album when I was 16. I played this thing to death. Even now, as I near the decrepit old age of 42, it still strikes me as an extraordinary metal album. It’s fierce, uncompromising, intricate and yet still raging with an energy that most bands of their ilk could only dream of. There have been a lot of Megadeths, with the only constant being Dave Mustaine, but for my money the Megadeth that made Rust in Peace is the very best of them.

That Megadeth featured a fantastic drummer named Nick Menza. Metal drummers are always underrated, and I think Menza’s work on this album (and the three Megadeth platters that followed) is unjustly overshadowed. “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” wouldn’t even work without Menza’s stop-on-a-dime high-speed precision. This Megadeth – the most popular incarnation by miles – was a powerful machine, all four members in tune with one another, pushing each other to make the best music they could. Say what you will about their more polished, more melodic efforts (though I do think Youthanasia and Cryptic Writings are due a reappraisal), but Rust in Peace is amazing, and Countdown to Extinction is excellent.

And Nick Menza was one-fourth of that machine. He got out before things went bad (Risk….ugh), and never again found an outfit that fit him like Megadeth did. Rumors of a reunion with Mustaine never bore fruit. Nick Menza died on Saturday, May 21, of heart failure. But he died doing what he loved – on stage, playing with his jazz fusion band OHM. Menza was 51. And so I am listening to Rust in Peace right now, thinking about this bloody 2016, and raising a glass in salute.

Rest (or, you know, rust) in peace, Nick.

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Last week we talked about Radiohead, a band I have found frustrating and confounding for many years. I have a lot of complaints about post-OK Computer Radiohead, but most of them can be summed up this way: they went electronic and lost their soul.

Since Kid A, a majority of the Radiohead sound has been made up of robotic whirring and clicking, and the best music they have made breaks through that sound to find the glimmers of humanity. The fragile tracks on In Rainbows and The King of Limbs are far more memorable than the click-clack ones, and the new album A Moon Shaped Pool is my favorite in a long time because it strives for emotion, unafraid of its big, beating, broken heart. Cold technology nearly killed this band, and a big part of the joy of this new album for me is hearing that it didn’t succeed.

But lest you think I am some luddite who will not accept music unless it’s made by strumming, folksy hippies, I wanted to talk this week about three artists who have found the humanity in metal machine music. And I wanted to start with James Blake, because his new album The Colour in Anything has captivated me as much as the Radiohead record in recent days.

Like Radiohead, Blake surprise-released his third album online, announcing it only days before. We’ve come to expect this from Yorke and his un-merry men, but Blake has been a major-label commodity since his self-titled debut in 2011. His second album, the lovely Overgrown, won the Mercury Prize in 2013, and a nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammys. Hell, he’s on Lemonade, the highest-profile album I can think of right now. So The Colour in Anything is an unexpected move, but a welcome one. A very long record, Colour is more of a refinement of Blake’s aesthetic than anything else, but you can hear the three years he spent working on it in every groove.

Blake creates ethereal, minimalist soul music with synthesizers and pit-pat drums, but it’s quite unlike any soul music I know. He somehow has found a way to use modern technology in a way that sounds old, musty, timeless. (There’s even a song on Colour called “Timeless” that manages this feat well.) There’s almost nothing to the music he makes – a slow, barely-there drum beat, a throbbing bass, some droning keyboard sound – but it breathes and expands, patiently. The key element, of course, is his phenomenal voice, haunting and disembodied. It’s often hard to believe this ghostly timbre came from a human mouth, and seeing him sing – seeing him just open his mouth and sing like this – is a strange experience.

If you’re a fan of Blake’s work, Colour won’t offer you much you haven’t heard before. He’s just gotten a lot better at it. As I mentioned, this is a long album – 17 songs over 76 minutes – and it’s almost too much to take in, particularly since many of these tracks coast on atmosphere. Songs like opener “Radio Silence” follow Blake’s well-established framework, and even when he veers from that, as he does on the keyboard-drenched almost-dance track “I Hope My Life,” his spectral voice gives it the same feel. But it’s a marvelous framework, with a focus on humanity – this is an album of sorrow and loneliness, and you can hear it in his wavery singing, particularly when the drums go away and all that’s left are keys and voice, as on “Waves Know Shores” and “Modern Soul.”

The most arresting moments here, oddly, are the ones that bring in another haunting voice: that of Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver. Vernon co-writes and sings on “I Need a Forest Fire,” which builds slowly but peaks with so much emotion I can hardly stand it, and on the delicate closer, “Meet You in the Maze.” In some ways, that song is a cliché – it’s an a cappella piece sung through vocoders, like Vernon’s “Woods.” But the technique still works, and is still moving.

If there’s any issue with The Colour in Anything, it’s that it’s just a touch too long, enough so that I can name a few songs I’d probably remove. But it’s all an obvious labor of love for Blake, who has established himself as a singular artist, one that finds the soul in his machines and holds on to that for all he has.

Similar, yet altogether more unsettling, is Hopelessness, the first album by the former Antony Hegarty under her new name, Anohni. In some ways, she and Radiohead have swapped styles – Anohni has traded in the strings and pianos of the Johnsons for a fully electronic soundscape, courtesy of co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. There’s nothing minimal about this record, though – synths blare, drums explode, layers of enormous sound come barreling out at you.

And atop it all, there’s THAT voice. Anohni’s tenor is an incredible thing, powerful and mesmerizing, and hearing it in this completely new setting is revelatory. There’s an unearthly quality to that voice, and what was often tender and heartrending over an orchestra is a force of nature over these pummeling electronics. “4 Degrees” is a perfect case in point – its title phrase is a repeated mantra, building in force as drums burst like bombs and synths pulse. This is brand new, a total reinvention, and yet Anohni keeps the soul of what she does intact.

As you could probably tell from the title, Hopelessness is a dark record. It’s also explicitly political, in some fascinating ways. “Watch Me” is a ditty about the NSA: “I know you love me ‘cause you’re always watching me, in case I’m involved in evil, in case I’m involved in terrorism…” “Execution” is a danceable piece about violent death. “Obama” is a crawling noise sculpture on which Anohni expresses her disappointment with the current president: “Now the news is you are spying, executing without trial, betraying virtues, scarring closed the sky…” It’s a difficult listen, and not just because of the truths she sings. It’s discordant, thick as gristle.

And it contrasts beautifully with more traditional pieces like “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” You can almost imagine this one rendered in the Johnsons style, all crying violins, but it works well in this setting, Anohni’s voice quivering as subtle electronic percussion accents a droning organ. The title track marries a lilting melody to a web of synth pizzicato, and would have been a heartfelt conclusion.

But instead, she chooses “Marrow” as her parting statement, using plastic surgery as a metaphor: “Suck the oil out of her face, burn her hair, boil her skin, we are all Americans now.” It sounds like it should be angry, but she sings it with resignation, over a slow, spiraling track, one that sounds like sunrise. It’s a puzzling, off-kilter finish to a strong album, one that finds Anohni fully formed in this new incarnation, as human as ever, with the help of machines.

Perhaps it’s less of a surprise that David Bazan managed the same trick on his third solo album, Blanco. For one thing, Bazan – who made his name with indie-rock outfit Pedro the Lion – has done this electro thing before, collaborating with TW Walsh on the one and only Headphones album in 2005. Blanco sounds very similar, Bazan adapting his contemplative songwriting style to a bevy of synthetic sounds.

If you’re a Bazan fan, this will be even less of a surprise, since Blanco is a compilation of half of the online singles he’s released in the past couple years. For those of us who didn’t follow him down that particular rabbit hole, hearing the blip-blip synth bed of “Both Hands” at the start of this record is quite a shock. But as Blanco progresses, it becomes clear that this new style suits Bazan as well as anything he’s done. And in truth, he hasn’t changed much – take the burbling synths away and you’re left with classic Bazan, all sad melodies and pointed lyrics, led by that unmistakable voice.

He’s integrated his new style so well that by the time the shock of “Both Hands,” an opener about lack of communication, fades away, you’ll think of it as just another great, dark Bazan song. “Kept Secrets” is a classic, and coincidentally one of two to bring in Bazan’s acoustic guitar alongside his keyboards. It’s a song about lies and the damage they do to the liar: “Kept secrets flow down crooked slopes and cut a hundred river beds in valley floors below, every liar knows he’ll die alone, still you hide your hope and hedge your bets until the snow is white with ocean fog…”

If you’re invested in the life and happiness of David Bazan, Blanco will give you more reasons to worry about him. The lyrics are full of self-loathing, the stories spun are vicious, cutting to the heart. “I might have found someone who could love me, I might have found someone true, but I turn around and my life’s half over, and I’m with you,” begins “With You,” a song that ends up listing off his maladies, including paranoia, jet lag and alcohol. “Teardrops” is a difficult song about a car crash, the driver “having to admit you made another mistake.” “Someone Else’s Bet” is an on-the-road song in reverse, lamenting his partner’s long and lonely nights: “Telephone is ringing, bill collectors buy and sell, I may not be in heaven but you’re in hell…”

Throughout Blanco, Bazan seems unable to help himself rise up from the morass he’s found himself in. He tries – “Little Motor” is about getting up and moving forward – but it seems too difficult, and his hangdog voice only adds to his despair. The one moment of beauty on the album is “Trouble With Boys,” and it’s the one song that addresses the problems of another: a young woman’s difficulty relating to the opposite sex. “You are worthy of love,” he repeats, over and over again, and I hope Bazan takes his own words to heart.

Blanco is a tough record, but it’s not a tough listen. These songs stand proudly with the most memorable from his catalog, and the synth-driven setting lends new dimensions to his voice. As usual, the songs are so pretty that you have to dig deeper to find out how painful they are. I hope one day he can find enough love and hope to make an album full of the stuff. For now, I’ll have to settle for a musical transformation, and Bazan pulls this one off with aplomb. Blanco is a left turn, but it leads through a similar neighborhood, and for fans of the man and his work, that is both good and bad news. It’s a lovely album of dark songs, and even if it sounds a little different, it’s still pure David Bazan at heart.

Next week, some short records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.