Flash! Ah Ah!
When Showy Skill Is Not Enough

This week I finally caught up with BT’s two new albums from the end of last year.

For those who don’t know, BT is Brian Transeau, producer and multi-instrumentalist, and he’s a bit of a genius. I’ve been following his career since his trance-heavy early days, and his artistic evolution has been something to behold. From the glitch-heavy pop of Emotional Technology to the beautiful ambience of If the Stars Are Eternal So Are You and I to the blissful, dance-heavy A Song Across Wires, there’s no containing BT to any one genre.

He’s also frighteningly prolific – his two new records come hot on the heels of the double-disc debut from BT’s ‘80s-inspired band All Hail the Silence. The new ones are instrumental and expansive. Between Here and You is an ambient album, full of drones and atmospheres, while the awesomely titled Everything You’re Searching For is On the Other Side of Fear mixes low-key electronic styles with orchestral elements. Both of them are beautiful things, and strong additions to an already excellent catalog.

I wanted to mention these albums because they are, by and large, pretty simple things. BT is an extraordinary musician, capable of the most complex pieces – just check out his untitled record from 2017, with its multi-part suites and extended instrumental compositions. There’s no question about what BT can play, but he often chooses to devote himself to subtler work that doesn’t emphasize his chops. It’s because he knows that skill is not the be-all and end-all. True artistry requires taste, requires making choices that serve the song and the album.

That’s a clumsy segue into talking about two artists that are all technique. The relative outputs of both serve to prove that you can be among the greatest in the world at something and still not make great art with all that talent. There was a time in my life when I thought differently, when I considered mastering an instrument or one’s vocal cords the height of artistry. The two albums I’m talking about this week probably would have resonated much more deeply with me at that time in my life.

As proof of that, I used to love Eminem. I even named The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, based largely on its satirical intent and Mathers’ tongue-twisting lyrical flash. I probably would not do the same now, but I don’t think there’s any doubting Eminem’s ability. His tracks are a blur of internal rhymes and breathtaking speed, and he can set a scene and deliver a point of view like few others. In the early days, of course, that point of view was about cultural irresponsibility, about pushing the envelope with murder fantasies and multiple personalities that, I thought, hid something a lot more complex and calculating.

But if Em once had something to say, he’s long since buried it under a mountain of bad taste and self-pity. Every album since 2004’s Encore has been, in part, about the poor reaction to the previous one, and while he’s still the king of rapid-fire verses, they’ve been empty ones for a while now. I’m the guy who liked Recovery and the political material on Revival because it sounded honest, like Mathers finding purpose for his power. But neither of them were good albums, and lesser works like Kamikaze obscure them like dark clouds.

So it goes on Eminem’s frustrating 11th album, Music to be Murdered By. It’s another surprise drop, appearing unannounced two Fridays ago, and it’s a more substantial piece of work than Kamikaze for certain. Its title and design are based on an album of scary themes released in 1958 by Alfred Hitchcock. The famed director appears on his cover with an axe and a gun to his head, much like Em does here, and Hitchcock’s interludes are sampled throughout. It’s a good conceit for a guy who made his name creating mini-horror films in song.

And there’s some good stuff here, certainly, some tracks on which Eminem shows a confidence and vision he hasn’t displayed in a long time. “Darkness” is the absolute highlight of this thing. It finds Em stepping into the shoes of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter. It makes full use of the album’s chief metaphor: rappers referring to their words as weapons and their tracks as murdering the beat. Em uses this as misdirection here, as it slowly becomes clear that he’s preparing for actual murder. The track ends with news footage from various mass shootings, and by the end Mathers has done something remarkable: given us another perspective on a national epidemic of violence.

Alas, it’s the only one like it here. The rest of this record is about Eminem himself, as usual. When it opens with a track that takes Rolling Stone to task for giving Revival two and a half stars, you’d be forgiven for strapping in for a long and tedious ride. Music to Be Murdered By is better than you may expect based on that – I like “Leaving Heaven” a lot, with its unflinching look at Eminem’s childhood, and “Stepdad” is a murder fantasy that hearkens back to his more classic period. “Little Engine” is kind of awesome too. But there’s an ocean of misogyny and tastelessness to wade through (“Marsh,” “Those Kinda Nights,” etc.), and the good stuff isn’t quite worth it.

That isn’t to say Eminem isn’t still a marvel to listen to. Just try “Godzilla,” featuring the recently departed Juice WRLD. It has a basic, minimalist beat over which Mathers again proclaims himself the best in the game, but he does it at near light speed. The final verses are a feat of annunciation, Mathers switching to full auto and firing out words with amazing skill. There’s no doubting how good he is, and Music to Be Murdered By is his best in a while. But I wish he would find a focus for all this talent, the way someone like Kendrick Lamar has. Eminem needs a mission, a reason to get behind the mic. Without it he’ll keep pumping out empty records like this one.

Speaking of empty records, here’s Sons of Apollo with their second record, MMXX. (Yes, it’s named after the year in which it came out.) Sons of Apollo, you may remember, is a prog-metal supergroup consisting of Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and former Yngwie Malmsteen singer Jeff Scott Soto. If you know those names, you know exactly what this record sounds like.

In fact, if you bought the last Sons of Apollo album, Psychotic Symphony, you have pretty much heard this one too. Like Dream Theater, this band exists to show off the instrumental chops of its members. The band is led by Portnoy, and I think it’s fitting that I get to talk about him so soon after Neil Peart’s death. Portnoy is what Peart’s detractors think he was – overly flashy, busy for no reason, showing off when he could be serving the song. Peart never did any of that. He was a complex player, but his parts served the whole. Portnoy’s entire style screams “look at me” at maximum volume.

And man, I will absolutely cop to loving that sort of thing from time to time. When Dream Theater hit in the early ‘90s, they were one of my favorite bands, fusing the prog of Yes and Genesis with the explosive technical metal of Megadeth. Over time their sound has become wearying, and Portnoy brought that sound with him when he left the band in 2010. He’s been the drummer for Neal Morse’s prog projects, including Transatlantic and Flying Colors, but with Sons of Apollo he gets to set the tone. And the tone is very Dream Theater.

Within the opening minutes of MMXX, you know what you’re in for. Again, there’s no question about what these guys can play, only what they choose to, and here they deliver standard prog-metal. It’s muscular, driven by Portnoy’s energetic playing and Soto’s sorta-cheesy-but-still-impressive voice, and it makes plenty of room for Thal and Sherinian to dazzle us with their lightning-fast leads. The songs are complicated not because the songs call for complexity, but because they are showcases for the players.

There are two tracks worth mentioning, for different reasons. “Desolate July” was written in memory of David Z., a friend of the band who passed away recently. It’s a slow ballad, the kind that Dream Theater occasionally pulls out, but Soto isn’t even the lyricist James LaBrie is, and this song – heartfelt as it may be – traffics in every “no chance to say goodbye, we’re left wondering why” cliché you’ve ever heard. It’s hard to get through.

And then there is the closer, “New World Today,” which stands out for being a 15-minute five-part epic. This sort of thing is de rigueur for a band like Sons of Apollo, but if you’re in this for the flailing guitar solos and odd tempos and stop-time sections, this song contains the band’s best work. A piece like “New World Today” is the very reason a band like this one exists, and if you like 15-minute prog-metal suites, you will like this one. If you like prog-metal in general, in fact, you will enjoy this album.

I just find it surprisingly tiring. I feel like I’ve heard it all before – MMXX contains no new tricks, no new insights. It’s music played with remarkable precision and showiness, its only point being to prove again that these five guys are good at what they do. They are good at it, certainly, but sometimes just being good isn’t enough. Sheer skill rarely moves me, and more often than not these days, I am looking to be moved, not just awed. You can give me all the sound and fury in the world, but if it signifies nothing, I’m gonna be bored.

Next week, Kesha’s return and a few other things. And I’ll probably talk a bit about the Good Place finale.

See you in line Tuesday morning.