The Southern Sounding presents The Top 30 Records of 2018.Read More
Let's dig through the crates and go back eighteen years ago to February 29, 2000. Mr. Rat in a Cage and Co. (aka The Smashing Pumpkins) have put together a final farewell to fans in the form of a very ambitious fifth -- sixth if you count the b-sides & rarities “Pisces Iscariot” -- LP called “MACHINA/Machines of God.” Originally, this album was planned to be a reminder to longtime fans of the older Smashing Pumpkins material with the return of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and even went as far as to be released as a double album much like that of the monstrous, beautiful and eccentric non-concept album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
But due to poor album sales with the Chicago natives' previous effort, “Adore,” Virgin Records shut down any chance of the dual LP becoming a reality. With so much material being recorded, a secondary album, “Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music,” was released via the internet for free for anybody to download it. With all of this being said, I'm going to focus on the album that had been physically released by the Pumpkins.
At first listen, this album viciously grabs your attention with the first of three singles, “The Everlasting Gaze,” whose guitar work and industrial drumming are reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails while Corgan screams “you know I;m not dead.” You are soon caught up in the song and quickly singing along with the chorus. “The Everlasting Gaze” is just a peek at what this album has to offer when the band is at its heaviest. Some of the other standout pieces on “MACHINA” are the incredibly unsettling, dark and somewhat depressing “Glass And The Ghost Children” and the second single, “Stand Inside Your Love.”
By digging a bit more into “Glass and the Ghost Children,” you can hear how everything goes well with this track. As the music creeps along, Corgan’s vocals stand out amid lines like “black rooms are calling/two men in leather coats/white labs are cooking up the silver ghost” make your hair stand on end and paint a diluted picture of drug abuse and insanity as the two wait hand in hand. “Stand Inside Your Love” speaks of something else completely. With an entire music-scape being built from atmospheric guitar, light keys and some tribal-esque drumming, the track comes off as a pleading love song with probably one of the best choruses of the entire album: “who wouldn’t be the one you love?/who wouldn’t stand inside your love?”
Musically, this LP ranges from industrial sounds to dream pop to straight heavy metal (check heavy metal machine.) With that being said, the feel of the album remains in the same vein regardless of approach. Corgan might be screaming or pleading or just pouring his heart out as he breaks down over Chamberlain’s massive drumming or the accompanying fills, but the feeling remains. I believe one of the many common factors as this album plays on is that it is very produced, and even though guitar and drums are their main focus, synthesizers are heavily used in many songs.
As I wade through the album, my favorite pieces of music have got to be “The Everlasting Gaze”, “Stand Inside Your Love”, “Try, Try, Try,” “Glass and the Ghost Children” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears”. The album is not without it’s flaws, however, with some of the most notable being “The Imploding Voice,” which seems not as well constructed, possessing an awkward guitar progression riding over a vocal that seems out of place. And the song “With Every Light” just feels like it’s more of a throwaway track than one that made it onto this concept album.
And since this was originally poised as a concept album that not many Pumpkins fan could ever seem to get right, here’s my opinion. Our protagonist, Zero, is a rock star who, at one point in his life, hears the voice of God, switches his name to Glass and changes the name of his band to “The Machines of God.” The album follows our hero through his disintegrating ego, culminating in possible insanity through a sense of self-importance.
"Maybe God never spoke to me?," he wonders aloud to his unnamed and drug abusing girlfriend after noticing her in a self induced heroin stupor. Believing that she will forget or not even remember the conversation, he just goes on and on about his routine, and she accuses him of being insane, an event which finds expression in the track “Glass and the Ghost Children.” This is where the album begins to change, and we lose sight of the larger story. But the themes of sadness, self-importance, self-realization, anger and love still ring clear.
What is impressive is at this point in the album I have realized that everything thus far has been part of a deliberate theatricality. But is Corgan also waving his white flag and realizing that the loss and overall ending of the band was perhaps caused by him this whole time? The regret he feels continues through “The Tree of Mercury," possibly one of their most underrated songs. Lyrics like “I’ve been waiting like a knife to cut open your heart and bleed my soul into you” and “although I’m selfish to a fault, is it selfish it’s you I want?” are tear-jerking at its very best.
I could probably spend this entire review talking about lyrics and my favorite lines from different songs on this underrated “final” album, but I will just give you a general overview of everything that I have experienced. This album is most definitely a journey, clocking in at just over 73 minutes -- you feel yourself following your hero, be it Zero/Glass or Corgan, through his narcissistic ego-centricities and to his doubt of himself and those around him. His closest relationships are falling apart around him due to everything that he has done to cause this to happen: “You are sweetest flower that I have ever devoured.”
In the end, he comes to realize that when everything becomes clear around him and he understands finally why they are in the place that they are, everything leads back to him -- and it is so clear and so in front of his face that he cant turn away from it. The album is incredibly underrated, though not perfect (see above). It is absolutely worth giving another listen in the future.
Come up with your own theories. Everything is up for interpretation. But eighteen years ago, when music really wasn’t at its best, a '90s giant of a band offered a very personal, true and beautifully heavy-hitting album that, even if it does miss the mark a bit, still deserves a rummage through a crate of forgotten memories. And it certainly earns that further investigation. I don’t score albums. I don’t think you can really justify art that way because we are all going to see things differently. I can, however, tell you that “MACHINA/The Machines of God” deserves more respect among music fans in general. So today, if you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, turn the page back to the year of boy bands, frosted hair tips, auto tune and pop divas and get your Smashing Pumpkins on.
It was raining -- not a heavy downpour but more of a light drizzle that seemed to catch on all exposed parts of your body. It wasn't unpleasant necessarily, but you didn't want to have to stand in it for very long. Always unfashionably early, our arrival (my brother and I) at The Signal in Chattanooga, TN was marked by a hesitation as to whether we should go in and kill the next hour and a half or go get some hot chocolate. And while the hot chocolate was especially tempting, we wound up going inside and finding an empty bar-style table out on the open floor of the concert hall. Washed Out would be playing later, and we didn't want to miss a note.
From the moment I was first introduced to Washed Out's wonderfully bass-y, synth-soaked chillwave aesthetic, I was hooked. It wasn't for everyone (some people decried its overly vibe-y focus and blurred construction), and the eventual backlash just about killed any momentum the small sub-genre had going. But some artists would rise above the stigmas attached to the sound and find new ways of expressing themselves and their influences through these electronic, imminently danceable tunes.
Currently calling Athens, GA home, Ernest Greene (the primary architect behind Washed Out) had, over the course of his last few records, found an arresting perspective that merged soft focus/dancefloor synths and soaring melodies without sacrificing the immediacy of his rhythmic vision. The music was often loud, filled with rumbling rhythms and Greene's submerged vocals. It was going to be a trial by fire for The Signal to see how well the venue could handle these spectrum-sliding sounds.
Eventually, the lights dimmed and we made our way to the front of the stage, zigzagging through the crowd of people. The opening band was Biyo, out of Nashville, and they were completely unfamiliar to me. Taking a large influence from bands like Autre Ne Veut and How to Dress Well, they combined an obvious love for classic R&B with the forceful energy of indie rock and the shifting landscapes of electronic music. In hindsight, they were the perfect opening band for Washed Out.
Their short but mesmerizing set was highlighted by the echoing falsetto of singer Grayson Proctor and the band's intricate and engaging interactions. Whether notes were being stretched out to their breaking points or things were slowed down a bit to focus on the escalating grooves, they were constantly moving, never allowing the music to rest before suddenly taking off in another direction. There were moments of calm beauty but also of frenetic motion, a whirlwind amalgam of familiar sounds broken down and rebuilt piece by piece.
Biyo ended their set and walked offstage to cheers, whistles and calls for more music. Their equipment was quickly removed, leaving some mics, drums, guitars and various electronic devices littered across the stage. You could feel an excitement making its way through the crowd, leaving charged particles on the shoulders of everyone in attendance. Suddenly, everything went momentarily quiet, before the crowd erupted in noise, and Washed Out took the stage.
Backed by a large projection screen, the trio (led by Greene) quickly dug in and filled the room with a squiggly and cacophonous racket, full of hummable melodies and aqueous synths. Everyone began moving in time with the music before losing any sense of their surroundings and giving themselves over to the movement embedded in these sounds. Pulling from across their discography -- with attention paid to their most recent record, 2017's "Mister Mellow" -- they set out to provide a summary of why we loved the band in the first place. And believe me, there was no shortage of affection being thrown toward the stage.
Throughout the evening, they shifted between shorter musical expulsions and longer jams which actually held some of the best moments of the concert. Alternating between electronic and analog drums, they created a throbbing, percussive environment where melodies bled out into the night and lyrics were often lost in a wash of oceanic synths and rising harmonies. Occasionally, they would back down from the noise and find a slower set of liquid grooves that allowed them to approach their influences from a completely different angle. It was still buoyed by extravagant synths and beats, but the execution was much more nuanced.
And while there's always the possibility for this kind of music to feel undifferentiated, the band managed to keep things interesting and complex despite the often chest-rattling rhythms. There was ample volume but also detail and a welcome musical specificity. The synths weren't bland and without personality -- they were stuffed full of quirky arrangements and memorable movements. There was never a moment when Greene and his band veered off course into some meandering mass of half-formed ideas. They were precise but mercurial, knowing exactly where they wanted to go but changing up the route along the way.
The band played a 2-song encore to a sea of adoration and seemed genuinely thankful for the response. They waved and left the stage. The house lights came on, and music began creeping through the stage PA. It was over, and people were sweaty, exhausted and satisfied from an evening of synth opulence. We all trudged out into the rainy night, hesitant to leave the music behind and acknowledge the reality of the outside world. But the music was still there, circling in our heads for the drive home. And nothing could take that from us.
After three decades, eleven studio albums and one solo album from principle songwriter Ben Nichols, the distinctly Memphisian alt-country quintet Lucero has arrived to cut the ribbon on Chattanooga's newest live music venue, The Signal.
And though this is no ribbon cutting ceremony that you can attend, with tuxedos cued out front holding a pair of scissors and a few promises of prosperity and affluence, it's a start nonetheless. This band of brothers is more like your high school football team busting through a banner held by face painted cheerleaders onto the grassy stadium field of your hometown, if the team's uniforms were blue jeans and work boots and the quarterback had smoked camel cigarettes for the last twenty years. I imagine Lucero as a group of guys that grew up on a steady diet of barbecue and blues music who later heard Jawbreaker and never looked back.
Their southern roots would account for the laid back approach that they take to their songs. On the last few releases, they have even been known to incorporate a horn section into the mix. But there were no horns tonight, just a group of guys that has spent years living out of a van and sleeping on floors.
The night began with a song titled "The Last Song" with the prescient lyrics "stay here and dance with me a while." After that, they played a song from their new album and then launched into the opening guitar riff of the instantly recognizable "Sweet Little Thing." And the crowd loved it. There was definitely an audience here for Lucero's music, even if some people in the audience weren't aware of it beforehand.
As the band continued through their set, the crowd stayed rooted to the floor and even danced. In the middle of the show, most of the band left the stage with only the singer remaining out front holding an acoustic guitar. He proceeded to play through a few songs that were, as he put it, "about his old man." After this short solo set, though, it was back to the races as the rest of the band returned to the stage to carry out what could be described as a sing-a-long.
Lucero is not a new band, and I got the distinct impression that the fans weren't new to the music either. There were even a few concertgoers traveling from Atlanta to relive old glory days of late nights and long weekends as heralded by the songs of lead singer Nichols. The band didn't seem to be in a rush to reach the end of their set. Each member knew what he was there to do, and there was no holding back. This was a venue that, unlike most concerts locally where a band may need to meet the room where it is, fit the band like a glove. Two distorted electric guitar, keys, drums and bass rolled over the audience with excitement as the gravely voice of the ring leader brought it all back home.
It was great to see Chattanooga show up tonight. After all the excitement caused by an event at the Mahogany Ball, and now Songbirds Guitar Museum absorbing the Revelry Room, in order to continue bringing bands to town as well as giving local talent a launching pad to grow, the city needs to fill the seats. Now the only questions that remain are: will they continue to show and how big does the city of Chattanooga desire to be?
According to Geordie McElroy, frontman for the band Blackwater Jukebox, he is a preeminent ethnomusicologist whose songwriting is inspired by the myths and music he uncovered during his years of globetrotting research for the Smithsonian Institute. Ask any of Geordie McElroy’s extremely vocal critics however, and they’ll accuse him of glib cultural appropriation and musical plagiarism, all cloaked in the guise of scholarly research he may or may not have actually conducted. While the complete truth about Geordie McElroy may never be known (even to Geordie himself), this much is certain: Blackwater Jukebox makes fun music.
No Blackwater Jukebox recording captures that sense of fun better than “The Howling,” the title track from the band’s 2016 EP. After Blackwater’s line-up ballooned to an impressive if unwieldy nine members, McElroy decided to whittle the instrumentation down to a core of five: banjo, bassoon, bass, drums and guitar. This leaner and tighter Blackwater is able to deftly tackle the tricky tempo changes and frenetic pace in “The Howling.” By recording the band live in their home studio, guitarist/producer Jonathan Soucy captures the rare sound of a band actually having fun together while working on an album.
As with songs like “Carousel,” “Bone Yard” and “Black Rain,” McElroy again returns to the lyrical theme of death’s inevitability, this time explored through the story of a man who lives in fear of the murderous werewolf that lurks within him. McElroy often revels in the mystical, the magical and the macabre, and this song offers up a great blend.
“On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand / border town to the promised land / Lord oh Lord oh Lord what could I do?” laments the song’s cursed anti-hero as the tempo quickens and the band begins to literally howl. His conclusion that “no one’s escaping destiny” applies to the victims and the unwilling murderer alike.
Blending unlikely elements is one of the great joys of Blackwater Jukebox, and McElroy’s galloping, rapid-fire lyrics owe a lot to his rap influences. Over the last quarter century, hip hop has cross-pollinated with rock, metal and even country music. But Blackwater Jukebox may still be the only band to try and blend rap with Eastern European folk standards. The fact that it’s being done by a band of over-educated white LA hipsters only seems to add fuel to the fire of McElroy’s passionate critics. But when the music is this fun, who really cares?