July 31, 2020


Beyonce – Black Is King (Disney +, Parkwood Entertainment) 

Black Is King is a reimagining of Disney’s The Lion King, in what is indisputably the most elaborate music video ever made. The first time she explored this concept was back in 2013, with her fifth studio album, Beyonce, which was released in a series of short films. Those films had almost no discernible order or connection. It was beautiful and strange. 

That gives it some commonality with her most recent effort. This time, there is a clear and obvious theme. The presentation is visually stunning as it follows the story. The scenes are chopped up, with rapid jump-cuts, bright colors, and elaborate costuming. The art director is clearly trying to prove something. Like a great many art films, Black Is King is hard to follow from the pictorial. Beyonce and company have remedied that with dropped-in lines from the script(s), poetry, and the lyrical content of the songs. Some of the scenes are a little head-scratchy: bizarro outdoor human chess, the word “MOOD” displayed prominently on various eye-wear, and a few side-sequences. 

Many of the main characters are easily spotted in the film, including Simba, Rafiki, and Scar with his hyenas. Unfortunately, the conceptual audio is vague and obscure enough to be disorienting without the visual component. 

The music itself is excellent, but does provide its own difficulties. “OTHERSIDE”, which is an amazing song, doesn’t quite fit into the narrative. “MY POWER” is the most potent, powerful song on the album, lyrically, but is super-disjointed and hard to listen to. That song is also outside the story arc. 

I think Queen Bey did herself a little bit of long-term disservice with this film, despite the innovation and beauty. Let’s weigh the Pros and Cons:

Pros:

  • The message is clear and identifiable early in the film — We are all a part of something “BIGGER”, remember who you are.
  • The art is beautiful and the poetry is poignant.
  • It is memorable, for a number of reasons.
  • The film is likely to win awards. 

Cons:

  • The rewatchability of the film is limited.
  • Most of the music loses clarity without the visual accompaniment.
  • It suffers from too large a cast. There’s as much a presence of other performers as from Beyonce herself.

The bottom line is this: watching the film is a powerful and rewarding experience. The music is solid with wonderful content, but suffers from a lack of Ms. Knowles-Carter. If you have Disney+, watch it. If not, start with “BIGGER”, “FIND YOUR WAY BACK”, “WATER”, and “BROWN SKIN GIRL”, which features young Blue Ivy Carter

FFO: Pharrell Williams, Jessie Reyez, Mr. Eazi, and of course, Beyonce

-J.R.

Carthagods – The Monster In Me (FDA/Carthagods)

This album hurts me in a lot of ways. It’s sort of incredible, which is troublesome. Let me explain. 

Carthagods is a progressive power metal act from Tunisia. This is impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, the region has been in a state of turmoil for roughly…forever. This makes equipment scarce, money difficult to come by, and a scene that is inconsistent at best. “The struggle is real” has an entirely different meaning here. Carthagods formed in 1997, and their self-titled first album was released in 2015. How many other bands can say that they fought for nearly 20 years to release an album?  The Monster In Me is their sophomore effort, and is a huge step up in quality and performance from their first album. Except for “Memories Of Never Ending Pain”, which was on that album as well, albeit in a slightly different form. That’s my second complaint. Each record has 8 tracks, that’s 7 songs and 1 orchestral version of a song that appeared earlier. If 1 track on the second album is a repeat, that means the band has written essentially 13 songs in 23 years. 

My third complaint is about how great the music is. It’s heavy, powerful, dynamic, and just plain awesome. There’s elements of prog, power, thrash, djent, and death metal. The vocals are super melodic, but throaty and gruff, with occasional growls and screams for accent. The lyrics are…predictable, but sung with power and brutality. The guitar work is stellar, with non-linear progressions, crushing riffs, and solos that don’t feel contrived or forced, but still wicked.

Why is any of this a problem, you ask? I very much want to say that Carthagods is poised to do some great things. I want to say that I’m looking forward to what they do next. I want more. 

FFO: Dave Draiman, Opeth, Avenged Sevenfold

-J.R.


Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road (Epiphany)

Since she has been a staple of the American rock scene since 1995, and Canada since 1991, I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about Alanis and her style. This is her 9th full-length record, and it is a familiar and welcome sound. 

I am going to be completely honest here, I haven’t truly been a fan of hers since Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Aside from a few songs on each record between then and now, I haven’t connected with her music. Her last 3 albums, while certainly listenable and objectively well constructed, are largely unmemorable. 

Enter Such Pretty Forks in the Road.

The content is so personal, it’s hard not to connect to the words. Alanis has been opening up about her history with depression and eating disorders, as well as her struggle with postpartum depression that lasted nearly a decade. “Reasons I Drink”, “Diagnosis”, and really most of the other tracks detail the thought processes that helped her fight her way to gain some control over these conditions. “Missing the Miracle” is about finding balance. “Reckoning” is about dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse and predation. She hasn’t said anything, but I think it might also be about her manager stealing approximately $5 million from her over seven years. “Sandbox Love” is the anthem of an awkward, shy, damaged individual finding the person that will cleanse the evils and hurt of the past. 

Essentially, this album is Alanis regaining the angry, sassy, vibrant personality that made her famous in the first place. Pretty Forks is some of her best work, and certainly some of the most important poetry she’s written. For someone who needs it, this record is a lighthouse, saving boats from their misguided selves. 

FFO: honestly, if you can come up with anyone else like her, please let me know.

-J.R.


  1. Soviet Spacedog – A Shotgun State of Mind (Perception Music Group)

“I checked the news I saw / Notre Dame is burning / How the fuck did you do that?” he asked calmly at the end of “Righteous Fury”, the second track on A Shotgun State of Mind

This is the debut release from Pac Northwest experimental electronic pop nutjob Soviet Spacedog. There’s not a lot of information around about this particular artist. If you Google him, you get a lot of information about Laika, the first dog in space. Which is interesting reading, so I’m not even upset about it. Due to my inability to be interested in digging further, I have nothing else to offer in the way of artist background. So I had to let the music speak for itself. It spoke volumes.

I read a story about how the American Pac Northwest attracts serial killers and madmen. Or maybe breeds them. Lyrically, this record is a fool’s errand. 

“Why don’t you just cut me in half?” (“Cut Me In Half”)

“I can love much more than you” (“Places You Can’t Go”)

“Scatter me at Spunkler Keep / Don’t be sad, I won’t be watching” (“Spunkler Keep”)

And my personal favorite, “But now she’s gone and all that’s left are her fucked up screams, playing every night, in my fucked up dreams”. (“Fragile Machine”)

Musically, I don’t even know where to start. The album starts as you might expect from someone describing themselves as “Experimental”, with a Radiohead-like drone, some static percussion and some sideshow lyrics. At this point, I can think of 3 friends who would absolutely LOVE this album. That lasts about 2 songs. Things get emo somewhere in the middle, with acoustic guitars, plunky backing riffs, and wailing vocals that are just slightly off. It’s not the attractive, sensitive emo. No, this is the kind that has you hiding kitchen knives and wishing that you hadn’t given your ex that recording software. He closes the 26-minute absurdity with an all acoustic track that repeats just one line: “What have I done to your face?” 

I still know of 3 friends that would LOVE this album.

FFO: Man Man, Magnetic Fields, Paper Chase, Adam Green

-J.R.

2. Soviet Spacedog – A Shotgun State of Sunshine (Perception Music Group)

So, Jeremy and I decided after much deliberation that it was high time for a collaborative review.  He listened to the Soviet Spacedog album, A Shotgun State of Sunshine, before I did – but we’ll see if he and I see eye-to-eye.  Or should I say, eye-to-eye-to-eye, since there are three of them on the album cover – and three noses as well.  It’s gonna be one of those albums, huh.

First impression: there’s a LOT going on here.  Tons of electronic-type noises, some more melodic than others.  Vocals that include barely-audible whispers and digitally-altered crooning.  Requests to cut him in half, which is not a thing I would suspect most people would ask for repeatedly.  That last one, courtesy of the aptly named track, “Cut Me in Half (Why Don’t You?)”.

“So take my heart, and I’ll wring it out like/transmastication, or dry masturbation” – no further comments needed for this lyric from “Righteous Fury”.

Somehow, someway, this all feels… cohesive!  It’s reminiscent of one of Jeremy’s favorite releases from 2020, Deap Lips, yet simultaneously more off-the-rails and more together.  “Gravity” is a high point, if you disregard the deliberate discordance that Soviet Spacedog drops in, every so often, just when you think “oh wow no more discordance cool I can relax now”.  There is, in fact, no relaxing during A Shotgun State of Sunshine; even the chill parts come with an underlying dread.  It’s the music equivalent of those video games where you turn around and there’s a zombie RIGHT THERE.  It’s cool af.

In the final track, “What Have I Done to Your Face?”, Spacedog leaves us one last note to remember him by: “Have I forgot it?/Have I forgot it?” he sings, about, as you guessed, your face.  He then closes up shop by saying calmly – normally – “thanks for listening.”  Soviet Spacedog, I don’t know exactly what I’m thanking you for here, but whatever this was: thank you for it.

FFO: Deap Lips, Air, getting in a spaceship and flying to Jupiter with the windows down

Z.


Rascal Flatts – How They Remember You (Big Machine)

After 11 albums, you know what you’re gonna get with Rascal Flatts.  Why the hell should we even review this, then?  You could predict what I planned on writing already:

– Weak melodies

– Trope-y lyrics

– Over-produced vocals

– Vocals that are somehow still bad, despite the aforementioned over-production

– I mean, look.  They auto-tuned each individual member’s vocals beyond what is recommended or desired, and then took that harmony of auto-tuned vocals and auto-tuned it… and it STILL sounds like doo.

– The “Life Is a Highway” cover was a thing that happened

In fact, 6 of the 7 songs on the How They Remember You EP would fit into that category perfectly.  It’s cookie-cutter, unimaginative, paint-by-numbers country.  But I’m a fair and just man, and I would be remiss to not point out the closing track, “Through The Years”.

The track is a perfect cover of the original jam by the late great Kenny Rogers: it’s recognizable, yet different enough to make it their own.  And it sounds nothing like Rascal Flatts… which is, come to think of it, probably why I enjoyed it so much.  The vocals are good enough, but not at all soured by weak harmonies.  The muted piano is a great accompaniment to the subtlety of the track.  It’s good!  It’s actually good.

If you listen to one Rascal Flatts song in your life, it should absolutely be “Through The Years”.  If you listen to two Rascal Flatts songs in your life, then I’m so, so very sorry.

FFO: Montgomery Gentry, Dan + Shay, Lonestar

Z.


NOFX and Frank Turner – West Coast vs. Wessex (Fat Wreck Chords)

In the opening track, “Substitute”, long-time NOFX lead singer Fat Mike (AKA Mike Burkett) sings “music, it’s my substitute for love”.  I don’t agree with that though; from the sound of it, both NOFX and Frank Turner have a lot of love for the music that they continue to put out… no substitution necessary.  That love skips right over the pond, and crosses genres too – but the gaps may prove a bit too much.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice a significant age gap between the two entities.  LA’s own NOFX released their debut album, Liberal Animation, in April 1988.  Several months later, in December, British punk artist Frank Turner turned 7.  Despite that, they both rock pretty damn well, and the split album (NOFX for the first five tracks, Turner for the last five) never feels like an old vs. new affair.

You ain’t listening to a NOFX album for vocal prowess, and you ain’t getting it here – but it’s not needed.  That’s what the Frank Turner side is for.  You’re also not listening to Frank Turner – at least not since his days in post-hardcore band Million Dead – for rapid, guitar-and-drum-heavy punk music.  But again, the NOFX side got you, fam.

I will say that it’s a bit jarring to have what really amounts to two different albums, kind of shoved together without any cohesion.  That’s not a knock on either NOFX or Frank Turner, as the two halves are great – and you can tell that both sides care a great deal about what they’re putting out.  But West Coast vs. Wessex separates the West Coast and Wessex parts a bit too much for my liking.  Each side’s ending track – NOFX’s “Glory Hallelujah” and Frank’s “Falling in Love” – is excellent, and easily the best content on the album.  But I would have much prefered this much more as two individual EPs.

Hopefully, if they ever collaborate again, we’ll see a little more crossover.  Either Frank featuring on a NOFX track, or vice-versa – or perhaps each artist doing each other’s own tracks completely?  Anything to mix it up a bit would go a long way.

FFO: Bad Religion (NOFX), Rancid (NOFX), The Hold Steady (Frank), Beans on Toast (Frank)

Z.


Dominic Fike – What Could Possibly Go Wrong (Sandy Boys)

Tidal describes Dominic Fike as “combining elements of alternative hip-hop with Jack Johnson-esque cabana pop”.  Doesn’t that sound absolutely dreadful?  Like, rip-your-ears-off-and-put-them-on-display-at-MoMA dreadful?  Yeah, I thought so too.  But I decided to take the plunge on his debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong, in lieu of all that.  What I got back was surprisingly good, considering the Tidal description was spot-on.

Dominic Fike has a very diverse style on this release.  Some tracks are more hip-hop (“Cancel Me”), while others are more rock (“Double Negative (Skeleton Milkshake)”).  Some have a bit of an old-school feel (“Good Game”), while others are more fitting to the current Hot 100 charts (“Chicken Fingers”).  To his credit, Dominic never tries to be what he’s not: the rap flows are not complex, nor is the singing.  And that’s why it works so well.

Lyrically, What Could Possibly Go Wrong doesn’t have a meat on the bone – again, a hallmark of Dominic not overstretching on his first go-round.  You’ll hear the usual songs about mates, potential mates, the not-so-green grass side of fame, other potential mates, etc.  Watered down?  Sure.  But the lyrics largely stay out of the way, which is good enough here.

In fact, the album’s title could have been just that: Good Enough.  What Could Possibly Go Wrong, we now know, was nothing… because Dominic Fike wouldn’t allow it.  The approach is great, and it puts him in a great position to spread his wings a bit more when he gets to his second album release in the (hopefully near) future.

FFO: Omar Apollo, Twenty-One Pilots, Machine Gun Kelly

Z.


The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain (The Psychedelic Furs)

I was excited to see this album on the list. It is the first album for the British post-punk rock outfit since 1991. You read that right. It has been 19 years since World Outside. There was a short-lived side project called Love Spit Love, but it didn’t deliver like you might have wanted. 

Let’s unpack the sound a little. This is a group that was basically an “alternative” band in an era where there was no “standard” for style. Let’s face it, even as someone who grew up listening to music in the ‘80s, there really wasn’t much that was consistent. Euro-pop, New Wave, Hair Metal, Grunge…The Psychedelic Furs couldn’t truly be lumped in with any of that, and as such, kind of got relegated to the utility drawer. “Honey, do we have a potato masher?” “Yeah, it’s in the drawer next to All Of This And Nothing.” “We have a Psychedelic Furs record?”

You get the point. 

Here’s something that’s fun: That is still true! World Outside cannot be lumped in with really anything else that’s happening. Or has happened. There’s some age going on here, with Butler’s voice taking on some of the characteristics of Neil Diamond, but fully committed to it. The music hasn’t aged a bit though. There’s Duran Duran-esque New Wave synth and guitars, lyrical lamentation, a la Screaming Trees, and all of it is presented with a modern dream-pop production quality. 

In a broken world where we’re being forcibly entertained by the “will they or won’t they” soap opera of sports, Jane’s Addiction getting back together, and a teaser for another Bill & Ted movie, this reunion should probably be the focal point. 

FFO: Duran Duran, Mark Lanegan, Mudhoney 

-J.R.


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