2015 Top 15 Rewind: #1 – Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase

From start to finish, this album had both my curiosity and my attention, and was simply beautiful.  The story, and the album, are incredibly powerful and haunting.  The music is dense and complex, but those of you familiar with Steven Wilson are aware of his reputation for being a virtuoso in the music world.  He is the master of his craft, and should be applauded for this genius album.  Steven Wilson is truly a once in a lifetime musician, and it seems he can do no wrong.  Listen to the album for yourself and you will see what I mean.

It’s no coincidence that Steven Wilson made the best album of 2011, a top five album in 2013, and the best album of 2015.  There’s just something about him that is musically enthralling.  After this album was released last year, Wilson released the b-side/follow-up album in January 2016 called 4 ½, which was a ~35 minute album made up of bonus songs originally written for this album and his previous album, The Raven, from 2013 that didn’t make the cut.  That 4 ½ album was the icing on the cake that was the best album of 2015, but I’ll leave that for another time.  What more can I, a humble music fan, say about this album that hasn’t already been said any number of other reviewers gushing about this album on music sites.  One reviewer even called it “The Wall for the Facebook generation”, so there really isn’t much higher praise than that.

 

That track, Routine, may be a long one, but it encapsulates everything this album is all about.  As is the case with a lot of Steven Wilson’s work and many top-tier albums in the prog rock genre, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (punctuated like that) is a concept album, and it is a beautiful and heartripping one at that.  The story is about a lovely girl who lived in Britain with her family and friends, loved by all of them, and how she moved to London to start her new life.  While in London, she died mysteriously one day.  Over two years later, she was found in that apartment, and no one in her life had any idea she had passed.  The album is obviously not a scene-for-scene iteration from the real story of Joyce Vincent, but it tells quite a powerful story nonetheless.  This album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is about her life.

The first time I listened to this album, it was emotionally devastating, and it hit me harder than almost any album I’ve ever listened to.  I attribute part of that to the other emotions I was dealing with at the time, and it was the perfect storm of emotion to kick me right in the chest.  Before listening, I was already familiar with the story of Joyce Vincent and had heard a few songs from this album before, but listening to it in its entirety put it all into perspective.  This is an album that doesn’t lend itself to a single, because it’s all surrounded by context, but I imagine the self-titled track may be a single for this album if any would be.  I had shared with several people the track and video to Perfect Life, and some of them weren’t able to get into it.  It’s ok, this is a concept album, singles don’t always hold up well.  I don’t hold it against them, because it was an isolated song about a girl finding her new sister, growing close with her, and losing her a few years later.  The sadness and confusion that the track drifted in and out with was on its own, so it didn’t pull forth the emotion of the tracks around it.  This is one of those difficult albums that basically requires a full listen from start to finish to get through the whole story.  Otherwise, it’s fragmented and doesn’t pack the same punch.

As I listen to this album again while I write this remastered review in 2016, the same emotions still ring true for me.  I still get sad when I hear Perfect Life, hopeful when I hear Hand Cannot Erase, and both when I listen to Happy Returns.  This album tugs at my heartstrings and all of those other cliched expressions of when something hits you “right in the feels.”  I don’t think I’ve listened to an album that grabs me from the very beginning all the way until the very end without losing me somewhere along the way.  This is a rare, once in a lifetime album that I can’t get over.  I know I gave his previous albums glowing recommendations and it sounds like I can’t find fault in his work, but if you would truly listen to it, you would understand.  By truly listen, I mean sit down and do nothing other than listen to this album, and not have it on while surfing the internet or playing video games or on in the background while making dinner or something where it is a supporting voice to your life going on around you.  This album deserves the kind of attention where you put on a pair of good headphones or turn up your stereo if you can and drift into the world that he creates.

Unlike other reviews, I won’t specifically go over a few highlight tracks, and even though there are some standout tracks like the few I posted above, it’s all one big track that needs to go together.  I also only have those three tracks posted above to give you, unlike the last two reviews with Earthside and Baroness.  You can find the rest.  You may find that some tracks will make you want to sway and others will make you want to cry, and by all means shed some tears.  This is a very sad story, and yet so powerful across the board that it shouldn’t make you feel down or depressed after you listen to it.  Whether it’s the pain from Home Invasion, the hopelessness in Routine, or the serenity in Happy Returns, this album is an emotional rollercoaster but isn’t exhausting like some other albums of this nature are.  I may be painting two seemingly incompatible pictures with this review, but you’ll just have to listen to it to understand.

Technically, this album is virtually flawless.  Marco Minnemann returns on the drums for this album and knocks it out of the park on every track he’s on.  Steven Wilson brought in a choir and an orchestra to wrap this album up as well, and they just add another layer on what was already a heavy and deep album.  The tracks transition into each other, so for example Regret #9 picks up right where Home Invasion leaves off and takes it into a whole different direction.  This album flows like a well written story, and I don’t feel like I’m ever at a point in the album where it feels like something doesn’t belong.  Even the banjo introduced at the end of Regret #9 makes sense and sounds right in its place.  That’s the big thing about this album: everything is in its right place.

I can’t say enough about this album, and although I could go on, I’ll just implore all of you to listen to this album as soon as you can.  This album is Steven Wilson’s magnum opus, and while I said about his last album that I didn’t think it could get much better, I was wrong.  Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the kind of album that only comes around once in a generation, and I’ll be proud if I’m the person to introduce you to this album.  If you can reach just one person, that’s making a difference.  I hope to make a difference in your life by recommending this masterpiece to you all.  Of course, I can only show you the door.  There is no doubt that this album deserves the perfect score of 15 out of 15 Ratings units.  I can find no flaws with this album, and if you can, that’s on you.  Bravo, Steven Wilson, bravo.

 

That’s it.  That’s the best album of 2015, and I’m so happy that I was able to write about these albums for you as well as myself.  If you read these reviews, if we discussed them, if you even thought about reading them and then decided not to click on the links, or if you listened to music because of these reviews, thank you.  Your readership makes this all worthwhile.  If you enjoyed reading this review or some of the others, follow us on Facebook!

At the end of 2015, I was excited for the music of that year, and even more excited about what was to come.  Seven months into 2016, and there’s already a whole lot of wonderful music from Haken, Dream Theater, Radiohead, Deftones, Gojira, and the incredibly powerful final and prophetic album of David Bowie.  I can’t wait for the next five months, as there will definitely be another dramatic write-up of the best albums of 2016, although it will likely drop back down to the best 10 instead of 15+, because who would read the top 21 albums of 2021 if this keeps up?

Thanks for playing, everyone.

One last thing, if you made it to the bottom of this list, you can see the top 15 albums of 2015 in short list form:

15) Motorhead – Bad Magic

14) The Dreaming – Rise Again

13) Ghost – Meliora

12) Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards

11) Faith No More – Sol Invictus

10) Leprous – The Congregation

9) The Gentle Storm – The Diary

8) Beardfish – +4626-Comfortzone

7) Symphony X – Underworld

6) Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

5) Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

4) Failure – The Heart is a Monster

3) Earthside – A Dream in Static

2) Baroness – Purple

1) Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #2 – Baroness – Purple

baroness purple

During the tail end of 2015, there was a serious lack of good new music.  No major releases were interesting at the time, as there was some generic boring rap, some terrible screaming metal garbage, and some British indie/folk 21 year old kid telling people his life story.  Pass.  Then, this album emerged from out of the fog.  In fairness, this album’s release was long awaited and expected, and that it was likely the last big release of 2015.  What better way to end a year’s series of reviews than with an album like this, called Purple, by the art-metal band Baroness.  Like the #3 best album of 2015 by the surprise band Earthside, this band released a whole slew of tracks off the album.  In fact, the whole thing is out there, and I’ll do my best to pump them out track by track throughout the album in order.  Let’s start with the beginning, shall we?  This is Morningstar, what a fitting opener that really gets the blood flowing, your head bouncing, and your foot tapping.

This track is Morningstar, which introduces the listener to what they’re going to be in store from this album, gets things started with a catchy hook and an energy that stays fairly constant until the end.

This next track track, Shock Me, is the official single the band released for this album last month.  It’s very radio friendly and I hope they get the exposure they deserve with it.  Since this review was first written, the band released an official music video for the track, to everyone’s surprise.

This band, as I mentioned a moment ago, was fairly quiet since 2012.  They toured intermittently in 2013 with other bands until they decided to take the headliner role for the next year or so.  They were quiet for good reason, though, because the band almost died not long after the release of the terrific Yellow and Green back in 2012.  They were involved in a huge bus accident in England where the bus went off the road in terrible conditions and fell something like 30 feet off of a ledge.  The band broke various bones and some vertebrae (which is terrible for a drummer) and the band had to heal up and regroup for quite some time.  It was such a devastating accident that the drummer and bassist left the band, as they both fractured several vertebrae and were understandably traumatized from this whole situation.  I don’t blame them and I hope they have recovered back to full health, but Baroness needed to continue in their absence.

Reeling, Baroness picked up a new drummer and bassist and decided to keep on rolling.  The frontman of the band, John Dyer Baizley, didn’t want his vision to go to waste as he still had more work to do.  As the lead singer and rhythm guitarist (notice those harmonizing guitars, especially in Chlorine & Wine?), Baizley is also the artist of the band.  He went to art school for some time and then decided to leave and go make art of his own, and he certainly has.  On the top of this review is the album cover, which he painted, as well as the other album artwork for all of their previous albums.  Every Baroness album, as a note, is named after a color.  I expect Orange to come out in a few years, since we already have Red, Blue, Yellow & Green, and Purple.  No word on if they’ll release a Black album or a White album, but those albums are dangerous territories to cross into because Metallica has claim to Black and obviously The Beatles lord over White.  I won’t get into a discussion about what colors are and aren’t, no thank you, but I do hope that Baroness is around long enough that they have to start getting weird with album color titles like Chartreuse and Aquamarine.

It’s tough to accurately describe Baroness as a metal band, because they are so much more.  They’re psychedelic first, and have a lot of prog and some STP-esque alt-rock of the 90s in them too.  They even put a bit of twangy folk in the track Fugue, because they’re artists first and musicians second.  I admire that about the band more than anything – this band is interested in producing art and making music for the sake of art, and not solely for commercial purposes.  They may very well be an indie metal band too, but who likes labels anyways?

This next track is Chlorine & Wine, which was the first track they released to hype up this album back in August.  It whipped fans into a frenzy because the band had been relatively and understandably quiet for a few years as mentioned above.  It was very exciting to hear from them again after what happened, and it was a shot in the arm that the fans needed to get hyped for another Baroness album.  We knew that the band was recording again after the incident, but didn’t have much information – until this dropped, and boy was it exciting.

Purple, in many ways, is a combination of their previous albums Red and Blue.  There’s no way that was an accident.  The psychedelic nature of their early work combines with some of the heaviness, and it’s strange because for an album this heavy, it doesn’t feel it.  When you listen to their big wrap-up track, If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain), it doesn’t sound metally at all.  It’s vast and open, but I wouldn’t call it crunchy or heavy at all.  For a band that lost two major members recently, they haven’t lost any steam whatsoever.  Their new drummer, Sebastian Thomson, picked up right where Allen Blickle left off, and may have added a little flourish to the percussion section.  Things are very smooth in this album, and it’s clear that they’re having fun while recording together.  I’m glad a band with several new members is able to have this kind of chemistry already, and I wonder what a live show of theirs would be like.  They’re on solid US tour right now, so if you get a chance, you should definitely catch them if you enjoyed the music distributed throughout this review.

This album is polished and isn’t as gritty and raw as their first few albums, and that may be owed to the production of this album being handled by the band and its own record label, Abraxan Hymns.  I’ll also note in passing that Dave Fridmann produced this album, who some of you would know as the producer on bands like The Flaming Lips, MGMT, OK Go and Tame Impala.  Clearly, Baroness wanted Fridmann to be involved on this album because of his interest in artistic and unusual music, which in itself is a strange combination of words.

I am so happy to end the year of reviews with this album, because it’s always good to go out on a high note.  I’ve looked around and there are not many significant releases for the remainder of the year.  Instead of finding the best of the worst, I’ll transition to a different kind of list, which some of you readers are more familiar with – the Best Albums of 2015 list!  You knew it was coming.  Before I get too far, I want to throw a rating at Baroness’s Purple, because it’s good to have that kind of closure.  This album was a powerhouse, heavy in all the right places and yet catchy and fun enough to loosen up and give the listener a chance to breathe.  I loved this album.  I give it 14.5 out of 15 RUs, with the only ding being that it’s a remarkably quick (but brilliant) 43 minutes of music.  We may have been a bit spoiled after Yellow and Green, which ran for just under 80 minutes, and while this album is fantastic, it feels so short.

It’s only fitting to end this review as well as this album with a track like Crossroads of Infinity.  It’s just 15 or so seconds long, and you can make of it however you will.  Strange, sure.  Does it make sense?  Does it have to?  I like it just the way it is.

Thanks for sticking through till the end.  If you enjoyed this review, there are plenty more of them on this page, and you can follow me on this wordpress or on the official Audio Orbital facebook page!  There’s only one album left on this best of 2015 list, and it was a doozey.  If you have any comments or feedback, feel free to post them.  If you want to talk about the picks so far, have at it.  Let’s talk.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #3 – Earthside – A Dream in Static

Earthside-A-Dream-In-Static

Before I say anything else, I want to say two things.  First, the band has posted their entire album on youtube since the inception of this review so I can actually give you all eight tracks instead of just the two I wrote about previously.  I won’t go into detail on the rest beyond this review, and I’ll try to post them in order even if the review gets a little squidgy because of it.  There were paragraphs where I highlighted the two posted individual tracks, and in an effort to post the album in order throughout the review, that may get muddled a bit.  The album will be posted throughout this review from top down in the order the tracks were placed on the album, starting with The Closest I’ve Come.

The other thing I wanted to point out about this album is that it is the band’s debut album.  This is the first thing we’ve heard from them.  I can’t stress that enough.  Earthside, as I have learned and am now relaying to you, is a band from New England mostly made up from music scholars.  If you’ve read my reviews for the band Dream Theater, you’ve probably seen me talk about their musical wizardry and technical savvy, and that largely stems from the fact that those guys originally went to music school together (well, they imported James Labrie from Canada).  Mike, John and John all played together at Berklee back in the 80s, and here they are now as one of the biggest prog bands around.

Earthside, much like Dream Theater, came together as students of music.  These aren’t just guys that played together in a garage, but they actually studied the nuances of music and went into it in detail.  Jamie, the guitarist, studied music (and composition) at Yale.  Frank, the keyboardist, studied at Hampshire College and Berklee focusing, obviously, on music.  Ryan, the bassist, studied at the Hartt School of Music focusing on Music production and tech.  Finally, Ben, the drummer, did not actually go to school for music, but has been immersed in the music world as well, studying Journalism and writing about music whenever he could.  These guys love music.  In fact, interestingly enough, they do not call themselves a band, and instead define Earthside as a “creative collective”.  How new age.  Don’t be afraid of the title, because these guys may have a unique band name, but they flow with the progressive rock and metal of the past and today and put them together to make something immensely fun to hear.

When you listen to a track like Mob Mentality, their single and the second track posted above, you can tell they are no mere debuting band trying to find their place in the world.  Instead, they’re letting the world know in a flash and a fury that they are a force to be reckoned with immediately.  This single features the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra.  How many debut bands can you think of that contacted a symphony to put together something like this?  With all these tracks posted throughout the review, this is no mere “ten minute review” like others I have written in the past.  If you listen to even one of these tracks that I’ve posted, then I’ve done my job.  If you have listened to the entire album, then congratulations, and I hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I did.  About Mob Mentality, I don’t need to explain how impressive this effort is, and can really let this video speak for itself.  This four piece, which at least for the time being plans on being an instrumental band with guest vocalists, managed to recruit an orchestra to play with them on their first album.  Some bands wait for years to realize that an orchestra behind them is terrific.  Think of Metallica’s S&M album, it’s one of my personal favorites and if you’re unfamiliar it stands for Symphony and Metallica, not something improper.  Even if you don’t like the band Kiss, their Alive IV album, featured a symphony as well, and was another perfect example of how a band can be truly enhanced with a symphony.

A lot of this music, especially in the prog world, is based on classical music, so it’s a perfect fit.  Dream Theater, as I mentioned above, also used an orchestra for an anniversary concert and even recorded the track Illumination Theory off their most recent (self-titled) album with a string ensemble.  As you can see from the video, Mob Mentality is not just a track, but an audio and visual experience.  They have dancing people, they have the orchestra, they have the band playing, they have the keyboardist on a stage playing a piano, and they have Lajon by himself on the microphone.  It is interesting that whenever Lajon is shown (and by Lajon I mean Lajon Witherspoon, the vocalist for this track, who is the lead singer of Sevendust), he is by himself.  He is never with the band, because Earthside wants to make sure that the audience sees the band apart from everything else.  This is an accurate description of this album in some ways, because they want to be set apart from the rest of the music scene and want to be on their own doing what they do.

At its core, despite whatever you may think, they’re a progressive rock/metal (because the two can flow back and forth, as they do in this album) band with rotating vocalists who may occasionally drift into post-metal territory.  In studio, they don’t have one standing vocalist as of yet, and some of the tracks on the album are completely instrumental.  The vocalists are impressively high caliber for a band that seems to have come completely out of nowhere.  As seen in that second track once again, Lajon from Sevendust joined them in Mob Mentality.  This is one of those albums that contradicts what I’ve written before about the dreaded .feat portion of song titles these days.  These guests fit right in to each of their respective tracks, and the guests also include Daniel from TesseracT on the title track and Bjorn from Soilwork on Crater.  Those are real bigtime guests that they somehow got to sing with them on this new album, and I don’t know how that happened.  Maybe they know some of the right people, or have a friend of a friend, or know a guy, but any way you squeeze it, it’s very impressive to have vocalists of that level and fame on this album.

Some of these songs could definitely be shortened, and feel like they are radio-length tracks just extended with djent and noodlings.  I could see Mob Mentality cutting down to about five minutes and playing on the radio and being fairly popular, even by the radio standards of today.  I will admit, radio is definitely a dying medium, but how else do kids hear new music these days?  Is it all from youtube, or friends sending them “some song I heard?”  It certainly isn’t from reading reviews like these.

Earthside, as a debuting band, blew me away.  I mean, on the track Entering the Light, not only did they have the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra join them again, but they also pulled in a guy named Max ZT, who is a wizard on a little known and way underappreciated hammered dulcimer.  A brief criticism I mentioned above was that they want to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, and they did so in this album by making sure each track was distinctly different from the next.  The vocal styles were but one way that they made absolutely sure that each song defined itself.  They weren’t trying to tell a story, which can be easily imagined since how many instrumental albums tell stories, and just made great music.

I see a bright future for Earthside, especially as this debut album is so solid.  It’s very well produced and polished, as if they had done this before.  I wonder if they will seek out having a permanent vocalist, or if they will call friends to jump in to sing for them.  It would make for a very strange live show, if they play songs that traditionally have vocals with no vocalist.  Would they just hire a touring vocalist, or would they have a very limited tour and bring those vocalists along or tour with the bands they borrow from?  I doubt that Sevendust and Soilwork would tour together, so the renditions that we hear from this album could be drastically different on stage.  This is significant, since the track they want this album to be centered on, Mob Mentality, would obviously be massively different without Lajon on it.  I have yet to see them live at the writing of this revised review in 2016, but I imagine they have made due so far.

This review has gone on long enough, so I’ll wrap this up by saying how impressed I am with Earthside.  This is one of the best debut albums I’ve heard in a long time.  I give this breakout band an improved 14.5 Ratings Units out of 15, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.  I don’t know how you could expect more from a band that mere months ago you had a) never heard of and 2) released their first album.  Breakthrough album or band of the 2015, this was.  If you made it to the end of this review and managed to listen to all of the music contained within, well done.  I salute you.

 

If you would like to read more of reviews like this great album, visit or follow the page on Facebook, or you can also follow this account on WordPress to keep up with the reviews of this noteworthy music.  Suggestions for future reviews are always welcome, and any feedback is greatly appreciated.  A review should be released at least every two weeks, and this particular review is one in a series of reviews highlighting the best albums of 2015.  Two more albums remain, and as big as this album was, the next two are just a bit bigger.