Ten Minute Review: Opeth – Sorceress

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There are few albums I was looking forward to more this year than Opeth’s new release, Sorceress.  As some of you loyal readers may know, I am a huge fan of their transition the past few years away from death metal towards prog nirvana.  This album, like Pale Communion and Heritage before it, is not a “metal” album in the vein of some of their old work.  They did not bring back the growl, which is fine by me but some of you “the new Opeth stuff sucks” fans may still disapprove of this direction.  Hang on tight, though, because this album is still heavy, both thematically and instrumentally.  You want deep riffs?  Check out the track Chrysalis.  You want an almost folksy acoustic guitar track with flutes?  Will O the Wisp is what you need.  You want prog jazz that dramatically shifts into a powerhouse?  Give The Wilde Flowers a listen.  You want the heaviest track on the album mixed with some unique melodies?  Strange Brew is right for you.  They have it all, including a little lifeline between the albums to lightly connect Pale Communion with Sorceress.

Before I talk about the title track, which will be posted below, I want to mention the opener, Persephone.  It’s a simple two minute track that immediately gave me the feeling of the beginning of Heart’s Crazy on You.  A sudden and nice guitar prelude leads into something that will most certainly be big.  About 80 seconds into the track, a woman’s voice emerges from the mist.  Her voice sounds like she was reading an incantation or possibly an entry from her journal.  She reads a few lines, and then the flute takes us straight into Sorceress.

Unfortunately, the two tracks off this album I have to offer do not sufficiently embody the album as a whole.  Sorceress starts off with a very deep bassline, and something that sounds like it would have come off their previous album, Pale Communion.  In a way, that’s smart, as the band can show where they were then and where they are now with a track that almost feels like it’s being lined up to compare with the rest.  It’s dark, moody, and almost apocalyptic (much like Alessio Sakara).  Don’t worry about it if you don’t get that reference.

The track opens with a funky distorted guitar matched perfectly with a very loud bass.  The bass is the heart and soul of the track, plain and simple.  Most of the time, the percussion or guitar carry Opeth songs, but this time, the bass is the one that really makes it move.  After the ~75 second intro, the dugga dugga riffs of old kick in loud and tuned very low pull the song along.  Outside of Primus, I can’t think of too many tracks that have the bass tuned up like this for this one particular song.  I feel that this is a gift to Martin Mendez for all of his hard work and dedication with the band for this long.  Hell, other than Mikael, Martin has been with the band for the longest, with his presence first known on Still Life (and you can tell, if you’ve heard it).  The lyrics in this track made me feel that this album was a concept album, but the most important piece on this whole track for me was the organ.  It really shined.  I love that organ.

9/23 edit: Since posting this review, Opeth has officially released the track The Wilde Flowers, so maybe you can see what I imagined.

We move on to The Wilde Flowers, which diverts from the darker bass-driven work of Sorceress into something that would fit in a 70’s art prog album.  What intrigued me the most about this track is that it’s fairly proggy, shifting tempo and tone for the span of about six minutes, and then it flips a switch and goes into high gear for the remaining 50 seconds.  In total prog fashion, this song transformed before my ears.  We hear the light guitar coupled with the vocal effects of Akerfeldt drifting away, and then soft drums start up.  In a few seconds, those mild drums morph into something massively complicated and explosive, and then the bottom falls out.  It may sound strange, but when I visualized this track in my head, I pictured a flower growing, and then at 6 minutes the flower opens and spreads its seeds into the air in a violent and explosive fashion.  The Wilde Flowers, eh?  Nailed it.

That sudden burst of heaviness gives away to Will O the Wisp, which is a more of a folk-y track with an acoustic guitar and some guitar noodling as the track goes on.  It’s not too complicated and gives some of us a breather for what’s to come next.  For brief moments, I get vibes of the earlier soft Opeth from an album like Damnation that made devout Opeth fans froth at the mouth because it was devoid of the intensity lovingly given in Deliverance and Blackwater Park.  It’s not an interlude, but you may be able to think of it as such when you compare it to the next track.

Chrysalis put its foot on the gas immediately, in one of the stronger tracks on the album.  This one and one I’ll discuss later don’t mean that the previous tracks are weak, but there are some standout tracks that especially clicked with me.  It takes the warmth and exploration of 70’s prog rock (synthesizer, anyone) with the confidence of the prog rock (that guitar riff is a thing of beauty) of today.  Stick with me for a second, but does the riff in this track remind anyone else of Kiss’s Love Gun?  Between that or something by Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, this particular riff invokes a lot of musical memories.  It’s one of the heaviest tracks on the album, as well, but it’s not heavy in terms of screamy or something you may think when you imagine Opeth with “heavy” as a descriptor.  The guitar and the keyboard are the main attraction in this track, and they go back and forth very well.  One takes over for a bit, plays a solo, and then hands it off.

I’d like to point out that Joakin Svalberg, the keyboardist and newest member of the band with his second album with them, really shines in this album especially on tracks like this.  As for the intensity of this track, it’s heavy as far as old prog goes, and if that doesn’t make sense, give this track a listen and you be the judge.  I do wish I had a better sample of tracks than the two above to share with you to get a better picture, but this album will come out next week and then you can dive in on Spotify or whatever.  You can find it, you’re industrious.  I believe in you.

The intensity subsides for a bit to go back to the dark realm again with Sorceress 2, which is a solid part 2 of the Sorceress story.  I prefer that it stands apart as a very different track, back with the acoustic guitar and calming melodies.  When we get hit in the face with a track like Chrysalis, sometimes we need a minute to regroup.  Sorceress 2 does that, as Mikael keeps his voice higher and soft, joined by some background vocals provided by the boys.  As much as Sorceress may have put me on edge because of its mystical and almost creepy feel to it, Sorceress 2 felt like I was under a spell and being calmed by the music.

We wake up from that spell into The Seventh Sojourn, and it doesn’t try to jump start us and instead gives us some light acoustic guitar and percussion (read: bongos!)  The thing that grabs me about this track is that it’s completely unique from any other track on the album.  I give it to the band, they decided to make an album with no two track sounding the same, but when it comes to The Seventh Sojourn, this one really stands alone.  Is that a sitar?  It sure sounds like it.  Bring it on, let’s get weird with this track.

I guess it makes sense that they really try to spread their wings before going to what many fans would consider to be the bread and butter of the album, in Strange Brew.  This is the track of the album, period.  If you disagree, that’s fine by me, but this one stands above and beyond the rest.  It’s the longest track on the album, clocking in around 8 minutes 45 seconds, and it uses every second to the fullest.  Sure, it had a slow lead-in from the end of The Seventh Sojourn, but it started with a slow, powerful, and echoing introduction to this track.  To visualize this track, I imagine the slow beginning of the universe.  For the first two minutes of this track, matter gathers from wherever.  I’m not getting too scientific with this so I’m aware my mock theory of the beginning of the universe is nonsense, but imagine the center of the universe being a big black hole that swallows up all of the matter in the universe.  Then, like blowing up a balloon filled with glitter, it gets too full and starts to rupture.  Imagine this happening in slow motion, and not as one instant, because obvious in music these things need time to set up.

As the melodic and lovely intro drops away into an uneasy and spacey synthesizer, the chaos mounts.  The balloon/universe explodes, and everything goes in every direction.  It spreads far and wide, and seems to get on everything.  You may end up coughing up glitter for a week after that, but it’s worth it.  It’s worth it because the explosion is so majestic, so beautiful, that you can’t take your eyes off it unless you get some in your eyes and then it’s the sharpest pain you’ve ever felt.  Anyways, that’s what I get when I listen to Strange Brew with my eyes closed.  The beginning of the universe.

How do you follow up something like that?  Well, you take on a sound that takes it down several notches, and you wrap up this beast of a review.  A Fleeting Glance injects a more serene feeling into what has largely been a dark album, and though it’s not out of place, it is a light shining in the darkness.  Is it weird that I get a Beatles vibe from some of this track?  I don’t know if it’s the keyboard or the monotone vocals, but it just has that feel to it.  Yes, I know it has its Opeth vibe as it should, but I feel a strong pull to the Beatles discography with this one.

Finally, we move on to Era, which is practically the final track on the album because Persephone (Slight Return) is more of an outro than anything else.  The track starts with just the piano for a solid minute, and then the organ soars louder and prouder than ever.  That’s the key instrument for this final track, and it sends this album out in style.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this album thrives on its diversity.  It dares to be different, and that’s why Opeth is right at the top of the Prog Rock/Metal food chain.  This album wraps up with a short and simple one minute piano piece that could have easily been blended in with the previous album.  As Era started with a piano, it could have gone out with that same piano.  As I said in this paragraph, it’s really just an outro, but as far as album outros go, this one is fine by me.  I may personally think that Era would have been a better ending if they blended this track into the end of Era, but that’s why Mikael Akerfeldt makes the big bucks.

Overall, and at long last, this album is a beast.  It’s incredibly diverse, and I can’t find much that I dislike about it.  It blends some of their sounds of the past with some new things they’re coming up with as they develop.  When I raise other bands or songs that sound like this band, it is never to take away from Opeth or any other band’s sound but instead as a point of comparison for the listener who isn’t necessarily as well versed with a band like Opeth and is opening their ears to new horizons.  People like comparisons (and ratings too), and I have always found it easier to introduce people to music they would not otherwise listen to when I present them a general sense of what a particular band sounds like by using other bands.

I learned my lesson to say that X album is the best album since Y album in 20XX, but this has to be one of their strongest works in years.  That’s saying something, because I felt Pale Communion was the best album of 2014.  This year, there is such strong competition that despite this album possibly (it will need many more listens to digest) being one of Opeth’s best albums in recent memory, it will still have to contend with giants like Haken, Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, Deftones and more.  This album gets an amazingly solid 14.5/15 Ratings Units from me, and it feels like Opeth can just do no wrong these days.  I see that recent albums I’ve reviewed have also hit 14 RUs, so this deserves a little bump above because it is just a bit above them.  Most likely I’ll dive back into this discussion in three months, so get equipped.

 

As a final note, and if you get this far thanks for putting up with the wall of text, but I have a question for you few survivors.  Are these reviews far too long?  How long would you prefer them to be?  Before this paragraph, this review clocked in at under 2300 words, which may feel like a homework assignment to those of you kind enough to read through this whole monstrosity.  I want to paint you a picture, but I can get sucked into digressions at times.  I feel those digressions are more charming and give these reviews some character, but seriously, I welcome practically all feedback.  Even if I don’t respond directly, I do read what you have to say and I appreciate it.  I don’t mind if you think I’m wrong.  You’re not going to hurt my feelings.  It’s just music, albeit lovely and wonderful music.

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Ten Minute Review: Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

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I can’t think of a better way to come back to Audio Orbital than with Devin Townsend.  The first word spoken in the first track off this wonderful album is “Hallelujah” and that’s what I felt like when listening to this.  Strange to think it’s been almost two years since his last release, especially after a blitz of albums released in the past few years in Z2, Casualties of Cool, Epicloud, and Deconstruction/Ghost.  I appreciate that he took some time off to recharge his batteries, because the wait was truly worth it.  He’s back, ladies and gentlemen.  Devin Townsend is back and is as big and bold as ever.  I have three tracks for you off this album, being the second, third and fourth tracks on it, and they encompass this album fairly well.

Before I get into music that you can hear, the first track on the album, Truth, is actually a reworked version of a track he released in his solo album, Infinity, back in 1998.  This version has a much greater scale and is more atmospheric and engrossing.  Sonic walls, or walls of sound, are frequently referenced with Devin Townsend, and what they are describing is a musician/band making layer on top of layer of music to where it feels like an audio crescendo hitting you at once.  Hallelujah.

This album is not heavy.  It is very complicated, in excellent Devin Townsend fashion, and you can hear that right off the bat with Stormbending.  Put simply, this track is cosmic and expansive.  It’s quite complex, and I’ve gotten different things out of the track after multiple listens.  I can hear the pain of Devy singing about rainy days, the slow and melodic percussion carrying the song forward, and the fading guitar at the end of the track which sound a bit like if a guitar tried to make the sound of rain.  It’s emotional and like all great prog metal tracks, builds up as the track progresses.  It doesn’t have the climax of a traditional prog metal song that builds to a point and explodes, but there are plenty of other tracks on this album that give us that sweet prog release.  See, for example, the next track I am going to discuss.

Of all the tracks off this album, Failure feels like one of the two heaviest tracks alongside Higher.  The immediate crunch of the guitar riff – dare I say djent-like (I don’t know why it’s a dirty word for the prog metal community) – sets the tone right out of the gate.  I will point this out because I found out by accident while writing this: this song sounds completely different when listening to it loud compared to at normal polite “I live with people but have a big stereo” volume.  I have a completely different impression when the volume is up, because I felt a greater amount of depth between the guitar and the bass.  The bassline is very low and quiet compared to the rest of the instruments, but it is important nonetheless.  The keyboard lending some higher notes (and the other guitar kicking in at 2:30) provides decent contrast for the deep and heavy combination of the percussion and riffs.  The guitar solo that goes on for about 90 seconds has a vibe reminiscent of Pink Floyd and King Crimson with the lightly distorted sound of the guitar.  In addition to the instrumentality I keep highlighting, Devin’s vocals are as good as they get on this album.  They aren’t overwhelming, they don’t often try to stand up and above the rest of the music, and actually very fitting with the music.  This provides for a harmonious effect that is pleasing to listen to.

The first two or three seconds of this track, I heard the intro to the song Temptation by the band The Tea Party, if you’re familiar with the track you may hear it too.  After those few seconds, it goes into a very different direction and feels more like post-rock for the first 30 seconds or so.  From there, we hear the heavy guitar kick in for a second and pull in Devin’s vocals once again.  These vocals are different from the previous few tracks, and they are a lot clearer and more in line with something we’d hear from his previous albums like Ki and Epicloud.  In this track at least, the vocals mostly stick to a range, and don’t jump around to something operatic or harsh for long.  What I’m trying to say is that when he sings in a particular stanza, the notes are similar, until the next one comes up and shifts up an octave.  It’s been a long time since I’ve studied music, so forgive me if I am mixing up those terms.  This song, as good as it is, feels like a big setup for the next song, which I won’t be able to share, called Higher.  Secret Sciences seems to lay the foundation for something much bigger.  Don’t worry, I’ll still tell you about the rest of them, because it’d be unfair to just describe the songs that you can already listen to and make up your own mind about.

Higher is heavy.  It’s the heaviest track on the album, I’d say.  It starts out riffy like some of the others, but goes big and loud.  There’s a lot more “dugga dugga dugga” to use the onomatopoeia (spelled it right on the first try, take that 5th grade spelling class), and this is the track that a lot of Hevy Devy fans may have wanted for this album.  This album, generally speaking, is a lot easier to listen to than some of his other works like Dark Matters or Deconstruction.  Some of those albums are so heavy and destructive that you feel like you just got in a fight after getting through the album.  For me, I appreciate those kinds of albums to a point, as long as the listening experience is superior to the exhaustion I feel after finishing up listening to it.  It’s why I can’t get into a band like Deafheaven, because even though they’re musically brilliant, I feel like I’m being pummeled by the music.  Higher starts with that, but it takes its foot off the gas before it’s too much and becomes more atmospheric with a choir joining Devy as the song comes to a close.

As much as Higher builds you up, the next track, Stars, keeps that energy going for about 30 seconds before falling away to an acoustic guitar, an ethereal wispy keyboard, and some melodic vocals that bring you back down to earth.  The quiet serene sound ramps up again to a wall of sound with the keyboard, additional vocals, ever-present percussion (which sounds different and more precise than some previous albums if that makes sense) with Anneke van Giersbergen joining Devy yet again on the vocals.  She’s really the perfect fit for a vocalist of his style, and her tonal contrast with him is striking and yet alluring.

Stars gives way to Transcendence, the title track, which starts us with a vocal effect on Devy to make him sound like a deity singing down from the heavens.  Whatever deity you imagine that to be, that’s fine by me, as long as he has a good voice.  I get the feeling that I am being beckoned up to the sky with this track, as if I was floating upwards in a pillar of light.  The song’s called Transcendence, huh?  They sure nailed that one.  The surrounding vocals of Anneke echo through the sky as one (or more) of the angels, and I don’t know if I even I have the vocabulary to describe the feeling this track gives me without repeating some of the terms I have used above.  You’d have to hear it to feel it, but I think you’d feel it too.  This track is the perfect example of a prog metal track that builds up slowly into something amazing and awe-inspiring that almost takes your breath away.  It hits the top, and then as you break the surface of the clouds, it quickly disintegrates into silence.

After the silence, Offer Your Light chimes in with an interesting almost spacey keyboard sound accompanied by simple yet effective guitar riffs that give the keyboard some ambiance.  By now, Devy’s voice is gone and we’re carried by Anneke for a bit.  He doesn’t stay away for long, and he quickly takes the reins yet again.  Devy’s voice, for what seems like the fifth or sixth time on this album, changes in style again to something a bit raspier and sharper than what we’ve heard before.  For a brief amount of time, his voice transforms into something that sounds almost like screaming but more akin to light-screaming.  It’s very tolerable and flows with the music, luckily.  Unlike other tracks, this one is compact, and as the shortest track on the album clocking in just under four minutes, its tempo is a lot quicker than anything else on the album.  It comes in slow and speeds up, and just like that, it’s gone.

The album wraps up (besides the cover of that Ween song) with From The Heart, which feels like the perfect representation of a Devin Townsend track.  It has the heart and soul of a Devy track, and runs the gamut of emotions as the album draws to a close.  I feel like this track is a more fitting end to the album, with Transdermal Celebration being more of a bonus than anything else.  The vocals are vintage Devy, the track is at times heavy and other times soft, and it generally feels uplifting.  There’s the traditional long note, that note develops into a bit of a scream, and the scream leads right into an emphatic musical escalation.  Surrounding Devy’s voice is something akin to either chanting or an angelic chorus softly repeating words that are moderately difficult to understand but aren’t upsetting.  A brief interlude spaces between that mild heaviness and falls to an almost hushed tone.  A new set of instruments seem to kick in, changing gears almost entirely yet still maintaining one sound from the previous action.  Classic Devin Townsend, and it’s a sound that I missed very much the past two years.

This really was the perfect album to come back to.  I’ll play some catch-up with albums I missed while I was away, maybe even by the end of the week (we’ll see what happens), but I’ll probably do short little reviews of a bunch of them instead of these longform articles breaking down the album track by track in some detail.  I know I want to talk about The Avalanches, Fates Warning, Marillion, and Thank You Scientist.  If there are other albums that came out in the months of July or August that you would like me to write about, please let me know in the comment section of this article or on the various places I post this review and I’ll check the albums out.

This album was rock solid from start to finish.  I’m not a Ween fan personally, and I’m not familiar with the original version of Transdermal Celebration, but Devin Townsend made it his own in this album.  It’s rare that a cover song can fit in an album, but this did fit.  It may not have been the best final track, as I reserve that for From The Heart, but it was a solid addition nonetheless.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t give this album very high marks, and without further dudes I give this album 14 out of 15 Ratings Units.  It’s very difficult to deny this album’s greatness, and I’m glad Devin Townsend is back.

Thanks for reading, and I’m glad to be writing for Audio Orbital again.

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

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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.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #4 – Failure – The Heart is a Monster

failure the heart is a monster

Like the Heart, this album is a monster.  Words cannot effectively express how much I missed this band.  Fantastic Planet, released back in 96, was a big part of my musical growth as a kid.  It’s still hard to believe they were gone so long, but they are back and better than ever.  It’s unusual that bands make a sequel to their own record, and even more rare when the sequel takes 20 years to make.  They did it.  They were able to capture the brilliance of Fantastic Planet and make it better.  They had segues, distortion, and the same power as they once did.  They don’t have much in the room for filler, and it’s smooth and flows very well.  I missed you, Failure, and I’m so happy you’re back in my life.

It’s been 19 short years at the initial writing of this review, now 20 looking back at it, and boy are they are back.  Although they’re now back together, we knew they would be returning in 2014, and that they would be releasing an album.  Amazingly enough, it happens to be a direct sequel to one of my favorite albums of my childhood, Fantastic Planet.  Fantastic Planet was a quintessential space rock/alternative rock album by this criminally underrated band, and I would easily have it on my “ten 90’s albums that every person should listen to once before they die” list.  You may have heard some of their music without knowing it was them, but they have a very distinct sound.  The twangy guitar, the spacey sound, the listless yet powerful vocals…the whole experience.  They never got quite the exposure or commercial acclaim that they deserved, but they made a large impression in their three albums in the 90’s.

This is their sound.  Almost 20 years later, they have practically the same sound which is completely fine by me.  I don’t know if a band like this can “evolve” like others I talk about because where does a band go from here?  It’s a tough argument because the only way I can think of that they can expand to other subjects.  Fantastic Planet was about space, and its sequel, The Heart is a Monster, goes deep inside the human body instead of throughout the galaxy.  The human body is incredibly complicated, and the heart is indeed a monster, so I think the complexity of this album topically and I feel like I was having a Fantastic Voyage while listening to this album.  That has always been my experience with Failure – I feel like I’m going exploring through space and time and whatever else while I listen to them.

In addition to big tracks like Counterfeit Sky, which is now posted above, the segues in the album are a real highlight for me.  They break up the intensity and feel like you’re travelling through passages in the heart and mind to arrive at a new section with a new track or two.  They get it so right that it blows me away.  I can barely remember what I was doing 20 years ago, and they not only remember it all but they can recreate it and add to it.  Imagine writing a story, finishing half of it, and then coming back to it 20 years later to write the other half the same way.  They did learn new things as they’ve been away, and did play around with new techniques and have some new technology at their disposal, but at their core they have the same heart.  It’s a monster.  I feel I can get away with saying that more than once in the review based on the album title.

It doesn’t sound repetitive, and the only criticism of this album is with the track Atom City Queen.  The distorted shrill of the guitar would work for part of a song or for a solo, but for an entire four minute track, it tends grates.  It almost got to the point that I had to skip past it when I was going over this album again and again.  It is a unique sound but upon further listens, I may have to move past it even though I will lose a valuable part of the story.  I won’t go into the story, but suffice it to say love is a complicated messy nightmarish thing, and you can hear it in this album.  I don’t want to keep using the word heart in all these different contexts but it happens to be so appropriate that I can’t not.  The heartbreak is audible and readily apparent, but it doesn’t bring me down like some of the other albums I’ve written about this year.  It takes me on a journey instead.

To sum it all up, “The Heart is a Monster” is a monster.  This album is big, both personally and to the music world.  THIS is a comeback album.  I know The Magic Whip is also a big one this year, but to take 20 years off and come back to blow the doors off is huge.  This may be the year of the comeback, and I’m fine with that.  As long as it’s not the year of the remake, I’m good.   I am having a hard time putting my joy and satisfaction to words because this is like something from my childhood was revived and NOT destroyed (cough ninja turtles cough).  I’ll put it to a scale instead to quantify my feelings for you: this album deserves 14 Ratings Units out of 15.  It staves off perfection with Atom City Queen, but otherwise, the second part of the album starting from Segue 5 is just everything I hoped it would be.  It flows together smoothly, and it just felt right.  It hit all of the memory nodes I had for Failure’s Fantastic Planet and amplified them, and for that I am thankful.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #5 – Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

riverside love fear and the time machine

This album is called Love, Fear and the Time Machine, and on first listen, sounded like a delightful combination of Steven Wilson (especially his most recent work that I wrote about, Hand.Cannot.Erase.), Opeth, early Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  Put those all together and you get a great album.  Before going any further, I will add a 2016 update to this review: Founding member and guitarist Piotr Grudzinski passed away on February 21, 2016, sadly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrest.  In his memory, the remaining members of the band announced that they would release a new album.  This album would be dedicated to him and included tracks that he had worked on prior to his passing, and that it would be primarily an ambient and instrumental album.  The album has not yet been released, and there is no slated release date, but there is no rush.  The band should take all the time it needs to process this.  Before the music starts, I have posted an interview he did about this album in 2015.  May he rest in peace.

This album was once put up by the band or record label in its entirety on youtube, and has since been removed.  As it is no longer available, I’ll post their “single” below.  I say single because I don’t know if that’s the word for it in the prog rock sphere, although a huge development has come to progressive rock/metal as of late: there will be a CHART of prog music sales!  This may come about 40 years too late, but like every other bloody kind of music out there, albums will be ranked based on their sales, which is strange but kind of spectacular.  The genre, as compiled by OCC or Billboard or whomever, still needs a little work, as bands like Tame Impala and Sigur Ros are considered progressive in this category.  I guess it’s better than nothing, but it’s still amazing to see.  Yes, I am amazed, because it seemed to random and bizarre to have a chart, but great to see this genre finally appreciated in this manner.  It seems minor, and it probably is, but it’s another feather in the cap of bands releasing albums.  Also, it’s great to see Faith No More and Symphony X on that first list.  You can see the first list here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-34127025

9/21 note: I see that link was broken and sent you through a redirect, so I apologize for that.  I have fixed the link today.  Back to the review.

No, Riverside isn’t on that list yet, so it seems strange to go off on this tangent in this review when it’s not entirely related to this band, but it’s pretty significant for the genre nonetheless.  Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds on the all-time top list is pretty impressive, as I recently discovered this gem last year.

Ok, back to the task at hand: Riverside.  No need for a sleek transition, just a clean break from the previous discussion and on to more of this very complicated band.  This track above may be the only one you’ll get to hear if the full album above gets removed.  What I notice immediately is that in each track, I hear influences from certain bands.  For instance, listen to the track Saturate Me and tell me that you don’t hear Dream Theater in at least the first minute of it.  With Discard Your Fear, there’s a massive amount of The Cure in the track (that intro, oh my god), and it practically screams its presence on the track.  In Under the Pillow, there’s some definite Steven Wilson in there, and in Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat?) there’s some serious Opeth mixed in.  Yes, Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat?) is the name of the first track.  The final track’s name is Found (The Unexpected Flaw of Searching).  Lost and found, that’s an appropriate description of this album, and I’ll explain why.  This album draws a lot of inspiration from the first Riverside album, Out of Myself, and even sounds like it to an extent.  Granted, Love, Fear and the Time Machine is a much more polished and clean and well-made album, but the general tone comes from Out of Myself.  Over the years, Riverside has evolved their sound from light to heavy to incredibly complicated to smooth and simple, and the sound they lost from Out of Myself is absolutely found again on this album.

What I enjoyed a lot about this album was its subtlety.  It doesn’t have many aggressive tracks, choosing instead to remain calm and composed for most of its length, but it is hardly monotone and each song distinguishes itself from the others.  The subtlety I mentioned is highlighted in how some of these tracks seem very simple, especially compared to to their previous albums of Shrine of New Generation Slaves (SoNGS) and Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD, yes, both are intentional…they have SLS and REM too).  Mariusz Duda, the vocalist, doesn’t use any significant voice altering effects in this album, and instead sings with his voice untainted.  On their last album, I mentioned that the additional effects on his voice were distracting and hit-or-miss, but he discards those this time which proves to be a total success.  He doesn’t need to change his voice at all, and although he tries a few other vocal stylings in this album including a falsetto, they don’t get in the way and never seem to be a problem.  His voice really shines on tracks like Towards the Blue Horizon and Found, where he can let it free (which in itself is a strange concept, letting your voice free, but go with me on this one).

My comparison of this album to other artists is not a takeaway from Love, Fear and the Time Machine.  In fact, it’s actually very high praise, because the musicians and bands that Riverside channels are some of the best around.  They don’t draw from something like 2015 Muse, and instead pull from bands and musicians with established sounds and grow on them with a Riverside flair.  I always like bands drawing from their influences and enhancing them, and this album did just that.  The most significant influence without question has to be Steven Wilson, who I can’t praise enough, and he is a fantastic person to draw inspiration from.  I enjoyed Riverside’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine from the first time I heard Discard Your Fear a month ago, and when I finally heard the entire album, it caught me under its spell.  It isn’t flawless, and of note the track #Addicted (that’s really the track name, I didn’t put the pound sign in by accident) falls a bit flat.  Otherwise, I don’t have much negative to say about this album, so I gladly give it 14 RUs out of 15.