“Theories on the Simulation”- Impressions of “Simulation Theory”, an album by Muse.

220px-Simulation_Theory_(album)

 

“Big rock” trio, Muse, is back at it with their eighth studio effort, “Simulation Theory”. After what was announced as possibly their last studio album, “Drones”, three years ago, “Simulation Theory” seems like a sudden and surprising offering from the group, but in reality was an organic creation, slowly formed over their multi year hiatus. The result is a very inspired effort and the most cohesive, epic, and theamatic work since “Black Holes and Revelations”, twelve years ago.

For a band of just three, Muse sure comes off as one very big band, with a larger than life sound and persona. Their pop music and pop culture sensibilities further solidify them as a giant, mainstream rock band, almost to the point of becoming a guilty pleasure for any hard core music enthusiast, especially when you consider them as being synonomous with teens and “Twilight” vampires. What breaks them from this mold, are the dark and distopian themes that are increasingly pervasive in their music, all the while achieving the polish and superior craftsmanship associated with more mainstream music acts. “Simulation Theory” has struck this delicate balance.

Outside of the recent resurgence of vinyl as a popular music medium, the relevance of a music album’s cover art is certainly not what it once was. So, when Muse recruited Kyle Lambert of “Stranger Things” fame, to do the cover art to “Simulation Theory”, it was a very clever play on the aforementioned band’s pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal while at the same time staying true to the dark and distopian themes that dominate their music. Beside the popularity of the artist, the actual art does a great job of capturing this duality of the band. The colors and style scream pop, yet some of the imagery hint at an underlying darkness and mystery. If this was an LP from the eighties, the cover art would have gone a very long way into creating the mystique and mystery of what was to come before the listener dives into the “Simulation”.

Before diving into the “Simulation”, it is also worth mentioning that another once, significant aspect of music that has changed in recent times is the relevance and purpose of music videos and how this band decided to address this as well. Just like with the album artwork, Muse decided to defy modern convention and went “all in” on music videos for “Simulation Theory”. They created a series of videos for multiple songs off the album that portray the various simulations that the listener, or viewer in the case of VR, can partake in. These music videos capture much of the imagery off of the album cover art and they work synergistically to reveal the overall theme of the album which is that that there’s a wizard behind the curtain or simulation that is controlling the whole show. Besides faithfully recreating much of Kyle Lambert’s imagery on the album cover, the style, casting, and individual plots of each video go a very long way in also capturing the bands pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal, while revealing some of the dark themes that also define their current sound.

Beyond the artwork and the videos, the actual music is where “Simulation Theory” shines. As much as the cover art and videos help contribute to the album’s dystopian theme, ironically, when you ignore these visual components and just consider the sounds and the music, “Simulation Theory”, is an intoxicating and immersive journey into Muse’s hellish vision of the world. The music itself is the perfect showcase for the band’s aforementioned duality with it’s tight, epic, and bombastic sounds that speak about dark subject matter.

Right off the bat, with “Algorithms” they lead the listener into a pulsating soundscape that slowly builds with pianos, synths, and guitars, and which is metaphorically taking the subject into the “simulation”. Just like the musical stylings on this opening track , the lyricism is also trademark Muse. They are sparse, yet poetic and anthem-esque lyrics that flirt with profundity and hint at density, but not at the risk of pretentiousness.

Once inside the “simulation”, this album seems to play out in two parts. Although certainly not done chronilogically, and maybe not intentionally, part of “Simulation Theory” speaks about oppression, the oppressive forces, and literally transports listeners to “The Darkside”. The other part of the album, albeit the majority, speaks about rising against this oppression and emerging out of the dark.

An excellent example of the dark that the band has conjured up for part of this album is “Thought Contagion”. They certainly don’t do themselves any favors escaping the “Twilight” vampire association, but this song is a really fun vampire analogy about being bit and infected by lies and deception. You have songs like the co-produced Timberland, “Propoganda”, that further articulate the oppressive forces at work, in “The Simulation.” Even at the end of the album and after “The Simulation” is revealed and the hero is summoned to rise above, the enescapable darkness still lurks in “The Void”, which is the very last song on the album.

Then there’s the other part of “Simulation Theory”. Muse spends most of their time and energy on the album playing music to fuel the revolution and quite a few tracks come off like incantations or battle cries for the good fight taking place. Once the curtain is pulled back and the “simulation” is revealed, the band beckons the listener to manifest the energy and strength to fight and emerge from the darkness and lies taking place around them. Songs like “Pressure” and it’s marching band music,  (there’s even a really cool version with the UCLA marching band!), are energetic anthems that seem to pull the listener out of the abyss every time it gets deeper. If it’s not at a pep rally, with a  marching band that get the listener out of the rut, Muse takes things to church and sing the good gospel with “Dig Down”. Encouraging listeners to “Get up and Fight”, playing all this motivational music on over one half of the album is very good for the band. It shows their vast technical capabilities, their  musical diversity, and a great understanding of a wide range of sounds. The music continues to come off as epic and cinematic in scope, each and every time, yet never corny or derivative.

“Something Human” is the strongest song on “Simulation Theory” and sums up Muse’s latest work, best. Since the album is about humans living in a simulation, and breaking out of it, “Something Human” is the moment where one takes a deep breath and step back and realizes what the whole thing is about. It is the realization of humanity in the midst of artificiality. Since this album is void (no pun intended) of singing about love in a romantic sense, part of this song’s brilliance lies in it being the only ballet on the album, and it does what any good ballet does and talks about love, only, love in the sense of love for and of humanity, in this case. This cryptic message and dualistic meaning along with the beauty and grand scale of the music, make “Something Human”, a very special way of tying the album together and it epitomizes where Muse is at as musicians and what they are going for on “Simulation Theory”.

R.I.P. To the Queen

 

R.I. P.  to the Queen, Aretha Franklin.  A huge musical influence, especially as a young aspiring Hip Hop producer who sampled her sounds and as an emcee who admired the social and cultural transcendence of her music and career.

Her 30 Greatest Hits Album from 1985, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. This was one of the first pieces of vinyl I owned, and I sampled many sounds from this record, and I listened to all the songs on so many different occasions.  Although it is obscure in the hierarchy of the Queen’s anthology, I always think back to my favorite song off of this double LP, “Daydreaming”, with Aretha’s crooning voice, the droning bassline, and then the break at the end into an ambient, dreamscape of sound that personify the literal and figurative “dream” theme of the song. The production value of this song was not only way ahead of it’s time but was a huge influence on my own musical production style.

It’s Been Awhile, a Couple Months to be Exact, or Better Yet, an Entire Summer…

summertime

 

It has been a couple months since I last posted, so I am now committed to blogging more regularly.  I find that the exercise of blogging is therapeutic for my soul and psyche, and going long periods without, for me, has the same effect as lapses in physical exercise and lapses in creative expression; both of which I try to avoid going without for any prolong period.  So, what have I been up to the last couple months?  Actually we can say, what did I do this entire summer. Let’s see.

I have most importantly, spent quality time with the family in the form of a couple beach trips.

I have experienced my oldest daughter’s first summer in between the school year which has consisted of a variety of summer camps.  (Kudos to my wife for her stellar organization and scheduling skills and making this period seamless and smooth for us all!)

Next, I attended a college friend’s wedding and got to spend time with some other college buddies, and it was at my old NC mountain stomping grounds. It felt really good to revisit this terrain, and was both a beautiful wedding ceremony and scenery.

I got to take my daughters to their first concert, and their first live baseball game which they thoroughly enjoyed.  I also got to attend another concert with my wife that was on my music bucket list.

Speaking of music, I got to listen to a lot of good new music, and make some new music for myself and my best friend’s new project.  (congrats to my pal and the birth of his baby girl during this time!)

And of course, I’ve read a lot of good books, watched a lot good movies, and played some good video games these past couple months.

Finally, I tried to keep my physical fitness up, the whole time, in the form of regular, weekly gym sessions and pickup basketball.  The weather has been extremely hot and rainy so the outdoor activity has been very limited, but I have tried to compensate in the form of hard workouts, good nutrition, and supplementation.  As a matter of fact, these last two months I have been doing a form of fasting called time restricted feeding which I will blog about soon.  I feel really good, but we will see what the results are since I am in the process of my annual physical and blood work as we speak.

That about wraps it up, and it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable past couple months. I look forward to writing in detail about some of these things, very soon.

Workouts, Vacation, and Ruminations from the Last Two Weeks.

kettlebell pics

 

Managed 4 workouts over the last 2 weeks I was absent from this blog (3 at the gym and 1 at home).  2 of the gym workouts were at my new gym and focused on metabolic conditioning centered primarily around the crossfit box.  The third gym workout was at my old gym and centered around heavier compound lifting with H.I.I.T. sets between lifting sets.  The home workout was body weight focused with some cardio intervals and a lot of stretching and active recovery.  Also was able to get in some walking and body weight work while on vacation.

 

 

Spent 3.5 days at Emerald Isle on Memorial Day vacation with the family and with the in laws.  Perfect, albeit hot, and sunny beach weather and nice water conditions for three days.  Did have a real scare with my older English Bulldog on the way to the beach with the 3 hour drive. He managed to get severely overheated despite the AC conditions in our vehicle to the point where we had to make an emergency landing and cool him off and narrowly missed a fatal outcome.  He recovered and we took precautionary measures on the trip back and he is doing fine now.  The heavy rain on the way back helped and that rain has continued daily since Monday, 5/28/18, with today being Thursday the 31st!

 

 

 

In this time I was able to watch some sports, MMA and the NBA playoffs.  Most of these events were lackluster so I may not bother to write about them individually.

I was able to listen to great podcasts like Onnit with Paul Check part 2 and JRE with GSP, as well as great music like the new albums by Beachhouse and Pusha T.  I will probably write about those soon.

 

 

The Revelations and Relevance of “Ryan”- Impressions of “Book of Ryan ” an album by Royce Da 5’9”

The Book of Ryan cover

 

Hot off the heals of his second, classic collaboration with the legendary producer DJ Premier with Prhyme 2, Royce stuns us with this solo effort out of nowhere.

In what may be the most mainstream attempt on the album in some ways, and a tag team effort with his Bad Meets Evil partner and fellow Rock City brethren, Eminem, “Caterpillar” is a strange, extended metaphor for the current state of rap from the perspective of these two older rap legends.  Although Royce and Em spend the song talking about how they are the caterpillars and are destroying these butterflies, the better analogy here is how Royce as an artist has morphed into something new and great with the “Book of Ryan”.

Sobriety and self realization has spelled the artistic demise of many artists in the eyes of fans, especially in artistic genres associated with debauchery and hedonism like the gangster rap era that Royce came up in.  Take that away from the artist and many times you are left with an empty soul that has either has lost their edge artistically or is still attempting to sell a fake image of what they use to be.  Royce has gone way past these possible outcomes with this work.  This album shows how brutal honesty, thought , and introspective can work artistically.  How he pulls it off in a music genre that epitomizes the antithesis of this is nothing short of remarkable.  From the Intro to “Woke”, to songs like “Godspeed”, you witness a man who has overcome the pain and suffering of an addiction and life’s tribulations and has recovered and matured and sees a light at the end of the tunnel.  He is gleaming with self assurance and confidence but without cocky bravado and ego, and he constantly reminds us of the ghosts and pain of his past without ever indulging and surrendering in self pity.  He sobered up and grew up and created a masterpiece here.

“Book of Ryan” has all the hallmarks of what makes a classic hip hop album or better yet a great album in any genre.  The guest appearances are minimal which further solidifies the power of this solo effort. When he does have them on, he makes them count and they are relevant choices, like with J Cole on “Boblo Boat” or the NY all star line up on “Summer on Lock”.  Just when you think you are witnessing a personal memoir as an album,  with the story telling on songs like “Outside” and “Strong Friend”,  Royce the emcee bites down on his mouthpiece and delivers vintage performances like his verse on the aforementioned “Summer on Lock” and the song “Legendary”. Like a lot of hip hop classics you have skits and the Royce’s skits are powerful and well done and all relevant to the theme of the album.  Also his interjection of humor goes a long way and sounds totally natural whether on skit or within song verse.  The choice of production, song length, and structure all are fitting to the overall theme and are strong but play a secondary role to his powerful lyrics and stories.  His versatility as a musician is showcased throughout this album as well, as he changes up his cadence, delivery, tone, and you even get to hear him sing certain passages and quite well I might add!  The album’s title and reference to “Ryan” talks a lot about seeing the world through the eyes of his dad and his relationship with his dad, and is a brilliant cryptic take on his own life, sobriety, and achieving manhood. Overall, despite the absurd prolific output here (count it, 21 tracks) everything is seamless and comes off as a well crafted, well thought out, and cohesive from beginning to end.  It never manages to lose the attention of the listener and there is a dense work with much to unpack, so it bears repeated listening, yet manages to never get old or fatiguing after multiple listens.

Modern Rap can learn a lot from this work.  The articulation of self and feelings that Royce manages to convey, so unabashed and unapologetically is refreshing and you just don’t see it these days, especially in this kind of music.  His surrendering of ego and his honesty about his battles with addiction are so relevant in the modern space of human existence.  He tackles the issues at the forefront of modern life and has made a profound statement that all people from all walks of life can relate to.  His organic choice of music and lyrics combine synergistically and turn this to a very sophisticated piece of art that any one can enjoy and study for a long time.  It is a modern manifestation of hip hop evolved that is capable of changing the landscape of what this music is, can be, and should be.

 

 

Impressions: “Dirty Computer” album by Janelle Monae

dirty computer cover

 

Janelle Monae has quickly risen to my favorite “diva” among her contemporaries, however she is much more than that.  In only her third album she has really peaked as an artist and her ever growing and critically praised  Hollywood acting career further prove that she is a “true tour de force” and can do it all.  She reminds me of a futuristic Lauren Hill if you will.  As a matter of fact when she says she is from the future I believe it.  The scope of her talent and depth of her art whether singing, dancing, or acting seem extra terrestrial, otherworldly, and hard to define and categorize when considered in the context of her fellow modern entertainment peers.  As a matter of fact her recent admission of being “pan sexual” sums it up best and truly personifies thos multi-faceted being from another time and place, that we call Janelle Monae.

Just like her first two albums, the production and structure is cohesive, entertaining, and captures her wide gambit of talents from beginning to end.  Actually this third effort is the best one yet and I think she pulls this off by the going in a confident and explicit direction with tracks like “Screwed” and “Pynk”.  The opening and title track “Dirty Computer” produced by the legendary Brian Wilson, lays a brilliant foundation for what is to come on the album.  Not only does the analogy of her being a virus laden computer afflicted with the filth and dirt of cyber sin brilliantly sum up the modern onslaught of information we deal with today, it also sets the tone for the aforementioned more explicit version of Monae that we get to witness.  Each track is a show case of this women’s incredible array of artistic skill such as “Django Jane” in which she brilliantly displays her vocal prowess as an MC and with one track easily eclipses the efforts of fellow female MCs like Cardi B and Niki Minaj, not to mention a whole generation of modern male Soundcloud, dare I say “MCs”, or “rappers”.  Her choice of production and ability to capture the producers signature sounds like on “I Got the Juice” with Pharrell cannot be understated and never seem contrived or derivative of that producer.  Her work with her mentor, the late, great Purple one continues, the long legacy of beautiful, talented divas that he was able to discover and groom, and as a matter of fact she establishes her position as the best among them.