Tag Archives: muse

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

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A meme made long.

I’ve been dragging my heels on this meme (conferred on me by the incomparible Alex Gunning), so I thought I’d make up for it by elaborating on it in blog form.

The 12 albums that have stuck with me:

(All images from wikipedia.org)

The Who – Quadrophenia

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A key part in the 1970s wave of double albums with black and white covers, Quadrophenia has been, for quite some time. The recurring musical themes established in the title track and their reprises with key phrases lend that grandiose and classical feeling to the proceedings, yelling the story of the mod named Jimmy. The quartet have never been better technically as they were on here, at a confluence with just the right amount of songwriting prowess and self indulgence in Pete Townshend’s head. They popularized the rock opera with Tommy, but perfected it here.

Tracks to check out: “The Real Me”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, “Love, Reign O’er Me”

They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

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Back in ’88, fewer people were enjoying the indie rock sound, but when they did, they often would turn to two guys named John from Brooklyn to get their fill. Lincoln runs the gamut from power pop on “Ana Ng” to the weird jazzy bellow of “You’ll Miss Me” to the martial beat of “Pencil Rain” and demonstrates TMBG’s knack on only their sophomore effort for writing catchy tunes with bizarre wordplay. Spread across 19 short songs, Lincoln is a lesson in accessible eclecticism and is just loads of fun to listen to.

Tracks to check out: “Ana Ng”, “Cage & Aquarium”, “They’ll Need A Crane”, “Kiss Me, Son of God”

Egg – Egg

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Deep in the mists of prog can be found a short-lived project with only three albums to its name and three members to its roster – Egg. Having seen the infancy of prog begin, they immediaty dove headfirst into baffling time signatures, symphonic aspirations sonic experimentalism with their organ-bass-drum trio and exploded onto the scene with their self-titled debut. Barely organized chaos is the order of the day as bassist Mont Campbell attempts to bring some sort of order with his airy vocals. The album is rough n ready and has a sort of urgency and live feel to it that gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like to see them live and feel as if you were part of something new happening.

Tracks to check out: “Fugue in D Minor”, “The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous”

Genesis – Genesis Live

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I was waffling back and forth on which Genesis album to put on this list, as my interest in early Genesis got me not only into prog, but also a good portion of the music I listen to today. Problem is, I find each of their early albums to have their hits and misses. Except for this one. All killer, no filler, Genesis Live is the only live album released during Peter Gabriel’s tenure with the band and features their best tracks from the previous three albums (save one omission), with the players just on fire on all counts. Gabriel’s stage banter is brief but witty, and these live renditions of the longer songs in their oeuvre have a great deal more energy to them than their studio counterparts – not to mention guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins getting to put their own stamp on the thunderous closer, “The Knife”, which was released before they joined the band.

Tracks to check out: “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”, “The Knife”

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – This Year’s Model

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Costello’s acerbic wit combined with his snotty snarl and his backing band at the height of their punky game makes his sophomore album one of the best I’ve ever heard. While Punk’s poet laureate offers a treatise on the nature of love and celebrity worship (with lyrical barbs like “You want her broken with her mouth wide open/’cause she’s this year’s girl” and “Sometimes love is just a tumor/You got to cut it out”), the Attractions are busy laying the frenetic groundwork on top of which it all sits (I swear, the rhythm section took out every rest they had on “Lipstick Vogue”), while creating enough earworms to have you bopping long after you’re done listening. To be honest, I stopped for the most part with Costello after this album, because he got it perfect with this one.

Tracks to check out: “This Year’s Girl”, “Pump It Up”, “Lipstick Vogue”

The Decemberists – Picaresque

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Strangely enough, all of my top favourite Decemberists tracks are on other albums, but none of them are quite as consistent as Picaresque, which shows them in all their jaunty glory. You get bombast on “The Infanta”, an epic sea shanty on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, a quieter lovelorn paean on “The Engine Driver” and some sort-non-specific old-timey stomp on “The Sporting Life”. Every song takes place in its own enjoyable world, rich with little words and sonic details that evoke that particular atmosphere, as well as an undoubtedly catchy melody and a few terms you’ll have to look up after the fact.

Tracks to check out: “The Infanta”, “16 Military Wives”, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff

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2 sides, 4 songs, roughly 10 minutes each. This symmetrical layout provides the framework for my favourite of the many Van der Graaf albums that I love. Though they always employed a somewhat unusual instrumentation, this album features the usual organ-drums-sax trio with the addition of singer Peter Hammill on clavichord, which provides plenty of rich menacing counterpoint. The album documents the horrors of war over top of wailing sax riffs, gnarled organ and the bellowing and caterwauling of Hammill stretching his voice in any direction it will go, each song having plenty of time to establish its own particular haunting narrative, lyrically and sonically.

Track to check out: “Scorched Earth”

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971

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One man, an acoustic guitar and a piano onstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall is all it took to make this one of my favourite live albums. With no back-up and a single instrument to sing along to, Young’s songwriting is on full display from the word go, as he runs through his early catalogue and (then) new songs that would appear on his blockbuster Heart of Gold. His self-effacing stage banter is effortlessly Canadian and charming, and every performance beautiful in its simplicity and allowance for the melodies to shine through.

Tracks to check out: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

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A fine showpiece of modern songcraft. Each song is quintessentially British and has many little studio touches that catapult them from good to fantastic. Guy Garvey’s husky croon touches on love of all kinds on this album: past, present, future, unrequited and platonic; all of this is backed by the appropriate somber piano melody or orchestral bombast that evolves as the song’s story goes on and on. One of the most consistent track-to-track albums I’ve ever heard that tackles as many different moods as this one does.

Tracks to check out: “The Bones of You”, “Grounds For Divorce”, “One Day Like This”

Muse – Absolution

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From the introduction consisting solely of military stomping and incoherent orders being yelled, I knew that I was listened to something that was going to be right in my wheelhouse. A concept album based around the theme of different people’s experiences of the end of the world with some of the craziest and most piercing riffs I’d ever heard in my life, with a falsetto to put Raine Maida’s to shame? Hell yes.

Tracks to check out: “Stockholm Syndrome”, “Hysteria”, “Butterflies & Hurricanes”

Radiohead – Kid A

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This one my first Radiohead album proper, but I actually skirted around Radiohead for sometime, using Thom Yorke’s solo electronic effort, The Eraser to kind of get in through the back door. When I was done with that, I wanted more Yorke and more electronic stuff, so what better way to turn? Radiohead’s cryptic masterpiece is unrivaled in the intense and paranoid atmosphere it creates with some beats, some synths, a studio and virtually no guitars. One of those albums that teleports you completely to another world.

Tracks to check out: “Everything In Its Right Place”, “The National Anthem”, “Idioteque”

Our Lady Peace – Naveed

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Probably the album on this list that’s been with me the longest and still one of my favourite rock albums ever. from the dizzying insanity of “The Birdman” to the intro to “Neon Crossing” which, at 15, was the craziest thing I’d ever heard up ’till that point, Naveed is a wonderful piece of alternative rock that always seems to zig when you think it’s gonna zag. Guitarist Mike Turner’s riffs seem to emanate from a different planet, Raine Maida caterwauls and bemoans the human condition while Jeremy Taggart fills in every conceivable space with unreal drum fills (especially impressive considering he was only 18 at the time).

Tracks to check out: “The Birdman”, “Starseed”, “Denied”

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#23: Muse – The 2nd Law

(Capitol, 2012)

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(Image from amazon.com)

My history with grandiosity junkies Muse goes back to their third and, arguably, breakout album, 2003’s Absolution. From the spectacle of the Storm Thorgerson cover to the needle-like riffs, overwhelming basslines and incredible falsetto, it was something completely fresh to me at the time – a more extreme, bigger sort of rock music, but not in the way that metal was. I was shocked to learn that the din came from only three people. I was on board.

The follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations scaled back a little on the guitar attack, but turned up the grandeur eminently. Songs like “Map of the Problematique” and “Knights of Cydonia” had an immense gravity without necessarily having headbanging riffs to go along with them. It was this that would become Muse’s stock in trade, which took me a little while to get into when I realized what was happening. For the most part, I took a pass on The Resistance, but I have come back into the fold on The 2nd Law.

They have perfected the art of bombast to a tee, which is typified best on the lead track “Supremacy” and on the lead single and London Olympic theme, “Survival”. The former has its main riff realized by what sounds like a massive orchestra (strings and horns) on one side, and Bellamy’s guitar on the other, descending slowly but with force every step of the way, not to mention a legion of martial drumming to carry the verses along. The icing on the cake, is a now trademark vocal leap by Bellamy when he finally sings “suuuuuuuuupremacy!” near the top of his impressive range. “Survival” feels like a self-knowing wink at their own tendencies at this point, starting off with a plinky piano and fingersnaps, but rocketing up to a giant chorus with a huge choir backing his shouts of “I’m gonna win!!” (Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme providing an excellent steady rhythm section bedrock all the while).

It seems as if they’ve risen to the position of this generation’s Queen – they have a number of fantastic anthems in their pocket now, and are one of the best group arena rockers of the age (their visual show is also astounding and adds an extra dimension to the experience – even the songs you don’t like become events you can’t help enjoying). Each member is becoming more involved (bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes a turn both at the pen and the mic on “Save Me”, a slower paced paean and “Liquid State”, a solid, more straight-ahead rocker). And, except for their parlay in “United States of Eurasia” (I know, I said I pretty much passed on The Resistance, but I still heard it once or twice), they’ve very much done it on their own terms – there is no sense of them being a nostalgia act. And on The 2nd Law, they’ve seen fit to try and expand their palette.

“Panic Station” is where they dive into funk territory (Queen’s Hot Space, anyone?), conjuring Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” quite readily (even employing a clavichord and horn line in verse breaks that sounds very close), and providing a perfect dance beat that straddles the line well with their rock sound (whereas their earlier “Supermassive Black Hole” dove headlong into dance, quite unapologetically).

The first of the two title tracks sees Muse make the inevitable dabble with dubstep – the genre relies on the gut feeling and gigantic sound that Muse make such an intrinsic part of their music anyhow, it was only a matter of time. It begins, of course, with a mass of violins dashing out a panicky, frenetic line, and adds in a choir and quick sound clips come in and out. It works perfectly as the drops hit as hard as possible with a dash of guitar histrionics overtop to remind you who you’re listening to. Curiously other track also titled “The 2nd Law”, is a slower piano piece, which builds up some synthesized riffs and sounds similar to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, giving off the same spooky vibe, made even more ominous by the clips of news programs speaking of overwhelming disaster and crisis on top of each other. At the live show, this piece was played with a fantastic visual element that lends itself to what could be an incredible narrative, which fits perfectly with the line of breathless paranoia which runs through just about all of the band’s albums.

Despite the quite successful bombast, my favourite moment on the album comes on the second track and single – “Madness” – which is one of the band’s quieter moments, with a fantastic melody, and great rhythm-establishing clip of Bellamy singing “m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-mad-mad”. Through its straight verse-chorus format, each run-though adds something extra – more harmonies, heavier beat – crescendoing with a chorus of Bellamys towards the end and the melody taking off. No falsetto or gigantic, crunching riffs. Not to mention the best solo I’ve ever heard from the band, with a fantastic tone and fantasic melody in its own right over the fairly serene backing.

This is the album of an assured band finally at the top of the heap. Not afraid to experiment, never afraid to go too over the top and consistently building on previous successes. For having originally made their name as a live band, their studio techniques are impressive. This is a nice swatch of what the band is capable of now having attained a status as current rock royalty.

8/10

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