Released: June 28th, 1994
Highlights: Gardenia, Space Cadet, Demon Cleaner, Whitewater
“Wretch” and “Blues for the Red Sun” often indicated that Kyuss, the fathers of stoner rock, had a strong propensity to lay down songs of mammoth proportions – sometimes in terms of the epic size exhaled by their heavy instrumentation, and on other occasions due to the sheer length of the numbers. “Welcome to Sky Valley” vindicates that notion, and it targets terrain that is more ambitious, varied, and spectacular than that of its predecessors. Built around a trio of long-running suites made up, respectively, of three, three, and four tracks, “Welcome to Sky Valley” is, undoubtedly, the group’s finest hour and – perhaps – the best work within the genre the Californian quartet helped create.
“Movement I” is the most jam-focused piece on the record, as it begins with the merciless guitar attack of “Gardenia”, goes into the space rock psychedelia with the instrumental “Asteroid”, and concludes with the silly-titled “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop”, whose guitar-solo-ridden coda is thrilling beyond belief. “Movement II”, meanwhile, is the most distinctive and intriguing effort: it kicks off with the fast-paced (for the genre’s standards) “100º”, which packs an incredible amount of musical content inside its running time; comes to a blissful halt on the seven-minute acoustic and drifting “Space Cadet”; and closes with “Demon Cleaner”, possibly the best song the band ever put out and a stoner rock signature number, for it is the perfect pairing of a heavy slow-to-mid tempo heavy groove and beautifully melodic vocals.
“Movement III” moves away from the generally quiet interlude provided by “Movement II” and wraps it all up with the most aggressive tunes featured in “Welcome to Sky Valley”. “Odyssey” alternates low-key instrumental parts with exploding and violent verse-and-chorus segments; “Conan Troutman” is a simple two-minute composition that would be right at home on a regular heavy metal album, and “N.O.” follows suit. The trip, save for the juvenile and somewhat humorous closing hidden track “Lick Doo”, ends with “Whitewater”: an anthemic eight-minute song that finishes with an impressive jam.
“Welcome to Sky Valley”, then, is able to unite – under one consistent and somehow cohesive umbrella – Kyuss’ metal influences with the band’s strong melodic vein. It punctuates its strongest moments, those when they detach themselves from the frantic and loud rhythms explored by so many other groups, with tracks that – while positively derivative – rock in a proud and reckless way. Whereas “Blues for the Red Sun” was the forge within which stoner rock was made, “Welcome to Sky Valley” made it soar to its apex.
Artist: Mumford & Sons
Released: May 4th, 2015
Highlights: Tompkins Square Park, The Wolf, Wilder Mind
Big shifts in sound are not, by any means, inherently bad. In fact, most – if not all – of the greatest rock bands to ever step on the face of the earth have, at some point, abandoned a niche within which both themselves and their fans were thriving to find new unpredictable waters. “Wilder Minds” is one of those major stylistic leaps, for – as it is accurately broadcasted by its cover art – it leaves the explosive countryside banjo-wielding folk music of both “Sigh No More” and “Babel” behind to embrace tunes that emit an aura that is contemporary, urban, and nocturnal. Mumford & Sons depart from a farm town and head towards a bustling metropolis and – in the process – they fall into a hole.
The issue here is not that the songs are mostly bad; Marcus Mumford’s gifts as a songwriter and his knack for uncovering anthemic melodies that are born to sustain huge choruses would never allow such a result. The problem is that his band hops out of the indie folk bandwagon that was getting a bit too crowded – albeit one whose rise and establishment they were mostly responsible for, and end up climbing aboard a chariot that is even more packed. In the attempt to reinvent themselves, they – instead of breaking into new ground, as great bands will often do – become an indistinguishable blob among the mass of prefabricated bands whose only goal is making it to the of the charts. Popularity is not necessarily negative, but when it is achieved by conforming to the norm, it is rather dull.
There are redeeming moments to be found here and there. Among the electronic pulses, the layers of lush production, and the guitars – which frequently tread the angular line so vastly explored by The Strokes, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand, some tunes truly soar. “Tompkins Square Park” has a relentless forward motion that peaks when its remarkable chorus kicks in; “The Wolf” features a glorious guitar explosion packed with hooks; “Wilder Mind” is a sad ballad in disguise; and both “Snake Eyes” and “Just Smoke” have strong traces of the catharsis-inducing choruses found in “Sigh No More” and “Babel”.
Other tunes, meanwhile, are not victims only of the production and musical direction; they suffer due to the shockingly generic writing. “Believe”, naturally chosen as the first single, is a showcase of that syndrome: a song so utterly predictable it could be safely placed in numerous records that break into the top of the charts. As disappointing as it may be, “Wilder Minds” will certainly find its crowd, because – at times – it is able to be irresistibly catchy. To those who do not appreciate the terrain it explores, though, the glimpses it gives that the old Mumford & Sons is still there to be found and rescued will work as little drops of hope that the band can come around with an original record in the near future.
Artist: Rage Against the Machine
Released: November 2nd, 1999
Highlights: Testify, Guerrilla Radio, Calm Like a Bomb, Sleep Now in the Fire
From their fantastic self-titled debut, Rage Against the Machine revealed itself to be a one-trick pony, albeit a very original one. The merger between heavy rock and rap had already been done, most notably through the Aerosmith and Run–D.M.C. partnership on “Walk this Way”. However, the joining of the social concerns expressed by hip-hop and the anger of unadulterated heavy metal had never truly happened, especially during the entirety of a full-length record. “The Battle of Los Angeles” is the third installment of that experiment, and even though it carries neither the originality of “Rage Against the Machine” nor the astounding consistency of “Evil Empire”, it still rocks with a high-octane vengeance.
The formula is the same as always. On the verses, Tom Morello, like the guitar wizard he is, extracts from his instrument sounds a turntablist would get out of record scratching; Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk take care of the rhythm; and Zack the la Rocha spills his revolt along with a poignant political agenda. When the choruses come around, Morello unleashes dirty and loud riffs that would be right at home on an Ozzy-era Black Sabbath record – that is, if they were played in a slower tempo – and Zack delivers the tune’s core hook .
The band does, in two instances, step out of that structure. On “Mic Check”, probably one of the group’s purest hip-hop efforts, the result is unimpressive; Rage Against the Machine, as it turns out, loses a lot of its charm when it is supported solely by Zack’s strong lyrics and Morello’s pickup-like guitar. “Born of a Broken Man”, meanwhile, lies in the other end of the spectrum: the whispered verses work beautifully against the explosive chorus, creating a quiet-and-loud dynamic that is both refreshing and thrilling. Ultimately, though, the element that makes Rage Against the Machine invariably gripping in spite of its musical predictability are Zack’s lyrics, and here they are – unsurprisingly – as acid and well-written as ever.
“Testify” is a brutal attack on the media, which is portrayed as serving as a puppet for the government’s policies; “Sleep Now in the Fire” is a powerful, and borderline disturbing, portrait of how greed and pettiness are the fuel to mindless violence, death, and destruction; and “Maria” is a shift on Zack’s usual speech-style lyrics and presents a storytelling tone, painting the picture of a refugee who abandons her homeland, which has been torn apart by American foreign policy. In the end, even though it does not present any stylistic growth or change, “The Battle of Los Angeles” – like its predecessors – is a much-needed rebellious record soaked in defined ideals and messages; here, anger has both a cause and purpose.
Artist: The Libertines
Released: September 11, 2015
Highlights: Barbarians, Gunga Din, Fame and Fortune, Heart of the Matter
Eleven years separate The Libertines’ final record before their inevitable break-up from “Anthems for Doomed Youth”, the album birthed by the mending of the convoluted love between Barât and Doherty. In the mean time, the reckless quartet, once the new century’s ultimate symbol for rock and roll debauchery – the missing link between Keith Richards and the garage rock revival bands, only with much more frequent visits to the tabloids’ front pages – got older (all of them are either close to forty or past that landmark), had children, and – maybe – sobered up. “Anthems for Doomed Youth” is the result of that process; it, nevertheless, finds a way to balance itself between new-found wisdom and the youthful energy of the good old days.
A sense of maturity permeates the whole work, be it on “Barbarians”, an ode to the outcasts of society, a group The Libertines are glad to join; “Gunga Din”, where a reggae-infused verse meets a catchy chorus to comment on the difficulties of the battle against the use of harmful substances, a tale the band knows too well; “You’re My Waterloo”, a piano ballad that had been written more than a decade ago but whose surfacing in 2015 is extremely fitting, given a vulnerable Doherty is obviously singing about his troubled relationship with Barât; the eponymous track, where the composers use their experiences as wild young adults to sing to a new generation that “We’re going nowhere / But nowhere, nowhere’s on our way”; and “The Milkman’s Horse”, a poignant observation about the frailty and dangers of dreams.
Although it never reaches the borderline flawless quality of “Up the Bracket”, given it shows some of the songwriting inconsistencies that marred “The Libertines”, “Anthems for Doomed Youth” is an undeniably strong record by a band that was absent for way too long. The joy of being together again is clear all the way through the album, and it becomes particularly evident on its most rousing numbers, such as “Belly of the Beast”, “Fury of Chonburi”, and “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues”; on how Doherty and Barât are constantly exchanging vocal leads; and on the way its best choruses, despite touching on messy subjects, sound like a cry of victory; a loud shout by four survivors of grand turmoil.
To the disappoint of many, “Anthems for Doomed Youth” replaces the Mick Jones production present on the first two records, on which The Clash’s guitarrist and songwriter famously let the band play live and loose, for something far cleaner and neatly recorded – hence taking away part of the group’s shambolic aura. Yet, even with such restraint, The Libertines still come through as highly energetic, wild, untamed, partially broken, and as men who tread the line between wrong and right with grins stamped on their faces. The old magic has not died, it has just been slightly altered by the battle against father time, who finds – once more – in rock and roll, one of its greatest adversaries. The boys in the band, despite their acquired maturity, are still the doomed youth from the record’s title.