Artist: The White Stripes
Released: June 7th, 2005
Highlights: Blue Orchid, My Doorbell, The Denial Twist, As Ugly as I Seem
“Get Behind Me Satan” opens up with “Blue Orchid”, a tune that is everything one would expect to listen on a song by The White Stripes: it has Jack White’s signature loudly distorted guitar punches, Meg’s clumsy rhythm-keeping, and a melody that commands one’s subconscious to either sing along madly or dance awkwardly. But then, when track two comes in, things start getting weird, and such idiosyncratic nature does not go away until “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” – the album’s closing number – turns into silence.
It seems as if Jack, the unquestionable creative leader here, got tired of the group’s strict guitar-and-drums-only ways and decided to experiment with an horde of new instruments. The difference is that while most bands would use that newfound equipment to dress up their song’s arrangements, The White Stripes go the opposite way and retain their stripped down instrumentation, often dropping their electric sound and using other vehicles to get their music across. That is why “The Nurse”, the doorway to all the weirdness, features – as its lead instrument – a prominent marimba that is punctually interrupted by cracking guitar kicks.
Jack White’s compositions retain those easy-to-grasp pop hooks, and that is why “Get Behind Me Satan” is able to make it almost unscathed through all the madness that is unleashed here. Not rare are the occasions when a song seems bound to break down due to the odd approach the band took when executing them, but they always somehow pull through. In a way, “Get Behind Me Satan” is a record that is continually trying to push the line of what works musically to the very limit, and it almost never goes too far; the line bends harshly, but it does not break.
With such oddity as their fuel, the group manages to navigate through blues (“Instinct Blues”), acoustic folky ballads (“Little Ghost”, “Forever for Her”), piano-centered beauty (“White Moon”), trashy hard rock (“Red Rain”), and sing-along simplicity (“My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist”). It is a very varied package that shows the band did well to stretch its wings wide. They do not merely walk away with dignity from what would be their career’s most difficult work, they pull through it with poise and well-earned applause.
Artist: The Strokes
Released: January 3rd, 2006
Highlights: You Only Live Once, Juicebox, Heart in a Cage, Ize of the World
With “Room on Fire”, The Strokes realized that although they could try to perfect their brand of rock to exhaustion, they would never be able to reach the heights of “Is This It?”, which was – by all means – a perfect debut that played like a greatest hits record. For “First Impressions of Earth”, then, the group decided to branch their engagingly mechanical tempos and relentless rhythm guitars into a more intricate kind of hard rock that kept many of the qualities of their early sound, only turned up a few notches.
As a result of the louder and more aggressive tone demanded by most of the compositions, the band’s playing sounds better than ever: Moretti, often rightfully compared to a drum machine, hits his set hard; Fraiture’s bass finds more room to shine; Valensi and Hammond Jr., the twin guitars that announced the return of rock music in the early 2000s, often work like the two entwined heads of a fiery dragon; and Casablancas alternates between indifference and powerful groans with style.
For the first six tracks – the clear hit “You Only Live Once”, the frantic “Juicebox”, the anguishing “Heart in a Cage”, the delightfully poppy “Razorblade”, the irresistible “On the Other Side”, and the guitar masterpiece of “Vision of Division” – The Strokes are locked into a groove so gigantic and powerful they give their fans hope this might live up to the unsurmountable bar set by “Is This It?”. But then, “Ask Me Anything” comes in and hope falls on its face like a biker that has lost his front wheel when going downhill. It is not that after the seventh track the album becomes one uniform disaster; it is just that it becomes bafflingly irregular.
“Electricityscape”, “Ize of the World”, and “Evening Sun” are brilliant, but many of the the songs grouped towards the album’s end either feel undercooked or sound like throwaway efforts. Therefore, a work that starts firing on all cylinders stumbles to the finish line. The saddest part is that, as an album of fourteen songs and fifty-seven minutes, “First Impressions of Earth” could – and, based on the overall quality of its second half, should – have been shorter. There is an almost flawless ten-song effort hidden in there that is the work of a great band looking for new grounds, but it seems that, like a timeless masterpiece hidden in a block of stone that never came to be due to the excess of material, the group never got around to actually setting out to find it.
Artist: The Hives
Released: July 19th, 2004
Highlights: Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones, Walk Idiot Walk, A Little More for Little You, B is for Brutus
In a way, it would not be absurd to call The Hives a one-trick poney. Their sound is, after all, a direct descendant of the tree that can be traced all the way back to the flawless stream of high-energy music coined by The Ramones’ on their first four records. They, however, make that well-known punk simplicity their own by playing it pretty damn loud, displaying a confident demeanor, pretending to be controlled by an never-seen devilish manager that – supposedly – represents an all-emcompassing metaphor for the greedy industry on which they toil, and covering it all up with lyrics whose smartness frequently diverges into utter silliness or tongue-in-cheek sneers.
“Tyrannosaurus Hives” is by no means a departure from that formula; the band knows they are masters at what they set out to do, and they refuse to try anything else. Yet, it is an album that shows that some degree of sofistication has started to leak into some of the arrangements. It is a work that has its share of straight-to-the-jaw guitar attacks, like “Abra Cadaver”, which effectively says whatever it has to say within ninety seconds; the breakneck speed of “No Pun Intended”; or the fantastic riff that guides “See Through Head”. Still, it features other numbers that show some growth; not in a sense of maturity, for being grown-up is against The Hives’ nature, but in musical terms.
“Walk Idiot Walk”, the lead single, for example, has a quiet-and-loud dynamic that would make The Pixies jealous, while “A Little More for Little You” has a melodic chorus whose tune could have easily been used in a beautiful ballad if not for its playful lyrics. That progression becomes loudly blatant on both “Diabolic Scheme”, which goes as far as using strings to muster a threatening floor on which the weird guitars can stand; and “Love in Plaster”, a song whose verses are carried by a robotic keyboard until everything is blown to pieces on the howling and dramatic chorus.
Little steps forward like those do not stop the band from producing catchy quality music: “Tyrannosaurus Hives” is packed with some of the group’s greatest songs. It is a strong set where the distinction between the tunes achieved through those added quirks serves the purpose of further highlighting each track’s qualities. Be it on the aggressive “B is for Brutus”, the nearly pop “Antidote”, or on the call-and-response “Dead Quote Olympics”, The Hives are at their creative peak here, delivering no-frills rock and roll that is somehow simultaneously calculated and sincere. They are true professionals of forged authenticity.
Artist: System of a Down
Released: September 4th, 2001
Highlights: Chop Suey!, ATWA, Toxicity, Aerials
In theory, System of a Down is a band that should have never made it into the mainstream. This is thrash metal often played at extreme speed and loaded with many abrupt changes of tempo. Additionally, given the Armenian ancestry of all members of the group, their music often veers towards beats and melodic vocals that can be traced directly to Arabian roots. Everything assembles to form a cloth sewn together by the joining of ridiculously diverse influences and lyrics that are somewhere in the range between completely obtuse and sharply political. It is a theoretical mess, but the bottom line is: it works. And never did it all click as well as on “Toxicity”, their second record.
As a result, where the self-titled debut merely had a brush with the popularity charts, “Toxicity” broke through spectacularly. The reasons for that event are blatant. First of all, the album has a set of obvious hits: “Chop Suey!” and its glorious opening crescendo that culminates in a metal explosion made mellow by a irresistibly melodic chorus; “Toxicity” and its quiet-and-loud structure coated with a subdued political message; and the enigmatic “Aerials”, a song whose unforgettable riff and hooks automatically turned it into a worthy early-2000s rock classic.
Secondly, but not less important, is the fact “Toxicity” is a solid record. The band never truly abandons the quirkiness of their unique style, and within that scope of alternative metal spiced up by easy melodies and a distinctive Arabian influence, they prosper: there is not a very weak cut to be found here. Out of that odd combination, a sound that is both catchy and edgy surfaces, turning “Toxicity” into a somewhat individual effort in an era dominated by nu-metal. Even if the fast-paced, borderline rap, singing that defined the now infamous genre is present to a degree, System of a Down uses it as the support of a completely different creature.
It is true that the songs where all of those elements come together in perfect harmony – such as on the aforementioned trifecta, plus “Needles”, “Deer Dance”, “Jet Pilot”, “Forest”, “ATWA”, and “Science” – far eclipse the more straightforward aggressive tracks. However, the intensity of the performing and the power of the band are unstoppable. Although later records would perfect the accessibility the group was certainly aiming for, “Toxicity” marks the point on which the band was at its purest and most candid state.