Steven Wilson - Insurgentes
(DTS Surround Version) - (K Scope)
While my comrade in arms Kevin O'Toole already reviewed this solo release from Porcupine Tree impresario Steven Wilson, I'm having a go at the surround version found on the second disc. Mainly because I want to rub in the fact that I have more speakers than him. Cue evil laughter here.
Wilson and K-Scope were nice enough to inlude a fancy DVD counterpart to the main Insurgentes Compact Disc, containing that entire disc's songs now rendered in stunning 5.1 surround sound. Apparently there is also an option to experience lossless DVD-Audio sound, but as that was not an option on my rig, I "settled" for the more than adequate 24bit/48khz DTS tracks. Stereo purists may also choose to experience a 24/48 LPCM track, which is essentially a level up from standard CD audio sound.
As I expected, the entirety of the album's near-sixty minute running time yields a rich sound field with an active surround presence and the occasional aggressive rear pan. Opening track Harmony Korine delivers a solid front soundstage accented by picked guitar and drum tom hits that emit from the rear speakers. Porcupine Tree skin manipulator extraordinaire Gavin Harrison also lends his skilled techniques to this disc, and the first song demonstrates the fact that the drums on Insurgentes are going to cook.
Second track Abandoner evolves from an electronic opening (with snare hits emanating from the rear) into a verse dominated by exceptionally present sounding vocals from Wilson - locked dead center and seemingly hovering in the middle of the room. Unsurprisingly, most of the flashy sound elements (such as odd squawking sounds and acoustic guitar swells) dominate the rear field. The song them morphs into a mellow midsection that sounds like Radiohead colliding with a half-broken calliope before erupting into a gloriously immersive industrial attack.
Salvaging begins with a foghorn-esque drone performed by Dirk Serries coupled with a relatively simple guitar riff. Again, the vocals are center front, but the delay echoes bounce around the room just enough to give it a little verve. From there on solid grooves build, trippy solos burst from the rear speakers and a cinematic finale expands thanks to Dave Stewart's rich string arrangements. This section lulls the listener into a false sense of security, for later a shockingly loud finale booms out of nowhere before disappearing altogether in the back of the room. This last part literally startled the hell out of me and left my heart racing for a few moments!
Veneno Para Las Hadas features a reverb-laden guitar that would almost sound at home on any given Projekt label release. Quietly throbbing bass, rear vocal pans and accenting clarinet and recorder pieces add to an interesting sum total. This is also one of many songs to include a layer of ambient static or hiss over which the remainder of the tune's dynamics are laid.
The title of track five - No Twilight Within The Courts of The Sun - sounds like a mash-up of King Crimson and Dead Can Dance, but the main riff is the most Porcupine Tree-esque moment on the disc. Harrison's loose, fluid drumming imbues the opening with a free-form jam feel before Wilson and guest guitarist Mike Outram throw down some seriously Hendrixian solos. These are laden with abrasive fuzz and wah, and come across powerfully in surround. Another neat 5.1 trick is when a sequence of jazzy, spoken-word type vocals suddenly shift from rear to front when the band begins jamming anew.
Significant Other is one of my favorite tracks so far. It's a slow, dreamy number that features some lovely, emotional guitar lines intertwined with haunting vocals courtesy of guest singer Clodagh Simmonds. I also love the "wall of guitars" technique employed during the endlessly ascending finale. It's a kindred spirit to the noisy denouement to Radiohead's Blow Out, and remains stirring on every listen.
Only Child boasts a beefy groove, odd chords and some cool vintage sounding synths populating the rear signals. I also adore the particularly warm sound of the kick drum. Twilight Coda delivers the promised revisitation of track five's themes. It starts light and noodly before taking a twist into a darker, creepier corner of town.
Get All You Deserve sports another blanket of static over which a string of slow piano notes are laid. The blisteringly loud climax with claustrophobic, surround-driven distortion simply kicks ass. I loved that the accompanying liner note booklet lists Wilson as performing "Total F***ing Noise" for this segment!
The ultimate tune on the disc (also the title track) is largely dominated by piano (recorded in a Brighton church!) and vocals. Despite this apparent simplicity, there's still a wealth of creativity in the surround mixing, and features copious examples of delay effects placed in various speaker locations.
Aside from his numerous prolific performances as a multi-instrumentalist musician, Steven Wilson is also no stranger to the production realm, having helmed many sonically lush releases from other bands such as Opeth. A pile of Porcupine Tree discs have seen the light of day in the realm of 5.1, so mixing this release in surround must have come easily to the maestro.
The end result is an engaging, active sound field that feels neither muddled nor too sparse. Even when a song presents a full-blown aural assault on the listener, the numerous individual performances creating the whole can be audibly localized. If you own (or plan to acquire) this release and have a system capable of DTS surround sound decoding, I urge you to step into this rewarding listening experience!
OSI - Blood (InsideOut)
Just a few quick words on this third release from prog-metal supergroup Office of Strategic Influence (named after a brief, surreptitious post-9/11 US propaganda cabal), featuring the guitar heroics of Fates Warning mainstay Jim Matheos and ex-Dream Theater, current Chroma Key member Kevin Moore on vocals and keyboards. Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy performed on their previous two releases, but was apparently unhappy with the end results. He's replaced here with Porcupine Tree's percussive genius Gavin Harrison.
The songs tend to bounce between mellow and heavy, and at various times evoke similarities to Godsmack, Peter Gabriel, Nine Inch Nails and (of course) Dream Theater. The guitar lines are crunchy, yet surprisingly simplistic, while the keyboard lines can get occasionally frenetic. The most progressive elements of the music are undoubtedly Harrison's drum lines, which occasionally break free from steady grooves into hot fills and freaky sections featuring odd time signatures.
The bass throughout is as deep as deep can be, rendering this a great disc for car listening. There's also a notable amount of electronica and industrial influences present. OSI's second release was disappointingly unfocused, so those put off by that disc will be happy to know that Blood maintains a coherent vibe throughout, despite all of its varied stylistic choices.
Unfortunately, the nuanced guest vocals from Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt (on the fittingly-titled track Stockholm) highlight the fact that Moore's singing on the rest of the disc isn't quite as stellar. He's never out of tune or outright annoying, but his work is primarily monotonous and underperformed - kind of like when Joe Satriani decided he wanted to start singing on his release Flying In A Blue Dream. Rollicking, ripping tracks such as False Start just cry out for a voice with more bite.
Apart from that relatively minor gripe the disc holds together, churns the bowels and rocks enough to make it worth a listen. The attractively packaged special edition also contains a three track bonus disc stuffed with one new original song, a longer version of Terminal and a suprisingly great cover of Elliot Smith's Christian Brothers (also recently covered by Queens of the Stone Age). Check it out!
Nine Inch Nails / Janes Addiction / Street Sweeper - NIN/JA 2009 Tour EP (nin.com)
Leave it to Trent Reznor to dig up an excuse to give away some more songs for free. Here, the cause for celebration is the upcoming 2009 Nine Inch Nails tour. Along for the ride are Jane's Addiction (whose new album is also produced by Reznor) and celebrated guitarist Tom Morello's side project Street Sweeper. This six track single delivers a pair of previously unreleased tunes from each band, available in whatever sound format you prefer - from a decent bitrate MP3 collection to CD-quality WAV files.
The new NIN tracks are good, and in keeping with the warm live-band sound of last year's The Slip. Not So Pretty Now is an ode to an aging star (or starlet) and features some dirty rock riffs, prominent bass guitar and peppy, funky drumming. The slower Non-Entity is more traditional NIN fare, with distorted keyboard riffs, squawky, bendy guitar lines and single note piano diddling. The chorus certainly breaks no new ground, but the vocals are catchy enough and I love the slow, drum-dominated fade out.
The Jane's Addiction material sounds pretty promising if it's indicative of their impending new disc's overall sound. Opening track Chip Away is an oddity, as it features only Perry Farrell's vocals paired with a multi-pronged tribal/industrial percussion attack. Whores is more typical of vintage Jane's fodder, with in-your-face bass hooks, echo-heavy vocals and a very full sounding guitar attack from Dave Navarro.
A less pleasant surprise is the shockingly middling rap rock delivered by Street Sweeper. Emcee Boots Riley (ex The Coup) drops a few clever lines (like promising to "make vampires bleed"), but most of it feels like pointless cussing coupled with endless talk about gangstas. I was never inspired to listen closely enough to determine if the lyrics were sincere or tongue in cheek. Clap For The Killers sounds like a Rage Against The Machine tune played at half-speed. The Oath evolves from a Red Hot Chili Peppers-sounding guitar intro into a riff that sounds completely swiped from Billy Squier's Fast Times (The Best Years Of Our Lives).
Still, twenty-plus minutes of new music for free is a nice equation. You may be tempted to leave the two Street Sweeper tunes on the digital floor before transferring the files to your iPod (or listening device of choice), but the NIN and Jane's Addiction product is well worth the listen. As Perry Farrell proffers so eloquently in Whores, "Gimme some more!"
Program Guide, 2009