New Music Tuesday: Kanye West • Sigur Rós • Empire of the Sun

Every Tuesday, we focus on new music releases by naming our top tracks, album highlights, lowlights and important takeaways for select albums.

Kanye WestYeezus

3.5-BamsTop Tracks:
“Black Skinhead”
“New Slaves”
“I’m In It”

Album Highlights: West’s most avant-guarde effort to date, Yeezus explores the pulsating bass-lines of trap music, glitch electronic beats and experimental noise. In taking some of the largest creative risks of his career, West enrolled a dream team of collaborators to keep the album cohesive and provoking. Executive produced by Rick Ruben, the album boasts a contributing roster of industry heavyweights both past and present. Beyond the tracks crafted by the likes of Daft Punk or featuring West’s handpicked protégé Chief Keef, “Yeezus” is filled with an impressive collection of samples from musical innovators both past and present. A collision of contemporary tastemakers and musical archetypes best exemplified on the standout track “Blood on the Leaves”. The track hits hard with quintessential trap horns and the paralyzing bass of TNGHT’s “R U Ready”, paired with vocals appropriated from Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit”.

Embellishing further upon audio elements explored in Cruel Summer, his most recent release with G.O.O.D. Music, Yeezus re-introduces us to West’s affinity for the abrasive. Lyrically he continues his legacy of controversial subject matter, with blatant misogyny, self-perpetuated deism and a “fuck the world” attitude dominating as themes. Touching upon the idea of modern-day slavery, within a society that feeds into and conversely scrutinizes his egocentric self-image, West angrily spits, screams and snarls his way through many of the albums tracks. “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” the hardest hitting political tracks on the album bookend the aptly titled “I Am A God”, which will undoubtedly be a contentious track for most. Yeezus also has ample tracks in which West airs his relationship grievances and romantic dirty laundry. A signature trait of Kanye’s previous work, these private details are delivered this time around in a most uncensored manner, aggressively communicated and pornographically depicted. A sexually explicit manifesto, “I’m In It” may be the most NSFW track on the album with lines depicting unveiled racist foreplay with condiments and fisting. West let’s his freak flag fly in the albums’ most interesting collaboration, with vocals by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame and Agent Sasco.

Album Lowlight: Understandably, the album was not intended for airplay like his masterfully executed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which West makes sure to drive home with his blatant disregard for composition and lyrical structure. Although his choice of samples for this album is impressive and displays an advanced understanding of the contemporary music scene, they become convoluted within many of the songs. With his previous experience producing albums and tactfully paying homage to the artists he draws from, it’s jarring to hear certain tracks’ awkward incorporation of otherwise perfectly rendered samples. Splicing song structures to purposefully create a free form dissonance may ultimately be part of a larger-picture remix operation, but this ultimately leaves the album feeling raw and unfinished.

Takeaway: West set out to push buttons both literally and figuratively with Yeezus, embracing the idea of a gritty concept album over something he could have easily mailed in, ensuring commercial success and very immediate top 40 hits. Following in the vein of not only the collaborators he teamed up with on this album, but also a running theme present in many of 2013’s most successful new music releases, West went out on limb with hopes of producing something unique and game changing. Although Yeezus isn’t an entirely novel production, it undeniably will be an album that invokes reaction and causes discourse amongst industry professionals and fans alike. I commend West for his efforts to push himself creatively, and think he’s a genius for bringing on the talent he chose. Whether or not Yeezus will be a catalyst for a Kanye West 3.0 is still yet to be determined. Either way, I’m intrigued by how this new direction will play out and influence his future work.

~Molly Kish

Sigur RósKveikur

4-BamsTop Tracks:

Album Highlights: Sigur Rós creates much more Godly material than Kanye West, evidenced with Kveikur, the second full length record the Icelandic trio has released in 14 months. The post-rock deities are pretty well-known for their grand live shows — they tour with a mini orchestra to recreate their layered sound — but between these two albums they lost core member and multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson. What they’ve gained between albums is a stronger sense of immediacy and urgency. Kveikur is a more upbeat continuation of their 2012 album Valtari, offering a heavier wall of sound approach with faster beats-per-minute compared to the 2012 effort. That stated, it’s not a massively large departure, as neither record is in a hurry to prove a point. Each song takes the listener on a journey, yet all cuts work together within the context of their respective album as a whole. Kveikur is simply louder, showcasing more chaotic builds and rooting itself in epic dissonance. The tone of the newer album is darker, even demonic at times; Jónsi and his cohorts channel their demons and come out on the other side, transformed with an added emphasis on ‘Von’. (for non-Sigur Rós fanatics, ‘Von’ means ‘hope’ in the faux language the group invented called “Hopelandic”)

Both albums are continued steps away from mainstream fare, yet at the same time Sigur Rós invite you to join their chaotic world of hope. Opening track “Brennisteinn” commands attention and delivers a foreboding feeling, utilizing bass bombs and ecstatic feedback blasts to introduce the album. As “Brennisteinn” begins to wind down into its ambient outro, the static feedback returns to contrast sharply with the supposedly peaceful finale. “Stormur” begins with Jonsi’s angelic euphoria, but the song only takes flight when the positively pitched, high energy percussion arrives a minute in. “Rafstraumur” uses a typical Sigur Rós song structure — building to a peak, then ephemerally retreating into the valley of calmness before building to a euphoric release point that successfully climbs higher than the previous peak. The long-lasting crescendos are driven by invasive drums on “Rafstraumur”, making the calm respite mid-song especially effective. Kveikur ends as strong as it begins, with “Rafstraumur” and “Bláþráður” leaving a distinctively intense, new taste on your tongue before finishing with the albums’ only mellow cut “Var”.

Album Lowlight: Title song “Kveikur’ is a racing demonic soundscape, but it isn’t one of Sigur Rós’ best songs. “Kveikur” contains punk-rock influences and is particularly hard and rough around the edges for the Icelandic outfit, and it isn’t a track that is particularly satisfying. Maybe it sticks out as a lowlight because it’s missing the beautiful ambiance that is present in every other song, at least in some way. It rejects the duality concept of Kveikur, that being euphoric ambiance versus moments and excursions into jarring dissonance.

Takeaway: Kveikur is Sigur Rós’ best album since 2005’s Takk… largely due to the rapid pace throughout and the sonically jarring jolts that strike like a viking on the attack. The cacophonous noises that contrast with the typical Rós ambiance makes the LP all the more memorable. The resulting effect of this cognitive dissonance is immersive, thought-provoking music. The group favors ‘stress’ over ‘release’ here, but there are enough release moments to help the listener avoid a nervous breakdown. While the sound of Kveikur is certainly heavy, it is less emotionally heavy than Sigur Ros’ classic early releases Agaetis Byrjun, ( ), & Takks… — the albums that made Sigur Rós a worldwide phenomenon, so don’t expect this output to be in the same vein as those classics. Though this is quintessential Sigur Rós, and a must listen for fans of post-rock.

~Mike Frash

Empire of the SunIce on the Dune

3-BamsTop Tracks:
“Keep a Watch”

Album Highlights: The pair of Aussie lads from Empire of the Sun have followed up 2008’s blazing Walking on a Dream with another striking dose of synth rock, full of shiny production and dance grooves. Ice on the Dunes took almost five years to arrive at our ears, and there are some truly positive attributes to glean on this sophomore release. First, the visual marketing of the group has not tamed down, as their music videos, imagery and basically all aspects of the act, actually, are over-the-top and cinematic, to say the least. The bombastic vision of Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore is something to behold, as clearly demonstrated by their music video for “Alive” and subsequent tracks, and it appears to be the continuing vision of the duo. There was potential uncertainty for the future of this act as Nick decided not to tour behind Walking on a Dream, leaving Luke to span the globe a couple of times as the sole torch-bearer.

Now that the band is back together, it is able to create more pristine electro landscapes that could make Kylie Minogue weak in the knees. It’s maximal music at it’s best, so I suppose the five-year wait makes a bit of sense (see: Daft Punk) and comes through on the release, even if the strength of the songs do not hold up to the highlights on the previous release. Who would have thought that Australia would be such a hotbed for a unique brand of dance-driven synth-pop, but here we are. Songs like “Concert Pitch” epitomizes the EOTS sound with all it’s 80’s grandeur coupled with cute EDM-inspired, “feel good” lyrics that make the kids go a special type of crazy.

Album Lowlight: Over-production isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and no one should be surprised by this element from Empire. However, one can’t help but roll their eyes at certain spots where it’s simply too bright and shiny to be taken as something brilliant. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an album I personally didn’t think would ever be made, but this is pretty damned close, even if it lacks multiple stand-out tracks. Lastly, a certain homogeneity of tracks is much more pronounced, especially when compared to the previous release.

Takeaway: What was once a side/pet-project by two well-established Aussie musicians has fully developed into festival headliner status and are gearing up for a sizable summer to growing crowds. Luke and Nick have a master plan for their most recent project, this plan includes a multifaceted approach to the music industry by cultivating both a sound and an image. It could be argued that both are equally valuable in drawing in new fans that yearn to experience the mega-production stage act or simply blasting their albums in a convertible cruising PCH.

~Kevin Quandt

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