Album Review: Kings of Leon – WALLS


kingsofleon-walls-album-2016

The year of 2016 has marked the beginning and the end of a plethora of items and people.  Over the course of the year we have lost music icons such as David Bowie and Prince to name a few; however, we have also seen new releases by formidable artists and performers such as Green Day, The Weeknd, Metallica, Radiohead, etc.  One of such releases comes from American alternative-rock band Kings of Leon with their seventh studio album titled “WALLS” (We Are Like Love Songs).  Although arguably not a masterpiece, WALLS delivers familiar Kings of Leon staples reminiscent of their material eight years prior that are both energetic and relaxing.
Alternative-rock as a genre itself can be dismissed as one that is characterized by an overuse of delay, distortion, fuzz, power chords, and underdeveloped melodies that are forgettable; however, WALLS takes these familiar elements and blends them smoothly with subtle embellishments and instrumentation to offer a bit of variety.  In the opening track, “Waste A Moment”, listeners are presented with an upbeat, almost pop-oriented single that is full of energy and announces the band’s presence with their signature overtones and gain-filled rifts.  The result is a simple, yet fun way of demonstrating that this in part is the band listeners have come to enjoy over the years, yet they have changed slightly since the last time we have heard them.  The latter effect becomes apparent at the album’s midpoint with tracks such as “Find Me” and “Muchacho”, which introduce synthesizers, rhythmic sampling, whistling, and other subtle instrumental embellishments that diversify each individual tune.
Despite these small innovations, the tracks themselves are still characteristically Kings of Leon tracks that do not stand out among the discography that they have established over the years.  “Find Me”, for example, is primarily driven by a semi-complex guitar riff that appears at the track’s beginning and makes subsequent appearances with each chorus.  This is not particularly a bad thing; however, this focus on familiarity and on what we have come to expect is exactly what makes a majority of the tracks rather predictable.  Though the synthesizer usage is present briefly in the beginning and sporadically though each verse, it is a lack of utilization of these devices that makes tunes such as “Find Me” fun but relatively forgettable.  Aside from this, active listeners will also recognize a familiarity in structure.  Yes, I refer to the typical Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus.  Though there is not necessarily anything wrong with this standard format, this additional limitation does not serve the band justice in these instances.  In this listener’s opinion: “I get that it works, cool, but I am getting bored”.
The Kings of Leon have always been a band that strikes me as not too innovative in regards to new styles of music, but rather, one that seeks to improve upon a genre that is adored and enjoyed by thousands throughout the world.  They have demonstrated time and time again that they are good at what they do, and I commend them for that; however, it is time to change.  What else does the Followill gang have to offer?  Until that time, enjoy more of the Kings of Leon you have come to love.

I give WALLS, a 3 out of 5.

The Kooks: Someone to Love, Someone to Listen


the_kooks_listen-portada

Listening to an album in its entirety has become a sort of “chore” as of late: between what passes off as A-list material and what is simply re-hashed sheep fodder, mainstream music seems to have lost its soul.  The popularized music that characterizes most FM broadcasts, in this critic’s opinion, tends to become redundant fast: it leaves me questioning why the bass always has to build/drop at the same portion, why choruses sound so cliché, and why artists essentially copy/paste another’s work.  When did blatant plagiarism become the norm? It’s understandable that tunes need to be crafted in a way that immediately captures an audience’s attention (and keeps it for that matter); however, it is inexcusable for an artist to forsake their own creative processes: they should strive to challenge themselves time to time.  The Kooks on the other hand succeed in breaking out of their comfort zone: they challenge their established Brit-Pop formula and once again place themselves in an area that makes them feel like amateurs.  The result is a glimpse into musicianship genius that not only has its moments of aesthetic beauty, but also captivates listener’s raw, innate desires to let loose.

The Kook’s have come a long way since the departure of bassist Max Rafferty and drummer Paul Garred.  While Indie Brit-Pop remains at the forefront of the Kooks’ sound, their fourth studio album, Listen, offers a smorgasbord of lush melodic textures, polyrhythmic sections doused in counterpoint, and syncopated hand claps and percussion.  In short, this is the Kooks on another, more advanced level.  The first track, “Around Town”, erupts in a groove that emulates early beat groups (i.e. the Beatles), yet there is a groove element to it that incorporates the rhythms of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.  It’s characterized by a backing gospel choir, of which juxtaposes a charismatic, old-time soul quality with Frontman Luke Pritchard’s nasal, shouting vocals on the forefront.  Track number 2, “Forgive & Break”, erupts in an upbeat orgy of syncopated rhythmic groove and percussion.  Each element of musical timbre (e.g. synthesizers, extended piano chords, and even the wooden block) empathize the dance element that clearly pays homage to early funk music of the 1960s.  Track 3, “Westside”, in response brings the tempo down a notch and embraces the electronic timbres of the present day.  There is an emphasis on legato synth and less guitar (think of Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix), that establishes a smooth, danceable contour, albeit is relaxing enough to lounge to.  This electronic quality is again addressed in the latter song, “Are We Electric” (note the obvious nod to the track’s composition).  Instead of following the more elaborate groove rhythms that characterize the beginning of the album, the Kooks opt to go for a straightforward pop sound carried by sustained synth, which surprisingly manages to retain a degree of polyrhythmic devices and melodic lines.  These qualities not only make the album fun to “Listen” to; they also demonstrate that the Kook’s know how to attract and keep a “Listener’s” attention.

The subsequent effect is an undeniable temptation to embrace the raw, animalistic side that lay dormant in each of us.  The track, “Bad Habit”, perfectly encapsulates this theme of risky, reckless behavior that people exhibit when temptation prevails.  The chorus “you say you want it, but you can’t get it in.  You got yourself a bad habit”, on the surface presumptuously refers to a woman’s lack of self-respect as she engages in promiscuous behavior.  Lyrically speaking, Pritchard makes no effort to hide the blatantly obvious.  There is simplicity in Pritchard’s vocabulary that is not meant to be overanalyzed; however, careful “Listeners” begin to pick up on something more meaningful: an underlying contextual theme guiding the album’s songs.  There are clear references to human sentiment and heart, not just how it can be lively, but how it can be void.  The album cover itself details a picture of an actual human heart, presumptuously blue in color due to a lack of oxygen: a heart deprived of life in short.   It’s an expression of voice, a call to attention: a concept that is perfectly expressed in the track “See Me Now”, a eulogy written for the late Bob Pritchard, Luke Pritchard’s father.  “Listeners” are enticed to focus on the warm and soothing tonalities of jazz-variant piano chords, yet it becomes clear that it is a glimpse into the thoughts and longings of Luke Pritchard himself: we empathize with his desire to make his dad “proud”, and we sympathize with his tragic inability to do so.

Great artists tend to deliver material that satisfies a variety of audiences.  That being said, Listen is titled “Listen” for a reason.  The album is far from simply music: it is an expression of life’s many joys as well as its many tragedies.  The Kooks offer more than enough variety in their latest installment while retaining the Brit-pop identity that has placed them in the spotlight.

Listen earns a deserved 4 out of 5.

Kanye Vest is a DJ for KSSU, the only student-run radio station at California State University – Sacramento.

Smash Here, Smash There, Smash Everywhere


N3DS_SuperSmashBros_illustration02Since the release of the first title in 1999, Super Smash Bros. has become a staple in Nintendo’s vast array of iconic franchises.  Fans have eagerly anticipated the next iteration of the 4-player brawler, which pits characters from Nintendo’s beloved history (i.e. Mario from Mario Bros., Link from the Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, etc.), against each other in an arena based fighting game like no other: the resulting formula is a recipe for chaotic, fast paced combat.  Now five games in (the latter Wii-U version having just been released on November 21st, 2014), Super Smash Bros. is now accessible to gamers on the go via Nintendo’s 3DS branch of portable gaming devices.  Veterans of the series have speculated that the 3DS version would not be able to fulfill the incredibly high standards that creator Masahiro Sakurai has established in previous titles; however, the resulting product not only offers an experience worthy of the Smash Bros. name, but rather it redefines how players may think of portable games. Super_Smash_Bros._screenshot_9

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS offers the full package that fans are to expect from Sakurai.  Running at a whopping 60 FPS (frames-per-second), the characters and environments feel and move both smoothly and elegantly during standard 4-person play.  Character models and overall detail are spot on: I was surprised how glorious the game looked.  Characters have been outlined this time around in order to allow players better visual awareness of what is going on during matches: these outlines become particularly useful when the in-game camera pans both in and out to adjust to player movement and perspective throughout the game.  While the outlines offer an aid to the foreseen issue of camera pan and zoom, some may find that the character models appear too small, especially on the original 3DS screen (personally, I found the screen of the 3DS XL to compensate fairly well for the constant shifts in camera perspective).  Scaling down to three players instead of four improves the quality of the camera; however, it seems as though the best four player, now 8 player, Smash Bros. experience is now on the Wii-U.

Smash 3DS kept me playing for literally hours at a time: I was surprised by the amount of content bundled into what might otherwise be another portable title (and this is coming from a veteran Smash player).  The roster, now the largest yet in a Smash Bros. game, spans a whopping 48 characters each from Nintendo’s history in addition to guest characters (the fan-boy dream of seeing Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pacman, & Mega Man duke it out is now a reality).  Whether you’re a veteran fighter looking to play your main once again, or a casual trying to play one of the newer, more obscure characters (wait…is that the Wii fit trainer!?), Smash 3DS has something to offer for everyone.  In this player’s experience, I recommend that you start out slow and get to know your character first: winning is all about a perfectly timed smash attack, the last second dodge, and knowing when to use Link’s “spin attack” versus something that takes time like Robin’s “Arc Thunder” technique.  There’s also plenty of unlocks and customizations that players can capitalize on [i.e. trophies, 3D models of Nintendo characters, make a return and are complete with detailed description(s)].

The 8 different modes included in Smash 3DS offer a variety of different ways to approach the standard formula (i.e. home run contest, Smash Run, etc.).  The new Smash run mode, for example, allows players to individually explore a side-scrolling world in which they face enemies from various Nintendo franchises in order to collect abilities for an eventual brawl between three other fighters (the formula itself is adopted from a previous Sakurai title, Kirby Air Ride).  The five minute time limit is more than enough for players to collect a sufficient amount of power-ups for the subsequent fight; however, I found myself at times wishing that I had another fighter to directly compete with whilst traversing the world, and at other moments wishing the time would just drop to zero.  The limits of the 3DS thus become blatantly obvious when playing Smash Run.  Perhaps it may have been a better idea to include Smash Run in the Wii-U version instead of the 3DS version (take note Sakurai!).

super-smash-bros-for-the-3ds-screenshot-03Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS ultimately lives up to the incredibly ridiculous expectations that fans have and the high standards that Masahiro Sakurai sets for him and his team.  The game is impressive, massively entertaining, and arguably the best value for the buck on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld system (personally, I’ve been at it for over 60 hours already!).  Each match runs smoothly and succinctly: players are able to beat each other up the way the game was meant to be played.  The camera functionality however unfortunately serves as a reminder that the series is at its best on a home console; however, it’s still a magnificent title that earns its place as a fun and addictive Smash Bros. game.

Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS earns a solid 4.5 out of 5.

Kanye Vest is a DJ for KSSU, the only student run radio station CSU- Sacramento