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Smashing Pumpkins ‘Oceania’ – Brightly optimistic and reminiscent of early years

Billy Corgan is back! But I shouldn’t add “… with his band of misfits” cos that only applies to Axl Rose, right? Anyway, here’s a little bit of back-story. In 2007 he suddenly decided to bring the old band back together, but funnily enough he did not inform them. So, only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin came back. Nonetheless, the duo charged ahead with an album titled ‘Zeitgeist’ which tried very hard to bring back the rawkk of olden times. It didn’t quite succeed and aside from a few bright spots, the whole thing sounded like a formless mush of modern hard rock. The dream pop element that I loved so much was missing.

Coming back to 2012, Billy has recruited all new band members: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne and set out on an ambitious 44-song set called ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ of which this first one ‘Oceania’ is just a part. Phew!! .. But bombast and delusions of grandeur are nothing new to Billy. Their most popular (double) album ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ could almost be compared to a sprawling art exhibition on a grand scale. Sure, there were fillers in there but I respected his vision for experimentation and art rock a la Pink Floyd. Those otherworldly qualities are thankfully back now.

‘Oceania’ is a bright and optimistic sounding tribute to their classic blend of heavy metal and dreamy psychedelia that they used to do so well! Right from the first track ‘Quasar’ it is evident that the old Pumpkins sound is back. The song is a delicious mix of crashing drums, distorted guitar and 60’s psychedelia. Mentions of Krishna and Om, plus an opening that sounds like a modern day version of ‘Cherub Rock’ only seal the suspicion that this is a celebration of everything ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’. After that burst of energy, they deliver a second punch of delight with ‘Panopticon’ which does take a little bit more time to seep into you. Then come the strings of ‘The Celestials’, a lovely ballad which rocks almost as hard as it flows beautifully to end on a sustained solitary distorted note. As the album ambles along, there are many interesting sounds in tracks like ‘Violet Rays’, ‘My Love Is Winter’ and ‘One Diamond, One Heart’. When we get to ‘Pinwheels’ we are immediately hit with a gorgeously sunshiny opening that lasts for a good two whole minutes followed by soft acoustic guitar. Great stuff this!

Next comes the epic title track which is like the Pumpkins’ version of ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ I guess. Took a while to grow on me but I really dig the prog rock tendencies of this song now. Halfway through, Billy stops singing suddenly and the song fades into a dreamy soundscape of distant drums and crazy guitar solos. After that comes the wonderfully chilled out ‘Pale Horse’. One of my favourites on this album, it is easy to get into and completely relaxes the listener. This whole album is just so happy-sounding… I love it! And none of it is cheesy. That’s the best part! As we approach the last stretch of the album, there are some tight rocking songs like ‘The Chimera’, ‘Glissandra’ and ‘Inkless’ which are quite enjoyable musically. These take longer to get used to though, than anything on the first half. Finally, the closer ‘Wildflower’ is okay. Didn’t like it all that much at first but now I can appreciate the music here, although Billy’s singing drones on a bit – a quality in his singing style I was never that big a fan of.

Nevertheless, colour me surprised! After their several tumultuous years as a changing band, I did not really expect or hope for an album as sunny and glowing as this one. Looking at their discography as a whole, nothing will probably top moments like the last 2 minutes of ‘Hummer’, the skipping sighing beat of ‘1979’ or the entirety of ‘Mayonaise’ but I can confidently say that ‘Oceania’ is one of their best efforts that I have ever listened to.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Apocalyptic Love – Not much here beyond the interesting album cover

When Slash’s debut solo album came out a couple of years back, it sounded like a lot of fun. And it was! There was not one vocalist but several well-known names including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, Chris Cornell, Iggy Pop etc. as well as more mainstream ones like Fergie and Adam Levine. How he got them together and played his guitar as the common thread uniting them all was pretty cool. Though some said that there was no coherence, I actually thought the variety of voices on the album made the whole thing interesting to listen to. And it had several solid songs too – memorable ones. This time around he has decided to stick with only one of those vocalists, Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge and the result is not the same. I did enjoy Myles’ contribution on the last album quite a bit, especially the song ‘Back From Cali’. But somehow on ‘Apocalyptic Love’, he sounds kind of indistinguishable from other mediocre vocalists and more like a second rate Axl Rose. On fast-paced tracks like ‘One Last Thrill’, his high pitched yelling is almost unlistenable!

And it is not just the vocals… the tunes are not very memorable at all. There is a typical Guns n’ Roses-like rock groove going on in many songs but there are hardly any stand-out riffs. Save for the somewhat catchy opening title track, many of the songs just don’t go anywhere. There are many instances where the song starts off nicely and sounds promising until the chorus begins. And then it doesn’t deliver much, sort of falls flat. Also, there is nothing exciting or new about the song structures here. It is the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-guitar solo-final chorus formula. Sure, there are a few moments here and there that sound interesting and even some that, dare I say, attempt to relive former glories of the Illusion days but it all sounds like stereotypical hard rock.

The crux of the matter is that what made Guns n’ Roses great in their heyday was a combination of all band members coming together with their different styles and blending beautifully to deliver some kicking hard rock. You had Slash providing the effortless bluesy guitar solos. But you also had Axl writing those melodious epics like Estranged, Breakdown and November Rain. And then there was that solid rhythm section of Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler and later Matt Sorum. Put together they made one hell of a band! Split apart, obviously the music suffers. Right now Slash is doing his thing well but he needs better support than what he has now. It is the same old story with many rock bands, take for example Pink Floyd. It was the combination of Roger Waters’ bitter cynicism and excellent lyrics along with David Gilmour’s precision guitar solos and dreamy vocals that made them so great. After Waters left they were not the same anymore.

So, sadly the bottom line is that ‘Apocalyptic Love’ is just okay for an average rock album in the year 2012. But if you, like me knows what the Gunners were capable of 20 years back, you would rather be reaching for those albums after a few listens to this one. The guitar god with the top hat may be having fun with his rock n’ f’in roll but there seems to be nothing more than a hard rock-by-numbers album here.

Rating: 2 / 5

Rock n’ Roll ain’t dead (just yet)!

Slash

It’s 2011, a time when mainstream Pop music, Hip Hop and R&B continue to rule the charts along with a small, non-threatening helping of polite rock music such as Coldplay to keep company. But it seems like old school hard rock or even guitar oriented classic rock is still not completely dead, despite gasping for breath underneath the weight of your Lady Gagas, Justin Biebers, Katy Perrys and Black Eyed Peas.

There has been a handful of rock albums in the recent past and they have not all been duds either. Neither do they come off as embarrassing attempts to reclaim some long lost glory. The most recent one is ‘Wasting Light’ by Foo Fighters. The Foo Fighters have of course been kind of a mainstream rock band throughout, winning Grammys, being played on MTV and so on… sorry MTV doesn’t play music, my bad. Anyway, you get the point. This latest album though, sounds like it was created to win back old fans. It is a pretty tight set of songs that rock as hard as anything on their first or second albums. Apparently, it was literally recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage as opposed to the band’s studio. As a result, the album sounds rawer than usual and rocks harder than most made-for-the-charts hit singles nowadays. Good for them! Personally, I liked most of the album, not all of it. But it is such a refreshing change to hear brutal hard rock and punk riffs in an era of inane lyrics and candy coated melodies.

Then there was Slash’s album last year… Who?… That’s right! Slash of Guns n’ Roses fame came back, believe it or not! After releasing only a couple of albums with his own band Snakepit over a period of 15 years or so, he came back in 2010 with a self titled album filled with guest singers galore! And it is a really nice effort, I must say. I have to admit something embarrassing here. I only even heard of this album recently, because I was Google-searching and wondering if the old curly haired, top hat wearing rock n’ roll stud was up to anything at all. The best thing about this album (titled ‘Slash’ with subtitle R&FN’R for obvious reasons) is that the guy has managed to bring vocalists as varied as Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Cornell and Lemmy to Fergie, Adam Levine and Kid Rock all under one roof; and the end result does not sound like a discordant mess at all. I never thought I would say this, to be honest, but Fergie actually sounds totally badass on this record! The same cannot be said for the weirdly un-manly voice of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine but it doesn’t matter. The whole package along with Slash’s guitar actually sounds halfway decent. Heck, this album definitely sounds more cohesive than Chinese Democracy by Guns… I mean, Axl and his huge posse.

Then, moving on to classic rock, we had R.E.M. earlier this year delivering a damn good and cheerful album in ‘Collapse Into Now’. It contained just about the best mix of old and new sounds that one can realistically expect from this geriatric band of nerdy college rockers at this point in their career. Roughly two years before that (God! Has it been that long already??), their more-mainstream musical brothers, U2 put out yet another album that sounded excellent on the first few listens but in hindsight showed that Bono & Co continue to straddle that fence between reliving former glories and staying relevant for today’s kids.

But I digress. Surely, somebody like Slash coming out with an album in 2010 is much more news-worthy than bands like U2 and R.E.M. which have more or less been on the radar over the last 15 years or so. Oh, and I forgot Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ from 2008. Anyway, my overall point remains. Old school ‘rawk’ music is still alive and kicking and I couldn’t be happier. 😉