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Thursday, 21 January 2016

REVIEWS: ZARDONIC, BLUE STAHLI & CELLDWELLER

Rock groups can be a nuisance. They’re costly. They need feeding and watering, and constantly exercising. Occasionally they’ll piss themselves or sh*t on the carpet. Worst of all, they have a tendency to expire at really inopportune moments. Which is why, since the advent of electronic music, some musicians opt to go out alone and save themselves the hassle of sharing royalties with a bunch of annoying, sweaty idiots on a bus.

The autumn / winter of 2015 / 2016 is unique in that it has seen three acts at the vanguard of electronic rock-n-roll releasing important albums within weeks of each other. Whether it’s a bonafide musical movement, electronic rock / metalstep / MetaLectro or whatever the hell you want to call it, has garnered hundreds of thousands of diehard fans and generated a growth industry at a time when the conventional music industry is flatlining.

ZARDONIC – ANTIHERO ( eOne Records, CD / download )


Zardonic’s album ‘Antihero’ feels like both a political manifesto, as well as the soundtrack to a running street battle. Even though the album’s subject matter amounts to nothing more than an emphatic twenty-first century fight for your right to party, the politics comes from the knowledge that the DJ left a precarious existence in Venezuela to bring his singularly unique Dance Metal hybrid to the rest of the world. Put it this way – attitudinally, this album is closer in spirit to Sepultura’s ‘Refuse/Resist’ than Limp Bizkit’s ‘Rollin’. 

Opening with the sound-montage ‘World at War’, we are ushered into a futuristic soundscape of crunching metal riffs, loops, FX and crisp beats. In fact, the production as a whole stands out, having a clean modern metal vibe backed by punchy drums that are upfront and clear - as you would expect from what is essentially a dance album. On the two-disk version you have the choice of tracks both with and without lead vocals. Personally I prefer the ones with vocals, simply because they give the song context, although after a few plays, you may feel like hearing the music unadorned with vox.
This album is not afraid to shred either, as guitar solos are plentiful. Zardonic clearly does not try to anticipate or second-guess what a dance audience thinks. As he says in the interview: ‘People go to hear Zardonic and Zardonic they will hear.’’

It’s difficult to isolate a standout track, as the album works cohesively either as a collection of singles or a whole work of sonic art, but mention must be made of the fourth track ‘Vigilante’, which sounds like a 21st Century update of KMFDM’s stomping industrial metal - with an added dash of Pantera's 'fist-skull-break!' ferocity.




A tortuous electronic loop intro opens the next track, into a Laibach-style industrial stomp-fest, before ushering in the kind of Dubstep that sounds like a 300-foot tall robot kicking over the Empire State Building. The titles give an indication of the general thrust of this album: ‘Vigilante’, Override’, ‘For Justice’ and ‘The Time Is Now’ - one gets the feeling that Zardonic knows he is in a unique place and time where pop culture taste is finally catching up with him, and he’s the one that seized the moment.

BLUE STAHLI – THE DEVIL ( Fixt Music, CD / download )


Bret Autry, AKA ‘Blue Stahli’ is definitely a musician from the ‘more is more’ school of sonic bombardment. After an atmospheric intro, opening track ‘It’s Not Over til We Say So’ assaults the listener with a Cradle of Filth-style barrage of riffs and artillery drumming, before segueing into the typical pop rock mode he’s known for. With a guest bass and backing vocal turn from four-string virtuoso Emma Anzai ( of Sick Puppies fame ), ‘It’s Not Over’ sets out the battle-plan from the get-go: Wall-of-noise rock, busy electronica, leavened brilliantly by the most insanely catchy pop-hooks you’ll hear all year. ( Although, this listener would love to hear a remix with Anzai’s bass skills brought to the fore ).


Once acclimatised to the full-speed ahead approach, the listener may be able to appreciate the cheeky humour of the composer, his skill with instruments, and the myriad sonic flourishes ( the album was produced by Celldweller mastermind Klayton, with additional mixing by industrial music veteran Rhys Fulber ), and also marvel at his facility with what we used to refer to as ‘a tune’.  

Stylistically, during the more mid-tempo parts, this reviewer is reminded of 90s industrial rock duo Filter, while in the heavier parts, the manic intensity of Devin Townsend is recalled. Throw in a nod to Muse on ‘The Fall’ ( with its layered vocal harmonies ), and a wink at Dream Theater for the wah-wah riff on ‘Shoot Em Up’, and you pretty much have Blue Stahli down. On the final stretch we get a superbly malevolent lead vocal from Mark Salomon on ‘You’ll Get What’s Coming’ which allows the album a neat gear-shift away from Bret’s customary yelp.

Subject matter on the album generally covers the gamut of fighting, shooting, and blowing sh*t up, with some spiky religious allusions thrown in for good measure. As a genre you could perhaps label it First-Person Metal - indeed it’s notable that Autry’s main job is providing soundtracks to video games and trailers for films like Iron Man. Because of this, there’s a refreshing economy in his compositions, and, like his day-job suggests, there is no room for filler – only killer. The Devil is an ideal album for people whose idea of relaxation is to watch a Jerry Bruckheimer film while bingeing on a family pack of Skittles and Red Bull. In other words, it’s loud, attention grabbing, occasionally disorientating... but also a hell of a lot of fun.

CELLDWELLER – BLACKSTAR SCORE ( Fixt Music, CD / download )


Without wanting to draw too many parallels, it seems oddly synchronous that Klayton himself resembles a cyber-culture analogue of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, and that this conclusion to his 'Blackstar' song cycle is released within weeks of Bowie's final opus, also entitled 'Blackstar'.
That aside, in terms of CD output, this is a very interesting sidestep in Celldweller’s oeuvre ( although not entirely unexpected, because Klayton has often spoken about how much he would love to score movies such as 'Tron' or 'Bladerunner' ).  Therefore, ‘Blackstar’ is a luxurious exercise in the current trend for cosmic synth-driven faux movie soundtracks.

Opener ‘Retros’ underlines an interest he has in science fiction and synth scores: It is sweeping, cinematic, and greatly reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. A very impressive opener, which is then slightly curveballed by the following track, ‘Purified’, which starts appropriately enough like a Tron remix, but very quickly lurches sideways into an innard-shaking MetalStep workout that is typical later-period Celldweller. Compositionally though, it is more like a sound-collage and not a conventionally constructed or resolved song, and that perhaps explains why it doesn’t warrant inclusion on the actual ‘The End of an Empire’ album ( review below ). Even so, one suspects it is placed to attract the Celldweller headbanging die-hards who may have wavered over buying this purely instrumental album. Following on, ‘The Possibilities of Purpose’ has a celestial choir backed a synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jean Michel Jarre album, while ‘A Dystopian Utopia’ features an eerie choral effect similar to Ligeti’s on Kubrick’s ‘2001’ soundtrack. It is meant to convey a vast and cosmic presence, and does so superbly. ‘The Undercity’ uses a pulsing didgeridoo-stab chased by some glitch effects while ‘Lost Treasures’ brings to mind another French electronic maestro, Vitalic, from his album OK Cowboy. Revisiting favourite movies, ‘6:17’ sounds like a love theme from the aforementioned BladeRunner soundtrack, and heading towards the album’s conclusion, ‘On the Surface of Scardonia’ is particularly effective: A composition anchored by ominous electronic reverberations, with eerie eastern cadences flitting back and forth across the soundscape. Akin to waking up on the surface of a planet-sized supercomputer and feeling it think



The album brings you back to earth with the concluding ‘Echoes of Time’ a track that would doubtless find itself onto myriad yoga compilations - a great future market for Klayton to exploit!

Celldweller has established a neat ‘look’ to his albums, and this is no different: A very punchy sci-fi concept-art cover that will grab gamers and comic-con fans alike. It does make me wonder what a more unusual and counter-intuitive cover could have done for the ‘feel’ of the album, as the music is certainly powerful enough to stand outside the regular Celldweller branding, and attract a more crossover audience.

All in all, this is an unexpectedly strong album, and as a potential composer for future Hollywood blockbusters, Klayton / Celldweller acquits himself well. 

Most definitely not a throwaway side-project, rather, a weighty augmentation to his regular cyber rock-n-roll output.


CELLDWELLER – END OF AN EMPIRE

Fixt Music, 5-CD collector’s edition / download, vinyl )


As a listener who prefers to digest Celldweller in an album format, it’s been a frustrating few years. Not least, because of Klayton’s very generous internet dissemination of standalone songs, as and when they’re completed. This leaves album fans trying to avoid spoilers, and praying that FIXT hasn’t given up on the CD / album format altogether.
Seemingly with that in mind, the label has put together this definitive collection of just about every iteration of track from the END OF AN EMPIRE song cycle.

DISK 1 ( album proper ) & DISK 3 ( instrumental version ).

The human auditory system has so far taken 120-million years to evolve. To completely absorb the sonic bigness of this album, we probably need another hundred million or so to grow an additional set of ears, because it is only when played out of a great sound-system do you begin to grasp the meticulous production that comprises ‘Empire’.

Window-rattling bass frequencies vie for airspace amongst crushing metal riffage, topped off with both lush and screamo vocals, and the now obligatory Godzilla / dubstep FX.
Those of you who may have already absorbed the ‘Empire’ material online may still find something of interest in the ‘instrumental version’ of the album ( Disk 3 ). With the realisation that this disk doesn’t feel like a cheap add-on, it is instead a great way to properly absorb the intricately layered sonics, and furthermore, surprises the listener by how just how complete it feels, even without vocals. In fact, it is so fully-resolved that you find yourself going back to the ‘proper’ album just to remind yourself how the vocals fitted-in the first place.






It seems that Klayton is not just a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, but also a sound designer. Most, if not all, of the Celldweller output has the feel of a futuristic movie soundtrack, hence my mentioning the need for multiple speakers, and an enhanced human auditory system, because sounds attack you from every conceivable angle. Please, do not just listen to this streamed, or on some shitty earphones. Insist on the full fidelity.

Running the full gamut from faux-soundtrack, to stadium-chewing cyber-rock, the only time you step outside the Klayton-sphere is perhaps the track ‘Down To Earth’ whose intro is so like classic late 80s / early 90s NIN that it immediately has you YouTubing Trent Reznor’s ‘Broken / Fixed’ EPs for a second opinion. Absolutely superb, the track is a fitting nod to a much-respected pioneer.

Roughly at the halfway point, ‘Just Like You’ provides a needed respite, as it is the nearest the album gets to a conventional ballad. This is followed by ‘Good Luck ( You’re F**ked )’ crashing the listener back to earth with its jerky electropunk-metal. A couple of tracks later, and never one to miss a marketing opportunity, with ‘Breakout’ Klayton teases the listener with a nod to his other persona SCANDROID, a deliberately trad electronic act he formed with Nick Kaelar, AKA Varien. Namechecking the Scandroid side-project must mean that there is an imminent album in 2016, and that this incredibly productive phase of Klayton’s has yet to lose any traction. The final track, ‘Precious One’ sounds like a Queen vocal harmony mash-up with ‘For Those About to Rock’ grandiosity, and thus closes the album on the appropriate note of triumphalism. Job done!

DISK 2: FACTIONS

'Factions' is a rather intriguing deconstruction of the ‘Empire’ album with added voice-over parts. Re-assembled into a soundtrack album, one can assume it’s a premonition of a future concept album, perhaps in the vein of Queensryche’s ‘Operation: Mindcrime’. Although it’s probably more likely that Hollywood will hand Klayton a real soundtrack project before that. There's some interesting moments on it, and while not as solidly resolved as 'Blackstar Score', for those wishing for more Klayton soundtrack music, it's a nice diversion until he releases another proper album.

DISKS 4 & 5: REMIXES

The final two disks comprise re-worked 'Empire' tracks from notables such as Zardonic, Rhys Fulber, Combichrist and many others. Taken as a whole, the sheer amount of material in the collectors' box means that the now-customary remixes are maybe best left for a rainy day when compiling a new mixtape or playlist, or when you've played the rest of the album into the ground. Nevertheless, there are some great examples that will suit every taste, such as the aggressive version of 'New Elysium' by Zardonic ( below ).





Song-wise, EMPIRE is a huge improvement on its predecessor WISH UPON A BLACKSTAR. That second album, despite being years in gestation, felt anticlimactic and rather half-baked in comparison to the genre-busting - and much-loved - debut album. Despite the sophomore hiccup, Klayton’s skilful management of his online persona, constant drip-feed of new - and better - material, meant that now this completed album has finally dropped, there is a huge and receptive audience ready and waiting for it. It certainly does not disappoint.

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