Four stars (out of four)
Subtlety has never been one of British trio Muse's strong points.
Listening to its first five albums, and the cosmos-rattling grandeur of a live set recorded in 2007 at Wembley Stadium, one felt as if one was being bludgeoned repeatedly in the brain-box with the business end of Freddy Mercury's microphone stand. It was so over the top, so grandiose, so unapologetically pompous that it had to be either pure dross or complete genius.
Until the 2006 release of "Black Holes and Revelations," the jury was still out. That album forced the issue, though -- clearly, Muse wasn't kidding, and just as clearly, the band had no intention of changing. So Muse demanded to be dealt with on its own terms. Happily, "Black Holes" was so brilliant in terms of ambition and execution that Muse was given what we'll call the "Queen pass" -- as in, "Yes, this is clearly a bit ridiculous, but man, it's incredible stuff, isn't it?"
"The Resistance" is released as Muse sits uncomfortably close to the British rock throne. There may be better bands in England at present, but none make a din that is quite this regal. If there were any doubt that singer/guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bellamy and his mates were serious about their audacious blend of classical, camp and U2-sized stadium rock, this album obliterates that doubt. This stuff is serious as a (sheer) heart attack.
Essentially a concept album revolving around Bellamy's Orwellian fixations -- a belief that the forces of global corporatization are turning the whole pathetic lot of us into drooling idiots unaware of the love, passion and fulfillment we have been denied -- "The Resistance" comes at you like a well-aimed icepick to the forehead. Opener "Uprising" sets the scene -- it is us against them, and "they," generally speaking, have all of the guns, most of the money, and a general aversion toward the proletariat getting wise to the whole rotten game. Oh, what fun!
The thing is, "The Resistance" is brilliant precisely because it is fun. Quoting liberally from the assimilated influences of Gary Glitter, Depeche Mode, Phillip Glass, Brian Eno, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Queen -- and borrowing verbatim from a Frederic Chopin nocturne and an opera by Charles Saint-Saens -- the record is delicious overkill, an antidote to all of the punk-birthed "learning how to play your instrument well is strictly for posers" attitude that tends to prevail in alternative rock circles.
Bombastic as all get-out, the title track aims straight for the imp of the melodramatic in all of us, the little inner martyr unable to resist falling for the whole Romeo & Juliet, "pure, true love is always denied by The Man" gag. If it all seems a touch too much, just relax, and let it be what it is -- you'll be singing along with clenched fist raised heavenward quicker than you can say "Exit Music for a Film."
It should be noted that Bellamy, as a singer, is close to superhuman. His tenor is alarmingly assured, his vibrato long and elegant, his senses of pitch and dynamics equally spot-on. There aren't many rock singers in his league.
Muse didn't come to mess around, and its music can come across as a bit po-faced and excessively earnest. But there is genuine heart here, and bountiful musicianship, if you listen beneath the bombast. Hell, it's there even if you don't.
-- Jeff Miers
Alice in Chains
Black Gives Way to Blue
Review: 3 1/2 stars
So much is working against Alice in Chains as it releases its first album in 14 years. Singer William DuVall is in the unenviable postion of replacing the late Layne Staley, the revered and iconic Alice frontman who died of a heroin overdose in 2002. The rest of the band -- guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, drummer Sean Kinney -- is on the receiving end of some angst-powered heat from dyed-in-the-leather Alice heads, the sort who view replacing Staley as, somehow, a personal insult. Lastly, and most significantly, without new material and a functioning band to support it since 1995, Alice runs the risk of appearing to be a nostalgia act.
Proceeding as Alice in Chains minus Staley is a tough gig. "Black Gives Way to Blue," however, belies this fact. It is a wholly convincing, unstudied, mostly brilliant album. In fact, it is far better than anyone but the most stubborn Layne-lover could reasonably expect.
When Alice in Chains delivered the finest heavy metal album of the 1990s in the form of "Dirt," a healthy portion of the record's genius could be credited to the manner in which the two-part vocal harmonies of Staley and Cantrell meshed with the molasses-thick guitar riffs and full-frontal rhythm section. Incredibly, all of that has made the jump to "Black Gives Way to Blue." Sadly, this might work against Alice '09 -- being this good without Staley is likely to irk an awful lot of people.
The album begins with "All Secrets Known," an ominously slow, rolling thundercloud in 6/8 time, centered around a gorgeous DuVall/Cantrell vocal, and driven forward by Cantrell's dissonant, distorted guitar arpeggios. "Check My Brain" boasts as a recurring motif a seriously evil-sounding figure based on semi-tones, courtesy of Cantrell. "Your Decision" finds Alice delving into the ornate acoustic music it unveiled shortly before falling apart beneath the weight of Staley's addiction. The title song finds -- strangely, but it works -- Elton John adding his piano to a stirring tribute to Staley, one that avoids being maudlin or self-serving.
If you have a beef with the band proceeding beneath the same name minus Staley, well, you're on your own. Since band names have absolutely nothing to do with music, I feel more than comfortable recommending "Black Gives Way to Blue" as a top-notch Alice in Chains album. Welcome back.
Review: 3 1/2 stars
There's a lot of commercial enthusiasm for 33-year-old bassist Ben Allison's new disc among jazz's young promotional brain trust, and none of it is the slightest bit misplaced. The disc has considerable commercial potential for rock ears wanting to graduate from jam bands.
There are indeed instrumental solos here, but they're usually minimal, rather than post- John Coltrane filibustering or even bebop loquacity. Allison is an enthusiast of all sorts of music (and a practitioner of many) so modal melodies sit very prettily over chord changes that often sound like those of a Seattle grunge band that couldn't help but be gloomy the minute it looked at the weather outside.
Trumpet player Shane Endsley seems to come from the Kenny Wheeler school. He never uses a mute and almost always plays with unashamed rhapsody, even when he solos. Notes are held long and lovingly, with the message, "Is this a beautiful sounding instrument or what?" In fact, you won't hear a lot of spitting and sputteringly violent 16th note eruptions from anyone on this disc. They're all melodists, especially Endsley, violin soloist Jenny Scheinman and guitarist Steve Cardenas. At the same time, you'll never catch this bunch in the act of being anything less than "hip" by any conceivable jazz definition.
The end result of the Hartford bassist's new group is a jazz disc that's "free" not in the sense of, say, Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" but rather "free" of a lot of what young novice ears sometimes find off-putting in jazz. At the same time, it's just as impressive a disc for veteran ears, too.
-- Jeff Simon