It’s New to Elliot — as suggested by Michael Watson

This week’s guest curator is Michael Watson. Michael is a photographer of events and cool happenings all around Des Moines, and he makes his living doing that, which is rad. He most recently fronted Omens, one of my favorite local hardcore bands in recent memory. Also, Michael and I watch ridiculous amounts of pro wrestling together, so we will forever share a bond. Anyway, Michael really wanted me to hear a few records, so here they are:

Marilyn Manson — Antichrist Superstar

I’ll admit that when this record came out, I kinda thought Marilyn Manson was a legitimately scary person. 20 years later, we now know that he’s kinda just a guy who was deeply committed to putting on an act. It’s very hard for me to hear this record now and not associate it with what he represents as an idea, as well as the legions of Tripp pants-wearing goth kids who felt emboldened by what he did. I was listening to “The Beautiful People” with my wife and I asked her, “Is this…a good song?” She didn’t really know, and neither do I. I think the problem is that almost all of these songs have something cool happening right next to something stupid. The songs are intimidating and brimming with ideas, like neat guitar noises and squealing feedback used as melody. The stupid parts…well, that’s usually Manson’s fault. He just does so many voices, you know? And sometimes it’s okay, but usually he just sounds ridiculous, at least to my 32-year old ears. His lyrics are nothing to be proud of either, and I’m just now learning that this record is part of a three-part rock opera, with the next two records rounding that out. This is no surprise, as Antichrist Superstar is 76 friggin minutes long — as overblown and bloated as any rock opera should be. I can’t trash this record because it really is a wild ride, but I’ll probably never go for it ever again.

My Opinion: 5/10

Nine Inch Nails — The Fragile

Coming off my warm reception to The Downward Spiral, Michael decided I was ready to try The Fragile, a double album clocking in at 103 minutes. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I accepted my mission. The hardest part about listening to that much NIN is that the mood rarely changes. It’s always pretty sad and depressing, with approximately zero moments of rejoice. Heck, even “Hurt” had a sense of warmth, despite its suicidal lyrics. On this record, no such warmth exists. In contrast to Marilyn Manson, however, Trent Reznor is a smart composer who can switch things up enough that you don’t completely lose interest. I prefer the songs that hit more directly, like “We’re In This Together” with its killer chorus, or “Into the Void,” which sounds like Reznor remixing Michael Jackson. But over 103 minutes, these moments of interest came too few and far between for me. Songs like “Pilgrimage” or “La Mer” are one-riff ideas that should have been cut. “Starfuckers, Inc.” is a straight-up bad song, such a weird choice for the first single, and a prime example of a song that just didn’t need to be there. I’m sure in Reznor’s mind, every second of The Fragile needed to be recorded in order to complete whatever statement he wanted to make, but sometimes we all need to edit ourselves, whether we’re telling a too-long story, or making too much brooding industrial music.

My Opinion: 5/10

P.O.S. — Never Better

I’ve never really verbalized this, but I’ll try: at times it’s very hard for me to listen to an entire hip hop record all the way through. This happens because a lot of hip hop records use the same production sounds all the way through, with little variation. Even classic records like GZA’s Liquid Swords have lost me about halfway through, simply because I feel like no new ideas are occurring. That’s why I cherish an artist like P.O.S. who comes at the genre without any boundaries or limitations. It helps that he grew up on hip hop and punk rock, as he brings feedback and clanging drums into the mix, which pleases me greatly. He can do more traditional rap sounds too, and those songs blend seamlessly into the harsher jams. I really like the brilliant anger in his tone, never hinting that he’s putting on a persona. And lyrically, he references Fugazi, pro wrestling and Mitch Hedberg, so that’s always going to win me over. I almost bought this record when it came out, but I never did. This should be a lesson for me to trust my musical instincts, as I could have been enjoying the crap out of this record for years now.

My Opinion: 8/10

Tool — Undertow

I had Aenima back when it came out. I tried hard to like it, but it just seemed a little too cold and detached for me. These days I have plenty of friends who still swear by Tool, and Michael is one of them. I thank him for not suggesting all 78 minutes of Lateralus, as that one is slow and proggy and I’d probably hate it. Undertow is best suited for a dope like me because it’s much more direct and catchy. Of course, by Tool’s standards, “catchy” is still weird and dark and unpleasant. Adam Jones’s guitar playing was much more riff-based, with some bouncy riffs that hint at why so many nu-metal fans found it okay to like them. I always called Tool “the thinking man’s nu-metal band,” and while I still think there’s truth to that, the label does them a disservice. At their strongest moments, they create some powerful stuff that transcends genre. “Sober” is just a phenomenal song — far and away one of the best songs that still gets played daily on our local LAZER rock radio station. I wish all the songs here were like that, but many of them are just kind of okay. Decent riffs, kinda cool, nothing amazing. But better than Limp Bizkit? Well yeah.

My Opinion: 6/10

Massive Attack — Mezzanine

For those who know me well, you know that I used to be in a hardcore band called The Mezzanine. No, we didn’t take our inspiration from this record’s title. I think our drummer just called out the word, and we thought it sounded cool.

Now that I realize that’s not an interesting story at all, let’s get to the actual record. Similar to his suggestion of The Fragile, Michael was inspired by my love for Portishead’s Dummy and wondered how I’d receive Massive Attack, since both bands are usually lumped together under the trip hop umbrella. He’s right, but Portishead has two things that Massive Attack doesn’t: stirring melodic structures that grab you and provide payoff, and Beth Gibbons’s voice. Without those elements, I’m left with not as much to grab onto. This is an hour long record where most of the time, the vibe is very subdued and it’s all about mood rather than excitement. The two singers have okay vocals, but they’re not engaging enough to make it worth it. What saves the album for me is the female singer who shows up on about half of the record. She’s not as good as Beth Gibbons, but she adds passion and attitude to songs that otherwise wouldn’t have that. However, I found myself bobbing my head at times, especially on the opening song, “Angel,” which sounds like a stoner metal band doing trip hop. If this record rocked me more like that, I’d be much more excited about it. As it is, it’s an interesting record that doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities, but I would definitely put it on at a party where everyone wanted to be sad and frown at each other.

My Opinion: 6/10