Record #404: John McLaughlin – Extrapolation (1969)

In the late 1960s, Miles Davis was at a crossroads.

His last few albums, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, found the jazz icon pushing desperately against the conventions of his industry. Nefertiti played with the roles of the traditional jazz combo. Miles in the Sky and Filles saw his rhythm section (including the legend in his own right, Herbie Hancock) moving towards electric instruments. 

While writing the masterpiece In a Silent Way, Miles wanted to do something truly revolutionary (spoiler alert: he succeeded)…
As the legends are told, the night before one of the recording sessions, drummer Tony Williams introduced Miles to newcomer John McLaughlin, an electric guitarist. Miles was so impressed that he invited McLaughlin to the studio the next day. Over the next several years, McLaughlin would become a fixture in Miles’ band. There’s even a song on Bitches Brew named after him. 

But it wasn’t just Miles’ group. John McLaughlin would become a ubiquitous presence in the jazz fusion scene of the 1970s, playing with Larry Coryell, Stanley Clarke, rock giants Jack Bruce and Santana, and leading the power house fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

And judging by this, his debut album, it’s easy to see why he would become such a giant in the scene. This isn’t nearly as out there as most of what he’d go on to make. Save for his electric guitar, this album is played by a traditional jazz combo—upright bass, saxophone, and drums. There are moments that sound reminiscent of a pre-free Coltrane. 

Until he comes tearing down his fretboard. His playing is mostly tied to conventional jazz technique, especially on the twin lines he plays with the bari sax. But every once in a while, some rock and roll sneaks in. Some of his parts (”Argen’s Bag” in particular) foreshadow some of the more cerebral post rock acts like Tortoise or Collections of Colonies of Bees. 

Often, debut albums from pioneers are little more than a curiosity. They offer glimpses of the genius that is to come, but are still too tied to convention to be satisfying. And in jazz, even the best sidemen have put out mediocre albums as band leaders. But Extrapolation is neither of those. This is a debut befitting his legend. 

Record #403: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy(2010)

After a particularly bombastic year of outbursts, Twitter rants, and Grammy interruptions, the world was unsure what a new Kanye record would sound like. His previous album broke a streak of undisputed bangers with an aggressively noncommercial, yet singular focused album. 
Many people said he’d gone off the deep end. His career was on an unrecoverable downward slope. He was a whirlwind of madness, tantrums, and frenzy. His name became a punchline.
Into this mess, Kanye dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted FantasyIf ever there was a question of Kanye’s skills as a musician, he answers them all here.
MBDTF sees Kanye at top form. His skills as MC, producer, and curator are on top display. 

The album is bookended by two questions: “Can we get much higher?” “Who will survive in America?” The album runs through ego that would make Narcissus blush. And while Narcissus is regaining his composure, Ye turns around and turns to the viewer to display the depths of his depression. It’s littered with lines that land like a suckerpunch. “’How’s Ye doin’?’ I’m surviving. / I was drinking earlier, now I’m driving.” Ouch.

This is an bleak and honest an album as Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, cleverly disguised as a club-ready banger. And his sonic palette is top notch. After the stark minimalism of 808s and Heartbreak, MBDTF is sonically excessive. There are soul horns, lush choirs, a King Crimson sample, a bit of rock and roll, and, famously, a Bon Iver remix. From ballads to bangers, Mr. West hits every box here. 

Despite its commercial friendliness, MBDTF is a challenging and rewarding listen. Despite being only thirteen tracks, this album almost hits seventy minutes in length. None of these songs are rushed. Even the bangers reach the five minute mark. “Runaway,” the first single (released via a short film, remember) breaks nine minutes. It’s a clear message that though West is a master of pop structures and textures, he is by no means bound to pop’s limitations. 

And if that isn’t Kanye West, I don’t know what is. He is the paragon of pop superficiality and celebrity excess, yet he is also an artist of the highest caliber. And between the youthful exuberance of his early albums and the defiantly non-commercial later works, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains his best work.

Record #401: Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak (2008)

There’s almost no artist quite as polarizing as Kanye West. From his Reality TV wife to his maelstrom of a Twitter feed, Mr. West is a pretty big pill for some people to swallow. But early in his career, his music was one thing that people mostly agreed on. His first few records were excellent and clever, but not too adventurous. He had his sights set on mainstream hip-hop, and he delivered.

Then came 2008… 

A few months after his model fiancé broke up with him, his beloved mother passed away. While Ye had never shied away from vulnerability in his previous records, these personal tragedies found him even more introspective. 

The subject matter was paired with a very specific aesthetic: all of the songs are sung, not rapped, drenched in autotune, accompanied by a retro Roland 808 drum machine. The resulting record is basically a concept album—and one that a lot of Kanye’s previous fans hated.

The autotune in particular was a sticking point for people. Why sing an entire album if you can’t sing? But naysayers missed that the effect’s use was entirely aesthetic. Such heartwrenching tunes sung in a robotic vibrato creates a powerful aural irony that makes these songs more affecting, not less. Anyone who wrote the album off also missed Kanye’s incredible sense of melody. The tunes he writes here are engaging and catchy. 
By all accounts, this album should not have worked. But its limited sonic palette and narrow subject matter ended up creating a laser focused album that succeeds because of its singular vision. 

And if this album set the stage for a Kanye that was completely unconcerned with satisfying cultural expectations for his output, all the better.

Record #402: Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness(2005)

I have an odd relationship with this album…
In the spring of 2005, I had a moment where I felt like God wanted me to get rid of all my “nonchristian” music. I drove around dark country streets on the outskirts of my suburb flipping through my CD wallet and throwing discs out the window. Not a very good night for the environment, I know.
That fall, I started at a Christian college, and despite the wealth of secular music available around me (note: not a very conservative college), I had no desire for any of it. Then, the press for this album started coming out. As I’ve mentioned before, Coheed and Cambria was one of my favorite bands in high school. And while I had been satisfied to ignore them during the months prior, the idea of new Coheed made me have second thoughts.
And brother, I prayed about that mess. I asked God about it, and after a few weeks of prayer, and one week of fasting from any music (brother, it was a hard week), I felt like I had the freedom to make my own choice. 
The following week, I let myself listen to The Mars Volta, and during the opening moments of Deloused in the Comatorium, the presence of God fell heavy on my dorm room. And in that moment, I realized that the line between the sacred and the secular was bullshit, and that God could be found anywhere.
That moment has informed almost all of my listening habits, and much of my personal worldview. And it was this album that spurned me to look beyond my self-imposed confines.

That being said, I haven’t actually spent much time with this album. I think the first time I listened through the entire time was just a few days ago (I never had the patience for the Wishing Well suite). 
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love this record. The triple punch of Always & Never, Welcome Home, and Ten Speed (of God’s Blood and Burial) is absolutely perfect. And the album doesn’t really slope off after that. The entire disc (even Wishing Well, as I know now) is a masterpiece. Like In Keeping Secrets, this album finds Claudio & Co. churning out track after track of their hook-laden progressive metal. 
Read that again. I swear it’s not an oxymoron.
Usually, progressive metal concept albums about comic books written by the lead singer aren’t this catchy. Tunes like “The Suffering” and “Once Upon Your Dead Body” are straight up pop-rock master strokes. “Welcome Home” recaptures the spirit of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and doesn’t leave wanting. Ballads like “Always & Never” and “Welcome Home” were pulled straight of some hair metalist’s notebook. If this album isn’t as good as In Keeping Secrets, it’s just a notch below. Good Apollo is certainly mixed better though.
And so while I’ve never taken the time to properly get to know this album, I’m looking forward to it. Like a kid in high school that I never really talked to but I just knew was super cool, only to build a close friendship with them later in life. That happens, right?

Record #400: Kansas – Point of Know Return (1977)

This is a milestone—as of this post, I am undeniably halfway through my collection. I guess you could say I’m…

Past the point of no return?

Bad puns aside, I suppose the point Kansas is referring to is their transition from exploratory prog rock to more streamlined pop tunes…
Only two songs on this album stretch past five minutes (compared to half of the tunes on Leftovertures).
There’s no shortage of instrumental jam sections, but even those moments have a radio-friendly sheen on them. It may have done in an attempt to make The possible exception is the title track, with a flurry of orchestral riffs between lines in the chorus.

On the longer songs, “Closet Chronicles” and “Hopelessly Human,” the group gives themselves permission to get proggy. Through their long runtimes, the group changes tempo, mood, and style on a dime.  

The natural standout is the heartbreaking ballad “Dust in the Wind.” However, it doesn’t have the potential it could have on a truly great album. This sort of track would do great as a penultimate track on a concept album: a deep breath before the storm of the finale. Here, it’s just a pretty detour. 

All of this isn’t to say that prog bands should stay away from pop. GenesisThe Alan Parsons Project, and Yes all turned their progressive leanings into pop masterpieces with stunning success. Kansas falls a little short—even if this is, apparently, most people’s favorite Kansas album?

Record #399: Kansas – Leftoverture (1976)

Prog rock has gotten a bad rap. 

Prog is often criticized for being bloated, self-important, and pretentious. At its worst, prog is obsessed with self-gratifying instrumental sections, musical references to classical compositions, and obtuse narratives of their own writers’ inventions…
And while all of that is certainly true of this record, it doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. And this album’s popularity certainly shows it—this record has been through almost every record collection on earth.

The lead opener, the famed “Carry On the Wayward Son” is the most immediate track. But it doesn’t go easy on the prog tendencies—half of its five minutes are spent ripping through solos. 

It’s a good look at what to expect, but don’t expect the rest of the songs to rock this hard. Hooks (and vocals in general) are far and few between on this album, saddled between lengthy instrumental passages that are, if nothing else, deftly played, traveling everything from baroque to metal. There are even a couple spots that feel a bit hoedowny. 

While most of the tracks sound like they could have been radio hits in the 70s, the closer, “Magnum Opus” goes full prog. It’s a six movement suite that breaks eight minutes—most of that time spent without vocals. Is it bloated and self-important? Sure. But’s it’s hella fun too.

And that’s the story of this record. It indulges in all of prog rock’s cardinal sins, and still manages to be an enjoyable listen. Nowhere near as painful as certain other prog records.

Record #397: Deftones – Koi No Yokan (2011)

I’ve come a long way. Just two months ago, I was taking notes through Deftones’ discography, trying to figure out if I actually liked them or not. 

Now, I’ve purchased my fourth record from their catalogue. Pretty safe to say I dig them…
But the difficult thing with a band like Deftones is that their material is so consistent that it’s hard to quantify their albums in any sort of way. Since White Pony (next on my purchase list), all of their offer the same blend of (surprisingly enjoyable) numetal aggression with blissed out shoegaze atmospheres. Their earlier albums spent their track lists doing one or the other, sometimes in jarring juxtapositions. But their more recent works expertly meld the two extremes of their work into cohesive songs. 

Koi No Yokan is one of the most laid back albums in their catalogue, but it is by no means toothless. Despite the synths and atmospheric textures that coat the record, this album absolutely rips.

After an ambient intro, “Leathers” smashes into an ear-splitting numetal verse. I was initially turned off by this track. Until I reached the chorus, which finds Chino singing one of the most desperate melodies of his career. “Gauze” likewise starts with a rhythmic heavy metal riff, before opening up into a wall of shoegaze noise in the chorus. On the other end, “Tempest” starts in a plodding march, before catching fire four minutes in and exploding.

And while, admittedly, this is Deftones trick, that doesn’t mean it ever gets stale. These guys are masters of their scene for a reason. And throughout this album, they offer absolutely no clues that they were ever a radio metal staple. 

They do however, offer “Entombed,” which is among my favorite songs ever. A shoegazy metal ballad filled with atmospheric synths and a chilled out tapped guitar line? Sign me up.