Album Review: Rise Against – Wolves

Rise Against Wolves
Standard

The classification of punk music is totally subjective. What do The Ramones, The Clash and The Sex Pistols share in common? Who’s more punk out of Blink 182 or the Rage Against The Machine? To me, the two essential elements of good punk music are speed and political content.

Rise Against have both. Since discovering them in my early teens, they have long been one of my favourite bands. I’ve seen them more than any other international act (Powerstation 2009, Big Day Out 2010, Logan Campbell Centre 2011, and opening for Foo Fighters 2015), and they also take up the most space in my record collection (alongside Biffy Clyro).

But to be honest, I wasn’t so keen on their latest album. I won’t go so far as to say they sold-out, but Appeal To Reason signaled a tipping point for the band once they had signed to a major label, and since then their sound became steadily more accessible. This culminated in their last release, The Black Market, lacking the edge that the band once had.

Thankfully, album number eight, Wolves, feels more raw than the polished radio-rock that the band had churned out over the past few releases. I doubt we will ever hear a true return to their hardcore roots, but the pop sheen on this record is thankfully less noticeable. I didn’t have high hopes on first listen, having not thought much of their previous record, but thankfully Wolves proved instantly likable.

It’s the same familiar Rise Against. They’ve transcended their underground roots to create a melodic-hardcore-come-arena-rock style that has boosted them to prominence. And I do not begrudge them for their success. But I do feel that a special connection to the band has been lost since they started gaining more dominance on the airwaves.

I stated before that I think political content is a vital aspect of good punk music. Rise Against have always toed the line well in this regard – writing lyrics that allude to their personal and political values without being overt enough to ostracize their increasingly mainstream fan base. Just a handful of topics they’ve touched on in the past include treatment of animals (many of the band members are vegan), people (refugees, the LGBT community) and the fallout of war (including the impacts on both soldiers and civilians involved).

In his typical fashion, on Wolves singer Tim McIlrath cries out against injustice with a fervent fire. One could attribute inspiration to a certain orange-tinted world leader, but in reality corruption and oppression will always exist, regardless of who runs the government. Wolves features a theme of rallying the people to stand as one against ambiguous powers-that-be. Both relevant and vague enough for most people to relate to. And how can one not be drawn to that call to humanity that all of us possess?

Plus they have lots of “whoas”. “Whoas” are freaking awesome, and the perfect invitation from a band to have you sing along. Just ask The Casualties.

I find it hard to define my overall verdict. Wolves is actually great. I love Rise Against, and will always hold them dear as an important building block in my musical education. But I’m not sure that I needed another album from them. I like Wolves, but chances are high that  if I’m hoping for my Rise Against fix I will overlook it and reach for one of their older records.

 

Joseph James

2015 in Review – Live Music at Will Not Fade

Will Not Fade Logo jpeg
Standard

What a year it has been! We’ve been blessed to have so many amazing bands to come to our shores this year, and we are just as lucky to have strong local talent that we can depend on seeing throughout the year as well. I’ve summarised below some of the highlights and letdowns of my year, concluding with a discussion of the live music scene.

The best shows of 2015

Jurassic 5 blew me away with their incredibly fun and interactive show. Great music, great showmanship.

Frank Turner has been one of my favourite artists for years now. There’s no way that I could see him play his rousing music and it not be a highlight of my year. It was a cool bonus to meet him and have a chat outside the venue after the show as well. His new album, released a few months later, was also excellent.

Image: Fergus Cunningham

This Will Destroy You. Image: Fergus Cunningham

I actually thought that Australian post-rockers sleepmakeswaves put on a far better set than the more established headliners This Will Destroy You. There was so much energy and joy on stage. Many post-rock acts just let their music do the talking, but sleepmakeswaves put on a show as well as playing great music.

Most insane show award would go to either powermetal lords Dragonforce or mathcore act Dillinger Escape Plan. Although both could be classed as metal bands, they are at different (extreme) ends of the spectrum. Both played at a packed out Valhalla, and both bands featured musicians who were ridiculously proficient at their instruments.

I finally got to see what I consider an original hardcore/punk band this year. I’ve seen OFF!, Misfits and Corrosion of Conformity in the past, but they may as well be covers band,featuring more ring-ins than original members. A group of us hired a van and drove up to Auckland to see Gorilla Biscuits play at The Kings Arms. I think it is as close as I’ll ever get to seeing one of those pioneering punk/hardcore groups live, and it was great. Such a fun and positive band.

It is always a pleasure seeing perennial local heroes Jakob and Beastwars (the two bands toured as a double bill), and I managed to see my favourites Shihad play three times this year (at Homegrown and AC/DC).

The set that Shihad played both nights. They also played the song "Pacifier" for the encore on Sunday.

The set that Shihad played both nights of Homegrown. They also played the song “Pacifier” for the encore on Sunday.

My last highlight was Declaration AD, although I say this with a hint of sadness. They released their final album (Sometimes It’s Us) earlier on in the year, along with the announcement that their time as a band was coming to an end. The lineup for their final show at Zeal included some of the best current punk/hardcore/metal acts in New Zealand.  Declaration played a mammoth 16 songs and finished on a high. They made a big impact, not only in Wellington, but also in the wider New Zealand hardcore scene.

Disappointments

Every show I attended in Auckland this year left me feeling disappointed.

It started off with Foo Fighters cancelling their intimate Town Hall show because a truck with their gear had en route, leaving them without the equipment they needed. My friends and I took the opportunity to see American rapper Freddie Gibbs  instead. Gibbs was brilliant, but making fans wait for hours just to see a short 40 minute set was disrespectful to those who paid good money to see him perform.

The following night wasn’t much better. The Foo Fighters weren’t bad, but it was nothing compared to their previous few NZ concerts. They had stopped trying, choosing instead to rest on their laurels. They included a handful of covers throughout the set that dragged, and I was bored and ready to go home well before they had finished. I was glad to see that Rise Against were on form though. I didn’t think much of their latest album, and their opening set wasn’t very long, but it was actually one of the better sets I’ve seen them play.

A month later I was up in Auckland again for Westfest. I was most excited to see grunge icons Soundgarden. They started off with my favourite song of theirs, “Spoonman”, and it sounded terrible. Frontman Chris Cornell’s voice sounded strained and the band couldn’t keep energy up. I ended up leaving halfway through their set, because a free ride back to where we were staying was more attractive than seeing one of my favourite bands struggling onstage. Thankfully my other drawcard, Faith No More, were great, and metal pioneers Judas Priest put on an outstanding show earlier in the day, making Westfest worth attending overall. Cornell came back to New Zealand at the end of the year and all the reviews I read were glowing, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket to attend after he had put on such a dismal display at Westfest.

Faith No More playing at Westfest in Auckland. Photo taken from Faith No More's Facebook page

Faith No More playing at Westfest in Auckland. Photo taken from Faith No More’s Facebook page

Wellington venues

Venue Shed 6 has been refurbished as an alternative to the infamous TSB Arena that it sits beside. I saw both Gary Clark Jr and Jurassic 5 both play there, and had no complaints either time. It’s a versatile space and I hope that it gets utilised more in the future.

I attended two concerts at the Westpac Arena this year, and I would hesitate to attend another there. I have no issue with Elton John’s show, but his fans were totally ripped off, being charged extortionate fees for limited visibility. Likewise, AC/DC put on a brilliant show, but when 40 minute delays left fans exposed in the cold wind and rain I doubt many present were happy about the choice of venue. Sound and visibility issues coupled with overpriced tickets and cramped seating do little to suggest value for money.

Robbie Williams played a successful show at the Basin Reserve in October, indicating that the Basin could be a better alternative as Wellington’s primary outdoor venue.

Image: Bradley Garner Photography.

Mogwai at James Cabaret. Image: Bradley Garner Photography.

At one time Wellington’s best live venue, James Cabaret really let things slip. Lack of adequate air conditioning and no passouts made it hard to cope with the hot overcrowded conditions, especially when shows ran later than advertised. It was a real let down during Nas and Run The Jewels. And I don’t know if it was the venue’s fault, but there were complaints made about the excessive noise levels at Mogwai. After a handful of bad experiences I was seriously considering if I ever wanted to attend the venue again. And then without warning, the venue closed. Gorillaz Sound System had been booked to play James Cabaret, but got switched to Bodega last-minute. That was the last I ever heard of the venue.

We still have the trusty old bars Bodega and San Fran, who tend to get most bands. Meow has also been hosting more big bands this year. I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t been to the new venue MOON in Newtown yet. I hope that the Town Hall will get revived one day, but from what I hear about the costs of earthquake restrengthening, it is too costly to be considered viable.

The festival scene

The established staples in the festival scene seem to be surviving. Homegrown promises to be exactly the same as it has always been. It’s almost the musical equivalent to the 7’s rugby tournament. Hipsterfest Laneway is potentially expanding next year. Raggamuffin promises to be a hit, with Wu Tang Clan announced as headliners.

Trusty old Big Day Out has experienced a rocky past few years, and has since been re-branded as Auckland City Limits, with affiliations to the similarly named Austin festival. It will be interesting to see how well ACL fares. Headliner Kendrick Lamar will be a major drawcard, and it is held later in the year, so won’t be competing against other festivals and events to the same degree.

It’s a risky time for promoters at the moment. Soulfest was cancelled last-minute due to poor ticket sales. New festival Mclaren Falls had to change venues due to complaints from locals. After the change of location they renamed as Echofest. And Echofest also cancelled and announced liquidation, leaving ticket holders potentially unable to get refunds.

Westfest16

The future of Westfest 16 is up in the air. NOFX have confirmed that they will not be coming.

Somewhat related, Australian festival Soundwave has ended. Promoter AJ Maddah has a history of dodgy dealings, and it sounds like the responsibility for the festival can be shared between Maddah and ticketing agency Eventopia. Fans are understandably upset, especially because neither party are willing to refund ticket holders. This has wider implications for live music in Austalasia, because it has undermined concertgoers faith in promoters and ticketing outlets. There is no way that Soundwave’s cancellation is a good thing, although some people are trying to crowdfund a Soundwave replacement called Legion.

It also places the future of Auckland heavy music festival Westfest in question. Westfest has ridden on the coattails of Soundwave for a few years now, offering very similar lineups. Westfest 14 and 15 both ran at a loss, and Westfest 16 had a noticably smaller lineup, reflecting and foreshadowing Soundwave’s issues. With many bands no longer travelling to Australia for Soundwave, it remains uncertain if they will travel further to New Zealand. However, despite being unprofitable, Westfest has done wonders to boost ODR Productions’ profile, and I have faith that whether they retain their festival or not, ODR will continue to organise most of the best shows for heavy music fans in New Zealand.

2016

2016 still looks bright. Wellington is offering their bi-annual Arts Festival, with acts like Sufjan Stevens and Death Cab For Cutie attending. I’m sure that we will have plenty of sideshows from Laneway and Byron Bays Bluesfest to look forward to as well.

Iron Maiden Book of Souls tour

David Dallas is playing at Victoria University O Week, and although I expect that will be awesome, I’m apprehensive about going to a gig that will likely feature a crowd of 17-year-old drunk first year students (probably dressed in togas as well). I’m also looking forward to seeing Iron Maiden play in Christchurch in April, and comedy/percussion show Blue Man Group in June.

 

What were the best shows you attended in 2015? And which ones are you looking forward to attending next year?

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Foo Fighters at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland

Foo Fighters Rise Against Mt Smart Auckland Sonic Highways World Tour
Standard

Foo Fighters

w/ Rise Against (USA) & Miss June (NZ)

Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland

Saturday 21 February 2015

 

I am a huge Foo Fighters fan. I saw them put on three-hour show across two stages at Vector Arena when I was 16 years old. It was (and is likely to remain) the greatest concert I had ever been to. The second time I saw the Foos the crowd collectively triggered an earthquake by jumping up and down to the music.

Since then Dave Grohl and his cohorts have released two great documentaries with fairly weak soundtracks (Sound City and Sonic Highways). This tour is the first in New Zealand to have not sold out in the past decade. Ticket prices have been lowered to less than a third of what they were to entice more people to the show. This all begs the question: have the Foo Fighters lost it, or are they still as brilliant as they ever were?

 


 

I can’t be contested that Foo Fighters are one of the best live bands around, but I prefer listening to Rise Against. They were my ‘gateway band’ that first introduced me to punk music.

Rise Against have managed to carve a musical career by blending punk politics, attitudes and ethos with melodic rock sensibilities. In 2008 they signed to a major label and managed to break into the mainstream without compromising their sound and values. I respect them for being one of the few bands played on the radio with messages actually worth taking note of.

Tonight was the fourth time I’d seen Rise Against onstage. I was pleased that almost half their set was older (pre-major label) material. They had large glowing letters spelling out RISE onstage but we all know that it isn’t about how cool the setup looks, it’s about the energy put into the music and delivery. They played with the expected intensity. Guitarist Zach Blair was doing his signature punk jumps all over the stage. The songs “Help Is On The Way” and “Savior” both featured dynamic extended bridges.

Front-man Tim McIlrath invited Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett onstage to join the band. I’m assuming that Shiflett has been friends with Rise Against since his punk days, when he played for No Use For A Name. Together they covered the Jawbreaker song “Kiss The Bottle”

I really like Rise Against

I really like Rise Against

Auckland based opening act Miss June also played well. The drums stood out as sounding especially good. Although at first, they seemed a bit shy and shoe-gazy, after they had warmed up Miss June appeared right at home, delivering a short set of garage punk. Front-woman Annabel Liddell flung herself around the stage channeling Joan Jett. I half expected to hear “Ch, ch, ch, ch, CHERRY BOMB!”

 


 

I was confused by the Foo Fighter’s opening guitar line. “Skin and Bones”? Surely they’re not opening with an acoustic song? Actually, no. It was “Something From Nothing”, from the most recent album, Sonic Highways. I swear those two songs have near identical riffs.

“We’re not here to play a two hour set!” Grohl roared “Not two and a quarter, not two and a half! We want to put on the best show we can! I wanna play songs from the first record, the second record, the third record…”

And sure enough, they played for three hours, with a set including material from every album. Every song was a single, save for a few from the new album (that are likely to become singles) so there was a wide enough spread to please fans old and new.

One highlight was “Monkey Wrench”. It started off as usual, but turned into a sprawling psychedelic number come the bridge. The lights slowly dimmed until there was complete darkness, leaving the audience to drink in the sounds without distraction. Another was “These Days”, which grew and grew into a rousing sing along. Songs like these are when the Foo Fighters truly shine, when they turn playing into performing, with musical and visual dynamics.

The moment that they started to lose it was when Grohl walked to the end of the catwalk to play to those at the back of the stadium. This signaled a lull in the set. Those of us at the front couldn’t see anyone playing and the songs were acoustic. The energy had dissipated. People standing around me started checking their phones.

Grohl talked about his promise to play Auckland Town Hall the previous night. Unfortunately that show needed to be cancelled almost as soon as it had been announced. A truck carrying the band’s gear from their previous show in Christchurch had crashed near Taihape on the way to Auckland. “I guess this makes me look like an asshole” he grinned “so I tell you what: if you do something for me I’ll play two shows at the Town Hall next time I come, to make up for it.”

He started strumming “Wheels”. “Last time I made a deal that if you sang along to this song I’d play that Town Hall” he continued, “Well that didn’t work out, so the new deal is if you don’t sing along, then I’ll come back and play those shows.” Of course people still sang along.

“This is the first time I’ve ever told the crowd to shut up, to not sing along. And you still can’t even do it!” Grohl grinned, pretending to chide his audience.

When we first arrived I pointed out to my girlfriend why “the D” (The term used at Big Day Out for the fenced of area at the front, shaped in the shape of a letter D) was split in half.”That’s the catwalk,” I explained, “They run up and down it as they play so that they can get closer to the audience. At the Vector show they actually lowered a second stage from the roof with all the instruments on it so that the band could walk come down the end to play an acoustic set. But obviously that won’t happen tonight, because there is no roof to lower a stage from.”

I was wrong though. Sure, there was no roof to lower a stage from, so they had a secondary stage next to the catwalk that rose up from the ground instead. This was the covers stage, where the band paid homage to bands who had initially inspired them, like Rush, Kiss, and AC/DC. The best was their rendition of the classic Queen/David Bowie collab “Under Pressure”, with drummer Taylor Hawkins taking on Freddie Mercury’s parts and Grohl taking on Bowie’s.

“Under Pressure” revived the show. And if it hadn’t, “All My Life” certainly would have. By the penultimate song, “Best Of You”,Grohl was clearly starting to lose his voice. They finished off with the obligatory “Everlong” (The rock version, not the acoustic version that they have tended to play live for the past several years).

 


 

So to answer my question from before: have the Foo Fighters lost it, or are they still as brilliant as they ever were? It was an excellent show. Three hours from one of the world’s best rock bands is hard to fault. But it did feel like they were going through the motions. They played song after song, but that was it. The extra performance aspects I had come to expect were largely absent. The extended jams didn’t feature too often. There were no guitar duels and long drum solos.

If this was the first time I had seen the Foos play I would be raving about how amazing it was. But I have seen them play twice before, and the third time just wasn’t as good.

Foo Fighters played two sold out shows at Wembley Arena in 2008. I think that is when they peaked. They are by no means bad, but it looks to me that they are resting on their laurels rather than continuing to push the envelope. The documentaries they have released are great, but the new music and the Mt Smart performance fail to inspire me.

 

Joseph James