Homecoming

In the three months since Beyoncé’s *Homecoming* concert-documentary/live album hit the internet streams, I’ve been listening repeatedly with levels of enthusiasm and engagement that I haven’t felt with music in quite a long time. At my desk at the office, at the start of many of my long distance runs, or when I feel like listening to something but don’t have anything particular in mind, it’s effectively become the soundtrack to my life this summer.

I’ve never really seen myself as a Beyoncé “fan”. In my formative years when she was part of Destiny’s Child, she was just another singer in an all-female performance group. Being in a passive household genre-based audio war with my older sister, fighting against her CD catalog of rap, hip hop, R&B, and oldies with my new love spiral for hard rock and metal, Beyoncé was just another singer for a type of music I didn’t care about. As age and experience broadened my taste for music to allow me to enjoy genres I used to arrogantly dismiss as “not real music” or write off otherwise, I got familiar enough with a enough of her songs as a solo artist to find myself impressed by her infamous self-titled album, from the elevated composition/production and lyrical content to the marketing strategy and material involved. It was a methodically planned album went far beyond music tracks burned onto a $20 plastic disc with a small set of liner notes, something I’d previously only seen in the Japanese music industry—for example, releasing music videos for every track on the album a la Dir en grey’s 1997 *Gauze* album— and elevated it to another level. But it wasn’t until 2016 when she began actively and unapologetically lean into her Blackness that I started finding myself truly drawn to her as an artist. The personal-but-publicly-known narrative (as well as the finesse and privacy it was handled under) behind *Lemonade*, abstracted and poeticized to be made relatable to and representative of the experiences of the Black woman, was art in the truest sense of the word. Even the revisited “visual album” component was of another level, laden with intentional imagery and showing an arcing narrative over twelve songs. I was awestruck then, but this year’s release of *Homecoming* marked the moment where I considered myself officially “stung”.

At this point in time so far out from it’s initial release, there have been many reviews and analytical thought pieces on the deeper cultural significance of *Homecoming*; I’m not a member of the target demographic nor an scholar of a relevant academic discipline to be attempting to craft one of my own. That said, I’d be remiss to not sing its due praise. Here, in 2019 Trump America, is Beyoncé’s entire career, curated and distilled into a (literally) flawless 105 minute-long performance showcasing Black and sending “the bar” to the moon. Her breath control is insane, never missing a note while simultaneously dancing out complicated choreography for well over an hour. Not only that, but she sounds the best she ever has—listening to the original recordings of the songs included leaves them sounding tinny and flat by comparison, lacking the bombastic arrangement of the band orchestra and the full-bodied and more relatable vocal tone of a full-grown adult woman. The documentary bits spliced into the performance are a testament to the both the benefits and importance of humility, sacrifice, and hard work, leaving us with hard proof that the most well known and highly regarded example of a humanity at its best being a Black woman. It’s like a modern-day entertainment equivalent of Jesse Owens in nazi Germany sweeping up medals and setting multiple Olympic records in under the course of a single hour.

As Beyoncé narrates herself, she didn’t put on her “flower crown” for Coachella, she put on her culture, and presented it to the world with all of the power and refinement her personal brand is known for, giving everyone a chance to see themselves reflected in her accomplishment to at least some degree. Growing up bi-racial in a time before widespread internet adoption, I can relate to the feeling of being insufficient at *two* races and not being fully accepted as either one. The inclusion of her collaboration track *Mi Gente* with J. Balvin (which I’m assuming it got edited down to just her verse in the video due to licensing conflicts) makes a part of me feel reflected on that stage, and more relevantly, millions of Afro-Latino people out there a representation of their dual ethnic identities harmonizing together. We tend to evaluate things on what they mean to us as individuals, but one audience that isn’t capable of verbalizing and pouring thoughts online are the millions of children also being exposed to this release. Being born a half-Latino American citizen raised in Southern California, I’ve always been keenly aware of the xenophobic American attitude toward the Mexican people and the looming threat of deportation for family and friends who weren’t as fortunate as I was to be born on US soil. Having Selena sellout the the Houston Astrodome in the mid 1990’s was a revelation to my child self; my culture *could* find success in America with non-Spanish speakers and fill stadium arenas, and make a lasting impact on society at large. By extension, it fills me with a quiet happiness to know that in a time of *Black Lives Matter*, when Eric Garner can be murdered on camera without consequence, children today out there have a shining example of both objective & Black excellence as I had my Latino one decades earlier at their age.

After losing some of 2019’s entries due to a migration error, I moved my focus away from the blog and put it on the other projects I’ve been working on. But the importance of commitment and a hard work ethic aren’t my only takeaways from the *Homecoming* experience. It was titled as such not just as a reference to the HBCU theme of the show, but also as a return to her art after being away from it for so long with her recent pregnancy. I too should come back to my form of expression, and start executing it consistently.

The Sting of BTrayal

So, the post title is a little on the melodramatic side, but some word plays can’t be resisted…
This past weekend, I was reading through the Twitter stream and realized that it’d been a good while since I’d seen a tweet from BT’s account. I found myself wondering if he’d given up on Twitter, since BT also happens to be the name of telecom provider in the UK, and due to the shared name, he frequently receives complaint tweets from UK Twitter users. I tapped over to his profile in my Twitter client and saw that my account was shown as not following his. I was a little perplexed, since I didn’t recall ever unfollowing him, and pushed on the button to resubscribe to his feed. That’s when I learned that I’d been blocked.
btblock
I was a little incredulous, and in a spout of denial, considered it may have just been errant behavior by my phone’s Twitter client. I fired up a web browser and navigated to his page, only to have my finding confirmed:
BT Blocked Twitter Account
 
At this point, I found myself dealing with two distinct reactions. The first was anxious wonder, trying to think of what could have possibly led to this. Maybe I’d been blowing up his notifications with constant tweets? A quick Twitter search ruled that one out. Perhaps something I’d said? Re-reading the content of the tweets in that search result, I saw nothing but my usual praise and support for the man & his work. And as I was running through the possibilities in my mind, the second reaction started to really take hold: frustration with myself, a freshly-turned-30 year-old man giving something as trivial as social media more importance that it should receive.
The thing is, it really did matter to me that much. Over the years, my passion for music has waned considerably. Where my teenage self had so many musicians and bands that I felt so passionately about, BT was one of the handful of artists whose output still managed to illicit a strong and legitimate engagement from me. So much that instead of just streaming, I actually bought his music:

As much utter disdain as I have for Los Angeles, I once happily made the trip out to catch one of his shows and waited until 2:30 AM for his set to start:

And while I don’t have a hard calculated statistic, I would guess that 1 out of every 10 tweets would get engagement from him via either reply or being favorited (which as of recent is now a Twitter “like”).
IMG_1124-2 IMG_0525-2
 
(I used to screen cap all of them, but those were the only two I could readily find and seemed sufficient to illustrate my point here.)
Just the other week, I had a friend that I’d turned onto BT’s body of work tell me that he thought A Song Across Wires was pretty much the best album ever, that listening to it consistently made him feel like being out in the desert out with all of his friends and blissfully dancing the night away. He is just one of the many to whom I’ve preached the gospel of BT over the recent years.
So, yeah, it’s “just the Internet”, but those interactions were my own slice of the upside-to-social-media pie, the direct engagement between artist and fan that I passively had with one of the few music artists that I still really cared about. Going from occasional reply/favorite to flat out blocked without any identifiable cause has left me (annoyingly) feeling somewhat like a teenage girl/gay wondering why the guy hasn’t called/isn’t returning texts.
 

4v95ftt
Substitute “Friendship” with “Support” and this meme feels pretty on point.

Buuuuuutttt…all that said, my adult self recognizes that in the pre-mobile internet days I grew up in, this would have never even happened. Maybe it was an unintentional block, maybe he had a reason for it, who knows. Aside from the fact that I do admittedly feel less inclined to promote his work word-of-mouth, it doesn’t change my enjoyment or respect for the man and his work — A Song Across Wires is still easily sits towards the top of the “best albums I’ve ever heard” list.

Review: Dir en grey–“Dum Spiro Spero”

Dum Spiro Spero

Pretty Wicked Cover, Gotta Say…

So, this is the first review I’ve written since the old LiveJournal days. Bear with me, I don’t quite have a format nailed down.

ABOUT:

This is the eighth studio album by Japanese Rock (well, technically Japanese Metal as of around 2007) outfit Dir en grey. I’ve been a fan of these guys since 2000, back when they were a major name in the Japanese Visual Kei (read: Japanese version of Glam Rock) scene. For over a decade, I’ve seen this band reinvent both themselves and their musical style with a frequency that would make Madonna jealous. I managed to get ahold of a leaked copy (along with the rest of the internet) of their latest offering, officially dropping on 08/03/2011. I could go on, but this is a review, not a biography, so without further ado…

WHERE IT EXCELS:

If you like Metal and experimental/progressive music, this will definitely hit the sweet spot. The album sails through a drop-tuned turbulent sea on some interesting rhythm patterns and timing changes. Any given song will switch moods on you like a heroin junky going through withdrawals, said mood selection being limited to darker, darker, and darkerer (yeah, that’s grammatically incorrect, but with these guys there’s never an absolute “darkest”.) Long time fans have grown used to Kyo’s use of various screams in place of singing. Not here; a pleasantly surprising amount of the vocals are sung, and man, are they CLEAN. Fans of the screaming and growling won’t walk away disappointed – there’s plenty of them to go around, they just don’t take up the whole album.

WHERE IT FALLS SHORT:

Ever since I discovered this band, I’ve always felt their rhythm section to be their strongest asset. Not to insinuate that Kyo’s vocals and Kaoru & Die’s guitarwork is anything to scoff at (quite the contrary, actually), but Shinya’s drumming, Toshiya’s basslines, and Shinya’s drumming (see what I did there?) are easily the best parts of any of their songs. Sadly, their production team isn’t on the same page as I am. While not terrible, the mixing on the album could do more to really give the drums and bass the prominence they deserve. Focus, as is the unfortunate norm for a lot of rock genres, is on the guitars. They’re good, but come on, let’s acknowledge the other guys too.

TRACK BY TRACK: (In 3 sentences or less)

1) Kyoukotsu no Nari [狂骨の鳴り – “The Cry from Lunatic Bone”]: Less than two minutes of ambient noise. Sets the mood, sure, but I’m far more used to strong opening numbers. They used this approach on the previous album, but Uroboros’s “Sa Bir” succeeded far better at this thank Kyoukotsu does.
2) The Blossoming Beelzebub: Kind of a disappointment for a track with a length over seven minutes. It’s not bad, but there’s no cohesion or clear progression. The best part is the end of the track, which sports a flurry of drums and slap bass that nicely transitions into one of the best tracks on the album
3) Different Sense: This one beautiful beast of a song, blending elements from every phase of their musical career. The contrast between heavy verses and the melodic chorus dares you to try and not to like it. Oh, and it has a solo – remember when those used to happen regularly in Dir en grey’s songs?
4) Amon: Don’t know why this song got a special release with some photobook of sorts. The bass and drums do the most interesting stuff, but even then they’re forgettable. It’s kind of a bland dirge, to be honest.
5) “Yokusou Ni Dreambox” Aruiwa Seijuku No Rinen To Tsumetai Ame [「欲巣にDREAMBOX」あるいは成熟の理念と冷たい雨 – ” ‘Nesting Within the Dreambox’ Cold Rain and the Philosophy of the Mature”): Another dirge, but this one has some semblance of cohesion, along with a schizophrenic personality. The vocals are interesting, and are at their best during the chorus. I dig it.
6) Juuyoku [獣慾 – “Animal Lust”]: Drums go bang, bass goes boom, guitars go everywhere, and vocals go “rawr”. The title fits the song appropriately. You’ll fire this up when you want melodic noise, but you’ll be heard pressed to remember what the song sounds like in your head simply by looking at the title.
7) Shitataru Mourou [滴る朦朧 – “Trickling Ambiguity”]: Love the intro drums – very reminiscent of the Deftones’s “Digital Bath”. Love the way the guitars convey a sense of frantic despair. One of my favorite tracks on the album.
8) Lotus: There’s been some touchups, namely to the vocals and bass, from the previously released single version. Strong chorus, and a great overall mood. Loved it before, love it again.
9) Diabolos: Another let down due to the long length and lack of progression. It goes through a wide range of phases, but they’re not really pieced together in any particular way. It ain’t no “Vinushka”.
10) Akatsuki [暁 – Dawn]: This is a pretty crisp track. Popping bass, banging drums, and interesting guitars. Enjoyable, but alas, not exactly memorable.
11) Decayed Crow: Lots of screaming and persistent instrumentation. Sadly, at this point, it all starts to sound the same.
12) Hageshisa to, Kono Mune no Naka de Karamitsuita Shakunetsu no Yami [激しさと、この胸の中で絡み付いた灼熱の闇 – “And Violence, Tangled in the Burning Darkness of my Heart”]: Another previously released track, in retrospect set the foundation for the musical direction from this album. Like the other singles on the album, it’s had some upgrades done.
13) Vanitas [Emptiness]: THE BALLAD! As much as Dir en grey does melodic dissonance well, they’ve got a real talent for ballads. Though not their best, it’s different from their previous ones and still very good. A nice breath of fresh air for something that sounds distinctly different from the rest of the tracks on the album.
14) Ruten no Tou [流転の塔 – “Tower of Vicissitudes”]: Manages to pull off the feeling that things are coming to a close, but aside from that, I can’t really describe it without saying things I’ve already said about other songs on the album.
-BONUS TRACKS-
15) Rasetsukoku [羅刹国 – “Kingdom of Demons”]: Unlike previous remakes of old songs, this one is VERY faithful to the original version. Even the lyrics sound unchanged. A much appreciated metal rendition of a high energy rock track.
16) Amon (Symphonic Version): I like that it uses symphonic instruments to supplement the original rock instruments instead of replacing them entirely. I don’t like that the original version of this song was pretty lacking. I’m tempted to delete and replace the original “Amon” with this one.
Dum Spiro Spero Review

CONCLUSION:

If you’ve read interviews and reviews, you know that this is a highly experimental and unusual album for the band. True music lovers will appreciate it for those qualities, but won’t exactly be blown away by them. Lovers of the band will find a way to convince themselves this fresh offering from the band is the new best thing ever even though they’re won’t truly grasp the meaning behind the music. Dir en grey’s previous efforts have proven successful because they’re not afraid to get weird, unconventional, and experimental and fuse that with more accessible rock/metal songs. This album is 75 minutes of nothing but those very qualities and comes off as a professionally executed metal jam session between the five of them.
Bottom line? This is an album put together for themselves, not the fans, and they don’t give a fuck: it’s up to you whether to take it or leave it, and that’s both it’s strongest quality and greatest weakness.