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(Above: Chicago rapper ProbCause delivered the great album “Recipe Vol. 2″ this year.)

By Joel Francis
mcii The Daily Record

Mikal Cronin – MCII

Scuzzy guitars can’t
mask euphoric power pop.
Ears smile, feet dance.

Terrace Martin – 3 Chord Fold

Snoop’s producer blurs
genres with Glasper, Kendrick
Lamar, Khalifa.

terracemartin-3chordfold

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

OId-school surprise
from EDM pioneers.
Track 12 got most plays.

Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law

Even bigger roar
on album two from Welsh three.
Shoegaze meets prog rock.

Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

JoyFormidableWolfsLaw

Chicago MC
makes jokes while provoking thought.
Shares Kayne’s hometown.

Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

Blank frame on cover
filled with longing, desire.
Sadness sounds happy.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get ….

Alt-country redheadacud rao
rages on state of love life.
Makes married men sigh.

Blitz the Ambassador – The Warm Up EP

Seven lively tracks

anticipate full LP.
Aptly named project.

Yo La Tengo – Fade

Indie vets mellow.
Quiet guitars and vocals.
Intimate lisiten.

somewhere

Keith Jarrett – Somewhere

Archival concert

captures standards trio
in top form. More, please.

Keep reading:

Top 10 albums of 2012 (in haiku)

Top 10 albums of 2011 (in haiku)

Top 10 albums of 2010

(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

Keep reading:

Review: Evanescence

Review: Slash

Review: Motley Crue

(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket perform “I’ll Bet On You,” a new song that would fit comfortably on any best-of collection.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Toad the Wet Sprocket, the ’90s alternative to alternative music, seemed to be the victims of bad timing. Sure, the band scored two platinum albums and a handful of Top 40 singles, but it was too late (and soft) to be considered college rock and too early for indie rock.

The band’s break-up in 1998 didn’t create any waves. There was no critical re-evaluation of its catalog or new fans clamoring to the legend. Toad was just gone.

On Friday night at the Uptown Theater, 16 years after Toad’s last album, the band reminded fans what they had been missing and delivered hope of a promising future as well.

More than half of the 100-minute set drew from the “Fear” and “Dulcinea” albums, Toad’s best and best-selling releases. The sing-alongs came fast and furious, starting with “Good Intentions” and continuing through “All I Want,” “Nightingale Song,” “Brother” and “Fall Down.”

toadNestled among those chestnuts were five tracks from Toad’s upcoming new album. Singles like “New Constellation” and “Bet on Me” didn’t show any of the lapsed time between recording sessions and fit comfortably in the band’s sound. The fans may not have been singing along with these songs yet, but there’s a good bet they will the next time Toad rolls through town.

The old songs sound pretty much like they did two decades ago. Touring guitarist Johnny Hawthorne added nice texture to “Windmills” and “Walk on the Ocean” with his pedal steel. His mandolin was a nice touch on “Nightingale Song” and “Come Back Down.”

Lead guitarist Todd Nichols was given the mic for “Inside” and “Crazy Life.” During “Come Down,” one of the band’s biggest Kickstarter donors was invited onstage to play cowbell.

Singer Glen Phillips seemed as surprised as anyone at the band’s reception. The Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in two months. While the Uptown wasn’t close to full — the balcony was open, but the sparse crowd upstairs could have easily fit among all the empty seats downstairs — Phillips commented on the audience reception several times. Without major publicity, he said, fans have been finding their own way back to the band.

The world may not have been asking for a Toad the Wet Sprocket reunion, but Friday’s show made a strong case for it being a good idea.

Setlist: The Moment; Woodburning; Good Intentions; Crowing; Windmills; New Constellation; Inside; All I Want; Whatever I Fear; Come Back Down; Nightingale Song; Something’s Always Wrong; The Eye; Crazy Life; Jam; California Wasted; Brother; Fall Down. Encore: Come Down; Bet on Me; Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover); Walk on the Ocean.
Keep reading:

(Above: Rodrigo y Gabriela bring their main set at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., to a joyous end with “Humana.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About a third of the way through her set on Friday night, Gabriela Quintero explained her pact with the Uptown Theater crowd. She and Rodrigo Sanchez promised to play only acoustic guitars if the audience let the pair play whatever they wanted.

The audience in the crowded theater responded enthusiastically to almost everything thrown at it in the 100-minute set. The rapt attention the acoustic instrumental music commanded spoke to the pair’s skill and ingenuity.

The music was a mixture of Mexican, Irish, African, metal and folk, leading to another of Quintero’s maxims: They don’t label their music because then they’d be trapped playing to that label. With no classification, they can — and do — play anything.

Rodrigo y Gabriela started performing together in their native Mexico in the late ’90s. By the new millennium, the pair had relocated to Dublin and caught the eye of Damien Rice and David Gray. Their first album came out in 2002. In the dozen years since, they have released an album almost yearly, alternating studio material with live albums.

rygFriday’s performance touched on many of those albums and also previewed material slated for release next year. With no new album since 2012’s “Area 52,” Sanchez admitted there wasn’t really a reason for the duo to be touring. They just wanted to play.

While both guitarists are virtuosos, Quintero displayed an especially strong right hand. Viciously strumming without a pick, she summoned a plethora of textures and rhythms. Often treating her guitar like a percussive instrument, she was easily able to generate as much kick as a bass drum. Quintero’s skill with a wah pedal also added to her arsenal.

Against this backdrop, Sanchez showed amazing dexterity with his left hand, lacing songs with intricate riffs and solos. Sanchez also wasn’t shy about showing off his metal roots. He tossed Metallica riffs between songs a few times, and threw in some Megadeth for good measure. A full cover of Metallica’s “Orion” showed why the pair have earned the respect of their metal heroes. A right-turn cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” generated the biggest applause of the night.

The sound was immaculate. Both instruments were close mic’d, adding the squeak of fingers on the fretboards and sound of Sanchez’s pick hitting the strings to the mix. When inattentive fans started talking, the rest of the audience had no qualms about shutting them up.

Although their songs have no words, Sanchez and Quintero had no trouble keeping the crowd involved. At one point Sanchez had a three-part clap circulating around the theater. The two’s infectious energy — Quintero relished jumping around the stage — kept fans on their feet for most of the last half of the set.

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Los Lobos

Making Movies is making waves

Setlist

(Above: The Rev. Horton Heat pays tribute to his long-suffering bass player with “The Jimbo Song.” This performance is from September, 2009, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rev. Horton Heat needed only the briefest introduction to clue the crowd at Crossroads KC on Friday night in on what would happen for the next 95 minutes: “It’s a psychobilly freakout.”

Backed by a two-piece rhythm section and singing into a vintage microphone, the reverend spent the first half of the set tearing down his back catalog, playing one song from each album in chronological order (but skipping the Christmas platter).

revIf Brian Setzer dropped the Vegas schtick, he’d sound a lot like Heat. The stripped-down, hot-rod sound that supercharges rock and country is an admittedly narrow shaft to mine, but Heat was able to vary the mood.

“Martini Time” found the singer in lounge mode, while “Indigo Friends” was built around warp-speed Chicago blues. The “Jimbo Song” sounded like a lost Ramones track, and hints of surf guitar snuck into a few guitar solos.

Although Heat’s catalog is based on original compositions, he peppered several covers into the second half of the set. “Johnny B. Goode” and “Folsom Prison Blues” made expected appearances, as did Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” and Bill Haley’s “Rock This Joint.” Dirtfoot saxman Scott Gerardy joined the band for the Haley and Johnny Cash numbers and the original noir study “Lonely Gun.”

The performance capped an evening of genre studies at Crossroads. Hometown rockabilly revivalists Rumblejetts opened the night. The six-piece ensemble Dirtfoot brought the night’s most distinctive sounds. The Louisiana-based band wasn’t afraid to put both saxophone and banjo to work on the same song and find out what happens during the ensuing jam.

Ha Ha Tonka singer Brian Roberts was clearly glad to be back in his native Missouri. He was frequently stomping around stage, emphatically strumming his acoustic guitar. The jangly quartet’s 45-minute set featured old favorites like “Buckle on the Bible Belt” and “Usual Suspects.” The band borrowed a song from fellow Springfield act Red Meat, “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan,” which got much of the crowd singing along. That was followed by a quiet a cappella performance of the traditional song “Hangman (Gallows Pole).”

Setlist: Psychobilly Freakout, Lonesome Train Whistle, Baddest of the Bad, Martini Time, Jimbo Song, The Party in Your Head, Galaxy 500, Indigo Friends, Drinkin’ and Smokin’ Cigarettes, Johnny B. Goode, Honky Tonk Night Time Man, Lonely Gun, Rock this Joint, 400 Bucks, Bales of Cocaine, Devil’s Chasing Me. Encore: Big Red Rocket of Love > drum solo > Folsom Prison Blues > Big Red Rocket of Love.

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Key King Artists

Review: Social Distortion

(Above: Sea Wolf perform at the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo., on May 29, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Alex Brown Church had to come full circle to see how far he has come. As the singer/songwriter/producer and main musician behind Sea Wolf, Church decided to return to his roots, recording at home by himself.

Sea Wolf started as Church’s California bedroom recording project because he didn’t have the resources to work with a band in the studio. When it came time to go on the road with his debut album, “Leaves in the River” (2007), he was amazed by the intensity that developed over time as the material was played each night with a full band.

Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.

Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.

“The reason why I took the band into the studio for the second album (“White Water, White Bloom,” 2009) was because I wanted to replicate that feeling, and I think we did that,” Church said.

Church was lured to record in Omaha, Neb., by the opportunity to work with Bright Eyes guitarist Mike Mogis, the sonic architect behind many Saddle Creek artists, including Rilo Kiley, Cursive and Jenny Lewis.

“I thought it sounded like fun to go somewhere as a group and be holed up in the studio for a month,” Church said. “That was definitely the experience we had, because being in a relatively small city not knowing anyone made us focus on the record.”

For “Old World Romance” (2012), Church wanted to return to working alone. He wanted the ability to pick up and put down songs as he saw fit — not possible with band members waiting and a studio clock running.

“This time I feel like I’ve gotten better at making albums, and I can match that energy by myself.”

In other words, if you like Sea Wolf’s latest album, “Old World Romance,” you’ll probably like Sea Wolf’s concert Wednesday at the Riot Room. Church is touring with a five-piece band and said the live sound is “pretty close to the record.”

“When I’m working on a lyric, I only work on one song at a time,” Church said. “I might spend weeks on one song. If I’m not feeling it one day, I’ll put it aside and do something else. I’ll wait and try a little every day and usually, after time, inspiration strikes.”

Despite being left to his own devices, Church said it was never hard for him to know when a track was ready.

“I’ll revisit a song and tinker, but that’s not to say I think about things too much,” Church said. “I want a song to feel fresh and inspired, and when I labor over it, it loses that. As soon as I get to the point of not knowing what to do, I put it aside until it feels fresh again.”

Though Church labored in relative solitude, the album never sounds insular. For every sparse track, like “Old Friend,” there is one with lush production, like “Saint Catherine St.”

“I was fortunate, because I could call Lisa (Fendelander, keyboards), Joey (Ficken, drums) and Ted (Liscinski, bass) — my live Sea Wolf band — to come play on songs,” Church said. “My friend Zac Rae, who is mostly known as a session musician but has his own amazing studio, also helped me record some stuff.”

To other do-it-yourself recording artists working at home, Church encourages having two back-up hard drives and backing those up religiously.

He picked up this advice when the hard drive he was using to save his music crashed and he lost everything. Working from MP3s as reference tracks, Church had to tediously re-create his songs.

“Before the crash, the album would have been done early last year,” Church said. “The final turned out a little different, but not in a bad way. I had to let go of what I had done before and just be happy.”

Keep reading:

Review: Sufjan Stevens

The Man in (Frank) Black

Justin Townes Earle: His father’s son

(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

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Review: Flaming Lips at Liberty Hall

Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

Shine on Rick Wright

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