Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.
If you’re reading this after the Spotify list has updated, check out The Culture Tsar’s 2018 Highlights playlist to find the selections below.
1: Marilyn Manson: The Pale Emperor (2015)
Listening to this album was like reconnecting with an old acquaintance you haven’t seen in years and wonder why you weren’t closer friends since you have so much in common. As teenager in the 1990s, The Culture Tsar naturally heard plenty of Marilyn Manson’s early material. While he always thought the infamous 1996 album Antichrist Superstar was better known for its shock value than its musical qualities, he greatly enjoyed its 1998 follow-up, Mechanical Animals. After that, though, Marilyn Manson fell off The Culture Tsar’s radar, usually provoking comments like “Oh, is he still around?” whenever the name came up. He was honestly a bit surprised to discover that The Pale Emperor is quite good. Not quite metal, but not really straight up hard rock, the album has a sleazy, grime-encrusted bluesy feel to it. If you mixed Alice Cooper with Tom Waits and The Cure, you’d get something that sounds kind of like The Pale Emperor. Manson seems more concerned here with crafting great songs than with shocking people, and it really showcases the musical talent that often gets overshadowed by the theatrics of his stage persona. While still dark and disturbing, it isn’t really “in your face” with shock value. The Pale Emperor may drag you into some frightening places, but you’ll find yourself tapping your foot along the way.
2: Hungry Lucy: Pulse of the Earth (2017)
An interesting combination of elements, Hungry Lucy pairs electronic ambience with delicate female vocals to occupy a unique genre space. Honestly, The Culture Tsar isn’t sure how to even categorize this album. It’s not pop, but it’s not electronica either. The singer sounds a lot like Tori Amos at times, and the songs strike an uncomfortable balance between sad and thoughtful. While the arrangements tend to be multilayered, they’re not overwhelming at any point. The album manages to be deep and austere at the same time. More than any other album this week, Pulse of the Earth is really hard to describe. That doesn’t mean it’s a difficult album to take in. Most of the songs are actually quite accessible, but there’s not an easy comparison for them. It’s not the kind of album you would listen to casually while doing something else. Hungry Lucy is a distinctive and original band you should sit down and dedicate some time to listen to if you’re looking for something different from the typical genre fare.
3: If These Trees Could Talk: The Bones of a Dying World (2016)
Sooner or later, The Culture Tsar had to listen to a post-rock album for this series. For those unfamiliar with the term, post-rock is a genre of instrumental rock music that originated in the 1990s and has since exploded into a thriving sub-genre. Seriously, you could spend days exploring different post-rock bands on Spotify. The Culture Tsar discovered If These Trees Could Talk on one of those deep dives. They’re fairly typical of the genre in that they manage to compose evocative songs that still cling to the basic rock music structure that listeners instinctively expect from a song. Their music tells a story without a single lyric intruding upon the narrative, though exactly what that story is will vary from listener to listener. That’s one of the cool things about post-rock; the instruments combine to elicit an emotion from the listener, but it’s up to the listener to work out what that emotion means to them. The Bones of a Dying World has some pretty epic moments and creates a variety of compelling soundscapes. Virtuosity takes a back seat to ambience, with many of the most emotionally powerful moments coming from rather simple arrangements. Post-rock certainly isn’t a genre for everyone. You kind of have to be on board with the idea of listening to a rock song without vocals. If, however, you want to get a good sense of what’s possible in the genre, If These Trees Could Talk is an excellent band to start with.
4: White Lies: Friends (2017)
The Culture Tsar is really digging this wave of bands inspired by early 80s New Wave pop rock. A few weeks ago, Cut Copy gave him a heavy dose of nostalgia. This week, White Lies takes the nostalgia up a notch and adds a skinny tie to the mix. Friends sounds like a lost album out of 1984, which is a good thing in The Culture Tsar’s book. The guitars have that heavily processed New Wave sound that meshes well with the echo laden synthesizers and the machine-like precision of the rhythm section. Rich and deep male vocals round out the classic sound, calling to mind any number of well-dressed bands from the early MTV era. None of this this would matter, of course, if the songs sucked. Fortunately, the songwriting is great, full of catchy hooks, melodies that get stuck in your head, and easy to remember lyrics that you’ll be singing under your breath for the rest of the day. Maybe The Culture Tsar is just a sucker for bands that sound like the music of his childhood, but Friends is the kind of album that will make you happy from the moment it begins until you inevitably decide to play the whole thing over again.
5: Memoryhouse: Soft Hate (2016)
Another tough one to categorize, Soft Hate bounces between an upbeat electronic pop sound and a more measured, introspective style. At a couple points, they veer into slightly darker territory with a couple of songs that sound like they could have come from a David Lynch movie. Most of the time, though, they keep to a standard of layered synthesizers and drum beats backing up the breathy female vocals. The album is good, but the style feels a bit inconsistent at times. There’s a bit of a kitchen sink feel to it, with a lot of good songs doing a lot of interesting things that don’t quite hold together as a coherent album. A great album typically has a strong thematic element that ties all the songs to one another conceptually. Part of the problem is that the best track, “Arizona”, is almost completely different from the rest of the album. After The Culture Tsar’s initial listen, he thought he liked the album a lot, but it was more a case of one song influencing his view of the album. His enthusiasm waned a bit on repeated listens because he wanted more songs that sounded like “Arizona.” Still, it’s not a bad album. Many of the songs are quite good, if not especially memorable. Definitely worth a listen, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.
Now, if they do more songs like “Arizona”…
That’s it for the Culture Tsar’s musical offerings this week. Here’s a sneak peak at next week’s albums:
1: The Horrors: V (2017)
2: Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (2017)
3: Kylesa: Exhausting Fire (2015)
4: Tamaryn: Cranekiss (2015)
5: Vallenfyre: Fear Those Who Fear Him (2017)