Gathering of Strangers – Gathering of Strangers (EP Review)

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(Photo credit – Jessica Holt)

After long last, I have finally been impressed by a musical release by a band from the British and Irish Institute of Modern Music! Too often am I exposed to acts trying to capitalise from the success of their influences in shameless tributes to Mancunian indie legends and pointless imitation of other existing acts – a trend which leaves me horrifically bitter and in a seemingly endless pursuit of something original and interesting. Despite relentless flattering towards this band, I felt as a cow might as she awaits the final bolt in the head until the moment this glorious act eased forwards with majesty and grace to release me from the confounds of my miserable existence. At long last, I’m faced with something with heart, variety and imagination and I am all the overjoyed for it.

Gathering of strangers are difficult to characterise, drawing influence from a seemingly endless source and including a glorious contribution from a wide range of instrumentation and effects, my personal favourite addition being the versatile and often bold input from keyboardist, Callum Witts. The instrumental composition never falls below a very high bar throughout the entire EP, with everything working within its rhythmical and tonal range to truly optimise the ability of every musician whilst providing relevant atmosphere and space to truly support the heartfelt and emotionally devastating voice of frontman, Conor Rabone.

The contrast in tones between tracks shows a wonderful appreciation and respect for dynamics and the most evident display of this exists in the bass guitar in opening track Something in the Water where the tone varies between a heavily driven and punchy tone and a balanced and spaceful tone which works into a slightly overdriven voice towards the end of the song, this working in tandem with the wonderfully creative guitar work and brazen sound of the keys combines to create a truly wonderful dynamic and remarkable climax to a truly epic track.

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(Live photo from Gathering of Strangers Facebook page)

Criticisms are difficult to find with this EP, with most aspects working far above the level I would expect from this scale. The most outstanding negative point I can make being in regards to the use of harmonica in War and how I feel it seems out of place with the tone of the song, I understand this may be an artistic decision, but I find it too distracting from the rest of the song and feel it draws too far in timbre from the rest of the EP – this issue with timbre also extends towards the keyboard in the earlier sections of the same track to a smaller extent, though this is easily redeemed by the beautifully smooth and tasteful use of keyboard in the following track, Lies. Another aspect I would like to hear is a more extensive use of a darker bass tone in some of the more haunting sections to help capture a more emotionally desolate feel which may better accommodate the deep and profound vocal style of Rabone.

The EP is very well balanced and versatile and the structure of the tracks is absolutely flawless. Though lacking in structural complexity, there exists an incredible flow between every track and this flow which extends to the entire compilation of tracks. The songs scream from a personal part of your own buried past and lead you through events long forgotten through use of such personable and relatable lyrics and the use of atmosphere truly benefits this experience. There is so much to appreciate about this musical release and the reputation the band has amongst the few I respect indicates a body of work which could appeal to anybody.

Flights of fancy aren’t in my style when discussing music and I’m never one to over-compliment something, but Gathering of Strangers demonstrate a level of musical mastery which should serve an inspiration to other fledgling bands. The band show true vision, creativity and professionalism and deserve the utmost of respect and admiration and I feel we all owe it to ourselves and the smaller-scale music scene to support this incredible act and help launch them into the success they clearly deserve. If ever there was a time to care for a score let it be now: the EP scores five stars, 10/10, 176 golden cocks out of 176 golden cocks – I don’t care, just listen to it!

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Automaton – Jamiroquai (album review)

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(official album artwork from the Automaton album)

And so I return! With an abnormally long absence from writing, I return to write about one of my more anticipated albums of the year and my closest connection to contemporary Pop Music (read into that as you like), Automaton by Jamiroquai! I imagine that Jamiroquai isn’t a name that stands in high regard to most, but as a die-hard fan of anything cheesy and funky, it appeals heavily to me and I am happy to declare that this album flies the same banner as all of their preceding albums – with beats and grooves teasing my adoration for the genre.

To detriment of my dear neighbours, I have decided to review this album at 12:30am and, regardless of social decency, I can’t help but to crank it up and feel the groove as intended by mister Jay Kay. Jamiroquai have long held a place in the hearts of people who respect and love the Funk and Disco genres and they have produced a great many songs which have brought influence in many areas of the Pop scene – with tracks such as Little L and Cosmic Girl still considered classics, despite their diminishing audience.

Discussing this band has always been a bit difficult for me on the basis that they cater perfectly to me as a musician and an individual and few others. Though I love many styles of music, I naturally gravitate towards Funk and cheesy 80’s Pop music – and I can’t expect this niche to appeal to many in the current musical world we live in. I would gladly give a recommendation to this because, in spite of the flaws the album may have to some, it strikes a chord in my heart and I just love it unconditionally. My recommendation would be as shallow as “Do you like Funk, 80’s music and/or a heavy snare sound? If yes then yes!”

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(more album artwork from the Automaton album)

If I were to criticise the album, and I am going to, I would say that much of the album is fairly difficult to connect to on a personal basis, but I feel like it’s not supposed to be a personal experience – it’s supposed to be a groove you flow to and something completely inoffensive that anybody can enjoy. A fan and newcomer alike may claim that the album does little to establish its own voice and do anything fresh, but a fan of the band might instantly protest this in claims that the band never aimed for complexity and depth, with only a handful of songs coming close to communicating a deeper and more thoughtful perspective.

Despite my history with the music, I would totally understand if somebody accused the music of being fairly flat and lacking in humanity, but I would never declare this a reason to dismiss the album. In my eyes, this music represents a different period of society and art in general – a time where we didn’t have to bow to any of the expectations of art that modern society and culture encourages. Maybe I share the opinions of out-of-touch pre-millennials, but I believe we live in a world where all media is monetised and everything is made with the purpose of being sold – when we watch a movie it is being written in the most simplistic and dumb way possible, and contemporary music seems more like some kind of cheap candy than anything else – with each Pop hit being the most blatant off-the-shelf object a song can be. Where older music can be simple, nothing of a previous era feels as much of a product as what is shovelled to us today.

What I mean with that rant is that music of previous musical generations had more heart to it and far more ideas than our current mainstream pop culture allows, and though one might come to such a conclusion when listening to the Automaton album, I believe that the instrumentation and feel of the album does much to imply a more caring and thoughtful approach. The album draws heavy influence from the synth feel of a different era and I would say the album should be commended for not losing sight of what the music was always supposed to be.

My final word in this review would be that it isn’t as worthwhile as their previous albums as a listening experience, but nobody should go out of their way to avoid this album. I can’t sing the praises of Funk Odyssey enough and their entire discography holds a great number of classics, and the character behind albums like Space Cowboy makes for a fantastic investment for one with an interest in Funk and Fusion music – but for those more demanding of complexity and a stronger message I wouldn’t recommend this, I would divert you to OK Computer, like everybody else with a snobby mentality and unchecked ego.

To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar (shameless fangirling)

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(album artwork for the To Pimp A Butterfly album)

Yeah this album didn’t come out this year, but I’m sat in my room now just grooving to the sly and sleazy feel of the To Pimp A Butterfly album and I just wanted the chance to run my mouth about how much I love this album. I have a very long list of albums I should be looking at, but after the travesty that was Tony Conrad I felt like I had earned the chance to write about something that I actually know I enjoy. I have a request to review the Automaton album by Jamiroquai (which I am very excited about) but right now I am more interested in rambling about something I couldn’t stop blowing if Lamar himself asked me to stop.

Where do I even start with this? Well a brief overview, I suppose! Kendrick Lamar is a shining star amongst many right now, as far as I know he has only been in the mainstream eye for a couple of years now and his reputation is doing nothing but grow. The music itself is just a joy to describe, or it is in this album at least: the album combines various aspects of Jazz and Fusion with a smooth and sexy modern R&B vibe to incredible effect. Like Thundercat, my previous musical obsession of this year, it’s more or less a Best Of from all Soul, Jazz and Hip-Hop through the years – a glorious exhibit showcased in a beautiful, state-of-the-art casing.

There is so much to sing about with this album. With ideas and variety and a mass combination of genres, it really does scream colour in a way nothing of its kind does – the only thing coming close being the aforementioned Thundercat, who actually appeared on this album. One seductive bass groove and creativity behind lyrical content is normally enough to make me like a track, but when you use these aspects in conjunction with Parliamentstyle bass imaging and soulful vocal harmonies? Well you have me swimming in the palm of your hands! Lamar performs this frequently throughout the album, the only times I’m not creaming over that glorious Funk being the times I explode violently over the incredible incorporation of Jazz. Serious, the saxophone in tracks like Alright will burn through you.

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(image sourced from the official Kendrick Lamar Facebook page)

Thinking of Alright also brings up the point of the rhythm and the way instruments are suddenly cut out. It’s pure mastery. The way he uses the silence between certain notes, does so much to force the impact of a returning drum beat or bass line and does so much to accent the incredible flow to Lamar’s rapping. Rap and Hip-Hop have always been inspiring genres for me and I respect the rhythmic quality to so many great rappers, but one thing that sets Lamar aside is the way he raps throughout the entire album – incorporating his voice and using it as one would use a percussive instrument to drive the entire ensemble. The creative genius extends to how it benefits the melodies of the harmonies and lead lines by retaining a monotone, freeing space for the phenomenal backing vocals and soundscaping to really soar and experiment to glorious result.

The mentality behind this album feels amazing. Lamar himself feeling less like the star of the show and more of a part of a larger product, making use of the incredible skill, experience and imagination of the incredible musicians he involves. The whole album possesses a wonderful tongue-in-cheek vibe with some parts sounding outright silly, but in a way that enables nothing but pure enjoyment, as evident in For Free? – Interlude and the intro to Wesley’s Theory, however, it seems to resolve in a deeper and more meaningful concept of unity amongst black people in a way that riveted me, held me and wouldn’t let me go until I truly understood the intensity to it.

My only issue with the album is nothing to do with the music itself, but society’s view on appropriation – the amount of times I want to rap along with the album almost seems to ruin the experience when I remember that my own ethnicity allows me little chance to relate to the lyrical content and, regardless of any opinion of appropriation, there is no justification for a geeky white Cornishman to drop the “N-Bomb”.

Regardless, this album is easily one of my favourite discoveries of the year, to the point where I’m saving my first listen and sub-sequent review of the DAMN. album until my birthday. With a combination of great-feeling music and some deeper, heavier concepts in places, this album has so much heart and music like this should be cherished and celebrated. With that I cannot give it a higher recommendation – listen to it, feel it and just fall in love with it.

And did I really make it through this entire review without explosively ejaculating over George Clinton’s phenomenal character, feel and skill? Of course not.

Ten Years Alive On The Infinite Plain – Tony Conrad (album review + angry rant)

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(official cover art for the album, infinitely superior to any part of the piece)

I throw the term “Shit-muncher” around a lot, and it doesn’t necessarily act as indication of a terrible band. In spite of my love of the Rumours album by Fleetwood Mac (one of my favourite albums of all time), I consider them as pretentious hippy bullshit and it falls into the realms of shit-muncher material. This one-track album by Tony Conrad is the perfect antithesis of acceptable shit-munch, being a ridiculous eighty-eight minutes of repetitive drone.  An enormous letdown for me, given as it received a gleaming five stars from Mojo Magazine in their most recent publication. With a description painting the release as a gloriously artistic and other-worldly spectacle, I went in with eager anticipation, expecting a true display of musical ingenuity. Oh how fucking wrong I was…

Firstly, as a disclaimer, I will admit that I have no other knowledge of Tony Conrad and have had no exposure to any of his previous work and, as far as I know, he could be entitled to the phenomenal reputation he has. I also want to clarify that I have no personal grievance with the man and, as he passed in April of last year, I will say nothing to insult his name – I serve only to bring an outsider perspective on the travesty that is this “musical” release.

When I say this is an eighty-eight minute drone fest I am being totally honest with you. Seriously, find it on Spotify and just skip through to random intervals of the track – or better yet, suffer the bullshit I faced by listening through the entire piece! I understand the purpose and creation of a soundscape, I have made many in my time as a musician. I also understand the nature of art and how it primarily serves to invoke a feeling or a story in the mind of the listener and, though I completely respect the artistic message to this, I feel any soundscape should possess something accessible or some form of genuine musicianship for it to be considered music. This piece is music in the loosest possible definition of the word as, technically, it is orchestrated sound – but the most pathetic, pretentious form of it imaginable.

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(don’t let the image fool you, professional and cool as he looks, the “music” is terrible)

With no exaggeration, I claim this as the worst “musical” endeavour I have ever experienced in my life. With bands I detest such as All Time Low being dreadful in their own right, there can be no dispute that they create music with the intention of appealing to somebody or some particular niche, this abomination does nothing but serve the pretentious ego of the creator. A word I heard it described as was “hypnotic” and I guess I can agree, in the same way I consider being repeatedly beaten over the head to be hypnotic, with the only means of enjoying it being means of Stockholm Syndrome, being generally sick in the head or so desperate to be respected as an individual that you will blindly ignore what is a dreadful and insulting piece of shit.

This approach to music genuinely revolts me and the lack of respect for the subject angers me to my very core. Music is a craft that opens one to the the world, reflects the beauty and wonder in all things, gives purpose to people and gives inspiration and identity and when a person releases a turd like this under the title of music it brutally undermines the integrity of musicians and art everywhere. This piece is the perfect example of a description I used to define some of my previous work – “the musical equivalent of throwing shit at a wall and calling it art” and, though I never claim to be exceptional in any respect, I can compare this to my body of work and consider myself a fucking genius.

This approach to orchestrating sound is an absolute disgrace to the musical arts and should be shunned by all. It shows blatant disrespect and almost mockery to what is probably the most incredible and pure thing ever devised by humans and pisses over everything musicians have spent thousands of years making and experimenting with. With a creation which invokes nothing but disgust and indignation, I will proudly announce to the world that this is the worst thing I have ever listened to in my life and maybe even the rest of my days to come.

Bleachers – Gone Now (album review)

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(official artwork for the Gone Now album)

After the last torture I endured I thought I would give myself a break and listen to something completely new, hoping that the sense of discovery would cheer me up and draw me from the foul condition the last album left me in. I don’t feel like I quite achieved that with this album, but anything is a step up from the crap I sat through before.

So I had no idea who this band were prior to my “dart at the wall” approach to picking albums to review. As it turns out, they’re Indie Pop/New Wave band from New York who aren’t as good as their genre is interesting. Starting in 2014, they haven’t received much mainstream success yet – which does surprise me. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel like they deserve more success, they just have that typical Imagine Dragons-wannabe sound that everybody seems to be going for these days and it’s disappointing to hear. As a die-hard fan of 80’s Pop and New Wave music, I had higher expectations of this band and I just feel disappointed.

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(listen to this instead, it’s a good album)

The album started off with a typical and acceptable dynamic, but as it went on it just began to sound more and more like some run-of-the-mill contemporary Pop album with nothing to differentiate it from what it is attempting to imitate, except for what felt like an embarrassingly poor approach to the mixing – evident in the dreadful sound of the kick drum, which remains throughout the whole album. It’s hard to explain, but as the opening song continued the production quality just kept falling. Listening to it, I felt the volume creeping up and down and the inconsistency just threw off the dynamic flow of the first few songs. Continuing through the album, everything just unravelled into an inadequate and poorly-performed mess, with the only original ideas sounding out of place and schizophrenic.

Every aspect was uninspired and a dull example of pure shoddiness, with everything close to good just being an almost direct copy of the aforementioned Imagine Dragons and everything bad just being a cheesy and embarrassing mess. It could be that I just don’t get this kind of mainstream sounding Pop shit, but I feel like it totally lacks any true identity – it seeming more like a reflection of modern Pop music than an actual project. Honestly, through the album I didn’t hear anything I particularly liked until the track Goodbye, and that was purely for the bass line – in fact, the bass line is the only thing I like in the song.

Like some of the albums I have previously reviewed, I just found this to be a really lazy album. With a severe lack of good and well-executed ideas and legitimately poor production in places, I would advocate giving it a pass and finding something better. If you want Indie Pop then listen to Imagine Dragons, if you want something cheesy and electronic then listen to The Ordinary Boys – both offer studio-quality albums and a more immersive and enjoyable feel. If you like commercial Indie Pop but don’t want to be associated with mainstream music because you’re too “alternative”, you should listen to this and then get over yourself, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody else. With a total lack of identity, nothing to engage you in the album and generally awful sounding ideas, this release has proven to be a huge disappointment and a dreadfully boring example of mediocrity. The vocals sound like shit for most of the album too.

Last Young Renegade – All Time Low (album review)

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(official album artwork from the Last Young Renegade album)

In my time committed to critiquing music, I have reviewed bands I have had a previous love for, bands I had never heard of and bands that I chose purely for the name or genre alone, but I have thus far neglected to review bands I have had a negative outlook towards before-hand. To this end, I have decided to direct my focus to reviewing a band I have long held a strong dislike for: All Time Low. My initial goals in this respect were fair and professional – to listen to an album impartially, to analyse it for what it is, to understand the appeal and, most importantly, give the band a proper chance. I began to regret this decision from the first ten seconds of the album.

Disclaimer: I’ve never had a positive view on this band, and I sure as Hell don’t now – if you’re a fan of the band then I advise ignoring this slander-fest, this could get messy.

All Time Low are a Pop Punk band who somehow climbed to a level of success not deserved for their level of mediocrity. Forming in 2003, the band almost seemed to form as a means to take advantage of a growing fan base of angst-fuelled teenagers, namely social groups referred to as Emo or Scene Kids – which, as an Emo Class of ’03, I can personally relate to. I can look back now and understand the camp and melodramatic nature of bands such as Simple Plan and Taking Back Sunday, and even appreciate it in certain cases – it was a genre which existed to give social outcasts some measure of comfort, something to relate to and, to a certain extent, offer an identity and place in the world, which I can totally get on board with, to a degree.

Where early bands of this era carried heavy Punk influence, the genre seemed to drift from topics of rebellion and empowerment to personal issues such as getting hurt by girls and general dissatisfaction in life. From the beginning it was clearly a fashion trend and musicians attempting to capitalise on this (such is the nature of music), but it still had a character to it. In time the music seemed to sell out into a more generic, over-produced Soft-Rock kind of style, and with this the movement seemed to lose so much of its momentum and passion. Bands like All Time Low have always flown this flag in my eyes and serve as the true milestone where the movement became truly commercialised. People that read my recent Rancid review will know my opinions on Punk Rock and its history. I think Punk is an amazing thing, but this commercialism and general fashion-oriented attitude is one of the most shameful things the noughties produced. That all being said, this is an album review – so let’s talk about that!

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(“unrelated” image of a turd)

It’s garbage! I usually listen to albums through Spotify, so I am subject to many adverts – and my first issue with this album is that I could rarely notice when the first advert for a Pop album played because of the over-produced sound of the album. When you can’t tell when a “Punk-influenced” band ends and an advert for some mainstream Pop artist begins, you know the band have fallen too far from their genre. I remain just as disappointed by the instrumentation behind the songs as everything just sounds like the most generic thing they could have written, and where this isn’t the case it just sounds like they’re plagiarising The 1979’s and Angels and Airwaves (two far better bands).

The best thing about this album is the length – at a mere 36 minutes, it means I suffered it for around nine minutes less than the length of an actual full-length album and, though I complained the opposite with Royal Blood, this is easily my favourite thing about this release. With Royal Blood I wanted an extra two songs or so because it had some character and potential – with Last Young Renegade I just wanted it to be over all the way through. Another positive for me is that the guitar work in the opening track reminded me of Angels and Airwaves, but that just made me want to listen to them instead!

With whiny and juvenile lyrics portraying a pathetic and adolescent take on heartbreak and generally childish issues, I was crying out for this album to grow up – often rising to a state of near-anger. This genre needs a severe kick in the ass and either needs to get back to what made it so unique and inspiring in its early days or expand into something that encourages true worldliness and personal progression. When you compare tracks like Drugs & Candy to songs like St Jimmy by Green Day you can truly see how far the music has fallen and it’s embarrassing for one who once had such esteem for the genre. When you have a band of people around thirty years of age you expect them to break free of this high-school mentality and release something more developed, if anything to try to ease their fans into the reality of the world and into better things. The band needs to mature and expand into something more and it should inspire the same in their fans – instead, this album shows a patronising outlook towards them, implying that they don’t ever need to grow up and their music doesn’t have to either.

Trouble Maker – Rancid (album review)

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(promotional art for the Trouble Maker album)

For a long time now I have been a fan of the Punk movement for the fashion, the attitude, the music and what it represents. I personally think the Punk Movement was one of the most important events in musical history and I rarely pass an opportunity to sing its praises. However, in spite of my adoration and respect for the genre, I often find myself over-looking it in a bid for new styles of music. Seeing the release of Trouble Maker, a very recent album by Punk icons, Rancid, I have decided to address this and catch up with a genre I had otherwise left neglected.

Rancid are far from new and unknown, since starting in 1991 they have amassed a large following and are often credited, along with Green Day and The Offspring, for spearheading a resurgence of punk in the mid-90’s. Whilst they may not have achieved the level of mainstream success Green Day enjoyed, they are largely respected by fans of the music for their consistency and a character which largely remains committed to the ideals and attitude of earlier Punk bands from the 70’s and 80’s. Punk has manifested in a number of ways through the years, ranging from the upbeat cheek of The Sex Pistols to the raw brutality of bands such as The Exploited and Rancid have always worn the banner of Ska Punk, shrugging off the hate-fuelled aggression of other bands in favour of a bouncy and upbeat feel of their own.

In spite of my love for the Punk movement, Rancid are one of the key names I have little experience with. I’ve heard a few of their albums in my time, but don’t have anything to really compare this album to – which, following my previous review, may be a positive thing. Generally speaking, I have always gravitated towards the more anger-fuelled Punk bands such as The Exploited, Anti-Nowhere League and Subhumans and as such it feels a change of pace from what I’m used to. This being said, I feel very positive about this album! In a manner similar to the Dubtopia album by Gentleman’s Dub Club, I find myself won over by the positive energy and personality of this newest release. There are a number of more raw and harsh-sounding tracks on this album, but this just appeals to my love of Hardcore Punk and, in my eyes, just carries the banner of what Punk really is.

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(image sourced from Bombshellzine.com)

Punk has always been an inspiration to me and I have always seen such a positive energy to it – especially in the more aggressive-sounding Punk bands. It cries out for you to live your life, live without barriers and screams for you to embrace your character and opinions and I find this as important today as it ever has been. Bands like this encourage this attitude and for that I feel they deserve so much respect. This album is no different – it makes you feel younger, more energetic and, most importantly, it pushes you into living your life. As a criticism, I would argue that the album should be a little bit longer, but the short and sweet approach exists through so much of Punk music and this album isn’t really short enough for this to be too much of a criticism.

I feel there are many parts in this album where the bass seems to carry the music a little as well. The instrumentation isn’t poorly written or performed, it just seems very predictable – but in a genre like this it is hard to avoid that. The instrumentation always seems fine, but I feel the heavily Ska-influenced bass lines give the tracks so much more colour – particularly in tracks such as Beauty of the Pool Hall and Ghost of a Chance. There are times in this album I feel they could use brass instruments, just to truly accent this Ska inspiration and draw a little more character from the album but this seems to serve the simplicity and organic feel of the band.

There’s a lot to recommend this album for and I would heartily do so, but don’t go into it expecting a peaceful and easy-listening experience. There is a wonderful rawness to this album, a glorious Punk-Rock pace and an abundance of character and I think it’s important to remember music like this and the youth and excitement we so easily forget. Albums like this remind me that music can still have heart, passion and energy and it pulls me through when I start to have doubts about music in general. Above all things, however, it reminds me that music can still be fun.