kanye-west-yeezus.jpgKANYE WEST: Yeezus
Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam, 40 minutes
Rating: 3.5 / 5

For those who found My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) not nearly dark or twisted enough, Yeezus is here to drop some acid rain on your summer BBQ.

Having grown frustrated with celebrity lifestyle in a way he seems uniquely capable of, West has turned Fantasy’s multifaceted production and themes of American excess inward; Yeezus is a minimalist, short and abrasive album focused almost entirely on its creator’s tortured psyche.

It follows Fantasy somewhat chronologically. If that album captured the depths of a multi-millionaire’s all-nighter with his famous friends, its successor is the hangover in a lonely mansion. West has never sounded more alone than “On Sight,” featuring a vicious Daft Punk-enabled synth line and not much else. Like many songs here, it seems to both directly reference and gleefully strip apart one of West's classic cuts (“Stronger,” in this case) without sounding like self-parody.

West’s rage comes across here more than any other emotion, but it isn’t always coherently expressed. “New Slaves” laments the forced consumerism and self-interest of black Americans, while three songs later he twists the anti-lynching standard “Strange Fruit” into “Blood On the Leaves,” a song about ... a lyin' ho. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily, as even the wisest of us are trapped in a headspace full of competing and contrasting ideas, but no matter how much smarter West seems to want to get, he still stumbles around profundity.  

Sonically, Yeezus is relatively progressive. It might have sounded edgier if it weren’t for the existence of Death Grips, a Sacramento band that has mastered the kind of apocalyptic, industrial rap West is clearly reaching for but not entirely brave enough to tackle head-on (“Black Skinhead” is practically a Pat Boone cover of the shit they’re dropping.) But as far as mainstream pop music is concerned, Yeezus may be the most deservedly debated hit record of the year.

AustraOlympia.jpgAUSTRA: Olympia
Paper Bag / Domino, 45 minutes
Rating: 3 / 5

Between Feel It Break (2011) and Olympia, Austra grew from a semi-solo project to a band with more permanent members and collaborators, most notably twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman of Tasseomancy. With that influx of help, frontwoman / founder Katie Stelmanis could have delivered an album that blew the scope of Feel It Break up to widescreen.

Instead Olympia keeps excess at bay. Its best tracks are its simplest, the haunted piano ballad “You Changed My Life” and ‘70s pop throwback “Home” chief among them. The album’s most obvious pop turn — “Annie (Oh Muse, You)” — gives no obvious indication that Austra is now a six-member crew.

Stelmanis’ voice is still Austra’s most striking element but at worst Olympia reveals its limitations. Stelmanis is classically trained, but sings with an undercurrent of warbled vulnerability that would put her out-of-place in professional opera or musical theatre. For all its singular power she’s still incapable of expressing anything more or less than beautiful melancholy at peak volume. It’s a particular mood captured by Olympia in totality.

kveikur.jpgSIGUR ROS: Kveikur
XL, 48 minutes

Rating: 3.5 / 5

“Dark” is an adjective overused by critics, myself included. It can be used broadly, or just as a placeholder when no other word sounds right.

Do Sigur Ros make “dark” music? Certainly slow and ominous. But until Kveikur even their most foreboding material contained traces of benevolence. They seemed like the nicest guys to provide potential soundtracking for the end of the world. That sense of comfort, however fleeting, is mostly absent here.

“Brennisteinn” opens Kveikur with the sound you might hear if you were to stick your head into a campfire (its title translates to “Brimstone,” natch) and only becomes more (relatively) brutal, backed with a bass line that throbs and shakes like a dying car engine. With the departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson last year, rhythm section Georg Holm (bass) and Orri Pall Dyrason (drums) have a lot of space to fill in, and they do so in innovative ways. The percussive work in particular is somewhere between prog-rock and medieval incantation.

Song titles reflect the band’s more forceful approach — “Isjaki (Iceberg),” “Stormur (Storm),” “Rafstraumur (Electrical Current)” and others are solid forces of sound compared to the foggy atmospherics of their previous work, notably last year’s divisive Valtari.

Sigur Ros haven’t turned into a metal band or anything, but they’ve brought another overused critic tag — “post-rock” — full circle, finding a way to make rock songs without losing their unique character. They’ve always dealt with “dark” subject matter, now with a heavier sound for complement.

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