Review: Empty Houses – Empty Houses EP

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There is something immediately noticeable about Empty Houses that makes it hypnotic, but its hard to place exactly. It could be the throwback factor about not hearing motown music regularly. It could be the simplified, majestic jazz version of Fireworks that makes you want to dance. The obvious one though is the soulful commanding voice of singer Ali Shea, who steals the show and makes the EP her own. If the self titled EP is anything to be taken seriously, Empty Houses are poised to potentially dominate the world should they get the backing that they deserve.

Empty Houses is the brainchild of pop punk staple Fireworks’ vocalist David Mackinder, touring member Adam Mercer and singer Ali Shea. The EP stands as something that is on a short list of releases that actually make me mad because it ends far too quickly. The musicianship is stripped down, allowing each instrument to shine to the forefront and Shea’s voice bleeds soul and croons perfectly. I need more.

Mackinder and Mercer play beautifully. They’re a perfect throwback sound that would’ve fit in easily as some of the best music of the motown movement fifty years ago. The melodies aren’t overly complicated, but layered enough to sound fully fleshed out. While I wouldn’t have noticed it without already knowing, there is a level of Fireworks-style of flare to the song writing (vocal melody and bass line, specifically) that helps the music pop even more.

For only having two musicians, the duo work masterfully. Two guitars trade riffs and change tempo to work softly as well as they do to make you want to dance. The bass pushes the songs along almost more than anything else, and has some incredible riffs. One of the best additions is the precise thunder of the drums, which really improves the classic motown sound and makes it sound modern. Mackinder, as a background vocalist, is a perfect match to harmonize with Ali.

I am in love with Ali Shea. From what I can tell, this is her first real musical venture, and the fact that her name isn’t already known is something short of a travesty. Her voice is utterly dripping with soul. She entrances the listener with soft crooning before exploding to hit higher notes, and making it sound miraculously simple. To put it in perspective, she sounds like a mixture of Zoey Deschanel of She & Him and Adele, but with a tone of more honey and conversation. I could literally listen to her for days.

Lyrically, Empty Houses is a pop album through and through. There isn’t any of the philosophy of Fireworks to be found, but that doesn’t mean things are simple. The songs are about lost love, and fit perfectly to Shea’s voice. There is a definite weight even to pop lyrics such as “I had this comfort built up inside that was a good place for me to hide. I’m hoping for a little longer and I cried all night, thinking about it, I’m trying to convince myself that I’m all right living without it” from “Far Away”.

Empty Houses have potential to make incredible waves in the music industry if marketed correctly. While there are a number of modern motown and bluesy groups out there, few have the instant ability to stand out, even if they are more of a throwback sound than an exploration. Singer Ali Shea has honest potential to take the country by storm with her voice, and I hope more people hear it. Whatever the future holds for Empty Houses, I want to hear it sooner rather than later. Please go check out their EP from their bandcamp site. You won’t regret it.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and his new life goal is to hear Ali Shea sing live. It sounds creepy, but it comes from a place of adoration. Does that make it worse? Oh no…. 😦

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Top 10 Albums of 2014

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Look, we don’t like this any more than you do. These end-of-the-year lists are tedious, obnoxious, self-indulgent…

Aw, who are we kidding – we love it! Even though it’s technically impossible to subjectively rank this year’s best albums, we took our best stab at it. This year was chock full of fantastic releases, many of which won’t be mentioned here because there simply isn’t enough room (or time) to spotlight all of them.

Nevertheless, senior editor Kyle Schultz and I put our heads together and came up with 10 worthy suitors to be a part of our second-annual Top 10 Albums of the Year list. Take a gander, then let us know what your favorite records of the year were in the replies!

every_time_i_die10Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown

From Keith Buckley’s repeated opening shrieks of, “Blow your fucking brains out!” on “The Great Secret” to his final desperate cries of, “All I want is for everyone to go to hell / It’s the last place I was seen before I lost myself” during the final crushing breakdown on “Idiot”, From Parts Unknown is unforgiving and unrelenting. Who knew a band 16 years into its career could craft what may be their most punishing and challenging album? With From Parts Unknown, Every Time I Die don’t just want to carve their name into the stone temple of metalcore lore, they want to burn the whole damn thing to the ground. – Kiel Hauck

fireworks9Fireworks – Oh, Common Life

Oh, Common Life is the type of album that reminds you of an intimate conversation with a close friend. Fireworks’ distinct pop punk style is softened to allow for more melody while vocalist David Mackinder sings a hypnotic tale of maturation that comes with the bigger life changes during your twenties and the isolation that the world can impose on you.  While it starts off very poppy, the album slowly branches and touches on styles of playing that Fireworks have never tackled before as the lyrics grow more somber and accepting of life (“The Hotbed of Life”). It’s hard to say that Oh, Common Life was what fans of the band were expecting, but it’s what they deserved. – Kyle Schultz

copeland8Copeland – Ixora

Parting was sweet sorrow for fans of indie rock act Copeland, who closed up shop in 2010. Their surprising return is more than a mere nostalgia trip, it’s a return to rare form with their new album Ixora. The band is more playful than ever, sending listeners into a dream-like trance throughout the album’s 10 tracks that include haunting electronics, prancing pianos, and even a saxophone solo. Frontman Aaron Marsh is still on top of his game, adding to his vocal repertoire during the silky-smooth chorus of “Like a Lie”. From front to back, Ixora finds Copeland better than ever – here’s hoping there’s more where this came from. – KH

new_found_glory7New Found Glory – Resurrection

Resurrection is the first New Found Glory album in several years to sound like a classic. The new four-piece rebuild their sound to be more succinct and brutal, mixing their signature pop with much heavier guitars and a thundering bass. Each member pushes their musicianship to their limits with lyricism and themes that are significantly angrier than past work. While the songs are undeniably catchy and easy to sing along to (“Selfless”), they can make the listener uncomfortable (“The Worst Person”), which may have been the point given how much the band went through in the last year. As a longtime listener of the band though, it’s easy to see how much passion and energy went into creating a record that would rise above the trials that hit them all at once. – KS

emarosa6Emarosa – Versus 

The loss of lead vocalist Jonny Craig appeared to spell disaster for Emarosa after the band released their stellar self-titled record in 2010. Not so fast. Emarosa roared back in 2014 with Bradley Walden at the mic, releasing the best album of the band’s career. Versus is rife with conflict, but it’s a struggle that produces something beautiful. When Walden flips the script just over a minute into opening track “People Like Me, We Just Don’t Play”, it feels like the sort of sonic shift that not only changes the course of the band’s trajectory, but one that slams the door shut on the past. – KH

weezer5Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Say what you will about Weezer, there’s no denying that when they feel like it, they can put out a masterpiece of an album. The aptly titled Everything Will Be Alright In the End is the band’s answer to years of criticism regarding their constantly evolving sound. The new album sounds like a lovechild between Blue, Green, and Maladroit, blending the respective sounds of fuzzed guitars, catchy pop songs and thrashing rock. Rivers Cuomo tagged the album as a ‘classic’ in the press leading up to its release, and he couldn’t have been more correct. It’s the first release from the band that doesn’t necessarily break new ground for their sound, but it recaptures the magic that made the band an international mainstay. – KS

against_me4Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Gender confusion and transgender identity are topics that have been at the front of people’s minds this year, which makes it all the more appropriate that Transgender Dysphoria Blues arrived just a couple weeks into the New Year. Not only is it Against Me!’s best rock album, it’s one of the most daring in that it follows the story of a transgender prostitute that mimics Tom Gabel’s transformation into Laura Jane Grace. The album is a tight series of fist-pumping songs that are just as heartbreaking as they are catchy. In the opening title track, Grace sings, “Your tells are so obvious / Shoulders too broad for a girl / Helps you remember where you come from / You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress / You want them to see you like they see any other girl / They just see a faggot”. The album is a powerful and ferociously angry statement about transgender issues in this country, as well as the struggle for people dealing with them. – KS

yellowcard3Yellowcard – Lift a Sail

Born from a tragic skiing accident that left vocalist/guitarist Ryan Key’s fiancé paralyzed from the waist down, Lift a Sail is a painful song of triumph. The band drops what was left of their pop punk roots and forges ahead with powerful, anthemic rock tracks and explosive piano ballads. Violinist Sean Mackin has never sounded better, adding texture and layers to the songs that don’t overpower, but instead compliment the entirety of the band’s new sound. Lift a Sail is encouraging as it is aching, as determined as it is vulnerable. Just when you thought it couldn’t be done, Yellowcard has topped themselves once again. – KH

aaron_west2Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties is more than just another side project. It’s one of the few concept albums to not only have a tangible story, but a character that garners genuine sympathy. The acoustic songs mix enough new elements to sound unique, and enough of The Wonder Years’ brash style to show the versatility of their music. Dan Campbell weaves a vibrantly real, dark and heartbreaking story that never feels cliché or forced. As Aaron cracks more and more with each song, Campbell’s vocals are pushed to their limit as he jumps from soft whispers, to screams, and then singing the words of a conversation, sounding as though he’s on the brink of tears. The range of themes and universal fears crammed into the album are absolutely awe-inspiring. It’s easily one of the most emotional pieces I’ve heard in years and is unlike most anything else out there. There is little doubt that he is on a level of lyricism his peers can only hope to achieve. – KS

architects1Architects – Lost Forever // Lost Together

How did a modern metalcore album land our number one spot for 2014? By rattling the well-worn conventions of the genre and spitting at the notion that the music is beyond redemption. Lost Forever // Lost Together is the best album Architects have crafted, surpassing even 2009’s mammoth of a record, Hollow Crown. Vocalist Sam Carter is full of fire from the outset, roaring across tracks of technical guitar riffs and skull-rattling breakdowns. The album is angry, sure, but you can hear the band searching for something more – something deeper. Lost Forever // Lost Together is a metalcore album that makes you think, challenges the scene’s apathy, and forges a new path for any heavy band that dare follow. When Carter bellows, “You said we’ll never make a difference / Maybe this battle is to fight indifference” on “Naysayer”, you feel the sentiment pouring from every fiber of his being. – KH

Honorable Mention:

PVRIS – White Noise

Merriment – Sway

I Can Make a Mess – Growing In

Anberlin – Lowborn

Taylor Swift – 1989

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

No one in the sky: The ideology of Fireworks

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Fireworks may just be the most underrated band in the scene. Not a whole lot is said about them, but they tour relentlessly. Two years ago, fresh off the heels of their amazing album Gospel (the only album able to go toe to toe with The Wonder Years Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing), I saw them play the smallest stage on Warped Tour.

They’re a relentless band that is at a constant battle within: Don’t rely on religion to be the best you can be; you’re capable of being great.

Fireworks are one of the most positive bands writing today and one of the forefathers of the new generation of pop punk; matured lyrics, incredibly catchy melodies and loud guitars. They’re not afraid of quieter music as well, playing as much of the New Found Glory-esque spastic punk as they do the quiet shade of Saves the Day. It’s a beautiful sound that can either rip through your speakers or act as the soundtrack of the evening darkness.

One of their most powerful assets though, is their presentation. Lyrically, they’re nostalgic, mystical and relentlessly optimistic. The self-awareness of their records is something that most of their peers lack, and draws up battle lines within their records.

As much of a force for positive thinking as they can be, there is an adamant war cry against fundamental religion in their music. Anti-religious music isn’t anything new by any means; AFI is known for it. The difference with Fireworks is that they aren’t writing angrily. They’re fighting to show that you don’t need to rely on religion to be guided into being a good person.

“I Locked My Time Capsule” has one of the most memorable choruses that illustrates what the band tries to preach: “Just do what you can to do what you love / And be mindful when someone out there gives a shit / I don’t know where I’m going, but it’s where I want to be”.

The optimism of making yourself happy is often at the forefront of their lyrics, but what’s interesting is that it’s constantly emphasized that you’re capable of it. There are hidden sniper shots at religion throughout their records, attempting to tear away reliance on a higher being to do the work for you. In the same song, singer David Mackinder shouts, “My nativity scene would be the people shaking this floor”.

It’s a unique route to relate the positive messages found in pop punk these days. While the overall tone is usually for good, if not looking back on memories, good and bad, the mention of religion is usually a short jab. The song “I Support Same Sex Marriage” is perhaps one of the most damning, the title intended to cause the first strike.

Lines like “When you spend all your time with your eyes to the sky, you end up looking down your nose just to look me in the eye”, and “When you open that book you close your mind, so trust yourself and no one else” are incredibly self-aware for being on a band’s debut LP. But even this early on in their career, their message is clear.

Despite the intended venom towards this type of ideology, the band maintains the positive thinking needed to live successfully, rather than rely on religion. Oh, Common Life is a brutal look at finding yourself as an adult and the harsh world you were never quite ready for; finding yourself on the other side of a parents’ death and lost loves married to someone else.

Amongst the depressing imagery though, there are lines like, “I’m the greatest book read to the end / In those last lines you’ll find my friends like flies on tape, I keep them close / We may look dead but move our soul” from “Run, Brother, Run”.

Fireworks helped forge the new wave of pop punk with the brutal honesty that comes with picking fights with ideology. It’s an edge that stands apart from bands that just write angry punk songs against religion, in that it’s meant to unapologetically encourage anyone listening. It’s a powerful idea that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Regardless of your beliefs, Fireworks message is something that is needed more in the scene.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.

Review: Fireworks – Oh, Common Life

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Oh, Common Life caught me off guard almost immediately, all at once being nothing quite like I expected, but everything I had hoped it would be.

Fireworks have never quite made the headlines that they deserve, but have proven themselves as brazen artists attempting to push the boundaries of pop punk and unwilling to let their peers pass them an inch. Depending on what you’re looking for, Oh, Common Life will either be somewhat disappointing or album of the year.

First and foremost, if you liked the sound of Gospel, Oh, Common Life expands on it significantly, adding in a heavy flourish of Saves the Day circa In Reverie grunge pop and elements of Hellogoodbye’s indie synth. While the album is laced with the faster pop punk songs that the band is generally known for, Oh Common Life is much more paced. It definitely takes a step back to leave much more room for the addition of a haunting keyboard that bleeds through the melodies.

This is Fireworks much more mature than they’ve ever been, creating a more standardized rock album that has the bounce of jazz. The rhythm guitar fuzzes mechanically, creating a harsh layer that allows the bass and lead guitar to dance over it without being squashed. Bassist Kyle O’Neil consistently becomes one of the highlights of the songs, as his riffs find their way intertwined beautifully with the lead guitars.

The best way that I can describe the album is that the faster songs are wicked powerful while many of the slower paced songs remind me of “Teeth” from Gospel; slow, poppy and highly melodic. However, each song maintains an incredible hook and relentless drive.

Vocalist David Mackinder is perhaps at his strongest yet, finding the perfect melody to match the music. Although he doesn’t strain himself too harshly, he matches, if not tops his performance from Gospel. It also shows him at his most mature, forgoing the easy and generic topics like lost girlfriends and focuses on the process of growing up.

The use of callbacks late in the album is sparse, but it help the lyrics feel like a complete story and a full unit. Most notable is the theme of his father. It’s a surprising and subtle theme, but best illustrates the concept of growing up.

In “Play God Only Knows At My Funeral”, Mackinder sings “I’m half the man my father knows I should be”. A bit later in “Run, Brother, Run”, he sings, “I was twenty-five when my dad died, my arms felt weak and my heart grew tired”, before a  gorgeous part of the chorus, “I’m getting used to my skin but it doesn’t feel right, I’ve shared my name with a stranger all my life / And I feel it all”.

Oh, Common Life shows Fireworks at their best, subdued and quieter than we’re used to, baring their fangs sparingly for maximum effect. It’s sure to be their In Reverie, in that most hardcore fans are sure to love it, but it may not be the favorite of the average listener.

What it represents is the pinnacle of a band that grew from a New Found Glory sound-a-like to one of the bands at the forefront of the present pop punk movement. Oh, Common Life is brooding, uplifting, morose and surprisingly optimistic. At the end of the day, it’s an early contender as one of the year’s best albums.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.

Fireworks stream new song “Glowing Crosses”

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Detroit pop punk band Fireworks have released the first single from their upcoming album, Oh, Common Life. Take a listen to “Glowing Crosses” below:

Oh, Common Life is set to release on March 25 via Triple Crown Records. The new album is the band’s third full-length release and the follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed Gospel.

You can read more about the new song over at Pitchfork.

Excited for the new album? Share your thoughts on “Glowing Crosses” in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck