August 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Metallica: 72 Seasons
Blackened Recordings BLACKND055-1 (2LP, CD). 2023. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Greg Fidelman, prods.; Sara Lyn Killion, Jim Monti, Jason Gossman, Kent Matcke, engs.
Performance **½
Sonics ***½

It is hard to believe that 40 years have passed since Metallica released its debut LP, Kill 'Em All. The band is a Superbowl halftime show away from completing its transformation from subversive thrash-metal pioneer to American cultural icon. 72 Seasons, the latest studio album and 11th overall, may just get them on the field in Las Vegas in 2024, or at least a residency at a Vegas casino.

72 Seasons is the fourth in a series of course corrections following the ill-conceived and -executed Load and Reload from the mid-'90s. Seasons tracks its predecessors in form and formula: more than 70 minutes and more than 10 songs, most a minute or two longer than they need to be, the shorter tunes the most successful. As co-founders, primary songwriters, and producers James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich approach 60, they have solidified the current Metallica sound: slower, less aggressive, ideal for older fans who wouldn't be caught dead near a mosh pit.

The gatefold packaging is handsome and includes sturdy LP sleeves with nice photos of the band and a lyric sheet. But the mastering does bassist Robert Trujillo no favors, as the low end is often more of a feeling than a discernible sonic layer.

The best part of the songs are the intros, which mostly resolve into the plodding rhythm Metallica perfected on The Black Album and feature oft-monotonous solos by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. When the band opts for something different, like the neck-breaking, sinuous riff of "You Must Burn!" followed by the three-and-a-half-minute thrasher "Lux Æterna" (co-written with Trujillo), which closes the first LP, rays of earlier brilliance shine through. The album closes with "Inamorata," which, cresting 11 minutes, is Metallica's longest song to date. Note to band: Leave the epics to Iron Maiden.—Andrey Henkin

Joy Oladokun: Proof of Life
Amigo/Verve Forecast/Republic B0037036-01 (2 LPs). 2023. Mike Elizondo, Ian Fitchuk, Dan Wilson, and Alysa Vanderheym, prods.; Justin Francis, Sara Mulford, Court Clement, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

From the opener, "Keeping the Light On," it's clear from the confident vocals, assured production style, and catchy hooks in Oladokun's songwriting that her debut full length is gonna be a knockout. For those who bemoan the decline in the quality of songcraft in this century, Oladokun's irrepressible melodies and crafty-as-hell lyrics are reason for hope. A native of rural Casa Grande, Arizona, Oladokun, whose parents are Nigerian, moved to Nashville and honed her gifts while settling in with that city's cool country-musical fringes. While her voice is expressive and strong, a tune like "Taking Things for Granted" and especially the bouncy "Somebody Like Me" catch the listener's ear with self-involved lyrics that would be a disaster in a less upbeat setting: "I've searched the rubble of all of my decisions/learned to say sorry for the things I do/though I don't want to/some days it feels so hard to get better/and I've never been as honest as I want to be/when I need help through." Here, they work.

Oladokun wisely brought in producers Mike Elizondo, Ian Fitchuk, Dan Wilson, and Alysa Vanderhym. Several musical guests also add their talents, including the Manchester Orchestra, Mt. Joy, Maxo Kream, and Noah and Chris Stapleton, who trades verses on one of the album's highlights, "Sweet Symphony."

Despite parts being flown into the mix from all over, the balance and sonic image is reasonably balanced and not overly compressed. Oladokun has been quoted as saying she hopes these are "helpful anthems," and though sentiments begin to repeat themselves by the end, this is pop music with a future. While the production grooming varies from track to track, Proof of Life is also an example of what judicious digital enhancement can do for a clutch of winning songs.—Robert Baird

Mike Gordon: Flying Games
ATO Records/Megaplum ATO0620 (auditioned as CD). 2023. Mike Gordon, prod.; Jared Slomoff, Shawn Everett, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Whether it's with established artists like Leo Kottke or on his own, Mike Gordon, a founding member of Phish, seeks out gigs that require him to stretch. It has happened again.

After a six-year hiatus, Gordon has released his sixth studio album, Flying Games, which was self-produced and recorded by longtime collaborator Jared Slomoff and mixed by Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes; The War on Drugs).

In contrast to his previous records, which were developed with a band in the studio, Flying Games is the result of months of writing and recording alone during 2020's lockdown. As the songs took shape, Gordon collected contributions from bandmates who submitted parts remotely. The result is a wild, hypnotic ride filled with precision born of the studio and a sense of exploration more often found in live sets.

The record's first cut, "Tilting," sets the tone. Anchored by a deep, funk-filled bass, the song bounces with syncopated parts that dance about almost in their own orbit, helping the groove catch air. That liftoff lifts more with each track. "Connected" is a breezy jam set to the beat of a march, carried along with a bright synth that mines 1970's AM radio disco. "Mull," a song Phish has had in its live set for nearly two years, struts with a confident swagger and ends in a psychedelic chorus, where the sound turns jam-band dreamy. Then each member of the band gets a chance to step out and shine, especially Murawski, whose guitar work sets the song on fire.

The record closes with perhaps the best musical fun ride you'll take this year, the playful popper "Tropical Rocket."

Flying Games is a perfect Mike Gordon record, an eclectic collection of sounds mixing psych-folk, jam, funk, disco, and dance-hall music, approached with an expansive clarity and sense of daring.—Ray Chelstowski