Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review of Hollywood Undead's Notes From the Underground

Under the ‘Genre’ column of my iTunes library, the songs that I have by the band Hollywood Undead are categorized as a bunch of different things, including ‘rap metal’, ‘alternative rock’, ‘nu metal’, ‘hard rock’, ‘hip-hop’, and ‘rapcore’, among others.

I don’t know about most people, but I don’t sort by genre. It’s way too unreliable, because what in the world is the difference between, say, metal/hardcore and metalcore? Then there’s melodic hardcore and melodic metalcore and nope, I’m not doing that.

For simplicity, I think of Hollywood Undead as rap rock, because it’s easy and entirely logical. They combine elements of rap with elements of mainstream rock. Simple! Everybody wins.

With their third full-length album, Notes From The Underground, released in 2013, Hollywood Undead has created some of the strongest and most powerful tracks ever not just for them, but for the entire genre of rap rock. Not surprisingly, it’s a rather small genre (rappers tend to keep to their corners, and so do rockers), but huge in the fact that it’s dominated by a couple of giants who’ve taken up the mantle—namely, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, and Hollywood Undead. Off the top of my head, I can’t name any other worldwide sensations other than these three that would fall under the category of rap rock.

Linkin Park needs no introduction, having been one of the most—if not the most—established rock acts of the last decade. With their debut, Hybrid Theory (2000), in the midst of the nu-metal upheaval, they established themselves as viable rockers with a hugely popular rapper (Mike Shinoda!)—who doubles as their rhythm guitarist. Even with their latest (sometimes toned-down) releases, Shinoda’s rapping remains a huge element of their rock style. Limp Bizkit, also born and made in the nu-metal age, needs no separate rapper, as their frontman Fred Durst both sings choruses and raps verses. They’ve fallen off the map now, but it’s not so easy to forget that their 2000 release, Chocolate Starfish And The Hotdog Flavored Water, with its ridiculous name and all, absolutely shot the roof off of the charts, selling over a million albums in its first week of sales. You did not misread. One million records in one week. Rap and rock were once fusing together to take over America.

Alright, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is that rap and rock, while a sort of strange blend of music, has been entirely viable, even if distorted by popular perception (Limp Bizkit isn’t too popular now, relatively speaking…) or hidden under the cloaks of American Top 40 radio.

Hollywood Undead has taken rap rock and single-handedly made me respect it as much as I do any other genre. With their debut album, Swan Songs (2008), and their sophomore work, American Tragedy (2011), they’ve proven that solo-style rap verses can fuse with huge, distortion-guitar-included choruses to create some of the most amazing songs I’ve heard. No, that’s not an exaggeration.

Another word on Hollywood Undead before we take a look at their songs: they have six members, with one official member change (Deuce was kicked out, replaced by Danny at lead vocals after Swan Songs). The others switch off playing guitar, depending on the song, and one member, Da Kurlzz, stays on percussion/drumset. Other than that, their remaining members, J3T, Charlie Scene, J-Dog, and Funny Man (stage names…) switch off doing verse raps and/or backing vocals during choruses. This provides a refreshing change in voice every verse, and since each rapper has their own distinctive style, I think the attractiveness of their songs can only go up. I’ve never known Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit to become stale with only one rapper, but Hollywood Undead takes several rappers, throws them in a song, and stale is the last word to cross my mind.

Here’s the track listing for Notes From The Underground:
1 Dead Bite
2 From The Ground
3 Another Way Out
4 Lion
5 We Are
6 Pigskin
7 Rain
8 Kill Everyone
9 Believe
10 Up In Smoke
11 Outside

“Dead Bite” was released as a free digital download from the band’s website before the release of the album. Of course, I went and downloaded it ASAP, having been severely impressed by everything from American Tragedy two years prior. Right from the get-go, I sensed that something had changed with Hollywood Undead since their last album—the intro guitar riff was…strange? I’m not sure how else to describe it. Luckily for me, though, I grew to love it, but not half as much as J3T’s opening rap verse.  He is my favorite HU rapper, for reasons unclear to me other than his rapping voice is heavenly. Both Danny’s chorus and opening harmony (“goodnight / sleep tight / don’t let the dead bite”) display his versatility as a singer. In his most distinctive performance on the album, his voice is a mixture of mystery and menace, a perfect tone for the nature of the song.

To me, “From The Ground” is the anomaly on the album, which makes its placement up front interesting—I’ve always thought that anomalies should head for the back of an album, after the foundational and more usual songs have been established. It’s different from the rest of the album, and in that way, it doesn’t help to set the tone of the album, which I believe the first few tracks should do.

In any case, the second track has been described by the band as “J-Dog’s powerful take on metal”. What I take this to mean is that the song is supposed to be ‘heavier’, with an emphasis on the ‘rock’ portion of rap rock, and indeed, the song features a prominent (and pretty fast, too) guitar riff underneath what I think are J-Dog’s ‘powerful’ screams. It’s actually really cool, because it contrasts with Danny’s softly-sung choruses extremely well. The problem I have with the band’s description is that just because J-Dog is ‘screaming’, which, incidentally, are the only harsh vocals on the album, doesn’t mean the song is entirely metal. There are pretty much no other elements of metal present: I think Hollywood Undead should be happy to stick with ‘rap rock’. If there’s a song with the distinction of being my least favorite on the album, it would be this one, because the screams, besides being poor, just don’t fit in with HU’s overall style.

The third track, “Another Way Out”, has an interesting lyric video on YouTube (but it doesn’t beat “Pigskin”—more on that later!). The camera seems to be running through fields, as if trying to escape, and that’s exactly what the song is about. The chorus consists of Danny singing, “I wish there was another way out / for you”, implying that there’s no way out for the prospective victim. While still catchy, it gets old rather quickly, and the rap verses are too short to make the song stand out too much. Still, “Another Way Out” is a departure from the beloved Hollywood Undead sound of American Tragedy and Swan Songs, which I find to be confusing. That’s okay though, because after three opening tracks that have left me searching for something more, the heart of the album is just beginning to throb.

The fourth track is where the album picks up—fast. “Lion” is one of my favorite Hollywood Undead tracks ever, and I would suggest that the reader give it a listen if he/she is so inclined to listen to no more than one song categorized as rap rock. “Lion” is a perfect representation of the genre in every sense of the word.

The song utilizes a soft keyboard outlining the chord changes, a yearning electronic synth line over the chorus, non-intrusive but still very present guitars and drums giving the song its hard rock flavor, amazing vocals from Danny, and the best rap verses I’ve heard from J3T, both rhythmically and lyrically. This is the Hollywood Undead I’ve come to known, new and improved from their last two albums. “I am a lion / and I want to be free / do you see a lion / when you look inside of me?” might sound cheesy on paper, but the way Danny sings it, I believe every word of it. I don’t even need to answer the question; we both know the answer is ‘yes’.

The second half of J3T’s second verse, in which the guitar and drums pick up, feature some of the most powerful—not hard-hitting or aggressive, just moving—combination of yearning voice and lyrics, while still managing a hard rock sound: “after all / only so much we can say / words can lose their meaning / once we walk away / promise that you’ll love me / watch me as I fade / I’ll give you all those things / that these lions never gave” are lyrics that shouldn’t really be overanalyzed (c’mon, he’s just a rapper…right?), but they still tear me apart. “If there’s one thing I’d keep / it’s you that I would save / because I am just a lion / and a lion I will stay”. Well, if there’s one song I’d keep, it’s this one. But I’ll keep all of them.

The fifth track, “We Are”, was the second radio single from the album, and features a very catchy anthem-ish chorus, definitely HU’s example of every rock band’s staple “fight together” song for the fans. In this one, I find the strongest point to be the two raps, one each from J3T and J-Dog. I’ve never seen this one performed live, but I’d imagine from the bridge on, it’s just a constant buildup in which the fans can sing their hearts out along with the band on stage. After all, it probably feels good to sing, “we are / we are / we are made from broken hearts” and “our hearts / our hearts / they are beating in the dark”. Well, at least for Hollywood Undead fans.

With the introduction of the sixth track, “Pigskin”, I’d like to point out another characteristic that makes Hollywood Undead so appealing to the masses of rap and rock listeners: their songs cover every conceivable topic. They can party, but at the other end, they can wrench the gut with heartbreakers and introspective ballads. In the middle, they can talk about chasing down a victim (“Another Way Out”, anyone?), or their feelings come the end of the world, or make a song with a happy take on suicide. They write songs about sex, about cities, and about how much they love the rain—and how much it can make us feel cold. They’ve even written a song named after two of their daughters (this one’s a gut-wrenching introspective ballad). The absolute breadth of the topics about which they rap and sing is what makes them so appealing.

“Pigskin”, placed after three serious songs and two semi-serious (I’m looking at “Dead Bite” and “Another Way Out”), was written entirely for humor, and I think they succeeded 100%. The song is sport-based, and makes several puns related to different sports, but the opening line is what never fails to amuse me: “I’m so icy / like ice cream / all you ladies take a scoop and try to bite me”. If nothing else, it provides a well-intended contrast to the likes of “From The Ground”, “Lion”, and “We Are”. It could possibly be stretched to call “Pigskin” the comic relief song. Need to know more about what I’m talking about? Watch the lyric video online. It’s a middle-aged man dancing in random places in the public. It’s not supposed to make sense or be deep in any way; it’s just funny.

Once you’re done marveling at the hilarious stupidity of “Pigskin”, the time comes for my third favorite song on the album, “Rain”. In continuing the wide range of topics which their songs are about, Hollywood Undead proceeds to insert the first truly sad song on Notes For The Underground. There’s just no other way to describe it—in addition to being toned down in every department, the song has a sad ambience throughout. Charlie Scene, in a rare instance of Danny stepping down to sing the backgrounds of the chorus, takes on the role of lead vocals with “I don’t mind / that I don’t mind / no I don’t mind the rain / like a widow’s heart / we fall apart / but never fade away”. I love this song’s insertion into the middle of the album—the contrast between songs keeps the album thriving.

After the beauty of “Rain”, the following tongue-in-cheek song opens with a humorous line that I will refrain from citing due to inappropriate language. Still, the eighth track, “Kill Everyone”, isn’t very subtle in any way. Musically, it’s nothing special—just typical Hollywood Undead joking around and making melodies out of it—but lyrically, the song once again demonstrates the different ways the band chooses to express themselves. Obviously, it’s about killing everyone. Are they serious? I sure hope not. Otherwise, the beat is hip-hop during the verses, the guitar plays a cute little background riff, and during the chorus, the drums switch to rock, and Danny’s voice is spot-on, not too harsh or lame—just another example of what rap rock is all about. On the other hand, it’s nothing special, unlike the two songs it’s sandwiched between; “Rain” and “Believe” are two of the standouts of the album, so possibly “Kill Everyone” was just hoping to squeeze in there and steal some of the limelight.

The ninth track, “Believe”, falls behind only “Lion” as my second favorite track on Notes From The Underground. Right away, the opening instrumental has a different feel to it, with a more serious extended solo by Danny (the song features a verse of him singing!) which is absolutely stunning. The chord changes are standard—on a minor scale, just a four chord progression of 1-6-3-7 (with the 2 in the bass)—which underlies Danny singing over the relative major scale. “I can’t believe / that when I breathe / there’s something good inside of me / just one good thing inside of me…” His voice is so smooth and the melody so perfect that I can’t believe (pun intended) it isn’t my favorite song; I justify myself by reasoning that while “Believe” is fantastic, I think the rap verses of “Lion” beat those of this track.

“Up In Smoke” returns the album to the lighthearted side of the band one last time (in the regular edition of the album, at least) before the gut-wrenching closer in “Outside”.  “So everybody get down like you just got out of rehab” tells you all you need to know about the tenth track.

“Outside” is the perfect way to end an album like Notes From The Underground. In all its moments of pure pride (“Lion”, “We Are”), silliness (“Pigskin”), and melancholy (“Rain”), the album comes to a close with a slower song that combines more aggressive raps with a sad melody, which later becomes a huge, towering chorus with a full-on power chords and Danny singing his heart out. “All the words left unspoken / are the pages I write / On my knees, and I’m hoping / that someone holds me tonight.” The drums, too, present a slower beat, but never lose their edge. After all the soaring raps and choruses, the song returns to a soft ending. The rise and flow within the song, as well as contrast between the forceful and subdued parts, are what this album is all about. Really, it’s what the entire genre is all about.

In terms of representing the genre well and standing up to their previous work, Hollywood Undead’s Notes From The Underground no doubt does just that. I would definitely recommend the entire album to those intrigued by alternative rock and rap, though the tracks “Lion”, “Rain”, and “Believe” in particular stand out.
Also, the bird-and-grenade logo on the album artwork is just way too cool, so go check it out. And maybe listen to the music with an open mind while you’re at it.

I found a physical copy of this album at a local library branch. You can also search the library’s catalog for it. Please note the parental advisory label.

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