Music Reviews: The Latest From Sia, Judas Priest, Chicago and More

PHOTO: Recording artist Sia performs during Logo TVs "Trailblazers" at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, June 23, 2014, in New York City.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

This week enigmatic Los Angeles-based, Australian pop singer Sia returns with her epic album “1000 Forms Of Fear,” Judas Priest deliver some blistering metal, Chicago adds yet another volume to their 45-year recording history, pop/reggae singer Maxi Priest returns after a while out of the spotlight, California hip-hop and reggae-influenced group Dirty Heads offer up their latest and Emo-rockers Braid deliver their first album in 16 years.

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Sia’s “1000 Forms Of Fear” *****

Sia Furler rose to fame as one of the voices fronting the chilled hits of British group Zero 7. Her solo hit, “Breathe Me” was used in the epic closing scene of the final episode of “Six Feet Under.” When her last album, 2010’s “We Are Born” was released her level of fame rose substantially. So much so, in fact, that she felt hassled by her fame and unable to have any private moments. This led to crippling battles with stage fright, addiction and nearly a suicide attempt. Once she got help, she resolved not to appear on camera again, wanting the joy of being a songwriter and a performer without the invasive elements that can accompany world-wide fame. It’s a tricky line to cross, but if you’ve seen her recent performances on “Ellen,” “Late Night With Seth Meyers” or “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” she’s figured out ways to sing with her back towards the audience or otherwise obscured onstage.

This life or death struggle for sanity and survival is the backbone of her new album, “1000 Forms Of Fear.” This album achieves the impossible. It’s an album that on the surface plays by modern pop’s rules, but at the same time, it has more meaning and is more substantive than the genre usually allows. In addition, as a writer, Sia never dumbs her work down. The Regina Spektor-esque minor-key operatic flourishes in “Burn The Pages” sounds much more musically advanced than pop radio usually allows even if it does lead to a big, bright chorus. Throughout the set, Sia throws in little turns in her melodies. The new-wave-meets Motown bounce of “Hostage” stands out, as does the dramatic call and response chorus of “Free The Animal.” She’s a sophisticated and gifted writer. It’s a blessing to the pop world that she has recently been writing for others as well.

She’s an unraveling ball of talent who possesses three very different, distinct areas of her voice. She has a soulfulness not dissimilar to Adele, and a knack for booming volume like Florence Welch. She allows every shade of her voice to appear on tape, even allowing it to crack on occasion for effect, thus creating a pop album that accentuates the innate frailty and endurance of the human spirit.

To put it succinctly, “1000 Forms Of Fear” is a smart, daring, complicated, emotionally gripping record that pop radio will actually play. It wrenches your heart in authentic ways. Sia is a survivor. In the face of tragedy, she has made her best record to date and a record that deserves to be an enduring classic. This might be the realest, rawest, most honestly courageous pop record you’ll ever hear. It is her masterpiece! If all pop albums were this thoughtfully constructed, the world would be a very different place.

Focus Tracks:

“Chandelier” By now, you’ve probably heard this smash and seen its video showcasing the amazing dance moves of 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler. Sia sings the track with such force and authentic emotion. “Help me, I’m holding on for dear life. / Won’t look down. / Won’t open my eyes. / Keep my glass full until morning light. /Cuz I’m just holding on for tonight. “ She sings these words with the certainty of someone who has lived them. This song is both frightening and stunningly resilient.

“Eye Of The Needle” This soulful R&B ballad is just as grippingly wrenching as “Chandelier” and yet I think it has even more hit potential as she sings about sadness and lost love. Such a song hits a raw nerve when you know that Sia at one time had a boyfriend who was killed in a London traffic accident some years back. This fact that was brought to light when she co-wrote Lea Michele’s stand-out track, “If You Say So,” which was itself a eulogy of sorts for Michele’s boyfriend, Cory Monteith. Perhaps working on that track re-opened up some wounds. Again, the emotion is tragically and strikingly real.

“Elastic Heart” This track actually appeared on last year’s soundtrack to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” where it stood out. In the context of this record, it fits well and doesn’t feel like an add-on of any kind. It’s yet another addition to a stunningly moving album.

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Judas Priest’s “Redeemer Of Souls” ***1/2

The metal gods have bestowed upon us another Judas Priest album. Their first in five years, in fact, and in 2014 they are still churning out heavy riffage with cartoonish imagery full of melodramatic doomsday references and an earnestness that is hard to ignore. Along with Black Sabbath and Motorhead they were among the initial titans of British metal, and Rob Halford still packs a powerful yowl-to-growl vocal range.

If the band’s albums were always too much for you, “Redeemer Of Souls” will be no different in that regard. It packs the signature punch that the band has sported over the last 40 years. This album is a heavy assault and anyone expecting anything different obviously hasn’t done his/her homework. Seventeen albums into their career, this band still knows who they are. The album may be full of clichés, (see “Down In Flames” with its chorus of “Going down in a blaze of glory” or the general apocalyptic mood that covers the rest of the record) but these are metal clichés that this band helped create. And to a certain extent, they are delivered with a knowing wink. “Redeemer Of Souls” shows one of metal’s defining acts returning proudly and delivering the kind of record their fans expect.

Focus Tracks:

“Halls Of Valhalla” An epic fade-in leads to a metallic work out filled with typically muscular bombast. This is actually one of the group’s warmer sounding songs although Halford approaches it with his typical sneer.

“Crossfire” If you listen to a lot of the earliest metal groups, you discover that many of them are just playing really hard-edged blues. “Crossfire” is a textbook example of this practice. Yes, sometimes the blues stops for riffing breaks and theatrical yells, but it still is blues when you really break it down.

“Cold Blooded” This is a confessional churner with some excellent guitar work. The track gets harder as it progresses but it isn’t afraid to put an ethereal keyboard line into the mix. It comes nicely to a peak with a powerful guitar solo.

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Chicago’s “Now (Chicago XXXVI)” **

45 years since their debut and after a number of different phases in their career, Chicago still soldiers on, and “Now (Chicago XXXVI)” offers pretty much what you would expect. There are jazzy moments and soft ballads placed side by side. What isn’t expected is their embrace of modern technology. There are moments on here that sound almost trance-y.

On the whole, the production sounds great. Whenever the horn section is brought into the fold, the game is boosted. Robert Lamm’s voice still sounds excellent as well.

Where this record falters is in the material itself. A lot of the songs here are generic, faceless and forgettable. A funk number called “Free At Last” seems written by numbers, at least at first before it falls into an interesting jam. “America” is a political song that is somehow void of any truly political sentiments, with its vague lines about Congress not passing laws that help people and how everyone deserves to be free and equal. It’s as if they said, “Hey, let’s record a political song, but write it so that it doesn’t offend anyone.” The bland chorus of “America is free . / America is you and me” speaks volumes about the song’s somewhat empty tone. It isn’t the protest song it should be.

Even more puzzling though is the electronic, Middle Eastern-themed number, “Naked In The Garden Of Allah.” Stylistically and sonically-speaking this is one of the band’s most daring tracks, but its lyrical intention is unclear with its list of “We are naked. / We are innocent. / We are deadly./ We are broken. / We are ignorant. / We are lost.” Again, it is like they want to say something but keep their terms vague.

In the end “Now” is a frustrating, sonically-well-made record by seasoned musicians that doesn’t succeed due to its lack of solid material.

Focus Tracks:

“Now” The title track delivers the band’s signature swagger, as if combining the classic tone of “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” and the soft of the Peter Cetera-led power-ballad years. Again, it’s another alarmingly vague call-to-arms, but the groove saves the day.

“Crazy Happy” This track comes off like a modern update of the soft-rock format that the band helped hone in the eighties. It effectively fuses elements of jazz and R&B into a mellow format.

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Maxi Priest’s “Easy To Love” ****

You may remember Maxi Priest from his hits in the late eighties and early nineties. His brand of reggae-tinged pop really made a strong impact. This was especially true of his 1990 mega-hit, “Close To You,” which still holds up surprisingly well.

“Easy To Love” is his first record in seven years, and despite of the autotune that sets off the opening title track, not much has changed. This is a warm, enjoyable collection of reggae, suited for summer chill-out sessions. Priest’s voice still sounds the same when it isn’t digitally manipulated and there are a few possible hits on this disc. It would be great if this record actually got attention in the top 40 circles, but since this album seems crafted more with mellow dance-halls in mind over current pop trends, that isn’t likely to happen. Still Priest’s return is a reminder of his gifts as a performer. He has long deserved to be a bigger player. Almost 30 years into his career he hasn’t lost his touch. In fact, “Easy To Love” tries more than ever to put the reggae touches ahead of the pop side, but Priest has such a smooth, melodic voice that it achieves a near perfect balance of the two. So in the end, we are presented a record that should appeal to R&B fans just as much as it appeals to Priest’s reggae core. This album is a very strong surprise.

Focus Tracks:

“Gravity” Yes, this is the John Mayer song, and like Jimmy Cliff did with his cover of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho,” Priest proves that some unlikely songs can be given a fitting reggae reading. In fact, this may be controversial to say but Priest’s version here surpasses Mayer’s original.

“Loving You Is Easy” Putting this song next to the title-track may visually seem rather laughably redundant, but this track is a single-ready ballad that would sound great on the radio or on party mixes. The piano riff at the beginning immediately tells you the song is a keeper.

“Your Love To Me” (Featuring DeLaRose) This is a welcoming love duet with singer DeLaRose. It follows a pretty standard dubby reggae formula, but it does so with loving perfection. I repeat. This is your laid-back summer soundtrack.

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Dirty Heads’ “Sound Of Change” **1/2

On their fourth album, California’s Dirty Heads continue to fuse hip-hop elements with EDM touches and Imagine Dragons-style anthems. It doesn’t always work. The electronic touches sometimes seem calculated and when the rap verses come in, occasionally they can seem like clunky additions to the mix, but on the flipside, the band’s anything-goes mentality keeps things fresh, even if the group sometimes oversteps their bounds. On a track like “Medusa,” the band finds some sort of stability working nicely with a hip-hop core, even if the attempts at dancehall reggae seem ill-fitting. But there’s a strong sense of beat mechanics that runs throughout the set that makes it at least an interesting listen. The fact that they chose to quote Fiona Apple’s bellowing portion of “Every Single Night” on their song “Franco Eyed” is at least an inspired choice, even if it all sounds a little messy. Ultimately, throughout the set, though we are left with a bunch of hip-hop kids who spent their youth obviously worshiping Sublime and 311. Occasionally they capture bits of magic, but there is still a lot of “bro”-themed filler between the best moments. Still, when they hit their points and go beyond their stoner-rap/rock tendencies, they show bits of promise. “Sound Of Change” is a heavily uneven disc that pogoes from one extreme to the next with mixed results, but that doesn’t mean it completely without its thrills.

Focus Tracks:

“My Sweet Summer” This track sounds like it was transparently crafted with the hopes that the album’s July release would make it the runaway hit of the summer. It sounds like it wants to be the hip-hop leaning cousin of Calvin Harris’ current hit, “Summer.” Of course, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is the album’s single and it is gaining traction, so it might ultimately be a successful strategy.

“Radio” This is some dub-reggae with a pop sheen. It’s appealing and it shows what the group can do when they focus their efforts. The bass-line in particular is nicely done.

“End Of The World” As I said before, the influence of 311 is quite strong here. This song sounds like 311 at their airiest funneled through a modern pop-radio aesthetic.

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Braid’s “No Coast” ****

Braid’s first album in 16 years sounds like it picks up exactly where they left off in 1998. There are no “modern touches” to try to get radio play. There are no major effects. “No Coast” simply delivers a reliable, pounding set of emo-rock tunes from the days before the genre was hijacked by whining poseurs. What we have here is expertly crafted rock built from a post-hardcore, wonderfully dusty backbone with an emphasis on melody.

The double guitar and vocal attack of Bob Nanna and Chris Broach still remains the band’s hallmark, especially considering the guitars often are in front of the vocals in a big way, adding a potent sense of urgency. One gets the feeling that this kind of production really captures the volatility of their live shows as the record is filled with tempo-shifts and sudden washes of feedback for punctuation. This is an album equally suited for the mosh-pit and deep contemplation in one’s room. It captures a burning sense of angst in a timeless manner. After such a long break, this album comes off as an incredibly refreshing return to alt-rock fundamentals. The members of Braid still have a lot to offer.

Focus Tracks:

“Damages!” This is a textbook example of what Braid can do best. A meticulous verse section leads up to a shouted chorus. Female voices add a shout or two for punctuation and the whole track bounces around at several different tempos over the three-minute span.

“Climber New Entry” If alt-rock radio still existed in all its glory, this would make for an excellent single and would probably get them some airplay. Again, it possesses a strong drive and an anthemic chorus accented by bits of guitar crunch.

“Pre Evergreen” Another song that could earn them radio play if rock still got a fair shake. Its build recalls Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” in the best way possible. It is an appealing slow-burner.

Next Week: New albums from “Weird Al” Yankovic, Morrissey and more.

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