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When Bands Disappoint...

It’s not very often that an album disappoints me. I’m usually willing to follow bands and artists where ever they want to go and if that means they want to completely change their sound for a new record, I’m fine with that. As long as it’s good. If I consider myself a fan, it’s because we’ve established a trust that you won’t suck and I’m very loyal to artists who nurture that. There have been many albums that INITIALLY disappointed me, but in the overwhelming majority of cases I revisit them after I’ve grown a little and realize my initial reaction was wrong. So it was actually a challenge to come up with a good number of examples for this.

What I’m saying is, you really have to fuck up big to disappoint me. The albums below are bad. I’ve revisited them. They’re still bad. They will always be bad because they’re just bad and no amount of convincing will change that for me. I'm sure I’m not going to be polite about it either. Just keep in mind, that no matter what I say, if I didn’t actually like these artists I wouldn’t care enough to get mad. I’m not going to pick up the new ICP and be angry when it’s bad because the only unexpected reaction in this case could be one of utter astonishment that I would be enjoying an ICP album. This would then be followed be a short stay at an in-patient psychiatric facility, but you get the point. I had every reason to expect greatness from these and instead found whatever would be the polar opposite of that.


No Line on the Horizon - U2

I’m a U2 fan. Not fanatical, but I have every album and I enjoy them; even Pop. I actually really like Pop and I can only to a degree see why it’s so maligned. It’s full of catchy pop songs and who doesn’t like catchy pop songs? It’s also the last time they were truly interesting. They were still in their post Achtung Baby experimental phase and still thinking outside the box.  

All That You Can’t Leave Behind came after and although I found it to be a bit of a letdown, it’s a good, solid U2 album. It’s simply a case of been-there-done-that but I’ll take safe, old-fashioned U2 done well over most of the other stuff out there. This album was followed by How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and, half-witted title aside, it was also not a bad album. There were some great songs there. It’s just that things were getting even more by-the-numbers and U2 was becoming a band that your parents could enjoy.

Then they dropped this monstrosity on us, the first genuinely, unequivocally bad U2 album in a 30 year career. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal in describing the title track gives us about as accurate a description of a single moment as has ever been given: ”the title track's hard-nosed verse is torpedoed by its deflating fart of a hook”. I’d expand that to cover everything wrong with the entire record. It’s just boorrrrrr-ing.

Every time I would start getting into a song, they’d turn around and do something so uninspired and predictable that I became worried they’d been working on some weapon designed to concentrate and focus boredom as a means to kill with it.

Or worse yet, they’d do something really embarrassing. Like the entirety of “Get On Your Boots”. Or presenting us with lyrics such as:


"Restart and re-boot yourself

You're free to go

Oh, oh


Shout for joy if you get the chance

Password, you enter here, right now

Oh, oh


You know your name so punch it in

Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak

Shush now

Oh, oh"


That they sing all of that in a sort of robotic monotone only proves that they’ve learned how to take something bad and make it catastrophic. No one has ever said “I want to hear what it would sound like if those two dorks from Sixteen Candles wrote a song” so there was no need to demonstrate it.

Take those ridiculous things OFF!

This is a band that can craft gold while simply tuning their instruments. What happened? It’s as if they were setting out to destroy all interesting things. Whenever a hook or a cool chord threatens to rear it's ugly head you can be sure it’ll be pounced upon and ruined, either by the band themselves or some bullshit that Brian Eno is forcing into the proceedings like a square peg into, well, the listener’s ass I guess. Is this what they meant by calling this album experimental?

To be fair, "Cedars Of Lebanon" is in fact a really cool song, though.


Freak*On*Ica - Girls Against Boys

Not a very well known band outside of indie rock hipsters but one that I depended on for a time in my angsty college years. The reason they are not very well known is because this, their major label debut, was such an abortion that it went nowhere and kind of took them down with it. And that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s called Freak*On*Ica. The less said about that the better.

Through several indie releases before this, they turned out a badass sort of punk/dance rock full of crazy textures, scuzzy guitars, and a huge, double-bass-guitar low end. It was sludgy and dirty and yet sexy all at once. And then, I don’t know. There was always a sort of New York hipster side to this band that would surface now and then. And while I’m sure they were all nice guys, it always felt like it could induce face punching if not checked.


When they decided to try their hands at techno, which was all the rage at the time, that whole hipster thing got dialed up by about a thousand percent. Worse, we got an album that was almost unrecognizable as Girls Against Boys. I certainly didn’t recognize them the first time I heard it, and I was the one who put the CD in the thing so I knew it actually was them.

Remember in 2003 when Liz Phair lost her mind and felt that now, in her mid-30’s, it was time to challenge Britney, Christina and Avril for the crown of pop queen and that it was never her intelligence and song craft that fans loved, but her sex appeal* and nasally vocals? That’s kind of what this is like. It’s a sort of a sell-yourself-out-to-get-famous strategy. I was too stubborn to admit to myself that I didn’t like this at the time and kept making excuses for it, even though I was also making excuses to avoid listening to it.

Thankfully they didn’t go out like chumps. They went indie again after this and put out one of their stronger records.


Pretty much every other album - The Mars Volta

The Mars Volta is about as love/hate as it gets for me. I feel weird even recommending them to people at this point, because depending on what song that person happens to stumble upon first, I could either be a genius or a moron. A Mars Volta album for me is either an all out obsession that I’m listening to with the same enthusiasm years later or an embarrassment that leaves me questioning my sanity. 

At their best, it’s as if you’ve taken Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire and Black Sabbath and thrown them all in a blender. The band consists of guitarist/composer/producer/“director of the band”/”awesome, awesome genius man”**/"guy who apparently never had self esteem problems", Omar Rodriguez Lopez and singer/lyricist Cedric Bixler Zavala.

And they also share a default expression that could best be called smug.

Oh, there’s a bunch of other amazing musicians that play with them too and in the band's defense (or at least Cedric's) since the break up they've begun to acknowledge that other people helped make them the juggernaut they were, but anyway...The first two albums, De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute were/are firmly in the obsession category for me. I felt they even managed to top themselves with "Frances". These were two life shifting, mind expanding albums for me.

I was still listening to "Frances" regularly when they were getting ready to drop Amputecture. The first single, "Viscera Eyes" was like really heavy Curtis Mayfield and that is all kinds of Awesome. So I grabbed that album day of release… And "Viscera Eyes" is just about the only thing that's not a chore to listen to. Amputecture sounds like a band that hates The Mars Volta doing a parody of The Mars Volta. All their worst tendencies and wankery are at the fore. It’s the equivalent of Joel Schumacher taking everything people were critical of in Batman Forever and making a monument to it all in Batman and Robin. By the time I got to the penultimate track and it’s comically spazzy chord progression which gives way to a percussion sequence that sounds like someone spraying diarrhea into a metal bucket which Cedric then sings over like a girl, I was now in hate with what was one of my favorite bands. 

They followed this one up with The Bedlam In Goliath. Now, their album titles are another reason I have trouble recommending them because I feel like a bit goofy recommending something called The Bedlam In Goliath. But the album IS AWESOME! It’s the equivalent of Christopher Nolan taking everything you liked in Batman Begins and making a monument to it all in The Dark Knight. It’s one big, long, lean, intense, face melting rock fest with the wankery kept to a minimum. "Ilyena" is one of the greatest funk rock songs ever put on record. I STILL listen to this regularly.

This was followed with Octahedron, which can best be described as an album that was released.

Not bad. It's just that they set the bar way up in the stratosphere and this album sort of crawled the Earth by comparison. That was followed by Noctorniquet, the title of which continues Cedric’s penchant for showing how clever he is by putting two words together to make new words that often don’t mean anything. It’s a departure in sound in many ways, heavy on the effects and weird synthesizers. The album is on the whole interesting and for a good two weeks or so it was an obsession. Then something weird happened. I got bored with a Mars Volta album I'd previously loved. It took me a bit to put my finger on it but it came down to this-- they used to be a band that, against all odds, made prog rock not only cool, but legitimately badass. It was prog that was oozing with soul. This is the first time that the "Berklee School of Music" dorkiness that we usually associate with prog rock started to creep in. And we had to wait two years for it. Why? It took Cedric two years to write the lyrics. TWO YEARS to write lyrics like:


“I am a landmine! I am a landmine!

So don’t you step on me! So don’t you step on me!”


"We are cattle to the prod.

And I burn this dictionary,

Because it’s my dyslexicon."


"Calloused hands of detriment.

From a crossbow flinch of gasping air."


"Defuse this catwalk justification

In extrasensory micro-hollow.

I will decapitate your excommunicated hull breach synapses."


"Out of compulsion I must decimate.

The sapless embryonic miles."


That’s just a sampling. There are really two Cedrics when it comes to lyrics. There's the Cedric that is actually trying to communicate something and we'll get lyrics that convey rather esoteric ideas with efficiency and wit. Then there's the Cedric that is just being willfully obtuse and sounds like he bought a medical textbook version of those magnetic word jumbles for your refrigerator and paid a three year old to randomly arrange the words. This is the Cedric that shows up for Noctorniquet. What he’s saying is it took him two years to put a bunch of words together that don’t mean anything. If you find meaning in any of the above lyrics, I should point out that the fourth one down was actually written by me. I did it in the space of about two minutes and I can tell you flat out it means absolutely nothing. I just took the first big words that popped into my head and sounded sort of scary and then combined them in nonsensical fashions.

Now, lyrics don’t HAVE to mean anything. Many lyricists purposely choose nonsense lyrics because they like the way a particular word sounds or the way certain words flow with the music. However, they come up with those fairly quickly, often right there in the recording studio. A person doesn’t take two years unless he's really trying to convey something or he's a chronic procrastinator. I get the sense that Cedric just wasn't into it this time. I’m all for things being mysterious and I like having to dig for meaning but there has to at least be a seed there that allows me to connect and WANT to dig for meaning. Otherwise, you’re simply failing to communicate. 

If it seems like I’m being really hard on the lyrics, it’s because they're the straw that brakes the camels back when it comes to Noctorniquet as an album. It’s also because Cedric has a tendency from time to time to come off as a dick in interviews, so there's maybe some schadenfreude at play on my part. It doesn't change the fact that he happens to have one of the most unique and powerful voices in rock and is vital to the sound. But you need some really strong music to make you forget you’re hearing weak lyrics and so many times Omar has more than been up to the task. Just not this time. But he’s SO close. And that probably is the most disappointing thing of all.

*In full disclosure, her sexiness WAS always part of her appeal. I bought Exile In Guyville because she was hot and flashed some nipple on the cover.

**That quote is attributed to me. As far as I know, he's never referred to himself as "awesome, awesome genius man". I stress the "as far as I know" part.


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