Mary J. Blige

The Breakthrough (Geffen) The Breakthrough

Loving Mary J. Blige's music has been about accepting diminishing returns for more than a decade, a statement that sounds more dire than it is, considering 1994's My Life remains one of the greatest R&B records ever made. Mary is happier these days, but platitudes can taint raw expression, and for too long she's favored getting the job done over exploring the possibilities of her artistry. Admittedly, no one puts more soul into pop product, and here and there – "Everything," on Share My World; "Beautiful One," on Mary; that show-stopping 2002 Grammy performance – she still strikes like lightning.

The Breakthrough's middle-aged contentment sounds wicky-wack, but even the routine moments have a relaxed quality that's an improvement over the strained sound of the ill-advised 2003 Puffy reunion Love and Life. Two highlights are sow's-ear-into-silk-purse surprises. On paper, anything involving Will.I.Am, of the heinous Black Eyed Peas, seems doomed, but "About You" works a slowed-down sample of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" to sick ghost-of-Wu-Tang effect. The collaboration with U2 on "One" is a marvel – further proof that no one rocks a beat like Mary. I still suspect Bono's lyrics are claptrap, but she sings the words with an ever rising fervor – each line an opened door – that could turn an atheist into a believer and send tears shooting out of eyes. Hair-raising barely captures it – I haven't heard a better performance by a singer in years.

Not so surprising is the instant-classic excellence of the Raphael Saadiq-produced track "I Found My Everything," which mixes vintage Atlantic Aretha on the verses with the orchestral grandeur of Motown Marvin on a pair of fantastic bridge sections. This is the kind of gorgeous organic sound – and songwriting chops – that Mary's singing has deserved, and gone without, for too long. Is it too much to wish that we'd gotten a whole album of it?

(Johnny Ray Huston)

Landing

Brocade (Strange Attractors Audio House) Brocade

In the past five years, Landing have been putting out records that haven't set them totally apart. Landing who? Growing? Granger? Landen? Are they on Kranky? Don't they have somewhat psychedelic-looking album covers? Weren't they on some labels you wouldn't expect them to be on, like K? One never felt compelled to really figure it out and listen in.

That changes with Brocade and its five tracks clocking in at a little less than an hour. There is no room for wasted moments or long songs that can't hold their own. Immediately you are greeted with a repetitive kraut-rock line reminiscent of both Can and Neu. With that first sweeping hook, they start to sound like the perfect early 4AD record you always imagined in your head. Landing's ability to slow down and change time creates a space you can explore with intensity. They let you look at one thing for so long and with so much concentration that you begin to see the bigger picture through the magnification of that one sound, one idea, one deep focus.

It's not surprising to find out Landing are from Provo, Utah – they might be Mormon, and perhaps they are thinking about ideas of purity, control, and belief. But instead of indulging in passive blind faith, they wonder and wander. Landing want to see how close they can get to the sky – they feel the wind shake them, the sun blast them, the air refresh them. They remember that, above all, nature may hold the true master key.

(Irwin Swirnoff)

Acid Mothers Temple and the Cosmic Inferno

Just Another Band from the Cosmic Inferno (Important)
Iao Chant from the Cosmic Inferno
(Ace Fu)
IAO Chant from the Cosmic Inferno

You can't ask for much from the group known collectively as Acid Mothers Temple these days. As one of Japan's premier psych-drone bands, they've released God knows how many records over the course of a decade – as many as seven in one year – and despite constant lineup changes, they have remained fiery all the while. By making friends with labels all over the world, they've delivered some of the spikiest, most transcendent, and most mysterious guitar sounds indie rock has known, to just about every continent too.

The latest incarnation (with the suffix "the Cosmic Inferno" rather than "the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.") is a slightly smaller one than in the past, and it has its debut on these two discs: Acid Mothers Temple now tend to sharpen the focus and, in turn, widen their wayward sound. Just Another Band from the Cosmic Inferno, with its closer-to-live feel of an all-out rock assault, might be the best introduction to the group, as their live shows are undoubtedly what turns fence-sitters on to the wonder of AMT. Kawabata Makoto's Stratocaster shoots daggers of treble and screech careening around the room while synth-and-rhythm-guitar man Higashi Hiroshi keeps everything paced and contained with his Zen-like concentration on these two tracks – still clocking in at well more than 60 minutes total. Iao Chant from the Cosmic Inferno is the other side of the AMT coin – a single, 51-minute homage to prog rockers Gong that proves hefty experimentalism will always hold equal weight with straight-up rockin' for AMT. Chimey synths driven by precision drumming and rhythmic incantations highlight the group's dedication to Eastern mysticism and, while adding yet another piece of plastic to the mounting Acid Mothers pile, make this one of their most engaging tracks – and albums – to date.

(Ken Taylor)

Carnival in Coal

Collection Prestige (Earache) Collection Prestige

In 2000 the French duo Carnival in Coal released an album titled French Cancan (Season of Mist). It featured creepy covers of songs like Ozzy's "Bark at the Moon" and "Maniac," from the movie Flashdance, and while those were great, the cover of Morbid Angel's "Fall from Grace" annihilated everything else on the record. It turned the opening riff into a windup music box, had an oompa break in the middle, and featured spot-on guitar and drumming.

Carnival in Coal's new album, Collection Prestige, brings more genre-busting mayhem, sort of in the style of Mr. Bungle. I found it difficult to listen to at first, but then I heard the lyric "steal a souvenir out of a body bag." That's not odd on a metal song, but this was a full-on disco number. So I opened up the CD book, started the album again, read the lyrics, and voilà, I found the album to be not only listenable, but also extremely enjoyable. The body bag song is called "Cartilage Holocaust" and would not be out of place blasting in a club. Collection Prestige opens with "Fuckable," a song about trying and failing to have sex. "In the end / Nobody goes unfucked but me / Fuck me I'm famous!... Threatening would be unacceptable / Drugging would be a poor spectacle." The vocals go from singing to growling to screaming to hissing, and the music features rapid cartoon sound effects during the breaks. "Satanic Disaster" has a great opening metal riff and goes on to tell the story of a metal band on a quest to play a show with Ringless Witches Hands. "Five dark warriors are left with their satanic hits / Invoking forces of darkness before fish and chips." "Right Click ... Save As ..." tackles music downloading and MP3 hoarding: "From the Shadows to the Stones up to Napalm Death / I've got it all, browse my folder, hold your breath." "The Lady and the Dormant Sponge (A Swedish Winter Tale Episode II)" mocks metal lyrics with lines like "In the grandeur of its multitude / Only but toys are we / (This is meaningless)." Carnival in Coal is a unique and odd band. One guy does the music, the other handles the vocals, and they both come through like champions.

(Nate Denver)