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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Mike Shinoda - Post Traumatic Music Album Reviews

Mike Shinoda - Post Traumatic Music Album Reviews
On his debut solo album, the Linkin Park rapper and producer mourns the death of his bandmate Chester Bennington but never translates that grief into candid lyrics or inspired songwriting.

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On October 27, 2017, three months after the suicide of their bandmate Chester Bennington, the surviving members of Linkin Park played a tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Backed by a slew of musicians, the group marched through its catalog with trademark fury, angst, and earnestness. The live-streamed recording of the show flits between shots of the performers, the crowd, and an unused mic stand dedicated to Bennington, but it’s hard not to focus on rapper and producer Mike Shinoda. His cues seem to lead every song, his voice introduces most guests, his smile cuts through the tragedy underlying the event. In Bennington’s absence, Shinoda had become the de facto leader of Linkin Park.

“Looking for an Answer,” a grief-stricken song he debuted at that show, wrestles with that sudden responsibility. “There’s an emptiness tonight/A hole that wasn’t there before,” he murmured to the hushed crowd while playing glum piano chords alone on stage. It was a vulnerable moment within an otherwise steely showcase, with Shinoda suspending the night’s this-wouldn’t-be-possible-without-you tone to briefly just be a broken human. That grief animates Post Traumatic. Stepping away from Linkin Park for the first time since his mid-2000s rap project Fort Minor, Shinoda emerges as a solo act. “At its core, grief is a personal, intimate experience. As such, this is not Linkin Park, nor is it Fort Minor—it’s just me,” he wrote on the release date of Post Traumatic EP, the album’s three-song embryo. This glum backdrop gives Shinoda an opportunity to bare his soul, to detail what’s crawling in his skin for once. It never happens.

Post Traumatic is impersonal and distant. “Somebody else defined me/Cannot put the past behind me/Do I even have a decision?/Feeling like I’m living in a story already written,” Shinoda laments on “Place to Start.” He is likely dredging up ugly but real resentment about the long shadow Bennington’s well-known struggles with depression and anxiety cast over the group—and his own role in shaping that reputation. But these clumsy lyrics could also be referring to a label exec or another bandmate or his wedding photographer. The subject feels obvious, but as Shinoda slips into even vaguer self-loathing (“Pointing fingers at villains, but I’m a villain myself”), his sullen noodling grows ever less substantive, an issue compounded by his static vocals. He struggles to speak candidly.

“Over Again,” which revisits the tribute concert, is slightly more concrete. In a rare sharp moment, Shinoda describes the catch-22 of practicing songs that he co-wrote with the person he’s mourning: “We rehearsed it for a month/I’m not worried ’bout the set/I get tackled by the grief at times that I would least expect,” he raps. It’s a frank and bleak admission: Bennington’s voice is the fulcrum of Linkin Park’s music. Every run-through, every bridge, every song is now marred by his absence. But the refrain—“You say goodbye over and over and over again”—makes the sentiment thuddingly redundant. And “Over Again” still suffers from coyness: Before he settles on the peril of rehearsals,  Shinoda skips over the likely difficult discussions that led him and his four remaining bandmates, whose grief remains nebulous on Post Traumatic, to hold the tribute.

The allusions on “Ghosts” are similarly indistinct. “This is not about you and me/I can’t bring back what it used to be,” Shinoda sings, continuing his long tradition of overreliance on pronouns (see: “They point the finger at me again”). Attempting to fill in the blanks grows frustrating. Shinoda’s misery is all silhouettes, shadows, and darkness, with no characters, no people.

When his words aren’t failing him, Shinoda is betrayed by his ear. With few exceptions,  Post Traumatic’s default sound bed is bottomless caverns of bass and snares. In contrast to the busyness of his Linkin Park production, the aesthetic here is spare and frictionless, full of scuzzy synths and dawdling keys that echo into the abyss. So little else happens that you can keep count of the few variations: “Promises I Cant Keep” and “Watching as I Fall” feature some dubby flourishes; “I.O.U.”  has a siren; an electric guitar chugs along on “Make It Up as I Go.”

The product of all this stasis is an endless supply of dead air, a problem Shinoda tries to address by frequently adopting Auto-Tune and other vocal effects to texturize his voice. That is an exercise in futility, too: His clunky flex raps and flat crooning remain lifeless. “You’re the opposite of stars, like rats spelled backwards,” he raps on “Lift Off.” I don’t think that’s how opposites work.

It’s jarring to hear Shinoda struggle with such fundamental elements of songwriting. In their heyday, Linkin Park were a triumph of both economy and excess. A turntablist, a rapper, a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a rager should have been the setup to a glorious bar joke, but they found a way to harmonize. And although they became a punchline, for Linkin Park’s fans, the joke was on the people who were too stiff to embrace the band’s schlocky but fun pageantry.

Throughout Post Traumatic, you can sense how unmoored Shinoda is without that spectacle. His chest doesn’t puff out as far as it did on Fort Minor. His compositions don’t detonate like his best work for Linkin Park. His bandmates aren’t there to lift him up when he falls short. He sounds abandoned.

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