Welcome back to IRL, our series dedicated to the things that Engadget writers play, use, watch and listen to. This week we're focusing on music and podcasts, from Broadway to the Destiny soundtrack, via some black metal. First up, Senior News Editor Richard Lawler talks about Rayana Jay's latest EP.
Senior News Editor
The older I get, the more tempting it is to relax in an exclusive cocoon of music I've already heard and avoid the loud noises coming from today's youth, but occasionally something breaks through. The latest intruder is Rayana Jay, a singer from the Bay Area whose new EP arrived just in time to match a surprising extension of summer weather.
Like her first release, Sorry About Last Night, this project includes several collaborators, but two tracks with fellow streaming standout ROMderful distinguish themselves. Unlike too many soundalike R&B productions, "Magic" revives bounce in a way the genre has been missing without sounding dated, while "Play Thing (feat. Innanet James)" brings a guitar element that's unique without overwhelming the track. With Morning After, Jay has moved on to what she calls "the bounce back, the glow up and everything else that comes after the storm."
The cringe-worthy ups and downs of early-20s relationships are on full display in her work (Fader accurately called SALN "one of the most relatable projects you'll hear this year"), with songwriting that's accessible even for the olds. Even though my exploits have mostly moved from overwrought breakups and late-night mistakes to day parties and baby showers, it's nice to see these SoundCloud-era kids grow up in real time with content that matches their evolving production skills.
Timothy J. Seppala
Cobalt was one of my first forays into black metal. A buddy of mine who's been into the subgenre for decades described the Colorado-based band as "the Tool of black metal," and I was immediately intrigued. Weird time signatures and hypnotic drums combined with bloodcurdling howls? Sign me up. While I've obsessed over 2009's Gin (with guitar riffs seemingly plagiarized from Tool's 2001 Lateralus LP), the last month I've been hitting repeat on Eater of Birds, from two years prior.
I'm going to be clear right up front: I have no idea what songs like "When Serpents Return" or "Androids, Automatons and Nihilists" are about, despite the fact that lyrics aren't screamed out in, say, German or a Scandinavian tongue, as with some of the genre's progenitors. OK, maybe the last song title telegraphs the lyrical content. But I can't be too sure. What does it for me is the drums and guitar riffs. The former somehow make transitioning from death metal blast beats to jazz and swing sound easy, and the latter are among of the heaviest I've ever heard. Same goes for original vocalist Phil McSorley's howl, which sounds like it's coming from the very depths of his being. Seriously, the musicianship and songwriting on display here are absurd.
But despite being more progressive in nature (songs regularly venture past seven minutes in length) the music never sounds complicated in a masturbatory way. It's a fine line, and Cobalt toes it well. Every time I listen to one of their records I hear something new, no matter how many times I might've looped "Blood Eagle Sacrifice."
Cobalt isn't all crushing riffs and war drums, though. Clean guitar interludes and ritualistic rhythms sit comfortably alongside the main attraction in a way that doesn't feel forced or contrived, offering a reprieve before the next wall of death.
Like any metal band worth its Satan-infused salt, Cobalt's music demands to be played as loud as possible. If your chest isn't rattling from Erik Wunder's bass drum rolls, the volume knob isn't cranked high enough. To my neighbors, readers and the guy who was sitting next to me at the stoplight picking his nose and eating it, you're welcome for the introduction.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Senior Editor, Database
Two years ago I was all about the Hamilton original cast recording and, while it still makes the occasional appearance in my daily playlist, I eventually moved on. This year's new hotness is 'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,' which opened on Broadway last November to generally good reviews, earned a bunch of Tony nods and then flamed out after declining ticket sales and a messy casting controversy involving Mandy Patinkin. Whew.
When I saw The Great Comet back in February I enjoyed the spectacle and the music, even if the story was a bit underwhelming. Still, I looked up the cast album on Spotify and gave it a listen. But the Broadway recording wasn't out yet; just the off-Broadway tracks with composer Dave Malloy as Pierre. He's no Josh Groban, but it had to do. And Natasha was Phillipa Soo, best known for playing Eliza in Hamilton. Nice!
The Great Comet went into regular rotation for me and I started appreciating all the little things about the musical, the things that are easily missed when you're sitting in the back of a 1,400-seat theater. It's a weird choice for a Broadway show, honestly -- one of its major themes is suicidal depression and one of the two leads spends most of the first act sitting in a pit reading. It also doesn't have a satisfying conclusion, as it's based on only a small part of Tolstoy's epic War and Peace. But all of these things feel like less of a problem in the intimacy of my apartment, listening with headphones or the speakers in my home office. Pierre starts out with no will to live, tries to kill himself at least once and then eventually realizes by the end that he does give a damn. Not exactly extravagant, flashy Broadway material. I was determined to experience it in person again.
For my second go-around I splurged for the on-stage seating, which was totally worth it if only to clink glasses with Natasha. But, while mouthing the words of all my favorite songs I realized that some changes had been made in the transition to Broadway: understandable, but it still threw me off. Soon after that the Broadway recording was finally released, and I spent hours comparing the two. The instrumentation is different in a few places; a lot grander to go with the larger, less intimate venue. Josh Groban is the better singer by far, but there are parts where I feel he sometimes underplays important lines and in those cases, Malloy's performance is superior.
Most changes were made to make Pierre's emotional journey and eventual revelation a little more obvious. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to keep the show alive on stage; tourists are the major ticket buyers for most Broadway musicals, and who wants to think about existential despair when they're on vacation? As a home experience however, it's rather nice -- the show is sung all the way through so there's almost nothing that happens that isn't reflected in the album, and both the humor and despair come across in the performances. It'll probably stay in my rotation for a while, with me belting out tracks like 'Letters' and 'Dust and Ashes' in the privacy of my apartment... at least until the next hot musical comes along.
Destiny 2 is everything the original wasn't -- and that's particularly true of its score. When Bungie fired its longtime composer Martin O'Donnell, who gave us the iconic Halo scores, it felt like a huge loss. But even without O'Donnell, Destiny 2's score (which you can listen to here) still captures the epic scope of Bungie's previous series. And, surprisingly enough, it does an even better job than the first Destiny.
I'm a sucker for a good theme, and that's something Destiny 2 sets up and evolves throughout the course of its soundtrack. Credited to Michael Salvatori (who was also instrumental throughout the Halo series), Skye Lewin, C Paul Johnson, Rotem Moav and Pieter Schlosser, the score brings together sweeping strings, bombastic drums and choral arrangements that gave me chills in the midst of every firefight.
"Journey," my favorite track from the album, brings in the famed Kronos Quartet (best known for performing the Requiem for a Dream theme) for a rousing melody that befits a super-powered space warrior fighting to save the galaxy. It's used throughout the Destiny 2 campaign as the action gets particularly heated, and it never ceased to give me a stupid triumphant grin. The score also knows when to use a light touch. "The Last City" is a track you end up hearing a lot towards the end of the game, and it feels a bit soothing, perfect for when you're weary from battle.
Destiny 2's soundtrack, like the game itself, feels reminiscent of Phantasy Star Online. That was another pioneering multiplayer loot fest (which I somehow played on the Dreamcast's 56k modem) with an incredibly memorable score. It makes sense, though: These are games that have you returning to the same places over and over again, taking down the same enemies with slightly different objectives. If the music doesn't keep you engaged, spending hours gathering loot just won't be as much fun.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.