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This Week's New Releases Reviewed 

T-Pain

Thr33 Ringz

(Nappy Boy/Konvict/Jive)

There's more to T-Pain than his ubiquitous Auto-Tune program. For starters, there are plenty of R&B hooks, famous friends and self-deprecating slams on his third album of space-age love songs. But yeah, mostly it's about his Auto-Tuned warble coming on to the shawties in the club and the strippers on the pole. On "Chopped N Skrewed," T-Pain and Ludacris trade lines over a robotic slow-jam that gets all gear-clogging sticky beneath its shiny metallic surface. Then Pain picks up Chris Brown for "Freeze," a dance-floor shaker that recalls an even less human Michael Jackson. By the time he calls out the many rhymers who've copped his style for the closing "Karaoke" ("Why you wanna do some shit I did in '03?" he asks Snoop and Lil Wayne … or somebody an awful lot like them), T-Pain has assumed several roles on the circus-themed Thr33 Ringz: ringmaster, clown and the guy on the tightrope who's teetering high above everyone else. - Michael Gallucci

DAVID COOK

David Cook

(RCA)

When this year's American Idol winner David Cook started pimping his eponymous album at the close of the show's tour in September, he teased about wanting to be the alchemist behind an album like U2's The Joshua Tree or the Beatles' White Album. Ha. This adult-contemporary rocker couldn't even concoct a decent Creed album.

Sounding, by turns, like Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, his Idol rocker-predecessor Chris Daughtry and an over-the-hill Audioslave-era Chris Cornell, Cook makes rock 'n' roll that housewives can digest with their bran flakes. Cornell, in fact, wrote Cook's first single, "Light On," which would have been interesting for its hints of arena-ballad Journey if it weren't for the slushy, recycled nature of its construction and lyrics. Cook's voice sounds powerful enough on songs like "Heroes," "Come Back To Me," "Bar-ba-sol" and "Permanent," but even on these songs, it's impossible not to conjure images of Bon Jovi's tassel jackets and David Coverdale's impossibly tamed mane. Another guitar ballad? Who woulda guessed? Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls and Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace also contribute tracks. The whole thing finds its exclamation point on the bonus track: the Idol finale "The Time of My Life," which doesn't sound very rocking at all. - Dan Harkins

CYNIC

Traced In Air

(Season Of Mist)

Years ago, alt-country supergroup the Flatlanders put out a CD called More a Legend Than a Band. Florida's jazz-metal gods Cynic could easily have stolen that title from them. After an astonishing debut with 1993's Focus, the group toured briefly then disbanded. Now, after 15 years, Cynic has returned, sounding like no time has passed at all. Singer/guitarist/mastermind Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert are joined, as they were on Focus, by bassist Sean Malone. The newest addition to the studio lineup is vocalist Tymon Kruidenier, who contributes the death growls the band's leader is apparently uncomfortable with.

Masvidal prefers to croon and sometimes feeds his voice through a vocoder, the better to sound like a robot angel. The thing about Cynic is, they were only tangentially metal even when Masvidal and Reinert left the touring lineup of Death to record Focus. In 2008, they're even more focused (sorry) on the fusion side of their sound, with synths and liquid bass runs filling the space between bursts of intricate, jazzy chording. When distorted guitars or death growls appear, it's a genuine surprise. This isn't just one of 2008's most technically accomplished metal albums; it's also one of the most beautiful. - Phil Freeman

LUKESTAR

Lake Toba

(Flameshovel)

There's a lot about Oslo, Norway five-piece Lukestar that can sneak up on you. The band comes from an unassuming place, a caught-between-eras land where electronic music and death-metal fight for pre-eminence (even as their greatest-selling export remains '80s one-hit wonders A-ha). They don't exactly scream out their influences, although you could certainly point to any number of Pacific Northwest indie-rock touchstones. Frontman Truls Heggero also has an incredibly androgynous voice, leading us to wonder why the girl who sings on the record isn't pictured on the inner sleeve.

Lukestar's sophomore effort (and U.S. debut) Lake Toba is, in keeping with the band's nature as sneak-attackers, quite the grower. Its charms aren't immediately evident, but when tracks like "Shape of Light" and the title track are given repeated listens, they turn out to be deceptively complex numbers with arrangements that border on prog (but in a really catchy way). While the band provides plenty of punch (witness the nifty "The Clouds Tell"), Heggero, who does double-duty with his side project Truls and the Trees, is always the focal point. Good thing, since his remarkable range allows the band plenty of room to explore different styles and moods. Lake Toba won't hit you over the head with its greatness or shout its brilliance in a manner akin to its death-metal countrymen. Rather, Lukestar will lay in wait, giving you time, lulling you in to a false sense of security, and then make you wonder how you nearly missed it. - Chris Drabick

MAX TUNDRA

Parallax Error Beheads You

(Domino)

It took six years for Ben Jacobs to make Parallax Error Beheads You, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed Mastered by Guy at the Exchange. While that's exponentially faster than Axl Rose can make an album, it still seems long by electronic music standards. But when you add in the time that Jacobs spent making cash doing remixes for Franz Ferdinand, Pet Shop Boys, the Strokes and Architecture in Helsinki, the delay between full-lengths suddenly makes all the sense in the world. Much like Mastered by Guy at the Exchange - which was the first Max Tundra album to feature Jacobs' vocals - Parallax Error Beheads You showcases his voice.

At times - see "Which Song" and "Number Our Days" - Jacobs sounds like Michael Jackson, circa Off the Wall. The backing instrumentation is funky and electronic, as Jacobs' falsetto glides smoothly over top. "The Entertainment" sounds quintessentially English, echoing early Elvis Costello before moving on to more traditional club territory. Yeah, there are typical moments of electronic excess - like the super-glitchy "Orphaned." And nothing is terribly catchy, except the first single, "Will Get Fooled Again." But Parallax Error Beheads You is a consistently fun and ebullient effort. Look no further than the 11-minute closing track, "Until We Die." Jacobs seamlessly segues from lounge to funk to soul to blissful synth - all with the dexterity that it probably took six years to master. - Jeremy Willets

BEHEMOTH

Ezkaton

(Metal Blade)

Behemoth are powerful front-runners in the current black/death-metal scene. The Polish three-piece has had many successful tours with such noted metal bands as Danzig, Testament and King Diamond. Until recently, Behemoth wasn't tied too tightly to record labels, outside of licensing agreements. Now the band has officially settled with the Metal Blade family. And to begin the relationship, the band has issued this EP that will irrefutably stimulate its devoted fan base.

This seven-track CD (with a bonus track on the vinyl version) embodies Behemoth's lethal concoction of haunting guitar riffs, hard-hitting drums and demonic vocals that powerfully evokes harrowingly macabre subject matters. With both a re-recorded and live version of fan favorite "Chant For Eskaton 2000," as well as a pair of other live tracks "Decade ov Therion" and "From the Pagan Vastlands," Behemoth exerts the vitality that captivates live audiences around the globe. Two covers, "Jama Pekel," originally by the Czech Republic's Master's Hammer, and the Ramones' "I'm Not Jesus," bring a raw and charming retrogression to overdramatic song composition. Still, the original new song "Qadosh" walks a masterfully fine line between perfection and crust. Sludgy breakdowns abruptly pick up pace and gain enough momentum to pound you into the ground, stimulating both the diehard fans and metal heads simply testing the Baltic water. - Hannah Verbeuren

J.T. IV

Cosmic Lightning

(Drag City)

In what's hopefully the first in a series of releases excavating the legacy of late Chicago-based songwriter/filmmaker/novelist John Henry Timmis IV, Cosmic Lightning is a thrilling introduction to the man's supremely screwed-up music, recorded from 1977 to 1987. His lyrical obsessions with drugs and death accompany a schizophrenic, perversely rootless sound ranging from 12-string ballads to scuzz-punk to sludge. Languid Bowie-esque snarls about staying up for three days and running over pedestrians abound on the jaw-dropping "Destructo Rock," which commences as an airy, acoustic glam ballad and mutates into a frenetic garbage-psych massacre. The aptly titled basement-scuzz assault of "Death Trip" (not the Stooges song) and "The Monitors" follow a similarly nihilistic framework.

For those who crave the wastoid, tragicomic blankness of late-'70s Lou Reed (particularly the Street Hassle album) but wish the songwriting was blunter in its degeneracy, the music as damaged as the lyrics and the overall vibe was disheveled and artless, Cosmic Lightning is one of the greatest albums you'll ever hear. Rounding out this swanky package is a bonus DVD of grainy live (or living dead) performances in an empty theater that dreamily resembles the one from The Midnight Special television series. The most fascinating inclusion is a clip from Timmis' infamous 1987 art house masterpiece The Cure For Insomnia, a brain-numbing 87-hour exercise in pornography, heavy-metal videos and demented poetry which still the holds the Guinness World Record for "World's Longest Movie." - Steve Newton

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