SikTh – Death of a Dead Day (2006)

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Well, what do we have here? SikTh combines multiple genres in a way that would, some years later, be popularized under the name of “djent”… at least as far as I understand it. I’m sure this isn’t the earliest prototype, but it might be the first one I ever listened to, albeit not predating my various experiences with Meshuggah. Given that THAT band did much to popularize the “polyrhythmic” approach this band often uses (and further popularized), the comparisons are going to flit about like mosquitoes unless we get them out of the way.

Compared to Meshuggah and comparable to… let’s say Sybreed for academic purposes, SikTh showcases their prowess in adding melodic, poppy elements to a fairly extreme metal/core permutation. The vocalists here have that high pitched lilting peculiar to the style of pop rock (post hardcore? I don’t actually know) that substrates much of this, but they also channel a certain unnameable demented quality that makes them more effective than you might expect otherwise, especially in their harsher moments. Add that to the more obvious vocal duels, used to great effects on tracks like “Flogging the Horses” and “When the Moment’s Gone”, and you start to hook listeners where less distinct bands would fade into nothingness. Funny enough, the lyrics don’t really stand out to me, although there seems to be a lot of British-isms even considering that the band is literally from the United Kingdom.

Perhaps most important, though, is that all of this is tossed into some surprisingly elaborate compositions. These are compact songs with a lot of distinct sections. Transitions tend towards the jarring and abrupt, but I think that’s considered par for this style of music. Such has its ups and downs – when you’re going for a chaotic and dissonant effect it obviously is going to work to your favor, but this is SikTh! More often than not, they’re trying to attract listeners with their big choruses and solos as much as with the anti-melodic, chromatic, heavily offbeat riffs. Sometimes, if you want to be accessible, you need to be a bit more coherent than some of these songs end up. As a listener who doesn’t exactly want most musicians to make concessions, I tend to prefer the underorganized and occasionally somewhat random material on here to more obvious songwriting ideas. Even then, that’s not an absolute, and the band deserves some commendation for making their fusion work.

Like the last post, Death of a Dead Day was a relatively early listen (late 2009/early 2010) chosen because it filled niches in my music player that hadn’t quite been explored. I even made a fan-video of sorts for it involving Dwarf Fortress,  but it was glitchy and weird at best, and not in a marketable way. Very different days, those.

Highlights: “Bland Street Bloom”, “Summer Rain”, “When The Moment’s Gone”, “Part of the Friction”

POLYSICS – ENO (2001)

folderNeil Cicerega, this is all your fault.

How can it be that I went over 4 years without writing on a band that opened the floodgates to my current musical tastes? When I first discovered POLYSICS, I had already gotten into the habit of thinking of my various pop cultural discoveries as a chain of links, one leading smoothly into the next. It probably wasn’t true in the slightest, since it implies that I followed a rather more logical path from one diversion to the next than what actually ended up occurring. End result? If I took the theory I just introduced seriously enough, I would place the burden of myself upon Peter Molyneux and Populous: The Beginning. Needless to say, I really wasn’t a fan of Black and White, so we’re not going to be doing that.

Still, ENO is a good jumping off point for how I developed my musical awareness outside the entirely different classical and jazz performance worlds. After its intro, the first real song (“New Wave Jacket”) showcases the essential balancing act POLYSICS has played through their career – psychoacoustic noise cavorting with blatant pop rock. The whole “New Wave” rock movement in the 1980s was a big influence on this band, particularly in how they add in their electronic elements, but ENO also showcases POLYSICS at very nearly their noisiest and most abrasive; the one exception probably being the album before it (Neu – in case you haven’t noticed, this band likes naming their albums and songs after artists and bands.) Given what they followed this up with (the literally named For Young Electric Pop), you could argue for this being some sort of transitional album if you wanted to.

I know that I’ll be doing that; ENO seems fairly typical as transitional albums at a certain level of execution go. While later albums tone down the noise part of this band’s noise pop a bit, the songs here tend towards the joyfully abrasive (contrast to, iuno, shrieky black metal), with a few exceptions that toss the brickwalled production out in favor of dissonance (“H MAJOR”), and a few breaks for your sore ears (“Weak Point” and “Highway Rule”). If you’re listening to the album in one whole go, those might really come in handy, since one of this album’s major flaws is that it’s mixed trebly with tons of high pitched synthesizer bleeps, and the constant fatigue may cause your ears to bleed a bit. Furthermore, this doesn’t really help express any dynamic range the band has; luckily this was something they worked on in later albums.

Given that I started listening to POLYSICS significantly before I adopted my “always listen to full albums at least once” approach, my initial experience with this album was akin to if the band had released a stream of singles, and as such, the usual disclaimer about objectivity applies here. If I weren’t writing for an audience that expects a lot of heavy metal discussion from me, I’d almost be more willing to the more polished later works above these – 2008’s “We Ate The Machine” comes to mind. But for you, the hypothetical hessian? Just drop in anywhere; you’ll be fine.

Highlights: “New Wave Jacket”, “Weak Point”, “I&I”

P.S: It’s my 300th post. I figured I might as well do something fancy with it.

Atomic Rooster – Death Walks Behind You (1971)

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I have not written much on the late 1960s/early 1970s period of undifferentiated proto-metal, where already established rock bands flirted with the new heavy metal and flourishing “progressive” scenes, even though they didn’t always go all the way down either rabbit hole. Queen certainly didn’t, and neither did Atomic Rooster, albeit they shied away in a less bombastic, melodramatic fashion. As a trained pianist, I always liked this band’s keyboard (Hammond organ) heavy approach, but Death Walks Behind You, interestingly enough, improves on the band’s debut not by particularly sharpening that part, but by integrating the various members’ talents into a more powerful and coherent whole.

One reason for this, perhaps, is the proper arrival of guitarist and vocalist John Du Cann; his first appearance technically left him redubbed onto three tracks of the band’s planned debut in the USA. Prior to this, Atomic Rooster had some level of instrumental interplay from their musical heritage, but a lot of it came from that sort of overdubbing. With Du Cann in hand, a relatively support oriented bass found itself replaced with showier guitar. Even if you don’t believe my claims of improvement (It could happen! Maybe you loathe the lute), it should be apparent that this makes for showier, more pyrotechnical performances and more effectively leads bandmembers into duels. If there’s one thing I like hearing in this style of music, it’s the duels.

Regardless, Death Walks Behind You precariously balances a melodramatic streak (which has lead many a band down the prog/heavy metal path) with its blues/rock roots, as is par for how it straddles genres. Ominous descending piano leads into a big, slow power chord riff on the title track, and for a few minutes, you could easily compare your aural input to Black Sabbath. Then, the upbeat instrumental jam “VUG” introduces the lighter side of the band, and mostly takes over, with some exceptions. Atomic Rooster’s newfound ability to match darker music to their more sinister lyrics is a major step forwards, at least from this writer’s metal-loving perspective. Even if there’s still not particularly many examples of it, the skill with which this is executed makes it welcome enough.

On their later albums, it seems that Atomic Rooster gave up on the shock and horror experiments, leaving only their showy side. From a commercial stance, it doesn’t seem to have worked too well; Death Walks Behind You remains this band’s best selling album in the Anglosphere. Now, you shouldn’t place too much faith in what the charts tell you, but it sure looks and sounds like public tastes were attuned to this sort of music, at least for a few years…

Highlights: “VUG”, “Seven Lonely Streets”, “I Can’t Take No More”

Genesis – A Trick of the Tail (1976)

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You know, my most recent post on this blog is a bigger influence on its immediate successor than I initially thought. I figured I’d write about Rush since their influence filtered into a lot of death metal, and I decided to write about Suffocation because their approach made a good contrast with Bal-Sagoth, and so forth. In a progressive rock context, perhaps what’s initially most interesting about Phil Collins’ vocal debut with Genesis is how closely it resembles the Peter Gabriel era of the band… which itself was subject to evolution and steady development… but then again, artists and bands tend to do that.

The legends say that Phil Collins only took up the role of vocalist because the rest of Genesis was unable to procure a suitable replacement. Either way, his actual voice is hard to tell from that of his predecessor, but A Trick of the Tail showcases one major (but surprisingly subtle) change in how vox fit into the compositions. You see, Peter Gabriel had this tendency to alter his intonation a lot in order to represent various characters or narrators; that added to his love of elaborate costuming in live performances gave his era of Genesis recordings a multi-vocalist feel even when Phil wasn’t backing him up. With a few exceptions (like “Robbery, Assault, and Battery”), that’s missing here, and it means an important aspect of the old Genesis is gone. The lyrics still indulge in this approach as if Peter Gabriel had never left; I’ve heard that at least some of the songs here were written with him in mind.

The corollary is that Phil Collins performing primarily as Phil Collins didn’t really strike me for quite a while. In fact, I was rather more gripped by how flamboyant the instrumental performances had become. There’s quite a couple of moments on here where the band pulls out all the stops and performs lengthy instrumental sections. A prog rock staple for sure, but the virtuosity got cranked up quite a bit since previous albums. It also helps that this album has a more assertive production than previous efforts. This might be a mastering thing, and I’d be more confident in saying it if the original sounded more like the 2007 remaster, which adds a great deal of echo and leveling that wasn’t present in earlier versions. Still, that the original sounds louder and clearer than its predecessors doesn’t exactly hurt Genesis. To be honest, they always struck me as one of the more gentle, whimsical bands in the genre, although they still have their dynamic peaks… keep in mind that your average band wouldn’t be interesting without them.

It strikes me that even this era of Genesis is more direct and hooky than its predecessors. Presumably, the lesson is that you, as a songwriting, can have it both ways. If forced to rate this at gunpoint (please don’t), I would probably put it slightly ahead of other classics like Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound, but the difference in quality is slight at best.

Highlights: “Dance on a Volcano”, “Squonk”, “Robbery, Assault, and Battery”

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980)

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You know that feeling when a band’s best work isn’t their most elaborate one as well? Sometimes, I think Rush peaked with their 1978 album Hemispheres, but at other times I’m more partial to this, despite how it begins to move away from the proggy writing that made the band so powerful in the first place. It was always funny that it began with a scathing indictment of the music industry – “The Spirit of Radio”, folks! I’m surprised the world’s broadcasters didn’t veto it for daring to criticize their perfect little world of ever fewer options, but then again that might’ve unleashed a worse storm upon them than the digital revolution. It must’ve tempted them even then with its extended instrumental intro and strange reggae flavored coda and other deviations from the orthodox pop structure.

Not to dwell on that too much; Permanent Waves has a lot to say from both a musicological and lyrical perspective. While it doesn’t contain any extra lengthy songs (illustrious examples in Rush’s past include “2112” and “Cygnus X-1″) even the shorter songs here retain the elaborate instrumental sections that took up much of the band’s songs. By 1980, Rush’s members had become rather good at playing their instruments – if you ask me, the compositions here don’t really favor one member over another, although you could make a case for Neil Peart’s consistently active style of drumming.

On second thought, what if we did dwell on Rush’s accessible turn? This blog has been sorely lacking in crass anti-commercialism for some time, probably because at one point I figured that wasn’t a particularly useful way to discuss music, but the more I think about it, the more important Rush’s evolution on Permanent Waves seems to understanding it. The first key, though, is actually that music can not be judged by its inaccessibility – the alternative is nobody being able to comprehend or tolerate the best music! The other one, however, is that Rush was already pretty easy to wrap your head around in the 1970s, at least by my jaded standards. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’m not particularly objective in that regard. Still, Rush doesn’t toss around a lot of avant-gardeisms that some bands I like play with, but they do well enough with the more conventional things. Simplification, though, can only take you so far – while Rush continues to do quite well commercially in the Anglosphere, their more stripped down ’80s and ’90s recordings don’t seem to earn the love that their formative work did.

But luckily for us, you don’t have to care about later Rush in order to appreciate earlier Rush.

Highlights: “Freewill”, “Different Strings”, “Natural Science”

Suffocation – Pierced From Within (1995)

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Because of their style (which isn’t exactly known for dynamic range, but more for monophonic thudding), Suffocation runs the risk of being dry and grating, like a poorly written technical manual. Luckily for us, they aren’t, as Pierced From Within is a pretty good primer on how to make the rhythm heavy sort of death metal they actually pioneered. Morbid Angel this ain’t – Suffocation employs little of the fluid, guitar-rhythm flavored style my choice of comparison offers you, and probably “thinks” closer to a band like Immolation, at least from a songwriting perspective. Back when this band started releasing content in the 1990s, their approach inspired a lot of bands to downtune further, growl deeper, and so forth. Pierced From Within, being their 3rd album, represents a couple years of refinement (as well as a move away from some of the overt technicality of its predecessor).

Death metal by definition is fairly percussive, but Suffocation relies even more heavily on differentiating rhythm, tempo, and implied texture as a songwriting technique. Melody and polyphony are de-emphasized substantially, although they occasionally get to play significant roles, like in “Thrones of Blood”. There’s a ton of guitar/drumwork interplay, too – each guitar riff has its own unique drum riff as accompaniment. While the time signatures here never get particularly complex, Pierced From Within keeps much of its variety within its rhythm. Because of this (as well as coherent, well written lyrics about the usual death metal subjects), we’ve got a very expressive, nuanced album on our hands, at least by the standards of death metal. Suffocation relies heavily on dense compositions here; while song lengths aren’t particularly long, the amount of unique riffs per minute stays consistently high. In my book, that’s always a good thing, and it’s especially important when you’re performing in Suffocation’s specific substyle. Nothing here is as out there as, for instance, the works of Timeghoul, but Suffocation does at least enjoy a mastery and production advantage due to their greater commercial success. Pierced From Within retains the intensity of the band’s debut (Effigy of the Forgotten) while simultaneously sounding clearer; it is therefore more intelligible. Perhaps it’s overly obvious to say this, but given the depth of the content on display, a coherent production comes in handy.

This was a relatively early discovery for me within the realms of metal – in fact, I believe I first came upon it before I started this blog! Unlike much of what I was listening to back in those days, however, I reliably return to this album for its compositional prowess. It is the sort of album I would recommend to any death metal neophyte, albeit with the caveat that since it specializes in the percussive aspects of the genre, merely listening to it will not provide a full perspective.

Highlights: “Thrones of Blood”, “Suspended in Tribulation”, “Synthetically Revived”

Bal-Sagoth – The Power Cosmic (1999)

1999 - The Power CosmicFor a Bal-Sagoth album, this is surprisingly short and focused, with its ongoing narrative about the mad god Zurra. Also, there’s a song about the Silver Surfer. I’m not really surprised – Bal-Sagoth pulls on a lot of fantasy and sci-fi literature to inform their universe, and what is Marvel if not part of that broad classification? I also note that I chose a particularly goofy way to describe this. As a corollary, this might be Bal-Sagoth’s silliest work, even beating out Battle Magic and its sylph incident. It is certainly their most upbeat, continuing a trend where the band grew ever more bombastic and upbeat and I kept putting off my first listen to Atlantis Ascendant.

Because of its lighter and softer aesthetic, The Power Cosmic often feels effusively different from the rest of Bal-Sagoth’s discography even when the underlying songwriting techniques are unchanged. I’m still not sure what motivated this change, but it’s not something you can ignore in this discussion. By this stage in their career, you could probably slot Bal-Sagoth in with Rhapsody of Fire, Blind Guardian, and other bombastic symphonic metal content as long as the intended audience could take some harsh vocals. Even then, this is not as big a jump from the previous album as that album was from Starfire Burning Under The Excessively Long Title And I’m Beginning To Regret Making This Joke; the big paradigm shift was quite a while in the past relative to this album.

Despite this, there are a couple of surface changes particularly worth mentioning. First of all, this album marks Bal-Sagoth’s switch to a sharper, more intense style of production, especially on the guitars. Scattered rumors inform me that this might be a switch from analog to digital recording, but scattered rumors that you can’t source aren’t exactly a good source from a journalistic integrity stance, am I right? It might have to do with the band’s shift from Cacaphonous Records (an early player in the British extreme metal scenes) to Nuclear Blast, but that too is a hypothesis. This album also sees the band’s long time keyboardist/drummer (Jonny Maudling) abandon the drumkit to a newcomer in order to focus on the synthesizer presence, which is definitely interesting from a documentation stance. However, neither aspect is significantly changed from this band’s immediate predecessors. Outside the songwriting, the biggest change here is definitely in the guitarwork, and even that’s not massive – it seems more intricate and technical than what we heard on Battle Magic, which I can always appreciate, but it’s the sort of improvement that makes me think, “Well, he did have about a year of practice under his belt, so it makes sense that he would learn.”

Some bands have a niche and do well within it. Except for being slightly lighter and softer yet again, The Power Cosmic is really just more of the same in a way that I like because I like Bal-Sagoth.

Highlights: “The Empyreal Lexicon”, “Of Carnage And A Gathering Of The Wolves”, “The Scourge Of The Fourth Celestial Host”