Fates Warning – The Spectre Within (1985)

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With Germans busy devastating the walls of Jericho, American contributions to what would become power metal are… surprisingly, not that different! Fates Warning shares similar influences to much of the scene, but they took some wild turns of songwriting that have people (validly) referring to their discography as formative progressive metal. John Arch‘s vocals are the first attraction here as on any recording he’s done, but those who pay attention and delve into the actual recording will find a band more than willing to back him up and play to his strengths.

The Spectre Within is cleanly cut between two types of tracks – complex epics on par with the progressive rock of the 1970s onwards (on this album’s sequel, Awaken the Guardian, the entire emphasis will be on such) and simpler tracks oriented towards velocity and intensity. Both of these favor many of the same musical techniques, so even when the songwriting varies, the album’s sticks to its guitars, bass, drums, etc. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that John Arch has the most ‘adventurous’ parts on this album; compared to Sympathetic Resonance some decades later he might sound a bit fuller and stronger, but the real difference is that he’s in a lighter, more upbeat genre this time – here, he hits higher pitches and does some multitracked harmonies at times. It fits the mood of the music, at the very least.

Besides two songwriting approaches, The Spectre Within also has two souls, and these don’t necessarily correspond to the differences in compositions. Much has been written about the split in underground metal between darker, ‘extreme’ recordings and lighter, more optimistic styles, but in terms of theme, the two aren’t always so clear cut. The Spectre Within pulls in two directions – upbeat, even occasionally heroic sounding content (such as “Pirates of the Underground”, literally an ode to metal itself) is interspersed with darker, even morbid songs; the album also ends on that note via the gloomy “Epitaph”. I don’t know enough about the band’s internal dynamics in 1985 to say whether they had anything to do with this. Either way, it’s probably worth noting that this may just be an attempt by the band to vary up the recordings on their album (Occam’s razor), or perhaps part of the songwriting developments that we’d see even on the next album (…by the way, Occam shaved with a dual-bladed razor).

You just can’t get away from the fact John Arch defined Fates Warning during his tenure with the band – note the significant change in direction when he left and was replaced with Ray Alder. As someone who thinks John Arch’s vocal talents transmute everything they touch to gold… I am not alone – on Encyclopedia Metallum, The Spectre Within is one of the most positively reviewed albums! While you shouldn’t take opinions as facts, it is a fact that I recommend this album based on my opinions of its various aspects.

Highlights: “Orphan Gypsy”, “Without a Trace”, “The Apparition”

 

 

Second Contact Is Worse – Character Art

Another facet of advertisement reveals itself! I hired an artist to illustrate some characters for Second Contact Is Worse, and he recently completed the job, so I figured I’d upload them so that they’d be on the internet. That’s a reasonable course of action, right? These illustrations were made by Łukasz Juśkiewicz from Poland. If you like them, be sure to check out his deviantART page… where you can also see the cover art my book’s going to have upon publication. He’s also open for commissions, so if you think his style is appropriate for your own works, I highly recommend you look to him for work. The artwork you’ll see after the jump (assuming you read this from the front page and don’t click directly through to here) is legally his property, although I made sure to get usage rights, so if you want to do something with this art for whatever reason, please contact him instead of me to get permission.

Hold your mouse over these images for character descriptions. Shrewd readers will note that I do this for pretty much every image on my website, although I usually don’t upload this much text.

Read more…

Megadeth – Rust in Peace (1990)

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You know, “Tornado of Souls” may very well be the best song Megadeth has ever written, at least if you judge it by my standards. It doesn’t repeat itself much, it has a good sense of dynamics, its sections are linked in a logical and coherent way, and so forth. Whatever. Megadeth always struck me as having an inexplicable, nebulous ‘cool’ factor that most of their contemporaries never got their hands on, at least in their classic era. They managed to keep it at least up to Youthanasia, which is an achievement given how far that album drifts from the band’s previous style. Maybe writing about it will help me understand my own opinions…

Now, I don’t know if the 1990 original version or the 2004 partial re-recording is more popular, but the 2004 version is what I’ve listened to. As you might expect for a major metal band recording in 2004, everything is crystal clear and appropriate, but that’s not saying much. I seem to remember reading of some peoples’ preference for the original version of Rust In Peace‘s vocals, but I really should emphasize that there’s not a major difference between these two versions. An album like this (i.e one that relies quite heavily on musical virtuosity) requires a clear production for maximum effect, so given the budget, it’s not really saying much.

After all, most of the good writing about Rust in Peace would revolve around the compositions, including the aforementioned “Tornado of Souls”. Before that, though, a listener has the opportunity to taste Megadeth’s compositional style; “Holy Wars” and “Hangar 18″ actually suggest that “Tornado” might be a bit of an outlier. From a structural stance, these two aren’t really as fluid or as well developed, although they’re still fairly ambitious. Honestly, comparisons to Metallica are actually quite apt here; although Megadeth’s instrumental parts are way more complicated than anything Metallica ever attempted, they didn’t really have the same knack for extended compositions at most times.  On the other hand, Rust in Peace has several shorter songs that rather excel, although part of it’s just their velocity; “Poison was the Cure” comes to mind. For not being Slayer levels of fast, Megadeth could deceive you for quite some time by virtue of the intricate shredding on display here. Now, this had always been part of the band’s repertoire, but (most likely due to the efforts of new guitarist Marty Friedman) it takes on new levels of intensity here; essentially making much of the guitar work here resemble traditional/early speed metal riffs sped up a few times. Given that a lot of classic thrash bands wrote their material in this fashion, I suppose it’s not saying much, but it’s still worth noting if you want to analyze things.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m any closer to decoding the “cool” of Megadeth, although there are a lot of musicological elements here that I didn’t think about before writing this feature. For whatever reason, Rust in Peace isn’t where this is at its strongest – I’d say the band’s 1986 sophomore album Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? has more charisma… and in fact, I think I like that one more in general! On the other hand, it doesn’t have any peaks as high as “Tornado of Souls”, although it is a bit rougher and nastier at the best of times…

Some imaginary person, most likely overweight and inebriated is yelling at me to shut up and enjoy the music.

Highlights: “Take No Prisoners”, “Poison Was The Cure”, “Tornado of Souls” (“X-MEN, WELCOME! TO! DUH!”)

VNV Nation – Matter + Form (2005)

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A lot of metalheads seem to like VNV Nation, even though since it’s an electronic pop act, it kind of falls far outside that genre. Matter + Form has a lot of rock influence filtering into it for whatever reason, though, whereas earlier VNV material pulls on industrial/EDM to a more obvious degree. The ideological underpinnings of the band (lots of militant futurism, although positive) remain intact, but this is a pretty easy sell to the average listener. While the band started their career in Britain and Ireland, they’ve made their way to Germany, where they perform decently (#38) in the local songcharts. Anyways, they probably sell more albums than the last band I talked about.

Partially because VNV Nation uses a wide variety of synthesizers, Matter + Form doesn’t really have a consistent aesthetic, but most songs are fairly mid-tempo and not particularly dense in their soundscapes. Occasionally, you get relatively driving, aggressive instruments like on “Chrome” and “Entropy”, but just as often you get literal ballads – for example, “Endless Skies” and “Homeward”. Not sure what to make of that, really, beyond that it’s a standard move in much of the western pop traditions. Compared to previous albums, and starting a trend that showed up on Futureperfect, Ronan Harris’s vocals are less processed – trading a more natural character for less ways to make songs fit into a common aesthetic.

Actual compositions here are split between more openly poppy content and tracks more reminiscent of the electronic dance music “scene”. There are obvious nods to a more ambient style of composition (See “Strata”/”Interceptor”) at times, and you don’t need my backlog to show you how I prefer that style… have it anyways, though. It’s hard to say whether the more accessible content on this album is actually strengthened by the nods towards guitar-driven rock music (the aforementioned “Chrome” uses sounds that sometimes remind me of an amped up guitar), or whether I merely am drawn to those for their stylistic decisions. Either way, it does seem to give that part of the work more staying power, even if only subjectively. These songs do, however, showcase Ronan Harris’s lyrics – he’s rather good at tapping into relevant concepts and giving them a bit of a mythical sheen.

I guess that given where I come from, the best comparison I can think of is Prince of the Poverty Line by Skyclad; unfortunately due to lack of listening experience, I can’t really talk futurepop. However, both of these albums are relatively mainstream for their chosen genre, but are strengthened by their understanding of pop songwriting and well written lyrics; furthermore, they use aesthetic changes to distinguish songs from one another. In the end, I suppose I like them for the same reasons, and they might come from the same mental space. Given when I first listened to it (late 2012) and what I followed it up with, Matter + Form definitely turned my attention towards various permutations of vocal-oriented electronic music; even though I don’t listen to it as much anymore it has certainly broadened my horizons. I guess that accessibility does come in handy sometimes!

Highlights: “Chrome”, “Color of Rain”, “Entropy”, “Lightwave”

 

Deicide – Legion (1992)

folderIt’s cliche to describe extreme metal as an assault, but Legion really is an extreme metal assault. I mean, this isn’t a contemplative experience that just so happens to have death growls. On this album, Deicide strikes a delicate (if feral sounding) balance between the rhythmic abilities of a band like Suffocation and the melodic development of a band like Morbid Angel and don’t spend much time developing an atmosphere of more than violence and hate. It makes sense – a Deicide show must’ve been quite the spectacle in the early ’90s, between the aggressive music and frontman Glen Benton threatening to kill himself in a couple of years.

Death metal’s roots in speed/thrash metal are especially apparent on this recording. Mind you, this seems to have underwent the same process of first being stripped down to its barest essence and then having new, more elaborate ideas brought into replace them.  Legion therefore manifests as a series of sparse but lengthy interlocking guitar, bass, and drum riffs with vocals from someone who does a very good job of altering his rhythmic patterns to suit his backing. Velocities are almost always lightning fast, even though Legion‘s tempos have been surpassed again and again since this album’s initial release. Needless to say, the album’s sound is also influential – you can label it as clean if you approve, sterile if you don’t, but definitely a sound that’s been imitated over the years. It’d been done a few times before – Massacra’s debut comes to mind, as does Morbid Angel’s… although the latter emphasizes melody more and has a wider variety of tempos.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Legion‘s construction is that it relies very heavily on its riffs being hooky enough to stick inside your head. That kind of happens when you get down to this level of minimalism, but Deicide manages to pull it off. Part of this is that the guitarists on this album (the Hoffman Brothers) seem to be in perfect mental sync; one bit of trivia I’ve heard is that they panned the guitars so that by listening to only the left or right channel one can get a different perspective on what’s going on. This and the aforementioned Benton-vocals seem to explain why Legion works more effectively than its simple ingredients would lead me to believe. While things are clearly executed on a more than competent level, there’s an unexplained factor here that makes this work much stronger than I’d otherwise expect. If I ever figure it out, I might stealth-edit this post to discuss it.

Highlights: “Satan Spawn, The Caco Daemon”, “Trifixion”, “Revocate the Agitator”

Immolation – Unholy Cult (2002)

folderSix years can either do a lot to a band, or nothing at all. Immolation’s 1996 album Here in Afteris a masterpiece of death metal that mixes accessible hooks into complex songwriting. Unholy Cult is much the same in that regard, but with a stronger production, a sharper ear for melody, and an overall more accessible take on the same ideas they had in previous recordings. When you think about it, large changes and no changes need not be mutually exclusive… if you ignore that much of Immolation’s evolution between this album and its predecessors happens on the surface.

Even once you peel away the top-level changes, Immolation seems more theatrical and melodramatic than they were in the past. Here in After feels more methodical and perhaps a bit more distant from its subject matter – the production even sounds more distant on that album. While Unholy Cult doesn’t lose the clarity of such, I find that it sounds fuller and more aggressive. Given that the album is also written to be more direct at times, I’d say this is an appropriate development that contributes well to the overall product.

The first apparent culprit would be lineup changes. The band’s longtime creative core (Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna) remains on Unholy Cult, and to this day even, but a new drummer and rhythm guitarist enter the fold. The drummer in particular (Alex Hernandez) seems to have a simpler, more martial style than his predecessor, and Bill Taylor may be responsible for the increase in melodic riffs, but not knowing exactly who wrote these songs (credits say ‘all songs by Immolation’) makes it more difficult to determine who’s responsible for the admittedly small changes in direction. One thing I do miss from this more polished approach are the more spontaneous, creative songwriting turns of Here in After – needless to say, then was a band that could make them work, and 2002-Immolation almost certainly could as well.

In the end, Unholy Cult is, as far as I know, an evolution even from its immediate predecessors, and the increased presence of consonant melodies is the most important change on this recording. Since it’s otherwise not particularly different from those, it’s hard to say whether I like it more or less than its surroundings. If you like this period of Immolation, though, you’re sure to get at least something out of this, but for me to say more would be to make unfair generalizations about you, and you wouldn’t like that, would you?

Highlights: “Unholy Cult”, “Wolf Among the Flock”, “Reluctant Messiah”

P.S: I had a review for Close To A World Below in drafting at one point, but I’ve lost track of it. It has a similarly beefy production to this, but the songwriting is closer to that on Here in After. More on that if I find the draft or just decide to start over.

 

Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales (1984)

folderNote: For simplicity’s sake, I’m also including the 1985 Emperor’s Return EP in this review. There have been multiple pressings of the two that share various tracks.

The earliest ‘extreme metal’ recordings emphasize simplicity and have blatant hardcore punk influence. Morbid Tales, as is to be expected, is quite like that even when it’s blatantly more occult than your average Discharge or Black Flag album. Still, this is a lot more polished and disciplined than its predecessor (the discography of Hellhammer). Future Celtic Frost albums would be… rather more experimental, to say the least, so you could say this is the most straightforward work in their discography. Is that a good thing?

Given that Celtic Frost’s experiments haven’t always been successful, you could describe this approach as a good contrast. It becomes immediately apparent that Morbid Tales relies on a relatively small palette of musical instruments and techniques to paint its pictures (compare to the cover art), meaning they have to really master those things to get their point across. The album is full of little two/three note riffs and uses a lot of tempo changes to indicate section changes. At times, it reminds me of Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation by Sepultura in its commitment to primitivism, but this band has rather less interest in velocity in favor of slightly more complicated songwriting.

Most of what succeeds on this album is what got people listening to my point of comparison – it’s very basic stuff that’s strung together in a way that makes the whole product stronger than the sum of its parts. At times, you get a sense of how the band is developing their abilities – tracks like “Visions of Mortality” and “Return to the Eve” seem to demonstrate this most effectively due to their less… circular structures. Another key to this album’s strengths are the lyrics, oddly enough – they are rather more ambitious than that of contemporary bands, even if the subject matter’s rather similar. They’re not always particularly fluent English (as Celtic Frost is from Switzerland), but when they are, they showcase rather more literary knowledge and mechanism than you’d expect for 1984. The vocals that deliver these lyrics are generally interesting sounding and full of amusing grunts from Tom Warrior, but they’re thickly accented; good luck parsing the lyrics without the text on hand. I also kind of miss the completely ridiculous, over the top approach of “Triumph of Death”, but there’s not really much here where that would’ve worked.

Clearly, this isn’t as filthy as its predecessors, or as ambitious as its successors, but Morbid Tales does rather have solid songwriting expertise in its favor. If you like the whole early underground metal style (or collection of styles, because let’s be honest, a lot of ideas evolved independently from one another), you might get something out of this. Personally, it taught me to get something out of the rest of Celtic Frost, but I’ve found that looking at a band’s foundational works often helps me appreciate their other recordings more…

Highlights: “Into the Crypt of Rays”, “Morbid Tales”, “Return to the Eve”

P.S: I’m still waiting for the Celtic Frost/Simpsons mashup featuring Krusty the Clown.