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”

Capsule Reviews II

So I did a couple of miniature re-reviews of what I was listening to in 2010 almost a year ago. I figured that doing something similar for 2011 might be interesting. I’d say that 2011 showed off a more focused, coherent version of Invisible Blog with snappier writing – a more serious attempt at the whole blargosphere thing. Furthermore, between stuff like Bal-Sagoth, Gargoyle, and Septicflesh, I discovered quite a lot of good music. But what holds up?

  • Bal-Sagoth – A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria (1994): In fact, Bal-Sagoth quickly became one of my favorite bands after I gave their debut a listen. It is definitely darker and nastier than anything they’ve put out (with the possible exception of The Cthonic Chronicles), which makes good counterpoint to the sometimes rather goofy moments on their other albums. Remember that time Lord Byron got enchanted by sylphs?
  • Therion – Vovin (1998): Having been ultimately very disappointed with Theli, I found it quite impressive how much Therion improved within the course of one album. While there weren’t very many stylistic changes and things are even poppier than they were on the previous album, Vovin executes a lot of the symphonic metal tropes in more interesting and creative ways than its predecessor.
  • Devin Townsend – Physicist (2000): This is a weird one. After all, it has more overt pop in its DNA than Devin’s previous two solo albums while having a production closer to his work with Strapping Young Lad. It has a couple of artist-definingly strong tracks like “Kingdom” and “The Complex”, but the others aren’t particularly memorable or interesting.
  • Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind (1983): Actually, this is the sound of Iron Maiden settling into a formula. Sort of. The thing is that the earliest Bruce Dickinson albums were something of a period of transition for Iron Maiden, and Piece of Mind is at least somewhat transitional. The band does a better job of writing epics on their next two albums, and was better at concise, punchy songs back in the Di’Anno days.
  • Septicflesh – Ophidian Wheel (1997): While it does enhance the multi-vocalist techniques we saw on some of Septicflesh’s earlier materials, Ophidian Wheel is a step down in atmosphere and songwriting. Some of its tracks would probably feel better if given a Revolution DNA style makeover; they’d certainly sound poppier, although that’s not really saying much.
  • Absu – Tara (2001): Tara sacrifices some of the relative accessibility of its predecessor for added technicality and song complexity. My preferences within the “Celtic” era of Absu are kind of arbitrary – sometimes I want what Tara provides, sometimes I don’t. Either way, they’re not THAT different, although Tara sounds more overtly like an old speed-thrash album at times.
  • Morbid Angel – Illud Divinum Insanus (2011): I remember the firestorm this album unleashed with its stylistic decisions. Honestly, it’s not very good at being “industrial death metal” or whatever they sought, but (and this is a big but; I can not lie), I still give its more ridiculous tracks a spin occasionally. Personally, I was expecting to give this album a 0% rating when I reviewed it, but that didn’t end up being the case.
  • Susumu Hirasawa – Vistoron (2004): There was a time when I obsessed over musicians for months at a time – Hirasawa had his turn, but that was long over by the time I started this blog. I’m still attuned, though – compared to most of his solo works, Vistoron adds in a lot of pure electronica elements that I’ve learned to appreciate and understand better in recent years.
  • Arcturus – La Masquerade Infernale (1997): When I was deciding what to put in this capsule, I realized that Infester was not the first band I gave the “Raocow” treatment. This isn’t all that compelling to my current ear/brain complex. Put it on and I’ll tell you how it’s a work of obvious skill and merit, but how often do I actually seek out its signature sound? It could just be a case of burnout, since I do lose interest in even the most excellent music I listen to.
  • Emperor – Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise (2001): Back in the day, I said this album was “…very hard to write about in an intelligent fashion,” but I think I was able to figure out why things sounded the way they did. Nowadays, I’d say whether it’s worth your time is more of a style preference thing – if you enjoy Ihsahn’s solo work and perhaps want a more aggressive version of the style it employs, devour this album. But most of what I listen to executes its genre of choice at least somewhat successfully…

The lesson here, perhaps, is that by 2011 I had a better grasp on what sort of music I liked than I did in years past. Looking back, I tend to be more positive about the albums I wrote about, with less time spent infatuating over works I would ultimately ignore or reject. For better or worse, this has narrowed my criteria for both listening to music and writing about it on this blog.

Harry Turtledove – Worldwar Series (1994-1996)

worldwar cover compilationNote: This review covers all four Worldwar books. It does not cover the Colonization series (which is essentially their sequel) because I am not done reading those books yet. In reading this, I noticed that I was kind of on a World War II binge… and yet I still can’t get into Hearts of Iron. Funny how life is.

So in comparison to Stuart Slade’s relatively grounded (if fairly brutal) The Big One, Harry Turtledove alters WW2 by adding in an alien invasion of Earth that forces the various belligerents to put aside their differences as the covers of the books indicate. The “Lizards”, as humans call them, appear to have military technology not particularly more advanced than what’s available in 2014, but it’s enough to push the nations of Earth to the brink. However, the Lizards suffer greatly from the weaknesses of their social structure, which is hierarchical and conservative to the point of absurdity; much is made of the fact they waited 800 years from their initial appraisal to launch an invasion. Footfall by Larry Niven comes to mind; while I haven’t read it, it appears to be a fairly similar story of a mildly technologically superior alien race with dramatically different psychology.

Far from having a central protagonist, Worldwar reads like a series of intertwined novellas about dozens of characters all over the world, each with their own development arcs and various plot devices (things like nuclear bombs, optical lasers, and ginger).  All of the various interactions help to make for a rich, detailed world… well, maybe not so rich after the Lizards disrupt human industry, but you get the point.  Already by the end of the first book, affairs have become more complicated than initially thought, as even the Lizards are forced to invent new methods on the fly to deal with rapidly advancing human technology. The sheer amount of plotlines sometimes means you have to read for dozens of pages to get to the next part of a particular character’s narrative, but the text is engaging enough that this isn’t really an issue. I also find that at times, everyone’s musings about the ongoing war and its devastating effects gets heavy handed at expense of narrative development, but the characters in this series face all sorts of insane stressors that would have a bad effect on yours truly.

It could be because this hits so many of my interests, but I’m finding it very difficult to find any flaws in this series beyond minor nitpicks. If you like this genre, you’ll definitely enjoy the Worldwar series.

Mysticum – In The Streams of Inferno (1995)

folderI’ve had a vague urge to discuss this album for a while now, but what really pushed me over the edge is the impending release of a followup – Planet Satan. I know this band has been a pretty big influence on Aborym (who I mention because they were one of my big gateways into metal) to the point of even having devouring this band’s vocalist for an album. Furthermore, you can sense a hint of Mysticum’s influence in their work after listening to this… but first, you need to parse how much sparser and uglier this album aims to be.

Place a few tracks from here into your “ultra-minimalist low-fi black metal” playlist if you wish, because In The Streams of Inferno fits that aesthetic perfectly. It’s worth noting that even drum machines aren’t unheard of in this section of the genre, but the one on display here reaches velocities and densities more reminiscent of extreme techno/industrial music. The musicians here have no qualms about playing patterns that would be difficult for a human to imitate (if not impossible; I’ve heard live drumming that was further over the top), although the rest of the instruments are performed in a standard fashion.

Like a lot of the more minimalistic black metal bands, Mysticum is particularly successful at establishing atmosphere. The first thing a prospective listener will notice is how thin and hollow the production on this album is, with guitar so piercing it’s hard to hear the notes. Besides being generally trebley, this album showcases seemingly whispered vocals – I believe that if they were emphasized in the mix (instead, we got the opposite), they’d probably sound incredibly feral and nasty… but because they’re so buried, they’re not. Still, the interplay of drum machine and guitar are enough to keep most of the songs here interesting. Amusingly enough, the most memorable moments on this album come from “Crypt of Fear”, the longest and most elaborate track. When a band’s best songs are their long ones, it’s a sign they need to let more ideas hang out, although “Crypt of Fear” also has a lengthy (but repetitive) synthesizer prelude…

I don’t know what the sequel to this album is going to be like, but I noticed that the folks at Peaceville Records like to label Mysticum’s music as “psychedelic”. If they’re referring to the debut, then I’m afraid the only psychedelics getting pushed around are in their offices. In The Streams of Inferno puts a compelling, vaguely electronic twist on what would otherwise be standard “norsecore” type black metal. It’s not a particularly sophisticated mix, but there would be plenty of musicians in the future willing to complicate things.

Highlights: “The Rest”, “Wintermass”, “Crypt of Fear”

Devin Townsend – Ziltoid the Omniscient (2007)

folderQuite possibly the most epic piece of music to be written about a barista. Ziltoid the Omniscient was my first exposure to Devin Townsend, and as it occupies a place of what (for him) is middling intensity – not nearly as straight up aggressive as Strapping Young Lad, much more so than the rest of his solo work, and generally a lot more theatrical and melodramatic than normal. In case the cover didn’t clue you in, it also emphasizes the humorous aspects of his music. Like Deconstruction some years after it, this qualifies as a musical, albeit a more focused and narrative-oriented one.

Ziltoid the Omniscient also has the honor of being more of a one man show than even the rest of Devin’s discography. While he had a few people helping him out with mastering, he handled the entirety of composition, performance, recording, etc. It remains one of Devin’s more diverse works, moving between the ‘narrative’ songs I implied in the intro (lengthy stuff), straight up pop rock songs like “Hyperdrive”, and a few skits for good measure. The variety of musical styles combined with the continuous narrative does make for an interesting juxtaposition, and luckily for us listeners, Devin is able to keep everything coherent and interesting despite the constant changes in style.

With all this in mind, this is still pretty standard fare for Devin Townsend, although because it draws upon so many of the techniques he’s used in the past… actually, that doesn’t make it any less so. Because this is a musical, the vocals deserve special mention – Devin portrays a multitude of characters, each with a distinct voice – from Ziltoid’s theatrics to Herman’s deep growl, creating an effect of multiple vocalists even though there’s just one. It’s… obviously rather versatile. The album’s heavy synthesizer presence also comes to mind – while it’s generally leveled as a background element, it provides a constant presence and arsenal of sounds to a degree that I think at the time of release was unsurpassed in DT’s discography. Given how much layering Devin Townsend’s styles rely on, it’s hard to judge, but it definitely fits Ziltoid more than SYL (Hint: I am not a big fan of 2004’s Alien).

In retrospect, trying to compare this album to the rest of Devin Townsend’s discography may have been a bit of a writing mistake. Ziltoid really does have a bit of a “the same, yet different” feel to it that satisfies fans of Devin Townsend (like yours truly) but makes finding the words for a comparison harder than it ought to be.  Then again, I have written a bit on his other albums, so you might very well be able to use those in tandem with this review to get more information if you need it.

Highlights: “By Your Command”, “Solar Winds”, “Planet Smasher”

Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992)

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Part of the grungewave, folks. It is however worth noting that Alice in Chains leans closer to heavy metal (of the blatantly Black Sabbath influenced side) than… let’s say Nirvana or Mudhoney.  They even structure their acoustic offerings in a similar fashion. Weird, innerit?

Whatever. Besides the heavy emphasis on dual vocals (performed here by hoarse Layne Staley and smooth Jerry Cantrell), Dirt probably isn’t going to win many awards for originality, but it can get by on the strength of its execution. Needless to say, this band played pretty frequently on radio stations when I was a child, but I didn’t pay much attention until I was significantly older – in fact, my college years, when I came into a roommate who thought they were pretty cool. In return, he got dosed pretty heavily with Meshuggah, but that’s a story for an autobiography, not a blog. As a result, Dirt holds sentimental value for me, but not for the most obvious reasons.

Dirt, regardless, relies quite heavily on blues tropes to drive itself – pentatonic riffing, lots of solos, relatively simple song structures, and an overall atmosphere of suffering and drug abuse – remember that Layne Staley was a heroin addict and fully aware of it. Since these concepts got dragged through the traditional/doom metal blender, everything here ends up heavily amped, with a crunchy high-pitched guitar tone, cavernous drum reverb, and so forth. It’s an adequately aggressive production, but not one that particularly enhances the atmosphere created by the songwriting; if I were mastering this album with awareness of the band’s later works, I would probably try for something closer to their 1995 self-titled album, which is comparatively more mellow and depressive. The fact Dirt sounds the way it does may very well be Alice in Chains’ legacy popping up, at least at times; their early work (especially their demos) owes more to the poppy glam metal of the ’80s; an approach they abandoned in steps.

Let’s be honest – this album is pretty basic and predictable in its choice of rock and metal tropes. However, it does excel in its execution, particularly in its mastery of pop songwriting. My choice to talk about this album, if you ask me, means that one of the big themes of Invisible Blog this year is “Competence is more important than originality”, but even I can take issue with that – after all, someone has to come up with an idea before someone else can refine it. Digressions aside – inertia keeps a lot of albums from falling out of my playlists, but when I come back to Dirt, I understand why it got there in the first place.

Highlights: “Rain When I Die”, “Junkhead”, “Dirt”, “Angry Chair”

P.S: This album is not to be confused with Dirty by Aborym under any circumstances.

Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence (1999)

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Here’s an album I’m kind of conflicted about upon deciding to review. Let’s see how long that lasts.

You see, Control Denied is basically Chuck Schuldiner of Death admitting that he wants to do a traditional/power metal album and hiring a vocalist trained in the style he wants (Tim Aymar) to finish an aesthetic shift that had begun years ago. As a result, it often feels more authentic and passionate than the final Death album (The Sound of Perseverance), which ironically enough was intended to come out under this name and with vocals similar to the ones here. On the other hand, it doesn’t bother to fix the biggest issue in the band’s songwriting.  Almost every song Death has written hews to a very specific formula – verse/chorus/extended bridge/verse/chorus, and it gets quite grating once you notice it. On the simpler, earlier material, it doesn’t really matter, but it’s a serious problem when you’re trying to convince everyone you’re a “progressive metal” act.

Another problem with Death is that they’re usually pretty monophonic; the writers in the band began to alleviate this over time, but on The Fragile Art of Existence, the sung vocals of Tim Aymar pretty much fix this, and you won’t get any objections about his presence from me. On some of the demos that lead to this album’s existence, Chuck Schuldiner tried his hand at clean vocals, creating a sort of low, constrained sound that’s difficult to explain. Aymar is similar, but he pulls the style off more effectively, with greater range, stronger projection, and occasional multitracked harmonies. This is really the most drastic change in the band’s formula, since the rest of this album showcases the somewhat technical, somewhat melodic, but otherwise relatively sparse speed/thrash style Death had moved towards at the end of its existence. Chuck Schuldiner’s ability to find skilled musicians dates back at least to 1990’s Spiritual Healing, when he conscripted James Murphy of Obituary, and it definitely leads to the occasional pleasant surprise, like the aforementioned’s skilled guitar leads, or Steve Digiorgio’s active basslines.

Basically, I have no choice but to declare The Fragile Art of Existence an improvement over its predecessor. I don’t know if I’d put it over what I feel are the high points of Death’s career (Spiritual Healing and Symbolic, in case you wonder), but that’s primarily because those are rather different in their execution and style. Because the songwriting on this album shows off the legacy of decades of metal (with hints of Death’s extreme past leaking into less intense and more basic stuff, with power metal vox on top), it’s very likely that anyone who’s even remotely interested in metal will find something to enjoy in the work of Control Denied. However, I still think some more focus and sophisticated songwriting would’ve come in handy…

Highlights: “Consumed”, “Expect the Unexpected”, “Believe”