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”

Yes – Close To The Edge (1972)

folderSome say this is the high point of Yes’s career… although I’m sure you can find people who say that about all their albums. After this, Bill Bruford joined King Crimson, who promptly reached their own career peak… so maybe the Close to the Edge apologists have a point. Being composed of three songs of significant length yet clocking in at less than 40 minutes, this album is both short and long depending on how you look at it, oscillates between dynamics, tonality, and rhythm quite violently, and is full of the distinct vocals and lyricisms of Jon Anderson. Could be quite a task to talk about, but not one I shy away from, folks!

Since this is a progressive rock album, all the emphasis here is on the compositions, which I labeled as being of ‘significant length’ mere sentences ago. However, it’s probably worth noting that the title track, at the very least, is internally divided into several sections that were also used as guidelines to chop up excerpts for sale as singles. It was a common practice in ’70s prog, anyways. Luckily, Yes isn’t just cramming several short, unrelated songs into one track; it reflects well on them that excerpts from their tracks are well developed enough that they end up coherent and full-featured in isolation.

What separates Yes and Close to the Edge from many of its companions (such as the violent, chaotic improvisatory frenzy of Bruford-era King Crimson) is the level of control Jon Anderson exerts over the band’s aesthetic. What he writes and performs here is… highly intense at the expense of its own coherence – a lot of the concepts here sound like a person coming off a drug trip and believing themselves in communion with abstract concepts like time and love and lossy compression. “And You And I”, though, has more intelligible concepts, rather leaning towards the utopian… but does any of that REALLY matter? I don’t listen for the lyrics. Anderson’s voice isn’t conventionally strong, but it suits the words he writes, and as a corollary, the other members of Yes have the know-how to compose and perform relevant backing. The aforementioned “And You And I” comes with some of the most consonant and accessible guitar and keyboard work on this album, while other tracks travel deeper into dissonance; the title track even begins with what you could reasonably call a freak out, although with enough familiarity, you should eventually hear the bass and drum work holding that section together.

If you’ve been conditioned to follow my writing formulas, you’re probably wondering whether it’s worth developing that sort of familiarity with Close to the Edge. For once in my life, I can cite the name of this band as the answer to that question. In recent months I’ve probably been pushing a lot of really basic works on my readers, but I value complexity and elaboration in my music. Oddly enough, I’ve yet to give similar attention to the rest of the discography of Yes, but I do know they vacillate in their commitment to prog, if only by virtue of having shuffled their lineup through the years.

Highlights: “… are impractical on an album with as few tracks as this one,” he said, before lazily floating into the air and exploding.

Carcass – Heartwork (1994)

folder_small“Melodic death metal” is such an awful term.

What happens when you have to compare… let’s say Sentenced, Darkane, and this very album? Carcass contributed several formative works to what is now known today as grindcore, but as early as 1989, on Symphonies of Sickness, their music was taking orderly, accessible turns. Combined with a bit of humor and vegetarian members (“But Gabe!” you shout, “There’s no such thing as a vegetarian song structure!”), we also get this, which just so happens to also be a foundational work in its own subgenre.

The traditional scapegoat – since there are some people out there who don’t like Heartwork - is Michael Amott. It’s a reasonable position at first glance, actually, since Carcass became more melodic throughout his tenure with the band; furthermore Amott went on to form both Arch Enemy (more melodeath) and Spiritual Beggars (retro rock). It’s not hard to hear where his heart is, especially during the flashy and sometimes harmonized solos this album showcases. On the other hand, the album retains a measure of more stereotypical death metal/grindcore riffs that are often employed for contrast and also alternates between thrashy and rocklike drum patterns. It might be accurate to say this album’s got a bit of a split personality! In fact, it wasn’t just Amott who was interested in this; every other member of Carcass performing on Heartwork has at least dabbled in straight ahead rock/traditional metal music.

It’s hard to say what pushes your average band in a direction, but given the discographies this band has spawned, I’m guessing that this was a conscious return to roots, although clearly not a complete one. As for whether it works? That’s actually a harder question. On one hand, tons of bands in the early-mid ’90s transitioned from playing straight up death metal to this sort of hybrid rock/extreme metal sound for various reasons… although they also ended up in a lot of other places, which isn’t saying much. The key is that there’s definitely a market for this sort of thing, since it tends to result in simple, but otherwise intense and aggressive music… which has been coming up a lot in my reviews lately. Carcass seems to do a relatively good job not oversimplifying their songwriting formulas here, which is partially due to Michael Amott’s leads… and partially due to the crazed snarls of Jeff Walker, who is one of those rhythmically skilled death metal vocalists that you read a lot about when you read this blog. The caveat, of course, is that such things as Carcass’s older dual vocal attack and some of the songwriting sophistication that the previous two albums had achieved disappear into nothingness.

The lesson? Listeners beware, as few bands can actually merge the two genres Carcass does on Heartwork, and even they can’t get all the nuances down. On the other hand, they did a lot better than most of the people who attempted it.

Highlights: “Carnal Forge”, “Heartwork”, “Arbeit Macht Fleisch”, “Doctrinal Expletives” (which holds special sentimental value to me for being the first song by Carcass I ever heard)

 

Sodom – Tapping The Vein (1992)

folderAKA Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas: The Band. The production on this album is blatantly huge in a way that must not be ignored under any circumstances. While Sodom remains in a typical “extreme” speed-thrash mode here (if perhaps more concise than on previous albums), the huge, crunchy guitars make this sort of an under-noticed gem in their discography. The key to understanding my affinity for Tapping the Vein isn’t solely its production, but how it fits Sodom’s own affinities, which tend towards the violent and percussive even within their own genre.

You see, Sodom never really got away from their apparent hardcore punk roots to an extent rarely matched by their contemporaries. Interestingly enough, this would peak mere albums later before (if I understand correctly) Sodom returned to the more elaborate style they’d used in the late-1980s. The writing here is generally pretty basic, with a big emphasis on vocals and catchy choruses. To be fair, though, Sodom was never too concerned with complicated songwriting. Vocals here have improved from previous material by Sodom – at times, Tom “Angelripper” Such adopts a style based around shouts as opposed to snarls and shrieks and comes out more expressive and assertive for it. However, even his previous style of vocals comes across better on this album than on previous ones.

While the band’s roots show rather more than on… let’s say Agent Orange for simplicity’s sake, they’re still writing the same kinds of songs as they were back then. Tapping the Vein alternates between intense, blurry tremolo riffing and a few slower, almost doomy songs. The guitarist this time around is the relatively obscure Andy Brings. In contrast to Frank “Blackfire” Gosdzik’s relatively technical style (also heard on contemporaneous works by Kreator), Brings plays a lot of one note riffs linked together by various ornamental frills, like the chord progression before the first vocals in “Skinned Alive”, although there are more traditional/complicated riffs as well to hold songs together whenever Angelripper has to breathe. I wouldn’t have expected the simpler material on here to work, but it actually does sometimes, probably because when I listen to Sodom, I go in expecting pretty basic stuff.

Anyways, perhaps the greatest fault this album has is that its longer songs get repetitive due to the simple materials used to construct them. On its briefer songs, Tapping the Vein manages to successfully tap into realms of intensity that recall their formative works, but their more elaborate material isn’t as successful due to not being quite elaborate enough. It also serves as a valuable example of how a good production can draw me to content I might otherwise not pursue. Has that ever happened to you, the reader? I’d like to know.

Highlights: “Body Parts”,”Bullet in the Head”,”Hunting Season”

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.

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