Amorphis – Elegy (1996)

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Speaking of bands returning to their apparent influences… here we see a foundational Finnish death metal band tossing the death metal, although you could argue that this album’s predecessor (Tales From the Thousand Lakes) did more to push the band away from its initial sound. Openly psychedelic/progressive rock where death growls fight a vocalist who wouldn’t be out of place in Seattle a few years before this album’s release. You might be getting the idea from my occasional discussion of this type of work that these fusions aren’t innately bad, and I don’t blame you.

Elegy does, interestingly, retain much of the morose and sullen side that almost certainly informed the Amorphis that was once death metal. I don’t know how much of this is due to the band’s main gimmick of sourcing their lyrics from the Kalevala and/or Kanteletar (more the latter here), but don’t look at me like that! I’m not intimately familiar with every work of folklore and literature in the world. I can say that it does fit with the darker themes of many popular ’90s rock and metal bands, because that was totally a unified movement coordinated by every single band who cracked the Billboard and/or the Official Finnish Charts.

Either way, the music more than contributes to this atmosphere, at least when it’s not aiming to make rock anthems. Elegy has a thick, dense production that drenches even its more accessible moments in a sludgey, psychedelic haze. To put it in a more opinionated fashion, it just sounds good; specifically in a way highly reminiscent of ’60s/’70s rock. Similarly to previously reviewed Agalloch, one of this band’s strengths is that they freely incorporate various strains of that era of rock into their own mix and the ensuing mix works nicely. I’m particularly drawn to the analog synthesizer and organ sounds that ornament many of these tracks. However, Elegy leans a LOT closer to those influences to the point that the only reliable trace of death metal is in the harsher vocals. Some metallic ideas remain at points, particularly in songs like “On Rich and Poor” with their more rapid and prominent guitar leads, and the dynamic range of the band occasionally heads into the more epic territory I’d associate with the genre. Otherwise, though, this is really more of a rock album than a metal album.

I’d be beating a dead horse if I kept harping on about the rockisms here. Even then, Elegy is a very good rock album, and should reward you with entertainment far beyond its length as long as you accept the genre Amorphis has chosen to perform in. Keep in mind that I find straight up rock music harder to criticize since I have overall less experience with it than metal…

Highlights: “Against Widows”, “The Orphan”, “My Kantele”, “Elegy”

Agalloch – Pale Folklore (1999)

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Agalloch stands for “atmosphere above all else” if you can’t spell. While inspired by the classic black metal of the 1990s (which, of course, is rather different from being inspired by the classic black metal of the 1980s), the end product on display here bears less resemblance to its origins than an educated guess might lead you to believe. A lot of the writing about Agalloch mentions progressive/folk rock acts, but those also inspired the blackened ones. Perhaps they were looking a bit further back when they wrote and composed these songs?

The emphasis here is, to put it bluntly, on atmosphere and repetition, in a manner superficially similar to bands like Enslaved and Blut Aus Nord, but frequently with rather less distortion and speed than such vaunted names. Vocals here remain harsh and throat-grating for whatever reason – on many occasions I have wondered what would lead a band to retain such vestiges of what was almost certainly a more bestial past when they don’t really fit the rest of the songwriting. Maybe it’s easier for them, but (keeping in mind that Agalloch would go on to a long and presumably successful career on this formula) on those rare occasions where different vocals come in, they really do succeed in complementing the guitar drones. My “extra layers and sonic density is good” sense chimes in with its typical sentiment.

Regardless, while Agalloch repeats themselves about as much as their minimalist brethren, they manage to have more complicated songs, at least from a structural stance. This is usually achieved through a great deal of leads. As previously stated, some of these take the form of sung vocals, but there’s plenty of acoustic and electric guitar as well. These are sonically different enough from the rhythm riffs that it wouldn’t require much audio mixing ability to reconcile them. While their approach allows them to express quite a few musical ideas per second, the band relies on basic, consonant progressions to actually write these riffs. A few extended chords serve as counterpoint (Remember that when you first listen to “Dead Winter Days”), but the band’s ability to be melodic is not matched by their ability to be melodically and harmonically varied, or at least dissonant. Most people wouldn’t find this to be a problem, and it probably isn’t one, but it further distinguishes Agalloch from my choice of comparison.

From what I’ve read, Agalloch may more generally belong to the schools of metal popularized by bands like Opeth, which has been described by many to varying ends and in various tones. One problem arises – I haven’t actually listened to Opeth, except for that one cover they did of “Remember Tomorrow” by Iron Maiden, and that’s hardly representative of their entire discography. Probably. I digress. The lesson here is that I find it easier to compare things I have experienced. That Agalloch is a lighter and softer take on some of the ideas in extreme metal seems reasonable enough to me. Sometimes the atmosphere grabs me, other times it functions as little more than an exercise in dispassion.

Highlights: “She Painted Fire Across The Skyline”, “Dead Winter Days”, “As Embers Dress The Sky”

 

Bad Ideas #18: Good Ideas #5: Game Mashups #2: Subtitles All The Way Down

An occasional dosage of “bad ideas”… or good ideas comes in handy occasionally… although a lot of people seem to want more, and more, and ever more until you can never satiate the beast that drives them! Uh, I mean… you can read the previous installment here.

171. Crusader King’s Quest V

CEDRIC: “Save me, Graham!”
KING GRAHAM: “I can’t! My sled and a custard pie formed a faction to lower Crown Authority in Daventry!

172. Five Nights At Foreclosure’s

“Eh, if you don’t pay your bills, the animatronic bankers might try to stuff you in a slum. You can imagine being pressed inside one of those things might lead to discomfort and death.”

173. Rug Legacy

My family’s been saving up for ten generations in order to pay a visit to Stanley Steamer. We’ll get these Khidr stains out one of these years!

174. Duck Nukem vs. the Quack Pack

“Damn, those pantsless sailor bastards are going to pay for shooting up my ride.”

175.  Plaque Inc: Embossed

Excessive shininess and wooden glaze have helped you to sell over 200,000,000 commemorative plaques. That’s more than the amount of people who died in the Black Death!

176. Romance of the Three Kingdoms III: The Frozen Throne

I know we’ve been trying to scale up porcelain production to raise money for Cao Cao’s armies, but this is just ridiculous!

177. Microsoft Hooters Flight Simulator

These wings aren’t just for eating.

178. Call of Duty: Medieval Warfare

I realize I’ve pulled the ‘Call of Duty’ card several times before, and that games like Chivalry exist, but how else are you going to get a fire-breathing dragon from a killstreak?

179. Risen: A Baking Story

That’s not a dungeon! It’s the world’s largest oven!

180. Yo! Sengoku And His Friends Return!

I know you call yourself the Turtle Hermit, but building turtle ships and invading Korea is a terrible idea!

And that’s why we’ll probably have a 19th installment of Bad Ideas someday. Throughout this blog’s existence, we have barely even scratched the surface of what can be, what should be, and what must not under any circumstances be allowed to exist.

Dødheimsgard – Monumental Possession (1996)

folderDødheimsgard got a lot of notoriety for experimenting with the black metal formula, but Monumental Possession predates that. This is a fairly clean and basic extreme thrash metal album, with obvious black metal references that bring bands like Absu to mind. The thing about this sort of thing is that it usually sounds more like a souped up version of formative ’80s underground metal recordings than, for instance, the melodic/symphonic material of Emperor. In fact, a member of Emperor briefly played with Dødheimsgard, but let’s not dwell on that too much.

On Monumental Possession, Dødheimsgard is a TRIPLE VOCALIST BAND. However, each track only showcases the vocal talents of one member; their vox are similar in overall approach but not quite enough to blend together. This still helps to distinguish the songs, since there’s no real correlation between which vocalist is performing and the overall structure of the music. I can’t say why they chose to break up their duties this way – perhaps they all wanted to “sing”, perhaps the shouting and screaming hurt their throats. Either way, it seems to work out decently for the band, although I tend to prefer the more deranged vocals of one Aldrahn; he cries out for three tracks and then is suddenly silenced. Victonik also draws my attention occasionally for multitracking himself to similar effect.

The music here tends to favor pure intensity over creativity, with very basic guitar riffs mated to intense drumming and a surprisingly good and clear production. Not a lot of effort went into polishing this, so there are occasional periods where things fall out of sync or become difficult to comprehend, like the noisy intro. Occasionally this weirdness gets used to better effect, though – take for instance, “Lost in Faces” with its unusual main riff. There’s a lot of these odd asides throughout the album, which must’ve drawn at least some attention. Celtic Frost actually compares in their evolution – this arguably matches up with To Mega Therion, although that album used a more consistent set of garnishes to ornament its similarly blackened, yet thrashy content. Both bands went on to create much stranger albums with varying levels of popular support, for better or worse.

The last few times I talked about “primitive” metal, I mentioned that my interest in such waxes and wanes over time. On the other hand, it took a few albums in this style to truely open me up to the possibilities this sort of playstyle had. I don’t remember whether Dødheimsgard was one of those gateways, or if they were a band I explored because I’d previously been given such a gateway, but either way, it adds up to something that’s at least sometimes worth listening to.,

Highlights: “The Crystal Specter”, “Fluency”, “Angel Death”

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”