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”

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”