Cloven Hoof – A Sultan’s Ransom (1989)

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Ever had one of those moments where you listen to an album and decide you absolutely must have it? When I first listened to A Sultan’s Ransom some months ago, my brain demanded I acquire it, and since a person is pretty hard to distinguish from their brain at the best of times, I followed through.

Metaphysics (metalphysics?) aside, Cloven Hoof apparently began their life as part of the influential New Wave of British Heavy Metal, before making their way into the vaguely proggy power metal territory of A Sultan’s Ransom. Iron Maiden arguably evolved in a similar fashion during the 1980s, although at a generally lower level of aggression and speed. Any influence shines through mostly in the vocals of Russ North, which very much resemble Bruce Dickinson’s overall style. Russ seems to rely on his lower frequencies a bit more, but he pulls out most of the same tricks. The guitarist (Andy Wood), meanwhile, does much to establish this album’s identity, mixing melodic, melodramatic leads and passages with more intense but sparser strums and chugs (i.e the typical speed-thrash approach). To be fair, lots of bands were doing this at the time, and lots of bands still are since it’s a fairly common trope in this subgenre, but this album came out early enough that it probably played a role in popularizing such an approach.

Okay, fine, maybe they’re not winning points for originality. On A Sultan’s Ransom, Cloven Hoof performs in a genre that was already well established in 1989, and as you can probably tell from the fact I drew connections to Iron Maiden, I’m sensing quite a bit of similarity of approach. On the other hand, Cloven Hoof executes it consistently better than Iron Maiden does, probably because Iron Maiden only really shines when they extend their songwriting, elaborate on their ideas, and in general release Somewhere in Time. This album successfully packs some of these extended songwriting techniques into assuredly shorter songs, and that gives even more obviously verse-chorus driven tracks like “Highlander” a sense of momentum and purpose that they otherwise would lack. Cloven Hoof doesn’t push as far into these territories as some of their contemporaries, but based on what I hear here, they would’ve succeeded if they tried.

To put it bluntly, albums like A Sultan’s Ransom built up enough following for this band over the years that some members tried to reform it in the mid-2000s. I’ve read that these efforts involved all sorts of unfamiliar musicians and resulted in work of varying quality, but whatever your opinion on those works (if any) may be, you probably wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for this album.

Highlights: “Forgotten Heroes”, “1001 Nights”, “Notre Dame”, “Highlander”

Demilich – Nespithe (1993)

folder_largeNespithe is a great example of what I’ve come to think of as “academic” death metal – the sort that emphasizes difficult, rhythmically complex content above all else. Suffocation is a good point of comparison, although they’re rather more accessible than Demilich. One reason you might’ve heard of this band, if you know of them at all, is that they offer their entire discography for free at their official website… you can still pay for physical copies if you wish.

Nespithe‘s main hook, though, is not its price, or even its construction, but its infamous vocals and lyrics… although when I say “infamous”, I may be exaggerating for comedic effect. If burp metal is a thing, it probably had its start here in the exceptionally low pitched, albeit not particularly harsh tones of Antti Boman. On the grand spectrum of death metal vocals, it’s firmly in a sector that emphasizes aesthetics over intelligibility. Ultimately, these vocals are in service to lyrics that tend more towards Lovecraft-style “cosmic” horror than some of the other modes death metalheads like, such as gore, Satanism, warfare, science fiction. Potentially unsettling stuff; you could argue that the incomprehensible vocals either push listeners to the lyric books, or that the vocalist should’ve used a more intelligible style, but if you did, you’d be wasting your time trying to influence an album that’s old enough to get drunk.

On the other hand, good songwriting keeps an album fresh for longer than gimmicky vocals. Nespithe has the interesting dichotomy of being both highly melodic and highly dissonant; the former in fact is used in service of the latter. There isn’t a lot of metal period that does this – my usual go-to example is Kreator, who uses a lot of major intervals to create a similar effect, but they don’t even do it nearly as much as Demilich, even on such albums as Extreme Aggression. It’s definitely unique, although again, unique alone is not enough to make a metal album valuable. The other major thing I’ve noticed about the songwriting on Nespithe is that the band never changes up their style. All songs here use the same basic building blocks and achieve variety solely through arrangement. Still, songs sound the same even when they aren’t, so I predict this is going to be a polarizing album, at least for the masses.

In my experience, this is one of those albums I kind of have to get into the mood for to properly enjoy; not particularly ambitious, definitely skilled at what it aims for, surprisingly sensical if you pay attention, and so forth. I would recommend it conditional on you having some experience with vaguely similar bands, but then again, most of my recommendations are conditional, and when was the last time you jumped into a genre you had no experience with anyways? To be fair, Nespithe isn’t a bad way to shock therapy yourself into being a death metal fan, but it’s definitely going to leave you with different predispositions than, let’s say, Morbid Angel…

Highlights: “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)”, “The Echo (Replacement), “Erecshyrinol”

Univers Zero – 1313 (1977)

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I’ve been known to speak of this band on occasion. I’ve been known to speak of MANY bands on this occasion, but that I discovered Univers Zero during a particularly fertile period of musical discovery ought to be of some value. The last time I acknowledged 1313‘s existence, it was to label some aspects of it similar to mid-1970s King Crimson. Still, this album has a unique flavor of its own; despite what the name might lead you to believe, it is not particularly medieval, as it began its life as a humble self-titled debut, given its number only by the whims of a record company…

Now, the music? That’s ENTIRELY intentional. Like any other album by this band I’ve listened to, 1313 is very driven and thorough-composed, although usually sparser and more perhaps not as polished as what would come later. It revels in its own dissonance and atonalisms, which may very well have been quite liberating for the band after its previous jazz-rock incarnations. A few song elements particularly stand out for being reminiscent of Univers Zero’s many predecessors – most notably, the crazed dissonant improvisation in the middle of “Ronde” that would probably be consigned to instrumental sections in bands that actually used vocals. There’s also more of an emphasis on short repeated riffs and odd time signatures, which was toned down on Heresie and at some point brought back for the use of the somewhat more accessible 1980s incarnation of this band. Perhaps much of what I believe 1313 to sound like is a result of my exposure to the rest of this band’s work? Hard to say, really.

On occasion, I’ve noted albums where the quality of the songs is roughly proportional to their lengths. Given their choice of genre, is it really any wonder that 1313 is such an album? My theory that the extra effort focuses such bands seems to hold here, because the elaborate superstructures of “Ronde” that lead off this album are among this band’s defining triumphs. It also shows off the strong rhythmic core that defines much of this album (in part because the first track takes up 15 of 1313‘s 38 minutes. Numeric, innerit?), as well as giving you a feel for the dynamic contrasts this band enjoys engaging. On the other end of length, you have two little filler tracks – “Carabosse” and “Complainte” – that act as miniature exercises in tedium and would drag the album down greatly were they not so small. The other two tracks (“Docteur Petiot” and “Malaise”), interestingly enough, vaguely approximate the more accessible approach of Uzed and future material by this band, but given the seven years of separation and personnel changes between then and now, this is probably a coincidence.

In short, 1313 isn’t really that different from the rest of this band’s discography, but it’s enough so that my usual approach seems to accentuate what differences there are. The similarities to other Univers Zero material I enjoy are enough to bait me into listening to this, and if you enjoy progressive rock even slightly, you should definitely add this to your collection.

Highlights: “Ronde”, “Docteur Petiot”, “Malaise”

Devin Townsend – Dark Matters (2014)

folderIf you ask me, Dark Matters is a big budget re-imagining of its illustrious predecessor. It’s probably musically closer to Deconstruction than the first Ziltoid album, and within the context of Devin Townsend’s musical approach, it has a stronger narrative. I’d say that in these various regards it’s a pretty typical sequel. We’d still best take a look at what this means for Dark Matters, because otherwise all those optimistic people who read about Ziltoid #1, or even just Sky Blue (the other half of Z²) would end up somewhere else, somewhere distinctively not written by me. We can’t have that, can we?

Like Deconstruction before it, Z² is an album of guests held together by its main creative personality. It contains a couple of guest vocalists, although none of them seem to have the fame of Anneke van Giersbergen. Devin Townsend still acts as our main vocalist, using a variety of techniques to perform all sorts of characters. His narrations, in particular, are particularly useful in this regard, perhaps too useful! Remove them (as the alternate dialogue free version of Dark Matters does), and you lose a lot of the conceptual unity that makes this a Ziltoid album. Given that this is more story driven than any of its predecessors… well, let’s hope you don’t find the dialogue interludes annoying. I personally didn’t, but anyone who does is getting their experience gutted.

Perhaps the only thing we haven’t heard on prior Devin Townsend albums is the “Universal Choir” – mass fan vocal participation that appears on a couple of these tracks. Otherwise, this is a formula we’ve heard before, even if the actual recombinations are different. Tracks here are more compact than they were in the past, although there’s a few outliers – “War Princess” and “Earth” come to mind pretty quickly if you look at the tracklist. I suppose nobody involved in the project really wanted to change up the formula too much. Personally, I can’t complain, because Devin does this sort of thing pretty well, and massive genre shifts are not without their potential pitfalls.

Given what I thought about the other half of Z², it might be reasonable to say the entirety of it is a “safe” album, suitable for anyone who enjoyed previous efforts by its creator. As a reimagining, Dark Matters is unique enough to stand on its own, and without the sheer aggression at all costs of other aspects of the Devyverse (like Strapping Young Lad), it’s certainly easier to acclimate to. Anything else on this subject is redundant at best.

Highlights: “Ziltoidian Empire”, “War Princess”, “Ziltoid Goes Home”

 

Devin Townsend – Sky Blue (2014)

foldersmallI’ve decided that Devin Townsend’s recent double album () is too disjointed to talk about as anything but its two constituents. Thusly, Sky Blue!

A lot of this album is pretty far outside my usual listening habits, but within Devy’s massive discography I can already draw a lot of clear comparisons – Biomech and Terria come to mind if I scan what I’ve listened to, and I’m told Ki, Addicted, Epicloud, and a whole slew of his other recent works share some similarities too. “Fallout, in particular, sounds like it could’ve been written for Biomech and easily fit in with a production shift. Needless to say, this is far from undiscovered territory for Devin and his various companions. One major difference, though, is the huge emphasis on vocals, especially those of main female vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. This isn’t even her first time working inside the Project; but the types of vocals she uses seem pretty similar to those of Devin; lots of clean earnest singing at various dynamic levels, although she doesn’t seem to bother with screams.

Now, there are some people who aren’t into artists using the pop side of their repertoire/musical language. I used to think I was such a person, but I’ve found some degree of serenity since then. I don’t know about the rest of Devin’s discography, but apparently has a lot of content that tributes or pastiches other artists, including a few you are very unlikely to read about on this blog. Considering that I never even thought this might be a possibility until researching the duology AFTER listening to it, I’d say it’s nothing more skeevish (or normal) listeners need to worry about. On the other hand, it also probably means the members here have been doing as they please for a while. It’s a good way to keep your music from being too neurotic.

Oddly enough, when you get to the dynamic levels that you see on Sky Blue, I begin to prefer the straighter ahead pop material to the more ambient material; Tangerine Dream this is not, and it doesn’t want to be either. Comparing again to other Devin Townsend works, I tend to get more out of Biomech and Infinity than let’s say Terria, and I’m probably not going to end up acquiring Ghost unless I end up listening to a sample of it and getting particularly gripped/possessed by its content. I don’t know if I would’ve listened to Sky Blue if it didn’t come with the successor to Ziltoid the Omniscient, but it succeeded in further interesting me in that side of Devin Townsend’s music. In other words, it’s a success.

Highlights: “Fallout”, “Universal Flame”, “Warrior”

 

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”