Anatomy of VGM #17: Jazz Jackrabbit (1994)

5253-jazz-jackrabbit-dos-front-cover.jpg
Funny true story – I had a childhood, and Jazz Jackrabbit figured greatly in it, at least when it comes to computer games. Between this, Lemmings, and Populous: The Beginning, I was pretty much the demographic for Home of the Underdogs… but that’s a story for another day.

It took me a while to realize just how lucky I had it with Jazz Jackrabbit‘s OST. In 1994, lots of PC games were still stuck with an Adlib they usually didn’t know how to use. This game, however, supports the legendary Gravis Ultrasound, which… usually was a sign that maybe you could get something more. Epic developed and published quite a few games willing to take advantage of this aural horsepower. In the case of Jazz Jackrabbit, you get a big chunk of Amiga style tracker music, and that’s used to fuel a rockin’ soundtrack full of funk, techno, and a bit of heavy metal for good measure. Nothing here is especially serious, melodramatic, or grim, but when your game is about a cartoon rabbit running around and murdering turtles with a laser gun, you can probably get away with that.

Jazz Jackrabbit‘s music is crammed into a mere four channels of instrumentation. As I’ve discussed before, this imposes specific constraints on what you can do. With a sample based format like the “Protracker” sound modules this game uses, though, it’s a lot easier to pull off some of the polyphonic ornamentation and instrumental variety (who would’ve guessed) tricks that composers can use to generate musical interest. Jazz Jackrabbit makes very heavy use of this – most prominently to build its rhythms, but also to implement sound effects like fake reverb and gating tricks. It suffices to say that the sound quality is top notch for 1994, and only streaming CD audio was really able to challenge it at the time.

However, mere effects aren’t enough to secure JJ‘s position in the pantheon of music I enjoy. The music here isn’t as cartoony or genre-diverse as its successor, but it’s still got a rock solid set of compositions. What particularly stands out to me at this point in time is the rhythm section. It might be the funk/soul influence as filtered through decades of electronic dance music, but there’s some very syncopated percussion here – from the brassy title theme, to the urban swagger of “Industrius”, but also the minimalistic electro of “Technoir”, or the goofy vocal textures of “Orbitus”. The songs here are also lengthy enough to build on their ideas, which is good since Jazz Jackrabbit has large, labyrinthine levels full of secrets and enemies that could very well kill you if you set the difficulty level beyond your skills. The last thing you want is to be driven mad by miniscule loops.

Ultimately, I think the composers here (Robert Allen and Joshua Jensen) did a great job with the music in this game. Admittedly, Alexander Brandon’s work on the sequel exceeded this already very high standard, but he also had a couple more years of experience underneath his belt. I’d go into more detail about his contemporary work if I hadn’t done so already.

Advertisements

Valdrin – Beyond The Forest (2014)

cover.jpgThe story of how I discovered Valdrin is… not at all that interesting. But they’re from Cincinnati, and I used to live in its metropolitan area, so regional chauvinism alone dictated I should give them a listen to see what was up. Beyond the Forest seems to owe the most to the 2nd wave black metal scene of Sweden – think Dissection (blah), but also think Sacramentum (especially their debut), maybe throw in some Marduk (though maybe before they went full blast) and Dark Funeral (which I admittedly never got around to), and you’ll end up with a good model of what Valdrin might sound like.

Once Valdrin rose to the top of my listening queue, I was rewarded with a potent cocktail of melodic black metal. Beyond the Forest, due to its legacy, leans heavily towards the shiny, polished, even commercially viable styles of black metal. Add to that its recent heritage, and you have my typical explanation for its especially good musicianship. This isn’t extraordinarily technical, but the performances here have two major strengths in general. First, the musicians here pull on a variety of techniques to inform their performances. More importantly, (and this is perhaps more of a general arrangement strategy), they’ve established a balance, where none of them overwhelm the others, allowing them to more effectively coordinate within songs. For whatever reason, it’s the vocalist (Carter Hicks) who stands out the most to me. I don’t know what specifically he’s doing, but he puts out an especially memorable performance.

The major weakness of this album is most likely that it isn’t particularly original. Beyond the Forest tends to work with a lot of melodramatic, but cliched sounding “evil” motifs – consonant minor key melodies glued together with tritones and pad keyboards. It gets tiresome if you decide you’re going to listen to the album in one go – by the end, you’ve heard the same progressions so many times that you’re going to start writing twelve tone row serial music in frustration. What really makes this tragic is that for a few songs, Valdrin goes beyond this. The title track is an excellent example – it’s the longest and most developed track on here, and it explores ideas that sadly aren’t revisited elsewhere on the album. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter how capable you are if you can’t bring something new to the table. This shouldn’t, however, detract from the skills the band demonstrate elsewhere, but it does hold the album back.

I guess the lesson that you can take from this is that Beyond the Forest, for all its strengths, feels like the foundation for a stronger sequel. Valdrin recently put out this album’s successor (Two Carrion Talismans); what I’ve heard on this album makes me very interested to see what they’ve accomplished there.

Highlights: “Beyond The Forest”, “Calling To The Canidae Hordes”, “In The Vortex of Time/Relinquish Flesh”

Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 2 (1988)

folder.jpgA year after their first album with Michael “Ernie” Kiske, Helloween continued their saga of a locksmith’s descent into gibbering madness with Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 2. This time, they push even further into pop singalong territory, and what would you know? It actually makes for a better album overall than its predecessor! I was nonplussed when I figured out that something was gelling better, and this lead me on a journey of discovery to figure out how so much could change in one year. Like Kiske 2 (I’m calling it that because I think it’s funnier than other abbreviations), that turned out to be less epic than expected.

Like the last album, this album lives and dies on its in-song cohesion. It’s hard to build this up if you’re constantly shifting between melodrama and comedic shenanigans. Kiske 2 improves on the emotional whiplash of its successor in two ways. First, listeners will notice greater segregation between more the serious, emotional content and the outright comedy songs. Beyond that, there’s simply more goofy antics here. As far as I can tell, Kiske era Helloween is good at making me laugh, at least on the Keepers duology. Case in point – “Dr. Stein” is pretty much a master class in how to do especially cartoony power metal, with its absurd lyrics about genetic engineering gone mad supported by the deft application of stereotypical horror motifs and the obligatory singalong choruses. The non-comedy songs benefit from this separation, though for whatever reason this album’s epic closer (“Keeper of the Seven Keys”) has some strange issues with organization that weren’t present before, resulting in an unusually jerky and fitful conclusion to this album. Not sure how that happened.

Meanwhile, the musicianship beneath these aesthetic changes hasn’t changed substantially from the last album. It makes sense, at least – the lineup was unchanged, and the overall style of the album is about the same as before (yuks aside).  The only significant addition I can detect is a more substantial keyboard presence, but even this is much like it was on Keepers – it’s a tool primarily for adding texture and sound effects to the songs here. I don’t really have any problem with this – these early Helloween albums have good, if not especially flashy musicianship, so it’s best to take these relatively small changes in stride and not obssess too much about them.

It’s no surprise after all of this that Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 2 is about as good as its predecessor – it’s just that the overall strengths of the album are flipped. Your preferences may vary, but the crossover demographic for each half of Keepers has to be substantial, right?

Highlights: “Eagle Fly Free”, “You Always Walk Alone”, “Dr. Stein”

Vader – Litany (2000)

folder.jpg

Not gonna lie – Litany is certainly more intense than De Profundis. I think we can safely call this one an exaggeration of that previous effort, though I cannot in good faith say what became of Vader’s interrim material (Black to the Blind et al). But it’s faster, louder, shorter, simpler, and otherwise more direct than before. I’ve heard this evolution from many bands before – Slayer in particular comes to mind. Every band that does this sort of tihng seems to handle differently from their companions. That’s good because it keeps the content flowing here in spite of clearly recognizable career narrative archetypes, but it does make the verdict on Litany less of an open-and-shut case.

So first, I’m not sure how I feel about the production. I like that it’s louder and more assertive, but the caveat is that it isn’t just a volume boost; it also forces Vader into louder, more aggressive songwriting. One of the things I really appreciated about De Profundis was that it had a strong grasp of dynamics and narratives within its death/thrash metal framework. That side of Vader has definitely suffered here; while it’s not entirely impossible for the Litany lineup to ease off and create some breathing space in their tracks, it feels a lot clunkier when they try. This means that when Vader tries to vary things up, the results are flatter than they should be. It hurts the album pretty badly, now that I think about it.

The mix-lead composition problems are a pity, because the other aspects of Litany have improved greatly on what was present two albums ago. When Vader isn’t trying to vary things up, they create neat little bundles of death metal aggression with serpentine riffs and explosive blastbeats. The performances are tighter, and in particular the vocals of frontman Pyotr Wiwczarek are pushed to new levels. His style and the overall sound of his performance hasn’t changed much, but the lyrics are better suited to his style than before. He also has a stronger grasp on vocal rhythms, which comes in handy for inserting songwriting hooks into your extreme metal. Vader’s songwriting is at its strongest when they’re cranking out short, dense songs, so anything you can add to the mix is a plus in my book.

So ultimately we have some pros and cons, but while Litany demonstrates a few very strong tracks (especially towards the beginning), De Profundis has more staying power by virtue of its more robust foundations. I’ve heard that later Vader takes more from this than its deeper past, too, so make of that what you will.

Highlights: “Xeper”, “Litany”, “Cold Demons”

Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 (1987)

folder.jpg

I have a confession to make, readers of Invisible Blog. By the time you read this, I will have seen Helloween live in concert for their “Pumpkins United” tour. I can only hope that experience helps me gather my thoughts on the Keepers albums, as well as anything else I might decide to review in Helloween’s discography. It’s about time, too – I listened to Walls of Jericho many years ago, and only picked up more Helloween content recently. In the meantime, I was exposed to plenty of notions about Keeper of the Seven Keys. When people said this was a major formative album in the evolution of power metal, they weren’t kidding.

So the obvious things first – Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I is already a cleaner and more streamlined take on nascent power metal by virtue of their new vocalist, Michael Kiske. Kiske clearly has better technique than his predecessor, but he can’t quite match Kai Hansen’s screaming intensity. After listening to this album for a while, I’m lead to believe that wasn’t Helloween’s goal – instead, they’re aiming for a sound that’s both more accessible and more melodramatic. Some versions of this album rub it in further with some rerecordings from the 1984 Helloween EP, but either way, you have songs that emphasize the vocal hooks even if you’ve still got plenty of fast drumming and guitar pyrotechnics in the background.

As the apparent first pivot in this direction, Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I has some strange issues with its overall tone and aesthetic. The band has always had a comedic side, but when it shows up here (honestly, it’s frequent), it detracts from the other parts of what Keeper attempts. It really isn’t a concept album, but the Keepers albums have a lot of optimistic, evil-fighting, utopian themes that perhaps don’t really fit alongside the sound effects break in “Future World”, or the demented ticking in “A Little Time”, or the the switch from trick or treating antics to a cosmic battle between good and evil in “Halloween”. Somehow, perhaps because of its enormous length and ambitions, and high content density, this 13 minute juggernaut is one of the best songs in the band’s entire discography. Maybe this half of Keepers would fare better if it had more along these lines? When it focuses even in its pop side, it does well and holds up to Walls of Jericho, but this inability to completely control the forces it’s unleashed is… disappointing.

Oddly enough, Helloween’s next album has the opposite strengths – it masters comedy and hones the poppy side of the band even further, but it stumbles when it follows up with the series’ title track. That’s a story I’ll follow up on when I next have a little time.

Highlights: “Twilight of the Gods”, “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”, “Helloween”

Rage – Perfect Man (1988)

118897804.jpg

I’m not entirely sure how Rage managed to go unreviewed here at Invisible Blog for so long. If I remember correctly, my decision to listen to Perfect Man was due to seeing them on someone’s best-of list. This got me a dose of archetypical German ’80s speed/thrash/power metal. If you were excited about Helloween or similar back in the day, this would be a logical extension to your collection. I’m sure the cyborg creature on the cover art agrees (presumably this is the eponymous “Perfect Man”), but its menacing exterior belies Rage’s fun and poppy take on the genre.

Anyways, we’ve got a collection of compact, verse chorus songs driven by the vocals of Peavy Wagner and the guitar work of Manni Schmidt. Yes, it’s one of those albums where the drums don’t quite get my full attention, for all of their vigorous pounding. All the musicians here do a great job, though – while Perfect Man isn’t especially flashy from a technical stance, it’s got enough ear candy in all the instruments to grab your attention. They seem to value their hooks more than building up atmosphere; beyond that, every track here is compact – not so much that they can’t take some time to iterate on their musical ideas, but enough to make Perfect Man even more of a rapidfire speed metal barrage than it would be otherwise.

Pros and cons aside, Rage does a good job handling the forces they’ve unleashed on Perfect Man. While the occasional extended intro (“A Pilgrim’s Path”) makes me wonder if they ever tried their hands at it, Rage at least has the pop take on their genre down to a science. Each song has its own unique identity in spite of the whole verse-chorus shtick. If the lyrics are to be believed, Rage also has a better grasp on tone than most of their contemporaries. Now, I’ve got no objection to humor in my metal music, and apparently neither did nascent ’80s German power metal. These guys seem to benefit from a relatively strong grasp on their English (I can’t reasonably comment on how funny the scene’s Deutsch sprachbund is), and an ability to match their lyrical content to the overall atmosphere of the song. Considering how heavily modern pop music seems to lean on its lyrics, that’s definitely worth a mention, and it’s probably another reason I ended up actually following through and listening to Perfect Man in the first place.

Ultimately, Perfect Man is one of the high points of its era and scene. Nobody’s perfect, but Rage is more than good enough to get your attention on this album’s merits alone.

Highlights: “Perfect Man”, “Death in the Afternoon”, “A Pilgrim’s Path”, “Between the Lines”

Tool – Lateralus (2001)

1000x1000.jpgLateralus is literalus not all that different from its predecessor (1996’s Ænima), right? At least that’s how I saw it at first. Sure, it seemed more dynamic and complicated, with less straight up heavy alternative rock, but I figured that it was fundamentally the same type of music. And what do you know? I was right! Lateralus is another album of evolution and refinement. I forget what I was expecting when I first listened; the thing about my experience with Tool is that I mostly discovered them when Pandora decided they belonged on every single station I created there in 2009. Only now have that I’ve taken the time to absorb this can I be sure of what Tool is.

For what it’s worth, and despite the fact it’s staying the course, Lateralus still feels meaningfully different from the last Tool material we heard. I think much of this is the overall ‘flow’ of the album, which is admittedly nebulous at best when you’re dealing with something that’s not a concept album and has no apparent aspirations towards such. It’s still good to see some structural experimentation – “The Grudge” is both more aggressive and more intriguing than the corresponding opener on Ænima (“Stinkfist”), and in general track structures don’t really match up. However, these new permutations are using the same building blocks – an emphasis on abrupt dynamics, complicated song structures, and a reluctance to play showy instrumental pyrotechnics. I have the feeling that the rhythm section on Lateralus is trying to push up the difficulty of their parts, though – there’s a greater emphasis on odd time signatures and more complicated drum patterns, but this is handled subtly enough that it took me a while to actually detect it.

I also remember that I described Ænima as seemingly similar in spirit to contemporary King Crimson. Despite not changing all that much, I don’t feel the same way about this one, and I’m admittedly not sure why that is. My best guess is that Tool stuck to their guns on this album. King Crimson, in the meantime, splintered into a couple of ProjeKcts and released a lot of diverse, yet hit and miss material. Best not get into that rabbit hole right now – what’s important, in my opinion, is that Lateralus seemingly sets out to iterate on its predecessor (common), and succeeds at doing so (less common), even if its changes aren’t all that drastic (you tell me). The other takeaway is that it’s hard for me to review albums in isolation when I find myself familiar with ever growing swathes of a band’s material.

Highlights: “The Patient”, “Schism”, “Parabol/Parabola”