Meshuggah – Chaosphere (1998)

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Welcome to Sweden, where even the hardcore gangsta rap is metal. Chaosphere is… uh… distinctive.

Meshuggah’s output took a turn for the extra abrasive the last time we discussed them, but Chaosphere intentionally pushes the repetitive, mechanical aspects of their sound up to eleven. Where previous albums had room for dynamics and subtlety, all that disappears in favor of brute force (unless you’ve got an edition of the album which includes “Unanything”). You’d think this would be a recipe for headaches and/or crappiness, but for whatever reason, I instead find Chaosphere to be oddly compelling.

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious academia nut, or at least a Devin Townsend Project fan, I hypothesize that this album functions as a sort of deconstruction of extreme metal, although I’m not willing to go the distance and suggest that’s intentional. Everything here is, however, stripped down to a bare minimum – simplistic, monophonic guitar riffs, shouted vocals, basic song structures, an overarching emphasis on rhythmic complexity, and so forth. Meshuggah’s desire to express transhuman/futurist thoughts in a metal framework earns my focus because there’s barely anything else to focus on, but I keep getting pulled back to the sheer overwhelming force of the sound – not yet as immense as it would become on later Meshuggah albums, and yet like shining chrome where previous albums were thinner and lower budget. This is where the hip-hop comparison bares itself – the vocal delivery and otherwise simplistic backing might be far more aggressive than even the 808 comptonest gangstas on the planet, but the overall effect is weirdly similar.

Even on this harsh and uninviting album, though, Meshuggah leaves a few traces of atmosphere and variety in places. Even the least tailored of ears will hear the guitar solos and occasional sound effects that punctuate tracks here (most notably “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, which has become one of the band’s signature songs). I can’t think of any good reason for the band to get rid of them, but were they to disappear, so would Chaosphere‘s reputation; I say this knowing that Meshuggah would never remove them from their repertoire, at least on an album this minimal and brutish. Still, for being so sparse, the occasional moment of reverb or guitar chords or breakdown is used to great effect, and for better or worse, that’s part of the appeal.

Chaosphere ends up being the antithesis of what I look for in music (although there’s a good swathe of music I listen to and enjoy that similarly works like that), and yet it like the rest of Meshuggah stays in my rotation. To be fair, I think Meshuggah peaked on their 1994 EP None, but I can at least hear the lineage here. Try tossing some tracks here into your average nightclub and see what happens.

Highlights: “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, “Corridor of Chameleons”, “Neurotica”

Gargoyle – Aratama (1992)

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Now, Gargoyle predates Sigh by quite a bit, but on Aratama, they nonetheless Sigh up their sound in a similar fashion. While generally similar to their previous works in a way that Sigh can’t really claim, Gargoyle incorporates a greater variety of influences and even occasionally bursts into standard J-rock for a bit. I guess it’s a mark of overall musical ability that this band can not only perform in so many styles, but even manages to make their pop songs stand out amongst the highlights.

Despite expanding their sound, Gargoyle still relies mostly on their power/thrash roots here. There aren’t any tracks as skullcrushing as the blast fest that was “Djirenma” on Furebumi, but the musicians approach that point on multiple occasions. Furthermore, this album has the interesting distinction of becoming more violent and thrashy as it progresses for whatever reason. I’m not going to question the logic behind this approach, because it ultimately has little to do with this album’s quality. Most of that comes down to strong instrumentation and musicianship; Gargoyle’s specific subgenre blend lends itself well to adding melodic and even hooky content to their chosen intensity of metal.

Building off what I’ve mentioned before, I’d guess that Gargoyle’s greatest strength is not that they’re good metal songwriters (although they certainly are), but that they’re good pop songwriters. Admittedly, good pop songwriting is hard to quantify, but Gargoyle has put out Motorhead quantities of consistent work for some years, and managed to keep it distinctive without any huge stylistic changes that I’m aware of. Despite what the content of this blog might lead you to believe, I consider most of the metal out there to be firmly in the popular music camp; it might not sell as well as the handclap and sidechain producers out there, but 40-50+ years of constantly increasing distortion and aggression have attuned the public to some really noisy, lawn-wilting sounds. Gargoyle isn’t that crazy even by 1992 standards, but listening to some of the standard J-Rock type songs here has helped open up my mind to the musical similarities between those and Gargoyle’s primary metal output. Sure, the metal is more ornate and often more complex, but Gargoyle uses a lot of the same musical language in both.

I don’t think I’d put Aratama above Furebumi, but then again I’m not sure I’d put anything by Gargoyle above that classic (with the possible exception of Kaikoroku, an EP of rerecordings from Gargoyle’s earliest days). I would still highly recommend it, and it’s a logical place to continue your inquiry into this band.

Highlights: “Shin Ou”, “Open Sesame”, “Cogito Ergosum”, “Dogma”

Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975)

Black Sabbath - Sabotage

I don’t know how many of my readers were around to experience the 1970s, and WordPress doesn’t care to help me figure it out, but when I started my exploration of metal and progressive rock music, I rapidly found out how much overlap between the two there was in the genre’s earliest days. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Black Sabbath, the archetypalest of the archetypal metal bands, was involved in such blatant genre mixing! Sabotage came at a point where Black Sabbath was already a veteran band, and allegedly at a point where extreme drug abuse was tearing the band apart and forcing increasingly bad business decisions. More importantly to me, it’s also the culmination of studio and songwriting experimentation that began back on Volume 4, and those things tend to make for fertile writing.

Sabotage is, to my understanding, a cleaner fusion between early heavy metal and its prog rock contemporaries than its predecessors, and a hell of a lot more coherent than Technical Ecstasy, an album with a reputation so bad I haven’t given it a chance yet. Some of the obvious metal tropes of previous albums are gone, with a cleaner and less distorted guitar tone from Iommi that belies the occasional exception (usually “Symptom of the Universe”), but a couple of obvious progisms make a departure too – fewer flashy keyboards, less varied instrumentation, etc. Sabotage gains its status here primarily by applying extended songwriting techniques to what otherwise might be similarly composed to previous Black Sabbath albums. Now, I’m aware those had their share of lengthy songs, but compared to some of the blues inflected jams of the past, these songs feel a bit tighter and more solidly constructed.

This album also gets some credit in the metal circles for giving the growing heavy metal movement a couple of prototypes for subgenres. I wouldn’t go too far along that line of thought, personally, since a couple of hard rock and other early metal bands were constantly experimenting with their share of grooves and strums and (in the particular case of one Judas Priest) similar expansions of instrumentation and song structure. The aforementioned “Symptom of the Universe”, though, is quickly labeled a prototypical speed metal song and in its especially minimal and tritone driven form, I can hear how this might’ve influenced a few generations of bands. However, due to the prog influence (and the occasional shift into nonsensical weirdness like the strangely cheerful “Am I Going Insane”), I’m ultimately going to have to suggest that most of the ideas other bands lift from Black Sabbath come from their earlier, more formative works.

After this, Black Sabbath’s discography (and lineup) turns into a rollercoaster of colossal failures, interspersed with the occasional successful reinvention; you’ll have to ask me what I think about Heaven and Hell at some point. Sabotage ends up kind of incoherent at times, but interestingly, it is most entertaining and well constructed in its lengthy, vaguely prog-fusion moments. I like it personally, but I don’t know if it’s really what the average Sabbath fan wants. Then again, I don’t actually know what the average Sabbath fan wants, so that might be a moot point.

Highlights: “Megalomania”, “Supertzar”, “The Writ”, “Blow on A Jug”

Coroner – No More Color (1989)

folderA sign that your metal genre has made it commercially is that people are producing a particularly elaborate and ornate variant on it. Coroner’s roots stretch back to the early ’80s (including a collaboration with Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost), but their full lengths set benchmarks for musical proficiency that admittedly were soon broken by more extreme metal musicians.

No More Color hews pretty close to the standard, mainstream “thrash” sound of the late 1980s, with short, conventionally structured, punchy songs that still contain a great deal of variety and skilled musicianship; particularly of the shred/solo variety. I don’t know if Coroner identified with “neoclassical” metal musicians like Yngwie Malmsteem to any degree, but the melodicism and ornamentation that I hear on this album’s songs sometimes reminds me of the idea of such, even if not necessarily the actual recordings. Again, I can’t make comparisons to recordings I haven’t properly digested without wrecking my credibility. Digressions aside, this also manifests as a particular emphasis on instrumentation over lyrics and vocals, as the shouted/spoken vocals here tend towards burying short, sparse phrases in the mix. At best, they contribute to the texture, and they never feel like the focus of the music. I’m not sure the mix problem is even intentional, but overall it doesn’t bother me as much as some issues I’ve heard in other albums’ productions.

What distinguishes Coroner from some of the other techy thrash bands I’ve discussed is that outside the ornaments, they often rely on relatively simple patterns to build their songs. For instance, “Mistress of Deception” is full of basic tritone riffs, but a couple of them (like the intro riff) have extensive, almost frilly guitar runs tacked onto their ends. Maybe it’s related to the Celtic Frost link! I wouldn’t assume such, personally, since by 1989 Celtic Frost had become rather… weird. You could make a case that the technical flourishes are extraneous to the core of the music; more on that later. Coroner does display some merit in the deeper levels/aspects of their songs here, though – subtle variations on the typical pop song structures emphasized by the use of varied bridge material, skilled use of melodic/harmonic reinforcement, and so forth. That the ‘surface’ technicality of No More Color exceeds that of its underlying substrate is worth noting, but while you could imagine a simplified Coroner that didn’t perform as well or as rigorously, such a band would gut itself badly, almost as its members were to decapitate themselves while shaving off stubble with a safety razor.

As a final exercise, compare Coroner’s flashy and technical elaboration on speed/thrash metal to an accessible simplification of a more difficult sort of music, like Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates. At least in this example, Coroner comes out ahead by producing a strong and consistently entertaining work without losing their essence, and I would go so far as to argue it’s easier to elaborate than to simplify in the realm of metal.

Highlights: “Read My Scars”, “D.O.A”, “Tunnel of Pain”

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

folderInvisible Blog is staggeringly lax about the International Day of Slayer sometimes. Thusly do I present to you my thoughts on the opposite of Slayer.

My buddies would say I am under-Aphexed if they knew this was the only work by Richard D. James I’ve ever sat down and listened to. Admittedly I’ve heard strains of “Windowlicker” and some of his other more commercially successful singles drifting out of public places, but if that was what passed for street cred, I would be wearing much baggier pants. I don’t even have the deep knowledge of this album’s genre that helps me review metal albums. This was a problem when I was writing about Tri Repetae by Autechre, too, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped me from at least trying.

As the title might lead you to believe, this is less a coherent album than a compilation, and it tends towards the softer and gentler side of RDJ’s output. Selected Ambient Works also (and perhaps shockingly) tends towards repetition and emphasis on texture over song structure. I don’t know how many of these were actually written towards the “85” end, but I’m inclined to think that by virtue of such hypothetical tracks being included that it’s not too important. The sound on display here is relatively aesthetically consistent, with even the more abrasive tracks (like “Green Calx”, “Schottkey 7th Path”, etc.) still fitting in with their companions. Given the staggering variety of sounds electronic musicians sometimes throw into their recordings, this is probably an achievement of some sort.

Based on this, I’d suggest listening to this album as a whole whenever the time presents itself, even though the songs don’t fade into each other like they would on, for arbitrary example, a Magma album. There are some problems with this, the greatest of which is a significant quantity of relatively uninteresting ‘filler’ tracks, mostly towards the second half. It’s hard to determine what raises one track over another when the writing remains so consistent, though. Personally, I’d guess which specific instruments and sound patches I like plays a role in this, but if I have to go on in that vein, it pushes me way too far from the analytical mode I prefer for these writeups and reviews. That’s a serious problem!

While it’s probably due to the limits of my electronica knowledge, Selected Ambient Works is thusly notable for defying my attempts to analyze it beyond its surface. I find that based on my preferences, it could be cut down to about 2/3rds of its length without losing its choice tracks, and that portion makes for good listening. It’d still be longer than the EPs that surround it, but remember, you can’t always judge music by its length.

Highlights: “Tha”, “Heliosphan”, “Schottkey 7th Path”

News Update – Tracker2D

Tracker2D is a program where a bunch of smiley faces run around a field of colorful dots and cacophonous noise plays.

Tracker2D Publicity Shot 4

This screenshot should be at least representative of the program’s general functionality.

It occurs to me that the summary I just wrote for this program may be intentionally inaccurate. Whether Tracker2D is a toy, a digital audio workstation, or a visual programming language, it’s still a browser-based music creation program I’m working on that you can check out here. As of today, it is in very active development with new features being added all the time.

If there’s any one philosophical point underpinning Tracker2D, it’s the idea that a musician’s output is shaped by… well, the shape of their instrument. A pianist is going to have a different approach than a guitarist, or a violinist, or a percussionist, and so forth. More subtle, however, is the influence of your composing tools. Having written a lot of music, I’ll note that I underwent pretty massive paradigm shifts when I made big changes to my workflow – from notation in Sibelius, to step sequencing with Famitracker/OpenMPT, to piano rolls in REAPER, and so forth. Even subtle things like how these programs map keyboard shortcuts to editing functions have probably altered elements as fundamental to how I work as, for example, tonality and rhythm.

You might be wondering what this has to do with the actual software at this point. Tracker2D is nonlinear by design; you cannot determine the order of execution for musical events you input into the software simply by panning your eyes in one direction. Instead, your musicians (“bugs”) travel over a two dimensional field and can end up all over the place depending on what sort of instructions you paint on the field. At this point, there’s even some basic programmatic ability with counters and teleporters; at some point, you’ll be able to create relatively complex musical machines of a sort; how Turing-complete these are depends on how much work I’m willing to do in the future. The entire visual<-> sound relation concept is inspired by Toshio Iwai’s work, especially Simtunes. Tracker2D is intended to be more complex and “useful”, though – it’s going to implement a larger soundset, bugs aren’t tied to specific instruments, you can have up to 8 simultaneous channels instead of merely 4, and so forth. Then again, Simtunes was explicitly marketed towards children, so it was kind of simplistic in a lot of ways. The people whom I’ve discussed this with probably know what I’m talking about.

Anyways, I might end up sharing some devnotes on the software through this blog, so if that sort of thing interests you, keep an eye on this. You might want to follow the Facebook page, too. If you’re REALLY interested and want to actually help out, check out the GitHub repository and maybe contribute some code. Tracker2D is written in Javascript, with HTML5 Canvas/CSS markup for the UI, and runs best in the latest versions of Chrome or Firefox.

Pestilence – Spheres (1993)

folderSometimes you find an album that tries to merge two seemingly unrelated aesthetics into a coherent whole. Spheres is the sound of Pestilence devouring a particularly jazz inflected progressive rock band with the help of their new MIDI guitar silverware and merging with them in the process. Then the twist turns out to be that Patrick Mameli is behind the incorporation of these new influences, although that’s not much of a twist, and you write to the editor to complain, but then Pestilence goes offline for over a decade-

On second thought, let’s not tumble off the precipice of madness just yet. Funnily enough, the space themed cover art is actually an accurate depiction of what to expect. Spheres relies heavily on its aesthetics, what with its synthesizer presence interwoven between guitar riffs that are softer, yet more abstract than your average construction from the Martin van Drunen era. Some of the aggression of previous Pestilence recordings got lost in the shuffle, but the push towards stranger guitar patterns didn’t entirely gut the death metal end of things. Processing the guitar tone and removing blast beats takes the intensity levels down a notch, but outside of the keyboard interludes and the markedly gentle “Personal Energy”, Spheres remains recognizable as a metal album and a Pestilence album, for better or worse.

I’d argue that despite the more complicated and varied instrumentation, Pestilence writers simpler songs on Spheres than before. Verses and choruses are definitely more apparent than on previous albums, where they were often cloaked in extended bridges. The average mid-song solo bridge has turned more dissonant and improvisational than before, which stands in stark contrast to most metal albums. In my experience, metal solos are usually more through-composed, although given the influence of jazz musicians (often filtered through progressive rock) that this album definitely played a role in spreading, that’s no guarantee. Spheres also shows off a lot of microvariations in song construction and instrumentation that long time listeners should be able to appreciate, like the chord hits at the loops in the title track, or the drum change at the very end of “Multiple Beings”, which help to stave off the repetitions…

Honestly, I kind of prefer the earlier Pestilence recordings and think bands like Atheist pulled off the jazz-metal fusion better; feel free to listen to Unquestionable Presence if that sort of thing appeals to you. Still, without this existing, we’d lose a great deal of the prog metal of the recent past. I guess this is a prime example of an album with a split soul, but it does have a unity many of those works lacks.

Highlights: “Mind Reflections”, “Soul Search”, “Personal Energy”