Sigh – In Somniphobia (2012)

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In Somniphobia came out after 22 years of Sigh, which is more than enough time to develop a signature sound. Considering that my last experience with Sigh was the especially direct and rock-oriented Gallows Gallery, this one is… maybe a return to the form I expected? I can’t actually answer that yet, but this one has more of a neoclassical emphasis than the usual Sigh album, and this is coming from a band that’s already delved deep into western symphonic traditions. For what it’s worth, I’ve had good luck with symphonic black metal in the past, so let’s delve in and see what we’re dealing with.

The first thing I noticed was that for all their originality and experimentation with sound, Sigh was ripping off many a veteran band by writing a very polished, refined album. Why do they keep doing that? Weird asides aside, this essentially means that Sigh’s songwriting is more reliably coherent than before. This is still an album of strange and occasionally goofy diversions, but for whatever reason everything makes more sense in context. To be fair, most of the sound collage moments have been confined to the ends of the songs in the “Lucid Nightmares” suite. On the other hand, some of the flourishes that might’ve seemed out of place in the band’s early days (like the prominent saxophone parts) are now used frequently enough that they’ve become an integral part of the Sigh sound.

I initially wanted to say that the song structures on In Somniphobia felt more coherent than before, but on closer inspection, I’m not so sure they’ve changed in recent years. Compared to Gallows Gallery, though, they’re certainly longer. I think that’s specifically because Gallows Gallery is just the weird extreme power metal outlier in the band’s discography. The innovations on that album don’t seem to have ever went away, though – in its leading moments, In Somniphobia channels this more consonant, upbeat style into aggressive, driving, but also bright sounding material. “Purgatorium” in particular sounds almost heroic if you ignore its occult flavored lyrics. Sigh’s ability to incorporate these ideas into what’s otherwise a very different album has to count for something, even if it’s just for the sake of bookends, right?

Actually, now that I think about it, In Somniphobia is probably the best I’ve heard of Sigh’s more symphonic black/doom flavored content. It hasn’t got the psychedelic ’70s worship hues of Imaginary Soundscape, but it certainly excels in its own niche.

Highlights: “The Transfiguration Fear”, “Somniphobia”, “Amongst The Phantoms Of Abandoned Tumbrils”, “Equale”

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Endian Project Preview – The Battle For Your Mind

Good news, everyone! The book project I’ve been working towards finally has a name. I’m calling it “Behind the Bitmask”. Its publication looms closer and closer every day. In the mean time, here’s yet another story in the same universe. If you want, you can also read the previous story I wrote in this setting.

Picture the scene – a dark dungeon in the middle of a fetid swamp, full of tortured souls whose screams echo off the stone walls. You’re chained to the ceiling, suspended by your wrists, and what little dignity you have left comes from the fact you’re not hogtied. You’ve heard of worse in the more intensive BDSM relationships, but you’re not here of your own will. You have no visitors, no food, no water, no sense of how long you’ve been left to fester. But you never hunger or thirst – something, somehow, is keeping you alive for some nefarious reason. Something possesses you to rattle your chains, even though it won’t help you escape. It doesn’t even make you feel better, even as you start shaking out a rhythm for reasons you don’t understand.

But your degradation is interrupted by slow, heavy footsteps, and soon, a visitor. You see a hand feeling around for the lock of the door of your cell. Then, another hand joins it, and then a third with a blood red key. They unlock the door with some difficulty, and soon drag the rest of their shambling flesh inside the cell. They’ve too many legs, a torso draped in rags (which is more than you can say for your naked self), and an eyeless head that exists only to hold a long probing tongue and row after row of long, sharp teeth. This is my jailer. It appears in my cell so infrequently that I begin to forget its last visit by the time another one rolls around. I have something I want to say, but my vocal chords aren’t working – perhaps my lack of sustenance is to blame? But the jailer has no such difficulties. Its mouth opens to spew forth darkness, and only then do its own words follow.

“There… …is STILL… …time,” it says, with a voice like hydrochloric acid eating away at your skin.

“*,” is about all I can muster in response. Were you in my situation as you pretend to be, you would miss your feminine lilt (trust me, you want to hear and speak in this melodious woman voice) and despair at its absence. Your chains seem to tighten.

“Some things… …they improve… …WITH… …time,” the jailer says, dripping saliva that spatters and smokes when it hits the ground. It smells like alcohol… with an undertone of vanilla? What does this monster want from me? Does it even know what it is to want?

“Ž,” I snarl. How can I hope to save myself when I can’t even speak properly?

“Salty goodness.” I pull the restraints as hard as I can. All I manage to do is make my left leg hurt.

“The taste you… …can’t resist.” A few drops of blood ooze from my wrists.

“…A… …Angel’s Share™ pork RINDS…”

What? Where have I heard this name before? This is not the time! I have to get out of here before I’m maimed, or killed, or worse! Have you seen what they’re doing with daemonic parasites lately?

“Buy them… …or I will come FOR… …WHAT… …remains of you…” And with that, the jailer advances on you, with a wicked smile on its face – what else can it have? Its hands reach out. I am erased by terror. You scream, fall through the ground, and now you’re in a bed, still naked, but at least warm, comfortable, and with me to keep you company!

“Holy shit, Charlotte. You weren’t kidding about your nightmares!” you say. With my sudden awakening comes a rush of memories. You’re Azure, and you’re my girlfriend. I’m Charlotte Metaxas, of engineering, sorcery, and surname fame. Angel’s Share is a brand of snack foods that I’ve seen on the shelves of my usual grocery haunts, but ignored in favor of Frito-Lay or Nabisco or some other familiar brand. Now it pollutes my dreams, and it’ll infest my body if I’m not careful.
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Solefald – Neonism (1999)

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For whatever reason, my first experience with Solefald was “Backpacker Baba”, off this album. It’s… not entirely representative of the band’s evolving take on “red music with black edges” – there tends to be more of an obvious connection to the band’s black metal roots than what I’ve heard on their later albums. But this is still Solefald we’re talking about, so we’re still dealing with something between a musical chimaera and a collage. I’ve had mixed feelings over the years about how successful Solefald has been at being themselves, so the question here is really whether Neonism fits that trend.

The first and most obvious thing – Neonism doesn’t have the budget or heightened technology of its successors. This becomes obvious when you’re confronted with the thin, high pitched, positively abrasive production. Neonism does have the decency to lead off with the blasting, confrontational “Fluorescent”, though – this is exactly what I mean when I speak of the album’s roots. While this isn’t a good way to mix your album per se, it’s at least appropriate in light of Solefald’s musical and cultural origins. For whatever it’s worth, when the music here moves away from black metal, the production seemingly mellows out, if only due to the keyboard/synth presence not quite matching the guitarwork in its scraping trebliness. Ultimately, I don’t have much quarrel with the overall mix of this album.

As a matter of fact, I don’t have much quarrel at all with the the first half or so of Neonism. My experience with Solefald so far has resulted in a couple of frontloaded albums, but this trend is exaggerated here. The first four tracks or so on Neonism are a potent blueprint for a substyle of black metal (or at least a black metal flavored take on something else) that was still very new at the time it was released. There’s a lot to learn here about how to mix extreme metal with other forms of music, though you still have to provide the how and the why yourself if you want to tread this path. The later tracks on this album don’t enjoy the same level of innovation, or even charisma. Solefald’s excursions into black metal after “Omnipolis” are diminished, to say the least, and I’d even go as far as saying they’d yet to master their quieter, gentler side.

I guess this is another one of those albums that needed more time in the oven, or at least a stir between microwave cycles on account of its excellent beginning. Good thing there’s more Solefald out there!

Highlights: “Speed Increased to Scaffold”, “Proprietors of Red”, “Backpacker Baba”

Beherit – Electric Doom Synthesis (1995)

beherit-electric-doom-synthesis-fin-cd-cd-kvlt.jpgI gotta warn you – this album is a little strange. Beherit has been something of an enigma to me throughout their career – moving from strange, primitive black metal to strange ambient music to strange, more complicated black metal with some lessons applied from their ambient era. They’ve always been able to provide a distinctive take on whatever they do, and I’m pretty sure their influence is writ large on the darker, occluded, ritualistic side of extreme metal. That’s exactly why today, I’m writing a post on an album that’s entirely free of such things. I’m such a rational person.

To get it out of the way – when I say Electric Doom Synthesis is ambient, I mean it. It’s very ambient – Tangerine Dream before they transitioned to a more accessible and rigidly structured style ambient. There are a few songs here (towards the middle) that are more conventionally shaped, at least by the standards of actual pop music, but EDS leans heavily into repetition – everything changes very, very slowly, but it does change over time. Right off the bat, I know this isn’t how I personally would write music, even if I was trying for ambience. What I know, however, is that when everything here comes together, the overall effect is amazing – sort of like meditating at the bottom of a frozen lake above the Arctic circle in the dead of night, that’s how cold and cerebral EDS can feel. An album that inspires such vivid imagery has to have some merit, right?

At the same time,  though, Electric Doom Synthesis is sometimes a painfully amateur effort. It spends much of its time hunting for that particular sensation, and sometimes seemingly devolves into mere sound effects. It’s also awkwardly mixed – while the synth choices here are generally appropriate, and the occasional section of guitar is absolutely feral in tone, the dynamic range here is out of control, with sporadically loud percussion and the occasional distorted voice. Beherit’s insistence on the supremacy of repetition also means this album has an editing problem, which becomes more prominent towards the end. Ultimately, I’m not sure what to make of that, except that I can be fickle about ephemeral discussion of ambience.

Maybe what we really needed from Beherit was an Electric Doom Synthesis II. There’s a good foundation here, but the execution needs work. It’s apparently a step up from its predecessor – the confoundingly titled H418ov21.C, though, so… now that I think about it, that’s probably just further evidence that some more iteration could’ve resulted in something really special.

Highlights: “Dead Inside”, “Beyond Vision”, “Deep Night 23rd”

Orbital – The Middle of Nowhere (1999)

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Here’s another album from that time in history where Orbital was releasing an album every few orbits. Now, I’m aware that the band’s name refers to the M25 Motorway around London, but I’m told the traffic on that thing is bad enough that it may as well be a good measurement of time between Orbital’s recordings. This time around, we have a recording steeped in the trendy electronics of its time like a good cup of tea. Now that I think about it, In Sides was like that too within its own slightly more ambient microera. I’m guessing this is actually pretty common, but when you’re as good as Orbital is, I think you can get away with contorting yourself into the shape of your contemporaries.

So that’s how we got The Middle of Nowhere. It averages louder, bolder, more assertive, and crisper than its predecessors. I’d say it’s a partial return of the straightforward clubbing material that defined Orbital’s early years, but the album also benefits from their years of experience of building up dense soundscapes and their refined melodic prowess, which really came into focus on the last two albums. In short – The Middle of Nowhere shares its strengths with previous Orbital, except amplified. I do, however, particularly appreciate the occasionally harsher edge that shows up (culminating on “I Don’t Know You People”, the obligatory “big beat” track required to sell CDs in the late 1990s), and also the occasional samples that are a bit out there (read: “Way Out”, funnily enough).

The Middle of Nowhere also has something that previous Orbital albums don’t seem to have – something that might not’ve been entirely intentional. For some reason, most likely tracking choices, the album seems to have a mood arc. The first half of The Middle of Nowhere is bright and shiny, but with a growing sense of unease and darkness that bursts forth midway through. As a result, the second half is rendered atmospheric and sinister; this isn’t new territory for Orbital, but in the past it was more haphazardly strewn throughout an album. The problem with this theory is that the album ends with a useless filler track in the form of “Style”. Yes, I know it was built around an instrument called the “stylophone”, and no, that’s not enough to make it worthwhile. Kind of a poor payoff for what, up until that point was pretty much a flawless recording.

Ultimately, I don’t know if The Middle of Nowhere can oust In Sides from its privileged position in my mind, but from a technical/compositional stance, it’s at least the equal of its illustrious predecessor, and therefore pretty much essential listening for everyone.

Highlights: “Spare Parts Express”, “Otoño”, “Nothing Left”

Capsule Reviews V: 2014

I once thought that these capsule reviews (rereviews) were going to be a regularly yearly feature here at Invisible Blog. Recent content has reminded me it’s good to reevaulate the past with new information sometimes.

Darkthrone – Soulside Journey (1991): Honestly, I’m not sure about this one. After listening to some more foundational death metal, Darkthrone’s debut seems kind of dry, even chalky (if you’re into synaesthesia). I still can’t help but wonder what Darkthrone would’ve sounded like if they kept developing their initial death metal sound, since there’s some interesting ideas and a couple of strong tracks on here.

Bal-Sagoth – Battle Magic (1998): I was never going to sour on Bal-Sagoth. Case in point – while this one’s noticeably brighter and more heroic sounding than its predecessors, it’s still got the extreme metal core, as best illustrated by “Return to the Praesidium of Ys”. If you want the darker, doomier past of the band, you will not find it from this point onwards.

Tricky – Maxinquaye (1995): Here’s an album that starts strong,  but loses steam towards the end. Still, it has some of the most creative sampling I’ve heard, at least in the trip-hop ecosystem. In short, when it’s good, it sounds really cool, and it’s backed up by a veritable posse of skilled vocalists.

Sepultura – Schizophrenia (1987): As much as Bestial Devastation and Morbid Visions are compelling visions of the nascent extreme metal movements, Schizophrenia wins points in my book for being a tighter experience without sacrificing too much in the way of filth and madness. It also has “Inquisition Symphony”, which is a gem of an instrumental and a good demonstration of how to take thrash metal and expand on it.

Sadus – Swallowed In Black (1990): Yes, it’s very intricate. If Steve DiGiorgio’s induction into Death and a whole slew of other technically inclined metal bands weren’t enough to vouch for this, it’s also a shriekfest that’ll get your blood running. The problem here is that Sadus doesn’t really develop their songs enough to take advantage of this tech, so it begins to feel like a banal exercise after a few listens.

Autechre – Tri Repetae (1995): I wonder what to make of the fact I discovered this one two or three years before the rest of the band’s discography. In light of the great Autechre Binge of 2016, I almost feel like Tri Repetae is the product of another band, but it still fits into that creatively fertile period in the mid-90s where Autechre got super abstract super fast. I do, however, at least have the nostalgia connection.

Mysticum – In The Streams of Inferno (1995): So this is a pretty good album. It’s an intense, focused, and raw black metal experience that just so happens to be completely obsoleted by its successor – Planet Satan. Everything was upgraded there, so I don’t find myself returning to In the Streams of Inferno very often. The most I can really say is that without it, we’d lose a lot of formative industrial black metal DNA.

Bal-Sagoth – The Power Cosmic (1999): Short of you already being an extreme metal fan, this is likely the best entry point into Bal-Sagoth’s discography. It’s lighter and softer than even Bal-Sagoth’s first obviously “lighter and softer” album (the aforementioned Battle Magic), and at points the cheese gets excessive, but the writing and performances are still on par.

SikTh – Death of a Dead Day (2006): I feel more receptive to SikTh’s proto-djent than I did in 2014. It may be a scatterbrained album at times, but the juxtaposition of rhythmic complexity, angular riffs, and dueling vocals (shrieks and emo/post-hardcore singing) make for a powerful aesthetic, if one I can only take so much of in one sitting.

Cloven Hoof – A Sultan’s Ransom (1989): I think I’ve soured on this one. It does have its moments of early power metal excellence and will definitely appeal to fans of contemporary Iron Maiden. It might be that there’s a few simplistic, midpaced tracks here that feel like they were only added in an attempt to make the Hoof commerically relevant. That seems to be a problem on a lot of ’80s metal. If only *glam* there was *hair* an explanation as to why…

It’s funny how once you start popping bite-sized capsule reviews, you get into something of a rhythm. If you want to keep that going, take a look at capsule reviews for 2013 here.

Behemoth – Thelema.6 (2000)

Front.jpgBack in my metal infancy, I expected I was going to spend a while exploring Behemoth’s discography, complete with its koala-style evolution from black metal to death metal. Instead, it took me years to even start. Thelema.6 occupies Behemoth’s approximate midpoint – it’s clearly more grounded and guttural than the band’s previous content, but some of the fixtures of Behemoth’s later sound have yet to make their appearance. This leaves you with a record that spews more incandescent lava than Morbid Angel and still finds time for a few moments of complete nonsense, like the… …unusual cover of “Hello Spaceboy” by David Bowie that shows up on reissues.

Strangeness aside, we’re dealing with a recording that’s often lightning fast, somewhat melodic (in that particular monophonic metal sense I so often talk about), preoccupied with the occult, and… well.. it’s blackened death metal. Immediately, we have a problem, because I can’t think of a better way to introduce this album. Nothing’s obviously wrong with Thelema.6 – the musicianship’s quite good (especially Inferno, the virtuoso 280BPM drum cyborg), there’s actually meaningful variety in the song structures, and the production fits the intersection of extreme metal substyles it’s documenting. But for some reason, it’s very hard for me to care about this. Behemoth clearly put a lot of effort into crafting this album, which makes its missing je ne sais quoi more confusing.

I think the problem with Thelema.6 overall is that it doesn’t aim very high. This is an abstract complaint at best, but once you get past the obviously skilled musicianship and other surface successes, you start to notice all the ways in which Behemoth repeats themselves. It isn’t as bad as some of the more obviously pop-oriented metal out there, but after the first few tracks, it feels like I begin to lose track of time. At that point, I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like if Behemoth delved into atmosphere, or if they ratcheted up the technicality further, or even just pushed themselves further in general. Instead, Thelema.6 is awkwardly middle of the road, and when placed in the presence albums that are either better in some regard or at least more directly tailored to my interests, it loses my attention. Maybe you won’t feel the same way, but I can’t help but feel this is one of those albums where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Maybe a few years from now, I’ll look back on this review and have the language to better describe what I found lacking in Thelema.6. Or maybe I’ll think I was being needlessly arbitrary. Could be time for another set of capsule reviews.

Highlights: “Antichristian Phenomenon”, “Christians To The Lions”, “Vinvm Sabbati”, “Hello Spaceboy”