King Crimson – Thrak (1995)

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Wow, King Crimson reinvented themselves again. I’m so surprised. This installment of King Crimson is supposedly inspired by ’90s alternative rock and metal, and the previous two major eras of King Crimson – their improvisatory proto-metallic approach of the 1970s, and the New Wave/math rock fusion of the 1980s. In cliched terms – the more things change, the more they stay the same. If I were writing this review in 1995, when this album was still new, I would expect to focus on the new things (like the ‘double trio’ lineup, the evolution of Fripp’s guitar soundscapes, etc). Instead, it’s 2017, I’ve been familiar with KC’s discography for nearly a decade now, and what really strikes me about this is how it continues so many of the band’s past tropes.

Despite this, it does bear mentioning that Thrak does represent new territory for the band. While King Crimson has many an intense moment in their catalog, Thrak emphasizes the louder, dirtier parts of the band’s aesthetic in ways that previous albums didn’t. Part of it’s the greater emphasis on guitar parts – compared to something like the band’s debut, Thrak is certainly not a panopoly of instruments even if Robert Fripp occasionally relies on mellotron patches to provide more variety. The production is also more assertive, and arguably more ‘digital’ or otherwise synthetic sounding; that might be a natural consequence of the advancing decades, though. Either way, it’s enough of a change from the thinner and drier (if occasionally psychedelic) Three of A Perfect Pair that it inevitably will color your understanding of the material.

From a structural/songwriting perspective, Thrak is most notable for how it mixes and juxtaposes elements from the band’s past. While the overall intensity levels have been notched up, King Crimson also manages to throw in a few ballads that likely would’ve fit well in the radio rock universe through pop songwriting, even if something like the shimmery, clean, studio flavored “Walking On Air” isn’t exactly a match for the decade’s stereotypical grunge. Like any band that seeks to create such a clash of sounds, they also mix elements within songs, allowing a track like “Dinosaur” to abruptly jump from heavy rock to synthesizer textures, or providing a place for the infamous “Frippertronics” in the otherwise improvisatory “B’Boom”, or whatnot. Despite the skilled performances of all the other musicians, Adrian Belew is Thrak‘s MVP by virtue of being versatile enough on vocals to tie everything together. That seems to happen a lot with the more self-consciously avant-garde rock and metal albums out there, and the fact that it outpaces his distinctive guitar stylings is cause for consternation, at the very least.

Ultimately, when Thrak succeeds, it’s due to the double trio’s ability to mix, match, and coordinate despite the strain of being a lineup of six musicians already famous in their own right. Arguably, that lineup later imploded, although exactly how you interpret the existence of King Crimson’s late ’90s “ProjeKcts” is up to you. I’d say that it usually does succeed, and even when it doesn’t, it still makes a good soundtrack to the multimedia frenzy of its time.

Highlights: “VROOM”, “Dinosaur”, “THRAK”, “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1980)

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AKA “Melt”, at least in some circles (and quadrilaterals). Between his earlier forays into a solo career after breaking off Genesis (Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel) and his proper entrance into the ’80s pop world (Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel is probably a straight up pop album. From a studio/historical perspective, though, it’s a fascinating recording, full of musicians who either already were famous in their own right, or went on to fame afterwards – most relevant to my interests are the presence of Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, who would go on to explore similar songwriting ideas with a new lineup of King Crimson. It’s also the reason I haven’t given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway serious consideration. For some unknown reason, I went into that album expecting a production at least somewhat what I heard here, and understandably didn’t find it. What was I thinking?

With an album like this, I literally have to focus on aesthetics. Peter Gabriel‘s songwriting is mostly well realized in a pop sense, with enough structural variety and experimentation to keep things going. Those who go in expecting progressive rock ala his career with Genesis will be sorely disappointed. The emphasis really is on the sounds and textures; the album’s lengthy studio lineup results in a panoply of instruments  blessing every track, and little in the way of aesthetic repetition. Between that and the clean, intelligible production, you end up with a recording that definitely left me with a good first impression, regardless of its future strength or weakness.

Peter Gabriel seems to be divided into two loose sections, much like one half of his face on the cover art is meltier than the other. The first half focuses on individuals and personal degradation/struggle, while the second half seems to be more about societies and social problems at large. This content split doesn’t really go beyond the lyrics, although you could argue that the second half also sounds more experimental, with a wider palette of instruments. More often than not, though, the lyrical content is at odds with the music around it. The best example is probably “Family Snapshot” – a song about a political assassin with choruses that sound like the theme to a contemporary sitcom. A few tracks are more fitting, though, like the regimented stomp of “Not One Of Us” or the creepy, SFX-driven lead-in that is “Intruder”.

Ultimately, the way this album is structured and written makes it hard for me to objectively judge, but I would tend to come out mostly in favor. Its partial resemblance to contemporary “New Wave” recordings and Discipline by King Crimson, though were a major selling point, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you might have just purchased this album.

Highlights: “No Self Control”, “Family Snapshot”, “Not One Of Us”

Mekong Delta – The Principle of Doubt (1989)

folder.jpgWhat a strangely produced album. The Principle of Doubt resembles its immediate predecessors on a musical level, but it sounds like it was recorded in a cavern… under a swamp… with instruments made of sheet metal. In other words, it’s a little reverby, and this combined with the often slower tempos and greater levels of dissonance make for a deceptive album on first glance. Give it some time, though, and its continuation of Mekong Delta’s technically flashy and vibrant speed/thrash metal sound will become apparent.

To get it out of the way – The Principle of Doubt is not a hard sell for someone who liked the self-titled debut, or The Music of Erich Zann. At most, it refines on the musical techniques and strategies of previous albums and perhaps exaggerates some of the stranger aspects of their sound a little. There are also some other minor changes that became more apparent with time, such as a generally slower tempo and a more experienced Wolfgang Borgmann on vocals (this time better at throwing and multitracking his voice), but they’re obviously not enough that I would describe this album as doing anything but staying the course. In 1989, Mekong Delta’s stylistic shifts were still off in the future.

While it took me a while to warm up to this one (mostly due to the odd aesthetics), I would nowadays argue that it’s the strongest of the band’s “classic” trilogy, although the previous two are still good choices for fans of this style of music. Oddly enough, I think it’s the minor style changes that make this one shine. As far as I’m concerned nowadays, Borgmann was a weak link in the early days of Mekong Delta, so his steady improvement in technique and growing ambition add some much appreciated aesthetic variety to the tracks. The same songwriting formulas are present here, though, so even without him Mekong Delta would not be lacking for in-track variety, whether it be riffs or textures or overall dynamics. While speed freaks might not like the slackening tempos, they seemingly allow the band to perform more complicated instrumental parts that are conducive to the overall chaotic and mindbending atmosphere they’re going for. If anything, it certainly beats the sterile, almost… klinical sound of Kaleidoscope.

While I would’ve preferred a more aggressive production style (especially given the style of music this album showcases), I still recommend The Principle of Doubt. I mean, if you doubt you’d enjoy this style of music in general, it probably won’t convert you, but how many albums out there actually can convert you to the ways of the vaunted tech-thrash?

Oh. Well… this one’s also good even if it’s less accessible.

Highlights: “Ever Since Time Began”, “Twilight Zone”, “The Jester”, “No Friend Of Mine”

 

Anatomy of VGM #7: Quake II (PC)

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In my defense, the soundtrack of Quake II is a pretty good match for what you might’ve expected from the soundtrack of Quake I if you were a rampant id Software fanatic back in the day trying to rationalize from the style of music you heard in Doom. It’s also a good match for what you might’ve expected after Broken or The Downward Spiral if you were a rampant Nine Inch Nails fanatic. Instead, the convergence was blessed with an unsettling ambient soundtrack, a Quake fan decided they’d make their own OST, and that’s how Sascha Dikiciyan (aka Sonic Mayhem) got the job for Quake II. Fascinating how things happen, eh?

This is a straight up work of industrial metal. The more direct approach jives well with Quake II‘s less horrific and more aggressive atmosphere compared to its predecessor. As far as I’m concerned, it leans more towards what contemporary mainstream metal bands were doing at the time than some of the more electronic-thinking acts of the time; the emphasis is on metal instrumentation and the synthesized parts are reserved primarily for sound effects. Like most things in life, there are exceptions, like the stompboxy boss theme (“Climb”), but ultimately this game’s soundtrack caters more to the Pantera/Machine Head sort of metalhead than their riveted friends.

The results are… to be honest, pretty basic at most times. Quake II (without expansions)’s soundtrack is brief, clocking in at less than half an hour and being organized into compact, if conventionally structured songs. Songs here are composed of a handful of midpaced riffs arranged in easily predictable orders. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more it pales in comparison to Invisible Blog‘s usual fare; while it’s certainly appropriate for the style of gameplay, it’s lacking that spark of variety and vitality that would make it rewarding outside of its background. Most of the artists who perform in this style usually delegate this ‘having a spark’ thing to their vocalist, but that’s usually not a great option in the world of video games, especially if you’re repeating the same tracks over and over and over again…

So I guess that when I actually think about it, Quake II‘s music is a bust. Unfortunate, really. When I actually play Quake II (which isn’t going to be that often, since I’ve never ventured into its multiplayer), I don’t actually have to pay the OST much mind, though, so that’s some level of consolation?

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)

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So I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m fond of NIN’s 1992 EP Broken. About half of The Downward Spiral is in a similar vein, but it’s a more ambitious and varied work by far. Longer albums tend to do that; we’ve been over this many times in the past. This was arguably Trent Reznor’s big commercial breakthrough – the Black Album to Broken‘s And Justice For All, if you like extended Metallica analogies, since to be fair, the previous EP did sell quite well in its own right. What do we make of it?

Well, first of all, The Downward Spiral mostly resembles its predecessor in its most intense moments. The same mixture of pop songwriting with abrasive guitars and sampling is on display here, but it only takes us until the second track (“Piggy”) to learn of TDS‘s other ambitions. Interspersed with the stereotypical industrial metal sound are a couple of downtempo, and occasionally ambient tracks that are… less directly tailored to my interests, regardless of their merits/lack thereof. We might as well be honest about it – by ratios alone, this album panders less to me than the last one, but other listeners might appreciate the quieter moments and generally wider songwriting scope. To be fair, Trent doesn’t spend all that much time in interlude mode, but it’s still at least 25-30% of the album, so regardless of your opinion, it bears mentioning. The underlying electronic ideas remain.

If there’s one thing that’s definitely changed in the intervening two years, it’s the textures. The Downward Spiral is a more spacious album than its predecessor, with less instruments competing for the listener’s attention and the quieter sections being understandably sparser sounding. It also helps that the album features some very slow, almost doomy tracks. My knowledge of Nine Inch Nails’ discography is far from encyclopedic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was new territory for the act, and the occasional slow, trudging, but still rock/metal oriented track is a welcome change, and certainly a viable way of adding more variety to the hour long degradation trip that is this album. I guess I pay more attention to the lyrics of this album than its predecessor, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re not really the selling point. I’ve seen Trent’s lyrical approach criticized in the past, but given that I tend to deemphasize lyrics as part of my own listening experience (with some major exceptions),  it’s not something I lose sleep over.

Ultimately, I think The Downward Spiral is a sidestep from Broken; it’s recognizably in the same genre, but the overall effect is quite different. One definite good that came of this album was that Trent got to practice his dark ambient skills, which definitely came in handy once id Software contracted him to score Quake. That game’s OST might be worth an Anatomy of VGM post someday, but until then…

Highlights: “Heretic”, “Closer”, “Reptile”

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996)

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You know, the last time we talked about Aphex Twin, I got awfully fixated on Slayer, and it kind of spiraled out of control. I’m all better now, though, I promise. From a musical perspective, the Richard D. James Album is all about strange juxtapositions. The big one is the contrast between the harsh rapidfire percussion and the soothing melodic lines underneath. To my understanding, this is a common technique today (at least by IDM standards), but in 1996? I wouldn’t really know. But this sound, portioned out into compact little tracks, makes for an interesting experience at the very least.

If I ignore the aforementioned beats, what strikes me about RDJ is how ‘organic’ many of the tracks sound. There are obvious synthesizer lines and pads, but also an orchestra’s worth of simulated symphonic instruments strewn throughout the album. Besides falling way outside my own expectations, this especially doesn’t stereotypically jive with the drills in the rhythm section. That’s enough to forcibly fixate me on the fractured aesthetic, and focusing on it makes for difficult writing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely necessary. If you cut out the entire rhythm section for whatever reason, you’d have an entirely different experience – not something that necessarily matches up well with the rest of RDJ’s pre-1996 (this) discography, but a very restrained recording. You’d also have fewer problems with ear pain if your sound system wasn’t properly set up with a consistent frequency response; this album is exceedingly trebly to the point I notice it even on my relatively tuned desktop, and that I even find it hard to handle on less precise EQs like that of my phone.

For the most part, the songwriting here is more conventional, although I have no idea what prompted Richard to write “Logan Rock Witch” (by far, the least appropriate track for a session of Hearts of Iron). It’s the usual IDM “new element/permutation every 4/8 bars” shtick; like other forms of pop songwriting, people use it because it’s easy and it works if you know what you’re doing. You could argue that the short songs work against this idea, but this is where the hyperactive rhythm section actually comes in handy, by blasting through as many patterns as possible and therefore creating useful, attention-grabbing variations in texture over time. A good deal of it seems to be in the interest of wacky sound effects, though. Ultimately, I think the songwriting here functions at least in a pop sense, but the aforementioned aesthetic juxtaposition does make it harder to accurately judge this.

Any flaws I perceive in RDJ don’t seem to stop me from listening to it, so that’s got to count for something. Maybe I should check back in a year or so and see how well this holds up?

Highlights: ” Peek 824545201″, “Carn Marth”, “Yellow Calx”

ChthoniC – Seediq Bale (2006)

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The Japanese occupation of Taiwan as filtered through the darkest occult. Nowadays, discussion of ChthoniC is probably inseparable from the political goals of its frontman Freddy Lim, but that’s something we can overcome, isn’t it? I think Seediq Bale was the first of ChthoniC’s recordings to get any significant attention in the USA; they did go to the trouble of recording and remastering it for English speaking audiences. For the sake of this review, I’ll be discussing that version. What I’ve heard of the original isn’t immensely different, although I do remember it having a thinner production.

ChthoniC plays a sort of symphonic black metal that at at least superficially resembles the first big names in the genre (Emperor, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir… none of whom are all that similar beyond instrumentation). The production is serviceable – loud and intense enough, but with cheap synths and what, as far as I can tell, is a completely brickwalled mix. I’ve heard much worse compression, but this is still not a great sign. Listeners should keep an ear out for the erhu lines; they’re an obvious novelty, but the songs are written with them in mind; the lines its performer plays fit along the rest of the songs’ content, and for all the production flaws, the mix contains space for them.

The best analogy I can draw from my listening experience, surprisingly, is to Anorexia Nervosa’s second (and band-defining) album Drudenhaus. Both Seediq Bale and that album are loud poorly produced but musically intricate works of symphonic black metal. The similarities go beyond mere sound, though. One thing I’ve noticed is that both of these bands share an otherwise rare style of riffcraft and song structure. In short – they modulate their key signatures in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of classical music, but they also trouble resolving chord progressions, making for an oddly tense and dissonant effect in what is otherwise a very consonant style. ChthoniC does break from this model by using a bouncier and more syncopated rhythm section, more reminiscent of older styles of black metal when it’s not blatantly blasting away. ChthoniC’s eccentricities could very well be a result of their geographical isolation – while Taiwan is a well developed country (oh shit, there goes my funding from the PRC, all $0.00 of it) with its share of high tech internet access, the language barriers and other variants in cultural contact definitely would make it harder to ape the most famous geographical variants of black metal; to say more would be difficult without all-out armchair historian stereotypes.

While the chunky production limits the band’s range and theoretically my listening time, ChthoniC does make up for it with strong songwriting and their aesthetic gimmicks. It’s enough to make me wonder if they followed up on this album’s promise on their later work, but I also have a lot of other metal albums on my metaphorical plate… so maybe you’ll hear about these someday? You never know.

Highlights: “Indigenous Laceration”, “Bloody Gaya Fulfilled”, “Where The Utux Ancestors Wait”