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”

Ministry – Psalm 69 (1993)

folder

Ministry, at least in their guises that I listen to, has a serious consistency problem tempered by their ability to consistently put their best tracks at the beginning of their albums. It happened with “The Missing”, it happened with “Burning Inside”, and it happened with “War Pimp Renaissance” (which is technically by Lard, but that band is basically Ministry with Jello Biafra on vocals) some years after this. Their discography is one of the main reasons I don’t put number scores on these reviews – I mean, how do you take the existence of a few especially strong tracks in a sea of disposables and express it as a single number? Psalm 69, on the other hand, is shockingly consistent in its songwriting and importantly does not fall apart after a few hit singles. I’m not complaining, but what the hell happened?

First, I know that Psalm 69 is rather amped up compared to its predecessors; the rumor is that like some of their contemporaries (NIN in particular), Ministry toughened up their sound for their live shows, which eventually bled over to the studio. The actual songwriting hasn’t changed from its immediate predecessors – Ministry still relies heavily on texture, repetition, and samples to drive their songs. Still, as a work of industrial metal, this understandably benefits from its heavy, artificial sound, and it’s definitely an improvement over the hodgepodge of mixing styles of Ministry’s 1980s output. It might seem childishly obvious, but when you rely on your aesthetics like Ministry does, having a strong unified sound sure comes in handy.

Psalm 69 is also probably less varied than its predecessors, dropping out of its strong industrial metal voice rather less often, even if by doing so it creates more opportunities to explore that genre’s substyles. Perhaps the best example of this is “Scarecrow”, a torturous, groaning colossus of 8 minutes that traces out something new and especially harsh in Ministry’s language (and presumably either does or does not point the way forwards towards the doomier ’90s for this band). It’s still recognizably built from the guitar loops, distorted vocals, and samples that drive most of the other tracks here, and that reveals what, for Ministry, seems to have been a huge advance – Ministry is now able to incorporate the ideas they wish to experiment with into a more consistent whole, although the strength of execution is more important than the specifics of their sound. Either way, it’s a major execution boost and I am willing to pin the relative lack of filler on it.

This suggests that if you were to only listen to one Ministry album (and thus deny yourself the sweep of their storied history), you would do best to make it this one.

Highlights: “NWO”, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, “Scarecrow”

Turmion Kätilöt – U.S.C.H.! (2008)

folder

I want to say this band was a major influence on my own music, but I don’t know if the timeline would fit. These Finns (who will from here on out be referred to as “TK” because I need umlauts to do their full name justice, and I think I lost my keyboard region changing shortcut when I upgraded to Windows 8.1) do love their dense synthesizer soundscapes over heavy guitar, so we definitely have something in common. Whether or not they directly inspired my efforts probably isn’t that important anyways. Anyways, TK seems to belong to the ‘pop’ lineage of industrial metal, which puts them in company of such musicians like NIN, albeit with way better guitar and drum tone. That might be kind of subjective, anyways.

I’d guess that TK is rather similar to Rammstein on steroids, since they share a love of transgressive imagery and major rock/metal influences. Not that I’m particularly familiar with Rammstein (although I’ve heard good things), but like many of the bands I bring up on this blog, having a frame of reference is sure handy. It does mean that while this band has a major synthesizer presence in their songs, it rarely carries the melodies and riffs. The band has a bit of a dual-vocalist thing going on, with one major harsh voxbox driving most of them through the art of the midrange snarl. A session vocalist adds sung vocals to some of the choruses. One problem with TK being from Finland and performing much of their work in Finnish is that it makes it harder for me to find concrete information on who the members are, but worrying about that too much would detract from the quality of the reviews here. The ensemble that performs on U.S.C.H.! seems pretty standard, anyways. While the songwriting is relatively simplistic, it has some odd decisions that render it particularly distinctive in my mind. The most notable of these is the chord progressions, which while generally consonant, seem to modulate in a way that’s at odds with the general rock/metal influences. It seems that TK’s guitarist likes to base his riffs in scale fragments, hence the interesting modulations.

When I think about it, this band might not be too hard to taxonomize. They certainly win some points in my book for their idiosyncracies and their overall levels of intensity. NIN and Ministry fans will probably get a kick out of them. I certainly did after immersing myself in those two long ago.

Highlights: “U.S.C.H”, “Pakanamaan Kartta”, “Arise”

King Crimson – In The Court of The Crimson King (1969)

folder

In retrospect, this is actually a pretty scary piece of cover art. Read more…

Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1993)

folder

AKA “Lord Satan’s Magic Mysteries”, or at least that’s what it’s called on Alternate Earth #19257 (“Scooby Doo Earth”). For a band that had as much trouble existing as Mayhem, it’s a wonder this ever came out, although the stories behind its release are really too well known for me to bother telling. Two things have particularly tickled my fancy about this album over time – not only is it a surprisingly ambient and atmospheric album (whereas most Mayhem is a bit more violent), but much of its power comes from the guest vox of one Attila Csihar, who completely steals the show in ways that most black metal vocalists don’t if you have even the slightest familiarity with their chosen techniques. The rest of the survivors went on to have long and lucrative careers, at least by the standards of the genre, so despite coming out comparatively late in the movement, this remains one of the definitive recordings of black metal; your opinion on it is presumably a decent benchmark for whether you will like other recordings in the genre.

Despite being such a trope-defining work, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas differs substantially from its buddies in the genre. Attila Csihar’s vocals play a big role in this; he actually sings his way through great portions of this album, albeit in a distorted, strangled fashion that at best mocks standard human singing techniques. Still, he actually incorporates melody into these vox where previous Mayhem vocalists went for standard growls and shrieks, and while he usually follows the guitar lines, it still adds a lot of character and distinction to the album. The songwriting also occupies a different mental space from bands fortunate enough to get their formative recordings out before them (I’ll emphasize Darkthrone and Enslaved because I’ve actually written about them for Invisible Blog). For instance, while Mayhem explores the same tempo dissonance that so many other Norwegian black metallers used in their work (riff repetitions and guitarwork are often quite sluggish compared to the blasting drums), they push it further than most of their compatriots, unhinging the album further. Add to that heavily melodic guitarwork with occasional crazed guitar soloing reminiscent of vengeful undead shrieks (Ever listened to “Life Eternal”?), and an audible bass occupied with legitimate counterpoint, and if you’re like me, you suddenly become aware that this album has been pushing your musical buttons since you first discovered it in 2009, albeit with more subtlety and restraint than most who unknowingly attempt it.

It helps that the production on this album is relatively high fidelity. While chalkier and high pitched than the slick, commercialized death metal it competed with, the songs here benefit from the mixing services of Eirik “Pytten” Hundvin. Everything is audible and clear, and not particularly degraded in ways you’d expect from the more lo-fi parts of the scene. To be fair, many of the big names were able to acquire reasonably produced work with the help of Pytten and other relatively big name producers, so that Mayhem’s formal debut sounds good should perhaps not be such a surprise. Given the importance of each instrument here, actual sound quality rather comes in handy, and is definitely preferable to the alternative.

If there’s one thing you can take away from 2015 at Invisible Blog, it’s that I’ve been able to choose writing subjects that particularly interest me, and that may overall lead to increases in the depth and breadth of actual posts here. Cherish it like you would Mayhem – it’s all downhill from here, from the competent Wolf’s Lair Abyss to the disastrous Grand Declaration of War and so forth…

Highlights: “Cursed in Eternity”, “Pagan Fears”, “Buried By Time and Dust”

Kreator – Terrible Certainty (1987)

folderI used to be… terribly certain about the relative merits of Kreator’s albums. Nowadays, I’m not so sure, although a few trends still seem pretty apparent – a certain neutering after 1988, a brief period of particular career dissonance, a dim echo of a glorious past in the 21st century, and so forth. Terrible Certainty seems like it should be the high point of the band’s career, effortlessly merging a new and vital riffing style into the nasty, brutish speed-thrash of previous albums. But as you probably guessed from the phrasing, I have my reservations.

Terrible Certainty, to its credit, seems to have different problems than future Kreator albums, things of the sort you might expect to arise from a band executing similar types of stylistic shifts. The production comes to mind – on first listen, it might seem a good match for the absolute fuckfest (There go the small children; they shouldn’t be here anyways) that Pleasure to Kill was gifted with. Its main flaw is that it lacks much of the bass that its predecessor had. Oddly enough, I miss this aspect most in the drums, which lost out on some crucial reverb. The end result is that Terrible Certainty is drier and treblier than its predecessor, as if the producer tried to reproduce its results but for whatever reason failed. We’ve also lost out on the occasional extended songwriting of the oldest school Kreator albums. Those extended songs were sometimes a bit clunky, but they were endearing, and more importantly, they worked because Kreator was versatile enough to incorporate a lot of varied musical ideas into even their most hamfisted and simplistic songs.

What virtues this album does have are probably a result of that last point. I’ve written much of Kreator’s signature riff style (consonant major keys interval arranged in dissonant, even atonal patterns), so it pains me how quickly they abandoned it after two albums. It made for stern competition to contemporaries like Destruction. Lucky for us that it’s so prevalent here! Combine the band’s previously documented ability to vary up their musical language with a technique that’s conducive to such, and you have an easy recipe for successful metal songwriting. While it’s not particularly ambitious on this album, it has its moments of particular effectiveness from the band’s understanding of dynamics (mostly driven by the vocals and drums, thanks to Ventor, and the occasional chaotic solo) and the overall quality riffwork on display. Terrible Certainty, in particular, has oddly effective and distinctive bridges; the blasting of “Blind Faith” or the breakdown of “Toxic Trace” come to mind. Still, you’d wish Kreator put more riffs in their songs, but at least the ones that are there are memorable and benefit from the signature style.

In writing this, I learned that it’s kind of hard to be hard on this album, because I enjoy what it does right so much. This has happened to me before with different albums, and you’ve probably read reviews here where I was so blinded by my love of one part of an album that I let its failings pass. It certainly holds up better than Extreme Aggression, which ironically dials back the aggression quite a bit.

Highlights: “Storming with Menace”, “Toxic Trace”, “One Of Us”

Disaffected – Vast (1995)

folderIf being from Portugal is a gimmick… and from the perspective of the music media, it probably is… it doesn’t seem to have given Disaffected very much commercial success, at least not compared to… let’s say Moonspell since I can’t name any others off the top of my head. In terms of Portuguese language metal, Brazil has its parent swamped, but that’s entirely irrelevant. Vast is reminiscent of early-90s Pestilence (particularly on Spheres) in that it tastes of synthesizer and despite clearly using the musical language of death metal, it doesn’t favor aggression and brutality to the extent you might expect based on your average death metal recording.

Luckily for us, the listeners, Vast has its own voice and particular substyle, although merely having such does not alone a worthy listen make. Compared to Spheres (you know, I REALLY need to get around to listening to Testimony of the Ancients, but the physical tracking of its interludes irritates me and therefore delays this), Disaffected carries more musical baggage from their earlier, more violent days, at least in their surface aesthetic. The chunky, midranged production belies the oddly shaped riffs and occasionally very densely packed songwriting (which probably reaches maximum density on “Dead Like My Dreams”), as well as the surprising versatility of the band’s keyboard section. There’s a stereotype about metal keyboardists not having much to do, but it certainly doesn’t apply here, with varied samples and synthesis all over the songs. Voice shifts inside the songs are reliably accompanied by instrument patch changes; compare to some bands (like Emperor) that tend to stick to one instrument per song.

It seems that Vast‘s substyle is rather smaller than the name of the album, and that seems worthy of understanding in this band’s context. A great deal of bands who try their hands at this tend to favor the ‘progressive’ side of their sound after a while. Whether or not that results in better music, it tends to soften them up. Vast, if it’s affected by this, is still relatively early on in the process. I mentioned that the death/thrash elements are still pretty prominent, but more consonant and melodic material pops up fairly frequently. To the band’s credit, this doesn’t always accompany the frequent appearance of keyboard, and in general, Disaffected is able to turn their songwriting in interesting, non-obvious directions, like the chord patterns at the ending of “Dreaming II”, or the weirdly melodramatic, gothic flavored cover of Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss”.

Sometimes things actually do just fall through the cracks. If Disaffected had better marketing behind their work, Vast would’ve been recognized in its time as quality techdeath, strengthened by its influences, and possibly gone on to record many more works in the style… or transitioned to a more accessible one for even more cash, like Moonspell did. You never know, although you can probably guess based on the band’s even more obscure 2012 revival. Who knows what sounds come forth from that work when dropped into a CD player?

Highlights: “Unlimited Vision”, “The Praxis of the Nonbeing”, “Dead Like My Dreams”