Kreator – Extreme Aggression (1989)

Kreator Extreme Agression--f.jpg

A long time ago, I took German classes in school. Kreator is a German band, so I figured I could name drop them during one of my homework assignments. I think I did pretty well on said assignment, but it’s been many years. Digressions aside, Extreme Aggression has the bizarre honor of noticeably less aggressive and extreme than its predecessors. It sort of makes sense when you think about it – you can pick any year around that dawn of the final decade of the second millennium and reasonably label it “peak thrash”. If Kreator’s personnel (or management) decided they ought to soften their sound a bit, it would explain why the album is so inappropriately named, but we shouldn’t dwell on that too much.

As far as I’m concerned, Extreme Aggression does have a few tricks up its sleeve that previous Kreator albums didn’t. Perhaps most notable is that it’s got the most extremely aggressive dissonance of anything they’d released to that point. This is essentially the peak of the Kreator riff (read: consonant major keys interval arranged in dissonant, even atonal patterns) in Kreator’s music – when Frank Blackfire joined up for Coma of Souls, they essentially disappeared. This extensive dissonance was more than enough to grab my interest in my earlier metal listening days. Even now, it adds a lot of color and flair to what is otherwise a fairly polished and streamlined speed/thrash album.

While I miss the extreme aggression of this band’s previous work, Extreme Aggression actually benefits from its streamlining. Admittedly, this is in subtle ways – it generally manifests as a steadier, more coherent sense of songwriting than before, with fewer awkward asides, better transitions between song sections, and higher riff density than before. This actually combines very well with this era of Kreator’s guitar creativity – to overextend the previous color metaphor, honed technique allows Kreator to effectively use a wide palette for stronger aesthetic/emotional effect than before. The rest of the instrumentation is not as varied, and the loss of Ventor’s vocals in particular robs the band of one of their most powerful weapons. However, I’d argue that it’s more than sufficient that it plays a good supporting role for the fretwork, at least in this case. In short, it’s the combination of the signature riffs with a better songwriting foundation that makes me keep coming back to this album, even though the loss of production values does not at all suit it.

To be fair, every one of these golden era Kreator albums has something in its favor. Metalheads can’t really go wrong per se. I would argue that Extreme Aggression takes longer to gel in your head, but the payoff is worth it.

Highlights: “No Reason To Exist”, “Stream of Consciousness”, “Some Pain Will Last”

Advertisements

Anatomy of VGM #16 – Tyrian (1995)

208634-tyrian-dos-front-cover.jpg

This feature is based off the definitive release (Tyrian 2000), and the AdLib version of the soundtrack.

It might not be a major theme here on Invisible Blog, but I have never been a big advocate for Yamaha’s OPL2/OPL3 sound chips (often sold as part of an AdLib sound card), at least not in isolation. FM synthesis has a very particular sound that’s well suited to certain styles of music, but many of the compositions for these chips (read: An enormous compilation of DOS games) disregard this, to questionable results. As a result, the gap between good and bad OSTs for DOS games is enormous! Tyrian is very definitely on the good side, and it is my go to game for anyone who wants an idea of what an expert can do with an Adlib.

Tyrian‘s music is about equally split between fast paced, upbeat synthpop/rock songs and more evocative, theatrical filmscore type music. Most of the tracks here were written by Alexander Brandon, who would go on to write more ‘tracker’ type music for games like Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex throughout the ’90s. A few were handled by one Andreas Molnar, who also apparently served as the sound programmer (at least for the Adlib version of the music). Tyrian‘s musical prowess is the result of their close collaboration, as the tracks here both play to the strengths of the OPL chips and demonstrate solid writing. The most obvious example of this is the variety of audio effects Brandon and Molnar pull off – ADSRM tricks in the instrumentation, screaming pitch bends to simulate guitarwork, pounding echoing percussion where a lesser sequencer would be limited to mere taps and tinkles. These types of tricks help add aesthetic flavor to the music at hand.

Since Tyrian‘s music exists in more forms than Adlib in an attempt to support more sound cards, we have to take a closer look at the writing to get to the heart of why it’s so well regarded. There’s a few factors here – I mentioned the broad types of music it contains, but for its length it’s an especially varied soundtrack, constantly exposing the listener to new musical ideas as they blast through the game’s generally short levels. In general, it holds these together with a focus on simple, direct, poppy writing focused on hooky motifs. Probably the best example of this is “Rock Garden” – a rather obviously named rock song that puts the OPL to good use with surprisingly realistic guitars (given the technology). It’s also based around two riffs with alternating guitar and organ solos. There’s not much there, but what IS there is as expertly honed as a carved diamond. The less rock-oriented tracks maintain this focus on leitmotif, from the soaring chords of the Asteroid Dances, to the complicated interplay of synth in “Tyrian: The Level”, to the driving energy of “Gyges”, and so forth. In short, while you could easily do more ambitious things with the Adlib, this comes off as more of an example of how to push a subset of its abilities to their limits.

The rest of Tyrian is good too, and you can play it for free nowadays due to the generosity of its creators. The other systems in the game could fill weeks of coverage here on Invisible Blog if I were so inclined.

Orbital – Snivilisation (1994)

folder.jpg

Where do I even begin with this one? Orbital is one of those bands that insists on having a unique identity on each of their albums. If I understand this one’s context correctly, Snivilisation is the weird album – the one you’d insert into your brand new multimedia PC with Windows 3.1 to show off your cool new CD player when you weren’t playing Myst or Spaceship Warlock. It’s also more subdued and contemplative on average than the last one. So we’ve got a somewhat ambient, but also occasionally very silly recording, with a random punk rock song dividing it into halves that aren’t all that different from one another. There’s not much in the way of metaphors I can apply here, so the best approach is to try and figure out what makes Snivilisation snivel.

As a general rule, Orbital isn’t especially dense or overwhelming, but this is one of their sparser albums, more focused on maximizing the payout from its constituent parts than introducing new ones into songs. Samples here are especially relevant; if you ask me, Snivilisation has an optimistic, technophiliac sheen to it that’s admittedly most prominent during its sillier tracks. Case in point – “Philosophy by Numbers” is essentially a commercial for some unknown continuing education service on top of a dissonant drone, but it fights for space in its mix with screeching trumpets and increasingly complex tonal percussion before fading out. Why not find it to find out more? Orbital’s snark is more restrained in other tracks, but it’s certainly a different emphasis than, for instance, the deep and rich melodic development of In Sides.

For all of this, Snivilisation still has the Orbital trademarks and relies heavily on them. Its songs are still based in the ambient/techno approach that made the band famous. One thing that particularly pops out (even in a discography that generally emphasizes it) is the emphasis on vocals. The samples are an obvious case, but outside of a plethora of EPs I’ve not listened to, this appears to be their first recording with apparently non-sampled and obviously word-flavored vocals (“Sad But True”). I can’t actually make them out, and I’d guess they’re more for effect than anything. In this case, I’d say it’s more useful as an example of how to incorporate human singing into this sort of electronic music without obviously switching to a more conventional pop approach.

There’s still some analysis I need to do to really get everything Orbital’s attempting here, but I’m certain that Snivilisation is one of the stranger and more whimsical EDM recordings of its era. If you need your EDM to be strange and whimsical, you’ve come to the right place.

Highlights: “Forever”, “Sad But True”, “Kein Trink Wasser”, “Attached”

Absu – The Sun Of Tiphareth (1995)

ABSU-The-Sun-of-Tiphareth-DLP-BLACK.jpg

Like all good Texans, Absu is all about magic and mythology. The Sun Of Tiphareth is (mostly) from the earlier, Sumerian flavored part of their career, but that’s more than enough for a different experience than their later and more aggressive work. This is, by comparison, a more drawn out and melodramatic/epic flavored recording; it also so happens that absorbing this recording helped me appreciate when later Absu recordings occasionally attempted to revive this one’s spirit (read: “Stone of Destiny”, “Of Celtic Fire We Are Born”, etc.). Beyond that, I’d say it also bears a close resemblance to the much celebrated Norwegian black metal scene of such past years; is it possible that Absu was trying to channel their music?

Absu immediately kicks off this album with the strangely titled “Apzu”, starting a tradition of name convolutions that wouldn’t really see fruition until the band’s comeback album in 2009. This song is basically The Sun Of Tiphareth at its most… kabbalistic? You find me an adverb in this album’s title if you think you can do better. It’s a meandering journey through all the musical language Absu is going to explore on this album. It also showcases the interesting lo-fi but otherwise reasonably clear production, some vocal interplay that I admittedly feel is better developed on the band’s later recordings, and especially diverse percussion. The latter is a given when Proscriptor calls your band home, but when you’re like me and you stereotype Norwegian-influenced black metal as being less focused on rhythmic variety, it especially stands out.

Beyond the accomplished percussion and the extended songwriting, though, The Sun Of Tiphareth doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from similar recordings. There aren’t any massive, album ruining flaws that I’m aware of – everything else here seems competent if not particularly remarkable. I do think that some of these longer compositions could’ve used some extra editing; for all the ideas and sections crammed into them, there’s a lot of filler that could’ve been cut away without cutting into the mystic atmosphere Absu creates in their stronger moments here. I suppose this is a common enough problem on its own. Absu, however, is also one of the many bands who refined their songwriting skills further on later material, giving us still arcane, but far more intense and focused material on The Third Storm of Cythraul and Tara. The approach is different enough that you can’t really substitute this album in for those two, but I still can’t help but return to those more often, at least for their mastery of their own approaches.

Again, you can’t really go wrong with The Sun Of Tiphareth, but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential unless you absolutely need more atmospheric, semi-lo-fi black metal ramblings in your life.

Highlights: “Apzu”, “Feis Mor Tir Na N’og”, “A Quest Into The 77th Novel”

Sigh – Scenario IV – Dread Dreams (1999)

folder.jpgI used to be certain that Scenario IV was the black sheep of Sigh’s discography, but nowadays I’m not as sure. It’s admittedly at an awkward point between the nominally still black metal Hail Horror Hail and the psychedelic retro rock masterpiece that is Imaginary Sonicscape. Listening to all three gives me a better perspective on how this one fits in. In short? Scenario IV is the simultaneously the best and worst of both worlds, which is admittedly a stiff order for any album. It’s exceedingly ambitious, and there’s a lot of content that you could potentially latch onto and enjoy, but how does it all tie together?

Essentially, the problem with this album is that it’s too scatterbrained, even given Sigh’s generally experimental approach to music making. If I had to guess, the amount of trademarked asides here is about the same as before, but in a lot of cases, the glue that incorporates them into the songs is slim to nonexistent. This is especially problematic in those liminal spaces between tracks where it feels like Sigh just threw in whatever fragments they felt like using with no regards to what fit the overall feel of the album. This wasn’t really a problem on the surrounding albums, so what happened here? After I stepped back a bit, I realized that these asides weren’t taking a whole lot of time in and of themselves, but they were also interspersed with more conventional sections that  still felt more fragmented and random than before. I don’t know what caused that regression, but these combine to make for an album that feels incoherent and confused.

If Scenario IV had dialed back the musical excursions a bit (like on the last album), or even focused on writing content to match it (which they did on the next one), it might’ve made for a stronger, more cohesive experience. The individual riffs and instrumentation here fees like they were written for the earlier, darker, doomier flavors of Sigh; I’d say they would work very well on the earliest material if they were given surroundings that met their needs. There is also a good chunk of more direct, hooky writing on here that somewhat resembles what we’d hear on Imaginary Sonicscape, but those portions of the recordings suffer from a producer who was most likely trying to imitate the older material. As a general rule, Scenario IV sounds dark, brooding, and muddy, even when it probably shouldn’t… which is another strategic flaw in an album that can’t really afford to have more.

Overall, while a few tracks manage to master their unique constraints and difficulties, Scenario IV is a disjointed mess that generally fails to unite its disparate elements into a coherent whole. It certainly isn’t Sigh’s high point.

Highlights: “Infernal Cries”, “Iconoclasm in the Fourth Desert”, “In the Mind of a Lunatic”

Anatomy of VGM #15 – Mega Man X (1993)

35566-mega-man-x-snes-front-cover.jpgWhen I decided to take a look at Mega Man X‘s music, I was laboring under the false impression that I’d done similar for more than a single game in the franchise. I do not know what universe this belief came from, but there’s still some kernel of truth to it. The armada of composers who have written music for Mega Man and its legion of subseries have all put their own unique spin on it… …well, maybe not the composer of the DOS versions pushed out by Rozner Labs, but in their defense, they don’t exist, because those games have no music. Mega Man X clearly doesn’t have that problem. As the first Mega Man to appear on the SNES (though far from Capcom’s first title for the system), the soundtrack matches the overall goal for the game – it expands on the core concepts and puts them in a new context, but you can still hear the elements of a Mega Man soundtrack.

To really understand how MMX fits into the megaseries (!), we need to start with a good understanding of what makes a Mega Man soundtrack in general. I’ve mentioned before that the NES installments didn’t exactly push the 2A03 to its limits, but succeeded in accompanying Dr. Wily’s follies with memorable poppy tunes. Meanwhile, the third game onwards saw Capcom’s rotating door lineup of composers experimenting with more complicated variants on this formula to mixed results. If you ask me, Mega Man X leans more towards the former, in that it favors overall intensity and pop hooks over elaboration and diversity. However, it does benefit from the broader sound palette and extra sound channels that the SNES has over its predecessor. Beyond this, it retains the generally upbeat aesthetic that I’ve come to expect from the Mega Man franchise as a whole. Later X-series games would push for more darkness and edge, but I’m not familiar enough with those games to know if their composers cooperated with that.

In general, Mega Man X‘s music fits well into a hard rock/heavy metal mold. It’s got prominent guitar work that exists in precarious balance with a versatile palette of synthesizers. There are also a few excursions into more speed/thrash metal oriented territory that I appreciate, but they’re exceptions to the rule, and if I were you I wouldn’t expect a SNES game to explore sample based metal music in that much detail. While there are exceptions to that rule, this game sticks to its niche. This mostly works out, but one thing that particularly bugs me is the weak sample quality. That’s not something you want to have when you’re composing for the SNES; but MMX’s catchy tunes are (in their initial form) marred by plastic sounding guitars and grainy percussion. In general, the sample fidelity is pretty lacking – more space on the cartridge might’ve helped, but it would also have driven up the price of the game. Mega Man X2 a year later was actually a major step up in this regard, for whatever that’s worth.

While sample quality is a pretty significant flaw, it’s one that I think we can easily look past. Due to its popularity, many a composer has contorted MMX‘s tracks into their instruments of choice, so if the aesthetics of the original bother you too much, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a replacement. Barring that, the soundtrack of Mega Man X will give you a good idea of how a composer can put their own unique spin on an established sound, especially when they’ve got a hardware upgrade to help them.

P.S: Speaking of hardware upgrades, here‘s a quality remix of the OST for the Sega Genesis’s YM2612 chip.

Amorphis – The Karelian Isthmus (1992)

Folder.jpg

It probably shouldn’t be surprising how quickly Amorphis departed from the death/doom metal that fills The Karelian Isthmus, given how many bands similarly morphed into more standard rock combos… but it is! Amorphis had an ear for the epic and melodramatic here that as far as I know was thrown out after their first few albums. The question of why so many bands followed similar career arcs (make a “progressive” death metal album, then make something else) is outside the scope of this review format. Still, we’re left with a melodic and surprisingly elaborate take on death/doom from a band that even a year ago was far filthier and less refined, and that’s where we start.

To be fair, by the time Amorphis properly got into the studio album game, they’d not only established their own skillset by recording some earlier death metal (demos, and the Privilege of Evil EP, even though that wasn’t released until some time later), but also had a corpus of established Scandinavian comrades to pattern themselves off. As a result, I’m not surprised by how polished The Karelian Isthmus sounds. Its deep yet clear guitars and deep growls courtesy of Tomi Koivusaari particularly stand out. The occasional use of keyboard patches for texture are also noteworthy, as they add depth and dynamics to these songs without distracting from the overall approach. To be fair, later incarnations of Amorphis would dramatically expand on the keys.

The compositions here are certainly ambitious, at least going by the number and variety of sections the average song goes through. Overall, they’re similar to the earlier, bludgeoning yet atmospheric sort of death metal of the earliest ’90s, though Amorphis does seem to favor magic over mayhem in their aesthetic. One thing I particularly like about The Karelian Isthmus is how it successfully avoids the standard pop verse/chorus material in favor of greater structural variety. A lot of bands that try to expand beyond this still end up clinging to these basic song structures (I’m looking at you, Death). The caveat here is that while Amorphis has written many an individual riff and many types of riffs to build their songs, this is another album where the transitions between them end up awkward at best. There’s occasionally something to be said for these abrupt transitions, but I’m not certain it’s particularly appropriate for this type of music. It’s actually a pretty serious issue that the band wouldn’t really learn to work around until Elegy some years later. What I’ve found in my personal experience, however, is that the other aspects of the songwriting (variety in general and the strength of individual sections) helps make up for it. Some isthmuses aren’t nearly as fortunate!

With all of that in mind, it seems reasonable of me to assume that I personally like Amorphis’s debut more than what my analysis of it would lead me to believe. Still, it particularly excels at creating its huge, mythic atmosphere. Regardless of what you think of the underlying compositions, this is a superlative worth studying.

Highlights: “Grail’s Mysteries”, “Exile of the Sons of Uisliu”, “The Lost Name of God”