Re-review: Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)

Re-reviews here on Invisible Blog tend to happen:

  1. When my thoughts on media have significantly changed in the last few years.
  2. For content I covered in ~2010-2011, well before my approach to Invisible Blog ossified.

With Altars of Madness, it’s definitely the latter. I convinced myself years ago of the musical links between Morbid Angel’s debut and foundational 2nd wave (Norwegian) black metal, and I still believe it. I guess that’s just what happens when you have a few years to make your mark (more if you count Abominations of Desolation) and the marketing muscle to get folks’ attentions in foreign markets. That being said, Morbid Angel definitely had their own identity, which sometimes took them in very… interesting directions. If you want to understand them, this debut is an eminently reasonable place to start.

The (admittedly reactionary if not always strictly fascistic) folks at DMU had a useful term for describing the sort of music here – phrasal death metal. In theory, it means the riffs tend to be lengthy and melodic, but rhythmic and textural variety/complexity are de-emphasized. As a description, it feels about right. That being said, the drummer here (Pete Sandoval) still gets plenty of opportunity to perform his fair share of tight and technical drum patterns. “Phrasal” is presumably more of an archetype than a strict prescription. That being said, there’s a definite throughline between this and, for instance, the windswept chill of Immortal or the unearthly melodrama of Mayhem. A lot of it comes down to aesthetics – the folks at Morrisound chorused and/or flanged the guitars and drenched the percussion in reverb, and otherwise did everything they could to make Altars of Madness sound like a whirling maelstrom.

The influence Morbid Angel wielded throughout the ’90s is a definite sign that they succeeded on some levels. A few trends I can point out – first, this is understandably a tighter and more disciplined take than Morbid Angel’s primeval demo era, though the high speeds and solos courtesy of Trey Azagthoth help add back necessary chaos. If you listen to it all in one go, the songs here have enough variety in riffs and overall texture to keep your attention. Things do tailor off towards the end, though – this is where the band delved deep into their earliest catalog and pulled out songs that, while enthusiastic, still need some time in the oven to stand up to the first half. I guess it’s not that much of a difference, but it does feel like Altars of Madness runs out of steam after a while.

That being said, there’s a ton of important death metal DNA on Altars of Madness, and you can’t go wrong with the classics. You could say this is the gibbering lunatic face that launched a thousand ships!

Highlights: “Suffocation”, “Maze of Torment”, “Lord of All Fevers and Plague”, “Damnation”

Anatomy of VGM #26 – Mega Man 7 (SNES)

Of all the twists promised by the writers on the Earth project, I’m guessing more Mega Man coverage on Invisible Blog wasn’t the hardest to predict. In my defense, it’s a huge franchise, and tons of talented people have worked on it. Some of the games are actually good, too! Last I checked, people seemed to like classic Mega Man’s second outing on the SNES (this time, as a standard platforming installment!), probably because it makes the same type of enhancements as the X series and otherwise expands to fill all the extra cartridge space. The question here, mind you, is what Capcom’s Capcomposer of the day could do with a game that’s just bursting at the seams with Saturday morning cartoon energy. You know, outside the bit at the end where Rock insists he’s going to actually kill Wily, thus endangering his creator’s profits…

It seems that Mega Man 7‘s music was written by committee. There are nine sound personnel credited for this game, and even if they didn’t all contribute music, it’s evident that a lot of folks had a say in these sounds. Mega Man 7 mostly eschews the metal moments of the X games in favor of synth rock that’s admittedly easier on the ears. It helps that the sample quality is much better – that’s admittedly easy to do when you’re not relying heavily on sampled guitar or otherwise realistic instruments. The end result is bright and cheery – recognizably Mega Man, to the point that it even quotes previous games in the series on occasion (Slash Man and the “Robot Museum” seem to be the obvious examples).

Anyways, this is a late generation SNES soundtrack we’re dealing with. Capcom’s ability to extract musical gold from the SPC700 was hit or miss, but the strong sample quality and established musical language of the Mega Man games gave this one a fighting start. The jump to 16-bit hardware helps give these tunes a very strong aesthetic, just like what was happening contemporaneously with the X-series. Needless to say, I got a promising first impression from these tunes. The composers here were particularly on point during the first half of the game, taking the standard Mega Man songwriting formulas and expanding them to make some of this series’ most refined Robot Master themes! Later on, though, things start to fall off. There’s an awkward combination of weirdly shrill samples (including an odd MIDI guitar, if admittedly not as clunky as the MMX guitars) and phoned in melodies later on. It’s been a while since I played or watched footage of this game, and I realized that outside the surprisingly metal final Dr. Wily theme, the fortress levels felt pretty… limited in terms of what they did musically? I’d argue Mega Man 3 (and Mega Man 5, to be honest) had the most effective endgame music overall, though my biases may be showing.

Falloff aside, you’re still getting a good chunk of mega rock for your troubles. I’d also argue that Mega Man 7 is just a good game in general; definitely more imaginative and interesting than some of the later NES installments. Definitely worth playing and performing… with caveats.

Sepultura – Beneath The Remains (1989)

I’ve said it before, but one of the fun aspects of Invisible Blog at this point (11+ years running, baby!) is that it hits different when I listen to an album, and don’t get around to reviewing it for a very long time. Did you know that I’ve managed to go this long without listening to anything this band released after 1990? I don’t think it’s intentional, but still. Beneath The Remains gets to be, by virtue of sheer arbitrary, where I first dipped my toes in. It’s also a contender for Sepultura’s most critically successful album, if Encyclopedia Metallum is anything to go by, with a larger and more positive mass of reviews than anything else they’ve listed on the site. Wisdom of crowds, right?

For what it’s worth, Beneath The Remains is a far cry from Sepultura’s earliest and filthiest recordings. I’m told that lead guitarist Andreas Kisser played his part in tightening up Sepultura’s sound; by this point, that means fast songs with lots of riffs, even more so than before! I’d argue this is another case of a band exaggerating their sound, at least from the previous album to this one. Either way, the musicianship is consistently on point – precise and aggressive, though entirely capable of changing tempo and dynamics on a dime. Nothing’s particularly flashy or technical; it’s just good, workmanlike thrash metal instrumentation out of which Sepultura has constructed plenty of memorable songs in the past.

I’ll be the first to admit that’s not a subtle transition, but in my defense, that’s a problem with Beneath the Remains that wasn’t an issue on, for instance, Schizophrenia. This album manages to be simultaneously repetitive and scatterbrained at the same time. How on earth did that happen? It might be more that Schizophrenia was unusually clear and logical, which is ironic given its name. The combination of nasty production and more coherent songs made for an album that hits harder and has more to say, whereas this one feels flat by comparison. I’d go as far as to say that Sepultura consciously tried to imitate the predecessor’s most memorable moments, but failed to nail the subtle stuff that made those work. Either way, the end result is an album that sounds fine in short bursts, but quickly becomes tiresome and samey if you listen to more than a song or two at a time.

I don’t know – maybe people really were looking for consistent, fungible thrashing. But even Sepultura’s been better at that further in their past! This isn’t exactly an encouraging sign.

Highlights: “Inner Self”, “Stronger than Hate”, “Sarcastic Existence”

Rush – Hemispheres (1978)

If you’ve ever done an archive binge on Invisible Blog, you’ll note that I usually try to spread out articles on any one topic, with the intent of keeping the content varied on a post to post basis. After all, what’s the Rush?

Read more…

Voivod – Negatron (1995)

Negatron hits differently, that’s for sure. It’s tied with its predecessor for the least serpentine Voivod album, replacing their previous vocalist (Denis “Snake” Bélanger) with Eric Forrest (aka E-Force). The pulp sci-fi inflected surf anthems of The Outer Limits were replaced with an industrial metal groovescape. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before – a metal band from the 1980s tries to modernize their sound in order to appeal to new audiences and keep up with trends. It was a golden era! A time before the internet fractured listening audiences beyond all repair and when FM radio was still somewhat relevant. Oh, to be a record executive during this time, exploiting young talents for all they were worth, and hoping to suppress the voice of anyone you couldn’t completely and utterly dominate.

Yeah, maybe things weren’t quite that dystopian. Negatron, though, is darker and more ominous than even Voivod’s earliest thrash era. It varies in how far it diverges from that approach, though. E-Force plays a big role here, alternatively screaming his head off and providing the occasional grungy (though technically “clean”) sung phrase, but his voice is processed and distorted in ways that, to my understanding, were pretty rare for previous Voivod. More straight out aggressive than unhinged, I’d say. The genre shift also got my attention – Negatron is chunkier, doomier, and more dissonant than before. On the other hand, there’s a decent chunk of ’80s style thrash musicianship here. The band hasn’t thrashed this frequently since Dimension Hatröss, though the ’90s pivot towards accessibility means that’s a pretty low bar to exceed. Either way, it’s arguably as much a return to form as it is an attempt to follow the money.

If you’re not big on the whole taxonomy angle, though, none of genre pontification should matter. I might be pretty biased, but for what it’s worth, I think Negatron mostly succeeds at what it’s trying to do. I’ve had a good time with other industrial metal variants before, but this one brings important musical literacy and cohesion that doesn’t always show up. That being said, the fast material is definitely where this album peaks (culminating in the defiant “Meteor”). Even this lineup of Voivod can only plod so much before they stretch the dystopian atmosphere too thin, and you begin to wonder if they’re just stalling for time. The actual songwriting is also frequently simplified, which is a shame given Voivod’s past prog credentials. To be fair, Voivod was never that proggy, but I miss how they were able to seamlessly integrate those ideas into previous albums. Oh well.

To my understanding, Voivod only made one more attempt at this overall style – and despite everything, Phobos changes things even more! As much as I rep the ‘vod around here, I’m curious what they could’ve done if they stayed an “industrial” thrash metal band… which has to be a mark of success on some level!

Highlights: “Nanoman”, “Reality”, “Meteor”, “DNA (Don’t No Anything)”

Anatomy of VGM #25 – Mega Man X3 (1995, SNES/PS1/Saturn/Windows)

Let’s be honest – for a Mega Man game, that’s a lot of platforms! Mega Man X3, yet again, iterates on its predecessors without massively shaking things up – more stuff to do, more upgrades to find, and apparently extra difficulty to challenge anyone who’s mastered the last two games. You can even play parts of the game as Zero if you’re so inclined, though that’s strictly optional. These days, unless you make a special effort not to, you’re probably playing the SNES original, but Mega Man X3 was actually the series’ 32-bit console debut! Let’s get it out of the way – the 32-bit ports hew very close to the original, with two exceptions – FMV cutscenes (which aren’t particularly relevant today), and a new CD audio soundtrack (which certainly is!). We’ll of course be discussing both OSTs. The differences are more aesthetic than songwriting in general, but you know me – I think understanding that stuff is important.

Mega Man X3‘s songs, for what it’s worth, seem to lean towards the simpler approach of the first X than the miniature prog jams of the second. This time, composition duties fall to Kinuyo Yamashita from Capcom’s occasional subcontractor, Minakuchi Engineering, though I don’t actually know how much creative freedom any of the X series composers had. On the SNES, things generally emphasize the rock/metal side of X’s ancestry, with a few exceptions, like Blizzard Buffalo’s stage. Unfortunately, by doing so, they’re running into the persistent sample quality issues that dogged the previous two games, and by relying on some truly sad guitar samples, things generally sound worse than before! X1 and X2 had enough synthesizer and non-metal content to distract me, but it’s a serious problem here, and one that doesn’t do the tunes any favors in my book. It’s unfortunate, because just in terms of songwriting X3 both pulls off some good pop metal and pushes the envelope on extremity further than any preceding Mega Man game. Sometimes, it even pushes through the honking, grating sounds your SNES is emitting!

It’s in that context that the Playstation and company charge in to save the day… right? As usual, the truth is more complicated. Being able to use CD audio gives you plenty of freedom to choose your instruments. I don’t know if Yamashita handled the conversion duties, or if someone rearranged her work, but whoever made that decision didn’t have the same affinity for heavy guitars. On 5th generation hardware, Mega Man X3 gives you a big dose of synthesizer rock, with some funk and prog overtones that weren’t there previously. There’s still a bit of guitar work, but the overall effect is generally lighter and softer than before. There’s a few songwriting changes – note the swung rhythm in the opening stage, but most of 32-bit X3‘s changes come from the instrumentation. I’ll be honest – there’s some odd decisions on which sounds to use here, and my soul cries out for the metal that was lost in this conversion. I’m not sure I’ll have a clear favorite in the long term, but at the moment I’m feeling the lighter, funkier sounds of the CD conversions more.

If there’s anything else to be taken from the case of Mega Man X3 – it’s the first game in the series to explore the possibilities of new hardware. It’s a pretty conservative step into the madcap world of redbook audio, but it’s definitely an important one. Only time and future Anatomy of VGM installments will tell what Capcom learned from their efforts… …what do you mean that other people write about video game music besides me? That’s absurd, and you know it!

P.S: Here’s some more Genesis remixes of Mega Man X music! Never underestimate the YM2612; it’s a brutally powerful chip in the hands of an FM synth expert.

Skyclad – The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth (1991)

In hindsight, going into Wayward Sons of Mother Earth expecting an all out fuckfest with a bit of folk in it was a mistake. I knew Skyclad inherited its quicksilver tongue from Martin Walkyier come the early 2010s, but what I didn’t know was that Skyclad was also descended from the prolific but often troubled Satan, of UK fame. All this musical ancestry shouldn’t really matter, especially since this debut’s also a ways off from the style that really made Skyclad famous. But you know how it is with me – I’m a historian, and I’m very interested in the stories behind the music. What about the music itself, though?

At this point, it seems pretty clear to me that the Satan (if not exactly Satanic) lineage won out, which means Wayward Sons thrashes, but it tends to favor melody and accessibility over maximum aggression and speed. See the production for a prime example – the guitar amps are pretty tame compared to Dreamweaver, though everything’s pretty trebley regardless. Besides that, the production sounds fine, everything’s clearly mixed, to the point that even the admittedly unambitious bass is consistently audible! We also get a few shreds of keyboard and fiddle to liven everything up, but at this point in Skyclad’s career they’re just garnishes. They’re worth a bit of flavor and some minor changes to your ID3 tags, but they’ll become more important later on. To be honest, the musicianship is fine, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

If you ask me, Skyclad’s strengths end up similar to their forebearers. Martin Walkyier remains a charismatic vocalist and expert lyricist, you get a chunk of thrashy speed mixed with expanded (though still verse/chorus) melodic songwriting, and the overall approach to song construction holds up better than Dreamweaver, as much as it pains me to admit it. I wouldn’t describe Wayward Sons as particularly ambitious outside its instrumental experiments, but it more than nails what it attempts. This is probably the Satanfolks’ methods and aesthetic bleeding through again. I’m not that familiar with their discography, but it does seem to be full of workmanlike songs that pull off a few experiments particularly well. When you’re like me and listening to a formative work in a genre decades after the fact, you’re probably inclined to favor solid craft over shaky innovation. I’d rather have both sides shine, but Wayward Sons is at least pretty good at recalling past glories.

The takeaway here is that my opinions on music are fluid over time, even if they don’t change all that fast. You know, much like my understanding of gender and sexuality…

Highlights: “The Sky Beneath My Feet”, “Our Dying Island”, “Skyclad”

Autechre – Anvil Vapre (1995)

I have my doubts about how intentional this was, but as far as I’m concerned, Anvil Vapre is a tone poem illustrating a road trip through Northern England, complete with a stop to fix a broken tire (“Second Scout”) and a torrential rainstorm (“Second Peng”). Autechre may have added the referential song titles, but I take responsibility for the contents of my own imagination, as much as they’ve admittedly influenced it. For what it’s worth, I listened to Anvil Vapre at the same time as Garbage (reminiscent of how they’ve often been packaged together, along with Tri Repetae). Garbage got its foot in the front door much earlier, but in recent years I think this one might be the better overall package!

First things first – Anvil Vapre‘s four tracks were written during the same sessions as Tri Repetae. You’ll notice the same overtures towards abstraction and cold precision extend across both albums. This EP, though, has a constant intensity that a lot of its surroundings don’t, given their focus on ambience. Perhaps Autechre really did set out to make a driving experience? Puns aside, the intensity does level off a bit after the first two tracks, meaning Anvil Vapre ends more downtempo and contemplative than it started, but it still has a distinctive character and mood. In the future, when Autechre pushed this hard, they’d generally convolute their sound a hell of a lot more.

The next question, then, is what you’re getting from Anvil Vapre, besides the obvious 35 minutes of uptempo Autechre IDM? There’s a few angles here – the first is to think of this as the first chronologically released manifestation of Autechre’s now-signature sound. I can’t commit to that 100%, since there might be envelope-pushing singles and remixes that predate it, and also because you could easily make the same case for the Anti EP; that one is admittedly tamer outside “Flutter”. A more history-agnostic approach is to think of this one as a chunk of consistently good, well edited Autechre. As much as I enjoy the deep dives of the 2010s, you have to admit that people are pretty divided over which tracks are good and which ones are just filler. Anvil Vapre makes its point and keeps the sharp melodic/ambient edges that make this era so easy to get into. If you’re okay with having that intensity in your life, this one will reward you greatly.

Either that, or you can just be so head over heels into Autechre’s discography that you have to disclaimer yourself every single time you try to talk about it. Hello, me!

Highlights: “Second Scout”, “Second Peng”

Mercyful Fate – Melissa (1983)

Imagine my shock when, in the process of choosing the next thing to write about for Invisible Blog, I realized I’d managed to go eleven years without covering anything by King Diamond! This is far from my strangest interaction with the guy. When I was but a mere metal neophyte, I managed to convince myself that Diamond Head was his first band. Yes, really; I have since corrected this misperception. But I digress. Melissa is a good place to start correcting this oversight, mostly because the 1982 Mercyful Fate EP’s lewd cover art might get me sent to WordPress jail. It’s also a good reference point for what was happening in the underground metal scene in the early 1980s, before a fresh wave of more extreme stuff got people’s attention shook up everything.

Now, I’ve seen Mercyful Fate labelled as a “black metal” band, though these days that might just be residual leftovers from the once powerful coven at AllMusic. I think this is mostly a question of future influence; the lyrics are pretty universally about evil and Satanism in a way that most tradmetal of the era wasn’t, and there’s a sense of shock rock that you’re maybe not getting from Judas Priest. History aside, Melissa is a pretty standard traditional metal album with a few gestures towards contemporary NWOBHM (though not as much as on the previous EP), and a few more towards progressive rock when it comes to the actual song structures. The performances here are skillful without being too excessive, though you can’t discuss a Mercyful Fate/King Diamond album without discussing Mr. Petersen himself. King Diamond is legendary for his falsetto, which I’ll be the first to admit I find pretty goofy at the best of times. On the other hand, swapping between that and deeper, more conventional singing gives him immense range as a performer, and when you write like Mercyful Fate, you absolutely need that.

In practice, Melissa occupies the sweet spot between your typical pop metal act and the straight up progressive metal that first showed up a few years later. I’ll admit my tastes usually learn towards the prog side, and Don’t Break The Oath next year pushes further in that direction, but you have to admire the balancing act here. Songs here are more or less driven by melodic guitar work and King Diamond’s vox, and there’s a couple of shorter songs that just rely on this, but in general, Mercyful Fate is pretty good about avoiding straight up verse-chorus worship, which makes for much more interesting songs. I wouldn’t say they were fully attuned to this just yet, admittedly – see the 11 minute “Satan’s Fall”, which has a bit too much filler for its own good, but they were definitely trying, and that counts for a bit in my book.

Bits of inexperience aside, this is a definite classic, and if you’re interested in a good time, or even just in contextualizing how far King Diamond’s influence has spread over the intervening 38 years, you should give it some spins.

Highlights: “Curse of the Pharaohs”, “Into the Coven”, “At the Sound of the Demon Bell”, “Melissa”

Magma – Zëss: Le jour du néant (2019)

I think we can reasonably say that Magma, as a band, is pretty gimmicky… not that I’m complaining, mind you. To anyone who’d contest that – you’re talking about a French jazz fusion band writing lengthy epics in a constructed language with extensive choral parts and lots of ritualistic, repetitive jam sections, which is a clear recipe for commercial success. Almost 50 years in, they’ve finally summoned a symphony orchestra to aid them, hence Zëss. It changes how things sound both more and less than I was expecting, and there’s a couple good historical reasons for that.

Like so many recent Magma albums, Zëss is a reworking of old material that’s showed up in live concerts before and been slowly, surely refined over many years. It’s also a major improvement in on-CD trackination over other recent Magma albums, as whoever mastered this one managed to put everything on one track, making this more convenient to listen to than, for instance, Félicité Thösz or Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré. That counts for a bit in my book, though arbitrary track breaks in an era of shuffle play didn’t keep me from exploring Magma’s depths back in the day. As you might, suspect, the orchestra is the big gimmick. While the actual structure of Zëss isn’t far off from previous Magma material, having a full orchestra on hand does allow for all sorts of textural and instrumental options that Magma wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s good to hear these in such skilled hands, because the orchestrations add a lot of replay value to the final product.

Honestly, I think Zëss needs that replay value, because otherwise it’s a weird and repetitive take on the typical Magma formula. The main problem, if you ask me, is that it takes quite a while to get going. Previous extended Magma compositions have usually been more dynamic and melodramatic, especially in their initial moments. This one, though, just has a lot of vamping after its prelude, and it takes several minutes to establish any sort of dynamic/musical contrast. From then on, though, it’s just one big crescendo to the conclusion. It works, mind you, but Magma’s been more creative with their structures in the past, so that they’d just do this is kind of disappointing in the long run. It really just smacks of wasted potential.

That being said, the idea of a fully orchestral Magma is an excellent one, and Zëss really does show how you can use these tools to good effect as a zeuhl musician. Maybe next time, though, give us orchestral Köhntarkösz?

P.S: Now that I think about it (and do my research), maybe the solution wasn’t to enrobe Zess in orchestral grandeur, but to up the speed and fury and maybe even go full metal? As usual, the author remains guided by her own preferences and opinions.

Anatomy of VGM #24 – Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (1997, PS1)

I already mentioned this the last time we talked about cartoony mascot platformers, but Crash Bandicoot 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in every way. It looks better, feels better to play, offers more gameplay variety, has a fairer difficulty curve, and most importantly for our purposes – it has a better soundtrack. I didn’t get to either of this one’s endings (I decided I’d had about enough when they introduced the jetpack), but I still got to experience most of this one’s tracks in their indigenous environment, so that’s got to count for something.

On a technical level, Crash 2‘s music comes from the same place as that of its predecessor. You still have slightly tinny, sample-based music courtesy of Mutato Muzika’s Josh Mancell. It sounds to me like the actual audio quality of the samples is slightly higher than before, but this isn’t where the main improvements come from. What Crash 2 brings to the table in particular is a stronger grasp on music theory. Songs here have more in the way of coherent melody and structure this time around, which is pretty helpful if you want me to listen to them outside the scope of playing the game or writing about it’s music. Rhythm sections here are also more active than before, though the mixing of instruments still de-emphasizes them. Despite this, the darker, more ambient moments that pervaded the original Crash Bandicoot soundtrack are more or less missing here; the jury’s out on whether that’s a good thing or not. The N. Sane Trilogy again ups the recording quality and adds more vigorous percussion; despite the lack of grimdark tracks in the original, it still manages to completely change the feel of several tracks (“Turtle Woods” being the most prominent). I don’t remember if Crash 2 overall has more fast paced platforming than Crash 1, so I’m guessing this is just stylistic evolution.

Despite these changes for the better, Crash hasn’t entirely escaped the songwriting flaws of his last game. I’ve complained a great deal about the predecessor’s meandering and aimless tracks. In terms of main level themes, Crash 2 comes out ahead for its music theory acumen. However, it also adds variants of each track that play when you enter a bonus stage, or enter a special route by getting to a point in a stage without dying. Both of these tend to feel extraneous at best, but the bonus stages in particular feel off, like Mancell wanted to make a “happier” alternate theme but couldn’t quite figure out how to retain much in the way of structure at the same time. Pretty disappointing given how much he improved in other respects! I’ve also realized over time that the pure hit of wacky cartoon energy of Crash’s music overall can get pretty grating if I’m focusing on it for a long time. Crash 1, for all its songwriting flaws, was a bit more varied in mood, and for what it’s worth, Crash Bandicoot 3 was as well. As for whether the sequel improves on this game? You’ll have to check back when I decide I’m up for writing about it.

That being said, while Crash Bandicoot 2 doesn’t resolve all the beefs (bandicoot jerky?) I had with Crash 1, you’re still getting a better soundtrack to go with your better game. Continued perseverance in game development has its rewards!

Front Line Assembly – Tactical Neural Implant (1992)

Truly, we are entering an older and more primeval age. Everything I’ve discussed of Front Line Assembly’s career so far was either industrial metal (to the point of providing some work for another prominent Vancouverite on Invisible Blog) or written in its shadow. Going back here puts me in territory I’m not quite familiar with. That being said, Tactical Neural Implant was already FLA’s sixth album, and allegedly a denser, more melodic attempt than what came before. I haven’t gone back before this to any meaningful degree, which isn’t really surprising given that I’m not all that interested in EBM/electro-industrial music in the long run. In light of that, though, you’re probably wondering how TNI got into my collection.

But first – what does Tactical Neural Implant sound like? It’s definitely got the important Front Line Assembly traditions – lots of sampling, corny cyberpunk reject lyrics, and all sorts of synthesizers playing repetitive minor key grooves, adding up to an overall cold and dystopian aesthetic. By virtue of not having industrial metal or jungle/DnB/big beat influences that hadn’t filtered into the public, this is a quieter and more ominous FLA than what followed. It’s still got some pulsing intensity to it, though, especially when you delve into the second half of the album. There doesn’t seem to be all that much of an arc running through this one otherwise, though; you’re just immersing yourself in something cold and clinical for 45 minutes (more in releases with bonus tracks, of course). I leave it to you to decide whether that’s something you want.

As for whether it’s something I want? Sometimes, Tactical Neural Implant hits the way I want it. At times, it has a strong pop sensibility running through it – a sense of how to turn its electronic sheen into something accessible and even fun at times! If what I’ve read about FLA’s evolution is true, then this is a good way to get folks’ attention. The problem is that FLA doesn’t go all the way. There’s a lot of excess fat on some of these songs (mostly of the “look at all the cool samples we downloaded off the internet!” variety), which admittedly wasn’t solved on any of their other material that I’ve listened to. There’s also not all that much in the way of variety outside the samples; I consider that less of a problem when the aesthetic is more to my liking. Still, it makes listening to the entire album more of a chore than it ought to be. The best track on this album isn’t even on it, per se – the so called “Technohead” mix of “The Blade” that was distributed on some singles. There are ways to deal with that if you’re prepared, but are you willing to do that for FLA?

If you’ve learned anything from this discussion, it should be that I prefer FLA’s later output to their earlier stuff. You might feel differently, though.

Highlights: “The Blade (Technohead Mix)”, “Mindphaser”, “Outcast”

Valdrin – Effigy of Nightmares (2020)

Is it just base-60ish arithmetic, or are Valdrin’s albums getting shorter? Effigy of Nightmares clocks in at a brief 30 minutes, for whatever reason. It apparently continues the mythology/worldbuilding of previous Valdrin albums, though I don’t really listen to this band for the story, as much as I theoretically could. Maybe they’ll get a novel or a comic book going at some point? Either way, Two Carrion Talismans in particular is one of my favorite metal albums from recent years, so I went into this one more than willing to give Valdrin the benefit of the doubt here. That’s not a privilege that just anyone earns!

In practice, Effigy of Nightmares is a partial throwback to the approach and aesthetic of Valdrin’s debut (Beyond the Forest). If you liked that one’s emphasis on consonant melody, its bright production, and its occasional acoustic/symphonic flourishes, but for some reason didn’t like the blackened death prowess of Two Carrion Talismans, you’ll find Valdrin’s latest to be a comforting, if partial return to those forms. Valdrin hasn’t forgotten the lessons they derived from making Effigy‘s predecessor, which manifests for the most part as increased rhythmic complexity and greater riff/structural density within the mere six songs here (two of which are interludes!). It essentially means that we get both of the predecessors’ strong points condensed into this recording, which is a bit unusual since the liminal albums are usually in the middle.

If it wasn’t obvious before, I’ll say it outright – I’m very pleased with the approach Valdrin took here, but I really wish there was more of it. Effigy of Nightmares isn’t just a throwback to Beyond the Forest, it’s a distillation of that album’s strengths. In practice, I’ve found Valdrin’s debut, while enthusiastic and well performed, to have too many tracks full of generic “evil” melodic black metal noodling to be particularly durable in the long run. They fixed this problem and then some on Two Carrion Talismans, so I’m glad they didn’t lapse when they decided to reuse their previous musical style. I’m not sure if I can really find any major flaws to nitpick here (short of perhaps the hysterical and abusrd outro of “Down The Oubliette Of Maelstrom”), but what I can complain about is Valdrin’s brevity. Maybe this editing kept the filler out, but I still wish there was more of this album to savor. I wonder what that says about me?

Either way, even if Two Carrion Talismans has more runtime to it, Effigy of Nightmares is still an excellent black metal album. Valdrin’s star continues to rise.

Highlights: “Exsanguination Tunnels”, “Red Burning Candles of Hatred”, “Down The Oubliette Of Maelstrom”

Mastodon – Crack the Skye (2009)

Crack the Skye is basically the Mastodon equivalent of the peasant who got turned into a newt in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; i.e, they got better. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with Leviathan back in the day, but I might’ve warmed up to this band more quickly if I’d chosen this one. Crack the Skye essentially takes the progressive rock leanings of previous Mastodon albums, and makes them the core of itself, resulting in a still somewhat heavy but now groovier and more atmospheric story of astral projection and wild adventures with Grigori Rasputin. Now, I like prog and I can accept music not being extreme metal, so I’d say I’m a natural fit for this incarnation of Mastodon. But does it hold up to my scrutiny?

To be honest, the instrumentation here isn’t that different from earlier Mastodon. There’s plenty of sludge-laden, groovy, occasionally country-western flavored riffage girding everything. The superlative percussion work returns as well, much to my pleasure. The most changed aspect of Crack the Skye by far, though, is the vocals, which are mostly clean and again split across all of the band’s members. These vary in technique and timber, but some of them are surprisingly nasally. Is that a stylistic thing, or did someone just really need a neti pot? I mean, it fits the ethereal, distant flavors Mastodon’s dabbling in. Either way, it doesn’t seem like musicianship’s ever been a stumbling point for this band, but does that even mean anything anymore?

Fundamentally, Crack the Skye succeeds most in the shape of a chill, downtempo, take on progressive rock/metal. If you’re attuned to this sort of ’70s worship in your metal, you’ll be in good hands. Mastodon really nails their chosen aesthetic, with careful use of acoustic instruments and synth to reinforce their metal bones. For what it’s worth, this feels very planned; the first four Mastodon albums (of which this is the last) are loosely themed after classical European elements. Crack the Skye, perhaps obviously, takes on the aspect of air and generally sounds like it’s emanating, if not out of the astral plane, at least the windswept plains. The compositions don’t necessarily align with this, though. In this, Mastodon sometimes has to deal with the typical riff glue problems that afflict so many bands. Sometimes they overcome it, but other times, they bring tracks like “Quintessence” to an arbitrary end. Not ideal, if you ask me, but Mastodon are fortunately far from the worst offenders in this genre.

Lingering structural issues aside, Crack the Skye is still a major improvement from previous Mastodon works, or at least a noticable realignment with my current musical tastes. I can accept either interpretation.

Highlights: “Oblivion”, “Quintessence”, “The Czar”

Re-Review: KAKU P-MODEL – Vistoron (2004)

Our discussion of Toby Driver‘s career has taken an odd turn, hasn’t it? Wait, that’s not right…

Read more…

Kayo Dot – Plastic House On Base Of Sky (2016)

Our discussion of Susumu Hirasawa‘s career has taken an odd turn, hasn’t it?

Read more…

Anatomy of VGM #23 – Baba Is You (2019)

This puzzling game is having something of a moment in my skullbrain. Baba Is You is basically a Sokoban derivative with one game-defining mutation – the rules for how various objects interact exist in the levels, and you can move them around to alter the game’s behavior. Combine this with turn based time, and you end up with a very laid back puzzle game that will regardless tax your brain and stimulate your lateral thinking. Is it any wonder, then, that the soundtrack has the same approach?

If Invisible Blog specialized in one word summaries of its topics, I would gleefully describe Baba Is You‘s music as “sparse”. Unfortunately, I hold myself to a (marginally) higher standard. That being said, minimalism is certainly the emphasis throughout. The graphics here take the form of squiggly pixel art – everything is monochromatic and laid out on a grid, and the music plays out on a small subset of synthesizer sounds, as well as a bit of sampled percussion and ambience for good measure. There’s even something of a lowpass filter cutting out all the high frequencies, making everything throb with bass. Overall, the effect is similar to old computer games, though I’m sure authenticity to retrocomputing standards wasn’t the goal here. Either way, there’s not all that many notes to play, so our composer and general creator (Arvi Teikari) has to be very careful and meticulous to pull off something worth listening to.

Fortunately for us, Baba Is You delivers in this regard as well. The songs here aren’t at all long or in-depth, but they’re well crafted, with clear structures, themes, and coherent development. In particular, they use their limited runtimes to experiment with some neat ideas. In particular, there’s an almost impressionistic approach to tonality at times – often slightly dissonant, but always justified in some fashion by the phrases around them. If I fixate on this, it’s because it’s one of my buttons, and it’s easily pressed. The other thing I noticed was the percussion. Mastodon incidents aside, this is pretty rare for me to pay attention to, but Baba Is You‘s previously established minimalism means it’s got more of a foothold in my brain. It’s impressive how much mileage these tunes get out of so few drum hits; what little there is interlocks with the rest of the instruments in a way that I find pleasing. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the music, but it helps that I’ve had my brain primed for minimalism.

The lesson here is pretty simple, really – make something that’s sufficiently trance-inducing and gate it behind some logic puzzles, and I’ll listen to it at least for a while. Tie it into the overall feel of the game, and you’ll be able to keep my attention even when I’ve finished.

Highlights: “Cog is Push”, “Leaf is Move”, “Tree is Shift”, “Rocket is Dust”

Tangerine Dream – Tangram (1980)

At some point, Tangerine Dream turned to the world of film in order to make their living, which for whatever reason often meant rehashing material from their studio albums. In Tangram‘s case, that meant appearing alongside Bob Seger on Risky Business. How’s that for a surreal juxtaposition? Probably best to focus on this album in its original environment, since I haven’t seen Risky Business and I’m not feeling motivated to watch it before this album’s scheduled for publication. Honestly, I think we can make do without it. In that spirit, Tangram is a diptych of sunlight and energy, invigorating and ambient! Definitely worth an inspection, especially if you’re like me and have an affinity for electronic music from its early pioneers.

Tangram, for what it’s worth, comes a few years after Tangerine Dream made a subtle but important shift in their sound. We have to look back to 1975’s Rubycon and 1976’s Stratosfear to understand this – the changeover left their music immediately more melodic, more direct, and more rigorously structured than before. The aforementioned film scoring business plays into this, for what it’s worth. Each of this album’s sets is loosely grouped into a couple of sound sketches. Fortunately, the sides’ 20 minute run lengths lend themselves to tying things together in one way or another, I’d say Tangerine Dream’s decade+ of experience with ambient electronica comes in handy here. Also continued from Stratosfear is the occasional use of oldschool, non-electronic instruments; here, electric guitar is particularly prominent, even managing to give some parts a bit of a rock feel. If you know my listening history, you can imagine how I’d be especially all over these

Even if Tangram is more direct sounding than before, it still leans heavily on atmosphere, repetition, extended development, so forth. The synesthetes in the audience will probably rejoice, and with good reason. The first half of Tangram is more upbeat, and makes me imagine quiet weekend mornings – in particular, when everyone in your house is waking up, perhaps taking in some caffeine, enjoying the warmth of the sun, possibly cooking a hearty breakfast – that sort of thing. Weirdly domestic, but satisfying. The second half doesn’t feel like it has much of a plot/setting, but I do appreciate its more assertive and driving approach, which if anything provides an effective contrast to the first half.

It’s probably more concise to say I like Tangram and think it’s an excellent work of music. I’m not sure if I’d put it over Rubycon. Much of the problem is that I didn’t write down my feelings on that album when I reviewed it. If only there was some other place where the knowledge of my preferences lived!

Highlights: “Tangram Set 1”, “Tangram Set 2” (🤪)

Mastodon – Leviathan (2004)

Following up on my last installment (which fell squarely in the “it’s fine, but you can do better” quadrant), here’s an album I’ve struggled with for years. I believe Mastodon is one of the bands I discovered from the cultural exchange I did with my first roommate in college. I wonder what ever became of him? Either way, Mastodon didn’t take in a way that things like Alice in Chains did. Mastodon was usually pretty divisive back in their heyday, for what it’s worth; while that’s getting into the rarefied realms of public opinion, it does bear mentioning. I’m not the only person to have trouble with Mastodon, but it took me a while to understand my own grievances.

Say what you will about Leviathan – the first thing I noticed was that it’s pretty ambitious for the sludge/groove mold that it nominally fits into. I find this to be a hard genre to pin down at the best of times. Mastodon’s decision to write a musically intricate concept album about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick complicates things. It took me a while to recognize this, but the playing here is very tight. The drumming in particular is a high point, and it almost always feels like it’s straining to break free from the rest of the band. Kind of reminds me of Proscriptor’s work in Absu and Melechesh in overall role, if not specifically in style. The weakest link performance wise are the vocals. Every single member of the band participates in them, though I’m guessing for some of them, this just means gang shouts (read: “Blood and Thunder”). There’s something about them that rubs me the wrong way – they feel flat and uninteresting when harsh, and amateurish when clean. Maybe they needed more time in the oven?

Quibbles about the vocals aside, the songwriting fails to match up to the high bar set by the musicianship. I know Mastodon evolved into something of a progressive rock/metal act as their career continued. There’s clearly some interest in that direction pervading Leviathan, but I don’t know if this snapshot of Mastodon had the ability to harness such forces. Ultimately, Mastodon writes mostly tightly packed, but short songs, and makes an effort to avoid pure verse-chorus writing, which is a plus, but there’s two problems. First of all, Mastodon hasn’t quite figured out how to reconcile their ambitions with their sludge, beyond recognizing that it sometimes makes sense to drop down into acoustics or otherwise gentler structures. The other is the infamous riff/song glue issue I harp on and on and on about. If you take no other lesson from Invisible Blog (and I really hope that’s not the case, because I have a book to sell you), consider the importance of relating all your musical ideas in a song together in a coherent fashion. If the penultimate 13 minute track (“Hearts Alive”) suggests anything, though, it’s that 2004 Mastodon actually works better when stretched out. Sometimes you just need more time to process everything.

While revisiting Leviathan more critically didn’t directly enamor me more to Mastodon, it did make me wonder if the band figured out how to harness its energies more effectively with time. Initial results are actually quite promising! But I’ll have to get back to you on that, which might not be for a few years…

Highlights: “Seabeast”, “Megalodon”, “Aqua Dementia”, “Hearts Alive”

Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race (2019)

This recording, somehow, had all of the buzz (and critical praise, to boot) for a shining moment in 2019. It was under those circumstances that I sought it out, seeking progressive death metal enlightenment. In retrospect, you guys might have oversold it. I can’t say I’ve given this one many listening hours in recent times. Here’s the thing – I was expecting something of a proggy, psychedelic take on death metal, something more along the lines of Mithras or Timeghoul than what I got. Hidden History of the Human Race, on the other hand, is its own thing. I’m pretty fickle, and I’ve been known to disregard an album/artist just because they aren’t performing the kind of music I want going in. I’ll be the first to admit I shouldn’t be, which is why I’m trying to give our alien friend another look and listen.

Here’s what I think is happening – Blood Incantation wants to balance their old school death metal cred with melodic prowess and extended songwriting. The balance is skewed a bit towards the former, which in retrospect is fine. After all, these guys have done their homework. They clearly know how to write and perform in their chosen style. I’ve said that this is a given on more occasions than is strictly healthy by this point in my blogging career, but I think it’s still worth pointing out. As it is, there’s definitely some interesting musical ideas throughout Hidden History. What strikes me most is sort of the interplay between the aforementioned and consonant melodies, and more aggressive chromatic material in the guitar riffs. The rest of the band isn’t as showy, but vocals, bass, drums – all of these serve the overall hazy, cavernous, yet otherworldly picture Blood Incantation is trying to paint.

In practice, Blood Incantation clearly knows their material, but the results don’t gel all that well. I think this comes down to the songwriting. I appreciate that Hidden History makes some grand overtures towards the sort of approach I like (avoiding verse-chorus, varying up tempo, tonality, texture, etc), but the weak point is… yet again, the transitions between individual fragments of song! This proves to be hard. Blood Incantation, if you ask me, switches between their ideas too quickly and suddenly, to the point that it sometimes feels like they built their songs out of more or less arbitrary fragments. One notable exception is this album’s apparent single, “Inner Paths (to Outer Space)”. By going mostly instrumental and focusing on atmosphere, Blood Incantation made something that gels together more effectively. It makes my biased brain wonder what could happen if they went for broke on the psychedelic metal.

As it is, one especially interesting instrumental does not for an overall compelling album make. Competence is about all I expect from Hidden History, but I was hoping for more.

Highlights: “The Giza Power Plant”, “Inner Paths (to Outer Space)”