Vektor – Terminal Redux (2016)

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Alright, I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. I wrote a quick teaser for this one on DMU when the first single (“Ultimate Artificer”) came out, but had long since finished my tenure by the full album’s release in May 2016. Since then, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the music of Terminal Redux. To get it out of the way after last week’s officially noncommittal “review“: I highly recommend this album to anyone who’s even remotely interested in metal music, and it is definitely a worthy successor to Vektor’s previous works.

Those who have listened to Black Future or Outer Isolation will find much of the same on here – songs composed of numerous fast, technically intricate riffs under ear piercing shrieks and backed up by similarly accomplished percussion and leads. Terminal Redux is a refinement, not a reinvention of past Vektor. The sound and songwriting are just that hint better, which makes sense that the band had an entire five years to refine their craft since the last album. The formulas on display here, though are probably closer to the first album, showcasing a general preference for its style of extended songwriting over the more compact tracks on the second. There’s also more in the way of aesthetic experimentation, as a few tracks on the edges feature sung vocals from both main vocalist David DiSanto and two guest ladies (Naeemah Z. Maddox and RoseMary Fiki) who drop in to help the band respectively charge and recharge the void.

If there’s one thing I could say against Terminal Redux, it’s that it’s edge-loaded, and I feel like by doing so, I’m unnecessarily straining in the name of some unachievable level of journalistic balance. The album feels like it’s strongest at the beginning and the end, and that’s a direct result of them placing the tracks with varied vocals at such points on the album. The more conventional tracks are dumped into the middle, where it doesn’t matter that Vektor’s presumably putting as much effort into them as the hit singles (hypothetical VH1 style tell-all Behind The Music type documentary’s information aside).¬† This is a 73 minute long album, so even some of the most ardent and enthusiastic listeners are inevitably going to burn out after a while. I suppose I shouldn’t really hold this against Vektor, since it’s a common marketing strategy to put all the standout tracks and hit singles at the beginning, as well as a few at the end in an attempt to hide the use of these tactics from the listener.

Ultimately, the fact I can’t come up with a negative other than “Some tracks are better than others” is most likely going to be what convinces you to support Terminal Redux, and Vektor as a whole.

Highlights: “Charging the Void”, “Cygnus Terminal”, “Recharging the Void”

Future Sound of London – Lifeforms (1994)

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More 1990s downtempo ambient IDM buzzword music on Invisible Blog! Compared to the more focused (but still varied) Dead Cities a few years later, Lifeforms is a sprawling compilation of every idea Future Sound of London had in the kitchen sink. It covers enough sonic ground to make describing it as a whole more difficult than it ought to be. Still, this double album is bound together by a few shared techniques, sound patches, and a coherent aesthetic that the retrofuturist types have been slobbering on for a few years now.

One thing I’ve noticed about Lifeforms (which is possibly sort of implied by the cover art) is how organic it sounds at times – it relies heavily on sampled instruments and sampled… samples whereas some of its in-genre competition is more accepting of its own electronic nature (or at least that’s what you’d believe from the more obviously synthetic instruments). Sometimes this borders on soundscapes, but in general FSOL relies heavily on recognizable consonant melodies to drive their songwriting. Possibly unfamiliar sounds and techniques aside, this makes for easy, non-threatening listening; something that you can usually leave on in the background and occasionally marvel at how gradually the tracks evolve into one another. Just keep an ear out for the more menacing second half.

While Lifeforms is “…a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures)” just like its predecessor, the overall arc of its two CDs is the opposite of Dead Cities. Here, the second half is more challenging than the first, most likely peaking with the ritual and outright creepy “Vertical Pig”. It should go without saying that I don’t get the same post-apocalyptic vibe, even in this album’s harshest and most intimidating moments. Much of this is due to the increased variety. On one hand, I’d expect more substyles from a double album just for the sake of not boring the listener. On the other, I think FSOL intended to explore and cover as much ground as possible on this album, even if it means that some of the ideas presented get limited attention at best.

In general, there’s at least one good lesson you can learn from the differences between Lifeforms and Dead Cities – you have to find a good balance between quantity and quality. Lifeforms understandably represents the former, and the extra variety makes for a more dynamic experience, but this comes at the expense of having more filler than Dead Cities. This might sound bad, but Lifeforms also has higher peaks of quality than that successor album, which might be a direct result of firing more shots at the listener. This is something critics are going to have to take into mind if they want to directly compare the albums like I just did.

Then again, my review of Dead Cities ended with me jokingly evading a proper rating of how good or bad it was, so I’m guessing it’d only be appropriate for me to do the same here.

Highlights: “Flak”, “Amongst Myselves”, “Vertical Pig”, “Vit”

Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)

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Pestilence’s second album with Martin van Drunen is, to put it academically, chunkier and smashier than their first. Like many death metal albums before the Great Technical Revolution of 1991, the emphasis here is on creating a nightmarish atmosphere; the musicians of Pestilence correspondingly deemphasize the intense speed and instrumental proficiency that defined Malleus Maleficarum. If “early atmospheric death metal with a charismatic vocalist” wasn’t a microgenre before 1989, Consuming Impulse on its own would be enough to codify it. In our timeline, it turns out they had a lot of help, but that’s kind of peripheral.

As the microgenre shtick might lead you to believe, one of Consuming Impulse‘s defining moments is the one where Martin van Drunen truly comes into his own as a vocalist. You get some hints of this on the early tracks, but everything finally clicks on “The Trauma”, as his screams take on an especially dynamic, even tortured sound that competes well with any other famous extreme metal vocalist of the time. Pestilence’s style on their early full lengths is heavy on the vocals (and heavy in general, but you should know that by now), but this album pushes the idea significantly further than the last, which makes it imperative that Martin keep the listener’s interest, even at his voicebox’s expense.

While the rest of Pestilence is simpler, slower, and more direct than they were on Malleus Maleficarum, they still retain their songwriting chops, and therefore do an admirable job. Part of this is that the band keeps some of their more important trademark techniques going – even if there’s fewer and simpler riffs, the ones that are there fit together like lock and key. Consuming Impulse also compensates for its simplification by adding harmonic depth in more places; while previous albums saw some tiny experiments with synthesizers, this album bumps their presence up a bit more. While still scarce, the keyboard/sampling parts on this album are used to great effect, most notably in the breakdown of “Suspended Animation”. Fans and detractors alike of the Patrick Mameli lineup will know how synthesizers eventually became the new Pestilence, but here they are simply effective punctuation.

The strong songwriting and superlative vocals on their own bring Consuming Impulse towards the top of the Pestilence pile. I do have to admit, though, that I’m quite the fan of its predecessor’s pace, even if the atmosphere then wasn’t quite as putrid. Fanciful alliteration aside, they’re both quality albums, and if you’re at all interested in death metal, especially of the sorts generated by Europe, then you should give them a shot.

Highlights: “Dehydrated”, “The Trauma”, “Out of the Body”

Anatomy of VGM #6 – Sonic CD (Sega CD)

latest.jpgToday’s “Anatomy of VGM” feature is brought to you by the original Japanese version of Sonic CD’s soundtrack. I might do a separate feature on the completely different American soundtrack someday if I feel up to it.

I’m not much for Sonic CD’s bonus stages, but the soundtrack is one of the best in the entire series. Imagine the best aspects of the Sega Genesis entries’ music (good pop songwriting, genre variety, a strong ear for consonant melody) given an entire CD’s worth of streaming redbook audio to stretch out and experiment with, and you should have a good idea of why this game’s music turned out as well as it did. Both of this game’s composers (Masafumi Ogata and Naofumi Hataya) had cut their teeth on more limited sound chips for arcade and console hardware, and that experience served them well when it came time to pen this game’s tracks.

The most obvious gimmick here is that each of the main stages has four separate versions of its music; one to accompany each time period you can explore in-game. These generally hew close to each other in terms of overall arrangement, although the “Bad Future” versions tend to convert the frequently upbeat and peppy arrangements into darker and/or more aggressive styles. The music for the first stage (“Palmtree Panic”) is a good example of this, rewarding the player for not correctly altering the past by turning its sunny, Latin jazz theme into a menacing techno track that even manages to recontextualize its own content in such a way that the quoted phrases come off completely different than they would otherwise. In short, it’s a good example of the composers creatively turning limitations into new and creative techniques even when the technical limitations have been lifted.

Besides the attractions provided by extra space, there’s plenty of other fun and well-executed ideas strewn throughout this soundtrack to keep your attention. Comprehensively describing them all would make this entry far longer than it should be, although I’m certain that someone out there has published an extremely detailed analysis of the OST that you could peruse if such is to your liking. With that in mind, two points stand out – first, the heavy use of sampling, especially vocals, in what is generally an instrumental soundtrack. That was nothing new in 1992, but it still adds depth and texture to the listening experience. There’s also a clear influence from contemporary, bleeding edge EDM, and while yet again this was already a well explored vein of inspiration for many video game composers at the time, it does stand out for a series whose primary muse these days appears to be hard rock (read: Crush 40).

While some people have criticized Sonic CD‘s OST for being relentlessly hyperactive and maniacal, anything so much as a nod in that direction is a plus in my book. The cartridges that surround this game offer very stiff competition (and arguably most of the Sega Genesis Sonic games have better gameplay), but this pulls ahead and still holds up well today, at least for people of my general musical tastes.

Sabbat (UK) – Dreamweaver (1989)

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Once upon a time, as the 1980s were becoming aware of their own mortality, someone sold their soul for a tempo change on every riff. Now we have Sabbat; between spawning a member of Skyclad and helping form prolific producer Andy Sneap, they are more than relevant, and certainly one of the most popular bands in their style to come out of the UK. I say this knowing that the UK never really threw themselves into “thrash” metal like the United States or Germany, but if you want an archetypical British thrash metal band you would do quite well to select Sabbat, who should capture your attention with their lengthy but aggressive songwriting.

Anyone who comes to Sabbat after experiencing Skyclad might be in for a shock if they expect something along the lines of the latter – while this band shares a vocalist and lyricist (the superlative Martin Walkyier), they also rely way more on the speed/thrash tropes of the day to fuel their music. I’ve heard higher riff density and faster tempos, but of everything I’ve listened to in this genre, Sabbat has the highest ratio of tempo changes to riffs I’ve ever found! These aren’t just simple halvings or doublings or any other simple elementary school math type fractions, either. Make of it what you will, but it does give Dreamweaver a much jerkier cadence that takes sometime to get used to; I still haven’t decided whether it’s a boon or a curse.

Regardless of my to-be-determined feelings on the rhythm section, everything else here is quality. I’m aware of my own Martin Walkyier fandom, but one thing I do appreciate that Skyclad hasn’t really offered me is the quality and quantity of guitarwork on display here. Dreamweaver‘s riffs and leads strike a good balance between consonant melody and rhythmic prowess. Furthermore, the guitarists throw in a couple of especially unusual structures on many of these songs, including the ‘consonant major key intervals played in a dissonant sequence’ shtick I’ve labeled the “Kreator riff”. That’s a good way to grab my attention. You’d think it’d be difficult to compete with a lyricist as skilled as Walkyier merely by playing guitar, but Dreamweaver manages, even though it exceeds Skyclad yet again by tying all its mythological and occult concepts into a coherent whole based around The Way of Wyrd, a novel by Brian Bates about pre-Christian religious practices in Britain. The subject matter is less important than the effort, if you ask me, but it still makes for both interesting reading and listening.

At this point, my only regret is that the UK’s metal scene did little to directly compete with Sabbat, especially after being so hugely influential about a decade before. Maybe they were too busy inventing grindcore.

Highlights: “The Clerical Conspiracy”, “Do Dark Horses Dream of Nightmares?”, “Wildfire”

Autechre – Garbage EP (1994)

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I told you I was going to go the route of the filthy casual in future Autechre coverage (even though I ended up listening to Confield too); and to be honest, I went on a huge binge after experiencing¬†LP5. This longer-than-some-studio-albums EP is certainly interesting, and it falls straight into a brief period of especially ambient and downtempo work by this band. Given that Garbage is supposedly culled from the detritus of Autechre’s 2nd studio album (1994’s Amber), you can imagine how this content might share some mood and mind with its full length counterpart, but where Amber was occasionally too subdued for its own good, the balance here is better.

Garbage is vintage accessible Autechre at their finest, even managing by virtue of its reduced length to avoid the filler problem that plagues most of the band’s full lengths. Everything here is warm, analog flavored, with plenty of the reverb and delay effects that seem to be emphasized on the band’s early material. Like your average Autechre album (or for that matter, a nice swathe of electronic music), the tracks here rely very heavily on their choice of sounds to distinguish themselves; compare this to musicians who don’t change up their instrumentation on every track. Furthermore, the average track here yet again emphasizes slowly evolving soundscapes over especially rigorous sound structure. In general, you should not expect huge sound/structural differences from Autechre’s trademark sound.

If you ask me, Garbage also features something of an inter-track narrative that isn’t present on most of the band’s material. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but over time the material on here progresses from being rhythm and progression oriented to complete ambience and repetition by the time the last chords of “Vletr” fade away. I can’t really think of any other albums by the band that have that level of long-term cohesion, although some of the EPs come close (1995’s Anvil Vapre in particular). This makes for a very different experience than the rest of their discography when you listen to it in full. This is, more than anything else from Autechre, something you should sit down and listen to in one go, which at the very least is more convenient than otherwise due its compactness.

To be fair, Garbage‘s strengths do run kind of exactly counter to my expected tastes, but given how often I’ve been praising music for doing things I wouldn’t expect myself to stereotypically like, I might have to say that my interests are broader than they first seem.

Highlights: Everything. Maybe “PIOB” in particular.

Incantation – Onward To Golgotha (1992)

Folder.jpgNow this is a monolithic slab of death metal, arguably as far removed from early foundational extreme metal like Celtic Frost and Bathory as those are from the styles that spawned them. On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to hear their legacy in such a work as Onward to Golgotha.¬†Besides its clear influences (and murkier imitators, we’ll get to that someday), this album also has the honor of having one of the slowest burning fuses of understanding in my library. Unlike many an album in my library, it just keeps coming back for more and more plays, and it has yet to give up all of its secrets.

Enough is apparent from what I have absorbed – Onward to Golgotha is a particularly dense sounding and atmospheric work of death metal for its age, but not quite in the way that a roughly contemporary Autopsy or Obituary would lead you to expect. Like many a formative work of death metal, this album is yet another exaggeration of its predecessors, with even more reverb and distortion infesting its production, but it’s surprisingly clear and intelligible in spite of this. It’s probably because rest of this album’s sound is stripped down to the absolute minimum you can get away with – nearly complete monophony, limited variation in drum and vocal texture/rhythm, and so forth. It sounds simple enough that you could punch out an album in this style this weekend, and I’m pretty sure a couple of people have.

The problem with doing that is that you have to do something to distinguish it from all the other weekend caverncore death metal albums out there. Onward to Golgotha,¬†as the granddaddy of them all, earns its seniority by maximizing the complexity of its song structures, which also has the bonus effect of providing good contrast to the relatively basic instrumentation. None of the songs here are particularly lengthy, but they pack in plenty of well-related riffs in a way that makes sense if you take the time to think about it. Incantation also has the sense to occasionally add in some instrumental variation when it would benefit the structure of the song, such as the bass lead in “Blasphemous Cremation”. That’s a more basic songwriting technique than most of the ones on display here, but it does need pointing out that Incantation isn’t just relying on a few gimmicks to differentiate their works.

I suppose that in the long run, it was how I kept noticing this album’s small details that ensured it would be a reliable staple of my listening rotation. Maybe I should check out the rest of the band’s discography when I get the chance?

Highlights: “Devoured Death”, “Unholy Massacre”, “Christening the Afterbirth”