Manilla Road – Voyager (2008)

1000x1000.jpgVoyager predates the “nation designer” feature in Europa Universalis IV by seven years. If you ever purchase that game and want to play as an ahistorical Norse nation in Mesoamerica, then you have yourself the perfect soundtrack right here. Voyager is also another prime example of the expanded and dare I say exaggerated post-reformation Manilla Road. It certainly has something of an intensity edge over Spiral Castle, which I certainly appreciate, although much of its abrasion and grit are channeled into slow, even doomy songs where older incarnations of the band preferred raw speed.

Regardless, anyone who’s familiar with prior recordings by Manilla Road should expect even more of it from Voyager. The band’s trademark epic take on traditional heavy metal continues unbroken here (just like the narrator’s family in the intro to the first track), but those who skipped over from an album like Crystal Logic might find the extended songwriting, abrasive guitar, and occasional straight up death metal vocals take some getting used to. Considering that Manilla Road never ended up joining the death metal bandwagon in the 1980s, the fact they’ve amped things up this much is pretty impressive. The songwriting hasn’t changed much on a structural level, but songs tend to be significantly longer and rely more on repetition to get their points across. To be honest, I can see a hypothetical 1983 Manilla Road writing this album, although I doubt it would’ve sounded as heavy.

The emphasis on repetition and aural texture isn’t unheard of, but it’s rarely this prominent within Manilla Road’s individual songs, much less entire albums. The lone exception, so far as I am aware, is Gates of Fire, and I would go as far as to claim that album is basically a rough, unrefined prototype for this one. Combine this with the heavier emphasis on theming, and you have a recipe for unmatched cohesion in the band’s discography. It makes listening to this album quite a journey, especially if you listen to the entire thing in one go. That way, you’ll get a feeling for how Manilla Road keeps developing their set of musical ideas throughout this album. On the other hand, the individuality of these songs suffers in the process. The ideal for this sort of concept album, at least as I see it, is a band that can reach further into their creative reservoirs without sacrificing cohesion. More individual and/or complicated riffs might’ve helped, and some of the more distinct interludes, while occasionally cool (like the organ solo at the beginning of “Blood Eagle”) aren’t very effectively integrated into the rest of the tracks in which they belong. I guess we can’t win them all.

Even with that songwriting flaw, this is not only a well executed Manilla Road album, but still a distinct one compared to the collections of songs that make up most of their discography. I won’t go as far as to say that Manilla Road should keep writing tight concept albums; for all I know, they already have, but since I’ve yet to listen to anything newer, I can’t personally speak on the matter.

Highlights: “Tree of Life”, “Voyager”, “Conquest”

Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge (1974)

mike-oldfield-hergest-ridge-ds55p-front.jpgNo, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Mike Oldfield’s discography. I am assured by polite company that it is enormous. Hergest Ridge, while not as commercially successful or as well known as the guy’s debut (Tubular Bells), still tells an interesting commercial story – it reached #1 on the British OCC album charts before being knocked off a mere three weeks later by … you guessed it, Tubular Bells. Progressive rock used to be big money; now, the music industry is shriveled and dying even as the quantity of available music increases at an ever growing rate. But let’s not dwell on such things for the moment.

Hergest Ridge is a compilation of two lengthy instrumental pieces that presumably are inspired by the scenery of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where it was conceived and recorded. You can imagine how such sparsely settled countryside (… by European standards; compare to the USA if you need a laugh) would make for generally soft and approachable music, although there are a few sections that break this rule, including the famous “thunderstorm” in the second part that was my formal introduction to this album. One of Mike Oldfield’s famous gimmicks is that he imitates some structural aspects of orchestral music by recording lots of instrumental parts and overdubbing them to make dense walls of sound; he also uses a lot of studio wizardry to make instruments sound like other instruments. The sheer amount of effort here means that any attempts to transfer Hergest Ridge to other arrangements would dramatically alter its sound, even if maybe not so much its structure.

Since I haven’t listened to the rest of Oldfield’s discography, I can’t say to what extent the upcoming songwriting tropes hold elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found particularly notable is that this album seems to strike a balance between the extended ‘narrative’ songwriting a lot of other progressive rock albums engage in and a more ambient approach. The number of discrete song sections on display (which are a good sign of the former) is easier to pick up on, at least initially. The order that Oldfield organizes each part of his songs, as well as the transitions between them, though, emphasize mood and texture over dynamics. If you’re not paying attention, Hergest Ridge seems to repeat itself a great deal, but there’s enough subtle microvariation here to keep that from literally being the case. I should also note that the second part, while not dramatically different and even sharing many of the same musical themes and motifs, is more active and formally structured than the second.

Most likely, Oldfield’s greatest strength on this album is the aforementioned ‘ambient’/’progressive’ fusion. It’s not entirely unheard of, and a lot of bands on one side of the fence stuck their toes through to the other just to feel out what it was like, but it’s still pulled off well here. It doesn’t always align with my tastes, but it does make for an interesting spin on the era’s formulas.

Highlights… aren’t exactly helpful on an album with only two tracks, but do pay close attention to the aforementioned “thunderstorm” after 8:30 in Part II.

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance (1982)

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The 1980s were an… interesting time for Judas Priest. As a major force in the ongoing commercialization of heavy metal music, you can imagine how some of their albums might’ve been written with an especially mass audience in mind. Screaming for Vengeance isn’t always like that. It definitely isn’t like the infamous Turbo (released in 1986 and allegedly reminiscent of “hair metal acts), but compared to the formative and slightly progressive rock inflected Priest of the past… well, this album has certainly been many things to many people, but for now let’s just pretend it’s another review on Invisible Blog. That’ll help us stay as objective as reasonably possible.

For 1982, Screaming For Vengeance wins many a point for sounding good and being well produced. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that at least out of what I’ve heard, it’s the best produced metal album of 1982, though it’s only a matter of time until someone insists that title should go to someone else. The high points of this mix are the guitars (which strike a good mix between clear tone and nutritious distortion), and the drums, which are a good example of the stereotypical gated reverb ’80s sound’s pros and not so much their cons.

To be honest, I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on the production if this album didn’t have its heavy commercial leanings. In my experience, this sounds more like a heavy metal album than its immediate predecessors, but I still miss the more ambitious songwriting of ’70s Priest. This also fails to be the most instrumentally accomplished Priest lineup, but most that burden is the fault of Dave Holland, who is an underwhelming drummer compared to Les Binks or Scott Travis. He isn’t completely incompetent, and this might be a case where I’ve been spoiled by the expertise of some of the other drumseats, but a stronger drummer could’ve helped add to the variety of the songs here at the very least. Many of them are eerily similar in structure; often differentiated by little more than tempo or key signature. On the other hand, this does keep Priest firmly anchored in their strengths. Not every track can be “Epitaph” (a straight up piano ballad from Sad Wings of Destiny), after all; ironically, Judas Priest is at their weakest when they try to approximate the most popular rock of their time. Screaming for Vengeance‘s more consistent songwriting helps take the edge off it where on other albums it really cuts into the ineffable metal factor.

Still, this is a pretty poppy and accessible metal album. Probably not a bad starting point for neophytes discovering Judas Priest, and it definitely has enough traditional metal instrumental and studio chops to hold up well. Considering the peaks they reached in the 1970s, though, it’s nonetheless hard to recommend this over those.

Highlights: “Electric Eye”, “Bloodstone”, “Screaming for Vengeance”

Bal-Sagoth – The Chthonic Chronicles (2006)

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Despite not being about the Taiwanese black metal band ChthoniC, Bal-Sagoth’s final album is, at least in some ways, a return to some of the blatant black metal tropes of the band’s early days.It’s certainly more vicious than… for instance, Battle Magic. A few years ago, that was enough to ensure I gave it my full attention, and my appetite for destruction (and to a lesser degree, Destruction) is still enough that The Chthonic Chronicles appeals to me on some level.

The key to understanding this album is that it follows the later Bal-Sagoth formulas almost exactly. What separates The Chthonic Chronicles from its predecessors is its heightened speed and improved guitar distortion more than anything. If you’re familiar with that pattern, you’ll recognize all the band’s pomp and circumstance on full display, although depending on your listening background your ears might need a few moments to adjust to the shift in sound. One downside is that compared to the lighter and softer sounds of previous albums, this new and more aggressive Bal-Sagoth ends up muddier and dynamically flatter, but this is more of a mastering problem than a composition one. For all you’ll see me write about the band’s aggression, there are still many quieter and more restrained moments, including a weird vaguely electronica flavored interlude (“The Fallen Kingdoms of the Abyssal Plain”) towards the middle. This would be where I say it wouldn’t be a Bal-Sagoth album without interludes, but then their debut would complain vociferously. This album also features the same sort of adventurous, melodramatic songwriting (with plenty of trad/power metal influence) that made previous works such a pleasure to listen to – the greater compositional range helps some of these tracks especially shine in what is already a bright discography.

Between the fact that I’ve discussed everything in this band’s studio discography except for Atlantis Ascendant and the relatively steady evolution of their overall sound, I initially began to worry that I had little to say about this album except that it sharpened their aggressive sound. Most of the bands I’ve covered so repeatedly on Invisible Blog evolve more dramatically over their careers. On the other hand, Bal-Sagoth in general has been a consistent fixture of my listening rotations since I first discovered them. They play a substyle I am particularly fond of, and if they have any major slipups, they’re on material I’ve yet to listen to. I’ve mentioned in the past that I sometimes have trouble being objective in these writeups, but this might be the worst example yet.

Highlights: “Six Score and Ten Oblations to A Malefic Avatar”, “The Obsidian Crown Unbound”, “Arcana Antediluvia”

Bad Ideas #20 – Music Edition

This probably takes the record for “Bad Ideas installment that took the longest to cook”. The food themed edition, by comparison, didn’t take nearly as long!

191. Radical Islamic guitar solo
Where’s the mufti? I gotta tell him that “The Twelve Imams” would be a great name for a band.
192. 12 minute extended disco version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”
We should’ve stuck with “Disco Duck”. Oh well! Let’s have the local radio station play that 50 times in a row.
193. Fartwave in smellovision
The only reason people care about electronic body noise music is that they don’t have to stick their noses in it.
194. UAV drone doom
Predator missiles might sound cool when slowed down, but then they miss their targets and fall out of the sky.
195. Imperial March of the Lollipop Guild
Alternatively: “We Represent A Mafia Don”
196. Gangsta-ass square dancing
Stop! … promenade time!
197. JPEGwave
I t ok a pict r of tis songs wavef rm and it snds s0 amazin’ and i am go1n to upl ad it to 9GAG
198. Folk speedcore
Seriously, though, have you ever heard a “speedcore” song that actually had content between the samples?
199. Skaldic ska
I just cheated you out of an actual joke here by observing that I’m morbidly curious about what some of these bad ideas for music would sound like.
200. Protoss power metal
YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL GUITAR SOLOS, EXECUTOR.

If these ideas were food, you’d have died of starvation long ago, but these should keep you going at least for the next 40 seconds or so.

Autechre – LP5 (1998)

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Now this appraisal might become entirely irrelevant and useless if I ever get around to Confield, but at least compared to previous Autechre material, LP5 is “Expert Mode Unlocked” given tangible audible form. At least from an aural perspective it comes off even more abstract and artificial than before, although repeated listening has clued me in to just how much of the band’s previous techniques and arsenal remain. Now, I realize this is a snooty and even elitist way of describing how I’ve engaged with LP5, but bear with me – after all, I might end up reviewing one of Autechre’s earliest albums at some point, and I need an excuse to (most likely inaccurately) work in the phrase “filthy casual”.

For better or worse, there’s a great deal of musical substance on here that I’ve never even considered trying to incorporate into my own work. I guess that sort of makes this album an antithesis of self, just like the last album I wrote about. For one, the emphasis on ‘ambient’, slowly evolving soundscapes that I picked up on from Tri Repetae is still around; I’d go as far as claiming these are even more necessary since consonant phrases are on the decline here. Some of these tracks arguably have pop style hooks; I don’t think it’s the main intent, especially since the sort of modal, more conventionally structured songwriting I’ve heard on previous Autechre albums is hard to find here.  Instead, Autechre seemingly relies more heavily on percussive rhythms this time around, and furthermore does some very strange things with tempo. I kind of want to make a song using the constant BPM change gimmick of “Fold4, Wrap5”, although incorporating such a thing into the sort of music I actually like to write could be … difficult.

If there’s one thing that Autechre definitely does well on LP5, it’s that they nail the ambiences. As I’ve said before, that’s definitely not easy to do, but at it’s best, LP5 has spawned some incredibly vivid mental images in my head. The architecture metaphors people like to throw in when talking about this band are at least apt, although sometimes the slow evolution and attention to transitions does something especially amazing, like briefly turning “Drane2” (arguably the hit single of this album) into the world’s most hellish call center about 2/3rds of its length in. It helps that that track in particular has one of the densest soundscapes; most of the tracks here are a bit sparser and take more time to sink in, but you can still get some sort of storytelling potential out of them.

To be honest, it didn’t take me as long to value LP5 as highly as I do now; it’s not perfect, and nor is my understanding of it, but the depths that remain are certainly worth plumbing.

Highlights: “777”, “Under Boac”, “Drane2”

Sepultura – Morbid Visions (1986)

folder.jpgNote: Although Morbid Visions is often bundled with the 1985 “Bestial Devastation” EP, I’ll be focusing on the studio album itself.

Morbid Visions is one of the granddaddies of deliberately sloppy Brazillian extreme metal – a long and glorious trend that Sepultura themselves were quick to replace. It belongs to that early period of extreme metal where genre descriptors (death, black, grindcore, etc.) weren’t so clearly defined, it’s hastily performed, and the songwriting is surprisingly solid when you actually sit down and think about it. This puts Morbid Visions squarely in the low tech but highly ambitious sector of the extreme metal world that so many people seem to value.

I would go as far as to say that Sepultura’s full length debut (and to be fair, the EP that preceded it) is a result of the mid-80s’ metal teardown, for want of a better name. Between the influence of hardcore punk and an increasingly viable independent music scene floating around in cassette form, anyone who was alive and sentient enough to take place in the extreme metal revolution presumably listened to a great deal of albums that essentially ignored conventional basics and began forging an unfamiliar musical language in the process. You’ll hear a great deal of that on Morbid Visions, with its fast but sloppy rhythmic backing over monophonic droning riffs. Not hard to imitate; not exactly a form of pop music in 1986.

However, Morbid Visions goes further at times. For an album of such battering instrumental simplicity, it makes a surprising amount of room for compositional variation, especially given how brief the songs are. In layman’s terms, there’s quite a few riffs per song even if the riffs are painfully basic to the point I can imagine myself playing them on a guitar even though I have literally no experience with said instrument. Future Sepultura albums would briefly see advances in this realm, for what it’s worth. Still, this one’s a good example of the second part of the process I was describing earlier  – extreme metal bands elaborating on their new styles – sometimes by reincorporating older elements, and other times by inventing new ideas wholesale. At this stage in their career, Sepultura was more inclined towards the latter. It certainly bore fruit – while Morbid Visions has its share of immature ideas, many a band saw enough value in them that they improved on them.

Over the years, I’ve found Morbid Visions to be one of those many albums that seemingly would be the antithesis of my musical preferences, but actually turn out quite entertaining and worthwhile. Most likely, it’s because the album reveals its depths with time.

Highlights: “War”, “Crucifixion”, “Show Me The Wrath”