Magma – Attahk (1978)

folderAttahk is the sound of a Magma allegedly more influenced by late ’70s pop trends such as disco, funk, contemporary R&B, with the caveat that such things (or at least their antecedents) might have played a role in shaping Magma’s initial signature sound. Does it mean anything that I can use to successfully interpret local musical developments? Not really, but it might be worth investigating if you have the resources to do so. I find that Attahk is structurally more accessible than most Magma recordings due to its shorter tracks, but otherwise doesn’t seem too out of field.

Magma does, however, end up more upbeat and manic than average. This is mostly a case of tempo; Attahk doesn’t peak as fast as some of the other tracks throughout Magma’s discography, but it’s more consistently rapid than their average album even when you allow for ballads. The condensed songs probably made it easier for the band to pull this off, but even then, the Magma of 1977 was an experienced band with a good deal of performing and gigging experience under their belts. Given that Magma spends a lot of this album exploring their “funky flow”, some velocity kind of comes in handy, although luckily for listeners this doesn’t prevent them from exploring a lot of the progressive rock ideas that permeate their discography. It does, however, mean that this album is rather less militant than something like Wurdah Itah.

That Attahk explores the excesses of the ’70s is with its ups and downs. At its worst, it results in abject filler like “Dondai”, which is a sugar-coated turd of a track for any band; I pity musicians whose entire output is in such a saccharine style. The rest of this album is better at employing some of the same elements, perhaps because they’re restrained a bit. It does result in a few particularly wacky excursions, but ironically, some of these tracks are strengthened by their oddities, like the goofy pseudo-disco of “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”. That one has a strong rhythmic section backing it up and showcases yet another strength of this era of Magma – especially virtuoso bass, which backs up skilled play with a tone that’s actually influenced my ideas about how such an instrument should sound in my own work.

I’m definitely going to recommend this album, although some prognards (hurr) might have some issues with how it’s constructed, and how it’s admittedly less elaborate than most of Magma’s work. You won’t find this to be a problem, will you?

Highlights: “The Last Seven Minutes”, “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”, “Maahnt”

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves (2015)

sevenevesYears spent in the Neal Stephenson fandom have taught me that the guy has two distinct modes as an author of fiction. His most famous voice is his philosophical one, dedicated more towards ideas than plot and notable in such works as Cryptnomicon, the Baroque Cycle, Anathem, etc. Stephenson does, however, have some action/suspense oriented writing to his name; Snow Crash and Reamde come to mind and don’t exactly read like philosophical fiction. Seveneves fits the latter, being slightly terse and markedly darker than average, and therefore presumably being a couple of notches downwick of the Hylaean theoric world.

A quick disclaimer: Seveneves is not canonically related to Anathem or its concepts beyond it sharing an author.

Anyways, Seveneves leads off with the shattering of Earth’s moon, which over the first half of the book or so disintegrates into a cloud of rocks that rain down on Earth and kill almost the entire population, with the exception of a few desperate survival schemes. Most of the book focuses on the development of the “Cloud Ark” – a huge collection of small space habitats centered around the International Space Station – and the people that come to inhabit it. Things go especially wrong for it considering that this is a Stephenson book – construction accidents and internecine political conflicts lead to all sorts of Ark-threatening events and make some of the terrible things Stephenson has put his characters through in previous works (Daniel Waterhouse’s kidney stones, Zula Forthrast’s kidnapping, etc.) seem light in comparison. That humanity pulls through such a crisis is part of the book’s marketing, but I spent much of the tense middle wondering how they would do so and/or shocked at how they were killed off.

The last third of the book is separated from this suffering and tribulation by 5,000 years, and depicts a society very different from ours; their culture derived from video recordings of the Cloud Ark, and their genetic material deliberately altered in the name of surviving the difficult conditions of space habitats. The species’ population has by then recovered enough for political fragmentation to alter how they deal with the revival of the Earth, which makes for refreshing reading after the doom and gloom of the first part. I personally would’ve liked to see more of the book set in this future; what I read about these people was fascinating, but in many ways only scratched the surface of what this sort of world was like. After all, this sort of world-building is one of my favorite aspects of science fiction literature.

If you’re already used to Neal Stephenson’s idiosyncrasies, there’s a good chance you’ve already read this book, and you probably should if you haven’t, since it hits most of the same notes while working in more action and drama than usual. For the rest of our species – this book is indeed fairly representative of his style, although the characterization seems more developed, perhaps due to some of the subjects this book deals with. It also stars Neil DeGrasse Tyson in all but name; if that doesn’t sway you, your mental defenses are stronger than perhaps desired by the corporate elites of society.

Manilla Road – The Courts of Chaos (1990)

folderManilla Road’s last album before their initial breakup is actually pretty weird, even by the hazy, atmospheric standards of the band. Their previous efforts seem more grounded and relatable to the rest of the American power or thrash metal scenes and displayed an interesting trend of growing ever more abrasive with time. This rejects internal trends. The Courts of Chaos is a mostly slow or midpaced work that relies on a drum machine, showcases all sorts of odd experimental material even by this band’s standards, and was almost certainly recorded in at least two sessions (distinguishable mainly by differences in guitar tone). Regardless of how you and I feel about this, I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say this is an interesting album – one that lends itself very well to my preferred format as a music blogger.

The overarching structure of this recording is a prime example – where your average ’80s Manilla Road album begins with an uptempo number, The Courts of Chaos follows up a lengthy keyboard prelude with several tracks of slow to midpaced material, sometimes even bordering on doom metal. The tempo ratchets up occasionally and gradually increases throughout the album’s length, but the only real exception to this is the last half of the album’s closer (“The Book of Skelos”), which finishes the album off in a way reminiscent of Out of the Abyss. In some ways, it feels like a prototype for the sort of material Manilla Road explored on their post-reformation albums, although it doesn’t stretch itself out nearly as far. Extreme song lengths make latter day Manilla Road something of a mixed bag, as the extended formats don’t necessarily vary themselves adequately, but restraint in 1990 kept this from causing problems.

From a sonic stance,  it becomes even more apparent that the emphasis here has shifted further towards atmosphere and ambience. It was certainly a significant element on previous recordings by the band, but the increased keyboard presence announces it in ways less subtle than before. Manilla Road still relies heavily on guitar riff repetition in their recordings, but the increased variety of instrumentation can be pretty helpful for keeping listener interest up, especially in more sluggish and repetitive material like the “A Touch of Madness”. Overall, I’d say that this proficient usage (if primarily supporting role) of keyboards compliments the other instruments well; especially the guitars, which are produced in a trebly, almost digital fashion that I am rather fond of.

I found that most of The Courts of Chaos took some getting used to, although the peaks on this album immediately drew me in and rival those other favored albums of Manilla Road I’ve discussed in the past. From an increasingly cliched “benchmark” stance, I’d say your opinion of this album correlates better with your interest in later Manilla Road albums than those of the 1980s, but even then this is a fairly different beast. Its depths are not easily accessible, and there are some definite missteps, but this one remains a good listening experience.

Highlights: “Into The Courts of Chaos”, “Vlad The Impaler”, “The Book of Skelos”

Queen – Queen II (1974)

3568656e701dd36aaa57c29f228b7e1bStill quite early in Queen’s career – Queen II is like Queen I, except more so, containing the same sort of glam rock with occasional excursions into heavy metal and progressive rock. The differences really just come down to a larger budget for recording and a year or so worth of extra experience, although there are some tracks here whose origins date back to the band’s early days (notably ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’, which was first hinted at on the last album). Never underestimate what money and experience can do for a band.

Queen II has a pretty sharp and acknowledged split between its two ‘sides’, even beyond that implied by the physical characteristics of the original vinyl. The first side (“White”) is more standard ’70s rock and proto-metal, while side two (“Black”) is more experimental and fantasy/mythology/prog flavored. Important elements of the band’s sound make the jump between halves – frequent guitar leads, tons of studio overdubbing, Freddie Mercury, and so forth, so it’s not like listening to two different bands. Side one does feature lead vocal contributions from guitarist Brian May and Roger Taylor, though, so it’d probably just barely win the variety competition if there was one. Either way, the slightly more normal first side and greater conceptual unity (and seguefaulting) of the second side make for markedly different listening experiences.

Ultimately, I think the shared elements are more important to understanding Queen, at least in this relatively early and formative era of their career. Typical of a lot of the prog bands of this era, Queen relies pretty heavily on dense instrumentation, although that’s mostly achieved by ornamenting with overdubs and doesn’t stop the occasional sparser and more conventional blues-rock number like “The Loser In The End” from ending the first side of the album. Compositions are also elaborate to a degree, even the shorter ones; this is especially important because Queen doesn’t write particularly long songs. 5-6 minutes seems to be, with admitted exceptions on other, later albums, their general upper limit. That Queen manages to keep their signatures intact in a sea of stylistic experimentation (That’s either the third or fourth sea of Rhye, I think), especially without extending their songs to enormous lengths is one of their strengths; not a great deal of bands can say they incorporate asides into their music without losing their own identity. Not even my go-to band for this sort of technique really pulls that off!

In the end, I kind of regret writing this article before remembering how important Queen was to forming my musical tastes. I may have written about the nostalgia angle (A Night At The Opera was the first independent, self-driven record acquisition I made), but I can hear hints of their approaches in so many of the albums I’ve written about for Invisible Blog. Not that Queen’s musical ideas on Queen II were entirely and utterly original, but they are worth a look.

Highlights: “Father to Son”, “Ogre Battle”, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”

Cryptopsy – None So Vile (1996)

folderWhat a Cryptopsy Crypturvy recording this is.

Now that we’ve got the awful puns out of the way, we have a work of not only Canadian, but French-Canadian death metal. While I hesitate to apply labels to scenes, Quebec (and maybe bi-lingual New Brunswick) has seen its share of musically adventurous bands. While this is apparently some distance from the peak of Cryptopsy’s ambitions, it’s still a particularly intricate work, and yet also one mashed into a fairly compact 32-minute package.

For reasons more related to its genre than its length, this album certainly sounds rather chaotic and frenzied. This is more from the contributions of the rhythm section than anything, although due to the vocal performance on display here we’ll have to expand the definition of such to include the band’s then-vocalist and lyricist (Lord Worm). That I would lump them in at all with the percussion is a testament to their complete and utter unintelligibility, although the actual lyrics are quite well written. Between him and the drummer (Flo Mounier), I get a sense of the album constantly trying to jump off its own rails, perhaps more due to the hyperactive drum fills and occasional tempo shifts than the vox actually doing so at times, such as during the bridge of “Benedictine Convulsions”.

The compositions here, though, are rather more orderly, even if the specific death metal stylings of Cryptopsy obligate an especially noisy and fast approach. The production steers my thoughts in this direction, as it’s anything but chaotic, with all the instruments enjoying about equal prominence, and the actual sound of the infamous drum section being somewhat anemic. To be fair, the guitar tone and occasional slap bass makes up for it. Quibbles aside, Cryptopsy leans towards the monophonic end of metal, although the riffs here have their share of dissonant chords. Some obvious comparisons come to mind, although None So Vile strikes me as fairly breakneck for 1996 in ways most of its relatives aren’t. Despite the active and varied drums and emphasis on rhythm to different song sections, tracks here also frequently lapse into high paced tremolo sections that stereotypically belong more on a Morbid Angel album (or even your stereotypical Norwegian black metal works, which I admittedly doubt were a major influence on Cryptopsy). Finding albums that employ both these substyles in significant quantities seems a bit rare, but maybe I’m not paying a lot of attention to such a possibility.

None So Vile is ultimately a benchmark of growing death metal ferocity, and one of the major lights in the genre’s period of relative commercial failure during the mid-90s. If you like this specific style, you won’t want to omit this from your collection. Personally, I have no strong feelings on it, but even I can appreciate this album for its combination of brevity and intricacy… does that sound like anyone you know?

Highlights: “Slit Your Guts”, “Benedictine Convulsions”, “Phobophile”

Public Image Ltd – Metal Box (1979)

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Metal Box (aka Second Edition) makes Chaosphere sound complex.

It’s generally held up as a musically adventurous recording, and I don’t think I can dispute that. I’m going to get it out of the way – the big musical adventure here is drone in extremis (for the standards of a 1979 rock album). I can imagine that being polarizing, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from listening if you want a look into the “post-punk” movement and the post-Sex Pistols career of one John Lydon. Not to overemphasize his contributions, but yes, I would say Johnny Rotten’s involvement and star power (as well as that of Keith Levene of The Clash) turned this harsh, dissonant, and uninviting album into a decent commercial success.

If this album is anything resembling an accurate indicator, the post-punk people take a rather different approach to abrasive than the metal musicians I’ve written at length on recently. Even the most untrained ear can tell a sonar difference between this album’s 10-minute opener (“Albatross”) and, for example, Darkthrone’s 10 minute opener on A Blaze In The Northern Sky (“Kathaarian Life Code”); and they’d quickly become aware that even the latter’s sparseness is tempered by an elaborate song structure and great shifts in dynamics. “Albatross” does nothing of the sort and actually comes out more unhinged for it, between the unending moaned vocals, birdlike guitar calls, and three note bassline. Other songs here are more dynamic, if barely, and often rely on sound exploration to create slight variants in the drone to keep Metal Box users from snapping entirely.

Perhaps the greatest (non-tensile) strength of this album is that its members form a strong ensemble and at no point overwhelm each other, even with a constantly rotating array of session drummers and Keith Levene performing double duty on guitars and synthesizers. This unity of purpose helps the album drone on and on and strengthens it at least from an aesthetic stance. The lack of anything really resembling a coherent song structure becomes pretty apparent, though on tracks like the improvisatory frenzy of “Socialist” or the synthesizer maelstrom of “Careering”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tracks here were, in fact, jammed into existence, although it does leave the question of how the vocals/lyrics were devised. Lydon seems more coherent and intelligent than his appearance and demeanor suggest (although he can barely sing and seemingly prefers not to), and the lyrics contain some sociopolitical commentary and satire that would probably be harder to come up with on the fly. They were… probably added later, and dwelling on them is only going to get you Metal Box‘ed.

Given that my experience with this album actually predates most of my ‘metal listening’ career, it’s especially hard for me to be objective about this, but I am sure that when I first came upon this album it was, in fact, very different from anything else I’ve explored. I can definitely say it’s one of the droningest albums I’ve ever liked, although I was certainly more passionate about it in early 2009 or so.

Highlights: “Memories”, “Swan Lake”, “Careering”

Immortal – Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism (1992)

So we’ve been on a bit of a formative black/death spree lately; a throwaway remark can set off weird stuff like that. Like Darkthrone in the last review, Immortal wasn’t quite done purging their obvious death metal roots on their debut. If we’re going to bring up big obvious antecedents like Bathory, it becomes reasonable to suggest Immortal was more interested in that band’s epic “Viking” albums than their earlier raw ones. Entire genres of writing could be spawned from the idea that different people take different ideas from the same sources, and while I don’t think we’ll be doing that today, I’d recommend you take Immortal’s musical ancestors into mind when listening to Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticum if you are in any way familiar with them.

In general, this album ends up combining elaborate compositions with fairly rudimentary (even sloppy) instrumental technique; the latter would improve significantly over Immortal’s next few albums, but songs would become brief until 1999 or so, with the release of At The Heart of Winter. It’s hard to describe the effect with overusing words synonymous with “transition”, but that’s a small price to pay for accurately describing this. The songs here are often quite melodic and even consonant at times, but the bassy mixing occasionally makes me want to throw this in with formative melodeath like At the Gates or Sentenced. However, Immortal rather frequently drops this in favor of dissonant, chaotic material like the majority of “Unholy Forces of Evil”; a technique possibly borrowed from the common musical ancestry of the Norwegian scene. I’m not going to go out and say the band hadn’t forged their own identity, as even Pure Holocaust in 1993 was a major paradigm shift, and the aforementioned At The Heart of Winter often resembles a more disciplined and refined variant on the ideas of this debut.

Because of this, early Immortal ends up with some odd strengths and weaknesses compared to their contemporaries. The push for good arrangements is perhaps not so odd, since even the rawest, filthiest, and most shocking of Immortal’s contemporaries emphasized their song structures. The songwriting here is strangely orderly, though, assisted by the consistent aesthetic and frequently midpaced tempoes. The flaws in instrumental technique actually come in handy for differentiating things – seemingly awkward transitions and messy, pitchy guitar solos that wouldn’t fit the songs if performed with more skill. To my understanding, that’s one of the things that draws people to black metal, although it occasionally results in a swarm of shoddy imitators. That Immortal managed to play such a large role in influencing others even before they had really found themselves is a sign of aptitude on their part.

Highlights: “The Call of the Wintermoon”, “Cryptic Winterstorms”, “A Perfect Vision of The Rising Northland”