Critical Defiance – No Life Forms (2022)

I was really excited for this album after my experiences with Critical Defiance’s debut. Sure, an entire concept album about how you shouldn’t listen to Future Sound of London was a little out there, but if it thrashed, then who was I to complain?

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Arca – Madre (2021)

Ooh, salacious! Ironically, though, this Arca EP (released between the first KiCk and the other four) is actually a gentle and contemplative recording. It’s a far cry from both the noisy/experimental parts of her discography and her recent, futuristic trans diva era. It’s probably closest in spirit (if not form) to her self-titled back in 2017, which makes sense since the actual song was written around the same time as that album. Still, I have to wonder – what was the origin of Madre? Arca herself sheds some light on this in interviews, but straight up neoclassical is an interesting turn, and definitely worth investigating, even if I haven’t really got the ability to deep delve what might’ve birthed this… you know, besides motherhood.

Madre, as an EP, is structured in a way that doesn’t come up a lot in my general listening experience – one song in multiple permutations. We get our original (the title track), an alternative arrangement in the shape of “Madreviolo”, an acapella of “Madre”, and the instrumental from “Madreviolo”. The latter seems like it might be pretty useful if I ever end up covering the song. It seems pretty achievable, even if Arca’s a lot more comfortable with the lower end of her vocal range than I am. Vocal dysphoria is a bitch! But it reveals another commonality with the self titled – dark, soft balladic singing that taps into the same aesthetic of queer longing as before. That being said, Arca was also a more varied recording that included some references to the harsher side of her music. Madre, in practice, is more of a deep delve into a very specific mood. Perfect choice for an EP, really.

Mind you, as important as the vocals are, Madre just wouldn’t be without either of its backings. Each one has its perks. That being said, the first one (as written and arranged by Oliver Coates) is more directly to my tastes. Coates backs “Madre” with a lush, colorful string ensemble – slowly cycling from impressionistic chord to impressionistic chord. It’s a joy to listen to. Arca’s take on her own material is sparser; to my understanding, it’s written for and performed on a single cello that’s since been destroyed for the art of it. The vocals on top of “Madreviolo” sound like they’re almost the same, except that they’ve been pitch shifted up a whole step. It’s really neat that we got this alternate take on the song, to say the least. Either way, it should go to show just how versatile they are as a composer. It reinforces my struggle to criticize her.

Highlights: …is an educational magazine for children.

Lingua Ignota – CALIGULA (2019)

Even when we’re not listening to black metal, we can still hear its ebon shadow creeping over the land. So it is with Lingua Ignota. The music press seems to be in the habit of describing Kristen Hayter’s neoclassical darkwave project as being particularly black metal influenced. It makes sense – this is an album that’s full of ghastly screams and the occasional tremolo guitar. The resemblance is just strong enough that I’d like to see Hayter’s take on a straight-ahead black metal album, but we’re not here to talk counterfactuals. CALIGULA is a recent favorite of mine, and if my latest (impulsive) vacation plans are anything to go by, then Lingua Ignota as a whole must’ve struck a chord with me. Let’s listen in, shall we?

To summarize quickly – Lingua Ignota is fundamentally about abuse – particularly the kind that can happen in a romantic relationship. If you ask me, though, you can extend this metaphor to religious institutions (evangelical Christianity has… a problem with this) or even the entirety of the patriarchal society we live in. Kristen Hayter particularly taps into the idea of retaliating against abuse, even if that looks violent and even murderous. That specific point culminates in the middle of the album with the lovingly titled “FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWER’D CROWN”. CALIGULA dives deep into into its religious imagery and comes up with something that’s raw, desperate, and frequently ugly. I’ve never experienced relationship abuse before, and I’m fortunate, but it could happen someday. In the meantime, I have to sympathize.

As heavy and sombre as the source material is, the arrangements here are a delight to listen to. The key selling point is Kristen Hayter’s multilayered and versatile vocals. There’s some wild chorales strewn throughout – it’s not an approach I have much experience creating in my own work, but figuring out how to build pleasing chord progressions in this style (and tonality) of music takes some doing… and some willingness to embrace dissonance (not quite Carlo Gesualdo tier antics, but still). There’s also some fascinating tricks with resonance – the aforementioned “FRAGRANT <redacted>”, for instance, features a few moments of overtone singing for your pleasure. This is just the clean side – Hayter’s a gifted screamer, and her throat-ripping antics were sorely missed on this album’s nominally mellower successor (SINNER GET READY). The instrumental side of things works, but it’s not nearly as attention glomming – you get a mixture of classical style arrangements and a bit of harsh noise – the latter’s also used to great effect, mind you. If you ask me, the other instruments are best when they contrast the vocals. “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR” in particularly pulls this off – the last third or so features unnerving synth blasts over one of the aforementioned chorales, and it’s just so visceral. Album is full of these moments, to boot.

Ultimately, CALIGULA is a lot, but it’s worth the effort. It has enough weirdness and horror to grab your attention immediately, but also enough musical depth to keep you listening for a long time.

Highlights: “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR”, “BUTCHER OF THE WORLD”, “SPITE ALONE HOLDS ME ALOFT”

Thotcrime – ønyøurcømputer (2020)

Got 15 minutes? Listen to this one for yourself and come back.

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KAKU P-MODEL – Gipnoza (2014)

It took Susumu Hirasawa an entire decade to return to the KAKU P-MODEL moniker! To be fair, he was kinda busy in the interrim.

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Ice Ages – Nullify (2019)

Remember Summoning? To be fair, they’re still around. Their main guitarist and drum-programmer (Richard Lederer, aka “Protector”) has contributing to the Austrian metal +/- adjacent scene for almost three decades. When he’s not summoning a new Summoning release, there’s a good chance Protector is working on his electro-industrial project, Ice Ages. The two are more closely related than you might think; most notably, “Trapped and Scared” off Ice Ages’ debut got reworked into “Over Old Hills” off Summoning’s Dol Guldur. Nullify hits many of the same notes, but it trades out Summoning’s days of lore and ancient magic for harsh synthesizers and a frigid, crystalline, even apocalyptic aesthetic. The Company of the Ring never had to deal with this!

Summoning and Ice Ages do, for what it’s worth, make for good elementary/middle school-era compare and contrast essays; to be clear, I think the similarities are more important. Both projects tend towards slow songs that rely heavily on repetition and intricate soundscapes to sell their ambience. As far as I’m concerned, “Trapped and Scared” isn’t just a fluke – were you or the original composers willing, you could easily convert one project’s output to another by swapping out the instrumentation (and vocal styles). The arrangements wouldn’t need to change much, though some percussion adjustments wouldn’t hurt. Electro-industrial that takes its cues from ambient dungeon synth is a mood, though; if you ask my mind to conjure some up, it’s going to sound more like… for example, early Front Line Assembly. Nullify offers us less sampling, more (minor-key) melodies, and an utterly oppressive atmosphere, and I’m probably more receptive to it than its sparser antecedents.

That being said, do I want to listen to Ice Ages on a regular basis? Similarities to other electronics aside, it’s not really my wheelhouse. To be fair, neither is Summoning. That doesn’t necessarily mean much on its own, though, since I’ve been known to develop the taste for otherwise out-of-scope music over the years. Really, what’s happening here is the same as what happened with Summoning – I was drawn in by how distinctive the recording sounded, but actually understanding and appreciating the goals here takes a while, even if you’re familiar with one side of the Summoning/Ice Ages coin. Case in point – the vocals in particular take a while to get used to. Protector sings here, but the vocals here are some of the most processed, distorted, and utterly alien you’ll ever hear. It just goes to show how focused Nullify is – its one goal is to grind you down and immerse you in its power. I don’t know if you want that, but if that’s what you want out of your music, it’ll provide and then some. As for me – I have to respect it.

Highlights: “Nullify”, “Empty Shrine”, “Lost”

I Played Too Many MMOs As A Child, Part 1: Subspace/Continuum

Maybe this should be part 2, on account of my even older experiences with the Free Internet Chess Server… but we’ll get to that someday.

When I was but an egg, my father gave me the best gift any father could give his child – a shareware compilation called Total Arcade 98. This slightly dodgy (and oddly casino simulator heavy) collection was my introduction to many of the games I’d play later in my childhood – Earthworm Jim, Mega Man X3, Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (more relevant to the edutainment era of my youth), and so forth. It also contained an early beta of Subspace – a massively multiplayer online action game that I couldn’t properly experience, because as a small child my access to the internet was… iffy at best. I still opened it up many times just to fly around offline and collect powerups in an empty environment. It really didn’t take much to keep me entertained in elementary school. Fast forwards a few years – I was 10, going on 11, and Home of the Underdogs (the legendary abandonware site of the era) was suddenly my main source of games, to the point that the same dad would use work internet to burn me CDs with anything I couldn’t fit on a floppy. Then, I made my way to the forums, and speak of the devil – Subspace was back in my life, with a story that in retrospect has played out repeatedly during my tenure in this body.

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Anatomy of VGM #35: Castlevania Chronicles (1993/2001, Sharp X68000/PS1)

I hate to be that girl, but would you believe that I’ve only played the original version of Castlevania Chronicles? Through a Sharp X68000 emulator, mind you; an actual working machine is outside my budget. It’s very cool that both this and the PS1 port exist, though! Ultimately, today’s Anatomy of Video Game Music installment is for a game that has four versions of its soundtrack. That’s Ys tier levels of rearrangements, which is always fun to talk about even if it makes for a lot of work. Castlevania Chronicles also has the joy of being a loose remake (or perhaps more of a reimagining) of the original NES Castlevania, but it makes enough changes that you should really think of it as its own game… with its own soundtrack.

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Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break The Oath (1984)

Don’t Break The Oath takes me back. This was one of the first metal albums I actually sat down and listened to at the tail end of high school. Remember, I went to a Catholic school, so this one made me feel rebellious and slightly anxious, like they’d cast me into the pits of hell myself for listening to it! Of course, a couple years later I inserted it into my installation of Sonic Heroes (there was a tool for the PC port that let you change out the music), so maybe it lost that special hold over me? It’s still a classic album that’ll appeal to fans of the first Mercyful Fate LP, Danish nationalists, or really, anyone who’s got an appetite for traditional heavy metal. It’s also a much better take on the whole Satanic shock rock gimmick than, for instance, Venom. See – some of this stuff has a better shelf life!

If you listened to Melissa back in the day (or even as recently as earlier today), you’ll be well prepped for what Mercyful Fate brings to the table here. It’s fundamentally the same approach as before – prog-inflected heavy metal, with the soaring, theatrical (if admittedly goofy) vocals of King Diamond. Don’t Break The Oath refines the Mercyful Fate formula without changing much. The production changes are about as close as we get to a major change – everything’s treble-heavy by comparison to Melissa. It’s basically a higher budget approach – everything just sounds shinier. The instrumental performances are also more elaborate and tightly performed. The songwriting, though, benefits the most; while there’s no overextended epics like “Satan’s Fall” off the last album, the average track is longer and more elaborate, yet more cohesive at the same time. To be fair, these are just the kind of improvements you can get from an extra year of writing and performing, but they’re still appreciated.

I can say with confidence that this formula’s well suited to my tastes; perhaps even more so than when I first spun this album on account of my vocal attunement. For all the silliness of the Mercyful Fate formula, you’re still getting some nice, polished, and musically literate heavy metal. A lot of contemporary bands went for this approach as they established themselves. You could argue that they eventually stagnated (and you’d have a point), but this is also a kind of music you can pull out year after year and continue to appreciate even as your tastes evolve.

I’ve never really had the motivation to explore much beyond these early, definitive works by Mercyful Fate. Who knows if they’d hit the same? At the very least, these are a good time.

Highlights: “Nightmare”, “The Oath”, “Gypsy”, “Come To The Sabbath”

Björk – Vulnicura (2015)

Another trend that comes up a lot on Invisible Blog but perhaps doesn’t receive much mention – I usually like to space out coverage of any one musician, to the point that I’m not writing about them more than once every few months. Occasionally, though, you get a handy loophole to work with. I’d like to get in some more writing on Arca, so why not go down the route of one of her many collaborations? In this case, here’s an album she did most of the programming for. This also bookends nicely (if sadly) with my previous look at Björk. Vulnicura is a followup to Vespertine. It’s Björk’s “breakup” album; it tells us (albeit cloaked in metaphor) how her relationship with Matthew Barney ended, and how she eventually recovered from the heartbreak and loss of it all. It’s supposed to hurt.

…I exaggerate; even this mournful album has its moments of joy, especially around the edges, while we’re outside the morass of breakup. Still, this is a pretty dark and challenging album, especially from a structural stance. My previous experience with Björk exposed me to her atmospheric and horny sides, but it had comparatively more straightahead pop on it. Vulnicura ultimately has two lodestones – first and more prominently we’ve got the string sections. These sound like they come from a relatively small ensemble, which gives them a more intimate feel than what you’d get from a big string section. A good match, if you ask me. Meanwhile, Arca provides some electronic edge outside of the first and last tracks. She doesn’t push as hard or abrasively as some of her solo work, but the beats and noises here do add a level of texture that you might not get from Björk’s other electronic collaborators. It’s a potent combo, and there’s a lot to glom onto if you keep listening to this album.

Ultimately, lots of buzzwords here – strings, electronica, and Björk’s trademark vox swirling around in lengthy arrangements (most songs above 6 minutes, and “Black Lake” goes for 10!). Honestly, this hits a lot more of my buttons upfront than Vespertine, which in retrospect mostly grabbed me with singing and only really backfilled the rest later. It’s still pretty uncompromising in terms of its arrangements – maybe not on the level of an Autechre, but there’s a lot that needs to be digested before I can really, fully appreciate the layers of Vulnicura. It helps a lot that I’m already familiar with the musicians. That being said, I get enough from the craft of this album already to deem it a worthy addition to my collection. I’m optimistic that it’ll rise further.

Highlights: “Stonemilker”, “Family”, “Atom Dance”, “Quicksand”

Venom – Welcome to Hell (1981)

Would it be rude of me to admit that on a day to day basis, I don’t really care that much about Venom? I’ll admit they were exceptionally influential; after all, they took the sounds their fellow New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands were working with, added a low fidelity shock rock aesthetic, and for their efforts became a crucial milestone in the development of more aggressive, extreme styles of metal. Far more aggressive, really – between this and the hardcore punk cross-pollination, the underground styles developed fast. It really is that simple, and that might be a problem in the long run.

Welcome to Hell is, for what it’s worth, pretty easy to describe. First, it’s got a low-fidelity, grindy production that sometimes changes from track to track (apparently this is little more than a glorified demo, but I’m guessing most recording studios in 1981 weren’t ready to handle this stuff). The instrumentation and songwriting is crude at best; songs here are loosely performed and written, and the overall effect is basically a bunch of drunk punks performing a set in a sympathetic bar. You could find this stuff by the boatload in the UK, but as previously stated, Venom brought in the satanic imagery and got some attention for it. It worked pretty well for a while, though they eventually had to figure out a new approach after a few albums of diminishing returns. That’s probably a story for another time.

Really, what we’ve got here is kind of a “dumb” album. It aims low, though it admittedly hits its targets (shock the press) without much difficulty. Let’s be clear, though; I’m not really designed for this sort of music. I didn’t get much punk rock in my diet as a kid outside of poppy fare like Green Day, and I quickly turned into the snooty classical kid once my piano lessons kicked in. If I’d had that background, maybe this would hit harder? Either way, it doesn’t. I’ve developed an occasional taste for simple, even “primitive” metal over the years, but when I do, it’s usually something that took the lessons Venom and/or their successors provided and built something new on their foundations. That’s not an option here! As it is, I haven’t got much interest in listening to this album for reasons other than historical enlightenment (and the batshit outtake that’s “Snots Shit”. Unless you’re particularly attuned to this first wave gutter-punk approach, you’ll probably end up looking for something else after a few listens.

Highlights: “Welcome to Hell”, “Witching Hour”, “Red Light Fever”

James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual (2011)

This here’s one of the earliest vaporwave albums. Now, I’m not familiar with vaporwave (at best I’m intermittently exposed to it or its descendants), so… in retrospect I’m not entirely sure why I decided I should investigate this album. Social stuff probably had something to do with it, since I spent a chunk of the mid-2010s in Facebook groups full of memes and music producers. Maybe that’s a part of the Planepacked story? I’ll investigate. That being said, a good chunk of vaporwave plays on my nostalgia for the ’90s – the mainstream internet in its infancy, neoliberal optimism and nominal economic growth occluding the hollowing of the state, and contrary to expectations, something far from the end of history. Intellectually speaking, there’s fertile ground to explore here!

Naturally, Far Side Virtual aims for musical satire – take the most banal, corporate sounds possible, freebase every press release of the dotcom boom, and arrange the ensuing sociochemical cocktail into songs and soundscapes. The cover art might evoke the tablet PCs and ever-metastasizing flower of Web 2.0, but I’m pretty sure James Ferraro’s heart is lodged in a Nokia 3310 or an Active Worlds server somewhere. One key inspiration, though – Ferraro cites ringtones as both the inspiration for this album and its original format. It makes sense, honestly – you could easily jump into the middle of one of these tracks whenever someone calls you, at least if ringtones were still culturally in vogue in 2022. Needless to say, Far Side Virtual is a very clever album.

For what it’s worth, I’ve reviewed my fair share of conceptually clever albums here on Invisible Blog. At this point, I think of cleverness and overt musical wit as a spice – it can really make your music pop if judiciously applied (and sometimes you do want to ladle it on heavily). Problem is, you can’t just put it on a plate and serve it as a meal. That is Far Side Virtual‘s sin. It’s entirely dedicated to its concept and aesthetic, and the actual musical content is entirely secondary other than its surface aesthetic. There’s not much to glom onto outside the frequent blocks of synthesized speech (If I had to guess, contemporary sock voices included with Windows). Pretty much the blandest possible package possible. I get that it’s kind of the point, but in terms of actually wanting to listen to this on a regular basis? I’ll probably pass. Far Side Virtual is a nice album to ignore, one that will pass harmlessly through you leaving little trace except the occasional, “Hey, remember that weird Web 2.0 album from a couple years back?”

Highlights: “Global Lunch”, “Sim”, “Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi”, “Condo Pets”

Jute Gyte – Ship of Theseus (2015)

We’re back to Jute Gyte! Though not in anything even resembling chronological order. I’ve yet to explore any of Jute Gyte’s 12-TET discography, so today we’ll be taking a listen to Ship of Theseus. To get it out of the way – as far as I know, this one’s too close in concept to the surrounding Jute Gyte to really illustrate the thought experiment it’s named after. Nothing wrong with that – there’s a lot of ground to explore even in this esoteric, abstract, and yet also nightmarish style. My impression, though, is that it’s even less accessible than our already difficult previous encounters with the project. At some point, though, you just need to dive in and give it a shot.

Not that the others aren’t, but to my understanding, the gimmick of Ship of Theseus is its approach to polyphony. Adam Kalbach likes to discuss the way he builds Jute Gyte’s songs in his liner notes, and here he repeatedly describes canons (take a melody and repeat it in several of your instruments, separated by a consistent duration and overlapping for extra !!!fun!!!) as the building block of these songs. “Grief of New Desire” is the tutorial case, swapping between close notes in octaves for an utterly ghastly effect. One other important element here is how slow this album can get. Ressentiment rarely dipped below a midpaced grind, but the tracks here have this strung out, desperate, impending-doom feel to them. Every dissonance rings out, and every note stacks upon the last. The effect is just horrifying.

Usually, I would struggle with such a hostile album. Perhaps I’d recoil as my brain struggled to find purchase (read: microtonality) for its music appreciation cognition. Perhaps I’d be open to listening occasionally, but would find listening all the way through beyond me. A funny thing happens here, though – if I sit down and listen to Ship of Theseus, I can attune to it in a way that I don’t for even the other Jute Gyte albums. It’s kind of invigorating. Maybe it’s because we get some brief respite from the noise and chaos in the form of frequent and surprisingly lengthy sparse interludes. More likely, though, it’s because Ship of Theseus wears its academia so proudly on its shoulders. At some point, I decide not to be so (consensually) horrified and deploy my analytical brain; I learn and delve. I think there’s a lot I still need to unlock in order to fully understand this one, but I’m happy to study.

I don’t know if I’d currently place this above my previous Jute Gyte listens, or even the other contender for the microtonal black metal throne I’ve listened to. Check back in a year, though – perhaps this one will eventually take the crown!

Highlights: “Forces of Self-Shedding”, “Grief of New Desire”, “Machinery That Renders Debt Infinite”

Re-Review: Sinister – Hate (1996)

I was, to put it bluntly, very bullish on this album when I first encountered it. The precision and sheer percussive intensity of Hate put me in… uh… fire and brimestone themed heaven. Yeah, let’s go with that. However, some interesting things happened in the intervening 11 years. First – I rarely saw mention of this band outside of the unsavory circles that recommended it to me. Then, my delve into the band’s discography petered out after listening to their debut (Cross the Styx). In theory, these shouldn’t mean much – nothing wrong with only enjoying part of a band’s discography, or enjoying an obscure band. But it got me thinking – this one’s probably ripe for a second look. Has Hate aged like fine cheese, or like moldy bread? Either way, I’m grabbing something to eat.

As for Hate? The first thing you should know is that it’s a very percussive, rhythm focused take on death metal. It’s well produced for 1996, with a distinctive grindy, bassy sound that’s harder to find these days. It’s got some melody to it, but it’s typically sparse, emphasizing monophonic riffs and varied percussion. In addition, it’s usually not too interested in standardized verse-chorus pop songwriting. The songs are mostly short to middling lengths (though it’s interesting that they lead with the 7-minute “Awaiting the Absu”), but they feel longer just by virtue of all the riffs they’ve been stuffed with. Now, riffs are the point of metal, but the key to Hate is that it’s all riffs. This has the potential to be a very dry style if you don’t have enough high quality riffs, but Sinister pulls this aspect off pretty well, so there’s definitely nothing to worry about.

The riffs and precision alone make for a solid foundation for an album. That’s the appraisal – Hate is solid. You just can’t go wrong with it, and you’ll have at least a B+ experience if you like this style. The corollary, though, is that Sinister on this album is like the kid in your class who doesn’t really push their boundaries and just coasts through school. All the teachers are lavishing their attention on the kids who went the extra mile on their end-of-term percussive death metal project. There’s plenty of examples of how to extend this style while retaining its spirit, even if for length reasons you limit your search to a subscene (let’s say… uh… …NYDM). Incantation pushed for atmosphere, while Immolation and Suffocation brought the creative riffs and a stronger sense of musical narrative. I think that’s ultimately why my attention wandered – 25+ years out from its release, “good” alone just doesn’t cut it… though it was still pretty fun while it lasted.

Highlights: “Embodiment of Chaos”, “Unseen Darkness”, “18th Century Hellfire”

Anatomy of VGM #34: Mega Man 8 (1996, PS1/Saturn)

Obligatory note: There’s some minor differences between the Playstation and Sega Saturn versions of the soundtrack. Not sure why. As a side note, I prefer the Saturn variants!

You knew it was coming. After the mostly good synth-rock soundtrack of the Blue Bomber’s (formal, futbol-free) 16-bit debut, I’d have guessed Mega Man 8 would do about the same, just with the vast potential of Red Book CD audio backing the game’s songs. But the thing about Mega Man games is that Capcom kept bringing in new people with new approaches to write the music. With that, the stage was set for something… different. Courtesy of Shusaku Uchiyama (who went on to work on the Resident Evil games), we’ve got a surprisingly chill, and EDM-heavy soundtrack. It’s interesting, and not at all what I’d expect!

Mega Man 8 actually ends up pulling an X3, at least in 32-bit terms – which is to say that the jump to a CD platform comes with genre and instrumentation exploration. It’s a rational response to the jump in hardware. To be fair, this game doesn’t entirely abandon the rock tropes, but the songs are very synthesizer and beat heavy. The actual sample quality isn’t always great – I’m working under the impression that the game’s using the PS1’s tracker styled music, so it might be a RAM contention issue. As a general rule, I think the songs here sound their best when they lean into the dance music. There’s some outright house bangers here (Astro Man and Search Man come to mind), and some fun drum and bass tracks as well. Off the top of my head, these ingredients are fairly rare across the Mega Man series (though the Zero and ZX subseries apparently dabble), but they’re interesting and flavorful here, so that’s got to count for something.

There’s an insidious problem at the heart of this soundtrack, though – outside of its general aesthetic and mood, Mega Man 8‘s music just isn’t very memorable. The compositions tend to wander without really developing beyond their initial themes and a few variations. There’s some reused motifs throughout, which is kind of neat when you notice it, but I don’t feel particularly rewarded for paying attention enough to discover that. Anyways, this isn’t a problem you can easily muscle your way out of with higher recording fidelity. Classic Mega Man tracks ride or die on their hooks, and while Uchiyama deserves props for doing something different, the lack of strong melodies or thematic development mean that the music here rarely rises above the level of “…interesting, and not at all what I’d expect!” That doesn’t go as far as you might hope.

Nahadoth – Masked, Winged, and Hidden (2021)

I don’t know if I want to say I’m full-heartedly getting into dungeon synth, but my life has certainly conspired to place it in my listening rotation! More on that someday, maybe. Nahadoth comes to us courtesy of the prolific Adam Matlock, for whatever that’s worth. Perhaps not a lot, since I don’t usually judge musicians by the quantity of albums they’ve released. By my appraisal, this is pretty archetypal dungeon synth – lots of retro synths and samples, compositions that bounce between ambient, classical, and/or folk tropes, and an overall approach that would socket nicely into a mid-90s fantasy RPG. I don’t have the depth of experience to quip much about that (perhaps something about Summoning?), so we might as well dive in.

Here’s the key, and this isn’t exclusive to not just to Masked, Winged and Hidden: Composition matters. If you have a strong enough core to your song, you can play it on near any instrument and have it shine forth. The good news is that Nahadoth’s songwriting shines. It straddles the delicate line between ambient and more formally structured songs, and it’s pretty thorough-composed, to boot. I can get really sucked into these tracks – I’d somehow managed to convince myself they were especially long even though they mostly hover around 5-6 minutes outside of interludes. Nothing here’s especially complex, but there’s more than enough content to keep songs from getting too repetitive. Even the more ambient songs have enough subtle variations to keep things engaging. It’s not a hard thing to incorporate, admittedly, but the craft is always appreciated.

As much as I gush about the importance of compositions, the dungeon synth instrumentation is what makes Nahadoth itself, as opposed to… let’s say a black metal band, or a neoclassical chamber music act. Dungeon synth can include a diverse set of sounds, but Masked, Winged and Hidden goes all in on its fantasy vibes. Most of the instruments are keyboarded in some fashion, though there’s some live accordion parts (which I know are live because I’ve seen Nahadoth in concert and seen the accordion come out for the finale). The approach isn’t especially realistic sounding, but it certainly doesn’t need to be. Besides my own occasional affinity for these sounds, Nahadoth is also pretty good at mixing them together for effect, which helps contribute to the melancholy, wistful moods that permeate this album. It’s not the most dungeony dungeon synth, as absurd as that must be for you to read, but it’s a cohesive approach and another one of the album’s strengths.

Anyways, I don’t know enough about the genre to say if this is a good introduction, but it’s definitely been a good time, and it’s helped pique my overall interest in the genre. It’s not that far off from my usual electronic influences, but a few changes in the right places can make for a drastically different product!

Highlights: “Falling/The Need”, “No One Fears It As They Should”, “Traveled All This Way To Be Denied””

Captain Beefheart – Safe as Milk (1967)

Here’s an admittedly less difficult album. Before making shockwaves with the experimental Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart befriended Frank Zappa, had a few brushes with mainstream fame, and put out this relatively accessible chunk of psychedelic and somewhat experimental blues rock. There’s something about this era of mid-late 1960s music (early “classic” rock) that feels orthogonal to what I’m usually looking for out of my listening rotation, and this so-called Magic Band in their earliest incarnation seems stranger still, even though the music they’re playing is far more accessible than their later material. But that’s not the strangest thing about Safe as Milk – the uncanny bit is how Captain Beefheart managed to debut with a straight up dirty old man album.

It starts with the production; this isn’t exactly the highest budget recording. Everything’s audible, but the reverbs are weird, the volumes of various instruments keep changing between tracks, and the highest frequencies are lost amongst the ephemera of the 1960s. It’s a bit of an adjustment from the guaranteed pristine or at least intentionally lo-fi sounds of the present, and it’d be anachronistic at best of me to fault Captain Beefheart for not having recording technologies that hadn’t been invented yet, but it does make everything just that much grittier. Sometimes, though, that fits perfectly. Case in point – “Dropout Boogie”, which is this cursed gem of psychedelic garage rock with nasally vocals and lyrics capturing that individualistic to a fault and entitled Boomer mindset that’s causing so many problems these days. Absolutely fucked vibes*. I love it!

The more I think about it, the more I get out of the filthy side of this album. It’s just a bunch of rockers joining in on the psychedelic ferment of the era! I’m guessing if I ran into these guys on the street in 1967, they wouldn’t hesitate to hit on me (I’m pretty sure this is the premise of album opener “Sure ’Nuff ’n Yes I Do”), but the tunes are fun, as long as they keep the intensity up. The ballads here are hippified, saccharine nonsense. Some of that sneaks into the main material, which I guess is pretty expected for this era, but our rocker friends aren’t nearly as proficient in that artsy vein as for instance, the Beatles were. No, Don’s experimentation eventually gave him a path more suited to his talents, but it took him a while to get there.

Still, I’m feeling a lot better about Safe as Milk than I was expecting to. Not sure what that says about me.

Highlights: “Zig Zag Wanderer”, “Dropout Boogie”, “Electricity”, “Plastic Factory”

*I’m pretty sure I’m too old to use “vibes” without at least some irony.

Autechre – SIGN (2020)

Is SIGN just Oversteps II? … probably not.

Read more…

Re-Review: The Berzerker – Dissimulate (2002)

There’s a couple of records I’ve attuned to over the years out of a vague sense that they’d scare the normies. The Berzerker is excellent for that – simple death metal/grindcore songs performed at maximum velocity with a tinge of industrial precision. A few blastbeats and growls are sufficient to fill their hearts with terror and mine with joy. Turns out that only goes so far. As a result, Dissimulate twenty years on has to rely entirely on its merits to keep my attention. That being said, I’ve still got an affinity for loud, fast, aggressive music, so perhaps this maximum speed limit monotone snare audition‘s got some life in it yet?

Dissimulate sets the mood nearly immediately – fifteen seconds separate you from the blasts of album opener “Disregard”. From there, the album is lightning fast, monotonal, and percussion-heavy to a fault – the electronic percussion (a human-performed electronic drumkit from one Gary Thomas, to my understanding) nearly drowns everything out other than the vocals. It’s definitely a velocity thing, since Dissimulate (reasonably) trends more intelligible in those accursed moments where the percussion slows down. But does that really matter? This isn’t a particularly complex album; there’s some tricky interplay between vocals and drums, and the actual riff length is longer than I’d expect, but ultimately Dissimulate plays things fast and lean. If you want more intricacy at these BPM, you’ll want to search somewhere else.

As for how I feel about it? Despite the march of time, I still get some pleasure from the idea of scaring the so-called normies with aggressive music. But I also enjoy the precision and violence that The Berzerker brings to the table here. That industrial flavor mixes in very nicely with what would otherwise be a pretty generic and limited deathgrind recording. That’s probably where Dissimulate fails in the long run, though. 34 minutes of constant aggression with little in the way of dynamics (outside of “more drum hits” and “not quite as many drum hits”) is a lot to ask for. After a while, everything just starts to mash together into noise. I want to say that the second half of this album is weaker than the first (fun cover of “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” aside), but the the overall similarities make it hard to actually tell. With that in mind, Dissimulate probably works better in the era of shuffled playlists, where you can interleave the perfect quantity of berzerking™ into your listening rotation of choice, or indeed trollishly surprise your non-metalhead friends with random blasts of violence. Just don’t do that too often, lest it cost you your comrades.

Highlights: “No One Wins”, “Death Reveals”, “Last Mistake”

Machinedrum – Vapor City (2013)

Turns out my facial feminization surgery era had a soundtrack. My previous experiences with Machinedrum here on the blog have been glitchy, but full of hip hop swagger. Vapor City is a different beast entirely. Perhaps the influences are the same, and perhaps the cities collection connection remains, but the mood is smoothed out and chill where Urban Biology brimmed with nervous energy. I guess a decade can change a lot of things! I, for one, am a dramatically different person than I was at 20, and Invisible Blog has also evolved. On the other hand, I can also recognize the contours of my future self within my past, and so it is with Machinedrum.

That’s how I came to believe in the continuity of Vapor City. The opener (“Gunshotta”) sounds vastly different than Urban Biology‘s first track (“Cream Soda”, bifurcated into two tracks as that it is), with its emphasize on bass and lo-fi vocals. Things also feel more ambient – not that Machinedrum’s ever been particularly narrative in my experience, but Vapor City‘s much more likely to find a groove and settle into it for a while. The formula remains, though – even if the vocals aren’t nearly as chopped, they’re looped and used to build crucial song architecture. You also get the typical mix of slowly evolving synthesizer grooves and fast, intricate percussion, though the juxtaposition isn’t quite as intense here. I haven’t listened to enough Machinedrum to say if this is a universal, but it’s definitely present on these two.

Where Vapor City ends up excelling is in its ambience and its mood. These were pretty strong on Urban Biology, but that album has more of a balancing act between its glitchy swagger and its soundscapes, and a devotion to noise and abrasion that’s just not present here. Here, it’s really easy to get swept along for a ride down the album’s metaphorical streets. “Gunshotta” might be a relatively sparse opener, but the rest of the album fills out with lush chord progressions and dense instrumentation. Whether it’s dark and brooding (to be honest, this album isn’t usually dark), or bright and sunny, you’ll have a lot to chew on and digest. This is definitely the kind of album that rewards a repeat listener. It might not have all that many distinct progressions, but everything’s just immaculately crafted.

In short, it’s another IDM album that pushes (some of) my buttons and rewards my listening. I wonder if we’ll ever see any Agargara remixes of this one?

Highlights: “Infinite Us”, “Center Your Love”, “Seesea” (🥰)