The Black Mages – The Black Mages (2003)

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It’s been a while, but in the mid-late 2000s, vast improvements in internet connectivity and emulation meant I spent a good chunk of time playing various installments of the Final Fantasy series. Therefore, when I started listening to metal music, I was very susceptible to this sort of music. Boss battles? Relatively heavy guitar? Lots of keyboard and synth lines? Even now, those are easy and effective ways to grab my attention. By now, the archive binging readers are probably asking me how my opinion on this album has evolved in recent years. The answer? It really hasn’t.

You see, I first listened to this album in the middle of 2009, when my ears had essentially acclimated to the sickest of the sick in extreme metal. Unlike some of the albums I first experienced in that year, I didn’t go into this looking for a gateway. We might as well get it out of the way – The Black Mages is a fairly traditional work of metal, with some obvious diversions into progressive rock styled content that admittedly was already present in the original tracks. It does not go up to 11 at any point, as much as my attuned ears would enjoy such. Still, it’s not exactly a wimpy album; it’s well produced in the traditional metal sense, with more than enough bite to its production to sell the aesthetic. Back in the day, I heard a lot of complaints about the fidelity of the keyboard symphonics, but given some of the other things I listen to, it doesn’t bother me one bit. The instruments still sound better than the originals.

From a composition perspective, this album mostly functions as a straight reenactment of your favorite iconic Final Fantasy themes (up to the date of release). The fidelity is better, and the intensity is greater, but if you’re familiar with the originals, you won’t be surprised by most of what you hear. There are a few dramatic alterations, like the slowed battle theme from Final Fantasy VI, the electronica elements in “J-E-N-O-V-A”, and whatever happened to Final Fantasy II‘s feature; in my defense, I never played FF2(J) for more than 5 minutes or so, so my understanding of that original is somewhat limited. Judging the value of these additions and subtractions is hard primarily because the context in which I listen to these tracks is a bit different from how I would experience them in their respective games. In Final Fantasy V, for instance, I’d be more focused on Gilgamesh’s qualities as a boss than the music which backs him (“Clash on the Big Bridge”). Ultimately, I think the general result is that I hold these adaptations to higher standards than the originals.

I still enjoy and value The Black Mages’ debut. To be fair, it does have some questionable creative decisions at times, but as a remix and enhancement of Final Fantasy’s already adept music, it’s an overall success. Besides, I don’t hold it against other musicians for having different opinions on songcraft than I do, so no point in grilling this album too much for the same.

Highlights: “Clash on the Big Bridge”, “Those Who Fight Further”, “Dancing Mad”

Dismember – Like An Ever Flowing Stream (1991)

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If I understand Dismember’s career arc, and that of your average Swedish death metal band, most everyone lavished their attention on Like An Ever Flowing Stream‘s (then) extreme guitar distortion and overall ugly production. However, this album’s harsh, bossy exterior belies the care and craft within. Dismember writes a mixture of short, punchy songs and extended mini-epics and keeps the songwriting density even higher than the sonar density. I’ve heard that they stopped doing this after this album, but I’ve never heard those albums. Like An Ever Flowing Stream, however, is a fine lesson on how to write packed songs all on its own.

The stereotypical “Stockholm” sound that was in relative vogue in the early 1990s is simple enough in concept – death metal that leans heavily on the hardcore punk/d-beat side of its ancestry, at least as filtered through the preceding years of extreme metal. Instrumentally, LAEFS isn’t a shining example of technical wizardry; it’s certainly competent and professionally performed enough, but the emphasis definitely is not on instrumental complexity. I’d even go as far as to say it isn’t really on the production, either. Sure, it’s got the buzzsaw guitars and is reasonably intelligible, but it’s also quirky in ways I can’t quite explain, and in ways that a more mainstream studio for 1991 probably wouldn’t consider. One thing I’ve noticed is that when the guitars tremolo, there’s this faint mid-pitched vibration in the background; not exactly a negative or positive, but it is noticeable if you pay attention.

The reason we remember Dismember  (or at least dismember them) is that they were very gifted in their niche. As I’ve mentioned before, working in this style requires a deceptive level of care and attention to song structure. Dismember has more leeway due to writing more elaborate songs, and in particular due to their subtle but effective use of harmony, but without an almost instinctual understanding of what order to arrange their musical elements in (I can’t use the term ‘serial’, because it refers to something else), Like An Ever Flowing Stream simply wouldn’t stick in the way it does. Another point I frequently mention – when you’re working with a very limited subset of musical ideas as Dismember is here; when every song must be ugly death metal with little room for aesthetic variation, what you end up doing with your tools is exceedingly important.

In short, you should be glad that Dismember succeeded the way they did here. Like An Ever Flowing Stream is yet another brief formative work of death metal, but it spends its time well and will reward repeated listens in ways that lesser works will not.

Highlights: “Override of the Overture”, “Bleed For Me”, “Dismembered”

Devin Townsend – Transcendence (2016)

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This review is only for Transcendence proper. I might give Holding Patterns a feature of its own someday, though.

Devin Townsend is, as previously established, a musician of many styles. Transcendence isn’t without precedent, but its approach is markedly different from anything else of his that I’ve covered on Invisible Blog. My writing on this subject has mostly focused on his more aggressive material (with a few diversions into other stuff, like the straight up pop-metal of Sky Blue). Transcendence, though, is generally pretty laid back and chill, at least by comparison. Buzzwords of choice aside, Devin’s latest isn’t entirely free of intense moments, but the more interesting dichotomy here isn’t quiet vs loud, but instead how it walks a thin line between Sky Blue style pop and extended progressive rock style compositions.

The closest analogy you could make without heading out of Devyspace is that Transcendence develops some of the ideas we saw on Devin’s early solo albums, up to about 2001’s Terria or so. This album even starts with a remake of “Truth”; while it hews fairly close to the original, this new arrangement is slower, cleaner, arguably less chaotic than the initial 1998 version. Make no mistake of it – even though the amount of layered instruments is similar to your average DT album, the production style threw off my initial appraisal.

The other major gimmick on this album is that it contains significantly more songwriting collaboration from other members of the Devin Townsend Project. Devin remains the lead songwriter, though, so nothing here sounds completely alien. Maybe if his compositional range was narrower, this would pass with more commentary. Between that and the prog-styled songwriting, though, even the obviously pop structured songs seem to go through more distinct sections and otherwise unexpected transitions than usual. Other than that, I can’t say that this has as significant an effect on the songwriting as I was initially expecting, and that Devin most likely still plays the leading role. Guess we don’t have to worry about strange coups in Vancouver.

I digress – yet again this is an album I accept without second thought because it’s by Devin Townsend, and it isn’t completely outside the realm of what I expected. Transcendence has all the amenities you’d expect from his recent work – multiple styles of songwriting (sometimes even within the same song), quality vox from Anneke van Giersbergen, and a high level of instrumental to go alongside everything else. Sometimes, more of the same-but-slightly-different is a good thing.

Highlights: “Secret Sciences”, “Higher”, “Transcendence”, “Offer Your Light”

Atheist – Unquestionable Presence (1991)

maxresdefault.jpgAs an obscure blogger on some corner of the internet, it is my sacred duty to claim that people don’t notice when their favorite bands subtly change. I want to say, based on what I’ve read, that Unquestionable Presence is a relatively minor evolution from Atheist’s debut (Piece of Time). Unfortunately, that’s yet another statement I can’t confirm, because I haven’t given the first album the intensive listening I would need in order to do so. The narrative, though, might be useful to some of you – Unquestionable Presence is unquestionably more jazz-oriented than its predecessor, showing off some rhythmic and harmonic advances that weren’t common then. Make no mistake of it, though – it is still a tightly structured metal album with little room for improvisation or other stereotypical jazz elements.

Were it not for the jazz, Atheist’s marketing would probably buzz about the speed/thrash/death metal fusion that underlies their sound. It’s a nebulous sort of extremity – Kelly Shaefer’s vocals are plenty distorted and maniacal, but more in the high pitched sense you’d expect from a band like Destruction. The instrumentation here’s also pretty fast and percussive, but the emphasis is way more on intricate instrumental interplay and technical wizardry than you’d expect if you didn’t know about the jazz influences. One nice bonus is that the bassist (Tony Choy) plays a big role in shaping this band’s sound, playing his share of distinct slapped basslines and boosting the rhythmic power of this band.

All of this musicianship is packed into 32 minutes of dense and straight up angular compositions. Atheist works through more distinct song sections on this album than your average radio musician does in their entire career… well, either that or I’m deliberately exaggerating, but it does mean there’s a lot of distinct sections to these songs. The transitions are consistently abrupt, which definitely fits the chaotic mood, even if I’m not necessarily a fan of such in general. The sheer musical density does mean this’ll strain your brain and energy reserves more than your average half hour blast fest, at least if you try to analyze as you go.

As far as I’m concerned, Unquestionable Presence doesn’t have a lot of hooks to draw in a casual listener, but there’s enough substance that it will draw in those who give it the study it deserves. In my personal experience, the fuse on this one wasn’t as slow to fire as the one on Onward To Golgotha (which still holds some sort of local record),  but it still took me a while to appreciate this, especially compared to more synthy takes on the jazz-death formula like those of Cynic and Pestilence.

Highlights: “Unquestionable Presence”, “Retribution”, “An Incarnation’s Dream”

NaNoWriMo Preview – An Interview With Terminal

As part of my planning for National Novel Writing Month 2016, I wrote a brief sketch for one of the characters I was tossing around; I figured it’d help me get a grasp on the setting. A few details about what you can expect from the final product:

  • It’s set in the same universe as “Deal with the BSDevil“; a world where hell is always around the corner and where the forces of technological development have placed chaotic magic in the service of humanity.
  • The initial draft is proceeding at a breakneck pace. I am actually ahead of the NaNoWriMo targets, with over 20,000 words in my manuscript alone. This is by far the longest sustained burst of creative writing I’ve ever done; exceeding my rate of output at DMU as well.
  • The final product will almost certainly take longer to release. NaNoWriMo sets a modest target of 50,000 words by the end of November, but I expect to expand on those afterwards, as well as making whatever revisions I feel necessary for the end product.

Read on after the “Read More” tag.

Read more…

Frank Zappa – The Grand Wazoo (1972)

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Shortly before he became an over-nite sensation, Frank Zappa released this album of mostly instrumental big band jazz fusion. Compared to what came a year later, it’s definitely closer to the “jazz” side, with more improvisation and sprawling compositions built to hold layer after layer of improvisation until the entire recording is coated in jam session. There’s also “Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus”, in case you want absolutely need a more compact to break up the album, but for all its merits, it is a clear statistical outlier. There are arguably a great many outliers on this album, but there’s more to understanding and appreciating music than just subjecting it to dimensional analysis.

Even if the approach is less tailored for Top 40 radio stations, The Grand Wazoo shares much of its DNA with the more accessible era of Zappa style radio rock that it preceded. The musicians are top notch, as always, and the looser structures give them plenty of time to show off their soloing skills. As far as I’m concerned, their continued excellence on Zappa’s recordings is more of a testament to the man’s recruiting abilities than anything. Unlike on Over-Nite Sensation, though, the ensembles that play here (different on each track) are more balanced, so I’m not sure to what extent I can say any one musician particularly stands above the others. You could easily make a case for George Duke, though, who performs keyboards and apparently demonstrated a then-unknown way of recording a Rhodes electric piano on some of the tracks here.

Deciding what to focus on besides technical proficiency, though, is unusually difficult. The Grand Wazoo, surprisingly, has its share of poppy hooks, even if a lot of them are concentrated in the introductions and vocals of its tracks, but of my admittedly limited Zappa experience, this album is probably the most arcane experience I’ve had so far. Or is it the especially dissonant and disconcerting “For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitchhikers)” predisposing me to think so? Listening to The Grand Wazoo in its entirety gives me something of a compilation vibe from how diverse it is, and in general the material here is more challenging than, for instance, Hot Rats, which is broadly in a similar style yet easier to pick up and play. Maybe I should come back to this review when I’ve listened to more contemporary jazz music.

The alternative is that I’m overreacting, and that people who are at all attuned to Zappa’s work (at least his work from the early ’70s) will most likely enjoy listening to this one as well. It is definitely not more of the same, though.

Highlights: “The Grand Wazoo”, “Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus”, “Eat That Question”

Blut Aus Nord – Ultima Thulée (1995)

Ultima_Thulee-Cover_front.jpgAn album straight out of the world of dreams (wait, you mean to say there’s only one?). As far as I know, Blut Aus Nord never fully recaptured the misty, ethereal, and otherworldly atmosphere of Ultima Thulée. Even the album’s immediate successor favors a more structured and conventionally musical approach. I don’t intend that to be a slight against Memoria Vetusta, which is a quality work in its own right and better executed in some ways, but if black metal was the key to unlocking the occult (and it isn’t; more on that after today’s review), this album and not its successor would almost certainly be the source of all spiritual power in the world.

Ultima Thulée, despite being the work of a French band, theoretically takes after the ‘Viking’ themed black metal of Scandinavia. Considering that the band’s from Normandy, that’s surprisingly appropriate. The mix is raw, trebly and windswept, but not to the point that it becomes unintelligible. Artificial keyboards play a significant role in shaping these songs, to the point where they even occasionally take precedence over the guitars. This is a pretty stereotypical sounding album – its genius is more in how these elements are forged into a cohesive whole. It’s hard to put an exact description on why, to be honest – if I had to summarize, I’d say that the dense mix is responsible for at least the dreamlike aesthetic.

It’s the songwriting, though, that really pushes this album into alien territory. Ultima Thulée‘s songs are mostly lengthy (although one synth interlude stops just short of four minutes) and ramble on, with transitions that I would probably reject on other albums. Here, though, I can suspend my disbelief, much like a vivid dream can proceed in a fashion that would come off as insane and nonsensical were I fully awake. Despite their odd turns, the songs are also backed up by a strong sense of consonant melody. While the band emphasizes this more on the next album, it’s still very important here, and it helps keep the album interesting where other approaches (like a more blatantly ambient form of songwriting) would probably fail. Other elements fade into the winter by comparison – while the other instrumentation is crucial to holding this album together, it’s the main riffs and leads that hold my attention the most.

I can’t guarantee that you will enjoy this album, since it does take some getting used to, but it is certainly a personal favorite. Maybe not scary enough for Halloween, but winter is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere…

Highlights: “The Plain of Ida”, “From Hlidskjalf”, “Till I Perceive Bifrost”


Remember how I mentioned that black metal was not the key to gaining occult powers? National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow, and for the first time in my life I am participating. That’s all the spoilers you’re getting on my intended project for now. I expect to continue Invisible Blog in the mean time, but don’t be surprised if you see a greater portion of writing-related posts.