SikTh – The Future in Whose Eyes? (2017)

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This one almost passed me by, but for a stray lyrics search for one of the tracks off Death of a Dead Day. I don’t remember the context of that search, but it lead me here, and to a new age of post-reformation SikTh, so I must’ve done something right! Further listening, though, would reveal that 11 years had subtly, but irreversibly altered these Anglos. The first sign was the departure of one of the band’s vocalists (Justin Hill) in favor of a new guy (Joe Rosser). SikTh has traditionally had very distinctive vocalists, so it left me wondering if that wouldn’t somehow be diminished here.

About the aforementioned pivot – The Future In Whose Eyes? is a mellower, more melody-forwards take on SikTh’s traditional mathcore/djent sound. Tempos have eased down, and there’s more clean singing to boot. Furthermore, Mikee Goodman seems to like the new guy enough to keep the vocal interplay going, but it’s been reshaped into harmony singing more times than I care to list. This actually reminds me most of what happened to Alice In Chains when they went on hiatus and came back with a new vocalist. Bands streamline themselves like this occasionally; mind you, it actually works here since melodic, consonant songwriting was (and still is) one of SikTH’s many strengths.

The problem with streamlining everything is that The Future In Whose Eyes? loses much of the songwriting nuance previous material had. Most of the songs here stick to the same A-B-A-B-bridge-maybe B again structure. It’s typical pop songwriting, and in its defense, it’s generally fine. My complaint isn’t so much that it’s here as that it’s a step back from what earlier incarnations of SikTh attempted. Case in point from the band’s debut – “How May I Help You?” is an absolute work of genius – a strange little narrative about an underperforming boy named Rodney tied together by harsh, angular metalcore, flexible vocals, and a song structure changes to illustrate every moment of the song. So much musical language packed into less than 4 minutes! SikTh paid a harsh price when they shed that level of mania. In terms of career arcs, I have more mixed feelings about whether this was the best approach. Sure, The Future In Whose Eyes? is most likely easier for new listeners to get into, but there’s less meat on these songs’ bones to keep them coming back.Who knows what sort of back-catalog conversion rates they might lose? Would that even happen? I sure as heck don’t know – I’m already having enough fun and hijinx marketing my own works!

Okay, maybe I’m too bitter for my own good. This album is still pretty good. What hurts, per se, is this feeling that we’ve lost something truly special.

Highlights: “Vivid”, “The Aura”, “Cracks of Light”, “Ride the Illusion”

Borknagar – Quintessence (2000)

folder.jpgMolested this ain’t. Borknagar has functioned, for all intents and purposes, as a chaotic attractor for the artsy and arguably pretentious reaches of the Norwegian black metal scene. At the very least, Quintessence fits alongside its contemporaries. As a result, we have yet another unwieldy fusion of extreme and progressive metal! On one hand, Quintessence is alarmingly gimmicky, but on the other, it’s a fun romp with some neat musical ideas worth exploring further. Musicians usually get to that point by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Borknagar’s sound, though, while idiosyncratic at the best of times, is more focused.

As far as I can tell, Borknagar had settled into their signature sound by the time Quintessence rolled around – black metal infused with ’70s rock and early metal worship. The latter is arguably more a function of the instrumentation – these songs are decorated with analog synth and psychedelic guitar effects in a way that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It seems like they’d discarded the folk trappings of their earlier material at this point (Molested’s Blod-Draum included). For what it’s worth, trying to shoehorn those in as well might’ve ruptured the entire recording. Even without the folkness, this album surprisingly reminds me of Elegy. Both albums seem to tap into the same aesthetic, even if Elegy is more of a depressive, beflanneled take where Quintessence is almost futurist.

To be honest, repeated listens to Quintessence make me think it’s got something of a split personality – you could cleave the obvious black metal and more conventionally musical prog sections off into their own bands if you really wanted to. It’s just that I rarely if ever hear both sides in parallel. The key to this, as I understand it, is the vocals. For much of this album, we hear clean singing and ghastly shrieks at the same time – in fact, performing the same lines in complete unison. It’s certainly a unique and bold choice for vocals, though both styles get a few solo sections as well. I’m not sure how well it’ll go over with the crowds, though, since it’s an especially dense addition to what’s already a wall of sound production. There’s a couple points where, at least in my opinion, focusing on one or the other (in particular, ICS Vortex’s talented tenor) would’ve served these songs better. “The Presence is Ominous” is a great example of this – clean up the vocals, and you’d have a better fit for the more epic/heroic sound it aims for. Maybe someone can hunt down the multitracks and test this?

At least for now, we have to deal with Quintessence‘s idiosyncracies. Mind you, I like that style, but I can see how you could end up hating this recording for its strangeness.

Highlights: “Ruins of the Future”, “Colossus”, “Genesis Torn”

Slayer – Show No Mercy (1983)

folder.jpgIt didn’t take long for Slayer to dissociate themselves from their earliest, most obviously NWOBHM/speed metal inspired sound, but in the meantime, we got their debut. Show No Mercy is unmistakably an early extreme metal salvo, but it’s also the clearest link to the band’s primordial influences that you’ll get… unless you can find primeval bootlegs. I only got around to listening to it after I’d attuned myself to the band’s later, most famous works, as well as some foundational early ’80s metal music (Venom, Iron Maiden, etc). As such, I ended up with something of an archaeological take that I wouldn’t have experienced had I been the right age to appreciate Show No Mercy when it first came out. Not bad for a recording cobbled together from hellfire and respiratory therapy, eh?

Show No Mercy‘s tracks, at times, feel like a summation of all the major trends in the early ’80s metal underground. You had the drunken rambling and shock factor of Venom and buddies, though Slayer was already more coherent and ambitious at this point. You had a sense of pop songwriting and melody that brings Iron Maiden or Judas Priest to mind. You even got some of the punk intensity from the NWOBHM overseas – if you can draw a straight line from Motörhead to Slayer, it means you were paying attention. The problem with describing the album this way, mind you, is that you have to listen to so many antecedents. Not great in an attention based economy, am I right?

I guess the takeaway here is actually that while Slayer already showed signs of the approach they’d perfect on later albums, they hadn’t completely gelled on Show No Mercy. Everything is looser and a bit less focused compared to even the Haunting the Chapel EP that’d pop up 6 months later. The earlier metal influences make for a brighter and arguably more accessible take on early thrash metal – Metallica’s debut makes interesting counterpoint, given the more proggy approach they’d iterate on throughout the ’80s. The one thing Slayer undisputably has at this point in their career (you know, besides… attitude) is the more melodic, hooky, and even anthemic approach to songwriting. “Tormentor” and “Crionics” come to mind with their focus on Tom Araya’s conventional singing and consonant riffs. Slayer hibernated those for a while after this album, but embryonic power metal fans probably remembered those soaring heights when they weren’t rocking out to Jag Panzer or Fates Warning.

…Odd tangent about USPM aside, Slayer’s debut, while far from technically perfect, has its own unique charisma that especially shines through when it’s not helping invent the deeper, more extreme half of the underground.

Highlights: “Evil Has No Boundaries”, “The Antichrist”, “Black Magic”, “Crionics”

Behind the Bitmask has released!

Behind the Bitmask - Cover Illustration.jpgIt’s finally time. Behind the Bitmask is available to audiences around the world! Writing this book has been quite the ordeal, but books usually are.

I started working on Behind the Bitmask in November 2016 for NaNoWriMo. Despite the various stressors in my life, I was able to churn out 50,000 words that month, though it took some pre-NaNo planning, including a quick character sketch that might not be canon at this point. The rest of the book took much longer, though; my life grew substantially more event-dense throughout the the years until I reached my current lifestyle. Even then, Behind the Bitmask is almost twice as long as my first (deadname) stab at self-publishing. Hopefully it’s better written, given how much writing I’ve done since then.

Behind the Bitmask is an urban fantasy/sci-fi novel. It’s the story of Charlotte Metaxas, a mild-mannered accountant turned high priestess of a technology worshiping coven in the middle of mid-2000s Minneapolis. When her master is killed by a cruel warlord who then turns her life into a living hell, she goes on a quest to get revenge that takes her across a magical underworld struggling to adopt to the influx of humans trying to colonize it.

This post, for what it’s worth, is less of a conventional post and more of a list of marketing resources that will hopefully enable you to purchase the book if you’re so inclined. Expect it to evolve over time.

KEEP UP WITH BEHIND THE BITMASK:
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PURCHASE BEHIND THE BITMASK:
Amazon (Kindle)
Bookbaby (Paperback)

 

Ails – The Unraveling (2018)

folder.jpgI’m letting Bandcamp recommend music to me these days. It worked with Critical Defiance, it worked with Virvum, it mostly worked with Master Boot Record… and Ails is also on Bandcamp! I suspect the beginning of a trend. Ails specifically came to my attention because, like Misconception, I was perusing Bandcamp’s lists of new/popular/etc recordings, and I found myself looking at the cover art. It’s… explodey, to say the least; visually interesting enough where it counts, and more importantly, interesting enough to get me to listen to a track. Things kind of unraveled from there, and now I’m faced with the question of whether my decision to listen was worth it.

The Unraveling is, to put it simply, a black metal album, though that doesn’t capture all the nuance. It’s often slower and more melodramatic than the stereotypical Norwegian sound, it has this fascination with triplets that borders on fetishistic, and it showcases a few excursions into folky instrumentation and clean singing. However, it never commits fully to any of these substyles, for better or worse. This gives it the dual edged sword of being fairly diverse within its genre while also coming off as particularly unfocused and rambling. Each song is a meandering journey, even though Ails isn’t as aggressively ambient or atmospheric as most of the recordings that I label as such. At the very least, Ails is late enough to the game that they can learn how to pull from all the varieties of black metal at the same time – I believe this, in particular, is how they’ve managed to achieve their holistic sound.

Recordings like this are probably a dime a dozen at this point, but The Unraveling has some attributes to make it particularly interesting. The broad horizons allow Ails to explore plenty of musical ideas throughout their generally extended songs (though the focused aggression of “The Ruin” offers a different take). There’s also something subtler about the shape of this recording that interests me. Whether intentionally or not, Ails seems to have stumbled into a brighter, perhaps even heroic take on the typical black metal sound. Maybe it’s a throwback to older styles of metal, maybe it’s something new. The intersection of clean vocals juxtaposed with an otherwise abrasive and somewhat lo-fi recording in particular tipped me off. At the very least, it’s a way to approach these musical ideas without going full post-rock/Agalloch, so that’s at least got to count for something.

Even then, I kind of need to be in the Agalloch mood to pull this one out. The Unraveling is more aggressive than its Cascadian counterpart, but it seemingly comes from the same sort of mind.

Highlights: “The Echoes Waned”, “Mare Weighs Down”, “The Ruin”

Martyr – Hopeless Hopes (1997)

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Before Martyr became the leading supplier of extreme metal screensavers, they were one of the many ambitious and innovative death metal bands to arise from the fertile soils and sweeping forests of Quebec. Hopeless Hopes, as far as I understand, codified the style they’d employ throughout their career –  tech-death with varying levels of melody as required. Good to get those decisions out of the way early, I suppose. Martyr’s studio albums are similar enough in concept and overall quality that if you enjoy one, you’ll probably enjoy the rest. On the other hand, subtle changes in your composition strategies can have surprisingly large effects on what your end product sounds like, and Hopeless Hopes is a great example of how that works in practice.

There’s two differences from Warp Zone worth pointing out. First of all, this album relies more on Martyr’s melodic prowess than what followed. Songs here are more conventionally consonant in ways that sometimes remind me of contemporary melodeath, though the songwriting is far from the verse/chorus pop styled work I’d expect from those scenes. As usual, I’m a sucker for melody, so my brain was quicker to glom onto this material. Hopeless Hopes also has longer songs than its predecessor as a rule, which is more of a mixed bag – that affects the good songs and the bad ones alike. As mentioned, small changes, but it makes for a slightly more accessible recording, at least by the standards of death metal. It might actually be good that Hopeless Hopes doesn’t plunge as far into technical performances – there’s less opportunity for its songs to get trapped in a lengthy aside. On the other hand, when Martyr does slip up here, they sound empty – the monotonous chugs of “Ars Nova” come to mind, even when the rest of the track captures the better side of Martyr.

Listening to this only makes me wonder if I should’ve just reviewed the entire Martyr discography as a homogeneous block. The difference between the first two albums, at least, is minimal, and I feel like I’m grasping for straws by trying to delve deeper into such superficial differences. If anything, that should reinforce my hypothesis. Either way, I’m a fan of Martyr – their songs might be difficult to perform and take a while to digest, but it’s worth it for their musical density and cohesion. I’m just not sure that I’ve got much say in the matter, especially since the band’s frontman (Daniel Mongrain) went on to join Voivod…

MASTER BOOT RECORD – INTERRUPT REQUEST (2017)

cover.jpgYou know, everyone who bought a 486 for their IBM PC got ripped off – they didn’t get a music producing AI out of it. So goes the story behind MASTER BOOT RECORD – an old PC making metaltronica (i.e, I’m not the only one) supposedly of its own will; pay no attention to the experienced musicians behind the curtain. In contrast to whatever the heck I’m doing in Planepacked, MBR feels more like archetypal synthwave music amped up until their only way to make it faster and more aggressive is to simulate guitars and blastbeats. And in that sense, it works – MBR’s INTERRUPT REQUEST is written like a metal album (with a bit of a neoclassical flair at times, too), but it’s got just enough pop hooks to distinguish itself in an overcrowded market.

So despite the realms of aesthetic potential, INTERRUPT REQUEST‘s palette is very focused; perhaps even monochrome like its cover. Think of it as a focused ensemble, rendered in synths, but easily transferable to a traditional metal band if necessary. One corollary (not obligatory, but still) is that this album’s completely instrumental; I’m not sure what kind of vocals would be appropriate here. MBR does vary up their tempos and song structures, which helps enormously. Given how obligatory that is, it might not be saying much, but it’s still worth pointing out. As a result, you get a good mix of styles and musical ideas, from the upbeat synthwave of “SYSTEM CLOCK”, to the thrashfest of “SCSI”, to the theme and variations of “NETWORK”, and so forth.

Oddly enough for a nominal metal album, INTERRUPT REQUEST has a problem with its individual riffs. I mentioned the neoclassical tinge this album has – it’s deeply embedded in many of the IRQs here, and it presents itself primarily as a vaguely Baroque, harpsichord solo flavored approach to tonality and riff construction. Needless to say, this doesn’t really fit with a constantly driving (if occasionally doomy) metal music strategy. Riffs and chord progressions based on harmonic minor scales are tricky – at the very least, if you overuse them, it makes your music sound amateurish, like you’ve studied music theory just enough to perform the basics but aren’t sure how to go further. This is the part of the review where I admit my snobbery and love of dissonance have probably spoiled my ability to appreciate this sort of thing. I hear Jute Gyte makes microtonal black metal. Maybe I should go listen to that instead.

…but this take on metaltronica at least pushes enough buttons that I’m willing to listen to it in short, intense bursts.

Highlights: “SYSTEM CLOCK”, “KEYBOARD”, “SOUND BLASTER”, “NETWORK”