Sepultura – Morbid Visions (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mekong Delta – Wanderer on the Edge of Time (2010)

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The funny thing about time is that, for whatever reason, it progresses in a direction that I perceive as “forwards”. Wanderer on the Edge of Time hearkens back to a period where I was actively following the metal scene, which makes it hard for me to believe it’s been out for 6 years already! Compared to some of the… iffy material Mekong Delta has released at times, this album at least has the advantage of modernity – less expensive digital recording and better knowledge dissemination makes it easier for today’s metal bands to develop their ‘sound’, so they can spend more time on writing good compositions. That’s how it works, right?

Wanderer on the Edge of Time, if nothing else, is certainly a much slicker and better produced album than anything Mekong Delta put out during with their first vocalist (Wolfgang “Keil” Borgmann), and it has the benefit of sounding much fiercer than the band put out with their second vocalist (Doug Walker). At its best, it successfully merges the strong points of both these approaches and therefore represents a modernization of the band’s approach. Traditionalism aside, this is at least a tempting formula, especially since the Keil era of the band is (Music of Erich Zann aside) rife with poor production and mixing.

The end result is nicely dynamic and contains a great deal of musical ideas that have presumably made their way into at least my older compositions, but the songwriting falls short in some important ways. One problem is that there’s too much repetition. Given that the actual songs are quite short, you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem, but it turns out that Wanderer on the Edge of Time is trackinated in such a fashion that a significant amount of its runtime is given over to miniature interludes that, at best, should’ve been incorporated directly into the tracks surrounding them. These often serve as an excuse to recapitulate material, which I’m aware is likely taken from the great book of Western classical tropes. Still, this is a pet peeve of mine even when you take into consideration how much filler this adds to the album. It essentially turns a couple of strong, albeit fairly isolated tracks into one less coherent megasong, and I definitely think Mekong Delta works better in more discrete chunks. On its own, this shouldn’t be as much of a weakness as I’m making it out to be, but since this album succeeds on all its other levels, I can’t help but find it extra problematic.

Henry VIII’s aspirations aside, roses tend to have thorns, music tends to have flaws, and while Wanderer on the Edge of Time‘s artistic choices don’t rob it of its coherence and skill, and furthermore despite everything haven’t ruined it for me, I can’t help but dwell on the negative.

Highlights: “The 5th Element”, “The Apocalypt”, “Intermezzo”

Satan – Court In The Act (1983)

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While Satan’s debut predates Michael Jackson*’s contributions to the band, Court in the Act is still one of the most influential and popular albums of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It had the fortune of coming out just as people were beginning to notice the faster and more aggressive parts of the movement actually existed, and if the band hadn’t spent half the 1980s changing their name (because apparently they didn’t want to be associated with stuff like Venom and Slayer), it’d be even more famous than it already is today. Compared to earlier recordings from the scene, it far more closely resembles the speed/power metal explosion of the 1980s. Iron Maiden this isn’t… although without Iron Maiden and the like, this probably wouldn’t exist.

History aside, Court in the Act showcases its share of ambitious songwriting, although it’s a pretty low budget production. The recording, while intelligible, has this cavernous, reverb drenched quality that you could argue gives it a bit of a ‘live’ sensibility. To be honest, I prefer my mixing more immediate. It’d be especially helpful given Satan’s clear technical ambitions – in a move that set something of a band precedent (at least based on 2015’s Atom by Atom, which is a great pleasure to listen to and my main inspiration for uncovering this band’s roots), Court in the Act showcases some creative and intricate riffing in ways that weren’t very established in 1983. As a species, we’ve had over 30 years to pilfer from this repository, and I’m sure it’s been done over and over.

The rest of this album’s elements are more conventional; as I said in the intro, this album was from the only example of its subgenre, and the overall approach should be very familiar to anyone versed in early speed metal. Satan takes on less distortion and velocity than, for instance, contemporary Metallica or Jag Panzer, but they’re still recognizably a speed metal band. There’s a few other trends that are worth noting in this context. Perhaps most notable is Brian Ross’s vocals; his clean tones and occasional shrieks are easy to source, but while important, they’re less emphasized than what a generation of power metal bands would start doing immediately after. It’s also worth mentioning that even though the riffcraft is consistently interesting and varied, it doesn’t completely define (or overwhelm) the album with its character, and the “cool” riffs are bridged by more conventional albeit still appropriate material.

So while Court in the Act might not have anything as recognizable to the masses as a “Thriller” or “Smooth Criminal”, it rightfully deserves the praise it receives from metal listeners. While Satan has never quite conquered the planet and ushered in an apocalypse, this debut proves they had the chops to do so, and in the mean time, the band’s members have participated in many other bands – Blitzkrieg, Skyclad, and Raven are probably the most prominent.

Highlights: “Trial by Fire”, “Blades of Steel”, “Break Free”

*Well… a Michael Jackson. Not the famous one who recorded Thriller.

Riot – The Privilege of Power (1990)

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I used to use this album’s cover as a background image for my PC. This may have mistakenly lead me to believe I’d already written about The Privilege of Power. Stranger things have happened here on Invisible Blog.

The legends and sagas foretell that on The Privilege Of Power, Riot builds upon the speed/early power metal sound they’d adopted on their previous album (Thundersteel), but also makes forays with the help of Tower of Power into what, for want of a better term, we’re going to call “pimp metal” (which is almost as good a name for a non-genre as “burp metal“). This is the only instance I can think of where a metal band used a funk/soul type horn section to back themselves up, and it directly inspired me to add some brass samples to one of my own tracks back in 2014. You know this album has to have some value based on that, right?

The brass elements here are actually a bit sparser than the buzz would have you believe; they only really play a significant role in two tracks (“On Your Knees” and “Killer”), and are limited to brief stabs and accents elsewhere. In short – The Privilege of Power leans more on its metal side, and in particular on the talents of the band’s main vocalist Tony Moore. Skilled vocalists aren’t exactly rare in the world of power metal, but it’s still good to hear that Moore contributes strong vocal melodies to the content here. The rest of the band, though, while similarly skilled at their instruments and capable of writing good metal music in a way that admittedly doesn’t lend itself well to this blog’s format… vacillates on the songwriting. It’s a problem of similar scope to what I was complaining about last Sunday with Xibalba, but the issue here is the complete opposite. Riot excels at writing fast, vibrant, especially metal oriented songs, but falters on the ballads, which are as sugary as they are generic. I’ve heard far worse, but they come off more as an attempt to pander to a Nielsen-selected pop/rock listening audience than as valuable (if slower and softer) contributions to the album. Another recent comparison comes to mind in the form of Gargoyle, who figured out how to successfully incorporate normal rock into their music, although it took them a few albums of effort.

Luckily, when Riot stays away from the torch ballad Kool-Aid, they do very well for themselves in the USPM ecosphere. Songs here aren’t especially complicated, but I did notice that this is one of those rare cases where aesthetic shifts (read: sampled/sound collage interludes) actually add to the experience. That at least gets peoples’ attention. However, you should definitely stay for The Privilege of Power‘s entertaining riffcraft and songwriting.

Highlights: “On Your Knees”, “Killer”, “Racing with the Devil On A Spanish Highway”

Xibalba – Ah Dzam Poop Ek (1994)

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Nowadays probably known as “Xibalba Itzaes” in most regions due to the efforts of a recently formed and similarly named American band, this band was… most likely influenced by contemporary Norwegian black metal, at least on an instrumental technique and aesthetic level; they even wore the trademarked corpsepaint at times. Nothing new there; Xibalba’s selling gimmick is presumably their influence from Mexican (particularly Mayan) mythology. Toss out the folk interludes and locally sourced instrumentation and it might not be so obvious, but the band’s ability to incorporate this sort of thing without overwhelming the rest of their formula is certainly a sign of skill, and part of what drew me to listen to this one in the first place.

P.S: Part of it was also the title. My sense of humor, as I’ve said before, is so refined and classy that it drinks champagne out of a monocle.

Leaving such sophomoric humor aside, Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s music arguably takes after Darkthrone and other sorts of trebly, blasty, but not particularly fast or violent black metal bands. In its more basic moments, that substyle often directly resembles an exaggeration of its own influences (’80s “first wave” black metal, earlier atmosphere oriented death metal), although Xibalba isn’t always that direct, since they are after all a generation further removed from that style. Outside of their folk traditions, Xibalba doesn’t add anything to the formula, but they importantly know how to write coherent black metal. There are some exceptions – the lead in track (“Furor Antiquus”) doesn’t really capture the band’s strengths; it comes off as undeveloped for having about the same density of ideas as the rest of the songs unnecessarily stretched out. There’s also the 9 minute potato chip munching interlude towards the end (“Bolontiku Vahom”), which might make you hungry not only for salty snacks, but also some variation – Xibalba doesn’t drone well, although to be fair, it is difficult to pull off well.

Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s strengths and weaknesses are cloned from its influences, for better or worse. When Xibalba shows some restraint, they write strong, dynamic black metal with a good ear for melody and song structure. They even pull off some of the more subtle strengths of their idols at times, like vocal variance; that’s a sign of careful study. Unfortunately, Xibalba wasn’t able to follow up on this material with more at the time; they released a short split in 1996 and the tracks from that are usually stapled to the end of this album, but that’s about it until very recently. Still, this album is definitely a local/regional landmark, and it holds up well in comparison to the works of more famous circles.

Highlights: “In Daemones Imperium”, “Sac Ibteeloob Cab”, “Sign of Eastern War”

 

Gargoyle – Tenron (1993)

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I want to say that Gargoyle’s 1993 album Tenron is a mellower and more traditional/power metal influenced take on the Gargoyle sound than its predecessors. Is that accurate? Maybe. Its relatively muted production and obligatory funky soul song thing (“Doumushishubai”) would insist this is the case, but given that Tenron also showcases its share of more intense signature tracks, you could make the case that it’s still a logical step forwards for the band; like Aratama before it, Tenron intensifies through its duration, it refines Kazuhisa “Kiba” Tochihara’s distinct half-growled but half-sung vocals, and it has its share of genre bending wackiness… although this time, just maybe, Gargoyle’s work is more clearly based in rock music?

What makes this album hard to judge from a historical perspective is that it’s more cohesive than previous Gargoyle recordings. Most notably, Tenron‘s stylistic departures have production standards closer to those of the local metal. Whether this is a result of Gargoyle’s guitarists turning down their distortion a bit, or playing more heavy metal and rock riffs everywhere, it’s definitely one way to tie otherwise unrelated works together. My tastes in Gargoyle still run towards the heavier side of their discography (This basically means Furebumi, although Future Drug comes close), so while I’m not always a fan of the mellower sounds on display here, the successful integration of metal elements into the other half has its advantages.

The flipside of this is that Gargoyle also started applying their J-rock lessons more directly to the task of writing power/thrash metal. On previous albums, these ideas were more discrete; here the mixture makes for something of a candy coating that’s sometimes, but not always appropriate (“Shinpan no Hitomi, Unimo Fukezu”). At some point, Gargoyle started rerecording older, heavier songs and occasionally performing as “Battle Gargoyle” when they wanted to ditch the balladeering, so I can imagine that they eventually found the increased melody and consonance often on display here constraining. This is the main weakness of Tenron – while it didn’t take Gargoyle long to successfully incorporate goofy genre bending into their sound, it took them quite a while to really pull off their pop sound. In fact, I’d say 1995’s Natural was probably where that half of the band coalesced; there’s some room for debate, but enough of the pop here is good enough that I’m glad they kept at it.

Ironically, what I’ve found is that the supposedly more accessible Tenron took some acclimation, compared to the instant appeal of its predecessors. If it hadn’t been for its existence, though, I might not have plumed the depths of Gargoyle’s discography…

Highlights: “Amoeba Life”, “Doumushishubai”, “Gekka Ranshou”

 

 

Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)

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I first tried to explore Metallica before I learned to appreciate albums as a whole, and thusly I ended up hearing the title track of Master of Puppets over a year before I heard the rest of the album… which admittedly, I was quick to explore once I found its predecessor to be so mind-opening at the beginning of my initiation into metal.”Master of Puppets” is… not entirely unrepresentative of the various twists and turns in the album it lends its name to, but its breadth of musical concepts stands in contrast to the rest of the tracks, which while extended at points are still more terse and focused. Beyond that, it’s a chance to ride more lightning.

As a refinement as opposed to a reinvention of its predecessor, Master of Puppets formalized Metallica’s speed/thrash arrangements for some time. “Formal” actually is the word you’re looking for, since Metallica put significant effort into plotting out their songs at this point. There’s a much greater emphasis on dynamics and atmosphere this time, so when it’s not being blatantly metallic, Master of Puppets has its share of mellow or at least midpaced moments which generally work, considering that the songs are designed to support them and make them appropriate. The key is that unlike on its successors (And Justice for All, Death Magnetic, etc), Metallica still had some shreds of restraint to keep them from stretching the content here into overly lengthy songs.

Now, given that A. Metallica had already been comprehensively out-extreme’d in the past, and B. Metallica was holding back the heights of their velocity compared to said past, this album’s peaks of violence aren’t as satisfying as they could be. Some of them (mostly “Battery”; its intro is basically the 101 of how to do a lengthy buildup in a metal context) win points more for being successfully elaborate than for any technical wizardry they might accidentally display. It does sort of point to a path Metallica could’ve successfully taken had history unfolded differently – basically becoming a heavy metal/progressive rock fusion band like latter day Iron Maiden or earlier Rush, except this time slightly heavier and more interested in cheap beer. Describing Metallica’s historical downfall, though, takes me too far into the realm of cliches for my own tastes. The fact that so many metal bands deliberately and knowingly imitated Metallica’s formulas speaks well of their influence. I still prefer Ride the Lightning, but Master of Puppets is a close and worthy second place.

Highlights: “Battery”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Damage Inc.”