My first exposure to this album was its second track, “Ponderosa”, and the little drum loop after the intro exemplifies one of the strengths of this album – its ability to find samples in strange places and make good use of them. Adrian “Tricky” Thaws was an early member of Massive Attack who drifted away and became a respected trip-hopper in his own right. His debut makes an interesting comparison to Mezzanine, although MA’s album before that might be a better match chronologically. Either way, the two albums play with meaningfully different approaches and come out sounding dissimilar despite common ancestry.
First of all, Tricky’s reliance on Martina Topley-Bird as a primary vocalist (his own contributions are usually more support-oriented) helps unify the tracks on this album. This is important primarily because of the combined emphasis on sampling and diversity of sources. I feel like Mezzanine‘s samples work towards a common aesthetic more effectively than the ones here, but I wouldn’t necessarily say strong theming was a concern here. Either way, Topley-Bird’s performance is an album highlight – this album would be an unknown if such a crucial element did not work. Her inflections add textural meat to these tracks, and if there’s anything trip-hop needs, it’s meat on its bones (read: substance).
Another source of substance here is found in a hint of genre mixing. Tricky has apparently made statements about trying to escape the trip-hop label this album saddled him with, but even here there’s a bit of experimental noodling. Most of the outside influences seem to come from alternative rock records, so this doesn’t reach Ulver on Perdition City levels (or, to push into familiar ground, Gargoyle or Sigh levels). There are some notable sections of droning guitar chords that often are the first to come to mind when I think of this album, perhaps most effective on “Black Steel”. Ironically, that track is a loose cover of one by Public Enemy, but the vocal and backing changes render it a very different experience from the original. The vocal approach of Tricky proper also comes to mind, as it’s primarily quiet and brooding; definitely an interesting choice given his apparent musical roots. One exception to this is the limited dynamics – it was a problem on Mezzanine, but it’s less of a problem here given the vocal contrasts and sampling variety. Not having listened to the works of Massive Attack that do feature Tricky, I really can’t say if he helped push dynamics on their earlier work, but it hypothetically could be the case.
More generally, Tricky and the rest of Massive Attack could be sides of a coin; this album has overall better vocals and a more varied soundscape, but lacks coherence over long distances. After Maxinquaye, Tricky apparently pushed more into the experimental aspects of his sound for the reasons I mentioned earlier, for better or worse. I do like my share of experimental weirdness, so I might end up listening to (and possibly reviewing) those in the future.
Highlights: “Ponderosa”, “Black Steel”, “You Don’t”
I subscribe to Encyclopedia Metallum’s view that Tool is not a metal band, but instead an alt-rock band that occasionally delves into the ‘progressive’ label. Outside of the musical tools they took from bands like King Crimson (which you’ll learn about if you’re willing to read this entire review), Tool seems to rely on making relatively complicated arrangements from relatively simple, sparse musicianship. That general approach is good for coherence over long periods (an example of this succeeding is A Blaze In The Northern Sky by Darkthrone), but if done wrong, it doesn’t make for entertaining listening. Either way, the record sales make Tool out to be a sort of alt-rock messiah, so it’s worth understanding what they did and why so many people like it.
One thing I’ve noticed about Ænima is that it has a large dynamic range, but songs tend to focus primarily on the edges of such. In other words, lots of quiet sections and lots of loud ones, not much in the middle. Transitions between volume levels are also abrupt, which is frequently played for contrast, although verses tend to be quieter than choruses. The fact these songs have verses and choruses is also worth mentioning, but also important is the amount of content bridging them – at some times (like “Eulogy”), it almost takes the form of a second set of verses and chorus interleaved through the first section. Even shorter songs here employ these techniques, which results in Tool having a very melodramatic sound. While all the band’s members put on capable and musically varied performances, I still think of Tool as a heavily vocal/lyrics driven band. Maynard James Keenan appears to exert a heavy influence over the tone of this band’s recordings, and his actual performance on Ænima is definitely charismatic. There’s a lot of bitter, spiteful sounding content on this album, apparently due to the various band members’ desires to shock and frighten. It occasionally gets pretty funny, too – I particularly enjoy how “Hooker With A Penis” ends with Maynard calling for us to buy his new record.
I mentioned significant similarities to King Crimson here – Tool seems to occupy a sound mixing the compositional approach of the 1980s/Adrian Belew fronted lineup of the band with the 1970s/John Wetton lineup’s aesthetic tendencies. This is obviously not a 1:1 matchup, but the taste for extended compositions and time signature experimentation did make an impression on me in both cases. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that KC’s 1990s lineup formed because its members noticed the spawn they had birthed unto the world and wanted to one-up them. King Crimson (even on Thrak, the album that idea lead to) tends to be more elaborate, with more technical instrumentation, more nuanced dynamics, a greater variety of lyrical topics, etc. Tool’s other influences are ones I am less familiar with, but I presume they’re somewhat wide-ranging – they do carry on the “shock-rock” tradition of so many ’70s and ’80s bands to a degree, amongst others. They probably also listened to a bunch of heavy metal and alternative rock albums, but that’s probably not as much of a revelation to the average reader of this blog. Either way, Ænima does represent a fusion of these many traditions. Due to its commercial success, it may have pushed millions of listeners to further explore genres of music that they might not have been exposed to otherwise. If I hadn’t pushed deep into metal and prog before listening to this album, I might’ve done so as a result of it. That, if anything, should be a marker of its success in fusing tropes, but whether or not you can say Tool belongs to any one school, at least on Ænima… …is an ordeal.
Highlights: “Eulogy”, “46 & 2″, “Die Eier Von Satan”, “Ænima”
You know what? Let’s keep the ’70s binge going. King Crimson has exerted a massive influence on my listening habits… and perhaps some on my composing habits as well. They pushed me simultaneously towards progressive rock and heavy metal, and I can safely say I have listened to more of their discography than people that haven’t listened to as much of their work as I have. That almost means something.
Starless and Bible Black lands square in the middle of what is usually considered King Crimson’s golden age. The band made free improvisation a major part of their sound in the mid-1970s, and that is particularly emphasized on this album. Much of it, in fact, is constructed from (slightly edited) live recordings from the band’s concerts. Some of the simpler, more orderly tracks were constructed in a recording studio, but this remains something very close to a live album except for its basis in original material. However, Starless and Bible Black‘s improvisations are unusually coherent (if not necessarily orderly) given how they were constructed from nothingness. There’s two keys to this – first, the aforementioned editing, but secondly and more importantly, the instincts of the musicians. Percussionist Bill Bruford and bassist/vocalist John Wetton play a major role in providing solid backing for the rest of the band to play over, although they’re not afraid to occasionally disrupt that role. Ironically, “Trio” showcases Bruford doing absolutely nothing and earning credit for “admirable restraint”; the result is a fairly noncharacteristic and soft ballad.
Even in their improvisations, King Crimson does not stray too far from typical rock and jazz sounds, but on this album (along with its predecessor and successor), they reach decibelage and drama levels comparable to a great deal of early heavy metal music. This, however, is mostly at the edges; Starless and Bible Black is also a very subdued album at times. Its dynamic range is perhaps to be expected given its genre, but some of the extremes (such as “The Mincer”, which is soft and foreboding) are particularly interesting, as they often shade into significant dissonance and other things that press my musical buttons. Still, the final song on this album (“Fracture”) serves as an excellent climax – it wraps up everything this incarnation of the band strived for in a neat, 11 minute package, and should be considered a career highlight for everyone involved in its production. I have strong feelings about it in particular; I think it was what sealed me as a fan of the band. I also managed to get the ‘Stealth Legend’ achievement in Audiosurf by playing Ninja Mono with it, but that’s another story. Even on its own, it would be worth the price of admission. However, this album does have a lot to offer to progressive rock fans, especially those in favor of King Crimson’s ‘improvisatory’ period.
Highlights: “Lament”, “The Night Watch”, “Starless and Bible Black”, “Fracture”
For better or worse, much of Over-Nite Sensation is either based in fairly ‘standard’ 1970s rock tropes, or the equivalent funk/soul records marketed along racial lines. Major jazz-fusion influences remain, although compared to other Zappa works there aren’t many overt classicisms. Either way, this record is generally considered (along with its successor, Apostrophe) one of Frank Zappa’s more accessible. Furthermore, it saw some reasonable degree of commercial success, reaching #32 on the Billboard pop charts – a figure that meant more back in the 1970s than it does today.
Over-Nite Sensation really, dramatically excels in its solos to an extent that the progressive rock surrounding it is rendered green with envy. For this album, Zappa was able to get his hands on huge quantities of guest musicians, most notably Jean-Luc Ponty (who’d only a few years before released an album of Frank Zappa covers), and the Ikettes featuring Tina Turner. Most of these musicians had plenty of experience in jazz music going into this; combine this with Zappa’s traditional, heavily through-composed approach and you get an interesting contrast, to say the least. Furthermore, I’d say Jean-Luc Ponty’s electric violin solos are the best of an already distinguished bunch; his choice of chord progressions seems most appropriate for the compositional display on here.
The key to understanding much of Zappa’s early work (outside of sound collages and extended pieces) is that he often alternated between using pop standards and more complicated works; Absolutely Free provides an example of this. On this album, however, the two are often fused. The local jazz influence is probably to blame, since that genre allows for lots of complicated improvisation within what potentially is a very simple method for constructing songs. In comparison to Zappa’s 1960s work, though, the pop on display isn’t based in doo-wop or folk rock – I presume Frank Zappa (or one of his session musicians) was listening to a lot of funk and soul records at the time and enjoying them, and then furthermore trying to extend the formula. While the songs here are often guitar and bass driven, there’s plenty of brass stings, and the frequent presence of Turner/Ikette vocals to push the aesthetics. The only real exception to this, ironically, is the first track (“Camarillo Brillo”), a rather countrified excursion for Zappa; Edgard Varèse it is not.
Describing Over-Nite Sensation as a product of its times seems accurate… but not particularly useful, as most musical recordings are not made in a vacuum. Still, the album’s musical palette may render it more topical and less “timeless” than other Zappa works. However, this also potentially means fans of the constituent genres (jazz fusion, funk, soul, etc.) might get particularly enjoyment out of this recording.
Highlights: “I’m The Slime”, “Fifty Fifty”, “Zomby Woof”