How I learned to love arrays – featuring Tracker2D

Tracker2D Publicity Shot 11Recently, I’ve been working on a huge update for my pet programming project. Since development is still pretty steady, this probably isn’t much of a surprise – recent commits have included a teleport tile that can send bugs to arbitrary points on the canvas, improvements to the style of menus, limited UI customization functionality, and so forth. I spent much of the last week overhauling Tracker2D’s audio ‘system’ by more comprehensively exposing the HTML5 Web Audio API’s various audio convolution and filtering features. This has been quite a task, and I thought writing about the process would be interesting as well.

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Rainbow – Rising (1976)

folderRising is a classic of early heavy metal… well, half of it is, at least. A lot of it is either too poppy or progressive rock oriented to really qualify as such, which arguably puts it in good company *cough* with such bands as Queen. Rainbow, though, arguably has more ‘metal’ cred, being the brainchild of Deep Purple alumnus Ritchie Blackmore, further boosting the career of Ronnie James Dio, and so forth. It also satisfies my nerd cred with lots of keyboard parts and was probably especially influential on what would eventually become power metal some years after its release.

Every metal dilettante will slowly, loudly explain to you that many of the ’70s “metal” bands did little to separate themselves from their blues/rock origins; they are certainly correct about Rising. Listeners will note some of the lengthy songs, but they’ll also hear that the band relies heavily on instrumental jamming and solos to fill out their song lengths. The songs that don’t are basically ’70s rock, which you may or may not have much of an appetite for. At times, it’s more keyboard and vox driven than guitar driven, most likely since Blackmore handles all guitar duties here. Compare to other metal albums that came out in 1976 (mostly Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest, which interestingly is also a heavily prog-inflected album), and someone’s probably going to end up questioning Rainbow’s metal credentials.

What ends up happening is that Rainbow is most “metal” when in their progressive rock moments. Even this isn’t too unheard of, although generally it’s more attributable to ‘heavy’ musicians exploring elaboration and instrumentation than anything else. The two epics (“Stargazer” and “A Light In The Black”) are shoved to B-sides, but besides their jam-induced lengthiness, they also feature Dio’s most intense vocal performance on the album and similarly enhanced guitarwork from Blackmore.  “A Light In The Black”, in addition, is very fast by the standards of the time and genre, and its instrumental interlocking is reminiscent in style of what even more technically skilled bands would do later. The lesson here is that even in the mid-70s, metal had already diverged into, if not necessarily full-fledged substyles, meaningfully different approaches; Rising still lacks the lurching heaviness of, for instance, Black Sabbath, but its high fantasy themes and emphasis on showy, virtuoso performances still found their way into the nascent genres.

The lack of full commitment, though, does mean you’ll have to accept a certain amount of old style pop rock to fully experience the album.

Highlights: “Tarot Woman”, “Starstruck”, “Stargazer”

Walter M. Miller Jr – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)


After a nuclear apocalypse, Catholic monks are Earth’s only hope for rebuilding a technological civilization in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Well, not really, since humanity eventually recovers, but you get the idea. The subject matter, along with my recent reading, does mean I have trouble not comparing this one to recent Neal Stephenson (and it’s always possible there was a direct influence). However, since Miller’s work predates what I have in mind by about 50 years…

This book is organized into three short novellas, each separated by hundreds of years, and each one was initially published separately. Emphasis is ultimately placed on the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz, holed up somewhere around what was once Utah and dedicated both to spreading Catholicism and preserving technological knowledge from before the apocalypse. We get a few glimpses into the progress of the outside world as well, from the restored Catholic Church in New Rome, to the nomadic hordes of the Great Plains, to hints of what’s been going on in Eurasia since the war. The actual worldbuilding is fairly light, but if someone devoted enough (and insane) wanted to flesh the settings out, there’s more than enough to get started.

Despite this, it’s actually the later sections of the book that pay off most effectively. The first section of the book (“Fiat Homo”) is honestly kind of a slog. The main character of this section spends much of his time fasting or fretting in a desert landscape that is apparently still overrun with mutants and reactionaries before eventually devoting himself to a megaproject involving a fortuitous find in a nuclear fallout shelter. By the eras of later sections, though, the Order of Saint Leibowitz interacts more with the world Miller has built in the distance, as their goals of spreading knowledge and piety come into conflict with temporal powers. By those points in the book, it might simply be a matter of the subject matter appealing more to my interests; if you’ve been reading my scattered book reviews (and reading some of my literature), you’ll know that I’m something of a history nerd and understand why I latched onto the parts of the book I did.

Needless to say, this book deserves its status as a classic of the genre, at least for the latter half, which gets quite poignant at times, especially in the climax of the third section. To explain why would spoil it, but the buildup to that point is worth your time as a reader. This isn’t something I can say about much media; never underestimate the power of a poor beginning to sour an entire experience, although I would argue that the alternative (a strong introduction that leads to a weak conclusion) is more depressing in the long run.

Kreator – Coma of Souls (1990)


Kreator drew a lot of flak for tinkering with their formula in the mid-late 1990s, but even a preliminary listen to Coma of Souls made it apparent that this process had its origins much earlier. To be fair, while it represents a step back from the… extreme aggression of its predecessors, it’s still recognizably a speed/thrash album. It’s quite polished, too – would you expect anything less from a band as big as Kreator in 1990, which was arguably the peak year of the thrash metal movement? Keep in mind this was the year of Seasons in the Abyss (Slayer), Souls of Black (Testament), Rust in Peace (Megadeth), and so forth, and you’ll be able to apply the analogy to Kreator themselves.

Like all of the aforementioned albums, Coma of Souls tends to favor refinement over pure aggression; even extending to its lyrics, which are more contemporary and less violent than before. It’s a relatively small adjustment, though, since even at their most ‘brutal’ (Pleasure to Kill and Terrible Certainty), Kreator incorporated bits of extended songwriting and dynamics that have simply become more prominent. The real casualties here are the signature Kreator riff – as a general rule, the band throws out their distinctive mix of consonance and dissonance and instead simply write in a basic consonant monophonic mode that pretty much everyone worth a dime in the metal industry can do. To be fair, they still do a decent job with it, but I still miss the alternative.

Regardless of the cause, this is still a somewhat normed Kreator. Between its less abrasive guitars and lack of golden age Ventor, I’d say it has trouble reaching the peaks of violence of its predecessors except for the fact I’m not sure how hard they tried to match such things. You could ask Noise Records, but given their willingness to release plenty of (relatively) underground metal back in the 1980s, they probably weren’t specifically the ones driving this trend. If I was fool enough to bet money on the nature of the past, I’d go as far as to suggest that the band’s new guitarist, Frank Blackfire was responsible. He did bring a measure of norming to Sodom’s contemporary output, and as a main guitarist probably got quite the say in what Kreator did with their time. That his style aligns with ongoing trends at the time is worth noting, at the very least.

Anyways, Coma of Souls is arguably the work of a smarter and more practiced Kreator, but more often than not I am drawn to the band’s earlier, filthier works. It’s still a reasonable addition to your collection.

Highlights: “When The Sun Burns Red”, “World Beyond”, “Terror Zone”

Future Sound of London – Dead Cities (1996)

folderSo I’ve written on the British EDM boom of the early-mid ’90s on several occasions. This may count, although if it does, it’s pretty late in the movement. Given the content of this blog, I’m no stranger to people carving out artistic niches in the music industry to varying levels of commercial success, but Dead Cities is kind of a weird recording, even in the context of previous FSOL albums – half ambient with excursions into frantic breakbeats and whatever “We Have Explosive” is (besides very much of its time; alternatively, besides a grammatically incorrect phrase).

If you got the impression that this record is fairly varied in terms of sound and approach, you guessed right; Dead Cities is a veritable carnivalscape. You can distinguish to a degree between the darker first half and arguably more experimental second half, but even within each side, mood swings and asides are the norm. If there’s one thing that ties the varied material on Dead Cities together, it’s definitely the rhythm section, although ironically it does so by constantly changing and tripping over itself and generally not being composed of basic four-on-the-floor beats. The percussion ends up very prominent in the songs, which makes for an interesting counterpart to some of FSOL’s previous work (Lifeforms, which wasn’t particularly beat and percussion oriented). I can’t say whether or not this would’ve continued on previous releases since my ability to decipher their career trajectory falls off after this.

What I’ve seen of discussion on this album tends to call it “post-apocalyptic”, generally referencing the first few tracks. As a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures), Dead Cities doesn’t exactly respond to this classification, but I can hear what people might be referring to. I consulted my own opinions on this – they told me the sheer quantity of lighter content and mood on here probably places this centuries after any cataclysmic events and at best puts the listener they belong to in the mindset of decaying ruins and archaeology. Whether or not this matches the authors’ intent is beyond me. I could do some research – for instance, I could look at the artbook that came with some editions of the album, but I don’t think that would negate any previous mental imagery.

Anyways, music possibly written to complement artistic installations is one thing, but in the absence of such installations, it has to be judged on its own. Dead Cities has taken much time to analyze and dissect on a conceptual level at least, and I’m of the opinion that music has to have some merit if allowed such contemplation. That’s the most you’ll get out of me, suckers! Now if only the internet had enough of a physical metaphor that I could jump out of a window and magically fly away…

Highlights: “We Have Explosive”, “Quagmire” (giggity), “Glass”

Helstar – Nosferatu (1989)

folderHelstar is suspiciously similar to Manilla Road on first glance – constantly boosting the speed and intensity of their albums throughout the ’80s, falling off afterwards, reviving recently to some commercial and critical success. Then you notice they’re from Texas, and suddenly it hits you – this is a very different band with its own unique style and motivations! Helstar adds a bit of a shred flair to the standard “power-thrash” formula, making for acrobatic results and musically ornate songwriting within short, punchy songs.

I’d go so far as to describe this as sort of a neoclassical metal album, although it doesn’t go as far into that ‘genre’ and its stereotypical (Yngwie) excesses (Malmsteem) as it could. This element is still quite prominent, though – most obviously, the guitars play ornate, but generally consonant riffs; often shaped like scale progressions and mixed with the stereotypical speed-thrash strum to create an interesting and unique effect. The other half of this is James Rivera, who sings (and exclusively sings; as a dedicated vocalist that doesn’t pull double duty on other instruments)  counterpoint to his instrumental backing in a fashion remniscent of John Arch era Fates Warning. His tone could use some work, but you can’t fault him for his ambitions, and his contributions are understandably a big draw to the content of Nosferatu. The other musicians play a supporting role, adding some variety to the album but not particularly reaching my attention. It doesn’t help their cause that the album’s production is a bit lacking, while everything is clear, some more budget could’ve lead to a more intense recording that does the thrashy bits justice.

The actual songwriting on this album makes a good case for the ability of a strong concept to drive musicians to new heights of ability and organization. Compare the first half to the second half; the first is a conceptual work based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while the second half is merely a collection of unrelated tracks. I’m of the opinion that the first half generally has stronger songwriting, pulling on stronger and more coherent ideas and linking them more effectively, even between tracks. While the other half has some strong tracks, I don’t think as much effort went into its content, and they tend to sound a bit awkward in comparison. The counter to this general would be the existence of many strong non-concept albums, but when your album is named Nosferatu, anything too unrelated to vampirism seems a little peripheral even at its best.

Still, Helstar offers the listener a well constructed and planned collection of songs on Nosferatu, and the extra speed and thrash influence supposedly makes this unique in their discography, and possibly your collection if you don’t dwell in the overtly neoclassical side of metal.

Highlights: “Baptized in Blood”, “Perseverance and Desperation”, “Swirling Madness”

Magma – Attahk (1978)

folderAttahk is the sound of a Magma allegedly more influenced by late ’70s pop trends such as disco, funk, contemporary R&B, with the caveat that such things (or at least their antecedents) might have played a role in shaping Magma’s initial signature sound. Does it mean anything that I can use to successfully interpret local musical developments? Not really, but it might be worth investigating if you have the resources to do so. I find that Attahk is structurally more accessible than most Magma recordings due to its shorter tracks, but otherwise doesn’t seem too out of field.

Magma does, however, end up more upbeat and manic than average. This is mostly a case of tempo; Attahk doesn’t peak as fast as some of the other tracks throughout Magma’s discography, but it’s more consistently rapid than their average album even when you allow for ballads. The condensed songs probably made it easier for the band to pull this off, but even then, the Magma of 1977 was an experienced band with a good deal of performing and gigging experience under their belts. Given that Magma spends a lot of this album exploring their “funky flow”, some velocity kind of comes in handy, although luckily for listeners this doesn’t prevent them from exploring a lot of the progressive rock ideas that permeate their discography. It does, however, mean that this album is rather less militant than something like Wurdah Itah.

That Attahk explores the excesses of the ’70s is with its ups and downs. At its worst, it results in abject filler like “Dondai”, which is a sugar-coated turd of a track for any band; I pity musicians whose entire output is in such a saccharine style. The rest of this album is better at employing some of the same elements, perhaps because they’re restrained a bit. It does result in a few particularly wacky excursions, but ironically, some of these tracks are strengthened by their oddities, like the goofy pseudo-disco of “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”. That one has a strong rhythmic section backing it up and showcases yet another strength of this era of Magma – especially virtuoso bass, which backs up skilled play with a tone that’s actually influenced my ideas about how such an instrument should sound in my own work.

I’m definitely going to recommend this album, although some prognards (hurr) might have some issues with how it’s constructed, and how it’s admittedly less elaborate than most of Magma’s work. You won’t find this to be a problem, will you?

Highlights: “The Last Seven Minutes”, “Liriik Necronomicus Kanht”, “Maahnt”