King Crimson – Red (1974)

Red is a monolith. King Crimson’s debut admittedly placed them on the leading edge of the progressive rock movement, but the lineup that produced this album (a power trio, formed by the shrinking horizons of what was once a six man band) has dramatically different goals. It just so happens this album’s comparatively stripped down; everything here is dark, moody, and sometimes alarmingly heavy for 1974 (though Red also has its share of quiet, peaceful moments). Between this and its more improvisatory predecessors, you get crucial musical DNA that’s showed up in many a prog, metal, or whatever album since. That being said, Red still holds up on its own merits; given the deluge of quality music in the last nearly 50 years, that’s a high honor.

From the lead in and title track onwards, it’s clear that King Crimson is tapping into their disciplined, orderly yet intricate side. I’ve read many a thinkpiece comparing this era of KC to modern, small ensemble chamber music. It captures some of the intent – there’s some tight musicianship, and the trio lineup is very conducive to intimate arrangements. That being said, there’s a lot more rock, jazz, proto-metal et al in Red’s DNA (RNA?) than your average classical chamber ensemble, to the point that you get one of the band’s signature improvisations in the second half of the album. Said improvisation (“Providence”) is interesting because it manages a transition from grinding horror and darkness to funk rock, especially if you listen to the extended version off The Great Deceiver. Anyways, I’ve heard improv in a classical context before, but this probably comes more from the jazz lineage. It’s an important infusion of chaos that helps strengthen the album’s identity, as well as its connections to the previous two King Crimson albums.

I also want to mention the proto-metal connection, since that’s particularly germane to my interests. One thing about the 1970s, from a musical perspective, is that metal music was slowly taking form as a recognizable style, distinct from more conventional rock. To my understanding, the difference fundamentally comes down not so much to amplifier levels or drumming or whatnot, but an emphasis at the compositional level on guitar riffs. This isn’t a great quantifier of metalness, but for what it’s worth, Red sometimes goes heavy on the riffs, and when things get dissonant, you can hear ideas that later got distilled in more extreme genres. While there’s a lot of other ingredients in the mixture, I’d say a good 30-40% of Red is metal, and surprisingly advanced metal at that. This doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run, but I definitely appreciate the heaviness, and it makes a fun comparison to their other formative contemporaries.

Don’t let the analysis get in the way of you listening to and enjoying Red, mind you. That being said, understanding its place in the evolution of popular music will help build your appreciation of the tangled web it weaves.

Highlights: “Red”, “Providence”, “Starless”

Gorguts – From Wisdom To Hate (2001)

I went into this one believing it to be a more accessible though still highly experimental counterpart to Obscura. That’s more or less the thesis of From Wisdom To Hate, and it should at the very least serve as an interesting philosophical question – how do you incorporate an angular, dissonant, and otherwise very harsh take on tech-death into a more conventional sounding album? From a blog content stance, we’re also in familiar territory due to Gorguts sourcing Dan Mongrain (of Martyr and later Voivod fame) as a guitarist. Based on those albums and their mixture of pop hooks and technical wizardry, I’d say Mongrain’s a strong choice for this take on Gorguts, and I’d go from there.

Gorguts wastes no time exploring this mediated approach. “Inverted” immediately features the dissonance and pinch harmonics that contributed so much to Obscura‘s signature sound, but it also showcases simpler, less contorted rhythms than before. I have the vague feeling song structures here are less complex than before, but if so, it’s a pretty minor difference; there’s still some pretty serpentine writing throughout. Even the production’s become a bit easier on the ear – it’s less trebly than before, even when you account for the general reduction in pitch harmonics on top of that. Each of these changes is fairly minor in isolation, but it all adds up to some serious streamlining. That I focus so heavily on this leads me to believe something here is… off.

I think the problem with From Wisdom To Hate is actually that it’s stuck in a weird liminal phase. It probably doesn’t help that Obscura has a special place in my mind. Now, I might be biased, since I learned about it pretty early in my career as a metalhead, but having something I could (obnoxiously) point to if anyone ever questioned the intellectual credentials of metal music (before you ask, nobody ever did) was a balm for my insecure adolescent soul. That being said, it’s still got an aggressive, challenging sheen to it that still appeals to me today. From Wisdom To Hate still has some of that, but it overall feels diminished by comparison to its predecessor. Now, I don’t think the boys in Gorguts wanted to just crank out Obscura II and call it a day, but I do have to wonder what they might’ve wrought going all in and producing something even more accessible than this? I’m not saying it’s the right choice, but whatever the alternatives were, it’s hard to listen to much of what actually got released without feeling like Gorguts did this better when they were uncompromising.

If you’re not like me and haven’t reserved space for Obscura in your heart, though, you might favor this one more? Up to you, really.

Highlights: “Inverted”, “Unearthing the Past”, “Elusive Treasures”

Re-Review: Exhorder – Slaughter in the Vatican (1990)

If all goes well, I’m less than a week out from seeing Exhorder perform this album live in its entirety, and needless to say, I didn’t quite give it the 2021-standard treatment back in the day. What better opportunity to explain why I’d go out of my way to see this concert in the era of endemic COVID (as an admittedly masked and vaccinated girl)? I was one of the many who discovered Exhorder through their friendship with Pantera, though back in the day this usually manifested as trve kvlt types complaining that the latter “ripped off” today’s subject. Despite everything, I’m not versed enough in Pantera for them to show up on Invisible Blog, but I can definitely vouch for Exhorder based on the strength of this debut.

As a general rule, Slaughter in the Vatican straddles the porous border between thrash and death metal. The latter is more of a composition flourish than a major part of Exhorder’s aesthetic – the riffs trend lengthy albeit monophonic, and there’s a lot of emphasis on rhythmic complexity. That being said, other death metal hallmarks (blast beats, growls, and often a lot of focus on atmosphere if we’re talking 1990s here) are more or less absent. In short, Exhorder sounds like their thrash compatriots even they often write more like the era’s nascent death metal; other bands straddling the line make a good point of comparison. The vocalist (one Kyle Thomas) is another important key – he’s showed up on Invisible Blog before – here we get him in a shouty mood. He does take time to vary up his tone and diction, which is good for things in the long run. In general, the instrumentation backing is very solid, if rarely flashy.

You might be wondering at this point why you’d go for Slaughter in the Vatican instead something faster, more technical, more tied to death metal, et al? This is one of those cases where the strength of the songwriting became clear to me over time. First, there’s a lot of digressions from pure verse-chorus; I’d go as far as to say a chunk of this album is thorough composed. This means plenty of riffs and tempo changes – between this and the heavy focus on guitar/bass/drums/vox, you have an album that prioritizes its horizontal complexity. As a general rule, these songs are structured in such a way as to create a musical narrative, which at its best even pairs with the lyrics for maximal effect! The admittedly gratuitous and hopefully tongue-in-(butt?)cheek “Anal Lust” (first recorded in the mid-80s) might be an exception…

…but anyways, the strength of the writing on this album in general makes it a worthy study. Not bad for a band known primarily for inspiring a bigger band, eh?

Highlights: “Death In Vain”, “Desecrator”, “Exhorder”

Arca – Arca (2017)

Everyone has that moment – the birth of an obsession. Today, I’d like to talk about what happened on August 10th this year, when the discourse on trans Twitter abruptly introduced me to Arca. I guess the salient point of this story is that “Reverie” catapulted me into an obnoxious Arca simp phase with its buildup from soulful ballad to straight up Susumu Hirasawa styled finale. It was probably inevitable – another transwoman (who admittedly wasn’t fully out at this point in her career) with strong ties to IDM (don’t get me started) and an ever expanding grimoire of production credits in the works of pop musicians? I’m just surprised I didn’t find out earlier!

Arca the album is a crucial milestone for the woman (Alejandra Ghersi) behind Arca the music act, as it’s the first album to feature conventional, minimally processed vox from her throat. She’s got a dark voice – usually soft and gentle, switching between chest and head registers as she sees fit. There’s a lot of falsetto on this album, and based on what we’ve learned about Arca, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was inspired by her ongoing exploration of her own gender identity. Either way, vox get to play a big role here, though there are a few instrumental exceptions. The lyrics here are entirely in Spanish, so I’m reliant on translation to understand what’s going on – ultimately, you’re listening to a very sad, melancholy album that’s just dripping with queer longing. I’ve felt this desire before, though my own experiences are very different, so I’m pretty well primed for this.

Mood aside, this is mostly an album of ballads. Tempos are typically pretty low, and they rarely go above midpaced. There are some more energetic, even abrasive exceptions to this, but if you go into this expecting maximum Arca insanity (as far as I know, that’d be @@@@@), you’ll be disappointed by the focus on vaguely ambient pop songwriting. For what it’s worth, there’s not much emphasis on verse/chorus here; the tracks are alternatively through-composed or focused on ambient noodling, sometimes without much in the way of structured melody. I guess you could say my pop classification is mostly for my own comparative purposes, since Arca is still pretty far off sonically and artistically from the radio-friendly, even clubby vibes of KiCk I or its upcoming companions. That being said, something that’s more restrained might make for an easier entry point, depending on what your preferred musical vibes are.

In practice, the part of my mind that attuned so quickly to Arca currently craves the more experimental, even hostile parts of Ghersi’s discography, but this one fills an important niche as well, and does an exceptionally good job at it, too! You’ll probably see an Arca post pretty consistently every few months for a while.

Highlights: “Urchin”, “Reverie”, “Whip” (😏), “Desafío”

Anatomy of VGM #29 – Mega Man X4 (PS1/Saturn/Windows)

In my adolescence, I went through something of a liminal period where I was bullish about the prospects of running PlayStation through emulation, but was still stuck on dialup. The solution, more often than not, was to buy used copies on Amazon. This is how I got my hands on Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy 9, and also today’s topic. Let nobody ever question my role in fueling Jeff Bezos’ dark armies of retail and cloud computing! Anyways, I’ve got a lot of Mega Man X nostalgia – I may have put more hours into the SNES titles, but X4 has a special place in my heart. I should probably try and get that looked at, though; what if it causes a clot?

Silliness aside, this is a pretty step for the X series. Capcom had plenty of titles on Playstation at this point (including Mega Man 8, which has an interesting take on the series’ music all its own), and the last X game eventually made it to the land of 32-bit consoles and Red Book CD audio, but this one pushes the envelope further. Interestingly, this one’s got a single composer again – enter Toshihiko Horiyama, who did some work on the original X and also 7. Let me be the first to thank you; your efforts keep my blogposts self-referential and loaded with links. It’s for a good cause, though, since X4 amps up production and instrumentation standards further than any game in the franchise before. While X2 came close, this is the first time any of the games has included really convincing metal, at least from a pure aural perspective. There’s still a lot of relatively gentle synth material, but the overall recording quality is also up, which is greatly appreciated.

When it comes to actual arrangements, Mega Man X4 occupies a happy medium point between simple, accessible songwriting (X1, X3) and the complex/ambitious material (7, X2) that some composers seem to favor. The average loop length is still pretty short; luckily Yoriyama doesn’t try to cram too much song into limited space. For what it’s worth, most of the melodic development is in the synth lines, and the metal part of the band typically plays a supporting role (though Double’s battle theme has noisy guitar solos and generally thrashes about wildly). If you put soundtrack duties like this in my hands, I’m going to try for more of a balance between the two, but this game came out in 1997; I was preoccupied at the time with Jump Start and other educational titles. Either way, it’s a personal preference in my own work that doesn’t especially affect this. I guess the only thing I can really say is that a few of the arrangements feel a bit scatterbrained, like they’re trying to throw in a few more phrases quickly before it’s time to loop and cede time to the rest of the CD. It’s a lot more coherent than X2 ever was, though.

In terms of “reasons Planepacked sounds the way it does”, Mega Man X4 probably isn’t quite up there with tracker music, or even some of the PS1’s wilder OSTs (Einhander and G-Darius come to mind), but it’s somewhere in the personal pantheon, and that’s a worthy accomplishment.

Voivod – Phobos (1997)

Who would’ve guessed that the second of Voivod’s albums with Eric Forrest also hits differently? Negatron was a pretty capable industrial-groove-thrash metal album, which contrasted nicely with the more accessible, alt-rock infused Voivod that preceded it. Phobos, on the other hand, harbors ambitions of crushing you underfoot. I’ve heard it described as a partial return to form for the band, and I can hear a bit of that, but it’s ultimately its own experience, one that I’m certain remains unreplicated in the band’s discography. That’s got to count for something, right?

For what it’s worth, Phobos definitely captures the key Voivod bullet points. It strikes me that main guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour was a major unifying factor in during his lengthy tenure as a Voivodian, contributing not only his own musical ideas but also mentoring early members and presumably altering their own musical outlooks. The vocalist remains different (E-Force continues to balance abrasive shrieks and dirty, rusty “cleans”, with tons of effects), but the riffs remain angular and dissonant and the overall atmosphere warlike, even apocalyptic. The production’s got more bite to it than Negatron, though it still pulls from an endless reservoir of ’90s grunge. I miss some of the more overt industrial metal nods that were on the previous album, but this is still a potent mix from which to construct an album.

With that all in mind, I’m more than happy to summarize Phobos as being Voivod’s slow album. To be fair, it’s got plenty of midpaced grooves to balance out the slow moments, just like its predecessor, but songs are consistently longer – culminating in “Bacteria”, which sprawls out over 8 minutes. It’s no “Jack Luminous”, but that’s got to count for something. At the very least, doomy Voivod is a pretty rare find, so Phobos stands out for that reason alone. While Piggy continues to bring the riffs, the songwriting here is a lot more atmosphere and texture oriented than before; this works quite well for something like the title track, or the atypically driving (for this album) “Mercury”, but seems to pay fewer dividends later on. I guess that one of the downsides of this is that outside of tempo, key, and tonality, there’s not a ton differentiating these tracks. I’d say whether you’ll enjoy it comes down to how much appetite you have for an advancing wall of groove/doom metal…

That being said, if you get me in the right mood and put the tools in the hands of a band that I trust to do a good job, you can really pique my interest. Phobos may be frontloaded (the last two tracks are great, but feel like bonus material more than a integral part of the experience), but if you’re feeling it, it’ll give you an hour of of fear.

Highlights: “Mercury”, “Phobos”, “Bacteria”, “Tower”

Re-Review: Therion – Vovin (1998)

I still think Vovin is a major improvement over the admittedly ambitious and presumably influential Theli. Some context – Therion was one of countless former extreme metal bands that tried to reinvent themselves as slicker, more commercially viable products throughout the ’90s. I don’t know what form Therion might’ve taken in the absence of this trend; perhaps it’d be more bestial? Either way, Lepaca Klifoth beforehand was consistently off its medication, and weirdly psychedelic for its troubles. Theli was certainly more polished, but the emphasis on longer songs and the vastly increased choral role made for a band that was still trying to find itself. Listeners were definitely willing to give Therion the benefit of the doubt in 1996, but my 2010-era self was nonplussed at best. Vovin, by comparison, felt more coherent, competent, even confident in the ideas it channeled. That being said, “shows improvement” isn’t automatically enough to pique my interest these days, so the question really is whether or not Vovin improves enough.

Needless to say, Vovin wastes no time in carving out its own identity within Therion’s confines. First, it’s immediately a brighter, more upbeat sounding album than the previous two. The production’s got more treble to it, and as a sign of continuing evolution, we’re immediately greeted by a live string quartet. This alone would be enough to make everything sound more glam and high budget. I’m neutral about whether this especially fits the songs on Vovin, but it does sound nice, and there’s probably some useful stuff you can learn about arrangements by studying its example. The metal side of things remains pretty basic – lots of chugging and basic riffs, but there’s some faster tempos and power/thrash influence that wasn’t here before. I like this, since I’ve got the preexisting taste for loud and fast stuff, but it’s a minor change at best.

While the instrumentation and aesthetic changes are nice, Vovin also backs these up with better compositions than before. In general, things are more varied, whether it’s tempo, instrumentation, or even just song lengths. While I miss the elaborate and more thorough-composed riffscapes of something like Beyond Sanctorum, there’s at least a better sense of how to write solid pop songs without repeating yourself too much or otherwise trying to jam together unrelated material too abruptly. The only real negative I can say is that all of these lessons were applied more effectively (though still within the melodramatic and sometimes goofy Therion framework) a few albums later (Lemuria/Sirius B et al). That being said, it’s good to hear that Therion learned from their previous experiences! Vovin has some neat tracks throughout, so you can’t really go wrong if you’re in the mood for this sort of symphonic/choral metal.

Highlights: “The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah”, “Wine of Aluqah”, “The Wild Hunt”, “Eye of Shiva”

Anatomy of VGM #28 – Earthbound (1995, SNES)

Now, stop me if my sentiments are anything other than utterly original, but… Earthbound is great. It’s a goofy little RPG hiding a few crucial moments of terror, and it has a soundtrack that mixes the pop/rock motifs of the original Mother (going as far as to include rearranged songs and motifs from that game) with plenty of experimental weirdness. The latter alone was enough to put it on my radar as an adolescent exploring a bygone era of gaming through emulation… though it admittedly took me several attempts to push through and beat the game. Totally worth it, though.

I’ve made the deliberate decision to discuss the compositions first today, which I probably should do more often due to my usual “arrangements are key” type of rhetoric. For one thing – Earthbound uses plenty of space on the cartridge to load up with instruments, making genre excursions easy as steak. Reggae beats seem to come up a lot early on, and there’s a smattering of unsettling ambient tracks even when the game’s in full-on absurdist humor mode, but in the end, we’re still relying heavily on the rock and electronic substrates for sounds. No matter the genre, everything here is consistently memorable, striking a fine balance between establishing place and setting and infecting my brain with hooky melodies or grooves. Not much to say beyond that except that it’s just consistently good pop songwriting coming from your SNES…

On the other hand, the big gimmick in Earthbound‘s music is its use of sampling. Mind you, the sound chip in the Super Nintendo fundamentally works with sampled audio; what I’m referring to here is the use of full on sampled audio from other songs, manipulated into new forms used to create entirely new arrangements. This is most obvious on the more avantgarde tracks, culminating in “The Place”, near the end of the game, which is entirely built from a repeated, distorted sample of the intro to “Deirdre” by the Beach Boys… who must be elated out of their minds to get a mention here on Invisible Blog. Now, this sort of wholesale plunderphonics can get you into a lot of legal trouble unless you pay your royalties, but despite speculation to that effect, it apparently didn’t stop Nintendo from eventually re-releasing this game on Virtual Console. Silliness aside, I can’t think of any other game on the system that uses this method; it creates a lot of fun and creative sounds and beats that you might not otherwise have.

The approach to sampling alone makes Earthbound‘s soundtrack one of the most innovative on the system, but the actual tunes make these innovations worth listening to and preserving. The music’s definitely played a role in this game’s ascent (in the west, mind you) from obscure mid-90s RPG to one of Nintendo’s most identifiable franchises… though you have to admit that Ness’s continued appearance in Super Smash Bros probably doesn’t hurt the cause.

Susumu Hirasawa – BEACON (2021)

Another Susumu Hirasawa album means another opportunity for idolatry. I mean, what can I say? This guy’s been cranking out music pretty steadily since the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure he’s not going to stop until entropy et al forces him to. In the mean time, we’ve got BEACON. I’m not as attuned to the evolution of Hirasawa’s career as I used to be, but as far as I can tell, this one is a pretty logical followup to his last solo album proper; I’d like to pull in the latest KAKU P-MODEL as well, but I still have to listen to that one. Oh well – I’ll get around to it someday.

In the meantime a few things strike me about BEACON. First, it seems to be an unusually energetic recording for Hirasawa’s mainline solo material. Tempos are faster, drum samples are bigger, vocals are faster, et al. This is far from the fastest or most abrasive he’s ever been, but it’s none the less to my tastes. It doesn’t come at the expense of dynamics, either; these contrasts are probably most intense on a track like “Disappearing Topia”, with its pleasing cycle between consonant refrain and tense bridges linked by soft keyboards. Now, I like most musicians more when they take good advantage of their sonic palette, and Susumu Hirasawa’s album is full of moments like this, but BEACON is refreshingly varied, and I am all for it.

Overall, everything does seem to be firing on more cylinders than before. More drama in the songs, more elaborate structures (though Hirasawa remains, at heart, a very lyrical pop artist), et al. One other aspect that particularly shines on BEACON is its vocals. I imagine someone has to be getting tired of me talking about the powers of the human voice as applied to music, but truly there is no escape. There’ve been a lot of elaborate multitracked harmonies on Susumu Hirasawa’s albums, particularly we move forwards, but BEACON feels like a culmination of Hirasawa’s switch from primarily backing himself with sampled guest singers to using his own vocals. There are just more parts here than before, and he’s using every inch of his vocal range, from bass to countertenor falsetto. Your girl Jess is taking some important lessons from the polyphony that will probably alter future Planepacked content, so be forewarned.

It’s possible this album just feels fresh because I’ve taken relatively little time from my first listen to get around to reviewing it. I admit to being a fangirl defending a favorite, but I do it out of passion.

Highlights: “Disappearing Topia”, “The Man Who Falls Down”, “Cold Song” (a cover version on a Susumu Hirasawa album!), “The End Of Timeline”

Magma – 1001° Centigrades (1972)

You know what? If you told me this was Magma’s hottest album, I’d probably believe you.

Read more…

Agargara – Density Function (2016)

I’ve discovered some music through watching Let’s Plays, but Density Function seems to be the first time I’ve deep delved something I discovered through those means. It makes sense, after all – it’s more interesting electronica/IDMstuff, and you should know from reading this blog that I can go for that sort of thing in a big way. Agargara is on the downtempo, ambient, and occasionally detuned side of things, so if that’s the sort of thing you’re into, this Sumerian (actually Japanese) fish might be your catch of the day! I promise I won’t make any more corny remarks this album; in my defense, I usually prefer to eat my fish smoked, on an everything bagel with a schmear of cream cheese.

It takes a few tracks for Density Function to play its hand and settle into a groove. I quickly got the impression that this is almost more of a collaboration than a solo album – 8 of the songs out of 19 total are remixes of pre-existing material in one way or another, and this cuts both ways, notably with three contributions based on the work of Travis Stewart (aka Machinedrum, whom I expect to write about at some point in the future, directly as a result of this). This is a pretty neat way to build some sonic diversity into your music. I also like how Agargara is specifically making remixes where you can recognize the guts of the original track, but the end result is contorted into their own style. It’s my own preferred style, so I’m probably a bit biased.

Beyond their frequently downtempo/IDM leanings, Agargara fires a few other nerves in my brain that I find particularly fruitful. Key point – many of these tracks are heavily jazz inflected, which here takes the form of big, colorful chords, complex breakbeats, and some very fanciful, improvisatory melodies in places. It’s good stuff – adds a lot of flavor to the actual compositions on here to match the variety of sound patches and samples. This is the sort of thing that rewards repeated listening, and I’m certain there’s nuances that I’ve yet to catch here. That being said, the arrangements here aren’t exceptionally complicated – they trend brief (~3 minutes on average) and don’t have an enormous amount of patterns stuffed into them. Make of that what you will; I’ve criticized music in the past for not developing its ideas enough, but that’s definitely not an issue here.

I guess this is another one of those albums that’s hard to be objective about. It took a few listens to sink in, but this is pretty well tailored to (at least some of) my musical tastes, and comes highly recommended to anyone who likes the electronic stuff.

Highlights: “BRKSNG.IT”, “Come Eat Me”, “Jigga Wine”, “Swell (A Grilled Remix)”

Satyricon – Dark Medieval Times (1993)

Okay, this one takes me back. When I first started listening to metal, I was pretty focused on seeking out albums that the internet considered to be classics. This was one of them. Satyricon is yet another one of those more or less formative Norwegian black metal bands that embraced values drift, for better or for worse. Back in the day, though, they were big on atmosphere and traditional acoustic instruments, to the point that key member Sigurd Wongraven occasionally had to channel his energy into more black metal/folk/ambient/medieval projects in order to keep from detonating like a thermonuclear bomb! …okay, maybe that’s more grim than the actual reality of things, but when it comes to the Norwegian founding fathers, exaggerated grimdark is the name of the game.

Anyways – Dark Medieval Times. For you to expect medievalish (in a cinematic sense) black metal is a testament to your reading comprehension. Satyricon wastes no time in irritating me with a compositional blunder – “Walk the Path of Sorrow” begins with an excerpt from Death in the Blue Lake by When (a prolific psychedlic pop/avant garde collage project) that admittedly nails a dank dungeon aesthetic. The problem comes when the song proper completely ignores every musical idea from before, essentially rendering the intro meaningless. Now, I’m admittedly very biased about this sort of thing (for an example of how to do intros well, see “Battery” by Metallica), but either way, it doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. Satyricon’s contributions to this album, for whatever it’s worth, have the stereotypical thin, trebly black metal production – it’s all fine and reasonably intelligible. Any complaints I could muster pale in comparison to the songwriting issues.

I should preface this all by saying that on a minute to minute basis, Dark Medieval Times doesn’t feel all that bad. Individual riffs and motifs are fine; even pleasant to listen to. I remember reading a lot of praise for this album back in the day that focused around all the acoustics on display. The problem comes when you listen to a song in its entirety. All of the musical ideas here are arranged in a haphazard fashion, with some really awkward and abrupt changes between song sections. Now, I have to give the band some credit for aggressively avoiding verse/chorus writing and instead thorough-composing everything, but these tracks needed more time in the oven. There’s two possibilities as to how the album got this way; the first is the youthful experience of an ambitious band reaching further than they knew how to, but the second is that the musicians were trying to show off how clever and progressive they could be! The latter, mind you, is an issue that afflicts my earliest metal compositions, back in 2009-2010 – I was so insistent on writing “progressive” metal that I filled my songs chock full of riffs and jarring transitions that served little purpose other than to indicate that I knew what time and key signatures were. I had to develop some humility in order to improve my songwriting!

I really don’t know enough about Satyricon to say if they ever figured this out – if Metal Archives is anything to go by, they tightened things up after a while, resulting in Nemesis Divina, and then disappeared into their own little world of black ‘n’ roll favorites. Maybe some of those albums are worth your time? Either way, this one doesn’t do it for me.

Highlights: “Dark Medieval Times”, “Skyggedans” (Satyr screams something that sounds like “TITTY MUFFIN”, which is pretty funny to my horny lesbian brain), “The Dark Castle in the Deep Forest”

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band – Zero Time (1971)

What happens when you take a bunch of analog synths and electronics and combine them into an orchestral tool par excellence? You get The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO for short), as demonstrated on such things as Stevie Wonder’s ’70s output, and (more relevant to today) Zero Time, a comprehensive record of all the things you could do with such a powerful tool. Fans of psychedelia and early electronic pop music will gravitate to this one like moths around the brazier’s flame. AI researchers, too – I learned about this album because one of its tracks was featured in Universal Paperclips. Play that game if you want, but you can probably appreciate Zero Time even if you don’t.

What we have is a mostly instrumental album (outside of the previously mentioned Universal Paperclips track, “Riversong”), with about a 1:1 mix between more compact, pop oriented songs and ambient soundscapes. When it comes to instrumentation, I hope you like analog synthesizer sounds; this album is completely drenched in them, to the point that if you have the right musical background it’s very easy to nerd out about what you’re hearing. I noticed there’s very little in the way of percussion – not entirely unheard of, but it does give the album a pretty loose feeling. It makes sense if you’re supposed to turn on, tune in, and drop out, I guess? Either way, it’s a very specific sound. Pretty stereotypical for the era, but from a pure sonic stance, it’s fine by me.

But how much interest do I retain after the synthesizer geek within is sated? Fundamentally, I think Zero Time is at its best when it’s more grounded and songlike, even to the point of trying to create a pop single. As I write this, I’m wondering how much this is due to the era et al. Most of the music in my collection from the 1970s is either more tightly composed and performed progressive rock, or other formative bits of electronic, ambient music. Either way, the stuff I like best, at least for this era, tends to be more intentional from a creative stance. Zero Time typically sounds pleasant and is a fun historical document, but it often sounds like it’s trying to sus out what you can do with a bunch of synthesizers just by noodling around with them. You ought to do something like that at some point, but someone else’s experimentation doesn’t always make for the most compelling listening. That being said, TONTO did get its creators some lucrative production work, so clearly someone found what they were looking for!

Highlights: “Cybernaut”, “Timewhys”, “Riversong”

Conflict – Transform Into A Human (2014)

As far as I know, the pitch behind Conflict boils down to “What if Fear Factory, but girl?” Fine by me. I’ve had some good times with industrial metal recordings, so another one’s got to scratch that itch, right? I am nothing if not predictable in my tastes. What we’ve got here is some accessible, approachable (by the standards of industrial/extreme metal) songs with lyrics about breaking free from a crushing, oppressive, mechanical society et al. It’s not subtle, and it’s definitely high concept material. Good baseline for some slick, poppy songs, am I right?

To my understanding, everything on Transform Into A Human‘s been created somewhere else. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar – midpaced to fast, typically monophonic, thrashy riffs with a bit of death metal technique, careful use of synthesizers and ambient samples, more or less inaudible bass, and some melody, all girded by a lady vocalist who splits her time between mid-pitched growls and a versatile singing voice. Anna Vavilkina, folks – she seems to favor a breathy sound in her lower range and something fuller when she’s singing high notes, and the fact I bring it up should reinforce just how much my singing lessons have rewired my brain. Outside that missing bass, everything is nice and clear. There’s just not much to say about the instrumental side of things – it’s just slickly produced, tightly played, albeit not especially ambitious metal standards.

I’d argue that the songwriting isn’t particularly ambitious either. As I said earlier, this is on the pop side of things, with clearly defined verse/chorus structures and generally limited song lengths (outside the 14-minute ambient closer, “Transformation”). That being said, it’s good pop songwriting. Even if there’s not a whole lot of complexity on hand, Transform Into A Human does well balancing its need for clear hooks and producing enough variety to keep repeat listeners engaged. Conflict made some shrewd instrumentation choices here, even beyond the obvious clean/harsh vocals dichotomy. It’s probably not news at this point, but some dynamics and instrumentation changes go a long way towards making your music stick in my brain. A more complex sound would probably also work if the band ever wants to go that way, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt.

Yet again I’ve chosen an album that feels like it’s hard to write about. That being said, even if I don’t feel like the formula’s particularly novel or out of the ordinary for modern metal, I’m glad that Transform Into A Human does a good job with the industrial metalpop angle. I’ll let you know how much staying power this one has in a few years, I think.

Highlights: “Low Frequency Addicted”, “Mechanism of Life”, “Lost Signal”, “Invisible Thread”

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Re-Review: Enslaved – Below the Lights (2003)

Enslaved has been doing their thing for a while now, haven’t they? I never took the time to listen to anything after Below the Lights, for whatever that’s worth. All I really know that Enslaved went through some pretty serious values drift from their earliest black metal recordings. This isn’t new or unique, but I also have an extra decade’s perspective on hand since I last tried to analyze this album. Dramatic stylistic changes were hardly new amongst the constellation of grimdark that was 2nd wave Norwegian black metal. My 2021 brain would argue that Below the Lights didn’t morph as dramatically as some of their contemporaries, but judging from the the prog and post rock influences on here, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Rogaland anymore.

So the mood’s changed from before. Part of this is a grittier and less compressed production than before. Blodhemn and Mardraum at least had your typical Abyss Studios mix – loud and in your face, and at the very least suited towards the former’s all out aggression, but less effective when you want any sort of dynamic range. This time around, Enslaved is back to working with the legendary Pytten, who turns out something higher fidelity than his past works. Fine by me, really, since this incarnation of Enslaved needs the production space to get their musical ideas across. This means lengthy songs (nothing under five minutes) with a fair amount of repetition and atmospheric noodling. Songs here tend to do a pretty good job of introducing musical ideas and avoiding pure verse-chorus material; at the track lengths we’re seeing, this is straight up essential. The instrumentation, meanwhile, strikes me as typically competent, but there’s not much that sticks out. No matter – tight ensemble playing is the key to Below the Lights, not flashy performances.

With production and instrumentation just kind of there on Below the Lights, it’s all down to the aesthetic and the song structures to keep my interest. I’m well attuned to the major genre ingredients on here, so I can understand how ’70s progressive rock ideas could socket into black metal, especially if it’s the more ambient sort Enslaved championed in their past works. As a general rule, the mixture works… but for whatever reason, I find it hard to get excited about the songs here. They have all the elements they need to work (except maybe “Ridicule Swarm”, which I still think is pretty disjointed), but they’re just… there? Albums that I appreciate tend to evoke more intense feelings from me, but this could just be me and Below the Lights settling into a comfortable rhythm in our relative old age…

Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have at least an okay time with this album, but you’re probably looking for more than just an okay time.

Highlights: “As Fire Swept Clean The Earth”, “The Crossing”, “Havenless”

Jade Warrior – Floating World (1974)

From the clearly 100% accurate and in no way inspired by contemporary British politics opera that is The Mikado to the intensely horny illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, European cultural fascination with Japan has a long and… let’s just say interesting legacy. Don’t worry about it.

Read more…

Victory Over The Sun – A Tessitura of Transfiguration (2020)

One of the more interesting effects of the pandemic is that I spend a good chunk of time on queer Twitter. A glorious if perhaps unhealthy diet of shitposts (twitposts?), hot lesbian selfies, and discourse are thus mine to enjoy, but it’s also beginning to shape my music choices. Mere weeks into the pandemic, an account I follow shared a video of this band’s frontwoman performing microtonal black metal that would eventually become Nowherer… about a year later. Trust me when I say we’ll get to that. In the mean time, I immersed myself in this slightly more conventional predecessor. Does an album inspired by “…finding [the author’s] voice as an artist as well as a trans woman” sound at all familiar to you?

So no, you won’t find any microtonal writing on A Tessitura of Transfiguration, but you’re still getting a dissonant and challenging slab of black metal. The production here is thin, cold, and harsh; pretty classic for the genre. It’s a bit lo-fi, but you can hear all the elements without much difficulty – even the bass! There’s also a few symphonic flourishes around this album’s edges, which helped get my attention when I was first delving into its secrets. Not that it’s that important, but how many black metal albums have you listened to that had bass clarinet parts? This combines with the frequent sections to make for an album that feels thoroughly orchestrated. The high concept lyrics (this is clearly an album about realizing your gender identity, complete with all the pain and euphoria doing so can dredge up) push this effect further – I don’t think most of the black metal I listen to is arranged into concept albums, so this is a welcome change.

Repeated listening made it clear that A Tessitura of Transfiguration fundamentally has good compositions. There are four extended tracks here; they explore a variety of moods and overall trace out a narrative of rising and falling dysphoria. There’s a tenuous balance here – harsh noise and chaos balanced by a good ear for melodic hooks. I’ve listened to my share of albums that disappear into their technical achievements and lose track of how to tie everything together into a coherent package in the process. The easy opportunities for strong dynamics from the instrumentation help as well – it makes the loudest, most aggressive moments hit harder (which maybe isn’t surprising), but also gives you those crucial moments of simmering tension that should keep you on the edge of your seat, at least until the novelty wears off. But you’ll still have the strong fundamentals even after you’ve memorized every note on this recording.

To be honest, being another transwoman was probably enough to shunt Victory Over the Sun into my Bandcamp purchases, but I’m sure the hypothetical and frankly implausible cisgender version of me would appreciate this album’s artistry.

Highlights: “Half Silvered Mirror”, “The Enormous Cosmos (in the Cavity of the Mouth)”

Gigantic Brain – Gigantic Brain (2016)

I feel like we have a tendency to return to the same themes on Invisible Blog in rapid succession. Key point – you might have deja vu from the last time I discussed an extreme metal/electronic music fusion to produce another album several years after the fact in a dramatically different style. But Dream Weapon this ain’t – Gigantic Brain is a quick burst of trudging industrial metal with a few moments of levity and cybergrind for flavor. I was personally expecting more intense blasting, but these are the cards we’ve been dealt, and these are the bits that must be converted into sound vibrations if our ears are to perceive Gigantic Brain.

For what it’s worth, this album has one of the best introduction tracks I’ve heard… well… ever. The screams, profanity, and jangling clean guitars make “The Super Cat” absolutely excellent for scaring your elderly neighbors and introducing this album’s doomier, trudging aesthetic. It’s got this general unhinged intensity that I love to hear in my music, and it manages to crunch sufficient levels of song structure into its two and a half minute duration. But therein lies our problem – this is already one of the longer tracks on Gigantic Brain, and a lot of its siblings cut off just as they’re getting started. You could say that’s the Faustian bargain of grindcore and derivatives (burn twice as bright for half as long), but there’d be two problems with that statement. First, we’re mostly dealing with slow industrial metal. Second, and by far more importantly, I know from experience that grindcore doesn’t have to have this problem.

Mind you, I’m not particularly versed in grindcore, but I know enough about my comparison of choice that I think I can pull this off. Enter Longhena, which I last considered as my egg really began to shatter and I edged ever closer to medical transition. Obligatory trans reference aside, you might wonder why Gridlink gets a comparison to a band that’s at least trying to do something other than write grindcore. It’s fundamentally an issue of how they handle brief songs. Gridlink’s songs are much denser and cram in lots of musical ideas, by virtue of lightning fast speeds. As a result, they feel more complete than Gigantic Brain’s, which I usually wish would go on for at least another minute or two. Either way, that’s Gigantic Brain‘s major flaw.

I’m guessing the band’s previous work doesn’t have this issue. That being said, I don’t know if we’ll see another Gigantic Brain album, but I do hope that they give us something longer if they go the sludgy industrial route again.

Highlights: “The Super Cat”, “UV Rays”, “Gigantic Child”, “Hugh Williams”

Bonus Discs #2: Devin Townsend – Tests of Manhood (2019)

This whole “Bonus Discs” thing is probably going to remain a Devin Townsend exclusive for a while. What can I say, though? If he doesn’t want that to be the case, then why does he release bonus CDs full of professionally produced “demos” that could easily be full on albums? Not that I’m complaining – more content in one shot is always appreciated around these parts. Based on personal experience, I initially expected Empath‘s bonus tracks to be composed primarily of tracks that wouldn’t necessarily fit the main album’s overarching aesthetic. Then, I actually listened to Empath, and found it to be one of the most aesthetically and structurally diverse Devin Townsend albums of all time. What niche would a couple of Tests of Manhood be able to fill?

My take as of 2021 is that Tests of Manhood surprisingly give us more of the same from Empath, complete with the “inadvertent soundtrack to Neal Stephenson’s Fall” angle that their synchronicity brought upon me. It also follows up on Holding Patterns‘ contributions by starting off with two of Devy’s best songs of all time – “The Contrarian” and “King” apply Devy’s pop and prog rock nerd sides to some unusual places, which I highly appreciate. I guess I’d say they have a bit of a sound collage thing going on. That being said, it also introduces a theme that’s going to come up a lot on this bonus disc – general weirdness. I’d say “Methuselah” is where this really became apparent to me. Devin Townsend’s written his share of deliberately weird and goofy songs, but it’s especially frequent here. Your mileage may vary.

I do wonder how Tests of Manhood got to this point? Maybe Devin decided he wanted to have a (somewhat) more serious approach on the main album. Again, it’s always relative. Either way, the experimental approach clearly does pay off throughout this disc’s material, but yet again, it’s inconsistent! I typically find the quieter, more ballad-oriented material on here less to my tastes, but that’s usually how I feel in general. Ultimately, I am inextricable from the sum of my opinions, and so are you. Perhaps this compilation’s softer, gentler moments will penetrate into the core of you like its moments of restless, unhinged energy spoke to me. I guess the takeaway is that the variety on display means that anyone who’s capable of deriving value from Devin Townsend albums will find something worth their time here, though the odds of you paying much attention if you’re not already acquiring Empath seem slim at best.

Highlights: “The Contrarian”, “King”, “Empath”, “Gulag”

Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon (2021)

Here’s an interesting evolution. Genghis Tron spent the late 2000s exploring extreme metal/electronica fusion… …and if that reminds you of previous content I’ve discussed on Invisible Blog, I don’t blame you. This album, though, is very different. Softer, more ambient, easier on the ears, admittedly not completely shorn of its previous aggression and chaos. I do wonder what prompted this style change, but for what it’s worth, I’ve never really listened to old Genghis Tron. From my perspective, it’s simpler just to pretend this is an entirely new album by an entirely new band and see what it has to offer from there.

Dream Weapon is a post-rock album, if the press is to be believed. I guess there’s more to the genre than just Red Sparowes. That aside, there’s a tenuous balance of regular rock instrumentation (guitars, live sounding drums) and ambient, evolving synthesizer parts. It’s a good combination if you want to create music with a lot of dynamic and textural variety. Needless to say, Dream Weapon goes all in on that combination, spinning lengthy songs full of slow, evolving transitions. Comparisons to early Tangerine Dream are a good fit – even the cover art’s a bit of a match! I’m reminded of the artwork of Rubycon, perhaps because I have an LP of that one in my closet taunting me about my lack of a record player. Genghis Tron isn’t nearly that stretched out, but they’re definitely taking some writing and aesthetic cues and merging them into more formally structured (albeit not particularly verse-chorus oriented) songs.

Academically speaking, this ought to be good, but is it? I find that with ambient styles of music, you need to be careful with how deep you delve into repetition and trance, and it particularly helps if you keep your patterns evolving over time so that your users don’t get too habituated. That’s the first clue here – Dream Weapon doesn’t push especially hard on the ambient side, so it’s a lot easier for Genghis Tron to reel it in as necessary than it might be otherwise. This is also one of those instances where poppy melodies come in handy. It strikes me that this incarnation of the band is good at writing hooks – they even manage to insert and recontextualize a few leitmotifs across songs (the intro and “Great Mother” being the obvious example). I think I prefer the first half of Dream Weapon, with its more compact arrangements, but it’s clear that care went into the whole product.

Anyways, this is a pretty dramatic stylistic shift, and I highly doubt it’s going to sell anyone on GT’s Nintendocore/metaltronica past, but Dream Weapon is very good at its chosen game and worth a listen. How often does that happen?