Amorphis – The Karelian Isthmus (1992)


It probably shouldn’t be surprising how quickly Amorphis departed from the death/doom metal that fills The Karelian Isthmus, given how many bands similarly morphed into more standard rock combos… but it is! Amorphis had an ear for the epic and melodramatic here that as far as I know was thrown out after their first few albums. The question of why so many bands followed similar career arcs (make a “progressive” death metal album, then make something else) is outside the scope of this review format. Still, we’re left with a melodic and surprisingly elaborate take on death/doom from a band that even a year ago was far filthier and less refined, and that’s where we start.

To be fair, by the time Amorphis properly got into the studio album game, they’d not only established their own skillset by recording some earlier death metal (demos, and the Privilege of Evil EP, even though that wasn’t released until some time later), but also had a corpus of established Scandinavian comrades to pattern themselves off. As a result, I’m not surprised by how polished The Karelian Isthmus sounds. Its deep yet clear guitars and deep growls courtesy of Tomi Koivusaari particularly stand out. The occasional use of keyboard patches for texture are also noteworthy, as they add depth and dynamics to these songs without distracting from the overall approach. To be fair, later incarnations of Amorphis would dramatically expand on the keys.

The compositions here are certainly ambitious, at least going by the number and variety of sections the average song goes through. Overall, they’re similar to the earlier, bludgeoning yet atmospheric sort of death metal of the earliest ’90s, though Amorphis does seem to favor magic over mayhem in their aesthetic. One thing I particularly like about The Karelian Isthmus is how it successfully avoids the standard pop verse/chorus material in favor of greater structural variety. A lot of bands that try to expand beyond this still end up clinging to these basic song structures (I’m looking at you, Death). The caveat here is that while Amorphis has written many an individual riff and many types of riffs to build their songs, this is another album where the transitions between them end up awkward at best. There’s occasionally something to be said for these abrupt transitions, but I’m not certain it’s particularly appropriate for this type of music. It’s actually a pretty serious issue that the band wouldn’t really learn to work around until Elegy some years later. What I’ve found in my personal experience, however, is that the other aspects of the songwriting (variety in general and the strength of individual sections) helps make up for it. Some isthmuses aren’t nearly as fortunate!

With all of that in mind, it seems reasonable of me to assume that I personally like Amorphis’s debut more than what my analysis of it would lead me to believe. Still, it particularly excels at creating its huge, mythic atmosphere. Regardless of what you think of the underlying compositions, this is a superlative worth studying.

Highlights: “Grail’s Mysteries”, “Exile of the Sons of Uisliu”, “The Lost Name of God”


Voivod – Nothingface (1989)


People who were alive, sentient, and into Voivod in the late 1980s must’ve noticed the norming of their sound that (probably) began on Dimension Hatröss. It just so happens that Nothingface is even more accessible and slick than before, truly ushering in an attempt at mass mainstream appeal. Maybe. Angel Rat this is not, for Voivod retains some of the metal instrumentation and technique that they’d been known for. After finally sitting down and listening to its successor, though, Nothingface sometimes comes off as torn between the gravitational wells of two planets. For a band that channels so much science fiction, though, is that really a bad thing?

Nothingface actually has a lot going for it, though with the obvious caveat that listeners expecting speed/thrash insanity on the level of its predecessors will be disappointed. The core of Voivod’s sound remains strong here – the key in particular has always been Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s enormous range as a guitarist. Things are more consonant and slower than before, but you still have a core of varied guitarwork to pull from, and a band that’s more than able to back him up. As a sucker for dissonance, I’ve always been a fan of Piggy’s approach; listening to Voivod’s work in chronological order reveals him gradually extending his versatility and ability to mix in the more consonant stuff. Voivod also retains their compositional style, which allows them to make another set of concise and densely packed songs. To be fair, it takes this album a bit to get going – the title track here is probably the weakest of the bunch for its awkward organization. The second half is more refined, and it also has some extra bite to it that I find helpful on an album that generally tones down the more extreme metal sides of Voivod’s sound.

A few things are definitely improved from previous albums. The obvious one is the production, which sheds a favorable light over everyone involved in Nothingface. You could argue that it lacks some of the personality of previous albums (since we’re trying to avoid disparaging Nothingface for being obviously lighter and softer than earlier Voivod), but this was the clearest and most intelligible they’d ever been. Voivod definitely benefits from having that sort of clarity on their side, at least on this album. Meanwhile, of all the musicians to perform here, I’d say Denis “Snake” Bélanger has improved the most from previous albums. First, his attempts at clean singing here are more prevalent and more proficient than before. Despite this, he retains his technical variety, which isn’t entirely unexpected. Still, you can’t say no to better execution of what you already have.

Nothingface is definitely a good entry point for prospective Voivod fans, since it’s still reasonably representative of the band’s career. In general, the tracks hold up pretty well even if something like Dimension Hatröss eventually nestled closer to my heart. Definitely recommended.

Highlights: “Missing Sequences”, “X-Ray”, “Into My Hypercube”

Pestilence – Testimony of the Ancients (1991)


(fR̦̰̟͈̩̼͞è̥e͍͞ ̺̘͙͚̻͉US̼͉ͅ ̴̗͎͚Fŗ͇o̮̬̰͠M͚ ̧͖̜̗͓̞t̻̘̯E̸̞̜̟m̢p̛̬̲̤̤̱̫t̡̠̭͉̻a͉͈̦̫͕̥̤T͕̻͔̟I͖̻͕͜o̦̰n̬̺͔̤ ̲̭̥̖̻͜ͅF̣̗̱̤͕re͈̝̟͈E͓̬̪ ̴̭̞͖u̼̟͕̫S͢ ͚̻f̳̜̮̲̩ͅRO͎̬̤̙̹M̩̯͉ͅ ̬͇̟̪̩̲T̺̗͙͝e̬̺̰̮̮̜̺m͔̞͕̹̺p̬̺̜ţ͙͓͚̼ą̳̥̬͚̩͎̻T̢̫͔̞̪̮̪I͜O̙͕̬͍N̯̘̮)

Testimony of the Ancients is a good example of the gestalt in metal, at least in the superficial sense that it’s more than the sum of its parts. Compared to other classic Pestilence material… it lacks the ripping intensity of Malleus Maleficarum, the bludgeoning aggression of Consuming Impulse, and the creative aesthetics and jazz fusion of Spheres. If you were to violently tear its constituents away from each other, the individual parts wouldn’t particularly stand out. But instead of a generic death metal album, we have a work of admirable craftsmanship and enormous charisma. What happened?

All of Testimony of the Ancients‘ peculiar strengths come together most prominently on “Twisted Truth”, its second track. It’s atypically mid-paced and simplistic by this album’s standards, and it can’t go an entire minute without shedding its doomy, almost stereotypical facade for a spacey, almost jazz-fusion flavored guitar solo. If you were like me and listened to Spheres first, you might expect more, but at this point in Pestilence’s career, these asides remain asides that leave you pining for more. Again, reducing Testimony of its Ancients to its ingredients leaves you with an album that cycles predictably between standard death metal motifs and cinematic moments. This is even after we’ve accounted for the strange decision to place little keyboard/SFX interludes between each full track. Some bands can cram an entire experience into 30 seconds; Pestilence is not one of them.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that Testimony of the Ancients nails cohesion. Cohesion has been one of my buzzwords as of late (and presumably a major part of my heavy metal grading rubric), but in particular, this album demonstrates how to successfully extend what would otherwise be pretty middle of the road death metal while maintaining its identity. Most of this extension is instrumental; aside from the occasional extended bridge, Pestilence has generally written basic verse/chorus songs. Still, arrangement is an important skill to have, no matter how many musicians and instruments you’re writing for. The moral of the album, at least from this perspective of musical arrangement, is that just because you want to incorporate some aesthetic element into your music doesn’t mean you have to constantly reuse it everywhere. My counter to this is that you also want to avoid having too many random interjections (read: “Impure”), but in my experience, I have more trouble avoiding the former than the latter. I couldn’t tell you what the other musicians in the audience think.

Either way, I like Testimony of its Ancients a lot more than my “objective” appraisal of it would lead me to think, and you might end up feeling the same if you give it a shot.

Highlights: “Twisted Truth”, “Lost Souls”, “Free Us From Temptation” (yes, really), “Presence Of The Dead”

Master – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master (1991)


Here’s another album I listened to for… interesting reasons. Paul Speckmann (basically an early death metal scene unto himself) managed to grab Paul Masvidal (who had time for this sort of thing when he wasn’t being a cynic) and inject him into Master’s bloodstream, with the end result that I wanted to see if the latter had any effect on the former. The end result? First Paul wins – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master is blazing fast, streamlined, and direct more than it’s ever proggy and technical. When you think about it, it’s kind of like the other death metal album Paul Masvidal played on in 1991…

So Master 1991 (we’re calling it that for brevity’s sake) is a bit of a throwback to simpler methods that makes for good contrast with the more musically intricate death metal that was beginning to crop up. It doesn’t even indulge in the compositional advances that other seeminglyprimitiverecordings of the time pulled off. As far as I’m concerned, the expectations here are very clear. To succeed in its chosen substyle, Master 1991 needs to constantly pummel the listener, but it also needs to explore new means of pummeling, even if only within a limited subset of ideas.

The requirements for the former are simpler and easily achieved here. First, this album is solidly produced and mixed even by today’s standards; my only real recommendation would’ve been to edge up the percussion’s volume a bit. There’s not much I can say about it beyond that, and I feel similarly about most of the musicians here – they do a good job, but their main strength is working as a cohesive unit. The exception is Paul Masvidal, whose leadwork here sticks out for adding an occasional melodic/technical flair to these tracks. The second requirement (writing songs that are both cohesive and capable of maintaining their own identities), however, is more important. Luckily, Master generally pulls that off well. Given their minimalistic style, Master gets most of their points from… …mastering their basic, hardcore punk inflected songwriting approach. It resembles and often is for all purposes basic verse-chorus stuff, but the band puts enough emphasis on individual riffs to obfuscate this, and deviates from this formula at just the right times. One sticking point, to be fair, is in the more rhythmically complex songs here – a couple of songs here try to vary up their tempos and pacing, and results are mixed. I’m not sure how much of this is personal taste, but I feel like this works against song cohesion. They needed either more or less of it; I’m not certain beyond that they’re in an awkward liminal state.

In the long run, Master ended up writing material that’s a lot sparser than my usual preferences. I can recognize the craftsmanship and effort that went into making this album, and I can recommend it to people who want some well crafted, simple, direct death metal, but outside of its moments of glory, it doesn’t get a lot of playtime here at Invisible Blog.

Highlights: “Heathen”, “Constant Quarrel”, “America the Pitiful”, “Submerged in Sin”

Loudness – Thunder In The East (1985)


I surprised myself by deciding to review this one. Loudness was (if my sources are to be believed), one of the first metal bands to come out of Japan, and Thunder in the East was part of a concerted effort to break into the American market after finding commercial success in their home country. As far as I know, it worked for a few years, before the band’s obvious traditional metal cred combined with a lack of more intense speed/thrash elements to kick them out of our market. This… probably isn’t a particularly accurate description of the band’s history, but it should give you a quick executive summary of what to expect – standard ’80s metal that isn’t especially hairy or particularly committed to one substyle.

As far as I’m concerned, the entire reason to listen to Loudness is their guitarist, Akira Takasaki. He provides a good dose of fret acrobatics that on their own were already enough to maintain my attention once I initially learned about the band. To be fair, I think the main reason I ended up listening to Thunder in the East is because a couple of the formative death metal bands in the USA had mentioned liking it in interviews, but I don’t actually remember. The most intricate guitar work here is understandably focused in the leads, but even the riffs benefit from his shred-flavored technique. Takasaki’s distinctive style would be exceedingly hard to replace, so you might as well take full advantage of its presence.

I don’t find the other aspects of this album particularly exciting, though. As a general rule, Thunder in the East presents competent traditional heavy metal, but rarely goes beyond it. Outside of Akira Takasaki’s clear talents, the rest of the band certainly exists… but beyond the singer’s minor accent (Minoru Niihara), nothing particularly pops out about their performances being particularly good or bad. I also feel like Takasaki’s guitar is squandered on what ends up being primarily basic pop/rock songwriting. Having an especially technical solo or more individual riffs than usual is one thing, but as far as I’m concerned, Loudness is being held back. Between that and a weak production (Screaming for Vengeance this ain’t), you have something that doesn’t have all that much shelf life. Barring a major production upgrade, I’d also accept some ambitious songwriting, or a really razor focused aesthetic. Thunder in the East is, unfortunately, lacking in those elements. Nothing here is actually bad (though your appetite for cheese may vary), but I don’t keep listening to albums simply because they don’t suck, and in today’s age of paralyzingly enormous musical choices, you shouldn’t either.

Highlights: “Like Hell”, “Get Away”, “Clockwork Toy”

Enslaved – Frost (1994)

folder.jpgEvery band has their difficult albums. By the standards of Enslaved’s early career (pre-2000 or so), I’d say Frost is their point of peak inaccessibility. While it still clearly belongs to the drawn out, ritualistic and vaguely symphonic take on black metal that stereotyped Enslaved in their earlier days, it’s also the beginning of a push towards a more aggressive and direct approach. Without much in the way of Eld‘s obvious progressive rock-isms or Blodhemn’s terse blasts of intensity at all costs, Frost is surprisingly frosty. At least that’s appropriate.

If you ask me, Frost‘s challenges compared to other Enslaved albums boil down primarily to its increased dissonance and emphasis on aggressive, angular sounding riffs. While it takes a few minutes of deceptively calm albeit aesthetically appropriate intro to get to this point, the first actual track (“Loke”) puts all of Frost‘s cards on the table – by retaining the core elements from previous albums but also providing more moments of blasting intensity, we end up with a more dynamic album. It certainly feels like the songs here are more diverse and varied than before,  even if part of that is simply their greater numbers coming to bear. Usually, when a band expands on their formulas like this, I call it an improvement. I imagine most of my readers are expecting that judgement from me about now, but remember how I described Frost as challenging?

When I say Frost is one of Enslaved’s more difficult albums, I’m speaking from personal experience. I did not care for or understand these songs when I first listened to them. Things have certainly changed since then, to the point that I can derive some enjoyment from Enslaved’s approach here and otherwise view this as something other than an eldritch monstrosity in the band’s discography. I still won’t deny that it took me a while to warm up to Frost, and some of the complaints my past self had still hold weight with my present self. These are mostly related to how the songs are written; the main problem is that Frost stumbles and stutters when it comes time to transition between song sections. A lot of bands seem to go through phases where they struggle to unite ideas into a coherent whole. This wasn’t a problem on Vikingligr Veldi and before, but the Enslaved that wrote that was more interested in writing songs focused on ambience and gradual evolution, and as a result it was easier for them to make sound decisions there.

Most of Frost‘s difficulty does seem to result from it being an especially liminal album in a discography that’s not exactly prone to repeating itself. Still, if you want to hear the band’s roots performed with more vigor and grit than before, this is probably the best place to go.

Highlights: “Fenris”, “Yggdrasil”, “Jotunblod”

Anatomy of VGM #14: Battle Garegga (1996)

battle garegga arcade flyer.jpg

Artwork from the Japanese arcade version flyer. We’ll be discussing the original soundtrack this time around… as usual.

Last week’s nominally bullet hell inspired recording got me thinking about shmups again. Battle Garegga was always one of my favorites, and an important milestone in the rise of the bullet hell genre (in fact, I’ve heard it inspired the folks at Cave to push themselves to new limits when they released Dodonpachi a year later). It’s music is a milestone of mastery for FM synth enthusiasts, a loving encapsulation of EDM/techno trends of the ’90s, and entirely worthy of the hyperbole I am slathering it in at this very moment. In the interest of hype, you should make sure you’ve listened to it before reading onwards.

The composer responsible for Battle Garegga‘s aural excellence is Manabu Namiki, who rose to prominence working for 8ing/Raizing before later joining up with Cave. His early work outside this game also serves as a master class for how to use FM synthesis in music. To be fair, the tracks here are not exclusively based on FM synth; the hardware the arcade cabinet uses also has some sampling capabilities that are used mostly for percussion and electric piano hits. Pure FM synthesis tends to model this sort of thing poorly, so having some basic noise generation or sampling capability frees the FM up to do the electronic/synthetic sounds it excels at. That in itself was pretty common – in the Western world, your best reference for this is probably the Sega Genesis, which had the capacity to pull this off between all of its sound hardware. Still, when you consider just how good the FM synth in this game sounds – lots of resonant pads and thumping bass, and the genres it covers, it’s a sign that Namiki has the aesthetics where he needs them.

As previously mentioned, Battle Garegga is a techno soundtrack of the sort that I suspect was most popular in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is what really tips me off; it results in a lot of midpaced, rhythmically simple tracks that focus most of their complexity on melodic/harmonic exploration and sound layering. There’s also a funk/jazz component here that occasionally syncopates the percussion into offbeat grooves; it’s not always present, but it makes for good contrast and variety. The aspect that sticks out most for me, though, is the aforementioned chord progressions. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of “extended harmony but still relatively consonant” approach (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel will attest to this if you dig them out of their graves), but Battle Garegga does this in a more contemporary, jazz-inflected way than most of what I listen to in my leisure time.

I cannot sing the praises of this OST enough, but what I’ve written here should be more than enough to give you an idea of why it’s so impressive.

Highlights: “Stab and Stomp!”, “Tunnel Vision”, “Subversive Awareness”