Alabama Thunderpussy – Open Fire (2007)

a0173502929_10.jpgAs a Massachusetts native, it is my sworn and solemn duty to denigrate the southern half of my country for whatever reason seems most amusing at the time. Take this band – they aren’t even from Alabama, but instead were apparently based out of the … less southern state of Virginia. Digressions aside, Open Fire still comes from a part of the country that’s considered acceptably Southern, and it shares enough DNA with country pop and rock music that it’s inevitably labelled “Southern metal” by writers worldwide. Who am I to resist that?

Open Fire is especially blues and rock inflected for its overall intensity levels, but surprisingly not in the immediate and obvious way that the subject of my last review is. After the 1970s, your average metal band stripped out enough of the obvious blue notes that without locking yourself in your room and blasting Black Sabbath for hours on end, it was potentially hard to understand why people were still drawing the connection. Alabama Thunderpussy is definitely bluesy, but instead of returning the method by which formative metal albums incorporated it, they’ve overlaid it onto a more modern take on the metal shtick. It’s hard to say whether this makes it sound more like an amplification of the past, or less, but one thing is for certain – this band owes its very life to the roots rockers, even if they’re aesthetically further away than most in a similar position.

Alabama Thunderpussy has a few aces up their sleeve that keep them in my listening rotation despite being surprisingly far off from my usual listening and composing fodder. The first is Kyle Thomas, of Exhorder fame. His ferocious performance on that band’s albums belies his abilities as a more conventional (read: rock-style) singer, and while he does summon forth the occasional scream, his cleans demonstrate a strength of tone and dynamics that help him stand out. I don’t know who provides the lyrics on Open Fire, but his performance strengthens what are already a well written, apocalyptic brimstone preacher set of words. My emphasis on the band’s vocal/lyrical prowess shouldn’t detract from the prowess of the rest of the band members, though – while the style they’re performing in doesn’t provide all that much room for musical innovation, the compositions here are both well performed and varied enough in structure that they remain interesting over the album’s 50 minutes.

I can no longer remember why I decided to give this band a shot in the first place, although I’d guess, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, that I was following the vocalist. Either way, I’m glad I did.

Highlights: “The Cleansing”, “The Beggar”, “Open Fire”, “Brave the Rain”

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)

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One of heavy metal’s earliest classics begins with a dose of lyrical whiplash, at least until you think about it. Master of Reality‘s switch from marijuana devotional (“Sweet Leaf”) to Christian fire and brimstone (“After Forever”) may or may not be intentional, but the switch (featuring lyrics from Bill Ward instead of the album’s usual Geezer Butler) is one heck of a way to introduce an album. If it were all Black Sabbath had in their favor, this would be an unnecessarily shallow album. But there’s more to it. There’s always more to it.

Master of Reality is arguably Black Sabbath’s first ‘fully formed’ album. Some people award that title to Paranoid, and you could make a case for that, but this 3rd effort has enough advances in production and songwriting to shift my opinion in its favor. In general, this is a compact, blues-inflected take on the embryonic heavy metal genre. Even if Black Sabbath is using riffs and song structures that would be reused and built upon for decades to come, their musical roots remain strikingly obvious, although the infamous blues show up more in the instrumentation and general aesthetic than anywhere else. The tritones and repetition had to come from somewhere… which admittedly isn’t very specific. Still, it’s good historical methodology to remember that Black Sabbath’s evolution was inextricably tied to the musical scene around them, especially since they achieved major sales and fame very early on.

As far as I’m concerned, this album’s important advances come primarily from its songwriting, and its song structures in particular. I’m admittedly under-familiar with the band’s work prior to this, but there’s enough information that I can extrapolate from this album alone to say that even in 1971, Black Sabbath was beginning to seriously hone their songwriting. Even though they’d written some extended improv-oriented jams before, even Master of Reality‘s more conventional pop songs contain more unique sections and musical ideas than otherwise expected. The transitions between musical ideas are, however, somewhat iffy even at the best of times. If Sabotage indicates anything, it’s that Black Sabbath (like many bands) got better at building songs over time, although this often comes at the expense of the band’s original charms. Black Sabbath only had so much material in this vein, and even their good albums after this take a significantly different approach whether for reasons of novelty, or complete band replacement, or whatnot.

I suppose that in an alternate universe, I may have categorized Master of Reality as the final draft of Black Sabbath’s initial contributions to heavy metal music. There’s enough evidence for that position that you could debate exactly what role this album fulfills in the band’s discography for quite a while. Alternatively, you could just add Master of Reality to your collection. It’s historically important, but it’s also accomplished enough to hold up even today.

Highlights: “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of this World”, “Into the Void”

Orbital – In Sides (1996)

folder.jpgIf my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?

On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.

It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.

Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.

Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”

Toxik – Think This (1989)

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Wow, who would’ve guessed? A late ’80s speed metal album that’s quite literally a product of its time! There’s a couple of reasons that Toxik comes off as especially topical. Apocalyptic, “mad world” flavored speed metal with nods to both the mainstream metal scene and high-culture virtuosity, sometimes even in the same song (“There Stood The Fence”). A time when middle America stood to be ripped apart by mad televangelists and communists… where have I heard this high concept rhetoric before? Oh.

When I first decided to give Toxik a shot, most of what I’d read about them compared them to other “technical” thrash metal bands like Realm and Helstar. On the surface, this is an apt comparison. Between the soaring vocals, the skilled instrumentation, and the slick production (although Realm is a bit more intense as a general rule), you can make a vaguely representative, if somewhat shallow trifecta of technical thrash. Continued listening makes the differences apparent. The bands I mentioned for comparison push the envelope of songwriting and musical experimentation much further – for want of a better description, Toxik’s “get played on MTV and tour a lot” aspirations are a lot less subtle.

That Toxik manages to successfully appeal to both sides of the fence (you know, the one that stood there) is praiseworthy, although it should definitely be distinguished from something like Averse Sefira‘s ability to mind-virus their far less accessible style of music. For the most part, Toxik’s songwriting sticks to common pop structures, but these are enhanced by a strong sense of dynamics and a good sense of how to play with tonality to manipulate the listener’s emotions. It’s a smart match for the manipulative powers of the media and society at large that Toxik criticizes in their lyrics, although I’m not sure how intentional that is. The obvious switches between dissonance and melody, as well as the tempo shifts give this album’s songs an excessive melodramatic effect that helps them cement in your memory. However, some listeners might find such excess to be excessively cheesy. I’m not sure there’s much of a way to tone this down without substantial stylistic changes, but I’m also not sure that it’s worth trying within this substyle at all!

It seems reasonably accurate to market Think This as an exaggeration of the excesses of American ’80s metal, which implies all of the good and bad of that era. This does naturally limit Toxik’s audience, but given the commercial (and occasionally vomitory) aspirations of the era, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be able to understand what Toxik is going for. Better this than a thousand other less incisive bands, no?

Highlights: “Greed”, “Spontaneous”, “Black and White”, “Machine Dream”

Averse Sefira – Tetragrammatical Astygmata (2005)

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You know, Texas is an absolutely fascinating state. I might be biased because I lived in Round Rock for two years when I was a child, but it never ceases to amaze me that the little nation that once could has overcome inept governance and a cavalcade of dangerous microclimes to become one of our country’s leading exporters of black metal. Tetragrammatical Astygmata is interesting because it’s an especially chaotic and dissonant contribution to the genre that’s also surprisingly accessible and hooky. Is that my musical preferences expressing themselves again? Probably. Don’t be surprised if the rest of this review reflects my biases as well.

While the more dissonant chunks of black metal raise a lot of questions about where metal subgenres begin and end, Averse Sefira’s musical languages shares enough of the rest of its surface (high pitched vocals, less emphasis on percussive variation, etc.) to otherwise fall into blackened realms for marketing purposes. Two things make this band click – their songs have a preponderance of individual riffs organized into varied structures, and the whole chaotic/dissonant angle is used to reinforce coherence and expand their musical language. These ideas are integrated effectively enough that I actually had to sit down and give these tracks a deep listen in order to figure out just how they were pushing the envelope. Averse Sefira obviously isn’t the first to play with these ideas, even within black metal, but I always appreciate a band that can pull it off.

A lot of Tetragrammatical Astygmata‘s musical elements, in fact, are like this – an accessible facade with turmoil under the surface. Even this isn’t all that novel, although you’re still more likely to find music with little more to its name than surface noise or deep lore. For instance, the production is at the liminal point where raw aggression gives way to studio polish, with a clear mix allowing listeners to appreciate every nuance of the instrumental work without detracting from its overall extremity. The vocals and lyrics are also worth a note – the actual words spoken are sparse, abstract, well spaced, almost slam poetry. Still, they’re delivered with enough conviction (…if maybe not that much diction) that you’d actually want to look at the lyrics and analyze them, at least if you’re particularly into the lyrical/ideological aspects of metal albums.

Those of you who’ve been reading along for the last few years and whom are also familiar with this album are probably silently nodding. I can sense it – you probably saw the cover art and thought something along the lines of, “That’s something our author would definitely enjoy”. Averse Sefira isn’t all that well known as of 2017 (although they presumably had some moments of relative fame), but if I’ve done something to popularize them by writing about their work, then surely something good has come of today, right?

Highlights: “Detonation”, “Helix in Audience”, “Mana Anima”

Anatomy of VGM #8 – DOOM (2016)

doom_alt_boxart.0.0.jpgI wrote a bit about the original DOOM (and Hell On Earth)’s music back in my DMU editing days. Things have certainly changed since then, both from the vantage point of 1993 and from the more recent happenings of 2015…

DOOM 2016‘s metalcore/electronica fusion seemingly resembles the original’s music in goal (which was to resemble the popular ‘heavy’ music of the times), but far less has been written about this remake’s development that I can peruse to either confirm or deny that hypothesis. A generation of technological progress and cultural evolution have done wonders for the visibility of extreme metal music. Therefore, the new DOOM‘s OST is a bone-crushingly, skull-rippingly loud and aggressive work that makes even the definitive renditions of the original’s OST sound like anemic. Or so the marketing copy goes… the first sign that the new DOOM‘s music might be a hard sell is that I’m dissecting it on a blog that venerates both the sickest and most depraved and the clean, polished, musically accomplished corners of extreme metal.

I’ve heard many a track in this vein throughout my metal-listening years, and not just in the studio work I’ve written about. Prior to playing through DOOM, I spent about 20 hours with head composer Mick Gordon’s previous effort (Wolfenstein: The New Order), which while more varied in genre also contained several similarly djenty tracks, and featured the efforts of Frederik Thordenhal of Meshuggah fame. Meshuggah’s efforts are simply impossible to ignore in any discussion of this work, by virtue of their sheer genre establishing power, and even without contributions from its alumni, the basic formulas of this album’s metal side are immediately apparent – an emphasis on downtuning, minimalism and polyrhythmic percussion.

Now, merely djenting your way through an album is difficult. It can be awfully limiting, so most of the bands out there merely use this as a foundation on which to construct their songs. Meshuggah adds in jazz harmony and/or inhuman ambience depending on the era; Mick Gordon throws in extremes of dynamics and electronic soundscapes. Constantly varying up the aesthetics above the metal is in itself a double edged sword, though – if you’re not careful, you can trade in coherence for short-lived novelty. I don’t think this is really an issue on DOOM‘s OST, since for all the synth patches on Gordon’s keyboards, he has the restraint to stick to the ones that fit the themes of the game he’s working on.

Most likely, the main problems with this soundtrack stem from the limits of the substructure. DOOM focuses heavily on building ambience when it isn’t attempting to thrash the player’s skull off, but the actual riff structures often fall short. This might be my melody over rhythm bias coming out again, but structural development over time is not really this music’s strength. Even in the presumably somewhat arranged OST version, riffs loop more than necessary given the lack of structural limitations streaming gives you. I suspect this is a case of the composer spreading himself too far – the sheer quantity of sounds on display here is impressive, and it keeps the structural flaws from showing when you’re more focused on hogging the glory kills than honing your listening ears, but there are limits to my patience with each subsection of song once divorced from the gameplay they’re intended to accompany.

Even if the novelty wears off after a while, this is still a victory for anyone who likes heavy metal or heavy electronica in their games. It’s an appropriately amped up soundtrack that fits the gratuitous action, at the very least. Less banal than what happened with Quake II, too.

Highlights: “Rip and Tear”, “At DOOM’s Gate”, “Flesh and Metal”, “BFG Division”

Jag Panzer – Ample Destruction (1983)

folder.jpgAmple Destruction is one of the first salvos in what later became the US “power metal” scene. You can a big chunk of the musical language that many a future power metal band would exploit strewn through its tracks (which isn’t to say that Jag Pazner invented these ideas). Compared to many of those future acts, but also many of its predecessors, this recording is rougher, more aggressive, and generally hostile. It also launched the career of Harry Conklin, who went on to perform in his share of power metal inflected acts and ushered in a age of ambiguous extremity for various incarnations of his other band (Satan’s Host).

For better or worse, I’ve heard many a raging metalhead compare Ample Destruction to Metallica, of all bands. There’s more to this than you might expect, and a comparison to that band’s debut (Kill ’em All) can be surprisingly helpful. Jag Panzer doesn’t emphasize speed or long-form songwriting nearly as much as Metallica did in their earliest days, but they both share a common lineage (souped up NWOBHM), and it shows in the rough but well-amped production each album shares. Harry Conklin’s mixture of piercing screams and powerful midrange, though, ensure that this is a vocal driven album. His vocal technique is rougher than it would be, but his ability to handle both registers, while not uncommon, is still impressive.

Ultimately, this is a pretty basic take on the whole “power metal” concept. To be fair, it was 1983, and Jag Panzer’s work here is a far cry from the extreme simplicity of the deepest and sickest extreme metal of the time, but this is best understood as an amped up and occasionally sped up version of contemporary popular metal. Its compact songs and good production make for a consistent and solid album, if not one that’s especially amazing. The worst thing I can say about this album is that it’s been done better by a thousand other bands… in fact, Jag Panzer themselves got better at their craft after they reformed in the ’90s. Ample Destruction still has enough charisma beyond its historical value to justify a space in your record collection, probably by virtue of matching/exceeding the traditional recordings on songwriting chops. You’re likely getting a more nutritious and balanced audiomeal out of this than a Motley Crue or Dokken record, anyways.

Some albums are more conducive to my style of writing than others. I did fairly recently ‘accidentally’ open a copy of this album’s cover art in Microsoft 3D Builder, though, and I learned that I could get a really crappy heightmap 3D printed and sent to me for only 500 dollars or so. That’s interesting, right?

Highlights: “Harder Than Steel”, “Generally Hostile”, “Eyes of the Night”