Anatomy of VGM – Hudson Hawk (NES, Amiga, etc)

hudson hawk nesWhat a way to begin a totally new and never before done feature! Hudson Hawk by the now obscure British company Special FX is… literally a video game, and clearly not a metal album. It came out for pretty much every personal computer with substantial market share in the UK at the time of its release, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. It has some interesting ideas and is overall a competent 2D platforming game (although probably not one you should seek out and play right now), but you’re probably wondering why I chose to start here instead of with something better known, like the infinitude of Marios or Mega Mans or Sonics who’ve drawn countless talented composers to toil under their boxart for what is now several decades.

It turns out that I came upon this game’s soundtrack while looking for the absolutely horrible one of a different baffling movie -> video game adaptation – Dirty Harry – The War on Drugs. The less said about that game, the better, but the more said about this one’s music at the very least…

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Notes on Five Years of Blogdom

After five years, it seems that this blog has become one of my life’s longest commitments. If you like reading this blog, you probably think that’s a plus. If not, that’s what we have brainwashing for. Odd veiled threats aside (asides being one of the main themes of Invisible Blog), it’s been an interesting five years, containing most of my undergraduate college experience, most of my musical ‘career’, and a surprising amount of my actual personal writing project time as well! What happened?


 

It seems that the creation processes in my brain only really began to work in any way recognizable to my current self around the age of 16; it was in May of 2008 that I started drafting First Contact Is Bad For You. Years of schooling meant it wasn’t my first attempt at creative writing (and the less said about my earlier attempts around the age of 12, the better), but where I might’ve earlier lost interest in it, I just kept working on it, albeit slowly and fitfully at times due to said times being scarce. I might’ve made some attempts at composing about the same time, but I didn’t really make any significant output until I got my hands on better tools – and with full awareness of what some of the purists might say, Sibelius is better than staff paper.

At the risk of complaining about how my past self didn’t know things my present thing did… my past self didn’t have the (dis?)advantage of future self whispering over his shoulder, complaining about his every pratfall and regret, and therefore had to figure a lot of things out for himself, like how to compose both text and music in a unique voice, and how to make it work. Standards change, and I became incredibly aware of that even during the creation of my earliest efforts. FCB is recognizable as the work it was when I first finished drafting it, but the revisions I made reflected three years of learning, especially aided by the jump in expected standards that accompanied my transition from high school to college. Meanwhile, I experimented a great deal with the limits of stock Sibelius, trying to bend its sounds into heavy metal music, and gradually coming to believe that a composition was more important than how it was performed. Kind of a big paradigm shift after 10 years of piano performance training, don’t you think? Minimalist black metal might’ve had something to do with it.

Then I discovered a little program called Famitracker. It seems that in the average hands, writing chiptunes with Famitracker teaches minimalism and efficiency, and to deny that I acquired some knowledge in that regards would be to deny my musical evolution, but by konsistently ko-opting Konami’s VRC6 expansion chip in to my palette, I found maximum sonar density to be a worthy compliment to my general attempts to avoid repetition. That turned out to be a fruitful approach, although I figured out that I could turn a sparser, cleaner approach into something I wanted to hear – anyone want to record a live version of “Song 31“? I have the sheet music if you’re interested, and it was explicitly designed to be human performable. In general, I feel like 2012, at least in its latter half, was a particularly good year for my creative ambitions – in the case of Famitracker I was writing more coherent and elaborate tracks after a period of deliberately writing ‘video game loop’ stuff, and in the case of this blog, I’d decided I was on a streak of interesting discussions of interesting music. Whether that previous statement is true or not is too subjective a question to answer, but my efforts to improve were still there.

Later years also saw me expanding into new subjects, which is probably why I ended up having a semi-robust ‘humor’ section on Invisible Blog. You’ve probably stumbled upon at least one of the “Bad Ideas” posts, which have steadily grown more elaborate and thematic over the years (although they’re rather less frequent than their heyday in early 2011). One of my buddies read these and insisted I should compile a list of “Pickup Lines That Probably Won’t Work” – when I told him that he ought to write the lines if he were so interested in seeing them exist, it left me with a new feature. Other experiments have lead to a series of little essays on games and game design, a couple of short stories, and the mother of all blog motivations – shameless self promotion! When I publish something, odds are it gets a mention here, since due to its length and consistent output, Invisible Blog has kind of become the unifying force between all my creative endeavors.

As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog continues for many years – perhaps even decades! It doesn’t get a ton of traffic, but keeping it alive seems to sharpen my skills as a writer, and that has to count for something, right?

I’ve been bouncing around a few ideas for types of posts that ought to be interesting to write about, and you’ll probably see some of those rather soon. The first (and in fact the next upcoming one) is to take the sort of music reviews that are the invisible bread and butter of this blog and apply their methodology to video game music. Unless the universe explodes, you should be able to read the first prototype before the month is out.

Nine Inch Nails – Broken (1992)

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Sure, it’s technically an EP, but bands have released shorter full-lengths. Even with its two “hidden” tracks, this remains a concise, coherent release, historically notable for being NIN’s first big foray into rock/metal tropes, as well as a lot of deliberately provocative music video material. Seems to do the trick for me, anyways, but you know my tastes and probably aren’t shocked by this, OR by my totally novel and rad appraisal of Broken as dumping tons of distortion and abrasive noise into pop/rock compatible songwriting.

What can I say? I like distortion and abrasive noise, and therefore, Broken‘s aesthetics and production offer me a great opportunity to nerd out. The soundscape here is rather dense – the actual amount of elements at any one time isn’t so immense, but they cover the frequencies of the mix in a way that only large, terrifying sounds can. The guitars here are particularly notable, and legends (er, I mean Wikipedia) tell me Trent Reznor used a program called Turbosynth to convolute them in interesting ways. Good luck finding it for yourself, but it does kind of just come down to algorithms that could theoretically be reprogrammed as needed.

Every fool with a blog will probably agree with me that this work did much to popularize the nascent “industrial metal” scene, which to be fair was already quite real and vital, with bands like Godflesh, Ministry, Fear Factory already in the process of existing in the moment of 1992. Other things that came into existence in 1992 include your author, but I digress. On their debut, Nine Inch Nails’s songs relied heavily on electronic dance tropes, and that understandably continues here. Seems to me, though, that Broken adopts a great deal of rock “language” (Whatever that means) in order to amp up its sound, which makes for more dynamic and less ambient songs than those of Pretty Hate Machine. What’s particularly important, though, is that the previous songwriting ideas aren’t abandoned – while this EP emphasizes its ‘guitar’ and drums more, quite a bit of the EBM/electro-industrial ideas remain under the surface, particularly in the rhythms. As someone who will not and apparently can’t stop writing about bands in transition, this Jenga-like restructuring isn’t all that common, and a lot of other bands who try it tend to collapse in on themselves.

Given that NIN’s 1994 break-further-through (The Downward Spiral) saw further norming and sonic experimentation, I’m sure you won’t mind me labeling Broken the band’s high point. It’s a concise blast of aggression that still impresses me with its ferocity despite presumably being smooshed by the weight and brutality of my death metal repository.

Highlights: “Last”, “Happiness in Slavery”, “Suck”

P.S: Today is the 5th anniversary of Invisible Blog. I may or may not have some ruminations on this in the next few days.

Morbid Angel – Domination (1995)

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I managed to convince myself that Domination was Morbid Angel’s “urban warfare” album, with an apparent lyrical/conceptual focus on human issues mixed in with the usual occultisms. If at all true (and I’m mostly pulling on “Dawn of the Angry” and “Caesar’s Palace” for this), it might be in part due to Erik Rutan, who presumably managed to parley the fame he gained from performing here into the existence of Hate Eternal.

“Hate Eternal” is in fact kind of relevant, since Domination is rather divisive at the best of times. Not Illud Divinum Inanus (uh, I mean “Insanus”) levels of hatred on display in the metal community, but when people complain about this album, it’s usually on the grounds that it supposedly represents a sort of dumbed down take on death metal. I can hear what they’re talking about – Domination is slower and often more “normal” sounding than its predecessor, even when I can accept it as a deliberate exploration of tempo and texture. Regardless, a different compositional palette, and one supported by blatant alterations to the production, as well! In most ways, this album’s production resembles that of Blessed Are The Sick; a suitable imitation since that album occasionally explored its own doomy tendencies. As such, Domination is also generally less distorted and cleaner than its predecessors; Dave Vincent meanwhile downtunes his own growls further at occasional expense to their ferocity.

To be perfectly honest, the band sometimes sounds exhausted on this album – not a great thing. By the release of Domination, Morbid Angel had been releasing albums for some time and enjoying ever greater commercial success – for instance, Covenant supposedly moved 127,154 units between 1993 and 2003, at least in the USA and presumably more worldwide. Beyond its supposedly more accessible instrumentation and production, Domination does little to deviate from the overall formula of previous albums. In fact, it enjoys the benefit of similar songwriting techniques and structures to its predecessors for better or worse. On the other hand, there’s only so much you can do with one niche before you begin repeating your previous works in a less interesting fashion, and I do believe that’s what happened here. Further backing this up is how effectively Morbid Angel rejuvenated themselves with this album’s successor (Formulas Fatal To The Flesh) which, while again not being all that different, was a change substantial enough to breathe some new life into the… formulas.

If this, for some reason, is your first Morbid Angel album, you might not even notice this, but back in 1995, it certainly was not. Domination has a couple of quality cuts, but overall it’s kind of disappointing and lame.

Highlights: “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear”, “Dawn of the Angry”, “Hatework”

Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve (1995)

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The revenge of the Swedish hip hop scene.

It’s either here or on their previous EP (None) that Meshuggah really got into their signature sound… although technically, Destroy Erase Improve is still a more melodic (sort of) and elaborate Meshuggah than the one you’ll hear in recent albums, if only by margins. It’s also rather faster and thinner in ways rather reminiscent of the band’s debut, but suffice it to say that the band changed up their formula enough to apparently win quite a lot of sales and critical acclaim.

Destroy Erase Improve is, in fact, a surprisingly complicated mixture of complex and simple aspects. We might as well start with the simple parts for simplicity’s sake – first of all, this is where Meshuggah’s signature “riffs” come to the forefront, but so many of those riffs are single note/single chord or at least chromatic, short, etc in a very monophonic fashion. It’s certainly direct, if you’re into that. The much vaunted polyrhythms that presumably fill the band’s press releases are also not too complicated in execution, since they always seem to center around basic 4/4 progressions (although it takes them quite a few bars to synchronize sometimes). They do, however, require significant practice and rhythmic understanding to perform. Consider changing your name to Tomas Haake if you seek to do it; I’m certain that will bestow the great precision that you require upon you.

While much of the instrumental end of this album is a textbook lesson in how a musical arrangement can be much less complicated than it sounds, Meshuggah managed to put some depth and complexity into these arrangements regardless. If you want to blame anything, try the nonlinear, and otherwise more complicated song structures that Meshuggah uses. While there might be plenty of monophonic chugs, they’re bridged together in a variety of fashions. It helps that the “jazz interludes” from the last album are still here, and they get used to aid contrast or enhance sound density on a regular basis. Without the dynamics that these help provide, Meshuggah’s otherwise constant hammering would presumably sell some Advil or at least bore to the point of ennui more than bore into the listener’s skull.

Fancy poetics aside, this is still a notable, band-defining production. Essential listening for anyone who likes the rhythm-heavy, yet somewhat minimal style Meshuggah helped popularize, but maybe not for those who want more overt variety or conventional construction in their music. I would like to compare Meshuggah to the hordes of “djent” bands they inspired, but I haven’t got the data for that, so maybe you’re just going to have to do that yourself…

Highlights: “Beneath”, “Soul Burn”, “Vanished”

Solefald – Pills Against the Ageless Ills (2001)

folderWeird, but not that weird. Solefald is one of the many “post-black metal” bands that were in vogue about a decade ago. Listening to Pills Against the Ageless Ills reveals the remnants of long-since abandoned ancestors, with tremelo riffing and shrieks breaking through a wide variety of compositional styles. However, the band’s integrated their elements into a distinctive, yet coherent sound that doesn’t break into weird asides as much as bands like Sigh. Best to leave it at that lest I collapse into a mess of conditionals.

Unifying the sounds here is a weird concept album – two brothers (Pornographer Cain and Philosopher Fuck) wander aimlessly through a mindscape of mostly American/”Western” pop culture and catastrophically fail to cope with it. The lyrics here are high on slogans, product placement, and low on narrative, so the overall effect is like looking through a heavily graffito’ed coffee table book of photography more than a novel. The delivery, though, is effective, showcasing Cornelius Jakhelln and Lars Nedland’s infamous dual vocals. Their ability to weave through each other’s lines (and occasionally perform conflicting lines on top of each other) is one of the high points of this band; if you think that might be something you enjoy, you’re probably scrambling for a vendor that sells this album as I draft this review.

After some of the stranger moments on this album’s predecessor (Neonism), the greater unity of musical style here is sort of striking. There’s a particular emphasis on older rock and metal styles even beyond that of a lot of extreme metal, even considering that a lot of it was a fairly common trend for works of this relative vintage; they usually manifest as entire songs in their styles. Probably a better, healthier method of incorporating your influences than random asides, but even those make a few appearances, like the brief flourishes of high-pitched violin on some of these tracks. In fact, Solefald more often adds these ideas by performing them over the more extreme-metal derived foundation of this album, making for a dense and occasionally frighteningly claustrophobic soundscape. It certainly fits the lyrics, at the very least.

I’d like to think that I can provide a more balanced opinion on Pills Against the Ageless Ills – somewhere, somewhen, Solefald claimed their music was perfect; “red music with black edges”, and all sorts of other content hard to judge without access to their motivations. Regardless, I’m not entirely sure I believe that. Unlike Neonism, much of this doesn’t actually stick.

Highlights: “Hyperhuman”, “Pornographer Cain”, “Hate Yourself”

Iron Maiden – Killers (1981)

folderPaul Di’Anno era Iron Maiden is leaner, faster, and nastier than what followed, although much of the fast bouncy shuffle of this album managed to make its way onto The Number of the Beast. Maybe we should be looking not at Di’Anno and instead Clive Burr, who also unifies these aforementioned parts of Iron Maiden’s history? Regardless, Killers is still pretty well polished, although mostly free of the progressive rock influence that bleeds through to many of Iron Maiden’s other albums.

Things aren’t THAT different, since this lineup of Iron Maiden still contains half of of the modern lineup. As such, major elements like Steve Harris’s prominent bass and Dave Murray’s rhythm guitar are still about and recognizable in overall form. The oldcomers, though, seem to play a major role in painting the irons in more blood than later on. Clive Burr, for instance, has a rather busier, denser drumstyle than Nicko McBrain even if he’s generally playing songs with less room for less drums… …the less you try to parse that, the better. Paul Di’Anno has a harsher ‘normal’ voice than Bruce Dickinson, even if he rarely uses the high pitched screams Bruce is known for. I’d say things are executed about as well as on later albums, so your opinion the instrumentation really comes down to personal preference.

Killers‘ real point of interest in the modern era is that it explores a bunch of musical ideas that Iron Maiden generally shied away from. Key to this, perhaps, is the ephemeral NWOBHM “bounce” – like the self-titled debut, it makes use of lots of syncopation, triplet rhythms, and rock-like (vaguely bluesy?) rhythm riffs. “Wrathchild” and “Innocent Exile” come to mind; but the overall effect is an album that sounds rather more confrontational and, in fact, intense, than most this band’s output. There’s also a lot more proto-speed-metal type concepts and velocities floating around. While these ideas had already appeared in metal by 1981, “Purgatory” in particular is one of the fastest metal songs from this era, although supposedly the band tossed around a slower prototype earlier in their life.

In the end, this album sold quite well,although not as much as its successors, and it probably introduced plenty of fresh blood into the genre. Iron Maiden rapidly ceased to be on the leading edge of metal’s push towards brutality (assuming, of course, that they ever were), but you probably don’t care much about that if you can find a place for them in your collection or Spotify playlists or whatever. I would certainly recommend it – it’s a take on Iron Maiden you don’t necessarily see much of given disowned Di’Anno and the mountain of sales that followed him.

Highlights: “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Another Life”, “Genghis Khan”, “Purgatory”