Riot – The Privilege of Power (1990)

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I used to use this album’s cover as a background image for my PC. This may have mistakenly lead me to believe I’d already written about The Privilege of Power. Stranger things have happened here on Invisible Blog.

The legends and sagas foretell that on The Privilege Of Power, Riot builds upon the speed/early power metal sound they’d adopted on their previous album (Thundersteel), but also makes forays with the help of Tower of Power into what, for want of a better term, we’re going to call “pimp metal” (which is almost as good a name for a non-genre as “burp metal“). This is the only instance I can think of where a metal band used a funk/soul type horn section to back themselves up, and it directly inspired me to add some brass samples to one of my own tracks back in 2014. You know this album has to have some value based on that, right?

The brass elements here are actually a bit sparser than the buzz would have you believe; they only really play a significant role in two tracks (“On Your Knees” and “Killer”), and are limited to brief stabs and accents elsewhere. In short – The Privilege of Power leans more on its metal side, and in particular on the talents of the band’s main vocalist Tony Moore. Skilled vocalists aren’t exactly rare in the world of power metal, but it’s still good to hear that Moore contributes strong vocal melodies to the content here. The rest of the band, though, while similarly skilled at their instruments and capable of writing good metal music in a way that admittedly doesn’t lend itself well to this blog’s format… vacillates on the songwriting. It’s a problem of similar scope to what I was complaining about last Sunday with Xibalba, but the issue here is the complete opposite. Riot excels at writing fast, vibrant, especially metal oriented songs, but falters on the ballads, which are as sugary as they are generic. I’ve heard far worse, but they come off more as an attempt to pander to a Nielsen-selected pop/rock listening audience than as valuable (if slower and softer) contributions to the album. Another recent comparison comes to mind in the form of Gargoyle, who figured out how to successfully incorporate normal rock into their music, although it took them a few albums of effort.

Luckily, when Riot stays away from the torch ballad Kool-Aid, they do very well for themselves in the USPM ecosphere. Songs here aren’t especially complicated, but I did notice that this is one of those rare cases where aesthetic shifts (read: sampled/sound collage interludes) actually add to the experience. That at least gets peoples’ attention. However, you should definitely stay for The Privilege of Power‘s entertaining riffcraft and songwriting.

Highlights: “On Your Knees”, “Killer”, “Racing with the Devil On A Spanish Highway”

Xibalba – Ah Dzam Poop Ek (1994)

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Nowadays probably known as “Xibalba Itzaes” in most regions due to the efforts of a recently formed and similarly named American band, this band was… most likely influenced by contemporary Norwegian black metal, at least on an instrumental technique and aesthetic level; they even wore the trademarked corpsepaint at times. Nothing new there; Xibalba’s selling gimmick is presumably their influence from Mexican (particularly Mayan) mythology. Toss out the folk interludes and locally sourced instrumentation and it might not be so obvious, but the band’s ability to incorporate this sort of thing without overwhelming the rest of their formula is certainly a sign of skill, and part of what drew me to listen to this one in the first place.

P.S: Part of it was also the title. My sense of humor, as I’ve said before, is so refined and classy that it drinks champagne out of a monocle.

Leaving such sophomoric humor aside, Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s music arguably takes after Darkthrone and other sorts of trebly, blasty, but not particularly fast or violent black metal bands. In its more basic moments, that substyle often directly resembles an exaggeration of its own influences (’80s “first wave” black metal, earlier atmosphere oriented death metal), although Xibalba isn’t always that direct, since they are after all a generation further removed from that style. Outside of their folk traditions, Xibalba doesn’t add anything to the formula, but they importantly know how to write coherent black metal. There are some exceptions – the lead in track (“Furor Antiquus”) doesn’t really capture the band’s strengths; it comes off as undeveloped for having about the same density of ideas as the rest of the songs unnecessarily stretched out. There’s also the 9 minute potato chip munching interlude towards the end (“Bolontiku Vahom”), which might make you hungry not only for salty snacks, but also some variation – Xibalba doesn’t drone well, although to be fair, it is difficult to pull off well.

Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s strengths and weaknesses are cloned from its influences, for better or worse. When Xibalba shows some restraint, they write strong, dynamic black metal with a good ear for melody and song structure. They even pull off some of the more subtle strengths of their idols at times, like vocal variance; that’s a sign of careful study. Unfortunately, Xibalba wasn’t able to follow up on this material with more at the time; they released a short split in 1996 and the tracks from that are usually stapled to the end of this album, but that’s about it until very recently. Still, this album is definitely a local/regional landmark, and it holds up well in comparison to the works of more famous circles.

Highlights: “In Daemones Imperium”, “Sac Ibteeloob Cab”, “Sign of Eastern War”

 

Gargoyle – Tenron (1993)

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I want to say that Gargoyle’s 1993 album Tenron is a mellower and more traditional/power metal influenced take on the Gargoyle sound than its predecessors. Is that accurate? Maybe. Its relatively muted production and obligatory funky soul song thing (“Doumushishubai”) would insist this is the case, but given that Tenron also showcases its share of more intense signature tracks, you could make the case that it’s still a logical step forwards for the band; like Aratama before it, Tenron intensifies through its duration, it refines Kazuhisa “Kiba” Tochihara’s distinct half-growled but half-sung vocals, and it has its share of genre bending wackiness… although this time, just maybe, Gargoyle’s work is more clearly based in rock music?

What makes this album hard to judge from a historical perspective is that it’s more cohesive than previous Gargoyle recordings. Most notably, Tenron‘s stylistic departures have production standards closer to those of the local metal. Whether this is a result of Gargoyle’s guitarists turning down their distortion a bit, or playing more heavy metal and rock riffs everywhere, it’s definitely one way to tie otherwise unrelated works together. My tastes in Gargoyle still run towards the heavier side of their discography (This basically means Furebumi, although Future Drug comes close), so while I’m not always a fan of the mellower sounds on display here, the successful integration of metal elements into the other half has its advantages.

The flipside of this is that Gargoyle also started applying their J-rock lessons more directly to the task of writing power/thrash metal. On previous albums, these ideas were more discrete; here the mixture makes for something of a candy coating that’s sometimes, but not always appropriate (“Shinpan no Hitomi, Unimo Fukezu”). At some point, Gargoyle started rerecording older, heavier songs and occasionally performing as “Battle Gargoyle” when they wanted to ditch the balladeering, so I can imagine that they eventually found the increased melody and consonance often on display here constraining. This is the main weakness of Tenron – while it didn’t take Gargoyle long to successfully incorporate goofy genre bending into their sound, it took them quite a while to really pull off their pop sound. In fact, I’d say 1995’s Natural was probably where that half of the band coalesced; there’s some room for debate, but enough of the pop here is good enough that I’m glad they kept at it.

Ironically, what I’ve found is that the supposedly more accessible Tenron took some acclimation, compared to the instant appeal of its predecessors. If it hadn’t been for its existence, though, I might not have plumed the depths of Gargoyle’s discography…

Highlights: “Amoeba Life”, “Doumushishubai”, “Gekka Ranshou”

 

 

Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)

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I first tried to explore Metallica before I learned to appreciate albums as a whole, and thusly I ended up hearing the title track of Master of Puppets over a year before I heard the rest of the album… which admittedly, I was quick to explore once I found its predecessor to be so mind-opening at the beginning of my initiation into metal.”Master of Puppets” is… not entirely unrepresentative of the various twists and turns in the album it lends its name to, but its breadth of musical concepts stands in contrast to the rest of the tracks, which while extended at points are still more terse and focused. Beyond that, it’s a chance to ride more lightning.

As a refinement as opposed to a reinvention of its predecessor, Master of Puppets formalized Metallica’s speed/thrash arrangements for some time. “Formal” actually is the word you’re looking for, since Metallica put significant effort into plotting out their songs at this point. There’s a much greater emphasis on dynamics and atmosphere this time, so when it’s not being blatantly metallic, Master of Puppets has its share of mellow or at least midpaced moments which generally work, considering that the songs are designed to support them and make them appropriate. The key is that unlike on its successors (And Justice for All, Death Magnetic, etc), Metallica still had some shreds of restraint to keep them from stretching the content here into overly lengthy songs.

Now, given that A. Metallica had already been comprehensively out-extreme’d in the past, and B. Metallica was holding back the heights of their velocity compared to said past, this album’s peaks of violence aren’t as satisfying as they could be. Some of them (mostly “Battery”; its intro is basically the 101 of how to do a lengthy buildup in a metal context) win points more for being successfully elaborate than for any technical wizardry they might accidentally display. It does sort of point to a path Metallica could’ve successfully taken had history unfolded differently – basically becoming a heavy metal/progressive rock fusion band like latter day Iron Maiden or earlier Rush, except this time slightly heavier and more interested in cheap beer. Describing Metallica’s historical downfall, though, takes me too far into the realm of cliches for my own tastes. The fact that so many metal bands deliberately and knowingly imitated Metallica’s formulas speaks well of their influence. I still prefer Ride the Lightning, but Master of Puppets is a close and worthy second place.

Highlights: “Battery”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Damage Inc.”

Razor – Violent Restitution (1988)

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Yeah, this one’s pretty violent. Razor never took the steps into being death metal that a couple of speed/thrash bands did around this time, but within their style this is still pretty impressively fast and aggressive for 1988. On the other hand, Violent Restitution had been at least outpaced by 1986. The extreme metal arms race took bands very, very far in a short time; in the interest of padding I’d like to mention that the “second wave” of black metal was most likely inspired in part by the difficulty of pushing even further without becoming completely incomprehensible. In the wake of the freaks lies Razor, who colonized their own niche of tough guy thrash, never became super ambitious (well, maybe on Custom Killing), but earned plenty of fans regardless.

In short- Violent Restitution likely offers no surprises to an experienced hesher, but part of this substyle’s appeal is its predictability. It does, however, start with one of the longest and most bloodcurdling screams I have ever heard in any genre of music ever; at 27 seconds (!), it is awe-inspiring, at least from the perspective of not having any formal vocal training. The rest of this album otherwise sticks to speed/thrash orthodoxy. Most of its power comes from its rhythm guitars provided by Dave Carlo, which provide enough variety of riff structure within songs to keep things interesting in the short term. The rest of the instruments are… good enough, to put it bluntly; not particularly memorable in my experience, but nonetheless competent and appropriate for the genre.

With a strong instrumental game in its favor, Violent Restitution‘s weaknesses don’t really show up until you try to listen to the entire thing in one sitting. Then things start to get samey. Razor throws in the expected minor variants in dynamics and stereotypical thrash breaks, and unlike… iuno… Death, they do at least have more than one possible song structure to pull on. Still, you end up with a collection of songs that at least initially sound incredibly similar, with less stylistic variety than even Motörhead. When you’re less innovative than a band notorious for writing the same songs over and over again, that’s not a good sign. I’m not familiar enough with the rest of Razor’s discography to say whether they ever dealt with this problem, but it does mean that I take my Violent Resitution in bite sized pieces most of the time. There are plenty of thrash metal albums of similar intensity that also reach further in the songwriting department.

Highlights: “The Marshall Arts”, “I’ll Only Say It Once”, “Enforcer”

Celtic Frost – Into the Pandemonium (1987)

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Without the novelty of Celtic Frost’s sonic experiments to inform my perception of this album in 1987 (I wouldn’t be born for 5 years, my parents weren’t married yet, computer game programmers couldn’t count on joysticks having more than one button), what really ended up shocking me about Into the Pandemonium was how consonant much of it is. Quite a few experiments on this album had their antecedents on 1985’s To Mega Therion, so even if Into the Pandemonium builds on that part of the Celtic Frost legacy (which it does), what I get from it as a very, very posthumous listener is obviously going to be a bit different than the experiences of someone older and more grizzled.

In the interest of understanding the then new, streamlined Celtic Frost, let’s give the first original track on this album some attention. “Mesmerized” is… something, for sure. For instance, it showcases a more melodic riff style that, if not exactly reminiscent of the most popular rock and metal of the late 1980s, fails to drip with tritones and dissonance to the same degree as the band used to back when they were at least partially Hellhammer. It also introduces Tom Warrior’s “melodramatic” style of vocals, and is especially responsible for me overusing that word in this review. I’m not sure how useful it is to whatever CF is trying to portray in these songs, and I’m not exactly sure I even approve, but it sets a mood, and a precedent for future tracks. If cut loose from their adornments, the songs on this album would make for a rather less menacing and extreme Celtic Frost.

Inevitably, when someone complains of a metal band not being as heavy as they used to be, someone else jumps out of the peanut gallery to insist that heaviness and brutality are not the sole determinants of worth in this world. In the spirit of cliches, I’ve made it a goal to assess whether Into the Pandemonium can hold up in spite of its reduced intensity, and my answer probably goes along the lines of “Sort of?”. The kitchen sink of guest roles are mildly interesting for the first few listens, but they don’t really add much content to the songs. There are a few good exceptions, like the successful grafting of symphonics onto “Rex Irae”, or “Inner Sanctum”, which is basically a throwback to previous Celtic Frost. It probably comes down to personal taste, but what really highlights this album’s weaknesses is the fact that so many other bands took any good ideas these songs had and used them in their own work. Time marches on, folks!

Highlights: “Inner Sanctum”, “I Won’t Dance”, “Rex Irae”

Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins – A Scarcity of Miracles (2011)

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This is a King Crimson album. Sort of. Maybe. With the accession of Jakko Jakszyk into King Crimson in 2013, all the named members in the band name are now proper members or former members, for better or worse. It even shares much of its musical ancestry and backing with what King Crimson became (compare to their debut; 40 years can be… disruptive). And yet, this ProjeKct is one primarily of semi-ambient soundscape pop music – not unheard of in short bursts on the band’s mainline albums, but given that King Crimson once contributed much to the musical language of the heavy metal that serves as the bread and butter of Invisible Blog, it still takes some getting used to.

The “genesis” of this album probably lies in Robert Fripp’s experiments with recorded tape loops and similar from the 1970s onwards – aka “Frippertronics”. While A Scarcity of Miracles makes limited use of them at best, Fripp’s experience with such give this project a deep reservoir of experience to draw upon.On the other hand, the actual songwriting is driven more by conventional instrumentation, with the ambient guitarscapes used for texture. That much is probably Mel Collins’ contribution; he helped woodwind up King Crimson in its early days, and I’d go as far as to say that his saxophone parts are one of the most important parts of A Scarcity of Miracles. Still, the overall aesthetic owes more to KC’s latest works, so you shouldn’t expect any lizard or island worship here.

I expect that much of your opinion on this album is going to boil down to your opinion on post-1995 King Crimson. Not everyone who reads this blog has the time to listen to their studio albums and miscellany from that era, but it’s something of a mixing pot; an interesting juxtaposition of both the improvisatory frenzy of their ’70s and the more overtly structured 1980s lineup of the band. While the dynamic levels here are usually pretty sedate, there are some intense moments scattered throughout, and they’re arguably strengthened by their rarity. It still makes more sense to judge this album based on its predominantly ambient passages, though, and this is why A Scarcity of Miracles strikes me as a niche product. It requires deeper listening attention to properly appreciate than its accessible facade of vocals and saxophone might lead you to believe. Even then, it’s not particularly dense, although continued listening has lead me to respect this album for its skillful interplay of instrumentation and ability to turn the famed King Crimson free improvisation in a more consonant and coherent direction than usual.

It’s still not an enormously frequent listen for me, though, but if my music tastes were significantly different…

Highlights: “The Price We Pay”, “This House”, “The Other Man”