Carcass – Heartwork (1993)


This is the moment where a wide audience actually noticed that Carcass, in all their foundational grindcore gloriness, had become rather more accessible over the years. Their previous albums (even going as far back as Symphonies of Sickness) had steadily streamlined their once sickening sound into something more commercially viable. While debate about why they did this continues even to this day in dark corners of the internet, we’re left with the result. Heartwork is an early example of the so called “Gothenburg” style of death metal – basically traditional/power/speed metal with the velocities and vocal/instrumental distortion of more extreme styles – and a sign that all music is subject to commercial influence.

Part of Heartwork‘s story is the presence of Michael Amott, who started his career in the Swedish death metal band Carnage before making his way across the North Sea. His influence might’ve showed up on his first album with the band (Necroticism), but the fact that pretty much everyone in the Carcass went on to found a hard rock/traditional metal band or two makes it hard to say how much influence he had on the band’s transformation. Either way, the music here doesn’t sound enormously different from its contemporaries; in fact, I’d say the production is actually more abrasive than on the predecessor. The mix is similar in style to that of Necroticism, but everything’s been amped up and exaggerated a bit. Bill Steer no longer provides deep backing vocals, but Jeff Walker’s snarl remains present.

With all the polishing and streamlining, though, it’s the songwriting that takes a hit. Individual riffs and leads here are going to sound fine if you’re okay with the more accessible mode Carcass is writing in. However, mid-period Carcass has a serious problem with filler. It’s not a particularly nuanced problem – there are just too many song sections that don’t add to the overall effect – basic chugs and progressions that come off as an attempt to convince the audience that the band hasn’t lost their edge yet. Now, Heartwork has noticeably briefer and simpler songs than most of the prior incarnations of the band (although Reek of Putrefaction obviously takes the cake), but whereas a better streamlining would discard filler, Heartwork‘s song seem to discard everything – you’ll end up bored and/or irritated about as often as you did on the oft-scatterbrained Necroticism, but if you put the entire album on, the track count will increment markedly faster.

I can’t really speak for Carcass after this, but the whole “melodeath” idea definitely became popular enough after this that eventually bands started doing it better. Maybe listen to them instead?

Highlights: “Carnal Forge”, “Arbeit Macht Fleisch”, “Doctrinal Expletives”

Front Line Assembly – Millennium (1994)


After a couple years of increasingly commercially successful electro-industrial music, Front Line Assembly goes sort of metallic on Millennium. It didn’t get them onto Encylopedia Metallum, but the addition of a guitar attack and a more vigorous rhythmic section did a good deal to harden up the band’s already menacing sound. This is really the perfect album for the 1990s – darker and edgier than before, but still pretty much in line with the evolving trends of the decade’s rock/metal scene. On the other hand, this album is over 20 years old, and trends have changed. Does this album still hold up. The problem with asking me such a question is that like the vast majority of the music reviews here on Invisible Blog, this is an album I listened to fairly recently, so my opinions on it are shaded by the fact I never got to live the zeitgeist (If I had, I would’ve been an exceedingly precocious toddler).

Anyways, I chose to listen to Millennium mostly for its industrial metal sound. Compared to something like Ministry’s Psalm 69, the guitars are relatively subtle, and the emphasis is on how they mix in with the established electronic side of the band. Songs here generally fit into a standard pop mold, albeit with elongated, sample-driven bridges that admittedly vary in how much they actually contribute to the atmosphere. “Industrial”, as a genre, sometimes comes off as a genre more oriented towards film enthusiasts, and to be honest it sometimes tries my patience when Front Line Assembly bases part or all of a song off a couple quotes from some film I probably will never watch.

When the band relies more on their synthesizers and other instrumentation (As I was researching for this review, I learned that Devin Townsend provided guitar work for a few tracks), I find myself far more interested. Millennium sticks to a fairly narrow aesthetic, but the songwriting crew is creative enough to push it in a few unexpected directions, most notably the rap-rock crossover track “Victim of A Criminal”. Bill Leeb’s vocals are also a highlight – his heavily processed tones are an important mixture in the band’s multilayered synthesizer attack, and they effectively set the mood by texture alone, even when the lyrics are a bit hamfisted.

Overall, Millennium sounds strong and has enough of an accessible yet versatile songwriting style to succeed, but I’d probably try to edit out some of the filler if I had access to the master tracks. I don’t know why I feel this way about the album when some of the other filler-laden albums I’ve listened to don’t elicit such a strong response, but maybe it has to do with the whole mechanical aesthetic?

Highlights: “Millennium”, “Search and Destroy”, “Victim of a Criminal”, “Plasma Springs”


Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982)


If I’d went in blind on this album (or deaf, because the music is more important than the cover art), I would’ve expected Charanjit Singh to explore archetypal ’70s disco music on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. Instead, it’s notorious for anticipating the aesthetics and techniques of electronic dance music producers several years later. Between mixing in some elements of Indian classical music, not making much of a commercial/critical impact on its initial release, and then being rediscovered to great fanfare in the current millennium, Ten Ragas was too interesting for me to pass up.

The “classical music” comparison is by far the most important of Ten Ragas‘ many flavors; while India is home to a great many musical traditions, the stereotypical ‘raga’ seems to be the most popular and well known. As far as I can tell, the tracks on this album literally are ragas set to a “disco beat” (more on THAT later), which means plenty of monophonic improvisation over lengthy drones. Structurally, this thing is rigid – every rag begins, proceeds, and ends in a similar if not identical fashion, and Singh generally demarcates this with very specific synth sounds. It does mean that these tracks are mostly interchangeable, even though by virtue of tonality they vary at least a little. I have to admit that I would’ve preferred more variety, but I’ve been known to have a bit of a bias in that regard.

I think most listeners who follow this blog are going to be more interested in the electronic side of Ten Ragas.  Singh produced this album entirely with synthesizers and sequencers, most notably the Roland TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer. These went on to feature in an enormous armada of recordings, and are used here in an archetypical techno-trance fashion. Those who insist on minimalist, repetitive rhythms with an emphasis on evolving sounds will find much to love here. Singh’s emphasis, though, is on the aforementioned lengthy, improvised synthesizer melodies that drive a raga. These are very modal – they never diverges from the scale of choice, and to my understanding there are formal rules being followed here that I don’t know anything about. In the end, the instrumentation makes this sound very much like early house/techno music, especially the rhythm section. The organization, though, is dramatically different, and therein lies the uniqueness of Ten Ragas, and thus your stimulus to keep listening once the novelty wears off.

I don’t know how many musicians have followed in Singh’s steps by explicitly combining Indian classical with modern electronic dance music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the subcontinent’s exerted a more significant role on the many scenes’ evolution than would be initially obvious from your usual historiography. More importantly, I think Ten Ragas is well executed and musically interesting enough to remain interesting after nearly 35 years, but like many of the more minimalistic and ritual music in my collection, it remains situational listening.

Highlights: “Raga Bhairav”, “Raga Bhupali”, “Raga Malkauns”

Martyr – Warp Zone (2000)


Anyone expecting a Super Mario Bros themed album from from this Quebecois band is at best a hypothetical person I made up for the sake of a questionable lead-in joke. I’m sorry to bring such doubt to your existence, but please keep reading the blog, since each view does count. Warp Zone is instead a “technical” death metal album, with a great emphasis on instrumental prowess and unusual musical elements (by the standards of death metal). It’s not as shred-oriented as something contemporaneous like Necrophagist’s Onset of Putrefaction, but the emphases are clearly there. At least on Warp Zone, Martyr gives us a clean-burning, compositionally varied album that arguably dials back the aggression and violence a bit but is still recognizably death metal.

Warp Zone definitely hits my buttons, as it packs a great deal of intricate musical ideas into its relatively short 38 minute length. Martyr experiments with both melodic/harmonic and rhythmic/textural ideas throughout in ways that bring to mind not only earlier tech-death, but some of the more fusion oriented metal bands of the ’90s, in particular the polyrhythm-heavy, jazz inflected Meshuggah (at least from the days before that band went full atonal). The densely packed compositional style is a double-edged sword here, though – some tracks benefit enormously from the number of musical ideas they explore, while others devolve into a boring mess. I usually don’t end up recommending more repetition to the bands I discuss on Invisible Blog, but Martyr might’ve benefited if they repeated the good stuff.

More academically, the ‘riff glue’ problem has been perhaps over-featured here, but it’s at least relevant to a discussion of Warp Zone. Martyr’s musicians are definitely trying to pack more music into a duration than most of the bands I discuss here, so the effort they have to expend to be coherent is c0rrespondingly greater. Ironically, the album seems to come off stronger when you listen to the entire thing than its individual sections. I’m not sure how that came about, but you could probably assemble a reasonable hypothesis revolving around aesthetic coherence, since Martyr doesn’t make many excursions into alternative instrumentation on here. Another possible cause is that due to the generally short songs, any moments that would come off as especially shoddy in isolation get replaced with something similar but better executed in record time.

Either way, Warp Zone eventually ends with a more relaxed outro/summary in “Realms of Reverie”, after which the user has to think about whether their experience was optimal or not. It’s hard to say, really; I have some issues with Martyr’s composition process, but it does produce a few strong tracks and no especially awful ones. If you like this style and vintage of death metal, it might be worth a shot.

Highlights: “Virtual Emotions”, “Carpe Diem”, “Speechless”

P.S: This band has its own screensaver! Check the official website, which… hasn’t been redesigned since the heyday of Internet Explorer 6, but that probably means it’ll run on your old Windows 98 machine. You still have one, right?

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Vektor – Terminal Redux (2016)


Alright, I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. I wrote a quick teaser for this one on DMU when the first single (“Ultimate Artificer”) came out, but had long since finished my tenure by the full album’s release in May 2016. Since then, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the music of Terminal Redux. To get it out of the way after last week’s officially noncommittal “review“: I highly recommend this album to anyone who’s even remotely interested in metal music, and it is definitely a worthy successor to Vektor’s previous works.

Those who have listened to Black Future or Outer Isolation will find much of the same on here – songs composed of numerous fast, technically intricate riffs under ear piercing shrieks and backed up by similarly accomplished percussion and leads. Terminal Redux is a refinement, not a reinvention of past Vektor. The sound and songwriting are just that hint better, which makes sense that the band had an entire five years to refine their craft since the last album. The formulas on display here, though are probably closer to the first album, showcasing a general preference for its style of extended songwriting over the more compact tracks on the second. There’s also more in the way of aesthetic experimentation, as a few tracks on the edges feature sung vocals from both main vocalist David DiSanto and two guest ladies (Naeemah Z. Maddox and RoseMary Fiki) who drop in to help the band respectively charge and recharge the void.

If there’s one thing I could say against Terminal Redux, it’s that it’s edge-loaded, and I feel like by doing so, I’m unnecessarily straining in the name of some unachievable level of journalistic balance. The album feels like it’s strongest at the beginning and the end, and that’s a direct result of them placing the tracks with varied vocals at such points on the album. The more conventional tracks are dumped into the middle, where it doesn’t matter that Vektor’s presumably putting as much effort into them as the hit singles (hypothetical VH1 style tell-all Behind The Music type documentary’s information aside).  This is a 73 minute long album, so even some of the most ardent and enthusiastic listeners are inevitably going to burn out after a while. I suppose I shouldn’t really hold this against Vektor, since it’s a common marketing strategy to put all the standout tracks and hit singles at the beginning, as well as a few at the end in an attempt to hide the use of these tactics from the listener.

Ultimately, the fact I can’t come up with a negative other than “Some tracks are better than others” is most likely going to be what convinces you to support Terminal Redux, and Vektor as a whole.

Highlights: “Charging the Void”, “Cygnus Terminal”, “Recharging the Void”

Future Sound of London – Lifeforms (1994)


More 1990s downtempo ambient IDM buzzword music on Invisible Blog! Compared to the more focused (but still varied) Dead Cities a few years later, Lifeforms is a sprawling compilation of every idea Future Sound of London had in the kitchen sink. It covers enough sonic ground to make describing it as a whole more difficult than it ought to be. Still, this double album is bound together by a few shared techniques, sound patches, and a coherent aesthetic that the retrofuturist types have been slobbering on for a few years now.

One thing I’ve noticed about Lifeforms (which is possibly sort of implied by the cover art) is how organic it sounds at times – it relies heavily on sampled instruments and sampled… samples whereas some of its in-genre competition is more accepting of its own electronic nature (or at least that’s what you’d believe from the more obviously synthetic instruments). Sometimes this borders on soundscapes, but in general FSOL relies heavily on recognizable consonant melodies to drive their songwriting. Possibly unfamiliar sounds and techniques aside, this makes for easy, non-threatening listening; something that you can usually leave on in the background and occasionally marvel at how gradually the tracks evolve into one another. Just keep an ear out for the more menacing second half.

While Lifeforms is “…a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures)” just like its predecessor, the overall arc of its two CDs is the opposite of Dead Cities. Here, the second half is more challenging than the first, most likely peaking with the ritual and outright creepy “Vertical Pig”. It should go without saying that I don’t get the same post-apocalyptic vibe, even in this album’s harshest and most intimidating moments. Much of this is due to the increased variety. On one hand, I’d expect more substyles from a double album just for the sake of not boring the listener. On the other, I think FSOL intended to explore and cover as much ground as possible on this album, even if it means that some of the ideas presented get limited attention at best.

In general, there’s at least one good lesson you can learn from the differences between Lifeforms and Dead Cities – you have to find a good balance between quantity and quality. Lifeforms understandably represents the former, and the extra variety makes for a more dynamic experience, but this comes at the expense of having more filler than Dead Cities. This might sound bad, but Lifeforms also has higher peaks of quality than that successor album, which might be a direct result of firing more shots at the listener. This is something critics are going to have to take into mind if they want to directly compare the albums like I just did.

Then again, my review of Dead Cities ended with me jokingly evading a proper rating of how good or bad it was, so I’m guessing it’d only be appropriate for me to do the same here.

Highlights: “Flak”, “Amongst Myselves”, “Vertical Pig”, “Vit”

Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)


Pestilence’s second album with Martin van Drunen is, to put it academically, chunkier and smashier than their first. Like many death metal albums before the Great Technical Revolution of 1991, the emphasis here is on creating a nightmarish atmosphere; the musicians of Pestilence correspondingly deemphasize the intense speed and instrumental proficiency that defined Malleus Maleficarum. If “early atmospheric death metal with a charismatic vocalist” wasn’t a microgenre before 1989, Consuming Impulse on its own would be enough to codify it. In our timeline, it turns out they had a lot of help, but that’s kind of peripheral.

As the microgenre shtick might lead you to believe, one of Consuming Impulse‘s defining moments is the one where Martin van Drunen truly comes into his own as a vocalist. You get some hints of this on the early tracks, but everything finally clicks on “The Trauma”, as his screams take on an especially dynamic, even tortured sound that competes well with any other famous extreme metal vocalist of the time. Pestilence’s style on their early full lengths is heavy on the vocals (and heavy in general, but you should know that by now), but this album pushes the idea significantly further than the last, which makes it imperative that Martin keep the listener’s interest, even at his voicebox’s expense.

While the rest of Pestilence is simpler, slower, and more direct than they were on Malleus Maleficarum, they still retain their songwriting chops, and therefore do an admirable job. Part of this is that the band keeps some of their more important trademark techniques going – even if there’s fewer and simpler riffs, the ones that are there fit together like lock and key. Consuming Impulse also compensates for its simplification by adding harmonic depth in more places; while previous albums saw some tiny experiments with synthesizers, this album bumps their presence up a bit more. While still scarce, the keyboard/sampling parts on this album are used to great effect, most notably in the breakdown of “Suspended Animation”. Fans and detractors alike of the Patrick Mameli lineup will know how synthesizers eventually became the new Pestilence, but here they are simply effective punctuation.

The strong songwriting and superlative vocals on their own bring Consuming Impulse towards the top of the Pestilence pile. I do have to admit, though, that I’m quite the fan of its predecessor’s pace, even if the atmosphere then wasn’t quite as putrid. Fanciful alliteration aside, they’re both quality albums, and if you’re at all interested in death metal, especially of the sorts generated by Europe, then you should give them a shot.

Highlights: “Dehydrated”, “The Trauma”, “Out of the Body”