Mekong Delta – Kaleidoscope (1992)

folderIt’s been quite a while since I last wrote about Mekong Delta. Their ‘progressive’ speed/thrash metal sound was sort of a staple of my listening rotation back in 2010, especially since this accessible recording was the first that I encountered, but it has admittedly diminished in relevance to me since then. Kaleidoscope is presumably the band at their most laid back and introspective, although it remains within the confines of the band’s chosen genre. It’s consistently “interesting”, for want of a better term, as there’s an emphasis on technicality and musical exploration, but it often leaves me pining for the band’s first three albums, which for all their ups and downs still had most of that while generally being more aggressive and ‘heavy’ experiences.

Given that Mekong Delta’s lineup in the ’80s and ’90s was basically a revolving door of who was who in German speed/power/thrash metal, it’s actually impressive how gradually the sound of the band changed over time. Kaleidoscope owes much of its differences from older material, admittedly, to Doug Lee, a vocalist who joined up on the last album, replacing Wolfgang “Keil” Borgmann and encapsulating the newly more conventional and musically accomplished if less charismatic sound of the band. I don’t know how aware the band members were of various strains of progressive rock/metal at the time; this notably came out the same year as Dream Theater’s Images and Words. However, the approach is obviously different – for one thing, Mekong Delta lacks, and furthermore has always lacked the vocal and keyboard emphases of their rough competitor/contemporary. They’re also less flamboyant in other ways, and generally come off as a highly disciplined and even cold act on this album, seemingly focused on the interplay of their instruments more than individual glory.

The other big part of the pivot towards prog is that Mekong Delta has tried to overhaul their songwriting for slightly extended formats. The rest of the Doug Lee years showcase a bit of this in more ambitious forms, including a 1997 adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Ambition. Kaleidoscope only pushes the average song to the 5-6 minute mark by adding in bridging material to what would otherwise be fairly standard pop structured songs, with… mixed results. In the process of writing for Death Metal Underground (see the blogroll), I spend a lot of time harping on how many bands that try to avoid the basic songwriting cliches fall into various traps. Mekong Delta’s, at least in 1992, is that they don’t do well with their bridges, which are often tangential and come across as filler. The verses and choruses seem to be fine, though, perhaps because the band simply had more experience making the simpler stuff work. In my experience, bands tend to be a bit more holistically good or bad (or mediocre) about this, so I guess that makes this band a rare exception.

Long screed aside, Mekong Delta drew most of my attention for being relatively extreme by the standards of a progressive metal band. My discovery of more intense (i.e death/black metal) bands interested in that form did much to diminish my interest in this band.

Highlights: “Sphere Eclipse”, “Heartbeat”, “Misunderstanding”

Anatomy of VGM #2 – Age of Empires II (Windows)

aoe2When I wrote the first Anatomy of Video Game Music article, I was thinking I would focus more on chip music, since the technical end of such tends to give me some fertile topics of discussion. No such luck with Age of Empires II, though – it relies entirely on music streamed from a CD (or audio files if you’re playing the HD remaster that will serve as the base for this review). What I quickly noticed as friends drew me into playing this game was that the soundtrack direction was rather different than my first impressions of the game would lead me to believe. I usually don’t go into games with strong audio expectations, so this was a bit of a surprise.

Given the sheer amount of civilizations over time that Age of Empires represents (in this installment, the entire world over a millennium), you’d expect a wide variety of instrumentation and style, and for the most part, that’s what you get. There are a few commonalities of note, though – one is that the composer uses a lot of electronic samples – synthetic percussion, ambient noises, etc. throughout the tracks; I found them especially noticeable once I started doing the deep listening I needed to in order to do this analysis justice. It’s one thing to say that it makes for a stark contrast to the film score medievalism, but what I find is that this actually helps tie the tracks together – given the aforementioned scope, some unity comes in handy.

The structure of the soundtrack is a bit amorphous at the best of times, but much of this is probably due to the requirements of VGM, and more specifically the overarching need for the music not to be overbearing or obtrusive. Some tracks are fairly lively, but since this is background music for a video game that isn’t Brütal Legend, it never gets particularly intense. The music actually tends more introspective and subdued in the second half, for whatever reason, at least going by the HD version’s trackination. The first only needs a few more trancey synths tossed into to create some worldtronica recording like Juno Reactor, and since some of the game’s compositions were distributed as MIDIs that are easy to find over the internet, the potential for quick and productive remixing work is certainly there. As far as I know, the streamed audio included with the game was created by playing the compositions on high end audio equipment. That’d explain some of the synth presence, perhaps; it’s definitely hard to resist the temptation to add an instrument to your music when it’s on hand.

Whether or not it’s completely appropriate doesn’t really matter at this point; the soundtrack of The Age of Kings has a certain atmosphere that helps the rest of the game establish its time-sucking qualities. It’s also reasonably lengthy (about an hour; newer games in the genre sometimes have rather more music) and yet repetitive enough to stick in your head. There has to be some merit there. From an article-writing stance, there’s enough meat here that I was even able to discuss the technical aspects of the recording, which makes me happy.

P.S: As proof of how easy some MIDIs make remixing work, I provide to you an arrangement of “T Station” as forced through my current metal music production pipeline. It can’t have taken more than 90 minutes and is a pretty quick hackjob, but you might get some entertainment out of it.


Recovering my past through edutainment and software preservation

This was originally posted on LinkedIn, but I thought it would be a good fit for my personal blog as well, so it’s making its debut here after about a week of exclusivity.



It doesn’t come out as often or as overtly as it might’ve when I was younger, but I’ve always been fascinated by old software. There was a period in the early 2000s where almost every computer game I played was for antiquated MS-DOS systems, and I often spent more time trying to get a game to run properly than I did actually playing the games (this was before DOSBox really became a viable option, although I later embraced it as its functionality improved and I gained access to more powerful computers). Long story short – with a few exceptions, like a huge box of floppies my mother bought me at a garage sale, I relied heavily on the efforts of benevolent archivists to keep myself entertained. Despite all this, and my major/minor combination of history and computer science, I didn’t expect that one day, I would actually contribute to their efforts.
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Ihsahn – The Adversary (2006)


It’s not quite a successor to Emperor’s legacy, but I don’t really think The Adversary (Ihsahn’s first solo album) intended to be.  There’s clear similarities to late period Emperor, but for whatever reason, The Adversary dials down the aggression while retaining most of the extreme metal language, making for an… uh… interesting experience. Let’s get this out of the way – angL, two years later, was basically the same thing except with better execution, sort of making this one obsolete. But if you’ve never listened to either, you probably want to know whether this style is worth your time.

Songs on The Adversary are, despite its ‘progressive’ pretensions, generally fairly short and notably verse-chorus in how they’re constructed, although with lengthy and varied bridges to hide this. On the other hand, they’re chock full of difficult and dense instrumentation, which was a major attractant when I first discovered this album (I think that I first listened back in the earliest days of Invisible Blog, but I’m not sure). There’s a great deal of ornamentation involved, for better or worse, and seemingly more variation in instrumental technique than overall aesthetics. As a result, The Adversary is one of those types of albums where each song is clearly in a different style, whether it be the vaguely traditional heavy metal of “Called by the Fire”, the blasting of “And He Shall Walk In Empty Places”, and so forth. Style shifts are also used to delineate sections, for better or worse.

The pretension just oozes from this album at all times, though. It doesn’t help that the orchestrations behind the metal side are realized through cheap keyboards – similar to those of later period Emperor, but more problematic because the wimpier metal side of things thrusts them into your ears. It’s clear that Ihsahn was trying to create something fairly ambitious, but the general reliance on pop tropes doesn’t do much for it. I guess it’s better than the pseudo-random songwriting that similar acts sometimes go for, but the discord between intents and final product is easily apparent, even when the progressions used to construct these songs aren’t discordant in and of themselves. In retrospect, this problem isn’t far off from what afflicted Emperor later in their career, but IX Equilibrium, for instance, had the mediating efforts of other band members and a more fitting production. All of this adds up to an album that, when I think of it, was never that great once the novelty wore off.

Highlights: “Called by the Fire”, “Homecoming”, “Will You Love Me Now?”

Umberto Eco – Baudolino (2000)

baudolino_smallNow, I generally try to avoid lying to my readers here at Invisible Blog, but the titular character of Umberto Eco’s 2000 novel is under no such obligation. When I first came across the title, I thought I was going to get something at least broadly similar to E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, which is sort of a benchmark for unreliable narration in fiction. Baudolino the character is more of an intentional liar than the confused Brother Medardus from Hoffman’s book, though, which makes for a significantly different experience. Also differentiating this book is Umberto Eco’s hardcore philosophical background, which bleeds through on more than one occasion and turns Baudolino into a debate on the very nature of truth and reality.

When it’s not waxing philosophical, Baudolino takes the form of historical fiction. The longer (and better) half of this book follows the eponymous (Piedmontese) Italian, as he exploits his ability to learn languages and lie without remorse to have all sorts of adventures throughout Europe. Baudolino immediately gets himself tangled up in the ambitions of the historically real Frederick I Hohenstaufen. Frederick spends much of his life trying to impose the might of the Holy Roman Empire on Baudolino’s native Italy, but Baudolino increasingly attempts to steer him towards a far greater land – the mythical kingdom of Prester John. In the process, he makes the acquaintance of Parisian university students, has some wacky misunderstandings due to the sordid state of medieval geography, and eventually ends up turning a failed crusade into a pilgrimage to the lands of Prester John.

As you might know from reading Invisible Blog and my other works, I am a complete history nerd, and I found that Baudolino’s interactions with medieval Europe from Paris to Byzantium made for great reading. He gets to participate in the formative era of the great Italian city-states, tries to seduce Frederick’s wife, tries to write his own vernacular language in an age of Latin supremacy, and various other adventures. However, Baudolino’s rather more ‘fantastic’ adventures once his entourage passes out of modern-day Turkey (or the Caucasus or northern Iran, I’m admittedly a bit unclear on this) jump more sharks than Arthur Fonzarelli on water skis. I’ve been known to dip into fantasy fiction occasionally, but the bizarre and incoherent nature of the lands Baudolino visits on his search for the kingdom of Prester John did little to keep my interest, bearing more resemblance to a senseless theological debate than coherent worldbuilding. This might be a veiled look at how Umberto Eco perceives reality; throughout the book, Baudolino’s entourage discusses in great depth the legends they’re dealing with and the possibility that there might be any truth to them at all. They don’t make much headway in their debates, especially since they spend much of them dosed up on a potent psychoactive drug (referred to only as “green honey” in the book). It certainly alters the tone of the book, even if you’re aware of Baudolino’s unreliability as a narrator.

A common trend with my book reviews, especially for books that are divided in any sort of sections, formal or informal, is that I end up covering a lot of books where I significantly favor one part over another. Baudolino is definitely like that, and my biases as a reader are hard to overcome. Still, I recommend the first half of this book; you might be able to trudge through the second half once you’ve invested in enough in the first.

Capsule Reviews III

I thought these weren’t going to be a ‘regular’ feature back in 2013, but “approximately one per year” seems like an acceptable rate of introspection these days. 2012 was an… interesting year for Invisible Blog. I was trying to launch a great deal of projects and also trying to promote First Contact Is Bad For You. In the mean time, I did a lot of non-music writing for various reasons. Despite this, I ended up with plenty of music to re-review.

Gargoyle – Furebumi (1990): It’s still great. Were you expecting any less? While Gargoyle has produced many strong albums over the years, I think this one might still be the best of their discography for its overall intensity. It makes for a rather different experience than many of the other power-thrash metal hybrids I’ve collected due to its apparent J-rock influences and occasional diversions into such styles, which would become more prominent at various points in their career.

Dissection – The Somberlain (1993): It’s still lame. Arguably, the first half of this album is consistent, but compared to something like Sacramentum’s debut, I’m underwhelmed. The Somberlain doesn’t have much direction in its songwriting, and it completely collapses in its second half. Word on the street is that Dissection’s career was all downhill from there..

Therion – Lepaca Kliffoth (1995): This is arguably where Therion jumped the shark, although I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that they managed to pull off their new symphonic style pretty well on later albums. This album is arguably strongest in its sparsest moments most reminiscent of the band’s death metal past, but these days I even derive some enjoyment from some of the sillier, more operatic tracks like “The Beauty in Black”.

Enslaved – Eld (1997): Hard to say how actually good this is these days. Its greatest weakness, as I see it, is that it’s more formulaic than Vikingligr Veldi. There are still some strong, atmospheric tracks on this, including the epic “793”, and it does effectively incorporate some aggression into the band’s sound without going totally overboard like its immediate successor.

Sigh – Infidel Art (1995): Probably the start of Sigh’s ambitions proper, because Scorn Defeat was certainly more conventional of a black/doom album (not entirely so). Infidel Art is full of consistently lengthy songs that probably could’ve used a bit of editing to remove some of the more incongruous elements, but it’s still a fine work, and it makes for good contrast with their more rock-inflected later works.

Sorcier Des Glaces – Moonrise in Total Darkness (2006): Since it’s better produced than either version of Snowland and a bit more varied in its overall approach than The Puressence of Primitive Forests, this is the SDG album that gets the most spintime on my computer. Not that the others are bad, but this one feels… special. I still need to check out Ritual of the End one of these aeons.

Susumu Hirasawa – Blue Limbo (2003): I haven’t comprehensively followed Hirasawa’s works since 2010/2011 or so, but Blue Limbo was basically the peak of the Southeast Asian influences (and sampled vocals) in his work. To be honest, I found some of the slower and more ambient tracks required some acclimation to get used to back in the day. It’s hard to be objective about some of these albums, since I’ve been listening for so many years. You’d think these capsule re-reviews would help, but sometimes they just don’t.

Absu – The Third Storm of Cythraul (1998): This might actually be better than Tara. It’s not as fast or technical, but it seems to have more coherent songwriting in general. Not sure what’s up with that. On the other hand, it doesn’t have “Stone of Destiny”…

Nightfall – Athenian Echoes (1995): As an awkward fusion of extreme metal tropes with minor “gothic” and “industrial” experiments, this is at best, the sloppy second tier of Greek metal. I’m sure the band tries, and some of these tracks are fairly ambitious, but the execution is wanting more often than not.

Desultor – Masters of Hate (2012): Extreme power metal is definitely a thing, although the varieties with actually sung vocals are a bit rare. This makes Desultor’s debut extra special, at least by accessibility standards. Unfortunately, the band apparently went on hold, if Encyclopedia Metallum is to be believed. I’m sure other bands will take up this substyle if it’s of any value, though.

Like the 2011 edition, this episode is full of albums I still enjoy, although not entirely so. That would render this issue pointless, if you ask me.

Sigh – Gallows Gallery (2005)

folder_smallAfter going full on classic rock on Imaginary Sonicscape, Sigh was like “Let’s do that again!”, and thusly made Gallows Gallery, which is even more like old rock and metal than its predecessor. Huge synthesizers and actually sung vocals make for an experience that isn’t necessarily unlike the predecessor, but before this, Sigh tended to change the sound of their albums by diverging as opposed to evolving. After this, I can’t say. Despite this, it’s surprisingly not Sigh’s most accessible album due to its absolutely ridiculous production (which, before being remastered, was falsely marketed as using “Japanese World War II sonic warfare techniques” in its production). If that makes for an odd juxtaposition, then arguably this isn’t in need of a review, because it means Sigh has succeeded at their apparent mission.

On the other hand, it’s important to actually judge execution, so we continue onwards. This specific mixture of old styles with new aesthetics and distortion reminiscent of the whole “power metal” movement, so I feel justified in thinking of this as something of an extreme power metal album. I’ve mentioned how far Sigh strayed from their black/doom roots on multiple occasions, but I imagine it had to be blindingly obvious by the time this came out. It helps that Mirai Kawashima switches from harsh growls to clean (albeit heavily processed and harmonized) singing. It’s hard to judge his technique given the production, but he takes a lot of queues from the King Diamond school of vocals; often high pitched, sometimes full-on falsetto, and generally quite integral to the songwriting.

The sonic (*cough*) end of this album deserves some mention even without some of the claims attached to it. It’s loud. Gallows Gallery blasts for almost all its duration, and this can really shred your ears if you’re not careful. The original master was apparently worse in this regard – it was produced in a way that hid various layers of the music and otherwise made for an even harsher listening experience. Given the sheer quantity of instrumentation on this album, anything that makes things more intelligible is an improvement. On the other hand, this runs into similar problems as other extremely and consistently loud albums – besides the obvious ear fatigue, constant dynamics remove one of the most effective ways to distinguish tracks from each other, and given how much Sigh relies on the same basic musical language to construct songs here, that’s not a great thing.

It’s no wonder that I only really end up listening to this album when I’m in the mood for something especially rock oriented, and even then, this album has to compete with the more nuanced work on Imaginary Soundscape.

Highlights: “Pale Monument”, “Confession to Be Buried”, “Messiahplan”