Orphaned Land – Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven (2004)

folder.jpgOrphaned Land’s 3rd album sees them abandoning their religious themes. Instead, we’ve got a fantasy story about a mad god destroying its own creations in a fit of narcissistic rage because they dared think of anything other than utter submission. Did I say they abandoned the religious themes? I may have (deliberately) lied. Mabool is, to my understanding, Orphaned Land’s first concept album; it continues the Abrahamic religious unity themes, continues to strip out death/doom roots from the band’s sound in favor of orchestration and folky progressive rock, and it feels more consistent than their more obviously liminal second album (El Norra Alila).

The push away from overt metal elements is pretty much Mabool‘s defining characteristic, at least compared to the previous two albums. It’s most obvious if you listen to the guitars, which have been simplified substantially from something that already wasn’t especially complicated. Mabool instead channels its instrumental energy into keyboards, vocals, and a couple of acoustic instruments for good measure. If you’re familiar with some of the big pioneers in symphonic metal, then you’ll probably recognize this as part of their playbook – a shift from horizontal complexity to vertical complexity, because there’s only so many sounds you can stack before your mind gives up and decides it is listening to noise. In this case, I think the vocal side of this album is one of its strongest points – the arrangements are all over the place and used to great effect, and the musicians’ singing technique has advanced quite a bit in the intervening 10 years since the debut.

One thing that’s been consistent, though, is Orphaned Land’s actual songwriting. They still rely primarily on a musical “journey” to shape each track – with emphasis more on exploring a wide variety of musical ideas than exploring a smaller set to their maximum extent. This synergizes well with the extended instrumental palette, but I’d say that the reduced metal/riff complexity doesn’t align well with that approach. If you’re paying any degree of attention and are familiar with the band’s previous material, you’ll hear how much the guitars in particular are relying on simple chugs and grooves in an attempt to convince you that this is still a metal album. As a general rule, I prefer the tracks that emphasize this side of Orphaned Land, but ultimately, it falls to the nonmetal to keep Mabool afloat.

Ultimately, I view this album as something of a peak for Orphaned Land’s non-metal elements, and it’s definitely the slickest and most lasciviously (don’t look at me like that; after all, Babylon was a supposedly den of impiety) produced thing they’d released in their career at this point. Long term listeners might end up favoring Sahara‘s deeper attunement to metal, but even that’s not certain, given just how well Mabool does everything else.

Highlights: “Birth of the Three”, “The Kiss of Babylon”, “A Call to Awake”

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Univers Zero – Ceux du Dehors (1981)

Ceux+du+Dehors+cover.jpgDoes Ceux du Dehors (which I usually refer to by its translated English name, “The Outsiders”, because I can’t tell French from fromage) have an identity of its own? I can hear the most rabid of Univers Zero’s fans calling for my blood for suggesting it, but you can’t deny that its approach is somewhere between the albums it’s chronologically sandwiched between. I couldn’t tell you why that ended up happening, but gradual evolution perhaps isn’t unheard of. If I had to be more specific, I’d offer that Ceux du Dehors instrumentally takes more after 1313 than Uzed, but it offers some of the streamlining and lighter tone of the latter while also absorbing some of the nightmarish seething chaos of Heresie. In short, it’s at least a good jumping off point for exploring this band, at least if you value getting a little of everything they did in early on.

It might just be the instantaneous introduction of “Dense”, but what I’ve noticed about Ceux du Dehors is that it emphasizes speed and technical playing to an extent that seems unprecedented in Univers Zero’s work. While UZ hasn’t put out a halfheartedly performed album to the best of my knowledge, it still makes for an interesting divergence from the norm. A few tracks showcase a more lethargic, ominous style for counterpoint and balance, and even “Dense” trades in its density of notes for density of oppression for its sludgy coda. I don’t particularly have an opinion on whether the enhanced technicality is a good thing, but it it does seem to be this album’s calling card.

If you aren’t willing to check out Ceux du Dehors on account of velocity alone, though, then what reason is there to check it out? If you asked me, I’d say this is where Univers Zero finally figured out how to write effective shorter songs, which has to count for something. On “Bonjour Chez Vous”, for instance, they abandon the pointless noodling of earlier efforts to write something that feels more focused and coherent. It’s probably also worth noting that this attempt ends up sounding more consonant and melodic than a lot of preceding Univers Zero pieces – as previously mentioned, this is a trend that would continue in their later material.

Being so archetypal does remove a lot of its potential for distinctiveness, but if you’re at all interested in Univers Zero, you’ll most likely find Ceux du Dehors to be just as essential as their other albums. The high standards the band sets continue here.

Highlights: “Dense”, “La Corne Du Bois Des Pendus”, “Combat”

Obliveon – From This Day Forward (1990)

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From This Day Forward’s mixture of death metal, thrash metal, and progressive rock tropes might take some getting used to if you’re not, for instance, familiar with its successor. Before that midpaced, tightly coiled and rhythmically powerful slab of multigenre rolled off the CD presses, though, Obliveon’s debut focused more on melodic development and ambitious songwriting. Make no mistake of it – it’s still a metal album, but compared to the grooves that follow, it actually sounds more like an ancestor of the “melodic death metal” that devoured the last few years of the previous millennium. Between bands like this, Voivod, and Gorguts, Quebec had an early advantage in metal innovation beyond what its manpower of only a few million could muster.

Ironically, this album leads off with a title track that of all the content on here most resembles Obliveon’s later works. The song “From This Day Forward” contains more dissonance and vocal emphasis in its DNA than what immediately follows, so relying on it as an indicator of the album as a whole is a poor idea. If I were to nominate any one track as From This Day Forward as its exemplar, it’d have to be “Droïdomized” – a mostly breakneck work of deaththrash with a lengthy catalog of riffs and loads of consonant melodies. It fits as both representation and what is likely one of the best songs in Obliveon’s catalog, showcasing not only a strong balance between the band’s apparent influences, but their synthesis into a coherent whole.

Given the limited budgets of death metal past, and Obliveon’s relative obscurity outside metalhead circles, it’s a wonder that the sound of the album manages to fit so well. Nemesis, a few years later, would nail its colder, more methodical approach with a sharp and clear production; while From This Day Forward doesn’t sound as incisive, its somewhat warmer production is more suited to the dynamic and structural variety it enjoys. More importantly, this is a very clear production that gives plenty of space to all of the instruments, including often-neglected basslines. To be fair, the first track has a sharper guitar tone; Encyclopedia Metallum claims this was recorded a few months after the other tracks. The rest of the album potentially could’ve benefited from sounding like this, but such a hypothetical version of the album would have to exist for me to pass a useful judgement.

Ultimately, this album forms another part of Obliveon’s glorious legacy; it also represents one of the early salvos in what would eventually become techdeath. The band would eventually decide they wanted to be Fear Factory, but that’s a story for another day.

Highlights: “Fiction of Veracity”, “Droïdomized”, “It Should Have Stayed Unreal”

Anatomy of VGM #13: Mega Man 3 (1990)

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Seems like every other installment of this series has a disclaimer about me using some random variant of the game’s boxart. In this case, the European version adapts content from the Japanese boxart and throws in an especially ghastly Doctor Wily for good measure.

This is my (admittedly biased) vote for the best Mega Man game on the NES. For the most part, it sticks to refining and iterating on the strengths of the previous two games in the series, and it hit just before the series began to get stale. The music, however, is more of a departure. The first two Mega Man games have driving, focused soundtracks that are definitely simple and accessible, but more importantly well written and memorable. Mega Man 3 is the first in the series to diversify its music beyond that formula. Capcom has had mixed luck with this approach, but I’d say it generally works well here. The actual reason for this change might be due to a roster change in the music department; in the case of Mega Man, this appears to have happened for pretty much every game in the series. MM3 was composed by Yasuaki Fujita (“Bun Bun”) and the otherwise unrelated Harumi Fujita. To my knowledge, neither of them contributed to the games surrounding this entry. All this shifting gives each game in the series its own unique character.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed, though, is the instrumentation. Capcom’s games for the NES used (as far as I know) a very rudimentary sound driver that leaves much of the NES’s potential unused. If you’re a chip aficionado, you might be familiar with some of the neat things you can do with the console’s sound chip- sampled DPCM, complicated waveforms, neat tricks with noise generation, and so forth, but Capcom sticks to a pretty limited subset of NES audio. This isn’t innately a bad thing, but like most simple instrumentation, it means your actual song structures have to be very on point, since you can’t rely on wacky effects to grab people’s attention quite as much.

As mentioned, Mega Man 3 takes a less “direct” approach to songwriting than its predecessors. The actual compositions for instance are a bit longer; not immensely so, but enough to increase the pure amount of ideas the songs explore. We’ve also got more ornate instrumentation, particularly in the percussion – some of the robot master themes in particular have a more off-beat feel to their rhythms. The actual melodies employ a lot of counterpoint and ornamentation that wasn’t really present before. Harumi Fujita’s contributions in particular seem to double down on this oblique approach. To be fair, there are a few tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place in the previous game – Top Man and Spark Man are the closest fits, as far as I’m concerned, but overall the emphasis is more on instrumental interplay than big, obvious, monophonic hooks.

It seems like this attempt at more complex songwriting influenced the rest of the Mega Man games on NES, for better (Mega Man 5) or worse (Mega Man 4). It’s basically the NES equivalent of playing with fire – you can end up creating some surprisingly sophisticated tracks if you succeed, but if you don’t know how to manage your complexity, you can end up with some awkward, stilted-sounding tracks. Still, Capcom seems to have had enough success with the approach this game employed that it influenced even the revival games’ sounds… although by the time Mega Man 9 came out in 2008, the barriers to writing chip music had all but collapsed, so it wasn’t exactly hard for that game’s composers to go as nuts as they wanted. Either way, Mega Man 3 has long since sold me not just on the gameplay improvements it made over its predecessors, but the soundtrack improvements as well. It’s a good entry point to the series, too, so if you’ve never played any of the Mega Mans… you might as well get on that, lest you be ostracized and thrown into a pit of fire for failing to join an early millennial’s millenarian Nintendo cult.

Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)

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Now, I’m no theologian, but it continues to surprise me how little I’ve actually written on Genesis in recent years. Foxtrot was not my first foxtrot with the band (that would be Selling England By The Pound), but it seems to be the one that’s stuck with me the longest. It’s a good entry point into the progressive rock half of Genesis’s career – more developed and assertive than their early work, more consistent than the two after it, and reasonably comparable to the first few studio albums with Phil Collins, too. It took a few more years for the bandmembers’ individual musicianship to fully blossom, so as far as I’m concerned, Foxtrot is defined mostly by its commitment to extensive songs and vocal roleplay by Peter Gabriel.

Foxtrot takes only seconds to reveal the progress of keyboard technology and arguably the limitations of the band’s budget at this point with a short prelude on mellotron, before the fast and still relatively ornate “Watcher of the Skies” properly kicks in. It immediately strikes me that this type of track would very much benefit from a harder edged production to fit its bombast, but in 1972 that was a very inexact science that few had even attempted. The mixjob here might not be particularly great for the first track, but it actually suits some of the later, gentler tracks quite well. The best I can say about it, though, is that it doesn’t get in the way of the band’s songwriting.

Even the most superficial look at Foxtrot should make its progressive rock orientation apparent. Four of the six compositions here are lengthy narratives that wander through many aesthetics and substyles. One thing that Genesis particularly excels at on this album is pacing; while deciding how long to focus on a specific leitmotif isn’t the most obvious sign of mastery, they achieve a good balance, whereas a lesser band might end up barraging the listener with their entire idea set or dragging out every half-decent concept until it loses its luster. Peter Gabriel’s vocals in particular are worth a mention – as I previously mentioned when discussing his successor, he exemplifies vocals for roleplay and variety as opposed to vocals as a binding substrate. When you’re trying to make a 23 minute epic like “Supper’s Ready”, complete with a cast of colorful characters and a plot seemingly ripped from the Christian Bible (PSA: Genesis is not and never was Christian music), it helps to be able to do all of the voices. The fact that Genesis was able to adapt once Peter Gabriel left the band is perhaps miraculous, but definitely a story for a different time. Suffice it to say for now that Foxtrot is much enriched by its vocalist.

If Foxtrot has detractors, they must be very few in number, at least amongst fans of progressive rock music in general. It really is one of the high points of the genre.

Highlights: “Watcher of the Skies”, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”

Re-Review: Monstrosity – Millennium (1996)

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KZc1qAFCMyA/maxresdefault.jpgTime sure flies, doesn’t it? Millennium had the honor (?) of being the topic of my first non-introductory post on Invisible Blog, therefore predating pretty much all of the traditions I established over the years. My opinions on it have evolved over the years, but I figured it might be good to give this a more informed and more detailed look given just how long it’s been since I first listened to this. After all, my initial rationale for listening was entirely due to this being the spawning point for George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, who promptly joined Cannibal Corpse after recording this album.

Compared to Cannibal Corpse, at least their contemporary albums, Millennium showcases a more clinical, technical take on death metal, favoring intricate rhythmic interplay and a hint of melody. It’s definitely not the faster, looser style that CC seems to have preferred at the time. In fact, I still think Deicide, especially on Legion is a closer match for this substyle of death metal, at least on a deep structural level. Monstrosity unfortunately has to labor under a deeper, bassier, muddier production that I don’t feel is particularly well matched to this specific style. To be fair, the mixjob is competent and actually shines on the slower parts of this album (in particular, “Fragments of Resolution”), but to push the Legion analogy further, I’d apply that album’s overall sound to this one in a heartbeat if I could.

Despite my initial lunge for Monstrosity’s music, Millennium took more time to gel in my brain than initially expected. Despite out-teching most of its apparent inspiration from the early ’90s, this is still a sparse sounding album that doesn’t have many gimmicks to distract from its death metallic bread and butter (the closest, perhaps, being occasional bass solos). When Monstrosity succeeds here, it’s because of a few things – first, they have a relatively expansive sense of songwriting – not full on prog, but varied enough to help keep the metal interesting. Corpsegrinder helps, too, although his expertise here is more in providing a standard death metal growl and doing it really well than being especially dynamic. This album’s MVP, however, is probably the drummer – one Lee Harrison who has briefly performed with a couple of more famous acts, but has generally spent his musician time here in Monstrosity. He exemplifies the instrumental prowess and varied performances that make Millennium worth a listen more than any of the other band members. I have to preface my praise of drummers with the claim that they usually don’t draw my attention, and this is no exception, but it does not in any way diminish his contributions to the skilled instrumentation that propels this album.

The novelty of Millennium‘s music and lineup have long since worn off, but ultimately, this album is solidly built, and it will hold your attention with (ironically) its attention to detail.

Highlights: “Devious Instinct”, “Manic”, “Mirrors of Reason”

Jannick Top – Infernal Machina (2008)

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This is a Magma album in all but name. Jannick Top played bass for Magma for a few years before going off to form his own series of projects. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again –  performing with Magma has wide-reading and permanent effects on your musical approach, and in some cases may result in you forming your own band. Infernal Machina is admittedly separated from Top’s contributions to the band by over 30 years, but its similarities to its ancestor are no less for it, and zeuhl fanatics who haven’t already listened to it are probably already grabbing copies as we speak.

Inconveniently, Infernal Machina is broken up into twelve arbitrary sections, which make little sense in isolation. This isn’t unheard of for the Magma ecosphere, so it sets expectations – this album only really makes sense if you listen to a large chunk of it in one sitting. To be fair, you can reasonably break Infernal Machina into two or three sections (depending on your system of reckoning), but there are no real gaps in the tracks, so it’s best to assume a united composition. The pacing is admittedly quite slow – Jannick Top apparently relies even more on grooves and repetition and improvisation to drive his tracks than Christian Vander’s already jazz-funk inflected writing for Magma proper. Add to that a generally “heavier” sound from plenty of distorted rhythm guitar, hyperactive percussion, and the occasional dissonant wails (Part VI) and you have something that sounds very different from your stereotypical Magma album despite sharing much of its DNA.

In fact, Infernal Machina shares so much of its theming with its magmatic predecessors that it might be a crutch. The reuse and recontextualization of previous leitmotifs from Magma’s discography/mythology I can understand; I’d go as far as to say the mainline Magma members made excellent use of this on Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré (this album’s rough contemporary, and the sole reason computers have a ‘copy’ function). That album was composed largely of previous Magma material that had already been recorded in chunks, but that worked because the enhanced production, careful transitions, and better pacing made everything gel together. It also helps that Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré emphasized the dramatic, dynamic side of Magma. Infernal Machina problematically falls short in terms of overall organization and coherence, though. At times, it feels like it relies more on the shock value of its relatively novel instrumentation than any real interesting content.

I was expecting to enjoy Infernal Machina rather more than what ended up happening, if only because it initially read as more ‘brutal’. Even stripped of those expectations, though, it still falls short as a continuation of Magma’s legacy. Those who want heavier zeuhl will have to look elsewhere.

Highlights: “Part VI”, “Part VII”, “Resolutio”