Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (1986)

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Rust in Peace is more intricate and technically accomplished, but Peace Sells is by far the “coolest” album Megadeth ever released. We’re still not entirely sure what it means for an album to be cool, but in my defense, it was the 1980s, and if you had a guitar, everything looked like a metal album. Either way, Megadeth’s flashy, stylish take on speed/thrash metal was fully formed by this point – better musicianship than Metallica, with most of the aggression from the debut album amalgamated with more polished production and songwriting. Let’s be honest – it’s a good formula. In a year notable for its revolutionary metal recordings, Peace Sells was far from the bleeding edge, but it still draws blood to this day.

To be fair, it takes Peace Sells a while to fully bare its fangs. The first few tracks tend more midpaced than a lot of the material on Killing Is My Business, which is arguably enough to push something like “Wake Up Dead” or the title track into accessible MTV metal territory. I don’t want to speculate too much about why for lack of information about the circumstances. Still, I think this album (and more generally, Megadeth as a whole) is most effective in its most intense and flamboyant moments. Even in 1986, it was a band full of flashy musicians who needed as much space as they could get to show off their shredding skills, and anything short of it feels limited by comparison.

For whatever reason, I’m inclined to value the musicianship on Peace Sells more than the compositions. When I wrote about Rust in Peace, I mentioned that even in their heyday, Megadeth had some composition organization problems that dogged them even at their arguable songwriting peak. These problems are present here too, but perhaps less noticeable here due to the simpler songwriting. It’s primarily an issue of individual riff glue; for whatever reason, the big picture and overall sectioning of songs isn’t as affected. It also helps that Dave Mustaine is in full charismatic vocalist mode. As far as I know, he relied ever more on flat growling as he and Megadeth got older, so it’s nice to hear him varying things up more on here. It should go without saying that successfully incorporating multiple styles of vocals into a metal album (or even just enough variation on your chosen technique) can help add flavor to your album. Beyond that, it’s good for gluing everything together.

Whether or not this album is better or worse than Rust in Peace might not be the best avenue of inquiry, now that I think about it. They’re both important Megadeth milestones.

Highlights: “The Conjuring”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”, “My Last Words”

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Disharmonic Orchestra – Not to Be Undimensional Conscious (1992)

not to be undimensional conscious.jpgOnce upon a time, Austria was the center (figurative, not geographic) of a large and powerful empire ruled by the house of Habsburg. Now, it’s the birthplace of one of the most confoundingly named albums in the history of humanity. Despite this, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious isn’t half as strange as its name might suggest; it takes the form of a musically adventurous death metal album with fewer trips into the bizarre and obviously avant garde than you might expect. In short, while the brief rapping section in “The Return of the Living Beat” begs to differ, Disharmonic Orchestra has more in common here with the planet’s contemporary techdeath offerings.

Not to Be Undimensional Conscious gets to join the ever growing armada of obviously liminal albums reviewed here on Invisible Blog. A lot of this is because its more sanely named successor (Pleasuredome) was the sort of more experimental recording this one’s name lead me to expect, but signs of that future were already present here. This album is driven by its tension between the chunky, abrasive mix and its convoluted, strange writing. The album sounds clear enough that its angular riffing and abrupt song transitions can shine forth, but I can’t help but wonder if it might’ve been better served by a cleaner and more orchestrated sound. Spheres by Pestilence makes for a good comparison, but Disharmonic Orchestra isn’t trying to push the envelope quite as far here.

Ultimately, if you want to enjoy DO #2, you need to be able to attune to its take on death metal. If you like constant code switches between the band’s death/grind roots and the more bizarre and dissonant riffs, you’ll probably have a good foundation for appreciating what they’re trying to do with their songwriting. I feel like the rest of the package isn’t especially notable, though. The possible aesthetic mismatch is one thing, but this album has some of the most acceptable performances I’ve ever heard without pushing into meaningfully good territory. It’s not studio perfect, but it’s reasonably close by the standards of 1992. About the best I can say is that there’s prominent basswork, and a decent chunk of variety in the percussion. The weak point is probably the vocalist – Patrick Klopf has a good mid-ranged death growl, but he doesn’t do much to vary it in even subtle ways, making for a monotonous performance. Oddly enough, this stood out the most on my initial listens, perhaps for its unending cadence.

In recent years, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious strikes me as the foundation for a good death metal album – something you could elaborate on and expand to get something both interesting and pleasingly skull-crushing. Without that extra effort, though, you’re left with something bland at best.

Highlights: “A Mental Sequence”, “Groove”, “Idiosyncrasy”

Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)

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Nothing to see here, folks. Just one of the most famous rock albums of all time. Odds are that if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the Anglosphere, you’ve at least heard “Bohemian Rhapsody”, though I’ve my doubts as to whether you can safely listen to the rest of this album without being hunted down by vengeful radio executives seeking to enforce ever greater homogeneity on their audiences… aside from that, this is still a continuation of Queen’s previous albums. A Night At The Opera‘s major achievement in that context is to ratchet up the prog rock side of Queen’s sound to what is probably a career high. Progressive rock is good, so that’s good, right?

For what it’s worth, A Night At The Opera isn’t far removed from previous Queen albums despite the shift in its emphases. You’re still getting an experience that balances precariously on the edge of its own hard rock edge (!) and its glammy pomp and circumstance, but the arrangements have become more elaborate than before. “Bohemian Rhapsody” really is the album in miniature, seguing from (amongst other things) piano ballad to an elaborate vocal “opera”, with some heavier rock sections gluing everything together for good measure. Again, this overall style of composition wasn’t new for Queen, but this album does showcase a more cohesive take on this sort of genre bending than, for instance, “The March Of The Black Queen” in spite of its greater ambitions. It’s good that Queen kept pushing further back in their heyday.

While this might be due to radio overplay, I actually find the most enjoyment in A Night At The Opera‘s deeper cuts. They are responsible for most of this album’s aesthetic diversions; they also give Roger Taylor and Brian May chances to take lead vocals for variety’s sake. In general, Queen favors aesthetic diversity over cohesion here, while using conventional pop/rock structures more often than you’d think. This comes up a lot on Invisible Blog (and my claims that it does so aren’t far behind in number either). For what it’s worth, though, Queen seems to be pretty good at obsfuscating this fact with their flair. I’m not entirely sure if these structures are more conventional than previous Queen albums, but it does mean that songs that aren’t intentionally extended and prog oriented feel more streamlined than before. The band eventually switched their entire output to the pop styles, so it might be for the better that they got in a bit of practice on these earlier recordings.

Regardless of how many antecedents of future Queendom you can find on here, the mixture of extra progisms and musical elaboration does add crucial longevity to A Night At The Opera‘s shelf life. Previous Queen albums were good, and this one isn’t much different, so you can get an idea of why this became popular.

Highlights: “Death on Two Legs”, “I’m In Love With My Car”, “The Prophet’s Song”, “Good Company”

Amorphis – Tales From The Thousand Lakes (1994)

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Here’s a strange liminal album. When I first sat down and listened to Tales From The Thousand Lakes, I was expecting that the band would’ve kept more of the death metal elements of their first album. Instead, Amorphis spent the entire album prototyping their current sound. Tales From The Thousand Lakes, for better or worse, has little interest in capturing any of the death metal songwriting that Amorphis had previously subsisted on, but for whatever reason it retains dark, murky production values that, as far as I know (and let’s be honest, I don’t, since my Amorphis familiarity halts and catches fire after Elegy) have long since been abandoned for brighter, more accessible sounds. In short, this feels more like the Early Access version of Elegy than it perhaps should, with the caveat that I might only feel this way due to my personal experiences with Amorphis.

So what does this mean? First of all, Tales From The Thousand Lakes shares that broad aesthetic of dreary, cold, rainy days that occasionally burst into explosive sunlight; that much it presumably shares with the non-death metal era of Amorphis. The songwriting tastes of old, primeval rock and metal albums from the ’70s and ’80s, with special aesthetic notes taken from the era’s progressive rock and synthesizers; those in particular are irresistible bait for someone like me. There’s more doom and a rougher, nastier production than what future albums would provide, but I suspect that given the modern take, most of the content here would fit flawlessly along the band’s modern content. Still, we end up with the same sort of synesthetic mastery of atmosphere and mood on Tales that permeates the band’s discography. The more I listen to Amorphis, the more I suspect this was a major part of what earned them their fame.

Interestingly enough, one thing that Amorphis managed to preserve from The Karelian Isthmus (besides the growls) is the overall strengths and weaknesses of their songwriting. In some cases, the problems with riff glue and overall song structure that album suffered from are even more pronounced than before – the tracks here are littered with irrelevant asides, wasted intros, all sorts of writing jank that grinds my gears. Yet again, the strength of individual song sections (as well as a few tracks that manage to merge all of their ideas into a coherent whole) salvages a lot of the material here. We also are blessed by the peculiar, nasally clean-sung vocals of Tomi Koivusaari. They are something less than technically proficient, the few sections he provide add an eerie, otherworldly sheen to some already evocative music. I guess they’re supposed to be folksy; it’s perhaps more important to the overall sound that it feels like that’s supposed to be the case than that they’re authentic. Still, it’s a strong addition to the album, and a unique one in light of Elegy‘s more conventional singing.

To be honest, I was expecting to write a far more critical review of this album when I decided to talk about it. Perhaps I would’ve, had the vocal histronics not suited me, or had the band’s growing ear for songwriting not made itself apparent with repeated listening. Instead, it turns out that I’ve found more in Tales From The Thousand Lakes than I was initially expecting.

Highlights: “The Castaway”, “Black Winter Day”, “Forgotten Sunrise”

Kreator – Extreme Aggression (1989)

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A long time ago, I took German classes in school. Kreator is a German band, so I figured I could name drop them during one of my homework assignments. I think I did pretty well on said assignment, but it’s been many years. Digressions aside, Extreme Aggression has the bizarre honor of noticeably less aggressive and extreme than its predecessors. It sort of makes sense when you think about it – you can pick any year around that dawn of the final decade of the second millennium and reasonably label it “peak thrash”. If Kreator’s personnel (or management) decided they ought to soften their sound a bit, it would explain why the album is so inappropriately named, but we shouldn’t dwell on that too much.

As far as I’m concerned, Extreme Aggression does have a few tricks up its sleeve that previous Kreator albums didn’t. Perhaps most notable is that it’s got the most extremely aggressive dissonance of anything they’d released to that point. This is essentially the peak of the Kreator riff (read: consonant major keys interval arranged in dissonant, even atonal patterns) in Kreator’s music – when Frank Blackfire joined up for Coma of Souls, they essentially disappeared. This extensive dissonance was more than enough to grab my interest in my earlier metal listening days. Even now, it adds a lot of color and flair to what is otherwise a fairly polished and streamlined speed/thrash album.

While I miss the extreme aggression of this band’s previous work, Extreme Aggression actually benefits from its streamlining. Admittedly, this is in subtle ways – it generally manifests as a steadier, more coherent sense of songwriting than before, with fewer awkward asides, better transitions between song sections, and higher riff density than before. This actually combines very well with this era of Kreator’s guitar creativity – to overextend the previous color metaphor, honed technique allows Kreator to effectively use a wide palette for stronger aesthetic/emotional effect than before. The rest of the instrumentation is not as varied, and the loss of Ventor’s vocals in particular robs the band of one of their most powerful weapons. However, I’d argue that it’s more than sufficient that it plays a good supporting role for the fretwork, at least in this case. In short, it’s the combination of the signature riffs with a better songwriting foundation that makes me keep coming back to this album, even though the loss of production values does not at all suit it.

To be fair, every one of these golden era Kreator albums has something in its favor. Metalheads can’t really go wrong per se. I would argue that Extreme Aggression takes longer to gel in your head, but the payoff is worth it.

Highlights: “No Reason To Exist”, “Stream of Consciousness”, “Some Pain Will Last”

Anatomy of VGM #16 – Tyrian (1995)

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This feature is based off the definitive release (Tyrian 2000), and the AdLib version of the soundtrack.

It might not be a major theme here on Invisible Blog, but I have never been a big advocate for Yamaha’s OPL2/OPL3 sound chips (often sold as part of an AdLib sound card), at least not in isolation. FM synthesis has a very particular sound that’s well suited to certain styles of music, but many of the compositions for these chips (read: An enormous compilation of DOS games) disregard this, to questionable results. As a result, the gap between good and bad OSTs for DOS games is enormous! Tyrian is very definitely on the good side, and it is my go to game for anyone who wants an idea of what an expert can do with an Adlib.

Tyrian‘s music is about equally split between fast paced, upbeat synthpop/rock songs and more evocative, theatrical filmscore type music. Most of the tracks here were written by Alexander Brandon, who would go on to write more ‘tracker’ type music for games like Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex throughout the ’90s. A few were handled by one Andreas Molnar, who also apparently served as the sound programmer (at least for the Adlib version of the music). Tyrian‘s musical prowess is the result of their close collaboration, as the tracks here both play to the strengths of the OPL chips and demonstrate solid writing. The most obvious example of this is the variety of audio effects Brandon and Molnar pull off – ADSRM tricks in the instrumentation, screaming pitch bends to simulate guitarwork, pounding echoing percussion where a lesser sequencer would be limited to mere taps and tinkles. These types of tricks help add aesthetic flavor to the music at hand.

Since Tyrian‘s music exists in more forms than Adlib in an attempt to support more sound cards, we have to take a closer look at the writing to get to the heart of why it’s so well regarded. There’s a few factors here – I mentioned the broad types of music it contains, but for its length it’s an especially varied soundtrack, constantly exposing the listener to new musical ideas as they blast through the game’s generally short levels. In general, it holds these together with a focus on simple, direct, poppy writing focused on hooky motifs. Probably the best example of this is “Rock Garden” – a rather obviously named rock song that puts the OPL to good use with surprisingly realistic guitars (given the technology). It’s also based around two riffs with alternating guitar and organ solos. There’s not much there, but what IS there is as expertly honed as a carved diamond. The less rock-oriented tracks maintain this focus on leitmotif, from the soaring chords of the Asteroid Dances, to the complicated interplay of synth in “Tyrian: The Level”, to the driving energy of “Gyges”, and so forth. In short, while you could easily do more ambitious things with the Adlib, this comes off as more of an example of how to push a subset of its abilities to their limits.

The rest of Tyrian is good too, and you can play it for free nowadays due to the generosity of its creators. The other systems in the game could fill weeks of coverage here on Invisible Blog if I were so inclined.

Orbital – Snivilisation (1994)

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Where do I even begin with this one? Orbital is one of those bands that insists on having a unique identity on each of their albums. If I understand this one’s context correctly, Snivilisation is the weird album – the one you’d insert into your brand new multimedia PC with Windows 3.1 to show off your cool new CD player when you weren’t playing Myst or Spaceship Warlock. It’s also more subdued and contemplative on average than the last one. So we’ve got a somewhat ambient, but also occasionally very silly recording, with a random punk rock song dividing it into halves that aren’t all that different from one another. There’s not much in the way of metaphors I can apply here, so the best approach is to try and figure out what makes Snivilisation snivel.

As a general rule, Orbital isn’t especially dense or overwhelming, but this is one of their sparser albums, more focused on maximizing the payout from its constituent parts than introducing new ones into songs. Samples here are especially relevant; if you ask me, Snivilisation has an optimistic, technophiliac sheen to it that’s admittedly most prominent during its sillier tracks. Case in point – “Philosophy by Numbers” is essentially a commercial for some unknown continuing education service on top of a dissonant drone, but it fights for space in its mix with screeching trumpets and increasingly complex tonal percussion before fading out. Why not find it to find out more? Orbital’s snark is more restrained in other tracks, but it’s certainly a different emphasis than, for instance, the deep and rich melodic development of In Sides.

For all of this, Snivilisation still has the Orbital trademarks and relies heavily on them. Its songs are still based in the ambient/techno approach that made the band famous. One thing that particularly pops out (even in a discography that generally emphasizes it) is the emphasis on vocals. The samples are an obvious case, but outside of a plethora of EPs I’ve not listened to, this appears to be their first recording with apparently non-sampled and obviously word-flavored vocals (“Sad But True”). I can’t actually make them out, and I’d guess they’re more for effect than anything. In this case, I’d say it’s more useful as an example of how to incorporate human singing into this sort of electronic music without obviously switching to a more conventional pop approach.

There’s still some analysis I need to do to really get everything Orbital’s attempting here, but I’m certain that Snivilisation is one of the stranger and more whimsical EDM recordings of its era. If you need your EDM to be strange and whimsical, you’ve come to the right place.

Highlights: “Forever”, “Sad But True”, “Kein Trink Wasser”, “Attached”