Flash Fiction Month #6, Episode 4: Perfect Sound Forever, But An AI Continues It

This one was inspired by a conversation with my brother, but also by how drastically the way we consume music has changed in recent years. I mean, compact cassettes were still mainstream when I was a kid! I had one that could play tapes back at 2x speed for instant hilarity. Anyways, read the last installment here, and read last year’s installments here.

Have you ever wondered why the VHF bands been full of increasingly alien and bizarre music for the last few decades? To understand, you have to go back to the death spiral of broadcast radio.

It was the mid-2020s. Radio stations had been hemorrhaging listeners to online streaming services for years, and trying to staunch the bleeding by playing ever less music over time. The real problem, though, was that our musical preferences were getting more complex and harder to pin down. I think it was the folks at Maximum Tune (a big conglomerate that controlled a third of the market back in the day) who figured out a better solution – instead of using unreliable, chaotic analytics from listeners, why not just simulate their preferences based on demographic data, and use that to make decisions about what to play?

I guess the only surprising bit about all this was how quickly all the radio stations jumped on the bandwagon. It mean they’d be free of deviant audiences demanding esoteric and commercially nonviable music for good. Licensing costs dropped, advertising revenue increased, and anyone who really cared how homogeneous things had become had abandoned ship a long time ago. It was truly a golden age for radio executives!

With the continued march of computing technology and AI, it was only a matter of time until simulating listeners’ musical preferences was deemed insufficient. The inventive marketers at Maximum Tune were never content to rest on their laurels, and in collaboration with quantum computing companies introduced the world’s first fully simulated radio listener. General AI was still a while off, but the simulated audience was sophisticated enough that it could listen to broadcasts, form preferences, change their preferences slowly over time, and most importantly, communicate those preferences to the executives running their software.

You should know the story from here – Maximum Tune promised perfect realism from their sims, and the industry quickly spun up enough of them to far outnumber legacy humans. After all, even the most dedicated radio fiend had to eat, sleep, and otherwise divide their attention from market research! The music industry took a while longer to account for the musical preferences of sims, but they eventually came around, churning out a series of ever more optimized hits and bangers. But it seems that the sims have a rather different idea of what constitutes good music than you or I. I still try to listen to FM radio sometimes, but all the latest tunes sound like the demented rambling of dying machines…

Now, as a final profit maximizing measure, I’m told Maximum Tune plans to use the latest research in AI to replace all employees with simulated AI, from the lowliest secretary to the CEO herself. I don’t know the specifics, but I would be very surprised if the employee sims didn’t come with out of the box values drift support. If my hypothesis is correct, then who knows where the new leadership at Maximum Tune will take the company over time? I only hope they don’t try to expand into making paperclips…

Flash Fiction Month #6, Episode 3: The One With The Paper-Thin Premise

Don’t be like Nathan – check your calendar before you hit up your local governmental offices for services! If you’ve ended up on a day where the bureaucrats whose services you require are unavailable (and even if you haven’t, of course), you can whittle away the time by reading previous installments, such as the last one, or the Endian Project themed ones from last year.

After much prodding, Nathan resolved to capstone his mountaineering career by scaling Mount Carta. Legends said that the civil service of the United Republic of Monticello lived and worked upon its summit, and Nathan’s reasons for wanting to talk to them were as good as any – he needed the forms to apply for a small business permit, which he would then use to get his dreams of a music store out of his head and into the world.

Once upon a time, high winds had regularly eroded Mount Carta enough to making scaling it trivial. Over time, though, the lower layers had compacted enough to counteract this, and as such, the mountain was now growing faster than it ever had since its tumultuous founding. You might say it was expanding to meet the needs of Monticello’s growing bureaucracy. Nathan would tell his friends that nothing would shake his resolve, and he was right – until the first paper cut struck. Nathan had traversed the low, rocky outcrops that demarcated Mount Carta proper from its foothills, only to find himself walking on sheet after sheet of paper, whether it was thin crumbly newsprint, or ordinary printer paper, or even fancy stationery… and now it was splattered with stray drops of blood!

The thought of damaging such important documents, even if only inadvertently, was enough to make Nathan panic. His previously measured pace gave way to mad scrabbling, as glossy papers slipped out from under him. Any time he’d spared to read the words printed on these papers was now spent entirely on his desparate attempt to finish his journey. More than once he lost his footing; his wounds, once scarce and superficial, began to pile up. Some hours later, he found himself at the top of the mountain, but with his entire body covered in lacerations. if only he hadn’t prioritized the documents’ well being! He’d have been able to bandage himself and staunch the bleeding.

At this point, Nathan spied the central governmental offices of Monticello – a monumental palace in a Classical Revival style popular two centuries ago. Normally, its courtyard would be bustling with the activity of bureaucrats and senators, but it was eerily silent. He stumbled over to the door, only to find it locked. Someone had taped a note to the doorknob, which read, “CLOSED FOR REMEMBRANCE DAY”.

Nathan had come all this way for nothing.

There was nothing to do now but head home and try again next week.

He resolved to purchase a pair of hiking gloves to protect his aching hands, before turning his thoughts to the descent.

Flash Fiction Month #6, Episode 2: Another Modest Proposal

I recently returned from a short trip to the Berkshire Mountains, where I spent a lot of time in restaurants either eating food or waiting to eat the aforementioned food. Did you know the Berkshire pig is a particularly prestigious breed? Anyways, you can read the last installment here, and 2020’s entries here.

This is the hardest and most time-consuming part of your job – convincing the food to be food. You work in batches when you can, but your customers are insatiable. Ever more meat, spice and token offertories of collard greens and other ‘sides’ must land on their plates for you to curry their favor (though you assume actual curries would get you excommunicated). There’s no getting around it. It’s time to talk to the pigs again.

Read more…

Flash Fiction Month #6, Episode 1: Of Souls and Torment

As far as I can tell, Invisible Blog has now had more years featuring a Flash Fiction Month than not. How’s that for institutional? As usual, you can read last year’s installments (which were Endian Project themed!) here. This year, though, we return to the classic anything goes approach of the past.

You ever get the feeling that some of these are just fishing for controversy? That being said, any resemblance to real world events and organizations are entirely coincidental. (FYI: I changed the title on this one.)

By the time you read this, it will be too late for me.

I have spent my life studying the Book of YONAH and the other foundational texts of the YONAHite faith. Around me, the world burns. I feel the pulse of Sin and vice coursing through the world. The Proclamation of Revelation indicates to anyone who will read it that the Crucible beckons – the time of troubles where YONAH will personally descend to Orth to test the faithful and cast those She deems unworthy into the Soul Forge, where they shall burn in eternal agony, as they fuel YONAH’s next creation. Revelation also proclaims, most ominously, that when the Crucible arrives, Orth will have so degraded that none will considered worthy. Only those who have already died and passed on to Sanctum will be safe from the Soul Forge.

Through my readings of YONAHite scripture, I am uniquely qualified to divine the truth – that while there is no way to ensure your own salvation, it is entirely possible to rescue the virtuous from an unjust fate. The commandments I cite are as thus:

  • A suicide is a mortal Sin. YONAH has no patience for those who buck the wills of the Cycle.
  • The Tests of YONAH only consider what the faithful have done of their own will.
  • YONAH shall not expel an obedient and faithful soul from Sanctum under any circumstances.

In the name of preventing Sin and suffering, it is my holy duty to convey as many souls as possible to Sanctum. As such, I began to identify candidates amongst the populace – the most virtuous by far of us; saintly exemplars of the Path of YONAH, well suited for Sanctum’s glory. Knowing that informing the candidates of my plan might harm their virtue of humility, I kept my plans for their salvation a secret until such time as I knew I was ready to assist them. Then, without warning, I would appear to them bearing the Hammer of the Redeemer. Legends say this divine instrument was itself forged in Sanctum and brought to Orth as a sign of both YONAH’s charity and Her omnipotence. I wielded it crudely, perhaps, but effectively. Several decisive blows from the Hammer caused the examplars’ bodies to die, freeing their soul to enter YONAH’s Antechamber and, if my judgement was correct, pass on to Sanctum.

Thus far, I have sent twenty three souls to sanctum, preserving them at the height of their virtue. This is a prime number, and therefore particularly sacred to YONAHites. I shall continue my work of redemption for the rest of my life. Make no mistake of it – I know that my actions are in most circles considered murder, and for my supposed crimes I expect I would be executed if caught. Eventually, I will be judged by YONAH. I have no doubt that She will condemn me to the Soul Forge for the blood I have shed. I maintain, though, that my cause is just. YONAH wouldn’t seek to punish my exemplars on account of my noble sacrifice, right? They’ve done nothing wrong.

Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile (1999)

The Fragile is a small glimpse into a version of the 1990s that passed me by… because I was seven years old when it came out. Seven year old Jess was more interested in the Pokemon anime and Rollercoaster Tycoon, if I remember my chronology right. Trent Reznor, on the other hand, was dealing with drug addiction and occasionally putting out chart-topping industrial rock anthems. Definitely more challenging than my own life! Either way, Trent’s efforts give us an album striking a tenuous balance between industrial rock/metal aggression and dark ambient soundscapes. Keep this and such things as his contributions to Quake‘s OST in mind, and you’ll be on your way to a comprehensible time.

So The Fragile is a double album, replete (perhaps even ripe) with both of these aforementioned aspects of NIN. It seems to follow the general arc of The Downward Spiral, in that the front half is more energetic, but later songs are more downtempo. Between this, the overall instrumentation, and Trent Reznor’s signature edgy lyrics of self destruction, you’ve got another installment running on the same formula as before. The main difference, at least my appraisal, is quantity as opposed to qualities. If you’ve formed an opinion on The Downward Spiral, you should be able to adapt it to The Fragile without too much trouble.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t deep delved NIN’s gloomier side outside of the hours I’ve spent playing Quake; it generally doesn’t speak to me in the same way that the louder and faster material does. Just my general appetite for speed and violence in music coming to the forefront. I found The Downward Spiral wasn’t quite in control of its powers when it slowed down (compare to Broken, which mostly doesn’t stop). This one, on the other hand, pulls it off better. I think the big change is that a lot of the balladeering better channels Trent’s skills in making filthy, distorted soundscapes. There’s also a subtle sense of leitmotifs running throughout The Fragile‘s songs; “We’re In This Together”/”La Mer”/”Into the Void” is the obvious example. This is surprisingly helpful in tying the album together, especially on repeat listens where you can start piecing together the connections. It also means there’s more ideas to glom onto even on the softer and sparser songs. I’ve read a lot of reviews criticizing this aspect of The Fragile, but I don’t agree with them. Album cohesion is a good thing!

I don’t know how I’ll feel a few years from now, but The Fragile has sold me on the idea of a more elaborate and diverse NIN, even if the angsty, neurotic core remains and still powers the whole thing.

Highlights: “The Wretched”, “The Great Below”, “Into the Void”, “Starfuckers Inc”

POLYSICS – National P (2003)

Hypothesis: National P is the most POLYSICS album ever recorded.

Read more…

Mekong Delta – Dances Of Death (And Other Walking Shadows) (1990)

This album is a massive headache if you’re a shuffle play aficionado like moi. Here begins my obligatory rant about trackination – if you’re going to write one big song, put it on one track. Don’t split it up unless you can create chunks that function on their own and aren’t just transitions between song sections or what not. In the interest of healthy blood pressure, this is where I’m going to leave it. I’ve kvetched about albums that grab my attention better than Dances of Death, and I might as well leave space to vent my other grievances.

Dances of Death was our formal introduction to Mekong Delta’s brand new vocalist – enter Doug Lee, formerly of a band named Siren that I’ve certainly never heard of. The folks at Metal Archives say he contributed lyrics as well as shrieks and clean singing, but I don’t know how much he actually contributed to the band’s songwriting process. Either way, his approach here is more along the lines of his predecessor than the more restrained style he’d go for on Kaleidoscope. In fact, the music as a whole resembles The Principle of Doubt and that whole previous era of thrashy Mekong Delta, but it’s clear to me that things have subtly changed since then. Everything is just that hair less intense and demented than before. To be honest, I’d pay much less attention to it if I wasn’t aware of Kaleidoscope‘s (partially successful) modifications to the formula, but the point remains.

In practice, this is one of those albums I can’t really criticize from a purely academic standpoint. The musicianship and technique remains tight and proficient, and there’s plenty of intellectually interesting ideas to extract from these songs. Why then do I find this less compelling than other Mekong Delta recordings? I think it comes down to dynamics and variety. The first problem (admittedly another niggling one) is the poor production, which makes things sound chalkier and more washed out since they’ve been since the debut. There admittedly are dynamics, as the sudden acoustic sections in “Beyond the Gates” and other tracks force me to admit, but they’re pretty binary and don’t offer me much beyond simple contrast. This problem in particular comes to a head when Mekong Delta decides it’s time to cover Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain”. Now, Mussorgsky is kind of this band’s muse (though they’d be pretty modest about it were you to ask); I was interested to see how they’d deal with the various moods present in the original piece. But ultimately, Mekong Delta’s take doesn’t really capture the nuance of the original. This is a pretty serious problem in metal covers of classical music – it’s hard to stay metal and capture all the dynamic range. I figure there’s a way to do it, but it probably takes a pretty significant reimagining of the source material! Perhaps something to look into for my own works, perhaps?

Either way, Dances of Death is bookended by better Mekong Delta albums. If you didn’t have access to any of those, though, perhaps this one would appear to suffice?

Highlights: “Beyond the Gates”, “Days of Betrayal”, “True Believers”

Aphex Twin – Classics (1995)

A selection of primeval techno cuts, not interpreted but instead compiled by our good friend Richard D. James? Sign me up! Apparently. Classics includes tracks from several Aphex Twin EPs from the early 1990s (as well as a few oddities like two remixes of Mescalinum United’s “We Have Arrived”), giving you a pretty good idea of what RDJ was up to when he wasn’t selecting ambient works. Back in the day, that meant hardcore techno and acid music. If you’ve been sensible and wise during this COVID pandemic, you probably haven’t been hitting up the clubs that traditionally served as this sort of music’s habitat, but having some place to listen to this sort of music might sooth your weary mind.

That being said, Classics is fundamentally linked to the rest of Aphex Twin’s discography in structure, if not always in overall style. I can’t claim 100% experience, but RDJ has written many a song that relied on repetition and slow evolution to get its point across. There’s more compact and dynamic exceptions, mind you. That being said, the classics on Classics strike me as particularly minimalistic and drawn out. Is this what the underground ravers of the ’90s UK wanted? It’s not just minimal – RDJ really brings us the harsh, abrasive minimalism in ways that remind me (very, very, very loosely and only in spirit) of extreme metal. That aspect shows up all over the place if you listen to enough Aphex Twin, mind you. Either way, it’ll take you a while to figure out all the subtleties of the Classics if you’re the contemplative listening type like me.

I’d say there’s a fundamental incompatibility between this one and me, actually! As previously mentioned, this tastes like clubbing music, incomplete without a hit of MDMA and the lights, noise, and sweat of a discotheque, and the frenzied gyration of your ecstatic body putting you in an transcendent headspace. I am very much not optimized for such spaces. The very act of dancing is bound up with gender presentation issues that I admittedly haven’t fully resolved. Amongst other reasons, that’s why my deepest engagement with music comes through focused, contemplative listening. A lot of the material on Classics is, when torn from the physical setting it was originally born in, too sparse for my tastes. Ultimately, though, those are just personal preferences, but I typically crave the more refined material RDJ would put out even only a few years later. Maybe you’ll feel otherwise?

Highlights: “Flaphead”, “Isopropanol”, “Tamphex”, “Analogue Bubblebath 1”

Anatomy of VGM #27 – Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped! (1998, PS1)

Here it is, folks – the Crash Bandicoot game I put only a perfunctory effort into. Luckily for me, souls more patient than I have invested countless hours into both the PS1 original and the N. Sane Trilogy remaster. Kind of funny how that happens with the megapopular games! From what I’ve seen of Warped, it’s got the most gameplay substyles of the PS1 trilogy by far, which could grate on you if you liked the more focused, but still polished platforming of Cortex Strikes Back. That part I’ll leave to public opinion, but to get it out of the way – the music on Warped continues to approach the platonic ideal of what a Crash soundtrack should sound like – Saturday morning cartoon music with plenty of atmosphere, but also with a strong emphasis on coherent song structures and catchy melodies. As is tradition on Invisible Blog, I frequently pose the question of “does this work succeed?” at the end of the first paragraph, as if I don’t already know the answer, and today’s no exception!

Successful or not, the Crash games have always been interesting to write about from a musicological perspective. Josh Mancell has a distinct aesthetic as a composer that pervades all three of the PS1 series (and presumably CTR as well; I’ll get back to you on that if I ever play it), and it continues to evolve here. The moments of darkness from Crash 1 are more or less gone here, pretty much in favor of more genre experimentation. This does result in an overall more diverse soundtrack. One side effect is that the N. Sane Trilogy remaster adds fewer composition changes than before, mostly limiting itself to percussion and some degree of ambient sound effects (one major exception being the Arabian themed levels). There’s one exception, though. Warped now has dedicated bonus stage and death route themes, which in practice is closer to how Crash 1 handled it. I much prefer this approach to Crash 2’s “worse song using the same instrumentation as the main stage” method, but I’m admittedly very biased. Either way, it does contribute some cohesion to the end result.

Other than the genre bending, I’d say Warped‘s music mostly just iterates on its predecessor in sensible ways. I mentioned the songwriting in particular. The tunes in these games originally had lots of melodic asides – phrases interjected for reasons I didn’t find entirely clear, to the point that I perceived them as senseless noodling. Mancell cut down on those a lot for Warped, which I appreciate a great deal! That being said, he figured out a better way to work in asides; ironically, he does so by incorporating more drastic rhythmic and textural changes than before. That helps with overall contrast, making for more interesting transitions and otherwise resulting in a more dynamic product.

Overall, while it’s not something I expect to listen to all the time, Warped really makes the Crash Bandicoot songwriting formula gel together like never before, and that’s worth commemorating.

Aborym – Generator (2006)

I listened to Generator out of inertia. With No Human Intervention had rewarded my 2009 brain with industrialized black metal goodness (though its flaws would become more obvious over time), so it seemed pretty likely that this one would do the same. Over time (and with the admitted help of Kali Yuga Bizarre), I began to suspect Generator had the same issues, despite the rotations in its personnel summoned by the cruel flow of time. Nowadays, of course, it has much stiffer competition from all the other metal/electronic fusion work I’ve discovered in my time on this planet. Dirty‘s release back in 2013 also complicated things by giving us a glimpse into how to successfully evolve this formula. Remember – nothing exists in isolation.

Back to isolating Generator‘s core characteristics, then! You’re still getting the promised melodic black metal/industrial fusion, though there’s less techno asides per capita than on the previous album. More often than not, songs here use synth patches and samples to accompany the more typical black metal, though there’s still a few interludes (like the factory soundscape at the end of “Ruinrama Kolossal S.P.Q.R.”, which is the most absurdly industrial black metal name for any song) that get more prominent over time. The production has improved a bit, mostly by virtue of bringing in a real drummer to replace the machine on previous duties, as well as clearer guitars. Generator is also noticeably shorter than With No Human Intervention, but while everything would point to a more focused end result, song structures here remain pretty haphazard and arbitrary, which is unfortunate.

Besides the songwriting issues, it doesn’t feel like there’s much that’s overtly wrong with Generator. I remember reading some complaints about the Charles Manson interview samples coming off as edgelordy, but it’s all mechanical men to me. In practice, this album is actually pleasant to listen through despite its eccentricities! I might be running on nostalgia fumes and an overall affinity for this style, but at least in the moment I can overlook a great deal of its flaws. It’s only when I sit down and try to analyze it that I’m able to question Generator. That being said, I’m also the type to analyze my music, and having an understanding of why this one kept bugging me for years is helpful, even if just in the “maybe listen to something else instead” sense.

Either way, if you really want to hear another Aborym album, and the others aren’t doing it for you, Generator will increase the amount of Aborym content you have access to. But that’s all I can really say for it.

Highlights: “Disgust and Rage”, “Generator”, “Suffer Catalyst”

Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion (2020)

Let’s get it out of the way – Spirituality and Distortion is possibly the most streamlined thing Gautier Serre has ever released as Igorrr. Given how his signature baroquecore is always on the cusp of descending into nonsense (for better or worse), this actually has the potential to be a good development. My initial impression was that Igorrr’s collaborators via Öxxö Xööx were further exerting their influence, but yet again, things are never that simple. Curse the tyrannical rule of nuance here at Invisible Blog! Silliness aside, I’m pretty sure Öxxö Xööx fans will have a good time with this one, even if they haven’t totally couped this album.

Let’s get it out of the way – you’re still getting baroquecore – that patented mixture of 50% metal, 50% glitchy electronica, and 50% wacky acoustic instrument shenanigans (for reference, Planepacked is typically 50% metal, 50% classical, and 50% tracker music. The numbers aren’t supposed to add up properly). At some point, Igorrr stopped using samples from other musical sources, which doesn’t really make things less wild, but definitely tones down the previous sound collage angle. Everything else in Igorrr’s palette remains on Spirituality and Distortion, and I’d go as far as to say there are direct references to Savage Sinusoid in places as well (“Musette Maximum”, mostly). Otherwise, the main thing to note about this album is that there’s more of it; songs are both more numerous and larger than before.

The main strength of Spirituality and Distortion, therefore, is probably that it’s a deeper Igorrr album than average. Having more room for extended compositions helps, but taking time to flesh out musical ideas instead of overriding them with asides does as well. This is where streamlining can actually help you out! Another thing – the Serreverse consistently excels at vocals, but the harmony singing on here is on another level here. Other instruments seem to be on the same performance level as before, but they were already in a good state, so that’s not saying much. Still, the longer and more coherent songs comes close to putting Igorrr in the prog camp, which is saying something even accounting for Öxxö Xööx. The flipside, though, is that all of the other musical experimentation has deprived us of breaks and glitches that we’d otherwise get our hands on. They still pop up occasionally to provide much needed texture, but if the funny computer noises were what drew you to the Serreverse (here, I raise my hand), you’ll miss them more often than not and crave the few throwbacks on display here.

All of this adds up to more of a stylistic change that leaves Spirituality and Distortion orthogonal to its predecessor, if admittedly in predictable ways. I seem to enjoy both local optima, though.

Highlights: “Downgrade Desert”, “Camel Dancefloor”, “Himalaya Massive Ritual”, “Polyphonic Rust”

Tricky – Pre-Millennium Tension (1996)

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment (Caveat: I wear US women’s 11, so there might be a few of you who can’t quite fit). I grew up listening to lots of classical and jazz music before discovering interests in metal, IDM, progressive rock, etc. Along comes Tricky, who is… well… tricky. I peered into his discography first because the nice folks at Pandora radio pointed me in that general direction. The call to Pre-Millennium Tension, though, came from the thousand lakes of Finland, though admittedly filtered through the free copy of Control that came with my current computer’s GPU. We really should talk about that game at some point, shouldn’t we? But first, this middle finger to the music industry.

Pre-Millennium Tension is a tale of Adrian Thaws trying to buck his reputation as a creator of trip-hop. He failed to shed the label, but created a difficult and experimental album for his troubles. It’s full of droning soundscapes, which are built from threatening, detuned sounds and lo-fi samples. Vox here generally alternate between Tricky’s low, distorted muttering and Martina Topley-Bird’s more versatile approach. All of this existed in some format on Maxinquaye, but PMT definitely exaggerates things. I’ll admit – I found Maxinquaye to be downtempo, melancholy, and even sensual at times, so when I realized how much escalating things completely changes the aesthetic… it was clear. I was missing something.

Seriously, though, if the music itself hasn’t changed that much, what happened? To be honest, I think it’s the surface of Pre-Millennium Tension that’s changed the most. When you’re building your songs out of samples and loops, swapping out a few loops can completely change the end product. Obvious, perhaps, but possibly an effect of dragging people through time and events and otherwise building up their life experience. I definitely don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer here was simply that everyone entered the studio angry at the world and wanted to express their frustration through sound. Eventually, the answer dawned on me – I myself have changed as well since my first experiences with Tricky, and apparently in ways that I can at least empathize with this album more than its predecessor. That… is not a music theory thing, but I think there’s the seed of something useful here, even if it’s just an XKCD style approach to literary criticism.

The flipside of this is that I might have the typical COVID bugs – stir crazy, desperately horny and frustrated at the injustices of the world. I don’t really feel qualified to judge the overall quality of Pre-Millennium Tension when I’m like this, but I can at least vibe with it.

Highlights: “Tricky Kid”, “Bad Dreams”, “Sex Drive”, “Lyrics of Fury”

Re-review: Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)

Re-reviews here on Invisible Blog tend to happen:

  1. When my thoughts on media have significantly changed in the last few years.
  2. For content I covered in ~2010-2011, well before my approach to Invisible Blog ossified.

With Altars of Madness, it’s definitely the latter. I convinced myself years ago of the musical links between Morbid Angel’s debut and foundational 2nd wave (Norwegian) black metal, and I still believe it. I guess that’s just what happens when you have a few years to make your mark (more if you count Abominations of Desolation) and the marketing muscle to get folks’ attentions in foreign markets. That being said, Morbid Angel definitely had their own identity, which sometimes took them in very… interesting directions. If you want to understand them, this debut is an eminently reasonable place to start.

The (admittedly reactionary if not always strictly fascistic) folks at DMU had a useful term for describing the sort of music here – phrasal death metal. In theory, it means the riffs tend to be lengthy and melodic, but rhythmic and textural variety/complexity are de-emphasized. As a description, it feels about right. That being said, the drummer here (Pete Sandoval) still gets plenty of opportunity to perform his fair share of tight and technical drum patterns. “Phrasal” is presumably more of an archetype than a strict prescription. That being said, there’s a definite throughline between this and, for instance, the windswept chill of Immortal or the unearthly melodrama of Mayhem. A lot of it comes down to aesthetics – the folks at Morrisound chorused and/or flanged the guitars and drenched the percussion in reverb, and otherwise did everything they could to make Altars of Madness sound like a whirling maelstrom.

The influence Morbid Angel wielded throughout the ’90s is a definite sign that they succeeded on some levels. A few trends I can point out – first, this is understandably a tighter and more disciplined take than Morbid Angel’s primeval demo era, though the high speeds and solos courtesy of Trey Azagthoth help add back necessary chaos. If you listen to it all in one go, the songs here have enough variety in riffs and overall texture to keep your attention. Things do tailor off towards the end, though – this is where the band delved deep into their earliest catalog and pulled out songs that, while enthusiastic, still need some time in the oven to stand up to the first half. I guess it’s not that much of a difference, but it does feel like Altars of Madness runs out of steam after a while.

That being said, there’s a ton of important death metal DNA on Altars of Madness, and you can’t go wrong with the classics. You could say this is the gibbering lunatic face that launched a thousand ships!

Highlights: “Suffocation”, “Maze of Torment”, “Lord of All Fevers and Plague”, “Damnation”

Anatomy of VGM #26 – Mega Man 7 (SNES)

Of all the twists promised by the writers on the Earth project, I’m guessing more Mega Man coverage on Invisible Blog wasn’t the hardest to predict. In my defense, it’s a huge franchise, and tons of talented people have worked on it. Some of the games are actually good, too! Last I checked, people seemed to like classic Mega Man’s second outing on the SNES (this time, as a standard platforming installment!), probably because it makes the same type of enhancements as the X series and otherwise expands to fill all the extra cartridge space. The question here, mind you, is what Capcom’s Capcomposer of the day could do with a game that’s just bursting at the seams with Saturday morning cartoon energy. You know, outside the bit at the end where Rock insists he’s going to actually kill Wily, thus endangering his creator’s profits…

It seems that Mega Man 7‘s music was written by committee. There are nine sound personnel credited for this game, and even if they didn’t all contribute music, it’s evident that a lot of folks had a say in these sounds. Mega Man 7 mostly eschews the metal moments of the X games in favor of synth rock that’s admittedly easier on the ears. It helps that the sample quality is much better – that’s admittedly easy to do when you’re not relying heavily on sampled guitar or otherwise realistic instruments. The end result is bright and cheery – recognizably Mega Man, to the point that it even quotes previous games in the series on occasion (Slash Man and the “Robot Museum” seem to be the obvious examples).

Anyways, this is a late generation SNES soundtrack we’re dealing with. Capcom’s ability to extract musical gold from the SPC700 was hit or miss, but the strong sample quality and established musical language of the Mega Man games gave this one a fighting start. The jump to 16-bit hardware helps give these tunes a very strong aesthetic, just like what was happening contemporaneously with the X-series. Needless to say, I got a promising first impression from these tunes. The composers here were particularly on point during the first half of the game, taking the standard Mega Man songwriting formulas and expanding them to make some of this series’ most refined Robot Master themes! Later on, though, things start to fall off. There’s an awkward combination of weirdly shrill samples (including an odd MIDI guitar, if admittedly not as clunky as the MMX guitars) and phoned in melodies later on. It’s been a while since I played or watched footage of this game, and I realized that outside the surprisingly metal final Dr. Wily theme, the fortress levels felt pretty… limited in terms of what they did musically? I’d argue Mega Man 3 (and Mega Man 5, to be honest) had the most effective endgame music overall, though my biases may be showing.

Falloff aside, you’re still getting a good chunk of mega rock for your troubles. I’d also argue that Mega Man 7 is just a good game in general; definitely more imaginative and interesting than some of the later NES installments. Definitely worth playing and performing… with caveats.

Sepultura – Beneath The Remains (1989)

I’ve said it before, but one of the fun aspects of Invisible Blog at this point (11+ years running, baby!) is that it hits different when I listen to an album, and don’t get around to reviewing it for a very long time. Did you know that I’ve managed to go this long without listening to anything this band released after 1990? I don’t think it’s intentional, but still. Beneath The Remains gets to be, by virtue of sheer arbitrary, where I first dipped my toes in. It’s also a contender for Sepultura’s most critically successful album, if Encyclopedia Metallum is anything to go by, with a larger and more positive mass of reviews than anything else they’ve listed on the site. Wisdom of crowds, right?

For what it’s worth, Beneath The Remains is a far cry from Sepultura’s earliest and filthiest recordings. I’m told that lead guitarist Andreas Kisser played his part in tightening up Sepultura’s sound; by this point, that means fast songs with lots of riffs, even more so than before! I’d argue this is another case of a band exaggerating their sound, at least from the previous album to this one. Either way, the musicianship is consistently on point – precise and aggressive, though entirely capable of changing tempo and dynamics on a dime. Nothing’s particularly flashy or technical; it’s just good, workmanlike thrash metal instrumentation out of which Sepultura has constructed plenty of memorable songs in the past.

I’ll be the first to admit that’s not a subtle transition, but in my defense, that’s a problem with Beneath the Remains that wasn’t an issue on, for instance, Schizophrenia. This album manages to be simultaneously repetitive and scatterbrained at the same time. How on earth did that happen? It might be more that Schizophrenia was unusually clear and logical, which is ironic given its name. The combination of nasty production and more coherent songs made for an album that hits harder and has more to say, whereas this one feels flat by comparison. I’d go as far as to say that Sepultura consciously tried to imitate the predecessor’s most memorable moments, but failed to nail the subtle stuff that made those work. Either way, the end result is an album that sounds fine in short bursts, but quickly becomes tiresome and samey if you listen to more than a song or two at a time.

I don’t know – maybe people really were looking for consistent, fungible thrashing. But even Sepultura’s been better at that further in their past! This isn’t exactly an encouraging sign.

Highlights: “Inner Self”, “Stronger than Hate”, “Sarcastic Existence”

Rush – Hemispheres (1978)

If you’ve ever done an archive binge on Invisible Blog, you’ll note that I usually try to spread out articles on any one topic, with the intent of keeping the content varied on a post to post basis. After all, what’s the Rush?

Read more…

Voivod – Negatron (1995)

Negatron hits differently, that’s for sure. It’s tied with its predecessor for the least serpentine Voivod album, replacing their previous vocalist (Denis “Snake” Bélanger) with Eric Forrest (aka E-Force). The pulp sci-fi inflected surf anthems of The Outer Limits were replaced with an industrial metal groovescape. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before – a metal band from the 1980s tries to modernize their sound in order to appeal to new audiences and keep up with trends. It was a golden era! A time before the internet fractured listening audiences beyond all repair and when FM radio was still somewhat relevant. Oh, to be a record executive during this time, exploiting young talents for all they were worth, and hoping to suppress the voice of anyone you couldn’t completely and utterly dominate.

Yeah, maybe things weren’t quite that dystopian. Negatron, though, is darker and more ominous than even Voivod’s earliest thrash era. It varies in how far it diverges from that approach, though. E-Force plays a big role here, alternatively screaming his head off and providing the occasional grungy (though technically “clean”) sung phrase, but his voice is processed and distorted in ways that, to my understanding, were pretty rare for previous Voivod. More straight out aggressive than unhinged, I’d say. The genre shift also got my attention – Negatron is chunkier, doomier, and more dissonant than before. On the other hand, there’s a decent chunk of ’80s style thrash musicianship here. The band hasn’t thrashed this frequently since Dimension Hatröss, though the ’90s pivot towards accessibility means that’s a pretty low bar to exceed. Either way, it’s arguably as much a return to form as it is an attempt to follow the money.

If you’re not big on the whole taxonomy angle, though, none of genre pontification should matter. I might be pretty biased, but for what it’s worth, I think Negatron mostly succeeds at what it’s trying to do. I’ve had a good time with other industrial metal variants before, but this one brings important musical literacy and cohesion that doesn’t always show up. That being said, the fast material is definitely where this album peaks (culminating in the defiant “Meteor”). Even this lineup of Voivod can only plod so much before they stretch the dystopian atmosphere too thin, and you begin to wonder if they’re just stalling for time. The actual songwriting is also frequently simplified, which is a shame given Voivod’s past prog credentials. To be fair, Voivod was never that proggy, but I miss how they were able to seamlessly integrate those ideas into previous albums. Oh well.

To my understanding, Voivod only made one more attempt at this overall style – and despite everything, Phobos changes things even more! As much as I rep the ‘vod around here, I’m curious what they could’ve done if they stayed an “industrial” thrash metal band… which has to be a mark of success on some level!

Highlights: “Nanoman”, “Reality”, “Meteor”, “DNA (Don’t No Anything)”

Anatomy of VGM #25 – Mega Man X3 (1995, SNES/PS1/Saturn/Windows)

Let’s be honest – for a Mega Man game, that’s a lot of platforms! Mega Man X3, yet again, iterates on its predecessors without massively shaking things up – more stuff to do, more upgrades to find, and apparently extra difficulty to challenge anyone who’s mastered the last two games. You can even play parts of the game as Zero if you’re so inclined, though that’s strictly optional. These days, unless you make a special effort not to, you’re probably playing the SNES original, but Mega Man X3 was actually the series’ 32-bit console debut! Let’s get it out of the way – the 32-bit ports hew very close to the original, with two exceptions – FMV cutscenes (which aren’t particularly relevant today), and a new CD audio soundtrack (which certainly is!). We’ll of course be discussing both OSTs. The differences are more aesthetic than songwriting in general, but you know me – I think understanding that stuff is important.

Mega Man X3‘s songs, for what it’s worth, seem to lean towards the simpler approach of the first X than the miniature prog jams of the second. This time, composition duties fall to Kinuyo Yamashita from Capcom’s occasional subcontractor, Minakuchi Engineering, though I don’t actually know how much creative freedom any of the X series composers had. On the SNES, things generally emphasize the rock/metal side of X’s ancestry, with a few exceptions, like Blizzard Buffalo’s stage. Unfortunately, by doing so, they’re running into the persistent sample quality issues that dogged the previous two games, and by relying on some truly sad guitar samples, things generally sound worse than before! X1 and X2 had enough synthesizer and non-metal content to distract me, but it’s a serious problem here, and one that doesn’t do the tunes any favors in my book. It’s unfortunate, because just in terms of songwriting X3 both pulls off some good pop metal and pushes the envelope on extremity further than any preceding Mega Man game. Sometimes, it even pushes through the honking, grating sounds your SNES is emitting!

It’s in that context that the Playstation and company charge in to save the day… right? As usual, the truth is more complicated. Being able to use CD audio gives you plenty of freedom to choose your instruments. I don’t know if Yamashita handled the conversion duties, or if someone rearranged her work, but whoever made that decision didn’t have the same affinity for heavy guitars. On 5th generation hardware, Mega Man X3 gives you a big dose of synthesizer rock, with some funk and prog overtones that weren’t there previously. There’s still a bit of guitar work, but the overall effect is generally lighter and softer than before. There’s a few songwriting changes – note the swung rhythm in the opening stage, but most of 32-bit X3‘s changes come from the instrumentation. I’ll be honest – there’s some odd decisions on which sounds to use here, and my soul cries out for the metal that was lost in this conversion. I’m not sure I’ll have a clear favorite in the long term, but at the moment I’m feeling the lighter, funkier sounds of the CD conversions more.

If there’s anything else to be taken from the case of Mega Man X3 – it’s the first game in the series to explore the possibilities of new hardware. It’s a pretty conservative step into the madcap world of redbook audio, but it’s definitely an important one. Only time and future Anatomy of VGM installments will tell what Capcom learned from their efforts… …what do you mean that other people write about video game music besides me? That’s absurd, and you know it!

P.S: Here’s some more Genesis remixes of Mega Man X music! Never underestimate the YM2612; it’s a brutally powerful chip in the hands of an FM synth expert.

Skyclad – The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth (1991)

In hindsight, going into Wayward Sons of Mother Earth expecting an all out fuckfest with a bit of folk in it was a mistake. I knew Skyclad inherited its quicksilver tongue from Martin Walkyier come the early 2010s, but what I didn’t know was that Skyclad was also descended from the prolific but often troubled Satan, of UK fame. All this musical ancestry shouldn’t really matter, especially since this debut’s also a ways off from the style that really made Skyclad famous. But you know how it is with me – I’m a historian, and I’m very interested in the stories behind the music. What about the music itself, though?

At this point, it seems pretty clear to me that the Satan (if not exactly Satanic) lineage won out, which means Wayward Sons thrashes, but it tends to favor melody and accessibility over maximum aggression and speed. See the production for a prime example – the guitar amps are pretty tame compared to Dreamweaver, though everything’s pretty trebley regardless. Besides that, the production sounds fine, everything’s clearly mixed, to the point that even the admittedly unambitious bass is consistently audible! We also get a few shreds of keyboard and fiddle to liven everything up, but at this point in Skyclad’s career they’re just garnishes. They’re worth a bit of flavor and some minor changes to your ID3 tags, but they’ll become more important later on. To be honest, the musicianship is fine, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

If you ask me, Skyclad’s strengths end up similar to their forebearers. Martin Walkyier remains a charismatic vocalist and expert lyricist, you get a chunk of thrashy speed mixed with expanded (though still verse/chorus) melodic songwriting, and the overall approach to song construction holds up better than Dreamweaver, as much as it pains me to admit it. I wouldn’t describe Wayward Sons as particularly ambitious outside its instrumental experiments, but it more than nails what it attempts. This is probably the Satanfolks’ methods and aesthetic bleeding through again. I’m not that familiar with their discography, but it does seem to be full of workmanlike songs that pull off a few experiments particularly well. When you’re like me and listening to a formative work in a genre decades after the fact, you’re probably inclined to favor solid craft over shaky innovation. I’d rather have both sides shine, but Wayward Sons is at least pretty good at recalling past glories.

The takeaway here is that my opinions on music are fluid over time, even if they don’t change all that fast. You know, much like my understanding of gender and sexuality…

Highlights: “The Sky Beneath My Feet”, “Our Dying Island”, “Skyclad”

Autechre – Anvil Vapre (1995)

I have my doubts about how intentional this was, but as far as I’m concerned, Anvil Vapre is a tone poem illustrating a road trip through Northern England, complete with a stop to fix a broken tire (“Second Scout”) and a torrential rainstorm (“Second Peng”). Autechre may have added the referential song titles, but I take responsibility for the contents of my own imagination, as much as they’ve admittedly influenced it. For what it’s worth, I listened to Anvil Vapre at the same time as Garbage (reminiscent of how they’ve often been packaged together, along with Tri Repetae). Garbage got its foot in the front door much earlier, but in recent years I think this one might be the better overall package!

First things first – Anvil Vapre‘s four tracks were written during the same sessions as Tri Repetae. You’ll notice the same overtures towards abstraction and cold precision extend across both albums. This EP, though, has a constant intensity that a lot of its surroundings don’t, given their focus on ambience. Perhaps Autechre really did set out to make a driving experience? Puns aside, the intensity does level off a bit after the first two tracks, meaning Anvil Vapre ends more downtempo and contemplative than it started, but it still has a distinctive character and mood. In the future, when Autechre pushed this hard, they’d generally convolute their sound a hell of a lot more.

The next question, then, is what you’re getting from Anvil Vapre, besides the obvious 35 minutes of uptempo Autechre IDM? There’s a few angles here – the first is to think of this as the first chronologically released manifestation of Autechre’s now-signature sound. I can’t commit to that 100%, since there might be envelope-pushing singles and remixes that predate it, and also because you could easily make the same case for the Anti EP; that one is admittedly tamer outside “Flutter”. A more history-agnostic approach is to think of this one as a chunk of consistently good, well edited Autechre. As much as I enjoy the deep dives of the 2010s, you have to admit that people are pretty divided over which tracks are good and which ones are just filler. Anvil Vapre makes its point and keeps the sharp melodic/ambient edges that make this era so easy to get into. If you’re okay with having that intensity in your life, this one will reward you greatly.

Either that, or you can just be so head over heels into Autechre’s discography that you have to disclaimer yourself every single time you try to talk about it. Hello, me!

Highlights: “Second Scout”, “Second Peng”