Metallica – Kill ‘Em All (1983)

See, this is what you get when you don’t let a band call their album “Metal Up Your Ass” – something nearly as violent, but maybe more focused than before? Kill ‘Em All lacks the compositional finesse that would distinguish Metallica during the mid-80s (you know, before they got complacent), but it’s still got decent musicianship and a stereotypically wild, untamed intensity that hadn’t quite reached a mass audience in 1983. This recording has a different impact 35 years on, though – I looked back at Metallica’s work after they’d established a legacy, and also after I’d listened to those later, more complicated takes on what became thrash metal. I can safely say that this album still holds up.

Metallica’s musical origins are absurdly well documented (Motörhead, Diamond Head, Mercyful Fate, pretty much anything NWOBHM or punk rock), and they’re on full display here. This was a good era for Metallica – Lars Ulrich actually cared, the original Cliffy B (for Burton) gave them a progressive rock conduit, Kirk Hammett was fresh off his time in Exodus, and James Hetfield didn’t have much in the way of vocal technique to get in the way of his enthusiasm. I don’t know why, but Kill ‘Em All has this ineffable sense of youth that even the rest of Metallica’s golden age work doesn’t have. It’s the sound of a band that’s young enough to want to rebel, and poor enough to benefit from class warfare, but still cognizant enough to practice extra hard. That’s a great image, as far as I’m concerned.

Then I remembered that people don’t listen to zeitgeists – they listen to music. I’ll be honest – Metallica’s lack of experience shows here. Now, they’d already figured out how to write good, concise speed/thrash metal, and if you listen to a track like “Whiplash” or “Metal Militia”, or even “Phantom Lord”, you’ll understand why. At this point, it wasn’t anything profound, but good musicianship and a sense of dynamics go a long way in making memorable songs. Unfortunately, there’s also a couple of songs that need trimming. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Metallica wasted no time in attempting more complex songs, but at this point they still hadn’t quite figured out how to make them flow well. Compare “The Four Horsemen” to its ancestor (which the masses eventually got in the shape of “Mechanix” on Megadeth’s debut) – the band extends this song by stuffing in a middle bridge that’s introduced abruptly and isn’t all that interesting. Also, the less said about “Seek and Destroy”, the better, though I can’t resist mentioning that live versions of that song can go on for over 20 minutes. In short, “in short” was Metallica’s strong suit at this time.

A couple overextended songs shouldn’t dissuade you from listening to Kill ‘Em All, though. It’s got an emerging understanding of how to thrash stamped all over it.

Highlights: “Motorbreath”, “Whiplash”, “Phantom Lord”

Advertisements

Varathron – Patriarchs of Evil (2018)


Inevitably, someone’s going to be angry that Varathron so much as uttered the word “Patriarch” in 2018. But what are you going to do? This is pretty obviously a smoothed out, more accessible take on the sound Varathron’s been iterating on since their debut (as far as I know – I’ve been known to make these assumptions on less data). I mentioned that I listened to Patriarchs of Evil when I wrote about His Majesty At The Swamp – my impression on that one was that for all its good qualities, there were a bunch of things worth iterating on. The question this time around is whether or not Varathron delivered on that promise.

If all things structural were the same, I’d definitely put Patriarchs of Evil above the band’s debut so many years ago. For all the joys of
His Majesty At The Swamp‘s rough, degraded, even swampy production, even that incarnation of Varathron had an ear for melody that’s well served by the crystal clear sounds here. As far as I can tell, this is a standard extreme metal production for 2018 – there’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing much special about it beyond what I’d call the “keyboardness” of its synth patches. Instrumentally, it’s the shift in vocals that caught my attention the most – to say the least, they sound more enthusiastic. The shift from mid-pitched growls to bestial shouting certain matches the rest of Varathron’s brighter, more aggressive aesthetics here.

To be honest, I don’t think there are that many compositional differences between each end of Varathron’s career. The ones that I can point out are definitely things I enjoy, though. Most important is that the arrangements are denser. Songs on Patriarchs of Evil are more complex than they were in 1993, though most of this comes from an increased amount of instrumentation filling the spaces in the mix, as opposed to more sections in the songs themselves. There’s certainly a lot more guitar leads and accompaniment to the riffs than before, and the keyboard’s also used more intensively, though it’s still focused on texture and ambience as opposed to really becoming an instrument in its own right. Either way, it’s a denser sound that gives me more to dig into, analyze, and appreciate, and that’s always a good thing.

I guess the lesson here isn’t that Patriarchs of Evil is an excellent work of black metal (though it is), but that so much of what it did well was prototyped on His Majesty At The Swamp. I’ve discussed artists before who managed a good start towards a truly great album. This album, on the other hand, is what happens when a band gets there.

Highlights: “Tenebrous”, “Luciferian Mystical Awakening”, “Orgasmic Nightmares of the Arch Desecrator”


Susumu Hirasawa – The Man Climbing the Hologram (2015)

folder.jpg

Susumu Hirasawa’s been steadily pumping out material for almost 40 years now, including a very recent album under the KAKU P-MODEL name (KAI = KAI) that I need to investigate when I get the chance. That, in a sense, explains how we got this oddly titled album. For reference, my last experience with Hirasawa was the previous KAKU P-MODEL recording (Gipnoza). For whatever reason, I went in expecting something of that project’s harder edged technotronic sounds… and it turns out that I actually sort of got them! Emphasis on “sort of”. The Man Climbing the Hologram has more in common with his self-titled solo albums – lots of instruments, otherwise pop flavored – but it’s got a glitchy electronic sheen that I tend to associate more with classic IDM. That’s… new?

From the opening stutters ofAdios”, it’s clear to me that this minor change is enough to cast Hirasawa in a different light. It might just be that I’ve come to enjoy what I associate with that sound, but it’s still a welcome change. Beyond these flourishes of convolved sound, however, Hologram is again typical for Susumu Hirasawa. The guy’s voice froze in place some time in the early ’90s, so a lot of the evolution on his albums has involved experiments with vocal textures. I want to say this album might be one of the least vocal-driven things he’s actually done, with the caveat that I’m still judging by vocal pop standards. There’s also major exceptions, like the vaguely pentatonic and chorus-driven “Iron Cutting Song” at the end of this album, but even that one is driven by a deliberately overdriven autotune. Even Hologram‘s detractors have to admit there’s some experimentation above and beyond what you usually expect.

The question Hologram poses to me, though, isn’t whether or not it like something Susumu Hirasawa would release (the answer is yes); nor is it whether or not the tracks here meet Hirasawa’s usually high standards (because they do). As I said before, Hirasawa’s been at the music game for 40 years, and I’m pretty sure he’s got over a hundred recordings at this point between all of his projects. I’ve questioned whether or not a new recording adds enough to a musician’s legacy on many an occasion, but most of the artists I write about with this problem aren’t as prolific. My usual conclusion is that another solid album is another solid album – aural comfort food if you will. Misguided fools shoveling oatmeal into their ears aside, Hologram fits that mold and at least does enough with its toys of choice to keep things interesting for a while. I still don’t know if there’s much place else to go after Byakkoya.

Highlights: “Adios”, “Circuit OFF Circuit ON”, “Kajiba no Sarī”

Celtic Frost – To Mega Therion (1985)

folder.jpg

This can’t be right. To Mega Therion was my first dive into the world of Celtic Frost, and it’s managed to go undiscussed here on Invisible Blog for so long? That ends now! I’ll admit it took me a while to appreciate what the Frost was doing here. Nearly a decade after I spun up the turntables (and a disappointing zero major revisions of Winamp later), I see To Mega Therion as a healthy middle ground between the raw but well-crafted Morbid Tales and ambitious, goofy, obsolete thing that’s Into the Pandemonium. This is a good example of how to use orchestral theatrics in what’s otherwise not far off from Celtic Frost’s dark, filthy past, and an album worth studying.

To get it out of the way – yes, To Mega Therion has a couple of orchestral/symphonic experiments. It’s got some timpani, horn sections, and an operatic soprano, but those aren’t the point of the album. Fans of the proto-black/doom metal hybrid Celtic Frost had been developing for the last few years will find more to love here, even if the polish has raised a few levels. To be fair, I prefer the more direct production and mix of Morbid Tales – this one’s still pretty grody, but weirdly distant by comparison. You could argue that this gives us more space Ultimately, there aren’t major production problems here, and everyone’s musical abilities have also improved a bit, making for a tighter, more coordinated take on Celtic Frost. The jury’s out on whether or not that’s a good thing.

After all this time, I think the best way to illustrate To Mega Therion‘s sensibilities is to take a look at “Circle of the Tyrants”. We’re blessed with two versions of this track we can compare – the one on Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return and the one on this album. There’s two major points worth noting. First, this is fundamentally the same song no matter which version you pick; there aren’t any major changes to the structure of the song, or even most of the big strategic decisions like tempo and tonality. However, the new version’s been decorated. It’s got the few seconds of female vox, some of the effects have been altered, and… actually, now that I think about it, I was expecting the changes in the rerecording to be more significant. Still, it’s worth pointing out that Celtic Frost’s extreme but (as of 1985) undifferentiated underground metal sound is intact here, even when things reach their most ambitious peak (“Necromantical Screams” at the very end of the album). This wouldn’t last, but many a metal band owes their aesthetics to the balance CF struck here.

In short, while I can’t call To Mega Therion more of the same in the context of Celtic Frost’s career, it’s still similar enough to their formative work that you should be able to enjoy both. I certainly do.

Highlights: “Jewel Throne”, “Circle of the Tyrants”, “Necromantical Screams”

 

Anatomy of VGM #19 – Super Metroid (1994)

16501-super-metroid-snes-front-cover.jpg

Forget what I said recently about Thunder Force IV influencing my musical tastes. I mean, it’s technically true, but Super Metroid has almost certainly penetrated deeper. For here, it should suffice to say that I’ve got a deep personal connection with this game (and the copy of ZSNES I was using to emulate it, way back in 2004). A review of Super Metroid as a whole here on Invisible Blog would probably devolve into frenetic gushing and pseudoreligious frenzy, but there’s definitely enough content on the aural side of things to be interesting.

The first thing I noticed upon returning to Super Metroid after so many years is that it puts forth its stark, alien, minimalist side first. After a few tense notes, the title screen reprises the main motif of the original NES Metroid‘s themes, but crucially, it omits the melodic development that once followed those first few notes – already, this is a colder and darker theme, even though the improved hardware could easily support a richer audio palette if the composers here were so inclined. It’s also using grainy, lo-fi samples. From a technical stance, this brings to mind a lot of subpar SNES titles that waste the SPC700’s potential. The other half of this, though, is that Super Metroid‘s degraded and sometimes clunky soundset contributes to the atmosphere of isolation and unease that the rest of the game creates.

The other major trend compared to the previous two Metroid titles (though, from what I’ve heard, Return of Samus did something… different) is that Super Metroid is far more orchestrated and melodramatic. Part of it is that you can more easily do this on an SNES. However, this also means that the game explores more musical ideas than its predecessors by far, even though it’s not a significantly longer experience. While most of the music here is sparse and atmospheric, there’s also a few lighter, even triumphant sounding themes mixed in, like that of Brinstar and the second theme of Crateria. I won’t fault the composers – sometimes, you need music to encapsulate your new capabilities as a Samus. Even with these moments, Zebes is still a dangerous place that can only absorb so much triumph and joy before it explodes. What else is there really to say? There’s still some emphasis on memorable memories at points in this soundtrack, but this is still a cold soundtrack, even when you descend into the magmatic hellscape of Norfair.

At the very least, this is an example of how to perfectly tailor music to a game. I cannot imagine that Super Metroid would function as well as it does with a different soundtrack.

P.S: This is another one of those SNES games that someone has taken the time to produce a really good set of Genesis remixes for.

Univers Zero – Clivages (2010)

cover_1935172952016_r.jpg

If you’ve ever listened to Univers Zero (and if you’re me, you definitely have), you’ve got a broad idea of what to expect from Clivages. You can trust Univers Zero to deliver some sort of neoclassical flavored progressive rock in opposition. While Clivages leans more towards the streamlined, accessible approach of a Uzed, it also has some more abstract material reminiscent of the band’s primeval formative years. I suppose it makes sense for the band to go for something of a compilation approach this late into their career – I couldn’t tell you if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s what we get to deal with today.

One thing UZ has figured out over the years, apparently, is how to write short, compact songs that are still interesting. They even lead off with the surprisingly upbeat “Les Kobolds”, which supposedly has some Flemish folk music influences if Wikipedia is to be believed. Either way, it’s a fresh take on the stereotypical UZ sound that still manages to incorporate their trademarks. “Warrior” immediately afterwards, though, pushes things into more familiar territory – a 12 minute epic that compares favorably to tracks like “Jack the Ripper” and “Emmanations”, but with more of an obvious rock flavor from its prominent guitarwork. Not all of the tracks hit these heights, to be fair – I’m not a big fan of the more minimalistic, dissonant woodwind and string chamber music on here. I wasn’t a fan of it in the past, but Clivages doesn’t improve itself enough to sell me on parts of the band’s sound I wasn’t already interested in. Surprisingly, what drew me in the most, at least initially, was the more upbeat half of this album. UZ is stereotypically a dark and brooding act, but these moments of coherent brightness make a good contrast with their more signature material.

When I started this review, I was sure that the accessible sheen that coats some parts of Clivages would be the album’s most memorable elements. I’m not particularly certain of that anymore; instead, I’m more inclined to emphasize the similarities with previous material. I’ve already heard most of the formulas used on this album on older material, and there’s still a big chunk of Univers Zero material that I’m not familiar with that could easily have introduced the rest. Still, most of the usual tricks work just fine here, and the brighter, sunnier overtones we hear sometimes make for a nice contrast. I probably wouldn’t recommend Clivages as your first Univers Zero album in spite of its accessibility, but fans of the band are likely to be pleased regardless.

Highlights: “Warrior”, “Soubresauts”, “Apesanteur”, “Straight Edge”

Anatomy of VGM #18 – Thunder Force IV (1992)

thunder force iv japanese boxart.jpgThese notes are becoming a tradition, aren’t they? This game was released under the embarrassing name of “Lightening Force” in the USA. The music’s the same, though.

This game’s an old (< 2009AD) favorite of mine. Much of that was due to the soundtrack, but it was only once I revisited the game a couple years after my formal induction into metal music fandom that I understood what was happening here. While Thunder Force IV sticks most in my head for its veritable arsenal of traditional heavy metal music (think Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc.), it’s more diverse than I remembered, with excursions into spacey jazz, funk, and even a faux-orchestral section towards the end (“Down Right Attack”). It really does push the admittedly powerful sound capabilities of the Sega Genesis to their limit – and this was in 1992!

The metal/nonmetal dichotomy is the key to Thunder Force IVs music. Generally, you can expect boss themes and other major musical cues to be metallic, whereas stage music merely has the potential to be – and even that gets increasingly brutal and pyrotechnic as you progress into the second half of the game. You might as well take the time to enjoy the more laid back tracks early on, though – while it’s perhaps too on the nose to match your music like this, it still works splendidly, giving you a chance to appreciate the lighter sounds in a less chaotic environment. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of theming beyond this, but Tecnosoft can get away with that more when they have the hook writing abilities they have.

The other big reason Thunder Force IV has such good music is that its composers have mastered the wall of sound. Every channel on the YM2162 is running at full blast and utilized to its fullest potential. Part of the soundset here (example: the slap bass) is tailor made for FM synthesis, but Tecnosoft also makes good use of the chip’s sampling capabilities for things like percussion. The crown jewel, though, at least from a metalhead’s perspective is the simulated guitar. People who have heard an actual electric guitar turned all the way up to 11 aren’t going to confuse the sounds here for the real thing, but it’s more important that they’ve matched the role and timbre of a guitar in these songs. I’m essentially saying that it’s a heavily distorted and aggressive sound that stands in well for the real thing. The soundwall also extends to how these songs are written – they’re full of intricate melodies with lots of instruments backing them, and even the more laid back songs are often full of flashy synth leads or similar. Needless to say, there are a lot of cool musical ideas here that will take you a while to digest, which fits with the game’s punishing difficulty.

Now that I think about it, these tracks (and particularly their clean integration of both conventional-style and synth instrumentation into a metal context) are probably one of the reasons I became the type of composer I am today. Metalheads and chiptune lovers take note alike.

Highlights: “Space Walk”, “Sand Hell”, “Metal Squad”, “Tan Tan Ta Ta Ta Tan”