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Meshuggah – obZen (2008)

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It’s been a while since I talked about Meshuggah, hasn’t it? obZen was in my backlog for a surprisingly long time on the strengths of its opening track (“Combustion”). I’ve long since given up on actually reducing the backlog, and yet I finally sat down and listened to obZen. What can I say? This is the sound of a genre defining (read: djent) band settling into comfortable territory and honing their craft. If you’ve listened to their past recordings, you’ll feel comfortable here as well. I’d even go as far as to say that obZen makes some significant improvements to the latter day Meshuggah sound – the question here, though, is whether those are enough to make it worth your while.

obZen‘s greatest strength, at least in the context of Meshuggah’s signature sound, is to introduce a new level of variety and finesse. This goes beyond mere attempts to push the djent to its limit (read: “Bleed”, which drummer Tomas Haake found to be especially difficult to learn, even by Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic standards) – obZen goes as far as to reemphasize some of the harmonic backing and melodic craftsmanship that was so important on previous Meshuggah albums. The emphasis is still on monophonic djenting, but it’s nice to have other elements at the same time, especially after the spareness of the aptly named Nothing.

While this is all fine and good, obZen is definitely an iteration on Meshuggah, and not a major shift in their approach. You’re still getting an album that’s still composed of basic blocks. For all that these are assembled into tighter, denser songs, you’re not going to hear much that you haven’t heard on previous Meshuggah albums. Beyond this, Meshuggah doesn’t have a great shelf life; their recordings can get very monotonous with extended listening. I think this is the most popular criticism of the band – if you were to remove the rhythmic complexity, you’d completely gut Meshuggah. I can’t think of any other band that would be as badly affected by such cuts. Either way, this isn’t as bad of a problem here, but the band had almost certainly backed themselves into a corner at this point – further development seems to have taken the form of things like “Let’s write a long song and then cut it into little pieces at random” (Catch Thirtythree) or “Let’s play slower than usual” (Koloss). Maybe not a good sign.

Despite everything, this is still Meshuggah’s “the same but better” album, and that’s almost certainly a stronger framework than its immediate surroundings.

Highlights: “Combustion”, “obZen”, “This Spiteful Snake”, “Dancers to a Discordant System”

Next up – Flash Fiction month #3 here at Invisible Blog! Expect the unexpected, and not just in the Control Denied sense.

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Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)

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Things got astonishingly awkward for Metallica once Cliff Burton died. And Justice For All isn’t the kind of album you’d expect to chart as high as it did – it’s a lengthy, strangely produced take on the concept of “thrash” metal that usually lacks the intensity of its predecessors. Or maybe that IS why? AFJA didn’t get Metallica quite to #1 on the Billboard 200 in an era where that actually meant something, but at #6, it sure came close. As far as I know, it’s the first Metallica album to be particularly divisive. All these unusual circumstances make for something that’s at least worth a listen to just to find out what happened.

To be honest, we really can’t get away from the various problems here. Take the production – the guitars sound okay, but the drums are dry and sterile, and the bass is almost completely inaudible! The internet is not only full of lurid stories about AFJA‘s production woes, but host to a variety attempts to fix it, mostly revolving around amping up Jason Newsted’s basslines. They’ve had limited success; my recommendation for them would be to start over, and come up with a fan tribute/rerecording album. This would also allow them to address the other major issue of this album – its poor pacing. The songs have bloated significantly since even Master of Puppets‘ extended tracks, and the average tempo has slowed significantly. We get two nods to Metallica’s more aggressive past (“The Shortest Straw” and “Dyers Eve”), and a handful of tracks that actually benefit from a slower approach, but the rest of the songs here need to be performed at least 20-30% faster in order to function properly. Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t bother, and we have an overextended album for their lack of troubles.

Surprisingly, though, AFJA still has a lot of worthwhile content in spite of its packaging issues. It turns out that Metallica is still using the the songwriting formulas that worked for them on previous albums. These ideas of iterative development and dynamic range will get you far as a band, and Metallica does well to keep them on hand here in spite of the lower peaks of intensity. How else would you propose to keep something like the near-10 minute title track interesting throughout its duration? There’s also some further experimentation with instrumentation that comes in handy, like the harmonized acoustic sections in “One”. Still, I can’t really shake the feeling that I would appreciate these tracks more if they weren’t burdened by the aforementioned problems. As far as I know, Metallica never really gave up on the extended songs after this, which I can’t help but feel makes AFJA a disturbing premonition of future troubles for the band. At the very least, that makes it historically important.

Highlights: “Eye of the Beholder”, “One”, “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity”, “Dyers Eve”

Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology (2018)

folder_small.jpgI’m not sure how I came upon this edifice of slug puns and vaguely proggy death metal, but I try not to be too salty about it. It does seem to have a consistent flavor – Lovecraftian horrors and weird science fiction in the name of prepping us for careers in biology. I came on this album about the same time that I learned Augury was dropping their own latest album (Illusive Golden Age, whose review gradually but surely impends here), and I couldn’t help but compare that album’s jazz fusion inflected approach to this one… which isn’t. Esoteric Malocology, despite the name, is more direct, but it retains a focus on building an oppressive atmosphere and ambience that ends up being its defining characteristic.

Slugdge built Esoteric Malocology on a solid foundation of consonant melodic death metal. If this had come out a few years earlier, I wouldn’t have hesitated to apply the “Gothenburg” label, but nowadays I find it less helpful as an aural label. Anyways, whatever we end up calling Slugdge’s music, I think we can agree that it’s intricate and technical enough to justify the clean and slightly trebly production it’s been given. The slugs and squids the band enjoys so much are, by comparison, more opaque. I’ve heard this general sound many times in the past, for what it’s worth. Slugdge’s most unique contribution from an instrumental stance is their frequent harmony singing. This is mostly relegated to choruses, and I’m neutral at best on whether it actually adds much substance, but it does make for a more flavorful recording.

To be honest, Slugdge scores most of their points with my by nailing the execution of these songs. Esoteric Malocology is a bit too verse-chorus for me to call it “progressive”, but these are still well varied songs that introduce and develop enough ideas to remain interesting through their duration. The mostly but not entirely melodic/consonant sound also suits the overall aesthetic – even when they aren’t throwing in pulpy sci-fi synth (see “Limo Vincit Omnia”), it makes for a moody and powerful recording in its strongest moments. I guess the main problem is that even with all the microvariations, Slugdge still relies heavily on a rigid song formula that makes their songs feel excessively similar. They at least have a strong framework to do something about it, but building up this variety while keeping things coherent isn’t easy.

Either way, this is at least a solid album, and it has several very good tracks that sell me on the difficult slug metal angle. It might work for you too – just remind me to look back on this in a year or two and see if it held up.

Highlights: “The Spectral Burrows”, “Slave Goo World”, “Salt Thrower”

Boards of Canada – Geogaddi (2002)

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Although not a follower of Boards of Canada, I’m a devoted Geogaddi fan. If said followers are to be believed, Geogaddi is the peak of BoC’s hazy, nostalgic, slightly creepy take on 2000s IDM. This is what happens when you put a bunch of detuned analog synthesizers in a darkened room, or at least one possible result. Beyond their obvious affectations, Boards of Canada tends towards a consonant, accessible sound built on repeated melodies, sampled speech, and ambient noise. Confield this ain’t, but given the band’s apparent intent, this is probably to their advantage.

Geogaddi isn’t a concept album, but it does seem to have some intentional religion and occult themes that flavor the experience. The most obvious sign of this is the continued references to Branch Davidians and especially David Koresh of Waco standoff fame. Some of these songs take on more sinister undertones if you keep that in mind, but to be fair, that’s not the only mood on display here. Despite the aesthetic adornments, Geogaddi uses its sonar palette to great effect and achieves a very diverse sound in the process. This ability to make lots of ideas out of a relatively small amount of sounds is a plus in its favor.

The album’s songwriting, on the other hand, is more unified (and if you’ve been reading Invisible Blog recently, you might recognize this as part of my “e pluribus unum” bender). These tracks are driven primarily by small phrases repeated again and again, with subtle and gradual changes over time to distract you from the essential nature of what you’re listening to. This, amongst other things, inspires  my use of the “ambient” label; my experiences with electronic music have long since habituated me to the style and I can safely say that BoC intends no exception here. A few methods particularly stand out to me, though. The most prominent is how Geogaddi plays with rhythm and time signatures; more than just an album of loops, this is an album of odd (but not strange) loops. It should go without saying that by keeping your elements slightly out of sync, you can create a great deal of aesthetic variety out of otherwise limited content. Brian Eno did something similar on Music for Airports. BoC also shifts up their song structures on occasion, even accounting for the constant interludes. This sometimes results in a near-conventional pop song like “1969”, though whether that got the radio executive husks’ attention is a legend best researched by someone else.

Ultimately, Geogaddi is great at what it does, has a few particularly unique tricks up its sleeve, and hits some of my aesthetic/conceptual interests in the process as well. You can imagine how it might end up devouring my soul.

Highlights: “Music is Math”, “Sunshine Recorder”, “Alpha and Omega”, “You Could Feel The Sky”

Magma – Live (1975)

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If Jannick Top’s Infernal Machina was a Magma album gone wrong, then this is a Magma album gone… …uh… …live. I think this is literally the first time I’ve ever reviewed a live recording in my many years as Invisible Blog. Magma is a good place to start doing this, though – with a career spanning decades, an approach that favors free improvisation, and lineup changes like you wouldn’t believe, the band can completely and utterly recontextualize their songs at the drop of a hat. Live is therefore not only a document of Magma’s creative flowering in the golden age of progressive rock, but also a pretty good way to hear material you can’t easily find elsewhere.

Before we get to this album’s “original” material, it’s best to start at the beginning, with this album’s interpretation of Köhntarkösz. Despite having its interlude (“Ork Alarm”) ripped out, this is at least the strongest version of this piece I’ve personally heard; I’d need to delve into more live recordings to strengthen my claim. As far as I’m concerned, the essence of the piece is a half hour buildup to a massive climax. Not only does this live version accentuate this with stronger dynamics and a slightly better production, but it also adds the proper capstone at the end that was missing from the original studio recording. I also think Didier Lockwood’s electric violin performance is perfectly suited to this sort of music – he excels at both the ominous quieter sections and the more intense ones.

Outside of the Köhntarkösz rework, though, things are spottier. This is entirely for comparative reasons; as far as I know, Live‘s only truly original track is the subdued and intimate “Lihns”. Everything else here would be recorded again and again. Mostly renditions have the fortunate to merely be obsolete – if I want to hear “Hhai” in isolation, this is a servicable location, but for whatever reason many of Magma’s tracks work better when tied together into full suites – in the case of “Hhai”, it almost certainly was built for Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré. Similarly, when I want to hear material from Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, I head on over to yet another live Magma recording (Retrospektiw). The only real clunker here is the sluggish and limp handling of “Announcement”, but everything else here has at least a claim to being a valuable addition to Magma’s discography.

The sheer amount of live performances (official or bootleg) Magma has out there would take a while to parse. Even if you’re not quite at that level of rabid fandom, Live does generally give you good versions of the most important molten rocks in Magma’s discography, so it’s at least necessary for the fans. Still, I’d probably recommend newcomers start with a studio album.

Highlights: “Kohntark”, “Kobah”, “Lihns”

 

Re-Review: Oomph! – Unrein (1998)

folder.jpgAnother blast from the past! For whatever reason, Unrein didn’t make it into any of my capsule reviews, which I should probably give another shot at some point. It’s not for unworthiness of being re-reviewed, at least from a historical stance. The funny thing about Unrein is that I wouldn’t have listened to it (or Schattenreiter, for what it’s worth) except for the intervention of some humble editors at Wikipedia and their evangelistic efforts to support Neue Deutsche Härte – i.e, the vaguely Germanic analog for nu-metal Rammstein plays. Nowadays, Wikipedia isn’t my primary source of new music, but OOMPH! is still in my collection. What does this mean?

I guess, at the very least, we can at least assume some level of competence from Unrein, since it has been getting some level of activity in my listening rotation for upwards of eight years now. This definitely takes place in a pop context of some sort – OOMPH! writes verse-chorus-verse flavored songs and generally favors middling tempos. On the other hand, they allow some elements of extreme metal technique into their music – harsh vocals, chromatic riffs, the occasional passage of double bass drumming, and so forth. I’d call it a sign of the times – while full on death metal and such was in a commercial slump, popular acts were willing to incorporate small doses of it into their music if it made them sound edgy. This may be a deliberate oversimplification of the ’90s metal music industry, but whatever. From my perspective, Unrein at least sounds good – the guitars are bassier and chunkier than what I would write, but whoever produced this filled out the rest of the soundscape with lush synthesizer patches and a solid mix that gives OOMPH!’s ensemble a chance to gel effectively.

Unrein‘s production is probably its strongest element, but it also has some streamlined pop songwriting proficiency in its favor. Admittedly, they’re a bit inconsistent in doling it out – there’s a lot of plodding tracks that don’t really go anywhere. When everything fits together, though, OOMPH! successfully channels an oppressive, gothy ambience that helps take away from the goofier, neurotic edge that some of the English language lyrics end up creating. My German knowledge has decayed to the point that I can’t really gauge how successful the band is auf Deutsch, but that might be a good thing – if this band is composed of edgelords in its native language, then I’m probably dodging a bullet. I guess I can’t really say much about the songwriting in general beyond that, but when you’re oriented towards some sort of pop, being able to nail an aesthetic is worth a lot.

Ultimately, this album is good enough that it makes me wonder if the band was able to follow up on its successes later in their career. I wonder why I’ve never taken the time to find out.

Highlights: “My Hell”, “Anniversary”, “Bastard”

Igorrr – Savage Sinusoid (2017)

folder.jpgLongtime readers here at Invisible Blog may be familiar with my affinity for Whourkr and their breakneck electronic/metal fusion work. Gautier Serre seems to favor this permutation on those ideas nowadays, though. Like most Igorrr albums, Savage Sinusoid throws in a healthy portion of snooty French cafe music and whatever else comes to the musician’s mind, awing simpletons and hardening the arteries of reactionaries. Add to that a pair of histrionic vocalists, and you’ve got a robust formula for a recording that (at least initially) sounds like it has none. Talk about the Great Deceiver! My initial expectation for Savage Sinusoid was that it would sound at least somewhat like Serre’s earlier… …whourks, at least in the sense that it would draw on extreme metal technique to some extent. That turned out to be partially correct.

The album certainly puts its most metallic foot forwards with its opener – “Viande” focuses almost entirely on the processed guitars and high pitched screams that the Serreverse likes using to build metal music, but serves as more of an extended intro than a full fledged song. The sound collage kicks into full gear immediately afterwards, neatly summarizing Igorrr’s strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, the metaltronica is very much on point when present – even when you account for my personal preferences, mixing the two to create a chaotic and violent aesthetic seems to be a band specialty. The problem with Savage Sinusoid is that it also throws in (for all practical purposes) the entire history of Western art music for shits and giggles. These songs’ constant insistence on having something new for the listener robs even the more effective instances of their chances to develop. This is a pretty common problem with this approach, and it’s probably not going to stop anyone from trying, but I must continue to emphasize how common of a trap it is so that future generations may find a solution.

Savage Sinusoid does, however, have one particularly superlative element, in the performances of its dueling vocalists. Perhaps that should be two elements. Either way, they are a strong point, and apparently long term collaborators of Gautier Serre. His previous works have had skilled vocalists before (expect my reference to Whourkr’s debut full length Concrete to glow incandescent blue once I find the time to write about it), but having two who can pull off this many styles is at least technically impressive. They’re also very charismatic performances who do everything in their power to entertain us; I actually got to see the band live, and amongst other things, they spent much of their set dancing across the stage like Pornographer Cain. Anecdotes aside, these strong performances justify deeper listening to songs here that would otherwise come off as ridiculous and nonsensical.

So maybe the album does come off as goofy at times – I deserve to have some fun in my life, right?

Highlights: “Houmous”, “Opus Brain”, “Cheval”, “Apopathodiaphulatophobia”