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Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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Re-Review: Monstrosity – Millennium (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

Jannick Top – Infernal Machina (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

Skeletonwitch – Beyond The Permafrost (2007)

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Skeletonwitch is one of those rare bands I learned about because I saw their logo on someone’s t-shirt at college. Even after investigating and reading a lot of complimentary reviews, though, it took me years to actually listen to them. Turns out that at least on Beyond the Permafrost, they sound like an Americanized take on the “melodeath” that was relatively popular last decade. Makes sense for a band that comes from Ohio, right? There’s a lot of subtle genre mixing going on here, for better or worse, and how you take that is probably going to play a major role in how you ingest this album.

What initially stuck with me when I first listened to Beyond the Permafrost was the quality of its instrumentation. This is still the case now that I’ve given the songs here some time to digest. Of all the musicians here, the ones handling guitars and vocals stand out the most, which is admittedly pretty common in the metal world. Last week’s review (From Beyond by Enforcer) had some flashy guitar work, but this album pushes it further. It’s not as consistently melodic, presumably due to the major infusion of death/thrash metal technique, but the overall frilly ornamentation and shreddy solos (read: “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”) feel similar in purpose despite the different genre. I also appreciate the mixture of vocal techniques – both low growls and higher pitched snarls. These are occasionally mixed together for some neat interplay, which helps add accents and texture to these songs.

Interestingly enough, Skeletonwitch’s songwriting reminds me of my own, in that they rely on relatively short songs with lots of unique sections. It’s a technique I don’t see all that often in the metal universe – most of the time, the complicated song structures are used to scaffold long epics. At 36 minutes, Beyond the Permafrost‘s 12 songs go by quickly, and the band doesn’t spend all that much time on any one of them. This isn’t without its flaws, though – many of the shorter songs feel like they conclude before they’ve had time to properly develop their ideas. I guess it’s a good thing that Skeletonwitch is throwing in enough ideas that they could extend their songs. A quick look at their discography suggests the band hasn’t really changed up this approach.

In short, Beyond the Permafrost is mostly good, but it does feel underdeveloped at times. There’s enough solid cuts on here that fans of undifferentiated extreme metal should find at least a few favorites in its (limited) depths. It’s also a reminder to myself that whenever I’m composing, I should give my music as much time as it needs to convey its ideas and not be tempted to declare a song “finished” too early.

Highlights: “Under Wings of Black”, “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”, “Remains of The Defeated”

Enforcer – From Beyond (2015)

Enforcer-_From-Beyond.jpgOne of the weaknesses of my deluge of content at DMU is that if I wanted to get my review of an album out when people were still buzzing about it, I had to really book it. This didn’t give me a whole lot of time to analyze and digest the music. Case in point: Enforcer’s From Beyond. My initial appraisal was fairly positive – I was able to appreciate the album as a tribute to early ’80s traditional and speed metal, although with few aspirations beyond that. There are tons of competent rehashes of past metal glories these days, though. What does Enforcer bring to the table? Is it worth it? Why am I in the habit of ending the first paragraph of these reviews with a question?

The first sign Enforcer might be onto something good was the fact I put From Beyond into my listening rotation after its ‘review’ period. Admittedly, that might’ve just been because the total package is well polished, as previously mentioned. The album’s production is generally excellent; while there’s not much space for the bassist, everyone else is clear and audible. The distortion and overall aggression levels aren’t as intense as some of the recordings this one seems to channel, but they’re fine for the genre. The musicians here perform well, too – the guitar parts in particular catch my interest with their heavily ornamented riffing reminiscent of some of the more technical NWOBHM bands. I could poke some minor holes here, but Enforcer’s approach here is definitely viable for what they’ve set out to do.

Ultimately, what cinches the deal for me is that Enforcer is very good at writing pop metal, admittedly with (or perhaps because of) some occasional concessions to more complex and ambitious songwriting. They definitely stick to a set of basic formulas, and in particular to song title choruses like paste sticks to the teeth of kindergartners, but the execution is top notch. It inspires me to pull out my usual turns of phrase for when a band is good at writing pop music- “microvariations” in particular, and also a brief shout out to Enforcer’s ability to play in keys other than those their guitarists tune to. That shouldn’t be an issue for metal bands, but a lot of times it is, and in other recordings it often ends up bugging me more than it should. But that’s definitely not a problem here.

So I’m willing to say that Enforcer won my attention by doing their job really well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they built up their craft over their previous albums, and nor would I be surprised if any future work continued down this shining path.

Highlights: “Destroyer”, “Undying Evil”, “Below The Slumber”

Anatomy of VGM #12: Cities: Skylines (2015)

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The boxart of the console ports of Cities: Skylines varies, but the OST is the same. This is not a review of the radio stations in-game, which amongst other things play music from other Paradox Interactive published titles.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t put nearly the hours into this game as my previous city builder of choice (SimCity 4), but I honestly think the rest of Paradox Interactive’s published titles are to blame. While Cities: Skylines lacks the sheer scale of that game, with its region building shenanigans, it’s still a great outlet for your creativity, and a far better successor to SC4 than EA’s efforts in 2013. What of the soundtrack? It’s certainly a substantial departure from the Cities in Motion series that birthed this, and even further from Jerry Martin’s approach to scoring SimCity titles, so at the very least, it’s going to win some points for audacity.

Cities: Skylines ships with 2 hours of strikingly modern/contemporary classical music. I’m not familiar with the bleeding edge of that genre, since my own experience tends towards the so called “common practice period“, but I have heard some music in the past that resembles what’s available here. The first thing you’ll notice is that the freedom of tonality – constant dissonance in the service of what more often than not is upbeat, optimistic, swelling orchestration. This is more prominent if you play relatively zoomed in – if I remember correctly, viewing your entire playing area tends to summon ambient synth soundscapes. The actual songwriting has something of an ambient feel to it as well – amorphous loops with abrupt transitions – trying to evoke overall feelings and paint pictures more than form a coherent narrative. It makes sense to a point – a simulation game like this has no preset story, so trying to score narrative setpieces might backfire – your ‘dramatic reveal’ might come as I meticulously place scenery to create a park for my Cims. I haven’t logged enough gameplay to really say how much the soundtrack reacts to your gameplay, but I suspect some of the more dissonant and imposing tracks are reserved for cities in crisis – at least those running a deficit. It’s not much, but it’s more than I’ve experienced in Maxis titles, which is at least potentially interesting.

My main difficulty in discussing the music of Cities: Skylines is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to it, and I can’t help but compare the music to that of Simcity 3000 and Simcity 4. It could be for the better that the composer went for something very different. The other part is that I’m not versed enough in ultra-modern classical to say whether or not I like it. The music here certainly challenges me if I try to sit down and listen to it, and it seems appropriate enough for the actual gameplay, though. Ultimately, I suspect people who are especially enthusiastic about this style of music will find much to love in Cities: Skylines‘ soundtrack. It might help that I have enough appetite for dissonance in my music that I didn’t immediately reject this approach, but at the moment, I feel like I’m too intellectually removed from the soundtrack to even so much as have a strong opinion on it. Usually writing helps, but not so much this time.

Revolution Void – Increase the Dosage (2004)

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Here’s an album that’s very important to me for completely different reasons than usual! First of all, I discovered this band because someone decided their music ought to be in the Flash game Amorphous. Then I learned that they distributed their music free of cost through Jamendo, and tried to do the same for my own initial efforts. Then I dumped this album in the custom music folder for SimCity 4 and built a thousand metropoli to the backing of its electronic jazz fusion. It’s not exactly the usual path my music appreciation takes, but a little historical variety is worth it in the long run, if only for the stories it lets me tell.

So to get it out of the way, Increase the Dosage is a well mixed hybrid of jazz music and electronic music. It leans more towards the former by virtue of song structure and the overall style of instrumentation, as far as I’m concerned. The synthesizers, though, make for both a smoother (as in smooth jazz) and more aesthetically varied experience… they tend to do the latter in a lot of the content reviewed for Invisible Blog, don’t they? Overall, a relatively straight, if sometimes broken and complicated rhythm section and plenty of pads end up backing more improvisatory lead keyboards and brass. I’m not familiar enough with the modern jazz ecosystem to say how typical this is, but there’s no reason it can’t work. It’s definitely not the free-est jazz I’ve ever heard, but a solid backing section gives the solo parts on this album more space to work their magic. It takes a very different sense of band (read: King Crimson) to pull off completely improvised music, anyways.

If my decision to shuffle this soundtrack amongst the music of SimCity 4 wasn’t enough to tip you off, then let me make it explicit – I enjoy Increase the Dosage and think it’s a worthwhile album. The decay of my jazz knowledge since it peaked in middle school does make it hard for me to talk about specifics though. Two major aspects of this album stand out to make it particularly good. First, the music retains a good sense of overall structure, with good use of dynamics, rhythmic shifts, and similar to keep things varied without losing aesthetic coherence. This last bit is especially important because RV’s second major success is in fact building up an enticing atmosphere; everything here fits the ‘high tech cityscape’ feel that the album appears to be going for. It doesn’t strike me when a work of music’s strengths complement each other so directly that often, but it’s worth a note, and the album is worth a shot. Plus, you can legally download it for free on Jamendo. Surely it’ll be good enough that you upgrade that to some sort of fiscal support?

Highlights: “Factum par Fictio”, “Double the Daily Dose”, “Weekend Amnesia”