Merciless – The Awakening (1990)

folder.jpgI suppose we have Mayhem to blame for this one. Deathlike Silence Productions only released a few albums in its lifetime,  but their releases tended towards the influential and musically successful, so that has to count for something, right? Interesting, then, that the label’s first release was this mile a minute death-thrash-black-ambiguous brief blast of extremity. It’s not clear which pile this one fits in – the subtle use of consonant melody and fast yet deemphasized production summon forth the “1.5th wave black metal” buzzword demons, but Merciless almost certainly osmosed (pun possibly intended?) the nascent death metal of their native Sweden as well. The end result is kind of like the spiritual successor to Reign in Blood.

In contrast to some of the albums I’ve been writing about recently, The Awakening‘s recipe is simple – compact, aggressive songs with writing that’s basic, but not so rudimentary as to be uninteresting. The band doesn’t exactly deviate from this, but The Awakening clocks in at an infinitesimal 27 minutes, so there isn’t really much need for divergence. Luckily, the songs here vary enough in overall structure (even though they share an aesthetic) to keep your interest. I feel like I say that a lot when discussing this sort of album, but in my defense, music that falls below my complexity preferences doesn’t tend to get featured much on Invisible Blog. There should be plenty of it on the radio if you’re into that sort of thing.

Snark aside, what distinguishes The Awakening from many of the earlier extreme metal albums of the 1980s is its level of polish. This is hardly unprecedented – Merciless may be performing similar types of songs to their predecessors, but the recordings are still faster and more precisely performed than much of what followed. It’s not a push towards a more technically accomplished style, though. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of the early proto-underground acts would’ve put out similar recordings if they’d been given extra budget and studio time while continuing to write and perform in their previous style. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of many recordings that are like this, since a lot of the more prominent extreme metal bands of the mid-80s (like Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Sodom, Bathory, etc.) changed up their styles significantly when they secured access to recording studios. Perhaps the record label circumstances had something to do with Merciless ending up conceptually rawer?

Dwelling on how Merciless made The Awakening may be a futile gesture were I not to go interview and document hunting. On the other hand, The Awakening is a compelling enough document on its own, at least for fans of this substyle. Plus, it basically has Euronymous’s stamp of approval on it, so that has to count for something, right?

Highlights: “Pure Hate”, “Dreadful Fate”, “Denied Birth”

Capsule Reviews IV: 2013

Every year has its charms, every month at Invisible Blog has 5 posts (because inertia), and every now and then, I take a look at what I was listening to a few years back and see if it still holds up.

Univers Zero – Uzed (1984):  It probably wasn’t Univers Zero’s parley into overtly progressive rock flavored music, but it’s a marked shift from the straight up neoclassical horror music of Heresie. It is certainly more accessible to the casual listener, but unlike some bands that simplify their sound, Univers Zero retains their songwriting chops in the process. No contest on this one.

Sinister – Cross The Styx (1992): Loud and chunky to the point of being painful to listen to. If you can handle the mastering, though, you’ll find a quality death metal recording with densely packed songs and a mastery of metal rhythm. And this from a debut! The Netherlands should be pleased. Yet again no contest here.

Mithras – Behind the Shadows Lie Madness (2007): Having listened to this album’s bastard children a lot recently (2016’s On Strange Loops and Blessed Be My Brothers by Sarpanitum, which shares a couple members nowadays) has enhanced my appreciation for this one. At times clunky, this one still earns some spins because I’m a sucker for melodic guitar work in an otherwise straightfoward chunk of death metal.

Nightfall – Macabre Sunsets (1993): Honestly? As far as I’m concerned these days, Nightfall sucks. I’m not much for straight up negativity on this blog, but Nightfall had trouble writing coherent songs even in their glory days. Athenian Echoes streamlined things a bit, but still has too much filler and randomenss for my tastes.

Infester – To The Depths … In Degradation (1994): Still filthy, still worthy of further study. When I want an especially twisted and serpentine work of death metal from this era, I usually reach for Timeghoul, but Infester’s take on the genre is full of songwriting surprises that may give it an Incantation-tier shelf life. Just don’t let the political extremists catch you listening to this. They will alternately defenestrate and recruit you, and having to cater to both sides at the same time will be very bad for your social life.

Aborym – Kali Yuga Bizarre (1999): While 2013’s Dirty gave it stiff competition and still kind of does, the Aborym lineup that wrote and performed the debut was formed of more coherent songwriters. The industrial influence here isn’t quite as prominent, but it’s still a neat flavor to have in what is otherwise a more standard black metal album, and even if my opinions change over time this will still be a strong point in the band’s discography.

Strapping Young Lad – City (1997): I’ll be honest – this album is kind of dumb at points. That’s a positive, oddly enough, as City takes the standard mid-90s groovy nu-metal formula, performs it at an intensity exceeding a good chunk of death metal, and injects enough humor and nuance into the formula that I can forgive any flaws it has. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the works of Devin Townsend.

Moonblood – Blut und Krieg (1996): Moonblood is okay. If they polished up their style and increased their song density, they’d be a great band. As far as I know, though, they never did and soon disappeared into nothingness. The problem with merely being okay is that in this day and age, someone out there is going to be more talented and/or diligent than you, rendering your efforts pointless. Moonblood does have obscurity on their side, sort of, but I can’t help but think that by mentioning their existence I am robbing them of their merit…

Celtic Frost – Monotheist (2006): I don’t want to go as far as to say Monotheist has less soul than classic era Celtic Frost. That might be an honor better reserved for Triptykon, which is basically Monotheist in band form with less inspiration. Things subtly work better on Monotheist – it might be that it struck me when I was more impressionable, but it does come off as a more coherent work for whatever reason.

Yellow Magic Orchestra – Solid State Survivor (1980): Here’s another recording that, as far as I’m concerned, holds up excellently after almost 40 years. It even beats a lot of other accomplished electronic pop music recordings from the era on the aesthetic front. A real drumkit could do a heck of a lot for you back in the day.

Hopefully, the 2017 version of Invisible Blog is an improvement over the 2013 one, which I still think holds up better than my formative days as a blogger. The goal, after all, is to always improve. If you want, you can take a look at my 2012 capsule reviews here.

Sepultura – Bestial Devastation EP (1985)

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In the before time, the long long ago, when the evangelicals believed themselves a guardian against the vagaries of youth culture, Sepultura released their first unassuming EP as a split with a band called Overdose. A few years later, they became famous, and Overdose… didn’t. Nowadays, you’re not likely to pick up Bestial Devastation without the recording immediately succeeding it (Morbid Visions), but that’s probably okay since the two share much of their DNA and complement each other nicely. Morbid Visions is more ambitious,  Bestial Devastation is more aggressive and direct, but they’re basically cut from the same cloth, even if the EP is understandably formed from less of it.

Bestial Devastation‘s major advantage over Sepultura’s first full-length is that it sounds better. For whatever reason, the two production styles on display here are louder, cleaner, and more aggressive. There are relatively subtle differences in guitar tone, but as far as I’m concerned either style makes for a more appropriate mix than the iffy, janky sound on Morbid Visions. As far as I’m concerned, this EP needs the better mix to sell itself properly. The shorter and simpler songs (with the caveat that Morbid Visions was never all that complex) are going to soak into your brain faster.

Even if the songwriting is simpler, I actually think this works better for the band, at least given the songwriting chops Sepultura could muster at this point. Lots of musicians take a while to “mature”, or in Sepultura’s case, hire Andreas Kisser and rapidly transition to a cleaner, more technically advanced style (which, to my understanding, takes us to about the age of Arise). While that incarnation of the band could write longer songs while remaining coherent, this one does better if they keep things compact. Compact, though, doesn’t always have to mean more simplistic – the actual riff density is occasionally higher here than on Morbid Visions. There’s still more repetition of previous ideas and such present, but this is where the sharper aesthetic comes in handy. This, I suspect, is what keeps Bestial Devastation interesting beyond mere historical value.

For all my attempts to compare the two, fans of Morbid Visions will likely find a spot for Bestial Devastation, and vice versa. Part of that is almost certainly the packaging, but two recordings separated by so few degrees of time and personnel from a band that (at least early in its lifespan) didn’t change up their approach very rapidly… How do you say something makes sense in Portuguese? I don’t trust Google on this one.

Highlights: “Antichrist”, “Necromancer”

Gorguts – Obscura (1998)

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It says much about my origins as a metalhead that the shrill, dissonant, and generally challenging Obscura was one of my ‘gateway’ albums. Either that, or I was a little too obsessed with the idea of “progressive” metal for my own good. Self-deprecation aside, Gorguts started out as a reasonably straight-ahead death metal band, but pushed so far beyond that on Obscura that they had to dial it back a little for this album’s successor in order to keep from going mad. Ultimately, it’s hard to describe the level of experimentation on display here without lapsing into marketspeak.

Probably the most important key to understanding Obscura is understanding that although it’s tonally dissonant and messes around with rhythm a lot, it’s still a rigorously structured recording that plays by an intelligible and decipherable set of rules. For instance, there’s not all that many unique song structures – over time, the album’s 12 tracks tend to sequence dissonance and consonance in the same order, mark off sections with dramatic tempo shifts, and hoarsen Luc Lemay’s grotesque shrieks over time. On the other hand, the freedom of tonality and rhythm means that despite relying on the same instruments and mixing techniques for its entire duration, Obscura‘s tracks are easy to distinguish from one another… although like a lot of albums, the iffier cuts are placed towards the middle and end.

Incidentally, for such a harsh exterior (even for a genre that is, after all, literally called “death metal”), this album’s tracks are defined by their hooks – usually one especially distinct riff or sound, often one of the moments of brief consonance and tonality I mentioned earlier. Gorguts does admittedly have one aesthetic ace up their sleeve in Luc Lemay’s viola parts, which definitely fit with the occasional contemporary classical feel these tracks have going for them. Otherwise, though, having the occasional crowd-pleasing big riff or whatnot is a good way to keep them interested for long enough that the subtler aspects of the music (like the overall organization of the songs) begin to reach them. That may be an overly cynical way of describing it, but in the band’s defense, I do feel that these brief moments of heightened accessibility arise organically in the arrangements. In other words – they don’t feel like they were shoved into the tracks in a misguided attempt to squeeze slightly more record sales out of a niche genre.

Making dissonant music is easy. Doing it in a coherent and logical fashion is obviously harder, but Gorguts mostly pulls it off well. I won’t go as far as to say that each of the twelve tracks on here is indispensable, and the generally challenging nature of this recording does make it difficult to listen to the entire thing in one go. But it’s still a high point of the genre, and a prospective metalhead can learn much about how to apply all the cool musical techniques they’re learning from how Obscura uses its own musical language.

Highlights: “Earthly Love”, “Nostalgia”, “Faceless Ones”

King Crimson – Thrak (1995)

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Wow, King Crimson reinvented themselves again. I’m so surprised. This installment of King Crimson is supposedly inspired by ’90s alternative rock and metal, and the previous two major eras of King Crimson – their improvisatory proto-metallic approach of the 1970s, and the New Wave/math rock fusion of the 1980s. In cliched terms – the more things change, the more they stay the same. If I were writing this review in 1995, when this album was still new, I would expect to focus on the new things (like the ‘double trio’ lineup, the evolution of Fripp’s guitar soundscapes, etc). Instead, it’s 2017, I’ve been familiar with KC’s discography for nearly a decade now, and what really strikes me about this is how it continues so many of the band’s past tropes.

Despite this, it does bear mentioning that Thrak does represent new territory for the band. While King Crimson has many an intense moment in their catalog, Thrak emphasizes the louder, dirtier parts of the band’s aesthetic in ways that previous albums didn’t. Part of it’s the greater emphasis on guitar parts – compared to something like the band’s debut, Thrak is certainly not a panopoly of instruments even if Robert Fripp occasionally relies on mellotron patches to provide more variety. The production is also more assertive, and arguably more ‘digital’ or otherwise synthetic sounding; that might be a natural consequence of the advancing decades, though. Either way, it’s enough of a change from the thinner and drier (if occasionally psychedelic) Three of A Perfect Pair that it inevitably will color your understanding of the material.

From a structural/songwriting perspective, Thrak is most notable for how it mixes and juxtaposes elements from the band’s past. While the overall intensity levels have been notched up, King Crimson also manages to throw in a few ballads that likely would’ve fit well in the radio rock universe through pop songwriting, even if something like the shimmery, clean, studio flavored “Walking On Air” isn’t exactly a match for the decade’s stereotypical grunge. Like any band that seeks to create such a clash of sounds, they also mix elements within songs, allowing a track like “Dinosaur” to abruptly jump from heavy rock to synthesizer textures, or providing a place for the infamous “Frippertronics” in the otherwise improvisatory “B’Boom”, or whatnot. Despite the skilled performances of all the other musicians, Adrian Belew is Thrak‘s MVP by virtue of being versatile enough on vocals to tie everything together. That seems to happen a lot with the more self-consciously avant-garde rock and metal albums out there, and the fact that it outpaces his distinctive guitar stylings is cause for consternation, at the very least.

Ultimately, when Thrak succeeds, it’s due to the double trio’s ability to mix, match, and coordinate despite the strain of being a lineup of six musicians already famous in their own right. Arguably, that lineup later imploded, although exactly how you interpret the existence of King Crimson’s late ’90s “ProjeKcts” is up to you. I’d say that it usually does succeed, and even when it doesn’t, it still makes a good soundtrack to the multimedia frenzy of its time.

Highlights: “VROOM”, “Dinosaur”, “THRAK”, “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1980)

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AKA “Melt”, at least in some circles (and quadrilaterals). Between his earlier forays into a solo career after breaking off Genesis (Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel) and his proper entrance into the ’80s pop world (Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel is probably a straight up pop album. From a studio/historical perspective, though, it’s a fascinating recording, full of musicians who either already were famous in their own right, or went on to fame afterwards – most relevant to my interests are the presence of Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, who would go on to explore similar songwriting ideas with a new lineup of King Crimson. It’s also the reason I haven’t given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway serious consideration. For some unknown reason, I went into that album expecting a production at least somewhat what I heard here, and understandably didn’t find it. What was I thinking?

With an album like this, I literally have to focus on aesthetics. Peter Gabriel‘s songwriting is mostly well realized in a pop sense, with enough structural variety and experimentation to keep things going. Those who go in expecting progressive rock ala his career with Genesis will be sorely disappointed. The emphasis really is on the sounds and textures; the album’s lengthy studio lineup results in a panoply of instruments  blessing every track, and little in the way of aesthetic repetition. Between that and the clean, intelligible production, you end up with a recording that definitely left me with a good first impression, regardless of its future strength or weakness.

Peter Gabriel seems to be divided into two loose sections, much like one half of his face on the cover art is meltier than the other. The first half focuses on individuals and personal degradation/struggle, while the second half seems to be more about societies and social problems at large. This content split doesn’t really go beyond the lyrics, although you could argue that the second half also sounds more experimental, with a wider palette of instruments. More often than not, though, the lyrical content is at odds with the music around it. The best example is probably “Family Snapshot” – a song about a political assassin with choruses that sound like the theme to a contemporary sitcom. A few tracks are more fitting, though, like the regimented stomp of “Not One Of Us” or the creepy, SFX-driven lead-in that is “Intruder”.

Ultimately, the way this album is structured and written makes it hard for me to objectively judge, but I would tend to come out mostly in favor. Its partial resemblance to contemporary “New Wave” recordings and Discipline by King Crimson, though were a major selling point, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you might have just purchased this album.

Highlights: “No Self Control”, “Family Snapshot”, “Not One Of Us”

Mekong Delta – The Principle of Doubt (1989)

folder.jpgWhat a strangely produced album. The Principle of Doubt resembles its immediate predecessors on a musical level, but it sounds like it was recorded in a cavern… under a swamp… with instruments made of sheet metal. In other words, it’s a little reverby, and this combined with the often slower tempos and greater levels of dissonance make for a deceptive album on first glance. Give it some time, though, and its continuation of Mekong Delta’s technically flashy and vibrant speed/thrash metal sound will become apparent.

To get it out of the way – The Principle of Doubt is not a hard sell for someone who liked the self-titled debut, or The Music of Erich Zann. At most, it refines on the musical techniques and strategies of previous albums and perhaps exaggerates some of the stranger aspects of their sound a little. There are also some other minor changes that became more apparent with time, such as a generally slower tempo and a more experienced Wolfgang Borgmann on vocals (this time better at throwing and multitracking his voice), but they’re obviously not enough that I would describe this album as doing anything but staying the course. In 1989, Mekong Delta’s stylistic shifts were still off in the future.

While it took me a while to warm up to this one (mostly due to the odd aesthetics), I would nowadays argue that it’s the strongest of the band’s “classic” trilogy, although the previous two are still good choices for fans of this style of music. Oddly enough, I think it’s the minor style changes that make this one shine. As far as I’m concerned nowadays, Borgmann was a weak link in the early days of Mekong Delta, so his steady improvement in technique and growing ambition add some much appreciated aesthetic variety to the tracks. The same songwriting formulas are present here, though, so even without him Mekong Delta would not be lacking for in-track variety, whether it be riffs or textures or overall dynamics. While speed freaks might not like the slackening tempos, they seemingly allow the band to perform more complicated instrumental parts that are conducive to the overall chaotic and mindbending atmosphere they’re going for. If anything, it certainly beats the sterile, almost… klinical sound of Kaleidoscope.

While I would’ve preferred a more aggressive production style (especially given the style of music this album showcases), I still recommend The Principle of Doubt. I mean, if you doubt you’d enjoy this style of music in general, it probably won’t convert you, but how many albums out there actually can convert you to the ways of the vaunted tech-thrash?

Oh. Well… this one’s also good even if it’s less accessible.

Highlights: “Ever Since Time Began”, “Twilight Zone”, “The Jester”, “No Friend Of Mine”