Blut Aus Nord – The Work Which Transforms God (2003)

the-work-which-transforms-god-53f308335a34a.jpgQuite a bold claim for an album title to be making, am I right? The Work Which Transforms God is the second of Blut Aus Nord’s “industrial” albums, taking the band’s mastery of otherworldly ambience and contorting it into unholy nightmares. As a general rule, it is dissonant where the band’s earlier works were consonant and melodic, chaotic where the previous ones were orderly, but it otherwise retains most of the musical language of those illustrious works. This juxtaposition of genres and the band’s success in keeping their dreamscapes alive are almost certainly the best reasons to give this one a shot, but is that enough?

The impression I get from The Work Which Transforms God nowadays is that it’s scatterbrained compared to its predecessors. This is mostly from a perspective of composition; TWWTG is unyieldingly consistent in its overall production – which tends clean and sterile with hints of dissonant wailing and gnashing of teeth in the distance (more on that later). It’s the songs that wander all over the place, cramming together every stylistic variant you can wring out of a black/industrial metal fusion. On some level, I suspect this makes for a shallower experience, but I’ve long since established that I’m a sucker for this sort of fusion. It’s an easy way for Blut Aus Nord to worm their way inside my head, even if the ‘industrial’ side of this album is more towards the crushing, sludgy, even monotonous sort of music popularized by bands like Godflesh.

In short, this is an album where I can’t really bring myself to accept what could actually be a pretty serious flaw because everything else pushes my buttons. I wonder what that says about me? The other elements really are on point, though. The ambience in particular is delightfully sick and twisted, and not even through especially arcane techniques, although the combination of dissonant riffing and broken beats is presumably harder to get working than more conventional techniques. Blut Aus Nord sometimes manages to recapture the songwriting prowess of their earlier work here, making for a few tracks that retain some value as I penetrate their dissonant depths. However, too much of this album either dissolves into incoherent nonsense, or otherwise stagnates into a death march (read: “Procession of the Dead Clowns”). That definitely wasn’t a problem before.

I guess it could be worse – I’ve heard that this album’s successor (MORT) goes completely off the rails. Is the lesson there that it’s good to have some boundaries in your creative efforts? Probably. The lesson in The Work Which Transforms God is (arguably) that you should be careful when experimenting not to lose sight of how to organize your results.

Highlights: “The Choir of the Damned”, “Axis”, “The Howling of God”

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Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones (2010)

folder.jpgI’ve labeled a couple of the albums I review on Invisible Blog to be ‘exaggerations’ of their predecessors and ancestors, but Eparistera Daimones might be the first I’ve covered where the creator (Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost fame) would definitely agree. I remember that my initiation into metal music came about the time that he started this project. Tom tells us that Triptykon was planned from day one to continue Celtic Frost’s overall approach on Monotheist, but was also intended to make things even heavier, darker, and more aggressive.  Sounds like an easy, crowd pleasing, almost populist plan! You know how those go.

Eparistera Daimones wastes no time stating its intent, leading off with the 11 minute “Goetia”, and following it up primarily with extended songs in a similar vein. This might not be the best idea, since Monotheism‘s monophony places some limits on the band’s songwriting options from the bat. Triptykon, being essentially Celtic Frost, though, at least recognizes this problem and uses the same differentiation techniques that its predecessor employed – massive dynamic shifts, vocal histrionics (male and female), tinges of electronics, and so forth. Despite all my claims of similarity, there are at least a few new ideas here, at least relative to this incarnation of Warrior’s musical efforts – “One Thousand Lies” comes to mind for its velocity in what is otherwise a funeral march of an album. Still, this one’s for the doom metal enthusiasts – if slow and crushing isn’t to your tastes, you face an uphill battle trying to acclimate to this one.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more critical of Eparistera Daimones in this review. Its failure to solve the systematic problems that plagued its predecessor are admittedly pretty damning. I think what undermined that impression, though, is the fact that it at least stays the course. It doesn’t add further flaws (which could’ve happened – this album was brought to you by some of the people who made Cold Lake), and at some points it even makes small refinements to the new Celtic Frost formula that help a bit with the overall results. In short, there’s nothing overtly and immediately wrong with this album, and I actually do like quite a few of the tracks here. I’m not sure I’d put it even on the level of Monotheist, though. Maybe I’m just being petty and removing imaginary internet points because this album is a redux, but there’s not much I can do about that, short of a concerted effort to be less arbitrary as a reviewer…

Highlights: “Abyss Within My Soul”, “One Thousand Lies”, “Myopic Empire”

Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers… (2015)

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Some months ago, I described Sarpanitum, at least on this album as a bastard child of Mithras, on account of the two bands sharing some members. At the very least, this incarnation sounds like it was influenced by Mithras; I lack the familiarity with this band’s previous album I’d require in order to extend that hypothesis. Blessed Be My Brothers was something I considered reviewing during my tenure at DMU, but I never got around to it, and in the end it fell on more critical ears than my own. A mere 18 months later, I can now write coherently about my experiences. In Invisible Blog terms, this is not all that much of a delay.

If you’re familiar with what Mithras sounds like, you’ll have reference for about half of what Blessed Be My Brothers does – this album shares the same base of Morbid Angel (Steve Tucker era in particular) flavored death metal with a wall of sound production and some ambient/psychedelic sounds mixed in. Sarpanitum’s major addition to this formula is a focus on consonant melodies… about half the time. They literally swap between the more percussive/atonal riffs and melodic ones on a regular basis. This is both a blessing and a curse – song sections are individually very strong, and when properly sequenced it makes for effective illustration of the album’s lyrical themes (the crusades in the Middle Ages); a clash of armies if you will. When it doesn’t work, though, Blessed Be My Brothers takes a turn for the random and nonsensical.

It looks like Sarpanitum ended up taking a more difficult path than its musical kinsmen. Usually, I would say that not resorting to genre bending is harder than the alternative, but Mithras was already engaged in this sort of thing to some extent; Blessed Be My Brothers just pushes it further. One thing I can say for sure is that this album made a very strong first impression on me – the mix of extreme death metal antics (with better, if admittedly more conventional vocals than the Mithras formula, too!) abruptly giving way to the metaphorical heavens opening at the 1:30 mark in “Glorification Upon the Powdered Bones of the Sundered Dead” is not the sort of technique I can easily resist. Sarpanitum puts in at least one of these in each song, and they were enough to hide the cracks in the compositions for quite a while. Even figuring out where the songwriting needed extra thought and care isn’t going to make these individual sections disappear. Ultimately, they’re enough for me to recommend this album, but who knows how much more shelf life this album has left in it?

Highlights: “By Virtuous Reclamation”, “Glorification…” (I am not copypasting that again), “Malek al-Inkitar”

Anatomy of VGM #11: Castlevania – Rondo of Blood (1993)

241440-castlevania-rondo-of-blood-turbografx-cd-front-cover.jpgNote: As with all “Anatomy of Video Game Music” installments, I focus on one version of the soundtrack. Today, we’ll be looking at the PC Engine/Turbografx 16 version. Perhaps someday, we’ll look at the ports.

Remember how the last time we did an Anatomy of VGM feature, I said that Rondo of Blood had a more focused and upbeat soundtrack than Super Castlevania IV? If I’d gone into this unfamiliar with either game’s music, then I probably would’ve guessed otherwise. If you extrapolate from other CD-ROM debuts of established franchises, you might expect an especially experimental and varied soundtrack from this game, but instead, it’s mostly a synth rock/funk extravaganza of the sort that was unusually popular on TG16 CD based games. Did it have something to do with the musical climate in Japan at the time? I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Regardless of why this Castlevania installment sounds the way it does, it’s essentially a continuation of the approach of the earlier titles in the series. It does get and employs the instrumental flexibility boost that you’d expect from streamed audio, but ultimately, Rondo of Blood cleaves more orthodox cuts, with a focus on compact songwriting, and several reprisals of established classic tracks from the series. It even lapses into a few tunes featuring the Turbografx’s distinctive sound chip (which is flexible, but oddly grainy). If I had to guess, I’d say this was probably an attempt to save disc space and/or loading time for small areas. Either way, despite the overall direction of the soundtrack, there’s still time for a few asides, like the chorale on the menu screen, or the bombastic orchestral sounds of the boss fights. I find myself neutral on this; you can imagine how an action platformer’s boss music might try to be more dramatic than its usual fare, Castlevania in general is no exception, and the actual motifs on display here seem logically consistent with how previous boss themes in the series were written.

There’s not much I can really say about the songwriting beyond this – fans have already dissected the ups and downs of every version of “Vampire Killer”, and will continue to do so until the garlic supply collapses and unleashes the undead upon us. The only real complaint I have with this soundtrack is its production and mixing, which is somewhat anemic, and perhaps a bit too shiny for its own good. My recommendation as a digital audio workstation would be to reduce the treble frequencies, and add more bassy instruments, but that might be my personal biases coming through. This is actually something the SNES adaptation of the game did better than the original, although in the interest of focus I can’t go into too much detail. Either way, it’s a minor blemish on what is otherwise a fine soundtrack, and an enhancement to one of the many quality Castlevanias this world has been blessed with. Given how consistently good the series was in its heyday, though, there’s not much else I can say.

Susumu Hirasawa – Byakkoya (The White Tiger Field) (2006)

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It’s been a long time since I last wrote about Susumu Hirasawa; I figure that Byakkoya is probably a good place to start again. It might be one of his better known albums, at least going by how some of its tracks appeared (admittedly in edited forms) in the 2006 film Paprika. I don’t really have the Japanese language knowledge to confirm that, but one thing is certain. Byakkoya, regardless of its creators intent, comes off as a summation and synthesis of everything Hirasawa had done up to that point in his solo career. Almost everything he’s done is present here – Western symphonic stuff, complicated vocal arrangements that incorporate sampling, heavy synthesizer presence, the usual ambient pop approach to songwriting. At the very least, it’s a good way to quickly familiarize yourself with his usual strategies.

As you can guess from the summation, Byakkoya is one of Susumu Hirasawa’s more diverse albums, but it does a lot to integrate what could easily have been isolated, disparate elements on a more fragmented album. Beyond the obvious methods (things like adding a synth into an orchestral arrangement), Byakkoya relies very heavily on Hirasawa’s vocals to tie everything together. After decades of practice and refinement, he has more range in his voice than most of the other musicians I accuse of using vocals as glue. When your soundscape is trying to do as many things as Byakkoya does, it helps to have such obvious strong elements to tie everything together. However, it also helps that Hirasawa has such a long history of genre mixing on his work; much of why I favor this album is a result of how practiced and meticulous everything on it is.

Despite the fusions, Byakkoya ends up emphasizing the orchestra, which sometimes makes it feel like a throwback to its authors’ early ’90s work. The production values are definitely much higher this time around, making for a less budget sounding production. One thing that still irks me is the weak percussion. It’s obviously not an issue on the more laid back and contemplative tracks (like “The Man from Memories”), but it does become irksome to my death metal attuned ears on more driving tracks. Still, this is a relatively minor issue, and the fact that I had to search my brain for it should be a testament to Byakkoya’s otherwise excellent quality.

So it should go without saying that I recommend this album, but did you expect anything else from me when it came to Susumu Hirasawa? Byakkoya is still likely a high point in his discography, though.

Highlights: “The Stillborn City”, “The Man From Memories”, “Fern of the Planet Sigma”

Van Der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

cover_339151142016_r.jpgGodbluff currently represents one of the longest times between when I first learned of a work of music and when I sat down and properly listened to it. I’m still young, though; there will be plenty of opportunities for me to break this record if I remain in the land of the living. Beyond that, there is something very strange lurking at the heart of this album. It definitely fits the 1970s progressive rock template, though, so anyone familiar with that has a way to penetrate its its mysteries; they are definitely worth taking the time to learn and master.

Godbluff‘s template isn’t hard to understand – it’s a semi-compact (~37 minutes) album broken up into four relatively lengthy songs. I’ve heard many an album with more melodramatic/dynamic songwriting, and I’d go as far as to say that the real emphasis is more on instrumental interplay and texture. This is a very keyboard and vocal driven album, although it does make notable and effective use of guitar and saxophone as well. Peter Hammill is definitely the star of the show – he’s one of those charismatic, if not entirely conventional singers who scores arbitrary meaningless Invisible Blog points for two major reasons. First, he uses every part of his vocal range, which makes for diverse and versatile vocal lines. In addition, this performance is further enhanced by an arsenal of vocal processing techniques that strengthen the overall aesthetic of the recording without becoming too prominent or annoying.

I’ve also mentioned in the past that distinctive vocal performances draw my attention to whatever lyrics are being performed. While Godbluff has its share of lengthy instrumental sections, it’s also a lexically dense treasure trove of poetic metaphor. Apparently this is Hammill’s work too; whether or not it’s representative of his prolific career’s work is not something I can say for sure. The strengths of the lyrics actually resemble those of the music they accompany – more direct in syntax, but potentially deep if you take the time to sit down and think about it. Sometimes, it tends more towards the florid (in particular, on the final track, “The Sleepwalkers”), but when Godbluff has something to say, it never dissolves into incoherence. One potential weakness is that they’re not especially matched to each curve and contour of the songwriting, but exactly how to do that is something I can’t really explain. Then again, I’m almost exclusively a writer of instrumental music, so maybe I’m not the person to consult on this topic.

Either way, the progressive rock fandom has long since embraced this album, even though it does not appear to have been an enormous commercial success. I owe them my thanks for leading me to one of the genre’s classics.

Highlights: “Scorched Earth”, “The Sleepwalkers”

Anatomy of VGM #10: Super Castlevania IV (1991)

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Konami’s composers were no strangers to writing ambitious music for the Castlevania series by 1991. This is the company that made their own custom NES expansion chip (the VRC6, my one true chiplove) and used it to enhance this game’s immediate predecessor (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse). A good decision; that’s for certain. The Super Nintendo, though, brings an entirely different approach to creating music, though – instead of programming sound generators, you’re using sampled sounds. Super Castlevania IV came out early in the system’s life, but to my understanding, it wasn’t even Konami’s first effort for the system – their port of Gradius III came out months before in Japan… which may be a moot point, since I don’t know if the games shared composers. The important bit, though, is that Super Castlevania IV is an aural high point in a series well regarded for its musical achievements. The game’s pretty good too, although I’ve heard complaints about the reduced difficulty…

SC4‘s main achievement as a soundtrack is its unprecedented emphasis on atmosphere and ambience compared to previous Castlevania OSTs. Previous titles weren’t complete strangers to this, and Dracula’s Curse in particular has its share of creepy tunes, but this game uses its expanded aesthetic variety to explore an even greater variety of moods and concepts. This commitment begins at the very title screen – where Dracula’s Curse began with an alternatively triumphant and mysterious prelude, Super Castlevania IV introduces itself with brooding dissonance that eventually gives way to darker, more ominous repetition. Future Castlevania soundtracks take advantage of the extra mindspace this one opened, but they rarely get this dark – even the SNES port of Rondo of Blood (Dracula X) focuses more on rocking anthems. Here, the tracks are generally more sombre than scary, but it still fits the ambience. Besides, the fear of losing Simon to one of this game’s tougher challenges should be all the fear you need.

This isn’t to say that Super Castlevania IV is free of the more driving tunes its predecessors popularized – you need only clear the first few screens to hear the famous “Theme of Simon Belmont”, which is written to the same specifications that introduced the earlier NES Castlevanias, even if it trades in their square waves for keyboards and woodwinds. Despite the newfound expansion of sound, I’d say there’s about a 50/50 split between these two styles. It’s actually not long before the two start mixing – stage 3-3 places Simon in submerged ruins, and introduces a hint of off-kilter jazz, making for an strange but welcome stylistic fusion. There aren’t any other genre bends in this game that quite match up to this – from the vantage point of 2017, it’s more of a preview of the sort of experimentation video game musicians would engage in as their technical barriers were lifted. Still, it’s neat – I wouldn’t have expected jazz music to fit in a game like Castlevania, but with the right setting and a skilled hand on the conductor’s baton, it works wonders.

As previously stated, Super Castlevania IV‘s lessons were well applied on the future games’ OSTs, but few of them got as moody as this one, at least in the series’ prime. I won’t judge the tracks here for their overall mood, but if you want an especially dark and haunting soundtrack, this one is an excellent bet.