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”

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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”

Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (1986)

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Rust in Peace is more intricate and technically accomplished, but Peace Sells is by far the “coolest” album Megadeth ever released. We’re still not entirely sure what it means for an album to be cool, but in my defense, it was the 1980s, and if you had a guitar, everything looked like a metal album. Either way, Megadeth’s flashy, stylish take on speed/thrash metal was fully formed by this point – better musicianship than Metallica, with most of the aggression from the debut album amalgamated with more polished production and songwriting. Let’s be honest – it’s a good formula. In a year notable for its revolutionary metal recordings, Peace Sells was far from the bleeding edge, but it still draws blood to this day.

To be fair, it takes Peace Sells a while to fully bare its fangs. The first few tracks tend more midpaced than a lot of the material on Killing Is My Business, which is arguably enough to push something like “Wake Up Dead” or the title track into accessible MTV metal territory. I don’t want to speculate too much about why for lack of information about the circumstances. Still, I think this album (and more generally, Megadeth as a whole) is most effective in its most intense and flamboyant moments. Even in 1986, it was a band full of flashy musicians who needed as much space as they could get to show off their shredding skills, and anything short of it feels limited by comparison.

For whatever reason, I’m inclined to value the musicianship on Peace Sells more than the compositions. When I wrote about Rust in Peace, I mentioned that even in their heyday, Megadeth had some composition organization problems that dogged them even at their arguable songwriting peak. These problems are present here too, but perhaps less noticeable here due to the simpler songwriting. It’s primarily an issue of individual riff glue; for whatever reason, the big picture and overall sectioning of songs isn’t as affected. It also helps that Dave Mustaine is in full charismatic vocalist mode. As far as I know, he relied ever more on flat growling as he and Megadeth got older, so it’s nice to hear him varying things up more on here. It should go without saying that successfully incorporating multiple styles of vocals into a metal album (or even just enough variation on your chosen technique) can help add flavor to your album. Beyond that, it’s good for gluing everything together.

Whether or not this album is better or worse than Rust in Peace might not be the best avenue of inquiry, now that I think about it. They’re both important Megadeth milestones.

Highlights: “The Conjuring”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”, “My Last Words”

Disharmonic Orchestra – Not to Be Undimensional Conscious (1992)

not to be undimensional conscious.jpgOnce upon a time, Austria was the center (figurative, not geographic) of a large and powerful empire ruled by the house of Habsburg. Now, it’s the birthplace of one of the most confoundingly named albums in the history of humanity. Despite this, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious isn’t half as strange as its name might suggest; it takes the form of a musically adventurous death metal album with fewer trips into the bizarre and obviously avant garde than you might expect. In short, while the brief rapping section in “The Return of the Living Beat” begs to differ, Disharmonic Orchestra has more in common here with the planet’s contemporary techdeath offerings.

Not to Be Undimensional Conscious gets to join the ever growing armada of obviously liminal albums reviewed here on Invisible Blog. A lot of this is because its more sanely named successor (Pleasuredome) was the sort of more experimental recording this one’s name lead me to expect, but signs of that future were already present here. This album is driven by its tension between the chunky, abrasive mix and its convoluted, strange writing. The album sounds clear enough that its angular riffing and abrupt song transitions can shine forth, but I can’t help but wonder if it might’ve been better served by a cleaner and more orchestrated sound. Spheres by Pestilence makes for a good comparison, but Disharmonic Orchestra isn’t trying to push the envelope quite as far here.

Ultimately, if you want to enjoy DO #2, you need to be able to attune to its take on death metal. If you like constant code switches between the band’s death/grind roots and the more bizarre and dissonant riffs, you’ll probably have a good foundation for appreciating what they’re trying to do with their songwriting. I feel like the rest of the package isn’t especially notable, though. The possible aesthetic mismatch is one thing, but this album has some of the most acceptable performances I’ve ever heard without pushing into meaningfully good territory. It’s not studio perfect, but it’s reasonably close by the standards of 1992. About the best I can say is that there’s prominent basswork, and a decent chunk of variety in the percussion. The weak point is probably the vocalist – Patrick Klopf has a good mid-ranged death growl, but he doesn’t do much to vary it in even subtle ways, making for a monotonous performance. Oddly enough, this stood out the most on my initial listens, perhaps for its unending cadence.

In recent years, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious strikes me as the foundation for a good death metal album – something you could elaborate on and expand to get something both interesting and pleasingly skull-crushing. Without that extra effort, though, you’re left with something bland at best.

Highlights: “A Mental Sequence”, “Groove”, “Idiosyncrasy”

Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)

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Nothing to see here, folks. Just one of the most famous rock albums of all time. Odds are that if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the Anglosphere, you’ve at least heard “Bohemian Rhapsody”, though I’ve my doubts as to whether you can safely listen to the rest of this album without being hunted down by vengeful radio executives seeking to enforce ever greater homogeneity on their audiences… aside from that, this is still a continuation of Queen’s previous albums. A Night At The Opera‘s major achievement in that context is to ratchet up the prog rock side of Queen’s sound to what is probably a career high. Progressive rock is good, so that’s good, right?

For what it’s worth, A Night At The Opera isn’t far removed from previous Queen albums despite the shift in its emphases. You’re still getting an experience that balances precariously on the edge of its own hard rock edge (!) and its glammy pomp and circumstance, but the arrangements have become more elaborate than before. “Bohemian Rhapsody” really is the album in miniature, seguing from (amongst other things) piano ballad to an elaborate vocal “opera”, with some heavier rock sections gluing everything together for good measure. Again, this overall style of composition wasn’t new for Queen, but this album does showcase a more cohesive take on this sort of genre bending than, for instance, “The March Of The Black Queen” in spite of its greater ambitions. It’s good that Queen kept pushing further back in their heyday.

While this might be due to radio overplay, I actually find the most enjoyment in A Night At The Opera‘s deeper cuts. They are responsible for most of this album’s aesthetic diversions; they also give Roger Taylor and Brian May chances to take lead vocals for variety’s sake. In general, Queen favors aesthetic diversity over cohesion here, while using conventional pop/rock structures more often than you’d think. This comes up a lot on Invisible Blog (and my claims that it does so aren’t far behind in number either). For what it’s worth, though, Queen seems to be pretty good at obsfuscating this fact with their flair. I’m not entirely sure if these structures are more conventional than previous Queen albums, but it does mean that songs that aren’t intentionally extended and prog oriented feel more streamlined than before. The band eventually switched their entire output to the pop styles, so it might be for the better that they got in a bit of practice on these earlier recordings.

Regardless of how many antecedents of future Queendom you can find on here, the mixture of extra progisms and musical elaboration does add crucial longevity to A Night At The Opera‘s shelf life. Previous Queen albums were good, and this one isn’t much different, so you can get an idea of why this became popular.

Highlights: “Death on Two Legs”, “I’m In Love With My Car”, “The Prophet’s Song”, “Good Company”

Amorphis – Tales From The Thousand Lakes (1994)

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Here’s a strange liminal album. When I first sat down and listened to Tales From The Thousand Lakes, I was expecting that the band would’ve kept more of the death metal elements of their first album. Instead, Amorphis spent the entire album prototyping their current sound. Tales From The Thousand Lakes, for better or worse, has little interest in capturing any of the death metal songwriting that Amorphis had previously subsisted on, but for whatever reason it retains dark, murky production values that, as far as I know (and let’s be honest, I don’t, since my Amorphis familiarity halts and catches fire after Elegy) have long since been abandoned for brighter, more accessible sounds. In short, this feels more like the Early Access version of Elegy than it perhaps should, with the caveat that I might only feel this way due to my personal experiences with Amorphis.

So what does this mean? First of all, Tales From The Thousand Lakes shares that broad aesthetic of dreary, cold, rainy days that occasionally burst into explosive sunlight; that much it presumably shares with the non-death metal era of Amorphis. The songwriting tastes of old, primeval rock and metal albums from the ’70s and ’80s, with special aesthetic notes taken from the era’s progressive rock and synthesizers; those in particular are irresistible bait for someone like me. There’s more doom and a rougher, nastier production than what future albums would provide, but I suspect that given the modern take, most of the content here would fit flawlessly along the band’s modern content. Still, we end up with the same sort of synesthetic mastery of atmosphere and mood on Tales that permeates the band’s discography. The more I listen to Amorphis, the more I suspect this was a major part of what earned them their fame.

Interestingly enough, one thing that Amorphis managed to preserve from The Karelian Isthmus (besides the growls) is the overall strengths and weaknesses of their songwriting. In some cases, the problems with riff glue and overall song structure that album suffered from are even more pronounced than before – the tracks here are littered with irrelevant asides, wasted intros, all sorts of writing jank that grinds my gears. Yet again, the strength of individual song sections (as well as a few tracks that manage to merge all of their ideas into a coherent whole) salvages a lot of the material here. We also are blessed by the peculiar, nasally clean-sung vocals of Tomi Koivusaari. They are something less than technically proficient, the few sections he provide add an eerie, otherworldly sheen to some already evocative music. I guess they’re supposed to be folksy; it’s perhaps more important to the overall sound that it feels like that’s supposed to be the case than that they’re authentic. Still, it’s a strong addition to the album, and a unique one in light of Elegy‘s more conventional singing.

To be honest, I was expecting to write a far more critical review of this album when I decided to talk about it. Perhaps I would’ve, had the vocal histronics not suited me, or had the band’s growing ear for songwriting not made itself apparent with repeated listening. Instead, it turns out that I’ve found more in Tales From The Thousand Lakes than I was initially expecting.

Highlights: “The Castaway”, “Black Winter Day”, “Forgotten Sunrise”

Kreator – Extreme Aggression (1989)

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A long time ago, I took German classes in school. Kreator is a German band, so I figured I could name drop them during one of my homework assignments. I think I did pretty well on said assignment, but it’s been many years. Digressions aside, Extreme Aggression has the bizarre honor of noticeably less aggressive and extreme than its predecessors. It sort of makes sense when you think about it – you can pick any year around that dawn of the final decade of the second millennium and reasonably label it “peak thrash”. If Kreator’s personnel (or management) decided they ought to soften their sound a bit, it would explain why the album is so inappropriately named, but we shouldn’t dwell on that too much.

As far as I’m concerned, Extreme Aggression does have a few tricks up its sleeve that previous Kreator albums didn’t. Perhaps most notable is that it’s got the most extremely aggressive dissonance of anything they’d released to that point. This is essentially the peak of the Kreator riff (read: consonant major keys interval arranged in dissonant, even atonal patterns) in Kreator’s music – when Frank Blackfire joined up for Coma of Souls, they essentially disappeared. This extensive dissonance was more than enough to grab my interest in my earlier metal listening days. Even now, it adds a lot of color and flair to what is otherwise a fairly polished and streamlined speed/thrash album.

While I miss the extreme aggression of this band’s previous work, Extreme Aggression actually benefits from its streamlining. Admittedly, this is in subtle ways – it generally manifests as a steadier, more coherent sense of songwriting than before, with fewer awkward asides, better transitions between song sections, and higher riff density than before. This actually combines very well with this era of Kreator’s guitar creativity – to overextend the previous color metaphor, honed technique allows Kreator to effectively use a wide palette for stronger aesthetic/emotional effect than before. The rest of the instrumentation is not as varied, and the loss of Ventor’s vocals in particular robs the band of one of their most powerful weapons. However, I’d argue that it’s more than sufficient that it plays a good supporting role for the fretwork, at least in this case. In short, it’s the combination of the signature riffs with a better songwriting foundation that makes me keep coming back to this album, even though the loss of production values does not at all suit it.

To be fair, every one of these golden era Kreator albums has something in its favor. Metalheads can’t really go wrong per se. I would argue that Extreme Aggression takes longer to gel in your head, but the payoff is worth it.

Highlights: “No Reason To Exist”, “Stream of Consciousness”, “Some Pain Will Last”