Mithras – On Strange Loops (2016)

a4112459181_10.jpgSome months ago, I wrote about a band I like to describe as the “bastard sons of Mithras“; it wasn’t long after that the actual Mithras released their own followup to Behind the Shadows Lie Madness. To get it out of the way – Mithras clings to their signature sound here, with the obligatory reminder that doing so isn’t innately anything. Sounds like an open and shut case of ‘more of the same’, doesn’t it? I noticed after extended listening that On Strange Loops does in fact resemble its predecessor on a broad level. The small changes it makes to the Mithras formula are enough to make for a smoother, but otherwise broadly similar listening experience.

On average, I appear to mention a band streamlining their music every 3-4 months, and that’s exactly what happened on On Strange Loops. Mithras has always had a pretty obvious lineage from Morbid Angel, albeit with a less seethingly chaotic and more melodic take on that signature sound. The melodies are now more prominent than before, but without any boost to the harmonic backing, you’ve still got the sparse but consonant riffing that defines Mithras. You still get heavily effect-driven (“spacey”) leads on a frequent basis to keep your attention and feed you ear candy. The only really new element here compared to the last album is the addition of clean singing. This is more for dramatic effect than anything, but it’s still a neat addition that opens up some new songwriting possibilities. If you’re familiar with previous Mithras material, you won’t hear much out of the ordinary here.

Ironically, if I had simply went straight from the last Mithras recording to this one, I probably would’ve given this album a conditional recommendation and moved on. Instead, the aforementioned Sarpantium had to muck things up with Blessed Be My Brothers. Its sin (if you can even call it that) was to show us all how the Mithras formula could be improved. While I wouldn’t label that recording a complete triumph due to some flaws in its song construction, it adds enough improvements and shares enough performing musicians that as far as I’m concerned, it gets to usurp On Strange Loops as the true successor to Mithras’ legacy. This album is almost threadbare in comparison. In the strictest sense, I shouldn’t be judging one recording on another, but in practice, my critiques and analyses are informed by the sum of my experiences. That means that staying the course and making minor adjustments/improvements isn’t enough to keep Mithras afloat anymore. The goalposts have moved, folks.

Highlights: “The Statue on the Island”, “Part The Ways”, “Time Never Lasts”

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Polysics – Karate House (2007)

folder.jpgAfter over a decade in my collection, I’ve got a lot of stories to tell about Karate House. Well… maybe not a lot, but the one that comes to mind is how over time, my tastes within this album evolved from preferring its singles to preferring its album cuts. I don’t quite know how that happened, but it did. This was actually one of my first attempts to appreciate the entirety of an album, after spending much of 2006-2007 grabbing individual tracks by artists off Limewire. It took me a while longer to actually commit to that, but if I hadn’t tried it here, I don’t know that I ever would’ve made the shift.

The dichotomy between slick, streamlined pop and noise rock that I mentioned the last time I reviewed a POLYSICS album is present here, as always. From the very first notes of the leading track (“Watson”), it’s clear that Karate House is all about sharp, abrupt contrasts. The pop side hasn’t changed all that much from previous albums (although the pitch-manipulated chipmunkery on “Catch On Everywhere” may disagree), but that’s made up for by some of the harshest and most aggressive material I’d seen out of this band since Neu. Two things I’ve noticed about that – the assault has been moved more from the production to the actual song structures and riffwriting, and the songs released as singles/PVs understandably lean towards the pop side of POLYSICS. Between their long career and the inexorable advance of technology, you can at least expect the latter.

It’s probably the way those middle cuts are written and structured that keeps Karate House afloat as an album, and not just a puddle of paste around some hit singles. To be fair, POLYSICS wrote their share of those too, but as I said, their similarity to what they put on surrounding albums makes it hard for me to think of them as part of the same recording, even though they clearly belong. That might just be Limewire’s legacy speaking, and it could end up saying more about me than it does about POLYSICS. Ultimately, despite having more to do with the band’s noisy roots, the album cuts come off as an early attempt to present that side of POLYSICS to a wider audience. This would be more successful on We Ate The Machine, but this is at least an important antecedent. It also means that something like “Professional Tennis” comes off as about as energetic/hostile as your average ENO or National P track, but the sleek production and further improved musicianship make it easier to get into.

I don’t know if that’s really an endorsement of Karate House for anyone who hasn’t already entered the POLYSICS ecosystem. For newcomers, I’d recommend the whole ‘twin peaks’ system I described in my previous reviews. If you enjoy those, you’ll be better equipped to appreciate what Karate House brings to the table.

Highlights: “Electric Surfin’ Go Go”, “The Great Brain” (a P-MODEL cover), “Shizuka is A Machine Doctor”, “POLYSICS OR DIE!!!!”

Summoning – Dol Guldur (1996)

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It took two albums for Summoning to find their sound. After that… they persisted. Dol Guldur won’t shock you if you’ve acclimated to the signature approach of Minas Morgul. Instead, it continues those sounds, refines them, and streamlines out some of the silliness of its predecessor. The similarities, in short, are numerous enough to make judging whether one of these albums is better than the other a difficult task. Is it even worth the effort? Ultimately, you’re here, I keep a regular schedule on Invisible Blog, and that’s why you’re reading about Dol Guldur.

To be fair, Dol Guldur makes some significant changes to how Summoning sounds, but it does so in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and didn’t occur to me until I’d digested the album. Probably the biggest actual change from Minas Morgul on this album is that Summoning has doubled down on the slow, even doomy tempoes. Minas Morgul wasn’t exactly caffeinated overall, but it had a few sections of blastbeats and such that made for more varied pacing. Dol Guldur‘s more heroic sections have a ponderous, almost contemplative sound to them, whereas the darker tracks turn into funeral dirges. Meanwhile, the guitarwork that binned Summoning alongside black metal acts has been scaled back in favor of more keyboard orchestra; for better or worse, they’ve upgraded their sound patches so they don’t sound quite as low budget/kvlt. All of this adds up to a sound that’s less stereotypically like the band’s black metal origins, and in some ways more like a hypothetical score to a Lord of the Rings film. At the very least, this explains the OVAs on Youtube.

Even if the sounds have changed, Dol Guldur is written in a similar fashion to its predecessor, or at least that album’s slower sections. The arrangements continue to imitate the motifs of an orchestra as much as the instruments themselves, and relatively simple playing technique is matched by more depth in the song structures. I suspect, however, that the songwriting takes more of an ambient form than even before. First, I noticed that tracks here simply fade out, whereas on Minas Morgul they had more sharply delineated endings. That on its own would be a trivial difference, but when combined with the tempo shifts, reduced guitar, and generally lengthier songs, it points to something changing deep within the heart of Summoning. Without deep listening to even more Summoning albums, I can’t really say if this is a trend that would continue, but it does seem like I was able to shed a light on exactly how Dol Guldur differs from its predecessor after all.

Despite all of this, the two albums aren’t enormously different, and fans of one are almost certainly going to appreciate the other as well. My initial reaction was to favor Dol Guldur for its polish and depth, but in recent years I can also make a case for the variety that Minas Morgul brings to the table. I suppose you could just listen to both of them and make your own decision as to which one pulls ahead.

Highlights: “Nightshade Forests”, “Elfstone”, “Unto a Long Glory…”

Aborym – With No Human Intervention (2002)

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It didn’t take very much to get my attention back in 2009. Aborym immediately grabbed it with rumors of an extreme black metal/industrial hybrid, favorable reviews on Metal Archives, and the occasional very strange song title (“Digital Goat Masque”, anyone?). It’s been quite a while since I gave this a serious listen, but that alone means little. After all, I could say the same about many albums I first experienced in 2009 that I still cherish. In short, instead of asking “Do you still listen to this album?”, you should be asking “Would you listen to this album again?”, in the desperate hopes of accounting for listener fatigue. As for my answer to that second question, well…

…Well, the first thing I noticed upon relistening is that the title track’s immediate assault of blastbeats, samples and pyrotechnic guitar solos still come across as candy coated as ever, at least given how long ago it was that I accepted extreme metal as a musical genre. Compared to Kali Yuga Bizarre, which showcased a flavor of “industrial” black metal that usual drew more from standard extreme metal than electronica, With No Human Intervention is more openly electronic. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that it was particularly cutting edge for 2002 (at least by pure electronica/EDM standards), but there certainly wasn’t as much metal/electronic fusion music out at the time. I know I wasn’t doing that sort of thing – 10 year old me preferred Johann Sebastian Bach. Ultimately, whether or not it was innovative isn’t particularly important. This album has a suitably violent production that’s more intelligible than the previous two recordings by Aborym, and the mechanical atmosphere that creates is at least appropriate. A few tracks lapse into pure electronica for variety’s sake; my early affinity for electronic music got a kick out of it once it recovered from the shock of being anthropomorphized for the sake of a cheap joke.

If my discussion of Aborym’s aesthetics comes off as riddled with pointless asides, have no fear – it’s all in service of an extended metaphor about With No Human Intervention‘s greatest flaw. In short – it lacks songwriting cohesion. You’ll almost certainly note how many discreet sections each song contains, and indeed, you can’t credibly accuse Aborym of not having enough ideas to fill out these songs. If you’re not able to tie together your song sections in a coherent fashion, though, it doesn’t matter how much content you write. For all the effort Aborym put into making interesting sounds, they chose poor places for them in the actual songs, resulting in structures that simply don’t make logical sense if you think about them. That’s a major flaw, and a potential barrier to your enjoyment of this album after the first few spins.

Ultimately, I’ve cooled greatly on With No Human Intervention. On the other hand, if I hadn’t listened to it, I wouldn’t have discovered their better albums. That counts for something, right? Maybe start with the debut instead.

Highlights: “With No Human Intervention”, “Humechanics-Virus”, “Black Hole Spell”

Orphaned Land – Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven (2004)

folder.jpgOrphaned Land’s 3rd album sees them abandoning their religious themes. Instead, we’ve got a fantasy story about a mad god destroying its own creations in a fit of narcissistic rage because they dared think of anything other than utter submission. Did I say they abandoned the religious themes? I may have (deliberately) lied. Mabool is, to my understanding, Orphaned Land’s first concept album; it continues the Abrahamic religious unity themes, continues to strip out death/doom roots from the band’s sound in favor of orchestration and folky progressive rock, and it feels more consistent than their more obviously liminal second album (El Norra Alila).

The push away from overt metal elements is pretty much Mabool‘s defining characteristic, at least compared to the previous two albums. It’s most obvious if you listen to the guitars, which have been simplified substantially from something that already wasn’t especially complicated. Mabool instead channels its instrumental energy into keyboards, vocals, and a couple of acoustic instruments for good measure. If you’re familiar with some of the big pioneers in symphonic metal, then you’ll probably recognize this as part of their playbook – a shift from horizontal complexity to vertical complexity, because there’s only so many sounds you can stack before your mind gives up and decides it is listening to noise. In this case, I think the vocal side of this album is one of its strongest points – the arrangements are all over the place and used to great effect, and the musicians’ singing technique has advanced quite a bit in the intervening 10 years since the debut.

One thing that’s been consistent, though, is Orphaned Land’s actual songwriting. They still rely primarily on a musical “journey” to shape each track – with emphasis more on exploring a wide variety of musical ideas than exploring a smaller set to their maximum extent. This synergizes well with the extended instrumental palette, but I’d say that the reduced metal/riff complexity doesn’t align well with that approach. If you’re paying any degree of attention and are familiar with the band’s previous material, you’ll hear how much the guitars in particular are relying on simple chugs and grooves in an attempt to convince you that this is still a metal album. As a general rule, I prefer the tracks that emphasize this side of Orphaned Land, but ultimately, it falls to the nonmetal to keep Mabool afloat.

Ultimately, I view this album as something of a peak for Orphaned Land’s non-metal elements, and it’s definitely the slickest and most lasciviously (don’t look at me like that; after all, Babylon was a supposedly den of impiety) produced thing they’d released in their career at this point. Long term listeners might end up favoring Sahara‘s deeper attunement to metal, but even that’s not certain, given just how well Mabool does everything else.

Highlights: “Birth of the Three”, “The Kiss of Babylon”, “A Call to Awake”

Univers Zero – Ceux du Dehors (1981)

Ceux+du+Dehors+cover.jpgDoes Ceux du Dehors (which I usually refer to by its translated English name, “The Outsiders”, because I can’t tell French from fromage) have an identity of its own? I can hear the most rabid of Univers Zero’s fans calling for my blood for suggesting it, but you can’t deny that its approach is somewhere between the albums it’s chronologically sandwiched between. I couldn’t tell you why that ended up happening, but gradual evolution perhaps isn’t unheard of. If I had to be more specific, I’d offer that Ceux du Dehors instrumentally takes more after 1313 than Uzed, but it offers some of the streamlining and lighter tone of the latter while also absorbing some of the nightmarish seething chaos of Heresie. In short, it’s at least a good jumping off point for exploring this band, at least if you value getting a little of everything they did in early on.

It might just be the instantaneous introduction of “Dense”, but what I’ve noticed about Ceux du Dehors is that it emphasizes speed and technical playing to an extent that seems unprecedented in Univers Zero’s work. While UZ hasn’t put out a halfheartedly performed album to the best of my knowledge, it still makes for an interesting divergence from the norm. A few tracks showcase a more lethargic, ominous style for counterpoint and balance, and even “Dense” trades in its density of notes for density of oppression for its sludgy coda. I don’t particularly have an opinion on whether the enhanced technicality is a good thing, but it it does seem to be this album’s calling card.

If you aren’t willing to check out Ceux du Dehors on account of velocity alone, though, then what reason is there to check it out? If you asked me, I’d say this is where Univers Zero finally figured out how to write effective shorter songs, which has to count for something. On “Bonjour Chez Vous”, for instance, they abandon the pointless noodling of earlier efforts to write something that feels more focused and coherent. It’s probably also worth noting that this attempt ends up sounding more consonant and melodic than a lot of preceding Univers Zero pieces – as previously mentioned, this is a trend that would continue in their later material.

Being so archetypal does remove a lot of its potential for distinctiveness, but if you’re at all interested in Univers Zero, you’ll most likely find Ceux du Dehors to be just as essential as their other albums. The high standards the band sets continue here.

Highlights: “Dense”, “La Corne Du Bois Des Pendus”, “Combat”

Obliveon – From This Day Forward (1990)

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From This Day Forward’s mixture of death metal, thrash metal, and progressive rock tropes might take some getting used to if you’re not, for instance, familiar with its successor. Before that midpaced, tightly coiled and rhythmically powerful slab of multigenre rolled off the CD presses, though, Obliveon’s debut focused more on melodic development and ambitious songwriting. Make no mistake of it – it’s still a metal album, but compared to the grooves that follow, it actually sounds more like an ancestor of the “melodic death metal” that devoured the last few years of the previous millennium. Between bands like this, Voivod, and Gorguts, Quebec had an early advantage in metal innovation beyond what its manpower of only a few million could muster.

Ironically, this album leads off with a title track that of all the content on here most resembles Obliveon’s later works. The song “From This Day Forward” contains more dissonance and vocal emphasis in its DNA than what immediately follows, so relying on it as an indicator of the album as a whole is a poor idea. If I were to nominate any one track as From This Day Forward as its exemplar, it’d have to be “Droïdomized” – a mostly breakneck work of deaththrash with a lengthy catalog of riffs and loads of consonant melodies. It fits as both representation and what is likely one of the best songs in Obliveon’s catalog, showcasing not only a strong balance between the band’s apparent influences, but their synthesis into a coherent whole.

Given the limited budgets of death metal past, and Obliveon’s relative obscurity outside metalhead circles, it’s a wonder that the sound of the album manages to fit so well. Nemesis, a few years later, would nail its colder, more methodical approach with a sharp and clear production; while From This Day Forward doesn’t sound as incisive, its somewhat warmer production is more suited to the dynamic and structural variety it enjoys. More importantly, this is a very clear production that gives plenty of space to all of the instruments, including often-neglected basslines. To be fair, the first track has a sharper guitar tone; Encyclopedia Metallum claims this was recorded a few months after the other tracks. The rest of the album potentially could’ve benefited from sounding like this, but such a hypothetical version of the album would have to exist for me to pass a useful judgement.

Ultimately, this album forms another part of Obliveon’s glorious legacy; it also represents one of the early salvos in what would eventually become techdeath. The band would eventually decide they wanted to be Fear Factory, but that’s a story for another day.

Highlights: “Fiction of Veracity”, “Droïdomized”, “It Should Have Stayed Unreal”