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Toxik – Think This (1989)

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Wow, who would’ve guessed? A late ’80s speed metal album that’s quite literally a product of its time! There’s a couple of reasons that Toxik comes off as especially topical. Apocalyptic, “mad world” flavored speed metal with nods to both the mainstream metal scene and high-culture virtuosity, sometimes even in the same song (“There Stood The Fence”). A time when middle America stood to be ripped apart by mad televangelists and communists… where have I heard this high concept rhetoric before? Oh.

When I first decided to give Toxik a shot, most of what I’d read about them compared them to other “technical” thrash metal bands like Realm and Helstar. On the surface, this is an apt comparison. Between the soaring vocals, the skilled instrumentation, and the slick production (although Realm is a bit more intense as a general rule), you can make a vaguely representative, if somewhat shallow trifecta of technical thrash. Continued listening makes the differences apparent. The bands I mentioned for comparison push the envelope of songwriting and musical experimentation much further – for want of a better description, Toxik’s “get played on MTV and tour a lot” aspirations are a lot less subtle.

That Toxik manages to successfully appeal to both sides of the fence (you know, the one that stood there) is praiseworthy, although it should definitely be distinguished from something like Averse Sefira‘s ability to mind-virus their far less accessible style of music. For the most part, Toxik’s songwriting sticks to common pop structures, but these are enhanced by a strong sense of dynamics and a good sense of how to play with tonality to manipulate the listener’s emotions. It’s a smart match for the manipulative powers of the media and society at large that Toxik criticizes in their lyrics, although I’m not sure how intentional that is. The obvious switches between dissonance and melody, as well as the tempo shifts give this album’s songs an excessive melodramatic effect that helps them cement in your memory. However, some listeners might find such excess to be excessively cheesy. I’m not sure there’s much of a way to tone this down without substantial stylistic changes, but I’m also not sure that it’s worth trying within this substyle at all!

It seems reasonably accurate to market Think This as an exaggeration of the excesses of American ’80s metal, which implies all of the good and bad of that era. This does naturally limit Toxik’s audience, but given the commercial (and occasionally vomitory) aspirations of the era, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be able to understand what Toxik is going for. Better this than a thousand other less incisive bands, no?

Highlights: “Greed”, “Spontaneous”, “Black and White”, “Machine Dream”

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance (1982)

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The 1980s were an… interesting time for Judas Priest. As a major force in the ongoing commercialization of heavy metal music, you can imagine how some of their albums might’ve been written with an especially mass audience in mind. Screaming for Vengeance isn’t always like that. It definitely isn’t like the infamous Turbo (released in 1986 and allegedly reminiscent of “hair metal acts), but compared to the formative and slightly progressive rock inflected Priest of the past… well, this album has certainly been many things to many people, but for now let’s just pretend it’s another review on Invisible Blog. That’ll help us stay as objective as reasonably possible.

For 1982, Screaming For Vengeance wins many a point for sounding good and being well produced. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that at least out of what I’ve heard, it’s the best produced metal album of 1982, though it’s only a matter of time until someone insists that title should go to someone else. The high points of this mix are the guitars (which strike a good mix between clear tone and nutritious distortion), and the drums, which are a good example of the stereotypical gated reverb ’80s sound’s pros and not so much their cons.

To be honest, I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on the production if this album didn’t have its heavy commercial leanings. In my experience, this sounds more like a heavy metal album than its immediate predecessors, but I still miss the more ambitious songwriting of ’70s Priest. This also fails to be the most instrumentally accomplished Priest lineup, but most that burden is the fault of Dave Holland, who is an underwhelming drummer compared to Les Binks or Scott Travis. He isn’t completely incompetent, and this might be a case where I’ve been spoiled by the expertise of some of the other drumseats, but a stronger drummer could’ve helped add to the variety of the songs here at the very least. Many of them are eerily similar in structure; often differentiated by little more than tempo or key signature. On the other hand, this does keep Priest firmly anchored in their strengths. Not every track can be “Epitaph” (a straight up piano ballad from Sad Wings of Destiny), after all; ironically, Judas Priest is at their weakest when they try to approximate the most popular rock of their time. Screaming for Vengeance‘s more consistent songwriting helps take the edge off it where on other albums it really cuts into the ineffable metal factor.

Still, this is a pretty poppy and accessible metal album. Probably not a bad starting point for neophytes discovering Judas Priest, and it definitely has enough traditional metal instrumental and studio chops to hold up well. Considering the peaks they reached in the 1970s, though, it’s nonetheless hard to recommend this over those.

Highlights: “Electric Eye”, “Bloodstone”, “Screaming for Vengeance”

Gargoyle – Tenron (1993)

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I want to say that Gargoyle’s 1993 album Tenron is a mellower and more traditional/power metal influenced take on the Gargoyle sound than its predecessors. Is that accurate? Maybe. Its relatively muted production and obligatory funky soul song thing (“Doumushishubai”) would insist this is the case, but given that Tenron also showcases its share of more intense signature tracks, you could make the case that it’s still a logical step forwards for the band; like Aratama before it, Tenron intensifies through its duration, it refines Kazuhisa “Kiba” Tochihara’s distinct half-growled but half-sung vocals, and it has its share of genre bending wackiness… although this time, just maybe, Gargoyle’s work is more clearly based in rock music?

What makes this album hard to judge from a historical perspective is that it’s more cohesive than previous Gargoyle recordings. Most notably, Tenron‘s stylistic departures have production standards closer to those of the local metal. Whether this is a result of Gargoyle’s guitarists turning down their distortion a bit, or playing more heavy metal and rock riffs everywhere, it’s definitely one way to tie otherwise unrelated works together. My tastes in Gargoyle still run towards the heavier side of their discography (This basically means Furebumi, although Future Drug comes close), so while I’m not always a fan of the mellower sounds on display here, the successful integration of metal elements into the other half has its advantages.

The flipside of this is that Gargoyle also started applying their J-rock lessons more directly to the task of writing power/thrash metal. On previous albums, these ideas were more discrete; here the mixture makes for something of a candy coating that’s sometimes, but not always appropriate (“Shinpan no Hitomi, Unimo Fukezu”). At some point, Gargoyle started rerecording older, heavier songs and occasionally performing as “Battle Gargoyle” when they wanted to ditch the balladeering, so I can imagine that they eventually found the increased melody and consonance often on display here constraining. This is the main weakness of Tenron – while it didn’t take Gargoyle long to successfully incorporate goofy genre bending into their sound, it took them quite a while to really pull off their pop sound. In fact, I’d say 1995’s Natural was probably where that half of the band coalesced; there’s some room for debate, but enough of the pop here is good enough that I’m glad they kept at it.

Ironically, what I’ve found is that the supposedly more accessible Tenron took some acclimation, compared to the instant appeal of its predecessors. If it hadn’t been for its existence, though, I might not have plumed the depths of Gargoyle’s discography…

Highlights: “Amoeba Life”, “Doumushishubai”, “Gekka Ranshou”

 

 

Ihsahn – The Adversary (2006)

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It’s not quite a successor to Emperor’s legacy, but I don’t really think The Adversary (Ihsahn’s first solo album) intended to be.  There’s clear similarities to late period Emperor, but for whatever reason, The Adversary dials down the aggression while retaining most of the extreme metal language, making for an… uh… interesting experience. Let’s get this out of the way – angL, two years later, was basically the same thing except with better execution, sort of making this one obsolete. But if you’ve never listened to either, you probably want to know whether this style is worth your time.

Songs on The Adversary are, despite its ‘progressive’ pretensions, generally fairly short and notably verse-chorus in how they’re constructed, although with lengthy and varied bridges to hide this. On the other hand, they’re chock full of difficult and dense instrumentation, which was a major attractant when I first discovered this album (I think that I first listened back in the earliest days of Invisible Blog, but I’m not sure). There’s a great deal of ornamentation involved, for better or worse, and seemingly more variation in instrumental technique than overall aesthetics. As a result, The Adversary is one of those types of albums where each song is clearly in a different style, whether it be the vaguely traditional heavy metal of “Called by the Fire”, the blasting of “And He Shall Walk In Empty Places”, and so forth. Style shifts are also used to delineate sections, for better or worse.

The pretension just oozes from this album at all times, though. It doesn’t help that the orchestrations behind the metal side are realized through cheap keyboards – similar to those of later period Emperor, but more problematic because the wimpier metal side of things thrusts them into your ears. It’s clear that Ihsahn was trying to create something fairly ambitious, but the general reliance on pop tropes doesn’t do much for it. I guess it’s better than the pseudo-random songwriting that similar acts sometimes go for, but the discord between intents and final product is easily apparent, even when the progressions used to construct these songs aren’t discordant in and of themselves. In retrospect, this problem isn’t far off from what afflicted Emperor later in their career, but IX Equilibrium, for instance, had the mediating efforts of other band members and a more fitting production. All of this adds up to an album that, when I think of it, was never that great once the novelty wore off.

Highlights: “Called by the Fire”, “Homecoming”, “Will You Love Me Now?”

Sigh – Gallows Gallery (2005)

folder_smallAfter going full on classic rock on Imaginary Sonicscape, Sigh was like “Let’s do that again!”, and thusly made Gallows Gallery, which is even more like old rock and metal than its predecessor. Huge synthesizers and actually sung vocals make for an experience that isn’t necessarily unlike the predecessor, but before this, Sigh tended to change the sound of their albums by diverging as opposed to evolving. After this, I can’t say. Despite this, it’s surprisingly not Sigh’s most accessible album due to its absolutely ridiculous production (which, before being remastered, was falsely marketed as using “Japanese World War II sonic warfare techniques” in its production). If that makes for an odd juxtaposition, then arguably this isn’t in need of a review, because it means Sigh has succeeded at their apparent mission.

On the other hand, it’s important to actually judge execution, so we continue onwards. This specific mixture of old styles with new aesthetics and distortion reminiscent of the whole “power metal” movement, so I feel justified in thinking of this as something of an extreme power metal album. I’ve mentioned how far Sigh strayed from their black/doom roots on multiple occasions, but I imagine it had to be blindingly obvious by the time this came out. It helps that Mirai Kawashima switches from harsh growls to clean (albeit heavily processed and harmonized) singing. It’s hard to judge his technique given the production, but he takes a lot of queues from the King Diamond school of vocals; often high pitched, sometimes full-on falsetto, and generally quite integral to the songwriting.

The sonic (*cough*) end of this album deserves some mention even without some of the claims attached to it. It’s loud. Gallows Gallery blasts for almost all its duration, and this can really shred your ears if you’re not careful. The original master was apparently worse in this regard – it was produced in a way that hid various layers of the music and otherwise made for an even harsher listening experience. Given the sheer quantity of instrumentation on this album, anything that makes things more intelligible is an improvement. On the other hand, this runs into similar problems as other extremely and consistently loud albums – besides the obvious ear fatigue, constant dynamics remove one of the most effective ways to distinguish tracks from each other, and given how much Sigh relies on the same basic musical language to construct songs here, that’s not a great thing.

It’s no wonder that I only really end up listening to this album when I’m in the mood for something especially rock oriented, and even then, this album has to compete with the more nuanced work on Imaginary Soundscape.

Highlights: “Pale Monument”, “Confession to Be Buried”, “Messiahplan”

Darkthrone – A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992)

folderThis is one of those reviews that kept getting delayed for various reasons, including “Hey, I could’ve sworn I wrote about this!” and “Is that band playing BURP METAL?” It’s a shame, really, because A Blaze In The Northern Sky was the ultimate grower for me – something I could not appreciate at all when I first heard it (compare to, Mayhem, for instance, which I ‘got’ quicker) and furthermore, something which I could not really penetrate until I learned the joys of its successors. These days, it is indispensable, and while you will hear similar sentiments across the internet, the choirs always have room for one more preacher.

If you ask me, what distinguishes this album from the Darkthrone surrounding it (on both ends) is an elevated sense of pomp and melodrama. A Blaze In The Northern Sky is full of extended compositions, but furthermore explores more moods than the monotone creepiness of Soulside Journey or Under A Funeral Moon. The compositions contain great variety of tempo and even dynamics, as the acoustic interlude of “In The Shadow of the Horns” may forcibly make you aware, but ironically the band may owe much of this to their scrabble for the growing Norwegian black metal movement. The title track, for instance, first took shape during the abandoned Goatlord sessions (which are worthy of discussion and will probably come up in about 5-10 years, once I get around to actually listening) as a midpaced death metal track before being retrofitted with blasts and newly screamed vocals. The other songs may have slightly more recent origins, but the point still stands that, at least in places, Darkthrone had a long way to go before their roots were rendered unrecognizable. Darkthrone’s front end, though, was a simple task to swap out, as possibly evidenced by the fact they did it again on every following album for some time. Immediately trebley and abrasive where Soulside Journey was bassy and occasionally anemic, A Blaze In The Northern Sky is hardly high fidelity, and is probably a good early example of black metal production being calculated towards such unfriendly ends as opposed to simply arising naturally from lack of budget and studio resources. Shades of early (pre-Viking) Bathory and Tormentor, really; Darkthrone’s influences may be fairly obvious early European underground metal, but they’re worthy of mention, especially here where the distance between the band and earlier bands had yet to really reveal itself.

There are thousands of people out in the world who have written on Darkthrone, and all of the points I’ve made here have been trodden to death, brought back to a cruel imitation of life, and beaten again, even my suggestion of possible redundancy. Still, without this album, the rawer and filthier sides of black metal would perhaps remain denied to me.

Highlights: “Kathaarian Life Code”, “Paragon Belial”, “Where Cold Winds Blow”

Coroner – No More Color (1989)

folderA sign that your metal genre has made it commercially is that people are producing a particularly elaborate and ornate variant on it. Coroner’s roots stretch back to the early ’80s (including a collaboration with Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost), but their full lengths set benchmarks for musical proficiency that admittedly were soon broken by more extreme metal musicians.

No More Color hews pretty close to the standard, mainstream “thrash” sound of the late 1980s, with short, conventionally structured, punchy songs that still contain a great deal of variety and skilled musicianship; particularly of the shred/solo variety. I don’t know if Coroner identified with “neoclassical” metal musicians like Yngwie Malmsteem to any degree, but the melodicism and ornamentation that I hear on this album’s songs sometimes reminds me of the idea of such, even if not necessarily the actual recordings. Again, I can’t make comparisons to recordings I haven’t properly digested without wrecking my credibility. Digressions aside, this also manifests as a particular emphasis on instrumentation over lyrics and vocals, as the shouted/spoken vocals here tend towards burying short, sparse phrases in the mix. At best, they contribute to the texture, and they never feel like the focus of the music. I’m not sure the mix problem is even intentional, but overall it doesn’t bother me as much as some issues I’ve heard in other albums’ productions.

What distinguishes Coroner from some of the other techy thrash bands I’ve discussed is that outside the ornaments, they often rely on relatively simple patterns to build their songs. For instance, “Mistress of Deception” is full of basic tritone riffs, but a couple of them (like the intro riff) have extensive, almost frilly guitar runs tacked onto their ends. Maybe it’s related to the Celtic Frost link! I wouldn’t assume such, personally, since by 1989 Celtic Frost had become rather… weird. You could make a case that the technical flourishes are extraneous to the core of the music; more on that later. Coroner does display some merit in the deeper levels/aspects of their songs here, though – subtle variations on the typical pop song structures emphasized by the use of varied bridge material, skilled use of melodic/harmonic reinforcement, and so forth. That the ‘surface’ technicality of No More Color exceeds that of its underlying substrate is worth noting, but while you could imagine a simplified Coroner that didn’t perform as well or as rigorously, such a band would gut itself badly, almost as its members were to decapitate themselves while shaving off stubble with a safety razor.

As a final exercise, compare Coroner’s flashy and technical elaboration on speed/thrash metal to an accessible simplification of a more difficult sort of music, like Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates. At least in this example, Coroner comes out ahead by producing a strong and consistently entertaining work without losing their essence, and I would go so far as to argue it’s easier to elaborate than to simplify in the realm of metal.

Highlights: “Read My Scars”, “D.O.A”, “Tunnel of Pain”