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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Alabama Thunderpussy – Open Fire (2007)

a0173502929_10.jpgAs a Massachusetts native, it is my sworn and solemn duty to denigrate the southern half of my country for whatever reason seems most amusing at the time. Take this band – they aren’t even from Alabama, but instead were apparently based out of the … less southern state of Virginia. Digressions aside, Open Fire still comes from a part of the country that’s considered acceptably Southern, and it shares enough DNA with country pop and rock music that it’s inevitably labelled “Southern metal” by writers worldwide. Who am I to resist that?

Open Fire is especially blues and rock inflected for its overall intensity levels, but surprisingly not in the immediate and obvious way that the subject of my last review is. After the 1970s, your average metal band stripped out enough of the obvious blue notes that without locking yourself in your room and blasting Black Sabbath for hours on end, it was potentially hard to understand why people were still drawing the connection. Alabama Thunderpussy is definitely bluesy, but instead of returning the method by which formative metal albums incorporated it, they’ve overlaid it onto a more modern take on the metal shtick. It’s hard to say whether this makes it sound more like an amplification of the past, or less, but one thing is for certain – this band owes its very life to the roots rockers, even if they’re aesthetically further away than most in a similar position.

Alabama Thunderpussy has a few aces up their sleeve that keep them in my listening rotation despite being surprisingly far off from my usual listening and composing fodder. The first is Kyle Thomas, of Exhorder fame. His ferocious performance on that band’s albums belies his abilities as a more conventional (read: rock-style) singer, and while he does summon forth the occasional scream, his cleans demonstrate a strength of tone and dynamics that help him stand out. I don’t know who provides the lyrics on Open Fire, but his performance strengthens what are already a well written, apocalyptic brimstone preacher set of words. My emphasis on the band’s vocal/lyrical prowess shouldn’t detract from the prowess of the rest of the band members, though – while the style they’re performing in doesn’t provide all that much room for musical innovation, the compositions here are both well performed and varied enough in structure that they remain interesting over the album’s 50 minutes.

I can no longer remember why I decided to give this band a shot in the first place, although I’d guess, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, that I was following the vocalist. Either way, I’m glad I did.

Highlights: “The Cleansing”, “The Beggar”, “Open Fire”, “Brave the Rain”

Orbital – In Sides (1996)

folder.jpgIf my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?

On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.

It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.

Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.

Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”

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”

Averse Sefira – Tetragrammatical Astygmata (2005)

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You know, Texas is an absolutely fascinating state. I might be biased because I lived in Round Rock for two years when I was a child, but it never ceases to amaze me that the little nation that once could has overcome inept governance and a cavalcade of dangerous microclimes to become one of our country’s leading exporters of black metal. Tetragrammatical Astygmata is interesting because it’s an especially chaotic and dissonant contribution to the genre that’s also surprisingly accessible and hooky. Is that my musical preferences expressing themselves again? Probably. Don’t be surprised if the rest of this review reflects my biases as well.

While the more dissonant chunks of black metal raise a lot of questions about where metal subgenres begin and end, Averse Sefira’s musical languages shares enough of the rest of its surface (high pitched vocals, less emphasis on percussive variation, etc.) to otherwise fall into blackened realms for marketing purposes. Two things make this band click – their songs have a preponderance of individual riffs organized into varied structures, and the whole chaotic/dissonant angle is used to reinforce coherence and expand their musical language. These ideas are integrated effectively enough that I actually had to sit down and give these tracks a deep listen in order to figure out just how they were pushing the envelope. Averse Sefira obviously isn’t the first to play with these ideas, even within black metal, but I always appreciate a band that can pull it off.

A lot of Tetragrammatical Astygmata‘s musical elements, in fact, are like this – an accessible facade with turmoil under the surface. Even this isn’t all that novel, although you’re still more likely to find music with little more to its name than surface noise or deep lore. For instance, the production is at the liminal point where raw aggression gives way to studio polish, with a clear mix allowing listeners to appreciate every nuance of the instrumental work without detracting from its overall extremity. The vocals and lyrics are also worth a note – the actual words spoken are sparse, abstract, well spaced, almost slam poetry. Still, they’re delivered with enough conviction (…if maybe not that much diction) that you’d actually want to look at the lyrics and analyze them, at least if you’re particularly into the lyrical/ideological aspects of metal albums.

Those of you who’ve been reading along for the last few years and whom are also familiar with this album are probably silently nodding. I can sense it – you probably saw the cover art and thought something along the lines of, “That’s something our author would definitely enjoy”. Averse Sefira isn’t all that well known as of 2017 (although they presumably had some moments of relative fame), but if I’ve done something to popularize them by writing about their work, then surely something good has come of today, right?

Highlights: “Detonation”, “Helix in Audience”, “Mana Anima”

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”