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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Anatomy of VGM #14: Battle Garegga (1996)

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Artwork from the Japanese arcade version flyer. We’ll be discussing the original soundtrack this time around… as usual.

Last week’s nominally bullet hell inspired recording got me thinking about shmups again. Battle Garegga was always one of my favorites, and an important milestone in the rise of the bullet hell genre (in fact, I’ve heard it inspired the folks at Cave to push themselves to new limits when they released Dodonpachi a year later). It’s music is a milestone of mastery for FM synth enthusiasts, a loving encapsulation of EDM/techno trends of the ’90s, and entirely worthy of the hyperbole I am slathering it in at this very moment. In the interest of hype, you should make sure you’ve listened to it before reading onwards.

The composer responsible for Battle Garegga‘s aural excellence is Manabu Namiki, who rose to prominence working for 8ing/Raizing before later joining up with Cave. His early work outside this game also serves as a master class for how to use FM synthesis in music. To be fair, the tracks here are not exclusively based on FM synth; the hardware the arcade cabinet uses also has some sampling capabilities that are used mostly for percussion and electric piano hits. Pure FM synthesis tends to model this sort of thing poorly, so having some basic noise generation or sampling capability frees the FM up to do the electronic/synthetic sounds it excels at. That in itself was pretty common – in the Western world, your best reference for this is probably the Sega Genesis, which had the capacity to pull this off between all of its sound hardware. Still, when you consider just how good the FM synth in this game sounds – lots of resonant pads and thumping bass, and the genres it covers, it’s a sign that Namiki has the aesthetics where he needs them.

As previously mentioned, Battle Garegga is a techno soundtrack of the sort that I suspect was most popular in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is what really tips me off; it results in a lot of midpaced, rhythmically simple tracks that focus most of their complexity on melodic/harmonic exploration and sound layering. There’s also a funk/jazz component here that occasionally syncopates the percussion into offbeat grooves; it’s not always present, but it makes for good contrast and variety. The aspect that sticks out most for me, though, is the aforementioned chord progressions. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of “extended harmony but still relatively consonant” approach (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel will attest to this if you dig them out of their graves), but Battle Garegga does this in a more contemporary, jazz-inflected way than most of what I listen to in my leisure time.

I cannot sing the praises of this OST enough, but what I’ve written here should be more than enough to give you an idea of why it’s so impressive.

Highlights: “Stab and Stomp!”, “Tunnel Vision”, “Subversive Awareness”

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Gridlink – Longhena (2014)

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I used to play a lot of 2D “bullet hell” shmups in my youth. That’s admittedly tailed off since high school, but what if it hadn’t? For all we know, I might’ve pulled a Gridlink and written a couple songs about Dodonpachi. Longhena isn’t exclusively about Cave’s contributions to the genre, but its musings on this theme (delivered as they are in a manic 22 minute deathgrind fuckfest) certainly took me back to those younger, more innocent days.

So there’s a few overarching themes we need to get out of the way in order to understand Gridlink – they are enormously fast and incredibly violent, but the reason you’re listening to them is probably because they’re more interested in consonant melodies than the average grindcore band. That alone is enough to get at least my attention, though to be fair, “melodic” variants of grindcore are a genre unto themselves. Gridlink usually sticks to this approach throughout Longhena, which admittedly isn’t too difficult given its short length, although for whatever reason they take an early acoustic break in “Thirst Watcher”. Between the melodic approach and surprisingly clean production, this album has something of an advantage over more traditional grindcore offerings in acquiring more manpower for the metal and punk causes, at least if they can acclimate to the shrieked vocals and otherwise enormous velocities.

To be fair, I haven’t had much luck actually getting into grindcore, at least when it doesn’t have other gimmicks to attract my fickle mind. Gridlink’s main strength here, as far as I’m concerned, is that they pack fully formed songs into minuscule packages without sacrificing quantity of content. They avoid reusing the same structures to build their songs, too, which I don’t often hear at this level of brevity. It helps add some variety, and given that the band’s still playing grindcore… they definitely need variety. Make no mistake of it, though – Longhena still barely lets up, so for its length it is one of the most ear-fatiguing albums I’ve had the experience of listening to; as a result, I want to suggest that further developing on the instrumental/technique variety could be helpful. However, I can’t really think of a concrete example, and I’m concerned that more than a hint of it might result in something that sounds more like a moldy old carnival than a grindcore album, so I might have to drop that criticism.

If grindcore fans and shmup fans were mutually exclusive, I’d probably say Longhena was tailored more towards fans of the former than the latter. But it did succeed in attracting my interest and showing its prowess in a genre that I don’t give much attention, so it’s definitely got some merit.

Highlights: “Constant Autumn”, “Taibas”, “The Dodonpachi”, “Island Sun”

Tankist – Unhuman (2017)

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Disclaimer: I received a promotional copy of this album in return for an honest review.

So Estonia might play a disproportionate role in your life. It’s the home of Skype, Subspace Continuum, and now the folks from Tankist have upped its metal quotient by releasing their full length debut. To get it out of the way – Tankist plays a form of speed/thrash metal that wouldn’t be out of place in that genre’s mid/late-1980s heyday. They also have the benefits of modern studio technology and distribution, so when it came time to listen to this album, I went in eager to hear what they could do with this tried and true formula.

As far as I’m concerned, this recording is of two minds. On Unhuman, Tankist seems to channel the looser, punkier, more crossover flavored side of thrash – not so much in the proto-death metal way that a band like Carnivore or dead horse did, but still in a way that recalls the contemporaneous hardcore of the time. On the other hand, Tankist also sounds like they draw inspiration from the more technically advanced realms of speed/thrash, at least in the sense that their guitar section throws in some angular, dissonant riffs for good measure. Between that and the frequent abrupt tempo changes, you end up with a product that has a lot more me-candy (your mileage may vary) and musical depth than I initially expected before I actually sat down and listened to the album.

Unhuman‘s strengths and weaknesses, in my opinion, boil down to the fact that it’s unstable and unhinged. On the instrumental/vocal side, this is entirely a plus; it makes for an aesthetic I appreciate. I’ve already mentioned how the guitars contribute to this – the vocals are also a major contribution. The obvious comparison, as far as I’m concerned, is Tom Araya of Slayer fame, although Tankist’s vocalist (Kevin Marks) averages a lower register and puts on a more diverse performance in the process. The main weakness comes in the song structures. I don’t know how much emphasis the band puts on song density, but there are some issues at times with how they string together song sections. It’s not easy when you try to incorporate as many types of material as Tankist does, and they generally succeed, but as far as I’m concerned, this is probably the best area for them to work on for their next album.

Before you ask, yes, I am looking forwards to future content from Tankist, given how generally good Unhuman turned out. My previous experience with modern thrash metal has often lead me to expect simpler, more direct fare (the occasional Vektor aside), so when you get something more ambitious like this album, it’s always a pleasure.

Highlights: “Miserytomb”, “Suffo6ion”, “Waste of Bones”

 

Black Sabbath – Dehumanizer (1992)

Black Sabbath - Dehumanizer - Front.jpgIt turns out that the Ronnie James Dio line of Black Sabbath does Ozzy-era Black Sabbath as well. Deliberate oversimplifications aside, Dehumanizer does bring a renewed focus on doom and gloom compared to Dio’s previous efforts with the band, and even compared to what little scraps of the Tony Martin era I’ve heard (Tyr, for instance, comes off as more preoccupied with epic fantasy, at least in its first impressions). But much like even those Ozzy-era albums had various asides, the shift in focus doesn’t deprive Dehumanizer of variety, vigor, humanity. In fact, it might just be one of the band’s best albums.

Much of Dehumanizer‘s lustre comes from Dio’s vocals; to be fair, he was a talented vocalist who did good work for many an act, previous Sabbath included. I’m not sure if it’s just the ravages of time or the tonal shift, but compared to older recordings, Dio has acquired some extra grit and intensity here. Whatever the cause, it fits well with the songwriting here. The rest of the musicians don’t stand particularly out as individuals, but the way they work together on this album is more than the sum of its parts. The key, as far as I can tell, is how consistently they stick to the doomy aesthetic (making even fast paced songs like “TV Crimes” fit in). While there are some strategic synthesizer patches in places, this is one of the more stripped down incarnations of the band, even compared to earlier Dio recordings. Luckily for us, Sabbath did not try to overpopulate these songs with instrumental flourishes.

The songwriting also has this gestalt feeling to – despite generally simplistic arrangements, continued spins of Dehumanizer will reveal skilled craftsmanship born of Sabbath’s veterancy. As repeatedly mentioned, the songs here at least superficially resemble the material that made the band’s earliest Ozzy-era recordings famous, in that they’re generally slow and obviously “heavy” sounding. Iommi’s riffset bears less of that era’s blues-rock heritage, though in favor of newer additions to the metal language. If I had to guess, I’d say he studied contemporary metal bands to some degree. The tracks here don’t have particularly ambitious structures, but even the generally verse-chorus-verse content here is handled effectively, without too much repetition. Oddly enough, this album seems to excel at abrupt transitions between song sections. Usually, I see their presence on any album as something of a negative, but somehow they work here – I’d say they’re a good source of contrast given the demands of Dehumanizer‘s unified aesthetics.

All of this adds up to Dehumanizer being a crucial piece of the Black Sabbath legacy. To be fair, they’ve put out a great many good albums with a great many vocalists; the reason this one stands out is because it straddles two of the major archetypes the band has explored throughout their career. This time, it gives listeners the best of both worlds, and therefore it gives you many good reasons to listen.

Highlights: “Computer God”, “TV Crimes”, “I”

Autechre – Oversteps (2010)

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Oversteps is a brief moment of consonance in the abstraction that is contemporary Autechre. The funny thing is that it manages to be both… in a way that’s separate from my usual death metal fodder. Like most of the Autechre-listening public, I blame Max/MSP for this, and indeed, Oversteps does have something of an algorithmic angle to it. It has a sense of rhythm and melody to it that’s unpredictable and yet surprisingly self consistent. It’s also an album of stark contrasts, ranging from rigidly structured etudes (…maybe just “known(1)”) to almost stream of consciousness level soundscapes. My experience with it has been defined by the contrast between its unusually friendly exterior and its difficult to parse writing and structure.

A surface listen to Oversteps will at least make you aware of its production – as far as I’m concerned, this is the smoothest and richest Autechre has sounded since 1994. In an ideal universe, I would describe it in synesthesia-evoking food terms. Most of this comes down to Autechre’s decision to build songs out of clean sounding, heavily tonal (and occasionally overtonal?) instruments. Percussion and noise here are usually very limited, although a few tracks buck this trend and offer something nominally resembling beats for your listening pleasure. The overall effect, at least if you’re anything like me, is that your attention is going to focus almost entirely on the generative melodies Autechre has provided you.

Oversteps certainly manages to push its melodic strategies in every direction possible. Songs here vary widely in structure despite generally falling prey to the eventual urge to spit forth a torrent of rapidfire tones. The overall pacing is probably more consistent, though – some Autechre recordings have major outliers in song length; this isn’t one of them. My overall impression was that the album actually began to feel more diverse as I kept absorbing it, and I would put this down to the structural experimentation. Sometimes, this works very well – the aforementioned “known(1)”  sounds completely unlike anything else Autechre has done, and wins major points for its rigorous counterpoint and harmonic complexity. Other times, perhaps, not as much; Oversteps is weakest in its looser moments, when songs fail to capture this sense of logical progression. This may be more of a general Autechre thing, since I tend to complain if their material starts feeling stagnant, but it’s still worth noting here due to the melodic focus.

Ultimately, any band that releases “known(1)” is a winner by my standards; Oversteps would be worth it if the rest of the album was garbage. Luckily, it’s not. You might find this album especially useful if you’re into the band’s earlier, more melodic material, and you think need a foot in the door to appreciate the more abstract stuff. Anyone who’s already attenuated to that part of Autechre will find plenty of it here, too.

Highlights: “ilanders”, “known(1)”, “Treale”, “krYlon”

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”

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!!!!”