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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Orbital – Snivilisation (1994)

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Where do I even begin with this one? Orbital is one of those bands that insists on having a unique identity on each of their albums. If I understand this one’s context correctly, Snivilisation is the weird album – the one you’d insert into your brand new multimedia PC with Windows 3.1 to show off your cool new CD player when you weren’t playing Myst or Spaceship Warlock. It’s also more subdued and contemplative on average than the last one. So we’ve got a somewhat ambient, but also occasionally very silly recording, with a random punk rock song dividing it into halves that aren’t all that different from one another. There’s not much in the way of metaphors I can apply here, so the best approach is to try and figure out what makes Snivilisation snivel.

As a general rule, Orbital isn’t especially dense or overwhelming, but this is one of their sparser albums, more focused on maximizing the payout from its constituent parts than introducing new ones into songs. Samples here are especially relevant; if you ask me, Snivilisation has an optimistic, technophiliac sheen to it that’s admittedly most prominent during its sillier tracks. Case in point – “Philosophy by Numbers” is essentially a commercial for some unknown continuing education service on top of a dissonant drone, but it fights for space in its mix with screeching trumpets and increasingly complex tonal percussion before fading out. Why not find it to find out more? Orbital’s snark is more restrained in other tracks, but it’s certainly a different emphasis than, for instance, the deep and rich melodic development of In Sides.

For all of this, Snivilisation still has the Orbital trademarks and relies heavily on them. Its songs are still based in the ambient/techno approach that made the band famous. One thing that particularly pops out (even in a discography that generally emphasizes it) is the emphasis on vocals. The samples are an obvious case, but outside of a plethora of EPs I’ve not listened to, this appears to be their first recording with apparently non-sampled and obviously word-flavored vocals (“Sad But True”). I can’t actually make them out, and I’d guess they’re more for effect than anything. In this case, I’d say it’s more useful as an example of how to incorporate human singing into this sort of electronic music without obviously switching to a more conventional pop approach.

There’s still some analysis I need to do to really get everything Orbital’s attempting here, but I’m certain that Snivilisation is one of the stranger and more whimsical EDM recordings of its era. If you need your EDM to be strange and whimsical, you’ve come to the right place.

Highlights: “Forever”, “Sad But True”, “Kein Trink Wasser”, “Attached”

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Absu – The Sun Of Tiphareth (1995)

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Like all good Texans, Absu is all about magic and mythology. The Sun Of Tiphareth is (mostly) from the earlier, Sumerian flavored part of their career, but that’s more than enough for a different experience than their later and more aggressive work. This is, by comparison, a more drawn out and melodramatic/epic flavored recording; it also so happens that absorbing this recording helped me appreciate when later Absu recordings occasionally attempted to revive this one’s spirit (read: “Stone of Destiny”, “Of Celtic Fire We Are Born”, etc.). Beyond that, I’d say it also bears a close resemblance to the much celebrated Norwegian black metal scene of such past years; is it possible that Absu was trying to channel their music?

Absu immediately kicks off this album with the strangely titled “Apzu”, starting a tradition of name convolutions that wouldn’t really see fruition until the band’s comeback album in 2009. This song is basically The Sun Of Tiphareth at its most… kabbalistic? You find me an adverb in this album’s title if you think you can do better. It’s a meandering journey through all the musical language Absu is going to explore on this album. It also showcases the interesting lo-fi but otherwise reasonably clear production, some vocal interplay that I admittedly feel is better developed on the band’s later recordings, and especially diverse percussion. The latter is a given when Proscriptor calls your band home, but when you’re like me and you stereotype Norwegian-influenced black metal as being less focused on rhythmic variety, it especially stands out.

Beyond the accomplished percussion and the extended songwriting, though, The Sun Of Tiphareth doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from similar recordings. There aren’t any massive, album ruining flaws that I’m aware of – everything else here seems competent if not particularly remarkable. I do think that some of these longer compositions could’ve used some extra editing; for all the ideas and sections crammed into them, there’s a lot of filler that could’ve been cut away without cutting into the mystic atmosphere Absu creates in their stronger moments here. I suppose this is a common enough problem on its own. Absu, however, is also one of the many bands who refined their songwriting skills further on later material, giving us still arcane, but far more intense and focused material on The Third Storm of Cythraul and Tara. The approach is different enough that you can’t really substitute this album in for those two, but I still can’t help but return to those more often, at least for their mastery of their own approaches.

Again, you can’t really go wrong with The Sun Of Tiphareth, but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential unless you absolutely need more atmospheric, semi-lo-fi black metal ramblings in your life.

Highlights: “Apzu”, “Feis Mor Tir Na N’og”, “A Quest Into The 77th Novel”

Anatomy of VGM #15 – Mega Man X (1993)

35566-mega-man-x-snes-front-cover.jpgWhen I decided to take a look at Mega Man X‘s music, I was laboring under the false impression that I’d done similar for more than a single game in the franchise. I do not know what universe this belief came from, but there’s still some kernel of truth to it. The armada of composers who have written music for Mega Man and its legion of subseries have all put their own unique spin on it… …well, maybe not the composer of the DOS versions pushed out by Rozner Labs, but in their defense, they don’t exist, because those games have no music. Mega Man X clearly doesn’t have that problem. As the first Mega Man to appear on the SNES (though far from Capcom’s first title for the system), the soundtrack matches the overall goal for the game – it expands on the core concepts and puts them in a new context, but you can still hear the elements of a Mega Man soundtrack.

To really understand how MMX fits into the megaseries (!), we need to start with a good understanding of what makes a Mega Man soundtrack in general. I’ve mentioned before that the NES installments didn’t exactly push the 2A03 to its limits, but succeeded in accompanying Dr. Wily’s follies with memorable poppy tunes. Meanwhile, the third game onwards saw Capcom’s rotating door lineup of composers experimenting with more complicated variants on this formula to mixed results. If you ask me, Mega Man X leans more towards the former, in that it favors overall intensity and pop hooks over elaboration and diversity. However, it does benefit from the broader sound palette and extra sound channels that the SNES has over its predecessor. Beyond this, it retains the generally upbeat aesthetic that I’ve come to expect from the Mega Man franchise as a whole. Later X-series games would push for more darkness and edge, but I’m not familiar enough with those games to know if their composers cooperated with that.

In general, Mega Man X‘s music fits well into a hard rock/heavy metal mold. It’s got prominent guitar work that exists in precarious balance with a versatile palette of synthesizers. There are also a few excursions into more speed/thrash metal oriented territory that I appreciate, but they’re exceptions to the rule, and if I were you I wouldn’t expect a SNES game to explore sample based metal music in that much detail. While there are exceptions to that rule, this game sticks to its niche. This mostly works out, but one thing that particularly bugs me is the weak sample quality. That’s not something you want to have when you’re composing for the SNES; but MMX’s catchy tunes are (in their initial form) marred by plastic sounding guitars and grainy percussion. In general, the sample fidelity is pretty lacking – more space on the cartridge might’ve helped, but it would also have driven up the price of the game. Mega Man X2 a year later was actually a major step up in this regard, for whatever that’s worth.

While sample quality is a pretty significant flaw, it’s one that I think we can easily look past. Due to its popularity, many a composer has contorted MMX‘s tracks into their instruments of choice, so if the aesthetics of the original bother you too much, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a replacement. Barring that, the soundtrack of Mega Man X will give you a good idea of how a composer can put their own unique spin on an established sound, especially when they’ve got a hardware upgrade to help them.

P.S: Speaking of hardware upgrades, here‘s a quality remix of the OST for the Sega Genesis’s YM2612 chip.

Amorphis – The Karelian Isthmus (1992)

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It probably shouldn’t be surprising how quickly Amorphis departed from the death/doom metal that fills The Karelian Isthmus, given how many bands similarly morphed into more standard rock combos… but it is! Amorphis had an ear for the epic and melodramatic here that as far as I know was thrown out after their first few albums. The question of why so many bands followed similar career arcs (make a “progressive” death metal album, then make something else) is outside the scope of this review format. Still, we’re left with a melodic and surprisingly elaborate take on death/doom from a band that even a year ago was far filthier and less refined, and that’s where we start.

To be fair, by the time Amorphis properly got into the studio album game, they’d not only established their own skillset by recording some earlier death metal (demos, and the Privilege of Evil EP, even though that wasn’t released until some time later), but also had a corpus of established Scandinavian comrades to pattern themselves off. As a result, I’m not surprised by how polished The Karelian Isthmus sounds. Its deep yet clear guitars and deep growls courtesy of Tomi Koivusaari particularly stand out. The occasional use of keyboard patches for texture are also noteworthy, as they add depth and dynamics to these songs without distracting from the overall approach. To be fair, later incarnations of Amorphis would dramatically expand on the keys.

The compositions here are certainly ambitious, at least going by the number and variety of sections the average song goes through. Overall, they’re similar to the earlier, bludgeoning yet atmospheric sort of death metal of the earliest ’90s, though Amorphis does seem to favor magic over mayhem in their aesthetic. One thing I particularly like about The Karelian Isthmus is how it successfully avoids the standard pop verse/chorus material in favor of greater structural variety. A lot of bands that try to expand beyond this still end up clinging to these basic song structures (I’m looking at you, Death). The caveat here is that while Amorphis has written many an individual riff and many types of riffs to build their songs, this is another album where the transitions between them end up awkward at best. There’s occasionally something to be said for these abrupt transitions, but I’m not certain it’s particularly appropriate for this type of music. It’s actually a pretty serious issue that the band wouldn’t really learn to work around until Elegy some years later. What I’ve found in my personal experience, however, is that the other aspects of the songwriting (variety in general and the strength of individual sections) helps make up for it. Some isthmuses aren’t nearly as fortunate!

With all of that in mind, it seems reasonable of me to assume that I personally like Amorphis’s debut more than what my analysis of it would lead me to believe. Still, it particularly excels at creating its huge, mythic atmosphere. Regardless of what you think of the underlying compositions, this is a superlative worth studying.

Highlights: “Grail’s Mysteries”, “Exile of the Sons of Uisliu”, “The Lost Name of God”

Voivod – Nothingface (1989)

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People who were alive, sentient, and into Voivod in the late 1980s must’ve noticed the norming of their sound that (probably) began on Dimension Hatröss. It just so happens that Nothingface is even more accessible and slick than before, truly ushering in an attempt at mass mainstream appeal. Maybe. Angel Rat this is not, for Voivod retains some of the metal instrumentation and technique that they’d been known for. After finally sitting down and listening to its successor, though, Nothingface sometimes comes off as torn between the gravitational wells of two planets. For a band that channels so much science fiction, though, is that really a bad thing?

Nothingface actually has a lot going for it, though with the obvious caveat that listeners expecting speed/thrash insanity on the level of its predecessors will be disappointed. The core of Voivod’s sound remains strong here – the key in particular has always been Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s enormous range as a guitarist. Things are more consonant and slower than before, but you still have a core of varied guitarwork to pull from, and a band that’s more than able to back him up. As a sucker for dissonance, I’ve always been a fan of Piggy’s approach; listening to Voivod’s work in chronological order reveals him gradually extending his versatility and ability to mix in the more consonant stuff. Voivod also retains their compositional style, which allows them to make another set of concise and densely packed songs. To be fair, it takes this album a bit to get going – the title track here is probably the weakest of the bunch for its awkward organization. The second half is more refined, and it also has some extra bite to it that I find helpful on an album that generally tones down the more extreme metal sides of Voivod’s sound.

A few things are definitely improved from previous albums. The obvious one is the production, which sheds a favorable light over everyone involved in Nothingface. You could argue that it lacks some of the personality of previous albums (since we’re trying to avoid disparaging Nothingface for being obviously lighter and softer than earlier Voivod), but this was the clearest and most intelligible they’d ever been. Voivod definitely benefits from having that sort of clarity on their side, at least on this album. Meanwhile, of all the musicians to perform here, I’d say Denis “Snake” Bélanger has improved the most from previous albums. First, his attempts at clean singing here are more prevalent and more proficient than before. Despite this, he retains his technical variety, which isn’t entirely unexpected. Still, you can’t say no to better execution of what you already have.

Nothingface is definitely a good entry point for prospective Voivod fans, since it’s still reasonably representative of the band’s career. In general, the tracks hold up pretty well even if something like Dimension Hatröss eventually nestled closer to my heart. Definitely recommended.

Highlights: “Missing Sequences”, “X-Ray”, “Into My Hypercube”

Master – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master (1991)

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Here’s another album I listened to for… interesting reasons. Paul Speckmann (basically an early death metal scene unto himself) managed to grab Paul Masvidal (who had time for this sort of thing when he wasn’t being a cynic) and inject him into Master’s bloodstream, with the end result that I wanted to see if the latter had any effect on the former. The end result? First Paul wins – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master is blazing fast, streamlined, and direct more than it’s ever proggy and technical. When you think about it, it’s kind of like the other death metal album Paul Masvidal played on in 1991…

So Master 1991 (we’re calling it that for brevity’s sake) is a bit of a throwback to simpler methods that makes for good contrast with the more musically intricate death metal that was beginning to crop up. It doesn’t even indulge in the compositional advances that other seeminglyprimitiverecordings of the time pulled off. As far as I’m concerned, the expectations here are very clear. To succeed in its chosen substyle, Master 1991 needs to constantly pummel the listener, but it also needs to explore new means of pummeling, even if only within a limited subset of ideas.

The requirements for the former are simpler and easily achieved here. First, this album is solidly produced and mixed even by today’s standards; my only real recommendation would’ve been to edge up the percussion’s volume a bit. There’s not much I can say about it beyond that, and I feel similarly about most of the musicians here – they do a good job, but their main strength is working as a cohesive unit. The exception is Paul Masvidal, whose leadwork here sticks out for adding an occasional melodic/technical flair to these tracks. The second requirement (writing songs that are both cohesive and capable of maintaining their own identities), however, is more important. Luckily, Master generally pulls that off well. Given their minimalistic style, Master gets most of their points from… …mastering their basic, hardcore punk inflected songwriting approach. It resembles and often is for all purposes basic verse-chorus stuff, but the band puts enough emphasis on individual riffs to obfuscate this, and deviates from this formula at just the right times. One sticking point, to be fair, is in the more rhythmically complex songs here – a couple of songs here try to vary up their tempos and pacing, and results are mixed. I’m not sure how much of this is personal taste, but I feel like this works against song cohesion. They needed either more or less of it; I’m not certain beyond that they’re in an awkward liminal state.

In the long run, Master ended up writing material that’s a lot sparser than my usual preferences. I can recognize the craftsmanship and effort that went into making this album, and I can recommend it to people who want some well crafted, simple, direct death metal, but outside of its moments of glory, it doesn’t get a lot of playtime here at Invisible Blog.

Highlights: “Heathen”, “Constant Quarrel”, “America the Pitiful”, “Submerged in Sin”

Loudness – Thunder In The East (1985)

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I surprised myself by deciding to review this one. Loudness was (if my sources are to be believed), one of the first metal bands to come out of Japan, and Thunder in the East was part of a concerted effort to break into the American market after finding commercial success in their home country. As far as I know, it worked for a few years, before the band’s obvious traditional metal cred combined with a lack of more intense speed/thrash elements to kick them out of our market. This… probably isn’t a particularly accurate description of the band’s history, but it should give you a quick executive summary of what to expect – standard ’80s metal that isn’t especially hairy or particularly committed to one substyle.

As far as I’m concerned, the entire reason to listen to Loudness is their guitarist, Akira Takasaki. He provides a good dose of fret acrobatics that on their own were already enough to maintain my attention once I initially learned about the band. To be fair, I think the main reason I ended up listening to Thunder in the East is because a couple of the formative death metal bands in the USA had mentioned liking it in interviews, but I don’t actually remember. The most intricate guitar work here is understandably focused in the leads, but even the riffs benefit from his shred-flavored technique. Takasaki’s distinctive style would be exceedingly hard to replace, so you might as well take full advantage of its presence.

I don’t find the other aspects of this album particularly exciting, though. As a general rule, Thunder in the East presents competent traditional heavy metal, but rarely goes beyond it. Outside of Akira Takasaki’s clear talents, the rest of the band certainly exists… but beyond the singer’s minor accent (Minoru Niihara), nothing particularly pops out about their performances being particularly good or bad. I also feel like Takasaki’s guitar is squandered on what ends up being primarily basic pop/rock songwriting. Having an especially technical solo or more individual riffs than usual is one thing, but as far as I’m concerned, Loudness is being held back. Between that and a weak production (Screaming for Vengeance this ain’t), you have something that doesn’t have all that much shelf life. Barring a major production upgrade, I’d also accept some ambitious songwriting, or a really razor focused aesthetic. Thunder in the East is, unfortunately, lacking in those elements. Nothing here is actually bad (though your appetite for cheese may vary), but I don’t keep listening to albums simply because they don’t suck, and in today’s age of paralyzingly enormous musical choices, you shouldn’t either.

Highlights: “Like Hell”, “Get Away”, “Clockwork Toy”