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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)

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Here’s an album with two souls inside of it, fighting for supremacy! On one hand, we have a (relatively) poppy, occasionally even surf flavored rock band called the Dead Kennedys. On the other, we have a mile-a-minute, no fucks given loud fast rules hardcore punk band who’s also called the Dead Kennedys. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables doesn’t mix these two approaches all that often, so it’s basically a rollercoaster ride of quick punchy songs with plenty of songwriting variety. That doesn’t always work, though – relatively older bands have been felled by their failure to pull this off, so what became of the Dead Kennedys’ debut?

DK, however, has an ace up their sleeve. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is a stereotypically vocal-driven album, so it really helps that the band is fronted by Jello Biafra. His skills go undermentioned here for my lack of relevant genre experience, but when it comes to these types of music (hardcore punk and… uh… not-so-hardcore punk), you can’t find many who are better. His actual vocal technique seems adequate for both if not particularly special, but the way he performs (and his lyrical finesse) contributes enormously to the potency of these songs. It’s hard to exactly quantify the level of snark and vitriol on display here, but you’ll hopefully agree that it’s integral to the overall aesthetic on display here.

Jello Biafra also happens to be fronting a band with reasonable chops and… an admittedly iffy studio budget, although I’ve forgiven that last bit on many occasions. It might be due to the older influences here, but the actual instrumental parts are rarely as deconstructed and simple as they are on some of this band’s rough contemporaries. Critics like to talk up the ‘surf rock’ influence, if that means anything; it does add a neat, wavy gravy flair to the more pop inflected tunes on here, and presumably was a nice bonus for the earliest listeners who, back in 1980, presumably weren’t innundated with an entire internet’s worth of music in all genres. The actual recording fidelity doesn’t do as well, although “Holiday in Cambodia” is a notable and significant exception, with a deep and virile sound compared to the generally tinnier, trebly sounds that the other songs showcase. Expecting a really good production might be too much, but to my (clearly not a professional audio engineer) ears this sounds like the sort of thing that could’ve benefited from having some knobs turned up, perhaps at random. You can perform pretty much the same effect on your own by turning up your speakers/headphones, so maybe the problem is just that I don’t listen to music at levels that are acutely harmful to my hearing? Whatever.

It might be a bit obvious of me to say that I accept Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables‘ high position in the hardcore punk pantheon, but that’s what I do. Given that I don’t listen to a lot of straight up (or straight edge) punk rock, it’s probably for the better that what I do have is quality stuff.

Highlights: “Kill The Poor”, “Chemical Warfare”, “California Uber Alles”, “Holiday in Cambodia”

Vader – De Profundis (1995)

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Are Star Wars jokes still topical, and if so, are they popular in Poland? Vader got their start in 1983, in the turblent last years of the local communist government; by the time it fell they apparently had enough momentum to get their debut (1992’s The Ultimate Incantation) released via Earache Records. I haven’t actually listened to that one, though. De Profundis, on the other hand, is a worthy entry in its genre, being one of those recordings that strikes a good balance between immediate accessibility and hidden depths. It also keeps a consistently high level of intensity and aggression without wearing out the listener, unlike some of the content I have to deal with…

Executive summary – De Profundis is death/thrash metal, ill defined as that is. It does have a pretty even mixture of the stereotypical instrumentation and aesthetics of each, giving us a reliably fast, monophonic, bassy and growly sound. Even in 1995, this style had been done to death (pun intended), although I can also argue that there was never really a time when sounding like death/thrash was enough to get you even the slightest iota of attention. The production this time around is competent – clear enough that you can hear the intricacies of the compositions and generally genre appropriate, but lacking the punch that the more prominent extreme metal albums of the time had. Were I the producer, I would probably have gone with something more trebley and incisive, but that might just be my preferences showing again.

With a standard production, it falls to the songwriting to carry De Profundis. As I mentioned at the beginning, it does; everything you could require from this type of music is present in a perfect balance. It all comes down to the song structures – Vader provides us a high density of unique riffs and musical ideas despite the short songs, by virtue of not dwelling on any specific section for too long. Some tracks here are obviously more complicated than others (“Sothis” comes to mind for being thorough-composed) – these are instant highlights, since they represent the band pushing themselves to the limit. Perhaps more important, though, is that Vader has mastered fluidity on De Profundis – every part of these songs segues logically into the next, even when dramatic tempo/modal/structural shifts are involved. It’s definitely harder to do when you build up your songs from dramatic musicological shifts, so the bandmembers definitely deserve a commendation for that.

I guess that years of experience before releasing your first studio album can come in handy. I’m definitely speaking from experience (insert advertisement for Critical Mass here) when I say that, but the point is that between historical circumstance and what is presumably just plain old fashioned skill, Vader had already reached a level of musical refinement on their 2nd album that some bands never acquire even after they hit their 12th birthday.

Highlights: “Silent Empire”, “Sothis”, “Revolt”, “Reborn in Flames”

Judas Priest – Stained Class (1978)

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Stained Class is the culmination of an era of Judas Priest. After this, they were never quite the same. To understand this, you have to look into the pyschedelic/progressive rock roots of metal. Not only was there a great deal of crossover, but a lot of early “heavy” moments that future metal musicians were inspired by came from prog bands pushing into more noise and feedback alongside their poppier bretheren. I don’t think anyone would classify Judas Priest as a progressive rock band, but in their longer winded moments, you can imagine the resemblance. Stained Class has some of this, but its big achievement is buffing up the band’s heaviness and aggression to then unprecedented levels.

To be fair, “Exciter” (the first track) might give you an inaccurate impression of just how fast and aggressive Priest is going to be on this album – there is nothing that quite compares to it later on. Still, it would take the band years to match it, so it’s got to be worth a mention. Important, though, is that in spite of upping the velocity and aggression, “Exciter” has a relatively complicated structure, and plenty of internal dynamics that make its own lineage apparent.  This first track also gives us a chance to preview the latest iteration of the Judas Priest sound. While the production is still arguably a work in progress, it’s a good refinement of the strengths of the previous album’s sound. We also get a major boost in the quality of drumming courtesy of Les Binks, whose more intricate style is sorely missed on the band’s most famous works from the 1980s.

Even if most of the album isn’t as balls-out as the lead-in, the rest of Stained Class has plenty going for it. It tends towards a mid-paced, spacious sense of songwriting, with a few nods towards the folk/blues-rock elements that flavored Sin After Sin coexisting with more stereotypically metal work. K.K Downing doesn’t have as many songwriting credits on this album, for better or worse, although I’m still not entirely sure how much he helped Priest push the envelope on these early works. Quibbles about authorship aside, this is generally solid, well planned material; perhaps less ambitious structured than before, but also more coherent and less prone to filler. The improvements to the production don’t hurt, either. “Beyond the Realms of Death” stands out as another one of Priest’s strong ballads; its soft-loud dichotomy makes a nice contrast to “Dreamer Deciever” and its long buildup. Overall, it’s definitely streamlined, but the songwriting on Stained Class isn’t so oversimplified that it really harms the listening experience.

I won’t go as far as to say that Judas Priest does no wrong on this album, but Stained Class gets more than enough right. A word to the the psychedelic/proggy bands of today – if you want to get gradually heavier, you could learn from Priest’s evolution…

Highlights: “Exciter”, “White Heat, Red Hot”, “Invader”, “Beyond the Realms of Death”

Old Funeral – The Older Ones (1999)

89630History is a drug. How many forsaken souls do you know that will embrace an experience solely because of its historical roots? The Older Ones is a compilation of demos from an obscure death metal band whose main gimmick is that some of their members went on to be the infamous Norwegian black metal scene. Your interest in Old Funeral will most likely go through three stages – awe that its members went on to form Immortal, Burzum, and Hades, disappointment that none of those founding fathers were in the band at the same time, and then something based on your actual opinion of the music at hand. Yes, I know – I too was shocked when I realized other people made value judgements about music.

I’ve reviewed compilations of demos of this vintage before, so the frequent shifts in style on this album weren’t quite as shocking. There are a few trends in these demos that match what was going on at large in Norway – general deemphasis on production standards that initially were surprisingly good, a push towards minimalism in both writing and instrumental technique, and overall more coherent, if less ambitious ideas for songwriting. I won’t lie – the crazier, more unhinged early tracks on here are more to my tastes, even though there are some issues with how all the individual riffs are glued together. The better mixing is a big part of this – while they’re very, very echoy and cavernous recordings, the tone is entirely on point. Apparently, these demos were produced by the famous Pytten, who is responsible for many of the scene’s classics from this age.

Overall, I’m not entirely sure how much attention Old Funeral would’ve received without its star power, but if anything, the good results on the first half of the album should at least speak to the developing talent of the musicians. Given the… juvenile turn of this band’s very earliest recordings, this is probably where they came into their own. To be fair, these musicians were likely involved with the tape trading scene. Even if Abduction of Limbs most strongly resembles the death-thrash of 1990 and Devoured Carcass reeks of a thicker, more overtly “brutal” death metal, though, the bandmembers’ skill in writing individual riffs and ear for overall aesthetics are worth noting and studying. In spite of all this, the compositional problems mean that I would almost certainly recommend the bands that Old Funeral’s famous alumni started over these origin stories. The fact that I’m not particularly impressed with their take on black metal doesn’t help. Still, the recordings that make up The Older Ones are at least worth a historical look, with the caveat that you probably wouldn;’t be here if you weren’t trying to get your fix of ancient history…

Highlights: “Abduction of Limbs”, “Annoying Individual”, “Devoured Carcass”

Autechre – Chiastic Slide (1997)

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With a discography as sonically diverse as Autechre’s, you can easily find some forsaken soul to declare each recording an outlier. If you want to apply that to Chiastic Slide, then you should zero in on its ‘dirty’, heavily sample and noise driven soundscapes. Compared to the cleaner sounds of the albums before and after it, Chiastic Slide is a sonic anomaly for sure (even if the accompanying Envane EP shares its auditory patina), but the actual songwriting on here is roughly comparable, hitting a good midpoint between the nominally accessible Tri Repetae and nominally more difficult LP5. In the end, it got socketed into the discography, but not without a lot of spirited fan discussion about what role about what sort of role going full Chiastic Slide had in Autechre’s discography.

The funny thing about Chiastic Slide is that it actually isn’t all that chiastic – i.e there is not much on this album that is truly symmetrical. The song structures, for instance, tend more towards evolution than repetition. In fact, this album’s songs showcase some of the most striking and abrupt transitions of Autechre’s discography, at least in this relatively early stage. After all, it starts off with “Cipater”, which for all purposes fades in an entirely new song over its initial set of musical ideas. Some of the tracks admittedly develop more organically, but at the very least, beginning with the abrupt mood shifts and thunks is a major departure from before.

Autechre has never been a heavy band, at least by the standards of modern death metal, but the overall more abrasive, nastier sounds on here have in themselves been a major draw for me. As mentioned, “Cipater” has its thunks, and is followed up with straight up static noise (“Rettic Ac”). The more overtly sampled soundscapes here are suited to this; even if Autechre has done much with distorted and chopped up samples in their lifetime, it’s rare that they push the idea so far. This noisy aesthetic even leaks into the calmer and more soothing tracks – “Pule” in particular never reaches any explosive peaks, but its ever growing moans and creaks under the surface make for the sort of vivid synesthetic imagery that Autechre channels at their peak. In general, this sort of contrast makes for interesting tracks; I am definitely a fan.

In the end, I’m not sure if I would put the entirety of Chiastic Slide on a pedestal. The main problem is that some of the tracks in the middle drag on without much payoff. However, when this album excels, it reaches high peaks, and those should more than pay the cost of admission.

Highlights: “Cipater”, “Cichli”, “Pule”, “Nuane”

Necrophobic – Darkside (1997)

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Necrophobic’s debut (The Nocturnal Silence) has a melodic sense to it often reminiscent of contemporary black metal. Darkside accentuates that, but while much of this album resembles the black metal its lead guitarist David Parland slung on the side (read: early Dark Funeral), it’s still got at least one foot firmly planted in the death metal camp. It’s certainly a hybrid, and it’s also certainly a leaner, faster, more aggressive recording than its predecessor. A good analogy here is Slayer’s evolution from Hell Awaits to Reign in Blood – lifted band name aside, this sort of adjustment in sound is in itself not without precedent.

Much like what happened with Reign in Blood is, Darkside is therefore a simpler and exaggerated take on its predecessor’s ideas. To reiterate after years of lessons from black metal in particular – simple music is not innately bad. It can be if you don’t have the skills or motivation to make the most of your minimalism, but many primitive-sounding recordings have stuck in my mind for years, and even managed to reveal their hidden depths over time. Does Darkside do this? The answer is a firm “sort of” – at 37:55, the album has more bytes on its CD than I initially suspected, but there’s a good chunk of filler strewn throughout this relatively short length. This was actually a problem I noticed over time with The Nocturnal Silence, and it took me a while to figure out exactly why parts of both albums weren’t sticking after repeated listening.

With Necrophobic’s debut, I initially decided the main problem was that they weren’t going all out with the candy coated melodies. Amongst other things, Darkside is full of consonant, if stereotypically evil sounding melodic riffs, so it seems likely that the band thought similarly. It turns out that ratcheting up the sugar factor isn’t always the best answer, at least given the simpler song structures. This results in an album that lacks a lot of the nuance and intellectual power that made its predecessor’s high points work. It’d help if the production was similar, but as far as I’m concerned, The Nocturnal Silence dealt with this better as well. Its cleaner and deeper sounds sell it more effectively than this album’s more trebly yet muddled mix. I don’t actually know if Necrophobic was trying to go for a more overtly blackened sound; to be fair, it’s a relatively minor change.

Ultimately, if I want an album that blurs the line between the constellation of extreme metal subgenres, I would probably go with something other than Darkside. It seems like quite a step down from its predecessor.

Highlights: “Black Moon Rising”, “Bloodthirst”, “Nailing The Holy Out”

Overkill – The Years of Decay (1989)

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Overkill, despite being a typically thrashy thrash metal band, has always had a touch of the melodramatic in their music. It’s not all that uncommon, really, but understanding how it waxed and waned through their careers is helpful for analyzing their discography. My initial impression of The Years of Decay many years ago lead me to believe that it was on the decline in 1989 – that Overkill was trying to become more streetwise and generally focused on the aggressive, direct aspects of their music. Was that a reasonable appraisal?

Your first impression is probably going to depend on whether the first half (with shorter songs) or the second half (more extended songwriting) sticks out on your first listen. If it’s any consolation, Overkill had become proficient enough at this point in their career to create and differentiate both types of songs, so both chunks have a good chance of being your favorite. In my experience, the first half seems to win out with most people, but that might be because the straight up doom metal experimentation of a track like “Skullcrusher” is a bit niche compared to the more accessible punky thrash metal Overkill is known for. Divergent halves aside, The Years of Decay is generally more ambitious than its predecessors, with more technical instrumentation and more musical adventures in general, and that’s something I can always support.

While The Years of Decay predates Overkill’s ability to consistently get a good production, this side of their sound has nonetheless been refined. Some people might enjoy the rough sounds of this band’s earliest recordings, but this overall roughness and low fidelity is unfortunately not matched by special aggression or intensity. To be honest, this album’s mix doesn’t have much of a power advantage (power surge?) over its predecessors. However, it’s definitely clearer and more intelligible, which is a good fit for the increased musical expertise of this lineup compared to previous ones. I don’t know that the musicians are actually pulling anything out of the ordinary compared to before, even if their approach is more advanced. The exception is likely vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, who spent the decade gradually shifting from primarily sung vocals to primarly shouted and shrieked ones. He doesn’t abandon singing entirely (and never has), and he even manages to sound heartfelt and emotional on the title track, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Ultimately, Overkill’s 4th definitely fills a niche, even if it isn’t as immediately exciting as some of their recent, revivalish efforts. It’s still an important part of their career, and you should definitely add it to your collection if you want a good introduction to why Overkill got their fanbase in the first place.

Highlights: “Elimination”, “I Hate”, “Skullcrusher”