Archive

Posts Tagged ‘album’

“Critical Mass” Reaches The Masses

folder.jpg

So I’ve been hinting at this for a while – I released a full length album for the first time on August 1st, 2017. People release debut albums all the time, yes, but this is still a pretty major milestone on my end. In the interest of having more vaguely promotional material on the internet, Critical Mass is getting a blog post. Just to get it out of the way – your best bet for purchasing this is on Bandcamp, which has the lowest default price, but lets you pay what you want if you’re so inclined. You should be able to find it on a variety of other vendors, though.

A few bits of trivia you might not already know about this album, even if you’ve been good and purchased this album in order to support its creators:

  • Most of the actual composition/arrangement/recording work took place in early-mid 2016, and the decision to compile things into an album came about a year after that.
  • After doing pretty much nothing in the way of covers through the rest of my career, I started doing a chunk of those as I worked through the content for this album, and several of them lead to DAW/sonic advances that are present on Critical Mass‘s actual songs.
  • This album almost featured some more remasters and remakes from early 2015 or so, but I decided to leave them off in favor of newer tracks once I decided to seek out professional mixing/mastering services. Not to disparage myself too much, but I had good results with that route in the past (read: the Polyhedron EP), so I figured I’d give it a shot again.

With that in mind, some notes about the future:

  • I’m probably going to take another shot at finding bandmembers to expand Planepacked with sooner or later. Massachusetts is pretty damn good for metal, and I’m conveniently located to get people from all over New England by being close to its center of population.
  • Unless something changes, the next major creative project you see from me is probably going to be another book. I wrote 50,000+ words of one for NaNoWriMo 2016, and progress has continued on it since then, if admittedly kind of slowly. I’m hoping to pull off something of a sprint to fill out some of the chunks of that. I’ve already written a teaser for the content of the book, which you can read if you want an idea of the content.

Your normal review schedule will return on August 12th… unless I decide to write an Anatomy of Video Game Music post or something. You usually know what you’re going to get on Invisible Blog, but you can’t deny that there are exceptions.

Devin Townsend – Dark Matters (2014)

folderIf you ask me, Dark Matters is a big budget re-imagining of its illustrious predecessor. It’s probably musically closer to Deconstruction than the first Ziltoid album, and within the context of Devin Townsend’s musical approach, it has a stronger narrative. I’d say that in these various regards it’s a pretty typical sequel. We’d still best take a look at what this means for Dark Matters, because otherwise all those optimistic people who read about Ziltoid #1, or even just Sky Blue (the other half of Z²) would end up somewhere else, somewhere distinctively not written by me. We can’t have that, can we?

Like Deconstruction before it, Z² is an album of guests held together by its main creative personality. It contains a couple of guest vocalists, although none of them seem to have the fame of Anneke van Giersbergen. Devin Townsend still acts as our main vocalist, using a variety of techniques to perform all sorts of characters. His narrations, in particular, are particularly useful in this regard, perhaps too useful! Remove them (as the alternate dialogue free version of Dark Matters does), and you lose a lot of the conceptual unity that makes this a Ziltoid album. Given that this is more story driven than any of its predecessors… well, let’s hope you don’t find the dialogue interludes annoying. I personally didn’t, but anyone who does is getting their experience gutted.

Perhaps the only thing we haven’t heard on prior Devin Townsend albums is the “Universal Choir” – mass fan vocal participation that appears on a couple of these tracks. Otherwise, this is a formula we’ve heard before, even if the actual recombinations are different. Tracks here are more compact than they were in the past, although there’s a few outliers – “War Princess” and “Earth” come to mind pretty quickly if you look at the tracklist. I suppose nobody involved in the project really wanted to change up the formula too much. Personally, I can’t complain, because Devin does this sort of thing pretty well, and massive genre shifts are not without their potential pitfalls.

Given what I thought about the other half of Z², it might be reasonable to say the entirety of it is a “safe” album, suitable for anyone who enjoyed previous efforts by its creator. As a reimagining, Dark Matters is unique enough to stand on its own, and without the sheer aggression at all costs of other aspects of the Devyverse (like Strapping Young Lad), it’s certainly easier to acclimate to. Anything else on this subject is redundant at best.

Highlights: “Ziltoidian Empire”, “War Princess”, “Ziltoid Goes Home”

 

“Second Contact Is Worse EP” now available!

folderMy music composition efforts have taken a rather thematic turn lately. Every day, Second Contact Is Worse gets a little closer to release, and a couple of songs I’ve released recently have taken ideas from it as inspiration. I figured it’d be sensible from a marketing perspective to bundle them together, and that’s where the idea for the ‘EP’ came from.

This is going to be a free digital release, like all of my musical efforts so far. Four of the songs I’m planning to include are already available on my Youtube and/or SoundCloud accounts. A fifth is under construction, and will be EP-exclusive for a while in the hopes that it gets the thing more downloads and buzz. It’ll eventually go up in the usual places, but if you want it available to the mass public earlier, you’ll want to flood the internet with buzz for this work, and that especially includes putting this icon I’ve made in every corner of the internet.

June 1st update: The EP exists! Download it here. It comes with cover art, liner notes, and losslessness due to FLAC formats.

Frank Zappa – Over-Nite Sensation(1973)

folderFor better or worse, much of Over-Nite Sensation is either based in fairly ‘standard’ 1970s rock tropes, or the equivalent funk/soul records marketed along racial lines. Major jazz-fusion influences remain, although compared to other Zappa works there aren’t many overt classicisms. Either way, this record is generally considered (along with its successor, Apostrophe) one of Frank Zappa’s more accessible. Furthermore, it saw some reasonable degree of commercial success, reaching #32 on the Billboard pop charts – a figure that meant more back in the 1970s than it does today.

Over-Nite Sensation really, dramatically excels in its solos to an extent that the progressive rock surrounding it is rendered green with envy. For this album, Zappa was able to get his hands on huge quantities of guest musicians, most notably Jean-Luc Ponty (who’d only a few years before released an album of Frank Zappa covers), and the Ikettes featuring Tina Turner. Most of these musicians had plenty of experience in jazz music going into this; combine this with Zappa’s traditional, heavily through-composed approach and you get an interesting contrast, to say the least. Furthermore, I’d say Jean-Luc Ponty’s electric violin solos are the best of an already distinguished bunch; his choice of chord progressions seems most appropriate for the compositional display on here.

The key to understanding much of Zappa’s early work (outside of sound collages and extended pieces) is that he often alternated between using pop standards and more complicated works; Absolutely Free provides an example of this. On this album, however, the two are often fused. The local jazz influence is probably to blame, since that genre allows for lots of complicated improvisation within what potentially is a very simple method for constructing songs. In comparison to Zappa’s 1960s work, though, the pop on display isn’t based in doo-wop or folk rock – I presume Frank Zappa (or one of his session musicians) was listening to a lot of funk and soul records at the time and enjoying them, and then furthermore trying to extend the formula. While the songs here are often guitar and bass driven, there’s plenty of brass stings, and the frequent presence of Turner/Ikette vocals to push the aesthetics. The only real exception to this, ironically, is the first track (“Camarillo Brillo”), a rather countrified excursion for Zappa; Edgard Varèse it is not.

Describing Over-Nite Sensation as a product of its times seems accurate… but not particularly useful, as most musical recordings are not made in a vacuum. Still, the album’s musical palette may render it more topical and less “timeless” than other Zappa works. However, this also potentially means fans of the constituent genres (jazz fusion, funk, soul, etc.) might get particularly enjoyment out of this recording.

Highlights: “I’m The Slime”, “Fifty Fifty”, “Zomby Woof”

Massive Attack – Mezzanine (1998)

folderI think we can officially say that Mezzanine is the soundtrack to television; the singles from this album (and a few tracks that weren’t so fortunate) have wormed their way into the media – including but not limited to the use of “Teardrop” as the theme song of House M.D. We’re dealing with massive commercial success here, although mostly in the United Kingdom. Anyways, Massive Attack is a band I learned about primarily by using Pandora, and their chosen “trip-hop” style was at first something that I could not relate to my understanding of electronica at the time. While I’ve grown more knowledgeable since then, I still have gaps to fill.

Massive Attack, at least on Mezzanine, focuses on texture and atmosphere above all else; one aspect that falters as a result is their use of dynamics. There’s a major emphasis on looped samples over which an ensemble of vocalists perform (which lead to legal issues with “Black Milk”), and the general level of intensity is best described as ‘ambient’ at many times. However, there are a few moments of increased intensity and loudness, such as the lead-in track, “Angel”. Ironically, “Angel” is the opposite of many of the tracks here, in that it relies almost entirely on dynamic change to retain listener interest; another prominent example of this is “Dissolved Girl”. Still, this is not an album of dramatic developments; when things change, they do so slowly and gradually.

Given the way these songs are written, my judgement of whether a track was good or not often came down to the quality of the vocals. Ironically, the main vocalists (Robert del Naja and Grantley Marshall) pale in comparison to their several guests because their chosen style is flat,  bordering on monotone in a style where the backing is not particularly dynamic. Sometimes, they manage to overcome it with interesting soundscapes – like those on “Inertia Creeps”, but the guests simply outsing them. Horace Andy (on “Angel” and “Man Next Door”) seems to provide the most effective contrast, but Elizabeth Fraser (who performs on “Teardrop”, “Black Milk”, and “Group Four”) is the most technically accomplished vocalist on this album by far. Either way, while the lines they are assigned don’t particularly break any boundaries, they sound good and add much needed dimensionality to the music.

The last time I referenced this album (in a discussion of Perdition City by Ulver); I used it to describe a sort of ambient pop music that I was uncovering the boundaries of. This does not have the “experimental” edge of such a recording, unless you count the by-1998-established genre of trip-hop as experimental, but it is definitely a more coherent recording than what it may have inspired. This coherence definitely helps Mezzanine in the long run, as do the guest vocalists, but this only goes to show that the entire style benefits from development and variety. Based on the elements I mentioned, though, Massive Attack seems to understand this even when they don’t always hit all their nails.

Highlights: “Angel”, “Inertia Creeps”, “Man Next Door”, “Black Milk”

Meshuggah – Contradictions Collapse (1991)

More jazz-metal! I can’t blame myself for listening; it’s a fundamentally interesting combination to behold. Obviously, this band became famous for their monotonal, polyrhythmic approach, which is complex sounding, but actually very simply structured. The amount of effort it takes to create this sort of work is somewhere in the middle. Contradictions Collapse, on the other hand, is more a ‘normal’ sounding debut than anything. Along with their 1994 EP None, it’s a good look into how much a good sense of harmony and variation can enhance a thrash album… or one of Meshuggah’s later works. These days, I tend to listen to those more for their atmosphere than their rhythmic achievements. Basically, I’d call this a less extreme counterpart to Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, or Pestilence’s Spheres; both albums  considered benchmarks of technicality and jazz influence in their genre. In 1991, however, Meshuggah was working in an somewhat less extreme thrash metal vein; much has been made of the evolution of Jens Kidman’s vocals, which here contain a significant portion of melody while remaining shouted/screamed.
So as previously mentioned, the jazz influence is strong on this album, but obvious ‘jazz-isms’ aren’t really found here. Probably the biggest example here is how the guitar riffs and solos are constructed. Sometimes it’s quite melodic; at almost times there are a lot of ‘unusual’ chord patterns  – 7th and 9ths, not very many power chords, flexible tonality that often straddles the line between major and minor, and so forth. Rounding things out are a few simpler, more ‘generic’ thrash riffs that basically glue together the more complex parts of the guitars. The solos definitely fit into the jazz framework, with their improvised sound, and there are some brief softer moments on the album as well. It also shows up in the drumming, which incorporates plenty of offbeats, but is actually more straightforward than Atheist’s aforementioned work, or the drumming on Focus by Cynic. It also has one thing those albums don’t – a significant portion of blastbeats. They’re not as prevalent as they’d be on your average death metal record, but there are a few songs where the drummer throws them in. Even with the jazzy embellishments, this is still based in ’80s/early ’90s tech thrash; hence the overall aesthetic of the album. It even has lots of gang shouts, which I think disappeared from Chaosphere onwards.

From a pure aesthetic stance, this isn’t nearly as heavy as anything following it. Even None is much closer to their signature sound, and a good deal of that comes from its substantially improved production. The overall song structures are still closer to this than they are to Destroy Erase Improve, which in itself was only a partial step towards atonality. What distinguishes Chaosphere from what came before (remember how this was supposed to be a discussion of Contradictions Collapse?) is not the increased complexity of the rhythm section, but the disappearance of all the jazz elements that made prior efforts more dynamic. I, being a 20 minute song, naturally had to recapture some of the variety of this early period to keep interesting over its duration, but the construction of its riffs and rhythms owe basically nothing to the jazz-isms that populate this album. Obviously, listeners who are only familiar with Meshuggah’s signature sound might be turned off by how conventional this can sound at times, but it’s still an early milestone for technical metal, and for the grafting of jazz onto thrash. It also has catchy riffs, interesting solos, and a good sense of melody, and that doesn’t hurt.

Sacramentum – Thy Black Destiny (1999)

Not a bad way to end one’s career. Sacramentum’s “black destiny”, as you can see, was to develop its music to the height of its aggression and heaviness, while retaining the overall melodic nature (although polyphony and intricacy remain down, like on The Coming of Chaos). I wonder what might have happened to their style if they had continued releasing albums; my guess is that they’d probably have ended up doing some sort of technical death metal. It’s hard to say, really. For most members of the band, this is their most famous project; the only other band I can remember hearing that shares members is Runemagick, who is fairly obscure, although long running.

But enough about what Sacramentum could’ve been. Thy Black Destiny, although obviously more death metal oriented than its predecessors, contains a wider variety in its songwriting than its predecessors. Songs also contain a great deal of inner variety, with complex and varied structures, although they use verse-chorus more often than the last album. Outside the increased amount of blastbeats, though, the album isn’t very different instrumentally from its predecessor. The riffs remain fast and generally melodic, with frequent embellishment, and the drumming (outside blastbeats) often works on the same principles as on The Coming of Chaos; in short, thrashy with occasional references to older forms of metal. Furthermore, this is the first Sacramentum album to use downtuned guitars, which combine with a bassier production job to create a fundamentally different sound.

I’ve made fleeting mentions of how this album is better than its predecessor, but not superior to Far Away From The Sun. As previously stated, it’s closer to the 2nd album than the 1st, but the increased levels of aggression make for a refreshing change. One of the problems with The Coming of Chaos is that its songs occasionally felt rather lacking in dynamics, and by ascending to higher peaks of volume and heaviness, this is mostly resolved. I have mentioned on numerous occasions that metal is not known for having massive amounts of dynamics, but here they do come in handy, helping to give songs more definition in comparison. It’s not really a replacement for the counterpoint and intricacy of the debut, but this is still a fine album. For any other band, this would be a career milestone, but for Sacramentum… it’s just their black destiny. Further reinforcing this conclusive feel is the fact that, for once, the concluding track is a real song, if a rather slow and simple one, as opposed to something that dissolves into ambience and noise.
Highlights: “Daemonaeon”, “Death Obssession”, “Overlord”