Posts Tagged ‘ambient’

Summoning – Dol Guldur (1996)


It took two albums for Summoning to find their sound. After that… they persisted. Dol Guldur won’t shock you if you’ve acclimated to the signature approach of Minas Morgul. Instead, it continues those sounds, refines them, and streamlines out some of the silliness of its predecessor. The similarities, in short, are numerous enough to make judging whether one of these albums is better than the other a difficult task. Is it even worth the effort? Ultimately, you’re here, I keep a regular schedule on Invisible Blog, and that’s why you’re reading about Dol Guldur.

To be fair, Dol Guldur makes some significant changes to how Summoning sounds, but it does so in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and didn’t occur to me until I’d digested the album. Probably the biggest actual change from Minas Morgul on this album is that Summoning has doubled down on the slow, even doomy tempoes. Minas Morgul wasn’t exactly caffeinated overall, but it had a few sections of blastbeats and such that made for more varied pacing. Dol Guldur‘s more heroic sections have a ponderous, almost contemplative sound to them, whereas the darker tracks turn into funeral dirges. Meanwhile, the guitarwork that binned Summoning alongside black metal acts has been scaled back in favor of more keyboard orchestra; for better or worse, they’ve upgraded their sound patches so they don’t sound quite as low budget/kvlt. All of this adds up to a sound that’s less stereotypically like the band’s black metal origins, and in some ways more like a hypothetical score to a Lord of the Rings film. At the very least, this explains the OVAs on Youtube.

Even if the sounds have changed, Dol Guldur is written in a similar fashion to its predecessor, or at least that album’s slower sections. The arrangements continue to imitate the motifs of an orchestra as much as the instruments themselves, and relatively simple playing technique is matched by more depth in the song structures. I suspect, however, that the songwriting takes more of an ambient form than even before. First, I noticed that tracks here simply fade out, whereas on Minas Morgul they had more sharply delineated endings. That on its own would be a trivial difference, but when combined with the tempo shifts, reduced guitar, and generally lengthier songs, it points to something changing deep within the heart of Summoning. Without deep listening to even more Summoning albums, I can’t really say if this is a trend that would continue, but it does seem like I was able to shed a light on exactly how Dol Guldur differs from its predecessor after all.

Despite all of this, the two albums aren’t enormously different, and fans of one are almost certainly going to appreciate the other as well. My initial reaction was to favor Dol Guldur for its polish and depth, but in recent years I can also make a case for the variety that Minas Morgul brings to the table. I suppose you could just listen to both of them and make your own decision as to which one pulls ahead.

Highlights: “Nightshade Forests”, “Elfstone”, “Unto a Long Glory…”


Anatomy of VGM #12: Cities: Skylines (2015)

cities skylines boxart.png

The boxart of the console ports of Cities: Skylines varies, but the OST is the same. This is not a review of the radio stations in-game, which amongst other things play music from other Paradox Interactive published titles.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t put nearly the hours into this game as my previous city builder of choice (SimCity 4), but I honestly think the rest of Paradox Interactive’s published titles are to blame. While Cities: Skylines lacks the sheer scale of that game, with its region building shenanigans, it’s still a great outlet for your creativity, and a far better successor to SC4 than EA’s efforts in 2013. What of the soundtrack? It’s certainly a substantial departure from the Cities in Motion series that birthed this, and even further from Jerry Martin’s approach to scoring SimCity titles, so at the very least, it’s going to win some points for audacity.

Cities: Skylines ships with 2 hours of strikingly modern/contemporary classical music. I’m not familiar with the bleeding edge of that genre, since my own experience tends towards the so called “common practice period“, but I have heard some music in the past that resembles what’s available here. The first thing you’ll notice is that the freedom of tonality – constant dissonance in the service of what more often than not is upbeat, optimistic, swelling orchestration. This is more prominent if you play relatively zoomed in – if I remember correctly, viewing your entire playing area tends to summon ambient synth soundscapes. The actual songwriting has something of an ambient feel to it as well – amorphous loops with abrupt transitions – trying to evoke overall feelings and paint pictures more than form a coherent narrative. It makes sense to a point – a simulation game like this has no preset story, so trying to score narrative setpieces might backfire – your ‘dramatic reveal’ might come as I meticulously place scenery to create a park for my Cims. I haven’t logged enough gameplay to really say how much the soundtrack reacts to your gameplay, but I suspect some of the more dissonant and imposing tracks are reserved for cities in crisis – at least those running a deficit. It’s not much, but it’s more than I’ve experienced in Maxis titles, which is at least potentially interesting.

My main difficulty in discussing the music of Cities: Skylines is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to it, and I can’t help but compare the music to that of Simcity 3000 and Simcity 4. It could be for the better that the composer went for something very different. The other part is that I’m not versed enough in ultra-modern classical to say whether or not I like it. The music here certainly challenges me if I try to sit down and listen to it, and it seems appropriate enough for the actual gameplay, though. Ultimately, I suspect people who are especially enthusiastic about this style of music will find much to love in Cities: Skylines‘ soundtrack. It might help that I have enough appetite for dissonance in my music that I didn’t immediately reject this approach, but at the moment, I feel like I’m too intellectually removed from the soundtrack to even so much as have a strong opinion on it. Usually writing helps, but not so much this time.

Anatomy of VGM #9 – Diablo II (2000)

diablo 2 boxart.jpgNote: This review will also cover the music of Diablo II’s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction.

The greatest tragedy of Matt Uelmen’s professional life is almost certainly that he was not present to ensure that Diablo III’s soundtrack would live up to the daunting standards of its predecessors. The less said about that one, the better.¬†The music in Diablo II, on the other hand, expands on the techniques of its predecessor much like the game underlying it – there’s more of it in more styles with more variety of instruments, but the overall approach hasn’t changed. Predictable, yes, but I don’t think you can reasonably complain about sequels taking this approach.

In short, Matt Uelmen’s work on the Diablo series mixes Western symphonic traditions with dark ambience, and a tinge of rock and electronica for flavor’s sake. The balance varies throughout the environments that the player traverses in their quest to bring down the Prime Evils – from the Middle Eastern inspired deserts of Aranoch, to the entirely orchestral and even heroic accompaniment to your traversal of Mount Arreat (although to be fair, Lord of Destruction came out a year later, and its music is arguably a separate work). Each track isn’t especially long, but they’re densely packed, evolving gradually and sometimes ending in completely unexpected territory, but consistent instrumentation and recurring themes help to keep these soundscapes coherent.

Matt Uelmen has the rare and subtle talent to required to balance both ambience and narrative songwriting in these tracks, meaning that melodies and leitmotifs not only exist alongside the sounds of dark dungeons and demonic combat, but they also compliment them. One of the high points of playing this game properly (instead of just killing Mephisto until Tyreal snaps and begs you to stop for your own sanity) are the moments when you’ve just emerged from a difficult fight; a soundscape of blood, broken bones, elemental chaos, and the screams of the damned gives way to ominous, creeping terror. In short, you may have prevailed for the moment, but you’re still deep in the territory of a nightmarish enemy that could kill you in an instant… …at least on higher difficulties. For all the strengths of Diablo II‘s music, this is still a case where the actual game enhances the effectiveness of the soundtrack, which is surprisingly harder than the common opposite.

While many an action RPG has surpassed Diablo II‘s mechanics (Grim Dawn comes to mind; maybe I’ll write about that at some point if I feel the need), few have come close to its aural mastery. For all we know, Blizzard might make it freeware in a few years, just like what they did with Starcraft

Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)


I’m beginning to think Terria is the archetypal Devin Townsend album from which all future works spring forth; at the very least, all of his solo content (well, maybe not the “heavy” stuff like the Ziltoids or Deconstruction) can be compared to something on here at some level. With that in mind, it might be best to try and understand Terria in isolation, analyzing it as if it were my first exposure to the stereotypical Devin Townsend sound, but given that such is far from the case, that sounds intimidating and needlessly difficult. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but if I play my cards right, you should at least be able to understand the what and why of Terria

Terria walks a fine line between ambient acoustic pop and heavy “progressive” metal (those times that I wrote for DMU makes it hard for me to use “progressive” as anything other than a marketing term), using its lengthy duration to explore all the ways you could combine these ideas or keep them separate. We get a series of extended songs and reliably sedate pacing, with occasional excursions into more aggressive, driving content. The mixing and production unites all of the content here, which is understandable given Devin’s instantly recognizable style of composition. Ultimately, there’s a good deal of structural variety, but the long length and occasional extended compositional asides will make a deep delve into Terria‘s depths an intense undertaking.

It’s immediately ironic that I use that phrasing – as far as I’m concerned, Terria has a lot of filler, but its peaks are huge. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the more driving and up-tempo parts of this album that keep it in my collection. For instance, “Olives” and “Mountain” make for a very drawn out and contemplative introduction, but when the pay off is “Earth Day”, a 9.5 minute epic that encapsulates every style Devin has done right over his career, it’s easier to give even the less immediately gripping tracks a chance. One benefit of listening to this album in one go (as opposed to going the singles route with the highlights) is that it really nails the laid back, contemplative, possibly pot-hazed atmosphere it appears to be going for. Whether that’s something you want in your life is something you have to decide for yourself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if I want to listen to Devin Townsend, I usually favor the heavier, more SYL flavored side of his discography. If that ever changes, though, there’s always Terria. Not to be confused with Terraria under any circumstances.

Highlights: “Earth Day”, “Canada”, “The Fluke”

Autechre – Garbage EP (1994)


I told you I was going to go the route of the filthy casual in future Autechre coverage (even though I ended up listening to Confield too); and to be honest, I went on a huge binge after experiencing¬†LP5. This longer-than-some-studio-albums EP is certainly interesting, and it falls straight into a brief period of especially ambient and downtempo work by this band. Given that Garbage is supposedly culled from the detritus of Autechre’s 2nd studio album (1994’s Amber), you can imagine how this content might share some mood and mind with its full length counterpart, but where Amber was occasionally too subdued for its own good, the balance here is better.

Garbage is vintage accessible Autechre at their finest, even managing by virtue of its reduced length to avoid the filler problem that plagues most of the band’s full lengths. Everything here is warm, analog flavored, with plenty of the reverb and delay effects that seem to be emphasized on the band’s early material. Like your average Autechre album (or for that matter, a nice swathe of electronic music), the tracks here rely very heavily on their choice of sounds to distinguish themselves; compare this to musicians who don’t change up their instrumentation on every track. Furthermore, the average track here yet again emphasizes slowly evolving soundscapes over especially rigorous sound structure. In general, you should not expect huge sound/structural differences from Autechre’s trademark sound.

If you ask me, Garbage also features something of an inter-track narrative that isn’t present on most of the band’s material. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but over time the material on here progresses from being rhythm and progression oriented to complete ambience and repetition by the time the last chords of “Vletr” fade away. I can’t really think of any other albums by the band that have that level of long-term cohesion, although some of the EPs come close (1995’s Anvil Vapre in particular). This makes for a very different experience than the rest of their discography when you listen to it in full. This is, more than anything else from Autechre, something you should sit down and listen to in one go, which at the very least is more convenient than otherwise due its compactness.

To be fair, Garbage‘s strengths do run kind of exactly counter to my expected tastes, but given how often I’ve been praising music for doing things I wouldn’t expect myself to stereotypically like, I might have to say that my interests are broader than they first seem.

Highlights: Everything. Maybe “PIOB” in particular.

Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge (1974)

mike-oldfield-hergest-ridge-ds55p-front.jpgNo, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Mike Oldfield’s discography. I am assured by polite company that it is enormous. Hergest Ridge, while not as commercially successful or as well known as the guy’s debut (Tubular Bells), still tells an interesting commercial story – it reached #1 on the British OCC album charts before being knocked off a mere three weeks later by … you guessed it, Tubular Bells. Progressive rock used to be big money; now, the music industry is shriveled and dying even as the quantity of available music increases at an ever growing rate. But let’s not dwell on such things for the moment.

Hergest Ridge is a compilation of two lengthy instrumental pieces that presumably are inspired by the scenery of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where it was conceived and recorded. You can imagine how such sparsely settled countryside (… by European standards; compare to the USA if you need a laugh) would make for generally soft and approachable music, although there are a few sections that break this rule, including the famous “thunderstorm” in the second part that was my formal introduction to this album. One of Mike Oldfield’s famous gimmicks is that he imitates some structural aspects of orchestral music by recording lots of instrumental parts and overdubbing them to make dense walls of sound; he also uses a lot of studio wizardry to make instruments sound like other instruments. The sheer amount of effort here means that any attempts to transfer Hergest Ridge to other arrangements would dramatically alter its sound, even if maybe not so much its structure.

Since I haven’t listened to the rest of Oldfield’s discography, I can’t say to what extent the upcoming songwriting tropes hold elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found particularly notable is that this album seems to strike a balance between the extended ‘narrative’ songwriting a lot of other progressive rock albums engage in and a more ambient approach. The number of discrete song sections on display (which are a good sign of the former) is easier to pick up on, at least initially. The order that Oldfield organizes each part of his songs, as well as the transitions between them, though, emphasize mood and texture over dynamics. If you’re not paying attention, Hergest Ridge seems to repeat itself a great deal, but there’s enough subtle microvariation here to keep that from literally being the case. I should also note that the second part, while not dramatically different and even sharing many of the same musical themes and motifs, is more active and formally structured than the second.

Most likely, Oldfield’s greatest strength on this album is the aforementioned ‘ambient’/’progressive’ fusion. It’s not entirely unheard of, and a lot of bands on one side of the fence stuck their toes through to the other just to feel out what it was like, but it’s still pulled off well here. It doesn’t always align with my tastes, but it does make for an interesting spin on the era’s formulas.

Highlights… aren’t exactly helpful on an album with only two tracks, but do pay close attention to the aforementioned “thunderstorm” after 8:30 in Part II.

Autechre – LP5 (1998)


Now this appraisal might become entirely irrelevant and useless if I ever get around to Confield, but at least compared to previous Autechre material, LP5 is “Expert Mode Unlocked” given tangible audible form. At least from an aural perspective it comes off even more abstract and artificial than before, although repeated listening has clued me in to just how much of the band’s previous techniques and arsenal remain. Now, I realize this is a snooty and even elitist way of describing how I’ve engaged with LP5, but bear with me – after all, I might end up reviewing one of Autechre’s earliest albums at some point, and I need an excuse to (most likely inaccurately) work in the phrase “filthy casual”.

For better or worse, there’s a great deal of musical substance on here that I’ve never even considered trying to incorporate into my own work. I guess that sort of makes this album an antithesis of self, just like the last album I wrote about. For one, the emphasis on ‘ambient’, slowly evolving soundscapes that I picked up on from Tri Repetae is still around; I’d go as far as claiming these are even more necessary since consonant phrases are on the decline here. Some of these tracks arguably have pop style hooks; I don’t think it’s the main intent, especially since the sort of modal, more conventionally structured songwriting I’ve heard on previous Autechre albums is hard to find here.¬† Instead, Autechre seemingly relies more heavily on percussive rhythms this time around, and furthermore does some very strange things with tempo. I kind of want to make a song using the constant BPM change gimmick of “Fold4, Wrap5”, although incorporating such a thing into the sort of music I actually like to write could be … difficult.

If there’s one thing that Autechre definitely does well on LP5, it’s that they nail the ambiences. As I’ve said before, that’s definitely not easy to do, but at it’s best, LP5 has spawned some incredibly vivid mental images in my head. The architecture metaphors people like to throw in when talking about this band are at least apt, although sometimes the slow evolution and attention to transitions does something especially amazing, like briefly turning “Drane2” (arguably the hit single of this album) into the world’s most hellish call center about 2/3rds of its length in. It helps that that track in particular has one of the densest soundscapes; most of the tracks here are a bit sparser and take more time to sink in, but you can still get some sort of storytelling potential out of them.

To be honest, it didn’t take me as long to value LP5 as highly as I do now; it’s not perfect, and nor is my understanding of it, but the depths that remain are certainly worth plumbing.

Highlights: “777”, “Under Boac”, “Drane2”