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Posts Tagged ‘comparative’

Strapping Young Lad – Alien (2005)

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When it comes to Devin Townsend related content, I have to admit that it took me quite a while to warm up to Alien. I wouldn’t have expected that to be the case, honestly – it predates both Ziltoid the Omniscent and Deconstruction by mixing both his extreme metal and progressive rock styles, and is more intense than either, even if it does so by mostly emphasizing the former. You’d think that I (even my past self) would fall on this like a swarm of locusts, so what gives? Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I was complaining about in the past…

As mentioned, Alien leans more towards the Strapping Young Lad aesthetic – listening to it is a good way to get your daily extreme metal dosage, between the incisive guitars, shrieking Devy, and the always appreciated percussion work of Gene Hoglan. If you’re familiar with previous SYL material (City is a good bet), you won’t be too surprised what by what’s on display here. The production is a bit trebly and hissy for my tastes this time around, but it’s still appropriate for this sort of band. What strains it, most likely, is the massively enhanced keyboard/symphonic presence. I’ve hinted at it before, but for whatever reason, a decent chunk of Devy’s other interests leaked into Alien, resulting in the only metal album I’ve listened to that incorporates xylophones into the songwriting.

The instruments aren’t the only part affected, as Alien usually has more complicated and intricate arrangements than its SYL predecessors. When you combine this with the stereotypical SYL sound, you get a potentially overwhelming album that’s definitely draining to listen to listen to all at once (even without the 12 minute info dump at the end). I don’t remember experiencing similar distaste for Deconstruction, though, but I have two hypotheses as to why that was the case. First, my experience with Alien predated the release of that latter album by about a year. Second, Deconstruction does have the benefit of 6 extra years of experience and education on Devin’s end. A meeting of more experienced and ready minds can definitely come in handy, and for whatever reason Alien really does feel more … alien than a lot of SYL content, even once I’ve gotten more accustomed to its approach.

Ultimately, time heals everything, and just as I was able to appreciate a great many albums more once they’d sunk in a bit, so was I able to warm up to Alien‘s charms. It might help that I’m receptive to the works of Devin Townsend in general. I still think the first half of this album is better than the second, though, so I guess we’ll have to deal with that.

Highlights: “Skeksis”, “Shitstorm”, “We Ride”

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Mysticum – Planet Satan (2014)

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When we last left Mysticum, they were preparing the release of Planet Satan. In the interrim, I managed to convince myself that this album didn’t come out until 2016, and that therefore it was a reasonable but overlooked choice for my DMU tenure. Instead, it’s been available since 2014, so I’m definitely behind the times here. You can therefore consider this review something of an attempt to fix a hole in my backlog.

Planet Satan is basically what Mysticum’s previous album should’ve been – better produced and mixed. I say this with full awareness of black metal musicians’ affinity for lo-fi recordings. Sometimes, that’s a desirable trait. In Mysticum’s case, though, the “industrial” aesthetic is better served by a cleaner sound. It isn’t entirely pristine, to be fair – Planet Satan‘s production channels much of its predecessor’s trebly hiss, but on equivalent stereo equipment the end result is more balanced and louder. The vocals are the major benefactor here – the screams and thickly accented ranting here are prominent enough in the mix to drive songs, but everything else has been boosted, making for an overall better sounding recording.

To be fair, there isn’t much on this album that would sound out of place on In The Streams of Inferno if it’d been recorded on the same equipment as that effort. I want to say that the songwriting here is more coherent, but this is a very minor change at best. The songs actually feel more compact despite the album’s greater length, although I’m not sure if that’s just a result of them grabbing my attention more effectively. One thing that is for certain is that there are fewer abrupt asides, and that when new instrumentation is introduced, it’s integrated into the actual songwriting more effectively. These aren’t especially complicated songs, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the overall rhythmic simplicity makes for a strange, inexplicable effect at times (is this, perhaps, the psychedelia that people have been claiming Mysticum channels for the last few years?). On the other hand, I consider it a good thing that a so-called industrial black metal album strikes a balance between a mechanical aesthetic and the other moods I typically associate with black metal – blasphemy, hellfire, derangement, etc. That last bit is probably Mysticum’s true strength, and one that not many bands have been able to capture on their own terms.

In short, Planet Satan pretty much obsoletes everything else Mysticum has created, by virtue of being essentially the same but shinier. Some bands lose crucial elements of their sound when they try to refine it, but not this band.

Highlights: “LSD”, “Far”, “Fist of Satan”

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”

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”

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

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Under the Sign of the Black Mark precedes Bathory’s turn towards “Viking” lyrical/musical themes, and arguably represents Quorthon’s first experiments with the sort of songwriting that would later define the band. It’s also a filthy mess of early black metal played at then-unprecedented velocities that, as far as I can tell, was created in at least two recording sessions. At the very least, it’s an interesting predecessor to Blood Fire Death. It’s definitely still part of Bathory’s long run of genre-defining albums, and for very good reasons.

If there ever was such a thing as a “1.5th wave” of black metal (and I seem to think there was), Under the Sign of the Black Mark is where it all began. In its faster and more intense moments, you could easily confuse some of these tracks for the works they would inspire, in their general minimalism and feral extremity. If it means anything, the average 21st century lo-fi trve kvlt black metal band seems to prefer a treble heavier mix and shriller vocals than Quorthon’s mere rasp, but that stereotype at least makes sense as an exaggeration of the techniques on display here.

Since fast, aggressive, and raw sounding black metal is a dime a dozen these days (and was already relatively common by 1987, even if the newfangled “death metal” was taking hold more rapidly), Under the Sign of the Black Mark earns most of its points in my book through its other half. Accompanying the blasts of violence are a couple of slower, more drawn out songs with better, cleaner production and the aforementioned first glimmers of the ‘epic’ styles of future Bathory albums. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a style that meshes very well with the black metal side of Bathory. Making these sort of extended songs is admittedly just a matter of adding extra content, but even at this phase of their career, the band already had a grasp of how to extend their songs. You could argue that they got better at it on later albums, but even something like “Call From The Grave” establishes a strong musical narrative throughout its duration. The focus and overall ambience building shows itself in all the tracks, even to some extent in the aggressive half, and that (amongst other things) is a sign of songwriting expertise.

Another talking point to take home from Invisible Blog – the most influential and successful of extreme metal bands went beyond mere skin bashing and frantic fretwork, even if their recordings still sounded raw. Bathory’s increased expertise on Under the Sign of the Black Mark brings them to my attention and renders this a potent recording.

Highlights: “Equimanthorn”, “Enter the Eternal Fire”, “13 Candles”

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”

Massacra – Final Holocaust (1990)

ea3f83c41abbde39c01ddc365a7.jpgA French take on death metal! For whatever reason, Quebec seems to be the metal capital (at least per capita) of the Francophone world, but the actual nation of France has certainly made its contributions to the genre. Final Holocaust is another one of those liminal recordings from when death metal was first breaking into the mainstream – like many of its companions, it’s clearly faster, more technically demanding, and more polished than its immediate predecessors.  This only goes so far, though – Massacra’s debut is defined specifically by the internal tension between older, more overtly speed/thrash style/technique and the musical advances of death metal.

Such formal description belies the obvious brutality of Massacra’s music. The musical emphasis is more on riff development and complexity than rhythmic power, and Final Holocaust is driven by the sort of elongated and heavily ornamented riffs that only really get acknowledged at a site like Death Metal Underground. There’s plenty of them actually crammed into the songs, although I have some concerns about the way they’re ordered. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the tempo shifts – while the drums aren’t especially technical, the songs here are full of tempo changes that don’t divide cleanly into integers. If you’re not careful with those, you can end up with disjointed sounding songs, even if you’re like Massacra and don’t have a lot of other abrupt shifts and dissonances involved. Definitely a point of caution for bands in a similar style – work on the riff glue as well as the actual riffs. The production here is interesting, too. Most notably, Final Holocaust sounds treblier and generally higher pitched than your stereotypically bassy death metal recording. This is a very clean, almost dry and chalky mixjob. I’d say it’s very appropriate for the style of music here, primarily because it sheds a bright light on every nuance of the guitar technique. Given how much strumming and tremelo these guitars have, that’s pretty satisfying. Everything else is suitable, and pretty good for 1990, although otherwise not particularly noteworthy.

Maybe it’s because of the reasonably standard production and overall songwriting methods, but Massacra’s debut ended up being one of those recordings with a very long fuse/clicktime. If you take your time and give these tracks a dedicated listen, you’ll find much to like in Final Holocaust‘s musical language, flaws in song transitions aside. Unless you’re completely in love with this style, though, it might take a while.

Highlights: “Apocalyptic Warriors”, “War of Attrition”, “Eternal Hate”