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Meshuggah – obZen (2008)

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It’s been a while since I talked about Meshuggah, hasn’t it? obZen was in my backlog for a surprisingly long time on the strengths of its opening track (“Combustion”). I’ve long since given up on actually reducing the backlog, and yet I finally sat down and listened to obZen. What can I say? This is the sound of a genre defining (read: djent) band settling into comfortable territory and honing their craft. If you’ve listened to their past recordings, you’ll feel comfortable here as well. I’d even go as far as to say that obZen makes some significant improvements to the latter day Meshuggah sound – the question here, though, is whether those are enough to make it worth your while.

obZen‘s greatest strength, at least in the context of Meshuggah’s signature sound, is to introduce a new level of variety and finesse. This goes beyond mere attempts to push the djent to its limit (read: “Bleed”, which drummer Tomas Haake found to be especially difficult to learn, even by Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic standards) – obZen goes as far as to reemphasize some of the harmonic backing and melodic craftsmanship that was so important on previous Meshuggah albums. The emphasis is still on monophonic djenting, but it’s nice to have other elements at the same time, especially after the spareness of the aptly named Nothing.

While this is all fine and good, obZen is definitely an iteration on Meshuggah, and not a major shift in their approach. You’re still getting an album that’s still composed of basic blocks. For all that these are assembled into tighter, denser songs, you’re not going to hear much that you haven’t heard on previous Meshuggah albums. Beyond this, Meshuggah doesn’t have a great shelf life; their recordings can get very monotonous with extended listening. I think this is the most popular criticism of the band – if you were to remove the rhythmic complexity, you’d completely gut Meshuggah. I can’t think of any other band that would be as badly affected by such cuts. Either way, this isn’t as bad of a problem here, but the band had almost certainly backed themselves into a corner at this point – further development seems to have taken the form of things like “Let’s write a long song and then cut it into little pieces at random” (Catch Thirtythree) or “Let’s play slower than usual” (Koloss). Maybe not a good sign.

Despite everything, this is still Meshuggah’s “the same but better” album, and that’s almost certainly a stronger framework than its immediate surroundings.

Highlights: “Combustion”, “obZen”, “This Spiteful Snake”, “Dancers to a Discordant System”

Next up – Flash Fiction month #3 here at Invisible Blog! Expect the unexpected, and not just in the Control Denied sense.

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Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)

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Things got astonishingly awkward for Metallica once Cliff Burton died. And Justice For All isn’t the kind of album you’d expect to chart as high as it did – it’s a lengthy, strangely produced take on the concept of “thrash” metal that usually lacks the intensity of its predecessors. Or maybe that IS why? AFJA didn’t get Metallica quite to #1 on the Billboard 200 in an era where that actually meant something, but at #6, it sure came close. As far as I know, it’s the first Metallica album to be particularly divisive. All these unusual circumstances make for something that’s at least worth a listen to just to find out what happened.

To be honest, we really can’t get away from the various problems here. Take the production – the guitars sound okay, but the drums are dry and sterile, and the bass is almost completely inaudible! The internet is not only full of lurid stories about AFJA‘s production woes, but host to a variety attempts to fix it, mostly revolving around amping up Jason Newsted’s basslines. They’ve had limited success; my recommendation for them would be to start over, and come up with a fan tribute/rerecording album. This would also allow them to address the other major issue of this album – its poor pacing. The songs have bloated significantly since even Master of Puppets‘ extended tracks, and the average tempo has slowed significantly. We get two nods to Metallica’s more aggressive past (“The Shortest Straw” and “Dyers Eve”), and a handful of tracks that actually benefit from a slower approach, but the rest of the songs here need to be performed at least 20-30% faster in order to function properly. Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t bother, and we have an overextended album for their lack of troubles.

Surprisingly, though, AFJA still has a lot of worthwhile content in spite of its packaging issues. It turns out that Metallica is still using the the songwriting formulas that worked for them on previous albums. These ideas of iterative development and dynamic range will get you far as a band, and Metallica does well to keep them on hand here in spite of the lower peaks of intensity. How else would you propose to keep something like the near-10 minute title track interesting throughout its duration? There’s also some further experimentation with instrumentation that comes in handy, like the harmonized acoustic sections in “One”. Still, I can’t really shake the feeling that I would appreciate these tracks more if they weren’t burdened by the aforementioned problems. As far as I know, Metallica never really gave up on the extended songs after this, which I can’t help but feel makes AFJA a disturbing premonition of future troubles for the band. At the very least, that makes it historically important.

Highlights: “Eye of the Beholder”, “One”, “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity”, “Dyers Eve”

Magma – Live (1975)

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If Jannick Top’s Infernal Machina was a Magma album gone wrong, then this is a Magma album gone… …uh… …live. I think this is literally the first time I’ve ever reviewed a live recording in my many years as Invisible Blog. Magma is a good place to start doing this, though – with a career spanning decades, an approach that favors free improvisation, and lineup changes like you wouldn’t believe, the band can completely and utterly recontextualize their songs at the drop of a hat. Live is therefore not only a document of Magma’s creative flowering in the golden age of progressive rock, but also a pretty good way to hear material you can’t easily find elsewhere.

Before we get to this album’s “original” material, it’s best to start at the beginning, with this album’s interpretation of Köhntarkösz. Despite having its interlude (“Ork Alarm”) ripped out, this is at least the strongest version of this piece I’ve personally heard; I’d need to delve into more live recordings to strengthen my claim. As far as I’m concerned, the essence of the piece is a half hour buildup to a massive climax. Not only does this live version accentuate this with stronger dynamics and a slightly better production, but it also adds the proper capstone at the end that was missing from the original studio recording. I also think Didier Lockwood’s electric violin performance is perfectly suited to this sort of music – he excels at both the ominous quieter sections and the more intense ones.

Outside of the Köhntarkösz rework, though, things are spottier. This is entirely for comparative reasons; as far as I know, Live‘s only truly original track is the subdued and intimate “Lihns”. Everything else here would be recorded again and again. Mostly renditions have the fortunate to merely be obsolete – if I want to hear “Hhai” in isolation, this is a servicable location, but for whatever reason many of Magma’s tracks work better when tied together into full suites – in the case of “Hhai”, it almost certainly was built for Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré. Similarly, when I want to hear material from Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, I head on over to yet another live Magma recording (Retrospektiw). The only real clunker here is the sluggish and limp handling of “Announcement”, but everything else here has at least a claim to being a valuable addition to Magma’s discography.

The sheer amount of live performances (official or bootleg) Magma has out there would take a while to parse. Even if you’re not quite at that level of rabid fandom, Live does generally give you good versions of the most important molten rocks in Magma’s discography, so it’s at least necessary for the fans. Still, I’d probably recommend newcomers start with a studio album.

Highlights: “Kohntark”, “Kobah”, “Lihns”

 

Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (1986)

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Rust in Peace is more intricate and technically accomplished, but Peace Sells is by far the “coolest” album Megadeth ever released. We’re still not entirely sure what it means for an album to be cool, but in my defense, it was the 1980s, and if you had a guitar, everything looked like a metal album. Either way, Megadeth’s flashy, stylish take on speed/thrash metal was fully formed by this point – better musicianship than Metallica, with most of the aggression from the debut album amalgamated with more polished production and songwriting. Let’s be honest – it’s a good formula. In a year notable for its revolutionary metal recordings, Peace Sells was far from the bleeding edge, but it still draws blood to this day.

To be fair, it takes Peace Sells a while to fully bare its fangs. The first few tracks tend more midpaced than a lot of the material on Killing Is My Business, which is arguably enough to push something like “Wake Up Dead” or the title track into accessible MTV metal territory. I don’t want to speculate too much about why for lack of information about the circumstances. Still, I think this album (and more generally, Megadeth as a whole) is most effective in its most intense and flamboyant moments. Even in 1986, it was a band full of flashy musicians who needed as much space as they could get to show off their shredding skills, and anything short of it feels limited by comparison.

For whatever reason, I’m inclined to value the musicianship on Peace Sells more than the compositions. When I wrote about Rust in Peace, I mentioned that even in their heyday, Megadeth had some composition organization problems that dogged them even at their arguable songwriting peak. These problems are present here too, but perhaps less noticeable here due to the simpler songwriting. It’s primarily an issue of individual riff glue; for whatever reason, the big picture and overall sectioning of songs isn’t as affected. It also helps that Dave Mustaine is in full charismatic vocalist mode. As far as I know, he relied ever more on flat growling as he and Megadeth got older, so it’s nice to hear him varying things up more on here. It should go without saying that successfully incorporating multiple styles of vocals into a metal album (or even just enough variation on your chosen technique) can help add flavor to your album. Beyond that, it’s good for gluing everything together.

Whether or not this album is better or worse than Rust in Peace might not be the best avenue of inquiry, now that I think about it. They’re both important Megadeth milestones.

Highlights: “The Conjuring”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”, “My Last Words”

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”

Enslaved – Frost (1994)

folder.jpgEvery band has their difficult albums. By the standards of Enslaved’s early career (pre-2000 or so), I’d say Frost is their point of peak inaccessibility. While it still clearly belongs to the drawn out, ritualistic and vaguely symphonic take on black metal that stereotyped Enslaved in their earlier days, it’s also the beginning of a push towards a more aggressive and direct approach. Without much in the way of Eld‘s obvious progressive rock-isms or Blodhemn’s terse blasts of intensity at all costs, Frost is surprisingly frosty. At least that’s appropriate.

If you ask me, Frost‘s challenges compared to other Enslaved albums boil down primarily to its increased dissonance and emphasis on aggressive, angular sounding riffs. While it takes a few minutes of deceptively calm albeit aesthetically appropriate intro to get to this point, the first actual track (“Loke”) puts all of Frost‘s cards on the table – by retaining the core elements from previous albums but also providing more moments of blasting intensity, we end up with a more dynamic album. It certainly feels like the songs here are more diverse and varied than before,  even if part of that is simply their greater numbers coming to bear. Usually, when a band expands on their formulas like this, I call it an improvement. I imagine most of my readers are expecting that judgement from me about now, but remember how I described Frost as challenging?

When I say Frost is one of Enslaved’s more difficult albums, I’m speaking from personal experience. I did not care for or understand these songs when I first listened to them. Things have certainly changed since then, to the point that I can derive some enjoyment from Enslaved’s approach here and otherwise view this as something other than an eldritch monstrosity in the band’s discography. I still won’t deny that it took me a while to warm up to Frost, and some of the complaints my past self had still hold weight with my present self. These are mostly related to how the songs are written; the main problem is that Frost stumbles and stutters when it comes time to transition between song sections. A lot of bands seem to go through phases where they struggle to unite ideas into a coherent whole. This wasn’t a problem on Vikingligr Veldi and before, but the Enslaved that wrote that was more interested in writing songs focused on ambience and gradual evolution, and as a result it was easier for them to make sound decisions there.

Most of Frost‘s difficulty does seem to result from it being an especially liminal album in a discography that’s not exactly prone to repeating itself. Still, if you want to hear the band’s roots performed with more vigor and grit than before, this is probably the best place to go.

Highlights: “Fenris”, “Yggdrasil”, “Jotunblod”