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Posts Tagged ‘comparative’

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”

Immortal – At The Heart of Winter (1999)

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This is the first of Immortal’s supposedly more accessible takes on black metal. We could quibbles about just how much has been simplified and streamlined, but a few things are already certain. First, this was actually my first experience with Immortal (thanks, Pandora Radio!), and it definitely sounded like a stereotypical black metal album to my ears. Once I started filling in my Immortal backlog, I found that it’s still distinct from the distinguished albums that preceded it. In short, At the Heart of Winter is a definite style change, even if it’s the type you need to pay close attention to pick up on.

The actual songwriting here isn’t especially different, which definitely takes some time to pick up on after the aesthetic changes. First of all, At The Heart of Winter showcases the return of the extended songs to Immortal’s discography, mostly missing since their debut. Despite their previous absence, Immortal pulls them off very well here, with good content density and pacing keeping things interesting over the consistently lengthy durations. One potential problem is that there’s not much aesthetic or structural difference between each individual song. Immortal’s chosen substyle on this album arguably has more room for this than previous efforts, but instead they stick to what they know, for better or worse. I don’t personally think it’s a problem, but it still bears mentioning for those few who are ambivalent about what Immortal’s doing here.

It’s mostly the surface of Immortal’s efforts that have been rendered more accessible in whatever fashion. First of all, this is by far the best production the band had ever acquired up to this point. Previous albums were consistently intelligible, but At the Heart of Winter has both a sharper edge (through the guitars) and more depth (audible bass and explosive drums). For all the charms of a stereotypical lo-fi black metal mixjob, you have to admit that a more meticulous approach has its merits as well. Even if it’s the stereotypical Peter Tägtgren Abyss Studios sound, it still works out nicely. This lineup showcases greater instrumental skill than the ones before it as well. The drummer (pseudonymed “Horgh”) made his debut on Blizzard Beasts a year back, and that album’s aggressive blasts demonstrated his proficiency on the kit as well. On At the Heart of Winter, Horgh gets to showcase a greater variety of drum technique, which comes in handy for what is often a more midpaced affair. While the other band members (Abbath and Demonaz) also contribute much to this recording, anyone familiar with their previous work will most likely be desensitized to their own merits, but their melodic prowess and instrumental interplay shouldn’t go unnoticed either.

That you should listen to Immortal, and At the Heart of Winter in particular is kind of a truism. Still, as a clearer and better produced take on the strong ideas that launched Immortal to fame, it’s not only a good starting point, but a valuable work in its own right.

Highlights: “Withstand the Fall of Time”, “Tragedies Blows At Horizon”, “At the Heart of Winter”

Fates Warning – Awaken The Guardian (1986)

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While The Spectre Within was already a landmark release for both (often closely related) power and “progressive” metal enthusiasts, Awaken the Guardian pushes the formula for each further. In many cases, it trades in overall heaviness and aggression for extra songwriting and instrumental complexity. I’m certain it won’t be replacing its predecessor in your library, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find a place on its own merits, right? Awaken the Guardian shares a high level of critical praise with its illustrious predecessor, and for good reason.

Outside of swapping co-founder Victor Arduini for Frank Aresti (a guitarist who has performed on most of the band’s work since this album), Fates Warning retains the same lineup as on The Spectre Within and despite the overall aesthetic shift employs about the same musical techniques as before. The more complex arrangements give the non-Johns in the band more of a chance to show off their chops, though. The rhythm section seems to have improved their chops the most, driving songs with lots of offbeat percussion and time signature shifts, and coordinating more effectively with John Arch’s vocals, which are still album and band defining. Arch’s technique, at the very least, hasn’t changed much, but the improved prowess of the band definitely complements him nicely.

While the musicians lend this duology of albums their share of unity, Awaken the Guardian‘s tonal shift is enough of a contrast that it concealed this from me for many a mystic moon. As much as I should probably avoid hokey, vaguely mystical fantasy language when trying to discuss what’s going on under this album’s surface, every aspect of this album ratchets up said aesthetic. To be fair, the lyrics sometimes use the tropes in question not specifically to tell legendary tales, but instead to take pot shots at the ’80s culture surrounding the Fates (read: “Valley of the Dolls”). This is more of a contrast with Ray Alder’s incarnation of Fates Warning, which is beyond my knowledge but presumably takes a different approach. Anyways, judging exactly how well Fates Warning is realizing this aesthetic is kind of difficult, but the lyrical side of things holds up pretty well. Sometimes, the actual words get a bit stream of consciousness for my tastes, but the creative and colorful narratives and overall imagery still give them a respectably high place on the Walkyier scale, which I totally didn’t just make up now and is definitely a valid way of comparing the overall merits of metal lyricists, right?

Odd asides aside, when I like and value a metal album, I have this tendency to say it straight out at the beginning of the review. Those of you who have made it far have almost certainly made the purchase, whether it be 30 years or seconds ago.

Highlights: “The Sorceress”, “Guardian”, “Prelude to Ruin”