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Jag Panzer – Ample Destruction (1983)

folder.jpgAmple Destruction is one of the first salvos in what later became the US “power metal” scene. You can a big chunk of the musical language that many a future power metal band would exploit strewn through its tracks (which isn’t to say that Jag Pazner invented these ideas). Compared to many of those future acts, but also many of its predecessors, this recording is rougher, more aggressive, and generally hostile. It also launched the career of Harry Conklin, who went on to perform in his share of power metal inflected acts and ushered in a age of ambiguous extremity for various incarnations of his other band (Satan’s Host).

For better or worse, I’ve heard many a raging metalhead compare Ample Destruction to Metallica, of all bands. There’s more to this than you might expect, and a comparison to that band’s debut (Kill ’em All) can be surprisingly helpful. Jag Panzer doesn’t emphasize speed or long-form songwriting nearly as much as Metallica did in their earliest days, but they both share a common lineage (souped up NWOBHM), and it shows in the rough but well-amped production each album shares. Harry Conklin’s mixture of piercing screams and powerful midrange, though, ensure that this is a vocal driven album. His vocal technique is rougher than it would be, but his ability to handle both registers, while not uncommon, is still impressive.

Ultimately, this is a pretty basic take on the whole “power metal” concept. To be fair, it was 1983, and Jag Panzer’s work here is a far cry from the extreme simplicity of the deepest and sickest extreme metal of the time, but this is best understood as an amped up and occasionally sped up version of contemporary popular metal. Its compact songs and good production make for a consistent and solid album, if not one that’s especially amazing. The worst thing I can say about this album is that it’s been done better by a thousand other bands… in fact, Jag Panzer themselves got better at their craft after they reformed in the ’90s. Ample Destruction still has enough charisma beyond its historical value to justify a space in your record collection, probably by virtue of matching/exceeding the traditional recordings on songwriting chops. You’re likely getting a more nutritious and balanced audiomeal out of this than a Motley Crue or Dokken record, anyways.

Some albums are more conducive to my style of writing than others. I did fairly recently ‘accidentally’ open a copy of this album’s cover art in Microsoft 3D Builder, though, and I learned that I could get a really crappy heightmap 3D printed and sent to me for only 500 dollars or so. That’s interesting, right?

Highlights: “Harder Than Steel”, “Generally Hostile”, “Eyes of the Night”

Merciless – The Awakening (1990)

folder.jpgI suppose we have Mayhem to blame for this one. Deathlike Silence Productions only released a few albums in its lifetime,  but their releases tended towards the influential and musically successful, so that has to count for something, right? Interesting, then, that the label’s first release was this mile a minute death-thrash-black-ambiguous brief blast of extremity. It’s not clear which pile this one fits in – the subtle use of consonant melody and fast yet deemphasized production summon forth the “1.5th wave black metal” buzzword demons, but Merciless almost certainly osmosed (pun possibly intended?) the nascent death metal of their native Sweden as well. The end result is kind of like the spiritual successor to Reign in Blood.

In contrast to some of the albums I’ve been writing about recently, The Awakening‘s recipe is simple – compact, aggressive songs with writing that’s basic, but not so rudimentary as to be uninteresting. The band doesn’t exactly deviate from this, but The Awakening clocks in at an infinitesimal 27 minutes, so there isn’t really much need for divergence. Luckily, the songs here vary enough in overall structure (even though they share an aesthetic) to keep your interest. I feel like I say that a lot when discussing this sort of album, but in my defense, music that falls below my complexity preferences doesn’t tend to get featured much on Invisible Blog. There should be plenty of it on the radio if you’re into that sort of thing.

Snark aside, what distinguishes The Awakening from many of the earlier extreme metal albums of the 1980s is its level of polish. This is hardly unprecedented – Merciless may be performing similar types of songs to their predecessors, but the recordings are still faster and more precisely performed than much of what followed. It’s not a push towards a more technically accomplished style, though. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of the early proto-underground acts would’ve put out similar recordings if they’d been given extra budget and studio time while continuing to write and perform in their previous style. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of many recordings that are like this, since a lot of the more prominent extreme metal bands of the mid-80s (like Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Sodom, Bathory, etc.) changed up their styles significantly when they secured access to recording studios. Perhaps the record label circumstances had something to do with Merciless ending up conceptually rawer?

Dwelling on how Merciless made The Awakening may be a futile gesture were I not to go interview and document hunting. On the other hand, The Awakening is a compelling enough document on its own, at least for fans of this substyle. Plus, it basically has Euronymous’s stamp of approval on it, so that has to count for something, right?

Highlights: “Pure Hate”, “Dreadful Fate”, “Denied Birth”

Capsule Reviews IV: 2013

Every year has its charms, every month at Invisible Blog has 5 posts (because inertia), and every now and then, I take a look at what I was listening to a few years back and see if it still holds up.

Univers Zero – Uzed (1984):  It probably wasn’t Univers Zero’s parley into overtly progressive rock flavored music, but it’s a marked shift from the straight up neoclassical horror music of Heresie. It is certainly more accessible to the casual listener, but unlike some bands that simplify their sound, Univers Zero retains their songwriting chops in the process. No contest on this one.

Sinister – Cross The Styx (1992): Loud and chunky to the point of being painful to listen to. If you can handle the mastering, though, you’ll find a quality death metal recording with densely packed songs and a mastery of metal rhythm. And this from a debut! The Netherlands should be pleased. Yet again no contest here.

Mithras – Behind the Shadows Lie Madness (2007): Having listened to this album’s bastard children a lot recently (2016’s On Strange Loops and Blessed Be My Brothers by Sarpanitum, which shares a couple members nowadays) has enhanced my appreciation for this one. At times clunky, this one still earns some spins because I’m a sucker for melodic guitar work in an otherwise straightfoward chunk of death metal.

Nightfall – Macabre Sunsets (1993): Honestly? As far as I’m concerned these days, Nightfall sucks. I’m not much for straight up negativity on this blog, but Nightfall had trouble writing coherent songs even in their glory days. Athenian Echoes streamlined things a bit, but still has too much filler and randomenss for my tastes.

Infester – To The Depths … In Degradation (1994): Still filthy, still worthy of further study. When I want an especially twisted and serpentine work of death metal from this era, I usually reach for Timeghoul, but Infester’s take on the genre is full of songwriting surprises that may give it an Incantation-tier shelf life. Just don’t let the political extremists catch you listening to this. They will alternately defenestrate and recruit you, and having to cater to both sides at the same time will be very bad for your social life.

Aborym – Kali Yuga Bizarre (1999): While 2013’s Dirty gave it stiff competition and still kind of does, the Aborym lineup that wrote and performed the debut was formed of more coherent songwriters. The industrial influence here isn’t quite as prominent, but it’s still a neat flavor to have in what is otherwise a more standard black metal album, and even if my opinions change over time this will still be a strong point in the band’s discography.

Strapping Young Lad – City (1997): I’ll be honest – this album is kind of dumb at points. That’s a positive, oddly enough, as City takes the standard mid-90s groovy nu-metal formula, performs it at an intensity exceeding a good chunk of death metal, and injects enough humor and nuance into the formula that I can forgive any flaws it has. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the works of Devin Townsend.

Moonblood – Blut und Krieg (1996): Moonblood is okay. If they polished up their style and increased their song density, they’d be a great band. As far as I know, though, they never did and soon disappeared into nothingness. The problem with merely being okay is that in this day and age, someone out there is going to be more talented and/or diligent than you, rendering your efforts pointless. Moonblood does have obscurity on their side, sort of, but I can’t help but think that by mentioning their existence I am robbing them of their merit…

Celtic Frost – Monotheist (2006): I don’t want to go as far as to say Monotheist has less soul than classic era Celtic Frost. That might be an honor better reserved for Triptykon, which is basically Monotheist in band form with less inspiration. Things subtly work better on Monotheist – it might be that it struck me when I was more impressionable, but it does come off as a more coherent work for whatever reason.

Yellow Magic Orchestra – Solid State Survivor (1980): Here’s another recording that, as far as I’m concerned, holds up excellently after almost 40 years. It even beats a lot of other accomplished electronic pop music recordings from the era on the aesthetic front. A real drumkit could do a heck of a lot for you back in the day.

Hopefully, the 2017 version of Invisible Blog is an improvement over the 2013 one, which I still think holds up better than my formative days as a blogger. The goal, after all, is to always improve. If you want, you can take a look at my 2012 capsule reviews here.

Mekong Delta – The Principle of Doubt (1989)

folder.jpgWhat a strangely produced album. The Principle of Doubt resembles its immediate predecessors on a musical level, but it sounds like it was recorded in a cavern… under a swamp… with instruments made of sheet metal. In other words, it’s a little reverby, and this combined with the often slower tempos and greater levels of dissonance make for a deceptive album on first glance. Give it some time, though, and its continuation of Mekong Delta’s technically flashy and vibrant speed/thrash metal sound will become apparent.

To get it out of the way – The Principle of Doubt is not a hard sell for someone who liked the self-titled debut, or The Music of Erich Zann. At most, it refines on the musical techniques and strategies of previous albums and perhaps exaggerates some of the stranger aspects of their sound a little. There are also some other minor changes that became more apparent with time, such as a generally slower tempo and a more experienced Wolfgang Borgmann on vocals (this time better at throwing and multitracking his voice), but they’re obviously not enough that I would describe this album as doing anything but staying the course. In 1989, Mekong Delta’s stylistic shifts were still off in the future.

While it took me a while to warm up to this one (mostly due to the odd aesthetics), I would nowadays argue that it’s the strongest of the band’s “classic” trilogy, although the previous two are still good choices for fans of this style of music. Oddly enough, I think it’s the minor style changes that make this one shine. As far as I’m concerned nowadays, Borgmann was a weak link in the early days of Mekong Delta, so his steady improvement in technique and growing ambition add some much appreciated aesthetic variety to the tracks. The same songwriting formulas are present here, though, so even without him Mekong Delta would not be lacking for in-track variety, whether it be riffs or textures or overall dynamics. While speed freaks might not like the slackening tempos, they seemingly allow the band to perform more complicated instrumental parts that are conducive to the overall chaotic and mindbending atmosphere they’re going for. If anything, it certainly beats the sterile, almost… klinical sound of Kaleidoscope.

While I would’ve preferred a more aggressive production style (especially given the style of music this album showcases), I still recommend The Principle of Doubt. I mean, if you doubt you’d enjoy this style of music in general, it probably won’t convert you, but how many albums out there actually can convert you to the ways of the vaunted tech-thrash?

Oh. Well… this one’s also good even if it’s less accessible.

Highlights: “Ever Since Time Began”, “Twilight Zone”, “The Jester”, “No Friend Of Mine”

 

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)

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So I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m fond of NIN’s 1992 EP Broken. About half of The Downward Spiral is in a similar vein, but it’s a more ambitious and varied work by far. Longer albums tend to do that; we’ve been over this many times in the past. This was arguably Trent Reznor’s big commercial breakthrough – the Black Album to Broken‘s And Justice For All, if you like extended Metallica analogies, since to be fair, the previous EP did sell quite well in its own right. What do we make of it?

Well, first of all, The Downward Spiral mostly resembles its predecessor in its most intense moments. The same mixture of pop songwriting with abrasive guitars and sampling is on display here, but it only takes us until the second track (“Piggy”) to learn of TDS‘s other ambitions. Interspersed with the stereotypical industrial metal sound are a couple of downtempo, and occasionally ambient tracks that are… less directly tailored to my interests, regardless of their merits/lack thereof. We might as well be honest about it – by ratios alone, this album panders less to me than the last one, but other listeners might appreciate the quieter moments and generally wider songwriting scope. To be fair, Trent doesn’t spend all that much time in interlude mode, but it’s still at least 25-30% of the album, so regardless of your opinion, it bears mentioning. The underlying electronic ideas remain.

If there’s one thing that’s definitely changed in the intervening two years, it’s the textures. The Downward Spiral is a more spacious album than its predecessor, with less instruments competing for the listener’s attention and the quieter sections being understandably sparser sounding. It also helps that the album features some very slow, almost doomy tracks. My knowledge of Nine Inch Nails’ discography is far from encyclopedic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was new territory for the act, and the occasional slow, trudging, but still rock/metal oriented track is a welcome change, and certainly a viable way of adding more variety to the hour long degradation trip that is this album. I guess I pay more attention to the lyrics of this album than its predecessor, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re not really the selling point. I’ve seen Trent’s lyrical approach criticized in the past, but given that I tend to deemphasize lyrics as part of my own listening experience (with some major exceptions),  it’s not something I lose sleep over.

Ultimately, I think The Downward Spiral is a sidestep from Broken; it’s recognizably in the same genre, but the overall effect is quite different. One definite good that came of this album was that Trent got to practice his dark ambient skills, which definitely came in handy once id Software contracted him to score Quake. That game’s OST might be worth an Anatomy of VGM post someday, but until then…

Highlights: “Heretic”, “Closer”, “Reptile”

Devin Townsend – Transcendence (2016)

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This review is only for Transcendence proper. I might give Holding Patterns a feature of its own someday, though.

Devin Townsend is, as previously established, a musician of many styles. Transcendence isn’t without precedent, but its approach is markedly different from anything else of his that I’ve covered on Invisible Blog. My writing on this subject has mostly focused on his more aggressive material (with a few diversions into other stuff, like the straight up pop-metal of Sky Blue). Transcendence, though, is generally pretty laid back and chill, at least by comparison. Buzzwords of choice aside, Devin’s latest isn’t entirely free of intense moments, but the more interesting dichotomy here isn’t quiet vs loud, but instead how it walks a thin line between Sky Blue style pop and extended progressive rock style compositions.

The closest analogy you could make without heading out of Devyspace is that Transcendence develops some of the ideas we saw on Devin’s early solo albums, up to about 2001’s Terria or so. This album even starts with a remake of “Truth”; while it hews fairly close to the original, this new arrangement is slower, cleaner, arguably less chaotic than the initial 1998 version. Make no mistake of it – even though the amount of layered instruments is similar to your average DT album, the production style threw off my initial appraisal.

The other major gimmick on this album is that it contains significantly more songwriting collaboration from other members of the Devin Townsend Project. Devin remains the lead songwriter, though, so nothing here sounds completely alien. Maybe if his compositional range was narrower, this would pass with more commentary. Between that and the prog-styled songwriting, though, even the obviously pop structured songs seem to go through more distinct sections and otherwise unexpected transitions than usual. Other than that, I can’t say that this has as significant an effect on the songwriting as I was initially expecting, and that Devin most likely still plays the leading role. Guess we don’t have to worry about strange coups in Vancouver.

I digress – yet again this is an album I accept without second thought because it’s by Devin Townsend, and it isn’t completely outside the realm of what I expected. Transcendence has all the amenities you’d expect from his recent work – multiple styles of songwriting (sometimes even within the same song), quality vox from Anneke van Giersbergen, and a high level of instrumental to go alongside everything else. Sometimes, more of the same-but-slightly-different is a good thing.

Highlights: “Secret Sciences”, “Higher”, “Transcendence”, “Offer Your Light”

Bathory – Twilight of the Gods (1991)

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Twilight of the Gods is like Hammerheart, except more so. While that album showcased most of the innovations Quorthon had been working on for the last few years, this one refines them and polishes up the sound a bit more. As such, it is (painfully obviously) not black metal of any sort, but even this approach has made its way into the genre. Every time you listen to the latest ‘epic’ or ‘viking’ themed black metal band to make their way onto Spotify, you’re imbibing Bathory, even if it’s Bathory filtered through a million artists trying to exceed the band’s work. You’re also drinking Springfield, but I digress.

As I said before, much of what applies to Hammerheart also applies to Twilight of the Gods. Quorthon’s choice of improvements, while subtle, help tie the experience together more effectively. First and most immediately notable is that the long songs here are more coherent. I don’t know if I’d put the title track here above “Shores in Flames” overall, but while Hammerheart‘s first track has its hooks and novelty, this one explores more ideas without losing its crucial coherence, and I definitely appreciate that. While most of the instrumentation is broadly similar to the previous album, the vocal end of things has definitely improved. Quorthon’s singing voice is stronger and generally less strained, and he also multitracks his vocal backing more effectively.

If those characteristics lead you to believe that this album is entirely superior to what came before it (at least within its genre of choice), then you would probably end up with the same expectations that I had when I first listened to it. Times have sure changed since then. While Twilight of the Gods is certainly accomplished in what it sets out to do, I usually go into Bathory wanting the black metal aggression of their past. Even Hammerheart retained a hint of that in its rougher moments, but it’s sorely missing here. I also feel that, at least in comparison to the first half, the second half of this album drops the ball. Oddly enough, that might actually be due to the trackination. Some editions of this album merge the first three songs here (“Twilight of the Gods”, “Through Blood By Thunder”, “Blood in Iron”) into one megatrack that would make a fine EP if released separately. The other track lack a sense of unity and cohesion by comparison, even if it’s an artificial decision possibly brought on by manufacturing requirements.

Even if it falters later on, Twilight of the Gods‘ first half soars above even the peaks of Hammerheart. The two are inseparable as far as I’m concerned, and many a band has been launched towards untold glory through the formulas popularized here.

Highlights: The first half. Did you even read this post?