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Anatomy of VGM #8 – DOOM (2016)

doom_alt_boxart.0.0.jpgI wrote a bit about the original DOOM (and Hell On Earth)’s music back in my DMU editing days. Things have certainly changed since then, both from the vantage point of 1993 and from the more recent happenings of 2015…

DOOM 2016‘s metalcore/electronica fusion seemingly resembles the original’s music in goal (which was to resemble the popular ‘heavy’ music of the times), but far less has been written about this remake’s development that I can peruse to either confirm or deny that hypothesis. A generation of technological progress and cultural evolution have done wonders for the visibility of extreme metal music. Therefore, the new DOOM‘s OST is a bone-crushingly, skull-rippingly loud and aggressive work that makes even the definitive renditions of the original’s OST sound like anemic. Or so the marketing copy goes… the first sign that the new DOOM‘s music might be a hard sell is that I’m dissecting it on a blog that venerates both the sickest and most depraved and the clean, polished, musically accomplished corners of extreme metal.

I’ve heard many a track in this vein throughout my metal-listening years, and not just in the studio work I’ve written about. Prior to playing through DOOM, I spent about 20 hours with head composer Mick Gordon’s previous effort (Wolfenstein: The New Order), which while more varied in genre also contained several similarly djenty tracks, and featured the efforts of Frederik Thordenhal of Meshuggah fame. Meshuggah’s efforts are simply impossible to ignore in any discussion of this work, by virtue of their sheer genre establishing power, and even without contributions from its alumni, the basic formulas of this album’s metal side are immediately apparent – an emphasis on downtuning, minimalism and polyrhythmic percussion.

Now, merely djenting your way through an album is difficult. It can be awfully limiting, so most of the bands out there merely use this as a foundation on which to construct their songs. Meshuggah adds in jazz harmony and/or inhuman ambience depending on the era; Mick Gordon throws in extremes of dynamics and electronic soundscapes. Constantly varying up the aesthetics above the metal is in itself a double edged sword, though – if you’re not careful, you can trade in coherence for short-lived novelty. I don’t think this is really an issue on DOOM‘s OST, since for all the synth patches on Gordon’s keyboards, he has the restraint to stick to the ones that fit the themes of the game he’s working on.

Most likely, the main problems with this soundtrack stem from the limits of the substructure. DOOM focuses heavily on building ambience when it isn’t attempting to thrash the player’s skull off, but the actual riff structures often fall short. This might be my melody over rhythm bias coming out again, but structural development over time is not really this music’s strength. Even in the presumably somewhat arranged OST version, riffs loop more than necessary given the lack of structural limitations streaming gives you. I suspect this is a case of the composer spreading himself too far – the sheer quantity of sounds on display here is impressive, and it keeps the structural flaws from showing when you’re more focused on hogging the glory kills than honing your listening ears, but there are limits to my patience with each subsection of song once divorced from the gameplay they’re intended to accompany.

Even if the novelty wears off after a while, this is still a victory for anyone who likes heavy metal or heavy electronica in their games. It’s an appropriately amped up soundtrack that fits the gratuitous action, at the very least. Less banal than what happened with Quake II, too.

Highlights: “Rip and Tear”, “At DOOM’s Gate”, “Flesh and Metal”, “BFG Division”

Celtic Frost – Monotheist (2006)

folderEven compared to the rest of their discography, Celtic Frost’s final album, Monotheist is rather minimalistic and sparse, and I figure that’s on purpose. Much of the material here is reminiscent of earlier Hellhammer/Celtic Frost material dragged screaming through a machine that makes it more intense and in-line with 2006 extreme metal standards; the disadvantage is that it sometimes made songs more formulaic. I suppose it’s a result of the same things that lead to Cold Lake, so maybe the Frost just got lucky in that the trends they decided to follow were… less embarrassing. On the other hand, the overall approach here, as well as some of the material dates back to the obscure 2002 “Prototype” demo, which is allegedly a mess of weird experimentation and nu-metal. If that’s true, then some serious editing must’ve taken place.

Paradoxically for an album that ups the intensity of things, Monotheist is most memorable in its mellow moments. I think much of this comes down to the very types of sounds used – see, for instance, the guitar and bass in the intro of “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh”. Even with the distortion turned down, the hints of it remain, and it creates an effect that is beyond my ability as a writer to describe. The rest of the song is very basic, relying on a massively constrained tonality and two riffs to provide the substrate it works with. The songwriting here is all dynamics, and even those are used for basic quiet-loud-quiet-loud techniques. Despite this, it may be the best song on here.

There is something of a split between these quieter, arguably gentler (if not more upbeat) works and more straight-ahead extreme-ish doom metal, if one laden with spiritual crossovers. The production and mixing is immaculate and perfectly suited towards both purposes, courtesy of Peter Tägtgren and his experience on so many extreme metal albums. Amongst other things, this results in a distinctive guitar tone with a percussive strum and a seeming lack of harmonics. To be fair, the amount of instrumentation at any time on this album is usually fairly low, so the mixing job must have been simple. Add that to the lengthy production time of this album, and we get the reason each sound is so intensely shaped… produced. While this album definitely sounds good, the time spent in production may have (at times) come at expense of the writing. Songs here are definitely less varied than they were on the mid-1980s golden-age material, and while this sometimes isn’t a problem, it does weaken the less powerful riffs that could use counterpoint and further development to strengthen them.

Despite this, Monotheist is very well liked, as it presents a major aesthetic upgrade to the Celtic Frost formula, without substantial changes to the formula, even though it does retain some of the experimentation with instrumentation that the band tried on Into the Pandemonium. It helps that the aforementioned formula was hugely influential and lead to further evolution in almost every genre of metal, even the more accessible ones. With all of this in mind, I’ve found classic Celtic Frost to be a consistent band, if not particularly amazing (although if you look a little back into the Hellhammer days, there is “Triumph of Death”, the greatest trip of 1984). This album peaks higher, even if it has its clunkers.

Highlights: “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh”, “Os Abysmi Vel Daath”, “Obscured”, the Triptych (last 3 tracks)

Candlemass – Epicus Doomus Metallicus (1986)

Unlike its successor, I have never felt any bizarre operating system images from this album, and maybe that’s for the better. If Nightfall is based on the Linux kernel, this is probably similar to Andrew S. Tanenbaum’s MINIX operating system, which Linus Torvalds took many basic concepts from. As such, listeners can clearly see the lineage, but there are a number of obvious differences.

Most importantly, compared to Nightfall, this is a lot darker and introverted. Note the presence of Johan Längqvist, a former hard rock singer who, since the recording of this album appears to have fallen off the face of the earth. His vocals are significantly lower than Messiah Marcolin’s, and his baritones are immensely powerful (by misinterpreting this sentence we can power up to 100 homes per copy of EDM), although he occasionally gives us a high scream because our spine is too warm.

Generally, the compositions are simpler and more bludgeoning than they would later be, but the overall technique is similar – slow, downtuned guitars, semi-technical bombastic drums, a heavy vocal emphasis (when you have singers as good as Längqvist and Marcolin, it would be sacrilege to let their abilities go to waste), highly proficient guitar solos, and occasional moments of uptempo strumming (not quite speed metal, but Crystal Ball and A Sorcerer’s Pledge deliver a good deal of speed while remaining epic and doomy). The production is HUGE for 1986 – on par with the more mainstream stuff like Metallica and Slayer, and clearly a million times heavier than your average glam rockers.

Frankly, this album just gets better with every song – Solitude is all fine and good, but Under the Oak, for example, has more variety, an even better vocal performance (where Johan doesn’t pronounce a variety of words oddly) and so on. “A Sorcerer’s Pledge” is also huge, and after its powerful acoustic opening, heads straight into the colossal main section of the song – the band reaches maximum speed and heaviness in on the track, and it’s cathartic if anything. This album has grown on me with repeated spins, to the point that it’s probably one of my all-time favorites in the genre. Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of doom metal, but I doubt much of anything could dislodge this.

For you sick fellows who wonder what other OSes I would associate with albums and artists for whatever bizarre reason:

Phlebotomized – Immense, Intense, Suspense (1994) is Windows 3.1.

Alice in Chains’s self-titled (1995) is Windows 95.

Enslaved – Maudraum: Beyond The Within is Windows XP.

Gargoyle – Furebumi (1990) is version 7.5 of Mac OS (I.E, back when Apple didn’t sell glorified Intel PCs, and therefore was at least somewhat cool).

Morbid Angel – Formulas Fatal to the Flesh

People say this album is faster than the already manic “Covenant”. This is sometimes true.

However, it would be hard to ignore when Prayer of Hatred drops down into sludgy sound while Trey strums major chords to create dissonance, how Covenant of Death only retains its speed in its first half, or the how monumental closer “Invocation of the Continual One” simply isn’t a blastfest. Frankly, this varies up its tempos nearly as much as Domination did, although there are fewer midpaced moments overall.

Anyways, the shrewd listener will notice that riffwise, Morbid Angel has distanced themselves somewhat from the melodic material that shows up on earlier albums – the riffs are more angular and have freed themselves somewhat from tonal centers. This adds to the sense of willing chaos, which is strengthened by its contrast to the slower, sludgier aspects of the music.

In fact, this move away from consonance and (to a degree) riff-driven rhythms moves this away from the fairly large swathes of second wave black metal that Morbid Angel helped define. Even the new vocalist, Steve Tucker plays a role in this – his growl is more generic than Dave Vincent’s, but his phrasing is very fast and nimble. He also tends to fill up the beats, as opposed to leaving substantial amounts of space – on the other hand, the actual amount of lyrics has increased. Worth noting.

This is the last Morbid Angel album to contain substantial amounts of re-recorded material from older days – Hellspawn is the most obvious example, but Invocation of the Continual One allegedly was one of the first songs the band wrote, and close listening will reveal riffs that were later used in other songs – the ones that I notice most clearly come from Immortal Rites and Angel of Disease. It also contains the largest amount of ambient interludes so far – while Hymn to a Gas Giant is basically just the pleasant sounding intro to Invocation, the rest.. what can I say? They suck. Then again, most of the Morbid Angel interludes (with the exceptions of Doomsday Celebration and Desolate Ways on Blessed Are The Sick) suck. No offense intended – they don’t develop well, and they often sound rather haphazard and poorly put together. “Hymnos Rituales De Guerra” is kind of cool – it’s a busy sounding “tribal” drum solo, and therefore doesn’t suffer from the latter problem at least.

As with the other albums, this gets high marks in general, but skip the interludes.

Highlights – “Prayer of Hatred”, “Covenant of Death”, “Umulamahri”, “Hellspawn – The Rebirth”