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Revolution Void – Increase the Dosage (2004)

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Here’s an album that’s very important to me for completely different reasons than usual! First of all, I discovered this band because someone decided their music ought to be in the Flash game Amorphous. Then I learned that they distributed their music free of cost through Jamendo, and tried to do the same for my own initial efforts. Then I dumped this album in the custom music folder for SimCity 4 and built a thousand metropoli to the backing of its electronic jazz fusion. It’s not exactly the usual path my music appreciation takes, but a little historical variety is worth it in the long run, if only for the stories it lets me tell.

So to get it out of the way, Increase the Dosage is a well mixed hybrid of jazz music and electronic music. It leans more towards the former by virtue of song structure and the overall style of instrumentation, as far as I’m concerned. The synthesizers, though, make for both a smoother (as in smooth jazz) and more aesthetically varied experience… they tend to do the latter in a lot of the content reviewed for Invisible Blog, don’t they? Overall, a relatively straight, if sometimes broken and complicated rhythm section and plenty of pads end up backing more improvisatory lead keyboards and brass. I’m not familiar enough with the modern jazz ecosystem to say how typical this is, but there’s no reason it can’t work. It’s definitely not the free-est jazz I’ve ever heard, but a solid backing section gives the solo parts on this album more space to work their magic. It takes a very different sense of band (read: King Crimson) to pull off completely improvised music, anyways.

If my decision to shuffle this soundtrack amongst the music of SimCity 4 wasn’t enough to tip you off, then let me make it explicit – I enjoy Increase the Dosage and think it’s a worthwhile album. The decay of my jazz knowledge since it peaked in middle school does make it hard for me to talk about specifics though. Two major aspects of this album stand out to make it particularly good. First, the music retains a good sense of overall structure, with good use of dynamics, rhythmic shifts, and similar to keep things varied without losing aesthetic coherence. This last bit is especially important because RV’s second major success is in fact building up an enticing atmosphere; everything here fits the ‘high tech cityscape’ feel that the album appears to be going for. It doesn’t strike me when a work of music’s strengths complement each other so directly that often, but it’s worth a note, and the album is worth a shot. Plus, you can legally download it for free on Jamendo. Surely it’ll be good enough that you upgrade that to some sort of fiscal support?

Highlights: “Factum par Fictio”, “Double the Daily Dose”, “Weekend Amnesia”

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Vader – De Profundis (1995)

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Are Star Wars jokes still topical, and if so, are they popular in Poland? Vader got their start in 1983, in the turblent last years of the local communist government; by the time it fell they apparently had enough momentum to get their debut (1992’s The Ultimate Incantation) released via Earache Records. I haven’t actually listened to that one, though. De Profundis, on the other hand, is a worthy entry in its genre, being one of those recordings that strikes a good balance between immediate accessibility and hidden depths. It also keeps a consistently high level of intensity and aggression without wearing out the listener, unlike some of the content I have to deal with…

Executive summary – De Profundis is death/thrash metal, ill defined as that is. It does have a pretty even mixture of the stereotypical instrumentation and aesthetics of each, giving us a reliably fast, monophonic, bassy and growly sound. Even in 1995, this style had been done to death (pun intended), although I can also argue that there was never really a time when sounding like death/thrash was enough to get you even the slightest iota of attention. The production this time around is competent – clear enough that you can hear the intricacies of the compositions and generally genre appropriate, but lacking the punch that the more prominent extreme metal albums of the time had. Were I the producer, I would probably have gone with something more trebley and incisive, but that might just be my preferences showing again.

With a standard production, it falls to the songwriting to carry De Profundis. As I mentioned at the beginning, it does; everything you could require from this type of music is present in a perfect balance. It all comes down to the song structures – Vader provides us a high density of unique riffs and musical ideas despite the short songs, by virtue of not dwelling on any specific section for too long. Some tracks here are obviously more complicated than others (“Sothis” comes to mind for being thorough-composed) – these are instant highlights, since they represent the band pushing themselves to the limit. Perhaps more important, though, is that Vader has mastered fluidity on De Profundis – every part of these songs segues logically into the next, even when dramatic tempo/modal/structural shifts are involved. It’s definitely harder to do when you build up your songs from dramatic musicological shifts, so the bandmembers definitely deserve a commendation for that.

I guess that years of experience before releasing your first studio album can come in handy. I’m definitely speaking from experience (insert advertisement for Critical Mass here) when I say that, but the point is that between historical circumstance and what is presumably just plain old fashioned skill, Vader had already reached a level of musical refinement on their 2nd album that some bands never acquire even after they hit their 12th birthday.

Highlights: “Silent Empire”, “Sothis”, “Revolt”, “Reborn in Flames”

Toxik – Think This (1989)

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Wow, who would’ve guessed? A late ’80s speed metal album that’s quite literally a product of its time! There’s a couple of reasons that Toxik comes off as especially topical. Apocalyptic, “mad world” flavored speed metal with nods to both the mainstream metal scene and high-culture virtuosity, sometimes even in the same song (“There Stood The Fence”). A time when middle America stood to be ripped apart by mad televangelists and communists… where have I heard this high concept rhetoric before? Oh.

When I first decided to give Toxik a shot, most of what I’d read about them compared them to other “technical” thrash metal bands like Realm and Helstar. On the surface, this is an apt comparison. Between the soaring vocals, the skilled instrumentation, and the slick production (although Realm is a bit more intense as a general rule), you can make a vaguely representative, if somewhat shallow trifecta of technical thrash. Continued listening makes the differences apparent. The bands I mentioned for comparison push the envelope of songwriting and musical experimentation much further – for want of a better description, Toxik’s “get played on MTV and tour a lot” aspirations are a lot less subtle.

That Toxik manages to successfully appeal to both sides of the fence (you know, the one that stood there) is praiseworthy, although it should definitely be distinguished from something like Averse Sefira‘s ability to mind-virus their far less accessible style of music. For the most part, Toxik’s songwriting sticks to common pop structures, but these are enhanced by a strong sense of dynamics and a good sense of how to play with tonality to manipulate the listener’s emotions. It’s a smart match for the manipulative powers of the media and society at large that Toxik criticizes in their lyrics, although I’m not sure how intentional that is. The obvious switches between dissonance and melody, as well as the tempo shifts give this album’s songs an excessive melodramatic effect that helps them cement in your memory. However, some listeners might find such excess to be excessively cheesy. I’m not sure there’s much of a way to tone this down without substantial stylistic changes, but I’m also not sure that it’s worth trying within this substyle at all!

It seems reasonably accurate to market Think This as an exaggeration of the excesses of American ’80s metal, which implies all of the good and bad of that era. This does naturally limit Toxik’s audience, but given the commercial (and occasionally vomitory) aspirations of the era, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be able to understand what Toxik is going for. Better this than a thousand other less incisive bands, no?

Highlights: “Greed”, “Spontaneous”, “Black and White”, “Machine Dream”

Umberto Eco – Baudolino (2000)

baudolino_smallNow, I generally try to avoid lying to my readers here at Invisible Blog, but the titular character of Umberto Eco’s 2000 novel is under no such obligation. When I first came across the title, I thought I was going to get something at least broadly similar to E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, which is sort of a benchmark for unreliable narration in fiction. Baudolino the character is more of an intentional liar than the confused Brother Medardus from Hoffman’s book, though, which makes for a significantly different experience. Also differentiating this book is Umberto Eco’s hardcore philosophical background, which bleeds through on more than one occasion and turns Baudolino into a debate on the very nature of truth and reality.

When it’s not waxing philosophical, Baudolino takes the form of historical fiction. The longer (and better) half of this book follows the eponymous (Piedmontese) Italian, as he exploits his ability to learn languages and lie without remorse to have all sorts of adventures throughout Europe. Baudolino immediately gets himself tangled up in the ambitions of the historically real Frederick I Hohenstaufen. Frederick spends much of his life trying to impose the might of the Holy Roman Empire on Baudolino’s native Italy, but Baudolino increasingly attempts to steer him towards a far greater land – the mythical kingdom of Prester John. In the process, he makes the acquaintance of Parisian university students, has some wacky misunderstandings due to the sordid state of medieval geography, and eventually ends up turning a failed crusade into a pilgrimage to the lands of Prester John.

As you might know from reading Invisible Blog and my other works, I am a complete history nerd, and I found that Baudolino’s interactions with medieval Europe from Paris to Byzantium made for great reading. He gets to participate in the formative era of the great Italian city-states, tries to seduce Frederick’s wife, tries to write his own vernacular language in an age of Latin supremacy, and various other adventures. However, Baudolino’s rather more ‘fantastic’ adventures once his entourage passes out of modern-day Turkey (or the Caucasus or northern Iran, I’m admittedly a bit unclear on this) jump more sharks than Arthur Fonzarelli on water skis. I’ve been known to dip into fantasy fiction occasionally, but the bizarre and incoherent nature of the lands Baudolino visits on his search for the kingdom of Prester John did little to keep my interest, bearing more resemblance to a senseless theological debate than coherent worldbuilding. This might be a veiled look at how Umberto Eco perceives reality; throughout the book, Baudolino’s entourage discusses in great depth the legends they’re dealing with and the possibility that there might be any truth to them at all. They don’t make much headway in their debates, especially since they spend much of them dosed up on a potent psychoactive drug (referred to only as “green honey” in the book). It certainly alters the tone of the book, even if you’re aware of Baudolino’s unreliability as a narrator.

A common trend with my book reviews, especially for books that are divided in any sort of sections, formal or informal, is that I end up covering a lot of books where I significantly favor one part over another. Baudolino is definitely like that, and my biases as a reader are hard to overcome. Still, I recommend the first half of this book; you might be able to trudge through the second half once you’ve invested in enough in the first.

Future Sound of London – Dead Cities (1996)

folderSo I’ve written on the British EDM boom of the early-mid ’90s on several occasions. This may count, although if it does, it’s pretty late in the movement. Given the content of this blog, I’m no stranger to people carving out artistic niches in the music industry to varying levels of commercial success, but Dead Cities is kind of a weird recording, even in the context of previous FSOL albums – half ambient with excursions into frantic breakbeats and whatever “We Have Explosive” is (besides very much of its time; alternatively, besides a grammatically incorrect phrase).

If you got the impression that this record is fairly varied in terms of sound and approach, you guessed right; Dead Cities is a veritable carnivalscape. You can distinguish to a degree between the darker first half and arguably more experimental second half, but even within each side, mood swings and asides are the norm. If there’s one thing that ties the varied material on Dead Cities together, it’s definitely the rhythm section, although ironically it does so by constantly changing and tripping over itself and generally not being composed of basic four-on-the-floor beats. The percussion ends up very prominent in the songs, which makes for an interesting counterpart to some of FSOL’s previous work (Lifeforms, which wasn’t particularly beat and percussion oriented). I can’t say whether or not this would’ve continued on previous releases since my ability to decipher their career trajectory falls off after this.

What I’ve seen of discussion on this album tends to call it “post-apocalyptic”, generally referencing the first few tracks. As a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures), Dead Cities doesn’t exactly respond to this classification, but I can hear what people might be referring to. I consulted my own opinions on this – they told me the sheer quantity of lighter content and mood on here probably places this centuries after any cataclysmic events and at best puts the listener they belong to in the mindset of decaying ruins and archaeology. Whether or not this matches the authors’ intent is beyond me. I could do some research – for instance, I could look at the artbook that came with some editions of the album, but I don’t think that would negate any previous mental imagery.

Anyways, music possibly written to complement artistic installations is one thing, but in the absence of such installations, it has to be judged on its own. Dead Cities has taken much time to analyze and dissect on a conceptual level at least, and I’m of the opinion that music has to have some merit if allowed such contemplation. That’s the most you’ll get out of me, suckers! Now if only the internet had enough of a physical metaphor that I could jump out of a window and magically fly away…

Highlights: “We Have Explosive”, “Quagmire” (giggity), “Glass”

Ministry – Psalm 69 (1993)

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Ministry, at least in their guises that I listen to, has a serious consistency problem tempered by their ability to consistently put their best tracks at the beginning of their albums. It happened with “The Missing”, it happened with “Burning Inside”, and it happened with “War Pimp Renaissance” (which is technically by Lard, but that band is basically Ministry with Jello Biafra on vocals) some years after this. Their discography is one of the main reasons I don’t put number scores on these reviews – I mean, how do you take the existence of a few especially strong tracks in a sea of disposables and express it as a single number? Psalm 69, on the other hand, is shockingly consistent in its songwriting and importantly does not fall apart after a few hit singles. I’m not complaining, but what the hell happened?

First, I know that Psalm 69 is rather amped up compared to its predecessors; the rumor is that like some of their contemporaries (NIN in particular), Ministry toughened up their sound for their live shows, which eventually bled over to the studio. The actual songwriting hasn’t changed from its immediate predecessors – Ministry still relies heavily on texture, repetition, and samples to drive their songs. Still, as a work of industrial metal, this understandably benefits from its heavy, artificial sound, and it’s definitely an improvement over the hodgepodge of mixing styles of Ministry’s 1980s output. It might seem childishly obvious, but when you rely on your aesthetics like Ministry does, having a strong unified sound sure comes in handy.

Psalm 69 is also probably less varied than its predecessors, dropping out of its strong industrial metal voice rather less often, even if by doing so it creates more opportunities to explore that genre’s substyles. Perhaps the best example of this is “Scarecrow”, a torturous, groaning colossus of 8 minutes that traces out something new and especially harsh in Ministry’s language (and presumably either does or does not point the way forwards towards the doomier ’90s for this band). It’s still recognizably built from the guitar loops, distorted vocals, and samples that drive most of the other tracks here, and that reveals what, for Ministry, seems to have been a huge advance – Ministry is now able to incorporate the ideas they wish to experiment with into a more consistent whole, although the strength of execution is more important than the specifics of their sound. Either way, it’s a major execution boost and I am willing to pin the relative lack of filler on it.

This suggests that if you were to only listen to one Ministry album (and thus deny yourself the sweep of their storied history), you would do best to make it this one.

Highlights: “NWO”, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, “Scarecrow”