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“Critical Mass” Reaches The Masses

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So I’ve been hinting at this for a while – I released a full length album for the first time on August 1st, 2017. People release debut albums all the time, yes, but this is still a pretty major milestone on my end. In the interest of having more vaguely promotional material on the internet, Critical Mass is getting a blog post. Just to get it out of the way – your best bet for purchasing this is on Bandcamp, which has the lowest default price, but lets you pay what you want if you’re so inclined. You should be able to find it on a variety of other vendors, though.

A few bits of trivia you might not already know about this album, even if you’ve been good and purchased this album in order to support its creators:

  • Most of the actual composition/arrangement/recording work took place in early-mid 2016, and the decision to compile things into an album came about a year after that.
  • After doing pretty much nothing in the way of covers through the rest of my career, I started doing a chunk of those as I worked through the content for this album, and several of them lead to DAW/sonic advances that are present on Critical Mass‘s actual songs.
  • This album almost featured some more remasters and remakes from early 2015 or so, but I decided to leave them off in favor of newer tracks once I decided to seek out professional mixing/mastering services. Not to disparage myself too much, but I had good results with that route in the past (read: the Polyhedron EP), so I figured I’d give it a shot again.

With that in mind, some notes about the future:

  • I’m probably going to take another shot at finding bandmembers to expand Planepacked with sooner or later. Massachusetts is pretty damn good for metal, and I’m conveniently located to get people from all over New England by being close to its center of population.
  • Unless something changes, the next major creative project you see from me is probably going to be another book. I wrote 50,000+ words of one for NaNoWriMo 2016, and progress has continued on it since then, if admittedly kind of slowly. I’m hoping to pull off something of a sprint to fill out some of the chunks of that. I’ve already written a teaser for the content of the book, which you can read if you want an idea of the content.

Your normal review schedule will return on August 12th… unless I decide to write an Anatomy of Video Game Music post or something. You usually know what you’re going to get on Invisible Blog, but you can’t deny that there are exceptions.

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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.

Polysics – We Ate The Machine (2008)

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Back in my rabid POLYSICS fandom days, I had the pleasure of following the buildup to this album’s release and being very pleased when it came out. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been 8 years since it came out! Luckily for potential listeners, We Ate The Machine is arguably POLYSICS’s second peak, after the superlative ENO. It’s certainly a more streamlined recording (usually abstaining from the brightly colored nonsense of the band’s early days); one that showcases some of the band’s most accomplished pop songwriting. However, it also excels at the loud, noisy, arguably insane part of POLYSICS’s formula that drew me to the band in the first place.

Most of We Ate The Machine‘s distinguishing characteristics come from it being a sort of stylistic compilation, at least if you ask me. Were I less experienced with POLYSICS (yet somehow still myself in the process), I’d expect something more along the lines of 2002’s For Young Electric Pop, which was simply an intentional turn towards the mainstream. This album doesn’t merely diverge from that by doing the ‘loud fast rules’ thing, but goes a step further by synthesizing both strains of songwriting into a whole. Now, POLYSICS has never really done anything but pop songwriting, and combining two types of pop songwriting is not hard (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but it does reflect well on them that they succeed, resulting in a nice mix of accessible pop songs with a similarly accessible harder edge, and better organized, more coherent blast fests.

Objectivity is going to get me nowhere here, since so much of my affection for this album is based in my personal experience with it. There’s even a couple of interesting stories I could tell – for instance, a POLYSICS fanboard I followed at the time had mixed feelings as the singles came out but quickly came to like it once they heard the full album. This was also about the time that Myspace was trying to enter the music business, and they apparently took on POLYSICS as one of their flagship acts, alongside some indie pop stuff you don’t remember anymore; they actually got the band to translate two tracks from this album into English. Not sure how I feel about those renditions, although this band wasn’t exactly strangers to occasionally writing English lyrics. Most of my readers aren’t going to connect with this on that deep personal level, but if you’re into poppy synthesizer driven noise rock, you should at least get some enjoyment out of We Ate The Machine for its mastery of the form. Who knows? You might get some interesting stories out of it, too.

Highlights: “Moog is Love”, “I Ate The Machine”, “Pony and the Lion”, “Dry or Wet”

Autopsy – Mental Funeral (1991)

folderMental Funeral came out just months before a new wave of death metal massively upped the ante for technical wizardry and aggression in the genre. Surprisingly, those aren’t the end all of death metal, and Mental Funeral is still well remembered today (although, to be fair, it helps that Autopsy is still releasing new material). I guess the deal with Autopsy is that they’re a step or two closer to the earliest underground extreme metal bands in approach, especially since you can make the corresponding case that a lot of the post-1991 death metal (and some before that, of course) took cues from Autopsy and exaggerated them.

One important bit of Autopsy-lore is that there’s always been a strong influence from doom metal in their music. It’s not their primary constituent and there are contemporary albums that delve way further into the concept (like Cathedral’s debut), but it does tend to slow down and space out even the fastest of Autopsy’s songs. Either way, the partial usage of doom tropes leads to a lot of stark and sudden shifts in dynamics and tempo that Autopsy uses to good effect throughout this album. The obvious comparison is probably Celtic Frost – besides the aforementioned musical elements, Autopsy also shares the simplicity of riffs and a tendency to vary song structures that gets you a lot of bonus respect points in some circles. It’s a step up from their debut, but only in execution – Severed Survival had its share of song-complicating transitions, but they’re both more numerous and more effective here.

It should be apparent to you now that I think that Autopsy does a good job with their songwriting on Mental Funeral, since their approach allows them to do a great deal with a generally minimal instrumental/technical palette. The songs here are backed up by an excellent and highly appropriate production. The more tactily inclined amongst us could describe it as sludgy, due to its thick, downtuned guitars, highly audible bass, and its reverb-drenched drums. All things that have been done before, but the drums are produced so effectively that they draw my attention despite me not being particularly percussion oriented. There have been successful death metal albums with more treble, less reverb, etc (for instance, Suffocation’s full length debut), but I personally wouldn’t want any drastic changes to how Mental Funeral is mixed.

All of this adds up to an album that could theoretically be difficult listening. Personally, I found most of my difficulties with Autopsy were solved by careful study of their debut album, so when I finally sat down with this, I was just glad to hear an improved version of what was already a strong formula.

Highlights: “Fleshcrawl/Torn From The Womb”, “Robbing the Grave”, “Hole in the Head”

Capsule Reviews III

I thought these weren’t going to be a ‘regular’ feature back in 2013, but “approximately one per year” seems like an acceptable rate of introspection these days. 2012 was an… interesting year for Invisible Blog. I was trying to launch a great deal of projects and also trying to promote First Contact Is Bad For You. In the mean time, I did a lot of non-music writing for various reasons. Despite this, I ended up with plenty of music to re-review.

Gargoyle – Furebumi (1990): It’s still great. Were you expecting any less? While Gargoyle has produced many strong albums over the years, I think this one might still be the best of their discography for its overall intensity. It makes for a rather different experience than many of the other power-thrash metal hybrids I’ve collected due to its apparent J-rock influences and occasional diversions into such styles, which would become more prominent at various points in their career.

Dissection – The Somberlain (1993): It’s still lame. Arguably, the first half of this album is consistent, but compared to something like Sacramentum’s debut, I’m underwhelmed. The Somberlain doesn’t have much direction in its songwriting, and it completely collapses in its second half. Word on the street is that Dissection’s career was all downhill from there..

Therion – Lepaca Kliffoth (1995): This is arguably where Therion jumped the shark, although I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that they managed to pull off their new symphonic style pretty well on later albums. This album is arguably strongest in its sparsest moments most reminiscent of the band’s death metal past, but these days I even derive some enjoyment from some of the sillier, more operatic tracks like “The Beauty in Black”.

Enslaved – Eld (1997): Hard to say how actually good this is these days. Its greatest weakness, as I see it, is that it’s more formulaic than Vikingligr Veldi. There are still some strong, atmospheric tracks on this, including the epic “793”, and it does effectively incorporate some aggression into the band’s sound without going totally overboard like its immediate successor.

Sigh – Infidel Art (1995): Probably the start of Sigh’s ambitions proper, because Scorn Defeat was certainly more conventional of a black/doom album (not entirely so). Infidel Art is full of consistently lengthy songs that probably could’ve used a bit of editing to remove some of the more incongruous elements, but it’s still a fine work, and it makes for good contrast with their more rock-inflected later works.

Sorcier Des Glaces – Moonrise in Total Darkness (2006): Since it’s better produced than either version of Snowland and a bit more varied in its overall approach than The Puressence of Primitive Forests, this is the SDG album that gets the most spintime on my computer. Not that the others are bad, but this one feels… special. I still need to check out Ritual of the End one of these aeons.

Susumu Hirasawa – Blue Limbo (2003): I haven’t comprehensively followed Hirasawa’s works since 2010/2011 or so, but Blue Limbo was basically the peak of the Southeast Asian influences (and sampled vocals) in his work. To be honest, I found some of the slower and more ambient tracks required some acclimation to get used to back in the day. It’s hard to be objective about some of these albums, since I’ve been listening for so many years. You’d think these capsule re-reviews would help, but sometimes they just don’t.

Absu – The Third Storm of Cythraul (1998): This might actually be better than Tara. It’s not as fast or technical, but it seems to have more coherent songwriting in general. Not sure what’s up with that. On the other hand, it doesn’t have “Stone of Destiny”…

Nightfall – Athenian Echoes (1995): As an awkward fusion of extreme metal tropes with minor “gothic” and “industrial” experiments, this is at best, the sloppy second tier of Greek metal. I’m sure the band tries, and some of these tracks are fairly ambitious, but the execution is wanting more often than not.

Desultor – Masters of Hate (2012): Extreme power metal is definitely a thing, although the varieties with actually sung vocals are a bit rare. This makes Desultor’s debut extra special, at least by accessibility standards. Unfortunately, the band apparently went on hold, if Encyclopedia Metallum is to be believed. I’m sure other bands will take up this substyle if it’s of any value, though.

Like the 2011 edition, this episode is full of albums I still enjoy, although not entirely so. That would render this issue pointless, if you ask me.

Immortal – Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism (1992)

So we’ve been on a bit of a formative black/death spree lately; a throwaway remark can set off weird stuff like that. Like Darkthrone in the last review, Immortal wasn’t quite done purging their obvious death metal roots on their debut. If we’re going to bring up big obvious antecedents like Bathory, it becomes reasonable to suggest Immortal was more interested in that band’s epic “Viking” albums than their earlier raw ones. Entire genres of writing could be spawned from the idea that different people take different ideas from the same sources, and while I don’t think we’ll be doing that today, I’d recommend you take Immortal’s musical ancestors into mind when listening to Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticum if you are in any way familiar with them.

In general, this album ends up combining elaborate compositions with fairly rudimentary (even sloppy) instrumental technique; the latter would improve significantly over Immortal’s next few albums, but songs would become brief until 1999 or so, with the release of At The Heart of Winter. It’s hard to describe the effect with overusing words synonymous with “transition”, but that’s a small price to pay for accurately describing this. The songs here are often quite melodic and even consonant at times, but the bassy mixing occasionally makes me want to throw this in with formative melodeath like At the Gates or Sentenced. However, Immortal rather frequently drops this in favor of dissonant, chaotic material like the majority of “Unholy Forces of Evil”; a technique possibly borrowed from the common musical ancestry of the Norwegian scene. I’m not going to go out and say the band hadn’t forged their own identity, as even Pure Holocaust in 1993 was a major paradigm shift, and the aforementioned At The Heart of Winter often resembles a more disciplined and refined variant on the ideas of this debut.

Because of this, early Immortal ends up with some odd strengths and weaknesses compared to their contemporaries. The push for good arrangements is perhaps not so odd, since even the rawest, filthiest, and most shocking of Immortal’s contemporaries emphasized their song structures. The songwriting here is strangely orderly, though, assisted by the consistent aesthetic and frequently midpaced tempoes. The flaws in instrumental technique actually come in handy for differentiating things – seemingly awkward transitions and messy, pitchy guitar solos that wouldn’t fit the songs if performed with more skill. To my understanding, that’s one of the things that draws people to black metal, although it occasionally results in a swarm of shoddy imitators. That Immortal managed to play such a large role in influencing others even before they had really found themselves is a sign of aptitude on their part.

Highlights: “The Call of the Wintermoon”, “Cryptic Winterstorms”, “A Perfect Vision of The Rising Northland”

Notes on Five Years of Blogdom

After five years, it seems that this blog has become one of my life’s longest commitments. If you like reading this blog, you probably think that’s a plus. If not, that’s what we have brainwashing for. Odd veiled threats aside (asides being one of the main themes of Invisible Blog), it’s been an interesting five years, containing most of my undergraduate college experience, most of my musical ‘career’, and a surprising amount of my actual personal writing project time as well! What happened?


 

It seems that the creation processes in my brain only really began to work in any way recognizable to my current self around the age of 16; it was in May of 2008 that I started drafting First Contact Is Bad For You. Years of schooling meant it wasn’t my first attempt at creative writing (and the less said about my earlier attempts around the age of 12, the better), but where I might’ve earlier lost interest in it, I just kept working on it, albeit slowly and fitfully at times due to said times being scarce. I might’ve made some attempts at composing about the same time, but I didn’t really make any significant output until I got my hands on better tools – and with full awareness of what some of the purists might say, Sibelius is better than staff paper.

At the risk of complaining about how my past self didn’t know things my present thing did… my past self didn’t have the (dis?)advantage of future self whispering over his shoulder, complaining about his every pratfall and regret, and therefore had to figure a lot of things out for himself, like how to compose both text and music in a unique voice, and how to make it work. Standards change, and I became incredibly aware of that even during the creation of my earliest efforts. FCB is recognizable as the work it was when I first finished drafting it, but the revisions I made reflected three years of learning, especially aided by the jump in expected standards that accompanied my transition from high school to college. Meanwhile, I experimented a great deal with the limits of stock Sibelius, trying to bend its sounds into heavy metal music, and gradually coming to believe that a composition was more important than how it was performed. Kind of a big paradigm shift after 10 years of piano performance training, don’t you think? Minimalist black metal might’ve had something to do with it.

Then I discovered a little program called Famitracker. It seems that in the average hands, writing chiptunes with Famitracker teaches minimalism and efficiency, and to deny that I acquired some knowledge in that regards would be to deny my musical evolution, but by konsistently ko-opting Konami’s VRC6 expansion chip in to my palette, I found maximum sonar density to be a worthy compliment to my general attempts to avoid repetition. That turned out to be a fruitful approach, although I figured out that I could turn a sparser, cleaner approach into something I wanted to hear – anyone want to record a live version of “Song 31“? I have the sheet music if you’re interested, and it was explicitly designed to be human performable. In general, I feel like 2012, at least in its latter half, was a particularly good year for my creative ambitions – in the case of Famitracker I was writing more coherent and elaborate tracks after a period of deliberately writing ‘video game loop’ stuff, and in the case of this blog, I’d decided I was on a streak of interesting discussions of interesting music. Whether that previous statement is true or not is too subjective a question to answer, but my efforts to improve were still there.

Later years also saw me expanding into new subjects, which is probably why I ended up having a semi-robust ‘humor’ section on Invisible Blog. You’ve probably stumbled upon at least one of the “Bad Ideas” posts, which have steadily grown more elaborate and thematic over the years (although they’re rather less frequent than their heyday in early 2011). One of my buddies read these and insisted I should compile a list of “Pickup Lines That Probably Won’t Work” – when I told him that he ought to write the lines if he were so interested in seeing them exist, it left me with a new feature. Other experiments have lead to a series of little essays on games and game design, a couple of short stories, and the mother of all blog motivations – shameless self promotion! When I publish something, odds are it gets a mention here, since due to its length and consistent output, Invisible Blog has kind of become the unifying force between all my creative endeavors.

As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog continues for many years – perhaps even decades! It doesn’t get a ton of traffic, but keeping it alive seems to sharpen my skills as a writer, and that has to count for something, right?

I’ve been bouncing around a few ideas for types of posts that ought to be interesting to write about, and you’ll probably see some of those rather soon. The first (and in fact the next upcoming one) is to take the sort of music reviews that are the invisible bread and butter of this blog and apply their methodology to video game music. Unless the universe explodes, you should be able to read the first prototype before the month is out.