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Posts Tagged ‘juxtaposition’

Averse Sefira – Tetragrammatical Astygmata (2005)

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You know, Texas is an absolutely fascinating state. I might be biased because I lived in Round Rock for two years when I was a child, but it never ceases to amaze me that the little nation that once could has overcome inept governance and a cavalcade of dangerous microclimes to become one of our country’s leading exporters of black metal. Tetragrammatical Astygmata is interesting because it’s an especially chaotic and dissonant contribution to the genre that’s also surprisingly accessible and hooky. Is that my musical preferences expressing themselves again? Probably. Don’t be surprised if the rest of this review reflects my biases as well.

While the more dissonant chunks of black metal raise a lot of questions about where metal subgenres begin and end, Averse Sefira’s musical languages shares enough of the rest of its surface (high pitched vocals, less emphasis on percussive variation, etc.) to otherwise fall into blackened realms for marketing purposes. Two things make this band click – their songs have a preponderance of individual riffs organized into varied structures, and the whole chaotic/dissonant angle is used to reinforce coherence and expand their musical language. These ideas are integrated effectively enough that I actually had to sit down and give these tracks a deep listen in order to figure out just how they were pushing the envelope. Averse Sefira obviously isn’t the first to play with these ideas, even within black metal, but I always appreciate a band that can pull it off.

A lot of Tetragrammatical Astygmata‘s musical elements, in fact, are like this – an accessible facade with turmoil under the surface. Even this isn’t all that novel, although you’re still more likely to find music with little more to its name than surface noise or deep lore. For instance, the production is at the liminal point where raw aggression gives way to studio polish, with a clear mix allowing listeners to appreciate every nuance of the instrumental work without detracting from its overall extremity. The vocals and lyrics are also worth a note – the actual words spoken are sparse, abstract, well spaced, almost slam poetry. Still, they’re delivered with enough conviction (…if maybe not that much diction) that you’d actually want to look at the lyrics and analyze them, at least if you’re particularly into the lyrical/ideological aspects of metal albums.

Those of you who’ve been reading along for the last few years and whom are also familiar with this album are probably silently nodding. I can sense it – you probably saw the cover art and thought something along the lines of, “That’s something our author would definitely enjoy”. Averse Sefira isn’t all that well known as of 2017 (although they presumably had some moments of relative fame), but if I’ve done something to popularize them by writing about their work, then surely something good has come of today, right?

Highlights: “Detonation”, “Helix in Audience”, “Mana Anima”

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”

Gorguts – Obscura (1998)

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It says much about my origins as a metalhead that the shrill, dissonant, and generally challenging Obscura was one of my ‘gateway’ albums. Either that, or I was a little too obsessed with the idea of “progressive” metal for my own good. Self-deprecation aside, Gorguts started out as a reasonably straight-ahead death metal band, but pushed so far beyond that on Obscura that they had to dial it back a little for this album’s successor in order to keep from going mad. Ultimately, it’s hard to describe the level of experimentation on display here without lapsing into marketspeak.

Probably the most important key to understanding Obscura is understanding that although it’s tonally dissonant and messes around with rhythm a lot, it’s still a rigorously structured recording that plays by an intelligible and decipherable set of rules. For instance, there’s not all that many unique song structures – over time, the album’s 12 tracks tend to sequence dissonance and consonance in the same order, mark off sections with dramatic tempo shifts, and hoarsen Luc Lemay’s grotesque shrieks over time. On the other hand, the freedom of tonality and rhythm means that despite relying on the same instruments and mixing techniques for its entire duration, Obscura‘s tracks are easy to distinguish from one another… although like a lot of albums, the iffier cuts are placed towards the middle and end.

Incidentally, for such a harsh exterior (even for a genre that is, after all, literally called “death metal”), this album’s tracks are defined by their hooks – usually one especially distinct riff or sound, often one of the moments of brief consonance and tonality I mentioned earlier. Gorguts does admittedly have one aesthetic ace up their sleeve in Luc Lemay’s viola parts, which definitely fit with the occasional contemporary classical feel these tracks have going for them. Otherwise, though, having the occasional crowd-pleasing big riff or whatnot is a good way to keep them interested for long enough that the subtler aspects of the music (like the overall organization of the songs) begin to reach them. That may be an overly cynical way of describing it, but in the band’s defense, I do feel that these brief moments of heightened accessibility arise organically in the arrangements. In other words – they don’t feel like they were shoved into the tracks in a misguided attempt to squeeze slightly more record sales out of a niche genre.

Making dissonant music is easy. Doing it in a coherent and logical fashion is obviously harder, but Gorguts mostly pulls it off well. I won’t go as far as to say that each of the twelve tracks on here is indispensable, and the generally challenging nature of this recording does make it difficult to listen to the entire thing in one go. But it’s still a high point of the genre, and a prospective metalhead can learn much about how to apply all the cool musical techniques they’re learning from how Obscura uses its own musical language.

Highlights: “Earthly Love”, “Nostalgia”, “Faceless Ones”

King Crimson – Thrak (1995)

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Wow, King Crimson reinvented themselves again. I’m so surprised. This installment of King Crimson is supposedly inspired by ’90s alternative rock and metal, and the previous two major eras of King Crimson – their improvisatory proto-metallic approach of the 1970s, and the New Wave/math rock fusion of the 1980s. In cliched terms – the more things change, the more they stay the same. If I were writing this review in 1995, when this album was still new, I would expect to focus on the new things (like the ‘double trio’ lineup, the evolution of Fripp’s guitar soundscapes, etc). Instead, it’s 2017, I’ve been familiar with KC’s discography for nearly a decade now, and what really strikes me about this is how it continues so many of the band’s past tropes.

Despite this, it does bear mentioning that Thrak does represent new territory for the band. While King Crimson has many an intense moment in their catalog, Thrak emphasizes the louder, dirtier parts of the band’s aesthetic in ways that previous albums didn’t. Part of it’s the greater emphasis on guitar parts – compared to something like the band’s debut, Thrak is certainly not a panopoly of instruments even if Robert Fripp occasionally relies on mellotron patches to provide more variety. The production is also more assertive, and arguably more ‘digital’ or otherwise synthetic sounding; that might be a natural consequence of the advancing decades, though. Either way, it’s enough of a change from the thinner and drier (if occasionally psychedelic) Three of A Perfect Pair that it inevitably will color your understanding of the material.

From a structural/songwriting perspective, Thrak is most notable for how it mixes and juxtaposes elements from the band’s past. While the overall intensity levels have been notched up, King Crimson also manages to throw in a few ballads that likely would’ve fit well in the radio rock universe through pop songwriting, even if something like the shimmery, clean, studio flavored “Walking On Air” isn’t exactly a match for the decade’s stereotypical grunge. Like any band that seeks to create such a clash of sounds, they also mix elements within songs, allowing a track like “Dinosaur” to abruptly jump from heavy rock to synthesizer textures, or providing a place for the infamous “Frippertronics” in the otherwise improvisatory “B’Boom”, or whatnot. Despite the skilled performances of all the other musicians, Adrian Belew is Thrak‘s MVP by virtue of being versatile enough on vocals to tie everything together. That seems to happen a lot with the more self-consciously avant-garde rock and metal albums out there, and the fact that it outpaces his distinctive guitar stylings is cause for consternation, at the very least.

Ultimately, when Thrak succeeds, it’s due to the double trio’s ability to mix, match, and coordinate despite the strain of being a lineup of six musicians already famous in their own right. Arguably, that lineup later imploded, although exactly how you interpret the existence of King Crimson’s late ’90s “ProjeKcts” is up to you. I’d say that it usually does succeed, and even when it doesn’t, it still makes a good soundtrack to the multimedia frenzy of its time.

Highlights: “VROOM”, “Dinosaur”, “THRAK”, “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1980)

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AKA “Melt”, at least in some circles (and quadrilaterals). Between his earlier forays into a solo career after breaking off Genesis (Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel) and his proper entrance into the ’80s pop world (Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel is probably a straight up pop album. From a studio/historical perspective, though, it’s a fascinating recording, full of musicians who either already were famous in their own right, or went on to fame afterwards – most relevant to my interests are the presence of Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, who would go on to explore similar songwriting ideas with a new lineup of King Crimson. It’s also the reason I haven’t given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway serious consideration. For some unknown reason, I went into that album expecting a production at least somewhat what I heard here, and understandably didn’t find it. What was I thinking?

With an album like this, I literally have to focus on aesthetics. Peter Gabriel‘s songwriting is mostly well realized in a pop sense, with enough structural variety and experimentation to keep things going. Those who go in expecting progressive rock ala his career with Genesis will be sorely disappointed. The emphasis really is on the sounds and textures; the album’s lengthy studio lineup results in a panoply of instruments  blessing every track, and little in the way of aesthetic repetition. Between that and the clean, intelligible production, you end up with a recording that definitely left me with a good first impression, regardless of its future strength or weakness.

Peter Gabriel seems to be divided into two loose sections, much like one half of his face on the cover art is meltier than the other. The first half focuses on individuals and personal degradation/struggle, while the second half seems to be more about societies and social problems at large. This content split doesn’t really go beyond the lyrics, although you could argue that the second half also sounds more experimental, with a wider palette of instruments. More often than not, though, the lyrical content is at odds with the music around it. The best example is probably “Family Snapshot” – a song about a political assassin with choruses that sound like the theme to a contemporary sitcom. A few tracks are more fitting, though, like the regimented stomp of “Not One Of Us” or the creepy, SFX-driven lead-in that is “Intruder”.

Ultimately, the way this album is structured and written makes it hard for me to objectively judge, but I would tend to come out mostly in favor. Its partial resemblance to contemporary “New Wave” recordings and Discipline by King Crimson, though were a major selling point, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you might have just purchased this album.

Highlights: “No Self Control”, “Family Snapshot”, “Not One Of Us”

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996)

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You know, the last time we talked about Aphex Twin, I got awfully fixated on Slayer, and it kind of spiraled out of control. I’m all better now, though, I promise. From a musical perspective, the Richard D. James Album is all about strange juxtapositions. The big one is the contrast between the harsh rapidfire percussion and the soothing melodic lines underneath. To my understanding, this is a common technique today (at least by IDM standards), but in 1996? I wouldn’t really know. But this sound, portioned out into compact little tracks, makes for an interesting experience at the very least.

If I ignore the aforementioned beats, what strikes me about RDJ is how ‘organic’ many of the tracks sound. There are obvious synthesizer lines and pads, but also an orchestra’s worth of simulated symphonic instruments strewn throughout the album. Besides falling way outside my own expectations, this especially doesn’t stereotypically jive with the drills in the rhythm section. That’s enough to forcibly fixate me on the fractured aesthetic, and focusing on it makes for difficult writing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely necessary. If you cut out the entire rhythm section for whatever reason, you’d have an entirely different experience – not something that necessarily matches up well with the rest of RDJ’s pre-1996 (this) discography, but a very restrained recording. You’d also have fewer problems with ear pain if your sound system wasn’t properly set up with a consistent frequency response; this album is exceedingly trebly to the point I notice it even on my relatively tuned desktop, and that I even find it hard to handle on less precise EQs like that of my phone.

For the most part, the songwriting here is more conventional, although I have no idea what prompted Richard to write “Logan Rock Witch” (by far, the least appropriate track for a session of Hearts of Iron). It’s the usual IDM “new element/permutation every 4/8 bars” shtick; like other forms of pop songwriting, people use it because it’s easy and it works if you know what you’re doing. You could argue that the short songs work against this idea, but this is where the hyperactive rhythm section actually comes in handy, by blasting through as many patterns as possible and therefore creating useful, attention-grabbing variations in texture over time. A good deal of it seems to be in the interest of wacky sound effects, though. Ultimately, I think the songwriting here functions at least in a pop sense, but the aforementioned aesthetic juxtaposition does make it harder to accurately judge this.

Any flaws I perceive in RDJ don’t seem to stop me from listening to it, so that’s got to count for something. Maybe I should check back in a year or so and see how well this holds up?

Highlights: ” Peek 824545201″, “Carn Marth”, “Yellow Calx”

ChthoniC – Seediq Bale (2006)

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The Japanese occupation of Taiwan as filtered through the darkest occult. Nowadays, discussion of ChthoniC is probably inseparable from the political goals of its frontman Freddy Lim, but that’s something we can overcome, isn’t it? I think Seediq Bale was the first of ChthoniC’s recordings to get any significant attention in the USA; they did go to the trouble of recording and remastering it for English speaking audiences. For the sake of this review, I’ll be discussing that version. What I’ve heard of the original isn’t immensely different, although I do remember it having a thinner production.

ChthoniC plays a sort of symphonic black metal that at at least superficially resembles the first big names in the genre (Emperor, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir… none of whom are all that similar beyond instrumentation). The production is serviceable – loud and intense enough, but with cheap synths and what, as far as I can tell, is a completely brickwalled mix. I’ve heard much worse compression, but this is still not a great sign. Listeners should keep an ear out for the erhu lines; they’re an obvious novelty, but the songs are written with them in mind; the lines its performer plays fit along the rest of the songs’ content, and for all the production flaws, the mix contains space for them.

The best analogy I can draw from my listening experience, surprisingly, is to Anorexia Nervosa’s second (and band-defining) album Drudenhaus. Both Seediq Bale and that album are loud poorly produced but musically intricate works of symphonic black metal. The similarities go beyond mere sound, though. One thing I’ve noticed is that both of these bands share an otherwise rare style of riffcraft and song structure. In short – they modulate their key signatures in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of classical music, but they also trouble resolving chord progressions, making for an oddly tense and dissonant effect in what is otherwise a very consonant style. ChthoniC does break from this model by using a bouncier and more syncopated rhythm section, more reminiscent of older styles of black metal when it’s not blatantly blasting away. ChthoniC’s eccentricities could very well be a result of their geographical isolation – while Taiwan is a well developed country (oh shit, there goes my funding from the PRC, all $0.00 of it) with its share of high tech internet access, the language barriers and other variants in cultural contact definitely would make it harder to ape the most famous geographical variants of black metal; to say more would be difficult without all-out armchair historian stereotypes.

While the chunky production limits the band’s range and theoretically my listening time, ChthoniC does make up for it with strong songwriting and their aesthetic gimmicks. It’s enough to make me wonder if they followed up on this album’s promise on their later work, but I also have a lot of other metal albums on my metaphorical plate… so maybe you’ll hear about these someday? You never know.

Highlights: “Indigenous Laceration”, “Bloody Gaya Fulfilled”, “Where The Utux Ancestors Wait”