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Posts Tagged ‘lyrics’

Fates Warning – Awaken The Guardian (1986)

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While The Spectre Within was already a landmark release for both (often closely related) power and “progressive” metal enthusiasts, Awaken the Guardian pushes the formula for each further. In many cases, it trades in overall heaviness and aggression for extra songwriting and instrumental complexity. I’m certain it won’t be replacing its predecessor in your library, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find a place on its own merits, right? Awaken the Guardian shares a high level of critical praise with its illustrious predecessor, and for good reason.

Outside of swapping co-founder Victor Arduini for Frank Aresti (a guitarist who has performed on most of the band’s work since this album), Fates Warning retains the same lineup as on The Spectre Within and despite the overall aesthetic shift employs about the same musical techniques as before. The more complex arrangements give the non-Johns in the band more of a chance to show off their chops, though. The rhythm section seems to have improved their chops the most, driving songs with lots of offbeat percussion and time signature shifts, and coordinating more effectively with John Arch’s vocals, which are still album and band defining. Arch’s technique, at the very least, hasn’t changed much, but the improved prowess of the band definitely complements him nicely.

While the musicians lend this duology of albums their share of unity, Awaken the Guardian‘s tonal shift is enough of a contrast that it concealed this from me for many a mystic moon. As much as I should probably avoid hokey, vaguely mystical fantasy language when trying to discuss what’s going on under this album’s surface, every aspect of this album ratchets up said aesthetic. To be fair, the lyrics sometimes use the tropes in question not specifically to tell legendary tales, but instead to take pot shots at the ’80s culture surrounding the Fates (read: “Valley of the Dolls”). This is more of a contrast with Ray Alder’s incarnation of Fates Warning, which is beyond my knowledge but presumably takes a different approach. Anyways, judging exactly how well Fates Warning is realizing this aesthetic is kind of difficult, but the lyrical side of things holds up pretty well. Sometimes, the actual words get a bit stream of consciousness for my tastes, but the creative and colorful narratives and overall imagery still give them a respectably high place on the Walkyier scale, which I totally didn’t just make up now and is definitely a valid way of comparing the overall merits of metal lyricists, right?

Odd asides aside, when I like and value a metal album, I have this tendency to say it straight out at the beginning of the review. Those of you who have made it far have almost certainly made the purchase, whether it be 30 years or seconds ago.

Highlights: “The Sorceress”, “Guardian”, “Prelude to Ruin”

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”

VNV Nation – Matter + Form (2005)

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A lot of metalheads seem to like VNV Nation, even though since it’s an electronic pop act, it kind of falls far outside that genre. Matter + Form has a lot of rock influence filtering into it for whatever reason, though, whereas earlier VNV material pulls on industrial/EDM to a more obvious degree. The ideological underpinnings of the band (lots of militant futurism, although positive) remain intact, but this is a pretty easy sell to the average listener. While the band started their career in Britain and Ireland, they’ve made their way to Germany, where they perform decently (#38) in the local songcharts. Anyways, they probably sell more albums than the last band I talked about.

Partially because VNV Nation uses a wide variety of synthesizers, Matter + Form doesn’t really have a consistent aesthetic, but most songs are fairly mid-tempo and not particularly dense in their soundscapes. Occasionally, you get relatively driving, aggressive instruments like on “Chrome” and “Entropy”, but just as often you get literal ballads – for example, “Endless Skies” and “Homeward”. Not sure what to make of that, really, beyond that it’s a standard move in much of the western pop traditions. Compared to previous albums, and starting a trend that showed up on Futureperfect, Ronan Harris’s vocals are less processed – trading a more natural character for less ways to make songs fit into a common aesthetic.

Actual compositions here are split between more openly poppy content and tracks more reminiscent of the electronic dance music “scene”. There are obvious nods to a more ambient style of composition (See “Strata”/”Interceptor”) at times, and you don’t need my backlog to show you how I prefer that style… have it anyways, though. It’s hard to say whether the more accessible content on this album is actually strengthened by the nods towards guitar-driven rock music (the aforementioned “Chrome” uses sounds that sometimes remind me of an amped up guitar), or whether I merely am drawn to those for their stylistic decisions. Either way, it does seem to give that part of the work more staying power, even if only subjectively. These songs do, however, showcase Ronan Harris’s lyrics – he’s rather good at tapping into relevant concepts and giving them a bit of a mythical sheen.

I guess that given where I come from, the best comparison I can think of is Prince of the Poverty Line by Skyclad; unfortunately due to lack of listening experience, I can’t really talk futurepop. However, both of these albums are relatively mainstream for their chosen genre, but are strengthened by their understanding of pop songwriting and well written lyrics; furthermore, they use aesthetic changes to distinguish songs from one another. In the end, I suppose I like them for the same reasons, and they might come from the same mental space. Given when I first listened to it (late 2012) and what I followed it up with, Matter + Form definitely turned my attention towards various permutations of vocal-oriented electronic music; even though I don’t listen to it as much anymore it has certainly broadened my horizons. I guess that accessibility does come in handy sometimes!

Highlights: “Chrome”, “Color of Rain”, “Entropy”, “Lightwave”

 

Motörhead – Bomber (1979)

folderI’m told that the members of Motorhead consider themselves a fairly straight-ahead, if loud and aggressive rock band. If you only had Bomber to go by, you might understand; compared to most of Motorhead’s output this is actually fairly slow and blues-oriented at times. Formative years stuff, perhaps, but it’s a side of the band that most of the listening public doesn’t hear (“What? You mean Motorhead has songs besides ‘Ace of Spades’?”).

Either way, the key to Bomber is allegedly that it’s more varied than usual for Motorhead. This album definitely has variety – obviously in tempo, a small amount in key, and so forth, but it’s still all incorporated pretty cleanly into the stereotypical Motorhead sound. Seasoned band listeners might find some of the downtempo content on this album particularly interesting if only for the novelty of hearing Motorhead slow themselves down. However, it’s important to realize these guys don’t place a premium on virtuoso musicianship or extended songwriting – they’re very workmanlike for better or worse.

When you get down to the level of simplicity and directness that Bomber showcases, a certain level of refinement and chops are necessary to keep your music from sliding down into banality. Motorhead, however, goes beyond that in several forms. For instance, the lyrics here are (while simple and direct) well written and sometimes showcase a sort of blue-collar approach to social problems and the experience of being a touring musician. The words to “Talking Head” and “Lawman” particularly come to mind here. Frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s delivery of these lyrics is also a high point – his influential gruffness belies his useful tonal and emotional qualities. To be fair, he had quite a bit of musical experience prior to beginning his career with Motorhead – most notably as the bassist and occasional vocalist for Hawkwind, who performed a style of music rather more ornate and theatrical than what’s on display here. Despite sounding rather different, Motorhead does inherit Lemmy’s practiced instrumental skills, which helps hold this album together.

I guess the most interesting thing about my own experience with Bomber is my choice to keep it in my listening rotation despite my general preference for more “complex” music in many cases. Much has probably been made of how Motorhead concerts bring metal and punk fans together, and much of Motorhead’s reputation comes from their pioneering role in mixing the genres’ tropes. Bomber proper is notable for focusing more on the band’s blues/rock influences, which occasionally means you can slot in some tracks here on your local FM radio station turned decaying, advertisement laden corpse if it has enough affinity for classic rock.

Highlights: “Sweet Revenge”, “All The Aces”, “Bomber”, “Over The Top”

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Byzantine – …And They Shall Take Up Serpents (2005)

Byzantine-AndTheyShallTakeUpSerpentsLooking at my personal archives, it seems I first attempted a review of this album in March 2010, back when this blog was in its infancy. I didn’t really get far, but I do agree with my past self that this is part of the wide collection of subgenres that is metalcore. Here, Byzantine combines speed/thrash tropes with some syncopated, proto “djent” style riffing ala Meshuggah, and a hint of progressive rock in their structures to make something that I particularly enjoyed upon listening to and still think holds up today.

One aspect of this album that I’ve come to notice over the years as my ears grew sharper and more attentive is its lyrical content. Much discussion of Byzantine emphasizes the band’s West Virginia roots, and perhaps a few claim exposure to the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian elements in the area shape the band’s choice of themes. Either way, there’s an emphasis on religion and politics, including a jab at Haliburton in “Ancestry of the Antichrist”. Not all of it’s this blatantly topical, but it does seem to reflect a sort of fire and brimstone worldview shaped by education and access to literature. The only album I can think of that does anything similar is “Open Fire” by Alabama Thunderpussy; its religion-inspired lyrics may have sprung from similar sources even though the genre is somewhat different. This album does use a variety of vocal techniques to showcase its lyrics; there seems to be a rough correspondence in which more personal stanzas are delivered in cleaner tones, but I’m not certain of this.

As a general rule, Byzantine focuses on a few specific aspects of their sound in each song. This isn’t to say there aren’t interjections – for instance, “Temporary Temples” starts speedy, has a break in the middle, and a melodic ending with emphasis on clean vocals and a guitar lead. Fortunately, the band has the songwriting chops to make these occasional shifts of sound fit without being too jarring. In the more aesthetically consistent songs, the focus is often more on the riffs – the guitarists provide a lot of variety in this regard. Since they’re not particularly long or complex, they derive much of their interest from their chord progressions and shapes. In the softer, gentler moments of this album, they occasionally take on a bit of an alt-rock feel.

Either way, this is fairly accessible for a metal album, or a metalcore album; what it’s labeled as is going to depend primarily on the listener. I’m not familiar enough with this album’s contemporaries to say how it compares to, for instance, an Ashes of the Wake or a The End of Heartache, but it does work for what it aspires to, and the mixing of formulas is pulled off effectively.

Highlights: “Taking Up Serpents”, “Jeremiad”, “Redneck War”

And as 2013 turns into 2014, so too does this blog turn into what it will be like in the aforementioned year. It should also be the year of Second Contact Is Worse if everything goes to plan.

 

 

Bal-Sagoth – Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule (1996)

folderStarfire Burning is immediately cleaner and more polished than its predecessor, A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria. In some ways, it’s less aggressive and intense, perhaps as a result of this. Regardless, I believe this is the last Bal-Sagoth album that can credibly be labeled as “black metal”, as from here on out the ‘epic’ elements of the band’s sound is emphasized over their extreme past.

After listening to the band’s debut, I found myself becoming something of a Bal-Sagoth fanboy, because I liked the balance of intricate composition and extreme metal tropes on display. If there’s one thing that Starfire Burning appears to emphasize over other Bal-Sagoth albums, it’s the leads – whether they’re guitar solos or keyboards, they are more prominent than on the debut, while later albums balance them more effectively with the other aspects of the band’s songwriting process. This actually significantly changes the sonic profile of the album, spreading it over more octaves than it otherwise would have been and preventing it from being a retread of the debut.

The other main expansion from the debut to this album is the amount of text it has. While A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria was long-winded at the best of times, the supplemental materials for this album include page after page of densely written, florid prose. Most of it is not recited (or snarled) on the album, remaining bookbound for those who wish to seek it out. This trend would continue for the rest of the band’s discography (although Atlantis Ascendant‘s lyrics supplement was initially online-only, as far as I know). The key point here is that the band engages in a great deal of world building, mashing together fantasy, sci-fi, pulp adventure, elder gods, and a bit of the Marvel Universe for good measure.  As a result, songs throughout the band’s albums often follow these narrative threads, although I haven’t noticed all that many musical similarities between songs within specific narrative sequences. It seems like an opportunity the band could’ve taken advantage of if they hadn’t basically dissolved into nothingness in the later half of the 2000s.

As the result of all this codification of their sound, Bal-Sagoth is more memorable and coherent on this album than they would be for some time; arguably the next peak after this is their 1999 album The Power Cosmic, which reaches the levels it does primarily by conceptual consistency (even though the album’s narrative does not substantially bind the songs on the album). By then, the band had basically softened to their maximum extent – to be fair, while the difference in extremity between the debut and this album is significant, the difference between Starfire Burning and the next few albums in Bal-Sagoth’s discography is substantially smaller. Still, this album works as a sort of black/epic power metal fusion, and even if that’s not the best term for it, it’s probably better than bands actually labeled thusly, like Demoniac.

Highlights: “As The Vortex Illumines The Crystalline Walls of Kor-Avul-Thaa”, “Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule”, “Summoning The Guardians Of The Astral Gate”

Skyclad – Prince of the Poverty Line (1994)

folderSkyclad is often considered the first ‘folk metal’ band, and this seems to be reasonably accurate. On the other hand, their debut (The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth) really isn’t that great. Sure, it’s clearly got the elements that supposedly define the genre, but they’re kind of underwhelming in their execution. On the other hand, Prince of the Poverty Line isn’t as obviously metallic, but the songwriting is significantly more memorable. Some sources call this the band’s best album; if I had the reference set to agree or disagree, I could comment on that… but I don’t.

You see, I really don’t listen to a lot of music that could be called “folk music”, or even “folk metal” for that matter. Even then, I’m willing to make the claim that what sets Skyclad apart from the throngs of bands they influenced is that they take their folk influence from modern folk music, as opposed to older traditions. Think Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, but amplified. Considering that even those musicians were influenced by earlier forms of folk, this might not be a significant statement, but it’s still worth noting.

Much of my appraisal of Skyclad as being influenced by “modern” folk music came from the lyrics, anyways. Martin Walkyier is a skilled wordsmith, using all sorts of metaphors and figurative language to construct these songs’ meanings. One of the side effects of this is that he has an predilection for groan-worthy puns, but sometimes that’s just unavoidable. The other significant aspect of these lyrics is that they discuss social topics, like poverty (no way!), morality, racism, politics, etc. That’s a common thing in many forms of music, but combined with the narrative/fantastic approach of the lyrics it makes for an interesting effect. In contrast to the elaborate lyrics, the backing band is actually quite simple and stripped down. There are frequent passages of violin and keyboards, but they play basic stuff – even when it elaborates on the ‘metal’ side of the band (and it frequently does) it’s never particularly technical or flashy. The riffs tend to have a hard rock/traditional metal feel to them, with plenty of consonant, crowd pleasing melody. As a result, Skyclad often relies on tempo, tonality and rhythm, and lyrics to distinguish songs on this album – in that regard, they succeed, but the musical backing on this album is rarely anything profound or special, even when it works.

Considering that Skyclad works under the pretense of playing “folk metal”, it’s probably an acceptable thing that they play relatively simple music. On the other hand, the members of this band have a history of doing more – The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth was usually faster and more complex, and even that had very little on Walkyier’s earlier band Sabbat (which featured production king Andy Sneap on guitar). Later albums by Skyclad allegedly play up the folk aspects even more; if true, this basically means that they’ve been simplifying their sound since 1990; that is a long time to be doing such a thing. Skyclad is still going somewhat strong with a new vocalist (and an inferior lyricist), but they may just be cruising off their legacy. It’s a reasonable legacy, to be sure, since many of the folk metal bands that are popular today wouldn’t exist without them. To be fair, I shouldn’t place all of that genre’s existence on Skyclad alone; even in the early-mid ’90s there were many metal bands experimenting with their locales’ traditional music; Moonspell and Orphaned Land come to mind. Still, this band is worth noting, because at least for a while, they put out some good content.

Highlights: “Cardboard City”, “Sins of Emission”, “A Bellyful of Emptiness”, “Gammadion Seed”

 

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