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Posts Tagged ‘metal’

Strapping Young Lad – Alien (2005)

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When it comes to Devin Townsend related content, I have to admit that it took me quite a while to warm up to Alien. I wouldn’t have expected that to be the case, honestly – it predates both Ziltoid the Omniscent and Deconstruction by mixing both his extreme metal and progressive rock styles, and is more intense than either, even if it does so by mostly emphasizing the former. You’d think that I (even my past self) would fall on this like a swarm of locusts, so what gives? Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I was complaining about in the past…

As mentioned, Alien leans more towards the Strapping Young Lad aesthetic – listening to it is a good way to get your daily extreme metal dosage, between the incisive guitars, shrieking Devy, and the always appreciated percussion work of Gene Hoglan. If you’re familiar with previous SYL material (City is a good bet), you won’t be too surprised what by what’s on display here. The production is a bit trebly and hissy for my tastes this time around, but it’s still appropriate for this sort of band. What strains it, most likely, is the massively enhanced keyboard/symphonic presence. I’ve hinted at it before, but for whatever reason, a decent chunk of Devy’s other interests leaked into Alien, resulting in the only metal album I’ve listened to that incorporates xylophones into the songwriting.

The instruments aren’t the only part affected, as Alien usually has more complicated and intricate arrangements than its SYL predecessors. When you combine this with the stereotypical SYL sound, you get a potentially overwhelming album that’s definitely draining to listen to listen to all at once (even without the 12 minute info dump at the end). I don’t remember experiencing similar distaste for Deconstruction, though, but I have two hypotheses as to why that was the case. First, my experience with Alien predated the release of that latter album by about a year. Second, Deconstruction does have the benefit of 6 extra years of experience and education on Devin’s end. A meeting of more experienced and ready minds can definitely come in handy, and for whatever reason Alien really does feel more … alien than a lot of SYL content, even once I’ve gotten more accustomed to its approach.

Ultimately, time heals everything, and just as I was able to appreciate a great many albums more once they’d sunk in a bit, so was I able to warm up to Alien‘s charms. It might help that I’m receptive to the works of Devin Townsend in general. I still think the first half of this album is better than the second, though, so I guess we’ll have to deal with that.

Highlights: “Skeksis”, “Shitstorm”, “We Ride”

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Solefald – In Harmonia Universali (2003)

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Solefald’s first three albums were, for better or worse, consistently informed by the sounds of black metal. On first listen, I thought that In Harmonia Universali rejected that, but a closer listen revealed that change was mostly limited to the vocals. Merely not shrieking and screaming your way through a metal album is enough to lighten and soften the end product. Regardless of how you feel about this stylistic change, you can’t deny that In Harmonia Universali is a different permutation on the stereotypical Solefald sound, with greater emphasis on complicated vocal arrangements and a further expansion of the “instrumental experimentation” angle.

Extensive listening has, as promised convinced me that the black metal edges of Solefald’s sound still (un)shine through to some extent, even if the songwriting is brighter and possibly friendlier than before. Some of the more obvious instrumental tropes – tremelo riffing and blastbeats in particular – show up on occasion. However, even when these do appear, they are in utter subservience to the rest of Solefald’s instrumentation – in particular, In Harmonia Universali showcases a lot of piano and saxophone, although often more as accentuation than actual song driving content. I’d say the real winner here is Lazare, who gets to spend the entire album singing multitracked harmonies with himself. These are almost always the high points of the songs in which they appear.

I’m not going to go as far as to say that this album can be benchmarked solely by counting Lazare’s parts, but the thought has crossed my mind at times. One of the much-explored caveats of relentlessly varying your instrumentation is that if you screw up, you can end up with ridiculous bullshit gibberish. This hasn’t really been a problem in my previous experience with Solefald, but In Harmonia Universali has a serious lack of sanity checks that could’ve prevented some of this stuff from going out without being properly baked. On the other hand, I feel like this album also has very high peaks – when everything meshes together, the results are excellent, and they make you me wish Solefald had focused their efforts in that direction. This rollercoaster ride of overall song quality makes me question the foundation of Solefald’s songwriting, especially when other genre-blenders can do everything more cohesively…

So in short, In Harmonia Universali is really good when it’s good, but “Dionysify This Night Of Spring” was a huge mistake.

Highlights: “Mont Blanc Providence Crow”, “Christiania”, “The Liberation of Destiny”

Mysticum – Planet Satan (2014)

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When we last left Mysticum, they were preparing the release of Planet Satan. In the interrim, I managed to convince myself that this album didn’t come out until 2016, and that therefore it was a reasonable but overlooked choice for my DMU tenure. Instead, it’s been available since 2014, so I’m definitely behind the times here. You can therefore consider this review something of an attempt to fix a hole in my backlog.

Planet Satan is basically what Mysticum’s previous album should’ve been – better produced and mixed. I say this with full awareness of black metal musicians’ affinity for lo-fi recordings. Sometimes, that’s a desirable trait. In Mysticum’s case, though, the “industrial” aesthetic is better served by a cleaner sound. It isn’t entirely pristine, to be fair – Planet Satan‘s production channels much of its predecessor’s trebly hiss, but on equivalent stereo equipment the end result is more balanced and louder. The vocals are the major benefactor here – the screams and thickly accented ranting here are prominent enough in the mix to drive songs, but everything else has been boosted, making for an overall better sounding recording.

To be fair, there isn’t much on this album that would sound out of place on In The Streams of Inferno if it’d been recorded on the same equipment as that effort. I want to say that the songwriting here is more coherent, but this is a very minor change at best. The songs actually feel more compact despite the album’s greater length, although I’m not sure if that’s just a result of them grabbing my attention more effectively. One thing that is for certain is that there are fewer abrupt asides, and that when new instrumentation is introduced, it’s integrated into the actual songwriting more effectively. These aren’t especially complicated songs, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the overall rhythmic simplicity makes for a strange, inexplicable effect at times (is this, perhaps, the psychedelia that people have been claiming Mysticum channels for the last few years?). On the other hand, I consider it a good thing that a so-called industrial black metal album strikes a balance between a mechanical aesthetic and the other moods I typically associate with black metal – blasphemy, hellfire, derangement, etc. That last bit is probably Mysticum’s true strength, and one that not many bands have been able to capture on their own terms.

In short, Planet Satan pretty much obsoletes everything else Mysticum has created, by virtue of being essentially the same but shinier. Some bands lose crucial elements of their sound when they try to refine it, but not this band.

Highlights: “LSD”, “Far”, “Fist of Satan”

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”

Judas Priest – Stained Class (1978)

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Stained Class is the culmination of an era of Judas Priest. After this, they were never quite the same. To understand this, you have to look into the pyschedelic/progressive rock roots of metal. Not only was there a great deal of crossover, but a lot of early “heavy” moments that future metal musicians were inspired by came from prog bands pushing into more noise and feedback alongside their poppier bretheren. I don’t think anyone would classify Judas Priest as a progressive rock band, but in their longer winded moments, you can imagine the resemblance. Stained Class has some of this, but its big achievement is buffing up the band’s heaviness and aggression to then unprecedented levels.

To be fair, “Exciter” (the first track) might give you an inaccurate impression of just how fast and aggressive Priest is going to be on this album – there is nothing that quite compares to it later on. Still, it would take the band years to match it, so it’s got to be worth a mention. Important, though, is that in spite of upping the velocity and aggression, “Exciter” has a relatively complicated structure, and plenty of internal dynamics that make its own lineage apparent.  This first track also gives us a chance to preview the latest iteration of the Judas Priest sound. While the production is still arguably a work in progress, it’s a good refinement of the strengths of the previous album’s sound. We also get a major boost in the quality of drumming courtesy of Les Binks, whose more intricate style is sorely missed on the band’s most famous works from the 1980s.

Even if most of the album isn’t as balls-out as the lead-in, the rest of Stained Class has plenty going for it. It tends towards a mid-paced, spacious sense of songwriting, with a few nods towards the folk/blues-rock elements that flavored Sin After Sin coexisting with more stereotypically metal work. K.K Downing doesn’t have as many songwriting credits on this album, for better or worse, although I’m still not entirely sure how much he helped Priest push the envelope on these early works. Quibbles about authorship aside, this is generally solid, well planned material; perhaps less ambitious structured than before, but also more coherent and less prone to filler. The improvements to the production don’t hurt, either. “Beyond the Realms of Death” stands out as another one of Priest’s strong ballads; its soft-loud dichotomy makes a nice contrast to “Dreamer Deciever” and its long buildup. Overall, it’s definitely streamlined, but the songwriting on Stained Class isn’t so oversimplified that it really harms the listening experience.

I won’t go as far as to say that Judas Priest does no wrong on this album, but Stained Class gets more than enough right. A word to the the psychedelic/proggy bands of today – if you want to get gradually heavier, you could learn from Priest’s evolution…

Highlights: “Exciter”, “White Heat, Red Hot”, “Invader”, “Beyond the Realms of Death”

Old Funeral – The Older Ones (1999)

89630History is a drug. How many forsaken souls do you know that will embrace an experience solely because of its historical roots? The Older Ones is a compilation of demos from an obscure death metal band whose main gimmick is that some of their members went on to be the infamous Norwegian black metal scene. Your interest in Old Funeral will most likely go through three stages – awe that its members went on to form Immortal, Burzum, and Hades, disappointment that none of those founding fathers were in the band at the same time, and then something based on your actual opinion of the music at hand. Yes, I know – I too was shocked when I realized other people made value judgements about music.

I’ve reviewed compilations of demos of this vintage before, so the frequent shifts in style on this album weren’t quite as shocking. There are a few trends in these demos that match what was going on at large in Norway – general deemphasis on production standards that initially were surprisingly good, a push towards minimalism in both writing and instrumental technique, and overall more coherent, if less ambitious ideas for songwriting. I won’t lie – the crazier, more unhinged early tracks on here are more to my tastes, even though there are some issues with how all the individual riffs are glued together. The better mixing is a big part of this – while they’re very, very echoy and cavernous recordings, the tone is entirely on point. Apparently, these demos were produced by the famous Pytten, who is responsible for many of the scene’s classics from this age.

Overall, I’m not entirely sure how much attention Old Funeral would’ve received without its star power, but if anything, the good results on the first half of the album should at least speak to the developing talent of the musicians. Given the… juvenile turn of this band’s very earliest recordings, this is probably where they came into their own. To be fair, these musicians were likely involved with the tape trading scene. Even if Abduction of Limbs most strongly resembles the death-thrash of 1990 and Devoured Carcass reeks of a thicker, more overtly “brutal” death metal, though, the bandmembers’ skill in writing individual riffs and ear for overall aesthetics are worth noting and studying. In spite of all this, the compositional problems mean that I would almost certainly recommend the bands that Old Funeral’s famous alumni started over these origin stories. The fact that I’m not particularly impressed with their take on black metal doesn’t help. Still, the recordings that make up The Older Ones are at least worth a historical look, with the caveat that you probably wouldn;’t be here if you weren’t trying to get your fix of ancient history…

Highlights: “Abduction of Limbs”, “Annoying Individual”, “Devoured Carcass”

Necrophobic – Darkside (1997)

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Necrophobic’s debut (The Nocturnal Silence) has a melodic sense to it often reminiscent of contemporary black metal. Darkside accentuates that, but while much of this album resembles the black metal its lead guitarist David Parland slung on the side (read: early Dark Funeral), it’s still got at least one foot firmly planted in the death metal camp. It’s certainly a hybrid, and it’s also certainly a leaner, faster, more aggressive recording than its predecessor. A good analogy here is Slayer’s evolution from Hell Awaits to Reign in Blood – lifted band name aside, this sort of adjustment in sound is in itself not without precedent.

Much like what happened with Reign in Blood is, Darkside is therefore a simpler and exaggerated take on its predecessor’s ideas. To reiterate after years of lessons from black metal in particular – simple music is not innately bad. It can be if you don’t have the skills or motivation to make the most of your minimalism, but many primitive-sounding recordings have stuck in my mind for years, and even managed to reveal their hidden depths over time. Does Darkside do this? The answer is a firm “sort of” – at 37:55, the album has more bytes on its CD than I initially suspected, but there’s a good chunk of filler strewn throughout this relatively short length. This was actually a problem I noticed over time with The Nocturnal Silence, and it took me a while to figure out exactly why parts of both albums weren’t sticking after repeated listening.

With Necrophobic’s debut, I initially decided the main problem was that they weren’t going all out with the candy coated melodies. Amongst other things, Darkside is full of consonant, if stereotypically evil sounding melodic riffs, so it seems likely that the band thought similarly. It turns out that ratcheting up the sugar factor isn’t always the best answer, at least given the simpler song structures. This results in an album that lacks a lot of the nuance and intellectual power that made its predecessor’s high points work. It’d help if the production was similar, but as far as I’m concerned, The Nocturnal Silence dealt with this better as well. Its cleaner and deeper sounds sell it more effectively than this album’s more trebly yet muddled mix. I don’t actually know if Necrophobic was trying to go for a more overtly blackened sound; to be fair, it’s a relatively minor change.

Ultimately, if I want an album that blurs the line between the constellation of extreme metal subgenres, I would probably go with something other than Darkside. It seems like quite a step down from its predecessor.

Highlights: “Black Moon Rising”, “Bloodthirst”, “Nailing The Holy Out”