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Meshuggah – obZen (2008)

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It’s been a while since I talked about Meshuggah, hasn’t it? obZen was in my backlog for a surprisingly long time on the strengths of its opening track (“Combustion”). I’ve long since given up on actually reducing the backlog, and yet I finally sat down and listened to obZen. What can I say? This is the sound of a genre defining (read: djent) band settling into comfortable territory and honing their craft. If you’ve listened to their past recordings, you’ll feel comfortable here as well. I’d even go as far as to say that obZen makes some significant improvements to the latter day Meshuggah sound – the question here, though, is whether those are enough to make it worth your while.

obZen‘s greatest strength, at least in the context of Meshuggah’s signature sound, is to introduce a new level of variety and finesse. This goes beyond mere attempts to push the djent to its limit (read: “Bleed”, which drummer Tomas Haake found to be especially difficult to learn, even by Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic standards) – obZen goes as far as to reemphasize some of the harmonic backing and melodic craftsmanship that was so important on previous Meshuggah albums. The emphasis is still on monophonic djenting, but it’s nice to have other elements at the same time, especially after the spareness of the aptly named Nothing.

While this is all fine and good, obZen is definitely an iteration on Meshuggah, and not a major shift in their approach. You’re still getting an album that’s still composed of basic blocks. For all that these are assembled into tighter, denser songs, you’re not going to hear much that you haven’t heard on previous Meshuggah albums. Beyond this, Meshuggah doesn’t have a great shelf life; their recordings can get very monotonous with extended listening. I think this is the most popular criticism of the band – if you were to remove the rhythmic complexity, you’d completely gut Meshuggah. I can’t think of any other band that would be as badly affected by such cuts. Either way, this isn’t as bad of a problem here, but the band had almost certainly backed themselves into a corner at this point – further development seems to have taken the form of things like “Let’s write a long song and then cut it into little pieces at random” (Catch Thirtythree) or “Let’s play slower than usual” (Koloss). Maybe not a good sign.

Despite everything, this is still Meshuggah’s “the same but better” album, and that’s almost certainly a stronger framework than its immediate surroundings.

Highlights: “Combustion”, “obZen”, “This Spiteful Snake”, “Dancers to a Discordant System”

Next up – Flash Fiction month #3 here at Invisible Blog! Expect the unexpected, and not just in the Control Denied sense.

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Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)

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Things got astonishingly awkward for Metallica once Cliff Burton died. And Justice For All isn’t the kind of album you’d expect to chart as high as it did – it’s a lengthy, strangely produced take on the concept of “thrash” metal that usually lacks the intensity of its predecessors. Or maybe that IS why? AFJA didn’t get Metallica quite to #1 on the Billboard 200 in an era where that actually meant something, but at #6, it sure came close. As far as I know, it’s the first Metallica album to be particularly divisive. All these unusual circumstances make for something that’s at least worth a listen to just to find out what happened.

To be honest, we really can’t get away from the various problems here. Take the production – the guitars sound okay, but the drums are dry and sterile, and the bass is almost completely inaudible! The internet is not only full of lurid stories about AFJA‘s production woes, but host to a variety attempts to fix it, mostly revolving around amping up Jason Newsted’s basslines. They’ve had limited success; my recommendation for them would be to start over, and come up with a fan tribute/rerecording album. This would also allow them to address the other major issue of this album – its poor pacing. The songs have bloated significantly since even Master of Puppets‘ extended tracks, and the average tempo has slowed significantly. We get two nods to Metallica’s more aggressive past (“The Shortest Straw” and “Dyers Eve”), and a handful of tracks that actually benefit from a slower approach, but the rest of the songs here need to be performed at least 20-30% faster in order to function properly. Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t bother, and we have an overextended album for their lack of troubles.

Surprisingly, though, AFJA still has a lot of worthwhile content in spite of its packaging issues. It turns out that Metallica is still using the the songwriting formulas that worked for them on previous albums. These ideas of iterative development and dynamic range will get you far as a band, and Metallica does well to keep them on hand here in spite of the lower peaks of intensity. How else would you propose to keep something like the near-10 minute title track interesting throughout its duration? There’s also some further experimentation with instrumentation that comes in handy, like the harmonized acoustic sections in “One”. Still, I can’t really shake the feeling that I would appreciate these tracks more if they weren’t burdened by the aforementioned problems. As far as I know, Metallica never really gave up on the extended songs after this, which I can’t help but feel makes AFJA a disturbing premonition of future troubles for the band. At the very least, that makes it historically important.

Highlights: “Eye of the Beholder”, “One”, “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity”, “Dyers Eve”

Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology (2018)

folder_small.jpgI’m not sure how I came upon this edifice of slug puns and vaguely proggy death metal, but I try not to be too salty about it. It does seem to have a consistent flavor – Lovecraftian horrors and weird science fiction in the name of prepping us for careers in biology. I came on this album about the same time that I learned Augury was dropping their own latest album (Illusive Golden Age, whose review gradually but surely impends here), and I couldn’t help but compare that album’s jazz fusion inflected approach to this one… which isn’t. Esoteric Malocology, despite the name, is more direct, but it retains a focus on building an oppressive atmosphere and ambience that ends up being its defining characteristic.

Slugdge built Esoteric Malocology on a solid foundation of consonant melodic death metal. If this had come out a few years earlier, I wouldn’t have hesitated to apply the “Gothenburg” label, but nowadays I find it less helpful as an aural label. Anyways, whatever we end up calling Slugdge’s music, I think we can agree that it’s intricate and technical enough to justify the clean and slightly trebly production it’s been given. The slugs and squids the band enjoys so much are, by comparison, more opaque. I’ve heard this general sound many times in the past, for what it’s worth. Slugdge’s most unique contribution from an instrumental stance is their frequent harmony singing. This is mostly relegated to choruses, and I’m neutral at best on whether it actually adds much substance, but it does make for a more flavorful recording.

To be honest, Slugdge scores most of their points with my by nailing the execution of these songs. Esoteric Malocology is a bit too verse-chorus for me to call it “progressive”, but these are still well varied songs that introduce and develop enough ideas to remain interesting through their duration. The mostly but not entirely melodic/consonant sound also suits the overall aesthetic – even when they aren’t throwing in pulpy sci-fi synth (see “Limo Vincit Omnia”), it makes for a moody and powerful recording in its strongest moments. I guess the main problem is that even with all the microvariations, Slugdge still relies heavily on a rigid song formula that makes their songs feel excessively similar. They at least have a strong framework to do something about it, but building up this variety while keeping things coherent isn’t easy.

Either way, this is at least a solid album, and it has several very good tracks that sell me on the difficult slug metal angle. It might work for you too – just remind me to look back on this in a year or two and see if it held up.

Highlights: “The Spectral Burrows”, “Slave Goo World”, “Salt Thrower”

Re-Review: Oomph! – Unrein (1998)

folder.jpgAnother blast from the past! For whatever reason, Unrein didn’t make it into any of my capsule reviews, which I should probably give another shot at some point. It’s not for unworthiness of being re-reviewed, at least from a historical stance. The funny thing about Unrein is that I wouldn’t have listened to it (or Schattenreiter, for what it’s worth) except for the intervention of some humble editors at Wikipedia and their evangelistic efforts to support Neue Deutsche Härte – i.e, the vaguely Germanic analog for nu-metal Rammstein plays. Nowadays, Wikipedia isn’t my primary source of new music, but OOMPH! is still in my collection. What does this mean?

I guess, at the very least, we can at least assume some level of competence from Unrein, since it has been getting some level of activity in my listening rotation for upwards of eight years now. This definitely takes place in a pop context of some sort – OOMPH! writes verse-chorus-verse flavored songs and generally favors middling tempos. On the other hand, they allow some elements of extreme metal technique into their music – harsh vocals, chromatic riffs, the occasional passage of double bass drumming, and so forth. I’d call it a sign of the times – while full on death metal and such was in a commercial slump, popular acts were willing to incorporate small doses of it into their music if it made them sound edgy. This may be a deliberate oversimplification of the ’90s metal music industry, but whatever. From my perspective, Unrein at least sounds good – the guitars are bassier and chunkier than what I would write, but whoever produced this filled out the rest of the soundscape with lush synthesizer patches and a solid mix that gives OOMPH!’s ensemble a chance to gel effectively.

Unrein‘s production is probably its strongest element, but it also has some streamlined pop songwriting proficiency in its favor. Admittedly, they’re a bit inconsistent in doling it out – there’s a lot of plodding tracks that don’t really go anywhere. When everything fits together, though, OOMPH! successfully channels an oppressive, gothy ambience that helps take away from the goofier, neurotic edge that some of the English language lyrics end up creating. My German knowledge has decayed to the point that I can’t really gauge how successful the band is auf Deutsch, but that might be a good thing – if this band is composed of edgelords in its native language, then I’m probably dodging a bullet. I guess I can’t really say much about the songwriting in general beyond that, but when you’re oriented towards some sort of pop, being able to nail an aesthetic is worth a lot.

Ultimately, this album is good enough that it makes me wonder if the band was able to follow up on its successes later in their career. I wonder why I’ve never taken the time to find out.

Highlights: “My Hell”, “Anniversary”, “Bastard”

Igorrr – Savage Sinusoid (2017)

folder.jpgLongtime readers here at Invisible Blog may be familiar with my affinity for Whourkr and their breakneck electronic/metal fusion work. Gautier Serre seems to favor this permutation on those ideas nowadays, though. Like most Igorrr albums, Savage Sinusoid throws in a healthy portion of snooty French cafe music and whatever else comes to the musician’s mind, awing simpletons and hardening the arteries of reactionaries. Add to that a pair of histrionic vocalists, and you’ve got a robust formula for a recording that (at least initially) sounds like it has none. Talk about the Great Deceiver! My initial expectation for Savage Sinusoid was that it would sound at least somewhat like Serre’s earlier… …whourks, at least in the sense that it would draw on extreme metal technique to some extent. That turned out to be partially correct.

The album certainly puts its most metallic foot forwards with its opener – “Viande” focuses almost entirely on the processed guitars and high pitched screams that the Serreverse likes using to build metal music, but serves as more of an extended intro than a full fledged song. The sound collage kicks into full gear immediately afterwards, neatly summarizing Igorrr’s strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, the metaltronica is very much on point when present – even when you account for my personal preferences, mixing the two to create a chaotic and violent aesthetic seems to be a band specialty. The problem with Savage Sinusoid is that it also throws in (for all practical purposes) the entire history of Western art music for shits and giggles. These songs’ constant insistence on having something new for the listener robs even the more effective instances of their chances to develop. This is a pretty common problem with this approach, and it’s probably not going to stop anyone from trying, but I must continue to emphasize how common of a trap it is so that future generations may find a solution.

Savage Sinusoid does, however, have one particularly superlative element, in the performances of its dueling vocalists. Perhaps that should be two elements. Either way, they are a strong point, and apparently long term collaborators of Gautier Serre. His previous works have had skilled vocalists before (expect my reference to Whourkr’s debut full length Concrete to glow incandescent blue once I find the time to write about it), but having two who can pull off this many styles is at least technically impressive. They’re also very charismatic performances who do everything in their power to entertain us; I actually got to see the band live, and amongst other things, they spent much of their set dancing across the stage like Pornographer Cain. Anecdotes aside, these strong performances justify deeper listening to songs here that would otherwise come off as ridiculous and nonsensical.

So maybe the album does come off as goofy at times – I deserve to have some fun in my life, right?

Highlights: “Houmous”, “Opus Brain”, “Cheval”, “Apopathodiaphulatophobia”

Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (1986)

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Rust in Peace is more intricate and technically accomplished, but Peace Sells is by far the “coolest” album Megadeth ever released. We’re still not entirely sure what it means for an album to be cool, but in my defense, it was the 1980s, and if you had a guitar, everything looked like a metal album. Either way, Megadeth’s flashy, stylish take on speed/thrash metal was fully formed by this point – better musicianship than Metallica, with most of the aggression from the debut album amalgamated with more polished production and songwriting. Let’s be honest – it’s a good formula. In a year notable for its revolutionary metal recordings, Peace Sells was far from the bleeding edge, but it still draws blood to this day.

To be fair, it takes Peace Sells a while to fully bare its fangs. The first few tracks tend more midpaced than a lot of the material on Killing Is My Business, which is arguably enough to push something like “Wake Up Dead” or the title track into accessible MTV metal territory. I don’t want to speculate too much about why for lack of information about the circumstances. Still, I think this album (and more generally, Megadeth as a whole) is most effective in its most intense and flamboyant moments. Even in 1986, it was a band full of flashy musicians who needed as much space as they could get to show off their shredding skills, and anything short of it feels limited by comparison.

For whatever reason, I’m inclined to value the musicianship on Peace Sells more than the compositions. When I wrote about Rust in Peace, I mentioned that even in their heyday, Megadeth had some composition organization problems that dogged them even at their arguable songwriting peak. These problems are present here too, but perhaps less noticeable here due to the simpler songwriting. It’s primarily an issue of individual riff glue; for whatever reason, the big picture and overall sectioning of songs isn’t as affected. It also helps that Dave Mustaine is in full charismatic vocalist mode. As far as I know, he relied ever more on flat growling as he and Megadeth got older, so it’s nice to hear him varying things up more on here. It should go without saying that successfully incorporating multiple styles of vocals into a metal album (or even just enough variation on your chosen technique) can help add flavor to your album. Beyond that, it’s good for gluing everything together.

Whether or not this album is better or worse than Rust in Peace might not be the best avenue of inquiry, now that I think about it. They’re both important Megadeth milestones.

Highlights: “The Conjuring”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”, “My Last Words”

Disharmonic Orchestra – Not to Be Undimensional Conscious (1992)

not to be undimensional conscious.jpgOnce upon a time, Austria was the center (figurative, not geographic) of a large and powerful empire ruled by the house of Habsburg. Now, it’s the birthplace of one of the most confoundingly named albums in the history of humanity. Despite this, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious isn’t half as strange as its name might suggest; it takes the form of a musically adventurous death metal album with fewer trips into the bizarre and obviously avant garde than you might expect. In short, while the brief rapping section in “The Return of the Living Beat” begs to differ, Disharmonic Orchestra has more in common here with the planet’s contemporary techdeath offerings.

Not to Be Undimensional Conscious gets to join the ever growing armada of obviously liminal albums reviewed here on Invisible Blog. A lot of this is because its more sanely named successor (Pleasuredome) was the sort of more experimental recording this one’s name lead me to expect, but signs of that future were already present here. This album is driven by its tension between the chunky, abrasive mix and its convoluted, strange writing. The album sounds clear enough that its angular riffing and abrupt song transitions can shine forth, but I can’t help but wonder if it might’ve been better served by a cleaner and more orchestrated sound. Spheres by Pestilence makes for a good comparison, but Disharmonic Orchestra isn’t trying to push the envelope quite as far here.

Ultimately, if you want to enjoy DO #2, you need to be able to attune to its take on death metal. If you like constant code switches between the band’s death/grind roots and the more bizarre and dissonant riffs, you’ll probably have a good foundation for appreciating what they’re trying to do with their songwriting. I feel like the rest of the package isn’t especially notable, though. The possible aesthetic mismatch is one thing, but this album has some of the most acceptable performances I’ve ever heard without pushing into meaningfully good territory. It’s not studio perfect, but it’s reasonably close by the standards of 1992. About the best I can say is that there’s prominent basswork, and a decent chunk of variety in the percussion. The weak point is probably the vocalist – Patrick Klopf has a good mid-ranged death growl, but he doesn’t do much to vary it in even subtle ways, making for a monotonous performance. Oddly enough, this stood out the most on my initial listens, perhaps for its unending cadence.

In recent years, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious strikes me as the foundation for a good death metal album – something you could elaborate on and expand to get something both interesting and pleasingly skull-crushing. Without that extra effort, though, you’re left with something bland at best.

Highlights: “A Mental Sequence”, “Groove”, “Idiosyncrasy”