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Enslaved – Frost (1994)

folder.jpgEvery band has their difficult albums. By the standards of Enslaved’s early career (pre-2000 or so), I’d say Frost is their point of peak inaccessibility. While it still clearly belongs to the drawn out, ritualistic and vaguely symphonic take on black metal that stereotyped Enslaved in their earlier days, it’s also the beginning of a push towards a more aggressive and direct approach. Without much in the way of Eld‘s obvious progressive rock-isms or Blodhemn’s terse blasts of intensity at all costs, Frost is surprisingly frosty. At least that’s appropriate.

If you ask me, Frost‘s challenges compared to other Enslaved albums boil down primarily to its increased dissonance and emphasis on aggressive, angular sounding riffs. While it takes a few minutes of deceptively calm albeit aesthetically appropriate intro to get to this point, the first actual track (“Loke”) puts all of Frost‘s cards on the table – by retaining the core elements from previous albums but also providing more moments of blasting intensity, we end up with a more dynamic album. It certainly feels like the songs here are more diverse and varied than before,  even if part of that is simply their greater numbers coming to bear. Usually, when a band expands on their formulas like this, I call it an improvement. I imagine most of my readers are expecting that judgement from me about now, but remember how I described Frost as challenging?

When I say Frost is one of Enslaved’s more difficult albums, I’m speaking from personal experience. I did not care for or understand these songs when I first listened to them. Things have certainly changed since then, to the point that I can derive some enjoyment from Enslaved’s approach here and otherwise view this as something other than an eldritch monstrosity in the band’s discography. I still won’t deny that it took me a while to warm up to Frost, and some of the complaints my past self had still hold weight with my present self. These are mostly related to how the songs are written; the main problem is that Frost stumbles and stutters when it comes time to transition between song sections. A lot of bands seem to go through phases where they struggle to unite ideas into a coherent whole. This wasn’t a problem on Vikingligr Veldi and before, but the Enslaved that wrote that was more interested in writing songs focused on ambience and gradual evolution, and as a result it was easier for them to make sound decisions there.

Most of Frost‘s difficulty does seem to result from it being an especially liminal album in a discography that’s not exactly prone to repeating itself. Still, if you want to hear the band’s roots performed with more vigor and grit than before, this is probably the best place to go.

Highlights: “Fenris”, “Yggdrasil”, “Jotunblod”

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Gridlink – Longhena (2014)

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I used to play a lot of 2D “bullet hell” shmups in my youth. That’s admittedly tailed off since high school, but what if it hadn’t? For all we know, I might’ve pulled a Gridlink and written a couple songs about Dodonpachi. Longhena isn’t exclusively about Cave’s contributions to the genre, but its musings on this theme (delivered as they are in a manic 22 minute deathgrind fuckfest) certainly took me back to those younger, more innocent days.

So there’s a few overarching themes we need to get out of the way in order to understand Gridlink – they are enormously fast and incredibly violent, but the reason you’re listening to them is probably because they’re more interested in consonant melodies than the average grindcore band. That alone is enough to get at least my attention, though to be fair, “melodic” variants of grindcore are a genre unto themselves. Gridlink usually sticks to this approach throughout Longhena, which admittedly isn’t too difficult given its short length, although for whatever reason they take an early acoustic break in “Thirst Watcher”. Between the melodic approach and surprisingly clean production, this album has something of an advantage over more traditional grindcore offerings in acquiring more manpower for the metal and punk causes, at least if they can acclimate to the shrieked vocals and otherwise enormous velocities.

To be fair, I haven’t had much luck actually getting into grindcore, at least when it doesn’t have other gimmicks to attract my fickle mind. Gridlink’s main strength here, as far as I’m concerned, is that they pack fully formed songs into minuscule packages without sacrificing quantity of content. They avoid reusing the same structures to build their songs, too, which I don’t often hear at this level of brevity. It helps add some variety, and given that the band’s still playing grindcore… they definitely need variety. Make no mistake of it, though – Longhena still barely lets up, so for its length it is one of the most ear-fatiguing albums I’ve had the experience of listening to; as a result, I want to suggest that further developing on the instrumental/technique variety could be helpful. However, I can’t really think of a concrete example, and I’m concerned that more than a hint of it might result in something that sounds more like a moldy old carnival than a grindcore album, so I might have to drop that criticism.

If grindcore fans and shmup fans were mutually exclusive, I’d probably say Longhena was tailored more towards fans of the former than the latter. But it did succeed in attracting my interest and showing its prowess in a genre that I don’t give much attention, so it’s definitely got some merit.

Highlights: “Constant Autumn”, “Taibas”, “The Dodonpachi”, “Island Sun”

Tankist – Unhuman (2017)

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Disclaimer: I received a promotional copy of this album in return for an honest review.

So Estonia might play a disproportionate role in your life. It’s the home of Skype, Subspace Continuum, and now the folks from Tankist have upped its metal quotient by releasing their full length debut. To get it out of the way – Tankist plays a form of speed/thrash metal that wouldn’t be out of place in that genre’s mid/late-1980s heyday. They also have the benefits of modern studio technology and distribution, so when it came time to listen to this album, I went in eager to hear what they could do with this tried and true formula.

As far as I’m concerned, this recording is of two minds. On Unhuman, Tankist seems to channel the looser, punkier, more crossover flavored side of thrash – not so much in the proto-death metal way that a band like Carnivore or dead horse did, but still in a way that recalls the contemporaneous hardcore of the time. On the other hand, Tankist also sounds like they draw inspiration from the more technically advanced realms of speed/thrash, at least in the sense that their guitar section throws in some angular, dissonant riffs for good measure. Between that and the frequent abrupt tempo changes, you end up with a product that has a lot more me-candy (your mileage may vary) and musical depth than I initially expected before I actually sat down and listened to the album.

Unhuman‘s strengths and weaknesses, in my opinion, boil down to the fact that it’s unstable and unhinged. On the instrumental/vocal side, this is entirely a plus; it makes for an aesthetic I appreciate. I’ve already mentioned how the guitars contribute to this – the vocals are also a major contribution. The obvious comparison, as far as I’m concerned, is Tom Araya of Slayer fame, although Tankist’s vocalist (Kevin Marks) averages a lower register and puts on a more diverse performance in the process. The main weakness comes in the song structures. I don’t know how much emphasis the band puts on song density, but there are some issues at times with how they string together song sections. It’s not easy when you try to incorporate as many types of material as Tankist does, and they generally succeed, but as far as I’m concerned, this is probably the best area for them to work on for their next album.

Before you ask, yes, I am looking forwards to future content from Tankist, given how generally good Unhuman turned out. My previous experience with modern thrash metal has often lead me to expect simpler, more direct fare (the occasional Vektor aside), so when you get something more ambitious like this album, it’s always a pleasure.

Highlights: “Miserytomb”, “Suffo6ion”, “Waste of Bones”

 

Black Sabbath – Dehumanizer (1992)

Black Sabbath - Dehumanizer - Front.jpgIt turns out that the Ronnie James Dio line of Black Sabbath does Ozzy-era Black Sabbath as well. Deliberate oversimplifications aside, Dehumanizer does bring a renewed focus on doom and gloom compared to Dio’s previous efforts with the band, and even compared to what little scraps of the Tony Martin era I’ve heard (Tyr, for instance, comes off as more preoccupied with epic fantasy, at least in its first impressions). But much like even those Ozzy-era albums had various asides, the shift in focus doesn’t deprive Dehumanizer of variety, vigor, humanity. In fact, it might just be one of the band’s best albums.

Much of Dehumanizer‘s lustre comes from Dio’s vocals; to be fair, he was a talented vocalist who did good work for many an act, previous Sabbath included. I’m not sure if it’s just the ravages of time or the tonal shift, but compared to older recordings, Dio has acquired some extra grit and intensity here. Whatever the cause, it fits well with the songwriting here. The rest of the musicians don’t stand particularly out as individuals, but the way they work together on this album is more than the sum of its parts. The key, as far as I can tell, is how consistently they stick to the doomy aesthetic (making even fast paced songs like “TV Crimes” fit in). While there are some strategic synthesizer patches in places, this is one of the more stripped down incarnations of the band, even compared to earlier Dio recordings. Luckily for us, Sabbath did not try to overpopulate these songs with instrumental flourishes.

The songwriting also has this gestalt feeling to – despite generally simplistic arrangements, continued spins of Dehumanizer will reveal skilled craftsmanship born of Sabbath’s veterancy. As repeatedly mentioned, the songs here at least superficially resemble the material that made the band’s earliest Ozzy-era recordings famous, in that they’re generally slow and obviously “heavy” sounding. Iommi’s riffset bears less of that era’s blues-rock heritage, though in favor of newer additions to the metal language. If I had to guess, I’d say he studied contemporary metal bands to some degree. The tracks here don’t have particularly ambitious structures, but even the generally verse-chorus-verse content here is handled effectively, without too much repetition. Oddly enough, this album seems to excel at abrupt transitions between song sections. Usually, I see their presence on any album as something of a negative, but somehow they work here – I’d say they’re a good source of contrast given the demands of Dehumanizer‘s unified aesthetics.

All of this adds up to Dehumanizer being a crucial piece of the Black Sabbath legacy. To be fair, they’ve put out a great many good albums with a great many vocalists; the reason this one stands out is because it straddles two of the major archetypes the band has explored throughout their career. This time, it gives listeners the best of both worlds, and therefore it gives you many good reasons to listen.

Highlights: “Computer God”, “TV Crimes”, “I”

Gargoyle – Kaikoroku (1992)

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1992 might not be quite accurate for this recording. Kaikoroku is a quick little EP of rerecorded tracks from Gargoyle’s earliest days (i.e the late 1980s), brought up to the production and instrumentation standards of its contemporaries. If I hadn’t learned about this prior to listening, I’m not sure I would’ve figured it out from listening alone, since the revisions make for tracks that fit in almost seamlessly with the rest of Gargoyle’s early discography, except perhaps for having fewer obvious musical asides. More importantly, Gargoyle’s power/thrash metal core is present and running at full power on this EP, so your little trip down (a revised version) of memory lane should be a pleasant one.

Even though we know where it fits in the chronology, it’s hard to say exactly where Kaikoroku fits in the grand scheme of Gargoyle. After some consideration, I’ve decided that at least of the albums I’ve listened to, it feels like a middle ground between many of the trends Gargoyle exemplifies. While I’d definitely like to hear more extremely fast, intense material along the lines of Furebumi, this EP doesn’t exactly slack. In fact, with the exception of the midpaced “Dying Message”, I’d say it’s more consistently fast and furious than the studio albums that immediately surround it. If you’re like and you want to hear that from Gargoyle, you’ll agree that it’s a good thing. You’ll also get the band’s skillful use of consonant melody to enhance songwriting depth.

Since Kaikoroku is almost as stereotypically Gargoyle as you’ll get (and I therefore expect it to appeal to you directly to the degree that you appreciate the band), you might be wondering what the point of listening to Gargoyle in the first place is. It comes down to a few factors, again assuming an interest in their general substyle. First of all, they’ve got an insanely charismatic vocalist in Kazuhisa “Kiba” Tochihara, who fills these albums with his barks, growls, screams, and occasional softer singing. Think Lemmy from Motörhead, only more so. They’ve also managed to acquire their share of skilled guitarists, who excel particularly at writing diverse sets of riffs and stringing them together into songs. Furthermore, while the band usually sticks to standard pop/rock songwriting, they have a knack for pacing and adopting this to the demands of metal instrumentation. As I mentioned in previous reviews, it took them a while to master the softer stuff, but since that’s not exactly present here… it’s not a problem.

While I wouldn’t put it above Furebumi, the Kaikoroku EP is still a compact (sharp?) high point in their early discography, and it would at least make a good second acquisition.

Highlights: “Hunting Days”, “Jaaku”

Mithras – On Strange Loops (2016)

a4112459181_10.jpgSome months ago, I wrote about a band I like to describe as the “bastard sons of Mithras“; it wasn’t long after that the actual Mithras released their own followup to Behind the Shadows Lie Madness. To get it out of the way – Mithras clings to their signature sound here, with the obligatory reminder that doing so isn’t innately anything. Sounds like an open and shut case of ‘more of the same’, doesn’t it? I noticed after extended listening that On Strange Loops does in fact resemble its predecessor on a broad level. The small changes it makes to the Mithras formula are enough to make for a smoother, but otherwise broadly similar listening experience.

On average, I appear to mention a band streamlining their music every 3-4 months, and that’s exactly what happened on On Strange Loops. Mithras has always had a pretty obvious lineage from Morbid Angel, albeit with a less seethingly chaotic and more melodic take on that signature sound. The melodies are now more prominent than before, but without any boost to the harmonic backing, you’ve still got the sparse but consonant riffing that defines Mithras. You still get heavily effect-driven (“spacey”) leads on a frequent basis to keep your attention and feed you ear candy. The only really new element here compared to the last album is the addition of clean singing. This is more for dramatic effect than anything, but it’s still a neat addition that opens up some new songwriting possibilities. If you’re familiar with previous Mithras material, you won’t hear much out of the ordinary here.

Ironically, if I had simply went straight from the last Mithras recording to this one, I probably would’ve given this album a conditional recommendation and moved on. Instead, the aforementioned Sarpantium had to muck things up with Blessed Be My Brothers. Its sin (if you can even call it that) was to show us all how the Mithras formula could be improved. While I wouldn’t label that recording a complete triumph due to some flaws in its song construction, it adds enough improvements and shares enough performing musicians that as far as I’m concerned, it gets to usurp On Strange Loops as the true successor to Mithras’ legacy. This album is almost threadbare in comparison. In the strictest sense, I shouldn’t be judging one recording on another, but in practice, my critiques and analyses are informed by the sum of my experiences. That means that staying the course and making minor adjustments/improvements isn’t enough to keep Mithras afloat anymore. The goalposts have moved, folks.

Highlights: “The Statue on the Island”, “Part The Ways”, “Time Never Lasts”

Summoning – Dol Guldur (1996)

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It took two albums for Summoning to find their sound. After that… they persisted. Dol Guldur won’t shock you if you’ve acclimated to the signature approach of Minas Morgul. Instead, it continues those sounds, refines them, and streamlines out some of the silliness of its predecessor. The similarities, in short, are numerous enough to make judging whether one of these albums is better than the other a difficult task. Is it even worth the effort? Ultimately, you’re here, I keep a regular schedule on Invisible Blog, and that’s why you’re reading about Dol Guldur.

To be fair, Dol Guldur makes some significant changes to how Summoning sounds, but it does so in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and didn’t occur to me until I’d digested the album. Probably the biggest actual change from Minas Morgul on this album is that Summoning has doubled down on the slow, even doomy tempoes. Minas Morgul wasn’t exactly caffeinated overall, but it had a few sections of blastbeats and such that made for more varied pacing. Dol Guldur‘s more heroic sections have a ponderous, almost contemplative sound to them, whereas the darker tracks turn into funeral dirges. Meanwhile, the guitarwork that binned Summoning alongside black metal acts has been scaled back in favor of more keyboard orchestra; for better or worse, they’ve upgraded their sound patches so they don’t sound quite as low budget/kvlt. All of this adds up to a sound that’s less stereotypically like the band’s black metal origins, and in some ways more like a hypothetical score to a Lord of the Rings film. At the very least, this explains the OVAs on Youtube.

Even if the sounds have changed, Dol Guldur is written in a similar fashion to its predecessor, or at least that album’s slower sections. The arrangements continue to imitate the motifs of an orchestra as much as the instruments themselves, and relatively simple playing technique is matched by more depth in the song structures. I suspect, however, that the songwriting takes more of an ambient form than even before. First, I noticed that tracks here simply fade out, whereas on Minas Morgul they had more sharply delineated endings. That on its own would be a trivial difference, but when combined with the tempo shifts, reduced guitar, and generally lengthier songs, it points to something changing deep within the heart of Summoning. Without deep listening to even more Summoning albums, I can’t really say if this is a trend that would continue, but it does seem like I was able to shed a light on exactly how Dol Guldur differs from its predecessor after all.

Despite all of this, the two albums aren’t enormously different, and fans of one are almost certainly going to appreciate the other as well. My initial reaction was to favor Dol Guldur for its polish and depth, but in recent years I can also make a case for the variety that Minas Morgul brings to the table. I suppose you could just listen to both of them and make your own decision as to which one pulls ahead.

Highlights: “Nightshade Forests”, “Elfstone”, “Unto a Long Glory…”