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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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Anatomy of VGM #14: Battle Garegga (1996)

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Artwork from the Japanese arcade version flyer. We’ll be discussing the original soundtrack this time around… as usual.

Last week’s nominally bullet hell inspired recording got me thinking about shmups again. Battle Garegga was always one of my favorites, and an important milestone in the rise of the bullet hell genre (in fact, I’ve heard it inspired the folks at Cave to push themselves to new limits when they released Dodonpachi a year later). It’s music is a milestone of mastery for FM synth enthusiasts, a loving encapsulation of EDM/techno trends of the ’90s, and entirely worthy of the hyperbole I am slathering it in at this very moment. In the interest of hype, you should make sure you’ve listened to it before reading onwards.

The composer responsible for Battle Garegga‘s aural excellence is Manabu Namiki, who rose to prominence working for 8ing/Raizing before later joining up with Cave. His early work outside this game also serves as a master class for how to use FM synthesis in music. To be fair, the tracks here are not exclusively based on FM synth; the hardware the arcade cabinet uses also has some sampling capabilities that are used mostly for percussion and electric piano hits. Pure FM synthesis tends to model this sort of thing poorly, so having some basic noise generation or sampling capability frees the FM up to do the electronic/synthetic sounds it excels at. That in itself was pretty common – in the Western world, your best reference for this is probably the Sega Genesis, which had the capacity to pull this off between all of its sound hardware. Still, when you consider just how good the FM synth in this game sounds – lots of resonant pads and thumping bass, and the genres it covers, it’s a sign that Namiki has the aesthetics where he needs them.

As previously mentioned, Battle Garegga is a techno soundtrack of the sort that I suspect was most popular in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is what really tips me off; it results in a lot of midpaced, rhythmically simple tracks that focus most of their complexity on melodic/harmonic exploration and sound layering. There’s also a funk/jazz component here that occasionally syncopates the percussion into offbeat grooves; it’s not always present, but it makes for good contrast and variety. The aspect that sticks out most for me, though, is the aforementioned chord progressions. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of “extended harmony but still relatively consonant” approach (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel will attest to this if you dig them out of their graves), but Battle Garegga does this in a more contemporary, jazz-inflected way than most of what I listen to in my leisure time.

I cannot sing the praises of this OST enough, but what I’ve written here should be more than enough to give you an idea of why it’s so impressive.

Highlights: “Stab and Stomp!”, “Tunnel Vision”, “Subversive Awareness”

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”

Autechre – Oversteps (2010)

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Oversteps is a brief moment of consonance in the abstraction that is contemporary Autechre. The funny thing is that it manages to be both… in a way that’s separate from my usual death metal fodder. Like most of the Autechre-listening public, I blame Max/MSP for this, and indeed, Oversteps does have something of an algorithmic angle to it. It has a sense of rhythm and melody to it that’s unpredictable and yet surprisingly self consistent. It’s also an album of stark contrasts, ranging from rigidly structured etudes (…maybe just “known(1)”) to almost stream of consciousness level soundscapes. My experience with it has been defined by the contrast between its unusually friendly exterior and its difficult to parse writing and structure.

A surface listen to Oversteps will at least make you aware of its production – as far as I’m concerned, this is the smoothest and richest Autechre has sounded since 1994. In an ideal universe, I would describe it in synesthesia-evoking food terms. Most of this comes down to Autechre’s decision to build songs out of clean sounding, heavily tonal (and occasionally overtonal?) instruments. Percussion and noise here are usually very limited, although a few tracks buck this trend and offer something nominally resembling beats for your listening pleasure. The overall effect, at least if you’re anything like me, is that your attention is going to focus almost entirely on the generative melodies Autechre has provided you.

Oversteps certainly manages to push its melodic strategies in every direction possible. Songs here vary widely in structure despite generally falling prey to the eventual urge to spit forth a torrent of rapidfire tones. The overall pacing is probably more consistent, though – some Autechre recordings have major outliers in song length; this isn’t one of them. My overall impression was that the album actually began to feel more diverse as I kept absorbing it, and I would put this down to the structural experimentation. Sometimes, this works very well – the aforementioned “known(1)”  sounds completely unlike anything else Autechre has done, and wins major points for its rigorous counterpoint and harmonic complexity. Other times, perhaps, not as much; Oversteps is weakest in its looser moments, when songs fail to capture this sense of logical progression. This may be more of a general Autechre thing, since I tend to complain if their material starts feeling stagnant, but it’s still worth noting here due to the melodic focus.

Ultimately, any band that releases “known(1)” is a winner by my standards; Oversteps would be worth it if the rest of the album was garbage. Luckily, it’s not. You might find this album especially useful if you’re into the band’s earlier, more melodic material, and you think need a foot in the door to appreciate the more abstract stuff. Anyone who’s already attenuated to that part of Autechre will find plenty of it here, too.

Highlights: “ilanders”, “known(1)”, “Treale”, “krYlon”