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Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)

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Now, I’m no theologian, but it continues to surprise me how little I’ve actually written on Genesis in recent years. Foxtrot was not my first foxtrot with the band (that would be Selling England By The Pound), but it seems to be the one that’s stuck with me the longest. It’s a good entry point into the progressive rock half of Genesis’s career – more developed and assertive than their early work, more consistent than the two after it, and reasonably comparable to the first few studio albums with Phil Collins, too. It took a few more years for the bandmembers’ individual musicianship to fully blossom, so as far as I’m concerned, Foxtrot is defined mostly by its commitment to extensive songs and vocal roleplay by Peter Gabriel.

Foxtrot takes only seconds to reveal the progress of keyboard technology and arguably the limitations of the band’s budget at this point with a short prelude on mellotron, before the fast and still relatively ornate “Watcher of the Skies” properly kicks in. It immediately strikes me that this type of track would very much benefit from a harder edged production to fit its bombast, but in 1972 that was a very inexact science that few had even attempted. The mixjob here might not be particularly great for the first track, but it actually suits some of the later, gentler tracks quite well. The best I can say about it, though, is that it doesn’t get in the way of the band’s songwriting.

Even the most superficial look at Foxtrot should make its progressive rock orientation apparent. Four of the six compositions here are lengthy narratives that wander through many aesthetics and substyles. One thing that Genesis particularly excels at on this album is pacing; while deciding how long to focus on a specific leitmotif isn’t the most obvious sign of mastery, they achieve a good balance, whereas a lesser band might end up barraging the listener with their entire idea set or dragging out every half-decent concept until it loses its luster. Peter Gabriel’s vocals in particular are worth a mention – as I previously mentioned when discussing his successor, he exemplifies vocals for roleplay and variety as opposed to vocals as a binding substrate. When you’re trying to make a 23 minute epic like “Supper’s Ready”, complete with a cast of colorful characters and a plot seemingly ripped from the Christian Bible (PSA: Genesis is not and never was Christian music), it helps to be able to do all of the voices. The fact that Genesis was able to adapt once Peter Gabriel left the band is perhaps miraculous, but definitely a story for a different time. Suffice it to say for now that Foxtrot is much enriched by its vocalist.

If Foxtrot has detractors, they must be very few in number, at least amongst fans of progressive rock music in general. It really is one of the high points of the genre.

Highlights: “Watcher of the Skies”, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”

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Re-Review: Monstrosity – Millennium (1996)

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KZc1qAFCMyA/maxresdefault.jpgTime sure flies, doesn’t it? Millennium had the honor (?) of being the topic of my first non-introductory post on Invisible Blog, therefore predating pretty much all of the traditions I established over the years. My opinions on it have evolved over the years, but I figured it might be good to give this a more informed and more detailed look given just how long it’s been since I first listened to this. After all, my initial rationale for listening was entirely due to this being the spawning point for George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, who promptly joined Cannibal Corpse after recording this album.

Compared to Cannibal Corpse, at least their contemporary albums, Millennium showcases a more clinical, technical take on death metal, favoring intricate rhythmic interplay and a hint of melody. It’s definitely not the faster, looser style that CC seems to have preferred at the time. In fact, I still think Deicide, especially on Legion is a closer match for this substyle of death metal, at least on a deep structural level. Monstrosity unfortunately has to labor under a deeper, bassier, muddier production that I don’t feel is particularly well matched to this specific style. To be fair, the mixjob is competent and actually shines on the slower parts of this album (in particular, “Fragments of Resolution”), but to push the Legion analogy further, I’d apply that album’s overall sound to this one in a heartbeat if I could.

Despite my initial lunge for Monstrosity’s music, Millennium took more time to gel in my brain than initially expected. Despite out-teching most of its apparent inspiration from the early ’90s, this is still a sparse sounding album that doesn’t have many gimmicks to distract from its death metallic bread and butter (the closest, perhaps, being occasional bass solos). When Monstrosity succeeds here, it’s because of a few things – first, they have a relatively expansive sense of songwriting – not full on prog, but varied enough to help keep the metal interesting. Corpsegrinder helps, too, although his expertise here is more in providing a standard death metal growl and doing it really well than being especially dynamic. This album’s MVP, however, is probably the drummer – one Lee Harrison who has briefly performed with a couple of more famous acts, but has generally spent his musician time here in Monstrosity. He exemplifies the instrumental prowess and varied performances that make Millennium worth a listen more than any of the other band members. I have to preface my praise of drummers with the claim that they usually don’t draw my attention, and this is no exception, but it does not in any way diminish his contributions to the skilled instrumentation that propels this album.

The novelty of Millennium‘s music and lineup have long since worn off, but ultimately, this album is solidly built, and it will hold your attention with (ironically) its attention to detail.

Highlights: “Devious Instinct”, “Manic”, “Mirrors of Reason”

Jannick Top – Infernal Machina (2008)

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This is a Magma album in all but name. Jannick Top played bass for Magma for a few years before going off to form his own series of projects. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again –  performing with Magma has wide-reading and permanent effects on your musical approach, and in some cases may result in you forming your own band. Infernal Machina is admittedly separated from Top’s contributions to the band by over 30 years, but its similarities to its ancestor are no less for it, and zeuhl fanatics who haven’t already listened to it are probably already grabbing copies as we speak.

Inconveniently, Infernal Machina is broken up into twelve arbitrary sections, which make little sense in isolation. This isn’t unheard of for the Magma ecosphere, so it sets expectations – this album only really makes sense if you listen to a large chunk of it in one sitting. To be fair, you can reasonably break Infernal Machina into two or three sections (depending on your system of reckoning), but there are no real gaps in the tracks, so it’s best to assume a united composition. The pacing is admittedly quite slow – Jannick Top apparently relies even more on grooves and repetition and improvisation to drive his tracks than Christian Vander’s already jazz-funk inflected writing for Magma proper. Add to that a generally “heavier” sound from plenty of distorted rhythm guitar, hyperactive percussion, and the occasional dissonant wails (Part VI) and you have something that sounds very different from your stereotypical Magma album despite sharing much of its DNA.

In fact, Infernal Machina shares so much of its theming with its magmatic predecessors that it might be a crutch. The reuse and recontextualization of previous leitmotifs from Magma’s discography/mythology I can understand; I’d go as far as to say the mainline Magma members made excellent use of this on Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré (this album’s rough contemporary, and the sole reason computers have a ‘copy’ function). That album was composed largely of previous Magma material that had already been recorded in chunks, but that worked because the enhanced production, careful transitions, and better pacing made everything gel together. It also helps that Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré emphasized the dramatic, dynamic side of Magma. Infernal Machina problematically falls short in terms of overall organization and coherence, though. At times, it feels like it relies more on the shock value of its relatively novel instrumentation than any real interesting content.

I was expecting to enjoy Infernal Machina rather more than what ended up happening, if only because it initially read as more ‘brutal’. Even stripped of those expectations, though, it still falls short as a continuation of Magma’s legacy. Those who want heavier zeuhl will have to look elsewhere.

Highlights: “Part VI”, “Part VII”, “Resolutio”

Skeletonwitch – Beyond The Permafrost (2007)

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Skeletonwitch is one of those rare bands I learned about because I saw their logo on someone’s t-shirt at college. Even after investigating and reading a lot of complimentary reviews, though, it took me years to actually listen to them. Turns out that at least on Beyond the Permafrost, they sound like an Americanized take on the “melodeath” that was relatively popular last decade. Makes sense for a band that comes from Ohio, right? There’s a lot of subtle genre mixing going on here, for better or worse, and how you take that is probably going to play a major role in how you ingest this album.

What initially stuck with me when I first listened to Beyond the Permafrost was the quality of its instrumentation. This is still the case now that I’ve given the songs here some time to digest. Of all the musicians here, the ones handling guitars and vocals stand out the most, which is admittedly pretty common in the metal world. Last week’s review (From Beyond by Enforcer) had some flashy guitar work, but this album pushes it further. It’s not as consistently melodic, presumably due to the major infusion of death/thrash metal technique, but the overall frilly ornamentation and shreddy solos (read: “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”) feel similar in purpose despite the different genre. I also appreciate the mixture of vocal techniques – both low growls and higher pitched snarls. These are occasionally mixed together for some neat interplay, which helps add accents and texture to these songs.

Interestingly enough, Skeletonwitch’s songwriting reminds me of my own, in that they rely on relatively short songs with lots of unique sections. It’s a technique I don’t see all that often in the metal universe – most of the time, the complicated song structures are used to scaffold long epics. At 36 minutes, Beyond the Permafrost‘s 12 songs go by quickly, and the band doesn’t spend all that much time on any one of them. This isn’t without its flaws, though – many of the shorter songs feel like they conclude before they’ve had time to properly develop their ideas. I guess it’s a good thing that Skeletonwitch is throwing in enough ideas that they could extend their songs. A quick look at their discography suggests the band hasn’t really changed up this approach.

In short, Beyond the Permafrost is mostly good, but it does feel underdeveloped at times. There’s enough solid cuts on here that fans of undifferentiated extreme metal should find at least a few favorites in its (limited) depths. It’s also a reminder to myself that whenever I’m composing, I should give my music as much time as it needs to convey its ideas and not be tempted to declare a song “finished” too early.

Highlights: “Under Wings of Black”, “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”, “Remains of The Defeated”

Enforcer – From Beyond (2015)

Enforcer-_From-Beyond.jpgOne of the weaknesses of my deluge of content at DMU is that if I wanted to get my review of an album out when people were still buzzing about it, I had to really book it. This didn’t give me a whole lot of time to analyze and digest the music. Case in point: Enforcer’s From Beyond. My initial appraisal was fairly positive – I was able to appreciate the album as a tribute to early ’80s traditional and speed metal, although with few aspirations beyond that. There are tons of competent rehashes of past metal glories these days, though. What does Enforcer bring to the table? Is it worth it? Why am I in the habit of ending the first paragraph of these reviews with a question?

The first sign Enforcer might be onto something good was the fact I put From Beyond into my listening rotation after its ‘review’ period. Admittedly, that might’ve just been because the total package is well polished, as previously mentioned. The album’s production is generally excellent; while there’s not much space for the bassist, everyone else is clear and audible. The distortion and overall aggression levels aren’t as intense as some of the recordings this one seems to channel, but they’re fine for the genre. The musicians here perform well, too – the guitar parts in particular catch my interest with their heavily ornamented riffing reminiscent of some of the more technical NWOBHM bands. I could poke some minor holes here, but Enforcer’s approach here is definitely viable for what they’ve set out to do.

Ultimately, what cinches the deal for me is that Enforcer is very good at writing pop metal, admittedly with (or perhaps because of) some occasional concessions to more complex and ambitious songwriting. They definitely stick to a set of basic formulas, and in particular to song title choruses like paste sticks to the teeth of kindergartners, but the execution is top notch. It inspires me to pull out my usual turns of phrase for when a band is good at writing pop music- “microvariations” in particular, and also a brief shout out to Enforcer’s ability to play in keys other than those their guitarists tune to. That shouldn’t be an issue for metal bands, but a lot of times it is, and in other recordings it often ends up bugging me more than it should. But that’s definitely not a problem here.

So I’m willing to say that Enforcer won my attention by doing their job really well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they built up their craft over their previous albums, and nor would I be surprised if any future work continued down this shining path.

Highlights: “Destroyer”, “Undying Evil”, “Below The Slumber”

Blut Aus Nord – The Work Which Transforms God (2003)

the-work-which-transforms-god-53f308335a34a.jpgQuite a bold claim for an album title to be making, am I right? The Work Which Transforms God is the second of Blut Aus Nord’s “industrial” albums, taking the band’s mastery of otherworldly ambience and contorting it into unholy nightmares. As a general rule, it is dissonant where the band’s earlier works were consonant and melodic, chaotic where the previous ones were orderly, but it otherwise retains most of the musical language of those illustrious works. This juxtaposition of genres and the band’s success in keeping their dreamscapes alive are almost certainly the best reasons to give this one a shot, but is that enough?

The impression I get from The Work Which Transforms God nowadays is that it’s scatterbrained compared to its predecessors. This is mostly from a perspective of composition; TWWTG is unyieldingly consistent in its overall production – which tends clean and sterile with hints of dissonant wailing and gnashing of teeth in the distance (more on that later). It’s the songs that wander all over the place, cramming together every stylistic variant you can wring out of a black/industrial metal fusion. On some level, I suspect this makes for a shallower experience, but I’ve long since established that I’m a sucker for this sort of fusion. It’s an easy way for Blut Aus Nord to worm their way inside my head, even if the ‘industrial’ side of this album is more towards the crushing, sludgy, even monotonous sort of music popularized by bands like Godflesh.

In short, this is an album where I can’t really bring myself to accept what could actually be a pretty serious flaw because everything else pushes my buttons. I wonder what that says about me? The other elements really are on point, though. The ambience in particular is delightfully sick and twisted, and not even through especially arcane techniques, although the combination of dissonant riffing and broken beats is presumably harder to get working than more conventional techniques. Blut Aus Nord sometimes manages to recapture the songwriting prowess of their earlier work here, making for a few tracks that retain some value as I penetrate their dissonant depths. However, too much of this album either dissolves into incoherent nonsense, or otherwise stagnates into a death march (read: “Procession of the Dead Clowns”). That definitely wasn’t a problem before.

I guess it could be worse – I’ve heard that this album’s successor (MORT) goes completely off the rails. Is the lesson there that it’s good to have some boundaries in your creative efforts? Probably. The lesson in The Work Which Transforms God is (arguably) that you should be careful when experimenting not to lose sight of how to organize your results.

Highlights: “The Choir of the Damned”, “Axis”, “The Howling of God”

Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones (2010)

folder.jpgI’ve labeled a couple of the albums I review on Invisible Blog to be ‘exaggerations’ of their predecessors and ancestors, but Eparistera Daimones might be the first I’ve covered where the creator (Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost fame) would definitely agree. I remember that my initiation into metal music came about the time that he started this project. Tom tells us that Triptykon was planned from day one to continue Celtic Frost’s overall approach on Monotheist, but was also intended to make things even heavier, darker, and more aggressive.  Sounds like an easy, crowd pleasing, almost populist plan! You know how those go.

Eparistera Daimones wastes no time stating its intent, leading off with the 11 minute “Goetia”, and following it up primarily with extended songs in a similar vein. This might not be the best idea, since Monotheism‘s monophony places some limits on the band’s songwriting options from the bat. Triptykon, being essentially Celtic Frost, though, at least recognizes this problem and uses the same differentiation techniques that its predecessor employed – massive dynamic shifts, vocal histrionics (male and female), tinges of electronics, and so forth. Despite all my claims of similarity, there are at least a few new ideas here, at least relative to this incarnation of Warrior’s musical efforts – “One Thousand Lies” comes to mind for its velocity in what is otherwise a funeral march of an album. Still, this one’s for the doom metal enthusiasts – if slow and crushing isn’t to your tastes, you face an uphill battle trying to acclimate to this one.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more critical of Eparistera Daimones in this review. Its failure to solve the systematic problems that plagued its predecessor are admittedly pretty damning. I think what undermined that impression, though, is the fact that it at least stays the course. It doesn’t add further flaws (which could’ve happened – this album was brought to you by some of the people who made Cold Lake), and at some points it even makes small refinements to the new Celtic Frost formula that help a bit with the overall results. In short, there’s nothing overtly and immediately wrong with this album, and I actually do like quite a few of the tracks here. I’m not sure I’d put it even on the level of Monotheist, though. Maybe I’m just being petty and removing imaginary internet points because this album is a redux, but there’s not much I can do about that, short of a concerted effort to be less arbitrary as a reviewer…

Highlights: “Abyss Within My Soul”, “One Thousand Lies”, “Myopic Empire”