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Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

Kreator – Extreme Aggression (1989)

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A long time ago, I took German classes in school. Kreator is a German band, so I figured I could name drop them during one of my homework assignments. I think I did pretty well on said assignment, but it’s been many years. Digressions aside, Extreme Aggression has the bizarre honor of noticeably less aggressive and extreme than its predecessors. It sort of makes sense when you think about it – you can pick any year around that dawn of the final decade of the second millennium and reasonably label it “peak thrash”. If Kreator’s personnel (or management) decided they ought to soften their sound a bit, it would explain why the album is so inappropriately named, but we shouldn’t dwell on that too much.

As far as I’m concerned, Extreme Aggression does have a few tricks up its sleeve that previous Kreator albums didn’t. Perhaps most notable is that it’s got the most extremely aggressive dissonance of anything they’d released to that point. This is essentially the peak of the Kreator riff (read: consonant major keys interval arranged in dissonant, even atonal patterns) in Kreator’s music – when Frank Blackfire joined up for Coma of Souls, they essentially disappeared. This extensive dissonance was more than enough to grab my interest in my earlier metal listening days. Even now, it adds a lot of color and flair to what is otherwise a fairly polished and streamlined speed/thrash album.

While I miss the extreme aggression of this band’s previous work, Extreme Aggression actually benefits from its streamlining. Admittedly, this is in subtle ways – it generally manifests as a steadier, more coherent sense of songwriting than before, with fewer awkward asides, better transitions between song sections, and higher riff density than before. This actually combines very well with this era of Kreator’s guitar creativity – to overextend the previous color metaphor, honed technique allows Kreator to effectively use a wide palette for stronger aesthetic/emotional effect than before. The rest of the instrumentation is not as varied, and the loss of Ventor’s vocals in particular robs the band of one of their most powerful weapons. However, I’d argue that it’s more than sufficient that it plays a good supporting role for the fretwork, at least in this case. In short, it’s the combination of the signature riffs with a better songwriting foundation that makes me keep coming back to this album, even though the loss of production values does not at all suit it.

To be fair, every one of these golden era Kreator albums has something in its favor. Metalheads can’t really go wrong per se. I would argue that Extreme Aggression takes longer to gel in your head, but the payoff is worth it.

Highlights: “No Reason To Exist”, “Stream of Consciousness”, “Some Pain Will Last”

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Anatomy of VGM #16 – Tyrian (1995)

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This feature is based off the definitive release (Tyrian 2000), and the AdLib version of the soundtrack.

It might not be a major theme here on Invisible Blog, but I have never been a big advocate for Yamaha’s OPL2/OPL3 sound chips (often sold as part of an AdLib sound card), at least not in isolation. FM synthesis has a very particular sound that’s well suited to certain styles of music, but many of the compositions for these chips (read: An enormous compilation of DOS games) disregard this, to questionable results. As a result, the gap between good and bad OSTs for DOS games is enormous! Tyrian is very definitely on the good side, and it is my go to game for anyone who wants an idea of what an expert can do with an Adlib.

Tyrian‘s music is about equally split between fast paced, upbeat synthpop/rock songs and more evocative, theatrical filmscore type music. Most of the tracks here were written by Alexander Brandon, who would go on to write more ‘tracker’ type music for games like Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex throughout the ’90s. A few were handled by one Andreas Molnar, who also apparently served as the sound programmer (at least for the Adlib version of the music). Tyrian‘s musical prowess is the result of their close collaboration, as the tracks here both play to the strengths of the OPL chips and demonstrate solid writing. The most obvious example of this is the variety of audio effects Brandon and Molnar pull off – ADSRM tricks in the instrumentation, screaming pitch bends to simulate guitarwork, pounding echoing percussion where a lesser sequencer would be limited to mere taps and tinkles. These types of tricks help add aesthetic flavor to the music at hand.

Since Tyrian‘s music exists in more forms than Adlib in an attempt to support more sound cards, we have to take a closer look at the writing to get to the heart of why it’s so well regarded. There’s a few factors here – I mentioned the broad types of music it contains, but for its length it’s an especially varied soundtrack, constantly exposing the listener to new musical ideas as they blast through the game’s generally short levels. In general, it holds these together with a focus on simple, direct, poppy writing focused on hooky motifs. Probably the best example of this is “Rock Garden” – a rather obviously named rock song that puts the OPL to good use with surprisingly realistic guitars (given the technology). It’s also based around two riffs with alternating guitar and organ solos. There’s not much there, but what IS there is as expertly honed as a carved diamond. The less rock-oriented tracks maintain this focus on leitmotif, from the soaring chords of the Asteroid Dances, to the complicated interplay of synth in “Tyrian: The Level”, to the driving energy of “Gyges”, and so forth. In short, while you could easily do more ambitious things with the Adlib, this comes off as more of an example of how to push a subset of its abilities to their limits.

The rest of Tyrian is good too, and you can play it for free nowadays due to the generosity of its creators. The other systems in the game could fill weeks of coverage here on Invisible Blog if I were so inclined.

Orbital – Snivilisation (1994)

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Where do I even begin with this one? Orbital is one of those bands that insists on having a unique identity on each of their albums. If I understand this one’s context correctly, Snivilisation is the weird album – the one you’d insert into your brand new multimedia PC with Windows 3.1 to show off your cool new CD player when you weren’t playing Myst or Spaceship Warlock. It’s also more subdued and contemplative on average than the last one. So we’ve got a somewhat ambient, but also occasionally very silly recording, with a random punk rock song dividing it into halves that aren’t all that different from one another. There’s not much in the way of metaphors I can apply here, so the best approach is to try and figure out what makes Snivilisation snivel.

As a general rule, Orbital isn’t especially dense or overwhelming, but this is one of their sparser albums, more focused on maximizing the payout from its constituent parts than introducing new ones into songs. Samples here are especially relevant; if you ask me, Snivilisation has an optimistic, technophiliac sheen to it that’s admittedly most prominent during its sillier tracks. Case in point – “Philosophy by Numbers” is essentially a commercial for some unknown continuing education service on top of a dissonant drone, but it fights for space in its mix with screeching trumpets and increasingly complex tonal percussion before fading out. Why not find it to find out more? Orbital’s snark is more restrained in other tracks, but it’s certainly a different emphasis than, for instance, the deep and rich melodic development of In Sides.

For all of this, Snivilisation still has the Orbital trademarks and relies heavily on them. Its songs are still based in the ambient/techno approach that made the band famous. One thing that particularly pops out (even in a discography that generally emphasizes it) is the emphasis on vocals. The samples are an obvious case, but outside of a plethora of EPs I’ve not listened to, this appears to be their first recording with apparently non-sampled and obviously word-flavored vocals (“Sad But True”). I can’t actually make them out, and I’d guess they’re more for effect than anything. In this case, I’d say it’s more useful as an example of how to incorporate human singing into this sort of electronic music without obviously switching to a more conventional pop approach.

There’s still some analysis I need to do to really get everything Orbital’s attempting here, but I’m certain that Snivilisation is one of the stranger and more whimsical EDM recordings of its era. If you need your EDM to be strange and whimsical, you’ve come to the right place.

Highlights: “Forever”, “Sad But True”, “Kein Trink Wasser”, “Attached”

Absu – The Sun Of Tiphareth (1995)

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Like all good Texans, Absu is all about magic and mythology. The Sun Of Tiphareth is (mostly) from the earlier, Sumerian flavored part of their career, but that’s more than enough for a different experience than their later and more aggressive work. This is, by comparison, a more drawn out and melodramatic/epic flavored recording; it also so happens that absorbing this recording helped me appreciate when later Absu recordings occasionally attempted to revive this one’s spirit (read: “Stone of Destiny”, “Of Celtic Fire We Are Born”, etc.). Beyond that, I’d say it also bears a close resemblance to the much celebrated Norwegian black metal scene of such past years; is it possible that Absu was trying to channel their music?

Absu immediately kicks off this album with the strangely titled “Apzu”, starting a tradition of name convolutions that wouldn’t really see fruition until the band’s comeback album in 2009. This song is basically The Sun Of Tiphareth at its most… kabbalistic? You find me an adverb in this album’s title if you think you can do better. It’s a meandering journey through all the musical language Absu is going to explore on this album. It also showcases the interesting lo-fi but otherwise reasonably clear production, some vocal interplay that I admittedly feel is better developed on the band’s later recordings, and especially diverse percussion. The latter is a given when Proscriptor calls your band home, but when you’re like me and you stereotype Norwegian-influenced black metal as being less focused on rhythmic variety, it especially stands out.

Beyond the accomplished percussion and the extended songwriting, though, The Sun Of Tiphareth doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from similar recordings. There aren’t any massive, album ruining flaws that I’m aware of – everything else here seems competent if not particularly remarkable. I do think that some of these longer compositions could’ve used some extra editing; for all the ideas and sections crammed into them, there’s a lot of filler that could’ve been cut away without cutting into the mystic atmosphere Absu creates in their stronger moments here. I suppose this is a common enough problem on its own. Absu, however, is also one of the many bands who refined their songwriting skills further on later material, giving us still arcane, but far more intense and focused material on The Third Storm of Cythraul and Tara. The approach is different enough that you can’t really substitute this album in for those two, but I still can’t help but return to those more often, at least for their mastery of their own approaches.

Again, you can’t really go wrong with The Sun Of Tiphareth, but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential unless you absolutely need more atmospheric, semi-lo-fi black metal ramblings in your life.

Highlights: “Apzu”, “Feis Mor Tir Na N’og”, “A Quest Into The 77th Novel”

Sigh – Scenario IV – Dread Dreams (1999)

folder.jpgI used to be certain that Scenario IV was the black sheep of Sigh’s discography, but nowadays I’m not as sure. It’s admittedly at an awkward point between the nominally still black metal Hail Horror Hail and the psychedelic retro rock masterpiece that is Imaginary Sonicscape. Listening to all three gives me a better perspective on how this one fits in. In short? Scenario IV is the simultaneously the best and worst of both worlds, which is admittedly a stiff order for any album. It’s exceedingly ambitious, and there’s a lot of content that you could potentially latch onto and enjoy, but how does it all tie together?

Essentially, the problem with this album is that it’s too scatterbrained, even given Sigh’s generally experimental approach to music making. If I had to guess, the amount of trademarked asides here is about the same as before, but in a lot of cases, the glue that incorporates them into the songs is slim to nonexistent. This is especially problematic in those liminal spaces between tracks where it feels like Sigh just threw in whatever fragments they felt like using with no regards to what fit the overall feel of the album. This wasn’t really a problem on the surrounding albums, so what happened here? After I stepped back a bit, I realized that these asides weren’t taking a whole lot of time in and of themselves, but they were also interspersed with more conventional sections that  still felt more fragmented and random than before. I don’t know what caused that regression, but these combine to make for an album that feels incoherent and confused.

If Scenario IV had dialed back the musical excursions a bit (like on the last album), or even focused on writing content to match it (which they did on the next one), it might’ve made for a stronger, more cohesive experience. The individual riffs and instrumentation here fees like they were written for the earlier, darker, doomier flavors of Sigh; I’d say they would work very well on the earliest material if they were given surroundings that met their needs. There is also a good chunk of more direct, hooky writing on here that somewhat resembles what we’d hear on Imaginary Sonicscape, but those portions of the recordings suffer from a producer who was most likely trying to imitate the older material. As a general rule, Scenario IV sounds dark, brooding, and muddy, even when it probably shouldn’t… which is another strategic flaw in an album that can’t really afford to have more.

Overall, while a few tracks manage to master their unique constraints and difficulties, Scenario IV is a disjointed mess that generally fails to unite its disparate elements into a coherent whole. It certainly isn’t Sigh’s high point.

Highlights: “Infernal Cries”, “Iconoclasm in the Fourth Desert”, “In the Mind of a Lunatic”

Pestilence – Testimony of the Ancients (1991)

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(fR̦̰̟͈̩̼͞è̥e͍͞ ̺̘͙͚̻͉US̼͉ͅ ̴̗͎͚Fŗ͇o̮̬̰͠M͚ ̧͖̜̗͓̞t̻̘̯E̸̞̜̟m̢p̛̬̲̤̤̱̫t̡̠̭͉̻a͉͈̦̫͕̥̤T͕̻͔̟I͖̻͕͜o̦̰n̬̺͔̤ ̲̭̥̖̻͜ͅF̣̗̱̤͕re͈̝̟͈E͓̬̪ ̴̭̞͖u̼̟͕̫S͢ ͚̻f̳̜̮̲̩ͅRO͎̬̤̙̹M̩̯͉ͅ ̬͇̟̪̩̲T̺̗͙͝e̬̺̰̮̮̜̺m͔̞͕̹̺p̬̺̜ţ͙͓͚̼ą̳̥̬͚̩͎̻T̢̫͔̞̪̮̪I͜O̙͕̬͍N̯̘̮)

Testimony of the Ancients is a good example of the gestalt in metal, at least in the superficial sense that it’s more than the sum of its parts. Compared to other classic Pestilence material… it lacks the ripping intensity of Malleus Maleficarum, the bludgeoning aggression of Consuming Impulse, and the creative aesthetics and jazz fusion of Spheres. If you were to violently tear its constituents away from each other, the individual parts wouldn’t particularly stand out. But instead of a generic death metal album, we have a work of admirable craftsmanship and enormous charisma. What happened?

All of Testimony of the Ancients‘ peculiar strengths come together most prominently on “Twisted Truth”, its second track. It’s atypically mid-paced and simplistic by this album’s standards, and it can’t go an entire minute without shedding its doomy, almost stereotypical facade for a spacey, almost jazz-fusion flavored guitar solo. If you were like me and listened to Spheres first, you might expect more, but at this point in Pestilence’s career, these asides remain asides that leave you pining for more. Again, reducing Testimony of its Ancients to its ingredients leaves you with an album that cycles predictably between standard death metal motifs and cinematic moments. This is even after we’ve accounted for the strange decision to place little keyboard/SFX interludes between each full track. Some bands can cram an entire experience into 30 seconds; Pestilence is not one of them.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that Testimony of the Ancients nails cohesion. Cohesion has been one of my buzzwords as of late (and presumably a major part of my heavy metal grading rubric), but in particular, this album demonstrates how to successfully extend what would otherwise be pretty middle of the road death metal while maintaining its identity. Most of this extension is instrumental; aside from the occasional extended bridge, Pestilence has generally written basic verse/chorus songs. Still, arrangement is an important skill to have, no matter how many musicians and instruments you’re writing for. The moral of the album, at least from this perspective of musical arrangement, is that just because you want to incorporate some aesthetic element into your music doesn’t mean you have to constantly reuse it everywhere. My counter to this is that you also want to avoid having too many random interjections (read: “Impure”), but in my experience, I have more trouble avoiding the former than the latter. I couldn’t tell you what the other musicians in the audience think.

Either way, I like Testimony of its Ancients a lot more than my “objective” appraisal of it would lead me to think, and you might end up feeling the same if you give it a shot.

Highlights: “Twisted Truth”, “Lost Souls”, “Free Us From Temptation” (yes, really), “Presence Of The Dead”

Master – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master (1991)

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Here’s another album I listened to for… interesting reasons. Paul Speckmann (basically an early death metal scene unto himself) managed to grab Paul Masvidal (who had time for this sort of thing when he wasn’t being a cynic) and inject him into Master’s bloodstream, with the end result that I wanted to see if the latter had any effect on the former. The end result? First Paul wins – On The Seventh Day God Created… Master is blazing fast, streamlined, and direct more than it’s ever proggy and technical. When you think about it, it’s kind of like the other death metal album Paul Masvidal played on in 1991…

So Master 1991 (we’re calling it that for brevity’s sake) is a bit of a throwback to simpler methods that makes for good contrast with the more musically intricate death metal that was beginning to crop up. It doesn’t even indulge in the compositional advances that other seeminglyprimitiverecordings of the time pulled off. As far as I’m concerned, the expectations here are very clear. To succeed in its chosen substyle, Master 1991 needs to constantly pummel the listener, but it also needs to explore new means of pummeling, even if only within a limited subset of ideas.

The requirements for the former are simpler and easily achieved here. First, this album is solidly produced and mixed even by today’s standards; my only real recommendation would’ve been to edge up the percussion’s volume a bit. There’s not much I can say about it beyond that, and I feel similarly about most of the musicians here – they do a good job, but their main strength is working as a cohesive unit. The exception is Paul Masvidal, whose leadwork here sticks out for adding an occasional melodic/technical flair to these tracks. The second requirement (writing songs that are both cohesive and capable of maintaining their own identities), however, is more important. Luckily, Master generally pulls that off well. Given their minimalistic style, Master gets most of their points from… …mastering their basic, hardcore punk inflected songwriting approach. It resembles and often is for all purposes basic verse-chorus stuff, but the band puts enough emphasis on individual riffs to obfuscate this, and deviates from this formula at just the right times. One sticking point, to be fair, is in the more rhythmically complex songs here – a couple of songs here try to vary up their tempos and pacing, and results are mixed. I’m not sure how much of this is personal taste, but I feel like this works against song cohesion. They needed either more or less of it; I’m not certain beyond that they’re in an awkward liminal state.

In the long run, Master ended up writing material that’s a lot sparser than my usual preferences. I can recognize the craftsmanship and effort that went into making this album, and I can recommend it to people who want some well crafted, simple, direct death metal, but outside of its moments of glory, it doesn’t get a lot of playtime here at Invisible Blog.

Highlights: “Heathen”, “Constant Quarrel”, “America the Pitiful”, “Submerged in Sin”