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Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

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Under the Sign of the Black Mark precedes Bathory’s turn towards “Viking” lyrical/musical themes, and arguably represents Quorthon’s first experiments with the sort of songwriting that would later define the band. It’s also a filthy mess of early black metal played at then-unprecedented velocities that, as far as I can tell, was created in at least two recording sessions. At the very least, it’s an interesting predecessor to Blood Fire Death. It’s definitely still part of Bathory’s long run of genre-defining albums, and for very good reasons.

If there ever was such a thing as a “1.5th wave” of black metal (and I seem to think there was), Under the Sign of the Black Mark is where it all began. In its faster and more intense moments, you could easily confuse some of these tracks for the works they would inspire, in their general minimalism and feral extremity. If it means anything, the average 21st century lo-fi trve kvlt black metal band seems to prefer a treble heavier mix and shriller vocals than Quorthon’s mere rasp, but that stereotype at least makes sense as an exaggeration of the techniques on display here.

Since fast, aggressive, and raw sounding black metal is a dime a dozen these days (and was already relatively common by 1987, even if the newfangled “death metal” was taking hold more rapidly), Under the Sign of the Black Mark earns most of its points in my book through its other half. Accompanying the blasts of violence are a couple of slower, more drawn out songs with better, cleaner production and the aforementioned first glimmers of the ‘epic’ styles of future Bathory albums. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a style that meshes very well with the black metal side of Bathory. Making these sort of extended songs is admittedly just a matter of adding extra content, but even at this phase of their career, the band already had a grasp of how to extend their songs. You could argue that they got better at it on later albums, but even something like “Call From The Grave” establishes a strong musical narrative throughout its duration. The focus and overall ambience building shows itself in all the tracks, even to some extent in the aggressive half, and that (amongst other things) is a sign of songwriting expertise.

Another talking point to take home from Invisible Blog – the most influential and successful of extreme metal bands went beyond mere skin bashing and frantic fretwork, even if their recordings still sounded raw. Bathory’s increased expertise on Under the Sign of the Black Mark brings them to my attention and renders this a potent recording.

Highlights: “Equimanthorn”, “Enter the Eternal Fire”, “13 Candles”

Overkill – The Years of Decay (1989)

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Overkill, despite being a typically thrashy thrash metal band, has always had a touch of the melodramatic in their music. It’s not all that uncommon, really, but understanding how it waxed and waned through their careers is helpful for analyzing their discography. My initial impression of The Years of Decay many years ago lead me to believe that it was on the decline in 1989 – that Overkill was trying to become more streetwise and generally focused on the aggressive, direct aspects of their music. Was that a reasonable appraisal?

Your first impression is probably going to depend on whether the first half (with shorter songs) or the second half (more extended songwriting) sticks out on your first listen. If it’s any consolation, Overkill had become proficient enough at this point in their career to create and differentiate both types of songs, so both chunks have a good chance of being your favorite. In my experience, the first half seems to win out with most people, but that might be because the straight up doom metal experimentation of a track like “Skullcrusher” is a bit niche compared to the more accessible punky thrash metal Overkill is known for. Divergent halves aside, The Years of Decay is generally more ambitious than its predecessors, with more technical instrumentation and more musical adventures in general, and that’s something I can always support.

While The Years of Decay predates Overkill’s ability to consistently get a good production, this side of their sound has nonetheless been refined. Some people might enjoy the rough sounds of this band’s earliest recordings, but this overall roughness and low fidelity is unfortunately not matched by special aggression or intensity. To be honest, this album’s mix doesn’t have much of a power advantage (power surge?) over its predecessors. However, it’s definitely clearer and more intelligible, which is a good fit for the increased musical expertise of this lineup compared to previous ones. I don’t know that the musicians are actually pulling anything out of the ordinary compared to before, even if their approach is more advanced. The exception is likely vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, who spent the decade gradually shifting from primarily sung vocals to primarly shouted and shrieked ones. He doesn’t abandon singing entirely (and never has), and he even manages to sound heartfelt and emotional on the title track, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Ultimately, Overkill’s 4th definitely fills a niche, even if it isn’t as immediately exciting as some of their recent, revivalish efforts. It’s still an important part of their career, and you should definitely add it to your collection if you want a good introduction to why Overkill got their fanbase in the first place.

Highlights: “Elimination”, “I Hate”, “Skullcrusher”

Massacra – Final Holocaust (1990)

ea3f83c41abbde39c01ddc365a7.jpgA French take on death metal! For whatever reason, Quebec seems to be the metal capital (at least per capita) of the Francophone world, but the actual nation of France has certainly made its contributions to the genre. Final Holocaust is another one of those liminal recordings from when death metal was first breaking into the mainstream – like many of its companions, it’s clearly faster, more technically demanding, and more polished than its immediate predecessors.  This only goes so far, though – Massacra’s debut is defined specifically by the internal tension between older, more overtly speed/thrash style/technique and the musical advances of death metal.

Such formal description belies the obvious brutality of Massacra’s music. The musical emphasis is more on riff development and complexity than rhythmic power, and Final Holocaust is driven by the sort of elongated and heavily ornamented riffs that only really get acknowledged at a site like Death Metal Underground. There’s plenty of them actually crammed into the songs, although I have some concerns about the way they’re ordered. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the tempo shifts – while the drums aren’t especially technical, the songs here are full of tempo changes that don’t divide cleanly into integers. If you’re not careful with those, you can end up with disjointed sounding songs, even if you’re like Massacra and don’t have a lot of other abrupt shifts and dissonances involved. Definitely a point of caution for bands in a similar style – work on the riff glue as well as the actual riffs. The production here is interesting, too. Most notably, Final Holocaust sounds treblier and generally higher pitched than your stereotypically bassy death metal recording. This is a very clean, almost dry and chalky mixjob. I’d say it’s very appropriate for the style of music here, primarily because it sheds a bright light on every nuance of the guitar technique. Given how much strumming and tremelo these guitars have, that’s pretty satisfying. Everything else is suitable, and pretty good for 1990, although otherwise not particularly noteworthy.

Maybe it’s because of the reasonably standard production and overall songwriting methods, but Massacra’s debut ended up being one of those recordings with a very long fuse/clicktime. If you take your time and give these tracks a dedicated listen, you’ll find much to like in Final Holocaust‘s musical language, flaws in song transitions aside. Unless you’re completely in love with this style, though, it might take a while.

Highlights: “Apocalyptic Warriors”, “War of Attrition”, “Eternal Hate”

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980)

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The first of the three Ronnie James Dio-fronted Black Sabbath albums. After the admitted success that was Sabotage, Ozzy’s followups with the band were… disappointing, to say the least, at least going by popular opinion. More than just a shift in vocals, Heaven and Hell represents a major paradigm shift for Black Sabbath, and one that (at least for a while) treated them so well that it later resulted in two separate revivals of the Dio age; one in 1992 (Dehumanizer) and another in 2009 (The Devil You Know). How’s the first salvo in the age of Dio, you might ask?

This is the point where I reiterate on the significant changes Heaven and Hell brings to the stereotypical Sabbath sound. Black Sabbath started out especially blues and doom oriented; while they diversified their approach throughout the ’70s, their first album with Dio actually reminds me, to some degree, of his work with Rainbow. Weighty album name aside, the songs here feel brighter and more assertive than before, although much of this is an overall shift in production. The guitars are cleaner than before, which helps with the accentuated focus on guitar leads, but comes at the expense of riff ‘heaviness’ on an album that remains heavily riff driven. One thing that’s definitely improved, however, is the quality of the vocals – Ronnie James Dio is far more technically accomplished as a vocalist than Ozzy Osbourne, who… admittedly fits on his recordings with Sabbath, but that may be more a sign of the songs of the time being written with his strengths and limitations in mind.

More than anything, Heaven and Hell feels like an important stepping stone towards ever faster and more extreme works in metal, but also towards what would eventually become the power metal scene. Other albums in 1980 were faster and more aggressive (Motorhead’s Ace of Spades comes to mind), but any overtures to this in an age where disco’s rotting carcass was being scavenged for the electronic dance music that would dominate future decades are worth noting. If this sounds like the buildup to one of my ‘historical significance’ rants, it probably is – after all, a comeback album by a world famous band usually draws the attention of the music press at large. On the other hand, this album is strong enough in overall songwriting that we can quickly toss that aside. It lacks some of the overt prog influence of previous Black Sabbath efforts (read: Sabotage), and is generally performed in a pop oriented fashion, but it’s nice, loose pop, with lots of bridge content between big choruses, and a well-developed sense of narrative that comes in handy when you’re trying to write heavy metal. This is the sort of thing 10 years in the industry can help with.

In short, definitely pick this one up if you’re remotely into metal. You won’t be doing anything unique and unprecedented by doing so, but it’s still worth it.

Highlights: “Neon Knights”, “Children of the Sea”, “Die Young”

Immortal – At The Heart of Winter (1999)

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This is the first of Immortal’s supposedly more accessible takes on black metal. We could quibbles about just how much has been simplified and streamlined, but a few things are already certain. First, this was actually my first experience with Immortal (thanks, Pandora Radio!), and it definitely sounded like a stereotypical black metal album to my ears. Once I started filling in my Immortal backlog, I found that it’s still distinct from the distinguished albums that preceded it. In short, At the Heart of Winter is a definite style change, even if it’s the type you need to pay close attention to pick up on.

The actual songwriting here isn’t especially different, which definitely takes some time to pick up on after the aesthetic changes. First of all, At The Heart of Winter showcases the return of the extended songs to Immortal’s discography, mostly missing since their debut. Despite their previous absence, Immortal pulls them off very well here, with good content density and pacing keeping things interesting over the consistently lengthy durations. One potential problem is that there’s not much aesthetic or structural difference between each individual song. Immortal’s chosen substyle on this album arguably has more room for this than previous efforts, but instead they stick to what they know, for better or worse. I don’t personally think it’s a problem, but it still bears mentioning for those few who are ambivalent about what Immortal’s doing here.

It’s mostly the surface of Immortal’s efforts that have been rendered more accessible in whatever fashion. First of all, this is by far the best production the band had ever acquired up to this point. Previous albums were consistently intelligible, but At the Heart of Winter has both a sharper edge (through the guitars) and more depth (audible bass and explosive drums). For all the charms of a stereotypical lo-fi black metal mixjob, you have to admit that a more meticulous approach has its merits as well. Even if it’s the stereotypical Peter Tägtgren Abyss Studios sound, it still works out nicely. This lineup showcases greater instrumental skill than the ones before it as well. The drummer (pseudonymed “Horgh”) made his debut on Blizzard Beasts a year back, and that album’s aggressive blasts demonstrated his proficiency on the kit as well. On At the Heart of Winter, Horgh gets to showcase a greater variety of drum technique, which comes in handy for what is often a more midpaced affair. While the other band members (Abbath and Demonaz) also contribute much to this recording, anyone familiar with their previous work will most likely be desensitized to their own merits, but their melodic prowess and instrumental interplay shouldn’t go unnoticed either.

That you should listen to Immortal, and At the Heart of Winter in particular is kind of a truism. Still, as a clearer and better produced take on the strong ideas that launched Immortal to fame, it’s not only a good starting point, but a valuable work in its own right.

Highlights: “Withstand the Fall of Time”, “Tragedies Blows At Horizon”, “At the Heart of Winter”

Diamond Head – Lightning To The Nations (1980)

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For all I’ve read about this Diamond Head and their… post-Lightning to the Nations career, I’m lead to believe they have literally no idea why anyone ever liked them in the first place. As a debut, this is really about as good as you can get – a fully realized work that influences millions of metalheads for decades, even if most of it is second hand through a couple humble ’80s bands who admittedly went onto greater commercial success. Far from existing in isolation, Diamond Head’s debut was but one of many salvos in the much ballyhoo’ed New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and it’s a pretty good indicator of what the scene brought to the other heavy metal scenes of the time.

Lightning To The Nations doesn’t have a whole lot that wasn’t already prototyped or even fully realized (read: Rainbow, Judas Priest, Motorhead) in years before, but it’s consistently faster and more embellished than many of its forebears. It’s not necessarily more aggressive – the production standards are one of the major weak points here. While everything’s reasonably clear and intelligible, Lightning To The Nations can’t keep up with contemporary advances in guitar distortion, drum reverb, and other stereotypical measurements of heaviness. While this is understandable due to this basically being a demo, it does mean that Diamond Head has to rely on their compositional advances to keep people listening.

Without the aforementioned effort, Diamond Head would never have reached even their initial level of successful influence. Luckily for them, Lightning To The Nations nails both compact and extended songwriting (at least on the original version – some pressings include extra tracks that are… iffy.). The means that keep these tracks working are pretty basic – high riff density, skilled use of dynamics to define song structures, and generally accomplished (if not particularly technical) musicianship from the entire band. It’s probably a blog cliche at this point to say that metal musicians have become far more ambitious than Diamond Head’s debut ever was in recent years, but the tracks here still work and provide valuable lessons on how to extend metal beyond its blues-inflected cradle without resorting to flashy gimmicks.

If Diamond Head had managed to properly iterate on the ideas here in their future instead of making whatever Canterbury was… well, that on its own would be no guarantee of financial success, but it might’ve helped 30 years down the road. Still, having your DNA splattered all over the decade counts for something… and Metallica’s worship doesn’t hurt, either.

Highlights: “The Prince”, “Am I Evil?”, “Helpless”

Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)

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I’m beginning to think Terria is the archetypal Devin Townsend album from which all future works spring forth; at the very least, all of his solo content (well, maybe not the “heavy” stuff like the Ziltoids or Deconstruction) can be compared to something on here at some level. With that in mind, it might be best to try and understand Terria in isolation, analyzing it as if it were my first exposure to the stereotypical Devin Townsend sound, but given that such is far from the case, that sounds intimidating and needlessly difficult. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but if I play my cards right, you should at least be able to understand the what and why of Terria

Terria walks a fine line between ambient acoustic pop and heavy “progressive” metal (those times that I wrote for DMU makes it hard for me to use “progressive” as anything other than a marketing term), using its lengthy duration to explore all the ways you could combine these ideas or keep them separate. We get a series of extended songs and reliably sedate pacing, with occasional excursions into more aggressive, driving content. The mixing and production unites all of the content here, which is understandable given Devin’s instantly recognizable style of composition. Ultimately, there’s a good deal of structural variety, but the long length and occasional extended compositional asides will make a deep delve into Terria‘s depths an intense undertaking.

It’s immediately ironic that I use that phrasing – as far as I’m concerned, Terria has a lot of filler, but its peaks are huge. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the more driving and up-tempo parts of this album that keep it in my collection. For instance, “Olives” and “Mountain” make for a very drawn out and contemplative introduction, but when the pay off is “Earth Day”, a 9.5 minute epic that encapsulates every style Devin has done right over his career, it’s easier to give even the less immediately gripping tracks a chance. One benefit of listening to this album in one go (as opposed to going the singles route with the highlights) is that it really nails the laid back, contemplative, possibly pot-hazed atmosphere it appears to be going for. Whether that’s something you want in your life is something you have to decide for yourself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if I want to listen to Devin Townsend, I usually favor the heavier, more SYL flavored side of his discography. If that ever changes, though, there’s always Terria. Not to be confused with Terraria under any circumstances.

Highlights: “Earth Day”, “Canada”, “The Fluke”