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Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)

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One of heavy metal’s earliest classics begins with a dose of lyrical whiplash, at least until you think about it. Master of Reality‘s switch from marijuana devotional (“Sweet Leaf”) to Christian fire and brimstone (“After Forever”) may or may not be intentional, but the switch (featuring lyrics from Bill Ward instead of the album’s usual Geezer Butler) is one heck of a way to introduce an album. If it were all Black Sabbath had in their favor, this would be an unnecessarily shallow album. But there’s more to it. There’s always more to it.

Master of Reality is arguably Black Sabbath’s first ‘fully formed’ album. Some people award that title to Paranoid, and you could make a case for that, but this 3rd effort has enough advances in production and songwriting to shift my opinion in its favor. In general, this is a compact, blues-inflected take on the embryonic heavy metal genre. Even if Black Sabbath is using riffs and song structures that would be reused and built upon for decades to come, their musical roots remain strikingly obvious, although the infamous blues show up more in the instrumentation and general aesthetic than anywhere else. The tritones and repetition had to come from somewhere… which admittedly isn’t very specific. Still, it’s good historical methodology to remember that Black Sabbath’s evolution was inextricably tied to the musical scene around them, especially since they achieved major sales and fame very early on.

As far as I’m concerned, this album’s important advances come primarily from its songwriting, and its song structures in particular. I’m admittedly under-familiar with the band’s work prior to this, but there’s enough information that I can extrapolate from this album alone to say that even in 1971, Black Sabbath was beginning to seriously hone their songwriting. Even though they’d written some extended improv-oriented jams before, even Master of Reality‘s more conventional pop songs contain more unique sections and musical ideas than otherwise expected. The transitions between musical ideas are, however, somewhat iffy even at the best of times. If Sabotage indicates anything, it’s that Black Sabbath (like many bands) got better at building songs over time, although this often comes at the expense of the band’s original charms. Black Sabbath only had so much material in this vein, and even their good albums after this take a significantly different approach whether for reasons of novelty, or complete band replacement, or whatnot.

I suppose that in an alternate universe, I may have categorized Master of Reality as the final draft of Black Sabbath’s initial contributions to heavy metal music. There’s enough evidence for that position that you could debate exactly what role this album fulfills in the band’s discography for quite a while. Alternatively, you could just add Master of Reality to your collection. It’s historically important, but it’s also accomplished enough to hold up even today.

Highlights: “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of this World”, “Into the Void”

Orbital – In Sides (1996)

folder.jpgIf my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?

On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.

It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.

Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.

Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”

Averse Sefira – Tetragrammatical Astygmata (2005)

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You know, Texas is an absolutely fascinating state. I might be biased because I lived in Round Rock for two years when I was a child, but it never ceases to amaze me that the little nation that once could has overcome inept governance and a cavalcade of dangerous microclimes to become one of our country’s leading exporters of black metal. Tetragrammatical Astygmata is interesting because it’s an especially chaotic and dissonant contribution to the genre that’s also surprisingly accessible and hooky. Is that my musical preferences expressing themselves again? Probably. Don’t be surprised if the rest of this review reflects my biases as well.

While the more dissonant chunks of black metal raise a lot of questions about where metal subgenres begin and end, Averse Sefira’s musical languages shares enough of the rest of its surface (high pitched vocals, less emphasis on percussive variation, etc.) to otherwise fall into blackened realms for marketing purposes. Two things make this band click – their songs have a preponderance of individual riffs organized into varied structures, and the whole chaotic/dissonant angle is used to reinforce coherence and expand their musical language. These ideas are integrated effectively enough that I actually had to sit down and give these tracks a deep listen in order to figure out just how they were pushing the envelope. Averse Sefira obviously isn’t the first to play with these ideas, even within black metal, but I always appreciate a band that can pull it off.

A lot of Tetragrammatical Astygmata‘s musical elements, in fact, are like this – an accessible facade with turmoil under the surface. Even this isn’t all that novel, although you’re still more likely to find music with little more to its name than surface noise or deep lore. For instance, the production is at the liminal point where raw aggression gives way to studio polish, with a clear mix allowing listeners to appreciate every nuance of the instrumental work without detracting from its overall extremity. The vocals and lyrics are also worth a note – the actual words spoken are sparse, abstract, well spaced, almost slam poetry. Still, they’re delivered with enough conviction (…if maybe not that much diction) that you’d actually want to look at the lyrics and analyze them, at least if you’re particularly into the lyrical/ideological aspects of metal albums.

Those of you who’ve been reading along for the last few years and whom are also familiar with this album are probably silently nodding. I can sense it – you probably saw the cover art and thought something along the lines of, “That’s something our author would definitely enjoy”. Averse Sefira isn’t all that well known as of 2017 (although they presumably had some moments of relative fame), but if I’ve done something to popularize them by writing about their work, then surely something good has come of today, right?

Highlights: “Detonation”, “Helix in Audience”, “Mana Anima”

Jag Panzer – Ample Destruction (1983)

folder.jpgAmple Destruction is one of the first salvos in what later became the US “power metal” scene. You can a big chunk of the musical language that many a future power metal band would exploit strewn through its tracks (which isn’t to say that Jag Pazner invented these ideas). Compared to many of those future acts, but also many of its predecessors, this recording is rougher, more aggressive, and generally hostile. It also launched the career of Harry Conklin, who went on to perform in his share of power metal inflected acts and ushered in a age of ambiguous extremity for various incarnations of his other band (Satan’s Host).

For better or worse, I’ve heard many a raging metalhead compare Ample Destruction to Metallica, of all bands. There’s more to this than you might expect, and a comparison to that band’s debut (Kill ’em All) can be surprisingly helpful. Jag Panzer doesn’t emphasize speed or long-form songwriting nearly as much as Metallica did in their earliest days, but they both share a common lineage (souped up NWOBHM), and it shows in the rough but well-amped production each album shares. Harry Conklin’s mixture of piercing screams and powerful midrange, though, ensure that this is a vocal driven album. His vocal technique is rougher than it would be, but his ability to handle both registers, while not uncommon, is still impressive.

Ultimately, this is a pretty basic take on the whole “power metal” concept. To be fair, it was 1983, and Jag Panzer’s work here is a far cry from the extreme simplicity of the deepest and sickest extreme metal of the time, but this is best understood as an amped up and occasionally sped up version of contemporary popular metal. Its compact songs and good production make for a consistent and solid album, if not one that’s especially amazing. The worst thing I can say about this album is that it’s been done better by a thousand other bands… in fact, Jag Panzer themselves got better at their craft after they reformed in the ’90s. Ample Destruction still has enough charisma beyond its historical value to justify a space in your record collection, probably by virtue of matching/exceeding the traditional recordings on songwriting chops. You’re likely getting a more nutritious and balanced audiomeal out of this than a Motley Crue or Dokken record, anyways.

Some albums are more conducive to my style of writing than others. I did fairly recently ‘accidentally’ open a copy of this album’s cover art in Microsoft 3D Builder, though, and I learned that I could get a really crappy heightmap 3D printed and sent to me for only 500 dollars or so. That’s interesting, right?

Highlights: “Harder Than Steel”, “Generally Hostile”, “Eyes of the Night”

Merciless – The Awakening (1990)

folder.jpgI suppose we have Mayhem to blame for this one. Deathlike Silence Productions only released a few albums in its lifetime,  but their releases tended towards the influential and musically successful, so that has to count for something, right? Interesting, then, that the label’s first release was this mile a minute death-thrash-black-ambiguous brief blast of extremity. It’s not clear which pile this one fits in – the subtle use of consonant melody and fast yet deemphasized production summon forth the “1.5th wave black metal” buzzword demons, but Merciless almost certainly osmosed (pun possibly intended?) the nascent death metal of their native Sweden as well. The end result is kind of like the spiritual successor to Reign in Blood.

In contrast to some of the albums I’ve been writing about recently, The Awakening‘s recipe is simple – compact, aggressive songs with writing that’s basic, but not so rudimentary as to be uninteresting. The band doesn’t exactly deviate from this, but The Awakening clocks in at an infinitesimal 27 minutes, so there isn’t really much need for divergence. Luckily, the songs here vary enough in overall structure (even though they share an aesthetic) to keep your interest. I feel like I say that a lot when discussing this sort of album, but in my defense, music that falls below my complexity preferences doesn’t tend to get featured much on Invisible Blog. There should be plenty of it on the radio if you’re into that sort of thing.

Snark aside, what distinguishes The Awakening from many of the earlier extreme metal albums of the 1980s is its level of polish. This is hardly unprecedented – Merciless may be performing similar types of songs to their predecessors, but the recordings are still faster and more precisely performed than much of what followed. It’s not a push towards a more technically accomplished style, though. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of the early proto-underground acts would’ve put out similar recordings if they’d been given extra budget and studio time while continuing to write and perform in their previous style. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of many recordings that are like this, since a lot of the more prominent extreme metal bands of the mid-80s (like Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Sodom, Bathory, etc.) changed up their styles significantly when they secured access to recording studios. Perhaps the record label circumstances had something to do with Merciless ending up conceptually rawer?

Dwelling on how Merciless made The Awakening may be a futile gesture were I not to go interview and document hunting. On the other hand, The Awakening is a compelling enough document on its own, at least for fans of this substyle. Plus, it basically has Euronymous’s stamp of approval on it, so that has to count for something, right?

Highlights: “Pure Hate”, “Dreadful Fate”, “Denied Birth”

Sepultura – Bestial Devastation EP (1985)

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In the before time, the long long ago, when the evangelicals believed themselves a guardian against the vagaries of youth culture, Sepultura released their first unassuming EP as a split with a band called Overdose. A few years later, they became famous, and Overdose… didn’t. Nowadays, you’re not likely to pick up Bestial Devastation without the recording immediately succeeding it (Morbid Visions), but that’s probably okay since the two share much of their DNA and complement each other nicely. Morbid Visions is more ambitious,  Bestial Devastation is more aggressive and direct, but they’re basically cut from the same cloth, even if the EP is understandably formed from less of it.

Bestial Devastation‘s major advantage over Sepultura’s first full-length is that it sounds better. For whatever reason, the two production styles on display here are louder, cleaner, and more aggressive. There are relatively subtle differences in guitar tone, but as far as I’m concerned either style makes for a more appropriate mix than the iffy, janky sound on Morbid Visions. As far as I’m concerned, this EP needs the better mix to sell itself properly. The shorter and simpler songs (with the caveat that Morbid Visions was never all that complex) are going to soak into your brain faster.

Even if the songwriting is simpler, I actually think this works better for the band, at least given the songwriting chops Sepultura could muster at this point. Lots of musicians take a while to “mature”, or in Sepultura’s case, hire Andreas Kisser and rapidly transition to a cleaner, more technically advanced style (which, to my understanding, takes us to about the age of Arise). While that incarnation of the band could write longer songs while remaining coherent, this one does better if they keep things compact. Compact, though, doesn’t always have to mean more simplistic – the actual riff density is occasionally higher here than on Morbid Visions. There’s still more repetition of previous ideas and such present, but this is where the sharper aesthetic comes in handy. This, I suspect, is what keeps Bestial Devastation interesting beyond mere historical value.

For all my attempts to compare the two, fans of Morbid Visions will likely find a spot for Bestial Devastation, and vice versa. Part of that is almost certainly the packaging, but two recordings separated by so few degrees of time and personnel from a band that (at least early in its lifespan) didn’t change up their approach very rapidly… How do you say something makes sense in Portuguese? I don’t trust Google on this one.

Highlights: “Antichrist”, “Necromancer”

Mekong Delta – The Principle of Doubt (1989)

folder.jpgWhat a strangely produced album. The Principle of Doubt resembles its immediate predecessors on a musical level, but it sounds like it was recorded in a cavern… under a swamp… with instruments made of sheet metal. In other words, it’s a little reverby, and this combined with the often slower tempos and greater levels of dissonance make for a deceptive album on first glance. Give it some time, though, and its continuation of Mekong Delta’s technically flashy and vibrant speed/thrash metal sound will become apparent.

To get it out of the way – The Principle of Doubt is not a hard sell for someone who liked the self-titled debut, or The Music of Erich Zann. At most, it refines on the musical techniques and strategies of previous albums and perhaps exaggerates some of the stranger aspects of their sound a little. There are also some other minor changes that became more apparent with time, such as a generally slower tempo and a more experienced Wolfgang Borgmann on vocals (this time better at throwing and multitracking his voice), but they’re obviously not enough that I would describe this album as doing anything but staying the course. In 1989, Mekong Delta’s stylistic shifts were still off in the future.

While it took me a while to warm up to this one (mostly due to the odd aesthetics), I would nowadays argue that it’s the strongest of the band’s “classic” trilogy, although the previous two are still good choices for fans of this style of music. Oddly enough, I think it’s the minor style changes that make this one shine. As far as I’m concerned nowadays, Borgmann was a weak link in the early days of Mekong Delta, so his steady improvement in technique and growing ambition add some much appreciated aesthetic variety to the tracks. The same songwriting formulas are present here, though, so even without him Mekong Delta would not be lacking for in-track variety, whether it be riffs or textures or overall dynamics. While speed freaks might not like the slackening tempos, they seemingly allow the band to perform more complicated instrumental parts that are conducive to the overall chaotic and mindbending atmosphere they’re going for. If anything, it certainly beats the sterile, almost… klinical sound of Kaleidoscope.

While I would’ve preferred a more aggressive production style (especially given the style of music this album showcases), I still recommend The Principle of Doubt. I mean, if you doubt you’d enjoy this style of music in general, it probably won’t convert you, but how many albums out there actually can convert you to the ways of the vaunted tech-thrash?

Oh. Well… this one’s also good even if it’s less accessible.

Highlights: “Ever Since Time Began”, “Twilight Zone”, “The Jester”, “No Friend Of Mine”