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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi (2002)

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Although not a follower of Boards of Canada, I’m a devoted Geogaddi fan. If said followers are to be believed, Geogaddi is the peak of BoC’s hazy, nostalgic, slightly creepy take on 2000s IDM. This is what happens when you put a bunch of detuned analog synthesizers in a darkened room, or at least one possible result. Beyond their obvious affectations, Boards of Canada tends towards a consonant, accessible sound built on repeated melodies, sampled speech, and ambient noise. Confield this ain’t, but given the band’s apparent intent, this is probably to their advantage.

Geogaddi isn’t a concept album, but it does seem to have some intentional religion and occult themes that flavor the experience. The most obvious sign of this is the continued references to Branch Davidians and especially David Koresh of Waco standoff fame. Some of these songs take on more sinister undertones if you keep that in mind, but to be fair, that’s not the only mood on display here. Despite the aesthetic adornments, Geogaddi uses its sonar palette to great effect and achieves a very diverse sound in the process. This ability to make lots of ideas out of a relatively small amount of sounds is a plus in its favor.

The album’s songwriting, on the other hand, is more unified (and if you’ve been reading Invisible Blog recently, you might recognize this as part of my “e pluribus unum” bender). These tracks are driven primarily by small phrases repeated again and again, with subtle and gradual changes over time to distract you from the essential nature of what you’re listening to. This, amongst other things, inspires  my use of the “ambient” label; my experiences with electronic music have long since habituated me to the style and I can safely say that BoC intends no exception here. A few methods particularly stand out to me, though. The most prominent is how Geogaddi plays with rhythm and time signatures; more than just an album of loops, this is an album of odd (but not strange) loops. It should go without saying that by keeping your elements slightly out of sync, you can create a great deal of aesthetic variety out of otherwise limited content. Brian Eno did something similar on Music for Airports. BoC also shifts up their song structures on occasion, even accounting for the constant interludes. This sometimes results in a near-conventional pop song like “1969”, though whether that got the radio executive husks’ attention is a legend best researched by someone else.

Ultimately, Geogaddi is great at what it does, has a few particularly unique tricks up its sleeve, and hits some of my aesthetic/conceptual interests in the process as well. You can imagine how it might end up devouring my soul.

Highlights: “Music is Math”, “Sunshine Recorder”, “Alpha and Omega”, “You Could Feel The Sky”

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Re-Review: Oomph! – Unrein (1998)

folder.jpgAnother blast from the past! For whatever reason, Unrein didn’t make it into any of my capsule reviews, which I should probably give another shot at some point. It’s not for unworthiness of being re-reviewed, at least from a historical stance. The funny thing about Unrein is that I wouldn’t have listened to it (or Schattenreiter, for what it’s worth) except for the intervention of some humble editors at Wikipedia and their evangelistic efforts to support Neue Deutsche Härte – i.e, the vaguely Germanic analog for nu-metal Rammstein plays. Nowadays, Wikipedia isn’t my primary source of new music, but OOMPH! is still in my collection. What does this mean?

I guess, at the very least, we can at least assume some level of competence from Unrein, since it has been getting some level of activity in my listening rotation for upwards of eight years now. This definitely takes place in a pop context of some sort – OOMPH! writes verse-chorus-verse flavored songs and generally favors middling tempos. On the other hand, they allow some elements of extreme metal technique into their music – harsh vocals, chromatic riffs, the occasional passage of double bass drumming, and so forth. I’d call it a sign of the times – while full on death metal and such was in a commercial slump, popular acts were willing to incorporate small doses of it into their music if it made them sound edgy. This may be a deliberate oversimplification of the ’90s metal music industry, but whatever. From my perspective, Unrein at least sounds good – the guitars are bassier and chunkier than what I would write, but whoever produced this filled out the rest of the soundscape with lush synthesizer patches and a solid mix that gives OOMPH!’s ensemble a chance to gel effectively.

Unrein‘s production is probably its strongest element, but it also has some streamlined pop songwriting proficiency in its favor. Admittedly, they’re a bit inconsistent in doling it out – there’s a lot of plodding tracks that don’t really go anywhere. When everything fits together, though, OOMPH! successfully channels an oppressive, gothy ambience that helps take away from the goofier, neurotic edge that some of the English language lyrics end up creating. My German knowledge has decayed to the point that I can’t really gauge how successful the band is auf Deutsch, but that might be a good thing – if this band is composed of edgelords in its native language, then I’m probably dodging a bullet. I guess I can’t really say much about the songwriting in general beyond that, but when you’re oriented towards some sort of pop, being able to nail an aesthetic is worth a lot.

Ultimately, this album is good enough that it makes me wonder if the band was able to follow up on its successes later in their career. I wonder why I’ve never taken the time to find out.

Highlights: “My Hell”, “Anniversary”, “Bastard”

Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (1986)

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Rust in Peace is more intricate and technically accomplished, but Peace Sells is by far the “coolest” album Megadeth ever released. We’re still not entirely sure what it means for an album to be cool, but in my defense, it was the 1980s, and if you had a guitar, everything looked like a metal album. Either way, Megadeth’s flashy, stylish take on speed/thrash metal was fully formed by this point – better musicianship than Metallica, with most of the aggression from the debut album amalgamated with more polished production and songwriting. Let’s be honest – it’s a good formula. In a year notable for its revolutionary metal recordings, Peace Sells was far from the bleeding edge, but it still draws blood to this day.

To be fair, it takes Peace Sells a while to fully bare its fangs. The first few tracks tend more midpaced than a lot of the material on Killing Is My Business, which is arguably enough to push something like “Wake Up Dead” or the title track into accessible MTV metal territory. I don’t want to speculate too much about why for lack of information about the circumstances. Still, I think this album (and more generally, Megadeth as a whole) is most effective in its most intense and flamboyant moments. Even in 1986, it was a band full of flashy musicians who needed as much space as they could get to show off their shredding skills, and anything short of it feels limited by comparison.

For whatever reason, I’m inclined to value the musicianship on Peace Sells more than the compositions. When I wrote about Rust in Peace, I mentioned that even in their heyday, Megadeth had some composition organization problems that dogged them even at their arguable songwriting peak. These problems are present here too, but perhaps less noticeable here due to the simpler songwriting. It’s primarily an issue of individual riff glue; for whatever reason, the big picture and overall sectioning of songs isn’t as affected. It also helps that Dave Mustaine is in full charismatic vocalist mode. As far as I know, he relied ever more on flat growling as he and Megadeth got older, so it’s nice to hear him varying things up more on here. It should go without saying that successfully incorporating multiple styles of vocals into a metal album (or even just enough variation on your chosen technique) can help add flavor to your album. Beyond that, it’s good for gluing everything together.

Whether or not this album is better or worse than Rust in Peace might not be the best avenue of inquiry, now that I think about it. They’re both important Megadeth milestones.

Highlights: “The Conjuring”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”, “My Last Words”

Disharmonic Orchestra – Not to Be Undimensional Conscious (1992)

not to be undimensional conscious.jpgOnce upon a time, Austria was the center (figurative, not geographic) of a large and powerful empire ruled by the house of Habsburg. Now, it’s the birthplace of one of the most confoundingly named albums in the history of humanity. Despite this, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious isn’t half as strange as its name might suggest; it takes the form of a musically adventurous death metal album with fewer trips into the bizarre and obviously avant garde than you might expect. In short, while the brief rapping section in “The Return of the Living Beat” begs to differ, Disharmonic Orchestra has more in common here with the planet’s contemporary techdeath offerings.

Not to Be Undimensional Conscious gets to join the ever growing armada of obviously liminal albums reviewed here on Invisible Blog. A lot of this is because its more sanely named successor (Pleasuredome) was the sort of more experimental recording this one’s name lead me to expect, but signs of that future were already present here. This album is driven by its tension between the chunky, abrasive mix and its convoluted, strange writing. The album sounds clear enough that its angular riffing and abrupt song transitions can shine forth, but I can’t help but wonder if it might’ve been better served by a cleaner and more orchestrated sound. Spheres by Pestilence makes for a good comparison, but Disharmonic Orchestra isn’t trying to push the envelope quite as far here.

Ultimately, if you want to enjoy DO #2, you need to be able to attune to its take on death metal. If you like constant code switches between the band’s death/grind roots and the more bizarre and dissonant riffs, you’ll probably have a good foundation for appreciating what they’re trying to do with their songwriting. I feel like the rest of the package isn’t especially notable, though. The possible aesthetic mismatch is one thing, but this album has some of the most acceptable performances I’ve ever heard without pushing into meaningfully good territory. It’s not studio perfect, but it’s reasonably close by the standards of 1992. About the best I can say is that there’s prominent basswork, and a decent chunk of variety in the percussion. The weak point is probably the vocalist – Patrick Klopf has a good mid-ranged death growl, but he doesn’t do much to vary it in even subtle ways, making for a monotonous performance. Oddly enough, this stood out the most on my initial listens, perhaps for its unending cadence.

In recent years, Not to Be Undimensional Conscious strikes me as the foundation for a good death metal album – something you could elaborate on and expand to get something both interesting and pleasingly skull-crushing. Without that extra effort, though, you’re left with something bland at best.

Highlights: “A Mental Sequence”, “Groove”, “Idiosyncrasy”

Amorphis – Tales From The Thousand Lakes (1994)

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Here’s a strange liminal album. When I first sat down and listened to Tales From The Thousand Lakes, I was expecting that the band would’ve kept more of the death metal elements of their first album. Instead, Amorphis spent the entire album prototyping their current sound. Tales From The Thousand Lakes, for better or worse, has little interest in capturing any of the death metal songwriting that Amorphis had previously subsisted on, but for whatever reason it retains dark, murky production values that, as far as I know (and let’s be honest, I don’t, since my Amorphis familiarity halts and catches fire after Elegy) have long since been abandoned for brighter, more accessible sounds. In short, this feels more like the Early Access version of Elegy than it perhaps should, with the caveat that I might only feel this way due to my personal experiences with Amorphis.

So what does this mean? First of all, Tales From The Thousand Lakes shares that broad aesthetic of dreary, cold, rainy days that occasionally burst into explosive sunlight; that much it presumably shares with the non-death metal era of Amorphis. The songwriting tastes of old, primeval rock and metal albums from the ’70s and ’80s, with special aesthetic notes taken from the era’s progressive rock and synthesizers; those in particular are irresistible bait for someone like me. There’s more doom and a rougher, nastier production than what future albums would provide, but I suspect that given the modern take, most of the content here would fit flawlessly along the band’s modern content. Still, we end up with the same sort of synesthetic mastery of atmosphere and mood on Tales that permeates the band’s discography. The more I listen to Amorphis, the more I suspect this was a major part of what earned them their fame.

Interestingly enough, one thing that Amorphis managed to preserve from The Karelian Isthmus (besides the growls) is the overall strengths and weaknesses of their songwriting. In some cases, the problems with riff glue and overall song structure that album suffered from are even more pronounced than before – the tracks here are littered with irrelevant asides, wasted intros, all sorts of writing jank that grinds my gears. Yet again, the strength of individual song sections (as well as a few tracks that manage to merge all of their ideas into a coherent whole) salvages a lot of the material here. We also are blessed by the peculiar, nasally clean-sung vocals of Tomi Koivusaari. They are something less than technically proficient, the few sections he provide add an eerie, otherworldly sheen to some already evocative music. I guess they’re supposed to be folksy; it’s perhaps more important to the overall sound that it feels like that’s supposed to be the case than that they’re authentic. Still, it’s a strong addition to the album, and a unique one in light of Elegy‘s more conventional singing.

To be honest, I was expecting to write a far more critical review of this album when I decided to talk about it. Perhaps I would’ve, had the vocal histronics not suited me, or had the band’s growing ear for songwriting not made itself apparent with repeated listening. Instead, it turns out that I’ve found more in Tales From The Thousand Lakes than I was initially expecting.

Highlights: “The Castaway”, “Black Winter Day”, “Forgotten Sunrise”

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”

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.