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Posts Tagged ‘symphonic’

Anatomy of VGM #9 – Diablo II (2000)

diablo 2 boxart.jpgNote: This review will also cover the music of Diablo II’s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction.

The greatest tragedy of Matt Uelmen’s professional life is almost certainly that he was not present to ensure that Diablo III’s soundtrack would live up to the daunting standards of its predecessors. The less said about that one, the better. The music in Diablo II, on the other hand, expands on the techniques of its predecessor much like the game underlying it – there’s more of it in more styles with more variety of instruments, but the overall approach hasn’t changed. Predictable, yes, but I don’t think you can reasonably complain about sequels taking this approach.

In short, Matt Uelmen’s work on the Diablo series mixes Western symphonic traditions with dark ambience, and a tinge of rock and electronica for flavor’s sake. The balance varies throughout the environments that the player traverses in their quest to bring down the Prime Evils – from the Middle Eastern inspired deserts of Aranoch, to the entirely orchestral and even heroic accompaniment to your traversal of Mount Arreat (although to be fair, Lord of Destruction came out a year later, and its music is arguably a separate work). Each track isn’t especially long, but they’re densely packed, evolving gradually and sometimes ending in completely unexpected territory, but consistent instrumentation and recurring themes help to keep these soundscapes coherent.

Matt Uelmen has the rare and subtle talent to required to balance both ambience and narrative songwriting in these tracks, meaning that melodies and leitmotifs not only exist alongside the sounds of dark dungeons and demonic combat, but they also compliment them. One of the high points of playing this game properly (instead of just killing Mephisto until Tyreal snaps and begs you to stop for your own sanity) are the moments when you’ve just emerged from a difficult fight; a soundscape of blood, broken bones, elemental chaos, and the screams of the damned gives way to ominous, creeping terror. In short, you may have prevailed for the moment, but you’re still deep in the territory of a nightmarish enemy that could kill you in an instant… …at least on higher difficulties. For all the strengths of Diablo II‘s music, this is still a case where the actual game enhances the effectiveness of the soundtrack, which is surprisingly harder than the common opposite.

While many an action RPG has surpassed Diablo II‘s mechanics (Grim Dawn comes to mind; maybe I’ll write about that at some point if I feel the need), few have come close to its aural mastery. For all we know, Blizzard might make it freeware in a few years, just like what they did with Starcraft

Carach Angren – Lammendam (2008)

folderUnlike many of the bands I’ve discovered, Carach Angren was recommended to me when I made a post on the Encyclopedia Metallum forums asking for extreme metal with heavy symphonic elements. This is also how I learned of Anorexia Nervosa and Septicflesh, who both share some surface similarities. Carach Angren emphasizes their horror aesthetics in ways that become apparent when you analyze this album. Notably, the band specializes in paranormal stories that have to walk a fine line between Suspiria and Scooby Doo…

Regardless of theme, Lammendam‘s music is composed of symphonic black metal of varying intensity – it reliably remains within the traditions forged by bands like Emperor and Cradle of Filth, although the aggression level is usually closer to the former than the latter. It also has the dignity of not suffering from Theli syndrome – while not an incredibly complex album, Carach Angren’s metal side has plenty to do (including performing some of the important melodies), and the band members can carry their weight when the symphonics occasionally drop out. Production and mixing are accomplished enough that I notice them – I see it as crucial to good symphonic metal. Regardless, the underlying substrates of this album have been done, and done well; that in itself is not particularly new.

What may be more novel is the horror angle I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is well-integrated; whether the theatrical, melodramatic compositions will interest you, the reader is not something I can determine from my own writing, because that’s not how it works. I’ve noticed that this often manifests as a great deal of symphonic ornamentation – short runs of 2-3 chromatic or scalar (term?) notes, dissonant sting chords for emphasis, etc. The vocals, which are often quite comprehensible, also follow this trend with their lyrical ornamentation. Lammendam is a loose concept album about a legendary ghost in the Dutch province of Limburg; the lyrics occasionally collapse into goofiness even if they don’t ever really lose the concept. Seregor’s vocals show reasonable range – he has a tendency to emphasize words during song transitions that, at its worst, has him shouting “Slut!” in the middle of “Haunting Echoes from the Sixteenth Century”. I don’t know why that makes me groan/giggle, but it does. The rest of the music also sometimes suffers from this.

To be honest, I don’t know how seriously Carach Angren wants me to take their music. It sometimes sounds more silly than convincing, but the compositions are good, solid metal that demonstrates knowledge of musical theory and songwriting technique. Since I enjoy this style of metal, and I feel the band executes it well, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that Lammendam may be at least partially tongue in cheek. After all, it’s not like ghosts are real, right? The studies paranormal ‘experts’ mention fail to demonstrate sufficient rigor… and… and…

There’s one right behind me, isn’t there.

Recommendations from beyond the grave: “Haunting Echoes from the Sixteenth Century”, “Phobic Shadows and Moonlit Meadows”, “Corpse in A Nebulous Creek”

Septic Flesh – Communion (2008)

folderCommunion was one of the last albums by Septicflesh that I listened to, so it was with some understanding of the evolution of the band that I jumped into this album (and also a school assignment to learn about the influence of the Atlantic slave trade on the British industrial revolution, but that didn’t exactly alter my perception of this, did it?). Even more than its successor, Communion reflects a band that hasn’t changed its fundamental approach to songwriting since 1997, but the massive symphonic presence can hide this at times. I suppose this makes sense; after all, it had been successful for them in the past.

Ironically, Communion was also my first exposure to Septicflesh, although I ended up giving Ophidian Wheel detailed attention first. I found it hilarious how the title track’s choral vocals were essentially a minor key version of the “Meow Mix” jingle; in retrospect its structure makes it a bit of an outlier on this album. The first two tracks – “Lovecraft’s Death” and “Anubis” are more indicative of what follows. The former, despite containing plenty of blasts and symphonics is driven more by its passages of clean guitar and chugging rhythms. On the latter, the slower, melodic aspects of the band’s music become more prominent, and the secondary vocalist (Sotiris) offers contributions. Similarly to The Great Mass, much of the material here is reminiscent of work on Ophidian Wheel, but there are references to all previous eras of Septicflesh, even including the clean and poppy Revolution DNA.

All these approaches demonstrate that even on this album, it’s not the symphony orchestra that unifies the band’s writing, but instead the guitar leads. I’ve always said the emphasis on such gave Septicflesh versatility that many bands lacked, even when they *sometimes* stick to writing conventional death metal. The main benefits the symphony orchestra provide is harmonic reinforcement and a greater variety of timbre and textures, although there are many sections of this album (such as “Persopolis”) where they instead of the core band are driving the songwriting. Either way, the band is more successful in asserting their identity here than some other bands have been when they tried to add symphonics to their works. Then again, they went into it with a stronger identity crafted from years of experience, and an understanding of orchestral arrangements built from gradual experiments with the instrumentation – something that culminated in the band’s side project, Chaostar.

With all of this in mind, The Great Mass may be a better recording than this one, its predecessor. However, it would only be due to the production and songwriting refinements that album brought in; they’re essentially cut from the same cloth. Communion admittedly reveals what it’s taken from previous Septicflesh albums, perhaps due to being slightly earlier in the band’s reformation. Either way, if you like one, you’re likely to enjoy the other; perhaps you could get yourself a nice double purchase for Christmas?

Highlights: “Anubis”, “We The Gods”, “Sunlight Moonlight”

 

Obtained Enslavement – Witchcraft (1997)

folderCriminally overlooked black metal albums are a dime a dozen, even in the days of the internet. Witchcraft has sophisticated compositions, acceptable production and mixing, and a dense soundscape born of its “symphonic” elements, and yet to most, this band’s legacy is that the band’s main vocalist also contemporaneously served with Gorgoroth (who, to be fair, have also produced high quality black metal in their time). To be fair, this isn’t as immediately accessible as more minimalistic, lo-fi strains of black metal, like those popularized by Darkthrone. Arguably, the best comparisons are albums like Emperor’s debut, or even Sacramentum (although they lack the symphonic element).

One reason this album sounds the way it does is that while there’s plenty of layering, there’s not a lot of direct overlap between what each musician plays – in short, there’s plenty of polyphony, and many sections where one of the instruments is playing counterpoint to the others. Beyond this, the guitarists provide a wide variety of riffs due to their use of a wide variety of intervals (although there are a lot of 7ths), occasional forays into major-key tonality that remind me of Sorcier des Glaces, and an overall sort of ‘dueling’ approach that you don’t see often in music without frequent solos. The keyboards occasionally join in on the leads – the first example of this is probably the showy piano arpeggios near the beginning of “Veils of Wintersorrow”.

Overall, despite the claims of dark magic and night worship, the effect this album creates is more “heroic” in nature than your average black metal album. The obvious bands for that sort of material are Summoning or Bal-Sagoth (although that only applies to their earlier, more blatantly black metal albums), but Obtained Enslavement does offer enough of their own spin on this type of material to make them stand out. The overall aesthetic is very sonically dense compared to other epic fantasy lovers in the genre due to the aforementioned counterpoint and polyphony, but the compositions have their similarities. There’s even a bit of the ‘cheese factor’ I associate with such bands, although that’s limited mostly to some of the lower budget keyboard patches. This sort of style was very well established by 1997 – in fact, the band had contributed to such with their 1994 debut, Centuries of Sorrow, which is roughly similar to this, but apparently not as heavily symphonic.

If you ask me, the only real flaw of this album is that some of the later tracks feel redundant. The first half (up to “Warlock”) is top-tier melodic/symphonic black metal that strikes a good balance between musical complexity and the aggression expected of extreme metal. One reason the later tracks don’t come off quite as well might be that the high amounts of effort required to write this sort of music may have tired the band’s creative capabilities, but without any information about the creation of this album, I can’t say for sure. Either way, I wouldn’t dwell on that, given the overall high quality of this album.

Highlights: “Veils of Wintersorrow”, “From Times in Kingdoms”, “Warlock”, “The Seven Witches”

Waltari – Yeah! Yeah! Die! Die! Death Metal Symphony in Deep C (1996)

folderSo I’m told Waltari is supposed to be an “experimental” metal band. Regardless of the truth of that statement, I have reason to believe this is the second symphonic death metal album released. Compared to the first, the symphonic presence is much greater, but its’ integration into the death metal content of this album is much less advanced. As a result, we see plenty of straight-ahead (by the standards of Waltari) death metal and straight-ahead symphonic western classical, and a few tracks that are simply just wacky towards the end, but the amount of material where the symphony orchestra in question (Avanti!) plays in tandem with Waltari is actually fairly limited.

I’ve also heard that Waltari’s actual divergences into extreme metal are somewhat limited – for this, they imported a vocalist from Amorphis to provide death growls – Tomi Koivusaari has a reasonable (if not particularly strong) growl on here, but it’s not very dynamic. Fortunately for him, other vocalists handle that need by using entirely different styles – Kärtsy Hatakka brings in his weird, nasally, heavily accented spoken word (as well as some normal clean singing), while Eeva-Kaarina Vilke is drafted from somewhere in Finland to provide the obligatory female operatic vocals. They’re actually a fairly charismatic bunch – the arrangements on this album definitely place in them in an order that enhances their various strengths and methodologies.

In general, the songs do a relatively good job of making the various metal/classical/wacky fusions interesting and reasonably complex (although “Move”, the hip-hop flavored track might be kind of an outlier), but when separated from each other, these individual elements don’t fare so well. The death metal sections are the least affected by this – they’re played straight, played competently, and manage to incorporate some ideas that, if rearranged, could fit into the other ‘sections’ of this album. Their main flaw is that they aren’t particularly ambitious. The classical sections suffer from the opposite problem – they are simply overextended. Case in point – “Completely Alone” is the longest track on this album, and its ‘core’ is a progression that begins in the middle and repeats several times, with minor variations developing as it continues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is surrounded by several minutes of unrelated material, and (most importantly) the transitions between each part of the song are awkward at best. The strongest parts of this album are when Waltari and Avanti! are playing together (which seems to be a pretty common trend in symphonic metal), so I’m not sure why they weaken when sundered.

Attentive readers will note that I’ve given the ‘symphonic metal’ question a lot of thought over the last few years. It became surprisingly popular from the 1990s onwards. Were I feeling jaded, I would say it’s the result of metal musicians looking to what is considered art music in Western traditions and, in an attempt to secure greater legitimacy, trying to imitate it. Sometimes, this just results in more ambitious songwriting – in others, a symphony orchestra gets to eat for a few days. Compared to what I (still) think is the first symphonic death metal album, Waltari reaches higher peaks (even if many of them abstain from being death metal, or even proper classical music), but the limited integration holds much of this album’s content back from what it could be.

Highlights: “A Sign”, “The Struggle For Life and Death of ‘Knowledge’ “, “The Top”

Therion – Lemuria/Sirius B (2004)

A quick preface: Lemuria and Sirius B were released on the same day, share significant similarities in cover design, and significant amounts of musical personnel beyond the core members of Therion. They form a double album in all but name, and therefore are best listened to and discussed together. Which “side” one listens to first is entirely up to the listener; I personally started with Sirius B, but whatever.

smallsmallAnyways, I’ve claimed in the past that this duology is Therion’s best symphonic metal work, at times approaching the quality level of Beyond Sanctorum. It is blatantly in a different style, of course – entirely based in traditional/power metal with a very heavy symphonic presence (due to hiring a philharmonic orchestra). Even then, there’s significant stylistic variation throughout the duology. Sirius B contains more aggressive, direct songs, aided by guest vocalist Snowy Shaw. Lemuria is generally slower and more accessible, although for some reason there are some death growls on the 1st and 3rd tracks. Either way, Therion is using songwriting techniques here that date back at least to Theli, so that, at least, is nothing new.

The difference between Theli and all of Therion’s later ‘symphonic metal’ albums (these two included) is one of execution; even though Therion is still writing mostly verse/chorus songs on this album, they are much more memorable and coherent verse/chorus than they were on the aforementioned Theli. A lot of it is instrumentation – the band at this point clearly had more budget to play around with due to previous commercial successes, so they could vary the symphonic side a bit more than in the past. However, the underlying metal has improved. It’s still simple and basic, but it makes much better use of the ‘language’ of traditional/power metal, with better riffs, and more coherent (if not particularly technical) solos. In general, the vocals have not improved, but mainly because there was nothing really wrong with them on previous albums.

By my appraisal, the better songwriting is on Sirius B, which is also longer than the other ‘half’. I know that there’s a rough “east/west” split between the lyrical themes on these works – Lemuria takes on western Europe and the Americas, while its counterpart primarily handles various parts of Asia. There is one crossover in the form of Greek/Roman mythology; both albums have several songs  pertaining to that. I have little to say on the lyrics, except that they’re reasonably well written considering that they dabble in all sorts of weird occult mythology that I can sometimes recognize but lack the specialization to really pay attention to. Besides, I rarely pay much attention to the lyrics of my music. Tangents aside, Lemuria is also the shorter “half”, with fewer tracks and one odd tracking decision – “Three Ships of Berik” is split into two tracks despite seemingly being written as one. The ‘corresponding’ track on Sirius B, “Kali Yuga”, does not seem to suffer from that problem, although the first part segues into the second, and I generally feel the need to listen to both parts at once whenever.

As a result of all this, Lemuria is occasionally claimed to be formed from the “B-Sides” of Sirius B (pun probably intended by those making the claim). I don’t think this is intentional, but as I said, I do prefer the other side, just because it’s more direct and forceful in comparison. Even Lemuria has its heights – for instance, the title track is basically a sign that by 2004, Therion had figured out how to do coherent ballads. It’s better written and less cheesy than “The Beauty in Black”, at least. In general, it’s probably a better place to start looking at Therion’s symphonic metal work than Therion’s actual start. To be fair, many of the improvements that manifested between Theli and Lemuria/Sirius B were already present on Vovin to varying degrees, so I’m not going to make the claim that it took Therion an entire 8-9 years just to figure out their new style. I can, however, suggest that they probably peaked in this style here, or at least got bored with it. After this, there’s apparently a rather stripped down, experimental album, a meandering lost album, and an album of French pop covers (which was well received, surprisingly). Either way, Therion mostly abandoned progressive songwriting after 1993’s Ho Draken Ho Megas, so with the exception of “The Wondrous World of Punt”, you’re mostly getting verse/chorus. If you can live with that, you will probably find this duology to your liking, or more.

Anorexia Nervosa – Drudenhaus (2000)

This album is loud. It’s extremely loud. It’s written loud, it’s arranged loud, it’s mastered loud(ness war), and so forth. Loudness, in short, is Drudenhaus‘s greatest strength and greatest weakness simultaneously. On one hand, it’s an extremely aggressive example of symphonic black metal that’s reminiscent of the best moments of latter day Emperor, amongst others. However, the lack of dynamics and occasionally awkward songwriting (especially in terms of modulation) prevent the entirety of the album from reaching lofty heights.

Drudenhaus is an edge-loaded album, which is somewhat rare in my experience. Most of the albums I listen to have their best material at the beginning or in the middle. Here, it starts strong and ends strong, but there’s some filler in the middle. Since the entire album is with very few exceptions playing at full blast, it generally boils down to a question of what riffs and keyboard patterns are playing. Said things are generally melodic and somewhat polyphonic – sometimes complementing each other and sometimes playing off each other. In that respect, Anorexia Nervosa does not disappoint, as the album remains compositionally varied in spite of its aesthetic.

Merely saying things are loud is more descriptive than one would expect, but understanding what exactly is going on with the aesthetics is particularly important to understanding Drudenhaus. The sound, firstly, is very dense – most instruments are playing at most times, and the rhythms of the vocals even cover the songs in a fairly uniform matter. Said lyrics are recited in fairly simple rhythms at moderate speeds and exist in meaningful amounts. Since the vocalist relies primarily on shrieks (and cleans to a lesser extent), this means that the sonic profile of this album is very trebley, although there’s a lot of bass as well. The keyboards are a bit cheap sounding, but to a much lesser extent than a lot of other symphonic metal albums – the main problem is that things like the violin patches have this artificial high pitched sheen to them. It’s possible that there were some errors made during the album’s mixing. In short, while the loudness does make a good counterpoint to some of the more aggressively lo-fi works in the genre, it does make this album fatiguing to listen to.

Arguably, an album being too loud or too soft isn’t that much of a problem considering that volume can be adjusted by the listener. On the other hand, since the album is written loud, there are some limits to what it can do with the symphonic black metal format. Of note in this case is that this is the second out of four albums by the band – the first was in a significantly different style that was apparently based in industrial metal, while the next two remain symphonic and blackened. The potential for refinement, then, was there, but as usual, I can only review albums I’ve actually listened to. It’s to the band’s credit that Drudenhaus has enough good ideas to justify potential acquirement and review of their later albums, but my backlog has been out of control since at least 2009…

Highlights: “A Doleful Night in Thelema”, “The Drudenhaus Anthem”, “The Red Archromance”