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Posts Tagged ‘vocals’

Alabama Thunderpussy – Open Fire (2007)

a0173502929_10.jpgAs a Massachusetts native, it is my sworn and solemn duty to denigrate the southern half of my country for whatever reason seems most amusing at the time. Take this band – they aren’t even from Alabama, but instead were apparently based out of the … less southern state of Virginia. Digressions aside, Open Fire still comes from a part of the country that’s considered acceptably Southern, and it shares enough DNA with country pop and rock music that it’s inevitably labelled “Southern metal” by writers worldwide. Who am I to resist that?

Open Fire is especially blues and rock inflected for its overall intensity levels, but surprisingly not in the immediate and obvious way that the subject of my last review is. After the 1970s, your average metal band stripped out enough of the obvious blue notes that without locking yourself in your room and blasting Black Sabbath for hours on end, it was potentially hard to understand why people were still drawing the connection. Alabama Thunderpussy is definitely bluesy, but instead of returning the method by which formative metal albums incorporated it, they’ve overlaid it onto a more modern take on the metal shtick. It’s hard to say whether this makes it sound more like an amplification of the past, or less, but one thing is for certain – this band owes its very life to the roots rockers, even if they’re aesthetically further away than most in a similar position.

Alabama Thunderpussy has a few aces up their sleeve that keep them in my listening rotation despite being surprisingly far off from my usual listening and composing fodder. The first is Kyle Thomas, of Exhorder fame. His ferocious performance on that band’s albums belies his abilities as a more conventional (read: rock-style) singer, and while he does summon forth the occasional scream, his cleans demonstrate a strength of tone and dynamics that help him stand out. I don’t know who provides the lyrics on Open Fire, but his performance strengthens what are already a well written, apocalyptic brimstone preacher set of words. My emphasis on the band’s vocal/lyrical prowess shouldn’t detract from the prowess of the rest of the band members, though – while the style they’re performing in doesn’t provide all that much room for musical innovation, the compositions here are both well performed and varied enough in structure that they remain interesting over the album’s 50 minutes.

I can no longer remember why I decided to give this band a shot in the first place, although I’d guess, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, that I was following the vocalist. Either way, I’m glad I did.

Highlights: “The Cleansing”, “The Beggar”, “Open Fire”, “Brave the Rain”

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”

Front Line Assembly – Millennium (1994)

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After a couple years of increasingly commercially successful electro-industrial music, Front Line Assembly goes sort of metallic on Millennium. It didn’t get them onto Encylopedia Metallum, but the addition of a guitar attack and a more vigorous rhythmic section did a good deal to harden up the band’s already menacing sound. This is really the perfect album for the 1990s – darker and edgier than before, but still pretty much in line with the evolving trends of the decade’s rock/metal scene. On the other hand, this album is over 20 years old, and trends have changed. Does this album still hold up. The problem with asking me such a question is that like the vast majority of the music reviews here on Invisible Blog, this is an album I listened to fairly recently, so my opinions on it are shaded by the fact I never got to live the zeitgeist (If I had, I would’ve been an exceedingly precocious toddler).

Anyways, I chose to listen to Millennium mostly for its industrial metal sound. Compared to something like Ministry’s Psalm 69, the guitars are relatively subtle, and the emphasis is on how they mix in with the established electronic side of the band. Songs here generally fit into a standard pop mold, albeit with elongated, sample-driven bridges that admittedly vary in how much they actually contribute to the atmosphere. “Industrial”, as a genre, sometimes comes off as a genre more oriented towards film enthusiasts, and to be honest it sometimes tries my patience when Front Line Assembly bases part or all of a song off a couple quotes from some film I probably will never watch.

When the band relies more on their synthesizers and other instrumentation (As I was researching for this review, I learned that Devin Townsend provided guitar work for a few tracks), I find myself far more interested. Millennium sticks to a fairly narrow aesthetic, but the songwriting crew is creative enough to push it in a few unexpected directions, most notably the rap-rock crossover track “Victim of A Criminal”. Bill Leeb’s vocals are also a highlight – his heavily processed tones are an important mixture in the band’s multilayered synthesizer attack, and they effectively set the mood by texture alone, even when the lyrics are a bit hamfisted.

Overall, Millennium sounds strong and has enough of an accessible yet versatile songwriting style to succeed, but I’d probably try to edit out some of the filler if I had access to the master tracks. I don’t know why I feel this way about the album when some of the other filler-laden albums I’ve listened to don’t elicit such a strong response, but maybe it has to do with the whole mechanical aesthetic?

Highlights: “Millennium”, “Search and Destroy”, “Victim of a Criminal”, “Plasma Springs”

 

Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)

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Pestilence’s second album with Martin van Drunen is, to put it academically, chunkier and smashier than their first. Like many death metal albums before the Great Technical Revolution of 1991, the emphasis here is on creating a nightmarish atmosphere; the musicians of Pestilence correspondingly deemphasize the intense speed and instrumental proficiency that defined Malleus Maleficarum. If “early atmospheric death metal with a charismatic vocalist” wasn’t a microgenre before 1989, Consuming Impulse on its own would be enough to codify it. In our timeline, it turns out they had a lot of help, but that’s kind of peripheral.

As the microgenre shtick might lead you to believe, one of Consuming Impulse‘s defining moments is the one where Martin van Drunen truly comes into his own as a vocalist. You get some hints of this on the early tracks, but everything finally clicks on “The Trauma”, as his screams take on an especially dynamic, even tortured sound that competes well with any other famous extreme metal vocalist of the time. Pestilence’s style on their early full lengths is heavy on the vocals (and heavy in general, but you should know that by now), but this album pushes the idea significantly further than the last, which makes it imperative that Martin keep the listener’s interest, even at his voicebox’s expense.

While the rest of Pestilence is simpler, slower, and more direct than they were on Malleus Maleficarum, they still retain their songwriting chops, and therefore do an admirable job. Part of this is that the band keeps some of their more important trademark techniques going – even if there’s fewer and simpler riffs, the ones that are there fit together like lock and key. Consuming Impulse also compensates for its simplification by adding harmonic depth in more places; while previous albums saw some tiny experiments with synthesizers, this album bumps their presence up a bit more. While still scarce, the keyboard/sampling parts on this album are used to great effect, most notably in the breakdown of “Suspended Animation”. Fans and detractors alike of the Patrick Mameli lineup will know how synthesizers eventually became the new Pestilence, but here they are simply effective punctuation.

The strong songwriting and superlative vocals on their own bring Consuming Impulse towards the top of the Pestilence pile. I do have to admit, though, that I’m quite the fan of its predecessor’s pace, even if the atmosphere then wasn’t quite as putrid. Fanciful alliteration aside, they’re both quality albums, and if you’re at all interested in death metal, especially of the sorts generated by Europe, then you should give them a shot.

Highlights: “Dehydrated”, “The Trauma”, “Out of the Body”

Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins – A Scarcity of Miracles (2011)

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This is a King Crimson album. Sort of. Maybe. With the accession of Jakko Jakszyk into King Crimson in 2013, all the named members in the band name are now proper members or former members, for better or worse. It even shares much of its musical ancestry and backing with what King Crimson became (compare to their debut; 40 years can be… disruptive). And yet, this ProjeKct is one primarily of semi-ambient soundscape pop music – not unheard of in short bursts on the band’s mainline albums, but given that King Crimson once contributed much to the musical language of the heavy metal that serves as the bread and butter of Invisible Blog, it still takes some getting used to.

The “genesis” of this album probably lies in Robert Fripp’s experiments with recorded tape loops and similar from the 1970s onwards – aka “Frippertronics”. While A Scarcity of Miracles makes limited use of them at best, Fripp’s experience with such give this project a deep reservoir of experience to draw upon.On the other hand, the actual songwriting is driven more by conventional instrumentation, with the ambient guitarscapes used for texture. That much is probably Mel Collins’ contribution; he helped woodwind up King Crimson in its early days, and I’d go as far as to say that his saxophone parts are one of the most important parts of A Scarcity of Miracles. Still, the overall aesthetic owes more to KC’s latest works, so you shouldn’t expect any lizard or island worship here.

I expect that much of your opinion on this album is going to boil down to your opinion on post-1995 King Crimson. Not everyone who reads this blog has the time to listen to their studio albums and miscellany from that era, but it’s something of a mixing pot; an interesting juxtaposition of both the improvisatory frenzy of their ’70s and the more overtly structured 1980s lineup of the band. While the dynamic levels here are usually pretty sedate, there are some intense moments scattered throughout, and they’re arguably strengthened by their rarity. It still makes more sense to judge this album based on its predominantly ambient passages, though, and this is why A Scarcity of Miracles strikes me as a niche product. It requires deeper listening attention to properly appreciate than its accessible facade of vocals and saxophone might lead you to believe. Even then, it’s not particularly dense, although continued listening has lead me to respect this album for its skillful interplay of instrumentation and ability to turn the famed King Crimson free improvisation in a more consonant and coherent direction than usual.

It’s still not an enormously frequent listen for me, though, but if my music tastes were significantly different…

Highlights: “The Price We Pay”, “This House”, “The Other Man”

Blind Guardian – Somewhere Far Beyond (1992)

FrontWith this album, you catch Blind Guardian with their ’80s speed metal costume in the laundry hamper, struggling to put their ’90s symphonic power metal outfit on. Or does that describe the next album? Somewhere Far Beyond, on second thought belongs more to that earlier era of European power metal that, while clearly streamlined and marketed towards a growing audience, had yet to reach the peaks of orchestration and pomp that it’s usually associated with these days. There’s some restraint here. It’s helpful. Trust me on that, even if this album is all bombast and glory compared to, for instance, contemporary death metal. Still, it was part of an evolving genre, and the experiments with symphonic material helped lead many a band (including this one) further down that path.

In the process of writing for Death Metal Underground, I found myself frequently referring to the concept of the “Big Dumb Chorus™” when writing about mainstream power metal. The Big Dumb Chorus™ is an especially hammy and enormous refrain to the point that an entire song is built around it; the idea is lifted from earlier forms of popular rock and metal music. European power metal in particular is infested with Big Dumb Choruses™ to varying degrees. Blind Guardian’s songwriters are skilled enough to keep this album from being overwhelmed by these, but the songs are still driven by choruses despite the same people also trying to write lengthy complicated songs. This partial elaboration of style helps keep the album fresh, but Somewhere Far Beyond is still very pop oriented.

This lengthy aside about the Big Dumb Chorus™ and its role in Blind Guardian’s music should make it apparent that this band’s music is very much defined by what it lies in between. The good part of that is that Blind Guardian’s strengths lie in their intermediaries – how they effectively expand on pop song writing, how they maintain a good measure of speed metal aggression and roughness in spite of growing polish, in general how they mix together various musical concepts. The corollary is that when they falter, they fall off really badly – for instance, the title track needed some serious editing, since its sections are divided up by near-random instrumental changes. I’m not entirely sure what this says about Blind Guardian, except perhaps that they’re performing in a precarious style that rewards some caution and is very easy to overdo with unpleasant results. They’re still better at it than most who have tried it.

Anyways, it hasn’t escaped my notice that this album is quite popular with metalheads, at least of the Blind Guardian and power metal enjoying sort. I highly doubt I’m alone in specifically liking its liminalities.

Highlights: “Time What Is Time”, “The Quest for Tanelorn”, “Somewhere Far Beyond”

 

Augury – Concealed (2004)

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This is Augury before they went jazz-prog on Fragmentary Evidence. Concealed is kind of weird by comparison; it’s much more vocal driven, it relies more on ambience and texture, and I’ve seen it labeled a sort of death metal/folk fusion in response to the existence of the acoustic interludes and vocal interplay. I’m not so certain about the accuracy of that last bit, myself, but the end result is still a significantly different album, despite it sharing quite a bit of its ‘sound’ with its successor.

While it’s not an overtly jazz flavored album, Augury’s debut is still home to intricate musicianship. As the various types of vocals are so prominent here, it’s probably best to inspect them first, and indeed to give them special attention. Concealed is arguably defined more by the interplay between its vocalists than the mere fact they perform both death growls and various types of traditional singing; while you don’t get much in the way of simultaneous vocal overlap (which is admittedly kind of rare in metal unless you’re listening to Solefald), you do get constant style changes, which are the next best thing. The growls in particular aren’t especially ferocious, but instead seem to be oriented towards both depth of pitch and overall intelligibility; Frank Mullen’s vox in the band Suffocation are a good comparison.

Concealed orients itself, none the less, towards a progressive-metal sound, with a great deal of dynamic range, harmonic complexity, and messy compositions. The latter was less of a problem 5 years later, but the way that the songs on Augury’s material throw abrupt musical changes at the listener is something musicians and songwriters have to be very careful with in order to prevent disaster. In general, Augury knows enough about restraint to incorporate it into their songwriting without losing the drive towards complexity. Ironically, the intentionally dissonant sections are probably the weakest links, since the transitions between consonant melodies (which are easy, and Augury is good at them) and such are often janky at best. It’s hard to fault the band for their ambition, though, since they do manage to churn out some strong extended compositions in the meantime. It also helps that I appreciate ambitious songwriters, but you shouldn’t judge the members of Augury by my preferences.

While the stylistic differences between Augury’s albums could throw off some listeners, I still think that fans of one could easily cross over to the other.

Highlights: “Cosmic Migration”, “In Russian Dolls Universes”, “Becoming God”