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Posts Tagged ‘vocals’

Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)

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Now, I’m no theologian, but it continues to surprise me how little I’ve actually written on Genesis in recent years. Foxtrot was not my first foxtrot with the band (that would be Selling England By The Pound), but it seems to be the one that’s stuck with me the longest. It’s a good entry point into the progressive rock half of Genesis’s career – more developed and assertive than their early work, more consistent than the two after it, and reasonably comparable to the first few studio albums with Phil Collins, too. It took a few more years for the bandmembers’ individual musicianship to fully blossom, so as far as I’m concerned, Foxtrot is defined mostly by its commitment to extensive songs and vocal roleplay by Peter Gabriel.

Foxtrot takes only seconds to reveal the progress of keyboard technology and arguably the limitations of the band’s budget at this point with a short prelude on mellotron, before the fast and still relatively ornate “Watcher of the Skies” properly kicks in. It immediately strikes me that this type of track would very much benefit from a harder edged production to fit its bombast, but in 1972 that was a very inexact science that few had even attempted. The mixjob here might not be particularly great for the first track, but it actually suits some of the later, gentler tracks quite well. The best I can say about it, though, is that it doesn’t get in the way of the band’s songwriting.

Even the most superficial look at Foxtrot should make its progressive rock orientation apparent. Four of the six compositions here are lengthy narratives that wander through many aesthetics and substyles. One thing that Genesis particularly excels at on this album is pacing; while deciding how long to focus on a specific leitmotif isn’t the most obvious sign of mastery, they achieve a good balance, whereas a lesser band might end up barraging the listener with their entire idea set or dragging out every half-decent concept until it loses its luster. Peter Gabriel’s vocals in particular are worth a mention – as I previously mentioned when discussing his successor, he exemplifies vocals for roleplay and variety as opposed to vocals as a binding substrate. When you’re trying to make a 23 minute epic like “Supper’s Ready”, complete with a cast of colorful characters and a plot seemingly ripped from the Christian Bible (PSA: Genesis is not and never was Christian music), it helps to be able to do all of the voices. The fact that Genesis was able to adapt once Peter Gabriel left the band is perhaps miraculous, but definitely a story for a different time. Suffice it to say for now that Foxtrot is much enriched by its vocalist.

If Foxtrot has detractors, they must be very few in number, at least amongst fans of progressive rock music in general. It really is one of the high points of the genre.

Highlights: “Watcher of the Skies”, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”

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Skeletonwitch – Beyond The Permafrost (2007)

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Skeletonwitch is one of those rare bands I learned about because I saw their logo on someone’s t-shirt at college. Even after investigating and reading a lot of complimentary reviews, though, it took me years to actually listen to them. Turns out that at least on Beyond the Permafrost, they sound like an Americanized take on the “melodeath” that was relatively popular last decade. Makes sense for a band that comes from Ohio, right? There’s a lot of subtle genre mixing going on here, for better or worse, and how you take that is probably going to play a major role in how you ingest this album.

What initially stuck with me when I first listened to Beyond the Permafrost was the quality of its instrumentation. This is still the case now that I’ve given the songs here some time to digest. Of all the musicians here, the ones handling guitars and vocals stand out the most, which is admittedly pretty common in the metal world. Last week’s review (From Beyond by Enforcer) had some flashy guitar work, but this album pushes it further. It’s not as consistently melodic, presumably due to the major infusion of death/thrash metal technique, but the overall frilly ornamentation and shreddy solos (read: “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”) feel similar in purpose despite the different genre. I also appreciate the mixture of vocal techniques – both low growls and higher pitched snarls. These are occasionally mixed together for some neat interplay, which helps add accents and texture to these songs.

Interestingly enough, Skeletonwitch’s songwriting reminds me of my own, in that they rely on relatively short songs with lots of unique sections. It’s a technique I don’t see all that often in the metal universe – most of the time, the complicated song structures are used to scaffold long epics. At 36 minutes, Beyond the Permafrost‘s 12 songs go by quickly, and the band doesn’t spend all that much time on any one of them. This isn’t without its flaws, though – many of the shorter songs feel like they conclude before they’ve had time to properly develop their ideas. I guess it’s a good thing that Skeletonwitch is throwing in enough ideas that they could extend their songs. A quick look at their discography suggests the band hasn’t really changed up this approach.

In short, Beyond the Permafrost is mostly good, but it does feel underdeveloped at times. There’s enough solid cuts on here that fans of undifferentiated extreme metal should find at least a few favorites in its (limited) depths. It’s also a reminder to myself that whenever I’m composing, I should give my music as much time as it needs to convey its ideas and not be tempted to declare a song “finished” too early.

Highlights: “Under Wings of Black”, “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”, “Remains of The Defeated”

Solefald – In Harmonia Universali (2003)

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Solefald’s first three albums were, for better or worse, consistently informed by the sounds of black metal. On first listen, I thought that In Harmonia Universali rejected that, but a closer listen revealed that change was mostly limited to the vocals. Merely not shrieking and screaming your way through a metal album is enough to lighten and soften the end product. Regardless of how you feel about this stylistic change, you can’t deny that In Harmonia Universali is a different permutation on the stereotypical Solefald sound, with greater emphasis on complicated vocal arrangements and a further expansion of the “instrumental experimentation” angle.

Extensive listening has, as promised convinced me that the black metal edges of Solefald’s sound still (un)shine through to some extent, even if the songwriting is brighter and possibly friendlier than before. Some of the more obvious instrumental tropes – tremelo riffing and blastbeats in particular – show up on occasion. However, even when these do appear, they are in utter subservience to the rest of Solefald’s instrumentation – in particular, In Harmonia Universali showcases a lot of piano and saxophone, although often more as accentuation than actual song driving content. I’d say the real winner here is Lazare, who gets to spend the entire album singing multitracked harmonies with himself. These are almost always the high points of the songs in which they appear.

I’m not going to go as far as to say that this album can be benchmarked solely by counting Lazare’s parts, but the thought has crossed my mind at times. One of the much-explored caveats of relentlessly varying your instrumentation is that if you screw up, you can end up with ridiculous bullshit gibberish. This hasn’t really been a problem in my previous experience with Solefald, but In Harmonia Universali has a serious lack of sanity checks that could’ve prevented some of this stuff from going out without being properly baked. On the other hand, I feel like this album also has very high peaks – when everything meshes together, the results are excellent, and they make you me wish Solefald had focused their efforts in that direction. This rollercoaster ride of overall song quality makes me question the foundation of Solefald’s songwriting, especially when other genre-blenders can do everything more cohesively…

So in short, In Harmonia Universali is really good when it’s good, but “Dionysify This Night Of Spring” was a huge mistake.

Highlights: “Mont Blanc Providence Crow”, “Christiania”, “The Liberation of Destiny”

Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)

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Here’s an album with two souls inside of it, fighting for supremacy! On one hand, we have a (relatively) poppy, occasionally even surf flavored rock band called the Dead Kennedys. On the other, we have a mile-a-minute, no fucks given loud fast rules hardcore punk band who’s also called the Dead Kennedys. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables doesn’t mix these two approaches all that often, so it’s basically a rollercoaster ride of quick punchy songs with plenty of songwriting variety. That doesn’t always work, though – relatively older bands have been felled by their failure to pull this off, so what became of the Dead Kennedys’ debut?

DK, however, has an ace up their sleeve. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is a stereotypically vocal-driven album, so it really helps that the band is fronted by Jello Biafra. His skills go undermentioned here for my lack of relevant genre experience, but when it comes to these types of music (hardcore punk and… uh… not-so-hardcore punk), you can’t find many who are better. His actual vocal technique seems adequate for both if not particularly special, but the way he performs (and his lyrical finesse) contributes enormously to the potency of these songs. It’s hard to exactly quantify the level of snark and vitriol on display here, but you’ll hopefully agree that it’s integral to the overall aesthetic on display here.

Jello Biafra also happens to be fronting a band with reasonable chops and… an admittedly iffy studio budget, although I’ve forgiven that last bit on many occasions. It might be due to the older influences here, but the actual instrumental parts are rarely as deconstructed and simple as they are on some of this band’s rough contemporaries. Critics like to talk up the ‘surf rock’ influence, if that means anything; it does add a neat, wavy gravy flair to the more pop inflected tunes on here, and presumably was a nice bonus for the earliest listeners who, back in 1980, presumably weren’t innundated with an entire internet’s worth of music in all genres. The actual recording fidelity doesn’t do as well, although “Holiday in Cambodia” is a notable and significant exception, with a deep and virile sound compared to the generally tinnier, trebly sounds that the other songs showcase. Expecting a really good production might be too much, but to my (clearly not a professional audio engineer) ears this sounds like the sort of thing that could’ve benefited from having some knobs turned up, perhaps at random. You can perform pretty much the same effect on your own by turning up your speakers/headphones, so maybe the problem is just that I don’t listen to music at levels that are acutely harmful to my hearing? Whatever.

It might be a bit obvious of me to say that I accept Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables‘ high position in the hardcore punk pantheon, but that’s what I do. Given that I don’t listen to a lot of straight up (or straight edge) punk rock, it’s probably for the better that what I do have is quality stuff.

Highlights: “Kill The Poor”, “Chemical Warfare”, “California Uber Alles”, “Holiday in Cambodia”

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”

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”