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Posts Tagged ‘vocals’

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”

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”