Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Symphonic Adventure: Pt. 2

So you probably want to take a listen to these albums, now that I've said great things about them. Here are three of my favorite songs.

Symphonic Adventure

One of the most interesting things artists do to metal is pair it with symphonic orchestration. Symphonic metal fascinates me because I find that much of extreme metal has more in common with the classical world of music than what we find on the Top 40 charts. An interesting corollary of the link between metal and classical music seems to be that adding a symphony to extreme metal suddenly makes it more popular. All three bands in question here are "Hot Topic" bands. Mall dorks wear their t-shirts and pretend to listen to their cds, their headphones around their necks. These bands aren't the putrefying mall-core of Bring Me the Horizon or Scarlett O'Hara, but TRVECVLT metalheads would scoff at them, call them sellouts, and store their cds with their secret stash of Miley Cyrus pictures. Two of these bands, however, cannot be considered truly Hot Topic bands, because they've been around longer than pseudo-goth kids were allowed into malls. The third one is, admittedly, a shameless imitator. But sometimes margarine actually has a good taste, as long as we don't try to tell ourselves it's actually butter.

Remember, the dark can be beautiful.

Cradle of Filth - Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa
Art - 4/5
Cradle of Filth is one of the best known extreme metal bands, although most people do not know how to classify them. The uninformed would call them "a satanic band," but such a label sells Dani Filth and his cohorts too short. No, I would call them fundamentally theatrical, not satanic. If I were to assign them to a sub-genre, it would not be black metal, but rather "extreme symphonic gothic metal" (Yes, there is non-extreme gothic symphonic metal). Cradle is interested in the eros of evil, a musical modern Lord Byron. Do remember that they call Byron and his fellows "The Satanic School." So what does Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa present to move us? Like 2008's Godspeed On the Devil's Thunder, Venus is a concept album. While Godspeed told us the story of one of the first serial killers, with the voice of the Gilles de Rais provided by Pinhead himself (Doug Bradley), Venus tells us of a the revival of a cult that worships Lilith. Consider it a matched piece to Godspeed. Anyway, it's a story of violence and sex and mystery and damnation. Great story. Or at least, if you like Gothic faerie tales. Which I do, and is probably the reason I've always been partial to Cradle, despite their "Hot Topic" image.

Grip - 4/5
In many ways, Venus surpasses Godspeed. The drums are super crisp and utterly furious in a way that hearkens back to the days of Dusk and Her Embrace. Always good. Apparently, new (as of last album) drummer Martin Škaroupka has done his research and appreciates his predecessors. The guitars, unfortunately, also seem to draw from that influence, which means lots of tremolo riffs. That isn't bad in itself, but it gets a little old, and the lack of strong guitar work kept the album from getting a full 5 for Grip. The choirs and orchestra, however, more than fill in the gap left by the vanilla guitar part. The band can get away with it because of the nature of the music - this is high drama, remember, not Top 40 hits. The orchestration fairly drips velvet and rose petals. If you're a sucker for that kind of thing, and I'll admit that I am, you will love Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa. I also appreciate that this is the first Cradle album in years to not start out with an instrumental two minute opener. Honestly, those openers have gotten old, and it's good that the band knows when to let go of "a tradition." It may not be Top 40 music, but lead single "Lilith Immaculate" will certainly get stuck in your head, and is the kind of track that Godspeed lacked. It's also one of the few tracks where Dani really unleashes his voice. Throughout the album he does a lot of the "Grim MoFo" growling, and even some operatic lines, which he does well. But my favorite Dani, the "Shrieking Hellcat" from early days. Think of the line "a queen of snow far beyond compare" from "Her Ghost In the Fog." That voice. I miss it. Maybe the man is just getting old.

Dimmu Borgir - Abrahadabra
Art - 5/5
Cradle of Filth might be getting old, but Dimmu Borgir's (pronounced "bore-gear") Shagrath, Silenoz, and Galder seem to be getting younger every day. The core trio has shaved the excess, replaced the all the session members of the band, and thrown out Satan for Aleister Crowley (whose voice pays a visit in "Born Treacherous"). Of course, ninnies will argue that Aleister Crowley was a Satanist, but these are small-minded people. Instead of the black leather and "Satan is my homeboy" mentality of some past Dimmu Borgir work, now they wear white fur and embrace a sort of Lovecraftian occultism. The reason it is just a great change for them is the depth the new topic provides. The whole Satan angle was pretty much played out with them - how many times can you sing about the coming Anti-Christ before you start to sound like a Looking-Glass World version of Christian praise band? That's lame no matter how many spikes you have on your pants.

The orchestration on Cradle of Filth's new cd is worthy of a Gothic romance movie. The orchestration on Abrahadabra is worthy of Carnegie Hall. Just listen to the pure orchestral version of "Gateways" and you won't be able to disagree. Every facet of this album, from the guttural didgeridoo first note to the rumbling "Abrahadabra" of the closer (a powerful magic word invented by Mr. Crowley), was lavished with attention. Do not rob yourself of the experience by simply play this album in the background (which I have done). Sit and drink it in.

Grip: 5/5
Dimmu Borgir, to me, has always been about one thing. Not Satan, not Crowley, not hate or violence or apocalypse. All these things are incidental to what Dimmu Borgir's music truly speaks of. Power. To draw again on a comparison already made, Cradle of Filth is about eros, or even pathos, Dimmu Borgir is about thumos. Listen to their great albums - Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, Deathcult Armageddon, Stormblast, and even Enthrone Darkness Triumphant - and that is what you hear. The human wielding of utter power. And if that means that we bow to Satan for an hour, then we do it. When he has nothing left to offer us, we draw from a new source. This is the ultimate Nietzschian experience, in musical form.

That was what was wrong with In Sorte Diaboli, Dimmu's previous offering. It lacked power. Oh, and it was boring. Not Abrahadabra. There isn't a bad song on here. Some critics have complained about the new bassist's clean vocals, but I don't find them to be nearly as problematic as some have made them out to be. From my point of view, they fit the spirit of the album well. The chorus of "Born Treacherous" will get stuck in your head, as will the choral chants of "Dimmu Borgir." But the outro to lead single "Gateways" hits me the hardest - a Nietzchian call to power, the alternating male and female lines summon all listeners to stand up and form their own futures.
Be the broken or the breaker;
Be the giver or the undertaker;
Unlock and open the door;
Be the healer or the faker.
The keys are in your hands;
Realize you are the sole creator
Of your own master plan.

Abigail Williams - In the Absence of Light
Art - 2/5
You might think I'm being harsh, after heaping praise on Dimmu and Cradle, to criticize Abigail Williams so much. After all, their music is certainly influenced by, one could even say "is a tribute to", early Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. How early? Perhaps Enthrone Darkness Triumphant-era Dimmu and Cruelty and the Beast-era Cradle. But that's the problem - it's derivative. Now I'm not saying that the songs are bad. They just aren't anything special. Dark poetry, yes. Very nice. But tell me a story, inspire me, cause me to feel something if you want my devotion. Like the milk bottles say: Add something. That doesn't mean you add basil to milk or rap to black metal. But Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth are both proving that you can take a certain style and bring new elements to it. Abigail Williams do emulate their heroes well, and this album is a reach to the rawer, earlier days of black metal (compared to 2008's In the Shadow of A Thousand Suns, not compared to any of the black metal bands of the early 90s). so there is that. If you love the style, then this album is still worth a listen. What's ironic is that the people who criticize Dimmu for not remaking Enthrone Darkness Triumphant will also hate In the Absence of Light because of the Hot Topic crowd who currently admire them.

Grip: 5/5
Now that I've criticized Abigail Williams's sameness, allow me to say that I do enjoy this album. The trio are excellent musicians, especially the guitarist/vocalist Ken Sorceron. He provides those Hellcat vocals that I missed in Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa, and also real, meaty guitar riffs. There are tremolos, there are chugs, arpeggios, heavy-hitting power chords and drawn-out, mournful notes. Listening to the album, you wouldn't realize that the average song length is 6:20. The music flows and draws you in, and the production emphasizes all the right notes. A rich bass kick and sparkly cymbals, as well as Ken Bedene's lightning stick work (yes, there are two Kens in this band), keep the drums relevant and allow them to envelope everything else, from the wonderfully distorted guitars to Sorceron's shriek, which has just the right amount of reverb on it. "Final Destiny of the Gods," a 8:18 epic is my favorite, from the blasting/tremolo section to the galloping chugs to the brilliant melodic solo the closes the song. Honestly, if you love the genre, as I do, you have to listen to this album just as a tribute to the style, because they do it perfectly. Abigail Williams is a band to watch. They have the skills and tools it takes to make their own epic equal to Abrahadabra. Now if only they can find that something that pushes an album over the top, it won't matter what the Hot Topic kids think.

Quick Review: Ozzy vs. BLS

Ozzy Osbourne is one of the biggest and oldest names in metal. I consider Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath to be the first metal album ever created, and the Ozzman provided the pipes. That means Ozzy has been in metal since the beginning. Forget the stupid MTV show. To me, Ozzy means classic metal. Of course, he is still making music today. From 1988's No Rest for the Wicked through 2007's Black Rain, Ozzy's guitarist was the incredibly talented Zakk Wylde. The Wylde man is also making music, and like his former boss, is newly sober.

Black Label Society - Order of the Black
Ozzy Osbourne - Scream
So what kind of music do these metal heroes make without copious amounts of booze to fuel their creative fires? The same kind of music they made when they were drinking, unsurprisingly. It turns out, however, that one of them is significantly better at it than the other. Can you guess who?

Ozzy's Scream opens with "Let It Die," and it's too long. Seriously. Don't open an album with a 6 minute song, unless it's absolutely riveting or you're Opeth. Still, the song gives a good indication of what's to come: decent riffs, very much in Zakk's style, although new axeman Gus G does have significantly different soloing style; good bass sound and drum tone, but nothing interesting happening on either one; too many effects; Ozzy singing through about ten vocal filters. Now, I realize that the man is getting old, but does he really need to sound like T-Pain when he sings? Some of you might not think it's that bad, but he uses phasers and flangers on every verse, and even on the choruses he has some sort of doubling effect, and it never lets up throughout the album. It makes me incredibly nostalgic for the good old Black Sabbath days. Just three guys in a room with some mikes. Try that again, Ozzy, please?

Zakk and the Doom Crew start their album on a significantly better note. "Crazy Horse" is pure BLS, from the fat phasers to the pinch harmonics to Zakk's melodic yet slightly aggressive lyrics. So if you've listened to Black Label Society and get the gist of them, and don't need any more, you probably won't be impressed. But I think Order of the Black is a significant step up from 06's Shot to Hell. Why? The same factor that makes Ozzy's album (and Shot to Hell) a disappointment - it's not over-produced. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly been a lot of studio magic worked on the material, and Fenriz from Darkthrone would hate it. But listen to "Blacked Out World" from Shot to Hell, then listen to "Southern Dissolution" from Order of the Black, and you'll see what I mean.

Ozzy's second track, "Let Me Hear You Scream," the first single and song the album is named for, comes at you with all the metal ferocity of a Miley Cyrus hit. It's shamefully poppy. Let's skip it. "Soul Sucker" may have a stupid name, but at least it has an awesome talkbox riff, and it's actually catchy. I actually think that Ozzy's lyrics have gotten better with age, even if his compositional (or producer choosing) skills haven't. A note on Gus G's solos - they are killer. Probably in the same league as Zakk's. So there's that.

Let's talk ballads. Wylde is stupid for Elton John, so he usually has two or three piano ballads on his albums. This one has four - three of them are good. Ozzy has a couple ballads too, and I actually think his are better than Zakk's. Interestingly, being sober now, both men are preoccupied with mortality and the inevitable passage of time. As these are both excellent topics for metal songs, I won't fault either of them. Check out Ozzy's "Life Won't Wait," "Diggin' Me Down" (the album's best track, where Ozzy directly asks Jesus how long until He comes and fixes this world), "Time," and "I Love You All," and Black Label Society's "Darkest Days," "Time Waits for No One," and "Shallow Grave."

Overall, I'd say Zakk wins this face-off, with catchier tracks, a more raw production, and more honest musicality. Either one is a fun album, but I don't think either has serious staying power. I'd give Order of the Black a 7 out of 10, and Scream a 5. Maybe it's time for Ozzy to retire.

Work In the Pipeline

So I have three posts in the works, each covering three albums. The first will be Symphonic Adventures, covering:
  • Dimmu Borgir - Abrahadabra
  • Cradle of Filth - Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa
  • Abigale Williams - In the Absence of Light
The second will be Interstellar Exploration, covering:
  • Alcest - Écailles de Lune
  • Negura Bunget - Vîrstele Pămîntului
  • Twilight - Monument to Time End
The third will be The Ultimate Workout, covering:
  • Brain Drill - Quantum Catastrophe
  • Origin - Antithesis
  • Lost Soul - Immerse In Infinity

Things Coming Up

Obviously, I am a horrible person. That is why I have not written anything since August.
But things are changing. Maybe.