Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Welcome To Garde Duty

Avant Garde is a minefield. For some reason, many bands want to be considered "ahead of the curve," or "revolutionary," so they try introducing weird or "experimental" (by which they mean electronic) elements into their music. The problem with avant garde metal is that anybody can "do it," and so few can do it well. Witness the atrocity that is the latest Morbid Angel release. They were trying to be edgy and experimental, and instead they became shitty and juvenile. The other problem with avant garde music is that it's a label that can be tacked on to almost any kind of music. Celtic Frost was avant garde, because they pioneered elements of black, death, and doom metal, without being pigeonholed into any particular frame of reference. John Cage (famous classical composer) was avant garde because he had an orchestra sit in their seats and not play music for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Cynic was avant garde because they included jazz and electronic elements in their metal, and Meshuggah is avant garde because they invented 8-string guitars and have weird time signatures. So I'm not going to try to define avant garde for this particular review session. I'm just going to go ahead and let you figure it out on your own.

Ulver - Wars of the Roses
Art: 5/5
Ulver has a long reputation as an "avant garde" band. These Oslo natives started out as a black metal group in 1993, but quickly abandoned any ideas of KVLT status for true musical experimentation. They played around with folk metal for a while, before developing into something just too weird to classify without the nebulous labels of "progressive" or "avant garde." In fact, Wars of the Roses isn't even a metal album in any sense of the word. There are no blast beats, no harsh vocals, not even screaming guitars. It is, rather, dark music that is undoubtedly avant garde. So why would I even bother with the album on The Blackened Edge? Frankly, because it fascinates me. Like the fact that the lyrics to every song until the 14:52 closer "Stone Angels" (which is apparently a recited poem) are written in couplets. Or just the thematic nature of the album. Or lyrics like "We are our own enemy/and the last judgement." Or the fact that the first strong beat of the album doesn't appear until "September IV." This album is only 45 minutes long, but it's a fantastic study of art. The vocals—both male and female—are well performed, and remind me somewhat of Katatonia, if not necessarily in tone and timber, at least in melancholy and passion. There's also plenty of creepy organ, clarinet, and electronic manipulation. The tweaking of the guitars reminds me of master jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, another master of the avant garde.

Grip: 2/5
One of the problems with incredibly experimental music is that it can be hard to wrap your head around. While listening to Wars of the Roses is certainly an engaging and cerebral experience, you'll be hard pressed to remember a riff or a melody once the album is over. I think that is simply typical of this kind of music—it takes a lot of brain power to take it all in, but it isn't the brain that remembers music, it's the body. When you're playing the album, however, it certainly sounds excellent. The bass is surprisingly strong in the mix, and the various random instruments all blend together well into creating a soundscape. The guitars are almost always heavily manipulated, and you'll often find yourself wondering "what's that sound," but the album never sounds hollow or empty. The use of clashing flute noises, manipulated organ sounds, and clarinets all combines into a sound that is both experimental, yet still fully musical. Wars of the Roses is a journey that one must undertake deliberately, but you will certainly be rewarded if you stay the course.

Septicflesh - The Great Mass
Art: 4/5
Greek experimentalists Septicflesh, on the other hand, are undeniably a death metal band. True, they're a metal band who plays with a 200 piece orchestra, but they're still a death metal band. What they are trying to do, obviously, is create music that is both fearsome and epic, and most of the time they succeed. It's surprising how well an orchestra can interface with a metal band (if you read my review of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, you'll see that I like this style when fused with black metal). Unfortunately for Septicflesh, there are moments when their music seems uninspired and ripped off, like "Pyramid God," which sounds like it was pulled off of the Requiem For A Dream soundtrack. Unfortunately, I can't find any attribution to that film or the Kronos Quartet, so I'll have to assume that the copy-catting was not in fact an intentional tribute but rather born from laziness.

Still, The Great Mass has some fantastic moments. Most of these are when the band (and the orchestra) are going at a million miles per hour. What is the sound of an orchestra blasting? Listen to the beginning of "A Great Mass of Death" to find out. It's pretty great. The trick with symphonic material is that it's often an excuse for the band to play lazy material and let the symphony take all the burden. Septicflesh only suffers from this temptation a little bit on, The Great Mass, as the drums provide the structure for the whole song, while the bass gives a solid backbone thickness to the sound, but the guitars provide only simple chugging chords to bring texture to the melodies provided by the symphony. On one hand, this may seem like the only way that things can be done, but on the other hand, Abrahadabra.

Grip: 4/5
There's on really irritating thing about this album, and that's the second vocal style. The main vocal style is a low bellowed "beardly" affair, much like Amon Amarth's vocal style. The second vocal style, however, is an irritating nasal whine that speaks words in an "eerie" fashion. This is just not good. No, it's not as bad as the singing on The Unspoken King, but it's still irritating enough to make me dislike otherwise excellent track "The Undead Keep Dreaming." But every time I hear that orchestra take off, it slaps a great stupid grin on my face. There just isn't another sound quite like it, and that includes every other metal use of orchestration that I can think of. The drums have a solid, heavy sound that meshes well with the orchestra and the band, and the guitars' meaty, modern sound gives an aggressive tone that blends right in with the sounds of cellos and horns. The vocals are at their best when they sound fuzzy and full, but when the individual words start to get too clearly distinguished, they just sound bad. Mikael Akerfeldt he is not. "Mad Architect" is sure to be divisive among fans, but I think it's loads of fun, since it really explores some of the avenues of avant garde classical music in a dark, metal setting. If it wasn't for the vocal weakness, I'd probably give this album a fat 5 out of 5 for grip.

Unexpect - Fables of a Sleepless Empire
Art: 5/5
Now this is avant garde! Taking various styles of metal, classical music, jazz, electronic music, flamenco, and even circus music and blending them all into one (mostly) cohesive whole with some of the best musicianship and vocal expression I have heard all year, the Canadian oddity that is Unexpect is back with the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2006 freakshow of an album, In A Flesh Aquarium, described by MetalReview.com as "essential listening for those who want a challenge." Yes, it does take a 75 word sentence to say much about Unexpect. The fact is, their influences are so eclectic that it's not only difficult, but actually misleading to list them all. Why misleading? Because Unexpect doesn't sound like any of those things. This isn't a band that combines 1 and 2 to make three, it's a band that combines apples and flour and butter to make a pie. Yes, the pie is like all of its ingredients, but it is more than its ingredients.

That makes Unexpect incredibly difficult to review. They blow my mind every time I listen to them, because I never expected (ha!) that these different influences could be brought together at all, never mind with such staggering effect. The thing I love about Fables of a Sleepless Empire is that, unlike In A Flesh Aquarium, it's actually musically intelligible enough that I can understand and appreciate it. If Fables can be compared to William Faulkner's stream-of-conscious novel As I Lay Dying, then Aquarium is James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The difference is remarkable. While Aquarium offered its treasures only to those who were able to digest it fully, Fables has layers that allow you to start out with appreciation and then go much deeper. From the catchy lines of "Orange Vigilantes," a song about pumpkins taking over the world, to the Dillinger Escape Plan-esque djenty guitars merged with complex fiddle phrases of "The Quantum Symphony," there are so many hooks to grab your attention. And throughout the whole thing, bass master ChaotH plays the most fascinating things on his 9-string (yes, nine string) bass. This album features the best bass playing that I've heard this year, and I've been listening to Obscura's album nonstop (I'll be reviewing it at a later date).

Grip: 5/5
Like I said, this album contains an incredible number of hooks. You can't listen to it without it infecting you, and that is unquestionably a good thing. From the incredible bass playing to the multiple vocal styles, to the gypsy-style fiddle, to the thunderous piano of "Unfed Pendulum" to the absolutely bizarre lyrics (seriously, pumpkins taking over the world?), everything about Fables fascinates, and provides fodder for hours of listening. They even managed to pass my time-limit test, since any album I listen to that runs longer than 45 minutes needs to justify its length (Fables is 55:45 long). You can't be bored listening to this. You might be baffled, shocked, or angry, but you won't be bored. I'm definitely excited about this album, because it shows not only how advant garde should be done, but that a band as experimental, strange, and critically acclaimed as 2006's Unexpect can still evolve, grow, and mature into a better band without sacrificing the ideas of experimental music. For me, this is the standard of how to blend genres, time signatures, and keys, and all those other groups who are trying it, whether Xerath, Atheist, or Morbid Angel, should take note.

Okay, it's there now

I finally have my review of The Black Dahlia Murder's Ritual up. Make sure to check it out, since I won't be using animated gifs for reviews again for a while. Coming up next, I want to delve into some of the more interesting black metal that's come out this year. Unfortunately, the complexity of the music makes it somewhat hard to write coherently about, so we'll see how long that takes me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Not There...

You'll notice my last review post didn't contain its 3rd review. And it still doesn't. The album that I want to place there is The Black Dahlia Murder's Ritual, which is, simply put, awesome. But since I'm a critic, I have to tell you why it's awesome, not just that it is. So I haven't done that yet. Why? Because I spent all of last week at a business conference, and frankly, it burned me out. But now I'm getting back into listening to (and writing about) music, so there should be some good new stuff up soon. Until then, make sure to check out Unearth's new album, and the new single from Fleshgod Apocalypse. And Phoenix Amongst The Ashes is growing on me, while The Great Mass becomes less and less awesome. Which is sad, because I love the theory of what Septicflesh is trying to do, and it occasionally succeeds. But then it doesn't.

New Fleshgod Apocalypse

Last year, Italian death metal masters Fleshgod Apocalypse released the strongest EP of the year. This year, we finally get the full length. Here's the lead single/video, "The Violation." It's making me excited for the album, and you should be too. Get your pre-orders in!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Evolution of Dez Fafara

Since I just reviewed DevilDriver's latest, I thought I'd post a series of music videos to show how far Dez has come in his career. Unfortunately, stupid Roadrunner Records decided to disable embedding for there videos, in order to protect their copyrights. So all you get is a list of links. Oh well.
1997: Coal Chamber - Loco See what we put up with people calling "metal" back in '97?
1999: Coal Chamber - Shock The Monkey No, including Ozzy in this song doesn't make it metal.
2002: Coal Chamber - Fiend Probably a low point for Dez.
2003: DevilDriver - I Could Care Less Aside from the atrocious grammar, see how hard he's trying to be metal?
2005: DevilDriver - End of the Line At this point, Dez has become legitimately metal. Plus, John Boecklin is playing double bass with bare feet.
2007: DevilDriver - Clouds Over California Good times on Rock Band. How much fun would it have been to be the little kid who gets to play Dez in this video?
2009: DevilDriver - Pray For Villains Super weird video, but it demonstrates once again that John plays drums barefoot. And the song is a step up from "Clouds Over California."
2011: DevilDriver - Dead to Rights And guitar solos summon zombies. I'd say this is the most metal that Dez has ever been.

So the quality of Roadrunner's uploads are atrocious. You'd think that they'd want people to be able to see that music videos that they'd spent money on. But no. They don't. I have no idea that they're thinking. I am impressed that Dez has basically put out an album every other year since 1997. Few artists do that today.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The United State of American Metal

So, I thought it would be appropriate, considering that we all just celebrated Independence Day, to take a moment to look at modern American metal. Not necessarily the mostly underground material, like Revocation, or the established but fringe material like Deicide or Autopsy. No, this is the kind of music that you could find at Best Buy or FYE—the kind of metal that a good number of people will be familiar with if you tell them "I'm into metal." And we're not going to look at cobras of any color, so STFU. These are all bands that I've listened to for years, and as long as you aren't going to take a hipster or TRVECVLT approach, can provide some fun listens. That's right, all these albums are great for moshing at the stoplight while the granny in the car next to you looks on in horror and slowly rolls up her windows.

Since this is an all-American review of more "popular" metal, I'm not going to apply my usual art/grip scheme. These albums are of limited philosophical value, because if they had something too deep to say, they wouldn't be popular. Still, that doesn't mean that they're of no value. So let's replace "art" with "Flags," meaning how pumped up the album gets you when you listen to it. Do you feel energized, aggressive, and ready to grill some steaks and blow shit up? Then that's an all-American, five flag album.

Our second field will be "Fireworks," instead of grip. It'll mean that the album is awesome like a fireworks show, and you want it to keep going on. When it's over, you're in awe, and remembering the coolness that you just witnessed. Okay, so it's basically the same thing as grip,  but with animated gifs. Animated gifs are totally metal. Awesome.

DevilDriver - Beast
Do you really expect some kind of idea or concept from DevilDriver? I'm not sure that they're out to do anything particularly fancy. Just play some metal, make some money, and score some chicks. Because what else could they do in life considering the tattoos they have on their bodies? Seriously, though, DevilDriver is often good for some fun times. I dug their debut back in 2003 (although considering what else I was listening to in 2003, that's not surprising), and although it was simplistic and stupid, certain songs had a catchy groove to them, and I enjoyed the follow up record, The Fury of Our Maker's Hands (2006). Unfortunately, their 3rd album was a disappointment, and although they demonstrated that they spent some time in the woodshed for Pray For Villains, it was only a good album when compared to The Last Kind Words. For their fifth full length, however, DD has stepped things up. Beast is undoubtedly their most aggressive release yet. Album opener "Dead To Rights" features a speedy tempo and complex (especially compared to DevilDriver) riffage while Dez Fafara delivers a steady stream of snarly vocals. I think his skills as a vocalist have certainly developed over time—you wouldn't believe this guy is 45! On the other hand, I think that the vocals are the weak part on this album, specifically in their overabundance. I realize it's Dez's band, but if he gave his bandmates more room to breath, the music would be stronger, and probably more memorable. The guitar parts have certainly become much more impressive, and I can hear a definite Meshuggah influence on tracks like "Dead to Rights" and "Hardened." The drumming isn't anything mind-blowing, but it's some solid metal drumming and certainly more interesting than anything that I've heard out of, say, Disturbed or Shadows Fall, in the past five years. This album will definitely get you pumped up while it's playing. Sure, it's not a Suffocation cd, but with tremolo picking, aggressive vocals, and plenty of double bass, it's a hell of a lot more metal than anything you'll find on the local "hard rock" radio station.

Unfortunately for DevilDriver, their albums tend to fade quickly from the mind after they've finished spinning. I place the majority of the blame for this on Dez. He just sings too much. I find that the grooves and riffs the band lays down are actually pretty interesting, but for the most part, this is a vocal driven band, and if you don't know the words, it's hard to remember the songs. And Dez isn't really a master of memorable vocal or melodic lines. "You're on the shit list, you're on the hit list"? Okay, sure. I mean, it's better than the grammatical monstrosity of "I could care less," (my favorite track off of their debut), but it's no poetry. I think that Dez's vocal delivery has improved, but it's still very samey from song to song, and with so many of the drum and bass lines sounding generic, it's hard to remember any great distinguishing moments from song to song, especially when the vocals overpower the admittedly interesting guitar offerings. I've enjoyed Beast every time I've spun it, but I'm never sitting at my desk and suddenly think of a song off of it that I just have to hear.

Unearth - Darkness In The Light
I first encountered Unearth in 2006, right before their album III: In The Eyes of Fire came out. The music video for the song "Giles" was included on the CD that came with an issue of Guitar World magazine, and when I heard it, I knew that I had to hear more of this band. They had aggression, they had speed, they had the intricate riffs that appealed to me as a guitarist, and goddamn, they new how to make use of a breakdown. "Giles" is still one of my favorite metalcore songs, and while 2006 was one of the best years for American metalcore, with great releases from Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Zao, and All That Remains, In The Eyes of Fire still stands strong in my mind as a milestone for metalcore. The memorable riffs, the aggressive vocal delivery, the neck-snapping breakdowns. All these things were powerful and fresh, and nothing was cheesy or "scene." Fast-forward to 2011, and "metalcore" has become stale and formulaic. Metalcore isn't music for real metalheads anymore, it's the subgenre of scene kids and Hot Topic employees. And along comes Unearth to show those posers that they're not only among the founders of the genre, they do it best (yes, I'm aware that Unearth put out a good album, The March, in 2008, but it didn't have the weight of In the Eyes of Fire).

Darkness In The Light is undoubtedly Unearth's strongest album yet. The production is rich, the riffs are flying, and the band still knows better than anyone how to make good use of a breakdown. Album opener "Watch It Burn" is rife with melodic lead lines and catchy grooves. A distinctly European melo-death influence rears its head early in the song, before punishing the listener with the first breakdown, but that's just a teaser for what's to come. The clean vocals heard later in the song are well performed, and although I typically associate that particular sound more with bands like All That Remains, they don't sound out of place. It's good to hear that Unearth has been able to incorporate strong elements of melody into their sound without sounding processed or "sold out." I'm particularly impressed with the guitar solos throughout the album, something that In The Eyes of Fire didn't contain.

Unlike Beast, Darkness hits you hard between they eyes and buries itself into your skull. Whether it's the melodic vocals of "Last Wish" and the quite moments of "Equinox," or the soaring guitar lines of "Arise The War Cry" or the shouted breakdown refrain of "Watch It Burn," this album will remain with you long after you've shut it off. Speaking of "Arise the War Cry," it's my favorite song on the album, and although the album has only been out for a very short time, I've already played that track at least ten times. From the sweep-and-tap explosion of notes the open the song through the great melody of the chorus to the war cry raising breakdown, the song shines. That's what an album should be—solid from front to back, and when it hits the end, you're more than ready to go again. At 38.6 minutes in run time, it's also nearly sixteen minutes shorter than DevilDriver's release, and I've long been of the opinion that forty minutes is the right time for a metal album, and fifty is just too long, unless you're Opeth. Unearth have absolutely hit the nail on the head here, and although the album only came out yesterday, I know that, like In The Eyes of Fire, I'll still be listening to it five years out.

The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual

I think that the Black Dahlia Murder often gets a bad rap from the "underground" death metal heads, who (often without ever hearing the band)  deride it as deathcore. Well, that's absolutely not the case. I've been listening to The Black Dahlia Murder since 2003's Unhallowed, and I've never heard a synth-drop breakdown or a "chugga-chugga-chugga" mosh riff, or a "come on m*******kers!" vocal shout out. If you want that kind of thing, go listen to Winds of Plague (and if you really want to avoid it, you'd probably better stay away from Carnifex and Whitechapel too). What I have heard is a lot of double bass, a lot of tremolo riffs, and a lot of shrieking vocals. In fact, the dual-vocalist approach used to be one of The Black Dahlia Murder's defining characteristics. Now, however, it seems that everybody is getting on board with that style, and Job for a Cowboy's 2011 EP, Gloom, sounds more like TBDM than the band's own 2009 release Deflorate did. What TBDM needed was to refresh their sound and show that they still play this style better than anybody else. The absolutely delivered with Ritual.

I'll be honest, my favorite Dahlia record is 2005's Miasma, because for all the flaws of that disk, it had some absolutely killer riffs that have stuck with me for six years. Ritual has those in abundance. I don't know if they'll stick with me for six years or not, but TBDM knows how to build a powerful riff, with the entire band working in concert. Unlike DevilDriver, the vocals mesh with the music, never overpowering it. One of the biggest flaws in Miasma was the solos—sure, it was good to have them, but they all sounded the same. Even on Nocturnal, you thought "Oh, it's a TBDM solo now," and you knew what notes would be played, and how. Not on Ritual. The solos are all interesting, varied, and masterfully played. Not every song contains one, but the ones that do stand out. The band has always known how to make use of melody within the death metal framework without resorting to the Gothenburg formula (e.g. Dark Tranquility, Arch Enemy, early In Flames), and they continue to do so here. I think that their music sounds characteristically American, especially stand out tracks "Carbonized in Cruciform" and "Den of the Picquerist."

I was a little worried about this album at first, because the early half of the album is, while not weak, slightly slower and more churning than I typically associate with The Black Dahlia Murder. Third track "On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood" has a tempo and feeling that I usually associate with an album closer, and what I expect from TBDM is ripping typhoon speeds and ferocity. I shouldn't have doubted. When you take the album as a whole, you'll see that it's carefully crafted to have a balance of speedy and melodic moments. Downtempo melodic piece "Malenchanments of the Necrosphere" follows the Motorhead-on-speed moment of "Den of the Picquerist," and even contains some nice synchronized dual guitar chuggs a-la "What A Horrible Night to Have A Curse." And as soon as that song ends, the band plows full speed again into "The Grave Robber's Work." This is a great album to listen to front to back, as it doesn't ever bog down and bore you (like Deflorate did). There are plenty of great guitar lines, and the drums are nicely varied throughout the album to never slacken, but never get boring. I'll say again, the guitar solos are particularly good on this album, bringing flavor and variation where in the past they might have brought only exasperated sighs. The production is also great, as the band realizes that the guitars are the driving force of the band, and the drums are the railroad tracks they run on. Everything folds nicely into the mix, and every piece is discernible (including the bass lines), but guitar is the first thing you hear on a casual listen, followed by a rich kick drum. Like DevilDriver, The Black Dahlia Murder have consistently put out an album every other year since 2003. With only one disappointing album among those, I'd say that's a great track record. Today's TBDM is undoubtedly more mature than the band that put out Miasma, and they've used that maturity to good end. I look forward to hearing the band continue to develop.

Well, that's it! It took me an extra two weeks to get that last review up, but that's just how it goes some times.