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.

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