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Archive for the ‘Discographies’ Category

Ulver, Wars Of The Roses (2011)

Brilliant, as always

My review of the new album from Norwegian dark rock sorcerers is up now at MetalReview.  A preview: Wars Of The Roses is a brilliantly crafted and meticulously detailed album, full of surprisingly catchy hooks and wonderfully non-standard instrumentation and programming.  The first six songs are in some ways a warmup for the emotionally exhausting and sonically exhilarating closer, “Stone Angels,” which is a spoken recitation of a poem by the same name by the American poet Keith Waldrop.  There are plenty of albums that will rock you harder this year than Wars Of The Roses, but perhaps none that will cradle you as gently.  Wars Of The Roses is out now on Jester Records/Kscope Records.

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This discussion might be somewhat mooted by the widespread availability of a band’s entire catalog online at the click of a few .zip links, but it used to be the case that if you wanted to dig into the work of a artist that was new to you, you had to just out and buy the record.  Couple that with this particular writer’s having gotten into metal without the influence of friends, or older siblings, or tape trading or ‘zines or anything else that might have given some pointers on the best albums with which to dive into an unknown band’s vast oeuvre, and you wind up with what look like, in retrospect, some pretty fucking wacky starting points.

Allow me to illustrate:

Yup, my copy's even got that stupid wrinkled-looking cover sleeve

The first Megadeth record I bought and listened to was 1997’s Cryptic Writings, a widely-panned shitstorm of wimped-out radio-friendly “thrash”-rock.  Okay, so maybe it’s not the complete disaster of Risk, but it’s really a fairly awful album.  The first couple of singles for the album received heavy radio play, though, and my teenaged self thought, “Hey, this sounds pretty alright.”  I got the record, didn’t play it too much, and probably wound up selling it years later.  The miracle is, then, that I ever managed to get into Megadeth “for real.”  I think I eventually stumbled on a used copy of Countdown to Extinction, which rekindled my interest in the band, and as my appetite for metal compelled into more research, I inevitably found my way into the band’s first four classic albums.

So, there are actually two points in my mind about that: Number one, how shitty is it if you stumble upon a band just at the time that they happen to release one of their all-time poorest showings?  What if I had never recovered from the bland shock of Cryptic Writings?  “Hangar 18” could still be sitting out there in the distance, far outside my realm of awareness, screaming and thrashing and raging for all the world to be heard, but to no avail.  Second, though: What if your first encounter with a band is with their far and away best album?  To stick with the Megadeth example, what if your first Megadeth album was Rust In Peace?  (I know metaldom’s opinion is somewhat split as to the extent by which RIP outstrips Peace Sells, Killing…, So Far…, etc., but to these ears it’s not even a close competition – Rust In Peace smokes everything else Mustaine et al put to wax by a wide country mile.)  From that point on, everything’s going to be a letdown.  You can dig into the band’s past to trace the roots of that miraculous album, and you can follow where its success took the band, and even where its dulcet tones stoked the fires for other bands, but that initial, revelatory experience is essentially never to be reclaimed.

(On a short aside, I’m pretty certain that my first Metallica album was Load.  By most counts, that would be a fairly disastrous starting point for Metallica’s discography, but since Metallica seems to be the one actual metal band that gets a free pass on most hard rock radio, I grew up hearing enough of the band’s real baroque thrash output that I could recognize Load for the stylistic turn for the worse that it certainly was.  Therefore, I wasn’t turned off, and quickly acquired Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and everything else.)

It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Even though Reign In Blood is generally accepted as Slayer’s finest hour (though I think there’s probably a case to be made for South Of Heaven as the better record; still, it’s tough to dispute RIB’s historic status), I don’t think someone getting into Slayer with RIB would necessarily be at the same disadvantage as someone getting into Megadeth with RIP.  Thing is, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly why that is.  I suppose it’s probably because I don’t see as huge a gap in terms of quality between Hell AwaitsReign In BloodSouth Of Heaven as I do between So Far…Rust In PeaceCountdown to Extinction.  That having been said, my first Slayer album was actually Divine Intervention, which is kind of a weird spot to drop into the discography, but not as confusing as, say, Undisputed Attitude or God Hates Us All would be.

On that same note, the first albums that I acquired by Opeth, Darkthrone, and Dream Theater were Blackwater Park, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, and Scenes From A Memory, respectively.  None of those three albums necessarily has a consensus as to being the band’s all-time greatest, but there’s enough critical praise behind each one that they could have been potentially standard-setting albums.  And in fact, each one likely remains my favorite album by each band.  Nevertheless, I have subsequently acquired every single album by all three bands, and haven’t felt the same sense of inevitable resignation that I think I would have felt had I stumbled across Rust In Peace before Cryptic Writings.

I wonder if the extent to which one experiences these weird starting points is mostly dependent on whether the band in question has produced any truly oddball albums.  Like, this whole conversation doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about Motörhead or, to take a fairly timely example, Amon Amarth.  You can hate or love the band, and you can certainly make distinctions in quality between albums by each band, but neither band has produced any albums that are so radically different from the rest of its canon that a listener stumbling across them would be fed an entirely wrong perception of other albums.

On the other hand, a band like Boris or the Melvins would seem to buck this trend for precisely the opposite reason: both bands do enough experimentation and total stylistic shifts (more so with Boris than the Melvins, to be sure) that neither band necessarily has any good or bad starting points.  Instead, most starting points are probably equally strange, or at least sit reasonably well at odds with the bulk of the band’s other albums.

That having been said, here are just a couple of other strange discographic starting points in which I’ve found myself embroiled:

Don't care what you say; Cradle's never come up with a better pun

At the time, I had never heard of Cradle Of Filth, so I’m not even entirely sure what motivated me to pick up this album (I assume it wasn’t the horrifically garish cover art).  More importantly, though, I had no idea that this was a completely strange stop-gap release between albums, comprised of a few new tunes, a couple of new ambient/classical interludes, a Sisters of Mercy cover, and some rerecorded songs from Cradle’s debut album, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh.  I enjoyed this release enough, though, to continue on and work both backwards and forwards, and Cradle Of Filth remains an entirely guilt-free guilty pleasure to this day.

Who thought this cover was a good idea?

So, yeah, that album art is a nasty ol’ piece of shit.  The album’s actually pretty good, though, but if you’ve heard it and any of Septic Flesh’s other material, you know it’s an odd spot at which to first dip one’s toes in the Greek metallers’ waters.  It’s a strange hybrid electro-death metal trip, and the band has never really delved in the same dirges again.  Seems like this would be a band that you’d either get into from the earliest black metal albums and follow them through, or else you’d be better served starting off with Sumerian Daemons and just working on from there.

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So, what about you?  Have you had any similar experiences, either with getting into a band with a completely fucked-up, non-representative album, or with getting into a band with their far and away best album?  Or, more generally, when you know you want to investigate a band that’s new to you, do you have a particular strategy?  Do you start with the most recent album and work backward?  Do you start from the beginning and move to the present?  Do you first reach to the most widely-acclaimed album to see if it does anything for you, and only after that point reach both forward and backward if you like what you hear?

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The Devin Townsend Band, Synchestra (2006)

No puns or jokes here, just a mind-bogglingly good album

Three years passed between Devin’s first record under the name Devin Townsend Band, which was a longer gap than that between any of his preceding ‘solo’ albums.  Rather than signaling a bout of inactivity, however, it simply meant that he had released a solo ambient/drone album in 2004, the monstrous metal onslaught of Alien with Strapping Young Lad in 2005, and then both Synchestra and SYL’s The New Black in 2006.  So, yeah, I think we can cut the guy some slack here.

There’s no sense beating around the bush: I totally fucking love this album.  I think it’s the best thing that Devin Townsend has done so far, which is saying a lot, given the strength of much of his other solo material and the industrial-strength viciousness of Strapping Young Lad.  Still, none of that other music, admirable though it may be, quite touches the holistic brilliance of this album.  I will not, therefore, try to be objective in discussing this album, though I will try to convince you of its merits with more than just relentless cussing and exhortations.

The opening trio of songs is a perfect suite, flowing smoothly from one musical theme to the next.  Throughout the album, it is apparent that Devin has thrown essentially every trick he can muster at these songs; the thing is, the songs are so goddamn unbelievably strong that this instrumental excess never even comes close to overwhelming them.  Check out the brief excursion into front porch-sitting country twang in the middle of “Triumph” – I dare you to tell me that it doesn’t just work, beyond any reason.

“Babysong” works its way through some almost, but not quite, cloyingly winsome melodies in a very sing-songy way.  About midway through it, though, the song changes up its rhythm and just starts swinging furiously.  The light-hearted instrumental “Vampolka” introduces the melodic theme of “Vampira” with some surf guitar, organ, and, yes, a motherfucking tuba.  If you’ve ever tried playing a tuba (as I have), you’ll know that it’s no mean feat to make the instrument sound as jaunty and light as it does here.  Interesting to note, by the way, is that it’s really only with “Vampira,” which is six songs into the album, that we got a song written more or less on the model of a classic heavy metal rager, replete with thick, aggressive riffing, muscular rock drumming, and some intensely pungent howling from Devin His Fucking Bad Self.  (Note: The video for “Vampira” is also a hell of a lot of fun – I’ve got it posted down at the bottom of the review.)

Accordingly, the break between “Vampira” and “Mental Tan” is the first time there’s been a full pause between tracks on the whole album.  Rather than proving tiresome, however, this fluidity of movement between songs is indicative of the unified nature of this album as a composition.  Unity and oneness are indeed prominent themes in much of Devin Townsend’s solo work, but on this album those lyrical themes find equally full expression musically.  “Triumph,” for example, does both.  Its lyrics reference Carl Jung, in regards to which the simple but insanely powerful chorus reveals a deeper meaning to the song itself.  Jung’s psychological theory of the collective unconscious suggested that the human species, in addition to having in common certain biological traits, also shared a species-wide psychological reservoir.  The idea was that, simply by virtue of our shared humanity, every individual had access to a set of precognitive ideas, archetypes, and so forth.  Our species, thus, was not only one body, but also, in some respect, one mind.  So, yeah, fucking belt it out with me: “ONE WORD – COLLECTIVE!  MANKIND, CONNECTED!!!”

Even the title of the album is similarly inspired.  Synchestra obviously combines the words ‘synthesis’ and ‘orchestra’.  But ‘orchestrate’, as a verb, already means to arrange, to bring about, or to control the movement of numerous components.  ‘Synthesis’, then, would seem to be superfluous, as it typically denotes the combination of parts into a hybrid whole.  Or, in philosophical terms, the synthesis is the outcome of the operation of the dialectic: one begins with the thesis, against which is opposed the antithesis; the confrontation and negotiation between a thought and its opposite thus results in a third way, the syn-thesis.  In the context of this album, then, and its other lyrical preoccupations, it’s difficult to see the title as the suggestion that Townsend is attempting to fashion an orchestra of opposites, or to combine, beyond the fullness already suggested by the word ‘orchestra’ on its own, as many disparate parts as possible in order to arrive at a newness – a rejection of both prior supposition and flat refutation.  I mean, it’s still heavy fucking metal, sure, but conjured and synthesized right before one’s eyes into an untrodden path.

After the marathon of musical brilliance and songwriting acrobatics on display in the first half of the album, the pacing of the latter half is comparatively deliberate and thoughtful.  To be honest, the 14-minute stretch of “Gaia” and “Pixillate” drags a little bit, which may be the only fault I can find with this album.  Still, even that slight dullness makes sense when arranged into the sequence “Gaia”-“Pixillate”-“Judgement”-“A Simple Lullaby.”  As further evidence  that this album is somewhat all over the place, the sound effects and melodic construction of “Gaia” are reminiscent of new wave, while the introduction to “Pixillate” makes me think of “Dragonaut,” the first track from Sleep’s Holy Mountain, though this latter thought is merely a tonal similarity rather than compositional.  Around five minutes into “Pixillate,” this synthesizer joins which sounds a bit like a kazoo and noodles around for a while until the chorus kicks back in.  The stretched-out nature of this tune, with its deliberately stomping pace, is suggestive of a dirge, which, given the otherwise jubilant nature of the remainder of the album, is an effective contrast.

In fact, because of the thoughtful sequencing of the album, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that it can be organized into four suites along the following lines:

Suite A – Introduction & Primary Theme:
1. “Let It Roll”
2. “Hypergeek”
3. “Triumph”

Suite B – Refinement of Theme & Rising Tension:
4. “Babysong”
5. “Vampolka”
6. “Vampira”
7. “Mental Tan”

Suite C – Reflection, Doubt, & Reaffirmation:
8. “Gaia”
9. “Pixillate”
10. “Judgement”
11. “A Simple Lullaby”

Suite D – Epilogue & Valediction”
12. “Sunset”
13. “Notes from Africa”
14. “Sunshine & Happiness”

If you haven’t been able to parse it by now, this is my absolute favorite Devin Townsend record, and it may, in fact, be one of the very closest things I have ever heard to a perfect album.  It’s hard to put a precise finger on it, but something about Devin’s approach to songwriting, singing, emotive guitar playing, and overall tonality makes my otherwise objective and critical faculties turn completely to mush.  For fuck’s sake, these songs could all be ballads in celebration of goat molestation, and I’d keep prattling on, like, “Oh, Devin!  What a marvelous way you have with words/goats!”

“Judgement” continues the dirge tempo from “Pixillate” somewhat, but has an altogether more mournful tone; towards its end, the drums kick into some great martial snare rolls, as the bass and piano trace out a deep melody.  The closing section, which has got the drummer following the chiming guitar with deft hits at the center of the ride cymbal, is but another breathtaking moment among many.  One of the album’s biggest strengths, in fact, is that these little moments of genius are scattered across its entire breadth, so that the listener picks up on more (and different) details each time through the album.

“Notes from Africa” continues to change up the pace as it closes out the album, featuring some chunky slap bass playing at the front.  The song is constructed primarily in a modal fashion, especially in the verse sections, where the guitar keeps fleeing from, but eventually finding itself drawn ineluctably back to, that same high note.  The chorus section does eventually pull in some chord changes, but the song is effective in the way it winds itself around that central note.  The song also contains a very reedy-toned synth which flits across the stereo spectrum, daring you to follow it.  The song eventually deposits you on a bed of flowing water and various animal noises, a fairly clear reminder of the terrestrial grounding and thematic focus on nature and oneness.

The “hidden” track, “Sunshine & Happiness,” is almost ludicrously upbeat, sporting a bluesy, boozy, boogie shuffle with pure classic rock and roll piano vamping under the AC/DC-esque riffing.  “Sunshine and happiness for all!,” it goes.  Yeah, it’s absolutely cheesy as hell, but Devin’s got the musical chops to pull it off, singing these wry, winking gestures at sixty years of rock and roll history without coming off as engaging in pastiche or soured irony.  To put it somewhat simply, if this tune doesn’t smack a tremendous fucking stupid grin all over your face, the world may be in sorrier shape than we’ve been told.

This album is an honest-to-goodness masterpiece.

Overall rating: 99%.  I have quite literally injured myself stomping around and flailing my arms in time to those massive drum beats in the chorus of “Triumph”: MAAAN-KIIIIND, CONNNNECTEEEEEEEED!!!!!!”
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Here’s the video for “Vampira”:

Pretty much speaks for itself.

– Dan / ST

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The Devin Townsend Band, Accelerated Evolution (2003)

Gyroscope with a rainbow, or Pepsi ad?

Accelerated Evolution was the first album to be released under the banner of The Devin Townsend Band.  Rather than marking a mere cosmetic change, however, in comparison with its immediate predecessor Terria, this album does sound much more like the work of a full band.  Part of this is likely the result of adding a second guitar player, which gives the songs a thicker feeling even when Devin is noodling around.  A large portion of the change, though, stems from the songwriting itself, which has produced an album chock full of much more classic song structures and gestures.  This type of more basic songwriting technique can often restrict an artist’s vision, but Townsend’s music seems equally adept at expressing itself through avant-garde and more open, textural compositions as through this mode of straightforward verse-chorus songs.

Thus, Accelerated Evolution is unmatched in Devin’s “solo” catalogue for its straight-ahead, absolutely gorgeous pop catchiness (or, at least, was unmatched until last year’s jaw-droppingly brilliant Addicted – more on which at some future date).  “Storm” features some of Devin’s most beautiful, heavily emotive vocals.  Plus, make sure you pay attention about a minute from the end of the song, where you will hear what is probably the highest note we have yet to hear Mr. Townsend emit.  It is truly a thing of agonized beauty.

The references to rain throughout “Deadhead” evoke Devin’s earlier Ocean Machine project, as does the song’s atmospheric spaciousness, while “Suicide” boasts another ridiculously catchy chorus (although I’m still unclear as to what exactly an “internal suicide” is) AND probably the closest thing to a breakdown the man has ever produced.

“Traveller” is essentially a perfect pop song, which just happens to be disguised as an awesome heavy metal sing-a-long.  “Away,” on the other hand, is an extremely melancholy, primarily instrumental piece, whose sound hearkens back to the wide-open ambience of Terria and Ocean Machine – Biomech.  Where that ambience grew a bit tiresome on Terria because there was little to break it up, in this context if functions quite effectively as a palate cleanser and point of reflection between the harder-driving, insane catchiness of the rest of the album.  Its closing section also features some wonderful melodic improvisation while the rest of the band floats along in a chilled atmosphere.

I find that toward the end of the album, the songs become slightly less differentiable, so that by the time “Slow Me Down” has finished, I feel quite certain that I’ve just listened to an album of fantastically catchy metal/pop gems, but I can’t necessarily recall them all to mind.  “Storm” and “Deadhead” are definite highlights, though “Depth Charge,” “Suicide,” and “Traveller” are just as likely to worm their way deep into my subconscious.

When the dust settles, the most non-hyperbolic way I can describe the appeal of Devin Townsend’s music is that he strikes a wonderful balance between balls-out heavy metal insanity, instrumental wizardry, and a deft classicism of heartstring-tugging melody.  Accelerated Evolution finds Devin in fine form, gathering up the wayfaring excess from previous outings and compressing it into judiciously apportioned anthems; to extend the metaphor, Accelerated Evolution is the ultra-dense black hole to Terria’s vast, hypnotic nebula.

Few artists could claim credibly the term ‘evolution’ for an album which exhibits pure retrenchment into classic rock song structures and irony-free melodic emoting.  Devin Townsend, mercifully, is one of those blessed few, and Accelerated Evolution is a tremendous album.

Overall rating: 88%.  “Now the rain, it comes / The rain, it blurs the grey line.”
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Note: If you can track it down for a non-exorbitant price, I would definitely recommend picking up the limited edition 2-disc version of Accelerated Evolution, which attaches a bonus disc featuring three tracks entitled “Project EKO.”  These are full-on ambient/electronica excursions, all smooth and mellow, but thankfully without falling pretty to the frequent pitfall of ambient music; namely, that it is so ‘nice’ and ‘inoffensive’ that it immediately fades to the background.  The songs have electronic beats rather than just pleasantly drifting tones, and contain enough movement and variation to remain interesting.

“Locate” sounds like a less dub-influenced version of The Orb’s first few records, an impression which “Echo” intensifies with its heavy use of spoken-word samples.  “Assignable” is even more upbeat, with some clanging guitar echoes laid atop the energetic techno beat.

All in all, these three pieces are a nice come-down from the metallic heft of the main album, and should appeal somewhat to anyone with an interest in the very early styles of IDM (especially late 1980s British techno, and early Warp Records artists), but certainly will not appeal to all fans of Devin’s more metallic endeavors.

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Devin Townsend, Terria (2001)

Like a child, you're born again

My snail’s-pace trudge through Devin Townsend’s solo discography continues after some delay with 2001’s Terria.  I think I’ve been subconsciously avoiding this for a while, because for some reason, this album has always been one of the toughest of Devin’s solo albums for me to wrap my head around.

In general, this album is much more abstract and relaxed than much of Devin’s other solo work, and as a result needs to be approached somewhat differently.  Many of my hang-ups with this record, I think, stem from the fact that I kept trying to approach this album as a collection of songs, which, in comparison to the majority of Devin’s other records, this is not.  This album is much more a mood piece, a largely ambient and consistently-paced exercise in atmosphere.

Now, by calling this ‘ambient’, I don’t mean that it’s all floaty keyboards and nature sounds.  In fact, the heavy metal instrumentation and wall-of-sound production from Devin’s other work remains on display here as always; it’s just that those elements are combined in such a way as to produce an hour-long meditation on the themes of home and place.

Things get off to an odd start with the opening duo of “Olives” and “Mountain.”  I’m not exactly sure why Devin offer me a martini by way of opening the record, but hell, why not?  I’ll take mine dry as a Mormon, with a twist of prog, if you don’t mind.  “Mountain” still feels more like an introduction than a proper song, as it’s mostly instrumental with some bizarre sampled stuff in the background.  But have no fear: when “Earth Day” finally kicks in, it’s got absolutely all of the cinematic grandeur and blustery metal melodrama we’ve come to love and expect from Devin.

Unfortunately, this album has one major drawback.  The production has a very odd quirk to it which I find rather difficult to ignore.  Something about how the drums are mixed seems to make the sound levels of the other instruments fluctuate, such that when the drums are hit, the sound level of other instruments falls sharply into the background, then reemerges at the normal level when the drums are on off-beats.  It’s unpleasant to my ears, because when the levels dip, I automatically try to follow more intently what’s going on, but the levels are back up on the very next beat.  It’s off-putting, and casts an unfortunate shadow on the album.

Still, when that chorus to “Earth Day” swings around, it’s hard not to crack a huge idiot grin.  Devin consistently manages to combine exceedingly earnest melodies with somewhat off-the-wall lyrical content (“Eat your beets / Recycle, recycle”), so that for every quirk which pushes me away from this album, there’s always another hook waiting to pull me back in.

As I’ve said, the album gravitates toward a slow, deliberate groove, and one can’t help but get the impression that its title, Terria, is meant as a sort of reflection on the notion of home – but whether that home is Canada, Earth, or the universe at large remains an open question.

The album never gets particularly heavy, but this is more an observation than a criticism.  The drums are well-matched to the laid-back tone of most of the songs, although it does seem that the prodigious talents of a certain Mr. Gene Fucking Hoglan are being put to ill use.  In a strange way, this album’s relatively even-handed tone and deliberate pacing are the very attributes which make it a somewhat avant-garde entry into Devin Townsend’s discography.

The instrumental track “Down and Under” is really one of the only places where I feel the character of the fretless bass, which is a shame.  It seems like the album could have taken advantage of the note-bending and glissando possibilities of the fretless instrument.  Another notable aspect of the album is that Devin appears to have gone a bit sampler-happy.  This is especially true on “Deep Peace,” which overlays some incredibly live-sounding plugged-in acoustic strumming with everyone’s favorite new age signifier, whale song.  About midway-through the track, though, Devin busts out some soothing arpeggios to mollify the potentially impatient listener.

Things get nice and penitent toward the end of “Tiny Tears” (most definitely NOT a Godflesh cover, mind) with the chants of “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy), while the closing track, “Stagnant,” most resembles a pop/rock song with some bluesily elastic vocal turns from Devin straddling beautifully that fine line between parody and sincerity.

(“Universal” is a bonus track on my version of Terria.  Like so many of the bonus tracks on previous Townsend releases, this is a bizarre cast-off, which, in thise case, sounds like an acoustic country/boogie tune buried deep in the background and swathed in spaced-out ambience and dripping water [?] noises.  Just in case you thought Devin had gone mainstream, I suppose.)

Terria is much more about mood and ambience than the previous few solo Devin Townsend records (and most of those which follow, as a matter of fact).  Devin’s lyrics tend, as always, to veer somewhat precariously between the abstract and the personal, but in an endearing fashion.  This may be the Devin record that I spin least frequently, but it still hits the spot when the mood is right.  And, it seems to me, it’s no accident that following this record, Devin went through another slight name change, reemerging in 2003 as The Devin Townsend Band (that last word being quite crucial) for Accelerated Evolution.  More on which to come.

Overall rating: 70%.  Remember the space whale song in Star Trek IV?

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Different people listen to music differently.  Seems painfully obvious, sure, but since I posted a little while back about quizzing myself on how well I knew my own music collection (apparently, I half-know my collection…) I’ve been thinking about just how it is that we recognize and/or remember particular music.

This got me trying to figure out what metal songs are most likely to find themselves stuck in my head.  While thinking through that, it seemed that most of the results I came up with were songs I would identify because of their vocal hook; basically, shower sing-a-long type songs.

Here are just a few examples of some of my favorite heavy metal sing-a-longs, then:

Judas Priest, “Heavy Duty/Defenders of the Faith (Live)”

Sure, I occasionally get the slow-motion blues-stomp of “Heavy Duty” in there, but it’s primarily the “Defenders of the Faith” sing-a-long that I find banging around in there all the time.
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Nile, “Black Seeds of Vengeance”

For whatever reason, the first line of this song has always stuck with me (“The scourge of Amalek is upon you…”), but other than that, it’s obviously just the crushing death/doom breakdown at the end, chanting the song title ad infinitum that gets me every time.
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Dark Angel, “Darkness Descends”

Again, it’s just the chorus here.  Watch your neighbors and coworkers recoil in disgust as you let loose your venomous saliva to the soothing sounds of “The city is guilty / The crime is life / The sentence is death / Darkness deSCEEEENDS!”
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Metallica, “Creeping Death (Live)”

The chorus on this classic track is a great one to shout along with, but everyone’s favorite participatory moment has got to be the breakdown – where else but at a metal show is it considered socially acceptable to scream “DIE!!! DIE!!! DIE!!!” at the vein-bulging, eye-popping top of one’s lungs?
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Bathory, “Woman of Dark Desires”

Probably with some effort I could figure out what Quorthon’s yelling in the verses, but for the most part, I’m happy enough to croak along to the chorus on this, one of my favorite Bathory tracks.
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Mayhem, “Funeral Fog”

Most black metal is total balls to sing along to, but Attila’s inimitable vocals are, nonetheless, fun to imitate.  “FYOOOOOO-NER-EEE-UHHHL……FUGH!!!”
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That’s obviously just a small cross-section of the metal songs that tend to get stuck in my head.  The interesting thing, though, is that it seems pretty clear that I gravitate much more toward vocal hooks than guitar riffs.  I mean, some of these songs have riffs that are extremely easy to recall to the mind (“Creeping Death,” especially, but even the minor tremelo blitz of “Funeral Fog”), but for the most part, these songs get stuck in my head because of the vocals.

I wonder, then, if it has something to do with the fact that I don’t play the guitar?  An interesting question to pose to metalheads, then, is: Are guitar players more likely to get riffs stuck in their heads, or are the songs in their heads there, like they are for me, as sing-a-longs?  It’s a bit more difficult to “sing” along with a guitar riff, but I wouldn’t be surprised if different people identify more closely with different parts of a song, in which case it would seem to have something to do with how we listen to a song.

For my part, it seems to be vocal melodies, catchy choruses, and so forth, that stick in the mind after I’m listening.  When I’m in the act of listening, though, I do often find myself concentrating more closely on the guitar, or following drum fills, or picking out the bass line – those things just don’t tend to stick to my gray matter as cloyingly as the human voice.

Yet another thing that I noticed from this brief stream-of-consciousness song list is that most of the these songs whose vocal tracks get lodged in my brain are in some way thrash-inspired.  Clearly, Metallica and Dark Angel are thrash, but that Bathory track is a very thrashy one, and the chorus of “Funeral Fog” switches between straight-on black metal blasting and a more thrash-paced break.

The odd thing is, I don’t necessarily consider thrash to be one of my favorite genres, so I wasn’t expecting to see such a thrash influence here.  The more I think about it, though, it makes sense that thrash-inspired songs might be more memorable, inasmuch as the genre has a heavy focus on jagged, intensely rhythmic delivery, whereas songs from death metal or black metal often truck along with less variation.

Or, at least, the vocals in thrash are often delivered in a sort of complimentarity to the riffs, whereas in certain other genres, the guitar work is meant to provide texture rather than clearly identifiable structure, so it may be more difficult to pluck the vocals out of that textural mass.

Guitar players out there: Do you ignore vocals and remember only riffs?  Drummers: Do you ever recall anything other than how tight some dude’s snare is?  Singers: Do you ever listen to Attila Csihar and despair, knowing that nothing you ever produce with your vocal cords will match that level of depravity?
—————————————————————–

In some other random news:

– Red Harvest has broken up, and that just bums me the fuck out.  For my money, nobody out there did cold, antisocial industrial metal better, and they will be sorely missed.  See the band’s Myspace for details.  To help you through the grieving process, check out some official live clips from their 20th anniversary show last year.  Four songs from the show are available here.

– Neurosis has just put out an official live album, capturing their performance at Roadburn in 2007.  It is available from Neurot Recordings at this location.  Go, give yourself to the rising.

– Across Tundras have a new album out, and it’s cheap from their webstore.  I absolutely LOVE their first full-length, Dark Songs of the Prairie (probably the best replacement for the sorely-missed Gault), but I haven’t followed any of the intervening releases.  I’ve just ordered my copy, though, and will gladly report in due time.  Here’s to hoping for more doomed-out Americana.

– Devin Townsend finally announced more tour dates on his upcoming headlining tour, including a fervently hoped-for (by me, at least) stop in Chicago in November.  FUCK YES.  Ahem.  Check out the full list of tour dates here, and do not miss this heavy metal wizard if he’s swinging through your stomping grounds.

That’s all for now, friends.  Be good to each other, and please have a very heavy metal Wednesday.

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Devin Townsend, Physicist (2000)

Finally, some decent cover art

Released two years after the phenomenal Infinity album, Physicist may rank as one of the most Strapping Young Lad-ish albums in Devin’s solo career, which really shouldn’t be a surprise, given that this album has the EXACT SAME LINE-UP as Strapping Young Lad (Devin, Gene Hoglan, Byron Stroud, and Jed Simon).  If one were so inclined, one might even suggest that this is a bit like a hidden Strapping Young Lad record, given that SYL released no official album’s between 1997’s City and 2003’s SYL.  Fancy that.  Anyway, as a whole, this album does a nice job of walking a middle path between the spaciousness of Ocean Machine – Biomech, the general What-the-fuck?-ness of Infinity‘s genre-splicing approach, and the more straight-ahead industrial metal aggression of Strapping Young Lad.  Oh, and it’s also awesome.

“Namaste” kicks things off with a great burst of punky aggression, which is maintained through “Victim.”  These two tracks, plus the mid-album ripper “Death,” are some of the most intensely METAL moments in Devin’s solo career thus far.  The latter track, in particular, rather in keeping with its title, is the most face-shredding piece here, kicking off with the, ahem, soothing tones of Gene Hoglan blast-beating the shit out of your ears.  The weightier tone of some of these songs picks up in a slightly different fashion on “The Complex,” with its very martial ambient/industrial-sounding synths which sound most like tiny hammers striking a xylophone made entirely of anvils.

It’s not all sputtering rage here, however.  “Material” is the earliest stab at Devin’s fantastically pop-oriented songcraft on this album; this one especially nails its perfectly evocative chorus in such a way that I really want the track to go on forever, but it does its business and gets straight on with things.  Make sure you don’t miss the background vocal arpeggios on the second run-through of the chorus: pure bliss.

The track immediately following “Material,” “Kingdom,” is also absolutely dynamite, but in this case it works so well precisely because of its greater use of open space to contrast with the density and faster pace of most of the album’s shorter numbers.  “Kingdom” also features some of Devin’s most intense howling, fittingly over the lines “I’m fiiiiiiiine!

To these ears, “Irish Maiden” may be one of the only missteps on the album.  I think the rather jig-ish opening is somewhat annoying, but the track eventually redeems itself somewhat with some fantastic kick drum work from Hoglan and an excellent melodic bridge with some nice, thick riffing.

Devin Townsend is often discussed in terms of virtuosity, which I think is absolutely correct, but it’s important to note that much of the virtuosity on display here is not so much sheer instrumental prowess (you won’t find any brain-melting solos here, for example), but rather songwriting prowess.  This shows up generally in the fluidity of the arrangements, and the often complex (yet still straightforward-sounding) rhythms which are achieved through syncopation, or, in a few places (like “Victim” and “Jupter”), through a rhythm that relies on pick-up notes to give a quick, juddering attack to the start of the measure.  While we’re on the subject, “Jupiter” also has some really great rhythmic riffing on a 3/4 rhythm set against the slower 4/4 meter in the drums; instead of drawing attention to itself, though, this counterpoint technique comes across as extremely natural and smooth.

As many others have mentioned, the closing track “Planet Rain” is one of the most astounding songs on here.  While the rest of the album mostly trades in short, mostly compact pieces, this song is the lengthy and mostly melancholic counterpart to the pairing of “Life is All Dynamics” and “Unity” (from Infinity) or “Funeral”/”Bastard”/”Death of Music” (from Ocean Machine – Biomech).

The careful listener will have noticed, I imagine, the continuation of the rain motif from Ocean Machine’s “Death of Music” track here, and it functions as a really nice conceptual hinge.  This whole song is extremely evocative of a world completely wiped out and covered with never-ending rains.  This kind of apocalyptic imagery (even if it is largely self-conjured) matches up very nicely with Devin’s grandiose, highly theatrical and melodramatic (in the best way possible) style of songwriting.

When Devin sings,
“It’s quiet now, quiet now –
’cause it’s the end of world!
Quiet now, quiet now;
’cause it’s the end of the world!
,”
it really sounds like he’s having a conversation with himself: In the first two lines, he’s telling us the reason why it’s quiet now, but in the second two lines, because the “It’s” is dropped from the lyrics, it sounds like an invitation, or even a command, to be quiet now, at the end of the world.  I know this all sounds a bit goofy, picking apart these small aspects, but there’s something about this dude’s music that cries out for this level of emotional investment.  The whole track is fantastic, and needs to be heard in its entirety, but a favorite passage is right around the four-minute mark, where we finally get a simple, searing guitar lead to cut through the dense bundle of sounds and textures.

Eventually, the track fades out into the (rather appropriate) sound of rain falling, which transitions into the hidden track, called “Forgotten,” which is actually just a bizarre re-recording of “Bad Devil.”  This utterly strange new version of the Beatles-quoting (“She’s just 17, if you know what I mean…”) track from the Infinity album, closes things out in a rather odd manner, with its acoustic guitars draped in alienating drones and cymbal noise.

More than anything else, this actually sounds like some weird goth/blues/country tune, like you might find on a 16 Horsepower or mid-period Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album.  As is often the case with these hidden or bonus tracks on Devin’s solo albums, I usually listen to them all the way through, but since the album works so well as a holistic statement, I almost compartmentalize them in my mind, so that I don’t really think of this “Forgotten” song as belonging to the Physicist album.  Still, another brilliant entry into Devin’s solo discography, and a deeply emotive and powerful record.  Bang your head AND get the warm and fuzzies.

Overall rating: 93%.  Hear that truth again!

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Hello, Internet.  I hope you are well today.

Next up on my quick run-through of a favorite artist’s discography is Autechre.  Before diving in, though, it must be said that I have two pretty hefty bones to pick with these two English dudes.  Bone the first: how in the fuck do you pronounce that name?  This is an issue that I’m much more accustomed to dealing with when it comes to metal bands with either foreign language or made-up language names evoking various degrees of unpronouncibility (apparently not a word, but you know what I mean) or apoplectic, saliva-flecked rage in the pronunciation (Anaal Nathrakh, for example, or Nazxul – pretty sure there’s no way to say those names without sounding dangerously close to the edge of mental breakdown).  But c’mon, guys – you’re English.  I know it’s a bastard mongrel language, but I should at least have a general sense of how to get down to chewing on your name with my sound-forming muscles.  Last time I did a bit of Google-imploring, the closest I was able to approximate is that it’s pronounced something like ‘awe-TEK-er’.  Thankfully, one of the benefits of not having too many close friends into the exact same music as me is that there don’t arise too many opportunities for me to embarrass myself by tripping over an obviously incorrect pronunciation.  Anyway, bone the second, which is really no fault of these dudes (Sean Booth and Rob Brown, by the way, for those of you playing along at home), is the stupid fucking ridiculous genre-designation ‘IDM’.  Stands for ‘intelligent dance music’, which is just a hopelessly pretentious label, and not particularly helpful, especially when Autechre gets to that stage where they started fucking beats so mercilessly as to make any attempt at dancing a surefire way to self-induce a seizure.

(Seriously.  Check out this [admittedly bad-ass] music video, and try to dance along a little bit:

Good fucking luck.)

Anyway, point is, I think IDM is a completely obnoxious term, and although it serves as a somewhat useful signifier for a range of avant-garde and off-kilter electronic acts from the early 1990s onwards (Aphex Twin, Black Dog Productions, The Orb [kind of], Plaid, Boards of Canada, µ-Ziq, or basically anyone early on the Warp records roster, &c., &c.), I hate it, and wish that, as a term, it would jump off a fucking cliff and die.  So there.

Now that I’ve got that off the ol’ chest, on with the music.

Incunabula
(1993):

Despite the fact that it sounds relatively conventional when compared to their later aural peregrinations, Incunabula arrived as a startlingly fully-formed whole.  “Kalpol Intro” is one of the most brilliant introductory tracks ever written, and its haunting washes of static perfectly set up the rest of an album which is both ethereal and robotic, cerebral and warm.  More or less straightforward rhythms propel these alien soundscapes, which, more often than not, are the structural support upon which are laid beautifully simple melodies (a trend picked up somewhat later by Boards of Canada).  “Bike” and “Eggshell” are particularly favorites, but this album works wonderfully as a piece, and comes absolutely as close as any album I’ve ever heard (perhaps barring Aphex Twin’s landmark Selected Ambient Works, ’87-’92) to serving as the perfect soundtrack to a slow-motion dance party for underwater robots.  Seriously.  Listen with your eyes.

Amber (1994):

Released just a year after their debut album, Amber is very much like a slightly spookier twin of Incunabula.  The rhythms remain mostly straightforward, but the synth washes and melodies occasionally suggest a greater undercurrent of anxiety or menace; see especially the opener “Foil,” or “Silverside.”  The comparatively briefer track “Nine” is a lovely piece of ambient suspension, featuring the type of taut string-sounding synths that will crop up later in Autechre’s discography, albeit in more and more chopped and processed versions.  Check out the seemingly effortless melodic and rhythmic interplay on display throughout the stunning “Further.”  This album also features Autechre’s least computerized album cover, by far.  Some might see this record as too much of a holding pattern from the debut, but I think it’s just as likely to see it as a refinement of the themes and moods of Incunabula; neither album, however, gave much hint of the sea change to be found in their third, and defiantly best, album, Tri Repetae.

Tri Repetae ++ (1995):

As suggested above, Tri Repetae is my absolute favorite Autechre album, and probably the one that would serve as the best introduction to the group for a virgin listener.  Basically, the way I envision it, this album is something like a fulcrum for the rest of Autechre’s recorded output, in that it balances the warmth and mostly straightforward rhythmic tendencies of the first two records with the experimentation and more clinical sound of much of the group’s later work.  This album still functions well as a whole, but whereas Incunabula and Amber felt very much texturally and sonically unified throughout their playing time, I have the very distinct feeling on Tri Repetae that each individual track creates its own sonic and textural world; the snarling bass flares of “Dael,” for example, introduce themselves right up front, but then Booth and Brown patiently introduce other elements in such a way that when all the layers of the song have been added, it presents an aural environment to just sit and get lost in.  Check out, for example, the way that the main synth melody in “Clipper” is mixed in and out of the foreground in such a way that the melody plays almost like a hymn to the Doppler effect.  “Leteral” is another strikingly brilliant sound-world; the initial rhythmic pattern sounds to me like pistons throbbing in a great steam-shrouded factory, but it is quickly joined by an understated organ and some gentle synth overtones which move that great factory into the clouds.  Obviously, I could go on and on about this record, describing for you exactly how the constituent parts of each song combine to produce a collision of density and space, harmony and industrial rhythm, and so forth.  Instead, why don’t you just go listen to this right fucking now and see/hear/feel for yourself.  Play it fucking loud, please, and don’t make me ask twice.  Oh, and if you do run out to the store and pick this up post haste (as you should), make sure to get the double-disc version Tri Repetae ++, in which the ‘++’ represents the two EPs (Anvil Vapre and Garbage, btw) collected on the second disc.  Special notice should be given to the completely heavenly closing track from disc two, “Vletrmx21.”  If robots could weep…

Chiastic Slide (1997):

Here, basically, is where shit gets a little weird.  Opening track “Cipater” starts off not too dissimilar to the rough industrial-style beats of some of Tri Repetae and tosses on top a fairly charming half-melody, but then about halfway through, breaks down into what is probably the closest Autechre will get to producing a dub track.  I think, based on some of what I’ve read elsewhere, that this album doesn’t rank super highly on the list of most Autechre fans, but it seems like a pretty self-evident progression from Tri Repetae, just pushed a bit further over the experimental edge.  Most tracks still maintain a pretty straightforward meter (check out “Tewe” for the electronic equivalent of a jazz drummer playing crazy fills with a set of brushes), although the overall tone of the album is cooler, and somehow slightly more distant.  Somewhat difficult to explain, I guess; think about it maybe like an android learning to make music by imitating the glorious moods and juxtapositions of the preceding album (especially gorgeous tracks like “Eutow” or “Leterel”) – the pieces are there, but stitched together in a slightly, well, altered fashion.  It bears pointing out, though, that the marimba-esque melody of “Cichli” is one of Autechre’s best, as far as I’m concerned.  “Hub” is probably the track rocking the most “other-ness” on here, and hints at greater bouts of rhythmic abstraction to come in the group’s future.  Another interesting tidbit: Check out the gut-punch rhythm of “Calbruc,” and then compare it to the main beat of Björk’s track “Innocence,” from her Volta record.

LP5 (1998):

Whoa.  LP5 brings to full flower some of the experimental tendencies on offer in the previous two albums, and cranks the wackiness up the 11.  Lead-off track “Acroyear2” kicks off at high-speed, something that previous Autechre productions hadn’t much done, and ends up locking into a groove that sounds like a simultaneously smooth and foreign drum and bass tune (actually, toss in some heavier drums, and this could actually pass for breakcore – it’s this era of Autechre that Aaron Funk A.K.A. Venetian Snares seems to have had in mind when putting together his excellent Huge Cylinder Chrome Box Unfolding album a few years down the road from this monster of an album).  Aside from Tri Repetae, this album is the other that I would direct newer Autechre listeners to, because it definitely amped up the spindly, melodic, yet still freaked-out tendencies of their sound, while still staying at least somewhat close to recognizable beats and rhythms, without straying into the extreme abstraction of the next couple of full-lengths.  This entire album is just remarkable to soak up, but a personal favorite is “Fold4, Wrap5,” which drops some seriously pretty tinkly bits over a constantly shifting tempo of gentle drumpad beats.  Autechre had always stood apart as innovators, but if Tri Repetae saw them exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, LP5 sees them taking a stab at modifying the gravitational constant of the universe.  Stunning, stunning genius.

EP7 (1999):

Kinda beats me why this one is technically classified an EP, since my version gives a running time of just about an hour.  Either way, most of this sounds like potential outtakes from LP5, but without the slightly derogatory connotation that sometimes attaches to such a comment.  “Ccec” comes maybe the closest Autechre comes to featuring a real live vocal sample, though it’s snipped and sequenced well past even Prefuse 73 standards, until it’s just another percussive element.  The tracks featured here continue to move away from the thicker and heavier beats of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide, and feature more of the hectically played taut-string synth melodies (I still can’t really come up with a better way to describe the sounds – occasionally it will sound like some sort of harp from the future, but not quite like any of that ridiculous nonsense Spock played in that hippie/cult episode of the original Star Trek…).  More tasty electro goodness, then, and who’s complaining?

Confield
(2001):

It is perfectly conceivable that certain listeners would have been able to follow Autechre to this point in their career, but might feel, with Confield, that they had lost the plot, jumped the shark, or whatever.  This is, frankly, a really fucking peculiar record.  Most of the sounds contained within it are not unprecedented for Autechre, but there is a real starkness and great distance in most of these songs.  I happen to think it’s still a tremendous album (and in large part, precisely because of that stark quality), but it’s understandable that those of us out there who would still like, y’know, something like actual songs from their abstract electronic artists might be a bit disappointed.  These are, nevertheless, some unconventionally beautiful and unique sound creations.  You can almost start dancing to “Cfern,” for example, but try it for too long, and you’ll likely trip all over yourself.  “Parhelic Triangle” sounds like a static-producing machine folding in on itself over and over again.  Closing track “Lentic Catachresis” is another headfuck, starting off like a cast-off Tri Repetae skeleton track with bursts of organ fractals shot through it.  The machines are talking to you, and they are trying to say, “We love you.”

Draft 7.30 (2003):

The random-beat-generating-software would seem to be in full effect by this point (though I’m sure more astute followers of Autechre history would be happy to tell me precisely when and where such software made its entree – I suspect it may have been somewhere between 1998 and 2000, but whatevs).  Besides featuring probably the best Autechre cover art (I know the totally nondescript Warp-style no-information-whatsoever covers are part of an aesthetic, but seriously: BORING), Draft 7.30 takes great pleasure in keeping the listener at arm’s length, with little semblance of traditional song structure, recognizable rhythm (or at least any rhythm that lasts longer than a half-measure at a time), or even their trademark quirky melodic underpinning.  These are generally cold, occasionally harsh soundscapes, which are fascinating, but can be quite off-putting if you’re not quite prepared for them.  “IV Vv IV Vv VIII” is particularly sparse and hostile, perhaps akin to striking a punching bag filled with mercury over and over again with a set of rusting golf clubs.  “61e.CR” lulls the listener in with a fairly straightforward 4/4 rhythm which actually stays fairly constant throughout the track, though the quieter bits toward the end introduce some softer percussion which seems to tug at the meter, while the album’s centerpiece, the 11-plus-minute “Surripere,” comes in with a warm, glitchy ambient texture not too far from much of Kompakt’s stable before it gradually pulls itself apart with harsher swaths of noise and deconstructed beats.  It’s not really accurate to claim that this album is any more experimental than some of Autechre’s others, but for whatever reason, the mood created by Draft 7.30 seems much more clinical and detached than a lot of the rest of their canon; whether that adds to or detracts from the album’s appeal is up to you, humble listener.

Untilted (2005):

Man, I straight-up HATE this album’s cover.  I mean, seriously.  Let your eyes soak it in – looks like either an uncool white suburbanite’s attempt at graffiti art, or like your slightly slow cousin’s elementary-school-computer-rendered portrait of Optimus Prime.  Bums me right the fuck out, pretty much beyond all reason.  Doesn’t help all that much that this might be among my least favorite Autechre albums, but at least the music is still about twelve thousand times better than that congealed-dog-vomit of an album cover.  Now, when I say it’s one of my least favorites, what I really mean is that this album will still robotically rock your face off, but just to a slightly lesser degree than certain other Autechre albums.  The extremely taut rhythms of “Ipacial Section” are a particular highlight, as is the laid-back funk of “Iera.”  “Fermium” veers almost a little too close to Aphex Twin (circa Richard D. James Album, I’d say) for comfort, but pretty much the rest of the album is unmistakably Autechre.  One of the biggest problems with the record is that several of the tracks seem to have a playing time which exceeds the amount of interesting ideas, such that a track starts off with a great juddering rhythm or spastic melodic bit, but then either grinds the same section on ad nauseum, or dissipates into a vague ambient/static haze.  This actually works pretty well on the massive, nearly 16-minute closer “Sublimit,” which seriously bounces all over the fucking place, even rocking some vaguely house/disco-esque tones around the 4:00 minute mark, but too many of the other songs overstay their welcome.  The machines are still talking to you, then, but now they are trying to say, “Hey, dude, mind if we keep crashing on your couch for another month?”

Quaristice (2008):

Three years between Untilted and Quaristice is the longest Autechre has taken between albums thus far in their career, and this record definitely sounds like they took a step back and did some reevaluation.  The most immediately obvious characteristic of this album is that it contains a whopping 20 (!) tracks, only two of which actually exceed the five-minute mark in running time.  Given my complaints about Untilted, one would think that this strategy would play like a godsend, but in fact, there are some drawbacks here as well.  The great thing about this record is the sheer number of tracks, and the amount of stylistic diversity on offer; beatless, ambient opener “Altibzz” flows right into “The Plc,” which rocks some woozy, wobbly effects over a distant bass thud and the clang of soft steel-toe drums, coming across like an orthogonal reading of dubstep trends.  In many ways, this album is reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Drukqs album, in that there’s such a wide range of things going on throughout that it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to, but doesn’t end up being nearly as memorable as earlier, slightly more cohesive records.  These songs play a lot more like sketches, introducing a few ideas and running with them for a few minutes, before careening off into a completely separate stylistic direction.  It is occasionally frustrating, but just as often thrilling, to hear Booth and Brown rooting around through so many sounds, moods, and textures.  I am particularly fond of the nocturnal “Tankakern,” the “Rettic AC”-esque (from Chiastic Slide) static washes of “Fol3,” and the utterly disorienting “Lo.”  There are great moments scattered throughout, but as I’ve suggested, they take a bit more patience to find.  I also think that closing with the two lengthiest tracks, both of which are completely beatless dark ambient tunes, was a bit much, and winds things down on an anticlimactic note.

Oversteps (2010):

Released in February of this year, I’m still working on giving Autechre’s newest album the attention it deserves.  In some ways, the band seems to have resolved the complaints I had about Untilted and Quaristice, in that Oversteps features the non-trivial number of 14 full productions, each with shorter running times than the occasionally bloated songs on Untilted, but each song feels much more like an actual song than the shorter mood pieces of Quaristice.  To my ears, Oversteps hearkens back to the “album-ness” of earlier work like LP5 or Tri Repetae much more than any of Autechre’s other more recent albums.  In fact, I think I would compare this album most frequently to LP5, because even though the actual textures are markedly different, both albums tend to focus a bit more on exploring various synth tones and textures, rather than the abstract and random beats and rhythms of the albums from, oh, let’s say Confield through Untilted.  The chopped strings and harpsichord-esque “Known(1)” is an early highlight on this album, as are the delicate “krYlon” and the dark, thumping “D-Sho Qub.”  Apart from the slightly brighter, less abstract textures, one of the most pleasant aspects of this newest album is the rediscovered sense of “almost rhythm,” by which I mean the ability to put together a rhythmic structure which seems fairly conventional and foot-tappable, but then to twist and prod it ever so slightly to throw the listener’s expectations subtly off course.  When the beats eventually come in on the opening track “R Ess,” for example, just try to follow along.  Your brain thinks that it has got a handle on the subdued, shuffling beat, but it refuses to conform to standard meter.  Here, at last, the machines are speaking to you once more, and they are saying, “Come join us inside this black hole.”  Oversteps makes your cosmic progress toward the oblivion of the event horizon a warm and comforting (yet still peculiar and alien) journey.

Until next time, then, friends, keep a warm fire burning in your cold, robot hearts.
-d

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I thought I might take a quick crack at running through the discography of an artist I really love.  If this works out (or if it at least amuses me), I might try it out on other artists as well (and would welcome suggestions for doing so), particularly if I’m feeling a bit lazy at the time to crank out full reviews for a shitload of albums.  I also reserve the right to skip certain albums that either a) I don’t feel like I have anything to say about, b) are for some reason less ‘major’ works, even if they are technically classified as full-lengths, or c) I don’t actually own the thing.

Anyhow, the tired cliche about Ulver is that they are a completely mercurial bunch of tricksters (yuk yuk – lead singer Garm AKA Kristoffer Rygg used to go by Trickster G), changing their core sound with each and every of their full-length releases.  Thing is, that’s pretty much true, although I would add that I don’t think their “core” has changed with each album, if by “core” we understand “basic artistic motivations.”  From the start, these Norwegian metallers have been committed to exploring all the hidden corners of rich, dark music, even if the specific instantiation of those guiding principles sounds more or less radically different each run-through.  They emerged as a part of the Norwegian second wave of black metal in the early 1990s, but quite quickly established themselves as a group apart from the criminal activities and frequently ridiculously Satanic posturing of their national cohort; four albums into their career and they had basically left black metal behind entirely.

Bergtatt (1995):

Their debut album is a remarkably coherent artistic statement, and represents a quite early (and extremely robust) foray into the black/folk metal hybrid that would later gain so much currency throughout the European and American metal scenes.  Bergtatt is an excellent fusion of clean singing, ferocious howls (Ulver is Norwegian for ‘wolves’, after all), melodic riffing, galloping drums (with that pitch-perfect cavernous production), acoustic flourishes, and expertly paced songwriting.  Basically, Agalloch circa Pale Folklore ate their fucking hearts out to this stuff.

Kveldssanger (1996):

In retrospect, this album shouldn’t have been such a shock, given the extremely rich folk undercurrents of the preceding Bergtatt.  Nevertheless, this all acoustic album remains quite jarring, especially given its situation between Bergtatt and Nattens Madrigal.  An absolutely gorgeous collection of folk songs collected from and inspired by Norway’s landscape and collective mythology, here these Norwegian wolves focus on delicately-picked guitar and cello suites overlaid with powerful all-male choral vocals, highlighting the impressive baritone of Garm.  A very contemplative album which fits its evocative artwork exactly, perfect for building campfires in the shadow of the fjords.

Nattens Madrigal (1997):

It has always seemed to me that if there were any logic in this crazy world, these first three albums would have been ordered differently: moving from the shrieking, raw black fury of Nattens Madrigal, then to the nocturnal calm of Kveldssanger, and then finally to the black/folk fusion of Bergtatt makes a hell of a lot more sense.  Regardless of the sequence, this is one fucking ripper of an album.  These eight tracks, each ‘hymns’ to wolves (e.g., “Hymne I – Wolf and Fear,” “Hymne VI – Wolf and Passion,” etc.), will completely shred your eardrums with their trebly, willfully underproduced black metal vitriol.  Apocryphal tales suggest that the band blew the money their label fronted for recording this album on alcohol, and then recorded the damn thing in the middle of the forest.  Who gives a shit, really, when the end result is this vicious, punishing, unrelenting, and possessed of such a single-minded vision.  The ongoing battle within metal for who can be the most “extreme” is clearly missing the mark: this album is a seizing, frothing paroxysm of the absolutely primal beauty of heavy music, to be ignored at your own peril.  Forget your Mayhems and Emperors, your Immortals and your Satyricons: this may be Norwegian black metal’s clearest distillation.

Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell (1998):

And now, as the story goes, for something completely different.  Are you following these dates?  1995/1996/1997/1998.  Ulver put out these four records in four years, covering more ground than an entire music scene typically covers in a decade.  This double album, based off of William Blake’s epic poem cycle, is an absolute mindfuck, which nevertheless can be seen, retrospectively, to have planted the seeds for their future progression and musical development.  Over the course of this album, Ulver expands their sound into a variety of ambient rock/metal (in some ways similar to The Gathering circa How to Measure a Planet? or if_then_else), electronica (especially trip-hop, but also ambient and even some touches of drum and bass – see “Proverbs of Hell, Plates 7-10”), industrial metal (check out the breakdown in “The Voice of the Devil, Plate 4”), and ambient/experimental noise.  The bottom line is, although there is very little “metal” on this record, its fierce experimental streak and further exploration of a number of dark and heavy (more broadly understood) musical styles revealed Ulver as an even more profoundly creative entity than hinted at by their mastery of black metal in the preceding trilogy of albums.  Restless, searching brilliance that ought to be experienced by open-minded metal fans, as well as anyone interested in the fusing of metal, rock, industrial, and electronic styles (fans of Coil’s Musick to Play in the Dark albums should find much to praise here).

Perdition City (2000):

On Perdition City, Ulver jettisons most (if not all) of the rock and metal trappings, and goes pretty much straight-up trip-hop.  The album maintains a very dark streak throughout, with touches of industrial (this album, for example, presages Blut Aus Nord’s fantastic Thematic Emanation of Archetypal Multiplicity EP in some ways) and noise cropping up here and there.  The crackling ambience throughout and occasional saxophone help to create a slinky, urban noir atmosphere; the album is subtitled “Music to an Interior Film,” but I think it’s the perfect accompaniment to Dark City, Blade Runner, or any other dystopian environment.  For a primarily electronic album, it is significantly less busy than a lot of trip-hop, but fans of the bleak, paranoid atmosphere of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or Portishead’s spy-noir would likely enjoy this record, as would fans of more recent electronic/jazz outfits like the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble or Bohren & Der Club of Gore.  By this time, though, most metal fans had either given up on Ulver or accepted that the white hot fury of Nattens Madrigal was not to return anytime soon.

Blood Inside (2005) – Note: This skips 2002’s Lyckantropen Themes and 2003’s Svidd Neger, both of which are not exactly new full-lengths, but rather scores for films:

Just when you thought things could hardly get weirder…  Blood Inside is one of those records which is basically impossible to describe.  It’s also totally fucking awesome.  Here, Ulver have moved away from the trip-hop of Perdition City, brought back in some of the rock and other electronic touches of Themes from William Blake’s…, but also tossed into the mix a whole assload of keyboards, synthesizers, and neoclassical programming touches.  I guess you could say it has aspects of industrial, but it is overwhelmingly warm and organic.  Frankly, it’s difficult to give this a higher recommendation than by saying that this album is singular – it sounds like nothing other than Ulver.  From the crystalline beauty of “Christmas” to the Bach-quoting (I think; it definitely sounds like a Bach organ fugue) programmed madness of “It Is Not Sound,” this is an experimental album of stunning vision and execution.

Shadows of the Sun (2007):

This album is probably the quietest thing Ulver has released, and is remarkably pretty.  The focus is on gently rumbling bass notes and keyboard/organ moods, but the real highlight is the clean baritone of Kristoffer Rygg.  A whisper-quiet rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude” featuring breathy, low-register flute accompaniment fits the desolate mood perfectly.  Although they sound absolutely nothing alike, Shadows of the Sun would seem to have a certain affinity with 1996’s Kveldssanger, in that both evoke a nocturnal, contemplative atmosphere; where Kveldssanger‘s layered vocals occasionally sounded triumphant and stirring, however, Shadows of the Sun is understated, still, and, for lack of a better description, profoundly sad.  A beautifully dark lament.

Ulver: Kicking Your Ass And Blowing Your Mind Ten Ways To Sunday Since 1993

Cheers, &c.,
d.

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Following quickly on the heels of the Ocean Machine – Biomech album of 1997, Infinity is the first album which was originally released by Devin Townsend as a solo project under his own name.  As remarkable as the Ocean Machine project was, it is really on this first ‘proper’ solo project that Devin’s twisted genius for epic, progressive metal bears full fruit.  Sure, we can all agree that Strapping Young Lad knew how to bring it in terms of utterly intense prog-tinged metal, but SYL always tilted towards the more aggressive and industrial side of things; it’s the solo Townsend, I think, which displays a much wider textural range and more varied songwriting.  Lest I deserve a swift bout of pummeling, I should hasten to add that Infinity features the monstrously-talented drumming of fellow Strapping Young Lad (har-har) Gene Hoglan, and thus has somewhat of a leg up on Ocean Machine from the start.

Not the handsomest man in metal

The album kicks off in fine form with “Truth,” a massively epic and overstuffed instrumental intro which, when it breaks the building tension at the end by jumping a fifth (I think) and holding that stringed synth tone over a cymbal roll, reminds me of nothing more than Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis.  Yeah, that’s right – fuckin’ Yanni, and it kicks ass, so step off (like I’m the only one who ever watched PBS in the 90s…).   The first proper song “Christeen” is quite a bit reminiscent of “Life” from the Ocean Machine album, in that it is one hundred percent a classically-structured pop song.  Both tracks also run perilously close to the cheesy (especially “Christeen”s Phantom of the Opera-quoting chorus), but “Christeen” redeems itself somewhat with that nice intense bridge and lead-in to the final go-around of the chorus.

Though the tendency was already somewhat evident in the Ocean Machine album, I find that it’s on Infinity where I really start to pick up on the duality of Devin’s musical personality.  On the one hand, the dude knows how to craft well-constructed songs – the old verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc-etc shtick – not all of which suffer from the overly pop-leaning sounds of the above-mentioned tracks.  On the other hand, he has a real knack for breaking up an album into more straightforward tracks and more experimental tracks – and moreover, that experimentation can just as easily take the form of ambient, gradually-building, and almost modal hymns (Devin Townsend’s Kind of Blue period, we could call it) as it can take the form of smashing as many disparate musical styles, instruments, and sounds into one rambunctious whole.

On the more straightforward tip, then, I’ve already mentioned “Christeen,” but “War” and “Soul-Driven Cadillac” fall somewhat into this camp as well.  The intro to “War” goes on far too long for my taste, but both tracks stomp along in this groove of modal suspension and form a solid backbone for some of the more experimental material that peppers the rest of the album – particularly “Bad Devil,” “Ants,” and “Wild Colonial Boy.”  I suspect that for many fans of Devin’s solo work, these extremely busy and chaotic songs are the primary draw, and I absolutely agree, except with the caveat that were it not for the counterpoint provided by some of the more straightforward (but no worse off for being so) songs, these insanely diverse tracks wouldn’t seem quite so batshit crazy.  As it is, though, “Bad Devil” picks up the slack dropped by “Christeen” in a MAJOR FUCKING WAY, featuring some awfully punchy riffing (in contrast to the diffused tone of a lot of the riffing on the rest of this album and many of Devy’s others) and some wicked horror theme synths (think The Munsters or The Addams Family).  Even better is when the track drops into a shuffling swing rhythm and highlights some jazz trombone and an almost rockabilly upright bass section.  Killer stuff.

“Ants” is another balls-out wacky song, which can only really be described as sounding like Dream Theater and Behold…The Arctopus jamming on a cover of “Hava Nagila,” so feel free to take that for what you will.  “Wild Colonial Boy” is another track somewhat in the model of “Bad Devil,” in that it oscillates between more straightforward metal components and distinctly non-metal genre sections.  In particular, “Wild Colonial Boy” careens between a quite catchy polka section and some of the most earnest-sounding vocal melodies of the entire record.  On this track, Devin’s vocals walk that absolutely perfect tightrope between soaring melodicism and winking melodrama, which will be one of the most winning features of his entire musical approach.

Regardless of what type of song he’s playing, part of the charm of Devy’s solo material is that, as is so often the case, these songs work so splendidly by manufacturing an overload – because Devin is an excellent producer, all of the individual layers of the sound remain distinguishable, but in most of these tracks, there is just so much going on that eventually the listener says, more or less, “Fuck it,” and decides to surrender to the waves upon waves of gorgeous noise.  The real trick, and one of the least replicable aspects of Townsend’s genius, is that this overload doesn’t feel confrontational (as in most actual noise music – Skullflower, I’m looking at you, you crazy fuck), but rather warm and inviting, like wandering into a thick forest in the middle of a thunderstorm – sure, you get a bit wet, but there’s shelter in there, and a real feeling of almost existential density.

For my money, the album peaks exactly where it should, with the final two tracks.  “Life is All Dynamics” is absolutely one of the best songs on here, and features some of Devin’s most heart-rendingly intense vocals.  I mean, seriously: Put on this song just about as loudly as you can handle, and I fucking dare you to not find yourself stomping around your house like a goddamned flesh-hungry velociraptor (or even a stegosaurus on a serious trip of plant withdrawal) in time to Devin’s hollering “LIFE! IS! ALL! DY-! -NAMICS!!!”  Science will soon prove it impossible.  The transition into the closing track, “Unity,” is also extremely classy; given the tension-building suspended outro of the preceding track (remember? You’ve just stopped thrashing [your dinosaur tail around] like a maniac [Jurassic Metallica – shit, I’ve just invented a crossover children’s cartoon & heavy metal hit]), the rich and mellow tones of this song are a perfect come-down.  Plus, I think there’s a nice bit of commentary done by book-ending the album with tracks called “Infinity” and “Unity,” which seems to be reflective of the type of worldview Devin often represents in his solo works (though here I’m especially thinking of “Triumph” from Synchestra, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is probably the best song that has ever been written).

The bonus tracks on the version of Infinity that I own, I don’t know, I could pretty much take them or leave them.  The track “Noisy Pink Bubbles” (which may or may not be Devin’s tribute to Helloween’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape – I prefer to think not…) is especially odd, with some child chorus vocals sounding straight out of Annie or some such musical, and clean electric guitar strumming over an almost “Lust for Life” drumbeat.  Also included are live acoustic versions of “Sister” and “Hide Nowhere” from the Ocean Machine album, which are nice for a change of pace, but although the latter especially features some nice vocals from a very closely-mic’ed Devin, it also drags a bit as an all-acoustic number.  There’s also an early band demo of a track called “Man” on here, which sounds, well, like a demo – decent enough, but kind of like an unfinished thought.  These bonus tracks, then, are mostly interesting curios for the true Townsend fanatic (which, truth be told, is me), but although this album thrives based on its disparate moods and sounds, I really think it is perfectly capped by “Unity,” so I typically end it there.

In comparing Infinity to Ocean Machine – Biomech, it seems pretty clear that Infinity explores a much broader range of sounds and moods, and does so in a much shorter running time.  Which one you prefer may just depend on what you’re looking for, although I find that Infinity edges out Ocean Machine by a non-trivial margin, and undoubtedly established Devin Townsend as one of metal’s most outstanding and relentlessly creative musicians.

Overall rating: 94%.  I STILL haven’t stopped crashing around my house to “Life is All Dynamics.”  Devin Townsend: Metal Genius Extraordinaire & Inducer of Perpetual Motion.  Take that, physics.

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