Thoughts on Panopticon’s Roads to the North

Now that I’ve written my thoughts, I looked back at what I said in 2012 about Panopticon’s previous album, Kentucky. I find it interesting that my reaction to that album was almost exactly the same as this one.

If you haven’t kept track, recall that Panopticon is Austin Lunn, a one-man Kentucky (or Minnesota, I can’t quite track this down) based black metal/bluegrass fusion band. Honestly, I’m still fascinated by the idea that this might work. I had a lukewarm impression of his last album, but I thought this one would blow me away with its perfect unity of these two distinct styles.

This album doesn’t hold up for me. First, they’ve moved away from the black metal aesthetic quite a bit as the first track shows. The song is all over the place. It has black metal influenced parts, but shifts to some standard rock beats with almost metalcore style riffs and even some power metal sounding parts.

The bluegrass influence on the track comes from fiddle riffs (?) during the black metal parts. I sort of like the metal part, because it creates this deep, static atmosphere. The fiddle is a novelty that doesn’t add the correct feeling to the song. It is playing an arpeggiated, moving part which contrasts awkwardly with the static guitars. If the fiddle were doing tremolos here, I think it would add a nice texture that actually fits with the sound.

The next track is one of the best. It starts with acoustic guitar accompaniment to a tin whistle (?) and fiddle duet. It then goes into the metal part. This time I’m not sure how to classify it. Maybe post-rock? The fusion with the traditional instruments actually works here. Despite this, I don’t find the song itself that interesting. It is incredibly repetitive, and the content on repeat is pretty standard stuff.

The next three tracks are three parts of one epic song. It starts with banjo accompaniment to fiddle, and turns into a traditional bluegrass stringband piece. Sadly, I think this is where the band shines. Their pure bluegrass material is excellent. The rest of the epic is post-metal. There’s lots of atmosphere with droning, shoegaze guitar. The bass work is really good. It sounds like something that you might expect from a prog band.

Overall, my impression is that Panopticon really know their bluegrass, but the novelty of fusing that with metal hasn’t been ironed out yet. The metal itself is all over the place. I still feel the project has tons of potential, but right now I’m just not feeling it (and apparently I’m the only one as I’ve seen something like 6 stellar reviews and no criticism). What I think other reviews confuse is the difference between the idea of this album (excellent!) and the actual execution.

I even feel a little bad writing harshly about a one-man project, because it feels like a much more personal attack than to criticize a large band. Don’t take my word for it. Form your own opinion. Here’s a sample:

JZZBLK’s Welcome Reviewed

JZZBLK are a little known Swedish group that released their first EP in June of this year, Welcome. Some might call this prog metal, but I’m not sure it really fits any obvious style. It has lots of jazz influences, but also lots of experimental elements and some punkish parts.

That sounds like it might be a really disjointed mess, but I think the whole thing works well and stays consistent throughout. The first track exemplifies this fusion. It starts with an abstract introduction which is a reworking of a later motif, and then settles into downtempo punk type of thing. It shifts into an amorphous collection of chromaticism and dies into a single guitar playing an arpeggio ostinato.

This idea keeps getting passed around the band for a minute or so as it builds slowly with more and more instruments and voices all the way up to a giant climactic moment. This is extremely well executed in a classical sense. The build is patient and done with instrumentation, rhythm, and harmonic intensity. Just as the chaos gets to a tipping point, the main motif gets played homophonically.

The song then breaks from the unity back into chaos with a new technical and chromatic breakdown of the idea. To wrap the song up we get a return to the beginning. Overall this album is fun and exciting to listen to. It makes you pause and wonder how something that can be so strange and technical at parts still seems to be so enjoyable. The answer is easy enough: they aren’t afraid to employ some typical rock elements.

The second song’s beginning drags a little for me, but really ramps up to the excitement of the first track after a little bit. The third track feels a bit like filler, but I’m not sure what they are trying to fill since it is a 29 minute self-released EP. Maybe I’m missing something on that one.

The fourth track is a deviation from the first two. This one definitely fits more in line with the prog metal label with a fretless bass and the most robust harmonic material of the album. It is also stylistically the most unified without much shifting around like the first two. The last track is closer to the first one with clear motivic material that gets passed around and developed into different styles.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with this one and I’m excited to see where this band goes next. They have a very good sense of how to develop material and play in different styles while keeping a unity to the song. They also understand how to build climaxes, which is extremely rare in metal which tends to keep things loud and fast all the time. I give it an 8.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Doom Metal Double Review

Pallbearer have achieved a somewhat strange level of popularity for a doom metal band. This is almost certainly due to Pitchfork, the darling of the indie music scene, giving their most recent album Foundations of Burden a glowing review and stamped it with “Best New Music.” I decided to give it a shot.

I’ll start by saying that this is my most listened to album over the past two weeks. This is not to say I think it is good. It is merely because when I’m at a loss for what to listen to, I just throw this on to see if its genius will reveal itself to me this time around.

Why, oh why, did every review I read compare this band to Deafheaven (you know, that indie band that plays “black metal” but sounds like My Bloody Valentine early 90’s shoegaze)? There is no comparison. Pallbearer, for the most part, plays doom with no indie rock influences (except for a few parts which we’ll get to).

The opening few tracks are pretty good. Part of what made me listen to this so many times is that I couldn’t really remember what it sounded like. The riffs aren’t very memorable. But they stick to their guns once they’ve laid down the main ideas of the song.

I like how they develop the material. The songs are epic in length, and they don’t overdo it. They are constantly shifting and developing the riffs. The development is slow, but constant and not too slow to get boring.

The clean singing vocal line is in nice counterpoint to the band. Each song builds to a climactic moment, but honestly the volume and instrumentation don’t distinguish these moments that much. In fact, a lot of this album feels static. I’m not sure if this is a mixing issue, or a compositional issue.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room. Periodically, the band does break into a 4/4 traditional rock sound and feel. I don’t really see the point. These are usually small sections of a 10 minute song. The song would still be long if it were cut, and then there would be stylistic continuity. This would make a really good doom album if that happened.

Also, there is a 3 minute song “Ashes” plopped in there, and the song could have been written and played by Sigur Rós. I’m still sort of convinced it is Sigur Rós. What is that about?

Overall, I think Pallbearer have a lot of potential. They understand doom and song development, but I think they suffer from trying too hard to be “original” and break conventions. In some sense, they are still trying to find their voice, and when this happens they’ll be great. Until then, I give this a 6.5/10. Here’s a sample:

I’ve never really understood Earth. I still remember when The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull came out, and everyone told me it was the greatest thing they had ever heard. I found it extremely boring and uninteresting. Earth have made their name on combining minimalism with something like doom (I know, some people will say it is drone).

Still, I decided to give them another shot with Primitive and Deadly getting a lot of rave reviews. I’ll say up front that I like this a lot more than the previously mentioned album. The polished production make Earth sound more modern than Pallbearer. There’s a lot of distortion, but it is so judiciously added in that the whole band sounds very clean to me.

The minimalism isn’t quite as extreme on this album. It still has a ton of repetition, but at least stuff is going on. Earth traditionally is all instrumental, but they have a guest vocalist on this album for some tracks. Honestly, I think this was a mistake.

The first track has no vocals, and they put a lot of effort into making sure the song doesn’t sound like accompaniment. All instruments work together to create a piece of instrumental music that stands on its own.

In the pieces with vocals, the minimalism is just too much for me, because the instrumental work is designed for accompaniment. The vocals try to cover this up, but those songs really drag. They contain less interesting riffs/rhythm/harmony/development/etc.

I understand that bands like Earth aren’t going for traditional song making. The point is for the listener to get lost in the repetition. The song isn’t meant to “develop,” but to have small deviations from the pattern that seem big to someone lost in the music. I think the first track succeeds in this. The vocals are a misplay in my opinion, because they pull you out of the trance. They are way too prominent, and then the song just falls as repetitive and boring.

I don’t hate the album, and my disclaimer that I’ve never been able to get into them means I probably shouldn’t be reviewing it at all. I give this a 6/10. Here’s a sample:

Cloak of Altering Plague Beasts Reviewed

Before reviewing Cloak of Altering’s new album, let’s just take a quick look at some other noise albums that have come out this year. I usually like the genre, but nothing stood out so far. There seems to be two trends that put me off. The first consists of bands that just make a pop album, and then layer a bunch of noise over it to call it art.

Maybe some people fall for this indie band trick, but I’m kind of shocked to see it get so much metal coverage. For example, I was excited about Have a Nice Life’s The Unnatural World because of the coverage in Decibel and a 9/10 at American Aftermath. I found the album unlistenable, because it fell in this first category. Pop plus noise does not negate the pop.

The other category is the other extreme. I like experimental music, but there is a line that can be crossed from avant garde to chaotic, disorganized, random sounds. This type of music has potential, because maybe I’m just not spending enough time with the album to understand the complicated underlying patterns. My guess is that there isn’t actually something there, though. I saw rave reviews for White Suns’ Totem, but found it to be unlistenable for that reason.

Then I found Cloak of Altering’s Plague Beasts. Cloak of Altering is a Dutch one-man project: Maurice de Jong. He’s been involved in a lot of extreme music projects, including another one-man project, Gnaw Their Tongues. This is Cloak of Altering’s third full-length release. Rather than call this noise, maybe it should be classified as industrial electronica with noise elements.

I’ll admit up front that I don’t love this album, but it at least encapsulates what originally drew me to the noise genre. First, there are some really great sounds on this album. The potential for interesting, new sounds definitely keeps me coming back to noise.

I understand these sounds are produced by just playing around with electronics, so there’s nothing too deep about it. But at least there’s something original happening. Isn’t the whole point to produce original sounds? The two pitfalls above only think about using harsh white noise.

The next thing Cloak of Altering does well is maintain some semblance of being music. There’s structure, beat, melody, and harmony. Most of the time it is buried, complicated, chaotic, and extreme. But it is still there. To me, this is far more interesting and impressive. If you want pure chaos, why listen to albums? Just go sit next to a construction site. I understand that when you experiment on pushing boundaries, sometimes you go too far. It is part of the process. This album is the result of understanding where the lines seem to be and producing a more balanced album.

All that being said, I think there are some down sides to this release. Sometimes the sound can get a bit cheesy in a few ways. The keyboard synth sound goes for a retro, eerie atmosphere in some songs, but there are moments where the time period that it conjures is a bit too vivid. I hear drum machine and 80’s synth which gives off a cheap dance sound. These moments are extremely rare, but really pull me out of the experience when they happen.

The other main cheesy bit is when the drum machine is used to produce a more standard sounding loop than the chaos and noise effect it is mostly used for. He makes use of the technology in innovative ways most of the time, but those few traditional uses feel out of place.

Overall, I really like the album and think this type of balance is what noise music should strive for, but it isn’t great. I give it a 7.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Retro Reviews Part 2: With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness

It’s time for another retro review, yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on consistently doing this series.

I would say that At the Gates needs no introduction, but actually, when reviewing albums over 10 years old, it is probably a good idea to remind people of the context. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness came out in 1993 as their second full length album (they also had an EP Gardens of Grief). At the Gates were pioneers in death metal, but a good deal of “mainstream” acts had produced a lot of material by this point.

In fact, At the Gates were still pretty unknown on Peaceville records at this point. Founding member and guitarist Alf Svensson was still playing on it. Their critical success and signing to Earache didn’t come until later.

I have to admit that at first I didn’t get this album. There were things that really annoyed me. Some of the songs seemed to just cut off in the middle of something. By this I mean that an idea would start right near the end, and start to build, but then the music would stop with no traditional closure. This was so abrasive the first time that I actually checked for other versions to see if I just had a sample album or something.

Also, there were parts where the playing seemed really muddy. It was almost as if the band messed up while recording or something and just left it in. I couldn’t really follow the song structure which seemed to just keep flipping around all sorts of unrelated ideas. I was having a really hard time with this album.

Two weeks ago I was about to write a review explaining all of this. Now I’m really glad I didn’t. Let’s look at how wrong I was.

The first track is the one where I thought the playing had some mistakes in it. The main opening riff that gets developed throughout the song has a strange ending, but in retrospect it clearly isn’t bad playing. It is just complicated time and rhythm. You can tell, because everyone in the band does it together. Once you’ve heard it a few times it doesn’t even sound that weird anymore.

Speaking of the first song, I think modern death metal bands should study it. It is masterfully constructed. The whole thing is based around 2 main riffs. If you listen to them, you’ll find that they establish an implied harmonic motion, they have interesting melodic motion, and use a variety of rhythmic ideas. In other words, they are suitable melodies to develop over the course of a song. Too often I think some bands just throw down a bunch of notes without thinking about it (no implied harmony, no rhythmic variety) and make a song around it.

The riffs then break off into variants once they’ve been firmly established. The main idea can still be heard, but the variants keep it interesting. They keep the ABAB idea going until the song has built in intensity enough that it explodes into a short climactic guitar solo. There is no excessive wankery. The song needed it at that point, so it happened and didn’t last longer than necessary.

The song is short, but expertly constructed. I’m rather embarrassed that originally I didn’t follow the structure when clearly a lot of thought and work went into making it very structured. This is part of what makes this album so good. On the surface, the songs give a feeling and sense of chaos, muddy playing, and unstructured interruption. This is what death metal should do. Underneath the surface, the songs are orderly, tightly played, and well constructed.

The next two songs are ones that I felt cut off right as they were getting started. The second song has now become one of my favorites. The comments from the first song still apply, but at the start it is quieter and more reflective. There’s probably some black metal influences here.

The ideas that I thought started near the end actually appear several times throughout each of the songs. Each time it appears corresponds to some angry sentiments in the lyrics. Each time it gets more and more intense. At the end it appears in its fullest most angry form.

If I had written the song, then I probably would have let this go on to a big climactic ending. But I have to say, their idea to cut it off works well. It is a great way to musically imitate the sense of annoyance, unfinished business, and anger. If the end developed into a climax with a satisfying traditional ending, then it would leave the listener feeling the exact opposite of what the song is trying to do.

Another fascinating aspect to this album is how the two guitars play off each other. Sometimes they are playing together in unison, but then they break apart into contrasting motion for a bit before coming back together. I said that ideas seemed unrelated at first, but you can hear that the different parts of the song or different riffs are constructed to be able to lay on top of each other. They may seem unrelated, but they fit together.

One of my favorite examples of this is in Primal Breath when the guitars are playing in unison. Then one of them holds the last note which becomes the first note of the other idea and the two ideas get played together. This type of thing is all over the album.

We could keep going through this album song-by-song, but I would keep writing the same thing. At the Gates had the skill and ability to create yet another noisy, speedy, and technical album that was all the rage. Instead, they decided to take a more reflective approach and carefully construct a work of art that would bring out the emotions in the listener that the lyrics were saying.

Overall, this is an absolutely excellent album. I highly recommend it to anyone out there, but give it a chance. It may take a lot of time to digest. There’s a lot of stuff on here that may feel wrong at first, but it is there for a reason. You will come to love those moments.

Origin’s Omnipresent Reviewed

Sorry about the delay. I’ve been moving, so I’ve been without internet for a bit (I know, excuses). I’m thinking I should start a “quality control” series on the blog where I take universally praised albums and see what I think of them. The problem is that I usually find them so dull that it is hard to come up with a whole blog post worth of things to say.

Origin probably needs no introduction, but they are a death metal band with a technical edge. This was another of those releases that got all around praise, so I decided to check it out. Let’s start with the good. Colin Marsten produced it, and he is a genius in my mind (I’ve been loving Indricothere recently which I missed last year). Needless to say, the production is quite good. Especially compared to some of the tech death releases this year. There’s actually a dynamic range!

I also really like the succinctness of the album. It clocks in at 37 minutes. There isn’t a lot of technical wankery you might expect from a band known for its technical playing. They really keep the songs cut to the essentials. There is a great focus and clarity to each song that comes from this. They’ve been around long enough to know what they need to do, and they do not go overboard anywhere.

Despite all this, I just can’t get into it. I’m somewhat baffled by the exclamations on the blogosphere that this will be album of the year. I get what Origin are doing, but I’m somehow left underwhelmed by it. The main praise is that the band can pull off grindcore, death metal, prog songs, etc so well, and hence we should be impressed with their diverse skills. I usually praise this type of thing as well. But I’m impressed when a band can mix genres seamlessly.

In this case, each song (that’s a slight exaggeration) seems to be in a different genre, so the result feels weird to me. There is nothing seamless about it. They play one thing. It ends. Then a totally new things starts up. It is clear they are excellent at their instruments, and some of the technical feats do draw me in. But I get to the end of the album and find it hard to think of anything that was truly memorable.

And that is the problem with my overall impression of the album. I’m just left feeling like I’ve heard it all before. It is very good, but unmemorable and disjointed. I know a lot of people feel differently. I plan to give it a few more listens, but I just don’t see it soaring to great heights for me. Overall, I give it a 6.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Destrage’s Are You Kidding Me? No. Reviewed

This album missed my radar, but a reader pointed me to it. It is maybe the most reviewed album I’ve reviewed all year.

Let’s take the first track, because it already contains so many elements that I’m not even sure how to classify it. We start off with some proggy technical noodling. They break with the prog norm a bit here to keep it interesting. First off, it is fast and relentless. Second, there is almost no arpeggiation which has become the cliche thing to do. Instead they ornament around the chord structure with some more classical chromatic gruppettos and mordents among other things.

Pretty quickly we move on to something that sounds like a punk/mathcore fusion. For grooving so well, the underlying rhythmic complexity is astounding. The first few times through I was enjoying the overall experience of how it fit together. Now that I’m listening for details, I have no idea how they made this work.

After a few verse/chorus repeats (in which we get a nice recapitulation of the opening idea) we enter a sort of bridge. This section is really pretty and reminds me of the softer side of Animals as Leaders or CHON or whoever. The technical idea is firmly rooted to that beginning section, so it turns out that what we thought of as noodling at the beginning was actually establishing an idea that would tie the whole thing together.

After that we get to a purely symphonic section which somehow seamlessly transitions into electronica a la Aphex Twin. I actually find this last transition to be quite successful. I’ve always wanted to hear a really good electronica/prog metal fusion. This isn’t it, because the two sections are completely separate, but it gives me hope that in the future we will hear this from them (I find Born of Osiris and The Algorithm to be unsuccessful attempts at it).

Now you get a feel for what I’m up against in trying to describe this album. I think this first track is notably varied in comparison to the rest. It just gives a taste of what is to come. Each individual later track is very different from the surrounding ones, but they tend to be much more unified in style.

Despite the technical playing, complexity, and sometimes dissonant parts, this is an album that is meant to be enjoyed. Most of the album is quite easy on the ears. In some sense, if you get caught up in their technique or think that it is some super deep thing, then they’ve failed. It is playful and fun at times and isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. It has some nu-metalish and alt rock-ish parts. The chord progressions can be a bit pop-like.

Overall I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album which means they were successful. The technical aspects and surprising change-ups are what make it interesting. They could have written the same album with that stuff stripped out and it would be a straightforward pop-metal album. That would have been boring and I wouldn’t even be reviewing it. This tells me these techniques are a necessary component to this type of album. On the other hand, it is almost never noticeably intrusive (except on track 1) which tells me they struck the right balance and didn’t go overboard with it.

I can’t really predict how much I’m going to come back to this. My guess is that it is a bit too easy for it to have a really lasting return value. For awhile, it will probably be my go-to album when I’m in the mood for this type of thing. For now, I’m going to give it an 8/10. I’ll issue a correction and revise this number upwards if in a few months I’m still coming back to it. Here’s a sample: