Xerath’s III Reviewed

I’m probably not the best person to review the new Xerath album, III, because I haven’t really liked either of the first two. I tried to come into this with an open mind, but I’ll give a spoiler: it just isn’t my thing.

Xerath are known for symphonic metal. On the surface, I like the concept. There’s no reason that metal and orchestra can’t get along. I personally haven’t heard it done in a way that I think works great. III might be the closest I’ve heard to a good balance.

The album opens pretty strong. It is one of the few songs that really focuses the symphonic elements (along with the closer, which makes me think, what happened in the middle?). The balance is really great where the metal and orchestra trade back and forth in focus, and periodically come together to mutually support what the other is doing.

The song eventually settles into a groove, and despite using the orchestra effectively, the whole song is a bit cliché for me. It sounds like it could be the background music in an ’80′s film where they show the main character go through some transformation working out in a montage (Rocky, Karate Kid, something like that).

The symphonic metal aspects typically take a back seat throughout the rest of the album. They are there to be sure, but the balance is tipped towards a metal band mostly. The orchestra mostly provide texture through sustained notes or punches with the vocals. This is fine. It is what they chose to do, and I think it works for them. It’s just not what I would do.

My main issue with the album is that when I step away from it the only thing I could tell you about it is that I remember a bunch of generic sounding chord progressions, riffs, and grooves. Almost nothing about it pulls my interest or sounds very original.

I remember some solid rocking out parts to some grooves, but nothing specific about it. I’ll admit this criticism is a little unfair, because by about the fifth time through I started to notice that the music was a lot more subtle than I was giving it credit for.

There’s some pretty cool rhythmic things that happen and subtleties with time signatures. The sound has some depth to it with interesting almost inaudible background stuff (like a spoken word part that is hard to notice).

Since I’m listing things I don’t like, I’ll also say that I think it drags on a bit too long. It is over an hour and eight minutes long. This can work, but for something I find so generic, it starts to get to me by the end. A Mahler symphony can get away with this, because it is so varied throughout. The songs on this album all blur together for me.

Alright, I know I’m going to get some hate for this one, but what exactly do people like about this? I find it enjoyable enough as background music while I play NetHack (yes, people still play that!) or something. But nothing about it stands out as very interesting. Other than those few moments I mentioned, it is just a standard 4/4 rock beat with a standard rock chord progression and some added sustained string parts.

Overall, I give this a 6/10. It has entered my gaming music rotation, so I don’t hate it. It is by far their best effort so far in my eyes, but it’s nothing special. Here’s a sample:

Amogh Symphony: Vectorscan Reviewed

Thank you to all the people that told me I need to listen to this. Vectorscan is a truly weird beast. I’m not sure it could be considered metal. There are traditional Asian sounding influences, traditional Indian, a few metal moments, symphonic moments, free jazz and the list goes on.

Amogh Symphony seems to be more of a changing collective than a fixed, set band. The three core members are spread all over: the U.S., India, and Russia. In addition, they have lots of guests which brings a maturity and worldliness that is hard to find in any genre of music.

The first two times through, all I could think was, “What is this?” I thought there was no way I would listen to this more than a few times. It sounded like disjointed nonsense. But now the whole thing has come together spectacularly. I swear this must be the soundtrack to a David Lynch film. Some parts remind me of the old Kayo Dot.

I think what makes this album work so well is the balance. Songs like the fourth track (which has such an obnoxiously long title I refuse to type it here) allow you to get absolutely swept up in the beautiful atmosphere. But it never sits comfortably for too long. It gives a firm musical rejection to the idea that beautiful, atmospheric music has to be easy to listen to.

Despite the complexity and disjointedness, the whole thing works when interpreted as one long piece of music. Most tracks run into each other and make it impossible to tell where one begins and the next ends. Even if it doesn’t sound that way at first, the album has an internal logic that makes it a single, unified whole.

There are a lot of sterile, robotic, mechanical sounds on this album coming from electronica, feedback, and sampling. But these moments often evolve into really substantial, organic moments. The sixth track has some of the best climaxes by bringing the band up to a soaring moment with orchestra. It then returns to noisy metal and dies down to an electronic voice saying something (I hear “antivirus” a lot?) which evolves into a gentle acoustic guitar.

What I like so much about these songs are the contrast. Those high moments or gentle flowing moments wouldn’t feel as high or as gentle without the interspersed mechanical contrasts. The changes aren’t sudden and unexpected either. Somehow they make it flow together naturally.

I know it is my job to describe this musical experience in words, but this is a situation where words cannot do it justice. Part of the greatness of this album is the process of finally “getting it” without having any idea why such a strange set of sounds makes sense to you all of a sudden.

I’m going to link to the ninth track, because this has much of what I’ve described with the beautiful, transcendent moments that weave in and out of lots of other more ominous sounds like a cacophony of children’s voices. The chord progressions are strange, yet satisfying. Even on the “easy listening” parts, it is often hard to pinpoint a tonal center. It erupts into metal parts. Each section serves to enhance the contrasting parts.

Overall, I can’t get enough of this album. I’ll give it a 9.5/10. Here’s a sample:

The Hirsch Effekt Holon: Anamnesis Reviewed

The Hirsch Effekt are a German band that have been around since about 2010. The album under review was suggested by a reader and came out in 2012. They tend towards a progressive metal and post rock sound with use of string sections and choral parts.

Overall, the band is really good at building to effective climaxes with their dynamics and instrumentation. On the first few listens, this made for some memorable moments, and I instantly wanted to like this album. Unfortunately, the more I listened, the less interested I became. Once the instant gratification of those moments wore off, I was left with something that felt pretentious and tried too hard.

Let’s get into the specifics. I don’t understand the first track. It is essentially a piece for string orchestra that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album. I thought it was a neat idea the first few times, but the strangeness rubbed me the wrong way after a while.

First, the overuse of the 9th chords is a little grating. It feels like it is trying too hard to be “cool.” Second, the strings have a syncopated pattern, again attempting to be cool and interesting. Then the drums come in which ruins it. Why do they use an on-the-beat bass drum/cymbal pattern which locks it into a marching band feel when they spent so much effort making a syncopated groove before that?

Lastly, the whole thing feels out of place. Sure, strings come back in other songs, but not in this way at all. Sure, the melody introduced comes back later. But these things don’t make the song cohere with the rest of the album. This awkwardness can be explained simply: the band made a straightforward rock album, but wanted to make it “arty,” so they added these things to up its status in the indie world.

Obviously, I have no idea if this is true, but as we will see, this theory seems to explain many aspects of the album. The second track has a bit of a punk vibe, but cycles through several styles. This might be my least favorite track, because the riff they repeat is so short and uninteresting that it annoys me when I hear it. The track ends with a part I genuinely consider interesting. They build up a really dense, noisy chromatic ending. It only last a few seconds, so it is kind of strange in context.

The third track sounds like something Periphery would do. It is more melodic and progressive than the earlier parts. The song builds into a heavier section and they use some interesting call and response techniques. I like the song, but there’s not much about it that sticks with me. It is a fairly common sounding prog song.

The fourth song brings back the strings. This is one of the songs I referred to in the beginning. They make effective use of the all the instruments to build into a satisfying climax. I still can’t help but feel that the song has too much instant gratification. The orchestra hits and chord progression reminds me of those Goo Goo Dolls songs on the radio in the early 2000′s or the middle section sounds like when Metallica made those poppy orchestra songs. This song is one of the more memorable ones, but at its core it is a pop-rock song.

The next song slows things down. This one has a long patient build to its climax and is the first to incorporate “vocals” (they are neutral syllables, so it is hard to tell whether they are synthesized on a keyboard or sung). I think this song is pretty good. It is patient and they quickly have the song fall apart after the climax in an interesting way (which mirrors the lyrics “Ich zerfalle”).

The next song has the most metal in it, but the same types of comments still apply. It’s not bad, but not that memorable and is all over the place. This makes it feel like they are trying too hard to be interesting. It feels very forced. We go from the heaviest, most technical part of the album to an immediate drop off to a capella SATB divided choir. The transition is awkward, and doesn’t make much sense. It sounds like a gimmick to make you say “WTF just happened? They are so unique.” The first time I heard it, this trick worked, but now that I’ve heard it a few times it doesn’t.

Overall, I really wanted to like this album. But in the end, it seems built around the idea of instant gratification and then trying to disguise that with a bunch of awkward “arty” ideas like using strings and chorus. Sometimes you’re in the mood for this type of thing, but it isn’t something that will make a lasting impression on me. I give it a 5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual of the End Review

Sorcier Des Glaces are a Quebecois black metal band. If you’ve been following me for awhile, then you probably know that I don’t review black metal very often. I think this is mostly to do with how hard it is for me to start writing a review. With technical/progressive stuff I can write about time signatures, chord progressions, and so on without much thought.

Black metal takes more work. This album has been in my rotation for several months, because I keep putting off writing this review. This probably makes it one of my most listened to albums of the year. Yet I’m still having a little difficulty with it.

As an overall impression, the songs have structural and sonic similarities to old school black metal like Emperor or Darkthrone (though vocally quite different). The songs have clear ideas and sections, but they are longform without traditional song structure. They tend to meander, which is a good thing in this case.

The songs evoke a dark, icy mood by feeling somewhat static with long tremolo melodic lines, but still having a turbulent urgency underneath which keeps them pushing forward. The chord progression contributes as well by changing frequently, but not following a traditional progression.

There is a clear key signature, but we never feel that we are moving towards some tonic (the “I chord”) in the progression. This makes it feel like the whole song is constantly moving. Progressing classically to the tonic would make it feel like a temporary ending until we move away again.

Despite all these old school black metal ideas, the album feels very fresh and modern. The production keeps every part of the song audible. The vocals can be heard and understood. The bass can be heard. The guitar and drums can be heard. It all feels very clean.

This is almost a negative for me. There’s a touch of dirtiness in the guitar tone, but it feels calculated. There’s a middle ground between intentionally using the worst recording equipment you can find and highly polished production, and I can’t help but feel this errs on the polished side too much.

Part of what made the old black metal so great was the organic atmosphere. It was messy and human. You can practically feel the click track on this album, making sure everyone is playing perfectly (I have no idea if they actually used one) which somewhat ruins the atmosphere they are going for.

That said, I’ve been listening to this for months and still get lost in it. I can’t imagine getting sick of this album anytime soon. I think what makes this album so good is the perfect level of complexity. At their root, the songs are elegant in their simplicity. But the melodies and solos are fairly intricate keeping things interesting after many listens.

The more I listen to it, the more it sinks in, and the more I like it. Right now it is sitting around an 8.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Stimpy Lockjaw’s Stimpy Lockjaw Reviewed

Stimpy Lockjaw is a band that plays prog/jazz fusion/math rock. They are based out of New York, and this is a self-titled, self-released album. I think all the members have other projects, so they are a “supergroup” of sorts. It is really hard to pin down too much else. Their site is fairly non-descriptive. For example, the About Us section says, “We’re a little band called Stimpy Lockjaw. Please buy things.”

The first track has an old school math rock feel to it. I used to listen to Don Caballero a lot, and this track brings back nostalgia for that time. It starts with a short two note rhythmic idea (which is actually a bit more embellished than the actual motif later). The whole song is very minimalist with passing this small concept around the band.

The beginning maybe feels a bit too repetitive and strives too much to have a modern djent sound to it. Once the song gets going it gets better. The idea morphs all over into jazzy sections with a fretless bass, female vocal singing neutral syllables, and some soloing that sounds improvised. But my guess is that it is actually composed.

The second half of the track puts the rhythmic idea into the bass, and slowly starts building up a lot of tension by adding more and more layers. Despite the repetition, I think this succeeds on all fronts of keeping the song interesting and having a lot of forward momentum. The song dissolves at one point into piano nothingness, only to start back up a little slower and a lot dirtier with the distortion on the guitar and the tonality starting to fall apart.

The composition is amazing on this first track, but after having listened to the whole album many times, it is my least favorite. The basic idea described here is how all of the other songs progress. The other songs are far less minimalist and repetitive, though. The second track starts the motif, and already the idea to be passed around is more complicated than most parts of the first track. They also never again bring the djent sound into the songs.

Track two has more of a jazz combo feel to it. There is a saxophone that makes an appearance several times. Despite the complexity, the drumming has a more traditional feel keeping time rather than imitating a rhythmic idea that the rest of the band is doing. I’m also less sure about the composed vs improv aspects of this track. There are solos that really feel improvised. I think if I only heard the first track I may not have stuck this band out, but this second track is the type of jazz/metal combo that I really loved in T.R.A.M. and is extremely hard to find anywhere.

The third track is their “single” from the album that was released for promotional purposes and will be at the end of the post. It is the first track to have vocals that have lyrics. It also feels much more like a prog metal song than the jazz combo of the previous track. Once the opening is done, they set up a piano ostinato and build the next section of the song on top of it, and impressively pass that complicated material to the guitar. This is excellent technical playing.

None of the repetitive sections are that long in comparison with the song as a whole, but I still think this track also suffers a little from how excessive the repetition is. They do a really good job of coming up with ways to keep it changing with instrumentation, style changes, and forward momentum. I foresee the repetition making a large number of repeat listens more tedious. The second half frees up the form with the jazzy soloing again, so if you listen to it, make sure you get that far to hear the type of stuff that appears on other tracks.

The fourth track is half atmospheric, but builds into a full band climax and embellishes with some chromatic runs. The song is fine, but somewhat forgettable in comparison with the rest of the album. The last track also starts as atmospheric sounds, but this one develops into a down tempo experiment with chords. This first half has a different feel to the rest of the album. By the end, they go into their standard mode of passing around a technical ostinato.

I really love this closer, because I think they strike a better balance with the repetition, countermelodies, and chord progressions. When it dissolves back down, they even do some interesting rhythmic things like putting the bass drum “downbeat” a sixteenth note past the true downbeat.

Overall, this is the type of album I’ve been waiting all year for. In my opinion, it is well worth checking out. I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Collection of Suggestions

I’ve been trying to post every Friday, but I’m just not ready to do a review this week. Instead, I’m going to go through the comments and try to find things that people have suggested for me, so I have them all in one place.

Condor – Nadia
Gorguts – Obscura
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
Blotted Science – Machinations of Dementia and/or Animation of Entomology
Sorcier des Glaces – Ritual of the End
Locktender – Rodin
Goatcraft – The Blasphemer
The Contortionist – Language
Xerath – III
Amogh Symphony – Vectorscan
Demilich – Nespithe
The Hirsch Effekt – Holon: Anamnesis

I didn’t mean to skip any if your suggestion didn’t make it. It is kind of tedious to go through the comments section of every post to find these. I also only went back to about Oct 2013. Just leave a comment here if I skipped it, or if you want to add something.

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: