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:

Serdce’s Timelessness Reviewed

I am ashamed to say that I had not heard of Serdce before now. This is one heck of a prog album. Over the past few years I’ve been growing more and more disillusioned at the prog metal scene. While this album certainly has some innovations, I think its main strength is that it takes the sound and style of many familiar prog bands (Cynic and Dream Theater come to mind), but actually does it right. I want to review this album by pointing out how they avoid certain common pitfalls to make excellent music.

I’ll start by deconstructing “Loss of Feelings or Feelings of Loss.” The song starts with a slow piano, strings, and clean vocals. First, they aren’t afraid to let this section go on long enough to really establish the chord progression and melody. I think a lot of prog metal bands feel a need to get to the metal too fast, and this causes a lot underdeveloped sections that quickly switch styles disjointedly.

Once the first section wraps up, the song progresses to the next section. This section picks up the tempo a bit, adds bass and drums, and changes the style slightly through the accompaniment. This is exactly what needed to happen. The first section ended and we progressed to the next section. The style change was subtle enough to just naturally flow between sections. The type of changes that were made all contributed to the sense of building and progressing (it got louder, faster, and so on).

This faster section is fully developed as well. They take their time before the third section begins. The point I’m trying to make is that this band really understands pacing. They let sections go for long enough to get some development done, but they don’t let them drag on too long. The lengths are really good. We then move on to a guitar solo to mediate the change to the third section which brings in more instrumentation (notably a saxophone). Again, the section is a bigger, faster, larger version of the previous one.

I think the soloing after this section really sums up what the band does so well. The guitar playing eventually builds into nice technical work, but before it builds to that climax, the solo is based on the melody with very minor ornamentation first. Once the technical part happens, it is very classical. The ornamentation is almost Baroque style. This allows you to keep a good sense of what is going on.

Not only does this show that the band really understands the tools that go into a good composition, but they use the tools in the right way. I think a lot of technical bands forget that technique and ornamentation are just tools. They aren’t the song itself. There has to be a solid foundation on which to build with these tools.

Serdce really show how good they are by their musical sense and knowing what not to do. They know how far they can go with the mixture of modern tech death, jazzy prog elements (that fretless bass is so good for this album), and neo-classicism. The combinations are really interesting, and they work! They pull from all sorts of places to craft unified pieces that have good songwriting underlying everything. The technique enhances the songs rather than just being the song. Even “Quasar” which is essentially a study on chromaticism sits on a solid foundation which reveals itself at the end.

The range of styles make songs that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes fun, sometimes powerful and moving. The songs always have a clear sense of direction. They are driving towards a climax or tapering from one. Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this album. This album is without question prog album of the year so far for me. There are some minor standard issues like the synthesized orchestration dominating at a few points, but I can easily overlook that for what they’ve done here. I give it a 9.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Technical Metalcore Double Review

While making my best of 2014 halfway list I did some searching to see what other people had. I had to immediately discount half of them that contained Behemoth. The other half had two albums that came up quite a bit. I was not impressed. I don’t like bashing albums, so I’ll try to do this delicately.

The first is Inanimate Existence’s Never-Ending Cycle of Atonement. It starts with some synthesized orchestration. This always makes me cringe. Orchestrated elements play such a tiny, tiny role in this album that the whole concept of starting with it makes no sense to me. It seems really out of place.

Once the album gets going it is actually good for awhile. The songs are your standard technical death metal fare. The riffs don’t go off on huge tangents for too long. There is rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic complexity. I was actually pretty excited at the start. It has what I want form a good tech death album: the playing was tight, it kept my attention, and kept me guessing at what was coming.

One thing that was bothering me was that the production was really weird. The vocals in particular just sounded off. They were mostly inaudible growls. The guitar tone was off as well. The distortion isn’t an effective dirty death metal sound. It’s something else. Something didn’t sit right about the production, but I could overlook this if this was the only problem.

The mood changes quite a bit in the fourth track. This song has the middle section slow down into almost a ballad with clean female vocals. Something weird happens after this point. Slowly some djent and metalcore elements start entering. It doesn’t have the djent sound, but those same sorts of groove patterns start creeping in. Little by little we lose the complexity and interesting bits. Instead we are left with a bunch of repetition and tonal stagnation.

I assume this was intentional, because it is done with skill so that it doesn’t happen all at once. The change is subtle. For example, there are sections of the next song that sound like the opening material, but there are also segments that are based entirely around two notes.

I like the idea of some of the neo-classical elements they put in. Many of the songs have a “development” section where they take melodies, fragment them, and then reuse them in various ways. Though the idea is good, it just doesn’t work well for me. A good development section doesn’t just cleverly reuse old material. It has to develop and have direction. Theirs seem to just sit there not heading towards anywhere. By the end of the album we’ve progressed to such a different place that it sounds like Cynic playing video game music (seriously, is that the Mega Man theme?).

Overall, this album is pretty good. It isn’t going to make any top whatever list for me. It has a lot of potential, and good ideas. I just couldn’t get into large portions of it. Here’s a sample:

The other album I saw pop up on a lot of lists was Allegaeon’s Elements of the Infinite. Despite being quite different from the above album, they start the same way. The opener starts with acoustic guitar turning into a fully orchestrated piece. Actually, this is pretty awesome. This is real orchestration rather than a cheap electronic imitation. The transition to metal is pretty seamless, but I can’t help but wonder again: Why? Orchestration appears here and there on the album, but is extremely minor. It isn’t as conspicuously weird on this one, so it I won’t say it is an actual mistake in judgment (like the last one).

This album may have a lot of technical playing in it, but it is quite straightforward. It was a fun listen the first time through, but I can’t get into any of the songs very much. This is an oversimplification, but I feel like a huge amount of the technical playing is just arpeggiating on repeat really fast. The metalcore grooves are too repetitive for songs of this length. This makes neither the soloing nor the accompaniment all that interesting to me.

I’ve seen a lot of people call this “melodic death metal.” When melodies are happening, I think the album is fine. With the number of people praising this as absolutely excellent, maybe I’ve just lost my mind. It sounds very generic to me. I can’t really remember anything about it when it ends. There are moments that I get what people are talking about, but I can’t praise a whole album based on a few small parts. Maybe I just don’t like melodic death metal.

Overall, I have the ability to enjoy listening to this when it is on. It has nice solid playing and a better sense of direction than the first album I reviewed. I just probably wouldn’t have put it on this last time if I weren’t reviewing it. Here’s a sample:

Brief Updates and Favorites of 2014

I haven’t died. I officially finished my thesis and successfully defended it. Then family was in town for all the festivities that go with that. Then I was travelling without internet. Now over a month has passed since my last post.

Someone recently told me about an article from 2007 that was published in Music Theory Spectrum (a wholly legitimate academic music theory journal!) analyzing rhythmic elements in Meshuggah’s I. It can be found here if you are interested. I thought my readers might appreciate that.

Lastly, I’ve been working through re-listening to things I’ve liked this year, because it is half-way through the year already. My halfway favorites list (in alphabetical order):

Artificial Brain – Labyrinth Constellation
Helms Alee – Sleepwalking Sailors
Lord Mantis – Death Mask
Sammath – Godless Arrogance
Thantifaxath – Sacred White Noise

Honorable Mentions:

Archspire – The Lucid Collective
Jute Gyte – Vast Chains
Pyrrhon – The Mother of Virtues

Most Over-hyped (based on my limited glancing around the internet):

Behemoth – The Satanist
Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
Enthroned – Sovereigns
Indian – From All Purity
Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

I used to write these lists and call them the “best” of 2014 or whatever. I now call them my “favorites” because it is based entirely on how much I’ve liked them. For example, I think the Jute Gyte is absolutely amazing in theory, so if I based it on that it would be up higher. Unfortunately, it is only tolerable in small doses, so I can’t really say I love it. On the other hand, I keep putting off reviewing Sammath, because I’m not sure how to articulate much about it. I could keep making lists ad nauseum: most technical, most musical, most avant-garde, etc, but I think this is the one that is most interesting.

For some reason I went back to Krallice’s Years Past Matter and really love it. That is probably my most listened to album of this year that didn’t release this year. Right now I have Agiel Dark Pantheons, Inanimate Existence Never-Ending Cycle of Atonement, and Burzum The Ways of Yore (metal?) in rotation, but I haven’t formed an opinion yet.

I hope to get back to a better schedule, so you can keep an eye out for a review of one of those albums soon.