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.

Archspire The Lucid Collective Reviewed

I’ll probably get in trouble for this one, but I kind of love this album. Archspire are a tech-death band from Vancouver and The Lucid Collective is their second album. Some of my readers might argue that this is too metalcore. Some might argue that it consists of too much nonsense noodling. There’s too much technical showing off and not enough real content. I can see some truth in all these viewpoints which is why I’m preempting these comments. I still love it.

There are parts that remind me a bit of Spawn of Possession and other parts that remind me of Sikth. They are definitely their own beast, though. Let’s start with what is one of my favorite aspects of this band. The vocals are great. I can take or leave almost all vocals in almost all genres of metal. This is because most vocals are just inaudible growls that seem tangentially related to what the rest of the band is doing.

On this album, Peters (the vocalist) is aware of all the nuances of what the band is doing. The vocals are seamlessly integrated into the music as an essential component. They provide real substance to the songs. Sometimes they provide rhythmic support with rapid percussive barking. Sometimes they provide depth to the sound with more sustained full singing. The timbre and style adapts to the song, and I wish more vocalists were aware that this was a viable possibility. Vocals shouldn’t feel like an afterthought.

Let’s face it. This is a technical album, and as such we should judge it from a certain disposition. We have to expect a fair amount of ridiculous guitar solos. That being said, I find the album to be far from pure technical masturbation. The moments focused on the band as a whole are plenty technical, and they have a well-crafted balance with the soloing. I can’t help but compare this album to Soreption’s. I mostly found Soreption falling into the trap of technique that I didn’t find that interesting and hence didn’t find myself revisiting that album much.

Archspire seems to pull themselves out of the standard tech-death trappings. The music underlying the technique is pretty interesting. It is constantly evolving. It balances tonally static parts with wild, almost progressive sounds. It balances tight grooves and rhythm with parts that might be called a-rhythmic. The point is that the songs change and evolve in ways that are not just artificial. They pull the listener along to keep wondering what will happen next. There aren’t the typical excessively technical parts that cause me to zone out.

The album is cleanly produced. In light of the above discussion, this means that when certain aspects are being highlighted, they are audible. This might be a turn-off for some people. It does kind of feel like you are being passed around from idea to idea rather than some old school death metal that has all aspects smashed into one muddy sound. I don’t think this is bad at all. It is just a different way of doing things.

Why do I love this? Overall, because it is technical and challenging while still having a great sense of balance and creativity. I highly recommend this to anyone into technical death metal. I kind of feel like I’m cheating this album by not going more in depth on any of the songs, but *mumble mumble* thesis excuse *mumble mumble*. I give it a 9.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Conquering Dystopia’s Conquering Dystopia Reviewed

I can find nothing but high, high praise for this album on the internet, so it has been sitting on my list for a few months. This is the first album from a “supergroup” containing Jeff Loomis and Alex Webster among others. It is a purely instrumental album. I’ll admit that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album. Unfortunately, it didn’t really hold up on lots of repeated listens. This is the opposite of what I’d want from a great album. Usually I don’t get something, and on repeated listens it reveals its greatness to me.

First, this album feels extraordinarily familiar. I can’t quite pin down who I think they sound like. Maybe Periphery (not quite, but I can’t figure it out)? I listen to this album, and I just feel like I’ve heard it all before. The overall sound is a highly produced prog metal band that occasionally throws in some tech death infused parts for variety. It would be unfair to say that you have to do something totally new sounding to be great. I definitely think you can sound very familiar, do it extremely well, and still make a great album. But the familiarity here leaves me unsettled. I’m not saying this is what happened, but how would you feel reading a book made up of quotes from other books?

The reason I enjoyed this album so much at first is because of how great the technical playing is. The shredding and soloing has lots of fantastic melodic material embellished in all sorts of neoclassical ways with traditional scale and arpeggio patterns. The articulation is varied and clearly executed. It is technical playing at its finest for sure. This alone would have had me giving pure praise a few years ago. I’ve come to want more than pure technical wankery, though.

I think this album really shines in those moments where the band forgets about how good they all are at their instruments. “Doomsday Clock” is one such example. It switches to part acoustic guitar. It has musical direction as it builds both dynamically and harmonically. This is a song with depth that I can return to. Unfortunately, the track immediately following this one is more typical. This depth isn’t there. It is all flash and no substance (and in fact my least favorite).

I think the band has really good melodic sense. The melodies that the riffing and soloing are based around are well-made. They are simultaneously catchy, yet interesting and original. Still, I just find the overall package somewhat stale and lacking any real depth that will reward spending lots of time on it. Even the crazy soloing isn’t unfamiliar enough to require effort to process.

The next reprieve from the technique is “Lachrymose.” I have mixed feelings on this one. Overall the song’s melodic and harmonic development is solid. It is actually quite a moving song with the legato electric guitar solo providing a longing feeling over the more rigid picking of the acoustic accompaniment. It might be a bit overwrought at its climax though. It feels a bit like a cheesy 80’s ballad. Still, I have to applaud the change of pace to something that tries to provide a bit more depth.

There are a few parts that come close to this such as on “Nuclear Justice,” but for the most part they return to their technical powerhouse for the rest of the album. Also, “Kufra at Dusk” has a pretty good breakdown for a few seconds at the end. I can probably count the moments I’d want to share with people on one hand. The only track that really seems to integrate the technical with the other elements I’ve been praising is the closer (and I think they realized it which is why they ended the album with it, but it does get dangerously djenty at parts).

Don’t get me wrong. This album is worth some time. It has magnificent playing by some of the masters that you don’t want to miss. The only reason I’m being so harsh is because of how universal the praise has been. It is a good album. It just isn’t album of the year material. I imagine that the sophomore effort will fix a lot of the issues I raised. These musicians are just getting used to playing together as a unit. I’m looking forward to what they put out next.

Overall, I give it a 7.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Coffinworm’s IV.I.VIII Reviewed

I keep putting this one off, because I keep flipping back an forth on it. IV.I.VIII is the second full-length release of Indianapolis band Coffinworm. I would mostly categorize this as a sludge album with some hints of death metal here and there. At least the most memorable moments for me are when things slow way down and get deep, dark, and heavy. This is exactly what the opener does. The track starts fast and is built around a riff. You might think you’re in for a death metal album.

Then the song slows down little by little. It feels like they are running through glue. By the end you can physically feel the band pulling the song along, but no matter how hard they pull it just keeps slowing down out of their control until there is no motion left. The last notes are hanging there unable to continue.

The effect is really great. They remind me a bit of Ulcerate. That comparison also refers to the static tonality that the end of this song is built around. What keeps it interesting comes from the slowing down, the guitar tone getting darker and more distorted, and the changing textures. For this reason, I could see a good argument that the song is uninteresting because of its lack of a well-developed melody or chord progression. I think it works, though. The intended effect comes through and is great.

The next song starts with the downtempo sludge/doom feel. This song basically embodies the main essence of this album. The songs tend to be built around one idea. That idea can be turned around in all sorts of ways to make the different sections of the song. Usually this involves taking a dirty, heavy sound and making it dirty, heavier, and slower.

I could see people thinking it is too repetitive, but I think this is necessary to achieve the effect they want. I find myself getting sucked into the groove and losing myself in it. If the song changed too much or too rapidly, then the listener would get pulled out of the moment. The point is to experience the moment. If you think about what is going on too much, then you’ll miss the experience.

The album continues in this vein until we reach “Lust vs Vengeance.” This song turns a lot noisier than the stuff before it and the riffs it is based around make the song sound like it could be a slowed down death metal song. Other than that, the overall formula stays basically the same as before.

The last song is back to a bit faster tempo. I find these in-between moments to be the most fascinating. The band does a really great job locking into these speeds. It is one thing to just go really fast. It is another to lock into a slow groove. It is fairly difficult to lock into something in the middle and make it sound natural, especially with blast beats tempting you to speed up.

Overall I think this album is really well done. Some might find the repetitiveness and static nature of the chord progressions not to their taste, but it works here. This album is heavy and draining. It sucks you in and spits you out the other side before you know what hits you. It’s harsh and sludgy. I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample: