Arcturus – Arcturian Reviewed

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t write this review if it wasn’t my most requested album. This new album is quite a strange beast. It has some metal aspects, but also prog rock, dance, and electronica make their appearance. I know those words turned a lot of people off, but I went in thinking it would be a really cool idea if it worked.

I think I’ve said this before, but negative reviews are hard to write. When I hear a lot of stuff I like, I can spend the review talking about those things. This album never clicked for me. Except for a few tracks, I found it to be ordinary in every way.

The most interesting bits were the electronica parts. For example, the start of “The Journey” sets up a beat with shifting electronic patterns under a fluid violin. Then some acoustic guitar comes in and layered vocals. It actually sounds a lot like something Pat Metheny might make. That’s probably a bad thing, but on listening to this album, I awaited tracks like these as a nice break from the monotony of the others.

Take the track that follows. The verse is essentially two chords on repeat. The sound is almost doom-like but without the heaviness. The melody lacks any driving motion (of course, melody is intimately tied to the underlying chord progression, so when the chord progression lacks motion, so too does the melody). The song is one of the least memorable I’ve heard this year.

I’ll reiterate, most of the tracks aren’t bad per se. They are just totally uninteresting at their core. Sure, many have lots of things happening that can distract you like string sections, electronica, crazy vocals, but these tools only do so much for a few listens.

The standout tracks are “Crashland,” “Warp,” “Demon,” and “The Journey.” To me, these ones at least attempted to incorporate the extraneous techniques into a more fundamental role. The melody and chord progressions on these tracks have content, and the sound they achieve is unique.

Overall, I give this a 4/10. I often dreaded having to slog through the drab parts to get to moments of interest. Those moments are good, but too infrequent. Here’s a bunch of samples:

Pyrrhon’s Growth Without End Reviewed

Pyrrhon are an experimental death metal outfit. Their new EP Growth Without End is a short burst of violent energy. The chaos almost never lets up from start to finish.

Let’s start with the strongest two tracks. When Pyrrhon want to, they can create really weird, interesting new stuff. The two closing tracks showcase this ability. “Viral Content” starts with a a strange churning bass riff with some spoken word vocals. It is the creepiest thing I’ve heard all year.

The song then keeps building until it has a minor explosion into extreme noise. The burst is intense, but doesn’t last longer than it needs to before returning to the original idea. Upon the return, there’s a lot more going on with atonal and microtonal ideas pulling the song apart. It always feels on the verge of falling apart or reaching climax again.

This song is really well made. It is highly experimental, yet keeps grounded around a single idea. It flows in and out of tonality. It has a clear sense of progression, and overall achieves exactly what it sets out to do: keep you unsettled. We’ll return to why I think the first few tracks are less successful at this in a bit.

The last track is also great for much of the same reason. Time gets all messed up with various tempos, pauses, and time signature changes. This works to keep the listener unsettled. The song closes with moments of heavy grooves and harsh guitar sounds over it.

The best way to describe why I love this track is that it is somehow the audio equivalent of watching an image get stretched and distorted. But maybe the image was something surreal to begin with. You can’t quite grasp what ties it together, but it still has a firm sense of a single thing getting distorted and pulled in all directions.

This is what I mean when I say Pyrrhon are making interesting and innovative music. I’m not sure I can think of anyone else that has achieved such a strange experience.

Now let’s talk about the first few tracks. They are extreme, chaotic, and fast. They clearly have riffs that tie them together, but I feel less of a sense of unity surrounding them. These tracks have much less innovation. They sound more like a band trying to be as harsh and chaotic as possible.

They aren’t bad, but it comes across as a sound that many bands could have produced as opposed to the final two tracks which are uniquely Pyrrhon. KEN Mode or Psyopus come to mind, though neither fits perfectly. The constant loud chaos isn’t as unsettling as the final two tracks, because it becomes noise after a while.

Overall, I like the EP, but don’t love it. I’ll give it a 8/10. Here’s a sample:

Between the Buried and Me: Coma Ecliptic Reviewed

I think we could sense this coming for a while. Between the Buried and Me have made their most cohesive prog epic album, but have essentially morphed into Dream Theater circa 2000. The album theme can’t be an accident. The songs are about what goes on in a man’s head while in a coma. If you’ll recall, Dream Theater’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory is about being in the head of a hypnotized person. Coincidence?

The first two tracks set the stage for the rest of the album. They have progressed towards a more melodic style, and structurally, they focus on building their ideas coherently. A problem that has always rubbed me the wrong way about BTBAM is their sudden shifts in ideas with no bridge between them.

Unfortunately, they also let certain ideas go on too long. By the end of the second track, I want them to stop singing, “You teach us what was.” The melodic idea is not interesting enough on its own to merit that much repetition.

By the third track we get what I’d like more of. They take something that could have been lifted right from some 80’s pop song, but they make it fit in their context. These unique ideas are what make BTBAM interesting and fresh. Unfortunately, they spend a lot of time just copying prog metal tropes. I can’t help but cringe when I hear ideas, riffs, and sounds lifted right from what people have been doing for the last 15 years.

About three-quarters of the way through “Famine Wolf,” they showcase that they can be great when they want to be. The guitar work is written with intricate counterpoint to the keyboard and other guitar. But then they lose it again to close the song out. It becomes lots of arpeggios around a chord progression which has that old school progressive vibe, but makes little sense as a musical idea.

After a few listens, I decided to cut the fifth track from my version of the album. It is one of the few places where they cross over to metal, but the album is vastly improved by removing it. The chorus is a cringeworthy anthem and the non-chorus part is a long string of clichés.

The second half of the album is a bit stronger than the first. They rely less on tropes and clichés. They infuse more original ideas into the prog formula, and the melodies feel less forced. I can’t help but think the first half was an attempt at hommage to their influences. I think the album would be infinitely improved if they focused on developing their own sound rather than copying someone else’s.

The album is quite good when they are on. They album is quite bad at other points. As with most prog metal concept albums, if they trimmed the fat, they could solve two problems at the same time: it is too long, repetitive, and drawn out; and it has too much extraneous stuff (filled with weak songwriting).

Once I stopped trying to take it at all seriously and decided to try to enjoy it for what it is, and I started skipping the worst parts, I kind of liked it. It can be quite fun and enjoyable. I think if they focused their efforts in the right place, BTBAM could take what they are doing here and make something truly excellent with it. For now, I give this a 6.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Sigh Graveward

I’ve hit a wall. I’m having trouble finding anything new that I like right now. So I’ll do a negative review. Thanks for the suggestions I’ve received the past week. I’ll check them out soon.

I do want to reiterate the mission of the blog: to seek out and describe metal that achieves a status as art alongside other more widely recognized art music. This is why I hesitate to do negative reviews. It doesn’t advance that cause. It merely reminds people that 90% of everything is crap.

Sigh is a Japanese experimental metal band. They’ve been around since 1989, so this isn’t some inexperienced attempt at being original. You couldn’t tell by listening to it. This album switches around from Diablo Swing Orchestra style, carnival music influences, horror movie, thrash, cartoon metal (I made that up, we’ll come back to it later), power metal, symphonic, and more.

The first track is all over the place, but it is probably one of the most consistent. I heard it and thought maybe I could get into the album. Then it continued. Until the last few tracks, the album steadily gets worse.

I’ll try to articulate what turned me off as best I can. The band never takes itself too seriously, but there is a seriousness to much of the album. I mean this in the sense that many of the songs are trying to be “art” with its experimentation. Clarifying what I mean is difficult here, because it is some vague sense I get. Maybe a better way to say it is that they aren’t intentionally making a joke or doing it to be silly (as some bands I enjoy do, see 6:33).

But then we get to a track like “The Tombfiller.” This is cringe-worthy levels of silliness. All I see are cartoon characters doing ridiculous, immature things to each other at over-the-top fast speeds. It could fit right in as a theme song to this type of thing, i.e. “cartoon metal.”

I think that is what bothers me so much. It isn’t so much the pulling on lots of styles. It is the inconsistency of mood. If they were silly all the time, I say the album needs to be taken as a joke and evaluate it as such. If they were weird, but making a serious attempt at something, I could evaluate it as such. Instead, they have this mismatch where I’m not even sure they understand when they’ve crossed the line from weird to being a joke.

This mismatch continues with their lyrics. In “The Forlorn,” we get the most ridiculous lyrics:

Lead Singer: I am not dead!
Chorus: Sorry!
Lead Singer: I am not dead!

and on and on it goes.

If you listen to the lyrics you would think this is a huge parody and a joke, but this is one of their most serious sounds musically. The music doesn’t match the lyrics at all, and the lyrics are grating in how repetitive and nonsensical they are.

We get the same problem in the next track.

Am I god or am I not?
It doesn’t matter I’m destined to rot.
Am I god or am I not?
I’m going to lose all I have got.

The music is some strange symphonic metal / hip-hop fusion. I wish it was funny, so I could laugh. I wish it wasn’t some faux seriousness, so I could be less embarrassed for them about how bad those lyrics are. I know metal isn’t known for producing brilliant poetry, but these lyrics are childish.

Overall, the album suffers because it has no idea what it wants to be. By trying to be everything, it ends up being nothing. This is sad, because the penultimate track shows they know how to make a song with a pretty good melody, development, and use the symphonic elements to enhance what they are doing. I understand that making a whole album of these songs would ruin their avant-garde schtick, but it would make for a reasonable album. Instead we’re left with this mess.

Overall, I’ll give it a 2/10. Here’s a sample:

Giving Immolation’s Kingdom of Conspiracy a Second Chance

Let me give some backstory. Back in 2013, I saw lots of excellent reviews for Kingdom of Conspiracy, so I decided I would also review it. Unfortunately, I saw the official lyric video before hearing the whole album:

It isn’t terrible, but seeing those lyrics written out was bad. They don’t sound bad in the context of the song, but reading them is rough. They are simultaneously cliché and pretentious. This gave me my first turnoff. I was familiar with their debut, Dawn of Possession, but it didn’t blow me away or anything. So I went into the album with a bad attitude and never got around to reviewing it.

I recently wrote an article taking a closer look at Close to a World Below. I was shocked that Immolation’s back catalog actually had a lot of really great stuff in it. This has prompted me to return to this album to see if I missed anything here as well.

Unfortunately, my opinion hasn’t changed much. This album still feels overly mechanical and sterile. They rely far more on repetitive, pulsing rhythms to drive the music than interesting melodic or harmonic motion. As a matter of volume, it tends to be all loud all the time without any sense of building or tension/release which was so great in their earlier stuff.

The songs repeat, a lot. The riffs aren’t super interesting, but they aren’t super generic either. This lack of interesting riff makes the excessive repetition of the ideas (with almost no change in layering, texture, etc) too much.

Also, the solos are quite forgettable. Gone is the wild abandon and disturbing ideas that somehow worked as climactic centerpieces on earlier albums. These were the highlight of the old albums for me. On Kingdom of Conspiracy, the solos basically outline a riff up an octave with some minor ornamentation.

To be fair, this is not a terrible album. At least not bad enough to justify not reviewing it (I try to only do this if I’m going to give it less than 5/10). It doesn’t live up to Immolation’s past excellence, but it certainly beats out several things I’ve listened to this year.

Halfway 2015 List

It’s that time of the year again. I’ve listened to 30 albums this year so far (I haven’t reviewed them all). I tried to go back through and listen to candidate “best” ones before making this list, but I didn’t get through all that I wanted to.

Favorites (in alphabetical order):

Cóndor – Duin.

This held up upon listening again. Raw, emotive music drawing on the great romantic composers.

Kjeld – Skym.

I couldn’t really remember much about this one. Listening again was worth it, because it was better than I remembered.

Sickening Horror – Overflow.

I know a lot of you weren’t thrilled by this, but even on listening again, I really like it.

Upsilon Acrux – Sun Square Dialect.

Not really metal, but complicated in all the right ways to create meaningful music.

Has Potential:

Irreversible Mechanism – Infinite Fields.

Mature and interesting technical death metal. I need more time before moving it to favorites.

Exhumation – Opus Death.

I didn’t get around to relistening, but from memory, I can’t say it was a favorite. It could move up there by the end of the year.

Not as good as I initially thought:

Leviathan – Scar Sighted.

There is no doubt that this album has some excellent moments. As a whole, I think I overpraised it initially.

Misþyrming – Söngvar elds og óreiðu.

I honestly expected to be blown away when I listened to this again. I wasn’t.

Biggest disappointments:

A Forest of Stars – Beware the Sword You Cannot See.

After hearing excellent things for years, I wanted to experience it myself. Definitely not worth it.

Enslaved – In Times
Leprous – The Congregation.

These were bands I’ve loved in the past. These albums were duds at best.

The stuff I have queued for review, but never got around to it: Jute Gyte, KEN Mode, Monolord, Sigh, Tempel, and Torche.

Does your list look mine? If so, I’d love to hear what I’ve missed.

Elder’s Lore Review

Elder is a band which borders on sludge, prog, hard rock, psychedelic. This makes it a bit difficult to review, but it has gotten quite a bit of positive attention. It is also a nice break from the types of things I’ve been listening to. So let’s try.

First, the tracks are long. Many are well over 10 minutes long. Take the first track. It is a long journey from the opening riff idea to where you find yourself 7 minutes in, but the composition structure is fairly consistent across the album so we’ll look at how the songs progress.

Elder takes a set of riffs or motifs for the song. They noodle and sequence (move the same note pattern to different parts of the scale) that idea for awhile. This often involves some interesting chromaticism. Then they’ll take a static jam area (maybe sing something that functions as a chorus). These tend to be long and boring, but it creates distance from the first idea so the next unrelated idea flows naturally in the song.

Then in a big climactic section a few of the riffs get layered on top of each other. The outro tends to be a restatement of the original motif by itself again. These songs are long enough, that it took a few listens to finally realize this structure.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean it is predictable. The structure is actually pretty well done. Idea, transition, idea, transition, development, layer original ideas, finish up. It gives you something to grab onto with the length of the songs.

Let’s think about the individual pieces and whether they work. The riffs/motifs are hit or miss. I almost didn’t want to listen to the album when the first song started. Their first idea lacks any substance. When it comes back later, it actually fits quite nicely in conjunction with other stuff. But since it is mostly a texture pattern, it doesn’t work on its own.

Other riffs are much better like the one in the middle of the second track. It is kind of cringe inducing with its blatant imitation of 70’s prog rock (think Kansas). But at least it has some melodic meat to it. This track also has a pretty neat hemiola during its climax.

Each song feels coherent, but a bit lengthy. They try too hard to be cautious about the coherence I think. This is the biggest negative for me: the sheer length and repetitiveness of some of the transitions. They are just transitions. Playing the same chord with almost no variation for minutes on end is a big turnoff.

The hit or miss aspect of the ideas makes it hard to fully love any track, but it also means I don’t really hate any either. The best parts of the album are when two good ideas get put together in an unexpected way. The worst parts are where two banal ideas that obviously go together get set up for 10 minutes as if we didn’t see it coming.

The album is a clear step up from say Periphery’s latest release where the ideas had no transitions and didn’t work together. Still, each listen has steadily decreased how much I’ve liked this. Once you understand what is going to happen, it gets a bit tedious to wait around for it to happen. My best suggestion to drastically improve this album would be to make those transitions shorter and more interesting.

Overall, I’ll give this a 7/10. Here’s a sample: