Gradus ad Phlegethon: First Thoughts

A notion has sprung out of Andreas Languetus’ mind for a project titled Gradus ad Phlegethon the sole purpose of which is not simply to study or theorize, but rather construct a viable method of transmitting the compositional techniques of ‘death and black‘ metal. Where this accumulation of illustrative techniques will take us, we cannot yet tell. But we know that it shall bring together concrete musical practices, basic contrapuntal and motif-writing techniques, as well as techniques aimed at directing the mind to appropriate states. Each of these are instrumental to the formation of a true and complete methodology that encompasses a true evolution of metal into and beyond death and black metal. Said endeavor lies in parallel, though perhaps meeting at intersections, with the search for and use of pure sound as notions for metal and dark ambient composition.
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Roots of Evil: The Origins of Metal

With the fiftieth anniversary of metal music around the corner, forthcoming years will witness an increase of publications dealing with the history, legacy and defining characteristics of the genre. This could finally resolve the lack of consensus that still exists regarding the definition and origins of heavy metal.

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A Sadistic Dissection of Classic Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd face palm

Article by David Rosales

Pink Floyd rightly reject the tag of progressive rock. Their compositional development falls light years short of what the best bands of that movement were doing with much better taste than Floyd’s false humble presumption. Pink Floyd’s most developed and experimental ambient moments merely point in the direction of the road that their more inspired and thoughtful contemporaries were traveling on. Klaus Schulze’s ambient work in Tangerine Dream is a true testament to experimental, electronic, and sampled music.

Floyd were pioneers at modern hipsterism in rock and metal as we know it today: a brain cancer that places weirdness and forced variety before artful coherence. Their undeserved praise is based on the simple fact that they are marketable to a wide audience. They wrote mediocre rock songs derived from the style of The Beatles: laughable in their ambient attempts and a headache when their ‘creativity’ ran too free. Pink Floyd’s only truly laudable moments are displayed in laid back, long-running rock songs that support narrative on melody lines, include justified interludes. These works approach the story-telling function that reigns in and maximizes the long-lasting impact of their early experimentalism.

A brief rundown of each of Pink Floyd’s early albums is given below in the interest of separating the little good from the large amounts of face-palming, pseudo-progressive posturing:

PInk Floyd Piper at the Gates of Dawn

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is too much of a name for too pathetic an album. A careless, random attempt at making Beatles songs take unexpected, sharp turns. .These are not at all pioneering as they simply abuse the Beatles’ wackier tendencies, creating interest through disjunction. These are poorly written pop songs with arbitrary appendages and nonsensical sounds: postmodernism meets banal rock music. Noteworthy are weird passages that sometimes build up to cumulative sequences  but these are sparse and lead nowhere.

 

Pink Floyd A Saucerful of Secrets

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Pink Floyd moves on from The Beatles, adopting their postmodernist style consisting of  juxtapositions and sequences that might sound coherent if used in a movie soundtrack but that fall short and sound incomplete when presented as music alone. They get points for sounding weird but this work amounts to a childish joke: the kazoos, marimbas, and random found sounds are ridiculous.  People tend to like any entertaining piece of garbage. Ghost is an analogous modern band.

 

pink floyd more

More (1969)
Pink Floyd moves on to a bawdier expression of the so-called ‘folk’ rock n’ roll of Led Zeppelin with mediocre results. However, they also continue a refinement of the ambient-oriented light rock interludes. More is intensely nonsensical, free jazz-influenced postmodernist pap.

The songs tend to have unclear curves, directions, or points. These are either standard pop songs that fade away or jumbled messes of random ideas breaking down into incongruent parts. The more laid back and standard pop songs with only moderate introductions,  extraneous noises are the most pleasant; they still retain a certain sense of order that doesn’t render them oustanding but intelligible. Their surface traits attain purpose and balance in a way that finally approaches beauty. The random and bunk interludes remain unbearable though. This is music for those who wish to pose as music lovers yet cannot focus on actual ideas and aural concepts that birth, raise, and live lives of their own.

 

Pink Floyd Ummagumma

Ummagumma (1969)
1969’s second release is a much more consciously structured concept album. Again, Pink Floyd bring forth something that is more akin to a weirdo-funny soundtrack that evokes the idiocy of Ghost minus Ghost’s complete lack of talent. The conceptual focus brings to the album a shadow of meaning that is completely lacking from any of their prior releases. We can appreciate their compositional boundaries when the non-interlude tracks crumble and lose coherence in the middle.  Entropy at work. The rest of the tracks are simply silly and completely unpurposeful as the band strums away in extremely simple cyclic orderings that are never resolved; they just slide away with no heads or tales. This is music that brings nothing except a meta-feeling of strangeness and not-so-unique uniqueness to make the ego feel smarter for ‘liking’ it.

 

pink floyd atom heart mother

Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Here, Pink Floyd start to display the sound they will be known for at the time of their zenith. The music flows smoothly and the randomness of sampled sounds is attenuated as they thought more this time around. While everything before Atom Heart Mother is utterly worthless, this album approaches the more orderly works their contemporaries with stronger classical influences. Pink Floyd’s music remains singularly simple but exquisitely developed; the messy pretentiousness is boxed in and reserved for very specific moments. They remain unable to capitalize, creating promising initial ideas but driving them into swamps, becoming brackish in their underlying repetitiveness. The suite bears the weight of the album; the rest of the songs are inconsequential and unworthy of notice.

 

pink floyd meddle

Meddle (1971)
A coming of age for Pink Floyd.  The band is finally able to synthesize the concrete and promising aspects of their music, leaving behind much of the earlier nonsense which must have been explored in a completely intuitive manner. This album sees Pink Floyd apparently learning from their more cerebral peers (King Crimson had released several albums, Genesis was releasing their sophomore record, and Yes was arriving at their most meaningful expression alongside but completely separate from Pink Floyd) and trying to give continuity to the album itself: more tasteful attention is given to details inside songs which are somewhat melodically developed. The band is still mostly unable to conclude them, resorting to fades and cheap bale-outs. Most songs here are little better than augmented pop songs arranged with the whole album in mind, except for the longer stretches like the famous “Echoes”. This last track constitutes the net worth of this release; the rest may be dismissed without great loss.

 

pink floyd obscured by clouds

Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Obscured by Clouds starts out with an intro that might have inspired the work of later Tangerine Dream, who made worthwhile music out of what was merely a random snippet of Pink Floyd. After an album that promised to elevate the band beyond its all-too-mediocre shyness, Obscured by Clouds relies on underdeveloped pop songs, random cool-sounding interludes that are just there as they can be, and the snapshots of what would later constitute the sound of their most prominent mainstream success.

 

pink floyd dark side of the moon

The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
1973’s classic is probably the one and only Pink Floyd album worth dedicating precious moments of existence to. The Dark Side of the Moon is the final definitive sound of the band par excellence. Their crippling compositional shortsightedness is still present but they have learned to just deal with it through years of perseverance. Through years of refinement the band has turned their prior randomness into sharply-focused moments that finally assemble together yet always remaining unrelated cars in a train of pure intuition rather than one single narrative. Delightfully put-together, each moment in the wide repertoire from this jack-of-all-trades band is brought forth slowly in a way that feels necessary and justified. It has the expectation, delivery and dissolution that any good album should envy.

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s crowning achievement, deserves an honorable mention, perhaps a footnote under true masterpieces of popular art music that came out the following year through other talents. King Crimson’s Red, Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory are albums that appear smooth and simple but are truly only so in appearance. An unseen force is channeled through their inner alignment: complexity is made to seem easy and complex thought condenses into naturally-flowing music that effectively suscitates clear images in the mind’s eye.

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Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen (1956)

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a litter of bastard composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.
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Twilight Fauna/Jennifer Christensen Split 2015

7_foldover

That good music makes its way to the promo stack occasionally is not a huge surprise. We do not expect it to happen in more than one in twenty or thirty occurrences, but sooner or later, something good does come. And then, we expect a great album (not a true classic, but perhaps a highlight in the year) to arrive at an expected rate of about one every two or thee months. What we do not expect is a two-track split in which the first is a modernist piece composed for strings in the manner reminiscent of Górecki’s 3rd String Quartet or Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

The second track, “Crossing the Threshold” by Twilight Fauna, is one of those supposedly black metal ambient pieces that amounts to little more than sounds here, noises there, sometimes violated by a heavily distorted guitar that adds nothing to what’s going on. All for the sake of ambience. It falls into the same category of poorly-done but pretentious music like Ulver’s and Sun O))), themselves a parody of what Robert Fripp did much better in The Gates of Paradise or his work with Brian Eno in Evening Star. I’d recommend these guys to study the work of early Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, the master. If what they want is actually something more black metal, but elongated and that does not sound like some sort of pointless intro, they should check out Paysage d’Hiver’s work. Because the track has not been made public, we can only share their own release earlier this year through bandcamp for reference.

“Sickness Unto Death”, by Jennifer Christensen, is a patient work that I would venture to describe as minimalist. But rather than the circular pop minimalism of Philip Glass, this is more of the religious and dark nature typical of Górecki’s music. Clearly structural in construction but never rushed, motifs pass you by and interleave as passing scenes and a whole flora and fauna of a world evolved from a single primeval cell arise in distinguishable affinity. Now, as much as I not only enjoy but appreciate the higher quality of Ms. Christensen’s work here, I am wondering why would she release this in a split with a dark-ambient-going-on-black-metal band.

If she is somehow planning on turning her efforts in this direction, her classically trained mind and obvious talents for dark minimalist music would be interesting if applied to the whole spectrum of ambient instrumentation. Or even to two guitars, drums and backbone bass — that kind of black metal with a solid musical base would be much appreciated. After listening to her track many times, we know that the attitude and the spirit for this kind of music is definitely not missing. But the question is, does she actually understand the black metal spirit? Independently of this, I am looking forward to listening to more music composed by her, metal or not.

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Aion – Verses of Perdition (2015)

AION_VoP_artwork

Aion’s music falls into that territory between war metal or atmospheric death metal mistaken for black metal on account of its superficial attempt at creating atmosphere that results in simple meandering. As metal, for reasons that have been explained before on this website time and again, this release fails catastrophically. So perhaps we are listening to this in the wrong way. Perhaps as listeners we are not judging the music on its own terms. Since this does not accommodate the requirements of traditional metal of any kind, how about we take this as ambient music? How does this compare to Biosphere’s Substrata or Klaus Schulze’s Cyborg? Very poorly indeed. Verses of Perdition cannot be compared to Schulze’s work because the man’s work is too goal/conclusion-oriented.

Perhaps a more impressionistic interpretation is more apt for this sort of straight-up repetition of passages for atmospheric effect. In my view, this type of music still fails even if its criticism is taken that far away from metal, since impressionist music still needs a build up and a direction of some sort. Even Debussy’s pictorial approach is not reduced to such self-absorbed attempts at making the music become the atmosphere itself. The problem runs deep and a safe advice for any band is to avoid this route as it will only create vague visages and excuses for music.

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Neptune Towers – Caravans to Empire Algol re-issue

Neptune Towers’ rare 1994 debut of Ambient Soundscapes available on Peaceville for the first time.

Bleak and evocatively atmospheric, Neptune Towers was the brainchild of Darkthrone’s Fenriz.

The music takes its inspiration from the likes of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Kraftwerk.

This edition of Caravans To Empire Algol contains liner notes by Fenriz.

Pre-order now for 11th June 2012 release date.

1. Caravans To Empire Algol (24:32)
2. The Arrival At Empire Algol (12:37)

Glad to see this classic ride again. It’s like a darkwave version of Tangerine Dream, deep cosmic music that came out at a time when all black metal bands were experimenting with ambient. This is better than most however.

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Tangerine Dream 2008 — a dream unfulfilled

When artists lose direction they lack coherence. To fix that, they streamline their work and try to imitate the popular stuff that people were fleeing when they listened to these artists in the first place.

In the metal and krautrock genres, which have similar musical roots, this means you turn something similar to classical music into rhythmic rock ballads. This is how most metal sounds today, because it’s the easiest format to embrace: let the song become a variation on a known them and a superficial backdrop for a generic beat, include some death metal fillers to make it interesting, and then add random themes from horror movies. For the krautrock scene, artistic decline is very much the same.

Whatever happened with Tangerine Dream after Peter Baumann left the stage, no one knows, but it’s safe to say that the band started to decline shortly after releasing “Stratosfear” in 1976. Following that period, TD released three albums that barely qualify as very good, “Tangram” probably being the champion. With Johannes Schmoelling on the keyboards, this is an unexpected gem–more polished and simple, to be sure, but strangely dense and information-intensive. It sounds like a new age quartet, mixing layers of synth collages, rhythmic pulses and dreamy melodies, all into an epic format. If the early albums celebrated the spirit of ancient civilizations, “Tangram” is about joyfully discovering your inner child, and contrasting it against your present existence.

Take this classic album and let Tangerine Dream 2008 modernize it for its new audience. Aside from a small layer of sound effects, they’ve added a generic beat as rhythmic foundation for the actual musical content. Did I say rhythmic foundation? What made early TD so great was that they sounded like a modern classical orchestra. The music wasn’t restrained by neither rhythm nor predictable harmony, as in rock music and most metal. Thanks to the open format, these geniuses could improvise on the spot, and still compose music that is structured and layered according to emotional logic.

Like listening to classical music, a classic Tangerine Dream listen “makes sense” in a emotional way, because it’s a growth, or an adventure, and not a static backdrop. Tangerine Dream 2008 has instead destroyed its classic compositions by forcing them into the tedious rock song format model — one that later also came to make most of Klaus Schulze’s stuff boring to listen to.

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