Scale The Summit – V (2015)

Scale The Summit - V (2015)

Everyone has at least one person in their network who is obsessed with “smart” music; your local government will provide you with a complimentary one if you have any doubts. You can tell music is “smart” by the fact it’s either instrumentally complex, aesthetically gimmicky, or even merely composed of band members who agree with some of your socialpolitical opinions. V is not the first to the best of my knowledge, but its ties to the djent and “progressive metal” scenes give Scale the Summit a built in audience full of such people. The relatively clean guitar tones and otherwise frequent moments of gentle strumming make me question the metal label, but I’m not yet the type to judge music solely by its genre. It does mean, however, that I’ve mentally shelved this on the progressive rock shelves along with acts like Camel and Yes, which admittedly are radically different in overall approach, but at least give this album some stern competition which it desperately needs.

V is actually a collection of jazz fusion instrumentals that presumably took some time to practice and learn even for the band’s technically skilled musicians. Much has been written on the idea of jazz-metal fusions, but Scale the Summit seems quite archetypal in that regard, relying on thorough-composed songwriting with distinct sections over improvisation, but favoring lighter, cleaner tones and sounds even at their most intense. One thing that divides me is how rigidly and academically the band approaches song structure – tracks here are full of obvious “We’re going to vary the song by modulating to another key or changing the drum pattern” type moments that probably look well-planned if you consult the corresponding tablature, but don’t work out in practice for being too jarring or too frequently followed by an obvious pause. This might be something to expect from such a rhythm-heavy style, but it still strikes me as a notable weakness, and one that makes some of these songs so self-conscious that it interferes with their overall memorability and impact.

Ultimately, I find Scale the Summit to be aesthetically pleasing, and I can derive some intellectual satisfaction from piecing together the theoretical level of their music, which is more than I can say for a lot of so-called progressive metal. I can’t guarantee that I won’t plunder V for some of these technical ideas. Employing this prowess towards more interesting and less obvious (less formulaic) songwriting is going to be quite a challenge, though. I can’t guarantee you that Scale the Summit will do the same, since they seem pretty content with their current technically proficient but otherwise ephemeral style.

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Darkthrone to rerelease Soulside Journey on September 25th

Darkthrone - Soulside Journey (1990)

Even Peaceville Records is getting in on the compact cassette revival. While Soulside Journey is far from stereotypical for Darkthrone, and furthermore already saw a cassette re-release in 1996, this is still a fine addition to your collection in its various forms for the strength of its content. Prior to creating several genre-defining works of black metal, Soulside Journey showcases the band performing a musically literate and melodramatic variant of death metal. It’s an admittedly sparse and atmospheric take on the genre that takes some acclimation to fully understand, but one that rewards attentive listeners. Funnily enough, this dodges the convenient upcoming 25th anniversaries of Darkthrone’s upcoming material, but those are likely too obvious for the record labels to ignore in the coming years. In the meantime, Darkthrone will probably see a great deal of reissues – the questionable Black, Death, and Beyond compilation, for instance, was recently reprinted on compact discs.

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Skepticism – Ordeal (2015)

skepticism_ordeal

Our previous editor got his hands on some version of Ordeal and was not particularly fond of it; in particular he criticized it for being “self-referential” and lacking in well thought out composition. In doing so he cast a great shadow over my hopes for this album, but one I could not even acknowledge until I had listened for myself and determined whether or not his criticisms were accurate. It was a very persuasive argument in the mean time; the very title of the album, the fact it contained two rerecordings of previous Skepticism tracks, the gimmicky recording technique, and so forth come together to predict validity without actually being sufficient indication of the contents within.

Actually listening to the album immediately put me into mind of one major lesson I derive from my own personal review efforts: I respond more quickly to music that reminds me of my own efforts as a musician, and Skepticism with their funeral doom style is the antithesis of myself. While my experience with the band’s previous efforts is limited, their particular take on the subgenre is still interesting on some level, as their overall choice of tonality and instrumentation seems to absorb all the doom and depression one might expect and replace it with the musical equivalent of barren, but sublime natural landscapes – mountain peaks, desert canyons, and so forth. That’s the ideal, at least; given that Ordeal‘s sloth makes it superficially resemble ambient music, and that plenty of both metal and ambient musicians turn towards Earth’s ecosystems for inspiration, it seems a reasonable goal. Still, something deeper and more fundamental wasn’t clicking, and in an attempt to more quickly absorb the structures of this album into my mind, I turned to pitch-shifting algorithms.

While playing Ordeal at three times its intended speed ended up making everything sound daft, it helped to reveal the underlying structures of Skepticism’s music. It turns out that, at least from a mathematical perspective, these compositions are definitely janky, as they are full of sudden shifts to subtly different material at odd intervals. In a style as slow and orderly as this, that seems a poor fit and makes for anything but an organic approach. This exercise also suggested, rather more sinisterly, that Skepticism’s compositions are perhaps assembled at a higher speed and then stretched out as necessary to create longer tracks. While I can’t confirm anything about how the music was constructed, I would not be fretting about it so much if the end result was not held back by its own awkwardness, and if the laggardly tempos didn’t make appreciating any musical moments a chore.

Since the rest of the band’s discography is at least superficially similar to this, I can at least extend Skepticism a hearty congratulations for making me doubt the value of the rest of their discography. That, if anything, is a (dubious) honor, but hardly one worthy of praise.

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Satan to release Atom by Atom on October 2nd

Satan - Atom by Atom (2015)

Since we quite enjoyed Satan’s previous album (Life Sentence), it only makes sense to give their latest a mention as well. Satan’s musical style is understandably descended from the popular NWOBHM styles of the late ’70s and ’80s, but also showcases some musical techniques that would become influential in the speed and power metal camps, and their most recent albums adopt a similar style with understandably better studio polish. While this followup is not set to officially release for a few weeks, the band has released a track for promotional purposes. “The Devil’s Infantry” changes little if anything from Satan’s recent past, and hopefully the rest of the album will live up to the high standards it and the previous album set for the band.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQrtNA2VIMo

 

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Blood – Christbait re-release coming on September 28th

Blood - Christbait (1992)

Vic Records is rereleasing Blood’s 1992 album Christbait on September 28th. This German death metal/grindcore act received some praise in the old archives for successfully adding some conventional musicality to a standard formula. In that regard this is similar to how Carcass and Napalm Death expanded their sounds on Symphonies of Sickness and Harmony Corruption; Christbait is similarly more intelligible and elaborate than Blood’s previous work (although still fairly simplistic) while retaining much of its intensity. Newer bands would do well to learn from these examples if they want to create works of similar quality.

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Suffocation working on new studio album

Interview video sourced from Metal Wani

The legacy of Suffocation continues, at least in some form, as the band is currently writing material for a new album, possibly to come out some time in 2016 if all goes well. Suffocation’s recent works have lacked the strong organization of their 1990s peak, and it seems unlikely that this one will be a significant improvement. However, a fiscally successful album release may lead to a new cycle of touring, and possibly a chance for our readers to see the band perform some of their old classics in a live setting. An actual review of the as-of-yet unnamed album will probably show up on this site closer to its release date.

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Septic Flesh – 1991-2003 (2015)

Septic Flesh - 1991-2003 (2015)

Floga Records is releasing a box set of Septic Flesh’s first era in cassette format. While this box-set is limited to 300 copies and the format is somewhat obscure, much of the content included is of high quality, as Septic Flesh’s early discography is one of the high points of Greek underground metal, measuring up to such luminaries as Rotting Christ, Varathron, and Necromantia.

Septic Flesh began their career playing rough death metal, but even on their earliest demo (Forgotten Path) showed signs of the melodic, atmospheric sound that would become their signature. The abrasive death metal elements would remain for some years, but the band’s heavy keyboard presence, an emphasis on consonant guitar leads, and elaborate compositions make for a a more contemplative experience than, for instance, the generally more aggressive American metal acts. Septic Flesh’s first full-lengths admittedly suffer from flaws in their production that detract from the possible intensity they could reach (like the use of a weak drum machine), but they still capitalize on the band’s ability to create ethereal soundscapes in the context of metal. Mystic Places of Dawn and Esoptron in particular are masterpieces of this style, effortlessly integrating this into the admittedly declining quantities of death metal that this era showcases.

Later albums in this collection showcase the band reaching simultaneously towards higher heights of orchestration and problematically trying to secure some gothic metal money. This niche became enormously popular in the mid-90s despite being so wide as to encompass similar acreage of musical ground. Septic Flesh never discarded their ability to write melodic hooks, but after 1995, they were quick to simplify their style and write more accessible, less cavernous songs. These changes become strikingly obvious on Revolution DNA, which trades in the mythological and occult themes of previous works for sleek, shining futurism. That the band manages to retain their melodic prowess makes it serve as a functional and adequate work of pop music, but it is truly a low point of the compilation. The band’s previous overtures towards the mainstream (primarily in the form of operatic vocalists) were spun off into their own project (Chaostar), and Septic Flesh was arguably sundered. In recent years, partially represented on this compilation’s finale, Sumerian Daemons, the band has embraced the great simplification of their past, albeit overlaid and decorated with modern metal technique and an orchestral presence, creating music that in its strengths resembles that of mainstream film music filtered through the extreme metal mold. The new Septic Flesh is a much louder and brutish beast, separated from the atmospheric voice it was born with, but hints of the past permeate even the band’s latest releases to give it strength in its darkest hours.

1991-2003 is excellent as a historical archive and a collector’s item, at least for those few who value compact cassettes. It is probably entirely useless outside that niche, although it’s always possible that a similar box set may come out in a more accessible format. In addition, like other comprehensive box sets, it comes with its share of chaff and filler. Individual albums by Septic Flesh should not be too difficult to find, though, and some of them have even been reissued with new artwork and bonus rarities. The early full lengths are certainly worth the listener’s time.

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Metal Hammer to release branded mobile game

Promotional screenshot from Metal Hammer: Roadkill (2015)

The heavy metal and hard rock news site Metal Hammer is releasing a mobile game entitled Metal Hammer: Roadkill. So far, screenshots suggest a fairly basic action game presumably inspired by endless runners such as Canabalt; the gimmick this time is that it incorporates rhythm game elements and a soundtrack of prominent metal musicians. Given popular trends in the mobile gaming industry, this will probably be released for free and earn most of its revenue through in-game microtransactions, but until the game releases, any speculation on the subject is empty at best. Roadkill most likely serves best not as a specific promotion (although it might turn out to be financially lucrative), but more as an example of the distance heavy metal news sites may need to go to secure funding and label attention in the future. We probably won’t be seeing the folks at Metal Hammer write any critical reviews of Nuclear Blast’s roster for quite a while.

The game releases on October 15th for iOS and Android devices; you can read the official story at Metal Hammer’s website.

 

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Stratovarius – Eternal (2015)

Stratovarius - Eternal (2015)

Have you ever listened to a metal recording and realized it was trying to be all things to all people? Eternal is like that. One of the most recent additions to the ‘European’ school of power metal, I impulsively jumped into this album before realizing, with a start, that my understanding of this subgenre basically ends at 1992, before the genre became the hyperactive, instrumentally maximalist Goliath it is today. Whoops.

If this album is any indication of the band’s overall approach, then Stratovarius is ultimately descended from the Van Halen school of music. Few moments will pass on this album without some sort of rapid-fire instrumental flourish or (more importantly) a Big Dumb Chorus™. The Big Dumb Chorus™ is one of the stylistic limitations this sort of music labors under – surely, the audience will remember and better identify with the songs if, on their first try, they can sing along with the refrain? It’s slightly more difficult than your standard pop choruses, since to meet their own power metal ambitions Stratovarius has to make everything as epic and melodramatic as possible. Stratovarius isn’t even the worst offender in this regard, since this doesn’t prevent them from showing off their instrumental skills, but since songs are still structured around these moments, they don’t have much else to do.

Because Eternal relies so heavily on conventional pop songwriting, it has to differentiate itself from its companions solely on sound and production. Stratovarius relies very heavily on their keyboard lines to do this, and they do a suitable job of pushing out semi-orchestral flourishes throughout the album. Some of the samples (like the brass at the beginning of “My Eternal Dream”) sound a bit cheap and artificial for 2015, and the keyboardist probably resents you, the reader, personally for not buying enough of their merchandise in recent years. There’s also the occasional vaguely contemporary electronic passage that doesn’t really fit the mood. I suspect such things were carelessly tossed in with the intent to create more “variety”, but they’re ultimately inconsequential and could generally be removed without any significant impact on their tracks. At best, these passages are going to pull in a few EDM drones whose friends are insisting they give metal a chance.

Ultimately, Eternal is literally candy. It’s fine and non-toxic in small amounts, but ingesting too much of it will make you jittery and irritable, as well as spoiling your appetite for dinner. Besides, you don’t expect your chocolate bars and peanut butter cups to challenge your conceptions about the nature of food and its relation to reality, right?

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Cynic abruptly tears itself apart

Promotional artwork from Cynic's homepage

Rock and metal bands have a terrible habit of destroying themselves in dramatic conflicts. On Thursday, Cynic’s official Facebook page announced a breakup in the middle of a touring cycle. Perhaps not the best way to go about such a split. Recently, though, guitarist and vocalist Paul Masvidal claims (again, through Facebook) that neither he or the band’s bassist (Sean Malone) were involved in the decision to split. Whether or not each side is able to work out their differences is unclear at the moment, but this seems like a poor way to go about the business of ending a musical project, or otherwise changing its status.

Controversial reformation career aside, I personally owe Cynic a great deal for Focus, as its diverse aesthetic palette and jazz inflections gave me a gateway into extreme metal that I otherwise never may have found. Their later recordings, though, have done little to pique my interest and are unlikely to gain many fans around here. Perhaps this breakup is merely recognition that taking jazz, metal and metalcore and mixing them together produces a slurry that no one wants to drink.

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