Smoking with Tolkien: Capstan – Original Navy Cut

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J.R.R. Tolkien wrote without an outline using only the thoughts gathered in his head over long hours of smoking his pipe and staring into a fireplace. Sitting at his typewriter, head wreathed in smoke, he pounded out a first draft of the Lord of the Rings mythos, and then discarded it, beginning again from scratch. As the story took form, it left behind a litter of empty blue-painted cans of tobacco.

The tobacco was Capstan Original Navy Cut. Members of his family remember the tins proliferating around the house and being used to store household items. When Tolkien and other members of his literary group The Inklings met, nicotine burned in abundance, and they could be found by following the trail of smoke. In his books, Tolkien inserted characters finding great comfort and wisdom in their pipes much as he did in his.

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As part of a recent binge of writings by Tolkien and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, this writer has indulged in their favorite tobaccos. Capstan Original Navy Cut comes in “flake” form, having been pressed into table-sized cakes and then sliced into wafers about a third the size of a playing card. These are either stuffed into the pipe or “rubbed out” which converts them into ribbons of tobacco. Throughout this experiment, the thought lingers at the back of the mind: why this tobacco, and does it resemble the Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby of his legends?

Original Navy Cut is composed of pure Virginias, but the pressing and aging has converted some of their sugar and acid into a more hay-like flavor, the partial decomposition of the leaf having released its most irksome elements. What remains is a sweet smoke, with slightly more Nicotine (PBUH) than the average medium smoke, which burns evenly and rewards small “sips” or short slow puffs, as one might take while hammering out words on a typewriter. It also admirably complements the smell of typewriter ribbon, for whatever that is worth.

Virginia flakes such as this tend to appeal to either new smokers who want a blend that is sweet and strong like a cigarette, or to the experienced who can nurse a pipe for hours. Since Tolkien was a master pipe smoker, he fit the latter category, and apparently always kept a pipe going with this and other blends to power himself through late-night endurance test writing sessions. And we can enjoy the results, and the metal inspired by them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8IC4aSq-Mg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oNVGi-dZ_E

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pq1JrJHQlAc

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Isvind – Gud (2015)

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Part of me still wants to like Gud. Isvind’s 4th studio album is a textbook example of how to sound like black metal, for sure, but the specific emphasis on consonant melody (mixed with some primitive and ambient elements ala Darkthrone) make for a substyle that at least can be done well in the right hands. Under this admittedly pleasing exterior, though, lies a heart of incoherence and confusion. Isvind, at least in 2015, is random to the core, and their inability to properly organize their songs makes for a tedious 45 minutes.

While this pervasive failure makes it more difficult to zero in on any one flaw, a few are at least more prominent and demanding of attention. One thing I immediately noticed were the presence of gimmicky female vocals – after the short but dissonant prelude at the beginning of the first track, they are scattered very sparsely throughout the rest of the tracks. They fail to add much beyond the occasional peak of shrill dissonance. As I kept analyzing Gud‘s tracks, I found that the tracks were full of these distractions in various forms, whether it was extra instrumentation, or stark shifts in tempo or tonality or other aspects of the songwriting. Each one of these is the musicological equivalent of being constantly pestered by a small child who demands your attention; eventually you get used to it, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. To their credit, Isvind manages to incorporate a great deal of dissonance into what is primarily a melodic and consonant style, which makes for some interesting isolated riffs, but since they can’t string the sections of their songs together properly, it almost doesn’t matter. To be fair, I don’t think this problem is caused specifically by the musical exploration, since other black metal bands (read: Averse Sefira) have written far more coherent and therefore interesting songs than are present on display here.

Still, I can’t recommend this in good conscience. It’s not quite as nonsensically random as Myrkur or a Krallice, but it’s a lot closer in spirit to those albums than what its aesthetics may lead you to believe on your initial listen.

P.S: I almost pluralized listens, but you shouldn’t give this album that much attention.

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Vader to release 2nd album of cover songs

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Back in the day, Vader earned a bit of extra notoriety by releasing the original Future of the Past and presumably documenting their influences (and their taste for Depeche Mode) through cover songs. Nearly 20 years later, they’re doing it again. Future of the Past II: Hell in the East showcases a set of somewhat more obscure bands, trading in familiar speed/thrash acts for the Polish underground of the 1980s, as well as a few outliers like Krabathor from the Czech Republic. This cover compilation will be released on December 14th, along with another separate pressing of Vader’s demos and a re-release of Future of the Past [I]. I do not know why Poland produced such a disproportionate amount of metal during its last years under communism; Vader, having lived through it may very well have a better grasp on the causes.

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Anthrax sets release date for For All Kings

Anthrax has always been vaguely relevant at best – selling not quite enough albums to be huge, but never really going away and always drawing some amount of media attention. Perhaps it’s lower expectations, but they seem to have aged more gracefully than most of their famous speed metal counterparts in recent years. 2011’s Worship Music must’ve paid the bills for a while, since the delay between that and the upcoming For All Kings is quite lengthy (albeit not as lengthy as the wait between WM and its own predecessor). So far, Anthrax has released the track “Evil Twin” as a single, which makes for an accurate if unnecessary imitation of the band’s past work. Anthrax has also promised that For All Kings will be “heavier” than its predecessor, perhaps due to the presence of Jon Donais from the metalcore band Shadows Fall. I wouldn’t stake any important bets on it, though.

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Pestilence releases The Dysentery Penance demo compilation

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Pestilence’s demos have been repressed at least once before, most notably on some printings of Malleus Malificarum, but this most recent compilation of them may end up being of at least historic value to the band’s fans. The Dysentery Penance combines both of the band’s 1987 demos into one release, showcasing what we described about two months ago as the “formative years” of the band. Possible added value comes from some remastering work provided by Dan Swano, as well as some live material bolted onto the end of the album. Whether or not the remaster ends up enhancing this product, it’s still probably a better purchase than the band’s post-reformation studio albums.

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Upcoming tours – Gorgoroth, Kampfar, Gehenna

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This December, a few notable black metal acts are touring Western/Central Europe. Gorgoroth and Gehenna, at the very least had some fame and notoriety back in the 1990s and are still well known today, although the former has drifted quite far from their best days. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of Kampfar until just now, although a cursory look at Encyclopedia Metallum suggests they’ve existed since the mid-90s. Supporting acts are expected to vary, but in the UK, these three bands will be joined by De Profundis, who is at least tangentially related to the black metal focus this tour has. I’d like to label this a “tour of the fallen” like the recently covered Slayer/Testament/Carcass tour, but it seems less definite than in that case.

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Dream Theater continues buildup for The Astonishing

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Dream Theater’s upcoming album is certainly high concept, although I don’t foresee the results being anything other than the usual technically accomplished vaguely progressive power metal they always put out. As part of the buildup to the scheduled 2016 release of The Astonishing, the band has released a ton of visual and conceptual material, and most recently put up the tracklisting for the album. Other commentators throughout the internet are being psychically assaulted by the sheer 34-ness of the amount of tracks listed; when they recover they often end up claiming that the album will either be excellent or a colossal trainwreck. I’m personally expecting something in the middle, although visual art fans might at least find something of interest in these supplementary materials.

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Chthonic frontman running for congressman in Taiwan

By now, metal musicians and fans participating in politics isn’t entirely unheard of; even in Asia you can find such prominent examples as Joko Widodo (president of Indonesia). Freddy Lee, the frontman of the Taiwanese symphonic black/folk metal band Chthonic, is running for a seat in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, as reported by Blabbermouth. Lee has participated in his country’s politics for some time and is running as a member of the recently formed New Power Party, which advocates for Taiwanese nationalism. In the past, he’s apparently used his position in Chthonic to promulgate these political views. Part of his campaign includes a free concert in Taipei on December 26th, which admittedly may be a bit difficult for our primarily Western audience to participate in.

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Youtuber “generates” technical metal with randomisation

So perhaps procedurally generated music and chance based (aleatoric) music isn’t either, but sometimes, it’s interesting (at least from a vague ‘intellectual’ perspective) to hear these ideas applied to metal music. In today’s case, we have guitarist Pete Cottrell playing “randomly generated” metal, which was created by using various sources of randomness (dice, Scrabble tiles, computerized pseudorandom number generation) to determine several properties of the music. In this case, however, only a song fragment’s tempo, time signature, and key signature were randomly generated; as far as I can tell, everything else was written and composed by the guitarist.

This latter point offers me a few bits of discussion. The first is that the next logical step would perhaps be to apply randomization to the actual riff-writing process, creating note and rhythm progressions that could end up difficult to play or simply very chaotic based on whatever algorithm was used. A synthesizer like Native Instrument’s Flesh might come in handy, although its timbral/textural relevance to metal is debatable. The other thing that occurred to me while I watched this video was that a ‘random’ compositional style on its own isn’t likely to create particularly well planned and arranged music. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the more fanatical devotees of the technique ended up using their own efforts to jam random fragments into a more sensible shape. Until the upcoming wave of strong generalist AI outpaces us at most cognitive tasks, though, there are limits to how much randomly generated we’ll hear.

Pete Cottrell has some other videos that may be of interest to metal performers, generally focused around equipment and recording technique.

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Autopsy – Skull Grinder (2015)

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On one hand, this is obviously a descendant of previous Autopsy material, but on the other hand, Skull GrinderĀ is more conventionally structured and musical than the band’s formative work. You could make a case for my hypothesis based on the first single – i.e a lot of older styles of metal seem to be filtering into latter day Autopsy. Around these parts, this usually spells disaster and results in things like At the Gates releasing Slaughter of the Soul. Autopsy manages to avoid this fate by using these otherwise difficult to control elements in a way that actually fits their roots.

In general, Autopsy relies on a fairly simple formula to make their death metal – basic structures (not necessarily pop ones), limited technicality, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest reason Skull Grinder actually benefits from this is that Autopsy’s style always lent itself to having a strong vocal presence. Chris Reifert is on the top of his game here, successfully expanding the variety of vocal techniques he uses while remaining appropriate to the style of music on display. Similar expansions take place in the rest of the ensemble, including a more lead and solo heavy approach to guitarwork and more elaborate usage of melody in the rhythm guitar’s riffs. The downside of this more instrumentally interesting Autopsy is that it comes at expense of the band’s early mastery of song structure. In general, Skull Grinder is subtly, but definitely more haphazard in how it strings riffs together. This loss of organization skill is not drastic enough to ruin the record, but it’s an unfortunate shortcoming, and one that perhaps could have easily been avoided by giving the songwriting process a little more time to cook. Autopsy has certainly been releasing material quite consistently as of late, but I think the fans would tolerate a longer release cycle if it meant that the music was tightened up a bit and some of the more egregious filler was removed.

Despite this, Autopsy has created a better approximation of their early material than your average self-reviving band, and Skull Grinder does have a some material worthy of the band’s legacy in its short duration. There’s also some lessons to be learned here about how to expand your songwriting horizons; the best bands of the next few years will be those who can balance such wisdom with the more conventional truths Autopsy demonstrated in their past.

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