Brendon Small launches “crowd” campaign to continue Metalocalypse

metalocalypse_logo

Despite being a huge animation nerd, I was never able to develop much interest in Metalocalypse, but my support certainly wasn’t required for the companies involved to release four seasons, four Dethklok studio albums, and seriously concern Brett. A couple years of production may have fatigued its audience, though, as the show has essentially been canceled by Adult Swim. Show creator Brendon Small seeks to reverse this – enter the “Metalocalypse Now!” campaign, which at first glance is presumably intended to mobilize fans into a veritable army of demanding Adult Swim and/or Hulu provide the funding for a series finale. In isolation, this is at least a sign of the times – growing social media efforts and the theoretical possibility of crowdfunding continues to open up opportunities for content creators to promote and distribute their work.

On closer inspection, though, I began to question how relevant the efforts of fans would be in this campaign’s success or failure. The campaign has already attracted an enormous amount of corporate sponsorship, ranging from understandable fans like metal journalism/interest sites such as MetalSucks and MetalInjection, to record labels and surprisingly the computer peripheral company Razer. This leads me to believe that the result of this campaign is already predecided by the corporate sponsors. At best, anyone who participates in the social media end of this is a number they can pull up at the inevitable business presentation with Adult Swim’s executives. With some of the names involved, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge promotional blitz and a successful conclusion to this campaign, but our readership would likely be disappointed either way.

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Denner/Shermann – Satan’s Tomb (2015)

Denner/Shermann - Satan's Tomb (2015)

When I first became aware of this recording, I figured the obvious points of comparison would be Mercyful Fate for spawning the eponymous duo of this act, and Satan because that word was in this album’s title. Those comparisons have turned out to be less appropriate than initially expected – Satan’s Tomb draws more from recent mainstream heavy/power metal than either of those two. It’s not enough to separate them entirely from this comparison, but those expecting the second coming of Don’t Break The Oath are going to walk away disappointed for more reasons than they might expect.
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Megadeth premieres a new track from Dystopia

Megadeth - Dystopia (2016)
In their glory days, Megadeth was always commercially #2 to Metallica – more technically proficient by far, structurally simpler, and literally #2 on the American Billboard 200 when they made their own dumbed down Black Album equivalent in Countdown to Extinction. Post-reformation Megadeth has been somewhat inconsistent about what part of their career they want to evoke, but if “Fatal Illusion” is any indication, Dystopia may very well be full of ’80s self-worship. There are some new aesthetic tweaks, like heavily processed, harmonized vocals from Dave Mustaine, but the overall structure of the song is an adequate facsimile of previous Megadeth and ’80s speed metal for commercial purposes. The current lineup of Megadeth notably features Kiko Loureiro (of Angra) and Chris Adler (from Lamb of God) in addition to its two founding Daves (Mustaine and Ellefson), although this track in isolation doesn’t really offer enough information on what their contributions to the band will sound like.

 

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Firespawn to release Shadow Realms, but don’t bother purchasing it

Firespawn - Shadow Realms (2015)

What do you get when you form a supergroup from members of Entombed, Unleashed, and Necrophobic, all of whom released excellent formative death metal at the beginnings of their careers? Not much, apparently. Firespawn (formerly Fireborn) plays generic modern Swedeath with slight hints of melody and not much else of interest. If you ever needed a reminder that a promising lineup does not automatically translate into a product that is even promising at best, Shadow Realms is there for you – more accurately, you will be able to purchase it on November 13th from Century Media if its banality fails to undermine your interest. In the mean time, you can listen to one of its upcoming tracks (“Ruination”) for a textbook example of how to put together generic deathpop. Particularly notable are the rudimentary vocal rhythms and the exceedingly basic song structure.

Future coverage is possible, but very likely to be sadistic in nature.

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Abbath’s solo project releases its first official track

Immortal’s ability to consistently release content since has fallen by the wayside since 2002 (although their quality was arguably ailing before that) between periods of legal disputes, side projects from band members, and that time in the 2000s when they were literally split up. Abbath has thrown his efforts into another side/solo project, and Season of Mist has seen fit to give us a sample from upcoming material – a semi-live studio track named “Fenrir Hunts”.

This track sounds more overtly like death/black metal than much of the Immortal members’ recent work, which were generally more oriented towards older forms of metal in songwriting even when their aesthetics were not. “Fenrir Hunts” strikes this reviewer as yet another highly polished, technically sound song with some nods to the need for varied structure in an otherwise fairly standard formula. In short, an acceptable effort, but not one that particularly excites me for this release, or one that compels me to listen to it over previously proven and enshrined classics like Pure Holocaust. I can hope that the full album will be more interesting when it comes out (and the early state of this song suggests room for improvement), but it seems most likely that this will be another soul-crushingly “okay” album.

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Doom and the normalization of metal

Main menu from Doom (1993)

The year was 1993, and Western society’s appetite for ultraviolence was steadily growing, as perhaps evidenced by our knowledge of the period’s death metal. Besides the music industry, other forms of entertainment embraced this, including Id Software, which at the time was a small but successful video game developer who increasingly specialized in first person shooters. Doom used much of the same technology as Id’s previous games in the genre, but due to better technology and marketing, it sold enormously more copies and understandably exerted more influence on game culture. Particularly interesting to us at DMU was Id’s decision to incorporate metal music into Doom. This wasn’t the first video game to showcase a straight up heavy metal soundtrack; that honor most likely goes to Rock’n’Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo, six months before the release of Doom. Rock’n’Roll Racing used synthesized covers of several popular heavy metal and hard rock tunes, but Doom arguably went a step further by using nominally original music. Robert Prince’s compositions for the game (and its immediate sequel, Doom II) are split between these ‘metal’ tracks and more ambient, downtempo tracks.

The music of Doom is definitely inspired by contemporary popular metal works to the point of near plagiarism; Prince mentions on the fan site Doomworld that Id initially asked him to do a contemporary metal soundtrack. Other sources mention that Prince relied primarily on the game’s design documents to inform his efforts and had limited contact with Id’s employees during the process. Regardless, tracks here are often just a few notes off from literally being rehashed Slayer or Metallica or one of the other popular bands that inspired this music. Song structures and everything else is understandably simplified, as video game music generally has to loop and can’t afford to be too prominent or obnoxious lest it be muted by an irritated player. It is still a reasonably appropriate backdrop to Doom‘s mixture of gun combat and labyrinthine exploration, although some players here will just use their death metal collections instead.

While streamed, sampled audio was common in video games by 1993, Doom initially used sequenced music, presumably to save on storage space and to avoid locking out potential buyers without access to a CD-ROM drive. The soundtrack was originally composed for General MIDI-compatible devices like Prince’s synthesizers, but on the average computer of the time, it’s most likely the soundtrack’s metal simulacra would play through one of Yamaha’s FM synthesis chips. The main problem with the OPL3 version of this soundtrack is a hardware one – while capable of producing a wide variety of sounds, the OPL3 suffers from severe anemia, particularly because of its weak percussion abilities, and therefore this version belies the music’s instrumentation.

Doom was, however, quickly ported to many other computers and consoles in light of its commercial success, where it would run into all sorts of technical limitations. Everyone involved in the ports handled the soundtrack differently, ranging from the complete omission of music on the Atari Jaguar, to rearrangements of various quality, including the infamously bad Sega 32X version, and even the Playstation port, notable as its main composer (Aubrey Hodges) contributed his own, original soundtrack of dark ambient music instead of using Prince’s work. The most “authentic” way to experience the soundtrack is probably Prince’s Doom Music compilation, which showcases much of the music performed on its original synthesizers; any additions are at least intended by the original author, although I still find the ability of mid-90’s electronics to mimic a distorted guitar underwhelming at best.

I doubt Id was specifically planning to popularize metal music when they released Doom, but they probably did a great deal in that regard, even though by 1993, mainstream metal was on the verge of commercial collapse and/or Pantera. The correspondence between common metal imagery, and the game’s demon-slaughtering violence and hellscapes is too obvious to ignore, though. Doom presumably sold more copies for pushing computers to their limit and being graphically violent, but the soundtrack’s decisions definitely paved the way for more and better-known works to feature metal as a soundtrack. In the process, it’s won such fans as Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who even made his own content for the game (although unfortunately, he didn’t bother to include his band’s music).

 

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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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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.
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Slayer – Repentless (2015)

Slayer - Repentless (2015)

It probably bears mentioning that I consider Hell Awaits to be Slayer’s peak. While it could’ve used a larger recording budget, it showcased some of the band’s most elaborate and well-written compositions. The band didn’t generally follow up on this approach on later albums, but you can hear the lessons applied on the rest of Slayer’s classic ’80s material, and therein lies a lesson. At their peak, Slayer had obvious songwriting formulas, but were able to go build more elaborate and memorable works due to their solid understanding of song structure.

Repentless is Slayer’s 3rd attempt to recapture something else of that era. The production standards are admittedly better (although Slayer generally had good producers working for them in the past as well), but everything else is the stereotypical speed/death assault that the band helped pioneer. Paul Bostaph and Gary Holt serve as adequate substitutes for the departed Dave Lombardo and the deceased Jeff Hanneman (R.I.P), carrying on general stylistic trends without rocking the boat too much. That this is a commercially viable endgame for popular metal bands is something I expect to be one of the major themes of my tenure here at DMU. Even now, though, cracks are showing in the war ensemble – Tom Araya’s vocals are a major stylistic weak point on Repentless. His shouts have become more “extreme” and insistent in recent years, but his ability to vary his vocal techniques has all but collapsed. This album’s prosody is the worst casualty yet, as he delivers these monotonous shouts in unvarying rhythms; the effect is essentially the same as shouting nursery rhymes into a megaphone from your neighborhood rooftops.

Araya’s weaknesses are particularly damning on an album that relies so heavily on vocals to retain the listener’s attention, especially when everyone else on the recording is so competently unremarkable. We live in the age of self-referential Slayer, a long darkness that our learned scholars perhaps debate the duration of in their moments of distraction. Repentless is essentially a more formulaic version of previous Slayer albums that themselves were a simplification of their own predecessors. It’s very likely that the songs here sound marginally more like classic Slayer than those on Christ Illusion or World Painted Blood, but their unwillingness (or inability) to expand on basics renders them ultimately pointless. I can’t fault the band for continuing, though; previous recordings, while underwhelming, more than satiate an omnivorous fanbase who will probably go back to Reign in Blood after a while.

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Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls (2015)

Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls (2015)
Iron Maiden’s main strength in their 1980s heyday was their ability to incorporate progressive rock tropes (and therefore useful techniques for song variation and extension) into what was otherwise a fairly standard, if well executed poppy heavy metal sound. Not the rarest trick in the book, but more than enough to turn the band into a commercial juggernaut whose influence can sometimes be heard even in the deepest dregs of the underground.

On first impression, The Book of Souls ages gracefully, offering an aesthetic mostly similar to the band’s earliest recordings with Bruce Dickinson if understandably and obviously brought up to modern production standards. Like the rest of the band’s latter day material however, it leans ever closer towards its prog-isms, resulting in several enormous tracks and inflating the content into a full-fledged double album. The unfortunate weakness of these epics is that they are replete with filler of questionable value to a track, and as the length of these albums and tracks grow ever longer, so does the tedium, as Iron Maiden’s ability to extend a track beyond 7-8 minutes or so has not advanced along with them. Tracks end up overwhelmed by moments stunningly reminiscent of old hooks and hit singles (for instance, the intro of “Shadows of the Valley” seems to channel “Wasted Years” from Somewhere In Time), and the true nature of the band’s recent weakness reveals itself.

Iron Maiden has become a band split between two souls that they are unable to effectively reconcile. Their urge to extend their songwriting and write metal epics is held back by their need to continuously sound like Iron Maiden and the corresponding need to push hit singles. Paring down some of the worst excesses would probably be the most profitable option, since the band has demonstrated many times through their career that they can handle some degree of extension. Even then, Iron Maiden is competing with their own past; a past that is more virile (if not as slickly produced or musically experienced) and still easily experienced at their live concerts. I expect this album to jump off the shelves of record shores for still being recognizably Iron Maiden, for having some memorable and well-written moments and for being a valid way to financially support the band, but as a work of music, I don’t expect it to retain much listener interest after its marketing blitz subsides.

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