Sepultura‘s Morbid Visions is my favorite thirty year old album. Released in Brazil on November 10th, 1986, Morbid Visions saw Sepultura slither past the primitive Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Sodom worship of their initial Bestial Devastation extended play (included as a bonus on almost all CD versions of Morbid Visions) and into ultraviolent, progressive but still primitive, death and black metal.
A complete compilation of Cynic‘s demos, Uroboric Forms, is coming out next year from Century Media. Keep an eye out for it.
Acanthrophis has completed its debut, Twilight of the Vanquisher’s Reign, of blackened death metal in the style of Dissection with NWOBHM and progressive metal influences. The album will be available to the public in physical form at the first show the band will play, which will be June 25, 2016 in Milwaukee, WI with House of Atreus and Khazad Dum.
Article by David Rosales.
Released after Iron Maiden’s golden era, Somewhere in Time is touted by fans of heavy and power metal as a crown jewel of the band, exemplifying perfected expression and streamlined efficiency. This is not immediately convincing for metal hessians. Rightly so as the music became more sterile, hence, less credible. There is definitely a sense of “upgradedness” in both the production and the choice of stylistic voicings, allowing an inclusion of 80s pop coloration into the palette. This unclear, semi-sellout move demanded accountability, while at the same time the band boasted of accumulated experience fructifying the transformation, masterfully avoiding the typical degeneration that could be expected after the climax and summary of their original sound in 1985’s Live After Death.
Article by David Rosales
Timeghoul’s short lived existence gave us two excellent demos in 1992 and 1994. These both display very distinct facets of the project, each with their own merits and limitations. Even if we see the second as an evolution of the first, the first stands very firmly on its own ground. You could in fact argue that the second is not so much an evolution, as a different overall direction for the band.
The first release, Tumultuous Travelings, had a much more suffocating feeling to it, but already showcasing Timeghoul’s distinct personality, setting it apart from any contemporary. This distinction, however, is one of language and not one of technique; so that the casual onlooker might consider this first work to be a typical release for its time. In reality, once we acknowledge its allegiance to the traditions of death metal, the particular traits of Timeghoul’s music (even on Tumultuous Travelings) are anything but typical.
In 1994 came Panaramic Twilight (sic), which boasted of more explicitly progressive intentions, giving it automatic recognition in the mind of the same simple metalhead who passed off their first demo as standard. Seldom is it recognized that Timeghoul’s “progressive” qualities were already present on the first release, which is a trend that itself fails to stand out as few recognize these leanings in even the most developed death metal of the early 1990s. Timeghoul’s most significant development on Panaramic Twilight was that they stepped up the drama and Wagnerian soundtrack-like constructions, which required longer silences, longer notes and a wider variety of expression.
Now, when constructing music, composers have to strike a balance between intelligibility and variety (a.k.a. outer complexity). Most metal musicians, however, seem totally unaware of this, and this is why bands who, out of a humble degree of proficiency, produce simpler music have a more enduring impression on the audience in general. Aesthetic variety will not keep your interest if the music that underlies it is incoherent, muddy, and lacking in clarity. However, mere clarity is not enough; the image remains blurry if the overall picture has not been built with enough concrete purpose.
This is where Timeghoul excels; coherent and concrete purpose in songwriting is their most meaningful contribution to metal. They have opened this door to a world of possibilities within their paradigm of dramatic and obscure (rather than gory) death metal that does not require a band to clone their approach to follow in their steps. In comparison, trying to learn from Demilich or Immolation often results in blatant plagiarism, unless your efforts and results arise from a detailed technical analysis and are applied only in an abstract manner. Timeghoul compensates for the silences, rapid-fire changes in rhythms, and the use of texture to enhance different feelings in their music by using a very limited range of techniques. This is comparable to what At the Gates did on their own album. The techniques themselves aren’t numerous; nor are they extremely advanced. The band chooses a lexicon of technique, and relies on it consistently within a harmonic/modal framework that lends each song their own “harmonic feel” (arising from the interplay with the vocal’s timbre as well, I presume).
The wide range of expression is achieved through the types of arrangements and the changes in texture and rhythm, which are not selected at random like we saw in the work of Crematory. Timeghoul is very clearly telling a story and each bit of music, each switch from blast beat to silence, from frenetic power chord torrent to slow, single-note melody lines makes sense as a narrative. Timeghoul’s approach is not one of riff-salad, but rather more akin to that of an opera. In short, the music of Timeghoul provides another healthy avenue for metal musicians to explore. What you can learn from this unfortunately short-lived project on the abstract level is of far more value than what you can imitate by simply trying to emulate their sound. It is their intuitional organization that deserves praise; the powerful narrative element of Timeghoul’s music is a rare gem.
Akroasis stands proud as a representative of cracked out incoherent sugar high penguin of doom random technical “death” metal, and even has a cover that looks like various forms of congealed sugar melting together into a nutrition-free whole. It is truly the perfect product – a deceptively simplistic and potentially addictive recording with little in the way of more rewarding development. Obscura’s efforts on this album alternate between either random gibberish or surprisingly basic song constructions that don’t quite fit the apparent intent and would be shockingly obvious were they not surrounded by thousands of rapid fire notes like a swarm of flies around rotting meat.
One thing that makes reviewing Akroasis particularly easier is how the first track (“Sermon of the Seven Suns”) encapsulates so much of what Obscura is attempting to do. Much has been made of what this band takes from Death, particularly from their later traditional/death fusion works, but the most patronizing is the circular song structures. “Sermon of the Seven Suns” doesn’t have a lot of content, and after an intro arguably inspired by Cynic, it awkwardly rotates between its two major sections of rapidfire blasting and slow jazz fusion jams. The band uses some basic modulation techniques to disguise the repetition, particularly in the first section, but the overall structure does little more than hide the excessively basic structure. While the band’s apparent devotion to this on this track is vaguely admirable for how holistic it is (extending even to the lyrics), it doesn’t make for particularly compelling listening once the shock factor of Obscura’s instrumental proficiency wears off. At best, they’re slightly more creative than Chuck Schuldiner was with song structures – as an FYI, pretty much everything Death put out went main section -> bridge -> repetition of main section -> who needs a coda anyways?
The rest of Akroasis is more densely packed with content, but instead of employing the care and diligence required to shape these into anything coherent, it just falls into all of the typical metalcore traps, so it sounds less like an album and more like a checklist of errors. Besides what I’ve already mentioned in dissecting the first track, Obscura’s songwriting is full of aesthetic novelties (vocoders, non-metal instruments for no apparent reason) and they even incorporate a goofy breakdown in “The Monist” because apparently, metalcore musicians just can’t resist the temptation. Obscura would be a much better band if they could resist their vices, but were they to try and succeed, they would probably become completely unrecognizable to their fans. Why would they bother? The disorganized candy coated tech-death approach seems to be netting them enough fans.
Michael “Dr. Froth” Millsap isn’t exactly a household name in his progressive rock flavored niche of metal, but through some means, he’s managed to put together a formidable roster of musicians for the “Gathered in Darkness” project. Essentially a narrative-heavy concept album; its most notable contributors include Rob Lowe of Solitude Aeternus and Candlemass, and James Rivera of Helstar. If you’ve ever listened to the works of Nevermore or similar bands, you have a good idea of what to expect from this track – power metal vocals over vaguely progressive-rock oriented mid-paced jazz-fusion groove-metal hyphencore. The musicians involved certainly value their own technical prowess, but overall this is a difficult sell to the DMU audience, and it may end up as little more than a footnote about how that alone is not enough to make an album interesting and worthy of discussion.
Review by David Rosales
Symphony X has quite a following in the progressive power metal scene and has had such mainstream success in the technical musicians camp that almost each of the individual members of the band has his own little cult going on. In its very beginnings, the band leaned towards the so-called neoclassical stylings of ’80s melodic heavy metal. A few albums later, a clear progressive music orientation had crept in. All the while, the band retained a relatively original voice centered in Michael Romeo’s signature licks and Russell Allen’s distinctive vocalizations.
The band followed this course steadily up to their 2002 album titled The Odyssey, which seemed to crown their ever-ascending incursion into a world of structural complexity which tried to keep the music catchy nonetheless. The failure of Symphony X as a band may have to do precisely with this inability to fully compromise on a clear artistic path, choosing instead to use technique as a gimmick that attracts dorm-room guitarists and pop singability with a touch of gospel that makes casual listeners acknowledge the band and perhaps open up their wallets occasionally.
After what seemed like the inevitable end of a journey for Symphony X, 2007 saw them coming back with Paradise Lost, which set a much darker and simpler tone to their music. Unfortunately, like most music of this sort, atmosphere is only skin deep, and the meat and core of the music continued to consist of disguised syncopations, clever groovy riffs with little thematic potential. The album was supported by a 3D music video vaguely illustrating the concept on which the album was supposed to be based. This mildly succeeded in attracting the superficially-minded who did not consider this to be on par with the graphics displayed in their Playstation games, and in pissing off serious art aficionados who cringed at the Hollywoodization of the classic story.
Symphony X took another four years to release their next album, Iconoclast, a massive oeuvre that could not be contained in one compact disc and had the audience yawning after 3 or 4 songs. By this time, it was fairly obvious that the band was beating a dead horse. The band wasn’t heading in any direction, nor was it keeping up in content — it was just a rehashing of riffs around whatever lyrics they came up with. The dumbed-down approach of the new era was prevalent but there was a deliberate intention of concealing it under longer songs and slower developments in tracks not intended for radio airtime.
Underworld in 2015 is the very reflection of an artistically defunct band. As butter scraped over too much bread, only a mere wraith of what the soul-infused band used to be remains. A collection of band cliches accumulated over the year rears its head in different postures and attitudes throughout the album while rather miscellaneous expressions form bridges between Romeo axe winks and Allen’s one-shoulder-shrugging, lip-biting, sensual diva outbursts. Taking the album for what it is (a professional metal pop collection of cool moments put together by very talented musicians) instead of for what it isn’t (an artistic achievement), Underworld shines bright in its hard rock firmly grounded in African American voices. Michael Romeo flashes solos that are worthy of mention in any guitar forum and have a well-earned place in the technical etudes of any student of the metal instrument.
The potpourri character of this album in combination with the adroit aloofness of the songwriting seems to indicate a secretive acknowledgement that the band knows this is the end of the road. The song titles and song lyrics towards the end of the album seem to reinforce this theory. After a relatively successful pop metal career and a couple of bill-paying, drowning-man albums towards the end, this seems like the appropriate place to retire with some dignity left.
Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree recently conducted an interview with Metal Wani. In the linked second part, he suggested an aesthetic reason for the backlash against the swarm of “progressive” metal acts – according to him, there are too many progressive metal bands that are overusing the “metal guitar sound”, to the point that such loses its impact. In the mean time, Wilson is trying to explore dark and melancholic themes outside of metal, most notably in his collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt in Storm Corrosion. This is obviously a different perspective than our usual narrative here at DMU – if you ask us, your pseudo-progressive band failed not because metal guitar is a cliched sound (which doesn’t eliminate the possibility), but more likely because your songwriting either took the form of modern pop in disguise or incoherent nonsense.
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.