A guide to musical bridges confusing dreams and reality

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness (2010)

  Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

   Sludge without the metal? That was my first thought once I finished listening to Harvey Milk's A Small Turn of Human Kindness. The extremely slow, stop-and-start rhythms are here, as are the loud, sustained vocals. But there's no heaviness, no brutality. It sounds like a metal record that has just undergone a catastrophically botched appendix removal.
   Musically, A Small Turn of Human Kindness is unlike anything I've heard recently. The melodies are all played on extremely thin guitars with almost no bottom end and don't even really sound like melodies, closer to major scales with a few wrong notes most of the time. The drums are standard sludge faire - very low tempos and half time drops everywhere. The vocals are a strange mix of mere shouting, lots of sustain and a minimal effort to to follow the melodies. Its pretty similar to early SWANS stuff but more shout-y and less Tibetan monk. The bass is barely audible and follows the melodies almost exactly. There are plenty of bass drops and stop-start sections as well. Most of the play time, this record is sludge metal at its most codexical, but there is something missing: it sounds as if the entire midsection of the band has been cut out, like there is a track or 2 missing. In the latter 2 tracks some synths and pianos are used to greatly confusing and novel effect, as well.
   In terms of production, A Small Turn of Human Kindness is well done on almost all fronts. Everything is audible and the drum kit has a special sense of room that makes it stand out as more "live" than the rest of the band. Every note the guitar and bass play are distinguishable, but they have absolutely NO BALLS until the disc's last 2 tracks. There are some really awesomely heavy riffs and rhythms happening thru this record but they don't come off as such because they have no low end whatsoever for most of the record.
   I will be blunt about originality: I'm sure I have never heard a record like this, but I'm confused about whether that is a good thing. It would be a great thing if it were given the balls it deserves production-wise. Like most of the stuff I review on this site, its not at all for the mainstream metal listener; this is a record that will probably confuse you at first, and if not you will be bored right out of your skull. It will be right up your alley if you are mainly into heavily experimental metal (ie. Sunn O))), Dillinger Escape) because it takes many big leaps in terms of instrumentation and despite the misjudgements in envelope, its really innovative and sticks together as a record in its own weird, depressing way if you are willing to take it in as a whole.

Production - 6
Composition - 7
Originality - 9 
Overall 7.33

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Celeste - Morte(s) Nee(s)

Celeste - Morte(s) Nee(s) (2010)

   Celeste is a 4-member French black metal/doom act currently on Denovali records. They have released 1 EP and 3 full-lengths, of which Morte(s) Nee(s) is the latest.
One of the first things I noticed about Morte(s) Nee(s) was the vocal effort. The band's singer has a really unique sounding technique; its a blend of black metal and hardcore but the drive lies in a lower part of his voice so that it approaches a more punk oriented sound, and the tiny hint of a french accent add up to a genuinely interesting performance. They're also mixed well enough to where I can hear some of the french lyrics from the titles (although I don't speak french xD). Unfortunately, there is little more than tremolo-picked atonal and minor key melodies sparsely separated by death metal breakdowns as far as the rest of the act is concerned. The formula repeats on most of the tracks with little to no variation. There is some sense of build and release within each track but little to none over the album as a whole. An exception is the menacing doom track "(S)", which features some terrifying samples and a sludgy rhythm and sub-bass that provides a nice break from the blastbeats found within most of the rest of the album.It leads into a slight downshift in tempo and agro on the second half of the disc, culminating in a plodding, slow end on the last track, but it isn't enough to justify classifying it as a true doom album.
   Its clear from the outset that Morte(s) Nee(s) aspires to a black metal production aesthetic. The focus here is on heaviness rather than brutality, so the guitar and bass overlap a great deal. The kick drum cuts through nicely but the rest of the kit does a similar wall-of-sound act with the bass and melodies. Even the vocals fade into the rest of the band on the decay, in true black metal style. Once again, however, the black metal elements are a catch-22; most of the time the meat of the guitars sound thin and distant and the highs blend with the cymbals to create sort of a "white-out" effect that might be just the ticket if you really, really love black metal (on an aesthetic level) but can get pretty annoying upon listening to the disc all the way through. Its different from a Swedish-basement borne black metal cut because it has a definite professional  "sheen"; it sounds as if in mastering the standard technique of applying a little boost to the upper-upper range (14-20K) was used, and in my humble opinion, tasteful mastering shouldn't be a part of black metal lest we get results like this. In general the effect doesn't mask the melodies and rhythms, so everything is still hearable. On a more positive note, the vocals are always at home and sit perfectly well inside the dark roar of the rest of the band.
   Morte(s) Nee(s) is an interesting specimen originality wise. The album is a combination of some really original elements (the vocal style, the "pro-black metal" production) and some questionably executed canonical ones. (mostly in composition). It passes the litmus test of "I haven't heard anything that sounds extremely similar" but the elements that give it originality can be somewhat niche based. I would recommend this disc to anyone who has a fondness for both black and doom metal (could you call it "blackened doom"? who cares.) as it does do transitions between elements of both rather seamlessly. I would avoid it if all you listen to is OG black or death stuff, of if you decidedly dislike the blacker forms of heavy music.

Production - 6
Composition - 7
Originality - 7.5
Overall 6.83

Monday, October 25, 2010

No review today...

Sorry guys, but Ive been busy with some VST stuff recently so I don't have the time  to get a decent review posted (I mean I could write a garbage one real fast and put it up LOL but nobody wants that) so here are some YouTube vids of older stuff you probably haven't heard, and if you have you're awesome and you should listen again.

The next 2 albums Ill be reviewing are Harvey Milk's A Small Turn of Human Kindness and Celeste's Morte(s) Nee(s). Stay tuned!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: Rosetta - A Determinism Of Morality (2010)

Rosetta - A Determinism of Morality (2010)

Rosetta is a quintessential post metal band from Philly, formed in 2003. The majority of their music deals thematically with humanity's relationship to the otherworldly, as Rosetta's members all have a vested interest in astronomy. To date they have released 1 demo, 2 splits (with Balboa, Year of No Light and East of the Wall) and 3 full lengths, of which A Determinism of Morality is the most recent, released May this year.
   A Determinism of Morality makes no pretense about new directions, but contains significant improvements on existing characteristics. All the familiar elements of Rosetta are here - post rock style guitar interludes, sustained hardcore vocals and a razor edge balance between pentatonic and minor key progressions and melodies that give this band their unique sense of the epic. As a matter of fact, this penchant goes even further here, in an even grander sense of build (ie. "Blue Day For Croatia"). Vocals are also much more formidable this time around; they are much closer to center stage. Now that they are easily heard in detail, its apparent that Michael Armine has a superior vocal technique for this style, as the vocal track really slices through the mix and has all the right frequencies.
   Production on A Determinism of Morality is nothing to gush over, but fully adequate. There is a nice sense of space through most of the tracks but one cant help feel that the bands style demands a bit more, well, space. Instead of conveying the otherworldly ambiance of Wake/Lift, this album often uses slightly out of place sounding reverbs and delays to highlight different parts of the tracks. As usual, being someone who works with pro audio, I'm just nitpicking and it wont come anywhere near ruining the listening experience. The rhythm section on this disc is especially well mixed, with the bass, snare and kick cutting through the dense atmospherics like butter. Lastly, it sounds like a cliche and something I say about every album I review, but Rosetta's drummer (Bruce McMurtrie Jr.) is top notch, especially on the opening track; the tom work is exquisite.
   I couldn't be justified in giving a ton of originality points to A Determinism of Morality as it is mainly improvement on existing elements. However, theres no doubt that Rosetta has its own sound that sets them apart and any improvement therein is certainly welcome. Overall, this is a disc that will please just about anyone who likes heavy music. Its just conceptual and atmospheric enough to shimmer and glisten without sounding cheesy, and the excellent vocals and rhythm breakdowns will satisfy anyone who just wants to headbang.

Production - 8
Composition - 8.5
Originality - 7.5
Overall - 8.0

Thursday, October 21, 2010

   Om - Live Conference (2009)

   Let me start off this review by saying that if you have never heard Om, this is not the album for you to go out and buy. Om has released 4 studio albums and 3 split/singles, so go for one (any) of those first if this review sparks your curiosity. The reason for this caveat is that this band is one of the most original forces to emerge in the metal universe in quite some time. consisting of Al Cisneros (of Sleep) on bass and vocals and Emil Amos (Grails) on drums, this band blends monotonic, Tibetan-chant style vocals with half time drum and bass rhythms that border on religiosity because of the heaviness therein. Seriously, they're amazing and deserve to be heard at their best.
   While I am not implying that Live Conference (named so because it is a live rendition of their studio album Conference of the Birds) doesn't deserve to be heard, it will give you a very skewed perspective on the act if its all you've ever heard from them. Conference of the Birds is executed with such devoted regularity in rhythm that it very well cause you to get a little closer to escaping samsara if you listen to it enough. And so it goes with all of Om's studio releases; very long, very meditative reflections an all sorts of eastern-religion themed concepts, and all without the use of pronouns. Live Conference is not played this way, and its apparent from even the first few notes of "Flight of the Eagle", the first of 2 tracks. The song is has a much higher tempo than the album version, and than Om's other live release (Live at Jerusalem). Cisneros takes the relatively simple rhythm parts from the original song and absolutely goes insane with them. Theres a great deal of improvisation and it strays pretty far from the studio ideal most of the time. It isn't that its badly executed; its well above and beyond the technicality you will hear from most bassists with record deals. What makes it so unnerving is that its almost the diametric opposite of the aesthetic of the studio version of Conference. All that said, it still rocks really fucking hard.
   "At Giza" (track 2/2), in this reviewer's, opinion, actually manages to improve on the original. Where the studio version had a good sense of dynamics and tension, the live one amplifies these senses five fold. The newly introduced changes in tempo between sections go very far toward reinforcing the mystical and mysterious atmosphere of the song, and the extra sense of dynamics from a live recording (where there isn't a fuckload of multiband compression piled on) fit the song extremely well.
   The production quality of this live recording is very good. Listening on my M-Audio monitors I could hear even the ambiance of the crowd and room in extreme clarity, and Cisneros manages to get his bass to sound more or less the way it does on the studio version of Conference. At times the drumming has a bit of a strange dynamic insofar as the volume individual hits can vary pretty widely, but none of them are obnoxiously loud or too soft to hear clearly.
   All in all, this is a record for pre-existing Om fans, and not even all of those. If you are shallow enough to be afraid that your view of the band will be permanently altered by this record in light of the changes I mentioned, stay away from it. If you have never heard Om before, stay away from it. If neither of those apply to you, its a pretty enjoyable listen that offers an new perspective on a monumental studio album.

Production - 9
Composition - 7
Originality - 7
Overall - 7.6

NOTE: YouTube doesn't have anything straight from the Live Conference album so here's a different, more true-to-the-original performance instead

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thou - Summit (2010)

   Thou is a downtempo metal act that blends elements of doom, post and sludge metal, with predominately black metal vocals. Formed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2005, they have released 2 demos, 8 splits, 5 EPs and 3 full lengths, of which Summit is the most recent, released July 2010.
   Production on Summit is a mixed bag. On the bright side, there's a really nice, soft sense of atmosphere that begs you to get lost in it. The guitars and bass do a lot of arpeggiating, and this, coupled with the fuzzy tone used throughout the disc, makes them into a typical "wall of sound" sort of ordeal. (quite ideal for the genre Thou are working in). The drums are played and recorded with a good deal of dynamics, preventing them from becoming fatiguing to the ears. The vocals are particularly nasty for sludge/atmospheric metal - there a blend of about 3 parts black metal to one part hardcore - but they are sat extremely well in each track, and the high end is rolled off quite a bit; they never stray into irritating territory. These production elements combine to create a bit of an oxymoronic envelope - this is a sludge metal album that is actually PLEASING to the ears almost all the way through. Its a double edged sword because its so much less aggressive sounding than most recent metal you will find out there. It seems that those responsible for mastering this album made very judicious use of compression, which makes me very very happy (as someone who does a lot of recording/mixing/mastering himself) but will undoubtedly turn some metal fans off. You'll have to decide for yourself if you see it as a good thing, its much more subjective a situation than any other album I've reviewed.
Composition on Summit made me smile almost as soon as I turned the disc on. It begins with a lightly distorted pentatonic arpeggio that sets the tonal theme for the rest of the album - theory-wise, this is about the furthest thing from "death" metal you will be able to find that is still metal (aside from post-y ultra melodic stuff like Jesu). The album as a whole has a very profound and contemplative aesthetic that shows through in all elements of composition. This is nowhere more apparent than the first section of "Another World Is Inevitable" - its a major progression in 3/4 with some extended (9th i believe) chords, something you don't see often outside of jazz and more sophisticated pop, and pretty much never in metal. There are many such sections on the album. They are all very heavy in a sonic sense, but much like listening to Naja or Jesu, they will most often not sound at all negative or threatening. As I previously mentioned, the drums are executed with a similar sense of poise and control.
Summit is an incredibly original sounding album. I have never heard a more laid-back approach to metal that in the end, sounds just as heavy as anything else on the market. The fact that we have black metal vocals going over some truly profound progressions (instead of the usual "lets play whatever sounds most atonal" approach found in black and death metal) is enough to make any metalhead take notice. This coupled with the unique production style (which I count as a positive) separates Summit from the rest of the post-metal crowd in more than a few ways.
This is not an album to get yourself psyched up to go to the gym by, or to cathartically listen to when you get dumped by your bitch of an ex. This is a disc you will need to actively listen to and sort through to truly enjoy it. That said, its an absolute feast for fans of bands like Mouth of the Architect, Nadja and Neurosis - musicians who make an effort to sound dense and original enough to warrant repeated listens. If you are looking for something to mosh and bang your head against the wall to, go to one of my other reviews and pass this up. If you're looking for something truly original that will keep you occupied, and your listening attention span doesn't require blastbeats and shredding, you will love this album.

Production - 7.5
Composition - 8.5
Originality - 10
Overall - 8.7

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Zoroaster - Matador (2010)

Zoroaster - Matador (2010)

   Zoroaster is a doom/sludge metal band formed in 2003 in Atlanta, GA (USA) from the disbanded remnants of Terminal Doom Explosion. To date they have released 1 split, (with Music Hates You) 3 live discs and 4 full-lengths, of which Matador is the latest, released July this year.
   The production effort on Matador is pretty solid all around. Most of the instruments cut through when you listen for them, which is an achievement considering that some sections of the disc use a ton of reverb and delay. The drone-ier parts of the album highlight this; these passages really capture that "from the mountaintop" aesthetic that stoner music strives for ("Old World" is a prime example). There is a huge sense of space and distance here that comes across as very real and very professionally applied.
   The composition of Matador is a template of standard-faire, Sleep-esque stoner/psychedelic revelrie. Some songs very strongly echo Sleep's Holy Mountain (ie. "Ancient Ones", "Trident") in both envelope and the way they are written. They always manage to sound updated, however, and the heavier/distorted vocals in particular excell by using true metal technique, as opposed to mere shouts. There are elements of drone, punk, and black- and death-metal which surface (vocally) over the length of the disc, which is a sure sign of a very talented vocalist. Effect useage, as expected, is generally very tasteful and fits the overall sound of the disc. At times it borders on overkill, ("Firewater", "Matador") but the sharp mixing job manages to keep it from being fatuiging. As is the case in many bands in these genres, Zoroaster's drummer keeps things moving with grace and style through the whole album, and of special note is the tom work on songs like "D.N.R".
   Matador's biggest downfall is that it isnt the most original thing to be produced in this kind of music, not by a longshot. If you are a follower of heavy stoner and psychedelic music, there probably isnt anything on this disc that you havent heard an approximation of before. All the standard tennents are here: huge sonic space, mostly pentatonic, slowed down riffing, guitar solos with tons of phase and flange, and vauge themes of religion and transcendance. What sets Matador apart, however, is the sense of professionalism with which its excecuted. There is no blunter way to put it: this is a very well mixed and engineered album, an although this is an improvement over the standard, it doesn't mask the quintessence of most of the disc.
   Matador's relative lack of originality does not keep it from being a standout album. Though it might not bring you satori or invent any new genres, it knows what it is and what it needs to do, and does it very well. The disc is unlikely to satisfy those who listen mainly to the more insiduous and technical types of heavy music, as it rarely comes across as threatening or brutal . On the other hand, if you have been in wanting for some well excecuted anthems in the Sleep lineage, buy this disc, put it on and turn it all the way up; you will be glad you did.

Production - 9
Composition - 8
Originality - 6
Overall - 7.6

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