Thursday, 24 March 2016

Gorguts - Colored Sands (Review on Hindsight)

Fantastic cover art

I haven't had a chance to do a review on this album, even though it has been in my rotation for the last three years (around there). Also, I thought it might be better to review, or rather, discuss an album I was familiar with and to see how much better it fared over time.

The answer is that it's an amazing album, and might go down as one of my favourite albums of all time.

To start off, Gorguts is a legendary death metal band from Canada, fronted by none other than Luc Lemay, who has overseen the artistic direction of this band since its inception. The band disbanded in twice, once after the release of "Erosion Of Sanity" (when they got dropped by Roadrunner after experimenting with their sound) and again in the early noughties when their then drummer Steve MacDonald tragically committed suicide. After many years, Lemay regrouped with Colin Marston (who he initially wanted as guitarist), Kevin Hufnagel (who is Marston's bandmate in Dysrhythmia) and John motherfucking Longstreth.

The reason behind Marston is obvious to someone like me, but for the better half of you who have no idea, Marston is a multi-instrumentalist and producer and writes for tons of bands. Marston plays with technicalities at a level far beyond most technical death metal bands, and is one of the few metal producers who masters the albums at a range of DR7-9, which is still compressed, but gives the music a lot of reverb, warmth, and most importantly, space. Marston plays bass on this album, and plays the instrument with a lot of treble. Here is Marston's solo project with his 14 string Warr guitar.

Kevin Hufnagel, on the other hand, is a guitarist with a math-rock background, so he while he is capable of playing both physically and musically complex stuff, he has never really played with aggression, especially for a band like Gorguts. For the part, he listened to a lot of Morbid Angel, citing Trey Azagthoth's atonality as a huge influence on his guitar parts for Colored Sands. Here's an instrumental piece from Dysrhythmia with Hufnagel on guitar and Marston on bass.

The last piece of the puzzle is John Longstreth. Most people understand he's a good drummer, one of the best, in fact. Lemay chose him because of his performance on Dim Mak (not Origin!). Here's two songs, one from Dim Mark and one from Origin.

You might be wondering why I am bothering with each member's individual playing. but that is precisely the point I have on this album; never before have I seen a band, with all their distinct styles, gel so seamlessly on one album. It's not just one or two songs, it's the whole goddamn album! You hear Marston's bassline snaking its way to the front, then respectfully weave itself out whilst Lemay's riffage comes in, you hear Longstreth's drums tastefully accenting every little note off the interplay from all the stringed instrumentalists, you hear moments of quiet reflection with each instrument before the chaos comes in again. What is amazing is that each member is still doing his own thing, but it sounds so tight and synergistic. It's bloody intricate.

The other thing the album it's is all rounded complexity. Complex is a subjective word, some bands see it as being about polyrhythms (Meshuggah), some see it as being about moving parts within the song (Opeth), others think it's just about showing off with your instrument on your album (looking at you guys at Dream Theater). Gorguts has ALL of these in the same album. Ridiculous, tight angular sections collapse into acoustic interludes, all while under Marston's masterful sludgy atmospheric production. There's even an orchestral piece Lemay wrote in the middle of the album, that goes well with the flow of the album. It's a real orchestra too, not some half-assed midi file other bands love to use.

Another thing that amazes me is the lyrical content of the songs, and how it fits the music. The first four songs are about the peace and grandeur of Tibet, and while they are brutal, there is some otherworldly sense of serenity even amidst all the blastbeats. However, right after the orchestral interlude, the songs start to talk about everything wrong with this illusion of peace. There are liner notes for each song, with a quote either by scholars or Tibetians themselves. What's interesting to note is that Lemay makes it clear that he is pretty neutral with regards to Tibet. As the lyrical themes change to topics on immolation, Here's one quote that I liked:

"Take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I am setting myself on fire as an offering of light with hope that his Holiness the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet, that peace will prevail on earth and that Tibet will be ruled by Tibetans."
[...These were the last words of Tamding Thar on 16 June 2012] - notes for Ember's Voice

Lemay empathizes with the Tibetians for the torture they underwent during the Chinese occupation, but also says that the non-violence among them did nothing much to help their cause ('Reduced To Silence'). It's also very refreshing for someone in the metal business to focus on a non-Christian part of the world and offer a balanced view on it. Have I also mentioned that Lemay sounds fanatastic on this record?

The final thing I would like to praise is the production on this thing. It's a resounding DR9 on CD, and DR11 on vinyl. Marston does the impossible of giving the music both heaviness and speed. Despite the brutal nature of the instrumentation, the album is still pleasant on the ears. The drums, in particular, are recorded with so much reverb that it shows in the middle of 'Forgotten Arrows', when Longstreth just blasts to Lemay's extended growls. It's one of my favorite moments on this album.

In conclusion, this album has only gotten better with age. It's a stellar return to form, with an older band coming back from the dead and making an impressive mark, remaining relevant to the modern metal world. Not a lot of bands can claim the same. I am truly excited for the next Gorguts EP.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Worst To Best - All Linkin Park Albums Ranked

Those of you who knew me in lower secondary will know that I loved Linkin Park to death. Linkin Park was my first major favourite band; it was the most refreshing thing to listen to on the radio then, especially with the heavy airplay of "In The End" on the local radios. I followed down the nu-metal path, listening to Korn, Slipknot and eventually my first real metal band, Slayer. Linkin Park is in shambles today and I thought it would be fun to arrange the albums according to my own preferences. Here you go:

7. Minutes To Midnight (2007, DR6 on CD/mp3, DR9 on vinyl)

The worst LP album, Minutes completely abandons the band's signature sound from it's first three albums for a completely uninspired, derivative work with songs going all over the place in terms of style- which isn't the issue. The problem is that the songs were so poorly written and executed; "Given Up" has nothing other than a 17 second long scream which isn't even properly sustained, "Leave Out All The Rest" is one of the few hints of the band's later direction and features Chester Bennington at his most nasal (especially with the extra autotune). Mike Shinoda is barely present and when he does rap, it sounds ridiculously stale on "Bleed It Out" and "Hands Held High" (what were they even thinking when they recorded that song). "Shadow Of The Day" sounds like a U2 B-side, and that's not even a good thing. "No More Sorrow" is a joke of a song, revealing how out of touch the band was with the heavy metal community. In their older songs, the duality of Bennington's child-like vocals and his harsh screams were a huge factor in the band's success. Here, the band thinks he can handle manly, baritone choruses on top of a psuedo-metal anthem. "In Between" is another completely uncharacteristic song, with such little crescendo in the chorus that the song barely peaks and sounds like a lullaby all the way. On top of that, it's sung by Shinoda, who sounds like he hasn't slept in years. "In Pieces" is somehow even worse than its predecessor, with Bennington thinking emotions are more intensified over a simplistic, pop tune.

With so much wrong with the album, it might be easy to overlook a couple of gems. "What I've Done" stands out as one of the band's best works, I might be alone in this, but "Valentine's Day" is actually quite effective in its execution, with a quiet, intimate first half that ultimately comes out to a generic rock ballad sound at the end, but it's not a bad song. "The Little Things Gives You Away" has a decent first half, before some generic and weak guitar solo. "No Roads Left" is a good song that actually uses Shinoda's sleepy vocals well. I have no idea why it's a bonus song.

Rick Rubin is on production on this album and his characteristic overcompression is prevalent in the songs. If you can find an uncompressed version floating around somewhere it would be slightly better for your ears, though you honestly aren't missing out on a lot of details in the sound if you stick to a CD or mp3 rip.

A massive disappointment following the release of  the stand-alone single, "QWERTY", which was actually one of their best songs.

6. The Hunting Party (2014, DR5 on CD/mp3, DR14 on BrickwallHater Remaster)

The latest Linkin Park album is a complete slap in the face to older fans, who were promised a return to roots by Linkin Park, only to be presented with a poorly written, garage rock album with hideous production, tired riffs and even more whiny vocals. The band has toured with so many rock bands that they probably assume they are part of the hard rock scene, and they completely miss the point. This album is devoid of any keyboards or electronic sounds, sounds that made they first two albums edgy and refreshing from the rest of the crowd.

After overcompensating on the electronic front in the albums prior to this, it probably seems symmetrical for Linkin Park to do the same with their "rock" sound. On top of that, guests on the album sound completely out of place. Tom Morello's contribution on "Drawbar" is the biggest waste of 3 minutes in the band's entire discography. I am not even kidding.

I put this album before Minutes only because drummer Rob Bourdon seems to be putting a little effort this time, and songs like "Keys To The Kingdom" and "War" aren't bad, but otherwise I am quite indifferent to the bottom three albums on this list.

5. Living Things (2012, DR5 on CD/mp3, DR8 on vinyl)

The band's sixth album is marginally better than Minutes and The Hunting Party, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good album. This album has only gotten worse with age, as the band seems comfortable with their new semi-pop genre tag. "Burn It Down", "I'll Be Gone", "Skin To Bone" and "Until It Breaks" feature so much electronica and autotune that they actually sound the same at many points. That last song features such a strange progression that it could be mistaken for two seperate songs.

However, not all is lost. While still being poppy and full of synthetic sounds, "Lost In The Echo" and "In My Remains" are pretty decent songs because they really follow the Hybrid Theory formula, with angry rapped verses and catchy hooks in the chorus. Furthermore, the nice, piercing screams are back in "Lies Greed Misery" (a song that caught me off guard, in a good way) and "Victimized", possibly the heaviest song the band has ever done. There's even a slight country influence in "Castle Of Glass" and "Roads Untraveled". The latter isn't a good song but "Castle Of Glass" actually shows some growth in the band's musical direction, albeit a limited one.

The final song, "Powerless" features all the trademarks of a good Linkin Park song- wailing vocals, acapella in a well-built crescendo. It's not even their best effort, but it did make me think Linkin Park was off in the right direction, until they put out the piece of shit The Hunting Party.

4. Meteora (2003, DR6 on CD/mp3, DR8 on vinyl)

Meteora is a carbon copy of Hybrid Theory- well, almost. Repeating everything that make them successful isn't necessarily a bad thing, as fans would learn the hard way when they completely change their style, but the songs on Meteora sound fresh even today. On top of the basic rap-scream formula, Meteora showcases a degree of confidence by a band that shot to fame overnight, a confidence that allowed them to put out a song as retarded as "Nobody's Listening" without anyone losing their minds.

Still, every other song here is worth checking out, and have incredible staying power. Beyond the usual nu-metal fare, the band even dabbles in dance music with "Breaking The Habit", which is one of the best songs that group has ever done. "From The Inside", "Somewhere I Belong" and "Numb" have moments of tenderness and vulnerability, a very important part of the band that they seem to have forgotten as they earn their millions today. The band also seems to understand that they aren't metal, but flirt with the genre quite nicely on "Don't Stay", "Hit The Floor" and "Faint", which are upbeat but not overbearingly loud. "Figure .09" and "Lying From You" otherwise continue the traditions from the band's debut album, while "Session" is probably the only thing worthwhile written by the band's DJ, Mr Hahn.

It's a great album, with outstanding vocals, great guitar tone that really mask the incompetence of the musicians and anthemic choruses that sound just as good today as they did 12 years ago. It's the fourth best album because it doesn;t really change anything from the band's signature sound.

3. Reanimation (2002, DR7 on CD/mp3, DR11 on vinyl)

Haha, why the hell is a remix album counted as a normal album? It's one of their longest albums so I'm sure that counts. But more importantly, Reanimation is one of the few remix albums that actually really build on the original.

Sure, there are countless duds like "P5hng Me A*wy", "Plc.4 Mie Hæd" and "Wth>You" which sound almost exactly the same as the originals plus more reverb, but every other song reinterprets Hybrid Theory in really interesting ways.

"Pts. OF. Athrty" and "Enth E ND" are very rap-heavy or electronic versions of the originals, and they don't sound bad. Songs like "Frgt/10", "Ppr:Kut", "Rnw@y" and especially "My<Dsmbr" have a great degree of intimacy and, I daresay, sound a lot darker than their originals. "1Stp Klosr" and "Krwlng" sound very different from their originals, and use a lot of atmosphere to give the album a really, grand, epic ending.

2. Hybrid Theory (2000, DR5 on CD/mp3, DR10 on vinyl)

You don't need to read anything about this album. If you haven't heard this album, please educate yourself. You are probably just wondering why this album is number 2. So just scroll down.

Seriously though, if you haven't heard a single song off this album, where have you been? Every song is a classic. It's the  highest selling album of the 21st century. Seriously, why haven't you heard it?

1. A Thousand Suns (2010, DR7 on CD/mp3, DR10 on vinyl)

Now, this album isn't here simply for the sake of generating controversy, though I might already be too late to prevent that. This album is honestly the best Linkin Park album, and often overlooked because it came right after Minutes To Midnight. The band made the mistake of releasing a shortened version of "The Catalyst" as the first single, so people immediately dismissed the album. It's a pity because not only is the song good, it's also a lot better when heard in context of the album.

This album has a really good flow, and listening to the songs in chronology actually makes a lot of the songs sound better than when heard alone. It's a concept album with a post-apocalyptic setting, the only time the band has ever strayed away from their typical angsty teenager themes. There's maturity not just in the sound, but also in the lyrics. The band reinvents its own rap-rock style, not once, but thrice in "When They Come For Me", "Waiting For The End" and "Wretches & Kings", with tribal drums, reggae and gangsta rap respectively. This is the only time you will ever hear variety from Shinoda. "Burning In The Skies" actually manages to sound upbeat despite its solemn lyrics. There's fantastic screaming on "Blackout", which ends off in an unusually melodic part with great synthetic effects and harmonizing vocals from both Shinoda and Bennington. "Iridescent" could have been a Coldplay song, but I will forgive the band for playing melodramatic pop this once. "Robot Boy" is a criminally underrated song that displays Bennington at his smoothest, and album closer "The Messenger" comes as a complete shock with its simplicity, and is another highlight of Bennington's vocals. Yet, it is the single, "The Catalyst", that remains the best track of the album. With a brief intro in "Fallout", the extended version on the album shows Linkin Park in a rare angle- commanding, confident and visceral. There's a sense of urgency in the verses, and the song collapses in the second half, a great progression from the first half that feels natural and logical. It's the climax of a great, varied album.

The entire album drips with a bittersweet atmosphere (really great production by Shinoda), something that seems to have flown over the heads of both fans and critics. Most people saw a band that betrayed their older fans, but I saw a group of young men finally making mature, creative music. It's honestly a real shame that the band took the backlash to this album to heart and never came back to this style, going for a safer, radio-friendly approach these days.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

An Idiot's Guide To Becoming Half An Audiophile

If you have been here over the course of the few months, you would have noticed me harping on dynamic range; or the loudness / compression on songs. I realised that not many people understood what I was getting at on production, so I decided to do a post on production itself and I hope this helps you understand the situation.

Note: For the post, I will not be showing or using spectograms simply because I don't have the app Audacity on my laptop and am honestly too busy with other stuff to learn this and post on it. Perhaps in the future.

Loudness War- Why you should be concerned.

There it is, the loudness war. For beginners, the loudness war is a phenomenon where music producers start to over-compress music in the recording studio itself. This phenomenon was pioneered by once revered producer Rick Rubin. The bearded vegetarian behind Slayer's earlier material started overcompressing (the correct term is 'brickwall') music so that it sounds louder and more impactful to the average listener with average earphones and average listening skills. The measurement unit for this compression is dynamic range, or abbreviated as 'DR'. DR is measured on a scale of 1 to 20, where DR1 is the most compressed and DR20 is the least compressed. For example, a quiet, ambient wind sound would be DR20, and putting a metal spoon in a blender and turning it on would probably be DR4 (which is actually less compressed than some of the songs I have reviewed on this blog). Why should you be concerned? For starters, overcompressed music is bad for your ears. Do you ever hear (or feel) a sharp static noise whenever you increase the volume on your song? That is a result of poor audio practice, not just on your part, but the musicians and producers. This is the reason you cannot enjoy your music loud, and that IS a problem for certain genres, chiefly, metal. When using cheap earphones with low power ratings, your earphones tend to lack the impact that a hard hitting song should have- which is why producers have beefed up compression on their end, so that you would get that 'bass' effect on your earphones. This would have been around the 90s, where the CD started to overtake vinyls and cassettes. I will explain the compression on CDs in a while,but the gist is this: CDs have more compression than vinyls, obviously because of the differences in size of either medium. This has snowballed towards the 2000s and its effects are being seen today. Ask your parents, dig up any older songs of bands from the 70s and 80s, you will hear a very big difference in the sound. Older music is often considered 'warmer', which is the layman way of acknowledging its higher dynamic range. Don't believe me? Which of the two songs below is louder?

Of course, if you picked Justin Bieber because you know I am trying to prove a point, then you are right. Metallica's Master Of Puppets is DR13, while Bieber's Baby is DR6. That's right guys, Justin fucking Bieber is louder than the most famous heavy metal song.

This is why you should be concerned, the difference between brickwalled music and dynamic music is huge. In Metallica's MoP, you can hear the separate instruments, you can hear/feel the reverb from the bass and the drums, and it actually sounds monstrous on a proper sound system. On the other hand, Justin Bieber is hollow, cold and too dull on a pair of good earphones, though it sounds 'loud'. Especially so in heavy metal, where instrumental prowess is a prized asset to musicians, you need to hear every separate instrument. This also applies to jazz and classical music, or any genre that actually requires some intelligence.

Still not impressed? I have uploaded some high dynamic ranged songs on my Dropbox folder here, and if you have a decent pair of speakers or earphones, you can actually listen and see for yourself. Bass guitar is audible, drums sound tighter and more powerful when all the reverb is brought back and the song sounds pleasant no matter how loud you play the music. It doesn't hurt your ears.

Note: The loudness inherent in the song (compression) is not the same as the loudness on your speakers or headphones (volume). Playing the song loudly is not the same as playing a loud song.

The Details:

You will need to understand some jargon here before I move on.

DR - Dynamic range. As mentioned earlier, this is the measure of how compressed a song is.

Bitrate - This one is tricky because people who listen to MP3 pretend this decides how great the quality is. The bitrate is the amount of bits, or information, per second on the song. In other words, the level of 'detail', so to speak. The problem is that a higher bitrate doesn't necessarily entail a better sounding song, something I will show later. In any case, this term isn't as important as I thought it was.

Sample Rate - This is simply the amount of frequency you pack into the song file. For most MP3 and CD formats, the sample rate is 44.1kHz. The next increment is 48kHz, which you will probably see on higher quality lossless formats. The jump from 44.1kHz to 48kHz isn't drastic, but it does result in a better dynamic range, so it does sound better. the next level is 96kHz, which is what you commonly find on vinyls and super-audio CDs. At this frequency, it's usually at a very high dynamic range- until recently. In the past, artistes used to have separate mixes for vinyls and CDs, but nowadays, people apply the same mix to save time. This wouldn't be a problem if it were mixed for vinyl and applied to CDs, but the reverse is done. In other words, most modern day vinyls are no better than your CDs, so fuck all the hipsters out there. The last level is 192kHz, this is the frequency at which the musicians record and mix in the studio. The irony is that this technology wasn't prevalent up till the 90s, which is when overcompression started to take its initial form. Higher level vinyls still contain this sample rate.

MP3 - the most common music format. It's often called lossy. Why? Recall that the musicians record at 192kHz from the above paragraph, To form mp3, the higher and lower end of the frequencies are cut off, leaving the middle 44.1kHz of frequencies. The people who do this argue that you don't need the tail ends of the recorded frequencies. Of course, in isolation, they sound negligible. But on better earphones, you realise that this takes away a lot of the natural reverb. This is why the bass sounds non-existent, the drums sound thin, the cymbals sound dull and lifeless. That's the entire rhythm section affected. For metal, this is why your blastbeats sound like a blur. That's not what they should sound like. Yes, the main song is untouched, the vocals are still there since humans can only sing within that frequency range, but the song itself sounds like its covered in dust.

Flac - Free Lossless Audio Codec. Remember again that audio is recorded in 192kHz? For lossless music, the sound is compressed from 192kHz to 44.1 (this is the most common ones, you can still find it in 48kHz). This is the same sample rate as on mp3, BUT nothing is lost (hence the name). This leads to the problem I explained on my introduction, though - the compression. This is also why a lot of people say there is no difference between mp3 and Flac, since the only difference is the bitrate (usually around 700-1000+ on flac). I highly disagree- with better audio codecs (I use an iPod), you can actually hear a pretty big difference between the two formats. Some of the biggest jumps in audio quality occur in black metal and progressive rock, at least in personal experience. Again, with  badly produced songs and bad earphones, the average listener is not going to be able to pick up the significant changes in sound.

Recently, I have started to compare flac derived from vinyl with flac derived from CDs. There are devices that 'read' your vinyls and convert them to digital information at 192kHz, so nothing is lost. For this post, I decided to compare with Cannibal Corpse's album, Kill.

How the CD files look on my iTunes

How the vinyl files look on my iTunes

As you can see, despite having the same sample rate, the vinyl rips are FAR more dynamic in the dynamic range. I usually keep my files at 44.1kHz, because one album at 192kHz can be around 2GB, and I don't have the luxury of that much space on my laptop. Regardless, the vinyl derived music is a lot clearer, despite sounding softer. The songs sound warm and clear despite... well, despite it being death metal. That isn't to say it sounds a lot less impactful- the reverse is true. The bass drums pound harder than ever and you can actually hear the tightness of the strings, be it guitars or bass, in the music. In other words, it sounds like the music has been dusted; thicker bass, tighter drums and piercing symbols and guitar solos. The payoffs to good audio practices are tremendous.

I might talk about the process of converting these files, and my own audio equipment in another post.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Ghost - Meliora Review

Ghost - Meliora [Occult Rock]

Ghost have returned with their third album. Having followed them since their debut Opus Eponymous, I'm happy to say that this third album is a great mix of the more metal-tinged debut and their ABBA-influenced sophomore record, Infestissumam. In fact, I will go on a limp and say that this is the best album from Ghost yet.

Getting production out of the way first, the sound is overly compressed as usual, but the mix is actually pretty good. Bass is super thick and punchy, synth is subtle and layered without being too overly cheesy (as was in Infestissumam), the drums are actually pretty loud and thunderous without being too overly aggressive. The band is still incredibly accessible, this is metal / rock that even the radio-listening layman would find himself humming along too.

There is almost no bad song on the album. Some tracks do feel weak, especially when coming up after relatively stronger tracks like "He Is" and "Absolution", but this is subjective since my favourite tracks on this album seems to differ greatly from what the fans seem to love. The track "Mummy Dust" for example, is commonly cited as one of the best songs on the album, along with closer "Deus In Absentia". However I found the preceding tracks, "He Is" and "Absolution" to be the better tracks on this album. There isn't much to break down here, because Ghost's biggest draw is their simplicity. True, the costumes and theatrics are the gimmicks that draw people to their music in the first place. but their songs are truly no-bullshit anthems. Thumpy bass, gigantic choruses with great hooks on the aforementioned two tracks and many more; "From The Pinnacle To The Pit", "Cirice" and "Majesty" contain great sing-along choruses. The album has two short instrumentals, "Spoksonat" and "Devil Church". These two instrumentals aren't filler at all, and actually do create some depth and atmosphere for their succeeding tracks.

I want to draw further attention to the track "He Is". The acoustic guitars and piano aren't exactly new additions to the band's arsenal, but the song is quite possibly the best song on the album. It's a passionately written hymn to Dīs Pater, the Roman God of the underworld (more than likely an allusion to Lucifer). It's similar to the track "Monstrance Clock" off Infestissumam, it's tender and deeply melodic, and parodies Christian gospel songs. What makes Ghost different from the other metal bands is their earnestness in these odes, without trying to mock Christians. This sort of genuine adoration for Luciferianism has been missing from the scene, with most bands interpreting Luciferianism as a direct confrontation of Christianity. I was personally blown away by the track, there is nothing technical in the instruments or the writing. It's just a love letter to Lucifer, and that's why I have always found this band refreshing.

That's rare, a widely hyped band releasing a widely hyped album that actually lives up. Hail Satan.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Monday, 27 July 2015

Napalm Death - Apex Predator - Easy Meat Review

Napalm Death - Apex Predator - Easy Meat [Grindcore / Death Metal]

That's an idiotic album title.

Napalm Death's last three albums have been remarkably relevant to metal, no easy feat when you consider the fact that Napalm Death is pretty much still one of the best bands of the genre it helped to create. This album continues in that route; well-crafted deathgrind from veterans who have mastered the art of songwriting.

The one unexpected thing about this album is just how much of a riff-fest it is. Napalm Death has never been that band with the best riffs, but guitarist Mitch Harris is on fire on this album. More than half the songs have memorable riffs that really stick in your head.

A track by track analysis, you may one to take a shot every time I mention how good the riff is:

  1. Apex Predator - Easy Meat - It's an interesting way to start your album, with tribal drums and some really strange, layered vocals,... Could have been a little shorter.
  2. Smash A Single Digit - The first minute's standard Napalm Death, but the riff in the last 26 seconds is so fucking good
  3. Metaphorically Screw You - You see this is what I like about these guys, they really don't waste any part of the song for some filler verse. The song stays at a steady tempo and then goes on to this really groovy syncopated part; "Triple, triple, triple triple speak, triple triple triple triple triple triple speak!". I've been singing that in my head so many times these last few months.
  4. How The Years Condemn - Again, the main riff here is really catchy, and the chorus tend to the more melodic side.
  5. Stubborn Stains - Another riff fest. Every subsequent builds on the previous riff and the song progresses so nicely. Another thing to note; the riff on the breakdown.
  6. Timeless Flogging - Lol, try getting the introductory riff out of your head for this one.
  7. Dear Slum Landlord - Things get a little weird when Napalm Death slows down because Barney isn't the most gifted singer, but thankfully the song is pretty short.
  8. Cesspits - This is another one with a fantastic riff. The song is relatively sludgy, but not as weird as the previous song. Mitch Harris' backing vocals are sparse but really complement Barney's low-pitched growls well, though this has been part of Napalm Death's sound for quite a while already. Newer bands, this is how often you should compliment your death growls with high pitched screams, not all the fucking time. Also: goddamit that riff at the breakdown!
  9. Bloodless Coup - Ok, this one is an average song.
  10. Beyond The Pale - Riffs in the middle and at the end. Yes.
  11. Stunt Your Growth - Main riff is an absolute scorcher and the song itself is really enjoyable.
  12. Hierarchies - Slower and strangely melodic at the chorus.
  13. Caste The Waste - Another strange. slow. sludgy song.
  14. One-Eyed - Wellllll, that riff in the breakdown.
  15. What Is Past Is Prologue - Fantastic riffage again.
  16. Oh So Pseudo - Song's pretty average but really good breakdown.
  17. Adversarial / Copulating Snakes - This one is a really good song. The verse are in the question and answer format which make them kinda groovy, while the chorus is just Mitch Harris screaming "ADVERSARIAL!". The second half isn't as exciting, but seems to be focusing and ominous atmosphere.
  18. Paracide - It's a cover and it's fun. Haven't heard of the original band, Gepøpel.

So it wouldn't be a surprise that I like this album a lot, though it could do with a few more tweaks.

The audio production is standard overcompressed shit at DR5, but the clarity of the instruments is still decipherable, though this might be because there's only one guitarist.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Cradle Of Filth - Hammer Of The Witches; A Personal Review

Cradle Of Filth - Hammer Of The Witches [Goth Metal / Black Metal]

My feelings for Cradle of Filth are all over the place. My first exposure to the band was very early in my metal listening experience, coming in right after Slayer and Slipknot (do not judge my gateway to metal). I listened to Midian first, then Cruelty and finally Dusk and Vempires. Even though I had access to most of their Paul Allender era, I never cared much for the band's ex guitarist's contributions to the band. His best album with them was Midian. Hell, I even awarded their last album one out of five stars right here on this blog. Most of their albums in the last decade had at most one or two listenable songs, and even those couldn't hold a candle to their weakest tracks on their 90s albums.

Cradle Of Filth were once scheduled to perform right here in Singapore, and my friends Shiva and Ananth shared the price of one ticket for me as a birthday present (eh, thanks a lot guys!). I was still reluctant, as Dani Filth's vocals had declined tremendously over time, and the band would most probably stick to their newer songs. Imagine the shock when the gig was cancelled just days before they landed, as the suits at the venue (St. James Power Station) revoked their permission to play. The people who set up the gig could not find a suitable venue. In the end, all we were allowed to do was a small meet and greet with the band. I took a photo with the man who inspired my love for English poetry (I am not even kidding).

It was at this pivotal moment that I was compelled to go back to my roots in metal, to search the band's older songs and listen to them once more with better earphones, and to relive my youth with songs like "Funeral In Carpathia", "Bathory Aria" and "Queen Of Winter, Throned". These songs, are to this day, examples of how cathartic and majestic black metal can be when executed with passion and sharp songwriting. The twin guitar harmonics were glorious, the bass was tight and angular, the vocals were vehement and the lyrics are unrivaled even today.

The good news? Cradle Of Filth have definitely come one step back towards their prime. When guitarist Paul Allender left, Marek Šmerda and Rich Shaw stepped up to fill his position- yes, the twin guitar melodies are back. Together with new bassist Daniel Firth and Linday Schoolcraft, this is the debut for majority of the band as Cradle Of Filth. The drums are more or less serviceable, and Dani sounds a little more invigorated. Again, Dani Filth is Cradle of Filth. He shepherds the band with lyrical themes and songwriting approaches, as revealed by Schoolcraft in the band's behind the scenes video. If you never liked his vocals, you never will. His vocals are the litmus test on whether you will like this band or not.

Onto the album, sound production isn't particularly spectacular. I much prefer the band's spacey, lo-fi approach on their heyday. It isn't especially bad, it's the normal mastering and compression that is applied to most bands today. The songs are around DR6 or DR7, save for the instrumentals. The mix is standard Cradle of Filth, with vocals in the forefront. The balance between guitars, keyboards and synthetic orchestra (there are times where it works and times where it doesn't). Drums are pretty loud on this album.

As for the songs, oh boy. This is without a doubt Cradle's best album in a decade. No, it isn't better than Midian, the album that started their downfall, but it is very comparable. The songs are written in the style of Dusk... And Her Embrace, though not as perfect and with over-compressed production. The album's lowest moments are on tracks "Enshrined Crematoria" and "Blackest Magick In Practice", but even these songs aren't as bad as their last couple of albums. I usually do not bother with the segue instrumental songs like "Walpurgis Eve", "The Monstrous Sabbat (Summoning The Coven)" and "Blooding The Hounds Of Hell". As to why Cradle continues with these pointless instruments, only Dani knows.

The album's 'average' songs are the title track, "The Vampyre At My Side" and "Onward Christian Soldiers". These songs are have numerous enjoyable moments, but are marred by meandering song writing, and could be improved significantly with tighter structure, weeding out unnecessary verses. Dani tends to place his vocals on too many portions of the songs, and should practise a little more restraint.

The remaining songs are fantastic. "Your Immortality" is the first song and shows off the twin guitar harmony to maximum effect. Guitarists Marek Šmerda and Rich Shaw have excellent chemistry with one another. As mentioned, the guitars really hark back to the old days. "Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych" is the first single of the album and shows off the band's excellent use of atmosphere and tight song structures. Schoolcraft contributes a lot to this song, with memorable keyboard melodies and backing vocals that contrast nicely with Dani (though noone can replace Sarah Jezebel Deva). "Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess" is one of the band's strongest tracks in their catalogue, which is really saying something. Tackling the unusual topic of environmental protection, the song shows Cradle in their finest, with great riffs, keyboards and a fantastic bridge. This is the Cradle of Filth I grew up with.

The two bonus songs.... why are they bonus again? "King Of The Woods" is one of my favourite songs off the record, starting off with some psychedelic effects and moving on to its main violin (or synth? Sounds off, but perfect) melody. It's very reminiscent of "Cradle To Enslave" and boasts one of the catchier choruses in the album."Misericord" is definitely a B-side though. Slower paced with sparse interesting moments (is that a sitar somewhere near the end?). This one sounds like one of the better songs off Nymphetamine. These two songs do exhibit some great basslines by Daniel Firth, who is no slouch on his instrument. Shame that the mix doesn't flesh him out as well as his fellow members.

All in all, I am very pleased with this record. This isn't going to replace any of the 90s records, but goddammit am I glad that Cradle of Filth is back from the grave.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Arcturus - Arcturian Review

Arcturus - Arcturian [Avant-Garde Metal/ Progressive Rock]

Amazing artwork

This is the first full album I've heard from this guys. Arcturus has been in my consciousness for a long time due to its stellar roster of members (namely I.C.S Vortex and Hellhammer in this current line-up). I remember trying to listen to one of their albums when Garm was still on vocals and remember being turned off by how odd they sounded. So I walked into this album expecting an equally weird album and am pleasantly surprised by how much I love it, hell, it might even go on to become one of my favourite releases of the year.

My files were downscaled to 16/44.1 from a set of 24/96 flac files, so for some reason my copies of the songs are a hell lot more dynamic than the CD master going around. The latter averages at DR7 while mine registers at around DR11 per song. Could be an error on my part (and would warmly welcome anyone to correct me in our cbox if my procedure was wrong) but in any case, the mastering and mixing of the album is fantastic. I still do not enjoy Hellhammer's hollow, triggered drums, but his drumming is very well portrayed by the mix because his speed is not compromised. There is some reverb in the drumming so you hear the force of his drumming. The orchestral elements are very well mixed too, sharp and atmospheric but never overtaking the guitars and bass. The band combines elements of symphony, electronics, long heartfelt guitar solos and extremely fast drumming without half assing any of the components; no laughing matter at all.

In terms of songwriting, the album is all over the place. There are some very by-the-numbers rock songs. Not exactly straight forward, but immediately accessible nonetheless (stuff like 'Crashland'). For me however, the album excels immensely when it rides out to strange song structures and instruments. Opener 'The Arcturian Sign' is one such example, with the insane double pedal that accentuates the tense moments of an otherwise operatic song. Another example is the Eastern influences on the heartfelt 'The Journey', or the Krautrock inspired keyboards on 'Warp'. Strange and left field, but well integrated without being too jarring. The songs are inconsistent tho, and I didn't like a few tracks, but then again, judging by most reviews online, the songs I preferred aren't well-liked by the majority either. Yes, it's a weird album, and this is where its strength also becomes its weakness.

In terms of vocals, I.C.S Vortex is still going to be a hard act for many to swallow. He has his strengths, but he sounds very limitted and forced in many of the songs. As I have said before, I am not a fan of perfect, polished vocals, so this doesn't bother me one bit. He conveys emotions, be it deranged, unhinged or even in the meditative 'The Jouney' (my favourite takeaway from this album if you haven't realised). The other instruments are really good, hard to judge on a technical level because that isn't the point of this band.

I am leaning in very favourably on this album, and this surprises me too.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5