November 13, 2004

Mastodon - Leviathan

I first heard of Mastodon about a year ago, bought their impressive Remission album, but was rarely pissed off enough to really want to listen to it. Remission is the kind of incredibly angry album that makes it very easy to imagine megalithic monsters crushing everything in their path with extreme prejudice. Their earlier EP, Lifesblood, is sadly not in my posession so I can’t tell you what they evolved from, but BNR informs us that their earlier incarnation was the highly notable Lethargy.

Mastodon are:

Bill Kelliher: voice and axe
Brent Hines: axe
Troy Sanders: bass
Brann Dailor: drums

Before I proceed, I want to take a moment to talk about their presentation. Mastodon’s albums (the two I own, anyway) come with impressively thematic and powerful artwork. They are clearly interested in massive beasties, which is cool in-and-of itself, but to present the massive beasties along with ornately stylized and decorated text, always in an “old gold” color above the image, is just awesome. Nobody else is doing this kind of stupid shit—with Mastodon, the name is a signature, not a logo.

You’ll find no photos of the band within inner pages, either; just more artwork and the lyrics to the songs rendered within. You feel like you have purchased a work of art, something which might be worth $8 or $10 of whatever you actually spent, as opposed to $3.

The CD opens with “Blood and Thunder,” which starts out mid-tempo and less heavy than you would expect from the last album. After only a couple measures, the metal joins in and we hear the first lyrics, much clearer than in the last album: “I think that someone is trying to kill me/Infecting my blood and destroying my mind.” The chorus re-introduces the plod/stomp sound we know from Remission. Soon, the double-axe soloing is with us also, and leads us down a more melodic, structured path than we would expect from the old release. The melody changes again, midway between the stomp and the initial up-tempo driving sound. In terms of complexity, they have quite smashed their old record, but the listenability has actually gone up several notches. The song fades out with some excellent melodic yet heavy chords, a real headbanger finish.

“I am Ahab” moves in with a grabbing theme. The music is heavy and fast. The drummer begins to take the stage showing some of his flair. You will picture boats. Far greater usage of acoustic/melodic guitar techniques are present, but almost always layered above a heavy, driven rhythm.

“Seabeast” opens with a slower, almost introspective melody. The crooning vocals are digitized in a slight, barely noticable way. Part of Mastodon’s genius is the way they mix the vocals and guitar together so that what would normally be an oppressively dense guitar layer is actually quite soothing. The hardcore-esque vocals compliment the ascending guitar work. There is a strange harmony in everything on this album; strange chords, strange vocals, strange sounds—all a bit off, but not discordant, indeed very familiar. The music moves like the ocean.

The most openly aggressive song, and the only one which will remind of the raw ferocity of the previous album is “Island.” All guns blazing, it rushes past at high speed as a work of technical thrash, with discordant notes rhythmically propelling the song forward. Suddenly, the song changes rhythm, becoming slower and yet more urgent. Then, it is gone, dropping into the next song.

“Iron Tusk” shows the drummer adding in flourishes quite a bit to the overall mood. While the guitarists slam forward together, he rolls across the snare and bass at high speed. Mid-song, the guitarists fold together a solo that can only be described as a melody unlike any you have heard. The wonder of the sea is beholden to the artists. The solo is interrupted and becomes discordant for a short time, then returns to the original version.

“Megalodon” is definitely my favorite song on the album. With a subdued opening, a discordant theme is quickly created in solo, and then the tempo hikes up for riffing and screaming, with guitar flourishes. This is repeated for several times. Then, the ending flourish of the segment drags out and slows ever-so-slightly for several seconds while every other instrument cuts out, leaving the guitar alone in the spotlight. What was an inventive, “From Beyond” flourish resolves itself into a highly unexpected Southern rock moment, just before all the instruments return and the fastest thrash of the album ensues. Glory! The rock doesn’t stop there. This song is excellent, you will smile when you hear it.

The next song, “Naked Burn” opens with guitar reminiscent of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” but quickly gets going. Another song which makes one think of sailing. The song alternates between a sort of penitent, clinging staccato melody and the overbearing Mastodon signature, synthesizing at times into the incredibly pleasing watery sound. In the middle we get a bit of acoustic guitar above the same melody on electric guitar, and then a return to the back-and-forth.

“Aqua Dementia” opens with an acidic guitar lick above a solid riff. The vocals here are decidedly in the death category (scratchy screechy screaming), unlike most of the album which is in the hardcore category (thugy shouting). The song has an insistence about it. From nowhere, it acquires a slow stomping sound, which goes away after only a few short measures, but quickly returns, leading to a strangely sea-sick sound, before the two opposing forces synthesize, and finally a truly slow plodding sound. This alternates and grows in complexity like all the other songs on the album, fading out.

Maybe the best short description of the album is, back-and-forth between opposing elements. Whatever the two forces are, they always wind up combining and exacerbating each other before accentuating each other. You feel like you are listening to a natural system.

The true epic of the album is “Hearts Alive,” the 14 minute progressive devastator. It opens with a beautiful, strange acoustic/metallic melody that sort of ebbs and flows. If you don’t get it yet, this album is the sound of the ocean, and this song is the crucial masterpiece tying the whole thing together. Suddently, the acoustic is gone and the metal is in gear, but we’re hearing the same melody at the same pace. The melody grows into an ascending/falling pattern and we get the shouting, and the complexity comes in, but we fade back to the sound of the opening, only with vocals, and some extra acoustic flourishes. The metal grows in insistance, and the acoustic grows in beauty, to an interlude establishing the countertheme of the piece. It seems like there isn’t much going on, but each round adds something to each force in the duality, yet in a hypnotic way that makes it difficult for me to concentrate on to describe here. The vocals go from a mellower sort of narrative to a deathish screech, but not screechy enough to shatter the hypnotic air. A bit of feedback reminds us just for a second we are listening to the creation of a human band and not nature. The insistence builds and finally breaks, and the melody changes: the beginning of the fusion of the themes. The drummer creates many inventive structures, hoisting up the mood. The synthesis begins to seem to break, but the guitar work brings it back together. A new, upbeat theme seems to emerge from the chaos, unifying the themes. After being assaulted several times, another, less up-beat theme arises twice. Suddenly, the prior unifying theme re-emerges, at half speed, a very noble, grandiose sound which makes one think of bands like British Sea Power comes forward. Soloing atop the new theme commences; Dan gets the shivers, declares Mastodon greatest band of 2004. Fadeout begins with new theme, replacing the melody with each note repeated twice, at double speed (duh-duh dah-dah duh-duh …), until they finally just slam the melody and fade out.

I wipe my face.

“Joseph Merrick” is sort of the calm down before going back to work number after the money shot. It’s all accoustic, slow, introspective, mild, yet still a bit strange. There is a strange keyboard sound in the background which gives the song a sort of Pink Floydian mood that simply has to be heard to be believed.

I have just done the worst job describing an album ever.

It’s imperative that if you like music and can stand metal, you hear this album immediately. It would be wise if you didn’t like metal, to include this in a survey if you were to survey metal, to give you an idea what it can sound like. I can’t think of any other band that sounds like this.

Other people have criticized the band’s production quality. However, I think that’s bullshit because this isn’t a band trying to make a buck, they’re trying to convey an iconic image to you and they want that image to hit you in the skull. They can of course afford perfect production, but they said “fuck it: we want style.” They couldn’t have crystal production or transparently catch hooks and make you think of the sea, not the way they wanted you to think of it: primordial, raw, essential, ancient. They are trying to bring the majesty of Moby Dick to you, from out the ages, with full force. The production is not sparkling, because it would diminish the agedness.

Get this album. Get it ASAP. Ignore any further commentary from anyone about it.

Posted by FusionGyro at 03:53 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 21, 2004

Sikth: The Trees are Dead and Dried Up; Wait for Something Wild

Sikth are one of the most interesting new metal groups around. A British band, they have almost no presence in America. I am very lucky to have discovered them, mostly by accident, on They have a pretty nice website too.

Sikth’s style is best approximated as progressive hardcore, but to give them any label is to deny their impressive versatility. They have two vocalists, and alternate between clean singing and a sort of raspy yet theatrical wail, though often both vocalists participate in the latter style. The guitar work is technical and flashy, blending a high degree of melody with something few technical bands grasp: groove. Yes, Sikth make you want to shake your ass, and that’s a compliment few bands this talented really can do. Two guitarists ensure that you never want for either more rhthym or more soloing, both of which are abundant.

The opening track, “Scent of the Obscene”, begins with a bit of atmospherics a-la Mekong Delta’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” but these become a memory quickly with the introduction of a slap bass line and some reasonably advanced drumming, followed by a guitar slide. Then, the groove has you, and you immediately notice the technicality of the guitar work: high-speed notes are being played in between the riffs. I can’t emphasize enough that the speed here is quite impressive, not because it is really all that fast (though it is) but rather because everything is being played perfectly. Every note is crystal clear. It sounds crisp—a stark contrast to most hardcore, which is usually quite messy. The first vocals you hear are the raspy ones described above, but they lead into the chorus with a combination of clean and raspy vocals. About halfway through the song, the mood changes completely and we find ourselves in a mellow, bass-heavy section with ethereal guitar work while the clean vocalist croons. The intensity grows until we find ourselves back in the chorus, followed by a return to the frenetic mood of the post-introduction. Vocal interplay layered on top of the guitar work is the order of the day.

The second song opens with the higher of the raspy voices screaming “Pussyfooooooooooot!”, the name of the song, leading into grindy guitar work. The speed and intensity are a step up from the previous song. The nearest reference point for some of the vocals here seems to be System of a Down, but the comparison is a reach. Technical guitar work married with technical singing. Then a segue into a groove-enhanced section occurs with a very memorable back-and-forth “OOOGH” “AAAGH” shouting match left and right shouting match over the thumping of the guitar and bass. This is a rhythm-driven song, but the rhythm is very complex.

“Hold my Finger” opens with some guitar flourishes in the background, quickly returning to the groove-driven riffing with a brief step-up. This song has several playful rhythms and alternates between them frequently while alternating between vocal styles. It would be annoying if a lesser band had attempted a song of this complexity level, but Sikth manage to tie any amount of complexity together in a rhthymically and melodically pleasing fashion.

It is impossible to overemphasize the clarity of the elements of Sikth’s music, or in the case of the vocals, the uniqueness. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a singer quite like the singers in Sikth, with rapid-delivery, strange outbursts, theatrical pitch and silliness. I can only hope that it becomes more common in the years to come.

The fourth song is my pick of the litter: “Skies of Millenium Night.” This song stands out from the rest not for technical reasons (though the blood-curdling screams are probably the best here), but rather because more than the other songs it seems to transmit a passionate concern. Sikth can write wonderfully complex and beautiful songs with little underlying meaning, such as “Hold my Finger” which is ostensibly about the intimacy of holding someone’s finger, but in this song they manage to capture an incredible panorama of emotions. The song communicates the frustration of having so much technology and yet not managing to feed the world or reach the stars. Punctuated by screams of “Look at the sky!” it evokes the feelings of hope, frustration, fear, and dissatisfaction, while emphasizing hope. The groove is very much on, and the technicality is present in spades. A beautiful song that simply must be heard.

“Emerson Pt. 1” is a piano solo. These guys are incredibly diverse. :) It’s also short, sort of a well-placed breather between the frenetic first four songs and the other half of the album, which is more mixed.

The next track, “Peep show,” opens with mid-tempo thrash work. It quickly moves into a clean vocal croon over mellow guitar. This transitions into the guitar-heavy chorus with more crooning and wailing voices. It is probably the saddest song on the album and the least unique, but it fits in with the mixture quite well. The vocals become more desparate and scream-y as the song goes on, reaching a fever pitch near the middle just before a mellow inner section.

“Wait for Something Wild” is a mid-tempo grinder with lots of screaming and lots of showing off on the guitar. Abruptly, the mood shifts to a soft, gentle one, and just as abruptly changes to a slower pace, atmospheric guitar. The vocals shift to slower spoken word with clean vocals with intermittent bass and guitar flourishes before another shift back to the introductory theme. The song spends a good 30 seconds on miscellaneous screaming as the exit (sounds like at least 3 voices screaming randomly), which was a new one for me.

“Tupelo” is a Nick Cave cover. The band manages to do a very subtle job without imitating NC. There are plenty of guitar flourishes but the implementation is flawless.

“Can’t We All Dream?” begins with some relatively creepy organ work and a man shouting in the distance, punctuated by bass thumps. A few minutes in, some light atmospheric wailing and singing is added along with some non-standard drumming. A very mellow song with no sudden technical insanity. Some violin comes in as the distant man comes closer, singing gently with apparently female vocals in the background softly filling in. As the song comes to a close, the man in the background is now close, screaming “Can’t We All Dream?!” over and over as the guitar, drums and violin fade out. A theatrical, soft, song with a characteristically weird ending that leaves you tingling.

“Emerson Pt. 2” is another soft piano solo, this time with the sound of kids playing in the background overlayed on it very lightly. Every time I play this song I wonder if I am hearing kids outside. Ends with some beepy crap designed to confuse.

“How May I Help You?” opens frenetic, reminiscent of “Pussyfoot” though groovy as hell. Strange scales are playing in the background throughout, reminiscent of Mekong Delta’s “Music of Erich Zann” album and “Memories of Tomorrow” in particular. The groove changes repeatedly in this short piece but never manages to settle on a particular rhythm or melody. The song closes with theatrical voices interacting, a low and heavy voice and a high voice leading into more rhythm/melody randomness. This is all very pleasing to the ear, it should be emphasized.

The next piece, “(If You Weren’t So) Perfect” starts with old-school thrash transitioning to melody-play. Out of nowhere a hard groove emerges and dominates the rhythm, demanding at least an obligatory ass-shake, then departs for more melody-play, and this pattern repeats itself.

“Such the Fool” is about as close as they come to an amelodic technical hardcore song, though the melody is still present—just foreign sounding. Transitions are faster and more random in this song, with another clean vocal melodic chorus leading into a mellow section, which returns to the insanity after a moderate length of time. This is probably the most technical song on the album, showing that even after the insanity of the first half of the album, Sikth can turn it up a notch.

The final track, “When Will the Forest Speak?” is a spoken word piece with no instruments other than some slight vocal modification. You have to hear it to believe it.

Sikth are incredibly talented. I hope that someone here decides to purchase this album or come over to my place to hear it or something, based on this review. The complexity would be really daunting if melody and groove weren’t their other mottos. I love the vocalizations and the complexity there, a contrast to most other technical outfits that limit themselves to death or hardcore shouts, or even traditional singing. The complexity of their vocals are enough to merit them a place in the annals of metal history, but they are also bearers of two masters of guitar. The rhythm section ensures that just about every song on the album is danceable, or as close to it as we can come in the metal genre. Truly I can think of no other band in 2003 or 2004 who has done as much to propel us into the future.

Posted by FusionGyro at 05:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 13, 2004

Mekong Delta - Kaleidoscope

Many bands have been involved with or associated with the progressive metal subgenre over the years, but few have managed to retain a detached awesome-yet-little-to-speak-of status. Mekong Delta are highly referenced, yet few have heard them and I assure you that this has nothing to do with difficulty in acquiring the music, all of which is still quite in print. No, somewhere along the way, progressive metal’s Watchtower and Mekong Delta get forgotten and passed over by fans interested in something of lighter fare: Dream Theater and Fates Warning are not thought of as axe-wielding bands in the same sense as your standard thrash and power metal artists are. This inaccuracy comes to the surface to a large degree with Mekong Delta, who are best described as a high-speed, high-intensity thrash band with a classical fixation. They turned it up to eleven in every sense. I hope for a day when they are appreciated for the masters that they truly are.

Mekong Delta are/were:
Doug Lee - wail
Uwe Bastrusch - axe
Ralph Hubert - slappy
Peter Haas - skins

The subject of this review, Kaleidoscope, is an album of theirs which came at a time of transition for the band. The prior albums’ songwriting consisted of a heavy thrash base, with frequent time signature changes and an overall level of complexity surpassing that of other thrash bands. The album right before Kaleidoscope, Dances of Death, is also a classic (albeit a less diverse album) and I recommend it to everyone with an enjoyment of thrash. Kaleidoscope, on the other hand, shows the band willing to take some chances: a Genesis cover (“Dance on a Volcano”), an instrumental not from a classical composer (“Dreaming”), and a general shift away from standard thrash structures and base, towards a more flexible though extremely high speed technique.

“Innocent?” opens the album with a very standard Mekong Delta thrash piece: high-energy, mad complex, wailing ghostly vocals. Lyrically the standard of writing is extremely high: “Wading through the oceans of minced dreams/While they puke some little pieces of/Surreal truth to feed the stupid crowd…” The tone of the album is set: the fall of the Western world and the selling out of the human soul.

“Sphere Eclipse” starts of as a midtempo (for Mekong Delta) bob-and-weave tune. The complexity level of the song structures goes up in this song: there are three modes, the second is a high speed and energy barn-stomper section, and the third is a low-speed introspective zone wherein we are presented with an opportunity to hear several layers of inventive solo from our man Uwe along with a tasteful bit of keyboard. A masterpiece in its own right, but winds up not being the star of the album.

“Dance on a Volcano” is a cover of a relatively awesome early Genesis prog rock piece. The performance is awesome, and very true to the original, giving a feel of the different flavors but comparable talent of Mekong Delta. In all ways better than the Death cover of Judas Priest mentioned in my previous review, but at the same time the song itself is such a departure for Mekong Delta from (essentially) a club of two or so dead white composers. It truly marks the change: this is the moment when you realize Mekong Delta transcended the ordinary, even in the category of progressive music which seems like it should not have the concept of ordinary. You are intrigued.

“Dreaming” is very much the bright classical piece you never expected to hear from Mekong Delta. It is also an excellent prelude to the awesome things which are to come from the band: the next album, Visions Fugitive, contains a several track middle section entitled “Suite for Group and Orchestra” which recalls this piece quite well. The final release, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a complete implementation of Mussorgski’s suite of the same name (with and without orchestra, on one disc). Not as nice as “Voice of the Soul” but also not as bittersweet, a nice warm track that belongs where it is, separating the strange cover from the next two intense tracks.

“Heartbeat” is, hands down, my favorite Mekong Delta song. It opens with a few industrial-sounding crunches, followed by a throbbing mechanical sound, overlayed with inventive classical bass from Lord Hubert. Then the track collapses and the metal rages outward. Lyrical except:

“In the shadow of our industry
we constructed all these big machines
symbolizing what we want to be
superpowers of insanity
Accepting all of this bureaucracy
content to be another wannabe
obscured by all of this complexity
consumed as fuel for even bigger dreams
[cut]…and the endless sound of moving parts
replaced the rhythm of their strained hearts”

This is about the feistiest I can recall them ever being, biting social commentary on top of driven, technical riffing. You want to sing along, and you love the words. Every line in this song speaks to me. You consider finding out where Doug lives to go give him a hug.

“Shadow Walker” is the rip-roaring “oh-yeah?” response to “Heartbeat.” It’s nastier, darker, less groovy and more head-bangy. It wins the award for most frustrating sing-along, but the lyrics are also on display and work extremely well with the music: “Out of the dark - I will dive into the light/I will - gonna rise up from the crowd/I will - be a star in TV land/That’s right - be a hero for a day” Straight up barnstorming awesome headbangin’ glory. One, maybe two modes.

“Sabre Dance” - Khachaturian’s well-known classical piece. You’re exhausted by now and this really isn’t helping. They are still Mekong Delta, so true to form, you don’t get off easy.

“Misunderstanding” is the final moment of glory on this album of absolute madness. When I first got the CD I liked “Heartbeat” and that was about it. Then I started to like “Shadow Walker.” A few weeks later, I got this tune in my head and I couldn’t recognize it—it turned out to be Misunderstanding. This is a hook-laden prog-thrash festival. Uwe’s wailing axe action on top of some highly addictive riffs sets the stage. Then, when Doug comes in, Uwe starts playing triplets for the notes instead of straight riffs. Doug alternates between low wails and high screams almost at random, creating a wonderfully strange yet sonically pleasing atmosphere. Just after this section there is a bit of buildup and some interplay with Ralph’s bass and the guitar which is very addicting. I’ve about made it to the solos which, of course, are classically influenced and interesting. The story has something to do with aliens, which I am a fan of as a song topic, so the whole song is one of my favorite Mekong Delta creations: expertly tuned and awesome in all regards.

“About Science” is a good song in a thrash vein, but I admit that thinking about it always brings to mind Watchtower’s “Control and Resistance” due to their both containing the lyrics “Controlled by confusion/Confused by control.” As a result, I consider it at least partially a tribute to that band and their magnum opus. A capable track in it’s own right with at least three sections, but not a particularly memorable closing entry.

Much like Death’s The Sound of Perseverence, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, and certainly Mekong Delta’s finest hour, though they have many hours and almost all of them are fine. Recommended to fans of music, thrash metal, and progressive metal, classical music also. Classical fans not intrigued here would do well to purchase Mekong Delta’s “Classics” disc which is vocal-free and just has their classical works. :) Check it out.

Posted by FusionGyro at 07:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2004

Death - The Sound of Perseverence

In following with Salem posting about a band revived after an apparent death, I am posting about the album which could be called the death of Death: the final album from the band that had created single-handedly the genre of their name, and then departed from it in search of a progressive sound. This album, historically speaking, is the last studio album due to the depressingly premature optimization of our ear-drum’s hero: Chuck Schuldiner. Death, and single-album sister band Control Denied, could be called Chuck’s solo bands, as he was the only connecting piece between any given album. He was the restless genius. But I digress…

The album we’re talking about represents the peak of the genre, and actually the peak of the subgenre Technical Death Metal, which they were the primary motivator for, but which now contains luminaries such as Arch Enemy and Theory in Practice.

“Scavenger of Human Sorrow” opens with a short but ripping drum solo, into a bit of a guitar noodle, and then straight to the crunch. It’s extremely catchy, and then we hear Chuck’s voice for the first time: death vocals, but very comprehensible, as is not the style. This song has about three different tempo/time signatures in it and several changes, yet maintains interest throughout.

“Bite the Pain” is a slow start, with an introspective guitar solo. After a little of this, we are dropped off the cliff and into the bone-crushing high-speed thrash which drives the song. As we segue back into the slower part, it becomes clear that the song is an analogy for pain and the experiences of it. I find it very relaxing to listen to, actually.

“Spirit Crusher” is probably the track that does the least for me on this album. It is a slow- to mid-paced bass-driven song, very drawn out. Another reviewer once said it was the most horrifying song in metal, which I doubt, but I can see why the reviewer would say that. Like all the other songs on this album, it has tremendous speed, tempo, and melodic changes which make it very interesting and difficult on the first listen to comprehend all of.

“Story to Tell” is probably my favorite song—it did, after all, encourage me to make the website of that name. This song is an incredibly beautiful expression of the human experience, and everybody not moved by the awe-inspiring 2 minute solo in the middle of it simply doesn’t have a soul. This solo justifies the guitar; nothing else need be made with it. This song will be played at my funeral.

“Flesh and the Power it Holds” has without a doubt the most incredibly evil, powerful sounding lyric to it, but you really have to hear it in it’s context. The song about the danger of physicality contains moments of alluring beauty and moments of extreme ugliness in stark contrast of each other. This song was my introduction to death metal.

“Voice of the Soul” is a painfully beautiful classical/electric guitar composition. A landscape of entrancing beauty.

“To Forgive is To Suffer” starts with another ripping thrash outburst, and alternates between that theme and a theme of slower introspection, taking each to the limit. A strong anti-Christian message is nice too.

“A Moment of Clarity” has some more of Chuck’s incredibly philosophical lyrics. A staccato riffs intersperse between softer drawn out sections, with a stop-and-go feel in some areas, finally leading into the chorus with a nice guitar theme on a strongly chorded background. I love this song, and the mildly restrained solo (compared to “Story to Tell”) works incredibly well.

“Painkiller” is a cover of the Judas Priest song from their album of the same name. It is totally wrong, but shows you how far Metal came in the intervening ~10 years.

Overall, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, if not the favorite. I love it and recommend it to everyone who can handle metal at all. :) Check it out.

Posted by FusionGyro at 11:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack