Sunday, 30 October 2016

Warning - Watching from a Distance (2006)

It feels like I've been meaning to listen to Warning forever; and upon doing so, some of their music entered my sleepless four-in-the-morning listening cycle in a way that suggests I should have started listening to them forever ago. In many ways, the music of Warning is very much akin to the doom metal which I first discovered, years ago, thriving on the melancholic and subdued leanings of works such as Solstice' underrated first album. It comes as no surprise that the two bands; Warning and Solstice, have toured together in the past. Of the two Warning records, I have chosen "Watching from a Distance", the band's final and better-known record, to discuss - although I have every intention of listening more fully to the others too, and the work of their successor, 40 Watt Sun, likewise.

To call "Watching from a Distance" a classic might be contentious to some, although the record has retained plentiful acclaim and recognition in the ten years since its release. As first impressions go, it can often be considered a mark of quality, to some extent, when the relative recency of an album's release comes as a surprise. I had the album down, subconsciously, as being from some time in the nineties, until I investigated further. Regardless, the record is one of quite a reputation; primarily for being thoroughly and unfathomably miserable - and that, indeed, it certainly is. Akin to its burden-carrying aesthetic representation in the artwork, the album is drenched in a cold, miasmic fuzz, moody and gloomy without being so frigid as to scathe - rather, it cocoons. The riffs plod forth, funereal and downtrodden, the drums restrained; echoing. While no single aspect of the album can be said to bear the majority of its merit above the others in their synergy, it is safe to say that for a lot of people, the vocals probably strike the greatest chord. Further redoubling the sorrow with which the entire record is replete, Patrick Walker's vocals are immediately distinct. The inconsolable wail carries a sincerity and theatrical cadence reminiscent of the most tragic of folk-music; the ballads of disasters, heartbreak and misery - and here too are they such; soaring and cathartic and yet steeped fully in despair and introspective sorrow; raw, tender and laden with feeling, at times more-so than elegance.

In its coalescence, the soundscape of the record is a large place indeed; communicating intimate sorrows whilst emphasising isolation and loneliness through this vastness. Of course, plenty of doom bands succeed in doing such; but Warning does possess its own flavour, more than sufficient to set it apart. On paper, the record offers forth just about everything one could hope for from tear-stained and tragic doom-metal. Ultimately, it is the intimacy of these sorrows, however, which make the music challenging, or more bluntly, simply difficult. You need to be in a particular mood for it. This is true of most sorrowful music, so why bring it up? Because beyond that, it requires that a particular strain of sorrow must weigh upon you, so specific are the record's themes. In the wrong mood, the record is a heavier burden to bear, with much of its merit locked up in its thematic resonance with the listener. To listen to it with different sorrows than those of the creators is faintly alienating, with the record failing to live up to its own on-paper quality on an emotional level. This is no musical flaw, it must be said, but stands as a hefty pre-requisite to experience the record on a fully fleshed-out level. For this reason, "Footprints" is the stand-out track for me personally; owing to its vagueness, it has a far greater chance to resonate with me on that basis, whatever my sorrows may be. Couple this with its musical neatness and more eloquent lyricism, and it rises above the other tracks noticeably.

What we're left with, then, is a record which it's actually quite difficult to make a final verdict about - as if grading records numerically out of ten wasn't a ridiculous process to begin with. Watching from a Distance is itself difficult; the beauty and sheer catharsis of the album is plain to see; it has many virtues and merits in its sorrow-drenched running time, but likewise, while its virtues are plain to see, they are at times tougher to feel. It's like a delicate piece of equipment; when deployed absolutely correctly it is magnificent, I'm sure - but when the time and place are even more difficult to find than for sorrowful records in general, it's a hard stone to split, although, I'm certain, worthwhile.

This is a solid 7.5/10.

Warning on Metal Archives

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Queensrÿche - Operation Mindcrime (1988)

As so often is the case, over the last decade or so Queensrÿche have perhaps been subject to more discussion regarding their internal fallings-out and legal issues than discussion of the quality or lack-thereof of their musical output itself. However, as much as the band - for a time - may have been in a bit of a rough-way, it's always better to focus on more positive things; and few are more positive than "Operation Mindcrime" - one of the records which cemented the band onto the map in 1988, and indeed an album which is considered by many - my sources tell me - to be one of the greatest concept-albums in metal. 

To an extent, Operation Mindcrime is something of a template for the metal concept-album going forward; a template which is often imitated, but seldom replicated. Making a concept album certainly seems to be a difficult affair, considering how many bands try their hand at it, and then don't come out of it well. Many a time, the ambition is there, but the musical quality to back it up is not - concept albums can be good, but are very seldom great. Operation Mindcrime, however, is a sure-fire contender for greatness. The making of a concept-album is a game of balance, and in this case, it is rather well struck; enough narrative and well-distributed flavour-material to tell the story that the band intended to tell, but likewise a record replete with songs which are tastefully independent and well-formed. Operation Mindcrime avoids the trappings, for the most part, of having tracks which exist solely to further the narrative as opposed to bringing musical quality and integrity; avoiding, in short, an unnecessary saturation of contrived ostentatiousness. There are, through the whole hour-or-so, few throwaway moments. The majority, indeed, the vast majority, of the flamboyant and slick splendour of the album speaks for itself with or without the relevant background knowledge of the story, but also weaves together neatly; it's the sort of situation in which you can almost infer that it's a concept album without outright knowing so, or even attending to the lyrics. The aforementioned balance is crucial; there are enough motifs and running themes throughout to bind the record into a narrative entity, but without forcing that same entity to be grey, dull and homogeneous through sheer determination to unify it. It is, in other words, a rewarding concept album when you want it to be, but it won't suffer when you'd rather listen without that in mind.

Musically, the entire album consistently presents me with the sort of things I enjoy; running the gamut from massive synth-steeped long-runners like "Suite Sister Mary" which deliver the most narrative aspects, to the leaner "Electric Eye" style dystopian Judas Priest romp of "Spreading the Disease". The record combines the flair and pomp of quintessential 80s metal with an inventive and progressive streak a mile wide, resulting in an album which is flawlessly intricate; awash with subtle technicality and swishes of the musically unexpected, as well as in many places being exceedingly catchy. "Revolution Calling", "The Needle Lies" and the anthemic closing swansong "Eyes of a Stranger" all likewise stand as exceptional specimens of good heavy-metal, alone or in context, with the whole record running through a spectrum of a dozen approaches to heavy-metal in order to tell its tale successfully. The musicianship really brings these intentions to life; with a flawless vocal performance by Geoff Tate - purportedly unheard-of these days - and masterfully played and produced musicianship by the rest of the band, entwining the record with itself magnificently; sleek and restrained, even for all of its many flourishes. It is often understated just how effective good musicianship can be, with albums sometimes being seen as somehow separate from their creators, but here the quality and skill of the musicians involved is a gleaming jewel in the records crown, bringing as much enjoyment as any other element - beyond the on-paper idea itself, the execution of the record is marvellous; in many respects it is good because the musicianship is good.  

"Operation Mindcrime" was, this year, one of a select few albums which, upon encountering them for the first time (and late indeed it is, to first listen to Queensrÿche), I took great pleasure in listening to on multiple occasions right off the bat. It is perhaps indicative of both the records enjoyability as a whole and the stand-alone ability of numerous tracks that this enjoyment involved both listening to the entire album on numerous occasions, and also my designating "Spreading the Disease" as my go-to song to listen to with headphones on my way to the shop, for many months. The record is a true meeting of vision, ambition and delivery of the finished product; a well-crafted and at times provocative exploration of the insidious below-board goings-on of modernity, perhaps as relevant now as it's ever been, and well deserving of a place among metals finer records.

This is a certain 9/10.

Queensrÿche Official Site
Queensrÿche on Facebook
Queensrÿche on Metal Archives

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Playlist: October 2016

Fear not, when you see the shape of the SCM-player ominously hugging the bottom of your screen when you visit! I have no intention of becoming one of those people, hell-bent on creating web-pages which make noises without being asked first. The bane of every reasonable existence, we might, hyperbolically, say. Indeed, if you find that the page is playing music without your bidding it do so, let me know - it isn't supposed to.

However, starting this month, I've decided to assemble a monthly-playlist for the blog. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, but haven't been sure how to implement - until now. Ideally, I'd love to present the reader - if I still have any - with an hour or so of actual music; a motley assortment of classics, deep-cuts and miscellaneous material that I've encountered over the course of my love for metal. This offers me a new conduit through which to recommend music, beyond merely writing reviews - and so, I hope some of these twelve tracks which I shall introduce hereafter will be of interest... and if not?.. Well, I'll be changing the playlist monthly, so I hope you find some value in my throwing music at the wall and seeing if any sticks. Onwards!

01. Artch - The Promised Land (1988)

Opening up our debut playlist is a tasty track from Norway's Artch, something of a one-hit-wonder by many standards, the record "Another Return" features many-a foot-stomping, catchy, English-as-a-second-language heavy-metal track, and "The Promised Land" is no exception.

02. Nirvana 2002 - Mourning (1991)

Originally from the classic "Protections of a Stained Mind" compilation alongside bands like Entombed, Mayhem and Merciless, "Mourning" by Nirvana 2002 stirs up the primordial-soup of the Swedeath scene in fithy HM-2 wielding fashion.

03. Pentagram - When the Screams Come (1987) 

One of the more melodious tracks from "Day of Reckoning", "When the Screams Come" winds its twisted way through hazy doom soundscapes with a deeply eerie vibe, truly illustrating Pentagram as the grinning warlock at the side of the wizard that is Black Sabbath.

04. Evil Blood - Midnight in Sodom (1988)

A frenetic and bare-bones thrash track from Croatia's Evil Blood, Midnight in Sodom is as crude and evil as its name might imply; a blackened tirade for fans of the turbulent and gnarly days of early, primitive thrash. Dark and utterly unpolished.

05. Chapel of Disease - Symbolic Realms (2015)

"Symbolic Realms" captures the more adventurous and ambitious sound of Chapel of Disease's second record; a complex soundscape combining uncompromising thrashy old-school death metal with the vibrant flourish of a rocking, soaring undercurrent

06. Ixion - Ghost in the Shell (2015)

Another track from 2015, Ixion's brand of "space doom" is truly otherworldly, issuing an effervescent majesty and cold, unfathomably vast atmosphere. Cosmic vocals and mystifying guitar work combine with futuristic synthesisers to create something genuinely unique.

07. Spite - Trapped in the Pentagram (2015)

Vintage black-metal from New York, "Trapped in the Pentagram" is the A-side of Spite's 2015 EP. Energetic and tremolo-driven, the track is an excellent take on the old-school, belching forth evil and malice whilst also being an extremely fun listen. 

08. Bathory - Sacrifice (1984)

Any version of Sacrifice is an uproarious slice of evil, but the version from Scandinavian Metal Attack might by my very favourite version. The lower tempo may make it less rabid, but likewise imbues it with a grinning and devilish Motörhead-like swagger, and makes the opening-riff heavy-as-hell.

09. Mayhem - Chimera (2004)

An underrated track from Mayhem's decidedly lopsided catalogue, Chimera is an exceptionally twisted machination of the Maniac-era of the band. The track itself is an infectiously memorable testament to the fact that while the band have received mixed reviews over the years, they're always creative.

10. Hangman's Chair - Flashback (2015)

Lurking on a ven-diagram somewhere between Alice in Chains and Eyehategod, Parisians "Hangman's Chair" specialise in dealing out misery. "Flashback" from their latest record is every bit as drug-addled, cold, shivering and downtrodden as anything in their body of work.

11. Hellhammer -  Massacra (1984)

A hellish classic, the primitive and instrument-mangling pinnacle of Hellhammer's discography, Apocalyptic Raids, offers us tracks such as "Massacre" - a pounding summary of the ooze from which would later emerge Celtic Frost, followed shortly thereafter by everything else.

A gargantuan exercise in build-and-climax, "Rows" is one of the strongest tracks on offer from two-piece funeral-doom outfit Bell Witch; a desolate and mysterious soundscape builds slowly to a liminal, cathartic crescendo which solidifies the entire song as a magnificent and almost monastic-sounding musical journey.