Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gorguts - Colored Sands

After flirting with a continuation of their chaotic sound in Negativa, Luc Lemay decided to part ways with Steeve Hurdle (RIP) and work under the Gorguts name again. I remember listening to that Negativa EP when I was maybe 17 or 18 and being so excited at the prospect of a full length album from Lemay and Hurdle at some point in the future. Unfortunately this never really came to pass, and Negativa became Steeve's project exclusively whereas Luc returned to Gorguts. It has been five years since Luc decided to leave Negativa, six years since the Negativa EP, twelve years since the last Gorguts album, and fifteen years since what most consider their crowning achievement in "Obscura". I'm going to get this out of the way right now - in terms of extreme metal 'comeback albums' which have become strangely popular in the last five years, from Autopsy's twisted and suitable raunchy "Macabre Eternal", to Pestilence's bland and underwhelming "Resurrection Macabre", to Carcass's latest "Surgical Steel", "Colored Sands" is by far the greatest of these kind of albums. Not only does it do the best job of pleasing the band's older fans, but it also sounds like the band has actually evolved in a logical and appropriate direction. Rather than sounding like a homage to the past, a bland cashgrab or an awful -core or groove metal inflected "experiment", "Colored Sands" stands on its own and it stands well above almost everything else in the genre in 2013.

For the historically erudite readers, the easiest way to describe what "Colored Sands" is as an album in terms of Gorguts is to say it is a fusion between the best aspects of "From Wisdom to Hate" and "Obscura" with a much better production job than either of those albums got. There's no denying the absence of Steeve Hurdle is apparent - many of the strange guitar noises and completely atonal melodies that characterized "Obscura" just aren't present on "Colored Sands", for better or worse. "Colored Sands" is not the revolutionary genre-redefining landmark that "Obscura" was, but it is a more polished (don't confuse this adjective with "compromising") album in terms of songwriting and production than any of the band's previous efforts.

So what does Gorguts really sound like? Good question, even a really experienced reviewer would have a difficult time building a description of their sound from scratch. Imagine aliens playing death metal underwater. Yeah, that's kind of what it sounds like. The music and production has an explosive and resonant quality that really highlights the album's dynamic qualities in a flattering way. As far as what "aliens" implies, I simply mean the instrumentation on this album is far, far outside of the death metal norm though it's not purely experimental in the same sense Negativa was, or Obscura was for its time. Gorguts is one of those many metal bands with a name that doesn't really reflect their music at all (apart from their first two albums). "Colored Sands" certainly doesn't sound "sick" or "gory" or "evil" in the traditional way death metal often aspires to sound. Instead it sounds foreboding, monolithic, chaotic, apocalyptic, agonizing and alien.

Each song on "Colored Sands" does a good job of sounding relatively unique without being disjointed. There are slower songs like "Ocean of Wisdom" and "Absconders" that hearken back to tracks like "Clouded" (while being more enjoyable to listen to), there are faster, more chaotic numbers like "Enemies of Compassion" and "Forgotten Arrows", and there are songs that rely primarily on percussive force and a certain rhythmic pulse to drive forward, such as "Le Toit du Monde" and "Reduced to Silence". For an album that is over an hour in length (I tend to think the ideal length for a typical death metal record is about a half hour), "Colored Sands" offers enough variation that it is never monotonous, boring or pedantic, but all of the songs have a readily identifiable genetic identity suggesting they stem from the same source, that they are all pieces of the same puzzle, that they are all different facets of the same overarching and unifying idea. This album-wide synergy between the songs is something I've always placed a lot of importance on and "Colored Sands" does a great job of being a huge, epic and otherworldly experience as a whole. "The Battle of Chamdo" deserves praise not just for its careful placement in the very middle of the album, effectively separating the album into two acts, but also for its production value. Gorguts' earlier orchestral pieces were held back by their recordings - probably done with VSTs, MIDIs or keyboards of some sort - whereas on "Colored Sands", Lemay was able to hire and properly record a string quintet, and bring just enough of his classical influence into the album to give it a great sense of separation and serve as a beautiful counterpoint to the music surrounding each side of the track.

I have a very difficult time finding anything wrong with or poor about this album. Perhaps it is not as daring or revolutionary as "Obscura" was, and it certainly doesn't follow the path of instrumental experimentation that Steeve Hurdle was pursuing with Negativa, but it succeeds in every aspect that could have reasonably been expected from the efforts of Lemay and co. In fact, if we take off the rose-colored glasses through which we often revere "Obscura" and look at it from the perspective of someone who isn't a death metal historian or particularly enthralled by the bouncy, atonal and sometimes unintentionally silly-sounding guitarwork on the album, we might even conclude something more blasphemous than all of Incantation's albums combined: That "Colored Sands" is actually the best all-around album Gorguts has done in their entire career. I can see the keyboard inquisitors foaming at their mouths right now, formulating the logistics of my crucifixion at the stake of death metal doctrine - for how can something released in 2013 actually be better than an album fifteen years its senior with an untouchable reputation in the subculture? And yet that's exactly what I think Gorguts has done here, not on the same terms of course, but in terms of pure listenability; if we accept that the time for genre-redefining, earth-shattering experiments has largely passed and that our current age in death metal is largely characterized by the pursuit of some nebulous concept of musical perfection, then "Colored Sands" is the best album Gorguts has done.

Grade: A+

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Venetian Snares

"To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also." - Igor Stravinsky

Venetian Snare is one of my favorite artists not just because of the technical brilliance of his music and the awesome time signatures, but also the wide variety of styles and aesthetics he has explored over the course of his discography.
In this blog I list and explain in brief terms some of my favorite albums/eps he has done. These are listed in chronological order of release:

printf("shiver in eternal darkness/n"); - 2001 full length

"I am punishing the atoms. I am making an example of them. An object lesson. A thing."

Fellow computer science nerds will quickly note that "/n" is not how you tell printf (in any language I know of) to print a newline, but instead "\n". Anyway, this early full length release from Snares is a dark one, as the title would suggest, but it is not as focused as something like "Doll Doll Doll" which would come later or as experimental as "Songs About My Cats". "printf" is one of my favorite snares albums, largely because of the combination of its dark mood and brilliant samples - there are so many memorable moments on this album without it being as difficult to process as some of his denser work. Songs like Salt are some of the most rhythmically abrasive he has ever done, yet this is on the same disc as one of the most straight forward songs he has ever done in Intense Demonic Attacks. "printf" covers the widest spectrum of the aesthetics of darkness of any of his albums, and can be both challenging and relatively easy to listen to.

Favorite Songs: Cruel Whole, Punishing the Atoms, Salt, Intense Demonic Attacks

Songs About My Cats - 2001 full length

SAMC was one of the first Snares albums I listened to after my introduction to Rossz Csillag Alatt Született and I was immediately captivated by just how strange it sounded. It's difficult to describe, but overall SAMC sounds extremely abstract, like you are listening to things humans do not normally hear, but that exist in the audial perception of animals - namely cats. My impression of SAMC was that it was composed from the perspective that the resulting music was either for cats and not for people, or that the music represented the stream of consciousness of a cat. That's how alien this entire album sounds. I would describe the mood of SAMC as mostly playful, but not in an easily comprehensible way. It doesn't sound excessively negative or positive; it just sounds weird. SAMC is one of my favorite Snares album - perhaps my favorite - because of how endlessly interesting, challenging, and alien it is. The image above is actually the last track "Look". You can see that the song is actually noise that ends up being pictures of the artist's cats when ran through a spectrogram.

Favorite Songs:  Chinaski, Fluff Master, Neptalactone

Doll Doll Doll - 2001 full length

"Spirit of poison. Howling spirit. Killing spirit that walks. Spirit creature not wearing the shape of a man."

DDD is Snares' densest and sickest album. As someone who came from a background of extreme metal where no subject is taboo, I was immediately interested to hear what this album sounded like, considering I had been told the concept of the album revolved around torturing and murdering children which even for extreme metal is something that is never written about seriously - used only for gimmicky shock value. I suppose DDD can sound like it's about whatever kind of violence and sadism you want, but the influences are clearly there, from the samples of Fallout's "childkiller" dialogue to the Jonbenet Ramsey tip hotline. Like printf, the mood here is dark, but it's more than just dark: It is violent, sadistic, and oppressive. Some may find DDD difficult to listen to just because of its subject matter, but even beyond that it's actually a really difficult and abrasive album to listen to; it took me the better part of a year to really get into the harsher tracks. "Pressure Torture" sounds pretty much like the title sounds - you could probably torture people with it because of how violent it is. Imagine Merzbow on every methamphetamine known to man and you're halfway there. DDD is kind of unique in the sense that I find the last half of the album is a lot better than the first half, considering most artists are eager to load up the first half of their albums with the best tracks to capture the listener's interest. The whole album is strong, but the epic and terrifying 9 minute closing track "All The Children Are Dead" might be the greatest song Snares has done in his entire career. One of my favorite Snares albums for its uncompromising sickness and the immense challenge it provides a listener with.

Favorite Songs: Dollmaker, Befriend A Childkiller, Pressure Torture, All The Children Are Dead

Find Candace - 2003 EP

"I remember when I was a kid... And seeing a dying dog, you know, one of those old dogs that comes to die under the porch of the house. And at the last moment it yelps in terror... As if it has seen something real."

Find Candace is Snares' brief continuation of DDD. It has that same sense of sadism and sickness, though it is not as violent, dense, or overall as difficult to listen to as the album which it succeeds. It is a less visceral experience, though perhaps more reflective. Mercy Funk is an amazing track not just because of its samples but because of its simultaneous rhythmic unpredictability and cohesiveness. This release also features Snares really experimenting with strings and more classical instruments on tracks like Bind Candace which are more ambient in nature than being proper breakcore songs. A very worthwhile release if you enjoyed the evilness of DDD.

Favorite Songs: Mercy Funk, Children's Limbo

The Chocolate Wheelchair Album - 2003 full length

"It's about time, it's about space, about strange people in the strangest place"

In sharp contrast to the preceding releases of  Doll Doll Doll and Find Candace on this list, Chocolate Wheelchair - as the title suggests - is one of the most playful and lighthearted releases in the whole Venetian Snares catalog. That's not to say this album can't be interesting just because it is "fun" in nature - some of the tracks are quite challenging and aggressive, like the closer "Herbie Goes Ballistic" which basically sounds like someone's descent into insanity. There's a memorable moment on "Herbie Goes Ballistic" where a sample sounding like someone's grandmother asks "Herbie aren't you ashamed of-" but before she can finish her sentence, the song itself representing Herbie's consciousness goes completely ballistic and cuts her off. This level of richness of perspective is certainly part of what makes Venetian Snares' music so great, and that greatness is definitely present on Chocolate Wheelchair, although it's being expressed in less grim and serious tones than on his earlier albums.

Favorite Songs: Abomination Street, Einstein-Rosen Bridge, Epidermis, Herbie Goes Ballistic

Rossz Csillag Alatt Született - 2005 full length

"Why am I frightened so easily? Pigeon, why can you scare me? Am I not a part of your life anymore? Am I not welcome anymore? Am I not part of your life?"

Already in his career Snares had experimented with Noise (SAMC), Jazz (DDD and Find Candace), Funk and Rock (Chocolate Wheelchair), but what will probably be considered his greatest experiment happened on this album, and it was an experiment with classical music. RCAS sounds, in a single word, grandiose. The classical samples on this album carry the music some of the time, especially during the rising actions and calmer parts of the album, while the electronic and notoriously schizophrenic breakcore that defines the artist is played in accompaniment and takes center stage when the music is at a climax. RCAS is accessible in a way that no other Venetian Snares album (with the possible exception of My Downfall) is. If I'm recommending VS to someone who I'm not sure will enjoy the darkness of printf, or the evilness of DDD, or the weirdness of SAMC, I recommend RCAS first and foremost. Even someone who is not really into breakcore or remotely difficult music usually respects RCAS because of how consummate, polished and beautiful it sounds. This album is by far the best way to get into VS if you are interested. It goes from gorgeous to ugly and back again, from relaxing to violently neurotic, and - well you get the idea. Hajnal is really the centerpiece of the album, containing a really definitive string melody that sets the stage for the song, in addition to some jazz and one of the most memorable and iconic breakcore passages in the genre's history. RCAS is extravagant, grandiose, vain, and vulnerable. An enchanting album about disenchantment.

Favorite Songs: Szerencsétlen, Hajnal, Második Galamb, Szamár Madár

I am considering adding Hospitality (2006) and My So Called Life (2010) to this list but I need to relisten to his 2007-2009 releases a bit more first.