Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Music Review - Hguols - Celestial Powers Intervened To True Supremacy

The previous Hguols album I reviewed, 'Maunstraut,' was a primarily ambient/neoclassical/medieval venture; lots of keyboards, choir/orchestration. 'Celestial Powers Intervened To True Supremacy' isn't terribly different; however, there are some interesting distinctions.

This album focuses much more on achieving a black-metal sound, rather than the medieval atmosphere of the previous record. This is accomplished via a drum-machine and guitars playing a center role in the music, and the results are pretty solid. The drum-machine sounds fairly artificial but never really goes into superhuman speed, which is in itself an accomplishment. The music itself is geared more towards a 'grim' atmosphere accompanied by huge swells of dark orchestration; it's not very removed from the previous album in terms of it's core.

This is a slight point against the album, unfortunately; it almost feels like a rehash of 'Maunstraut,' but a little darker and with drums. The music is darker, but still retains a video-game feel to it, which can be awkward with the blast beats and guitar. The drums seem to fast for the most part, and while they aren't bad by any means it does seem like they're out of place considering the core of the music is still ambient/neoclassical/medieval.

This isn't all bad, however. The closer track, 'To Find Destiny,' is outstanding; dark, heavy and flowing, as is the opening track 'I Found the Essence of Darkness.' The rest of the songs are solid enough on their own but the style does get repetitive after listening to the entire album. As individual songs in say, an mp3 shuffle playlist, they would be terrific, but not so much as a body of music.

'Celestial Powers Intervened To True Supremacy' is not a bad album, but compared to 'Maunstraut,' it does seem lacking. The drums and guitar don't add enough to the somewhat rehashed music to make it stand out; 'Maunstraut' was a terrific balance of ideas that I'd love to see Hguols go back to. Give this a listen though, if only to hear what a sped-up, slightly darker and heavier 'Maunstraut' sounds like. I'd like to see another album in that style from Hguols, and if the drum/guitar combo is taken away and the songwriting becomes a little more tight, the next album will be a sure-fire winner.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Music Review - Atmosphere - The Family Sign

Atmosphere has released another stellar album of rap/hip-hop, following their outstanding 'When Life Gives You Lemons,' and their whimsical freebie 'Leak At Will.' This record is full of blues, jazz, piano, soft rhymes, brilliant storytelling with very few weak points to be found.

As stated above, the music here comes from all live instruments; Atmosphere is now a full band and has very little sampling (beats, synths, etc). This lends a very organic sound to the music which is very common in the genre. Bluesy electric guitar leads, soft jazz riffs and acoustic playing take center stage, with lots of jazz/blues piano following. The mix is perfect, clear and not overwhelming with the bass.

The lyrics here are, as per usual, brilliant. From  real-life anecdotes to more allegorical stories, every line is well thought out and perfectly placed. There's no forced rhyming or out of place lines anywhere to be found here, and the storytelling ability of Slug remains one of the best features about Atmosphere. Lyrics have always been Atmospheres forte, and this is no different. These are lyrics which have real meaning.

The tone of the album is very laid back, relaxed and even depressive, as seen in the second track 'The Last To Say,' where slide guitar and mellow guitar chords and a soft beat combine into one of the best tracks the group has ever released. Other songs are more upbeat, like 'Just for Show,' and the mostly-acoustic 'Ain't Nobody,' with it's bouncy beat and quirky keyboards.

The high moment of the album, however, would have to be 'I Don't Need Brighter Days,' with it's atmospheric keyboards, huge guitar leads and heavy beat; this is definitely the epic of the album and shows a potentially brilliant sound for the band.

While weaker moments are here ('She's Enough,' 'Millennium Dodo,' and 'Bad Bad Daddy,') the majority of this album is packed with catchy tunes backed by a real organic and home-grown feel. No gangsters, drugs or women to be found here; instead, it's family, real life, real struggles and real hardships, which, as Atmosphere has a knack for showing, can sometimes be much more gritty than the stylized world of hip-hop. 'The Family Sign,' is one of the better albums to come out of any genre in recent times, and I highly recommend this to anyone in search of well played, well thought out, creative music.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Music Review - Satyricon - Dark Medieval Times

Satyricon's "Dark Medieval Times," ranks pretty high on my favorite albums list; as an exercise in atmosphere I regard it as more or less unparalleled. This to me is a pretty rare kind of album, one that perfectly captures the essence of what it sets out to capture, which is in this case, as shown by the title, "Dark Medieval Times."

The times are dark here indeed, and theres no light creeping in at any point. This is a cold, bleak, harsh and somber album with little respite. A haunting and ghostly and even otherworldly intro opens the album, and the mood is kept for the rest of the disc. What sets this apart in my mind is that "Dark Medieval Times," retains a real, genuine medieval atmosphere, as opposed to a folk-styled atmosphere or a merely dark atmosphere. The acoustic break in the title track and the pure acoustic "Min Hyllest Til Vinterland," really do retain a very unique, cold and dark feeling that brilliantly captures the darkness of the medieval period. This is an album that wouldn't be out of place in a film like Ingmar Bergman's  "The Seventh Seal."

The instruments here are handled competently; being a fairly old-school style of black metal there isn't a lot of technicality to speak of as the focus is on atmosphere and not technicality. The drumming is typical, consisting of very fast blast-beats and standard but effective slower patterns. The vocals are a grating screech, which, while not terribly unique to the genre, fit the music perfectly.Organs, whispers, lots of acoustics are all used very effectively in creating the atmosphere.

There's little negative to say here; now and then the atmosphere breaks as the music meanders along and becomes uninteresting. "The Dark Castle in the Deep Forest," is a weaker moment, with some pretty chaotic guitar work that doesn't really do a whole lot in terms of atmosphere; but for the most part the music is solid and consistent.

The atmosphere that is achieved here is astounding. Genuine medieval darkness is here; dark castles, evil forests, otherworlds, the plague and cold are all present on this album to a degree that I've not found on any other album. For those looking for dark, grim mood music, look no farther. This entire album resonates with a feeling of ominous darkness, and almost dream-like atmosphere, and I highly recommend this for any fan of metal and medieval music.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Beer Review - Blue Moon Spring Blonde Wheat Ale

I'm a Blue Moon fanboy, and I'm also a real big wheat beer fan, so when I saw this particular brew, I was pretty excited. Blue Moon has yet to let me down, and this Spring Ale has only strengthened my love for their beer.

Pouring a beautiful golden with a slightly citrusy aroma, this a light, crisp and refreshing ale that really capitalizes on a wheat beer's naturally more citrus flavors, with hints of orange and lemon creeping through. This definitely a beer meant to be enjoyed on warm afternoons or with a fish or chicken meal,  and the lightness and refreshing qualities really make it an easy to enjoy brew.

There's nothing but pleasant tastes here, little-to-no bitterness, and really the best way I can describe it is as a very "mellow" beer that would be great to have on a trip to the beach, a barbecue or  a warm summer evening. I highly recommend Blue Moon's Spring Blonde Wheat Ale as a terrific warm-weather beer, and so far one of my favorite wheat bears.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Music Review - Hguols - Maunstraut

This is an interesting album; my first reaction was to label this as medieval ambient, but as I listened more and more, I don't think I can classify it just as that. There's a lot of elements of medieval ambient and I hear traces of classic acts like Taur nu Fuin and Wongraven (and I'd even compare parts of this to Slechtvalk's first album "Falconry") here and there, but I think the main influence would be neoclassical/ambient with some definite medieval influences.

There's nothing but keyboards to be found here; no drums, guitars, vocals, or anything of that nature. Swelling orchestral and choral chords, tons of harpsichord (and I do mean TONS)  are the meat and potatoes here, and the music itself is pretty mellow and easy to listen to. It does tend to run together after a while though, and that's where I think the ambient influence comes in. There's a fair amount of repetition, and if done right, with this genre, repetition can be amazing and there's moments where it is pretty darn cool. "Epitome of Sovereign Toccata" is a good example and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

I'm reminded a lot of old video game music when I listen to this album; older games like the Zelda series come to mind. That isn't an insult at all; the atmosphere conjured up here is extremely effective and one of the reasons I have a soft spot for this style of music. It knows what it's going for (a darker, mysterious atmosphere) and doesn't beat about the bush trying to achieve it, and it really does nail it, for the most part.

There are a few things I'm not crazy about though. The song lengths tend to be shorter (generally between 3 and 4 and a half minutes) and so by themselves aren't amazingly atmospheric, and that's why I think this is best listened to as a whole album rather than individual songs. There's also, like I said above, a good amount of repetition of ideas and it can drag on here and there. Some of the songwriting is a little odd; the start-and-stop idea is one I'm not too fond of for this style. An example of this would be the track "Epitome of Eternity (Tristmegistus)".

On the whole, however, this is a solid album that is sure take you back to dark, grim castles, long, foreboding hallways dimly lit and brooding forests. Hguols's "Maunstraut" is something every fan of this genre can really appreciate, and I highly recommend it to any fans of the medieval/neoclassical/ambient genres.

I'm definitely interested in seeing this style further explored by Hguols, and I think, with a little tweaking here and there, should there be another album of this style by the band, we might just have a rising star in the genre on the horizon.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Music Review - Extol - Synergy

If there's one thing Extol cannot be accused of, it's of staying in one style for too long. "Synergy" was released before the depressive/post-rocky "The Blueprint Dives," and after the technical death/black album "Undeceived," and really, none of these albums sound like they came from the same band.

"Synergy" focuses mostly on high-speed technical thrash, and sadly thrash is a genre I really just don't like, so it's hard for me to really like this album as much as I want to.

The instruments here, being Extol, are brilliant. Fast, technical, heavy and as tight as ever. The production is perfect, with everything being mixed loud, clear, heavy and balanced with each other. I'm reminded of Dream Theater at their most progressive here in parts, with all the technicality and stop/starts the Extol likes to use here. The downside here is that there's not a lot of songs I like to listen to; the playing is phenomenal but it almost just sounds like speed exercises at times. The vocals are comprised mostly of high pitched screaming, and while they still have traces of Extols old vocal style here and there it's obvious that the brutal growls and shrieks are a thing of the past. Peter Espevolle begins to take over the clean vocals here, which is a little bit of a letdown because Ole Borud absolutely blows him (and almost every other vocalist) away with his singing.

It's not all just technical fanfare though, as there are some good songs present. The opener "Grace for Succession" has a killer chorus that really brings back memories of the "Burial" days. "Emancipation" opens with a solid riff that sticks out from the rest of the album and is one of my favorite tracks here.None of the tracks are really bad, per se, but they tend to run together after a while.

The exception here is the acoustic ballad, "Aperture," which really is out of place on this album. Being made up of only an acoustic guitar and Peter's clean vocals (which really sound great on this track) it's a gentle, quiet interlude on the album that probably wold have been more at home on "The Blueprint Dives," as a bonus track.

As a whole, I'd rank this as one of Extols' weaker albums; the songwriting here just isn't up to par with what they're capable of. Aside from a few really good moments that pop up and two or three strong tracks, there's not a whole lot to see here. It's technical to the max, it's heavy, but it's just not that good.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Music Review - Extol - The Blueprint Dives

When I first heard this album, I thought I had the wrong CD playing; the Extol I knew was brutal, death/black/progressive metal, and in more recent times, a technical but still brutal thrash metal band. The Blueprint Dives, while still Extol, showed their most dramatic change in musical style, going from fast, technical thrash to an almost depressive rock with some thrash metal and post-rock influences.

It definitely takes some getting used to, on all fronts. Gone is the insane drumming, replaced by a much more subdued approach. Gone are the lightning fast guitars playing ten different things at one, replaced by a much more rock influenced sound. Gone are the brutal and savage vocals, replaced by an almost hardcore scream with lots of clean vocals. The vocals, in my opinion, are quite good, with the screams retaining at least the ferocity of Peter Espevolls style and the clean vocals going quite well with the softer and calmer portions of the album.

However, despite the drastic change in style, Extol prove to be excellent at their newfound sound. Fast tracks like the opener "Gloriana," and "Soul Deprived" show that they still have what it takes to put out some fast, intense music, while calmer numbers like "Lost in Dismay," and the fantastic ballad "Pearl" really showcase the softer and more relaxed side of the band. More somber songs like "The Things I found," "Void," and the closer "The Death Sedative" are much more depressive  in tone and definitely highlight Extol's ability to really create a dark atmosphere and show more of the post-rock side of the band.

The production on this album is just perfect; every single instrument gets to shine and it all sounds gorgeous. It's heavy, clean, crisp and perfectly balanced. Kudos to whoever mixed this album for doing a fantastic job. 

There's not a lot of real bad moments here that I can point to; "Essence" is a slightly weaker track that probably could have been cut from the album, and "Another Adam's Escape" just doesn't click with me as much as the rest of the songs, but aside from those two everything here is pretty solid.

Is this album a brutal masterpiece like "Burial," or "Undecievd"? No. But, as a standalone album, it's pretty darn solid, and one I enjoy fairly often. If you're a fan of Extol's old sound, look elsewhere, as there really is nothing here that even hints at their former styles. The band really has moved on, and The Blueprint Dives, while a very different animal than the rest of their discography, is still an excellent album, and one I recommend to any fans of depressive and post-rock. Give this album a listen, and just enjoy it for what it is; good, dark, relaxed hard rock.