Brave New World

Superficial differences aside, ‘Brave New World’ is quintessentially Iron Maiden. Those cultured references to English literature, sober yet deceptively dark overtones, and compositions almost bordering on progressive metal. Not to mention the galloping bass lines, rich melodic riffs and operatic vocals – basically, all Iron Maiden signatures are exhibited here.

For a song named after the early 70s British horror flick, The Wicker Man might seem deceptively upbeat. But, Brave New World, the title track is a tad disturbing —“Dying swans twisted wings, beauty not needed here.” — seems to mirror Aldous Huxley’s own dystopian vision.

Accessible, and threateningly catchy choruses – “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, you’ve got to kill to stay alive” – illustrates one of those reasons why Iron Maiden is still that dominant heavy metal life form on this planet. How a whimsical – “Is this a new reality. Something makes me feel that I have lost my mind” – effortlessly regresses into more horrific hues – “Lost in a dream of mirrors, lost in a paradox. Lost and time is spinning, lost a nightmare I retrace” – is truly baffling.

Azazel — The fallen angel, sets the tone for a mercilessly melodic Out Of The Silent Planet. Lyrics are not exactly C. S. Lewis’s fiction, but it’s a brutal blend of catchy riffs and vivid imagery – “Withered hands, withered bodies begging for salvation. Deserted by the hand of Gods of their own creation.” — anticipating an eventual apocalyptic end — “Nations cry underneath decaying skies above. You are guilty, the punishment is death for all who live.” Finally, leaving the listener reeling with a devastating chorus – “Out of the silent planet, dreams of desolation. Out of the silent planet, Come the demons of creation”.

A markedly refined take is reserved for the last. Actually, a civilized mind might have already pondered —“When a person turns to wrong, is it a want to be, belong? –– “But what makes a man decide, take the wrong or righteous road” — indeed “There’s a grey place between black and white.” More decisively — “But everyone does have the right to choose the path that he takes”.

The artistic sensibilities that shaped Iron Maiden is being subtly explored here – “We all like to put the blame on society these days. But what kind of good or bad a new generation brings. Sometimes take just more than that to survive be good at heart. There is evil in some of us no matter what will never change.” Essentially, where others adopt contentious and naive stands, Iron Maiden simply enlightens — illustrating that not so thin line separating the rare eminent from the mediocres.

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By Raph_PH (IronMaidenO2_270517-24) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Arktis

Emperor ceased to exist, but Ihsahn continued to pursue that trajectory. While musically more ambitious, his work is still firmly grounded in that very bedrock of symphonic black metal. Arktis, like his other records, explore diverse genres/themes and prods a range of emotions.

Staying clear of progressive metal clichés, Ihsahn crafts splendidly heavy and sublime melodies. Even the fiercely romantic “My heart is of the north” involves thick riffs, and a jarring keyboard reminiscent of 70s Emerson Lake and Palmer. Making that brief mellow moment — “And should my spirit soften like snow in early spring, or waver in the sultry haze, that soothing summers brings“ — quite exceptional.

Fascinating how whispering vocals – “Static, Dogmatic, Death cult, Fanatic” – can be this threatening with electronica. Transition into some grinding industrial metal — “I’d rather live a life in sin. And take the devil’s fall” — cannot be more elegant. With a measure of painfully moving vocals – “What kind of promises could justify the sacrifice you make? “ – Ihsahn paints a vivid landscape. But eventually ends with his signature, absolutely devoid of all sentiments, grating vocals.

Exhibiting those exquisite symphonic prog aesthetics, like 70s Genesis or Gentle Giant, Arktis is poignant, layered, and at times emotionally distressing – “Longing for the hopeless. Losing all to own the end”.

Melancholic solos when accompanied by keyboards — layered over measured strumming and painful clean vocals – “You chose a life at war. Now choose a worthy enemy. You know, it doesn’t always have to be yourself” – blazes a grim road. Musically and lyrically, Ihsahn teleports the listener straight into vaults of emotional desolation.

In spite of prominent extreme metal elements, long time Rush listeners should be immediately taken with that very familiar background keyboards in ‘Until I Too Dissolve’. But we are still skimming the surface, influences are multitude and diverse. Ihsahn traverses a progressive metal territory decked with stunning jazz to bleak black metal. Intense and sublime, Arktis, in Ihsahn’s own lyrical terms is a masterful “conjurer of sorrow”.

By Jonas Rogowski (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dismember

The initial guitar harmony is quite enticing, and well tailored to mislead that unsuspecting casual listener. As you can hear, the musical terrain flips in a couple of minutes. Lyrics, quite aptly scream — “Innocent soul dismembered…Enter the dark regions. And suffer a thousand deaths”. It’s good old Swedish brand of hardcore/punk aggression, but reconciled with more pronounced guitar melody.

Dismember is an apt introduction to the early 90s Stockholm scene. Borrowing elements from their American and English contemporaries, these Swedes distilled their own characteristic flow and melody. Here, we can clearly discern that multinational brutal lineage of Venom, Celtic Frost, Possessed, and Napalm Death.

For the uninitiated, the elegantly down-tuned melodic leads make Dismember relatively more palatable. The sheer sonic density of Entombed or Grave can be always intimidating. In some ways, Dismember also exhibits tendencies mostly associated with Gothenburg death, especially that of ‘At The Gates’. A closer examination reveals even more musical parallels, especially with the legendary English death metallers — ‘Bolt Thrower’.

But not just from the neighboring avenues, fascinating how back in the 80s, influences from places as far as Tampa, Florida or the Bay Area traveled back to Stockholm. Informal networks and underground tape trading channels simply emerged. Even without the World Wide Web, Altars of Madness wrecked a sonic carnage within the European scene. Simply stated, it was artistic entrepreneurship which drove the most extreme sounds on the planet. To channel a wise Scottish philosopher – death metal evolution is yet another illustration “of human action, but not the execution of any human design”.

Image attribution:
By Mattias Hedström (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Brave Murder Day

Mikael Åkerfeldt did this one album with Katatonia – ‘Brave Murder Day’, and his vocal influence here is quite conspicuous. Within their whole catalog, this record is unique for its absolutely depressive death/doom imprint. Meandering riffs with dry shallow growls, layered atop melancholic leads — consequence is this splendidly agonizing atmosphere. Åkerfeldt’s discernible growls – “I know your smile is deadly at this point. Wherever you are, I am not” – crafts an equally uncommon emotional depth.

With occasional thick down-tuned riffs, the record also exhibits those murky funereal doom like contours. Åkerfeldt’s vocals – “I saw it end long before it ended, Life itself turned pale and ended” – hammers in that very Scandinavian grimness. The song does run into markedly heavy drums, eventually fading off towards that very pale ending. Dragged out growls with guitar strumming does illustrate how vocals can be akin to an instrument in extreme metal.

“Endtime” finally brings this death/doom torment towards a sober, but still forceful, ending – “Pierced by the darkness. They called it death. And surrounded me with sleep”. Undoubtedly, that unusually inhuman vocal shriek is more commonly found in the genres shaped by Norwegians. The record fades away, but Åkerfeldt’s dank vocal gnarls might just leave a lasting impression.

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By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Karelian Isthmus

‘The Karelian Isthmus’ does further that recklessly snowballing early 90s black/death wave, but mostly into relatively less threatening waters. Compared to Norwegian and Swedish contemporaries, these Finns dial down the dissonance and integrate quite a few contrasting elements.

Florida death was undoubtedly a crucial catalyst – surging across the great Atlantic it caused numerous mutations within the European metal scene. Within the early Amorphis albums, especially ‘Privilege of Evil’ and ‘The Karelian Isthmus’, we can clearly hear this wave brushing up against a firm melancholic chill – that Black Sabbath like doom metal overtones.

This confrontation of an all razing morbid dissonance with a doom like texture was unique – ideal for integrating even more vibrant influences.

Amorphis goes on to deck this framework with folksy tremolo picking, thick downtuned grinds, progressive riffs and brutal blast beats. Deep growls of Celtic influenced lyrics – “Distant gate, gothic grave, through ages our clan still remain” – does add to that vital grimness. It’s Carcass and Grave like abrasiveness, but mellowed with Finnish cultural influences. Essentially, all the elements which eventually lead Amorphis to their epic Tales From the Thousand Lakes, and beyond, are exhibited here – but in subtle and intense measures.

By Jarno Koskinen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

DragonForce

Our innate tribalism tends to typically find an outlet through politics, sports etc – but they manifest within other social spheres also. Art is no exception; metal definitely is not. T-shirts, tattoos and band patches – all signal tribal association. Instinctively adopting a genre identity and defending those musical sensibilities is a commonplace. Labels, artists and the other marketing aspects of the ecosystem are also an accentuating factor here.

Years ago I used to frequent this bar, they mostly played 70s to 90s metal. So you could find a wide variety of old-school metal-heads being regulars there. Before these metallers split into factions, sub-factions and more nuanced quibbling sub-categories – there were two broad species – those who listen to power-metal and those who despised it. Needless to say, each considered the other as poseurs. The polarizing quality of power metal cannot be any more evident. I guess melodramatic compositions and fantasy themes are not everyone’s cup of tea!

It’s difficult to identify sounds which might appease both these battling tribes, but DragonForce is a definite contender. This late 90s British band is a form of anachronism – classic power metal blueprint, but also extremely technical. In short, its power metal with razor-sharp progressions and that sonic intensity of 80s thrash.

Sheer speed of the guitar solos can make passages resemble Super Mario music. Herman Li and Sam Totman’s dual guitar harmony is melodic and maddeningly precise. Aggressive bass lines, blazing leads and blast beats are all quintessential extreme metal elements. While those fantasy themed lyrics, high pitched clean vocals and catchy choruses tailored for large arenas – all indicate Ronnie James Dio/Rob Halford lineage of power metal. DragonForce may not be genre-bending revolutionaries, but they might just manage to placate two seemingly irreconcilable tribes.

By Andreas Lawen, Fotandi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

obZen

Groovy rumble of eight-string guitar, robotic barking, and this blunt calculated tempo variation – all Meshuggah signatures are present here. Built on a musical skeleton forged from groove and death metal, obZen is akin to a cybernetic monster, mechanistic and precise. By constantly adopting math metal, jazz and progressive attributes, the band has always been pushing music into unimaginable territories. obZen is no exception.

Album is an excellent blend of 90s Meshuggah, basically more groove metal than djent. Jens Kidman’s vocals blend in as if it’s another discordant machine in this mechanistic orchestra. Odd rhythmic structures, Tomas Haake’s jazz like drumming, and down-tuned proggy leads – all inspire still reverence – not moshing.

Maximum creative bliss is at the margins, both for the artist and the listener. Meshuggah has been constantly placing themselves at those very structural margins of numerous demanding genres. Habitually creating novel classifications for what’s considered exceptional in metal. obZen is yet another extraordinary dissonant chapter.


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Image Attribution
By Leposava from Melbourne, Australia (meshuggah) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons