2018 in music (a post for 3 or so people)

This turned out to be a big year for me discovering new music, some of which was actually new, and some of which I had just neglected to check out. I think I bought more albums this year than any year since 2004 or so, and thus for the first time in many years have reflections on music beyond “Yup, rEVOLVEr is still great”.

(First reflection: The Haunted has become a very standard-issue thrash/death band with the loss of Peter Dolving, and although Ola Englund is a fun YouTube presence and very good guitarist, he doesn’t add enough originality to the band to make up for it).

What follows is a list of albums of note that I listened to over the past year.

Guilty. Pleasure?

I like the first 3 Ghost albums. I love the first and third. Unfortunately, the fourth album Prequelle makes the previous albums retroactively worse by telling where the band was really heading with those uncannily hooky songs – a type of cheese that is self-aware in the same kitschy way as a sitcom reboot (rather than reflective on past metal but with the pretense of unironic dedication).

The single below is one of two songs on the album I don’t usually want to skip.

Oldie but goodie

I bought 2 albums (Miasma and Nocturnal) from these guys while I was still in Japan, not coincidentally while I was undergoing a bit of a renaissance in gaming (they sound and name their songs like they spent a lot of time playing Castlevania 3 as youngsters). They still present the auditory equivalent of being in a wind tunnel, and now have a creative, Marty Friedman-like shredder on lead guitar.

Sounds oldie, actually newie

I’m actually very happy that a band is making music like this in 2018. Yes, the singer sounds like Robert Plant reborn (from still being alive), but how is that a complaint?

Also, I am fully on board with the trend of bands trying to recreate the 70s (The Sword, Clutch, pioneers The Darkness), complete with SGs and Plexi amps.

Genre-bender

The song below is not even recognizable as metal until about 2:00, and not as any “extreme” metal until 6:00. It turns out that at 39, this is just the kind of music (loud, technical, well-paced, reminiscent of the 90s in guitar tone) that placates all of my identities. After I had listened to this album for a good 2 weeks straight, I went out* and bought the previous 2, and they are just as full of surprising moments. My new habit of leaving on Banger TV on YouTube while I grade homework paid off, as it was one of their reviews that led me to this band in the first place.

By the way, this is the 2nd album on this list to prominently feature saxophones. Enslaved does it with less winking tweeness than Ghost does, but I can’t hear sax in a metal song without thinking that the band is going out of their way to flash their Pink Floyd fan club membership cards.

*switched over to the iTunes app at a traffic light

Discovered too late

Well, I don’t know exactly what made me check out a band for the first time in 2018 that most metal fans put in the same class of relevance as Metallica, but I’m glad I did. The prog death genre as a whole is pretty new to me, but it’s refreshing to listening to something that I like while having absolutely no understanding of.

For example, none of the opening of the song below makes sense to me, and I’ve been trying to play it myself at least since summer. Why start with that drum solo, why end the first riff (E phrygian, which I understand fine) with C# minor, and why not take that catchy riff in A and build a whole song around it instead of quickly moving on (and why into such a wrist-achingly fast bit)? As I said, I enjoy all of this song, but I have little idea why any of it works.

3-month addiction

Gojira’s last 4 albums (along with the first 3 Ghost albums) were almost all I listened to between January and April. A lot of their riffs are just strings of repetitive 8th notes (or sometimes 16ths or triplet 8ths) in unison on every instrument, but this being metal, that is not a mark against them. In fact, their rhythm playing is so in the pocket that it recalls Dave Mustaine’s playing, but instead of being the focus of the entire song, it sets the stage for what actually sound like songs rather than riffs strung together. You wouldn’t think this type of riffage would qualify as “easy to play, hard to play right” in the same way as most Pantera or Van Halen riffs, but just try looking up covers of Toxic Garbage Island and compare how they sound to Gojira, live or in the studio. Their performances show the difference between the kind of heaviness that weighs you down and the kind that sits around you like a thick wool blanket.


Clichés of polyrhythm/meter in metal

Here is my fourth-ever metal post. The others continue to get a few views every day from people who are probably disappointed by the rest of the content of this blog (and vice versa for English teachers who collide with metal posts). Obviously, my music theory metalanguage is quite shabby, but I’m going to try here to describe a few things I’ve heard over and over again in metal bands.

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Music my students like

It’s often said by language teachers that one perk of your job is meeting people you’d ordinarily have little chance to meet.  This is true.  Since I quit running my own English school in suburban Japan, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with office workers or high schoolers.  On the other hand, I have spent a lot more time with my guitars, who are only late when my right hand isn’t cooperating.

A reliable topic for language teachers is food.  Another one is music.  Both tend to produce conversationable (now there’s a coinage I won’t be crowing about) differences in students that are unlikely to produce argument or unpleasantness, just “oh, I feel I know you better now” slightly better rapport.

I’ve been regularly exposed to music that I would never have listened to on my own, and only some of it has made me grumble something about kids these days.

Read on for a selection of the only Japanese music I’ve listened to on purpose since Shiina Ringo and Seikima II.

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Top 5 In Flames Power Ballads

In Flames has had a lot of power ballads for a band that is nominally death metal.  Their vocalist Anders still spends about half of each album making noises with his larynx that we would normally associate with radiator problems, but somehow they’ve fit in about one song per album for the last ten years in a recognizably Stairway to Heaven or Every Rose Has Its Thorn mold, with quiet verses, bombastic choruses, and chord progressions from the Diane Warren songbook.  The band is quite open about its 80s infatuation and between the suffocating atmosphere induced by relentless double bass and compressed, downtuned guitars it can be refreshing to find an open meadow of lush green melodies on a record.

Mind you, the band wasn’t always melodic in the sense a non-metal fan would understand.  Their first ten years had melody confined to the guitars, and even Anders’ growls were more guttural then than now.  The pop sense that infuses their current output really only became apparent in 1999 with the hummably catchy opening track of Colony. They also had hints of their ballad-writing potential with tracks like Satellites and Anstronauts off the wonderful Clayman album.  These two albums marked a departure from the Swedish folk (at least as metal fans understand it) -influenced sound of their early work to a more conventional rock sound that TROO FANS (every metal band more than 5 years old has these) still resent.

On to the top 5 (out of 5).

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Gardenian

I spent much of my college years and the years immediately thereafter listening to a fairly popular subgenre of metal called “Swedish Death Metal”, supposedly identifiable by the “Gothenburg sound”.  For the layman, imagine Iron Maiden or other meat-and-potatoes melodic metal bands with screamy, not grunty, death vocals.

Several such bands, including In Flames and Arch Enemy, have achieved almost legendary status among younger fans now, much like Megadeth or Anthrax were to my generation.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s a mid-90s In Flames track.  To me what makes it supremely Gothenburgy is the Iron Maiden-esque guitar interludes and the implied melody underlying the vocals.  In a lot of other death metal bands the vocals are almost a rhythm instrument, but not so with Gothenburg bands.

(Anders, the vocalist, was still starting to learn English at this point, leading to some fun mispronunciations a la “architecture” around 0:45)

One of the less known bands from the late-90s surge in Gothenburg-style bands (most of which were indeed from Gothenburg, Sweden) but which has been one of my favorites since I was introduced to them by a drummer friend is Gardenian.  Gardenian had enough unique qualities to make them stand out among their class, and actually has gone on to play a role in the careers of other, still-surviving bands.

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