Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tyranny - Tides of Awakening

An album for the mentally ill

Remember back in my review for The Crimson Idol where I mentioned that when I'm feeling blue, I tend to just listen to depressing music to wallow in for a time?  And do you also remember my review for The Day It All Came Down where I basically wrote a really roundabout suicide note and framed it around a review?  Well I'm in that kind of mood again.  And since I don't drink or beat my children, I purge my negativity and cope with sadness by writing reviews about depressing metal albums and covering them with swaths of esoteric imagery.  The culprit today?  The ever absorbent Tides of Awakening, the only album from Finnish undertakers, Tyranny.

As far as I know, this is the first funeral doom album I've ever reviewed (depends on if you count Year of No Light I suppose), and one of the reasons I've always held off on writing about this genre, despite liking it plenty, is because I feel like once I write one, I'll have written them all.  It's a good style, no doubt, and it's all about mood and atmosphere as opposed to riffing or melodies or something, like most of the high octane music I listen to.  But the problem with the genre as a whole is that you can use the same four words to describe every album, and then just fluctuate how well each band handles every element.  We know it's gonna be atmospheric, we know it's gonna be slow, we know it's gonna be based in doom/death, we know the vocals are going to be distant and deep, the only new information I can provide is whether or not each of these elements are handled competently on whichever album I'm talking about.

As far as I'm concerned, Tyranny handles everything marvelously.  And yet, at the same time, I don't even really know what it is that they do at all.  I mean, I can gather that there are Lovecraftian themes, but I don't give a shit.  I hear they take big heaps of influence from genre progenitors like Thergothon and Skepticism, but I couldn't care less about that if I tried.  All that really matters to me, and all that should matter to you, is that Tides of Awakening is monumentally heavy, and completely suffocating in its unbelievably oppressive atmosphere.

The songs themselves don't do much to differentiate themselves from one another, but once again that's not really the point.  "Coalescent of the Inhumane Awareness" has a really haunting lead melody, but that lead melody doesn't sound all that different from the rest of the melodies to be found, so I wouldn't feel right singling it out like I just did, but I'm a hypocrite in the throes of crippling depression rambling about depressing music.  The point is that when it comes to the actual musical aspects, this is exactly what you'd expect.  Glacial pace doom/death riffs underneath layered backing synths and melancholic, haunting lead guitar.  What I love about this guitar is that it doesn't ever come off like a guitar normally would, it instead manifests as this completely different entity; a completely abstract spirit that sends down gentle coos of reassuring warmth that get twisted into demonic abominations by the time they reach your ears.  It's both pleasant and unnerving at the same time, and it works towards the overwhelming atmosphere in ways I previously couldn't imagine.

It's really the atmosphere that makes this album work.  If I'm being totally honest, it's the only element that I can even recall or appreciate about it in most instances.  Here I am giving a high score to an album that I'll fully admit to not even knowing the track names for (and there are only fuckin' five of them), but it's because this doesn't stick with you for the same reason something from a more energetic genre will.  I'm never going to hear a part in any given funeral doom album that makes me go "Whoa shit, that was awesome, what track was that?" like I would with an album in pretty much any other genre.  That's a characteristic of funeral doom as a whole to me, and Tides of Awakening just exemplifies it.  From start to finish, this is basically one monstrous plateau of misery and helplessness.  Sure, each song builds and climaxes appropriately, but at no point does the music take me anywhere other than the loneliest place imaginable.  It's basically just one huge, hour long experience where you just sit at the bottom of the ocean while the weight of all the water pushes down upon you, and you struggle for air for a short while before understanding the cosmic futility of your perseverance, and then simply waiting to lose consciousness underneath all the pressure.  The entire experience is just one long funeral dirge, wherein you spend all of the time alternating between reflecting upon the mistakes you made and then cursing yourself for allowing it all to end with those loose ends still hanging.  I can't even call this a "journey" like I tend to when trying to be vague and metaphorical with my description, because it's very static.  At no point do I feel like my story is progressing, I'm just sitting here, being pummeled ever so slowly by the increasing weight of each wave. 

See, I feel like the metal album that most accurately sums up the frustration of bipolarity, depression, anxiety, and most other self-crippling mental illnesses of the sort is City by Strapping Young Lad.  Hell, there are even other albums within this very genre that I'm sure deal with much more emotional themes than whatever dystopian ballyhoo Tyranny drones on and on about here, but the general mood is almost perfect for what this kind of lethargic self loathing represents.  When you're in a spot where the entire world is grey, and every attempt to move forward is met with your own body resisting you, sapping your will to even bother trying to improve yourself since you know that swimming ten feet upwards isn't going to get you out of that ocean, Tides of Awakening is the album that is playing in your mind.  It's just dirge after dirge after dirge, reminding you that you are worthless and weak and will never get ahead as long as every time you look upward, you're met with miles of crystal clear water.  You can see the surface, but my friend, you are not getting there.  The vocalist may be deeply roaring about Yog Sothoth's pubic lice for all I know, but in my mind it's just the disgruntled bellows of my subconscious reminding me of all the mistakes I've made in my life and why I'll never see better days. 

I can't keep doing this, all I can do is constantly compare the album to like being trapped under an ocean and then hamfistedly relate my own psychoses to it.  Most people who suffer from these same issue (the sads and the mads) can understand where I'm coming from, and can likely relate to the album in this way as well.  It's atmospherically debilitating and as emotionally weighty as a metaphoric iceberg.  The four traditional songs are crushing and monumental, and the ambient outro is reflective and moderately horrifying.  It's the extracurricular aspects of the album that makes Tides of Awakening so effective to me.  It's the fact that beyond all the suffocating atmosphere, there's a vivid image of myself drowning in my own misery.  Everything is overwhelming and I, personally, drown every time I experience it.  This is an album (and admittely, a review) for me, not for you.  This works because I can relate the smothering atmosphere to my own fears, it works because I react to certain stimuli the way that I do.  If you don't share these same problems, then this just simply isn't going to connect with you on the same emotional plane that it does for me.

RATING - 91%

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Heavatar - Opus I: All My Kingdoms

The Ballad of Diarrhea Girl

Let's talk about my sex life for a minute.

*chorus of uncontrollable laughter*

Yeah yeah, the mental image you're currently conjuring of me touching any part of a woman with my tongue is either repulsive or hysterical, depending on how low your self esteem is, but like most other men in the world, I have a wiener and I like when other people touch it.  The point is, a couple years ago, there was this girl I really, really liked.  My friends know her as Diarrhea Girl (if you want to know the story behind that moniker, feel free to preorder my first book, Poor Decisions, Worse Timing: The Collected Tales of an Unfortunately Hilarious Doofus), and in the realm of purely physical looks, she was... decent.  Most of the time, you could describe her as cute and that was about the extent of it.  She had an illuminating smile, but she tended to present herself as frumpy.  She didn't take much pride in her appearance, she looked like she belonged in a yogurt commercial about 90% of the time.  Sweatpants, hoodie, hair tied up, no makeup, you know the deal.  There were other things about her that made her irresistible to me, but based on pure physicality, she was never going to be cast as the woman in the red dress in The Matrix.  Most of the time.  On occasion, and I only saw this firsthand a few times, she would "get all purty" as she would call it.  Man, when she put effort into looking good, she would just blow me away.  All the greatness I knew she hid underneath the layers of her constant laundry day outfits would just smack me in the proverbial jaw with the force of one of those Punkin Chunkin torsion machines.  Our relationship may have ended on a bizarre, diarrhea scented note, but that's one of the biggest memories I have of her, just how stunning she could look on the extraordinarily rare occasion she would make an attempt.

Apart from simply wanting to plant the visual of me wrestling with my libido through a smog of fecal vapor inside your subconsciousness, this relates to the album at hand because Heavatar is an exercise in painstaking averageness punctuated sporadically with moments of gorgeous brilliance.  This band's existence initially got my blood pumping purely because I'm one of the weird guys who really likes Van Canto beyond the gimmick.  Yeah, their covers are almost always the best songs on any given album (with the exception of Tribe of Force, a legitimately excellent power metal album all the way through), but I find the songwriting to be pretty solid and the arrangements to be interesting at the very least.  Despite this, I've never actively found myself seeking out any of the member's other projects, so hearing lead "guitarist", Stefan Schmidt, behind the mic as a lead vocalist was a sweet prospect for me.  Heavatar is presented as a super group of sorts, although that's pretty misleading considering the rest of the band consists of some dude who played in the pre-Van Canto band, Fading Starlight, the most inconsequential member of Powerwolf, and Jorg Michael, who was awesome in the 80s and 90s with Avenger/Rage, Running Wild, Grave Digger, and others, but hasn't done anything worthwhile in roughly two decades (unless you like Stratovarius, in which case I can safely assume you suck at music).

The band sets the stage in grand fashion, "prophetically" (read: naively) subtitling their first album Opus I, but I must admit that the opening track, "Replica", does an excellent job of conveying the epic attitude the band is aiming for.  It's a very operatic and bombastic tune, devoid of some of the typical power metal crutches like googols of orchestrations, but still retaining the over the top choirs and gesticulating-inducing chorus.  This is the kind of power metal that I just eat up.  It's huge and magniloquent and shows absolutely no shame or restraint, packed to the gills with swagger and machismo.  It's unbelievably catchy and at the same time very meaty and heavy with a healthy twist of neoclassical guitar lines; the kind of power metal that people who hate power metal can enjoy, not unlike a not-quite-as-punishing Persuader or a less boring Morgana Lefay.

But after that?  Be prepared for a host of completely unremarkable, pedestrian, uninspiring, paint-by-numbers power metal.  It's hugely disappointing because "Replica" shows how intricate and entertaining the band can be, but after that they all just kinda sit back and mechanically churn out very bland and faceless songs for most of the rest of the album.  Tracks like "Elysium at Dawn" and "Long Way Home" just happen with utterly zero consequence.  Schmidt has a really neat voice, being deeper and rougher than most singers the genre is so saturated with, but he rarely puts it to good use.  In fact, it's best when being complemented by the choirs, which shows that the band could probably stand to be a little more cliche for the sake of some more entertaining songs.  This ties into my opening because All My Kingdoms isn't bad, but it's pretty unremarkable if not for the cool frontman.  Basically it has a great smile, but the other wonders that surface from time to time are largely hidden by very plain clothing.  I mean really, the title track is completely forgettable, which makes me wonder why on Earth it's even the title track at all.  Shouldn't the song you name your album after be... I dunno, special in some way?  No?  Just a fully unremarkable power metal tune with nothing interesting in it?

I'm being sort of mean here, because despite "Replica" being far and away the best song, there are other good moments.  "Luna! Luna!" is a pretty great song on the whole as well, and the chorus and pre-chorus of "The Look Above" are very exciting and evocative (particularly that "We are running faster!" part), but otherwise there's almost nothing to be found that could raise the seasoned power metal fan's pulse.  Lots of low chugging and soaring choirs, but they're rarely put to good use.  I can guarantee you the band has probably made comments in interviews like "We have great chemistry, the songs came together very easily, they almost wrote themselves, yadda yadda", and I totally believe that, because if a song could hypothetically write itself, it'd probably sound like "Born to Fly".  It's just not exciting, it feels like the band didn't challenge themselves at all and just wrote a bunch of very safe, surefire tunes and called it a day.  With moments like the choruses of "Replica" and "Luna! Luna!", it's pretty clear that the talent contained within the band is very capable of meshing together and crafting some very memorable songs, but it just... never does.

At one point, All My Kingdoms was actually in my Top 13 for the year, but the more I listen to it, the less passionate it feels and the more faceless it becomes.  This still gets a good score because, as I said, it isn't a bad album, not by any stretch of the imagination, but on the strength of songs like "Replica", I could compare the band to heavyweights like Blind Guardian or Kamelot, but with the rest of the album it just kinda falls into an echelon slightly above bands like Power Theory and Torian.  I guess it's worth a listen, the Mattie Jensens of the world will lap this up if nothing else, but for me, it's a very average album on the whole.  Just like Diarrhea Girl, it's cute, but generally nothing you'll dream about inseminating in the bathroom of a classy restaurant (except of course for the rare occasions where it takes pride in its natural gift and presents itself as such).

Also, the closing track, "To the Metal", is goddamn stupid.  It's clearly about how metal is taken too seriously and we all need to remember to have fun with it, which is a message I champion frequently (hence my vocal love of Powerwolf), but it's presented in a very blisteringly stupid way, being largely a solo campfire type song with Schmidt yelling like a goon.  It's cool to be self aware, but just because you know you're making a joke doesn't mean you're allowed to be shitty.

RATING - 67%