Τετάρτη, 17 Οκτωβρίου 2012

Wintersun - Time I (2012)

Wintersun is a band that, in a way, didn't actually need to release another album past their first one. It belongs to this small number of bands/musicians that wrote a magnum opus, a 9th symphony, straight from the beginning. Jari could have rejoined Ensiferum or made other, easier (and faster!) projects that would have sustained him as a professional musician, leaving this album as a single offering of excellence and a producer of eternal fame. Instead, he's been struggling for over than 6 years to come with the sophomore album, striving to widen and perfect even further his vision; for that alone, he is a hero of some kind. There is no epitome of perfection in the world and even "Wintersun" has pretty obvious faults and weaknesses that might make one think "what if..?" However, it is a rational "what if" in the aftermath of a total spiritual success. With great and complex music such as Wintersun's, the threads of magic are not clearly discernible and one playing with them risks a lot. For every solution two other problems might occur, for every "fault" that is fixed an emotion might be subdued. Jari seems to have understood that. Time, coupled with patience is certainly the greatest advisor. 

"Time I" is an album that expands in many directions beginning from the debut, however the question is; does it stem from a similarly vibrant source of inspiration? Surprisingly, it also features even more obvious faults than the first one on the production side, that sometimes detract from the listening experience. Jari has took up the production and mixing himself in this record, a decision I applaud as it is the best option for composers of complex and elaborate music, as its nuances can hardly be understood by anyone except the composer himself. However, some of his decisions are peculiar (and they certainly are pure artistic decisions, he sure had all the Time in the world not to miss anything). While I'm theoretically very positive to albums that sport a wide dynamic range, "Time I" features severe loudness fluctuation that makes me either jump from my chair or reach for the volume control. I imagine that, in the course of increasing orchestral influence, Jari wanted to give the dynamics of a symphonic orchestra to his heavy metal band. The problem is that it's not always done correctly, or that it is overdone, it seems as the instruments are squashed of their natural dynamics typically for a modern metal production and then programmed to the desirable; it feels unnatural at times, like you can see Jari's hand moving the faders. Also, the drums are unexpectedly buried in the mix and the bass is often untamed (perhaps unlike the majority of Wintersun fanbase, I don't see so many Hollywood blockbusters as to enjoy hearing an earthquake in the middle of a song). Negatives aside, the production is still much more powerful, atmospheric and expansive than "Wintersun", largely because of the bigger prominence of various layers of synths and effects. It is actually a very bold and original vision that, if perfected in Time part II, will be something totally unique to the metal world, in which the orchestra had been always subdued in the mix and conservatively used as another synth layer. For "I" though, I wish Jari had a professional mixing assistant (or an opinionated mastering engineer) in his side that would trim off some of the excesses. 

Let's go at last to the music. There are no great stylistic changes comparing to the debut, to put it bluntly and non-poetically, it seems like an orchestral, pimped-out-in-every-aspect version of it. This might sound bad, but in reality it is what everybody probably expected and wanted, and actually is an amazing feat of courage and inspiration. The album's intro, "When Time Fades Away" is a foray into the epic midi territory that is on the same level with the music of some of the best game composers out there (and perhaps there's even an influence from the Japanese ones). The first real song, "Sons of Winter and Sons" is almost like Wintersun passed through the bombast of the "300" soundtrack or these "Two Steps In Hell" guys. These horns are sure damn loud, but the essence of Wintersun's music does not lie there. It is in their glacial, pure as childlike wonder sense of melody and harmony, in its frantic and inspired progressions, in these amazing climaxes of emotion. Is any one these here?

After 2-3 listens, the mind begins to recover from the shock caused by all the bombast and begins to notice all the small details, the second and third voices/melodic lines, being able to really go along with the song as an active listener. The answer is: YES. "Sons of Winter and Sun" is a triumph for the band and will always go along "Starchild", "Winter Madness" and I dare yet say, "Way of The Fire" as one of their greatest magic spells. The level of complexity and density has risen, as there is no single guitar line without its counterpoint, while in the background there lies always an orchestral arrangement playing, a traditional Japanese flute, harps, female voices, choirs. The themes of the album hardly are presented with repetition as in typical heavy metal fashion, but are adorned with constant variation, leading into each other almost in enthusiastic hastiness, before one has a chance to fully absorb them (thanks Zeus for the replay button) - as the melodic vocals of Jari are this time more prominent, together with the virtual orchestra they take many melodic lines away from the guitars, so it makes sense to talk about themes rather than riffs in this album. "Son...” alternates between destructive anger, angst, beauty, mystery, powerful determination, awe, enlightenment. It goes directly to being one of the greatest heavy metal songs of history for me.

I never was a huge fan of the slow Wintersun songs, which says a lot about how much I love the fast ones. It perhaps has to do with Jari's background as a shredder, or that he simply needs more space to fit in his long evolving melodies, but to me, they are in the same level with Ensiferum's best songs, which is to say "just good" (Moonsorrow are the masters of slow and epic Finnish folkish metal, just so that you know). So when "Land of Snow and Sorrow" begins, my expectations are not the highest. It does not shatter them completely, but it manages to hold the album in a quality level. Here, the orchestral instrumentation backs off a bit and stays in the background as in the first album. Like the other slow songs in "Wintersun", it is almost mono-thematic and with the exception of the expected, but adventurous middle section (which reminded me a bit of Devin Townsend in the end, was curious to see if this influence would finally materialize) it is just nice to listen to. Even though I like the basic melody, one cannot expect to keep high interest by elaborating on it for so long, except if this one is Beethoven, say. Moderation isn't Jari's strongest point as a composer; however he's fighting it, understanding the need for a break in the intensity and pace of the album. In an eight-song album, this one wouldn't be a problem, but in this shortened to half 40-minute edition of Time, I feel I would have welcomed something stronger.

"Darkness and Frost" is a short, two-minute introduction to the brilliant basic melody of "Time" and should have been left as one track altogether, meaning I have the feeling they were divided rather than intended as separate tracks from the beginning (hey guys, some of my favorite metal albums are comprised of four tracks!) So, "Time", here we go; the same-titled track of the original intended album, assumably the stronger or among the 2-3 strongest tracks of both Time I & II, it is hereupon that you are judged (at least until the second offering). I'll cut the drama short, there is enough in the album; it's the second fucking triumph of the album. This song features some irritating loudness fluctuation as well so I had to put headphones in quite loud volume at this point, which seems to be the correct way to listen to this album (I can't say about monitors as I can't put them as high in my apartment, but oh Jari, I sure hope you didn't mix this way).

Get ready to be faced with endless layers of melody here, I am truly at a loss to describe the depth of emotion and the immensity presented. I will say that this song is perhaps his culmination as a composer as of yet. The song's also comprised of a small number of basic themes, but like the great classical composers, his treatment of them via massive orchestration and delicate counterpointing so masterful that one is swept by the flow, forgetting all about themes of structures or where exactly are we in the song, how long until it finishes and so on, living only in the Magical Now. Is this Wintersun's treatment against Time, to extinguish it, at least for the duration of this song? "Time fades away - you'll never be the same" - it seems like an obvious statement, probably juvenile in the context of the lyric sheet of a music album, at least for the "mature" or "tasteful" listeners, but Jari with his dramatic treatment returns to it the importance it deserves. Metal music doesn't need to use long words or Wittgenstein references in order to be philosophical, it just needs to address these eternal, simple questions with the immensity, conviction and depth that is needed for the listener to confront them and make them his/her own. "Time", the song, doesn't even need to burst into blastbeats or maniacal chord progressions to enchant us, the purity of its melodies, its glorious somberness suffices to lift up our souls into the skies. 

Probably Jari's greatest victory against time is that his music will be eternal, surely to be heard in the ages to come. Gustav Mahler has said "Nothing will stand the passing of time, except this which has been perfected upon in every detail". I don't know if this already has been the motto of Jari, but he sure works like he's known it forever. On the other hand, "Time I" is not entirely satisfying to listener, as it leaves one dry, ending at the moment the enthusiasm reaches its greatest peak. It doesn't really feel like an album, with its three songs and one intro and personally I will be ripping both albums and putting them in the same folder when "II" is hopefully released. I'm certain it will take about a year until I can really follow along to reach to the end without having it melt my brain, but until then it will at least feel better conceptually. Therefore, any attempt to make a comparison between the two albums should wait until then. It's also interesting to note that, for me at least, the essence of "Wintersun" lies in basically just four songs that transcend to reach the plane of divinity; with "Time I" I believe we already have two. 

The greatest thing with "Time" is that is transcends expectation, it shows that there can be hope against the law of mediocrity, that there are people who can rise into excellence more than once in their lifetime, that can face the destructive winds of Time and stand strong. But, hey Jari, don't just chill and rest yet, you've got a second part to deliver (and please, be extra careful with these faders!). The rating is just for Wintersun standards - there's absolutely no one else in their league. Oh, and remember to listen to this with good headphones - and loud, please. 


Δευτέρα, 1 Οκτωβρίου 2012

Dimmu Borgir - Enthrone Darkness Triumphant (1997)

If only metal musicians were educated, tasteful people with a wide knowledge and experience of the world around them. Heavy metal music would then be much more than this adolescent underground oddity with rare flashes of excellence; it would be a recognized musical genre, respected if not embraced by the majority of musically experienced people. Trying to make this happen is a phase many of us metalheads-with-good-taste go through, trying to transform metal itself by creative endeavors (musicians) or by pointing out the good elements to the said category and leaving out/critisizing the bad (journalists, record-label owners, etc).

This is surely one of the more critisized and shunned-upon records in the metal genre. Dimmu Borgir's carnivalesque, commercial and gothic-leaning, keyboard-laden works have for long been the laughing stock of supposedly serious, intelligent listeners. Their commercial success was at a time even considered a threat to the integrity of the black metal movement, with some pretty volatile and borderline-criminal insults thrown at them through various metal publications. Their music was thrown all-together to the trashcan as a pop-metal variation of bm. Obviously these reactions were pretty much reasonable; to put it simply and bluntly, Dimmu Borgir are idiots, as proven by their eternal oblivion as to the ridiculousness of their aesthetics and attitude. But what of the music? Surely it is a product of the same minds, but the musical mind is in fact not the same as the logical mind, as shown, for example, in savant musical geniuses or the self-destructiveness and madness in the personal lives of many brilliant musicians. 

If I had the time for it, I'd make an experiment. I'd upload this album with invented band and song titles, stolen artwork from somewhere else or even new lyrics (let's pretend Shagrath's vocal lines weren't as clear as they are) all assembled according to the aesthetics of currently considered "quality" acts. The "epic" and aggressive songs could be similar to Winterfylleth or Primordial, evoking a kind of elitist, "folk noir", pagan pride of resistance against modern decay and cultural extinction, or the "Luciferian Excellence" of various trippy, 70's inspired occult acts. The atmospheric songs would have a post-rockish, wide-landscape-immersion vibe similar to what matured, genre-transcending depressive/ambient bm bands do. I have a feeling that before someone has a chance to point out the obvious, many victims coming from the younger generation of literate, open-minded black metal fans will have been found, exhalting or trying to find more information on this cult new band.

Although I haven't really discovered so until lately, the music in this album is good. It is often kitschy, but not in a grander way than the kind of naiveté’ we have come to forgive in our favorite 70's rock or 80's heavy metal bands. It is not silly, and although it often seems overtly mellow and emotionally-patronizing in the way of AOR bands, it is all in the context of black metal thinking. If you can like Queensryche, it doesn't really make sense to hate this record (I'm talking about the mp3-without-images-without-lyrics kind of listening session here). And Dimmu Borgir is much more than Queensryche or a gothic-ballad band in this record, in fact they offer some excellent black metal along the way.

The distance between what the band claims to play and what the band actually plays had always been the root of all the fuzz. Enthrone Darkness Triumphant essentially is pretty much about light as it is about darkness. It is about beauty as it is about ugliness. Perhaps Enthrone Darkness Triumphant could even be one of the crowning jewels of Christian black metal in an alternate universe. There’s nothing tormenting in “In Death’s Embrace” music, but a sweetness that would be more easily interpreted as an eagerness to connect with a benevolent divinity, rather than the spit and piss in his sacred flesh that the lyrics mention. Dimmu Borgir is schizophrenic and almost totally incoherent if any kind of parallel course between the music and the outside context is followed by the listener. “Succubus in Rupture” does indeed convey a dark eroticism with a hint of tragedy for its first half, and then unfurls into one of the most elegiac, fragile, pure, white-light-surrounding-all moments heard in all metal. Not exactly my idea of the devil’s whore, more like the first time these guys touched hands with a girl in the flowery yard of elementary school.

Most other songs in the album are basically epic melodic metal songs that are closer to the early childlike wonder of Finnish bands such as moonsorrow or ensiferum. They are like full of joy and discovery for an ancient magical world. This is mostly a power metal album with hints of darkness, that more so depict a dynamic kind of struggle rather than misanthropic hatred.

Of course, this is not High Art. Music needs connecting threads with life, desires, ideologies, stuff stronger than escapism or carnivalesque grotesqueness. However, a creative mind should also train itself to fill in the gaps when it's needed. Metal music doesn't always has to have thoughtful lyrics and awe-inspiring visions; as with experimental, abstract music, it can be enough to only have a spark and a drive. The listener can provide the rest.