Artificial Brain’s Labyrinth Constellation: Sci-Fi Death Metal fit for Star Wars

I discovered the band Artificial Brain last year when their debut record, “Labyrinth Constellation”, hit the world in February. The band’s lead guitar player, Dan Gargiulo, also plays in one of my favorite modern metal acts, Revocation, so I had fairly high expectations for his side project. It turned out that my expectations were not high enough as this record completely blew me away. This is the most original death metal record that I’ve heard in years, the riffs are unique, the drumming pummeling yet musical, the lyrics compelling and the production is outstanding: it’s really the cherry on top of this LP. “Labyrinth Constellation” also uses a science fiction motif to convey it’s signature brand of death metal. All the songs play out as sort of horrible vignettes from outer space, almost sci-fi horror stories. But before I dive in to the nuts and bolts of this record let’s take a second to appreciate this cover art by Paolo “Madman” Girardi. Just look at it

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First up, the guitars. The music on this album is out of this world. Guitar players Dan Gargiulo and Jon Locastro make great use of the entire range of their guitars to craft these parts. Rarely just staying on the bottom 5 frets like a lot of heavy bands today, these songs twist and turn up the neck of the guitar and use the higher notes to add an eerie tone to the tracks. Gargiulo and Locastro use 7-string guitars tuned to standard which breaks another modern day convention of tuning as low as possible. Many people including myself think this race to the bottom of the range of human hearing doesn’t necessarily make songs heavier, but it definitely adds a lot of mud to the music. Here’s my favorite example of the stand out playing on this album, “Absorbing Black Ignition”:

As a drummer, listening to Keith Abrami’s playing on this record is a treat. He undoubtedly has the chops to be in a technical death metal group, but at the same time he knows when to hang back and complement the arrangements. A perfect example of this nibble paying style is the song “Moon Funeral” (particularly the song’s intro). Abrami really sits back in the pocket on this one, making use of metal norms like double bass to create a groove structure that ebbs and flows with the guitar and bass parts before launching into an all out blast beat assault for the verses.

Admittedly, the vocals on this record can be totally unintelligible at times. They still fit the songs and I enjoy them, but when you read along with the lyrics while listening they add a new dimension to the songs. Each song plays out as a sort of vignette, each track a different scene of a cosmic horror story. The topics of these songs range from hordes of space aliens killing space marines, plantes committing suicide, satellites becomes sentient and freeing themselves from their human overlords, etc. I love turning out the lights and reading along to my copy of this LP at night; makes for a fun little scare. “Wired Opposites” is one of my favorite stories (its the one about the satellite freeing itself).

Finally I wanted to talk a little bit about this album’s production value. Artificial Brain recorded and had this album mixed and mastered with Colin Marston at his studio Menegroth: The Thousand Caves (what a name!) in New York City. I’ve been obsessed with Colin’s work for a few years now: I’m a big fan of his spacey black metal band Krallice and I can’t get enough of the most recent Gorguts record which Colin not only produced but played bass on. And Marston’s work on this record does not disappoint. This record isn’t under produced but it is raw: it sounds as abrasive as the music itself and that really supports the music and helps to convey even further the band’s message. It’s kind on the ears and rips your head off at the same time. The drums are punchy, the guitars gritty, the bass just simply massive, and the vocals sound like they’re spewing forth from the bowls of Cthulhu himself.

As you can tell from reading this review, I absolutely love this record. It gave me a good deal of hope with modern death metal and I hope more bands follow Artificial Brain’s example and begin to create their own unique sounds.

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Mastodon’s Leviathan

Sammy’s album of the day today is 2004 landmark album “Leviathan” by Mastodon. This is one of the albums that really blew the hinges off of the new wave of american heavy metal movement that saw its start in the late 1990s and built up with fury to peak in the mid to late 2000s. The success of “Leviathan” even got Mastodon to leave Relapse Records in order to sign with major label giant Warner Brothers Records. Mastodon remain one of only a handful of metal acts on major labels today. So what makes this album so special? Let’s dive in.

Mastodon-Leviathan

The first thing I noticed about this album upon first listen was the riffs. Guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds make their instruments sound like a prehistoric dinosaur coming back to life and climbing its way out of tar pits. No wonder the band gets the moniker “sludge metal”: sounds like some serious snot is running through these amplifiers. The opening track, “Blood and Thunder”, kicks off with one of the most iconic guitar riffs in all of metal, and quite possibly the single best riff of the 2000s. I remember being blown away and immediately pulled into this band after hearing this track. Amazing stuff.

What really sells this album for me is the drumming. Brann Dailor is one of my favorite drummers because he has a very unique approach to metal music. He utilizes a hand intensive, tom heavy, style of jazz drumming in the vein of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa that mashes up quite well with Mastodon’s songs. Dailor plays the drums in a very musical way, often adding to or even being the focus of a part. Here is one of my favorite examples of this type of playing:

One last important thing to mention about this album is that its a concept album based on “Moby Dick” (yes metal musicians also read occasionally). The album goes through the storyline of the novel track-by-track, with choruses like “White whale, holy grail” and song titles such as “I Am Ahab” and “Seabeast”. The only exception to this concept is the instrumental closer, “Joseph Merrick” which pays homage to Mr. Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man.

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Busdriver’s “Perfect Hair”: Alternative Hip Hop’s Best

Busdriver was the artist who got me into rap and hip hop music. Up until I heard his song “Imaginary Places” in early high school I only really listened to music with loud distorted guitars. Busdriver opened my eyes to a whole new world of music. Last year he put out his tenth studio effort “Perfect Hair” and the ‘Driver still continues to blow me away.

“Perfect Hair” is one of the most dense albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Most of the music for these tracks was produced by Kenny Seagul, who also mixed the album. His beats are made up of layers on top of layers of percussive goodness, and every time I listen through this album I pick out some new sounds I haven’t heard before. The track “Eat Rich” is a great example of this instrumental excellence.

But what really sells this album for me is Busdriver’s performance and his lyrics. The way he phrases his words is just so off the wall. The listener never knows what flow is going to come next and in my opinion this originality really sets Busdriver apart from other rappers. Not to mention his style really paved the way for some of the more out-of-left-field hip hop that is beginning to become popular. Here is a great example of Busdriver’s wonderful rapping, as well as some amazing guest spots (Danny Brown is incredible on this track)

Long story short, I have a personal soft spot for Busdriver’s music, and I would recommend that everybody check out his new album “Perfect Hair”

Melodic Death Metal (yes it’s really a thing)

I love sub genre’s, they further explore what umbrella genres are capable of doing and can really push the art to a different level. As a life-long metalhead most of my personal favorite sub genres are underneath the arc of heavy metal music. And the sub genre I would like to talk about in particular is melodic death metal, or melodeath.

Melodic death metal may sound like a glaring oxymoron to most people. How could a style of music obsessed with death, the occult, and other taboo topics be combined with melody? This may be surprising, but the answer is extremely well. Bands that play melodic death metal have found a great way to explore the darker side of life in a way that’s still pleasing to the ears. Groups like Carcass, In Flames, and At The Gates merge the meanest death metal with sing-along guitar lines to create a unique form of expression. The music brings the melodies that the vocals usually lack and that makes for a wonderful balance. Let’s check out a few melodeath bands!

A lot of people credit Carcass with the creation of Melodic Death Metal

One of my personal favorite melodeath bands is Carcass. Hailing from Liverpool, this quartet is about as influential in the metal community as The Beatles are to music as a whole. Starting in the late 1980s and taking artwork and lyrical topics from their singer Jeff Walker’s sister’s medical school texts, Carcass helped to pioneer a style of metal called Grindcore. Grindcore simply put is ugly: the early recordings have awful production value, the vocals are nothing more than yells, and the guitars are so distorted at times its hard to make out the riffs. But Carcass wasn’t content with this style and after a few grindcore years their “Heartwork” album came out in 1993. “Heartwork” is often cited as the first melodic death metal album, or at least the album which defined the sub genre. It’s a fantastic album that I recommend to anyone wanting to try this style of music.

In Flames has been one my favorites for years

Next up on our list is In Flames. In Flames comes from a city in Sweden called Gothenburg where a number of other melodeath bands, including At The Gates, also call home. In fact, there is so much melodeath from Gothenburg that there is a certain “Gothenburg sound” all of these bands embody. In Flames started out in 1990 as a side project of Jesper Stromblad as a way for him to write more melodies that his other band, Ceremonial Oath, wasn’t doing too much of. The band eventually grew and became Jesper’s main project, and thank god it did for this band has put out 10 amazing albums and a few EPs to boot over a fruitful twenty-five year career. Their album “Colony” is my favorite In Flames album and one of my all time favorite records. The main reason I love this band more than any other melodeath counterpart is their ability to write not only great songs, but great choruses as well. Super catchy stuff

The Slayer of melodeath

Finally on our short list of melodeath must hears we come to At The Gates. At The Gates is one of the more ferocious bands in this scene, using melody as a way of adding a melancholic layer to their blistering speed metal. Their sound is very reminiscent of thrash metal at many points, with relentless riffage and drums at a million miles per hour. They blew the hinges off of melodeath with their seminal 1995 masterpiece “Slaughter of the Soul”, a half hour ripper of an album that earned them the nickname “Swedish Slayer”. At The Gates recently staged a reunion and comeback album in 2014 with “At War With Reality”. This album not only honors their 1990s legacy but pushes the band further into the future. Can’t wait for more from these guys.

Thanks for reading about some of my favorites from one of my favorite sub genres. I think I’ll do more posts on sub genres in the future. After all, they keep the musical world turning ’round and ’round..

Interview: Brandon Maertz of We Are As Ronin

For this installment of Sammy’s Music spot, I interviewed a local music scene hero of mine: Brandon Maertz. Brandon plays guitar, handles backup vocal duties, and is the principal songwriter in the band We Are As Ronin (WAAR), a post-hardcore band located here in Cincinnati. We Are As Ronin have a unique sound, combining melodic influences from Thrice and aggressive influences from bands like Killswitch Engage to create post-hardcore that is thoughtful in songcraft without sacrificing furious emotions that are brought to life with pummeling heavy passages.

We Are As Ronin is back after a few month hiatus due to drastic lineup changes. A year and a half ago three fifths of the band quit, leaving Brandon and bassist Chris “Finn” Finley with the daunting task of finding new members. WAAR found guitarist Ben Newton pretty quickly and yours truly stepped in behind the drumkit to help them play two gigs that were booked before the old members’ exit. After going through another drummer and countless singer auditions, the band found the perfect fits with Scotty Lewis on drums and Jon Headley as the group’s new frontman.

WAAR Lineup

Let’s get to the interview:

Sammy: So WAAR’s last line up didn’t end too well and you and Finn have been rebuilding for awhile, how did you find the band’s new lineup? Have you found the perfect fit for WAAR?

Brandon: We’re so very confident in this new lineup. Fall of last year, I met Scotty at a pop punk show in Dayton said he was fresh out of a band and starting a band of his own. I said great, I’ll be on the lookout for that. About a month later, he said “Hey maybe we should just play together and see what happens.” So we went to his house one day to jam, he smacked right through his kick drum head during ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, but in the half of an hour we did play together it was pretty clear that this was going to work. This was late fall of last year, we were still looking for a singer but in the meantime I took over singing. My girlfriend put an ad out on Craigslist, and Headley responded, not expecting anything out of it. After a back and forth via email he came out to a rehearsal in February. I didn’t think he would show up because of how many people swore they would come and didn’t show up. We immediately had a bro-ment, Headley and Ben complained about their ex-wives together. We started playing and it didn’t take three whole minutes for us to know this was going to work. I was sold. These were not his songs, these were my songs, aimed at a group of people and a specific person that he doesn’t know and will never meet. And the first time these words came out of his mouth in front of me it felt like he had written it, like he had felt it. I have an ear for genuine, when someone is speaking from the heart I can feel it. It’s hard to explain, it’s easy to call bullsh*t on, but I just know when people are being genuine. Unless they’re pretty girls, I’m often wrong about them. But I knew Headley meant it.

So after a really really long period of not sleeping well, of spacing out at work, spacing out at home, of people I care about that are close to me asking ‘What’s wrong, what’s on your mind?’ The band, what am I going to do? ‘That’s what you were upset about that two weeks ago, you had to have come up with something or just let it go’ No. I’m upset, I am not whole, I cannot play music right now. This is on my mind, it’s going to be on my mind. And that was lifted in like 3 and a half minutes. The second he said he was in I knew, because I trusted him.

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The man, the myth, the legend

Sammy: You’re first show back was last Saturday, March 14th at The Loft opening for the Touring Dead Tour, featuring Famous Last Words, Tear The Heart Out, and For All I Am. How did the gig go for you guys?

Brandon: We went on second, which I was pretty happy about. Not because I think we deserve to not open, but because the sound guy doesn’t get into the groove until the third or fourth band and I like to be closer to that groove. We are a high maintenance live band, three vocals, DIs, etc. I was pretty nervous, this was our first time back, first time with this new thing. There’s a thousand things that could go wrong, we don’t have the chemistry yet. We don’t normally do it, but I called a short huddle before starting the set, and then it happen. Our set started with an intro track, followed by a single snare hit into our first song, which is a very driving straight-forward tune. At no point during the set did I think “something is going wrong” or “this doesn’t feel right”. I let it happen exactly how it was going to happen. Other than some monitor issues we didn’t stop. It felt right. We were on autopilot. We let our faith in each other be the glue, we just did it like we’ve always done it and it was outstanding.

Sammy: What is the process behind the songwriting in WAAR? Do you bring full songs to the practice space? Do other members pitch in?

Brandon: I write the majority of the music for the band. I have folders upon folders of riffs and song ideas on my computer and from time to time I’ll finish one and bring it to the practice space or bring some parts and ask the band to work on the song with me. Finn is our bullsh*t filter: he’ll tell me when a part isn’t good enough. Sometimes we’ll work on a song for hours and get stuck and Finn will say “this all sucks besides this part and that part”, it’s about 50/50, sometimes I show him more and he gets the big picture, but that input is invaluable.

Sammy: When can we expect a release from you guys and what are your plans for the future?

Brandon: We have ninety percent of a single tracked, it is fifty percent mixed, but we’re waiting on a high profile guest vocal to cut the intro of the song. We haven’t set a date because of that guest vocal. Mixing shouldn’t take long and we’ll probably go to Zach Sebastian at Third Eye Studios (http://tinyurl.com/kfpekwo) for mastering. Go ahead and quote me on this: if this thing isn’t out by the beginning of May, there is something seriously wrong with us. There will be tactful campaign to back up the release, press photos, teasers, etc. We have our ducks in a row, just have to finish these things and release them. After the single is out we’ll finish up and release the EP, currently torn between two names for EP at the moment. But it’ll be three familiar songs, one that has been rewritten, maybe one or two orchestral interludes. Soon, to further answer your question. Soon.

Sammy: Any tour plans?

Brandon: At the present moment two of us have SUVs, we have access to a small minivan. We don’t want to stay in Cincinnati, it is a black hole, it’s clique-y. We spent nine months with the last lineup playing every show we could possibly get our hands on, to little to no response from most crowds. I want people to respond, even if it’s negative. The gig last Saturday with this new line was the second best crowd response I’ve ever had. That’s rare here. We hope our base of operation can move to Dayton, and then we can venture out to other cities in the region. The sooner we can get out of here, the better.

Sammy: Thanks for taking the time to talk for a bit and answer some questions Brandon, I cannot wait to see WAAR again.

Brandon: Anytime Sam, thanks for coming out.

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LoZ cab = best cab ever

I had a great time interviewing Brandon and I can’t wait for the WAAR EP to come out. He showed me a sneak preview and it should turn a few heads in the Cincy scene, I recommend everyone check out this band.My band, The Requiem, will be playing with We Are As Ronin and a few other bands tonight at Tacocracy in Northside at 9pm. Come out early for tacos!

Sempiternal: Bring Me The Horizon’s Rebirth

For today’s blog entry I thought I’d write about something I’ve been listening to a lot recently. My listening trends are kind of odd: at any one point I’ll be really into a few albums and not really listen to anything else for a week or two. I’ll go months without listening to an artist or album that I know I really enjoy, and one day I’ll rediscover them and fall in love all over again. This week I did this with the band Bring Me The Horizon and their most recent full length “Sempiternal”

The lead single off of “Sempiternal” shows off the band’s new found sound 

BMTH is a band with an interesting career path. Starting out as one of the deathcore scene’s premiere acts, BMTH has been able to evolve their sound while retaining their popularity instead of fading out of the spotlight with the coming and going of trends in heavy music. A big reason of why the band has adapted over the years (their recent output barely resembles their early material at this point) is lead singer Oli Sykes’ vocal problems. At some point around their third album cycle, Sykes blew out his voice (something that tends to happen when you have to yell hour-long sets on tour 9 months a year) and was forced to change how he sings. This has lead to a more post-hardcore/alternative sound from BMTH, with Sykes using more melody in his vocal lines and a new, primal sort of scream that really adds a new emotional dimension to the band’s sound.

This track shows off Syke’s singing ability 

Compared to their older material, BMTH’s new sound is simpler and more straightforward. They haven’t sacrificed any of their intensity (there will still be catchy one liners before brutal break-downs) but they have greatly improved their songwriting ability. The array of textures present in the music has been expanded with the addition of Jordan Fish on keys, synths, and programming duties. Fish adds depth to the songs on “Sempiternal” and puts a fresh spin on metalcore with his use of electronics. In addition to all of these new sounds, Sykes really stepped up his lyrical game for this effort. Having struggled in overcoming a crippling addiction to ketamine, Sykes had a lot of dark personal experience to draw upon for lyrical inspiration. His recovery is the predominate theme on this album, but religion also plays a big role. Oli Sykes is apparently not into the idea of religion one bit, and he has no problem letting everybody know.

“And when you die the only kingdom you’ll see is 2 foot wide and 6 foot deep”

“Sempiternal” is a very compelling album from a band that isn’t ready to go away yet. This album marked a new chapter in BMTH’s career and is my favorite effort from the band to date. I can’t wait to hear where they take their sound in the future and see them in concert again.

Death Grips – Constructing Hip Hop’s Horizon

Very few musical acts get me as excited about music itself as Death Grips does. This avant garde hip hop trio out of Sacramento, California combines experimental sounds, off the wall beats, extremely aggressive and usually violent vocals (both in the delivery and the lyrics), as well as samples they collect on the streets to create the most unique rap sound I’ve ever heard. In the past five years or so there has been an explosion of experimental hip hop and Death Grips are at the forefront of this movement. In this post I’d like to take a few words to discuss their 2012 full length debut “The Money Store”, which blew the hinges off of the experimental hip hop scene.

92277814The Money Store

Some nasty cover art to match some nasty noise

Having been picked up by Sony owned Epic Records after the wildfire underground success of their mixtape “Exmilitary”, Death Grip’s debut LP was highly anticipated to say the least. Thankfully “The Money Store” lived up to all of the hype and anticipation the band had generated. This album’s songs are so well thought out and composed, the performances as tight as can be, and the production rich and deep. Clocking in at just over forty minutes, these thirteen tracks fly by without much of a dip. “The Money Store” is a lean, mean, hip hop killing machine.

The most ‘traditional’ of The Money Store’s tracks makes for a great starting point

The first thing that jumped out at me about these tracks is the strength of the choruses. The hooks on this album are some of the best in the game, brought to life by the combination of MC Ride’s gritty, visceral vocals and a steadfast musical background with slick production. And while the choruses serve as the center piece for just about all of these tracks, the verses are a force to be reckoned with. MC Ride spits bars in such an angry manner; I’m convinced that he’s experienced and seen a lot of the things he writes about.

Sammy’s favorite hook on the album

But aside from MC Ride’s vocal poweress, band mates/producers Andy Morin and Zach Hill seal the deal with their beats and textures. Morin plays keys and synths in the group, and adds some pretty thick textures to the band’s compositions. His parts glue everything together as well as adding layers upon layers of almost hidden noises; every time I listen to this album I pick out something that I hadn’t noticed before. Hill is the band’s drummer and his playing really sets Death Grips apart from their peers. He’s very fluid in his drumming and his parts compliment Morin’s work well.

“The Money Store” is the album that really flung me headlong into rap and hip hop music. I had been familiar with the genre before discovering this band, I had my favorite few rappers that I listened to from time to time, but I had not realized the full potential of this style of music until I heard “The Money Store” for the first time in late 2013. It promptly blew my mind, made me a Death Grips fan for life, and opened my eyes to an entire genre of undiscovered artists for me to fall in love with.