Album of the Month: Opeth – ‘Pale Communion’

It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while to see Opeth mentioned here again. They’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since I discovered them, well over a decade ago, and their music has seen me through thick and thin. Although a metal band in their early days, Opeth’s music has very much drifted into the progressive spectrum with recent albums, a shift that has divided old fans but brought them legions of new ones. Am I sometimes a little nostalgic for the old, death metal Opeth? Yes. However, I’ve long been a prog fan too, and ‘Pale Communion’ proves just how perfectly Opeth have been able to embrace the genre.

Although their previous album also had strong progressive leanings, ‘Pale Communion’ is a very different beast. Whereas ‘Heritage’ never quite seemed to find its rhythm, sometimes sounding a bit too laboured, ‘Pale Communion’ is entirely cohesive, working best – as many prog albums do – when listened to from start to finish. And what a start that is! There’s simply no mistaking the opening song, ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’, for anything other than prog rock (in case you missed what has to be a reference to ELP’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with the cover), and the rest of the album follows suit. There are guitar solos, synths aplenty, and the whole is overlaid with Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soft, ever-mesmerising vocals.

This isn’t just a pastiche of 70s prog rock, though. The whole album certainly leans in that direction (and there are moments that are pure Argent or Camel), but there are so many complex, intriguing hints here at something greater. There are riffs that could easily have come from one of the band’s earlier albums (the start of ‘Elysian Woes’ strongly hints at ‘Damnation’, for example), yet the two styles mesh perfectly together, forming a coherent sound that’s as compelling as it is intricate.

It’s fair to say that I really love this album. It grows on me every time I listen to it, revealing new subtleties and new layers. If you’ve previously been an Opeth fan, I’d say give it a try: it’s different from their earlier work, certainly, but so much of the complexity I’ve always loved in their music is still here. At its core though, ‘Pale Communion’ is both a tribute to 70s progressive rock and a perfect example of how much life there still is in the genre – and how looking to the past for inspiration isn’t always a step backwards.

This Writing Life: Music and Writing, Part 2

In my last post, I talked about music as a means of helping you to write, using it as a distraction, to improve concentration, or as a timer. Today, I’m looking at the other side of the equation: using specific music to help in the writing of specific projects.

It’s not uncommon to come across authors, particularly those writing series, who use music as inspiration or mood-setting. Certain songs will be associated with certain scenes, characters or locations – playing those songs immediately sets the tone and mood for writing about those things.

Now, I can’t tell you how to go out and pick a specific song for your protagonist, say. I’m not even sure you should. This is one of those situations where a song is much more likely to come to you at random, either because it gets stuck in your head while you’re writing said character, or reminds you of them when you hear it. Once you’ve found that song, though, listening to it can help you return to that character’s personality and thoughts, particularly when you’re struggling to capture them.

In the same way, music is a great tool for setting a mood more generally. I talked about Spotify playlists in my last post, and whilst I was referring to improving concentration for writing in general, there are several that set a much more specific mood. Perhaps your characters are going to a party and you want to hear what they’d be hearing and feel the same surge of adrenaline; perhaps you simply need to write a scene that’s joyful, or melancholic, or dark and angry. Finding music that evokes these emotions can be one of the quickest ways to translate that same emotion onto the page.

And then there are songs that are an inspiration in themselves. Songs often tell a story of their own (more on than in a future post!), and sometimes that story can spark ideas for your writing. As an example, the music and song titles from MONO’s ‘Hymn to the Immortal Wind’ album inspired me to write a short story filled with angry ghosts and snow-bound peaks; for some reason, those images simply popped into my head whilst listening to it (and it’s an entirely instrumental album, so that really was images conveyed through music). Other songs tell stories through their lyrics: certain lines from Vienna Teng’s ‘Blue Caravan’ send a shiver through me at every listen, and frequently make me imagine the world in which the featured character lives.

Music is just as personal a form of creativity as writing, and the same goes for listening to it. The emotions created in one listener will be entirely absent in another, or will call to mind something completely different. Learning which songs or artists trigger particular moods for you, or evoke certain characters, or simply tell stories that move you, can be invaluable for writers – they can be windows into worlds we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and ways to revisit them when they otherwise seem lost.

This Writing Life: Writing and Music, Part 1

It’s fair to say that I’m a big fan of music. I’ve never played an instrument, but since my early teenage years I must have spent thousands of pounds on CDs, attending concerts, and various other music paraphernalia. (I did once do a rough estimate on what my CD collection had cost me up to that point; I think it came out at over £1000, and that was years ago, before I’d even left school.) I’ve been a semi-stalker/groupie of my favourite metal bands, I’ve travelled all over the country to see them play I’ve been to a festival in Germany twice, and there was a time when I was never out of a band t-shirt.

These days, I still attend gigs, still buy CDs and – most importantly for the purposes of this post – still glue myself to Spotify whenever I sit down to write. (Incidentally, if you want to know what I’ve been listening to recently, follow the link in the sidebar to my page.) I’ve discovered, over time, that I can use music in a number of ways to actually make myself write, to improve my concentration, and to make myself write for longer.

Now, I know there are plenty of writers out there who need (or at least think they need) perfect silence in which to write. I might once have been one of them. However, by the time I was at university, I’d discovered that the rest of the world (a.k.a. everywhere that wasn’t the very rural landscape I grew up in) wasn’t very good at providing perfect silence. Music, then, became a way to block out other distractions and allow me to focus on my writing.

There’s one method, then: music as distraction. If the world around you is busy and frantic, putting on a pair of headphones with something soothing in them can be the perfect way to improve your mood and concentration. I’ve found Spotify particularly invaluable here, as they provide a number of ever-changing playlists designed specifically for these purposes (I’m listening to one called ‘Deep Focus’ right now – it’s almost entirely instrumental). Nothing lets me shut out the world quite like music, and with these playlists I can simply sit down at the computer, put one on, and think about nothing save the words on my page.

However, there are times when choosing a specific song or album can be equally invaluable. Sometimes that can be a means of providing a specific mood for a piece of writing, about which I’ll say more in my next post. When any music will do, though, I find putting on a full album particularly helpful when I’m struggling to focus on writing. This album is just 50 minutes long, I tell myself. All you have to do is sit here for 50 minutes and try to write something. No walking away from the computer until the album has finished.

Nearly always, by the time the music has finished, I’ll have written, and frequently find myself putting on more music to push myself for, say, another 50 minutes. You could use a timer in the same way, but I’m a bit of a stickler for listening to a whole album once I’ve started, so music works far better to keep me in my seat than a simple timer ever could.

So, I’ve talked about music as distraction, to improve your frame of mind, and to keep you in your seat. In my next post, I’ll be looking at specific music for specific projects: as a means of creating mood, getting into the heads of your characters, and even inspiring whole stories.

Album of the Month: ‘Shelter’ by Alcest

It’s fair to say that ‘Album of the Month’ hasn’t actually been monthly for a long time now, but I haven’t lost my desire to occasionally blog about my favourite bands and albums. Today’s post: ‘Shelter’, the new album by French metal/shoegaze band Alcest.

Alcest have a bit of a strange reputation in metal circles. Ever since their first release, it seems, so-called ‘fans’ have been lambasting them for not being ‘metal enough’, particularly as each new album seems to take another step away from the genre. ‘Shelter’ is no exception, and really has shed every last black metal influence the band ever had, to produce a melodic, dreamy shoegaze sort of sound that’s both different and still unmistakeably Alcest.

And it’s fair to say that ‘Shelter’ really couldn’t have come from any other band, regardless of the change in direction. The vocals remain in singer Neige’s soft, muted style, almost buried beneath the rest of the music – which becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the different sound provided on track ‘Away’, featuring the guest vocals of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead. The general feel of the guitars, drums and melodies is also similar to that found on Alcest’s other albums; despite the lack of metal elements, I could easily imagine several of the songs on ‘Shelter’ sitting alongside their more melodic tracks on earlier albums.

Having said that, it’s fair to say that Alcest are likely to find a bigger audience with ‘Shelter’ than they have previously. Although the band have always had something of a warm sound, ‘Shelter’ is altogether softer than their earlier work, with no harsher metal interludes to intrude on the dreamy soundscape. That could be seen as a negative – as I said before, ‘Shelter’ won’t appeal to a lot of Alcest’s previous fans, and it also risks being too bland without the metal elements – but the band do thoughtful, delicate songs very well, meaning this is an album with a lot to offer, particularly on repeat listens.

On Positivity and Criticism (aka How to be a Nicer Person)

Recently, one of my favourite bands released their new single, the first off an album that’s due out next year. For anyone who’s interested, the band is Alcest, and the song ‘Opale’, which you can watch here.

In truth though, both the song and the band are irrelevant to today’s post. Instead, I want to talk about a more general aspect of positivity vs. criticism in all areas of art.

You see, when ‘Opale’ was released, the ‘fan’ comments (and I use the inverted commas there very deliberately) were fairly predictable. When Alcest formed, there was a heavy element of black metal to their music, an element which is entirely absent from their new release. As a consequence, a huge number of comments I’ve seen have run along the lines of ‘It’s not metal enough, therefore I don’t like it’.

A lot of the band’s ‘fans’ have, I feel, come to this conclusion by default, almost without listening to the new song. They’d been told in advance that black metal sounds weren’t going to appear on the new album, at which point they decided there and then that they weren’t going to like it. (Ironically, Alcest have been derided for not being ‘metal enough’ in some quarters for years – that the new album has gone further in that direction seems to be a surprise to no-one but the complainers. I honestly don’t know what they were expecting.)

The whole business bothers me: that the supposed fans suddenly hate a band for turning in a new direction, that they’re not willing to give the whole album a chance based on one song, that they go to such lengths to inform the band of their failings… All of this strikes me as both short-sighted and incredibly negative. So you don’t like a single song, and maybe you won’t like the album either. Does that stop you enjoying previous albums? Do you believe the change in style was made solely and intentionally to spite you? Does that shake your view of the world to the very foundations of the earth?

The answer to all those questions should of course be ‘no’. Liking or not liking a piece of art is, in the grand scheme of things, so very, very minor. It doesn’t alter your life, or the band’s life, or really anything at all.

And here we get to the nub of it all. So much of criticism surrounding art, particularly the ‘fan’ variety that percolates the internet, is focused on negativity. Disliking changes of style, new books by a previously-loved author, the new colour of a website… Said fans go to great and sometimes alarming lengths to make their discontent felt. And really, what does that accomplish? It lets off a few minutes of steam for the ‘fan’ – and makes the musician/author/artist feel terrible for a whole lot longer than that.

I will admit to having posted bad, even scathing reviews of books online in the past, but looking back, I genuinely wish I hadn’t. These days, I ignore the books I didn’t like and focus on the ones I did, by recommending them to other readers and posting about them here on my blog. The same goes for music, and films, and every other form of art and entertainment I enjoy.

I’m beginning to wish, too, that more people followed the same pattern. I’m not saying genuine criticism doesn’t have a place – it does, in all art forms, but it needs to be more considered than just ‘this sucks because it isn’t exactly like the last one’. Instead, I just wish that more fans and online commenters would be a little, well… nicer. Don’t like a film, a book or an album? So what? Either make your criticism a bit more constructive (i.e. a genuine review in which you point out positives as well as defects) or simply forget about it and move onto something you do enjoy.

Because I can’t help but think that, if we all focused on the positives a little more, the world would just be that bit more pleasant a place to be.

Album of the Month: Ne Obliviscaris – ‘Portal of I’

It’s been far, far too long since I’ve done an album of the month (which rather defeats the point of calling it ‘album of the month’, but never mind), so I thought it was time to remedy that. I’ve covered all sorts of genres in the past, but today I want to return to my first and most enduring love: metal.

Metal is, I have to admit, one of those genres that seems to be constantly circling itself. New bands emerge, even new sub-genres emerge, but nothing ever seems to change very much (not helped by the fact that individual bands can produce pretty much the same album every year for two decades, and still sell out their tours to legions of fans). As a result, although I’m constantly on the look-out for new bands, it’s not often a début album emerges that really impresses me. When it does, it’s time to take notice, which is why ‘Portal of I’ is my album for this month.

At its core, ‘Portal of I’ would probably be classed as progressive death metal, which is an unwieldy title but does fit. There are the blasting drums, chugging guitars and growled vocals of typical black metal, all usually at a pretty swift tempo – it’s the black metal aspect of the album that initially drew me in. However, there’s a lot more to discover here, and that’s where this album gets progressive, and interesting.

Metal bands incorporating other elements into their music is nothing new, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard a black metal band do it so skilfully. There are some beautifully mellow interludes in several of the songs, as well as haunting violins more reminiscent of a gothic doom band (which remind me strongly of the long defunct The Sins of Thy Beloved).

So, we’ve got violins, mellowness, occasional clean vocals – and we’ve also got black metal blast-beats. The true skill in ‘Portal of I’ is how well all these disparate elements are melded into a single album. They never feel forced, or contrived, but instead give the frequently 10+ minute songs interesting structures and some beautiful, unexpected touches.

On the strength of this single album – their début, remember – Ne Obliviscaris are definitely a band to watch. Their song titles might be a tad pretentious (‘Tapestry of the Starless Abstract’ and ‘Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise’ anyone?), but they’ve got the musical skills and song-writing abilities to back them up, and give the feeling you’re listening to a much older and more accomplished band.

My Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad: The Netherlands

[As last time, if you’ve arrived not quite knowing what I’m doing with my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad, go here.]

After my last post, it’s time to come a bit closer to home, with the Netherlands. As of writing this, they’re at 14th position in the Olympics medal rankings, which is nothing to be sneezed at. These posts aren’t about sporting events though, so what am I going to pick instead?

As may be the case with a few of these posts, it’s going to be a band. With the Netherlands though, unlike some countries, I have no qualms about choosing one band in particular: Epica. When it comes to European metal bands overall, there are few I enjoy quite as much as Epica, after all.

So, the basics: Epica fall fairly firmly into the category of ‘symphonic metal’, meaning they incorporate not only guitar solos and thundering drums, but keyboards, orchestral arrangements and the divine vocals of Simone Simons. Female-vocalled symphonic metal isn’t a rarity, by any means, but ever since they first appeared on the scene in 2002, Epica have consistently been one of the strongest and most accomplished bands in the genre, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.

Take their newest album, ‘Requiem for the Indifferent’, which showcases everything from delicate ballads (‘Delirium’), to heavy guitar parts and powerful choirs (as in the very next song, ‘Internal Warfare’). Over it all soar Simons’ vocals, which have continued to grow in strength and versatility over the years, and lend a compelling edge to the frequently complex song structures.

Lyrically, Epica are interesting too. They’ve always seemed to me to take a more political and socially-aware slant in their work than many similar bands, covering topics as diverse as 9/11 and Deepwater Horizon. As they point out on their website about their latest album:

The album title refers to the end of an era. Mankind can no longer stick their head in the sand for the things that are happening around us: tensions between different religions and cultures, wars, natural disasters, a huge financial crisis. As we are all connected; the universe, the earth, nature, animals and human beings, this period in time will be the prelude to the end for those who still don’t want to, or simply won’t see it. A requiem for the indifferent but also a possibility for a new beginning with great new chances.

That certainly beats yet another power metal song about how great power metal is (they exist, believe me).

So, there’s the first musical offering in my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad. Epica: ambitious, varied and never boring. (Remind you of a particular sporting event, by any chance…?!)

Album of the Month: Opeth – ‘Heritage’

I’m aware that I haven’t actually done an ‘album of the month’ post for a while, so this isn’t really a monthly thing. As September comes to an end though, I wanted to talk about an album that I’ve been waiting for for quite some time: Opeth’s ‘Heritage’.

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m a big Opeth fan. I have been for almost as long as I’ve been listening to metal (close to a decade now – wow, how can something make you feel so old when you haven’t even hit 25?!). ‘Heritage’ is their new album, and it’s both a departure from their usual sound and an Opeth album in every way.

Let’s start with the departure aspect. Opeth have always been, primarily, a death metal band with progressive leanings. ‘Heritage’ is very much not a death metal album, but instead something much closer to 60s/70s prog rock. There are echoes of King Crimson, ELP, Camel, Jethro Tull, even the Beatles. There are no death metal vocals, and lots of keyboards/acoustic guitars. In this respect, ‘Heritage’ and it’s accompanying live tours have made a lot of long-term Opeth fans very unhappy. They wanted metal. They got 70’s-style prog rock.

There’s another side to this album though, and one which strikes me as very much Opeth’s traditional sound. There is a strong resemblance in many of the acoustic guitar riffs to those on the band’s only other non-death metal album, ‘Damnation’ (and in fact to acoustic guitar riffs on many of their other albums). The prog elements on ‘Heritage’ may be stronger than before, but they’d already made an appearance on the last two albums, ‘Ghost Reveries’ and ‘Watershed’. ‘Heritage’ is, in many ways, a continuation and expansion of those two albums, but it’s lost the metal elements to achieve that. Whether that’s appealing has more to do with the listener’s attachment to metal, rather than whether or not Opeth have changed their ‘sound’.

It’s not a perfect album, admittedly. Some of the songs, particularly those in the middle of the album, are so complex that they never really have a chance to get going – just when your ear has attuned itself to one melody, that melody is gone and doesn’t reappear in the rest of the song. It could also be argued that ‘Heritage’ is something of a pastiche of 70s prog, although I think there’s enough of Opeth’s signature sound in there to avoid that.

Overall, it’s a very impressive album. ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ and ‘Folklore’ in particular are excellent songs, but it’s listening to the album as a whole, start to finish, that provides the most rewarding experience. Recommended for lovers of prog rock, or for metalheads who are looking for something a bit different.

Album of the Month: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo – ‘Almanac’

After the power metal album I recommended last month, I thought I’d go for something completely different this time. My choice: ‘Almanac’ by Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo.

I first discovered this album after looking up the song ‘Pause’, which appears in an altered version on the recent BBC drama ‘The Shadow Line’ (and it’s absolutely perfect for that programme, I have to say). After first listening to that title song, ‘Almanac’ feels a lot more upbeat, but it’s still a decidedly thoughtful album. It is, I suppose, a folk album, but a very modern one, with Barker’s vocals floating over a soundtrack of strings and accordion. The lyrics are simple but poetic – in fact, many of the songs are quite simple, but beautifully put together, and with some wonderfully stirring sections, as in ‘Ropes’ and ‘Openings’.

I don’t really have anything to compare ‘Almanac’ to. This isn’t usually my genre, and whilst I’ve listened to a number of modern folk albums, nothing has grabbed me as memorably as this one. I would call it charming, but that sounds patronising and twee. In fact, disarming might be more appropriate – this is a beautiful album that sucks you in and demands you listen to each and every song. And I highly recommend that you do.

(I want to add a final note of appreciation for the beautiful cover art, here, which is striking and distinctive, without being in-your-face. It’s particularly attractive when you’re usually exposed to metal covers, which aren’t exactly reknowned for their prettiness.)

Album of the Month: Sons of Seasons – ‘Magnisphyricon’

My working weeks seem to be increasingly busy at the moment, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce a new series of posts. Music is a huge part of my life and I’ve decided it’s time I talked about it a bit more here on the blog. To kick off, I’m going to be posting details of a new musical discovery every month. I’ll keep these posts short and sweet (I’m aware that metal, and the corners of it that I particularly enjoy, are something of a niche interest), but I hope they’ll enourage people to go out and listen to new bands and new genres that they wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

So, first up for my Album of the Month is Sons of Seasons’s ‘Magnisphyricon’. Sons of Seasons occupy that corner of the power/prog/symphonic metal genre in which you’d also find bands like Kamelot, Epica and perhaps Symphony X’s earlier albums. It’s fair to say that, from ‘Magnisphyricon’s’ short, atmospheric opening, there’s a great deal of Kamelot in particular in their sound. The vocals, the drumming, the twiddly keyboard bits. Indeed, the two bands recently toured together, with Sons of Seasons’s main songwriter also being the current keyboardist for Kamelot.

At this point, it would be fairly easy to pass off the band as just a Kamelot clone. To do so would completely ignore how brilliant an album ‘Magnisphyricon’ is. To start with, it’s incredibly accomplished – it’s only the band’s second album, but is just as slick and compelling as the best work of similar bands who’ve written a dozen. There’s also a harder edge to ‘Magnisphyricon’ that recalls not only Symphony X – as I mentioned above – but even bands like Nevermore (admittedly, that might be a bit of a stretch, but I can hear it at times). Put the two together, and you’ve got a far more interesting listen. Whilst ‘Bubonic Waltz’ could have come straight off Kamelot’s ‘Black Halo’ album, ‘Guilt’s Mirror’ has a much heavier sound. There are also a number of instrumental passages on the album that are more complex than you’d typically find on a power metal album, but they only serve to make ‘Magnisphyricon’ more interesting.

If you like either Kamelot or Epica, it’s safe to say that you’ll enjoy Sons of Seasons. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the genre though, ‘Magnisphyricon’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s varied, it’s catchy and it’s enjoyable from start to finish. Even if ‘Magnisphyricon’ is a pain in the arse to spell half a dozen times…