The subject today is not, as you might mistakenly glean from the title, about the process of creating a piece (or several pieces) of music. It is instead one which is somewhat closer to my heart: music to which to listen while writing. Having had some experience with this, there are a couple of insights which I'd like to share.
Firstly, given the proven effects music can have upon one's mood and thought processes, it is almost inconceivable that what you are listening to while writing will not in some way influence the content of your text. This is sometimes deliberate - I once wrote a short piece set in a temple, with the aid of a soundtrack from Dead Can Dance. I wrote my published short story with a number of musical influences - chief among them being Fields of the Nephilim. The mood of the music helps to inform the mood of my writing.
But it isn't always easy to write while there are words being thrown at you from your speakers - it can sometimes distract the mind from what it's meant to be doing, and sometimes even snatch away a bon mot before you manage to pin it to the page. That's where ambient music steps in. With no - or rare, subtle - vocals, it is less of a distraction and can hum away quietly in the background, creating mood and atmosphere without imposing itself too aggressively. It's not music one can listen to in the more active sense of the verb, but for backgrounds there's no better.
One of the prime examples of this came with the first game in the Myst series; the amount of atmosphere, and tension, created with the music was phenomenal. The later games brought more drama and thereby more dramatic soundtracks - which are still amazing pieces of music, but for sheer ambience the original has yet to be bested. Particularly if the mood you're looking for is an uneasy, tense mystery.
Another source I can recommend - particularly because it's absolutely free - is the website for Darkwinter Records (no relation, honestly). All the works contained therein are ambient, atmospheric, dark or experimental - and often all of the above. They are also all available on a Creative Commons License, meaning that the only payment involved is the entirely voluntary - but recommended - donation through Paypal. If you're looking for some mood music, it's a pretty good place to start.
Check out the results of my music-accompanied writing efforts at my DeviantART page and my writing blog.
Suffice it to say, this blog is on something of a hiatus at the moment. Hopefully I'll get some content up over the easter break (the next 4-5 weeks or so), but don't hold your breath. Read my other blog instead - you may even learn something.
Until next time, dear hypothetical reader.
Love it or hate it, it seems there's no getting away from what is generally described as "female-fronted melodic metal". In its early days I remember it being described as "goth metal", though quite why is not 100% clear to me. We all know how it really began: Nightwish. Regardless of squabbling over who may have been the first band to play in this style, it was Nightwish who really brought this sort of music into the public perception, and essentially defined it.
The name is fairly self-explanatory, which is the strength of this classification. The music which falls under this heading is metal - i.e. electric guitars playing "heavy" riffs (which excludes bands like Girlschool); it's melodic - i.e. strong melodies often backed up by keyboards & "clean" (non-screaming) vocals (excluding, for instance, Arch Enemy); and the main vocalist is female. Leading proponents at the moment are Nightwish, Within Temptation, Epica, Lacuna Coil, and After Forever - to name but a few with whom I happen to be familiar. While they are all linked by this shared heading of "female-fronted melodic metal", it should definitely be noted that there is a good degree of variety between them.
Until recently, I would have to have admitted to being disenfranchised with Nightwish; despite being a moderate fan from first hearing them many years past, I felt that toward the end of Tarja Turunen's reign they became a caricature of themselves and creativity descended into a disappointing formulaic performance. With the coming of Anette Olzon, the sound has changed away from the characteristic operatic vocals (now generally the sole domain of Epica), to a more generic vocal sound. However, this change has allowed them more creativity in the music itself, meaning that this new direction could well be just the boost they needed in order to stay fresh and interesting. While their new album Dark Passion Play contains many remnants of their past over-inflated pomposity on tracks such as "The Poet and the Pendulum", there is real potential for a promising change of direction in the horrifically catchy "Amaranth" and the vitriolic "Bye Bye Beautiful". Despite the latter being full of references to the soap-opera nonsense that has been Nightwish over the last few years, it's a passionate and entertaining track.
My personal favourite artist from the genre at the moment would have to be Within Temptation. I was captivated by their album Mother Earth (despite it containing only around 50% good songs), and while their follow-up offering The Silent Force failed to live up to the potential of its predecessor, their latest, The Heart of Everything, is just what the doctor ordered.
Despite departing from their Mother Earth roots in terms of style, and moving from that towards a "mainstream" sound, it's still distinctively Within Temptation, and it's still innovative and truly entertaining.
As for the others mentioned above, Epica are a good band, and well worth a listen - unless you dislike Tarja-era Nightwish. The sound is very similar, and despite a lot more in the way of innovation and experimentation in sound, they've never convincingly managed to step out of Nightwish's shadow.
Lacuna Coil are far different from the others mentioned here: there is none of the grand theatricality that marks Nightwish, Within Temptation and Epica; rather, the direction they have chosen is a more electronic sound, and while they fulfil the categories of the genre, they don't often get described under this heading. Perhaps this is because they wouldn't sound as different as the others would were the vocals replaced with male ones.
After Forever are another good band with little to recommend them over any other "female-fronted melodic metal" band. Their earlier music is a more interesting listen, being quite progressive: Invisible Circles was a concept album with some truly great tracks. Their newest, curiously eponymous offering is generally Nightwish-y, with a little electronics and a few growly vocals to remind you that you're not actually listening to the Finns but one of the clones. That said, tracks like "Transitory" are far heavier than anything Nightwish have released, so perhaps if they develop this sound it could prove to be their way of stepping out of that damned shadow.
As a genre, when it's done well, female-fronted melodic metal can be very effective indeed, but sadly it is full of bands which are seemingly trying to emulate the band seen as the best at this stlye: Nightwish. We'll have to see where all the bands go from where they are now, but as things stand I would have to say that Within Temptation are in the best position at the moment.
When Skyclad began, it was as a continuation of Walkyier's vision of where Sabbat should have been heading. Thus, much of their early work has a bold emphasis on the thrash-metal sound and pagan themes, with the music being very similar to the later Sabbat material. However, it progressed from these beginnings and began to incorporate a more folk feel, with greater prominence given to the violin and a change in the lyrics towards a more folk-esque prosody. The content, too, moved from generally pagan to generally socio-political themes.
Martin Walkyier's vocals are distinctive, not so much for their talent or range, but for the obvious passion with which they are sung. It is clear that many of his lyrics come from his own experience, much of which is less than pleasant. The greatest examples of this are in tunes such as "Inequality Street" and "Penny Dreadful"; the latter containing a line which I think sums up Walkyier's style and attitude to his work very well:
Stand your ground behind the times,
and refuse to follow fashion.
Write your poetry with anger,
and then sing it with a passion...
In contrast, Ridley's vocals and lyrics are far more conventional, his themes less controversial. This is no bad thing in itself - the band under Ridley has a wider appeal, and while he may not deliver the vitriol of Walkyier, he is able to handle the whimsy in a far more convincing way.
The best place to look for contrasts is the 2002 release No Daylights... Nor Heeltaps, a compilation of some of the band's best-known songs from the Walkyier years, re-recorded with Ridley at the helm. At one end of the scale, The Cry Of The Land, a passionate song with a strong pagan theme in the area of anti-industrialism, is delivered by Ridley in a sadly lacklustre way when compared to the raw passion of Walkyier's vocals. At the other end, A Great Blow For A Day Job is far more enjoyable in Ridley's rendition: being a track with heavy leanings toward humour and parody, Walkyier's passion is left without a justification and the listener is left with only his vocal talent (which, as alluded to previously, is not outstanding).
Zimmer's greatest specific triumph has to be the "battle theme" from the opening scene. It captures perfectly the conflicting aspects of civility and barbarism that were at the heart of the Roman empire: civilisation through brutal, bloody war. It is not necessary to understand how this is achieved in order to appreciate it; such is the beauty of its composition.
Lisa Gerrard is, simply put, one of the most talented vocalists in the world; able to convey deep, soul-felt emotion without use of words. If you have never experienced Dead Can Dance, do so as soon as possible. The sheer vocal ability of the woman is otherworldly. If you can watch the scene in which Maximus discovers the crucified bodies of his wife and son and feel nothing, you are, I am sorry to have to inform you, bereft of a soul.
Soundtracks are an under-appreciated area of music in many ways, and it was truly gratifying to see this win the Oscar for best original soundtrack. It was after Gladiator that I truly began to pay attention to the music in the background of everything I see and hear. It's definitely a worthwhile endeavour.
The first time I saw this video was on the television, probably either Kerrang or Scuzz. It struck me as typical Serj - intense, creative, mad and compellingly charismatic. Then, just recently, I downloaded the uncensored version. I don't recall the differences as such, but it certainly struck me in a completely different way this time around. Put simply, and without exaggeration, it is a crime to censor this video.
The imagery is simply superb throughout, with children acting out the events of the Iraq war in a "kindergarten" setting. While the song is a little repetitive, it never becomes a true weakness; and the ending is extremely moving. Anyway, it's one of those things that is best left to speak for itself, so I'll now stand aside and let it do so.
The instrumentation and sheer musical ability are quite astounding, hence the comparison with Dead Can Dance. And for someone like myself, who occasionally tires of Dead Can Dance's eclectic mix of sounds, it is truly gratifying to hear a full album which holds together in this respect. The vocals are just as talented and captivating as those of Dead Can Dance, and one would be forgiven for thinking Lisa Gerrard herself had lent her voice to the project in the song The Beauty In All Things, for which someone has built [this slideshow] on YouTube. In fact, the Tube is full of Autumn Tears goodness, so get yourself there and check out the highlights. Here's another from the Eclipse album, entitled "Ophelia's Crown". Dead Can Dance fans, I defy you to fail to see similarities.
Pure, dark, beautiful poetry. All about the Bragi.
It is not surprising that the works of Tolkien have inspired a wealth of musical tribute, from Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle Earth concept album to Howard Shore's soundtrack for the recent movie trilogy. However, in this writer's humble opinion, there have been few better adaptations of Tolkien's work than the music of the black metal group Summoning.
As is often the case when reviewing an artist's whole catalogue, one must be careful not to generalise work which is varied and progressive, evolving and adapting as it goes. Suffice it to say on this topic that their debut offering (1995's Lugburz) can be broadly classed as black metal with the standard orchestral touches about it; this progressed through to their 2006 release Oath Bound, which is a far more symphonic offering.
A typical Summoning track will be (on average) around six minutes in length, and will borrow the majority of its lyrics directly from the text of Tolkien's work itself, be it prose, poem, or song. Many will also have audio clips from the BBC radio recording of The Lord of the Rings, and other such sources. For the most part (from 1999's Stronghold onwards), the guitars are such a background part of the music that one can easily forget that it's "technically" black metal playing. The symphonic/orchestral element becomes far more pronounced, and it's rare (in my admittedly limited experience at least) to find a sound that quite matches that produced by Summoning in their finest moments.
There are some free mp3s available on their website, and all are fragments, I can highly recommend the short version of "Land of the Dead" (direct link), which was released as an album sampler for Terrorizer Magazine's Fear Candy cover CD.
While their thunder is limited by their predominantly symphonic sound, and debauchery is barely seen in their catalogue, it is Bragi who wins the day; the sheer brilliance and beauty with which they adapt Tolkien's superb work is more than enough reason to lend this Austrian duo your ears.
Rarely has an album title been more apt than their debut offering, In the Big Ending...; for not only was it their first offering, but also, it seems, their last. Their lead-man, former Sabbat and Skyclad vocalist Martin Walkyier, is the main reason for this: the album was an epic slog the like of which, if widely known, would surely be accepted as one of the greatest and most challenging of all time. Suffice it to say that Master Walkyier has retired from the world of vocalising, and possibly music-making in general, as a result. This is a Sad Loss indeed.
But on with the blatherings regarding the album itself. Broadly stuffed into a genre, it would best be described as "pagan metal", the former word referring to the subject matter, the latter to the style in which it is performed. It is a highly politicised album, pulling no punches and throwing its message at the listener in such a blunt style as to render said message entirely unmistakable: humanity is in deep trouble, but not so deep that we can't get ourselves out of it if we really tried. The message is most clear in the first and last tracks, and certainly there are a few in there with very little in way of political message, but it is clear enough that the views put forward form one of the key elements in this short album/EP.
It is not preaching paganism to convert the masses, except insofar as paganism advocates the breaking down of interpersonal barriers and extending co-operation as far as is possible. It is, naturally, anti-establishment, but not with the mindless anarchy of the punk tradition, but rather in the way of illustrating the problem and pointing out that there are deceptively simple answers out there.
Musically, it's not outstanding to be fair. While certainly on the heavy side of the scale (heavier than Skyclad, but lighter than Sabbat), it's kept at a level that allows the vocals to send the message across powerfully. Walkyier's never had a great voice, but there's a compelling charisma to it that demands your attention; no doubt this is a product of his complete belief in what he's singing about, and his desperation to be heard and understood.
One way or another, this is an album worth listening to. The message does not push the music back into a supporting role, so even if you fail to grasp the purpose of this record you may well still enjoy listening to it. It is probably fitting that my first full album review on this blog should be of an album that falls into not one, nor two, but all three of the vague headings after which the blog is named. It brims over with debaucherous fun in places (particularly Devil for a Day); it is truly poetic throughout (with the highlight of this being in A Beautiful Start to the End of the World); and oh does it ever thunder. The opening and closing tracks (Swinging like Judas and More Than War) are powerful pieces in which the music pounds through like a sledgehammer with the vitriolic lyrics etched upon it.
This month, Terrorizer has begun a 3-issue special investigating the phenomenon that is progressive rock. This caused me to get a wee bit excited, I must admit. Appropriately enough, the CD contained more than the usual ration of music which would fall broadly under the heading of "progressive".
Here are the highlights:
Amorphis - The White Swan
(from the album Silent Waters)
From the start, my immediate reaction was "Opeth. Very Opeth." The similarities are hard to ignore, but attempting to do so yields some enjoyable differences. The vocals are given greater dominance, for example, and this is definitely the right move; while the growling parts may not be to everyone's taste, most would find it difficult to deny that the vocalist has huge talent, and this track demonstrates this wonderfully. If you want a description, the best avenue is comparison: think recent Tyr vocals, in the mood of My Dying Bride, with occasional hints of Turisas' stylings. The instrumentation, too, is subtly different from the majority of Opeth's work; this feels like less of an effort to make an audio painting, and more of an effort towards the songwriter's art.
This is recommended listening for anyone who loves Opeth, and anyone who thinks Opeth could stand to be a bit more down-to-earth.
Epica - Chasing the Dragon
(from the album The Divine Conspiracy)
Less of a progressive track, from less of a progressive band. Undeniable talent on the part of the vocalist, and quite a relaxing chill-out feel to the track; by no means a heavy offering. Without listening to the lyrics, one is left with a feeling of "OK, I had in mind something more in the mood of 'chasing' and 'dragons'", but you could do far worse than give this a listen.
Not an oustanding track, but worth a listen if you're a fan of Epica or any of Nightwish's more laid-back numbers (think Sleeping Sun, for instance).
Centurion's Ghost - In Defiance
(from the album The Great Work)
A more heavy offering, with a driving bassline. Echoes of rock and roll, with some fairly generic "angry" vocals; and, oddly, some guitar work reminiscent of black and heavy metal. Indeed, this is where the main appeal is in this track, for me: the music itself is very varied in style throughout, and acts as a good showcase of what this band is capable of.
A litle generic, but intriguingly eclectic at the same time.
Alcest - Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde
(from the album Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde)
Heard this, and had to have it. I would be loathe to class this as metal, so I'm not going to; it has electric guitars making the customary noises, but it's so ethereal in effect that the only headings under which this could conceivably fall would be "ambient", and "progressive". Hauntingly beautiful, with echoes of Opeth in their "Patterns in the Ivy" moods; this is one to put on and let it carry you away from grim reality for an all-too-brief sojourn in this compelling "Other world".
Listen to it. Listen to it now.
Sepia Dreamer - Capitulation 
(from the album The Sublime)
Starting with a very Tool-esque bass intro, this track then goes in a less expected direction with the addition of strings, turning it towards a 5-minute instrumental that simply screams "progressive" (bearing in mind this is the edit version). It is both moving and undeniably talented, but I must admit to being left with a feeling of incompleteness. I presume this is either because it's an edit, or because it's intended to be a part of a larger work and is best appreciated (as with the majority of progressive music) in the context of the album itself.
Very much worth a listen, as a taste of what this band can (probably) deliver in a full album.
Ride the Sky - A Smile From Heaven's Eye
(from the album New Protection)
Power metal with an admittedly bizarre 80s electronic twist. In the main, this track gives us what every other power metal offering does, and very little more. The production doesn't quite feel right either, with the main backing riff sounding a little staccato for my tastes. If you can get past these, though, it's another name to add to your list of power metal practitioners. If, however, you're like me and that list is quite long enough already thank you very much, this band is unlikely to make you go out of your way to snap up what they've brought to the table.
Generic (mainly), but add it to your list if you're short of power metal.
And thusly, we draw to a close this review of the highlights from Fear Candy 45. For more information, head on over to the Terrorizer magazine website.