About this blog

This was formerly my secondary blog dedicated to music. I have since migrated this functionality over to my main blog. (See link below) All former music posts will stay here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Final Announcement: This Isn't Really Working

If you actually read this blog, I'm sure you've noticed it has been rather slow in the last several months. This isn't just because my main blog has been going through a kind of renaissance, with a post every 1.5 days in May and every 3 days in February, March, April, and June. It's also because I've been doing some thinking about how I enjoy music. The process by which I get into an album is more like falling in love than it is like reading an interesting book, expanding outward in scope. As I listen to it over and over again, certain moments--a particularly stirring vocal line, a lyric that grips my imagination just so, an awesome guitar riff or double-bass-driven rhythm--start to stand out to me and grab my attention. I start enjoying and listening to the songs they're present in on their own as well as in the album. Over time, I may come to be affectionately familiar with the whole album in this way after dozens of listens. If I wasn't into the artist before, I may check out something else in their discography. The whole approach is intensely personal and subjective, and has a definite center on those initial moments or song that I latched onto and how they fit into the work as a whole.

But my writing on this blog has been largely flat, impersonal, and focused on more objective surface-level detail. In other words, how I write about music increasingly doesn't match how I listen to music, which I think is why I've been finding it so hard to write about music even though I've been enjoying it more than ever (especially having finished the β22 amp, also attempting to write about that). In the language of the MBTI cognitive functions, my writing style has tried to be extroverted intuition (creatively looking for patterns and possibilities in external data), extroverted sensing (focusing on immediate sensory experience), or even extroverted thinking (relying on objective facts, lists, and criteria) while I mostly enjoy music with my strongest function, introverted intuition, which is notoriously hard to express with words.

Despite this undeniable fact, for a while I was reluctant to consider the possibility of shutting this blog down. But now I think I've found a solution. I originally split this blog off from my main one (on theology, interpretation, and culture) because I was afraid of overwhelming my main blog with posts on whatever I happened to be listening to at the moment that had little to do with the rest of the subject matter. That danger appears to have passed. So, while I hope not to stop blogging about music altogether, my volume in doing so has fallen to the point where I'd rather just put them on my main blog with the "Music" tag. In the future, look for them there.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Under the Grey Banner

My most recent metal acquisition: some actual metal (14-gauge ASTM A1011 sheet steel for my headphone amp project)!

Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha.
All joking aside, I have finally been getting into Dragonland's newest album, Under the Grey Banner, just a year and a half after it came out.

Under the Grey Banner is a continuation of the Dragonland Chronicles saga of the band's first two albums, interrupted by Starfall and Astronomy. With several symphonic interludes and spoken parts, it is pretty much the band at its most Rhapsody of Fire (or early Avantasia)-like, but with a decidedly Gothenburg spin: where RoF has insane neoclassical guitar noodling, Dragonland has classically Swedish guitar sounds paired with rapid-fire drumming mixed satisfyingly higher than their southern European counterparts.

The concept of the album is classic high fantasy: an evil king returns to crush the peoples of Dragonland under his iron fist, a prophesied hero comes to the land, rallies the people, and fights to otherthrow him and save the land. Simple as this sounds, the songs are extremely good and have been growing on me pretty steadily. After an all-symphonic instrumental intro to set the scene ("Ilmarion") comes the read lead-in track, "Shadow of the Mithril Mountains". It would be nice if the minute-long spoken prelude were part of the previous track, but after this the whole band explodes with intensity unlike anything heard on Astronomy, and simultaneously more orchestral flourishes than any of the non-instrumental suite songs to fit the fantasy setting. Except for the prelude, it's one of the strongest songs of the album.

"The Tempest" following it is even better, depicting the mythical storm that deposits the hero on Dragonland. Its pacing is slow and truly majestic with a well-placed violin solo, almost a better version of "Supernova" (a song that dropped my jaw when I first heard it). "A Thousand Towers White", the most straight-up power metal song, provides a nice counterpoint with a rapid 3-time tempo to depict Ilmarion's wondrous encounter with the gleaming capital of Dragonland and the corruption inside it.

"Fire and Brimstone" has an ear-catching, surprisingly progressive tempo that allows for some excellent trading-off vocals that resemble an opera; the characters almost seeming to interrupt each other with their lines gives a nice sense of many things happening at once as Ilmarion frees the princess of the elves from being burned as a witch. I should mention that Fred Johansson, the operatic vocalist who voices the evil king, is absolutely fantastic and steals the show in each of the three songs he appears in.

I lied; "The Black Mare" is the most power metal song of the album, with galloping triplets almost worthy of Iced Earth. It constantly trades between mellow narrative sections, crashing orchestral chords, and an incredibly fast and triumphant chorus to make Rhapsody of Fire jealous (compare with "Dawn of Victory").

The next two songs, "Lady of Goldenwood" and "Dûrnir's Forge", form a natural pair, the first placing the listener in an enchanted elven forest with airy, acoustic melodies and lots of keyboard; the second evoking a subterranean dwarven forge with ponderously heavy guitar chords, crashing drums, and blaring horns (and a verse sung by the deep-voiced Dwarven Council).

"The Trials of Mount Farnor" is fast, heavy, and minor-keyed enough to sound more like Swedish melodic death metal with Jonas Heidgart's vocals; the slower pre-solo breakdown is also quite epic. "Throne of Bones" is the calm before the storm, consisting of an amazing and theatric vocal solo by the king. Consequently, it  is possibly the best song on the album despite being under two minutes.

The eight-minute finale "Under the Grey Banner" tells of the final battle between the forces of good and evil for the fate of Dragonland, and as such is ridiculously epic and borderline-cheesy, with soaring horns, reverb-overloaded guitar and drum crashes in the intro alone. After a few slower verses we hear a lengthy and too-awesome-to-describe instrumental section depicting the main of the battle before Ilmarion and the king (who, as usual, is the standout of this song) begin trading lines in their duel. (Hint: Ilmarion wins)

For my fans of epic/symphonic/power/high fantasy metal, this album is a must-listen; behind the cheesiness lie some of Dragonland's best songs ever

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Helloween: A Primer

It's time to focus on a band that hasn't been getting nearly as much love on this blog as it deserves. The German power metal band Helloween helped invent the genre as an offshoot of speed metal in the 80s, and they have been assiduously pretending the 80s never ended ever since. While they rock as hard or fast as most of their descendants (DragonForce excepted), the most distinctive thing about Helloween is their ability to never take themselves too seriously and accept that, at heart, power metal is kind of ridiculous. While never straying into affectionate parody territory like Dream Evil, Helloween knows how to milk the "narm" factor for all it's worth, while still writing some top-notch metal. Including their new album Straight Out of Hell, they have 16 albums, and unlike so many other bands from the 80s, their recent ones don't suck!

Walls of Jericho (1985) ★★★☆☆
Helloween's first album dates back to before they signed Michael Kiske; their then-guitarist Kai Hansen does the vocals and consequently Walls of Jericho sounds more like a Gamma Ray album. It's more speed metal than true power metal, with more of the classically German focus on aggression, power, and, of course, high tempos. It's kind of repetitive and not as definitively power metal as later albums, as Hansen and the whole band were not at the top of their respective games yet, and it succeeds more as classic metal than power metal. Still, it has some decent songs like "Walls of Jericho / Ride the Sky" and "Murderer". Others like "Starlight", "Gorgar", and "Heavy Metal (Is the Law)" preface Helloween's future inability to take themselves totally seriously.

Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I (1987) ★★★★★
Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I is possibly the defining album of power metal. With new singer Michael Kiske and a more heroic, melodic sound that would become the foundation for the style of thousands of bands to come, this album is a classic. True, it is fairly short with only six full-length songs, and the lyrics are still getting there. Some songs like "A Little Time", and "I'm Alive" stay close to the classic metal themes of individuality and freedom, "Future World" is irresistible in its ridiculous saccharine hyperoptimism, and "A Tale That Wasn't Right" is a traditionally sappy ballad of heartache. The more esoteric "Twilight of the Gods", on the other hand, gets much more fantastical and interesting, and the thirteen-minute epic "Halloween" remains one of their best songs to this day. And besides the lyrics, Keeper of the Seven Keys is great simply for its status as truly prototypical power metal, predating all the stylistic and genre shifts to come. If it sounds cliche, it's because virtually all power metal to come was influenced by it. Each of the full-length songs is strong and a classic in its own right. For all intents and purposes, this is Helloween's first album.

Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part II (1988) ★★★★★
Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part II largely continues the work of defining the genre of power metal that its predecessor started, so it's hard to fault it for not sounding too different. It's perhaps a bit more on the zany side, with the lighthearted "Rise and Fall" and a whimsical homage to Frankenstein, "Dr. Stein". "Eagle Fly Free", "You Always Walk Alone", and "I Want Out" are more power metal classics about freedom and individuality (again, from before their straightforward style and lyrical themes became cliché). "Keeper of the Seven Keys", another epic, is one of Helloween's more progressive works, and possibly their best song with Kiske. I suspect it helped establish the lyrical center of power metal around the fantastical themes that later bands like Blind Guardian and Rhapsody of Fire would run with. Keeper of the Seven Keys could be considered, overall, a double album, and together the two parts define "classic" Helloween and form the blueprint for the storm of power metal to come.

Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991) ★★☆☆☆
I know what you're thinking: "Pink Bubbles Go Ape? What kind of a name is that for a metal album?" Which is what I and every other Helloween fan have been wondering. In this and the next album, Michael Kiske started leading Helloween away from their usual fantastical subject matter and into the weird. In addition, guitarist Kai Hansen left the band in 1989 to form Gamma Ray, and Pink Bubbles suffers noticeably from the lack of his songwriting abilities. Songs like the short intro track, "Back on the Streets", "Your Turn", and "Heavy Metal Hamsters"(!?) go off the deep end from weird to just dumb. The riffs and melodies on "Goin' Home" or "I'm Doin' Fine, Crazy Man" are similarly weak. "Mankind" seems to be intended as another epic and is arguably one of the better songs on the album, but mostly falls flat compared to its precedent. And, unfortunately, it would all get even worse on the next album...

Chameleon (1993) ★☆☆☆☆
This much-maligned album is the culmination of the non-metal direction Kiske led Helloween in before his dismissal. The first track, "First Time", is actually not too bad, almost as if to reassure loyal fans, but then "When the Sinner" sounds more like some kind of guitar-infused big band dance song than power metal (see also "Music"). The genre of songs like "I Don't Wanna Cry No More", "Windmill", or "In the Night" can't be considered metal in any way, and even songs in a more conventional vein like "Revolution Now" seem dead and aimless even compared with Pink Bubbles Go Ape. I'm not sure exactly what musical movement Chameleon is trying to blend in with, but it's really only valuable to Helloween fans for historical purposes.

Master of the Rings (1994) ★★★★☆
Due to the creative differences between Kiske and the rest of the band made increasingly obvious by the last two albums, they replaced him with Andi Deris, their current vocalist, for Master of the Rings. The result, while still more musically adventurous than the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums, avoids the pitfalls of the last two albums with Kiske. Somewhat more intense than either Keeper album, it seems to inject a bit of the sound of Walls of Jericho into Helloween's classic sound. (See opening track, pseudo-speed-metal powerhouse "Sole Survivor") "Where the Rain Grows" is another classic tune with a great solo and amazing, really powerful vocal performance by Deris. "Perfect Gentleman" is a hilarious monologue from a delusionally narcissistic, self-proclaimed Casanova and one of Helloween's classic songs. "The Game Is On" seems to have been a social commentary on video games, but with its now-dated concerns and Game Boy-esque beeping it comes across as more of a nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of gaming. Master of the Rings isn't Helloween's best album, but it is a solid, memorable release that definitely recovers the ground lost by the last two.

The Time of the Oath (1996) ★★★☆☆
Despite its appearing to be a return to the fantastical stylings of Keeper of the Seven Keys, The Time of the Oath is the beginning of Helloween's stylistic shift from "classic" to "modern". Like so many mid-90s power metal albums, it is rather awkward, but the signs of progress are evident. Songs like "We Burn" and "Before the War" draw back from their speed metal origins to sharpen and harden their sound into a darker, more intense one that would come to be more definitive of their modern style. "Steel Tormentor" even evokes a bit of Judas Priest, and "Wake Up the Mountain" almost seems to look forward to 7 Sinners. Again, there are a few ballads: "If I Knew" and "Forever and One", a strong, sad one similar to "A Tale That Wasn't Right" Significantly, there are two new epics, "Mission Motherland" and "The Time of the Oath", both of them excellent and arguably the first since "Keeper of the Seven Keys". And the catchy but head-scratching "Anything My Mama Don't Like" continues Helloween's tendency to write bad-weird songs. The Time of the Oath and its next few successors constitute Helloween's least remarkable period, in my view, between their "classic" sound and their current, more refined one, but it's still a good, if not groundbreaking, power metal album.

Better than Raw (1998) ★★★☆☆
Better than Raw is something of a transitionary piece in Helloween's history, in which they throw a bunch of "raw" musical ideas into a cauldron and stir it up to see what will come out. The first two songs, "Push" and "Falling Higher", are a metallic one-two punch and probably their heaviest songs to this point. From there, Better Than Raw seems to go in every possible direction at once. The good: this album is at is best with some of the more progressive songs, like "Revelation", "Midnight Sun", and the ballad "Time" (which seems strangely reminiscent of Aerosmith's "Dream On" at times). The bad: "I Can", however, is fairly bland and adds little to the mix, and "Don't Spit on my Mind" and "Handful of Pain" seem like steps backward in both speed and power, more like subpar hard rock. And the weird: "Lavdate Dominvm" comes from nowhere, is sung entirely in Latin, and sounds so upbeat as to almost be jingle material. "Hey Lord!" almost seems to be channeling some Bon Jovi. Lots of musical elements that would become distinctives of later Helloween, for better or for worse, are visible here in their infancy.

Metal Jukebox (1999) ★★★★☆
This is an album of covers of Helloween's various musical influences, and as the name suggests is probably their most eclectic. As such, it has excellent covers of other German metal bands ("He's a Woman, She's a Man"), Swedish pop covers that work bizarrely well ("Lay All Your Love On Me"), and nonsensical yodeling ("Hocus Pocus"). The cross-genre ones are honestly the best, like "All My Loving" with furious 3-time double-bass drumming. The more progressive-rock cover of "Space Oddity" is also excellent. Not being terribly familiar with any of the originals, I'm not the best judge of this cover album, but it's pretty enjoyable on its own terms, in part because of its total randomness and good (borrowed) songwriting.

The Dark Ride (2000) ★★★★☆
Refining (or "cooking") the new direction embodied in Better Than Raw and not containing any covers, The Dark Ride was a decisive step in Helloween's stylistic shift from their classic fantastical sound to their modern, "darker and edgier" one. "Mr. Torture" mostly reflects this in its darker subject matter and heavy, "machine gun" strummed verses; "Mirror, Mirror" sounds almost brooding, and "Madness of the Crowds" has a constantly ascending refrain melody shared between the guitar and bass that sounds like an aural representation of going insane. "All Over the Nations", "Salvation", and the chorus of "Mr. Torture" are cleaner and more like a straight evolution of Helloween's "classic" sound. Also of note are "The Departed (Sun Is Going Down)" for its memorable chorus and the title track, which is a fairly good eight-minute epic. "If I Could Fly" walks a tightrope over the dark and light sides of this album, with the guitar and keyboard sharing the melodic line. Overall, The Dark Ride isn't terribly special on its own, but it does mark an important turning point in Helloween's history.

Rabbit Don't Come Easy (2003) ★★☆☆☆
Musically, Rabbit Don't Come Easy is another, shall we say, "eccentric mess" like Chameleon, though more of a mixed bag than a failure. Parts of it continue the refinement that The Dark Ride began as seen on excellent songs like "Open Your Life", "Listen to the Flies" and "Liar", the latter possibly being their darkest song of any album except 7 Sinners. "Just a Little Sign" is extremely strong musically, but the lyrics, repetitive and about trying to pick up a girl at a metal show, ruin it for me. Others, like the bizarre, rambling "Nothing to Say", are possibly some of the worst from the Deris era, and "Don't Stop Being Crazy" or "The Tune" are just bland. Some good songs on this album, but probably the weakest of the "modern" Helloween.

Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy (2005) ★★★★★
After all the overly dark, offbeat, or just plain weird detours of previous albums, The Legacy is, as the name suggests, the spiritual successor to the classic Keeper of the Seven Keys albums and a great combination of "old" and "new" Helloween. By far the best example of this is "King for a 1000 [sic] Years", which is every bit the epic "Halloween" and "Keeper of the Seven Keys" were and then some, benefitting considerably from more modern, "metallic"-sounding production. It's progressive power metal at its finest, with not a dull moment in its fourteen minutes. This whole album in general has a decidedly grandiose, progressive bent, with another slightly shorter and more laid-back epic, "Occasion Avenue", at the beginning of the second disc. (Did I mention it's a double album?) The album has plenty of songs that sound like Helloween rethinking their past: "Invisible Man" harkens back to The Dark Ride and "King for a 1000 Years", "Born on Judgment Day", and "My Life For One More Day" are the closest Helloween has come to recapturing the epic glory of the original Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. The more banal "Come Alive" sounds most like Chameleon, unfortunately. But there are others that seem to look into the future, like "Occasion Avenue" or "Shade in the Shadow". There are some misses, like "Come Alive" or "Mrs. God", which definitely falls under "just plain weird", but on an album of this size there is plenty to enjoy.

Gambling with the Devil (2007) ★★★★★
With a tone more similar to The Dark Ride, Gambling with the Devil is a strong shift from Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy's throwback "classic" sound to Helloween's current, more modern and serious one, perhaps in response to fans tired of the silliness of albums like Rabbit Don't Come Easy. (That sentence may have set my record for album title dropping) This new sound is exemplified in songs that surpass any of their previous work in intensity, like the fast and furious opening track, "Kill It", which has vocals harsh enough to almost be screams and a 3-time "zigzag" riff. "Paint a New World" is similarly impassioned. On the other hand, more melodic songs like "The Saints" and "Final Fortune" provide a nice balance; "As Long As I Fall" is a quasi-ballad with keyboard/piano and the guitars sharing the spotlight equally, somewhat like "If I Could Fly" from three albums ago. "Fallen to Pieces" and "Heaven Tells No Lies" are like condensed versions of the epics of previous albums with more interesting structure; "Fallen to Pieces" in particular could almost qualify as progressive metal. Overall, Gambling with the Devil successfully reestablished Helloween's dominance of the European power metal scene and revitalized their sound, and for that I'd say it's an excellent album.

Unarmed (2010) ★★★★★
Another experiment in the vein of Metal Jukebox, Unarmed is a collection of rerecordings of classic Helloween songs in a variety of non-metal genres that would, ironically, make Michael Kiske proud. (Even with Andi Deris singing many of his best songs) Some are just hilarious; "Dr. Stein" is jazzy with a prominent saxophone, "I Want Out" has a children's choir, and the ridiculous, lilting melody of "Perfect Gentlemen" honestly seems to fit the lyrics better than the original power metal style. This would be a terrible experiment in the vein of Chameleon if these were original songs and Helloween was serious about the stylistic change, but since these are tried and proven songs, it's more of an alternate look at the band's history. Other songs, like "If I Could Fly", "Forever and One", and "Fallen to Pieces" are in more of a symphonic rock style and are legitimately awesome. There is no better example of this than "The Keeper's Trilogy", a 17-minute medley of "Halloween", "Keeper of the Seven Keys", and "King for a 1000 Years" performed with a choir and 70-piece orchestra, which is possibly Helloween's best song ever. Unarmed is a delightfully strange album and a truly unique recomposition of some of the band's best work, possibly worth getting for "The Keeper's Trilogy" alone.

7 Sinners (2010) ★★★★★
In contrast to Unarmed, Helloween's penultimate album is their darkest and heaviest yet, continuing the trend started in Gambling with the Devil. It follows an interesting songwriting approach in which each song was written solely by one member of the band, providing an interesting mix of styles, all of them unrelentingly heavy, in sharp contrast to Unarmed. (Perhaps as a visual contrast, the cover features just about every kind of sharp object imaginable) Six songs were written by Deris; "Are You Metal?" and "Long Live the King" are both extremely fast, intense songs about the genre itself, "Where the Sinners Go" is slower and somewhat of a snarling anthem. More interestingly "Far in the Future", is a very strong semi-epic at nearly 8 minutes and "Smile of the Sun" manages to harness the slow pacing and tenderness of a ballad with none of the sappiness. The other band members wrote fewer songs, but perhaps because of this they tend to be stronger and more creative. By guitarist Sascha Gerstner, the extremely dark song "Who Is Mr. Madman?" is a sequel to "Perfect Gentleman" about the gentle/madman's current state of insanity. "Raise the Noise" by second guitarist Michael Weikath has more of a "classic" power metal sound and a flute solo that works bizarrely well. "World of Fantasy" by the bassist Markus Grosskopf is interesting in that it also has more of a "retro" sound, except that pitch-wise Deris' vocals stay in the midrange for pretty much the entire song. Overall, 7 Sinners is excellent but a little one-dimensional and focused on being as "metal" as possible (which is a mixed blessing). The muddy production doesn't help with this and is a casualty of the "loudness wars"; arguably it's the biggest thing holding these otherwise awesome songs back.

Straight Out of Hell (2013) ★★★★☆
With 7 Sinners acting as the culmination of Helloween's move towards a dark, heavy sound, their newest album Straight out of Hell sounds relatively laid-back despite being one of their heaviest to date. Though keeping the super-heavy texture and production of 7 Sinners, it tends to be lighter in mood, turning back to the more whimsical tone of their earlier albums. So "World of War" has a big, symphonic, bombastic sound to it that sounds pretty classic, over detuned, rapidly chugging guitar riffs, an interesting blend of old and new. "Far From the Stars" and "Waiting for the Thunder", in addition to ditching much of the abrasiveness of 7 Sinners, seem to be channeling some Stratovarius (but with less keyboard), and "Burning Sun" almost seems like the continuation of something from Keeper of the Seven Keys. There is also progress. The title track is another excellent merger of Helloween's melodic and heavy sides, and the opening song, "Nabataea", is a very strong 7-minute epic. I found myself humming its pre-final-chorus bridge when I realized why it was so catchy: it's the chorus melody from "Everytime We Touch" (also by a German artist...coincidence?). Straight Out of Hell may not be Helloween's top album from their "modern" period (that would probably be either Gambling with the Devil or Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy). Though it introduces (or, often, reintroduces) some interesting ideas, it seems like a bit of a toned-down version of 7 Sinners. (Its similarly overcompressed production doesn't help with this) Not my first recommendation for recent Helloween, but a  pretty good album.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sennheiser HD800s: Pure Sonic Perfection

I used to poke fun at people who would pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of headphones (Bose Triports; this was before Beats became huge). I feel like after having spent half my bonus on these things, I have forfeited that right. They have come.
This is how listening on the HD800s makes me feel.
The HD800s have been Sennheiser's flagship headphones since 2008, replacing the HD650s (previously reviewed here), and are branded as "the world's finest headphones". Though my extremely high expectations from wanting these headphones for years have probably colored my impressions, I'm inclined to agree with this assessment.
The HD800s are the result of Sennheiser basically telling its top engineers, "make the best-sounding headphones you possibly can, cost is no object". They have been designed for perfection from the ground up, bearing no resemblance to any of Sennheiser's lesser headphone lines (except the HD700, which came and is intentionally styled after them) or, indeed, any other headphone in existence. Sennheiser's design is normally sleek and ultramodern, but the HD800s can only be described as "futuristic". Though most of the design is plastic except for the driver housings and part of the band, they feel like the very opposite of cheap. Everything fits together precisely.
It's to be expected that a headphone this expensive should be extremely wearable (my biggest concern with the Audeze LCD-2), and this is definitely true of the HD800. The pads are not velour like I was expecting from the HD555 and HD650, but some kind of cushy foam (apparently microfiber fabric) that is extremely comfortable and provides a nice acoustic seal around the enormous earcups. They have the same split-pad design on the band as the HD650s, but much less caliper pressure. As a result, they are about as comfortable as the Audio Technica ATH-AD700s, feeling like a pillow on the head, but with less worry about them slipping down. (Though because of the low pressure they feel like they could slip forward or backward if I tilt my head) When I wear them, I don't want to take them off, even without any sound.

Unlike most headphones, the HD800s make little effort to hide the fact that they are basically small speaker cones positioned over your ears. The HD5x8 line has its "eargonomic acoustic refinement" reflector design to improve their imaging; the HD800s simply position the drivers farther away from the ears and at an angle so that sound enters the heads as naturally as if it were coming from the "real world". The result is by far the best, most lifelike imaging I've ever heard.

Speaking of drivers, the HD800s also reflect a truly unique driver design. Larger drivers produce better sound, especially at the low end, but they also allow for more harmonic distortion, especially in the middle which is allowed to oscillate freely. Sennheiser's solution was to give it a patented ring-shaped driver, which allows for much greater control of the driver surface and therefore allows the driver to be the biggest of any dynamic headphone, 56mm, with a frequency range of 8 Hz to 50 kHz.
So, with all of this precision German engineering, how do they sound? In a word: perfect. Contrary to my last review, I have mostly been preferring the HD650s for their overall balanced sound and strong low end, good for metal. But after hearing the HD800s, I could swear someone snuck into my apartment and replaced them with cheap knockoffs. The difference is barely tangible, but impossible to ignore.

The HD800s' frequency response is the most neutral and even I have ever heard (except possibly some electrostatics at a headphone meet). As the chart below shows, the HD650 has a bit of a bass "hump" around 100 Hz before dropping off at the extreme low end, and is also a bit lacking in treble performance (I was familiar with that; they didn't sound bright like the Beyerdynamic DT990s do). The HD800 evens out all of these discrepancies. No frequencies dominate or get left out; everything is perfectly balanced. The bass is strong and clear, but not overpowered; the treble "sparkles" but not to a distracting, sibilant degree like the DT990s; the mids, as expected from any Sennheiser headphones worth their salt, sound great.
And, of course, the transparency. The enormous ring-shaped transducers result in vanishingly low harmonic distortion. Switching between them and the HD650s, I could actually sense the "veil" that seemed to be in front of the latters' sound, fuzzing everything out almost imperceptibly. With the HD800s, that veil is gone. Of the sonic impurity that remains, I think more is due to the recording process (which was probably done with lesser headphones) than my amp. These headphones have no personality. You don't "hear" them; you only hear your music. And, of course, the other elements of your signal chain; I am planning to build a β22, a solid-state headphone amp renowned for its transparency, in the coming months as the perfect companion. Since I heard my first pair of "nice" headphones four years ago, my goal has been a sound system that just gets out of the way and puts no barriers between me and my music. In the HD800s, that goal has been realized. Worth it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Afterman: Descension

The second part of Coheed and Cambria's two-part album, The Afterman, has arrived (or perhaps descended). And it is really good.
One of the biggest strengths of Ascension was how it so brilliantly wrapped so many different ideas and genres into one semicoherent package that thrilled with its constant variety and consistently managed to stay both fascinating and accessible. The exact same could be said of Descension, which is every bit the second half of the cycle. Virtually every song explores a different musical niche, from progressive metal ("Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant" or "Gravity's Union") to electropop/big band ("Number City") to indie rock ("Iron Fist"), effectively keeping the album from ever sounding dry or tired. By tightly juxtaposing all of these musical ideas, this 43-minute album manages to convey almost as much of a sense of musical exploration and adventure as an 80-minute Dream Theater album.

With an album this diverse, there isn't much to do except go through the individual tracks; this album is definitely more reductionist (enjoy each song on its own) than focused on connecting the songs into one musical line of thought.

"Pretelethal": Ethereal and spacey, beginning with strumming that almost sounds like a harp. Like the love child of Porcupine Tree and Muse, especially during the heavier, crashing chorus. A more fleshed-out prelude track than "The Hollow" was. The end has a callback to "Goodnight, Fair Lady" in the SFX.

"Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant": Features some of the heaviest-sounding acoustic guitarwork I've ever heard in the verses; this is C&C at their most Dream Theater-like, but with more mainstream melodic sensibilities instead of epic, rambling instrumental wankery.

"The Hard Sell": Single bait; more hard rock-like. Simpler than "Sentry the Defiant", but with a strong, anthemic chorus and some cool background guitar riffing touches. Claudio's vocal performance is passionate, alternately pleading and snarling; probably the best on the album.

"Number City": Pretty much electronic pop-rock music with "robotic" vocals and much more lighthearted rock touches than the last two songs. There are also synthesized horns, "city" sound effects, and other flourishes that continue to get crazier throughout. Definitely one of C&C's less conventional (and poppiest) songs; crazy-fun.

"Gravity's Union": Another progressive metal/hard rock track. Almost seven minutes in length, but doesn't try to cram in every musical idea and the kitchen sink like "Domino the Destitute" did, so it feels longer. Decent song, but slow-paced and not quite as exciting as the other heavy tracks.

"Away We Go": Possibly their most melodic work of pop-rock yet, kind of like a slower "Blood Red Summer" with some musical allusions to "Goodnight, Fair Lady" mixed in. It's very hard to feel angry or sad while listening to this.

"Iron Fist": Surprisingly, resembles indie rock, with a raw-sounding mix highly centered around the laid-back drumming and bass guitar.

"Dark Side of Me": Very poppy, somewhat hard alternative rock. Has more of a pop focus on the powerful chorus. Not terribly elaborate, but one of my favorites of the album.

"2's My Favorite 1": A fairly conventional, pop-rock song that draws the double album to a satisfying, major-key conclusion. After the main song fades out at around 3:30, there is a brief, quiet outro that calls back to "The Hollow".

Overall, The Afterman: Descension is, like its predecessor, an album of very strong, relatively distinct songs  with enough compositional and musical coherence to work together in interesting and enjoyable ways. Coheed and Cambria specializes in controlling a vast musical territory, connecting the genres we might identify as "progressive rock", "pop rock", "punk rock" under one grand design, and others and so blurring the lines between them, and The Afterman is their best example of this yet. Perhaps a bit less grandiose and more personal than Ascension, but in every way the conclusion it deserved. Both albums have my highest recommendation.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Some Headphones Amplify Celebrities Over Sound

This excellent New York Times article summarizes the trend of branded, often celebrity-endorsed headphones you see all over busses and college campuses these days. Celebrity endorsements, attractive visual design, and extensive marketing all serve to drive up demand and get consumers to pay hundreds of dollars for headphones with a decidedly cheaper sound. The main purpose of headphones is to reproduce sound, and sacrificing this goal for peripheral ones like style is, to me, a poor trade. If you want to wear something cool-looking on your head, get a nice hat.

Monday, February 11, 2013

2012 Addendum--Anathema, Woods of Ypres, and more

As luck would have it, within a month of finishing my top 30 albums list for 2012, I have happened upon a wealth of great albums from that illustrious year which would surely have qualified for the list had I known about them. Five great albums each of a different genre and country of origin.

Infected Mushroom - Army of Mushrooms (Psychedelic trance/Electronica; Israel)
As their name suggests, Infected Mushroom's intense, bizarre sound is evocative of a bad drug trip. Their new album is a big move away from the metal influences that had been creeping in since IM the Supervisor and toward other contemporary electronic styles like dubstep. This style of music is not my specialty at all; the general pattern is bizarre electronic melodies, percussion, and judiciously chosen (for lack of a better word) noises over a driving beat, sometimes with vocals and sometimes without. The balance seems to be more towards instrumental jams or less-emphasized vocals on Army of Mushrooms, as well as a somewhat more intense, less playful mood throughout compared with Legend of the Black Shawarma. "Nothing to Say" and "Serve My Thirst" are good examples of Army of Mushrooms' brand of genre-bending insanity. There are also two interesting covers: "Send Me an Angel" by Israeli band Mashina with all-Hebrew vocals, and "The Pretender" by Foo Fighters. Like Infected Mushroom's earlier work, it's a lot of fun and great to listen to while coding.

Orden Ogan - To the End (Power metal; Germany)
I've often said that power metal, as a genre, is more about the pursuit of a Platonic ideal than innovation and reinvention. In this case, Orden Ogan hits wonderfully close to the mark on their new album To the End. With bombastic "chorus"ed vocals similar to Blind Guardian and amazingly versatile musicianship that explores a vast compositional space, they may be Germany's greatest unsung metal heroes. See just the first four tracks, "To the End", "The Things We Believe In", "Land of the Dead", and "The Ice Kings" (a sound ballad) for examples of how varied, yet consistently good the songs are. "This World of Ice" seems to be channeling Meshuggah, of all bands, in its atonal chugging I normally ignore intro tracks in my reviews, it the one on this album, "The Frozen Few", is noteworthy for its anthemlike guitar harmonies and galloping drums, almost sounding like an Iced Earth creation. To The End takes many risks and succeeds on nearly all counts, managing to stay fresh like a breath of icy air for over fifty minutes. Easily one of the best power metal albums of 2012. (Also, if you are learning of Orden Ogan for the first time like I was, be sure to check out their other albums, particularly Easton Hope)

Anathema - Weather Systems (Neo-progressive/atmospheric rock; United Kingdom)
I find it difficult to stop enjoying this album long enough to write about it. Weather Systems is 55 minutes of beautiful, symphonic, largely acoustic neo-progressive rock, which is especially amazing coming from one of the pioneering bands of the death/doom metal subgenre. With emotional soundscapes of pianos, acoustic guitars, and strings that range from minimalistic to grandiose, Weather Systems could almost be easy-listening music if not for the thoughtful songwriting hidden beneath the beauty; while the sound has much in common with Marillion, the organic, evolving song structure is more akin to post rock. It's becoming something of a cliche for me to say that this music engages your head and your heart, but seriously, do yourself a favor and check out Weather Systems. It's as if Anathema wanted to rebut progressive metal bands who think that being more abrasive makes you more interesting. Special recommendations: Both parts of "Untouchable", "Lightning Song", and "Internal Landscapes". The latter in particular, with its beautiful voiceover narration of a near-death experience, speaks better to the concept of afterlife than any doctrine-filled Christian contemporary song I've heard.

Woods of Ypres - Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light (Blackened doom metal; Canada)
This album is absolutely brilliant and would definitely have been top 10 (maybe even top 5) material if it had been ranked. Woods of Ypres' surprisingly accessible, mid-tempo blend of black and doom metal is one of the most unique I have ever heard, somehow managing to seem dark and melancholic at the same time as upbeat and almost "fun", almost like a more pensive version of Kvelertak. See "Lightning and Snow" and the raucous, black metal-infused "Adora Vivos" for some examples of this fascinating fusion of styles. "Keeper of the Ledger" and "Traveling Alone" are slower and more doom-y, with the latter featuring what sounds like a clarinet supplying a nice backing melodic line. They have some of the best song titles I've ever seen, such as "Career Suicide (Is Not Real Suicide)", one of the most upbeat songs on the album, or "Kiss My Ashes (Goodbye)", an eleven-minute epic that seems to cycle through every musical idea they explore. Their deep-voiced vocalist, David Gold, was very memorable, switching between a remarkably expressive basso profundo and higher-pitched rasps and doing both exceedingly well. Tragically, he died in a car accident in 2011, so this album is Woods' last. This casts the album in an appropriately macabre light, and lyrics like "A moment of silence/But not one moment more/The dead are to be forgotten/We are here to be adored " seem so prophetic they send shivers down my spine. I plan on ignoring the advice and continuing to enjoy Gold's and Woods of Ypres' magnum opus even now that they're dead and gone.

Ne Obliviscaris - Portal of I (Progressive death/black metal; Australia)
When I hear that a band is "progressive death metal", I can't help but compare them with classic Opeth, and the band tends to lose out in my mind on this comparison. The extremely ambitious new Australian band Ne Obliviscaris (Latin for "forget not") is the first I have heard with the potential to make Opeth (even when they were metal) look pedestrian. This is a progressive extreme metal band with a violin. They combine the progressive brilliance of Opeth with the compositional complexity of Dream Theater with a touch of the string-y insanity of Unexpect with the colossal scale and ambition of Wintersun's Time I (but clocking in at a robust 71 minutes). Like a veritable kaleidoscope of sound, their music masterfully varies its dynamics, mood, and even genre to suit the band's whims. For instance, the first song, "Tapestry of the Starless Abstract", starts like a solid black metal song with thundering blast beats and double-bass drumming over intricate, atmospherically dissonant riffing and screams--but then at 0:40, is that a banjo? That somehow works perfectly into the music? And then, after a few more minutes of chaos, it transitions to a lighter progressive rock section with violin harmonies that then fades completely to a tender, delicate acoustic guitar and violin section that not only sounds like a different song, but by a completely different band. Or consider "And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope", where the ominous sound of the violin evokes an image of a dying flower before an almost tango-like guitar riff transitions us into a jazzy violin-and-bass intro. The bass guitar is delightfully audible and present for this excellently-produced album unlike in so many others where it gets virtually lost in the compressed mix. "As Icicles Fall" features more clean vocals (the band has two vocalists) and a more mellow, but still thoroughly cold sound more akin to power progressive metal. This is probably the most promising debut album I have ever heard besides Wintersun and overall one of the best releases of 2012. I'm sad I missed it during that illustrious year.