Stay awhile and listen: Forces of the Northern Night

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I’m not a huge fan of live albums in general. Being an extreme creature of habit, once I’m accustomed to a piece of music I like it just the way it is and don’t want it any different. Live music is by nature almost always different, and when it isn’t there’s no real point to it unless you’re there when it happens and it’s all about savouring the performance.

There are exceptions though, and this is one of them.

While Dimmu Borgir were always frowned upon by many ‘true’ black metal believers I instantly became a fan of theirs when I listened to their album Stormblåst in ’96. What really blew me away was their next release, Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, which remains one of my most beloved albums to this day. My favourite music genres have always been metal and classical (symphonic) music. To me Enthrone was, at the time, the best and most sophisticated symbiosis of those two. For that to work a great sound is needed, and it didn’t disappoint in this regard either.

Since then they’ve constantly refined their style, which I would call Symphonic Black Metal. For the recording of their album Death Cult Armageddon they used a real orchestra, the Prague Philharmonics, for the first time. This again elevated their compositions and sound to a whole new level.

In 2011 they collaborated with Kringkastingsorkestret, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Choir, for a live show in Oslo. With Forces of the Northern Night they released the recording of that concert as well as the same show with different orchestra and choir at Wacken Open Air 2012. I highly recommend the earbook, which consists of two Blu-rays, two DVDs, four Audio CDs and lots of large format pictures. At Nuclear Blast Germany it’s heavily discounted, I assume that the Blu-rays and DVDs aren’t region free though.

The CDs are fine, with great sound and a good song selection. The video discs are where it’s at though. Watching them is obviously not as great as it would have been to see it live in Oslo or at Wacken, but it’s pretty close. The picture quality is superb, as is the 5.1 audio mix. They didn’t make the mistake (as is sadly often the case with surround mixes of rock and metal music) to route bassdrum, snare drum and vocals to the center speaker. Everything that’s ‘metal’ comes from the much more powerful main stereo speakers here, orchestra and choir are spread out over all front speakers and the crowd ambiance comes from behind. Perfect!

The stage setting is well thought out and I’m very pleased that neither camera work nor editing are as hectic as many other metal releases I’ve seen.

I’ve not watched the Wacken gig yet, but the Oslo show is already enough for me to rate this release 10/10.

Song recommendations: Progenies of the Great Apocalypse (I’d buy it again for this song alone), Vredesbyrd, Gateways.

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Stay awhile and listen: Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign

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During the nineties some of my friends were super into old school black metal. They swore by Darkthrone, Immortal, Mayhem, Burzum and also ‘newer’ bands like Dark Funeral.

My stance on that kind of music was that I’d probably have liked it too if only the sound had been better. Much better, in most cases.

I often imagined the production process of those albums like this: the musicians were set up in the deep end of a giant cave, a single microphone was placed at the cave’s exit and a mono tape recorder was used to record it. Exaggerated, sure, but I find the mental image funny and some recordings were indeed that abysmal.

Seriously, listen to this, or this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty great music (if you like the genre, that is), but it sounds horrible to my ears. Of course this wasn’t just a result of low budget and/or inability of the sound engineers. I don’t know why, but somehow it had become an essential part of being a ‘true’ black metal band to have a sound like this.

For that reason I never really followed the genre too closely, and also didn’t take notice when those bands released new albums.

Release new albums they did though, and thankfully the sound evolved along the way. A while ago a good friend strongly recommended Dark Funeral’s latest album to me, Where Shadows Forever Reign. Since I know that I can usually follow his recommendations blindly (thanks buddy!) I bought it.

And boy, is this a great album! It has a good mix of full speed blast-beat and mid-tempo songs, great melodies and the variation/combination of screams and grunts adds another layer of variety.

The sound is the cherry on the cake though. It’s clear, crisp and powerful. You can clearly discern every single note, every drum and cymbal, every hushed voice. And yet, the dark, cold and sinister atmosphere needed for this kind of music hasn’t suffered in the slightest.

I think wanting to achieve this atmosphere at all costs was the main reason for the (to me) bad black metal sounds of the past. Technical possibilities and engineering skills have finally risen up to the challenge, it seems.

Song recommendations: Unchain My Soul, Beast Above Man, The Eternal Eclipse.

Player-made music in MMOs

Music is very important to me. I love music since I was little. I became a musician myself relatively late though, I started playing the guitar when I was sixteen. A couple years later the drums became my main instrument.

Although I’m not the most creative person when it comes to composing music, expressing myself through music has been a part of my life for a very long time.

So you can imagine my excitement when Star Wars Galaxies came along in 2003 with a pretty sophisticated system for player-made music.

It didn’t actually allow players to compose music themselves though. Instead it had eight (I think) songs to choose from at launch, and five instruments to play them. Among those songs was the Mos Eisley cantina song of course, but also a couple of new compositions. Each instrument had up to eight musical variations, called Flourishes, for each song. For every bar of music one of those could be chosen while playing. Additionally some lightshow effects could be triggered every now and then.

This was already pretty nice when playing alone, but it was obvious that the system had the potential for greatness when played as a group.

Hence I didn’t hesitate for long to start looking for a band. I found two guys looking to start a new band on my server, Gorath, on one of the german SWG forums. We met ingame and talked about our ideas and visions and decided we were a good match.

We started meeting regularly to practice. We experimented with different combinations of instruments for the various songs, and which Flourishes sounded good together. We even practiced solos for single instruments, which meant all other musicians had to use one or more ‘Pause’-commands at the right time. Since this was before voice chat had become a common thing we had to coordinate our efforts via ingame-chat, which was trickier than it probably sounds.

Practicing a vocal composition in the sunshine of Corellia.

When we felt that we were good enough to play in front of an audience we started looking for opportunities. Since Gorath had a pretty large and lively roleplaying community that didn’t take long. Soon we were booked for our first gig, at a player wedding no less.

SWG Wedding 1
Playing the song ‘Ceremonial’ as a substitute for the Wedding March while Groom and guests wait for the Bride.

It was great. I have to admit that the roleplaying stuff was a bit over the top for me, I’m just not into these things. But being there and playing for an audience of real players, being cheered at and asked for encores was a gaming experience I’ll never forget.

SWG Wedding 2
Rocking the wedding party in a guild hall…
SWG Wedding 3
…and on the beach at night followed by fireworks.

We were joined by additional musicians and a couple of dancers over time, rehearsed even more sophisticated shows and wore more elaborate stage outfits. I wouldn’t say that we were the best or most famous band on Gorath, but we were definitely playing in the top league. It was a fantastic time.

SWG Enabran Tain
Entertaining the crowd at a local crimelord’s palace. We were very glad that he liked it…

After I quit SWG I had to wait for about six years until I played a game with player-made music again. This game was All Points Bulletin (the reboot, APB Reloaded, that went live some time after the original game tanked is still running and I play it from time to time). A MIDI-like editor can be used here to compose 5-second long themes or whole songs.

Recreating Marilyn Manson’s title theme from the first Resident Evil movie.

I never saw a reason to do whole songs because the game supports using one’s own music library to be played by car stereos ingame anyway. Also the available sound libraries aren’t really that great.

The themes are where it’s at though! Every character can equip such a theme, and whenever you kill someone it gets played to your victim. If the game bestows the MVP title upon you at the end of a match it’s even played once to all players on both sides.

Because people are people I don’t really have to point out that there are lots of folks who use a theme that’s basically just noise and as annoying as (in)humanly possible. Fortunately blocking a player is but a few klicks away, and then you don’t hear that player’s themes anymore.

However there are also many players who want to have a nice, high quality theme that suits their style or taste, so a talented theme-maker has not only lots of potential customers but can also earn quite a sum with his craft. I made millions of ingame Dollars selling the themes I made, I even did a couple on request.

It feels really great to receive a whisper after killing someone and not be called a cheater/dickhead/whatever for a change, instead getting: ‘WOW what an awesome theme, did you make it yourself?’.

The third and until now last game with player-made music I played was ArcheAge. Here a somewhat peculiar notation system is used to compose songs. It takes some time and effort getting used to. Apparently it’s taken from an earlier game, Mabinogi, which I never played.

Composed music is written down on special paper that has to be crafted first, and these song sheets are then used to play the song with an equipped instrument. They can also be traded or sold. The amount of notes that fit on one sheet are determined by your Artistry skill. Songs can have up to three voices, which is kinda cool because you can make even wind instruments play three notes at the same time this way.

Playing a pretty cool looking and sounding lute on my balcony.

The important thing that’s missing though, at least in the EU/NA version of the game, is band support. Playing all alone is quite nice when you have some good sheets and a couple of instruments on hand, but playing with a band would be a world of difference (see SWG above).

Lord of the Rings Online seems to have a very good system with bands and everything. There are even big festivals, like this one just a couple weeks ago. I’ve never played LotRO though, so I can’t speak from my own experience about it.

Now, I fully realize that there are without a doubt many players who couldn’t care less about player-made music in their MMOs. So every developer team has to weigh the cost-benefit ratio when deciding if their game needs something like that. There are also games where it just wouldn’t fit thematically of course.

Generally speaking though, if you want to make a game that’s more than just a treadmill of quests, gear and combat, instead offering a rich and varied virtual world to explore and experience, a good system for player-made music can be a massive enrichment and a real asset to your game.

Stay awhile and listen: Killing Joke – Pylon

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Completely out of the blue a co-worker asked me the other day if I knew Killing Joke. I had heard the name before, but hadn’t consciously listened to any of their music, although they’re around since 1979.

He showed me the video of Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, the title song of their 2006-released album. For reasons I cannot easily explain I fell in love with it right away. Normally I tend to like music with a lot of variation, so the rather simplistic song structure could have very well put me off. But somehow the atmosphere created by the soundscape of guitars, synthesizer and Jaz Coleman’s raspy voice pulled me in.

I started to investigate about them, and found that they initially made relatively mainstream pop music, albeit with guitars and real drums. Later their sound became more rough and Rock-influenced (a good bit of Punk’s also in there). They changed their style more than once during the years, yet always sounded unmistakably like Killing Joke.

I bought the aforementioned Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, as well as their latest album Pylon, which came out in 2015, and was not disappointed.

While Hosannas is great, I like Pylon even more. Compared to Hosannas it’s a bit smoother and more mainstream again, but still rough around the edges. Most importantly, not a single song of theirs feels trivial and irrelevant to me, which a whole lot of today’s mainstream music unfortunately does.

Song recommendations: Euphoria, War On Freedom, New Cold War.

Thanks Frank, great stuff! It had been a while since I ‘discovered’ new great music to enjoy, so this came at a perfect point in time.