Saturday, August 1, 2015

Infected Mushroom Part 1: The Psytrance Period

Hey y'all.  So I've been listening to a lot of Infected Mushroom of late, and I wanted to talk about my assessment of the band.  They're an Israeli duo, Erez Eisen and Amit Duvdevani, dedicated primarily to psytrance, or so the internet tells me.  Actually, what I wanted to talk about is the sound of this band.  See, one thing that has been said about every long-lasting band or singer ever is that they were better in their early days, and that they've changed for the worse over time.  I myself have made such a statement once (concerning Daft Punk -- we'll test that too).

However, I believe in saying things that are objectively true, even if they don't appear like objective statements -- only if a baby is adorable do I actually say a baby's adorable.  Granted, I have a broad definition of "cute" and I always find something nice to say about babies, but at the same time, I will avoid saying anything if a baby too closely resembles Winston Churchill.

But because this is music and not a nursery, I'm going to say what I please, remaining as objective as I can in a subjective realm.  And what I want to do is test the statement "Infected Mushroom was better in its old days" to see if this is true or not.  Now, unlike a band like Daft Punk, Infected Mushroom has no consistent sound.  While they are clearly an electronic band, they've done trance, techno, emo, rock, and even a country-ish song.  Every single album they produce has a different feel from the others.  Thus, who can say that they have a consistent sound?  We know what to expect from Daft Punk (or we used to), so there is an objective basis to critique how they've changed over time. Not so much IM.

As far as I have observed, there are three general categories of Infected Mushroom music.  Their first three albums were their psytrance period, the next two their electro period, and the last three were the rock period.  Even within these categories their albums weren't the same.  Particularly in their earliest phase.  While they were all well within the bounds of psychedelic trance, each of the three albums represented three different ideas.  Let's talk about them, shall we?

Album #1: The Gathering --

This album, hands down, is the worst set IM has ever released.  This is good news, as it's their first, so they must have progressed if it's the least interesting.  It's a bit of a pitfall if someone is new and assumes that they should start at the beginning, but since most people hear about bands from listening to individual songs, it's not likely a newcomer will start out with this album.

The downside is, we have to talk about it now.  The primary trouble with The Gathering is that it's the epitome of the techno stereotype: "OONCE OONCE OONCE."  Ad nauseum.  Listening to this album was headache inducing, as every song contained a steady tempo of OONCE OONCE OONCE, slathering all the songs with metaphorical ketchup, to the point where they sound at least 90% the same.  Add to that the tedious references to various things, and you've got the ultimate compilation of amateurish trance teens trying to impress their immature friends.  There's sampling of Independence Day, Grand Theft Auto, Star Trek VI, Batman and Robin, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.  If you're not familiar with that last one, it's a disaster of a science fiction film from 1996.  It doesn't help this album any either.

A surprising amount of people seem to think that this album is more than a collection of noise,  I have to wonder how many of those are just young people who will listen to anything that sounds rebellious.  Or if they do drugs.  Well, to each their own, but I have a hard time believing that more than the most dedicated of all trancers will truly enjoy The Gathering.  It's just layers of noise, and minimal control over that noise.  Sure, some songs tried interesting things, but the pulsing bassline drowns much of it out.

Before we go into the tracks of this song itself, let's talk about the cover art.  There's two particular aspects to an album cover that are important.  Does it look good, and does it represent the music inside?

I'd say "not really" to the first question, and "definitely" to the second.  This album cover is certainly a cacophony of color, much in the same way the music is a cacophony of noise.  While I love the colors in use here, and the general art style is fun and representative of the time period, the horned mushroom boobs are pretty immature.  Just like this album.  The art feels very grungy and in your face, which is probably exactly what IM was going for.  It works well enough.

On to the songs.

1. Release Me
A very bad start.  The trouble with excessive sampling of spoken words is that the words often take over a song.  The introduction to this song is comparable to Georgio Moroder's talking on the album Random Access Memory -- Moroder is going on and on about his life as an electronic artist, but how many times is a listener going to want to hear his spiel?  Plain words aren't as re-listenable as music.

While Release Me's talking isn't as long, it is a climactic moment from cheesy action sci-fi Independence Day. A pretty obvious reference if there ever was one.  Sampling an obscure, intellectual sci-fi could work if it were only a sentence or two, but copying an entire scene from a popular and not particularly great movie feels like a cheap tactic.  It doesn't actually make the song better.

I say all that, but this song does have nice use of electric guitars, and the sampling towards the middle -- where only the words "release me" are used -- works very well.  This song definitely improves over multiple listenings. 

2. The Gathering
...No, slurping sounds and cartoonish giggling aren't avant guarde.  They're just annoying.  While I like the beat of this song, it may have an unfair advantage.  As I'm listening, I'm watching a video complication of movie dances somebody posted on facebook.  Let's just say that this song improves on the originals very well.  I can see dancing to this at a party.

3. Return of the Shadows
Noisy at the beginning.  It doesn't really get started until about two minutes in. Three and a half minutes is where things really get going.  Ah, there go those Star Trek VI samples.  They don't really fit, but they aren't horrible.  And wow do I love that ending.

All in all, this song is nice, but it's not as good as The Gathering. It doesn't really stand out until the end.

4. Blue Muppet.
This is the point where I got exhausted listening to everything, particularly on my first listen.  I like the sound usage, but this feels less unique than the previous songs.  It's merely a continuation of what the other songs have set up, without bringing much extra to the formula.  Though the guitar at the end did bring this song to a better place.  Did have to get past some annoying noises on the way there, though.

5. Psycho
This song picks up halfway through, but that doesn't stop it from just being another song with the exact same bass tempo. The irritating clicking noises at the beginning really echo in my headphones.  It's a bit typical of its kind of trance.  Nothing particularly unique here.

Oh dear, the songs are starting to blend together. 

6. Montoya RMX
FINALLY a song with a different tempo.  For a little while, at least.  Despite being almost as monotonous as the others, it has a more electric feel. Very much an electronic mind meld, for the first three or so minutes.  After that, it gets a bit farty, and the tempo rises to match all the other songs.  Dat ending, really hits hard.

7. Tommy the Bat
A lot of people like this song, but it's a bit boring.  That same tempo, just different samples.  I like some of the higher pitched sounds, but this just sounds like an extension of the previous songs.  The sample that goes "Please...tell them....that I am GOD" was flippin' hilarious.  Got a laugh out of that one.

8. Virtual Voyage
The trouble with the OONCE OONCE OONCE is that it overwhelms the truly unique sounds that the music has.  The beginning of this song is odd and unique, particularly in the usage of the breathy vocals.  The parts when the bass is minimal and allows the rest of the sounds to come forward, this song is much better.

Oh, it's really just another trip down the lane for the album.

9. Over Mode
If I hear OONCE OONCE OONCE one more time....

This song is kind of fun at parts, but again it's too much of a heavy hitter.  Again, it's just noise upon noise.  Coming at the end of an album that's all noise upon noise.  How can anyone stand this any length of time greater than ten minutes?

I'm sorry, Infected Mushroom, but your baby looks like Winston Churchill.  Most of the songs all blend together, and the unique elements of the songs are bass-ed away.  It's just too much all at the same time.  Also, samples should meld with the song, as if they had always been meant to be one with the beat.  Samples aren't automatically a boost just because they're there.

I think I appreciated it more on a second and third listen (all on different days, of course), but it's difficult to continually hear this album all at once.  There's just too many high energy songs, with no breathing room at all.  The sampling is likewise amateur at many points, just there to sound "cool."  There isn't enough upwards and downwards progression within each song, as well.  They're trying to impress the dance crowd with heavy layers of sound, not with style or structure.  There's going to be a lot of people who dismiss this entire album after only a few minutes, and I can't blame them.  This is only for the hardest of the hardcore, with nothing left for anyone else.

However, this was only the first draft, and everything I'm saying negative about this album is a lesson IM learned later on.  Most of these lessons they in fact learned on their very next album, so I don't feel the need to go on too much about this one.  As is, some of these songs are fun to listen to, but listening to more than two or three at once will wear you out.

Album #2: Classical Mushroom

What it says on the tin.  This is the best album of the period, representing a step up from the immaturity of The Gathering and a fresh collection of classical music into the electronic realm. Classical music is one of the genres that best blends into electronic, as both it and electronic music represent experimentation with contemporary instruments. 

It also represents the happiness of the nineties in its sounds (despite having come out in the 00s).  The thing about the nineties is that they wanted to be edgy, but having just come off from the eighties, they didn't quite have it down.  Even when the nineties were serious, they were still all about having fun and living life.  It made even the darker elements of the decade have heart to them.  Unlike today's edge, but that's a whole 'nother ball game.

As far as the album cover goes, the computer generation might throw some people off -- the kind of people who probably wouldn't listen to psytrance anyway.  I love this cover.  It's interesting, evocative, and the notion of keyboard mushrooms is silly and fun.  It's like the mushroom people have come to our planet to play music for us, and if we find the darkest, deepest parts of a forest, we'll encounter their fungi kind.

And what kind of music do mushrooms listen to?

1. Bust A Move
You'd think a song with this title would be more danceable.  Whatever, that's just an oddity.  I LOVE the guitars in this.  The whole song feels like sunshine and rain. It's just good, and a massive step up from the previous album.

2. None of This is Real
Now that's good sampling.  You take one quote, relate a song around it, and let the music take over. A more electric guitar track, but unlike the electric guitar of future IM albums, this one seems to understand that it is in a psytrance song, and not the reverse.  This is the Classical Mushroom song I listen to the most.

3. Sailing in the Sea of Mushroom
A very relaxed track, one that is perfect on road trips or to study with.  It's not a standout track, but allowing yourself to really listen rewards you with interesting sounds and an almost storytelling narrative.

4. The Shen
Nice intro.  Sampling's a bit cheesy, but not out of place.  This is just a fun, electric dance track.  What else can I say?

5. Disco Mushroom
Spooky.  Not entirely sure this constitutes "disco", but it's at least interesting.  It has horror sounds in it, and generally attempts to be intimidating.  I guess they're trying to say that mushrooms have haunted discos in the woods, or something.  Gets especially great towards the end.

6. Dracul
Epic, adventurous beginning.  I don't really like the sampling here, but the music is good.  After that, things get catchy.  Nice, low down, exciting music.

7. Nothing Comes Easy
Fun, haunting music.  Strange and with a whiff of despair.  The vocals are great.  Very catchy.

8. Mushi Mushi
Good, smooth trance.  It's not as interesting as previous songs, but it's perfectly hypnotic in its own right.

9. The Missed Symphony
Feels very symphonic, a great way to end an album.  It tries to not only be haunting, but beautiful. The last several seconds are very lovely.

It's really difficult to talk about this album.  It speaks for itself, and it doesn't need me to praise it.  While there aren't a lot of standouts that people will remember by name, this album is a peaceful compilation of the best psytrance there is.  It's as if the whole thing is one long, varied song, telling a story in its own, silent way.  No one who truly likes this genre will be disappointed.  It's also great for writing and studying.

It's so weird.  We go from the worst album, to one of IM's best.  I don't get it at all.

Album #3: BP Empire

This is a step down from the previous album, and actually something of a dead end for the band.  It's certainly proof that Infected Mushroom has never had a consistent sound, but this album is very different from everything before and after it.  The first album was technic noise, the second was consistent psytrance, and BP Empire is symphonic trance.  Or "psytekk" (AKA minimal trance) if we're going to use Iskhur's Guide for a specific label (assuming I'm using it correctly).  The short of it is that Infected Mushroom went from the dark side of trance to a somewhat lighter, minimal side.

At many points, BP Empire lacks the interest of other IM features.  If you're going to listen to this album, it won't be for dancing, headbanging, or motivational purposes.  This is music that needs a real sit down and listen to truly appreciate.   Many tracks feel similar and not distinct enough.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a horrible album.   It's very soothing for psytrance, and probably good if you want to study.  I'd recommend listening to this in the evening, rather than the day, for those reasons.  It's the kind of album meant for calming down, not winding up.  Or for listening to when you're puttering around on your computer at one in the morning.

As for the album cover, for me this is pretty much a no.  Or maybe just a casual "nah..."  It doesn't look all that great.  It kinda reminds me of those generated images on old computer books (which is a plus, because it's retro to me).  To be fair, it's at least interesting.  It represents the album fairly well, in that it lacks most of the implied violence of all other Infected Mushroom covers, just how the music is much softer and transcendental than all other IM albums. There are cold tones in the cover, just like the cold tones in the music.  Sort of refreshing, actually.  I do like how the two faces on the cover look like a husband and wife arguing -- the round things on the "woman" look like hair curlers, don't you think?  Or is that supposed to be Duvdev and Erez?

1. Never Ever Land
Wow, what a depressing song title.  The song itself isn't depressing; it's very fun and electric.  Some of the sounds in this song remind me of music from Starcraft 1.

2. Unbalanced (Baby Killer Remix)
....That is an awful title.  I know electronic music likes to get under people's skin, but come on, "baby killer"?  The song itself is alright.  It has some nice buildup at parts.

3. Spaniard
S'alright, I guess.  Not sure what's so Spanish about this song.  It gets better toward the end, but for the most part it's just okay.

4. BP Empire
It takes a minute or two to get going, but is a perfect track that will energize, but won't overwhelm or distract you when you need to work on schoolwork.  More of a meditative track, not particularly interesting.  Ends well, though.

5. Funchameleon
A little more funky, a little weirder.  Takes about two minutes to really get going.  Nice creepy end. Not particularly unique.

6. Tasty Mushroom
Nice Latin tech at the beginning, and I wish it were continued throughout more of the song.  Becomes significantly less interesting in the minutes to come.  Nice clean sound about three minutes in.  This is the point where the song combines the smooth with the L-tech, and the result is refreshing and fun. Voice sample is hilarious.  Nice ending.

7. Noise Maker
Very unnoisy beginning.  Great urban sound, relaxing.  This track makes me really sleepy -- pretty ironic for a song that tells me to "play it so loud that nobody can sleep."  Thanks, Kerrigan, but I'll just have a snooze while you're playing me my trance lullaby.  The beat does pick up past the vocal sample, but it's all very lovely trance.  It's not an insult that it makes me want to fall sleep.  I'll have good dreams if I listen to this before bed.  Ending's a bit more noisy, but not significantly so.

8. PGM
Bit dull at first.  It gets squeaky as it goes along, but overall this song isn't very interesting.  While this song has some nice samples, it isn't interesting enough as a part of the album to catch the listener's attention.  By this point in listening to the album, you're potentially pretty bored with the whole thing.  About three minutes in, it starts developing a really great sound.  On the other hand, the "aw" sounding sample feels like a sample from an 80s Casio keyboard.

Actually, the more I listen to this, the more I like it.  It has its flaws, but it's weird and fun. Definitely listen to this separately from the album, rather than listening to the whole album at once.  It's easier to appreciate that way.

9. Dancing with Kadafi
Very much the best track on the album.  It goes several different places all at once, and even at a point drops its electronic beat to go full classical.  Then it comes right back up into a relaxing electronic daze.  This song is a complete adventure.  If you listen to no other song on this album, listen to this one.  This is the dictionary definition of trance.

Yeah, some are going to be quick to write this album off as boring.  Still, taking the time to really listen to it will allow the listener to really get into the details and depth of it.  However, an album with all similar sounding songs is a mistake. Every good album of any genre needs its uptempos and downtempos to catch the attention of the listeners.  The Gathering was too much up, and BP Empire was too much down.  Of course, BP Empire is still better.  Having to pay more attention to the songs to appreciate them is better than having too many elements in a song.

My recommendation for people who aren't into as much trance is to listen to both the first and last tracks.  Noise Maker is as good as them, and Tasty Mushroom is almost there.  As for the others, it depends more on the listener.  I feel that for most people, the best option is to create a playlist of several IM songs, and then mix BP Empire throughout it.  Listening to the whole album makes me confident in my assessment that this is indeed psytekk.  And as Ishkur says, it's best in small doses.

Okay, so that's the end of the first period. Next up is IM's electro period, where they went outside psytrance for influence, but still remained inspired by the rest of the electronic world.

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