Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Obituary's third album, The End Complete is certain to divide camps among old school Obituary fans. It is arguably their most commercially successful release, their most instantly accessible, and the first album to feature full lyrics for each song. After the underground success of Cause of Death, Obituary returned with original guitarist Allen West replacing Cause's James Murphy at the lead guitar. By 1992, the band had firmly established themselves as one of Florida's most seminal among Morbid Angel, Deicide, and Death. They had also managed to carve a fairly distinct sound for themselves which presents them as instantly recognizable among their peers thanks to two factors: the guitars with tone knobs turned all the way to bass and John Tardy's ridiculously over-the-top voice which sounds like he's vomiting each syllable.
The other key component was Obituary's lack of traditional song structure which changes drastically onThe End Complete. At the very opening notes of "I'm in Pain," it is clear that Obituary has refined to verse-chorus-verse song structure along with straightforward and somewhat boring lyrical content. Tardy's voice is also somewhat affected by being preoccupied with enunciation rather than just making ghoulish noises. Thus the polarizing factor is this: do you think the refinement of song structure and the addition of conventional lyrics help or hurt the band?
"I'm in Pain" will likely do little to sway anyone either way, but "Back to One" is decidedly savage and full of new found energy. And though Obituary could hardly be placed among the fastest of OSDM bands, they are certainly one of the most adept at hanging a slow groove, which they obviously became acutely aware of on this album. "Back to One" starts with a punk-like charge which eventually settles into a 6/8 chug that truly highlights what is so great about this band. They also have a tendency to just sit back and jam on a riff, without vocals or leads, until the song comes to its natural end - few other OSDM acts were so patient in their approach. Halting breakdowns and tempo changes throughout show that Obituary had a firm grasp on their appeal. The riffs are among some of the best in the bands catalogue here and Allen West's leads easily outdo anything he did on Slowly We Rot. John Tardy also delivers, as one expects, with doubled up vocals and savage force. Yes the actual lyrics do change his dynamic, but the jarring change lets up after the opening track.
Towards the latter half of The End Complete, Obituary really seem to find their niche. After the somewhat forgettable "In the End of Life," "Sickness" announces the albums second side which all but erases side one. Atypical for most releases, the best tracks on here lie towards the end. The absolutely groovy "Killing Time" may just be one of the band's tracks that they ever wrote. This along with the album's single and title track are the most convincing moments of this release.
The production is adequate, though a paper-thin and overly compressed snare plagues Donald Tardy's machine-like performance. That guitar sound may also be wearing a little thin, as the heightened production values elsewhere really show how weak a sound it truly is.
Production flaws aside though, The End Complete made a strong statement for Obituary's place in OSDM history. This is what a third album truly should be: a combination of the rawness of #1 and the compromises of #2 which creates a logical step forward in musical maturity and artistic progression. The follow up to this would be a rather hard pill to swallow, so this may just be the band's true peak as a death metal giant. Being one of the founding fathers of death metal, it's good to see the boys are back to writing traditional DM, some 20 years after this release... Man, that makes me feel old! 4.5 out of 5.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Guitar player Michael Amott was a key factor in Carcass' morphing from Goregrind to melodic death metal. After his departure from that band, he formed Arch Enemy in 1995, playing a similar sounding breed of melodeath that easily compares to the early In Flames and Dark Traquillity stuff. Along 2000, the band acquired a female singer named Angela Gossow, and suddenly they got a great deal of attention. The reason for this, is Angela sounds plenty brutal - her gender difference nearly undetectable by the uninitiated. My beef has always been that her vocals sound overly processed - like they doctored them up to sound more "male" in the studio.
Stepping away from the vocal gimmick for a second, Arch Enemy is a Swedish melodic DM band with a allegiance to the heavy aspects of the genre. While their genre mates were going softer and softer, Arch stayed allied with the thrash and DM camps. This brings us to the 2011 album, Khaos Legions. By this point, the band were a commercial success and thus in the crosshairs of critics and genre purists. I can't profess to be an expert on this subgenre, particularly post 2000, because I haven't heard enough of it. That being said, there are enough old school nods to make this particular record enjoyable. There are guitar flourishes juxtaposed with good ol' fashioned thrash riffs (similar to that mid-era Carcass stuff, come to think of it). Amott is a guitar hero in the traditional sense - playing leads that would work on a Skid Row or Motley Crüe record. The cool part is when they go from that to a ripping riff like the openning riff on Vengeance is Mine.
I will never like Angela's voice, but I think the band gets far too much hate / love based on her - there is certainly more going on here. This is definitely market-friendly with an aim to please the mainstream metal audience. It is instantly accessible and appealing. What I like about this over a great deal of other recent melodeath, is that Arch aren't afraid to kick the speed up. Hell, is that a blastbeat on Cult of Chaos? Yup. On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of market-friendly songs here - No Gods, No Masters, Secrets, and Through the Eyes of a Raven are all bit much for me. Again, Khaos Legions is mainstream metal made for the masses, but I still find it more palatable than anything In Flames has done in the past 10 years. Those lush leads alone are enough to warrant a listen or two. 3 out of 5.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Funebre are fairly derivative, but at the same time, they're rather ambitious. Their songs are dynamic with tons of changes and plenty of good riffs to go around. Their drummer is constantly mixing things up and keeping the songs interesting. The key deviation from the more standard Swedish offerings, is their technical prowess and progressive songwriting. Listen to the broken tempos at the onset of "Congenital Defeat," or the triplet mashing in "Shiver." The openning moments of "Waiting for Arrival" are pretty kickass too, when the guitars drop out and the drums remain alone. They jam a lot more riffs into a song than many of the other bands at the time - there is a bunch to discover in this album in other words. It demands repeated listens.
Children of the Scorn is one of those hidden gems from DM's history that could easily go overlooked. The vocals are a tad generic and the production is a bit thin, but they satisfy every old school craving I can think of. The only caution would be the technicality probably makes this album a little but less instantly accessible than a lot of other 91 releases, but that can be a good thing too. 4 out of 5.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Death Metal Tuesday:
Among the myriad of technically over-the-top DM bands available to us nowadays, it's quite reassuring that the inventors of the sub-subgenre are still dishing it effectively out. And not just effective mind you, but with a certain flair lacking among their younger peers. I speak of, in my mind, the most important New York DM band of the genre's history (yes, over Cannibal), Suffocation.
The original core of Mullin, Marchais, and Hobbs has remained, despite 2-3 year-long breaks here and there, consistently churning out the silly-named "brutal" death metal for 20+ years. Having talked about a recent Cannibal Corpse release a few weeks back, I can say with confidence that New York neighbors Suffocation's 2013 album is several times more inspired and engaging than Cannibal's output over the past ten years - and it doesn't sacrifice any brutality or genre-faithfulness. The key difference, is Suffocation has not forgotten how to write a memorable hook. It also doesn't hurt that Mullin is a much stronger vocalist than Fisher.
This isn't a Suffocation vs. Cannibal Corpse article however, so let's discuss Pinnacle of Bedlam. The stop-and-start tempos of old-school Suffocation are still the norm, as are the atonal riffs. There is, however, an abundance of melody and fairly structured parts as well - somewhat more so than in the past. Check out that middle breakdown in the title track or the (gasp) clean intro of "Sullen Days." Hobbs and Marchais still know how to structure a proper DM tune, obscuring structure and melody below the surface to be discovered after repeated listens. The broken rhythms of "My Demise" can slip by you if you play this album in the background, without fully attending to it. They manage to make music that holds together subtly, while sounding like a complicated mess to the uninitiated.
The formula that Suffocation solidified on "Pierced from Within" remains consistent in their music, but so many other bands took their sound to soulless technical extremes, that it is nice to hear the fathers of the genre can still blend technicality with brutality and competent song writing. I'm also just stoked that these guys still rock this hard after almost 25 years. It gives me faith in the future of the genre. 4.5 out of 5
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
25 years and 12 albums worth of death metal is an impressive achievement in itself, but the fact that Cannibal Corpse has remained so consistently dedicated to the genre that they helped make infamous back in 90-91 is something else all together.Cannibal is basically death metal’s answer to Slayer: year-after-year, album-after-album, they never risk alienating their original fan base. I can appreciate this, as Cannibal has never made me suffer through a Illud Divinum Insanus, or a Swansong, or aInsineratehymn. At the same time, it is starting to feel rather redundant and lifeless.
I was skeptical when Barnes parted ways in 94, but Corpsegrinder finally converted me with Bloodthirst and then Gore Obsessed in 2002. It think Owens’ departure in 2004 has left a bigger hole in the band however. How do they keep things fresh and avoid repeating themselves? Well, the simple answer is: they don't. Cannibal fans expect consistency and that is what they get. Torture is Corpse-by-the-numbers with no real surprises. Starting with 2006’s Kill, I’ve started to feel like they keep writing the same album over and over. I just find it hard to imagine anyone in the pit before their show saying “man, I hope they play tons of shit off of Torture.” And I wonder how Mazurkiewicz and Webster feel when, after a block of new stuff live, Corpsegrinder announces “Skull Full of Maggots” and the crowd acts like the headliner finally took the stage.
The technical aspects and the production of this album is solid. My true hangup with the newer Corpse stuff is the sterility - it is so precise and technically sound, that it really lacks a personality. The songs are delivered with surgical precision and are plenty rocking, there are choice riffs, brutal vocals, and plenty of change ups. “Encased in Concrete” has some life, but then there is “Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” or the serialism of “Rabid” that just sounds like they’re stringing notes and words together out of habit more than anything else. I
The technical aspects and the production of this album is solid. My true hangup with the newer Corpse stuff is the sterility - it is so precise and technically sound, that it really lacks a personality. The songs are delivered with surgical precision and are plenty rocking, there are choice riffs, brutal vocals, and plenty of change ups. “Encased in Concrete” has some life, but then there is “Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” or the serialism of “Rabid” that just sounds like they’re stringing notes and words together out of habit more than anything else. I
Again, the Slayer metaphor is appropriate: You can’t knock a band that has stayed true to form and vision for 20+ years. So, I’m not knocking them, I’m just bored, and I feel like it’s their boredom that’s the problem. It also might be a deeper, philosophical issue regarding aging. Seeing my adolescent heroes grow old and tired, reminds me that I’m growing old and tired. Torture isn’t awful - I can put it on and not turn it off out of frustration, but I also won’t notice anything until it stops playing and my attention is drawn to how quiet it is now. 2 out of 5.
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
In Flames is a band that has received a ton of flack for their change in musical direction. Over the years, they’ve enjoyed a sizable surge in popularity which inevitably alienated their original fan base. In Flames fans are polarized into two camps - pre or post 2002’s “Reroute to Remain.” That album marks the band’s completed shift to a more commercial sound - abandoning their melodic death metal roots for a more “groove metal” approach.
If you’ve read this blog before, it is probably no shock that I tend to fall into the first group of fans - believing their death metal sound was superior. I understand bands need to evolve, but I just can’t hang with that new stuff. The personal affront that some fans take at the band’s shift, speaks to the strength of their earlier material.
As Swedish death metal was evolving and splintering off into other sub genres, there was talk about the emerging “Gothenburg sound” which combined the traditional elements of Swedish death metal, with the melodic guitars of more traditional metal forms (specifically, Iron Maiden). This sound would eventually become what we call “melodic death metal” nowadays, but the key bands (At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames) had no idea what they were starting - as far as they were concerned, they were just playing Swedish death metal with a twist.
In Flames’ debut, “Lunar Strain” has a rough production and menacing vocals from Michael Stanne (sounding akin to At the Gates’ Lindberg). On “Jester Race,” they clean up the sound, boost the lows, and bring in Anders Friden for vocals. All the elements that made “Strain” effective are enhanced and bolstered here, but the song writing is the real key. Opening track, “Moonshield” starts with acoustic guitars and transitions into a riff that is more harmonious and melancholic than heavy. There is immediately a noticeable departure from anything that could be construed as traditional DM, however the guitars are still crunchy as hell. There is an emphasis on catchy, traditional metal melodies that makes it sound both old school and fresh at the same time. Check out those major scales on "Goliaths Disarm Their David's," or the instrumental, "Wayfaerer." This is the most positive and upbeat sounding death metal there is - it's a crazy contrast. Of course, now this shit has been done to death, but in 96 this was revolutionary stuff.
Every once in a while, a band gets in a spot where they are in the zone and simply can’t do anything wrong. In Flames’ 1996 sophomore effort, “Jester Race,” is one of those albums. This is on par with Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Death’s Symbolic, or Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence. It is re-playable to a dangerous degree (perhaps annoying others). After this one came the mighty Whoracle which is great, but not as consistent. After that… It was a somewhat rocky trip downward. 5 out of 5.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
First off, this album has one of the coolest titles ever - a reference to a hideously gory Italian film from the early 1980's. You gotta love that these guys are into obscure, low budget horror flicks. This is their second full length, released in 1998. A California band, Deeds sound quite a bit like New York's Suffocation - ultra fast, with technical and atonal riffing and crazy stop-and-start drumming. The first few times through, everything sounds the same - full tilt brutal DM with a nice double vocal attack and relentless, through-composed brutality.
Fans of Suffocation should eat this up, but those longing for a hook or two may find it hard to stomach. This is very atonal stuff with very little to grab onto in the way of melody. This is an athletic offering - I imagine these guys sweating buckets on stage just trying to keep this intensity. Because this album is so full-throttle, all of the time, I can only take Deeds in small doses. I like to throw 1 or 2 of these on a playlist, but taking this album down in one sitting can be a challenge that most casual DM fans would likely fail miserably. Only for the die-hards, it gets a 2.5 out of 5.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Here's a bizarre entry for you - 1995's Ancient God of Evil, created by Stockholm's Unanimated, sports a sound more inline with the Gothenburg sound (In Flames / At The Gates) and at times, even leaning towards a modern black metal approach (much like Stockholm's heroes of the period, Dissection). Making genre distinctions with this album is a difficult task, because it is clearly a "roots" album, helping develop the sound of the growing "melodic death metal" and "Swedish black metal” movements.
"Life Demise" kicks off the album sounding like a lost track off of Dissection's classic, "Storm of the Light's Bane." Purists argue that the two bands sound nothing alike, but I don't know what the hell they're listening to. At The Gates are another clear influence on Unanimated's sound with Micke Broberg's vocals sounding remarkably similar to Lindberg's approach on late-period Gates stuff. "Oceans of Time" hits that mark too - even starting with a pogo-beat and Iron Maiden harmony-laden riff. It is rich with money riffs throughout, making this track one of the true standouts. “The Depths of a Black Sea” is downright triumphant, making me think, yet again, of Dissection (this time, their excellent “Where Dead Angels Lie”). While yes, this stuff is a little derivative, it is from the same time period, so who’s to say who ripped off who? The point is, it’s catchy as hell with so many choice riffs, you’ll want to spin it a few times in a row.
In Flames would make a living off of this melo-death approach, so I'm not sure what happened to Unanimated - it sounds like an extension of the same ideas (“Jester Race” with more edge maybe). Hell, they pretty much started at the same time. But while one band became a ridiculous success the other, has only this obscure little gem for you to seek out - it’s worth your time if you are a fan of melodic death or black. The debut is listenable, but not nearly as approachable as this one. Listenable and accessible death metal simply does not get any better than this one - seek it out at all costs! 5 out of 5.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
BOLT THROWER - THE IVTH CRUSADE
After the two successful albums on Earache (War Master / Realm of Chaos), England's Bolt Thrower released The IVth Crusade in 1994. Evolving from a crust / grind sound, Bolt Thrower were one of the first death metal bands to slow things down and focus on double-bass mid-tempo grooves.
By this fourth album, mid-tempo became the rule and consequently, things begin to sound a little repetitive. All the tracks run in that 4-6 minute range and simply do not vary enough to warrant the duration. Bolt Thrower has generated a devout following with this sound, but it has never really grabbed me for more than a couple songs at a time. That being said - if I listen to a track at random from this album, I usually dig it. Ritual is a standout, as it slows to a crawl several times and that sludgy, down-tuned guitar just sounds beastly. Ditto for Spearhead which offers enough variety to stay interesting. Celestial Sanctuary also has some awesome riffs and a nice doomy pace to it.
Lead throat, Karl Willetts, has always sounded a bit bored to me. His delivery is very monotonous with little enthusiasm or menace. The result is the vocals become a background piece and the focus falls on the riffs. This means a song is only as good as its riffs and after a few tracks, Bolt Thrower seem to be repeating themselves. They also tend to hit the same few scales in their riffs - a song will end and a new one will begin, sounding like an extension of the last track.
I can't call myself a Bolt Thrower fan I guess, but in small doses I find them hard not to like. Longtime fans put this and "...For Victory" at the top of the list. I might recommend "...For Victory" over this release as the production is that much better. Not a bad album by any means - 3 out of 5.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
ENTOMBED - CLANDESTINE
Entombed started as Nihilist in Sweden in 1987, when most of the members were 15 or 16 years old. Along with Dismember (Carnage), Entombed are considered the founding fathers of Swedish death metal. Their debut album, "Left Hand Path" is the blueprint for the SDM sound - the Sunlight studio sound, including those famous "buzzsaw" guitars, was copied by legions if Swedish followers to come. Entombed were the first SDM band to land a deal through England's Earache records and "Left Hand Path" was hugely successful (by 1990 death metal standards of course).
This makes "Clandestine" one of the most highly anticipated follow up albums of 1991. Most of the guys in the band were 18-19 by this time, and they had become overnight metal gods in the eyes of their Swedish faithful. Nicke Andersson says this stardom led to cockiness which led to him firing Petrov from vocal duties just prior to recording their follow up. Consequently, Andersson fills in on vocals (having it credited to someone else in the liner notes).
Andersson's voice is really the only downside of Clandestine, as there are a fair amount of kickass SDM tunes on board here - "Chaos Breed" and "Crawl" being my two favorites - well composed and both with stellar middle sections that evolve and keep the listener engaged throughout. "Stranger Aeons" was the single off this one, and it starts with a haunting intro which makes the guitars sound doubly crunchy when they eventually come in. It's a weird choice for a single though, as the intro and outro instrumental sections dominate the duration of the song. "Evilyn" was always the other standout track on this one, because it was mostly slow and mid-tempo with great groove sections.
The production is a meatier "Left Hand Path" with the guitars sporting even more low end crunch than they did on the debut. The vocals really are such a shame, even Andersson himself admits he was not up for the task. I wish they'd go back and let Pertov sing the tracks for a re-release, these songs are just so good.
The pressure of being Swedish Death Metal's poster boys would lead to Entombed drastically changing their sound on the follow up to this album, "Wolverine Blues." This would have a Metallica-Black-Album-effect on the Swedish scene, causing most of the key SDM bands to follow suit, slow their tempos, and crank out that horrid Rot & Roll crap. It would take years before most of them realized SDM was what they should be doing again. 4 out of 5.
Monday, April 7, 2014
The eventual death of thrash metal in the early nineties has often been blamed on the rise of Nirvana, but I think the mighty Metallica deserve as much credit for killing the genre. After the success of the “One” video on MTV, Metallica had broken through to a larger audience never thought possible by a thrash metal act. "One" was the power ballad track off of "...And Justice for All" - an overproduced and somewhat self-indulgent album (but still plenty heavy, and loyal to the genre). Heading back into the studio in 1990, the band had big name producer, Bob Rock and millions of dollars of commercial backing for what was to be the biggest thrash metal release in the history of the relatively new genre.
Thrash metal's birthday is somewhere around 1981-82 in San Francisco and Los Angeles California. A fair number of bands started around that time, combining the technicality of the growing "new wave of British Heavy Metal" with the aggression and speed of the hardcore punk scene. 1983 saw the initial thrash metal releases, the first of which being Metallica's debut, Kill'em All. Though it had much in common with the NWOBHM overseas, there was an sharper edge and more aggression to it that started the ball rolling for other acts. Exodus, Slayer, Testament, and Anthrax all followed shortly after, and by 1985 it was a bonafide movement.
Metallica had always carried the torch for the American thrash bands, setting the rules and then changing them. Though many bands had imitators, Metallica were the fathers of the genre, and clearly had the largest fan base. In the late eighties, independent record labels had grown and developed entire catalogs based solely on thrash metal. Germany, England, and other parts of Europe soon developed thrash movements of their own. Though still rather underground, a handful of bands had started to gain significant followings: Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and, of course, Metallica.
Each Metallica release was bigger than the last. Ride the Lightning in 1985, and Master of Puppets in 1986 are still classics of the genre. While on tour in Europe, a bus accident resulted in the death of Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bassist. The genre lost one of its leaders, but the band carried on, releasing …And Justice for All in 1988. The popularity of Master of Puppets allowed the band to over-produce their 4th album - mixing their new bass player, Jason Newsted, completely out of the mix and boosting the lows in their guitars so much, that the palm-muted parts distort on average speaker systems.
Despite the production, the album was well received. I’ve always felt it lacked the songwriting of the previous two albums. Some tracks play like a collection of cool riffs rather than a proper song (Harvester of Sorrow, Frayed End of Sanity, Eye of the Beholder), other tracks are fairly strong (Blackened, And Justice for All). One was an obvious pick for their single. It had an approachable verse and chorus, and then thrashed proper towards the end. The response to the single really started the events that led to thrash’s demise.
Music is a business, and Metallica showed music execs that there was money to be made in this relatively untapped sub genre. So, as the 80’s came to a close, the major thrash bands were suddenly being snatched up by major labels at a fervent pace, and with that, came audible market influence into the music. Metallica started to bring in some real money, so the labels were trying desperately to find the next Metallica.
There were positives to this reaction - the production values got much better, as did distribution. Thrash bands were now getting wide exposure - influencing the rest of the world. On the other hand, there was also the obvious market influence in the music’s sound. Just look at the differences between 86-88 albums and the 89/90 albums of key thrash acts: Sacred Reich, Testament, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Flotsam and Jetsam, Sepultura, Death Angel. Yes, one could argue that the bands were all changing with the scene, and Metallica were merely trend-setters. That would be plausible, if not for what happened next. Metallica emerged from the studio on August 12, 1991, with an album without a title and void of cover art that you could really see - reminding all of us old schoolers of a joke from the movie Spinal Tap about “how much more black can you get?… The answer is none… none more black.”
Anyway, cover art aside, “Metallica” had twelve tracks of over-produced metal that fans immediately noticed was “dumbed-down.” The complex arrangements and abnormal time signatures were gone. Any of their previous progressive elements were gone. What Metallica had done, essentially, was take their thrash metal sound and dumb it down for a wider audience. And it worked… to an unforeseen level. Metallica became huge, opening up for big time acts like Guns and Roses.
The idea that Metallica, the fathers of thrash metal, were co-headlining arenas with a band from the LA “hair metal” scene was dripping with irony. You see, thrash metal was birthed out of a loathing for the hair metal scene. Metallica actually relocated from LA to San Francisco to get away from a scene that didn’t really accept them. Now, they were peas in a pod… playing the same bill.
Nirvana’s hugely successful Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 - 42 days after Metallica’s “Black Album.” Did it add to the genre’s decline? Undoubtedly. But the proverbial nail in the coffin was thrash’s other major acts following in Metallica’s wake with their own attempts at a “Black Album” album to gather more fans. It wasn’t really until 1992-93 when you began to hear the full impact:
- Megadeth’s phenomenal “Rust in Peace,” was followed by the watered-down and occasionally comical “Countdown to Extinction.” (92)
- Testament released “The Ritual” (92) which barely sounded like the same band.
- Sean Killian sounds like he was told to “stop screaming” on Vio-lence’s depressing “Nothing to Gain.”(93)
- Exodus turned into groove metal on “Force of Habit”(92)
- Germany’s mighty Kreator changed their sound completely on the transparently named “Renewal” (92)
- What the hell happened to Anthrax on “The Sound of White Noise” (93)
- Overkill had their own ironic title with the slowed down, and much tamer “I Hear Black” (93)
- Flotsam and Jetsam sound like plagiarists on “Cuatro” (92) - a blatant Metallica wannabe
- Nuclear Assault stretch their sound to places it just can’t go on “Something Wicked” (93)
So, as Thrash Metal’s torch carrier led their followers down paths of false hope for stardom, a new genre started poaching thrash metal’s audience, many of whom had been alienated and disenfranchised by their favorite band’s lastest albums. I can’t explain why “The Black Album” hit gold and nothing else did. I’m not sure it’s any better than any of those albums I mentioned above, but Metallica went on to depart even further from their sound, now sounding like a cover band when they play those classic tracks live.
The grunge that the radio referred to was really alternative rock, and they called it “college rock” before that. It had it’s day and over-saturated the market. In the world of metal, more extreme genres took over: death metal, black metal, and grindcore gave the true metal heads what they needed. Then in 2003-4, a new band emerged, flying the thrash metal flag for the next generation: Lamb of God.
The past ten years has seen a thrash metal revival of sorts. New bands have emerged with a “classic sound” and many of the original bands have reformed, or never really went away. Many of the bands I mentioned in my “sell-out” list have released “comeback” albums over the past ten years. In addition, they have set out on special tours where they play an entire album from start to finish. And guess what, they’re not playing their album from 1993 are they? No, they’re playing the album that was written from their heart and out of their hopes for stardom. Ironically, they’re probably more successful now then they ever were in the 90’s, and they’re doing it by playing thrash metal, and not that watered-down bullshit they were whoring themselves out for. And Metallica? They finally issued their apology in the form of “Death Magnetic” in 2008. It’s by no means on par with those classic first four, but after a decade and a half of crap, it sounds halfway decent.
Thrash metal came into my life at the impressionable age of 13 and because of that, the metal genre has always been what I pour my energy into, even 25 years later. In the nineties, I ran to death metal, dissatisfied with what my childhood thrash heroes were becoming. Sadly, even death metal got commercialized to an extent towards 2000. Then, we metal heads got old enough to have enough money to demand what we wanted: musicianship, creativity, and brutality. Metal is enjoying more exposure now than ever before, probably because it is comfortable with its spot on the commercial end of things, and not trying to be the “next big thing.” And yes, pop music still sucks.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
With the death of Dave Brockie last week, I was listening to a great deal of Gwar and I thought - maybe it's time to return to the blog with a Gwar tribute. So here it is, my thoughts on all 13 of Gwar's Albums from 1988 to 2013. I won't spend a lot of time talking about the Gwar mythos, I'm going to assume you are familiar with the story behind the band, or if so inclined, will look it up yourself. Let's talk music.
Gwar's debut is a low budget treasure trove of raw crossover classics. The lofi nature of this recording is really part of its charm. A great deal of time and energy clearly went into this release - this is a band trying to conquer the world, literally and figuratively. Hell-o has some undeniable nostalgia for me, so objectivity is difficult, but there are some classic songs here that still sound fresh when they show up in their live sets. "AEIOU," Americanized," and "Je M'appelle Cousteau" are some of the earliest Gwar tunes, and they're still essential in their catalog. Oderus is clearly an original and powerful singer mixing a sweet tenor singing voice with growls and screeches. His unique vocal cadence would define the band's sound, regardless of the music backing it. This album is more punk than metal, but it definitely has an edge. It also established, right out of the gate, that Gwar did not care who they offended, and maybe they were hoping to offend everyone. The goofy and less-then-subtle "I'm in Love with a Dead Dog" is a good example of this irreverence. Yes, this is lo-brow, childish humor, but it's also a great deal of fun. Old school Gwar fans cherish this album, new ones may find the production and punk style hard to get behind. 4 out of 5
SCUMDOGS OF THE UNIVERSE
Universally loved by their entire fan base, Scumdogs put Gwar on the map and earned them the recognition and commercial success they needed to take their production to the next level. The underground buzz of Hell-o led to a contract with Metal Blade records. Gwar show they can be heavy and irreverent and it works for them. Picking highlight tracks is almost futile, because there really isn't a bad track on here, but "King Queen," "Maggots," "Salaminizer," and the insanely catchy "Sick of You" are all outstanding. The barebones production and ridiculously cheap-sounding use of samples simply add to the appeal. Even the guest vocalist songs like "Slaughterama" and "Sexecutioner's Song" are good fun and not the needless filler they could have been. Though the nostalgia factor is huge with this album for me, thanks to the internet I have found that majority of Gwar's fans love this album equally as much. 5 out of 5.
AMERICA MUST BE DESTROYED
THIS TOILET EARTH
Gwar had built a fairly impressive following by the time this fourth album came in 1994. This Toilet Earth introduces another new villain, Skullhedface, who steals Gwar's mojo essentially. Musically speaking, this is along the lines of America Must Be Destroyed, with thankfully more consistency. Most of the songs are crossover thrash with a few anomalies, particularly Skullhedface's track which features full orchestration. The band also sounds downright poppy on a few tracks, particularly "Jack the World" which has a real upbeat chorus. There is the common genre-stretching tracks like "Slap U Around" and "Pepperoni," and the obligatory way-too-offensive song, "B.D.F." "Saddam a Go-Go" seemed a mainstay on their set lists for years to follow, and "Krak-Down" seems to have an unrealized potential as a hit. For the most part though, this feels like a more approachable and even a more commercially viable Gwar, something that would doom several albums to come. 3 out of 5.
This album is the beginning of Gwar's awkward phase. Ragnarock shows the band rehashing some old ideas, bringing back Sexecutioner and Sleazy P. Martini for songs (though neither is as successful as the previous outing). Most of this is standard Gwar material, but it feels uninspired and smacks of contract obligation. "Meat Sandwich," "Dirty Filthy," and "Knjfe in Your Guts" are all decent tracks, but it is starting to feel like "Gwar-lite"- like they're losing their edge a bit. Most of the other tracks fall flat and the Oderus and Slymester Hymen duet is awful. Though far from their worst, there's little on here to bring me back to it. 2 out of 5.
CARNIVAL OF CHAOS
Though I was a fan since Scumdogs, this tour was the first time I saw Gwar live. This album is massive - 18 tracks that seem to go on and on. Carnival sees the band really starting to venture from the metal genre again. "Letter from the Scallop Boat," "In Her Fear," "I Suck on My Thumb," "Gonna Kill U," and "Sex Cow" are all novelty / throwaway tracks that would've helped slim the album done a bit if they were tossed. Ditto for the Gwar Woman album closer which is bad lounge music with a poor singer. What's left is a reasonable amount of songs with some essential tracks. "Penguin Attack," "If I Could Be That," and "Back to Iraq" are all high-spirited Gwar staples. The return of Techno Destructo is also a nice surprise as the band modernizes the classic track from Hell-O on "The Private Pain of Techno Destructo." Carnival of Chaos is about half a decent album and half a waste of time. 2.5 out of 5.
WE KILL EVERYTHING
The darkest moment in the band's career is this colossal misstep which extends the novelty song tendencies of the previous release to the next level - essentially making this a LP worth of joke songs with little to no metal to be found. Even the punk elements have been turned into poppy nonsense, making song titles like "Baby Raper" and "Fish Fuck" seem all the more ridiculous and stupid. Even moments where Gwar tries to get heavy fall apart into boring uninspired drivel like "Escape From the Mooselodge" or "Jiggle the Handle." Where Carnival of Chaos had a handful of essential tunes, We Kill Everything is void of anything that would justify a recommendation. Only the instrumental manages to pass by without giving me the urge to skip it. This one would best be buried and never spoken of again. 0 out of 5
VIOLENCE HAS ARRIVED
The opening moments of "Battle Lust" seems to issue an official apology for their last album as it bursts with the thrashy sounds of old school Gwar, with just the right amount of goofiness. "Apes of Wrath," "Bile Driver," and "Licksore" all have that heavy sound we've missed for the past 3 albums or so. "Immortal Corruptor" has a beautiful intro which sets up perhaps the strongest track on the album. The band sounds heavier than ever before. They don't have to say it, they realized they were going in a bad direction, and they corrected it. Like many Gwar albums, it has a few tracks which could've been cut to streamline the release and shorten the running time a bit, namely the last two tracks. Ultimately though, Violence Has Arrived is a triumphant comeback album and probably the strongest effort since This Toilet Earth. I'm glad they got whatever that was out of their system. 3.5 out of 5.
Gwar's second commercial peak is probably this album. With a new found commitment to their crossover thrash sound from the early nineties, the band issued their most focused effort since Scumdogs. The War Party is a political party focused on solving the world's problems with one tool: war - a concept that provides plenty of opportunities to offend, and provides perfect material for their live shows. War Party shows Gwar honing their skills and showing a profound understanding of what their fan base wants and expects from them. Predictable, yes, derivative, definitely, but also very listenable and well executed. The addition of a new lead guitarist doesn't hurt either as Gwar officially has a shredder - check out that lead on "Bonesnapper." The title track, "Bring Back the Bomb," "Krosstika," and "The Reganator" are both rocking and dripping with political sarcasm - Gwar in their comfort zone. War Party served as a validation for the band regarding what works for them both artistically and commercially. It's the start of a very enjoyable phase in their career. 4 out of 5.
This album tells the story of Gwar journeying through hell to confront the devil. A promising concept to be sure, but this album's story seems to take precedence over the songwriting. The style is very much in line with War Party, but the songs feel more like a vehicle for storytelling than songs that stand on their own. That's not to say there are not decent tracks to be had here: "Tormenter" has some fine guitar shredding and a rousing, ominous chorus, "Destroyed" has some impressive riffing, and the final showdown with the devil on "The One That Will Not Be Named" is sufficiently epic and rather funny. The playing is top notch and things are plenty heavy, it just lacks the catchiness and memorable moments of the predecessor. 3 out of 5.
LUST IN SPACE
Gwar's next album continues with their new found commitment to all things heavy. With a real shredder leading the axe attack, their riffs have a more progressive sounding edge to them. Lust in Space sees the Scumdogs finally getting a spaceship and getting off of earth (it only took them 11 albums). They maintain their balance of metal and punk with more through-composed tracks that focus on storytelling. Where Lust seems to succeed where Beyond Hell didn't, is that many of these songs are plenty catchy. "Let us Slay," "The Uberklaw," and "Metal Metal Land" have singalong choruses and solid hooks. "Lords & Masters" is nice bouncy tune with a nod to the golden age of Motörhead. The amusing "Where is Zog?" Tells of Oderus discovering his old master is a a washed-out drunk and has a rare voice appearance of Balsac at the end of it. Lust is another solid "3rd phase" Gwar album thats worth checking out. 3.5 out of 5.
BLOODY PIT OF HORROR
Gwar keeps rocking on this 2010 release, their 12th full length. This is as straight forward a metal record that the band has released since Scumdogs. Oderus is full on pissed here, with plenty of lyrics to spew forth. Many of the tunes seem "lyric heavy," meaning there are a shitload of words crammed in. It is very effective however, as it brings to mind the Gwar of old. They sound recharged and focused on this release with heavy-riff laiden numbers like "Zombies, March!" and "A Gathering of Ghouls," and witty tracks like "Tick Tits," "You Are My Meat," and laugh-out-loud worthy "The Litany of the Slain" (which nicely lists those killed on stage over the years). For a band pushing 30 years of existence, this album is surprisingly fresh sounding and has the highest replay value of all their recent outings. 4 out of 5
Gwar's final album has a much different feel than the previous few. Though still very much in the crossover thrash vein, there are times where the band is starting to sound downright progressive. Just check out the start-and-stop drumming on "Nothing Left Alive," or the staggered opening and dual guitar work of the title track / instrumental. Much like the excellent Bloody Pit of Horror, Battle Maximus sounds fresh and inspired. "Mr. Perfect" is a kick-ass mid paced rocker, "Torture" sounds like old school Gwar mixed with the new Carcass, and "They Swallowed the Sun" has a weird-as-hell yet incredibly catchy chorus. Vocally, Oderus is trying some new things, combining different vocal lines on top of each other on the prog-sounding "Triumph of the Pig Children." He almost doesn't sound like himself at times, but it's still pretty damn cool. It's a pity Oderus has passed, for his band was enjoying the most consistent high quality output of their career. Battle Maximus is a worthy final entry. 3.5 out of 5.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
HVIS LYSET TAR OSS (If the Light Takes Us)
Recorded five months later, but released in 1994, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss sits atop many a “best black metal albums” list. A significant progression in style from the previous two, Hvis... is a deeply emotional and melancholic sounding album. Only 4 tracks make up the 45 minute running time, each song a masterfully written, and slowly developing journey. This is arguably the album that started the sub genre of “atmospheric black metal” or the ridiculously named “depressive black metal.”
Varg’s vocal attack is more refined and controlled, communicating more sadness than lunacy. Track one, (named after the previous album) is a fourteen-and-a-half minute masterpiece that develops and blends ideas with great care. This is the type of songwriting that most impresses me - taking a few good riffs, and stretching them out into a natural progression - less is more.
Track two, the title track takes a more pronounced minimalist approach, lulling the listener into a trance over a blast-beat (no one would’ve thought that possible). Inn i slottet fra droemmen (trans: Into the Castle from the Dream) continues along the same lines until it hits the 3:40 mark and then drops into the album’s finest moment - three riffs that build upon each other into a powerful climax that sets up the album’s keyboard instrumental, “Tomhet” (trans: Emptiness) - a keyboard only piece that closes the album like it began, with palatable sadness. When that flute starts up about 9 minutes in, it is truly a moving moment. Hvis remains my favorite Burzum album because of the emotional depth it possesses. This is the work of a man in his most prolific and maniacal period. He was burning churches and plotting murders at this point so... this is the work of a mad man.
The final album recorded before his imprisonment, Filosofem is likely his most frequently cited work. The song writing is again rather accomplished, though this time it borders on self-indulgent (28 minute ambient instrumental?). What really makes this sucker stand out is the production. It will immediately capture you once the opening guitar of Dunkelheit begins. Varg talked of using the cheapest amp he could find, putting a mere 2 mics on the drums, and using a set of headphones as a microphone for vocals. This should sound like garbage, but it doesn't - it is unlike any metal album before or since.
I once read a review of Filosofem that likened it to being swept out to sea - the first 3 tracks being the struggle against the waves, and the last 3 being the slow drift and eventual demise. This description is so accurate, that I sometimes wonder if it was taken from Varg's production notes. The first 3 tracks are definitely the stronger of the bunch. In fact, if the album stopped after track 3, it would be hard to say that it wasn't a perfect album. Dunkheit (German for "darkness" aka "Burzum") blends the buzzsaw guitars with an ambient synth over a slow plodding beat and Varg's distorted cries. His vocal approach is now subdued and controlled - almost sounding like a menacing whisper instead of the wailing and screeching of the earlier albums. "Jesus' Tod" has a solid old-school sounding Burzum riff over a 6/8 double bass romp which feels like a nice blend of the old sound with the new.
Side B of the album has no drums and sees a sandwiching of two guitar suites with a mammoth-sized ambient keyboard piece in the middle. It is hypnotic and certainly sets a mood but, like most ambient pieces, I really have to be in the right mood and the right place to listen to it. As a drift off to sleep album though, it's pretty fantastic.
You could argue that all of Varg's work has a concept behind it, but Filosofem and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss feel like the concept was finally realized. Once in prison, Varg completed two keyboard-only Burzum albums. One (Dauði Baldrs) is worthless, while the other (Hliðskjálf) works as a ambient-mood setter. Once released from prison, Burzum returned to black metal (though he would never call it that). Belus and Fallen are both above average efforts and will appeal to fans of the Filosofem period (Varg obviously understanding his fan base there). His last 2 albums show him branching out again, and I'm not sure I'm on board. Enjoy your closing weeks of winter by hearing what this crazy asshole has to offer - you won't be disappointed.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
In honor of Norway kicking everyone's butts in the Winter Olympics, I thought I'd depart from the usual format and talk about my favorite Norwegian musician. Varg Vikerness (aka Count grishnackh, aka Burzum) is Norway's Charles Manson. You don't have to dig too deep to find detailed accounts of his deeds, but I'll try and sum it up in a few sentences.
Varg was a key member in Norway's formative "Black Circle" which I've mentioned several times this winter. Like most black metal musicians, he started off in a death metal band. Burzum was his solo project and started as a part of the black metal movement. Burzum's self titled album is considered the second Norwegian black metal album after Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky. As the black circle's movement became more than just music, Varg became a key player in the church burnings, being brazen enough to put a picture of one of the burning buildings on the follow up Aske EP.
As Varg's influence in the scene grew, it was met with opposition from the other Black Circle kingpin and Mayhem bandmate, Euronymous. Shortly after Varg was released from jail for several counts of arson (lack of evidence), he murdered Euronymous in his apartment in Oslo. After a short investigation, Varg was arrested, charged, and convicted. He served nearly 18 years and was released in 2010. Since then, Varg has returned to music and has been very outspoken about his Pagan beliefs, as well as beliefs akin to fascism and Neo-Nazism.
While I do not endorse Varg's political beliefs or his crimes, I would be lying if I said those don't factor into the mystique of his music. He represents a true world evil that is just uncomfortable enough to be compelling. In an era where upside down crosses and goat head altars are commonplace, Varg is truly a scary and frightening entity. As awful as it is, metal needs it's villains, and Varg is public enemy number one.
All of this would be nonsense if the guy's music sucked. It doesn't. Quite the contrary, Burzum pre-prison work is among the finest Norwegian Black Metal ever recorded. It was honest, genuine, and strikingly original. Burzum may be the key factor in black metal becoming such a compelling genre of metal in my adult life, long after the thrill of other forms of extreme metal had worn off. So, to honor Norway, I will honor their black sheep by discussing his first 4 albums. (first two this week)
*it is important to note that Varg's lyrics are never political in nature, so there is no need to endure any of those messages in his music - it's not there.
**It is also worth noting that these four albums were recorded in the span of 15 months or so (January 1992 through March 1993), but released several years apart.
1992's self-titled debut is a raw, self-produced masterpiece. Look around at all of the one-man-band black metal outfits today (myself included) and you'll see an inspiration from this album. Varg wrote and performed everything in this album (except for the lead guitar in "War" which was performed by his future murder victim).
This is Varg's roughest and most abrasive work. The ambient and atmospheric elements that would become so pronounced in his later work are more than hinted at here, but there are moments where the traditional metal elements still peak through. His vocals will be an immediate standout. Though the music is rather even and some would even say, subdued, his vocals sound like a raving lunatic with his dick caught in a bear trap. Some will have great difficulty getting past it, and it took me a while too. Now, I think they're incredible. He was the first guy to take an approach other than hatred or evilness in extreme vocals - it is utter anguish.
Musically speaking the debut has traditional metal elements, but also a distinct influence from old school video game music. I swear that first riff of Ea, Lord of the Depths sounds like a dungeon level in The Legend of Zelda. This album introduced the melancholic undertones that would become so prevalent in this genre. Listen to that riff at the 6:10 mark in Journey to the Stars it is the perfect blend of sadness and menace - the black metal miracle. Varg would only improve from here, but it's a hell of a start.
DET SOM ENGANG VAR (trans: “What Once Was”)
The second album was recorded a mere 4 months later, but released just shortly before Varg was incarcerated for murder. The album opens with a few minutes of ambience which leads to “Key to the Gate” and the most ferocious minute of music Burzum has recorded. Shortly thereafter, it slows to a crawl and more familiar sounding material. Because of the short time in which Varg recorded another album, it should be no surprise that this one is a bit less consistent compared to album #1. Less consistent, but not lacking in quality material. It expands on the themes established in the debut, melodic, dark, with plenty of atmosphere. The slow and foreboding “En ring til aa herske” (translated to “One Ring to Rule” - ala Tolkien) shows Varg using sung vocal lines underneath his screechy lunacy, to a surprisingly effective degree.
This album undoubtedly has the cleanest production of the first four. All the instruments are cleanly audible and the drums sound well mic’d with compression, eq, the works. The strongest moments come towards the end, beginning with the sorrowful instrumental, “Naar himmelen klarner” (trans: When the Sky Clears) and finishing with the epic “Snu mikrokosmos tegn” (trans: Turn the Sign of the Microcosm). Varg’s songwriting skills have developed significantly, even in four months’ time.
Both albums are worthy to explore if you're interested in the genre in the slightest, but next week I'll cover the next two, arguably the best of his career.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Horn - Jahreszeiten
This modern black metal band hails from Germany, and plays a folkish (read - "Medieval") subtype more akin to Norway's Windir than their "War Metal" countrymen. Jahreszeiten is the one-man-band's debut from 2005. Nerrath (sole member) uses dual guitar harmonies to their limit on this satisfyingly DIY sounding release.
The lyrics appear to switch from German to English throughout, one can never be sure. But from the sound of it, this is one of those "homeland" black metal albums, more concerned with sounding ancestral than evil. The result is some great riffs and melancholic harmonies that are bittersweet and damn-near beautiful at times. Track 4 opens with such a classic medieval riff, you can almost see the knights on horseback, riding valiantly through the countryside. Horn really do sound like Germany's answer to Windir, with a few more variations within their tracks than Valfar's project. With the exception of a short outro track, the songs are +6 minutes in length, covering a great deal of ground in each song. He also manages to achieve quite a bit of atmosphere without the use of keyboards.
Production-wise, Horn's debut sounds like it was recorded in a garage, but each instrument is clear and happily in its own space in the mix (with the exception of a bass guitar which I'm not sure exists at all). This is a very listenable record which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the more melodic and "nature-focused" black metal bands (again, Windir, and to some extent, Wolves in the Throneroom). Jahreszeiten is a nice, rich listen and worthy of attention. It gets a 3.5 out of 5.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Kvist - For Kunsten Maa Vi Evig Vike
This Norwegian troupe showed up in 94 and released one solitary full length in 1996. They are an oft overlooked band because they disbanded so quickly, but this album is pretty solid. Kvist (Norwegian for "Twig?") play a somewhat similar style to Emperor, however the production is more upfront and almost "garage" in tone, with a fair amount of keyboards mixed low. The vocals remind me of Immortal, as he is speaking more than screaming, in that "creepy troll" sort of way.
Kvist's strong point is their use of melody and keyboard-guitar interplay. "Stupet" is a nice example of this, alternating a midtempo staggered attack with soulful keyboard surges. The bass is also unusually audible, which is a nice addition along with the drums which are mixed a little hot, and very aggressive. Given the time of its release, Kvist's debut was probably regarded as just another Emperor clone, but in retrospect, most of the symphonic black metal from 96 was not nearly this well done. The blast beat sections are tight and well executed, the songs are long with plenty of variation, and the songwriting is superb, particularly for a debut.
As you delve into the black metal genre, it's important to research and know about bands that few people have heard of, it makes you more kvlt. Kvist is therefore, essential listening, and not too damn bad either. It gets a 3 of 5.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Drudkh - Autumn Aurora
The Ukraine is home to a smattering of black metal bands, and Drudkh is probably one of the best known. Drudkh is modern black metal band that is actually a full band and not just one guy. Autumn Aurora is their second album, and was released in 2004.
Drudkh are not the typical, occult / Satan worshipping black metal. They come from the Burzum school of soulful, hypnotic, ambient black metal - recalling Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tarr on more than one occasion during the 5 tracks (closing track, The First Snow is a dead ringer for that album's opener). As the album title implies, this is a concept album based on the Autumn season and the powers of nature. "Summoning the Rain" is a slow, repetitive track with multiple guitar layers that drop in and out. It sounds like music to sleep to.
There is a warmness and almost positive feel to this album, which is weird to say about any black metal. The track "Sunwheel" sounds downright happy at the beginning, which is a bit bizarre. Somehow, it works and Drudkh have created a interesting thematic work with Autumn Aurora. On the downside, it is a bit monotonous at times, and may frustrate some listeners expecting a high-energy black metal band. Drudkh are like the mighty trees - sturdy and predictable. The vocals are also a bit of an afterthought - not much emotion or deviation in them, he sounds rather disinterested with little emotion.
Drudkh have a fairly devout following out there. They appeal to fans of the Northwestern black metal movement in American, like Wolves in the Throneroom. Unlike Wolves, however, Drudkh are very straightforward, particularly on Autumn Aurora (and their debut). 2006’s Blood in Our Wells is a tad more forward-thinking and a more interesting listen in my mind, but this offering is not without its charms - particularly if your looking for black metal that is less dark and oppressively evil (call it gray metal perhaps?). It gets a 2.5 out of 5.