Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best of the Decade in Metal

The list over at Dark Legions inspired me to do my own list.

Darkthrone- F.O.A.D.
King Diamond- The Puppet Master
Satanic Warmaster- Strength and Honor
Antaeus- Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan
Ildjarn- Nocturnal Visions & Son of the Northstar
High on Fire- Blessed Black Wings
Immortal- Sons of Northern Darkness
Axis of Advance- Strike
Emperor- Prometheus
Arsis- A Celebration of Guilt
Nifelheim- Envoy of Lucifer
Summoning- Oath Bound
Graveland- Memory and Destiny
Inquisition- Invoking the Majestic Throne of Satan
Necrophagist- Onset of Putrefaction
Nasum- Human 2.0

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nifelheim- Nifelheim

Nifelheim's first album is a tribute to the 80s black metal of Bathory, Celtic Frost, Venom, Sodom, etc. In 1994, when death metal was on its last legs, and Norwegian-style black metal was still confined to Norway, this was an interesting and daring aesthetic choice. But, in 2009, does it hold any interest for us, as music? What can't be of *any* interest is how close they really get to their influences. Nonetheless, it is worth repeating here one of my maxims of criticism: it is completely insufficient to copy a band's sound from its salient elements on record; the only way to really understand a band is to listen to *their* influences. The exception to this would be the brilliance of Disclose, whose approach to Discharge was through a careful study of the Discharge influence in Sweden (Shitlickers, etc.) and subsequently, through Discharge spinoff Broken Bones. In any case, Nifelheim, like the other bands who have attempted this sound (Abigail, Countess, Megiddo), basically level the early Bathory sound into one-dimensional blasting. (Compare, on the other hand, the brilliance of Burzum's incorporation of the same sound, on the first Burzum album). It must be said that Nifelheim bring a good dose of "rock" spirit to this essentially humorless and bleak music, but the production (horrible) is working against them here, and they are sorely missing the slow bangers that Bathory wisely used to pace albums. Neither are the several guitar solos here of any interest, which is a real liability in metal. Of course, later Nifelheim would go on to great things indeed, but here they are limited to an influence which is neither developed nor properly grasped.

Score: 2.5/5 (** 1/2)

Best songs: "Sodomizer," "Possessed by Evil"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Agalloch- Ashes Against the Grain

I only ever heard a couple songs off Agalloch's second album, The Mantle, so when I bought their newest CD (this) for an unbelievably cheap price from their label, I didn't "get" their new direction right away. Or, where they *were* along the line of their old direction. The band is clearly still working with their original elements, but as with any career, these have now been subjected to a more individuated creativity: most obviously, the "black metal" stylings have completely disappeared from the first album. On the other hand, the band has become MORE diffuse--instead of a concentrated blast of this "individuated creativity," what one gets is a sprawling, hour-long, meditative, slightly indulgent expression of whatever place this band is now at.

In other words, the more Agalloch become themselves, the slower and more expansive they become. Is this a good thing? It is hard to call this "metal" anymore, really--and so our criteria need to be dynamic. Stylistically, this *could* be dismissed as "metal for bro-crusters," and it IS that... but as music it is too purposive to be dismissed that way. It can be very plodding and boring--just the Agalloch "sound" stretched out, as it were--but also insanely catchy, as on "Falling Snow," which will remind careful listeners of Fripp's leads on the David Bowie song "Heroes." The lead melody just unfolds and get stuck in your head in all its different versions. Success in music is extremely hard to gauge when the piece in front of you is just ten minutes of slow chords--but when Agalloch are actively, engagingly catchy, it is easy to say, "This is working."

Not all of the album DOES work. The band is too interested in their moodiness. All the songs are 10 minutes long, which seems arbitrary and not a natural result of their creativity. They end up playing the same riff a LOT. On "Falling Snow," you are waiting around for a new musical idea for a bit too long, and when it arrives, it is only serviceable.

Note to artists: I don't need "ambient" tracks to break up the excitement. Pull a Darkthrone and put in 15 second silences in between songs, I don't care. But I can handle your profundity perfectly fine without these thought-pieces... The same thing goes for the 9 minutes of the last song, which is just intermittent guitar noise. It doesn't go anywhere, it doesn't take me anywhere. I'm not a teenager and I don't have time for this.

"Note Unlike the Winds" is very reminiscent of Bathory on the Hammerheart album, especially the clean vocals--which absolutely are effective here (not so much on "Fire Above, So Below"). A stunner.

The last 20 minutes of the album is a 3 part suite called "Our Fortress is Burning I-III" and it is unbearably pretentious. As mentioned, part III is just 7 minutes of guitar noise... part I is very quiet and mostly uneventful (no vocals)... so there is 20 minutes of music of which only about 6 is a "song."

So, there is 60 minutes of music here, of which only 45 are songs. Those are mostly successful... if a bit same-y. You get worn down a bit by the "epic" and pensive vibe crashing over you with predictable grandiose crescendos. I was disappointed by this album--the band has retreated into itself too far, and though this may appeal to "shoegaze" fans of metal, it is really just navel-gazing. A few cool parts.

Score: 2.5/5 (** 1/2) stars
Best songs: "Note unlike the Wind," "Falling Snow"

Immortal- Blizzard Beasts

This is the last Immortal album with Demonaz on guitar, and their most underrated album. In some ways obviously a continuation of Battles in the North, in other ways a stylistic dead-end which they would not continue on At the Heart of Winter, Blizzard Beasts is deeply influenced by Morbid Angel; in the words of Dark Legions, "a death metal work ethic in black metal servitude to melodic conceptual songwriting." What this means is that it is much choppier; shorter phrases, much less "melodic blasting" than on Pure Holocaust. This, however, is a good solution to the band not repeating itself: thus producing what may be black metal's most intelligent album. (Compare, for example, with Darkthrone's recent (brilliant) atavism...)

Every second of this work is interesting, even if Immortal no longer offer the bracing speed and majestic fuzziness of their best albums. They keep it short (under 30 minutes), and aside from the obligatory "howling winds" intro track (1:00), it is all riffs.

Listen to "Battlefields."

At :52, there is a beautiful riff that comments and elaborates on the much starker palm-muted verse riffs just before... and THEN we are in the midst of an incredible thrashy breakdown at 1:03. It sounds easy, but unfortunately Immortal have not been able to effortlessly reproduce such moments on later works-- Damned in Black being notably deficient here.

Of course the best song here is the much-ballyhooed "Mountains of Might," which is a monument of the genre and a true journey of the soul through song. It is hard to imagine that much thought was given to the sequencing of this album other than "the goofy intro has to go first, and Mountains of Might is the... how do you say?... centerpiece." The song feels like a preview of their later epic rock/metal, what with the flange-y interludes, the pretentious ambient opening, the foreboding mid-tempo... and it is true. THIS is probably the song that Immortal have been rewriting ever since.

The next song, however, is one of their most chaotic creations, clocking in at an outrageous 2:23, in a genre where riffs are lazily cycled out for six minutes or more on average. I think I even spot a Suffocation influence in the ending, which imaginatively continues into the next song's persistent "thud."

In short, this album is full of surprises, if you pay attention, and reveals the utmost perfectionism on the band's part, and although it will never be their most acclaimed or obvious work, it is the kind of album that takes a hold in your permanent rotation and always elicits a delighted conversation when another it is discovered that another fan "knows" Blizzard Beasts.

Score: 4.5/5 (**** 1/2)

Best songs: Mountains of Might, Battlefields, Blizzard Beasts, Frostdemostorm

Monday, November 16, 2009

Amorphis- The Karelian Isthmus

Amorphis were originally a Finnish death metal band, whose career progression is best summed up by this Metal Archives description of their genre: Progressive/Death/Doom Metal (early), Modern Rock/Melodic Metal (later).

The Karelian Isthmus is their first full-length, and it is in no way a "modern rock" album. And yet... Knowing what we know today, that Amorphis are wussy at heart, that they took the shortest distance between artistic integrity and the almighty dollar (or whatever the Finnish currency is), should we listen to this album differently?

The 1990s must have been a strange time for metal. In an earlier era, "selling-out" meant Celtic Frost releasing the quasi-hair metal album Cold Lake.. but at a later period bands like Opeth and Dimmu Borgir obviously felt they could "make it" while remaining within the metal underground, producing flagrantly gimmicky music. And then there are a number of bands who sit in the middle ground of this distinction. The Karelian Isthmus belongs with the first Katatonia album, Dark Funeral, At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul, and Edge of Sanity--respectable, but hopelessly cheesy and pretentious.

The problem with any excessively "melodic" metal is that, because these people aren't Mozart, everything tends to blur together after a while. This is true with all Candlemass-influenced doom metal, with all In Flames/Dark Tranquility Swedish death metal, with Iron Maiden, with Viking Metal, with the dreaded Norsecore in Black Metal, etc. etc. It becomes impossible to place any melody within a given song. Everything just becomes one stream of vaguely hummable mid-tempo. One wager of this blog is that the best metal music is that which succeeds in being endlessly "melodic" without falling into this trap. To that end, I nominate Metallica, King Diamond, Carcass, and Emperor. Obviously a number of different things are meant by "melody" in that list. I don't have time to go into it now.

Amorphis in this respect are like a shitty Bolt Thrower. Every song works, and they are easy to follow, but why it wasn't all just one big song... or why they didn't take any lessons in narrative songwriting that would modulate the mood and take us away from the endless ambience here... who knows. One of my favorite descriptors for good metal music is "endlessly inventive." Let's just say that Amorphis are NOT.

So. This is a same-y record, but it's the best one they made, and you can listen to it all the way through.

Rating: 2.5/5 (** 1/2) stars
Best songs: All the same

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pestilence- Consuming Impulse

I've always wanted to like this album. The cover is cool, the title is smarter than a lot of death metal album titles, and it is precisely the thrashy, riffy Euro-metal that I love. It's not too far off from early Death, Possessed, Slayer, the first Morbid Angel, Massacra, etc. On the other hand, no one would confuse this with Sepultura, Deicide, Obituary, Incantation, Entombed, Gorguts...

So, this is fairly early (1989) death metal that has a lot of thrash elements, but also a lot of the progressive and technical aspects of thrash, such that even in its origin in an earlier style it is already moving beyond itself. This would be borne out on the next album, Testimony of the Ancients, which has keyboards and other such trappings of sophistication.

I say, "I've always wanted to like this album," because I hate the way it is recorded, and it has been in my collection for years collecting dust. The vocals cut across the guitar sound too much. It is hard to get used to. Contrast with the Cancer album Death Shall Rise, and you'll hear what--without too great a difference--is lost in the murkiness and flatness here.

Even after numerous listens, though, and with the songs all being familiar to me, it is hard to enter into the record, to give oneself over to it. Unlike many metal records which are intentionally odd or technical, and can feel like "exercises," Consuming Impulse is obviously attempting to popularize itself. I have a similar feeling about Incantation. Except with Incantation, I feel that there is something obvious that I am missing: either something dumb or high-concept. In the case of Pestilence, I see exactly what they are doing, but as though it is an action in which I cannot interfere or even sympathize. Perhaps you will know what I mean if you think of watching TV, and sitting through 20 or so minutes of a suspense film. You are not confused... you just don't care, since you will never know what happened in the first part of the film. No matter how good it is, you cannot enter into it.

Pestilence have an advantage over most death metal bands, and over most death metal listeners, in being obviously intelligent--something like the opposite of Obituary. Their riffs are uniquely arty without being jazzy or weak, and constitute their own trademark (along the lines of Slayer's famous riff style). This album is still growing on me, because I keep coming back to it, but I can't say yet that I understand how to enjoy it.

Score: 3.5/5 stars (*** 1/2)

Best songs: "Suspended Animation," "Out of the Body," "Reduced to Ashes"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Behemoth- Satanica

One strange assumption made by underground bands (in all genres) is that there is a continuum of "catchiness" or "accessibility" along which they have intentionally situated themselves. A band imagines that, because they are playing Brutal Death Metal, they are closing off the "obvious" and friendly melodies that they (naturally) would be writing, if they were, say, a pop-punk band.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You see this by the boring and pedestrian albums that a band makes whenever they try to "sell out"-- surprise, surprise, they aren't as good as The Beatles, and they can write riffs which are only *so* good.

Behemoth play a very commercial, unintimidating, well-produced, image-conscious style of death metal. But despite the "obvious" pandering nature and (relative!) accessibility of this style... despite what should make this music user-friendly and "arena-sized"... despite all this, I find Behemoth to be quite forgettable and not big enough. I suspect that the calculation which led them to play in *this* style at the same time hinders the song-writing from the natural ebullience of creativity which produced, say, Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny, or Graveland's Thousand Swords.

It may seem that I am saying the boring thing, "This lacks soul because it is so calculating." But it is rather that the calculation undoes itself... What is supposed to be huge is rather never as absurdly catchy and over-the-top as a less self-conscious band (say, Sacramentum). If this were completely "manufactured" and was still outsized and cartoonish, like the Ulver album Nattens Madrigal, I would be happier. Instead, Behemoth stop short--they make tepid, pleasant music that is neither goofy enough to be fun, nor uncompromising enough to be creative/interesting.

All that being said, there are some good riffs on this album, which is an astonishingly short 35 minutes. But because it is neither challenging nor a rockin' good time, you do not find yourself necessarily wanting more.

Score: 3.5/5 (*** 1/2)
Best songs: "Ceremony of Shiva," "Lam"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Carnage- Dark Recollections

This album came out when I was 7 years old, so when I came to it much later, it had to compete with every subsequent development in music. The "importance" of a record can of course never be a substitute for a boring listening experience, and while Carnage would be important in terms of many bands that I love (Carcass, Darkthrone, Entombed), their sole album has never caught on with me.

The whole Swedish Death Metal sound has always struck me as monotonous and formulaic. While I appreciate the blending of Discharge-style hardcore with death metal, the bands in this style forego the sense of dynamics and narrative which the American death metal bands (Death and Morbid Angel especially) took over from thrash metal--in comparison with which, Entombed are a bit "same-y."

The slow pace (for death metal), the consistent and boring atmosphere, the ridiculous chainsaw guitar tone, the guitar solos that are all the same... the entire genre is distilled into this one album, but instead of (as might be the case with another record) being able to forgive the faults of an entire genre in their first instantiation, this record does not *benefit* from its unifying tendencies. Instead, I put it on and think, after a few seconds: "Oh... THIS."

One thing that might mislead listeners is that the band never slips up: every song is consistent in quality; the genre conventions are completely adhered to; as an album it might even be "well-paced"... but like a fractal in mathematics, it looks the same no matter how "close" or "far" one's attention is set. As background music, it is background music---a heavy, thundering roar. But when one really puts one's ear up to it and pays attention.... it is still a heavy, thundering, consistent roar. You can wait the entire album's length waiting for "neat parts" or for any of the record to differentiate itself.

Now, that could be a general (naive) criticism of death metal, but what I mean here is that the TEXTURE is not different from the "big picture"... unlike, say, Suffocation, where repeated listens bring out nuances *from* a general chaos, with Carnage the surface close-up is not any more rewarding than the general impression. In fact they are the same.

As a review of this CD, I should add that (like the Nihilist demos) the demo tracks appended here have a certain raw charm that has been leveled-down for the "Sunlight Studios Sound."

Score: 3/5 stars (***)

Best songs: any will do equally well

originally written for

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Suffocation- Blood Oath

I sold my copy of the last Suffocation album (s/t), not because it was horrible, but because the "vibe" was really awful. I'll cite some lyrics:

Stop talking to me...
My father once told me to shut up, shut up

Do I know you?...
Where do I belong?
Shut up, shut up you...

Whereas the better style of death metal lyrics is represented by these *other* Suffocation lyrics:

The structure collapses, spewing forth mutation.
Plague bathes the earth from infected skies.
Chaotic saturation into the pores of existence.
Breeding the spawn.
Effigy awake in its mummified region.

If I can be clever about this: what makes death metal lyrics tolerable is their abstractness, lacking the I & You of rock music--because all of this is being shouted at full volume. When someone is yelling "Shut up!" or "I want to kill you!", the effect is lost, and I am snapped back into the reality that "these are sounds I would avoid having shouted at me in real life."

Since Suffocation's singer has begun to enunciate better, the decline of their lyrics into unpleasant personal rage has become distracting to the listener (i.e. one does not have to consult the lyrics sheet); I also feel that this decline is typical of the not-being-with-it that afflicts older bands.

One assertion of this blog as a whole is that one can tell whether music is good or bad--there isn't some special degree required. You put on old Suffocation--it's amazing. You put on the new Suffocation--but instead of trying to hold it up to their old sound, to look for errors, to make sure that it is "consistent,"--ask, "Is it amazing?"

And the answer is obviously that it's not. Enjoying music shouldn't have to be work.

Given the template established by previous albums, and one's "training" in the art of listening to Suffocation, one obviously will have the appearance of satisfaction... and perhaps for those experiencing the band/style for the first time, this will be a revelation. But the first few times I put this on, I was staring my eyes out of my head asking whether it was good or not. And that just shouldn't be a question; it never was a question with their devastating earlier work.

On this album, Suffocation have bounced back from the woeful uncoolness of their last record, but at best they have achieved a confusion between what *appears* to be a proficient and rewarding album, and the actual *rewards* (neat parts!) of such a record. Only for those with no need of paying attention to metal, who will be satisfied with the trappings. Paradoxically here, paying attention means: knowing what pleasure (hardly the most "attentive" state) is, apart from the "up-close" of the coherent and professional texture one is presented with.

Score: 3 stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "Images of Purgatory," "Dismal Dream"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Graveland- Following the Voice of Blood

In a career of strong albums (Celtic Winter, Thousand Swords, Memory and Destiny), this is Graveland's strongest; it also has the dubious distinction of being their worst-recorded. As each subsequent album has been less adventurous than the last, Following the Voice of Blood stands as a peak in weirdness and is distinctive within their catalog.

To begin with, the guitar tone is an unprecedented (in metal!) combination of an over-the-top flange effect with jangly light distortion. There is no "crunch" to the sound, and (I can't speak very technically about this) the strings can all be heard individually during the fast strumming. Suffice to say, this produces a weird "underwater" sound which does not at all cohere during the fast parts, and is off-putting to most metal ears. Combined with drummer Capricornus' unique sense of timing, the execution of these songs is a real disaster: they won't be winning over casual listeners with this one.

As a student of Graveland, I can say that their albums are always sequenced impeccably. This is true here. The album opens with the obligatory synth intro, and "White Hand's Power" is the shortest full song on the album, at 8:33. It holds your attention, but things really get going with the incoherent blasting of "Thurisaz," which is the next logical step in minimalism from Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger release: the only thing similar that comes to mind is Veles' Black Hateful Metal, which takes this minimalism to its high concept extreme (with similarly flanged-out weird production).

Now, normally, the fast parts are not a Graveland strength--and after this album, they basically give up on blast-beats in drumming, to concentrate on a more "epic" Bathory style; which is why you *cannot* miss out on this album: the fast riffs played here match anything on Pure Holocaust or Transilvanian Hunger. I'm thinking especially of "Thurisaz," "And the Horn was Sounding Far Away," and "Fed by Beasts." Of course, all the other trappings of a Graveland album are here, too, but what makes Following the Voice of Blood the best Graveland album is the slurred, clumsy melodies cited above.

It's easy to see why this bizarre, horrible-sounding, folky, inept, jangly, non-Satanic-themed release did not become the future of metal. Not that it is so brainy or avant-garde, but the extremely enjoyable melodies and songs here are buried underneath every contingent "turn-off," and is completely lacking in those qualities which make extreme metal appealing to teenage boys.

Score: 5/5 stars (*****)
Best songs: "Thurisaz," "And the Horn was Sounding Far Away," "Fed by Beasts"

Friday, May 22, 2009

the DVD that comes with Incantation- Onward to Golgotha

"Why didn't they release this DVD separately? Why does it come free with the CD?"

Because it sucks.

This DVD is interesting mainly as an FAQ: Did anyone attend Incantation shows? No. How did they dress? Always the same. Did they move around a lot while playing? No. Do the band members ever even look at each other? No.

Incantation's first two studio albums both suffer from cavernous, obscure recordings, so in theory a live performance would cut through any questions of sound quality, and capture the songs in their intensity and as-executed: there is always something artificial about death metal albums. And these 3 performances do all that, to some degree--but with the qualification that the videos here are essentially unwatchable and also unlistenable. They are all single-source VHS recordings, so the sound is very scrunched together, blown-out, and far from the impact any death metal band aims for in a performance. The best is the "Flashes" show, which is shot from a higher vantage point, and the guitar and drums can be discerned reasonably well (vocals muffled).

But, complain about this as I may, it really isn't about the sound quality or the performance style. At heart, I don't think I like or understand Incantation. I don't "get" it. Are they too cerebral? I hate to admit it, but this might be the case. They don't make it easy for me: lots of changes, atonal solos, few choruses, more "doomy" parts than breakdowns, completely unpleasant but generic vocals. Like Obituary, Incantation seem to have missed out on the original intensity of metal: the quality of up-tempo rock that Metallica have in common with the MC5. Incantation never "rock," no matter how fast they play. 

If you want to see a few really ugly guys standing on a stage making barely audible, complicated, uncatchy music that makes Deicide seem extremely charming-- this is for you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Darkthrone- Dark Thrones and Black Flags

Here's a band that GETS IT. Killer riffs, memorable and distinct songs, nothing superfluous or "experimental," totally unique, full of personality and humor, steeped in metal history, and just a kick ass rock record. Darkthrone has made a career of making things look easy, even to the point of pretending to be far less talented musicians than they really are. That continues here, as this record is to all appearances a throwaway.

The days of Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger are long over-- this was signaled by the deeply retro stylings of Panzerfaust, and its incredible theatrical irony. One may read this back into the more "serious" albums as one likes. Panzerfaust is a triumph, but it is only with Hate Them that Darkthrone got back on its feet (after three decent but irrelevant albums)--and each subsequent record has been more of a murky, ramshackle, half-serious punk album. 

The deadly boring "cult" current black metal fans-- and by the way guys, give it up, it's SO over-- having given way to shitty indie rock fans-- and by the way guys, give it up, you are unquestionably late for anything interesting in black metal-- these demographics will never understand the new direction of Darkthrone, because this album has zero in common with "black metal" and only strives to entertain and throw a bunch of neat parts at you. None of the depressive bedroom emo (Xasthur) which passes for black metal these days. 

What I love most about this record is... the great riffs. But what I love second most is the feeling of "fun" that they must have had, and succeed in communicating through music--the last thing one expects from this genre in 2009. And so it easily ranks with the great albums by Venom or Bathory: thus miraculously reinventing and reinvigorating black metal by avoiding all the calcified trappings of its current sorry state.

Score: 4.5/5 stars (**** 1/2)
Best songs: "The Winds they call the Dungeon Shaker," "Oath Minus," "Hanging out in Haiger"

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Origin- Antithesis

Origin's third album of "brutal technical death metal" is a completely repellant, back-to-the-audience version of death metal. This record makes Deicide seem warm and cuddly. Everything from the sci-fi aesthetics, to the pretentious album title + song titles + lyrics, can be seen as a subtraction from death metal of its most "human" elements: juvenile, offensive Satanism (a "humanistic" philosophy) and/or gore (humanity reduced to gooey anatomy). 

Origin seem like they've never heard of PEOPLE. This extends to you, the record-purchaser. The only conception of a listener to be found here is a weak human set of ears to be demolished by the brutal technical etc. of these musicians.

On the other hand, destroy, pummel, annihilate, barrage, level, obliterate--they do this quite well. I don't know if this is the heaviest, most brutal music I've ever heard, but it certainly is an unrelenting and shockingly aggressive siege on sensitive ears. It is also worth praising the band for their robot-like aesthetic: this certainly spares us many of the aesthetic trends which pervade modern death metal, and is at the same time a "serious" take on the genre which I can get behind.

There is one surprising/weird thing about this album: as "technical" and riff-salad as it can be, a lot of times you find yourself thinking, "Gosh, they've been playing this riff for a *while* now..." Which should not happen in any music, but it shouldn't even be possible in this genre. I mean, do Cryptopsy ever even play the same riff twice?

In summary, this band has a couple other albums. Normally, if I'm crazy about something new, I go out and buy everything else a band has released. But this is still the only Origin album I have. It's gotten a lot of plays chez moi, but music this brain-meltingly aggressive should "add up" to something else. Origin is just good enough to avoid becoming background noise, which puts them ahead of the rest of the pack, but still behind more interesting bands. Worth checking out.

Score: 3 stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "Antithesis," "Aftermath," "The Beyond Within"

Monday, March 30, 2009

Worst "Deathcore" Band Names

If you aren't familiar with the term "deathcore," you haven't been reading This is the catch-all phrase for every post-emo "haircut" band who have graduated from "melodic" At the Gates- cloning to a "brutal" combination of the most boring qualities of death metal (cannibal corpse) with the breakdowns and attitude of metalcore (itself a nauseating byproduct of hardcore). Anyways, it is 99% likely that anyone who has recommended "this really great new band... i've been into death metal a lot lately" has been recommending some variation on either emo-grind (Daughters) or hipster tech-metal (Orthrelm) OR finally, deathcore (The Red Chord, reviewed on pitchfork, but obviously see below this entire post for more names).

Anyways, to me this music is obviously "music to annoy your parents" and to get shitty tattoos to, but I am thankful for this genre for its wonderful band names. Only the best selection below

A King's Worthy Mustache
All the Heathers Are Dying
And Their Eyes Were Bloodshot
Annotations of an Autopsy
As This Body, I Exist
Burying Ann Hewitt
Giddy Up Gangsta
Hang the Wench
Her Demise, My Rise
I Don't Want to Die in Texas
I Wrestled a Bear Once
Job for a Cowboy
Kids Will Be Skeletons
My Virgin Eyes
No Penguins in Alaska (logo has to be seen to be believed!)
School Girl Knife Fight
Sever the Head of Potemkin
She is a Liar
Surcease Angels
The Boy Will Drown
The Hacksaw Circumcision (Well done, guys)
The New Tony Bennett
The Texas Chainsaw Mascara
They Found Her in Pieces
To Envy the Horrid

Let me just say, NONE of this attitude existed when I was 18. There was "ironic metal," to be sure, but there was no "ironic death metal," and while I'm glad to see that metal is no longer just the domain of longhairs, I can't say that I understand kids today.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Favorite Death Metal song of the moment

Immolation "Nailed to Gold" off their second album

Especially the chorus riff, but especially the guitar solo.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Upcoming Posts

Gorguts- Considered Dead
Pestilence- Testimony of the Ancients
Incantation- Onward to Golgotha
Necrophagist- Epitaph
Origin- Antithesis

stay tuned in!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Suffocation- Despise the Sun

As good as Suffocation is, their entire sound is so close to being just a trick of production, that it's hard to think of their discography as other than a string of predictably great, monolithic works, with every deviation an "unwise" one. Unpredictable on the micro level, Suffocation is highly predictable on the macro level. Stick to what you know!

Even today Suffocation, playing basically in the same style as when they first started, seem impossibly futuristic and brutal--almost "high-tech" or bionic in their approach to blasting super-heavy death metal. Despise the Sun is their 1998 CD EP, after which the band went on hiatus until 2004's Souls To Deny, which picked up in exactly the same place. 

Ok, so the entire point of this blog is to distinguish between similar-sounding releases, and to find what is essential about Suffocation *aside from* their distinctive sound. Meaning, anyone can tell you what this band is all about after 45 seconds... and so that reaction is hardly worth writing. 

The great virtue of this band is the organicity of their countless part-changes. Whereas many bands pride themselves on the dizzying start-stop technicality of their riff salad songwriting, Suffocation go one better: they make the complicated arrangements seem natural rather than affected.

Despise the Sun presents a very stripped-down version of Suffocation: two songs under three minutes, no song longer than four minutes (whereas many of the songs on Pierced From Within are over five minutes, and *none* shorter than four). The songs are therefore easier to follow, and they have cut down on guitar solos. What a lot of people probably don't know about death metal is how boring and part-filled it can be. By "part" I mean "one part after another"--the feeling of, "when will this end?" Despise the Sun has absolutely zero of this--it's completely engaging for the whole 16 minutes. The band never tries to bring any "attitude" or "concept" to the proceedings, which is a great relief in 2009, when every band has to be into Egyptian or Babylonian or Gaelic mythologies... yawn. Suffocation just want to rock here, and by keeping it lean and unpretentious, they produce what in sports broadcasting is called 'a clinic'--they make it look easy, and everyone else looks like chumps. 

What makes death metal shitty is inevitably the following things:
  • ambient tracks
  • emo lyrics
  • imagery moved to the forefront
  • mixing of sub-genres ("blackened death," "deathrash," "deathcore," "deathgrind")
  • Cannibal Corpse syndrome: lyrical shock value a crutch
  • using the same musical devices too often
  • slow
Suffocation avoid every trap here, and it's a brief and enjoyable triumph. Start elsewhere with this band, but...y'know... cherish this one.

Score: 4/5 stars (****)
Best songs: Bloodchurn, Catatonia


Monday, March 9, 2009

Necrophagist- Onset of Putrefaction

I'm glad that I am first hearing this album when I am 25 years old. This is the most outrageously "technical" death metal I've heard, and of course it is almost laughable in the number of changes, squeals, odd rhythms, and sheer quantity of PARTS in a given song--it is quite a stretch to include this in the same genre as Scream Bloody Gore, Horrified, Reek of Putrefaction, etc. Almost all of the early death metal classics are very simple, whereas this *very* late iteration is a one-person blender, with no possibility for toe-tapping, and likely to be derided as "masturbatory" by everyone who is not an aspiring youtube guitar hero himself. 

But let me pose the question otherwise: let's not come down on the "technicality" issue just yet; rather, is this record enjoyable to listen to? does it grow on you? It's best not to approach music with genre-blinders on ("Oh, it's too 'technical' for me.") 

First off, this is ridiculous fun--if Cannibal Corpse was too repetitive for any but the most attention-starved 14 year old, this is all the enjoyable shock and kitsch of Cannibal Corpse, dressed up as real music--and what music! Every riff is embellished, every stop/start part operates in stereo, nothing is played the same twice. It's impossible to follow, of course, but unlike Cannibal Corpse it is never boring. 

Secondly, by taking death metal to this "extreme," somehow the music has lost all the raw aggression, heaviness, intensity, et al, of extreme metal--vocals and tempos aside, this could almost be new age ambient sounds... in a manner of speaking. For die-hard old school fans, this will be a major drawback, but it is what it is. This music's not hard. After a few listens, there is nothing "sick" or "crazy" about it.

Thirdly, it's completely addictive. I've listened to this record 4 times today already--whether one can burn out on it or not, we'll see, but it's full of neat parts and a lot of it is really standout. 

Any discourse about "needless wankery," "music for robots," "no soul," "not catchy," "too technical," "actually not that hard to play"--really fall by the wayside when you approach this album the right way. It's fun and quite addictive. Strangely this band has found a kind of popularity by playing this absurd style, and who's to say that I am not missing some authentic core, but if a band is "pandering" by writing three million cool little parts, that is the particular kind of condescension that doesn't bother me.

Score: 4/5 stars (****)
Best songs: "Mutilate the Stillborn," "Fermented Offal Discharge"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

5 Star Albums

Without treading too heavily on the obvious, it's worth remarking on and appreciating the true classics, and reminding ourselves that YES, Ride the Lightning is 10 million times better than some inaudible black metal demo. This list does not pretend to be complete.

Metallica- Kill 'Em All
Metallica- Ride the Lightning
Possessed- Seven Churches
Slayer- Show No Mercy
Slayer- Reign in Blood
Darkthrone- Panzerfaust
Morbid Angel- Altars of Madness
Morbid Angel- Blessed are the Sick
Exodus- Bonded by Blood
Death- Sound of Perseverance
Entombed- Wolverine Blues
Graveland- Following the Voice of Blood
Bathory- Blood Fire Death
Mercyful Fate- Don't Break the Oath
Mercyful Fate- Melissa
Immortal- Pure Holocaust
Beherit- Oath of Black Blood
Carcass- Symphonies of Sickness
Dark Angel- Darkness Descends
Terrorizer- World Downfall

Morbid Angel- Blessed are the Sick

Morbid Angel's Blessed are the Sick is so far and away my favorite death metal album that it's almost easier to take this as a "given" and start top 10 lists with records that are less "duh." I mean, Blessed are the Sick is to death metal what Moby-Dick is to seafaring tales. 

I have sometimes said that what makes Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and GangStarr's Daily Operations such successful records is that they really take down the tempo, so that everything can be taken in and absorbed by the listener. Now, death metal really has this problem: it tends to become a 45-minute blur. Sadly, the subgenre of "doom death" only makes things worse somehow--nothing is LESS memorable than really slow, plodding death metal where chords are left to ring for minutes on end. 

Anyways, without slowing down at all, Morbid Angel's Blessed are the Sick achieves all the "legibility" of Kind of Blue or GangStarr. What other extreme metal records achieve this? I can think only of the first Celtic Frost record, and perhaps the Mayhem LP. The music is very immediate, and although heavy/fast, is so gripping that all the parts have a very distinct identity and purpose. A main factor here is the audible lyrics, which are not too embarrassing, and the killer production--certainly the only Morbid Angel record of the first three where the drums have any bite. 

Speaking of doom death, Blessed are the Sick not only preempts that concept, but it invents and perfects it almost as a side note here--especially songs like the title track and "Rebel Lands." For me, "Fall from Grace" and "Thy Kingdom Come" sum up everything that was great about the first album, Altars of Madness, so neatly, that the rest of the record has permission from me to be slow or groovy or just be piano or spanish guitar... as much as it likes. Take "Abominations" for instance--basically this is rap metal/mosh metal--but in the sequencing of the album, it is this astonishing riff fest that you can't believe they still have in the bag so late in the album. And the last song, "The Ancient Ones" is even catchier (and bears a certain resemblance to the next album's "Angel of Disease"). Of course, the band makes all this look very easy, even though every single riff is identifiably a Morbid Angel riff: tonally unique and exotically liquid. 

In short, Blessed Are the Sick makes all other death metal seem monotonous and self-serious, while itself being simultaneously the heaviest, the most out-there, and the most fun record in the genre. It's not even possible to imagine a better record, because my imagination stops short at very consistent and stellar albums like Legion or Cause of Death--whereas Blessed Are the Sick is a real flight of the imagination. Highest praise. One for the ages.

Score: 5/5 stars (*****)
Best songs: "Fall from Grace," "Ancient Ones," "Brainstorm," "Thy Kingdom Come," "Abominations"

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Death- Scream Bloody Gore

Overrated. While Death were among the greatest metal bands, and while this album is marked everywhere *as* a Death album--even at this early stage--it is unremarkable (at this historical moment) and almost a chore to listen to.

The problem with Death's career is that their early albums don't have a lot of personality: Spiritual Healing versus Leprosy versus Human, etc.--they are all about the same, in sound and production. While these may have been landmark releases when they came out individually ("A new Death album! Sick!"), time has leveled out these differences and what remains to those who do-not-pay-attention-to-metal is the following:
1) Death were the original death metal band. Ergo, there must be something "extreme" (fast, heavy, crazy) about them.
2) Death eventually became a proggy jazz-metal band, embodying all that is "uncool" about metal.
3) Death's career therefore has two poles, an early, juvenile inventing-death-metal pole--best accessed on their first album--and a later, prog pole--best NOT heard on their last album. 

This is how fans ruin things. My #1 rule for music: take each album separately. The final Death album, Sound of Perseverence, is actually quite accessible (as indicated by the astonishingly powerful Judas Priest cover, "Painkiller"), while it is their penultimate record, Symbolic, which stretches the pretentious prog elements furthest. On the other end of things, the first few Death records are fairly interchangeable with one another, and there is no reason to value Scream Bloody Gore over its immediate successors, except that the album cover and title are the coolest. People who talk about music, but don't listen to it closely enough, feeling the need to say which *kind* of metal fan they are, are apt to overstate and misrepresent every nuance of the Death catalog. My opinion: their best records skip around, with the 2nd album Leprosy being quite good, and then the 5th, Individual Thought Patterns (featuring King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRoque!), and then the 7th, Sounds of Perseverance.

You would only know this, of course, if you paid attention to the quality of songs, rather than facing an album initially with the idea of what kind of fan YOU are. If one is utterly committed to LOVING bone-dry production, simple "primitive" riffs, and a "straight-forward" post-thrash vibe--then honestly, why even listen to music? Or, why not just pretend to like Possessed's Seven Churches instead? On the other hand, for the discerning listener, there is much to take away here. 

This album dates from 1987, but many of the songs evidently go back to numerous demos starting in 1984, so that "Death Metal" in some ways predates the definitive thrash bands like Kreator or Exodus...  On the other hand, though, by 1989, Death's early style would be completely superseded by Morbid Angel's Altars of Madness album, itself superseded by the Blessed are the Sick album (1991) and Deicide's Legion (1992). So the "heaviosity" here can only be historically relative, which (I hope) is not a reason anyone listens to music: "Wow, this *must have been* so good, once!" 

In my opinion, extreme metal quickly devolves into a race to be the *most* something or other: most technical, most evil, most kvlt, etc. And so, once some record is not "this year's model," it sounds not only simplistic, friendly, and mainstream in comparison, but because the band neglected to write songs in the first place, also boring and tepid. While Death did become immediately outdated, Chuck did write some excellent tunes here, and taken one-by-one the conviction of these songs and the superb guitar-solos are fine indeed. But the album as a whole is a bit dreary and unpleasant--lacking the catchiness of Possessed and also of, say, Spiritual Healing. 

In every sense, this record is a must-own for self-respecting metal fans, and despite what I've said it really is a classic of early death metal. However, it is also dated, and not among the band's best works, which is saying more about the excellence of Death than it is pointing to the shortcomings of this work.

Score: 3.5/5 stars (*** 1/2)
Best songs: "Regurgitated Guts," "Evil Dead"

Friday, February 20, 2009

Emperor- Emperial Live Ceremony

Emperor were not only a great band, but also great self-promoters, and they obviously had a keen eye for trends and for what innovations metal would be receptive to in the 1990s. Initially playing death metal (as Thou Shalt Suffer) and then switching to ultra-primitive black metal, Emperor partook in all the publicity-stunts of early Norwegian black metal: church burnings, corpse paint, murder, "serious" Satanism, etc. Their music's evolution was uncannily prescient, as well: the over-use of keyboards and pretentious "atmosphere," as well as a the "symphonic" death metal they were playing at the end of their career--none of this was accidental. 

That sounds very skeptical, but I feel that Emperor were true musical geniuses who would have flourished in any genre. "We" were lucky that they happened to make some black metal records, because their vision in black metal was both unique and deeply, individually expressive. One can ask with all seriousness, where would the genre be without Emperor? Like few other bands, music seems to be the "first language" of its members. On the other hand, Emperor's second language has to be self-presentation. 

For a band without any "hits," a set-list is somewhat arbitrary. Some tracks in extreme metal are obvious standouts, but albums tend to be conceived as albums, rather than as having singles mixed in with filler. It is the mark of a better-than-average extreme metal band if they even HAVE recognizable individual songs. "Oh, I love *this* one!" is high praise for black metal or death metal. 

Emperor, however, have been suspiciously clever in picking their set-list for this live album. They include songs from all their albums (to date, this being recorded before Prometheus), but I think the selection is itself an *interpretation* of their career, one which I disagree with. For instance, the song from the Enslaved split, "Night of the Graveless Souls," is a great song, but the one in which keyboards feature most prominently. "Inno A Satana" from In the Nightside Eclipse, again a great song, is the song off that album that introduces "clean" singing to Emperor, a feature much taken up later in their career. It might be coincidence that these forward-looking songs were chosen, but only "I am the Black Wizards" seems the truly obvious choice made off those records.

The two later albums represented here, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and IX Equilibrium, seem much "moreso" in the context of each other and of *these* particular early songs. That is to say, the whole effect of the album, excepting the primitive "Black Wizards" and "Graveless Souls," is to make one view Emperor from In the Nightside Eclipse to IX Equilibrium as of a piece--consistent in their sound and development. This is an interesting effect, but it is also a fantasy. 

However, this record also demonstrates a point I have always argued: that music is itself an interpretation OF music; of a band's influences, or of their own discography. The best/worst example of this is the Ramones Phil Spector album End of the Century: interpreting the Ramones as the Ronettes-meets-punk act that critics (then and now) have always insisted upon. It's a disaster and  yet definitely an interpretation of the earlier Ramones records, which it attempts to emphasize in all the wrong ways. Here, the vast creativity of Emperor is re-interpreted on its "progressive" basis, much to its detriment. 

What does the album sound like? A bunch of very well-executed songs, excellent sound (much better than the early album), hundreds of "neat parts," and very little in the way of banter. If you are like me, you already own this because it came in the Emperor vinyl box set, and you never listen to it. The main effect is to make Anthems seem like an inferior, noodly "later" work, more akin to IX Equilibrium than to its predecessor. That is not my "standard" position on that album, but this live record is definitely the best evidence for this view.

Score: 3/5 stars (***)
Best songs: (relative to their album version) "Inno a Satana," "With Strength I Burn"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Emperor- IX Equilibrium

Emperor's career is, like Carcass', a gradual transformation from an extremely raw early sound into a rather polished and different entity, though always maintaining quality. To push the analogy further, though, both bands seemed to hit a glitch on their penultimate albums--as though it were difficult to "push through" to the final stage, and a problematic genre-bridge needed to be thrown up first. So, Heartwork and this album are my least favorite from these bands.

Far more "technical" and "death metal" than the previous Emperor, but still retaining some of the black metal atmosphere which would be gone by Prometheus, IX Equilibrium is (as far as I can tell) no one's favorite Emperor record, even die-hard fans of their "sunglasses era." For music listeners who are incapable of telling whether a record is good or bad, once it falls into their preferred genre, IX Equilibrium is long and boring enough where even the most blockheaded "symphonic metal fan" will find themselves scratching their ponytailed head and wondering what is not right here. 

I imagine the conversation going something like this: "I *like* keyboards, and pretentious lyrics, and 'clean' vocals, and noodly guitar lines that go nowhere... and yet... this leaves me cold!" As though what made Beethoven great was his "symphonic" style! Leaving aside the idiocy of metal fans, though, IX Equilibrium's main problem is that it is one of the least aggressive metal albums in existence: neither fast nor furious, the album forces the listener to endure a great number of *parts* without remembering that we are here to rock!! Now, there's no problem with wussy parts and even entirely wussy albums, but in a style ("symphonic" technical death/black metal?!) that is premised on aggression, these weak parts are accustomed to being written and performed as interludes, mood-settings, and are essentially filler. All pretentious black metal (not Darkthrone, though!) has felt the need for boring ambient or orchestral parts--whatever. But to raise this element to the level of one's metal style (as here), is to dilute the music and to bore me. 

Later Emperor succeeds when it is most like Morbid Angel's Blessed are the Sick, and is poorest when it is diddling around with keyboards and mid-tempo prog riffs. If the barest inclusion of a mid-tempo prog riff sets your heart a-pattering, then you may overlook the pointlessness of this album as a whole. But from a holistic standpoint, and from the standpoint of repeated listens over the past 7 years, IX Equilibrium is easily Emperor's worst album, and I blame this on "too many parts" and ambitions that fall into mere pretentiousness. This is evident on a first listen and does not improve with further acquaintance.

Score: 2/5 stars (**)
Best songs: "Curse You All Men" is the best song by far

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Darkthrone- Soulside Journey

This is a hard album to review, because while Darkthrone are one of my favorite bands, this is THE album they had to repudiate in order to become great. That doesn't mean that it is flawed on its own terms, but I think it was a stroke of genius for Darkthrone to realize that churning out contemporary Swedish Death Metal was a dead-end, and that the first wave of black metal (Bathory, Celtic Frost) was not yet conceptually exhausted, but needed to be retrieved as a living aesthetic.

Soulside Journey is revelatory for a few reasons: the outstanding production, Fenriz's technical drumming abilities, Nocturno Culto here going by his given name (Ted), and the generally "Swedish" sound of things--all of this would go out the window immediately with their next album, the ugly, ugly A Blaze in the Northern Sky. (Although, weirdly, they kept the same logo.) Overall this album is similar to the early At the Gates sound, but less interesting and a bit "doomier" (I use this term against my will).  They try to keep it interesting, but there generally is not much going on, and it is too straight-forward for my tastes. If you are considerably more of an Entombed fan than I (it's possible!), this might be just the thing for you.  

It could be less boring, and the first song is by far the best, but there is a place in the world for this album and its handful of cool parts. But what one most misses in this early work is the nihilistic irony that really make Darkthrone the great band we know and love.

Score: 3 stars/5 (***) 
Best songs: "Cromlech," "Soulside Journey," "Sempiternal Sepulchrality" (bass solo!)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Countess- Heilig Vuur

This is a one-man old-school black metal band from Holland. I heard about them ~7 years ago, reading the old LARM metal reviews website, and they (he) have gained a cult following with a self-proclaimed "Orthodox Black Metal" style. In what does this consist? Well, like label-mates Megiddo, the entire (and noble) aim is at the second and third Bathory albums. The production is obviously "cheap" and shitty but not "raw"--which is clever; while this production does not SOUND like the second and third Bathory albums, to fetishistically recreate that sound would be to misinterpret Bathory in a superficial "kult" way. Thankfully, Countess is smarter than that.

Unfortunately, the entire pleasure of Bathory's career arc--"Wow, this guy is surprisingly musical, even within his limitations!"--is negated by Countess's total lack of musicality. Listen closely: it is HORRIBLE. Weirdly, I like this record better than a lot of other stuff, because it is intellectually commendable, and also has a very "punk" quality that I can get behind--but even as tone-deaf and non-knowledgeable about music as I am, something is not quite right here. Like a highly-functional illiterate, Countess is good at hiding this lack of musicality, but it comes out especially in the painfully bad guitar solos.

The best metal bands--Judas Priest, Metallica, Burzum--are shockingly musical: their imaginations paint in melodies and harmonies that are astonishing and illuminating. Countess is just BAD. There's a lot to admire here, in terms of "the problem of nowadays black metal," but once you realize that music is really not a "first language" for Countess, it just sucks. Sorry.

Score: 1 star/ 5 (*)
Best songs: these songs when they were on "The Return..." and "Under the Sign..."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

At the Gates- Gardens of Grief

Obviously At the Gates are most famous (now) for their album Slaughter of the Soul, but in 2009, we can begin to rewrite history, and assign value to what is lasting, rather than ephemeral and commercial/disposable. The point being here, not that Slaughter of the Soul is a "sell-out" album which is "too poppy," but that only a few of the songs are memorable, that the "trick" gets tiresome fairly quickly, and that the style is indeed a trick and not brilliance.

But the band begins here, on the Gardens of Grief EP, which is unrecognizable as the same group, although an initial listen will try to find the later band within the earlier sound, automatically. However that may be, what you get here is more or less a very "artsy" Entombed, very complicated, not at all immediate, and wildly inventive: basically the opposite of Slaughter of the Soul, which is (whatever else it may be) NOT a dumbed-down version of *this*.

The difference between Entombed and this, though, is the real absence of any hardcore (Discharge) influence--ironic because two members of At the Gates would later play in Discharge-worship band Skitsystem. Rather, the music is very start/stop, jazzy, and never propulsive over an unchanging beat like Entombed or Discharge. To say the least, there are a TON of "parts" here, and it is obvious even on this first record that the band would be a leader in the Swedish death metal scene, since they take the Entombed heaviness and take it in three thousand different directions in these four songs. It's almost close to Demilich or Atheist, in some ways. 

These songs don't sear themselves into your memory, and the band's full-lengths are the real place to go, but this is a neat little disc that repays all the time put into it.

Score: 3 stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "City of Screaming Statues," "At the Gates"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Veles- Black Hateful Metal

Was having a conversation with a friend earlier, in which I declared that I was not going to buy records below a certain level in any given genre. For metal, the dividing line is probably Dismember's Like an Ever Flowing Stream. If every metal record I buy is better than Like an Ever Flowing Stream, I'll be happy. If an album is worse than that, it doesn't mean it is "bad," but it will eventually be superfluous.

Demonstration: for hundreds of years, Roman literature was the greatest in the world, and yet only one great Latin epic is still read: Virgil's Aeneid. Hardly anyone reads Lucan's Pharsalia (The Civil War), a verse epic of Caesar's war with Pompey. Posterity has an immense flattening effect. But Lucan, I assure you, is not "overlooked." It's just that, none of us are friends with Lucan, no one is going to get laid by reading Lucan on the subway, etc. It's in the public domain, and not "rare." 

This is how all subsequent music that is not, let's say, The Beatles, will look in 500 years. Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, and Philip Glass will all be Lucans to the Beatles' Virgil. Conclusion: there is no need to be sentimental about what is TRULY mediocre, namely the stuff that is far below The Beatles, far below Black Sabbath, far below Morbid Angel, the truly 10th-tier music that we spend most of our time listening to, recommending, and watching live. If you like Morbid Angel, obviously you should check out Deicide, and if you like Deicide, there's an entire rabbit-hole to go down...  But there needs to be a line drawn long *ahead* of concepts like "proficiency" or "good for the style"--if we are to have any time or money or headspace for truly worthy art. 


Veles' Black Hateful Metal is definitely on the other side of that line. This is a very curious album, but far from essential.  At one point in time, I would have praised it for being "raw," "avant-garde," "unique," "truly innovative," "a worthy successor to Graveland's Following the Voice of Blood, a personal favorite of mine," and "a step in the right direction for black metal." It IS all of those things, to be sure, but it is also unlistenable, which trumps all other argument. And, it can't really be considered a metal record, since virtually any electric rock or blues record is "heavier" than Black Hateful Metal.

This is extremely simple black metal, very fuzzed-out, and Graveland-influenced. The melodies are very pretty and there is no attempt at technicality or an "epic" vibe. The drums are almost inaudible, and I don't think they could swing a bass-player for this session. Seemingly no attention has been paid to sequencing, after the first song (an instrumental by Graveland's Darken). Songs stop for no reason to allow pointless instrumental meandering, and then start up again mid-blastbeat. There is a true sub-demo quality, almost like a rehearsal tape, that leaves one thinking, "This would be cool if they entered the studio and put this down properly." Sadly, in the pretentious KVLT delirium of the black metal scene, that did not happen, and so Veles are poorly represented--their own fault. 

Everything that a fanboy would say about this record: avant-garde, astonishingly raw, path-breaking, etc., all of that is true, and black metal would have done much better to have pursued this highly-melodic path, with no idea of aggressiveness or spooky satanic sounds... but the same point is made on Graveland's stellar Following the Voice of Blood. This album is a neat artifact, and certainly not generic, but in a genre over-given to excessive and pretentious "raw" recordings, this is an ugly extreme.

On a brighter side, the CD of Black Hateful Metal also contains a superbly-recorded demo, The Triumph of Pagan Beliefs. For sequencing purposes, this has the unfortunate consequence that you have to listen to a superfluous ambient OUTRO to the album, and then a superfluous ambient INTRO to the demo, but... once it starts, it is superb, really great black metal in the style of early Emperor. The difference between these recordings is jarring, because the riffs are not *so very* different, but everything (even a bass!) is audible... the channels are even separated. For fans of early Emperor or Graveland's The Celtic Winter.

In summary, this is an interesting document of a cool Polish metal group going off the deep-end, while somehow never leaving the Graveland playing-grounds. They earn points with me for taking their musical vision to its extremes, but the result is a complete wreck. One would do better to buy this CD than virtually any nowadays kvlt black metal, but that advice will go overlooked by teenagers everywhere out for image & parent-offending noize foremost over the strange pleasures afforded here.

Score: 2 stars/ 5 (**)
Best songs: "The Dawn of New Empire," "The Majesty of War" (Demo)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Behemoth- Demigod

So, I saw this band live once, opening for Danzig, and they were just horrible... embarrassing makeup and costumes, ludicrous "spooky" music playing before they came onstage, and drums triggered as much as drums can possibly be triggered. If they had been lip-syncing, it really wouldn't have made much of a difference. It sucked. But that is true of most every big death metal band I've seen (especially Morbid Angel).

So, on one hand, Behemoth are about as cool and "real" to me as Cradle of Filth--viz., not at all. On the other hand, their sound is instantly recognizable, which makes no sense, because all death metal bands sound the same. Well, for some reason, Behemoth really have their own thing going, a unique style they keep up even at the fastest speeds, and without wussing-out ever. (Nile might also be said to have a unique death metal style, but... that seems mostly to consist in flutes and gongs. I'll have a Nile review up soon.)

The most instantly-appreciable aspect of any extreme metal album is its production, and Behemoth depart from most death metal in not turning their guitar sound into the sound of a garbage-truck passing by in the night (Entombed), or the logical next step, turning the entire record into that sound (Nile). On one hand, I appreciate that Behemoth don't try to accomplish the entire effect of their album with the production--here it is audible, clear, unintimidating--but on the other hand, having grown accustomed to metal production, I think this could be heavier... In any case, nothing about the production lets the music "jump out," and it may be over-polished while allowing everything to be heard. But don't be ridiculous: in the finest tradition of metal, of course you can't hear the bassist!

I've listened to this album more than most nowadays death metal that comes my way, and there is some negative praise to lavish upon it: "thankfully devoid of metalcore," "not too long," "the embarrassing art and image don't contaminate the music," etc. But that is not the goal of this blog! 

What is "mood" in death metal? Usually this only comes out in intros, solos, and other parts reserved especially for melody. Mood can exist outside of melody--irrational and angry moods--but our idea of mood in music is some combination of tempo, harmony, melody, and tone. All of black metal is arguably an exercise in mood. Death metal is not a "moody" genre, but Behemoth HAVE a mood: austere mystery; aloofness. This is not an "image," it truly comes out in the music, which has an antiquarian, studious quality. But this is not an INTERESTING or even engaging mood. Sadness, joy, plaintiveness, ecstasy: Behemoth doesn't trade in any of these. Instead there is 40 minutes of sterile contempt. 

There is a lot of talk about classical music in metal. Mood is perhaps the one thing that classical music does best, and in order to truly grasp the essence of the great music of the past, theory and proficiency are not enough--there is the human element, mood, which Behemoth have carefully avoided in making this impressively robotic album.

Score: 2.5/5 stars (** 1/2)
Best songs: "Before the Acons Came," "Conquer All"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Deicide- Stench of Redemption

This is a weird album, because the style is not so different from 1995's Once Upon the Cross: i.e. dumbed-down, simplistic, repetitive death metal--i.e. decidedly not "technical" and almost punk in its song structure--but with an important lineup change, which brings two incredible guitarists into the band. The effect is not unlike that of early G.I.S.M., meaning you really listen only for the guitar solos, which don't have so very much to do with the retardo songs on which the solos happen to be pasted.

No, that's not fair: while none of these riffs will go down as classics, the songs (incredibly!) stand apart from each other, and there is a kind of linebacker approach to aggression which makes these songs hard-hitting, even though the band is far less "brutal" than the rest of the death metal pack, at this point. It's almost quaint, but at the same time, very effective. Suffocation or Nile blow this away, in terms of being-heavy, but it achieves "total heaviosity" all the same. Perhaps because Deicide relies on 4 or 5 riffs per song, instead of... 80?

Yes, it's redundant and low-IQ, but it's a Deicide record! What makes this a mandatory Deicide record is the Van Halen solos that crop up in every song, a propos of nothing, courtesy of ex-Obituary and Iced Earth guitarists--these guys are amazing! It's a jarring stylistic pairing, since death metal solos are usually following from the Slayer/Celtic Frost atonal school, and the solos here are highly consonant and Guitar Magazine-friendly, but... it works, sort of.

As you can tell, this is a completely needless record which is massive fun. You still only are required to buy the self-titled Deicide and Legion, but *this* is the goofy, self-parodic death metal album kids SHOULD buy to get into death metal, instead of Cannibal Corpse. It's silly, but I can also imagine having some of these songs as my ring-tone.

Score: 3.5 /5 stars (*** 1/2)
Best songs: "Crucified for the Innocence," "The Stench of Redemption," "Desecration" (the entire first side, really)

Immortal- Damned in Black

I'm a huge fan of Immortal's later period, following the loss of their guitarist (to metal-induced tendonitis): Sons of Northern Darkness and At the Heart of Winter are real highlights of their discography--while Damned in Black, the record under discussion here, has never really caught fire with me. While not *very* different in sound from, say, Blizzard Beasts or Sons of Northern Darkness, this is much much cleaner and has much more reasonable tempos than earlier classics Pure Holocaust or Battles in the North. 

To the attuned metal ear, Blizzard Beasts is more Morbid Angel-influenced, while the albums from At the Heart of Winter onwards are more like 1980s Metallica. And Damned in Black has that very huge "arena" sound as well, while still being very no-frills. 

Sadly, Damned in Black is devoid of the huge moments in which other Immortal albums are superabundant. There is a cool break in "My Dimension," the first riff to the title track is huge, and the first song "Triumph" knows its way around the Bathory discography--but for the most part, the songs are same-y, and you never need to put down your nail-clippers (or what have you) in order to start headbanging. 

Most of all, Damned in Black is not a grower. At all. It is without charm, without "hits," and never distinguishes itself from their other albums in this style. It sounds cool, and I'm glad to own it, but---you know when you like a band so much, that even their lesser works get a lot of play, and they start to grow on you? Well, with Immortal, Damned in Black never really enters the rotation, it just sits there, not really demanding any re-evaluation. Which is not to say that this is not a veritable encyclopedia of riffs. But the whole is truly less than the sum of its parts in this case.

Score: 2.5 stars /5 (** 1/2)
Best songs: "The Darkness that Embrace Me," [sic] "My Dimension," "Against the Tide"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Graveland- Dawn of Iron Blades

If Rob Darken continues releasing records at this pace, what once was distinctly mid-period Graveland will become lumped together as "early" with some very dissimilar records. Meaning, the first four albums (1994-1997) used to be a canon, and as long as the later Viking period (starting with Immortal Pride) remained decent, it was harmless enough. But now, there are SEVEN viking metal albums, which are largely interchangeable with each other, and no sign of letting up--soon the excellent early material will be only a footnote!

Which leaves me with the onerous and pedantic duty to make distinctions within the Viking-style Graveland albums. I should note, Viking Metal is an embarrassment that only came into being through the fluke of Bathory's development, and even Bathory couldn't make it interesting for more than one record. Why one needs seven (!) Graveland records in the style of "A Fine Day to Die" is a question for only the darkest wizard to conjure an answer.

Anyways, as far as the Graveland viking stuff goes, there seems to be a steady decline, and at the same time, each record is more similar to the last one. So, they get worse, but also more alike. Immortal Pride is an interesting and raw first foray into the style, while Creed of Iron could be the definitive statement of Graveland's capacities in this realm. Since mid-tempo pagan expeditions, unpunctuated by guitar solos, and cluttered with pretentious "folk" elements--Viking Metal, in short--is not my thing, and gets old fast, I would have been happy if Graveland had stopped with only these two Bathory-ish albums.

It's undeniable that the Graveland or Bathory fan will find something in all of these releases to enjoy, and I have certainly gotten a lot of play out of these mediocre albums, but from Memory and Destiny onward, they are essentially genre exercises, and not worth serious consideration. As Dawn of Iron Blades dates from 2004, it is worse than The Fire of Awakening, but better than Fire Chariots of Destruction. The melodies are too simple, the music is too repetitive, and the production has been leveled down to a muted roar. Graveland will always be worthy and capable of interesting moments, but this style (unpromising from the outset) has been tapped dry.

Score: 2 stars/5 (**)
Best songs: "Iron in the Fog," "While I Ride with the Valkyrie"

Cryptopsy- None So Vile

Extreme metal's main shortcoming is that it usually turns into a competition: to be the rawest, the fastest, the "sickest," the heaviest, the longest songs, the shortest songs, the most chaotic... etc. Meanwhile, everyone knows that the greatest metal bands--Metallica, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath-- are none of these things; they just wrote the best songs and riffs.

Now, None So Vile is not a record you can just throw on, unless you are only trying to frighten your 14-year-old cousin who listens to Melissa Etheridge. This record exemplifies this blog's viewpoint on metal: one must either pay attention to it, or leave it alone entirely (which must be the fate of thousands of Cryptopsy CDs, purchased for their "brutality" and then sitting on a shelf unplayed). The first thing that should be said about Cryptopsy is that it really makes no difference whether you consider the album to consist of eight songs (as the CD indicates), or one long song (as my parents would say), or a million little unrelated parts pasted together.

There is a kind of conceptual synaesthesia that Cryptopsy are completely reliant upon, but which has gone unnoticed as such: namely, why should "chaotic" and "brual" go together as a sonic pair, at all? Cryptopsy make it looks easy, but there's no natural affinity between the out-of-control or unorganized, and bludgeoning force. Grand Central Station can be "chaotic," and a trip to the dentist can be "brutal," but those experiences don't resemble each other. The genius of Cryptopsy, I think, is making extremely complicated music that is never "noodly" or meandering--though I must confess they have a tragic penchant for slap bass. At times, the songs verge on feeling edited-together ex post facto (like Miles Davis' early 1970s albums). But while a Cryptopsy song rarely *ends* well, they often begin distinctively, and one eventually finds a grip on these "songs," even if the writing and rehearsing of this music is inconceivable.

The way to listen to this record is to just follow it very intently: nothing is going to "jump out" at you if you stray in the least, while rapt attention is rewarded. The vocals are a dead-end; I recommend just paying attention to the drums for an entire listen through. The album is well-constructed, and there are countless neat parts, and it is shockingly well-paced.

i began by suggesting that None So Vile is out for a Guinness Book of World Records style of metal: most brutal, fastest, most chaotic--and it undoubtedly is (or was at the time) all of those things. This is an unhappy, very loud record. But I don't think that says anything about its appeal, which is in its constant shifting of attention and its intricacy, so that many have felt, far from being the superlative of death metal's excesses of metal-ness, that there is something avant-garde and high-concept about this release. That is perhaps in the mind of the non-metal listener, but it does suggest the basic topography here.

Score: 4 Stars/5 (****)
Best songs: "Crown of Horns," "Phobophile," "Slit Your Guts"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Vital Remains- Dechristianize

This is a blog based on the assumption that one should pay attention to music. Meaning, really sit down with and listen to your records. In a world of mp3 blogs, itunes, youtube, etc., every music-listening convenience is a deterrent from prolonged, album-length attention spans. On the other hand, never has there been such a wealth of information available: discographies, reviews, message boards, online gossip, etc. The result is that one can be very well-versed and opinionated about music, without really having put any time into the activity of listening. And, even worse, one can "like" a great deal of art without really knowing why (or "what-it-is" about this particular thing).

The blog is about metal, but it as easily could have been about rap, jazz, hardcore, reggae, or classical music. The single thesis of this author, on the topic of listening to music, is: a "good" record is one that rewards many listens. This is not a controversial thesis on first appearance, but how many times has a record been defended on OTHER grounds than this? Conversely, a bad record is one that you don't find yourself reaching for very often. I'm not into genre-exercises.

Metal asks for close listening, and this writer intends to ignore any hype or canonical status or sub-sub-genre favoritism, and just say whether a record holds up or not.

Vital Remains has a weird lineup: the drummer also plays all the lead guitar parts. I wouldn't want to be the other guy, trying to explain to my friends what exactly it is I do in this metal band. Can you imagine being the guitarist in a two-man band and *still* not being the "lead" guitarist? Also, on this record, Glenn Benton from Deicide stepped in to provide vocals.

The three things to take away from this album: 1) the new sensation that maybe Glenn from Deicide should not be a punchline any more (after famously proclaiming he would commit suicide, and then living to ruin Deicide); 2) the drumming is outrageously fast and "clicky"--even by death metal expectations! 3) all the blasting death metal parts seem to exist only to provide a framework for some beautiful, flowery guitar passages (but no solos).

The first song, after the obligatory garbage spooky intro, is the title track, which puts all the album's strengths on the table: ridiculously fast drumming, ornate and memorable "pretty" guitar work, and some vicious slow mosh parts. The band basically juggles these elements for six to ten minutes on all their songs, occasionally (as in the title track) combining the swooning technical lead guitar with slower "breakdown" rhythms. This often feels like the goal of their songs, and the basic death metal stuff can seem like just a means for getting there. But just as often, the reverse is true: the incredibly brutal, unornamented death metal is very appealing, and stopping for sigh... another woozy lead break can seem a distraction. Especially since there are very few ripping solos (one is to be found in "Infidel")--and so these stand-out parts can start to sound very similar.

At an hour of music, with only three or so tricks in the bag, Dechristianize is far too long. Neither the songs nor the album build to anything--at best, it is a collection of "neat parts." But, it's always catchy, and sometimes it is very very catchy. It's neither a "grower" nor is it dumbed down.

Score: 3 Stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "Dechristianize," "Rush of Deliverance," "Devoured Elysium"