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!)