Thursday, May 20, 2010

Immolation- Here in After

Part 2 of 6 on Immolation

Immolation were in no hurry to release their second album, which came five years after their first, and is a suitably worked-over, defining statement by the group. Although a number of the more brisk songs () recall the debut, the newer elements are: an unconscionable heaviness, more dissonance and guitar squealing, the word "Christ" prominently in almost every song, and longer guitar solos.

What this all adds up to is a belated response to Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick. No longer is the band content to pummel away, as though "brutality" were enough to win over the listener--rather, the composition is varied, and almost pretentiously intellectualized ("time signatures" and whatnot). On the other hand, as with the Morbid Angel album, the songs are catchier than before, and completely "legible," not to mention spacious. Where most other death metal is a cluttered horror vacui, Immolation here almost approach--gasp!--dynamics.

While many bands have "technical" components more remarkable and overstated than this album, they are rarely as integrated: for instance, Necrophagist could be accused of mere window-dressing with technical frills, while obviously a number of other bands are just metalcore bands who throw in some shop-worn cliches to pass themselves off as "brutal technical death metal." Immolation, like Darkthrone on Soulside Journey, are not aiming for mere effect, but subordinate everything to the song.

That all being said, this is not my favorite Immolation record-- it is completely immersive and listenable, but the best songs (see below) tower above the rest of the record (the middle), much like Slayer's Reign in Blood. The result is that the disparity between existing songs becomes the disparity between the middling songs and their unrealized potential: "Why didn't they just write a record full of hits?" Unlike Reign in Blood, the middle of the album does not consist in short songs that just race by.

Great album to put on and sit through, although not every song is a hit. Still, staggeringly more thoughtful than most other death metal.

score: 4 stars (****)/5

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Immolation- Dawn of Possession

Part 1 of 6 on Immolation

After years of being into death metal, I finally heard Immolation for the first time last year. This itself requires some explaining (not of a biographical nature). While other premiere bands--Cryptopsy, Suffocation, Deicide--are among the very first bands that a would-be fan will come across, Immolation, however highly esteemed, will always be underrated.

Totally disregarding quality, and speaking strictly anecdotally, the ORDER in which a fan will get into death metal is something like this:

1) hearing Cannibal Corpse when one is a 14-year-old metalhead, and moving into "the harder stuff" from whatever Ozzfest bands.
2) the punk route: getting into death metal through grindcore and a craving for extremity beyond Assuck (nowadays: Insect Warfare)
3) the hipster: death metal seen as an outgrowth of technically-minded indie rock; totally dehistoricized fandom where Death are appreciated ironically, but Gorguts are seen as the pinnacle of death metal.

None of these scenarios could ever lead directly to Immolation--they are not cartoonish enough for children (like Deicide), not poppy enough for punk fans (like At the Gates), not technical enough for "math metal" hipsters (like Behold... the Arctopus). I'll add, Immolation must also be bypassed by hicks (for whom Entombed are the logical entry point), legions of Latino metal fans (Sepultura), and black metallers (black metal). This is what makes a cult band: you only arrive at Immolation by seeking them out, and not for any aura that has attached to them. The one thing you keep hearing about Immolation is... they're really good. And this, curiously enough, is not a big draw.

As it turns out, Immolation ARE really good, but also hard to describe, since what is interesting is NOT their sound but their songwriting. Three aspects of their sound stand out: 1) the incredibly deep vocals, which however are not "gurgled" but are actually somewhat tuneful, with audible lyrics; 2) the lurching, martial rhythms, really atypical of the jazzy fluidity OR grinding rigidity into which most death metal falls; 3) Immolation really *do* have a signature style and sound, but to cognize this requires taking in about five of their albums.

The album before us is their first, Dawn of Possession, from 1991. The closest comparison for me is Morbid Angel's Altars of Madness, but marked by a totally different drumming style. Certainly elements of thrash remain, because this is not at all at the level of abstraction of say, Incantation, Suffocation, Cryptopsy, etc. Nor is this really "technical" at all, although it becomes more interesting and complicated with every listen.

Here's a listenable live version of the first song, from 1991--when the lead guitarist still had hair!

On subsequent records, Immolation would become terrifyingly heavy (but not "extreme"), so it is interesting to hear this straight-ahead riff fest (more or less). "Those Left Behind" is noticeably more complicated and discordant than the all-out songs surrounding it, and points the way towards subsequent releases.

Dawn of Possession, released the same year as Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick, and obviously outclassed by that release, nonetheless does not sound dated (in a negative sense). Although straight-forward and obviously not high art, Immolation do not at all sound *dumb* here, which cannot be said for Massacre or the first Deicide. Like other second-tier classics---not quite Morbid Angel, Death, Carcass, Sepultura, or Suffocation---Dawn of Possession is strictly for metalheads and for fans of history, but not to be overlooked on any account.

More on Immolation in the coming days/weeks.

score: 4.5 stars (**** 1/2)/5

best songs: "Dawn of Possession," "Fall in Disease," "Into Everlasting Fire"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Necrophagist- Epitaph

Necrophagist seem to violate rule #1 of my aesthetic: they substitute for sheer pleasure (in metal, "headbanging") something not in-itself particularly enjoyable ("technicality"), and then dare the listener to discover the difference. We have just seen that in Cannibal Corpse, extreme gore lyrics, outlandish heaviness, and repetitive breakdowns all stand in (for the teenage listener) for the elements that in fact make quality death metal.

Is something being brought in, criteria-wise, through the back door, which in fact has nothing to do with catchiness, interest, and the joys of paying attention to metal?

Ultimately, I don't think so. Necrophagist, for all their noodling, have a primarily melodic intelligence. This is, in the last analysis, limited (they aren't the greatest band of all time). Until Necrophagist produces a song that is not bathed in the Necrophagist "glow," which is curiously inhuman, they will be only a minor band. But it is possible and enjoyable to follow these songs; they distinguish themselves (unlike Cannibal Corpse); the bag of tricks is ultimately also limited, but is already much greater than on the first album; and the melodic content of the best songs is rare in metal these days (since "melody" now only means At the Gates/Iron Maiden lead-riffage).

Irritating is that every song has to come to a dead stop and let some emotive chords substantially ring out, before the identical, overplayed guitar solo---as at :25 and 1:18 in "Stabwound." Best would be if the band could aim at some variety of effects; the classical music obviously beloved by the band surely could show the way here.

I'm basically ambivalent about this album. It's a fun listen, but for all the flare and obvious construction in these songs, they never approach the heights of similarly-"progressive" later Death, which is really the model for this stuff. Or should be. The whole aura, as intricate as it may be, is not really as "operatic" as Metallica's Ride the Lightning, and not really sweeping at all (no matter how much sweep-picking there may be). It is actually a very "micro" record, and this is of less interest.

score: 3 (***)/ 5 stars
Best songs: "Epitaph," "Only Ash Remains," "Symbiotic in Theory"

Cannibal Corpse- Tomb of the Mutilated

Death metal, at its best, is not what it seems.

This music whose main characteristics are its heaviness, the ghastly lyrics, the relentless speed, and the growled vocals--is really a very subtle art, to which all of the above is strictly peripheral. No death metal record is interesting BECAUSE it is heavy, fast, or brutal.

The most interesting death metal (Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Immolation) never relies on cheap effects. The compositions, rhythms, and melodic understanding of these bands would certainly not cross over into "rock" music. The same is true for Joy Division or My Bloody Valentine or Discharge--none of the pleasures of listening to these bands can be translated into rock/pop karaoke versions.

I can't, in this review of a non-masterpiece, go into quite what that "something" may be. Cannibal Corpse have a reputation among connoisseurs for being mindless, sheer aggression, shock value--for being death metal at its most dumbed down.

A few facts: 1) to anyone acquainted with modern death metal, Cannibal Corpse are somewhat dated and quite quaint; if their entire appeal lay in shocking 14-year-olds who have never heard anything like it before, this shock cannot extend to *us*. 2) the vocals are entirely thrown away. They are so monotonous that you tune them out before the first song is over. 3) the lyrics, while indeed disgusting, are also so monotonous that they are unreadable.

The songs here all have a couple interesting parts, taken in isolation--it is only at the level of the whole song that everything becomes indistinguishable. Their "bag of tricks" exhausts itself *very* quickly. Anyone looking to have a grand old time taking this band as camp (a kind of death metal the Misfits) will be sorely disappointed, though. This all gets old fast.

At the beginning of this review, I wrote that death metal is hard to review because it is hard to get a hold of what it is supposed to do well. For any 15-second interval, Cannibal Corpse are indeed indistinguishable from the greats, and from the dregs for that matter. But earlier I was in the kitchen listening to Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales, having the time of my life. I am not having the time of my life listening to Tomb of the Mutilated. If the explanation for why this album is less immediately entertaining is BECAUSE "it's death metal" (i.e. it is trying for something different than Celtic Frost), then this is no explanation at all. Why play death metal at all if to do so is an admission that it will be less interesting than Celtic Frost? (The same thing can be said for free jazz or any experimental music that foregoes the "immediate" pleasures of, say, rock/pop).

It is my position that this is NOT the case--that experimental film CAN be as engaging as narrative film, that free jazz can be wildly entertaining, and that death metal can really rock... But this requires an understanding of the particular criteria in each case, rather than an abandonment of criteria altogether, or a construction of quality that is merely tautological or coextensive with the genre itself (e.g. how "crazy" free jazz is can't itself be used to evaluate it).

Tomb of the Mutilated is unorganized and uninteresting. If you can tune out and tune back in, you won't notice. But I would HATE to have to endure the whole thing on a long road trip.

score: 2 stars (**)/ 5
best songs: Hammer Smashed Face, Split Wide Open

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

High on Fire- Snakes for the Divine

This is a terrible record, sure--but it's an interesting case, because unlike other famous terrible metal albums by great bands (Metallica's Black Album, Celtic Frost's Cold Lake), there is no obviou$ rea$on why High on Fire should make this particular album in any bid for popularity. It basically sounds the same as their earlier records (although more on that later)--they have not made any concessions to pop hooks, or even trends in the underground (thuggish metalcore, grungey post-emo, technicality).

The main observable difference is that the songs are more streamlined, and generally faster. Neither of these are good or bad in themselves. The incredible guitar tone achieved on their second album, Surrounded by Thieves, is not to be found here, and neither is the particular clarity that Steve Albini brought to Blessed Black Wings.

No, the problem seems to lie in the band's misconception of themselves as muscular, overpowering thrashers with long guitar solos and huge "epic" songs. But this was never the case. High on Fire were about one thing: constructing tension. Because Matt Pike came out of the most tedious of genres, doom metal, he knew a thing or two about how to maintain a listener's interest when nothing much was going on.

None of the songs here, though, build to anything. This might be too damning, but a lot of this is just vaguely thrashy and super-generic. It is certainly *someone's* idea of Metal. They are built out of disposable parts, much like newer Immortal albums. A six-minute long song is largely repetitive, has no big payoff, and the Worst Metal Sin of all: really bad guitar solos. When I put on some fantasy metal record, take me on a journey, dude...

In one sense, saying why this record is as tedious as the record itself. My job as a reviewer of metal is basically to evaluate RIFFS. To sum up everything real quick: the riffs here are not great.

But apart from all this, I feel there is a bigger problem: we are supposed to be enjoying how HUGE and AWESOME and METAAAAL this record is. But none of that can express itself or stand in for itself. All these signposts of awesomeness are not the thing itself.

A youtube comment for their new video: "I feel like a viking standing atop a mountain of fucking skulls whilst crushing faces and hurling boulders at my enemies below."

I guess that is what I am supposed to feel. But previously High On Fire accomplished this, not by substituting hugeness and repetitiveness, but by actually being awesome. By creating tension, by making every part of the song count, by writing vocal hooks--well, the same vocal hook for every song, etc.

One-word review: boring. Energy better spent discovering what made previous High on Fire albums true journeys into a dream world.

score: 2 stars (**)/ 5

best songs: weirdly, the CD bonus track "Mystery of Helm."