Friday, November 11, 2011

King Diamond "The Puppet Master" (2003)

The Puppet Master, the eleventh album by Danish metallers King Diamond, labors under several disadvantages. First, the title is almost identical to the most famous metal album of the 1980s, Metallica's Master of Puppets. Second, it is a concept album whose concept can best be described as "Pinocchio in reverse." Third, how many groups still have any fuel in the tank after ten albums?

For the uninitiated, King Diamond is the solo project of Mercyful Fate's lead singer, the corpse-painted rapscallion who introduced himself to the world by releasing--a Christmas single. The (now) dozen King Diamond albums are permanently locked in 1980s Euro-metal, a kind of aural Hot Tub Time Machine. It's this strange world where Pantera never existed.

So, on one hand, the technology here is not exactly state of the art. If you've heard Abigail or Don't Break the Oath, the eerie banshee wail and predilection for baroque touches are the same. No, King Diamond still doesn't understand "narrative" in music. Someone get this man a copy of Springsteen's "Atlantic City"! And it's so bafflingly uncool as metal that the ridiculous puppet love story will have most listeners recalling this:

For all that, this is one of my favorite metal albums. For one thing, King Diamond never blinks. There's no ironic chink in the entire presentation. For another, the guitar solos are stunning. Given that there isn't much room for "texture" in what is essentially musical theater, the bursts of lead guitar are never filler. For contrast, see Kirk Hammett's tragic addiction to the wah-pedal, or any recent Slayer album. Andy LaRoque never phones it in.

I suspect this is a hard sell, and to fans of extreme death metal and normal people alike, this will appear like "Toy Story 3: In a Metal Mood." Maybe so. It's certainly not what I would play if I was meeting my girlfriend's parents for the first time. But it is also so eccentric, so catchy, so self-convinced, that it is not something you will want to keep to yourself. Listening party?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Megadeth- Killing is My Business ... and Business is Good! (1985)

Was there ever a cooler band than the early Megadeth? Featuring the ultimate regressive-personality alcoholic as mumbly lead singer, plus artwork transparently ripped off from Iron Maiden, these disorientingly and over-abundantly talented musicians never seemed remotely comfortable making this blazingly fast, coke-fueled thrash metal. The whole project is itchy and nervous, motivated by a thwarted megalomania (and coke).

If Metallica is a studied synthesis of NWOBHM and hardcore punk, Megadeth is the absurdly technical and paranoid rejoinder, drawing on jazz fusion while paradoxically playing much faster and more aggressively for all that. It is the quintessential music by and for assholes.

Let's not forget that only one band can ever be called "MEGADETH." How cool is that?

Anyways, this is the first album from these maniacs. It isn't at all "stadium-friendly" or anthemic. It is literally just a series of shredding guitar solos and churning riffs, played as fast as possible. The vocals are a disaster, the Nancy Sinatra cover is almost the longest song (not a good sign!), and the sound is kind of bad... but the riffs never stop coming, and the rhythm section is startlingly fluid and prominent.

At times the music can be quite opaque, especially as Mustaine's vocals show little interest in melody... and then within the same song (as on "Killing is My Business" and "Looking Down the Cross") they will burst into catchy daylight before disappearing again.

Most of all, this record feels rushed in every way. Not only played fast, but composed hurriedly, recorded virtually live, and with album artwork improvised by the record label. In the end, that is both its defining character and charm, and a liability. (It's obviously not a classic on par with the Metallica masterworks, which are much more deliberate and self-conscious.) I don't normally curse on this blog, but the main effect of Megadeth's debut is that it is a "nasty little fucker."

Rating: 4/5 (****)

Best songs: "Rattlehead," "Chosen Ones," "Mechanix"

Friday, April 15, 2011

Burzum- Fallen (2011)

The other day, my friend was describing a James Baldwin novel to me. I had asked whether it was great or not, but instead he decided to present the book to me as a Frankenstein's monster of dismembered parts. He told me exuberantly how this novel incorporated the subject matter from one of Baldwin's other books, the style from another, the politics from another. To me, of course, this paint-by-numbers critical approach to an artist's oeuvre leaves completely unanswered the question of whether a work is worthwhile. Instead we find ourselves in an infinite regress: as though what made Go Tell It On The Mountain a great work was its "sharing elements with Go Tell It On the Mountain" (!)

Varg Vikernes describes Burzum's new album as: "…a cross between Belus and something new, inspired more by the debut album and Det Som Engang Var than by Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Filosofem."

We have all seen parodies of this artistic logic in any satire of how Hollywood works. A producer is pitching his new sitcom/movie to an executive: "It's a cross between Barbarella and Laverne & Shirley! It's a cross between Spiderman and Meet The Parents!"

The idea in black metal, evidently, is that there is a niche audience who, if they can describe an album in certain adjectives (or, *sigh*... regrettable angsty prose-poems) will be happy... regardless of whether an album's riffs are catchy, or whether the songs are boring. It is another version of the sex-starved teenager who will swear that ANY nude photo of a blonde with fake boobs is "so fucking hot" so as to demonstrate just how straight and virile he is. So, a black metal song can be as bad as you please, but as long as it "sounds like an outtake from Filosofem..." the woeful spirit signs off on it for being "gloriously mournful." This is just to sign away one's critical faculties over to the authority of the sticker on the cover of the CD.

All we learn from any of these examples is that it will always be possible to cynically peddle one's wares to an audience that demands only that something fit a certain Venn diagram of already-known styles and sounds. 1000 monkeys typing at a 1000 typewriters for 1000 years may not be able to produce the works of Shakespeare... but they definitely COULD write "a cross between Othello and Macbeth"--provided this pollination were all that was wanted. To certain metal fans, undoubtedly no more is expected.

As with the teenager described above, it is stupid to argue about the merits of this album. If anyone tells you that it is anything BUT corny, repetitive, pretentious, unmemorable, lightweight, and sort-of irritating, that person is just playing dress-up with their listening experience. This album is garbage.

If said moron insists, "No, it sounds like Filosofem... but with fast parts!" Well... I don't disagree. The only difference is that it sucks. That's a difference that matters to me...

Friday, March 11, 2011

At the Gates- The Red in the Sky is Ours (1992)

I know this post is about 10 years late--i.e. 10 years after "sounds like At the Gates" was a ubiquitous descriptor for every American emo and hardcore and metal act, when every bearded, drug-dealing bike-messaging cruster was raising their fists in the metal sky to the Slaughter of the Soul album... even a few years after their cash-in reunion in 2007. (At which time knuckle-dragging "metal fans" among my acquaintance were shocked at my lack of enthusiasm: "Y-y-you don't... g-g-uh.. like Slaughter of the Soul? But it fucking slaaaays, man!")

I confess, though, that Slaughter of the Soul made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in 2001: they made it sound so easy! And the narrative going around at that time was that, yes, At the Gates had other albums, but they were basically a prelude to this, their masterpiece. One listen to their earlier music confirmed this: uncatchy, full of diverging parts, badly-recorded, and lacking everything that made Slaughter of the Soul such a landmark: twin-guitar hooks, compelling choruses and audible lyrics, a style combining basically Iron Maiden and Slayer... Of course, you could squint and imagine that the earlier riffs were somehow aiming at the same thing, picking out a few seconds in a 6 minute song that "foreshadowed their later genius."

How wrong-headed this all seems now! Nothing has been more driven into the ground than the Slaughter of the Soul sound--its worst incarnation being in Victory Records screamo and metalcore appropriations--so that perhaps even someday we shall want to revisit *this* album as deserving and merely overshadowed by its influence. Still, it is a ludicrously front-loaded and monotonous record, far too easy to overplay.

On the other hand, At the Gates' debut, under consideration here, is positively fecund with inspiration, overflowing with cool parts, labyrinthine structures, and a precocious grasp of "technicality" in death metal (this was 1992!), while managing to avoid almost every trap of "sweetness" and pandering to be found in, say, Swedish compatriots Dark Tranquility.

Still, this record's reputation is in need of some burnishing! Here is the review:

Here's what Sweden's At the Gates told us with their first album, The Red in the Sky is Ours: they were from, er, Sweden; they were very upset about something -- probably their parents; they played extremely fast and furious; and they pretty much sounded like a "baby" Entombed, offering little in the way of innovation to the booming Gothenburg death metal scene. And that's pretty much it. Later on, their contributions would rank among the best death metal around, but, for now, only the title track and latter-day concert favorite "Kingdom Gone" show any inspiration. Everything else will barely interest even hardcore fans.

My response:
  • Doesn't sound like Entombed (except maybe the one song cited).
  • Erroneously perceived as a "entry" in "the booming Gothenburg scene," where in fact the album precedes the debuts of Dark Tranquility and In Flames.
  • Even assuming by "Gothenburg scene," the reviewer means unrelated bands such as Dismember, Entombed, Carnage, Grave, etc., At the Gates here are light years beyond those bands (still largely tied to a Discharge/crust influence); the ideas here still sound inventive and eccentric, not tied to an early 90s "scene."
  • If anything, one can read here a hidden influence on Norsecore, especially on Dark Funeral.
  • In any case, this is the worst kind of historical interpretation, deeming the album irrelevant only because it does not fall in with the development of the reviewer's favorite style.
The Red in the Sky is Ours, far from being "melodic" in the sense of ring-tone melodies and warmed-over Iron Maiden influence, is melodic in the true sense: the songs unfold according to a melodic understanding or logic. Instead of being a simple phrase or hook, melody here is the entire song's working-through. Add to this a bubbling technicality, a permeating but eccentric emotionality (so far from U.S. death metal's tone!), the occasional crazy use of a violin, and you have the exact opposite of Slaughter of the Soul: a record almost so overcharged with ideas as to pay off almost unlimited relistening.

My only criticism of this record, which is the flipside to its virtues: it is incredibly dense, and almost lacking dynamics. Many of the songs have the same feel.

Here is an album you can really get lost in; on the other hand, one almost has to do so, to get the most out of its depths. The surface is not pretty or easily approached.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Crown- Deathrace King (2000)

Here is a problem with my aesthetic: I am consistently criticizing music that is just monotone grinding away at a style, or the lifeless technical reproduction of some cultural flavor or historical "sound,"-- and valorizing music that "jumps out of the speakers" at you, that is immediately catchy and memorable. In extreme metal, this is a convenient way to edit out and expel 90% of grinding, monotonous, merely extreme albums: death or black metal that never rises above the teenage thrill of grossing out parents and grunting. It is also a good way to approach power pop or hardcore punk: the tendency of this music to merely go through the motions without even crossing into consciousness always = total failure.

What then to do with a band like The Crown? Because the Crown are catchy, memorable, replete with moments that jump out at you, etc. So, why aren't they my favorite band? (The short answer is that I don't love Faith Hill or Sting, either, who are obviously more poppy and catchy by any standard than, say, Cryptopsy. But people sometimes forget that I'm not an idiot and that this ("poppiness") might not be what I mean.)

This can only be done by contrasts. Let's take a song I love: "Deicide" by Deicide.

A lot of this "technology" seems clunky in 2011; the different voices, the over-the-top intro, the rapped breakdown, the "I am evil" lyrics, the utterly predictable set-up for the guitar solo, the divebombs in the solo itself, the somewhat ponderous tempo...

But to say all of these things about how dated "Deicide" sounds, if we agree that it's a great song, is the same as to say, "Today, we could never get away with being so obvious." I get the same feeling when I think of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its famous opening. But this assumes--what is obviously false--that everyone today is on the verge of writing the 5th Symphony...and is only being stopped by their tastefulness! The same thing can be said about Deicide: these dated techniques can be rephrased as Deicide's "drama," their embrace of the absurd, pompous, and theatrical. Because, damn it! the band is named Deicide! If ever there was an aesthetic motivation for this kind of flare, does one not find it in Milton's Satan? Is "tasteful restraint" the name of the game here? Deicide know that it is not. It is not that this acknowledged super-classic is (for some technical reason) sonically inimitable; it is rather that death metal has become scared of its own shadow. A failing of spirit!

Anyways! "Deicide" is not, for all that, a 3-chord, verse-chorus-verse pop song. Rather than being repetitive, it has a narrative unity ("what happens next?"); there are no hints of the "melodic death metal"--it is resolutely ugly music. The immediacy, the catchiness, and the richness of the song are in fact particular to metal: it gets you headbanging. I can't say it any other way. But then the structure is nimble, instead of "ritualistic" or whatever people use to describe boring metal nowadays. Deicide doesn't stick around to milk the hooks, or drill them into your head: every bit of the song is incorporated into its "push." This won't be everyone's idea of "catchy," since it isn't tuneful, but on the other hand, this headbanging catchiness is what death metal does best, what other music only stumbles upon by accident and can't hold onto.

So, The Crown. Like Witchery, or Nifelheim, (and, to be fair, all-time genius Bathory), this is verse-chorus-verse-chorus extreme metal. There are plenty of rockin', consonant guitar solos and trills, big emotional moments (like I enjoy so much in Metallica), single-note melodies that are easy to follow, etc.

But the bottom of this bag of tricks is reached quite quickly. The guitar solos are ONLY "rockin'"--they aren't interesting or beautiful, or relevant to the song. The catchy choruses, when all is said and done, are not as catchy as Venom or Kreator or even Morbid Angel. The supposed death-metal underpinning of everything, in the end, is warmed-over thrash metal riffs.

How to tell THIS kind of unsatisfying obviousness from genuine catchiness? I want to say something like, "Try to have your first listen through the (imagined) ears of a twentieth listen." For example, a lot of times, I have put on an album and someone in the room has exclaimed, "WAAAH this music is insane!!" But, honestly, what serious person pulls out a beloved record from their collection and throws it on the turntable simply to be baffled by it? And yet this is always a risk when a death metal fan approaches an album.

Not, however, a risk that The Crown run. The name of their game is not technical brutality but big choruses and rock flair. The idea, I think, is that they are going to be a "guilty pleasure" for serious metallers, pure ear candy... But while I may feel guilty (about not writing my dissertation instead of this review), I am not melting in pleasure.

There's nothing to say to someone who WANTS to like something, who has a Crown-shaped hole in their musical desires (and will soon have a Crown-shaped hole in their wallet!!). But all of our record collections are littered with these records. The record that was "exactly what I'm looking for" that day. Now, on any given occasion, my skepticism could be wrong: what sounds to me like "obviousness" could be a rich and rewarding, catchy album with little parts that will be enjoyed for a lifetime. But the evidence is all on the side of resisting a band's presentation of itself, of resisting hype, of waiting out the internet chat, of doubting the validity of comparisons (I like Deicide, but I do not like bands that tell me they "sound like Deicide").

I can easily imagine the listener who indignantly responds, "The Crown ARE catchy. They DO rock. Who are you to speak with the Voice of Eternity?" And these things aren't subject to some quantitative proof. My only response can be: my life is littered with these albums. I try to pick up on what lasts in music, what holds my interest for years of listening. The world exists to tell us that The Crown rock, and that Deicide are cheesy. But this doxa is worth precisely nothing.

Conclusion: what "jumps out at me" here is the feeling of "jumping out at me." I'm not a phenomenologist, but this seems to me a conceptual analogue (no pun intended) to the loudness war in CD-mastering.