Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Ten in 2010

Dark Tranquillity - We Are The Void
It's no secret that Dark Tranquillity have a weakness for synthpop, and their latest album skews in that direction more often than not, leading to accusations that they've lost their balls. Prone as I am to resentment, I've taken criticism of modern Dark Tranquillity to heart. I have to say, though, of all the stuff I've heard this year, nothing has stuck with me as much or as well. Void is at times shamelessly commercial, proving that metal can be melodic and catchy, while still being intelligent and heavy. But DT also throw the listener for a loop with 2 songs of blackened doom ("Iridium" and "Arkangelisk") that are as bleak and epic as anything that Satyricon have written. And of course there's that title track, a neckwrecking 4 minutes that rivals the best of Character in sheer thrashing power. For a band with an already stellar discography, We Are The Void is a fine addition, and one that I'm confident will still hold up in 5 years.

Unleashed - As Yggdrassil Trembles
"VIKING DEATH METAL!" Johnny Hedlund informs us, and there's no arguing with him, since Unleashed 2010 give Amon Amarth a run for their money as Valhalla's house band. As Yggdrassil Trembles completely changed my perception of Unleashed; as I've written about previously, they were previously the Swedish death metal band that mattered least to me, and who I characterized as an also ran that paled in comparison to the rest of the Stockholm scene. Well, I've since reversed my position, because this album simply SMOKES; brutal, concise, and ending with a fantastic cover of Death's "Evil Dead," it puts the recent albums by Dismember and Grave to shame. It's rare that a single album forces you to reassess a band's entire catalog, but that's what AYT has forced me to do. The best part is I'm still only halfway through.

Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit
Even platitudes from hipster-centric Pitchfork and Stereogum couldn't shame me away from this album. Though Agalloch's new post-rock inclinations are jarring at first, eventually they make perfect sense. Featuring Amber Asylum/Giant Squid/Grayceon cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (who knows a thing or two about mutating strains of metal), Marrow of the Spirit takes USBM from tremolo guitars and blastbeats into the realm where single notes ring the loudest. If you ever wondered what the Red Sparrowes would sound like crossed with Opeth, wonder no further.

Keep of Kalessin - Reptillian
In a year that featured solid albums by both Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, the title of "best symphonic black metal album" belongs to the Keep. What these guys lack in costumes and a video budget, they more than make up in their songwriting prowess and stellar musicianship. And balls, huge, dragon-sized balls: witness their bid to take the song "Dragontower" to the top of the European pop competition Eurovision: They made it as far as the Semi-finals. For a black metal band that spends their time writing songs instead of gussying around in silly costumes, that's huge, and "Dragontower" isn't even the best part of the album.

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
In contrast to the sometimes directionless Vertebrae, Axioma Ethica Odini is fantastically direct, and possibly the best Enslaved album since Isa. Axioma is the sound of black metal in 2010, of Vikings embracing a new kind of epic, of prog without the wanking connotations, and of space rock without the lazy stoner vibe. If I ever get chosen to defend the Rylan Star League from the Ko-Dar armada, I can only hope that this album is playing as I take on the mother ship. I'm not sure where Odin fits in to all this, but no doubt the All-Father is listening to Enslaved as he puffs on his pipe and rides through the sky.

Kataklysm - Heaven's Venom
Some bands reinvent, while others merely retool, and there's no doubt that Kataklysm belong to the Bolt Thrower school of "just like the last one, but with different songs." These French-Canadians sometimes come off like a death metal Hatebreed, alternating between chunky moshpit-baiting riffs and blasting melodic death sections. It can get a little samey, and the band seem aware of this, as Heaven's Venom shows them taking slow shuffling steps towards maturity, especially on the epic "Suicide River. In a year sadly bereft of blasting death metal, Kataklysm fill that particular cup for me nicely.

All Out War - Into the Killing Fields
This album is on my top ten because, unlike any other album I heard this year, I was compelled to get up and dance in my kitchen when I first heard it. That, my friends, is sway. Though I rarely listen to hardcore anymore, this album fired me up and took me back to my early 20's when the words "metal + core" had only the pleasant connotations of dogpiles and circle pits. Gloriously pissed off, thugged out, and wielding Slayer riffs like machetes, All Out War are the soundtrack to a bar brawl post-apocalypse.

Killing Joke - Absolute Dissent
While not as earthshaking as their 2002 self-titled album (featuring closet metalhead Dave Grohl), Absolute Dissent is still a modern post-punk masterpiece. Killing Joke are perhaps the only band capable of veering from metal to reggae to synthpop while still retaining their heaviness. Among the albums many gems is "The Raven King," a touching, appropriately bass-driven 7 minute tribute to their recently deceased four-stringer Paul Raven. The pied pipers of industrial malaise, Killing Joke have crafted the perfect soundtrack to dancing into the darkness.

Evocation - Apocalyptic
The wheel keeps turning, and as the gritty overdriven sound of Stockholm death metal comes back into style, there will be an inevitable hankering for the particular brand of searing melodicism that flooded out of Gothenberg in the mid-90s. Enter Evocation, who have stripped down their songcraft till nothing remains but catchy hooks that dig through your ears into your skull and won't let go. Though these days I prefer my death metal rawer and more blasting, Evocation took me back to my late teens when the likes of Sacrilege, Ebony Tears, and Ceremonial Oath were dominating my cd player. Though I'm intensely critical of revivalism, Apocalyptic won me over by being a death metal album from Gothenberg that reminded me why, 13 years ago, that used to be my favourite type.

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here
No album has confounded my expectations this year like Anathema's We're Here Because We're Here. In the 8 years that they've been gone, Anathema have taken their love for Pink Floyd from their doom metal mantle and lovingly wrapped it around a piano-centric pop dress form that can be described as Coldplay-esque. That's right, Coldplay. At times, it gets gratingly Disney, but goddamn it, when it works (as on the luscious opening track "Thin Air") it's disarmingly moving. And more often than not, it does work. Before you run screaming in the other direction yelling "sell-out," spare a thought for poor Anathema; in this year of progged-out post-black, it should be remembered that these guys were one of the first extreme metal bands to take the chance and stride over those spaced out waters, almost 17 years ago. Though their current relationship to metal can be described as tangential at best, it's still an album I'm glad Anathema were at long last able to finish. Hopefully, it won't be the album that finishes Anathema.

The Mix Tape

Without a doubt, filesharing has been a game changer for me. No longer do I obsessively re-read reviews in metal magazines trying to figure out which obscure Scandinavian death metal band to order from a distro. In fact, I hardly bother to read reviews at all; now that every album ever pressed to disc is literally a mouseclick and cable modem connection away, heshers like me can make up our own minds about a release's merit without outside bias.

Still, the one aspect missing from this catch-as-catch-can musical landscape is making mix tapes/cds for friends. For most people, the mix tape was a way to woo a potential love interest by way of shared interests, but for fans of underground music, it was a way of establishing musical bonds and potentially one-upping your friends with a collection of awesome and obscure bands. Even after I made the switch from cassettes to cds, I still held on to the tapes friends made for me because of the emotional weight they held. The Chaos AD/Seasons in the Abyss tape my friend Ian made for me in 1994? That quickly put an end to any interest in "grunge" and in no small way shaped who I am now. The Death is Just the Beginning comp that my friend Knut taped for me a year later? My introduction to Dissection, Hypocrisy, Amorphis, and Meshuggah. The Nailbomb Point Blank/NIN Broken tape that my buddy Jon made for me around the same time? Man, I lost count of all the shitty, fucked up days that tape got me through.

There was an art to making a great mix-tape. Making an iPod playlist has spoiled me, because the amount of songs you can stick on one is virtually limitless (apparently, my "Death Metal" playlist is 7.2 days long). But with mix tapes, not only did you have to come up with a slew of killer jams, you had to make sure they worked within whatever length of tape you bought. 90 minutes was probably the best; you could fit 9-12 great songs on each side. Then it became a game to see how many short grindcore songs you could squeeze on before the tape ran out. Oh, You Suffer... how many mix tapes have you helped me top off?

I always tried to vary the listing; my philosophy was start off fast and brutal, end the same way, but leave room for some slow, brooding stuff in the middle. I'd always try to work a longer doom/black metal song into each side, to break up the flow and give the listening experience a little nuance. Plus, I listened to so many different types of music, from metal to punk to industrial, that it always amused me to throw in something left of field.

Even though I was studying illustration and design at the time I was making the majority of these mixes, I never really spent as much time on the artwork for my mix tapes as some of my friends did . I was mostly content to cut random bits out of magazines and re-purpose advertising copy into new and inappropriate purposes.

I don't think I miss the format of the mix-tape so much as I miss the level of involvement, the back-and-forth, the sense of getting something personal. (I certainly don't miss postage fees). A mix-tape told you a lot about a person who made it, besides just what kind of music he listened to. It was also a cool present, one that didn't require much money but a certain level of commitment. Which, really, is the best kind of present.

With some hope of recapturing all this, I've started making "digital mix tapes" out of iTunes playlists and my Mediafire account. Without the actual length of tape to hold me back, I limited myself to meeting the maximum file size for an upload. This is the mix I made for my metal friends for Christmas 2010:

Side 1:
Vader - Death Metal
Dark Tranquillity - I Am The Void
Laethora - A.S.K.E.
The Wretched End - With Ravenous Hunger
Brutality - Screams of Anguish
Defecation - Protective Rage
Winterfylleth - The Fields of Reckoning
October Tide - Deplorable Request
Killing Joke - European Superstate
Agalloch - Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires
Keep of Kalessin - Dragon Iconography
Kataklysm - Suicide River
Ihsahn - Heavens Black Sea

Side 2
Dewey Cox - Let Me Hold You (Little Man)
Danzig - Thirteen
Motörhead - Deaf Forever
Balance of Terror - A Better Tomorrow
Venomous Concept - Punk Rock Idol
S.O.B. - Downfall of Civilization
Mental Horror - Denying the Scars
Unleashed - Return Fire
Behemoth - Penetration
Mike Patton - Shock & Shoot-out
The Angelic Process - Crippled Healing
Fall of Because - Merciless
Necronaut - Rise of the Sentinel

This was an interesting challenge, since it was a mix tape for multiple people, some of whom are really into the underground, and some of whom just dabble. I limited myself to albums that I got in the last year, which is why the playlist is so 2010-centric (though I cheated and stuck on two covers, one of which - Vader's version of "Possessed's Death Metal" - I've been listening to for at least 12 years). And I threw on Danzig and Motorhead because, screw it, why not. I'm hoping that this will spark some kind of file/playlist sharing within my little hesher community.

The Mix.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Dying Bride - 34.788% Completely Agree (the rest think we're idiots)

Decibel's blog has a new regular feature, "Justify Your Shitty Taste," in which a writer will pick a much maligned album and mount a defense. Greg Moffitt does an excellent job explaining why My Dying Bride's 5th Symphonaire Infernus deserves to be reconsidered.

I got this album when it came out, and loved it. To this day, I still consider it a great album that was badly let down by its production. "The Whore, The Cook, and the Mother" and "Under Your Wings and Into Your Arms" are two of my favourites from Bride's career, and as epic as anything the band have written before or since.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thrash Revival Reviled

There's sure a lot of love for old thrash lately. I can't turn around at a metal show without bumping into some 20 year old kid in a denim vest, covered in old school thrash patches. And who am I to judge, because I dressed like that 10 years ago when I first discovered Kreator, Sodom, and Dark Angel (this was 6 years after Ride the Lightning and Rust in Peace got my 14 year old self through school every day).

The biggest problem I have with the idea of thrash revivalism is that, well, I'm not sure thrash ever really went away. Sure, I remember as a teenager when the British magazine Metal Hammer would bag on bands like Overkill and Testament for being past their sell-by date. It left me with the impression back then that thrash was out, and bands like Fear Factory and Machine Head were the future.

If we could pinpoint a time when thrash "died," it would have to be 1991, after the release of Metallica's "black" album. The band who arguably created thrash and hammered it into a genuine musical movement made a significant statement by turning their backs on it in favor of mid-paced, chunky riffs. It was during this same period that slow Sabbath-influenced bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains became huge. At least in terms of chart success and critic's tastes, the breakneck tempos of thrash were out, while the metal underground was unquestionably conquered by death and grindcore.

In the wake of Metallica's defection (at the time, it was considered "creative maturation," and it paid very well), every major thrash band seemed pressured to change their sound. Megadeth went first with Countdown to Extinction, their own streamlined bid for mainstream appeal. Anthrax jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon, first with the grunge-friendly Sound of White Noise, then to a series of Panterwannabe albums. And so it went from the Bay Area to the German Rhineland; old thrash dogs had to quickly learn new tricks. It was a case of economic Darwinism: evolve or die.

But this was, at best, only half a decade of thrash being out of favour; when Slayer released Divine Intervention in 1994, it was still a huge deal. This era also marked the rise of Scandinavian black metal, of bands who revolted against the progressive and commercialized aspects of death metal for a primitive sound that was in no small way shaped by the earliest thrash albums.

In fact, a bunch of these Norwegian and Swedish dudes took a break from their main black metal acts to form bands like Guillotine, Infernö, and Aura Noir. That was the first time I heard about the retro-thrash genre, which revolved around lo-fi worship of early Destruction, Sodom, Kreator, and Bathory records. Thrash nostalgia had officially begun.

It wasn't long after that Patrik Jensen and three guys from At the Gates crafted the first Haunted record. Slayer, Dark Angel, and Testament were all name-dropped reverentially, and I don't think I'm alone in considering the Haunted as the rallying point for another wave of thrash revival. Unlike Infernö or Bewitched, which were side projects that could only be taken as seriously as their creators did (which was not very), the Haunted were a heavily promoted, critically-lauded band who took the retro-thrash template and upped the ante with stellar musicianship and a modernized sound. It wasn't long before similar bands like Carnal Forge and Corporation 187 were being signed to bigger labels in the wake of the Haunted's success, not to mention Jensen's own retro-thrashing Witchery.

And, inevitably, the bands who were the recipients of all this hero worship took it upon themselves to reinstate their place in the metal world. By the mid 2000s, Destruction, Exodus, and Death Angel reformed and released new albums. Kreator ditched the goth rock that they had been experimenting with the previous decade and went back to their blistering melodic thrash. Sodom, who never really went away or changed their direction, fell under the spotlight again. This era of reunions and comebacks is what I consider the third wave of thrash revivals.

Which brings us to bands like Toxic Holocaust, Merciless Death, Warbringer, and Skeleton Witch, who mark the fourth wave to cash in on the early days of bullet belts and spiked gauntlets. And after 15 years, I'm yelling "enough already". I don't think that my feelings are kneejerk contrariety either. Thrash revival has stripped the music that got me into metal of its magic; there are so many bands catering their sound and look to hesher nostalgia that all these new guys have taken on a Boyband-like interchangeability.

Or maybe I'm just waiting for those kids in Williamsburg to grow out of it so I can slip my old denim vest back on.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Job For A Cowboy, Skeleton Witch, Misery Index 12.16.2010

I've decided that deathcore was death metal's awkward adolescent phase. It appeared when the genre was in its teens, was characterized by questionable fashion choices and corrupting influences, and is looked back on with scorn and embarrassment. Which is only fitting as some of the biggest names in the sub-genre, Job For a Cowboy included, were in their teens when they broke big. I missed the boat on most of the deathcore zeitgeist, leaving the States just after the Red Chord's first album was released, and returning when the scene was saturated and most of the founding fathers had wisely decided to move on to something else. So I'm always curious to see these bands live, even if they are for the most part interchangeable to me.

With perfect timing, I arrived at Santos just as Misery Index were finishing their soundcheck. This is a band who I try to catch every time they play NY, as there are few things as reliably neckwrecking live as these road dogs and the dual vocal onslaught of their Terrorizer-esque political grindcore. With a mix of songs culled heavily from their newest album Heirs to Thievery as well as 2008's truly excellent Traitors, Misery Index kicked off my night of metal in epic fashion. If I wasn't trying to shoot their set, I would have headbanged with my fist in the air for its entirety. Seriously, with their work ethic and fan-friendly presence, they should be headlining places like Santos. Here's hoping for bigger things in their future.

Beer bellies. Skintight jeans. Threadbare moustaches. These could be reasons to avoid a thrash revival, but Skeleton Witch wear them with pride. Honestly, I'm as weary of thrash revival bands as I am of deathcore bands; by my count, thrash has already had 3 waves of revival since the mid-90's. Maybe my antipathy towards revivalism stems from the fact that I'm at an age where everything I grew up with is being repackaged and sold back to me as kitsch - from casette tapes to casette tapes that transform into evil robots. But Skeleton Witch are as lovable as any Teutonic thrash band, and tighter than most of the Bay Area's detritus. And the crowd LOVES them. There wasn't a moment when Skeleton Witch didn't have them in the palm of their spiked hands, driving them into a frenzy with their brand of black-tinged thrash. Clearly, the night belonged to Skeleton Witch. Their songs may be a little samey for me, but I couldn't deny their presence.

Job for a Cowboy, possibly more than any other deathcore band, encapsulated the Myspace metal generation. They were able to market and promote themselves largely on the back of social networking, and won over live audiences with their catchy, breakdown-centric style. Inevitably, a quick rise to fame resulted in an equally quick backlash. None of which is Job For A Cowboy's fault, but in an attempt to distance themselves from their deathcore roots, they seem hellbent on removing anything resembling fun from their catastrophic results. By the time they got on stage, they were playing to half the audience that Skeleton Witch enjoyed.

Unlike the Red Chord, who arguably enjoy frustrating their audience's expectations, JFAC seem slighted by the fact that their newer material isn't connecting with even their most die-hard fans, who dance like happy prospectors when songs from the debut Doom EP are played.

After an audience member entreats the band to cheer up, their singer deadpans, "I'm in a great mood. How about you?" Which is of course, not true, and easily negated when he takes each heckler on personally. A spirited cover of the Crown's "Total Satan" ultimately won me over, but left the rest of the crowd with confused looks on their faces. Which leads me to believe that JFAC are in a kind of identity crisis. Maturity isn't panning out for them, their older material is sounding increasingly more dated, and they don't seem to know who they want to be.

I left before the end of the set; it was painful watching such a young band get gutted by their own early success. Like a boxer mounting an offense round after round only to lose by decision, JFAC's prowess as musicians did little to dispel the fact that for most metalheads, deathcore is dead. But don't worry, deathcore; if wave after wave of reunions and revivals has taught us anything, it's that tastes come and go in cycles. Like any surly teenager, deathcore can take comfort knowing "they'll miss you when you're gone."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

NWOOSSDM [New Wave of Old School Swedish Death Metal]

Man, ever since the Bloodbath gang threw down the gauntlet, the original over-driven Swedish death metal style has been given a new lease on life. Grave reformed; Unleashed and Dismember seemed to shake off their lethargy with sterling recent albums; even prodigal son Nicke Andersson abandoned the garage rock thing to write heshed out love letters to Autopsy and Repulsion in the form of Death Breath. Scores of new bands keep emerging to pay tribute to those magical days when the tag "Produced by Tomas Skogsberg" was a sure bet that something evil was on its way.

Necronaut is the debut solo project of Fred Estby, one of the godfathers of Swedish death metal, and the guiding force behind Dismember until he left in 2007. Despite the presence of OGs like Autopsy's Chris Reifert and Entombed's Nicke Andersson, Estby is clearly less interested in the "death" and more interested in the "roll" of the "death'n'roll" equation. In fact, more than any other Dismember album, Necronaut brings to mind 1995's much maligned Massive Killing Capacity (in my opinion, unfairly maligned; but it was my first Dismember album, so clearly I'm biased). Eschewing the blistering twin leads that was his former band's trademark, Necronaut chugs along at a respectable mid-pace, leaving in their wake a warm stoner rock glow. Wherever the rivers of 70's metal and 90's death rock meet, there sails the Necronaut.

If Fred Estby is uninterested in reliving his early work in Carnage and Dismember, the same can't be said of Interment. Sharing members with fellow old school fetishists Demoniacal and Dellamorte, Interment's band history apparently goes back to the late 80's, though they never got around to recording their first full-length till this year. And it shows: listening to Into the Crypts of Blasphemy is akin to opening a dusty box filled with b-sides from the first wave of Swedish death metal. If all this sounds like Interment don't bring anything new to the table, well...they don't. In fact, there is something wearying knowing that everything you're about to hear, you've heard thousands of times before. BUT. This band is not without a certain amount of charm, and an authenticity that can't be faked. It's clear that Interment aren't revisiting the past; they never left it.

Like Interment, Evocation's history goes back to a number of demos recorded in the early 90's and only recently issued their first full length (2007's Tales from the Tomb), but that's where the similarity ends. In an approach that mirrors Hypocrisy circa The Final Chapter, Evocation have the gall to write death metal with an ear for pop simplicity; Apocalyptic carries more hooks than Clive Barker's cenobites. It's bound to enrage old school purists who decry anything that resembles the Gothenberg sound. Myself, I've always been a sucker for death metal with catchy hooks (it's one of the reasons the Stockholm sound was so endearing to me for so long), but by sanding off most of their rough edges, I worry that Evocation have rendered themselves inert. Unlike Clandestine or Like an Everflowing Stream, Apocalyptic won't reward multiple listens or an ear for detail.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Watain, Goatwhore 12.02.10

On a cold Thursday night, evil descended on New York City: Watain, a rising star in the black metal cosmos, were finishing up their Lawless Darkness US tour, and despite signs of fever, it was mandatory that I braved the winter night.

New York's own Hamsoken opened up this celebration of all things black and necro. A three piece consisting of a drummer, singer/guitarist, and keyboardist, Hamsoken evoked the spectres of early Burzum and Darkthrone with a stripped down, minimalist sound. The keyboards occupied a large portion of the sonic space; and while they added a unique atmosphere and vintage Hammer Horror authenticity to the band, I couldn't help but think that their songs would be better served if those same keyboard lines were played instead by a second guitar. All the same, in a genre already disposed to misfits, outcasts, and the socially maladjusted, Hamsoken still came across as the ultimate outsider band; their authenticity in that regard couldn't be faked.

In 1998 I saw NYHC heroes Kill Your Idols play a bill at my school that was put together by a fellow student. Their singer had this to say: "I'm glad that we're playing on a bill that has old school [hardcore] bands, punk rock bands...and NO CRAPPY METAL BANDS!" I was the lone dissenter in the crowd with long hair and a Sepultura shirt. Most of my hardcore friends were happy enough to put on mullet wigs and mockingly headbang in support of KYI's statement.

So how is it that "more true than you" Black Anvil, their sleeveless denim jackets covered in tribute to bands like Venom and Possessed, are all ex-members of Kill Your Idols?

Waitress, no whipped cream, this irony is delicious all by itself.

In truth, I don't care much for Black Anvil, but I was alone in this opinion that night. They had the crowd moving throughout their set with their mix of Celtic Frost-esque proto-death and classic hardcore (metal + core without the icky myspace connotations). As much as I question their credibility, I can't deny the conviction with which they embody their current musical identity.

One band whose metal cred is never in question are Goatwhore. And for good reason; the members have been plugging away in various death, black, grind, and doom metal bands for the last 20 years, most notably Acid Bath and Soilent Green. Though Goatwhore have been around and hitting the road hard for more than a decade, I've never seen them live or heard much of their music. But there was little to be surprised about; Goatwhore are all about the glory days of the early 80's thrash explosion, when bullet belts, studded leather, and snarled German accents were the norm. Though there's no shortage of kids playing "dress up like the back of a Destruction album" (Bedford Ave, why are you working so hard to make me hate the music I love?), Goatwhore have been doing it longer than most, and it shows in their performance: there are no gaps in their live assault, just ferocity.

And Ben Falgoust, who I've seen multiple times with Soilent Green, is one of the great, under-rated metal frontmen: commanding the stage, he constantly engaged the crowd, with a rasp that could sandpaper the hull of a battleship. In the way they approach their songwriting and live performances, Goatwhore are the epitome of metal lifers: not flashy, but solid with a work ethic that's beyond reproach. I have no doubt that they'll still be in metal bands 10 years from now.

And over to Watain and their impressive dinner theater Satanism stage trappings. In the same vein as Mayhem, Watain go out of their way to embody "kvlt" and "necro" with actual artifacts of death, with their unfortunate roadie hanging rotting sheepskulls onstage before the band plays, much to the chagrin of concertgoers and venue owners. There's no doubt that this sets a certain mood, as Santos was permeated with (cough) the reek of putrefaction. It works well enough, except that Watain aren't really all that necro; their music is characteristic of every Swedish black metal band from Dissection on through Lord Belial; catchy, epic, and with a flair for the sweeping melodicisms. It isn't hard to imagine songs like "Stellarvore" or "Legions of the Black Light" coming from the likes of Borknagar.

And despite their utterly antisocial stage trappings, Watain perform as traditionally as any other metal band, with guitar solos extending into infinity, and their singer careening crazily like a deadite Jack Sparrow.

It's hard to gauge how deep into their schtick Watain actually are; they certainly take their image farther than most. It would be a shame to lose them to the same insanity that robbed us of Dissection. Sometimes self awareness is its own reward.

Still, it was fun in a Rocky Horror Picture show kind of way; I was nailed at the beginning of their set when the band spit mouthfulls of blood all over people standing in the front rows. No doubt that anyone in the same vicinity as me experienced the same thing, and had the dubious pleasure of taking this aspect of Watain home with them: bloodstreaked and smelling like an abattoir. It earned me some entertaining looks on the train ride home.

Friday, November 19, 2010

He's playing so sweet, I'm getting chubby

The trick to being a great bass player: if it's hard to play, make it look easy. If it's easy, make it look hard.

Fun fact: Cliff Burton always made it look easy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

11.08.10 - Dimmu Borgir, Enslaved, Blood Red Throne

What cokehead decided a cavernous concrete and steel warehouse would make a great place for rock bands to perform? There's so much to hate about the Terminal 5 experience: The 20 minute walk to the nearest subway, the terrible sound and layout, the ludicrously early set times. What kind of black metal show gets out before 11 pm? Then again, a good part of the audience probably had to get up early the next morning to make first period, so maybe that's just as well.

Blood Red Throne and their "everything new is old again" approach to mixing classic and contemporary death/thrash/black metal won over the audience, despite the muddy sound that neutered their impact. Which is a shame, because in a world without Zyklon and Myrkskog, BRT would be ideal candidates to take their place.

Enslaved may not have been the headliners, but they were the reason anyone with a brain showed up tonight. Luckily for them (and us), the sound cleared up, as they unleashed a short setlist that drew heavily from their excellent new album Axioma Ethica Odini. Singer/bassist Grutle Kjellson was born to walk the stage; contrary to their viking metal rep, it's clear that Enslaved live is as much a throwback to 70's prog as they are on record, pulling more classic rock poses than High on Fire. Midway through the set, Kjellson took time to inform the crowd about a bone marrow drive for Behemoth's Nergal; there's no way around it, these guys are the classiest black metal band around. A headlining tour is in order; 7 songs were not enough.

The last time I saw Dimmu Borgir, drummer Nick Barker and bassist/back-up vocalist Simen Hestnaes stole the show; both have since moved on, and Dimmu themselves haven't been the most inspiring of bands. Never the most proficient songwriters or musicians, they seem unable to write albums of sustained impact. This becomes most apparent when the likes of Keep of Kalessin pull the rug from under them with an album such as Reptilian that shames Dimmu in ability for what it lacks in budget.

But whatever their studio albums may lack, Dimmu Borgir makes up for with the sturm und drang of their live show. They were ever the most audacious of Norwegian black metal bands: the one who envisioned black metal as an all-encompassing spectacle that escaped the basement and reached out to the masses. Unlike, say, Emperor, who would never put their image ahead of their reputations as serious artists, Dimmu are performers above all; Shagrath brings to mind every arena rock frontman from Ozzy to Marilyn Manson who ever commanded the crowd to "SCREAAAAM LOUDER!"

But best of all for me was Galder from Old Man's Child - very comfortable in his position as Dimmu's rhythm guitarist, he gurned shamelessly for the crowd and the cameras. Galder may rival Abbath as black metal's biggest ham, and god bless him for it.

Like Cradle of Filth before them, Dimmu Borgir are a well crafted machine, one that's capable of moving effortlessly even if the individual parts keep changing. Their theatre troupe approach to metal is no less "false" then Gwar's, and should be held to the same standard. Whatever their standing in the world of KVLT, their consummate professionalism as entertainers can't be faulted. Simply put: I paid for a show and I got one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Unleashed (pt. 2)

By 1991, Swedish death metal was in full swing: Dismember, Grave,and Unleashed all released their debut albums, and Entombed unveiled their monstrous second album Clandestine. Unleashed and Entombed were probably the two closest linked bands in the scene; both bands sprang from the remains of Nihilist, the legendary crew that jump-started the Stockholm metal explosion. The split between the two sides wasn't friendly; Entombed's Nicke Andersson would later admit that the demise of Nihilist was largely to get rid of singer/bassist Johnny Hedlund, who would soon form Unleashed.

This fascinating piece of inter-band drama sheds a lot of light on Unleashed and why they appear to be the odd men out from the rest of Stockholm's metal elite. Whereas the rest of their peers were synonymous with Tomas Skogsberg and Sunlight Studios, Unleashed would record their first album with Waldemar Sorychta (Century Media's in-house producer) and the rest on their own. Even in their approach to death metal, Unleashed eschewed the growing spectres of grind and tech-death for a stripped down, streamlined approach that recalls early Celtic Frost, Autopsy, and Death.

And of course, there's that viking schtick. Horror movie Satanism was Entombed's bag, and Dismember favored gore drenched misanthropy, but no band since Bathory did more to stake their claim to the "viking metal" tag than Unleashed. Hedlund drank mead from a ceremonial horn between playing songs about Norse mythology. That's a man who's chuffed with Vikings.

Where No Life Dwells, Unleashed's debut, encapsulates a moment of time for death metal as well as any other album from that period. In much the same way as Grave and Bolt Thrower, this first Unleashed salvo alternates between full throttle thrashing and melody-inflected doom. Without twin guitar harmonies or alternating rhythms, Unleashed's approach to death metal is as barebones as it gets, and lacking that trademarked Sunlight Studios crunch, the sound is unusually dry, almost sterile compared to their Swedish peers.

Unleashed's sophomore album, 1992's Shadows in the Deep, follows in much the same way as its predecessor, though with a touch more of its classic metal roots showing through on tracks like "The Immortals" and galloping title track. And as befitting a band that immersed themselves in history, the album covers a song from extreme metal's formative years, Venom's "Countess Bathory." While being an album that probably made Unleashed fans happy, it wasn't one that could be expected to create waves outside the world of metal. And it largely didn't, with the surprising exception that Dave Grohl recorded part of the song "Onward Into Countless Battles," which circulated for years as a Nirvana bootleg under the title "Dave's Meat Song".

By 1993, changes were afoot in the world of death metal.
Bands like Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse were regularly being played on MTV's Headbanger's Ball. Major labels, always in search of "the next big thing," found themselves knocking on the doors of Satan worshipers like Morbid Angel. During this period, the touchstone bands of the scene had begun incorporating a variety of influences, including prog rock (Death), classic metal (Carcass), and garage punk (Entombed). In fact, Sweden became ground zero for the scene-within-a-scene of "death & roll", as Grave and Dismember followed Entombed's lead and began incorporating more rock and roll elements into their Repulsion and Autopsy-fused DNA.

Little if any of this had an effect on Unleashed, who carried on in the same galloping Viking metal vein as before. Their third album, 1993's Across the Open Sea was my introduction to them, discovered at a time when the words "swedish," "death," and "metal," when used in proximity to each other, would empty any and all cash I had into the nearest register. And yet, Unleashed had very little effect on my teenaged self. The production, bone-dry as usual, felt primitive and amateurish compared to the increasingly more expansive work of Tomas Skogsberg, Colin Richardson, Fredrik Nordström. An amusingly cowbell-heavy cover of "Breaking the Law" aside, Unleashed felt safe and predictable, especially when compared to the unruly likes of Entombed and Dismember.

The major stumbling block though were the vocals. There's no doubt in my mind that Johnny Hedlund is a legend; the term "Death Metal OG" was never more apt. And yet his vocals, a sandpaper rasp that often lacks power and range, always felt like a monotone afterthought over music that was already in danger of one dimensional. That, combined with the fact that he fronted a band that was hardly missed during its absence in the late 90's cemented in my mind that Unleashed were second-stringers in an increasingly more competitive and over-saturated death metal scene. And I would have stuck with that opinion if their most recent album hadn't forced me to re-appraise my view of them.

Going back to Across the Open Sea 13 years after I first heard it and dismissed it, I can appreciate its conviction and single minded sense of purpose. It's a fun record with, dare I say, an almost punk rock sensibility: No frills, not in the production, the songwriting, or the vocals. Unleashed as a band always paid tribute to their influences, be it as Scandinavians (through the viking imagery) or metalheads (by covering classic bands like Judas Priest and Venom). And that's what their albums sound like to me now: 4 guys who play metal for no other reason than because they love metal. In the end, Unleashed's first three albums are the work of a band who refused to be anything but heshers for life. As a 31 year-old in a Napalm Death hoodie, I can appreciate that.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Unleashed (pt. 1)

Swedish death metal figures pretty heavily into my listening habits; the first three Entombed albums landed on my teenage consciousness like Clive Barker's Cenobites, twisting and deforming my musical taste around them. And while the melodic Gothenberg sound became an all-consuming influence in the world of metal, my preference was always the down-and dirty sound of Stockholm's death metal... my cd collection soon ran like an everflowing stream with the discographies of Dismember, Grave, and Edge of Sanity. I even found love for the mostly forgotten likes of Dellamorte, Daemon, and Comecon.

But one band was conspicuously ignored: Unleashed. Still a teenager at the time I was immersing myself in everything Swedish and heavy, Unleashed felt old fashioned and uncool; their plodding rhythms, Viking schtick and monotone vocals were out of touch with the increasingly more experimental death metal scene. Well, as anyone older than 18 has seen, whatever is uncool now need only wait 5 years to be appreciably camp before becoming retro chic. And there's nothing more retro and chic in the metal scene now than old school Sunlight Studios-styled death metal: not only have the old masters all launched comebacks, there's a new generation of bands marching down that Left Hand Path, Boss distortion pedals armed and ready to fire.

In their latest podcast, the Requiem Metal guys raved about Unleashed's recent work, so I felt duty-bound to check the band out again, as well as re-appraise the older albums that I originally shrugged off.

It turns out their latest album, As Yggdrassil Trembles, is the perfect rebuke to a naysayer like myself. A dozen airtight SDM songs, plus one turbocharged Death cover ("EVIL! DEAD!") prove that Unleashed are ready to take on the big leagues. Powered by a crystal clear production (courtesy of guitarist Fredrik Folkare), the band have never sounded tighter or filled with more conviction. Johnny Hedlund's vocals, previously the weakest link, are now an infectious snarl; he may lack the raw power of Mikael Åkerfeldt or Jörgen Sandström, but the man knows how to craft a catchy chorus.

It's impossible to listen to this thrashing tribute to Odin and Thor and not think of those other Viking metal overlords, Amon Amarth. In truth, AA have stolen most of Unleashed's thunder over the years through force of will and epic choruses. In that light, most of AYT sounds like Unleashed's attempt to reclaim the Viking metal crown, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a reason why they shouldn't hold it. It proves that old capitalist aphorism: the consumer benefits from competition.

: I turn my jaundiced eye to the first three Unleashed albums, and try to figure out if my 18 year old self was an idiot or just a cynic before his time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cattle Decapitation 10.18.10

I'm beginning to put my finger on what's so vexing to older metalheads about the current deathcore movement. It's not the interchangeable nature of the bands - the classic death metal bands had their own share of shameless copycats, jumping on the Florida/Stockholm/Birmingham bandwagons. Nor is it the music itself - technical, precise, and mind bogglingly fast, Chuck Schuldiner would have been proud to have these bands as his progeny. No, it's the deathcore fans - young, good looking, likeable and popular... these people are the antithesis of what a death metal fan should be, and are threatening cultural gentrification.

Death metal has always been the lowest tier of rock music's social ladder - despite taking punk's sonic misanthropy to its logical extreme, death metal and grindcore were considered so abrasive they were seen as self parody. And no matter how technically accomplished the musicians were, they were never esteemed in the same way a Kim Thayil or Billy Corgan was.

And yet now, for the first time in death metal's history, it's no longer considered outre or beyond the pale. The cool kids are waving their blast beat freak flag high, skinny jeans and all. And it's infuriating to see them invading our turf.

Just as the current "nerd chic" whitewashes away the memories of greasy weirdos and their 20-sided dice (-10 charisma points for that Star Trek shirt), the deathcore generation is nothing like the death metal kids of the past - with their styled hair and eyeshadow, they have more in common with the glam rock bands we detested. Even worse, they seem to be the popular kids - something antithetical to anyone who was a death metal fan in the 80's and 90's. I remember when wearing an Obituary shirt would mean instant harassment from whatever jocks I was passing by at the time. Now, they'd probably high-five me.

So it was interesting to see Cattle Decapitation - a band who won converts a few years ago with their trend-baiting "No Core, Just Gore" shirts - tour with a handful of deathcore bands. As a vegan death metal band, they're no doubt used to being slightly out of place.

Burning the Masses hail from CD's hometown of San Diego CA. Though barely out of high school, the tightness and proficiency with which they played was impressive, even to this cynic. And yet...none of it seemed particularly revelatory. Even as the audience danced like happy prospectors at the very hint of a breakdown, they all seemed to be going through the motions.

Knights of the Abyss are honestly one of the few deathcore bands that I have some fondness for, having seen them in Prague in 2008. Even though they're as generic as a Myspace metal band can be, their experience (and the fact that the singer wasn't afraid to spend the whole set in front of the stage with the audience) made me wish I paid more attention to the two albums of theirs that I have (and never listen to).

Devourment are what would happen if you drained Suffocation of all their mojo, and then forced them to jam with Mortician's drum machine. Apparently "Texas Death Metal" means "mind numbingly boring." See kids? You don't have to play deathcore to be painfully generic.

All of which left Cattle Decapitation in position to clean up nicely. Frontman Travis Ryan implored the crowd to come to the front and abandon the circle pit in the middle, stating "Believe me, you can't dance to this shit." Which isn't necessarily true, but you can see what he was getting at. His band doesn't do mosh parts, or anything that the young audience would recognize as spin-kick worthy. In the world of Cattle Decapitation, riffs appear and disappear out of screeching noise; the drum and bass work in lockstep to create an impenetrable wall, over which the guitars shriek, wretch and contort; and all the while the singer's depraved vocals stream out like bile. Simply put, Cattle Decapitation are Black Flag, if Black Flag were raised on a steady diet of Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, and PETA videos. Having seen both Cephalic Carnage and Brutal Truth in the last year, I can say without any doubt that Cattle Decapitation trump both of them in kicking the death/grind formula off its axis.

"This song is dedicated to New York's beautiful people... none of whom are in the room right now." It's good to know that someone remembers death metal the way it used to be.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beneath the Remains (or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Death Metal)

If I could do it all again I would.

It started with a minute of acoustic guitar, but I wasn't fooled: like every other teenager who owned the first 4 Metallica albums, I knew what was to come. Or thought I did, anyways. The next 40 minutes that followed would redefine everything I believed was heavy and foreboding. By comparison, Megadeth might as well have been playing pop music.

It was 1995, and the most important band in the world to me was Sepultura, 4 guys from Brazil who were known for being one of the heaviest bands on the planet. Hell, even Slayer felt threatened by them. My friend Ian made a tape for me: side A was Sepultura's Chaos A.D. and side B was Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss. That was all I needed: I spent the next few months trying to find Sepultura's previous two albums, Arise and Beneath the Remains.

It has become common in recent years to classify Sepultura as a thrash band, but make no mistake: Produced by Scott Burns, and featuring appearances by John Tardy (Obituary) and Kelly Schaefer (Athiest), Beneath the Remains is a death metal album. With its effortless technicality, blasting speed, and Max Cavalera's gruff roar, Sepultura belonged with the rising tide of death metal bands coming out of Florida, Birmingham, and Stockholm, rather than with thrash metal's increasingly more commercial sound and mainstream level of success.

All the same, Sepultura owed a lot of their sound to thrash's glory days: Celtic Frost, Slayer, and especially Kreator figure prominently in Beneath the Remains bludgeoning attack. Like Kreator, Sepultura found the perfect mix of melodic hook and ferocious speed; and like Kreator's Mille Petrozza, Max Cavalera was an endearing and charismatic frontman with an ear for a catchy chorus.

Much of Sepultura's success can be laid at Cavalera's feet, but it would be amiss to ignore the contributions of guitarist Andreas Kisser, who expanded Sepultura's sound past the rough and tumbling blast of their earlier output with unconventional song structures as well as nuanced instrumentation. Beneath the Remains in particular is a testament to Kisser's role within the band: with the exception of "Primitive Future," the songs run between 4 and 6 minutes, and yet they're packed to the rim with quality riffs, some of which are heard once and never return. Whereas Sepultura's later years would sometimes feature songs built around a single riff, Beneath the Remains has an "everything but the kitchen sink" feeling that really gives it a lasting appeal; 16 years after my first stunned listen, I'm still amazed by elements that I missed out the first time.

If I were to find fault with this album, then it would be the fact that there's only one quite like it. Sepultura would go on to streamline their songwriting and incorporate influences ranging from Neurosis to reggae, and imbued their forward thinking approach to metal with the percussive samba rhythms of their ethnic heritage. They achieved one of the few truly unique voices in metal; all the more tragic, then, when that voice was drowned out by the raging egos of the various band members.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Daddy's home...and he's pissed

Back in 1997, I went into CBGBs for my first Sunday hardcore matinee. I looked pretty out of place: 140 lbs of long hair and black clothes, amidst all these short haired bros spin-kicking in their camo shorts and wife-beaters. Apparently my love for hardcore and the fact that I was straight-edge wasn't enough to ingratiate me to the NYHC scene of the time: long hair equaled metalhead, end of story.

Luckily for me, playing that night was All Out War, whose first album Truth in the Age of Lies seethed with slow riffs straight out of the Obituary/Bolt Thrower playbook, and palm-muted fast parts worthy of the best Bay Area thrash bands. I didn't know it at the time, but we were at the very beginning of the zeitgeist: hardcore kids using their love for Slayer and a circle pit-inciting breakdown to push the boundaries of hardcore. NYHC bands always had breakdowns of a sort, but metalcore breakdowns were different, owing more to the downtuned staccato bursts of Sepultura and Pantera than the simple chord progressions of Youth of Today or Judge.

All Out War never reached the mass acceptance that similarly metal-influenced bands like Hatebreed and Converge did, but their second album, For Those Who Were Crucified bears witness to a hardcore band both ahead of their time and rooted in classic thrash and death metal. For my money, it's an under-rated classic of that era of hardcore. And that was the last anyone heard from them until 2003, during which time the metalcore paradigm changed with younger bands who recycled At the Gates riffs and added saccharine choruses, with or without guyliner.

Since then, All Out War has made it a habit of releasing an album, disappearing, and then re-appearing to do it all over again. Case in point: the brand new Into the Killing Fields, which finds our heroes at their very best, with headbanger fast parts, and the toughest of tough guy beatdowns. All Out War have stuck to their guns in the most laudable way: they've eschewed the clean choruses and arena rock tendencies of the Hot Topic crowd, as well as avoided any attempt to "metal up" their sound, despite the fact that with a few dive bomb solos and some white hightops they'd be "in" with the American thrash revival that's in full swing.

It's tempting to think of this new album as All Out War's way of calling out every mallcore band that's littered the scene since they've been away. Every screamed vocal, every thunderous riff invokes the same simple message: Daddy's home, and he's pissed.

[Or as the band themselves so succinctly put it back in the day:
ALLLLL (chugchugchugchugdana) OWWWWWT (chugchugchugchugdana) WAAAAAAAARGHH!!!!!]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

10 Things I Learned from Last Night's Entombed Concert

[01] Even after losing half their original line-up and two underwhelming albums, you can't write Entombed off. They played like hell itself was about to erupt, and it damn near did. Maybe I'm just old and curmudgeonly, but I can't think of a band that's come out in the last 10 years with the same ferocity, passion, and sincerity.

[02] Nicke Andersson may have been the sparkplug that ignited the Stockholm scene (and arguably, shaped what we know now as Swedish death metal); Uffe Cederlund was most likely the quiet genius that gave Entombed a depth and scope sorely lacking in their peers (Unleashed, will you never learn?). But there can be no denying that Alex Hellid has always been Entombed's muscle, an under-rated guitar god whose debts to Black Sabbath, Autopsy, Repulsion, and Slayer have been paid back a thousandfold with some of the sickest, heaviest, headbangworthy riffs to ever burn through a pair of speakers. As Entombed's sole remaining guitarist, Hellid doubled the ampage to crush the audience into submission with his rhythm playing, then drove them into a frenzy with his leads. If there were any holes in his performance, I was too dizzy to notice them. And the ending to "Left Hand Path" redefined epic for me.

[03] LG Petrov, the only other member remaining from Entombed's glory days, is both one of death metal's most lovable frontmen, and one of its least impressive singers. His antics were entertaining enough that I was able to get past the fact that his vocals never quite rose past the roar of his bandmates (blame the soundguy and a sore throat, I guess). Also, he has a handshake like one of those wallwalking octopus toys.

[04] The garage rock influence that popped up circa Hollowman and Wolverine Blues was present on the older "death metal" albums, just buried in the Sunlight Studios production. Tonight, even old Nihilist standards like "Supposed to Rot" and "Bitter Loss" shivered and shook like a deadite Iggy Pop.

[05] By the same token, the death and roll of later Entombed is not to be underestimated, embued with a seething rage and powered by THAT guitar sound. On record, "Out of Hand" is a silly little punk number that stomps by with a memorable chorus; live, it's a sonic leviathan that rises from the depths and sweeps everyone into its madness.

[06] Be wary of anyone past their 20s who is still standing front and center at death metal shows. These people are unwell, unloved, and have nothing to lose. That said...

[07] When a giant 250 lb guy decides to put his arm around you and headbang, you really have no choice but to go along with it. Look on the bright side: things would be much, much worse for you if he decided he didn't like you.

[08] Entombed are clearly reading the message boards; the lion's share of the setlist came from the first three albums, with hardly a nod to anything since To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth. They knew what their fans wanted and happily delivered.

[09] The best earplugs are still ripped up napkins. They never come out until you want them too, and I could hear every note and inane crowd comment.

[10] The best gateway drug to death metal I could have hoped for was Clandestine. Though technically I got Sepultura's Beneath the Remains first, it was Clandestine that set me inexorably on the (left hand) path towards Napalm Death, Carcass, Obituary, Morbid Angel, and At the Gates. By then, it was all over for me. MTV and corporate rock would never be able to push through my scabbed-over ears.