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.