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Archive for July, 2010

Hello, friends.  I hope that you are well, off in your corner of the internet.  Things are off to a bit of a slow start this Monday morning at Spinal Tapdance HQ, as your humble narrator recovers from last night’s heavy metal ass-kicking courtesy of Dream Theater and Iron Maiden.

Dream Theater’s opening set was relatively short and to-the-point, dealing mostly with the harder-edged, less progressive tracks from their most recent albums (“As I Am,” “A Rite Of Passage,” “Constant Motion,” and “Panic Attack,” with a tasteful rendering of “Home” providing the only real “epic” track), with only “Pull Me Under” closing out the show to great acclaim from the old-school fans.  Jordan Rudess on the keytar battling John Petrucci’s guitar wizardry was manna from heavy metal heaven, and James LaBrie busted out some of his gruffer vocals to suit the no-nonsense material.  Killer stuff from one of the most universally-talented bands in all of music.

Iron Maiden, of course, was IRON FUCKING MAIDEN.  I know there’s been quite a lot of grumbling ’round the internet about the setlist for the current tour (of which Chicago was the second-to-last stop).  Many folks have complained that the set is too focused on Maiden’s post-millennial output, which is absolutely true (only six of sixteen tracks would likely be considered “classic” Maiden), but I for one thought the set was fantastic.  It basically goes without saying at this point, but Bruce Dickinson is perhaps the most energetic frontman in the history of metal, and his theatrics and humor presumably won over even those fans who were less familiar with Maiden’s post-reunion-with-Bruce output.

Here’s what they played (which has two alterations from what was posted on Iron Maiden’s official tour website, but I think this has been the case throughout these U.S. dates):

1. The Wicker Man
2. Ghost of the Navigator
3. Wrathchild
4. El Dorado
5. Dance of Death
6. The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg
7. These Colours Don’t Run
8. Blood Brothers
9. Wildest Dreams
10. No More Lies
11. Brave New World
12. Fear of the Dark
13. Iron Maiden

Encore:

14. The Number of the Beast
15. Hallowed Be Thy Name
16. Running Free

Obviously, it was the classic tunes that elicited the most drunkenly exuberant response, but several of these newer tracks came off really well live.  “No More Lies” was especially improved; I actually really dig the song on Dance of Death, but it’s a bit too long (like many of the songs on that record) and labored.  Blast that tune in the sweltering summer heat to thousands upon thousands of metalheads, and it’s one hell of a shout-a-long.

I know there’s been a fair bit of griping, too, about the first single to be released from Maiden’s upcoming album (The Final Frontier), “El Dorado,” and yeah, I get it.  It’s a little weak for a single, and Bruce’s vocals sound a bit strained (we can only hope that it’s an issue of mixing, especially since his vocals were in stellar form last night).  Thankfully, though, in a live setting, the band sped it up significantly, meaning that the choruses came and went quickly without grating (as they do in the recorded version).  I still can’t quite jive with “Benjamin Breeg,” but basically everything else went down a real storm.

All in all, a magnificently entertaining performance by a completely unfuckwithable, world-class band.

Also contributing to the need for recovery was my (admittedly odd) decision to blast Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz at extreme volume while driving home from the concert.  Anyone out there who’s been losing their shit lately to the double-drumming acrobatics of the metallic likes of Kylesa and Melvins (w/Big Business) really ought to check this out right quick.  Coleman’s take on free jazz isn’t as mesmerizingly dense as Coltrane’s Ascension, but the greater sense of space allows the lightning-sharp communication between the two groups (Coleman is billed here as leading a ‘double quartet’, with one group mixed in each speaker) to come through like the inerrant voice of God striking down the wayward and the unrighteous.

I’m off to continue nursing myself back to health after nearly overdosing on pure rock fury.  Have a pleasant day, and hey, why not play some Iron Maiden while you’re at it?

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Hey, why not have 26 more or less random recommendations?  With many of these, I may try to highlight slightly lower-profile acts that I think are deserving of more attention.  With some of them, I’m just stricken down by the almighty power of the fucking riff thunder, and thus find myself unable to do anything but recommend them whilst my arms flail frantically in uncontrollable air-drumming.

1. Across Tundras, Dark Songs of the Prairie.  This album is bleak, desolate, and totally awesome.  If you’re looking for a companion piece to Earth’s Hex album, or especially to The Gault’s sole (and magnificent) album Even As All Before Us, look no further.  A perfectly evocative title, some pleasingly tough-to-classify jangly-type doom, or maybe post-metal-ish drone?  Hard to say, but the vocals are slightly off in that way which suits the music just right.

2. Black Witchery, Upheaval of Satanic Might.  I’m not in the mood for this very often, but when I am, blasting Black Witchery is the fix for just about any funk.  Completely trashy, crypt-sodden black/death metal which sounds like it wasn’t produced so much as heard over a rusted-out radio through a neighboring building, recorded to a dubbed-over tape, which was then pissed on and set ablaze.  Filthy metal for bastards.

3. Control Human Delete, Terminal World Perspective.  A black metal and industrial/electro hybrid which, instead of aiming for the grimier, urban blight soundtracks of The Axis of Perdition or Blacklodge, paints a slick modern sheen with its grand gestures at futuristic rage and decay.  More Blade Runner than Rust Belt, let’s say.

4. Doomriders, Darkness Come Alive.  One of last year’s absolute best face-melters.  I’m not so much interested in quibbling over whether this is more hardcore or metal, punk or classic heavy posturing.  This is Converge goes Motorhead.  This is song after song of relentless metallic glory, and your ears are begging for it.

5. Ewigkeit, Conspiritus.  This project from James Fogarty, ex-of Meads Of Asphodel, is actually fairly poppy, but features some really tasteful electronic and experimental heavy/vaguely-black metal.  A bit like a more contemplative Control Human Delete, in terms of this here list, but with more space to catch one’s breath.  Maybe think of a more heavy metal latter-day Frontline Assembly, plus a bit of Devin Townsend.

6. Frost, Cursed Again.  Complete and utter (DMDS-era) Mayhem worship from Mick Kenney (he of Anaal Nathrakh, Mistress, etc., etc.), which even features Attila on vocals here and there.  Whereas Anaal Nathrakh took the basic blueprint of Mayhem’s foundational black metal blasting and amped up the filth by adding a layer of industrial atmosphere and grinding intensity, Frost put that filth back where it started, with some seriously no-frills blasting and doomy stomping.

7. God Dethroned, Passiondale.  This band didn’t get nearly enough love for this World War I-themed album of supremely classy and melodic death/black metal.  The title track, in particular, is apt to get stuck in one’s head for days upon days of musical trench warfare (eh?).

8. Havoc Unit, h.IV+ (Hoarse Industrial Viremia).  This band is the successor to …And Oceans, but where that band’s slicker electro-leanings (particularly on Cypher, which had that mid/late-90s cyber-goth feeling about it) proved occasionally wearing, Havoc Unit are full-on harsh and experimentally noisy black metal.  Rabid density is the order of the day here.  Somewhat akin to a metallic version of Venetian Snares’ harsher albums.

9. In The Woods…, HEart of the Ages.  Okay, so I was going to pick Iperyt’s Totalitarian Love Pulse for my ‘I’ recommendation, but figured I was already leaning a little too much on the avant-garde industrial/black hybrid.  Chances are it’s been too long since you played this album.  Compared to their later works Omnio and Strange in Stereo, HEart of the Ages occasionally comes off as clumsy and over-ambitious, but this actually increases its charm for me.  These folks were at the very forefront of the black metal avant-garde: this album was out in 1995, the same year as Ved Buens Ende’s Written In Waters and Fleurety’s Min Tid Skal Komme.  Not a fucking bad year, right?

10. Jarboe & Justin Broadrick, J2.  So, this collaboration doesn’t come off quite as successfully as Jarboe’s collaborative album with Neurosis, but she, ex- of Swans, and he, ex- of Godflesh and current of Jesu, Greymachine, Final, and God knows what else, work quite well together.  If you’re expecting this album to sound like any of JKB’s heavier projects plus Jarboe’s unearthly vocals, you may be a bit disappointed.  To their credit, I think, this album sounds like an out-and-out collaboration, rather than Jesu + a different singer.  Well, maybe except “8mmsweetbitter.”

11. Kvist, For Kunsten Maa Vi Evig Vike.  I just can’t plug this album enough.  It’s got that perfectly compressed production feel, where the drums just rip along effortlessly.  Folks here went on to form Urgehal, so there’s clearly a great legacy, but for me, this is where it’s at.

12. Lysergene, Critical Mass.  Okay, so this one’s not really metal.  This is a side project from one of the guys in British extreme/funeral doom stalwarts Esoteric.  This is a collection of lengthy, thick pieces of various kinds of electronic experimentalism, from dark ambient to drum and bass and industrial soundscapes; it actually makes a pretty decent companion to some of Esoteric’s work (particularly their earlier pieces of soul-corroding bleakness, Epistemological Despondency and The Pernicious Enigma).

13. Menace Ruine, The Die Is Cast.  Second album from these weirdos.  The first record was a lot more industrial and harsh noise.  This one trades in a bit of that, but throws in vocals that recall none other than Nico, were she to be wrapped in power lines and thrown into a bottomless pit, left to cast her songs up out of the vanishing darkness.  They’ve got a new album out, too, which I’m hoping will eventually drop to a more reasonable import price.

14. Nasheim, Evighet/Undergång.  Compilation of the demos from this Swedish black metal band.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but these are artfully crafted pagan black metal anthems for connoisseurs.  Plus, this release tacks on a faithful cover of Bathory’s “Blood Fire Death.”

15. Orange Goblin, Healing Through Fire.  A previous rant on stoner metal notwithstanding, this album absolutely RIPS.  Messing with these guys would be like just plain asking for a broken bottle kiss on your ribcage.

16. Pyramids, Pyramids.  See my review of Pyramids’ collaboration with Nadja for a sense of what they might sound like.  But then, throw out any thoughts of what you think they might sound like, and just listen to ’em, because I guarantee they don’t sound quite like anything else you’ve heard.  Truly mesmerizing stuff.

17. Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness.  Yeah, I know – fuck you.  I don’t own any metal that starts with ‘Q’.  Sure, I could have plugged a recommendation for Queensryche, or even Queen’s Night at the Opera, or maybe even post-Kyuss groovesters Queens of the Stone Age, but instead, I’ll use this poor under-utilized letter’s slot to plug Primordial’s best album.  Hands down.  This album is damn near perfect.  If you haven’t heard it, well, I’m not going to be overdramatic and suggest that your life has no meaning, or that we’ll have to revoke your metalhead credentials or anything, but please: Go listen to it.

18. Reverend Bizarre, In the Rectory of the Bizarre Reverend.  Long, slow, drawn-out classic doooooooom from Finland.  I waited way too long to check these guys out because I thought their music would be boring.  Turns out my brain just wasn’t ready to be dragged down to experience the world on the Reverend’s terms.  But I am ready now.

19. Stormlord, Mare Nostrum.  Truly epic blackened power metal from Italy.  I can’t believe you aren’t listening to this right now, as you read these words.  This shit is so tasty.

20. Thralldom, A Shaman Steering the Vessel of Vastness.  Final album from Thralldom, one of Ryan Lipynsky’s many filth-encrusted metal ventures outside of Unearthly Trance.  It’s frankly astonishing, the number of moods and textures that are presented in each of Thralldom’s uniformly brief albums.  Less driving and Celtic Frost-y than Unearthly Trance’s last two albums, but never quite losing the plot in a thicket of ambient sound effect fuckery.

21. Unholy, The Second Ring of Power.  More slow, slow doom from Finland, but this from the mid-90s, and sounding altogether possessed by evil static demons.  You can call this doom/death if you like, M-A.com, but there’s way too much avant-garde weirdness going on (especially for 1994!) for such a conventional label.

22. Void, Posthuman.  Another black/industrial act, this time featuring Czral and Kvhost from Dødheimsgard, whose 666 International is not a bad point of reference, though that album is slicker and more futuristic.  Void’s sole album (to this point; let’s work on that, please, chaps) is altogether colder and meaner, sounding very much like a grey autumn’s walk through London’s seediest alleyways and deserted Underground stations.

23. Worms of Sabnock, Dark Harmonies.  Another Meads Of Asphodel-affiliated project (should be enough of an endorsement there); this one plays a bit more straight-ahead, highly tremelo-ed second wave(-ish) black metal, but sits quite nicely alongside some of the earlier Ludicra records, especially in the percussion department.  Quite tasty stuff.

24. Xasthur, Telepathic with the Deceased.  Right, not particularly ‘underground’ here (which, when you think about it, is really odd, given how antisocial and offputting Malefic’s music should be to most people), but I didn’t really feel like dragging Xibalba into things.  This album gets some bad press, I think, but it remains one of my favorites of the (now defunct) Xasthur project of one-man fuzz-drenched melodic black metal carpet-bombing.  The interlocking guitar and keyboard melodies have rarely sounded so twisted and sickly as on this one.

25. Yakuza, Of Seismic Consequence.  Truth be told, I’m still undecided about this record.  Plus, I know everyone and his grandmother is recommending this.  Anyway, I’m a little light on “Y”s, so it was either this or the released-without-a-splash album by YcosaHateRon, a dark ambient/industrial/noise project featuring, oh, who can I remember, Killjoy from Necrophagia, Attila from Mayhem, and some dude from Aborym.  Problem is, I recently decided that I hate that record, so despite the fact that I can hardly tolerate the vocals on the new Yakuza album, I’ll throw it up there.

26. Zozobra, Bird of Prey.  This album is heavier than you.  It is also criminally overlooked sludge/hardcore/doom with that classic Hydra Head touch.

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I know we’ve all got a few of those bands kicking around in the back of our heads; you know, the bands that you absolutely love, just can’t get enough of, and you want the rest of the world to sit and glory in their music.

Allow me, then, to offer you heartiest recommendation of the Finnish band Tenhi.

As far as I’ve seen them discussed, these guys usually get grouped under the genre heading of neofolk*, which is, apart from its sometimes dubiously nationalist leanings, a completely atrocious and vague set of musical, lyrical, and even visual signifiers.  Which is to say, I don’t put too much stock in the name ‘neofolk’, but that shouldn’t prevent you from running out just as quickly as you can and buying up as much music by Tenhi as humanly possible.

The band plays a rich, deep, gorgeously melancholic sort of folk-inspired music that seems to hew perfectly to my own imaginings of the landscape of Finland.  Acoustic guitars, piano, cellos, wonderfully deep male choral vocals and surprisingly muscular (but not aggressive) drums are the key ingredients to Tenhi’s sound, but there is an odd bit of alchemy going on in the songwriting that seems to result in an entrancing sort of melodic and rhythmic magic.

The entire reason I bring this up, really, is to share with you all how excited I am for these dudes to put out their new album, entitled Saivo.  Their last studio album, Maaäet, from 2006, was probably their best yet, and although they have continually tantalized me since then, with the reissue of the much more piano-based Airut: Aamujen and the phenomenal three-disc collector’s piece Folk Aesthetic 1996-2006, I’m more than a little eager to hear new material.

A recent update on their website suggests that the new album will be completed sometime late summer or early fall, but doesn’t yet give much information as to a release date.  Take it as your assignment, in the meantime, to familiarize yourself with the wonder of this brilliant folk music.  For metalheads not quite sure if they’d like to take the plunge, Tenhi will sit quite nicely alongside Ulver’s Kveldssanger, Dornenreich, Agalloch, Empyrium, Wyrd, or any other dark/folk metal act you care to bring to mind.

If you need further convincing, here are a few videos to watch (the first an official Tenhi production, the second a YouTube user’s creation, featuring pitch-perfect photography):

So, what in the hell are you waiting for?

*For the curious, you could do much worse than checking out this astonishingly good (and wide-ranging) compilation, Looking For Europe, released a few years back on Prophecy Productions, who also handle Tenhi’s releases.  Coincidence?

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Friends, I’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with stoner metal.  Sort of.

You see, it’s not that I actually have a problem with the music itself.  In fact, lately I’ve been listening to tons of the stuff: Sleep, Electric Wizard, Om, Kyuss, Boris, YOB, (old) Monster Magnet, Orange Goblin, High On Fire, even the stoner/grind histrionics of Cephalic Carnage (getting pumped for their new album).  I fuckin’ LOVE me some fat, juicy riffs wearing concrete boots walking a tightrope made of my corpus callosum.

Riff my face off, please

Thing is, what drives me totally fucking bonkers is the frequent claim one hears when talking with ardent fans of these drug-addled noisemakers: “You’ve never really experienced Such And Such An Album unless you’ve heard it stoned.”

Oh really?  Well, let me tell you, friend, that you’ve never really gotten the obituaries page of the New York Times unless you’ve read it while tweezing out your leg hairs and listening to Tom Jones.  I mean, you totally start, like, reading between the newsprint lines and seeing Victorian-era portraits of all the other dead people whispering recipes for minestrone.

Granted, I know that part of the rationale here is that if the band was under the influence of certain mind-altering substances during the creation of the music, then perhaps the fullest appreciation of said music can only be gained through achieving a similar mental state.  Fuck that shit.

Obviously, a lot of this kind of music is shot through with healthy doses (har har) of psychedelia, which typically means densely layered production with lots of different buried textures and widdly sound effects.  Seems to me, then, that what these lit-up listening enthusiasts are likely experiencing is a monomaniacal attention to one particular detail which seems somehow to overwhelm the rest of the musical palette and offer them some new, strange vista of drugged-out bliss or paranoia.

Well, folks, do me a favor and try out the same thing with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Listen to that bad boy for a while, stoned or not, and try to follow just one instrument through those winding, righteously spooky jams.  Not too different, really, from that one time you saw the Virgin Mary in your Doritos while zoning out to “Sweet Leaf.”  Or, to be more direct: It’s not about the drugs, it’s about how you listen, and I’m not willing to admit that “listening stoned” is a mode of listening distinct from any other.

More seriously, I think this claim is incorrect from two directions: objectively and subjectively.  As I’ve just suggested, from an objective perspective, I think that a lot of what goes on with stoners claiming that the music “speaks” to them differently when they’re stoned is simply an artifact of listening more intently to the music.  In fact, it may well be the case that the biggest difference between listening stoned and listening sober is that if you’re stoned and listening to music, chances are, you’re not doing much else, whereas I think it can generally be agreed that most people’s listening (sober) habits have become but one aspect in a multi-tasking three-ring circus.  In that case, if we sober folks were just sitting down to really listen to something, without doing anything else, we might find that it’s the act of focusing that yields notably deeper results.

From the completely opposite end of the argumentative spectrum, though, I would respond to these stoned-music-is-better-music partisans with an argument for a completely subjective, relativistic approach to music.  That is, no one person’s listening experience can ever approximate any other person’s listening experience because of the multitude of prejudices, experiences, knowledge, preferences, and attitudes that inform and color our ability to hear certain things.

Which is to argue not that a sober person can experience the exact same depth of appreciation for music as the stoned person (which is what I’m calling the ‘objective’ argument), but rather that two people, stoned on the same herbs or buzzed on the same drinks, listening to the exact same music, will never hear that music the same way.  Neither will two sober people.  Listening to music is necessarily an intensely personal, interiorizing phenomenon which cannot be shared, no matter how socially it is pursued.

So, sure, friend, I will perhaps grudgingly admit that I will never hear Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone the same way you heard it, through a cloud of smoke or a labyrinth of acid dreams, so long as you admit that you will never hear Dopethrone the way I heard it, sitting on my couch reading a book, or driving in my car to get my tires rotated.  Either everyone can hear it the same, or no one can hear it the same; I’d like to think it’s both.

I should clarify: this is not coming from some puritanical anti-drug perspective.  Feel free to ingest, inject, or imbibe whatever you like; that’s not what this is about.  Rather, this is about a bunch of folks trying to fuck with my ability to appreciate music, and THAT’S what’s likely to get me feeling awfully witch-burny, awfully fast.

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Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Whether we understand it as a fetishization of the past, or a wistful historicization of one’s own present, there is no denying the ability of our brains to gather up disparate circumstances and stray thoughts into these gauzy-edged bundles of nostalgia.  I think this might be part of the reason why one of our reactions to nostalgia is always some form of embarrassment; nostalgia represents one of those many mental states which escape the realm of our mastery.

Nostalgia, in some ungraspable way, targets us at precisely those points of our character which our pride and self-consciousness have worked so assiduously to protect.  You might even say that nostalgia is the anti-irony, or at least that which destroys irony’s pretense to humorous detachment.

Thus, I don’t expect that one need be a devoted Proustian to recognize the ability of the smallest thing to send one off in transports of fond or fell recollection, and that this ability is both an asset and a ridiculous nuisance.  An asset, because it mythologizes our own lives and grants them a heightened significance through tactile memory; a nuisance, then, because of the way it taunts and reminds us of those good and glorious days, never again to return.

Anyway, the point of all of this maudlin rambling is really just to segue into something that I’ve been feeling somewhat nostalgic for recently; namely, the absolutely blind acquisition of new music.

It used to be – “back in the good old days,” of course – when I was starting to explore more types of music (my early teenage years being largely devoted to ), that every now and then I would be browsing through a record store (early on, more likely to be a Best Buy than anything more street-cred-worthy, but hey, I grew up in the suburbs, so cut me some slack) and would come across something completely random and unknown to me, and just buy it anyway.

Now, in all likelihood, I’m sure I had some sort of unformed estimated-guess-work cranking itself out in the back of my mind, but still, these were, for all intents and purpose, bands whose names were totally foreign to me, and whose music I had never encountered.  You can sort of picture me, then, as an awkward, teenaged version of the compulsive, inveterate gambler, clutching a palmful of sweaty tickets at the horse track, always more and more sure that the next one was the one, this next one will be the last one, the big one, the promised one.

Which is to say, I imagine that in some small way I became addicted to the thrill of discovering new and wonderful music, no matter the attendant risk of shelling out hard(-ish)-earned money on some total fucking bullshit (Papa Roach, I still haven’t forgiven you for coaxing me into buying that first record of yours…).

Here’s a brief list, then, of some of the more notable albums that I can remember purchasing with absolutely no prior knowledge of what fresh hell or new bliss was in store:

– Cradle of Filth, Bitter Suites to Succubi.  I know, I know; for most of the metal community out there, this is hardly something to crow about.  I can absolutely fucking guarantee, though, that every metalhead out there has a gateway band which, no matter how embarrassing your complete love affair over them may seem in retrospect, was still the band responsible for opening new vistas of musical possibility.  Cradle of Filth was that band for me* – they were the first extreme metal band I saw live, and this was on a tour where Nile opened for them (Black Seeds of Vengeance had just come out), which fostered a huge interest in death metal.

*Well, after Metallica, I guess, which played a similar role much earlier on, but I suspect Metallica played such a half-initiatory role for many kids, inasmuch as they received widespread radio play.  Metallica wasn’t quite the band to tip me into extreme metal, though, which probably has a lot to do with timing; by which I mean, basically, that getting into Metallica circa 1996 or so (as it was with me) is a hell of a lot different than getting into Metallica circa 1982.

– Anathema, Judgement.  I picked this one up, actually, at the same time as the Cradle of Filth record, which had just come out in Europe, where I was traveling at the time.  I’m pretty sure this was at some major chain-type place (HMV, maybe, but this was quite some time ago), and, though the fog of adolescent memory is not to be trusted, I’m fairly sure there was a whole Peaceville highlighting display endcap there, with all that great early 90s death/doom stuff, plus the At The Gates reissues that Peaceville was doing at the time.

– Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.  Holy shit, was this one of those finds which just blew me the fuck away.  I’m pretty sure they just hooked me with the relatively simple cover art.

– Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part.  So, sure, it’s probably like the most emo-est of all the emo Nick Cave albums, but it completely rules, and I can’t believe I hadn’t listened to any Nick Cave before buying this record.

– Jimmy Eat World, Clarity.  Fuck you, this album rules.

– Dream Theater, Scenes from a Memory.  Can you say “game changer”?  I should probably confess that when I was considering buying this album (from my local Best Buy, I definitely remember), I had a pretty good hunch that this was a metal band.  At that point, though, I wasn’t quite canny enough to think of things like checking to see what record label had released an album (though since DT was on a major, I guess it wouldn’t have done much in this case).

– Opeth, Blackwater Park.  Again, based on the artwork, I had a slight inkling (but certainly a desperate hope) that this might be heavy metal, but really had no idea the total and utter ass-kicking that awaited.

– The Dresden Dolls, The Dresden Dolls.  At this point, I was getting a little more sophisticated, because I remember hearing that The Dresden Dolls were going on tour opening for Nine Inch Nails, and that their album was out on Roadrunner, which I knew, by that point, was a metal label.  Someone dogmatically looking for metal, however, would have obviously found him- or herself sorely disappoint with this punk cabaret act (who totally kick your ass and mine, and pretty much established all the right bona fides by covering Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” – and Fugazi – “Blueprint” – when I saw them live a few years back).

– Rosetta, The Galilean Satellites.  This is probably the most recent (and maybe one of the only in recent years) example of making a more or less blind purchase of an album.  The fact that this was pretty much a blind acquisition is corroborated by the fact that I didn’t discover until months later that these two discs were actually meant to be played simultaneously, rather than as one album of jammin’ post-whatever-metal and one album of static, weird ambient bits, and space noises.  I still kinda like it that way, though.

So, yeah, I’m guilty of being totally nostalgic and self-indulgent about this.  Finding these remarkable new (to me) artists was a fantastic thrill, which felt all the more personal and triumphant because there wasn’t really anyone to share the credit.  It was just me, stomping around a few places in the Twin Cities (that’s Minnesota, folks) with my palpitating heart and my pockets full of as much disposable income as I could come by, and then racing home, and breathlessly ripping through the packaging and putting it on the stereo and, I’m sure, muttering futile and fevered incantations that my time and money would not have been wasted.

The whole point is, this doesn’t happen any longer.  I’m sure there are a whole mess of factors influencing this.  I’m older, so I’ve just been listening to and reading about music for a lot longer by now.  I’ve basically taught myself a ton of the history of various genres, so I can understand how you get from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Megadeth to Morbid Angel to Emperor to Anaal Nathrakh, and on and on.  Apart from brand new bands, it’s pretty unlikely that I come across an act that I know absolutely nothing about, or at least can’t make a few educated guesses based on what country they’re from, what label they’re on, what their songs are called, and whatever else.

This points, obviously, to another major difference: the ubiquity of great reference sources on the internet.  I’m obviously not old enough to bullshit you with some story about “the time before the internet,” but I was going through this phase of adolescent music exploration in the mid-1990s, when painfully slow dial-up connections and, y’know, like GeoCities and shit were the currency of the day.  I probably could have found more information than I had at my disposal if I had really tried, but I just didn’t have the sheer breadth of information at my fingertips that I do today.

A corollary to that, then, is that the music industry itself is so massively saturated these days.  This is an old and tired refrain, I know, but what it essentially means is that, precisely because there is such a massive amount of information available, I am exceedingly unlikely to take a risk on buying up something about which I have literally heard nothing.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the prevalence of music downloading, which I don’t really want to get into; suffice it say, though, that when I started buying music on my own, you didn’t really have the ability (or, at least, I didn’t have the technological sophistication) to download an album wholesale to see if you might like it.  It seems likely that no one accustomed to the instant gratification world of downloading can ever really have that same thrill, that moment of anticipation where you wait for the music to peal out of your speakers, tolling out the worthiness of your instincts.

I’m sure there are a number of other factors contributing to this nostalgia, but the bottom line is, I’m pretty bummed out that I will probably never feel that same way about going out to purchase new music.  I suppose I could try to artificially recreate some of those earlier circumstances, but that, I fear, is the great lure of nostalgia, and the only reward for which can be nostalgia’s poisonous doppelganger, disappointment.

I’m embarrassed now, not just by the sheer joy I remember experiencing, but also by how much I miss that feeling; and also, moreover, by the pure, unadulterated consumerism into which I wholeheartedly threw my adolescent self, and am now eulogizing like some herald of a great extinction.

I guess if there’s anything useful to be gained from dwelling on nostalgia, it’s that no matter how mortifyingly embarrassing your current self may find aspects of your former self, there’s no getting to the one without going through the other.

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Negură Bunget, Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010)

Romanian black metal mystics, at it again

Well, as you may well know, there have been some shake-ups in the Negură Bunget camp since 2006’s magisterial Om, leaving only Negru, the drummer, of the original members to carry on under this name.  I don’t particularly care about whatever disagreements led to the split, and have already suggested elsewhere that thankfully this drama never quite reached the farcical levels of the Gorgoroth drama.  The real question, of course, is, How does this stack up next to the visionary Om?

To this humble listener, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.  The core sound and intent of the band seems relatively unchanged, inasmuch as these Romanian lads are still banging on after a rather mystical, folk-ish take on black metal, heavily incorporating various non-traditional instrumentation into their potent and heady blend of magic.  Drudkh remains a none-too-shabby point of reference, as do American stand-outs Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room.  This, perhaps obviously, is all for the good.

These songs benefit greatly from the inclusion of not only some excellently non-cheesy keyboards, but also various folk instruments such as flutes (or pipes; it’s a bit hard to tell), horns, and a tasteful selection of extremely taut drums and other percussive sounds.  If you recall some of the wood-sticks-being-banged-together percussion from 2002’s ‘n Crugu Bradalui, you’re on the right track.  Negură Bunget’s take on folk-ish black metal is a highly melodic sort, with the melody typically quite wandering, and generally carried by tremelo guitar.  The core of the sound, however, is highly textured, which is most frequently accomplished by overlaying both acoustic and distorted guitars for maximum classiness.

On another positive note, the production here is generally quite clear, which allows for all the different components to be heard; you won’t really be left guessing as to when you’re hearing keyboards versus when you’re hearing “live” folk instruments, and the bass, especially, is given prominence at some key moments when it demonstrates some wonderfully deep oscillations.  The only complaint about the production, really, is that occasionally the drums sound a little off; the cymbals, especially, sound to these ears somewhat clipped, which I suppose is probably better than an overly splashy cymbal sound, but was still somewhat distracting.

One of my primary concerns in the transition to this new line-up was that the vocals of long-time mainman (and, frankly, ridiculously-named) Hupogrammos Disciple’s would be sorely missed.  Thankfully, though, the harsh vocals of new vocalist Corb are wonderful.  They are hoarse, deep, and impassioned, and recorded clearly enough that I imagine if I spoke Romanian, I’d have no trouble following the words.  At times, they remind of Sakis’ latter-day vocals in Rotting Christ.  Unfortunately, the few times that the band turns to clean vocals do not fare nearly so well.  On “Chei de Rouã,” in particular, the clean vocals are distractingly off-pitch, almost veering onto the Urfaust or Circle Of Ouroborus axis (which works with those bands, by the way, but not so much here).

I’ve mostly been positive so far, and truth be told, this is still a very good record.  Nevertheless, there are several details which keep this from reaching anywhere near the transcendent heights of Om.  My biggest complaint, really, is that the album never really gets any momentum, and when it does pick up a little bit of steam, it is arranged in such a way as to be almost self-defeating.  Too many of the songs are in the mold of a classic slow-tension-building-to-a-cathartic-outburst design.  Individually, this works very well, but because this happens again and again, listening to the album feels like the band is trying to begin the whole thing over again with each new track, rather than proceeding more organically from one song to the next.

Essentially, one of the reasons that Om came off so masterfully is that not only were the individual songs excellent, but the songs were written and the album was sequenced such that it still felt more or less like separate movements contributing to a greater whole.  On Vîrstele Pămîntului, most all the individual songs are excellent when listened to in isolation; strung together in this fashion, though, they seem far too much like brief flashes of something that could have been stitched together differently to produce a greater cumulative effect.  This leads not only to the problem of too many slow-building tracks, but also to the fact that many of the songs fade out too quickly once it seems like they’ve finally hit their stride.  This results in some rather awkward transitions.

Still, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is some sort of trainwreck.  As I’ve said, the individual songs tend to work quite well on their own terms, and the overall sound and vision of the band is still admirable, and relatively unique in the world of contemporary metal.  The two purely instrumental tracks on here, “Umbra” and “Jar,” deserve special notice for each featuring some very rich folk instrumentation and achieving an ambient effect that doesn’t also bore me to tears, death, or Nasum.  In fact, in light of these tracks, as well as the two acoustic re-imaginings included on the recent re-recorded version of their 2000 album Măiastru Sfetnic, it struck me that an all acoustic, ambient/neo-folk album by this band could be very interesting.

So, all in all, this doesn’t match up to Om (nor, to be fair, did I ever really expect it to).  What it does do, however, is to continue to weave their dark spell of meditative metal for Transylvanian forests, and I’m still quite happy to come along for the spinning of these heathen tales.

Overall rating: 78%.  Wasn’t broke, but didn’t fix.

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Devin Townsend, Physicist (2000)

Finally, some decent cover art

Released two years after the phenomenal Infinity album, Physicist may rank as one of the most Strapping Young Lad-ish albums in Devin’s solo career, which really shouldn’t be a surprise, given that this album has the EXACT SAME LINE-UP as Strapping Young Lad (Devin, Gene Hoglan, Byron Stroud, and Jed Simon).  If one were so inclined, one might even suggest that this is a bit like a hidden Strapping Young Lad record, given that SYL released no official album’s between 1997’s City and 2003’s SYL.  Fancy that.  Anyway, as a whole, this album does a nice job of walking a middle path between the spaciousness of Ocean Machine – Biomech, the general What-the-fuck?-ness of Infinity‘s genre-splicing approach, and the more straight-ahead industrial metal aggression of Strapping Young Lad.  Oh, and it’s also awesome.

“Namaste” kicks things off with a great burst of punky aggression, which is maintained through “Victim.”  These two tracks, plus the mid-album ripper “Death,” are some of the most intensely METAL moments in Devin’s solo career thus far.  The latter track, in particular, rather in keeping with its title, is the most face-shredding piece here, kicking off with the, ahem, soothing tones of Gene Hoglan blast-beating the shit out of your ears.  The weightier tone of some of these songs picks up in a slightly different fashion on “The Complex,” with its very martial ambient/industrial-sounding synths which sound most like tiny hammers striking a xylophone made entirely of anvils.

It’s not all sputtering rage here, however.  “Material” is the earliest stab at Devin’s fantastically pop-oriented songcraft on this album; this one especially nails its perfectly evocative chorus in such a way that I really want the track to go on forever, but it does its business and gets straight on with things.  Make sure you don’t miss the background vocal arpeggios on the second run-through of the chorus: pure bliss.

The track immediately following “Material,” “Kingdom,” is also absolutely dynamite, but in this case it works so well precisely because of its greater use of open space to contrast with the density and faster pace of most of the album’s shorter numbers.  “Kingdom” also features some of Devin’s most intense howling, fittingly over the lines “I’m fiiiiiiiine!

To these ears, “Irish Maiden” may be one of the only missteps on the album.  I think the rather jig-ish opening is somewhat annoying, but the track eventually redeems itself somewhat with some fantastic kick drum work from Hoglan and an excellent melodic bridge with some nice, thick riffing.

Devin Townsend is often discussed in terms of virtuosity, which I think is absolutely correct, but it’s important to note that much of the virtuosity on display here is not so much sheer instrumental prowess (you won’t find any brain-melting solos here, for example), but rather songwriting prowess.  This shows up generally in the fluidity of the arrangements, and the often complex (yet still straightforward-sounding) rhythms which are achieved through syncopation, or, in a few places (like “Victim” and “Jupter”), through a rhythm that relies on pick-up notes to give a quick, juddering attack to the start of the measure.  While we’re on the subject, “Jupiter” also has some really great rhythmic riffing on a 3/4 rhythm set against the slower 4/4 meter in the drums; instead of drawing attention to itself, though, this counterpoint technique comes across as extremely natural and smooth.

As many others have mentioned, the closing track “Planet Rain” is one of the most astounding songs on here.  While the rest of the album mostly trades in short, mostly compact pieces, this song is the lengthy and mostly melancholic counterpart to the pairing of “Life is All Dynamics” and “Unity” (from Infinity) or “Funeral”/”Bastard”/”Death of Music” (from Ocean Machine – Biomech).

The careful listener will have noticed, I imagine, the continuation of the rain motif from Ocean Machine’s “Death of Music” track here, and it functions as a really nice conceptual hinge.  This whole song is extremely evocative of a world completely wiped out and covered with never-ending rains.  This kind of apocalyptic imagery (even if it is largely self-conjured) matches up very nicely with Devin’s grandiose, highly theatrical and melodramatic (in the best way possible) style of songwriting.

When Devin sings,
“It’s quiet now, quiet now –
’cause it’s the end of world!
Quiet now, quiet now;
’cause it’s the end of the world!
,”
it really sounds like he’s having a conversation with himself: In the first two lines, he’s telling us the reason why it’s quiet now, but in the second two lines, because the “It’s” is dropped from the lyrics, it sounds like an invitation, or even a command, to be quiet now, at the end of the world.  I know this all sounds a bit goofy, picking apart these small aspects, but there’s something about this dude’s music that cries out for this level of emotional investment.  The whole track is fantastic, and needs to be heard in its entirety, but a favorite passage is right around the four-minute mark, where we finally get a simple, searing guitar lead to cut through the dense bundle of sounds and textures.

Eventually, the track fades out into the (rather appropriate) sound of rain falling, which transitions into the hidden track, called “Forgotten,” which is actually just a bizarre re-recording of “Bad Devil.”  This utterly strange new version of the Beatles-quoting (“She’s just 17, if you know what I mean…”) track from the Infinity album, closes things out in a rather odd manner, with its acoustic guitars draped in alienating drones and cymbal noise.

More than anything else, this actually sounds like some weird goth/blues/country tune, like you might find on a 16 Horsepower or mid-period Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album.  As is often the case with these hidden or bonus tracks on Devin’s solo albums, I usually listen to them all the way through, but since the album works so well as a holistic statement, I almost compartmentalize them in my mind, so that I don’t really think of this “Forgotten” song as belonging to the Physicist album.  Still, another brilliant entry into Devin’s solo discography, and a deeply emotive and powerful record.  Bang your head AND get the warm and fuzzies.

Overall rating: 93%.  Hear that truth again!

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