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Archive for October, 2010

A few months back, I wrote up this post in which I challenged myself to identify metal songs played on a random playlist.  As you may recall, I didn’t do so hot (5 out of 10).  Well, I figured I might as well give it another go here.  The basic motivation for this, of course, is that it’s pretty fun for me to do.  At a slightly (very slightly) deeper level, though, I think that going through this exercise helps me to think about what exactly it is that helps us differentiate and recognize extreme metal.  As you’ll see, in many cases, I would wait around until I heard the vocals to either a) guess what band it was, or b) narrow things down so that I could guess a black metal versus a death metal band.  Production is also a pretty good cue, as is guitar tone, and so forth.

Rules are simple: I put into a music player a playlist of all the metal albums that I own (meaning that I’ve excluded both all other genres and all metal for which I do not own an actual, physical product), put the damn thing on ‘random’, and start it up.  I respond to the first ten songs that play in the stream-of-consciousness fashion you see below.  After the fact, then, I run back through the list and post what the song actually was.  I suppose you have only my word to go on that I didn’t skip embarrassing songs or take a peek every now and again.  If you’re willing to trust a stranger on the internet, though, this is how it went down…
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1. This is some fairly clearly-articulated black/thrash-y stuff.  Vocals are sounding very familiar, but I can’t quite place them right now.  Is it an old Absu track?  Nice clean solo bit here with that classic Slayer-esque bass drum and ride cymbal only break.  I think it might be Absu, maybe from that Mythologickal Occult Metal compilation.

[It was: Saros, “Devouring Conscience,” from Acrid Plains.  Ouch.  I suppose maybe it’s a compliment, thinking Leila Abdul-Rauf’s vocals are a dead ringer for Proscriptor’s?  Not off to a great start, friends.]

2. This tune kicks straight in with some melodic black metal riffage and standard blastbeats.  A bunch of pinch harmonics.  Again, these vocals make me think I should really know who it is.  Is this old Behemoth?  I guess it sounds kinda like Nergal.  I’m going with Behemoth, maybe circa Satanica or Pandemonic Incantations.

[It was: Behemoth, “From the Pagan Vastlands.”  Hidden track on Thelema.6.  Pretty close, though.]

3. Ah, easy enough.  My Dying Bride.  Totally recognizable doom chug, and the unmistakable vocals of Aaron Stainthorpe.  A pretty recent track, for sure.  I’m going to say it’s from one of their last two records.  That’d be, what, A Line Of Deathless Kings and For Lies I Sire.  I’ll play it through a little more to see if I can get the song title.  Hmm, the more this runs on, I think it might actually be from the Songs Of Darkness… album.  Ah, those searing clean guitar sections, laid over their own echo – one of my favorite aspects of this band.  Great clean chorus from Mr. Stainthorpe, but I’ll be damned if I can think of the name.  I’m thinking it’s from that Songs Of Darkness album after all…

[It was: My Dying Bride, “The Blue Lotus.”  From Songs Of Darkness, Words Of Light.  Ba-zing!]

4. Whoa, major treble attack.  The fuck is this?  Obviously some pervertedly raw black metal.  What the hell do I own that sounds this shitty?  The blizzard-esque quality almost suggests Paysage d’Hiver or Darkspace, but the songwriting isn’t as ambient as all that.  Sounds like straight-up classic third wave black metal songwriting.  Is this the Satyricon side of that split with Enslaved?  That’s my best guess.

[It was: Demoncy, “In Winter’s Ancient Slumber,” from Within The Sylvan Realms of Frost.  Wrong side of the Atlantic.  Sorry folks.  Good goddamn if that isn’t some of the most thinly-recorded black metal I’ve heard in a while.  Too bad, because the song, while horribly derivative, has that nice melancholy groove to it.]

5. Great stomping death/doom groove to start off this next song.  No fucking around.  Dodgy recording quality makes me think it’s a bit old.  Could be Coffins, but probably not.  Nope, definitely not, but it’s got that chaotic, churning old school (or new old school) death metal vibe, with Incantation-worship dripping from the corners.  What was that record Profound Lore put out last year…  Impetuous Ritual.  Maybe it’s them.

[It was: Teitanblood, “The Origin of Death,” from Seven Chalices.  Same ballpark, at least.]

6. Hmm, now this sounds like Satyricon again, but I’m second-guessing myself all over the place.  Ah, thanks Satyr, for enunciating a little bit.  This is the title track from Nemesis Divina, which, despite The Shadowthrone’s greatness, is probably still my favorite Satyricon record.  I mean, who can deny “Mother North”?  Plus, the grand piano breakdown in whatever the fuck that song is called (I’ll look it up in a bit, but don’t want to fuck with the supposed purity of this little exercise).  Great stuff.

[It was: Satyricon, “Nemesis Divina.”  [Ed: “Forhekset” was the tune I was thinking about with the piano break.]]

7. Nothing automatic off the bat here.  Thick guitar tone, too-tight snare, plus the classic 6/8-that-doesn’t-quite-feel-like-6/8-if-it’s-quick-enough meter.  Thick bass tone, too, especially for this style.  Vocals aren’t helping me out too much here.  Damn, I’m kinda floundering with this one.  Nary an educated guess in sight.  Sounds like something that would be on Moribund.  Don’t know if that helps much.  Maybe from Finland.  I don’t think it’s Sargeist.  Too thick for Behexen.  Hmm.  I also don’t think it’s Horned Almighty, since it doesn’t quite have enough rock and roll, though the thick, rattling bass might point that way.  Shit, whatever.  I’ll guess Horned Almighty.  From the only album of theirs I have, The Devil’s Music.

[It was: Well, fuck, what do you know?  Horned Almighty, “To Despise the Life,” from The Devil’s Music.  I ought to give myself more credit every now and again.  Don’t think that one’s on Moribund, though.]

8. Well, this is a live track.  That might give it away if there’s any crowd banter.  Goofy carnival synths suggest Cradle Of Filth.  Let’s give it a chance, though, shall we?  Seeing as how I don’t think there are any live Dimmu Borgir albums out there, I’m feeling pretty good that this is Cradle Of Filth.  Let’s see if it kicks into metal mode at all, or if it’s only the taped tune that introduces the band at the outset of a gig.  Come on, assholes, I’m impatient.  Ah, there you are, Dani, you cad.  Lord knows what song this is.  It’s probably called “Charles Baudelaire Takes A Shit And Then Feels Badly About It.”

[It was: Cradle Of Filth, “Dirge Inferno (Live),” from the bonus disc of the deluxe edition of Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder.  Suppose I could’ve waited ‘til the chorus to get the title, but whatev.  I’m a busy man (ha).]

9. All acoustic attack.  Immediately I think Agalloch.  Hmm.  Dual all acoustic attack.  Ulver’s Kveldssanger?  C’mon Haughm or Garm, give it to me straight.  These flamenco runs are gorgeous, but not helping that much.  I suppose if it quits in another minute or so, it’s got to be from that Ulver folk record.  Alright, folks, we have metal touchdown.  This from Pale Folklore?  Will I be voted out of Heavy Metal for asking such daft, potentially heretical questions?  Now that this is wearing on, I’m even doubting whether it’s Agalloch.  That synth is a curiosity.  In The Woods…, maybe?  Come on, vocals, I’m hurting here.  Oh, there you are, hello.  Son of a bitch, why am I not getting this?  I don’t think Haughm’s harsh vocals sound like this.  Ugh, I don’t feel really great about this, but since the sound is a bit spotty, I’m going to guess that it’s In The Woods…, playing one of their early tracks on that live album they put out.  But fuck, if this turns out to be Hate Forest or some shit, I’m going to flip my lid.

[It was: Aeternus, “Warrior Of The Crescent Moon,” from …And So The Night Became.  Goddamnit, Aeternus, I feel like you did this to me last time, too.  So, apparently, Aeternus: Most Owned But Least Listened To At Spinal Tapdance HQ.  Sorry guys.  This really is a killer tune, honest.]

10. Alright, this next track makes ten, right?  I’m not sure how much more embarrassment my flabby, much-abused ego can take.  Okay, this is a bit of a change up.  We’ve got some stuttery, then later crazy shit.  Strapping Young Lad’s my first guess.  Seeming pretty likely.  C’mon, Devin, justify my confidence.  Sounds like Devin Townsend howling there, presumably with the generous drum-bashing of a certain Gene Hoglan.  Yeah, this has got to be Strapping Young Lad.  What album, though?  Pretty sure this is from something later than City.  Haven’t hit any major hook or chorus yet, though, which sure would be nice, friends.  Oh, was that “Rape Song”?  Can’t remember which album that’s from, but I’m going to guess the song was “Rape Song” by Strapping Young Lad, which I think is either from the SYL album or The New Black.

[It was: Strapping Young Lad, “Rape Song,” which is from the Strapping Young Lad album.  Nice to close out on a high note, eh?]

(11. As I was typing out that last paragraph on SYL, the next track came on, and compelled me to try and guess it as well.  It’s some slow, sludgey doom with female vocals.  Can’t recall if Salome’s self-titled album/EP featured any clean vocals.  Maybe not.  Could it be Monarch?  Damn, I’m just going to be embarrassing myself again.  You’d think that since female vocals are a rarer commodity in these styles of metal I’d be tripping over myself with the right answer.  Doesn’t quite sound like Julie Christmas, but I suppose it could be some of her more understated style.  Shit.  Battle Of Mice, maybe?  Well, whatever, I’m leaving it with those question marks, since I’ve already done my official ten.  It was: Jucifer, “She Tides The Deep,” from If Thine Enemy Hunger.  Fuuuuuuuuck.)
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Okay, so how did I do?  Because I’ve had generally piss-poor results with this, I’m going to count as a win any song in which I correctly identified the artist.  I know, maybe it’s a too-large target, but I still don’t think I’ll be impressing anyone.

Result: 6 correct out of 10. Shit, I’m pretty sure that’s better than last time, right?  Anything tipping me past the halfway point is just gravy by me.  Still can’t believe Aeternus fucked me over again, but I guess it serves me right for being an inattentive dipshit.

So, folks: Know your metal as well as you think you do?

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In praise of some of this year’s releases that have featured prominently around Spinal Tapdance HQ lately, and in avoidance of some of the actual work I ought to be doing, I present a quick rundown of, as the title says, some of the new(ish) shit I’ve been spinning.

Beware the mad monk

Slough Feg, The Animal Spirits – Officially out today [ed.: Tuesday], I believe (along with enough other new metal releases to choke a horse, or at least force it into an equestrian approximation of headbanging), this is a nonstop grin-fest of everything wonderful and energetic about classic heavy metal.  Mike Scalzi’s vocals are as potent as ever, and the songs are both carefully honed and gloriously meandering.  Put it in yr ears and smile, smile, smile.

Color-by-numbers skeleton

Intronaut, Valley Of Smoke – For whatever reason, I’ve missed all the previous releases from this band.  This new album, though, really shook me by the shoulders and slapped me around a bit.  Excellent songwriting, beautiful textures, great clear bass lines and tasteful jazz-inflected drumming have kept this spinning over and over around here.  The instrumental title track may be the best thing here, though that’s not to downplay the judicious use of both harsh and clean harmonized vocals throughout.  Definitely recommended.

Climb it

Horseback, The Invisible Mountain – Tough to describe, but equally tough to ignore once it has sunk its claws in your flesh, this hypnotic album is something like an Americana act discovering krautrock and throwing in the menacing undertones of black metal.  Oh, plus the entire second side is a lilting ambient piece, the trip down the other side of the mountain after the first side’s arduous ascent.  A curious piece of work, but kudos to Relapse for picking this up for wider distribution.

It's good to remember how much you missed them

Autopsy, The Tomb Within – Brilliantly atavistic, mud-sodden death metal for murdering zombies.  It’s only five tunes, but all the death and doom you could hope for is alive and (un)well.  Welcome back, you perverts.

Brilliant artwork

Cough, Ritual Abuse – I haven’t got my grubby hands on the new Electric Wizard yet, but this new Stateside entry in the grand tradition of nihilistic sludge metal goes down just fine, all ragged edges and shaking hands.  Also playing of late has been Cough’s tremendous split with The Wounded Kings (reviewed at this very site by yours truly last week), out in November.  I’m pretty sure both sides of the split are streaming somewhere out there in computer-land, so get yourself to Google and soak in the doom.

Like 'Walden', but heavy metal

Celestiial, Where Life Springs Eternal – One of the most atmospheric albums I’ve heard this year.  Exceedingly nature-touched, overdriven-to-the-point-of-ambient ‘funeral doom’, though that genre description is hopelessly inadequate to describe the equally soothing and crushing sounds at work within.  Reminds one of neo-folk, without actually forcing one to listen to neo-folk.

It's a dead polar bear. Weep for this world.

Antony & The Johnsons, Swanlights – Antony Hegarty simply will not rest until he has made each and every one of us weep bittersweet tears.  This is fragile, strong, desperate, haunting music.  His duet with Björk is especially stunning, but the variety of songwriting styles on display throughout the album is most impressive.

Move your body

Gilles Peterson, Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: Remixed – Last year’s original issue of the Havana Cultura recordings were already excellent enough, but here Gilles has enlisted the help of some top-notch remixers and reinterpreters to put a more club-friendly (without the horrific connotations that phrase can entail) spin on this broad pool of Cuban musics past and present.  Funky, soulful, and always a lot of fun.  It can’t all be heavy metal all the time, friends.  Gilles is there for you in your time of need.

Exhaustive, though not exhausting

Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 – A massive two-disc set of early demos of future Dylan classics, plus something like fifteen previously unheard songs.  This is a treasure chest to be explored, and in which to lose yourself.  The man is clearly not a ‘record once and move on’ kind of studio musician, as the strikingly alternate versions of some of these tunes illustrates.  Perhaps the most jarring alternate on here is the demo version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which is slowed way down, and led by piano only.

Hallucinatory shoegaze metal

Sailors With Wax Wings, Sailors With Wax Wings – Debut album from this side project of R. Loren from Texan weirdos Pyramids.  Features a shit-ton of guest vocalists and musicians, but succeeds largely because it doesn’t seem bogged down by that fact.  The album still presents itself as a coherent aesthetic whole, featuring a gorgeous variety of textures and moods.  Best heard as a piece, straight through, with mind set a-wandering.

Mind-bogglingly fantastic, dastardly metal art

Akercocke, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone – Okay, so this is clearly not a new album.  In fact, it’s from way back in the Stone Ages of 2005.  But SONOFABITCH this album is so good.  You should play it all the time.  Each and every day.  Also, if the gentlemen of Akercocke would see fit to give us another album one of these days, why, that would be just swell.

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Random bit of old news that I’m still bumming hard about:

Soooooo good

Beatrik went and broke themselves up a while back.  Dude also broke up his more straight-ahead black metal act Tenebrae In Perpetuum, which is also too bad, but man, Beatrik was where it was at.  If you haven’t listened to Beatrik’s second album Requiem Of December yet, well my goodness, you just really ought to do so.  All the best bits of depressive black metal, proper black/doom (like Nortt, see), and the great organ textures of Skepticism, topped off with fabulously excruciating vocals…  A really tasty treat, is what I’m trying to say to you.

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So, what’s been keeping you lot auditorially-occupied of late?  Don’t be shy.

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So, by now many of you have probably seen (or at least seen reference to) this video of Adam Lambert (he of some or other season of American Idol) performing a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”  I’m sure with a second’s research I could figure out precisely where and for what purpose this was performed, but I frankly don’t give a shit, and it’s beside the point either way.

The reaction to this video from the heavy metal community, at least as far as I’ve seen, has been, as you might imagine, principally one of outrage, or perhaps even disgust.  How dare this man, this purest expression of everything about ‘pop’ culture that heavy metal purports to despise, attempt to infiltrate and appropriate our beloved canon?  Alert the village elders (Lemmy, Iommi, Steve Harris), man the ramparts, et cetera, et cetera.  All very predictable, and not necessarily wrong.

The offender

Still, I’d like to make a slightly different argument, if you’ll be so kind as to humor me.  Instead of being shocked, or horrified, or just simply saddened by Mr. Lambert’s very glam take on Metallica, I think that the metal community should, if not embrace it, then at least recognize this performance for what I think it is: A more artistically compelling and frankly dangerous statement than the original song.

First, here is the official music video for Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” from 1991’s self-titled album:

If you’ve made it through the video without collapsing into a fit of seizures, then bravo.  That video is truly a terror to behold (and not in a good way).  I’m not quite sure what compelled the director to think, “Oh, instead of filming the same exact action in real-time, let’s make the whole video a stop-motion thing, that’ll be spoooooooky as shit,” but there you are.

Metallica’s song is, of course, widely acknowledged as a “classic,” if for no other reason than it’s been around for a long time, and most everyone knows it.  Still, the thing is, it seems to have attained that kind of place in our culture where one is more likely to hear it played over the PA at a giant sports stadium, or at a high school assembly, or maybe even while waiting at the checkout counter of your neighborhood Walmart.  It’s safe.

Which is not to say, I should point out, that it was ever really dangerous.  By the time the ‘Black Album’ was released in 1991, Metallica was no more danger to anyone than Neil Diamond or soft pillows.  If anything, Metallica circa 1991 were the safest sort of rock idols, at least in comparison to the intentionally sloppy, calculatingly scruffy attitude inculcated by the ongoing and/or impending grunge revolution.  As opposed to the mopey, “caring-about-anything-is-a-waste-of-time” insouciance of Nirvana or (early) Smashing Pumpkins, the Metallica that toured the ‘Black Album’ was the undiluted expression of the megastar American dreams of every teenager hoping to pull herself up by the (guitar)strap.  “Eat your veggies and work hard, kids, and you, too, can be the biggest hard rock band in the world.  We’ll even let you grow whatever dodgy facial hair you like!”

The offending facial hair

The song itself, “Enter Sandman,” flirts with a menacing veneer, but its serpentine half-thrash comes off more like the boogie vibe they would embrace more explicitly in the much- (and probably rightly-) maligned Load/Re-Load albums.  In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to say that it’s only with age and wisdom that I’ve come to dislike this song (though my mild disdain for “Enter Sandman” cannot even come close to matching my pure fucking spite for the abomination that is “Sad But True.”  Truly, a song that ought to be excised from the annals of rock history, and for which sin its writers deserve far worse penance than making an embarrassingly “let’s-hug-it-out” documentary.)  Nevertheless, I do not think it is a particularly good song, trapped, as is most of the ‘Black Album’, in that wretched netherworld in which thrash is kicking to draw its last few ignominious breaths, but has already made halting, sopping nods toward the meatier ‘grooves’ that would come to typify the execrable folly of so much “metal” throughout the 90s.

Here, then, is Lambert’s live performance of “Enter Sandman.”  The backing track is a reasonable approximation of the original, though it highlights the plodding, infuriatingly middle-of-the-road riffing slightly more than one would wish.  The instrumentation isn’t particularly consequential, though, as the focus is obviously intended to be Lambert’s vocals and physical carriage throughout the song.  Thus:

Clearly, the audience here is loving every minute of this (although I suspect they would love each and every minute our [anti]hero spends out on the stage); they’re completely lapping it up, and there’s something oddly charming about the amateur video quality.  Lambert sings much of the song relatively straight (har, har), indulging in increasingly melismatic flourishes as the verses and choruses pile on in that inescapable logic of pop songcraft.  Lambert is clearly an objectively “better” singer than James Hetfield, although I suppose ardent fans of either man would tell you that that’s not really the point.

To cut right to the heart of my argument, though, make sure you watch Lambert’s vocal histrionics and masturbatory pantomime as the song goes into the solo break about halfway through.  Lambert mimics guitar soloing with his voice for a few phrases, but then – hark! – begins gyrating and loving his microphone in that most intimate of ways.  A 21st century Elvis, high on self-love instead of fried chicken.  Coming out of the solo break, Lambert plants some kisses on one of the musicians before continuing to sing out the rest of the song.

Now, to suggest that many in the heavy metal community will have been turned off by the whole spectacle is not necessarily to imply a pervasive homophobia (though there are likely elements of that for some people).  Instead, I assume that some combination of the pageantry, the preening male sexuality, and the theatrical vocal take on a well-established entry in the pantheon of American heavy metal will result in a generalized disdain.  I also assume that Adam Lambert doesn’t give a damn about heavy metal, or about the heavy metal community, and that perhaps few of his fans do, either.  The issue, then, is all one of context.  See, there’s nothing particularly controversial in Lambert’s performing that song to that audience, because they are clearly primed to enjoy every flourish, every note, every gesture of whatever song he decides to sing.

The reason, then, that I want to suggest that Lambert’s take on Metallica is more artistically vibrant is that it takes the warmed-over half-thrash violence of Metallica’s original, and the blandly predatory intent of Hetfield’s snarling recitation of children’s prayers, and turns what has become meek and safe into something dangerous to heavy metal itself.  Lambert’s writhing performance takes the implicit leering of Hammett’s wah-soaked (duh) solo and makes it explicit.  It’s in your face, as he strokes his microphone like the great digital phallus is always is in every other singer’s hands already.  In grafting a gay, glammy sensibility onto this half-heartedly aggressive music, I suspect that Lambert has transgressed the standards held (however subconsciously) by many in the metal community.

(This is not really the time or place for getting into the role of homosexuality in heavy metal – though it is a fascinating, important topic – but perhaps it will suffice to suggest that none of the more prominent gay men in heavy metal – Rob Halford, of course, but perhaps also more recently Gaahl (ex-) of Gorgoroth – have brought this type of sex performance into their public personae.)

Perhaps before closing I should add that I don’t particularly enjoy listening to Lambert’s version of “Enter Sandman.”  Despite the criticisms I’ve leveled at Metallica’s original version, I think I’d still prefer it to this half-theatrical, half-tepid version.  Nevertheless, it’s at times like this, when popular culture intersects – however briefly, however tangentially – with heavy metal, that both venues stand to learn from the other, or at least for whichever community one prefers to put itself up to a sharp self-assessment.  When something like Adam Lambert’s performance, however dull or insipid the actual musical performance may be, can appear so threatening to heavy metal, a genre and community ostensibly drawn to power, danger, and all the rest, heavy metal ought to take a look at itself, and at the transgressive potential it once thrilled to realize.

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Nevermore, The Obsidian Conspiracy (2010)
— Reviewed in the style of Ernest Hemingway —

The man looked at the picture and looked away and ordered another drink.

The hotel was loud and there were already a lot of people there.  The man pulled out a chair and sat down at the hotel bar.  He found the barman and ordered a pink gin.  Like the sailors used to drink, he thought.  A band was playing already when he sat down.  Most of the tables in the lounge were full.  Couples talking, lots of men clapping each other on the back.  The man thought he didn’t need any of that.  There would be time for that.

He thought about “This Godless Endeavor.”  He looked out the window.  A train pulled slowly out of the station, and a table of well-dressed young people across the bar from the man talked loudly about skiing.  Five years is a long time, the man thought, and maybe those fond memories were all wrong anyway.

“Turn to the left, turn to the right.”  The man did not listen.  The band played a chorus, almost like it was played from another room.  It played major, dipped minor.  The man thought he heard something.  Then it was gone.  He ordered another drink.  “Is this soliloquy or psychosis, or self-hypnosis?”  The barman must have left the radio tuned to a motivational program.  The man finished his drink, and watched the ice slowly become water in the glass.  He breathed out.

The band at the bar only wanted to play some crowd-pleasers.  The musicians kept pushing the lounge singer out of the way, so he pushed back.  He seemed a little tight, the pusher.  Squinted his eyes to look serious.  Too many damned words, the man thought.  As if each additional syllable made the sloganeering more effective.  The man glanced out the window.  The train was gone, and a listless breeze swept across the plain.

He listened to the band play “The Termination Proclamation.”  He listened, and then remembered her:

“He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.  He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking.  He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting reasonably for the train.  He went out through the bead curtain.  She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.’”***

How do you ‘abandon someone with scorn’, the man thought?  It’s all damned worthless anyway.  The barman dropped his mixing glass, and set his rag down to clean up the mess.  The lounge singer had recovered his poise, and was singing a slow song.  The man asked the bartender to turn down the radio.  The barman didn’t hear.

Most everyone had left the bar by now.  Empty tables weighed down with half-spilled glasses and uneaten food.  An older woman in evening-wear sat staring at the band.  She seemed to project a sense of feeling the music deeply, deeply.  The band’s set was only forty-five minutes, but they had lost some of their sheet music.  One of the players ran through some fast solos while the band sat back.  Maybe it was a saxophone?  The man was not interested.  The sparse crowd listened.  The man sat at the bar, thinking about lousy conversationalists who always steer a polite topic into ornate, self-serving directions.

The band played an encore, ‘Temptation.’  No one had requested it.  The man put down his drink.  It had soured.  The lounge singer bounced his voice around.  Even the well-dressed woman looked uncomfortable.  The rest of the band would not meet the others’ eyes.

The barman came back and tried to get the man another drink.  The man started to order another gin but then ordered a scotch.  “Say, this is some band,” said the barman.  “Yes, some band,” the man replied.  He balled a napkin in his hand.  “Don’t you like the music?” asked the barman, drying off some glasses with lime peels still stuck on them.  “Yes,” the man said.  He took another drink of the scotch.  It tasted like smoke and honey.  “No,” he added.  “It’s very nice music, but I don’t give a damn.  I just don’t like it at all.”  He paid the barman and pushed back his chair and walked out of the hotel and toward the train station.  He looked back.  The band inside was just finishing and those people still at the tables were still talking and laughing.  Maybe they were talking about snow and ski lifts and hot cider and good times but the man stopped looking back and put up his collar and his shoes echoed loudly on the ground.

There would be plenty of time to catch the next train at the station so the man thought about “This Godless Endeavor” again and shook his head and couldn’t remember what he meant to do.  The man hoped the band found the music they had lost.  He put his hands in his pockets and turned the corner and whistled a song he didn’t like.  He saw another train far in the hills and he closed his eyes and he kept walking and the train off in the distance went behind another hill and was gone.  He kept walking.

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*** Just in case the jarring contrast from my piss-poor imitation didn’t make it obvious enough, this passage in full quotation is taken directly from Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  This quote taken from my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition, 1987, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., p. 214.  Let’s just say, shall we, that the Hemingway story likely shares its subject matter with Nevermore’s “The Termination Proclamation.”  You tell me which source deals with its theme more deftly, yeah?

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Cough & The Wounded Kings, An Introduction To The Black Arts (2010)

 

A charming introduction

 

This excellent split pulls off one of those relatively difficult feats: bringing together artists of generally disparate styles to vie for your earspace without coming across like random combination of mere pastiche.  Of course, we’re not exactly talking about a Sonata Arctica/Darkthrone split  – these two bands clearly spring from the gnarled roots of that aged tree called doom.  Nevertheless, Cough’s nastier, caustic approach to corrosive doom doesn’t necessarily find an echo in the smoother, more traditional doom stylings of British gents The Wounded Kings.  What ties this split together, then, is not texture but structure (more on which shortly).

Cough’s side of the split kicks off with the welcome sound of gradually decaying guitars marking an ancient time like the tolling of leaden, tectonic bells.  These first sections of the track, once they are eventually coaxed into some cantankerous riffing, lock into a molten groove with a riff that barely manages to straddle half-note steps.  The fiercely raw vocals are laden with just the right amount of reverb, and though they are placed quite high in the mix, the pained howls proceed almost exclusively in short, elongated phrases, which matches the pace and intent of the riffing perfectly.  About a third of the way through, some Osborne-or-Oborn (take your pick)-esque clean vocals wobble into the eldritch haze, accompanied by a marked shift to a more driving riff – this is where the Electric Wizard influence is most starkly on display.  The second run-through of this chorus brings in a second guitar line, streaking through the miasma with some delightfully psychedelic soloing.

This is nearly twenty minutes of harsh, confrontational punishment, but it is thoughtfully constructed and paced for maximum impact.  The band seems to know how to hit all the right marks, changing things up at around the 1/3 mark as well as the halfway point, meaning that the listener is kept absolutely rapt with attention as her ears are dealt blow after doom-soaked blow.  There are plenty of other bands out there tilling this same field of sludgey, psychedelic doom, but very few that I’ve come across can construct an exercise this long with such surgical care while still sounding dangerously unhinged.  Perhaps the only complaint I can muster is that the cymbal hits are a bit more restrained than is my preference, especially in the ultra-slow dirge sections.  Nevertheless, fans of all kinds of down-tuned noise will find as much to enjoy here as in Electric Wizard, Salome, Esoteric, or even Coffinworm.  Cough’s side fades out uneasily on a bed of feedback and crushing doom chords, playing a bit like the song’s opening in reverse.  Time stops, retracts – the bell is silent in its dark tower.

The Wounded Kings, for their part, play a far less harsh, but no less intense style of prog-laced traditional doom.  In similar fashion to Cough’s side, side B opens with a slow building instrumental section.  Doomed riffs are doubled by faint organ, with some warm solo guitar bits whirling about just under the surface.  Here, too, our heroes’ vocals kick in around a third of the way into the murk, but here with the clean, slightly nasal approach one would expect from these more traditional stylists.  Think Reverend Bizarre, Warning, My Dying Bride, maybe even Witchfinder General on downers, and although The Wounded Kings throw in a bit more oddness than these aforementioned, the spirit is shared.  These reedy vocals gain momentum, until the clearest statement of intent rings out again and again: “I’m weak, but I will endure / With blackened sorcery.”  Such a simple, potent line may as well be officially adopted as this style of doom’s slogan and rallying cry.

The intense and increasingly complex layering of the last section of the song (from ten minutes or so onward) invites – even dares – the listener to dive straight into the heart of the chaos, to stare directly at the sun.  A swirling maelstrom of magic(k)al frequencies is drawn down around the listener, marrying the finest strains of traditional doom to these progressive flourishes of layered organ and keys with unblinking, perfectly restrained drums.  Keyboards, organs, guitars, and vocals are all layered atop the other, vying for prominence in the mix, surging and struggling against one another.  This type of music works tremendously well by projecting the yearning frailty of the human voice into this torrent of contrary vibration, as if demanding that the elements do their worst, against which stands, plainly, finally, a voice, some words.  A somber piano outro offers a plaintive coda, solemnly adjourning the summoned forces with mute, fruitless tears.  Briefest respite from the gathered darkness.

As I’ve said, these bands sound, on their surface, very little like one another.  The split plays, nevertheless, like an occult unity of, if not opposites, then at least tangents.  Each group brings a lengthy, multi-section piece of music, and each speaks obliquely to the other by the sharing of structure, and the almost mathematical configuration of timing and movement.  Thus, despite the obvious differences in their preferred brand of bleak musical output, these sonically dissimilar groups make sense together, at least with these two songs.  This split, which serves as a masterful introduction to both acts (as well as the titular black arts), ends up sounding like long-separated twins, having been raised in separate countries, spontaneously putting pen to paper and channeling the same story in different languages.  The tones are different, the syllables wild and unrecognized, but the message…  The message resounds.

Overall rating: 85%.  Drugged-up or trad-ed down, the doom is coming to getchoo.

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An Introduction To The Black Arts will be released by Forcefield Records on November 16th.  This split has also got me pretty pumped up for Cough’s upcoming full-length, Ritual Abuse, out later in October on Relapse Records, as well as wanting to revisit The Wounded Kings’ album from way back in January of this year, The Shadow Over Atlantis, which is out on I Hate Records.  For you vinyl fiends out there, though, don’t miss out on your chance to doom your turntable straight to hell with this tasty split.

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Unearthly Trance, V (2010)

 

Doom what thou wilt, &c., &c.

 

In which Brooklyn’s veteran filth hounds Unearthly Trance continue in their efforts to provide a soundtrack for the inevitable collapsing of worlds into shrieking pyres of dust and static.  Where the band’s two previous records, 2006’s The Trident and 2008’s Electrocution, largely shook off the drone of their early work in favor of a snarling, stomping Celtic-Frosty death groove, V is somewhat of a retrenchment, a retreat to sparser landscapes and fuzzed howls reeling their way to an unreachable horizon.

The hungry listener, therefore, will find nothing quite so immediately digestible as Electrocution’s metronome-disregarding “God Is A Beast.”  More times than not, though, the hungry listener is kind of an asshole, and needs to be put squarely in his place, which V will do with more than a little relish.  The album’s first track drops in out of nowhere, as though the song had been playing since ages before time, and someone just now thought to kick the shit out of some ‘record’ button.  It feels a bit like stumbling into the middle of a perpetually-occurring ritual.  A dreaded incantation sounds; the hooded assembly kneels, supplicant.

Throughout the album’s hour-long invocation, the band leans heavily on the trudging, drone-inflected doom featured in songs like “Submerged Metropolis,” largely forsaking the righteous hate-gallop of the previous two outings.  Speaking of “Submerged Metropolis,” Unearthly Trance’s ability to pen wonderfully evocative song titles continues apace here, with “Sleeping While They Feast” and “The Horsemen Arrive in the Night” particularly bringing to mind horrid visions dancing on the hazed periphery of consciousness, glimpsed only in ragged-breath nightmare.

“The Tesla Effect” is among the more straightforward offerings, with its drunkenly swerving swing beat, while “Solar Eye” features a bended, droning riff that gives the song a wonderfully elastic, almost buoyant feeling.  Quite an achievement for a band so relentlessly focused on grime and abjection, no?  The two-part “Adversaries Mask” is maybe the most intriguing bit of sonic uneasiness, with the first part a generally subdued affair which flirts throughout with creeping menace, Ryan Lipynsky sounding at times like Nick Cave tripping headlong into the occult.  The second part drapes some guts-deep snarling from drummer Darren Verni in all manner of hellish frequency manipulation and feedback, coming across like radio transmissions from a world torn apart by electromagnetic storms.

Rather than evoking the typical clutching panic of soot-encrusted doom through a dense, claustrophobic production and style of songwriting, the majority of V proceeds (and succeeds) by injecting the spaces between notes and phrases with the sort of clenched-jaw tension that ends up producing much the same effect.  Witness the closing sections of “Solar Eye” for an apt demonstration of this ritualistic technique.  Depending on your mood and/or eschatological inclination, the album’s closing track “The Leveling” either fizzles out disappointingly or heralds the advent of a slow-burning wave of technological destruction.

All of this is to say, essentially, that V is an out-and-out doom record, which may leave some listeners (this one included) initially slack-jawed and befuddled.  Upon reflection, it seems that Lipynsky may have exorcised some of his more up-tempo and aggressive demons with the Howling Wind’s excellent Into the Cryosphere earlier this year.  V, therefore, is a patient album, which is often music critic code for “It’s boring but I think I should like it anyway”; in this case, however, this patience is that of a gradually-unfurling apocalyptic vision, or a prehistoric predator crawling through untold eons to loose its fetid breath on your neck.  Meaning nothing so grand as “ignore at your peril,” but rather, “listen, or don’t – the time that remains, remains either way.”  Your vision clouds, solar winds carry a whispered message of absent light and inevitable crumbling.  This music waits, and watches, and breathes out a long, low sigh.  Static.

Overall rating: 80%.  Doom, or don’t, but you will be doomed.

V is out now on Relapse, and available for purchase here.

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In which a few thoughts are occasioned by the monumental new Enslaved album, Axioma Ethica Odini (which, if you’ve yet to hear it, is absolutely tremendous.  Mountains quake, the skies weep, the soul straight-up yearns.).
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was metal.

Which is to say, for myself, and perhaps for many of you out there, during the initial stages of my exploration of the multifarious wonders of heavy metal, the word ‘metal’ itself was all I required to feel a sense of, if not community, then at least identity.  ‘Metal’ was a strident enough signifier to set this new world apart from previous musical interests (punk, hardcore, jazz, mainstream rock, and whatever else).  No matter the variation between the usual ‘gateway’ suspects (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Pantera, &c.), all that mattered then was their common genesis as metal.

I suspect that most metal fans out there have long since recognized the strength that inheres in feeling yourself part of heavy metal’s community.  No matter if that engagement is a primarily solitary endeavor, one still feels a sense of empowerment by festooning one’s ears with this vast and revelatory music with the zeal of a novitiate.

Clocks spin, years pass, times change.  It’s a natural inclination, the further one gets into exploring the minutiae of heavy metal genres, to begin the unending work of segregation, classification, ghettoization.  These bands go over here, while those bands stay over here.  The world of metal becomes a splintered landscape of conflicting and sometimes feuding tribes.  What was once the unsurpassed breadth of the Roman Empire becomes the fiercely independent fiefdoms of 17th century Europe during the Wars of Religion.  Any subsequent musical Peace of Westphalia would only solidify control over barriers to entry, reproducing in musical terms the political origins of modern state sovereignty.  A Concert of Europe, indeed.

The entire impetus for these here rambling thoughts is nothing more fanciful than my increasing disdain for my own practice of genre labeling in iTunes.  Which is to say, although there was no such thing as iTunes or mp3s when I started listening to metal, I feel confident that had I been importing those Metallica, Sabbath, Priest and Maiden records into iTunes those several years ago, they would have all comfortably been tagged ‘Metal’.  Simple.  Done.

Over time, though, words proliferate.  Adjectives, qualifiers, slashes and hyphens.  More detailed descriptions of musical genres are taken as proof of greater attentiveness, greater sophistication on the part of the o! so cultured listener.  The pure, simple narrative of heavy metal jogs, tangles, snarls.  Roots, branches, impurities.

This is just as much a critique of my own obsessive tendencies as it is of heavy metal in general.  Still, I think the type of personality that is drawn to metal in the first place, and then further drawn to obsess over the micro-fractures between genres and subgenres, is an understandable beast.  Where we move from more or less natural OCD-ism to manufactured opinion and a loss of communal feeling is when record labels, the metal ‘press’ (such as it is), and all manner of scene-policing malcontents buy into these perfectly real and legitimate musical differences not as a matter of the diversity of artistic expression, but as a marketable tool.  Again, this is but an inevitable consequence of the imperatives of capitalism, but it still hurts.

To bring it back to my original inspiration: Enslaved’s new album is a massively impressive monument to the apparently illimitable wells of creativity drawn upon by these Norwegian gentlefolk.  It is equal parts driving and aggressive, nimble and progressive, dense and spacious.  In short, it will kick your ass twelve ways to Sunday.  More to the point, though, rarely in recent times has an album compelled me so absolutely – so maniacally – to dispense altogether with genre classification.

I have other Enslaved albums labeled in iTunes in several combinations of “Viking/prog/psych/black metal.”  Now, I ask you: What in the hell is accomplished by belching into the world such an ugly mouthful of nonsense?  (Alternately, am I really doing myself any favors by labeling various Ulver records everything from ‘Black/Folk’ to ‘Avant-Garde’ to ‘Norwegian Folk’ to ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’?  Have I ever, in recent memory, been compelled to sort my iTunes library by the urge to listen to nothing but ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’?  Clearly, no.)  Sure, each of those descriptions has some limited utility in describing various components of Enslaved’s sound, but FUCK.  This new album is just pure metal.  No need to qualify, or hesitate, or second-guess: this music demands only obedience to its mastery.  To be held in its elemental thrall.

More generally, I think the best heavy metal is often that which essentially grabs me by the face, slaps me about and yells, “Hey, asshole, nobody gives a shit about all these words.  This right here is heavy metal, and it is happening NOW.  So shut the fuck up and LISTEN.”

Of course, the irony of only being able to express these ideas about music through words upon desperate words is not lost on me.  But enough words: time for action.  I’m off to blast the new Enslaved record for about the tenth time this week, and maybe go about the business of some serious genre-pruning.  Let’s get out of these ghettos and step back out onto wide plains warmed by the churning, molten sun of heavy metal.

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