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Archive for the ‘Random Musical Nonsense’ Category

There are few things more satisfying than a truly excellent split album.  The options are fairly wide open, of course: One can find two bands that play very similar styles, and hope that a friendly spirit of competition will urge each of them to produce exceptionally good songs; one can find two bands whose styles don’t necessarily seem perfectly matched, yet when presented as a complement to the other featured act, make some curious sense together; or, of course, one can find two completely unrelated and bizarre bands to pair, and just revel in the strangeness.  All of these strategies can be used quite effectively.

Here are some of the successful splits I’ve got around the house that first came to mind:

Fen & De Arma


Cough & The Wounded Kings


Horna & Musta Surma


Horna & Behexen (the Finns must be quite good as this, because this is another phenomenal black metal split)

Most of these splits fall into that first category, I suppose, although the Cough & Wounded Kings split seems more like the second category.  Nevertheless, all of these are incredibly delicious splits.  Still, the entire reason I got to thinking about these split albums in the first place was because of a truly world-devouring split that didn’t happen.

Blut Aus Nord – Thematic Emanations Of Archetypal Multiplicity


The Axis Of Perdition – Physical Illucinations From The Sewer Of Xuchilbara (The Red God)


You see, these two EPs were originally intended to be released as a split album, and the more I listen to both of them, the more I am completely devastated that they were not released as such.  Now, I own both of these mini-albums on CD, so of course I can (and do) just play them back-to-back.  But that’s not really the point.  If these two monstrous recordings had been issued on the same disc (or as a split vinyl!!!!), I have little hesitation in saying that they would qualify for the title of BEST SPLIT ALBUM EVER.  Blut Aus Nord dipped into a completely new style of groaning industrial beauty on Thematic Emanations, closer in spirit to Ulver’s Perdition City than anything else in the French mystiques’ catalog (well, perhaps until this year’s mind-blowing 777 – Sect(s), but that’s another story…), while the Axis Of Perdition took the overblown insanity of their debut to new atmospheric and compositional heights.  The bands sound nothing alike, but it’s entirely natural to hear them plying these disturbed sounds in the other’s presence.

So, here’s my question to all of you brave readers out there: What are the most amazing split releases that weren’t?  I’m not actually thinking just of splits that were supposed to happen but didn’t.  I mean, use your imagination.  Think of some of your favorite EPs, and then think whether they could be even better in the context of a split.  Here are a few of my just thought-up dream splits:

Ulver – Vargnatt (demo) & Agalloch – Of Stone, Wind & Pillor (EP):



Gorgeous folk/black metal stirrings from both originators and inspired progeny.  Bonus points if we could convince Ulver circa Shadows Of The Sun to record their own version of Agalloch’s cover of Sol Invictus’s “Kneel to the Cross.”

Destruction – Sentence Of Death (EP) & Sodom – Obsessed By Cruelty (EP)



Two of the rawest, thrashiest, proto-black-iest sets of 20-ish minute madness from Germany in 1984.  Imagine these two slabs of influential metal history as one 38 minute album.  Then, imagine your brain slowly dribbling out your ears, and stupidly gleeful drool rolling down your chin.

Neurosis – Sovereign (EP) & Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada (EP)



This one’s a bit more of a stretch, but the corresponding influence of Neurosis on metal and Godspeed on indie and post-rock are similar enough, and the cinematic scope of both bands’ approach to texture and composition dramatic enough that I think fans of either band would find much to enjoy in the other’s output were these two excellent EPs to be smashed into one dreamy eruption of time-stretching bliss.

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Feel free to test out some of these split ideas on your own and let me know how they hold up.  In the meantime, what are your perfect splits that the cruel ravages of history and commerce have forever denied the world?

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Wherein the murky streams separating tribute, rip-off, and subconsciously-imbibed heavy metal DNA are made entirely opaque.  Is the intro to “Sign of the Cross” as directly descended from “Embryo” as it sounds like to me, or am I just off yet another tangent of forcing connections that should not be (cue lumbering Cthulu riffs…)?

Course, in this analogy, Steve Harris becomes Tony Iommi, and Blaze Bayley becomes the absence of Ozzy.  Make of that what you will.

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This discussion might be somewhat mooted by the widespread availability of a band’s entire catalog online at the click of a few .zip links, but it used to be the case that if you wanted to dig into the work of a artist that was new to you, you had to just out and buy the record.  Couple that with this particular writer’s having gotten into metal without the influence of friends, or older siblings, or tape trading or ‘zines or anything else that might have given some pointers on the best albums with which to dive into an unknown band’s vast oeuvre, and you wind up with what look like, in retrospect, some pretty fucking wacky starting points.

Allow me to illustrate:

Yup, my copy's even got that stupid wrinkled-looking cover sleeve

The first Megadeth record I bought and listened to was 1997’s Cryptic Writings, a widely-panned shitstorm of wimped-out radio-friendly “thrash”-rock.  Okay, so maybe it’s not the complete disaster of Risk, but it’s really a fairly awful album.  The first couple of singles for the album received heavy radio play, though, and my teenaged self thought, “Hey, this sounds pretty alright.”  I got the record, didn’t play it too much, and probably wound up selling it years later.  The miracle is, then, that I ever managed to get into Megadeth “for real.”  I think I eventually stumbled on a used copy of Countdown to Extinction, which rekindled my interest in the band, and as my appetite for metal compelled into more research, I inevitably found my way into the band’s first four classic albums.

So, there are actually two points in my mind about that: Number one, how shitty is it if you stumble upon a band just at the time that they happen to release one of their all-time poorest showings?  What if I had never recovered from the bland shock of Cryptic Writings?  “Hangar 18” could still be sitting out there in the distance, far outside my realm of awareness, screaming and thrashing and raging for all the world to be heard, but to no avail.  Second, though: What if your first encounter with a band is with their far and away best album?  To stick with the Megadeth example, what if your first Megadeth album was Rust In Peace?  (I know metaldom’s opinion is somewhat split as to the extent by which RIP outstrips Peace Sells, Killing…, So Far…, etc., but to these ears it’s not even a close competition – Rust In Peace smokes everything else Mustaine et al put to wax by a wide country mile.)  From that point on, everything’s going to be a letdown.  You can dig into the band’s past to trace the roots of that miraculous album, and you can follow where its success took the band, and even where its dulcet tones stoked the fires for other bands, but that initial, revelatory experience is essentially never to be reclaimed.

(On a short aside, I’m pretty certain that my first Metallica album was Load.  By most counts, that would be a fairly disastrous starting point for Metallica’s discography, but since Metallica seems to be the one actual metal band that gets a free pass on most hard rock radio, I grew up hearing enough of the band’s real baroque thrash output that I could recognize Load for the stylistic turn for the worse that it certainly was.  Therefore, I wasn’t turned off, and quickly acquired Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and everything else.)

It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Even though Reign In Blood is generally accepted as Slayer’s finest hour (though I think there’s probably a case to be made for South Of Heaven as the better record; still, it’s tough to dispute RIB’s historic status), I don’t think someone getting into Slayer with RIB would necessarily be at the same disadvantage as someone getting into Megadeth with RIP.  Thing is, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly why that is.  I suppose it’s probably because I don’t see as huge a gap in terms of quality between Hell AwaitsReign In BloodSouth Of Heaven as I do between So Far…Rust In PeaceCountdown to Extinction.  That having been said, my first Slayer album was actually Divine Intervention, which is kind of a weird spot to drop into the discography, but not as confusing as, say, Undisputed Attitude or God Hates Us All would be.

On that same note, the first albums that I acquired by Opeth, Darkthrone, and Dream Theater were Blackwater Park, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, and Scenes From A Memory, respectively.  None of those three albums necessarily has a consensus as to being the band’s all-time greatest, but there’s enough critical praise behind each one that they could have been potentially standard-setting albums.  And in fact, each one likely remains my favorite album by each band.  Nevertheless, I have subsequently acquired every single album by all three bands, and haven’t felt the same sense of inevitable resignation that I think I would have felt had I stumbled across Rust In Peace before Cryptic Writings.

I wonder if the extent to which one experiences these weird starting points is mostly dependent on whether the band in question has produced any truly oddball albums.  Like, this whole conversation doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about Motörhead or, to take a fairly timely example, Amon Amarth.  You can hate or love the band, and you can certainly make distinctions in quality between albums by each band, but neither band has produced any albums that are so radically different from the rest of its canon that a listener stumbling across them would be fed an entirely wrong perception of other albums.

On the other hand, a band like Boris or the Melvins would seem to buck this trend for precisely the opposite reason: both bands do enough experimentation and total stylistic shifts (more so with Boris than the Melvins, to be sure) that neither band necessarily has any good or bad starting points.  Instead, most starting points are probably equally strange, or at least sit reasonably well at odds with the bulk of the band’s other albums.

That having been said, here are just a couple of other strange discographic starting points in which I’ve found myself embroiled:

Don't care what you say; Cradle's never come up with a better pun

At the time, I had never heard of Cradle Of Filth, so I’m not even entirely sure what motivated me to pick up this album (I assume it wasn’t the horrifically garish cover art).  More importantly, though, I had no idea that this was a completely strange stop-gap release between albums, comprised of a few new tunes, a couple of new ambient/classical interludes, a Sisters of Mercy cover, and some rerecorded songs from Cradle’s debut album, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh.  I enjoyed this release enough, though, to continue on and work both backwards and forwards, and Cradle Of Filth remains an entirely guilt-free guilty pleasure to this day.

Who thought this cover was a good idea?

So, yeah, that album art is a nasty ol’ piece of shit.  The album’s actually pretty good, though, but if you’ve heard it and any of Septic Flesh’s other material, you know it’s an odd spot at which to first dip one’s toes in the Greek metallers’ waters.  It’s a strange hybrid electro-death metal trip, and the band has never really delved in the same dirges again.  Seems like this would be a band that you’d either get into from the earliest black metal albums and follow them through, or else you’d be better served starting off with Sumerian Daemons and just working on from there.

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So, what about you?  Have you had any similar experiences, either with getting into a band with a completely fucked-up, non-representative album, or with getting into a band with their far and away best album?  Or, more generally, when you know you want to investigate a band that’s new to you, do you have a particular strategy?  Do you start with the most recent album and work backward?  Do you start from the beginning and move to the present?  Do you first reach to the most widely-acclaimed album to see if it does anything for you, and only after that point reach both forward and backward if you like what you hear?

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Rhythm is a funny thing.  For the avid music listener, then, I’d wager a fair sum that the way rhythms are internalized has a lot to deal with the way one experiences time.  And perhaps, even more so than a similar melody, or musical key, or instrumental timbre or anything else, it’s rhythm that can rightfully claim to be the preexisting undercurrent of raw musical material from which individual songs and artists only occasionally borrow, like drilling down through dry topsoil, through shale and limestone and dead rivers, only to hit, eventually – inevitably – on a current of time that speeds the whole world along with it.

That’s why, I suppose, these songs, which on their surface have nothing to do with one another, may actually be the same song in some meaningful sense.  At least, once you’ve caught that rhythm, you don’t hear it with your ears or see its sound waves with your mind’s eye – it works you from within, like your chest is a warm antenna pulling in signals from the center of the earth:

Gnarls Barkley, “Open Book”

Aphex Twin, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” (see especially the section from 3:04 onward)

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Enslaved’s Below the Lights and Primordial’s The Gathering Wilderness are two of the absolute finest metal albums of this decade we’ve just watched fade into steam as our future-bound train pulls out of the station (shades of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…).  Very different albums, of course, but one striking similarity is the way that each album’s opening song sets the perfect tone for the remainder of the album.

Beyond that, the opening couplets of each song actually put me in a similar head-space:

Enslaved:
“I close my eyes / As fire swept clean the earth.”

Primordial:
“One day, I stood / With my back to the wind / And the rain fell down.”

The sole, perhaps somewhat Nietzschean individual witnessing some great naturalistic cataclysm, right?  Anyway, all of this mystic bullshit is beside the point.  All I’m really trying to get at is, these songs are, on their face, almost entirely dissimilar.  Both spring from the loins of bands with black metal roots, but which, by this point in each band’s career, have been largely shaken off in favor of finer genre accoutrements.  So, answer me this question: Which song is the better opening track?  Keep in mind, of course, that this is an entirely separate question from which song is better.

Enslaved, “As Fire Swept Clean The Earth” (2003):

Primordial, “The Golden Spiral” (2005)

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The danger of these songs is that they may just force one to spend a few hours listening to the entire albums for which they serve as midwives.  Still: Which is the better album opener?  What’s your favorite album opener?

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The open question: Are these two songs, separated by a good 20 years, in fact more or less the same song?  Have a listen and decide for yourself.

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up” (1976)

Radiohead, “Fitter Happier” (1997)

Each a caricature in its own way; which vision of the world is true?  Which is beautiful?

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In which are briefly chronicled some of the noises that have been stuck in my ears of late.

Darkest Era, The Last Caress of Light

This brilliant Irish outfit flirts with the best of traditional and folk metal, coming across like the beautiful love-child of Primordial and Atlantean Kodex.  Gorgeously powerful and emotive vocals, stirring rhythms, and twin guitar lullabies to tuck you right in.  If you’re missing out on this, you’re missing out on one of the best metal albums of this still-young year.

Negative Plane, Stained Glass Revelations

Oh my, is this ever an intoxicating sound.  Psychedelic without requiring drug use, with that old sound that might as well be the best new sound you’ve heard, Negative Plane’s shimmeringly melodic black metal is backed with some coarse black/thrash vocals and some seriously detailed compositional chops.  This is an album to get lost inside.

Crowbar, Sever the Wicked Hand

Still sorting out my thoughts on this one.  In most respects, it seems like quintessential Crowbar (though admittedly I’ve been tuned out since Odd Fellows Rest, so maybe the ‘quint-‘ in quintessential has changed in the interim), and while it’s on, and loud, I’m pulled in, but when it’s over, I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot retained in muscle memory.  Probably it just needs more spins, but for something so ostensibly formed around The Crushing Riff, the absence of memorability is a slightly worrying sign.  Plus, that guitar tone is like plexiglass when I want concrete.

Death, The Sound of Perseverance (3 Disc Deluxe Reissue)

Before snapping up this triple-disc reissue, it had probably been five years or so since I’d last spun The Sound of Perseverance.  Opinions seem awfully mixed on this one among Death fans, and while it’s certainly not my favorite of theirs, I also don’t think it’s their worst, and the fact that so many of these songs remained burned into my mind despite a five-year hiatus meant that this felt like the return of a long-wayward friend.  Two discs of bonus material is a bit much to handle, but the alternate takes and demos from 1996 with different vocalists on disc 3 are quite interesting.  Certainly worth a revisiting, particularly in advance of the long-promised sophomore album from Control Denied.

Belphegor, Blood Magick Necromance

Music this intentionally offensive shouldn’t work so well to relax me, but that’s what Belphegor does.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the last album, but so far, I’ve really been digging on Blood Magick Necromance.  Nothing at all is one bit different, so if you’ve never been on board with the melodic sheen slapped over the Behemoth/Arkhon Infaustus black/death hybrid, today will be just like every Belphegor-free day before for you.  All I know is, this shit really hits a very particular kind of spot, and yeah, it’s kind of soothing.

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew Live


Man, this is some deep intense grooving from Miles in his electric prime.  Phil Freeman over at Burning Ambulance wrote a great review of this a few weeks back, so check that out for the real dirt on this fantastic release.  For as much as I love the spooky atmospherics of Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, the two live gigs documented on this disc are all about the hard, spitfire jam, not the drawn-out meditation.  Turn it up loud and drink in those colors.

Årabrot, Revenge

Spazzy, noisy, occasionally jazzy and off-kilter rock with hints of sludge from Norway.  Not bad, eh?  Årabrot sounds like a mathier, more metal version of The Jesus Lizard, maybe (or at least the vocals are a dead match for David Yow, or occasionally Mike Patton), with all manner of toxic skronk.  This album is strangely addictive for something so initially abrasive.  Check it, let it wreck you.

At The Soundawn, Shifting

I missed out on this one from last year, but it’s really been satisfying lately.  Sure, it’s a bit soft for the true METAL hearts among you out there, but to my ears, it sounds like At The Soundawn has sketched a great triangle of sonic influences, with Burst (r.i.p., waaaaaaaah), Thrice, and Sigur Ros as the corners.  Toss in some classy trumpet and some of the jazzy/fusion touches in the drumming (a bit like Intronaut’s Valley Of Smoke, I guess) and some tabla drums and hell, you’ve got yourself one right proper mess that nevertheless works.

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That’s what’s been bothering the ears over at Spinal Tapdance HQ lately, friends.  What’s cracking around your cranium?
– dhok

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