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I approached fellow blogger Josh Haun (of That’s How Kids Die infamy) a while back because I knew from conversations on Twitter that he and I would likely have drastically different opinions on the new Liturgy record.  I didn’t really care enough about the record either way to do a full-on review, but I still thought there were a lot of issues circulating throughout the metal scene on which it might be interesting to get a dual perspective.  So, obviously this isn’t quite the case of a real, knock-down, drag-out smackdown.  We haven’t called each other names or made rude suggestions regarding the bovine origins of the other’s parents; we’re just two guys with too many opinions about music.

In case you’re not too clear on what we’re talking about in terms of the widespread accusations of hipsterism that get thrown around with this band, may we kindly suggest you watch as much of this interview with the “band” from Scion Rock Fest as you can stomach:

Now you see what we’re up against, right?

I asked Josh to give the album a listen and pass along his immediate reactions as something of an opening statement.  What follows is therefore Josh’s opening thoughts, followed by my opening thoughts, after which point he and I traded emails back and forth to engage in a rather far-flung conversation that touches on everything from Darkthrone to Deathspell Omega, Moby to Beck, negativity to positivity to doofuses to hipsters to jasmine rice…and beyond.  Thanks for reading, and please do let us know where you come down on any and all of these issues.

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Opening thoughts on Liturgy’s Aesthetica:

Josh Haun:  Listening to Liturgy’s Aesthetica after being woefully turned off by the few tracks I’d already heard prior to “obtaining” a copy.  I recently saw a video interview where the singer could barely string a coherent sentence together (it went something like: “Like… um… like, philosophy 101-level bullshit… like, um, um, bullshit attempt to intellectualize black metal… like, um…) [Ed.: See above], so no surprise then that this appears to be black metal written by someone who doesn’t have the first clue about how to structure a song, much less play their instrument competently.  Liturgy fans seem to have it in their head that the only reason anyone could possibly hate this band is because they’re “hipsters” (whatever the fuck that means), or because of how they look, dress, talk etc.  I hate this band because I think the music is complete garbage and I don’t care whether the band is comprised of hipsters or Al Qaeda operatives.  The manifestos and sorry excuses for interviews are just turd icing on a shit cake.

I’m on track three at the moment, and I’m getting images of preschoolers in corpsepaint banging away on Fisher Price instruments.  Actually, preschool black metal would probably be more entertaining than this has been so far.  Oh hang on a second, track 4 sounds like they’re trying something different. This track sounds like crappy, under-produced Meshuggah or something, which isn’t saying much since I don’t really care for Meshuggah.  At least the obnoxious singer seems to have decided to shut the fuck up for this jam.  This track appears to be two minutes and thirty seconds worth of ideas stretched out over seven minutes.  Liturgy aren’t the only band that has this problem though, a lot of newer bands for some reason think a song has to drag on forever.  This is not trance-inducing, this is boring – you can go ahead and end any time now, track 4… shit there’s still like a minute and thirty left.  Well, at least the singer didn’t open his mouth for that entire time.

Aaaaaand we’re back to a piss poor black metal impression after that weird detour into djent-ville.  Track 5 sounds exactly like tracks 1 through 3.  I know this is my first time listening to the album and everything, but it probably isn’t good that I can’t tell the difference between tracks 1,2,3,5 and 6 so far, except on track 6 they added this effect where it sounds like the band is playing down the hall with the door closed for part of it.  Does this band have a bass player?  Do their guitars only have the 3 high strings on them?  Does their singer have testicles?  Track 6 is another one that goes on forever.

Track 7 seems to be from the soundtrack to the world’s most annoying Atari game.  Do you fucking remember Atari?  Did those games even have music?  If they did, it would sound like this steaming pile of pointlessness.  I guess the band threw in these little “curveballs” to break up the monotony of their utterly faceless treble assault.  Wait, what’s this?  Track 9 is actually piquing my interest.  I’m getting a bit of a sludgy, Sabbathy vibe here.  But alas, they don’t seem to be able to take it anywhere and my iTunes tells me they’re gonna drag it out to just shy of 8 minutes.  This band simply does not understand the fundamentals of compelling songwriting.  I know whoever’s reading this probably thinks I came into it already with a chip on my shoulder, but when Dan approached me about doing a hipster black metal throwdown, I really was willing to give Liturgy the benefit of the doubt, in spite of all the nonsense.  Had they blown me away, I would have readily admitted defeat… people who know me and follow THKD know that I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong about something (see: Kvelertak, Ghost, etc).

Track 11 is a chorus of people saying “hey” over and over again.  WHAT IN THE FUCKING FUCK IS THE POINT OF THIS?!?!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when this record was being finished: “Man, this is awesome!”  Man, this is some pretentious horseshit!  3:30 of people saying “hey”.  This must be what people mean by suicidal black metal, because this track is making me want to hang myself.  What a surprise, they end the album with another track that sounds exactly like tracks 1,2,3,5,6,8 and 10.  Playskool’s My First Black Metal Band.  Thankfully, this is over.

Dan Obstkrieg: In preparing these preliminary notes for squaring off with Mr. Haun, I was trying very purposefully to keep my commentary to the music itself, knowing that our subsequent conversations would likely touch on all the extraneous cultural factors relevant to the debate over Liturgy and the potentially broader accusations of hipsters (or whatever) having infiltrated black metal.

Well, first things first: The album is definitely too long.  That having been said, the pacing and sequencing are very well done, with a mid-album break and the occasional odd intro or outro that gives a breather before diving back into the smash-and-burn.  Also on the negative side, those layered vocal-only sections are intensely annoying – the vocals work much better when restricted to a sort of white-out howl whipping around the outskirts of the instrumental maelstrom.  All of this means, of course, that the Krallice comparisons are inevitable.  In fact, if I didn’t have such an aversion to reading or seeing any interviews done by the band’s insufferable mouthpiece, I’d be interested to see if anyone has asked him point-blank about the undeniable Krallice influence.

The chugging, Meshuggah-lite sections are a nice touch, but they can drag on too long – the prime offender here being “Generation,” which has no business being as long as it is.  This technique adds a lot to “High Gold,” and in general, I dig the abrupt starts and stops of many of the songs.  The band is less effective when they try to do more traditional black metal tremolo riffing that isn’t simultaneously supported by their trademark jittery blast and crash.  See the opening of “Sun Of Light,” for example – those melodies are just plain uneventful.  “Veins Of God,” on the other hand, slows things down nicely, but again, there’s absolutely no reason it should go on for eight minutes.  And yeah, seriously, “Glass Earth” is straight-up obnoxious.  Almost painfully so, especially given that I’m already so favorably disposed to this band by this point in the album.  What could possibly compel them to think that this was a good idea?

All of these criticisms and somewhat backhanded compliments aside, I do actually really like this album.  Even though the ’90s alternative rock (play the start of “Tragic Laurel,” and then play the start of Beck’s “Jack-Ass”…) and new school American black metal influences (or ripoffs, depending on your persuasion) are quite clear, it still feels like Liturgy have found an individual approach, and it’s an approach that I find enjoyable.  “Glory Bronze” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, full of a legitimately affecting sense of yearning.  Maybe the cardinal sin of Liturgy is that the main dude has tried to actively claim black metal, and therefore in the process repudiated or denigrated what many of us black metal fiends identify as the true, untainted spirit of the form.

Does God hate them all?

The Debate:

Josh Haun:I have absolutely no problem with bands bringing aspects of other genres to black metal.  Just look at bands like Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega.  These bands incorporate tons of outside influences, but they are black metal beyond question and I love them for it.  I guess I just don’t see how this Liturgy is adding anything to black metal, unwanted or otherwise.  The tracks that incorporate other influences, the Meshuggah-esque track and doomy track, for instance, don’t really incorporate any of the black metal influences found throughout the rest of the album.  Relegating them to separate tracks tells me they don’t know how to blend their influences into a cohesive whole, which makes me wonder how they’re two album deep into their career and not still in the demo stage.  Furthermore, the black metal tracks are completely stock, I don’t hear anything even remotely interesting in them, nothing whatsoever that draws you into Liturgy’s world.  Certainly nothing that makes me want to hail them as vanguards or liken them to Bad Brains and David Bowie, as the d-bag that reviewed the album for Pitchfork did.

I don’t understand how anyone with a decent heavy metal knowledge base could find anything of real value in this band.  How is noisy, underproduced black metal innovative in any way whatsoever in 2011?  It’s been done before and done better by the likes of Darkthrone, Ulver, Ildjarn, VON, hell, there’s any number of bands that have made lo-fi black metal more engaging than Liturgy.  You see, the thing about an album like Transilvanian Hunger or Satanic Blood(okay, technically a demo…) is that it creates a world and drags you into it.  It actively engages the listener, pulls you into a world of seething, filthy, brittle distortion and real emotions, real negative energy.  I don’t get that when I hear Liturgy.  I don’t hear someone creating a world.  I hear someone that has studied a particular sound from afar and recreated it without fully immersing themselves in it.  It’s like a bad college thesis on black metal or something, totally dry and academic.Dan, from reading your opening statements, I almost get the feeling you had to convince yourself to like this album.  Was that the case or am I way off base?

Why do you think Liturgy have gotten the level of attention that they have?  Is it all about this ridiculous “hipster” stuff that the media and message board jockeys came up with or does the music really hold that much merit?

Dan Obstkrieg:I can see how you would get the impression that I had to talk myself into enjoying this, but I think that has less to do with the music itself, and more with the self-conscious reflexivity I feel compelled to use when discussing the band due to the intense level of shit-flinging going on all around the Internet.  The fact that I feel compelled to qualify my enjoyment of the music so heavily is frustrating, and I know to some extent that’s just my own issue.  Still, I always get the sense that even when I’m trying to talk with someone about Liturgy’s music, there’s always that nagging irritation of all the non-musical aspects of the band’s existence just lurking unannounced in the background.  Plus, thank God I haven’t read that Pitchfork review – sounds obnoxious as all hell (not that this is surprising, but still…).

So, let me be a bit more straightforward about it: I really like this record, and I really liked the last record, too.  I think this one is more interesting, but will definitely be more polarizing, both because of the heightened profile of the band, and because the band’s sound has become a bit more diversified.  That being said, I definitely don’t think Liturgy are the saviors of metal.  You and I both know metal doesn’t need saving, but more than that, I halfway agree with you that they don’t represent anything paradigmatically new.  Where I disagree with you, though, is in assessing what it is that they are doing.  When I listen to these records, I don’t hear them through the filter of raw, underproduced black metal albums from the likes of Ildjarn, Von, etc.  I hear this album much more through the lens of much more recent developments in U.S. black metal – Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, though obviously Liturgy only really sounds like the last of those three.  Where you seem to hear raw, underproduction, I hear a different approach to noise – the spindly, occasionally indie-esque guitar tone makes for a much brighter, almost white-hot noise, instead of the murky, bleak darkness of what we might call “real” black metal (whatever the fuck that means).  Apart from that, though, the more I listen to these albums, especially Aesthetica, the more I hear it as a real showcase for the drumming, which has such a fantastic, sprightly, almost jazz/fusion freak-out quality to it.

All of this, I think, is why one of the major problems with the band is, as I suggested earlier, that they are trying to actively claim black metal.  If they weren’t saying, “Ah, we’ve listened to all this black metal, and we’ve decided here’s what’s wrong with it, so now we’re producing a completely new kind of black metal, which is just what the world needs,” it would be much easier to just say either, “Yeah, I dig these songs,” or “Nah, this doesn’t do much for me.”  As for why exactly the band has gotten so much attention, man, it fucking beats me.  I like the music a lot, but if I were trying to give the new album a score, I’d probably call it a 7 or so out of 10.  So, I dig it, but right now it’s not doing much to aim for year-end list status.  I honestly think the fact that they’re from New York has a lot to do with it, given how much more intense scrutiny tends to be focused on whatever explosion of sub-sub-sub-genre is currently happening there.  Beyond that, honestly a lot of it is probably down to the relentless self-aggrandizing nonsense constantly spewing out of Mr. Front Dude’s mouth.

What do you think is the reason for all this focus?  Do you think there’s any legitimate connection between this band and any other more recent not-quite-“real”-for-whatever-reason black metal acts, like Deafheaven, Fell Voices, Ash Borer, etc.?

Also, do you think you would feel any differently about this music if it wasn’t presented as “black metal”?

Hey, you damn kids better get off our lawn(?)

Josh Haun: You make a good point about Liturgy being more in line with the likes of WITTR, Krallice and Weakling than with some of the lo-fi black metal practitioners I named.  In fact I think you can pretty easily draw a line from Weakling to Krallice to Liturgy.  I think Weakling and WITTR can be directly traced back to Burzum, but they each sort of took that sound and did their own thing with it, Americanized it, if you will.  I have a similar problem with Krallice as I do with Liturgy though, to be honest.  Sure, they’re obviously gifted musicians, but I don’t find their music particularly engaging.  To me, a Krallice album is like the musical equivalent of an abstract sculpture or piece of art that you just kind of stare at from afar in a museum whilst stroking your chin, and don’t really have any meaningful interaction with.  Mick Barr has made an entire career out of making music like that.  That said, why is Weakling engaging, but not Krallice or Liturgy?  The short answer is: riffs.  Dead as Dreams is chock full of cool ideas that actual warrant the lengthy songs.

Also, some of our differing perspective undoubtedly comes from differing frames of reference.  I don’t listen to much indie rock, with the exception of some occasional Low, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof (do those bands even count?), so I wouldn’t have the first clue about any of those influences on Liturgy’s sound.  I will agree with you that their sound is somehow “brighter”, for lack of a better term, than your typical lo-fi black metal.  Unfortunately I stopped being able to take the drumming seriously when I heard the term “burst beat” being thrown around.  Sometimes you can’t help but let the external bullshit get to you.With that said, this band probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it was presented as anything other than black metal.  I can’t see them being categorized as any other type of metal, and if they had started out on Thrill Jockey and been marketed as indie rock of some sort, I probably never would have heard of Liturgy.  I had never heard of Thrill Jockey until the metal websites lit up with news of this band signing with them.  Obviously, I’m totally ignorant when it comes to that scene. I’ve had some friends/colleagues/etc. who listened to that stuff and tried to turn me on to it, but to me most indie rock sounds like children’s music.  But yeah, the fact that they claim black metal, that the singer wrote a manifesto proclaiming black metal as dead and that his band has created this superior new form of black metal in its wake, it’s just too fucking ridiculous to take.  It’s typical pompous American behavior, though.  Who the fuck is this guy to tell us black metal is dead?  He’s obviously never heard the more recent works of Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, Inquisition, Aosoth, etc.

I can’t help but feel that Liturgy, Deafheaven, Ash Borer, etc., do have a similar set of influences, namely Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room.  But I think a band like Deafheaven brings a lot more to the table by incorporating a hefty British shoegaze influence  and Ash Borer is a bit darker and more raw.  In fact, Deafheaven is one of the first bands to combine black metal and shoegaze in a way that I find appealing.  It probably just has to do with the fact that they write dynamic, interesting songs and that they manage to keep things pretty visceral in spite of incorporating those outside influences. [Ed.: Check out Josh’s review of Deafheaven’s Roads to Judah here.]

Do you consider Liturgy a black metal band?  Do you have any set parameters as to what black metal is/should be?  I’m only asking because a lot people (myself included at times) have some pretty narrow ideas about black metal and think that is a big part of why Liturgy and some of these other bands are getting the attention that they are.

Dan Obstkrieg: On your first point, I’m a bit split in my opinion.  Part of me wants to say: Who are you to say that admiring something from an intellectual distance doesn’t count as “meaningful interaction”?  I mean, I listen to plenty of stuff that doesn’t force my body into an immediate bout of relentless headbanging.  Shit, my goddamn neck would be wrecked if I listened to nothing but Celtic Frost all day, y’know?  But then, another part of me agrees: I can’t fucking stand listening to Orthrelm.  So, in that case, I guess the point of contention would be where you and I draw the line differently between acceptably and unacceptably intellectualized (or non-visceral-ized, if I can make up such an abominable term) metal.  On that count, I’m definitely on the side of finding both Krallice and Liturgy striking the right note of direct, physical engagement as well as more abstract, “Hey, fuckers, look what we can do” appreciation.

Shit, I had completely forgotten about that “burst beat” gibberish.  See, this is exactly the problem: Why in the hell is there this need to come up with a new name for something that is not appreciably new?  I just got done praising Liturgy’s drummer for some notably frantic (yet still jazz-inflected, at least every now and again) playing, but I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the dude has, like, invented some brand new technique.  That’s just obnoxious.  Let me compliment it in peace, you consistently bothersome mouth-openers…  But as far as the being influenced by indie or not, and what one’s frame of reference is, I don’t think that should matter too much.  I mean, if we’re on the subject of Deafheaven, I couldn’t really give a shit if I hear more My Bloody Valentine or Rites Of Spring in their sound.  Same goes for Liturgy: it doesn’t much matter to me if they sound like they ate up Sonic Youth and Darkthrone at the same time, so long as what they’re doing in the present speaks to me somehow, which it does.  In fact, earlier this week I was listening to the latest Moby album, Destroyed, and thinking that there was something similar going on with Liturgy.  Here’s what I mean: I know that when I listen to Moby, I’m essentially being toyed with.  For whatever reason, the dude just knows the chord progressions, the synth timbres, or whatever else that tug at the heart strings in just the right, desperate, over-earnest (and therefore cloyingly obnoxious to many) way.  I think that Liturgy ends up doing the same thing a lot of the time, so while I can recognize that melodies and progressions are arranged in such a way to lead to these triumphant meta-musical-narratives, I can’t help but be swept along by them.  Maybe that’s an argument against what I was saying earlier, that I can appreciate an intellectualized take on a particular metal sub-genre.

Here’s a thorny issue, though: You and I are both are jumping up this dude’s ass for trying to actively claim black metal, tell us it’s dead, and that he’s single-handedly saving us from ourselves or fucking whatever.  But isn’t that just the kind of oppositional ethos that a lot of what you and I would both call “real” black metal bands have striven for over the years?  What is it that makes us both recoil from this Silverchair-frontman-look-alike-dipstick, but not necessarily (though we haven’t spoken about this, and my own feelings are a bit conflicted on it) Ihsahn or Fenriz?

But as for your trickier question about whether I consider Liturgy a black metal band, or more broadly, how I conceive of the genre as a whole, again I’m of two minds.  I think that most of the stylistic touches that make up Liturgy’s sound can be linked more closely to black metal than any other of metal’s sub-genres, so yeah, I guess if you forced me to pin them in a genre, I’d call them black metal.  The whole thing about genre tags, though, is that they never name anything other than an imagined community (to make a completely pretentious and inappropriate reference to Benedict Anderson – am I becoming what we both hate?).  What I mean is, genres can be a useful shorthand, but to the extent that they take on a dogmatic life of their own beyond that, they are primarily a detriment.  That being said, some of the artists that I enjoy the most are those that are clearly pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.  Thus, without that shorthand that we carry with us (as listeners just as much as critics), departures from a genre’s standards wouldn’t exactly register as unique.

Beyond that, while I can recognize the value of genre standards as much as the limitations, I don’t find that listening to Liturgy does anything to diminish Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, Darkthrone, Mayhem, and any and every other foundational black metal band.  Do you see a band like Liturgy actively damaging the legacy of black metal?  If so, what makes them any different from a more widely respected band like Ulver, or Arcturus, or anyone else who abandoned a more traditional black metal beginning for wild experimentation?  What about Dødheimsgard, for example, whose 666 InternationalI know is a very important record to the both of us?

What in the hell does this masterpiece have to do with anything, right?

Josh Haun: I think maybe the problem is that when I listen to metal, I want headbanging, fist raising and thoughts of totally destroying my surroundings, or at the very least a head-nod while I’m doing other more constructive things.  I don’t just want to listen to metal and go “Oh, that’s nice!” or “Wow! These guys sure can play!”  I want the music to involve me physically and/or emotionally.  Certainly there are bands that are good at involving the listener on a more cerebral level, such as Gorguts circa Obscura, but they also know how to tap into those more primal feelings.  Even a band like Sunn O))) manages to draw me in: not in a headbanging way, obviously, but they have have that primitive, gut-level thing going on that comes from the drone, which is one of the oldest musical traditions.  I just don’t get any of these things when I listen to Liturgy.  I think Krallice is getting there though, and Diotimais easily the most engaging thing they’ve ever done. For the most part though I think metal should be a kick in teeth, it should elicit some kind of extreme visceral reaction, not chin-stroking or navel-gazing.You bring up Ulver, Arcturus and Dødheimsgard and I agree with you that these are important black metal bands that took wildly adventurous turns into experimental/progressive territory.  However, I don’t hear anything in Liturgy that puts them in the same category as those bands.  I will concede that Liturgy have made alterations to the the traditional black metal sound, but to say that their body of work is as radical as something like 666 International is ludicrous.  I don’t know if those bands displayed the same kind of bravado/pretentiousness that Liturgy’s frontman has when their respective groundbreaking albums were released, but if they did, then they were certainly able to back it up musically, because albums like 666 International and La Masquerade Infernale are undeniable game changers.  Another part of it is that those bands worked to earn some respect and hone their craft prior to making these dramatic stylistic shifts.  Liturgy on the other hand came right out of the gate claiming that what they were doing was the dawn of a new age, but in reality they sound like should still be making demos in a basement somewhere and getting their shit together.  I do think there is something to be said for challenging the status quo, but I don’t think that a demo-level re-imagining of Nattens Madrigal with occasional left turns into other metal subgenres is the way to go about it.  If you’re going to claim to be inventing a new type of black metal, you better have the chops to back it up, and Liturgy just doesn’t have them.

As for the “are they black metal?” question, I felt like it had to be brought up, because I think a big chunk of why Liturgy are so “controversial” (for lack of a better term) is because a lot of people have such a narrow idea of what black metal is.  I don’t think my own ideas about the genre are particularly closed-minded, but there are certain key aspects I look for in black metal, the main one being negativity.  Dødheimsgard, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord are all bands that push the boundaries of the genre, all three bands sound nothing alike, and yet all three are unequivocally black metal.  To me, this is because all three create music that is positively crackling with negative energy.  You might argue that all heavy music harnesses negativity to some degree, but there is something different about the way black metal does so, something that is difficult to put a finger on.  I think it has to do with the level of conviction.  There is almost a religious reverence for negativity in black metal that to me is inherent to the genre.  I’m pretty sure I read something where the Liturgy vocalist said something about rejecting black metal’s negativity (please correct me if I’m wrong [Ed.: I would, except I can’t be bothered to track down every damn fool thing that this guy says…] ), but how can you claim black metal if you’re rejecting the very thing that is at the core/heart of the genre?  Black metal started in opposition to death metal, so there is definitely an “oppositional ethos” to the genre’s beginnings, as you said, but I think that ethos began and ended with the original Scandinavian second wave.  Black metal now is just as much a commodity as any other metal subgenre and the people that still ascribe this imagined preciousness to it are just hopelessly out of touch.  If Liturgy wants to “save” black metal or its fans, I’d say they’re about a decade too late.

Dan Obstkrieg: I don’t know, man, when I crank this new Liturgy record up, I sure as hell feel like I’m getting kicked in the teeth.  But again, I’ve got Aura Noir for when I need to get down-and-dirty thrashed, y’know?  Regardless of which camp we put Liturgy in, I’m perfectly happy with metal that invokes aesthetic appreciation rather than compulsory headbanging.  Ideally, though, it does both.  And you’re absolutely right: Liturgy is nowhere near the brilliance of Ulver, Arcturus, or Dødheimsgard.  I only brought them up to stress the point that experimentation with black metal doesn’t diminish what black metal “is,” if it is anything specific in the first place.

As for black metal being about negativity, I’m again half-sympathetic, half-skeptical.  I guess for the most part I find it difficult to take most any type of metal band’s outward aesthetic presentation seriously.  So, yes, of course much of what characterizes black metal is an aesthetic obsession with negativity and darkness – DarkSatanBlackWolfMoonHate.  And sure, maybe what the music’s creators intend to do is usher in a world of pure darkness and negativism, but for the most part I just don’t buy that.  I don’t believe that most of these musicians, even in such extremely serious and fantastic bands as Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, are honestly lurking around in caves at night thinking constant deep thoughts about the apocalypse and the beast in man.  I think they’re drinking some beers, living in decently-appointed apartments, cooking up a nice shrimp stir-fry with jasmine rice every now and again.  And I’m perfectly fine with that contradiction between the image and the reality, so long as we don’t think that the image imbues the music with some immutable substance that the revelation of a more mundane reality would subsequently destroy.

I’m looking for music that makes me feel empowered, and the very best black metal does that, even though it is, as you say, ruthlessly negative.  Sometimes music does this through the fantastic anthems about metal itself that populated so much of classic 80s metal, sometimes it does so through making me think, “Shit, things may be bad, but at least I don’t feel as bad as Eyehategod sounds like they feel…,” and sometimes it does so by blasting away with minor-keyed melodies and a bunch of skinny white dudes howling about Satan.  If we both agree that black metal is a commodity, then I suppose it’s all down to each of us as consumers to separate the bullshit from the kick-ass, and if we come down on opposite sides of that fence with Liturgy, I’m cool with that.  Plus, I’m pretty sure we can both agree that the dude should just zip his damn mouth and let the music speak for itself.
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If you’re still with us, mazel tov!  Special thanks to Josh for being such a good sport throughout this long-winded back and forth.  If you still haven’t had your fill of Liturgy-related jaw-flapping, my colleagues Jordan Campbell and Jim Brandon did a head-to-head review of Aesthetica over at MetalReview a few weeks ago.  In case you’re in need of a refreshing black punch in the jaw, why don’t we close out the proceedings with what I (not so humbly) determined a while back to be the Greatest Song In All Of Black Metal:

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Alright, friends – things are starting to get a bit heavy around here as we continue counting down the year’s best metal albums.  Spinal Tapdance presents here, for your viewing (dis)pleasure, the second of three installments ticking off the 30 best records from across the vast universe of heavy metal.  Let us know where we’ve nailed it, and where we’ve completely fucked up and made you embarrassed to have ever even considered directing your web browser to this sad, shabby piece of disagreeable trash we call a blog.
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20.  StarGazer, A Great Work Of Ages/A Work Of Great Ages

In my review of StarGazer‘s sophomore album, I called A Great Work Of Ages “a seething, lurching, yet surprisingly sprightly beast of a musical journey that assaults the unsuspecting passer-by with dauntingly technical instrumentation that nevertheless resolves into a measured, artfully-meted out accounting of chaos.”  Thing is, that mouthful of overwrought prose makes this album sound like a chore to listen to, which it most definitely (and defiantly) is not.  There’s plenty of off-kilter structure and inventive musicianship to admire and analyze throughout this progressive/technical death metal head-trip, but first and foremost, this is an album to put on, sit back, and just enjoy.  You won’t be singing any choruses or humming along to a repeated bridge, but you will be amazed at the ability of these Aussies to play the shit out of their instruments without overwhelming the listener in a blitzkrieg of claustrophobic production and impenetrable gestures.

19.  Intronaut, Valley Of Smoke

Something about Intronaut had never quite jived with me until this album, but boy does Valley Of Smoke set me right and kick me in my ass for doubting it.  These songs are fluid compositions with impressive range, and despite the increasing prominence of clean vocals and smoothed-out texture, this ain’t no soft-ball half-metal nonsense.  It’s all about finding the right groove and sucking you down into its beguiling depths, down into that great colorful panorama of the album’s cover – whether you are the skeleton, or the iguana, or the loftily-soaring eagles is your own concern.  Valley Of Smoke injects jazz-fusion into rumbly post-metal’s environs, and comes out the other side smelling of roses and roses and roses.

18.  Kvelertak, Kvelertak

Kvelertak’s self-titled debut album is the 2010 equivalent of last year’s phenomenal Darkness Come Alive by Doomriders.  Meaning, this is a gnarly collision of all sorts of ass-kicking, party-inducing music.  You can quibble all you like about whether it’s punk, hardcore, black metal, garage rock, and anything else, but the undeniable fact is that this is just music for an all-around good time.  I simply cannot fathom the ridiculous backlash against this band, because every time I throw on this album, I just want to drink some beers and jump around in a forest on a pogo stick.  I mean, come ON, doesn’t that sound fucking awesome?  Sure, the dudes have got a jokey take on Scandinavian mythology, but honestly, if you’re sitting in a library poring over your Eddas and Kalevalas and waxing poetic about Yggdrasil while frowning at the hooligans making noise in the corridor…  Well, friend, maybe it’s time to hand in your heavy metal ID card.

17.  Nechochwen, Azimuths To The Otherworld

This Nechochwen album was one of the most pleasant surprises I had all year.  Apparently they’ve got one other album besides this one which leans more toward the neo-folk side of things, but Azimuths to the Otherworld, apart from having one of the coolest album titles of the year, strikes a satisfying balance between folky acoustic bits and rich, driving black metal.  The fact that the band pays tribute to the beliefs and histories of American Indians is a refreshing aesthetic, and makes for some different types musical influence showing themselves throughout the album, much like on Tomahawk’s Anonymous album.  The out-and-out metal sections are still relatively few and far between, but the album is all about mood, and the insistent drumming and beautiful acoustic guitar work throughout sustains a very contemplative atmosphere.  Don’t miss out on this one.

16.  Triptykon, Eparistera Daimones

So intense has been the drama surrounding Celtic Frost’s demise, and rebirth, and subsequent re-burial, that one could be forgiven for worrying that the next project of these metal giants would perish under the weight of self-doubt and ridiculous expectations.  But have no fear, friends, for Eparistera Daimones is more than ample proof that Tom G. Warrior is one of heavy metal’s original, and still greatest, alchemists, transmuting sturdy, solid riffs into tortured tales of harrowing emotional journeys.  Just as was Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, Triptykon’s debut is a dark, exhausting listen, but one from which the listener emerges feeling revitalized, having survived the trial by fire of some of the bleakest, most Gothic moments the Warrior has yet thrown her way.

15.  Atlantean Kodex, The Golden Bough

Everything about this album screams ‘epic’.  Perhaps the best thing about Atlantean Kodex’s long-awaited debut album is that one can approach it from a wide range of starting points: from the epic trad metal of Manowar, from the triumphant Viking era of Bathory, from the pagan/black wizardry of Primordial, or from the true doom of Reverend Bizarre.  Take any of these avenues of approach, and you’ll find The Golden Bough waiting for you, patient, resolute, and steadfast.  These are songs in no hurry to get you anywhere other than right in the midst of their stately riffing and clear-voiced hymns to the myths from which we all spring.

14.  Unearthly Trance, V

Unearthly Trance’s fifth album (V, get it?) is another of those that took its time with me.  Far less direct than the band’s previous two (and decidedly more Frost-y) albums, V is an all-encompassing listen that honestly sounds like a planet being slowly torn apart by silent electric storms.  Sounds pretty great, right?  The dual vocal attack of longtime bandleader Ryan Lipynsky and drummer Darren Verni drags bile up from the depths of a city’s fetid sewer system, while riffs lumber in and decay just as soon as they’ve announced themselves.  A much more abstract style of nihilistic doom, which actually gels rather neatly with the occult slant of the lyrics.  Take your time with this album, or it will take its time devouring you.  Or will do so either way.  Whatever; doom on.

13.  Slough Feg, The Animal Spirits

If I had the luxury of titling this album myself, I probably would have called it “So Many Smiles.”  Because, honestly, it’s hard to imagine any fan of classic heavy metal not hearing this album and getting a giant, daffy grin plastered all over her face.  I don’t mean to say that this album is lightweight and unserious, but it knows how to be serious without taking itself seriously, if that makes any sense.  If that doesn’t make sense, well, there’s a whole fistful of songs here to make all the sense that my stupid words can’t: “The 95 Thesis,” “Kon-Tiki,” “Free Market Barbarian,” “Ask the Casket” – these are honestly some of the best, most memorable, and freshest sounding heavy metal songs I’ve come across in ages.  So, seriously, whatchu waiting for?  Get your Slough Feg on, and get your smiles on.  Sooooooo many smiles.

12.  The Meads Of Asphodel, The Murder Of Jesus The Jew

Okay, now here’s a band that probably takes itself too seriously.  Sorry, dudes, but it’s the truth.  Have you read Metatron’s 60,000-word codex?  Have I?  I think we all know the answer to both those questions, friends.  Thing is, no matter how seriously these English blokes take the lyrical subject matter of this concept album which purports to set the historical record straight, mercifully their music is every bit as chaotic and mind-exploding as ever.  Perhaps more so, if it comes down to it.  There’s a little bit of everything thrown in here, though the main strands remain a peculiarly English-smelling bit of crusty punkiness, Hawkwind psych and Floydian prog, plus symphonic black metal with a capital Sigh.  Sounds like a mess, innit?  Well, it works.  At times beautifully.  If you ain’t know the Meads, you ain’t know shit about freak-folk’s distant cousin in medieval black metal played by dudes in chainmail.

11.  Deathspell Omega, Paracletus


Speaking of dudes taking themselves too seriously…  Well, it actually doesn’t bother me with Deathspell Omega.  Completing a supposed trilogy of Lord knows what esoteric and orthodox black metal themes, all that’s ever mattered about this band, to this listener, is the music.  And on that score, I’m chuffed as all shit to report that Paracletus may even best Fas…, if not quite ascending to the madness-provoking heights of DsO’s breakthrough album, Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice.    Paracletus whittles the excesses of previous albums down to a concise 40-ish minutes, over the course of which the listener is plunged into a disorienting maelstorm of churning riffage and refracted shards of black prismatic light.  The guitars are clean and razor-sharp, but what really stood out to me in this album is the great diversity of vocal styles by whoever the fuck in this band does vocals.  There’s the traditional black groan/shriek, but also some clean vocals tossed in, as well as some more gut-level bellowing.  Oof.  Great, powerful, genre-damning stuff.  Stare into their abyss, ye who dare.

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I can hear you all out there, licking your chops for the third and final installment of Spinal Tapdance’s extravagant end of 2010 recitations.  Be patient, gentlefolk, and while you’re at it, how am I doing so far?  Anything egregiously left off the list so far?  Any predictions for the top ten?  Anyone out there find their way to this site, thinking it was some snarky alternative-style tapdancing academy, and now becoming more and more enraged at the incessant talk of things like “riffs” and “metal” and “things and people being taken not enough or too seriously”?  I can hear you too, you shiny, clackety-shoed mouthbreathers.

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Hot off the heels of last week’s inaugural entry into Spinal Tapdance’s ‘Listening Arc’ series, I was challenged to a new listening arc by all-around awesome dude Josh Haun of That’s How Kids Die.  The challenge: Get from Johnny Cash’s ass-walloping live album At San Quentin to Darkthrone’s third album, the ultra-grim Under A Funeral Moon.  As you’ll see in the comments section of that first arc, I was pretty confident I could make easy work of the challenge by way of Metallica’s St. Anger, owing to the fact that the video for the title track was filmed (unless I’m much mistaken) at the very same San Quentin Prison.

Two problems presented themselves, however: First, it made for a pretty easy out, generally bypassing the contortions necessary to get from outlaw country to black metal; and second, it would have required me to suggest that all you fine readers spend some 70-odd minutes of your life listening to St. Anger, and that shit just ain’t happening.  Thus, I present to you Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #2: From Cash To Culto (in five moves) which completely disregards and papers over the Metallica Singularity.
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1. Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (1969)


The Man in Black has rarely been as imposing as on this rollicking live document from San Quentin Prison.  I constantly go back and forth as to whether I prefer this or the previous year’s At Folsom Prison, but basically, you can’t go wrong with either one.  Cash covers a wide range of styles on this album (for the record, the disc I’ve got is the so-called “Complete Live At San Quentin,” which cobbles together all 18 tracks, rather than the original 10 of the LP release), from crime and punishment barnburners to country-ish standards to straight-faced spirituals.  What I’m really going to pick up on here, however, to allow me to move forward with the listening arc, is the fact that the prison space itself becomes a crucial element in listening to this album.  That is to say, this is a fantastic album on most all counts – Cash is in fine form, tearing through his ‘hits’ at breakneck speed and letting loose deranged wolf howls when appropriate, his wife June Carter has a pitch-perfect sloppy Appalachian croon, and his backing band is on fire.

But what really makes this record stand out is the atmosphere.  Obviously, Cash revels in playing to the audience of inmates – he provokes a wild chorus of boos anytime he mentions the guards or the warden, and he even penned a tune called “San Quentin,” which he runs through twice to rapturous reception (“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall, and may I live to tell,” etc.).  Listening closely to this album, then, reveals that the space itself is an instrument, and I’m not just talking about the typical aural component of a live album.  This is a live album played to prisoners, and you can literally feel the electricity running through the audience as Cash tears through these outlaw tunes.  The concert was also filmed and broadcast for television, and while I’ve never seen the visuals, I almost don’t need to.  The audience noise swells and falls, and at times, you can tell there’s some commotion going on out in the audience that’s essentially unconnected to what’s going on onstage.  It makes for a crackling, dangerous sound, but more than that, it communicates a sense of the prison as a lived space and a living space, which is precisely how we transition into the rest of the listening arc.

2. Set Fire To Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (2001)


Musically, this debut album from this collective composed of members of the Canadian post-rock elite (Godspeed You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, Hanged Up, etc., etc.) shares very little ground with Johnny Cash.  This is a generally sparse, experimental album, featuring found sound snippets, ambient space, and flashes of chamber-esque classicism.  Here’s the connection, though: This album was recorded in a dilapidated house, and you can literally hear the house itself contributing to the sounds of the album.  Floors creak, strings echo, snatches of conversation are caught through hallways and around corners, police sirens pass in the street.  This house becomes as much another musical instrument as the brushed drum kit or the keening violin.  This is desolate, desperate music for slow urban collapse, with only the faintest shred of hope blossoming.

3. The Gault, Even As All Before Us (2005)


Heartbreakingly, this is the only album The Gault ever produced, and it is probably one of the most criminally underrated albums in all of metal.   I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like it, and the atmosphere of unpretentious sorrow it evokes is absolutely unparalleled.  So, not a cheerful album, this.  I suppose it’s somewhat generally in the style of drone-soaked doom, but the wailing vocals are entirely their own beast, and the slow trudging pace and increasingly epic scope of the songs throughout the album bespeak a sepia-hued Americana that may just as well be the fog-drenched London of late 19th century industrial blight.  This album takes the last few shreds of hope from Set Fire To Flames and, well, burns them on the pyre of its unrelenting realism.

4. Weakling, Dead As Dreams (2000)


The Gault was a project that eventually grew out of the demise of a previous San Francisco band, Weaking, who also – tragically – only ever produced one album.  But what an album it is. Dead As Dreams is a true landmark recording in American black metal, taking the speed and grim intensity of all them damn Scandinavians at face value, but shooting it through with a touch of avant-garde melodicism and structural experimentalism.  Or, let’s put it a different way, shall we?  Wolves In The Throne Room would straight-up NOT EXIST if it weren’t for this album.  And again, unlike the forest-dancing escapism of their Northern European ‘peers’, this album has a much grittier feel, a grounding in the real lived experience of a major American metropolis.  This album defines epic black metal in a way that most folk-besotted frotteurs can only grasp in their wettest of wet dreams, and it really signified that American black metal need not bow to the aesthetic conventions of the genre’s originators.

5. Demoncy, Joined In Darkness (1999)


As we’re just about wrapping up this listening arc, we’re going to keep it in the American family.  Demoncy are a decidedly less experimental outfit than Weakling, but Joined In Darkness is nevertheless another landmark recording in the annals of American black metal.  It’s regressive and atavistic in all those primally satisfying ways, and the thing blasts ahead like a great hulking beast dragging the bones of devoured animals down into the deepest recesses of a lightless cavern.  This is reverb used not to intensify and kick around the shrill howls of a vocalist, but rather to sound a great black lake.  While not quite as primitive as true American black metal instigators like Von or Havohej, Demoncy is, to these ears, infinitely more satisfying.  And, beyond the sound of a phantom bulldozer plowing through a field of ghostly birch trees, the reason this stacks up as the perfect transition into Darkthrone is due to a nice sequencing coincidence: the penultimate track on this Demoncy album, “The Dawn of Eternal Damnation,” follows the same basic model of the final track on Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon, “Crossing the Triangle of Flames”: it starts out brisk and blasting, twists its way around some gnarled-root riffs, and then settles into a stubborn, plodding death march to close out the album in a true dark dirge.

6. Darkthrone, Under A Funeral Moon (1993)


From the brittle, vampiric opening shot of “Natassja In Eternal Sleep,” to the aforementioned infinite-march-toward-a-corroded-horizon of “Crossing the Triangle of Flames,” Under A Funeral Moon is a bona fide classic.  The fact that is maybe my least favorite of Darkthrone’s absolutely untouchable black metal quadrilogy (A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Panzerfaust) says less about the weakness of this album (of which there is none) than about the strength of those albums that surround it.  Nevertheless, this is probably Darkthrone at their most white-knuckled, wide-eyed straight-ahead black metal dogmatism.  Sure, Transilvanian Hunger is arguably more ‘straight-ahead’ in certain ways, but it accomplished that feeling through a far more peculiar, almost avant-garde sense of repetition and minimalist melody than Under A Funeral Moon is a better analogue for such early black metal classics as Bathory’s Under (coincidence?) The Sign Of The Black Mark.  The closing sludge of this album, featuring a tolling bell crumbling and collapsing in quarter-time, should draw your mind back to the closing of Demoncy’s album, and back through other American landmarks, with a quick detour up to the Frozen North, and then back down, screaming through aeons of memory and tradition, to the true American outlaw, the true Black of the sorely-missed Johnny Cash.
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Okay, friends.  The first Reader Challenge has been answered, but it’s up to you to let me know if it’s been answered successfully.  Did I lose the plot at any point throughout this Arc?  Feel like calling me on any bullshit choices?  Pipe up, then; it’s hard to hear you over all this racket.  Thanks to Josh for a very worthy Listening Arc challenge.

So, then, you – yeah, you out there, with the soft voice and big thoughts and eager fingers: What’s next?  What’s your Listening Arc challenge?  Bring it on, the lot of you.

Cheers,
DHOK

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It’s official: Spinal Tapdance is bringing down the Decision Hammer (patent pending) on an entire (and entirely overstuffed) genre to declare The Best Song In All Of Black Metal.

Play it loud and bang your goddamn head:

Darkthrone, “In The Shadow Of The Horns” (from A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1992)

Perhaps you’ve got a different notion in your cobweb-addled brain as to what the Best Song In All Of Black Metal might be, but I submit to you the following: You are incorrect.  Mssrs Culto and Fenriz politely request that you sit on a crocodile.

I am willing to entertain the suggestion that there are objectively “better” songs out there, meaning more elegantly composed, aesthetically pure, rifftacularly creative, grimly atmospheric, and so forth.  Fine.  But frankly, none of your favored bullshit can hold a Transilvanian Hunger-candelabra to the maniacal dedication of this steamroller of a song.

The lineage is easily traceable, from Venom’s first two albums to Celtic Frost’s early work to Bathory’s genre-instantiating Under the Sign of the Black Mark to this, Darkthrone’s first black metal record.  But that’s just the thing: this one song, this seven minutes of cackling, unhinged black glory, is essentially the intensification – if not perfection – of all that made Venom, Celtic Frost, and Bathory great.

This tune spreads its hungering maw wide, blood-flecked spittle pooling around the wreckage of lesser ghosts; it leers and lurches and lunges and whispers, “Come in and welcome your doom.”

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Sure, there are other contenders from the vast Norse pantheon:

(Or, from the Swedish master himself…)

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Fantastic songs, all.  But gimme Fenriz’s relentless death-stomp of a tempo on “In The Shadow Of The Horns” any fucking day of the week.  Seriously.  And have Nocturno Culto’s vocals honestly ever been as full-throttle and ear-wreckingly hideous as towards the end of this song?

Black metal has ventured down myriad shoots and branches of this first rotted tree in subsequent years, but I’ve yet to hear a tune as corrosively brilliant as this, the Best Song In All Of Black Metal.

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Resistant Culture, Welcome To Reality (2005) & All One Struggle (2008)

Pissed off, and ready to grind (Apologies to Darkthrone)

The ever-charming folks on the Texas Board of Education have recently reared their curmudgeonly heads once more, introducing a resolution which would, according to the New York Times, send a blunt message to textbook publishers: “Do not present a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian version of history if you want to sell books in one of the nation’s largest markets” (New York Times, 9/22/10).

What any of this may have to do with tribal crust death/grinders Resistant Culture may be a little oblique, sure, but the point is this: historical revisionism is alive and well in our fair land.  The same sort of revisionism, say, that gives us a first Thanksgiving in which the pilgrims just came ‘round to offer the indigenous peoples of the New World a nice cup of tea, or through which our collective relief at the peaceable collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War allows for the gradual erasure of the myriad tyrannies and imperial ventures underwritten in the name of freedom.

Righteous indignation at the brutal treatment and oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere is, in fact, the spark which lights the raging fire of Resistant Culture’s seriously pissed-off grind attack.  While much bandied-about in discussions of Resistant Culture, the influence of indigenous folk music instrumentation and chants is relatively subdued.  The band’s two full-length albums are being reissued and repressed in advance of their upcoming American tour, providing a choice opportunity for having one’s head amply knocked around by the sort of politically-inclined metal that seems, sadly, to be in shorter supply these days.

2005’s Welcome To Reality and 2008’s All One Struggle both provide ample evidence of the band’s tight grasp on the classic everything-in-the-pot style of the early development of grindcore and death metal, when neither had exactly coalesced into ruthlessly ghettoized genres stuffed full of stock ideas and tired riffs.  Resistant Culture straddles perfectly these lines between grind and death in the same fashion as genre progenitors Napalm Death, Terrorizer, Bolt Thrower, and all the other usual suspects.  In Resistant Culture’s case, rather than tilt wildly from grind to death in separate songs, the overall approach seems to show songwriting chops and an instrumental attack that is rooted in classic grindcore, but with a guitar tone and riff construction that leans more toward the fetid tonalities of death metal.

Vocalist and long-time band mastermind Anthony Rezhawk (he, also, of vocal duty on Terrorizer’s long-delayed sophomore album, Darker Days Ahead – hence the participation of the late Jesse Pintado on 2005’s Welcome To Reality) demonstrates a much more varied vocal approach than many other acts in this style.  Rezhawk’s most frequent style is a low-pitched yet strikingly understandable grind/punk bellow, yet he also occasionally pushes into higher-pitched rasping, and every now and again breaks out a deep, almost gothic style of clean incantation.
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Welcome To Reality

Of the two albums up for review here, it’s 2005’s Welcome To Reality that really grits its teeth and gets right down to the serious business of wrecking your ears.  The guitar tone is thick, but its attack is clean and clinical, whether trading in three-chord punk blasts, nimble grind explosions, or stolid, occasionally tremolo-ed death metal stomping.  The bass tone oozes through in a delectably thick outpouring, like molten lava forcing its way through cracked tectonic plates.  See “It’s Not Too Late,” especially, or the opening passage of “The Gathering” for some real floor-rattling bass thunder.  The drums roll and clatter along with the requisite punk fury, slipping into blastbeat passages here, or verging on the classic Discharge d-beat there.

“Forced Conformity” locks into a wonderfully gritty, grooving pace with some sweet guitar noodling.  If only more followers of Sepultura circa Chaos A.D. or Roots would have taken the their Brazilian lessons in this direction rather than resorting to the widespread pilfering of the knuckle-draggingly unattractive components of the tribal thrashers’ sound, maybe we wouldn’t now look to Sepultura’s mid-90s experimentation as pivotal in having incited the life-sapping abominations of nu-metal.

It’s not until the track “Elder Wisdom” that the much-touted indigenous folk music influence is on display in a way other than brief sections of native chanting.  The acoustic guitar and flute interlude is a nice breather between the no-nonsense brain-stomping of the rest of the album.  The rest of the album keeps things classy and well-apportioned, in equal measure causing the listener to pump her fist furiously to punk shout-alongs (“Victims of a bloody system!!” is just insanely fun to bellow alongside Rezhawk) and headbang recklessly to thrashing death metal riff-splosions.  Hell, on “Civilized Aggression,” Rezhawk even sounds vaguely like Abbath gone crust, while on “The Gathering,” we get that deep, gothic delivery in the vocals to match the Eastern-scaled doom/death march.

In grindcore’s great tradition, the album makes effective use of sampled dialogue and other found sounds, without ever quite lapsing into overreliance.  The sound here is much thicker than most crust metal, although the ethics and aesthetics underwriting the music have a much clearer kinship to crust and punk than to the varied lineages of death metal.  After thrashing through a grin-inducing cover of Discharge’s “Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing” and one of the album’s highlights in “The Gathering,” it’s finally on album closer “Land Keeper” that the indigenous folk is blended organically with the heavy metal, where on most of the rest of the album, the folk influences were generally sequestered into interludes.

Seventeen tracks in thirty-four minutes is just about perfect for this sort of classic grinding attack, and leaves the listener winded and shell-shocked

Overall rating, Welcome To Reality: 80%.  Not reinventing the wheel, but careful saying that ‘round them, as you may find said wheel quickly and unceremoniously shoved down your throat.
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All One Struggle

The follow-up to Welcome To Reality came three years later, with 2008’s All One Struggle.  In comparison to the incendiary 2005 album, this one comes off slightly the worse, but for somewhat paradoxical reasons.  See, All One Struggle actually features a fair portion more of straight-ahead blasting than did Welcome To Reality – album opener “Beneath the Concrete” does nothing to announce its presence before barreling into being, which ought to mark it out as ferocious and unexpected.  Instead, it seems predictable.

The biggest problem, really, is that the album takes far too much time to gain any real, sustained momentum.  An interesting riff pops up here and there, and the drums frequently lock into a furious blasting groove, but there is little use of the tension and contrast between the songs that made Welcome To Reality’s similarly straight-forward metal approach add up to a greater whole.

Still, by the time “Mending the Hoop” and “Natural Law” swing around, it’s time for some clenched-jaw mayhem.  “Generations” is another brutal grinder, but it’s actually not until the pairing of “Stagnation” and “Rise Above Despair” that the tenor of the album finally switches the unrelenting pace I’ve been craving all along.  And for those of you keeping score at home, that pairing doesn’t pop up until tracks 13 and 14 out of 17; too long to keep the expectant grind freak in ‘standby’ mode.

None of this is to suggest, however, that the album is some sort of unmitigated disaster (the “St. Anger Singularity,” we might say).  “Contamination” whips up my appreciative ire with sections of tremolo-picked harmonies that flirt with the darkness and flair of black metal, capped with an ambient outro that leads quite nicely into the folk-tinged “New Sun.”

The overall sound of Resistant Culture remains essentially unchanged here from the previous album.  If you imagine combining the thick, ritualistic tom abuse of Neurosis with the early thrashing fits of death/grind in the 1989 mold: Terrorizer’s World Downfall, Bolt Thrower’s Realm Of Chaos, and even whatever you’d care to call the midpoint between Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration and Harmony Corruption (which, out in ’88 and ’90, respectively, give us an average of 1989, natch).  I still feel a bit iffy about using the term “tribal” to describe the band’s drumming and use of indigenous folk musics, but the band itself embraces such language in its own press materials, so I shan’t protest.

Where Welcome To Reality was masterfully sequenced and paced, this album takes far too long to get into gear for my taste; when it finally does hit that sweet spot towards the end of the album, though, it throws another batch of classically-structured and well-hybridized grind/metal/punk right in my scoffing, skeptical face.  Serves me right.

On a rather odd note, the final track of the album is most strikingly reminiscent not of anything on Earache’s roster from two decades ago, but rather of Sweden’s own completely unfuckwithable malcontent, Bathory.  For starters, the track is called “The Return,” which obviously makes me want to climb a great craggy mountain and proclaim “It’s the RETURN of the darkness and evil!!!”  Apart from the nomenclature, though, take a second to just let the Resistant Culture track sink in.  It’s a fully ambient track, featuring a bed of flute, wind sound effects, along with sparse chanting and tribal percussion.  In the back, though, is a muted yet insistent bass drum beat.  Got it in your head?  Okay, now run and grab your Bathory records.  Take a spin through that outro track on nearly all of them (it’s on the debut through Twilight of the Gods, and again on Blood On Ice and Nordland II).  Of course it’s not exactly the same thing, but the Bathory outros all feature a single ambient tone, while in the distance, a single bass drum tolls out a slow recitation of doom.  I can’t help but think of this as an homage, even if it was unintentionally done.

After all, everyone needs more Bathory in her life.

Overall rating, All One Struggle: 65%.  If you dig the former, you’ll still dig this latter platter, though I find the former warmer.
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Resistant Culture is currently gearing up for what they are calling the Sacred Fire Tour throughout these United States.  The tour coincides with reissues on Seventh Generation Records: All One Struggle on vinyl, and a third pressing of Welcome To Reality on CD.

The Sacred Fire Tour kicks off next week, with dates as follows.  If you happen to live in the Chicago area, you would be especially well-advised to check out Resistant Culture’s date here on October 9th, as they are participating in the fourth iteration of the Apocalyptic Crust Fest.  Resistant Culture will be playing the third and final day of the festival, alongside Phobia and Dropdead.  Check out more information on Apocalyptic Crust Fest here.

9/30 Wandering Goat
Eugene, OR

10/1 Satyricon
Portland. OR

10/2 The Morgue
Seattle, WA

10/5 Roman’s
Rapid City, SD

10/7 Rathole
Minneapolis, MN

10/9 The Black Hole
Chicago, IL

10/12 Token Lounge
Detroit, MI

10/13 Hexagon Space
Baltimore, MD

10/14 Millcreek Tavern
Philadelphia, PA

10/15 The Lake Underground
Brooklyn, NY

10/16 AS220
Providence, RI

10/17 Cambridge Elks Lodge
Cambridge, MA

10/19 Volume 11 Tavern
Raleigh, NC

10/20 Lenny’s
Atlanta, GA

10/21 Marauders
New Orleans, LA

10/22 Broken Neck
Austin, TX

10/23 No Thanks Fest
Emory, TX

10/24 The White Swan Live
Houston, TX

10/26 Blast O Mat
Denver, CO

10/27 One Mind Studio
Salt Lake City, UT

10/28 Lucky Lady
Las Vegas, NV

10/29 Gilman
Berkeley, CA

11/6 Common Ground
Riverside, CA
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One cannot help but be reminded and enraged, after working through these Resistant Culture albums, of the plight of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples (First Nations, or whatever else you’d like to call them).  This history of ruthless political exploitation and callous disregard is clearly a topic ripe for the politicized fury of punk and grindcore, but it also seems that the musical and cultural influence of these diverse communities has much to offer to heavy metal by way of artistic and aesthetic exploration.  There are only a few contemporary albums that bring to mind these influences, most notably Tomahawk’s Anonymous, and Nechochwen’s brilliant 2010 album, Azimuths to the Otherworld.  Resistant Culture is absolutely dissimilar in musical approach to either of those acts, of course, but I suspect this is fertile ground for a shared ethical and aesthetic approach.

The challenge, of course, is to pay tribute to this history and to the heritage of these indigenous peoples without coopting or tokenizing them.  Heavy metal may not be particularly well sensitized for such a task, but the political and artistic potential is tremendous.  Historical revisionism, after all, can only succeed when a complacent mainstream culture grows tired of calling ‘bullshit’ on the lies and omissions of officialdom.

The New York Times ran another story, just the other day, on what seems essentially like racial segregation and the production of guilt-allaying ‘native’ pageantry at the Pendleton Round-Up rodeo event in Pendleton, Oregon.  The author of the story writes, “A century later [from the beginnings of this event], the mill still provides blankets, and families are still paid to appear, $5 per person each day at the arena. Beef and vegetables are provided, as are tokens for other food. The winner of the ‘Best Dressed Indian Award’ at the parade gets 50 silver dollars” (New York Times, 9/23/10).

Blankets.  Think about that.

"Get the fuck outta here," says the horse

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Different people listen to music differently.  Seems painfully obvious, sure, but since I posted a little while back about quizzing myself on how well I knew my own music collection (apparently, I half-know my collection…) I’ve been thinking about just how it is that we recognize and/or remember particular music.

This got me trying to figure out what metal songs are most likely to find themselves stuck in my head.  While thinking through that, it seemed that most of the results I came up with were songs I would identify because of their vocal hook; basically, shower sing-a-long type songs.

Here are just a few examples of some of my favorite heavy metal sing-a-longs, then:

Judas Priest, “Heavy Duty/Defenders of the Faith (Live)”

Sure, I occasionally get the slow-motion blues-stomp of “Heavy Duty” in there, but it’s primarily the “Defenders of the Faith” sing-a-long that I find banging around in there all the time.
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Nile, “Black Seeds of Vengeance”

For whatever reason, the first line of this song has always stuck with me (“The scourge of Amalek is upon you…”), but other than that, it’s obviously just the crushing death/doom breakdown at the end, chanting the song title ad infinitum that gets me every time.
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Dark Angel, “Darkness Descends”

Again, it’s just the chorus here.  Watch your neighbors and coworkers recoil in disgust as you let loose your venomous saliva to the soothing sounds of “The city is guilty / The crime is life / The sentence is death / Darkness deSCEEEENDS!”
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Metallica, “Creeping Death (Live)”

The chorus on this classic track is a great one to shout along with, but everyone’s favorite participatory moment has got to be the breakdown – where else but at a metal show is it considered socially acceptable to scream “DIE!!! DIE!!! DIE!!!” at the vein-bulging, eye-popping top of one’s lungs?
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Bathory, “Woman of Dark Desires”

Probably with some effort I could figure out what Quorthon’s yelling in the verses, but for the most part, I’m happy enough to croak along to the chorus on this, one of my favorite Bathory tracks.
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Mayhem, “Funeral Fog”

Most black metal is total balls to sing along to, but Attila’s inimitable vocals are, nonetheless, fun to imitate.  “FYOOOOOO-NER-EEE-UHHHL……FUGH!!!”
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That’s obviously just a small cross-section of the metal songs that tend to get stuck in my head.  The interesting thing, though, is that it seems pretty clear that I gravitate much more toward vocal hooks than guitar riffs.  I mean, some of these songs have riffs that are extremely easy to recall to the mind (“Creeping Death,” especially, but even the minor tremelo blitz of “Funeral Fog”), but for the most part, these songs get stuck in my head because of the vocals.

I wonder, then, if it has something to do with the fact that I don’t play the guitar?  An interesting question to pose to metalheads, then, is: Are guitar players more likely to get riffs stuck in their heads, or are the songs in their heads there, like they are for me, as sing-a-longs?  It’s a bit more difficult to “sing” along with a guitar riff, but I wouldn’t be surprised if different people identify more closely with different parts of a song, in which case it would seem to have something to do with how we listen to a song.

For my part, it seems to be vocal melodies, catchy choruses, and so forth, that stick in the mind after I’m listening.  When I’m in the act of listening, though, I do often find myself concentrating more closely on the guitar, or following drum fills, or picking out the bass line – those things just don’t tend to stick to my gray matter as cloyingly as the human voice.

Yet another thing that I noticed from this brief stream-of-consciousness song list is that most of the these songs whose vocal tracks get lodged in my brain are in some way thrash-inspired.  Clearly, Metallica and Dark Angel are thrash, but that Bathory track is a very thrashy one, and the chorus of “Funeral Fog” switches between straight-on black metal blasting and a more thrash-paced break.

The odd thing is, I don’t necessarily consider thrash to be one of my favorite genres, so I wasn’t expecting to see such a thrash influence here.  The more I think about it, though, it makes sense that thrash-inspired songs might be more memorable, inasmuch as the genre has a heavy focus on jagged, intensely rhythmic delivery, whereas songs from death metal or black metal often truck along with less variation.

Or, at least, the vocals in thrash are often delivered in a sort of complimentarity to the riffs, whereas in certain other genres, the guitar work is meant to provide texture rather than clearly identifiable structure, so it may be more difficult to pluck the vocals out of that textural mass.

Guitar players out there: Do you ignore vocals and remember only riffs?  Drummers: Do you ever recall anything other than how tight some dude’s snare is?  Singers: Do you ever listen to Attila Csihar and despair, knowing that nothing you ever produce with your vocal cords will match that level of depravity?
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In some other random news:

– Red Harvest has broken up, and that just bums me the fuck out.  For my money, nobody out there did cold, antisocial industrial metal better, and they will be sorely missed.  See the band’s Myspace for details.  To help you through the grieving process, check out some official live clips from their 20th anniversary show last year.  Four songs from the show are available here.

– Neurosis has just put out an official live album, capturing their performance at Roadburn in 2007.  It is available from Neurot Recordings at this location.  Go, give yourself to the rising.

– Across Tundras have a new album out, and it’s cheap from their webstore.  I absolutely LOVE their first full-length, Dark Songs of the Prairie (probably the best replacement for the sorely-missed Gault), but I haven’t followed any of the intervening releases.  I’ve just ordered my copy, though, and will gladly report in due time.  Here’s to hoping for more doomed-out Americana.

– Devin Townsend finally announced more tour dates on his upcoming headlining tour, including a fervently hoped-for (by me, at least) stop in Chicago in November.  FUCK YES.  Ahem.  Check out the full list of tour dates here, and do not miss this heavy metal wizard if he’s swinging through your stomping grounds.

That’s all for now, friends.  Be good to each other, and please have a very heavy metal Wednesday.

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Shocking, I know, but heavy metal is not my only love.  In fact, I love many other things – unicorns, rainbows, all the usual suspects.  Also: mixing up cocktails.  Not, of course, in the sense of actually being PAID for the work; this is purely a non-remunerative hobby.  Still, it got me thinking.

In the canon of heavy metal substance abuse references, cocktails are assuredly a dismally distant last.  We’re all used to the bulletbelts and beer mentality, and sure, there’s a fair bit of banging on about whiskey, and yeah, seems to me like My Dying Bride has probably penned a song or two along the lines of “Woe is me and pestilence on the earth / My red wine is spilt, and my black cat fled to Perth” or some such thing.  Y’all ain’t never heard Abbath start off a song by dedicating it to Blashyrkh’s Mighty Dirty Martini, is my basic point.

For your consideration, then, I offer the following Heavy Metal Cocktails.  Most of these are slight variations on classic cocktail recipes, with obvious name changes and ingredient additions here and there.  I have tried to list one for each of several of heavy metal’s primary subgenres.  So, the next time you’re all lagered out, and can’t tell your ass from your ales from your ankles, why not try banging your head whilst imbibing a slightly classier product?
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Classic Heavy Metal: “The True Old School Old Fashioned”
– The Old Fashioned is basically like the crusty old guy in the tattered “Number of the Beast” t-shirt who watches the entire show with one foot on the bar rail, and can be heard to vaguely mutter the word “whippersnappers” every now and again.  A truly classic cocktail, this would make the perfect accompaniment to your daily rite of Angel Witch and “Lightning to the Nations”, or even a trawl back to Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak.”

Ingredients:
– 1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey (Most types of whiskey will really suffice for a good Old Fashioned, but rye is the true old schooler’s choice.  Go with bourbon if no rye’s on hand, but for sure stay away from Scotch for this one.)
– Some smallish amount of sugar
– Angostura bitters
– Orange slice
– Maraschino cherries (probably no more than two)
– Club soda

Directions:
They don’t call ’em Old Fashioned glasses for nothing, though you may also know them as lowballs (har har – fuck off).  Put the sugar in the bottom of a dry Old Fashioned glass, and shake a few dashes of Angostura bitters on it.  Add in the orange slice and cherries, and muddle them with the sugar and bitters to taste.  Muddle the fruit more for a sweeter drink, though the classic preparation probably only bruises the fruit, releasing mostly oils rather than actual juice.  Fill the glass to the top with ice, and pour the whiskey over it.  I prefer to give the drink a brisk stir at this point, and then to top with just a splash of club soda.  Now, listen: They’re playing your Manilla Road request.

Death Metal: “Tequila Smashed Face”
– This is basically just a classic margarita recipe that’s been fucked with.  It’ll still taste mostly like a margarita, too, until you get down to the bloody dregs.  I couldn’t think of a spirit that screamed DEATH FUCKING METAL at me, so I just decided to take a classic recipe, put it in the wrong glass, and add a few visual cues that ought to remind you of the blood and guts so favored by the genre’s miscreant progenitors.

Ingredients:
– 1 1/2 oz. tequila (probably of the more aged variety – a reposado or añejo – to give you a bit richer flavor against the tartness of the other ingredients)
– 3/4 oz. Cointreau (any other sort of triple sec will do in a pinch, but Cointreau is the smoothest, far and away best option)
– Juice of half a lime (do up a full lime if you like, but you’d probably want to toss in a bit of sugar or simple syrup if you go that route)
– Fresh blueberries (5-10, depending on size; enough to cover the bottom layer of a highball glass)
– Dash of grenadine

Directions:
Drop the fresh blueberries into the bottom of a dry highball glass.  Muddle them gently; enough so the skins split anda bit of juice extrudes, but not so much that they completely lose definition.  Combine the tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled 2/3 full with ice.  Fill the highball glass to the brim with fresh ice, then strain the cocktail shaker over it.  Pour in a small dash of grenadine over the top, which should quickly filter through and mix with the muddled blueberries to give the drink the appearance of gruesome viscera.  Well, gruesome and delicious viscera, that is.  Careful not to spill your drink as you holler along to Morbid Angel.

Black Metal: “The Ragnarok Gimlet”
– The gimlet is another classic drink, and probably a somewhat odd choice to represent black metal.  All I’m really doing here, though, is playing on our popular representation of black metal as obsessed with the freezing cold of Scandinavian winters and sounding like the fuzzed-out maelstrom of a bestial blizzard.  The key to really feeling the icy creep of evil in this drink is taking it VERY easy on the lime, and shaking the holy living fuck out of it to ensure MAXIMUM CHILL (which sounds like a long lost Steven Seagal flick, now that I think of it).

Ingredients:
– 1 1/2 oz. gin (make it 2 oz. if you want to really taste the grimness)
– A very sparing dash of Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice

Directions:
Classically, the gimlet is served shaken and straight-up, but here I’m having you shake it but then serve it in an ice-filled lowball, so as best to simulate an icicle of black dread.  Fill a cocktail shaker 1/2 full with ice, then pour in the gin and splash of sweetened lime.  Then shake it like a soul possessed with the raw fury of Bathory, trapped in the midst of The Howling Wind’s Into the Cryosphere (or, better yet, Sleep Research Facility’s Deep Frieze).  Shake it until your arm is just about to bust out of its socket.  Then, strain it over a lowball filled with fresh ice.  Consume quickly.  And seriously.  Please do not smile.

Grindcore: “Multinational Corporations Brought You This Swedish Mule”
– This one is just a Moscow Mule, adapted by adding a Swedish liqueur so as to pay homage to Nasum and all the other greats of Swedish grindcore.  Made with the right kind of ingredients, this little fucker packs quite a kick, and when you add in one of the apocryphal stories about this drink’s genesis as a way for organized crime to sneakily serve alcohol during Prohibition in the States, this should at least hint at some of the political furor that so animates grindcore’s most hallowed practitioners.

Ingredients:
– 1 oz. vodka (though an extra tip of the bottle won’t hurt any)
– 1/2 oz. Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice (you can use fresh-squeezed lime instead, but I prefer Rose’s, so long as you don’t use too much)
– 6-8 oz. ginger beer (NOTE: It is absolutely crucial for the success of this drink that you are using a ginger beer rather than a ginger ale.  Or, if you’re using something called ginger ale, be sure that it’s brewed in the older fashion, where it actually has the bite and spice of real ginger.  That Canada Dry bullshit ain’t going to cut it here.)
– Splash (or up to 1/2 oz.) Cherry Heering (Cherry Heering is a Swedish liqueur, or really more like a cherry brandy.  Go with Heering, though, rather than some cheaper knock-off cherry brandy, which will more likely than not remind you of childhood cough syrups.)

Directions:
Fill a highball glass with ice.  Pour the vodka and lime juice over the ice, and fill the glass almost the rest of the way full with the ginger beer.  Give things a little stir, and then pour a small bit of the Cherry Heering over the top.  The cherry flavor should be subtle enough so as not to overpower the fierce kick of ginger (redolent of Napalm Death and Terrorizer’s pioneering use of the blastbeat, say), but should give the drink that nice sheen of blood-soaked lore, just like the daily work of government and corporations is to wring out their dollars to squeeze out the blood of the poor and innocent.  Et cetera.

Doom: “Summer In Siberia”
I wanted to keep things fairly simple for this.  Doom has its roots in the UK (as does all heavy metal, obviously), so another option for a doom metal drink is a Black Velvet (half Guinness Draught, half champagne).  Still, some of the gloomiest, most stretched-out dooooooom has lately come from Scandinavia, and Finland in particular, the landscape of which, in my mind at least, is of a piece with the vast snow-sodden expanses of Russia, with its stoic tundra pockmarked with rusted machinery and towering industrial factories.  Realities so blunt require a drink unvarnished with niceties and distractions.  The lemon is there as merely a gesture; a poor substitute for the blighted sun, perhaps never to return.

Ingredients:
– Vodka.  In some amount.  More than 2 oz. might be pushing it, but hell, this is DOOOOOOM.
– A squeeze of fresh lemon

Directions:
This is another one that I think ought to be as cold as possible.  If you’re averse to having the cloudy appearance that shards of cracked ice will give to the drink as I’m presenting it here, then feel free to stir the drink in the cocktail shaker rather than shake it.  If you stir it, though, stir it many times, and quickly.  Otherwise: Fill a cocktail shaker 1/2 full of ice.  Pour in the vodka, and shake the shit out of it.  Strain the chilled vodka into a lowball glass filled with fresh ice.  Give a freshly cut lemon a little squeeze over the top of the glass, and give it a stir.  Now, sit and wait for the slow, inevitable crush of the tectonic plates.  Mother Russia demands solicitude and obedience.

Sludge: “The Bayou Filth Hound”
– The American South is known for its whiskeys, whether it be Tennessee’s Jack Daniels or the fuck tons of bourbons from Kentucky.  That same climate has, as you know, produced a bearded slew of sludging bruisers in recent years; look to the Savannah, Georgia scene if you require proof (mildly-veiled Deathspell Omega reference, hey-o).  This concoction is one of my very favorite variations on the classic Old Fashioned recipe (obviously with many liberties taken), and adds the mint in homage to the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep.  Plus, this preparation of the drink produces a viscous, swampy-looking thing that sits in your glass, daring you to drink its poison promise down.  Muddy like the backwaters of Louisiana, this one.

Ingredients:
– 1 1/2 or 2 oz. of good Kentucky bourbon (Maker’s Mark tends to be my go-to because of its wide availability, but any fine bourbon, especially of the spicier variety, will do quite nicely)
– Brown sugar (anywhere from a pinch to a few spoonfuls, depending on your preference)
– Angostura bitters (anywhere from one dash to half a dozen)
– Half a lime
– Two Maraschino cherries
– Four or five fresh mint leaves
– Club soda

Directions:
Just like the Old Fashioned above, you’ll be building this drink in a lowball glass.  Put the brown sugar in the bottom of the empty glass (hella existential).  Personally, I like a bit more brown sugar than you might imagine.  At least a good spoonful, I’d say.  Then, to counteract the potential over-sweetness, I like to give several hefty dashes of Angostura bitters over the sugar.  Cut the lime half into quarters, and muddle them with the Maraschino cherries in the sugar and bitters.  Feel free to muddle with vigor here, as we’re trying to go for the opaque, swampy look with this drink.  After you’ve released most of the juices from the fruit, toss in the mint leaves, and muddle just a little more, but now more gently, so that you keep the leaves intact, but bruised.  Now fill the glass with ice and pour in the bourbon.  At this point, give the drink a good stirring, and then top it off with a bit of club soda.  Finally, hold the glass up to your eyes and gaze into its murky depths.  Un-receded flood waters.  Alligators glide with stealth through the swamp.  A man plucks a banjo on a wooden porch, but cannot be heard over the noise of your favorite Eyehategod record.  Pull this drink in between your teeth.  Feel the thickness, and taste, in its chill, the oppressive heat of America.  Your America.  My America.  Our sadness.
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Cheers!

The viscera are somewhat difficult to make out in this shot of the Tequila Smashed Face

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