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Posts Tagged ‘Black Sabbath’

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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Right, it's that weird grey/white business that's glorious and sparkly close up

So, I just got my copy of the new Furze album in the mail the other day.  It’s called Reaper Subconscious Guide (out now on Agonia Records), which makes just about as much sense as everything else about this band (including, for the record, my undiminished fondness for them).  Things being what they are, I haven’t yet gotten around to listening to it, but I did peruse the artwork and liner notes a bit, which yields the following two observations:

1.  Embossed black printing is pretty much old hat for high-end heavy metal packaging these days.  Sure, it looks great (e.g., Agalloch’s delightful Marrow of the Spirit), and very intense and moody and all that business.  Right.  Got it.  But here’s a new trick, then: The cover of the CD booklet for Reaper Subconscious Guide has got some of that sparkly silverish half-hologram-type effect that one might have seen on ‘Special Issue’ editions of Marvel comics back in the early 90s.  On a fucking black metal record, folks!  It’s awesome.  Dude calls himself Woe J. Reaper, and puts fucking sparkly holograms on his album cover.  Bonus points galore, in my book.

2.  More seriously, the album contains the following message, printed both on the back cover and, in wobbly Master of Reality font, on the disc itself:

“To all listeners: Artist (and publisher) invest a wholelot [sic] of time and energy in this work (years).  Do not put this album on the net for free listening / download in any way – it kills possibility to receive back even some of what we put into this…”

Mine's numbered 101, because I know you were ravenously curious

This reminded me of a statement in the liner notes to Michael Gira’s solo record put out earlier this year to finance the new Swans record.  It’s called I Am Not Insane, and it features solo acoustic versions of pretty much all the tracks that wound up on the superlative My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (in fact, the only song which did NOT appear in acoustic version first is the intensely creepy duet between Gira’s three-year old daughter and freak/folkie Devendra Banhart, “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.).

Big universe, little mouth

Anyway, toward the end of the home-printed liner notes, reads the following message:

“Please do not upload any of the material contained in this package onto the web or ‘share’ it all over the god damn place.”

Now, both because I’m too lazy, and don’t really care that much, I’m not going to bother looking around the regular places of the internet to see if either (or both) of these releases have  been uploaded to various ‘file-sharing’ venues.  Also, I’m pretty much 100% positive that they will have been.  I’m also not really interested in getting into some huge malignant debate about the ethics of illegal downloading (though you think its advocates could come up with a less normatively-loaded term, don’t you think?) here (or probably anywhere, ever) versus the ostensible depravities of the record industry et cetera et cetera.  I just think this kind of (relatively) direct appeal from the artist to the listener is an interesting approach.

I mean, I’m pretty sure that if someone’s planning to upload an album for file-sharing, some quaint shaming tactic like this won’t make much of a difference.  Or, rather: Do you suppose it makes people spread it ’round faster?

The moral of the story is: Buy records to support the artform.  Also, artists: use more fucking sparkly hologram shit, yeah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Or, “On How I Never Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Commerce”

Friends, did you know that we are living in exciting times?  Why, just this very year, 2010, we’ll be celebrating the 11th anniversary of the release of Dødheimsgard’s 666 International!  Not only that, but we’ll also be rejoicing in the 4th anno since the birthing of Meshuggah’s 2006 re-recorded version of their 2002 album Nothing.

Hell, 2002-2006-2010 means Meshuggah can throw themselves a DOUBLE 4TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY, that rarest of heavy metal occasions.  Truly, these are charmed days.

Okay, so I’m obviously being kind of a dick here.  But here’s why: I’m having just a little bit of difficulty with the whole trend of “let’s celebrate undeniably good or influential heavy metal records at particular milestone years after their release with a whole fuck-ton of tawdry press coverage and nostalgic whinging.”

Cases in point:

2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Judas Priest’s British Steel:

Breaking any laws, or just in bad taste?

Now, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t celebrate this.  Judas Priest are obviously a massively influential heavy metal band, and for all intents and purposes, this record was their break-through (at least on this side of the Atlantic), with both “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” being friggin’ enormous hits.  And although Nostradamus probably has more detractors than balls-out supporters, clearly the fact that this band is still kicking, and kicking fair amounts of ass, is well worth fêting.

I just, ugh, this kind of thing gets me all in a State.  I mean, for rabid fans of the band, this kind of thing is always cool, even if it just adds some live tracks, or an alternate take of a couple songs, of a hastily edited video of Rob Halford circa 1980 eating a slice of pizza.  Whatever, I understand that collector mentality.

Still, even though this is being pitched now because of a milestone anniversary, it’s still all so ridiculously arbitrary.  Why not do a deluxe reissue upon the album’s 20th anniversary?  Or wait another ten for its 40th?  Columbia may have well and truly blown its load back in 2001 with the whole reissue series of all the Priest albums from Sin After Sin through Painkiller, so I can’t help but see some of this as just a ploy to repackage widely-available material in the guise of new content.  And that, frankly, gets my ire up just a wee bit.

2010 also marks the 40th (!!) anniversary of Black Sabbath’s first two records, Black Sabbath and Paranoid (which, by my reckoning, also means that this humble year here also marks the 40th anniversary of Heavy Metal itself, but whatevs…):

Evil Mona Lisa

So, what does Universal, or Sanctuary, or whomever, do?  Well, they put out ‘deluxe editions’ of these albums last year.  Meaning 2009.  Meaning on the 39th anniversary, I guess.

Y'know, for longer than I'd care to admit, I thought this cover image was like some fucking bizarre mushroom

So clearly, at this point, I’m just being a complete jackass to just about each and every individual in the record industry.  How rude of me.  Still, even though the Black Sabbath reissues don’t actually coincide with some massive fucking 40th anniversary celebration (although Paranoid was out in September of 1970, so there’s still time), I think my point stands.

Maybe it’s just the case that both the legacy and the musical output of both of these bands have already been fucked around with by as many different parties as possible, with random reissues, remasters, seemingly innumerable versions of Paranoid, and God knows what other sundry shenanigans.  Under those circumstances, it’s fairly understandable that a record label (especially in this current climate of hemorrhaging profits from every orifice imaginable) would try to cast about for any potentially meaningful anniversary or event around which to hang a revenue-collecting opportunity.

And maybe I’m being far too jaded here.  There’s always the argument that these sorts of reissue campaigns are a positive development because they can expose a new generation of heavy metal fans to the foundational DNA of the genre(s) we love so dearly.  Problem is, I don’t put much stock in those arguments in cases (like these) where the music in question was absolutely never in short supply.

I mean, honestly, you could probably punch any random rock radio DJ across this vast bizarre country of ours in the sternum, and out they’d cough at least three copies each (on multiple formats) of “Breaking the Law” and “Iron Man.”

You could try to drive a bulldozer through the wall of your local used record shop or public library, only you wouldn’t be able to, because the combined force of several decades’ worth of accumulated broken dreams and several dozen used-sticker-gel-congealed copies of British Steel, Black Sabbath, and Thriller (because let’s not think the world of pop music is immune to such market-saturating hijinks) would be rubber, and your bulldozer glue, and anyway, you get the picture.

So, tell me.  Where do you draw the line between appreciating reissues/deluxe packages, and violently retching at the mere mention of them?

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Okay, friends – things are getting serious.  The question I am about to pose to all of you may just be one of the most vexed in all of heavy metal history.  Abandon hope, all ye who enter, et cetera.

Which of these is the best classic heavy metal live album:

– Judas Priest, Unleashed in the East (1979)
– Motörhead, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (1981)
– Iron Maiden, Live After Death (1985)

????????

I know, I know; this is some next level, Sophie’s Choice shit, right?

The contenders:

Fall to your knees and repent (if you please)

You see, my first inclination is to say that Priest’s live album from Japan is the best of the three.  Downing and Tipton are in lockstep precision throughout the entire set, and Halford’s vocals are absolutely on fire.  I think the thing that really sells this one more than anything, though, is how different these tracks sound from their recorded versions.

Now, I don’t mean that we’ve got any 20-minute “Moby Dick” masturbatory drum solos, or patient explorations of the tonality of the sitar; instead, what I mean is, this album came out in 1979, meaning that the material represented is largely from 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny through 1979’s Hell Bent for Leather (which is really 1978’s British Killing Machine, but nevermind that).  For this earlier stage in their career, Priest still sounded very much like a 1970s metal band, meaning that the production never quite gave them the same bite they were able to achieve in the live arena.

As such, even though the live renditions are quite faithful to the originals, they sound bigger, bolder, and more filled with the righteous flame of heavy metal’s essence.  Check “Victim of Changes,” especially, for one of the most awe-inspiring tracks ever to have been put to tape, to wax, to indelible brain-grooves.

Snake eyes watching you

Now Motörhead live are a completely different proposition.  Where Priest gain power live, it is primarily because of the intensification and clarification of what I imagine must have been their original vision of those songs; where Motörhead gain power live, it’s for no other reason than that the hellish racket made by these three dudes absolutely personifies everything dirty, gritty, fast, ugly, and wonderful about metal, punk, rock, and just basically loud fucking music.

The set list (my single-disc CD version has got 14 tracks, though the original issue was just the 11 tracks, “Ace of Spades” through “Motörhead”) is chock full of classics: “Ace of Spades,” “Overkill,” “Bomber,” “(We Are) The Road Crew,” “The Hammer,” “Iron Horse/Born to Lose,” and on and on.  The primary reason that this album vies in such close competition for the vaunted status of  Best Heavy Fucking Metal Live Album Ever is that it is louder, faster, and more shot through with the supernatural power of ROCK than just about anything else.

Seriously, once you’ve got this album into your greedy little clutches, it will most likely ruin you for the original recorded versions of these songs.  They will seem slow, and they will seem quiet, and they will pale in comparison to their livid, whiskey-fueled live bastard children.

Woe to you, oh Earth and Sea...

So, now that I’ve done worked myself into quite the lather over Priest and Motörhead, how could poor ol’ Iron Maiden hope to stack up?  Oh, I don’t know, maybe by BRINGING THE GODDAMNED ROCK AND ROLL SO HARD INTO YOUR EARHOLES THAT YOUR EYEBALLS ROLL BACK INTO YOUR HEAD LIKE IN A CARTOON, BUT INSTEAD OF DISPLAYING SLOT MACHINE ICONS, ALL YOU SEE IS EDDIE SPINNING ROUND AND ROUND, DANCING A HEAVY METAL TARANTELLA WHILST CLUTCHING THE ASHES OF YOUR SANITY.

Ahem.  What I mean is, of these three live albums, Live After Death has the widest selection of absolutely classic tracks.  Yeah, it’s a shame that they didn’t wait a few years so that they could include tracks from Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but that’s really just splitting hairs.  Here you get some of the highlights of Powerslave and Piece of Mind, plus all the old bangers you’ve come to know and love.  Bruce is on fine form, and the crowd(s – the first disc was recorded in Long Beach, CA, and the second disc, coincidentally enough, was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, the very same venue at which Motörhead promised no sleep until) is fired up.

Apart from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (a real treat to hear the whole thing live), a few of the lesser-heard gems are “22 Acacia Avenue” and “Phantom of the Opera.”  But really, apart from the specific track selection, this entire recording just oozes the class and professionalism of a band on the top of their game in 1985, and a band which continues to be on the top of their game 25 years (!!!) later in 2010.
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Moral of the story is: I can’t choose between these three records, friends.  Each one is perilously close to being too excellent for its own damn good.  In a perfect world, then, we’d each have, oh, say, four hours or so each day to play all three back to back for MAXIMUM HEAVY METAL DAMAGE.

But what about you?  Are you able to choose between these three?  Have I forgotten any other heavy metal live albums of equal importance and stature to these?  (I should point out that I intentionally left off Black Sabbath’s Live Evil, not out of any disrespect for RJD His Damn Self, but because even though it stretches back and cherry picks some of the Ozzy-era classics, it’s not a representation of the classic band at the height of its powers, like are these other three.)

Which live albums strike that holy terror in your soul, and lead you by the hand, ineluctably, to the Spinal Tapdance?*
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*In case I have not yet specified, a Spinal Tapdance is what happens to the body when it is consumed with the all-purifying fuck-thunder of HEAVY METAL.  Think not of dancing ’round a midget Stonehenge, but rather of the real life Stonehenge – y’know, all those fucking giant ROCKS in the English countryside what with them Druids used to get funky – DANCING ON YOU.  Your body twists and thrashes uncontrollably, and your hair stands on lightning-kissed end; this is the Spinal Tapdance.

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