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

Allow me to illustrate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who thought this cover was a good idea?

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

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

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You’ve been waiting for it (or maybe you haven’t, you wee attention-span-less mongrels), and I am finally pleased to present – for your epic admiration or disgust – Spinal Tapdance’s picks for the top ten metal albums of this quickly dwindling year.  There’s a lot of black metal in there, you’ll notice, but not much Black Metal proper – most of it’s all mixed up and scuzzed around, which is all for the good.  Spinal Tapdance: firmly in favor of musical miscegenation.  As always, take to your furiously clattering keyboards to let us know what you think – cuss us out, give us e-high-fives, or present us with a 6,000-word exegesis of the secretly fascistic leanings of the new Cee Lo record.  Won’t bother us none.

More importantly – thanks to YOU, brave reader, for making these first tentative months of Spinal Tapdance worth the while.  2010 kicked out some massive jams, so be sure to stick around as we swing into 2011, where I’ll strive to keep you up to date on which bold new musical shenanigans you ought to skip, and which you ought to shiv your boss to get the time off work so as to hear.  A three-hole punch makes a fair bludgeon, in a pinch.
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10.  Withered, Dualitas

What a crushing whirlwind of an album this is.  In retrospect, their previous album Folie Circulaire was much more about individual songs; now, it’s not that the individual songs suffer on Dualitas, but that the entire album – at a rather tidy 43 minutes – plays like one dusk-hued symphony of resolute negativism and personal striving.  Genre tags are thrown about promiscuously in write-ups on Withered, and while there are certainly elements of black, death, doom, grind, and ambient at play throughout the album, the band has forged a unique style that never plays like pastiche.  Instead, these songs hit you right in the gut with a balled-up fist of fury, choppering you along with a sullen, desperate forward momentum that you will avoid only at grave personal risk.  Feeling down never felt so good.

9.  Castevet, Mounds Of Ash

If you were a new band putting out your debut album in metal in 2010, chances are pretty good that you were utterly and thoroughly embarrassed by Castevet (see my full review here).  For the band’s first album, Mounds Of Ash is monumentally self-confident as it tears through tense mini-epics and build and burn.  Jagged riff shards flit across the spectrum, and hoarse, hardcore-flecked roars assault the thinking part of the brain, while the movement part of the brain is sucked into the brash undertow of brilliantly complex (but never over-busy) drums.  This band oozes class from every pore, and if you missed their epic post-black hardcore assault on tradition, check yourself into a clinic to see if they can get a handle on your uncontrollable weeping.

8.  Julie Christmas, The Bad Wife


I mean no insult to any of the other musicians involved in this first solo outing from Made Out Of Babies and Battle Of Mice singer Julie Christmas, but anything instrument-related on this record ranks a hugely distant second to Ms. Christmas’s troubled, terrible, tremendous voice.  She blows through a huge range of vocal styles throughout this album, projecting intense fragility and instability, as well as righteous, face-melting rage.  “Bow,” “If You Go Away,” “When Everything Is Green”; the album is packed with fantastically expressive songs that feature Christmas on the top of her game, backed by angular noise rock riffing and more serene, almost lounge-esque accompaniment.  For the open-minded metalhead, then – or, y’know, for fucking everybody.

7.  Sargeist, Let The Devil In

What happens when a black metal band plays by absolutely every rule in the black metal playbook?  Complete snoozefest, right?  Well, maybe in the hands of a band less capable than Sargeist.  This album, though, this white-hot fiery blaze of an album, manages to transcend generic trappings simply by pushing those traditional signifiers to their absolute limit.  The blasting is the blasting-est, the ruthless tremolo riffs are razor-sharp and wrenchingly melancholy, the tortured vocal manglings of Hoath Torog are none-more-tortured-and-mangling.  In short, if you toss around phrases like ‘orthodox black metal’ and ‘avant-garde black metal’ like they mean shit when presented with an ass-walloping like this, Sargeist have got a Darkthrone song to sing to you: Fuck off and die.

6.  Rotting Christ, Aealo

Though all music is, in some sense, a reflection of the place that spawned it, few records have seemed as rooted in the earth of its creators’ home as does Rotting Christ’s latest – and best – album.  In almost every way a continuation of the seemingly effortless melodic black metal alchemy of Sanctus Diavolos and Theogonia, Aealo stakes out more deeply resonant territory with the addition of a traditional Greek women’s choir – the kind you might expect to play the role of the Furies in Aristophanes or Sophocles, or wailing to oversee the honoring and burying of the dead as Pericles recites his acclaimed funeral oration in Thucydides’s telling.  The melodies here are full and aching, spilling over and suffusing the great rhythmic drive of some of Rotting Christ’s finest songs with a real emotional weight.  And Diamanda Galás joining the band for a cover of her “Orders From The Dead”?  Forget about it – this album owns you, just as equally as it owns the tragedies and overcomings of its own storied past.

5.  Christian Mistress, Agony & Opium


Trad metal throwbacks.  NWOBHM revivalists.  A recently unearthed demo from 1983.  Lob whatever snide comment or epithet at this album you like – Christian Mistress’s debut just couldn’t give two shits, and will carry on rocking, licking, driving, and belting its way deep into your subconscious.  You will wake up singing these songs; you will go to sleep singing these songs.  The production is classically brittle, the dual guitars could be from Lizzy or Priest or Slough Feg, for fuck’s sake, and the gutsy, straightforward and raw husky vocals of (not so) secret weapon Christine Davis glue your ass to your seat.  It’s fucking rock and roll, so shut up and listen, you silly asshole.

4.  Blood Revolt, Indoctrine


When I reviewed this album some months ago, I predicted that although it’s a jaw-dropping fusion of various threads of extreme metal, it probably wouldn’t be an album I would listen to over and over again.  This has turned out to be exactly true, but for the safety and sanity of those around me, it’s probably better this way.  Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch, trying to convince you, the metal-listening public, that any metal album can really sound truly and honestly dangerous anymore.  Still, Alan Averill’s vocal performance on this album is the closest thing to method acting you’re likely to find in heavy metal, so thoroughly does he inhabit the rapidly unhinging mind of a religious zealot bent on revenge and absolution.  This album gave Ross and Read (of Conqueror, Revenge, Axis Of Advance, etc., etc.) the crystal-clear, bone-dry production I’ve been literally aching to hear from them, and they in turn offered up some of their most hellacious performances – drum fills and guitar flashes sound like the report of machine gun fire, and the songs, the songs pull you in and drag you down and ask you – beg you – to watch, and to listen, and to be afraid.

3.  Ludicra, The Tenant


Crusty and melodic, urban and desperate, lovely and ugly and terrible and bright.  Ludicra’s fourth album is an absolutely superlative work of progressive leaning, sideways-riff-filled black metal.  Their songs have an uncanny ability to resonate in one’s chest cavity like a carried weight or a known secret – they play from inside you, using your ribcage as a microphone to hurl these relentless missives into the world and beyond, out to where anyone will hear, and no-one will answer.  This ain’t no cosmic bullshit, though.  This album will ground you, perhaps too jarringly for the comfort of many listeners.  You’ll find yourself swaying in time to a rhythm, a phrase, a riff, the pounding beat, and thinking, with David Byrne, “How did I get here?”  Enthralling heavy metal, simply enough.

2.  Enslaved, Axioma Ethica Odini

This band is pretty much unstoppable.  Continuing the progression they’ve been on since Below The Lights (the two before that began the experimental thrust, sure, but BTL seems, to me, where it started up in earnest), Axioma Ethica Odini takes the more psychedelically-minded direction of Ruun and Vertebrae and grafts it back onto the more aggressive framework of earlier works (even calling to mind, at some of the blastiest, raspiest moments, early career landmark Eld).  The one-two punch of openers “Axioma Ethica” and “Raidho” set the tone for the rest of the album, but the hits!, the hits just keep on coming.  Clocking in at a far sight longer than their other recent albums, Axioma Ethica Odini pulls the listener along on a sensory journey through infinite shades of light and dark, often finding just as much menace as hope in the pure clean vocals and keys, until finally, inevitably, dropping the listener at the base of a vast mountain in album closer “Lightening.”  That the listener is then taken, weightless, on that great melodic ascent, is a mark of the singular nature of Enslaved’s craft – that major progression doesn’t feel cheap, but rather fully and gratifyingly deserved.

1.  Agalloch, Marrow Of The Spirit


There’s the hype, then the counter-hype; the expectations, and the attempts at deflation; the sterling quality of the band’s back catalogue, and the nervous sweat of anticipation.  But I don’t really want to talk about any of that.  I don’t even really want to talk about the actual metal contained within – glorious and blasting and epic and furious and pure as the driven snow though it well may be.  I don’t want to talk about the sweeping force of interwoven melodic guitar lines, or the escape from mid-paced purgatory, or the brilliant artwork, or the fact that I’m still typing out all of these stupid ridiculous words for you to read when really all we should be doing – all any of us should be doing – is listening to the music.  I want to talk about the album’s bookends, the opening instrumental “They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness,” and the moody, crackling with blissful noise closer of “To Drown.”

Listen to that purling cello in the album’s first few minutes, to the thick scraping descending and slowly-shifting arpeggios.  Then find your way through “To Drown,” to when the screeching, wailing, probably screwdrivered guitars sing their harried cascade and loose their electric sheen on your outstretched hands.  Can you hear it, that song?  Do you find it comes from within, or does that song, that sound which is so familiar like the rushing of your heart’s deep river – does it come from some great collective pantheon of subconscious, shared experience?  This is music that dissolves ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and ‘nature’ and ‘artifice’.  Dwell in the space of that song, and it just will not matter from whence it came – only that it did, and it will, and you are safe.

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Well, greatest friends and silentest companions – that’s it.  The Top 30 Metal Albums of 2010, by my reckoning.  Thanks for coming along for the ride, and please do tell me your stories about the music you love, and about the music that loves you, and about all the foolish and vital spaces in between it all.  The year is dead; long live the year.
– danhammerobstkrieg / spinaltapdance

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After last week’s 25 Honorable Mentions (in haiku!), Spinal Tapdance will now begin counting down the Top 30 Metal Albums of 2010 in three cheeky installments.

30.  Immolation, Majesty & Decay

A pitch-perfect production job (after two great albums somewhat marred by odd, muddy sound) casts the perfect spotlight on some of the sturdiest, most sideways riffs these New York death dealers have spewed forth in their entire career.  Further proof, perhaps, that the greatest heavy metal often comes from the sincerity and hardworking ethos of blue collar, down-to-earth dudes getting together and howling (or grunting, as appropriate) at the moon.  This is truly the sound of giants among us, and if you haven’t hopped on the Immolation train at this point, I’m not sure there’s much else we can say to each other.  Immolation’s craft is patient and deliberate, but will crush you beneath slabs of sparkling granite just the same.

29.  Shining, Blackjazz

Blackjazz was by far one of the gnarliest records of 2010, coming across like nothing less than an invasion by a hostile race of noise-mongering aliens.  2010 may have been a great year for saxophone in metal (Yakuza, Ihsahn, In Lingua Mortua – the latter two acts featuring guest turns by Shining’s own Jørgen Munkeby), but nowhere did that instrument come across as foreign and antisocial as on this album.  It’s not often that extreme metal finds areas of tonality and experimentalism previously unexplored, but Blackjazz may just be that year zero of a brand-new sound.  Open your mind to the cacophony, and bow down to your new woodwind overlords.

28.  Woe, Quietly, Undramatically


It took me a good while to come around to this album, but when it finally clicked – holy shit.  Melodically inventive, excellently structured black metal that frees itself from the generic strictures of its Scandinavian heritage, without needing to wander off into all sorts of widdly faux-avant-garde-isms.  Tack on to these superbly classy songs the satisfying tormented screams of frontman Chris Grigg, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for real excellence and innovation in American black metal.  “A Treatise On Control” is without question one of best songs to claw its way into the world of metal this year.

27.  Melechesh, The Epigenesis

I keep reading and hearing about how people are all sorts of disappointed with The Epigenesis, in response to which I can only assume that said grumblers have somehow misplaced their ears up their asses.  The masters of Eastern-influence thrashing black madness have queued up another disc full of caustic, biting riffage and esoteric tales of magick and doom.  The way that Melechesh grafts some of the traditionalism of black/thrash onto the less common rhythmic patterns of Turkish music is brilliant, and I am absolutely unashamed to report that I have found myself simultaneously belly-dancing and headbanging to this album.  If I hear you complain that it’s too slow, I will slap you in your ridiculous face with a sack of cantaloupes, and then turn up the record and play it over and over until you are forced to agree that the album is not about pure, unadulterated aggression, but about finding that perfect hypnotic groove, that devilish trancing sweet-spot.  You think, once they get you there, they’ll just let go?  Fuck off.

26.  Fukpig, Belief is the Death of Intelligence

If I were trying to be a pithy little asshole about it, I’d just call this Fukpig record Extreme Noise Nathrakh, and call it a day.  Thing is, that description’s not wrong, but if you’ve missed out on this severely pissed-off album of short, sharp blasts of nihilistic fury, then maybe I deserve to be a pithy little asshole at you.  Whatever – these filthy Britons take the grinding black melodicism of Anaal Nathrakh (with whom members are shared) and marry it to crusty, bulldozing grind in the tradition of Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, old Bolt Thrower, and anything else you like.  Song titles like “Britain’s Got Fucking AIDS,” “Sadism in the Name of God,” and the classic “All of You are Cunts and I Hope You Die” should steer you in the right direction, which is, to whichever bastard record store would dare carry this.

25.  Ihsahn, After

Both of Ihsahn’s previous solo outings were excellent in their own terms, though each came off a bit hesitant.  And with good reason: sloughing off the tremendous mantle of “ex-Emperor” was assuredly no small task (perhaps complicated by Emperor’s reforming to do the festival circuit).  From the first melancholy note of “From Barren Lands,” though, After is all self-confidence, all the time, striking a riveting balance between the unshakable traces of black metal (understandable, as the dude’s got one of the most distinctive voices in extreme metal) and clear progressive intentions.  The guest spots by metal-saxophonist supreme Jørgen Munkeby are probably the easiest aspect to focus on, but the entire album flows smoothly from one triumphant riff to another.  As such, this is the first of Ihsahn’s solo albums to seem ballasted only by itself, freed of that imperial weight.

24.  Darkthrone, Circle the Wagons

Modern-day Darkthrone records are a treasure and a gift to heavy metal at large, and the frequency and tossed-off nature of these recordings should not for one minute lead us to take Mssrs Culto and Fenriz for granted.  Metal gods of single-minded regression, they are, and with Circle The Wagons they’ve delivered up another collection of furiously catchy black/punk gems, this time borrowing even more heavily (or paying more reverent homage to, depending on one’s perspective) from traditional heavy metal.  “Those Treasures Will Never Befall You” and the title track are unparalleled sing-a-long nuggets, while “I Am The Graves of the 80s” will surely serve as a rallying cry to all denim-and-leather diehards who refuse to admit anything has happened since 1987.  And fucking good on ’em.

23.  Sabbath Assembly, Restored To One


The most brilliant thing about this Sabbath Assembly record is that one needn’t even know a thing about the bizarre cult-ish back story to get seriously creeped out and enthralled by the occult rock on display.  Jex Thoth’s vocals are mellow and just a little rough in all the right spots, with the band eventually sounding like we’ve taken some contemporary orthodox black metal fans and set them down in 1967 San Francisco to play praise songs.  This is one of those “This shouldn’t work but hot jumping shit does it ever!” kind of albums, and one that sounds like total rubbish when described, but is pure dark rock magic when heard.  “Hymn of Consecration” gives me goosebumps every single time.

22.  Black Breath, Heavy Breathing

2010 was a great year for all manner of that volatile cocktail of death metal, grindcore, crust, d-beat, and all other types of general nastiness.  Witness phenomenal albums from Early Graves, The Secret, Nails, and the like – still, none of them cut this particular listener quite as sharply as the debut full-length from Black Breath.  By far the most Stockholm sounding of the lot, the songwriting nevertheless remains a dangerously careening blend of teeth-gnashing d-beat and grind fury, yet with a sense of melody seen in all the best of black and death metal’s first waves.  Sort of like if Disfear and Entombed circa Clandestine had a kid, and fed that kid nothing but Murder City Devils and Doomriders.  I don’t know, fuck you – it doesn’t sound like any of that; instead, it sounds like it wants to hunt you down and drink your blood.  So let it, yeah?

21.  Krieg, The Isolationist


In which one of U.S. black metal’s long-running concerns returned after a lackluster (and supposedly final) album – Blue Miasma – only to dive headlong into even deeper waters of nihilistic howling and claustrophobic, psychedelic black metal droning.  This is a seriously impressive album, with perhaps no factor more welcome than Imperial’s devastatingly intense, gut-destroying vocals.  Leviathan’s Wrest sits in to provide some gloriously thick bass, and Woe’s Chris Grigg provides the drumming, so it’s really a family affair.  The Isolationist is both straight-forward and unconventional, with just enough flourishes of oppressive noise and ambient flirtations to keep the listener disoriented and humbled before the almighty hammer of an American band at the absolute top of its game.
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That’s it for the bottom third of Spinal Tapdance’s Top 30 of the year.  Be sure to stay tuned for the rest of the best, and be well, friends.

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

 

A charming introduction

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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