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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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Since I had such a lark spinning through some of my favorite accounts bleakness from down Italy way, why not have another go of it?  This time: Germany.  Deutschland.  Sounds ominous, no?  Well, although we could draw further parallels between Italy and Germany (weren’t they both involved in some, shall we say, unpleasantness, this past century?), it is not the shared love of goosestepping but rather a similarly dark and twisted vein of black metal richness that draws me to both nations.  So, allow me to present to you a choice smattering of tasty metal morsels from the only nation in Europe that could have produced the ‘no smiling allowed’ machine music of Kraftwerk and, um, Nena.

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Klabautamann, Merkur (2009)


I’ve also got one of their previous albums, called something appropriately nature-y like Our Journey In The Woods (sorry, too lazy to look it up), which is also pretty good, but holy SSSSSSHIT this album nearly came out of nowhere.  It’s progressive and angular without the obnoxious and pretentious connotations that those terms usually evoke.  It’s aggressive and mental but still explores a pleasantly wide palette of sounds and colors.  Some of the dudes are also in the band called Island, who have a newer self-titled record that I haven’t tracked down yet, but their previous EPs or demos or whatever shit came out a while ago called Orakel, which is well worth checking out.
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Secrets Of The Moon, Carved In Stigmata Wounds (2004)

Don’t know what it is in the water, but there’s a powerful strain of German orthodoxy which seems to have little to do with the Swedish/French style (Ondskapt, Malign, Deathspell Omega, and on and on).  This German orthodox black metal is a bit more measured in its approach, almost stately.  I’m thinking here of Secrets of the Moon, obviously, but also Dark Fortress and, to a slightly lesser extent, some of mid- to late period Lunar Aurora.  This is perhaps the pinnacle of serious, ‘no fun’ black metal, but this album absolutely KILLS it.
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Drautran, Throne Of The Depths (2007)


There’s nothing terribly new going on here, but this album has got an awesome title, really cool cover art, and a masterful take on vaguely pagan-ish black metal.  I know, I know, but before you run screaming in horror to throw on Killers or Defenders of the Faith, this ain’t no tin whistle face-painted bullshit.  It’s essentially a slick take on that ineffable German orthodoxy, without the orthodoxy, while tossing in a whole bunch of classic Emperor-isms.  This album is just all kinds of smooth, and I mean that in the best way possible.
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Vinterriket, Der Letze Winter – Der Ewigkeit Entgegen (2005)


Much like Hellveto or Striborg or (until recently) Xasthur, the one dude behind Vinterriket suffers from a serious lack of self-restraint.  If you try to keep up with the relentless onslaught of new albums, EPs, splits, and ‘Best Ofs’, you’ll run yourself straight into the ground.  Plus, most of this dude’s stuff is, frankly, boring as shit dark ambient.  This album, however, mixes that dark ambient with a furious blizzard of the coldest black metal.  Kinda like Darkspace or Paysage d’Hiver, I guess, but less long-winded than the former, and FAR less eardrum-piercingly harsh than the latter.  This album is fantastically paced and sequenced, and it’s just all kinds of excellent.
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Desaster, 666 – Satan’s Soldiers Syndicate (2007)


Ah, finally.  Some metal during which it is Okay To Smile.  Seriously, you’ve got my permission.  Enough of the dour ‘my lit teacher didn’t like my poetic homage to Edgar Allan Poe’ grumbling.  This is ferocious, accurately sloppy black/thrash.  Play it, then play it again only louder, and hell, why not drink some beers, too?  Then toss on some Aura Noir, who are not German, but share this same sloppy fun metal approach.  Go on.  You deserve it.
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The Ruins Of Beverast, Unlock the Shrine (2004)


Alright, now that you’ve thrashed and smiled to Desaster, Fun Time Is Over.  Well, at least, if you’re going to have ‘fun’ with this album, it is a very SERIOUS kind of fun.  Anyway, this is one dude who was the dude in the band Nagelfar which everyone who ever told you about was very careful to emphasize “No, really, it’s not the same as the Swedish Naglfar, y’know, the guys who are kind of like the kids in the grade just above Dimmu Borgir, who kinda tried to bully them and look tougher but were really just jealous that the young punks were more popular.”  Whatever.  This album kicks ass.  It’s mostly black metal, I guess, but with a cinematic scope.  Replete with non-stupid sampling and non-trite industrial aspects, this is a genuinely spooky affair.  Th’Ruins’ other two records are also good, but this first one is the most finely honed AND experimental.  Tasteful, tasty.  Taste it.
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Geist, Galeere (2009)


Honestly, the cover art kind of tells you everything you need to know about this album.  The band logo tells you it’s at least vaguely black metal, and the creepy almost-capsizing ghost ship reveals a spooky nautical vibe.  And yep, that’s pretty much how the music delivers.  Excellent grim black metal in that Teutonic mold (see also Funeral Procession, I suppose, but definitely Inarborat, for more of this German not-quite-a-scene, not-quite-orthodoxy), but nicely evocative of a doomed seafaring voyage.  Creaking timbers, washes of guitar like huge black waves in the night.  Dive in and seal your watery fate.
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Katharsis, VVorldVVithoutEnd (2006)


This one is also of a sort of orthodoxy, I guess, but more of the Ajna Offensive type than your Dark Fortresses and Secrets(es?) of the Moon.  Anyway, a seriously ghoulish aesthetic, scorched earth sound, and insanely stretched out compositions reveal a demented group of individuals behind this caustic work of bleak black art.  Yeah, the albums before this one were pretty good, and Fourth Reich wasn’t half-bad, either, but this is definitely where it’s AT for the Katharsis (anti-?)ethos.
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I sort of forgot about the whole Prophecy Productions folk-ish scene (with, oh, what do you call ’em, Empyrium and ah, shit… Dornenreich, that’s who I’m thinking of), but maybe if you include them and the whole Lupus Lounge label/scene, I don’t know, does that count as a German scene or sound?  Who cares.  These are some excellent records.  You can trust me; after all, I write a blog on the internet.  Still, all of this goes to show that there’s plenty of blackness that ain’t anywhere near your Norways and Swedens.

It is literally taking ALL of my self-restraint not to exeunt this post with some sort of “something or other über alles” statement.  Let’s call it quits there, before I embarrass us all.  (Un)Happy listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.
———————

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?*
—————–

*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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BLLLLLUUUUAARRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!

FOR ALL THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING THAT IS SWEET AND HOLY IN HEAVY METAL, iTUNES REALLY OUGHT TO WARN ONE BEFORE SPITTING OUT  ***JUDAS MOTHERFUCKING PRIEST’S PAIN MOTHERFUCKING KILLER***

BECAUSE SON OF A BITCH AND GODDAMN IT I WILL PAY THE INTERNET TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS IF IT CAN PROVIDE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE OF ANY OTHER SONG WHICH WILL LEAD TO SUCH INVOLUNTARY HEAVY METAL SPASMS ON THE PART OF THE LISTENER.

This Tuesday morning update brought to you by a bunch of English miscreants and inadvertent, neck-wrecking self-harm.

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