Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Metallica’

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.

——————————

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?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.
——————————————

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.
———————————————————–

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

Read Full Post »

So, by now many of you have probably seen (or at least seen reference to) this video of Adam Lambert (he of some or other season of American Idol) performing a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”  I’m sure with a second’s research I could figure out precisely where and for what purpose this was performed, but I frankly don’t give a shit, and it’s beside the point either way.

The reaction to this video from the heavy metal community, at least as far as I’ve seen, has been, as you might imagine, principally one of outrage, or perhaps even disgust.  How dare this man, this purest expression of everything about ‘pop’ culture that heavy metal purports to despise, attempt to infiltrate and appropriate our beloved canon?  Alert the village elders (Lemmy, Iommi, Steve Harris), man the ramparts, et cetera, et cetera.  All very predictable, and not necessarily wrong.

The offender

Still, I’d like to make a slightly different argument, if you’ll be so kind as to humor me.  Instead of being shocked, or horrified, or just simply saddened by Mr. Lambert’s very glam take on Metallica, I think that the metal community should, if not embrace it, then at least recognize this performance for what I think it is: A more artistically compelling and frankly dangerous statement than the original song.

First, here is the official music video for Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” from 1991’s self-titled album:

If you’ve made it through the video without collapsing into a fit of seizures, then bravo.  That video is truly a terror to behold (and not in a good way).  I’m not quite sure what compelled the director to think, “Oh, instead of filming the same exact action in real-time, let’s make the whole video a stop-motion thing, that’ll be spoooooooky as shit,” but there you are.

Metallica’s song is, of course, widely acknowledged as a “classic,” if for no other reason than it’s been around for a long time, and most everyone knows it.  Still, the thing is, it seems to have attained that kind of place in our culture where one is more likely to hear it played over the PA at a giant sports stadium, or at a high school assembly, or maybe even while waiting at the checkout counter of your neighborhood Walmart.  It’s safe.

Which is not to say, I should point out, that it was ever really dangerous.  By the time the ‘Black Album’ was released in 1991, Metallica was no more danger to anyone than Neil Diamond or soft pillows.  If anything, Metallica circa 1991 were the safest sort of rock idols, at least in comparison to the intentionally sloppy, calculatingly scruffy attitude inculcated by the ongoing and/or impending grunge revolution.  As opposed to the mopey, “caring-about-anything-is-a-waste-of-time” insouciance of Nirvana or (early) Smashing Pumpkins, the Metallica that toured the ‘Black Album’ was the undiluted expression of the megastar American dreams of every teenager hoping to pull herself up by the (guitar)strap.  “Eat your veggies and work hard, kids, and you, too, can be the biggest hard rock band in the world.  We’ll even let you grow whatever dodgy facial hair you like!”

The offending facial hair

The song itself, “Enter Sandman,” flirts with a menacing veneer, but its serpentine half-thrash comes off more like the boogie vibe they would embrace more explicitly in the much- (and probably rightly-) maligned Load/Re-Load albums.  In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to say that it’s only with age and wisdom that I’ve come to dislike this song (though my mild disdain for “Enter Sandman” cannot even come close to matching my pure fucking spite for the abomination that is “Sad But True.”  Truly, a song that ought to be excised from the annals of rock history, and for which sin its writers deserve far worse penance than making an embarrassingly “let’s-hug-it-out” documentary.)  Nevertheless, I do not think it is a particularly good song, trapped, as is most of the ‘Black Album’, in that wretched netherworld in which thrash is kicking to draw its last few ignominious breaths, but has already made halting, sopping nods toward the meatier ‘grooves’ that would come to typify the execrable folly of so much “metal” throughout the 90s.

Here, then, is Lambert’s live performance of “Enter Sandman.”  The backing track is a reasonable approximation of the original, though it highlights the plodding, infuriatingly middle-of-the-road riffing slightly more than one would wish.  The instrumentation isn’t particularly consequential, though, as the focus is obviously intended to be Lambert’s vocals and physical carriage throughout the song.  Thus:

Clearly, the audience here is loving every minute of this (although I suspect they would love each and every minute our [anti]hero spends out on the stage); they’re completely lapping it up, and there’s something oddly charming about the amateur video quality.  Lambert sings much of the song relatively straight (har, har), indulging in increasingly melismatic flourishes as the verses and choruses pile on in that inescapable logic of pop songcraft.  Lambert is clearly an objectively “better” singer than James Hetfield, although I suppose ardent fans of either man would tell you that that’s not really the point.

To cut right to the heart of my argument, though, make sure you watch Lambert’s vocal histrionics and masturbatory pantomime as the song goes into the solo break about halfway through.  Lambert mimics guitar soloing with his voice for a few phrases, but then – hark! – begins gyrating and loving his microphone in that most intimate of ways.  A 21st century Elvis, high on self-love instead of fried chicken.  Coming out of the solo break, Lambert plants some kisses on one of the musicians before continuing to sing out the rest of the song.

Now, to suggest that many in the heavy metal community will have been turned off by the whole spectacle is not necessarily to imply a pervasive homophobia (though there are likely elements of that for some people).  Instead, I assume that some combination of the pageantry, the preening male sexuality, and the theatrical vocal take on a well-established entry in the pantheon of American heavy metal will result in a generalized disdain.  I also assume that Adam Lambert doesn’t give a damn about heavy metal, or about the heavy metal community, and that perhaps few of his fans do, either.  The issue, then, is all one of context.  See, there’s nothing particularly controversial in Lambert’s performing that song to that audience, because they are clearly primed to enjoy every flourish, every note, every gesture of whatever song he decides to sing.

The reason, then, that I want to suggest that Lambert’s take on Metallica is more artistically vibrant is that it takes the warmed-over half-thrash violence of Metallica’s original, and the blandly predatory intent of Hetfield’s snarling recitation of children’s prayers, and turns what has become meek and safe into something dangerous to heavy metal itself.  Lambert’s writhing performance takes the implicit leering of Hammett’s wah-soaked (duh) solo and makes it explicit.  It’s in your face, as he strokes his microphone like the great digital phallus is always is in every other singer’s hands already.  In grafting a gay, glammy sensibility onto this half-heartedly aggressive music, I suspect that Lambert has transgressed the standards held (however subconsciously) by many in the metal community.

(This is not really the time or place for getting into the role of homosexuality in heavy metal – though it is a fascinating, important topic – but perhaps it will suffice to suggest that none of the more prominent gay men in heavy metal – Rob Halford, of course, but perhaps also more recently Gaahl (ex-) of Gorgoroth – have brought this type of sex performance into their public personae.)

Perhaps before closing I should add that I don’t particularly enjoy listening to Lambert’s version of “Enter Sandman.”  Despite the criticisms I’ve leveled at Metallica’s original version, I think I’d still prefer it to this half-theatrical, half-tepid version.  Nevertheless, it’s at times like this, when popular culture intersects – however briefly, however tangentially – with heavy metal, that both venues stand to learn from the other, or at least for whichever community one prefers to put itself up to a sharp self-assessment.  When something like Adam Lambert’s performance, however dull or insipid the actual musical performance may be, can appear so threatening to heavy metal, a genre and community ostensibly drawn to power, danger, and all the rest, heavy metal ought to take a look at itself, and at the transgressive potential it once thrilled to realize.

Read Full Post »

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.).
————————————-

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.

Read Full Post »

In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately.  A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964.  One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members.  The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”

This is a band set to 'slow burn'

Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe.  I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track).  But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).


If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble.  All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.

Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal.  The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo.  We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.

Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal.  In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another.  A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song.  It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework.  The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.

Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities.  I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes.  In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.

Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back.  Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece.  The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes.  Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes.  Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone.  After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close.  By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.

But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice.  The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members.  I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break.  See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it.  When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?

The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation.  There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other.  Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments.  Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points.  It goes on like this.  The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars.  Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right.  If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles.  Balance is lost.  The nays have it.

To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation.  Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace.  You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point.  I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan.  What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.

If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal.  The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth.  Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal.  When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.

Jamey Jasta's Seven Habits for Highly Effective Backstabber Overcomers

For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else).  The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz.  Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining.  Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ‘1’ remains a more important signifier than the number ‘2’), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.

As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity.  I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess.  Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights.  It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.

Sorry for not giving a shit about Van Halen

Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up.  I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity.  Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently.  Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak.  That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band.  I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play).  Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.

This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains.  It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit.  A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.

Read Full Post »

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.
————————————-

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.
——————————

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!”
————————————-

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?
—————————————-

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.
—————————————-

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!!!”
—————————————————–

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?
—————————————————————–

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.

Read Full Post »

This is probably just a case of my overactive imagination, but I came across this Iggy and the Stooges track the other day, and something about the underlying riff just sounded so…familiar.  Sure, it’s not like it’s meant to be a particularly earth-shattering riff, but it kept rattling around inside my brain, searching my musical muscular memory for its ghostly twin.

Then I figured out what it reminded me of: Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy.”  Of course, it’s not like the universe would be perverse enough to make “Seek and Destroy” a decade-late echo of Iggy and Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” and after doing a side-by-side listening, I know the comparison is a little overblown, but still.  Give the two a listen and see what you think.

The riff in question on the Stooges track is just the main mid-paced verse lick (and really, to be honest, it’s just the first four or five notes of that riff).  To these ears, it sounds a hell of a lot like the descending riff in “Seek and Destroy” – not the main riff which opens the song, but the eight-note descending sequence which leads into the primary verse riff.

Iggy and the Stooges, “Hey Peter” (1973, demo track from Raw Power sessions):

Metallica, “Seek and Destroy” (1983, Kill ’em All, although if you watch another clip on YouTube, a live show from Seattle in ’89, you can feel yourself charmed as James Hetfield metaphorically pisses into the mouths of the audience at the front of the barrier – here):

——————————————–

So, anyway, I’m perfectly willing to be told that I’m full of shit on this one.  But aren’t there any songs out there that sound suspiciously like other riffs, such that once you’ve made the connection, when you get one of them in your head, your mind keeps jumping back and forth between the two?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »