Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Best Of 52 Albums dethtoll Thinks You Need To Hear, Part 2

Here's part two.

Rosetta - The Galilean Satellites

Originally posted November 28th, 2008

This is a 2-disc album. Disc 1 is the heavy stuff, disc 2 is the ambient noise. Both can be listened to separately (the ambient stuff is pretty good if you're into that sort of thing) but the idea is that you're supposed to play them simultaneously to get the full effect.

Rosetta are hands down one of the heaviest bands ever, yet at the same time one of the most atmospheric. They fill the room and tear up the floor. Chandeliers will fall from their celings in homes three blocks away from you. They're a post-metal band from Philadelphia that combine post-hardcore, drone and ambient with post-metal to create a crushing wall of sound. The vocals are integral to that wall of sound. They're not death growls. They're not hardcore growls. They're not even Aaron Turner growls. They're these huge, galactic-sized roars, rolling in like waves crashing against the shore. For this reason as well as their emphasis on ambience, they're one of the less noob-friendly bands in this particular subgenre.

The album itself is about a man who becomes dissatisfied with the world around him, and leaves to find a place of solitude- Europa. However, upon reaching it, he realizes that he left behind things that were meaningful to him as well. The music reflects this theme of space travel, with a heavy spacey sound to it that permeates the work, especially on the ambient disc. The track names on disc two are all names of different stars, as well.

Production is decent, quite good really. The instrumentation is excellent, with some passages reminiscent of Isis as well as any number of post-rock/hardcore/metal bands. Sometimes it's not as coherent as Wake/Lift, due to it being produced largely by the band, but the difference is largely marginal.

All in all this is an excellent album, with distinctive artwork by Aaron Turner himself at the express request of the band's label. There's plenty here, with the metal disc and the ambient disc and the concept of listening to both simultaneously- an idea borrowed from Neurosis, whose album Times of Grace was meant to be heard alongside the album Grace from their ambient side project Tribes of Neurot. I wouldn't recommend this album to a newcomer to post-metal unless they were of an extremely open mind, or enjoyed "spacey" music without minding non-clean vocals. That said, I do suggest you give it a try- you might find you like it.

Red Sparowes – Every Red Heart Shines Towards The Red Sun

Originally posted December 13th, 2008

Red Sparowes is a Los Angeles-based post-metal band formed in 2003 out of current and former members of Isis, Neurosis, and a number of other bands. (Though the Neurosis connection is moot as Josh Graham has left the band.) As you might know, post-metal is basically a fusion of post-rock and metal, but there are a lot of other intervening genres that have influence. Red Sparowes are more on the post-rock end of the spectrum, somewhere between Pelican and Russian Circles. They're a purely instrumental band (again, like Pelican and Russian Circles) and are probably more noob-friendly than most. They set themselves apart from the rest through extensive use of a pedal steel guitar, which is unusual for this particular type of music but it works quite well.

Every Red Heart Shines Towards the Red Sun is their 2nd studio album. Despite having no lyrics it's a concept album of sorts, and basically follows the story of the Great Sparrow Campaign, part of Chairman Mao's ill-fated Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward was Mao's attempt to convert China from a primarily agrarian economy into a modern, agricultural and industrial society. It consisted of a number of initiatives and programs designed to quickly industrialize the country as well as impliment several majour social changes such as the banning of all religious institutions and the forced collectivisation of peasant populations. One of the initiatives of the Great Leap Forward was the Great Sparrow Campaign, officially known as the Four Pests Campaign. Many of the agricultural initiatives were horribly flawed and ill-thought out, and often based on bad science from now-discredited Soviet biologists. The Four Pests Campaign was no different: it was decided that four troublesome pests were to be eliminated: rats, flies, mosquitoes, and finally sparrows, who were added to the list because they ate grain seeds which caused minor disruption to agriculture. Peasants were encouraged to bang pots and pans and run around, making the sparrows fly away. Sparrow nests were torn down and eggs and hatchlings were destroyed. The plan worked, but what hadn't been foreseen was that sparrows were the biggest predator of locusts, who in the absense of their natural enemy exploded in population and swarmed the country. With the bad agricultural policies and unfavourable weather, China was hit by massive drought, and because the state tended to take nearly all the grain from the collectives, mostly for export, starvation began to set in, resulting in the deaths of millions. It is estimated that between the years of 1958 and 1961 up to 43 million people died of starvation.

Cheery, eh?

Back to the album. Instrumentally this is about what you can expect from a band like this- clean production, clean instrumentation, top-notch work all around. The album never gets boring and keeps up its dark, bitter tone throughout. The titles are ridiculously long, of course, which is a staple of post-rock as is the slow buildup into multi-layered crescendos. The songs all flow into each other and so it's hard to pick out specific moments, but one particular moment I enjoy is towards the end of "Millions Starved" where the crescendo that the song's spent 8 minutes building up to finally gives away into a sad passage with a gently pounding rhythm finishes up the song.

All in all this is a fantastic album, and if you're looking for something that sits a bit outside what you usually expect from metal this might be what you're looking for.

Anathema – The Silent Enigma

Originally posted January 16th, 2009

You can't talk about death/doom without talking about at least one of the bands that put it on the map: Anathema, My Dying Bride, and Paradise Lost, also known as the Peaceville Three, in reference to their association with Peaceville Records. In this case I picked Anathema- partly due to the weird shift they've developed in later years towards a more atmospheric rock sound.

Doom metal is a very old subgenre, dating back to Black Sabbath, and of course this may be why doom metal has so many subgenres and so much influence. Death/doom traces its origins back to the 80s when traditional doom metal was beginning to be mixed with thrash and the budding sound of death metal. Bands such as Dream Death and Winter were death metal bands that had some doom influences. In many ways death/doom was a logical progression- blending musical styles is a time-honoured tradition. At least when done right.

Anathema, My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost were three British bands on Peaceville Records that brought the mixture of death metal and doom metal into a more recognized subgenre in the 90s. Many later bands such as Within Temptation would cite these three bands as majour influences. The Peaceville Three's sound was essentially a combination of mid-80s Candlemass and Celtic Frost with various other elements such as keyboards. Out of death/doom came symphonic metal and gothic metal, again with the Peaceville Three as the main influences.

Towards the end of the 90s the subgenre sagged in popularity as many of its earlier practicioners moved towards a more accessible (radio-friendly?) sound. However, funeral doom continues the tradition, rising up in the 90s as death/doom matured, taking death/doom and mixing with dark ambient.

This album is Anathema's second. It would prove to be their last with this particular sound, taking on a much more accessible sound with Eternity. It proved a turning point- it was the first album without Darren White on vocals, being replaced by existing member and guitarist Vincent Cavanagh. This marked the beginning of Anathema's shift- The Silent Enigma would be their last offering in the old style they were known for. Cavanagh was in many ways a better vocalist than White, and it showed.

After this album came Eternity and that was when the band's sound began to change. The band had slowly been changing their sound ever since; Eternity took on a gothic influence, Alternative 4 was a much harder shift, sung entirely in clean vocals- but it wasn't until Judgement that the band made their most definitive departure from doom metal, focusing on alt-rock and 70s-style progressive. Finally Anathema would release A Fine Day to Exit in 2001, and it was basically the end result of Anathema's slow metamorphosis into a Pink Floyd clone.

Anathema's not the only band to follow a path like this- I've mentioned that many of the old death/doom bands started changing direction- two of the Peaceville Three have changed their sound entirely. Paradise Lost quit doing it after Shades of God, basically pioneering gothic metal as an official subgenre with Icon and Draconian Times. Outside of Peaceville, Novembers Doom would shift more towards straight-up death metal with The Pale Haunt Departure and Theatre of Tragedy's last album in this style was Velvet Darkness They Fear.

Of course, My Dying Bride continues to keep up the sound, Runemagick would join in the fun with Darkness Death Doom (clever title there chaps) and even Bolt Thrower (!?) made a contribution with The IVth Crusade.

In any case, death/doom is one of the biggest, most influential subgenres of doom metal, and is here to stay, at least for a while longer.

Thergothon – Stream From the Heavens

Originally posted January 23rd, 2009

As you know, funeral doom is an extension of death/doom. Where death/doom combined crushing doom metal with death metal, funeral doom takes it a step further and adds dark ambient. It is played at an extremely slow tempo- however it should be noted that it is a distinct subgenre from drone doom for many reasons, not least of which is that notes don't go for nearly half as long as drone doom and there is some semblance of structure. Metal has traditionally been on the more negative side of the range of human emotions- anger, hate, sadness, that sort of thing, but funeral doom takes it a step further with a strong emphasis on feelings of emptiness and despair. Synthesisers are often used in conjunction with more traditional instruments to create a dreamlike atmosphere and the vocals are typically deep growls.

Thergothon was one of the pioneers of this subgenre. Hailing from Finland, they initially released the demo Fhtagn nagh Yog-Sothoth and continued in that style with the more pronounceable Stream from the Heavens, which was their only full-length album- and was actually released two years after they split up. Their style was very distinct at the time- extremely slow, with riffs being crushing dirges and some of the deepest death grunts I have ever heard- gutteral sounds that seem to echo up from a tomb 60 feet below the surface of the earth. It's all very brutal and crushing, with a strong Lovecraftian overtone.

I must warn you- this album is rather inaccessible, and it was intended to be so. While you may find many later funeral bands pick up the speed a bit, Thergothon remains extremely slow. It was clearly intended to be difficult to sit through unless you're an asshole like me who likes weird shit and blasts it at max volume while slow-rolling your car past weddings in front of a church. As minimalism goes this is pretty much the definition of such. Don't download this album expecting some great riffs (though the drumming is pretty good)- download it expecting to hear some extremely heavy, atmospheric, crushing melancholic music.

It's a shame the band were so shortlived- I would have liked to see what they could have come up with in later years. As it is, after the breakup, the drummer and vocalist, formed a shoegazer (and later trip-hop) band called This Empty Flow, the drummer also composing songs for a popular Finnish band called PMMP and the vocalist records experimental electronica.

Darkthrone – Hate Them!

Originally posted February 7th, 2009

This album and Marduk's World Funeral were the first two black metal albums I ever owned. They were a gift to me from a long-time internet friend, who got them as promo copies from her job at a radio station. As she was more into power metal than this sort of thing naturally I was the obvious recipient. Well I'm glad she sticks with that stuff 'cuz without those two albums I probably wouldn't be nearly as big a fan of black metal as I am today.

Darkthrone's seminal Transilvanian Hunger remains my favourite black metal album ever. But Hate Them! is up there too. As you might surmise this album is all very traditional, with guitars all tuned to D with heavy riffwork. If you've heard any Darkthrone from before 2005 you know what to expect. The production is still wonderfully shitty- and Darkthrone is the only band that can get away with it because it's almost like an extra instrument. Fenriz' drumming is great as always, and Culto continues to impress with his vocals and guitarplaying. There really isn't that much to say about this album because it's like Iron Maiden- you've heard one album, you've heard them all (to oversimplify it). Some bands start out unlistenable and improve over the years; some bands start off great then you start wondering what the hell they're doing; and some bands don't need to change, because they start off awesome and only refine that awesomeness.

The strange thing is that a few people seem to think that it's not "raw" enough for some reason- usually because the production is slightly better, or because up until 2005 Darkthrone were doing largely the same stuff they did since 1992. Or, conversely, and this is rather hilarious, they complain that Darkthrone changed their style with this album. What? No. Just no. You know what? Screw those guys. Those guys are assholes. Black metal- actually, no, let's be fair, metal in general- is known for having a bunch of obnoxious, domineering assholes who seem to think their opinion is worth something because they only listen to obscure, poorly produced garbage nobody ever heard of. These are the retards who like to wave their metal penis and talk about how metal they are when the fact is that metal isn't about how loud or obnoxious you are, it's about bucking trends and breaking the "rules" that the music scene seems to have established. Being metal isn't being some pretentious asshole who only listens to obscure 80s thrash, and it's not about how many peoples' legs you can break in a mosh pit. It's about not being like the dimwitted scene kid who's so busy being "edgy" and "original" he fails to notice he looks like every other dipshit. When you can flip everyone the finger and go off and do what you want without having to worry about what the asshole in corpsepaint thinks of it, that's the most metal thing of all.

Horde – Hellig Usvart

Originally posted February 13th, 2009

You've all heard the rumours- whispers in darkened nightclubs of there being a strange, new kind of black metal, something that turns one of the core tenets of the genre on its head; hushed conversation in the basements of burned, abandoned churches that, horror of horrors, some black metal bands sing about Christianity in a- gasp!- positive light. Is nothing unsacred?

The rumours are true. They do exist. But here's the thing: they're not that different, musically, from bands you know and love such as Darkthrone and the like. What sets them apart is only their lyrical content. They look and sound exactly like the more "mainstream" black metal bands (if such a genre could ever be called mainstream), but those incomprehensible growls and screams are praising God.

... Well, it's a unique concept in this scene.

As the bands tend to be basically the same in terms of playing style and general look (dark clothes, corpsepaint, occasionally looking ridiculous), and there is no "Christian method" that these bands, typically called "unblack" or "white" metal, use to play, it's not so much a subgenre as it's a movement- an ideological subgroup that sets itself apart from the rest of the genre. In this sense it's like NSBM, or National Socialist Black Metal, which musically plays similar to more mainstream black metal but lyrically concerns itself with nationalism, racism, Nazism, and occultism in Nazi terms.

The movement can be safely considered to have begun with Australian band Horde's single studio album, Hellig Usvart. While similar bands existed prior to Horde (such as Antestor), Hellig Usvart was the first real album in the black metal style to use Christian lyrics. As you might expect, the scene reacted responsibly and logically, sending death threats to Nuclear Blast demanding that the label drop the band for soiling their precious blasphemy. A publicity campaign was begun in an attempt to destroy Horde and the burgeoning unblack metal movement (Antestor was originally a death metal band called Crush Evil, and Euronymous was going to try and force them to break up when Varg Vikernes killed him.) Attempts were made to discover the identity of Anonymous, Horde's only member- so called because he and the label were not to reveal his name, but a bit of a nice pun on Euronymous. Anonymous would later be revealed to be Jayson Sherlock. Nuclear Blast had hid his idenity well, and he only ever heard about the death threats second hand.

Sherlock had started the project as a response to the state of the black metal scene at the time, and was partially inspired by Darkthrone stating that they played "Unholy Black Metal"- Sherlock has stated that Horde was always going to be lyrically the opposite of what Darkthrone sang about, hence the term "holy unblack metal", or just plain unblack metal (does anybody actually say "unholy black metal" now?). His intent was not to parody, as has long been believed, but to give an alternative take. One can respect a band and their skill while disagreeing with the lyrical content- how else has Nokturnal Mortum achieved such wide popularity?

As to the album itself...

Well, it certainly SOUNDS like black metal. Lo-fi, old-school, brutal, growling vocals- and some great drumming. Sherlock utilizes an extremely fast double bass pedal and blast beat technique, and you will notice it, as while he is a competent guitar and bass player, drumming is his speciality. Production is about what you might expect- not the greatest, but listenable. Lyrically- and I want to make a distinction here- the album is a direct attack on Satanism. Many unblack metal bands don't make direct assaults on Satanism, but rather sing directly about Christianity; Horde does the opposite, as the praise for God is rather indirect compared to the more pointed criticism of Satanism.

As 'black' metal goes this is pretty much what you might expect- nothing really mindblowing here. As the spark of a firestorm of controversy and the roots of a musical movement, however, is where it truly shines.

Which leads me into something I want to talk about real quick.

It's well known that I have absolutely no use for NSBM. I've never felt it was necessary to make an entire musical movement out of political ideology- I mean it's one thing if you want to sing about communism and anti-capitalism like Rage Against the Machine (while making millions of dollars off your albums) but you don't need to declare an entire subsection of music dedicated solely to your chosen political views. This is one of the things that piss me off about white power music. The Rock Against Communism series of concerts in 1970s England was ostensibly supposed to be a protest of communism- but the problem was, that it was started by far right activists associated with the whites-only National Front party, and was meant to be a counterpoint to Rock Against Racism.

And that pisses me off. I mean come on, as causes go anti-communism is actually fairly noble, but they never actually SING about that shit. It's all WHITE POWA RAH RAH RAH BILLY RAY COME OVER HERE AND HELP ME FIX MY HOOD

The point is, I find it frankly disgusting to try to claim a style of music for your political (or racist) ideology. But what about religion? Unblack metal bands are musically indistinguishable from their more Satanic cousins, they just have different lyrics.

I don't think it would be a double standard to state that I honestly have no problem with using Christian themes in music, particularly black metal. I've never quite understood the whole "black metal as an ideology" thing. You want to look stupid in leather and sing about Satan? Fine! Let the other guy sing about Jesus- 'cuz he looks stupid in leather, too. Don't try to claim that your musical genre is meant to cater to Satanists, or anti-Christian sentiments, or whathaveyou. Just because a majority of black metal bands (especially the older ones) tend to sing about that sort of thing does NOT make black metal necessarily anti-Christian. Lyrical content and musical style are mutually exclusive.

Carcass – Heartwork

Originally posted March 13th, 2009

Carcass are one of those bands that you occasionally hear about but unless you're accustomed to extreme metal and the associated vocal styles they're not going to appeal to you. That said, Carcass have made a name for themselves, being repeated pioneers in the music they perform. Hailed as one of the founders of grindcore (and the progenitor of grindcore's subgenre, goregrind), Carcass were (and are, I guess, again) a British band formed in 1985. Their lyrics have traditionally been quite gory, on an almost clinical level- as a matter of fact, they used an anatomy book to write their lyrics. The focus on body horror was quite influential on goregrind, and they made a name for themselves in the scene in their early years.

Their first album had very poor production, something the band was not happy with, but their second was much improved in that regard. By the time the 1990s had rolled around Carcass had begun to play more straight up death metal, with longer, slower songs with more intricate composition. By 1993 they had become a full-fledged death metal band, and in mid-October of that year they released Heartwork, considered a major departure from the band's previous work. Bill Steer's deeper vocals were gone and the lyrics were significantly less gory, and the song structure was slightly simplified. But the album's technical information doesn't speak very well to the massive influence the album had on death metal.

Heartwork has long been considered to be the first melodic death metal album, and while you could make a case for the Sentenced album North from Here (released February 1993) I'm going to have to side with Carcass on this one.

Melodic death metal is what it says on the tin. Combining the melody-focused style of traditional heavy metal with the harshness of death metal, bands working in this style tend to make more use of melodic guitar riffs, solos, and on occasion acoustic guitar. While bands in later years have evolved the genre with such things as the inclusion of keyboards (see Dark Tranquillity) the early years of melodeath were pretty much a straightup mix of heavy metal and death metal.

As to the album itself, production is a far cry from their first album which has some of the worst production on the planet. Sometimes the bass gets a bit muted but the album is otherwise very listenable. The instrumentation is skillful, and the vocals are well-delivered. The focus is definitely on the guitarwork, however, with plenty of solos for everybody and lots of consideration for technical skill and emotive expression.

This album is interesting from a historical perspective, showing that Carcass had quite a bit of influence throughout their career. The band broke up in 1995, largely due to record label interference, and reunited in 2007, but not every band can lay claim to founding not one, but two whole styles of music.

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

Originally posted April 3rd, 2009

Released in February 1970, Black Sabbath was heavily inspired by blues, a holdover from their early blues rock days as Earth (no, not the drone band.) It was one of the first albums of its kind to ever be released or even recorded, with lyrics and instrumentation that were considered quite dark for a time full of hippies and flower children and long-haired British boys in suits standing on round white plastic pedestals plinking on acoustic guitars and singing about pretty girls. The album faced withering criticism but saw broad commercial success. Rolling Stone hated the shit out of it, with renowned douchebag Lester Bangs calling it "just like Cream! But worse." (He's dead now.) Ironically Rolling Stone realized they'd totally pulled a Decca Records and in 2003 the album was ranked #238 on the magazine's 500 greatest albums of all time, as if what Rolling Stone thinks matters worth a good goddamn.

It's no question that the album is a great one, and that it's considered one of the foundations of the entire genre of music that we listen to, but the real debate that continues to rage to this day is: which is better, Black Sabbath or Paranoid?

For what it's worth, I prefer Paranoid for several reasons; that album along with Volume 4 and Dehumanizer make up my 3 favourite Black Sabbath albums, but the self-titled is a very easy number 4. But really, an argument could be made for both albums- they were both released in the same year and have generally the same sound, covering similar themes. My vote goes to Paranoid partly due to it being my introduction to the band (and one of my earliest metal albums) but also partly because it's a much more focused work and so is more consistent through the album.

But who gives a shit as they're both great albums.

Michael Bolton – Everybody’s Crazy

Originally posted June 5th, 2009




Now that I've shattered your worldviews...

It's true that Michael Bolton is considered the king of soft rock, but it's equally true and far less known that he also used to be pretty heavy back in the day! Bolton got his start in a band called Blackjack, who toured with Ozzy Osbourne. In 1975 he cowrote a song for disco-pop star Laura Branigan, which turned out to be a hit. After that he began recording as Michael Bolotin (his real name) and released his first studio album, Michael Bolotin. He was moderately successful, and he wrote a few more albums before coming up with Everybody's Crazy.

Everybody's Crazy is sometimes regarded as low point of Bolton's career but as far as I'm concerned this is the best thing he ever released, possibly also being the high point of lead guitarist Bruce Kulick's early pre-KISS career. It's a heavy metal classic that slipped through the cracks, with the title track being a hit on rock stations and appearing in the 1986 movie Back to School. Production is top-notch, and there really isn't a bad song on this album at all. You can see a hint in "Desperate Heart" of the later ballad-esque songs that made Bolton a superstar, but even then it's very much a part of the album. Fans of his later music would probably hate this album if they ever heard it, but you know what? Screw ‘em. This is one of the best albums of the mid-80s. It's out of print now, which is probably why it hasn't seen a revival in popularity among people pining for the happier days of 80s music, but with time this album will be viewed as one of the real greats, right alongside Whitesnake and similar acts from back then. History will vindicate this album.

Seriously. Get it. It's a lot better than you'd think.

MC 900 Foot Jesus – One Step Ahead of the Spider

Originally posted August 7th, 2009

One thing I've noticed about goons is that they nearly always hate rap. The ones that don't tend to say "I only like GOOD rap" then proceed to list a bunch of obscure white guys. Well, that's fine. Crunk ruined hiphop, but before that happened there was a lot of great stuff coming out of the West Coast. Most of us growing up in the 80s remember rap being the happy, tonguetwisting domain of guys like LL Cool J and Fresh Prince. It was pretty tame stuff, not a lot of swearing. Even Public Enemy, who brought a politically charged, militant tone to the whole thing, tempered things with Flava Flav's special brand of comic relief. So in spite of a few people declaring rap to be the end of society, nobody took rap too seriously. Then we started getting stuff out of the West Coast, especially Compton, and suddenly everything changed. Violent, harsh, and a whole lot angrier, West Coast rap ended up coming out on top thanks to legions of white kids who found the aggressive portrayal of hard ghetto life more exciting than their own drowsy suburban existences. Gangsta rap was invented when the East Coast took a look at the West Coast's furious aggression, noted the Southern rap scene's stripclub leanings, and decided "hey! this shit brings the money in!" The rest is history.

Kinda lost amid the "Natural Born Killaz" and "Nasty As You Wanna Be" was an obscure white guy named MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Also known as Dallas native Mark Griffin, he started off as a classically-trained musician who brought a very experimental style to his rap. His stage name was taken from a sermon by famous televangelist Oral Roberts, who claimed that he had seen a vision of a 900 foot tall Jesus that commanded him to build a hospital on the Oral Roberts University campus. The absurdity of such a claim- even if you believe in that sort of thing- lends a level of quirkiness to Griffin's stage name.

MC900FJ's music is, at its base, hiphop for the most part. There is use of samples, as well as spoken-word sequences and quite a bit of jazzy weirdness. One Step Ahead of the Spider is by far his most experimental work, playing around with all sorts of effects, such as surf guitar. This album is famous for his cult hit "If I Only Had a Brain", the music video of which was directed by a young Spike Jonze and was included in a Beavis and Butthead episode. NPR will often use various tracks from this album as bumper music, as well.

So what's the album like? Well, it's pretty good. Don't expect something aggressive like you're probably used to hearing. It doesn't even really move fast like old-school East Coast rap. The best I can describe this album is if hip hop got really drunk and passed out, and jazz got a bunch of other genres to cover hip hop in rude words with magic marker and then pee on him for laughs. There's lots of weird, non-standard jazzy stuff, especially in songs like "But If You Go" and the Miles Davis-knobslobbering "Bill's Dream", and songs like "New Moon" and "New Year's Eve" may put you off if you're not interested in spoken word. That said, this album is quite groovy at times, with the standout track being "If I Only Had a Brain." Though I will be honest and admit that the song that got me interested in this guy in the first place was "Buried At Sea," which was featured on a compilation disc by American Recordings (the label this album was released on) that was included with the Sega Genesis game Comix Zone. That continues to be my favourite MC900FJ song, and I think you'll like the moody, oceanic feel of the song as much as I do.

It's really quite the shame that Griffin never released anything after this album. He grew disillusioned with the music industry and decided to take up flying... but he didn't even manage that, and settled for a job at a large bookstore. He seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, unsuccessful and unfulfilled. He's been DJing weekly at Lee Harvey's in Dallas the last couple years, so it's good to see him back in the music scene, even if only a little.

Bob Dylan – Bringing it all Back Home

Originally posted August 21st, 2009

Yes, I like this. I didn't pick up an appreciation for it until a literature class I took a few years ago basically centered itself entirely around Bob Dylan, his lyrics, and the music's relationship to the 60s. Of the albums I've heard, this is my favourite.

There's quite a bit of discussion about this album and Bob Dylan in general, but I'm going to focus on a few salient points relevant to metal.

Everyone knows Bob Dylan is basically a folk singer. Not exactly the most metal thing you can think of, right? But he's more than that. One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, he's a cultural icon, the original rock beatnik who started off as a reluctant spearhead of the civil rights and anti-war movements but refuses to this day to ever claim allegience to any ideology. He laid down the groundwork for what modern rock music would become, perhaps even moreso than the Beatles and certainly more than the Rolling Stones.

This album is a particularly important release in his career, featuring a major stylistic change that would prove to be of some serious controversy. It would be his first recording with electric instruments, and later that year (1965) he was the headliner of the Newport Folk Festival, where he was heavily booed, the story goes, by angry folk fans pissed because by playing electric guitar Dylan had "forsaken" his folk roots. Folk music critics were nearly beside themselves, calling Dylan "a youth of mediocre talent." (The guy who wrote that, Ewan MacColl, is dead now.) Later performances would bring about similar reactions, with one infamous moment featuring some asshole screaming "Judas!" to which Dylan responds, "I don't believe you, you're a liar-" then turns to the band and tells them to "play it fucking loud!" About as good a response as any, to be honest.

That said, the album itself was a smash hit, in spite of alienating Dylan from the folk scene. With this album, he distanced himself from the protest music that he had been identified with (against his best intentions), and continued a trend towards more abstract and personal lyrics. There really isn't much for me to say otherwise, other than that it was the start of an iconic trilogy of albums (the other two being Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) that to this day are hailed as some of Dylan's greatest work.

I guess the real point of all this is that Dylan has never allowed anyone to lump him in with anything. He wrote a lot of stuff that became anthems for the 1960s political left wing, but when he started being put on a pedestal because of his status as the face of protest music, he dropped that like a bad habit and switched styles. He wasn't afraid to alienate anyone and everyone in the name of maintaining a sort of cultural independance, always influencing but never participating. He brought intellectualism to pop rock, created a song that was a very early forerunner to what would become hiphop and rap ("Subterranean Homesick Blues", available on this album), and forged a career that most artists only dream of. Even as he barrels his way through his sixties, he still does his own thing, refusing to be held down, refusing to pander to fans (his famous "neverending tour" never has the same setlist twice.) If you ask me, that's pretty metal. Metal, like punk before it, is about being yourself, it's about bucking trends and breaking the "rules." It's about remaining true to your ideals. What this means is that too often you're going to have some band or musician who doesn't want to be pigeonholed, so they go off and do what they want, and this ends up alienating a legion of fans because how dare a band not stagnate. I know people who hate anything Ulver's made since their Black Metal Trilogie because it's not black metal. That's stupid, but I can see where they're coming from. But I've also seen people who think Iron Maiden sold out after Bruce left, and I'm left thinking, what the hell? Iron Maiden are the last band to ever sell out. But I digress.

Bob Dylan refuses to be pigeonholed, he refuses to be labelled, and he refuses to be anything other than Bob Dylan. That's pretty metal. We should learn from his example. Break the rules of the metal scene. End this subculture of aggression, elitism and alienation, and teach your fellow metalheads to appreciate music of all kinds for what it is, now for how much it gets them "pumped up."

Robert Rich & B. Lustmord – Stalker

Originally posted August 28th, 2009

It's no secret that I enjoy a certain legacy of media commonly referred to as Stalker. In 1971 two brothers in the Soviet Union, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, wrote a science-fiction book called Roadside Picnic. It was about a guy named Red who sneaks into a restricted zone to collect artifacts from the zone for money. The zone was cordoned off because of a strange alien visitation that had left it, and other zones around the world like it, full of strange phenomena, some of which was valuable and some of which was highly lethal. Several people apart from Red would make a living sneaking in, and these people were called stalkers. Red's ultimate goal at the end of the book is a golden ball that can supposedly grant wishes. The novel is considered one of the best Soviet sci-fi books ever written, and in 1979 it was adapted (albeit very loosely) into the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The film did away with much of the science fiction elements of the book, opting for a more ambiguous, spiritual bent that Tarkovsky was known for infusing into his films. In the film, an unnamed character known simply as Stalker leads two others into a cordoned-off, depopulated area known only as the Zone, looking for a room that can supposedly grant wishes. Like the golden ball in the novel, however, the room only grants the person's secret, deepest wish, not what they merely say they wish for. The film was noted for its extremely long panning shots (another Tarkovsky thing) and use of sepiatone outside of the zone contrasting with the lush colours of the zone itself.

In 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's Reactor #4 exploded. It is to this day considered the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, spewing fallout into the atmosphere that was detected as far away as Ireland. The resulting evacuation of the surrounding area left a 30 kilometer (19 miles) "zone of alienation" that remains largely devoid of people to this day. The nearby city of Prypiat, originally built to house reactor employees and their families, was completely emptied out and stands as a monument to what life will be like when humans are gone. After the disaster, a lot of people would look at the film Tarkovsky made seven years prior and claim the film had essentially predicted Chernobyl by depicting a lush zone sealed off from the rest of the world, devoid of people but host to a number of ruins scattered about. It's interesting to note that Tarkovsky himself died of cancer that same year- cancer that started because Stalker was filmed in an area that was highly polluted thanks to a chemical plant nearby- one scene late in the film seems to depict snow, but it's really poisonous flakes from the plant. Also of note is that the people who continue to maintain the remaining reactors, as well as illegal tour guides, refer to themselves as stalkers.

In 2007, Ukrainian game developer GSC Game World, previously known for some moderately-successful strategy games, would release, after a long period of development and hype, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, and the following year would release a prequel, subtitled Clear Sky. These two games depict a slightly futuristic Chernobyl Zone where a second explosion creates a more dangerous kind of zone, populated by monsters, and at the center of it is the plant itself. Taking visual cues from the real-life zone, and many small elements from the book and film (including a strange monolith in Reactor #4 that supposedly grants wishes), the first game was released to critical acclaim and became the sleeper hit of the year. (Clear Sky was marred by a rocky release, poor design decisions, and lots of bugs and stability issues.)

So what's the point of all this? Well, it's clear that there is a sort of "stalker meme" that has stretched through the last four decades, covering a book, a film, real life, two games (with a third on the way), and even a stage adaptation of Roadside Picnic. But there is one thing that often gets overlooked. And that's this album.

Stalker, released in 1995 by Robert Rich and B. Lustmord (also known as Brian Williams, also known as the guy who basically invented dark ambient), was inspired by the 1979 film. The cover art is a 1988 photograph by famous landscape photographer Brad Cole, and it was chosen, presumably, for its similarity to the sepiatone sections in the film, some of which are by the water. Described as "a guide to possible interpretations of ambivalent reality... to illuminate... and decode this landscape of fractured density" it's a rather soothing album for dark ambient, which is strange because Rich is known for slow, gradually evolving electronic music and Lustmord is known for creepy, ambient industrial soundscapes. The music is essentially somewhere in the middle of these two styles, with much of the album evoking a sense of emptiness. It's slow-moving and haunting, and from the distant sirens of the first track to the slow dripping of the final track the album effectively creates a soundtrack for whatever pops up in your head. Like a lot of dark ambient, you shouldn't pop this in expecting to have some butt jumpin' tunez to blast on your way to work. Instead, why not read a book to this, or draw, or perform some other creative work with this in the background? Or hell, do what I did with Fallout 3 (which I consider to be, ultimately, what Shadow of Chernobyl was originally meant to be) and use it as video game music.

Some other things to note: British sci-fi and fantasy author M John Harrison has written a book with his own spin on the theme, called Nova Swing; GSC Game World are developing another game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series subtitled Call of Prypiat; and supposedly a 2nd film adaptation of Roadside Picnic, starring John Travolta of all people, is due out next year, though any and all information pertaining to it seems to have disappeared. Thank Christ.

Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses

Originally posted September 18th, 2009

I don't think some people realize that Type O Negative are metal. They seem to occasionally get lumped in with bands like the Cure and similar acts by dint of being classified as "goth" and appealing to, well, goths, but they're technically metal. Moreover, the specific kind of metal is a subgenre of doom metal.

Like funeral doom, gothic metal shares stylistic origins in death/doom, but where funeral doom was essentially a continuation of death/doom's aesthetics with the addition of dark ambient, gothic metal is more diverse, with a "gothic" sound applied to several different styles of heavy metal. As such there is a lot of debate over what is, and (more heatedly) what isn't gothic metal. One of the misconceptions of gothic metal is that it is the domain of fem-fronted bands, i.e. bands I (not always derisively) would call "estrocore". This is not true. While female vocals have been used as far back as 1985 with Celtic Frost's To Mega Therion, it wasn't until the mid to late 90s when female vocals became truly prominent when Theatre of Tragedy put out their self-titled that was entirely centered around the concept of a contrast between clean female vocals and aggressive male vocals, and in 2000 when Within Temptation's Mother Earth got rid of the male vocals entirely and The Silent Force brought in a symphonic element that created what we now call symphonic gothic metal. It's true that this style is dominated by female vocalists, but it is just one subsection of a larger genre that takes influence from everything from black metal to folk metal and lots of stuff in between.

Type O Negative were one of the early pioneers of gothic metal, forming out of the ashes of thrash metal band Carnivore. Their early sound was quite aggressive, for example the album Slow Deep and Hard was aptly named considering its aggressive, dirgy drone of industrial and gothic atmosphere. Their second album, Bloody Kisses, was a bit of a switch. Production was cleaner and the songs were better- much better. They were also more subtle- dropping most of the outbursts on previous releases, yet still maintaining a sense of dark humour, lending irony to their gloom-drenched cover of a bright and happy 70s song, and poking fun at goth subculture, as well as a sarcastic rebuke to accusations of racism (mostly due to the controversial lyrics of Carnivore.) Bloody Kisses essentially invented gothic metal, and it has actually been said that if not for Type O Negative there would be no gothic metal, bringing a sense of morbid masculinity and humour to a scene that until then had been thought to be relegated to scrawny assholes trying to look like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Best Of 52 Albums dethtoll Thinks You Need To Hear, Part 1

Here's part one. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow. Oh, also, I lied about removing external links- I kept one (you'll see it) because what it links to I found extremely influential (and also terrifying) and I try to get everyone I know to at least know of its existence.

Sleep – Holy Mountain

Originally posted October 22nd, 2007

Sleep no longer exist. But when they did, they were a stoner doom band from San Jose during the 90s, and they were highly influential during that time. Comparable to bands such as Saint Vitus, they quickly gained fame and fans and were leaders in the third wave of doom metal along with Cathedral and other bands; in addition, they were pioneers of the stoner doom genre, which is closely related to traditional doom but draws more influence from the more psychedelic side of Black Sabbath's work. It's not to be confused with stoner rock, which developed mostly on its own and stoner rock is generally 'positive' in mood whereas stoner doom is often 'negative'. As stoner doom evolved in the early 90s, Holy Mountain played a big part in that, and is widely considered to be a seminal album in the genre.

Squabbles with their label ended up breaking up the band. After Holy Mountain they signed with London Records, and began working on Dopesmoker, but the label declared it unmarketable because it was just one single song over an hour long. A second attempt at the album, called Jerusalem, failed to please the label, and so Sleep broke up out of sheer frustration. Jerusalem was post-humously released by a friend of the band, and then 5 years later Dopesmoker was officially released by Tee Pee records, and is generally considered the definitive version of the album. Some of the members would go on to form the band Om, and another would form High on Fire. As you can see, this band has very high influence, and even in death it lives on through other excellent bands.

The Axis of Perdition – Deleted Scenes from the Transition Hospital

Originally posted December 17th, 2007

I don't think anything, including the movie, has really quite captured the mood of the first two or three Silent Hill games. These are some of the most emotionally draining games I've ever played and have been ever since I played the first one in 1999. There is something uncompromisingly dark about the games, and they don't sugarcoat some of the really screwed up stuff that's detailed in the backstory. I don't play the games much anymore, partly because I've been pissed off at the series ever since Silent Hill 4 and partly because after playing the first three so many times I'm no longer disturbed by them, not to mention the fact that being the litfag that I am I've already dissected and debated the games' plot and symbolism to death. But that doesn't mean I don't still have an appreciation for what the series has done for horror gaming, or horror in general. It's funny: Japanese horror has been ripping off Jacob's Ladder since 1990, and now American horror has been ripping off Japanese horror for the last few years. It’s a cycle.

Anyway back to my original point- nothing, absolutely nothng, has quite captured the mood of the Silent Hill games, particularly not the first one. Except this band. The Axis of Perdition are a British, cinematic-style industrial black metal group. In terms of aesthetics they're not too different from fellow British black metal oddballs Anaal Nathrakh, though while Anaal Nathrakh is basically the Strapping Young Lad of black metal these guys are something else entirely- a Silent Hill (somewhat) tribute band. They've taken a lot of inspiration from the games, and it shows especially in this album. I mean, look at that cover art and tell me that's not straight out of Silent Hill. Even the font is similar. The music is heavy and unrelenting, and constantly shifting. Just when you think they've settled on something, BAM it shifts again into something altogether different but no less unnerving. In that way it's very much like Silent Hill. Things are happening, and you can't percieve them until it's too late, and it's already enveloped you in its horror. This album is razor wire and peeling walls. It's 7pm sunset coming through the window to glance on an old rusted wheelchair. It's the sound of a child crying in the bathroom. It's the screams of addicts fighting in abandoned subway stations. It's a pale corpse floating face-down in a flooded basement.

So get this album, and listen to it while cowering in the corner, armed only with a flashlight and a gun.

Sunn O))) – Black One

Originally posted December 31st, 2007

(Before I begin I just want to note that Sunn O))) is pronounced simply as “sun”- they take their name from the logo for Sunn amplifiers.)

Sunn O))) are, as with pretty much most drone bands, very strange and can be hard to listen to. Drone doom is basically defined by notes that last for long periods of time- in other words they drone. Melody, rhythm, and vocals are often absent. Lyrics, if they exist, tend to be rather abstract and negative. Vocals are usually screamed. Still here? Good. Drone could be considered a form of ambient, and many drone bands experiment a lot with their sound. Sunn O))) have a history of such experimentation: their early work tended to be droning guitars and feedback to create their soundscapes, but they eventually began to fiddle with their style, and have ended up creating a wide variety of soundscapes- from quiet and mildly unsettling (see "A Shaving of the Horn that Speared You") to huge bass explosions. Black One is a further extension of this experimentation, with much more in the way of electronics, synths and other elements while at the same time returning to their earlier, loud droning style. As far as drone doom is concerned, this is one of the more experimental works, though it's still pretty solidly drone.

I'm not asking you to like this album. I'm not asking you to like drone doom. But I am asking you to listen to the album before you make your judgement. Try to get yourself in the right mood for it. Watch a few of the more recent splatterpunk movies or one of those movies that rip off Japanese horror (which all rips off Jacob's Ladder anyway), play Silent Hill or Afraid of Monsters for a bit. Read House of Leaves or something like that while you listen to the album. You get the idea. Immerse yourself in the crushing darkness. Who knows? You might like it down there.

Mayhem – Grand Declaration of War

Originally posted February 11th, 2008

Whatever preconcieved notions you had of Mayhem, I want you to open up a window and throw that shit out, because Grand Declaration of War is a complete redefinement of their sound. Lots of bands have at least one weird album and this one is Mayhem's. This is their attempt to redefine the genre they helped create- an emphasis on good production and experimentation, and even branching out into other genres- one track ("A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun Part II") is almost exlusively a creepy electronica piece that in all honesty makes me think of the old first person shooter Duke Nukem 3D.

But don't let that fool you! There's plenty of good old-fashioned black metal riffs, and Hellhammer's drumming is insane as always. Maniac does a good job of black metal vox in the middle of his spoken word stuff. Grand Declaration of War serves as a bridge between old-school BM, and more modern, experimental acts like Arcturus- and for that reason alone it's one of the more notable albums in the genre.

Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos

Originally posted March 3rd, 2008

Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 have got to be some of the manliest games in existence. It's like Fist of the North Star, or a Kurt Russel movie, or eating steaks, or crushing cans with foreheads, or wrestling bears. All truly manly things, such as the ones I mentioned, are admittedly stupid; but not all stupid things are manly (Oprah book club, living in Utah, watching Lost.) And as with all manly things there's usually music about it. There's a few songs about cuckolding some dude in front of him. I'm sure there's a band about wrestling bears. Warhammer 40,000 has Bolt Thrower's Realm of Chaos.

Bolt Thrower hail from Coventry, England, and started off with a mixture of death metal and hardcore, but after switching from Vinyl Solution, a strictly hardcore label at the time, to Earache Records, they tweaked their sound a little and came up with death metal with grindcore influences. After hearing them play over BBC radio, Games Workshop offered to do the artwork for their next album. Being big fans of GWS and Warhammer/40k, the band naturally agreed- and thus we have this album. While most of the lyrics are centered on war in general, there are a few songs written in tribute to Warhammer.

This album has somewhat pisspoor production values, though it's not nearly as bad as some black metal. It's a far step ahead of their first album, at any rate, and at times the low production even works for them. The music is faster, with more emphasis on chugging riffs, insane solos, and blast beats. A bit primitive by today's standards, but then again anything even remotely grindish can be considered primitive as a general principle. All in all, this is one of my favourite death metal albums, and it's not just because I like manly things like tanks and atomic bombs and peeing while standing up.

By the way, there is a re-release version of this with a different cover- if you like Bolt Thrower at all, you won't buy it. Buy the original. Bolt Thrower earns no royalties from the reissue.

Iced Earth – The Glorious Burden

Originally posted March 17th, 2008

I'm going to tell you straight out: if it weren't for comic books and The Patriot Jon Schaeffer would have no clue what to write songs about. I'm not shitting you, the dude hasn't had an original idea in years. But I suppose that's okay, if it weren't for cutting and mommy having no time to pick you up from the mall, My Chemical Romance wouldn't have anything to write about either. It still doesn't change the fact that Jon Schaeffer is boring. How he managed to create a band that, for a time, was amazing and singlehandedly dragged me entirely into metal is a mystery for the ages. Iced Earth used to be my favourite band- sometime between 2001 and 2004 it was practically all I listened to. My, how times have changed. I grew tired of power metal in general and Iced Earth in particular and started to explore other subgenres- and I rarely listen to Iced Earth anymore. Which is just as well, 'cuz their most recent stuff has been utter shit. However, I dragged out my old copy of this album to personally review it, so you'd better enjoy it.

This is a very fine album, the last half-way original concept Iced Earth has come up with- an album entirely dedicated to important moments in American history. It's also the first album to feature Tim "Ripper" Owens, formerly of Judas Priest. While he's a very good vocalist, he's no Matt Barlow, who is singlehandedly responsible for making Iced Earth's last three albums so great. While their earlier albums leaned more towards thrash, this one is most certainly power metal, continuing a trend that started with The Dark Saga. Like a lot of power metal, this album can get quite cheesy at times- for example, both versions of "When the Eagle Cries" are a bit overwrought and dramatic. I don't know, I have a hard time taking 9/11 tributes seriously anymore. However, there are quite a few gems on here. My personal favourite is "Waterloo", but if you get this album for anything, get it for the Gettysburg trilogy. It's a half-hour epic suite that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg (which, for those of you who are foreign or slept through history class, is the largest-ever battle in the western hemisphere and was the turning point of the American Civil War.) I would say it's one of the true high points of Iced Earth's career and indeed proof that Schaeffer does occasionally know how to write good lyrics. I think even now I would commit murder to hear Matt Barlow sing it.

Green Carnation – Light of Day, Day of Darkness

Originally posted May 19th, 2008

Probably the best way of describing this album is "art metal". Art metal is kind of an umbrella term to describe a certain mix of progressive with avant-garde and other genres, such as black, death, doom, and even non-metal elements such as jazz fusion or classical music- often all at once. You may confuse progressive with avant-garde, or even progressive or avant-garde with art metal, but the truth is prog and avant-garde are different in certain fundamental ways. Where progressive tends to explore ever-more-complex rhythms and song structures with an emphasis on technical skill, avant-garde tends to explore non-standard instrumentation with disregard for standard musical conventions. Art metal is basically both.

Green Carnation began as a Norwegian death metal outfit in 1990. They would eventually split when founder Tchort joined Emperor and the vocalist left, and the remaining members founded ...In the Woods. In 1998 the band reformed and released Journey to the End of the Night a year later, a folk/doom album and quite good. They then came up with this album, which I'll actually talk about in a minute. The band would then shift towards a hard rock/punk bent over the next few albums, until switching gears again for an all-acoustic album. Then the band split up, leaving Tchort to continue the band alone- no more live shows!

Light of Day, Day of Darkness is, according to Tchort, the first in a trilogy called The Chronicles of Doom, the second part postponed indefinitely due to the breakup. Despite the trilogy's name the album most certainly not doom metal. With a single track clocking in at 60 minutes, there is a LOT going on. Among the instruments used are: slide, sitar, Hammond organ, saxophone, classical strings, a wide range of voices, a children's choir, an opera choir, et cetera- you get the idea. Death metal makes an appearance with death growls and the occasional blast beat, but that's just a sprinkling on a very big cake. It's really, really hard to describe- other than "completely awesome". This isn't your average album that you can just pop in your car and space out. This, like all art metal, is something you have to sit down, shut up, and pay attention to, because Green Carnation are trying to tell you something.

The only really bad part of this album, though some of you may not mind it, is a bit in the middle where female opera vocals duel with a saxophone. I have hated this part of the album from day one. It really damages the album in my opinion. Worse, it goes on for several minutes, reaching a crescendo that would shatter glass. Let it be known right now that I have nothing against female vocals on principle; this shit is just absolutely unlistenable. I'd rather listen to Eurodance than this crap. God, it's playing right now. I'm slitting my wrists. Sweet death, I await your blissful embr- oh, it's over. Nevermind.

God Forbid – Gone Forever

Originally posted July 7th, 2008

God Forbid are a 5-piece band of large, angry men with lots of body hair and roots in New Jersey. They began life as a metalcore/thrash band, and while their first release, Reject the Sickness, was fairly mediocre as metalcore goes, Determination signalled an increase in overall skill and sound quality. I remember when Determination first came out, they were making a bit of a splash in the metal scene, partly due to the fact that a good chunk of the band was either black or Hispanic. Which of course led to a joke: "Ethnic diversity in metal? God Forbid!" Well I'm sorry, but maybe we could use some ethnic diversity in this scene. Might make for a change from the usual "long-haired knuckledragging meathead" archetype so common in this crowd. And Byron Davis, with his bassy growl of a voice, manages to do something a lot of white boys in these sorts of bands suck at- sound intimidating.

It wasn't until Gone Forever came out, however, that the band cemented their sound as a straight up mix of thrash and metalcore, with plenty of metalcore tropes such as the vocal style but also thrashy solos and other touches. The band was launched into the spotlight, getting a spot in Ozzfest, touring with Goatwhore and other bands, and releasing another album a year later, IV: Constitution of Treason. They've not released anything since, but are reported to be working on their 5th album.

In the end while their metalcore roots are obvious, with Gone Forever they manage to make their sound interesting and heavy, with plenty to keep the metalcore kid happy and the more traditional metalhead interested. It's a very good album with nice, clean production and excellent instrumentation. I can't help but recommend it to anyone looking to try something different.

Celtic Frost – Monotheist

Originally posted August 25th, 2008

What ever happened to Celtic Frost?

Is it true that they got lost

in the pandemonium

Never to be seen again?

-- Stormtroopers of Death, "Celtic Frosted Flakes"

Yeah, Celtic Frost disappeared for a while. Missing since 1992, Celtic Frost were one of the most influential extreme metal bands of the 80s, influencing bands such as Opeth, Darkthrone, Emperor, My Dying Bride, the list goes on and on and on- their page on Wikipedia lists nearly 3 dozen bands who cite Celtic Frost as an influence or have covered one of their songs. Brutal, ambitious, and significant, they were respected and distinguished.

Then they broke up.

In 2001, after almost a decade of silence, Tom Fischer and Martin Eric Ain, two of the original members of Celtic Frost, began writing music together again, bringing in Tom's friend Erol Unala along with an experienced drummer by the name of Franco Sesa. The goal was to make a new album, something dark and heavy. Due to financial issues and the DIY nature of the project, the album took 6 years to make. This is that album.

Celtic Frost has changed their sound a lot over the years, and what genre they actually are at the time tends to be debatable. The best way to describe it is their earlier work is mostly black metal, while their later work stretches into death metal, avant-garde, thrash, among others. This particular album is very avant-garde, though if you listen carefully there is quite a bit of complexity to the album. The doom influence is prevalant, both in sound and in the lyrics, largely inspired by Aleister Crowley.

I'll be honest with you- I wasn't a fan of this album at first listen. I was looking for one last album to fill out this month, and NecroVMX suggested it. But with repeated listens it's really grown on me, and with each listen I'm finding something new. This album is unfortunately the band's last, as Celtic Frost effectively broke up again with Fischer's departure earlier this year due to not getting along with the others. It's a shame, too, as their influence was massive, and they were constantly evolving. This last, final album seems a fitting goodbye.

Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull

Originally posted September 8th, 2008

Most of you have heard of Sunn O))), and I bet a good portion of you don't like it. Well that's fine, it's not for everyone. But what most of you probably don't know is that Sunn O))) was actually formed as a tribute to Earth (or, as they put it, the Sun revolves around the Earth). More than that, Earth are actually the pioneers of drone doom.

Some people think anything where a given note extends more than half a second qualifies as "drone", but those people are morons and not all doom is drone. Drone doom is a very different subgenre from traditional or epic or sludge doom. I would actually go so far as to say that it barely even counts as metal. I've talked a little bit about drone doom before when I covered BlackOne, but for those of you not up on your subgenres, I'll explain in more detail: Drone is a very minimalistic style of doom metal defined by notes or chords that are sustained and repeated throughout a given song. Typically the guitar is the main element, accompanied by reverb and feedback; lyrics are usually growled or screamed. There is usually no beat or rythm, and the songs tend to be very long- anywhere from 5 minutes at least, to half an hour. Most drone tends to be of a BZZZZZZZZT type though there are some more ear-friendly bands out there (i.e. some, but not all, of Boris' drone work.) It's most definitely not for everyone- and in fact there is anecdotal evidence that Sunn O))) has been known to make people either cream their pants or vomit by standing too close to the speakers at live shows.

Earth were the pioneers of this kind of sound, creating the BZZT type of drone that Sunn O))) is famous for. Founded in 1990 by Dylan Carlson (yes, that Dylan Carlson, friend of Kurt Cobain and purchaser of the shotgun used in Cobain’s suicide), they took their name from Black Sabbath's original name. Their first few albums, in the 90s, were the influential drone doom that they, and their successors, are famous for. Fun fact: Kurt Cobain sang lead vocals on "Divine and Bright", which is included on the re-release of Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars.

Earth released three LPs, two EPs, and one live album in the 90s, only to go silent in 1996, thanks to Carlson being plagued by drug and legal problems. Seven years later Earth began to re-emerge, with the live album 070796 and a split with Japanese experimental musician KK Null, and in 2005 their first full-length in 9 years, Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method was released. This was a majour departure from their earlier work. The guitar was played clean and smooth, and most certainly nowhere near metal- it was instead inspired by country music (and I mean real country music, not this modern C&W Garth Brooks blahblah horseshit all the rednecks like today) as well as the book Blood Meridian- the music would not be out of place in a Western film of some sort, and there is a distinct lack of vocals.

Earth has continued this trend, and their most recent offering, released earlier this year, is no different- but it's definitely a step up in some ways. The texturing is thicker, with Carlson's guitaring accompanied by organ chords and some simple piano, with occasional leads by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In a way it's basically an improved version of Hex, more focused, with tight improvisation (making clever use of feedback on "Rise to Glory", for example.) This album may not be brutal, it may not even qualify as metal, but the compellingly desolate soundscape Earth manages to create is difficult to dismiss unless you're a typical meathead who can't take anything that doesn't have bitchin' solos. And as I've made clear, I hate that kind of metalhead. I don't have any respect for someone who isn't capable of developing an eclectic musical taste, and I don't think there's a place anymore for that sort of person in the intelligent discussion of music.

Nevermore – Dreaming Neon Black

Originally posted November 7th, 2008

Everybody knows Nevermore. They're that band that refuses to be pinned down as any one specific genre, touching on many of them to create their own unique thrashy/proggy sound. Warrel Dane's voice is generally hated by people who need to die like Hitler and shoot themselves, but I think Nevermore wouldn't be nearly as good without him. The Dane-hate is really inexplicible- it seems to be one of those irrational reactions that are a result of Blind Pig-Rage Syndrome, which is my term for a condition that turns people into stupid assholes who froth at the mouth and squeal in rage whenever something, such as Democrats or Half-Life 2 or the XBox 360, is so much as even mentioned. But that's okay. I'm in that minority of people who can't listen to Dream Theater because I absolutely cannot stand James Labrie’s vocals, so we're even.

Anyway. This is one of my favourite albums of all time, and certainly my favourite Nevermore album. My top 5 favourite albums of all time tend to shift, but Dreaming Neon Black has always been in that list. It is a perfect album that encompasses all the best things about Nevermore. A lot of people prefer This Godless Endeavour, but nothing's ever been able to top this one, for me.

Like the classic definition of a concept album would have you believe, the album tells a story, in this case that of a man slowly spiralling into insanity after the death of his girlfriend. Dane himself has confirmed this was based on an event from his own life, where his girlfriend joined a religious cult and was never heard from again, and he began having nightmares of her drowning. This is reflected in the cover art.

What makes the album is the hauntingly bitter tone it takes, and the depths of despair that permeates the whole album. It's a very dark album, even when it's heavy. The subject matter borders on the terrifying, and the whole album is unsettling and can be emotionally draining for a first time listener. On a technical level the album is quite sound- production is clean, with Dane's vocals coming in clear and Jeff Loomis being exceptionally brilliant and nuanced, but even though those two are obvious reasons why the album sounds so good it has to be said that there is a cohesiveness to this album that is just about perfect- the drums, guitars, vocals, production and songwriting are all top-notch, and literally you can't have one without the others- they interlock, in a sense. This album is perfect in every way.

If you don't have this there's something wrong with you.

I return!

Whoa. Time to blow the dust off this thing. I admit I lost interest in this thing, mostly because Blogspot's update method is html-based and that's just a gigantic pain in the ass.

That said, I'm updating this thing because my next couple of posts will be a "Best of 52" series.

52 is a series of reviews of albums, mostly metal, that I wrote (and continue to write) under the name dethtoll for a couple of metal communities on Livejournal, the first being Metal_MP3 and the latter being Mandatory Metal. I won't go into details as to why I switched, but my switch and the creation of Mandatory Metal are related- there was a lot of drama at Metal_MP3 and when my good friend John Sierra (also known as NecroVMX) created Mandatory Metal as a response to said drama, I quickly jumped the Metal_MP3 ship.

52 was originally started by NecroVMX, taking the name from the DC Comics company-wide crossover series of the same name. The idea was that once a week for 52 weeks a review of an album would go up, and the months were often divided up into themes- for example, one month was dedicated to black metal, another to cover albums, so on and so forth. I quickly adopted the idea, under the title "52 Albums dethtoll Thinks You Need To Hear." I just wrapped up the 2nd year of this feature last week, and starting this Sunday will be starting the third (and final) year.

Part of the reason I'm dragging this thing out of the attic toybox to talk about 52 is that I need a bit of a portfolio. The original idea was to post the entirety of my 52 series- all 104 articles- but I decided that wasn't worth doing because A) there wouldn't be nearly enough time, in between classes and other obligations, to get all 104 articles edited for Blogspot; 2) some of my entries, especially the oldes ones, are really crappy, short little blurbs that don't go into much detail and I'd end up having to rewrite some of them entirely; and D) because I intend to collect all 156 entries into a book at some point, and what's the point of doing that if you're gonna put 'em all up on the internet?

But wait, you say, didn't you already post them to the internet? Yes, yes I did. But the communities on Livejournal were members-only. The original entries were for the members' enjoyment- the idea was originally concieved as educating a largely ignorant member base (we had some negative opinions about most of the people on Metal_MP3) about what they may be missing out on. Metal is a pretty big genre with lots of different styles, so it's not fair to point at one single band and say that band is the very definition of metal in its entirety. 52, and by extension Mandatory Metal, was started for the purpouse of intelligent discussion of metal, in the same manner as one would discuss jazz or classical.

Back to my original point. This is basically a "best of" collection- entries I'm particularly proud of. They stretch as far back as October 2007 when I first started; that said, these entries have been edited for content. I usually begin each post with an introductory paragraph; this has been excised for the Blogspot version as it's usually a "hey, welcome back" or some terrible joke or a reference to pop culture or a complaint about the weather, et cetera. Also gone are certain things inside the reviews themselves, such as external links, among other things. I've made some additions for clarity or extra detail, as well. I have also made corrections to minor errors as well as snipping out most of the naughtier language (I am a pottymouth and proud of it, but since this is meant to be a de facto portfolio I thought it prudent to at least tone down the four-letter words.)

The following post will be the first half of this two-part series. The second half will go up tomorrow.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Top Five Albums of 2008, plus the Year's Worst and a Suprise Discovery

Well it's the end of the year and I've decided it's time for me to get back into posting here. It's a shame, because I've got about 2 half-finished articles already (one about Bioshock and another about my idea for a Lovecraft-themed RPG set in World War 2) and I've just not felt the urge to write. However I come out of my hole today to present to you with a roundup of my musical experiences this year. My top five albums of 2008 plus the worst album of the year, plus my favourite musical discovery of the year.

Without further ado, let's begin this feature with my top five albums of 2008.

#5 Darkthrone - Dark Thrones and Black Flags

I fucking love Darkthrone. That's all there really is to it. Of all the old-school black metal bands that seemed to swarm out of Europe in the 80s and early 90s, Darkthrone has remained the one band that I will listen to on a nearly daily basis if I wanted to. As far as I'm concerned, there are only five bands that can get away with the piss-poor production values so inherent to the scene and Darkthrone is all of them. They somehow managed to make that lo-fi sound essential to their sound, almost as if it were another instrument. Though they've changed their direction a few times, most notably with The Cult is Alive a couple years ago. Dark Thrones and Black Flags is simply a continuation of what The Cult is Alive started and what FOAD would expand on, taking on a punk and crust punk influence and mixing it with their strong black metal sound. It's no less heavy, and certainly a bit more refined. This is brutality at its best- raw yet listenable.

Best songs: The Winds They Called the Dungeon Shaker, Norway in September, Witch Ghetto

Also recommended: Transilvanian Hunger, Hate Them!, The Cult is Alive

#4 Cult of Luna - Eternal Kingdom

Cult of Luna haven't always impressed me; their earlier albums were good but never quite managing to pull out any hooks that grabbed me. Salvation was another matter, an absolutely amazing album that would finish with the thundrously dark "Into the Beyond". Eternal Kingdom proves to be their finest work to date. It's more refined, taking on a darker tone that "Into the Beyond" had hinted at and is overall much heavier than before. Earlier work had put more emphasis on their hardcore roots but it was with Eternal Kingdom that they would begin to play up a more progressive angle that stretches out through the entire album.

Best tracks: Owlwood, Ghost Trail, The Great Migration

Also recommended: Salvation, Somewhere Along the Highway

#3 Metallica - Death Magnetic

So a while back I was putting together a compilation of music from the PC games Doom and Doom 2 and the classic metal songs they ripped off. It was then that I realized that Metallica, the band I had been hating and ignoring for years, were actually pretty damn good back in the 80s. I mean I liked some of it, but with the drudgery of their 90s work and the singularly awful St. Anger, by the time I'd become able to actually listen to a full Metallica album, I didn't really bother. So as I've grown older and more thoughtful I've changed my stance on Metallica. 80s: mandatory. 90s: optional. St. Anger: really really optional. And now Death Magnetic: Mandatory. Combining the best of their 80s work with the skills they've picked up in the intervening years, a sufficiently dried-out James Hetfield, and finally replacing Lars Ulrich with a drum machine (or so it seems, anyway) this album has turned out to be quite the pleasant suprise. After over a decade of being the butt of jokes Metallica has finally come roaring back onto the scene and turning themselves into something worth listening to and I hope they continue down this road for years to come. The only real downside is the album being a victim of the Loudness War, which has damaged some otherwise excellent albums. While it's not as big a victim as Rush's Vapor Trails, it still sounds best on car stereos. Despite this issue it's a frankly excellent album and well deserving of the spot.

Best songs: That Was Just Your Life, The Day that Never Comes, All Nightmare Long

Also recommended: Master of Puppets, And Justice for All, Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning

#2 Warrel Dane - Praises to the War Machine

I'll say it right now: If you don't like Nevermore because of Warrel Dane you're not going to like this so you may leave now. Please check your reproductive organs at the door on the way out. The rest of you settle in.

Let's be honest here: this album fucking rules. While Nevermore has never quite been able to top Dreaming Neon Black for me (though This Godless Endeavour comes close), this album is absolutely equal with DNB. If you were expecting just another Nevermore album however you're going to be suprised. Vocals aside this is definitely NOT Nevermore. The closest description would be what Devin Townsend Band would sound like if Warrel Dane did vocals. Warrel's vocals are unmistakable and his delivery has not changed, but the music itself is much more progressive. He continues his tradition of taking songs you wouldn't expect a band like this to cover and making them rock ass- Sisters of Mercy can go fuck themselves because "Lucretia My Reflection" is now a Warrel Dane song. Warrel's haunting vocals make this album, absolutely, and people who hate Warrel Dane's voice love Hitler. And tampon porn. This album proves that Warrel doesn't need Nevermore as much as Nevermore needs him, because let's face it- he IS Nevermore, along with Jeff Loomis. Fucking great album and a contendor for the top spot.

Best tracks: Obey, Lucretia My Reflection, August

Also recommended: While this is Warrel's first solo album you may want to check out Nevermore, specifically Dead Heart In A Dead World, This Godless Endeavor, and especially Dreaming Neon Black

#1 Earth - The Bees Made Honey In the Lion's Skull

Where do I begin? I find it amazing that a guy from one of my least favourite bands (Nirvana) is the founder of one of my MOST favourite (Earth). Dylan Carlson has proven himself again and again that he does not give two fucks what most people think of him or his music. Singlehandedly inventing the genre of drone doom and its characteristic, bass/reverb-heavy buzzing (one that Sunn O))) would take to extremes), Earth would continue to evolve, affecting a more rock-oriented approach before going on hiatus for several years. Upon Carlson's return to music he would take the band in a very different direction, going for a much cleaner approach. They would continue to evolve, reworking older pre-hiatus songs into this new style, and finally they came up with this. It's a step up from Hex: or Printing in the Infernal Method, with thicker texturing and an eclectic collection of elements including organs and some simple piano. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell would provide input here, and overall it's basically an improved version of Hex. It's an absolutely fantastic album, and somehow manages to maintain a sense of heaviness even while giving a sense of relaxation and calm. I wrestled for a long time over which album to give #1, and it turned out to be this one.

Best tracks: Omens and Portents I: The Driver, Engine of Ruin, Hung from the Moon

Also recommended: Hex: or Printing in the Infernal Method, Hibernaculum, and from their earlier work, Pentastar: In the Style of Demons

Worst of 2008: Opeth - Watershed

Fuck this album. There, I said it. Fuck this fucking album. At first I thought there was something wrong with me, like maybe I wasn't in the right mood for it or something. But you know what? Every time I listen to this album I just end up hating it more. This is seriously the biggest disappointment of the year. A lot of people whined when Damnation came out because it wasn't "heavy enough" but I thought it was great and the detractors were assholes. This album however... I don't know what the fuck was going on here. At times you would hear the Opeth you knew and loved, complexity overlaid with Mikael's trademark growl, then it would suddenly drop away and you're wondering what fucking shithump spliced in Pain of Salvation. I've never had an Opeth album nearly put me to sleep but this one was just fucking DUH DUH DUH. Just when you think it's going to do something interesting BAM it's another 5 minutes of One Hour by the Concrete Lake. It's a goddamn shame that the best songs on this album were the special edition bonus tracks. Opeth has lost their fucking touch, and it's time for them to either seriously reconsider the direction they're taking or retire outright because if I have to listen to another fucking album like this I quit. When the the most interesting song you've done since Damnation is a cover of Alice in Chains there is something wrong. Fuck this album.

Favourite discovery: Alcest - Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde (2007)

I discovered this album almost entirely by accident. I think someone may have mentioned it in passing, or I was digging through old posts on Mandatory Metal (the community I help moderate) and found the album by chance. Either way, I was attracted to the description of it being a mix of black metal and post-rock. While the black metal elements have been severely downplayed in this album compared to the minor releases prior to this, you can still hear traces of it. But they only serve to accent what's essentially a very beautiful album. The production is generally excellent, though when things get particularly busy it sometimes gets a bit muddled. All in all I am very pleased to hear post-metal taking an influence from something other than doom or hardcore or sludge. I eagerly anticipate Alcest's next album.

Conclusion: This has been a banner year for music, both personally as well as in general. 2009 looks to be equally great, with a lot of hotly anticipated albums due to drop in the next 365 days. Let's hope they're as awesome as these.