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82. Entombed, ‘Left Hand Path’ (1990)

CW: Some of the albums on this list are overtly Satanic. As a nonbeliever, I’ve been pretty comfortable enjoying sacred music of many traditions; Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 9th, and of course, Handel’s Messiah. I like a good chant now and again, and find the Islamic call to prayer as well as Jewish traditional hymns (which use similar modes) haunting and beautiful. While I don’t find Satanism itself interesting or compelling, there’s a lot of music that I dig that definitely is intended to honor the adversary. In the spirit of ecumenicism, I don’t question the theological motives of the authors of such music any more than I question Bach’s.

In my review of Darkrthone’s ‘Transylvanian Hunger’, I presented early Trve Kvlt Norwegian Black Metal (TKNBM), as a rebellion against Swedish Death Metal’s focus on technical prowess. TKBM was therefore a rebellion against excellence, and resulted in the exaltation of some pretty tedious albums. The next album stands in stark contrast to ‘Transilvanian Hunger’* among extreme metal records.

One of the features of the Stockholm death metal sound is a guitar tone called “buzzsaw”. This was achieved with one of the most controversial effects pedals of all time, the Boss HM2 Heavy Metal™. I had this pedal, and I’d like to say a few things about it.

  1. It was Black \m/
  2. It was dirt cheap.
  3. There was only one way that it sounded good.

The Heavy Metal™ pedal produced a pretty tinny sounding distortion, unless you took all four knobs and turned them to 11. This produced a distortion so rattling that it hurt your joints. The sound just decays like the lingering smell of death*. How appropriate for the debut album by a band called Entombed.

For want of a better word, the sound of this album is subterranean. Vocalist L.G. Petrov’s guttural echo croaks from some stony underground lair. The mix of the rhythm guitar/bass/kick is definitely earthy, though not enough to prevent the vocals/lead/kit from punching through like tombstones. The riffs are both agile and mind-crushingly heavy.

More than any other album I’ve reviewed yet, how you listen (like, your technology or whatever) is important. The first time, I listened using a good pair of earbuds. Headbanging ensued. The second time was on my car stereo, which is just whatever standard set up they put in Hyundais 10 years ago. The woofer was just not sufficient to catch the bottom end on this album, and it left me underwhelmed. I had to go back to the ear buds.

This is one of the first bands to feature heavily downed-tuned guitars, and they are as bottom-rich as the seats in coach. The bass on “Drowned” is waterlogged, staring up menacingly through black water. Jaques Cousteau couldn’t get that low**. The album also makes sparing use of non-traditional elements like flange on the opening drum salvo of  “When Life has Ceased”, gongs on “The Truth Beyond”, and a spooky chime melody on the star of the album, “Left Hand Path”. Those chimes sound like something right out of an 80s horror flick…because they almost are. This is a sample from 1979’s Phantasm by John Cascarelli, a movie that I loved as a small misanthrope.

I don’t know. It was little, brown and low to the ground.

I often think to myself, “What metal songs are quintessential?” I think this to myself, because no one I know is interested in my dumb musings. “Left Hand Path” is a strong candidate. It is heavy, includes both infarction fast and dirge-like riffs, features several solos of varying tunefulness, changes abruptly, and has lots of dynamic range. Its a howler and a masterpiece.

This is a great album and Varg still sucks.

Varg and his blade.

*Fenriz seems like a nice enough guy, but I hate this album.
**Listen to the final chord of “Supposed to Rot”. You can hear this chord literally decomposing.
***ODB is my muse.

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83. Baroness, ‘The Red Album’ (2007)

From 2002-2004, I played guitar in a three-piece out of Columbus, Ohio. Our band was grounded in punk and alternative rock, but we were disenchanted with the idea of style. As our lyrical content became more complex, we wanted to produce music that matched. Yet, we didn’t want to abandon the emotional content of the music we were so deeply rooted in. We also didn’t want to lose coherence, the way that prog-rock so often does. At the same time other bands we knew were doing similar things—writing longer songs with nontraditional structures, using odd time signatures, incorporating sudden tempo changes, and eschewing major/minor/pentatonic harmonies. For me, every rehearsal was a period of discovery, because nothing was off the table.

To call this album metal is a bit of a stretch. However, I’m glad that it was included on the Rolling Stone’s list, because it is really good. Baroness achieved what I believe we were trying to. ‘The Red Album’ is unmistakably unique, full of surprises, and yet completely coherent. Its hard anymore to write surprising music that also feels familiar. The guitar work of John Dyer Baizley and Brian Bickle is as carefully complementary as any I’ve heard. They do not play standard lead/rhythm (despite what the album credits may say), but rather bounce off of each other, dance around one another, in a constantly shifting interplay of opposition and cooperation. Rarely are guitars heavily distorted, but are clearly down-tuned throughout much of the album. The drums and bass provide a solid backdrop to guitar chaos; both are recorded to accent precision and distinction, and are as much jazz and funk influenced as rock. Vocals are not prominently featured; most songs are primarily instrumental. John Baizley does offer a monochromatic roar from time to time, most often sustaining a note over turbulence underneath. Most importantly ‘The Red Album’ features lots of dynamic variation; the softs are really soft and the louds are really loud, something rarely heard in either metal or punk-rock.

I am hard-put to describe individual songs, because each one includes so many interesting elements; rather than catalog each, I’d advise you to listen to them. I will point out a few highlights. The first track “Rays on Pinion” builds very slowly, starting with some unarticulated chords that swell in and out—one guitar starts arpeggiating and the beat (dope and tribal) doesn’t enter until 1:43. The chords are subverted into something minor and darker (though nearly the same) 3 minutes in. At about 3:50, the vocals enter, and the song takes a turn for the harder and heavier. This patient development is bold choice for the introductory song on the album. The second song “The Birthing” begins much the way that “Rays on Pinion” ends, until taking an abrupt transition to a bass/drum funk groove, only for 10 seconds to dive back into Fugazi style rocking. “Wailing Wintery Wind” features the softest drums perhaps ever recorded…a quick tom-driven cadence under swelling chords with plenty of reverb…building very slowly into a Jon Bonham-esque solo. “Cockroach en Fleur” is an acoustic instrumental, which borrows heavily from the bands Appalachian* roots (there’s another song called “O’Appalachia), with an occasional tritone thrown in for a little darkness. The album ends on another beautiful and simple instrumental called “Grad”.

Notice also the beautiful cover of ‘The Red Album’. Singer/guitarist Baizley does ALL of the covers for this band, as well as for a few other bands.

Poppies

This album demonstrates a serious commitment to artistry and originality. If I were to ask Baroness what their best album is, my guess is that they would tell me that it is the one they are working on now. After ‘The Red Album’, Baroness has made four other studio albums. I listened to these albums (less intensively), and each represents an evolution of the coherent musical concept introduced on ‘The Red Album’. Listen to Baroness. That is all.

*They operate out of Savannah, GA, but the original lineup met in Lexington, VA.

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84. High on Fire, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ (2005)

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager I probe, which is now the farthest man-made object from the earth, at almost 14 billion miles from earth and counting. The hopeful people of the planet, who still had the good sense to believe in science by the way, extended their greetings to any interstellar alien species who happened along, by means of a golden record. I supposed they must have also packed a record player, and some cartoony, IKEA-style instructions. On this record were sounds that the Voyager team thought were central to humanity…children greeted the aliens in many languages, the songs of birds and whales, Azerbaijani folk music, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, the sound of the surf crashing on the shore, and the brain waves of noted science writer Anne Druyan, among other things. I’d imagine that there must have been a lot of discussion, debate, and even heated rhetoric as to what to include. I mean, they couldn’t put everything on there, could they?

This raises a dumb question. What if we wanted aliens to understand what metal was? What album would we send?

This is the album that I would choose. It isn’t the best metal album. It isn’t the loudest. It isn’t the most extreme. It is the centroid. The type specimen of metal if you will*.

Imagine that we created a million indices by which we rate metal albums: brutality, virtuosity, energy, riffitude, shredding, vikingness…etc., and then performed a principal coordinate analysis (PCA). PCAs plot each album in as many dimensions as there are indices, and then squashes the plot flat in a way that maximizes variation among albums. Albums on the outskirts of that graph are extreme along multiple axes. Albums in the center are most representative of the center of the multiple axes of variation. In other words, no metal head would ever argue that “Blessed Black Wings” is not a metal album, the way that some would not recognize anything by Tool** as metal. All of the essential elements are there, and there isn’t much other than what is essential. If Black Sabbath and Motorhead had a child, and got that child wound up on jack-and-coke just before the baby-sitter arrived, you’d have this album.

It is a very good album. I had never listened to this album or this band before this week. I’ve listened to it about nine times straight through. After my first listen, I was curious about who engineered it. No surprise— Steve Albini— known for straightforward, raw production values that maximize the live feel of the album. This is a “nothing rattles, nothing shines” production. Drums sound like drums—thumpy and not so distinct—, the bass sounds like a bass, and the guitars sound like hella-overdriven Gibson Les Pauls run through Marshalls. Moreover, you can hear that the musicians were really into the performance. The album has an element of abandon to it. You know the drummer broke some sticks, leaving shreds of wood all over the studio floor. There was sweat and blood. The microphone got contaminated.

The first song, Devilution is a hell-ride. From the opening drum battery, this just kicks ass all the way through. At first blush, I was wondering if Lemmy was performing guest vocals. The Vocalist and guitarist, Matt Pike just happens to sound a lot like Lemmy. Which is fantastic. “Cometh Down Hessian” is a similar ripper. “Brother in the Wind” is pure grunge, with more open chord-work than one normally hears on purely metal albums—nice big chords pounded in earnest downstrokes to a Keith Moon tribal rhythm. “Blessed Black Wings” is clearly the opus of the album. It opens with a raw and evil riff, which is also somehow bluesy and sludgy. It ends on a rampage, with the drummer going at that crash like it owed him money. Silverback, gorilla-aggressive, is nearly hardcore. The album ends with a very pretty instrumental piece called “Songs of Thunder”, which features an extended clean guitar intro, picked in quick triplet pattern like something Gaelic or Norse. It comes in so heavy, and so suddenly, that you may shit yourself. But with joy.

There’s only one low point on the whole album, and I think that this was a result of Albini’s production style. In the middle of the second song, “The Face of Oblivion” there is a guitar part that goes on without drums for some time. You can just hear it sagging in places, like a moldy old bridge. It’s cringeworthy. When the rest of the band enters, they are not together. The vocals through most of the album are pretty simple and shouty, which works fine on most of the songs. However, the vocal part at the end of “The Face of Oblivion” is a bit more melodic. Or should have been. Matt Pike is terribly off pitch. He sounds like me performing “Man in the Box” at karaoke…he just can’t hit those pitches, and he should have known that he can’t hit those pitches. The final two minutes of this songe are painful and wretched. I don’t know why this track got a pass from either the band or Albini. Maybe they were just tired from all the other ass-kicking.

*Assuming you take a typological approach to taxonomy, which is neither here or there.

**Settle down.

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85. Darkthrone, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ (1994)

“That romantic disease, originality, all around we see the originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original… Even two hundred years ago, who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.”

—Herr Koppel as quoted by Wyatt Gwyon, “The Recognitions”

In the early 90s, a group of young Norwegian men with more energy than judgement found themselves at odds with a group of young Swedish men. The Swedish men were playing death metal, a new style of brutal-sounding extreme metal that featured technical prowess, complex song structure, and high production recording. The Norwegians had no qualms with the brutality of the music, but were a little upset that these Swedes, who were singing about blood, death, and Satan were not such bad guys once you got to know them. At first blush, with their dressed-down appearance (t-shirts, sneakers, shorts) you wouldn’t know that the Swedes were evil at all.

These are some happy looking Swedes, tell you what. [1], (Carnage 1988, Fair USE)

Some of these* Norwegians set out to be the opposite of the Swedes, as people with lots of energy and little judgement might. They focused on “atmosphere” instead of music. They were fearsome in appearance, wearing black and white makeup, dressing in leather and pointy spikes, and performing ritual sacrifices to the dark lord during concerts, by self-harm, and festooning the stage with mutilated animals.

True Kvlt Norwegian Black Metaller was prepared to duel. (Spoiler: he loses)

Some of them saw this as not enough, and took their evil to the people, burning churches, desecrating corpses of friends, kidnapping, and murdering. Their music was notably lo-fi, often recorded on four tracks through toy microphones, intentionally monotonous, and while including elements of brutality, also included elements of fantasy fiction (orcs) and National Socialism.

The music was original, but does it hold up out of context? (tldr; no.)

‘Transilvanian [sic] Hunger’ is the third of a series of black metal albums by Darkthrone**, following ‘Blaze in the Northern Sky’ and ‘Under a Funeral Moon’. All instrumental work is by Gilve “Fenriz” Nagel, with goblin style vocals by Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum. It is considered the end of the development of a style of music pioneered by Darkthrone and a few others (Thorns, Burzum), and with this I agree. However, having developed from something intended as a refutation of excellence, this isn’t a good thing.

‘Transilvanian Hunger’ is a tribute to monotony. At least “Blaze in the Northern Sky” varies the tempo and time signature. On ‘Transilvanian Hunger’, every song is blast-beated at the same tempo, in 4/4. The bass is lost in the mix. Guitars are chords only, tremolo picked across the board, and riffs consist of 2-3 chords, repeated endlessly, until the listener is ready to embrace the grave. If the vocals are supposed to sound infernal, they invoke less of the prince of darkness, and more of antagonist from the movie “Troll”. In other words, the singer sounds more like a guy who is dangerous to goats attempting to cross a bridge, than the antichrist. This may be the purpose of the album, but why would this rank on the top 100?

Influence.

Other bands would take this style and develop it, shape it, and blend it into compelling, beautiful music (See 95, “Sunbather” Deafheaven). The removal of any variation in rhythm or melody places the focus squarely on the interaction of notes in chords. With no formula, black metal is free to create bizarre interval combinations, with unexpected patterns of discordance and resolution. Darkthrone, by managing to stay out of jail, inherited the audience that would later go on to turn TKNBM into something worth listening to.

The Thing I Hate About Black Metal: You never know when there will be some Nazi shit involved. One of the leading figures of these young Norwegian men with little judgment was Varg Vikernes, who has the distinction of having burned down a nearly 900 year old stave church and murdered the architect of true Norwegian black metal, Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous of Mayhem). He was also WAY into orcs and called himself “Count Grishnackh”…the surname comes from Grishnakh, one of the few orcs with lines in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The honorific in Norwegian is “Greifi”, which forms an interesting and cute alliteration “Greifi Grishnackh”. Oh. Also, he is a Nazi.

Doofus.

Anyway, the lyrics for the last 4 songs, are credited to Greifi Grishnackh. One of these is a ballad to the ringwraiths. Another introduces the Norwegian word for bats which is the adorable “flittermice”. One of them is about how it sucks to be in prison.

*Others will be featured later in the Rolling Stones list.

**Their first two albums were considered death metal.

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86. Lamb of God, ‘As the Palaces Burn’ (2003).

[Nota bene, my review is not based on the 2013 remastered version of this album, which takes a very different approach to tone.]

My cousin, Patrick Brennan (as opposed to Patrick Shay, Patrick Mahr, or Patrick Bachmann…I have a lot of cousins named Patrick), is a metal aficionado, and he and I agree on a great deal. I developed a lot of my musical interests from mix tapes that he made me in the 80s. One of the things that he does not care for (as many people don’t) is the style of singing used in extreme metal, which often ranges from a growl to a shriek. To him it is “boo boo”. For me, it is awesome, even if it took some getting used to.

To achieve the sound, you need to close your larynx so that your Adam’s apple is high in your throat and then push air through the constriction as forcibly as possible. Extreme metal style singing requires athleticism, making heavy use of muscles in your throat and abdomen. It is like Mongolian throat singing, in that it makes use of multiple resonators: the nasal passages, the mouth, the throat, and the chest. In both, the point is to produce a sound that is inhuman.

Beyond brutality, extreme metal singing is also harmonically rich, in a way that not many people recognize. The most talented extreme metal vocalist is Randy Blythe, singer for Lamb of God**. If you read the physics lab I linked to just above, you understand why. Otherwise, let me explain.

Voices and instruments do not produce pure pitches (like, one that can be modeled by first degree wave function). This is because voices and instruments make us of multiple and complex resonators. Each resonator produces an array of notes, or harmonics, because it is not shaped to resonate perfectly. When a person sings, the most prominent note is the one with the greatest amplitude…or the loudest. This is the fundamental and what we would recognize as the actual note one is singing. But there are many other notes co-propagating with the fundamental. Often with a very clean tone, these other notes are harmonics of that fundamental—wave shapes that periodically meet with the fundamental wave shape. The more harmonics a tone includes, the richer the sound. The French mathematician, Jean Fourier developed a means of representing any complex wave, like from a human voice, as a series of component first-degree sine and cosine functions. Today, Fourier transforms make digital music possible, but have tons of other applications.

Anyway, the point is that one can measure harmonic richness scientifically, and therefore my hypothesis that Randy Blythe is the best is a matter that can be demonstrated empirically. Not only is his growl as harmonically rich as any I’ve heard, but his control is phenomenal. At times he slides from a low growl to a high wail, not just by changing the tension in his larynx, but by shifting air from one resonator to the next. It is incredible. On top of that, his band, Lamb of God, are amazing shredders, and the Rolling Stone would be negligent at excluding them from this list.

By complete coincidence, today, May 7 2020, marks the 17th anniversary of the release of ‘As the Palaces Burn’. LoG have never produced a bad album, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this one . I love the contrast between the harmonic chaos of Randy Blythe and the to-the-nanosecond precision of the rest of the band. When this band recorded the album, they wanted to highlight that precision. They wanted each strike of the kick and snare to be utterly distinct, and so they choose heavily gated tones—meaning simply that notes decay very quickly after being struck. LoG feature two guitarists, Mark Morton and Willie Adler, who play in unison so well that they could at times be mistaken for a single guitarist. They collectively have some of the twitchiest wrists in the business, with riffs so quick and tightly intertwined that some of this sounds like technical death metal. Anyway, it’s a formula that works, if the goal is head banging.

Not to say that there aren’t some great bells and whistles to accent the formula. LoG are masters of rhythm subversion. They repeat a riff enough times that the listener finds the groove of it *head banging*. Then they stutter it a half or a quarter beat, which is disorienting, and transgressive (listen to the the penultimate riff on “Boot Scraper” for the stutter). “Defense of our Good Name“ features another subversion of rhythmic expectations, but Blythe lays the vocals down so right, that if your aren’t trying to count along, you may not notice how the beat was turned around. My favorite track is “Vigil”, which features some of the heaviest riffing on the album. Normally the guitar lines on this album are played on one string at a time. This allows for speed but makes for a thin, or harmonically poor, sound. The guitars open up on the slower intro, for some Iommi-worthy chugging. Ultimately, this gives way to jackhammer riffage so badass, you’ll punch yourself in the face in public, and you won’t need to tell yo mama why.

Despite my endorsement, this is not the LoG album that I would have chosen for this list. ‘As the Palaces Burn’ is the band’s third album (including an album that they made under their first name, Burn the Priest). By 2003, LoG’s technical prowess had coalesced into a raging gut-kicking machine but LoG hadn’t yet discovered all the tools they would use on later albums. Maybe because the band worked hard to deliver a sound that was rhythmically tight, these songs are also harmonically tight, in a way that gets to be monotonous. When Morton and Adler stray from each other on this album, it is only by small intervals (a flatted fifth at most), and they don’t leave that happy pocket except on “Vigil”, or to solo. They also aren’t making use of melodies far outside of the penumbra of Slayer’s weird little chromatic series. That’s a great shadow to be in, but this group would go on to record more complex albums, with more varied chordwork, melodies, and harmonies. They did so without sacrificing speed or precision on Sacrament and Resolution. The remastered 2013 release of ‘As the Palaces Burn’ features the sound that they eventually assumed; more bassy and thumpy, with more natural decay, and it made the album sound better.

**Debate me.

Cover Image By Source, Fair use, Link

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87. Manowar, ‘Hail to England’ (1984)

Its going to come up, so I might as well start explaining here. I’m not a huge fan of second wave British heavy metal. This is an accident of history, more than anything. Lemme ‘splain.

When I was in sixth grade, I rode on a school bus with a couple of douche bags who were “really into metal”, and by that, I mean they were into Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and Poison. I had been listening to The Who, Hendrix, and the Stones. Macho dudes in drag with the high pitched voices singing about partying or whatnot just didn’t speak to me as a ten year old. So I thought, “Metal sucks and is music for douchebags.”

A few years later after I started playing guitar, me and my brother went over to a friend’s house to see if we couldn’t get a band started. I was listening to lots of punk and hard-core, and was a huge Misfits fan. Our friend said “I want to learn to play this”, and popped in a video of Metallica’s “One”. I was mesmerized. I had no idea what I was watching or even who Metallica was, but I loved (and still love) that song. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to figure out how to play it, but I got a new look at what metal could be.

So, Metallica was my gateway band. They had all the speed of hardcore, but with added darkness and intensity. Eventually I got around to listening to other thrash bands, and skipped right back in time to Sabbath, without passing through a SWBHM phase. My problem with much of SWBHM is that it lacks the intensity of thrash, and jettisoned the darkness of Sabbath. And too many goddamned references to England.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind, and listen to every album twice without rendering a judgement. With this, I can’t even. ‘Hail to England’ is straight up garbage. If there were a commercial for armpit hair, Manowar recorded the jingle. This album is a mockery of SWBHM , and I don’t have a clue as to how this album made any list other than “100 Albums with actual BO”. I would like to write a synopsis of the sound, but every moment of the album is truly ridiculous. Not to say that these guys didn’t have the chops to make a serious metal record. They just decided not to.

Some ridiculous elements:

1. Cheesey evil laughter is featured.

2. “Kill with power! Die! Die!” is an actual lyric.

3. Black Arrows/Bridge of Death features two minutes of solo guitar buffoonery. It sounds like Wayne Campbell trying to play “Eruption” at a high school talent show, so he can win the prize, one record contract for Cassandra’s band“Crucial Taunt”. It opens with a crappy demonic voice promising to send a black arrow into the heart of all who play false metal, adding irony, which is (ironically) a rare element of metal music.

4. The vocalist sounds like Dio and Bruce Dickinson’s dumb little brother.

5. You should never write songs that are actually about metal, but if you do, it has to rock (e.g. Black Metal by Venom, or Whiplash by Metallica). “Army of Immortals” is the dumbest song I’ve listened to from this list as of yet, and my surpass even Def Leppard for stupidity. I present the lyrics in full, and a picture of the band as evidence.

6. Manowar isn’t even English.

“Army of Immortals”

Battle hymns did sound the call. You came to our side.

You heard true metal – into glory Ride.

You stood beside us the false ones Cried.

Your love is judgment. You gave us life.

You wait in the rain – you walk through the snow.

We give you our blood. We want you to know.

In our eyes your’re immortal -In our hearts you’ll live forever

In our eyes your’re immortal -In our hearts you’ll live forever.

We have read your letters. We have heard your call.

We were brought together -Cause we’ve got the balls

To play the loudest metal.S o hard and so wild and mean.

You’ll live forever. We were Born from your belief.

Metal makes us strong. Together we belong

Forever. Here’s your song. We want you To know.I

In our eyes you’re immortal. In our hearts you’ll live forever.

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5156871

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88. Pig Destroyer, ‘Terrifyer’ (2004)

A year ago, I was listening to four bands on heavy rotation that I called the “Barnyard Tetrad”. They were Cattle Decapitation, Goatwhore, Lamb of God, and Pig Destroyer. I don’t know what it is about having a domesticated animal in the bands name. It works.

The next album is by the last of the tetrad.I have listened to lots of songs from this album, but never heard the album in its entirety in a sitting. That was a mistake. This album as a whole is really intriguing. To begin with, the first 21 songs of the album come in at just 32 minutes and 7 seconds. When Terrifyer was first released in 2004, it was issued as a DVD with a 22nd track, “Natasha” which by itself is longer than the first 21 songs at 37 minutes and 35 seconds. On reissue, these were sold separately, the 21 song album Terrifyer receiving much more attention than Natasha, released as an EP.

Before I really get into the music, I want to make sure that anyone reading this knows that these two albums should never have been sold separately. When I started listening to the 21 song Terrifyer album, I was struck at how apolitical it was. Pig Destroyer’s vocalist and lyricist J.R. Hayes was (apparently) highly influenced by hard-core and post-hardcore music in Northern Virginia /Washington DC*, and this is reflected in the anarcho-leftist feel of most of the songs. Additionally, the intense emotionality of those bands (Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty), has been a part of Pig Destroyer’s sound from the beginning. The 21 track Terrifyer really has none of the former, but a lot of the latter. Clearly the songs were linked to some unifying theme. However, on reading the lyrics, it was difficult to see what that theme was, though I knew it was there.

I noticed that on Spotify, the 22nd track was missing, but was available as the EP, Natasha. So after I listened to Terrifyer three times straight (long walk) I listened to Natasha. Mind blown. Natasha explains the first 21 tracks of Terrifyer, and the theme is darker and weirder than I had ever imagined. Taken apart, these are two very different albums, and neither is really complete. Taken together, Tracks 1-22 represent a Poe-esque inquiry into the horror of existence, that you need to experience at least once. But maybe after this pandemic has passed.

I won’t say any more on that because it will be fun to discover for yourself. From here on, I’ll refer to tracks 1-21 as “Terrifyer”, and track 22 as “Natasha”

Terrifyer: I got my ass kicked more than a few times as a kid, due to my big mouth, tolerance of pain, and inability to throw a punch. There’s something transcendental about the flurry of blows; new pain upon new pain, and yet that sense of numbness and timelessness, ending with ringing ears and the dripping taste of iron. Terrifyer is like having your brain jumped by a prison gang. In recording 21 songs over 32 minutes, Pig Destroyer is challenging what a song means as a unit; changes within songs are often more abrupt than transitions between them. The songs are often pummelingly fast (Thumbsucker, Gravedance, Sourheart), brooding (Towering Flesh) and sinister (Terrifyer). In these 32 minutes there must be 150 different riffs. What unites all of these songs is brutality. Pig Destroyer generally follows a model of recording that I call “Nothing rattles. Nothing shines”. To avoid a complicated tangent on recording**, think about how arena bands sound (best example is “When the Levy Breaks” by Led Zeppelin)…instruments and vocals are huge and distinct, and ring out. Terrifyer is the opposite: muted, muddy, and claustrophobic as hell. It makes for a really dark, and frankly terrifying environment. Add to that the battering, head-first-over-a-cliff *Chaos Reigns* approach to song writing, and you really have a solid half hour of brain bruising.

Natasha: This is the perfect foil for Terrifyer. To begin with, this unconventional track was recorded in much more conventional arena-style tones. Guitars and drums reverberate over a much more expansive sonic landscape. Natasha is a piece of extremely careful composition. Not that Terrifyers brick-in-a-dryer compositional style wasn’t careful. Natasha just seems so much more…deliberate. It is one migraine-nightmare slowly fading into the next. It begins with horror movie ambient noise gradually growing in intensity, before indistinct whispering begins at 4:26. Instrumentals begin at 5:16 so loudly and abruptly that I jumped, and then looked around to see if any one saw. What follows is a segment of sludgy doom metal: brutal downstrokes broken up by dark humming vistas of feedback. Discernible vocals don’t begin until minute 8:00, but rather than being screamed (JR Hayes style), they are sort of spoken. Sing-song like. Screaming doesn’t begin in earnest until minute 10, but the tempo remains dirge-like. This transitions back to ambient nightmare, which fades into a dreamy, sweet arpeggiated guitar. The vocals are soft and drift in and out of tune in a way that is really hard to do, and also unimaginably creepy. This fades into the sound of trickling water from which emerges the buzz of guitar, slowly growing into a tuneful but dark reprisal which becomes less and less tuneful as it winds downward. The song fragments into the sounds of wind, tortured but distant shrieks, and eventually water—a trickle, then a stream, which grows in volume until you here the waves breaking on the shore. Then silence.

*Like anyone who was into really good music in the 80s and 90s.

**Or to not avoid it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aRu_3WvE6c

Album Cover Image by fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1813753

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89. Nightwish, “Once” (2004)

The importance of expertise, professional judgement, and knowledge has never been more evident; yet many of us celebrate wrongness, stupidity, and a stubborn refusal to face facts as what…bravery? Heroism? Or my favorite: common sense. I’ve always thought that I was on the side of the former. Not all opinions are equal, and I’ll listen to a knowledgeable epidemiologist, before I give much weight to memes from your uncle Libertario, with his PhD from the school of hard knocks. I’m one of the reasonable ones. Right?

Wrong. I’m a hypocrite and a dumbass. This is the story of my hubris.

Within the first six seconds of the opening track “Dark Chest of Wonders”, I thought to myself, “crap…I have to listen to this whole thing”? This is a symphonic metal album, featuring loads of synth, emotive broadway musical-style vocals, and sweeping melodies. “This is music for a Vegas magic show, this is terrible, this is an hour long” I thought as I cast around for a task to keep my hands and eyes busy. The second track “I Wish I had an Angel”, a lament of lost love, made me cringe so hard that family members sought to intervene. I had to tune out. I began to let the music slip to the back of my mind, focusing on the tasks of the day. Tracks faded into tracks, and I fell out of time and mind. Then, slowly, like waking from a dream, I realized that I was……head banging.

That’s right. Scrubbing dishes, and slamming my chin into my chest. Squinting. The ultimate test of metal had been passed. Without my permission, and despite my craptastic attitude, this album wormed into my nervous system and good things happened. I had what Mr. Trapp would have called a *metanoia*.

This album is epic. Not in the 20-aughts slang way, but in that it is actually concerned with epic things, like crossing the river Styx, the Trail of Tears, elvenpaths, and some sort of enchantress. There is a choir. There is an orchestra. What’s wrong with that? If was good enough for Beethoven, who am I to resist? Me who plays dungeons and dragons, goes to the renaissance festival, every year, and gets paid to look at flowers. A nerd. Once my grotesque pretense had been betrayed by neckular spasms, I let myself get into it. It’s a fun fucking album, synth and all. “Dead Gardens” is a riot of straight 80s thrash riffing…beneath a full choir and orchestra….and—if I’m not mistaken— is the twinned Tolkiensian lament of Arwen and Luthien as their mortal loves age and die, leaving them alone in greyest memory. That might not sound like it could kick ass, but it does. Romanticide is the dumbest name for a song ever…and I’ll admit that it begins really slowly. By the end, its all Bathory, if Bathory wasn’t a single man*, but rather a rock band + an orchestra + a choir, and still alive.

In retrospect, should anyone be surprised? Nightwish is a Finnish band. Like, from Finland. For those of you who don’t know, the Finns have more metal bands per capita than any other nation on earth. They speak a decidedly non-Indoeuropean language, which is Metal AF**. They catch fish in cold seas. They are arbiters of what rocks.In Finland, Nightwish is the third Best Selling Musical Act Of All Time. 3BSMAOAT. They are ahead of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the Beatles. The Finns are experts in metal, and I’m just some n008 with an opinion that needs to learn. But I can learn. Thank you, Nightwish, for setting me straight.

*Quorthorn is not a corn-based meat substitute.

**Take a lesson Norway.

Cover By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25853556

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90. Body Count, ‘Body Count’ (1992)

In 1992, I was pissed off all the time, for no good reason. I went to a cushy, little (expensive) liberal arts college, where I could take all the classes I wanted from a competent and caring faculty. I had a lot of friends for the first time in my life. I worked a menial job, but for spending money. Cigarettes were $0.99, and gas was cheaper. A taco at taco bell cost $0.39. Rock music was never better. Yet. I gravitated toward anger…reveled in it. I lived in rage. No surprise I gravitated toward furious music, and especially the bands that had things to be angry about.

Everyone who was alive at the time will remember the controversy of IceT’s revenge fantasy “Cop Killer”. I don’t know how many people know how controversial that song still is. Spotify carries the “Body Count” album, but not that single, because popular opinion forced TimeWarner to reissue the album without that track. You can find “Cop Killer” on Spotify, but not Body Count’s version. Rather there is a cover of “Cop Killer” by Nagły Atak Spawacza, a Polish hip-hop outfit consisting of

*drumroll*

White dudes.

Of course I bought ‘Body Count’. Things in Los Angeles were jumping off in 1992. South Central LA in the late 80s and early 90s was a war-zone pitting the police against young black men**. Cops kicked the shit out of Rodney King on the news. Was killing cops the answer? I didn’t know. Did Body Count have a legitimate beef? Hell yes. The righteous anger of “Body Count”, “There Goes the Neighborhood”, “Bowels of the Devil”, and “The Winner Loses” were a magnet to me. Because I was a young man, and grief is an emotion that young men weren’t supposed to have, I couldn’t really identify with the sadness of these songs. On re-examination, and after coming to terms with the garbage that is masculinity, this album bleeds futility and nihilism. This is a sad album.

As I look back I can see that I was so occluded by the fog of masculinity that I forgot that there was another side to the album.

Ironically, as “Body Count” pointed an enraged finger at the oppressor, they also adopted the oppressor’s role. The album is rife with misogyny. How were we so repulsed by fantasized violence against cops, but not violence against women? This album includes the most ridiculously bad and unhinged song of any album on this list (I hope)—“Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight”. The song is about a young man violently murdering his racist mother. It’s fucked up, kind of gross, and I’d really rather never listen to it again. “Evil D**k” is about what IceT’s cock has been up to; it has a mind of its own, and he really isn’t accountable. “KKK B***h” is about revenge fucking the daughter of a KKK leader…she’s no more than a vessel for the rage. Most surprising, unlike “Cop Killer”, these songs are still available on Spotify***.

**This war isn’t over, btw, and has been pretty one-sided for some time now. Black Lives Matter.*

**I’m not advocating that these songs should be pulled, just that they are gross and we should all be ashamed of them.

Cover image by source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18756898

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91. Naked City, ‘Torture Garden’ (1990)

Here are some experiences I’ve had in the last 3 months.

1. I watched my neighbor’s house burn.

2. In attempting to fix a tail-light on my car, I ended up doing enough damage to it to require $600 in repairs.

3. I moved out of a store aisle because a single person on the other end of it was coughing.

4. I refused to get my car inspected because that would require a stranger to sit in it.

5. I set up an office in my garage, and have befriended a big old black widow who lives above the garage door.

6. I’ve begun considering my mortality in a less fun and detached way than I used to.

7. I stopped leaving the house without wearing a mask fashioned from a t-shirt.

8. I started listening to every one of the Rolling Stone’s top 100 metal albums.

9. In performing #8, I listened to Naked Cities, “Torture Garden”

#9 was the weirdest of these experiences.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that this is not available on Spotify, but has been viewed on YouTube 83,000 times. This is an uninterrupted, highly coordinated wall of lunacy lasting exactly 25 minutes and 45 seconds. To call it experimental is really an understatement. To the uninitiated, it may seem like random snippets of conventional music interspersed among outbursts of screaming jazz saxophone and fits of Japanese noise rock (think Melt Banana and the Boredoms). I’m uninitiated, I guess, because that’s what it seems like to me.

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92. Eyehategod, ‘Take as Needed for Pain’ (1993)

n the process of reviewing the Rolling Stone Top 100 Metal Albums, I fully expected the following two things to happen:

1. I would run across an album that I prejudged as not being worth my time, and find (to my delight) that I was wrong.

2. I would listen to an album that sounded great, but had a repugnant message.

I didn’t expect both things to happen on the same album.

Number 2 is a big pitfall to being a fan of metal for a few reasons. First, metal is a genre that is often intentionally transgressive. Metal is supposed to be challenging to the ear. Musically, this results in all kinds of things that I love: odd time signatures, impossible tempos, unbearable discordance, and harsh vocals. Thematically, it results in some things I love (gritty realism, nihilism*), and some things I could take or leave (infatuation with horror-movie tropes, satanism). I can ignore a lot of this kind of stuff, because generally, the vocals are so gnarly that lyrics are impenetrable. Then there are some themes that get a hard pass from me: misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence, and racism/national socialism/fascism. Bands that dwell on these kinds of transgressive themes are doing it for the shock value, which is a tedious behavior of edgelord types. Goodness knows that metal is up to its bullet belt in Chuck Palahniuk wannabes. Are these guys trolling away about horrific shit because they want to get a rise out of the listener? Or are they genuine in their misanthropy? You can’t really know, can you? That’s a problem.

Point 1: I did not expect to like this album, and I totally liked it.

For some reason I had formed the impression that this was a nü metal album. The band name is stüpid, and the name of the album is also kind of stüpid. I don’t know. It was an error in judgement. I decided to review it while moving compost from my driveway to the raised bed in my back yard. I couldn’t have chosen a better album for the task; this record is HEAVY, plodding, and seemingly endless. It begins with a gutpunch wail over some very rough hardcore riffage on the song “Blank”. I was hooked in the first 12 seconds. This album is mixed to sound like it was recorded in a garage. The drums sound like they did on 70s records before reverb and noise gates sterilized them: heavy, thumpy, with the kick bleeding into the snare. The guitars are overdriven and the bass is sludgy. The sound is early Sabbath if crack had been widely available in the early 70s, rather than its more expensive older brother, shneef. Having grown up listening to hardcore, I was really comfortable with the vocal style…angry, yelled more than sung. I was also unable to understand much of what the singer was singing. This album is very riff driven, with little in the way of lead guitar. The riffs are grand and for want of a better word, bluesy. Lots of pentatonic usage. Riffs vary from swinging southern gothic dirges, to grinding, sluggish chugging…so unhurried that it at times seems like the tempo fluctuates drunkenly mid-chunk…but such tempo would be nearly impossible to do in the era of the click-track, and especially with such coordination. Not to say that there aren’t lots of drastic tempo changes among song segments which are easier to pull off…there are, and they are dope. My only complaint is that the songs are so similar to each other, the record becomes monotonous after about 30 minutes. Nonetheless, at the end of the first listen, I thought I’d like to put a few of these songs on a mix. So which ones?

Point 2: What the fuck? After finishing my work, I wanted to give it a second listen, but this time with access to the song titles and lyrics. And that’s when things turned gross. A glimpse of some of the song titles (which I won’t put here) was enough to make me feel icky. The lyrics are maybe intentionally incoherent (a common edgelord strategy); this way, if someone were to wag a finger, they could explain it away as part of their dark sense of humor, or even more commonly, a people’s revolt against the politically correct sjws that can’t handle real metal. I guess that’s their right. I was tempted to look online to see how the band defended itself from accusations of racism and misogyny. But then I was like—why? What defense was going to be good enough? Hard pass.

*Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism…

Cover Image By Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4105166

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93. White Zombie, ‘La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One’ (1992)

In Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band are defeated in a talent contest by the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. The Jug Band represents wholesomeness, honest work, and the simplicity of a country life. The Riverbottom Nightmare band represent excess, confidence, and aggression. The Jug Band plays old timey jug band stuff. The Riverbottom Nightmare band plays hard rock. Or they are supposed to. I guess I may have seen this for the first time at about five years old. I wasn’t especially skeptical, but at the same time I had heard KISS and Alice Cooper (the latter on the Muppet Show of all places). Even at that tender age, I knew that Riverbottom Nightmare Band was bullshit…they didn’t play hard rock, but some shitty puppet facsimile of hard rock for kids. I was not amused.

I can’t pretend that the Rolling Stone 100 Best Metal Albums exist outside of any context in my own life. I’ve heard many of these records and the truth be told, I have FEELINGS for some of them. Yet, I was not looking forward to listening to this album. I didn’t like it when it came out. I don’t like it now. The next band (and their most hyped album) are to metal what The Nightmare Riverbottom Band was to hard rock.

White Zombie was manufactured by Rob Zombie to give him an outlet to be edgy. In 1992, he was as weak-sauce an edgelord as ever espoused libertarianism. The B-horror movie homage had already been mastered by the very sincere, if a-bat-short-of-a-picnic, Glen Danzig. Say what you will about Glen’s musical stylings; he believed in his music. ‘La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One’ was also far from original sounding. Rick Ruben had managed to invent southern Goth rock with Danzig’s first solo album. The riffs on La Sexorcisto often follow that formula and otherwise largely yoinked from other bands—albeit mostly pretty good bands. The constant sampling from horror movies/religious performances was also old hat—this album is Ministry Lite, borrowing quite heavily from Al Jorgensen’s look and sound, but without the menace. Even the title is just cringingly edgelordly.

That’s not to say that the band Rob Zombie put together wasn’t good at creating a facsimile of sincere, boots-on-the-ground heavy metal. The opening of “I am Legend” is actually pretty creative, and veers from the pentatonic model that this album otherwise clings to like a shot at an appearance on Jerry Springer. As I forced myself to listen to every second of every song this morning, I found that there were moments that were genuinely groovy…”Soul Crusher” has some “Master of Puppets” era riffage on it that I could dig. But as soon as I would think, “This is OK”, the same thing would ruin it. That thing is Rob Zombie.

By far the worst thing about White Zombie is Rob Zombie. There. I said it. Rob Zombie is a shitty vocalist, and has no ability to modulate either pitch or volume. His monotonic grunts are only ever broken up by the flatted third, which is always the same word, “yeah”. Gargle gargle gargle gargle gargle gargle, YEAH!

No, Mr. Zombie. Please. No more.

If RZ sings “yeah” once on this album, he does it once a second. My friends and I once tried to play a game in which each person had to do a shot of beer every time someone said “fuck” in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross. You can’t really pour them fast enough, you make a mess, and its better just to enjoy the goddamned film without the silly games. By the end of the album, I wish I had been taking a shot of drano every time Zombie sings “yeah”. White Zombie was a manufactured, NY-straight to the arena type band that was made to make people think they were into metal, without having to be. Somebody put sunglasses on a muppet.

Although FWIW, I think Zombie’s horror movies are dope.

Cover By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1778219

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95. Dream Theater, ‘Images and Words’ (1992).

About 17 years ago, I was in a band with two of the best musicians I have ever known. We were a three-piece, with my brother William on bass guitar, and Kris Games on drums. To this day, with my own meager chops I don’t know how on earth I was allowed to play guitar with these two genuises. One weekend we had a show in Pittsburgh. William (my usual ride) had been in Baltimore and was going to meet us at the venue. So I rode with Kris Games, because I did not have wheels of my own.

Games and I had very different lives; he was a father, a successful business owner, and had a ride. I was nearly finished with graduate school, couldn’t afford to pay attention much less raise a child, and did not have a ride. He was into all kinds of music that was foreign to me—I knew that some of it was jazz, which is to me still a murky, undiscovered country. I was into punk rock and hardcore at the time, and not really much else. We had been in bands together at this point for maybe six years, and saw each at least once a week. Up until that point I don’t know that we ever talked about anything other than the music we wrote together. That wasn’t a bad thing because we both cared a lot about our music. But I was about to take a three-hour ride with a musician for whom I had (and still have) the utmost respect*, but didn’t otherwise know that well.

I was excited to get to know him better. Anyway, as we left my home in his packed-to-the-ceiling Mistubishi, he popped in a CD of a band I had never heard before—Dream Theater. I had listened to plenty of thrash metal, but this album was something different. It was more intricate…there was a level of sophistication to the music that did very little to undermine its grim and aggressive tone. It was heavy and dark, but also complex and seething. I remember really enjoying the album. We mostly talked about music on that trip, anyway. The lesson is that shared love of music is a fine thing to build a friendship on.

I was excited to reach this album on the Rolling Stones top 100 list because of that trip. I hadn’t thought much about Dream Theater since then, but I had good memories of listening to the drums which were from outer space, much like they were in my band. As it turns out, this album wasn’t the album we listened to one fall evening on I-70 East. That album likely was 2003’s “Train of Thought”. The album on Rolling Stone’s list is completely different, and not in a wonderful and refreshing way.

This album provided the music for every montage in every Jean Claude Van Damme movie ever. Its all on there…all of the training montages, the love scene with journalist Janice Kent, the montage where VD** wanders about Bangkok, unsure of himself and heartbroken over his paralyzed brother, the montage of the forbidden love between Erik and Mylee the niece of the Muay Thai master Xian Chow. Etcetera. If music has a smell, this album is Drakkar Noire. If lip herp had a soundtrack, it would be “Images and Words”.

But this album is so much more than VD and man-smell. Between greasy conventional arena-style anthems, there are long segments of extensive and highly coordinated noodling. The album is peppered with fragmented albeit spacey melodies, outlandish harmonies, and abrupt tempo and time signature changes. These segments aren’t tonally or rhythmically coherent enough to be anthemic, and as random as they may sound, are so carefully coordinated that they cannot be in the least bit random. But rather than inspiring head-banging, they tend to leave one feeling confused and drained, the way one feels when they are searching a desktop for some item, and realize that they have forgotten what they are searching for.

Why is this on a best *metal* album list, I wondered? Every once-in-a-while, the tone becomes menacing, hinting at brutality to come. Portions of “Metropolis Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper” and “Under a Glass Moon” are jagged and brooding, indicating in no uncertain terms that asskicking is about to start. But it doesn’t start. Instead, the spirit of metal gets distracted by sometheing shiny offstage, and the band get back to what they clearly love best– earnestly playing who-knows-what for who-knows-what-reason. And there is a metric shit-ton of cheesie synth, and one extended soprano sax solo…something that metal heads are known to relish.

That isn’t to say that the core of the band (bass/drums/guitar) don’t exhibit a fuckton of virtuosity, because that is what I believe the noodle sections were created to show the listener. This band practices its ass off. The drummer must be lowered into his kit from two stories up. There are 14 strings on the bass. The guitarist never uses a chord that isn’t followed by an academic degree (sus4, dim/maj#7, etc.), and he knows what these degrees mean. Is virtuosity cool on its own? Of course. I used to dig the kind of weird shit Games and Will would pull out of their asses; impossible inversions, uncounted stops, and bizarre-ass fills. Did Will and Games ever allow virtuosity to interfere with a song? Nope. Did I enjoy listening to this album? I did not. But I may give that other Dream Theater album a listen when I’m done.

*He has all of the skills of a great drummer; quick hands and feet, fantastic sense of tempo and rhythm, and both dynamic and stylistic range. Beyond that, he has a great ear; he listens and adapts to changes that come as a song develops. He was never a beat keeper, but a writer—involved completely with song structure and mood. He also could sing harmony, something I didn’t know for the first…IDK…4 years that we worked together.

**A revelation

Cover image by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14120325

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96. Kvelertak, ‘Meir’ (2013)

Had I been alive in 1969, I would have been a follower of bands like MC5 and the Stooges. The took something that was already good (Hendrix/Who era rock’n’roll) and added some energy to it. They played music that was a little faster, a little harder, a bit wilder, and way sweatier. I do my best to avoid describing albums by comparing them to other albums. Here, the comparison is going to happen, because this album is clearly the product of many influences, that ignoring as much would be a strain. The way that this album layers the influences is really unique, and the their sound is unmistakably unique.

This is an album that I never heard of, by a band that I never heard of, and so I decided to listen with fresh ears, having done any research at all. It is very hard for me to not google shit, so after my 4th listen straight through this album, I was relieved to be reunited with the world of information. I had so many questions. Kvelertak means “Stranglehold”, and Meir means “More”, both apt names, because this album is like a brawl in a bouncy house, BUT WITH MORE STRANGLING. The songs are energetic and jarring, but often really melodic also. Some of the solos sound like they were written and performed by Brian May (listen to Bruane Brenn for one of those). On other hand, these guys are Norwegian, and have bought into the legacy of brutality. Erlend Hjelvik, the vocalist at the time of recording, can scream like Nocturno, but is also capable of roaring like Ken Casey, or shrieking in the style of Quorthorn. What you won’t hear on this album is a note uttered in anything less than full paroxysm of vein-stressing rage. The hit on this album IMHO is track 9, “Undertro*” which somehow manages to include some really dark metal chuggery, broken up by those tight little discordances favored by bands like Mayhem. Then about 3 minutes in, they leave the blacker modes behind and rewrite the riff-motif in a pentatonic, turning the end of the song into an AC/DC-like anthem. Anyway, this whole album is going onto my fave metal mix.

*If this means anything, the internet doesn’t know.

Cover Image by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38399652

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97. Gojira, ‘From Mars to Sirius’ (2005)

I’m familiar with the next album, but have only listened to it in bits and pieces. On mixes and whatnot. This album is like Dark Side of the Moon or Graceland. You have to swallow it whole. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for days, trying to make up my mind about what I want to say about it. It shouldn’t be hard because I enjoy it, but its also taken me down a little bit of a rabbit hole. I’m going to try not to refer to songs, but review the album as a whole.

This album is CLEARLY inspired by the power of nature. So am I. I dig the natural world hardcore. I’ve been drawn to other such music. In metal, I’m thinking primarily of TNBM. Corpse painted leather-and-nail, bullet-belt-bound weirdos raised in the boreal forests of Scandinavia have a very different view of the natural world than I do. For them nature is bleak, cold, and hungry. Their music (when performed expertly) reflects this narrow view.

Here’s a rabbit hole. Discordance is a part of all metal…think of the first three notes on the first metal song ever recorded*— tonic, octave, tritone. The use of tritone on its own isn’t always so off-putting. The opening sequence of The Simpsons theme song or West Side Story’s “Maria” use the tritone between the tonic and the fifth, and it provides tension with immediate resolution. However, ending on the tritone, and letting that fucker squeal and ring, creates a sense of foreboding. Its malignant. That’s largely how melody works in metal.

TNBM bands, as much as any, include engineered discordance to create an atmosphere of darkness (or maybe grimness is what I’m after). Getting back to my point, though, their narrow view of the natural world results in really narrow intervals; tight little chords with tons of discordance packed within the space of an octave. And I contrast this with “From Mars to Sirus” because quantitatively, Gojira is using all of the discordance that TNBM bands use, but arranging it over very large intervals (first to ninth is a predominant theme on this album), and this reflects an expansive interpretation of the natural world. The world of Gojira isn’t “The Mist by the Hills” but the oceans of the world, the entire sky, and event horizons. More than most extreme metal albums, the low end is super-present in the mix, and provides a stillness—like that of the deep ocean or the vast sky—, that serves as the backdrop of the tempest of the high end. For sure this album has lots of tempest: thunderous guitar chuggery with diving pinch-harmonic lightning, heaving riffs, and some really busy kickwork. In the end, it’s the use of expansive discordant intervals that really sells this album, for me anyway. Though I haven’t been through the entire list, I think Rolling Stone has well under-ranked this album. I would put it in my top 20. Maybe higher. I probably need to listen to it 6-12 more times before my mind is made up.

Also, there are whale songs. Also, the band is French.

* “Black Sabbath” on Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath.

Album cover image by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540471

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98. Sunn O))), ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’ (2009)

There are people who can lie on their backs and watch clouds all day long. There are also people who appreciate the sound of a humming guitar. I’m both, and I love the next album.

I would be surprised if there were a more experimental album on this list*. Sun O))) is more of a project than a band, consisting of two core members, but bringing in other musicians for shows and recordings. Some notable things about “Monoliths and Dimensions”:

  • This album credits 33 musicians other than core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson.
  • It consists of only 4 songs but clocks in at almost 54 minutes.
  • It is almost entirely devoid of percussion, and what percussion it has is not anything you’d call beat-keeping.

As with Evanescence’s “Fallen”, this is also not what I’ve come to expect from metal, but for different reasons. This album reminds me so much more of the work of John Cage, Ben Johnston, or Frank Zappa than it does of Metallica, Obituary, or Venom. It is really fucking out there. Each song includes sort of a basso continuo: a heavily distorted guitar and bass combo playing a slow**, droning, (seemingly) formless, series of ringing notes. I say (seemingly) because over time, these notes coalesce into slow, drifting patterns, like clouds over a the moon at night.

Fittingly, the first track (Aghartha) is a dark mediation on just that —clouds from what I can catch—its not unlike hearing Debussy’s Nocturne, after having been kicked in the junk 30 times and left to die alone. This basso continuo lasts for a little more than 6 minutes before the deep, croaking distinctly Hungarian voice of Atilla Csihar offers the narrative. Slowly the guitar and bass are replaced by screeching strings, brought up so slowly in the mix that the transition isn’t easily detectable. Other instruments fade in an out as well, including piano, some very light percussion, horns, ending with what sounds like the buzzing of flies on a corpse and the tinkle of water. Big Church is a slow, terrifying walk to the executioner. It features choral elements – the voices of women arranged in a series of incredibly tense chords, over some sort of medieval chant, breaks with church bells, and always the slow churn of heavily distorted guitar and bass. Hunting and gathering again features Attila Csihar subterranean rasp, a full chorus used only intermittently, and a horn section pounding dark chords like Vincent Price’s favorite pipe organist. My favorite track is Alice. Over its 16 minute span, dicordant guitars and horns (and eventually scattered woodwinds) eventually find an understanding. In that understanding the only prettiness on the album emerges in slow revelation. The discordance isn’t so much replaced by concordance but becomes it by imperceptible degrees of change. It isn’t unlike sculpture, the form becoming discernible only after all the little unnecessary pieces are knocked away.

*I will be completely surprised by Naked City’s ‘Torture Garden’

**The author tried his best to limit his use of the word “slow” and its variants. Still, look.

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99. Evanescence, ‘Fallen’ (2003)

OK. So I’m only on the second album on the Rolling Stone’s best 100 metal albums of all time, and I kind of don’t know what to do with it. It raises a question that is not uncomfortable, but boring: who thought this was metal? On one hand, I’ve had enough discussions of semantics to realize how unimportant such discussions really are. On the other hand, I wouldn’t voluntarily listen to Rolling Stone’s 100 best jazz albums of all time, or Whatever Magazine of Country Music’s 100 best country albums of all time. That’s not a rip on jazz or country as music–I don’t have the ear for them, and wouldn’t have fun listening. Nonetheless, I can’t just ignore the fact that few metal heads consider all albums on the list as representative. “This ain’t metal” is hardly an interesting criticism of a band, but more a “wtf” directed at Rolling Stone. Anyway.

This album is definitely dipping a little toe into mainstream metal, being rife with guitar chuggery, and even what I would defend as a bona-fide riff on “Whisper”. Far more notable than the metal content of the album is that it features a lead singer who is in fact a woman*. I don’t know how many other albums on this list feature a woman lead singer, and so I have to give it a thumbs up for that. The vocal melodies are consistently clean, strong, and do not budge from anthemic minor key goth threnody. The second track, “Bring Me to Life” features a male vocalist, who intersperses her melodies with rap-style ejaculations–fucking awful. I steeled myself against the possibility that this would continue through the album, but mercifully, such interjections are well enough dispersed to be bearable. There are two things that will prevent me from listening to this album again. First, I would have liked a little more variation. The songs all sound pretty much the same, they range in tempo from slowish to slow, each features a segment of introspective melody/synth accompaniment, framed by turgid djenting, and always a four-chord minor chorus that tends to soar a bit on the vocal side. Second, the songs are concerned with lyrical themes relevant to young adults that I just don’t give a crap about because I’m old. Teen drama has a place in this world, but not on my spotify play lists.So hows that for a pretty tortured review?

*Metal tends to be pretty dude dominated, which is unfortunate. I’m going to try to keep this in mind, as misogyny isn’t unknown in these circles. Or any circles, really.

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100. Avenged Sevenfold, ‘City of Evil’ (2005)

This is a band that I’ve seen around, but had never given the time of day to. I’m not sure how I feel about this album. On one side, this is clearly a band with chops. The songs remind me of SWBHM* with a strong pop-punk influence. That might just be the vocals. The song structures are unconventional, but the tunes are utterly orthodox. Which isn’t to say they don’t mix it up pretty well, making expert use of many metal tropes. High points include the pretty acoustic part at the end of “Sidewinder” and the strange (and I think out of place) segue from the orchestral break in “The Wicked End”. Often, the downside of clean vocals in metal is is that you can hear the lyrics. I know a lot of people really enjoy the kind of introspective lyrics on songs like “Betrayed”, but they leave me clammy (that’s the pop-punk influence). If the music sounds badass, the lyrics probably should too. “Sometimes I cry thinking my future looks so bleak”? Not my cup of tea in the end.

*Second Wave British Heavy Metal

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