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.

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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