Thursday, March 31, 2011

SubRosa: No Help for the Mighty Ones (2011)

Heavy Week, Part 5


Profound Lore never fails to find the most unique and interesting bands out there, often from places you'd never think to look. SubRosa is one of those. Hailing from Salt Lake City, of all places, they are an avant-garde sludge/doom outfit, the preponderance of whom are female. The men provide the rhythm section, but three women provide guitars, vocals, and violin. Yeah, violin.

And oh, does it work.

No Help for the Mighty OnesThe male rhythm section provides a strong backbone. The drums are extremely understated, with only occasional fills. But as any doom afficianado knows, slow drumming can be tougher than fast, and at slower paces keeping time is even more important. There can be no complaints about this performance. The bass is fuzzy and consistently heavy throughout the album, and is perhaps the only instrument to never go silent (except on "House Carpenter", but I'll get to that later). The guitars mostly act as part of the rhythm section as well, occasionally getting psychedelic but usually acting in tandem with the bass to lay down slow, heavy, trance-inducing riffs.

What really sets SubRosa apart are the violins and vocals. Violinist has taken on the role lead guitarist, evoking a variety of feels ranging from the psychedelic, to the mournful, to the dangerous. The vocals remind me of 60's folk music. They're not particularly skillful in any traditional understanding, but singing on key at all times would be a detriment. These vocals have soul like you wouldn't believe, something not often heard in women's vocals for the last half a century. In a few angrier sections (on "Beneath the Crown", for example) there are also some growls used as backing vocals.

Now, having a unique sound is only part of the equation. You also have to have the compositional skills. But SubRosa have that in spades, starting the album strong and ending it even stronger. Many of the melodies are interesting and memorable, their memorability enhanced by the imperfect vocals. And even though the style is consistent throughout the album, each track has its own identity and feel. Plus, they throw in a curveball with the a capella "House Carpenter" (a traditional English folk song). And the album wouldn't feel complete without it, either. Any cut could have been singled out as a highlight of the album, but "Whippoorwill" is especially haunting.

The Verdict: Like cult favorites Acid Bath, SubRosa is that rare kind of unique, compelling band where absolutely everything clicks exactly the way it should, and yet nobody could ever copy it. And No Help for the Mighty Ones is a perfect statement. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Wormrot for Free

If you haven't already heard, you can download the new, upcoming Wormrot album absolutely free and legal straight from Earache by going here. Apparently the album leaked, so they decided to just give it away. Smart move, I think, considering how far we are from the release date.

I just added it to my iTunes at the same time I added Esoteric's The Maniacal Vale. The difference between grindcore and funeral doom is . . . well, they're more different than they are similar. The one, 25 tracks adding up to 18 minutes, or about 43 seconds per song. The other, 7 tracks adding up to 101 minutes (on two discs), or about 14:25 per song. I think I'll listen to them consecutively.

Northless: Clandestine Abuse (2011)

Heavy Week, Part 4


Northless is a sludge metal band from Milwaukee whose first full-length Clandestine Abuse caught my attention when it premiered on Invisible Oranges. For those of you who think Remission was Mastodon's finest hour, take notice.

It's been a while since I've name-dropped Mastodon this extensively, but after listening to this album you'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint what, exactly, distinguishes Northless from Mastodon's early material. That is, before the latter got proggy and started using clean vocals. Both are mostly mid-paced, very heavy sludge metal, with a fair amount of dissonance in the guitar leads and hardcore shouted vocals. Northless doesn't speed up quite as often (though they do on the last couple tracks), they tend not to let up on the heaviness, and there are no solos to speak of. Those are really the only differences, and they're not much.

Well, that, and the songwriting isn't as strong. The riffs aren't as good, the leads aren't as interesting, and they don't mix things up in the pacing or atmosphere departments as much. But the music is still strong--by aping the style of such an amazing album, they're inviting a lot of negative comments, but the music is still interesting. And other than "Not Made for Existence" dragging on a bit in the middle, there are no missteps. Plus, the clean vocals that do appear on closer "The Storm" are a nice touch, without the nasally quality of the legendary Georgians.

The Verdict: Northless isn't particularly original, but they're dedicated to a sound that was mostly abandoned by the best band doing it. They're filling a void a lot of people want filled. On the other hand, there are a lot of other bands trying to fill that void (Bison B.C. and Howl are two other obvious contenders). I'm not sure we really need this. I like it anyway, though, so I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Enoch: The Hierophant (2011)

Heavy Week, Part 3


North Carolina's Enoch is a stoner sludge/doom band with an absolutely perfect name. Enoch was only briefly mentioned in the Old Testament, but he is the only person said to have "walked with God", and was one of only a few people to be taken bodily into heaven while still alive (I think Elijah and Jesus were the only others). So you can see why it's a good analogy for a stoner doom band. Do I need to spell it out for you?

The Hierophant is the band's first full-length album. Like Japanese dualists Boris, they have two sides to them. One has a laid-back, mellow, and jazzy feel. The drumming and guitar leads tend toward jazz, while the bass and rhythm guitar parts tend toward Sleep-style heaviness. Vocals are sparsely used, and where they are, the lyrics are simple and repetitive. Opener "Infinity" is the best example of the band's stoner doom side.

The other side of Enoch sounds like Boris, actually. The excellent, rocking, upbeat sludge of Pink, to be precise. "The Fickle Whims of the Almighty" is the best example of this side to Enoch.

The album starts out very strong on those two songs and a couple more. "Space Wizard" is mellow and heavy, and instrumental "Plague Bearer" has a bit punchier doom sound (after a couple minutes of ambient wind-like noise). The nearly 17 minute title track starts out with an ominous doom song, then fades out, and goes into a 10 minute plus psychedelic jam session. This kind of derails the album, going on aimlessly for so long, and follow-up "Moth", while an actual song, doesn't have any leads to speak of. "Robbie's Song" picks things up again with more Pink, and "A Riff Too Far" keeps that going before another, somewhat better jam session closes things out.

The Verdict: The Hierophant starts out very strong, with a compelling two-sided sound that meshes well and keeps things interesting. It wanders near the middle of the album, but finishes strong again. All in all, I found it to be a great listen, so I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Weedeater: Jason . . . the Dragon (2011)

Heavy Week, Part 2


In case you don't already know, or can't tell by the name, North Carolina's Weedeater is a stoner doom band. Jason . . . the Dragon is their fourth full-length, with a not terribly clever (or subtle) name that lends itself to some pretty cool album art. It's my first experience with this band, but they come highly recommended (no pun intended).

Jason the DragonLike other stoner doom bands, Weedeater employ an ultra-fuzzy, heavy sound to create slow grooves. It's not as heavy as Electric Wizard, and despite the spoken-word intro (a vague, ominous prophecy), and rasped vocals that sound closer to black metal than most stoner metal, it doesn't have the dark vibe of that group. Instead, it's very southern, evoking a kind of "bad acid trip blues" feel. The southern feel is enhanced by two banjo tracks and a hidden piano track.

The album differs from most stoner doom in that it's barely over a half hour, and the track lengths tend toward 3 minutes instead of 10+. If you combine that with the fact the first five tracks are presented as one continuous song (connected by amp noise), and two songs have previously appeared elsewhere ("Turkey Warlock" and "Long Gone"), it feels more like an EP than a full-length. But it has enough highlights to warrant more than a few listens, with the title track, "Long Gone", and the more upbeat "Mancoon" all standing out.

On the downside, solos are few and far between, and the album is so short (for this style of music) it leaves you wanting more. But I suppose that's much better than draggin' on too long, isn't it? (Pun intended.)

The Verdict: Jason is an enjoyable listen, from a band with a distinct style. You can't go wrong with that, even if it is shorter than I'd like. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Is Heavy?

Heavy Week, Part 1

What Makes Music "Heavy" Might Not Be As Obvious As You Think. But There Is a Right Answer.

I think the word "heavy" first took on figurative meanings with the beatniks of the 50's, who used it to mean something along the lines of "profoundly intense and sobering". Today it means a lot more, and the Urban Dictionary entry gives it many meanings, from "good" to "carrying a firearm". But of the top definitions there, the only one really relating to music says it means "hardcore, brutal, [or] raw" and gives the example "Whitechapel is heavy." While I'm not going to dispute that Whitechapel is, indeed, heavy, the definition is way off base.

Like one member of Swans in their relatively recent Decibel interview, you might be wondering what the point of heaviness is. He thought it more important to evoke an emotional response, similar to the beatnik definition of "heavy". Maybe, sometimes. But there is nothing as satisfyingly visceral as a truly heavy song.

I used to assume everyone interested in heavy music knew what the word "heavy" means. But I first realized how little common agreement there is on the meaning of this term when reading an article in Metal Hammer.* A guy from Architects, asked how he got interested in heavy music, said, "The shouting in [Linkin Park's] "One Step Closer" was the heaviest thing I'd ever heard." This confused the hell out of me, because I can't understand (a) how vocals can ever be heavy (unless you're Chris Barnes) and, (b) even if they were, how trebly vocals like Chester Bennington's could be heavy.

*My wife wanted to give me a gift, and got a subscription to it because she remembered me saying I like a British heavy metal magazine. We corrected the situation and I got my Terrorizer instead, but not until I had gotten a few issues.

Linkin Park: Not particularly heavy. The vocals: not heavy at all. Watch this at your own peril.

So what is heavy? It can't really be scientifically defined, but to paraphrase Justice Stewart, I know it when I hear it. It's definitely got a lot to do with bass, but that isn't the whole story. (Rap beats are not heavy.) It also has a lot to do with tone, and an indefinable presence. But talking about it in specifics like this isn't going to get us all the way to understanding. We'll need to take a look at specific examples. Metallattorney once mused that Gojira's "From the Sky" could be the heaviest song ever.

That is definitely heavy. It has a lot of low end, and it keeps hammering on that. But I think we can do even better than that. The tone and presence aren't quite there, and we should be aware that heaviness is enhanced by playing slow, not fast. That allows it to sink deeper. Sure, you can find heaviness even in black metal (see Immortal), but you're going to find it more in doom and sludge. We need to be careful not to confuse heaviness with brutality. So, another song that has been called the heaviest ever, by many people, is Black Sabbath's "Into the Void". About the 1:30 mark is where it gets real heavy, but another heavy one starts around 3:00, and another around 5:00.

Again, we're part of the way there. Of course this was hampered by the recording technology of the time, but it's got a great tempo that lets the low-end rattle your bowels if you turn it up loud enough. But I think the heaviest band on the planet could be Electric Wizard.

If you can't wait, skip forward to about 1:30, or the 5:00 mark for another crushingly heavy riff. This has it all. If you ever want to know how heavy a song is, this is your yardstick. To quantify heaviness, just measure it as a ratio to EW. Gojira hovers around 0.8 EW, while a couple of funeral doom bands (Ahab and Evoken come to mind) might even exceed 1 EW.

The rest of this week, I'll be taking a look at some metal of the extremely heavy variety.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Orchid: Capricorn (2011)


Retro metal is turning out to be a pretty big fad right now. There are quite a few bands aping the more embarrassing side of 80's metal, in image as well as sound, and I can't figure out why anyone would want to do that. Thankfully, the Blue Öyster Cult-influenced Ghost is only the most visible member of a 70's revival. San Francisco's Orchid is another.

CapricornAs you might guess from their name, Orchid is influenced by Black Sabbath. Actually, "influenced by" is probably the wrong way to put it. This is unabashed (original 1970-1978) Sabbath worship in every respect, from their name ("Orchid / Lord of this World", in case you missed that), to their psychedelic band logo, to their promo photographs, to every single aspect of their sound and dark/occult lyrical content. Vocals, guitar tones, bass, drums, every part of it sounds like the bluesy, psychedelic metal of Sabbath. And like the progenitors of heavy metal, Orchid writes some catchy songs.

Again, maybe "writes catchy songs" is the wrong way to put it. More accurately, they offer up alternate versions of Sabbath classics. "Black Funeral" is "Hand of Doom", "Down into the Earth" is "Into the Void", and "Albatross" is "Planet Caravan", to cite only a few examples.

That might not be such a bad thing. After all, even Black Sabbath dropped the Black Sabbath sound more than 30 years ago, so anyone else should feel free to pick it up again. And if you're going to carbon copy a band, I can't imagine a better one. On the other hand, doing something different with it wouldn't have hurt them a bit. The old-school production isn't as heavy as I'd like, and it's a tad quiet, and there would have been no harm in bringing some kind of modern musical flavor to the proceedings at some point. Orchid also seems to take a narrow view of what Sabbath was all about--even though they take some cues from not-so-classic tracks like "Who Are You?" (see "Electric Father"), their pace is always a doom pace. Sabbath played a lot of fast songs, too, or did we forget "Paranoid"? I was also a little disappointed to find "Black Funeral" wasn't a Mercyful Fate cover (hearing Sabbath covering Fate, even if it's not the real Sabbath, probably would have made me crap my pants).

The Verdict: Many of Orchid's songs are catchy (like the title track). But after listening to the album, I sometimes found the original Sabbath tunes stuck in my head, even though I hadn't listened to them in a few months. And then I just wanted to listen to Sabbath some more. You might want to do the same, and pass this one up. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Black Witchery: Inferno of Sacred Destruction (2010)


I bought Black Witchery's Inferno of Sacred Destruction by accident, after seeing it and thinking, "I know there was a band with 'witch' in their name with a new album I wanted to check out." Call it a happy accident.

Inferno of Sacred DestructionBlack Witchery is a Floridian band that's sometimes been called "war metal", an ill-defined tag that generally means thrashy, ugly, unrelentingly aggressive black metal. The tag is appropriate. Every track on here is fast and aggressive; the title track is the slowest one on here, but even it couldn't be considered mid-paced. And the music is definitely ugly. Think early Norwegian black metal heard coming up from a crypt, with all the echo and deeper register you'd expect from the depths of the tomb. The vocals are a deeper version of a black metal rasp, along with the occasional inhuman gurgle, and all the instruments play a whole lot of notes, real fast.

To go along with the evil sound, they've got the imagery and song titles (probably lyrics too, if you can discern them--I caught something about tearing an angel apart). They would probably be offensive if they weren't hilariously over the top. Highlights of the album like "Holocaustic Church Devastation" and "Barbarism Domination" are perfect examples of their Dethklok-esque sense of humor. And when you see their band picture on Metal Archives it becomes clear these guys have it down even better than the creators of that show.

To break up the aggression, they've wisely included some eerie ambient sections and "Sepulchral Witchcraft", which is little more than ambient. This leaves you with only 7 short songs, including a cover. Even including the intro and interludes, the total runtime is just over 22 minutes. And they call it a full-length, which to me seems like an outright lie. In my opinion, anything shorter than 30 minutes is an EP, regardless of the standards of the particular band or subgenre. But the length is a good thing, as I could see this becoming tiresome after much longer. It doesn't have a chance to get old. On the downside, there's only one solo (a freaky atonal one on the closing track). And they curiously end some of the tracks with a fadeout, something that seems out of place with these short, punchy songs.

The Verdict: This is an entertaining EP (by any other name), and I think these guys need to get hired to work on a spinoff to Metalocalypse. If you're looking for something completely evil-sounding and aggressive, but doesn't take itself too seriously, I would recommend it if you could get it at an EP price. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Women in Metal

A Man's Musings on the Status and Contributions of Women in Music's Most Extreme Genre

Women have been marginalized in metal for a long time. Much of the reason for that begins with society's ideas of femininity, and metal's decidedly masculine ideals. It was exacerbated in the 80's, with the sleaze rock that passed for metal at the time, which objectified women--and which has forever colored the mainstream conception of what metal is. Even today, metal bands without any talent will recruit a woman, dress her up like a slut, and use her as a cheap trick to get them undeserved attention. And it almost always works. Hell, I even went through a short phase of listening to a lot of Nightwish and Lacuna Coil myself.

Revolver and its annual "Hottest Chicks in Metal" is the flashpoint around which this issue is discussed, a fact recently lamented by The Black Girl into Heavy Metal. The very idea of it is offensive, and it sells a lot of magazines. So no one can really blame them for catering to the lowest common denominator.

But things aren't all bad. Even in the 80's Lita Ford got respect. Yes, she dressed sexy, but she also came off as strong. In the 90's, it seemed like White Zombie's Sean Yseult was the only metal chick who was taken seriously, and she dressed like a regular person. But things really turned around for the first time with Angela Gossow. Whatever you think about Arch Enemy's music (and in my opinion it's pretty mediocre), you have to admit two things. First, she dresses like a human being, and not an object. And second, she's gotten all her respect by being a talented vocalist, and a frontwoman whose made their live shows the subject of almost universal praise.

All of this is true, and yes, the more mainstream varieties of metal do objectify women. But here's what I think: It's not about women and metal at all. It's about women and music that caters to the mainstream.

At first blush, that may sound ridiculous. Metal isn't supposed to cater to the mainstream. But take a look through the pages of Decibel or Terrorizer, and you won't find women in lingerie or thigh-high boots, or with cleavage jumping out of their shirts. Look through Revolver and you will. Probably Metal Hammer, too. But Revolver and Metal Hammer are all about catering to the lowest common denominator. That's what mainstream music is all about. And all of mainstream music treats women this way, as Rolling Stone will prove quickly enough. Decibel and Terrorizer are decidedly not about catering to a mainstream audience, and that's the difference.The only notable exception to this rule is Sigh, but hey, it's Japan, so what are you going to do?

And the fact is that once you leave the mainstream side of metal, women are making nearly as much (if not just as much or more) great, innovative music as men are, and getting credit for it based on their musical prowess. That was recently noticed by even the lowest common denominator for real metal. The kind of women who want to make extreme music are different, and they bring a different perspective and different skill set (at least vocally) to the endeavor. A quick look at Profound Lore's roster confirms my theory: Salome, SubRosa, Ludicra, Grayceon, and Saros are all great bands fronted by women, and they're all making wonderfully unique metal while wearing street clothes. The reason they're on Profound Lore is because that label seeks out great bands that are unique, so I don't think it's any coincidence they have a lot of female-fronted bands.

I want to pick out Ludicra in particular for making (as I noted in my review) black metal that's decidedly feminine, but in a pure way that has nothing to do with society's ideas or with sex, but femininity in its Platonic ideal pure form. We could do with even more of this approach.

So yes, now I seek out metal made by women. And it has nothing to do with the way they look. It's because they do it differently. Keep up the good work, ladies.