Monday, January 31, 2011

Danzig: Blackacidevil (1996)

Motion for Reconsideration

Danzig 5 BlackacidevilDanzig's Blackacidevil was a huge departure for the man and the band, and by many it has been sharply criticized. But really, it doesn't deserve the bad reputation. And it certainly should never have been a big surprise change in direction.

Of course, Glenn Danzig started out as a formative influence on the punk world with the Misfits in the late 70's, and left that band to form his own punk band Samhain. These are still the only punk bands I listen to. It wasn't until 1987 that he got into metal. The first three albums from the band Danzig were stripped-down, simple heavy metal with a strong focus on Glenn as a powerful frontman. Yet each of these albums had its own character, and had forays into different styles (such as country). By the time of 4p, he was already experimenting with industrial elements (see "Cantspeak"). The band Danzig has always been about the man Danzig, and the man has always been about trying different things. In that sense, the fifth Danzig album should have been an entirely expected experiment.

And it's not bad, either. Throughout the album, industrial noises and rhythms seem to be the key, especially in the verses. The title track and "Power of Darkness" are really just noise without riffs, and they're not very compelling. But some of the choruses tend toward classic Danzig: Opener "7th House" and "Sacrifice" have some excellent (and unmistakably Danzig) riffs. Other tracks are industrial doom in character, with industrial noises on top but extended guitar chords in the background ("See All You Were") or slow, crunchy riffs ("Hint of Her Blood"). The latter doesn't work terribly well, because other than a change in drumming halfway through it doesn't seem to go anywhere. "Serpentia" starts out as merely industrial, but turns into this kind of industrial doom, and it happens to work well. "Come to Silver" is mellow, with acoustic rhythm guitar and electric leads, and it's pretty good--but it's actually better in the non-industrial version off The Lost Tracks of Danzig.  The compelling Closer "Ashes" is based around piano, and recalls Glenn's Black Aria more than any of his band work.

The real highlight is the Black Sabbath cover "Hand of Doom". The crunchy industrial sound works really well to emphasize the ominous and hypnotic nature of the verses, and they throw in some great new guitar solos.

The original version doesn't really have a whole lot to recommend it ("Sacrifice" and "Hand of Doom" are the only essential cuts), but the bonus tracks on the 2000 reissue make it worthwhile. "Deeper" is a heavy and simple reworking of a song that appeared in the X-Files movie soundtrack, and has a killer How the Gods Kill style riff in the chorus. "Bleedangel" sheds Danzig's normal verse-chorus-verse structure and shows that, at some point, he figured out how to make a really eerie and interesting industrial song. On the downside, "Don't Be Afraid" is just stupid, and "Ashes" makes a much better closing track.

The Verdict: In all, it was an interesting experiment, even if it was very hit and miss. I give the original version 2.5 out of 5 stars, and the 2000 reissue gets 3 out of 5.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Metal Briefs: Anti-Islamic Metal

A while ago, I discussed heavy metal's relationship with Islam. In that post, I asserted that the only reason anti-religious metal bands go after Christianity almost exclusively is because they're pussies, afraid to target Islam for fear of getting killed. Some commenters alternately theorized that this has little to do with it, and that instead it's because of the bands' unfamiliarity with Islam. Well, vindication of my point came in a recent Terrorizer interview (Electric Wizard cover, #204, Dec. 2010) of The Meads of Asphodel. Discussing whether he expects any religious backlash over their new album The Murder of Jesus the Jew, vocalist Metatron stated:
Possibly in America, [but] I doubt it over here. Would I do such an album as blatant about Islam? No, because do I really want to be beheaded?
I would assert he's wrong about any possible backlash, even in America. Metal bands insulting Christianity have become so commonplace today that it's no longer controversial, it's cliche. But he's right about what might happen if it was Islam instead. In this day and age, Christians don't generally murder people who blaspheme against God. But as recent events in Iraq and Egypt reveal, Muslims are not so forgiving. And as we've seen in Pakistan, it can get you executed by the state itself, and anyone who speaks up against such a law will be murdered and his murderer lauded as a hero. That's disgusting. Just as disgusting: converting to Christianity from Islam can get you executed in Afghanistan (the reverse doesn't).

So, moving forward with my support for bands who directly attack Islam, I present to you three albums from bands who are not cowards. By supporting them and drawing attention to them, I hope to do my part to show no fear in the face of this kind of repulsive intimidation, and to hopefully make anti-Islamic statements so commonplace that, eventually, they'll stop using these tactics.

Infidel: Destruction of Mecca (2008)

Wow. When looking for music based on lyrical content, I expected to find a whole lot of crap, but Baltimore's Infidel shattered that idea with their death metal assaults. Destruction of Mecca sounds like a mix of ImmolationCryptopsy, and even a bit of Behemoth. It's lacking the fantastic bass of Cryptopsy, but even without it this is superb death covering the gamut of tempos. It's produced like Immolation's Majesty and Decay, i.e. clear but not over-polished, and actually has a much better drum sound. The vocals and riffs are a mix of all three styles, focusing on really emphatic, brutal toe-tapping (face stomping) rhythms (check out "Genocide on Gaza Strip" for one of the best). The solos are Slayer-esque, which is always a nice touch.

And with lyrics like these, they've proven they have balls:
Die for my god!

Blow up Mecca
Your suffering begins

Bloodshed upon your streets
Little children, women weep
Body parts all around
Children's cadavers on the ground

I have seen the martyrs' bodies
Fall from ancient times,from past
All the ancient martyrs dying
For a cause that will not last

Destruction of Mecca
We lay your souls to rot
Nice. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Taghut: Ejaculate upon the Holy Qur'an (2008)

Taghut is a black metal band from New York who generally insult every Abrahminic religion equally, and do so in the most juvenile way you could imagine. For example . . . well the title pretty much says it all. Now, this is an extreme example of the immaturity of the lyrics, and if they were all this bad I would have guessed it to be a parody. And for the first three songs, you think it is, and it's actually kind of funny. But then you realize they're serious about it, and it's all downhill from there. They also throw in some Nazi stuff, hinting at their motivation for hating these religions (Semitic roots), and at the end of the album throw in a generic song about murder, which is out of place on the album, and a generic song about hating cops, which is completely out of place in any kind of black metal. What are they, gangbangers? The music is equally bad, being derivative and disjointed. Take the most generic-sounding Norwegian black metal you can find, make sure the riffs are forgettable, and slap in some amateurish Slayer-wannabe solos (they don't fit the music, even if they were well done--which they're not). On top of that, make sure your guitarist screws up a lot (especially on "Blaspheme Muhammad's Name") and has trouble keeping up with the faster tempos (see "Better to Reign in Hell..."). The vocals are done in a distorted whisper, which is easily understood, which would have made it a nice fit for good lyrics . . . but you won't find those here. They do show a measure of creativity on the song about cops, and I actually like the vocal style (it is different), but there's not much else good I can say about it. I give it 0.5 out of 5 stars.

Ayat: Six Years of Dormant Hatred

Six Years of Dormant HatredHailing from Lebanon, Ayat is the only one of these bands actually from the Muslim world. If Ministry's Al Jourgensen started a black metal band, this is what they would sound like: An industrial guitar tone and very Ministry-like riffs and drumming, coupled with voice samples. Six Years of Dormant Hatred is their first full-length, and it has a lot of good ideas in it. Opener "Ilahiya Khinzir! (All Hail Allah the Swine)" includes pig squeals to add extra insult, and the second half of "Fornication and Murder" is very strange and interesting. Closer "Such a Beautiful Day! (The Exaltation of Saint Francis)" has a mellow psychedelic riff and clean vocals. But the album also has its share of pitfalls. Why they keep putting two songs in one track I don't know, and the second half of "Puking Under Radiant Moonlight (Followed by a Century Long Ejaculation)" is a boring repetitive riff with foreign-language voice samples, which has no effect on me. As a rule, the songs aren't terribly memorable either, and they tend to get repetitive and--as "Thousands of Pissed Motherfuckers..." illustrates--some of them are kind of dumb. Still, it shows some promise. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Here's hoping that enough bands do this that it also becomes cliche and non-controversial.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ghost: Opus Eponymous (2010)


Perhaps no debut album of 2010 was hyped more than Ghost's Opus Eponymous. Even though much of the hype is based on a misguided idea that "actual songs" are disappearing from metal, I have to say that Ghost deserves the hype.

Opus EponymousThese Swedes have not revealed their identities, and claim that they try to make ultra-accessible music in order to seduce people to Satan. If you believed their stated motive for even a second, I pity you, because with the cheesy "evil pope" outfit worn by the frontman and the Mercyful Fate-esque lyrics, it's pretty clear this is all just a show. And what a show it is. They've often been touted as Blue Öyster Cult meets Mercyful Fate, but outside of the image the MF influence is much more subtle than the obvious BÖC similarities.

"Prime Mover", the most metal track on the album, contains some very modern experiments in dissonance. But if you throw that out they sound like they could be from the 70's, old-school classic rock vocals and electric organ in tow. "Satan Prayer" is the most classic rock-sounding cut, but you'll hear it everywhere (like the opening to "Ritual"). The organ is used very cleverly, especially on "Con Clavi Con Dio" and album standout "Death Knell". There are some forays into more metallic riffs, but like BÖC they straddle the boundary between metal and rock. The guitar and bass even have a similar tone. The bass tone has been a point of contention for many. It's mixed very well and has a good sound on the surface, but its sound is not particularly rich; I would guess this was a conscious decision to sound more like an old-fashioned recording.

What makes the album work is the memorable melodies and catchy choruses in every song. And who's ever heard such catchy choruses with such disturbing lyrical content? The ballad "Elizabeth" ("Forever young, Elizabeth Bathory in the castle of your death"). The crazy-good "Ritual" (This chapel of ritual / Smells of dead human sacrifices / From the altar"). And, catchiest of all, "Stand by Him" ("It is the night of the witch / It is the night of the witch tonight / And the vengeance is hers for as long as she stands by him"). It's all part of the fun.

The Verdict: No, I don't think memorability is the be-all end-all of what makes music good (interesting is more important than catchy). And I don't believe Ghost are single-handedly bringing it back (bands like Unleashed have been doing it all along, and bands like Dawnbringer are pumping new blood into it all the time). But nobody's doing it any better than Ghost, either. Opus Eponymous is an incredible album. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lesbian: Stratospheria Cubensis (2010)

Lesbian is a progressive stoner/sludge/doom outfit from Seattle. I've said before that it's very rare to find a band which combines "progressive" with "doom", so I was very interested to check it out.

Stratospheria CubensisIf you took the guys from Mastodon (circa Remission) and put them in a room with the guys from Neurosis (circa Enemy of the Sun), and just let them jam out together, that would sound a lot like Lesbian. This may seem like a much better idea than it really is--as I said, you just let them jam, i.e., they're not playing any actual songs. And if there was a Youtube video of these guys playing one of their songs, and it was just labeled "Lesbian Jamming", you would think they're a promising band--which they may be. But to put out an "album" of collected jam sessions is kind of pointless. And to let it go on for over 71 minutes is almost criminal.

There is some definite promise here, as many of the riffs are interesting pieces of stoner sludge, with dissonance in all the right places (many of them are also half-baked, as you might expect). They write good clean riffs (they can go for more than 5 minutes without any distortion) better than they do distorted ones. There's also some really cool guitar lead work (check out the solo 5 minutes into the title track). The drums are interesting enough, and you can hear the bass provide its own melodies. The vocals are appropriately Neurosian. But none of it's put together very well, having neither the catchy tunes of Mastodon or the suspense mastery of Neurosis, and the progressive touches are nowhere near flashy enough to appeal to fans of Dream Theater.

The 14 minute instrumental "Raging Arcania" is probably the worst example of a jam (22 minute closer "Black Stygian might actually be worse--I quit about 8 minutes in). But the 12 minute "Poverty and War Forever" is a perfect illustration of how the album falls apart. It starts with clean stoner melodies, with just the right touch of dissonance. Then it starts to build suspense, and they throw in brief progressive leads. But when it goes heavy, it simply loses all focus and degenerates into a jam.

The Verdict: The labels "progressive" and "stoner" are often used as license to simply rock out, and that's the problem here. They could be promising, but I wouldn't hold my breath for them to come out with a classic album any time soon. I give Stratospheria Cubensis 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Firewind: Days of Defiance (2010)


Greek power metal stalwarts Firewind have been one of the best-known power metal bands for quite a few years (among American metalheads, anyway). But they got a huge boost when guitarist Gus G. joined the Ozzy camp, and Days of Defiance is the band's bid to take full advantage of that fact.

Days of DefiancePower metal is quite literally a mainstream genre throughout much of Europe, but here in the U.S. it's always been relegated to a very small fan base--rejected by the rest of the metal clans as an aberration, with the occasional exception of the American style of power metal. A lot of the reason for that is, it's just plain cheesy, and it reminds us too much of our own embarrasing mainstream metal of the 1980's. (Europeans seem to still like that crap. Go figure.)

Firewind has always been more palatable, though, and Days of Defiance is no different. Sure, it's European power metal--virtuoso guitars and dramatic clean vocals always take the forefront, keyboards play in the background and they get leads, and most of the songs could be considered ballads. But Firewind is far less cheesy than, say, Rhapsody of Fire. The vocals are just barely over the top, and the keyboards rarely take the lead (but see keyboard interlude "The Departure" or the intro and outro to "Embrace the Sun"). The guitar leads are strong, and despite Gus's obvious talent, he never goes out of his way to show it off at the expense of the song. Plus, they know how to keep the heavy in their brand of metal, with some melo-death leanings on tracks like "The Yearning".

The music is catchy, and even when they do a straight-up ballad, it's not always embarrassing. "Broken", for example, switches between acoustic verses and an infectious power ballad chorus. It's even better when it's not a ballad, though. "World on Fire" has dissonant verses and a sing-along chorus followed by a heavy riff, and closer "When All Is Said and Done" has everything you could ever possibly want in a power metal song. Instrumental "SKG", with its guitar and keyboard solos, could be a Dream Theater song if I didn't know any better.

Still, the tracklist is geared a tad too much toward ballads for the average American trve metal crowd, with "Kill in the Name of Love" being the biggest crime. But with all the things going for Firewind right now, they could be a big breakthrough act in the U.S. mainstream. Most of Ozzy's youngest fans are far too young to feel any personal embarrassment by the similarities to 80's mainstream metal, and the music is catchy. There's a small chance power metal could finally be hitting the mainstream in America. Maybe--I give it a 50/50 chance.

The Verdict: Firewind have released another strong album, which gets past the shortcomings of European power metal for the most part. It's still a little ballad-rich, but that may be just what they need to make a run on U.S. rock radio. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Are "Real Songs" Disappearing from Metal?

Opus Eponymous vs. Swarth

There has been a growing chorus of people lamenting the decline of "real songs" in metal. The latest of these to catch my notice was the review of Ghost's Opus Eponymous over at Invisible Oranges:
Much of Ghost’s appeal probably comes from the fact that metal tropes (Satanic lyrics! Wearing hoods on stage!) are appearing in a seemingly novel context: actual songs with actual singing and actual melodies. Songs one can remember – imagine that! Extreme metal is so starved for them that initially Ghost seemed like a breath of fresh air to me. . . .
In this age of buzzy/Burzumic/psychedelic/sit-down metal, songwriting is at an all-time low. Even first-album, before-they-were-good Accept seem like Leiber and Stoller compared to 99% of extreme metal today. The standard has fallen so low that just having songs one can tell apart has become an achievement.
Cosmo Lee is just one of many voices making this point. It's all bullshit.