Thrash metal with a social conscience
Back in the 1980s more and more bands, especially in the thrash scene, started following the lead of hardcore punk a bit more and started addressing current events and political themes. But while Metallica touched on nuclear war, Megadeth lampooned the PMRC, and Anthrax sang a song about Native Americans, metal never really had much of a social conscience. Which, as some will say, is a good thing, because heavy metal was never meant to have a social conscience in the first place, being more fitted to escapism via record and communal aggression in a live setting, not talking about, like, issues and stuff. Issues were for the hardcore crowd. Metal music only took a passing fancy to social commentary, relying on vague sentiment and thinly veiled satire to get a point across, but it was never central to the music.
Nuclear Assault was one of the first metal bands to not only delve into such topics seriously, but have their music click with a large audience as well. Formed by bassist Dan Lilker after he left Anthrax in search of more aggressive music to play, he and guitarist John Connelly drew heavily from thrash, hardcore, and the nascent grindcore sound to create something fast, in your face, but also socially aware. The 1986 debut Game Over, while a very strong piece of New York thrash, was nevertheless underdeveloped lyrically, the band, rounded out by guitarist Anthony Bramante and drummer Glenn Evans, relying too much on heavy metal clichés (“Stranded in Hell”), the aforementioned vagaries (“Nuclear War”), and sophomoric humor (“Hang the Pope”). Two years later, however, Nuclear Blast returned with a clearer mission, all grown up with a remarkably mature album that displayed some real acuity behind the musical savagery.
Produced by Megadeth producer Randy Burns and recorded in January and February of 1988, Survive finally saw Lilker part of a fully realized band compared to the likeable yet derivative Anthrax debut Fistful of Metal and the classic crossover side project Speak English or Die by Stormtroopers of Death. The songwriting, while plenty fast and aggressive, was grown up enough to now place more emphasis on dynamics, and the end result is an album that, while not exactly innovative stylistically, nevertheless has a clear modus operandi not to mention a certain character that sets it apart from every other thrash record that came out that year.
In Connelly Nuclear Assault had one of the most peculiar lead vocalists thrash metal had, or has for that matter, ever seen. To say his vocal style is unique is an understatement. A twisted snarl that is practically impossible to describe, let alone imitate – Ryan Waste of Municipal Waste actually pulled it off when I interviewed him a year ago, which had me cracking up – Connelly’s voice gurgles like a Muppet and screeches like a hawk throughout the record. It’s a strange sound to get used to, but thankfully the strength of the actual songs make the effort a lot easier.
And the songs, simple as they are, are tremendous. Propelled by some throttling double-kicks by Evans, the fleet-footed yet robust “F#” is faithfully derived from NYC hardcore, its metal influence accentuated by some well-timed solos and Connelly’s vocal melody, which echoes the same guitar riffs. The brilliant “Great Depression” matches classic Anthrax every step of the way with its combination of double-time speed and stomping mosh riffs that are punctuated by Connelly’s chorus: “I don't recall asking YOU! TO! Stick your nose in my life!” “Wired” is a welcome deviation from the thrash, going for a slower, more sinister pace, while “Fight to be Free” is the closest thing on the album to an epic, managing to pack a lot of diversity in its four and a half minutes.
Survive is most memorable when that thrash proficiency meshes with strong lyrics. “Equal Rights” is a throttling, three-minute blast of straight-up hardcore in which the band is more thoughtful than aggressive (“Help make racial wars a distant unforgotten memory / Maybe hate will never die that doesn't mean we shouldn't try”). Reagan-era conformity and complacency is confronted on “Technology” (“I'm wasting my time, I'm wasting my breath, on people who choose ignorance”), but the real kicker is “Brainwashed”, a catchy and eloquent attack on radio, television, and newspapers (“See what they want you to see, our awareness is limited by network VPs”) that urges the listener to think for themselves instead of blindly follow. It’s a cliché now, but in 1988, few bands in metal were daring to step up like Nuclear Assault were doing on this record.
Survive isn’t an all-time masterpiece – its cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” was ill-advised – but the rest of the album has aged very well over 25 years, enough to deem it a minor thrash classic. “Brainwashed” would prove to be a modest hit thanks to its accompanying video, and would help pave the way for the 1989 follow-up Handle With Care, which would turn out to be Nuclear Assault’s commercial peak.
Singer Tim Lambesis to appear in court June 10
A week after their singer was arrested for allegedly conspiring to have his estranged wife murdered, As I Lay Dying, to no one’s surprise, announced they were pulling out of their summer US tour with Killswitch Engage. Drummer Jordan Mancino, guitarist Nick Hipa, guitarist Phil Sgrosso, and bassist Josh Gilbert posted a statement late yesterday saying, “Given the circumstances, we feel that it is best for the band to be off the road while the current situation gets sorted. We’d like to thank all of our fans for their ongoing support at this difficult time.”
Tim Lambesis, who has pled not guilty, is being held on $3 million bail at a detention center in Vista, California. He is due back in court on June 10, and if found guilty – the evidence collected by undercover police seems incredibly damning – faces up to nine years in prison.
In the meantime, Killswitch Engage have announced that Darkest Hour and The Word Alive will be replacing As I Lay Dying on the summer tour. Miss May I and Affiance are also appearing on the bill. See the full list of tour dates here.
Continuing with the Lambesis story, which is one of the most disturbing stories to hit the metal world in ages, my esteemed colleague Natalie Zina Walschots has written a harrowing, intensely personal essay for the Toronto Standard about the public shaming of Lambesis’s wife Meggan by As I Lay Dying fans online, the cliché of the “Evil Ex” in popular culture and heavy metal, and her own past experience that mirrors what Meggan is going through now. It’s a brave piece. Read it here.
Hollywood Palladium to host tribute to the late Slayer guitarist
A special public memorial for late Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman has been scheduled for Thursday, May 23 at the 4,000-capacity Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood, California. Fans of all ages have been invited to the free event, and will be admitted on a first come, first in basis. It starts at 3:30 PM, and goes until 7:30 PM.
Hanneman, who was such a key component of Slayer, having written the bulk of their best songs and forming one of the best two-guitar tandems rock ‘n’ roll has ever seen with Kerry King, died on May 2 of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver.
Not much has been divulged yet as far as the finer details of the memorial go, but it’s sure to be a very special, memorable event.
First of two 2013 albums to be released July 23
Five Finger Death Punch represent everything that is deplorable in American metal today. Pandering to the lowest common denominator, the Los Angeles band calculatedly uses dumbed-down music and a disturbing combination of hackneyed, angry white boy sentiment and weepy, Nickelback-derived balladry to attract mainstream metal fans and active rock listeners alike. And it’s worked well, with hundreds of thousands gravitating toward their agro shtick. There’s nothing wrong with getting frustrations out via heavy music, but seeing Five Finger Death Punch live can be disturbing, with too much negativity in their North American audiences, who take the band’s gimmick far too literally, while conversely the band’s brass knuckles-wearing comes off as an enormous put-on.
But what are you going to do? Five Finger Death Punch are officially huge, and are set to make a very big splash in 2013 with a pair of albums called The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell. Volume 1 will be released July 23 on Prospect Park, while Volume 2 will follow this fall, but in the meantime they’ve just released the new single “Lift Me Up”, and have just posted it on YouTube this morning.
Featuring none other than Rob Halford on guest vocals, “Lift Me Up” is particularly smart at being dumb. Built around a Nickelback hard rock riff and Ivan Moody’s Kroeger-esque singing and featuring motivational speaker lyrics that make Phil Labonte look like a philosophy major, it’s incredibly corny, but most importantly, incessantly catchy. It gets in your head, and when Halford enters, showing Moody just how you sell a metal song, you find yourself actually liking the thing. Imagine that. Is there hope for the rest of this two-part extravaganza? I still remain doubtful. In the meantime, give the song a listen for yourself.
Fifth album set for June 25 release
Incredibly, metalcore is still a very popular form of metal music with the kids, and Pennsylvania’s August Burns Red are set to make a huge splash with their forthcoming fifth album Rescue & Restore, and should supplant American bores – and alleged hitman-hiring – As I Lay Dying as the biggest metalcore band in the country.
As a teaser they’ve just posted the new song “Fault Line” at YouTube. I haven't heard the album yet, but the press release hilariously describes the new album as “[turning] a critical eye to the oft-maligned genre of metalcore, leading by example to prove that bands can still find exciting new ways to expand the genre.” If this track is any indication, not really; “Fault Line” is as rote as it comes. But 13 year-olds likely don’t know any better, bless their little metal newbie hearts, and they’ll probably be over the moon. At any rate, the potential is there for a decent record. Rescue & Restore will be released June 25 on Solid State.
Uncle Acid steps into the daylight, and proves to be as fascinating as ever
Album of the Week:
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, Mind Control (Metal Blade)
England’s Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats became a bit of a sensation two years ago thanks to some very savvy marketing by Rise Above. The second album Blood Lust was a fantastic blend of doom and psychedelic rock, but Rise Above had something even better on their hands: a band with actual mystique. No one knew who this helium-voiced Uncle Acid was, but the music’s clever spin on a classic sound was intoxicating, and its anonymity lent the music actual mystery, which is very hard to come by in today’s social media-connected music world. Typical of the label, they issued Blood Lust not so much as an album but more as a fetish object, its beautiful first vinyl pressing creating a buzz with its limited run. By the end of that year Uncle Acid had a serious buzz happening, to the point where last fall’s US release of Blood Lust on Metal Blade felt incredibly late to the party.
But you can’t be a mystery forever. With increased exposure and demand, it’s understandable that the initial mystery of Uncle Acid would gradually start to slip away. It would turn out to be the brainchild of a regular-looking fellow going by the name of K.R. Starrs, and unlike the first two albums, which were basically his own projects, album number three sees Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats as a proper four-piece band for the first time. While that original mystique vanished as soon as the band started playing their first live shows this year, they’re such a good live act that it’s great to see them taking the next step, and you also feel that evolution on Mind Control.
Mind Control isn’t so much a faithful rendering of the first two albums as a careful expansion of Uncle Acid’s musical palette, sequenced first with the most familiar sounds to fans, but then quickly taking several turns that surprise, confuse, and enthrall. The seven-minute “Mt. Abraxas” kicks off the record with its by-the-book Sabbath jams, its approach more understated than powerful thanks to its deliberately muted lo-fi tone. “Mind Crawler” is the kind of sinister rock ‘n’ roll that made such Blood Lust cuts as “I’ll Cut You Down” and “Over and Over Again” such instant classics, its simple riff and cruising groove immediately memorable, the riff in the coda a fitting climax. The contagious “Poison Apple” returns to that characteristic Uncle Acid swing, while “Desrert Ceremony” downshifts once again, this time going for something more lysergic than weed-fueled, featuring spiraling guitar solos.
After that, though, the worm starts to turn. “Evil Love” is the band’s most insistent rocker to date, Abbey Road colliding with the faster moments on Paranoid, Starrs taking on an unmistakable Lennon affectation in his voice. Continuing the Beatles thing, the creeping “Death Valley Blues” references George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”, but makes a point of feeling more unsettling than merely wry, while the similarly Harrison-esque raga “Follow the Leader” delves more into Indian territory while the lyrics feel more Anton LaVey than Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Although the thudding, imposing “Devil’s Work” closes the album on an enthrallingly murky note, the real climax of Mind Control is the disquieting “Valley of the Dolls”. A return to the mournful doom sounds of “Mt. Abraxas”, but this time awash in dreamy mellotron, Starrs delves deeply into the seedier side of 1969 pop culture, referencing Sharon Tate “Just like a china doll / Her face was glazed and clear”) and then Charles Manson (“I sent them off in the darkest danger night / Into the piggy trough all dressed in vinyl white”). The wordplay of the chorus (“Valley of the Dolls / Valium blood walls”) is particularly unsettling, the song subtly segueing from Jacqueline Susann melodrama (“Valley of the Dolls”) to twisted Russ Meyer sickness (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”), the crashing cymbals and power chords completing the journey from blissed-out to pure horror.
Mind Control might not have the same immediate impact as Blood Lust did, but it does show Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are willing to venture out into the sunlight a little more, show some more creativity, and make music that can be just as confounding and intriguing, even though everyone knows who they are now. Its delights aren’t as immediate – you really have to dig underneath the surface – but they are there, and this is one memorable follow-up as a result.
Also out this week:
Arckanum, Fenris Kindir (Season Of Mist): The long-running project by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Shamaatae is yet another experience in savage, Norse-themed black metal, and although it does get repetitive after a while – it’s easy to tune those evil snarls out after half an hour – these are nevertheless some riveting blasts of mid-paced cvltishness.
Beyond Creation, The Aura (Season Of Mist): That’s right, another crazed, incredibly proficient technical death metal from Quebec, but Beyond Creation follow in the footsteps of Neuraxis and Gorguts so devoutly that it’s impossible not to dislike what they do on their excellent debut album. Complex, but never at the expense of the melody and dynamics, this is music by a band that knows the subtleties of this form of music. It’s an easy band name to forget, but try not to. A tremendous discovery for Season of Mist, who continue to unearth great new bands from Canada.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, One Of Us Is The Killer (Sumerian): The Dillinger Escape Plan felt like one of the best bands in the world when they put out the staggering, ambitious, genre-defying masterpiece Ire Works in 2007, so when they released Option Paralysis in 2010, an album that was merely good instead of outstanding, it was a huge letdown. They raised the bar with three consecutive records, and merely coasted on the next one. When it comes to Dillinger, the frantic “math metal” that mosh pits go nuts over is of least importance. Of course they’ll bring that with typical ferocity. That’s a given. What they excel at is taking that energy, combining it with ingenious song dynamics and eclectic musical influences outside metal and hardcore, and creating something engaging and completely unique. One of Us is the Killer starts to move back towards the adventurousness of Ire Works by doing just that, songs like “Prancer” and “Nothing’s Funny” using heart-stopping cadences and well-timed melodies to worm their way into listeners’ heads. Is it on the level of Ire Works, Miss Machine, and Calculating Infinity? Not a chance. But this is a step in the right direction, and it’s great to see Dillinger back on track with a strong outing.
Entrails, Raging Death (Metal Blade): Thick, crusty, and at times very groovy Swedish death metal in the tradition of Entombed, this third album by the foursome is perfectly comfortable with the simplicity of the classic sound, and once again prove to be very adept at it.
Gravewurm, Infernal Minions (Hells Headbangers): Gravewurm are always an acquired taste. On one hand, their songs often do an exceptional job capturing that simple proto-black metal sound of the mid-‘80s, and conversey, like on this album, the cartoonish vocals can prove to be distracting. “Sporadically engaging” isn’t a good enough recommendation in today’s oversaturated metal world. Pass on this one.
Hexvessel, Iron Marsh (Svart): New music from Mathew McNerny and Hexvessel is always a good thing. This six-track EP is a splendid piece of work, featuring songs that hardly feel like stopgap release throwaways, instead continuing the fascinating evolution of this extremely talented band. “Masks of the Universe” melds doom and languid Pink Floyd influences, occult rock queen Rosalie Cunningham (Purson) guests on the haunting, gorgeous cover of Yoko Ono’s “Woman of Salem”, and Blood Ceremony’s Alia O’Brien chips in on flute on the English psych/folk composition “Don’t Break the Curse’.
Immolation, King Of Conspiracy (Nuclear Blast): Just like Suffocation’s Pinnacle of Bedlam earlier this year, Immolation’s latest doesn’t deviate from the formula one bit, which in these guys’ case is a very good thing. All anyone expects from Ross Dolan and his band is simple, blue-collar, pulverizing death metal, and that’s exactly what they bring. Nothing more. The songs are taut, exceptionally played, and in the tradition of the best death metal of 20 years ago, always mindful of song structure and dynamics amidst all the ferocity. Ten songs, 40 minutes. Splendid.
Intoxicated, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hellpatrol (Hells Headbangers): Sex, booze, and Satan permeate this immensely entertaining debut by the German thrashers. Sloppy, but in a Venom-meets-Razor kind of way, this is yet another vulgar, blasphemous, and obnoxious bit of brilliance discovered by the ever-reliable Hells Headbangers. A certain metal blog that recently declared “re-thrash” dead can shove this fetid record you-know-where.
Kadavar, Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast): The Berlin trio take a significant step on their second album. Of course, they look and sound like they’re from 1970 – they always have and always will – but no matter how accurate your style is, you have to provide the songs, and they come through with some knockouts here like the ferocious groove of “Doomsday Machine”, the blues of “Eye of the Storm”, and the psychedelic “Liquid Dream”. Wolf Lindemann’s singing felt a bit too flat on last year’s debut, but here he’s much stronger, and along with riffs that are equal parts Sabbath and Captain Beyond, helps make this an album nearly as good as last year’s Lights Out by Graveyard.
Orchid, The Mouths Of Madness (Nuclear Blast): San Francisco’s Orchid are not the best “proto-hard rock” band out there; their influences are a lot more obvious than much more nuanced bands like Graveyard, Uncle Acid, and Spiders. But while the Sabbath homages and Trouble references lack character at times, there are plenty of hints on this album that show you there just might be even bigger and better things in store. “Mouths of Madness” cleverly nicks the riff from Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”, “Nomad” delves more deeply into blues, while “Leaving it All Behind” ditches the doom in favor of nuance, allowing singer Theo Midnell to show some impressive range. While it isn’t perfect, there’s more than enough potential in Orchid to make you want to become a fan, flaws and all.
Pop Evil, Onyx (eOne): The Michigan band is on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough, and considering just how rote and predictable these post-grunge/alt-metal songs are, that will probably happen. Those with more discerning tastes will hear songs like “Deal With the Devil”, “Trenches”, and the Creed-like “Torn to Pieces”, laugh incredulously, and move on to music with actual integrity.
Canadian upstarts replacing Terror as openers
New album 'Halo of Blood' out June 11
Children of Bodom’s eighth album Halo of Blood comes out June 11 on Nuclear Blast, their first for that label, and while it’s not as strong as 2011’s Relentless Reckless Forever – which I considered their best since Follow the Reaper – it still continues the Finnish band’s streak of good albums as of late.
The band has just released the video for the new track “Transference” today, and it is terrible, a lazily conceived clip that relies on boring metal clichés (miming in a fake graveyard? Really?) but it’s one of the record’s best songs, and who am I to deprive readers a new Bodom track? It’s a great song, and never mind the visuals; just minimize the screen – and focus on the music.