Live sets perfect examples of doom metal at its most breathtaking
Of the many bands I saw at the 2013 Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands this past April, Portland’s Witch Mountain was one of the best. Playing an afternoon set in the packed Het Patronaat church annex, sunlight beaming through stained glass windows, the foursome hammered out their slow, deliberately paced, blues-inspired doom. Singer Uta Plotkin was a force, her authoritative, soulful voice a contrast to her petite stature, commanding the stage on such standouts as “Beekeeper”, “Aurelia”, and “Bloodhound”. It was a spellbinding performance, one that got better and better as it went on, and the good folks at Roadburn have posted the complete audio of the hour-long set for all to hear. If you want to hear one of the best American doom bands today in action – as good as their records are, they’re even better live – listen to the stream below.Similarly impressive was Pallbearer, who kicked off the festival on the opening Thursday afternoon in the large (2,200 capacity) similarly crowded 013 venue. It was a bit of a surreal experience for the band, who later commented on how lost they felt playing on such a big concert stage with so much space between them, but the 013 is one of the best-sounding halls you will ever hear a metal show in. As you can hear in the stream of the band’s performance below, they sounded immaculate. Like Witch Mountain, Pallbearer’s best experienced live – they would play another, set in a much, much smaller venue at the festival three days later – and while I was reluctant to put last year’s very good “Sorrow and Extinction” on my Best of 2012 list last December, the way Pallbearer dominated Roadburn proved to me that these guys are capable of even better things in the future.
Third album to be released October 29
Martin van Drunen sure likes to keep himself busy. A year after leading Asphyx on their very good album “Deathhammer” and months after performing a triumphant Roadburn set with said band, the much-praised Hail of Bullets returns to the front burner. Formed with members of Asphyx, Thanatos, and Ayreon, the Dutch band specializes in – no surprise here – simple, straightforward, blue-collar death metal, its main gimmick being all the band’s songs are based on events from World War II. Their third album, and first in three years, is called “III: The Rommel Chronicles”, is set for an October 29 release on Metal Blade, and it just so happens one track has premiered online, which you can listen to below.
Plenty rampaging and muscular, what separates Hail of Bullets from Asphyx is a slightly heightened sense of the theatrical, as the music tends to reflect the subject matter a little more. On “Pour le Merite” mournful melodies creep in amidst the barrage at hand, lending the music a cinematic scope that just doesn’t happen enough in death metal anymore. Of course, this being death metal, it’s 99% about the attack, and said attack is relentless, but the songwriting here is dynamic and dramatic, not above showing a little soul before returning to the physicality. It’s a phenomenal track, and bodes very, very well for the rest of the record, which you can pre-order here.
Ironically, highlighted by a metal band's mellow departure
Album of the Week:
Katatonia, “Dethroned and Uncrowned” (Kscope)
Not so much a follow-up to last year's “Dead End Kings” as an even bolder expansion of the album’s idea, Katatonia takes the same songs from the album – retaining the same track sequence as well – and reimagines them, this time from a strictly non-metal perspective. It’s a very interesting experiment, too, as these versions are nearly unrecognizable compared to the original album thanks to some very creative arrangements that focus more on acoustic instrumentation and ambient touches. More than ever, the focus is placed on Jonas Renkse’s singing, and that’s the most rewarding thing about this record. He’s gradually transformed himself into a first-rate crooner, and these reworked songs showcase the richness of his singing. It’s a shame that this album will be heard solely by Katatonia fans, because its hushed, pastoral beauty could very well appeal to audiences outside metal, and rock for that matter. Unlike the lavish melancholy of “Dead End Kings”, which for all its strengths felt like the work of a band torn between its heavy and mellow sides, the luminous “Dethroned and Uncrowned” feels like a liberation of sorts for the band, a logical destination their metamorphosis has been moving towards. A year ago I wondered just how much mellower Katatonia could get; they not only answered that question, but proved, resoundingly so, that they could pull it off with grace and creativity.
Also out this week:
Altars, “Paramnesia” (Nuclear Winter): The full-length debut by the Australian death metal band tries to make listeners think they know what they’re doing, but the way these songs arbitrarily meander with no sense of direction makes it clear that for all the work they’ve done sounding like a formidable death metal band, there’s still plenty of work to do in the songwriting department.
Dark Design, “Prey For The Future” (Heaven and Hell): Technically oriented thrash, NWOBHM melody, and power metal bombast mesh surprisingly well on this new album by the Raleigh, North Carolina band. At times the arrangements can feel a little wooden, and the cover of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” takes things a little too far, but with a singer in Andrew Bertrand who belts out the vocals in convincing fashion, it’s very easy to like. A good debut album, with plenty of potential for better things.
Dissension, “Of Time And Chronic Disease” (BLK COQ): The songs on this Quebec band’s album always start off as strangely scatterbrained, a surreal combination of black metal, symphonic metal, and power metal. This can’t possibly hold together, you think. But then, somehow, it does come together, regardless of how tacked-on and intrusive the keyboards are. It’s not every day you get a combination of metal’s most garish yet disparate genres that manages to feel cohesive, and while this album is far from great and is every bit as contrived as Watain, Dissension pulls it off.
Ensnared, “Ravenous Damnation's Dawn” (Nuclear Winter): It’s tough for any young band playing straightforward death metal to stand out among all the innumerable bands trying to do the same thing, but this Swedish act manages to inject a little trash into their music, which gives it ferocity. If you’re going to sound like everyone else, you might as well do it with energy, and these guys do just that.
Fit For An Autopsy, “Hellbound” (Good Fight): Putting the word “Autopsy” in your band name can’t possibly be a good idea, for obvious reasons, but the New Jersey band show on this album they’re on the verge of creating something interesting. Part death metal, part hardcore, and utilizing enough dissonance to elicit comparisons to Gojira and The Dillinger Escape Plan, this is a very taut, 37-minute record with enough variety to avoid sounding stale. Closing track “The Travelers” is particularly good. Put more personality in those generic, growled vocals, though, and you’d have something potentially outstanding.
Gemini Syndrome, “Lux” (Warner Brothers): The Los Angeles band caters strictly to those who somehow miss the days of late-‘90s alternative metal, mimicking Disturbed (minus the goofy hooks) and early Tool (minus the creativity), the package wrapped in a slick bow by producer Kevin Churko. Bloated, generic, and forgettable, this goes through all the motions, never reaching any feeling beyond milquetoast.
Hollow Haze, “Countdown To Revenge” (Scarlet): Now featuring Rhapsody of Fire frontman Fabio Leone as singer, Hollow Haze serve up the usual Italian power metal histrionics, albeit with an American slant. You can hear traces of Symphony X’s robustness amidst all the frilly-sleeved European melodies, and the contrast between the two sides makes for a more involving experience than you might expect. Not too shabby.
Integrity, “Systems Overload” (A2/Orr+ Mix): Released when Victory Records was a defining label for American hardcore, Integrity’s acclaimed 1995 album has been completely reworked into what the band now calls the “definitive” version. Remixed, remastered, and featuring new contributions tossed in, it’s an improvement over the muddy-sounding original, although its overall impact is lessened today thanks to the many imitators that followed in Integrity’s wake, rendering straightforward hardcore stale.
Lalu, “Atomic Ark” (Sensory): French keyboardist and composer Vivien Lalu has joined forces with members of Symphony X, Mekong Delta, and DGM on a progressive album that, while heavy on the instrumental noodling and vocal melodrama, tones things down enough to let the songs breathe. It’s still plenty complex, but never arbitrarily so. Nothing new is achieved here – kind of going against what “progressive” is all about – but it’s one that prog fans will find intriguing.
Ministry, “From Beer To Eternity” (13th Planet): First off, the latest Ministry album isn’t as disastrous as last year’s “Relapse”. That alone is an achievement. Still, though, Al Jourgensen continues to defecate all over his once-great band’s legacy by creating a cartoonish version of what felt so groundbreaking 25 years ago. Like on “Psalm 69”, he’s still at it with the anti-Republican rants and nods to William S. Burroughs, but compared to that classic album it’s all so tired and far, far past its best before date.
Ranger, “Knights Of Darkness” (Ektro): Energetic, no-frills speed metal from Finland that sounds like it was release on Metal Blade in 1984. It could use a few more hooks, but with its velocity, crude production, rampant reverb on shrill vocals, and songs that hearken back to a simpler time, its devotion to that circa-1984 underground aesthetic is impossible to dislike.
The Ruins Of Beverast, “Blood Vaults - The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer” (Van): The latest album by Alexander von Meilenwald’s one-man black metal project is a sprawling opus that bursts with ideas, especially midway through the record on the slower tracks “Malefica”, “Ornaments on Malice”, and “Spires, the Wailing City”, in which his doom-oriented side is drawn out more, the arrangements and polished production giving the music added richness. At nearly 80 minutes, though, it’s difficult to carry on without losing the listener, and indeed the album wears thinner the longer it goes on. Also, as intriguing as the album’s lyrics are – marginally above average by metal standards – von Meilenwald’s overtly evil vocal style ultimately feels more comical that imposing, especially the narrated intro track, which reaches a level of silliness that’s rare, even for a genre as inherently silly as black metal.
Sinner, “Touch of Sin II” (AFM): The bazillionth album by the German hard rockers – okay, more like their 17th – employs the overdone “re-recorded hits” gimmick, which means these tracks, while faithful, lack the youthful energy of the originals, feeling only like the work of an aging band rather than an ageless one. The guys actually feel more comfortable playing the three new songs tacked on to this record, which are more in their wheelhouse compared to the older stuff.
Siren's Cry, “Scattered Horizons” (Nightmare): Lower-tier symphonic metal that tries hard to sound as lavish as possible, but the songs fail to involve the listener, with not enough hooks and too much of a disparity between the metal guitars and the synthesizers.
New live "Unblackened" CD/DVD out September 24
Back in March Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society filmed and recorded a show at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, featuring stripped-down, “intimate” versions of fan favorites as well as a couple covers. While not exactly an “unplugged” set – electric guitar is still prominent, for all you pinch-squeal fans out there – the bombast is dialed down significantly on the resulting “Unblackened”, which will be released September 24 on eOne. It’s look at the gentler side Black Label Society, with the focus placed on the band’s mellower fare, as well as the odd reinterpretation of heavier material like “Stillborn”. Personally, I prefer when BLS’s volume is turned up and the focus isn’t placed on his marble-mouthed singing, but Wylde’s fans adore the ballads, so there’s no doubt they’ll love this.
One of the covers on the live album is of Bill Withers’ 1971 soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and Wylde has collaborated with director Justin Reich on a video for the track, which serves as a very goofy counterpoint to the melancholy of the song, and includes a funny cameo appearance by Vinnie Paul. I don’t dare explain the whole concept of the piece; you’ll just have to see for yourself. Either way, it’s good to see Wylde showing more of his sense of humor in his videos.
Edit: Friends outside North America can watch the video here.
New Hampshire band's debut full-length earns top marks
Last week I called Vattnet Viskar’s “Sky Swallower” the most fully realized debut album by an American black metal band since Krallice five years ago. When you’re a music critic you have to go easy on the superlatives – easier said than done – and when you do use them you’d sure as heck better be ready to back it up. When you hear “Sky Swallower”, though, it quickly becomes apparent how quickly this New Hampshire band hits the ground running, its command, its confidence, and its smarts easily a cut above most black metal albums released in what’s been, to be honest, a very down year for the genre.
I also mentioned that the seven and a half-minute “Breath of the Almighty” is its centerpiece and best track, and as coincidence would have it they’ve just released a new video for the song. Featuring arresting, meditative visuals by director and longtime Neurosis collaborator Josh Graham, it matches the majesty of Vattnet Viskar’s music step for step. If you haven’t heard this splendid album yet, watch the clip below. You’ll want to hear the rest.
“Sky Swallower” is out now on Century Media.
Death metal greats stage stunning comeback on long-awaited new album
For all the new blood the metal world has welcomed as a new generation of musicians and fans has come of age, the genre still, stubbornly, casts its gaze to the old guard. For good reason, too, as some of the biggest metal/hard rock stories of the last 12 and a half years involve comebacks staged by long-dormant (creatively or otherwise) veteran bands. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Celtic Frost, Accept, Rush, and even Ratt all rebounded in huge ways since 2000, releasing albums that display an astonishing level of vitality for bands that age. And what’s the biggest metal story of 2013? Black Sabbath scored their first chart-topping album in America.
When Carcass announced they were recording their first album since 1996’s “Swansong”, there was more than a little apprehension expressed among fans. After all, not every hyped comeback works (Morbid Angel, anyone?) and guitarist Michael Amott, a crucial contributor to the 1993 classic “Heartwork”, was too committed to Arch Enemy and Spiritual Beggars to stay with the reunited band. All bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer did, however, was prove all doubters wrong with “Surgical Steel”, a stunning return to classic form that simultaneously evokes the groundbreaking brutality of 1991’s epochal “Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious” and the refined melodies and restrained songwriting of “Heartwork”. An album that hits the ground running and gets better and better with each track – its last half is spectacular – “Surgical Steel” already ranks among the most acclaimed metal albums of 2013, and for good reason. It feels as if not a day has passed in the last 20 years.
Needless to say I’m elated to present this exclusive premiere of Carcass’s “Surgical Steel”. Listen via YouTube below, and enjoy one of the best metal albums - some might say the best – of the year.
"Surgical Steel" will be released September 17 on Nuclear Blast. Pre-order it here.
From cutting-edge to pariahs in the blink of an eye
The sound of a slapped bass fades in.
A dub-style drum machine kicks in, lending the track an awkward funk feel.
Someone starts rapping spoken word nonsense like, “What it is and you don’t hear / Just because we decided to fear / After the storm there’s something to fear.”
Okay. Just where are you going with this, Tom?
An upbeat metal groove, far more melodic and positive than usual for this band, kicks in, featuring thin, tinny production that’s a lot glammier than anyone could have imagined.
A trademark, “Ooh,” from Tom, a reminder that this is still the band whose name adorns the stark cover.
“Check this out!”
Tom starts spouting garbled, tone-deaf lines that seem to imply sex atop an arrangement befitting a generic, mousse-abused band from Hollywood.
“You kill me with a thousand kisses…Seduce me…tonight!”
Oh dear GOD, no.
Ask the average metal fan to name the worst heavy metal album of all time, and the answer will almost universally be the same, even if the person you’re asking hasn’t even heard it.
If Tom G. Warrior had anything to say about it, Celtic Frost’s fourth album would be wiped clean off the earth, never to be heard again. Created under the delusion that the Celtic Frost brand could continue after the dissolution of the band in 1987, and released to an astonishing level of scorn by critics and fans, “Cold Lake” has created somewhat of a mystique for itself thanks to the fact that Warrior has disowned it so vociferously. As soon as he said he’ll never re-release it, it became an instant collector’s item. People now want it for the sheer infamy, the perversity of it. After all, it’s not every day that a band that’s regarded as the most cutting edge “avant garde” band in heavy metal one year can put out an album that reduces them to pariahs a mere ten months later.
As the ‘80s wore on metal fans, who had been spoiled by an absolute embarrassment of riches from 1982 through 1988, were becoming more and more difficult to please. After all, during that great era, albums were coming out that irrevocably changed the genre mere months, sometimes weeks apart. By fans’ standards back then, those expectations were fully warranted. And naively, everyone thought that was how it was always going to be.
But the wave had to crest sooner or later. One band’s hubris would take things too far, and Celtic Frost was that band. Having cemented a reputation as true innovators, first with 1984’s “Morbid Tales”, 1985’s colossal “To Mega Therion”, and the audacious 1987 album “Into the Pandemonium”, their level of credibility could not have been higher by the time 1988 rolled around. However, saddled with financial problems from a bad record deal, and with the relationship between guitarist Warrior and longtime collaborator/bassist Martin Eric Ain strained, Celtic Frost imploded, leaving Warrior to pick up the pieces. Much to his later regret, he would form a new four-piece band with drummer Stephen Priestly (who played on “Morbid Tales”), former Coroner guitarist Oliver Amberg, and bassist Curt Victor Bryant, hire mainstream producer Tony Platt, and record a new batch of songs under the Celtic Frost name.
All that did was cue arguably the biggest backlash in metal history. But looking back 25 years, is “Cold Lake” actually as bad as it felt in 1988?
Warrior will tell you an emphatic, “Yes." For all the glam metal gloss, not to mention the teased hair and acid wash denim on the back cover, “Cold Lake” might still feel horribly misguided, but there’s a sense that it could have worked had Warrior’s musical focus been better. At its best, and there are competent moments, Warrior’s compositions feel like grim interpretations of NWOBHM riffery. Just listen to “Petty Obsession”; that riff is quality, yanked straight out of the circa-1981 oeuvre of Iron Maiden, and don’t deny that break after each chorus isn’t catchy as hell. “(Once) They Were Eagles” has genuine muscle, but is reduced to coming across as limp thanks to Platt’s questionable production. “Juices Like Wine” is a total Tygers of Pan Tang knock-off, and “Little Velvet” is shameless Crüe sleaze with more of a Teutonic metal menace. “Blood on Kisses” and “Roses Without Thorns” actually feel menacing, decent exercises in the leather-and-lace shtick that was popular at the time.
Despite other egregious mistakes, such as “Dance Sleazy”, "Seduce Me Tonight", and “Downtown Hanoi”, the most polarizing track on “Cold Lake” was its single “Cherry Orchards”. With how goofy the band looked in the video, the reaction to the song was largely a visceral reaction to the image makeover fans saw onscreen, but for yours truly, the actual song itself has always been a fascinating mess. First of all, that opening riff is killer, and it’s a shame the resulting arrangement didn’t build on that as well as it deserved, but the bridge, featuring an uncredited woman’s voice reciting Warrior’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired lyrics almost redeems the track, intoning, “More than pleasure in ice cold flames / Crying soft, as love flies tame / Swelling tears in diaries of lies / Fading lights, as songs die quiet.”
If there was one thing that was certain in the late-1980s, metalheads were deathly intimidated by sex, especially when depicted in their music. That was the realm of the Sunset Strip bands, and few non-glam acts explored the topic with any level of seriousness outside requisite power ballads, Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive” and Accept’s “London Leatherboys” and “Midnight Mover” being some rare exceptions. There’s no doubt Warrior’s attempt to broach the subject of sex with some sort of artfulness on “Cold Lake” was another reason why Celtic Frost fans, more used to devilry and malevolence, recoiled so severely. It was simply too severe a change of pace for an audience too set in its ways. As J. Bennett astutely observed for Decibel, what Warrior now sings about with Triptykon isn’t all that different than what he sings about on this album. How times have changed.
The fact was, by the end of 1987 Warrior genuinely felt he had more important things to sing and write about than the usual underground metal shtick. He had a girlfriend, was in love, and started spending more time with her than his longtime best friend Ain. In the 2008 documentary “A Dying God”, Warrior candidly admitted the big reason “Cold Lake” failed was because he was happy in his life, and happiness had no business being expressed in Celtic Frost’s music, which was originally formed as an outlet for his misanthropy and malevolence.
In a 1999 interview with Metal Rules, Warrior elaborated on the “Cold Lake” days:
“Some of the songs on there are potentially really cool and we played some of those songs, some of the so-called good ones, on the road and fans never seemed to object when we played them with the usual Frost sound…I was in no state of mind at that time to play true Frost, I just didn't have it. At that time, even if I would of attempted to make an album like ‘Morbid Tales’ or ‘Pandemonium’ I would not have been able to do it. I needed a year to let off steam and to just not think anything dark, anything negative, anything primitive…When '88 came around, all I wanted to do was an album without this fucking emotional baggage. I just wanted to smile and to just basically party like everybody else!
“Of course it was totally wrong to do that under the Frost name and we realized that during the recordings and we approached the record company and our attorney and said "look, let's release this under a different name"...but of course the album had been so expensive, in part because of Tony Platt, that it was just impossible to release it under a different name. The only way we could finance this album was under the Frost name. So it came out, and we knew already it wasn't a Frost album and that it was a catastrophe. That's why it's very hard for me to live with this album. It was done in a very particular frame of mind. I personally only understood that frame of mind at that time.”
Not exactly a bad idea conceptually, but clumsily executed, “Cold Lake” was, artistically, more of a near-miss than a complete disaster. And one thing many tend to forget, or not be aware of at all, was that the video for “Cherry Orchards” received regular airplay in the US and Canada, actually introducing Celtic Frost to a much wider audience than any of their past records. In Europe, though, where the band had a sterling reputation in the underground and where fans clamored for heavier, darker material, they were having none of it. The longtime fans responded to the album in kind, and despite Warrior’s efforts to resort his band’s credibility on 1990’s darker “Vanity/Nemesis”, but by then the damage had been done. Celtic Frost would not return fully until 2006, when a reunited Warrior and Ain would craft a comeback album for the ages.
When Triptykon played in Toronto a few years ago, my colleague Sean Palmerston brazenly asked Tom G. Warrior to sign a vinyl copy of “Cold Lake”. This is what he did. (censored by yours truly)
Soundtrack to new concert film set for September 24 release
As you probably know, Metallica’s heavily hyped concert film/action flick extravaganza “Metallica: Through the Never” arrives in IMAX theaters on September 27, with a wide North American theatrical release following on October 4. Before that, though, on September 24, the band will be releasing the soundtrack live album on their label Blackened Recordings, featuring 16 songs recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta.
Thanks to the good folks at Rolling Stone, the album’s performance of the classic “Master of Puppets” has been posted on Soundcloud. As you can hear below, it’s a good rendition, a warts ‘n’ all treatment yet boasting a very good, punchy mix. James Hetfield puts a little more effort into his lead vocals, and as usual Lars Ulrich drums half-heartedly, probably thinking of his next acting role or what his celebrity friends are doing while struggling to keep time in his drum fills. Par for the course, but it’s “Puppets” for crying out loud, and 27 years later it still packs a bigger punch than any metal released in 2013, even when the band doesn’t sound as powerful as they did back in the day. Either way, it’s well worth a listen, so enjoy.
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