Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speed Kills

Speed. It has long been a feature of metal music. Thrash, death, grind—all are concerned with playing fast and furious as genre feature, not just a band gimmick. Yet some bands go far above and beyond the call of duty in their furious applications of speed. We'll look some of these bands today.

First, why speed? Speed is often a measure of technical proficiency, and musicians throughout the vast array of styles use complex, speedy phrases and licks to demonstrate their talent. Whether in bluegrass & country guitar, like Danny Gatton & Brad Paisley, jazz music with Victor Wooten or John Coltrane, or the classical world of Franz Liszt & Nicoló Paganini, musicians delight to demonstrate their abilities in composing and then performing blazingly fast passages with both precision and feeling. Extreme metal, with its strong emphasis on musicianship, is no different. Speed impresses.

But metal is not merely a technical exercise or a talent establishing test. Metal, unlike classical, country, or even jazz music, is primarily primal. Metal is about power—the power of the subject matter, the power of the listener, and most of all, the power of the musician. What better way to emphasize power than with overwhelming speed? This isn't the elegant speed of a horse in motion, or a bird on the wing. This is the raw, out of control power of an avalanche; the man-made force of a drag racer; the brutal, unstoppable force of a rocket-propelled grenade. Speed in metal is intended not only to impress, but stir your blood. That is why in metal alone do we find the furious speed of the double bass drum. The speed of guitars, basses, and other instruments is matched and sometimes even exceeded by musicians in other genres. But nobody else plays drums as fast as metalheads. It is through this instrument that the metal musician can command chaos and fury into an ordered display of power.

Yet, there is still the balance. Speed alone does not make for the best music. If it did, then the most incredible metal could be produced by computers and drum machines set to 1,000 BPM (yes, such "music" does exist). The trick is to combine speed with feelings other than pure frenzy, feelings that are much more easily elicited at slower tempos. Many famous guitarists, including such famous names as Yngwie Malmsteen or Slayer's Kerry King, have been accused of surrendering too much "feeling" to speed. But how does one express a feeling through a sequence of sixteenth-note triplets at 240 bpm? Is it merely a matter of melody & phrasing? How does the guitar tone effect these things? Isn't it all just subjective anyway? Well, yes. So if you want to go listen to Agoraphobic Nosebleed, by all means do that. Actually, go do that. The album PCP Tornado is only 4:24 seconds long, and you can take that much time out of your life to experience something truly terrifying. Then come back and read about these bands.

Origin - Entity
Art: 4/5
Origin is a band known for its blazing speeds, where they're known at all. In the past, many people have remembered Origin as "that death metal group with the fat, bald singer." For Entity, however, former vocalist James Lee has been replaced by Jason Keyser, who is neither fat nor bald. Hopefully this will do something for the band's public image. It's certainly done plenty for the band's sound, as Jason's vocals on Entity are not only deeper and more powerfully delivered, but fuller in the mix than James's on Antithesis. The rest of the band certainly hasn't slackened off in the slightest, as Origin's raison d'être is to play as many notes as possible as quickly and as accurately as possible. Unlike some bands, however, Origin does this in the context of actual songs, and their albums sound musical, not like a collection of training exercises.

One of the ways that Origin is able to emphasize their speed is by slowing down. As axiomatic as this may seem, variations in speed are absolutely key to keep the human brain amazed by speed, as spending too much time at 280 bpm will leave the listener "speed blind." At first, it seems really fast, and then it just seems par for the course, since the mind cannot hold a contrasting slow tempo in mind for long under such a sonic onslaught. This may seem like an elementary concept, but bands as popular as Dragonforce to bands as obscure as Brain Drill suffer from this predicament. In fact, it took Origin five albums to learn it themselves. Entity contains much more diversity of tempo than even 2008's Antithesis, and this is a great thing for the band. The album is short, and seems to absolutely fly by at 36:31, but that's great for the band, as I've often found myself putting the album on repeat, something I don't usually do with speedy bands like this. They also find many ways to express the speed, whether through innovative guitar solos, advanced drumming patterns, or original riffs. One unique twist that guitarist Paul Ryan often incorporates into his riffs is the use of sweep picked arpeggios. That may not sound unique—everybody and their mothers sweep pick today—but Ryan incorporates his sweeps seamlessly into riffs. They actually are an integral part in the movement and feel of the song, not just gratuitous technical masturbation. Stand-out track "Saliga," a 6:52 epic, demonstrates all the best features in Origin's songwriting. This is a band that has grown not only faster but better with each release over their five albums and fourteen years, and that's amazing.

Grip: 5/5
This album has incredible flow. From the opening "I can't believe they're playing that" tapped lick of "Expulsion of Fury," through seven-minute masterpiece "Saliga," to the fade-out riffs of "Evolution of Extinction," the album never feels dull or bogged down. Indeed, when it's over, you will probably put it on to spin completely again, because it is that strong. Antithesis had its two or three riffs that have stuck in my mind even for three years, but I almost never listened to the entire album start-to-finish. As always, the musicianship is astounding. It's almost unbelievable that these men can play this many notes and not miss a single one, but it's even more astounding that they can do it in a song that sounds like it has purpose and drive. This album gets you pumped and ready to take on challenges. "Saliga" is a track that will undoubtedly stay in my rotation for years to come.

Brain Drill - Quantum Catastrophe
Art: 3/5
Brain Drill is a band known for its blazing speeds...oh, wait. Of course, I already gave away my opinion of this band in my review of Entity. These Californians released Quantum Catastrophe in May of 2010, so I've had an entire year to form my opinion of it. Brain Drill's purpose is to play the fastest, most technically difficult music that they can dream up, and they do that well. They are undoubtedly talented musicians who are skilled at what they do, but what they do is monotonous. I would compare Origin's music to Bruce Lee giving a martial arts demonstration, and Brain Drill's to a professional body builder who lifts things up and puts them down. Yes, the body builder is moving a lot of weight. Yes, Brain Drill are playing a lot of complicated notes really fast, but why? It doesn't seem to accomplish anything. It's less a piece of art, and more of a building plan. It isn't even that Brain Drill doesn't know how to turn down their metronomes. They occasionally turn the tempos down, usually at the end of songs, but even when they do, it isn't a relief from the constant barrage. "Beyond Bludgeoned" is a fantastic name for one of their songs, because that's exactly how you'll feel after listening to this album.

While I certainly have leveled a lot of criticism at the band for not knowing how to write, I must praise them for knowing how to play. The kind of insanity that these guys dish up is quite impressive, especially the two-handed-tapping lines on the six-string bass. That's difficult. Not only that, but the ability to hold all that material in your mind in order to perform it is also something impressive, as I can't distinguish one Brain Drill song from another. Who knows, maybe at live shows they just count off when to start playing, wail on their instruments, and then stop at a prearranged point. I don't know.

Grip: 2/5
It's really difficult to hold a song in your mind when you can't remember any riffs. It's really hard to hold an album in your mind when you can't remember any songs. Still "Beyond Bludgeoned" usually comes to my mind when I think of Brain Drill, if just for that particular line in the chorus, and that I find the word "bludgeoned" to be awesome. Unlike the Origin album, Catastrophe exhausts the listener, not pumps him up. I've only sat through a complete front-to-back play-through of the album once, mainly because the album closer is 11 minute behemoth "Quantum Catastrophe," and that can truly be a chore to work through. The best song on the album is "Awaiting Immanent Destruction," the only track that clocks in under three minutes, because, as grindcore players learned long ago, less is more when it comes to this particular level of ferocity. Much longer than that, and the listener begins to get worn, which diminishes the impact of the music. Still, Brain Drill is a relatively new band on the scene, with only two albums to their name. Their album isn't that much different from Origin's early work, and so we can only hope that the members of Brain Drill learn to use their prodigious talents to do something other than "lift things up and put them down."

Hate Eternal - Phoenix Amongst The Ashes
Art: 4/5
Unlike the previous two bands, Hate Eternal isn't known so much for its blinding speed as for its burning fury. Eric Rutan and company certainly play fast, but they do it with a unique style of riffage that always sounds more "earthy" than bands like Origin and Brain Drill, who can tend towards the cerebral. Their last album, 2008's Fury and Flames, aptly demonstrated this tendency, but was plagued by a less  than flattering production that over-emphasized the drums to the detriment of the guitar parts. And believe me, Hate Eternal is a guitarist's band. Since Erik Rutan, formerly of Morbid Angel, is the primary songwriter for the band, this isn't surprising (I'm sure that Erik is glad now that he only contributed to Domination and Gateways To Annihilation, two great MA albums). And what riffs they are! There's always something interesting happening with the guitars, and the bass doesn't just copy-cat them either, but although the bass is present in the mix, it doesn't have a very rich tone, meaning it easily gets subjugated to the roar of the bass drum. Drummer Jade Simonetto is a young drummer,  but a monster on the kit. His performance on Phoenix is more dramatic than on Fury, and although he doesn't have the variation of Origin's drummer John Longstreth, he manages to avoid the mechanic qualities of Brain Drill.

Phoenix makes you want to smash things. The passion that Rutan and his bandmates put into this album flows straight out of the speakers and into the listener. I think this is the best kind of death metal. Not music like Brain Drill that exhausts you, or even music like Obscura, that causes you to gaze at the stars in wonder, but music that inspires you to howl at the heavens and tear the stars from their moorings, because your world has been desecrated by nature, and so you will destroy her back. No, I'm not saying "listening to Hate Eternal makes you want to pollute." That's stupid. I'm talking about something bigger than that. Something like cracking the Earth to the core and letting molten rock burst forth in a terrifying geyser to consume all living flesh while you tower over your enemies, a Lord of Monstrosity. Phoenix Amongst The Ashes sounds something like that.

Grip: 4/5
Phoenix is full of pulses and surges, giving it a boiling, seething sound. Unique applications of riffs and patterns stick in the listener's mind, like the riffs that open "The Art of Redemption," played on the high E string, instead of the low E, giving the song a screeching hellkite ferocity. Erik's vocal delivery is powerful, but I haven't found any incredibly memorable lines like "Behold Judas" from 2005's I, Monarch (my favorite Hate Eternal album). Standout tracks are "Phoenix Amongst the Ashes," aforementioned "The Art of Redemption," and album opener (ignoring intro track "Rebirth") "The Eternal Ruler." The guitar solos are well done because they recognize that the riffs and drums are already tearing forward with unstoppable speed, and so they don't have anything to prove in the speed department, letting them focus on melody and phrasing instead of gratuitous masturbation. Which isn't to say that there aren't fast and technically challenging solos. Because there are.  Phoenix shows that Rutan is back. He's been through flames, but like the phoenix, he's back again. The fury, of course, never departs.

That's all for this week. Next week we'll look at some of the best black metal releases so far this year. It's been a great year for death metal, but an even better one for black metal. Out of 98 albums I've heard so far this year, I've heard 10 death albums that I would rate a 8 or above, and 12 black metal albums 8 and above. If you expand the scores to 7-10, the numbers stand at 14 death albums and 19 black. I can't wait to see what comes out in the second half of the year.

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