Friday, June 10, 2011

When Great Bands Go Bad

Sometimes, good bands go bad. We all know it happens, and we can't predict why or to who it will happen next. Bands that have been interesting or even innovative put out albums that are dull and cookie cutter. Black Label Society recorded Shot to Hell, and Children of Bodom put out Blooddrunk. But then there are albums that are truly ghastly. Bands that defined genres, that produced albums essential to every metal collection, whose names we had tattooed on our chests and whose members we had named our children after put out albums so abysmal that they become bywords among metalheads and drag their creators down from their legendary status for years to come, if not forever. Today we will look at three of those albums. Since these are, admittedly, not good albums, I'm going to deviate from my typical Art/Grip scoring mechanism, and instead look at how bad the album is (Suckage, with 1 being "cringe inducing" and 5 being "absolutely ghastly") and how we would have responded if a different band had recorded it (Second Chance, with 1 being "they would suck too" and 5 being "cool new band!").

Metallica - St. Anger
Suckage: 5/5
St. Anger, to me, is the ultimate betrayal of what a band can be. Metallica was my first metal band. Metallica inspired me to play guitar. Master of Puppets was one of the greatest thrash albums ever created, and I actually own it on vinyl, even though I don't own a record player (it's a 2008 repressing, but if I ever find an original...). And it's not just Master of Puppets. Every album they made through The Black Album is a five-star incredible piece of music, and even the Load and Re-Load albums, and the various cover and live albums have their songs and moments, although they're obviously a different style from the first few releases. In 2003, when I heard Metallica would be producing their first album in six years, I was excited. Since I was 10 years old when Re-Load came out, this would be the first Metallica album I had been able to experience from Day One. And then I heard "St. Anger."

The music sucked. The riffs were sloppy and simplistic, the songs were repetitive and boring, the drums sounded like cans, the lyrics were more inane than Linkin Park (yes, I listened to Linkin Park when I was 16). Worst of all, where were the fucking guitar solos? How was I supposed to inspired and driven by this piece of mediocrity? And it wasn't just the album - there was the pathetic Some Kind of Monster documentary two years later that just drove the nails in further. Who could find heroes in the bunch of pussies that the members of Metallica were revealed to be? I still managed to hang onto my respect for Kirk (at least he didn't seem to have the ego of Lars or the drug & alcohol problems of James), but my image of the band was devastated. Thankfully, in 2003 I discovered Children of Bodom, Black Label Society, and Lamb of God, so I still found plenty of sources to draw inspiration from, and began my journey into the heart of extreme metal.

Second Chance: 1/5
Even if another band produced this album, it would still be fraught with issues. For one thing, the album is seventy five minutes and one second long, and contains about twenty minutes worth of unique musical content. I'm not even exaggerating. Each song has one verse, one chorus, and perhaps a bridge, and each of those pieces is repeated enough times to get a 6, 7 or even 8 minute song ("Some Kind of Monster," "Invisible Kid," and "All Within My Hands" clock in at 8:28, 8:30, and 8:48 respectively). And each verse or chorus may consist of only one or two lines repeated over and over. Yes, I understand that kind of simplicity worked for the old delta blues masters. But that's comparing apple pie to cow pie. They're both in the general category of "pie" (music), but one is a delectable pastry, and the other is just shit. Then there's that snare. CLANK CLANK CLANK! You'd think that somebody would have told Lars that snares have snares attached to the bottom of them for a reason. That's why they're called snares. But no. If I had a friend in a band who wrote a song like "Invisible Kid," or produced an album that sounded as hollow as St. Anger, I'd at least have the common courtesy to tell him how fucking stupid he was being before he went out and made a fool of himself on stage. And if he had to hire an army of therapists and filmmakers in order to produce said album, I'd go home and cry because if he had wanted to throw away money, I would have been happy to use it for him.

Cryptopsy - The Unspoken King
Suckage: 3/5
The reaction to this album was absolutely astounding. It's completely possible that the reaction to St. Anger was even more extreme, and I just didn't experience it, because in 2003 I wasn't involved in the extreme metal internet scene. But I doubt it, and here's why. Metallica may be a metal band, but they're also one of the most popular bands in existence today, and certainly the best selling. Not only that,  but The Black Album, Load, and Re-Load had already shown an extreme stylistic shift away from the old thrash days.That means that the most close-minded, underground metalheads had already rejected Metallica years ago, and it is that kind of person who reacts the most vehemently when their beloved band changes. You see, Cryptopsy weren't uber-popular thrash pioneers. Instead, they were a fringe brutal death metal group from Quebec who recorded an album in 1996 called None So Vile. The vocalist for the group at that time was a lovely man named Lord Worm, and they used to sing about destroying Jesus and other ultra-brutal topics. And by "sing," I mean grunt incomprehensibly. The musicians were incredibly talented, however, and None So Vile developed a strong cult following. After that album, however, Lord Worm left the band and Mike DiSalvo joined as the vocalist. Cryptopsy put out a couple albums with DiSalvo, developing their incredibly hectic riffing style. In 2005, Lord Worm rejoined the band and they released Once Was Not, which featured more furious blasting by drummer Flo Mounier, complex guitar riffs drowned out by the sound of the drums, and Lord Worm grunting about this and that. In other words, par for the course. Then they kicked Lord Worm out of the band and released The Unspoken King in 2008. And the first song they released on their MySpace page, leading up to the release of the album, was "Bemoan the Martyr." Which is, without doubt, an absolutely ghastly song. It starts out with weird electronics, a basic rock beat, and a simple grooving  bass line. Then new vocalist, Matt McGachy, moans out his first line, sounding for all the world like he is singing "You made a mistake." Oh, boy, did he.

The line he actually sang was "You may have escaped, but you've only delayed your fate." These  still proved to be accurate words for the band, as the fans went absolutely bonkers. "Bemoan the Martyr" is a horrendous song, and releasing it at all, never mind first, was a terrible mistake for Cryptopsy. But overall, although the band did simplify its sound, the stylistic shift between King and Once Was Not wasn't actually as dramatic as that between Load and St. Anger. In fact, electronic elements had already been introduced in Once Was Not, but the fans were absolutely infuriated that the band would dare incorporate metalcore (i.e. HotTopic popular) elements into their music. The band included clean singing! And breakdowns!  "Oh my fucking Satan! What happened to my Cryptopsy?" Fans began deriding the band as "Coretopsy" or even "Craptopsy," referring to the album as "The Unspeakable King" and saying "Cryptopsy is dead." What really made the situation horrible, however, was when guitarist Alex Auburn gave interviews to online music publications where he absolutely blasted fans for not loving the new material. He also lambasted Lord Worm as an incompetent vocalist who didn't care about the band and could barely perform that material in the studio and didn't even know the words to the songs to perform them live, and praised new vocalist Matt McGachy as much more talented than Worm (actually named Dan Greening). Now, I agree with Auburn that Lord Worm is not a good vocalist, but it's simply bad form to deride a former bandmate in public like that, and absolutely unacceptable to tell off your fans, not to mention just plain stupid to praise a man who obviously couldn't sing to save his life.

Second Chance: 3/5
I'll be honest. I actually don't think that The Unspoken King is that bad. There are some great riffs on it, and the musicianship is still top notch, although the production unfortunately hides a lot of the guitars and bass behind the sound of Flo's drum kit. But that's always been the case with Cryptopsy albums. If this album had been a band's first release, I would have said it was a good, solid release, and I'd look forward to seeing where the band went in the future. I would have (and do) recommend that McGachy never sing again, but he can scream relatively well. I don't necessarily hate the deathcore style, and as far as that style goes, King is actually a good release. But it wasn't what fans wanted from Cryptopsy, as evidenced by the 16% rating the album has based on 15 fan reviews on Encyclopedia Metallum (as opposed to the 48% St. Anger has based on 21 fan reviews). Real critics who I respect, like the writers at, gave the album 5.6 out of 10, which isn't that much worse than Once Was Not's 6.8.

Morbid Angel - Illud Divinium Insanus
Suckage: 4/5

Morbid Angel has the distinction of being one of the first death metal bands. Anywhere. Of all time. Their demos in 1986 and ’87, followed by debut album Altars of Madness in 1989 put this Florida group at the very beginning of the scene, along with Death, Autopsy, Obituary, and Deicide. They produced several other classic death releases—Blessed Are the Sick, Covenant, and Domination—with their original lineup, and were even able to produce another landmark album in 2000—Gateways To Anihilation—with new vocalist/bassist Steve Tucker replacing David Vincent. Well, in 2011, Vincent is back in the band, and Morbid Angel have released their first album in eight years. And what a pile it is. In fact, hearing this album is what inspired me to write about these other two metal disappointments. Yes, bands change and evolve. It’s not unreasonable for an album created twenty-five years after a band’s creation to sound significantly different from their first release (unless you’re AC/DC). But this is Morbid Angel, people! Fans expect death metal from a group like this. MA releasing this album is something like if The Rolling Stones had released Backstreet Boys. Sure, there are plenty of people teenage girls loved that album, but it wouldn’t have appealed to fans of The Stones, nor would it have been appropriate for them to adopt that style.

The album the Floridians have unleashed upon their helpless followers does contain four death metal songs of varying quality, but they are the shortest songs on the album and the other seven tracks (and 70% of the album’s hour runtime) are so horrible they boggle the mind. It seems that what the band was trying to do was bring some diversity and excitement to the music by incorporating industrial elements. Okay, I listen to industrial. I like industrial. I even enjoy industrial metal, and death and industrial can be combined with fantastic results, as Australian group The Amenta clearly demonstrates. But instead of drawing on good industrial for influence, it seems that MA have decided that Limp Bizkit would be a good influence for death metal album. With track titles like “I Am Morbid,” “Too Extreme!” (exclamation point included) and “Radikult,” you have to wonder if these 46-48 year old men have 14 year old sons who they let name their songs. These songs are painful to listen to, even if you’ve never heard another Morbid Angel song in your life, and I cut my teeth on Trey Azagtoth’s riffs back when I first started learning to tremolo pick. The lyrics on these songs are the worst kind of fake tough guy posing. If you have to tell everybody how morbid and extreme you are, guess what, you’re neither. Morbid Angel have never been poetic lyrical masters, and have often fallen prey to what I refer to as "Satanic dick wagging," but at least they used to have a dick to wag. Check out these lyrics from “Too Extreme!” Keep in mind that these are the lyrics that open the album.

This is your one warning...

Pounding, pounding... You feel it
Burning, burning this lava
Scorching weakened hearts be troubled
They scream we're too extreme
Guess what. The song is six minutes long. The drums sound like a cheap drum machine, the guitars play a few power chords, and it goes on and on. Then there’s “Destructos Vs. The Earth/Attack.” Narration-accompanied metal about alien invasions was funny when Devin Townsend did it, because he’s out of his mind. Morbid Angel wasted seven minutes on it here. Seven and a half minute “Radikult” is even worse, featuring a hip hop beat, a riff copied from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” and such lyrical gems as
We’re living hardcore and radical
We'll always be maniacal and animal
They fear us cause we're physical irrational
Our radikult is thriving!
“Radikult” is so bad that I can barely imagine that the band actually produced it. If it was a hidden track at the end of the album, I’d laugh along with the joke, but there’s no indication that the band is anything less than serious. It’s fitting that the album closes with a song called “Mea Culpa.” You’re so guilty it’s not even worth a trial.

Second Chance: 2/5
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, there are four good songs on Illud Divinium Insanus. “Existo Vulgoré,” “Blades for Baal,” “Nevermore,” and “Beauty Meets Beast” are all solid death metal tracks. “Blades for Baal” is even a worthy Morbid Angel track. If MA had released an EP with these four tracks on it, I would have given it full marks and looked forward to their next release. So obviously, if another band released those tracks, I would be duly impressed. But the other tracks? “10 More Dead” would sound shitty if Drowning Pool released it. The “boom boom” of “I Am Morbid” would be one of the worst tracks on nu-metal disappointment Soulfly, and “Radikult” would be shameful even if it was explicitly labeled a joke. “Destructos” is amusing in a way, and might give Rob Zombie a little bit of excitement on his next album. Closer “Mea Culpa” is probably the only place where the experimentation produces anything that I would interested in hearing developed. The fact is Illud Divinium Insanus would be a turd no matter who released it, and it’s painful to see a band who shaped one of my favorite genres end up like this.

And thankfully, that brings us to an end of horrible music for now. Next time, I'll review something that's actually good.

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