Friday, March 29, 2013

Into the Void: Obsessed By Cruelty

Sodom - Obsessed By Cruelty (Jun, 1986)
It would be hard to overestimate the influence that this album had on the scene. But in order to understand the album, you need to know a little bit of history. At this point, Sodom still didn't have a permanent guitarist. They had recorded In the Sign of Evil with Josef Dominic (stage name "Grave Violator"), but when it came time to put together their full length album, the axeman who laid down the riffs was Michael Wulf (named "Destructor"). The album was so slapdash and haphazard that the record company said "This is shit. Go do it again."

So the band went back to a different studio, this time with Uwe Christophers (named "Assator") and redid the album. The original recording of the album was given to Metal Blade for distribution in America, and the re-done version was pressed in Europe. Of course, it gets even more complicated, since all the CD reissues of the album have used the inferior US release (the original recording). Thanks to the magic of the internet, however, it is relatively easy to hear the Uwe Christophers copy of the album without tracking down a $50 vintage vinyl. And for this review, I've decide to focus on the European release, since that is the release that would have been available to bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone in Norway.

At this point, Sodom really doesn't sound like a band yet, and that's understandable, given their constant guitarist rotation (they would go to record Persecution Mania and Agent Orange with a third guitarist; one Frank Blackfire). On the US release, they just sound like a bunch of disillusioned teenagers flailing around in a garage. On the Euro release, however, the band tightens up their sound, particularly the drumming. They sound invigorated again, like they did on In the Sign of Evil. Yes, they still sound like flailing teenagers, but they sound excited to be flailing, rather than indifferent. Sodom followed the horrific trend of putting a pitch-shifted spoken word intro over some "ominous" music, but thankfully on the Euro release the intro is half as long and not quite as stupid. In either case, it's skipable. The real meat is the first song "Deathlike Silence." This song is the album. Good enough to name a record label after? Absolutely. The chorus is unbelievably infectious. It helps that the refrain "Deathlike...Silence!" is actually distinguishable, and that brings me to the weak part of this album.

The fact is that while there are a few good tracks besides "Deathlike Silence," ("Equinox," "Volcanic Slut," and title track "Obsessed by Cruelty" spring to mind), nothing else is memorable like "Deathlike Silence," and the reason for this is plain. Nothing is distinguishable. The guitars are simply 40 minutes of finger fluttering. As I listen to the album, I can't help but wish for the guitarist to just dig in to those strings! It's like he's completely unsure of anything he's playing, and thinks that if he wiggles around a lot, it will sound convincing. Frankly, it doesn't. There are definitely tremolo riffs and phrasings that hint at both the madness of Mayhem and the Teutonic death/thrash yet to come, but for the most part, the sound is weak, particularly when compared to In the Sign of Evil, which had an ultra-sharp and violent guitar presence. The vocals are also extremely weak because they're buried under a warbling reverb effect (although not as bad as the US release), and this renders them nearly devoid of vocal hooks (with "Deathlike Silence" being the one notable exception). Still, although I criticise it, many of the stylistic choices on Obsessed By Cruelty will be imitated by bands that I admire, like Mayhem.

I find myself wanting to like Obsessed By Cruelty a lot more than I do. Intellectually, it seems like I ought to like it, but it just seems so samey to me. Between the extremely weak guitar sound (thankfully for the band, Sodom reintroduced the ultra-violence to the guitars on Persecution Mania) and the vocals that sound so disconnected, even "good" tracks like "Obsessed by Cruelty" fade from the mind almost immediately upon listening. I'm glad that Euronymous and his friends were influenced by this album, because I certainly wouldn't have been.

Final Verdict: 4/10 - I originally thought I would score the album higher, but it's just not as good as In the Sign of Evil. If it had more tracks like "Deathlike Silence," I could get behind it more powerfully. But at this point, Sodom sounds like a band still waiting to become something.

And that's all that I have for 1986, believe it or not. 1987 brought us some fantastic things, including what some consider to be black metal's finest moment, so we'll be jumping into that as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Into the Void: The Final Separation

Bulldozer - The Final Separation (Feb, 1986)

I don't think this album is all that great, but the development of the band in the one year since The Day of Wrath is remarkable. They skip the stupid album intro this time, instead going with an excellent music intro, with some clean arpeggios and choral "oooohs" that sounds kind of thrash, but also kind of black metal. This transitions cleanly into "The Final Separation," which has that sort of Motorhead feel to it. The arpegios from the intro come back throughout the song. I'm quite impressed with the songwriting here, particularly when comparing it to The Day of Wrath. The next three tracks, "Ride Hard, Die Fast," "The Cave," and "Sex Symbol's Bullshit" also have that Venom/Motorhead rocking feel that is typical of these early bands, with "Ride Hard" being the standout of the album.

The thing is, The Final Separation sounds to me a lot like a poor Italian man's Metallica. It's kind of like they spent all of 1985 listening to Ride the Lightning and Kill Em All. You hear this influence particularly on ten minute epic "The Death of Gods." You can definitely tell that the band is heading into full Thrash territory, and by their next album, the Venom worship is completely gone. I find the vocals on this album to be one of the worst parts. A.C. Wild's unfamiliarity with English is painfully obvious on tracks like "The Cave" and "Sex Symbol's Bullshit," and his accent makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between "St. John" and "Satan," for some pretty hilarious lyrical misunderstanding on my part. Also, it's come to my understanding that the original pressing of this album had an absolutely horrific production that sounded like it was coming through an AM radio. The copy I've listened to is the remastered one from 2007, so the original listeners would have heard a much more lo-fi version—something that could be seen as a black metal influence.

Final Verdict: 2/10 - Nothing particularly original here, this album is about hating the Catholic church and having a huge dick. Unfortunately, the first assertion is the only one I actually believe.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Into the Void: Bestail Devastation

Sepultura - Bestial Devastation EP (Dec, 1985)

What? Sepultura? No, they're a thrash band! And Morbid Visions is kind of a proto-death album. Yeah, well, this isn't Morbid Visions, is it? Look, if you don't believe that Sepultura was a black metal band in 1985, I dare you to watch this video, then tell me I'm full of shit (thanks to Invisible Oranges for bringing it to my attention). Not counting Sabbat, who would quickly ditch their fourth member, this quartet of Brazilians are the first non-trio we've encountered on our journey. And look, they've even got awesome stage names—Possessed, Skullcrusher, Destructor, and Tormentor. Max Cavalera was only 16 at that time this album came out (released as a split in 1985 with fellow Brazillians Overdose, and as a stand-alone EP in 1990).

And my god, what music. It does start with a retarded little spoken intro about Satan and the Lords of Death (I am sure I've mentioned how stupid I find this trend), but then "Bestial Devestation" expodes from the speakers. Those tremolo riffs! Those vocals! It could almost be a Mayhem song. You can definitely hear the thrash and death sounds in here, but that's metal for you. But the real highlight is "Antichrist." I couldn't believe it when I heard it the first time. Well, hell-o! It's the first proper blast beat that we've heard yet. The only earlier recorded example I can find of a blast beat is S.O.D.'s "Milk," which came out 4 months earlier (and is slower than Skullcrusher's beat). There are only two other tracks—"Necromancer" and "Warriors of Death—and they continue in the same vein. Raw, 100% intense heavy metal. Sepultura have something here that no other band had yet captured, even the great Bathory. That's what comes of growing up in an oppresive society. In their pictures from the time, the band looks like little kids. They don't sound like it.

Final Verdict: 7/10 - four tracks, 15 minutes. A whole new sound. It's unbelievable that the same man who brought us this gave us Soulfly only 11 years later.

And that's 1985 wrapped up! I only have two albums on my list for 1986, and then we start getting into the really good stuff. The second wave (TRVE black metal) is approaching!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Into the Void: Endless Pain

Kreator - Endless Pain (Oct, 1985)

Kreator is, of course, one of the great Teutonic thrash acts, and like Sodom and Destruction, their early work played a big part in what would become the sound of black metal. And when I say that, I mean that bands like Mayhem and Immortal would draw from this sort of thing—contemporary black metal artist Quorthon hated them, claiming that he couldn't listen to a Kreator album without laughing. And it is sloppy, certainly. The band members at the time were 18 and 19, and Endless Pain sounds like a trio of teenagers just slamming it as hard as they can. Yes, another trio. While Kreator would later go on to fame as a four-piece, adding the second guitar what I consider to be their best album of the 80s, Terrible Certainty, when they started out it was just Mille Petrozza on guitar, Rob Fioretti on bass, and Ventor (if your name was Jürgen, wouldn't you take a stage name?) on the drums.

Then there's that odd little detail of Mille and Ventor trading off on vocal duties. Ventor gets the odd-numbered tracks, and Mille gets the even-numbered ones. Guess which ones are the most black metal? Mille's signature rasp is nearly as aggressive as Quorthon's, and is certainly worlds apart from anything that Sodom or Destruction were doing. Mille's songs are, almost without exception, faster, sharper, and more out of control than Ventor's. Other than that, though, there there isn't that much variation in the sound. I laugh ever time "Son of Evil" transitions into "Flag of Hate," because it sounds like the same damn riff. For 1985, though, Kreator was extreme. Tremolo guitars, barking vocals, crazy tempos, almost blast beats? It's all here. Sure, Kreator would go on to achieve so much more (and they're still kicking major ass today), but I found myself digging Endless Pain a lot more than I expected to.

Final Verdict: 4/10 for Ventor's tracks, 6/10 for Mille's tracks. So you could call it a 5 overall.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Into the Void: Early EPs Part 3

Sabbat - Sabbat EP (June, 1985)

This is not the Sabbat you are thinking of. Those guys are a thrash band from the UK. These guys are a black metal band from...Japan! Yes, Japan. I'm not really sure what Japanese pop music sounded like in 1985, but if it was anything like it is today, this must have terrified them.  This release is not really an EP, it's a 7" single, with two songs—"Black Fire," and "Mion's Hill"—and they only pressed 300 of them. I mean, that alone is pretty black metal. Did I mention that it was released by "Evil Records"? Thankfully, the Internet has made these tracks available for our listening.

While they would later go on to become a trio, the band that recorded these songs was actually a quartet, featuring Gezol, Ozny, Elizaveat, and Valvin. What the fuck kind of names those are, I don't know. But so far so good for black metal tropes. The music itself has more of a simplistic thrash sound to my ears, and the vocals are just kind of...there. Gezol had yet to really develop a harsh vocal style, although he would by the band's full-length release in 1991. Still, I felt this pair of songs was fairly significant in being the first Japanese black metal. "Black Fire" is the catchier of the two tracks, and has the most intense vocal delivery.
Final Verdict: 3/10 - the album is a starting place, and not much else

Celtic Frost - Emperor's Return (Aug, 1985)

Tom G Warrior was on a creative kick back then, throwing down the Emperor's Return EP only a few months before Celtic Frost's first full length, To Mega Therion. The evershifting lineup of Celtic Frost was, at this time, Mr. Warrior on guitars and vocals, with Reed St. Mark on the skins and Martin E. Ain on bass. The album is, of course, bass-thick and dynamically rich—two hallmarks of Celtic Frost that don't seem to have had much of an effect on the black metal scene.

While I prefer Morbid Tales, Emperor's Return does include "Circle of the Tyrants," which is one of my favourite Frost songs, and, I think, features obvious black metal elements. The track contains high-speed drumming and tremolo guitars, as well as an aggressive vocal. The song would be re-recorded for To Mega Therion, and I think the version there doesn't have that same "black" feeling to it. "Visual Aggression" has an even more black metal sound, starting out with a frenzied tremolo riff and breaking into madcap drums and strangled vocal barks.

Final Verdict: The more that I work on this project, the more I hear Celtic Frost influence in later bands. It would be a grievous oversight to not include them in the first wave. That said, I don't want to rate them, as they are just as much doom and death metal as they are black metal, and so the rating wouldn't be a fair comparion to the other albums I'm reviewing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Into the Void: The Return......

Bathory - The Return (Of The Darkness and Evil) (May, 1985)

Back in the 80s (and into the 90s), bands didn't make us wait around three or four years between releases. Bathory's second album hit a mere eight months after their debut. Since the first album, bassist Andreas Johnasson had replaced Rickard Bergman. Quorthon later told Pit Magazine that he knew that these musicians (including drummer Stefan Larrson who also hit the skins on the debut) "couldn't be real Bathory members," so the photos of the band were only ever of Quorthon himself. The album was recorded in the same studio that the Scandinavian Metal Attack albums had been recorded (and Bathory was mixed) and produced Börje "Boss" Forsberg (Quorthon denied the rumor that Börje was his father). Fosberg would go on to produce all of Bathory's albums.

The obvious first comparison for The Return is with Bathory. Like the older album, The Return begins with a three minute ambient intro. The first song "Total Destruction," however, has a much stronger presence than "Hades, the first track on Bathory. Why? For one thing, the guitar tone is denser. The bass is, surprisingly (or less surpisingly, given what we know about the future of black metal), less prominent in the mix. The drums are a big improvement over the last album, as they pop right out, giving the album some vertical space. This is how it sounds to me, so I'm just using the words that come to mind. Quorthon's vocals are the largest improvement, though, as it no longer sounds like he's shouting from the other room. Yes, there's still some reverb on him, but he sounds fully engaged with the music. Additionally, while the lyrical themes of The Return aren't too far from Bathory, but the lyrics are much more poetic, and therefore sinister instead of campy.

Every riff on The Return is a classic to my ears. It's one of those odd, future-tense sorts of things, because obviously all the songs that I'm reminded of were recorded years after this. I doubt anyone at the time could have guessed how influential the album would be. Songs like "The Wind of Mayhem" almost reach blast beat levels. You can tell that Larrson is playing at the peak of his abilities on this recording, and there are some moments of sloppiness, but this adds to the raw character of the album, right along with Quorthon's unrehersed solos (which Euronomous would immitate to great effect in the 90s). The final track, which reveals the full album name, "The Return of the Darkness and Evil," is even stuffed full of tremolo-picked riffs, without the thrash sound of Sodom or Destruction. The Return is also ten whole minutes longer than Bathory, clocking in at 36 minutes, which is a great length for an album.

Final Verdict: 7/10 - Bathory is moving black metal in a powerful direction, but they have even further to climb

Monday, March 11, 2013

Into the Void: The Day of Wrath

Bulldozer - The Day of Wrath (Mar 1985)
There isn't a lot black about this album as a whole, but it undoubtably was listened to by those in the scene, and has one really great song, so I'll cover it. Guess what? It's another trio! Hailing from Italy, Bulldozer makes full use of papist flavours to their anti-religious ranting. From the artwork to the Latin exorcism intro track to the lyrics, Bulldozer sounds...well, Italian. In the same way that the sound of Bathory reflects the cold northern circle (yes, I know they're Swedish, not Norwegian), Bulldozer reflects Mediteranian wine country. How does that work for black metal? Not very well, honestly.

You can tell that the band is fed up with the Roman Catholic church. Who can really blame them? But they completely lack that grimness that the northern bands would capture. Still, album opener "Cut Throat" sounds more black than thrash, with skank beats and rapid legato guitar riffs that are, actually, similar to what Quothon was playing. Bulldozer is extremely sloppy. They seem to find it hard to hold a constant tempo, and while sometimes it seems by design, sometimes it doesn't. Bassist and vocalist A.C. Wild doesn't so much shout (a la Cronos) or shriek (a la Quothon) as he does grumble into a box fan (probably a phaser, not a fan, but it's a funnier mental image). Bulldozer's own influence seems to draw heavily from Judas Priest, particularly on tracks like "Insurrection of the Living Damned."

Honestly, the album is too long. Not counting the intro, it's eight tracks that take up nearly 39 minutes, and none of them particularly stand out, aside from "Whiskey Time," just for the sheer party-attitude joy of it. It reminds me the most of Van Halen with a little Iron Maiden thrown in, but it's also, in some ways, the blackest song on the album, just because of the speed and attitude that they put into it. The drums almost play blast beats, and A.C. Wild actually gets his vocals above a grumble when he shouts "It's fuckin' whiskey time!" The next track, "Welcome Death," is also interesting, but has much more of a doom vibe to it than a black one. And "Fallen Angel" reminds me heavily of "Exodus" by some band who put out an album called Bonded By Blood.

If I wasn't for this project, I wouldn't have listened to The Day of Wrath more than once (aside from, perhaps, "Whiskey Time"). I can probably count on one hand the number of Italian metal bands that I listen to. I don't think Bulldozer will be joining their ranks any time soon. That said, I will be covering their second album in 1986, which is much more black metal.

Final Verdict: While I'm sure it's something that the bands were listening to back then, to my ears it has less to do with black metal than Venom.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Into the Void: Early EPs Part 2

Let's talk for a minute about what black metal is, and why I have the balls to say that bands like Celtic Frost and Venom aren't black metal. To me, "black metal" has a very recognizable and distinctive sound that was mostly defined by the Norwegians in the early 90s. As Fenriz said in 2003, "In the beginning we [the Helvete crew] were a music police, and could freeze out bands. We were so few in the scene that if we did not like a new band, then we could have a general opinion about them. If we thought they sucked, it would be a hard time for them to get through."

Obviously, this "first wave" of black metal are the bands that influnced Mayhem and Darkthrone, etc, because those bands couldn't just spring out of nowhere. And Fenriz, at the least, has always been adament that the music they make is a continuation of real 80s metal. Shagrath says that "black metal is...bands like Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost. That is true black metal...." Then on the other hand, you have guys like Tom G. Warrior who don't care about those kind of labels at all. And Lemmy says that Motorhead isn't metal. So, I mean, at one level, it's all semantics and labels applied by critics vs. bands (see this video on whether Rush is heavy metal or not). I choose to go with a more modern and critically applied label. I think that artists are sometimes the worst people to allow to define music. They ought to stick to creating it, and whatever they want to call it, that's fine with me. 

Celtic Frost - Morbid Tales EP (Oct 1984)

Tom G. Warrior didn't waste any time between the end of Hellhammer and the start of Celtic Frost, as Morbid Tales was released in the same year as Apocalyptic Raids. Now, I've listened to Morbid Tales more than any other Celtic Frost release, and, Shagrath not withstanding, I don't think it's black metal. I don't think that any other band really sounds like Celtic Frost, and I understand why they've been called "avant garde" before. I think it's a bit misleading to call them "ahead of the curve," though, because nobody ever followed that curve to catch up with them.

So what did black metal get from Celtic Frost that they couldn't get from Bathory? Well, for one thing, the drums are much more active than in Bathory, including double bass drum lines. "Danse Macabre" has a horror movie atmosphere that certainly shows up again later in the movement. The spoken female line in "Return to the Eve" makes me think of Cradle of Filth, honestly, but that's something that we'll take up later. Frankly, I think that Morbid Tales has more to offer doom metal than black metal. The bass is extremely prominent on this album, which makes sense considering Warrior's own views on music (I read in an interview that he gave Guitar World magazine back in 2006 that he originally wanted to be a bass player).

Final Verdict: I love Morbid Tales. I think it's a great EP. I don't think it has nearly as much direct influence on the sound as Bathory or Sodom, so I'm not going to score it.

Destruction - Sentence of Death EP (Nov 1984)

Here's a new trend developing—the retarded spoken intro. If you have some grim shit to spit, I've found that playing it back slowly usually makes it sound hilarious, not sinister. That said, the rest of the EP definitely is starting to show that black metal sound. Another German trio that will go on to make some great thrash music, Destruction had plenty of Satan to shout about in 1984. Schmier almost has that snarl that Quothon had demonstrated, and his lyrics are certainly more intelligeble than Angel Ripper's on In the Sign of Evil. But he sounds like he has a massive tongue stud, and that he's lisping because he can't move his tongue enough.

The band recorded the EP with an extremly dry guitar sound, but the drums have the huge reverby splash that was much more typical of the thrash movement. This is certainly a thrash EP, and far from the "necro sound" that Bathory demonstrated. That said, the galloping guitars of thrash as executed here are definitely pointing in the direction of the tremolo guitars that will come to define black metal. It might help you to understand a bit more why I could say this if you listen to Infernal Overkill, Destruction's first full-length album that they released about six months after this EP. It just doens't have the same sound as "Total Desaster."

Final Verdict: 4/10 - Not nearly as black metal as Sodom, but has that madcap energy to it that bands like Destoyer 666 will exploit well

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Top 10 Metal Albums of...2009? (Pt 2)

Substantial posts three days in a row on The Blackened Edge? Who would have thought? As I stated yesterday, I've finally finished the write-up of my full list of the Top 20 albums of 2009. It was a little strange, going back to these older albums and writing up summaries of them as though they were fresh, particularly since every one of these top ten bands has released at least one new album since 2009, but I think that I did a decent job. Make sure to read yesterday's post to read about albums 10-6. Here's my top 5 from 2009. Sure, it's three years on from the time I put this ranking together, but every one of these albums is still worth your time. In fact, I still listen to all of them. Enjoy this trip to the past. Here we go:

5. Anaal Nathrakh – In The Constellation of the Black Widow

This album, on the other hand, has no idea what melancholy means. Anaal Nathrakh means “dragon’s breath,” and like dragon’s breath, this British duo will peel the skin off your body and then turn your skeleton to ash. I have never heard a rawer, more furious expulsion of pure musical rage in my life. All the instruments are played by Mick Kenney (the drums are programmed). The vocals are provided by V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (named Dave Hunt by his mother). V.I.T.R.I.O.L.! Do those letters actually stand for something? It doesn’t even matter. This guy just unleashed everything. And the great thing about Anaal Nathrakh—the reason that they’re more fearsome than any other band—is that they realize that interspersing moments of clarity and melody in the midst of horrific grit and violence makes the all-out parts sound that much more extreme by contrast. In the Constellation of the Black Widow is 33 minutes of grindcore-infused black metal genius, and it’s a good thing that the album isn’t longer, or you simply wouldn’t be able to handle it all. I’ve been listening to the band for several years now, and this is the most powerful they’ve ever been. I have no idea what they’re going to do next.

4. Nile – Those Whom The Gods Detest

Nile is back. Having finally stabilized their band lineup as Dallas Toler-Wade, Karl Sanders, and George Kollias, these Egyptian experts have delivered their most focused blast of ithyphallic death metal yet. Clocking in at nearly an hour, Those Whom the Gods Detest features the catchiest Nile hooks since “The Burning Pits of Duat,” and maybe even before that. Kollias is an absolutely unstoppable force on the kit, and the speed and precision of his one-foot blasts will make your jaw drop. It’s also obvious that Karl Sanders has been honing his ambient songwriting skills, because the tribal atmospheric elements on this album feel even more integrated into the music than on Ithyphallic. The other major improvement over their last album is the guitar tone. Nile tunes down to Drop-A, and the guitars ought to be as meaty as one of Pharaoh’s healthy bullocks. Last time around, they were strangely hollow. Not this time. Punch, punch, punch. The entire album has a weight to it, like an angry rhinoceros about to fling you across the savannah. Combining that sound with infectious songs like “Permitting the Noble Dead to Descend to the Underworld” (Nile skimped on the song titles this time, with “Noble Dead” being the longest at nine words, combined to the last album’s 17 word song title) just brings things to a whole new level. Nile was my first death metal band, and they’re still one of my favourite. Listening to Those Whom the Gods Detest is an exhausting experience because of how much it makes me thrash around, but it’s one that I relish.

3. Lamb of God – Wrath

Lamb of God are practically a popular band these days. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Megadeth is the only band on this list whose sold more records, and they’ve been around for nearly twice as long. Still, these lords of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal deserve their popularity. Their last three albums have all been absolutely brilliant, each building on the strengths of the last. Oh, and did I mention that Wrath is only their fifth album? It continues the trend of growth that we heard on Sacrament, as Randy once again shows himself to be one of the most versatile heavy metal frontmen in the scene today. When his scream opens “In Your Words,” you realize that you are in for something absolutely fantastic from him. The “cleaner” rasps that we heard in songs like “Redneck” have developed into a high pitched wail that brings songs like “Set to Fail” and “Grace” to a new level. And the rest of the band is absolutely firing on all cylinders as well—just check out the jazzy intro to “Grace” that gets reflected in the solo! Wrath sees Mark and Willie tuning down to Db on most songs, which is something that they haven’t done before. This certainly helped them find new heaviness on songs like “Fake Messiah,” but I’m glad to see that they’ve resisted the temptation to dive to Drop-C, or Drop-B. While Wrath feels more blues-based than an album like As the Palaces Burn (and certainly contains more 4/4 time signatures), Lamb of God still dishes up the finger-twisting riffs (try playing “Grace,” “Everything to Nothing,” or “Choke Sermon” and then tell me that it’s watered down from the good ol’ days), and songs like “In Your Words,” “Grace,” or album closer “Reclamation” see them developing their sound in exciting new ways. All hail the kings of all-American heavy metal.

2. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue With The Stars

Dialogue With the Stars was my first experience with French black metal masters Blut Aus Nord, and the album is actually a sequel of sorts to an album they recorded in 1996 called Fathers of the Icy Age. It seems that this was a good place to jump in to Blut Aus Nord, as they are masters of reinventing themselves with each album, and this is their most “accessible” work in quite a few years. And when I say accessible, I mean only in the sense that Mt. McKinley is more accessible than, say, Mt. Everest. Why am I talking about mountains? Dialogue With the Stars sounds like mountains to me. It has such a hollow sound at first, but then you get sucked into the layers of sound and reverb. This album is achingly beautiful, and unlike more classic black metal, everything is shaped around melodies and harmonies. Yes, there is dissonance, and yes, there is harshness. But somehow, when you listen to this album, you get sucked past that—through that, even. In the first few minutes, the album seems harsh, brutal, cold, like Everest itself. Yet by the end of “Disciple's Libration (Lost in the Nine Worlds),” somewhere you have found Shangri-La, a mystical land from which the cold and snow no longer burns, it caresses. By the time “The Formless Sphere (Beyond the Reason)” deposits you into the gentle descent of “Elevation,” you will become convinced that Memoria Vetusta II is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and that anyone will be able to appreciate it as you do. And then when you share it with them, they will likely cross their eyes and become horrified at “that awful racket.” At least, that was my experience. Please. Give yourself to this album, and it will give back an hundred fold.

1. Ulcerate – Everything Is Fire

Where Dialogue with the Stars is ice, Ulcerate’s singular take on death metal is fire. Look, they even put it in the album name to warn you. And Ulcerate does need a warning, and it isn’t “don’t play with fire.” We’re metalheads—that’s what we do, on purpose. No, the warning is this—check your preconceptions at the door. I had Ulcerate described to me as “technical death metal,” so the first time I heard Everything is Fire, I was expecting something akin to Obscura or Lost Soul. What I encountered instead was something that I couldn’t understand, and didn’t enjoy. And then, thankfully, I took a second listen. And a third. And then I lost count, because Ulcerate’s music is consuming. It’s like a raging furnace—I can’t even see the individual flames. When it comes to bands like Lost Soul or Obscura, I am impressed with their guitar playing because I know how difficult it would be to replicate it. When I listen to Ulcerate, I can’t even begin to fathom how I would even play what guitarist Michael Hoggard is playing. These New Zealand natives are apparently a trio, but they could be a thousand men for the fantastic sounds they make. Paul Kelland plays the bass and bellows out nihilistic lyrics about the world’s end, while Jamie St. Merat delivers the drum performance of the year. You absolutely must check out the raw drum tracks that he’s uploaded onto YouTube. This is what real, live, unquantized metal drumming sounds like, people. From the opening feedback of “Drown Within” to the staggering punch of the title track, Everything Is Fire is an album like nothing I’ve ever heard before in death metal. And that is exactly what a stagnating scene needs. I’m afraid that the band won’t get the recognition is deserves, simply because they are doing something different. But I certainly hope they do. This band has nowhere to go but up.

And that's that! 2009 can finally be laid to rest. I have a Top 20 list for 2012 as well, which I plan to publish in 5-album increments, as I did here. In the mean time, you can catch my reviews of some of the latest metal albums over at Last Rites. Also, tomorrow we move forward with our journey through black metal. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Top 10 Metal Albums of...2009? (Pt 1)

Well, well, well. I'm pretty much a bum when it comes to completing things, and one of my good friends recently brought to my attention the fact that my Top 20 of 2009 list only goes up to 8. Well, I have always had that list on my computer—the albums and the order have been set since January of 2010. But I never wrote up the summaries that I ought to have done, because reasons. So let's take a little trip back to the past (or into the future, if you count it from the 1984 that we're currently looking at in black metal) and look at some of the best music of 2009. Several years out from the fact, I truly believe that 2009 was the beginning of a modern metal renaissance, and so it will do us good to go back and enjoy some of those albums again. Never read my list? Check out the link above to read the entries 20-11. Then check out 10-6 right here. 5-1 go up tomorrow. Yes, I already have it scheduled.

10. Obscura – Cosmogenesis

Obscura hail from Munich, and are the premier German death metal band, and one of the greatest technical death metal bands playing today. Their bassist, Jeroen Paul Thesseling, is truly the star of the band, and the best bassist in heavy metal today. Playing a fretless bass, his lines lead and command, not follow. Everything about this album impresses, but it’s the basslines that stick firmest in the mind. Just listen to album opener “Anticosmic Overload,” or the first 45 seconds of “Choir of Spirits,” and you’ll immediately see what I mean. Guitarists Steffen Kummerer (who also handles vocal duties) and Christian Münzner are also masters of their craft, and skinman Hannes Grossmann’s staggering chops are worthy to be compared to more famous death drummers like George Kollias and Derek Roddy. Obscura is an aptly named band, for “obscure” is certainly a word that comes to mind when listening to their noodling riffs and grooves. “Cerebral” is another word that undoubtedly comes to the mind of the listener while these Germans work their magic. There is a strong Cynic influence that can be heard in the use of vocorder on vocals, but unlike Cynic, the aggression of Obscura is never lost in shoe gazing electronics, even when they venture into acoustic passages like in “Universe Momentum.” There are only two real flaws in this album—the first is the production, which although it allows the bass to clearly play through sounds somewhat too brittle. The other is the sheer overwhelming nature of this album, because while it certainly has memorable riffs and passages, the whole 50 minute journey gets somewhat lost in the mind, unlike the instantly memorable brutality of Nile or the shocking dissonance of Ulcerate. Still, this is the third best death metal album of the year, and if you enjoy bass or even just raw musicianship, you can’t go wrong with Obscura.

9. Ahab – The Divinity of Oceans

Ahab are a funeral doom band with a gimmick—they only sing about Moby Dick, describing their music as “nautik funeral doom.” The quality of the music, however, easily drowns the almost silly nature of dedicating a band to a single story. And drowned is absolutely the right image for Ahab, as they summon the weight of the ocean itself into their music. While 2006’s The Call of the Wretched Sea focused specifically on Herman Melville’s whaling story, The Divinity of Oceans tells the story of the Essex, the historical whaling vessel that inspired Melville’s Pequod. The music is rich and thunderous, with just the right guitar tone and reverb to truly make you feel that you’re there, in the middle of the ocean. Daniel Droste’s vocals, when chanted, give the impression of sailors upon the sea, and his cavernous growls sounds like the very beast itself. If a band is going to devote itself to singing about whaling, this is how it should be done. Take some time an immerse yourself in the nearly seventy minute journey that is The Divinity of Oceans. You won’t mind if you drown.

8. Altar of Plagues – White Tomb

These Irishmen are part of the new wave of hipster black metal, but although obscure bands are oozing out of the woodwork everywhere nowadays, Altar of Plagues crawls firmly to the top of the pack. White Tomb features two acts of two songs each, making for four songs and a fifty minute album. The first part, “Earth,” tells of the environmental damage that Earth’s children have wrought, and the retribution that Earth takes on them to purge the world and heal herself. The second part, “Through the Collapse,” tells the tale of those living through the end, until the final song contains only the lyrics
There is a mist that chokes the land.
The waves attack. Relent.
The skies attack,
they come, relentless.
Altar of Plagues at first seems to have more in common musically with post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky than black metal like Mayhem or Darkthrone, but the music is undeniably black, from the guitar tones to the blast beats to the howled, reverb-drenched vocals. They certainly draw heavily from Burzum, as well as Enslaved, and listeners will certainly draw parallels to Northwest USA pagans like Wolves In The Throne Room, especially in the environmentalist message of the album. White Tomb is a trance-inducing journey into the dark, and it’s certainly exciting to hear this quality of black metal being produced.

7. Megadeth – Endgame

One of the “Big 4” in thrash, Megadeth has consistently stuck to their guns throughout the years, unlike fellow San Franciscans Metallica, and it’s exciting to hear them putting out such quality work twenty-six years into their career with Endgame, their twelfth album. And Endgame is, undoubtedly, quality work. Originally formed in 1983, Megadeth beats out Kreator as the oldest band on this list (although the Germans have an extra album). Although they may be a band from the old school, Mustaine and lead-master Chris Broderick are playing an extremely modern style of thrash—although the extreme amount of guitar solos is old-school. Even the intro track is nothing more than a solo duel! The notes don’t let up. It’s not just the solos, either. The riffs in songs like “This Day We Fight!” and “Head Crusher” are classic finger-tangling Megadeth neck-thrashers. Dave’s voice is also ridiculously vicious for a 48 year old. It seems that recent political developments have given the notoriously political frontman some new juice. Lyric writing has never been Mustaine’s strength, and while “Bite the Hand” gets a little bit cliché, there isn’t anything cringe inducing like “Washington Is Next!” or “Amerikhastan” from United Abominations. Shawn Drover on the drums turns in a solid performance, as does James LoMenzo on the bass, but this album is clearly all about the guitars. Since that’s what got me into thrash in the first place, this is my kind of record. Let’s hope Megadeth continues in this direction.

6. Katatonia – Night Is the New Day

Night Is the New Day came out on November 2nd, and quickly became my second most played album of the year. That tells you a lot about how absolutely infectious it is. Jonas Renkse possesses the most mellow voice in all of metal, and by this point in his career he has honed the ability to apply it to nearly any emotion—melancholy, yes, and confusion. But also anger, without shouting, and even hope without smiling. This album has enthralled me, from the delicious seven-string heaviness of “Forsaker” to the electronic trance of “The Longest Year” through the strings and cellos of “Inheritance,” and on to the anguish of “Departer.” This is one of those albums that whenever I start it, I feel compelled to listen to the whole thing, and then usually start it over again. I doubt that I will ever get tired of hearing the guitars slam into gear on “Forsaker.” Although the guitars do begin the album on a heavier note than in the past, keyboards play a much larger role on Night than they did on The Great Cold Distance. Yet, the blend of band and electronics is so seamless that you won’t usually even think about it. Instead, let the lyrics and the music carry you away to a world where it always rains, and the sun is always setting. Night is the new day.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Into the Void: Bathory

Bathory - Bathory (Oct, 1984)

When I said that black metal had a recognizable and distinct sound, I meant it. And Bathory absolutely has that sound. It's interesting to me that all the band that I've covered so far have been trios, and Bathory is another one. Quorthon, the mastermind behind the band, was the only one who adopted a stage name, though. Compared to In The Sign of Evil, Bathory sounds sharper, nastier, and, frankly, more evil. You wouldn't think that boosting the treble the guitars could make that huge of a difference, but it does.The riffing is fast and frenetic; you can definitely hear thrash sounds in there. Quothorn uses a lot of rapid hammer-on/pull-off techniques (just listen to the opening riff of "Hades") that give the music an almost out-of-control feeling, but still with simplicity. The solos are simple but fast.

The other tremendous difference between Bathory and everything that came before it is Quothon's snarled lyrical delivery. There's nothing particularly original about the lyrics at this point (bands had been spewing occultism for years at this point), but the nearly-indistinguishable howling sounds absolutely evil. Frankly, I think this is the weakest that Quothon's lyrics ever were, but I find it interesting how similar some of the songs are to Venom's Black Metal. Both albums have songs called "Raise the Dead" and "Sacrifice," although Bathory's "Raise the Dead" is more similar to Venom's "Buried Alive" in lyrical content. But the fact remains that for the overall "feeling of evil," Bathory beats Venom hands down.

The drums are, frankly, simple. This is the only place where Sodom sounds more ahead of the curve than Bathory. Stefan Larsson uses a lot of basic rock beats, including a lot of "skank beats" (basically a low-tempo blast beat), so you can hear where things will start to head in the future. Yet the way the drums are recorded is more important than what they actually play. The cymbals have a lot of airy reverb, the kick is mixed low, and the snare just sounds messy and splattery. To me, it sounds like a rickety drum kit played in somebody's garage (which is actually exactly what it was). Compare this to the drum sound on Van Halen's 1984, Maiden's Powerslave, or 'Tallica's Ride the Lightning (all of which also came out in 1984) and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. Even In the Sign of Evil, with all its sloppiness, had a more traditionally miked and mastered drum sound. The "necro sound" started here with Bathory.

Final Judgment: 6/10 - This album is original and great, and a first in so many ways. I can't see rating it higher than this, though, because they have a long way left to climb.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Into the Void: Early EPs

Let's continue our journey through early black metal with a couple of EPs from 1984. One of the tricky things with this project is figuring out in what order albums were released. I'm using a combination of and to determine when an album came out. Often, Metal Archives will tell me the release to the day, but sometimes it will only give a month, or at worst, a year. If something only lists a year, I will attempt to place it in that year by whether any notes are available on when it was recorded. If I am completely unable to determine something, I'm just going to cover it at the end of the year, after those albums that I have dates for.

Hellhammer - Apocalyptic Raids EP (March, 1984)

Hellhammer's work is not quite as famous as that other Tom G. Warrior band that soon tooks its place—Celtic Frost. But Hellhammer was undoubtedly an influence on the early black metal scene, so we'll cover it here. Apocalyptic Raids is the only official release of the Swiss trio, but they did have two tape demos that they released in 1983. If you like truly lo-fi recordings, you ought to check those out. Interestingly, on the demos, the band members identified themselves as "Satanic Slaughter," "Savage Damage," and "Bloodhunter," but by the release of Apocalyptic Raids, they had (mostly) adopted more normal names (Tom Fischer went by Tom G. Warrior, which is admitedly a stage name, but Bruce Day went by Denial Fiend).

So what about the music? Well, it's heavy, and extreme, but it's not quite black metal. What is it? I don't know. It's not exactly music that you can put an easy and comfortable label on. You can definitely hear elements that influenced all the extreme music that came after, from death to doom to black metal. My guess is that the biggest influence on black metal was simply the lo-fi, stripped down sound. The guitars are a bit muddy, but have that identifiable Tom G. Warrior sound. The lyrics are violent and the vocals are rough. In "Triumph of Death," especially, Tom lets loose with some real howls that hint at the vocal carnage that is yet to come into the scene. Unlike Celtic Frost, Hellhammer really has that "three kids just fooling around" vibe to it. It's the sort of thing that can make you say "I could do something like that. I will do something like that," and I think that vibe would particularly hold true for the demos.

Final Verdict: This is sloppy, organic music. It's the real shit. But it's not black metal.


Sodom - In the Sign of Evil (May, 1984)

Now here's something that's really starting to sound like black metal. It's the third band we've looked at, and the third power-trio. Like in Venom, the bassist also handles vocal duties, and, like in Venom, they adopt amusing pseudonyms—Angel Ripper, Grave Violator, and Witchhunter to be precise. The vocals have become much less understandable, and the tempos are speeding along. The seeds for thrash and black metal are here in about equal parts. We hear D-beats instead of the blasts that would come to define the scene, but we've got tremolo guitars and harsh vocals.

The vocals are hilariously difficult to distinguish. I won't even bother making a list of the things that I thought that I heard him sing, but let's just say that I thought that "Witching Metal" was about Doctor Who. Nevertheless, occult lyrical themes are essential. The stand-out track is clearly "Blasphemer," with the opening lyric "Black metal is the game that I play," which clearly self-identifies as black metal, even though I think that particular song has the strongest thrash sound on the EP. I think it's fair to call this 19 minute album the first proper black metal release. Sodom would, of course, go on to become a fantastic thrash band and influence death metal as well. But for now, these crazy Germans were the crest of the first wave.

Final Verdict: 5/10 - a little sloppy, plenty raw, and arguably the first