The Hard Sell: Making Sense of Metalcore’s Marketing Madness

With concert season upon us, and hordes of young metal fans willing to spend, spend, spend, you can’t blame record companies for trying to squeeze just a few more bucks from the pockets of the devoted concertgoers. Taking advantage of the loyalty of a band’s fanbase may seem like a cynical thing for a label to do, but in a genre that is becoming seriously overloaded with watered-down sound-alikes, it’s almost as if bands and their labels want to hold the collective attention of audiences for just a little while longer in between albums, lest the people become distracted by the next new band coming down the pike.

Now Slaying

Mastodon, Call of the Mastodon (Relapse)

As I Lay Dying, A Long March: The First Recordings (Metal Blade)

Shadows Fall, Fallout from the War (Century Media)

Between the Buried and Me, The Anatomy Of… (Victory)

If you ever go to OzzFest and Sounds of the Underground, it’s clear that despite the friendliness between bands, it’s dog eat dog when it comes to merchandise sales, as wave after wave of kids with hemorrhaging bank accounts flee to the many merch tables in between sets. The albums that do manage to sell well are reissued over and over again; Cradle of Filth’s Nymphetamine was followed a paltry five months later by a lavish double-disc deluxe edition, and even more bizarrely, Mastodon’s breakthrough Leviathan was released in three different packages in just 10 months.

Interestingly enough, with three major North American tours in full gear this summer (OzzFest, Sounds of the Underground, Unholy Alliance), it’s not the deluxe editions that are dominating in 2006 (the special edition of Trivium’s Ascendancy being an exception), but a pile of Contractual Obligation Albums, odds and sods collections featuring early demos, re-recorded old material, and covers, more specifically by four of the biggest young names in American metal today: Mastodon, As I Lay Dying, Shadows Fall, and Between the Buried and Me. Each band is coming off records that made serious commercial dents on mainstream charts, each band is on the cusp of becoming a major metal act, and each band wants their fans to know that they still love them, and would appreciate it if they please, please, please buy their CDs crammed with old crap, studio remnants, and toss-offs to help keep them afloat until the next album surfaces. But which band deserves your 15 bucks more?

Atlanta foursome Mastodon are the most fortunate of the four bands, having snagged a slot on the Unholy Alliance Tour, clearly the best metal show of the summer, performing alongside the insanely popular Lamb of God, Finnish phenoms Children of Bodom, Canada’s Thine Eyes Bleed, and legendary headliners Slayer. Blood Mountain, their hotly anticipated major label debut and follow-up to the aforementioned Leviathan, is due for a late summer release, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a 2006 product to shill these days. Released back in February, Call of the Mastodon is an odd, last-ditch attempt by Relapse Records to net some Mastodon-related sales one last time, one that would reek of desperation if the music wasn’t so damn good.

Although it contains five songs previously heard on 2001’s Lifesblood EP and three more tracks from the out of print Slick Leg seven-inch, Call of the Mastodon digs deeper into the band’s past, way back to their very first recording session. That seems fine enough, but in an interesting twist, the old tapes have been remixed to the point of sounding surprisingly polished, showing us how accomplished Mastodon was even in its infancy. Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher draw heavily from the likes of technical masters the Dillinger Escape Plan and the sludgy greatness of Eyehategod, Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders offset each other well on lead vocals, and drummer Brann Dailor is an absolute beast, his controlled-yet-frenzied fills and adept tempo changes adding sharpness underneath the murky guitars. The two-minute “We Built This Come Death” shifts from massive doom to near-grindcore, and the multi-faceted “Thank You For This” sound remarkably developed, but it’s the phenomenal “Burial at Sea” that foreshadows the epic scope of the near-masterpiece Leviathan, as a Southern rock swagger starts to creep into their already eclectic sound. Aside from the good mix and the Slick Leg tracks, though, there’s not much of a point to this 28 minute CD, the lack of further bonus tracks (Covers? Live recordings? Hello?) giving those who already own Lifesblood little reason to pay full price.

Verdict: Save the 15 bucks, and put the money toward an overpriced concert t-shirt with some of that killer Paul A. Romano artwork on it.

As I Lay Dying

San Diego’s As I Lay Dying, who are currently headlining the Sounds of the Underground tour (following 2005 headliners Lamb of God’s mighty footsteps), is one of the more remarkable metal success stories of recent years. Formed in 2001, they’ve toured, recorded, toured, recorded at a relentless pace, the tactic paying off big time with 2005’s very good Shadows Are Security, which peaked at number 35 on the Billboard charts, making them one of the few Christian metalcore bands to make a serious breakthrough among secular audiences. Granted, it could be because the kung fu dancing kids can’t understand a word they’re saying, and therein lies the band’s one weakness. Lead screamer Tim Lambesis possesses a mighty growl, a combination of guttural death metal vocals and more straightforward hardcore barking, but on record, time and again he lacks the charisma of Unearth’s Trevor Phipps and the range of Black Dahlia Murder’s Trevor Strnad, delivering one-note performances that, were it not for the stupendous dual guitar work of Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso, and the recent inclusion of bassist Clint Norris’s sporadic “clean singing”, As I Lay Dying would be too boring to care about.

The band’s 2002 debut Beneath the Encasing of Ashes has been long out of print, copies selling for big dough on EBay, so the timing for A Long March: The First Recordings could not have been better. A welcome, albeit bizarrely sequenced collection, it features the debut in its entirety, their half of a split CD they recorded with American Tragedy, and re-recorded versions of the same songs from the split. Got that? For the diehard fan, this is a terrific addition to the discography, but more casual listeners will have a hard time justifying purchasing the disc.

Beneath the Encasing of Ashes might have been an assured first album, but heard today, with dozens and dozens of new bands continuing to milk that metalcore sound (combining the crowd-pleasing riffs and breakdowns of hardcore punk with the more dynamic flourishes of heavy metal), it’s a difficult record to get enthused about in 2006. Ironically, Lambesis’s vocals are much more impressive than his more recent work, as he displays a similar power to that of the great George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse (aided greatly by the primitive mix, which pushes his vocals right up front), and the guitar work is rather one-dimensional, leaning heavily on the hardcore side of things. We do get hints of what’s to come, as “Forced to Die”, “A Breath in the Eyes of Eternity”, and the superb “Behind Me Lies Another Fallen” all show much more musical depth than the rest of the album’s tracks.

The five tracks from the split CD show even more improvement, highlighted by the intense, cacophonous “Illusions”, the snappy guitar melodies of “The Beginning” that hearken back to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and the spiraling “The Pain of Separation”. Oddly enough, though, A Long March starts off with the re-recorded versions of the songs and ends with the originals (leaving Beneath the Encasing of Ashes sandwiched awkwardly in the middle), and so superior are the new versions, that hearing the muddily-mixed originals at the end is a huge anti-climax. In the new recordings, you can hear how much tighter and confident the band is today, and if they can continue to add more nuance to their sound on the next album, they’ll only become bigger.

Verdict: If you’re a 15-year-old fan, by all means, go buy it. If you’re over 21, use the cash to buy a few beers at SOTU, sit back, and laugh at the spin-kicking hardcore dancers.

Shadows Fall

Springfield, Massachusetts metalcore standouts Shadows Fall have an even more legitimate shot at the big time than As I Lay Dying, as their last two albums both set sales records for the Century Media label, 2004’s very good The War Within topping 250,000 units. Now signed to Atlantic Records, there’s every reason to believe that sales of their major label debut will go through the roof. Or at least thump it hard enough to leave a mark. As the band cross the country on the month-long, multi-act Sthress Tour, they too have a new disc to promote, but you skeptics out there, listen up: Fallout From the War is a keeper.

On the surface, this 11-track CD has all the markings of a hastily-assembled, meaningless compilation. Six tracks are leftovers from The War Within sessions, three cover songs are included, and two of the band’s early compositions have been re-recorded, and like Mastodon, released by a label wanting one more kick at fattening its coffers with the hard-earned cash of metalcore enthusiasts. When you dig a little deeper, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Fallout From the War is an immensely enjoyable album. The performances are loose and relaxed, and the band’s studio partner-in-crime Zeuss gives the songs some of his typically punchy production, as Matthew Bachand and Jonathan Donais provide equal parts thrash crunch and power metal melody, drummer Jason Bittner’s double kick beats sound as tight as ever (no triggers for this dude), and lead howler Brian Fair (he of the most ridiculously long dreadlocks you’ll ever see from a metalcore singer) continues to be a commanding presence, alternating between a militaristic bark and a singing voice that bears a strong resemblance to Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna.

All six “newer” tracks sound like they would have been easy fits on The War Within. The furious opening cut “In Effigy” is one of the catchiest Shadows Fall songs in recent memory and “Carpal Tunnel” benefits from Fair’s growing sense of melody, his clean singing avoiding the usual emo whinging metalcore bands employ in favor of a more robust style. As for the more aggressive fare, “Will to Rebuild” is some invigorating, workmanlike, Hatebreed-esque hardcore, made all the more likeable by a gang vocal chorus. Of the three covers, two especially stand out; “December”, an enthralling slice of melodic hardcore originally done by Boston’s vastly underrated Only Living Witness, has Fair brilliantly pulling off the eccentric, highly melodic singing of Jonah Jenkins, while the band scores another ace with their spirited, irony-free performance of Dangerous Toys’ late-80s cock rock classic “Teasn’, Pleasn'”, which features former Dangerous Toys singer Jason McMaster in a duet with Fair. Top marks, though, go to the re-recording of the decade old original song “Deadworld”, a song that when you consider how early in the band’s career it was written, is frighteningly good, a remarkably accomplished amalgam of versatile vocals and lithe guitar licks before pulling the rug out from under us with a subdued interlude that explodes into a grandiose flourish. It’s well produced, it’s easy-going, it’s fun, and most surprisingly, Fallout From the War is almost as good as the last two Shadows Fall albums.

Verdict: It’ll have you wishing more metalcore bands sang about givin’ the dog a bone while playing sleaze rock riffs.

Shadows FallIn Effigy

Between the Buried and Me

Although OzzFest is in serious decline, with a horribly mediocre main stage lineup that pales in comparison to the Unholy Alliance Tour, one good thing Sharon Osbourne’s traveling metal day camp has going for itself is the presence of arguably the most insanely talented American metal band today. Between the Buried and Me might be stuck with a paltry half hour with which to wow their perpetually growing collection of admirers, but they’re sure to pack more thrills into 30 minutes than a full hour of Black Label Society or Disturbed. Last year’s opus Alaska was an inspired mélange of every metal subgenre imaginable, the Raleigh, North Carolina quintet rocketing past the Dillinger Escape Plan in the manic technical department, and coming close to equaling the dark majesty of Opeth at the same time.

Despite often starting as an intriguing idea, covers albums rarely (if ever) warrant repeated listens, but when Between the Buried and Me released the track listing for their summer release The Anatomy Of…, the collective curiosity of metal fans everywhere was piqued by the sheer audacity of the titles alone. Metallica, Pantera, and Sepultura were no real surprise, but Queen? King Crimson? Depeche Mode? Upon seeing the list of 14 songs the band was going to cover, two thoughts sprang to mind: this is completely nuts, and if there’s one band that can pull it off, it’s BTBAM.

The differences of opinion surrounding The Anatomy Of… has been borderline comical, as people are either groaning, “But these songs sound exactly like the originals,” or exclaiming, “These songs sound exactly like the originals!” While it is indeed true that the band does not give any eclectic spins on the old tunes, it’s best to approach this CD by appreciating just how impeccably they are able to hop from genre to genre with astonishing ease. The metal covers do grab us instantly, as Metallica’s “Blackened”, Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates”, and Earth Crisis’s “Forced March” are all given faithful run-throughs, but the real treats lie in the least metal-oriented material. The performance of King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” is jaw-dropping, guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dusty Waring duplicating the work of Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, while singer Tommy Rogers is all over the cover of Queen’s “Bicycle Race”, clearly having fun with the intricately arranged vocal overdubs. Rogers does a good job mimicking the morose synths of Depeche Mode’s “Little 15”, which is given some extra goth punch by a subtle touch of distorted guitars, and the complete lack of irony in both Counting Crows’ “Color Blind” and Blind Melon’s “Change” is downright shocking.

The band does overreach a couple times, as Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” lacks the lust of the original, and Rogers can’t match the upper register range of Chris Cornell on Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live”, but the fact they actually try to play such songs and succeed much of the time, sounding completely different from track to track, is a marvel. It’s easy to criticize Between the Buried and Me for picking such a bleedin’ obvious song as Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”, but just listen to the attention to detail the band shows on the track, performing with the same restraint, and understated power as we hear on Dark Side of the Moon. It takes a real belief in one’s craft to record such varying material and release it to an ever-critical public. Plus, if it can get one of those spin-kicking kids to stop and try some music they would never have considered listening to before, then that’s even better.

Verdict: We just hope the next BTBAM album will have saxophone solos, Tony Levin style basslines, ’80s synths, and death metal growls.

RATING 5 / 10