While the Grammys may have gotten metal absolutely wrong again, a new album by the Swedish outfit Marduk and a noteworthy tenth anniversary remind us that not all is wrong with the metal world.
I have no trouble admitting I have a total weakness for noting anniversaries of classic heavy metal records. As one with a great interest in the genre’s history, and like anyone else my age who has witnessed the musical form evolve right before our ears (if you can pardon the synesthesia), it’s important to recognize those recordings whose impact was the biggest -- not to mention fun. And for nostalgia’s sake, those nice round numbers of 40, 30, 25, and 20 are good moments to do so, which you’ll see on this column as it goes along. In fact, there’s a big one coming in the next few weeks.
However, I have a bigger problem when it comes to celebrating ten-year anniversaries of albums these days: it’s nowhere near enough time to feel nostalgic about something. Besides, with the period of stasis and oversaturation metal has experienced over the last decade, there are very few metal albums that actually deserve recognition as singular classics that have had a great influence on the genre today.
The year 2005 was fairly decent for metal albums, and looking back at my list from that year there isn’t much I would change, aside from getting Gojira’s From Mars to Sirius and Arch Enemy’s Doomsday Machine in there. I still stand by Opeth’s Ghost Reveries as the best that year had to offer. Behemoth’s Demigod and YOB’s The Unreal Never Lived are career peaks by both bands, and the legacy of Canadian band Cursed continues to grow long after their dissolution. However, out of all 2005 metal albums, there’s one in particular whose stature has grown the most in my opinion, one that’s steadily become an all-time favorite: High on Fire’s Blessed Black Wings. (Read my original PopMatters review here.)
Formed in 1998 by guitarist Matt Pike in the wake of the breakup of seminal Oakland doom band Sleep, High on Fire found themselves in the same situation as Relapse labelmates Mastodon when they both released albums in 2002. Much like Mastodon’s Remission, High on Fire’s music firmly rooted in sludge metal, Pike’s towering riffs juxtaposed with a tar-thick tone that didn’t stray very far from that of Sleep. The only difference between that seminal band and Pike's new one was that second album Surrounded By Thieves was a hell of a lot faster than Sleep ever was. If the band wanted to make any sort of commercial breakthrough, however, they were going to have to broaden that sound considerably. Mastodon did just that in 2004 with the masterful, progressive-minded Leviathan, and High on Fire achieved the same less than a year later by heading in a decidedly more primal direction.
Of the many partnerships with producers they’ve had over the years (Billy Anderson, Jack Endino, Kurt Ballou) the collaboration with the great Steve Albini on Blessed Black Wings remains High on Fire’s finest. Sonically, it feels like an Albini recording from the get-go: as soon as Des Kensel’s fills and Joe Preston’s walloping bass start on opening track “Devilution”, you’re immediately brought back to the days of Big Black and Surfer Rosa. The rhythm section always sounds monumental when Albini’s in charge, and the way he brings that style to a more traditional heavy metal sound still feels revelatory. This is as huge-sounding a trio as you will ever hear on record, and when you couple that with the sheer attack of Pike, Preston, and Kensel, you’ve got something special on your hands.
Albini’s unique quality of bringing his own specific sonic vision to the heavy metal genre makes the actual songs on Blessed Black Wings pop out even more. The ferocity Pike and his mates hinted at on Surrounded By Thieves and The Art of Self Defense is fully realized on this record, as each and every track has an undeniable bite to it. “Devilution” is the first song in High on Fire’s history that comes close to being called a “hit”, a rampaging speed demon that, with Pike’s gravel-gargling vocals, immediately elicits Motörhead comparisons. “Cometh Down Hessian” matches “Devilution” step for step, Pike spewing Lovecraftian gobbledegook with glee: “Stolen ancient amulet / Black the hexed sarcophagus / Summoning the hound / The bringer of impending doom.”
There’s much more than speed on this record, though. “The Face of Oblivion” lumbers along with a mighty stomping gait, punctuated by Kensel’s tom beats and made even more memorable by one of Pike’s finest shredding solos. “Brother in the Wind” and “Anointing of Seer” is a pair of tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place on “Surrounded By Thieves”, but benefit greatly from the less suffocating production. Meanwhile the second half of the album is dominated by a trio of seven-minute epics, highlighted by the mighty gallop of the aptly titled “Sons of Thunder” and the monolithic title track.
High on Fire would go on to tinker with their sound more and more as the years would go on, with 2010’s Greg Fidelman-produced Snakes For the Divine bringing even more clarity to the band’s sound, resulting in their most popular album. With Kurt Ballou, however, it seems Pike finally feels like he finally has the producer he’s happiest with, and the band’s forthcoming 2015 album will be the first High on Fire album since their first two albums to feature the same producer two albums in a row. Still, as consistently strong as the band’s work has been in the decade since, nothing can quite match Blessed Black Wings's aura, tone, songs, energy, and its ominous Arik Roper artwork (which looks splendid on gatefold vinyl, if you don’t know already). Pike and High on Fire have become a beloved American metal band, and that pivotal third album was what truly got the wheels in motion.
Marduk, Frontschwein (Century Media)
The long-running Swedish black metal band has had a very good thing going for themselves ever since vocalist Mortuus joined the band a decade ago, and this 12th album continues that strong, positive momentum. Like the previous four albums, Frontschwein is a stirring example of black metal at its most traditional and orthodox, only filtered through the vivid imagination of Mortuus, who once again turns in an astounding vocal turn. Few black metal frontmen possess a voice as maniacal and versatile as he does, and that charisma dominates every single track. Personally I think black metal bands truly prove their worth on the slower material they write, and indeed that’s where this album shines the, erm, bleakest. The plodding “Nebelwerfer”, the wickedly groovy “The Blond Beast”, and the dramatic “Wartheland” slow things down just enough for the sneakily melodic riffs to wriggle their way into your subconscious, and in turn the controlled pace allows Mortuus to truly step up with come commanding vocal performances, growling, gurgling, and expectorating his vivid lyrics about doom, gloom, and war. It might not quite match the high water mark that was 2009’s brilliant Wormwood, but this is nevertheless another snapshot of a masterful black metal band in full command of their art. (Listen on Spotify.)
Dwell, Vermin and Ashes (Hells Headbangers)
My first thought upon hearing this debut album by the Danish death/doom band was how surprising it is to hear something to darned stately coming from Hells Headbangers. This is a label known for putting out some of the most gleefully savage metal albums in recent memory, but Dwell is a far cry from the Midnights and Nunslaughters of the world. Instead, you get slow, somber dirges in the tradition of Disembowelment accentuated by funereal, atmospheric keyboards. It’s nothing new, but it’s executed skillfully, the elegiac passages of “Plunging Into Ash Tombs” and “A Collapse Sublime” adding some welcome grace and melody amidst all the gravitas. (Sample and order the album via Bandcamp.)
Gehennah, Metal Police (Metal Blade)
Here’s a fun one. These Swedes made a name for themselves in the '90s with their exuberant, sloppy brand of thrash metal, and anyone who remembers it will be happy to know that not a thing has changed on this expanded reissue of the band’s 2014 EP. Featuring four new songs and a handful of re-recorded ‘90s tracks, what makes this record such a blast isn’t so much the speed as the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility of it all. It’s more Motörhead than Venom, and it’s done convincingly on such tracks as “Black Jack Loser”, “Four Knuckle Facelift”, and the wonderfully titled “Carve Off Your Face (And Shove it Up Your Ass)”. A new full-length album is due later this year on Metal Blade, but this release works just fine for now. (Listen on Spotify.)
Hate, Crusade Zero (Napalm)
The veteran Polish band has never achieved the same notoriety as countrymen Vader and Behemoth, probably because they constantly and slavishly tread similar thematic territory as Behemoth, mixing black metal and death metal aesthetics into one whole. Granted, it’s fairly well done on this latest album; the juxtaposition of physicality with theatricality is admittedly impressive and the songwriting is sharp. However, there’s no original voice here whatsoever. They’re simply mimicking Nergal’s songwriting and vocal style, which makes it all an empty exercise, which you notice as soon as you stack this record up against last year’s superb The Satanist. (Listen on Spotify.)
Monolith, Against The Wall of Forever (Funeral Noise)
According to Metal Archives, there have been 20 other bands in metal history named Monolith (not counting France’s Monolithe), but these guys sound so promising on their debut album that it might wind up being the definitive Monolith out of the myriad Monoliths out there. With its devotion to vintage NWOBHM, speed metal, and bare-bones production, there’s a very strong Manilla Road influence running through the entire record, and as a result songs like “Caravan” and “The Emperor (The Suffering of Fools)” absolutely scorch. For those who prefer the more melodic, traditional side of metal, this is the album to hear this week. (Sample and purchase via Bandcamp.)
By now you probably know all about Tenacious D’s controversial Grammy win in the “Best Metal Performance” category. There have been more than a few editorials from metal writers, ranging from the indignant to the levelheaded. Ever since Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave unexpectedly upstaged what everyone expected to be Metallica’s coronation in 1989, metal fans have constantly been up in arms about who is nominated in the category, who wins, or, in most cases, both. This anger is in itself endearingly funny; after all, putting on a façade of an outsider but inwardly craving validation from the establishment has been the way of the common metal fan for decades. The suits keep showing disrespect year after year, and the fans and writers get up in arms every single time.
While other countries like Canada, Sweden, and Norway put in a concerted effort to recognize artistic merit in heavy music, the Recording Industry Association of America simply doesn’t care, and that’s where the problem lies. Just throwing out an arbitrary list of nominees -- in this year’s case, Slipknot, Motörhead, Mastodon, a Sabbath cover, and a couple of Hollywood celebrities -- will suffice just fine for them. Even nominees based on sales in America in 2014 -- which would include Five Finger Death Punch, Linkin Park, Avenged Sevenfold, and Slipknot -- would feel more honest than the condescending way the genre is treated now. If the RIAA isn’t going to treat the music seriously, then they might as well just scrap the category altogether, and let American metal do its own thing. It was an embarrassing choice on Sunday night, arguably the worst to date, but in retrospect it’s rather fitting that a comedy act won in a category that’s been a joke for the past quarter century.
It’s been a fun week as far as track premieres go. Royal Thunder posted “Forget You” from their very good new album. The inimitable Chris Holmes went viral with his hilarious video for “Let it Roar”, but underneath the ice cream cones and terrible singing is a wickedly good song reminiscent of the Mean Man in his prime. However, Enslaved’s “Thurisaz Dreaming” tops them all. The first track to surface from the band’s forthcoming 13th studio album In Times, it’s a seamless blend of searing black metal reminiscent of the band’s early days and the more progressive inclinations of the last decade, Grutle Kjellson’s raspy snarl matched step for step by Herbrand Larsen’s dulcet singing. That whole black metal-meets-prog sound Enslaved has mastered is something I can never tire of, and this song is a great indication of how strong the rest of the album is.
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