Album anniversaries of the music of Led Zeppelin and Slayer highlight this week in metal: one is a sprawling double album epic, the other a stepping stone for one of metal's most important bands.
The year 1985 might have been a slow one for the evolution of heavy metal compared to the watershed years of 1983 and 1984, but the genre was still growing at a rapid rate, and despite a thinner pool, there’s no shortage of classic albums from that year. This March is rather significant, because it was 30 years ago that month that Slayer’s highly, highly anticipated second album Hell Awaits came out, an album that saw the band cement its reputation as the most extreme band in American metal. It’s a record so many people in their 40s are very fond of, but although I fall directly into that demographic, I have always said, to the annoyance of some, that Hell Awaits is nowhere near as great as it’s made out to be.
Make no mistake, Hell Awaits is a very good album, at times outstanding, but if you were one who was already familiar with the Slayer’s previous two releases at the time -- debut album Show No Mercy and follow-up EP Haunting the Chapel -- Hell Awaits didn’t so much raise the bar as simply keep it at the same level for another year. There are moments where the band is indeed coming into its own, which I’ll delve into shortly, but there are also instances where Slayer is spinning the wheel it had already invented.
To understand this, you have to backtrack to the previous two releases. Derivative of Judas Priest and Venom, Show No Mercy wore its influences on its spiked sleeve, but there was enough personality in the riffs and solos of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, and in the vocals of bassist Tom Araya, not to mention some very catchy songwriting, to compel people to let the flaws slide. Haunting the Chapel, meanwhile, was the true quantum leap for the band, and I’d even argue it’s Slayer’s most important creative breakthrough. Comprised of three songs -- the dystopian epic “Chemical Warfare”, the speed-riddled “Captor of Sin”, and the murky, gothic title track – Haunting the Chapel found Slayer exploring progressive arrangements, atonal riffs and solos, and new levels of aggression in ways that absolutely eclipsed Show No Mercy. Drummer Dave Lombardo comes into his own providing that inimitable groove for the first time, and the bare-bones production, while technically not the best, nevertheless lends the EP an atmosphere unique to the entire Slayer discography. In 13 and a half minutes, Slayer completely rewrites the book as far as extremity in heavy metal goes. Metallica had mastered the balance between aggression and accessibility in unprecedented fashion on Ride the Lightning, but Slayer ditched accessibility, cranked up the aggression, and took it into a darker, uglier corner, and flourished as a result.
Hell Awaits, in comparison, is a holding pattern. Without hyperbole, groundbreaking music was coming out at a monthly rate by 1985, so every time a notable band put out a new record, everyone expected a landmark. With Hell Awaits the prevailing feeling, at least to me, was, Okay, cool, but is that it?
There are great moments, though. Structurally “Hell Awaits” is an incredibly silly song, even for a genre as inherently silly as heavy metal, comprised of an arbitrary three-minute intro, followed by a separate three-minute speed metal song arbitrarily tacked on. It’s as if the band is locked into a groove a la Can and can’t get out of it. “This is great, but where do we go from here?” “Oh, just stop suddenly, do seven cymbal crashes, and start another song.”
But the crazy thing is that it all works so unbelievably well. The intro serves as a great overture, especially in a live setting, and once the actual song kicks in, it’s a scorcher, Araya spitting out the lyrics as fast as Lombardo’s 2/4 beat: “CrucifyTheSo-CalledLordHeSoonShallFallToME / YourSoulsAreDamnedYourGodHasFellToSlaveForMeEternalLEE!” It shouldn’t work so well, but it does, and it is glorious.
The one song on the album that breaks new ground for Slayer is actually Hanneman’s “At Dawn They Sleep”, which sees him mastering dynamics like he’d never done before, focusing on a slower pace, allowing the music to create a sense of doom and dread. That controlled pace, which at times has Lombardo shifting niftily from snare beats on one and three to a cruising backbeat, allows the song to build and build over the course of five minutes to its “Kill…kill…KILL!” climax. Slayer would not return to this exploration of slower tempos for another three years.
The rest of the album is rather serviceable, treading familiar territory but doing it well. “Kill Again” and King’s “Praise of Death” speed along satisfyingly, while the nearly seven-minute “Crypts of Eternity” plods along in an attempt to maintain some sort of momentum during the album’s weaker second half. “Hardening of the Arteries” ends Hell Awaits on a comparatively high note, ending with a reprise of the “Hell Awaits” intro, which brings us back where we started, stuck in an inescapable groove by a band that seems a little stuck for ideas. The blazing “Necrophiliac”, on the other hand, delves into sinister riffing and explicitly violent lyrics in a way that in retrospect anticipates the masterpiece that would follow a year later.
It wasn’t the breakthrough that I and perhaps a few others were hoping for at the time, but all that would change in 1986. Hanneman would evolve into one of metal’s all-time greatest riff writers. Lombardo would put on a clinic of metal drumming. Araya would learn to enunciate. Then a bearded guy named Rick Rubin would tie it all together and produce Regn in Blood, one of the most important albums in heavy metal history. Looking back three decades later, Hell Awaits was an imperfect yet ultimately likeable opening act, and little more. (Listen to Hell Awaits on Spotify.)
Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (Atlantic)
Jimmy Page’s thorough remastering and reissuing of Led Zeppelin’s towering discography continues with the band’s sixth album, and their last classic. Physical Graffiti (1975) has nowhere near as many classic rock radio staples as the band’s previous five albums, but ultimately it’s not only a tremendously rewarding, rich 82-minute piece of work, but what I would deem the greatest double album in rock ‘n’ roll history. A sprawling recording, it’s a perfect encapsulation of everything Led Zeppelin is all about, loaded with blues, pastoral folk, raucous heavy metal, and plenty of progressive rock experimentation. Revisiting the music on this swanky new re-release, it’s fun to note the arc of its 17 songs. The first LP is all about ferocity and epic grandeur: “Custard Pie”, “The Rover”, “Houses of the Holy”, and the wicked “Trampled Underfoot” are Zeppelin at their most aggressive. “In My Time of Dying” is the band’s finest blues interpretation (many will say cruel rip-off), and “Kashmir” ditches bombast to create a cinematic epic of great beauty, grace, and simplicity. Classic, after classic, after classic.
Disc two of Physical Graffiti is probably the most underappreciated collection of songs in Led Zeppelin’s discography. It's so fun and eclectic, the sound of four great musicians enjoying what they do immensely, and creating timeless music as a result. The stunning “In the Light” is Zeppelin at their most experimental, gently veering from a darkly cosmic mood into something a lot prettier and uplifting than expected. “Black Country Woman”, the delightful “Boogie With Stu”, and the staggeringly beautiful “Bron-Yr-Aur” echo the acoustic sounds of Led Zeppelin III. “Night Flight” and “Down By the Seaside” favor sunshine over darkness, while “Ten Years Gone” and the heavy “Sick Again” focus on more melancholy themes.
The bonus material on these reissues have been inconsistent, and the paltry seven tracks appending Physical Graffiti are the most disappointing, with the only worthwhile track being “Everybody Makes it Through”, an early version of “In the Light” that longtime fans will find enthralling. Page’s remastering feels subtler than the previous five reissues, but like the others the bass is beefed up enough so that rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham explodes during the album’s heaviest moments, like on “Trampled Underfoot” and “In My Time of Dying”. Either way, just like all the others, this splendid, beautifully designed reissue (the replication of the original vinyl design on the CD is a great touch) is, again, absolutely essential. (Listen on Spotify).
Aktor, Paranoia (High Roller)
The prolific Chris Black is at it again, this time continuing his creative partnership with Circle members Jussi Lehtisalo and Tomi Leppänen, whose “I Am the Psychic Wars” single was a late 2013 highlight. This full-length debut takes the synth-infused pop metal idea of that single and runs like hell with it, completely knowledgeable of the roots of the sound and treating it with reverence rather than a novelty. In other words, these guys have clearly heard Blue Öyster Cult’s Club Ninja album, and love it. That sincerity makes the music so convincing, not to mention even more likeable than it already is, and the album is dominated by ebullient hard rock tracks like “Devil and Doctor”, “Stop Fooling Around”, “Something Nasty”, and “Too Young to Die”. This is one rare case where the music isn’t the sole product of Black’s musical vision, but the result of three highly creative minds meeting in the middle. Consequently, fans of both Circle and High Spirits will gravitate to this album immediately, as will anyone who fondly remembers mid-‘80s hard rock and heavy metal. (Listen and purchase via Bandcamp).
All That Remains, The Order of Things (Razor & Tie):
It’s unfortunate that the antics of singer Phil Labonte over the years have overshadowed All That Remains’ music. Then again, if the music wasn’t so bland, people might not be so preoccupied with Labonte’s misguided opinions. Once upon a time, All That Remains was the best metalcore band out there, with 2006’s energetic and impassioned The Fall of Ideals standing as their defining work. Since then, though, the Massachusetts band has steadily drifted away from metal to active rock, which is fine; there’s nothing wrong with evolving as a band. But with each subsequent album, the songwriting has gotten so complacent, milking cliché after cliché, Labonte displaying a preoccupation with mainstream pandering power ballads. At times the saccharine tunes on The Order of Things do work -- and it’s nice to hear bassist Jeanne Sagan providing a feminine counterpoint on backing vocals -- but the attempts at aggression are soft, and Labonte’s motivational lyric themes scrape the barrel, and his attempted satire “True Kvlt Metal” falls flat with a dull thud. Listen to this album and The Fall of Ideals -- still an exciting record -- and you’ll hear how watered down the music has become, how far this band has plummeted. (Listen on Spotify.)
Black Star Riders, The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
I love what Scott Gorham’s done with this band. Initially formed as a new version of Thin Lizzy, he decided to give the band a new name out of respect for the memory of Phil Lynott, and in the process Black Star Riders have quickly found a nice little balance between music that appeals to longtime Lizzy fans and creating an identity of their own. Sure, Ricky Warwick’s affectations are reminiscent of Lynott’s, but they fall carefully short of mere imitation, yet still do a good job of complementing Gorham’s songs, which continue to mine the melodic, hard-driving territory that Thin Lizzy excelled at 40 years ago. “Killer Instinct”, “Finest Hour”, and the “Emerald”-referencing “Soldierstown” brilliantly and tastefully glance back at past glory while steadfastly keeping their sights ahead. (Listen on Spotify.)
Crypt Sermon, Out of the Garden (Dark Descent)
Faithfully following in the footsteps of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, this debut by the Philadelphia band is surprising in just how confident it is from the get-go. Too often young American metal bands approach proper singing too hesitantly, but Brooks Wilson comes through with a powerhouse vocal performance that, like Messiah Marcolin and Robert Lowe, elevates the mournful doom arrangements to an entirely new level. As is always the case there’s plenty of room for improvement -- there’s an anthemic doom classic in this band, no question -- but standouts like “Heavy Riders”, “Into the Holy of Holies”, and “Out of the Garden” help make this album a very promising start. (Listen on Spotify.)
Ensiferum, One Man Army (Metal Blade)
Ensiferum can be a frustrating band. Their brand of Viking-themed metal never breaks new ground, but it doesn’t have to when it’s done well, and this band is always far better off when they simplify, stick to the Viking metal basics -- galloping riffs, rousing melodies, bracing aggression -- and don’t stray from the formula. Naturally, when you’re a good musician, you can’t help but feel the urge to try something a little ambitious from time to time, but experiments never, ever serve Ensiferum well at all, and those moments had a detrimental effect on their last couple albums. One Man Army is, thankfully, their most focused work since 2007’s Victory Songs, and consequently their best since then too. Songs like “Axe of Judgement”, “Heathen Horde”, and the title track stick to what the band does best. “Two of Spades” does lose its way with an unfortunate “look what we can do” moment that arbitrarily shifts into Euro disco, but, thankfully, that’s only a 60-second blip on an otherwise strong, concise effort. (Listen on Spotify.)
Hacavitz, Darkness Beyond (Dark Descent)
The Mexican band has always been so underrated, which is a real shame because they always can be counted on for some good, solid, smartly written black metal. Their Katun album first got my attention back in 2007, and this latest feels even better, exploring more epic-length arrangements that never stray too far, always focusing on melody and resolution amidst the controlled chaos. Again, it’s nothing new, but highlights like “Terra Nihil” and the title track prove to be immensely satisfying exercises in black metal dynamics. The timing for this album couldn’t be better: it’s the band’s best work to date, Dark Descent is on one hell of a roll, and excellent black metal albums have been few and far between lately. (Listen on Spotify.)
Torche, Restarter (Relapse)
Torche’s modus operandi was clear from the second their revelatory 2005 debut kicked into gear: heavy, with hooks. As is often the case when a band continues to subtly tinker with its music, the Miami band strayed a little from the “heavy” aspect on 2012’s Harmonicraft. However, in the wake of the reunion of Floor, guitarist/singer Steve Brooks’s band that helped form the foundation Torche is built upon, it seems that’s inspired him to return to that simple yet highly addictive dynamic more assertively. Restarter explodes with the kind of colossally heavy hooks that made 2008’s breakthrough Meanderthal a near-classic album, with “Bishop in Arms”, “Blasted”, and the delirious “Loose Men” leading the way, always grounded by Brooks’s infamous “bomb string”. When the album downshifts into slower, sludgier fare you can’t help but wish the clouds would stay parted, but thankfully the bright outshines the shady on this record, which comes to a glorious climax on the groovy, Kyuss-meets-Pixies desert jam on the title track. Listen on Spotify.)
As we’ve seen over the last decade, the more album sales decline, the better chances a band has to chart higher with lower weekly numbers. But timing has a lot to do with chart position as well. Alaskan metalcore faves 36 Crazyfists sold 3,300 units of Collisions and Castaways in July of 2010, which landed the record at number 161. Five years later the band’s follow-up Time And Trauma sold a very respectable 3530 units in the US, and thanks to that combination of dwindling numbers and the rather dead time of the year, the album charted at a very impressive 80, by far the band’s highest chart debut to date. That modest success is well deserved too, as the new record is a fine one.
If you’re not familiar with the title track from Scorpions’ 1980 album Animal Magnetism, it’s an oddly murky, heavy piece, full of menace and lust, a stark contrast to the band’s lighter, more melodic fare they were cranking out at a prolific rate at the time. This week’s track pick is a very clever interpretation of “Animal Magnetism” by Norwegian progressive rock band White Willow, who transform the song into a high-gloss, synth-driven track more akin to Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder. Best of all, singer Venke Knutson turns the song’s perspective on its ear by giving it a feminine point of view, and by the time the klezmer clarinet solo by David Krakauer kicks in, you’re buying in completely to the strange spectacle of it all. It’s a wildly creative cover that you won’t soon forget. (Stream it above, and purchase it at iTunes (here.)
Horns Down: Cancer, Revolver’s Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock Tour, taking out the trash.
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