This week in metal brought a much needed injection of creativity into black metal and the 30th anniversary of a classic yet underrated metal album.
In late 2014, Machine Head was all set to launch a big North American tour alongside Finnish heavy hitters Children of Bodom and rising Dutch band Epica to coincide with the release of the highly anticipated new album, Bloodstone & Diamonds. It had all the makings of a successful tour; after all, Children of Bodom easily sell out venues on their own, so to have them opening would only make the demand for tickets even higher. But less than three weeks before the tour was set to begin, Machine Head pulled the plug on the entire thing, apparently because the new album wasn’t even finished yet. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially those in the Bodom and Epica camps, who had gone through a tremendous amount of preparation and paperwork to bring the European bands to North America. Bodom frontman Alexi Laiho took to Facebook to express his displeasure, Machine Head’s Robb Flynn responded, and things got very ugly very quickly.
What happened next is pretty interesting. Instead of rescheduling the tour, Flynn and Machine Head essentially said, “Screw it, we’ll just do it ourselves.” New dates were set, with no openers whatsoever. Just Machine Head playing for two and a half hours for their fans, with no media requests accepted whatsoever. At first, it looked like a petulant thing to do, the equivalent of a kid taking his ball and going home alone to play by himself. Not to mention risky, too; after all, package tours drive the entire North American metal scene. It’s no longer all about the headliner; fans care deeply about who’s opening as well. Additionally, by not doing any advance press at all, the band risking a lower walk-up turnout.
However, there are huge benefits to doing an “evening with” tour, which were on full display when the band rolled into my home base of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada this past weekend. First off, nobody in metal, save for Metallica, plays two and a half hour shows anymore, and Machine Head fans had to be salivating at the prospect of seeing their favorite band play a couple dozen songs. Even better, especially for those of us over 40, this wouldn’t be the kind of five-hour marathon show that happens when four bands play. Plus, the back line would be all ready to go (with better chances of a very strong live mix), with no torturous, thudding line check for the audience to endure, and the band could pull out all the stops with lighting and stage props.
Give Machine Head credit, because they took full advantage of the situation, putting together a wonderful, marathon set that explored every facet of the band’s 20-year career, on a stage lavishly adorned with enough backdrops, banners, and scrims to make it a feast for the eyes as well. With last year’s shenanigans sill on people’s minds six months later, it was clear the band had something to prove, and the foursome of Flynn, guitarist Phil Demmel, bassist Jared MacEachern, and drummer Dave McClain came out all business, not letting up for a second. In fact, the first hour was a constant barrage of tunes, delivered with little to no banter: “Imperium”, “Beautiful Mourning”, “Now We Die”, “Locust”, “This is the End”, song after song that whipped the exuberant crowd into a frenzy, Flynn spouting exhortations all the while.
While the extended set showcased just how many classic or near-classic songs the band has in its back pocket, from “Davidian” to the most recent “Game Over”, the deep cuts Flynn and his mates dusted off proved to be just as enjoyable. The nu-metal pandering of 1999’s The Burning Red remains a polarizing album in the Machine Head discography, but Flynn didn’t shy away from it at all, performing “From This Day” and “The Blood, the Sweat, the Tears” with conviction, showing just how well those songs’ thick grooves fit with the rest of the band’s body of work. The dissonance of 1997’s “Ten Ton Hammer” was great to hear, as was “Bulldozer” from 2001’s Supercharger and “Descend the Shades of Night” from 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires. It was relentless, and ultimately highly rewarding, a celebration of a band that’s been through its share of ups and downs, and is experiencing a creative renaissance that is the envy of other metal bands. Anyone who was a little skeptical of this solo tour by Machine Head – including yours truly – was proven wrong by this sensational display. Not many bands can pull off a tour like this, but these guys have, in triumphant fashion.
A Forest Of Stars, Beware The Sword You Cannot See (Prophecy)
Of all the English black metal bands that draw upon their own heritage to influence their music, from Meads of Asphodel to Winterfylleth, Leeds septet A Forest of Stars is the most interesting, just out of the sheer audacity of its concept. Inspired by Victorian themes and incorporating everything from folk music to twisted cabaret, the compositions are always highly eclectic, not to mention laced with a good dose of dry humor. That whole combination, coupled with the band’s incredible knack for extremity and melody, makes for some fascinating pieces.
2012’s A Shadowplay For Yesterdays was a significant step forward for this most theatrical of black metal bands, and not only does this follow-up continue right where that album left off, but it improves on the idea as well. It’s a manic piece of work that veers from chaos to lucidity, from searing arrangements to more sedate flute and violin interludes, with the wry poetry of the lyrics holding the entire thing together. “I've rolled with all the punches, and not even come up drunk”, sneers singer Mister Curse, “Danced around the guiding lights, got perhaps a little lost in the dazzle of lamps, riding the head wind through Shangri-la.” It’s so rare to get an extreme metal album that has a way with words, and as much of a shame as it is to come across genuine lyrical talent so rarely in metal these days, it’s nevertheless a great pleasure to dive into A Forest of Stars’ clever writing. The whole package -- music, lyrics, concept -- comes to a head on the six-part, 22-minute suite “Pawn on the Universal Chessboard” that closes the album. Presented as a collection of individual tracks, which makes the whole thing a little disjointed if hearing on iTunes or Spotify, it’s a spellbinding fever dream of a journey that brings in a slight Tangerine Dream element to add even more color to the proceedings.
This is the sort of wildly creative piece of work that black metal needs so badly right now, and it’s great to see this band breathing some life into a genre that’s been suck in a rut. (Preview and purchase via iTunes.)
Isabrut, Isabrut (Iron Bonehead)
Hailing from the coastal mountain town of Squamish, British Columbia, Isabrut neither channels the pastoral sounds of “Cascadian” metal from the Pacific Northwest, nor the stifling brutality of Vancouver Island’s Mitochondrion. Instead, these guys are strictly old-school death metal, capable of devastating, gnarly power, but at the same time ever mindful of dynamics, offering moments of thrash and doom to offset the death blastbeats nicely. This 2014 demo has been re-released on cassette by Iron Bonehead on cassette, but if you’re not one who’s fallen for the silly cassette revival, it’s available on Bandcamp, too.
Leviathan, Scar Sighted (Profound Lore)
When your art is so reliant on misanthropy and channeling severe inner pain, cultivating a mercurial persona along the way, you’re going to risk taking it all too far. Just where an artist draws that line is key. Jef Whitehead, who under the kvlt nom de plume Wrest played a crucial role in advancing underground American black metal in the 2000s, crossed that line four years ago when he was indicted for 34 counts of assault on a woman, eventually being found guilty of one count of aggravated domestic battery. In a move that was part catharsis, part opportunism, Wrest and Profound Lore released the highly controversial True Traitor, True Whore right in the middle of all that uncertainty about his future: an ugly, chaotic yawp of a record that saw all his inner demons rising to the surface, a slipshod yet oddly absorbing piece of work miraculously made semi-coherent by producer Sanford Parker.
In an effort to put that experience behind him, Wrest and his label have been carefully manipulating the metal media to clean up his image. The recent cover story in Decibel had Whitehead posing with his infant daughter. He’s been a lot more forthcoming -- and coherent, bordering on friendly -- in interviews, and countless publications have bought into the whole “redemption” story arc. As Grayson Haver Currin so accurately described, there’s nothing the metal scene loves more than a “triumphant hero” angle, and the new album Scar Sighted has been riding a wave of ecstatic hype for the last couple months.
From a strictly musical perspective, the hype is with fairly good reason. Produced by Billy Anderson, it’s clear that this is in no way a kinder, gentler Wrest we hear on this album. It still brims with the same malevolence that made Tentacles of Whorror and Howl Mockery at the Cross underground classics, a barrage of intense black metal tracks that reach a scintillating, climactic final half hour in which the gates of hell open up and swallow the listener whole. Only this time, there’s a sense of sobriety to the record that no other past Leviathan recording has ever possessed. Whitehead is in full control of his art here, and for all the anguish that permeates the music the sense of discipline on display is extraordinary.
At the same time, though, the mercurial quality of his past work isn’t prevalent at all, which leads to the question: would you rather risk your sanity by creating constantly dangerous, confrontational art, or would you rather be happy in your life and risk your art losing whatever “edge” it had? That volatility is definitely missed on Scar Sighted. However, the music hasn’t lost its power at all, only this time it’s been fully reined in by a clear-headed musician. Is it the kind of redemption for a convicted felon that some eager writers are clamoring for? Not even close. Court proved he beat a woman, and that will loom over whatever music he puts out from now on. But there’s absolutely no denying Scar Sighted a commanding musical statement by one of the genre’s most restless, polarizing, and fascinating innovators. (Listen on Spotify.)
Sannhet, Revisionist (The Flenser)
As popular as instrumental metal is -- at least as far as the sheer number of bands is concerned -- it’s not exactly easy finding bands that actually have a good enough grasp of songwriting to keep the music engaging without a lead singer. Earthless is one, Shooting Guns is another standout, and Brooklyn’s Sannhet is another. Sure to benefit from their presence in their home borough, Sannhet has been attracting a lot of attention from local tastemaker publications, but this is one case where the hometown hype is warranted. Bridging black metal, sludge, and the soaring post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, there’s an experimental quality to this second album that’s appealing, but most importantly the experimentation always serves the song rather than overwhelm, and the end result is a concise, intense, and surprisingly moving collection of compositions. As respected as underground label The Flenser is already, they’ve got something pretty special on their hands here. Listen on Spotify.
Scorpions, Return To Forever (Universal)
It arrives with little to no fanfare, quietly sneaking into stores during a dead time of the year, but despite the poor promotion this 18th album by the venerable German rockers is a charming one. Typically sleek and laden with hooks, it might lack the bite of their pre-1987 work, but Return to Forever nevertheless is loaded with fun tunes that don’t so much rely on rock ‘n’ roll clichés as it celebrates them. Hell, the sheer enthusiasm Klaus Meine brings to an otherwise laughable track like “Rock My Car” -- it’s as if he’s only just discovered the automobile-sex metaphor for himself -- makes it all too impossible to resist. “Eye of the Storm” and “Gypsy Life” are splendid little power ballads, while “We Built This House” and “Catch Your Luck and Play” hearken back to the polished sound of Savage Amusement. These guys were set to retire, but were having so much fun they felt they had another new album in them, and it turns out that’s indeed the case. If this is the last one, they’ve gone out on a respectable note. (Listen on YouTube, because North American promotion and distribution for this thing has been nonexistent.)
UFO, A Conspiracy of Stars (SPV)
Their best days are behind them, key members Michael Schenker and Pete Way are long gone, but UFO keep motoring along, churning out album after album. Singer Phil Mogg remains the band’s one constant, and along with longtime collaborators Andy Parker and Paul Raymond, as well as guitarist Vinnie Moore, they’ve put out a respectable body of work since 2006’s The Monkey Puzzle. This 21st (!) album just might be the strongest of UFO’s post-Way incarnation, robust yet groovy heavy rock with a real penchant for blues. Producer Chris Tsangarides, who has a real knack for bringing out the best of veteran musicians, coaxes a tremendous performance out of Mogg, who sounds typically playful and soulful. The man’s a little rough around the edges at 66, lacking the range of old, but like any great singer he doesn’t overstretch, and he has a solid foil in Moore, who matches Mogg’s emotion step for step. (Listen on Spotify.)
Big news for Metallica fans this week, as the band has announced it will be undergoing a thorough re-release project, which according to Lars Ulrich will be along the lines of what Led Zeppelin and Oasis have done in the past year. This is huge, because not only are Metallica’s first four albums some of the most important, influential metal recordings in history, but they’ve been in need of a good spit and polish for decades, especially to keep up with the whole “remastered for iTunes” trend, and the band now owns its entire back catalog. So expect remastered albums and -- hopefully -- a bevy of bonus material, starting with the positively drool-worthy cassette release of the No Life ‘Til Leather demo from 1982, which comes out as a special Record Store Day release on April 18. A proper vinyl/CD release, which will be expanded and fully remastered, will follow this summer. Expect more announcements about the Metallica reissues project soon. It has the potential to turn out to be an even more exciting event than any new metal music that’ll come out this year.
In chart news, All That Remains’s numbers continue to decline. Underwhelming new album The Order of Things might’ve debuted at an impressive number 15 in the US with 19,150 sold, but that pales in comparison to their last two albums, which sold 29,000 and 25,000 in their first weeks. The very disappointing songs on the new record, as well as the stream of bad reviews it’s been getting, won’t exactly help future sales, unless one of its power ballads inexplicably breaks big. Meanwhile, Torche’s Restarter doubled the first-week sales of 2012’s Harmonicraft -- a marvelous feat for them -- charting at 56. And while Scott Gorham’s post-Thin Lizzy band Black Star Riders’ did decently (#118, 2,800 sold), it was actually outshone -- inexplicably -- by Revolution Saints, the new “supergroup” helmed by Jack Blades and Doug Aldrich (#84, 3,800). (Thanks as always to Metal Insider for the numbers!)
Turning 30 this week is Accept’s excellent yet rather underrated sixth album Metal Heart. It might be hard for some to believe, but in the mid-‘80s Accept was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest international metal bands, having scored significant hits in Europe, Japan, and North America with the classic albums Restless & Wild and Balls to the Wall. Metal Heart was a concerted effort to put the band over the top, combining the steely, Teutonic sound of Balls to the Wall with a slightly more commercial-friendly slant. Although it failed to put the band over the top in North America, what remains is a near perfect piece of work that shows just as much pop smarts as muscle. While “Metal Heart” and “Up to the Limit” fit nicely into the “classic” Accept mold, tracks like “Midnight Mover” and “Screaming For a Love-Bite” took the band’s sound into a much brighter melodic direction without compromising Accept’s image or reputation. Very nearly as perfect as the previous two albums, it’s aged well over the decades, and is now universally regarded as Accept’s last great album before the band’s 2010 comeback. Although it’s neither on streaming services nor iTunes, it was re-released in 2013 in a swanky expanded, remastered edition by Cherry Red, complete with the live-in-Japan Kaizoku-Ban EP tacked on. I can’t recommend this album highly enough.
“Motherfucker” was a novel return by Faith No More late last year, but it was also a little disappointing for anyone -- including yours truly -- who was hoping for a return to the band’s more well-rounded sound of 1985 to 1992, when Roddy Bottum’s keyboards were just as vital as the muscular, heavy grooves. New single “Superhero”, on the other hand, gets it just right, offering a superb balance between primal riffs and rhythms with Bottum’s dramatic synth melodies, which in this track’s case add a welcome level of gravitas to a song that would otherwise have come across as whimsical. It bodes very well for the new album Sol Invictus, which comes out 19 May on Ipecac.
Horns Down: The idiot who defaced Dimebag’s grave, Pantera fans who sent death threats to the idiot who defaced Dimebag’s grave, righteous indignation over contrivance in black metal (as if it’s never contrived!).
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.