Blood and Thunder: Rampaging Storms of Power

This week in metal features legendaries killing it on the live circuit and a surprising debut from the oft-forgotten world of speed metal.

This past weekend I attended a show featuring In Flames and All That Remains, two bands that have achieved substantial popularity in similar but also very different ways. For an extreme metal band to broaden its sound enough to attract a wider audience and at the same time retain credibility in the minds of the established fanbase is a tricky, precipitous line to walk. More often than not, cries of “sellout” will be heard; after all, from day one, most metal fans have loved to complain about their genre’s lack of recognition and validation yet at the same time get up in arms the second a band crosses over. If a band is ambitious and wants to make a decent living in this racket, why not try to attract more listeners, open itself up to broader exposure? Besides, for a lot of bands, merely copying your debut album over and over again would be the most boring thing ever. You can’t blame a band for changing, but as long as they do so with integrity, and both In Flames and All That Remains have succeeded and stumbled along the way to varying degrees.

Although All That Remains’ latest album The Order of Things hasn’t equaled the initial sales of their past few albums, the Massachusetts band is still a very popular act, as was evident on this night, with nearly a thousand very enthusiastic fans packed into the cozy venue. Having started off as one of the better metalcore acts of the mid-'00s, outspoken singer Phil Labonte and his mates realized there was an untapped market within their reach, and all they had to do was streamline the music a little, which they’ve done with great commercial success, scoring a series of active rock hits, including “Two Weeks”, “Hold On”, “Stand Up”, and power ballad “What if I Was Nothing”. And the moment each of those songs were carted out, the place erupted, fans singing along loudly to Labonte’s simple, shamelessly corny lyrics.

Cute as it was to see so many kids losing themselves in all that self-empowering sentiment, as soon as the band kicked into the blistering “Six” from 2006’s outstanding The Fall of Ideals, it hammered home just how good All That Remains used to be, and how badly that album outshines anything the band has ever done since. The problem with the band’s post-Fall of Ideals work, which has gotten steadily more and more mediocre with each album, is that the music panders to mainstream listeners far too much, clubbing people over the head with tacky clichés instead of letting the songs draw people in. Appealing to the lowest common denominator does pay off -- just ask In This Moment, who have similarly dumbed down their music -- but in so doing All That Remains have lost sight of what made them such a great little band in the process. I saw them as a bunch of nobodies in 2004 and as fiery upstarts in 2008, but in 2015, although they now have the audience they’ve always wanted, it all feels so empty now, with only “Six” and “This Calling” showing what they used to be, and what could have been. To quote a song title from the new album, this will not end well.

Just how popular All That Remains is was illustrated quickly, as the crowd thinned out significantly before In Flames too to the stage. The confines of the venue were such that the limited space forced everyone closer, so the floor was plenty packed, but the overflow of people in the back was nowhere near as insane. But while In Flames played to probably 75 percent of those who saw All That Remains, the Swedes outclassed the openers in every conceivable way.

In Flames too has broadened their sound with enormous commercial success, and many in the underground metal scene have accused them of being crass sellouts as well. And one can certainly say that In Flames have lost their way as of late too, as the three albums since 2006’s North American breakthrough Come Clarity have declined in quality. But unlike All That Remains, In Flames have embraced a more melodic direction on their own terms, welcoming new listeners along for the ride rather than clamoring for their attention. While 2014’s Siren Charms is the weakest album in the band’s discography, the band played with a level of passion and intensity on this night I have not seen in the (at least) seven times I’ve seen them. Whether they felt they had something to prove after being panned by critics or that they’re in a happy place making that kind of music is anybody’s guess, but these guys were in top form, led by singer Anders Fridén, who was his typical funny, humble self.

It also didn’t hurt that In Flames smartly spread out the setlist, with eight songs from those last three albums and eight songs from the previous four, making for a good mix that satisfied most people there. Besides, anyone who still complains in 2015 they don’t play enough Jester Race and Whoracle material has probably long since given up.

The old stuff still sounded fantastic, especially “Bullet Ride”, “Clayman”, and Colony’s “Embody the Invisible”, one of the greatest opening tracks in metal history. To this day the band loves to dip into their two divisive albums from the early-2000s, Reroute to Remain and the underrated Soundtrack to Your Escape and staples “Cloud Connected”, “The Quiet Place”, and “My Own Sweet Shadow” continue to age well. And for the most part the newer material held up very well, although I’ll always the popularity of “Alias” confounds me to this day. To their credit, though, the three Siren Charms songs fit neatly, with “Everything’s Gone” and “Paralyzed” working so well they actually compelled me to go back to the album and reassess the thing.

It was an efficient, highly enjoyable hour and a half set that showed how well In Flames does that balancing act between “legacy act” and contemporary artist, aging with grace and still able to draw well. All That Remains might have had the bigger, more enthusiastic crowd, but compared to In Flames, who have cultivated a very strong fanbase over the last 15 years, their long-term success could very well be more fleeting, especially if they keep taking the easy, lazy route like they are right now. While one band tried way too hard to impress on this night, the other came off as total pros, making it look effortless.

Album of the Week

Ranger, Where Evil Dwells (Spinefarm)

Finnish band Ranger snuck up on me a year and a half ago with Knights of Darkness, a five-track EP that was so devoted to the very shortly lived speed metal era that I couldn’t help but grin ear to ear. Developed at the same time as thrash metal but completely removed from that scene, early-‘80s speed metal was best exemplified by Canadian trio Exciter who, having named themselves after the Judas Priest song, were all about double-time speed, trying to create as over-the-top sounding heavy metal as possible. Whereas thrash was all about creating something edgier, darker, and dexterous, there was always a certain goofiness to speed metal’s approach, from its simplicity to its screamed lead vocals. Ranger gets it completely, clearly knowing who Exciter, Helstar, Liege Lord, and Jag Panzer are, and faithfully recreating that sound in their own quirky way.

As devoted to traditional speed metal as Where Evil Dwells Is -- “Defcon 1”, “Deadly Feast”, and the fantastic “Storm of Power” are three highlights that hearken back to that vintage sound -- this is also a sneakily ambitious debut full-length as well. You wouldn’t expect a band like this to try to pull off a ten-minute epic, but there they are on the title track somehow layering riff upon nimble riff and actually making it work. It’s a track that knows exactly what it’s doing, displaying the kind of confidence and, yes, discipline that so often goes missing in contemporary metal. It’s an incredibly involving track that keeps the momentum flowing thanks to sneaky hooks and flamboyant, melodic solos by guitarists Ville Valtonen and Mikael Haavisto. All the while, bassist Dimi Pontiac screeches and howls like a madman, his lack of vocal range mattering not one iota because his enthusiasm so contagious you can’t help but love his tone-deaf attempts. At 38 minutes, this seven-song album is brisk and crisp, knowing exactly when to say when, paced well and sequenced brilliantly, saving the rampaging “Storm of Power” for last.

(Listen on Spotify.)

Also out this week:

Dødheimsgard, A Umbra Omega (Peaceville)

Time flies when you’re busy listening to crappy extreme metal. Amazingly, it's been eight years since Dødheimsgard’s crazed, kind of brilliant Supervillain Outcast, so the prospect of a new album coming out in 2015 was a very promising one. Musically it’s just as wildly unpredictable as you’d expect, rooted in black metal but continually veering off into progressive rock/metal wank. Unfortunately, the big difference here is that the lead vocals, now handled by Thorns vocalist Aldrahn, are delivered in a moronic, stupefying howl best described by @doomlobyn on Twitter as a “Kurt Well carnival announcer”, pitch-shifted to an annoying degree, completely distracting from the music. In trying to sound flamboyant and theatrical Aldrahn completely derails what could have been an intriguing record. Avoid this at all costs.

Ghost Bath, Moonlover (Northern Silence)

If Ghost Bath had just admitted from the start that they were just a bunch of kids from Minot, North Dakota instead of deceitfully claiming they were from China just to get a leg up publicity-wise, it just might have worked because their melodic, Deafheaven/Lantlôs-derived black metal is strong enough on its own. But no, they had to lie, sucked in a bevy of Brooklyn clickbait bloggers in the process, and the whole thing turned into a circus. The way people have short-term memories, though, this’ll probably fly over before long, and the hype will start anew. As it stands, this is a nice album, with the expected combination of plaintive melodies and tortured vocals, but the way this band went about things speaks a lot about their integrity, or complete lack thereof. It’s pretty music made by frauds, and if you want to support that, go right ahead. (Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.)

Kult of the Wizard, The White Wizard (self-released)

This Minneapolis band would have gotten lost in the pile of occult doom revival bands with female singers were it not for frontwoman Mahle Roth, who turns a dominating performance that dares to rival the stellar work by Witch Mountain and the Devil’s Blood. By bringing not only power to those vocal melodies but soul as well she gives the music even more personality, best exemplified by the rocking “Olde Fashioned Black Magik”. This album would be totally worth hearing based on the original compositions, but the sultry, doomed-out cover of Heart’s underrated “Devil Delight” knocks this sucker out of the park. (Listen and download -- where you can name your price -- via Bandcamp.)

Moonspell, Extinct (Napalm)

Fernando Ribeiro and his not-very-merry band of Portuguese goths are back with an 11th album that once again puts a modern, metallic spin on the garish gothic rock sounds of the mid-to-late '80s. Rather than putting a unique, underground spin on that style, Moonspell always wears its influence on its sleeve, and the way it so gaudily celebrates the pop-oriented side of classic goth is endearing in its obvious, European sort of way. When doing this, the most important thing is the hook, and for the most part the hooks are there, especially on such standouts as “Breather (Until We Are No More)”, “Medusalem”, and “Extinct”. Ribeiro’s imagination does tend to wander a bit too much from time to time, as the second half of the album loses its focus a little, but for the most part he and Moonspell keep it together just enough to make this a sporadically likeable record. (Listen on Spotify.)

Pyramids, A Northern Meadow (Profound Lore)

I’ll readily admit I’d totally forgotten about Denton, Texas band Pyramids ever since their excellent split release with Nadja came out in 2009, probably most distracted by the fact that band member R. Loren was focusing so much on his Handmade Birds label, one of the best underground labels going right now. As it turns out Pyramids were not only still going, but with a very impressive array of new collaborators in the fold as well, including Colin Marston (Gorguts, Krallice, Dysrhythmia) and Blut Aus Nord mastermind Vindsval. With Vindsval providing some very clever drum programming the rest of the musicians artfully alternate from ambient drones to black/death metal arrangements, ultimately yielding music that defies categorization and simply achieves a sort of gentle grandeur. Featuring falsetto singing that could easily be compared to Muse -- “In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow” is as beautifully melancholy as the title implies -- it’s a rich, varied listening experience by a band that sounds better than they ever have before. (Listen on Spotify.)

Head Above Ground

This past Saturday night, Devin Townsend’s 2014 double album Z2 won the Juno Award for Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year, beating out stiff competition from Kataklysm, Shooting Guns, Single Mothers, and Skull Fist. I’d say the Junos are Canada’s version of the Grammys, but seeing that the Grammys cannot take the metal category seriously, that’d be a slight to the Junos. At any rate, it’s a deserving win for Townsend in a category that in the last four years has seen such diverse winners as KEN Mode, Woods of Ypres, and Protest the Hero.

In chart news, big congrats to Enslaved, whose first week sales continue to climb. It’s not much, but the excellent new album In Times sold a healthy 2,950 units in the US, their biggest week to date. Well done and well-earned, guys.

Shameless Nostalgia

Def Leppard’s debut album On Through the Night turned 35 years old this week. From day one they, along with Iron Maiden, had far more ambition and foresight than any of their peers in the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). When you have a single called “Hello America”, you clearly don’t want to be stuck playing clubs in Sheffield for the rest of your days. While nowhere near as groundbreaking as NWOBHM classics Iron Maiden, Lightning to the Nations, and Angel Witch, On Through the Night had a leg up on the competition thanks to strong major label support and a first-class producer in Judas Priest collaborator Tom Allom, who has the band sounding taut and robust, helping such tracks as “Rock Brigade”, “Wasted”, and “Answer to the Master” pop out as much as possible. The young band clearly has a knack for sleek melodies on this record, but it wouldn’t be until they’d team up with Mutt Lange a year later that their huge potential would start to be realized. Compared to High ‘n’ Dry, Pyromania, and Hysteria this album will always sound quaint, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and it was clear Def Leppard would be leaving the NWOBHM in their dust before long. (The band has pulled their early albums off iTunes and Spotify, clearly not wanting anyone under the age of 30 to ever hear their music, but you can stream On Through the Night on YouTube.)

Track of the Week

Nothing’ll perk up your week quite like an awesome, brand new Raven track. The NWOBHM veterans will be releasing their 13th album ExtermiNation April 27 on SPV, and they’ve just released the first sampling in the form of the raucous “Destroy All Monsters”. It’s exactly what you expect from raven: sheer manic lunacy, the right combination of energy, dexterity, and chaos. John Gallagher snarls and screams as well as he ever has, his brother mark comes through with more of his quirky, squealy guitar work, and Joe Hasselvander anchors all the madness before the song devolves into a mess of distortion and violence. In other words, a total delight.

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

Horns Up: Cronos, Mayhem Fest, Tool.

Horns Down: The AP, Black Pussy (change your name, guys, it’s only going to get worse), PC whining within the metal scene that’s almost as stupid as a racist band name.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.

Splash photo of In Flames by Darcy Begrand.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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